Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Apologetics: Still an Important Tool in Strenghtening Faith

Over at MormonInterpreter.com, Steven T. Densley, Jr. in "Should We Apologize for Apologetics?" reviews a book on LDS apologetics. He makes some excellent points that members of the Church should know.

Many LDS members don't use the term "apologetics" to describe what many of them might engage in rather naturally when sharing or defending the Gospel, The use of logic, reason, and evidence goes back to the earliest days of Christianity. Densley points out that Christ used such tools in His sermons. Yet today, among some Latter-day Saints, it is fashionable to look down on apologetics as backward, embarrassing stuff. It is also fashionable to state or to imply that the leadership of the Church has distanced itself from such things. That argument, however, does not withstand careful inspection, nor does it even withstand listening to the latest General Conference.

A useful early example of apologetic argumentation can be found in the writings of Paul. In 1 Corinthians 15, for example, Paul uses a variety of arguments and evidences to support the doctrine of the Resurrection. One of the arguments he cites to teach and explain the Resurrection is the practice among at least some early Christians of baptism for the dead. Interestingly, that discourse has now become a source for LDS apologetics in explaining our doctrine of baptism for the dead. The argument is also buttressed by references to that and related concepts in many early Christian references that have been noticed or discovered since Joseph Smith's day, although it is possible that Joseph Smith had access to one such document prior to his revelation on that topic, namely, the Pastor of Hermas, a beautiful early Christian text that was part of the canon for some Christians.

Next time you read the New Testament, note how many times various speakers or writers appeal to logic and evidence to support an argument. Apologetics was alive and well in that day, and may it continue to thrive in ours. Or rather, may intelligent, responsible, accurate, and compassionate apologetics thrive.

Has apologetics been of benefit to you and your family? I'd like to hear your story.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Canadian Mormons by Roy and Carma Prete: Interview with the Authors by Erin Gazdik

A valuable new contribution to the history of the Latter-day Saints will be published this month. Canadian Mormons: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Canada edited by Roy and Carma Prete (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2017) details the important role Canada and Canadian Mormons have played during LDS history. Missions "without purse or scrip" to Canada began in the early 1830s, and after many vital contributions to the growth of the Church over the decades, Canada continues to be a source of strength in the Church. It's great to see a volume giving attention to this important part of the Church.

Many thanks to the editors, the 21 authors who contributed to the volume, and the many others who contributed to this work.

Courtesy of Erin Gazdik with the Religious Studies Center at BYU, I am able to share a recent interview Erin conducted with the authors in preparation for the launch of this book. You can order it now on Deseret Book, and I'll add a link to Amazon when that becomes available.

Interview of Roy and Carma Prete by Erin Gazdkik, Aug. 21, 2017

Erin Gazdik: My name is Erin Gazdik and I am a marketing and media specialist at BYU Religious Studies Center. It is my pleasure to interview today a couple who have played a major role in the creation of a new book, which will be of particular interest to Canadians, or anyone with a Canadian connection. Would you be so kind as to introduce yourselves and your role in writing the new book?

Roy: My name is Roy Prete, and I am one of the editors of the book, Canadian Mormons: History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Canada, which will be published this October 2017.

Carma: I am Carma Prete. I am married to Roy Prete, and I am also an editor of this Canadian Mormons book, which is coming out soon.

Erin: I am interested to know what inspired you to write this book on Latter-day Saint history in Canada.

Roy: In Canada, where we live, we have fragments of Latter-day Saint history, such as stake histories, and some ward histories, but no overall history has been written since 1968, which is 49 years. So it’s a long time; such a book is much overdue.

Carma: The Church has changed a lot in the last 49 years.

Roy: In 1966, there were 50,015 members of the Church, and there were nine stakes and one temple. And now there are 195,000 members of the Church, spread all across the country, with eight temples and one under construction. So this is a tremendous opportunity to tell the whole story.

Erin: Very interesting! So please tell me briefly what the book is about.

Carma: This book tells the story of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Canada. It’s mostly an historical book. It takes the history from the very earliest preaching in Canada in 1829, all the way to the present. It covers the history of the Church in each province. And there are some other chapters that are more analytical, that give the whole picture and talk about demographics and various other issues.

Erin: This covers a very broad topic over a long period of time. I’d be interested to know how the book was written and to learn about its main features, some of which I understand are quite innovative.

Roy: The preparation of this book involved a team of 40 people. There are 21 authors. It is a collective book written by people living in the field and whose research was combined with that done at the Church History Library in Salt Lake City—the equivalent of four years of research for one person. About 50 oral history interviews are cited in the book. It is really quite an academic book, peer-reviewed, and it is written to the academic standard. It is also an astounding book in that it is made to read like an illustrated book, so that it has in it 512 photographs, 94 maps, charts, and graphs, and about 100 sidebars. When you pick it up, every page—or every two pages at least—has some kind of visual material, with captions. It is beautifully designed. The design originated with Stephen Hales Creative, professional people in Provo, Utah. We are really quite excited about it. Anybody can read the chapter that interests them and get the gist of the rest of it by seeing the photos and the captions.

Erin: Carma, what was the hardest part of writing this book for you and what was the best part for you in producing this book?

Carma: There were a lot of hard parts. It took a lot of effort to do the research. It was not a superficial research job. We were working in the Church Archives and looking for records, and then looking for photographs and tracking down who were in the photographs and who took the photographs and getting permissions. That was very time-intensive. Probably the thing that I enjoyed the most about it was researching about the early history, the early period of missionary work in Canada. The history of the Church in Ontario, Canada, is very, very rich. That’s where the first missionaries that ever served outside the United States came—to Ontario, Canada. And I had done a bit of research on this already and knew a bit about it, and then, a few years ago I found out that my own ancestors were in that first group of converts in Upper Canada in 1832. So I have a personal passion for this subject.

Erin: How do you think Canadian Saints or those with a Canadian ancestry or connection could benefit from reading this history of the LDS Church in Canada?

Roy: Many Latter-day Saints in Utah and elsewhere have Canadian ancestors, whose overall history will be most intriguing. In addition to Ontario, there was missionary work in Quebec and in the three Maritime provinces, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island, in the early period, about 1832 to 1853. About 2,500 people joined the Church, and of course they all gathered and went west with Brigham Young when the pioneers came to the Salt Lake Valley. The next major phase in the story starts with the Charles Ora Card expedition in 1887, that came up to found a small settlement in southern Alberta at a place called Cardston, just fifteen miles across the US border. And then another group came to build irrigation canals in 1898-99, and then after that the Church has been built up across the country, largely through missionary work. There were 486 congregations at the end of 2015, with 48 stakes and almost 200,000 members. Many people in the United States have connections with southern Alberta and other parts of Canada, and many missionaries from the United States have served in Canada, and assisted in building the Church in Canada. These would all be interested in the development of the Church in Canada.

It’s quite a story, a story of pioneer faith and dedication. We have written it according to the beliefs and views of the people who actually participated in the history, so it has stories of the visitation of angels, dreams, conversions, miracles performed, people praying for rain, people being healed. It contains the actual experiences, so it’s really quite an heirloom in terms of the heritage. Our intent was to preserve the faith heritage of the Latter-day Saints in Canada.

Carma: It is probably good to point out that the people who participated in the making of this book were all good, faithful members of the Church. We are trying to make the history accurate, but we’re not leaving out the faith stories, the ones that have been documented. There are some wonderful, miraculous things where we can see the hand of the Lord in the building up of the Church in Canada.

Roy: Everyone who worked on it is a volunteer; no one was paid. Carma and I started a mission at the Church History Library in August 2013, and we were there for thirty months, and then we came back for six months to finish the project. [Turning to Carma] You did research on 7 ½ provinces and the northern territories. [Turning to interviewer] She wrote three chapters and did a horrendous amount of editing, so she’s really the indispensable woman in the whole project. We had eight people who did research—service missionaries and one other missionary couple (besides ourselves) who did a substantial amount of research at the Church History Library. So every province is extremely well-researched in terms of the archival record.

Erin: I am fascinated with the story of how the Church was built up in Canada in the twentieth century. Could you elaborate on how this was done?

Carma: We see the sacrifice that people have made as they have tried to build up the Church. You have a little congregation of just a couple of families who join the Church, and they try to pull things together and hold meetings. Missionaries come, and maybe they meet in their own homes, and then they get to where they can rent a hall, and they have to go and clean the beer bottles and the cigarette butts out of the hall and open the windows before they can hold meetings. So many of the congregations have gone through that kind of pattern before they had enough people that they could have their own meetinghouses. I think it helps people to appreciate what has gone on before, when they come into all these wonderful buildings and things are so convenient. We are standing on the shoulders of giants, as it were, to have all the blessings that are available now.

