Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Annals of Wasted Lives, I: The Poker King

The March 30 issue of The New Yorker carries Alec Wilkinson's article profiling Chris Ferguson (pictured), the first person to win a prize of more than $1 million in a poker tournament (the 2000 World Series of Poker), and the co-founder of one of the most profitable on-line poker sites ever launched. Ferguson is unusual even among poker grandmasters for his application of John Von Neumann's mathematical game theory to poker, which has allowed Ferguson to develop an "optimal strategy" for poker. Of course, Ferguson comes from an unusual background: his mother obtained a doctorate in mathematics, as did his father, who taught game theory and theoretical probability at UCLA; Ferguson himself holds a doctorate in computer science from UCLA.

Chris Ferguson, 46 next week, is a brilliant man. To date, he has won more than $7 million playing poker, and reportedly has earned even more than that just through his on-line poker business ventures. Financially, he is wildly successful--and he is wasting his life.

In Chris Ferguson, we have a certifiable hyper-genius, called "one of the more brilliant and creative young men that I've known in my career at U.C.L.A." by his doctoral thesis adviser. (That adviser knows brilliance when he sees it; he is Leonard Kleinrock, whose lab helped develop the Internet.) But to what is Ferguson applying this brilliance? He's playing cards.

We live in a world that faces problems, nasty problems, horrifying problems, human-species-extinction-scale problems. A short list: global terrorism, the threat of bioweapons and suitcase nukes in private hands, famine, weird weather (likely caused by global warming), worst-ever inequities between economic classes, religious extremism that foments suicide attacks and warfare, lack of intercultural understanding, illiteracy, innumeracy, the resurgence of antibiotic-resistant infections, lack of affordable healthcare, a global economy sliding towards a New Depression, kids dying from dysentery and other preventable diseases, by the thousands, daily--hey, asteroids from space. And what's this guy doing? Playing cards.

Yes, I can imagine what some readers are thinking: "If this is a way to waste your life--count me in!" However, before you sign up yourself or your kids for Poker Camp this summer, let me point out a few things.

Our lives are not our own. Every reputable philosophical, spiritual, or religious position holds that people have a responsibility to give back, to do something for the world with their talents. Ferguson--who has sometimes signed autographs as 'Jesus' because of his looks, although reportedly he is an atheist--would do well to consider the real Jesus' parable of the servants (Bible, New Testament, Luke chapter 12), which carries the memorable phrase, "For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required" (Luke 12:48). Or, if you prefer, as the Spider-Man comic put it, "with great power comes great responsibility." Abraham Maslow, one of the greatest psychologists of the 20th century--himself an atheist--found that an even higher level of motivation than self-actualization (or expressing one's own talents) is self-transcendence, that is, furthering some cause or purpose beyond one's own needs. Few people are better equipped to make a contribution to society at large than Chris Ferguson. But he's playing cards.

I have to wonder what Ferguson's stunning intellect could accomplish in the world. Game theory applies to all sorts of behavior, such as negotiations between groups; in this globalized world, where mistrustful groups face one another left and right, perhaps game theory might help to promote better outcomes in cultural encounters and ethnic conflicts. One might use game theory to better understand the way the stock market melted down recently, to promote better social stability and prosperity for all. Going way out on a limb, I wonder about the application of game theory to evolutionary theory and, in turn, to theories about the development (and thus the treatment) of infectious diseases. (Do cells negotiate amongst themselves? Do species?) I cannot come up with all the ways that Chris Ferguson might apply his prodigious intelligence to the problems of the world--but apply them he certainly might. Nah--he's playing cards.

Perhaps I misunderstand Chris Ferguson. Perhaps he spends his free time working on the mathematics of innovative cures for cancer. If so, I beg his pardon. Based on the known facts, I don't think so.

Isn't this all terribly judgmental? You bet! That's social commentary--and life: applying standards and passing judgment. Working from a reflective perspective just means that I apply standards like "our lives are not our own." The point is not to beat up on Chris Ferguson, but to encourage a more thoughtful approach to life on everyone's part.

On that basis--the idea that one ought to use one's natural gifts for the good of humanity--I'm sorry to say that Chris Ferguson is NOT On The Mark.


Wilkinson, A. (2009, March 30). What would Jesus bet? The New Yorker, pp. 30-35.

How to Protect Your Computers From the Conficker Computer Worm

In my take on candidates for the 21st Century version of Dante's Inferno, developers of malicious computer software--viruses, worms, spyware, and so forth--are prominent candidates for damnation. (They rotate on the Infernal rotisserie along with terrorists, Ponzi schemers, predatory lenders, tobacco company executives ... hmm, there's another post in here somewhere.)

Now we face the Conficker computer worm, which is widely reported to have already infected many computers, with an activation date of April 1--that is, tomorrow. It seems that the worm has been out on the Internet for some time now, insinuating itself quietly deep within the operating systems of the computers that it infects. No one seems to know what will happen when the worm becomes active on a given computer, but computer security experts have noted that, in recent years, malicious software ('malware') increasingly has been used in identity theft schemes. Thus, Conficker might be looking for credit card information, Social Security numbers, passwords, and so forth. Or, maybe it simply wants to wipe our files clean and write ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY on every sector of our hard drives (written with a nod to Stephen King's The Shining).

To combat this threat, Microsoft offers the concerned computer owner the use of their software, the Windows Live OneCare Safety Scanner, for free. The program will scan for a wide variety of malware and other computer abnormalities (stuff that makes your computer run inefficiently). After the scan, at your option, the program will fix the problems that it discovers on your computer.

Microsoft also gives you the opportunity to purchase the program for about $50, which will activate the program to run "live" in the background any time that your computer is turned on. There is a free 90-day trial; Microsoft suggests that you de-install any other antiviral or firewall software that you may have installed on your computer at present.

However, you may use the program on an occasional basis, scanning your computer for current infections, for free, at least for now; the 'occasional scan' use of the program does not require de-installation of firewalls or any of that. This is what I tried. The program seemed to work very nicely.

