Monday, July 28, 2008

Small world.

When I was a kid I used to be kind of irritated with people who would ask if I knew someone. Like if they found out where I lived, "Oh, you're from Holladay? Do you know Dick Dickson, my cousin in Holladay?" I thought like it was annoying to ask those questions because of course I wouldn't know them. But now I realize sometimes I do.

I guess Stanley Milgram was the first to try to document the smallness of the world with his experiment that I first heard about in my intro to sociology class. In Milgram's experiment, it was found that, on average, for the people who he was able to track, there was an average of six people between the original person involved and the target person.

Now there is a new way to quantify the "small world" phenomenon: Mutual Friends.

Those who are already on Facebook are likely aware that there is a feature on Facebook called Mutual Friends. When you look at someone's Facebook profile, if you have Facebook friends in common with that person, those people will be displayed in Mutual Friends. Sometimes I am quite surprised by the number of Mutual Friends I have with someone on Facebook. It sometimes leads to those moments where you say something like, "*gasp* HE knows HER?"

For example:
  • My friend's mission companion is friends with my other friend's former visiting teaching companion.
  • A girl that served in the same mission with me is friends with the cousin of a girl who grew up in my neighborhood (who also happens to have worked at the English school where one of my fellow students used to work). Oh and by the way this same cousin knows my piano teacher and a professor on my Ph.D. committee.
  • A girl from my German class knows a whole bunch of people from my former singles' ward.
  • The guy my friend used to date is friends with my former stake president's daughter.
  • My mom's secretary is friends with a girl that used to sing in the same choir with me.
  • A guy I kind-of-sort-of went out with one time is friends with a guy I knew in high school.

It truly is a small world after all.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Extreme makeover

I have to admit that I am not immune to the guilty pleasure of watching reality shows.  In fact, there are some reality shows that I find educational, such as nanny shows where nannies teach parenting skills.  But there is one problem with the basic premise behind many reality shows, and that is the concept of the "extreme makeover".

On many reality shows, the basic premise is that, if something is wrong in your life, your life will be instantly better if you just get a makeover, new house, and/or plastic surgery.  That is, if things look better, they must be better.

I recently saw a reality show called "Clean House" where the people featured won a contest for the messiest house in America.  The people from the show came in to help them clean up their house, hosted a yard sale, and remodeled the house for them, leaving them with a lot less clutter, a new paint job and nice furnishings.  But I couldn't help but wonder if it was really going to work for the people.  As the show's hosts maneuvered through the incredibly cluttered and dirty house, they revealed that the cause for this couple's incredible amount of clutter was that they were both depressed: he was depressed because he had been injured and was not able to work as a firefighter, and she was depressed because she was not able to have children.  The irony, of course, is that in its condition, their house wouldn't have been healthy for children anyway.  The "Clean House" team did a great job remodeling and redesigning their living space, but I couldn't help but wonder if the extra assistance they got was enough to help them get over the hump.  If their psychological situation was the cause for them to collect so much clutter and dirt, getting a new paint job and living room chairs might not cut it in the long term.

The ultimate bad example of this phenomenon is the show "Extreme Makeover".  In this show, they take people who have poor body image and give them plastic surgery, personal training, a new hairstyle, new clothing, and new makeup.  Of course they are thrilled, but does this really solve their problems?  It seems to me that it actually just reinforces their belief that they aren't worthwhile because of their appearance.   So over the long term, it can actually make the problem worse, can't it?  We have all heard of people who are "addicted" to plastic surgery; no matter how "beautiful" they look, they can't shake their poor self-worth and poor body image.  So they pursue it by getting more plastic surgery, and so forth, never satisfied because they are trying to address their need in the wrong way.

Personally I understand the power of using confidence in your looks to help you out when you're not feeling too great about things.  Sometimes a new hairstyle or some makeup can really give you the extra umph you need to fake it until you make it in a difficult situation.  But overall quick fixes are not the ultimate solution to a lack of self-worth.