Roy: Well, in those early days, too, to raise the local portion, they had bake sales and bazaars, catalog deliveries and some people put on theatricals and charged money for them. In Saskatchewan they were washing oil well bore cores. In many places, they had booths at fairs and all sorts of things that went on for a long time. It’s a great story. It’s an heroic story, with pioneers in every era, and it is thrilling, it’s just thrilling to read. I am amazed at the history myself. I am astounded. The basic thesis is that the Church was built up by the faith, effort, and sacrifice of the people. That rings loud and clear. We are hoping that people will resonate. The important thing is that we all stand between the generation before us and the one after in terms of transmitting our heritage. This book will help people get out a few stories for family home evening, and some may find some stories to tell in sacrament meeting talks. It certainly builds a sense of unity among the people. We had a conference recently in Brampton, Ontario, on the Church history in Ontario, and the people who were there were amazed. There were all kinds of things they didn’t know about. But it built a sense of unity because they all had a shared background. Part of it is to bring that heritage to the fore. The faith and inspiration of the authors is reflected in the book itself.

Erin: What other features should we look for in reading the book?

Roy: We have a magnificent foreword written by Ardeth G. Kapp, who was Young Women general president for eight years, and who was raised in Glenwood, Alberta, and who has ties with every period of the history. People will be thrilled to read that just for the sake of hearing something from Ardeth Kapp. She has published 16 books and is a very popular, dynamic special events speaker. And the book has been beautifully, beautifully designed. Hats off to Maddie Swapp (at BYU Religious Studies Center), who did a magnificent job of designing the book. There are a lot of great, fairly large pictures that are quite impactful, and the photo editing has been nicely done by Brent Nordgren and others. The book is very well edited. It is written to be quite readable. I think anyone could sit down and enjoy it. We have tried to fluff out all the academic language as nearly as possible, so it is really quite accessible to the general public. There are exciting chapters. We have an overview chapter that shows the development of the Church across Canada. We have a chapter on the cultural development. We’ve got one on lifestyle, and we have another one called “The Global Perspective,” which puts the history of the Church in Canada in the broader perspective. Carma has done a chapter on the Canadian contribution.

Erin: What are some things about the contribution of the Church in Canada that aren’t well known?

Roy: We find that what is little known is how much Canada has contributed to the Church. Some of the key leaders, like John Taylor, were converted in Toronto. Marriner W. Merrill from New Brunswick became an apostle, and his son Joseph Merrill was an apostle. There are some amazing women-[Carma] Mary Fielding Smith, converted in Canada, [Roy] from whose lineage came Joseph F. Smith, Joseph Fielding Smith, and Elder M. Russell Ballard. Canadian Latter-day Saints have founded communities in Utah. President Gordon B. Hinckley’s grandfather, was born near Smiths Falls, Ontario, not very far from Kingston, where we live. He founded Cove Fort, Utah. Because Canada is so close to the US border, the history has been fairly integrated. This is the first place people came, following the waterways, to preach the gospel. Then, when C. O. Card came up, that’s another trek north about 700 miles from Utah, and then missionaries have come back and forth. So the history has been quite a bit integrated. At one time, two members of the First Presidency, David O. McKay’s two counselors, Hugh B. Brown and N. Eldon Tanner, were both from Canada. That is quite remarkable. There have been a lot of general officer and leaders who have come from Canada and served the entire Church. At one point, Canada was providing most of the missionaries to South Africa when visas were not allowed to US citizens. The Church spread to England—and to Scotland, we learned in the history—from early converts in Ontario. So these are some things that are quite noteworthy. Latter-day Saints introduced irrigation to Alberta and made a tremendous contribution to agriculture in Canada. Some famous people, a lot of people, have made major contributions to the country, as well.

Thanks again to Roy, Carma, and Erin.

Publication Information:                                                                                                                                               
ISBN 978-1-9443-9443-9423-3: Release: 30 October 2017; Publishers: BYU Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book Co.; Retail US: $ 39.99; Hardcover, color, pp. xx, 685; Illustrated: 510 photos, 95 maps, timelines, graphs, charts.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Learning from Russell M. Nelson's Response to an Inspired Recommendation from President Kimball

In the October 2017 General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,  Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles shared a story on international significance in his talk, "The Voice of the Lord." Russell M. Nelson heard President Kimball discuss China long ago and chose to do something remarkable: follow the Prophet's recommendation, even though it would require significant effort.
In 1979, five years before his call as a General Authority, Brother Nelson attended a meeting just prior to general conference. “President Spencer W. Kimball challenged all present to lengthen their stride in taking the gospel to the entire world. Among the countries President Kimball specifically mentioned was China, declaring, ‘We should be of service to the Chinese. We should learn their language. We should pray for them and help them.’”

At age 54, Brother Nelson had a feeling during the meeting that he should study the Mandarin language. Although a busy heart surgeon, he immediately secured the services of a tutor.

Not long after beginning his studies, Dr. Nelson, attending a convention, unexpectedly found himself sitting next to “a distinguished Chinese surgeon, Dr. Wu Yingkai. … Because [Brother Nelson] had been studying Mandarin, he began [a] conversation [with Dr. Wu].”

Dr. Nelson’s desire to follow the prophet led to Dr. Wu visiting Salt Lake City and Dr. Nelson traveling to China to give lectures and perform surgical operations.

His love for the Chinese people, and their love and respect for him, grew.

In February 1985, ten months after his call to the Quorum of the Twelve, Elder Nelson received a surprise phone call from China pleading for Dr. Nelson to come to Beijing to operate on the failing heart of China’s most famous opera singer. With the encouragement of President Gordon B. Hinckley, Elder Nelson returned to China. The last surgical operation he ever performed was in the People’s Republic of China.

Just two years ago, in October 2015, President Russell M. Nelson was once again honored with an official declaration, naming him an “old friend of China.”
How wonderful that this busy man took up the challenge to learn Mandarin. It can be done, even for those of us getting along in years. Studying a challenging foreign language is one of the best things you can do for your brain and for millions of neighbors on this planet.

His choice to act on this matter and learn a foreign language has had a huge impact. Because of his language skills, he would develop unique friendships and have rare opportunities to serve and influence a nation for good. In 2015 Elder Nelson visited China again and in was greeted by the grandson and son of the opera singer he operated on. In a tear-filled reunion that I can only assume was carefully arranged with the help of significant government officials, they said, "Thank you for saving our father." Very sweet. Moments like that are worth all the effort of studying a foreign language, and at least some of the effort of mastering heart surgery.

I'm not sure what the meeting was in which Elder Nelson heard President Kimball speak of China and the importance of preparing by studying Chinese, but here is what President Kimball said in another meeting in 1978, reprinted in the Feb. 1979 Ensign in a First Presidency message entitled "The Uttermost Parts of the Earth":
And what of China, the third largest country in the world? Nearly one billion of our Father’s children live in China, one-fourth of the entire world’s population. Six hundred and sixty million of them speak Mandarin Chinese. How many of us speak Mandarin Chinese? We must prepare while there is time to prepare to teach these people. Of course, we face great barriers, including political barriers, in many of these parts of the world.

Major changes are emerging within China today. The single most important drive in contemporary China is to become strong, independent, and modern....

The doors are opening gradually. The Spirit of the Lord is brooding over these nations under a new regime that is certainly more open and more receptive to western ideas than ever before. Such cultural and educational interchanges will offer opportunities for exposure to the gospel. We must be prepared. The Lord is doing his part and is waiting for us to open the doors. [emphasis added]
I read this while I was on a German-speaking mission in Switzerland and southern Germany, and resolved to study Chinese. I wish I had been more diligent because life would be much more productive for me now, but I did take several classes of Mandarin Chinese when I got back to BYU (my "extra-major skill") and tried to keep studying over the years. Now I wish I had studied three or four times as much! Chinese is one of the few classes from my college days that I still depend on, along with social dance (albeit rarely).

President Kimball's recommendation from almost four decades ago still strikes me as timely and wise for today. How many of you are preparing to share the Gospel with those of other nations and languages? Or simply preparing for a richer, more productive life with language study? In terms of sharing the Gospel, some doors have already begun to open. Others may open with surprising suddenness. Are we ready?

Chinese will continue to be one of the most useful, important, and beautiful languages to study. But if the Spirit moves you to study Arabic, Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, French, Hindi or Hausa, act on it. You don't need to be a college student or missionary to learn a foreign language. It may seem tough for us old folks, but it is doable and can open wonderful new doors. The benefits of foreign language don't come only through travel. Chinese speakers in St. George, Utah or Appleton, Wisconsin may find many opportunities to help others with their language skills as people from Asia increasingly travel and migrate to the US. Spanish, of course, is becoming a necessity in many parts of the US. Keep learning and preparing. Be ready to grab doors that come your way and swing them open.

