Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Information Asymmetry

I probably spelled that wrong, but oh well. I'm currently reading Freakanomics. Chapter 2 is about the effects of people having different access to information and what happens when informational inequity is equalized by things like the internet. One example is that term life insurance premiums have plummeted in the last decade. Why, because there are very little differences in the products and people are able to easily go to internet web sites to shop for the lowest quote. This cuts off the high pressure insurance salesman and allows people full access to the competitive landscape.

Another example is a Mr. Stetson whose life mission was to combat racism and bigotism. He took on the Ku Klux Klan and realized that because of its secretive nature nobody really knew about it. So he infiltrated it and became a member. While walking in his neighborhood he noticed some kids playing a game where they had secret passwords and the similarity to the Klan struck him. He thought it would be great to expose the Klan as the juvenile, childish organization that he knew it was. So he arranged for the Superman radio show to create a story line where Superman takes on the Klan. This was post WWII so the show needed a new bogeyman to replace the Nazis who had just been defeated. On the show they revealed all of the Klans terminology, secret passwords, and everything else. After the first show, kids everywhere were playing Superman vs. the Klan and using secret Klan passwords, handshakes, and terms. The Klan members were embarrassed and participation at the local Klavern dropped precipitously after a very short time.

The same thing happens in many other areas, but it struck me that the same phenomenon also applies to religions including Mormonism. Mormonism makes many, many claims that would be very difficult to investigate without the internet because the church very early on tries to control all access to information about itself and methodically discredits anything that may make it look bad. The most blatant admission of this is the talk by Boyd Packer, the current president of the church's 12 apostles, that some truths are not particularly useful. What he was talking about were facts that might make people doubt the church's claims.

This is why the temple endowment is so "sacred" that no one is every allowed to talk about it. Almost everyone who hasn't been through laughs in disbelief when they hear or read what goes on in there. It IS ridiculous and shocking in its total inanity so it must be kept secret.

But, churches everywhere, not just the Mormons, are feeling the effects of more equal access to information. Gone are the days where Bibles are in Latin and chained to the pulpit where only priests can read and interpret them and the congregation is illiterate and superstitious.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Refuse to be a Victim

Here's a good link I saw today on CNN of all places.

Ted Nugent (don't laugh) does a pretty good job of explaining what the problem is and what an effective solution would be. He also gives some poorly publicized examples where his solution (the same one I proposed yesterday) has worked effectively. It seems that criminals usually turn out to be cowards when armed citizens confront them and if they suddenly decide to be brave then their criminal careers reach a premature conclusion. I'm hard pressed to see how that is bad.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Endowed With Power From On High

Last month I had the opportunity to meet with Sideon while I was out in California on business. I had a great time and although I typically talked way, way too much, I think he did too. At some point in the conversation it came out that he had never been blessed with the opportunity of going through the temple. So I regaled him with an account of my own endowment session. It was strange then and it seems even stranger now. I can only imagine how it must seem to someone who has never been and never wanted to.

The term endowment comes from the scriptural promise of being endowed with power from on high. Joseph Smith gradually developed a set of rituals meant to fulfill this prophecy. It started with washings and annointings in the Kirtland temple. After the church got run out of Kirtland in the aftermath of the church's bank scandal they no longer had a temple until after they got run out of Missouri and settled in Nauvoo. While there Joseph became a master Mason and soon after had the rest of the endowment ordinances revealed to him. Coincidentally, these ceremonies included many of the secret handshakes and symbols of Masonry.

When I went through the temple the only thing I knew about it was that I'd have to wear garments for the rest of my life. That's it. No temple preparation classes or anything else prepared me for what I was about to go through. I was interviewed for worthiness by my bishop and stake president and promised that although I must have lots of questions about what goes on in the temple I'd have to wait and all of my questions would be answered inside.

Early on Saturday morning the week before I was to enter the missionary training center I headed to the Washington D.C. temple to take out my endowments.

First, I had to buy garments. Yes, you have to pay for the privilege of wearing those uncomfortable underwear that reach to your knees and have funny marks sewn over each nipple, your belly button, and your right knee. In the temple they explain what the symbols represent, but they don't tell you that the symbols come from Masonry.

