Thursday, August 30, 2012

Verily and it came to pass that it was verlily as clear as mud passing

So the fallout from Romney’s ordering Coffee ice cream continues. The church decided to officially publish a clarification to its WoW policy. Last night (29 August 2012) the church officially published in its “getting it right column” this statement:

Finally, another small correction: Despite what was reported, the Church does not prohibit the use of caffeine. The Church’s health guidelines, known in our scriptures as “the Word of Wisdom” (Doctrine and Covenants 89), prohibits alcoholic drinks, smoking or chewing of tobacco and “hot drinks” — taught by Church leaders to refer specifically to tea and coffee. The restriction does not go beyond this.

The WoW has been an issue for longer than the church has existed in Utah, and finally there was a clarification on caffeine; according to the Church: “the Church does not prohibit the use of caffeine”.

There are obviously still some questions about the frozen coffee in Mitt’s Ice Cream, but there is a level of clarification in this statement that almost makes it appear as if the Church has become responsive to the needs of those who would understand it. Indeed the article in which the clarification occurs is in response to an NBC Rock Center hour long special on Mormonism.

I wonder if the true believers of Mormonism are a bit irritated that their Church makes clarifications for a hour-long TV network show that they would not make for several generations of actual Mormons.

I also wondered what CBS felt about it. Several years earlier CBS had the Mormon Church’s actual prophet of god on 60 minutes. Mike Wallace went through a list of prohibited items as Gordon Hinckley smiled and voiced his approval. One of the prohibited items was Caffeinated soda.

Is the new Church statement a result of a new revelation from god? Having a living prophet allows a church to get those things. On an issue that the church itself has elevated to such importance revelation would be an appropriate method of clarification.

Sometime today (30 August 2012) the church rethought their earlier statement, and then edited it to read:

Finally, another small correction: Despite what was reported, the Church revelation spelling out health practices (Doctrine and Covenants 89) does not mention the use of caffeine. The Church’s health guidelines prohibits [sic] alcoholic drinks, smoking or chewing of tobacco, and “hot drinks” — taught by Church leaders to refer specifically to tea and coffee.

Now the clarification is that D&C 89 does not mention caffeine. Readers of my blog know that it also states that the entire WoW is just a recommendation and specifically not a commandment. The clarification quickly becomes worthless as the Church backs away from any segment that could be construed as clarifying anything.

And what is with the scare quotes surrounding “hot drinks”. Does that mean that iced coffee is good or bad? Is the iced coffee in Mitt’s ice cream a violation of the WoW or not?

One thing that is totally bizarre is how some apologists spin this non-clarification as evidence that the Church is relying on the members’ free agency to decide the details. Free agency is another rather vaporous concept the Mormons use to explain things. In this case free agency obviously means the opinion of whoever happens to be your bishop at the time that you have to re-up your temple recommend.

Maybe in this case the free agent is a secret agent hired by someone gunning for your job. They see you eating coffee ice cream, and turn you in to the bishop. Maybe they used to be bishop and know a thing or two about the current bishop’s son. I could spin a whole slew of somewhat reasonable hypotheticals.

The Mormons do provide a check to the bishop interview process. It is structured as an appeal to the next higher level of organization. Wards are organized into stakes. Each stake has a stake president who is also called from the lay population of its members. Only members with enough stature can be assured of reasonable or favorably slanted process in the processing of their membership. One way of attaining high status is to donate considerable amounts of money. Mitt Romney donates enough to the church to eat all the coffee ice cream he wants.

Of course the vast majority of members probably never run into the disciplinary process for the church. Very few would need to as long as the few that did were found guilty and only allowed to remain if silent. Questioning the Mormon Church is a hubris punishable by excommunication.

Oh how absurd to swallow a bird!

I know an older woman (pushing 80) who is a wonderful upstanding example of a human. She raised five kids who never wanted for shoes or food. She spent her life teaching, and then teaching teachers. At every step in her life she has made choices to better not only her own slice of the world, but a larger world.

She has many grandchildren with whom she regularly interacts. She is actively participating in the raising of several.

She is very religious, and spends part of everyday studying the bible. She attends church every Sunday, and provides emotional and tangible support to her fellow church members every day of the week.