The program can take hours just to scan your files; I estimate that the scan alone took about 6 hours to complete on my computer. Fixes went much more quickly. According to OneCare, my computer was not infected with the Conficker worm or other malware, although there were other abnormalities in my system. These were fixed in a few moments once the scan was complete.

If you do go the Windows OneCare route, please note that you probably should complete the use of the program altogether before midnight tonight, because the Conficker worm is reportedly set to activate on April 1. So, do not plan to just set the scan to work overnight, as I did. You'll need to set it to work as soon as you get home from work, and then go through the repair sequence before midnight. Inconvenient, true. So is getting your identity stolen, or losing all your files. Those of you whose blood pressure spikes did not just result in fatal coronaries will probably see the wisdom of my advice.

This type of scanning and repair does seem like a reasonable step to take. Taking action to protect yourself from malware is definitely On the Mark.

P.S.: Why is a post like this on a blog of social commentary? Because this sort of warning-with-solution reflects a fundamental philosophical position upon which this blog--a blog ostensibly "from a reflective perspective"--is built: we are all in this together. We should look out for one another, watch each other's backs; whatever the metaphor, we should take a proactive approach towards each other's welfare. Peace.

Disclaimer: Nothing on this blog should be as offering legal, medical, business, accounting, financial, or computer advice. The author specifically disclaims responsibility for any real or consequential or other damages that may result from following the advice given on this blog. Readers should consult with appropriate legal, medical, business, accounting, financial, computer, or other professionals before taking any steps recommended in this blog.

There! Now my lawyers are happy.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Is Obama’s Restructuring of GM and Chrysler a Step Toward Socialism?

On Sunday night, the Associated Press reported that Rick Wagoner, Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of General Motors, will step down from his corporate posts immediately, at the request of President Obama. On Monday, the White House will unveil a plan to restructure both General Motors and Chrysler LLC, in exchange for further government assistance to the auto industry; Wagoner’s departure is a condition for this help.

Here is the federal government dictating personnel decisions at the top of the corporate organizational chart, and laying out terms for the restructuring of corporations whose stock is publicly traded. Surely it would be justifiable to ask, is this action by President Obama a step to move the United States towards socialism?

And the answer would be: No.

“Socialism” is an umbrella term for various social and economic theories that have in common the idea that the government should own the means of economic production, and bring about economic equality across the population (that is, absolute equality in terms of final results, not just in terms of equal economic opportunity). In some approaches to socialism, private property is permitted to individuals, and private corporations are permitted to exist, although the government has a strong hand in economic matters; in other approaches to socialism, private property is not permitted, and there are no private corporations. The distinction between ‘strong socialism’ and outright communism is sometimes difficult to find. For some thinkers, socialism and communism are essentially the same, with different terms being used in different places depending upon where one term or another is more socially acceptable.

President Obama’s approach is by no means socialist. It is a strong approach, to be sure, an interventionist approach—but these are difficult times that call for strong measures. Let’s review some essential facts.

For years, the American automobile industry has operated with its head in the sand as the world has changed around it. The industry made only token moves towards improving gasoline mileage, while at the same time it depended for profits on gas-guzzling SUVs. (Hey, I used to own one—great for use as substitute trucks, but gas-guzzlers nonetheless.) The scientific community long knew that oil prices would climb, and widely reported that projection years ago, but auto manufacturers ignored that during an era when the federal government regularly ignored or even suppressed scientific findings that it found inconvenient. Thus, it’s no surprise that as oil climbed to $4 a gallon, people stopped buying American cars. Now, in the New Depression where people don’t want to buy much of anything, even as oil has dropped, consumers aren’t running back to buy autos. For this and other reasons, American carmakers are hanging on by a thread. The AP article reports that GM and Chrysler have survived the New Depression so far on $17.4 billion in federal government aid, and have asked for $21.6 billion more.

In a situation like this, there are four possible approaches:
  1. The hard-line, “laissez-faire” capitalist approach: Let the carmakers twist in the wind. Both GM and Chrysler go bankrupt. Tens of thousands of workers are thrown out of work. America loses more manufacturing capacity. Stockholders lose the value of their stocks. The American economy drops that much further into the New Depression. Thank you, President Hoover.
  2. The soft-line “cheaty” capitalist approach: Just give these companies all the money they want, and let them do what they want with it. Billions of public dollars disappear without any oversight or accountability, and without really addressing the underlying problems. After a brief period of false hope, we are back at Square One again, and the game continues. Thank you, President Bush.
  3. The socialist approach: Nationalize the auto industry, and administer it directly by the federal government. Jobs are saved, but now we have a mixed economy, both capitalist and socialist. That would give a whole new meaning to the term “the American experiment”—but not a welcome one. Thank you, Karl Marx.
  4. The measured intervention approach: Assist the industry, but insist on strong federal oversight and direction, until the companies within this industry are capable of standing on their own again. Emphasize accountability and responsibility, at the same time saving jobs and strengthening the economy. Ultimately, a new style of American capitalism—call it “Capitalism 2.0,” or “Responsible Capitalism”—emerges to bring America to a stronger position among the nations of the world. Thank you, President Obama.

The political extremists for whom only two choices exist—laissez-faire capitalism and Stalinist socialism—will castigate President Obama for the actions he will take on Monday. This commentator thinks that President Obama is making the hard, fair, best choice among the available options. As far as we’re concerned, President Obama is On The Mark.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

"You Just Haven't Been Caught Yet"

Every once in a while I come upon a statement in the press that expresses an idea—especially a bad idea—so perfectly that I feel I must comment on it. Such a statement came up in an article in today’s New York Times, in a story regarding how a middle-school student came to be strip-searched for drugs.

Ms. Savana Redding was 13 years old and an eighth grader in 2003, “in between nerdy and preppy,” as she now describes her younger self. One of her fellow students had been caught with prescription-strength ibuprofen (basically, double-strength Advil), without a prescription. That student—a kid on the outs with Ms. Redding, apparently—said she had been given the pills by Ms. Redding. On the strength of this accusation (as the article states), Mr. Kerry Wilson, the assistant principal, ordered Ms. Peggy Schwallier, the school nurse, and Ms. Helen Romero, a secretary at the school, to strip-search Ms. Redding—which allegedly they did, right down to the skivvies, and then some. No pills were discovered in the search. Ms. Redding has sued the school district, and the case has now reached the United States Supreme Court.

