Discussions of Book of Mormon issues and evidences, plus other topics related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Christmas Coincidences, or the Blessings of Bureaucracy

If we were more skilled in listening to inspiration from the Lord and more diligent in seeking it, the Lord might not need to use so many blunt techniques to get our attention, including techniques like unusual coincidences to move us along. Perhaps. But some of these little blessings of chance and timing are so artful that I think they would continue just for the shear joy and wonder they can cause. In my life, Christmas seems to be a time with a relatively higher concentration of such blessings, like the story of the pink coat I once shared here.

To recap briefly, we once had a big group of Hmong people over at our house for a Christmas party. The Hmong people, many of whom settled in our part of Wisconsin, came to the US as refugees from genocide in Laos (see my "Tragedy of the Hmong People") after we got them involved in our deliberately no-win war in Vietnam (where the scope of that betrayal only became clear with the release of the Pentagon papers). That Christmas season was a time of bitter cold in Wisconsin. As our guests were wrapping up to return home in the cold, we noticed a sweet young girl getting ready to go out just wearing a sweater. What? Where's your coat? She didn't have one. Actually, other Latter-day Saints had given her a coat a few weeks earlier, but she was a girl who cared about style and wasn't going to wear an ugly coat. She'd rather freeze.

At that moment, I recalled that our Relief Society President had just given me a couple bags of clothes that might be useful for those in need. As we opened the closet and looked at the clothes, the first thing we saw was a pink coat at the top of a bag. We pulled it out and it looked like just her size. She lit up as she saw it. She put it on and it was a perfect fit. With a joyous smile, she was now able to step out -- in style. I think that moment warmed our hearts more than the coat warmed her. The perfect coat, in the right place and suddenly available at the perfect time to help. That's Christmas.

This season has also had its coincidences, including one that I think of as "the blessings of bureaucracy." China, a land rich in history, culture, and tradition, has also inherited thousands of years of tradition involving bureaucracy. Sometimes it can be very effective in maintaining order and keeping things flowing smoothly, but for foreigners coming to China, it can sometimes be maddening. The four scariest words in the Chinese language are "相关部门" or xiangguan bumen meaning "the relevant department." It's used in practical dialogs like this, which really need to be given more attention in Chinese textbooks:
Foreigner:  "Hi, could you help me? I need to fix a problem in my account."
Agent: "Sure. Do you have your official receipt [fapiao]?"
Foreigner: "Here you go."
Agent: "No, that's not official. You need the official document with the red stamp."
Foreigner: "Where do I get that?"
Agent: "From the relevant department."
Foreigner: "Relevant department? Where's that?"
Agent: "That's not my job. You should ask at the proper place."
Foreigner: "OK, what place?"
Agent: "The relevant department."
Foreigner: "But where?"
Agent: "Hmmm, maybe the 47th floor. Or the 45th."
Foreigner: "But this building only has 32 floors. Something is wrong here."
Agent: "If you want to make a complaint about the building, you'll need to go the complaints office."
Foreigner: "Let me guess, that would be located at ..."
Agent: "The relevant department. Next!"
We had a related experience recently when a newlywed couple stayed with us for a view days on China's visa-free 144-hour transit program, as I described on my blog at JeffLindsay.com.  We were on our way to the most beautiful downtown in the world (IMHO), the scenic Bund area of Shanghai to show them the combination of classical European architecture one one side of the river and bizarre gargantuan skyscrapers lit up in crazy beautiful lights on the other side. But first, we might need a few minutes (5? 10?) to stop at our local police station to get them officially registered.

Executive summary for what follows: Newlyweds + transit visa registration needs + surprise requirements (the bureaucracy part, but I mean this only in the most positive sense, of course) + accidental preparation = disaster averted and eventual success but a change in plans = accidental discovery of a fabulous new restaurant = a return visit a week later with a miracle in timing that leads to a joyous encounter with a recent convert = a Christmas dinner with her the next week and many blessings along the way. Call it the blessings of bureaucracy, the blessings of helping newlyweds, or the fun of being in China. 

