Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Posts from 10,000 ft: missing Mississippi?

The view from way up here
From my cramped, middle-seat in row 42, without even the distractions of free wifi ($6/hr is $6 too much.  Take note, Delta), I'm doing my best to appreciate the fact that I am flying through the air at 100's of miles an hour. So far, I'm unsuccessful.

But I'm no less happy for it, I managed to hop on the standby list for an earlier flight (for free!) and got out of Atlanta an hour and a half earlier than scheduled. So now, at this moment, instead of inching along the tarmac in Atlanta, I'm sailing over the bright, golden-hazy meadows of Oklahoma.  

Since, relatively speaking, I'm not going anywhere, I thought I'd talk a bit about Mississippi.

See?  Boring. 
I'll open with a confession: I get bored in Mississippi.  A lot of people asked me why I went home for such short time.  There were a lot of good reasons–I needed to finish up projects in Provo; it was hundreds of dollars cheaper to fly christmas and new years eves; and I wanted time to come back, work on things in Provo and get ready for the school semester. A big part of it was just habit: for a long time I've had very limited time for vacations because of the MTC, so this Christmas, even though I had fewer obligations, it felt strange to leave for more than a week–but a lot of it came down to the fact that I always get bored when I stay in Mississippi for too long. I miss the near-constant adventures available in Utah.

That said, this last week was lovely.  I think this last year I mellowed out a bit and realized that I actually enjoy a lot of things about Mississippi and being home that I've never really appreciated.  Here's a little shout out to my home state.  It may have problems with obesity, poverty, education, and teen pregnancy, but it's not for nothing that profound people come out of Mississippi.

There are also no dogs in Provo
When I was younger, whenever we would go to Utah, when we came back my parents would always talk about how Mississippi was "So green!!". I never saw what was so fantastic about the greenness.  Now when I come home I love how the entire state is alive.  Everywhere you look, there are trees and bushes and vines and life.  There are squirrels and birds and bugs everywhere. Everything is slightly damp and smells like life.  Everything breathes.

Mississippi might not be a popular destination for carefree, outdoorsy europeans and asian tour busses (although it might, they always seem to pop up in the strangest places), but its outdoors are somewhat wonderful.  Open water kayaking is fantastic, and walks in the woods have this private, secluded, even romantic (in the truest sense of the word) feel that is hard to find in the exposed, oft-overcrowded wilderness of Utah. You can turn a corner in the woods and find yourself with no human in earshot. It's really the best type of solitude.

Here we see Perkes in its natural habitat
There was a time when I thought snow was the most magical thing in the world and I could play in it forever and never get bored.  Admittedly, that was last Sunday, but the more time I spend in Utah, the more I appreciate winters that aren't quite so frigid.  It is wonderful to stand barefoot in the gulf, or walk through the woods in a t-shirt (having fallen into the water from a tree of dubious integrity), or simply go outside without gearing up for war.

In regards to the people, I might just be projecting, but I feel like everyone here, myself included, is a lot less high-strung. It's sort of hard to judge this, because I live in a stressful college town, and my parents live on the beach in a casino town, but I think it's a fair observation.  People in the south just take time to talk to people or to sit.  I think that's the reason there are so many porches in Mississippi compared to Utah. (I don't actually know if this is true, but I suspect it is.  When I have internet again I'll look this up.) The one time we tried to get a porch in Utah the Home Owners' Association threatened to fine us.  Why?  Because they hate relaxation.

Crepes for lunch

Returning to Mississippi, you wouldn't know if from how skinny healthy everyone in my family is, but we do food right.  Eating my parents cooking is great, and the bagels and cream cheese flow like water from the tap (and unlike tap-water in Mississippi, bagels and cream cheese are delicious).  Actually my family does everything I love right.  We play games, we cook fancy meals, we talk about science, we go outside, we watch Doctor Who.  It's very reassuring.

So I really enjoyed this week, and being in Mississippi.
I'm not saying I'd like to build a summer home here, but the trees are actually quite lovely.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

People watching just to pass the time

Notes from my voyage:  

First flight awful, stuck between two people, both college students.  Good enough people–they don’t take up my space, make noise, or smell bad, but the whole thing is very claustrophobic.  Guy on the right wants to be a naval pilot, studying flash cards of pre-takeoff checks, slept most of the trip.  Girl on my left in pajama pants, sleeps, reads.

Young family to the left with a fairly quiet baby.  Sometimes she cries, but that’s how I felt also.  The girl next to me was making faces at her and making her (the baby) laugh. As we approached Atlanta, baby was sitting on tray table, pressed against the window, looking at the world below. 

In the airport café, black ladies at the cash register.  Probably around my age, messed up Hispanic guy’s order, didn’t really face him when they talked to him.  Didn’t include his bread bowl, and wouldn’t give it to him because he hadn’t paid, agreed to charge him for it and give it to him, but found out they were out of bread bowls.  Hispanic guy (an airport worker, maybe on the tarmac? Has a vest with initials on it, can’t remember what) retorted as he left, “it’s a holiday, y’all need a cook!”

My lunch  was  mediocre.  Chicken salad sandwich careless, raw onions always a bad decision.  Four croutons does not a Caesar salad make. Now my hands smell like raw onions.

Second flight: Drunk (?) woman with seat next to me argued about baggage space with passengers in front of us (old married couple, made snide comments and didn’t really acknowledge her directly), coming from home in Charlotte to visit her husband who works for VA in Biloxi. Short dress and makeup, but fairly disheveled.  Face puffy, seems like it’s seen plastic surgery, but could have just been a bad day. Probably drunk, definitely kicked off the plane.

In front of me, old, colonel sanders type friendly with young, smart, relaxed black guy. Sanders is in a suite, black guy in a white t-shirt with tattoos.  Both in first class, ordering drinks, bonded over drunk lady.

Take off, empty seat where upset woman would have been; she smelled bad, I didn’t ask her name. I unceremoniously nabbed her seat for my stuff after she was escorted off.