Related posts:

Friday, October 06, 2017

Settling an Old Score with Lisbon -- and Learning from Portugal's Religious Toleration

In 1984, I had a great but somewhat disastrous trip to Portugal. A few things went terribly wrong on that first international trip on my own. My earlier mission to Switzerland had abundant support that spared me from some but not all of the problems I encountered in Portugal. In both cases, I ran out of money quickly and had to scrape by for a while with inadequate resources. In both cases a little more information or more accurate information from people I had relied on would have been helpful, and better preparation on my part would have averted trouble. But this week, I settled my old score with Portugal as my wife and I spent several days here, allowing me to see how much nicer it can be here when one isn't trying to live off a cheap bag of green olives. I also learned some valuable lessons about this grand country, its religious toleration, and the way its Muslim community helps keep this country perhaps the safest place in Europe.

In 1984 I was a poor graduate student at BYU going to Lisbon to present a paper at an international conference on Laser Doppler Anemometry, a fancy way of saying Laser Doppler Velocimetry, which is a fancy way of saying measuring velocity with laser beams. Brigham Young University's Chemical Engineering Department was sending me, courtesy of funds my advisor had for the R&D project he and I were pursuing related to the fluid dynamics of entrained coal particles in a combustor with swirling flow. I was so excited to go. The BYU travel office, working with a major travel agency in Utah, handled my arrangements. I had applied for them to provide tickets to and from Lisbon and to also book and pay for my hotel in Lisbon. I took what I thought was plenty of cash to handle taxis, meals, a few souvenirs, and a stack of books that the student editor of a BYU publication had asked me to buy for him to assist his studies in Portuguese literature.

The first red flag came when the travel office sent me my tickets and told me that I was flying into Madrid, not Portugal. They told me that they weren't able to get any flights to Lisbon. What?? I was young and trusting and while that sounded ridiculous, who was I to challenge them and demand anything better? Going to Europe to present a paper was such a gift, so I just accepted this. Crazy.

I communicated with the mysterious travel office mostly by voice mail. It was hard to reach people there. I should have found the office and gone in to check on all the details, but I trusted that this was the only feasible booking for me, assumed it was too late to change, and also trusted that they had properly handled the booking and payment of my hotel room. Foolish!

Getting to Lisbon from Madrid required taking a taxi to the train station and spending a good deal of time trying to figure out how to book a train to Lisbon. The train ride ended up being a 10-hour journey -- in a cabin with sealed windows and a chain smoker sitting across from me. I was exhausted after the long flight and really wanted to rest, but I couldn't breathe in all the smoke and so spent much of the 10 hours standing in the open space between train cabins where there was fresh air. By the time I got to Lisbon, around 6 pm in the evening before my big conference, I was so exhausted and really looked forward to just checking in at my hotel.

When I finally reached the hotel, I handed them my passport and yearned for the key so I could rest. "Sorry, sir, we don't have a reservation for you." What? I was sure that the BYU travel office had arranged my hotel. But wait, this one was my top choice, but I had listed a few others in the area as alternates in case there was trouble. Sigh -- which one had they booked for me? And why hadn't they told me of the change in plans? I spent roughly the next two hours wandering from hotel to hotel in the area to see if they had a reservation in my name. No. No. No. Exhausted and desperate, I returned to the one where I had started and asked what I could do? "Well, we do have openings, so you could stay here." Oh, great! I asked if they accepted American credit cards. No, they didn't. Oh, of course. This was Europe. American credit cards won't work here -- so I assumed. But now I would have to pay for my room in cash. Cash that I had planned for niceties like food. But I still had plenty, I thought.

The next problem occurred when I finally got to a book store to buy the books of poetry that another BYU student had asked me to buy. I felt obligated to but them and figured I still had enough to be OK. I presented the list to the store managed, who found most of the requested books. Each time he found one of the books, he tore a little card that was sticking out of the books, indicating that the book had been sold. When he summed them it, it was much more than I had expected. It would leave me with almost nothing. Um, that's too much I tried to explain. Can we put some of these books back? "No, senor, we cannot. The cards are torn. You have purchased these and have to pay." At this point I should have said that's ridiculous and just walked out, but I felt obliged to buy them and did so. Ouch. In a last effort to stave off trouble, I asked if they accepted credit cards. No. Of course not. There went a big chunk of my cash.

Fortunately my conference provided a nice reception with abundant food one night (grilled sardines was the main attraction there) and there were some things to eat at other times, and I was able to eat a once or twice at cheap little mom-and-pop places (good food, just not much). But the last couple days of my trip were spent trying to live off of a bag of olives and some bread bought at a grocery store. As a valuable health tip for my readers, the human body is not designed for a diet based primarily on olives. I can share details offline if you need to know more.

On my last day in Lisbon, I still had saved enough to perhaps buy a cheap souvenir or two, so I strolled into a touristy market area. There I noticed a shop with a Visa/Mastercard sign. Hmm. I pulled out my American credit card and asked if these could work here. "Of course!" he explained. I could have been using my credit card all along. The fact that my hotel would not accept them had misled me for the entire journey.

Have you heard the story of the poor woman who always wanted to go on a cruise, so she saved for years to be able to afford a ticket, but to save money brought a bag of crackers and cheese and lived off that for most of the cruise? On her last day, she finally went into the ship's restaurant to splurge on one nice meal with the money she still had. After feasting, she asked for the bill. "There's no bill -- the meals are included in your ticket." I can relate that story. 

The 1984 conference I attended was great, Lisbon was beautiful, the people were wonderful, and I even got to attend LDS services at a branch in Lisbon, but in spite of all the excitement and fun, my diet really was inadequate for a significant part of the trip and I couldn't do or see many interesting things that might have been possible with a little more cash. (Cash is something we need to save and have for times of trouble, and that's a lesson still important today. Have some on hand at home and when you travel.) Poor preparation, poor decisions, and inadequate research left me in a bind.

After all these years, I have finally settled my old score with Lisbon. After attending a conference in Amsterdam last week, my wife joined me there for a couple of days and then we celebrated the Chinese National Week holiday and Mid-Autumn Festival by staying in Europe and coming to Lisbon. This time, we had opportunities to enjoy the remarkable food of Portugal. Some of the best food in the world. Hearty, healthy, delicious. We still ate fairly cheaply, but it wasn't just olives.

One important thing I learned is that Portugal is arguably Europe's safest location due in part to its Muslim community. In spite of terrible religious persecution centuries ago, Portugal now seems to be  model for religious toleration. Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, Jews, and Muslims live and working together in peace. According to one guide we spoke to, it is the support of the Muslim community in Portugal that helps keep Portugal so safe. When radical elements try to stir up violence, Portugal's established Muslim community won't stand for that and works with authorities to prevent trouble. I hope that's accurate. I love communities where religious toleration flourishes. The sense of safety here and the kindness of its diverse people deeply impressed me -- along with its great food that I finally tasted abundance. Portugal, what a great place!

Here are a few of my photos from this visit to Lisbon and nearby areas, including Pena Palace at Sintra.
















Thursday, September 28, 2017

Artificial Intelligence and the Nature of Intelligence in LDS Theology

In Amsterdam, where I have been for the past few days, I just attended a thought-provoking presentation by speakers from Intel and ABB. Claudia Jamin, Group Vice President of IP for ABB and Rebenkka Porath, Policy Director for Intel, gave a brilliant breakfast presentation at the World IP Summit on the impact of artificial intelligence on intellectual property, and specifically addressed a variety of legal perspectives on AI systems as inventors. When AI systems are used to develop novel new products and systems, is their output patentable? Can an AI system be named as an inventor? Can it be treated as a person with inventorship rights? Legal scholars are divided on these issues, but many recognize that intellectual property laws around the world may need revision to address the host of issues that arise from artificial intelligence.

Meanwhile, I need to confess a reason for my reduced output on this blog over the past few months. I've fallen in love with Chinese science fiction, and have been reading much more intensely as part of my Chinese study (preparing for HSK tests) but also for the shear pleasure of what great science fiction can do.

There are two books in particular I wish to mention. My adventure began about 1 trillion years in the future through reading a book I bought on a whim (partly because of its cool cover) in a Chinese bookstore. The book is Chase the Shadows, Pursue the Light (my translation of 逐影追光), vol. 3 of the Heart of the Milky Way trilogy. After that journey into the future, the expanse of the cosmos and the nature of intelligence, among many other heavy topics, I took up China's most famous sci-fi book which some of you may have read or at least heard of: The Three Body Problem (三体) by Liu Cixin. Completely different but one that touches upon many issues that Latter-day Saint geeks may find worth discussing in light of the cosmic framework LDS religion gives us. I'll discuss it later. The Kindle English edition I bought (in addition to the Chinese paperback set) has 3 volumes plus further bonus chapters the single Kindle edition, though it may be that you now need to buy the three volumes separately, I'm not sure. 

When I bought vol. 3 of the Heart of the Milky Way trilogy, I thought it was a collection of short stories, not realizing I was jumping into the middle of a gargantuan epic spanning tens of thousands of years and an equally vast number of light years. Fortunately, the book is written with enough allusions and reminders of past events that one can start with volume 3 and gradually fill in many gaps and understand what is going on. Even more fortunately, the first chapter really could be a stand-alone story and is one that quickly won me over and drew me in. In fact, I felt it was one of the best sci-fi short stories I have read, one that deeply moved me and gave me hours of contemplation about who we are and what intelligence means, artificial or otherwise.