With the transit visa (actually a visa-free pass for tourists), tourists can come into Shanghai and stay there for up to six days without having to get an official visa. Great system for a few locations in China. There are some restrictions, but the young couple had carefully researched that and were good to go. People using this program normally stay at a hotel who handles the important step of registering your location with the local police, but you can also stay with friends as long as you go to "a local police station" within 24 hours of arriving to register. That's what the official instructions said (in English) and what the immigration officer at the airport told them as they were allowed into China. So simple! What could go wrong? (Those are also four very scary words in China or anywhere else. If you hear them in your head, be nervous.)

Our friends had arrived at 4:45 AM on a Friday, so our time with them Friday night (we both had to work that day, after we got them settled) would be the only time to get them registered within 24 hours while police stations were still open. Our plan was to get a bite to eat at a local Taiwanese restaurant, then while it was still before 8 PM we would walk over to the nearest police station near our local subway line and from there move directly to the heart of downtown Shanghai for an evening of walking and marveling at the city. We would marvel indeed, but never made it downtown that evening.

Strangely, as were planning to leave, I had this thought that I might need my own police registration materials to update my residence permit. I had just overcome a grueling five-day battle (see "Five Days of Struggle to Renew a Visa: Some Discoveries in Dealing with Work Permit and Visa Issues") with various offices and relevant departments with numerous trips across town to renew my visa and work permit in time to be able to attend the World Intellectual Property Summit in Amsterdam, perhaps my most important and useful IP-related conference in recent memory, where I had the privilege of chairing day one and being a speaker, panelist, and panel chair -- so much fun in one of the world's friendliest and most charming cities. Yes, it worked out, thanks to a couple of kind officers who helped me overcome a big problem due to my timing, a slip up in an office at work, and recent changes in the rules. But were it not for some good officers being extra kind, it would have been disaster.

In the process of renewing my visa/residence license in September, I had needed to get a new local residence permit, but that was done with a temporary visa, and as we prepared to go out, I wondered if I might need to renew my own residence permit, and thus packed a few additional documents just in case. Probably not necessary, I thought, but maybe, just in case. Who knows? "Who knows?" and "just in case" are some of the best words to hear in your head, I've found.

As we walked to the restaurant for dinner, I thought about the time we had left and began to get nervous. Really nervous. Our logical plan to eat first suddenly seemed dangerous. "The instructions say 'a local police station,' but if something goes wrong, they might tell us to go back to the same police station we had to use when we registered our new address after our recent move [fifth move in six years -- aargh!] and that's further away. Since the registration service windows usually close at 8 PM, we might run out of time if we eat first and run into trouble. Let's go straight to the police and see." We were all hungry, but we agreed and went to the local Hongqiao police station.

We were first in line, nice, and were greeted by a friendly police woman. We explained what the young couple needed. She said, "OK, do you have your contract with your landlord?" Amazingly, I did! But first I protested. "Huh? The instructions don't mention a contract, and the authorities at the airport didn't tell them about a contract. Do you really need our contract?" She smiled, a very nice woman, and then laughed, "But of course you need a contract. Naturally we can't process this without a contract!" Naturally. But hurray, I happened to have it as part of the "just in case" documents I brought along. As she scrutinized the contract, she said, "Oh, you live down the street, that's in Minhang District. This is Changning District. You're across the border. You need to go to the local police in Minhang District." That was a long ways away. Again I pushed back, politely, explaining that the instructions didn't say there was only one relevant police station that we had to go, but merely say "a local police station." She laughed that off. "No, this is a different district. Of course we can't process it here." I smiled knowingly -- I should have been more knowing about this from the beginning -- and we thanked her and left.

On that busy street with dozens of taxis, it took over 20 minutes to get one for us. Then it took over 20 minutes to get to the world's one and only relevant police station where we could process the simple registration for our young couple. Time was ticking, but we still got there before closing, about 7:20 PM. And with passports and our contract in hand (such a blessing to have that!), we were ready.

We were greeted by another kind and helpful police woman. She looked at our documents, nodded her head (yay!), and then just had one question, one little question about one little relevant piece of paper. "Do you have the license from your housing management company?" This came as both a shocker and reminder of the Lord's tender mercies, for actually, YES, I HAD IT! In scooping up some "just in case" documents in case I might need to update my own residence permit (and no, I did not -- my current permit was fine), I had brought along a very obscure little scrap of paper from the company that manages our apartment complex that had our names and a nice big red stamp on it, many times one of the most beautiful things to see in China. But first, the protest: "What? Why is that needed? Nobody told them they needed that. None of the printed or published information seems to mention it. Are you sure it's needed?" Yes, absolutely sure. "Well, fortunately, we are very lucky because I actually have it. Here you go!" Ta da!

