Thursday, December 28, 2006

How to Pay Tithing: When you're making money with multiple streams of income

And this shall be the beginning of the tithing of my people.

And after that, those who have thus been tithed shall pay one-tenth of all their interest annually; and this shall be a standing law unto them forever, for my holy priesthood, saith the Lord.

Background

I grew up being taught to give 10% of everything I earned to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as tithing.  If I got a job and was paid $10, I paid $1 to the bishop the next Sunday in tithing.  Pure and simple.
Then I grew up, made a bit more money, and tracked it using Intuit Quicken, then Microsoft Money.  Living alone and making more money than I spent, I felt comfortable paying tithing in lump sums a few times a year rather than every time I made money.  This worked well for me when I was single.  Being married, making more money and having more expenses brought me back to paying tithing almost after every paycheck. 
I am a full tithe payer, and have been for all my life. I feel that God has blessed me with good jobs and low expenses (fewer broken down things) because I live the law of tithing.

Problem

The problem is that I have found paying tithing to be necessarily much more complicated in recent years.  "No!" you say?  "It's just 10%.  It's only complicated if you make it so (perhaps to find loopholes)."  I beg to differ.  Allow me to explain.
Scenario P: the one you learned in primary
I used to calculate the tithing I needed to pay with this formula:
tithing = (sum of all income earned since I last paid tithing) * 0.10
That worked well when my only source of income came in the form of checks in the mail or direct deposit.  Adding up the sum of a direct increase like that is easy.  If you keep your money in an interest bearing bank account, then you include that as income.  Same for gifts we receive. 
But this simple scenario can get more complicated:
Scenario 1: deposits that "jump" above the tithing line
You receive a check in the mail, you deposit it to your bank account.  A day or two later, before the check clears the bank and is posted to your account, you are adding up your income using a computer accounting program (like Quicken or Money).  The uncleared deposit may not show up in your account register if you download all your statements online into your program.  You sum up what appears though and pay tithing on it.  You add a line to your computer register stating that you paid tithing on that date.
By the time you next pay tithing, that deposit of yours has cleared and is added to your register -- with a date that predates the time you last paid tithing!  When you add up your income from the last tithing date in your register the next time, since that check is now above the "last paid tithing" line, your eyes miss it, and you don't include it in your sum of money to pay tithing on.  As a result, that money never gets tithed.
Now, obviously there are ways to prevent this from happening, including writing your checks as deposits into your register when you first get them.  But this is a simplified example to a problem that was a little harder for me to solve.
Scenario 2: Reimbursable expenses and resold possessions
You spent $10 to prepare for a church activity and the church paid you back with a check.  Do you pay tithing on it?  I'll stick my neck out and suggest that you don't.  It wasn't income, it was a reimbursement, and put you back to where you started.  And this deposit in your bank account should be excluded from the sum of tithable income you calculate. 
You sold your kitchen table and bought a better one.  You bought the original one for $100 and sold it for $20 at your garage sale.  Do you pay tithing on the $20?  Again, I'll stick my neck out and say no.  You paid tithing on the $100 before you bought the table.  To pay tithing on the $20 would be tithing that money twice.  To make this a little more obvious, say you returned the new table you bought to the store and got all your money back.  Do you pay tithing on the credit to your charge card?  Of course not.  If you did, then buying and returning a $100 table ten times would cost you $100 just in tithing.  That's absurd.  Assuming you're with me on this, that's another line to exclude from your tithable income sum.
Scenario 3: owning a home
Now you own your home.  You purchased it at price $X and now it's worth $Y.  Maybe the current price is higher and maybe it's lower than when you bought it.  That doesn't matter too much because you haven't sold it -- yet.  When you do sell, presumably you'll pay tithing on the profit that you'll hopefully make from an increase in real estate value in your area, or improvements you've made to your home.  Ah, speaking of improvements you've made, does that take away from the profit?  What if you've spent $10,000 building up your home and sold it for $15,000 more than you bought it for?  Do you pay tithing on a $5,000 profit or $15,000?  You probably have an answer ready to give me.  And I'll bet 50% of my readers agree with you.
Scenario 4: private contracting work
You may take on an extra job that you can do from home from time to time.  Maybe these types of jobs form a sort of side-business for you that you buy supplies for.  At what point do you stop paying tithing directly on the income generated from your side job and only pay tithing on what you "take home" after paying your side-business expenses for your equipment/supplies? 
If you don't believe that point should ever come, ask yourself whether FedEx would stay in business long if they paid 10% on tithing for all their income before expenses.  You're not FedEx?  I know that.  But there must be a line between your side-business and FedEx which defines where you stop paying tithing until after your expenses.  Where is it?  I'm not here to draw it for you.  (sorry!)  But if your decision includes any expenses paid prior to tithing income at all, that complicates the math in your computer accounting program.
Scenario 5: stock market -- gains, losses, and dividends, oh my!
Add to the last scenario a stock portfolio with several stocks and mutual funds in it.  Maybe you are only investing into your retirement and won't sell until you retire or maybe you are shooting for short-term capital gains and plan to buy and sell stocks throughout each and every year up to retirement.  Now add a VUL life insurance policy.  Don't forget the traditional and Roth IRAs and 401k.  You may have stocks that pay dividends
When do you pay tithing, and on what?  Do you pay tithing on the money you make before you invest it in your retirement?  When do you pay tithing on the increase you earn (each day, each year, whenever you sell)?  What if you lose money when you sell?  If you are successful in your investments, you may sell your investments 40 years from now at a 800% profit -- which earnings you didn't pay tithing until for 40 years.  Is that a problem? (rhetorical question)
The stock market is the most complicating element to the story, and the one that forced me to rethink how I calculated tithing.  Not everyone is in the stock market.  Those who aren't probably don't get salaries or (good) benefits at their jobs or else they'd at least have a 401k plan.  Some feel the stock market is no better than gambling in Las Vegas.  That argument is beyond the scope of this article. 

