Sunday, September 20, 2015

The sacred heart

Last Sunday, I missed church. The website a friend had shown me that lists the congregations of my church in Paris was out of date, so when I showed up 45 minutes early, the meeting was almost over. Crucially, I'd missed the sacrament (called by many names, including Holy Communion and Eucharist). This opportunity to commune with our Father is the principal reason that members of my church are so scrupulous about attending church meetings every week. Although we believe that other churches do much good in the world and we love to join hands with our brothers and sisters of other faiths, we believe that we have an exclusive claim to the authority of the priesthood. Because of that exclusivity, I had no recourse but to wait another week for another opportunity.

So it was with dampened spirits that I set out later that afternoon for Sacré-Cœur, a beautiful cathedral on Montmartre, the highest point in Paris. I entered the Metro, walking past advertisements for Straight Outta Compton and an assortment of electronics. I believe that the Holy Sabbath is a day for quiet contemplation, time with family, and rest from work; as such, these attention-claiming advertisements and the noise of the Metro were uncomfortable for me on a holy day.

I arrived at my station and left the bustle of the Metro to find an even busier street. The street between the Metro station and Montmartre was crowded. Shops sold postcards and kitsch and hustlers had people betting on that game with a ball hidden under one of three overturned cups. I saw someone who clearly wasn't blind walking with a cane and thought he was playing some sort of joke. Now that I think about it, it was probably part of a scam.

I looked up the street and saw a merry-go-round. The merry-go-round was at the bottom of a fairly steep hill covered in walkways and steps. There, people milled around and vendors sold selfie sticks and souvenir miniatures of the Eiffel Tower and little trains whose cars are letters. The cathedral's beautiful domes and statues came into view as I crossed the street and began to climb.

I passed countless vendors and people taking pictures. When I reached the steps, I started passing people who were there hours ahead of time to catch the sunset over the city. The view was already remarkable, so I'm sure the sunset must have made it dazzling.

Wary of pickpockets and trying to inhale as little cigarette smoke as possible, I continued my climb. The hill itself was pretty, but I was focused on making it out of the noise and into the cathedral. I was there to see something beautiful but also to seek spiritual solace and such solace was not to be found in the crowd or among the vendors.

When I stepped inside, I saw signs instructing people to silence their phones and to not take pictures. There was a large area for people to sit who were participating in the Mass and a smaller area towards the back for people who wanted to pray. Around the edges, there was a walkway. Visitors were instructed to keep moving and to remain quiet. I sat there and observed the Mass and prayed, seeking a touch of sacredness.

Many of the visitors to the cathedral disregarded the signs. I don't know if they'd read them or not, but many of them stopped to look at the Mass a little to my left. A member of the staff there would quietly get people's attention and instruct them to move on. He did the same when people pulled cameras out. Sadly, some people reacted not by abandoning their design but by furtively sneaking pictures in other locations that were less closely supervised. In the background, I could hear clanking from machines that sold Pope medallions. These machines were owned by the cathedral and their presence is completely without irreverent intent. But both the machines and their use in a church and on the Sabbath are foreign to my own traditions and they added to my overwhelmed feelings.

I persisted and did my best to understand the liturgy in French. As I did so, my vision changed slightly. I began to see the people who would walk past and cross themselves when they came to the aisle. This was no reflexive action, done by force of habit. Their body language made it clear that they loved God and wanted to honor Him and did so with a simple but sincere gesture. I thought of the people I'd seen earlier that day at Notre Dame, who worshiped in a similarly tumultuous setting but who paid close attention to the proceedings of the Mass. I remembered watching them as they took the wafers offered them and as they shook hands as a sign of peace to their neighbors. The people worshipping in Sacré-Cœur were similarly earnest.

The world around me was still disorderly. I'd still missed the sacrament. But I discovered the commonality I had with my fellow worshippers. I'm grateful for the sacredness I found at Sacré-Cœur – in the hearts of the worshippers there.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Picking sides

A man was looking to hire a driver for his carriage. He interviewed a few potential candidates. One asserted his ability to drive within a foot of a precipice without losing control of the carriage. A second bragged about his ability to drive within an inch of the edge. A third said he had no clue how close he could get to the edge; he made a point to drive as far from the edge as he could. Naturally, this third driver got the job.

