Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The Electoral College: Use it or Lose it

It might be is definitely due to the rise of Trump, but I've been thinking about the electoral college--whether to keep it, and if so, how to fix it. My hot(ish) take is that we should either get rid of it entirely and just make the election of the President a direct vote, or else make it serve the purpose it was originally meant to. So happy Fourth of July: here's a political procedure post! Yay!

2016 electoral college map (source: Wikipedia)

The Problem(s)


The electoral college right now is kind of quite stupid. It is basically a weighted vote for president, where people in Florida and Ohio get to have their voices heard orders of magnitude more than people in California or Utah, which encourages the former to vote and gives the latter more reason to stay home. It also inflates the power of low-population states, like Wyoming. While there certainly are arguments in favor of the electoral college, I either don't find them particularly convincing and/or I think they can be sufficiently addressed in a well-thought-out alternative system.

First Alternative: Direct Vote


The most obvious solution to the above problem(s) is to take out the middleman: down with the electoral college! This approach would require virtually no changes on the ground (just a pesky constitutional amendment). It would be pretty simple to just keep everything as it is (that is, individual citizens vote for the name of a candidate for President) and just count who gets the most votes overall. Elections can still be run by the states as they are now (which I think is very good because it makes it a lot harder to tamper with elections at scale), and it would also match what regular people expect: I vote for Clinton, she gets one vote; my neighbor votes for Trump, he gets one vote. No more of this sleight-of-hand we have now where even though I may punch a ballot next to the name "Hillary Clinton," I'm technically voting for some faceless Democratic Party hack who in turn will really vote for her--describing this process is itself almost enough to condemn it based on weirdness alone.

So elections would look the exact same to voters, there just wouldn't be any Electors who are invisibly elected and who then go vote mindlessly for the candidate they represent at the sham electoral college. Easy-peasy. Plus, a direct vote would also have the benefit of being more democratic, and who doesn't want that?

Second Alternative: A Reinvigorated Electoral College


Well, I'm not sure I want more democratic. I might actually lean towards my second proposal, which would be to make a radical change to how things are done today (but which, ironically, would be close to a return to how things were originally done). In any event, it's more fun to think and blog about this alternative because it's much more complicated :)

Basically, if we don't want to move to a direct vote, let's resurrect the electoral college into the deliberative body it was meant to be!

Original Intent and How it Died


The original idea of the electoral college, as explained by Hamilton in Federalist No. 68, was to have us local citizens elect a trusted smart person to go to a state gathering of elected trusted smart people and have a debate about who to vote for for President, and then all vote for who they think would be best--opinions of the ignorant populace be damned! As Hamilton put it, the choice of who should be President ought to be made by people "most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations." In other words, the electoral college was designed specifically to keep out demagogues like Donald Trump who every thinking person realizes is entirely unfit for the job.

Unfortunately, political parties quickly figured out they could have their partisan hacks run for the electoral college and then all vote for the same dude. And states wanted to maximize their power by having all their votes go to the same person, which meant having statewide slates of Electors all of the same party that voters could choose. So the system soon evolved into pretty much the one we have now. [1]

A Halfhearted Solution


Alexander Hamilton did not like these developments, so he drafted and proposed a constitutional amendment to both keep the voting for Electors at the district level (not winner-take-all for the whole state) and also to fix that other weird fact that the Vice President is the person who gets the second-most votes for President, potentially creating a party split in the executive (this latter part was adopted as the Twelfth Amendment). But Hamilton's amendment still wouldn't stop parties from running their own guy in each district, pledged to the party's preferred candidate. Such a system, then, would probably result in a better (as in more democratic) version of our current system where each congressional district, more or less [2], gets its own electoral vote. It would be the same as if we kept the same system we have now except with 535 states that each had their own single vote for President instead of 50 states (plus DC!) that each had different numbers of votes for President.

This would no doubt be an improvement since it would be a few steps towards taking out the problematic electoral college middleman, but it wouldn't be likely to make the Electors exercise any more independent judgment. So if this approach appeals to you, why not just go all the way and make it a true direct vote instead?

A More Radical Approach


No, to get back to a truly independent body not made up of Electors mindlessly voting for their party's pre-selected candidate, we have to be even more radical, in the literal sense of that word: getting back to the root, the original. The Framers meant for Electors to be a deliberative body of thoughtful people who considered who would be best to lead the nation. These stewards were to be elected by the people, yes, but also to exercise their own wise judgment. To get to that ideal, it would obviously require a constitutional amendment, and I think it would need at least three main sections: one restricting presidential campaigning, one ensuring that Electors be independent, and one requiring that Electors be chosen locally. [3]

No Campaigning


One of the Framers' electoral assumptions that broke down fastest (damn you, Burr!) was that campaigning for President would (continue to) be considered unseemly and so no one would do it. Thus, I think the first and biggest thing this hypothetical amendment would need to do is prohibit people from running for President! Yes, that's a big change, but hear me out.

Here's something like the text I have in mind: "No person who has publicly expressed the desire to be President, or who has been nominated by their political party to be a candidate for President, in the last five years shall be eligible to the Office of President." [4]

But why would we get rid of presidential elections? For the same reason people often say that anyone who aspires to be President should automatically be disqualified. Or, as Douglas Adams put it:
The major problem—one of the major problems, for there are several—one of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them. 
To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. 
To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job. 
To summarize the summary of the summary: people are a problem. [5]
We could (at least begin to) get around that by ending open campaigning for the presidency. No more would there be (due to our inevitable two-party system) a binary choice between the two richest/charismatic people who yearn for power: the Electors could consider anyone they wanted in an environment (relatively) free from politicking!

Of course, people who really wanted to become President could privately tell their influential friends to go out there and talk them up as potential candidates in the media and such; at some point there's not much you can really do to take ambition out of the equation. But at least those subordinates couldn't openly state that they were speaking on behalf of the candidate, because that would just be having an agent publicly express the candidate's desire to be President, which would disqualify them. And it seems to me that you would end up with a decent number of "favorites" in the mix for each party, like how for 2020, Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren (and that's just off the top of my head) are all presumed to be interested in the Democratic nomination even though none have announced their candidacy. And of course no matter how many high-profile names get themselves talked about in the media, the Electors could always pick somebody else entirely.

