Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Is gay marriage wrong?

A couple years ago I took a test "What philosopher are you?" I don't remember the name of the philosopher I was, but someone who did better in philosophy than I might be able to tell you because I remember what his main hypothesis was: All disagreement between people is due to miscommunication because of an inability to use the right words with a common understanding.

This really rings true with me. Even if you ignore the obvious variable meanings between words like 'bad,' 'good,' 'happy,' and 'sad,' each of them containing a plethora of sub meanings, very simple words such as 'apple' carry the weight of history. A symbol of traditional america, sexuality, purity, or any number of things, when and where you use apple can be a tricky issue for such a simple fruit.

And this is why I take so much issue with one question I've been hearing a lot lately:

'Is gay marriage wrong?'

What a terrible question. Anyone who knows my personal views knows that I can be a pretty liberal guy, but this question in particular is subconsciously used and perpetuated because it sets the entire tone of the conversation to favor one side and discredit another. It is, in its essence, a terrible question. Here's why:

1. The meaning of 'gay'

People on both sides of the issue have been bemoaning the use and application of the term gay since it came into popular use. Originally meaning happy, it then became associated with men who sleep with other men, thereafter a common pejorative term which is of course rude. Sometime after that it became less but still somewhat associated with men in particular, and then under a civil rights movement that acknowledged the inhumane ways gay men were treated, the pejorative use of the word became unpopular as the other central definition began to spread out and encompass many things surrounding 'gay' culture and people attracted to their same gender. This is common etymology for many words, they mean more and more as they become more commonly used. Most recently this term could be used to describe: men who have sex with men; men who are attracted to men; men who have sex with/are attracted exclusively to men; bright floral shirts. And here there's a huge problem because being attracted to something and acting on that attraction are very different things, but when you call them the same then you influence people to believe they are. So, gay, loaded word.

2. The meaning of 'marriage'

A somewhat simpler term, marriage has two main possible meanings. In one sense it is a civil union performed by a government indicating that two consenting adults are living together and enjoy certain rights as they relate to taxation, hospital visitation, acting in one another's name, etc. In the other sense it is a sacred religious covenant by which two people are joined by a person holding divine authority to do so, usually for the purpose of opening the door to sex and children. However, even these two meanings have myriad possible submeanings based on what government or religion is performing the marriage, and in many countries which combination of the two. Mormon marriage and catholic marriage and muslim marriage are all different. American marriage and Chinese marriage and French marriage and Canadian marriage are all different. Also to complicate things people often confound the two meanings into one single mass regardless of whether or not they are religious.

3. The meaning of 'wrong'

Woof, the big one. Synonyms for wrong: Bad, Untrue, Mistaken, Goofed, Miscalculated, Misconstrued, Mishandled, At fault, Defective, Imprecise, Not working, Perverse, Spurious, Unsatisfactory. All of those words mean significantly different things but they could all be suggested by the word wrong. Of course, many words have many definitions and we usually rely on the most common ones. The two most common understandings of the word wrong are Bad and Untrue, but these are two extremely different things. I think the misuse of the word wrong in our society is responsible for many children's tears who are taught that shooting someone in the face is 'wrong' and playing a G instead of an F while playing chopsticks is 'wrong.' Obviously, aggravated violence and the incorrect piano key are not the same thing, and I don't think it helps much to say one of these is 'less wrong' and another is 'more wrong.'

4. The false dichotomy

I understand that it is simpler to classify the world into two camps but that's not how any reality works. (Sorry, American political system) When it comes to yes or no questions, I feel like the only place for them is when you need to know 'Is 21 a prime number?' or 'Have you been to Georgia?' or 'Do you know who the Queen of Macedonia is? Do they have a queen?' These things can be answered yes or no, but questions on religious governmental contracts and how they should be implemented in modern society is not a yes or no question.

So, put all those together, and I don't know what you're asking me when you say 'Is gay marriage wrong' but I hope you see how I could feel like you're setting me up for failure by presenting a complex question with hundreds of implied meanings into a false dichotomy with one demonized side. To clarify, here's what you *could* mean when you say 'Is gay marriage wrong?' and my answers to each.

Q: Should a government be allowed to condone civil marriage between people of the same gender?
A: Yes, a government should be allowed to do anything with the people's support.

Q: Are sexual relations between people of the same gender disallowed under the teachings of Christianity?
A: Yes, along with plenty of other things, including sex with anyone beside your spouse.

Q: Should the requirements of religious marriages in my religion be imposed on civil marriages performed by the government?
A: No, separation of church and state exists for a reason. Let the people decide.

Q: Are gay people bad?
A: No, unless I'm going to call every human being who's not keeping all the commandments as I know them to be bad, which would make everybody including myself bad.

Q: Should gay couples have the governmental rights afforded to married couples?
A: Yes, I can't see why two consenting adults shouldn't be able to enter a governmental marriage regardless of sexual orientation.