Finding the solution

These scenarios, all of which were true for me, made it difficult for me to feel comfortable that I was paying a full and honest tithe.  I wanted to find a new formula for calculating tithing that would fulfill these goals:
  1. Provide the sense of a full and honest tithe.
  2. Protect against paying tithing twice on the same money.
  3. Ensure that all money that should be tithed would be tithed when it should be.
  4. Flexibility in determining what is tithable income and what is not.  (thus making the solution applicable whether you pay on gross or net income, or whether you claim other "exemptions" such as reimbursable expenses and other such items I discussed earlier.)
  5. Simple enough that you can explain it to your spouse (if you have one) and have him/her be comfortable that he/she is a full tithe payer with you.
  6. One you'd feel comfortably justified in explaining to the bishop should he ask you about it.
As tithing settlement was coming up in a couple of months, I said a prayer on my way to a recent Stake Conference that the Lord would inspire me with a solution that would suit Him and me (and my wife). 
What I ultimately came up with I believe was simple and inspired, although to you it is by definition nothing more than heresay because I do not have authority to receive revelation for you.  You may agree or disagree with the solution I share with you here.  That's ok.  I'm hoping that you will either feel good about this solution and apply it to yourself, or that you will be inspired with one that is correct for you. 

The solution

Here is the new formula to calculate tithing anually:
tithing = 0.10 * ((net worth this year - net worth last year) + spending this year).
So simple.  Why this formula?  Well doctrinally it seems to be the most literal and correct interpretation of the scriptures: "pay one-tenth of all their interest annually."  Let's break the equation into bits to see how it works with the scriptural law of tithing. 
  • "pay one-tenth of..." gives you the "0.10 *" part.  In math-speak, of is translated as multiplication.  I doubt we have any problems understanding this.
  • "...all their interest..." where interest has been interpreted to mean increase by modern-day prophets.  It's fair and accepted to define increase as the amount you have now that is more than what you had before.  No criteria of "money" is expressed or implied here.  It includes money and everything else you possess.  As examples:
    Before Now Increase
    Broke and homeless Broke and homeless None
    Broke without a car Broke with a car Car
    $10 $100 $90
    $10 $90 and a new book $80 and a new book
    We don't pay tithing in kind (oh wait, maybe we do!) typically, so this table needs to be updated to replace the things with money values.
    Before Now Increase
    $0 $0 $0
    $0 $0 + $500 (assuming car is worth $500) $500
    $10 $100 $90
    $10 $90 + $10 (assuming book is worth $10) $90
    See how this reveals increases both in kind and in money?  In words, this means that I owe tithing on money I made and saved, and on money I made and spent.  Fair enough, right?  Every dollar you made, you either saved or spent, right?  Simple. 
  • "...annually" means you are accountable to the Lord for your increase exactly once per year.  Not once per paycheck, not once a month, but yearly. 
So why is this solution so elegant?  Well, hopefully you can reason with me that it's fair.  It's a full and honest tithe based on simple and apparent scriptural interpretation.  And as you'll see next, actually implementing this formula is much easier in the complex scenarios described above than just trying to pay 10% on dollars as you earn them.

