Regulation vs. Innovation

AEI’s James Pethokoukis has a nice little blog post on the negative effects of ill-conceived regulation:

So I very much liked a Mercatus study last year finding US economic growth has been slowed by an average 0.8% per year since 1980 due to the cumulative effects of regulation. Also a favorite of mine: A 2013 study from economists John Dawson of Appalachian State University and John Seater of North Carolina State University, Federal Regulation and Aggregate Economic Growth, that estimates the past 50 years of federal regulations have reduced real GDP by roughly two percentage points a year, or nearly $40 trillion. Both studies show pretty sizable effects from smarter regulation or deregulation.

He points to new articles at Reason and National Affairs demonstrating that the Federal Communications Commission limited tech advancement, including cell phones. As economist Thomas Winslow Hazlett writes in his Reason piece,

Image result for cell phoneWhen AT&T wanted to start developing cellular in 1947, the FCC rejected the idea, believing that spectrum could be best used by other services that were not “in the nature of convenience or luxury.”…  A child conceived at the same time as cellular would have been 37 years old by the time the first commercial cellphone—Gordon Gecko’s $3,995 Motorola DynaTAC 8000X brick—was released onto the market. Once the blockage was cleared, progress popped. Soon, the science fiction vision of the Star Trek communicator was reality.

Check them out.

The Stapledon Problem in Mormonism

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

We’re gonna start in a little bit of a strange place today, with an obscure (to most people) science fiction writer named Olaf Stapledon who lived from 1886 to 1950. One of Stapledon’s important works is a book called Star Maker. According to Wikipedia:

The book describes a history of life in the universe, dwarfing in scale Stapledon’s previous book, Last and First Men (1930), a history of the human species over two billion years.

So, Last and First Men covered the history of the entire human species and spanned two billion years. And it was dwarfed by Star Maker.

This brings us to one of the perennial problems of science fiction. It was a problem for Olaf Stapledon writing before World War II, it was a problem for writers like Isaac Asimov grappling with his galaxy-spanning Foundation epic in the 1980s, and it’s still a tough one for contemporary stories like the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy by Chinese sci-fi author Liu Cixin, released in China from 2008-2010 and in the US from 2014-2016.

In his series of lectures, How Great Science Fiction Works, Gary K. Wolfe named the problem after Stapledon and described the problem this way:

…for all these mind-blowing vistas of deep space and deep time Stapledon invites us to ponder, how do you make a human-scaled story out of this with fully drawn characters and emotional reactions that a reader can relate to in some sort of traditional novelistic fashion?

Now, here’s the thing: this is not just a problem for science fiction.

Human beings live and breathe stories and narratives. Narratives, fundamentally, are the way we understand the universe around us. When we come to the biggest and most important questions of all—things like, What is the meaning of life? or What is truly good?—we frame our answers in terms of stories. The Gospel, what we call the Plan of Salvation, is delivered in terms of a story. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It has heroes and villains. It has a climax and a resolution. And it also has a really, really large scope.

So if we want to understand the gospel narrative—if we want to grasp the Plan of Salvation—then we actually end up confronting the Stapledon Problem in our own scriptures.

If that sounds far-fetched or like a bit of a stretch, let me give you this concrete example. Have you ever heard an atheist mock religion using an argument that goes a little like this: “So,” our hypothetical atheist says, “You’re telling me that you believe the God who created the Earth, the Solar System, the Milky Way, and the entire Universe—containing billions more galaxies each with billions of planetary systems of their own—that God actually cares whether or not you say your prayers tonight?” This is the Stapledon Problem.

So let’s keep that in mind as we think about Elder Eldred G. Smith’s talk from the Sunday afternoon session of the April 1976 General Conference. Elder Smith cites President J. Reuben Clark:

And if you think of this galaxy of ours having within it from the beginning perhaps until now, one million worlds, and multiply that by the number of millions of galaxies, one hundred million galaxies, that surround us, you will then get some view of who this Man we worship is.

The Stapledon Problem in Mormonism is that we’re not really quite sure how to picture God in general and Christ in specific. On the one extreme, we have the Lorenzo Snow couplet:

As man now is, God once was:
As God now is, man may be.

The couplet itself has not been canonized, but the sentiment behind it is basically doctrinal.

This view of God is pretty radical, and it seems to envision God as basically a super-advanced sentient being, which is (ironically) the kind of God that even someone like notorious atheist Richard Dawkins could theoretically envision. He has said, for example:

Maybe somewhere in some other galaxy there is a super-intelligence so colossal that from our point of view it would be a god. But it cannot have been the sort of God that we need to explain the origin of the universe, because it cannot have been there that early.

This kind of God—the one that seems to be implied by President Snow and that even Dawkins would grudgingly concede is theoretically plausible—is radically different from the God of historical Christianity, which Hugh Nibley has derisively referred to as “the God of philosophers.” That kind of God—the one “we need to explain the origin of the universe” would have to be the “unmoved mover” (to plunder Aristotle).

The trouble is, we believe in that kind of God, too. In the very same session, Elder L. Tom Perry spoke eloquently about this kind of God. Not one who perfectly follows the laws of nature, but a God who decides the laws of nature. Thus, after describing how God tilted the earth and started it spinning, Elder Perry mentions, “His physical laws,” which “are eternal and unchangeable.” He also emphasizes, “As man grows in his understanding of God’s physical laws, he can know with absolute assurance what the result will be if he conforms to those laws.”

I am not trying to tell you that Elder Perry and President Snow contradicted each other. That is going too far. It is certainly possible to reconcile their statements. There are many views that could embrace both perspectives. But I am telling you that there is a tension between those two views, and that that tension pervades the way Mormons talk and think about God. Depending on who you talk to—and sometimes depending on when a person is talking—we emphasize either the facets of God that are most like us (for example, His ability to weep and be deeply impacted by the decisions of His children) are the facets of God that are most majestic and awe-inspiring and therefore least like us (such as his ability to set down the physical laws which govern the universe).

And this tension is the Stapledon Problem.

For science fiction authors, the question is: how do incorporate aeons and lightyears into stories that still have a meaningful place of human beings? How do you make such stories fun and accessible and comprehensible? Science fiction authors are, in the end, trying to entertain us.

The Gospel is obviously not a question of entertainment, but—because we understand it as a narrative—it faces the same problems of cohesion and coherence in the face of vastly disproportionate scopes. How do we reconcile a God who ignited the suns and breathed life into the first humans with praying to that God to find our lost keys? Or thinking that God cares about anything we pray about?

Since I’ve raised the issue, let me hazard a few words in closing. First, I do think it’s a bit silly to criticize people for praying to find their lost car keys. This has become a little fashionable as late, and you can find memes making fun of athletes who pray in thanks in the end zone. And, well, OK. That does seem a little ridiculous to me. Anyone who prays to God that their team will win a game is uttering the kind of prayer I simply cannot understand. But that’s because I don’t understand fanatical sports loyalty at all. But let’s set aside issues of weirdly sublimated ritualistic tribal warfare for another day. The point I’m driving at is that if we’re talking about the author of the universe, then the difference between praying for your car keys and—not to be too blunt about it—praying for your life seem like a rounding error. If the being who created a billion galaxies listens to individual prayers at all, then whether those prayers are for life or death or for car keys probably doesn’t really matter. I mean, a billion galaxies compared to your life and a billion galaxies compared to your car keys, aren’t they both about equally absurd? It’s like scoffing at the notion of Bill Gates stopping to pick up a penny but taking it for granted that obviously he’d stop to pick up a nickel.

Second, the Stapledon Problem is an expression of our limitations. It says we can’t picture a really epic scope—galaxies and eons—and keep our focus on the significance of an individual human being at the same time. That’s beyond our capacity to do, which is why science fiction writers have to come up with all kinds of clever ways to get around it, but nobody said it was beyond God’s ability.

After all, his thoughts are not our thoughts. He framed the sky above the earth, and He still cares when a sparrow falls from the latter to the former. We don’t know how He does it. But we can still believe, affirm, and even know that He does.

Check out the other posts from the General Conference Odyssey this week and join our Facebook group to follow along!

Top 10 Films of 2016

Image result for oscar

The Oscar nominations for 2016’s Best Picture have been announced. I’ve seen all the nominees and while my list is very similar, I have a few changes. Here is my top 10 list for 2016:

*Update: I’ve changed the order since the original posting, moving Your Name to the top. I saw it for the second time this week since it was released in the U.S. over the weekend. Not only was it the best of 2016, but it’s one of the best films of the 2010s.*


1. Your Name: One of the most unique films I’ve seen in some time, mixing elements from romantic comedies, coming-of-age dramas, fantasy, and disaster films. The film is gorgeous to look at and the meditations on time, longing, and connection stay with you long after the credits have rolled.

2. Manchester by the Sea: A quiet, humorous yet heart-wrenching look at grief, love, and family. Affleck’s subtle, aching performance is fantastic as he navigates this case study of the fractured human condition and the burdens of mortality we all have to bear.