This strip-searching incident was wrong on so many levels. I could fill a very long post detailing the failings of the school officials in this case. However, what attracted my attention in particular was the way the school district responded to one aspect of Ms. Redding’s complaint. As Adam Liptak noted in his Times article:

Ms. Redding said school officials should have taken her background into account before searching her.

“They didn’t even look at my records,” she said. “They didn’t even know I was a good kid.”

The school district does not contest that Ms. Redding had no disciplinary record, but says that is irrelevant.

“Her assertion should not be misread to infer that she never broke school rules,” the district said of Ms. Redding in a brief, “only that she was never caught.” (Liptak, 2009, p. A19, emphasis added)

Well, this is surely news to me. A clean record is not to be taken as implying good conduct, then? It only means that one has never been caught?

This logical principle is utterly dazzling in its moral and even legal implications. One marvels at the things one could assert if one applied this simple principle to people in general—say, to some officials at the Safford [Arizona] Unified School District, and their attorneys:

  • The assistant principal in this case, Mr. Kerry Wilson, would probably say that he has a spotless record regarding accusations of child abuse. However, according to the above-mentioned ‘it-just-means-you’ve-never-been-caught’ logical principle, the lack of a record of child abuse allegations does not mean that Mr. Wilson never abused a child. Rather, this lack only means that he was never caught.

  • Mr. Wilson’s upstairs boss, the superintendent of schools, Mr. Mark R. Tregaskes, would probably claim that he has a perfect record of innocence regarding accusations of ritual human sacrifice. However, according to the ‘never been caught’ principle, this record does not mean that he never murdered a child, only that he was never caught.

  • The two allegedly strip-searching employees, the nurse Ms. Peggy Schwallier, and the secretary Ms. Helen Romero, would likely claim that there have never been any accusations against them regarding child pornography. However, according to the ‘never been caught’ principle, a clean record in this department does not mean that they don’t view child pornography, only that they have never been caught.

  • The lawyers for the school district, who wrote the brief stating the groundbreaking ‘never been caught’ principle, would probably be the first to tell you that they have never been arrested for selling crack to fourth-graders. Yet, according to that very principle, the lack of an arrest record does not mean that they didn’t deal drugs, only that they have never been caught—at least, not yet!

For the record, I emphasize that I am not saying that Mr. Wilson ever abused a child; I am not saying that Mr. Tregaskes ever ritually sacrificed anyone; I am not saying that Ms. Schwallier or Ms. Romero have ever viewed child pornography; I am not saying that the school district’s lawyers have ever sold crack, to fourth-graders or anyone else. (And, believe me, I would have named these lawyers if only their names had appeared in the newspaper article.) What I am saying is the following:

First, I am trying to encourage better thinking. The whole logic to this position—the idea that the presence of a good record only implies that one hasn’t been caught yet—is essentially immoral. It replaces the presumption of innocence with, at the least, the innuendo of guilt. Sure, a good record actually does not definitively prove that one is innocent. However, this is so obvious as to go without saying. When one says that a clean record only means that a person “was never caught,” this carries at least the implication that this person is actually guilty—a vile implication, at best. Perhaps now Mr. Wilson, Mr. Tregaskes, Ms. Schwallier, Ms. Romero, and the school district’s attorneys can better feel what it is like to be the target of that sort of implication.

There really is a lot at stake here. This line of logic has surfaced from time to time in our society, with nasty consequences.

In the 1980s, as American society became more aware of the actual size of the problem of child sexual abuse, this line of logic emerged and tainted the entire debate on this issue. I read then, and I heard people state the idea, that the fact that a given man had never been accused of child abuse did not mean that he had not committed this crime, it just established that ‘he hadn’t been caught.’ This was an insult to all men, to be sure. Beyond that, and perhaps worse, this bad logic tainted the entire movement to deal with the problem of child abuse—a truly horrific problem. Bad logic taints the best of motives and the best of causes, because it gives the impression that the entire cause is shot through with bad thinking. Thus, bad logic like the ‘never been caught’ principle must be exposed for the trashy thinking that it is.

Second, I want to encourage better legal practice. We are worse as a society when we allow our representatives, such as our attorneys, to use immoral lines of logic to defend a position. Yes, I am familiar with the idea that a defendant is entitled to the best possible defense. I would suggest, though, that the most vicious defense, the most aggressive defense, the ‘take no prisoners’ defense that uses all lines of logic, moral or not—none of these is what I would call the best defense. Memo to the Safford Unified School District: If this defense is the best that your attorneys could come up with, then you should have offered to settle this case a long, long time ago.

A final note: The article reports that Ms. Redding is now at Eastern Arizona College, studying psychology and planning to become a counselor. I don’t know if this blog post will ever reach you, Ms. Savana Redding, but if it does, allow me to mention that I am an elected Fellow of the American Psychological Association, I hold a doctorate in Counseling Psychology (NYU, 2000), and if you ever need to discuss your future educational or career plans, just drop me an e-mail: koltkorivera@yahoo.com . Hang in there.


Liptak, A. (2009, March 24). Strip-search of young girl tests limit of school policy. The New York Times [Late Edition], pp. A1, A19.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

False versus True Quests

The March 2009 issue of Harper’s Magazine includes a piece by Jon Mooallem titled “Raiders of the Lost R2” (available here). Mooallem’s article chronicles a small expedition of Star Wars fans to the Imperial Sand Dunes desert preserve, located near the junction of the borders of California, Arizona, and Mexico. The fans’ objective was to locate artifacts of the opening of the 1982 film, Return of the Jedi. You’ll remember the scene: Jabba the Hutt on his flying barge, intent on feeding Han Solo and Chewbacca to the ‘almight Sarlacc,’ a giant worm-like creature embedded in the sand. The sets were simply abandoned after filming was completed, and for years fans have picked over the area for pieces of the barge, the Sarlacc, and so forth. The expeditioners in Mooallem’s article—a 32-year-old male with a masters degree in paleontology, a 34-year-old female forensic psychology student, and a 42-year-old male worker at an arts-and-crafts store—worked in over-100-degree heat, for which they were rewarded with the discovery of several pieces of Jabba’s barge.