Implementation strategy 

With the old formula of 10% of everything you earn that you learned in Primary, you could calculate exactly how much tithing you owed every time you made money.  With the new formula you can calculate exactly how much tithing you owe exactly once per year.  I discuss how to pay tithing more frequently below, if you're interested.  There are several questions that came to my mind as I began implementing this method of tithing calculation that I have found answers to, and I include them in this section below. 
How to calculate your net worth
Mathematically speaking, net worth = assets - liabilities.  In concept, net worth represents all that you own, minus what you owe.  If you had a bike yesterday and today you have a bike and a scooter, your net worth increased by the value of your scooter, and your total net worth is your bike and scooter together.  Taking in all the complexities of the above scenarios, net worth is the sum of your bank accounts, your house's market value, your car, your investment portfolio, the cash value of your life insurance policy, and subtracted from that would be your credit card balance, whatever you may owe on your home, student loans, etc.  If you're in a lot of debt, you may have a negative net worth.  If you own a $100,000 home and have 5% equity in it, you would have a net worth of $100,000 - $95,000 = $5,000 considering only your home. 
The easiest way to calculate your net worth is to let your computer accounting program figure it for you.  Microsoft Money does this in the Account List view if you look at the bottom line "Total Account Balance".  Another way of course would be to go through each of your assets and liabilities and add them up by hand.
How to calculate your annual spending
Annual spending is how much money you've spent that is no longer reflected by your net worth. 
Key to calculating spending correctly is to exclude money transfers within your own accounts.  So if you write a check to move money from one account to another, that's a transfer and not "spending" by this definition.  Likewise, if you are paying a mortgage, the amount of what you pay that actually reduces the loan's principle is a transfer of money from your bank account into the liability account that represents your loan.  The loan interest that you pay is "spending".  The reason we don't include mortgage principle portion of mortgage payments is that "transferring" money to your liability account is moving your net worth from your checking account to your house, but your net worth is actually the same.  If I have $100,000 in cash and a $100,000 house in which I have 0% equity, then I really have a net worth of $0.  If I put $50,000 of my cash into my house to give myself 50% equity, then my net worth should not have changed as a result of just that money transfer.  But if you considered that "spending", then that's $50,000 of spent money, plus you "magically" got $50,000 of bonus equity in your house, resulting in a net worth increase of $50,000 when you didn't actually earn anything. Considering mortgage principle payments "transfers" in your computer accounting program makes this all work out for you.
A very easy way to get an accurate spending sum is to categorize each expenditure you make, and reserve a few categories for non-spending purposes.  Some examples include "Reimbursable expenses" and any categories you use for transfers between accounts.  When you generate your spending report using your accounting program, you should include all expense categories except for these special categories that aren't "spending".  Also, be sure that any returns for prior purchases show up as a credit to your account under the same category as the expense did.  That will reverse the "spending" amount calculated for that purchase and you won't be paying tithing twice on the same money.
What about when you buy/sell a car?
I suggest that you include your car when calculating your net worth.  Create a "car" account. 
If you paid for your car all upfront, create a money "transfer" from your bank account to your car account so that the balance in your car account equals the price you paid. 
If you bought your car with a loan, create a car loan liability account as well as your car account and transfer the purchase price from your loan account to your car account to create the necessary deficit in the liability account and the value in your car.  This will keep your net worth from changing at all, which is good, since you haven't earned anything, and you don't really own the car yet as the bank really does.  For each car payment you make, split the payment into two categories (in Money one transaction can be associated to multiple categories through the Split feature), using one Transfer category for the principle payment into your loan account, and a Bank Charge category (or some other non-transfer, spending category) for the part of your payment that is for interest.
While you own the car, leave the value of the car as recorded in your car account alone.  It's needless work to calculate reducing value with time until you sell it. 
When you sell your car, whatever reduction in value you suffered in your car should be recorded in your car account as some spending category that reflects car usage.  For example, suppose you bought your car for $10,000 and sold it a few years later for $4,000.  You essentially spent $6,000 of your car's value by driving it.  The other $4,000 you recovered by selling it while it still had value.  Your car account should reflect this.  Once you enter your "spending" of the car's value so that the account shows $4,000, record a Transfer of funds of $4,000 from your car account to your bank account (where you'll deposit the check the buyer wrote to you) to reflect the transfer of money. 
By doing it this way, throughout the whole process of buying, owning and selling your car your net worth and your expenditure records accurately reflect the real world, and your tithing formula will accurately tell you how much tithing you owe. 
What is really happening to your tithing when you buy a car using this method?  Well if you buy the car outright, then you paid or will pay tithing on the money you purchased the car with in the same year you earned the money.  If you used a car loan, then you pay tithing on the money as you earn it and pay the loan off.  So you end up paying tithing the same time and amounts that you would by calculating tithing your old way.  But this way it's implicit in the process and you don't have to do extra work.
What about a garage sale or other small sale of things you own?
For each item that you sell, if you were including its value in your net worth, then you need to transfer that value back into some other bank account in the form of cash.  Read about the process for buying and selling cars elsewhere in this post.
For each item that you sell that was originally purchased just under a "spending" category in your accounting program and that was not included in your net worth after it was purchased, selling it and putting the money back into your bank account looks like a gain and the tithing formula will tithe you on that gain unless you either 1) spend the cash you earn without ever telling the computer about it, or 2) mark the deposit of that cash in some spending category instead of an income category.  Recording a deposit as an expense rather than an income category effectively creates a "tithing exemption" for the deposit, similar to a deposit for a purchased item that was returned to the store. 
What if you want to pay tithing more frequently?
Simple.  Estimate your tithing by multiplying your regular paycheck amount by 10% and pay that each time you are paid.  At the end of your yearly tithing cycle, you can use the tithing formula that is based on your net worth to calculate exactly how much tithing you owe for the whole year, subtract from that how much you've paid periodically, and know what your outstanding balance is.
The risk you run when paying tithing to the bishop more frequently than annually is that if you anticipate a large gain in your net worth and end up with a small gain or even a loss (if most of your money is in the stock market and it took a downturn) you may end up paying tithing that you don't owe.  You can't get the bishop to write you a "tithing refund" check like you can get the government to write you a tax refund. 
A safe way to avoid over-paying your tithing while ensuring that you have enough money to pay tithing with at the end of your yearly cycle is to set up a dedicated bank account (read: safe investment -- not stock) and deposit your periodic tithing into that throughout the year.  When the time comes to pay your once-a-year tithing, you use the money in this bank account to pay it.  Since this bank account is part of your net worth, interest you earn on that account should be automatically included as an increase and will be factored into your calculations for tithing owed without any extra effort.
Picking your annual tithing reckoning date
Although the law of tithing doesn't explicitly state December as the time for the annual reckoning, since tithing settlement with your bishop happens in December that may be the most natural choice.  Does it have to be the day of tithing settlement or the end of the year?  No.  You could pick July 1 if you wanted.  Every July 1 you would reckon your increase and would pay tithing on that increase based on your net worth on July 1 of this year as compared to your net worth from July 1 of last year, plus any money you spent during that same period. 
I will add that some arbitrary date picked to fall before a tithing settlement could possibly be scheduled may make it easier for you to declare yourself a full tithe payer.  (Imagine yourself declaring yourself a full tithe payer when you haven't paid tithing that year at all yet, since you were waiting until Dec 31 at 11:59 AM to calculate your worth). It should technically work, but I think it would be awkward.
Net or gross?
I've actually heard "answers" given to "do I pay tithing on my net or gross income" more frequently than I've heard the question itself asked.  From what I am aware of, I believe the correct answer to this question is to merely quote the doctrinal law of tithing to the questioning party and leave it to him/her to interpret. 

