Friday, December 28, 2012

2012/2013 State of the Me Address!!

Time to get my house in order -- figuratively and literally!!!

Before re-reading last year's post, I was thinking that I hadn't done very well on my goals -- but actually it looks like I did quite well overall! Let's review:

  • Just Keep Swimming: Passed with flying colors!!
  • Work harder at helping my kids develop good study habits so that they'll eventually do their homework on their own: Well, at least my sweetie and I have developed good habits of making sure the kids get their homework done. And the kids themselves are making progress on their study habits, ever so slowly...
  • Encourage their independence in other age-appropriate ways: We did very well on this one. We got Nico a phone and his own key and public transportation ticket, and now he can ride on the tram and bus by himself!! This is a little ahead of the schedule we'd originally planned for him (that he can ride the tram by himself when he's 12 -- he's actually 11), but he demonstrated that he was really ready for it. And this is the kid who's famous for frantically searching for his adult supervisors if they go out of his sight for 20 seconds -- big improvement!!
  • Continue to get my stuff in order in preparation for moving to a new apartment: Better than that -- I actually succeeded in moving to the new apartment!! I'm not quite done organizing everything yet (a critical component of the basement shelves I'm building was out of stock, grr), but we'll be truly installed before the end of January. And -- unlike our previous apartment -- we've actually installed lamps instead of leaving light-bulbs on wires hanging from the ceiling, yay!!!
  • I have some things I'd like to write for Main Street Plaza: Whatever I was planning to write, I'm sure I wrote it, and then I went one better -- I actually configured my own Linux server to host Main Street Plaza and my other sites!! My sites may not look like much at the moment, but it's like with organizing the apartment: you have to organize the cellar first before you can start on the parts that people can see. So this is a work in progress, but it is making real progress.
  • Attend Sunstone: This one went great!! I had a blast!! As you may recall, I co-organized two panels and presented on a third -- plus launched Mormon Alumni Association Books, and I've put up a place-holder on my server for the website. My only regret is that I didn't have as much time as I would have liked just to hang out and talk to friends.
  • Keep studying German: This is the one I did the worst on. I would have to say that over the year 2012, if anything I regressed in my confidence in carrying on a conversation in German (which hit its high point while I was at German camp in the Summer of 2011). I feel like I've been adding to my latent knowledge and understanding of German, though (reading stuff all the time and contemplating novel words and grammatical constructions), and if I focus on it in 2013 (as I plan to), this may be my year to really bloom!! It's weird to think that I've been here in Switzerland for five years now (only two less than the time I lived in France), and I still don't speak German as well as I spoke French from the beginning of when I moved to France, twelve years ago... This will be my year, though, to get on the ball!

Overall, I feel like 2012 was a successful year for laying groundwork. I have the back-end of Main Street Plaza, and can build it into the site I want it to be. We've bought and moved into the apartment that we want to settle in -- until retirement if all goes according to plan.

And now 2013 will be the year of building something!! :D

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Happy Christmas to all!!

I think I may finally have to end my series on Christmas specials. :(

In the canon of Christmas specials that I used to watch every year as a kid, there was one left that I was planning to write about this year ("Frosty the Snowman"), but after racking my brain for a few weeks, I couldn't think of anything I wanted to say about it. The others were all thought-provoking in different ways (click on my Christmas label to see them), but I guess now I'm left scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Anyway, this has been an incredibly busy holiday season for me. We just moved to a new apartment on the 14th, and then the following weekend (a couple of days before Christmas), I hosted the Christmas dinner party of the ex-Mormons of Switzerland: 17 people and three dogs!!

Fortunately, everybody brought food. In fact, each household individually brought enough food for the whole group, so we had some fantastic leftovers! :D Holly's pumpkin-curry soup played a key role.

And, in case unpacking and getting moved-in and decorating (and shopping) for Christmas weren't enough to do, at my real job we released our new product just before everyone started the Christmas holiday Friday night -- a very cool new educational software package to help kids who have difficulty in mathematics. (The English and French versions are also done, and they'll be officially released in January.)

All of this is my excuse for why I didn't have time to follow up on figuring out this strange Germanic tradition of having the baby Jesus bring kids Christmas presents, and how that can work exactly...

I'll try to have more insights on it by next year! :D

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year!!!

Friday, November 23, 2012

More reader praise for ExMormon!!

This is from an email a reader sent me. I'm posting it here to my blog with permission:

I just wanted to tell you that I've just read Exmormon and that I've liked it a lot. It feels so realistic that I had to remember that you must have fictionalized parts of the story, and that anyway you couldn't have been each of the different narrators :-)

Also, I was actually surprised to find the story so engrossing, since I'm not usually so much into "people" stories (I'm more for the sf, "big ideas" kind). My initial interest was in the deconversion / leaving-religion-and-what-this-entails aspect of it, but I soon found myself simply caring about the characters and wanting desperately to find them again in each new story. I think you've written your book very well. Anyway, once I've finally started to read it, I couldn't put it down (can one say this for a pdf file?) and it was over in a couple of sittings. So thanks a lot! Now I'm suggesting to my wife to read it, too.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Rethinking Economics 2: Lessons from Switzerland!!

See here for part 1 on the private sector vs. the public sector.

Reading a post on a favorite blog, I learned that the far-right wing news outlet World News Daily recently wrote an article praising Switzerland and Sweden for having strong economies despite the current economic problems throughout the developed world.

Said the WND author: "Other governments could learn something." I agree wholeheartedly. I have learned some fantastic ideas from observing how things are done in Switzerland!! Mostly a simple point that absolutely can and should be applied elsewhere.

First off, what I learned is totally outside the box of the current Republican-Democrat polarized thinking in the United States today. WND naturally looks for interpretations from inside its ideological box -- but even on face-value that's a little absurd. Sure the Swiss political system is economically right-wing by European standards (though, still, practically flaming communists by American standards), but Sweden? Does there exist a country that is more Socialist? Clearly what we learn can't be simply that the Republicans' ideas are right and the Democrats' are wrong (or vice-versa). Maybe it's something else!

Now, I don't know much about Sweden, but Ed Brayton (linked above) points out that while they have low public debt, they also have one of the highest effective tax rates in the world, so maybe the lesson is to actually pay for government spending rather than repeatedly borrowing in order to cut taxes again...? Seems as good an interpretation as any. But, anyway, back to the country I know something about: Switzerland.

Before attempting to apply the Swiss model, it's important to understand the ways in which Switzerland is unique. The key point is that Switzerland is a tiny country with a ton of money. And the fact that the country is relatively less socialist than its neighbors is in large part the result of the wealth rather than the cause. How Switzerland became wealthy is a long and complicated story -- I'll just mention that the highly lucrative and questionable banking industry played a non-negligible role, and staying neutral during WWII didn't hurt either.

Then, when more people have the means to find their own individual solutions to things (like quality child-care and early-childhood education, for example), there's less push to find common solutions. So, for example, if you have small children and don't happen to be wealthy, you're better off in neighboring France.

But the interesting part of Switzerland's story isn't so much where the wealth originally came from as what they've done with it.

Switzerland supports an astonishing amount of scientific research. The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH) gets more than a billion Francs per year (a Franc is about a dollar), and several other universities in Switzerland have comparable budgets. In addition to hosting CERN (a multi-national nuclear physics research organization), there's also the Paul Scherrer Institute (which I have toured) -- full of particle accelerators as well.