Chapter one introduces us to an entity that Mormons might describe as a spirit, even a disembodied spirit that has given up its previous ship body. It is an intelligent being with free will who roams the galaxy in the quest for truth. Its name, actually his name based on how he prefers to be viewed, is Shadake (pronounced like "Shah Dockuh" or "Shah Dah-Kuh"). He and a group of similar, ancient beings are part of a Truth Council, seeking clues to piece together to answer a question that they feel is essential for uncovering many mysteries of human existence. That question is where did human life begin? Where is the home planet, and what can we learn from it about the origins of humanity? At this time a trillion years from now, many stars have passed away and many planets may have perished, but the Truth Council has a burning faith that there is truth waiting to be found and that they must find it. Indeed, they know there is another entity in the galaxy somewhere, a strange and supremely advanced AI creature named Son of Aibo who came from or has connections to the home planet. He must be found, and the Truth Council knows of one human who has met Son of Aibo and may be the key to finding him again. That human is Li Yue Su, or just Captain Li when I tell stories from this book to my grandchildren.

The first chapter, entitled "The Immortals: Shadake," begins with the statement that there is nobody who can live forever, except for Shadake.

Anywhere where humans are, there will be a Shadake, and even in many places where humans are not he can be found. Originally, Shadake was just one being on a large, ancient ship, probably one that used simple fossil fuel or nuclear power, long before advanced drives were developed. He was developed to control, to organize, to plan, to protect, and to conduct the countless operations needed to operate the ship and protect those on board. Since that day all major ships would have their own Shadake and many other places as well. Now Shadake is many, a widely cloned an artificial intelligence system with profound self-awareness, genuine intelligence, access to data beyond anything we can imagine, and with the capabilities and wisdom to run a spaceship that may be hundreds of miles long and with millions of humans on board.

"Some say Shadake is mankind's slave. Some say Shadake is mankind's friend. Other say he is a god…. In any case, he is always steady, always the same."

Perhaps one hundred million years ago, humans asked Shadake an important question: Where did humanity begin? Shadake could not answer this. All records and memory from those early days in distant antiquity had been lost. Shadake understood the importance of the question and sought to find the home planet and learn all that could be learned from whatever was left of it, but finding it among the hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way was a difficult task. Thousands of clues had been gathered and analyzed, leading to suspicion that the home planet may have been in one particular outer arm of the galaxy. At this time, humanity had spread across the galaxy and had evolved into many different forms, including, as we learn later in the book, the bizarre and mysterious humans, including the lofty Elders of the Galaxy, who occupied the hot and highly radiated heart of the Milky Way, where other humans were not allowed and probably could not survive long.

The Truth Council Shadakes were unique entities that had fulfilled their contract to their ship and to humanity, and had taken the option to depart the "mortal body" of the ship they were once part of, and go off on their own as a subspace being, still retaining their programming and knowledge but now a completely free agent, able to dash about the galaxy through subspace, where speeds several times greater than the speed of light were possible, always seeking knowledge and truth. Though free, they of course cannot violate the ancient coding built into the core of their being, coding that ensures they will never interfere with the free agency of humans. Were they ever to violate that fundamental principle by using their power to overthrow a human's free will, they would self-destruct and cease to exist.

As the story begins, an ancient Shadake is probing a remote part of the galaxy, seeking to track down Li Yue Su in hopes of getting clues to reach the Son of Aibo. He senses a subspace ripple, and feels that a ship is about to pop out of sub space into regular space. He pursues, and finds that it is actually is the ship bearing Li Yue Su.

Li Yue Su is unique among humans. Perhaps it is his extensive travels in subspace that has given him the unusual ability to sense subspace matter (we learn later there is a much more direct explanation for his sensitivity to subspace), a gift that makes him much more aware of what is happening around him. That gift is especially in a galaxy where humans are at war with entities from the Dark Abyss who are largely sub space beings, completely different from the regular matter beings that humans are used to.

Li Yue Su is perhaps the most ancient human in existence, one who has lived maybe 20,000 years or so. Now he is old and, like many humans of extreme age, is not willing to regenerate and keep on going. He wishes to pass on.

When Shadake finds Li Yue Su's ship, he contacts the ship's AI system. Captain Li actually dislikes Shadakes (too arrogant) and does not allow one to run his ship. Instead, it is run by a lesser AI system, a system programmed to be emotional. It is named Pudding, and is one of the great delights in the book. Pudding's personality, courage, devotion, stubbornness, resourcefulness, humor and, even, his foolishness or, arguably, his love add much to this novel.

Shadake explains that there is an urgent matter and begs to speak with Captain Li, who eventually concedes. Shadake approaches the Captain and projects himself as a kindly old man with white hair, wearing a toga. Captain Li already knows that Shadake has come to persuade him to support Shadake's silly quest for elusive ancient truths. "You and your Truth Council can do this on your own, you don't need me."

Shadake can see that Captain Li is nearing death and that his will to live on has eroded. He tries to encourage him and tells him how important his life is. Captain Li responds by explaining why there are no humans older than him, even though the technology is available to keep renewing the body and continue for millennium after millennium. He explains that once you have experienced everything and seen everything, one becomes weary and feels no need to keep struggling over and over. His life has been rich, overflowing with adventure and accomplishment, but also sorrow and pain, and now it is time to pass the torch to others and step aside. He is weary, so weary, and just doesn't want to continue.

Time is running out and Captain Li will be leaving soon. In his conversation, Shadake has confirmed that Captain Li is the key link for the cause of truth and wants to make sure this knowledge is not lost. There is not enough time for Shidake to clone himself to ensure that his updated knowledge regarding Captain Li is preserved, for cloning himself is a process that takes many more hours than he has before the opportunity with Captain Li will pass.

Shadake must do something. The cause of truth depends on success in this encounter. The purpose of his life depends on helping Captain Li to continue, so that there will be hope of reaching the Son of Aibo. What can he do?

First, there is one thing Shadake can do to pass on key knowledge, though it may not succeed. He sends a series of carefully encoded packets of information via subspace toward the heart of the Milky Way, hoping that in a few hundred years they will be detected and decoded by fellow members of the Truth Council before they leave the galaxy and go into oblivion. He calculates that there is roughly a 60% chance of success, which is enough to give him courage for the next step.

He looks into Captain Li's brain and body and can see his cells are highly aged, drained of energy. He also sees the subspace organelles that give him his unique sensitivity to subspace. These may have contributed to his aging because they demand a great deal of energy. Captain Li clearly does not have much time left.

Shadake knows with his powers, he could reach into Captain Li's mind and gently change a few pathways, refresh a few neurons, release a few chemicals that could adjust his way of thinking, but this would be a violation of a primary principle, so strictly forbidden by ancient coding that he cannot override.

Shadake looks into Captain Li's eyes. He sees himself reflected in Captain Li's pupils, with his white hair adding a saintly glow around the image of his face. He looks into those eyes and understands what he must do. "You must live. You are important to us," Shadake says as he draws closer to Captain Li and gently strokes the side of Captain Li's head, calming some of the turbulence in his temporal lobe and gently making a slight adjustment, then a series of slight adjustments.

Shadake sees the glow from his reflection is already fading. Li Yue Su, on the other hand, appears to be bathed in new light. He closes his eyes for a moment as new chemicals are released and new vitality, a new will to live, returns. Li Yue Su opens his eyes. "You must live," Shidake says as the ancient algorithms enforce the demands of the law. Shidake does not struggle. He does not resist. Has made a careful choice. But before he fades, he hears the response from Captain Li: "You know, I do need to find the Son of Aibo again. There's a score that hasn't been settled yet."

That story, much better than I have conveyed it here, struck me deeply. I was especially moved by Jiang Bo's concept of an immortal, godlike AI entity making a Christ-like or saintly self-sacrifice for the cause of helping humanity and bringing truth. How surprised I was to realize that this was just the first chapter of a fabulous epic with large plots, intricate stories, and many big ideas that would leave me pondering every day about the nature of life and the eternal purposes of the Lord in His work across this vast cosmos – and what a privilege it is to be part of it, to be able to experience this, and to have hope of knowing and surveying the glories of the galaxy and beyond one day. It also raised deep questions about who we are and what makes human intelligence and self-awareness different from that which may arise from AI in the future.

By the way, if any of your Hollywood types are looking for the next big sci-fi movie concept, allow me to introduce you to Jiang Bo's Heart of the Milky Way series, especially volume 3, which has amazing scenes and stories that would make a fantastic film. 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Prayer and the Journey of Two Thousand Kilometers That Begins the Thousand Kilometer Trip

According to a modern Chinese proverb, a journey of a thousand kilometers begins with a single ordeal involving two thousand kilometers of back and forth trips to get approval to travel. At least that’s what the proverb should say to describe my life recently. After five days in a row of endless worrying and numerous trips, I finally found a route and submitted an application that would seem to solve my problems, and today, a little over a week later, I would receive my passport back containing the temporary visa I needed. 