Q: Should religions accept gay marriages?
A: Religions should teach what religions teach and those teachings should be independent of the opinions of the people. The whole difference their is that government is from man and religion 'should' be from something higher. If you find that you can no longer agree with your religion, please see my post 'Disagreeing with Religion'

In summary, this is a bad question. I have spent a lot of energy in my life seeking inspiration and knowledge to develop my beliefs, which state that a loving Father gave us a set of instructions and promised that if we followed them we would be happier than if we didn't.

These instructions include having sex only with my wife, and many other things big and small, like not drinking or smoking, donating to the poor, being honest, and serving others.

Everybody is free to follow or not follow them, disagree with any of them they like, and long history shows that government should not be restricted by them but follow the voice of the people, so I take no issue with the SCOTUS ruling and my church was advocating for many rights for gay couples 'before it was cool,' even if as a religion they cannot condone marriage outside of the directions of God as they understand them.

But don't try to make me feel 'bad' about the directions I was given and my choice to follow them by asking questions that imply the exact same thing that has hurt so many LGBT people for so long -- that another person's decision to live or believe a certain way should determine how I live or believe. No religion or person should be held to this mandate.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Sexism is in the LDS Church. And everywhere. Calm down.

I went to St Antoine, a french catholic PreK-8 school as a child. This was a time of my life filled with interesting, eye-opening experiences for an irish mormon kid. I was glad for the opportunity to learn another language and religion -- I still remember when I was chosen to play Christ in the Easter production and the principal chewed out the rest of our class for a 'Mormon' being chosen over them, all catholics except for one atheist.

We had music class, but I guess the Southern Ontario diocese (?) didn't have enough money for a real Quebecois music teacher, because what we got instead was Madame My-Sole-Obsession-In-Life-Is-Celene-Dione. We studied where Celene Dione was born, where she first performed, her discography, with very few mentions of clefs or notes. When we were given our first 'music' test, the first question was 'How many brothers and sisters does Celene Dione have?'

Frustrated, 13-year old me voiced loudly that I would not take this test, as it was silly. Madame asked me if I wanted to see the Principal, and I replied that I absolutely did. Surely he would see reason.

I sat in M. LaFontaine's office and explained that I was taking private piano lessons, that I suspected I knew more music than our music teacher, and that I didn't think music lessons about Celene Dione were worth much of anything. After a brief silence, he asked what I would do with my time if I was not in music class. I told him I would rather do more math, my favorite subject. And so, for the rest of the year when all the other kids went to music I sat in our homeroom and did extra math for fun, like a nerd.

They gave me an A in music.

And that's when I realized my authorities weren't always right.

Don't get me wrong, I care very much about authority. In fact, I'm big on authority, one of the issues in which my Canadian side wins out. In my life I have always had plenty of authority figures and they have generally, but not always, done the job delegated to them. But no, as people with individual faults and problems and strengths and weaknesses, I have no more respect for any of them than I do for my colleagues, each of whom deserves respect and esteem equivalent to their experience and efforts.

Madame Can't-Remember-Her-Name was a poor music teacher, by my estimate. This doesn't mean the school is bad or the structure is bad. It just means that I think she was a poor music teacher. Heck, maybe she turned out to be a good one, I didn't stick around to find out.

And so goes my opinion on Sexism in Church Leadership.

It is so well-known at this point that Africans and African-Americans weren't allowed to hold the priesthood in the Mormon (LDS) Church until the late 70s that it seems silly to me when people act like it's a taboo topic. On occasion people inside or outside of the Church will ask why it took so long for a Church I believe to be led by God to allow people of a certain race to hold the priesthood, or why it was ever disallowed. My answer is as simple as it is short.

The leadership was racist.
The Church membership was racist.
We were all racist.
And we still are.

I don't mean to equate racism to sexism, as I believe they are fundamentally different issues, but the similarity is enough for this example. The important thing is that ultimately any organization is lead by people, but we do not belong to the organization FOR those people.

So, when it comes to sexism, I believe that our leadership is sexist, the church membership is sexist, the nation is sexist, we are all sexist. It's not good, it's something we're doing poorly, and it's worth discussing and working on.

But before you start calling out authority, you'd better check yourself.

If the measure of whether a person is 'good' is the amount of their personal time that they devote to selfless, charitable acts, helping others, and self-improvement, while denying themselves the opulence of worldly gains, then you would be hard pressed to find people doing better on that chain than people like the Mormon Quorum of the Twelve, Pope Benedict, the Dhali Llama, and a long list of other virtuous leaders.

If your goal is a simple, progress-driven discussion of social justice, then speak on. But if your plan is to take one aspect of the preposterously complex task of leading groups of people, say someone is doing just as poorly as a large portion of our society in that single task, and use that one perspective to defame them and paint them as foolish, unqualified, or a 'bad' person, then you have no place in intelligent discussion.

