Thursday, May 6, 2021

Reflections on Blade Runner 2049

 Includes spoilers

I've seen several future dystopia shows now with similar themes (e.g. Anon, Matrix, Altered Carbon, A.I. (2001), Battlestar Galactica, Her (2013), Terminator, Westworld, USS Callister). One of those themes is a human-like AI that wants to be human/"real". In order to blend in with humans, they have to have emotions, consequently consciousness sparks and then you're rooting for the human-craving AI who's trying to defeat the heartless totalitarian regime that created it. 

While I'm skeptical about the depicted relationship between emotion and consciousness, three aspects of this film resonated with me. The first was how effectively the audience follows the protagonist, going right along with his delusions (primarily, that he's human and was born rather than fabricated). Toward the end, for instance, he gets repeatedly wounded in a series of combat situations yet keeps on fighting. You know that a human couldn't take that much injury and keep on, yet you keep hoping against hope that somehow he's an exception.

Which leads to the second aspect: the belief that you're special and meant/positioned/destined to play a pivotal role in a world-level drama. The protagonist believes he's special, the linchpin of a conflict between the ruling regime and the rising power and the rebels, the virgin birth (in his case, he's the impossible offspring of two human-like AIs) destined to reach that moment to save or abandon humanity. Eventually he faces the truth that he's a run-of-the-mill AI and a pawn in a chess game between much larger forces. 

I compare that insight to my faith journey, where for a quarter-century I bought the story that I was so important to the universe that a God sacrificed himself for me, so I could avoid endless hell and instead become a god myself through my decisions and behaviors. As part of my faith transition I came to see my religious behaviors, such as selling Mormonism for two years as a missionary, as the behaviors of a pawn in a chess game between much larger forces: and realized that there's no evidence for that story about my future or import to the world. I'm still impacted by the remnants of a belief that I can/will make a big positive mark on the world, born of the idea that I was one of the chosen few that knew and would implement God's plan.

The third aspect is the repulsion we have to the idea that our deepest experiences surrounding our identity and relationships, are common or the product of someone else's design. A.I. (2001) explores this theme as well when an AI discovers and attacks his clones. In Blade Runner 2049 the protagonist eventually realizes that his romance with his digital assistant was the result of an intentional design, and that the digital assistant was just a scalable program that was probably doing versions of the same thing to tens of thousands of others ("everything you want to see… everything you want to hear" - reminds me of Harari's exploration of our hackability). 

Our family relationships, the experience of falling in love, etc. seem to be the most real of our human experiences and identity: could they really be so common and programmable? We resist the claim, though rationally we know that consciousness is not magical or supernatural. It has emerged at least tens of billions of times through the natural process of a human child's development: and if they can result from evolution, then experiences like falling in love can surely be manufactured as well. Why does this logic feel so threatening? Is such resistance inherent to consciousness, or just happens to be common in the human version of consciousness? 

I'm a fan of movies that leave you thinking, and I'm here writing this several days later, so I'll add myself to the fan list on this one. 

Saturday, March 20, 2021

The Sweet Scent of Failure

I've heard many claim that social media posts are overly rosy compared to reality: we post the best pictures of ourselves, highlight our successes, etc. and omit the ugly, boring, and the failures. I'm certainly guilty of this. 

Well today I'm going one step in the opposite direction by listing eight of my material failures! These are things I tried quite hard to achieve or change, and mostly missed the mark. 

Promotion at work

It's been 7 years since I was last promoted, and it's not for lack of effort. I've done a number of things to uplevel my skills, showcase my work, and maximize my impact, all to no avail. For various reasons, I've now been passed up on three distinct occasions where I tried to bag that coveted promo. 

Freeing BYU

I've been writing about the lack of religious and academic freedom at BYU for a decade now. For five years between 2013 and 2017, I actively led FreeBYU in efforts to reform the BYU honor codes (I've been partially active in that endeavor since). Yes, we've had a number of wins during that time, including honor code change in 2015. However, in practice, it's still the case that LDS BYU students who leave Mormonism risk expulsion, eviction, and termination.

Bar prep course at law school

I poured dozens of hours into researching, writing, and advocating for BYU Law to add a bar prep course offering. (In a nutshell, the reasoning is that students have to more or less pay a second tuition at a second law school called "bar prep" in order to gain the credentials needed to work in their field. Given the consensus in the literature that the third year of law school is largely worthless and that law school is overpriced, adding a bar prep offering provides a student-friendly option for getting to the point of practicing law sooner and less indebted). How did it turn out? Yeah, nah

Change laptop policy in the MPA program

When I was in grad school in the Marriott School, they had a policy against using laptops for “non classroom purposes” during class. I contested the policy, pointing out the opportunity and other costs it imposed on students. My documents and pitches came to naught. 