Next I had to rent my "packet." This was a flimsy nylon envelope about twelve inches on a side that had some more cloth inside. Then I was given a shield and a one piece garment and ushered into the locker room. I was instructed to take off all of my clothes and put on the shield and carry the garments. They meant ALL of my clothes and the shield was nothing more than a very low thread count cotton-poly sheet with a hole cut in the middle for my head. This was the first unsettling thing. You think that a hospital examination gown is revealing? With my first step the "shield" billowed out revealing me in all of my naked glory. Are you kidding me? After 19 years of endoctrination in modesty I'm supposed to go traipsing through the temple buck naked to who knows where?

It turned out that the "where" was at one end of the locker room where they had stalls for the washings and annointings. The original ceremony involved an actual bath tub and being actually bathed by another person, but then it only involved an extremely rushed blessing while I was dabbed with consecrated water (the washing). Then it was on to the next stall where the same procedure was done with consecrated oil (the annointing). Then I was clothed in the garment of the holy priesthood. The man actually held the garments open while I stepped into them and then he raised them up on me. Then it was back to my locker.

Wierd doesn't even begin to describe what I had just been through. Now I got to put on my own new two piece garments and get dressed in all white clothes right down to socks and slippers. They pinned a special name tag on me to flag me as a "live" endowment as opposed to most everyone else who was serving as a proxy for a dead person.

Now I was lead through a very thick curtain into a booth where I was given a new name that I was never to reveal. Only later did I discover that everyone who went through that day gets the same name. The booth exited into the hallway and then we were escorted to the endowment room.

The endowment room is nothing more than a small theater complete with fold down seats. An altar and a movie screen are at the front of the room along with a couple of old people who are the officiators. The altar is covered with cloth; it's not for offering animals or anything like that. This temple had a white rope down the middle that separated the room into a side for women on the left and men on the right.

The session starts with a disembodied voice talking over speakers. The part that spooked me was the following:
If you proceed and receive your full endowment, you will be required to take upon yourselves sacred obligations, the violation of which will bring upon you the judgment of God; <queue very ominous, threatening voice> for God will not be mocked. If any of you desire to withdraw rather than accept these obligations of your own free will and choice, you may now make it known by raising your hand.
At this point I wanted more than anything else to raise my hand and leave. How was I supposed to take upon myself sacred obligations of my own free will and choice when I had absolutely no idea what they where? But, I'd deferred my BYU scholarship for 2 years to serve a mission. I'd received my mission call. I'd said goodbye to my girlfriend. I was scheduled to give my missionary farewell the following day. If I didn't go through with it then I would lose my scholarship and be a pariah in my family and church. It took a huge leap of faith to stay seated when it felt like I was ready to levitate off my seat and out the door.

I now think that the church does this intentionally. Members generally are not allowed to take out their endowments until very shortly before their mission or their marriage. They have no idea what is involved other than that it is required for the imminent milestone. Once you're totally committed you really can't back out without major consequences. Then, once you're in you're bound under the most solemn obligations to "God, angels, and these witnesses." Doesn't that seem a little manipulative and cult-like?

It gets better. The lights dim and a film shows a depiction of the creation and God giving further light and knowledge to Adam and Eve via Peter, James, and John. The packet contains green satin apron embroidered with fig leaves, a flimsy toga that you put on during the ceremony, a white cloth sash, and a really terrible looking masonic cap with a string that ties to the shoulder of the toga. At points you are given secret handshakes and passwords along with a sign and execution of a penalty. The penalties are ritually acted out by each participant while promising not to reveal the handshake and password. "Rather than do so I will suffer my life to be taken." The penalties involve slicing your throat, tearing open your chest, and disembowling yourself. My understanding is that these are copied from the Masonic ceremonies. If you want the details you can read the entire ceremony here. I'll vouch for its accuracy.

In the Book of Mormon the Gadianton robbers are the incarnation of evil who take blood oaths to keep each others secrets. These secret passwords, handshakes, and blood oaths were revealed by Satan to Cain and are revealed throughout the ages to his servants. So, having read the Book of Mormon I wondered how the same types of things would be revealed in the House of the Lord. Now I was really feeling sick to my stomach.

Even more, as naive as I was I knew that you could get copies of the endowment ceremony outside of the temple from non-Mormon sources. Why would we have to promise to give up our lives for something that was openly available? Why would anyone kill for such a thing?

At the end we were presented at the veil (a thin nylon curtain with three holes cut in it) where we received the last password while embracing a man through a curtain who was acting in place of God. After getting the last password we were drawn through the veil into the presence of God and entered into the Celestial room of the temple.