3. Moonlight: Much like the two films above, this explores the desire for human connection and, with it, the need for identity. The brokenness of the main character’s life–from adolescence to adulthood–triggers our own cravings for belonging and awakens us to the completion and healing we find in even the most unlikely of people.

4. Zootopia: Tackles the subject of prejudice—from the explicit to the more subtle—and the barriers and suspicions it creates: all done with humor, emotion, superb animation, and a message of inclusion and friendship. A thoroughly entertaining and moving slam-dunk from Disney.

5. La La Land: A charming, nostalgic homage to classic musicals with a modern twist and uncommon finale (for Hollywood musicals, at least). Gosling and Stone both give strong performances, exuding wonderful chemistry. Justin Hurwitz’s jazzy score is both foot-tapping and grand, complementing the more fantastical elements of the movie.

6. Arrival: A thinking person’s sci-fi movie exploring the themes of language and communication. Drawing on the controversial Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the film probes questions about how language shapes our understanding and experience of the world around us and our interpretations of those different from us. Less about aliens and more about us.

7. The Wailing: This disturbing South Korean film is one of the best horror films I’ve seen in a long time. Most modern horror films rely on cheap scares, rehashed plots, and/or an excessive amount of gore (“torture porn”). This instead offers an atmospheric slow burn wrapped in a foreboding sense of dread and haunting ambiguity, driven by powerful performances, particularly those of Kwak Do-won and Kim Hwan-hee.

8. Lion: An uplifting true tale of courage and resilience that doesn’t shy away from the grim realities of poverty and child homelessness in India. The two strikingly different halves are woven together by the concepts of home and identity, resulting in a tear-inducing, ultimately satisfying whole.

9. Silence: The majority of modern Christian films–Fireproof, God’s Not Dead, Left Behind–are superficial fluff; the equivalent of what Jeffrey Holland referred to as “a kind of theological Twinkie.” But Martin Scorsese’s latest engages subjects like faith vs. doubt, discipleship vs. orthodoxy, belief vs. action, and the problem of evil. In essence, it’s what lived religion looks like.

10. Hidden Figures: No doubt sentimental and perhaps formulaic, this is nonetheless an incredibly well-done, feel-good, family-friendly film. Henson, Spencer, and Monae each deliver stirring performances, which in turn bolster the already incredible story. While it doesn’t break new artistic ground, it’s about as pitch-perfect as a lighthearted crowdpleaser can be.


And there you have it. Go watch them.

Honorable Mentions:

Train to Busan


Hacksaw Ridge

A Monster Calls

Sing Street


The Witch

Rogue One

Still Need to See:

The Nice Guys

Midnight Special


The Edge of Seventeen


The Handmaiden

On Repetition and Lines of Communication

Photo by Flickr user Gripped. Cropped.
Photo by Flickr user Gripped. Cropped.

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

Some General Conference sessions seem brimming with impactful revelations and guidance. And some do not.

I believe in a lot of cases the variable isn’t the session or an individual talk; it’s me. When I was a missionary in the MTC, the October 2000 General Conference was absolutely riveting. Every single session captured my full attention. On my mission, I devoured the conference issues of the Ensign, avidly reading every word of every single talk. But this was all a very drastic change from how I approached General Conferences before and after my mission. In both cases—at least until recently—it was a rare accomplishment just to stay awake for an entire Sunday session, and I frequently didn’t even try to catch the Saturday sessions. Most of the difference was simply what I brought to the table. Like scripture, you get more out of General Conferences when you put more into them.

But it would be strange to think that that’s the only variable in play. Some talks resonate more with different parts of the audience than others. And surely, if some talks stand out as legendary and unique, then other talks by definition have to be somewhat ordinary by comparison. This session, for me at least, was full of those kinds of talks.

As I read the first five talks, I found interesting things to note, but nothing that really stood out. I have itching ears. I like to hear new things. That’s not a bad trait in general—curiosity is essential to a meaningful life—but when it creates a thirst for novelty for novelty’s sake it can become a problem.

Which is exactly what I realized when I came to the last talk of the session, Keep the Lines of Communication Strong by President Spencer W. Kimball. His emphasis was first and foremost on the lines of communication within a marriage, and he begins with a story of a young couple who grew apart because of mismatched expectations and goals and, more importantly, because they stopped communicating with each other and turned to someone else for comfort:

In time, each found another person and set up different communication lines for sympathy and understanding and comfort; and this disloyalty led to physical adventures that resulted in adulteries and two broken homes and disillusioned spouses and crushed hopes and injured children.

President Kimball writes that “all this [happened] because two basically good people let their communication lines get down.” From there, he segues into a discussion about the line of communication in faith, about the necessity of maintaining a habit of daily prayer and reading the scriptures and how—without these habits—we will not have a vibrant, thriving spiritual life to fall back upon in challenging and lean times.

These points are interesting, and they are good, but they aren’t really new, are they? Isn’t the advice about keeping open the lines of communication with our spouses just common sense? Isn’t the advice about keeping open the lines of communication with our Heavenly Father just a restatement of the Parable of the Ten Virgins?

Yes and no. It depends, to a great extent, on what we bring to the message.

For me, I realized when reading President Kimball’s talk how important it was for me to slog through the first five talks of the session even though I didn’t enjoy them as much as I often do. Sometimes keeping the line of communication open isn’t novel, or exciting, or revelatory. Sometimes the conversations you have with your spouse aren’t scintillating. You’re just sharing ordinary concerns and relating everyday events. But if you only talked to your spouse when at least one of you had something really thrilling or intrinsically exciting to say, then how often would you talk at all? And, facing that kind of scrutiny, how could you possible put in the simple moments—day after day, week after week, year after year—to keep lines of communication open?

It reminds me of a quote from an amazing science fiction novel by the Chinese author Cixin Liu:

As had occurred so many times before, their eyes met and intertwined, a continuation of that gaze they had held in front of the Mona Lisa’s smile two centuries before. They had discovered that the language of the eyes that [his wife] had dreamed up was now a reality. Or maybe loving humans had always possessed this language. When they looked at each other, a richness of meaning poured from their eyes, just as the clouds poured from the … endless and unceasing. But it wasn’t a language of this world. It constructed a world that gave it meaning, and only in that rosy world did the words of the language find their corresponding referents. Everyone in that world was God. All had the ability to instantaneously count and remember every grain of sand in the desert. All were able to string together stars into a crystal necklace to hang around a lover’s neck.

The point of the secret communication between this husband and wife wasn’t what they had to say. It was that they were saying it to each other. This otherworldly communication is possible in all loving relationships, I believe, a secret language only understood by a man and wife who have built a lifetime together. And every simple, boring, commonplace exchange—when part of a grand project of keeping open the lines of communication—becomes another element to their private language.

There is this fascinating connection in the scriptures between marital fidelity and religious fidelity. Between adultery and apostasy. It’s no coincidence that President Kimball chose to emphasis those two stories in his talk about lines of communication: because in both cases, the work of maintaining the lines of communication is the work of protecting and preserving a special relationship.

Writing about the importance of love in human society and psychology, Jonathan Haidt pointed out that although we often celebrate the idea of universal love, there is actually something vital about specific love:

Although I would like to live in a world in which everyone radiates benevolence towards everyone else, I would rather live in a world in which there was at least one person who loved me specifically, and whom I loved in return. [emphasis added]

That kind of specific love is tied in some way to exclusivity. It is why idealistic, naïve arguments for polyamory—although superficially commendable: shouldn’t love be devoid of jealousy and possession?—are so foolish. The love of man and wife is sacred because they have each chosen the other in particular and above all others. And this is very similar to our discipleship, in that we must choose to love and follow God in particular and above all others.

So yes: sometimes General Conference talks are boring. Sometimes they are repetitive. Sometimes the talks are little more than just long recitations of scriptures we already know, without any new or unique twist or insight. And listening to these talks is not as much fun as listening to a talk that seems to expand our minds our souls with every word, but listening to these workaday talks is important, because the mundane and the repetitive and the commonplace are the building blocks of the sacred and the transcendent.

Keeping open lines of communication is a chore sometimes. It’s a chore with our spouses, with our children, with our family, with our friends, and with our God. But these relationships are also the treasures of eternity. They are, especially for Mormons, the whole point. A little boredom is a small price to pay. If Naaman could be troubled to bathe in the humble Jordan, then I can be troubled to read even the General Conference talks that don’t appear to sparkle. The cost of admission is so low, and we have so little to lose in paying it.

As a last observation: I believe I may have wandered a little far afield of President Kimball’s talk. I have pulled in quotes from social science and science fiction, and gone off (as far as I can tell) on a tangent of my own. If the digression has been a good one, it is also evidence of how we—the audience—have an obligation to make what we hear our own. To “liken [scriptures] unto yourselves,” is everyone’s duty. Sometimes a General Conference is a delicious prepared meal, ready to be consumed. Other times, it is raw ingredients we have to cook ourselves. Sometimes, it might even feel like just the seeds to grow the plants to cook the meal! No matter. There is honor and dignity and even love in taking what we are given and making it what we desire.

