Friday, December 30, 2005

Book Review: DOM Biography

I just finished reading David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism by Gregory A. Prince and Wm. Robert Wright. I must say that this was one of the most fascinating LDS books I have ever read. Robert Wright's aunt was Claire Middlemiss who was the secretary to DOM for several decades. Sister Middlemiss spent many hours after work writing a diary and compiling notes and scrapbooks from her daily experiences with DOM. She hoped to write a book someday but by the time she retired, her health was too poor for such an undertaking. She compiled hundreds of thousands of pages of documents. The two authors spent ten years combing through this material and compiling the biography. The structure of the book is a little different from what you normally see in a biography. Rather than documenting his life in chronological fashion, each chapter is devoted to a particular issue that was an important part of DOM's tenure as the prophet and church president. I had some misgivings at first over this format, but it works very well in this case. What makes this book so fascinating is:

1) During DOM's tenure, the church went through substantial changes and growth, emerging from a small Utah faith to a large, more respected, international faith.
2) Given the volume of resource materials available to the authors, the book offers a rare glimpse at the behind-the-scenes drama in the church heirarchy during several critical indcidents in church history.

One of the best parts of the book was the discussion of the issue related to blacks and the priesthood. While DOM did not reverse the policy, it was a major focal point of his presidency due to the civil rights movement of the early 60's and it could be argued that DOM helped pave the way for the eventual reversal of the ban. It is quite stunning to read some of the overtly racist comments made by top church leaders. It is also inspiring to read of the heroic efforts of Hugh B. Brown (one of the few democrats in the church heirarchy at the time) to get the ban reversed. Late in his life, DOM confided to a few individuals that he had come to believe that the ban was a policy and not a doctrine, and thus could be changed without a major revelation. He also came to disavow many of the LDS myths as to why the black were denied the priesthood, including lack of valor in the pre-existence. Unfortunately, he suffered from poor health for the last few years of his life and Hugh B. Brown passed away. Joseph F. Smith, Harold B. Lee and some other hardliners took control and ensured that the policy would not be changed for another decade.

Another fascinating episode was the chapter on Ezra T. Benson and the John Birch Society. It is quite remarkable to read of how overtly political ETB was at the time, including completely partisan talks during general conference. As an example, ETB often denounced the civil rights movement over the pulpit as a communist conspiracy. Hugh B. Brown and others tried to counterbalance this, but none went nearly as far as ETB in giving political talks. It is also amazing to learn how tightly he was aligned with the JBS, a group that was clearly fueled by paranoia, fear, hatred, and bigotry. Many of the general authorities were appalled at ETB's actions. Each time they insisted that DOM should do something about it, ETB would have a private meeting with him and DOM would back down. Apparently, he manipulated DOM's distrust of communism to give him license to continue his controversial activities. When DOM passed away, his political activities were finally terminated.

Other interesting episodes including the controversy surrounding the publication of Mormon Doctrine by Bruce R. McConkie and debates in the church leadership over evolution and the origin of man (very timely considering the current debate over "intelligent design"). All in all, it is a compelling biography of a humble man thrust into leadership at a pivotal time in LDS history. Like all good biographies, this one is honest and shows both the strengths and weaknesses of its subject. In the end, one cannot help but being inspired by his life. Considering the time and culture in which DOM lived, he was amazingly progressive. In several cases, he refused to allow the apostles to excommunicate outspoken members, including Sterling McMullin (a critic of the blacks and the priesthood policy). He was surprisingly tolerant and was a fervent seeker of truth. He was an excellent ambassor for the church and was highly respected and admired by all who came to know him. In spite of the fact that he was a republican, he came to have a close relationship with Lyndon B. Johnson. He was pivotal in changing the policy of "gathering to zion", thus building the first stakes and temples outside of North America and changing the faith to a truly international organization.

Anyway, check this book out. I promise you won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Brace yourself for Gospel Doctrine class

Well, it appears that we are covering the Old Testament in 2006. That first gospel doctrine lesson on the creation story always spawns some fascinating discussions, most of them highly passionate and highly misinformed. I found this article recently on the history of the LDS church and the issue of evolution:

The Mormon Myth of Evil Evolution

Highly recommended. You may want to print it out and keep a copy handy when you go to Sunday School in January.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Amazing color photo exhibit

The Library of Congress has a new exhibit of 1600 color photos from 1935-1945. These are rare photos taken by photographers experimenting with new Kodachrome slide film technology. It is quite remarkable to see a time period we traditionally associate with black and white come to life in color. The LOC has painstakingly restored each of the photos. Here are some samples:

Woman painting airplane in factory.

More female factory workers.

Construction of Geneva Steel in Utah.

They have an online exhibit of selected photos here:

Or you can browse the entire collection here:

Highly recommended.