As we marveled at how blessed we were to have this with us, she scrutinized it and then observed, "But this is for you and your wife. We need a relevant registration for this couple." Now I was stymied. "How could we even hope to get that? This requires having a contract. They are just visitors. They don't need a contract to visit us. The management office isn't open now and won't be before their 24 hours expires, and even if they were open, they wouldn't give them a license since they are just visitors. Could you please help us and give us a break on this? Could you please just accept this license from us?" This woman was very kind to us. She thought for a moment and then, "This time I will let you use this. But next time, please bring the correct document." She could have sent us back to the relevant department, but showed us some tender mercy of her own. Whew!

When we finished, it was about 8 PM. We hadn't eaten and were far from a subway line. We started to walk to a busy street to find something to eat, but then saw an available cab drive by. We waved it down, and considered where to go. We felt like maybe we should just go back close to home and eat there and then maybe call it a night. So we told the cabbie to drop us off at the 1699 Gubei Mall, a new mall in our area with some good restaurants inside. But because we were coming from an unusual direction, we got dropped off on a side of the building that we haven't seen for a couple of months, the remote back side.

As we got out of the cab, we noticed that there was a new restaurant right there in front of that we hadn't seen before, even though we go to that mall every week. In fact, you can't see it from inside the mall. It's an external restaurant on the side most remote from us. But right away we were lured by it. It seemed so bright and very busy inside. I used to flee from busy places and still do if there's a big line to wait in, but now I generally like busy places because they are usually good and not too expensive. This place, the Xibei Restaurant, just looked great, so we went in and were able to be seated right away. The menu looked good -- lots of Western Chinese food, including specialties from Xi'An and other provinces. We had the best Chinese meal I've had in weeks and were delighted with every dish. A real winner and quite affordable. Each dish was worth talking about and revealed different aspects of China. We had so much fun talking and tasting. We got home feeling, strangely, "blessed by bureaucracy" and, of course, by the Lord and the many wonders the Lord has created in this world, including Chinese food. Seemed like a nice ending to a great adventure, but it was just an important preparatory step for our Christmas coincidence.

Newlyweds Leon and Nikita at Xibei Restaurant. (Photo and names used with permission.)

Clean open kitchen. Very nice, efficient operation with great service. 

An amazing wild mushrooms dish. Many varieties, so delicious.

From Xinjiang Province in the far western reaches of China, a flavorful noodle and chicken dish. 

One week later, after our friends had returned to the US and we were wrapping up a busy Saturday, my wife and I felt like it would be a good time to take a break and go get a bite to eat. Why not try that Xibei place again? Seemed like a good idea. It's within walking distance but we rode our bikes and were there in about 5 minutes. This time it was even busier, and there would be quite a lengthy wait to get a table. That's when I normally flee, but this time I felt relaxed, stayed calm and just thought waiting would be OK for such good food. But after six or seven minutes, I was wondering if maybe this would be a waste of too much time, and should we go someplace faster? There were dozens of choices nearby. That's when I saw Ling (name used with her kind permission), a friend of ours, a Chinese girl with a Singaporean passport and a recent convert to the Church. She's been facing some extremely trying challenges recently and has been in our prayers regularly. She was there with her son and parents. We were so excited to see them. They had been waiting for a long time, and invited us to join them as their table became available.

I was thoroughly puzzled about running into her. What is she doing way over here? She lives about 40 minutes away (an hour or so when traffic is especially bad). Meeting her in one of the hundreds of restaurants in our little corner of Shanghai is not quite like running into one of our friends at the mall in Appleton, Wisconsin, with a population of 70,000 people and fewer restaurants in the whole town that we have within walking distance of our home now. Shanghai has about 24 million people officially, maybe 35 or million if illegal or unregistered migrant workers from other provinces are properly counted. It's not just that there are 40 minutes of driving between Ling's home and our apartment -- there are probably at least 5 million people along the way, maybe more. In fact, most of the population of Shanghai is within a 40 minutes drive of where we live. We've never run into her or into most of our remote friends in China by chance like this before. To be there at the same time and to meet in a way that allowed us to dine together is just bizarre in this town (wonderfully, the restaurant had a big table for them that could fit two extra people, and a long wait for us got pared down to about 15 minutes -- whew!).

