30 April 2011

Go West, Young Man

For the next few days, I'm going to write about the West.  To kick off this theme, here's a brilliant poem that captures some of what I want to say:

Is This Feeling about the West Real?
William Stafford

All their lives out here some people know
they live in a hemisphere beyond what Columbus discovered.
These people look out and wonder: Is it magic? Is it
the oceans of air off the Pacific? You can't
walk through it without wrapping a new
piece of time around you, a readiness for a meadowlark,
that brinkmanship a dawn can carry for lucky people
all through the day.

But if you don't get it, this bonus, you can
go home full of denial, and live out your years.
Great waves can pass unnoticed outside your door;
stars can pound silently on the roof; your teakettle
and cozy life inside can deny everything outside--
whole mountain ranges, history, the holocaust,
sainthood, Crazy Horse.

Listen--something else hovers out here, not
color, not outlines or depth when air
relieves distance by hazing far mountains,
but some total feeling or other world
almost coming forward, like when a bell sounds
and then leaves a whole countryside waiting.

29 April 2011

Timely Thoughts

Not sure how I feel about this, other than that it is extremely interesting.

Make Love, Not War

With the incessant coverage of the Royal Wedding, it's strange to think that there were times when wars were averted through marriages of this type.  (It's like salt. Wars over salt? Really?!! I mean, I like salt as much as the next guy, but come on. Guess I'll have to read this book.  And I suppose that in a few hundred years people may say the same thing about oil.)

Anyway, it's too bad that we still don't use the occasional arranged marriage as a national olive branch.  Imagine all the loss of life and wealth that could have been avoided if President Bush had just married off his twins to Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden.  And just imagine the reunions!

27 April 2011

Orcs! Orcs! Orcs!

This film is incredible!  (And my buddy Jason wrote and produced it.)

26 April 2011

Frog Hunt

When we were six years old, my brother and I were expert frog-hunters.  (I'd like to take credit for our success, but my brother was really the skilled huntsman, with a quick eye and quicker hands.)  There was a pond around the corner--past the scary lady's house and beyond the zip-line for the older neighborhood kids--which was a frog's paradise.  In my mind's eye, I see the two of us clambering across sodden logs slippery with bright green algae, trying to just once follow my mother's admonition to "stay dry."

We hunted for the sport of it, scouring the murky surface for flashes of gold-flecked eyes or the long fluid leg strokes of our prey.  Over the course of the hunting season we would catch everything from tadpoles and pollywogs all the way up to the bullfrogs: the whole gamut of amphibious maturation.  But inevitably when we staggered home--sneakers sloshing with pond water, faces smeared with viscous mud--we were empty-handed.  For what, after all, is the good of a frog in a bathtub?

25 April 2011

Game Genie-ous

I can't help it.  Every year when I finish school I have an urge--a compulsion--to play video games.  I just completed my first year of graduate school and it hasn't changed a bit.  I don't know if it's a reward or a way of winding down or just a method to kill time..but there you have it.

In a spirit of "If you can't beat it, join it," here are my all-time favorite video games series:

5.  Warcraft
4.  Final Fantasy
3.  Super Mario Bros.
2.  The Legend of Zelda
1.  Super Smash Bros.

(An honorable mention to Tetris/Dr. Mario)

Spiritual Highs (and Lows)

Today in church we talked about the enormous highs and lows of the last week of the Savior's life: from His triumphal entry on Palm Sunday, to the agony of Gethsemane, to His betrayal and crucifixion, to the glory of the empty tomb.  Christ truly lived His life in crescendo.

