Monday, October 01, 2012

Movie recommendation: A Separation [Bryan]

Just saw a wonderful film: A Separation. I can't even begin to detail the rich and intriguing (but not complicated) plot. It is an emotionally powerful ride through family relationships, human motivations, political change, and religious faith. The film creates a messy situation, full of believably complicated characters, and then refuses to tell us who is right. I am a lover of Iranian films, and this is one of the best and most accessible. The reviewer for the LA Times summed it up well: 
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the way "A Separation's" exquisitely human situations unfold is that the narration allows for as many points of view as there are characters. Everyone is fallible yet everyone feels justified in their own particular grievances, and the film is at pains not to pick sides. The great French director Jean Renoir, who would have loved this film, exactly sums up its situation in one of his most famous phrases: "The real hell of life is that everyone has his reasons."

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Desperate Love of God: Thoughts on the Worth of a Soul [Bryan]

[Delivered in the Hilliard Ward, Sept. 23, 2012]

How much is a human soul worth? How can we calculate its value? One way would be to try to use a dollar amount. If your body was reduced to its basic elements, Oxygen, Carbon, Hydrogen, Nitrogen, Calcium, and so forth, it is estimated that you would be worth about $160 dollars, most of that value coming from the potassium and sodium. Your potassium, in fact, would account for about 2/3rds of the value of your body’s elements, were it reduced to its basic compounds. So, $160 -- doesn’t seem like much. Link.

Another way to calculate the value of a human life is to think about how much it would take, say, to purchase a slave. How much would it cost to actually own another human being? Based on my research on the Internet, I found that, in 1857, it cost about $1400 dollars to buy a slave in Antebellum American South. That translates into about $25,000 in today’s money. It is interesting, and very troubling, that you could have bought a slave, a human being, for about the cost of an average car today. Link

What about if we do the sort of cost benefit analysis that is popular today in the business world? Ford Motor Company attempted this back in the 1970s. Ford President Lee Iacocca had stipulated that, in order to compete with the economical Japanese cars that were coming in the market, he wanted to design a car that would weigh less than 2,000 pounds and that would be priced at less than $2,000. This idea became the legendary Ford Pinto. There was one major and tragic flaw with the Pinto’s original design, a flaw that cost dozens of lives. In the event of the rear end collision, even at low speeds, the gas tank would be pushed forward and punctured by the protruding bolts of the differential. Gasoline would come pouring out, explosions would occur, and people would be in danger of dying a fiery death. When Ford discovered this problem during the initial crash tests, they did a cost benefit analysis. They found a solution to the problem that cost $11 per car. Overall, the cost to redesign and rework the Pinto's gas tank, at that late stage, would cost about $137 million. Ford experts then calculated that they could be held liable for $200,000 per traffic fatality. Using an estimate of 180 deaths and 180 serious burns, Ford calculated that their possible liability costs worked out to around $49 million. So, because the $137 million cost to fix the problem was greater than the 49 million in liability, they, tragically and infamously, decided not to fix the Pinto. Many people died or were severely burned. So, in this sad story, there is another estimate of a human life: $200,000. Link

Yet another way to think about your worth as a human being to to think how much your individual organs are worth. There is, unfortunately, a thriving black market for human organs throughout the world. Turns out that a human heart is worth $290,000 in South Korea, where a human liver is also worth $290,000. A kidney is worth $145,000 in Turkey, and a pancreas is worth $140,000 in Singapore, where a lung also sells for $290,000. Link. According to a recent article in Wired magazine, a full human body could be worth up to $45 million if we sell the bone marrow, DNA, lungs, kidneys, heart, etc., as separate components. I, for one, will be worth more money dead than I every will be alive!

Now, none of this has been particularly pleasant to think about. That discomfort stems from our moral issues, I think, with the thought of buying a slave, doing a cost benefit analysis on a human life, selling body parts on the black market, and so forth. But our discomfort is more than that. I think we sense that the value of a human life is being missed in these calculations. In the D&C 18:10, we read that we should “Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God.” This begins to tell us something about our worth as human beings. Is there a way, though, we can get a more precise sense of this worth? Is there a way we can feel it on a more gut level, with more emotional punch.

To get this sort of glimpse of the worth of a soul, I want to turn to three stories from the New Testament, three parables, that deal with this same topic. The text that I wish to focus on is the 15th chapter of the Gospel of Luke.