The chance that I will be bored by another General Conference talk—or even an entire session—is quite high. Knowing what to do doesn’t make it easy. But this post represents the way I will try to approach them in the future. If “all things work together for good to them that love God,” clearly this “all things” must include even the boring General Conference talks, right?

And so I will read every single one. Even the boring ones. I will keep the lines of communication open.

Check out the other posts from the General Conference Odyssey this week and join our Facebook group to follow along!

After the Cultural Revolution

One of the most surprising things about Cixin Liu’s award-winning science fiction novel The Three-Body Problem was its direct and unflinching portrayal of China’s Cultural Revolution. The descriptions of bloody civil war and widespread oppression of academic intellectuals was not what I expected from a novel that was first published in China, and the specific dialogue as student protesters harangued a physics professor for daring to teach special relativity was at once chilling and fascinating. In some ways, there are elements of the excellent sequel (The Dark Forest) that are even more haunting. The way that an author who is so willing to stare the political doublethink of the Cultural Revolution directly in the face has no qualms about positively describing the important role that political officers would play in a modern (presumably less totalitarian) Chinese military shows, to me, how deeply embedded some of the assumptions that led to the Cultural Revolution still remain. So many things that do not seem political to use are that way purely because nobody has bothered to politicize them. But physics, like anything else, can be and has been politicized.

And then just a couple of weeks ago, I saw this fascinating article in Foreign Policy about an obscure Chinese folk singer (Yang Le) who was allowed–on national television–to sing about the personal costs to his family of the Cultural Revolution. The article notes that “Yang’s song likely made the cut, even earning accolades in a November 2015 article by Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, by focusing on emotion rather than details, telling a family rather than a political story, and declining to place blame.” Here is a video for you to watch, and then the lyrics (translated into English by Foreign Policy) after:

When I was small
A family of six
Older brothers and sisters, I was the youngest
Dad was handsome and brave
Mom was young and beautiful
They worked earnestly, and were kind-hearted

After the Cultural Revolution, only five were left.
Dad suffered a wrong, he passed on first.
Mom had no choice, she married someone from a different place.
My siblings went up to the mountains and down to the countryside.

From that time on, our family was dispersed.
Brothers and sisters to the four corners of the earth.
At each holiday, we could only send distant greetings
Distant greetings
Distant greetings

Many years later, looking back again,
Brothers and sisters, no need to comfort each other
We all remember, Dad wanted us to be honest and kind
We should never change
We remember, Mom wanted us to be strong
And happy
Even today
We sing Dad and Mom’s favorite song
Strong and happy
Kind and honest
We sing Dad and Mom’s favorite song
Good and kind
Living happily


A Bibliophile’s Thoughts on Audiobooks

Image by Flickr user Jeff_golden. Cropped to fit blog dimensions. Click for original on Flickr.
Image by Flickr user Jeff_golden. Cropped to fit blog dimensions. Click for original on Flickr.

I love books. A lot of my happiest memories are of whiling away long summer hours reading in the backroom of my grandfather’s book store.

Covers like this one by John Berkey defined my childhood daydreams.
Covers like this one by John Berkey defined my childhood daydreams.

But for a few years in grad school, I didn’t read very much. At one point I realized it had been several months–maybe a year!–since I had read a book cover-to-cover. I decided that simply would not do, and I started reading again. (I believe that was about the time I got into Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga.) The only other period in my life when I wasn’t reading was the time before I knew how.

I stumbled upon Goodreads at about the same time, and I’ve been tracking my reviews on there ever since. I don’t really go in for the social networking aspects of Goodreads. I basically treat it as a convenient reading journal. The best part is being able to look at a chronological timeline of the books I’ve read over the last couple of years. Individual titles or covers will bring me back to places where I was–literally and metaphorically–when I read those books. And all it takes is a glance at my bring the books back to life for me, little anchors that keep me from forgetting all the places that I’ve been.

But by far the greatest change to my reading life has been my subscription to Audible.

Getting sick was never quite as bad when I knew I could stay home from school and listen to this.
Getting sick was never quite as bad when I knew I could stay home from school and listen to this.

I have always loved audiobooks. As a kid, my go-to for getting through the flu was a dramatization of The Hobbit on cassette tapes stored in a small, wooden box. Later on, I acquired a CD dramatization of The Lord of The Rings (way before the movies were out) that I also listened through a couple of times. The first few Harry Potter books (this was before the last ones had come out) also helped me get through hours of tedious desk work back in the day. But back in the day, an audiobook could set you back $50 or more, easily, and there was no way I could afford that as a replacement for used books and $7 paperbacks.

Audible has changed that, however. For $15/month, you get one audiobook. That’s good, but it’s not great. In addition, however, you can buy 3 credits for about $36 (so, more books for about $12/each.) Best of all, however, are their promotions. They send out a daily deal that offers a random book for $3-5 and frequently have other sales at $5 each. Most of these books will probably not suit your fancy, but even if only 5%-10% of them do, then you’re going to be picking up at least a couple more books every month for basically pocket change. Now, the economics of buying audiobooks being to make sense!

This is the secret to how I “read” over 100 books last year, and how I plan to get through about 120 in 2016. But you might have some questions, so let’s talk about how to get the most out of your Audible subscription (or similar) along with some unexpected pros and cons.

First: learn double-speed, love double-speed

You might not even realize this, but most audiobook apps (including Audible and iTunes) have the ability to increase narration speed while keeping the narrator’s voice at a level pitch (so you don’t end up listening to chipmunks). The math here is pretty obvious: faster narration means you get through books faster. Right now, the longest book in my Audible library is Brandon Sanderson’s monstrous Words of Radiance (Stormlight Archive, The), which clocks in at over 48 hours, followed by Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves (almost 32 hours) and then Susan Wise Bauer’s The History of the Ancient World (about 27 hours). Most books fall in a more normal range of about 12-16 hours each, however, which means that double-speed means it takes only 6-8 hours to get through a typical book. And that’s an amount of time most people can probably find in one week.

Now, if you try to skip straight to double-speed, you’re going to get frustrated and give yourself a headache. It didn’t even occur to me to speed up the tracks until a friend suggested it. I started at about 1.25x and for a while that was all I could do. Once that was natural, however, I moved up to 1.5x and, after getting used to that, I finally went all the way up to 2.0x.

It says "Speed 3x," but it lies. It is only double-speed.
It says “Speed 3x,” but it lies. It is only double-speed.

Unfortunately, that’s the fastest you can go. Don’t get me wrong, if you look at the app you will see a button that claims you can also do 2.5x and even 3.0x, but it’s a lie. They don’t actually speed up the narration beyond 2.0x. I tested this myself back in December 2014 with the iOS version and a stopwatch to confirm, and it’s true. There are no speed increases after 2.0x.

Second: when to listen

The conventional time to listen to audiobooks is in the car, and that’s a great one. I often have to travel in from Williamsburg, VA to Richmond, VA which is about a 1-hour trip (one-way), so every time I get four hours of listening done (remember: double speed). That’s about half a novel. Not bad! But I also work from home many days, and then I’m not in the car at all. So, what are some other good times to listen? Walking the dog is a great one, especially ’cause your dog will appreciate the extra time if you’re not in a hurry to get back. Doing chores is another great one. A lot of annoying things that have to get done (like folding the laundry) become a treat if they’re also your excuse to return to a great book. One of my favorites has also been long-distance runs.

There’s a caveat here, however. Audiobooks can be addictive. I’ve gotten in trouble on more than one occasion because I’ve got headphones in my ears (while I’m doing the chores) and my wife wants to talk to me. This, as you can imagine, is a bad scenario. Anything in life can be taken too far, and audiobooks are no exception. Be sensible about it.

Third: what to listen to

I have the most fun listening to enjoyable fiction, but I’ve also found that picking up books for $2-$5 / each makes me interested in things I wouldn’t otherwise be. I’ve gotten into a lot of history this way (most recently: a biography of the Dulles brothers, another of T. E. Lawrence, and also a history of the Plantagenets). You can also get a lot of Great Courses through Audible, so there’s a ton of great material on anything from quantum physics (I recently listened to a short one on the Higgs Boson) to marketing or music appreciation.

Here’s another caveat, however. When I listen to really, really interesting non-fiction I often like to enter notes into Evernote. And this is where audiobooks are less than amazing. Few things in the world frustrate me more than transcribing 40 or 50 notes from an Audiobook. I’ve done this a lot, and so here are some tips.

When you want to take a note, you can just add a bookmark with a note in the Audible app. Always type a note. Often you will think that it will be obvious when you come back, but the timing of the bookmark is not exact (especially on double speed) and if you have a lot of notes or a very long book, then by the time you come back to get your notes you might have to listen to rather long portions to remind yourself of exactly what you wanted to make a note of. In fact, if the quote is short, you should just try to write the entire quote out in the note field. If it’s not short, at least write the first phrase of the quote. That will make it easy to find.

