16 December 2015

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Senate Seat 10 - Vetting the Candidates

I've spent the last three weeks listening to and reading about the 9 Republican candidates for Senate Seat 10. I am going to list them in the order that I currently prefer them, last to first:

#9 Susan Pulsipher - Depth without breadth. Susan has been serving as the President of Jordan School District for the last five years and during that time has done a lot of good. When the subject is education, she brings a great deal of hindsight and understands the pain points of educators and parents alike. You know what that means for me? That she should keep doing that at least until her term is over. Keep up the good work, Susan!

I won't be voting for her for Senate Seat 10 because she does not have any coverage in really any of the other issues. Her most common statement to me when I asked her questions was "I'd have to research that issue more before making a comment."

#8 Hon. Rich Cunningham - More of the same. Rich has several endorsements from heavy hitters in the party. There are obviously several of our elected officials who would like to see Rich win this race. He has been serving in House district 50 for the last three years and has been a prototypical public servant to this point. When I spoke with him on the phone, he demonstrated to me his conservative voting record and his consistent communication channel with the members of his district.

Initially, his endorsements and his firm support of Aaron Osmond had decided things for me in favor of Rich. After the debate, though, he began to rub me the wrong way. I didn't like his staunch keep-your-hands-off-my-guns statement in response to a question about whether we should lift the shall-issue policy with respect to concealed carry permits. He doesn't seem to be for the free market when it comes to car dealerships and whether or not to break up that model in favor of allowing business to sell directly to consumers without government intervention. He has not convinced me that he sees his role as one of making the government smaller.

I did a bit of further research on Rich and found the following scorecard where various conservative think tanks rate members of Utah congress:

http://utleg.blogspot.com/2015/05/utah-house-scorecard-compiled-2015.html - Here, you will find Rich ranked in the bottom third with regard to conservatism.

http://www.utahtaxpayers.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/2015-Scorecard-Website.pdf - Here, you will find Rich ranked in the top third

http://sutherlandinstitute.org/uploaded_files/2015-Utah-legislative-scorecard3-30-153.pdf - Here, you will find him ranked near average

I think what this means is that Rich is a pretty average Republican and if you are generally happy with the existing thrust of the Republican party in Utah, then he would be a pretty good fit.

Personally, I'll not be voting for him.

#7 Mark Woolley - Looks a lot like Mitt Romney. I mean literally! If you took off the glasses; his face shape is the same, his hair color and style are the same. He has a background in Construction Forensics which sounds like a really cool field. Researching broken processes, etc. to see what went wrong sounds fascinating, which I suppose comes from my background as a software engineer and all the debugging I get to do.

Mark is a principled individual that doesn't seem to have the political depth that the other candidates do. I believe in his principles, but I didn't see him differentiate himself enough from the other candidates to keep me from picking between him and someone with more political experience.

#6 Jayson Teuscher - Young and upcoming. Jayson is (I believe) the youngest of the nine candidates. He has two children and one on the way, currently works as a lawyer for the LDS Church in their Riverton building. He is eloquent and passionate; he has a penchant for making sure the government is as small and as local as possible. In the debate, I agreed with nearly every statement he made. He has a much better grasp of technology than any other candidate and will use in more effectively during his term than the other candidates.

Which makes my ranking here so difficult and possibly the one that has given me the greatest pause. When  I talked with him at the Meet and Greet on December 9th, I asked him what the focus of his campaign was. He mentioned two things. The first was getting the federal government money out of the state budget. He stated that $3.5 billion of the state budget comes from government incentives, which he believes to be too much. I asked him what we should do and he said we should stand by conservative principles, not let the federal government enroach, and send the money back. I asked him what we would do in the mean time after our revenues had dropped 25%. He said that he thought the government would give the money to the state anyway or that we might have to tighten our belts for a few years while we adjusted.

This seemed completely unrealistic to me. It was this raccoon-clutch onto local government ideology that makes me think that Jayson is an excellent tactician, but a poor strategist. More time to grow and see a larger playing field is going to make him a much greater asset for our state down the road, but not today.

The second thing he mentioned was religious freedom. That caught be a bit off guard. If he were running for the US Senate, then I wouldn't have been surprised, but here in Utah? I asked him if he felt like the cause of religious freedom was under-represented in Utah or if not what was his motivation for running under the banner of religious freedom. While I agree with him that we need to preserve religious freedom, in this context, where it doesn't seem to be an issue that is really in trouble without some additional voices, his words came off to me at best as biased and at worst as pandering.

#5 Lincoln Fillmore - Education and Mr. Nice Guy. Lincoln is a really nice guy. He is principled and passionate. I believe in a room full of sycophants, Lincoln would be absolutely adored. He has a heavy background in education like Susan does, and he seems to really enjoy it there.

He has some interesting and unique ideas about what we could do give more control to the parents by creating parent-driven advisory boards at the neighborhood level.

This idea comes off to me as a bit naive. In the under-performing communities, struggling students come typically from under-educated parents. Parents of the struggling and under-educated are often at work *all the time* largely due to their own lack of education. They have two to three low-paying jobs to make ends meet, and they don't have the time to go volunteer on a board so that their "voice can be heard", etc. etc. I think that creating a board like this would likely make those families who already value education feel like their voice is heard more, but honestly their kids are already well taken care of by the current system and by their parents whether or not we introduce a platform for them to speak out.

I had a high school teacher who once complained that they only parents that come to Parent-Teacher Conferences are those whose kids are doing fine. The ones who are struggling, the ones whose parents he really wanted to visit with would never come.

There needs to be a better solution than "those who show up" or rolling out the ideal that these parents just need to value their kids' education more. We need ways that education, mentors, experts, tutors, information can be more widely available. Technology can give us that; I don't know that policy can.