She has spent part of her own life savings to go on a teaching mission to Morocco. There she provided expert advice on lesson plans and teaching of English to the people there.

Several times a week she goes to a public place (like a Wal-Mart or Costco) and stands around for two or three hours collecting signatures on petitions. Standing around on concrete in the Sothern California summer may not appear to require much effort to many folks, but it is a terrific effort for a woman in the end of her eighth decade of life that suffers from poor circulation.

What issue has her so riled up that she is willing to endure significant discomfort to fight? It is the Homosexual Agenda, and she is willing to do what she can to fight it. Apparently there are some sort of anti-bullying laws, or anti-gay-correction-therapy laws, or hate crime legislation, or something that will allow Homosexuals to openly recruit kindergarteners or something…. I must admit that my conversations shut down before there is a convergence of her ability to coherently describe the threat and my ability to listen.

It is easy to see people as two dimensional images of their most vile mistakes. On the other hand I personally find myself rationalizing people’s lives on a one-dimensional morality scale; so much good makes up for so much bad. It is like I need an airtight excuse to dislike someone or a reason to care about them.

The fact of the matter is that I am tied to some people “warts and all” I can decide to care about them and their connection to me, and caring is almost always the best choice.

Not that the “caring is the best option” is necessarily a reciprocal situation. One of the reasons this blog is semi-anonymous is that, should my flagrantly almost-out-of-the-closet atheism be known, I, along with AOD and AYD, would be shut-out of interacting with a handful of people I choose to care about.

I am open about being an atheist, but there is a difference between being open and openly promoting an atheist lifestyle (OK…I’m not sure what that really means either). I make known my opinion on the homophobic political activities, but I don’t express it with the vitriol that it truly deserves. I sometimes point out sexist-racist-xenophobic-intolerant statements, but sometimes I just let them pass. I only do this for some people.

You would probably not get this type of treatment despite the fact that I really appreciate you reading my blog.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012


One of the most infuriating things about understanding the Mormon faith is that the greater part of it is simply made up. The opinions with the loudest voices carrying them become common knowledge. Eventually the accretion of opinion, attitude, and conjecture passes as fact.This process is historically more powerful than direct revelation from god.

Take for instance the “Word of Wisdom” (WoW).

It caused a big stir in Utah when Charles Babington of the AP caught Mitt Romney ordering coffee ice cream. Romney’s aides informed the writer that Romney could have “any flavor of ice cream that he wanted”. The other staffers who were eating ice cream with Mitt ordered flavors like vanilla, rocky road, butter pecan and birthday cake. Mitt chose coffee flavor presumably because he liked it. Many people in Utah think that Mitt violated the WoW, and acted as if he was comfortable with having regularly violated it.

The WoW is the aggregation of scripture and direct revelation which forbids the use of tobacco, Coffee, Tea, and alcohol. It is often taken to be synonymous with “the Mormon Health Code”. The MHC may also forbid the use of other drugs that were either not addressed, or addressed equivocally, in the WoW.

One of the most common questions that arises about the Wow is: “Why Coffee and Tea?”. The standard reason given is that caffeine is bad. I have been embroiled in numerous discussions where the “addictive” potential of caffeine has been detailed to me by members of the LDS faith. At least a half dozen of them were with sitting bishops. There is a cottage industry for non-caffeinated beverages in the state of Utah to support the keeping of the WoW. I had never seen caffeine-free Mountain Dew till I was doing some consulting on the BYU campus. Barq’s Root Beer is caffeinated in all other markets, but they manufacture a special caffeine-free variety for Utah.

Pero, Postum – Yes you may.
Mountain Dew –Tasty but no good for you.
Too Too True –But at least I’m not sniffin glue.” -- Word of Wizzum by the mocumentary group Everclean

Anyone with a sense of the ubiquity of caffeine in our diets knows that avoiding caffeine requires a strict attention to dietary intake. The concentration of caffeine in the Barq’s root beer sold outside Utah is slightly less than that in dark chocolate. Caffeine creeps into over-the-counter medications. Keeping caffeine free might easily be seen as requiring the same sort of approval packaging used in the various types of kosher labeling. Look on some of your packaged foodstuff and you will see a little K or P in a circle. These symbols identify the product as having passed some type of Kosher approval process. Why not a little “WoW” symbol on WoW-approved foods?