Monday, December 12, 2005

The downside of free speech

The Provo Daily Herald has an online version of their daily newspaper posted at They have a feature (which is fairly common for online newspapers) that allows readers to comment on the article. Occasionally, when I want a good chuckle, I peruse the reader comments and it seldom disappoints. The PDH comments provide an outlet for the lunatic fringe for Utah County to vent. And by lunatic fringe, I mean both ends of the spectrum. For example, there was an article recently on the topic of immunization. This is one of the comments (I promise I am not making this up):

"A Pertussis Epidemic is choking up Utah County"

Why is that, Because of all the lossers with no health insurance in Utah.

They should make all the retarded mormons stop pay all there money to the Mormon church and put it on health insurance.

If someone can't pay for Insurance and they get sic, no one should help them because they are loosers.

Amazing, eh? You just can't make stuff up. Here is a Christ-like response from one of our fellow offended Later-Day Saints:

Now this profound. How many drinks/snorts did it take you to figure this out? Now is it lossers or loosers, pothead? Were you born this way or did your mommy drop you in the toilet?

Ah, yes. the sweet sound of thoughtful dialogue.

Click here for the complete, inpiring discussion.

Ocean power, baby!

One of my favorite topics of casual research and conversation with friends is energy. As in, what on earth are we going to do when we run out of fossil fuels? Most scientists estimate that we have 30-40 years of fossil fuels remaining, although the estimate varies wildly based on the uncertainty in the factors going into the prediction. The growth of the economies in China and India is already increasing consumption dramatically. If the third world starts using energy like the USA uses energy, then we are in big trouble. There are some things that will alleviate the problem:

1) Natural gas

Supposedly, we still have vast reserves of natural gas, compared to crude oil. We could build an infrastructure for distributing natural gas and convert our vehicles. However, natural gas is not as efficient (BTU/kg) as gasoline, so we won't make the switch until we have to. Once again, however, this is an unrenewable resource that we will consume until it is gone.

2) Tar sands

Supposedly, the Utah, Colorado, Wyoming area has more petroleum reserves than the entire Middle East. The problem is that it is locked up in tar sands and requires more money to extract. However, once fuel prices get high enough, the extraction will prove economical.

3) Spontaneous generation?

I read a while back that there is a scientist who claims that petroleum is not really a fossil fuel but it is spontaneously generated from deep within the earth's crust, and therefore renewable. As part of his evidence, he points to the fact that most major oil reservoirs have produced far beyond their original estimates. Sounds like nonsense to me, but I thought I would throw it in.

4) Cheap solar cells

Supposedly, scientists in the USA and Europe have invented plastic solar cells that are much more cost-effective than traditional (silicon?) solar cells. The new cells should be cost-competitive with fossil fuels for power generation on a per KW-Hr basis. They claim that they they should be in mass production within 3-4 years. One can envision vast arrays of solar cells in the desert, feeding power into transmission lines. However, talk is cheap. Time will tell if this will really come to pass.

5) More nuclear power

No nuclear power plants have been built in the US for several decades. With increasing fuel costs, that will probably change. Given the small amount of fuel used in the power generation process, there is essentially an unlimited supply of nuclear fuel. The problem lies in the difficulty of building new plants. Nobody wants one on their backyard due to fears of another Chernobyl accident and they require a large supply of water. Another problem, of course, is the storage of the spent fuel rods. New technology is supposed to make it possible to re-process many of the old rods, extracting more energy and making the waste less radioactive at the same time. Once again, time will tell.

6) Dead cats

A German inventor figured out a way to power cars with dead cats. He has since denied using dead cats (you can use any kind of bio-waste to fuel the vehicle), but one can always hope this catches on. :)

This brings me to the main topic of this post: ocean power. One of the more fascinating and potentially most promising ideas I have seen is to harness the power of the ocean to solve our energy needs. This technique was developed by an 80 year-old inventor named John PiƱa Craven. There is an excellent description of this technique in an article in Wired magazine. The main idea is that there is a huge reservoir of super-chilled water at the bottom of the ocean (just above freezing). This water can be pumped to the surface using large plastic pipes. The temperature difference between this chilled water and warmer surface water can be used to drive an ammonia-based heat exchanger connected to a turbine/electrical generator. The best thing about the process is that it is clean and renewable. Some small-scale tests have shown great promise and the technique is currently undergoing larger tests by the U.S. Navy. The inventors envision massive floating power platforms in the ocean where the energy is used to convert water to hydrogen. The hydrogen would then be transferred to large tankers and distributed around the world for use in fuel cells. This will be an exciting development to watch in the next few years. For the sake of our kids and grandkids, let's pray that it works out.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Book review sampler

I love to read. I wish I were independently wealthy and could spend several hours a day reading good books. As it is, I have to sneak in my reading time whenever I can: sitting on the can, sitting in an airplane, late at night, etc. My reading tastes have evolved a bit over the years, but I enjoy a pretty wide variety of genres. I am particularly fond of U.S. and WWII history on the serious side and legal and crime thrillers on the lighter side.