In the beginning of this chapter, we are given the setting in which these three parables are told. Picture the scene: Jesus is teaching. A group of sinner and publicans (who were basically seen as traitors to Israel) approach him. This group is the lowest of low on the Israelite social ladder. They are the outcast and despised. And what does Jesus do? We are told only that Pharisees and scribes start to complain, saying, this man “receives sinners and eats with them.” It is in response to this complaint that Jesus offers to the Pharisees three famous parables. Start in verse four:   

What man of you, [he asks] having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?
And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing.
And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost.

I love this striking and intimate imagine, the image of a shepherd laying the lost sheep on his shoulders, cradling it, carrying back to safety, to home. I hope that we can all remember this image in those times when we have wandered or are lost, times when we feel alone, or afraid. In those times, the parable asks us to imagine a shepherd gently putting his arms around us, stroking us softly, lifting us up to his shoulders, and carrying us back to safety. How much is a human soul worth? Well, think of that beautiful image, the shepherd going out into the wilderness, gently carrying back the one lost sheep. Imagine that shepherd calling for a celebration. That intimate imagine suggests how much we are worth.
Another parable:
¶Either what woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it?
 And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbours together, saying, Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece which I had lost.

Notice in this story, the woman seems to lose the coin at night. Notice that she doesn’t wait until morning to search. She lights a candle. She is so desperate to find this coin that she stays up all night, sweeping, desperately looking for it!

Now, I want you to think of times in your life when you have lost something important, something that simply could not be lost. Try to remember how you felt. I think of a time on my honeymoon. Ellie and I went on our honeymoon to San Diego California. We had a wonderful time, staying in a resort right next to the beach, going to parks and museums, starting out our married adventure together. I remember feeling in those early days that I wanted to show to everyone, particularly Ellie, that I could be competent husband, and that Ellie hadn’t made a huge mistake marrying me. On our last day in San Diego, we decided to take one more romantic walk on the beach, young newlyweds without a care in the world. As we walked back to the hotel to check out, I reached in my back pocket and found, to my horror and embarrassment, that my wallet was missing. Everything I needed was in that wallet, my credit cards, my money, my identification to get on the flight that would take us home, a flight leaving in less than two hours. More than that, in that wallet was my very credibility, my chance to be seen as a competent husband. I sprinted back to the beach, frenziedly, frantically, perhaps even hysterically, a wave of desperation washing over me. I can imagine that this is how the women in the parable felt, staying up all night seeking for this coin. 

I should note that, however frantic I felt in that moment, it is nothing compared to the times when we have briefly lost children in busy public places. Those of you who have lost your children know the feeling: That frantic desperation. And when you find a lost child, you can understand the relief that is also captured in these stories. You can understand why someone would want to have a party, a celebration, when what was lost has been found.  

Think, then, about that moment when you lost something, something that simply could not be lost. Recreate in your minds and hearts the feelings that you experienced as you were looking for it. And think about the relief you felt when you found it, or the sorrow you felt when realized it was gone forever. Recreate in your mind that sense of desperate desire, that terrible emotion, the emotion that keeps us up all night looking for something, that emotion that gets us sprinting back to the beach.

In those emotions, we can begin to understand, on a gut level, the true worth of the soul. That frantic feeling to find that which was lost? That is the worth of the soul. That unforgettable relief and joy when you found it, a joy worth celebrating? That is what you are worth. In these stories, we are being told that this desperate love is how God seeks for us when we are lost. That is the answer. 

Recall the setting in which Jesus told this story. Think about what Jesus is saying here to these complaining Pharisees, as he tells these stories. It is as if Jesus is saying, “You think it is bad that I am sitting down and eating with these publicans and sinners. Well, you should know: not only will I eat with these sinners and outcasts, these lost souls, I desperately love them with a love you cannot understand. I would stay up all night looking for them with a candle clenched in my worried hand. I would go out into the wilderness alone looking for them, carrying them back rejoicing on my shoulders. That is how much I love them.” I can only imagine how scandalous that message would have been to the Pharisees. Jesus not only eats with these sinners, he desperately cares for them! 

Some of you may know the story of The Giving Tree, a book by Shel Silversteen. I love this story. I must admit, however, that I actually have a complicated relationship with it (I guess it shows how weird I am to have a complicated relationship with a children’s book). The story goes like this: 

Once, there was a tree…
And she loved a little boy.
And every day the boy would come
And he would gather her leaves
And swing from her branches
And eat apples
And they would play hide-and-go-seek.
And when he was tired, he would sleep in her shade.
And the boy loved the tree… very much…
And the tree was happy.
But time went by,
And the boy grew older.
And the tree was often alone.
Then, one day, the boy came to the tree and the tree said:
"Come, Boy, come and climb up my trunk and swing from my branches and eat apples and play in my shade and be happy!"
"I am too big to climb and play," said the boy. "I want to buy things and have fun. I want some money.Can you give me some money?" 