Diamond rings do disco–reflect the sunlight all over the cabin.  Looks like stars. This ring’s owner is a white, middle-aged, thin woman with grayish buzzed hair.  Did she do chemo, or is she just a little edgy? Husband reading CNN, sort of a Newman type, now he’s on E-trade, CNN money. (Making stock decisions?) Old woman in front (the couple who argued with lady from Charlotte) not wearing a ring.  Are they just family? Unmarried? Or do her fingers swell on airplanes? I can’t see the husbands left hand without being obvious. She’s reading “Born in Fire” Husband (?) has typical old man hat: tan, canvassy, large.  Woman has anchors embroidered in gold all over her blouse.

Middle aged couple (with the diamond) ordering white wine, joking with stewardess.  Classy Folk, southern accents, going home. 

Stewardess is older (mid 40’s?  Early Fifties? Black women tend age well) A bit old fashioned (shoulder pads, hair curled in rollers) but classy, friendly.  She opens cans with a card to save her hands. Clever.

Other flight attendant younger (30’s?) more modern style, smiles more.

They keep offering me refills, why don’t I take them? These pretzels are making me thirsty.

I started this because I was reflecting on the drunk lady and didn't want to forget how that went down, I finished because I was bored.  As we de-boarded I noticed the older fellow had a ring, so I'm going with swollen fingers.  Additionally, the diamond ring lady had her leg was in a brace and she asked for a wheel chair, and they were talking about having had surgery.  Bone marrow transplant maybe?  Christmas can be a rough time for people.  It's good to be home. 

Monday, December 16, 2013

Thoughts of an recently-busy, oft-overprivileged yuppie, or Further proof that my dad cloned himself

"Perhaps I am more than usually jealous with respect to my freedom. I feel that my connection with and obligation to society are still very slight and transient. Those slight labors which afford me a livelihood, and by which it is allowed that I am to some extent serviceable to my contemporaries, are as yet commonly a pleasure to me, and I am not often reminded that they are a necessity. So far I am successful. But I foresee that if my wants should be much increased, the labor required to supply them would become a drudgery. If I should sell both my forenoons and afternoons to society, as most appear to do, I am sure that for me there would be nothing left worth living for. I trust that I shall never thus sell my birthright for a mess of pottage."
                     ~Henry David Thoreau,  Life Without Principle

Reading Thoreau makes me feel like less of a generation-Y idealist unwilling to settle down and get a real job and more like a generation-Y idealist in pursuit of a worthy life. Not that there's anything wrong with working hard–I suppose all good things that exist are the result of hard work–but the idea of sacrificing a joyful life for money to provide for an expensive one terrifies me.

I was going to make this long and thoughtful, but that's really all I have to say on the subject, plus I just realized that I actually ended up posting my failed attempts at a good analysis of this semester last month.  I don't think all people who make a lot of money are selling their soul, a lot of people are passionate for things that compensate well. I'm fairly lucky in this regard actually.  While I'm not passionate for anesthesiology, there are a lot of people willing to pay scientists to explore the world, and that's a pretty good gig.

Maybe people who have actually pursued careers will be able to inform my opinions on this, but for now I'll stick with this. I've had a lot of examples in my life of people for whom a career is about so much more than a paycheck.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Looking for Walden

The view, walking out of my programming midterm.
Today it rained, and it was cold. My helmet got wet, and my hands were dying.  Like most other days, I spent hours underground in the most depressing building on campus. Opening the door to one of the most beautiful sunsets I've seen in Utah was a nice moment.

Ordinarily I try to stay busy doing things I enjoy and look for joy in between.  This semester hasn't really left many opportunities to do the things I love, but I am still managing to find some good times in between.

For the first time in my life I'm enjoying walking.  I've always enjoyed what I'm doing so much that wasting time either before or after whatever I was doing to walk someplace always seemed unreasonable, but in my current life of stressful things walking is an island of reflection in a sea of business busyness.

This semester has been an interesting view into what a busy, stressful, work-filled life looks like.  I don't like it, and I don't understand why anyone would choose such a life. This is the life that Thoreau was escaping from. I think what I am getting at here is life is far too short to waste it doing something you don't enjoy, and there are far too many things out there to enjoy to trudge along, being busy without doing anything meaningful.

That's really all.  Whatever you're doing, I hope you enjoy it. And regardless of how much you enjoy it, I hope you're doing something in between to put some joy in your life.  If not, you might consider rock climbing.  It's one of a few things that are keeping me sane.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

A rare foray into politics

One of these days I'm going to talk about how great my life is these days, and all the fun adventures I've been on in between all these deep things I write about.

In the mean time, here's my recent facebook status, it turned out long, so I thought the blog would be a good place for it.

"These days I rarely throw my hat into the political arena, because it's messy, and crowded, and my hat would get stepped on and covered in junk.  I like my hat.

That said, I think it's disappointing and absurd that both sides are finding ways to blame each other for a shutdown that was caused by the complete failure of our government to do anything but bash heads against each other over partisan talking points.

I'm not saying both sides are equally at fault here; I am just over reading one sided articles taking quotes out of context and spinning fallacy filled vitriol to paint their opponents as terrible people who don't care about anyone.  Maybe if we as a society were capable of having a reasonable discussion about issues and understanding why people feel the way we do, value their opinions, and then come to a consensus which we all agreed to live by, we might have leaders who aspire to do the same.  If we demand it, they'll start selling it to us.  As it is we love the conflict, and so that sells papers and wins votes.

I think for the most part my friends on facebook are far more reasonable and mature than our leaders (which concerns me deeply), but I'd just request that people take a second before posting passionate opinion pieces that attack the opposition.  Maybe we ought to work on respecting people who disagree with us.  That could be fun.

Hopefully I'm just naive and the government has always been this immature and the populace always so uninformed and easily swayed by loud noises, and we still managed to get things done.  As it is, I'm more than a little concerned for the future.  We've already raped the world of its resources, the least we can do is maintain a functioning democracy and economy for the next generation or two to work with.