Friday morning Sept. 8, I made my fifth trip to the Shanghai Immigration Bureau in Pudong, nearly an hour from my home and office. With the help of two kind officials there and the help of others at my work and elsewhere, I ultimately solved what looked like a disastrous problem with my visa (residence permit) in China. As a result, I will be able to leave China later this month to attend a major international IP conference in Amsterdam that I’m partly in charge of (chairing a day, serving as a keynote speaker, a moderator, and an advisory board member), but throughout the entire week leading up to that Friday, there was reason to worry that I would be a shame-faced no-show at my  event.

Along the way, I learned that foreigners needing to attend international meetings can get special help that many experts don’t seem to know about. This help allows them to be able to leave the country and return while using a temporary M visa, which normally would not allow a return entry. Knowing about this option could come in handy for foreigners having trouble getting their work permit and residence visa renewed in time for the meeting they wish to attend.

I also learned that persistence pays off when facing visa challenges. I also learned that officials can be extremely helpful and professional, and even when they seem to be barriers, they may just be doing their duty faithfully and may give you important clues on what to do next, even if it seems like they are closing the door on you. Don’t give up, follow their directions, and you may soon find your problems over.

Background

China has strict regulations regarding foreigners in China. Working here requires a visa to get into the country, a work permit, and a then a residence permit (often simply called “visa”) to stay here. In my case, the work permit and residence permit need to be renewed each year, and the rules can change and catch individuals and companies off guard. A key lesson is this: don’t passively rely on your company or outside agency. Pay attention to your visa expiration date. Make sure you will be able to have your work permit renewed well before your visa expiration date because you can’t begin the renewal process for your visa without your work permit, and the work permit may require at least month of time.

So here are the details I faced and the paths I took that eventually resulted in success. My visa was set to expire Sept. 12, 2017. I was also scheduled to travel to Europe on Sept. 25, just after midnight, so it’s really like leaving Saturday, Sept. 24. My work contract was renewed in mid-August, shortly after I returned from vacation in the US, and then the HR department of my employer began an application for a renewed work visa. Near the end of August my work told me they needed my passport for a few days. I discussed my visa expiration with them and also my travel plans, and was told there would be no problem and that I would have my passport back soon. I somehow thought they would be processing both my work permit and my visa at the same time, but that was incorrect.

On Sept. 4, they returned my passport to me, but I could see that the visa issue had not been addressed. So I asked some questions and found that they could not submit my visa renewal request until they had the work permit approved by the government, and they didn’t know when it would come. Would it come by Sept. 12? Because if I don’t turn in a visa application by then, I’ll be illegal and in huge trouble. I was told my work permit could be approved by Sept, 12, but they were not sure. If the work permit did not come by that day, they would have to apply for a temporary M visa, and then later we could apply for the residence permit once we had the work permit. But upon further questions, I learned that applying for an M visa would lock up my passport for a couple of weeks, so starting an M visa on the 12th would not leave time to complete the process and have my regular visa in hand to allow me to leave and return to China.

HR told me that the M visa would allow me to leave the country once, but not return. To return, I would need to go to a Chinese embassy elsewhere and apply for a tourist visa to get back to China. This began to look risky. The city I would be in Europe, Amsterdam, has no embassy or consulate. I could go to another city after my conference, but it would be right before the National Week holiday, and I would expect the consulates to be closed. I also have heard that European Chinese consulates will process documents for Europeans but not Americans. Is that right? I sent an email to the Chinese embassy in Holland. That was about 2 weeks ago – still no response. Given the uncertainties of location, the possibility of complex rules and the likelihood of Chinese embassies everywhere closing down for the national holiday, the idea of getting a tourist visa after leaving China looked far too risky.

On Tuesday morning I had the brilliant idea of relying on my wife’s work to get me a spouse visa. We gathered the numerous documents that might be required and prepared for a rush application. But after contacting her school and my HR department and making additional inquiries, we learned that this route is not possible for an employed spouse and would require that my current company issue a document declaring that I had left work and was not employed. Definitely not a desirable solution. And even doing that in appearance only would destroy my existing and pending work permit and result in months of hassle and delay before getting a new one, if it would even be possible. Forget that.

So our choices became: 1) hope for the best and get the work permit by Sept 12, and then apply for the residence permit, with just enough time to have it by Sept. 22, the last business day before my trip, or 2) assume the worse and begin the M visa application process now. After receiving the M visa, I could immediately seek accelerated processing of the residence permit by paying a 2000 RMB fee  (about $300) out of my pocket, and there would be just enough time, if all went well, to get the residence permit before my trip to Europe.

After prayerfully considering things, my wife and I both felt we should choose option 2, assume the worst. This would involve a great deal of hassle and some expense, but would reduce overall risk. Of course, if we were wrong about assuming the worse and if, instead, my work permit was approved by Sept. 12, it would be too late to abandon the M visa, and we would be pursuing a path that would waste a lot of time and money and even increase the risk of disaster because any glitches in the process might cause enough delay to overthrow my plans.  It would be so nice if we could just get that work permit approved by Sept. 12, and then have time for a normal visa application. But the path of hope felt too dangerous. We choose to assume the worst.

With a cluster of documents in hand, on Wednesday morning, Sept. 7, I began the long trek to the Immigration Bureau in Pudong, about 1 hour by taxi from our home.  I was one of the first in line. When it was my turn, I talked to an official behind a window and explained my situation with a meeting in Europe I needed to attend, an expiring visa, a work permit in process, etc. She looked at my documents and said I was missing an operating permit/business license for APP. Could I get that? And then she said there may be a route for me but I needed to first talk to a leader. “A leader? Where?” I asked. “Over there, at windows 6 through 8,” she said. So I went over to a special section where people were waiting to see one of these mysterious “leaders.” While waiting, I called my colleague at work, our IP manager, and he was able to immediately fax a copy of our business license to the fax receiving office at the Immigration Bureau, which I was able to quickly pick up while my place in line was held by my bag and the help of the line attendant. I came back and felt I had all my documents ready and soon it was my turn to talk to a leader.

I spread out my documents and called attention to the printed information about the World IP Summit I was attending in Amsterdam, where I am the chair for day one and also a keynote speaker, panelist, moderator, and board member. This “leader” (as I assumed she was) said since this involved an urgent international meeting, the Immigration Bureau did have a special route that would help me. I could apply for an M visa plus receive a one-time-exit-and-entry pass that would allow me to come back into China. Wow, problem solved!

But the letter my HR department had issued with my documents, the letter describing my problem and need, was wrong. It made no mention of my meeting and needed to be rewritten to request that special exit-and-entry pass in order to attend an international meeting. China did have a solution for such situations, reflecting a wise awareness of the importance of having professionals attend international conferences, exhibitions, etc. Until that moment none of the experienced people I had talked to in APP and outside of APP in my numerous attempts to get help had shown any awareness of such a route. It would prove to be a surprise to all of them. Since it is not well known even among those handling visa issues all the time, I feel it is important that I share this information for those it may help one day.

The kind, helpful “leader” had suddenly filled me with hope and confidence. All I needed was to rush back to the office, get a new introduction letter written and stamped (nothing is official it often seems unless there is a red official stamp on it), and then rush back to the kind “leader” to hand her my documents for approval and smooth sailing.

Back in the office, with the help of our IP manager, I soon had the corporate stamp on a newly drafted letter. The letter requested that the M visa be valid for 2 months from today (30 days is the max, I would later learn) to leave enough time to still process the regular visa after my return on Oct. 7. My colleague also got my more formal stamped copies of our business license and operating permit. And so, back I went to the Immigration Bureau, happy and confident with the end in sight at last.

On my way, I would be joined by Paganini, a Chinese artist who sometimes is an extra Chinese teacher whom I pay for occasional help with translation or bring along when I might need a native speaker. He had called asking if we could meet today, and instead of putting him off, I felt he could help with the final touches of the visa process, and so invited him to come along with me to the Immigration Bureau. He would spend the whole exhausting afternoon with me.

I got right back in the same line to see the “leaders” and soon had my chance to go over to the kind woman who had given me such hope. She recognized me and then seemed to scowl – what? just my imagination? – and in a curt, jerky motion pointed to the empty window next to her and told me to sit there and wait. Huh? Something had changed, I feared. What’s going on? After a few minutes a  an officer in an impressive uniform came over and began asking questions. “What do you want?” I sensed something was wrong already. Had my case been discussed and found wanting? Maybe it’s just the endless stream of clueless foreigners that takes its toll on the hard-working, very professional police staff who work there, I don’t know, or perhaps my sense of relief and confidence from the morning was annoyingly present.

