Wednesday, July 28, 2010

1000 Awesome Things #47.3

If you haven't heard of the blog 1000 Awesome Things, well, you should have.

As a tribute to that fun idea, I offer my own awesome thing: Walking over a stream using a fallen tree.

Sure, you could walk through the water--it's not deep, and the nice cool water might even feel refreshing--but soggy shoes are not fun to walk back in. Using nature's bridge lets you feel like a tightrope walker, perched perilously above a raging river (or restful rivulet, as the case may be). You are getting to the other side safe and dry, and best of all you're doing it in a way that is


Sunday, July 25, 2010

Minesweeper, or My Personal Brand of Nerdiness

Since early June, I've now played 1000 games of Minesweeper on my new laptop on the expert difficulty level. That's an average of about 20 games per day. And that doesn't count the games I've played while on conference calls at work, during each of which I can probably get through 20 games easy. So yes, I am addicted.

But I love it. I love Minesweeper because it's a wonderfully maddening mix of logic and luck, NP-completeness and silliness, pointlessness and the opportunity to win a million dollars.

And it's an addiction of choice: I blogged once before about giving up Minesweeper for a year. It wasn't too hard, though I did pick up a decent Freecell habit (laced with occasional Solitaire) to compensate. And once New Year's Eve was here, I was right back in it. The point is: I really can quit any time I want.

While I like to see how fast I can beat a board, my main goal is to win. As often as possible. So if I get in a complicated situation, I'll take time to stop and think about it. I love the never-ending new situations that come up. To the right is a recent finish
that I liked a lot. There are two right answers for which mine to click, and two wrong answers; the proof is left as an exercise for the reader.

Apparently, I'm in a minority in caring about winning percentage. In the (minuscule) world of Minesweeper enthusiasts, it seems like the decision to keep track of win percentage is ridiculed in favor of obscure stats that tell you how fast you can go. I certainly couldn't find anyone via Google who kept track of best win percentages. But I am quite proud of my 33% (339 wins in 1000 games) on expert. (I was this close to getting to a 34% winning percentage, I'll have you know, but it just wasn't meant to be.) But fortunately the two goals--speed and winning percentage--aren't completely mutually exclusive. My best time is 80 seconds, which ain't too shabby.

It would be interesting to try to figure out what the maximum winning percentage is in the limit. There are a lot of games that come down to guessing, but I've been able to keep steady at about 33% for a good while, so I feel pretty comfortable proposing that as a lower bound. And while I certainly don't make optimum moves all the time, and human error creeps in for sure, I don't think a winning percentage too much higher than that is feasible in the long term. Maybe low 40's. That will be my first question when I get to heaven.

And thus concludes my random celebration of a beyond-meaningless milestone. Please share any Minesweeper anecdotes or thoughts on obscure addictions.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Poll results

Well my recent little poll of readers on whether women will someday get the priesthood resulted in a 76% majority (16 votes) for Yes, with 24% (5) saying No. I was a little surprised that my blog readership slanted quite that far to the liberal side, but not too much. I only wish either side would have left a comment or two explaining their thinking.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Imagine No Religion

I know a lot of religious people who don't like the song 'Imagine' by John Lennon because of its message. It's just an exhortation to imagine a universe without heaven, hell, personal property, nations, or religion... I can't imagine where the problem is!

My response is based on a Joseph Smith quote that I can't verify* and can only paraphrase. It goes something like "Whenever I am criticized, I sit down and look inside myself and see if there is any kernel of fault in me that may have prompted the complaint. And more often than not, I do find a fault in myself and can go to the offended and apologize." Lennon's dream in the song is to bring about a world where people are "living for today." I believe his criticism of institutions we hold dear is conditional on the idea that they are harmful; he's not criticizing them just to be a jerk, he honestly believes they make people do bad things, whether pointless wars or just not living life joyfully.

So we have to ask ourselves: does Lennon have a point? I think the answer is an unequivocal yes. Clearly these institutions have been causes of terrible things. The existence of nations has led to horrendous acts in the name of nationalism. Fear over going to hell has wrought psychological trauma, been a factor in suicides, and promoted superficial righteousness. Belief in heaven has made people ignore injustice in this world or been used as a red herring by oppressors to distract their victims. Capitalism ensures the strongest survive, but incidentally also ensures that the weakest suffer. And religion, no one can argue, has been the root of some awful atrocities, from the Inquisition to Mountain Meadows to September 11th. If we do as Joseph Smith (perhaps only in my mind) said, we can find plenty of validity in Lennon's accusations, and indeed we owe him and all others harmed by these institutions an apology.

Does this mean we should scrap all of these institutions? I concede that John Lennon was probably in favor of the idea. But I believe we can answer his critiques better by proving them wrong, by leveraging these institutions for good. While the institutions Lennon assails undoubtedly have been used for evil, I don't believe that they must be. They are not inherently bad, but they're not inherently good either. They are inherently powerful, and anything powerful can be wielded for good or ill. (Obviously, they are not necessary conditions for evil: terrible acts have been committed by atheistic and socialist and anarchist organizations in abundance too; bad people seem to use whatever ideology and tools at their disposal to be dastards.) The answer lies in the line from the hymn 'Have I Done Any Good?' that sounds like it could have been penned by Lennon: "Wake up and do something more / Than dream of your mansion above." Realize the strengths and weaknesses of every institution, then work hard to minimize the weaknesses and maximize the strengths!