The research performed at these institutions gets applied in real-world practical applications. For example, the Paul Scherrer Institute studies proton therapy, which is better than traditional radiation therapy for certain types of tumors. Additionally, ETH provides assistance for people to start their own companies based on research done there. I've seen how effective their programs are -- I work for one such company. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Also, remember how amazed I was by French public transportation? Well, Swiss public transportation is even better. If you haven't lived it, I can hardly describe how quick and convenient it is to go anywhere in the country (including wilderness) without ever getting behind the wheel of a car.

Additionally, Switzerland is a world leader in healthy, organic, sustainable agriculture, and a trend-setter in terms of buying local, seasonal foods (or, failing that, buying fair trade items).

In the US, economic health is constantly viewed in terms of consumer spending. But most of these consumer goods we're talking about are fundamentally disposable, and typically aren't even produced in the US. A wise economist once said that you don't pay people to dig holes and fill them back in again just to fuel the economy.

Suppose that one country (say, Finland) chooses to make education the top priority, and turns "teacher" into a highly-respected, well-paid, coveted position. Suppose another country (say, Germany) chooses to create incentives to power the country with solar energy. Suppose another country (say, Switzerland) funds world-class science research institutions, plus a super-efficient rail network, and creates incentives for sustainable agriculture. Suppose another country (do I need to name names here?) chooses to buy a mountain of junk from China.

All of these purchases fuel their respective countries' economies.

But at the end of the day, one of these countries has a highly-educated populace. One of these countries has extensive renewable power (and all of the security that goes with it). One of these countries has a robust and innovative tech industry, not to mention highly efficient transportation and a clean environment. And one of these countries has an enormous landfill and massive debt to China.

That's what I learned from Switzerland.

The US needs to stop seeing spending for the sake of spending as a good thing -- especially going into debt to do it. America's children would be better off if the American people could find the political will to make it a priority to spend wisely for the future.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Rethinking economics 1: the private sector is the only true sector

Blogger Brent (of "A Mormon in the Cheap Seats") wrote an excellent post for faithful Mormons about how social services for the poor in the US are more about levelling the playing field than about creating dependency. While I agree with his main points, one thing that has repeatedly struck me about recent American political discourse is that discussion of government social spending has been framed almost exclusively in terms of helping the poor (and whether they deserve it, etc.). Yes, keeping people from starving on the streets is an important component of functioning modern society -- but it's not the only role played by the public sector.

Let's take a step back and talk about some basic economics. In a modern society, most goods and services are provided either by the private sector (individuals, corporations, private organizations) or the public sector (government, at the local, state, or national level). Each of these two sectors has its advantages and disadvantages (as I discussed here). Any good American can tell you that there are plenty of goods and services that are produced a lot more efficiently by the private sector, motivated by private profits. However, it seems like most Americans are unwilling or unable to accept that there exist critical goods and services that can be provided better by the public sector.

I know this sounds crazy, but hear me out. I think the classic example from economics 101 is the lighthouse. In a costal city, no private individual or corporation profits enough from the lighthouse to pay the entire cost of building it, but the entire city profits from the trade that is made possible by affording ships safe access to the local harbor.

A modern society has a lot of lighthouses (metaphorically speaking). Scientific research is a big one. Technology a cornerstone of modern industry, and scientific research drives technological advances. However, the private sector is horrible at scientific research because the profitable kind is the kind that sets out to prove "my product works and is safe". I assume that I don't have to explain that if you set out to prove a pre-selected conclusion, at best you will get something that superficially resembles science, but without the accuracy.

Another lighthouse is education. A modern society benefits from having an educated populace. However, there are (at least) two big ideological obstacles to having successful public education in the United States. The first is that people seem to believe that public education is some sort of "entitlement" -- which, in Americanspeak, means "Some free-loader getting undeserved money, goods, or services on somebody else's dime." The second is a pervasive American belief that the government can never do anything right.

This belief is so pervasive that many Americans aren't even aware that it is an assumption that they are making. For example, if the government provides some service badly (say, for example, public transportation) many Americans will immediately conclude that the problem is that the government is inherently incompetent -- rather than looking beyond that idea for other causes for the particular problem, or looking for examples of other governments that have provided the same service well (for possible ideas to emulate).

It surprises me how many people take it as an unquestioned article of faith that "we need to cut the government smaller." Regardless of what the problem is, that's always the solution. Now, certainly, there exist countries that absolutely would benefit from cutting their government smaller. But in the United States, after many decades of acting on this belief, maybe more random hacking at it (solely for the purpose of making it smaller) isn't helpful. Why not change to insisting on competence? Insisting that what the government does, it should do it well.

I know that "government regulation" is a dirty word in American English. But I would like to make the radical suggestion that while it's possible for government regulations to be done badly (causing inefficiency), it's also possible for government regulations to be done well -- achieving desirable goals for your society.

I saw an interesting illustration of this idea in a recent article in Bloomberg Businessweek. (Why was I reading Bloomberg Businessweek? Somebody left a copy of it in the train, and it turned out to be surprisingly interesting...) Anyway, the thing that struck me in the article was that in the US, government regulations are/were preventing people who want solar energy from installing it, whereas government regulations in Germany were instrumental in building a huge (largely private) investment in a solar network that is cost-effective, despite Germany not being a particularly sunny country. And the US public utility companies looking out for their short-term profits were a large part of the problem, so privatizing (a popular solution to government inefficiency) would do the opposite of helping. It's time to expect government competence instead.

How did Americans come to believe that the private sector is the only true sector? Here's my guess:

The cold war had a huge impact on American thought. A lot of what it means to be American is tied up in being the opposite of the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union crumbled from within, it was almost universally interpreted by Americans as proof that the American way is the right way and the Soviet way was the wrong way. And this leads many people to the conclusion that the public sector is always wrong and the profit-driven private sector is the only true sector of the economy. (A secondary/related factor: too many educated people mistaking Ayn Rand novels for Economics textbooks instead of taking an actual Economics course.)

The problem with that logic is that just because having the entire economy run by a centralized public sector doesn't work, that doesn't imply that having the private sector run the whole economy does work. The culprit may well be a lack of balance. Indeed, the US seems dead set on becoming the example to illustrate that leaning too far in the other direction doesn't work either.

See also part 2: Lessons from Switzerland!!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Nerd-hobby time again!!!

So, I've been busy with my nerd-hobbies again!!

My kids (especially Leo) and some of their friends from school love playing Minecraft together, so I thought it would be fun if they could play together online across the Internet. Plus, I thought it would be fun for them to play online with their cousins across the ocean. So I set up a Minecraft server for them on the Internet!!

I figured that I might as well make a second server (for my blog friends, see here) since setting up two minecraft servers is as easy as one...

The funny thing is that setting up the server was almost as much fun as playing!! (I wrote about it on my professional blog.) I signed up with linode, and (I'm not being paid to say this) I totally recommend them -- their service is great!

For my work, I have to maintain some server applications running on some Linux machines, and it's fun to have my own little (virtual) Linux machine out there in the cloud that I can run hobby stuff on! Soon I will figure out how to migrate the Main Street Plaza blog to it.

And -- in case that isn't nerdy enough -- here's another episode of my Star Trek parody series!! This is one of my very favorite episodes, even though I'm hardly in it. It's the one where my little sister plays a child-genius who invents a new life form, which, naturally, escapes and wreaks havoc...

