Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Fake or Cargo Cult Ceremony?

Apparently the sign language interpreter at Nelson Mandela's Memorial was a fake. [Link]  The sign language community is rightly outraged.  I think I have a simple explanation.

My sister learned sign language and used to provide translations.  It was a beautiful thing.  I didn't understand it, but I enjoyed watching her graceful motions.  It seems to provide extra legitimacy to the speaker, as if to say "What the speaker is saying is so important, we even want the deaf to hear it".

It would be natural at an event as significant as the Memorial service for Nelson Mandela to want to have this same symbol: graceful hand gestures sharing the message with all people.  The problem is that learning sign language is very hard.  It takes a lot of time and practice to learn and become competent.  It's not like learning a new dance by watching someone else and picking up a couple of the moves.

There is a phenomenon referred to as "Cargo Cult", where a people imitate a more technologically advanced culture that they have been exposed to. For example, a Pacific Island people are amazed at the sophisticated supplies brought by airplanes to their island.  After the colonizers leave, they might clear a runway and build air traffic control towers out of bamboo in an effort to bring more supplies, not understanding the complexity of actual air travel.

Unfortunately, someone involved in organizing the Mandela Memorial was practicing Cargo Cult Ceremony by adding the decoration of a man making hand gestures next to the speaker.  It's kind of funny.  And sad.  

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Obamacare, The Mythical Man-Month and The Forgotten Man

First, let me say that I'm not opposed to making health care available to those who need it.  Any opposition I have is more related to two ideas: “The Mythical Man Month” and “The Forgotten Man”.

The Mythical Man-Month

The Mythical Man-Month is a book written by Fred Brooks in 1975 about software engineering projects.  It’s actually quite relevant to the “glitches” with the website for signing up for the Affordable Care act.  This book introduces “Brook’s law”:
Adding more people to a late software project makes it later
The idea introduced yesterday that we are going to add the best and brightest people to fix shows me the naivety of the government regarding principles that have been known in the industry for 40 years.  See my post “Why Can't Nine Women have a baby in one month?” for technical details.

The Forgotten Man

This is simply stated as “Person A sees a person B who is suffering.  Person A passes a law to help person B.  The law demands that person C provides help to person B.  Person A claims credit for making things better.  Person B’s plight is lifted.  But person C, who works hard, pays their taxes, is a good neighbor, cares for their family, etc. is never thought of – he is the forgotten man. (Sumner’s Forgotten Man).

In conclusion, I see a government, in a genuine attempt to help, take something complicated, make it more complicated and inefficient, and then get innocent hard working people to pay for it.  I hope I’m wrong.    

Builders of Obama's health website saw red flags

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Moral Foundations of Mormonism

In this posting, I will identify the characteristics of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) that fit the six moral foundations from "The Righteous Mind"
  1. Care/Harm - Be nice to others and don't hurt them
  2. Fairness/Cheating - Be fair in how you treat others and don't cheat
  3. Liberty/oppression - Respect others rights and don't be a bully
  4. Loyalty/betrayal - Be loyal to your "group" (family, friends, etc.)
  5. Authority/subversion - Respect your leaders. Don't put up with bullies or dictators.
  6. Sanctity/degradation - Be clean, avoid filth.
For more info about Moral Foundations, go to


The Family - One of the core teachings of Mormonism is the importance of the family as a safe environment to provide nurturing for children.  This includes parents that love, honor and respect each other.

The Relief Society - This organization was founded in 1842 as an auxiliary to the church and is "one of the oldest and largest women's organizations in the world".   It provides help for those in need, compassionate welfare and service.  One of it's roles is to visit the membership in the home and look for opportunities to serve through the visiting teaching program.

Home Teaching - Home teaching is similar to visiting teaching except that it is done by the men.  The idea is that one is more aware of someones needs by visiting their home than by just seeing them at church or an activity.

Fast Offering -  Members fast (go without food) the first Sunday of each month.  The guidance is that the money they save by not eating should be donated as "Fast Offerings".  These sacred funds are used by the local leaders to provide help locally.  This help can be in the form of paying a electric, gas, phone, water or car repair bill; paying for rent or mortgage.

Bishop's Storehouse - The local leader can also write an order that a needy person can use to get food and other necessities.  The Bishop's Storehouse is like a grocery store without cash registers.