Summary

I hope this has helped you.  If you think of other scenarios, or if you have questions or comments, please add those comments at the end of this post.  I look forward to hearing how helpful or not this article has been.

Other Resources

Here are some articles I have found with interesting tips on tithe paying:

Sunday, December 10, 2006

My experience home schooling

I was home schooled as a child.  Many people have asked about my experience, especially about the "social life" that I may or may not have had.  In this post I share my personal experience, and discuss interesting topics such as my social life and why I feel that home schooling can be a great thing for kids, depending on where you live and your situation.

A brief sketch

I was home schooled from when I started school till I enrolled in high school as a Junior.  After just one year of high school I left (technically making me a high school dropout) to take a few classes at a community college for a semester before attending Brigham Young University, and later graduated with honors and magna *** laude with a B.S. in Information Technology.  My older sisters had a very similar path, except that one sister didn't do high school at all on the way to BYU.  Not graduating from high school was no problem, as the university we attended had procedures for considering home schooling applicants who have no transcript from a high school.  I have three younger brothers and a younger sister, and all old enough have begun their BYU experience.

Likes

Being home so much with my six siblings gave me the chance to become best friends with them.  Yes we squabbled like most siblings do, but when we needed someone to talk to, the first place we turned was to each other. 

I was able to learn as much as my peers who attended public school, but in about half the time (3-5 hours of study per day and having no homework left to do after that).  I really liked that I could excel at my good subjects and take longer on my worse subjects without feeling belittled for the natural differences in each individual.  I found I especially liked math and science, which made it possible for me to take AP Calculus BC (and get a 5 on the AP exam) and AP Physics in my one year of high school. 

I gained a self-study habit that has benefited me greatly.  Rather than being dependent on the teacher to expound a specific discipline to me, I could read it out of a book and get about as much or more out of it than the lecture.  I carried this with me to college and read the books before lectures and found even the most challenging courses easier than most of my peers. 

I appreciated not being exposed to the filth, drugs, sex, language, bad influences and dangers of the public schooling system.  Plenty of my peers tried to tell me that that part of life will get you sooner or later and it's an important part of growing up to have to face it.  My feeling then and now is that yes, they will confront you sooner or later.  I'd just as soon take it later.  I prefer the indoctrination of family values I received at home while I'm young, so that I had that foundation to keep me solid when I left for the "real world".  It has served me well.  Absolutely no regrets there.

Dislikes

Some subjects are best done in larger group settings and/or in a lab.  Chemistry is one example.  It's hard to have a chemistry lab at home.  My parents bought us a chemistry lab "kit", but I don't think we ever opened it.

There were a couple of other subjects that were pretty undeveloped for me.  Geography is a very poor subject for me.  History is patchy, being pretty solid in a few areas with large holes in others.  Oh, and sports.  Well none of my family are very athletically-inclined.  We're not unhealthy, but we never did get much into sports.  These areas I lacked are my own fault, but my suggestion to future home schooling parents is to be firm when getting your child to study areas that aren't his/her forte.  It's ok to be slower in those areas, but don't let those areas be neglected entirely.

Once I got to my advanced math courses, my mom could no longer help me.  This caused no small aggravation to myself when I would be reading a chapter on a difficult new concept.  Sometimes I would get stuck on a problem and bang my head against the table (metaphorically speaking -- usually) for days just on the one problem before understanding dawned.  I'm glad I was in high school to learn calculus.  That would have been killer. 

I loved my one year of high school.  It truly was the most fun year of my life to that point.  I wonder how many more of those great experiences I would have had if I had been public schooled my whole life.

Discussion

My mom was not an expert in every subject, but where she was not an expert she would bring in excellent books and would either teach us out of them or give them to us to read and teach ourselves.  Sometimes, like in my advanced math courses, I would essentially administer my own tests, grade them and then learn from my mistakes and do better next time.  A bad idea?  Maybe for some kids.  It worked for me.  My AP, SAT and ACT test scores prove it. 

Sports

In some states, I'm told, public schools allow home schoolers to participate in extra-curricular activities like sports teams.  California in particular seems to snub home schoolers and we were not invited to join the local public school with one foot in home schooling and one in public schooling.