Advancing governance equality in Mormonism

The vast majority of hierarchical roles in LDS structures are occupied by men rather than women. I wrote a book and gave a number of presentations and other pieces of activism advocating for eliminating sex-based barriers in these power structures. I haven't seen evidence that these efforts moved the needle at all. 

Getting a profitable job that leveraged my law degree

After graduating law school, I searched for months for a job where I could use either my skills or the JD credential to land gainful employment. I came up blank, eventually landing a law job that paid so poorly I couldn't afford rent. 

When I then switched fields to HR, my license to practice law proved an impediment to converting to full-time due to the HR head's belief that I was a flight risk ("why would he stay here when he could earn twice as much practicing law")? These were two of the payoffs for the four years of expense, effort, and opportunity cost I spent on getting licensed to practice law. 

Normalizing homosexuality in Mormonism

When I wrote my book, I naively thought my research and writing would help change minds and practices. "Look at this flaw I found that's needlessly and substantially and predictably harming tens of thousands of people, surely those in power will change course once they see!" 

My book did influence a few dozen people, and those impacts are quite meaningful to me. However, the primary drivers of LGBT animus and rejection of gay families in that community persisted regardless.


For a couple years I dedicated much discretionary time to building a product that leveraged the simplicity of pairwise comparisons and the math of elo ratings (used to rank players in chess, for instance).  I planned early applications in providing extremely good recommendations on what book to read, or what movie to watch, next. I eventually decided that it was taking too large a share of my non-work time and money to advance and pulled the plug. 

I haven't given up on the dream, but with parenting duties and other drags the Stackranker ambition's near-term chances are dim indeed. 

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

The Relationship Between Controversy and the 2011 Honor Code Change

Pasting without edits my recent email response to a USGA blogger, referencing a suggestion I emailed them

Hi Brad,

We are planning on posting your article to the blog this friday. I have some questions from our editorial team to help refine the article.

"A professor of mine who was on the honor code committee shared with me his belief that the honor code was changed to make it more difficult for conservative voices to succeed in ensuring I was publicly disciplined..."
1. Would you be willing to say which professor it was?
I've given some thought to this. This professor who shared his belief with me orally still works at BYU, and I have an ongoing friendship with him. I think naming him would complicate our relationship, so I'm leaning against disclosing his identity. 
However, if it would aid the editorial team's credibility, we can explore me screensharing the written communications I referenced so you/team can verify the sources' roles (the influential BYU professor and the emeritus general authority).
2. Are you aware of any other pressures besides protecting you for disciplinary action that may have prompted the change to remove the advocacy clause?
Though there may have been some who were interested in protecting me from honor code discipline on principle, I'm skeptical that was a driving force. There are a great many who are invested (financially and otherwise) in the reputation of BYU and the J. Reuben Clark Law School: these stakeholders value those institutions' recognition from peers and competitors, and stood to suffer from reputational damage caused by negative media attention that would likely have resulted were I disciplined for violating the advocacy clauses. These institutions' ability to attract talented faculty, funding, and collaboration with faculty at other institutions depend on perceptions of these institutions upholding norms of academic freedom and freedom of thought (example of the press attention and consequences when violations of those norms come to light, and an example of a collaborative venture that relies on these perceptions). 
The voices behind these interests, and others, may have contributed to the change for similar reasons. Immediately below I explain how the broader same-sex marriage issue may have influenced content and timing of the removal.
3. Do you believe your book was, in large part, why the honor code changed?
Without direct access to the relevant conversations of the decision makers (the Board of Trustees) and those who influenced the decision makers, it's difficult to ground a belief in the causes of the 2011 change. What we can say is that all the honor code changes of recent decades have one thing in common: recent or imminent public controversy.  Most of these you detailed in your earlier article, and were directly related to homosexuality. Other examples include:
The salience of the public same-sex marriage debate in late 2010 may have influenced the content and timing of the 2011 honor code change. For instance, "on December 6, 2010, the judges heard oral arguments, which were also televised and made available on C-SPAN" in the Perry v. Schwarzenegger Prop 8 case. The lead counsel in that case, Chuck Cooper, spoke at BYU Law in September 2010 on the subject, accompanied by several VIPs including First Quorum of the Seventy member Lance Wickman and Von Keetch (former clerk for Justices Warren Burger and Antonin Scalia, as well as chief outside legal counsel to the LDS Church, later executive director of the church's Public Affairs Department and, for a time, my stake president).  The emeritus general authority wrote to me around that time: "Now, I must give my counsel and express my concern on your subject.  You have every right to have your viewpoints and I would think, knowing you, that they are sincere and carefully stated.  I must say, however, that you have picked a subject that is fraught with peril to you and to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  To write on this subject at any time is going to stir up significant controversy, but right now is one of the most controversial times to publish anything on the subject.  The Church has strong views in favor of marriage as it has been defined and practiced  virtually since the beginning of time. The official Proclamation on the Family states those views and contains the official views of the Church to the world and to Church members. Members are free to hold..." (italics mine; quote continues into the excerpt I included in my initial email).  