As for transcription: good luck. For a while I tried reducing the speed to 1x, putting the phone on speaker, holding up to my mic, and trying to let Dragon: Naturally Speaking transcribe it. Results were mixed. Dragon could pick up on a lot of the words, but not everything. It was basically a toss-up whether manually transcribing the whole thing or fixing the mistakes in Dragon’s transcription was faster. Either way, it took about 2 minutes on average for a single note, which–if you have more than a few notes–will get very frustrating.

In other words: if you have something to listen to that you suspect is going to involve a lot of underlining, highlighting, or brain-waves: get it in paper and do it the old-fashioned way.

This doesn’t mean that audiobooks have to be light. I have listened to some great literature this way, books like Angle of Repose or Gilead, but it does skew towards fiction for me and away from the most interesting non-fiction, which I still prefer to get in hardcopy (or Kindle).

One word of caution, however. The rise of self-publishing has an impact in the Audible ecosystem as well. There’s really no easy way to separate self-published books (which are often abysmal in quality) from traditionally published books (which are only sometimes abysmal in quality). My recommendation is this: If you see something that looks interesting but you don’t recognize it, look up the book on Amazon and check out the editorial reviews. NOT the customer reviews! The first thing you want to look for is not what the reviews say, but who they are from. Best case? Prominent newspapers like the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. Next best case? Super-famous authors. Worst case? Authors you have never heard of and/or outlets you have never heard of. It’s not a perfect way to gauge quality–obviously–but it will help you avoid the worst of the nonsense that is out there.

Fourth: did you learn anything?

Some folks will tell you that listening to audiobooks isn’t really reading. Well, sure, literally it isn’t. But I did find a Forbes article that tackled the question: Is Listening to Audio Books Really the Same as Reading? According to the article:

So on an intellectual level, is listening to a book really just as good as reading it?

Pretty much, but it depends on the type of book. Studies on electronic media consumption are still relatively limited, and the audio book genre has been “woefully unaddressed by the academic community in general,” wrote philosophy professor William Irwin in a 2009 essay.

However, even research that predates CDs suggests that reading and listening are strikingly similar cognitive processes. For example, 1985 study found listening comprehension correlated strongly with reading comprehension – suggesting that those who read books well would listen to them well, also. In a 1977 study, college students who listened to a short story were able to summarize it with equal accuracy as those who read it.

“The way this is usually interpreted is that once you are good at decoding letters into sound, which most of us are by the time we’re in 5th or 6th grade, the comprehension is the same whether it’s spoken or written,” explained University of Virginia psychology professor Dan Willingham.

That matches my experience, and so does the rest of the article which qualifies this a little bit by pointing out that some complex text can benefit from being literally read because it lets you easily skip back to re-read difficult sections. However, in my experience, it’s also true that some books are actually better when read. This really worked for Gilead, for example, because as an epistolary novel the narration was a perfect fit.

Speaking of notes, I really do recommend using Goodreads. Trying to go back and re-enter books you already read is a rabbit hole I suggest you don’t try to go down, but writing out reviews of everything you read–and recording the start and end date for each book–is a fantastic project that starts to really pay dividends within a couple of years of starting. Give it a shot.

So, have I sold you on Audible yet? Well, first let me point out to alternatives that might save you some cash. First, check with your local library to see if they let you digitally check out audiobooks. Mine does, and I was really excited. At first. Unfortunately, the particular app I had to use with my local library was the worst-designed thing imaginable. Most egregiously? No option to increase playback speed. That was a dealbreaker for me, and the library’s selection was also pretty meh. Still, you might have more luck. (I’m going to try again when we move to a new area.) Second, you can also check out iTunesU. I listened to some really great courses several years ago when that was getting started (including a fantastic overview of modern cosmology), but eventually these courses started to rely more and more heavily on video which, you know, defeats the entire purpose of an audiobook. There’s probably still a lot out there, however, and a lot is free, so you might want to check that out.

If you are interested in Audible, however, then let me make a suggestion: join Audible.

If you use that link just above to join, I get a little commission. Which is nice. But the real reason I decided to post this today is that Audible is also having a great members-only sale: $4.95 for the first book in a series. I don’t get a commission for that particular sale, by the way. I was just looking through the options, and saw some great ones. If you like sci-fi, then there are some fantastic deals. The Three-Body Problem won the Hugo last year, and it deserved it. Leviathan Wakesis the first book in a great sci-fi series that is currently running on SyFy as The Expanse.. Golden Son is my favorite book of 2015. It’s not on the list, but it’s also #2 in a trilogy and the first book–Red Rising–is on the list. There are lots of other legitimate books on there as well. Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch) took the Hugo in 2015, for example. Revelation Space, Ringworld (A Del Rey book), and The Memory of Earth (Homecoming) are also all very good sci-fi (or, at least in the case of Ringworld, very famous sci-fi).

So, if you haven’t joined Audible yet, now might be a great time to try. And if you’re already a member, check out that sale.

Difficult Run Best Books of 2015

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Continuing the tradition that we started last year, I asked the DR Editors to each pick their five favorite books from 2015. Once again, we’ve got a fantastic, eclectic selection of books. Without further ado, and in no particular order, here are best books that we read last year.

Walker Wright

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (Brené Brown)

Brown’s approach to shame and vulnerability has had a significant impact on my worldview, including how I interpret my religion. However, my exposure to her work over the last couple years was largely through her TED talks, articles, and professional counseling. I finally read a couple of her books this year, Daring Greatly being my favorite. The book is a fantastic mix of research, anecdotes, and application. The insights within it are themselves therapeutic, providing a language capable of capturing many of the turbulent emotions we experience. The result is better self-understanding and increased self-awareness. A paradigm shifting book.

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration (Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace)

As a huge Pixar fan, I expected to enjoy the book. I didn’t expect it be one of the most enthralling management books I’ve ever read. Stanford’s Robert Sutton was right when he described it as, “One of the best business/leadership/organization design books ever written.” The narrative acts as both a biography of Pixar and an investigation into its organizational structure and managerial styles. The process of creativity is explored, revealing the importance of autonomy, candid discussion, and the expectation of failure. Perhaps the biggest takeaway, however, is that the collective brain is the creative brain. High-quality innovation spurs from the constant flow of information and ideas through a network of diverse people and backgrounds. Managers should read this, yes, but so should anyone interested in embarking on a creative endeavor.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Jonathan Haidt)

My experience with Haidt prior to reading his book was similar to that of Brown’s above. I had watched his TED talks and lectures and read a number of his articles. Plus, he started showing up over at the libertarian site/magazine Reason. I was familiar with his Moral Foundations Theory and found his discussion of moral psychology absolutely fascinating. Yet, despite being familiar with his work, his book yielded an enormity of new, illuminating details about human nature. His emphasis on the primacy of emotions (the elephant) over reason (the rider) as well as our evolutionary nature as social creatures paints a vivid picture about what it is to be human. Given the often absurd assumptions about human nature we find in the 21st-century Western world, this is refreshingly rooted in reality. A much-needed book.

Markets without Limits: Moral Virtues and Commercial Interests (Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski)

If you may do it for free, you may do it for money.” That is the premise of this meticulously argued book by Georgetown philosophy professors Brennan and Jaworski. Economist Bryan Caplan has identified what he calls the anti-market bias among voters and the authors demonstrate why this bias is unfounded. Most talk about the “moral limits of markets” focus on something other than the actual market. For example, a market in slaves doesn’t prove that markets are problem, but that slavery itself is wrong and would still be wrong if done for free. The authors go through the objections of various commodification critics and convincingly show that their arguments are (1) faulty in their logic and/or (2) not grounded in empirical social science. The arguments are powerful and should fundamentally change the nature of the debate. Should be the starting point for any discussion about markets and morality.

An Other Testament: On Typology (Joseph Spencer)

Philosopher Joseph Spencer is one of the most careful readers of scripture in modern Mormonism and this book puts his skill on full display. A stellar combination of close textual analysis, biblical scholarship, and theology, Spencer explores the tension between two different interpretations of Isaiah within the Book of Mormon: Nephi’s collective, covenantal approach vs. Abinadi’s Christological, individualistic view. Spencer’s book is evidence of the kind of deep, intricate reading that can be accomplished through constant study of the text. What’s even better is that Spencer’s reading can accommodate both sides of the historicity debate (though perhaps leaning more favorably toward those championing historicity). One of the most engaging and enlightening books on the Book of Mormon I have ever read.

Ro Givens

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (Sheryl Sandberg)

I know there were a lot of complaints about this book, but I say, that’s insanity.  Even if you’re not in business, even if you didn’t start life in the upper class (and will never approach it), you can get insight from Sheryl’s life.  Love her.

The BFG (Roald Dahl)

This book is adorbs.  And hilarious.  It was the first chapter book my 6 year old asked me to keep reading, and he then asked me to start it again when we finished.