I've heard this story several times. Invariably, it comes in a religious context. The point is to illustrate that God's way is to one side and that the devil's way is to the other. I agree that we ought to work to move towards God, but the illustration of the carriage drivers and the image of God and Satan as opposing extremes are both misleading.

If we go along with the idea that there is a cliff we must avoid, we focus on the cliff and not on the road. If we go along with the idea that there is a vice we must eschew, we focus on the vice and not on the virtue. If we go along with the idea that we must flee from the devil, we fail to focus on God. The two are not the same!

This sort of thinking neglects the other side of the road, where there must be either another pitfall or a mountainside (because if the driver were on a plateau, it would be ridiculous to even get close to the edge). In other words, vices tend not to exist in isolation; instead, they have opposites: for example, parsimony opposes extravagance. Running from one vice tends to run us into another. As C. S. Lewis's Screwtape illustrated so aptly (in The Screwtape Letters, chapter 25),

We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is in the least danger, and fix its approval on the virtue that is nearest the vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them all running around with fire extinguishers whenever there's a flood...

Specific examples of vices that emerge from attempts to avoid other vices can be found in conference addresses, such as President Packer's April 2013 address, where he points out that exaggerated tolerance leads to permissiveness, and President Uchtdorf's October 2010 address, where busyness with good things is shown to crowd out the most important things. In both cases, it is not seeking after the virtue that causes the problem but fleeing from vices (in these cases, intolerance and laziness).

Trying to run from both opposing vices leads to a similar problem; we're alternately distracted by the pitfall on the left and the mountainside on the right. And in reality, there aren't just two opposing vices; vices are infinite in number. In the words of Elder Christofferson (October 2009), "There could never be enough rules so finely crafted as to anticipate and cover every situation, and even if there were, enforcement would be impossibly expensive and burdensome." As such, we can't possibly run from the vices that are too innumerable to even identify and we certainly can't enforce all of these rules on ourselves.

The only solution is to look at the road. In other words, to focus on the goal of becoming like God and let everything else fade way. God is not on the left while Satan is on the right; God is in the middle of all that is good and holy. All we have to do is take one step at a time towards Him.

Perhaps this is why Joseph Smith's summary of what Mormons believe to John Wentworth ends with these words: "If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things" (Article of Faith 13, or see the entirety of the letter in the Joseph Smith Papers).

Sunday, July 26, 2015

My search for truth

I was the kid who read encyclopedias for fun. I still am, although my status as a kid is up for debate. Encyclopedias offered a wealth of information on virtually any subject I could think of. I loved school (well, I loved the parts of school that had to do with learning). To me, the world was full of wonder and books and school allowed me to explore that world.

I was always excited to learn something new but my enthusiasm would overflow when I found a way to use the things I'd learned. Cooking became much more interesting when my father explained it in terms of principles of chemistry. And it was always a good day when we used something in class that I had learned from my ingenious elementary school biking buddy as we went to or from school (such as the decimal representation of 1/7, which I still remember to this day).

During high school, I attended an early morning class at my church (we call it seminary, although it isn't clerical training in the same sense as it's used in other denominations). In addition to my homework for school, I read assignments for seminary. As I read, I did a lot of thinking. I knew pretty well what my church taught; I soaked it up in church classes and my parents taught the same things at home. A part of me believed and a part of me didn't. The latter part of me recognized how seriously inconvenient it would be if my church's teachings were true, as that truth would impose an immense moral onus on me.

Up to this point in my life, I'd been a "good kid", but much of my motivation for being good had to do with fear of repercussions for disobedience. At some point during the first couple of years of this study, I made the decision that I needed to experiment. I needed to obey not because I feared punishment but because I was choosing to obey. So I not only attended church and seminary and did the reading assignments and lived as they taught me to live, I was choosing to do it independent of the external forces trying to influence me in either direction.

