Sunday, June 30, 2013

Many Happy Returns

For those who may not know, I'm a news junkie. I try to keep up with what's happening locally, nationally, and globally; I even check what's going on in places I've lived before. I also try to follow everything dealing with BYU sports (which includes former BYU athletes that play on professional teams now). One of the things I keep track of is the stock market (although it's just as a curiosity-I'm not an investor per se). It's fascinating to watch how stock prices fluctuate, and to look into all the different variables that affect the price. I think it's safe to say that the major factor that determines a stock price is the expected return on that investment.

Just about everything we do in this life is because we expect some type of result-or return on our investment if you will. We go to school because we expect education. We go to work because we expect to get paid. We buy groceries because we expect to eat. We exercise because we expect to stay/get in shape. We listen to music because we expect to be entertained, or uplifted, or distracted. We are kind because we expect to feel good about ourselves. We yell at our kids because we expect them to pay more attention to us. We drive over the speed limit and risk a ticket because we are in a hurry to get somewhere. We go to church to be spiritually fed (or maybe to get a nap if you're a high priest). We avoid breaking laws because we expect that will keep us out of prison. Sometimes we get the return we expected, sometimes we get more, and sometimes we get less-such is mortal life.

Another factor to consider is something called "marginal returns" by economists. This is basically describing the additional benefits you get with additional investment. Generally, these additional benefits tend to decrease over time-this is described as "diminishing marginal returns" or sometimes just "diminishing returns".

Anyway, enough with the basic economics lesson-there is a point that I'd like to make. The first one has to do with dating. Or more specifically courtship. Or even more specifically my courtship. I first met my wife in January in the men's locker room in the Richards Building at BYU. Yep, that's correct-the men's locker room. You're probably mentally giving my wife the same look that President Bateman gave her when we told him that too. But there's a good explanation for how we met, and it's this: we were both working with the late night custodial crew-I was cleaning the locker room and she was with a group cleaning all the restrooms in the building. (Yea, not so scandalous exciting is it? Sorry...).

We were both working as custodians, first on the 11pm-3am shift during the winter semester, then the 11pm-7am shift during the spring and summer terms. We started dating sometime in March, then got more serious in April/May, got engaged in August and married in December. It had been my experience up to that point that as you spent more time with someone, eventually you'd get to a point where you got a little tired of them-diminishing marginal returns if you will. But what I found with Tabitha was that the more time I spent with her (and we were spending at least 40 hours a week working together, plus the time we spent actually going out on dates), the more time I wanted to spend with her. There were absolutely no diminishing returns-the more time I invested in our relationship, the more I got out of it. And that has continued now for almost 18 years, and I expect know that it will forever.
So for those young people (or not so young) that are searching for their future husband/wife, here's some advice:

  1. If someone still looks attractive to you after 8 hours of cleaning toilets, shower drains, locker rooms, and gyms, then there might be something there
  2. If you're dating someone and you're not experiencing and diminishing returns, then there might be something there
Finally, I wanted to just touch on the idea of investments. In an article in the April 1986 Ensign (Full text here) Elder John H. Groberg said:
Of course, there is a place for wise investments, but generally temporal investments are at the mercy of forces beyond our control—the death or defection of a key executive or salesman, the patenting of a new invention that replaces our company’s product, the sudden change in the price of oil, the unexpected shift in interest rates, the fraud or embezzlement of a trusted partner, or the precipitous fall of the stock market.
With this much uncertainty in investing, why even talk about it? True, earthly investments do not last, even when they are successful for a time. But I want to talk about another kind of investment. This investment has no risk whatsoever, and it pays handsome returns on a continuing basis. I speak of investment of time, of spiritual investments—investments in character, obedience, service, kindness.
Or, as the Savior taught in Matthew 6:19-20
Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:
But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal.
Elder Groberg finished his article by saying:
In all situations and at all times, the best investment we can make will be to do what we know is right and to follow the promptings of the Spirit. My brothers and sisters, let’s make wise investments! Let’s serve willingly. Let’s forgive readily. Let’s be kind, consistently. God will help us. We can eliminate anger from our lives. We can substitute love. We can develop love in our hearts. We can be kind to one another.
So by investing time, service, kindness, love, and charity as we follow Christ we get the return of immortality and eternal life? Sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Capillary Waves in Fluid Dynamics (aka Ripples)

If you're wondering if this has suddenly become a physics blog, don't worry. It was just a way of grabbing your attention (I hope-it might just end up scaring people away). But if you've made it this far, bear with me and hopefully I can make some points that are worth sticking around for.