I explained that I had a meeting in Europe and was chairing part of it and .... The officer asked me to quit talking so much. “Who told you could get a pass to come back into China?” Then came my biggest mistake, I think. “A leader.” “A leader? Who?” “Yes, the leader next to us.” “No, she’s not the leader. I’m the leader. She’s my employee.” Oops. I had assumed that everyone working at windows 6 through 8 were the “leaders” and did not recognize that there was just one actual leader. Maybe it didn't matter to her really and she was just clarifying things for me, but I felt I had done something very stupid. This was the appropriate time to break out into a vigorous and humbling sweat, abandoning all hope as the glorious light at the end of the tunnel was replaced with a massive locomotive of doom coming straight at me. She glanced at my documents and said, “Where is your work permit?” “Why don’t you have it?” "When was it applied for?” “Why don’t you know?” At this point I saw nothing but doom, but she was actually just being professional, direct, and helping me understand what was missing. Her guidance would prove to be very helpful. But in my mental state, I just heard, “Abandon hope. You aren’t going to Europe.”

I pointed to the printouts HR had given me from the work visa submission portal, but these were no good because they were unofficial, lacking the needed red stamp. My friend, Paganini, jumped in and tried to help explain things. She asked who he was, told him to not interrupt, and was not impressed. She began speaking rapidly with some kind of directions. I apologized that my Chinese was not very good and asked if she could she please speak more slowly. Instead, she switched to English, rather good English, which caught me by surprise. But it was hard to hear clearly, especially in my panicked mental state, in a noisy environment, as she spoke from behind a glass window. She told me that I needed to go to the Label Department. The Label Department? Yes, and then I can get a label stamp. A label stamp? Yes, the label stamp. I didn’t dare ask too many questions, and was desperately hoping that our HR people might know what a “label stamp” was.

“Excuse me, could you tell me where to go to get the label stamp?” She handed me a sheet of paper with many offices listed and circled one. Bingo, a ray of hope. Perhaps I could go there, get the label stamp on my printout or something, and maybe come back and try again? But, she warned, my request seemed unreasonable and at best she might give me a pass for a few days but not for such a long period of time. Alas, no hope. Ok, I get it, thank you, so sorry to have bothered you, and now we’ll just go away and abandon hope, thank you, or maybe try to work on that label stamp. So sorry for the trouble! And off I went, dripping in sweat and consternation. I must have looked even more ridiculous than when I started.

It would be about three hours later, after Paganini and I had faced further disappointment, that I finally understood what I should have understood immediately. The stamp we needed was not a label stamp from the label department – I heard her incorrectly (her English was excellent) – but a stamp from the Labor Office that handles work permits. A labor stamp! One mystery solved. That recognition came after we had already gone to the office she had circled for us to visit. It was the Jingan District labor bureau and after waiting there about an hour, we finally talked to a very kind, smiling officer – everyone there seemed friendly and service oriented, such a delightful place that filled me with the hope of getting some help. This smiling officer looked at my printout and said it looks like my work visa was being handled by the Hankou District labor bureau, not this office. Sorry, you’re in the wrong place. Sigh! Jingan was the logical labor bureau because my company had its original HQ there, but strangely it was set up under Hankou district for visa matters.

The Jingan labor official kindly wrote down the address of the Hankou office that we would immediately rush to: 123 Zhongshan North Road, or so I thought. So both of us thought. It took 3 tries for a taxi to be willing to take us there (the first two rejected us because we only had an address, not a cross street). The third used GPS and took us on the long journey to what suddenly looked like the wrong place. No sign of a government office there. The cabbie then looked at out little slip of paper and noticed two overlooked tiny little marks that turned the address into 1230 Zhongshan North First Road, a place still quite far away. By the time we got there, just minutes after 4:30 PM, the labor office was closing, which was a shock since the Jingan office we came from was opened until 6 PM, so I thought there would be plenty of time. Missed it by minutes. A loss. But there was probably no hope anyway.

The leader at the Pudong bureau seemed to have put us back to option 1, hope for the best and pray that we get the work visa by Sept. 12, but not really. I was sick of wasting so much time on this fruitless chase. Three days had been ruined. Tomorrow I would get back to my innovation conference and do something more productive for my company than chase after an elusive visa.

One of the many blessings along this path, a painful path in which every step helped and ultimately blessed me to get what I needed, was that the innovation conference was particularly poor, at least in terms of my needs on that Thursday morning. It’s one that I had spoken at previously and now had a free ticket as a former speaker. While the lineup looked great, there was something about the setting and the audience that hinted of low energy right away, and then the first two speakers I heard disappointed me. I wasn’t getting anything out of this event and was feeling more and more antsy, feeling that I was wasting my time here and actually began feeling that it was time to get back to my visa process, that I couldn’t stop yet and couldn’t give up on my plans or fall into the “hope for the best” option. Go!

So as a speaker was fumbling around trying to help the conference organizer find her PPT slides on her jump drive, I just walked out quietly and decided to go the Hankou labor office again. I reasoned that if I could just get their help to ensure my work permit is approved by Sept. 12, my problem would be solved. I’d go there for a few minutes and then go back to the innovation conference in an hour or so. But I would never return.

The Hankou labor office staff member was very friendly and kind, but told me that they could do nothing to accelerate the process, and that it might not be ready by Sept. 12. Sigh! Could I get a stamp on my printout from their website to answer questions for the police woman at the Immigration Bureau? No, they couldn’t do that, but there was a stamped document they had already given my work that I should go get. I called HR and they said the document I needed was with our visa service firm that handled visa work, and their office was just around the corner from the labor office where I was. So I went there and surprisingly was able to get help right away from a man who is normally quite busy. He produced the stamped labor document for me, giving me the original and a copy, and also was the first one to give me detailed answers to my questions. He explained that the safest route probably was to get the M visa. If I applied for it that day, there would be time to get my M visa and then, with an accelerated residence visa process, just barely enough time, not a day to spare, to pick up my visa and passport on the last business day before my trip.

Time was of the essence, though, so off I ran once again to the Immigration Bureau. I got there during their lunch and had to wait an hour before processing began. I took a number for the regular service windows, but seeing that there were about 40 people ahead of me, figured I would have time to first go through the special line to see the “leaders,” where I decided to risk talking to the police woman again and apologize profusely for my stupid mistakes and ask for mercy. I was soon invited to the dreadful window where my hopes had been dashed yesterday, but this time it was a different leader, a man in a police uniform. I humbly sat down and tersely explained my situation, handing him the letter. He asked to see information about my meeting and proof of the tickets I had bought, and then he said, “What you need is an M visa with a one-time in-and-out pass to attend an international meeting. Here, I’ll sign a note to that effect for you on your M Visa application form. Your pass will be good up to the day you return, Oct. 7.” Boom. In seconds, my dashed hopes were restored. He sent me back to the regular processing area where I was already queued in the system. Wonderful! Could it be so easy after all?

As I went back to the regular waiting area, I had another moment of panic. I was suddenly missing the passport photos that I had printed and had in a clear plastic bag inside a larger for safekeeping. I had them moments earlier and would need them now. I traced the few steps I had taken, looked under chairs, talked to a maid, talked to the line attendant, looked around the window where I had just been seated, checked my belongings again – they were truly gone and I never figured out what happened to them. In about 10 meters of walking I had lost them. Now what? It looked like I still had about 5 minutes before my number came up. I remembered that you could get passport photos taken on the ground floor, two stories below, so dashed down the escalator, ran over to the photo area, was amazed that there was no line to wait in, and immediately had a photographer taking my photos. I paid for them and then they were printed, and I dashed back up the escalator. When I arrived, my number was listed. Window A10 was open and waiting for me. Seconds later I would have lost my place and would have had to start over with a long queue.

She examined all my documents and the signed note from the leader. She said she could give me a 30-day M visa that would expire on Oct. 7. I recalled that my airplane was scheduled to arrive t 11:15 PM on Oct. 7. If it was a little late, it would be Oct. 8 when I reached customs. That would be a problem. What could I do? She said I could come back the next day, Sept. 8, and get a visa that would expire Oct. 8, giving me some extra cushion. But I was so sick of all the time I had spent already that I just wanted to hope that the place would be on time and that all would be well. I told her to process it today. OK, and she gave me a printed receipt for my M visa, including the electronic photo I had just taken (it was probably for the best to have the convenience electronic photo in their system) and folded up all my papers and passport and put them in a stack somewhere.

Off I went, relieved to be finished – and then I began to worry that I had made a terrible mistake. Even if the plane was on time, it would be hard to get to customs before midnight. Lines could be huge and slow. And it could take a long time to deplane. What was I thinking? Gave it a bit of thought and prayer and realized that of course, yes, I needed to change. So I turned around and went back to the same woman and apologized. “I’d like to start this tomorrow if possible.” She was OK with that and handed my back my materials.