Princess Academy (Shannon Hale)

Another piece of evidence that middle grade fiction > young adult fiction.  The writing is better, the message is better (ie, exists), and I’m not embarrassed to admit that I like it.  This book has strong female characters and is about the importance of education, cooperation, community, and friendship. #Mormon #represent

Lauren Ipsum: A Story About Computer Science and Other Improbable Things (Carlos Bueno)

A fairy tale about problem solving. Alice in Wonderland meets Computer Science (theory). Adorable and perfect.  Read it myself, and now my kids are laughing along while I read it to them.

(FAQ: Yes, I like children’s lit.  I read more on my own than to my kids.)

Allen Hansen

Preachin’ the Blues: The Life and Times of Son House (Daniel Beaumont)

Continuing my reading of blues biographies, I picked up this one about a man whose music electrified me when I first heard it. A feel to it which is completely out of this world. The new crop of blues biography are interested in getting behind the mythology of the blues and into the murky details of the musicians lives. House grew up in a decently educated home with a religious background, found religion, found the blues,  travelled around the south quite a bit, experienced racism and oppression, worked all sorts of manual labor only somewhat removed from slavery, went to prison, moved north during the war years and was rediscovered the same year that massive race riots broke out in his city. The bigger picture of black history in 20th century America is covered from House’s perspective, so you get an idea of how an individual experienced religion, navigated racism, and responded to various challenges. Life was no monolith, especially for bluesmen rebelling against the strictures of society. There is also a sense of profound tragedy in Son House’s life, an intelligent man of significant ability who could never conquer his twin demons of alcohol and womanizing.

The Terrorist’s Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organizations (Jacob N. Shapiro)

I read quite a few books on terrorism last year, but this one stands out. Shapiro looks at terrorist organizations from a management perspective. Terrorist leaders, it turns out, use Excel spreadsheets, handle time-off requests, and issue write-ups in order to run terrorist activities, but the stakes (naturally) are much higher than they would be in legitimate corporations. The tighter the control, the more the paperwork the greater the risk of being compromised. That Excel spreadsheet can cost your life if discovered, but without it you might not be able to counter waste and theft of resources or prevent operative’s violence from spinning out of control  (even for terrorists there is such a thing as too much violence). As Shapiro pointedly observes, terrorists face a major personnel challenge. Someone willing to do horrible things to other human beings is not likely to be an upstanding and conscientious agent or keep violence subordinate and appropriate to achieving political goals. This weakness can be exploited to minimize the ability of terrorists to act. Shapiro analyses multiple terrorist groups from different times and places, showing this common thread, and in the process making them a little less exotic, and more banal.

Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate (Kenan Malik)

You might not expect such a book to be written by someone like Kenan Malik. Malik is a British journalist born in a Muslim family in India, a philosopher of science trained in neurobiology, and a secular humanist on the political left. In the book he traces changing attitudes on race from antiquity to the present where it has become entrenched in the twin forms of scientific race realism and identity politics. He skewers race realists or essentialists, but not as much as he does anti-racists. The former conflate the issue of genetic differences with constructs of race, and the latter transformed cultural and genetic differences into dogmatic philosophy. Both reject enlightenment ideas of universality and scientific rationality. Malik is witty, thought-provoking, and has a great way of getting to core of whatever issue is under discussion.

The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (Margaret MacMillan)

There is fierce debate over what started the First World War, but this book poses a different question. Why did peace end?  Europe was not facing its severest crisis, it actually had a good system in place for preserving peace, but it failed in 1914. There was nothing inevitable about the process, and MacMillan does a great job of unpacking the various social, intellectual and political currents which along with personal factors influenced the small group of decision-makers who ultimately chose war. The writing is very engaging and never dry, painting a remarkable portrait of Europe in the early 20th century. MacMillan knows her stuff, but isn’t afraid to be entertaining, like when she draws (an apt) comparison between Wilhelm of Germany and Toad of Toad Hall.

Yosef Haim Brenner: A Life (Anita Shapira)

Growing up in Israel, Brenner was a legendary figure from our past, a cultural messiah of the founding generation.  This is probably the narrowest-interest book of the five, but it is still superb. Brenner was born in a religious Jewish family in 19th century Ukraine, fell in love with secular Hebrew literature, and abandoned his religion. His father retaliated by making him serve in the Russian army so that his religiously-minded brother would be exempt from military service. Unsurprisingly, Brenner suffered from bouts of depression throughout his life. He still had a tremendous attachment to his people and the new Hebrew literature while his unflinching honesty and ascetic lifestyle spun a myth around him even in his lifetime. He moved to Palestine in 1909, and was murdered by an Arab mob in the 1921 riots. Shapira scrupulously avoids the myth, making Brenner’s tortured life all the more compelling.


Blueberry Girl (Neil Gaiman, Charles Vess – illustrator)

This is a lovely book about all of the gifts a parent wishes for his or her newborn daughter, such as freedom from fear, protection from false friends, and help to help herself. Neil Gaiman wrote the book as a poem, and the rhymes and cadence make it pleasant to read to your own daughter (over and over and over). Charles Vess illustrated the poem with beautiful paintings that show girls exploring the world in a carefree, whimsical way. I was pleased to notice the girls in the paintings are different ages and races with different hairstyles and ways of dressing. I like that variety because I like to think about little girls from many walks of life examining the paintings as their parents read to them and feeling the poem is about them too.

As a Christian deconvert and secular parent, I regret that I miss out on the comfort of praying for my daughter. This book has served as a kind of substitute for me. I’ve read Blueberry Girl to my own girl dozens of times, and it’s been not just pleasant but cathartic to say out loud so many of the hopes I have for her.

Bryan Maack

The Religions of Man (Houston Smith)

One question I think every religious person should ask themselves is “Why I do I believe what I believe?” And part of answering that question is answering why you don’t believe anything else. In order to answer that question, I believe that the very best case must be made for every religion.

Here’s where The Religions of Man by Huston Smith steps in. Smith gives you a sympathetic account of many major world religions–Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. The author helps you understand why so many people follow these religions earnestly. If anyone has authority to speak on this topic, Huston Smith does, having practiced Vedanta Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, and Sufi Islam for over a decade each [citation: Huston_Smith#Religious_ practice].

I will admit that many of the chapters challenged me to seriously consider why I am a Roman Catholic and nothing else. This experience inculcates a sense of humility and understanding of why people of good will hold to many different religions. But far from descending to syncretism, The Religions of Man illustrates the particular problems that religions are addressing and the diverse solutions that they offer, creating a real chance for the reader to discern among unique options.

The book was originally published in 1958. A new 50th anniversary edition, entitled “The World’s Religions,” was published in 2009 with revisions and an added section on indigenous religions.

Nathaniel Givens

I read over 100 books in 2015, but I’m going to narrow it down to just 5. That’s really hard–in the sense that I don’t like leaving good books out (and I’m leaving a lot of good books out!)–but in actuality it only took me a few minutes of going through my Goodreads reviews from 2015 to pick my top 5. Here they are:

Golden Son: Book II of The Red Rising Trilogy (Pierce Brown)

Golden Son is the second book in the Red Rising trilogy. The first book (Red Rising) was good, but it was a little violent for my tastes and also a little derivative: it was basically Ender’s Game + The Hunger Games (Book 1). The second book blew me away, however. Pierce Brown took things to a new level in two ways. First: the action was non-stop from start to finish. The phrase “break neck” gets used a lot in describing the pace of a fun adventure book, but it’s never been more true than of this book. There was scene after scene where I thought for sure the characters were dead (or that the resolution would be silly), but again and again Brown pulled it off.Second: the book was much more original thoughtful than the first. This is true in terms of politics and also in terms of characterization. The cast of characters is unusually large but, thanks to the investment you put into Red Rising to get this far, you know who everybody  is and how they relate to each other. Like Ender’s Game, we’re dealing with a bunch of geniuses and–like Orson Scott Card–Brown writes intelligently and thoughtfully enough for that to believable. Moreover, the moral/political aspects of the book are deep enough to be truly interesting. They aren’t just an excuse for righteous anger and action, they are really meaningful to the point where it gives you something to think about and (most importantly) really make you identify with the characters. Also: the setting. Started out pretty hackneyed (futuristic sci-fi patterned after ancient Earth mythology), but Brown kept at it so long and so seriously that the result is (1) believable and (2) distinctively his own.

I can’t wait to read Morning Star: Book III of The Red Rising Trilogy when it comes out in February.

The Three-Body Problem (Cixin Liu)

This was the first time that an English-translation of a foreign language (Chinese, in this case) book won the Hugo Award for Best Novel, and boy did he deserve it! There was all kinds of drama in the Hugos in 2015, but the one thing that ended up definitively right was that this book won.