That's all, I'll go back to posting witty comments and pictures of my adventures."

So that's how I feel about this shutdown, and the general state of american politics.  Sometimes people assume I don't care much about politics, but that's not entirely true.  I avoid politics for the same reason I don't want to be an ecologist: It's not that I don't think it's important; I feel that to get involved would be to face a long disappointing battle against an undefined enemy that doesn't even recognize the casualties.  That's probably not the most noble of choices I've made, but there it is.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Why every Mormon (and everyone else) can believe in evolution.

"To conclude, therefore, let no man out of a weak conceit of sobriety, or an ill-applied moderation, think or maintain, that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God's word, or in the book of God's works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficience in both."  
Francis Bacon (quoted in the epigraph of Darwin's Origin of Species)

So I've given a lot of thought to this, and I wasn't sure how to go about it.

Here's the thing: A lot of people base their belief in God in part or in whole on the mystery of the world and the beauty that they can't explain.  I've discussed this previously, and how I don't think it's the best foundation for faith, but I'm not sure whether it's always bad to believe in God based on somewhat shaky information.  Even more than that, I'm not sure that I'm fairly certain that it's not my responsibility or place to go around correcting people's faith, and I feel weird taking away people's arguments for God when I obviously am a pretty big fan myself.

That said, I think we as scientists and religious people establish a dichotomy between the two at our own peril.  A professor here at BYU (whose insistence in teaching evolution should be one evidence that's it's not a bunch of satanic lies) explained it like this (I'll paraphrase) : You probably don't have to believe in evolution to get into heaven, but I worry when people think they have to choose between God and science, because eventually the evidence for science gets to be too much, and people feel they have to give up on God.

As a scientist, or a historian, or a bible scholar, or a church scholar (most all of which I'm not), or really anyone who is informed on things, you have to learn how to deal with conflicting truths, and figure out how to make them work together.  The alternative is rejecting truth, and that just seems like a bad habit to get into.

So to conclude this somewhat prolix introduction, religious people should believe in evolution because religion is the pursuit of truth, and anyone who can reject such plain truth, though it comes through more empirical means than they may be used to, weakens, I believe, their ability to spot and comprehend truth.  Say what you will about scientists, but they love truth.  Just ask them about something complicated, and you'll see that they're wrestling with this desire to explain it clearly while not saying anything that's incorrect.

Just one more thing: You might wonder why in a post meant to prove evolution I'm getting so deeply into religion.  It might be because it's Sunday morning, but more than that I think the reason scientists have so much difficulty convincing religious people to accept Evolution is because they don't really understand such people, and they don't know how to come to their playing field.  Creationists have done this masterfully with Intelligent Design, in which they managed to take a religious dogma and package it as science, and argue before school boards and courts based on (pseudo) scientific principles rather than religious ones.  I think this is fundamentally dishonest, but it is effective.

 The point is, if scientists want to convince believers to accept evolution, they can't appeal to factual arguments, because that's not what appeals to most religious people, and that's obviously not the reason that religious people have problems with evolution.  Rather they could take a page from the ID camp and go to their level, showing why evolution agrees with scripture, how it adds to, rather than detracts from, the beauty of God and our purpose in life, and why it shouldn't conflict with true principles.

The thing is, the science is there.  I'm not going to spend much time explaining the science of evolution.  Wikipedia does that really well.  If you have any questions for me, ask me, for one reason or another I've dedicated a lot of time and study, both religious and scientific, to evolution, I haven't found too many questions I can't answer (I have found some, see below).

So without further ado, let's get moving.

To begin, I think that most conflicts with science and religion come from a faulty understanding of one or the other (or in this case, both).  We'll start with science and move to religion.

First, a couple definitions.
A theory is not a guess, and it's not a fact.  It's an explanation for facts that exist, and one that's been tested and supported by overwhelming evidence.  Facts are boring in science.  Anyone can pull up facts, it's the ability to explain and predict these facts that matter, and that's what a theory does.  The theory of gravity describes the way all bodies are drawn towards each other.  It explains the observations that things fall down, and that the earth is shooting through space but doesn't fall into the sun or fly off course, and it explains the way light bends.  It allows us to make predictions and shoot rockets that will land on the moon.  Theories are pretty useful, as it turns out.

The theory of evolution describes the way life forms develop and change over time.  It explains the observations of fossils, shared traits, similar traits, and a whole host of interesting observations that don't make a lot of sense otherwise (more on that later too).  It also allows us to make predictions and combat diseases and breed animals and plants, and lots of other useful things.

A species is a tricky concept to define.  For my purposes, I'll define it as any organisms that won't ever reproduce with a different group of organisms.  It's not a perfect definition, but it's nice from an evolutionary perspective, since any two groups that don't mix will almost certainly diverge eventually.  The point is that the idea of micro vs. macro evolution isn't discussed much by scientists these days, they're the same thing, it's a question of time: a species will evolve gradually.  If this species is separated into two groups, they'll gradually turn into two species, because they'll evolve in different directions.  This has been observed in so many ways, which I'm not going to discuss here.

Next, here are some things people rarely understand about evolution (which is partly the fault of Marvel Comics and mostly the fault of a depressing lack of good science teaching over the years):

First of all, evolution has nothing to do with the individual.  Individuals don't evolve.  Populations evolve, and they evolve based on the pressures placed on the variation that already exists in the world.  If we one day decided that we were going to kill off everyone who didn't have red hair, and future generations all had red hair (which they would, mostly), we would say our population evolved, even though all those red haired people and genes existed before hand (Disclaimer: I don't encourage mass murder based on hair color)

Second, evolution is not directional.  Evolution is not some driving force pushing all species towards being smart, bipedal, social, humans.  Species don't want to evolve to become better or more complicated or smarter.  Evolution pushes populations wherever they'll survive and reproduce best, drawing from the random variations that already exist.  From an evolutionary perspective, reproduction is all that matters, or more accurately passing along your genes to future generations.