My religion teaches that it's possible to know the truthfulness of the doctrine (see John 7:17 or the Introduction to the Book of Mormon) by experimentation, so it's natural that I would try it to find out. I imagined that, much like the descriptions I'd found in scriptural stories and personal anecdotes, that I would eventually get a powerful, undeniable answer. I didn't expect an angel but I did expect something impressive.

What actually happened was much subtler and much simpler. It was during my sophomore year of high school. I'd been doing this experiment for around a year by then. It was a pleasant, sunny afternoon and I was seated on a small hill across the street from the school as I waited for a bus to come to take me home. I looked across the sunlit grass and the parking lot at my school and I thought about my life. I realized that I was happy in a way I never had been before. My attitude had changed. It was clear to me in that moment that my experiment had worked; changing the way I lived and thought and treated people had allowed me to become happy. Gone were the days of the kid with the bad attitude, trying to find a way to disobey to assert independence or control. I had tasted the fruit and I knew that it was good (see 1 Nephi 8, especially verse 12).

In the intervening years, I have had many more spiritual experiences when I felt that I was being taught directly from on high. Despite these many events, I find that my belief is not, in a sense, knowledge. It is still based on evidence. There is quite a bit of evidence and it is compelling. Furthermore, I have studied and studied and have found that the gospel provides a wholly consistent and remarkably complete set of answers to the questions of the soul. But I still wonder sometimes if it is true.

In contrast, I do not doubt if gravity is a real phenomenon. No part of me lives in fear that gravity will cease to function and the world will disintegrate, the atmosphere will disperse, and we'll all float away and asphyxiate. To many, it is perfectly natural that I would have doubts about my religion but not about science. After all, science is dependable and solid.

But my confidence in gravity is based in the fact that it faithfully explains the phenomena I have observed that pertain to it, that it is consistent, and that I have evidence from years of life experience to corroborate it. That is, my basis for trusting gravity is essentially the same as my basis for believing my religion.

I find it interesting that so many people dismiss religion as either rooted in a lack of education or as intellectually inconsistent with education. And yet my education and intellectual honesty oblige me to believe in my religion. There are those who believe that religion and science are opposed; to me, religion and science are complimentary. They ask different questions but both are part of a quest for more truth.

We know there are things we don't know about gravity. And it could be that our conception of it will have to change when we come across new evidence. Science does not claim omniscience; it claims to progress as it incorporates new knowledge. The fact that we've changed from the epicycles to elliptical orbits hardly invalidates science; rather, it proves that science works.

The fact that our understanding can change does not mean it could become anything; the idea that matter repels other matter would be inconsistent with the evidence we've already collected. As a result, such an idea could never be accepted by science (when the science is done right). And a change in our understanding of gravity does not mean that gravity has changed; it means that we have come closer to an understanding of the truth that has been there all along.

In the same way, our understanding of religious doctrine can change. We may come across new information that will further illuminate our understanding. It may answer some of the many questions that remain. It will not, of course, change the truths that undergird our understanding. And it will not be inconsistent with the evidence we have gathered so far. And just as advancements in physics validate science, advancements in doctrine validate religion. Joseph Smith worded this idea powerfully (from a letter to Isaac Galland, Mar. 22, 1839, Liberty Jail, Liberty, Missouri, published in Times and Seasons, Feb. 1840, pp. 53‐54; spelling and grammar modernized):

The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or without being circumscribed or prohibited by the creeds or superstitious notions of men … when that truth is clearly demonstrated to our minds, and we have the highest degree of evidence of the same.

This life is fraught with uncertainty. We rely on things we cannot prove. We can't prove that gravity will continue to work but we might as well press on. We can't prove that God exists, but trusting in Him brings peace and joy. I will continue to be both a scientist and a religious man. I will continue to study what others have learned and I will continue to experiment, incorporating and applying new truths as I come across them.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Privacy made easy

A friend recently pointed me to a list of privacy tools. It's well organized and explains why it makes the recommendations it does. It has a strong bias towards free (as in open source) solutions because they can be subjected to scrutiny that simply can't be applied to proprietary products. And the quote at the top about privacy is fantastic, as is the explanation for why you're better off looking for providers from outside the United States and the UK for your services than inside.