I don't agree with the message that such television shows are sending that making your house, wardrobe, makeup or skin beautiful in appearance is going to make you happy.  It seems to me that it's almost the other way around: if you feel a sense of self-worth, you'll improve your appearance and environment.

Here's an article on a related topic that I found through a Google search.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

It's nice to know that Dear Abby is on our side.

Today's Dear Abby column features a situation where Abby doesn't fall for the argument of a would-be linguistic prescriptivist.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Army worms

When I was living in Fort Frances, Ontario, several years ago I was introduced to the species of caterpillar known as "army worms". Actually, the true name is tent caterpillar. It's my understanding that they have this name because when they make a cocoon, they do it by folding a leaf over and sealing the edge with silk, so they are inside a little "tent". I'm guessing people call them army worms because they were EVERYWHERE, and because they are often seen "marching" in the same direction.

Apparently the population of this particular insect has a cycle that waxes and wanes about every seven years. It just so happened that the spring I was living in Fort Frances was the year that these guys had their big boom. They were on the sidewalks. They were on the trees. They were on the sides of the houses. If you walked under a tree they would often drop onto you. You could see them on the road, all walking in the same direction. In a nearby town cars were sliding because there were so many of them on the road. There were a couple of days in the spring when the leaves just started to come out on the poplar trees. Two or three days later the leaves were gone because they had all been eaten. It looked like winter again.

I was pretty grossed out by the ubiquitous caterpillars and resented the fact that they were everywhere. I got pretty good at flicking them off of me when they would fall on me as we were walking down the street. Sometimes they would even manage to climb under the door frame and into our apartment.

I'm not sure how we got the idea, but we caught an army worm and kept it in a jar in our apartment for a while. We named it Walter, after my companion's boyfriend. We would look at what the other worms were eating outside and bring it leaves to eat. Over time my attitude changed toward the army worms. I came to appreciate their funky beauty. They are black with orange, blue, and yellow "footprint" marks on their backs. Pretty soon I kind of felt attached to them, especially to Walter.

Walter made a tent one day and turned into an small, ugly light-brown moth. I didn't find out his metamorphosis had completed until he had already tried to fly around the jar so much that he had beat his wings apart against the jar and died. I would have let him go outside if I had known. After seeing the pedestrian brown moth that Walter had turned into, I sort of wished that he were back to being a black colorful caterpillar again.

Here is a Wikipedia article, including a picture of what these guys look like:
There are a few different species mentioned on Wikipedia, but this one looks the most like the way I remember them.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Claims to fame.

I have sort of a mental list of all my claims to fame. Here are some examples:

My grandfather's cousin is a well-known local composer and music educator. He wrote a couple of hymns in the hymnal we use at church.

My high-school counselor's son used to be the boyfriend/drummer of Natalie Merchant.

My mother once sat next to Maurice Abravanel at a party.

I've shaken Thurl Bailey's hand.

I used to go to school with an Osmond nephew.

I knew the guy who plays the snotty blond guy in "Napoleon Dynamite" before he played the snotty blond guy. I went to high school with the girl in the glamor shot in that movie.

I also went to high school with the winner of the reality TV show "The Rebel Billionaire".

My classmate/colleague/friend will be running in the Olympics in Beijing this year.

As you can see, I'm somewhat indirectly connected to fame, but don't have any real claims on it myself. That's probably a good thing.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

One thing I love about my friends

They laugh at my jokes. At least the funny ones.

Seriously, though, it's nice to find someone with whom you connect on a humor level.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Things I didn't know about teachers until I became one

1. Teachers are not always as confident or prepared as they may look.

2. Even when my students don't necessarily tell me what's wrong, I can tell if they are having a problem in their lives because it affects their performance in the class. A lot of times people's performance will be affected by outside circumstances that have little to do with their motivation, study habits, or intelligence.