Electors Can't Pre-Pledge


Relatedly, I would want a section to make sure that Electors haven't pre-pledged to anyone. In other words, I don't want an Elector-candidate to publicly pledge that they'll vote for some popular political figure in order to gain votes. Taken to the extreme, a political party could just get its Elector-candidates to all publicly pledge to support Joe DiMaggio and then basically campaign on his behalf in their district. I would also want to guard against political parties deciding in secret who they want their nominee to be and only running their Elector-candidates who would support them, so the pledging need not even be public to be disqualifying.

This section might read something like: "No person shall be eligible to be chosen as an Elector if they have declared for whom they plan to vote for the Office of President, and every Elector shall be free to vote according to their conscience."


Local Elections of Electors


And then we could basically add the first section of Hamilton's proposed amendment (mentioned above), which required each Elector to be selected by a vote of the local district's citizens:
Congress [6] shall from time to time divide each State into Districts equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives from such state in the Congress of the United States, and shall direct the mode of choosing an Elector of President and Vice President in each of the said Districts, who shall be chosen by Citizens who have the qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous branch of the State Legislature, and that the districts shall be formed, as nearly as may be, with an equal proportion of population in each, and of Counties and, if necessary, parts of Counties contiguous to each other, except when there may be any detached portion of territory not sufficient of itself to form a District which then shall be annexed to some other part nearest thereto. [7]
This was/is necessary (1) because the current Constitution technically allows for each State to choose how their Electors will be appointed, and for the first few national elections some States had their legislatures pick them; and (2) in order to counteract the prisoner's dilemma situation that encouraged States to choose their Electors via a statewide winner-take-all election so as to maximize the State's power. [8] With these changes in place, we would be assured that each district would choose their own representative, not just cast a vote towards a full slate of statewide Electors who would all be of one party and/or pledged to one party's candidate.

All Together Now


Putting it all together, the overall effect of the no-running-for-President section, the no-pledging section, and Hamilton's local-election-of-Electors section would (hopefully) be that we could choose smart people who would go into the electoral college with a relatively open mind about who they would vote for.

To be clear, I don't think it's feasible (or wise) to try to keep partisan politics out of the electoral college altogether--that would take a huge restructuring of our entire government and First Amendment rights. Instead, I imagine that Elector-candidates will run in their district-wide elections [9] with their party affiliation listed on the ballot, presumably after a primary, so that it would be similar to electing your House representative now: you can vote in the primary if you're really motivated, otherwise you can just show up in the general election and vote for your party's Elector-candidate. I also imagine local debates between the Elector-candidates from different parties that individual citizens can follow and participate in. Candidates for Elector wouldn't be allowed to name a specific person they'd vote for, of course (no pre-pledging!), but they could explain the characteristics that they think are most important in a President and/or the policy positions that they think it is most important for the President to pursue. And if there's a sitting President of an Elector-candidate's party who is eligible for reelection, I could imagine a norm arising where if the Elector-candidate doesn't explicitly say "I won't/would prefer not to vote for the current President to be reelected" then it can be assumed that they'll vote to reelect them. (Note that this would be permissible because it's not publicly declaring who the Elector-candidate will be voting for, but rather who they wouldn't vote for; or perhaps an incumbent President could be an exception to the prohibition on pledging--again, details to be worked out.)

As for how the actual electoral college would go down, I would assume that the Electors of the party with the most Electors (assuming they constitute a majority of all Electors) would want to coordinate among themselves who to choose so that they don't end up splitting their votes and letting the other side end up winning (or at least getting enough votes to throw it to the House). Thus, in the period between Election Day and the time the Electors cast their ballots, the Electors would be free to meet, talk, and/or communicate amongst themselves, and they would undoubtedly do so, probably separated by party. I would also allow the Electors to reach out to the people they're considering voting for at this point to ensure they'd be willing to accept the nomination. [10]

Because they'd be coordinating nationally anyway, it might also make sense for all of the Electors to cast their votes in one place rather than in their own state. I would love to see that televised, like the old-school party nominating conventions where there was honest-to-goodness intrigue rather than a pre-determined outcome! The voting should also be open ballot so that you can decide if the Elector you chose did a good job in case they run again in four years.

And if you really want to spice things up, you could even make it so that Electors from the losing party could offer to form a coalition with the moderates from the opposing party to form a majority to elect a more centrist member of the winning party. I don't think I'm a fan of this idea since it might lead to only radically centrists getting elected, and I think the country (and I) would usually prefer to pick one direction or the other (though of course individual Elector-candidates could run on platforms of advocating for relatively moderate presidential candidates), but it could be interesting.

Loose Ends


You may have noticed the conspicuous lack of discussion of how a Vice President is chosen (and/or that the language about the Vice President in Hamilton's amendment has been crossed out). Since President is by far the more powerful office, I figure let's just leave the Vice President out of the electoral system. My preference might be to have the President-elect choose three candidates for Vice President and let Congress pick one. Or it could be identical to the system for if a Vice President dies: the President gets to pick anyone to be Vice President as long as a majority in the House and Senate OK it. I'm not picky on the details--the point is that no one really cares about the Vice President so let's not involve them in the presidential election process. [11]

Admittedly, this reinvigorated electoral college would be significantly less democratic than even the current system. The Framers were fine with that, of course--most of them didn't trust the unwashed masses much at all--but I think our modern sensibilities have changed to be more skeptical of the "elites" and to want more power directly in the hands of the people. (See: the Seventeenth Amendment.) However, there is a pretty strong counter-argument to this populist point, and its name is "Donald Trump." If his election can't convince us to go back towards the way the electoral college was originally meant to work, nothing can. You know there is no way that independent smart people would have ever allowed him to get anywhere near power or responsibility.