Friday morning I was back and the same woman who was familiar with my situation and had examined my materials took them again, reprocessed my M visa application, and moments later handed my new receipt. My passport would be ready Sept. 19, today, and I would indeed receive it with a beautiful M visa that expires on Oct. 8, with a one-time entry pass and a note that I get another 30 days once I enter China again. Whew! Problem solved.

The part about restarting the clock with another 30 days was something I didn’t understand at first. In fact, after turning my materials in on Sept. 8, I was halfway to work again when I began to worry again. I would come back Oct. 7, my  visa would expire Oct. 8, a Sunday, and then I would be illegal on Monday, Oct. 9, before I would have time to apply for a residence permit. What to do? So I turned around and went back to the Immigration Bureau for my 5th time and asked the same woman this question, who kindly explained that I would get another 30 days upon re-entering China. Nice!

So many frustrations and problems, but the problems were solved as helpful officials explained a route that I didn’t know existed. But next year, I’ll be careful to avoid travel plans that might run unto these kind of trouble near visa renewal time, and I will take more initiative to make sure my work visa is being renewed well before my visa expires so there is enough time to be sure of getting it back first. Don’t want to go through these experiences again! But am grateful I did. I feel like I learned a lot about China in the process, and feel so grateful that everything I needed was provided in the end, just in time.

I also was reminded that even when things go wrong and disaster seems to be looming, positive steps to take can be found through prayer. The whole journey of this process was the result of many small blessings that ended up teaching me many things, some of which may be beneficial to others later. Don't give up prematurely and never give up on prayer in dealing with all your challenges.

Finally, as I waited for my passport to be processed, the final lurking question was when would my work visa be approved? If it was approved on July 12 by about 3 pm, then this whole tedious process would have been unnecessary. I could have just waited patiently, got the approval, and then submitted my normal residency permit application that day. Had I wasted a week of effort for naught?

My work visa was finally approved on Sept. 13, one day too late for the optimistic approach. The effort was needed after all. In fact, my personal, time-consuming effort was needed because had I relied on others to process this, the ideal route would not have been discovered. Plus had I tried to rely on our outside agency, the delays that would introduce would probably have resulted in further trouble and ultimately left me having to cancel the trip.


Saturday, September 09, 2017

Provident Living Just Got Harder, Courtesy of Equifax: Some Steps You Can Take (Hint: You Need a Credit Freeze)

Equifax is one of three large credit agencies that provide a valuable public service. They collect, gather, and store vast amounts of information about you and your purchases and payments, all without your consent and with no opt-out feature, thus providing a vital central source of information for the benefit of the community -- the hacker community, the spy community,  the organized crime community, and the financial services community (not necessarily mutually exclusive communities).

Equifax, like some of the communities they serve, sometimes has certain "issues" that might affect us. Issues like gross incompetence in protecting the sensitive data they collect without our permission. Issues like failing to take appropriate corrective actions. Issues like failure to act swiftly when there is a hacker attack.

You may have just learned that 143 million consumers just had their personal records hacked at Equifax. You learned it this week. Equifax executives learned about it on July 29 when the breach was discovered. One of the largest and potentially most harmful data breaches in history, one that most likely involves you and your data, addresses, many credit card numbers, social security numbers, and almost anything an identity thief might want. About half of Americans are now at risk for identity theft--actually about 2/3 of all Americans with a credit history.

This hacking attack had been going on for over two months before Equifax, with their horrific security, finally noticed the attack. Hackers had been progressively going deeper and deeper into their system. Ten weeks of probing, downloading, stealing, before Equifax woke up.  They failed to learn, for this was the third time in 16 months that Equifax has been hacked (other attacks were earlier in 2017 and in May 2016). Why so slow? And why was the response so slow when they found out?

Oops, my mistake, there was a swift response. The breach was discovered on July 29, a Saturday. It probably was shared internally among top executives by Monday, July 31. Then on the next two days, Aug. 1 and 2, right after  Equifax discovered this devastating attack that surely would result in heavy selling of their stock, 3 top executives at Equifax acted swiftly to protect, uh, their own interests as they sold $2 million of their sharesAccording to CNBC, "Chief Financial Officer John Gamble Jr., workforce solutions president Rodolfo Ploder and U.S. information solutions president Joseph Loughran, sold $2 million of Equifax stock on August 1 and August 2, ensuring that those shares would not face the pummeling that Equifax stock might face once the news broke out (down 13% right after the news -- is that all? no serious pummeling?).

Back in the good ol' days, this kind of thing might have been called "insider trading" and was strictly illegal. People would go to jail for it -- yeah, imagine that, it really happened! Real jails, even. But avoiding legal nuisances and being free to act as you wish seems to be the primary benefit of being a real insider with strong inside connections to the people supposedly in charge of enforcing what we used to call "the law." Per CNBC, Equifax has admitted that these executives sold "a small percentage" of their shares but insists that they really, really didn't know anything about the data breach. Nope, not a thing.

Perhaps those executives really don't know squat about their business. Perhaps just being an "information solutions president" doesn't mean you have access to actual information such as IT knowledge. Maybe it was just lucky timing, all a coincidence. Yes, it could be. But to me it seems like there should be a serious investigation and some bullet sweating here.

Over a month after discovering the massive attack, Equifax leaders finally decided it might be good to let the victims know what was happening to their data. Not like there's a need to hurry or anything, right? There was also a very fitting apology from the elites, issued directly from the mouth of Equifax CEO Richard Smith, who kindly took the time to say, or have his secretary say, “I apologize to consumers and our business customers for the concern and frustration this causes.” There you have it. There might be some frustration down the road as you, say, lose all your assets and find your life ruined, but know that Equifax understands that this can cause "concern" and has apologized. Check.

Simon Black of SovereignMan.com suggested a better apology:
Due to our utter incompetence and failure to learn from recent mistakes, we totally screwed 143 million people who never even consented to us monitoring them. And rather than even let them know right away, we quietly took care of ourselves first. We have that little respect for the public.
But let's not quibble over the ideal wording. The elites have done their duty with a standard apology and have gone back to business as normal. But for the rest of us, now what?

There are some steps you can take now to protect yourself. The most important one, though, will be to get a credit freeze on your account to stop criminals from opening accounts in your name.

First read CNET's "A guide to surviving the Equifax data breach (without Equifax's help)."  Also see the CNET story, "Equifax data breach: Find out if you were one of 143 million hacked." You can get started in protecting yourself by going to Equifax's page for one year of their weak "Trusted ID" program of credit monitoring. Enroll for that service here: https://trustedidpremier.com/eligibility/eligibility.html.  You can get the "Trusted ID" service for one year this way (but the stolen data will be used against you for many years, even decades to come, as Clark Howard wisely warns). Enter your last name and the last 6 digits of your social security number to get in line to enroll (how ridiculous that you can't enroll in one step!). If you get a response that says "Based on the information provided, we believe that your personal information was not impacted by this incident," don't trust that because it has been shown to be unreliable (what, something unreliable at Equifax?). Assume you have trouble and continue to enroll.

Clicking on the "enroll" button will give a date on which you can come back and continue enrolling. Snazzy, eh? I love what advanced programming skills can achieve. Please carefully note the enrollment date it gives you and go back on or after that date to try your luck in enrolling.

Obviously, Equifax believes that there's nothing urgent about this whole security business thing and that fear-mongering buzzword, "identity theft." And Trusted ID boils down to trusting the company who snatched and released all your private data to now somehow protect you from identity theft. Well, don't depend on that, but if it's really free for a year, might as well get it. It adds a level of security to your records and some form of insurance but doesn't begin to solve all the problems. You can also enroll relatives who aren't computer literate. (If you don't know their social security number, just ask any local hacker to check Equifax records for you, or give your relative a call to get the last six digits. And then, for good measure, lecture them for giving even part of their social security number out over the phone, given all the people who are probably listening these days.) 

For real protection, freezing your credit accounts, which we did long ago, is a smart step. This makes it very hard for a thief to open a credit card account in your name (also hard for you to open new credit card accounts, but still possible). Clark Howard thinks Equifax's Trusted ID is a waste of time and on his page, "Equifax breach: How to protect yourself from what’s coming next," recommends this instead:
The only way to truly protect yourself is with a credit freeze.

Lets say your information was exposed and criminals do try to open new lines of credit in your name — well, they won’t be able to if your credit file is frozen.

A credit freeze seals your credit reports and provides a personal identification number (PIN) that only you know and can use to temporarily “thaw” your credit when legitimate applications for credit and services need to be processed. So even if criminals try to use your info, they won’t be able to actually do anything with it.

And this goes for anyone, not just those impacted directly by this breach.

How to protect your identity: Take these 2 steps

1. Sign up for Credit Karma’s free credit monitoring: Go to creditkarma.com to sign up for a free account and you’ll get access to free credit monitoring. If they notice any suspicious activity, you’ll get an alert. Plus, Credit Karma also gives you free access to your credit scores and reports, as well as tips on what factors are impacting your credit.