It's hard to imagine what life as one of Christ's disciples would have been like during that time: from absolute elation to utmost despair to total confusion and finally to reverential awe.  It reminded me of something I read about the highs and lows inherent in religious life.
From The Screwtape Letters, written from the perspective of a minor demon:
Humans are amphibians-- half spirit and half animal.... As spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time. This means that while their spirit can be directed to an eternal object, their bodies, passions, and imaginations are in continual change, for as to be in time means to change. Their nearest approach to constancy, therefore, is undulation-- the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks. If you had watched your patient carefully you would have seen this undulation in every department of his life-- his interest in his work, his affection for his friends, his physical appetites, all go up and down. As long as he lives on earth periods of emotional and bodily richness and liveliness will alternate with periods of numbness and poverty. The dryness and dullness through which your patient is now going are not, as you fondly suppose, your workmanship; they are merely a natural phenomenon which will do us no good unless you make a good use of it.
To decide what the best use of it is, you must ask what use God wants to make of it, and then do the opposite. Now it may surprise you to learn that in His efforts to get permanent possession of a soul, He relies on the troughs even more than on the peaks; some of His special favourites have gone through longer and deeper troughs than anyone else. The reason is this. To us a human is primarily food; our aim is the absorption of its will into ours, the increase of our own area of selfhood at its expense. But the obedience which the Enemy demands of men is quite a different thing. One must face the fact that all the talk about His love for men, and His service being perfect freedom, is not (as one would gladly believe) mere propaganda, but an appalling truth. He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself-- creatures whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because he has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His. We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in,, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over. Our war aim is a world in which Our Father Below has drawn all other beings into himself: God wants a world full of beings united to Him but still distinct.
And that is where the troughs come in. You must have often wondered why God does not make more use of His power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree He chooses and at any moment. But you now see that the Irresistible and the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of His scheme forbids Him to use. Merely to override a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo. For His ignoble idea is to eat the cake and have it; the creatures are to be one with Him, but yet themselves; merely to cancel them, or assimilate them, will not serve. He is prepared to do a little overriding at the beginning. He will set them off with communications of His presence which, though faint, seem great to them, with emotional sweetness, and easy conquest over temptation. Sooner or later He withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscious experience, all those supports and incentives. He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs-- to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish. It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be. Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best. We can drag our patients along by continual tempting, because we design them only for the table, and the more their will is interfered with the better. He cannot 'tempt' to virtual as we do to vice. He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles. Do not be deceived, Wormwood. 
Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do God's will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

23 April 2011

Who's the Boss?

Today while babysitting, my niece Carly informed me, "When I'm bigger I want to be a mommy because then I'm in charge and can make all the rules."

22 April 2011

Write the Future

From my Organizational Theory final.  I had 250 words and used every one.

a) What are self-fulfilling prophecies? Based on class discussions, discuss two specific ways in which they relate to management.

The term “self-fulfilling prophecies” calls to mind the Oedipus, who, in trying to avoid the fate pronounced by the Oracle, makes a series of choices which actually bring it about.  This, however, is not the meaning of “self-fulfilling prophecies” as we have used it in class.  Rather, we have discussed an Oracle so powerful that by merely predicting something—by assuming some end result—causes it to happen.  That Oracle?  You and I and every other person.

The theory behind “self-fulfilling prophecies” is that we get what we look for—that if we come in to a situation expecting a certain outcome, then we are likely to act in a manner that leads to that outcome.  We may not even be conscious of these subtle or subliminal alterations in our behavior, but they can profoundly affect whatever it is we are measuring.  It is the “observer effect” applied to management: as with observing electrons, the process of measuring outcomes (in this case, through preconception) to some degree determines them.

The applications of “self-fulfilling prophecies” for management closely mirror those for the classroom—as a former high school teacher I can attest to the truth of the Pygmalion effect.  Managers, like teachers, often fall into McGregor’s Type X/Type Y categorization, believing that their employees are either innately lazy and in need of discipline or else naturally self-motivated and in need of responsibility and trust.  These preconceptions cause the manager to treat their employees accordingly, who respond accordingly, and the transformation in complete.

High Five

Today I finished my first year of my MBA program.  It is also National High Five Day. Coincidence? I think not.

21 April 2011

The Climb

This song came on my radio as I pulled into school this morning to take my last finals.  And to be honest, I felt genuinely inspired.  Even if it is Miley Cyrus.  And the words are in pink.