Let's make sure our religion really is helping us "live for today." Let's not forget that Jesus himself was a harsh critic of dead religious practices. If our ordinances and meetings and doctrines aren't making us happier, we need to take a look at them and at ourselves. Let's let our belief in the afterlife be an impetus to make the presentlife more like that future paradise. Let's not believe that America can do no wrong, but also remember it's astounding potential. Too often Lennon is right about me and my life. But as I strive to live a Christlike life, I have experienced periods of the abundant life he promised. I find an answer to Lennon in the restored gospel of Christ, but it's an answer I have to continually struggle to give as I tend to lapse into the kind of life Lennon assails. That's why I'm grateful to Lennon for his eternally relevant admonition to look critically at all our institutions. I believe he would agree with Spencer W. Kimball that "People are more important than programs."

So the point is, 'Imagine' should be included in the next version of the hymnal.

* This comes from a Truman Madsen lecture on Joseph Smith that I listened to on CD on my mission. This would have been 5 years ago now, so I'm sure my memory has greatly mangled the quote. Any alert readers recognize it and can help correct it? I think I still have mp3's of it all, but I haven't had the time/inclination to listen through all 8 CD's looking for the exact wording. And even if he didn't say this, I believe it's true (and a post on the problem of appeals to authority may be coming up soon).

Monday, July 19, 2010

But what of Yellow?

I just started reading The Gift of Asher Lev, and at one point Potok happens to use the word "urinated." An earlier reader kindly marked the word with an asterisk and made a note at the bottom of the page reading
Oh how that made me laugh. God is good.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


I've been thinking recently about introspection and what a powerful thing it is. This has been brought on by recently re-reading The Stranger by Camus, creating a profile on the new, and a few other random experiences.

The Stranger is about a guy who lives life without any introspection or thought about what he is doing. He does what feels good and avoids what is painful or annoying, solely acting on instincts. He is not much different from an animal, really. After killing an Arab for no reason (for which he feels no remorse, of course) he begins to actually think critically* about life. He has a soul-shaping epiphany at the very end of the book as he realizes that not only does he not believe in God, he doesn't even care about the question; however, he succeeds in finding meaning in a moment of existential baptism after his anger with a priest who tried to get him to gain faith while on death row:
"As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself--so like a brother, really--I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate."
I love love love this ending! I could easily write an entire paper on it. No, I don't agree with his militant agnosticism, but it strikes me as important that he only becomes human, an agent unto himself, when he has actually looked into himself. His life has no meaning until he has searched his soul for meaning and forged it with his own will. He sees the world as alien and hostile, but he has a narrative, a purpose, a desire to act and not be acted upon. While I don't reach anywhere near the same conclusions as he does, the book got me thinking about how important it is to be looking critically at our own lives, thoughts, and goals.

I had similar thoughts as I filled out my profile on the revamped The new design is genius, as far as I'm concerned. [One of my favorite featured profiles was of Josh, a NYC skateboarder. I wish I could embed the video, but go here and click on the guy on the right with the beanie and Buddy Holly glasses.] The wonderful variety of voices come across as simply real. I have high hopes that it will be a wonderfully effective missionary tool.

But back to the theme of the blog post: I created my own profile (and I encourage you to do the same), and found it forced me to inspect my faith in a somewhat new way. I think about my faith and Mormonism in general multiple times every single day. But it was different to try to answer simple questions about that faith for an audience that knows next to nothing about it. What's the best way to explain "Why am I a Mormon?" or "What is a 'testimony'?" Putting my answers succinctly (or semi-succinctly...) into words made me stretch some spiritual muscles and think a bit deeper--or at least from a fresh angle--about what I really believe. It was a great experience.

These thoughts on introspection stem also from my budding appreciation for literary criticism. I've always thought that reviews of literature and articles on literary theory were pointless--just write good literature, don't write about good literature! But reading Eugene England's review (warning: long!) of Orson Scott Card's novel Pastwatch started changing my mind. For one, it is epic--the review doesn't even start discussing the book it's nominally about until halfway through (paragraph 28, beginning "Well, my main point today..."). England dissects Card's career not just from a literary, but also from a theological angle. He critiques, celebrates, and puzzles over Card's works, and then situates Pastwatch within that context. Another thing I loved about the review was that it was a work of literature in itself. No, it didn't use beautiful similes, introduce me to new characters, or other things I have always thought of as important to literature; it is admittedly a much more functional literature. But it was fundamentally creative. It interpreted a large body of work in an original way, it gave a framework for understanding a writer's books in a new way, it exhorted me to apply the atonement in my life. It went beyond a simple I-liked-this-but-didn't-like-this-and-I-gave-it-4-out-of-5-stars kind of review. It was a true response to literature. And this has gotten me taking works of literary criticism--which is nothing if not literary introspection--more seriously.