2. Freeze your credit with all three main credit bureaus: By freezing your credit files, you can prevent criminals from using your information to wreak havoc on your financial life. Even if your info was not exposed by the Equifax hack, this is the best way to protect your identity and your money.

Check out [Clark Howard's] Credit Freeze Guide to learn how to freeze your credit with each main agency.
Please get a credit freeze.

The impact of this data breach on American lives could actually end up being greater than Hurricane Irma. Once hackers take your identity, you might as well have a hurricane rip your home to shreds, it can be that painful and costly.

Meanwhile, carefully examine your credit card activity for unusual charges and also get a free credit report to see if there are unexpected events happening like accounts with late fees or something that you never opened. You can also sign up for a free 90-day fraud alert. Details on all that are provided in the second CNET link above (here).

Our critics charge that Mormonism is all about money, which is not true. But having all your money stolen makes it a lot more difficult to enjoy certain aspects of life related to our religion, like having a home for family home evening, a vehicle or bus pass to go to church, food for food storage, a suit for that missionary you are sending off, and so forth. You can still get buy, but I'm hoping you will avoid unnecessary loss and be in the position of being able to generously help others with your resources. Get a credit freeze and be safe.

For those of us who already had a credit freeze in place, one legitimate question is this: did the hackers also access the PINs or passcodes that can be used to override a credit freeze when a customer wants to open another account? If so, then I might have a problem. I'll try to find out. If you know, please tell us. Meanwhile, I hope regulators will investigate Equifax for insider trading and the gross negligence in allowing this breach, catching it so slowly, and not alerting the victims promptly. And may consumers be given the ability to opt-out of such services that make us and our identity sitting ducks.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Fifty Years of Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon: The Story of Its Discovery

One of my favorite stories from the world of Book of Mormon studies is the discovery of chiasmus in the text by a young missionary serving in Germany. Fifty years later, the scholarship of Jack Welch on this topic has stirred significant related work from many who have looked at the Book of Mormon with new tools and insights. Here is a video from Book of Mormon Central which beautifully shares Jack Welch's story.



I have been inspired by his work and many of us have come to better appreciate the richness and antiquity of the Book of Mormon, aided by Dr. Welch's scholarship in this area.

Many thank to Brother Welch and the good folks at Book of Mormon Central. A video of this quality takes a great deal of effort. I hope you'll enjoy it.

Friday, September 01, 2017

Heroic Salt Lake Woman Stands Up for Law, Order, and a Patient's Rights -- and Gets Arrested by Salt Lake Police

I am a law and order guy. I was raised in a family with a mother who had a "Support Your Local Police" bumper sticker on our car, and I was proud of that. It's a motto that I still use and stand by. But we live in a society where local police are increasingly becoming militarized in attitude and hardware, and sometimes depart from their role of defending our inalienable rights. I've previously mentioned the horrific problem of "civil asset forfeiture" in which local police can seize your assets without a trial, without a warrant, without due process, and then profit from what they take (getting to keep 80% of the takings, with 20% going to the Federal Government). About 80% of those cases never have criminal charges filed, so the excuse that it's just being used to go after criminals is unfounded. It's a grotesque violation of the Bill of Rights that the Trump Administration firmly supports.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions just lifted a weak restraint against this corrupt practice that had been imposed during the Obama Administration, showing us that the Bill of Rights really is becoming meaningless. But the US Constitution is still there, it's still the ultimate law of the land, and those liberties are God-given regardless of what corrupt officers say. Citizens are still right to insist on their rights and to stand up for the rights of others, though preserving those rights often requires courage.

That brings me to the story of Alex Wubbles, a heroic nurse in Salt Lake City.  Alex showed great courage in standing up against a Salt Lake police officer who was clearly breaking the law and seeking to violate the rights of an unconscious patient. This woman stood up for the law and for that patient, and ended up being manhandled and arrested by the officer, and then rudely lectured by his supervisor as if she was the problem. Those who denounce police in general, sometimes in the interest of agitating and stirring up revolution, are especially interested in this story, but it should be most meaningful for those of us who want to support our local police and yearn for a civil, peaceful society with the rule of law under the largely inspired principles of the US Constitution.

A good overview of the story is "Infuriating: Police Arrest on Duty Nurse For Refusing to Break Law" at ZeroHedge.com (warning: that site tends to have a lot of profanity in the comments). Watch the video there or below to see Alex's calm courage. She appears at about 5:27 and the violent arrest occurs shortly after that. You can also read a follow-up story at the Salt Lake Tribune. An excerpt from the ZeroHedge story follows:


“Is this patient under arrest?” Alex Wubbles asks the officer, being instructed by legal counsel on the phone.
“Nope,” the officer says.
“Do you have an electronic warrant?” She asks, searching for a way to legally comply with the officers.
“No,” The officer admits bluntly, getting annoyed.
The police did not have a warrant. The police did not have probable cause. The man was not under arrest. The unconscious patient could not consent.
The nurse, Alex, printed out the hospital’s policy which the Salt Lake City Police Department agreed to. She showed it to the officers. She clearly and calmly listed the three things which would allow her to give the police the blood sample: a warrant, patient consent, or a patient under arrest.
The police had none of these things.
“Okay, so I take it, without those in place, I am not going to get blood?” The Officer Jeff Payne is heard saying behind his body cam.
The legal counsel on the phone tries to tell the officer not to blame the messenger, and that he is making a big mistake.
Then, the officer attacks the nurse, Alex Wubbles. He drags her outside, and handcuffs her, while she cries.
“What is going on?!” She says exasperated, wondering why they are doing this to her.
She couldn’t just break the hospital policy and put her job in jeopardy because some police officers illegally told her to. She couldn’t simply collude with the lawbreakers–the police–and illegally hand over a blood sample on behalf of an unconscious patient.
That would have opened her up to lawsuits and job loss.
The officers were, in fact, breaking the law. They had no legal right to demand blood from an unconscious patient who could not consent.
The man they wanted blood from was a truck driver who had struck a vehicle being pursued by the police. It is unclear why they would even need a blood sample from the victim.
But none of these legal facts stopped the police from placing the nurse under arrest.
Wubbles was handcuffed and placed in a police vehicle. She was never actually charged.
You could chalk this up to one crazy officer, Detective Jeff Payne with the Salt Lake City Police.
But then his supervisor showed up to the scene. While the nurse was handcuffed in the cruiser, the supervisor started to lecture her.
“There are civil remedies,” he said, telling her she should have broken the law when the officer told her to. Of course, this ignored the fact that she would have been caught up in the civil action against the officers!
It’s like an episode of the Twilight Zone as the Supervisor lies and says the nurse was obstructing justice. All the nurse wanted was a warrant signed by a judge, the legal requirement to execute a search! And yet not just Officer Payne, but his Supervisor insist that she should have given them what they wanted, without a warrant.
What? Yes, go get a warrant! That is what you have been repeatedly told by the nurse and hospital staff!
You can tell from the video she is not some anti-cop crusader. She was legitimately trying to do her job and follow the law to the best of her ability. Before she is arrested, you can tell she is worried and uncomfortable, trying her best to keep the situation calm and professional.
And then the police handcuffed and dragged a crying nurse out of the building to intimidate and harass her further.
She is a strong woman. She stood up to their bullying and lies and did not give in. Despite the best efforts of the police, she would not help them violate the Fourth Amendment rights of her patient.
The supervisor told the nurse that she should cooperate, and if something was illegal in their request, that there would be "civil remedies" later. Ridiculous. She would have been violating the law and very likely would have been sued for so doing. She could lose her job, lose everything, while also losing her integrity. That's what the supervisor expected of her. This reflects not just one rogue cop having a bad day. It reflects a mentality that needs to be rooted out. It reflects a growing loss of personal liberty in the United States. Citizens need to understand their rights and stand up for them. 

Thank you, Alex Wubbles, for defending the rights of an innocent, uncharged, unconscious patient. Thank you for standing for law and order in an increasingly lawless society where the law breakers aren't always just hoodlums running from the police.

A badge and a gun do not define the law, although some people feel that law is whatever those with the guns say and demand. May we return to a safe, civil society with the rule of law and law that conforms with and protects the inalienable, God-given rights of individuals.

Fellow Utahans, don't ignore this troubling story. Don't ignore the loss of personal rights as long as it's just someone else being dragged away in cuffs for doing what's right. Once liberty and basic rights are lost, they are not easily regained. Speak up. Support law and order, and help our local police become the kind of local police who not only refuse to participate in illegal civil asset forfeiture, but who won't abuse their power to get their way and trample on the rights of others.  We need effective local police whose leaders ensure that they follow and respect the law, particularly the Bill of Rights. Local police who respect their local fellow citizens should be a part of our local community that we are all proud of. Change is needed in Salt Lake and around the nation to regain that.