The other main downside to this idea that I can see is that we would lose the public vetting process that is the current two-year presidential campaign. Right now, the media (and rival candidates!) have months and months to delve deeply into each candidate's background looking for scandals or things that might reflect poorly on their character. I tend to think these investigations usually produce more heat than light, though. They mostly end up discovering scandals/liabilities that have little bearing on actual fitness for office (albeit which inordinately exercise less informed voters [12]), so in the end I'm not sure we'd lose much.

Conclusion (Yes, this post is finally over.)


So I think those are the two best options for fixing the craptastic mess that is our current method of choosing a President. Direct voting has the benefit of simplicity and increased democracy, while a reinvigorated electoral college might appeal to those wishing to get closer to the Framers' intent and keeping out insane populists.

What do you think? Of course neither will ever happen, but don't let that influence you! Do you want to reform our current presidential election system? If not, why do you suck? And if you do want reform, which of these options would you prefer--or do you have your own ideas?

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[1] Wikipedia has a great overview of this whole process, of course, if you want to do a deep(er) dive.

[2] Since a state's total number of Electors is the sum of the number of their representatives and their two senators, each presidential voting district will be somewhat smaller than the congressional voting districts, of which there is one for each representative for the State in the House. For convenience sake, I might be fine with something like having the state legislature pick the two Electors that correspond to the state's senators, or having an at-large election for their seats, so that congressional districts can be used. I'm not picky on the details (a theme I will come back to repeatedly in this post).

[3] For completeness sake, I would also add on a final section giving Congress power to legislate to enforce the amendment's provisions, which for boring constitutional reasons is important. This might allow Congress to, for example, get more specific in legislation about what it means to "publicly express the desire to be President" or for an Elector to "declare who they plan to vote for" and adjust those definitions--and the penalties for violating the amendment--as needed.

[4] A few things to explain in this proposed language: I didn't want to let the parties decide beforehand who their candidates would be by nominating a person even if they hadn't campaigned for the position, so if a party tries that then their person is out. And I had to specify "by their political party" so that the Democrats couldn't take, say, Jeb! Bush out of the running by "nominating" him :) Finally, I figure five years is a long enough time to prevent someone from "pre-campaigning," but picky on this point I am not.

[5] Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. (source). NB: a lot of sources on the internet, including Goodreads, have "those people who must want to rule people"--I think from context, and a few Google Books sources, that "most" is the better reading.

[6] The website I'm pulling this from informs me that when this amendment was introduced, the word "Congress" here was replaced by "State Legislatures." I'm not picky on who draws these lines (see note [2] above).

[7] I particularly like Hamilton's language about how the districts "shall be formed, as nearly as may be," to avoid gerrymandering--maybe we could add that to the Constitution regarding congressional maps while we're at this?

[8] Devin McCarthy (Ph.D. Polysci, Duke), "How the Electoral College Became Winner-Take-All".

[9] I assume that since these are just district-wide elections, Elector-candidates won't start running two years ahead of time like presidential candidates do these days. But it might not hurt to add something to this hypothetical constitutional amendment that prohibits campaigning more than, say, 6 months ahead of the election. That huge reduction on election fatigue alone would almost guarantee that this thing passes! :)

[10] I do worry about candidates lobbying Electors at this point, though. It would probably be good to prohibit Electors and their immediate family from being allowed to serve in the new administration so that candidates can't bribe them with cabinet positions etc. It might even be wise to prevent candidates from talking with Electors at all during this period (though I'm not sure how well that could be enforced with surrogates etc.).

[11] Yeah, this would require yet another section in the amendment to remove the constitutional language about how the Vice President is currently chosen and laying out the new process, but that is beyond the scope of this blog post . . . and also kinda boring :)

[12] I'm thinking of things like Hillary Clinton's email scandal--or even less substantively, the baseless attacks levied against her over the tragedy in Benghazi (not to mention pizzagate!).

Monday, July 2, 2018

Minesweeper win rates: more data and open questions

I've blogged before about my mild (?) obsession with Minesweeper. It is, in my humble opinion, the Platonic ideal of a game--the perfect blend of logic, statistics, and luck. I was able to find a fantastic version for Android--called Minesweeper GO - classic mines game--that I highly recommend you download if you have any serious interest in the game. I won't bore you with all the details, but the stats and hints logic are second to none.

Screenshot of a portion of an expert
grid on the Minesweeper GO app.
I''m still not 100% of the ideal play;
what would you go with?
Anyway, with this new app, I've gotten some more data on my Minesweeper win percentages:
Beginner: 86.04% (after 953 games)
Intermediate: 79.83% (after 1145 games)
Expert: 38.76% (after 4422 games) [1]
Being me, one of the things I was interested in was that the beginner and intermediate percentages are quite close. And this despite the fact that the beginner board as 8*8=64 tiles versus the intermediate board's 16*16=256 tiles--a 4x difference. However, it turns out that they have an equal density of mines (10 mines on the beginner board, 40 on intermediate: both work out to 6.4 tiles/mine, or about 0.16 mines/tile if you want to think of it that way). So it makes sense that the win percentages on each would be pretty similar.

As for why they're different at all, I think there might be (at least) two answers: the main one is that with more mines, there's just more opportunity for them to clump together in corners where you have to guess at the answer. And then there's the fact that I've been playing with the feature (apparently first introduced in the Windows Vista version) of every first click being an opening (i.e., empty--equivalent to a zero) turned on in the app. That automatic opening will tend to be a larger percentage of the board in beginner than in intermediate, I think, and so you will have already cleared a greater proportion of the field from the get-go on the beginner level, giving you more of a head start.

All of that made me curious: what size board would lead to the highest possible win percentage? Obviously there are an infinite number of board sizes and mine densities, so to be more specific maybe I could simplify the problem and ask what square board size with a density of 6.4 tiles/mine (or as close to that as possible given the board size) could be solved at the highest rate? Maybe the beginner board is the ideal in that regard, but maybe a slightly bigger or smaller board could beat it.

