Tuesday, October 7, 2014

"LDS General Conference Summaries & Videos"

Larry Richman, over at LDS Media Talk, has posted a thorough list of links to summaries and videos of all the General Conference talks that we listened to over this past weekend.

Even better, the full text, with video and audio, of every talk given is now available (in English, at least) online.

"Experts worry Ebola may spread more easily than assumed"

It should not be judged by its size

Being a trained, if not currently practicing, scientist, far be it from me from denigrating science as a method for discovering truth and means for improving nearly every aspect of our lives.

However, there is an inherent danger to settling on today's science since science is never settled!

A case in point: While some scientists are confident they know everything there is to know about how Ebola is spread, there are others who are not so confident.

When it comes to Ebola—a disease that if it were an athlete would be getting a record-breaking contract for the stats it posts—wouldn't you want to listen to the scientists who would like to learn more about its transmission rather than those who want to sit on their assumptions?

I understand that both time and resources are precious, but let's not let overconfidence keep us from doing or learning things that could make a difference in stopping Ebola's spread.


Saturday, October 4, 2014

Re: General Conference

Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah

I'm always amazed at how quickly The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints makes its annual and semi-annual general conferences available online after the fact.

Video and audio files for today's sessions are already up. English transcripts will be posted within two days of the conference and translations into over 50 languages will be available within 1 to 8 weeks.

In case you're not familiar with general conference, let me sum it up: twice each year on the first weekend of April and October the leaders of our faith meet at the church's headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah, where they speak to us on any variety of topics ranging from Jesus Christ to caring for the poor and needy to the responsibilities of parents to teach their children.

Today's sessions were notable for being the first in which church leaders had the option to speak in their native language rather than English, as was customary. Two men took the opportunity, with one speaking in Cantonese and another in Spanish. It was an important recognition that the church is truly an international faith. Since the early 2000s, more members have resided outside the United States than in, and there are more non-English speakers than English speakers.

When I was a kid it seemed that conference weekend lasted for an eternity. Now it's as if I blink and it's gone already. I've enjoyed the sessions immensely so far and am looking forward to tomorrow's.

"Come Listen to a Prophet's Voice"

The world-famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir always performs at general conference

If you didn't know, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is having its semi-annual general conference today and tomorrow, October 4th and 5th.

If you feel so inclined, you can tune in at gc.lds.org, where live streaming in many languages is available.

The first two two-hour sessions today have been very inspiring.

There will be one more session today and two tomorrow. Last week Saturday, a session for women and girls ages 8 years and older opened the general conference.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

"You keep using that word . . . "

And so, for the second time in just over a month, I invoke the profound wisdom of The Princess Bride to introduce a post.

Over at The Week, writer Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry discusses our misunderstanding and misuse of the word science.

Really, it seems, we are victims, to one degree or another, of scientism: "a naive gullibility towards science as the ultimate source of all knowledge, denying the uncertainties thereof."

It's very tempting to think of ourselves as scientific when we read and hear and see the effects or results of science, most likely through venues of pop science, without ever really doing science.

There's an astronomically huge difference between the two.

I have three science degrees, have read countless peer-reviewed journal articles, have even been part of some interesting experiments either as subject, lab assistant, or principle researcher.

But at present, I don't do science. I merely observe. And that primarily through secondary and tertiary sources.

And so I watch myself all the more closely lest I fall prey to any of the false, vain, and foolish science-in-name-only ideas currently en vogue. Science falsely so called, as the Apostle termed it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

In Which I Discover that the US Navy Wants Me Dead

"But not you, tubby!"

I went in to a Navy recruiter station today to see what it would take to enlist. For a while now I've wondered what it would be like to be a military linguist, or, in the Navy's case, a Cryptologic Technician (Interpretive). So I thought I'd see if they'd take me.

I know I'm a little overweight, but I don't think the recruiter thought so. That is, until I told him how much I weigh. Then he wanted to put me on a scale to make sure I wasn't messing with him.

Apparently for my height of 72 inches, the most I can weigh and join the Navy is 201 pounds. I haven't weighed that little since before my mission to the Samoan islands almost 15 years ago.

I need to lose 84 pounds. You do the math.

The recruiter measured my neck (17.5 inches) and waist at the navel (45 inches) and estimated my body fat at 30%.

Which means, assuming his estimation is any good, at 285 pounds, my body caries 85.5 pounds of fat.

In other words, I would have to get my body fat down to virtually 0%—that is, lose the mass of a largish child—to be just at the max enlistment weight. Hence the title of this post.

But in reality, the max body fat percentage I can have is actually 22% (until I'm 39, then it jumps up to a whopping 23%), which, if I didn't lose any muscle mass, would put me at 255 pounds, a mere 54 pounds over my max enlistment weight.

Do you think they'd let me in if I was nearly 60 pounds overweight but met their body fat requirement (and, of course, the other fitness standards)?

Or would the Navy's apparent prejudice against the naturally muscular carry the day?

Monday, September 22, 2014

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Samoa in the News

Cocos nucifera, the Samoan tree of life

When the West went through a tropical oils scare back in the day (I think it was in the 80s or 90s), Samoa, which was likely a major coconut oil producer at the time, took a big hit to its economy.

(Incidentally, I used to live near a coconut oil refinery located in the Vaitele area of ʻUpolu. This makes me an expert on the subject along the lines of Phil Conners being naturally talented at the piano because his father was a piano mover.)

But it looks like things are on the upswing for Samoan farmers, who have the added benefit of being able to farm organically.

I can't imagine it being too hard to grow coconuts organically, though. Apart from the Asiatic rhinoceros beetle, which I think has reached Samoa, the coconut tree seems to have few problems doing what it does best: produce coconuts. Abundantly.

So much so, that a traditional blessing for a new bride in Samoa is may the coconut tree produce much fruit. It would seem that prospective grandparents worldwide are almost universally eager to have as many grandkids as possible as soon as possible, Samoa not excepted.

Anyway, I hope the Samoans will never lose their traditions of farming the land and fishing the seas for at least a portion of their daily sustenance. And if it takes a focus on organic farming to ensure the survival of their culture, all the better.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

"Are you looking for a job?"