Social life

This topic is really deserving of its own post, as I have lots to say here.  Did I have a social life as a home schooler?  Yes, certainly.  As much of one as a public schooler?  Of course not.  Most of my socializing actually came through my church, with daily early morning seminary and 3+ hours of Sunday worship services.  Plenty of peers to interact with daily. 

Since home schooling and social misfits are often paired together in people's minds, I wanted to do an experiment (being the scientist at heart that I am).  I figured that if I was a social misfit and didn't know it, I didn't want to socially blow it at the start of my 4-year university career.  That's one reason I decided to go to high school for a year before going to college.  I could get my feet wet in the social setting that everyone had been telling me I was missing and see how I faired.  Well, I did quite well, I think.  I joined the audition choir, loved the people I sang with, joined a couple of other clubs, and had lots of friends who I miss dearly.  I enjoyed high school so much, in fact, that I decided to stay for a second year.  My parents would not let me though, reminding me that since I had already taken senior level classes I really would not be furthering my education by staying.  So off to college I went.

I will post separately on my theory of correlation vs. causation of home schooling and social misfits later.

Workload for Mom

Assuming a bread-winning father, the mother is the one who carries the bulk of the burden of home schooling her children.  It takes a great deal of determination (and therefore some solid reasons for choosing to home school in the first place) to enable a mother to see it through.  So much time, sweat, and yes even tears.  I honor my mother for the incredible effort she went to for what we both believe was giving me the best education possible.

Money

If only the government would give tax rebates for home schooling your own kids... the public schools sure get a nice amount for each enrolled kid.  It only seems fair that since home schooling families pay the same amount of taxes as the public schooled ones that the home schoolers get the money that the public schools would have received. 

That money would help offset the cost of textbooks and other school supplies that now must be incurred by the family instead of the school.  Well, at least home schooling gets you a really small classroom and a lot of one-on-one attention from the teacher.  And no one every steals your lunch.

Summary

To wrap up, I am very grateful my parents for choosing to home school me.  Now that I live in Washington, I want to find out the laws regarding home schooled kids taking part in some classes and/or sports offered by a nearby public school.  I also want to investigate the quality of those classes and schools.  Ultimately my wife must have the veto power over the choice to home school since it will require so much sacrifice on her part. 

I would love for my kids to be home schooled.  But I don't think that it is the only way to go.  I have plenty of very good and smart friends who were public schooled.  It depends on what the parents can do and the school environment in which you live. 

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Faith Promoting Lies

Faith Promoting Lie (FPL): a religious story posing as fact, but with little or no bearing on an actual event; written with the intent to teach a doctrinal principle, often drawing a strong emotional response.

Before I get into the detail of FPLs and how I came to realize their potential (for good and not-so-good), a little background in how I came to know of their existence...

As missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we shared the gospel by teaching the doctrine of Christ out of the scriptures and from the teachings of modern, living prophets.  The Holy Ghost would testify to our investigators of the atonement of our Savior and of the truthfulness of what we taught about His gospel.  We would also share our own experiences living the gospel and the effect it had on our lives and testimonies.

In my particular mission, many missionaries (including myself) would collect and share posters and stories that related to the gospel.  I ended my mission with two 3" binders full of sheet protectors with stories, articles, illustrations and teaching aids.  Most of these were for my own enjoyment.  They either came from tear-jerker emails that my family and friends would print off and mail to me or other missionaries, who probably obtained them the same way.

Some of these stories were very touching stories.  One of the most well-known of which is entitled Seminary Donuts.  I cried when I first read the story.  Since then I have heard it read by several different people to mostly tearful audiences.  It is one of those email forwards that members of the Church love to forward to all their friends -- not for seven years of good luck (like those really annoying forwards), but because they believe it's the most touching and good story they've heard in a long time. 

Toward the end of my mission, after I had collected probably a whole binder's worth of these stories, I realized that these stories are lies.  Please don't misunderstand: the gospel doctrine they teach is often (at least mostly) correct, but their claim to be a true story is simply false. 

This claim of being a true story comes in a variety of forms.  Sometimes the story itself gives the state (usually not more specific than that), names, and season that the event supposedly took place in.  Other times it just starts the story without disclaimer that it is made up, and when the story is read over the pulpit (even by a high council speaker) people mistake it as a true story when no one (even the speaker) doesn't know the source of the story.

Inevitably, and largely due to the anonymous nature of email forwards, these FPLs have no traceable author.  The name, if given, is just a first name, or even a full name that leaves no way to look the person up (since even a full name doesn't help look up a person if you have no idea where they live).

"But wait!" I hear you cry.  "[your favorite FPL here] is true!  I cried when I read/heard it.  Surely no one would make up a story like that.  It happened!  The story even says where it happened..."  Surely we cannot be as gullible as to believe everything we read or hear.  Crying in reaction to a story does not mean the Spirit was testifying of the story's truthfulness.  The story itself can be emotional enough to bring tears.  Perhaps (maybe!) the Spirit itself was even there to testify of the truthfulness of the principles taught in the story, but not the story itself.

FPLs, which I now group with "Mormon folklore", I see as a bane to our religion.  Mormons seek after and hold to truth.  FPLs pose as truth and can mislead us if we do not discern them.  "What damage does it do to believe in an FPL if it teaches good principles?"  Teaching good principles is good.  Using a story to help get a point across is fine.  Even Christ used parables (stories that never occurred) to teach the gospel.  But when the teller claims that the story actually happened when in fact it did not in order to help make the story more powerful -- that's further than Christ went and I believe is damaging to the Spirit and the delicate faith of the Saints.  Also, as long as the story is made up there is no guarantee of the purity of the principles taught.  Scriptures make a much more sure source of truth.