At the risk of sounding overly conservative, I would quote from scripture, that these people belong to those 'That make a man an offender for a word, and lay a snare for him that reproveth in the gate, and turn aside the just for a thing of nought.'

The joke goes "Catholic doctrine says that the Pope is infallible but Catholics won't believe it. Mormon doctrine says that the Prophet is fallible but Mormons won't believe it."

By my estimate, I am sexist, racist, bigoted, and all other negative attributes, to a certain extent.

The leadership of the Church is much less of all of these things than am I, but still have them all to their own extent.

And ultimately, I'm not looking for leaders who don't have these things. My faith doesn't rest in my leaders, it rests in Christ. My leaders are other people whose faith rests in the same place, and I'm confident that with that in mind, we'll get where we're going together.

That is, so long as we all don't rip each other apart on the way.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Not All Beasts Are Beastly

In today's world it seems like we assume the world around us is cruel, is prejudiced, or bad in some way. I think there's less bad and more good than we give people credit for.

Today's our anniversary. Krista and I have been married for 5 years now, and we've known each other for 6. We're not celebrating today, because with a nephew living with us and a house we're trying to close on before we're obligated to vacate our apartment, time is in high demand.

No worries -- Krista's gift was a plane ticket to join me on my October business trip to LA where we'll stay late and soak in the West Coast.

Our anniversary causes me to reflect on the past, in concert with the present: I'm just finishing off 'A Year Of Biblical Womanhood' by Rachel Held Evans, and then there's the conversation and buzz that has begun to die off from the excommunication of the 'Ordain Women' founder, a Mormon woman who believes that the responsibility to officiate in priesthood ordinances and hold priesthood offices should belong to both genders.

When I met Krista, she wasn't sure she'd ever be married, and she was fine with that and felt no inordinate pressure to go one way or the other. I wouldn't deny that this pressure exists in the culture of the Mormon Church, but Krista at least was unfazed by it. (Herein lies one of many huge differences between Krista and other women.) Working on her Master's in Library Science, she thought she would move back to the East Coast and be a librarian.

She never mentioned getting a few cats, but I assume that would have happened along the way.

Here was a zero drama girl I could get behind. Quick to smile and laugh, reasonable and measured approach to divisive issues, long brown hair and a love of books -- I was sold. I guess Krista saw something in me that she liked too, and we started our long walk together.

When Krista and I started dating, we began to get comments that bothered me. Much like Beauty and the Beast, Krista is beautiful, demure, soft-spoken, agreeable and accomodating -- I, on the other hand, am big, loud, aggressively enthusiastic and love problem solving. I had been told by society that this was a pretty normal difference between genders, so I didn't think much about it and neither did Krista. I knew, as I'd always been told, that I would need to quiet down, ask, and listen more to make sure I wasn't stepping on her toes or overstepping my bounds. She knew she would have to be assertive with me and communicate clearly when something bothered her. We did these things, and we fell in love. Acting as yin and yang, our personalities matched well.

On more than one occasion, a rash of breakups would hit our friends and in the midst of so many new singles Krista would ask me 'Are we going to break up too?' and I would boisterously laugh at what seemed like a ridiculous notion to me and declare 'No, you and I are together for the long haul.' She would look at me and smile, letting my confidence lift her out of her tendency to worry.
On one dark evening shortly after we married, I was taken by a fit of depression. Whatever had seized my spirit felt like it was destroying me on the inside, and I laid on the bed sobbing uncontrollably, unable to identify the source of my sadness or how to solve my problem. My wife came and sat beside me, put her arms around me and sang to me soft hymns and sweet songs. Her voice was angelic, and her softness was just what I needed, and I was comforted.

Now Krista and I aren't the type to cause trouble or voice anger. She is soft spoken in nature, and I was raised in Canada, where the jokes about being polite are funny because they're true. We often laugh at the idea of raising our voices or arguing with each other, because there's a very regular progression of what happens when either of us gets upset: One gets upset, the other gets upset, then the first gets sad because they upset the other, then the other gets sad because they made the first sad, then we're both sad, so we cheer each other up. It never fails.

This tendency to not disturb or contradict others caused us to generally keep quiet and not talk out against a sentiment that it seemed like a lot of people shared, including family, that we found deeply offensive and disturbing:

Krista was a shrinking violet and I was an insensitive brute.

Because of her humble nature and my extroversion, some individuals who had 'studied the issues' and wanted to 'represent the downtrodden' placed us into bins they had constructed from their studies. In conversations that make relationships with some individuals hard to this day, there were even whispers of abuse, if not physical then certainly emotional and verbal.