17 April 2011

A Boxcar Childhood

My computer informs me that today is the birthday of Gertrude Chandler Warner.  Aside from having a tremendously fantastic name, Ms. Warner has the distinction of authoring The Boxcar Children (and at least 19 sequels, to which more than 130 have been added by ghost-writers).  I'm pretty sure that I have read more Boxcar books than any other series, except for maybe...dare I admit it...The Babysitter's Club.  C'mon, at least it wasn't Sweet Valley High.

I distinctly remember picking out the latest Boxcar Children book from the Scholastic book fair each year, although I think they were still publishing Werner's originals--the first ghost-written title (#20) didn't come out until after I had moved on to more mature reading (like Spider-man comics).

Nowadays, we have all sorts of advanced reading metrics--Scholastic's site states that The Boxcar Children is a Lexile framework 490L, Guided Reading Level O, appropriate for grade level 3.2 (2nd month of 3rd grade) and children ages 8-10.  Back then, all we cared about was the number in the top-right corner.

Which brings us to tonight's truism: If you have written enough books that your titles simply become numbers, you've probably over-done it.  I'm looking at you Hardy Boys and Goosebumps.

16 April 2011


I have two written finals to take this week.  You can guess how I feel about them.

14 April 2011

Who is John Galt?

Atlas Shrugged: The Movie premiers in about 30 minutes.  The premise is as the title suggests: what happens when the people who bear up the world decide to stop supporting the "looters"?  Answer: at the very least, they create the next cult classic film.  And as a greedy capitalist pig, I think it's my duty to go see it. 

Real Salt Lake

It's amazing how a great five seconds can totally change your outlook on a game.

Get Microsoft Silverlight

11 April 2011

Wisdom of Crowds, Part 2

This process is known alternatively as emergence, spontaneous order, self-organization, or self-assembly. In biology, it is seen in the collective behavior witnessed in flocks of birds, schools of fish, insect colonies, and animal herds; in chemistry it is what causes snowflakes to form; at the molecular level it is what keeps that pencil from sinking into your hand and you from fusing with your chair. In political economics, F.A. Hayek referred to this process as cosmos or “grown order.” You and I might just call “freaky.”

And yet, this pattern of spontaneous, leaderless, sophisticated behavior is all around us. As Michael Shermer, Publisher of Skeptic Magazine, notes in his reply to the World Question:
“Almost everything important that happens in both nature and in society happens from the bottom up, not the top down. Water is a bottom up, self-organized emergent property of hydrogen and oxygen. Life is a bottom up, self-organized emergent property of organic molecules that coalesced into protein chains through nothing more than the input of energy into the system of Earth's early environment. The complex eukaryotic cells of which we are made are themselves the product of much simpler prokaryotic cells that merged together from the bottom up in a process of symbiosis that happens naturally when genomes are merged between two organisms. Evolution itself is a bottom up process of organisms just trying to make a living and get their genes into the next generation; out of that simple process emerges the diverse array of complex life we see today.”
Steven Johnson, author of Emergence: the connected lives of ants, brains, cities, and software, picks up on this theme, further describing emergent systems:
“They are bottom-up systems, not top-down. They get their smarts from below. In a more technical language, they are complex adaptive systems that display emergent behavior. In these systems agents residing on one scale start producing behavior that lies one scale above them: ants create colonies; urbanites create neighbourhoods; simple pattern-recognition software learns how to recommend new books. The movement from low-level rules to higher-level sophistication is what we call emergence.”
As Johnson notes, one popular area in which to observe emergent behaviors is in swarming insects: bees, ants, and fireflies. In so doing, Johnson echoes the words of the Psalmist, who exhorted: “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise: which having no guide, overseer, or ruler, provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest.”

In fact, some scientists have. Deborah Gordon, Professor at Stanford’s Department of Biology has built her career researching the behavior of ants. In one such study, Gordon investigated the sophisticated patterns created by blind army ants foraging for food or burying their dead. The upshot? Individually, the ants are not only blind, but also supremely unintelligent; collectively, however, they are brilliant, achieving not only advanced results that surpass their individual ability, but also border on geometric perfection.