I've been looking for a regular full-time job since I graduated two and a half years ago. So far, no luck.

So I went to a job fair a number of weeks back to see what it had to offer. Talk about an exercise in futility!

As a walked down the aisles between booths for banks and burger joints, temp agencies and tourist attractions, I increasingly felt that I was in the wrong place. After all, I'm trained in the exercise sciences with an added specialization in nutrition. I also happen to teach Samoan language as an adjunct faculty member at the local university.

But I'm willing to make a career change. I'm versatile. I'm at least of marginal intelligence.

What clinched it for me, though, were the multiple instances when I'd make eye contact with some bright, shiny, smiling face stationed at a booth and the first words out of said bright, shiny, smiling face were, "Are you looking for a job?"

I just don't think I could work for a company that staffs a job fair with recruiters who don't automatically intuit my reasons for attending it.


Monday, September 15, 2014

"The Earth is Full"

From dust to lush in 20 months!

It seems sometimes these days that all we hear about are the negative impacts humans have on the environment.

But one thing that I think is becoming increasingly clear is that the environment, so called, appears to be at its very best precisely when deliberate human intervention is the greatest.

The idea that the peoples of the ancient world had, as a best case scenario, little to any impact on the environment, or, worst case, precipitated the complete ecological collapse of the places they lived, appears to be more myth than fact.

"Sifting through the evidence," writes author Charles C. Mann, in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, "it is apparent that many though not all Indians were superbly active land managers—they did not live lightly on the land."

"Indians," he writes, "worked on a very large scale, transforming huge swathes of the landscape for their own ends."

The Amazon Rainforest, for example, rather than being the epitome of virgin forest untouched by humankind, is one of the largest gardens in the world.

The soils in the rainforest are notoriously infertile, a strange paradox given the lush, dense vegetation for which the rainforest is known. The natives figured out a way to introduce large quantities of carbon, in the form of charcoal, and other organic matter, including microorganisms, to create what's called Indian dark earth, or terra preta, a type of soil that's virtually infinitely more fertile than the surrounding soils.

We're only now beginning to understand how to make terra preta ourselves.

Apart from Mann's explosion of the "idea that native cultures did not or could not control their environment," in the past year or so I've come across some remarkable examples of humans deliberately improving their environments, sometimes in unexpected, even paradoxical ways.

I'll share some with you for your consideration and, in some cases, viewing pleasure.

Grazing animals gets a bad rap for ruining the land, ruining the water, and, with bovine methane production, increasingly ruining the air. One of these problems, desertification, is rapidly destroying grasslands worldwide.

Yet paradoxically, the work of biologist Allan Savory, and farmers Joel Salatin, of Polyface Farms, and John Neumeister, of Cattail Creek Lamb, show that proper grazing practices can significantly improve the health of land, even reversing the deleterious effects of desertification. The latter two have their work featured in the documentary films Food, Inc., and Ingredients, respectively. Dr. Savory has a remarkable TED talk you can watch below.

And Jadav Payeng and Shubhendu Sharma have both shown the world in their own ways that the reclamation of land through reforestation is well within the reach of ordinary human beings.

These represent, I suspect, the tip of the proverbial iceberg of what is taking place worldwide, showing that far from being a parasitic species, Homo sapiens is very much intended to be as the Hebrew account of Genesis makes us out to be: gardeners with a stewardship over the earth that doesn't preclude our intensive use of the earth and its resources. So long as we are wise stewards, as one verse of scripture explains, "the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare."

Saturday, September 13, 2014

My Night on Aunuʻu

"Let the Work Begin" by Clark Kelley Price, which depicts the arrival of Joseph and Florence Dean, and four-month-old son Jasher Harry, to Aunuʻu in the Samoan islands in June of 1888

Sometime on either the 17th, 18th, or 21st of June, 1888, depending on whom you consult for the date, Joseph and Florence Dean, missionaries belonging to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, officially opened a mission to the Samoan islands and commenced their work of proselytizing the natives.

The Deans were assisted by one Samuela Manoa, a native Hawaiian, who years before had gone to Samoa under the direction of Walter Murray Gibson, the crafty interloper who made a lot of trouble for the Latter-day Saints in the Hawaiian islands, and who ingratiated himself with King David Kalākaua, eventually becoming one of the king's officers.

Apparently, the Deans' great-great-grandson is currently serving his own mission in Samoa and was recently able to go to Aunuʻu island off the eastern coast of Tutuila in American Samoa, where his forebears initially settled to establish the mission, to celebrate their arrival there. (In later years, the mission headquarters would move to ʻUpolu, the most populous of the Samoan islands, then and now, where it remains today, at present located just next to the temple, not far from Apia.)

The Deans' great-great-grandson, Elder Anderson, who is currently serving in the Samoa Apia Mission. The title of the commemorative plaque says, "The morning of the Restored Gospel in Samoa." In this case, taeao doesn't refer to a run-of the-mill-morning, but to an "important, memorable, or auspicious occasion," i.e., the dawning of a new era. 

During my own mission to Samoa, I once went to Aunuʻu. It's a beautiful island situated not more than a mile off the coast of Tutuila. The only way to the diminutive island, which may have served at one point in its history as a sort of penal colony, as suggested by its name, is to catch one of the few daily ferries from ʻAuʻasi.

The boat ride to Aunuʻu
The interior of Aunuʻu is swampy, and the mosquitoes there are the stuff of legend (if not now, then certainly once this post goes viral, with a nod to this and this post referring to other parts of Samoa).

As my companion and I, in the company of the local congregation's missionary leader, settled down for the night on the tile floor of one of the rooms in the tiny chapel, we realized that we had forgotten to bring mosquito nets, an absolute necessity when sleeping in the open air, as we soon would be.

To our everlasting chagrin, all the stores were also closed so we could purchase neither mosquito nets nor repellent coils. Instead, we resigned ourselves to a night of fitful sleep and constant battle with the murderous mozzies.

The mission leader we were with rubbed it in by going home to grab his own mosquito net to sleep in. After a long while, however, he returned empty handed, saying that when he'd found his net, he also found an old lady, presumably a family member, sleeping in it.