Another name for a "Capillary Wave in Fluid Dynamics" is a "ripple". Yep, like the things you see when you drop a pebble into a pond...they look something like this:

I have a degree in economics, and one of the things that I learned was that although we tend to think of actions having a cause and effect, most of the time it's more like an action has a cause, followed by an effect and another effect and another effect and another other words, ripples. Most of the time we're pretty good at predicting what the first ripple will be. But after that, we're not usually that good, which can lead to either unintended benefits or unintended problems. Either way, we're not prepared for the consequences of our actions. One of the areas where I see this happening a lot is in politics, especially when it comes to making policy decisions. We seem to be so focused on what the immediate results will be (and how it will benefit the person, party, bureaucracy, etc.) that we don't look past the first ripple. We also see this in our families, in our churches, our jobs, and our schools, etc.

Here are a couple of examples:

In 1990 a 10% luxury tax was placed on the sale of new yachts (after all, only the rich bought yachts, so they could afford it, right?). The intended consequence was an increase in tax revenue. In reality, here's the chain of events (ripples, remember?):
Tax passes
Price of yachts increases
People don't want to pay more for yachts
People stop buying yachts
Demand for yachts decreases
Manufactures of yachts stop building yachts
People who worked as yacht builders are laid off
Manufactures of yachts close their businesses
No new tax revenue from yacht sales
Loss of tax revenue from income of yacht builders
Increase use of existing tax revenue for unemployment benefits
Tax is repealed

The end result was almost the exact opposite of what was intended in the beginning.

Here's another example, this one about a man and a woman who got married, with the intended consequence of having a family. In reality, here's the chain of events:

A young couple gets married in Pennsylvania
They start a family
They decide to start looking at other churches/religions
They move to Iowa so that he can attend school
School and married life is expensive so he gets a job working at a restaurant
He meets a Mormon coworker and asks him about his church
He and his wife and small family meet with some Mormon missionaries
They make the decision to convert and be baptized
Their family continues to grow
They move to Illinois
A year after being baptized they make the long drive to Washington D.C. to be sealed as a family for time and all eternity
Their family grows, ending up with 6 sons and 2 daughters
Many of these serve missions, allowing others to gain the blessings of the restored gospel.
Their children get married and start families of their own and the ripples continue forever...
 Sometimes the end result is infinitely more and infinitely better than we could have ever expected.

We need to do everything in our power to anticipate the consequences of our choices, and act accordingly, but we also need to keep in mind that we are imperfect, and that we're going to mess up now and then with our choices, our predictions, and the end results. However, there is one person who knows the end from the beginning, who can perfectly see the infinite number of ripples resulting from our choices and actions, and who can help guide us through our journey here on earth, and that is our Savior.

Acts 15:18 "Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world"
1 Nephi 9:6 "But the Lord knoweth all things from the beginning; wherefore, he prepareth a was to accomplish all his works among the children of men; for behold, he hath all power unto the fulfilling of all his words. And thus it is. Amen."
 Abraham 2:8 "My name is Jehovah, and I know the end from the beginning; therefore my hand shall be over thee."

And for a more in-depth study of the "ripple effect" of choices, check out this collection of books by Laura Numeroff:

"If You Give a Mouse a Cookie"
"If You Take a Mouse to School"
"If You Take a Mouse to the Movies"
"If You Give a Pig a Pancake"
"If You Give a Moose a Muffin"
"If You Give a Dog a Donut"
"If You Give a Cat a Cupcake"
"If You Give a Pig a Party"

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Judge Not Lest Ye Be Judged....

In the middle of West Virginia there is the small town of Elkins, current population around 7,800 or so. It sits near the edge of the Monongahela National Forest and is one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. (And on a side note, "Monongahela" is one of the coolest names ever. And it's even cooler if you can pronounce it-which I can. Anyway, I digress...)