Let us be watchful.  I am not suggesting that we become constant skeptics in our sacrament meetings or of missionaries.  But I am suggesting that people can innocently convey falsehoods that have nevertheless touched their lives and that they want to share with others.  If you hear a story that touches you that you want to remember and perhaps even share with someone else, please take a moment and ask the source for their source of the story.  If it is a personal story of their own, ask for permission to share it with others if you would like to.  If they got it from somewhere else, see how much documented evidence of the original source you can track down.  If it's an FPL, you won't get far.  And you're better off teaching verifiable truth from the official Church materials.

Monday, July 31, 2006

In response to your inquiry about work at Microsoft

A friend of a friend emailed me to ask about how I liked working at Microsoft.  This was my response.  I include it here because I think his questions are quite common for someone considering working here.

Disclaimer: I will attempt to answer your questions to the best of my
ability.  The facts I give you will be based on my own experience and
memory.  No guarantee from Microsoft is expressed or implied by the
content of this email.


 

I’m in my last year at BYU (Information Systems major), and now is the time for me to start looking at jobs. I have another friend, who has a friend working at MS who personally knows the recruiter for the West. He’s going to have her contact me.




That's a good idea.  Get to know your recruiter.  The one I worked with was fun and very friendly. 


 

I was hoping you could tell me a bit of how it’s been for you at MS? Do they overwork recent grads? I have heard they overwork them and burn them out in a few years, then drop them and replace ‘em with another recent grad. True? Could just be all the conspiracy theories. J




That wreaks of conspiracy theory. :) Yes they hire grads, yes  some will leave, and yes more will be hired in a few years as they do every year.  Do they overwork them?  Not unfairly, to be sure.  On the contrary, I get the sense that they very much value the grads (and everyone) they hire. 



I just attended a techfair hosted specifically for interns and new college hires where Steve Ballmer spoke.  He said that their approach to new hires matches their approach with new technology: Work with it, even for years, until it rocks!



Now as far as overworking in general, ... but I'll save this for your next question.


 



How’s work life? Do you bring lots of work home with you? Late days? 50 hours weeks (or more)?




First of all, it very much depends on the team you work for, from what I'm told.  Second of all, ask your recruiter what Microsoft means about the "work-life balance".  It's very impressive.  Microsoft's goal is to get their employees working 40 hour weeks.  And in some teams they have achieved it.  In other teams, like those affiliated with Vista, they are working much harder, from what I hear.  I wanted to work on Vista (or thought I did) when I applied, but one of my interviewing managers corrected me (and I'm grateful).  Vista will be awesome, but right now those development teams are working overtime.



My team is awesome.  I work approximately 40 hour weeks.  Sometimes slightly more or less.  If I need to come in late or leave early on a given day, I can just do that without even talking to my manager first.  They trust you here to use your judgment, and they just want you to get your work done.  Pretty much you can set your own hours as long as they cover the meetings you need to attend.



Traffic is bad.  I choose to take the bus so I can pursue my own interests while in traffic rather than just drive a car.  It takes a little longer (sometimes -- other times it seems faster), but at least I can use my time productively.  Including travel (from where I live) I'm probably away from home nearly 50 hours per week.



As far as taking work home with me.  heh heh.  I love my job.  I asked my manager for a laptop, explaining that I'd like to be able to do work from home if I can't sleep or whatever.  He said no.  But get the reason: because "when you're home, you should be home.  You shouldn't have to work at home." 


 

Has anything disappointed you – meaning, were you expecting/promised something you didn’t get?




The biggest disappointment wasn't that big.  It was simply that in the application form for my interviews, MS asked me what the minimum salary I would require to work there is.  They merely matched (ever-so-slightly overshot) that minimum.  But see the answer to your later question for more on this.



Microsoft has no "fountain of knowledge".  You have to work out solutions to problems here just like any other programming job.  I guess I should have known that.


 

Has anything exceeded your expectations?




The weather is very enjoyable (we like the rain, though in the summer it hardly rains).  We're the only state that's regularly under 100 degrees last I checked. 



I was struck during my on-campus interviews with how friendly everyone was here.  That feeling has only increased.  The mutual respect among employees is unlike anything I've experienced.  People here "take ownership" of your questions; they find solutions for you if you ask rather than just say "I dunno" and/or point you in another direction.  Of course that doesn't happen 100% of the time, but it makes me feel like I'm at a grocery store where employees are always waiting to help you find something.  Except they're your coworkers.


 

Are people being ethical where you work? I hope so. J




Absolutely.  Entirely.  Microsoft has a strong ethical and legal guidelines handbook and they push it hard down all employees (I think annually).  There are private reporting mechanisms for when anyone (including your superiors) do something you think is unethical, including protection against the "whistle blower".  I've never had any reason to wonder about anyone's behavior here though.