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Yeah, this is about where I'm at with Obama...

This article (which I found through Kuri's very cool good reads series) expresses where I'm at with this year's US election:

I am not a purist. There is no such thing as a perfect political party, or a president who governs in accordance with one's every ethical judgment. But some actions are so ruinous to human rights, so destructive of the Constitution, and so contrary to basic morals that they are disqualifying. Most of you will go that far with me. If two candidates favored a return to slavery, or wanted to stone adulterers, you wouldn't cast your ballot for the one with the better position on health care.

I used to say that at least Americans' belief in the Constitution ensures that they will fight for the rights outlined in the Bill of Rights. The Constitution should protect us from tyrannical government actions such as capturing people and holding them without charging them with a crime (and giving them a fair trial), such as unwarranted surveillance, and such as extra-judicial executions through a secret committee that selects supposed enemy combatants for assassination. But the Constitution can only protect us against these things if we insist that it do so.

I want to like Obama. I read his book and endorsed him because he seemed like a smart guy who could get the job done. And he supposedly was going to put a stop to the unconstitutional actions and human rights abuses of the previous administration. But by being the bi-partisan compromise guy on issues like torture, he creates strong unconstitutional precedents that will now be very difficult to ever roll back.

On the other hand, the main thing I learned from my foray into Naderism (and its GWB consequence) is that -- no matter how bad things are -- they can actually get unimaginably worse. There isn't really a rock bottom to hit where we can reasonably say "we can't go any lower than this" until our species is actually extinct.

So I'm not sure I want to encourage protest votes or abstaining from voting because God only knows what might happen next...

Saturday, September 22, 2012

How to understand Israel from comic books alone

As anyone who follows this blog knows, I love reading autobiographical comic books that are set in other countries. I don't know much about Israel, but during the past couple of years two interesting graphic memoirs came out about people's experiences in Israel, so, naturally, I bought 'em, read 'em, and learned a thing or two!

The first book is Sarah Glidden's How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less , and the second was Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City by Guy Delisle.

Glidden's book is a memoir of her Birthright Israel trip, beautifully illustrated with watercolors throughout. First thing I learned: just for being Jewish one can get a free 10-day, all-expenses-paid trip to Israel!

Glidden's story isn't so much about Israel itself as it was about how young Jewish-American liberals feel about Israel -- also an interesting topic, BTW:

I found the book a little frustrating, though, because she set off with the express intention of confirming her belief in the pure black-hearted villainy of Israel, and her grand epiphany was that it's more complicated than that. Well, duh, it's more complicated than that. If the situation were simple, the conflict would be resolved. Yet, weirdly, she seems taken aback to discover that Israelis have justifications for some of their controversial actions:

Glidden did a lot of interesting research before her trip, and told some great stories about the things she saw matched up with her expectations (or didn't). Yet, there's a limit to how much insight you can gain from a 10-day guided tour, and in the end I was mostly just glad not to have so much emotional baggage around such a complex and important issue. (Of course I'm sure I have equivalent baggage surrounding other equally complex and important issues...)

Delisle, by contrast, spent a year living in Jerusalem where his wife was working for Doctors Without Borders:

Delisle identifies as Christian (he's a francophone Canadian), but he mentions in the story that he doesn't believe in God. (Glidden also mentions in passing that she doesn't believe in God.)

His occupation for that year was a combination of stay-at-home-dad and comic book author/artist -- in particular keeping his eyes open for interesting stories in his surroundings. I had an easier time relating to him since he came upon subject of Israel without a lot of preconceived ideas, just looking to learn what he could. And it was actually kind of fun simply to encounter a story in which a man has to juggle his childcare obligations with trying to find time to do his own projects.

Delisle met tons of fascinating people during his stay, and saw some remarkable things. He taught comic-drawing workshops to a variety of students -- Palestinian as well as Israeli, and the contrast is pretty amazing. He visited Hebron multiple times, guided by people on all different sides of the conflict. He met Bedouins and Samaritans. He met people who were separated from their lands and livelihood by the wall (as mentioned in Glidden's comic above). He watched the Doctors Without Borders mobilize during an armed conflict in Gaza -- and much more! And all of the characters and stories were fascinating and surprising.

ETA: also often entertaining and funny. I hesitated to write that the first time because so many of the situations are serious -- yet the human condition is funny, often even in tragedy.

I have to admit I liked Delisle's book better -- it gave a more extensive and varied portrait of the lives of different people living in Israel and Palestine. But I heartily recommend both of them, not just to learn a thing or two, but as interesting human stories.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Children's memories of childhood

The other day Nico and Leo were talking about what they remember about living in Bordeaux. They were both born in Bordeaux, and lived there until they were 6 and 4 (respectively). Now they're 11 and 9 -- and soon we'll hit the five-year anniversary of our move to Switzerland.

Leo said he only remembered three things from Bordeaux: (1) The chocolate croissants (this is one of the most fantastic things about living in France -- every Saturday and Sunday morning we would walk a couple of blocks to the local bakery and get a big bag of fresh-baked croissants and a loaf of bread), (2) The dog-poop that we always had to watch out for on our way to the bakery (this was pretty memorable for me, too, see merde, alors !), and (3) That we had a toy house inside our house. In the kids' room we had one of those plastic toy houses that's big enough for little kids to play inside, but gave it to friends when we moved to Switzerland. I don't have a picture of it, but here are some pictures of our old house.

Nico remembered a little more. He said he vaguely remembered his school (though he couldn't remember any of his teachers or friends), and he remembered the local crêperie where we used to go to have crêpes for dinner. (Then he remarked that he can't wait until we go to Paris again so we can have crêpes with whipped cream.)

It's very cute when they ask about what happened when they were little. When Nico was barely old enough to walk and talk, he loved cars. We would walk all around Bordeaux looking at all the different cars, and Nico could identify a number of different makes and models. Now, not so much, but the one constant has been that he loves anything that has a long list of different variations that he can draw elaborate charts of.

Leo asked me a few months ago what he was like as a baby, and I told him (truthfully) that he was a hugging maniac. He was the sweetest, calmest baby in the world as long as I was holding and cuddling him, but he absolutely would not tolerate being put down by himself even for a second. Fortunately, when he was a tiny baby, I had the opportunity to work from home (writing my first Java book), and Leo was resting on me essentially the whole time I was working on it. And he has remained incredibly affectionate to this day. He's the huggingest little 9-year-old boy you can imagine.

I feel like I should go through all of our old family photos and make an album of them. One weird problem of the digital photo age is that all our photos are in some hard-drive somewhere, and the kids almost never see them. They'd probably remember their earlier adventures better if they were reinforced with photos.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The only thing worse than people talking about you is people not talking about you...

My mom used to say that anyway -- and that's the attitude I'm taking towards some news I discovered the other day. Apparently there's a new journal of Mormon Apologetics, and they devoted some space in their inaugural issue to calling my blogs "childish rubbish" and "bit raunchy and as lacking intellectual content."

Hard to believe they bother to publish claims like that about little ol' me? Well, you can read all about it on my latest Main Street Plaza post.

And -- for those of you who aren't interested in such frivolity -- I uploaded another episode of the Star Trek series I starred in!!! This is a funny one involving a Tholian plot to steal my pet hamster:

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


Here's a fun new movement that's hit the atheosphere recently: A+: atheism plus social justice.