I felt ripped off. I had been promised that when I went through the temple all of my questions would be answered. It had been presented to me like an educational session where I'd be taught. But at no point was anyone ever available to answer questions and we were discouraged from talking at all and when we did it had to be in hushed whispers. The Celestial room was especially holy and was the first chance to say anything, but no one talked in there. So it was back to my locker and into street clothes for a long quiet ride home where no one discussed then or at any point in the future what had just transpired.

Every doctrinal point in the endowment is openly taught outside the temple. The only things unique are the handshakes, passwords, and penalties. The covenants are also pretty straightforward such as the law of chastity and law of consecration. I guess I can best summarize it as a very unsettling let down. In typical Mormon fashion I secretly suspected that it didn't go well because of my own personal unworthiness. Personal sin and guilt are a safety net to explain everything in the church and they are very effective since no one is perfect.

Over the years I returned hoping that I'd catch the spirit of temple worship and gain an understanding and appreciation of it. But I never did. At best I became numb to it and tried to stay awake.

In 1990 our bishop encouraged all the endowed members of the ward to attend the temple. He couldn't say why but promised that it was great. So we went and I was shocked to discover that they'd removed the elements of the ceremony that I'd found most troubling such as the penalties. This shattered me for two reasons. First, I'd been taught that the endowment, like all ordinances in the church, had been given by revelation and was unchangeable. I couldn't see any doctrinal reason for the changes. If it had been correct in 1989 then it should have still been correct in 1990. Nothing in the external world had changed so why would God suddenly alter his most sacred ordinances? This is very similar to the kind of changes in ordinances (such as baptism by sprinkling instead of immersion) that the church uses as evidence of a general apostasy by Christianity.

Second, the things that they'd removed had always seem wrong to me. This seemed like a confirmation and tacit admission by the church that they were wrong. Maybe my gut feelings on that day in 1983 had been right and the church had been wrong. If it could be wrong on something like this, what else might be wrong? If I could expect them to be right about ONE thing, wouldn't it be their most sacred ordinances?

I never went through an endowment again. It took a long time to come to a full realization of the many other lies I'd been taught in the church but I eventually decided to ask the hard questions and research the church's claims. I find that they fail from start to finish.

So, I apologize to Sideon and you if I've bored you with my account. But at least you can compliment Sideon, if you should ever have the pleasure to meet him, on how well endowed he is.

You Know What Pisses Me Off?

The mindless willingness of many people to be a victim and to rely on someone else to protect them. You can probably see where this is going.

Like everyone, I'm horrified by what happened at Virginia Tech. But I'm completely perplexed at the mindlessness displayed by the media and public regarding what should happen in such situations. Put yourself into the situation. You're in French class and suddenly you hear gun shots.

Quick. What do you do?

The only door in the room starts to open and the first thing you see is the muzzle of a gun blocking your only escape route.


Please think about it for a moment before continuing. Seriously. If you don't mind I'd like you to comment on this post about what you would do if this happened to you this very day.

My guess is that you'd do what many of the victims did, try to hide or play dead or beg for your life. The only problem is that you are facing a sociopath who hates you and is enjoying the rush and ultimate power of taking life. The only thing that will stop him is running out of bullets or someone physically stopping him.

At this point will you take any consolation in the fact that this is an exceptionally rare event? Probabilities are meaningless for the victims because the improbable is suddenly certain.

Will you dial 911? Will the police be able to respond in time? Not in this case. Even if they were already in the building they will not be able to arrive before many people are dead. Furthermore, they have no legal obligation to even respond to the scene. That's not theoretical; it has actually happened that victims have called 911 and then been victimized without the police ever responding to the 911 call. Even worse, in some instances the police have responded to situations like this and then waited outside the building for SWAT and hostage negotiators to arrive and formulate a plan while the gun man went office to office executing defenseless victims.

I'll be curious to hear your responses.

Here's what mine would be if it weren't illegal.

I'd move behind available cover (desk, table, podium, or whatever is available) and try to get as far away from the door as possible while drawing my pistol and targeting the door. As the gunman entered I'd shout for him to stop and drop the gun. If he started to shoot I'd fire my gun until the threat was neutralized.