Humanitarian Services - The organization’s stated mission is to relieve suffering, to foster self-reliance for people of all nationalities and religions, and to provide opportunities for service


Mormon's share "fairness" doctrine with other Christian faiths.  A loving God that is not a respecter of persons.  The idea of the Atonement, where we can be forgiven for wrongs that we do thanks to the mercy of Christ, our Savior.

Another concept with fairness is of proportional fairness.  Instead of many people on earth being destined for an eternity of burning in hell, Mormon's believe in just rewards.  There are degrees in heaven and a majority of people will be find themselves in favorable conditions in the hereafter.


An important foundation to Mormon doctrine is the idea of "Free Agency".  It's a freedom that everyone on earth fought for before being born.  Mormon's are proponents of Freedom of Religion and Mormon's believe that God had a hand in bringing liberty to America.


Mormon's believe in loyalty to their families.  Ordinance are provided to "seal" families together forever - husband, wife and children.  Through the genealogy program, Mormon's are loyal to their ancestors by remembering them.  Mormon's are also loyal to their church.  The church is run by the members as volunteers, and many hours are given in service to the church.  The local church is organized in smaller groups that work together: quorums, classes, wards, stakes.  The opposite of loyalty is betrayal.  Betrayal can result in dis-fellowship or excommunication.


The Mormon church has a clear hierarchy of authority.  Christ is at the head of the church, followed by a prophet, 12 apostles, on down to local leaders.  The priesthood is required to act in authority and each priesthood holder has a direct line to Christ.  Parents have authority over their families.  This hierarchical system has checks against authoritarianism.  The parents have ultimate authority over their families.  Mormon scriptures warn against "unrighteous dominion" and provide examples of leaders who "serve".  Positions of authority are not obtained through personal ambition: instead they are filled by "callings" where a person can be asked to fill any role in the church.  Positions of authority are also not permanent, prerequisite or promoting.  A person can be bishop and then nursery leader.


Mormon doctrine considers the body to be the temple of God.  We should care for it accordingly.  This includes the "Word of Wisdom" that warns against using harmful substances (alcoholic beverages, tobacco, coffee, harmful drugs) and encourages eating food in season.  "The Law of Chastity" is the belief in the sanctity of marriage and that intimate relations should only occur between a married man and woman.  This includes the concept of modesty in thought, dress and actions.  The Temple is a sacred place.  Personal purity is expected of those that attend the Temple.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Cowboy, Sailor, Toastmaster

In April, my father-in-law, a World War II vet passed away.  The youngest vet of WWII turns 86 this year.  As I thought about this, a family friend kept coming to mind.  I felt a nagging urgency to visit him and record his story, so I went to his home, turned on the voice recorder, and started asking questions. 
John is a true cowboy: raised on a ranch in Butte, Montana, he broke wild horses, herded the cattle, even castrated the steers.  He still has a little bit of the Montana twang in his voice, but his voice is also gruff with age.  John is a classy, kind-hearted man.      My youngest son refers to John as "One of my living heroes" and my oldest son refers to John as "One of the coolest, old dudes I've ever known".

John is one of the youngest WWII veterans at 86 year old.  He was born May 7, 1927.  He also has a second birthday.  March 5, 1925.  He made up that birthday so he could enlist.  About that time, some of the Montana National guard were captured and killed in the Battle of Corregidor.  As a result there was an up swell of patriotism that helped him decide to become a Marine.  They were taking too long, so he went to the Navy office.  They took him that day.  It was 1943 and John was 16.  He was soon on a ship, fighting in WWII.

About a year later, during the D-Day invasion, he was on ship delivering ammunition to Omaha Beach.   “The ship got hung up on the riff raff near the beach” so off the ship and onto the beach he went.
I asked him what was going through his mind.  John gave me a puzzled look, then said  “Everybody is terrified. Ok.  I mean, I don’t remember there ever being any combat where I wasn’t scared.  And, uh, everyone is as scared as you are.  But, you have to channel this someplace.  So you channel it by doing your job.  I was a signalman, and my job was to not to worry about what I was going to do, but to send and receive the signals to the other ship that the captain directed as to what we were doing.  That was my only concern.  To get on that search light and send and receive those messages.” 