Lincoln is also passionate about a few other things, but he just doesn't come off to me as an individual that is going to be heard in the legislative body.

====================
The individuals that follow I could honestly go either way with
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#4 Jay Cobb - John Stockton. Jay comes of as a hard-working, collborative purist. He's the lack guy on the court to give up the short shorts and he's the guy that folks look to for purely fundamental approach to the game. He ran for the nomination Congressional Seat 4 in 2012 against Mia Love, Carl Wimmer, and Stephen Sandstrom and clearly has a desire to bring his voice to the senate floor. Jay is a powerful speaker that draws your attention.

Jay is one who I am sorry to say I haven't been able to talk to personally, yet. We've missed each other at the Meet and Greets, I haven't seen emails from him, etc., etc. I did get to hear his position alongside the other candidates, though, at the debate. I also watched an interview with him on Youtube back from when he was running for the Republican nomination for Congressional Seat 4 back in 2012. What I noticed over and over was that Jay is not flashy (plus) and he doesn't really differentiate himself from the pack (minus) other than the way that John Stockton did by just going to work every day and getting the job done.

The only reason he's down at number 4 is because of the ways that the top three distinguished themselves to me over the last few days.

#3 Ed Loomis - Acerbic, sarcastic, but right. I've often said to my work associates that you can often get away with being a jerk if you're right. While Ed stops short of that specific label, I was reminded of the phrase when I listened to him in the debates.

He has a pretty negative view of the current legislative body. He started his campaign stating that the current promise of the Utah state government to its people is that we be members of the Jelly of the Month club. I take this to mean that he feels like what we are getting out of the government currently to be basically worthless.

Now, he is largely speaking in hyperbole except for on the topic of healthcare. Ed believes government healthcare to be an absolute mess and a total failure. He stated at the debate that "Avenue H is a laughing stock of the healthcare industry" and that $.70 of our government dollars goes to fund healthcare. I didn't verify those claims, but it is clear what would be first on his list to tackle.

What I liked most about Ed is that he was consistently able to summarize his thoughts about nearly every question in just a few words. That said, there were some places where I think folks expect him to have an opinion where he simply doesn't care. For example, he was asked what he thought of the UEA, an organization whose value several have drawn into question over the years, including my mother-in-law. He said: "I believe the US Constitution affords freedom of assembly, right? So if they want to assemble and unionize, then so be it."

He has very specific agenda items on several questions that were asked of him; however they can all be easily summed up with a few words "Ed believes in the free market." In fact, he might be so "free market" as to be a bit of an idealogue.

#2 Lynn Alvord - Sage, irritatingly accurate wisdom. Lynn has a background as an inner ear researcher. He puts a great deal of focus on a recent study of marijuana and its effects on the individual and on the public good in Colorado since its policy changes regarding its prohibition. There, he says he discovered the lack of scientific rigor that is being undertaken when it comes to important issues like this at the legislative level.

What I particularly liked about Lynn was the care he consistently took with me and at the debate to show both sides of the issue. He didn't get lots of overwhelming rounds of applause at the debates, largely because he never threw any red meat out to the crowd. Instead, he patiently and thoughtfully demonstrated that the issues aren't as completely black and white as we sometimes like to make them.

For example, one question was "Where do you fall on the sides of the public good vs. individual rights?" Almost without thinking, Ed Loomis said "individual rights". When it was Lynn's turn, he talked about his marijuana research and how it taught him that there is a balance. Smoking marijuana while driving (as an individual right) has shown to increase automobile accidents in Colorado (a negative impact to public good). I was very pleased with this response because individuals rights are not the sacred ark that we sometimes make them out to be. They are certainly an ideal to pursue, but so is the public good.

I also appreciated his position on immigration. I believe that there needs to be more forgiveness, more acceptance, and I believe there are major charitable and religious organizations who would agree with Lynn.

I find it interesting that he has an endorsement from Jake Garn, though I didn't get a chance to contact Mr. Garn to ask him why.

He is the strongest advocate of fiscal conservatism in the bunch and he has gone on record stating that he feels taxes could be lowered from their current levels due to existing surpluses. AFAIK, he is the only candidate who has done that thus far.

#1 Aleta Taylor - I'm really low on time now, so I'll be super-brief. Aleta has a long history of public service in various capacities, several of them having no glamour or fame or prestige attached to them. She served in each one with a hard-working I-serve-the-people attitude. She worked on the Mosquito Abatement committee (who does that?) and talks about the committee's accomplishments with pride (who does that??). Who likes talking about mosquito abatement?

She stated in the debate something that I've felt for many years, which is that true home ownership should be possible. We specifically moved into an area where there was no HOA because I didn't want to be beholden to one even after my house was paid off. The idea of getting to a point where the government wouldn't come after me for property taxes either was refreshing.

On the downside, she does a lot of name dropping, etc. I was turned off when she went out of her way to mention that she'd named her first son Reagan after President Reagan.

Recently, her emails have come out with detailed citizen committee plans that I really liked.

My wife was a county delegate before I was, and when I mentioned to her that I was really impressed with Aleta, she said "Oh, that's who I voted for last time!"

More to come if I find a second...

22 October 2015

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Tribute to a Favorite Teacher

A few days ago, on a whim, I decided to seek out an old teacher of mine, Mrs. Roberts.

Mrs. Roberts was one of my teachers during the 4th, 5th, and 6th grade. At that time in my elementary school, we had a pull-out program for accelerated learning. The full-time teacher would recommend a few students from her class and a couple of times a week, Mrs. Roberts would come collect those students and we would attend a class together with her.