I'm curious to know what your response to my action plan is. On a web site today someone asked how many people would have been murdered if someone had been legally carrying a concealed handgun. The predictable response was that there'd have been many more victims since everyone would have started shooting everyone else who had a gun. Do you agree?

Let me point out a few things about getting a concealed handgun license. I had to take a class that lasted over 12 hours that explained the laws pertaining to the use of force and the use of deadly force as well as non-violent conflict resolution. The class instructor has the authority to not sign my training certificate if he judges that I shouldn't carry and has done so for some students in the past. I had to have an extensive criminal background check that went back 10 years. I had to demonstrate proficiency in shooting my gun to prove that I could hit what I was shooting at. I had to be fingerprinted and photographed. I had to pay for the training, the fees, I had to purchase a reliable, accurate gun and also the means to securely carry it concealed. I've continued to train and practice and am comfortable that I can safely handle the gun and hit what I'm aiming at. I carry everywhere that I legally can.

Why? For the same reason I always wear my seatbelt. I'm not paranoid. I think that it's highly unlikely that I'll ever have to even draw my weapon for self defense, much less fire it. But, when victimized by a merciless criminal I'm not going to be a helpless victim. He may get me. But I'll at least have a chance to fight back. I've tried to take reasonable measures to be able to protect myself and my family from dangerous criminals.

When I heard about 9/11, it was very apparent to me how defenseless we normally are unless we take action to protect ourselves. The soldiers in the airport were a silly reaction. All a terrorist would need to do would be to go to a mall or grocery store or any other public place with a large number of people. Even more shocking would be a school or athletic event. We can't afford to have police everywhere so the only reasonable alternative is to have armed citizens ready and able to defend themselves. Realizing this fact I decided to get my CHL and carry.

But, unlike the clueless I get no comfort from the fact that it's illegal for me to carry in schools or churches or hospitals. As this week's and many other events have shown, all this has done is create a target rich environment full of defenseless victims who have been prohibited the most effective means of defending themselves.

What would have been the outcome if a few people like me had been in those classrooms this week?

Given the current laws it would have been the same because I respect the law and wouldn't have been able to put my action plan in place to defend myself and my peers because the laws prohibit CHL holders from carrying on school campuses.

If we had sensible laws then it is quite possible that the loss of life would have been minimized just as has happened in several poorly publicized school shootings that were stopped by armed citizens.

I realize that some people will be horrified by what I wrote above. But I'm equally perplexed at the kind of person who seems incapable of taking responsibility for the preservation of their own life. They think that that's civilized?

Friday, April 13, 2007

The Strange World of Motorcycle Racers

Motorcycle racers have a "unique" view of the world. Only at the track can you hear the following conversation.

"I heard that Troy had a nasty crash off in turn 4."

"Yeah, he had a nasty highside."

"Is the bike okay?"

"They just brought it in on the truck and its fine. Just some scratches."

"Good. Oh, how's Troy."

"Nothing serious. When the bike snapped back it speared him in the nuts so they took him to the hospital to make sure he's okay. Oh, and his hand got caught under the bike and smashed his hand."

"Anything break?"

"Well, it mangled his pinky pretty good. They had to amputate at the second knuckle, but he should be fine for the next race. Nothing serious."

And sure enough, three weeks later Troy showed up at the track and was the fastest rider in the first practice and qualifying session despite losing 2/3 of the pinky finger on the hand that has to support his weight during braking, hang on during acceleration, and control the throttle. Here's a picture of his stumpy finger and his custom altered glove.

I assure you that this isn't a phenomenon unique to professional racers making millions of dollars. I've raced with a partially healed collar bone. A friend race with his pinky finger pinned in place and went around the entire weekend with his racing glove on because once he got it on he couldn't get it back off. Another racer in my club showed up at a race 3 weeks after breaking his thumb with a pin sticking out of the knuckle and proceeded to pull the pin out with vice grips so that he could get his glove on and race.

Injuries are a part of life when you race motorcycles at the limit and "serious" is generally defined among racers as a permanent inability to race. Most veteran racers have broken many bones and many have suffered some kind of permanent alteration to their anatomy such as missing fingers and toes. One racer lost his right thumb and had his big toe amputated and grafted on to replace the thumb. It's all about priorities. You can race without a big toe, but you have to have a thumb to hold onto the handle bar.

You know that the there must be something to it if people are willing to go to such lengths to get back out on the track.