I've assembled a few of my thoughts on the various tools recommended here. I won't even bother commenting on tools that require ongoing effort to use or that take more than a few minutes to set up.

Firefox extensions

I highly recommend the Firefox extensions. I'm particularly loving Self-Destructing Cookies, which deletes cookies automatically. Cookies get (ab)used all the time to tell others about your browsing habits. This makes it impossible, for the most part. Chrome has something built-in that's reasonably close to it (look at the answer with screenshots).

Keep in mind that Self-Destructing Cookies will log you out of everything the first time you install it. If you want to stay logged in, you can use the "undelete and suspend" function as described in the survival guide (which opens when you install the add-on). You can set up exceptions for sites you want to stay logged into. For example, my bank only lets computers with special cookies log in - unfamiliar computers have to go through additional steps. So I set an exception for my bank and it works just fine.

It's also well worth mentioning HTTPS everywhere, which makes sure that you use secure sessions all the time; Disconnect, which prevents sites from tracking you; and uBlock Origin, which prevents advertisements from loading or displaying in your browser. It's worth noting that ads are not just annoying; the advertising industry has a terrible track record of respecting user privacy.

Secure text and voice

There are also apps for secure chat and text and voice and video. For those with smartphones, I highly recommend Signal (iOS) or TextSecure and RedPhone (Android). I haven't had occasion to use RedPhone because so few people use it (it's installed - call me to try it out!) but TextSecure works seamlessly with those who do use it and those who don't. In fact, I think it's a better messaging client than Hangouts (the default on Android). There is one catch: If you start using it and then stop, you have to unregister your phone number so other users will stop sending you encrypted messages (which you will no longer be able to read).

Other tools

You may also notice that KeePass (which I have recommended before) is listed further down on the page. I haven't used Claws Mail or Whiteout Mail but I'll probably try them out at some point.

There are lots of other tools mentioned here that may interest my readers. I'm excited; I don't know that there has been a time since the creation of the Internet when it was so easy for users to protect themselves. Go forth with privacy!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The blind leading the blind

In any discussion of date selection, whether it's done by the person dating or by someone else, it's crucial that we all recognize one important fact: we have no idea what we're doing. I know of no happily married couple that experienced no serendipity in meeting and dating. I do not believe such a couple does or can exist. Since people want their friends to be happy, it's natural that they would want to help their friends to meet people they could be happy with.

But our desire to help, however sincere, does not always help our friends. In fact, many of us end up making things worse for our friends instead of making them better. I have a few suggestions that I hope will help.

Arranging dates for others

  • Get permission first. You mean well. You want your friend to be happy. Remember, though, that you're in a sensitive area. And never oblige people – when people go on a date out of a sense of obligation, it's virtually guaranteed to go poorly.
  • Consider carefully. You wouldn't be haphazard about your own choices regarding marriage, so don't imagine that your friends are. Think about your friends and what characteristics they possess that make them exceptional. Then think about what sort of person they'd be happiest with. Are the two people you have in mind actually likely to be well suited to each other? Or do you just happen to be fond of both of them?
  • Introductions are enough. Your friends need to make their own decisions. Offer to introduce them, but don't make any promises for them. "I'd like you to meet someone. Here is a little about her," or "I met a guy I think you might like. Would you like to hear a little more?" respects your friends' autonomy.
  • Be careful about information disclosure. Be careful what you say. Say nice things. Don't give contact information out without explicit permission. Be absolutely certain that what you say to either party, including all implications, is true. And be careful about the way you choose to communicate; information on social media is broadcast to the world. Even emails and text messages can be read by benevolent governments. These things may not concern you but they might concern your friends – and the content of these messages concerns them more than it does you.
  • Don't take offense. Sometimes people you introduce never go on a date. Sometimes they go on a date or two and it goes nowhere. The fact of the matter is that most dates don't lead to marriage or even to a relationship. It doesn't mean they don't like you or that they didn't try.