This class was the highlight of my week. For better or worse, school always came easily for me--the first time I hit a real challenge was when I jumped from a Geometry in 1994-95 to Calculus in 1995-96 when I was 14. In this class, though, Mrs. Roberts had a way of getting me to think bigger about learning, education, and achievement.

I remember most of the class being about experiments. One time, she gave us each a washer on a string. She had us hold the string at the loose end between our thumb and pointer finger high enough in the air that the washer wouldn't touch the desk. Mrs. Robert's slid a sheet of paper with black crosshairs on it onto the desk, underneath the hanging washer.

Then, she asked us to think about the washer moving along one of the crosshairs without moving our fingers. To our astonishment, the washer started to move up and down along the vertical line!

She asked us how we could explain it. She asked whether we we're really performing telekenesis or if something else was happening.

On another day she had us look at figure and shadow pictures where the main picture is white, but there is also a picture in the black relief; the wine glass and faces illusion, for example, as well as several others. She asked us which picture--the black or the white--seemed to have a stronger pull on our minds, and what we thought that might mean.

On another day she introduced to us the idea of word play. She asked us how many ways we could think of to use the word "ring" in a sentence. The first ideas were out of our mouths in a flash: "ring the doorbell!", "the telephone ringing!", "a ring on your finger!". She could see that we were having a hard time "thinking out of the box", so she suggested "what about 'ring around the tub'?" She always had a way of getting us to see the world in a different way than it initially appeared.

Anyway, I remember one day when it was just Mrs. Roberts and I talking about a research project that she wanted me to do. She asked me what I thought would be a fun topic. Instantly, I knew my role, I was good at it: Figure out what the teacher wants to hear and say it. So, I said "something about math". I can still here the ever so slight hesitation in her voice when she said "okay, math." She wrote it down and then asked for more ideas.

I listed off a couple more school subjects, and, while I don't remember what she said, I was starting to get the idea that this wasn't what Mrs. Roberts was looking for. So I went another route with some different topics.

After about the 6th topic, I was pretty sure that I didn't get what Mrs. Roberts was trying to get me to say.

And then I remember this spark hit me like a bolt of lightning:

Wait a second! You're telling me that I can learn about whatever I choose?


The thought had honestly never really occurred to me. To that point, I figured that education was sort of this experience where teachers told you what to do and you did those things. I liked my view of education because I was good at it.

The idea that I should really, really, really pick for myself was exciting. And so I told her. "The Mind," I said. "I want to learn how brains work, how memory works."

She smiled. I raced to the library and found a few books. I remember reading two of them from cover to cover and loving every minute of it. I wrote a report, and I still remember several things that I learned from that experience.

In that moment, Mrs. Roberts helped me realize what education is about. It's not about jumping through hoops and learning cool academic tricks. It's not about sheets of paper and stamps of quality assurance as you exit the Education Factory. Its about finding your passion and diving into it, treating it like a painter treats his canvas or a musician treats his instrument, finding those who love it equally and building or discovering something new that no one else had or knew before. And, doing it because it's fun.

Mrs. Roberts taught me to love learning, and I thank her for that.

So, anyway, I called the school district she worked at and gave them my phone number. Today, Mrs. Roberts called me, and it was so much fun to reflect on those classes so many years ago. I told her what I told you and thanked her. Maybe you could do the same for a teacher who inspired you.

25 August 2015

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How Many Teeth Does The Tooth Fairy Pick Up Each Night in Utah?


Somebody asked me a question about my Tooth Fairy post the other day that got me thinking. How many baby teeth are lost every day in Utah?

I began with Googling. Surely someone else has thought of this and run some numbers, right? Lo, there is a tooth fairy site that claims that the Tooth Fairy collects 300,000 teeth per night.

That's a lot; however, when I ran the numbers, it started to seem awfully low.

Let's assume that the Tooth Fairy collects all baby teeth regardless of quality and we assume that all children lose all their baby teeth. The world population of children sits at 2.2 billion, with 74.2 million of them in the United States. Of those, approximately 896,961 of them are in Utah. This means that somewhere around .04077% of the world's children are in Utah.

If we assume that kids in Utah lose teeth at the same rate as all other children in the world and that each day in the year is just as likely as the rest to lose a tooth, then we have that of the alleged 300,000 daily collection, around 120 are collected in Utah.

No way.


That seems *way* too low! That means that of the 501 elementary schools in Utah, there is only one tooth lost in four schools a day. No way.

So, I decided to try digging up some numbers myself.

There are 668.3 million primary school-aged children in the world. I had trouble finding the same information for the United States, and for Utah, so I went with my already calculated .04077% and used it as a proportion, assuming that the proportion of primary school-aged children to other kids would be about the same throughout the world.

This gives us 272,472 primary school-aged children in Utah. Since I'm in the business of making sweeping intuitive-based assumptions, I will further assume that the average child loses nearly all of their teeth in elementary school, or, let's say, all of their 24 baby teeth and that they lose them at the same rate throughout those six years. This means that they will lose on average 4 teeth per year.

With 272,472 school children each losing 4 teeth a year, we have 1,089,888 teeth lost in Utah each year or about 3,000 every day. With 501 schools, this gives us about 6 teeth lost at school per day which seems more intuitive. The NCES states that the average number of elementary school kids per school is 523. If they are all losing teeth on average 4 per year, that means 5.7 teeth per day which is in the ballpark of 6. So, at least we are in the right order of magnitude.

So, now you can answer your childrens' penetrating questions with greater confidence. You are welcome.