This research has been borne out by Iain Couzin at Princeton’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, who has looked at emergent behavior in not only ants, but also birds, fish, aphids, and none other than our very own Mormon cricket. Also of note is Cornell mathematician Steven Strogatz’ research on synchronicity in fireflies, which will blink in concert when gathered into swarms.

Man, A Social Animal
Lest we believe that spontaneous order is only found of insects and other ‘lower life-forms,’ there are abundant examples of human emergence. Without any scheming overlord, we human collectively organize into markets and cities. We assemble our collective knowledge in online encyclopedias. Even the language in which we communicate is the result of emergence.

One particularly cogent example of emergence in our species comes through our traffic patterns—both pedestrian and vehicular—in which we create formations not far off from that of Gordon’s ants. This spontaneous synchronicity was evidenced at the 2000 opening of London’s Millennium Bridge, the first structure spanning the Thames in five hundred years. Humans tend to walk in step with those around them (think birds and fish now), in order to keep pace and not bump into one another. When the Millennium Bridge first opened and the throngs began walking across it, this synchronicity caused the bridge to wobble from side to side, further forcing its pedestrians to walk in rhythm. This caused an even larger wobble, and eventually the bridge needed to be closed for stabilization.

On a more individual scale, the most recent neurological research indicates that humans’ cognitive function is itself a result of the spontaneous synthesis of multiple stimuli. For example, my nerves send numerous individual messages of color, smell, shape, and texture to my brain, which integrates them into one idea: orange juice. So perhaps Whitman wasn’t too far off when he wrote: “I am large. I contain multitudes.”

Who’s the Boss?
At the heart of this mountain of research into both animal and human behavior lies the “central mystery” described by Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad:
“What we’re studying here is the science of emergence which asks: ‘Where does organization come from? How do you get a neighborhood, a district, or a city? How do you get the complexity of an ant colony when there’s no leader and everyone in town is stupid?’”
In other words, can there be design without a designer?

It is my contention that behind every example of emergence, there is the presence of law. By this, I don’t mean the dictate of some despot, or even of a representative body, for this would only indicate top-down organization, and not spontaneous order at all. But whether it be the natural laws of physics or chemistry, societal norms, Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand, or Google algorithms, I believe that there is some principle—some set of rules—that guide all emergent behaviors.

A good illustration of how a set of simple rules can result in sophisticated patterns can be found in John Conway’s Game of Life (no, not the one with the plastic cars and peg people). Conway invented a computer program known as a “cellular automaton” in which a field of cells ‘live’ or ‘die’ by simple mathematical rules:
For a space that is 'populated':
§ Each cell with one or no neighbors dies, as if by loneliness.
§ Each cell with four or more neighbors dies, as if by overpopulation.
§ Each cell with two or three neighbors survives.
For a space that is 'empty' or 'unpopulated':
§ Each cell with three neighbors becomes populated.
Admittedly, The Game of Life is only an abstraction of what we observe in nature. The principle, however, holds true. Flocks of birds and schools of fish move as one body because each individual follows a set of simple rules: 1) fly in the same direction as your neighbors, 2) stay a specified distance away from your neighbors, and 3) avoid predators. And how about Gordon’s foraging ants? They too are obeying a genetic code directing them to follow the pheromone trails of other ants. And so on, through all examples of emergence.

This is not meant to denigrate the amazing nature of these behaviors—as if I were ruining a magic trick by revealing a trap door or hidden compartment—but rather to emphasize that if we are to take full advantage of the power of emergent systems, we must look to their underlying laws.