And finally, I think I'm going to reset my stats in the app (*gasp!*) and see how these stats change without the automatic-opening feature turned on. I'm sure I'll post the certain-to-be-fascinating results on here ere long! :)

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[1] Note that in my previous post, I reported a 33.9% win percentage on expert, and now it's 38.76%--what happened? I may have just gotten better at Minesweeper, or maybe I tend to make fewer mistakes tapping on a phone screen than I did clicking with a mouse. And that guaranteed-opening-on-the-first-click feature being turned on likely plays a part. But actually I'm surprised that the difference isn't larger: as I said in a comment on that post, I actually started keeping track of my monthly stats for a few years on a publicly accessible google spreadsheet. There, you'll note that even without the opening-on-first-click feature, I steadily increased my monthly winning percentage (even getting as high as 44.6% in June 2012!), with my average winning percentage over the last 10 months I kept track working out to 37.07%. So it looks like the auto-opening feature only amounts to a 1 or 2% difference on expert. I guess that makes sense since the grid is so huge (16x30) that a small opening every time at the beginning doesn't change much.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Facebook Rules of Engagement

With the whole Trump-tearing-kids-from-their-parents thing going on the last few weeks, I've had occasion to think about when I should engage in Facebook debates/discussions. I know some people take the view (or at least say they do) that arguing on Facebook is pointless, that no one's mind is ever changed. In fact, I highly recommend a google image search for "arguing on facebook"--you'll get some real gems, like this one:

Source: @goldengateblond
I disagree, though, because my own mind has been changed by Facebook/social media discussions; LGBT rights, racial justice issues, and housing policy are the issues that first come to mind where reading debates about and/or talking to others about them online really opened my mind to a different point of view that I came to accept. And even more often, while my mind may not be changed in the sense of a 180° reversal of opinion, reading and/or participating in such discussions has adjusted, nuanced, developed, and refined my views on a number of issues, including abortion, financial decisions of the LDS Church, sex work, and free speech.

So I know it's possible for Facebook discussions to actually affect people's opinions. But how can I try to maximize the chances that minds change and minimize the risk that everyone ends up pissed? Obviously it's a hard question to answer, but my current thinking involves two basic rules of thumb for determining when it might be a good idea for me to engage: (1) is there a clear right/wrong answer on (or a particularly weak or specious argument being made in support of) a point in question?; and (2) is the subject of actual real-world importance?

The recent Trump policy of criminally prosecuting all adults who cross the border illegally (a natural and intended consequence of which is the separation of kids from their parents when the parents are placed in jails to await trial) is a good example of when I felt it was appropriate to publicly post on the issue and engage in discussions on other people's posts about it. There was a lot of flat-out false stuff being spouted (especially the claims that Obama did the same thing and that Trump was forced to do this by the law--and specifically by a law the Democrats had passed) that could quite directly and easily be refuted by citing to reputable sources, and there was a very clear morally correct position and a morally deficient position. And the issue obviously had grave real-world significance: families were literally being torn apart. So my two criteria were met, and, for better or worse, I engaged in a number of Facebook threads on these issues.

A hypothetical example of when I would definitely try to refrain from engaging would be if a friend posted something like "Obama was a terrible president who routinely abused executive authority!" On the first prong of my test, this is a pretty general, vague statement of opinion that can rationally be supported by some real facts (e.g., Obama said he couldn't implement DACA via executive order for years, then he decided he could; choosing not to defend DOMA in court, etc.). I disagree with the assertion, but it's not really something that can be resolved cleanly, and so Facebook probably isn't the best venue for it. And in terms of real-world importance, Obama isn't President anymore, so how people feel about him isn't all that salient to how the country moves forward. So no reason to get involved; just keep scrolling:

Source: Imgur
Of course, sometimes one of these prongs will favor engagement and the other will favor moving along. Ideally, I would try to only engage when both of them are at least reasonably strong--though this xkcd comic is always painfully relevant, too :)

A lesson I'm constantly trying to learn. Source: me.me

Then there's the question of when to leave a Facebook discussion you've engaged in. I think my intuition is: when it stops feeling like a discussion and becomes more of an argument. Signs of this include ad hominems, refusals to engage, flaring tempers, changing the subject, moving the goalposts, obvious bad faith, etc. However, I also try to remember that while the person I'm discussing/arguing with may be the least likely to change their mind (selection bias at work here), my and their Facebook friends might be reading along and following the debate (I certainly do this on threads I'm interested in--I highly recommend the "turn on notifications for this post" feature that Facebook offers), and those people are much more likely to be more open to any thoughtful, reasoned arguments and evidence I can present. It's helpful to remember that my audience is bigger than just my interlocutor.

Anyway, this has been another entry in the lawyers-overthink-everything scrapbook. I'm curious if any of you have ever considered when to engage in Facebook discussions. Have your opinions ever changed (or even just been affected) by the process? Or are you on the side of all the memes? :)

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Revamping the Mormon Hymnbook -- My Feedback

As you've probably heard if you're on social media and Mormon, the LDS Church has announced that they're revising their hymnbook and children's songbook. They're even asking for feedback from members via an online survey! So naturally I wanted to think through what I'm going to say, and what better way to do that than by blogging about it?

The four most interesting questions to me are (1) what are your favorite songs? (i.e., which ones should they be sure to keep); (2) what new songs should be added?; (3) what songs "might be candidates to drop from a new hymnbook or songbook?" (how diplomatic!); and (4) other general feedback about hymns and songs. Here's what I want to say in each category (space permitting):