More Silly Musings

  • Based on all of this, that means that an astonishing 7.3 million teeth are collected by the Tooth Fairy conglomerate every single day or 2.6 billion a year. That is a pretty big tooth palace.
  • If we assume that the one night that Tooth Fairy Rita mentioned in her letter was a typical night and that Rita is a typical Tooth Fairy, then there are roughly 30 tooth fairies assigned to Utah alone.
     
  • Of course, there is the problem of distance travelled. Certainly, the tooth fairy in Southern Utah will need to travel further distances to reach 100 teeth per night than the tooth fairy in baby booming areas like where we live. So, perhaps it is the case that Rita has a relatively high number of teeth to collect since her geographical area is smaller meaning that there are several more than 30.

23 August 2015

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A Letter From Tooth Fairy Rita

Our Tooth Fairy is very forgetful. And since she only gives 50 cents per tooth, we've learned over the years that she is also very "frugal" compared to other families' fairies.

Still, the kids seem to accept our Tooth Fairy in stride with all her idiosyncrasies. Sometimes the Tooth Fairy will forget to pick up the tooth for a couple of days and then bring money and some candy to make up for the delay. Sometimes she will leave a note under the children's bed explaining that she is "in training."

This time around, it was very interesting. Isaac, our second child, lost a tooth in May over Mother's Day weekend and proceeded to lose it. We were in Boise at the time. Isaac looked for the tooth everywhere, but to no avail.

We explained that if he would write a note to the Tooth Fairy, all would be well. He, like his father, promptly forgot about this for the next three months.

Then, three days ago, Isaac remembered and he wrote a note to the Tooth Fairy, leaving it by his pillow. Then the unthinkable happened: no Tooth Fairy appeared for two whole days! Happily, last night, Zac's Tooth Fairy sent a letter explaining the whole thing:

"Zac,

I must tell you of the amazing adventure I've just had arriving at your house tonight.

It began May 9th when the Global Untoothing Mobilization System (GUMS) alerted me to a tooth that had just fallen out of one of my childrens' mouths. Your mouth. It was one that I'd been monitoring for a few days now, making my plans to collect the tooth to add it to the picture frame that sits above the mantlepiece in my front room. There was a gaping tooth-sized hole in the picture frame from a tooth that had fallen out, and I thought "Zac's tooth is just the one I need to repair it."

I was out the door immediately, kit in hand. I, of course, had all the items required by the Tooth Fairy Federation (TFF)--rubber gloves, tweezers, platic bags, fairy dust--but about half way there, GUMS informed me that no tooth was under the pillow.

You see, tooth fairies typically leave their homes in anticipation of the tooth being placed under the pillow. If we waited until the tooth was actually under the pillow, we wouldn't be able to get all the children visited in one night who had lost teeth. So the TFF built GUMS as an early-alert system to help keep us on schedule.

When your tooth got lost however, GUMS started beeping at me with a fury indicating that the desired tooth was not under the pillow. As you know, rules are rules, so my trip was cancelled, and I was reassigned to other children for the remainder of the evening who had followed protocol.

My life as a Tooth Fairy went on as normal, though there was still that little gap in the picture frame. GUMS showed that you, Zac, still had several teeth to use and I was going to use the very next one that came out to repair the picture frame. Well, unless the next tooth were a wisdom tooth. Those are *way* too big, and it would probably poke out from the frame, creating a spot where things like coats and shirt sleeves would catch and people walked by. Fortunately for me, you are only 9, so I wasn't too worried about the next tooth being over-sized for the job.

And then, a few days ago it happened. GUMS happily chimed that Zac had just lost a tooth. As you know by now, I was out like a flash, your tooth among the many on my list to go collect. You hadn't placed it under your pillow as yet, but I had to leave right away with my list to get everywhere I needed to be in time.

When it came time to check your pillow, I saw your note. Up until this point, I did not know that your tooth had been lost. All I knew was that GUMS said that it wasn't under your pillow and that was that. This letter clarified a very important point about the whole thing.

Boy, oh boy, though, did it cause a *stir*. You see, your request was obviously very sincere. We fairies can see into children's hearts, and I know that you are a good and sincere boy. Besides, that was the tooth that I had always wanted for my picture frame! I phoned an old roommate from Tooth Fairy University that lives in Meridian and asked if he could go to your Aunt Laurie's house to check things out.

Of course, Carlisle, the tooth fairy in Meridian, was a bit put out, claiming that it wasn't his area of jurisdiction, it wasn't one of his children, and that he had a whole list of his own to take care of. I reminded him of how I'd helped him out in Fairy Physics class and that he owed me one. Grudgingly, he complied and did a brief fly-by.

He came back with bad news--he couldn't find the tooth anywhere. Now Carlisle is not the brightest dew drop on the morning flower, if you know what I mean. I asked him if he'd checked under the couch. "Yes." "In the couch cushions?" "Yes" "In the microwave?" "Why would it be there?" "You never know, its been a couple of months." "Okay, no I didn't check the microwave, you want me to go back?" "No, it's a long shot. Alright, thanks."

I realized that if I was going to get that tooth back, it was going to have to be me. I called the Tooth Fairy Federation Western United States Regional Chair to ask for my route to be redistributed so that I could make an emergency trip to Boise to get an LT (long tooth), or in other words, an old tooth that was never picked up. Old teeth are given some level of priority since they decay and if they aren't collected in time, they can become useless. On occasion, exceptions are granted, like when a very important person like Diana Ross loses a tooth, or a kid has an especially bad day and really needs the coins to cheer him up, or like when the Tooth Fairy is new and has missed a particular kid on his or her route for a couple of days in a row (I'm not naming any names, by the way, but I'm pretty sure that happened a couple of times with the Tooth Fairy assigned to your sisters. Just sayin...).