"I’m sorry", said the tree, "but I have no money. I have only leaves and apples. Take my apples, Boy, and sell them in city. Then you will have money and you’ll be happy."
And so the boy climbed up the tree and gathered her apples and carried them away.
And the tree was happy…

The story continues. The boy comes back again and again, asking more and more from the tree. He takes her apples and branches. Finally, the story says the boy was away for a long time. He returns again and makes the ultimate demand of the tree.

And when he came back, the tree was so happy she could hardly speak.
"Come, Boy," she whispered, "Come and play."
"I am too old and sad to play," said the boy. "I want a boat that will take me away from here. Can you give me a boat?"
"Cut down my trunk and make a boat," said the tree. "Then you can sail away… and be happy."
And so the boy cut down her trunk
And made a boat and sailed away.
And the tree was happy…
But not really.
And after a long time the boy came back again.
"I am sorry, Boy," said the tree, "but I have nothing left to give you – My apples are gone....My branches are gone....My trunk is gone"
"I am sorry," sighed the tree. "I wish that I could give you something… but I have nothing left. I am just an old stump. I am sorry…"
"I don’t need very much now,” said the boy. “Just a quiet place to sit and rest. I am very tired."
"Well," said the tree, straightening herself up as much as she could, "well, an old stump is good for sitting and resting. Come, Boy, sit down… sit down and rest."
And the boy did.
And the tree was happy…

If you go on the Internet, there is actually a heated debate about the merits of this book. Some have said that this actually isn’t a very good story. I have thought such things myself – hence my complicated relationship with the book. In the story a tree gives all that she has without asking anything in return or getting anything from the relationship. The boy: he takes and takes and takes. The tree: she gives and gives and gives. She seems exploited, a doormat, letting the boy walk all over her. Why should we find admirable what the tree gives here?
For an answer, let’s return to Luke 15. 

 11 ¶And [Jesus] said, A certain man had two sons:
 12 And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living.
 13 And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living.

It is important to read this story in the way they would have read it in the ancient world. The key point is that the son is insulting his father in a way we cannot comprehend. The father isn’t even dead, and the younger son is already asking his inheritance. He is basically saying, “Father, you are dead to me.” Just as bad is how the boy so quickly leaves and wastes the money. He goes off to a “far country,” which I read as symbolic of leaving the covenant people, leaving the church, and he goes and lives in a riotous way. He is using his father’s estate in a way that goes against everything the father stands for. The audience hearing this story in Jesus’s time would have thought that this son deserves only punishment and shame. That and nothing more.

The son heads off, wasting the money on wine and women. He falls are hard times. He realizes that he would be better off as a slave to his father. Notice the story never says the son felt bad for what he did and how he treated his father. He rehearses a self-serving little speech that he is going to give his father when he returns. The son remains selfish, thinking only of himself. “The father is going to beat this son senseless when he comes home!,” the audience begins to think.

But, of course, this is not what happens. You remember how the author of Luke recounts the story: “But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.” The father seems to have been anxiously waiting for any sign of his son, waiting literally by the window, so that he sees him from a distance. Like me frantically sprinting back to the beach, the father frantically sprints to his lost son. He has lost something of inestimable value. He is experiencing that frantic desire of the woman looking for the coin. Instead of beating his son, the son is embraced; instead of giving the son what he deserves, the son is given compassion and mercy; instead of stern words, the son is given tenderness, kindness, forgiveness; instead of anger, the father kisses the son on his neck. The father responds with an almost irrational love: “It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.”

How much is a human soul worth? I believe that, to understand the worth of the human soul, on a gut level, there are three images to remember. I want you to remember the image of the lost sheep, alone and frightened in the wilderness, cradled in the arms of the shepherd, lifted on his shoulders. I want you to remember the woman searching all night, frantically and desperately, trying to find her lost coin. I want you to remember the father, who had been so despised and insulted by his son, who still waits anxiously by his window, waiting for his son to come home. I particularly want you to remember these images when you feel lost or alone, when you feel nobody cares, when you feel like you’ve made mistakes, when you feel unloved. 