Favorite Hymns

In no particular order, these are the ones I came up with:
  • Be Still My Soul - just gorgeous, reassuring music.
  • O Say What is Truth - in the Age of Trump, we need this one more than ever [1]. Plus the lyrics are just poetic.
  • There is a Green Hill Far Away - the best sacrament hymn, by far.
  • O My Father - lovely tune, and important as the first published mention of the doctrine of a Heavenly Mother.
  • Lead Kindly Light - beautiful imagery/message, and one of the best tunes in the hymnbook.
  • Nearer My God To Thee - stunning evocation of Jacob's Ladder and the ascension--and exaltation--of mankind that it represents.
  • How Great Thou Art - nature is awesome, powerful, majestic, and overpowering. This captures that.
  • A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief - perhaps the most Christlike of hymns, embodying Jesus' timeless doctrine that if you've done it unto the "least" of all people, you've done it to Him.
  • Abide With Me - we need a reminder of the solidness of God in a world where too much often feels malleable, fluid, and impermanent.
  • Abide With Me Tis Eventide - probably the best use of night-time/dusk as gospel symbol in the whole hymnbook.
  • How Firm a Foundation - exuberant and bold, a true classic.
  • All Creatures of Our God and King - nature is also a quiet, simple, omnipresent gift. This captures that.
  • Rock of Ages - I love the old-timey poetry sound of these lyrics (e.g., "Let the water and the blood, / From thy wounded side which flowed, / Be of sin the double cure, / Save from wrath and make me pure."), as well as the emphasis on grace (see: all of the second verse).
  • More Holiness Give Me - I love the humility in this hymn, as well as the desire to become free of "earth-stains."
  • Jesus the Very Thought of Thee - this is the oldest hymn in our hymnbook that I'm aware of--the author, Bernard of Clairvaux, lived about 100 years before St. Francis of Assisi, who (sort of) authored All Creatures of Our God and King--so you know it's stood the test of time. And the lyrics, which perfectly describe the deep friendship with Jesus we're all seeking after, show why.
  • The Lord is My Shepherd - love the harmonies, love the message.
  • Battle Hymn of the Republic - I'm generally not a big fan of militaristic hymns (more on that below), but this one uses military imagery pretty minimally, actually, and in a particularly metaphorical way (God is the one with the sword and trumpet). Add to that the amazing third verse (Christ born among the lilies, let us live to make men free!, etc.), the perfect tune, the fact that it's one of the few hymns written by a woman, and the inspiring history of this being an anthem in the fight against slavery in this country, and I'm more than happy to fight to keep this one in.
  • Ring Out, Wild Bells - I know this one isn't particularly popular, but in my opinion it has a lot going for it: it's our only real New Year's hymn (I might argue that Come, Let Us Anew can sorta be used in that context, but it's a bit of a stretch), the tune is beautiful (especially that very final note key change! chills!), it was written by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (when you have a comma in your name, plus a title in the middle of it, you know you're cool [2]) and has a wonderful, liminal message. What's not to love?
  • I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day - a song that ends on an optimistic note that it earns by seriously acknowledging the despair and evil that exists in the world.
  • Ye Elders of Israel - I probably love the tune of this one more than the lyrics, though that chorus is lots of fun. It's a good missionary hymn too.
  • High on the Mountain Top - a truly Mormon hymn with a zeal for Zion, and a perfectly peculiar reference to temple work for the dead in the last line. I also randomly love the unfurled/world rhyme.
  • Redeemer of Israel - another prototypical Mormon hymn that I can't imagine not having in our hymnbook.
  • Come, Come Ye Saints - the most Mormon of Mormon hymns. I don't even need to include this in the survey because there's literally no way it could be taken out (but I probably still will anyway).
  • If You Could Hie to Kolob - the most insider-Mormon of Mormon hymns, this one really celebrates our most creative, unique theology. Endless worlds, endless Gods, endless space, the name of the planet/star [3] that (our) God lives on--it's all there! And those last two and a half verses! Talk about gutsy with the "there is no end to" repetitions!
  • Brightly Beams Our Father's Mercy - powerful imagery that teaches us to reach out to our storm-tossed, struggling siblings in love, reflecting the light of God to them.
  • Far, Far Away on Judea's Plain - this one is not really a true "favorite" of mine, but it should be kept as the only Mormon Christmas song semi-well known outside the church.
I know, that's too many to call them all "favorites," but believe me, I restrained myself from including a number that I just "really like"! :)

Hymns to Add

Unfortunately I don't know a lot of non-Mormon hymns, but here's what I came up with, including after a search for traditionally black church hymns:
The reason I have a question mark on Lift Every Voice and Sing is because of its particular significance to African-Americans--known as the Black National Anthem [4], it would feel weird for mostly white congregations to sing it without any knowledge of that history or context (especially because we'd mangle it like we do with all hymns we haven't heard a million times). But then again, for wards with a significant black population (or for special musical numbers, or on occasions like Juneteenth where the song's history could be taught before singing it), it would be great for the option to be there. So I’m torn. Maybe include it but with a usage note along these lines? I dunno. Any thoughts?

I also considered recommending Die Gedanken Sind Frei (Thoughts are Free) in place of Know This, That Every Soul is Free for our go-to free agency song, but I figured it was a bit too out there for the church to accept, sadly. But give it a listen, I love it!:

Hymns to Remove

Ah, where the real fun is! 😂 I actually don't have that many suggestions here. I mean, I could go through and list the ~75 or so hymns that I don't think I've ever sung when we do I realize why, but I'm more indifferent to those than anti. So I'm limiting myself to at least semi-popular songs.
  • Who's on the Lord's Side? - this is a stupid song, and it sounds like a drinking song.
  • With Wondering Awe - I hate the tune of this one, and the phrase "wondrous little stranger" just sounds weird.
  • Carry On - as I've blogged before, the chorus sounds like it was written by vultures. It's also very Utah-centric ("Firm as the mountains around us" and "we hear the desert singing" sound weird when sung in Kansas or Estonia).
  • Follow the Prophet - way too cult-y. [See also below for edits to make if it's kept in]
  • A bunch of the militaristic hymns:
    • Hope of Israel - this is probably the worst offender in the "militaristic" category. That third verse!: "Strike for Zion, down with error; / Flash the sword above the foe! / Ev'ry stroke disarms a foeman; / Ev'ry step we conq'ring go." Being in error is worthy of death; dismembering opponents with a single blow; the colonialist overtones of the "conq'ring" line--it's all here! And don't forget, when the fourth verse says "Ev'ry foe of truth [will] be down," they're talking about dead bodies littering the battlefield. Disgusting. Needs to go.
    • Behold! A Royal Army - this one also really gets into the army-fetish game. That "Victory, victory" chorus is creepy, in part due to the low, machismo basso profundo it starts with, and in part due to the marriage of Jesus with the military imagery. As one prophet said, "If God's on our side, he'll stop the next war."
    • Who’s on the Lord’s Side? - I know I mentioned it above, but it should be removed for this reason too. It's really my least favorite hymn.
    • O Thou Rock of Our Salvation - the only good thing to say about this war-song is that its descriptions of battles and fighting and contending are all pretty much abstract cliches, so at least it's not exulting in lopping off people's arms. That abstractness also makes it boring--another reason it should go.
    • Onward, Christian Soldiers - this one does have the silver lining of at least employing imagery of the cross in a positive manner, but it's not enough to redeem the war imagery.
    • We Are All Enlisted - another positive reference to the cross, but a really, really creepy picture of war and army service as super-sunny-happy-shiny-joy-joy. *shudder*
    • Up, Awake, Ye Defenders of Zion - at least this one is never sung (to my knowledge).
    • [probably some more I'm forgetting and/or unaware of--feel free to chime in with them]
And yep, I did not include In Our Lovely Deseret in the removal list:I actually kinda like it! It's a fun lilt, and has such cute, naive Mormon wording :) But I feel pretty sure that it will be the most-requested song to drop, so I'm resigned to not having it in the next hymnbook. Oh well.