Third, evolution is slow.  Very slow.  While it might move a little quicker than we used to think, we're still talking about many many many generations.  We're not talking about a single fish mutating lungs and then walking out onto the land (obviously it would have to be at least two fish to get anywhere).  But whenever there is a big open resource to be explored (in this case, land), there's a lot of pressure for something to fill it (because of all the death, competition, and starvation happening everywhere else), and so anything that can survive a little better there will tend to fill it in, and then its genes get passed on and so on, until we move from awkward, mud fish, to amphibians, to reptiles, to mammals to monkeys to man (see below). Sometimes people complain that evolution can't be true because we've never seen a new species formed (see definitions later).  This is wrong on a couple levels, but it's similar to saying erosion doesn't happen because we've never seen a grand canyon formed.  While it's arguably true, the time scale involved is just too big to expect to see the grand canyon form in your lifetime.  But you can see lots of other things erode and look at mountains and canyons and recognize the speed at which they are being eroded, and gather lots of other evidence that suggest erosion is happening, even if we can't see the end or the beginning.  Plus the grand canyon is right there.  It had to form somehow, right?

Fifth, man didn't descend from monkeys ("so why are there still monkeys?").  We descended from common ancestors (stick with me here), and monkeys survived better from climbing trees and eating fruit, and we survived better by walking around and becoming very smart and making languages and culture and music and everything.  Saying we evolved from monkeys is like saying we descended from our cousins.  We didn't, we both descended from our grandparents, who were similar to both of us, but not the same as either of us, and now we're quite different from our cousins (this blog post being evidence of that).  By the way, we split off from other apes a long long long time ago.  Like unfathomably long.

Now some misconceptions about religion.  As usual, I'll be talking about what Mormons believe, because the point of this is to convince all the Mormons in the world that evolution is more in line with our beliefs than the Creationist camp.

First, and most importantly, the story of the creation in Genesis is not meant as a completely literal account, it's symbolic.  I'm not saying that Adam and Eve didn't exist, but I am saying that Eve was not created from Adam's rib and Adam was not created from clay, and the world was not created in seven days, or even seven thousand years. And that's not what our church says either.  A lot of members, because of the importance of Adam and Eve in our religion naturally assume that the whole story is just a simple explanation of where everything came from.  But that's pretty boring, isn't it?  Science can do that.  What if it actually taught us something about who we are, and our relationships to one another, and love, and faith, and obedience.  That's what the creation story does when it becomes symbolic.  Instead of a simplistic, confusing, and unsupported account of where the world came from, it's an allegory for our lives.  And that's fun.

(I don't feel like digging up every quote that supports this, but hopefully that's not that controversial of an idea.  The simple fact that the various accounts we have (and we have plenty in our church) emphasize different points and the order varies and the details change slightly should make it clear that it isn't meant to be literal.)

Second, evolution doesn't contradict our doctrine.  We don't know where Adam and Eve came from, and those saying that they do are speaking from their personal feelings and beliefs, and not from a position of authority.  Personally, I don't see why having evolved from animals is somehow more demeaning than being formed from dust (which, again, seems to be symbolic, doesn't it?). Animals are good.

Third (or 2.5th) - Closely related, just because Bruce R. McConkie said something doesn't make it true.  This has to be correct, because several church leaders have disagreed over the years about things (evolution is a fine example.) You shouldn't just pick your favorite apostle and say everything he says comes from God, (sorry B.H. Roberts...) you should probably decide for yourself.  Blindly accepting the words of others is often risky, always a little lazy, and makes us weaker (don't believe me?  Brigham Young himself said so, so it must be true!).  Once Elder Bednar came to our mission and mentioned that the term "free agency" was false.  He admitted that past apostles and prophets often used it, and concluded, "We know more now." I have read many many things by very intelligent and spiritual people against evolution.  But I hope that we know more now.

I think if you accept those three assumptions, then there's really nothing we believe that contradicts definitively with evolution.  There are a lot of questions I still don't know, like what do we do with Adam and Eve, because we do believe they exist, but the evidence for human evolution is pretty strong.   We can reject one or the other (but doing so seems foolish in either case), or we can accept that we don't quite know everything, and try to think of some way that they can coincide, and learn to juggle conflicting ideas. If you want to know my personal feelings on how these overlap, ask me, this post is lengthy enough as it is.

To conclude, given the overwhelming evidence for evolution, and the lack of a doctrinal mandate to reject it, why not believe in it?  If you want you can respond and tell me why not; please do.  But I also want to explain what evolution adds to religion, and why accepting it makes believing in God more fulfilling.

For thousands of years, christianity held the dogma of an unknowable God, one that's mysterious, and different, and incomprehensible.  In many ways, the LDS church was a move against this ideology, it came saying God existed, and was not so extremely different from us after all, and that we could understand him and communicate with him through our own efforts and study.

There's so much evidence for evolution, if you reject it the world returns to a dark and confusing place, and God becomes almost deceptive.  Why is it that all the evidence points towards evolution if it's not true.  Is God just trying to trick us?  Did he put fossils there just to mess with us? When you accept evolution, God becomes rational and discoverable, and the ability to think and reason that he's given us becomes a gift that we should use to understand him better, not a curse that we're supposed to ignore.

If you agree with the creationists, the world is profoundly inconsistent, and the observations we see today are not representative of the way the world worked in the past.  Evolution insists that the processes in the world are consistent, which, for me, makes a lot of sense for a God that's the same yesterday, today, and forever.

Accepting evolution, and science in general, allows you to feel that all truth, regardless of it's source, is one.  Additionally, if you believe God created the world, isn't it amazing to know how he created it? Religion doesn't explain that, because that's not what it's there for. What does evolution teach us about God?  The way he thinks, and operates: not through magic wands and sudden changes, but by slow, progressive changes that can be predicted and understood.  Doesn't that help us understand how we are expected to change and grow?