We took a certain wicked pleasure in his misfortune of having to share our fate through the night.

Suffice it to say, none of us slept well.

The next day I was so tired that, by the time we returned back to neighboring Tutuila island, my Samoan language ability had tanked. I couldn't get anything to come out right, at one point blurting out, to my great embarassment, a Tongan-ish fakalatalata (instead of the Samoan faʻalatalata; faka- and faʻa- being functionally equivalent prefixes in Tongan and Samoan, respectively).

I hope Elder Anderson, the Deans' great-great-grandson, had a more pleasant stay on Aunuʻu remembering the great work that his ancestors began so many years ago.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

In Which I Take the Ice Bucket Challenge

You've probably seen, or heard of, or read about the so-called ice bucket challenge to raise awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly called Lou Gehrig's disease after the eponymous baseball player who died of the disease in 1939.

Grandma Winn—my mother's mother—was diagnosed with and ultimately succumbed to ALS. Fortunately, she was in her late 80s before it set in.

Deb's uncle Darrell, however, was not so fortunate. He never saw his 50th birthday.

With ALS on both sides of the family, you could say Deb and I have a vested interest in promoting efforts to find effective treatments or a cure or both.

That's why, silly as the challenge itself may seem, I support the ice bucket challenge. It has, after all, produced a remarkable outpouring of contributions, to which I gladly add my own.

Your own contributions are greatly appreciated.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

I'll Call You . . . Not!

"I do not think it means what you think it means."

Am I missing something, or is there a secret rule in HR Land that dictates that "I'll call you either way no later than Tuesday" actually means "I'm definitely not going to call you. Ever. You will not be proceeding in the interview process, and you will not work for us?"

I'm confused.

Bonus: 50 Nate Bucks to the person who correctly identifies the movie quote source.

Not legal tender in HR Land

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

It's Christmas in August

August is always an exciting month for me since it's the month when the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR), also known as FairMormon, holds its annual conference.

The anticipation of reading the presenter's remarks rates right up there with how I felt as a kid waiting to open my presents Christmas morning.

So far, two of the presentations have been posted, with more to follow in the coming days and weeks as the volunteers at FairMormon transcribe the presentations.

Of course, all the presentations of past conferences are available too to whet your appetite.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Winds of Change

From left to right: Hawaiian islands, hurricane Iselle, and hurricane Julio

There is reason to rejoice here in Hawaii, and it doesn't only have to do with recently being missed by two storms, Iselle and Julio.

Let the games begin.

Friday, August 8, 2014

"It’s about Cold Memorization and Mathematical Probabilities"

The great Nigel Richards (right) and some other guy,
presumably important in the world of competitive Scrabble

Ok, all you Scrabble mavens, this one's for you.

I enjoy Scrabble as much as the next man—za, anyone?—but Oliver Roeder's article makes a clear case as to why I'll never be one of the game's greats:
A good competitive player will have memorized a sizeable chunk of the 83,667 words that are two letters to eight letters long. A great player will know a lot of the 29,150 nine-letter words as well.
And that's just the good competitive player, to say nothing of the elite.

Though, truth be told, because we didn't have a TV in the house when I was a kid (except on special occasions like the Olympics), I did develop a habit of reading from the set of encyclopedias on our living room bookshelves. And even today I do enjoy the periodic perusal of my Samoan-English dictionary.

But that wouldn't be enough to develop the chops to compete with our whiskery wordsmith, as Roeder points out.
For living-room players, Scrabble is about language, a test of vocabularies. For world-class players, it’s about cold memorization and mathematical probabilities. Think of the dictionary not as a compendium of the beauty and complexity of the English language, but rather as a giant rulebook. Words exist merely as valid strings with which to score points.
It's a nice thought, really, but I think I'll just keep looking for a regular day job, with the occasional weekend test of vocabularies.

Friday, August 1, 2014

More Star Wars Statistics

The picture of dignity

In keeping with our recent theme of applying statistical analysis to the Star Wars saga, we here note one pundit's brilliant observation that reviled character Jar Jar Binks has a greater approval rating among Americans than does our current Congress.

The comparison is apt, if unscientific: Binks himself served as a Galactic Senator.

Never mind that he was also instrumental in granting Chancellor Palpatine, aka Darth Sidious, emergency powers leading to the Senate's eventual dissolution and the subsequent establishment of the Galactic Empire.

What do they say, life imitates art? Or is it the other way around?

Ask Me How I Really Feel

The above meme basically sums up my current experience

I'm not prone to swearing, but near as I can tell the English language doesn't contain enough execrations to describe how I really feel about this execrable practice the chaps in HR Land have foisted on the rest of us.

I'm reminded of the "It's a clinker!" scene from the holiday cult-classic A Christmas Story, where Ralphie observes how his father, a particularly gifted wordsmith, "wove a tapestry of obscenity that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan."

If it's true that Mr. Parker's tapestry hangs still in the starry skies above the lacustrine feature at the Mitten State's western border, then I think he said enough for the both of us.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Study Shows The Empire Strikes Back is the Best Star Wars Movie

An important source of a coming generation gap

Thanks to an old college buddy, I recently made the fun discovery of FiveThirtyEight, a data- and statistics-driven blog created by stats phenom Nate Silver, famous for accurately predicting the outcomes of elections and sports contests.

In addition to addressing some plain-vanilla topics like science and economics and politics, the aces of analysis at FiveThirtyEight have provided profound probings of pressing problems, including:

What the works of the late, great Bob Ross can teach us about "the important statistical concepts of conditional probability and clustering, as well as . . . the limitations of data;"

The evolution of classic rock as a music genre, in a three-part series (here, here, and here) that addresses, among other things, regional differences in songs played on stations across America, the power of the soi-disant one-hit wonder, and the vexing question of whether bands like Nirvana and Green Day should receive airplay alongside the likes of Led Zeppelin and the Beatles;

And so forth.

But as you may have surmised from the title of this post, it's Star Wars, rather than Bob Ross and classic rock, that is at issue today.

And whether the sample was adequately representative to allow us to confidently state voters' preference, as a lifelong Star Wars fan* I can authoritatively say that The Empire Strikes Back is, in fact, the best film of the franchise.