As you probably already know, the words "atheist" and "atheism" simply mean "lack of belief in a god or gods" -- thus, if someone identifies as atheist, that doesn't mean that the person necessarily agrees with me on any other point. Yet, it seems like most atheists I encounter actually do hold a lot of additional beliefs in common. I generally use the term "Humanist" to describe my positive philosophy, but I agree with Jen McCreight that there's room for an additional term because a movement that's not totally identical with Humanism has grown around atheism.

Now, I know this idea has been born of controversy, so I decided to take a closer look at the controversy before signing on. Specifically, VJack at Atheist Revolution has provided some thoughtful dissent. The most prominent spokespeople for feminism within the atheist movement have been accused of bullying and of engaging in group-think.

Is it true that there are people committed to seeing women and minorities as full-fledged members of the atheist movement, but who are getting bullied by the prominent feminist-atheists? If so, that's a problem, and would make me hesitate to join their new "A+" movement. Fortunately, VJack gathered up a list of such accusations (from various blogs) so we can asses the charges.

Here's my assessment of the posts on the list:

This post had some good constructive criticism. The others weren't too impressive. They failed to convince me that they're committed to stopping sexism within the atheist community (or even that they're opposed to sexism at all). Among them, I found a claim that sexism is a trivial issue, derisive remarks about feminism, and even a guy accusing a woman of getting published only through gender-based affirmative action. Nice.

So, I didn't find a conflict with two sides, both opposing sexism, but one side full of group-thinking bullies. It looks like is is a genuine philosophical conflict over whether it's good for the atheist movement to be a boys' club. Guys, don't be on the wrong side of this.


(see also: DJ, please fix this genuine problem. If women state that they were sexually harassed at a conference, that doesn't make me think that harassment is a widespread problem at the conference. However, when the organizers respond -- not by enforcing rules against harassment, but -- by telling the women they need to shut up about it, that makes me think there may well be a serious problem.

"a small number of prominent and well-meaning women skeptics who, in trying to help correct real problems of sexism in skepticism, actually and rather clumsily themselves help create a climate where women — who otherwise wouldn’t — end up feeling unwelcome and unsafe." Wrong. When women's legitimate concerns are dismissed and ignored, that helps create where women — who otherwise wouldn’t (like me!) — end up feeling unwelcome and unsafe.)

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Back in Switzerland, and back to my usual fun!!

The fund-raiser for Camp Quest got off to a slow start, but seems to be picking up. Like last time, various bloggers are pledging to do silly stuff if our team wins. I agree with that on principle, but I'm not that good at it myself.

I should pledge that if we win, I'll dress up as a Vulcan/Romulan Federation Starship captain and battle my own Romulan evil twin!! And post it to YouTube!! But, of course, I already did that:

And, while I'm at it, I could also pledge to design the coolest Minecraft castle ever!!! And post to YouTube all about how I did it!! Of course, I already did that, too...

Anyway, Camp Quest is a good cause, regardless of whose team wins. :)

Monday, July 30, 2012

My Vagina Testimony!!

This is the presentation I gave for the "Vagina Testimonies" -- a Mormon version of "The Vagina Monologues" -- at the 2012 Sunstone Symposium.

I'd like to bear my testimony that I don't believe in chewed gum and licked cupcakes. And I never did, not even at my most Mormon.

Mormon kids learn some very interesting lessons about sex. For one thing, they learn that doing it is a sin next to murder, and that even thinking about it -- even wanting to do it and imagining it -- is almost as bad as actually doing it.

Girls get the additional message that sex somehow uses them up. That the act of sexual intercourse somehow transforms them from being a pristine, fresh-out-of-the-wrapper stick of gum to being a wad of chewed-up gum, or from being a pretty, fresh cupcake to being a slobbery, disgusting cupcake with all of the delicious frosting licked off.

I totally believed and internalized the first message, that feeling lust means you're an unspeakably shameful sinner. I spent many years as a kid cowering in the closet of shame for the crime of entertaining the occasional sexual fantasy -- and enjoying it -- instead of putting up other actors on my mental stage, as we're taught that righteous and holy people are supposed to be able to do.

I never bought into the other message, though. I'm not a cupcake at all, licked or otherwise, I'm a person. Any guy who would seriously consider the hermetic seal on my vagina -- and the ignorance that seal implies -- to be an important part of what makes me a good partner for love or marriage...? Screw him. He's an idiot. That's great that he doesn't want to marry me because the feeling is very mutual.

I know a lot of women consider an invitation into that sacred space to be one of the greatest gifts they can give. Allowing another flesh to enter your body is, for some, an almost life-altering big deal. And as I've listened to other women's stories, I've come to understand that that feeling isn't entirely the result of bad lessons about chewed gum and licked cupcakes. We all have our different perspectives and experiences.

However, for myself, I have always felt empowered by my natural inclination that it's not that big a deal. Sexual intercourse (and here I mean traditional vaginal penetration) can be a wonderful pleasure. It can be an expression of love. In some circumstances it can be something bad. But it doesn't represent handing over some essential part of myself to another person -- any more that a man is permanently diminished by giving me his essence, or whatever the metaphor would be if our social prejudices were reversed.

By the time I entered Brigham Young University at age 17, I was convinced that the church's teachings on sexuality were totally wrong. I saw sex as something playful and fun; something that might be part of a relationship, but not necessarily.

One of my freshman dorm-mates from Budge Hall told me about a game she'd played in her naughtier days called "I never." Basically, a group of people sit in a circle and take turns saying "I never did X," and everyone who has done "X" has to take a drink. It sounded amusing, and since most of the X's were obviously about sex, it kind of inspired me to make my own game of having sex in unusual places.

In particular, I had sex with a boyfriend in the bathroom of the BYU library and with another in the annex of a BYU chemistry lab. (I know I'm admitting to having broken the honor code -- and I've discussed that decision on my blog here.) Later locations included a cave, a boat, a stairwell, a bank vault (to have "safe sex"), a convent, and probably some other places I don't remember. And yet, after all that, I never got around to playing "I never"!

That's your cue to take a drink.

When dating, after I finished with BYU, I always made a point to have sex as early in a relationship as possible, generally on the first date. On my blog I wrote a number of semi-serious reasons for this: for fun, for efficiency, for the element of surprise, and to weed out guys who disrespect "sluts" and/or who don't actually want to have sex with me, for whatever reason.

It was also because I didn't like the dynamic I'd observed in chaste dating relationships, where sex is this giant elephant in the room; a relentlessly ever-present objective/anti-objective that places all other activities in the shadow of thinking about what you're not doing. I felt like it was better just to do it, and have a clear head to relate to each other as humans while deciding whether the relationship is one you want to pursue.

Today my attitude hasn't substantially changed, even if my behavior looks quite different. I've been happily, monogamously married for more than eleven years. I choose to be monogamous -- not because extramarital sex is a sin -- but out of love and respect for my husband. Even if sex doesn't transform me, it's not totally devoid of emotional consequences that could affect our relationship, and my adorable sweetie is now the only one I want to be with.

I hope that my example shows that a girl -- regardless of what sexual experiences she may or may not have had -- is not a cupcake or a stick of gum.

I say these things in the name of all that is good and chooses not to be holy, amen.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Fun at Camp Quest Minnesota!!