I understand evolution well enough to say confidently that it doesn't prove or disprove God.  Evolution doesn't need a divine architect to function, nor does the fact that it happened somehow show that there was no divine origin.  In the same way, the fact that we can explain where mountains come from without invoking magic doesn't make them less magnificent or awe inspiring.  Because I believe in God, evolution adds profound meaning to my faith in the same way that mountains, even though I can talk about the processes involved in formation, still fill me with wonder and happiness.  Religion teaches me that God exists and loves me, and science allows me to see the way he thinks.

So that's my 2 cents.  After thinking about this quite a lot (obviously), I realized I don't need to convince everyone. If you still don't accept evolution, that's really your prerogative (although I'm really not cool with trying to change biology curricula.  That's a post for another day, perhaps).  Just don't feel like you have to choose between God and Science.  They're both fantastic.

If you do still doubt evolution, you should tell me why.  I probably won't be offended (although my pride as a persuasive blog writer might be a little wounded) and I'd love to respond to any questions you have about evolution (or God).

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

How do you keep a turkey in suspense?

Ok, I know I promised a long post about evolution, but I just haven't had time, but it's coming.  Much like evolution, these things take time.

In the mean time, I've been thinking my blog has gotten a little heavy of late.  Religion and revelation and science and love and heartbreak.  Where has the light-hearted, hammock-loving Ammon of days of old gone to?  Well, life is as whimsical and exciting as ever, and to prove it, here's a fun list:

Ammon's 10 easy steps for being more attractive (especially for girls)

I recently realized there are a few things any girl can do to instantly become more attractive (to me, in particular), and I thought I'd share this with my female compatriots. I suppose a lot of these apply to men too.  So if you're wondering how to instantly be more attractive, put down the extra makeup and just do the following:

1.  Ride a bike
Bikes are extremely flattering.  Aside from the fact that they identify you as cool, bikes give you good posture, provide dramatic wind in which your hair can flutter, and there's something about effortlessly gliding through space that is beautiful.

2. Cook
Sorry feminists*, cooking is still very attractive. Aprons are too.  And it's not merely some antiquated notion of domesticity (I don't have any particular fetish for sewing); it's just that food is so sensual and wonderful to begin with, the ability to make it is similarly sensual and wonderful.  The good news is that I think that a love and ability for cooking is one of the highest forms of masculinity.  So you won't be alone.

3. Rock Climb
Now you might just think that I'm just naming my hobbies, but rock climbing is very flattering (especially if you're good at it). It's like dancing up a wall, with stretchy pants.

4. Smile
Everyone is beautiful when they smile, laughing counts double.

5. Really care about people
It's the new hotness.  (Bonus points for caring about me.  That's super attractive.)

6. Sing
Singing beautifully has always been irresistible. Just ask Odysseus

7. Dance
This is an interesting one, because it's not really something I enjoy personally, but it definitely makes everyone more attractive (depending on the style. Sorry, Miley)

8. Be Spontaneous
You're saying you want to go cliff jumping at midnight?  Marry me.

9. Be outside at night.
Speaking of midnight, everyone looks more beautiful in the moonlight.  This is even more true when it's snowing. In fact, I think everything is more true when it's snowing.

10. Express well-formed, critical arguments that go beyond cultural norms and hackneyed statements.
Turns out the opposite is boring, and there's nothing attractive about being boring.

So there you have it, just apply these ten easy steps, and you too will be instantly more attractive to everyone around you-- especially everyone around you who happens to be me.

Next time: Why every Mormon (and everyone else) should believe in Evolution

*I don't actually see any feminists that are opposed to cooking.  For thoughts on feminism, see #10.  

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

In which we see why Ammon is too biased to be a pollster.

I really shouldn't be up at 2 am posting blogs, but I'm just about done with a paper I'm writing and I found out that only 22% of Mormons believe in evolution, fewer even than evangelical christians.  I'll probably talk about my feelings another day, but I'm curious:

*Someone asked what I meant by evolution. I just copied my facebook response,

What I really mean is what most scientists mean when referring to evolution: the idea that primarily through random mutation and natural selection (into which I'm grouping sexual selection and some other things) all the diversity of life seen on earth gradually came to be from common ancestry. Hopefully that doesn't change too many answers.

 For more on what I mean by evolution, check out the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

(if you've already voted, you can see the results here.  But vote first!) 

Obviously my readership isn't even sort of representative of the church body, since lots of my friends who aren't Mormon's read my blog, and I suspect those people I know who are LDS are not exactly a representative sample.  I'm mostly just curious about the people I know, so lets see your 2 cents, and then I'll tell you later how I feel, as a budding mormon biologist, about evolution.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

On bio-ethics, sacrifice, and facebook ettiquite.

In bioethics, we were discussing thought experiments and doing some, which is always fun.  One of them was what we would be willing to do, if asked by religious authority (ranging from second councilor to God himself).

First of all, it worries me how many people would be willing to do apparently bad things because their second councilor, or bishop, or an apostle asked them to, because that's just not doctrinally sound reasoning.

It gets a little trickier when you're asked what you would do for God.

For example, if God asked you to kill your son, would you do it?  Most Mormons (and 100% of Abrahams) say yes. At least those in my bioethics class.  Hopefully this won't ever come up. But then our professor asked what if God asked you to kill your son but then told you that if you did, you would go to Hell for it.

It's still what he wants you to do, but you'll be punished for it.

That was a more interesting question, for a lot of reasons. Most of us said no.  (As it turned out I left my iClicker at home, so I didn't have to commit).  Why do we say no?  Doesn't that suggest we're really just motivated by getting our reward rather than doing what God asks us to?  Or does it suggest there's a higher good that supersedes what God asks.  Obviously, setting up impossible hypothetical scenarios sometimes leads to issues. (I believe God is good, and so I hope that if he did ask me to do something so directly, it would be good, and so forcing it to be bad makes it sort of difficult, which is the point, of course. I've been reading through the Old Testament recently.  A lot of stuff seems pretty bad on the surface, so it's hard to say.)