How much is a human soul worth? A gentle lift in the wilderness to safety, a frantic search at night, a tireless vigil by the window. Remember these images and, most of all, remember the image of a Heavenly Father, who loved the world, who loved you, so much that he sent his son, to suffer and to die. I bear testimony of this love. 

(For the link between the Giving Tree and the Prodigal Son, I am indebted to: 

Monday, September 03, 2012

Authoritative Parenting [Bryan]

Below is some recent research on parenting. The endorsement of "authoritative parenting" is not particularly new, and I'm not sure the difference between these types of parenting is as clear in practice as we might like, but it is interesting nonetheless:
Authoritarian parents are more likely to end up with disrespectful children who engage in delinquent behaviors, the study found, compared to parents who listen to their kids with the goal of gaining trust.
It was the first study to look at how parenting styles affect the way teens view their parents and, in turn, how they behave.

The study considered three general styles of parenting. Authoritative parents are demanding and controlling while also being warm and sensitive to their children’s needs.

Authoritarian parents, by contrast, are demanding and controlling without those compassionate layers of caring, attachment and receptiveness. They take a "my way or the highway" approach to their kids.
Permissive parents, the third group, have warm and receptive qualities, but they define few boundaries and enforce few rules.

Using data on nearly 600 kids from an ongoing study of middle school and high school students in New Hampshire, researchers from the University of New Hampshire were able to link "my way or the highway" parenting with more delinquency in kids -- measured in behaviors like shop-lifting, substance abuse and attacking someone else with the intention of hurting or killing.
Firm but loving parenting, on the other hand, led to fewer transgressions. Permissive parenting, surprisingly, didn't seem to make much of a difference either way.

Friday, August 31, 2012

#InvisibleObama [Bryan]

Clint Eastwood at RNC: Instant classic. But probably not for the reason Romney hoped.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Surviving the Titanic [Bryan]

So, why didn't the folks in the Titanic just hop on the iceberg? Functional fixedness!
The most famous cognitive obstacle to innovation functional fixedness — an idea first articulated in the 1930s by Karl Duncker in which people tend to fixate on the common use of an object. For example, the people on the Titanic overlooked the possibility that the iceberg could have been their lifeboat.
Newspapers from the time estimated the size of the iceberg to be between 50-100 feet high and 200-400 feet long. Titanic was navigable for awhile and could have pulled aside the iceberg. Many people could have climbed aboard it to find flat places to stay out of the water for the four hours before help arrived. Fixated on the fact that icebergs sink ships, people overlooked the size and shape of the iceberg (plus the fact that it would not sink).

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Mormon Cuisine

I've been busy lately, but I think I can resume some measure of blogging at this point. I've been meaning to point readers to an article on "Mormon Cuisine" that was published in the NY Times a few months ago. It discusses the history of why we eat like we do (focused on Jello and other convenience foods) and why things are changing (e.g., missionaries gaining a fondest for foreign cuisine in far off locales.)
Mormonism is a young religion, born in the 1830s, leaving little time for food traditions to evolve. Its food doesn’t reflect one particular ethnic identity, or a region other than the Wasatch Front....Food was rarely plentiful in the early years, families were large, and all households tithed at least 10 percent to the church, so women were strongly encouraged to develop cooking and budget-management skills. Being industrious and hardworking is highly prized in Mormon culture (the beehive is a symbol of the church), and for women, cooking provides a real sense of identity and daily purpose.

In the 1960s, Mormon women (like most Americans) enthusiastically embraced inexpensive convenience foods like canned fruit, instant potatoes and, of course, Jell-O. “For some reason, the Utah Mormons took longer to come out of that phase,” said Christy Spackman, 34, a doctoral student in food studies at N.Y.U. 

Ms. Spackman says that in her congregation, in Brooklyn, the tradition of socializing with food and sharing recipes is just as strong as it was when she was growing up in Logan, Utah. Only the recipes have changed. “Now the recipe is more likely to be a grapefruit curd or a new kind of granola bar than a casserole,” she said. Recipes, like one for homemade yogurt, “spread like wildfire” in the community, she said. 