As it happens, the Imperial Sand Dunes site is only one of many stops on an international Star Wars itinerary that includes locations in Tunisia, Italy, Finland, Guatemala, and elsewhere, where scenes from the six Star Wars features were filmed. Fans of the films have been touring these sites at least since David West Reynolds (then a 27-year-old archaeology doctoral student) published his seminal 1995 article, “Return to Tatooine,” in Star Wars Insider magazine, documenting his travel to Tunisia to find sites filmed in the first Star Wars film.

Moallem’s article evoked three reactions from me. First, these expeditioners were using the vehicle of their Star Wars expedition to act out mythic themes in their real lives. Second, going further, these fans were using the films themselves as an expression of their search for self-transcendence. But, third, this whole enterprise ultimately strikes me as something very sad.

Moallem himself points out how fans were using their Star Wars expeditions to act out mythic, Jungian heroic quests. As he put it:

I eventually heard the stories of numerous Star Wars travelers, and I noticed a common theme. Their tales often dipped from the ecstasy of departure to moments of adversity or despondency, only to be redeemed by some instant when the searchers were aided by forces beyond their understanding—an uncanny feeling that a certain obscure site was just around a corner, or the fateful appearance of a kindly old Berber man who happened to have worked on the original production in the late Seventies. It was as though Star Wars had propelled these people onto real-life heroes’ journeys, with their own trials, and that the feat of reaching those sites ended up overshadowing whatever vague rewards they actually found. … One traveler, a thirty-three-year-old southern Californian …, later told me, “As a kid, you can only go so far playing with action figures. As an adult, you don’t play with action figures anymore. You become the action figure.” (p. 69, emphases in original)
It would be hard to find a better description in contemporary journalism of the hero’s quest, complete with the archetype of the Wise Old Man. (See Note 1, below.) Another way of looking at this is to note that these fans are using these expeditions as a vehicle for self-transcendence: they are devoting their energies to something greater than themselves. As the noted psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote towards the end of his life, the search for self-transcendence is a motivation that is developmentally more advanced even than the search for self-actualization (the bringing of one’s inner potentials to fruition). (My own article on Maslow and self-transcendence is available here.)

I am all for the hero’s journey, and the quest for self-transcendence—and yet, it strikes me as something cosmically sad for people to work out their personal quests in ways like expeditions to uncover Star Wars memorabilia, or other such acts of super-dedicated fandom.

I was deeply moved by Star Wars when I first saw it as a college student, during the film’s initial theatrical release in 1977. Not long afterwards, I noted a phenomenon that is now taken for granted, a kind of engagement with this film that took fandom to a new level. Some people went on to see this film in theatres, not once, not twice, but dozens of times. For some, the Star Wars mythology seemed to become almost (?) something like a religion, with ‘the Force’ as a metaphor for Divinity, and the Jedi as a sort of priesthood. Not for nothing were the personal guards of the evil Emperor dressed in blood/‘satanic’ red in Return of the Jedi. Years later, with the release of The Phantom Menace, the Darth Maul character, complete with devil’s horns, seemed to make the mythology that much more clearly religious.

I have come to understand that what we see in the more devoted forms of Star Wars fandom is a kind of incompletely developed religion. It is not defined as such by its adherents (many of whom would doubtless describe themselves as belonging to other, more accepted religions), but the more devoted forms of the Star Wars fan movement does have many of the trappings of a conventional religion, with its own mythology, doctrine, and scriptures (defined in the films and the large literature surrounding them), its own gatherings (ComicCon and so forth), and even its own pilgrimages (as documented by Jon Mooallem). Through devotion to the films and their mythology, these more devoted of the Star Wars fans seem to be reaching for something beyond themselves, trying to take ‘the Force’ off the screen and put it into their lives. This, too, is the search for self-transcendence, expressed through devotion to the mythology of the films, rather than through a search for the physical artifacts of the creation of the film itself.

This is all very benign, of course. It is also a great waste of human spiritual potential.

The classic hero’s quest is always for something important, something that has real consequences for the inner life of the hero, the outer life of the hero’s community, or both. In the oldest hero’s quest of which we have record, the Epic of Gilgamesh, almost 3,000 years old, what is at stake is immortality itself. In the Grail Quest cycle, the objective is spiritual enlightenment and a vision of Divinity.

Even in modern cinematic expressions of the hero’s quest, there are important things at stake. Within the fictional reality of the Star Wars films, the fate of worlds is at stake, with struggles for civic freedom and personal redemption. In the Indiana Jones movies, the stakes range from the survival of a village and its people (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) to knowledge of the mysteries surrounding what is purportedly the greatest archaeological find of all time (Raiders of the Lost Ark). In the book series and films of The Lord of the Rings, the quest of Frodo is for inner strength (as the Ring he is carrying to destruction attempts to corrupt him) and for the survival of the peoples of Middle-Earth in freedom. In short, quests are about important things, where the outcome of the quest may mean the difference between life and death, achievement or catastrophe, enlightenment or destruction, on a scale ranging from the individual life to all of creation.

Much of what passes for the hero’s quest and self-transcendence in our society is ultimately empty. We have seen how the language of quest and self-transcendence have been applied to the Star Wars expeditioners. The same sort of language is applied in the media to entertainment competitions (like television's “American Idol”) and sports. (How many times have we heard sports commentators use some phrase like “the quest for victory,” as if the fate of humanity hung in the balance?) In each of these cases—the movie artifact expeditions, entertainment competitions, spectator sports—the ‘quests’ involved are, in the final analysis, unimportant and meaningless.

Certainly nothing important hinges on a search for movie memorabilia, no matter how significant the motion picture. In our entertainment-obsessed culture, our latest ‘American idol’ is just that—a false idol, with no real power to help anyone to enlightenment or inner growth. We devote hours of time and billions of dollars to viewing sports events, the outcomes of which make not one whit of difference to the well-being of the world at large. (Sure, it's entertainment. But, ultimately, how important should entertainment be in one's life?)