It  definitely comes from the “literary sci-fi” end of the genre, which is where you’ll find books like The Handmaid’s Tale, The Road, or Never Let Me Go. These are all books by writers who have at least one foot outside of the genre, and they aren’t well received by the folks who grew up on the Holy Trinity of Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke. But me? I love them all. I love the fusion of legit sci-fi (read: “not just time travel”) with literary sensibility, and this is perhaps one of the best examples of that sub-genre. I was hooked from the very first scene, a vivid and beautiful depiction of the chaotic internecine political clashes during the Cultural Revolution and the book never let me go. The sci-fi was serious, in that it was very intense extrapolation of actual cutting-edge theoretical physics. But it never became one of those “look at my engineering prowess!” ego-cruises that bedevil hard sci-fi (looking at you, Ringworld.) That’s because the characters were too sensitively drawn and too human for the science to overshadow them.

What I’m trying to say is that it worked as sci-fi and as literature. And that’s peanut butter and chocolate, right there. It doesn’t get any better.

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (Steven Pinker)

Steven Pinker did not pull any punches! In this tour de force he takes on the reigning social science model head-on without apologies and also without taking prisoners. He outlines the social science model as having three essential premises: the Blank Slate (i.e. human nature is socially constructed rather than biologically determined), the Noble Savage (i.e. the trendy obsession with “all natural” foods and opposition to vaccines) and the Ghost in the Machine (there’s more to the mind than the brain and bod). He describes the dogmatic defense of these views in the social sciences this way:

This is the mentality of a cult, in which fantastical beliefs are flaunted as proof of one’s piety. That mentality cannot coexist with an esteem for the truth, and I believe it is responsible for some of the unfortunate trends in recent intellectual life.

The rest of the book is a long, empirically-based attack on all three of these fallacies and, secondarily, an attempt to explain why they are not actually necessary to defend the kind of classical liberal values they are often employed to defend. This is one of Pinker’s most important points: if you defend equality on the basis of the Blank Slate (which is by far the most prevalent philosophical basis for feminism, etc.) then you are actually endangering the value you’re trying to defend. Because the blank slate is false. Gender is not (entirely) a social construction. Men and women are biologically different in meaningful ways that go beyond just anatomy. And if you have erected your theory of equality on that false foundation, then when it gets destroyed–and it will get destroyed eventually–the value you were trying to defend is going to get taken down with it.

Now, it’s worth pointing out that I don’t agree with Pinker all down the line. When he stops talking psychology or neuroscience and starts talking political philosophy he loses me on several occasions. In addition, I find Thomas Nagels repudation of reductionist materialism entirely persuasive, and that means that I find Pinker’s assault on the Ghost in the Machine to be, ultimately, a failure. But that’s his least-important point (there’s a reason the book is named for the Blank Slate and not the Ghost in the Machine) and, in any case, I do think that his critique of the Ghost in the Machine as it relates to the standard model of social science theory has traction. In other words, the kind of dualism he is attacking is unsustainable. I agree him there. But the absolutist physical reductionism he erects in its place is also a failure.

Still, this was  great book, strongly argued and full of interesting information that I’m continuing to assimilate into my view of myself and the world.

The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates (Frans de Waal)

This is another brilliant book that I love to both agree and disagree with. Primatologist Frans de Waal has a pretty straightforward objective: demonstrate empirically that the foundations of moral behavior are found in primates (and other mammals). Well, that’s the first half, anyway, and it’s the half that he gets resoundingly right. The experiments and stories–both first-person and collected from others–are fascinating reading and deeply impactful.

I was particularly struck, for example, by his descriptions of how primates care for each other, including the disabled. He described one young rhesus monkey that was born with a condition similar to Down syndrome, and how that monkey was cared for by the rest of the troop and tolerated when she did unusual things (like try to pick a fight with the alpha male) that would have gotten any other monkey a severe beating. He also pointed out fossil evidence that Neanderthals also cared for the disabled who could offer nothing in return.

The book never veered into sentimentality, however. De Waal’s view of primates is clear-eyed, and this led to additional insights into the nature of social order and its relationship to the threat of the violence. He wrote in one passage, however, that after observing a tribe of chimpanzees wait patiently for their turn to use a nut-cracking station to crack nuts that were too tough to crush with their teeth:

I was struck by the scene’s peacefulness, but not fooled by it. When we see a disciplined society, there is often a social hierarchy behind it. This hierarchy, which determines who can eat or mate first, is ultimately rooted in violence… A social hierarchy is a giant system of inhibitions, which is no doubt what paved the way for human morality, which is also such a system.

As with Pinker, however, I disagreed with some of de Waal’s conclusions. In particular, he believed that if you can show the origins of moral behavior then you have found the origins of morality itself. This is a major flaw, and also happens to be another one that is addressed by Thomas Nagel. It’s the basic is/ought fallacy (a topic de Waal addressed explicitly but did not handle satisfactorily) and the rebuttal to it is the same rebuttal to pretty much all forms of relativism: you can’t argue for relativism without enacting objectivism. If you say, “subjectivity holds,” you’ve already made a contradictory, objective statement.

Merely because you can show how a thing arises through evolution doesn’t get you out of this problem. You could explain how humans came to have the ability to reason objectively, but that wouldn’t mean that logic and math were suddenly subjective. It would just prove that somehow evolution managed to get us in touch with non-contingent, objective reason. Same idea here: you can explain how humans came to behave morally or even to understand and think about morality, but it’s a colossal mistake to think that, in so doing, you have proved that morality is “constructed” or in any way subjective any more than reason or logic are. (For fun: let someone try to reason you out of the position that reason is objective. See how that works? It’s a non-starter.)

Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues (N. T. Wright)

This was one of the first books I read in 2015, and it feels like I read it even longer ago than that, but Goodreads doesn’t lie. I finished it on Jan 9, 2015. This one was a huge eye-opener for me. I am very religious, but I come from a Mormon background, and we don’t always have the most sophisticated grasp on the Bible (relative to other Christians) because we split our attention between the Bible and our unique books of scripture: the Book of Mormon in particular.

So for me to see how N. T. Wright connected all kinds of contemporary political debates to the text of the Bible was incredibly mind-expanding. It really deepened by respect for the Bible and also for the traditions of Protestant and Catholic Christianity. It was not really a surprising experience–I read the book precisely because I already knew I was weak on Biblical understanding–but it was still a humbling one in the best way possible. Humbling because when you see a real expert at work you are too distracted by the beauty and skill of their craft and knowledge to feel bad about your shortcomings.

N. T. Wright’s writing style is engaging and this remains an incredibly important book for me, with a serious and ongoing impact on how I view my own faith.

And now, because I can’t resist, honorable mention. Some additional great fiction I read this year includes:

Cibola Burn (The Expanse) – The fourth book in The Expanse is definitely the best, and is significantly better than the first three. Five was also quite good, and I can’t wait for six.

Half-Resurrection Blues: A Bone Street Rumba Novel – This book blew me away. The prose was my favorite part. In fair warning, there is a lot of vulgarity, but for some reason it didn’t phase me as it usually did. I had to stop the audiobook (which is narrated by the author, fantastically) on more than one occasion just to save what I’d read. (Also: just noticed that the sequel Midnight Taxi Tango is out!)

Son of the Black Sword (Saga of the Forgotten Warrior) – Larry Correia started as one of those self-publishing sensations who finds a diehard audience (in this case, gun nuts who want to read a mashup of a gun catalog and a zombie-slaying video game) and makes it big. The big question for me is often: what happens next. As you can tell, I wasn’t ever the biggest fan of Monster Hunter International, but I thought his other series (starting with Hard Magic (The Grimnoir Chronicles)) was really great. Well, this is his third new series and it is–without any doubt–the best. His writing, plotting, characterization: everything has progressed. This is a guy who, in some ways, got lucky, but then he made it count.

The Cinder Spires: the Aeronaut’s Windlass – Jim Butcher is still my favorite living author, but if The Dresden Files are not your cup of tea: you should still try this one. The style is totally different, so is the setting, so is the plot, so are the characters. It’s an amazing post-apocalyptic forgotten-technology-as-magic with a crew of unforgettable and awesome characters.

The Mormon Way to Love

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey series.

I’m going to start my discussion of the talks from the Sunday Morning session of the April 1971 General Conference in a slightly different place: science fiction and fantasy. There’s going to be some wind up (which I hope you’ll find interesting), and then I’m going to tie it into President Gordon B. Hinckley’s talk “Except the Lord Build the House…”

749 - Star Wars Utah Fanws

Writing for the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, Christopher Ingraham noted that—based on Google search data—Utahns were “are the biggest Star Wars fans.

During the past week, Utahns have done more Star-Wars related Googling than people in any other state. People in Utah are about 25 percent more likely to Google “Star Wars” than their nearest competitors in fandom, Californians. And they are more than twice as likely to Google the topic as people in Oregon and Mississippi, the two least Star Wars-crazy states.

Ingraham doesn’t have any idea why this is so. He doesn’t even speculated. Instead, he concludes his article with an invitation: “If you have a pet theory for why Utah is home of the nation’s #1 Star Wars Googlers, drop me a line.”

I’ll bite.