It remains to be seen whether J. J. Abrams can knock Empire off its pedestal. It'll be tough, but I think he could at least come close.

It's being called an Episode VII X-Wing, and it's awesome!

*My bona fides include, but are not limited to, foregoing the junior prom (I mean, come on, what self-respecting guy goes to prom as a junior?) to travel with best friend and fellow Star Wars enthusiast Jared and his dad to Denver, Colorado, near Aurora, home of the Star Wars Fan Club, for the 1999--that is, first--Star Wars Celebration. Need I say more?

X-Wing image source: Digital Trends

Samoa in the News

Beautiful American Samoa

I read that America Samoa may be experiencing a small dengue fever epidemic at the present time.

That's not good.

I too had the pleasure of entertaining the famed breakbone fever while in Samoa.

I wish all afflicted a swift return to health.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Family Matters

Pa and Grammie
In January I wrote of my paternal grandfather's passing. Grammie, pictured above, left to join Pa this past May, leaving me without any living grandparents. I do feel blessed, however, to have known all four of my grandparents, something not all get to experience.

Today would have been Pa and Grammie's 68th wedding anniversary.

It's difficult to really do either of them justice, there's so much that could be said, with much more that is felt and therefore impossible to put into words.

Grammie and Pa grew up in southern Idaho during the Great Depression, though both sprang from Southern and Midwestern stock. Their ancestry traces back to Arkansas, Tennessee, Illinois, and even Ireland, which, for the geographically challenged, is not in either the American South or Midwest.

Grammie was born in California, though her family had settled in Idaho some years before. There wasn't enough work in the Gem State, so they had gone down to southern California to pick oranges.

Pa left his boyhood home of Tennessee at age seven. The family moved on the recommendation of a doctor who was treating Pa's older, and only, sister for tuberculosis.

My grandparents and their families' were no strangers to hardships. Few in that so-called greatest generation escaped the effects of two world wars, economic depression, unemployment, famine (in the case of Pa's Irish grandma's family, who probably left Ireland because of the Great Hunger, or potato famine, but that's going back a wee bit), migration, and disease, and Grammie and Pa were no exception.

Both served in the US Navy during World War II, Grammie in the WAVES, stationed in Seattle, Washington, and Pa in the Caribbean and South Pacific seas. After the war, they married, raised a large family, created a successful business that remains in the family, and participated in local politics.

In many ways, they were the embodiment of the American dream. The lives they led and the values they represented suggest that notwithstanding hardships, even catastrophic worldwide economic, political, and social upheavals, it is possible to rise from humble beginnings, establish oneself, and pass on a legacy to be enjoyed by posterity.

Grammie and Pa's posterity, including five children, 16 grandchildren, and 12 great-grandchildren (with at least one more boy on the way), are all beneficiaries of their hard won legacy.

One final thought: I can't recall many times that the family got together to celebrate Pa and Grammie's anniversary. I think we usually somewhat combined it with another important anniversary celebrated on the fourth. My thoughts today are filled with memories of hamburgers, root beers, fireworks, soft summer grass, orange Dreamsicles, aunts, uncles, cousins, and, of course, Grammie and Pa.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Good Read: Caffeinated

I recently finished reading Murray Carpenter's Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Helps, Hurts, and Hooks Us.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I'm not much into caffeine. And after reading Carpenter's book, I'm into caffeine even less.

Rather than total abstinence, however, I plan to use it more strategically. But more on that later.

Part one of the book addresses what Carpenter calls traditional caffeine, specifically the kick derived from cacao beans, tea, and coffee. For reasons unknown, he only mentions guarana and yerba mate in passing. Perhaps their stories are not nearly as romantic as those of the other three, or maybe they provide little of Americans' total caffeine consumption, I don't know. In either case, the omission is odd since Carpenter felt that caffeine deserved a 288-page treatment in the first place. What's another 30-60 pages to enlighten us on two caffeine sources that I only knew about through conversations with former missionaries who'd served in South America?

Part two, on modern caffeine, tells of the extraction of the bitter white powder from coffee or tea for use in other products, primarily soft drinks and energy drinks, and the laboratory synthesis of caffeine from urea, a byproduct of guano. No, that does not mean that we are drinking bat or bird feces when we have a Coke. (I don't think the urea is actually harvested from guano.) The greater concern with synthetic caffeine is that it's mostly made in China, where regulations governing food additive purity are probably not that stringent.

Chapters 10 and 11 of part three, which discuss the use of caffeine by athletes and the military, were of greatest interest to me, as an exercise scientist with a nutrition background. Caffeine has been shown to increase mental acuity and physical endurance, accounting for its popularity in events like the utterly insane, though no less impressive, Ironman triathlon.

The International Society of Sports Nutrition, for example, published a 2010 position stand on caffeine and performance, concluding that there is clear evidence that endurance athletes and participants in intermittent sports, like soccer or rugby, can see definite performance enhancements (yes, caffeine is, by definition, a performance enhancing drug, albeit a legal one, according to most sport governing bodies) along the lines of enhanced vigilance and whatnot.

The jury is out regarding the effects of caffeine on strength-power performance, though, anecdotally, when I take caffeine prior to resistance training, my vigilance definitely sees a noticeable enhancement. Whether my force production is actually increased, and I think that is what the researchers are looking for, I feel stronger against the weights I'm pressing and pulling. As any good researcher would say, more research—and, therefore, grant monies—is needed.

In any case, as I alluded to at the beginning, in the future I'll probably strategically restrict my caffeine consumption to just prior to my workout. (And to the occasional diet soda.)

Part four, entitled Corralling Caffeine, discusses the amazing—some might say alarming—proliferation of caffeine-containing products, from traditional sodas to energy shots to gum, and the difficulties the Food and Drug Administration has in regulating them. There are some legitimate concerns, to be sure, but as with most things these days involving food, there is bound to be a bit of overreach by public health officials in their approach to regulating caffeine. (Case in point.)

That said, we ought to be concerned with the consumption of caffeine by infants, children, and adolescents, and about sourcing synthetic caffeine from countries with iffy regulatory oversight of their own, like China.

Anyway, Caffeinated is, on the whole, stimulating reading, if you'll forgive the pun. Check it out.