Strange events had brought her to this place so far from her home. In an truly unusual incident the day before, another person in their home, seeking to secure and protect the passport of her son who would soon fly back to Singapore with Ling and her parents for a few days, made the mistake of putting that passport in a bag that would be given to someone else living in our part of town. Could have been a disaster, but the other party noticed the passport and called her in time. She came out with her family to get it. While in the area, they chose to eat at a popular chain restaurant they knew of, Xi Bei.

Ling has been going through some real trials recently and has been in our prayers frequently. My wife, Kendra, feels especially tied to this family since it was her friendship with the husband that helped him start coming to church again and this helped Ling want to learn more. She's been such a precious and golden new member and we are so proud of her. This meeting was actually very important for us. We were so grateful to meet and to learn some critical information.

That wonderful, pleasant time at the newly discovered Xi Bei restaurant with her and her family would then lead to a Christmas meal with them again last night, this time at her home. There we would learn more about some of the challenges she is facing, including a business issue where an alleged friend of hers in another city has simply been copying everything Ling does with her business to create a completely fake copycat business online allegedly offering the famous Jamu post-natal massage products and techniques Ling has imported from Singapore in a rapidly growing business that is bringing amazing results to women who have just given childbirth, helping them to rapidly get back to their former skinny shape and fit into their old clothes. Ling's is an amazing business woman and a vibrant entrepreneur, but she needs some help in better protecting her business from thieves that some of my contacts might be able to provide (I am hoping to help encourage WeChat to take down a copycat site using her photos, a form of her business name, and photoshopped licenses). We'll see how this works out, but it certainly looks interesting.

Perhaps our meeting with her was just random chance, but we felt it was significant. We were so glad to meet and perhaps to be able to help and certainly to build better ties with her family and, yesterday at the dinner at her home that resulted from our visit, to also build tied with two of her friends, one of whom as a foreign passport holder was able to come to church with Ling today and also attended our Mexican-style "Posada" luncheon and singing activity in a suburb of Shanghai (more on that later -- such a fun Christmas tradition that I hope our branch can keep doing every year). It was all part of a joyous Christmas coincidence for us, once again.

For Ling, the Christmas coincidences continued after our chance encounter. Two days later in Singapore, Ling was on a hectic schedule and probably had no time to think about social visits. But as she was going down an escalator in that large city with millions of people and many dozens of malls, she saw one of her dearest friends from the Shanghai branch where she was baptized earlier this year (she now lives in and attends a different branch). That woman, as I understand, had played an important role in Ling's conversion and growth in the Gospel, but recently moved to Singapore. Among the millions there, to run into her dear friend by chance and have a sweet, joyous reunion that day was another strange and delightful Christmas miracle and coincidence for our sweet friend.  This was such a beautiful way for the Lord to remind her that she is noticed and loved. A spiritual pink coat for a great woman facing chilling trials. She, like all of us, may need more many miracles and coincidences along the way.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Two Christmas Gifts in the Same Week, After Months of Worry and Prayer

There are two people we have been especially worried about for the past five months or so. Almost daily these two people have been in our prayers. One is a relative with a world of potential who had fallen into old ways with bad people and drugs. The other was our part-time maid, part of the famous Chinese institution of the "ayi," a diligent, trustworthy woman living in Shanghai as an often unwelcome migrant from Anhui Province. Both were in deep trouble, one in the depths of addiction and one in a Chinese jail. And both just received a glorious shot at lasting freedom in the same week. One due to the kindness of a Utah relative who took on the risk and expense of rescuing a young lady in trouble, and one due to the kindness and diligence of several people, perhaps, plus a legal system that proved to be fair in the end.