In fact, although the outside feeling about Microsoft seems to be negative in many circles, being on the inside during some of these "scandals" like the multi-hundred-million-dollar fine from the European Commission against Microsoft for protocol documentation has allowed me to hear their side of the story and realize that Microsoft really is trying hard to comply with all laws and overall good citizens.  It seems to me that bad/inflammatory news sells, and Microsoft has made a very popular target of late.  But I feel good being inside Microsoft knowing that I work for a company that is full of employees who are real people who are just trying to do their job the best they can.


 

I’d appreciate comments. I’m wanting a good job after I graduate, like everyone is.




I would suggest you apply multiple places.  If you get an offer from Microsoft, other offers will give you a reference of comparison so you can see how great Microsoft's offer is.  :)



The employee benefits offered by Microsoft truly are "second to none", as their HR goal states.  I can't begin to enumerate them.  If you can fathom it, Microsoft probably offers it.  I'll just list a few: having a baby is free, finding a baby is significantly paid for (adoption), not having a baby is free (various modes of temporary or permanent birth control), non-profit org donation (in $$ or time) matching, free day care for kids on days you work but your kids don't go to school, 401K matching, employee stock purchase plan, target performance bonuses of 10% and can be up to 20% of annual salary, annual pay raises (that barely keep up with inflation), life insurance, $0 deductibles and copays for doctors visits and medications, 2 weeks paid vacation that you can carry over up to one year (and this increases with time; I have a coworker with what... 5 weeks?!), 8 more paid holidays, 2 floating holidays (you pick the days), 10 paid sick days (that you can use if anyone in your immediate family is sick), 4 weeks of paternity/maternity leave when you have each baby., free health club membership and significant discounts for your spouse, tons of discounts and great treatment from local businesses, paid for tuition for continuing your education (at least a significant portion, if not fully)...  are you beginning to get the idea?  Oh! And the health insurance applies to your whole family and does not come out of your paycheck. 




I know exact pay isn’t appropriate to share, but did you get what you hoped for? Do they pay competitively for where you are?




Notwithstanding my earlier comment about salary, I feel that Microsoft has treated me fairly.  Inputting my skills and geographic area into salary.com produced a pay range within which my salary from Microsoft fits.  And the process for promotions and pay raises  is clearly laid out for all employees to read. 



When comparing offers, be sure to go to web sites that give you standard costs of living for the areas you'd work for each offer you get.  A condo in the Puget Sound area of Washington (where main campus is and the surrounding areas) costs twice as much as a medium-sized house in Provo.  That should factor in to tell you that you can't compare salaries like apples-to-apples.  Also, the state of WA doesn't charge income tax.  You still have federal income tax of course.


 

Thanks a ton for your help and insights.




You're welcome.  I hope you found them useful.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Ya... about that "Lock Your Heart" article...

So when I was an LDS missionary my mission pushed the Lock Your Heart article on the missionaries quite strongly.  With good reason, I guess.  There were stories of elders from my mission, like the one who went home early, came back and married a 35-year-old divorced woman with children.  That's the craziest.  Plenty of other elders I know personally married sisters that they were zone leaders over, or served around, etc.  My ears were just ringing with Lock Your Heart, so every time I met an RM who had a story like this, I judged him harshly.  Read on...



So Lock Your Heart is allegedly a transcript from a talk given by Elder Spencer W. Kimball.  In short, I don't believe that it's authentic any more.  My first tip off was that there were too many typos.  Then I couldn't find it anywhere on the official Church web site.  Finally, according to the transcript, I believe Elder Kimball contradicts himself in the article.  For example:



Well, is there any harm to marry a Mexican
girl if you are working in Mexico? No, that isn't any crime, but it proves
that some missionary has had his heart open! He has unlocked it!


Really?  Well what if you didn't meet this Mexican girl while serving in Mexico?  That seems harsh to say you can never marry a girl whose nationality coincides with where you served.  But in the next example, Elder Kimball allows for this:



Is it
wrong to marry a German girl when you have been on a German mission? Why
no, there is no crime in that, if you met her some other way. But when
you meet her in the mission field and you have opened your heart, I tell
you it isn't right, and you have shortchanged your mission!


That's better, but it means something different from the last example.  Secondly, if you met a girl in the mission field, think nothing of it, and years later run into her again and marry her, that should be harmless.  President Hinckley agrees with me on this point.  From his talk "What This Work is All About":



I first met Jack in Japan when he was serving as a missionary there. ... [This man had] a great effort and a great sense of
devotion, and above all, a certain humility and reliance on the Lord
with anxious, prayerful pleadings for help.
...
I also first met in Japan and interviewed on a number of occasions the
young lady he was later to marry. She had a wonderful spirit, a deep
faith, and a moving sense of duty.  Their acquaintance in the field was nothing more than having seen one
another on one occasion.
They worked in widely separated areas. But out
of their experiences had come a common touchstone—a new language in
which each had learned to share testimony with others while laboring in
the great and selfless cause of service to our Father’s children.


And he goes on to say many great things about each of these RMs and how wonderful their life is together.  The talk isn't about how people can marry those they meet on their mission, but in talking about what missionary work is about, President Hinckley would not use an example like this if he thought it was a bad example.  Obviously, people who were acquainted in the mission field can marry later without somehow, mysteriously, shortchanging their mission that is already over and done.