It's time for Summer camp, and I just got a chance to visit Camp Quest Minnesota!!

Camp Quest is a week-long secular camp for kids, full of friendship, fun, and learning -- this year's Minnesota theme is the ocean, especially the deep sea! The Chaplain wrote a good post explaining what Camp Quest is all about, so to avoid repeating what she wrote, I'll mention a few points I learned on the tour I got from the director Jeannette (who, BTW, was kind enough to mention that she read and liked my book):

Camp Quest Minnesota is one of the first Camp Quest locations. They get campers from all over North America, but lately a higher proportion are local since more camps have been opening. Nonetheless, the Minnesota chapter just keeps expanding -- this year they had more than 50 campers, essentially filling the camp to capacity.

I asked if they'd perhaps move to a bigger location, but they're happy with the current facility, the Voyageur Environmental Center (which runs its own camp for kids for the rest of the Summer). Instead, they'll probably expand to offer two separate weeks of camp.

Now, you may have heard that "Camp Quest was specifically designed for children of Unitarians, atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, humanists, or whatever terms might be applied to those who maintain a naturalistic, not supernaturalistic, world view." Jeannette mentioned her pet peeve is that the press constantly labels it an "atheist camp" (which probably causes some people to imagine it is some sort of indoctrination camp, parallel to Jesus Camp).

However, it is not an atheist camp, it is a secular camp -- which means the kids are encouraged to choose their own labels or choose not to label themselves as they see fit. They are encouraged to develop critical thinking skills and also develop respect and friendship for people they may not entirely agree with. The bottom line is curiosity -- encouraging young minds to explore!!

OK, so I'm wearing an atheist T-shirt in this one -- but I'm on vacation, and it was the only clean shirt I had left!

My kids liked it too -- I may be sending them here in a couple of years.

Though I hope the bear is not representative of what they'll run into here...

Opening up these sorts of camps around the country (plus some international) isn't free -- there are big start-up costs in addition to the standard operating costs. That's why we're having a fund-raising competition again this year -- PZ Myers vs. the horde!!

Last year the horde won -- and as part of the bet, I was supposed to get my Mormon relatives to sing some select tunes from The Book of Mormon (the musical) during our big family reunion.

Unfortunately, it didn't work out because we didn't have the community center rented long enough to do a sing-along after the talent show. So, my apologies for not following through -- and I hope to make up for it by helping raise some more money for Camp Quest this year. Please consider making a donation!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

My great big Mormon family reunion!!!

For the sake of having a fun story to blog, we should have had an embarrassing disaster or at least some awkward discussions of religion. But for the sake of the family, I'm glad the whole thing went smoothly -- more than smoothly, even -- fantastically!!

This isn't even everybody.

It's all the more astonishing because we had 67 people in attendance (out of the 98 descendants + S.O.s of my Mormon grandparents). It may not sound like much, but 67 is a lot of people. And these folks are normally spread all across North America and the whole world -- and most hadn't seen each other since the last reunion, 10 years ago. Some were new, and were meeting the extended family for the first time.

As for religion, about half of the adults in my generation (my siblings and first cousins) are former-Mormon or never-Mormon, and about half are believing/practicing Mormons. But as far as I could tell, neither side was judgmentally looking down on the other or trying to impose one set of beliefs and practices on the whole group. Our family absolutely came first -- before any kind of ideology -- because we genuinely wanted to see each other and reaffirm and reestablish our family relationshps.

Personally, I wanted to facilitate building memories for all the kids who are too young to have attended the last reunion so that the cousins wouldn't just be "some people my mom and dad know" to them. And I think this goal was passed with flying colors.

The religion question never took center stage. The time and address of the services of the CoJCoL-dS were listed on the schedule, as well as an alternate gathering at the amusement park of the Mall of America (some of the faithful opted for the latter). There were also some (pretty tame) evening drinking parties -- including one at my parents' house! And there was a huge, fun talent show in which all the kids really hammed it up!

My "talent" was designing this fab reunion T-shirt

The day after the extended family left (and we were down to my own parents, siblings, and nieces and nephews), we had a big family meal that began -- in traditional Mormon style -- with a prayer. It was at that moment that it hit me that we hadn't had a single whole-group prayer for the entire reunion. This is kind of unusual for a Mormon family gathering: normally some meal would have a prayer or some event would open or close with a group prayer, even if some of the members of the group are not believers.

Yellow team rules!!

This is partially because my nevermo sister-in-law did all of the leg-work to organize all of the venues, all the food, all the financial accounting, etc., and made sure (through delegation or, if necessary, doing it herself) that everything that needed to get done got done. And she didn't have any particular reason to schedule in any group prayers.

It's also partially because there were so many people (including so many little kids) that it is hard to get everyone to quiet down and be reverent for a prayer. Some big Mormon families would manage it, but you have to really want it in order to manage it, and this group was more focused on making everyone feel welcome and comfortable.

This is everybody.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Save the humans!!

"Save the Planet" -- as a rallying cry for environmentalism -- has got to be one of the most tragic cases of mis-branding I know of.

When there's a choice between things you want or need now vs. "the planet" or "the environment", it's too easy to say "I don't care that much whether this or that species goes extinct," or "the planet can fend for itself."

The thing is, though that "the planet" isn't really in danger. It's going to keep revolving around the Sun regardless of what we do. "Life on Earth" will too. Even in the worst-case scenarios, we humans almost certainly won't manage to wipe out all life.

All human life -- all of the planet's potential to support human life -- well, that's a different story.

One of the most amazing and wonderful things about the human species is our capacity to think about the future, and to make decisions based on their consequences.

But are we good enough at it to save ourselves?

Saturday, June 30, 2012

For want of a common language

Most of the ladies in my French-language yoga class are French, but some of them are from the French-speaking part of Switzerland. To give you an idea of how close Swiss-French is to French-French, one of the Swiss ladies mistakenly thought that one of the other Swiss ladies was from France -- and this was after being in class together for several weeks, with plenty of conversation before and after class!

One of the Swiss ladies told me just a few weeks ago that she'd lived in Asia, but moving to the German-speaking part of Switzerland was a bigger challenge culturally (and was viewed as a bigger adventure by her friends and neighbors of the French-speaking region).


Here's another quick story to illustrate:

A friend of mine was waiting in a chaotic line, and since it wasn't moving, her husband took the children to wait somewhere else. Another lady immediately moved up to squeeze my friend out of line. When my friend indicated that she was still in line, told her she wasn't standing in line properly.

"Oh, and squeezing right up against each other is going to make it go faster," my friend replied.

"This is how we do it in Switzerland, and if you don't like it, you can just go back to wherever you came from," was the reply.

Note that this conversation actually took place in German (my friend's native language), and my friend never stated that she wasn't Swiss. Of course, she didn't have to.

[Then another lady (a lady my friend had assumed was German since she'd been speaking perfect high German earlier) suddenly switched to Swiss German to dispute the other Swiss lady's claim about "how we do things in Switzerland."]

Switzerland has an extremely high proportion of residents who are foreigners. According to this website I googled, foreigners account for more than 20% of the population. That's a lot. It would be nearly impossible to avoid tension between the foreigners and the native citizens.

However, I think the problem is exacerbated by having an official language (for all important business, official documents and instructions, etc.) that is not even mutually intelligible with the local dialect. It's like if you had to learn Italian for all formal communication, but the locals would all speak amongst themselves in French. Swiss German -- this so-called "dialect" of German -- is nearly that distant from High German.