So finally, I'll tie this all up by mentioning how this blog has been an important vehicle for me to examine myself. I view it as a somewhat more public version of my journal where I actually re-read what I wrote at least once to edit it for a minimal level of clarity. As I type out what at times may seem drivel, I am thinking about what I think. Just as my profile doesn't come close to capturing the totality of my spirituality, just as literary criticism is probably as often fruitless as it provides useful insights, so all introspection is most valuable not in what it produces, but rather in the fact that the process is occurring. Essays about literature can't answer my questions about what makes good literature, but they can give some great do's and don'ts. My personal journal is more a reflection of a confused life than a well-ordered history from which I can easily pick out valuable life lessons, but it is therapeutic and empowering to create. Camus' stranger may have only found his humanity on death row, but how much better off will he be in the afterlife he doesn't believe in for it!

Moral of the post: introspect. Today, write in your journal trying to understand yourself, and don't worry when you don't. Today, take time to look in a mirror, not to judge but just to see. Tonight, read The Stranger and argue with the conclusion. But before any of that, don't forget to go do some fun missionary work on!

* I hate that the English word "critical" can mean both "fault-finding" and "analytical"; I am using it throughout solely in the latter use. When we analyze something--our lives, the scriptures, relationships--critically we may find some faults, yes, but it is not with that purpose in mind that we undertook the analysis. Rather, it is to better understand the subject in its entirety, warts and all.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

All are Alike unto God

Bruce R. McConkie commented on 2 Nephi 26:33, a scripture which says that the Lord "doeth that which is good among the children of men; and he doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men; and he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile."Elder McConkie said
These words have now taken on a new meaning. We have caught a new vision of their true significance. This also applies to a great number of other passages in the revelations. Since the Lord gave this revelation on the priesthood, our understanding of many passages has expanded. Many of us never imagined or supposed that they had the extensive and broad meaning that they do have.1
He was speaking, of course, two months after the LDS church extended the priesthood to include all male members in good standing, regardless of race. He was saying that the Lord had broadened our understanding of what it means for God to treat all his children equally with regard to the priesthood.

My question is based on the fact that the scripture not only says that "black and white" are equal in God's sight, but also that "male and female" are alike unto God. So, does that mean that at some point God will broaden our understanding of that same scripture even further to mean that women will have the priesthood in the same sense that men of African descent have since 1978?2 If not, why? Your thoughts?

I'm also including a quick poll so you can voice your opinion without having to explain it :)

1. "All are Alike unto God" - speech by Bruce R. McConkie at BYU 18 August 1978
2. For the purposes of this blog post, I'm not interested in thoughts on whether women already hold the priesthood in some sense after going through the temple, just in whether they will some day have the same ecclesiastical priesthood roles as men do today.

Friday, July 9, 2010

No, No, No, You're Not Alone

Feeling alone sucks. Which is why I think the MoHo Map (a MoHo is a Mormon Homosexual, btw) is such a cool idea.

All of the gay Mormons I know have said they felt at some point like they were the only Mormon who was attracted to members of the same sex. That kind of loneliness, as you can imagine, is oppressive. Homosexuality is a taboo topic among most Latter-day Saints except when we're strongly disagreeing with it. I think it is easy to see how a young Mormon guy who finds himself attracted to other boys can easily take that doctrinal position and feel like it is an attack on him personally (and sadly, sometimes our overzealous condemnations of homosexual activity do carry over into explicit condemnations of homosexuals). And feeling like you're the only one exacerbates the problem and too often leads to emotional scarring and/or suicide.

So the idea of the MoHo Map is simple: there are lots of gay Mormons out there. See for yourself! I know a handful of these guys, and each one is a great person. If you're gay or just curious about how many gay Mormons are in your area, check it out. I assume if you're gay it would be reassuring to see, and if you're straight it might be a little weird at first, but trust me, you've known gay Mormons all your life, you just haven't realized it. So let's all be more kind, tolerant, and overall, just a bit more Christlike!

They're working on adding functionality to put friends/allies on the map, and I'll be there to sign up once that happens.

Thanks to Abelard Enigma for the cool pic, and also check out the Moho Directory that he's put together: a listing of gay Mormon blogs that span the spectrum from fully active to fully former Mormon--I'm proud to be listed as a friend of the family.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Austin's Useless Dating Law

One of the best ways to find out if someone is worth dating is to break up with them. To see how they handle such a touchy situation as telling you they think your relationship should end--or, contrariwise, how they handle being told that--says a lot about that person's true character. Sadly, you can only find out about it after breaking up (hence the 'useless' in the law's name) but on the bright side I think it can help bring closure to a relationship. If they handle the breakup badly you can at least know that they weren't the type of person you really want to be in a relationship with anyways. And if they handle it well, you can be happy that you had the chance to date a good person and learn a lot with them.

I've been fortunate to have only dated people who have handled breakups quite well, and thus made me glad to look back on our relationships; I'm not sure I can say the same about myself.

[Hopefully none of my exes read my blog, that would be kind of awkward]