People should seek to make some positive difference in the world. The world is absolutely full of problems needing to be addressed, from illiteracy to the neighbor who is without food to global warming. There are also spiritual mysteries to be pondered and spiritual struggles to be engaged in, found in many spiritual and philosophical traditions. I was delighted to see that, in the very depths of the current national economic crisis, large numbers of people are swelling the ranks of volunteers in many not-for-profit agencies, as reported in an article in yesterday’s New York Times by Julie Bosman (available here and here). We grow through service in the world and struggle in the soul. That service and those struggles need to be about things that matter, in either the inner world, the outer world, or both.

So much of what our society is focused upon is ultimately meaningless. We should devote ourselves to things that have real and lasting meaning. Such a development would be a sea change in recent Western culture, which, over the last century, increasingly has come to celebrate the self-centered and egotistical. If we could combine meaningful quests with a respect for differences—cultural, religious, political, and personal differences—we could make significant progress, individually, socially, and globally. That would be a quest worth pursuing.

Note #1: Readers may be interested in reading more about the archetypal hero’s quest. The most popular work on this topic is probably the late Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The journey of the hero is described for writers of novels and screenplays in a book by Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey (Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions; 2nd ed., 1998). For those interested in reading the psychological theory of the archetypes, I would recommend a book that Carl Jung edited for a general audience: Man and His Symbols. More technical works include Edward C. Whitmont’s The Symbolic Quest: Basic Concepts of Analytical Psychology, and Volume 9-I of the Collected Works of C. G. Jung, titled, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious.

After the Broadcast of "Big Love"'s 'Outer Darkness' Episode

In a previous post, I considered the issues at stake for Latter-day Saints in having their sacred temple endowment ceremony depicted in the HBO television series, "Big Love." Having now viewed the ‘Outer Darkness’ episode—yes, that's what they named it—I find that the episode is very revealing, not so much about the LDS temple ceremonies as about the producers’ motivations. Below, I consider what the episode's lapses in internal logic and so forth suggest about these motivations—and what the LDS will likely do about them.

(Of course, being a Latter-day Saint who has experienced the temple ceremonies myself and vowed to hold them sacred, I will not address the matter of the technical accuracy of the producers’ depiction of the endowment. However, this is the least important issue to be concerned with in considering this episode.)

About 5 minutes of this episode’s action is set within an LDS temple; of this time, the depiction of the endowment ceremony takes up 2 minutes. To be more precise, the focus of this portion of the episode is the depiction of what is supposed to be the last 1 minute and 45 seconds or so of the endowment, which in real life is the climax of the entire, roughly 2-hour ceremony. As I warned in my previous post, depiction of a tiny element of the ceremony, in isolation and without context, would lead to misunderstanding and confusion; this is so whether the producers’ depiction is technically accurate or not.

Before the episode was broadcast, the producers stated that the depiction of the endowment itself was necessary for dramatic purposes. When I saw this portion of the episode, I had two reactions.

First, without any context or interpretive framework, I failed to see what dramatic purpose was fulfilled by showing this portion of the endowment. The discussion of the character Barb with her mother and sister in the Celestial Room of the temple did further the dramatic narrative (although it was utterly unnecessary to place this discussion within the temple, a place where, in real life, people rarely reveal terrible secrets, as Barb does in the episode). However, the section of the endowment shown—especially without any context as to what was going on or what any of the purported symbolism meant—would be difficult to understand and confusing for someone not acquainted with the temple ceremony already (which of course would cover well over 95% of the viewing audience).

Second, it was clear to me that the producers were striving to be as shocking and provocative to the LDS community as possible. The real-life portion of the endowment corresponding to the portion depicted by the producers is, as I mentioned, the climax of the endowment; what occurs then is considered exceptionally sacred, to be given the greatest and most solemn respect, and never to be treated lightly or casually. Although depicting this section of the endowment would not be dramatically enlightening to the viewers as a whole, and might not even make much of an impression on them, it would be enormously offensive to the LDS.

Look at it this way. Let's say that you are visiting at someone's home, seated on one of their couches, attending a Super Bowl party or some other sedentary, television-watching social gathering. Someone passes around some cards for you to use in taking notes regarding the TV commercials you like or dislike. Someone else passes you some sort of cracker. Yet another person passes you a beverage. How offensive could this behavior be?

Quite a bit, if one were a Roman Catholic—and the cards were consecrated relics taken from a scapular (a sacred depiction of a saint worn around the neck under one’s clothing by some devout Catholics), and the 'cracker' were a consecrated Communion wafer, and the beverage were consecrated sacramental wine. In a Catholic context, the appropriation of these objects as part of an entertainment event would be outrageously, heinously offensive. What “Big Love”’s producers did was the television equivalent, as far as offending the LDS are concerned.

I have come to believe that this was intentional. That is, the producers depicted the endowment, not to further a dramatic purpose (as if that would be sufficient justification!), but rather specifically to offend the LDS.

The episode produces other evidence for this contention, because several aspects of this episode logically would not or even could not have occurred in real life:
  • Once a temple is formally dedicated, admission to the temple requires the individual to possess an individual recommend signed by church officials. In a scene before the temple sequence, Barb begs her mother and sister to give her one or the other of their two recommends, because she does not possess one herself. Yet, we see Barb in the temple Celestial Room, sobbing with her mother and sister, one of whom presumably gave Barb her own recommend—without which, that person (either her mother or sister) could not have entered the temple herself. For that matter, both the mother and the sister would have been aware that lending one’s recommend to another is punishable by excommunication; temple recommends are non-transferable, like a passport, and ‘lending’ a recommend is treated as a serious offense. As faithful Saints, Barb’s mother and sister simply would not have just lent their recommend casually. In sum, the producers did need to place Barb, her mother, and her sister in the same place for dramatic purposes, but that could have been anywhere. The producers chose to place the three of them in the Celestial Room of the temple, although this would have been impossible in real life, at least as the producers depicted the meeting.