Marrying a same-sex partner is a "homosexal behavior," and supporting same-sex marriage is viewed by many as "promoting homosexual relations as being morally acceptable."  Thus, supporting same-sex marriage violated the honor code. Since this position was blossoming at the time among BYU students/faculty and has only grown in that population since, removing both advocacy clauses in advance of the Prop 8 ruling that issued shortly thereafter prevented the negative media attention and related consequences risked by disciplining a growing group of BYU students/faculty for supporting same-sex marriage. As your article described it, "This new revision now permitted students to openly support and affirm queer relationships and legislation."

In all the honor code changes of recent decades, the timing of honor code changes correlated closely to controversies directly related to the content of impacted honor code language. Given all the above, (A) the evidence we have of relevant and high-level BYU officials' concern (e.g. President Samuelson, law school deans, and general authorities), (B) the timing of these concerns in the months immediately preceding the change, and (C) the publicity the book was gathering in the months immediately preceding the change (including purchase by the BYU Library in addition to being sold out at the BYU Bookstore and being reported on by QSaltLake and PrideInUtah), in conjunction with the marriage equality milieu, it's the strongest contender I know of that explains both (1) the content of the change and (2) its timing. 

It may have been that my book/situation was simply the "case in point" needed to make the change at that point in time, rather than later after several instances of bad press surrounding enforcement of an anti-same-sex marriage honor code position increasingly at odds with ecclesiastical practice. Since 2010, LDS leaders have required public opposition to same-sex marriage less and less (when juxtaposed against what they required during Prop 8 in 2008), especially as same-sex marriage has won judicial and legislative victories in ever-more jurisdictions around the world. In the two years before the honor code change, as many countries legalized marriage equality as had done so in the century before that period: and legalization has blossomed since Feb 2011 in the US and beyond in a way that, notably, was predictable in the months preceding the change. Increased societal and legal acceptance of same-sex marriage introduces conflict between required opposition to marriage equality and members' support of local laws, as well as their increasing support of marriage equality. Making the change in February 2011 prevented the negative consequences of disciplining a growing population of marriage equality-supporting BYU students/faculty that was predictably expanding for these reasons. It also avoided the negative consequences of widening the gulf between what church leaders do, and what BYU does, to members who support marriage equality.

4. How do you feel about the idea that the honor code can be changed to protect students from itself?
Would you please clarify this a bit? Do you mean altering the honor code such that students are less likely to (1) violate it, (2) be harmed by discipline that results from violating it, or (3) something else?
5. What are your thoughts on the duality of the Honor Code protecting you from conservative voices, but also representing conservative voices? Do you think there is conflict within the Honor Code committee and CES?
Though I'm grateful that I didn't become the subject of honor code discipline, as mentioned above that outcome seems more likely attributable to preserving institutional reputation than it does protecting an individual student.

With respect to conflict within the honor code committee and CES, there's nothing I can say from first-hand experience. On the basis of what I've heard from sources more seasoned than I and more familiar with the politics in such organizations, I would be surprised to find no tension between conservative voices and relatively progressive forces in the honor code committee, the Board of Trustees, and CES. In addition to the communications I've already shared with you, another BYU professor wrote me:
"I am not at all surprised at the warning from the ex-GA, nor the sensitivity of Pres. Samuelson; such stuff is totally predictable. People in the hierarchy are part of an organization that wants to control everything possible that is in any way associated with them. Individuals elevated to positions in that hierarchy get there by buying totally into the mindset.  And yes, you should realize that the folks upstairs have very very long memories.  If you personally have any leadership aspirations at all, this book will greatly complicate your future...
We are always counseled to not "aspire to ecclesiastical office" -- but a great proportion of our people definitely do --- and that definitely includes BYU presidents.  Wives and relatives are all a-flutter when their husband or relative is called to be a bishop, and it only gets worse as men climb the ladder...  it is sadly true that you should consider your own situation and that of any wife involved; wives have to carry whatever fame or opprobrium their husbands incur.  I say this not to discourage you from publishing a truly unusual and valuable work, but so that you may make decisions fully aware of long-term implications."