But now he was on Omaha beach without a channel for his fear.  An Army officer asked him if he could shoot a rifle.  “Yes”.  John was handed a rifle and told “you’re in the Army now”.  His only way off the beach was through France.  What was it like to march through France?, I asked.  “There was no marching through France, there was crawling through France…They gave up that territory very slowly.  It was like a cattle drive back on the ranch, making sure that no one came back around”.   Only this time the cattle were armed and trying to kill him.  He always reminds you that he "toured" France without a passport.

He had another "cowboy" experience when he was on a ship in the North Atlantic.  The ocean was rough and washing over the lower deck.  A warhead from a torpedo broke loose and was banging against the K-guns (used to fire depth charges).  There was 500 lbs of HBX explosives bouncing around.  “Your scared, so you channel your fear into creative activity”  He grabbed a rope and lassoed the warhead and he and his buddy pulled it in.

After France, he was on the USS Hunt off to the Philippines (August 1944).  There was a terrible Typhoon.  Their ship limped along and luckily had enough fuel to keep the bilge pumps running.  Three other ships weren't so lucky and sunk in the storm.  After a year in the pacific the war ended.

He went back to Montana and joined the rodeo riding bucking broncos.  While coming out of the chute, the horse bucked into a post, breaking his arm.  He rode another horse a short time later, breaking his arm again when he landed.  With his rodeo career on hold, he ended up bartending.  A couple of navy recruiters were regulars in the bar.  They saw his tattoos “Hey your a navy man”.  After some coaxing, they talked him into reinlisting (1946).

He moved to San Diego and went to sonar school during the day and San Diego High at night.  He had to finish High School since he was just a sophomore when he joined the Navy.

1947-8, After finishing his schooling, he was assigned to Operation Sandstone, a series of nuclear weapons testing at Enewetak Atoll.  Three tests took place and he was at 5, 7 and 9 miles from ground zero.  They got on the lee-side of the ship when the blast went off.  What was it like observing the nuclear blast?  “Probably a toss up of whether it was the most beautiful bunch of colors you ever saw or the most obscene bunch of colors you ever saw.   However you want to toss it.  It just scared the hell out of me.  I mean it scared me.  The whole horizon is nothing but purples, greens, yellows, reds, boiling, roiling water spouts.  Ugly and beautiful at the same time.  I was thankful I had a God when I looked at it.” 

He then went back to sonar school, learning a new system for mine detection.  One day, the office called him in and asked “Can you take these gentlemen and teach them to talk like submariners?”  He spent the next few months working with Burt Lancaster and Clark Gabel, preparing them for the movie “Run Silent, Run Deep”.

He later had a tour of “choice” duty in Key West Florida.  He ended up teaching future sonarmen and during this time he joined Toastmasters to improve his public speaking abilities.

1959 he went back to San Diego.  He was back on ship and for the next 10 years, he was only in 3 operations... 3 operations that is, that weren't black ops.  His comments: “The Cold War was exciting.  If you want to know what we were doing, read the book “Blind Man’s Bluff” and “Red November””.

Unfortunately I've had to cut the stories and details of what John could talk about.  John had about 3 decades of amazing experiences.  I talked with John for about an hour and a half.  I fit that into this brief recap.  There are many intimate details that don’t get fully captured by history books or other historical records.  You can’t ask a history book “So, what was it like?”.  It sent chills up my spine hearing him tell about it.  John certainly is a living hero, a cowboy, sailor, Toastmaster and one of the coolest old dudes I've ever met.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Moral Foundations of the Boy Scouts

Recently I read "The Righteous Mind" by Jonathan Haidt. It's another one of those books that makes you feel smarter in a way that you know is going to improve your life. I've always been confused why intelligent people with good intentions can have such differing views on morality (this is actually a big the motivation for this blog) and I think this book will help me.

In "The Righteous Mind", the author presents Moral Foundations Theory which includes 6 areas used universally by all cultures and social groups to determine what is right and wrong.
  1. Care/Harm - Be nice to others and don't hurt them
  2. Fairness/Cheating - Be fair in how you treat others and don't cheat
  3. Liberty/oppression - Respect others rights and don't be a bully
  4. Loyalty/betrayal - Be loyal to your "group" (family, friends, etc.)
  5. Authority/subversion - Respect your leaders. Don't put up with bullies or dictators.
  6. Sanctity/degradation - Be clean, avoid filth.
For more info, go to moralfoundations.orgI've been a long time participant in Scouting, so I thought I would see how it measures up using Moral Foundations theory.

Scout Oath

On my honor, I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law;
[Loyalty, Authority]

To help other people at all times;

To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.