Calling for an emergency route transfer for an old tooth collection was a long shot. The regional chair said, "Nah, we'll just dispatch the Long Tooth Collection Squad like we usually do. Get back to your route." I persisted. This was for my child, Zac! I mentioned your note, and I made sure to speak of you in the highest regard. The character of a child is very important in the eyes of Tooth Fairies, you know.

"So, you want me to redistribute your entire route of 100 children across the entire Salt Lake Valley so you can fly up to Boise to collect one measly tooth?" "Yes, for a boy who is very important to me. He wrote this note, and he has a good heart." It was also because this tooth would be *perfect* to fix my picture frame, but I didn't want to mention that. Especially because it was the middle of the night and regional chairs tend to get pretty crabby when asked to make a change like this mid-route.

The chair sighed. "Look, Rita, just let the squad take care of it, okay? We'll deliver the money by courier like we usually do."

I was undeterred. "What if we didn't redistribute the route to other fairies? I will do the 100 I have tonight over the next two days along with my other stops so that I can head up to Boise tonight to find the other tooth. No other fairies need to be inconvenienced."

There was a brief pause on the phone as the chair considered it. "This boy is that important to you?" "Yes, sir." "Okay, have a good time."

Yes! I thought as I zoomed up to Boise as fast as my fairy wings would take me. Fairies can go fast, but, as you can imagine, Boise to and from is definitely an all-night job. I got to your Aunt Laurie's at somewhere around 2 in the morning and began my search.

It wasn't under the couch nor in the cushions. At least Carl was right about that. I checked the carpet within a 10-foot radius to no avail. I sat on the armrest on the couch to think. Where was Zac's tooth? I thought that maybe what had happened was that it got caught in a fold in your clothes, so maybe you carried it around with you for a little bit before it fell to the ground somewhere. So, I searched the carpet in the entire basement area. Still no luck.

I decided to start searching on the main level. My hope of finding your tooth was fading, but there were still many places to look. Maybe the tooth was picked up by the dog or something. Or maybe it got stuck in the grooves of someone's shoe as they walked across the carpet.

After searching for an hour, I flew into the kitchen to check the time on the microwave. It was 3:23 in the morning. I had been searching for nearly an hour and a half! The tooth just *had* to be here in the house somewhere. I decided it was time to go with my last resort. I pulled out my tool kit, snapped on my rubber gloves, and put on my safety goggles. I opened my knapsack of fairy dust and used it to open the cupboard, pull out a cup and quietly fill it with water from the tap. (This has to all be done very carefully so as to not wake up anyone in the house.) Then I mixed a small amount of fairy dust into the water and whispered a magical incantation that made the water glow blue. The last step was to heat it up.

Again with a small trickle of fairy dust, I opened up the microwave to place into it the cup of water, now glowing blue. I never actually heated it up, though. To my utter amazement, as I placed the glowing blue cup into the microwave, it shone against the back side of the microwave, and what did I see? Your tooth!

Defying all reason, your little tooth had waited at the back of your Aunt Laurie's microwave for who knows how long! I picked up the tooth, placed it in my knapsack, dumped the glowing blue fairy water down Aunt Laurie's drain, and flew back towards home.

The next two days were a blur of work, trying to catch up on all the missed little ones who had lost teeth. It was worth it, though!

And now, after two days of hard work, I'm happy to place money for both teeth under your pillow. Tonight, I'll be using your tooth to fix a picture frame that sits above my mantlepiece, and it is going to look perfect! Enjoy your quarters and keep taking care of your teeth! (Oh, and if you ever run into Carl, don't mention to him that the tooth *was* in the microwave after all. Okay?)

Sincerely,

Your Tooth Fairy"

Well, I'm glad that's settled. :)
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Deacons, Minecraft, and the Purpose of Life

Each Sunday, about a dozen individuals, myself included, volunteer to teach teens about life and choices in the context of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Somehow, this idea works on occasion. My area of responsibility is boys age 12-13, and I have between 12 and 15 of them that come to our weekly meeting, which means that it works less often for me than it does for those working with the slightly more mature strains of the species. I've been volunteering this way for four year now, and while the discussions are probably relatively typical of other groups of chaperoned 12-13 year old boys, every once in a while--like two Sundays ago--they surprise me.

What is the purpose of life? Minecraft, of course.


In these meetings, a boy moderates the roughly 45-minute discussion centered on a particular theme. This particular day, the boy moderator asked a question about what our purpose is in life. The boys quietly answered various things like the steady trickle of a leaky faucet. The answers, while true, were largely predictable; "To be tested by our Father in Heaven", "To learn to be like Jesus Christ", and whatnot. Eventually, though, one boy used an analogy that every boy this day and age can relate to: Video Games.

He said that the only games that he likes have a purpose or a goal and that purposes and goals are important to him. The other boys nodded in support acknowledging the familiar beat of a popular song. However, then a boy dissented: "I don't think that's true. Minecraft is a fun game and there is no purpose to it. Its lack of purpose is what makes Minecraft fun, you can just do whatever you want."

My eyes lit up. These are my favorite moments with the boys because they are on the cusp of seeing a larger more complicated world. I interrupted the conversation and said, "What do you think about so-and-so's comment? Is Minecraft a fun game?" The room erupted appropriately with boys clamouring to say what part of Minecraft they liked the best whether it was building traps or exploding piles of TNT or chopping down a tree with his bare hands.

Side Note: It's quite difficult to pull a group of boys back from a discussion about video games. It's sort of like padding a canoe upstream with a matchstick for an oar and molten lava for water. Not only is progress slow, things keep catching fire all the time. (Try camping with a bunch of scouts and then tell me I'm wrong.)