The connection is not between Mormons and Star Wars in particular. It’s between Mormons and all forms of geeky entertainment: Star Wars, Star Trek, Dr. Who, The Lord of the Rings, etc. The connection between Mormons and sci-fi and fantasy is so well known that the question (What’s the connection between Mormonism and speculative fiction?) is a recurring topic that many in the genre have taken a crack at. (Including me, one time for Times and Seasons. And also Matt Bowman, more recently and also at the Washington Post.)

In fact, one of my hobbies is to try to suss out Mormon influences in the work of Mormon authors. Historically, you’ve got Orson Scott Card as the big one. There’s also Stephanie Meyers as a really prominent Mormon author, but let’s not go there today. A trio that I’ve been following with great interest, however, are Brad Torgersen, Larry Correia, and Brandon Sanderson. Torgersen’s excellent short story collection Lights in the Deep has a great story called “The Chaplain’s War.” In it, Torgersen deals with issues of faith and the relationship of religion to secularism that–to my mind–show a distinctive Mormon perspective.

Then there’s Larry Correia, whose recent Son of the Black Sword is an incredible epic fantasy tale with some really interesting Mormon influence, which I outlined in my Goodreads review.

But it’s Brandon Sanderson I want to talk about for a moment. Like Correia, Sanderson’s work frequently contains echoes of Mormon theology, culture, and scripture. The quote “it was better that one man suffer than an entire nation continue in heresy” from Elantris, for example, is an obvious echo of “It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.” In my favorite series, Mistborn, themes of apostasy, restoration, and religious pluralism that borrow heavily from Joseph Smith’s writings are very prominent. In the conclusion of the first Mirstbon trilogy, the character Sazed’s understanding of numerous different religious traditions helps him rebuild the world and he remarks, “The religions in my portfolio weren’t useless after all. None of them were. They weren’t all true. But they all had truth.”

Compare this expansive view with quotes from Joseph Smith and Brigham Young:

“We should gather all the good and true principles in the world and treasure them up, or we shall not come out true Mormons.” – Joseph Smith

“I want to say to my friends that we believe in all good.  If you can find a truth in heaven, earth, or hell, it belongs to our doctrine.  we believe it; it is ours; we claim it.” – Brigham Young

But one of the most Mormon aspects of Sanderon’s writing (especially in the Mistborn books) is his treatment of romantic relationships, and that’s where we’re going to finally bet back to President Hinckley’s talk. Here’s an excerpt from my review of The Well of Ascension (the second in the original Mistborn trilogy):

[Sanderson’s] take on relationships is very Mormon… You can tell this is a guy who grew up in a culture saturated with reverence for and wisdom about making marriages work. That’s an incredibly refreshing breath of fresh air in a genre fiction novel. Dynamic, fun, believable, and healthy relationships are just incredibly rare in popular entertainment, which almost always emphasize the pursuit and never spare time for the relationship itself.

So what are the hallmarks of a Mormon view of relationships? I would say there are two: prominence and practicality. Marriage matters to Mormons, and it matters a lot. That comes across in Sanderson’s writing, which not only focuses on romance but does so in a way that emphasizes relationships over sex. This gives Sanderon’s writing—and Mormon culture in general—a very romantic attitude. (There’s a reason Jane Austen is so popular with Mormons, leading to novels like Shannon Hale’s Austenland.)

But the other aspect is a very interesting contradiction with the romantic aspect of Mormon culture: practicality. Sanderson tackles this issue in the newest Mistborn novels, The Alloy of Law and Shadows of Self. These books includes the most unique and the most Mormon relationship plotline I have ever read in my life. The protagonist (Waxillium “Wax” Ladrian) returns from self-imposed exile on the frontier to take control of the struggling family business. He soon faces a dilemma. A marriage to Steris will restore the family fortune, but is a marriage of convenience for both of them. Or there is Steris’ half-sister Marasi: she is younger, prettier, and completely infatuated with Wax, but has no fortune to offer.

The Disney expectation is clear:  Wax has to put his heart first and marry Marasi, which is what his friend encourages him to do. The darker, more contemporary approach would be for Wax to marry Steris, but then cheat on her. Or maybe relapse into bitterness and regret. Sanderson—taking the Mormon approach—does neither. He has Wax move forward with the engagement to Steris, remain completely honorable, and slowly—very, very slowly—the two begin to find a mutual affection for each other despite their differences.

Now this is a long digression, but I think it was worth taking, because it shows how deeply the teachings that President Hinckley discusses in his talk have permeated Mormon culture. Sanderson shows Mormonism’s romantic view of the importance and possibility of love, but also the practical side of Mormonism that insists: all marriages are compromises.

Compare that with President Hinckley’s talk, “Except the Lord Build the House …” The talk begins with President Hinckley expressing concern for divorce (the symptom) and marital dysfunction (the disease):

Even in those lands where divorce is difficult if not impossible to obtain, the same disease is evident—the same nagging, corrosive evils of domestic misery, of separation, of abandonment, and of immoral and illegal relationships.

But, ever the optimist, President Hinckley quickly turns from what can go wrong to a discussion of what can go right, providing these four principles for building a strong and happy marriage:

  1. Respect for One Another
  2. The Soft Answer
  3. Honesty with God and with One Another
  4. Family Prayer

Here are some specific quotes from each section:

Respect for One Another

This respect comes of recognition that each of us is a son or daughter of God, endowed with something of his divine nature, that each is an individual entitled to expression and cultivation of individual talents and deserving of forbearance, of patience, of understanding, of courtesy, of thoughtful consideration.

The most important thing to note here is that the “recognition that each of us is a son or daughter of God,” is entirely generic. It applies to everyone. This is a major departure from modern views of love, which enshrine the idea of compatibility between two specific people above all else. That ides is totally absent from this view, which leads to President Hinckley’s stark statement:

True love is not so much a matter of romance as it is a matter of anxious concern for the well being of one’s companion.

This is pretty much exactly the opposite of what the world believes about love and marriage. Not coincidentally, it is exactly the kind of relationship that is beginning to develop between Wax and Steris in Sanderson’s books.

Companionship in marriage is prone to become commonplace and even dull. I know of no more certain way to keep it on a lofty and inspiring plane than for a man occasionally to reflect upon the fact that the help-meet who stands at his side is a daughter of God, engaged with Him in the great creative process of bringing to pass His eternal purposes. I know of no more effective way for a woman to keep ever radiant the love for her husband than for her to look for and emphasize the godly qualities that are a part of every son of our Father and that can be evoked when there is respect and admiration and encouragement. The very processes of such actions will cultivate a constantly rewarding appreciation for one another.

This is another example of President Hinckley’s teaching that the love within marriage doesn’t depend on finding your soulmate, on being compatible, or on any particular attribute of the spouses. It’s also a very realistic view of marriage, and one that emphasizes work. According to this view, it is a husband’s duty to protect his own love for his wife (and vice versa).  Mormons don’t believe in finding soulmates. They believe in making soulmates.

The Soft Answer

President Hinckley’s second principle is very simple: “We seldom get into trouble when we speak softly.”

It is also an opportunity for President Hinckley to again emphasize the importance of work within a marriage: “There is need for a vast amount of discipline in marriage, not of one’s companion, but of one’s self.”

Honesty with God and with One Another

President Hinckley’s observation here is both practical and profound:

If you will share with the Lord whom you do not see, you will deal more graciously, more honestly, and more generously with those whom you do see.

Family Prayer

President Hinckley’s last principle includes a long series of beautiful promises that any husband and wife will cover for their family. It doesn’t really fit the theme of this post (emphasizing the collision of practicality and romance), but it is beautiful so here it is:

Your children will know the security of a home where dwells the Spirit of the Lord. You will gather them together in that home, as the Church has counseled, and teach them in love. They will know parents who respect one another, and a spirit of respect will grow in their hearts. They will experience the security of the kind word softly spoken, and the tempests of their own lives will be stilled. They will know a father and mother who, living honestly with God, live honestly also with one another and with their fellowmen. They will grow up with a sense of appreciation, having heard their parents in prayer express gratitude for blessings great and small. They will mature with faith in the living God.

The destroying angel of domestic bitterness will pass you by and you will know peace and love throughout your lives which may be extended into all eternity. I could wish for you no greater blessing, and for this I humbly pray in your behalf, in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

I thought it was fun to compare Brandon Sanderson’s writing with the teachings of President Hinckley to show how extensive the Mormon adoption of President Hinckley’s (and other leaders’) teachings on marriage and family peace and unity and harmony had become. These are clearly some of the lessons that many Mormons have taken to heart.

And now, here are just a few of quotes from other talks from this session that struck me.

In “Choose You This Day” Elder N. Eldon Tanner  writes that “there is strength in humility and weakness in pride.” That is a good thing to keep in mind.

In My Brother’s Keeper Elder John H. Vandenberg writes about the connection between sacrifice and love, reversing the ordinary causality:

What is the seed of mother love? Is it not sacrifice? Such love is considered to be the deepest and most tender. Is this because a mother passes through the valley of the shadow of death to give birth to her child and is continually sacrificing for that child’s welfare?