I took these accusations hard -- I hate people thinking ill of me, and I've tried to always express love and concern to others. I brought them up with Krista over and over, dealing with a kind of paranoia that maybe my personality made it impossible for me to treat her, the woman I loved with all my heart, the way a woman like her needed to be treated. Krista has affirmed to me many times that she feels respected, and that if she's ever been disappointed or frustrated with me it's certainly no more than she would expect to be with any person that she was planning on spending forever with, since everyone makes mistakes. I make many more than she does, so she's mostly in charge.

Of course, these people haven't seen Krista disagree with her husband in the act of it. Let me tell you, she's no shrinking violet.

So we've rolled on, a beauty and a beast, for 5 years now, having our own little miracle, Jack, and praying for many more. We've never been happier.

The whole experience has taught me many things, but one of the most important is the error in taking the injustices we see in the world and projecting them to our immediate environment.

This is not an issue of what people thought of me and Krista -- this is only an example of why to be cautious, rather than overzealous, when trying to bring 'justice' and call out the 'evils' that we are told surround us.

There are many important issues affecting the world these days, and we must be careful not to assume that the real people we know are actually the oversimplified images that we see on screens.

I sympathize with your experience with emotional abuse, but we do not have that problem.

I realize you feel like your local church leaders are misogynistic, we do not.

I am so sorry that someone has robbed you of the ability to trust, but we do.

Yes, the injustices and abuses and failures and dearth of love are large and great and wide in a world of people trying to get by, but we have put tears and sweat and conviction and conversation and hours of prayer and deep thought into making sure they are scarce in the walls of our home. We continue to do so. So do not bring them here.

In order to fight something, you must know what it is you're fighting. By taking the people all around you and making them the enemy, you're disconnecting the problem from the cause and as a result making it impossible to fight, and making yourself seem crazy, seeing bigotry, sexism, racism, and many other places where it never existed.

As I mentioned, I love solving problems. It seems to me that one of the largest problems is that we are trying to decide what the world and our and others problems are from bloggers or news broadcasts or novelists or charismatic figures. That is not how I would recommend we learn what a person's problems are.

First, you love them.

Then, you ask them.

What are your problems?

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Russel Crowe as Noah? I'm sold!

I've been listening to the Bible since I could listen, and reading the Bible since I could read. As an LDS child and then teenager, young adult and now married-and-have-a-son-but-still-young-adult at 27, my knowledge of scriptures was always expected to be thorough. I was at early morning seminary memorizing scripture before going to high school as a teenager, and as a kid I remember sitting in a circle with my brother, sisters, and parents to read verse-by-verse before starting the day. These rituals paid huge dividends and I consider them to have been one of the greatest benefits of my life.

Like most children raised in these environments, the actual black and white of the scriptures became embellished through versions designed for children, animated film, and even more animated Sunday school teachers. Noah had a long beard. Everyone thought Noah was crazy. He totally had a staff. He and God would just kick back and chat face-to-face, because he was a prophet.

Of course, then I grew up, and I started having questions: How could all the animals fit in a boat of the dimensions detailed in Genesis? How did Moses write down Noah's story if it happened centuries before he lived, did he see it in vision, hear it in folklore, or a combination of the two? Did he just kind of sit on the ark and watch everyone run up to the ark when the water got super deep and said 'Nope, tough, you're dead?" Did anyone else sneak on the ark? Never mind room for animals, how do you get 40 days worth of food for all those animals on there and keep the chickens away from the alligators?

So, with an older, presumably more intelligent mind, I return to the source material. Good old Genesis. Read this thing through another time, fill in some spaces. So I open up to the story of Noah and...

Wow. Little disappointed.

What had become, with the addition of all the periphery, a novel, if not an encyclopedia, of a story, was in actuality just a couple chapters with not much detail. The main points can be conveyed in a half page of writing. Basically:

God decided to destroy man because they had gotten too out of hand, except for Noah, who God liked. God tells him to build an ark, sends a whole bunch of animals, and then Noah and his family get in. Floods come, 40 days, floods go, Noah sends out a few birds and one comes back with a branch. Ark lands, everyone gets out, rainbow!

That's it. Really. Go read it.

Nowhere does it say anyone made fun of Noah. Nowhere does it say that Noah is old. (It says 500 years old, but since people routinely lived past 750 years old in the Old Testament, either they counted time differently or McDonald's is worse for us than we thought -- either way, he's about middle-aged.) Noah doesn't have a staff, and nowhere does it mention him luring alligators into the ark with a bunch of grapes -- one of my favorite scenes from a childhood Bible book.

So what do I conclude? Like any good scientist, I conclude that I lack data. Using the above outline of a story, you could flesh out a million possible narratives, each painting its main characters in more or less positive lights, each giving a slightly different understanding of the history and spirituality of the events. Therefore I must accept that I know only what I know.

So when it comes to Aronofsky:

Do I know that Noah didn't look like Russel Crowe?
I do not.

Do I know that God spoke to Noah out loud?
I do not, and also considering my personal experiences and gained knowledge, it seems much more likely that God spoke to Noah in dreams or feelings, as the original Hebrew implies.