To many non-Mormons the WoW sounds like an optional type of dietary chastity. I grew up in a mostly Jewish neighborhood, and it was common to hear people talking about “keeping kosher” for this or that amount of time. Some people even “kept mostly kosher”. There were, in fact, whole congregations of people with differing takes on how important certain restrictions were. This self-organization is impossible in the Mormon church.

For the most part, and the exceptions are mostly trivial, one is assigned to a “ward” according to the location of one’s home. The Ward is run by a lay priest called a Bishop and his staff (the Bishopric). A new Bishop is usually “called” from the ward’s lay population every few years. The bishop administers the questions for a temple recommend, and his interpretation of them is how they are applied. One of the questions [Question 11] is: “Are you keeping the Word of Wisdom”.

This means that you are not free to choose the interpretation of the WoW that governs your involvement in the Mormon church. It could be full of slack or it could be strict. Even the asking of the recommend questions varies from one bishop to the next. It is common for some bishops to simply accept a yes-or-no answer without additional inquiry. Others make use of inspired investigation, and others must respond to the amateur investigations some ward members feel they must conduct on their fellows. It is common for people in the Mormon Church to complain about someone in a ward having pried into their private affairs at some point in their life.

Losing a temple recommend in Utah is the same as becoming unemployable to the state’s largest employer, and the state’s largest employer appears to be larger than the next three largest employers combined. So keeping the word of wisdom is a big deal to Mormons, and not in the way that being vegan is a big deal to those who go to the trouble of keeping vegan. Keeping the Wow is a commandment in the most stringent use of the word.

One of the reasons Mormons will give for the Wow is that some angel directly informed Joseph Smith that they should not drink Coffee. This is not exactly correct. Joseph smith related what the angel said to him in the holy Mormon scripture called Doctrines and covenants.

To be sent greeting; not by commandment or constraint, but by revelation and the word of wisdom, showing forth the order and will of God in the temporal salvation of all saints in the last days” —D&C 89:2

Where he fairly specifically says it is not a commandment. In D&C 89 Joseph’s revelation says: “And again, hot drinks are not for the body or belly.” (D&C 89:9). This is the passage which has been interpreted to mean coffee and tea, and nowhere else in the revelation are coffee or tea implied or specifically mentioned.

Interpreting Joseph’s WoW has lead to many issues. For instance: “ if it is not a commandment let’s meet at Starbucks”, or “How can iced tea be a hot beverage and Hot Cocoa is not.

Joseph’s WoW goes on to say that herbs are good a couple times with passages like this: “Every herb in the season thereof, and every fruit in the season thereof; all these to be used with prudence and thanksgiving.” . I would be inclined to believe that this would run afoul of the Mormon church’s stance on marihuana, but since pot does not interest me I’ll be talking about coffee.

Joseph received his direct revelation in 1833, but it took another 90 years for Mormon Church President (and therefore prophet) to receive the revelation that adherence to the WoW was required for a temple recommend. Heber Jeddy Grant was the last Mormon church prophet to have openly practiced polygamy, and he lived another 24 years after establishing the prohibition against coffee. In 1921 the WoW officially became the MHC. Up until as late as 1906 (as recorded, and probably later) some of the highest church officials publically disobeyed the Wow by doing things like regularly drinking brandy.

You would think that such an open line to god would make adjustments to the particulars concerning the MHC easy. The Church is a highly patriarchal authoritative structure. It would be easy for them to have some dark-suited white guy publish a set of standards by which the Wow would be interpreted. Perhaps they could even make it provisional depending on the outcome of future revelation. Heck, they could even make it provisional in retrospect like they did with the whole African-Americans in the Mormon Church deal. Having a living prophet gives the Mormon Church a lot of slack that other churches do not have.

Women have no priesthood status (the status given to young boys when they hit the ripe old age of 8) in the church, but they sometimes make clearer statements about the workings of Mormonism than the patriarch. Olene walker (former governor of UT) famously defined the WoW to an inquisitive Bill Crosby by saying that: “Caffeine is fine as long as it’s cold.”

This makes everything clear. Caffeine is the problem addressed by the WoW, but it is only bad when heated.