If you don't believe me, take it from this Swiss comic book (Jetzt Kommt Später, by Kati Rickenbach):

The biggest problem with this, in my opinion, is the psychological distance it creates between the locals and the foreigners. The locals learn High German in school (essentially as a foreign language), and it's totally normal that they would prefer to speak their familiar native language. But there are huge barriers to learning Swiss German as a foreign language (it's not written, it's not consistent from one village to the next, it's hard to find materials and courses for learning it, especially if your command of German German is weak). So, effectively, the (German speaking) Swiss have their comfortable, familiar language for speaking amongst themselves, and then they have to switch to an uncomfortable, foreign language any time they want to communicate with a foreigner.

Communicating with foreigner becomes an annoyance, and even the most enlightened person is constantly making a mental distinction between "talking amongst ourselves" and "talking to them." It even contributes to a sentiment that Swiss people from other language regions of Switzerland are from a foreign culture.

German-speaking residents generally learn to understand Swiss German fairly quickly, but don't typically speak it -- so they are constantly marked as speaking the foreigner-speak. And I've heard credible arguments that the German-speaking Swiss feel more hostility towards Germans than towards any other (white) immigrant group.

Naturally, I intend to learn the local dialect. But the other weird thing is that a lot of Swiss people don't really want foreigners speaking their dialect. Many Swiss do -- there are plenty of people who feel that if you're in Switzerland, you should learn to speak like the Swiss. However, the particular dialect of Swiss German a person speaks is a strong marker of local identity. It's a way of telling people precisely where you're from. So trying to speak the dialect of some village that you're not really from sounds kind of weird and wrong to lot of people.

Personally, I think the solution is to stop the two-language system. Stop using High German** as the official language, and start using Swiss German as the official language of the Swiss-German-speaking part of Switzerland. Unfortunately, there's one big problem with that plan, illustrated here in a cartoon by Sergio J. Lievano:

The main reason Swiss German is considered a "dialect" (as opposed to being considered a separate language) is that it's not one language. It's a family of dialects that are (mostly, but not entirely) mutually intelligible amongst themselves. So it is impossible to agree on one official "Swiss German". It's so difficult that -- despite how fiercely the Swiss want to maintain their cultural independence from Germany -- it's simpler to just accept the foreign language rules from Germany than try and agree amongst themselves on defining Swiss.

[Aside: There was a humorous piece in the newspaper last week about how some Swiss people were up in arms over the fact that some foreign maps lumped together six different Cantons (the size of counties) as the "greater Zürich Area." Cantons that are outside of the Canton of Zürich -- can you believe it?! Meanwhile, plenty of people (my boss for example) commute into Zürich every day from neighboring cantons...]

However, I think it would be possible to agree to commission a committee of linguists from all over Switzerland to hammer out an official "Swiss German" language to serve as the official language (and just agree in advance to abide by what the committee comes up with).

If they created an official Swiss-German language, people could continue to speak the particular dialect of their home village. But people would also have the option of speaking a language that doesn't mark them as being from anywhere in particular -- and these two types of people would be able to communicate with each other in real time!

That's my humble proposal for improving inter-community relations in Switzerland.

**Technically the Swiss use a special version of High German, called "Schriftdeutsch" (i.e. "written German"), but it is nearly the same as the standard German language of Germany.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Whatever will I do with you, tube...?

I have got one-hundred-million-and-one things to do at once for my trip to the US in about a month!! And you can see it's had a bit of a negative impact on my blogging...

However, our family YouTube channel is going strong!! Nico keeps inventing new series to upload, plus here's another episode of the Lost Generation!!

This is the first one where my mom makes an appearance (playing my brother John's mom, surprisingly enough).

I also made a sequel to my best Minecraft video -- this time talking about how the X-ray TNT glitch affects castle-building strategy in intriguing new ways:

I have to confess that the strategy for building an audience on YouTube still kind of eludes me. This one has gotten exactly one view so far -- despite the fact that I posted is as a response to a much more popular video. My main experiences with YouTube is spending hours and hours making a video, and then finally feeling validated if I can get 100 views and a kid bothers to comment and tell me it's cool, lol. ;)

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Me on Star Trek -- Again!!

I've mentioned this here before a few times: Throughout my graduate school years, I produced a community-cable Star Trek parody series with my brother John. I uploaded a few of them to the Main Street Plaza channel, but -- now that my kids and I have a channel where we're allowed to upload videos longer than 15 minutes -- I'd kind of like to upload the whole series to our channel. (The episodes are each about 20 minutes long.)

It's the adventures of the USS Galois. In a nutshell, real Star Trek recounts the galaxy-changing exploits of the "flagship of the Federation." But everyone knows that there are also a whole lot of dinky little starships flying around the Star Trek universe doing -- who knows what...? Well, with this series, now you know!

As I've said a couple of times, we learned quite a lot on the job. So the sound quality, the production quality, the acting, the special effects -- basically everything -- improved dramatically over the course of the show. I hesitate to start at the beginning because the early episodes are sometimes hard to understand, and they look like they were filmed in someone's garage (because they were). By the end, they were actually pretty professional. But they build on each other, so to make logical sense of the series, you have to start from the beginning.

Here are the first three:

Also, I hope you like some of our other videos that we've made for our YouTube channel. Nico is continuing his "BfIM" series -- which he's been making entirely on his own, with no help from me! He's always thrilled when people vote on which characters he should eliminate.

YouTubin' is hard, BTW. I've found that I can spend hours editing together a silly little video of playing Minecraft, and then feel disappointed that maybe a handful of people watch it. I should encourage my kids to hit "Like" on more of the Minecraft videos they like, and maybe more YouTubers would come visit our channel...

Sunday, May 06, 2012


If you click on my parenting category, you'll see that we've had various adventures explaining religion to our kids. (In a nutshell, it's not a topic that we have reason to talk about often, but we don't want it to be a grand mystery to our kids.)

The other day, I was on a walk with Leo, and he turned to me with a question:

"Mom, why is Julius Caesar so important that they started the calendar on his birthday?"

My first reaction was: "Wha....? What are you talking about?"

Then it hit me. We've been reading a lot of Asterix comics lately, and they famously all start with the same page, explaining that the year is 50 B.C. -- which in French is "the year 50 before J.C.." Julius Caesar is an important character in the series (the leader of the known world the story is set in), and he's sometimes called by his initials "J.C."

So, I started racking my brain, trying to think of how to explain the whole Christian calendar thing. "Well, you see, Leo, the 'J.C.' of the calendar isn't actually Julius Caesar..." I began.

"Haha, I know! It's Jesus Christ!! Hahahahahahaha!"


Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Minecraft Challenge: Griefers 1, me 0...

Sorry to keep posting about Minecraft -- I don't want to make a separate Minecraft blog, so if you're not into Minecraft, just scroll past this one...

Ever since I discovered Minecraft, I keep feeling tempted to set myself different challenges!! And most of them have worked out, but not all. For example:

1. Modify the Minecraft server program so that it has the features I want.

This went quite well -- if you're interested in what features I added, I'll list them at the bottom of this post.

2. Design an attractive building.

You can build anything you can imagine (as long as your imagination is limited to a cubic grid of cubes...), but it's surprisingly tricky to design a building that's not butt-ugly. So I took up the challenge, and think I did fairly well. You can judge the results for yourself on this video that I posted earlier.