Do I know that no one else snuck onto the ark, maybe resulting in a fight to the death with someone getting killed or thrown overboard?
I do not.

Do I know that one of your sons didn't conspire against you?
I do not, but later stories in Genesis suggest that this is also pretty possible.

Do I know that Emma Watson and Jennifer Connelly ancestors weren't traipsing around for all the old testament men to leer at uncomfortably?
I do not.

Do I know that fallen rock angels didn't help build the ark?
... Well, I think I can say with some confidence that there probably weren't fallen rock angels, but I'm an open-minded guy, and where there are prophets there are usually angels, and I don't know what they were up to, but he didn't build that ark on his own.

Side note: The Bible does actually say that fallen angels interbred with humans and produced giants, but as a Christian who doesn't consider the bible ineffable after a hundred translations and a few thousand years, this doesn't bother me much.

So, Mr. Aronofsky, I put my vote in against all the nay saying I've been hearing. I wanted to see your movie last weekend, but wound up sick in bed. I pretty much know the whole thing now from reading all the buzz online, and I'm very much looking forward to seeing it.

After all, I know what I know -- it's all there in Genesis. As far as what you've decided to embelish to make an enjoyable cinematic experience, I'm excited to see what you've done as a creative artist!

And as for the concerns about people going to watch this film and thinking this is what Noah's story was like... people... if that's a real issue, we have much bigger concerns than Aronofsky's creative interpretation.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

7 Reasons To Hate Infographics

Ah, infographics, how I love to hate you. The red squiggly under your name in my text editor implies that your very existence is questionable as you try to wriggle your way into our modern lexicon. Infographics are a violation of the sacred purity of clean facts, which I consider the pinnacle of discussion and learning:

"I think that most people are trying to eat healthy, so that's a good reason to pay more attention to healthier food markets. Places like 'Trader Joe's' and generic Farmer's Markets are going to become more and more popular, and I think that's a good thing," my wife says on the way home.

"No, most people aren't trying to eat healthy," I reply.

"What?" She asks.

"Well you said that 'most people' are trying to eat healthy. 'Most people' is, by definition, a majority of the population, greater than 50%. I think 50% is a gross exaggeration. Even if you omit children and the elderly, I think the college to late-life-adult population may have 25% that are devoting any significant energy to healthier eating. That might be too optimistic. I might say 15 to 20%. Certainly not most," I explain.

"... Seriously?" She sounds exasperated.

"What?" It is now my turn to be confused.

"You knew what I meant, why do you have to be so technical?" she asks, upset by my surgical tactics.

"Because facts are the crucial underpinnings to any argument!" I cry out, reaching my arms wide as if to invite the entire logical world to embrace me, confirming my fact-driven wisdom!

I am left bereft of either the logical world's embrace, or my wife's, who looks at me like I'm crazy.

I might be a bit obsessed with getting accurate facts, and presenting them with fidelity to their actual implications. As a scientist, it's what I trained to do. Thinking this way, I have met a great nemesis: Infographics.

By taking some observed 'facts' and presenting them with colorful logos and arrows, you make a world of implications and, in so doing, tell lies to the world around you. There's a reason that we scientists and statisticians like our facts in black 10pt Lucida Console -- it reminds us that we aren't FOX news or CNN. Facts are facts and that's all they are. Believe it or not, I love little hearts and stick people as much as the next guy, but they don't belong with the facts. Looking at this infographic ( I found many concerning issues, common to infographics. Here are a few:

*  *  *  *  *

#1) Calling Numbers 'Science'

I need look no further than the title for our first big deception. There is no science in this and many other infographics. Numbers do not mean science. Science is searching for answers by conducting experiments -- merely observing does not fit the bill, and can never establish causation. Using the term 'science' in your title is a terrible appeal to authority. People may be more likely to trust you because you have called it 'science.' They have been duped -- this is not, in fact, science. Despite your cartoon beakers, microscope, and double helices.

#2) Immeasurable quantities. 

Common in many infographics. Here the authors suggest a proportionality between sex (quality? quantity? length of time per? Who knows.), romance (Bringing roses home?), passion (Isn't this a product of sex and romance?) and quality of friendship (Number of times a lemonade stand was run together? Has a spit handshake been executed?). Basically four ideas that are extremely hard to measure are compared, invalidating the entire comparison. In psychology, there are sometimes standard tests for these ideas, but they typically involve self measurement on a 1-10 or 1-5 scale and are notoriously unscientific.

#3) Overly Obvious Observations

Happy people are happy and help make one another happy, but only if both people are initially happy. Also, Two happy people have a 94% chance of being happy together... Shocking. Here, facts are completely abandoned in favor of pandering.  These points are as obvious as they are useless to observe, as I haven't met many people who are campaigning for misery. This is another common infographic tactic: point out an obvious comparison that anyone would agree with, leading you to believe that all comparisons/observations in the infographic are reasonable.