10 April 2011

The Wisdom of Crowds, Part 1

Here is the first part of a term paper for my Organizational Theory class:

I encourage you to read this while holding a pencil. Why the pencil? It stems from Leonard Read’s 1958 essay “I, Pencil” in which the author claims that the pencil which you now hold in your hand is nothing short of miraculous:
“I, Pencil, simple though I appear to be…have a profound lesson to teach.
Simple? Yet, not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me. This sounds fantastic, doesn't it?
Actually, millions of human beings have had a hand in my creation, no one of whom even knows more than a very few of the others.…There isn't a single person in all these millions, including the president of the pencil company, who contributes more than a tiny, infinitesimal bit of know-how.”
This illustration was made famous by Milton Friedman who used the essay in Free to Choose, his paean to the unifying power of free markets. The same sentiment is echoed in the economist’s question “Who feeds Paris?” and more recently in Thomas Thwaites’ disastrous attempt to build a toaster from scratch. The central idea: No one of us is as smart as all of us.

This idea runs counter to the current trends in scientific inquiry, where experts are looked to as the purveyors of all knowledge. One example of this appeal to expertise is the World Question. At the beginning of each year, The Edge Foundation embarks on its mission to pose a question to the world's smartest people. Or as they put it, "To arrive at the edge of the world's knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves."

This year's question: "What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?" The responses are fascinating--Antifragility, Pragmamorphism, Externalities, Cumulative Error, Pareto Distributions-- if you ever wanted to drink from the science firehose, this is it. And yet, even in this most expert-based of all venues, there is a sense of collectivism.

Take, for example, the entry submitted by Matt Ridley, author and founding chairman of the International Centre for Life, entitled “Collective Intelligence”:
"Brilliant people, be they anthropologists, psychologists or economists, assume that brilliance is the key to human achievement. They vote for the cleverest people to run governments, they ask the cleverest experts to devise plans for the economy, they credit the cleverest scientists with discoveries, and they speculate on how human intelligence evolved in the first place.
They are all barking up the wrong tree. The key to human achievement is not individual intelligence at all….Human achievement is entirely a networking phenomenon. It is by putting brains together through the division of labor — through trade and specialisation — that human society stumbled upon a way to raise the living standards, carrying capacity, technological virtuosity and knowledge base of the species." 
The term ‘collective intelligence’ may bring to mind a multitude of images culled from science-fiction films and novels—from H.G. Wells’ World Brain to Star Trek’s Borg (“You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.”)—as well as from works of philosophy—Hobbes’ Leviathan and Gregory Stock’s Metaman. In today’s market economy, however, this is how work is performed: collectively, but distributed. We are personally removed from the production of practically everything we consume each day, usually by dozens if not hundreds of steps.

When I was teaching a high school class in American history, I tried to drive this point home to my students through the following exercise: I had them record everything that they had used or consumed throughout the day, and then identify anything that they (or their families) had produced themselves. The list was always short: vegetables from the family garden, eggs from backyard chickens, maybe a homemade scarf. To further emphasize how far removed production is from consumption today, I offered a substantial prize to anyone who was currently wearing any article of clothing tagged “Made in America.” In my four years of teaching I never had to pay up.

I’m afraid that the marvel of this worldwide dispersion of effort is lost on us through its sheer normalcy. Quoting G.K. Chesterson, Read’s pencil claims, “We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders.” I am, however, willing to remit: it may well be that the efforts of thousands of people, no matter how distributed, coming together to create something as ordinary as pencil is not as impressive as I believe. After all, the process is as we might expect: higher-order entities creating something in a lower-order. But what about when it happens the other way, when lower-order entities coalesce to create something higher than themselves?

09 April 2011

The New West

Star and I hit up the ol' dollar theater right by her house today ("We are the reel deal") to see the new-ish version of True Grit.  Both of us agreed that it was a nice change to see a Western.  I think it must in the blood--after all, we each have a cowboy grandpa.  And so I've decided to broaden my horizons (to more of a sweeping "big-sky" vista?) by taking on AFI's list of the Top 10 Westerns.  Here they are:
1The Searchers1956
2High Noon1952
5Red River1948
6The Wild Bunch1969
7Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid1969
8McCabe & Mrs. Miller1971
10Cat Ballou1965
I believe I have only seen #2 and #7.  What about you?  And which films ought to have made this list?   