One of the things I want to do with this blog is post reviews of books I have read. To get things rolling, I dug up an e-mail I sent to Jeff Davis a while back with some short reviews of books I have read. This is a combination of favorite all-time books and books I have read recently. I have updated this list and I thought it would be a good place to start.

Anyway, here goes (in no particular order):

1. The Devil and the White City - Erik Larson

Starts a little slow, but is an awesome book. True story about two figures: the architect of the chicago worlds fair and a mass murder at the same time frame/location. Both stories are fascinating. A unique mix of engineering, history, and detective drama/thriller. Highly recommended.

2. Pompeii - Robert Harris

Historical fiction about the famous eruption of mt. versuvius. Told through the eyes of a water engineer. I really enjoyed it. Supposedly, all of the details of the setting were meticulously researched. So you get a pretty interesting story wrapped in some fascinating history. And an interesting discussion of Roman engineering.

3. Michael Connelly novels.

I have read most of Connelly's books. Regarded by many as the best mystery/dectective story author working today. Highly recommended.

4. John Adams - David McCullough

David McCullough is my favorite author. May seem a little daunting based on the size and the content (a biography), but one of the best books I have ever read. This book won the Pulitzer Prize.

5. Truman - David McCullough

Another classic by McCullough. Also won the Pulitzer Prize. 1120 pages, but you are still disappointed when you get to the end. Truman was thrown into the presidency out of nowhere at one of the most critical times on our nation's history. Fascinating story.

6. 1776 - David McCullough

The latest book by McCullough. Tells the story of the events in 1776, focusing on General Washington and the Continental Army. The theme of the book is that things could have very easily gone the other way in the war. In fact, it is pretty miraculous that the completely overwhelmed revolutionaries weren't quickly annihilated. My only complaint with the book: too short.

7. Benjamin Franklin -
Walter Isaacson

Finished this earlier this year. Just as enjoyable as the John Adams book. If I had to pick, I would choose the John Adams book, but Franklin's life was so fascinating that both books are awfully good.

8. Snow Falling on Cedars -
David Guterson

This is going back a few years, but a very good book. Mystery novel set in the pacific northwest during WW2 era. Outstanding story. Beautifully written. They made a movie about it, but I have not seen the movie.

9. Flags of our Fathers - James Bradley

WW2 story of the flag raisers on Iwo Jima. The bulk of the book is a history of the Iwo Jima battle. But a big part of the book is about the flag raisers and what happened to them. Written by the son of one of the flag raisers. Exceptional book. Highly recommended. Currently being made into a movie by Clint Eastwood. Early buzz is very good. Can't wait to see it.

10. Ghost Soldiers -
Hampton Sides

Story of the Bataan death march and an amazing rescue mission at the end of the war. Fascinating history and excellently written. Recently made into a movie but I hear the movie wasn't that great.

11. Citizen Soldiers - Steven Ambrose

One of my favorite Steven Ambrose books. Tells the story of the US war effort in WW2 in Europe from D-Day to the fall of Berlin.

12. Undaunted Courage - Steven Ambrose

My other favorite book by Steven Ambrose. Story of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

13. Scott Turrow Novels

Scott Turrow has been called the "Thinking man's John Grisham". His books are primarily legal thrillers. Goodstory telling like Grisham but the plot, characters, and story development are at a much higher level. Outstanding writer. His best book was called Presumed Innocent. Pretty famous movie a few years back with Harrison Ford. I have read most, but not all, of Turrow's books.

14. All the Pretty Horses -
Cormac McCarthy

National Book Award winning story about a young man venturing into Mexico (1930's???). Harsh story, beautifully written. One of my favorites. After reading this, I read most of the other Cormac McCarthy books. All were good, but none quite so good as this one. I have not seen the movie. A critic recently stated that he thought McCarthy's Blood Meridian is the greatest American novel ever.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

So much for originality

Well, I thought I was pretty original with that "A room full of monkeys" title to my original blog. A few minutes on google dispelled that myth. There are dozens of blogs with similar titles. So I decided to stick with the same concept, but be a little more obscure. At the same time, I decided to go with a more generic URL for my blog ( and this way I can change the title all I want.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Woohoo, I have a blog!

After months of talking about it, I finally got the blog going. You know, the hardest part about starting a blog is deciding on a clever name. The last thing I wanted to do was post a blog called "Norm's Blog", or "Jones Journal" or something boring like that. I had lots of ideas that seemed pretty cool at the time, but they were all taken. Interestingly, most of them appeared to be used by folks who started a blog but then never posted anything to it (weenies!). There ought to be a rule against passive use of clever blog titles. Six months without a post and you should be history.

Anyway, stay tuned for more posts.

And does anyone get the gist of my title?