This is sort of all over the place, we'll see where this goes.

This brings me to tonight.  So I'm sitting here, reading through facebook, and I see this:

Let me tell you why this is everything that hurts me.

First of all, I think reposts on Facebook are the worst, always.  As a rule, I don't post anything that asks me to repost it, even if it's something I agree with.
Second, I think this is just a superstitious chain letter masked as something faith building in order to be more popular.
Third, I think this sort of "test" is superstitious and not conducive to real faith.
Finally, I think the design is a little extremely tacky.   It's not even in comic-sans!

So I was reading this, thinking about how I didn't like it, and then I thought, "But what if it were true, maybe I should post it.  Why not?"
And I said to myself, "because it's tacky and everything I hate."
But then I thought, "What if God wanted you to post it?"
And then I said, "Well yeah, of course, but I don't think that God wants me to post something that is tacky and I hate."

And then I went back on forth on it for a while, and it became this sort of deeper issue of if I'm willing to sacrifice my pride and whether I'm capable of doing so, and how much I care what people think of me, and if I'm actually willing to do things I don't want to for God, and whether or not we should expect to have to sacrifice things, even things that are central to who we are.

Eventually rational thinking took over:
I thought to myself, if I do, and nothing happens, then I can say, "See!  It's tacky and unsound and I don't have to do stupid things on facebook as some sort of test of faith."

And if something were to happen, then my life is better!  and that's cool. (This is sort of a reductio ad absurdum of Pascal's Wager.)  Regardless, I can say, "Look, I'm a Perkes, and Perkes can do hard things."  And then I can make a blog post about it and ask people what their thoughts were.

And that's how I slipped from my impression of myself.  

So there you have it. I still don't think there's any real value in ill-conceived, barely religious posts on facebook, nor do I think I had to post that for some divine reason, but I'm not sure whether or not there is real value in doing things we don't want to, if only to teach ourselves how.  And I'm wondering in what ways sacrifice is an important element of religion, and whether it needs to be hard to be powerful.

Any thoughts, mysterious* readers?

*I have almost no idea who reads my blog, I see that lots of people do, including many from other countries. Let me know who you are, mysterious russian audience.  дайте мне знать, кто вы, загадочной русской аудитории.

So I wrote this whole post between 11am and 1am, amidst some other things I was doing, as such it is one of my less careful posts and I may have been a little out of it for a lot of the time I spent writing, but I don't want to edit it too much because I think it captures what I was thinking pretty well, maybe better than most.  Here is some good context that I think helps:

If you don't know me fairly well you probably won't understand why this was such a big deal for me. It really does go against almost every instinct I have.  The thing is, I care far too much about what people think of me, especially on the internet (you probably do too).  Which is, I think, why posting this appealed to me in a strangle, slightly masochistic, or more accurately ascetic sense.  We I care so much about what people think that the thought of doing something which disrupts the normal flow (on facebook or in public) is nearly painful.  Posting that was much harder for me than giving away money, or time, or vice; I do that sort of thing all the time, it's practically second nature.  Heights and depths and animals and pain and death have never really scared me much, but social judgement always has.

I'm not saying everyone should go post annoying things on facebook because it will make you better (most people already post annoying things on facebook, and the rest of you are what give me hope for the world), but I think it might be worth considering what it is we're afraid of, what it is that we can't give up, or can't do, and give it a try.

PS - On review of my somewhat hasty post, I realized it could be fairly offensive.  If anyone actually posted that (or something like it) with good intentions and is now incredibly offended, I'm really quite sorry; that certainly wasn't my intent.  I'm sort of particular and judgmental sometimes usually, and I tend to articulate small things so that they sound like a big deal, you probably shouldn't take it too seriously.  You just keep doing what you're doing. I'll be over here figuring out my life.  

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Love, Loss, and Moving On: Discoveries of a 20-something Robot

It seems like everyone around me is either getting married or getting over some sort of heartbreak (it is the season after all), and I've been thinking about doing this for a while, but I've put it off for many reasons.  First, because it all seemed so emo while I was in the midst of it; second because I'm still not sure if I want to tell everyone on the internet about my feelings (my thoughts, clearly, are fair game); and finally, and probably most significantly, a lot of the people involved are still in my life and read my blog, so it's a little strange.  But it's a slow afternoon and I thought it would make for some interesting writing. . . However, after working on this post for a few days, it turns out I have nothing very insightful or profound to say on the subject, other than to express how surprised I was to discover that I was not immune to such feelings.  Instead, here are three songs that express it all pretty well, in chronological order:

Coldplay - 'Till Kingdom Come
(I tried to find one by ok go for unity, but I couldn't, this is fantastic though.  I aspire to be this effectively awkward)

OK GO - Needing, Getting

OK GO - This Too Shall Pass

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Life of Pi and choosing to believe, a book report.

A very good friend suggested that I write in my blog yesterday.  After talking about a bunch of things, and thinking about a few topics, and rejecting most of them as being far too emo, I decided to talk about Life of Pi, aka, Big Fish pt. II

A few weeks ago I discovered Life of Pi and decided it was one of the best things to ever happen to me, and I posted on facebook something to effect that those who said it was about a boy lost at sea with a tiger had completely missed the point.  This opened me up to some discussions about what it did mean.  (Incidentally, this made me miss some of my more profoundly thinking friends who have slipped out of my life of late, and who would have talked for hours on what it meant, but that is perhaps the topic of another post) With that in mind, I thought I'd do something new and exciting, at least in the realm of this blog: A book report.

Calling it a book report is, perhaps, generous, since there will be few citations and I'm blatantly ignoring many of the themes in favor of postulating on the most overt allegory of the book, the final choice between two competing stories.  And since there are lots of people online who can explain to you what it means, and because I'm not a particularly creditable literary critic, I thought it would be more interesting to discuss what it means to me (by the way, here there be spoilers, if you haven't read the Life of Pi, read on at your own risk)

“So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can't prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?' Mr. Okamoto: 'That's an interesting question?' Mr. Chiba: 'The story with animals.' Mr. Okamoto: 'Yes. The story with animals is the better story.' Pi Patel: 'Thank you. And so it goes with God.” 