The influential professor I mentioned provided a similar lesson about aligning to the conservative position in the interest of my future career in the church (italics mine). "I took a class in public speaking. One of our assignments was to give a persuasive talk on something that we didn’t believe in and convince the audience (i.e. the class), that what we didn’t believe in was in fact true. It was probably the most difficult talk I have ever prepared and given. I chose to defend euthanasia. I worked on that talk for several weeks. Finally the day came for me to present. According to the professor I did a marvelous job.  I got so much praise from the talk that I thought I must be telling the truth. One day it dawned on me that I had been so convincing that I actually believed what I had presented. After reading what the Church said, I knew I was wrong.

            It has been over four decades since I gave that talk and I still have to struggle not to believe mercy killing would be better “in some cases” than allowing people to suffer when they have no hope of a quality life if they survive. I can still quote the power statements I made in the talk. What did I learn from all this? It is very dangerous to come out in opposition to the prophets and what the Lord reveals to them.

            You are obvious a very bright individual. Even if you were to admit that your reasoning and quotes, etc.(which go against prophetic counsel) were wrong, you will find (if I am any example) that it will take you a lifetime to align yourself with what the Lord and His leaders have taught. You have argued persuasively but (from my perspective) against what God has revealed.

            Now a word of caution. You are free—because that is a God-given right—to exercise your agency and publish the manuscript. However, you are not free to dictate what the reaction of Church leaders will be towards it. I would suspect (having interfaced with the General Authorities for many years) that they are not going to take kindly to your book which will, because it is logical and well-written—lead many people away from the Church’s mainstream teaching. If I were to counsel you, I would say to put the manuscript away until the Church changes its stance. Otherwise you will be viewed as untrustworthy in defending the doctrine of the Church. Remember, the term “Elder” as defined by President Harold B. Lee, mean “defender of the faith.”  You can’t oppose what the Lord reveals through His prophets and still be viewed as being in the mainstream of the Church. You can be as smart as can be and as worthy as any other person and still be passed over for leadership positions because the Church leaders do not want to run the risk of having you in a power position but in opposition to Church policy and doctrine.

            Take a long, hard look at what you want in life, what you want your Church opportunities to be, how you want to be viewed by Church leaders, and where your projected course will take you. Again, you are free to choose your course of action. You are not free to choose the consequences that are on the other end of the stick."  
Given that:
  1. Many members of those organizations both then (2011) and now (2021) are deeply conservative
  2. Aspirants in the hierarchy have an interest in not being seen to contradict those in power
  3. Peer institutions of higher learning and mainstream academia are part of a liberal consensus that expects (1) tolerance of student and faculty's support of marriage equality and (2) academic and intellectual freedoms
  4. That liberal consensus is inconsistent with the honor code's current constraints on religious and intellectual freedom, as well as its historical limits on supporting marriage equality,
yes I believe there is conflict. 
Article overall
1. So far, we have concluded the message of the article to be that challenging the honor code can change it and that within the honor code system there is conflict between protecting and disciplining students. What would you say is the overall message of the article?
As a director of FreeBYU, I believe that challenging the honor code can change it, because we've seen our activism do exactly that (see the 2015 change above). However, I did not write my book to challenge the honor code: I wrote it to explore a number of subjects related to homosexuality, such as causation and mutability, and included a few chapters on same-sex marriage that some happened to think violated the honor code (I don't think it did, but I realize some disagree- at the end of the day, few have actually read it).

Also, I'm not convinced the framing about protecting and disciplining students is well-supported. Given the abundant evidence we have of callous honor code-related treatment of BYU students by Honor Code Offices, BYU bishops, and BYU Administrators, it appears interests such as reputation and power are valued above students. If the primary forces at play were genuine interest in either protecting or disciplining students, we would expect a myriad of realities we don't observe such as consistent honor codes (they vary substantially across CES institutions), consistent enforcement (don't get me started), proportional discipline, and meaningful appeal processes. To me, the example of the Feb. 2011 change speaks more to the causative relationship between controversy and honor code change, than it does the relationship between honor code change and either direct action or student welfare. Just my two cents of course, as the editorial team your conclusion is a valid one.
Thank you,
[name removed]

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Context of the Feb 2011 change to the BYU Honor Code

BYU's LGBT association which I co-founded, USGA, recently posted The History of BYU and LGBTQ Issues to their blog. I reached out today to one of the authors with the below, providing additional context on that change.

hi Gabi, 
I just finished your/Hayden/Elijah's excellent article, The History of BYU and LGBTQ Issues! Would you be interested in additional context behind the Feb 2011 honor code change? You may wish to add a line or two to the article, or perhaps publish a dedicated article on the subject. I'm one of the original founders of USGA, helped with the BYU LGBT history Wikipedia article, and have some insight into that change. 