I'm surprised that Frappuccino sales did not spike when Olene made things clear. 

Interestingly Coffee and Tea are not the only caffeinated hot drinks Mormons are regularly exposed to. Yerba Mate is very popular in South America, and almost half of all Mormons live in South America (as opposed to North America where only a tenth of all Mormons live). If the WoW is to be interpreted according to Olene’s wisdom it would appear to be imperative that the Yerba Matte issue be addressed, but, as far as I can make out, in the past hundred years that it has been a known issue the Mormon Church has been officially silent.

I doubt the Mormon Church would revoke Mitt Romney’s temple recommend even if he had an espresso machine installed on his campaign bus and started tossing back quads with potential donors. Not only does he donate enough to get what he wants from the official word of god, but he is the face everyone wants Mormonism to look like; perfect hair.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Record-setting days

The Olympic games in London this year left many world records floundering in its wake. There is something interesting about the synergistic interaction of good chromosomes and hard training (and most likely good pharmaceuticals in some cases) that captures the attention of even the most jaded observer. Even though we are intrinsically tied to the accomplishments of Olympic athletes (simply by being members of the same species) the intensity of their effort insulates their accomplishments from us mundane mortals.

However, there is a new world record that we all have a part in. this past Sunday (August 26th 2012) the extent of ice in the arctic sea fell to its lowest level since satellite data began being accrued in 1979. Not only did the daily satellite record show that the melt had reached a new record it had literally blown the 2007 record “out of the water” (sorry about that, but I could not help myself). The ice extent (that area of ocean with at least 15% ice) was over 27,000 square miles (70,000 square kilometers) lower than the lowest 2007 extent.

That is a lot of missing ice. That amount of ice could cover Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and a good chunk of Vermont. That is the amount of ice beyond the 2007 record that melted in a single day. There are still two to three weeks of melt season left, and with each day's satellite data we should expect a new world record to be set.

"The previous record, set in 2007, occurred because of near perfect summer weather for melting ice. Apart from one big storm in early August, weather patterns this year were unremarkable. The ice is so thin and weak now, it doesn't matter how the winds blow." -- Mark Serreze NSIDC Director

What will the final world record for this year be? We will not know officially until the first week of October, but I expect it to be impressive. Will it be enough ice to cover the entire eastern seaboard? How about Europe; will we lose enough arctic sea ice to have completely covered Europe (10,000,000 square kilometers)?  Of course it cannot do that because there are only about 4,000,000 square kilometers left.  In other words we are within striking distance of an ice-free arctic sea.

In the US we are approaching a historic election. Global climate change is one of several divisive issues that polarize potential voters into one of two camps. On the one hand are those voters who take the overwhelming scientific consensus (that global climate change is causally linked to greenhouse gas emissions by human activity) at face value. On the other hand there are those folks who think that there is either no GCC or that there are better explanations than human activity for it. The former camp tends to be Democrat, and the later Republican.

"Greenhouse gasses are the only consistent explanation for a persistently warming Arctic," -- Ted Scambos senior NSIDC researcher

There are other good divisive issues. The United States Electorate apparently has many good reasons to be polarized. People cannot even agree about what the best reason to disagree is.

Next year the arctic ice will probably not melt to the extent that it will this year. I make this prediction on the basis of a statistical phenomenon known as regression to the mean. In any sample set a deviant data point (like a world record) will likely be followed by a point that is closer to the mean of the population. However, the mean arctic ice coverage is decreasing over time so we will have lower world records in the not-too-distant future. The only thing that will stop this stuttering streak of progressively lower world records will be a completely ice-free arctic summer.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Broadcom Transforming Cloud Connectivity Post

So the Awesome family received awesome news last week. AYD has progressed into the semi-finals of the Broadcom MASTERS national science fair for middle school (6th, 7th, and 8th grade) students. The finalists will be announced this coming Wednesday, and all AYD has to do for this phase of the competition is wait.

AYD’s project was a combination of terrific idea and excellent execution. I was fairly confident that she would make it to the semi-finals, but I’m not so sure about the finals. The project is good enough, but she filled out all the questions on the entry form the way an 8th grader would. When she asked me to go over her answers for glaring errors in spelling and punctuation I wanted to re-write everything.