Some time ago I made a post about why I believed in God, and how ultimately it came down to a choice, that that is who I wanted to be.  I've thought a bit more about that recently in the context of the Life of Pi.  It shouldn't be surprising that the Life of Pi appeals to me as a deeply, if quietly, religious person who is studying Biology and plans to be a scientist.  I've lived most of my life in the conflict and overlap that exists between science and religion. 

At the end of the book we are presented with an alternate story, a darker, simpler, and perhaps more believable story of how he and a couple others were stuck on a life boat, how the one cannibilized the others and was ultimately killed by Pi, who then drifted to Mexico.  When watching the movie, the choice between the two stories is even more difficult, since the first was less developed, and so less believable, and the second was said more emotionally that I had imagined in the book.  But in any case we are given a choice, between "dry, yeastless, factuality" and a beautiful story, one that's slightly impossible, but actually means something.  

I'm Mormon, which is important context of my story.  We, Mormons, typically have a somewhat scientific view of religious truth: that there is one and only one real story and explanation, we know what it is, and we know it through personal experience and experimentation.  Although there may be questions, that's more a question of things we don't yet know than things we can't know, and we tend to minimize conflicting views in favor of the larger consensus.  That coupled with an instinctive trust in authority and the published works, a focus on study and learning, and the danger of becoming dismissive of those who disagree with us make this comparison surprisingly apt.  

To Mormons, and really to me, and to scientists, the idea that what actually happened doesn't matter is appalling.  How could it not matter? That's the "Truth"!  But more and more I've realized that this idea is wrong in the context of religion (and only mostly right in the context of science).  The fact is that we don't really know everything.  I tread lightly here, because I don't want to offend, and I definitely don't want to be misunderstood.  In the LDS church, we habitually say things like "I know that God lives".  We emphasize our knowledge, and how we know, and that's not necessarily wrong.  But I think we do faith a disservice if we reject the idea that, deep down, to believe is a choice.  (And if we believe that belief is required for salvation, doesn't it have to be our choice?)

And that's really the point, we feel that if we're choosing to believe something it somehow cheapens it, it means that it's not really True, it's just a belief.  I don't think that's correct.  I think the fact that at the base of our faith is a decision, not an event, makes a much more solid foundation, and a much more intellectually honest position from which to build towards knowledge.  Anyway, I don't want this to turn into a criticism of Mormon culture, not because I don't want to criticize Mormon culture, but because I don't want to write my blog to only people interested in Mormon Culture; ask me about it sometime, I have more to say about this.  

To return to the Life of Pi, in all things, we have a choice.  There are competing explanations for many things; those who reject science because they don't think it can adequately explain the earth don't adequately understand science.  The simple fact is we can choose which story we want to believe.  And since we don't know, and it doesn't necessarily change the facts of existence, why not choose the story with meaning, the one that makes you happy? 

There are lots of other things in the Life of Pi worth talking about that I haven't discussed here.  It's unfortunate that I never got around to reading this book last year when I was ostensibly in a book club.  If you haven't read it (even if you've watched the movie), you should.  I focussed on this because, as I said, it's sort of at the core of my life, but I think everyone can find something that really speaks to them.  

In case you're curious, here are some other topics I considered, and am still considering, for my blog, most of which I rejected because they sounded like something I would have written a decade ago:
-Summer, work, and recreation, why a 9 to 5 job would (and possibly will) break me
-Love and Heartbreak, discoveries of a 20-something robot
-Selling the piano: an metaphor for moving on
-Dating and Marriage, pt 2: What the older generation has missed in their well intentioned push to get us married. 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

My inner child is rather crafty

I'm not quite sure what to do with this post, but sometimes I realize that I'm subconsciously surrounding myself with reflections of my subconscious. For your psychoanalysis, some of my favorite things (based primarily on my decorations:)

Calvin and Hobbes
Harold and the Purple Crayon
Einstein on a Bike
M.C. Escher
Van Gogh
The Life of Pi (not a decoration, but a book I just finished that's currently next to me)
The Little Prince (not yet a decoration, but it's my go to favorite book and I bought it in french some time ago with the intention of turning it into decoration, or learn enough french to read it, whichever comes first)

Maybe if I have time I'll figure out what it all says about me.  I was especially struck by the similarities in Calvin, Pi, and the little prince, all of whom had orange, wild animals which they tamed.  Anyway, I'll flush this out a bit more later.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

This I believe

A month or so ago I got into why I believe, but I didn't really talk at all about what I believe.  I also found out (via the handy search function) that I've only mentioned 'God' once in my entire blog, which was in said post.  Considering the God and religion are sort of a big deal in my life, that seems odd.  So I decided to rectify that.  Also, I'm a sucker for people inviting me to do stuff (really, just try!  If it's not bad, I'll probably do it).  So, in true NPR style, 

This I believe: 

I believe in people
People are amazing.  They are good and loving and heroic and imperfect and willing to reach out and help someone because that is what we do.  The world may be horrific at times, and people are imperfect always, but I have never met someone without value and a deep longing for something great, and a willingness to help those the love.  

I believe in fun
Life is sort of incredible, isn't it?  Sure I'm a privileged American who can set off on adventures at the drop of a hat, but I think life should be profoundly enjoyable.  The fact that so many people don't understand that is a tragedy, the fact that so many people don't have the opportunity to enjoy life is an outrage.  I think my blog has shown my thoughts on a happy life quite clearly, so I'll leave it at that.  

I believe in hope
I'm not really sure what to say about this, only that I think hope is our last, best defense against a horrible life.  It is the "anchor of our souls".  But it's also the sail: it allows us to keep moving towards something great and hold on when life is something awful.  Things will be wonderful, I really believe they will.  