Other Feedback

I have two subcategories here: edits to make to specific songs, and other miscellaneous things I'd like to see.

Edits to Make

  • Follow the Prophet - as noted above, it should probably just be taken out of the children's songbook. But if it isn't, at least the words should be softened so it's not so cult-y: maybe something like "Listen to the Prophet" for the chorus? Also, I'm not a fan of the lines "Now we have a world where people are confused. / If you don’t believe it, go and watch the news"; it enforces an us/them paradigm that implies we have truth and no one else does. Maybe change that to something like "Living in this world, we sometimes feel we're lost / But Jesus reaches out to all the tempest-tossed"? I dunno, that was my first draft, I'm sure someone can come up with something better.
    • And while I'm at it, change the chorus in the Jonah verse to "Swallow the prophet" -- kids deserve some fun! :)
  • The Wintry Day, Descending to Its Close - remove Native American language ("Where roamed at will the fearless Indian band"); it's just weird. (Though at least the LDS hymnbooks have been getting better about this issue! [5])
  • Faith of our Fathers - alternate in "faith of our mothers" every other verse/chorus. And if you're feeling really gender-equality-y, change the title to Faith of Our Parents.
  • If You Could Hie to Kolob - Change "There is no end to race" -> "There is no end to grace." I think (though I guess I don't know) that "race" here is meant in the now-somewhat-archaic sense of "the human race," but the meanings of words change, and especially given our troubled past (and present) regarding race, it just makes sense to change this. Plus, this change has the added benefit of continuing to rehabilitate the theological concept of grace, which--surprise!--we really do believe in, despite what too many members may tell you.
  • Have I Done Any Good? - change "Love's labor has merit alone" back to “The world has no use for a drone." This is a bit tricky because the original couplet--"Only he who does something is worthy to live / The world has no use for a drone" [6]--comes across as really harsh, saying that lazy/apathetic people don't deserve to live (!). That first line can certainly stay out, then, but I think the "drone" line is more colorful and evocative than what's in there now.
  • Choose the Right - take out the line “there’s the right and the wrong to ev'ry question” - way too binary in a messy world. Maybe change it to something like "Seek the right when presented with a question"? I feel like that better conveys (or at least implies) that it can be a challenge to actually discern the "right" in many situations and requires seeking out, rather than the current black/white implication.
  • Rock of Ages - in addition to keeping it (see above), I wouldn't mind seeing the original third verse added back in: "Nothing in my hand I bring, / Simply to Thy cross I cling; / Naked, come to Thee for dress; / Helpless, look to Thee for grace; / Foul, I to the fountain fly; / Wash me, Saviour, or I die!" [7]
Honorable mention:
  • I would titter if they changed the last line of the first verse of How Firm a Foundation from "Who unto the Savior for refuge have fled?" to the original "To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?," resulting in the multiply-repeated "to yoo-hoo for refuge" (which is why they changed it in the first place). 

Miscellaneous

General thoughts/requests:
  • In general, be as gender inclusive as possible throughout the hymnbook.
    • See, e.g., my above recommendation about editing Faith of Our Fathers.
    • And in general, trying to take out instances of "man" or "men" when "person" or "people" is meant would be great.
    • Relatedly, wherever possible change "Heavenly Father" (or similar) to "Heavenly Parents."
  • Include foreign-language hymns translated into English.
    • Unfortunately, I'm not actually familiar with any hymns that fit this category (that I can think of, at least), but if you know of good examples please leave them in the comments!
  • Use more tunes from the great classical composers.
    • Joy to World's tune is by Handel, O Savior, Thou Who Wearest a Crown's is adapted by Bach, O God, The Eternal Father's is by Mendelssohn, Be Still My Soul's is by Sibelius, and apparently we have songs in the French and Portuguese hymnbooks with music by Mozart and Beethoven, respectively. More of that kind of thing, please.
    • Also requested: a note somewhere in the hymnbook that classical pieces are perfectly appropriate for prelude and postlude music, as well as special musical numbers.
  • Use more folk tunes--and not just ones from Great Britain/Western Europe.
    • Use "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring" (Johann Schop/Bach) as a tune (or even add it as a full hymn with these lyrics: https://hymnary.org/text/jesu_joy_of_mans_desiring).
      • Include more diverse hymns (in relation to nationality, ethnicity, gender, age, etc. of author/composer).
        • Accept more new hymn submissions that talk about Heavenly Mother!
        Phew, that was a lot! Sorry. I apparently have a lot of thoughts about this. [8] What about you? Have you responded to the survey, or will you? If so (or even if not, really), what did/will/would you say? Are any of my suggestions completely off the mark? I'd love to hear your thoughts. Unless you're going to argue to keep Who's on the Lord's Side?--you people can gtfo.