In November 2010 I finished a draft of my book, Homosexuality: A Straight BYU Student's Perspective. I shared that draft with several of my professors, friends, and with my bishop, asking them for feedback. Shortly after I was contacted by an emeritus general authority who wrote "Members are free to hold their own opinions on the issues involved, but it seems very unwise to publish them unless you have been asked to do so by leaders.  I hope you will not publish the book for your sake and for the good of the Church that is handling the issues in the manner the Prophet and his associates feel is morally right.  Church leaders undoubtedly know about the book and have great concerns, not about your views which you have your agency to have and hold, but about publishing them and sharing them.  If you value my counsel, please lay this aside and keep your views private."

My bishop Jan Meilsoe also expressed his concerns about the book; from his comments it seemed he didn't understand what I had written, and when I challenged him about that he confessed he had only skimmed it but that the stake president was concerned and asked him to take action. Bishop Meilsoe emphasized his hard line against homosexual conduct and reminded me of the temple recommend question about sympathizing with those who oppose church policies, including same-sex couples.He said that if I publicly advocated for acceptance of same-sex marriage in the book, I would be subject to church discipline (with the associated risk of expulsion from my grad programs- I was in a dual JD/MPA program at the time at BYU Law and the Marriott School). 

The emeritus general authority contacted me again, this time saying "There is enough concern about your book that the President of the University, your priesthood leaders, and General Authorities are worried about it and my counsel remains even stronger that you need to put it aside and let anyone know to whom you have sent it that you are going to let the Church handle the issue as its leaders feel inspired to do. In no way do you want to end up in a disciplinary situation." A BYU stake president pulled me aside to condemn my book and actions and warn me that Satan was "separating me from the herd" so he could take me down. An influential BYU professor wrote "you are not free to dictate what the reaction of Church leaders will be towards it. I would suspect (having interfaced with the General Authorities for many years) that they are not going to take kindly to your book which will, because it is logical and well-written—lead many people away from the Church’s mainstream teaching. If I were to counsel you, I would say to put the manuscript away until the Church changes its stance." Two law school deans confronted me about the draft and reminded me they have no power over the Honor Code Office (HCO).

To keep a long story short, I nevertheless persisted in publishing the book the next month (December 2010), and sold copies to several libraries and the BYU Bookstore (where it sold out). QSaltLake featured me on the cover of their 3 Feb 2011 edition, including articles about (1) my book and (2) the Feb 2011 honor code change. My book included a chapter entitled "A Moral Case for LDS same-sex marriage" that explored moral arguments for and against same-sex marriage in the context of a thought experiment. 

A professor of mine who was on the honor code committee shared with me his belief that the honor code was changed to make it more difficult for conservative voices to succeed in ensuring I was publicly disciplined (on the basis of violating the removed "advocacy of homosexual behavior is inappropriate and violates the Honor Code...Advocacy includes seeking to influence others to engage in homosexual behavior or promoting homosexual relations as being morally acceptable" language). 

This professor proved more cognizant of the risk of HCO enforcement than I was. Shortly after the QSaltLake article, one of the trusted friends I'd shared my book with for feedback turned me into the HCO. I later obtained my honor code office file and learned the language my friend used: "I have a friend of mine that I am quite worried about. I would like this to be totally anonymous please. He has been getting deeper and deeper into homosexuality ideas, groups, etc. Please contact me and I will give more details." 

Linda Rowley from the HCO responded to the email and arranged a phone call. The HCO called my friend and subsequently opened an investigation. The investigation included a review of my personal blog and YouTube channel, as well as an analysis of the QSaltLake articles. The HCO analyzed whether my book was sufficiently orthodox, including commentary such as "notice he did not say he believed in latter day prophets" from HCO staff member Kristine Long. It also stated (incorrectly), "Much of the book contradicts teachings from the First Presidency of the LDS Church." Because the HCO didn't contact me, I don't know what role the Feb 2011 honor code change played in their decision: but ultimately the dean of students and VP of student life decided "that no action was necessary at this time" and I graduated normally two months later.

Hope that helps,
Brad Levin (formerly Carmack, I took my wife's surname when we got married)

Search This Blog