I'm sure "Liberty" fits in their somewhere.

Scout Law

A Scout is:
Care Fairness Liberty Loyalty Authority Sanctity

Scout Slogan

Do a good turn daily
This fits into "Care" and "Fairness"

"Leave No Trace"

This principle is to leave the outdoors the same as you found it.  I always taught that we should leave it better than we found it, for example, pick up any litter that you or the previous visitors left behind.
"Leave No Trace" is a great example of Sanctity, or respecting the sanctity of nature.

Boy Scout Leadership

The Boy Scouts provides leadership opportunities for boys.  They experience many roles and responsibilities   as they go through the program.  The Scout Master and other adult leaders are there just to make sure that the boys are executing the program correctly.  It is a great example of the "Authority" Moral Foundation as it is training benevolent leaders.
When a persons moral values are opposed to authority, it is usually oppressive authority, not the kind that the Boy Scouts promotes (I'm sure there are exceptions to the rule).


Moral foundation theory provides a framework for evaluating a system like Boy Scouts.  By looking at the Scout Oath, Law, Motto, Slogan and other principles, there is an obviously strong moral foundation to this program.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Why are people poor and what can we do about it?

I recently read an article about the income distribution in the United States.  I'm always curious about why rich people are rich and poor people are poor.  This isn't so much of a personal interest: I've given up on "get rich" schemes and I'm content with my position in the income distribution.  The real interest for me is to distill truth from the political and media hype about how to fix these problems.  Regarding wealth: one side blames poor people for their condition and the other side says that the playing field isn't fair.  I think both sides are right, which makes this a hard problem to solve.

For example, there's the person who got wiped out by some natural catastrophe, illness, or other problem out of their control.  It would be nice if society reached out and helped that person.

But then there's the person who got wiped out by bad decisions, drugs, gambling, or whatever risky, fruitless path they chose.  Helping this person becomes very difficult.  Without reform, they become a life draining leech on society.

Then there are the rich.  Certainly the rich can afford to pay their fair share.  There are those for whom wealth came easy: inheritance, lucky timing or other opportunities, etc.

But then there's the wealthy person who got that way by saving every penny, that lived by the motto "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without".  They shiver under a blanket to save money on heat, collect water in a bucket while the shower water is getting warm to use for a toilet flush later.  They've never had pizza delivered to their house since homemade costs less.  Most likely they are already helping through their favorite charity.  They know the value of a dime and are careful how they help others.  It's possible that this person made wealth accumulation such a priority that they sacrificed personal fulfillment, family or health.

Not all poor are created equal and not all rich are created equal.

So back to the numbers.  The income distribution is surprisingly "predictable".  To me, predictable means there is a mathematical description which lends itself to greater understanding.  It turns out a good fit is a "Log-Normal Distribution", something I'm not familiar with.  After reading up on it, it turns it's just a skewed "Normal Distribution" or the familiar "Bell Curve" and found often in science.  I found the simplest way to understand it is by comparing experimental devices for generating the two distributions [source].  These are like a pinball machine or Pachinko where balls are dropped from the top, bounce left or right at each row of triangles and continue until they end up in the bins at the bottom.  The number of balls in each bin shows the distribution.

Figure a is the Normal Distribution and Figure b is the "Log-Normal" Distribution.

Since Figure b results in the same as the U.S. income distribution, it can be instructive to helping understand wealth and poverty.  Think of each row as an event in someones life.  The ball (their wealth) can go either left (they get poorer) or right (they get richer).  It may look like it favors the rich, but the unique design is to favor winning over losing.    Figure a has equal numbers on each side of the drop, while Figure b has more one the "rich" side of the drop point.  Each triangle is shaped such that there is always more "upside" than "downside".  For example, you'll either make $100 or lose $80.  If you win, then the amount is greater but still you'll win more than you did last time but you can't lose any more than your last win.  If you keep losing, each time you lose less than you did last time so that you aren't wiped out.  Sounds like a pretty fair system to me.

So what are these events?

Some events you have control over:
WINS: hard work, save money, sacrifice today for more tomorrow.
LOSES: Wasting time, gambling, blowing your money, taking unnecessary risks (like building your house in a flood plane)
Some events you don't have control over:
WINS: Lucky break, knowing the right people, being in the right place at the right time
LOSES: Illness, disability, catastrophe

Of course, not everyone has the same "entry point" at the top.  Mitt Romney's "ball was dropped" far to the right.  However, if you go back enough generations, there was someone in everyone's line who started out on the left (poor).  For Mitt, it was his father George Romney.