3. I am surprised how sometimes students will share very personal details of their lives with me, things that, if it were me, I wouldn't tell someone that I didn't know that well. I appreciate their trust.

4. It's not that you are being sneaky and getting away with passing notes or sending text messages in class without us knowing about it. We know about it. We just decided not to do anything about it at the time.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

It's not that I'm not patriotic...

Around this time of year I sometimes get a little uncomfortable about the way some people talk about our country. Don't get me wrong: I am happy that I was born in and am a citizen of the United States. I would like to express my feelings about America and the countries of the world. I think I'll do it as a list.

1. America is a wonderful country, but it's not perfect.
I know that the United States is a unique place. Its government setup allowed for religious freedom at a crucial time in the world's history and paved the way for the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is a very important thing. But, like all countries, we have social problems. Although our Constitution is established by God (D&C 101:80) it is not the perfect form of government, as I understand it. According to my reading of the Book of Mormon, the best form of government is to have a righteous king (cf. Mosiah 29:13), but since it cannot always be guaranteed that kings are righteous, a republic such as the one we have is a relatively good alternate. It bothers me when people say such things as, "If you don't like America move somewhere else," or something like that. It seems to me that the very freedom of speech that is established in our Constitution allows people the right to speak up about things they don't like and make changes in our system for the better.

2. Other countries are good too.
The United States of America is not the only country in the world where people enjoy religious freedom, freedom of speech, and other important protections. These are available in many places in the world. I have spent some serious time in Canada, the Czech Republic, and Mexico, as well as traveling in other countries, and I have never found impediments to my chosen lifestyle. While governmental policies vary from country to country, there are many places in the world where people enjoy freedom.

3. The United States of America does not exclusively contain Zion or the promised land.
The Book of Mormon also teaches that the American continent is a special place. It was a promised land for the Nephite people who left Jerusalem 600 years before Christ and crossed the sea, led by God. It is also the future location of Zion, the New Jerusalem. But the United States of America is not the only nation that participates in these important blessings. After all, the USA was not to be established for hundreds of years after the Book of Mormon took place. It seems to me that the promises extend to all the people and land of the Americas, not just U.S. territory. While the center place of Zion will be located in the area currently known as the United States, Zion is located anywhere her stakes are established. At this time there are stakes of Zion all over the world.

4. Borders are a fluid concept.
When I lived in Canada, I spent several months in Fort Frances, Ontario. Fort Frances is on one side of the border and International Falls, Minnesota, is on the other side. The border between the two countries follows the Rainy River which flows through that area. People from both sides of the border cross freely. For example, people on the Canadian side of the border would often drive over to the American side to get better gas prices. Many Americans would be found living on the Canadian side as well. If I looked out the back window of my apartment, I could see the other side of the river, but if I called the missionaries in that town, it would be an international telephone call. Living in a border town helped me to see how fluid and, in a way, unreal borders between countries are. I once saw a television show about a woman who lives in Mexico. In order to support her children, she crosses the border illegally into the United States every night to sell cigarettes she brings with her. Then she crosses back to Mexico to help her children get off to school in the morning. Obviously, for this woman, the border is not a big obstacle to her way of life. While I don't support illegal actions, I don't see borders as that important either.

It seems to me that the United States is built on a heritage of immigration and accepting people of many different origins, beliefs, and backgrounds. I wonder sometimes as we sing patriotic hymns in church, for example, whether there are people in the congregation who feel unwelcome because they are not from the United States of America. Perhaps such people feel the way I do when I sing "O Canada": I sincerely love and respect the country, and enjoyed living there. I guess I don't feel that you have to feel that your place is better than other places to be patriotic. It should be okay to like more than one country, right?

Addendum: The Wikipedia article on "O Canada" is awesome! I highly recommend that you listen to the recordings at the bottom.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The things you can learn on the Internet...

This news story got my attention:,2933,320571,00.html

P.S. Soylent green is people.