Our maid has had a lot of trouble in Shanghai. "Anhui people are just bad" a friendly cabbie told my wife and our maid as the two were taking a cab together one day. He said that to her face. Others would say similar things right to her face. Most people in Shanghai are decent and polite, but there are some ugly biases that can crop up, as in anyplace with humans. Locals can often tell by looking or certainly from the accent that someone is from Anhui. This foreign land of Anhui, source of so many unwelcome and often illegal migrants in Shanghai, are not exactly foreigners. They are the province next door, about an hour or two by train from Shanghai. Anhui is to Shanghai like Idaho or Nevada is to Utah -- geographically, that is. Hope you Idahoans get treated well in Utah. I once made the move from Boise to Salt Lake, and it seemed OK, but perhaps I was too young and naive.

The story of our maid is one I've shared here before (see "An 'Ayi' for an Eye") while hopeful for an early release. A brawl in a mahjong parlor resulted in a man being blinded. Our maid tried to stop the fight, as we understand, but ended up getting blamed for being part of a group crime. After one month, we were hopeful that bail would be offered, but it was not. But after 5 months, as the case was about to be scheduled for trial, an officer in charge of reviewing evidence ruled that there was no evidence against her and issued a certificate of innocence and allowed her to go. The Chinese legal system worked in the end, and we are so grateful. Perhaps all our gratitude should be directed to the diligent officer who made that determination. But there are three other people who went the extra mile to help, and their influence may have made a difference as well, especially since the three other people accused in the fight will be serving from 3 to five years in jail. Ouch.

But now she is free! With her kind permission, I can include a few photos from the reunion we had shortly after her release. The setting, a plush mall next to where I work, is not the kind of place she frequents, for the record, but it was a good choice for the delicious Yunnan-style restaurant we took the family to for a celebratory dinner. When she saw my wife enter the mall, she rushed toward her and gave her one of the most heart-warming embraces I have seen. Two friends, long separated, back together. Such a relief.

Today in a board meeting for one of the best charities I've seen, the Huang Yi Cong Foundation of China, a major and carefully run charity funded by my employer and fellow employees (I am so excited to have just started this new role today, though I've been a fan and supporter of this incredible organization even since coming to China -- they have some expertise and experience that ought to be studied by the Church, IMHO), I got to publicly express my gratitude to one of the best Chinese leaders I've seen in the business world, the head of our legal department, for his kind action to help rescue our maid. When peers of mine told him about our maid's plight in jail, on his own he took the initiative of bringing in and introducing me to an excellent lawyer and old friend of his who was willing to charge less than half of the normal fee to help the family. Before we connected the lawyer to them, they didn't even know they could get the help of a lawyer (!), and through his help, they were able to finally visit their wife and mother and get a sense of hope. Having a good lawyer may have been key. Actually, I think a fair result would have occurred in any case, but the lawyer helped the family a great deal in the process, I think, and gave us vital information about what was happening.

I am also deeply grateful to two other Chinese men, one a highly honored Party member with a great deal of practical wisdom, and one now living in America but very influential in some major Shanghai circles. Both agreed to make an effort to inquire about the case to learn more. My hope was that by at least asking questions, it would encourage good but often overworked people to do their job well and not let things fall through the cracks. I really don't know if that could possibly do any good, but it was something I felt I should try. I am so grateful for their response and concern for a stranger. That really moves me when I think about it. There's a lot of goodness among Chinese people.

In the end, though, I think the lawyer and the other efforts people made might not have made any difference -- I trust that and hope that the system would have released her in any case -- but it made a difference to her and to the family, for it let them know that they were not forgotten. Sometimes that's the best we can do in our trials and afflictions, to let others know that they are not forgotten, and sometimes that's the most valuable revelation we can get from the Lord in coping with our afflictions: that He knows, that He has not forgotten us, that we are not forgotten by Him who descended below all things, and that in the end, there will be justice, mercy, and His abundant love to embrace us and welcome us home, free at last.

Two wonderful women and friends, both given new hope through the kindness of others. What wonderful Christmas news! Thanks to all who helped our friends in these trials, and thanks to all of you who help others in so many ways to have a shot at freedom, to have joy, or to know that they are not forgotten in their darkest days.