Many Mormon men and some women spend two years abroad working as missionaries — a custom that has given many a lingering taste for kimchi or Camembert. In Brazil, Mrs. Wells discovered a passion for dulce de leche, mangoes and black beans.
 I also loved this description of funeral potatoes.
Funeral potatoes, a rich casserole of grated potatoes, sour cream, cheese and cream-of-something soup, is delivered to the bereaved, and serves as a side dish for ham on Christmas and Easter. It tastes like the inside of a baked potato mashed with plenty of sour cream and Cheddar, and it takes only one savory, fluffy forkful to see why the dish is a classic. (During the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, visitors found these dishes so pervasive that souvenir pins shaped like cubes of green Jell-O and casseroles of funeral potatoes became hot sellers.)
Is it lunch time, yet?

Friday, February 24, 2012

Death Star Economics [Bryan]

Would the death star be economically feasible? Kevin Drum says yes:

There's been a lot of loose talk about the Death Star lately. I want to put it into a bit of perspective.

As background, some students at Lehigh University have estimated that it would be a very expensive project. The steel alone, assuming the Death Star's mass/volume ratio is about the same as an aircraft carrier, comes to $852 quadrillion, or 13,000 times the world's GDP. Is this affordable?

Let's sharpen our pencils. For starters, this number is too low. Using the same aircraft carrier metric they did, I figure that the price tag on the latest and greatest Ford-class supercarrier is about 100x the cost of the raw steel that goes into it. If the Death Star is similar, its final cost would be about 1.3 million times the world's GDP.

But there's more. Star Wars may have taken place "a long time ago," but the technology of the Star Wars universe is well in our future. How far into our future? Well, Star Trek is about 300 years in our future, and the technology of Star Wars is obviously well beyond that. Let's call it 500 years. What will the world's GDP be in the year 2500? Answer: assuming a modest 2% real growth rate, it will be about 20,000 times higher than today. So we can figure that the average world in the Star Wars universe is about 20,000x richer than present-day Earth, which means the Death Star would cost about 65x the average world's GDP.

However, the original Death Star took a couple of decades to build. So its annual budget is something on the order of 3x the average world's GDP.

But how big is the Republic/Empire? There's probably a canonical figure somewhere, but I don't know where. So I'll just pull a number out of my ass based on the apparent size of the Old Senate, and figure a bare minimum of 10,000 planets. That means the Death Star requires .03% of the GDP of each planet in the Republic/Empire annually. By comparison, this is the equivalent of about $5 billion per year in the current-day United States.

In other words, not only is the Death Star affordable, it's not even a big deal.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Tim vs. Jeremy [Bryan]

So, apparently the new sports crush is New York Knick point guard Jeremy Lin. I can't say I'm not also caught up in the hype: from what I have seen, Lin is great fun to watch and cheer for. Of course, we now get the inevitable comparisons to Tim Tebow. I have nothing against Tebow. He seems like a decent kid. There is no real comparison, though, in their respective Cinderella stories. This sums it up:

Tim Tebow’s commercials and personal branding speak about how everyone has always doubted him, but in reality, he’s has every privilege and advantage. He was home-schooled but was still allowed to play Florida high school sports. He was allowed to play in a college spread offense built around his rather unique skill set. He was drafted in the first round even though many scouts saw him as a mid- to high-round project. He is treated like an All-American superstar even without the game to back it up....Tim Tebow had the benefit of the doubt. Jeremy Lin was just doubted.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Life according to Stephen [Bryan]

Our son, Stephen, seems to have entered the stage of perfect cuteness. Not a day goes by when he doesn't say something clever. And his hair is just a curly mess of wonderful blond tangles. We can't bring ourselves to cut it.

Some recent stories:

Ellie went in after Stephen's nap to find that he had gotten out his old white diapers and spread them all across the floor of his bedroom. Ellie, shocked at the mess, asked him what he'd been doing. "It's snow, Mom," he said.

We were eating dinner the other night. Conversation was lagging a bit. Suddenly, Stephen pipes up, "Mom, are you thinking what I'm thinking?" We're not sure where he got that, but it was hilarious to be asked that by a two-year-old. We concluded that, no, we probably weren't thinking what he was thinking.

I was in the bathroom today getting ready. Stephen marches in and points at the shower. "What's that, Dadda?" he asks. "Um, that's the shower, buddy." I reply. He says, matter-of-factly, "That's where it rains." True, Stephen, true.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Ode to underground London [Bryan]

Sorry about the lack of posting lately -- still trying to navigate my new identity.

Anyway, a mesmerizing video below of the London Tube. For some reason, I love to watch people in transit. It is always interesting to think about who they are and where they are going. Also, there is some great footage of a guy in a bow tie.

Oyster Hunt from Garreth Carter on Vimeo.