#4) Oversimplification Of Complex Ideas

'Happiness' is probably the hardest metric to measure because it is so multi-faceted:

  • I eat a doughnut(Pleasure happiness); 
  • My country is not at war (Absence of fear happiness); 
  • My moral code gives me confidence in an afterlife  (Peace of mind happiness);
  • I am successful at work (Accomplishment happiness); 
  • I quit that dead-end job to do what I love (Hopefulness happiness); 
  • A history of hard work and devotion that has paid valuable dividends (Satisfaction happiness).

These happinesses are not necessarily of equal value, and every individual seeks after them to different degrees. Couples married 5 years or less and have no children may have extensive pleasure happiness (Presumed increase in sex.) or absence of fear happiness (Breaking up seems less likely.) or hopefulness happiness (Ah the possibilities for the future!). These happinesses are easier for individuals to identify in themselves.
Other more subtle happinesses that many would consider of greater value, such as satisfaction happiness or peace of mind happiness, are unattainable without confronting challenges as a couple (raising children) or sticking it out for a long time (decades of marriage).
Infographics are really bad at this sort of thing. In order to achieve a high degree of 'readability' for all people, they use generic umbrella terms which can apply to a number of things. They do this in the name of 'simplicity' so that everyone can 'learn.' But what is being learnt is confusing at best and dead wrong at worst. Accuracy takes longer to explain and more thinking to appreciate, but without it the facts become falsehoods.

#5) Nonsense Conversions

What? This... I just... what?
I'm sure there's some... numbers... behind this.
I guess someone turned... dollars... into a unit of satisfaction. Then took a measure of happiness change and converted it into dollars...
Most infographics aren't this bad. I included this particularly terrible 'fact' for shock value. These conversions may seem interesting at first glance, but only a second's thought reveals the utter foolishness hat must have gone into their concoction.

#6) Unanswered Questions On How Data Is Gathered

Which Americans? Old married couples? Newly married couples? Couples who got divorced? What does the driving decision to marry have to do with happiness in marriage? Are we supposed to believe the most popular reason to get married is also the best one? Were people allowed to choose just one option or could they choose multiple? How many could they pick? Were options given or did they generate their own? Aren't most people surveyed likely to lie and say love? If the most common cause of divorce is financial disagreement, does this imply that if financial stability were more of a factor in deciding to marry that there would be fewer divorces?
These aren't trivial questions -- the answers to each of these SIGNIFICANTLY SKEW HOW WE VIEW RESULTS. Without even a passing reference to how data is collected, which exists only in footnotes that are not well referenced for the individual facts, how can we possibly say anything? These become just random numbers.
Nearly all infographics I've seen are terrible at this. They seldom explain how data is collected, and every scientist spends years and years learning how to properly collect data, knowing that a slight change in how it's collected can render the entire study moot.

#7) Considering Only One Side Of A Question

Marital satisfaction is another compounded issue. With a child, life gets more difficult. Money, time, everything becomes tighter. When you ask someone if they are more or less satisfied with their marriage before or after children, they are probably thinking of how peaceful things used to be, or how there was more money for restaurants and movies. The way these answers are presented here implies that people were happier without kids without saying it outright.
But it wouldn't take long to disprove that idea! Ask any parent if they would rather not have their kids, or go back in time and never have kids at all. We all know how those answers would be slanted, but the way this data is presented implies that children are 'unwanted,' even if no actual numbers say that.
The simplification of extremely complex topics is something politicians have been using to deceive followers and villify opponents for centuries; That we should fall prey to the same tactics so quickly when photoshopped into an infographic with a colorful palette is a true shame.

*  *  *  *  *

All things considered, I must echo the sentiments of one inspired commenter  on the original, "WTF is going on here?"

I should note that the most tragic thing about these infographics is that the data they skew is typically lifted from exellent publications by well-reputed scientistics and analytical organizations. The creators of these grade-school-quality-projects will often throw all of their sources at the bottom and hide behind the citations. It is not enough. It is wildly irresponsible to misrepresent data and then blame the reader for not delving into 20 page articles to find the truth. That was your job, and you did it poorly, if at all.

I'm not trying to be difficult, and I don't expect everyone to jump on my bandwagon. I've seen a lot of infographics, and admittedly I picked one of the worst to make my points. Bill Nye showed us all how good science really can be presented in a colorful and enjoyable format that allows us to learn it accurately. Our responsibility now is to differentiate when we are being presented with facts, and in stark contrast, when facts are being paraded and dressed up to imply conclusions that they don't truly support. Scientific papers are peer-reviewed and typically draw conservative and reasonable conclusions. Infographics are sensationalism at its worst.

You know, this post turned out lengthy and difficult to follow. I wish there was some way I could strengthen my point and communicate it more convincingly.