Courtesy of BYU's Divine Comedy troupe:

07 April 2011


Because I am a sucker for father stories and in the mood for poetry:

A Day at the Beach

by Peter Schmitt
If he had been paying more attention
to whatever my mother was saying
from under her hat beneath the umbrella,

or watching more closely over my brother,
off playing somewhere with his shovel and pail,
or me, idly tracing my name in the sand,

if he hadn't had that faraway look,
gazing out to where the freighters crawled along
the horizon – so that when he suddenly

pushed up and off, sand in his wake, visor
taking wing behind him, you could believe,
as he churned toward the glassy water,

that it had just come to him to chuck it all,
this whole idea of family, and make
for those southbound freighters and the islands –

then he might have never seen the arm heaved up,
the lifeguards running just as my father
was lifting the old man out of the surf

and bearing him ashore, the blue receding
from his cramped limbs. And as a crowd closed around
the gasping figure struggling to his knees,

my father turned back to us – sheepishly,
almost, back to the endless vigilance
of husband and of father, which was all

he had ever asked for in the first place.


05 April 2011


My car was in desperate need of a deep cleaning, so I emptied out the accumulated junk, gave it a good vacuuming/shampooing, and then Armor-All'ed the living crud (quite literally!) out of it.  I even went so far as to disassemble the center console for a good scrubbing and bust out the toothpicks and Q-tips for a little detail work.  Funny thing is, I think this was the first time ever that I used these tiny cotton pugil sticks for anything except ear cleaning--the exact thing the box tells you not to do!

Has there ever been a more ignored warning?  Or a better example of a product completely sabotaging itself?


Is there a word to describe the phenomenon of when your brain gets stuck on the same process and continues to repeat it?  You know, like after you’ve played too much Tetris or Dr. Mario, and when you go to bed all you can think about is falling blocks.  Or when the first line of a song goes all broken-record inside your head or the only thing that your mind can create is the chorus of Miley Cyrus’ “The Climb.”  For me today, it has been maybe the nerdiest of all: making mental anagrams.  DANGER…RANGED… GRANDE…GANDER…GRADE…RANG...DANG...DARN…DRAG…REND…AND…END.  It’s been constant all day long—in the shower, as I drove to school, going to sleep.  I think this the first stage of either insanity or autism. 

I really need to lay off the word game on my Kindle. (LINKED…LINED…LIKED…KIND…DELI…LIED…DINE…)

04 April 2011

May I have your attention, please?

I was just reading a brilliant piece of writing by Richard Lanham: The Economics of Attention.  His basic premise is that although we refer to this as the "information age," information is not the scarce resource--in fact, as Lanham states:
"Information doesn't seem to be in short supply.  Precisely the opposite.  We're drowning in it.  There is too much information around to make sense of it all.  Everywhere we look, we find information overload."
Lanham goes on to say that though the backbone of our economy has transitioned from material "stuff" to immaterial "fluff," the main currency is not information--it is attention.  The scarce resource that everyone is vying for is the aggregated hearts and minds of people--hoping to carve out a space in the collective consciousness.

It is an interesting thought that in today's world where there is so much value is in immaterial things--intellectual property, digital content, lines of code--which many people can concurrently possess (unlike, say, a gold mine or a steel mill), that the way we really purchase things is with our attention.  It makes me think that maybe I should be a little more judicious in the way I (quite literally) spend my time and pay attention.

02 April 2011


My laptop is back from the doctor, so I'm back to blogging everyday.  I hope you all have missed me.  I wrote this post on the first day of Lent.

As of today, I'm back on the wagon and off fast food.  That's right: no Arby's, BK's, CJ's, DQ's, and on through the lipidly delicious alphabet.  It's my first time celebrating of Lent, a holiday of buttressing weak self-control with ominous religious overtones.  As in, going to McDonald's = going to H-E-double hockey sticks (at least until after Easter).

But it should be good for me, body and soul.  After all: