Giant Plastic Building Blocks

by Sarah Begley (Time, 12 Oct 2015)

Build anything, anywhere, one piece at a time.  That’s the idea behind EverBlock, a new product that aims to be Lego for grownups, offering jumbo plastic blocks–the standard one measures 12 by 6 by 6 in. and retails for $7.25–that can be snapped together to create room dividers, shelving units, coffee tables, installation artwork (like the castle below) and even tomporary shelters.  (Each block has a built-in passages for power cords, LED strips or reinforcers.)  The goal, says creator Arnon Rosan, is to create a low-cost way to enable everyday construction, much in the vein of 3-D printers.

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Mormons Teaching Literacy in Sub-Saharan Africa

by President Norman C. Hill, Ghana Accra West Mission (Ensign, Oct 2015)

In sub-Saharan Africa, many people do not know how to read and write.  Illiteracy is so widespread that an old African proverb says, “If you want to hide something, write it in a book.”

Limited infrastructure and limited public education in the sub-Saharan countries means limited opportunities, especially for girls. Because of the high cost of schooling and girls’ restricted status in society, to many people reading seems an unattainable skill. In Ghana, for example, although English is the official language, estimates say that less than half of the adult women speak English. In rural Ghana, two-thirds of adult women are illiterate.

“Most adult women in our towns and villages do not speak English,” says Seth Oppong, president of the Abomosu District in the Ghana Accra West Mission. “Our local language, Twi, has been a verbal language for centuries.”

Based on discussions with the branches, district leadership decided to hold literacy classes at each branch on Sundays as well as twice during the week. After a concentrated six-month effort, certificates of completion would be awarded to those who attended regularly and completed required homework.

Before the program began, literacy specialists trained instructors not only in learning methods but also in how to teach practical hygiene and family life skills. Sixty-one individuals began the program. Forty-three completed all of the sessions.

Women who completed the literacy program said they felt better about themselves.  Some men also completed the program.  Mostly subsistence farmers, they said they are now better able to calculate costs and sales of their produce, help children with their homework, and read the scriptures on their own and with their families.

“Being able to read and write is changing our lives and the lives of our children,” said Gladis Aseidu of the Sankubenase Branch.  “Words are changing our world, and we thank our Father in Heaven.”

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Will Robots Ever Qualify for Human Rights?

YES.  If fact, they will demand them

by Ray Kurzwell (Time, 21 Sep 2015)

There is no way to prove that one entity is conscious and another is not.  Virtual characters can claim to be, but that does not convince us that they are.  Some scientists say therefore that consciousness is an illusion.  I would argue against that, however, because our entire moral system is based on it.

If morality and rights are based on consciousness, and if consciousness is not a scientifically testable proposition, then we have to conclude that there is a proper role for philosophy, which is the study of important matters that cannot be resolved through scientific experimentation alone.  Indeed, the idea of rights may be philosophy’s fundamental issue.

If an AI can convince us that it is at human levels in its responses, and if we are convinced that it is experiencing the subjective states that it claims, then we will accept that it is capable of experiencing suffering and joy.  At that point AIs will demand rights, and because of our ability to empathize, we will be inclined to grant them.

Kurzweil is an inventor and computer scientists.

MAYBE.  If they were endowed with human sensibilities

by Susan N. Herman (Time, 21 Sep 2015)

Robots might share our rights if they functioned as our intelligent and independent agents.  (“Siri, tell Time what I think.”)

They would need protective rights of their own only if they came to share our sensibilities; a right not to be tortured, perhaps.  But should a sentient robot also share our right to free speech, or is that a right conferred only on members of our political community in order to preserve a prescribed relationship between community members and the government?  Might a sentient robot even share our political rights, including the right to vote?  If not, technology might create a slave class, the stuff of dystopian science fiction.

But if not, could robot manufacturers control our political destiny by controlling production of new voters?  The ACLU of the future may have to define what it means to ba a person in order to fulfill its mission of “defending everyone.”

Herman is president of the ACLU

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Mormon Artist Minerva Teichert: Her Disappointments in Later Life

Prologue:  Mormon artist Minerva Teichert was born in 1888 in southern Idaho; studied art in Chicago and New York; and with her husband eventually moved to Cokeville, Wyoming.  During her lifetime, Minerva was a prolific muralist/artist, largely illustrating Mormon-based themes.

Minerva Teichert Self-Portrait

Minerva Teichert Self-Portrait

by Peter R. Gardner (BYU|Magazine, Winter 2008)

[As Teichert aged, she] increasing felt it was her responsibility to tell the Book of Mormon story in images.  So after finishing a mural in the Manti Temple, she set out on what she expected to be her masterwork–42 paintings of the Book of Mormon stories, rendered large enough and simple enough to be “read” at a glance.

Finishing the paintings in 1952, the 64-year-old Teichert was aflame with enthusiasm for how the works might accompany the Book of Mormon text or be used as slides by missionaries around the world or be sold as a book of paintings.

"Look to Your Children" Book of Mormon Illustration by Minerval Teichert

“Look to Your Children” Book of Mormon Illustration by Minerval Teichert

What happened was something she never had anticipated–nobody wanted them.  Many praised her efforts, but nobody would purchase the paintings, though Teichert would try for the remainder of her life to find a buyer.

Half a century later, Marian Eastwood Wardle, a granddaughter and curator, describes two major factors that contributed to her grandmother’s declining influence in Mormon art.  First, in 1948, was the death of Alice Merrill Horne, Teichert’s best critic and counselor on the art market.  Then there were changing tastes.  Murals had long since gone out of favor, and the Church commissioned others, such as Arnold Friberg, to paint the Book of Mormon.

Other dreams were fading too.  Though Teichert had long desired to teach at BYU or another university, she had never been offered a post, presumably because in all training she had not acquired the requisite degrees.  Thus she had no true students; no one to whom she could pass the mantle she felt.

Though discouraged, Teichert wasn’t one to mope.  She kept painting, eventually finding a new agent.  Though the market for her religious work had run dry, her agent found interest in her western-themed [cowboys, Indians, and pioneers] works outside of Utah.

"Herding the Cattle Across the River" by Minerva Teichert

“Herding the Cattle Across the River” by Minerva Teichert

In the Spring of 1970, Teichert fell and broke her hip, possibly after suffering a stroke.  She would never paint again.  She died in 1976 in a Provo nursing home.

Within months of her death, Minerva Teichert would be rediscovered by the Mormon community.  The thawing of awareness began quietly, when, just four months after her passing, a handful of her Book of Mormon paintings were used to illustrate a package of Ensign stories.  That trickle of interest soon became a flood, when she was profiled in the Ensign two months later.  The article called art “sophisticated in technique and style, yet simple and direct in content and impact.”

Epilogue:  On my LDS Mission in the 1960s, we distributed a lot of Book of Mormons.  Unfortunately they were illustrated with the flashy, homoerotic works of Arnold Friberg.  (And not the wonderful illustrations of Minerva Teichert.)  I wonder who or what committee made this decision?  Friberg’s illustrations certainly presented the Church with an interesting image.

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Natural Playgrounds: A Growing Trend

by G. Jeffrey MacDonald (USA Today, 22 Apr. 2010)

The playground of the future is beginning to take shape–and it looks a lot like the backyard of the past.

Designers of children’s play spaces are increasingly looking beyond slides, jungle gyms and other plastic-coated structures in their quest to create fun, safe, healthy environments.  As a result, kids are running outside and discovering play area dotted with old standbys:  sand, water boulders, hills and logs.


“This is an emerging national trend of significance,” says Richard Dolesh, chief of public policy for the National Recreation and Park Association.  “Parents and other adults want natural opportunities for kids. . .  The question is:  how do you ensure safety with the inherent challenges that nature brings?”

Natural play spaces, as they’re called, are becoming more common as municipalities, schools and childcare centers seek sustainable ways to invest in new or aging playgrounds.

Supporters of natural play spaces say they make sense on multiple levels.  Child development experts say kids learn creativity and autonomy when they’re engaged with “loose parts,” such as mud and sticks.  Funders in these lean-budget times are sometimes pleased to forgo five- and six-figure expenditures for manufactured play equipment.  Some even argue that natural places are safer.


But even some believers say built playgrounds are not going to become obsolete.  They see equipment equipment as an essential complement to natural play spaces.

Makers of traditional playground equipment say they aren’t opposed to natural play spaces, since kids benefit from nature.  But playing only with natural elements isn’t adequate for a child’s healthy development, says  Joe Frost, a retired professor of education and a paid board member for the International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association.

“Certain physical skills are established through built equipment that are difficult to provide with natural materials,” he says.  For instance they need climbing structures.”  Alson, kids burn energy by climbing and swinging.

What’s involved in caring for natural playgrounds remains a matter of some debate.  Maintenance costs can be minimal precisely because nature is the whole idea, says Ron King, president of the Natural Playgrounds Co.  “Everybody say ‘What about maintenance?’  Our response is:  ‘It’s a natural area.  Let it go.’ . . .  That’s nature.  That’s what it’s all about.”

But Linda Cain Ruth, a building science professor and playground expert at Auburn University says natural playgrounds need careful maintenance to remain safe.

“A lot of people think that because it’s natural there’s no maintenance, and that is not true,” Ruth said.  “Wood rots. . . .   You have to make sure you have a good surface for [kids] to fall on.

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Why We Shouldn’t Travel

I’m a compulsive traveler; I admit it.  I can’t help myself.  I frequently travel to developing-country environments.  I do it for a variety of reasons.  Foremost, I hope I’m doing some good.

Van Gogh's "Self-Portrait on the Road to Tarascan" (1888)

Van Gogh’s “Self-Portrait on the Road to Tarascan” (1888)

My friends and I live, as much as possible, on the local economies.  We work hard with locals to improve conditions at schools and orphanages.  We hope it is travel with a purpose.

In the periodical NewPhilosopher (Fall 2015), three authors give a negative response to the question, “Why do we travel?”  Antonio Case believes that our desire for travel is largely based on one-upmanship, and quotes Mark Twain:

We wish to learn all the curious outlandish ways of all the different countries, so that we can ‘show off’ and astonish people when we get home.

Anthony Sharpe is equally critical of humanity’s need to travel:

When we see things with our own eyes, it’s too easy to form ill-founded views about a place and its peoples.  These can range from relatively benign romantic notions of the ‘noble savage’ to the more pernicious writing-off of a whole country as an unsophisticated, unfriendly, culinary wasteland.  Based on what exactly?  Greater insights might be found in books than the contrived moments of a short poverty safari.

Illustration from NewPhilosophy Periodical

Illustration from NewPhilosopher Periodical

Sharpe ends his essay by wondering if he “could do a lot more good if instead of going abroad, I traveled locally, channeling any excess funds into some worthy cause.”

Sharpe’s latter musing is espoused by a movement called “effective altruism” and it’s foremost proponent is Peter Singer, Laureate Professor at the Center for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne.  It involves staying at home, earning all the money you can, and generously giving to the humanitarian organization (one with a good track record) of your choice.  He asks an important question about travel:

Are they doing something significant, or are there causes more important than tourism?  And where does the money you’re spending  on tourism fit into your budget?  I think that’s an ethical issue.  You could travel ethically, but it’s complicated.

I would argue that traveling ethically is not that complicated in today’s connected world.

Another negative to travel is it requires a lot of air travel and Singer reminds us that “it’s a fact that most of the travel we do involves burning fossil fuel,” thus contributing to climate change.  And climate change has its greatest impact on developing countries.  I have no answer for this concern.  I will just have to live with the guilt.

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Refugees and Undocumented Immigrants

Issues related to refugees and immigrants are continually in the news.  Refugees from the Middle East are overrunning the outer borders of Europe.  Undocumented immigrants (as many as 12 million living in the USA) will be a major issue in the upcoming presidential election.  Many of these immigrants are economic and political refugees.  Additionally, countries like Uganda have to deal with refugees from the wars in surrounding troubled countries.  All this is taxing the abilities of the UN and other relief agencies to respond.  Many of the images shown on the news and posted on the Internet are heartbreaking.

The leaders of the LDS Church have verbally responded to the immigrant issue in the United States:

The bedrock moral issue for the [LDS Church] is how we treat each other as children of God.

The Church supports an approach where undocumented immigrants are allowed to square themselves with the law and continue to work without this necessarily leading to citizenship.

Peggy Fletcher Stack, religion reporter for, has a less than positive review of the Church’s efforts:

While the LDS Church supports immigration reform that keeps families together, its leaders have not pushed that idea in worship settings where Mormons are gathered.  Not has it called out those who disagree.

To counteract this lack of action–and inspired by the #BlackLivesMatter movement–a group is encouraging Mormons to write down their views on a whiteboard with #TogetherWithoutBorders and take a selfie holding the board.  They then post the photo on Facebook and Twitter.

The Mormon website has responded to the tragedy occurring in Europe (Hungary and Italy in particular) by encouraging its readers to contribute to the humanitarian organization Oxfam.  Oxfam is also involved with refugees in Uganda.  On a recent visit to the Rhino Refugee Camp in northwestern Uganda, I saw Oxfam latrines that were constructed for South Sudanese and Congolese refugees.

Oxfam constructed latrine at the Rhino Refugee Camp in northwestern Uganda

Oxfam constructed latrine at the Rhino Refugee Camp in northwestern Uganda

Additionally, LDS youth from the Kampala area provided toiletry packages to a refugee camp in southeastern Uganda.

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