Maybe I'll make an infographic.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

An Open Letter To The Co-Presidents of Naughty Dog, Inc.

Dear Mr. Wells & Mr. Balestra,

                My name is Taylor Atkinson and I am writing this letter about your phenomenal 2013 release, The Last of Us.

                Let me begin by expressing my profound respect and admiration for your studio. Video game production is a challenging market to make profits in, and its rapid changes make staying relevant and exciting a unique trial. I played Crash Bandicoot when I was 9 when it came with my first PlayStation. Last year I purchased a digital copy on my PlayStation 3 because I love it now as much as I did then.

                I have also followed the Jak & Daxter series, and I adore Uncharted. They are all more than deserving of the awards and accolades they have received. You can understand, then, how thrilled I was for the release of The Last of Us. Unfortunately, I have not been able to experience it. Yet.

                Watching theatrical and gameplay previews in anticipation of its release, I noticed liberal use of profanity throughout. While I expected my hopes to be in vain, I waited to see if there would be content filtering options. While the game has been given a ‘gore filter’, no language filter has been introduced.

                In writing this, I realize I am not representing the majority of ‘gamers,’ or even the majority of media consumers. Most adults purchase video games with complete disregard for the ESRB rating.  Still, there are many of us who feel that if something cannot be shown in good conscience to people under the age of 18, then there is no great benefit to be gained in exposing adults to that same content.

                I would never advocate for restricting any company’s right to produce this content, but rather for options to be available to enjoy excellent media and still maintain one’s own personal standards.

                My moral decisions are mine alone, and in making them I have no desire to pressure or put down others. I consider no one ‘bad’ or ‘worse’ for having different standards, but I try to live mine and hope that a mutual respect encourages everyone to allow for and accommodate one another’s personal views. I realize that I am coming forward as a representative of a moral stance that many consider archaic at best and pointless at worst. Often, ‘gamers’ are portrayed as a group with looser morals and less concern about exposure to mature content. Often mass media has pushed the argument that video games even encourage a casual disregard towards violence, sexuality, and profanity.

I believe this is a lie, one which we all have a responsibility to expose.

I believe ‘gamers’ are equal participants in the millions of individuals throughout the world who have found that a commitment to avoiding excessive violence, sexuality, and profanity whenever possible has led to greater peace, self-control, and respect for all humanity. I believe I speak for them in saying a collective ‘Thank You!’ for the filters you’ve provided, and asking you to expand that effort.

           Critics often point out that profanity provides a more realistic environment representative of what could actually be expected in the portrayed extreme circumstances, and that profanity is mild in comparison to the violence and sexuality in many games, implying an underlying hypocrisy in its opposition.

Both of these arguments have fundamental flaws:

            Firstly, while fidelity to reality is a welcome enhancement to many games, there are many real-life situations whose reproduction would obviously be damaging and hurtful. Real events so terrible as to be nearly unspeakable -- sexual abuse of children, extremely gruesome violence -- frequently occur at the hands of terrible people, but there is little or nothing to be gained by widespread graphic depictions of these acts. This extreme example implies a spectrum of ‘real-life’ events, with varying degrees of gain from their reproduction. While profanity, as well as sexuality and violence, are a day-to-day reality for many people, there are many of us who live such a life that it isn't, and don’t feel anything to be gained from its inclusion.

            Secondly, the prioritizing of standards is something that every individual decides for themselves. While it may seem self-evident to one person that, of the three, violence is worst, sexuality less so, and profanity the least in affecting a mind or spirit, another person may prioritize them differently and should feel free and enabled to do so. When filters are provided for one and not another, every individual cannot feel validated in their individual standards.

           I realize that I am asking you to do something that will not provide your company with direct financial profits. While a profanity filter would make many of us happy, the cost of providing one would not likely be offset by an increase in sales. All the same, the benefits that it would provide are great and noteworthy: A message of inclusion and respect to the entire gaming community and evidence of your company’s commitment to ideals higher than profits alone.

           Optimistically, this could even be a watershed moment, where your actions could help galvanize a large number of producers to include content filtering options, helping people to live according to their moral standards and showing the world at large that the artistic medium of video games produces a respectful, uplifting community – a perception that has been lost in its vilification at the hands of non-participants who have not seen the friendly competition, amazing storytelling, and beautiful art it has provided for all current and future generations

          I would be extremely thrilled to be able to play what is, by all accounts, one of your greatest masterpieces to date; Currently, I am not able to. Even if my letter does not move you to include the profanity filter which I have argued for, it would thrill me to know that you have received it, read it, and considered the ideas I've presented.

         Thank you so much for your time.

                                                                                                                          -Taylor J Atkinson

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Where are you Christmas? How can I fiiiiind yoooooou?

It's Christmas!