I had the opportunity to visit Elkins about ten years ago, give or take. Actually, I had the opportunity of going to work in the Elkins Walmart (I was working for a company that distributed music, books, and movies to Walmart and they needed me to go do an inventory count). There are a lot of stereotypes about the kind of people you'd expect to see in a Walmart in the middle of West Virginia, and I have to admit there seemed to be some basis in truth to those stereotypes. I was doing an inventory scan in the electronics department when a customer came in and started looking around. He was wearing denim overalls (I can't remember if he had a shirt on or not), was chewing on a piece of straw, and spoke in the thickest West Virginia drawl that I've ever heard. I wasn't sure what he was looking for, but I was pretty sure it had to be something cheap. Maybe a $2.00 VHS movie or something like that. I remember thinking to myself that he looked dirt poor, didn't smell much better, and that if I ignored him maybe he would realize that I didn't actually work for Walmart and he'd go and find someone else to help him. He then came up to me and said (and again, you have to hear this in that very thick accent):

"I need one of dem dare memry cards for a PS2"

Wow...not what I expected to hear at all. How in the world did he even know what a PS2 was, or that they needed a memory card, or how in the world could he afford one? After all, he was standing in the middle of Walmart chewing on a piece of straw, right? Wrong...I was completely and embarrassingly wrong, and had based my assumptions just on what I saw on the outside. Kind of like when Samuel went looking for a person to replace Saul as king:

And it came to pass, when they were come, that he looked on Eliab, and said, Surely the Lord’s anointed is before him.
But the Lord said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.
 There's been a lot of discussion the last day or so about the Supreme Court decisions on the DOMA and California's Prop 8. And there's been even more discussion on the many challenges that are facing our country and our world. I'm not going to debate those here (at least not in this post), but wanted to give a word of caution about judging those who hold very strong, emotional, and personal opinions on both sides. It is not our place to judge what is in the hearts of those with whom we may agree or disagree. We may discuss and/or debate, but remember the counsel given in Doctrine & Covenants 121:41-42 (and I don't think this applies exclusively to holders of the priesthood):

No power or influence can or ought to be maintained...only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;
By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile—
Or in other words, we can disagree with one another without being disagreeable. We should sincerely seek to understand the foundation upon which another has based their opinion(s), and use that as the beginning of any discussion. Now don't get me wrong-I am not advocating that we give up fighting for issues that we feel strongly about, but we can do that without the animosity, vitriol, and hatred that seems so common place lately (and that goes for both sides).

President N. Eldon Tanner spoke of this on April 8, 1972 (and it is even more applicable now than maybe it was then)

Judge Not, That Ye Be Not Judged  (this is the link to the entire talk)

Our news media today also seem to be interested mainly in controversial subjects or someone who is being attacked; and regardless of the ninety-nine good things one may do, it is the one weakness or error that alone is emphasized and heralded to the world.
We are too prone to listen to, accept, and repeat such adverse criticism, such maliciously spoken or printed words, without stopping to realize the harm we may be doing to some noble person; and, as is done so often, we excuse and justify ourselves by saying, “Well, where there is so much smoke, there must be some fire,” whereas in reality we are adding to the smoke, when the fire referred to may be only the fire of malice started by some envious person.
Sometimes even when our friends are accused of wrongdoing or gossip is started about them, we disloyally accept and repeat what we hear without knowing all the facts. It is sad indeed that sometimes friendships are destroyed and enmity created on the basis of misinformation.
If there be one place in life where the attitude of the agnostic is acceptable, it is in this matter of judging. It is the courage to say, “I don’t know. I am waiting for further evidence. I must hear both sides of the question.”
Only by suspending judgment do we exhibit real charity. It is hard to understand why we are ready to condemn our neighbors and our friends on circumstantial evidence while we are all so determined to see that every criminal has a fair and open trial. Surely we can try to eliminate pride, passion, personal feeling, prejudice, and pettiness from our minds, and show charity to those around us.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013


This was the view from the sidewalk in front of my building this morning right after they told us all to go home. A water main had burst around 7am which in turn led to the water being shut off in our building and the air conditioning was going to be shut off as well (and when they're expecting a high of 94 with 80% humidity coupled with a building full of a couple hundred people and no water or restrooms available...well, you get the idea).