By the way, one of the advantages of China's Great Firewall, as much as I dislike it, is that this blog and all almost all things Google are blocked, so I don't have to worry too much about Chinese people seeing this site. This lets me praise people close to me without the awkwardness of being an overt brownnoser. But you would be genuinely surprised at how much brownnosing some people in my life deserve! I love the goodness that I often find in this grand country.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Buzz from Sweet Cozumel

This summer my wife's family had a brief family reunion on a ship that went from Miami to Cozumel, Mexico. Though much of what we saw on land was quite touristy, I loved Cozumel for the diving it provided, including a dramatic drift dive where the current took us past beautiful corals and wildlife, including many large turtles. (Scuba Tony was the service we arranged to use based on my wife's research and their decent price. Very happy with them.)

I wasn't the only one who was impressed with their first visit to Cozumel. Exactly 500 years ago in 1517, when Cordoba came to the Yucatan, Cozumel also impressed the invaders. They used the Spanish word "miel" in naming it. "Miel" means honey, which was abundant there and elsewhere in Mesoamerica. I just learned that today in some reading that began with "Honey: Sweet Maya Legacy" by Karen Hursh Graber at MexConnect.com, who discusses the ancient Mayan tradition of raising stingless honeybees. Trading honey from these bees was a part of their ancient economy. According to Graber,
When Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba arrived in the Yucatan from Cuba in 1517, he found bee yards with thousands of wooden hives, producing enough honey to be traded all over Mesoamerica. Honey was of utmost importance to the culture and economy of the Maya; this is reflected in the fact that one of the four surviving Maya books, the Madrid Codex, is devoted to bees and beekeeping.
This is interesting to me, of course, because a common misguided complaint about the Book of Mormon is that its reference to honey is anachronistic because honeybees did not exist in the Americas before the Spaniards came. It's misguided on several counts, as I discuss on my LDSFAQ page about apparently anachronistic plants and animals in the Book of Mormon (just updated moments ago).

Curious about Graber's statement, I soon found another useful source that led me back to Cozumel. The source is Marshall H. Saville, "The Discovery of Yucatan in 1517 by Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba," Geographical Review, Vol. 6, No. 5 (Nov., 1918), pp. 436-448, available at Jstor.org and also at Archive.org as plain text or as an image/PDF). Saville writes:
Cervantes de Salazar narrates that after leaving Cuba the expedition came into shallow water one night, and "at ten oclock in the morning with great joy they sighted land and came to the weather side of a small island that was called Cozumel on account of the great quantity of honey which was there." [Cervantes de Salazar, Cronicá de la Nueve España, Book 2, Chap. 1, p. 60, as cited by Saville, p. 445]
For those tempted to reflexively say that Joseph Smith, the inveterate bookworm, could have and or maybe surely would have been aware of Cervantes de Salazar and the history he wrote, Mayan honey and all, Saville has a valuable observation in a footnote on p. 438:
The fact that Francisco Cervantes de Salazar had written a history of New Spain was known, but the whereabouts of the manuscript, if indeed it had been preserved, was unknown until the end of 1911, when it was seen by Mrs. Zelia Nuttall in the Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid. Mrs. Nuttall communicated.
Of course that doesn't matter because the Book of Mormon doesn't really require honey in the Americas and even if it did, Joseph could also have learned that there was pre-Colombian honey from the great European naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt, were Joseph the consummate literati he seems to have become today in the eyes of some critics who try to explain away the miracle of the Book of Mormon as a product of knowledge from Joseph's day. But Saville's note on Salazar's history is an interesting reminder of some of the limitations to knowledge that even avid bookworms faced in the 19th century. Not everything we can access from old sources was available in the 19th century, not even for those near the EIS (the Erie Information Supercanal) and especially not for those holed up in the information desert of Harmony, Pennsylvania, where the Book of Mormon translation largely took place, far from libraries and bookstores and circles of elite literati buzzing with the latest data on Arabian Peninsula geography and Mesoamerican fauna.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Ward Council Thinking, Fast and Slow

At a recent branch council meeting for the Shanghai Branch, one of three branches for foreign passport holders meeting in Shanghai, I was asked to conduct some brief training in my role as a counselor in the District Presidency. In this training, I mingled a little scripture with some of the leading philosophies of men, especially the outstanding thinking of Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics and author of one of my favorite books, Thinking Fast and Slow.