Having grown up in Canada, I have a rather precise view of what 'Christmas' is, because Canada is a country which is very 'Christmas'-y, in my very scientific opinion. Canadians are generally known for their politeness and kindness, and everyone's a little kinder during Christmas. Canada is very snowy, and I think a Christmas without snow would be lame. (Sorry, vast majority of the human race.) Christmas has a lot of red and white, so does the Canadian flag. Where's the green? In the vast evergreen forests.

Yup, if every country got a holiday, Canada would have Christmas. Wait, every country has a holiday? Canada Day? Not important, you know what I mean.

As we approach the holiday, it's easy to get a warped idea about what 'Christmas' really is and really means.

Note: I'm not talking about commercialization here. Every year there's a deluge of people/movies/media devoted to talking about how commercialized Christmas is, and I think that's mostly silly. Yes, Christmas is commercialized, and so is every holiday, life event, tragedy, and trend in our society. Christmas isn't overly commercialized, that is to say more so than any other event, and so to some extent I don't care much about that.

Christmas 2006. I was literally on the other side of the world, living in a small apartment above some stores in Gyumri, or Kirovakan if going by the Soviet renaming of cities, in Northern Armenia with my companion, Elder Ryan Leavitt. Being part of the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity, Christmas and New Year's are kind of lumped together in a single holiday season in early January. Still, American Culture being as pervasive as it is, a kind of pseudo-Christmas is now celebrated on the 25th. As a missionary, spending every day talking about Christ, it was easy to get to feeling the 'reason for the season.' For me, this Christmas would become unforgettable because of one important lesson learnt.

Elder Leavitt and I went to church and we knew it would be pretty awesome, and not just for the normal reasons -- church in Armenia could always get really exciting really fast, due to the relatively new concept of communal participation in services -- but because the District President would be visiting. This man was an inspiring story and was serving as the religious leader for all Armenians. We were excited to here what he had to say, and he didn't disappoint. President Poghosyan gave me my favorite Christmas lesson of all time:

"Everyone loves Christmas, because Christmas is easy to love. It is about love! It is about kindness. It is easy to love baby Jesus, because baby Jesus is a cute baby, sitting in a manger. Baby Jesus does not require us to give of ourselves to others, to forgive our enemies, to follow his commandments, to love all of our brothers and sisters. It is easy to love baby Jesus, but we must do better. We must remember that baby Jesus grew up, and became Jesus Christ the man, the man who taught us how to live and challenged us to become better versions of ourselves, was the ultimate example, and gave His life for us."

I love this idea, because it highlights the most important point of Christianity, in my mind, and it's not the point that most people think Christianity is trying to make. Christianity is all about Christ, because he was never all about himself. The Christ that baby Jesus grew to become taught us the most important theological lesson of this world: Talking about your religion will never, ever, ever, ever, ever, come close to being as valuable as simply living your religion. This generates a 'light,' a light that will 'shine forth' if only generated. And this all brings me to the point I really want to make, which I will make by hijacking a quote from Charles Spurgeon:

"Defend [Christmas]? I would as soon defend a lion! Unchain it and it will defend itself."

Originally about the Bible, I take Spurgeon's excellent wording to make the same point about the King of Holidays. If you'd like to live Christmas, live Christmas! But don't worry about defending Christmas -- it's a big boy. It can take care of itself.

So don't join in on the conversation currently in the media about the color of Santa's skin. It would be hard for anything to matter less. Drawing attention to race when talking about a man who, in modernity, represents the generosity of the season by visiting all children of the world without distinction -- that wouldn't be very Christmas-y.

Don't waste any time talking about how it's important to affirm Christmas as the main holiday and to try and prevent other holidays from joining in. Don't let anyone's faith go unnoticed, unappreciated, or pushed against. It wouldn't be very Christmas-y.

During the holiday season, don't let a TV celebrity's comments about homosexuality be the basis for an online tirade against either side of a complex ethical and religious division. Don't speak unkindly of those who, in whatever way they see fit, are pursuing the same goal we all are: happiness. It wouldn't be very Christmas-y.

When you see your family members, try to think more about happy memories you've had and less about the hurtful ones. No need to bring up old mistakes people already feel bad about. It wouldn't be very Christmas-y.

So what's the meaning of Christmas? I think it's feeling Christmas-y. It seems like every year I hear that people aren't feeling super 'Christmas-y.' I've never had that problem. Feel free to make use of my fool-proof recipe for 'feeling the season.'

Drive past some Christmas lights with family or friends. Sing some Christmas songs. Find someone who needs some help and help them out. Tell everyone 'Merry Christmas.' Send a gift to an old friend who might think you've forgotten them. Try extra hard to not get upset about things people say, and try equally hard to not say any upsetting things. Read Luke 2. Hug more. Find somewhere to write down what Christmas means to you. Then drink so much Eggnog that you feel sick to your stomach.

That last one may not be necessary, but I haven't tried the recipe without it yet, and I don't want to try.