Monday, June 9, 2014

"The Language Boot Camp"

Missionaries are even encouraged to pray in their mission language from the very start

National Public Radio featured the Mormon Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, in a recent report on how well the missionaries learn new languages prior to entering their assigned fields of labor.

I spent about nine weeks there between March and May 2001, prior to traveling to the Samoan islands.

By learning languages to aid missionary work, Mormons believe that they are fulfilling a prophecy given through Joseph Smith promising that
every man shall hear the fulness of the gospel in his own tongue, and in his own language, through those who are ordained unto this power, by the administration of the Comforter, shed forth upon them for the revelation of Jesus Christ. [v. 11]
That belief is an impetus powerful enough to get young men and young women barely out of their teenage years to leave their families, their friends, and nearly all that they're used to and comfortable with (texting!, Facebook!!, swimming!!!), and immerse themselves for 16 waking hours of every day for 18 months to two years in a language and culture entirely foreign to them (not to mention the food, weather, local bugs and dogs, and so forth).

It's really quite remarkable.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

"Just Keep the Inquiry Going"

More than a year ago now I watched an interview with historian David Hackett Fischer, whom you know, all three of you, my dear readership, I greatly admire as a scholar and historian.

In the interview the good professor answers a number of questions by callers to the show as well as emailed queries.

As I recall, Fischer very skillfully answers their questions and calmly endures at least one of them who seemed, to me at least, a tad bit belligerent.

The very last question posed to Fischer, submitted via email, addressed "problems with reading history today:"
When I read two different history books on the same subject, [says the enquirer,] both versions sound reasonable to me and they are often widely divergent. How are non-historians to learn how to evaluate these writings?
I would say here that history isn't the only field where one might find two reasonable-sounding books that are widely divergent in their evaluation of evidence and presentation of conclusions.

And I don't think Professor Fischer's answer applies only to students of history, either.

He said that there are at least two ways the lay reader might approach this problem, the first is to "center on the point of friction between two works and then read a third book," and the second is to find and read primary sources, in short, "become your own historian."

"It's that principle of inquiry, I think, that's the answer to that problem, just keep the inquiry going."

(Image: AHA)

Monday, May 12, 2014

Problematic Paradox Sees Paradigm Shift

Nutrition research is notoriously difficult to conduct, in part because it takes decades for chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease to manifest. That, and it's nigh unto impossible to get accurate dietary data for those decades to show cause and effect relationships between dietary patterns and health outcomes.

So it should come as no surprise that a group of researchers have found that perhaps red wine, specifically its resveratrol, is not as cardioprotective as once thought. That's not to say that it's not beneficial, it's just that the nature of the research makes it very difficult to say with much if any certainty that there is a genuine benefit to drinking red wine.

In the BBC article reporting the 'bad' news, reporter Michelle Roberts notes that "many studies have sought to explain why there is a low incidence of heart disease in France, despite many of its inhabitants eating a high-fat diet." This is the so-called 'French Paradox.'

Ironically, the paradox may not exist at all, since, as noted in two recent articles in the Wall Street Journal and NPR, fat consumption may not be related to heart disease, as long hypothesized.

The French Paradox, then, may have existed only in the minds of researchers suffering from a fat-phobic paradigm, and this may explain why researchers are struggling to see any benefits to drinking red wine.

Spurious, but Funny, Correlations

I never knew cheese could be so dangerous.

As anyone who's taken a first-year statistics course ought to know, correlation is not causation. That's because, as this website humorously shows, almost any two things can be nearly perfectly correlated and yet have absolutely nothing to do with each other.

Who knew statistics could be so funny?

(Hat tip: Nathan Yau, of FlowingData)

Saturday, April 12, 2014


I'm constantly on the lookout for a new job since I don't really want to be adjunct faculty for the rest of my life.

On a whim, I set up a profile and went through the preliminaries of applying for a position at UPS in my hometown, just to see what would happen.

The above image is a screenshot of the immediate feedback I received after responding to a simple survey of my skills and qualifications.

I've applied at so many places now I've lost count. In too many instances, the companies have never acknowledged their receipt of my application. In too many cases, I'm told that I'll hear back soon about whether or not I've been given the position, only to never hear back from them again.

It's refreshing to finally find a company who will tell me up front whether they want me for a position.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

"How [Some Endurance] Athletes Strategically Use Caffeine"

Caffeine molecule

I'm not much into caffeine myself, reserving my consumption of it for those infrequent times when I'm faced with a choice between a diet caffeinated soda and an non-caffeinated sugar-sweetened one.

But from my perspective as an exercise and nutrition scientist, this article on the use of caffeine by elite endurance athletes was very interesting. (I'll probably be checking out the book it was adapted from at my local library.)

I do have a bone to pick, though. The article's first sentence has one fatal flaw. Can you see it?
Every year, many of the planet’s fittest athletes converge in Kona, Hawaii, for the Ironman World Championship.
Ironman athletes are no doubt fit. But they can hardly be called the planet's fittest athletes. Fittest for their sport, to be sure, but fitness is sport specific.

Put a 123-pound male Ironman up against world record-holding 123-pound powerlifter Andrzej Stanaszek, of Poland, whose combined squat, bench press, and deadlift tally to a staggering 1306 pounds, and suddenly the Ironman is looking more like a limp noodle.

My Apple dictionary indicates that being fit means "having the requisite qualities or skills to undertake something competently."

The Ironman is going to be worthless in the powerlifting world and vice versa, since neither athlete will have the requisite qualities or skills to undertake the other's sport with any degree of competence.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Mysterious Misi Luki

Best banana ever

In my previous post about Mr. Oliver's essay on Samoan food, I claimed that the banana cultivar known as Misi Luki was not native to Samoa. I based my claim on the presence of the k.

The k sound has actually been in the Samoan language for a very long time. The Reverend George Pratt and others considered it a corruption of the original language's t sound, a change that has also occurred in Hawaiian.

Exactly why Samoans and Hawaiians have shifted from a t to k sound is a mystery, though I've heard that Samoan orators prefer to speak in k to increase the volume at which they speak, an important consideration since much of their traditional speech making takes place out on the village green or malae.