3. figure out how to make videos of myself and my kids playing Minecraft, and upload them to YouTube.

This one kind of goes without saying, see above.

4. Design a fortress that is difficult to attack.

Given the peculiarities of Minecraft (eg. it's easy-peasy to chop through walls), the strategies for building a castle in Minecraft are different from the strategies one uses when making a real castle. My brain kept involuntarily wandering back to this question: If I were playing on a faction, or "capture the flag" or something like that, how could I design my castle so that my team would win?

The crazy thing about this is that I would probably never play such a game (because I don't enjoy competitive or strategy games), plus I'm a something of a pacifist, so I'm ambivalent about making war into a game. But somehow my brain hit upon this as an engineering puzzle, and there's basically nothing I love more than engineering puzzles!! My brain could not rest until I'd solved it. Again, you can judge the results I posted to YouTube.

5. Outwit the griefers on an open server on the Internet.

This one was something of an engineering puzzle that got stuck in my head, too. Here's how it works:

There isn't one big, official Minecraft server out there -- to play multiplayer, different individuals set up their own servers for people to join. Often people make a server that's open to anyone, and post the address on the Internet. The problem is that there are lots of people who make a game of giving people grief (hence the name "griefers"). Their game is to go to open servers and do as much damage as possible to buildings and structures that other people spent lots of time making.

I wanted to see if I could log onto the Wild, Wild West of one of these servers and succeed in making myself a little home where I could gather and produce the supplies I need. And maybe start trading and sharing items with other players once I got myself set up. Part of the challenge was that I'd never really spent any time playing on any setting other than "peaceful" (i.e. no monsters and your character doesn't need food), so I wasn't even used to dealing with monsters.

My plan against the griefers was simple: Instead of building an obvious house in the village with the rest of the players, I'd go up into the mountains and dig myself a hole in the face of a cliff. Cover the entrance with dirt instead of using a door. After all, griefers can't attack what they can't find!! Brilliant, huh?

Can you find my house in this picture???

Unfortunately, my plan had one fatal flaw: Everyone else on the server was getting repeatedly griefed. And the admins responded by repeatedly rolling the world data back to an earlier state, before the griefers arrived.

This ended up being a big problem for me on the server that I randomly chose. Because of the time-zone thing (I'm in Europe and I think the other players are mostly in North America), the backup was done at exactly the wrong time for me. The Americans would work on their buildings, the admins would make a back-up, and go to bed. Then I'd wake up and play a little in the morning. Then the griefers would come and wreck stuff. Then the admins would wake up and say "OMG, griefers!!!" and roll the server back to the backup. Thus, the Americans' progress was saved and mine was repeatedly deleted.

** Edit ** I just looked at the server's website, and apparently it's UK-based! Maybe I'm just the only Minecraft player in the world who's a morning person? lol. So scratch "American" in the above and replace it with "night people". ;)

I had done one fairly complex (but necessary) improvement to my cliff-house just before the first roll-back. I logged on the next day to find my improvement undone. "No matter," thought I, "I'll redo it." So I redid it, and it was even better the second time, so I was fine with it.

The next day, I logged in and again found myself right back to where I was before making the renovation!!! It was like being in the movie Groundhog Day!!

"Well, I'll try one more time," thought I. My home improvement wasn't done quite as neatly as the previous one, but I added a whole bunch of new stuff, and gathered some great new items. I thought it was up there long enough to get backed-up, so I invited my son to join me on the server, and I set up some stuff for him in my cliff-house as well, so he could play there with the other kids.

I was arranging the place to get it just right for my son when I saw some very ominous discussion appear on the screen. An admin was arguing with someone, and accusing them of griefing. Then I saw the automated announcement that the server was going down....

Then I reconnected to the server....


It was Groundhog Day again!!!!!

All of my beautiful cave-house improvements, and all of my supplies that I'd gathered, disappeared!! My character was again transported back in time.

So, the griefers won. They wanted to destroy stuff that other people spent time working on, and they succeeded quite nicely. I concluded that, no, I can't outsmart the griefers and survive on the Wild West of a server where I can't control when the back-ups get made.


Bonus: The features of my home server mod!

  • "/freebie" command: Once per (Minecraft) day, you can get one pack of a random number of random items.
  • Pumpkin Scuba!! If you put a pumpkin on your head, you can stay underwater as long as you want without drowning!
  • Teleportation commands (ideas copied from mods made by other people): /sethome, /home, /back, /ascend, /descend, plus requests to teleport to other players.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Fun with toys -- Lego vs. Minecraft!!!

As you may know, I love Legos, and lately I've gotten totally hooked on Minecraft!!! And it's no coincidence. I just got done writing an article for my professional (video game programming blog) analyzing Lego's failed massive multiplayer online game, compared with Minecraft -- which is the game Lego wishes they'd made: Minecraft: Why Lego Group are kicking themselves about now…

I spent an unbelievable amount of time contemplating strategies for constructing a fortress that could withstand an attack -- for use when playing castle siege with friends. Then I made a video about it:

Here's an example of playing castle siege with my kids:

And here are some Minecraft videos that my kids directed on their own. Leo's video:

And Nico's:

Ok, we probably could be spending our time more constructively -- but we're having fun!!!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Dream Diary

Back when I was pregnant with my first baby, and when he was very small, I kept a dream diary for about a year.

This was largely because I'm fascinated by the way the rules of the dream universe differ from the rules of reality universe (things can suddenly transform, and your objectives can suddenly change, and yet the dream universe rules aren't totally arbitrary). Plus I had the fantasy of writing a dream-universe graphic novel, a bit along the lines of Little Nemo in Slumberland.

Then, going back to work (and having a fixed wake-up-and-get-to-the-office time) kind of put a stop to taking the time to remember what I dreamed.

Lately, I've tried to start one up again, with some success, but I've met with some obstacles:

For one thing, a lot of my dreams are so embarrassing that I don't even want to write them down. Yeah, I know that the advantage of leaving Mormonism is that your journal is for yourself and not for the scriptures of the angels, but still! I don't want to feel like I have to burn my dream diary well in advance of my death to avoid having it read by posterity...

Secondly, all of my somewhat-less-embarrassing dreams seem to involve missing flights! It's weird!!! I don't think I fly that often, so I can't figure out why every other dream I remember seems to be about how I lost the info about where and when I need to go to catch XYZ flight to wherever, and maybe I can't get to the airport in time, etc....

Does anyone else have this problem, or is it just me?

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Joanna and me

I don't have many pictures of myself from my BYU days. But since Joanna Brooks has become the media's go-to person on Mormonism -- and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has reacted by spraying her with condescending snark -- the following picture has gone from being "Here's me with some of my fellow staff members at a Student Review party" to "Here's my brush with fame!"

Because the smiling halter-topped chick in the foreground is me, and the one tending bar in the background is Joanna Brooks. If you don't believe me, here's another picture from the same party:

That said, I don't claim I was ever good friends with Joanna. We were more like colleagues or acquaintances. (She was really good friends with my brother John, though.)

Then -- as now -- she believed in the CoJCoL-dS a lot more than I did. I don't know if she really believes the church is true or that it is good, but she's clearly a lot more invested believing it's true and making it good than I am.