I began by discussing how easily experts can be deceived and make poor decisions. I turned to Kahneman's discussion in Chapter 19, "The Illusion of Understanding," and Chapter 20, "The Illusion of Validity," which address the many ways in which we can mistake luck for wisdom and the ways in which experts can be misguided and can falsely rely on their experience and confidence to make poor decisions, falling pray to various cognitive illusions. Kahneman discusses the terrible results obtained by managers of investment funds who often underperform the market, and high rate of misdiagnosis from doctors. My point in discussing these issues was to show why Kahneman warns against trusting our own opinions and why we need what he calls "the outside view" to help us have new perspectives and information to guide decision making. This is one of the reasons why the Lord's work is done through councils, not just a lone person calling all the shots.

Kahnemann in "The Illusion of Validity" refers to results of individual investors in the stock market, and notes that investors who trade the most tend to do worse, selling good stocks too early and holding on to poor stocks too long in hopes that they will turn around. Interestingly, he cites a paper showing that men tend to be worse investors than women (p. 214), for men tend to act more frequently on useless information they receive, resulting in more bad trades and general underperformance relative to female investors. My own experience is not highly inconsistent with that observation. Sigh.

I related this to the council given in the LDS Handbook of Instructions on ward councils, which tells us that the voice of women needs to be heard in councils, and that women can bring  perspectives that are often significantly different from those of men (this came as a complete shock to me, of course). As Kahneman explains, having access to different perspectives to help us get past our own cognitive illusions is critical for success in decision making, and this part of the inspired power of ward and branch councils.

I told the sisters and the entire group to never be afraid to share divergent opinions. Don't let the obvious view of the majority keep you quiet, but feel free to share what you see, know, or feel. It may not change the decision, but it may provide the urgently needed outside view that can help the council consider the right information and make a wise decision. Be patient and respect the results, but never hesitate to share your differing viewpoints. And for the rest of the council, never assume your perspective is clear and accurate. Humbly recognize that you may be facing a cognitive illusion and are desperately in need of further information that may come from a lone source. Be open and respect the input from all and seek the input from all. That's the secret to success in ward and branch councils.

Friday, December 01, 2017

Fabulous Gift for Book of Mormon Fans: Watch Lehi in Arabia for Free

Lehi in Arabia video: Book of Mormon evidences from Arabia
Perhaps the single best book related to Book of Mormon evidence is Warren Aston's Lehi and Sariah in Arabia, available on Kindle. Related to it is the delightful DVD, Lehi in Arabia, where you can see the places Aston has explored and learn the story not only of the remarkable discovery of the leading candidate for Bountiful, but also of the finding of costly altars from Lehi's day bearing the prominent NHM tribal name from the ancient Nihm tribe still in that part of Yemen today, a region that fits multiple requirements for the place called Nahom in 1 Nephi 16.

As a gift for anyone interested, it is now possible to watch the Lehi in Arabia video for free at Amazon.com. On Amazon's page for Lehi in Arabia, you can buy the digital video for $8, rent it for $2, or watch it for free if you sit through a short ad at the beginning. For the physical DVD, buy it directly at the Lehi in Arabia website (www.lehiinarabia.com), which I have done, for $14.95. While I encourage buying the DVD and or renting the DVD to support Warren's efforts, feel free to watch the video for free and have all your friends watch it for free, and then you can all just make a donation to the Khor Kharfot Foundation. That donation will support further research (not just LDS research -- a team of non-LDS specialists are also involved) at the unique site of Khar Kharfot, including Wadi Sayq, a miraculously fertile but endangered garden spot in the nation of Oman with unique species and a mysterious past. So beautiful, so interesting, so nearly due east of Nahom, and still essentially uninhabited because it is so hard to access unless you are, say, coming from the west and manage to enter just the right wadi by aid of a good map and compass or smart GPS (divine or otherwise), as Lehi did. Watch the video and realize just how impressive the growing evidence from the Arabian Peninsula is for the ancient plausibility of the Book of Mormon's account of Lehi's Trail.

I especially love the moment in the video (starting at 30 minutes in until about 33 minutes) where Warren's 14-year-old daughter turns out to be the key heroine in the discovery of Bountiful. A good case study for you leaders of youth encouraging young women to listen to the Spirit and make big contributions in their lives.