        ---------------

        [1] See Jeff Flake speech on the Senate floor, Jan. 17, 2018 (beginning at 2 min. 31 sec. into this video); or this article by Herb Scribner, "Flake praises truth, quotes LDS hymn in speech criticizing Trump," Deseret News, Jan. 17, 2018.

        [2] See this page for an explanation for the unusual name. The system of peerages (I think that's what it's called?) will never make sense to me.

        [3] Yep, it's unclear from the Book of Abraham whether Kolob is a star or a planet. From Wikipedia:

        The Book of Abraham is unclear about Kolob being a star or a planet, and Mormon writings have taken positions on either side of this issue. One part of the Book of Abraham states that Abraham "saw the stars ... and that one of them was nearest unto the throne of God; ... and the name of the great one is Kolob." Thus, Kolob is referred to as a "star". However, the book defines the word "Kokaubeam" (a transliteration of the Hebrew "כּוֹכָבִים" [c.f., Gen. 15:5]) as meaning "all the great lights, which were in the firmament of heaven". This would appear to include planets as among the "stars", and the Book of Abraham refers to Earth as a star. In addition, the Book of Abraham text appears to classify Kolob as among a hierarchy of "planets". On the other hand, in the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar paper, Kolob is classified as one of twelve "fixed stars", in distinction with fifteen "moving planets". The term "fixed stars" generally refers to the background of celestial objects that do not appear to move relative to each other in the night sky, generally including all stars other than the sun, nebulae and other star-like objects. Though "fixed", such objects were proven to have proper motion by Edmund Halley in 1718. Apparently referring to proper motion, Smith said that Kolob moves "swifter than the rest of the twelve fixed stars". Also, the Book of Abraham refers to "fixed planets", thereby including planets in the set of celestial objects that may be "fixed". He also refers to the sun as a "governing planet", which further complicates the terminology. So, from the variety of terminology Smith used in referencing Kolob and other astronomical objects, it is unclear whether he understood Kolob to be a planet or a star.
        I don't think it really matters, of course, but I definitely find it interesting. Though if you put a gun to my head and made me choose, I'd say it's a planet just because they're a lot more habitable (and even stand-on-able) than stars, but hey, what do I know about celestial physics.

        [4] Though the church has said that "national anthems will not be included in the printed hymnbooks," so maybe that disqualifies this one? I hope not! :)

        [5] Douglas Campbell, Dialogue 28:3 at 70–71, Changes in LDS Hymns: Implications and Opportunities; P. Jane Hafen, Dialogue 18:4, “Great Spirit Listen”: The American Indian in Mormon Music.

        [6] Catherine Reese Newton, The Salt Lake Tribune, "Sing, sing, ye Saints — Mormon hymnbook marks 30 years of praising God in song," Oct. 2, 2015, http://archive.sltrib.com/article.php?id=2961783&itype=CMSID

        [7] Fun tangent: the author of this hymn wrote the original version of it while he took shelter in a rock cleft during a bad storm, and we're pretty sure where the exact cleft was! From Wikipedia: "Traditionally, it is held that Toplady drew his inspiration from an incident in the gorge of Burrington Combe in the Mendip Hills in England. Toplady, a preacher in the nearby village of Blagdon, was travelling along the gorge when he was caught in a storm. Finding shelter in a gap in the gorge, he was struck by the title and scribbled down the initial lyrics. The fissure that is believed to have sheltered Toplady (51.3254°N 2.7532°W) is now marked as the 'Rock of Ages', both on the rock itself and on some maps."
        The actual Rock of Ages! (probably) Source: Wikipedia
        [8] The blog Wheat & Tares also had two posts about this back in 2015: Hated Hymns and Hymns to Add? So if you want still more thoughts on this topic, feel free to peruse those posts+comments.

        Tuesday, January 23, 2018

        Voting as Jesus Would Vote

        From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voting
        Bruce R. McConkie once (in?)famously preached that, among other things, "To be valiant in the testimony of Jesus is to take the Lord’s side on every issue. It is to vote as he would vote." [1] That's clearly aspirational--no one is ever going to achieve perfect unity of mind with Jesus in this life--but does it even make sense to think about Jesus voting in an election and trying to emulate that vote in your own political life?

        My initial response to this when I heard it years ago was to scoff. It seemed to me like another cudgel for politically conservative Mormons to beat me over the head with when I voted Democrat. But while it could certainly be (in my opinion mis-)used in that way, I don't think that's enough to dismiss it out of hand. Lots of true things can be misused; that doesn't mean they're not true or shouldn't be taught. And in the end, I think I do agree with McConkie on this point.

        As a threshold matter, would Jesus even have voted if he had lived in a modern democracy during his earthly ministry? I'm not certain he would have, given that he wasn't too keen on getting involved in politics in his day. [2] But while I think he probably wouldn't have told people who to vote for, largely because he wants us to wrestle with those questions ourselves, I do think he probably would have taken part in a secret ballot voting process, both to be an example to others of doing one's civic duty as well as to substantively effect positive change.

        And if you're going to entertain the notion that Jesus would have voted in elections if he lived in a democracy today, it's utterly fascinating (to me at least) to think about how he would have voted. How would he balance the good and bad policies each candidate espoused? Would he always vote for the one whose positions were the closest to the platonic ideal of correct, regardless of their chances of actually being elected? Or would he cast the vote most likely to do the most good? Heck, assuming his perfect (or sufficiently perfect) foreknowledge of events, it seems sometimes he would vote for someone whose stated positions and opinions he disagreed with just because some particular big crisis would occur that that candidate would be able to resolve that her opponent wouldn't!

        In short, though, I think Jesus would enter the ballot box and mark an X next to a particular name. And while (again) I don't think he would tell everyone who to vote for or against [3], preferring to let his followers grow and debate and learn on their own, at the end of the day I'd like my vote to align with his if I could.

        So yes, I want to vote how Jesus would vote. In practice, of course, we're all so so so far from Jesus in pretty much every conceivable way that an intense amount of humility is necessary here--we shouldn't just go around condemning everyone who votes differently than we do for failing to be valiant in their testimony of Jesus. [4] But I do think it's a good ideal to keep in mind and strive for, in our very imperfect individual ways.