Anyway, as I was driving home I thought about how common these water main breaks seem to be here in Kansas City. I think I probably read about or get text alerts for 3-4 of these a week. And then I started wondering what causes these, and if and/or how they could be prevented. So here's what I found are the main causes of water mains breaking:
  • Changes in temperature-both extreme cold and extreme heat contribute to pipes breaking
  • Pipe material-most pipes that break were made before 1980 with iron (and apparently iron is not a very forgiving material and has a tendency to crack when exposed to temperature changes)
  • Corrosion-old pipes are not cement lined and can corrode from both the outside and inside
  • Age-failure increases after pipes reach 60
  • Human Factors-construction, contractors, homeowners can accidentally hit pipes while working on projects
  • Water hammer-this is causes when hydrants are open/closed too quickly
So, what's my point? All of these causes can be summarized in one word-pressure. Both internal and external pressures can weaken the integrity of the pipe and cause it to fail, resulting in costly and time consuming repairs.

They same thing can and often does happen in our lives. We often feel like this:

We worry about the pressures of work and school and church and marriage and dating and children and parents and money and vacations and temptations and shortcomings and weaknesses and many, many, more...and if we're not careful, we can succumb to these pressures and our personal water main will break, resulting in both temporal and spiritual damage and costly repairs (again in both a spiritual and temporal sense).

So what can we do to prevent pressure from breaking us? We need to replace our old, corroded, temperamental, unforgiving, and weakened pipes filled with temporal water with the eternal, perfect, forgiving, loving, and strong pipes filled with the living water of Jesus Christ. Or, as L. Whitney Clayton explained in the October 2009 General Conference:

Life presses all kinds of burdens on each of us, some light but others relentless and heavy. People struggle every day under burdens that tax their souls. Many of us struggle under such burdens. They can be emotionally or physically ponderous. They can be worrisome, oppressive, and exhausting. And they can continue for years.
In a general sense, our burdens come from three sources. Some burdens are the natural product of the conditions of the world in which we live. Illness, physical disability, hurricanes, and earthquakes come from time to time through no fault of our own. We can prepare for these risks and sometimes we can predict them, but in the natural pattern of life we will all confront some of these challenges.

Other burdens are imposed on us by the misconduct of others. Abuse and addictions can make home anything but a heaven on earth for innocent family members. Sin, incorrect traditions, repression, and crime scatter burdened victims along the pathways of life. Even less-serious misdeeds such as gossip and unkindness can cause others genuine suffering.
Our own mistakes and shortcomings produce many of our problems and can place heavy burdens on our own shoulders. The most onerous burden we impose upon ourselves is the burden of sin. We have all known the remorse and pain which inevitably follow our failure to keep the commandments.

No matter the burdens we face in life as a consequence of natural conditions, the misconduct of others, or our own mistakes and shortcomings, we are all children of a loving Heavenly Father, who sent us to earth as part of His eternal plan for our growth and progress. Our unique individual experiences can help us prepare to return to Him. The adversity and afflictions that are ours, however difficult to bear, last, from heaven’s perspective, for “but a small moment; and then, if [we] endure it well, God shall exalt [us] on high.” We must do everything we can to bear our burdens “well” for however long our “small moment” carrying them lasts.
That Your Burdens May Be Light-L. Whitney Clayton October 2009 General Conference

Monday, June 24, 2013

To Obey is Better Than Sacrifice...

I entered the Missionary Training Center on September 2, 1992. Due to some conflicts with work schedules, my parents were not able to be with me as I entered those doors and began my full-time missionary service. However, they had made plans to drive out to Salt Lake City from Illinois to see me off at the airport (this was before 9/11, so they would have actually been able to see me off at the gate). I woke up early the morning of November 4th and was preparing to take the bus ride to the airport, when I received a note telling me to give my parents a call at a number provided. I gave them a call, wondering what was going on. You can imagine my disappointment (and theirs), as they let me know that due to a winter storm I-80 was closed and they were forced to stop in Cheyenne Wyoming. They had driven 14 hours of a 20 hour trip to come see me, and now they would not be able to. I couldn't speak long as I had to catch the bus so I said good-bye and told them that I would call them on Christmas.