But until recently, the k was never written out, hence my claim that Misi Luki wouldn't likely be Samoan.

I thought I'd turn to a Google search to see if I could find more on our mystery Musa.

Two sources caught my eye, one from the Royal Society of New Zealand, the other from a gardening blog, Garden of Edendale.

The Royal Society post claims that Misi Luki means Mr. Rudi (Rudi -> Ruti -> Luki, when pronounced in K-style), whereas Edendale gives Mr. Lucas, apparently a missionary who might have served in Samoa. Misi was a title given to old-timey missionaries to the islands, hence Misi Paine from my earlier post about my distant cousin who also served his mission to Samoa.

I like to think that the banana was named after Mr. Rudi/Lucas because, like the fruits, he was short, fat, and had a very sweet disposition.

Whether Misi Luki comes from Mr. Rudi or Mr. Lucas, the evidence points to a post-European contact introduction of the apparently fungus-resistant cultivar from somewhere in India.

Yup, This Confirms It . . .

Helping the homeless is just a ruse, of course, to increase customers

Walmart is pure evil.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Samoa in the News

At the Huffington Post, Robert Oliver—Chef, Author, Bon Vivant—writes about traditional Samoan cuisine.
Like many indigenous cuisines from all over the world, the diet was based on simple but nourishing preparations, here made largely with fish, root crops, tropical fruit, coconut and leafy greens, the best of the earth and ocean.
He laments, however, that in modern times, "in an ironic madness, . . . 'tourism food', largely devoid of genuine Samoan content, was then deemed by the traveling public, to be 'Samoan food.'"

Oliver then lists foods and dishes he considers "of genuine Samoan content."
[C]oconut oil . . . jam and jelly . . . vanilla . . . Misiluki (dried local banana) Pudding . . . hearty local pork chops smothered in local koko samoa ( extraordinary local cocoa) sauce . . . "poke" (spiced raw tuna with sesame) . . . served with crunchy local seaweed and creamy coconut wedges . . . oka (Samoan raw fish and coconut) . . . soulful watercress and shin-bone soup . . . "umu" (earth oven baked) lunches . . . freshly brewed kokoaraisa (a soupy rice and coconut soup flavored with the terrific local cocoa) . . . sapasui ( a Samoanized version of chop suey) . . .
Ironically, in an essay in which he decries a "food invasion," "food colonialism," "fat bombs," a Samoa "awash with fat, flour, fake foods and Fanta," "tourism food," "local cuisine [that is] dislocated and marginalized," "inferior imported food," and a suffering "cultural sense of self" tantamount to cultural destruction because "by rejecting Samoa's cuisine; we are essentially rejecting Samoa," Oliver's list is heavily populated by non-Samoan foods.

Jams and jellies? Not Samoan.

Vanilla beans? Not Samoan.

Misiluki bananas? Not Samoan. The k in the name gives it away, being, as it were, like this particular banana cultivar, an import.

Pork Chops? Though Samoans always had pigs, not a Samoan cut of meat.

Koko Samoa? Not Samoan.

Poke? Not Samoan. Pretty sure it's Hawaiian.

Sesame? Not Samoan.

Watercress? Not Samoan.

Kokoaraisa? Not Samoan. Rice (the araisa part) isn't grown in Samoa.

Sapasui? Samoanized, true. "Scandalously good," to be sure. But still not Samoan.

None of these are Samoan in the pre-colonial sense; they're all imports. Just like Christianity isn't Samoan.

But Samoans have adopted and to a large extent Samoanized Christianity, seamlessly imbedding it into their traditional way of life. So much so, that once when I asked a Samoan woman about the Samoans' pre-Christian religious beliefs and practices, the response I got amounted to, There weren't any other gods, we've always worshipped the Christian God.

And so it is with certain non-Samoan foods. I can't imagine a Samoa without those "cheap meat imports" that were, by Oliver's admission, "integrated into the traditional Samoan diet . . . [c]orned beef, lamb flaps, turkey tails, and chicken backs." I wonder if the Samoans themselves could imagine such a world.

So why do koko Samoa and watercress and sapasui receive Oliver's stamp of "genuine Samoan" while corned beef, turkey tails, and lamb flaps are relegated to the trash heap of colonialism?

I couldn't say, but it seems like Oliver is applying a double standard here. Part of it may stem from the privileged status that anything organic receives these days—Oliver makes a big deal out of the fact that Samoans are growing their foods organically. Or perhaps it's because cheap meat imports don't get much attention from Samoa's professional chefs, not being very chic.

Whatever the case, it's a double standard, and Oliver's problem stems from spending more time, it seems, "in restaurants all over Samoa" than in eating at Samoans' homes.

So while "Samoa is proudly shaking off the last vestiges of colonialism," Samoa is apparently proudly clinging to another, though chic, set of colonialism's vestiges: Rice, chop suey, watercress, vanilla beans, etc.

Bon appétit!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Samoa in Family History

I'm a Mormon, which means, by definition, I like family history.

A while back I discovered puzzilla.org, a FamilySearch certified tool that helps with research into collateral lines.

And through Puzzilla and a handy-dandy cousin chart, I learned that I'm something like second cousins three times removed with one William Karl Brewer, Mormon missionary to the Samoan islands in the early 1920s.

Elder Brewer, or Misi Paine, as the Samoans called him—a reference to his coming from Pinedale, Arizona—tells of his mission experiences in Armed with the Spirit: Missionary Experiences in Samoa.

I wonder how many other alumni of the Samoa Apia Mission are my cousins?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

"Why Nutrition Is So Confusing"

Tomatoes were, after all, once widely believed to be poisonous

New York Times journalist and bestselling author Gary Taubes succinctly tells us why.

What Taubes doesn't say, however, is that our current nutrition and agriculture policies are heavily influenced by these "hypotheses treated as facts." (They're also heavily influenced by industry lobbyists, but we'll leave that for another post.)

Why nutrition and agriculture need to be so political in the first place is way beyond me. The law of unintended consequences alone suggests that we should be very careful about creating policies to govern either field on the basis of tentative science, even if there is a scientific consensus established in support of a particular hypothesis.