  • In the scene before the temple sequence where she begs her mother and sister to supply a temple recommend, Barb says that she wants to ‘take out her endowments,’ that is, to experience the sacred ceremony and bring down its accompanying blessings upon herself. However, as any Saint with temple experience could tell you, one can only ‘take out’ one’s endowments once, with a special recommend. However, Barb is trying to go through on her mother’s or sister’s recommend. Barb’s mother and sister had clearly been through the temple previously. A person who returns to the temple after her own endowment must go through the temple ceremony as a proxy for someone who has passed away. (I went through the temple for my own endowment in August of 1978. When I went through the temple in January 2009, I went through on behalf of Robert L. Barham, who was born in January 1879 in North Carolina, and who died some time ago. This is normal temple practice, which the “Big Love” producers and their advisors presumably know.) This is not just a fine point. Even if Barb were to go through the temple on a swiped or loaned recommend, she would not be receiving the temple blessings for herself, but as a proxy for someone else. She would receive no endowment blessings for herself, and she would know this ahead of time. Thus, depicting Barb as trying to ‘take out her endowments’ is not just dramatic license. Rather, it is dramatic lying. Presumably, the producers brushed away these considerations to justify putting Barb in the temple, for reasons other than dramatic effect or accuracy.

  • Certainly Barb would know that excommunication cancels all temple blessings. Thus, even if she were trying to take out her endowments and receive those temple blessings, Barb would know that this would be a totally futile exercise.

  • In the church court scene, the bishop asks Barb whether she is wearing her temple garments; Barb responds by asking whether the bishop is inquiring about her underwear. There are two problems with this scene from a logical point of view. First, in the episode, Barb has just gone through the temple on a borrowed, hence invalid, recommend; she has not been through the proper interview process to obtain a valid recommend at all. As far as the bishop knows, Barb has not been through the temple, even under false pretenses (an excommunicable offense in itself, by the way), and so Barb should not be wearing the temple garments; thus, the question of whether Barb is wearing these garments would not even arise.

  • Second, although it is no doubt titillating to most of the viewing audience to think of the bishop asking Barb about her underwear, this rings particularly false for an LDS audience. Yes, LDS who have been through the temple do wear a special garment, which is an outward expression of an inward commitment (as one LDS leader put it; read here or here). However, this is not considered regular underwear or lingerie. It is considered to be ceremonial clothing, which temple patrons are required to wear throughout their lives; it is accepted among the LDS that the bishop will inquire, during a bi-annual recommend interview, as to whether or not the LDS temple patron is fulfilling his or her covenants by wearing the garment. Thus, Barb’s reaction is false for someone who is concerned about receiving temple blessings, although it certainly serves to ridicule the church in the eyes of those who do not know the temple or its customs.

Other aspects of the episode also demonstrate that the “Big Love” producers are seeking to irritate, embarrass, or ridicule the church:

  • In that ‘begging for a recommend’ scene before the temple sequence, the producers have Barb’s mother state that ‘it was only a few years ago’ that the temple ceremony was changed, and that previously temple patrons were threatened with disembowelment if they spoke about the temple. This is a frequently encountered libel. I went through the temple endowment for the first time in August of 1978, and most recently (as of this writing) in January of 2009. At no time during this period have I ever encountered in the temple any sort of language that threatened temple patrons with disembowelment or any other physical punishment for revealing the temple ceremonies. Anyone who has been through the endowment, who holds a valid temple recommend, and who thinks they heard otherwise is welcome to bring up the matter with me within the temple itself (the only place where I can discuss specifics). The producers are simply spreading false information here, although their falsehood surely puts the LDS church in a bad light.

  • During the episode, the polygamist cult’s prophet’s son specifically refers to the LDS church in derogatory terms, as haughty and condescending.

  • Bill the polygamist portrays the LDS church as unwilling to bring forth a letter that purportedly gives a version of history that embarrasses the church, even though producing the letter would save the life of a kidnapped child.

All in all, it is clear that the producers wish to offend and insult the LDS church. The depiction of the endowment is clearly a slap in the face to the church, and it is only that; it serves little or no dramatic purpose, and the producers bend logic and the reality of church procedure in order to show their depiction of the endowment. The producers also go out of their way to depict the church in negative terms, as I illustrate above.

So, having said all this, what will the LDS do about it all? Other than spread the truth and correct falsehood, precisely nothing. The LDS church leadership has already said that it will not call for any kind of boycott, and it encourages the membership to respond with “dignity and thoughtfulness.” (See their statement here.) Simply put, the Church has bigger fish to fry: spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as they understand it.

I, on the other hand, have just one more thing to add to this discussion. It involves a statement from the temple ceremonies themselves. I offer it to the producers of “Big Love” as food for thought. These producers have gone out of their way to treat the LDS temple ceremonies, and the LDS people, with great disrespect. They should be told that a portion of the temple ceremonies is relevant to such behavior.

The producers of “Big Love” claim that they had the assistance of anonymous experts who assisted them with their depiction of the endowment. Perhaps they can ask these experts if I am correct in stating this, the one sentence of the temple ceremonies that I am willing to reveal publicly. It is a sentence that explains why the LDS have to do precisely nothing to settle accounts with the producers of “Big Love,” because we are assured that the ultimate Authority on the temple ceremonies will take care of that—for, in the temple, we are told this:

“God will not be mocked.”

Sunday, March 15, 2009

"Big Love" and the Mormon Endowment Ceremony

Today (Sunday 15 March 2009) HBO is broadcasting a depiction of a Mormon temple ceremony, the endowment, during an episode of its television series about Utah polygamists, “Big Love.” The endowment is sacred to the LDS, or Latter-day Saints (as Mormons like myself call ourselves), who vow not to disclose details of these ceremonies outside LDS temples. One wonders what the general viewing audience will make of the ceremony, and of the controversy concerning the producers’ decision to depict the endowment. Below, I consider the meaning and importance of the LDS temple ceremonies, their antiquity, secrecy issues, and why the LDS are so concerned about the depiction of the temple endowment ceremony in “Big Love.”