Do atheists have a point, then?


I quieted them down, yanking them from their digital reverie and asked, "So, what would you say to someone who used Minecraft as their analogy for, say, life? They say: 'I don't think life needs a built-in purpose to be meaningful. I like defining my own purpose. That's what makes life so fun.'"

Silence. A couple boys tuned out again, seeing that the discussion had gone back to the metaphysical, but some looked pensive like they weren't sure what they would answer. One boy captured the collective defensive consciousness of several in the room, dismissing the threat against his neat and tidy world by employing the simplest of boyhood axioms: "I'd tell him he's stupid."

God looked at the blank sheet of paper of eternity and drew us upon it.
Other boys offered weak attempts at defending the idea of a God-purposed life: "Life would be meaningless without a purpose," "it's different than Minecraft because you can't respawn" and again "that's just dumb."

I realized that this was a question that the boys could use some time to think about it, so I tabled the discussion, challenging them to think, ask their parents, and come back next week with how they would answer their friend who dismissed a God-purposed life.

A week went by, and I grew a little pensive myself. Was this too tricky of a question at their age? Would it discourage them from participating or from coming? I waited.

From the Mouths of 12-year-olds


Happily, come Sunday, nearly everyone attended. One of the boys even reminded me that I'd asked them to think about their answer to the question. (This isn't so common. Usually 12-13 year old boys don't remember unless I staple something to their foreheads. And call, text, and email parents. And verbally remind them the night before.)

We put the boys in pairs to share their answer first with a buddy in the room. Getting boys to talk in the first place is a bit of a challenge--wrestling a crocodile to pull out an infected tooth is also a challenge--so the buddy system is a good warm-up. It lets them test out the words and the idea on a single human being, like when I share business ideas first with my neighbor before I will anyone else.

Then, we went around the room, giving everyone a chance to weigh in with their idea. I listened apprehensively, like a father watching his son shoot a free throw at a basketball game. I prayed silently that the boys had found a way to walk further down the road than "well, he's an idiot".


The teleological argument. The first boy said that there must be a reason that the Universe was created because it was so amazingly perfect that it couldn't have come about by chance. Someone must have designed it, and He must have had a purpose in doing it. The is also called the Clockmaker argument. Most Latter-Day Saints who I know are very comfortable with this argument because they also proffer the idea that God can use science to create the Universe and that we are not bound by God's commandments to believe Youth Earth explanations to our origin.

The moral argument. Another boy said that there is no reason to be good if life simply ends at death. While his might sound a bit sociopathic (shouldn't we just love to be good anyway?), the boy's point was that the fact that we inexorably see something as right or wrong could be used as a proof of God's existence. Several boys chimed in with similar responses that our moral code derives from being created by God for a reason.

Pascal's Wager. One boy was clever enough to offer up Pascal's wager, though he didn't know he was saying it at the time. He said that even if there is no purpose, no afterlife, and no God, that our best bet is to act in faith that He is there. Pascal's wager places four possibilities into a chart like so:
     
Faith Faithless
God Heaven Hell
No God Doesn't matter Doesn't matter


This boy explained in 12-year-old words the same idea that if there is no afterlife and no inherent purpose to our existence or no implied creator, then there is nothing to worry about either way. The only column that has a negative consequence is to remain faithless.

It was a good discussion, and I told the boys how impressed I was at them having taken the question so seriously. (In my mind I was thinking, 'I did *not* have this level of spiritual court vision at 12 years of age!') I shared with them my own convictions about God's existence and our divine purpose while here on Earth.

So, do atheists have a point or not?


Later on, I was telling my wife this story, and explained to her I believe that there is an additional point of view that resonates with me. This point of view is that the "Minecrafter" isn't entirely wrong. Indeed, I believe that Latter-Day Saints accept this idea of defining one's own purpose deeper and more legitimately than any atheist that commits to it only until death.

Latter-Day Saints believe in an existence of Eternal Progression that extends beyond death. For those faithful to God in this life, such progression leads to us eventually becoming like God. The plan outlined by God is similar to what any father would want for his offspring: To eventually take on the same abilities and responsibilities that Dad has and does.

God* is not in need of our praise, our existence, or our purposes. He is  self-sustaining, self-existing, and independent. I believe that most theists would agree with me that God determines his own purposes. He gives us a hint to his purpose in Moses 1:39:

39. For, behold, this is my work and my glory to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.

But why is that God's purpose? I believe the answer is simple: Because He wants it to be his purpose. He looked at the blank sheet of paper of eternity and drew us upon it because it pleased Him to give us a chance to have His same joy and progression. If you are a mom or dad, you will recognize the same reasons in your own heart for why you had children.

If we are to become like Him, I suppose that eventually we will experience the same weighty and liberating responsibility of determining our own pathway through eternity. It's like Minecraft, but on an unimaginable scale of time and space.

Today, my purpose is to follow the path God has laid before me, knowing that it is a path that leads back to Him. There are plenty of areas where He is happy to allow me to choose my own purpose within the larger umbrella of things--my career, my spouse, my pasttimes--so long as it does not deter me from my main purpose to reach Him. Such exercise of free agency gives me practice for the much bigger (eternal) agency I am going to employ much further down eternity's road.

In reality, then, I have no problem with supposing that Minecraft may be an analogy for the value of defining our own purpose. Eventually, the only purposes left will be my own and my spouse's to whom I'm married for eternity. It simply needs to be looked at on an eternal scale to be worth while.

Wow. All of that thinking because of a question from a 12-year old. Thanks, man!

*Latter-Day Saints believe in the principle of eternal families and that God is an example of what we are to become. Thus, when I say God, I mean it in the plural: Both Father and Mother.

26 March 2015

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Posted in Arrangement, Art, Business

Sharing the Gospel with an Atheist

I recently engaged with a set of atheists in an online discussion that was born out of an article in the Huffington Post about some graphic comments that Phil Robertson made about atheism. Those of the atheist persuasion flocked to the comment boards to denounce Phil Robertson, Christianity, and religion in general.

Occasionally, there was a comment from a religious individual; however, most of the comments where somewhere along the lines "If Phil Robertson needs an imaginary friend to keep him from performing atrocities against fellow humans, he can stay far, far away from me!"

I saw this line often enough that I lost my ability to keep my mouth shut, and I decided to post the following (long) comment. I offer this because perhaps it will give a voice to other Christians who want to share their convictions online against the opposition of civil, well-meaning atheists:
Interesting thread; while I probably don't have much to offer, I'll put in my two cents.

I believe in God (I'm LDS); I believe that morality is eternal and exists outside of this material world. I also believe that God is perfectly moral, which has the logical consequence that whatever God does is morally correct. If their are faults among god-fearing people (me included), they extend from the fact that we see through a glass darkly. God has given us the edict to try and be like Him and we are all failing at it. IMHO, He will continue to work with each of us here and beyond until we reach our full potential as determined by exercise of our free agency here while we are away from His presence.

What does this have to do with whether something is wrong or not? In my opinion, it is largely about purpose and free will. Christians argue (or at least I argue) that without an eternal existence, there is neither. When I die, if that is the end of my progression, then there is little purpose that can be infused into this life, making my decisions matter very little. How much difference is there between the red ball and the blue ball when there is little light in the room? The analogy is simplistic, but if the red ball is the "right" choice and the blue ball is the "wrong" choice, while there is certainly a difference, unless there is light there isn't much point in distinguishing so.

Like others have said, I have no desire to go out and do horrible things to other people. Hopefully, I possess empathy. I thank God that He has granted me what empathy I have. Like the scriptures teach, I pray for the gift of charity and alongside it I do my homework to turn myself into a more charitable person. I do these things not because I fear judgment, but because my life and the lives of others matter, and I believe the more charitable I become, the more effective I can be at bringing others to Jesus Christ.

Were I to decide one day that God did not exist, I don't think I would go out on some sort of crime-against-humanity rampage, but I do believe that the lack of His light would cause the differences between the red and the blue to become more gray. Life would be more gray. Life likely wouldn't really matter: We'll all die anyway, we are complete products of our environment, etc., etc.

I believe that purpose (light) and thus clarity of thought with regard to morality comes from God.

I'm out of time, but a couple of quick thoughts: The notion that a Christian can be terrible and all he needs to do is say "sorry" to her "imaginary friend in the sky" is a charicature of real Christian repentence. I invite those who would like to understand this principle better to read "The Infinite Atonement" by Tad Callister and "Believing Christ" by Stephen Robinson. For comments about, "But whose God are we talking about?" I believe that tolerance and giving one another the benefit of the doubt is the answer. For comments about, "But what about people who lived hundreds of thousands of years ago, pre-dating religion? What about animals?", I believe that God has always been there, even 4.3 billion years ago. I know that God's purpose is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of His children, and to this point I haven't felt compelled to find out precisely who "His children" are, but I believe that Steven Peck has a great idea in his article about consciousness:  "The Current Phillosophy of Consciousness Landscape". And for comments about, "Woah, dude, that post is way too long," you're probably right; it's probably an indication that relevant philosophy and theology is hard to do on Facebook.
I waited a day and then got online to see if anyone responded. There was so much vitriol directed at Phil Robertson and one Christopher Mills that I was a bit nervous to scroll through. However, what I found was a very thoughtful comment from a David Becken who said:
@Josh Cummings You said: "Were I to decide one day that God did not exist, I don't think I would go out on some sort of crime-against-humanity rampage, but I do believe that the lack of His light would cause the differences between the red and the blue to become more gray. Life would be more gray. Life likely wouldn't really matter: We'll all die anyway, we are complete products of our environment, etc., etc."
It is just the opposite. It took me 47 years, 40 of it studying religion, the bible, science and history, then, at that age, I could no longer support such idiocy. I remember the very spot I was in when I realized "it just isnt true". I had the same feeling I had forty years earlier, when I found out there was no Santa. I was upset for a day or two, then I began to realize how good it felt to know the truth, and to not have to invest one more second in the lunacy. There is no evil in there not being a god, it is just what is. The evil is making people think they are working toward a reward that is not there, jumping through one hoop or another to please an non-pleasable god. I am not atheist because it is easier, or because I want to do bad things. Anyone who knows me will tell you I spend most of my time doing for others. I do it because I want to, not to please some imaginary big eye. Just because people want or need there to be more than what there is, wont make it happen. We have this one life, and it is better to know what you have to work with, rather than skipping over life here, anticipating something that isn't coming. If there was a god, things would be running way better than they are, and he would not need backwoods bigots like Duck Dynasty to do his bidding. Man has excused so much nonsense to keep people believing he is real, but it has about gotten to the point where most people are not going to fall for it any longer. It wont cause your world to go grey, it will make each day more valuable to you.
My anxiety subsided as I read what was a very civil comment, which I interpreted as an invitation for discussion. So, I responded with the following:
@David Becken: Thanks for your thoughtful and civil response.

A few questions come to mind; for each question, I'll share my view as well, but please don't let that hinder you from responding. Unfortunately, I've spent way to long on this response (my own fault), so I won't further respond on this thread. Thanks for making me think!