I must admit to trying to influence her style by asking leading questions like: “are you sure that is the best way to say that?” To which I received a very unsatisfying version of: “yes it is”.

The word MASTERS in the title of this competition is a slightly tortured acronym. It stands for: “Math, Applied Science, Technology, and Engineering for Rising Stars”. This suggests that the whole competition is about the future, and it probably is, but not so much for us. For us it is more about how incredible it was that AYD was able to get motivated to do something original and demanding that was not on the stiflingly short list of things approved as “cool” by the American Advertising Control System.

For my readers from countries other than the USA “Broadcom MASTERS” may appear to be a strange name for the National science fair for middle school students in the US, and not just for the transparent love for acronyms. Broadcom is a corporation. Why doesn’t the national science fair for middle school students have a name like: “The National Science Fair for Middle School Students” or, if we must keep the acronym: “MASTERS, The National Science Fair”. Using a corporate sponsor’s name in the title may appear strangely commercial to many outside the US.

Personally I wonder why we don’t go a bit further. Why not give a short tagline in the title?

In 2006 Delta Airlines gave up sponsorship of a major sports stadium in downtown Salt Lake City. The name changed from “The Delta Center” to “The Energy Solutions Arena”. Energy Solutions is a low-level nuclear waste disposal company; many of you might not be familiar with this company as they are headquartered in Salt Lake, and handle stuff most households don’t produce in large quantities. Maybe they could have put a little jingle in the name? Something like: “The Energy Solutions –if it’s cold let it mold, but if it glows let it go- Arena”?

The naming sponsorship agreement for the delta center comes up for renewal in less than a decade. By adding more enticing advertising into the name it may be possible to drum up more competition for the naming rights. Let me make some suggestions:

The Kraft Foods Makers of Velveeta Center
The Southwest Airlines Low Fares Starting at $69 Arena
The Toyota’s New Corolla Gets 34 MPG Highway Center
The Monsanto –Improving Agriculture- Monsanto –Improving Lives- Arena
The Autozone like us on FaceBook Arena

And there is more where these came from.

Not all national competitions for kids are named for their corporate sponsors. There is a national bible bee called: “The National Bible Bee”. However, when you get into the scholastic corporate sponsorship creeps into the name. The national spelling bee which is usually called: “National Spelling Bee” is actually “The Scripps National Spelling Bee”.

Corporate sponsorship is required to make programs like the Broadcom MASTERS work in the USA, and I personally appreciate the efforts and attention that corporations pay to the structure of America's society.  However, the need for private corporate sponsorship reveals a level of perversion in our public priorities. 

Perhaps I should get corporate sponsorship for this blog?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Where there is fire

We are about to enjoy a new world record. In the next few weeks the extent of arctic ice will fall to its lowest recorded level ever. The northwest passage will undoubtedly open up.

In the context of ice the idea of global warming sounds nice. The 24-hour sun of the arctic circle would facilitate epic party cruises in the now ice-free water. It could be filmed for a reality TV show of wanton excess; the show could be called “hotter than it ought to be”. Celebrities could be flown into the floating party by helicopter, and then shuttled directly to the set of celebrity rehab until they sobered up enough to return.

Perhaps the warmth will seep into winter, and it will be safe for kids to lick flagpoles year round without the fear of getting their tongues stuck.

I will be regularly tracking the data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center as we head to towards this record-setting event.

Perhaps I should not make light about the effects of global warming given the devastation some of the changes may cause, but there is something compelling in the exercise of seeing the potential good in global warming. We will most likely be forced to see the good in it if the trends in carbon dioxide emissions continue unabated.

Some effects of global warming may constructively accelerate the rate of global warming. Some, like decreases in reflective heat loss due to ice-sheet surface melting, are somewhat abstract in the august of the Utah desert. There is at least one that becomes increasingly clear every day.

The west is on fire. Utah’s air has lost half its transparency. Much of the smoke is so old that it doesn’t smell like its birth fire. It is just some weather phenomenon. When the sky is clear the sunsets are dark orange. When clouds are added to the sky the result is a strange half twilight.

The vistas I so love about the Tooele valley are now what I would expect a patient with severe depression would create when asked to paint a picture of how they feel.