The Meaning and Importance of the Temple Ceremonies

The temple endowment embodies the most sacred tenets of the LDS faith. The heart of the endowment involves the temple patron making sacred covenants to pursue a life distinct from the lifestyles of the world, to follow a challenging ethical code, and to live in accordance with all the commandments of God. In turn, taking the LDS temple ceremonies as a whole, God covenants with the patron that those who fulfill all the temple covenants shall be ‘endowed’ with the same kind of life, capacities, and existence that God has, including divinity itself. In the LDS scriptures, this is written of those who receive marriage, under proper authority, in the temple (known as ‘temple marriage’ or ‘celestial marriage’), and fulfill their covenant obligations to live a worthy life:

… they shall pass by the angels, and the gods, which are set there, to their
exaltation and glory in all things, as hath been sealed upon their heads, which
glory shall be a fullness and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever.
[Note: That is, those blessed in this way may continue their family
relationships, and continue to have offspring, in the

Then shall they be gods, because they have no end; therefore shall they be from
everlasting to everlasting, because they continue; then shall they be above all,
because all things are subject unto them. Then shall they be gods, because they
have all power, and the angels are subject unto them. (The Doctrine and
Covenants [D&C] 132:19-20)

Everything in the temple endowment is symbolic of making and keeping the covenants required to obtain these great blessings.

The Antiquity of the Temple Ceremonies

The LDS believe that the temple ceremonies ultimately have a divine source and a long, long history. Many Saints believe that these practices and teachings were conveyed by Jesus to his apostles after his resurrection, during the so-called forty-day ministry of which, mysteriously, so little is said in the New Testament—although what is said is quite intriguing (see, in the New Testament: John 20:30 and 21:25). Several LDS scholars have traced evidence of these doctrines in the writings of ancient Christian authorities, such as the second century Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, and Clement of Alexandria, who wrote, “the Word of God [i.e., Jesus] became a man so that you might learn from a man how to become a god.” (See Note 1, below.) My reading of the Christian Gnostic writings of the first through third centuries (see Marvin Meyer, The Nag Hammadi Scriptures) suggests to me that one can find, in these writings of now-extinct but once-vibrant Christian churches, evidence for sacred Christian ceremonies in the ancient world that reflected doctrines like those shown in the current LDS endowment.

One popular misconception is that the LDS temple ceremonies were somehow swiped from the ceremonies of Freemasonry. As it happens, I am both a Latter-day Saint and a Freemason, and I have experienced the LDS temple ceremonies and the Masonic initiatory ceremonies many times. The relationship between the LDS and Masonic ritual is a complicated matter that I plan to explore in writing at least one book over the next year or so. However, to put it simply, it is just not true that the LDS temple ceremonies were taken from Freemasonry. There are extremely superficial similarities between the two sets of ritual, but they differ in their structure, meaning, intent, execution, major concepts, and almost all of their essential symbolism. People who say that the one derives from the other, I would surmise, have not experienced both.

Why the Secrecy?

Having read the comments of some media commentators who wrote about the “Big Love” episode (titled ‘Outer Darkness’) in advance of its broadcast, the sense I get is that a lot of these people—and a lot of the viewing audience—have or will come away from this episode wondering what all the fuss is about. The temple ceremonies as shown in the episode clearly do not involve human sacrifice, sexual experiences, or illegal or immoral behavior of any sort; nor do temple patrons learn the date of the Second Coming, or the location of the Holy Grail. Given this, viewers might ask, ‘why are the LDS so concerned about keeping all this secret?’

The saying has been current for many years among the LDS that the temple ceremonies are ‘sacred, not secret.’ It is not that it is so important to keep the information itself secret; for well over a century, it has been possible for anyone to look up information about the temple ceremonies (some more accurate, some less so), and such accounts are available today in every conceivable medium. The LDS concern is not to keep this information secret, but to honor it as sacred. Thus, the LDS do not present the temple ceremonies to those who have not proven their spiritual readiness to receive them (through obedience to divine commandments); the LDS do not bandy about information regarding these rituals casually. It is not because there is super-secret information to be kept from the world in these ceremonies. It is because the LDS reserve that which is sacred for special times and places.

Why the LDS are Concerned About the “Big Love” Depiction of the Endowment

The producers of “Big Love” state that they have taken special pains to be accurate in their depiction of the endowment. However, one can be meticulously ‘accurate’ in this or that detail, and yet grossly inaccurate in conveying the whole—easy to do with something so complex as the endowment. These rituals take about two hours to perform. Within the 50 minutes or so of their television episode—much of which will be occupied with other dramatic events—the producers will have to cut a great deal of material from the endowment, which is really only comprehensible in its full context. The concern of many LDS is that focusing on select details—such as temple clothing, or isolated aspects of the ritual—will just create more opportunity for misunderstanding and ridicule. People who do not know the background of the distinctive ceremonial clothing of the Catholic priest or nun, the Orthodox Jew, the Sikh, or the Wiccan, might find much to ridicule there, should they be sufficiently small-minded to do so. The LDS have reason to be concerned, as well.

On the whole, modern American society does not understand well the idea of treating some things with special respect: we live in a world where nothing is considered sacred in the society at large. However, this speaks to the spiritual emptiness and the lack of spiritual literacy in modern American society. Consider this: to a Roman Catholic, the communion wafer and wine are sacred. [See Note 2, below.] These materials are not casually passed about, to be used for everyday nutrition, or as materials to be played with. Believing Roman Catholics would not wish to see, say, an artist use consecrated communion wafers or sacramental wine as materials in an artistic project. To the believer, sacred objects are not to be dealt with as objects for media events. This is how the LDS feel about their temple ceremonies.