You said: "We have this one life, and it is better to know what you have to work with, rather than skipping over life here"

Do you feel that a belief in life after death causes people to give less value to this life than otherwise (i.e. to "skip over" it)? When I consider the weight that my choices here have on an eternal progression that stretches both directions eternally (e.g. a knot tied in the middle of a long rope is the typical analogy), it causes me to place *great* value on my choices. I realize that every interaction that I have with an individual has potential eternal consequences; in fact, the quote comes to mind from C.S. Lewis's "The Weight of Glory": "...to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship...". It's a long quote, and you can look up the rest with a Google search. This motivation to treat everyone as if they were honorable, charitable, just, etc. is increased by maintaining an eternal perspective, not decreased.

Another concern that I hear from folks about skipping over this life is in helping the poor and the needy. Some atheists I've spoken with worry that a belief in an afterlife causes folks to say "God will fix it in the afterlife" instead of hunkering down and doing what is necessary to help their fellow men. Those who do adhere to that principle, IMHO, misunderstood Christ's teachings which are that in life we have two commandments, love God and love your neighbor. We cannot achieve one without the other and he who claims to have one without the other is incorrect. Now is the life to prepare to meet God and that means standing for something, being good for something, etc. here while on Earth.

You said: "I had the same feeling I had forty years earlier, when I found out there was no Santa."

When you equate your belief in Santa to your belief in God, do you mean to equate the value that you gave to the truth claims attached to each?

Tragically, my wife and I have a funny disagreement on this point, but it makes for hopefully an interesting answer. I'm not very big on Santa Claus because I don't like that kind of make-believe. I'm okay with telling my children that Santa is like many other heroes and role models that we can find in the make-believe world. Make-believe characters can motivate children because of their impressive ability to blur the lines of imagination and reality. My wife disagrees, and so we sort of hobble along each Christmas trying to support one another in our differing opinions.

The problem for me is that the claims that Santa makes and the claims that Christ makes (speaking for Christians anyway) are completely (not just magnitudinally) different. If we step away for a minute from the similar aspect of being a good person under threat of punishment (coal in the stocking, eternal torment), I can see that Christ makes an additional claim about who we are as people which Santa does not make. As C.S. Lewis stated above and Spencer W. Kimball states elsewhere, we are "gods in embryo". It is important to me to distinguish for my children that it's not about behavior, it's about identity and to discard Christ for the same reason as discarding Santa is to miss that point.

You said: "There is no evil in there not being a god".

Would you say that this is a tautology? I thought that a tenent of atheism is that there is neither good nor evil. Please correct me if I'm splitting hairs.

You said: "I am not atheist because it is easier, or because I want to do bad things."

And I would also say I am not a Christian because it is easier/harder, or because I want to do good/bad things. Am I correct that the real reason you are atheist is because that is what makes the clearest sense to you? I hope that this is what we all do: The thing that is clearest to us. I appreciate Sam Harris, but I often disagree with his explanations; perhaps I am experiencing confirmation bias, but unfortunately we can't recuse ourselves from metaphysics. I really liked Timothy Keller's treatment of this in his book "Encounters with Jesus". Having looked at both, Christianity seems the clearest path.

You said: "he would not need backwoods bigots like Duck Dynasty to do his bidding"

Thank heavens we both agree on that! Has this kind of evangelism been your primary exposure to religious devotion? If so, I can see why you might make such a conclusion. Certainly, I find that the most extreme among any group are often the loudest. That's not to say that I can't see where Phil was coming from, but the logical fallacy of saying that because a single evil person feels justified in committing horrors because he denies God makes atheism wrong is the same logical fallacy of saying that because a single evil person feels justified in committing horrors because he believes God said so makes religion wrong. All Christians are trying to be like Christ, and we are all failing at it.

Also, why do you conclude that God needs Phil to evangelize for Him? I hestitate here because I'm probably splitting hairs with your words again. Certainly, Christ asked all of us to proclaim His gospel, and He certainly does tend to call on the weak things of the world, the salt of the earth, etc., but I wouldn't go as far as saying that Phil is one of God's chosen vessels.

You said: "If there was a god, things would be running way better than they are"

What leads you to suppose this? For example, is it born out of a belief that God is omnipotent? I've heard some atheists say that if God were there, because he obviously can't or won't fix X, then he's not worth worshiping. Is this your view?

This is one that I've pondered a lot, too. Evolution seems so heartless and ad hoc. Natural disasters indiscriminanty leave widows and fatherless.

I'm certain that I can't offer anything unique or novel to what you have already studied; however, it is my view that through the story of Adam and Eve, God teaches us that we live in a fallen world, and that there are certain laws that must be followed, e.g. free will, death, etc. given that circumstance. I've been asked before "why can't God create a rock so big that He cannot lift it?" While a silly question, it demonstrates that there are limitations and laws in nature, and God, in choosing to interface with us in the natural world, must adhere to them. I like the explanation in "Letters from a Skeptic" by Greg Boyd and Edward Boyd on pages 35-38. C.S. Lewis explains his view very well, too. I suspect that you've read these and more already on the topic.

Personally, I believe that if evolution is correct, then it is an amazingly brilliant system for producing intelligent life that has the power to seek out its Maker. Perhaps God, by allowing the agents He created to exercise their own free agency, He *is* fixing the problems and making us into gods at the same time.

All of the above probably sounds like a cop out to the devoted atheist; however, knowing that God has entrusted me with becoming like Him and helping others become like Him gives me greater motivation, context, hope, etc. than I would have otherwise.
I await David's response. Hopefully, because these are posted online, they can be a resource for others and perhaps motivation for an atheist to take another look at Christianity.

Note: I'll post any response I get from David or any other civil response here on my blog.