I think that this "log-normal" distribution is the nature of the system; meaning it can't be changed with laws, taxes or other policies.  There will always be poverty and wealth in a similar distribution.  The goal should be to increase the overall wealth, so that everyone benefits.

Gandhi said:
I cannot picture to myself a time when no man shall be richer than another. But I do picture to myself a time when the rich will spurn to enrich themselves at the expense of the poor and the poor will cease to envy the rich. Even in a most perfect world, we shall fail to avoid inequalities, but we can and must avoid strife and bitterness.
Some examples of helping:
Promote healthy families - a stable, nurturing home promotes "rightward" thinking, opportunities and actions.
Promote healthy lifestyles - many diseases and illnesses are preventable.
Teach personal finance and emotional education in our schools.

Get rid of state run lotteries - gambling creates a mentality that moves people left and by it's nature destroys wealth.

For those who truly suffer, we need to figure out how to follow this counsel:
"For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:  Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me."

Saturday, January 26, 2013

No Assault Rifle?

Shocking news:  no AR-15 assault rifle was used at the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting last month  [link].  Of course this is not accurate according to the latest press release from the Connecticut State Police on January 18, 2013.  The guns found were:

Seized inside the school by the suspect's body:
#1. Bushmaster .223 caliber-- model XM15-E2S rifle with high capacity 30 round magazine
#2. Glock 10 mm handgun
#3. Sig-Sauer P226 9mm handgun

Seized from suspect’s car in parking lot:
#4. Izhmash Canta-12   12 gauge Shotgun

Here's an analogy for you:
Imagine that the Sandy Hook shooting never took place, but instead, a drunk driver hit a school bus with the same 20 children and 6 adults on board, killing everyone.  The drunk driver's car is searched and they find a bottle of Jack Daniel's and a  6 pack of beer.  All of the media outlets report on how terrible Jack Daniel's is.  The politicians jump on the bandwagon and decide to ban all alcohol that is 80 proof or higher.  "No one needs to get drunk that easily".  They want to ban all imports and production.  The producers of high proof Alcoholic Beverages are now the villains.  The National Alcohol Beverage Industries Council (NABIC) comes to their defense saying that "Alcohol doesn't kill people, drunk drivers kill people" and "We will not compromise on the right of people to drink high proof alcohol".  The NABIC is made out to be public enemy number one.  Which is to blame for the drunkeness?  The beer or the Jack Daniel's?
This is a valid analogy since drunk drivers kill about as many people as are murdered by guns [CDC] [FBI].  Depending on how you count it (and who is counting) both numbers are over 10,000 people killed each  year.  (Use this calculator to determine what you can drink without exceeding the legal blood alcohol limit)

Both gun violence and drunk driving are serious problems.  Fortunately, gun deaths continue to decline in the U.S.  It would be nice to know why.  Regarding assault rifles, I know there are people in my neighborhood that own military style assault rifles.  I feel perfectly safe walking at night in my neighborhood.  I actually feel a little bit safer knowing that many of my good neighbors are armed.  I don't feel safe when they are drunk.

I've heard how great Japan is.  Very few guns and therefore very few gun-related deaths (0.07 per 100,000, while U.S. is 10 per 100,000).  Unfortunately, a large percentage of gun deaths in the U.S are suicides: 17,000 or the 30,000 suicides per year are gun-related.  However, without a gun problem, Japan has about twice as many suicides per capita (22 per 100k in Japan compared to 12 per 100k in U.S.).

Of course, our Hollywood celebrities decided to make a commercial called "Demand a Plan", saying we have to do something about it.  Someone cleverly edited it to show their hypocrisy.  Warning: after 3 minutes, the captions are obscene (f-word, etc.)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

What it will be like when things get bad

There's a tipping point when your credit runs out and all of your rainy day reserves dry up where things get really bad.  It seems that's happening in Greece as many can't afford the price of heating oil and are burning anything they can get their hands on to keep warm.  The unfortunate consequences: depleting forests that finally have recovered from the Nazis, cutting down parts of a 3,000 year old olive tree where Plato taught, and terrible air pollution (not to mention contributing to global warming).
The part about the forests I heard on the radio.