As you watch this video, it may help you sense as I do that the author of 1 Nephi was a real man, an ancient man who once lived in a beautiful green spot on the coast of Arabia before he and his family embarked on a dangerous voyage to his future Promised Land. This video, free or otherwise, could be a wonderful gift to share with others. Thank you to Warren Aston and his family for making this possible.

If you are grateful for this gift, consider making a donation to the Khor Kharfot Foundation. Also buy the book Lehi and Sariah in Arabia and write a review.

A Thanksgiving Gift: Our Maid Is Out of Jail, At Last

Just a few days after Thanksgiving came a gift we have been praying for daily over the past six months: the release from jail of our friend and our part-time maid ("ayi" in Chinese), a kind mother from Anhui province whose plight I discussed in an earlier post, "An Ayi for an Eye," back in July when I thought she was about to be released. 

After being accused of being part of a fight that blinded a man, she has spent nearly six months in jail under harsh conditions. After five months without the normal or common opportunity for bail, her case was about to be scheduled for hearing by a court, but the judge recognized that the evidence was weak. He gave the local police a month to update their evidence. I am not sure how that went, but suddenly this week our maid was released and given a certificate saying that the was innocent. How grateful I am that she has been released!

It is so good to see that the Chinese legal system here can recognize when a possible mistake has been made by local police and can free a prisoner that the police have accused. The quality of judges here and the professionalism of many in the system has advanced greatly, I understand. But six months is a long time to be in a place with very limited conveniences and perhaps not the best food in town. She is very thin now and quite weak, but is hoping after some recovery to get back to work soon. We will be going to dinner with them in a few days, after she rests a little more. It will be so good to see her again. Her husband and son are so relieved to finally have mom back!

Why was she in jail? Based on what I understand from reports from her family and the attorney, she was at a mahjong parlor when a fight broke out involving the boss of the parlor, a parlor that had an illegal gambling operation of some kind with a slot machine. Our maid was there to play mahjong, not the slot machine that the boss had in a side room.

It was in the side room where the fight broke out when a woman from her table, a relative, went in to play and won some money that the gambling boss reused to pay. The argument became a fight, aided with a man from our friend's table. From what we understand, our maid tried to break up the fight and protect an aunt of hers who was being punched by the boss, but she may have been thrown under the bus by the boss and the angry man who may have been the one who delivered the blows that blinded an eye. Our friend, according to her account and supported by other evidence according to her attorney, was not part of the fight.

I can speculate that both the victim (the mahjong boss) and the apparent perpetrator would have reasons in their statements for expanding the group of people involved, one to expand the list of people who could be forced to pay the huge compensation he was seeking (1.2 million RMB) and one to dilute his personal responsibility. In any case, one could say that by acting to help protect a woman being punched by a man, our maid got wrongly accused of a crime and was thrown into a holding facility. The local police of Huangpu District appeared to take a harsh stance against our maid and would not even offer bail. My experience with the Huangpu police has been very positive -- they once came to my home within about 10 minutes after I reported the loss of an iPad that I thought was stolen (my bad!), and were extremely friendly and professional, and they have done a great job in making downtown Shanghai such a safe place. I respect our local police in many ways. So I was puzzled about the seemingly harsh stance against our maid. Perhaps out of excessive sympathy for the injured boss? In any case, after one month, the Chinese system requires review of the reasons for holding, and they continued to pressure for her to be held in jail even though the evidence against her was weak. I was so disappointed that she had to remain incarcerated until her case came up for a hearing, which often takes about six months. Fortunately, the judge over the hearing saw the problem, questioned the reasons for imprisonment, and let her go home, innocent. Justice at last!

Our daily prayers now include a relative of a good friend who I strongly believe was falsely accused of domestic violence by her own husband and is wrongly in jail. It's an even more troubling case but there is powerful evidence for her that I hope will swiftly resolve her case. I cannot say more at this point.

China has made so much progress in so many ways, but as in any country, there can be painful problems from the bad behavior of some individuals. Justice can be found, but it may be slow. And prayers can be answered, but months or years may be needed. Keep praying and keep China in your prayers.