Samoa in the News

American Samoa's flag
Note: there are no bald eagles to be found in any of the Samoan islands

"Should American Samoans be [US] citizens?"

That's what Danny Cevallos, CNN legal analyst and criminal defense attorney, asks in a recent article on CNN Opinion.

America Samoa has been a US territory since 1900 and American Samoans are disproportionately represented in the US military and as war casualties.

American Samoans as US Nationals cannot vote in federal elections, though they do have one non-voting delegate to the US House of Representatives, currently Eni Faleomavaega, who can lobby Congress in favor of American Samoa. (For a fascinating description of how this process works, read historian Davis Bitton's biography of Mormon Apostle George Q. Cannon who served as Utah Territory's delegate for four terms between 1872 and 1882.)

Like Cevallos, I don't know if American Samoans will ever be granted automatic citizenship. However—and I don't know if this is even on any American Samoans' minds—rather than granting them US citizenship, I'd like to see American Samoans politically reunited with their fellow Samoans to the west.

There may be some good political reasons why that wouldn't be a good idea, not least of which is China's growing involvement in (formerly Western) Samoa, but it makes good sociocultural sense.

Even that last point is debatable, of course, because the Samoan archipelago doesn't seem to ever have been a single polity governed by a single ruler. The paramount chiefs of ancient Samoa probably didn't have universally recognized sovereignty over all the people in all the Samoan islands. So to give Apia control over historically autonomous Manuʻa, would be culturally problematic.

At the end of the day the Samoans themselves are best suited to solve this problem, yet, as Cevallos accurately points out, they don't have the power to carry out any decisions they make regarding their governance or citizenship.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

It's Fischer Time!

Senator Mike Lee (R-UT)

It's that time again! You know, when I relate something I read online to something I learned about in David Hackett Fischer's Historians' Fallacies.

In today's episode, we consider the fallacy of the perfect analogy (pp. 247-251), which, our hero explains, "consists in reasoning from a partial resemblance between two entities to an entire and exact correspondence."
One must always remember that an analogy, by its very nature, [Fischer continues,] is a similarity between two or more things which are in other respects unlike. A 'perfect analogy' is a contradiction in terms, if perfection is understood as it commonly is in this context, to imply identity.
Which brings us to our example from my recent reading:

". . . [T]he analogy certainly isn't perfect," explained United States Senator Mike Lee, of Utah, to his audience at the National Prayer Breakfast, of his description of "three types of conversations I had with my father, only one of which can properly be analogized to a legitimate prayer."

But we would never fault the good Senator for an imperfect analogy. A good analogy serves its purpose as a heuristic device only, nothing more; and certainly not as a perfect explanation of a thing through the referencing of a different thing.

This is, so far as I can discern, the only flaw in Senator Lee's worthy remarks. They deserve to be read and reread.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Truth Will Prevail

A missionary in the British isles

In 1837, when Mormon missionaries went to England to share their message of a restored church and gospel, "they traveled first to Preston, arriving during elections. As they descended the coach, a banner was unfurled from a window above them, proclaiming, 'Truth Will Prevail.' The missionaries immediately adopted this as the motto of their mission to England."

Despite critics' claims otherwise, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been, from the very start, committed to the truth.

As evidence of this commitment, and that it is not afraid to discuss "difficult" aspects of its history and theology, the Church has been improving its Gospel Topics website, drawing from the very best available scholarship, including the acclaimed Joseph Smith Papers project.

There's an article on plural marriage (or polygamy, as some call it, but more accurately, at least as practiced by Mormons, polygyny) and another on race and the priesthood.

The means by which Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon is discussed, as is the intersection of the Book of Mormon and DNA studies.

The different accounts of Joseph Smith's foundational First Vision are examined, and links to all the accounts, compliments of the Joseph Smith Papers, are provided.

And there's even an (exasperatingly obligatory, though well done) article confirming yet again that Mormons are indeed Christians.

Every article is well documented and includes a sidebar containing links to articles and videos for further study.

What I've never understood is how some people seem to hyperventilate about these, and other topics, when they should know that historical records are always incomplete, historical data is subject to differing interpretations, and that the Church's resources are finite and its primary purpose isn't to teach history (even its own).

Moreover, at present "we see through a glass, darkly;" Paul reminds us, "but then [i.e., at some future date] face to face." Faith is, after all, "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."

If, as some think, Mormonism "be of men, it will come to naught," as wise Gamaliel said of the ancient Apostles' faith.

"But if it be of God," he warned, "ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God."

Either way, truth will prevail.

And This Is How I Really Feel About Skim Milk

Friday, January 31, 2014

Vitamin D and Calcium Absorption

Vitamin D

Have you heard? Vitamin D enhances calcium absorption. That's why our milk, rich in the latter, is fortified with the former.

But what is probably less known is that the vitamin D in a cup of milk is not aiding the absorption of the calcium in the same cup.

I'm not exactly certain on the timelines involved, but rhetorically speaking, at least, it's the vitamin D in yesterday's milk that helps us absorb the calcium in today's.

It's because vitamin D in the diet must be modified in the liver and then in the kidney before it's biologically active.

And, yes, vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, so there really is no good reason to drink vitamin D-fortified skim milk.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

It's Fischer Time!

Seriously, what was Lucasfilm thinking?

It's that time again! You know, when I relate something I read online to something I learned about in David Hackett Fischer's Historians' Fallacies.

In today's episode, we consider the fallacy of fictional questions (pp. 15-21), where otherwise serious people examine what might have been had pivotal episodes in history had different outcomes.

Fictional questions, also called counterfactual questions, are actually pretty fun to engage in, and perhaps that's what makes them so tempting to "answer." We can show much erudition on a topic, and ponderously deep thinking, by showing how things might plausibly be had past events just happened a little differently.

For instance, what would the world be like today had the Nazi's won, or imperial Japan, or the Soviets? Or "what if the South had won?" as was posed on a Khan Academy discussion board, "What do you think would have happened?"*

Our hero David Hackett Fischer would say that it's impossible to answer such questions empirically because all historical "evidence" for what might have happened if, say, the South had won the Civil War is necessarily taken from the world in which the South lost.