I took the short bus ride to the Salt Lake City airport, followed by a flight to LAX, and was soon on my way to meet my mission president. As part of the orientation process, we reviewed the Missionary Handbook (a.k.a. the white bible) and my mission president specifically referred to page 29  (shown here):

As you can see, under the "Family Members and Friends" section, it specifically states: "Do not telephone parents, relatives, or friends."  My mission president then proceeded to tell us that there was not an exception granted in the handbook to allow missionaries to call home on Christmas and Mother's Day, and that in our mission we were going to be 100% obedient. It didn't matter that in every other mission in the world they allowed the missionaries to call home twice a year, this was going to be our rule. I was upset at first, and I admit my initial thoughts included some very unflattering descriptions of my mission president. I then had to write home and let my parents know that I wouldn't be calling them after all due to our mission rules. My parents were  my mom was pretty upset, which was understandable. She hadn't been able to properly see me enter the MTC, she hadn't been able to say good-bye in the airport, and now she was being told that she wouldn't even be allowed to talk to me on Christmas and Mother's Day, even though every missionary mom that she had ever known talked about how great it was to hear from their missionary on these two days. I'm sure she had thoughts such as these:
"Just who does he think he is to tell me I can't talk to my son like every other missionary mom in the world"
"I don't care if that is the rule, I'm going to tell Tom to call me anyway, since I missed the other opportunities. I'm sure the Lord will understand that my situation is different."
"It's a stupid rule and he's a stupid mission president."
"It's just not fair."
"Maybe the mission president will have a change of heart"
I don't remember writing this, but my mother later told me that I had included a statement something like "it's our mission rule and I know I'll/we'll be blessed by being obedient". I'll come back to this in a moment, but fast forward to May of 1993. Our mission had decided that we were going to set May apart as a month of consecration and fasting and work and obedience, and that we had a goal of having 200 baptisms in our mission that month (we had been averaging somewhere in the 90-100 range if I remember correctly). This was a goal that was unheard of, and seemingly unreachable. However, we had faith and were obedient and we ended up with 202 baptisms that month. I gained a sure and undeniable testimony that we truly are blessed by being obedient.

So why am I telling this story? It seems lately that I've been seeing a lot of issues being discussed online lately, having to do with subjects ranging from same-sex marriage to modesty to dating to what is appropriate to wear at get the idea. As I've read the different opinions, comments, quotes, etc. I've come to the conclusion that a lot of us (myself included at times) are missing the point. The point is this:
Everything we are asked to do by the Lord and His servants is first and foremost a test of our obedience. 
  • Tithing is not primarily a principle about money or finance-it is a test of our obedience.
  • Modesty is not primarily a principle about what we wear-it is a test of our obedience.
  • Being against same-sex marriage is not primarily a principle about the eternal nature of families-it is a test of our obedience.
  • Attending our church meetings is not primarily a principle about learning together-it is a test of our obedience.
  • Obeying the  word of wisdom is not primarily a principle about health-it is a test of our obedience.
  • Paying a generous fast offering is not primarily a principle about taking care of the poor-it is a test of our obedience.
  •  Doing our home and visiting teaching is not primarily a principle about taking care of the spiritual and temporal needs of the members of our ward-it is a test of our obedience.
What I agree with or what I disagree with or what I understand or what I don't understand or how much I like my church leaders or how much I don't like my church leaders or the fact that every other missionary in the world called home on December 25th 1992 and I didn't is completely and utterly irrelevant. We are commanded to be obedient and if we have a problem with that then we need to get down on our knees and plead as a distressed father once pleaded "Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief" (Mark 9:24).

Joseph Smith once said “Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof until all of the events transpire.” This should be our guiding principle in all we are asked to do.

Additional reading material:

Obedience-N. Eldon Tanner October 1973 General Conference

Beware of Murmuring-H. Ross Workman October 2001 General Conference

Faith Obedience-R. Conrad Schultz April 2002 General Conference

Obedience Brings Blessings-Thomas S. Monson April 2013 General Conference