Are the producers of “Big Love” being disrespectful to the LDS faith by depicting the temple endowment? Each faith defines for itself what ‘disrespectful’ means. Within some Islamic groups, it is strictly forbidden to make pictorial representations of the Muslim prophet Mohammed. It would certainly be disrespectful to these groups to broadcast images of Mohammed. Similarly, it is disrespectful to the LDS to broadcast ceremonies that are so sacred to them that they vow not to discuss various details outside of the temple itself. Of course, the entertainment industry has not shown itself to be much concerned about slaps against the LDS or their faith, which have been ridiculed or depicted insultingly in shows ranging from the lowbrow “South Park” to the highbrow Angels in America. Overall, popular entertainment simply does not ‘get’ the LDS faith, and that which it misunderstands it ridicules. This is what the LDS are concerned about.


My hope is that those who view the depiction of the endowment on “Big Love” will do so with the understanding that the reality behind the depiction is sacred to the LDS, that the true endowment reflects the greatest aspirations of the human spirit, and that this reality deserves respect from people of every religious position and belief.

Please Note: In comments on this post, I will not be able to respond regarding the accuracy of this or that aspect of the depiction of the endowment on “Big Love,” nor will I answer questions about the specific content of the temple ceremonies. (I shall delete comments that purport to ‘expose’ the content of the temple ceremonies.) I would encourage discussion of the ideas I have presented above, which touch more on issues like the treatment of sacred topics in the modern world.

Note #1: This translation is given on p. 26 of Robert L. Millet and Noel B. Reynolds (eds.), Latter-day Christianity: 10 Basic Issues (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies and Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1998), who source the quote in note 13 (p. 54) as “Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Greeks, I.” A source more readily available to readers of this blog would probably be Clement of Alexandria, “Exhortation to the Heathen,” Chapter 1, available in The Ante-Nicene Fathers (eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1956), vol. 2 (“Fathers of the Second Century”), p. 174, left column, continued paragraph, which translates this passage as: “the Word of God became man, that thou mayest learn from man how man may become God.”

Note #2: I am grateful to Kathleen Schmid Koltko-Rivera for mentioning this comparison to me.

Welcome to "On the Mark": An Introduction

Welcome to “On the Mark: Social Commentary From a Reflective Perspective.” In this post, I explain the topics I plan to address, how this blog is different from other blogs of social commentary, how I am qualified to write about any of this, and some details about my personal background. Note: As of March 30, I adopted a policy of posting entries of a maximum of 800 words (not counting references and so forth); posts earlier than that date are longer, but from that point on, posts are just a bit longer than an Op-Ed piece in the typical newspaper.

Topics Addressed in This Blog

I shall address general social issues, including politics, business, and economics, civil rights issues, and happenings in the worlds of the media, literature, and the arts. In addition, I shall reflect on how events in my life relate to larger social issues. My particular take on these issues will be informed by "the reflective perspective": a grounding in spirituality and philosophy, with a commitment to social justice.

How This Blog Is Different

The distinguishing characteristic of this blog is that reflective perspective. In most blogs of social commentary, issues of spirituality are hardly if every addressed, and philosophy is deep in the background. In this blog, the philosophical underpinnings of what goes on in society are of major importance, and spiritual concerns are addressed directly. Well has it been said that 'we are spiritual beings having a human experience.' In this blog, I take that seriously.

How I Am Qualified to Write Social Commentary

Anyone can have an opinion. Why should anyone pay any special attention to mine? Different people have different criteria they use to vet a social commentator. My own credentials include the following:
  • I grew up poor, but have worked my way into a professional career. (I conduct psychological research under contract.) Thus, I am familiar with life as it is lived in different classes and levels of society. I have lived in my own $500K home--not ten years after being homeless.
  • I have worked in a great variety of positions over the years, ranging from janitor and hardware store stock clerk, to staff positions in the Fortune 500, to executive positions in small corporations, to professional and entrepreneurial positions.
  • I conducted a private practice in psychotherapy for 16 years. I have also served as treatment staff in clinical settings that have exposed me to some of the worst problems that human beings can face in American society. These settings include the Manhattan Psychiatric Center (the inpatient psychiatric hospital of last resort in Manhattan), and the outpatient mental health clinic of Lutheran Medical Center in Brooklyn (perhaps the largest such clinic in New York City).
  • My research has given me expertise regarding several important aspects of human psychology. These include: (1) worldviews, the assumptions that people hold about the world and life; (2) motivation, including the role played by the impulses, not only to fulfill one's potential, but to transcend the self through service and connection to something greater than one's own self.
  • In addition to my personal background of study in various areas of religion and spirituality, I have won awards for my scholarship in the psychology of religion.

My Personal Background

Readers may be curious about what sorts of perspectives inform my opinions. Here are some items about my background:
  • Name: Mark Edward Koltko-Rivera.

  • Demographic characteristics: 52 years old; married, with four grown children from a former marriage.

  • Home town: The Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York City.

  • Where I’ve lived: New York City (Manhattan, including the Lower East Side / Greenwich Village, and the Upper East Side; Astoria, Queens; the Bronx). Florida (Winter Park, just north of Orlando). New Jersey (Newark). Pennsylvania (Haverford and Bryn Mawr). Connecticut (New Milford and West Hartford). Japan (Hiroshima, Okayama, Matsue, Matsuyama, Tokushima).

  • Ethnicity: Polish and Puerto Rican. (As they would say in the South: “Deal with it, y’all.”)

  • Religion and Spirituality: My religion is the faith of the Latter-day Saints (LDS, known popularly as ‘the Mormons’). Within this faith, I have found it comfortable to situate myself within the Sunstone and Dialogue community (named for two independent LDS publications, in which I have published several articles; I have also presented at the Sunstone Symposia in Salt Lake City, Washington, DC, and Boston).

  • Other blogs: I write regularly for "For Latter-Day Saints: Topics in Mormonism," in which I address topics that are of special interest to Latter-day Saints, and "Freemasonry: Reality, Myth, and Legend," in which I address topics that are of special interest to Freemasons. Anyone is welcome to read or comment on any of these blogs, as long as they keep the rules (see below). Items that concern the interface between general society and either the LDS faith or Freemasonry shall be addressed in this blog, "On the Mark."

The rules for those who leave comments: No personal attacks. No profanity. You are welcome to disagree with me, and quite vigorously at that, but infringements of the rules would lead to me deleting the comment and barring the commentator from future contributions.

Beyond that: Welcome.