Is this why Christ loves the world? Because he toiled to make it? Because he sacrificed his life for the world and its people?… We all love that for which we sacrifice.

So, instead of loving motivating sacrifice, sacrifice can engender love. Elder Vandenberg also included a poignant reminder that is work keeping in mind as we think about everyday service: “The chips are down someplace every day.” There is always someone who needs our help.

Here are the blog posts from the other participants in the General Conference Odyssey.

Beyond Star Trek (About the New Star Trek Trailer)

So there’s a new Star Trek trailer out, and people are mad. As far as I can tell, everyone is mad. And they’re general reaction is: “this isn’t Star Trek.”

747 - Star Trek Whiners

Me? I’m too busy feeling smug to be mad.

When I complained about little details like long-distance transportation in the first rebooted Star Trek and the all-around plot confusion of the second, other Star Trek fans called me a whiner. But I could see what they couldn’t see (yet): the reboot isn’t really Star Trek.

What do I mean by that? Well, here’s what Keith Phillips had to say about the first movie back in 2009:

It is, undeniably, a reconsideration of what constitutes Star Trek, one that deemphasizes heady concepts and plainly stated humanist virtues in favor of breathless action punctuated by bursts of emotion. It might not even be immediately be recognizable to veteran fans as Star Trek. [emphasis added]

So, to every Star Trek fan who told me I was being too critical: I. Told. You. So.

Now, the second reason I’m not mad is this: the movie looks like it might be fun! See, here’s the rest of Phillips’ quote:

But they’ll have to actively tune out Abrams’ eagerness to entertain not to enjoy the ride.

For me, this comes down to how you define science fiction. The definition that means the most to me is the idea that science fiction is “the literature of ideas.” This is often linked to science, and it was Isaac Asimov who wrote that sci-fi was “that branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance upon human beings”  That’s a good description of what was being written by serious sci-fi writers in the 1960s and 1970s, but it mistakes the tool with the goal. Extrapolating scientific advances to create new situations has always been primarily a method to ask philosophical “what-if” questions. It’s the what-if that really matters. The extrapolated science was just a way to get there, and it ended up not being the only way.

This is why I stand by my designation of Frankenstein as the first real work of sci-fi. You can find older texts with, for example, trips to the moon in human-created craft, but in Frankenstein Mary Shelley wasn’t just postulating some advanced medical technology for the sake of a good story (although there’s that too), but also using those imaginary inventions to ask questions about creation and responsibility that you couldn’t get to in any other way. The philosophical aspects of the work were at least as important as the scientific ones.

That, to me, is the heart of sci-fi. And it’s what Star Trek has always done when it is at its best. The science in most Star Trek is ridiculous technobabble nonsense. But the world–and the individual episodes–were crafted to ask meaningful questions. That’s where the romance of the world came from.

This new Star Trek? Not only is it not recognizable Star Trek, but it’s not even recognizably science fiction in the “literature of ideas” sense of the word.

But there has always been another definition of sci-fi living side-by-side with the “literature of ideas” version. The other definition is all action and adventure, and instead of Frankenstein you’d think of something like Edgar Rice Burrough’s Barsoom series. This view of sci-fi is just action-adventure with lasers and rocket ships instead of handguns and airplanes. And you know what? I like that kind of sci-fi, too.

Of course in practice, these two views of sci-fi not only live side-by-side in the same bookstores, but often in the same books. Lots of people–myself included–find spaceships to be fundamentally romantic. We like them in the same way that other people really like tall ships. And so you can see a series like the Vorkosigan saga or the Honor saga as really just Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series or C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series… but in space.

And that’s OK!

In other words: I gave up on the Star Trek reboot as “literature of ideas” sci-fi back when the first one came out. I’ve had time to get over it. And so I’m ready to watch a new Star Trek movie as what the reboot series clearly wants to be ray gun and spaceship sci-fi. And who knows, on that basis? It could be really great.

Clever Isn’t a Substitute for Good

756 - Star Wars Ring Theory

So here is an interesting article I have come across: star wars ring theory.

“Ring theory” definitely sounds cool. It’s got a vibe that says cutting-edge and sophisticated, probably because it’s just a couple of letters away from “string theory.” And the site itself has no shortage of grandiose rhetoric, describing why the Star Wars prequels are not so bad after all because really George Lucas was using an “ancient technique” that allowed him “to reach a level of storytelling sophistication in his six-part saga that is unprecedented in cinema history.”

I’m pretty sure they’re serious.

Now, this isn’t the first defense of the prequels I’ve seen recently. You can basically assume that whenever society seems to be headed one way, a couple of intrepid bloggers are going to try to make a name for themselves by going the exact opposite direction out of sheer contrariness. As a curmudgeon myself, I can appreciate that.

That doesn’t mean they actually have a point, however.

Now, this article was pretty disappointing from a standpoint of “storytelling sophistication.” In fact, I can’t think of anything less sophisticated than the actual theory which they kind-of, sort-of explained. It boils down to: the prequels and the sequels recapitulate a lot of the same elements. Which is not actually surprising at all if you understand the idea of the hero’s journey The whole point of the theory is that there’s one archetypal adventure, and all our stories are echoes of the Platonic ideal of adventure Now, if there’s any validity to that notion at all, and in particular if George Lucas was a devotee of that theory (which he was) then isn’t it rather obvious that his stories–which are designed to be expressions of a particular template–are going to have a lot of similarities?

2013 02 28 Heroesjourney

But let’s assume for a moment that George Lucas really was being super-sophisticated. Is that actually a really good defense of the prequels? I don’t think so.

When I was an undergrad we had a pair of required courses called the core courses: sort of a combination of a literary survey with some philosophy and intellectual history. (Works I can remember reading: The Gospel of Mathew, Things Fall Apart, and On the Origin of Species.) Well, somewhere along the line we were also required to attend a concert on campus. If I recall, the title of the contemporary (modern? post-modern?) symphony was “Frankenstein” or something very similar. The music was pretty awful (which goes without saying), and the presentation was quite odd: the casually-dressed orchestra alternated playing instruments with whirling various toy music-makers over their heads and there were also lots of snippets from popular culture like Mighty Mouse or the old Batman TV show that played at various parts as well.

In class the next day, the professor pushed us pretty hard to try and understand the piece. I quoted Robert Heinlein at him and called the work “pseudo-intellectual masturbation.” The quote comes from a scene in Stranger in a Strange Land:

“Jubal shrugged. “Abstract design is all right-for wall paper or linoleum. But art is the process of evoking pity and terror, which is not abstract at all but very human. What the self-styled modern artists are doing is a sort of unemotional pseudo-intellectual masturbation. . . whereas creative art is more like intercourse, in which the artist must seduce- render emotional-his audience, each time. These ladies who won’t deign to do that- and perhaps can’t- of course lost the public. If they hadn’t lobbied for endless subsidies, they would have starved or been forced to go to work long ago. Because the ordinary bloke will not voluntarily pay for ‘art’ that leaves him unmoved- if he does pay for it, the money has to be conned out of him, by taxes or such.”

“You know, Jubal, I’ve always wondered why i didn’t give a hoot for paintings or statues- but I thought it was something missing in me, like color blindness.”

“Mmm, one does have to learn to look at art, just as you must know French to read a story printed in French. But in general terms it’s up to the artist to use language that can be understood, not hide it in some private code like Pepys and his diary. Most of these jokers don’t even want to use language you and I know or can learn. . . they would rather sneer at us and be smug, because we ‘fail’ to see what they are driving at. If indeed they are driving at anything- obscurity is usually the refuge of incompetence.”

After a while, however, a light began to dawn on me. Frankenstein’s monster is created from patched-together body parts. The monster is large because Dr. Frankenstein had to use body parts from large human beings in order to be able to more readily work on them. So you have s shambling imitation of a human being created out of a patchwork of larger-than-life bits and pieces. Well, that’s exactly what the symphony was: the pop-culture snippets were all related to superheroes of one kind or another, and so you had this musical patchwork of larger-than-life pop-culture snipped together into a monstrous mockery of music.

The professor sat back in his chair with a smug look when I shared this insight. “Now what do you think of the piece?” he asked.

I told him I still thought it was pretentious drivel. Every word of Jubal’s / Heinlein’s critique applies just as well after you crack the code and get the secret message as before. Clever is nice, but it isn’t a substitute for good.

I’m not saying there’s no room for cleverness or subtlety. I like cleverness and subtlety. One of my biggest complaints about most TV shows is that they over explain everything to be sure even the dimmest audience member splitting their attention between the show and Twitter won’t miss any important bits. But that doesn’t mean that just because you make your movie / book / TV show / symphony an enigma wrapped in a mystery concealing a riddle that it’s going to be any good.

Ring theory isn’t impressive. Even if it was, it wouldn’t make the Star Wars prequels any good.