According to the USDA forest service the average amount of tree biomass per acre of timberland in the US is 41 tons. I expect that the amount out here is much less. I’m going to arbitrarily estimate the amount of burnable biomass per acre here at 10 tons. The average annual world output of carbon dioxide was estimated at a shade under thirty million tons in 2008. This means that 30,000 acres of fire would increase the carbon dioxide output of the world by 1%. The estimated carbon dioxide output of Spain in 2008 was about 1% of the world’s total.

A 30,000 acre fire would be a big fire. We recently had a fire that was barely a third that size burn the mountainside across from our house. It took days to burn through its acreage and was spectacular the entire time. The column of smoke was many times as high tall as the ten thousand foot high mountains it rose from.

At night the leading edge of the fire looked like a crack in the thin crust of earth. I could imagine the spot fires across the burned expanse were souls escaping hell and flaring up when they were exposed to oxygen. Perhaps I should not use word like “hell” and “soul” on an atheist blog as there are people who cannot see how I could use that imagery without actually believing that they are real.

This summer hundreds of thousands of acres have burned in the American west. This could result in a greater than 10% increase in the world carbon dioxide output. This is the amount produced by the entire European Union.

So another potentially self-perpetuating impact goes spinning off from the greater impact of global climate change. Global warming causes drought which leads to wildfires which releases significant amounts of carbon dioxide, which accelerates global climate change.

Perhaps the sunsets, already psychedelic in their hues, should be painted with paisley embellishments to capture the environmental dance that makes them so spectacular.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Dead Birds

It has been a few weeks now since I last posted.  I've been working on a new project.  Because of the nature of it I've given it it's own home.    

Not long ago I was walking my kayak out to the waters edge near the old Saltair palace on the Great Salt Lake's southern shore. It is a popular location to pull off from interstate 80 and venture out to the water. I-80 is one of the major East-West highways in the USA so people stop there on their way to many places. Commuters stop there to contemplate some great moment that driving does not give them pause to reflect upon properly. Groups of Asian tourists pose in shifting masses for pictures. Couples walk hand in hand in this semblance of a beach. Families of screaming children trudge blankets and coolers closer to a tepid salty splashing zone.

Between the gravel parking lot of Saltair and the water's edge there is a long packed sandy flat. It is not a tidal flat so much as a evaporation flat, and the summer's drought has made it huge this year. I knew as soon as I parked that there must be better places almost anywhere to lug my kayak out for a quick paddle, but something -perhaps the crowds?- enticed me out.

The flat is hard-packed for the most part, and easy walking. There are depressions in it that held onto the Salt Lake's water longer than others, and they are filled with crystals. Strange mixtures of natural and artificial debris is washed into swirls; some hardened with salt. Most of the expanse is ripled sand cemented with salt. It is an interesting place to walk.

The washed up debris sometimes takes on forms that mimic impossible items. I was about two-thirds of the way out when I noticed something that looked like a great big fish. No fish live in the great salt lake so it couldn't be a fish.

I looked closer, and it was a fish.

After my paddle I got my camera, and decided to snap a photo of the partially mummified fish. As I looked around I saw another,

and then another.

 I began walking around snapping photos of impossible fish washed up on the shore of the Great Salt Lake.

People walked past me in droves as I searched this expanse of land between the parking lot and where everyone wanted to go. Deaf as I am I began noticing a regular crunching sound in the migration of folks to and from the water. When I investigated I realized that the walkers were trampling on the carcases of dead birds; thousands of dead birds.

I began snapping pictures of the birds. There was something both repugnant and fascinating about them. They were all preserved by the evaporating salt water in mid decay. Some were only pieces, others almost whole. The people barely noticed them even as they crunched under their feet.

How many things do we barely notice in life? What semi-preserved efforts do we walk through? How much history do we ignore even when we are stepping right on it?

It was a crunchy macabre metaphor. I could not just let it go.

I took about 400 photos of the partially mummified bird corpses. I decided they should be their own blog. I've put together an entry for each day with a picture followed by the death date of an influential person. I've tried to include links to some biographic or related info for each person. I've also tried to pick dates that are a bit older so it is the sort of history that is decaying; where there are few or no living individuals who knew the people.

I start with Caesar Augustus on August 19th (the month named for him).