        What do you think? Is it helpful to have the idea of voting like Jesus would vote? Is it too liable to misuse in practice? Who would Jesus have voted for in your last municipal election? :)

        ------------

        [1] Be Valiant in the Fight of Faith, Bruce R. McConkie, October 1974 General Conference. And lest you think that this is one of those things Elder McConkie taught that the church just kind of ignored (**cough cough evolution being a deadly heresy cough cough**), it was quoted in a January 2017 Ensign article by Elder Christoffel Golden of the Seventy titled "Valiant in Our Testimony of the Savior" and is in the current Doctrine and Covenants/Church History Teacher's Manual for lesson 20 on "The Kingdoms of Glory."

        [2] From what I understand, Jehovah's Witnesses take John 6:15 to mean that Jesus actively avoided all politics, and so should we. And at the least, Jesus seemed to avoid taking public stands on at least some contentious political questions (see Mark 12:17).

        [3] With the exception, perhaps, of particularly bad candidates such as literal Nazis.

        [4] At the same time, when we feel strongly (after due humble seeking) one way or the other, it's perfectly fine--and probably our duty--to encourage others to vote more morally, i.e., the way we believe Jesus would vote. This is hard to do without thinking that those who disagree with you are bad people, but (1) humility again, and (2) just because you see someone do something wrong doesn't mean you should treat them badly or throw them out. (I tweet-stormed some more thoughts on this spurred by a very interesting By Common Consent post titled "The Omni-Political Kingdom of God.")

        Thursday, August 17, 2017

        White Pride = White Supremacy

        In light of the heartbreaking and vile events in Charlottesville last weekend--when neo-nazis and Klansmen openly marched on UVA grounds and in the city, killing one counter-protestor--I've been thinking a lot about race. Specifically, the perennial question we white people like to ask: why can't we have white pride without sounding like bigots?

        By Common Consent has some good thoughts on a post titled "White Is Not a Culture" about how it doesn't make a lot of sense to talk about "white culture" because what's usually meant is "European culture," which is actually a beautiful mix of independent cultures. However, I wasn't entirely sold on this paragraph:
        This is not an attack on anyone. “black culture” and “brown culture” are not things either. Neither is “periwinkle culture.” Colors, of skin (or of anything else) are not the sorts of things that can have cultures. That’s just not how culture works.
        I think it's pretty clear that "black culture" is a thing. At least, African-American culture exists, if our never-failing friend wikipedia is to be believed. There's such a thing as African American vernacular English, food that's associated with African-American culture, not to mention music, literature, and shared social values. I don't see why a group of people sharing a particular race can't have a culture if people from a particular geographic area can. And as a great post I read today that I can't find again said: black Americans have had their ancestry largely erased beyond a general "West African" heritage by the slave trade, and so have had to make their own, new culture in a way that white people haven't. [0] Celebrating this culture is fine, and in fact great!

        So then what would be the problem with celebrating "white culture," too? I think it comes down to what race is: a social construct. That's a fancy way of saying that it's a jointly understood but ultimately made-up classification. "White" and "black" (and "asian" and etc etc) did not exist hundreds of years ago; they were invented by Europeans about the same time they started the African slave trade. Before that, skin color was just another thing like eye color--a curiosity, but not meaningful in any real way in society. [1] This can be seen in, among other things, the way the definition of "white" has changed over time. Polish people, Italians, Jews, and even Mormons (!) haven't always been considered "white." [2]

        "White" people put themselves at the top of the racial hierarchy they invented (surprise, surprise). So by definition, "white" meant "the superior race," while the "black race" was by definition "inferior." [3] And that, I think, is why it ends up being so problematic to celebrate "white pride": it means that you're celebrating your status in the supposedly superior race. [4] "Black pride" isn't a problem under this view because it's a form of reclaiming an initially negative trait and taking pride in it. "White culture" is code for "superior culture" in a way that Irish culture or Norwegian culture is not.

        So by all means, I'm proud of my Italian, English, Danish, Irish, and Swiss heritage [5], but I wouldn't say I'm "proud" of my white heritage. "Whiteness" has meant the creation of "lesser" races, a legacy I'm not proud of. I'm not saying that being white is bad or something to feel guilty for, but it's definitely something to be aware of. "White pride" is not OK. It amounts to white supremacy.

        ---------------------------------

        [0] Update as of 8/21/17: Found it!



        [1] In the same way, "straight" wasn't a thing until "homosexual" was invented.

        [2] But see https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2017/03/22/sorry-but-the-irish-were-always-white-and-so-were-the-italians-jews-and-so-on/ for a contrary view on this point. I disagree, but I'm no expert, and really this point is more of a tangent for purposes of this post anyway.

        [3] "White" being at the top explains why it's so fragile. (Under the infamous "one-drop rule" in the US, a single black ancestor meant that someone who looked as white as could be was actually considered black.) It was really easy to topple from the lofty peak of whiteness, but very hard to get back up to it once you'd fallen.

        [4] But explains, I think, why "white culture" can be quote unquote "celebrated" by drinking pumpkin spice lattes or visiting sites like https://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/--it's done semi-tongue in cheek, understanding that it's not in any way claiming that "white" is better than anyone else (and sometimes is even hilariously lame).

        [5] I'm trying to remember all the groups my mom's genetic test came back with . . .

        Thursday, June 29, 2017

        Ten years of mystical visions and cosmic vibrations!

        Wow, it's been ten years to the day since my first post on this blog. I never would have guessed I'd've kept this thing going that long (not that I've been particularly good at keeping it up recently . . . sorry).

        Easily my most popular post of all time is the one about the MLK Jr. Sermon "But If Not" which is linked from the youtube video I put up of it (the video has almost half a million views by now!). But I also still get hits on my analysis of Rapper's Delight from way back in 2008, which is fun.

        Anyhoo, that's about all I have to say today.

        So here's to another ten years!