I believe in Truth
Even after all my questions, all my doubts, all the ways you can rationalize it and explain it, I believe that there is Truth, with a capital T.  And I think that this truth is attainable to us as humans.  The pursuit of truth is the purpose of the majority of what I do in my life.  

I believe in God
I really, truly do.  There aren't a lot of things in life I can say from personal experience, but I can say from personal experience that there is more to life than what we see: That God exists.  You may chalk it up to coincidence, fallacy, or psychology, but I have felt the love of God in my life.  I have received answers to my questions, I have been protected from danger, in more ways than can fit succinctly in this post.  I believe in Jesus Christ, not just as a man but as a Savior and a source of peace.  I have felt great comfort in times of great trials, and great peace after the burden of regret and guilt.  God is more than a fable or a tradition, He lives, in that he feels and cares and acts and loves each of us.  I believe that because I've felt it and seen it in my life, and it's one of the last things I can fall back on, when everything else fails.

I believe in revelation
I think everyone can know for themselves. Not just what is true but also what they should do in life, the answers to their questions and direction in their decisions.  I think religion is a profoundly personal endeavor for Truth, and I believe that there is one source of Truth, and that if anyone really searches they will end up at the same place, even if the path is a bit different for each person.  I do believe in my church, and I believe it's True.  By this I don't believe it's perfect in every way, and I don't think it's the only place to come close to God, or be good, or find purpose.  I believe it's the best place to find those things, and that it's God's.  It may seem deeply conceited to say that there is one church that is comparatively more true, and that I'm a member of it, and it may sound insane to believe that God can talk to us, but that's what all my experiences have led me to believe.  You're welcome to discover that for yourself, I'll talk to you about it, and I spent two years learning not to try to convince people of it. All this to say, I think we can find answers from God if we look.  If I didn't, I doubt I'd be in any church.  

I believe in science.
I really, truly do.  I think that science is the very best way to understand how the world works.  I don't think the truths of science and religion are of different value, only of different method.  I believe in evolution and plate tectonics and fossils and dinosaurs, and that's never been a big conflict for me.  I believe God created the earth, and if you want to know how, science is the place to look.  A god who gave us such a magnificent ability for reason and deduction would expect us to use that, not to ignore it.  I think really understanding the world brings us closer to understanding God, and those who reject science based on perceived conflicts do Him and themselves a disservice 
Einstein said,
"every one who is seriously engaged in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that the laws of nature manifest the existence of a spirit vastly superior to that of men, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. The pursuit of science leads therefore to a religious feeling of a special kind, which differs essentially from the religiosity of more naive people."  

It bothers me when people quote famous people to lend ethos to statements with which said persons would disagree, so it's worth noting that Einstein was not a huge fan of organized religion, and I think it would be disingenuous to posthumously quote him as one. Although I imagine Einstein would disagree with my belief in a personal and active God, he describes quite nicely my feeling in regards to the connection between science and religion.  

While on the subject of Einstein, turns out he also said this: 

"If one purges the Judaism of the Prophets and Christianity as Jesus Christ taught it of all subsequent additions, especially those of the priests, one is left with a teaching which is capable of curing all the social ills of humanity."

That's the fundamental idea behind the LDS church.  By Einstein. And that's pretty cool, but again, as much as I love him, I doubt Einstein would be Mormon if he were around.  I couldn't find any reliable quotes by Einstein on the LDS church, so I'm not sure how he felt.  Anyway I digress.  

I believe that there are answers to every question
There is no place for deliberate ignorance in religion or science.  There are things we do not yet know, and coming to terms with that is necessary to function in either.  There might be things that we won't know in our lives, but given enough time and determination I think every question can be answered, in one way or another.  I think the pursuit of these answers is one of the most worthy endeavors in life.  I don't think it's the most worth endeavor.

I believe in Love ( doo do do do doooo   ) 
More than truth, I think people are the most important thing in life.  I have known wonderful people who have wholesome lives without caring about God.  I have never know a wonderful or wholesome person who didn't care about people, and while the former may be sad, the latter is dangerous and depressing.  I believe that everyone if they really want can find Love in this life, and I think that's the best pursuit there is.  Love, like higher truth, can be explained as chemical and psychological and socially constructed, but I don't think that makes it any less real or worthwhile.  Both English and Portuguese lack the proper descriptive ability to express all the different ideas in love, which I suppose is ok because it's led to some of the richest literature tradition around (why write a poem about romantic love if there's a word that describes is as separate for what one feels for a puppy?)  This is not the place to talk all about love, but I believe that Love is the source and object of all true religious belief.

So that's what I believe.  I've never been the most outspoken when it comes to my beliefs, probably from some combination of humility, fear, and not wanting to offend or impose, but if you came all this way, and you're still curious, ask me about it, this isn't really an exhaustive list anyway.  It's been a long time since I've gone around knocking on doors trying to find people willing to listen to me about my beliefs, but I do still like talking about them.

My blog has really taken a turn for the reflective and profound.  Maybe I can step back a bit and talk about all the super fun things that are going on.  Maybe I can do that another day.  

Thursday, June 20, 2013

An eclectic mash-up of my eclectic thoughts:

At the moment, if I could be a superhero, I would like to be the Batman of insurance; fighting injustice, punishing ill doers, eliminating corrupt and inefficient institutions, and threatening people who park illegally in bike lanes on snowy nights.  Actually that last one still stands:  Don't park illegally in bike lanes.  I will hunt you down and dent your car, kamikaze style.

Having summer free is substantially less fun if the majority of people you want to spend summer with are always busy working or taking classes.  Having summer free is substantially more fun than being always busy working or taking classes.

Sometimes, the world has a way of encouraging procrastination, like when you put off calling the ambulance billing lady for an hour while reading xkcd because $1000 is scary, and then it turns out she's out of town until tuesday.

And there's this.  Read into it as you will.

Note: Although you're still free to take it as you will, I just want
clarify that this isn't a cryptic revelation that I'm dating someone.
People were jumping to conclusions, sorry for the misunderstanding
You may now carry on with your life.