Back in my BYU days, I liked the Student Review staffers for their independent streak, but I couldn't really relate to their earnest desire to try to carve out a space for themselves in the church, and improve it, if possible. I asked a lot of different people just enough leading questions to try to feel out if any of them were closet non-believers, but (aside from myself and my brother) it seemed that none of the SR staffers were. Personally, I just wanted to get out of the church's clutches, off its radar, and start my real life. Which I did, a year or so after these pictures were taken.

In the Student Review chapter of my novel I tried to capture a bit of what I felt the staffers were like: They were believers, but they were cool. Which helped hit home the point that the problem with the church isn't that it's not cool. It's that it's not true.

When reading blogs like Godless at BYU, I sometimes feel jealous of the way the Internet allows people to find other like-minded folks. Back then, I would have given anything to have a support system of like-minded non-believers. My brother John found himself a gay support network -- which probably included lots of non-believers -- but that didn't help me much because their main unifying experience was being gay. If they were non-believers, that was a bit of a side concern, at best. It's another example of how the atheist movement is generally a couple decades behind the gay movement, but following in the same tracks.

On the other hand, I don't think I'd go back in time and simplify life for my past self even if I could. BYU didn't kill me or even traumatize me. It was a learning experience, and if it had been easier, I think perhaps I would have learned less.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Here's what has been sucking up my time lately...

I've got a big, cool (but slightly procrastinatable) project I'm working on, so, naturally, I spent the whole day Saturday going "Just a little more Minecraft... OK, just a leeeetle wee bit more Minecraft...."

One Minecraft challenge that I set for myself was to try to make an attractive building design, given the constraint that it has to be made of stacked cubes. I decided to avoid making any flat rectangular walls since I noticed that the scenery can be fairly attractive, and it's composed of surfaces that aren't flat.

Here's a video of me giving a tour of my palace:

I don't want to dismiss this as a total waste of time because it involves spending time with Leo, doing something he enjoys. I posted some of Nico's videos the other day; Here's Leo's video:

Monday, April 02, 2012

Baby's first YouTube video...

Life is pretty exciting here on the parenting frontier known as the Internet!! Today's challenge is what to do about kids who want to express their creativity by directing their own YouTube videos, based on YouTube videos they like to watch. And they don't want to set them to private because they want to get comments from viewers like the other kids who post stuff to YouTube...

Here's the philosophy I'm going with: I've told them that the #1 rule of posting anything to the open Internet (either on a blog or on YouTube) is not to give any identity information at all, ever. Don't say where you live, and pick a handle to use instead of your name. Does that seem reasonable? Any other ideas?

My son came up with the following two videos. As you can probably tell, he did them all by himself, with no help from me. (OK, well, I helped him a little bit to transfer his drawings from TuxPaint to iMovie.)

Not bad, huh?

He'd really like some votes for team captains on his "Battle for Idiotic Money" show, so if you have a YouTube account, and are willing to leave a nice comment, that would be great!! (Please don't write anything mean and make me turn his videos private.)

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Great new reviews of ExMormon, wow!!

The incomparable Donna Banta of Ward Gossip just wrote a fantastic review of my novel ExMormon!!! Here's a taste:

Hanson neither condemns nor promotes her former faith. Instead she presents an even-handed depiction of LDS culture. As a result, the reader is given a clear picture of the highly structured Mormon community, the self-righteous attitudes it encourages, and the subversive behavior it inspires. Each of her characters possesses the innocent and trusting voice of a Mormon kid, a perspective that serves to enhance both the humor and pathos of their experiences.

I also found another cool review on Amazon here:

This book is awesome! I don't read a lot of fictional books, but this one I'm reading for the second time. I think it's one of the best books I've ever read. I'm sure a lot of that is because I was raised in Utah Valley, and relate very strongly with many of the characters and their faith struggles. I love it because the characters are so lovable and relateable, because I feel like I know them. I love it because none of them become bitter or angry, but deal with the loss of faith in a fairly positive way. It depicts the nostalgia that former members feel towards the church, and the feelings they have towards their experiences, their Mormon families, and their courageous decisions to move on. I don't have a lot of friends that have left the church (though I'm gaining some over time), but this book let me know that I am not alone.


Saturday, February 11, 2012

People who are different than me

They are so dang hard to understand!!!

Here's an inspiring example of getting it, though:

It made me realize a simple truth: “This woman isn’t some unassailable mystery, or some video game that responds to a proper combination of insult, backhanded compliment, quarter-circle-forward-fierce-punch… She’s like me. She’s a normal human being.”

As embarrassing as it is to type now, back then that seemed like a revolutionary thought.

I think an epiphany like that isn't something to be embarrassed about. Empathy -- especially towards people that you can't immediately identify with -- is harder than people commonly realize. The "unfathomable woman" is an extremely common trope, and not because people are doing it on purpose...

The difficulty isn't limited to men failing to empathize with women, or even limited to people of more privileged groups failing to empathize with people from more marginalized groups. (For example, a gay author might wrongly imagine that he doesn't need to do research or exercise empathy to write convincing straight people.) Similarly, here's a popular blogger analyzing a famous Christian author's attempt to write a non-Christian character:

First of all, Arthur has always struck me as a character misunderstood by his writer. Finley keeps trying to force him into the role of Chief Villain, subtype Spoiled Brat (male), but it fits very awkwardly on Arthur. Sometimes he feels sorry for Elsie, sometimes he doesn’t, sometimes he’s nice to her, sometimes he’s very weirdly mean to her. It’s all very inconsistent and unnatural.

That’s probably because Finley herself doesn’t know why Arthur would hate Elsie. Clearly, because Elsie needs trials to overcome with the Power of Christ(tm), but other than that, there’s just no justification for Arthur’s villainy. It’s all very random. What does Arthur have to gain by making Daddy Dinsmore angry at Elsie? What was he hoping to achieve, and what does that failure mean that he’s so dejected by it? We’ll never know because Finley herself didn’t know.

On a related note, through my extensive blog reading, I recently stumbled upon an interesting example of what I like to call the central tension of feminism:

For every trait or role that's considered feminine, some women will say "Stop saying this negative thing is 'feminine'!" and other will say "Stop saying this negative thing is feminine!"

Here's the 'Mormon Child Bride' taking on a celebrity over how to affirm femininity and women's strength.

Of course, the range and diversity of women's experiences doesn't have to be a weakness -- check out this news item about how it can be a strength!!

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Vote (for me!) in the 2011 Brodies!!

We have a huge number of fantastic nominees to vote for in this year's Brodie awards!! I'd like to call attention to my two entries (since I'm quite pleased with them, and I don't want them to be totally buried among all the other excellent choices):

What is Faith? This is a discussion I wrote to try to pin down what people mean when they talk about faith, and especially what they mean when they talk about believing something "on faith." I became curious about this question when I noticed misunderstandings over the word. People assumed that since they were all using this same word "faith" that they must be talking about the same thing -- when in reality the different speakers were talking about very different concepts. Naturally, this is a bit of a follow-up to my earlier piece It takes a lot of faith to believe that!!!. (running for Best Philosophical/Theological Discussion)

Building on a Religious Background is an essay I wrote for the October / November 2011 issue of Free Inquiry (the magazine of the Council for Secular Humanism). It's about how non-believers who were raised in a religion have a unique opportunity to foster cross-belief dialog. (running for Best Discussion of Mormon (or former-Mormon) Community)