Going on arranged dates

  • You're not obliged. You never have to go on a date with anyone. If you feel unsafe, don't go. If you know it's not going anywhere, don't go. If the timing is bad, either don't go or postpone. Even if someone has made a promise on your behalf, you don't have to go. Anyone, even a beloved friend or family member, is out of line when speaking on your behalf without your permission.
  • Do a little homework. Sometimes your friends want you to meet someone but don't know what you're looking for. In many instances, you can tell by looking at a picture whether or not someone is your type. You may know based on a short description that you wouldn't work well with someone. You may even have a previous history with the person in question. A little research can save everyone time, money, and emotional energy.
  • Trust your friends. The person or people arranging the date care about you. They know you. Barring something obvious that prevents you from going on a date, go and meet someone. Most dates don't lead to relationships but many dates lead to friendships. That's worth a couple of hours and a few dollars.
  • Remember that your friends mean well. People set you up because they want you to be happy. In virtually every instance, the fact that your friend thought of you is a compliment. Whether you go on a date or not, be sure to thank your friend for the thought and the effort.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A related metaphor

I wrote recently about some of my life's current challenges and typified them with the occupational therapy I'm doing. It's been painful but I believe that because of it, my life will improve dramatically. I believe the same is true of my other struggles.

In the days since my visit to my occupational therapist, I've worked hard to make habitual the things she taught me. I've practiced my posture. I've paid attention to what feels good and what causes pain – and have evaluated carefully if the pain I experience is strengthening (muscles developing) or debilitating (damage to bones, cartilage, etc.).

I saw my occupational therapist briefly yesterday. She remarked at how quickly I was improving; in just a few days, the stance she taught me was much more natural for me than it had been. I hadn't noticed much change. And today, I noticed that I'm feeling much less pain than I did. It seems my muscles are already accommodating my new habit.

As my therapy was an appropriate metaphor for my struggles before, I've been musing today. It may be that I'm improving more quickly than I realize in other areas of my life, as well.

Being myself from day to day, it's difficult to see much change. It's easy to notice pain, as pain calls for attention. Improvement, however, has a tendency to sneak up on us.

So I believe there's cause for optimism. I'm grateful for the hope that I can improve and for the evidence that my improvement is happening faster than I anticipated. I'm also grateful for the support I have from so many people.

Monday, January 26, 2015

A metaphor

I spent the morning on Friday with an occupational therapist. I've been dealing with wrist pain for years and, although I mostly manage it, I don't want to continue with it. I've raised my desk so I can stand at it and am developing the ability to do so without hurting myself.

My visit to the therapist was interesting; besides releasing incredible amounts of tension that I've developed, much of it was training me to stand and walk properly. Having been standing and walking for some time, I thought I had a handle on it. And I've been dancing for years; I figured that if all of that standing and walking hadn't taught me good posture that dancing would have.

The truth is that I'm having to re-learn these most basic parts of life. And despite years of training and despite being in great shape, I'm developing muscles and coordination in addition to the habits I'm working to acquire. This process has been remarkably painful – especially because I can't just do without the muscles I'm using when they're tired. I have to stand; I have to walk.

In short, therapy hurts more than life did before I started it but I believe that, with time, things will be better than they were before therapy. This is proving to be an appropriate metaphor for my life.

In the span of one week, I learned that I did not get my dream job and that I won't graduate when I planned to. I don't know when I'll graduate and I know that I'm going to hit some red tape for having spent longer than I planned to spend in school. I don't know how it will affect my finances. I don't know what I'll do when I do graduate. As painful as this last little while has been, I believe that I'll be able to improve my life as a result of this experience. I do not mean that I'll be happy despite my frustrations; I mean that the challenges themselves are presenting me with opportunities to learn and develop that I would not have otherwise.

At this point, I don't have the perspective I'd need to point out how I'm being blessed by this experience. I can speculate. I think that I'll be a better professor (assuming I become a professor) because of my struggle to publish and to navigate a university bureaucracy. I certainly have the opportunity to increase in patience, faith, and humility. It's possible that I'll come to appreciate the positive aspects of the desperately broken publication system or that, as I become more disaffected, I'll see better ways to improve the system.

I can see that my life has already improved in one aspect: my relationships have deepened. As I've turned to friends for support, I've come to appreciate more fully how blessed I am to be surrounded by people who support me. Several people have made themselves available to talk with me just to make me feel better. I've also thought about some remarkable discounts friends gave me at their businesses simply because I'm a friend. I have a good life even with my challenges. I have, of course, also turned to my Father in Heaven in prayer and have been blessed with an assurance that all is in His hands.