Enter Boston Globe journalist Alex Beam, who excitedly discusses
one of [his] favorite counterfactual scenarios: Suppose Romney, the first Mormon to be a major party presidential nominee, had won the White House? Would the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have welcomed his ascendancy? Or dreaded it, for subjecting a difficult-to-fathom religion [. . .] to unwelcome scrutiny?
Well, what if? No doubt everyone is dying to know.

(Just in case you don't read Beam's article, he thinks a Romney presidency would have ultimately been an unpleasant experience for Mitt's fellow Mormons. I'm not so sure I agree.)

"There is nothing necessarily fallacious in fictional constructs," notes Fischer, "as long as they are properly recognized for what they are and are clearly distinguished from empirical problems."

Fictional questions, Fischer continues, "prove nothing and can never be proved by an empirical method."

And so, we might conclude, fictional questions are best reserved for the venue where they are most useful: Fiction.

*My own favorite fictional questions include, but are not limited to, what if George Lucas hadn't written and directed Episodes I-III? or what if Jar Jar Binks had never been created? or what if Darth Maul hadn't been killed at the end of Episode I? or what if Hayden Christensen hadn't portrayed Anakin Skywalker as such a wuss? or what if Disney decided to scrap Lucas's Episodes I-III entirely and instead allowed J. J. Abrams to truly reboot the franchise? These are, you can tell, very serious questions, whose answers are excruciatingly tantalizing to consider with as much erudition and ponderously deep thinking as we're capable of. Your thoughts are welcome in the comments.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Samoa in the News

The manumea

When I posted last about the preservation efforts to save the manumea, or little dodo, I didn't know that conservationists were worried that Samoa's national bird was actually extinct.

But apparently, that is what they were thinking. At least until recently when one of the research team fairly serendipitously spotted one of the birds on the big island of Savaiʻi.

(Image: Pacific.Scoop)

Are You Rich?

Rare, but still legal tender. Ask for them at your local bank.

This woman's answer may surprise you.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Samoa in the News

The independent nation of Samoa, formerly known as Western Samoa, will be establishing a Samoan Language Commission to ensure the perpetuation and deliberate teaching of the now official Samoan language.

(Can someone more familiar with language policy tell me why it would take so long for a nation like Samoa to establish its native language as its official language?)

I'm interested in what kinds of texts will be produced to teach what is still largely an oral tradition. I'm also curious as to whether the official policy will be to emphasize or largely ignore the diacritical marks that ensure proper pronunciation.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Samoa in Church History

More early Mormon missionaries to Samoa

Every missionary to Samoa must learn to contend with the mosquitoes. I've written previously about my own experience with dengue fever, a mosquito-borne sickness. Apparently, things haven't changed for over a hundred years.

Mormon missionary Henry L. Bassett tells of traveling to the "west end of the island of Upolu," where he and his traveling companion "stopped en route at many villages and were welcomed everywhere."

Unfortunately for Misi Paseta, as Bassett undoubtedly was called in Samoan, "this district was so Namuia (so numerous mosquitoes) that it was persecuting in its severity."
In my zeal to protect myself I only added to my discomfort. To provide against my tainamu mosquito netting) [sic] working loose from where it was tucked under my sleeping mat, I put several stones to hold it down, but alas for my inexperience, I had used lava rocks that had blow-holes in them like holes in Swiss cheese, which holes were the hiding place for the pesky mosquitos reposing therin, [sic] only to appear rampant upon my retirement to rest or to study the language so necessary in teaching the natives the plan of Salvation. I only learned of my folly regarding the mosquito episode when I saw the natives smiling at the amusing side of it. Although I could not smile with very good grace I 'saw the point'—or might say many of them.

Image courtesy of the Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 

Sunday, January 12, 2014


We called him Pa

I just found out that my grandpa died this evening. It wasn't entirely unexpected since he was 91 years old, but it still caught me by surprise. He was one of the last of his generation, called by some the greatest generation.

Pa's family moved out west to Idaho from Tennessee in 1929, seeking asylum for his sister Dot who was suffering from tuberculosis. En route they stayed two nights at the extra house of a man living on a mountain. He gave them a Belgian Police dog which they later had to "dispose of" due to distemper.

I once asked Pa about the Great Depression. He said they would bundle together willow sticks to make firewood. When the railroad ties were replaced, his father would float them down the river with Pa's older brother, Lake, and Pa would take them out at their property (or close to it). They burned the old ties to keep themselves warm.

The day after the attack at Pearl Harbor in 1941, he went down with some of his buddies and enlisted in the United States Navy. He spent the next four years in the Caribbean and South Pacific, experimenting on torpedoes and working in the engine room of a small ship that took diesel and air fuel to the front lines.

"I damn near sunk the ship," Pa once told me. The prop's screw casing was leaking and needed repacking, but the crew didn't want to take the ship into dry dock. Pa pumped the fuel or water to the bow of their 140 some foot fuel freighter, sinking the bow while exposing the screw of the propeller. Other than that, Pa didn't have anything to do with the repairs.

"I never got to Samoa, though our ship went there after we'd gone home." But Pa did get to see Bora Bora (from the ship), Guadalcanal, Bougainville, and Green Island.

How Pa loved telling us grandkids stories of his days in the Navy, and we loved listening to him tell them. There we'd sit with a root beer, or pistachios, or crackers and cheese, or cookies, which Grammie always had in ample supply, or perhaps we'd all be sitting together playing Pinochle, and we'd listen to Pa's stories for hours. And it didn't even matter that we'd heard the stories before.

Pa taught me how to work. Nearly every summer Saturday all through my teen years I and one of my brothers would go and mow Pa's lawn. He took a special pride in the state of his lawn and took the lead in putting in new flower beds or taking out bushes, in showing us how to weed whack or fertilize or adjust the sprinklers. He paid us handsomely in cash, Pinochle, and stories of the war.

"Pa, what was your father like?" I asked him back in 2009 on one of my last visits home.

A short pause. And then, "He was a fine father."

I could tell he really meant it.

"He was the best carpenter I knew."

His father passed away back in 1980. I have a hunch that they are enjoying their first moments together in over 30 years.

And I bet Pa's going to like getting to know the best Carpenter I know.