Yes, I'm hurting. But I wouldn't stop the pain if I could. I'm going to keep up the occupational therapy and I'm going to press on through my spiritual therapy. All the while, I'll look ahead with the belief that the pains will subside and leave me stronger and happier than I was before.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Apple blight

I work with computers, so people ask me if I prefer PCs or Macs with astonishing frequency. Usually, they mean to ask if I prefer Windows or Mac OS X. The answer to that question is that I use Linux (although my new laptop did come with Windows and I've been using it a bit). But people invest quite a bit of emotional energy in their preferences and they sometimes are looking for product recommendations. Since many of my friends use and love their Apple products, I've typically said something like, "Apple products aren't for me, but lots of people like them. That's fine with me."

Until now.

I recently talked on the phone with my mother, who was having very understandable trouble with an app on her iPad. The problem had to do with a cookie policy she didn't know about in Safari's settings (that is, in the settings for the browser that ships with iPads). I was instantly reminded of the fact that Microsoft called Internet Explorer settings "Internet Settings" (it might still do so). Except that Apple was actually breaking system-wide functionality in a setting that could only be found in its browser app.

In a burst of irony, the fix ended up being forcing the app to close and opening it again; Apple's default cookie policy is that only sites visited by the user could set cookies. In trying to fix the problem, my mother had gone to a FAQ page on the site in question, which meant that her app could now use cookies from the site.

She got most of the way there. But when she saw that the text on the FAQ page didn't match what her Safari settings said, she assumed that she'd done something wrong. I don't know if the website is out-of-date, if the iPad has an old version of iOS, or if some other weirdness caused the difference. It doesn't make much difference. My point isn't that Apple made a terrible design choice or that it failed to preserve backwards compatibility (although both are true). My point is that Apple thrives on confused people.

My mother didn't see the discrepancy and think that the website might be written incorrectly. She didn't think that, perhaps, Apple had changed the options it presented in its cookie policy. She didn't think that it was odd that the settings in one application would affect web traffic from all other applications. She didn't think that it might not be her fault.

She didn't think.

Apple thrives on people not thinking. When people don't want to think about how their computers work, they buy Apple products. Apple users' oft-repeated mantra is, "it just works." I hear it whenever I'm fixing an Apple product for someone. Apple has successfully established itself as the brand that makes user-friendly computers. And when things break, users can consult with "geniuses" in the Apple store. And people pay through the nose for it.

This whole situation is especially frustrating because my mother is so intelligent. There is no reason that she couldn't understand these things. But, as is the case for many people and mathematics (see this article and click through to the studies), many people believe that they can't understand computers. In the same way that people shut their minds down when they see an unfamiliar algebra problem, their minds shut down when their computer does something out of the ordinary. And Apple exploits the intimidation people feel for profit.

Yet more frustrating to me is that people naturally hide unpleasant things from themselves. It's unsettling to read through lots of unintelligible technical information. So Apple designs its products to hide relevant technical information to be easy on the emotions. It also removes choices that most users don't care to make. So their products work for most people most of the time but are incredibly frustrating to fix.

Ultimately, customers go to Apple because using technology they don't understand intimidates them. Since Apple hides the fact that they're completely uneducated about what they're doing, people like their products. We also allow people who have absolutely no idea what they're doing to legislate about technology. We're hiding our heads in the sand to avoid having to look reality in the face and admit that we don't know something.

It might be different if everything actually worked well. But Apple products don't always work as designed, despite meticulous attention to detail. Other products (with varying degrees of attention to design) also fail to work properly. When people have been shielded from these troubles with a patronizing user interface, they're both technically and emotionally unprepared to deal with bumps in the road.

I refuse to support a business model that manipulates and stultifies people. I do not condone a system that enables people to hide from their insecurities. From now on, I'll respond differently when people ask me what I prefer. I'll tell them I use Debian GNU/Linux because of its stability and flexibility. You never know; it could pique someone's interest.