I honor and respect President Spencer W. Kimball.  That's why I don't believe he really gave that talk.  And if he did, I believe the transcription is faulty.  While I oppose going on a mission to find a bride or groom, and I oppose flirting on a mission, and I support mission rules regarding not writing letters to people in the mission field while you're serving in it, I nevertheless believe that there are perfectly acceptable circumstances in which you can marry someone who lived within your mission boundaries.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Superman Returns

So I watched a prescreen viewing of Superman Returns today. It was alright. The scenes were definitely intense and some thrilling. The scenery and people are much more modern (much more than five years) than they were in the first movies (I only saw Superman I and II). Cell phones and the Internet are popular.  


Unfortunately, so is the family decay. (possible spoiler follows)


Lois Lane has a live-in boyfriend, and they have a kid together. It gets worse. Everyone explains to Superman, including Lois, that “five years is a long time”, and things change. Superman came back to Earth expecting Lois to still be in love with him. She explained with a torn heart that five years is a long time, and she had no idea whether he was coming back.


Well, it turns out that the young kid is Superman’s instead of her Lois’ live-in boyfriend. Hmm… doing the math, I calculate that Lois didn’t wait five years for Superman before hooking up. In fact, she didn’t wait a month. If Lois had a kid by Superman and thought it was Richard’s (her live-in boyfriend), things must have developed awfully fast when Superman disappeared.


It’s a shame how an otherwise great movie can be tainted by modern society’s degrading values.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Ferrets and condos do not mix

So we got a ferret to join us in our little condo that we found on Craigs List.  Although it has had its scent glands removed, and the cage is freshly cleaned, the smell very quickly overtook our home, and we are looking for some family who is already accustomed to pets and their smell to take this sweet ferret home with them.

Lessons learned:
  1. Visit a potential pet in its current environment before officially adopting it. (i.e. don't have it delivered sight unseen).
  2. Ask for a grace period in which you can return it.
  3. Don't get a pet when you have just a little space for it, where the smell can build up.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

"I could care less". You could?

I've heard this all over the place: "I could care less".  What does the person usually mean when he/she says this?  That they don't care, of course. 

But think about it for just a minute: If you could care less, that means you must care something about it already.  I believe that this mis-quoted phrase probably stems from the more correct "I couldn't care less", and people just dropped the n't without thinking about how they were significantly changing its meaning.

I had a co-worker named Kevin several years back who told me that people, in general, don't like to think.  This is just one small piece of evidence in support of this claim. 

If you have used this phrase, consider thinking about what you say a bit more, please.  Let's keep the english language a little less confusing to those learning it. :)

"I never said it would be easy, I only said it would be worth it". Really?

I don't know if this phrase pervades outside the LDS culture like it does within it.  It is often embroidered to pictures of Christ.  The idea being portrayed is that life is hard, but it will be worth it because of Christ.

That simple idea is fine, but literally speaking, the saying is false, and its reverse is actually what is true:  Christ did say it would be easy, but he never said it would be worth it.  Think about it.  Can you find a scripture where he does? (literally speaking)

Now, of course Christ believed and taught principles consistent with the idea that yes, of course salvation is "worth it".  But he also said taking His yoke upon ourselves is easy.  Let's not get life (which is hard) confused with following Christ (easy). 

And let's think about these catchy phrases before we allow them to permeate our entire culture.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Some tips for choir directors

I have been in many ward choirs.  These are some pointers I have that I believe can apply to every choir director.  I appreciate all choir directors, and I am glad they take their time to serve us.  I certainly do not have the skill to do what they do, and I appreciate their selfless service.  Nevertheless, I believe some improvements could be easily made.  But if you are a choir director please do not take anything personally or as an attack -- especially if you are one of my own current or past choir directors!  In other words, these are written more for humor than anything else.  If you do not find it funny, stop reading.
  1. End choir practice at the scheduled time, and not a minute later.  Consider ending early if you are at a convenient stopping place.
  2. One or two people do not constitute a majority.  When you ask "Shall we sing it one more time?" and only one or two people respond affirmatively, that means that everyone else is silently responding "no".  Ditto for "Do you want to stand?"
  3. Leaning over a first row choir member to conduct directly to the third row makes people nervous.
  4. Don't specifically invite "all members, including those who can't sing" to choir.  Those who can sing become less enthused about attending themselves.  Choirs should sound pleasant.
  5. Consider singing the music as it is written.  It is perfectly acceptable to sing a hymn out of the book without stuffing as much variety as possible (or more so!) into the verses with unison/parts/harmony or new verses. 
  6. If you have limited practice time before the performance, consider simplifying the selection before you call an extra weeknight rehearsal.
  7. Never, never say "Let's sing it just once more(, I promise)."  I have never met a choir director who lived up to that promise even once, so do not even pretend you will live up to it.  You tease us with the concept of getting home to eat, then we practice the piece three more times.
  8. Give the choir time to talk to each other.  Singing can be an inspiring experience, and singing with people you know and love greatly enhances that.  Just two or three minutes per rehearsal of "talk with your neighbor" time can go a long way to putting smiles on the choir's faces both for rehearsals and for performances.  We will probably pay more attention when you are talking as well.
  9. When working with a small section of the choir, invite the others to sit down.
  10. Do not ask us whether we want to sit with the congregation or in the choir loft for the rest of the meeting.  We will be divided anyway, just tell us what to do.  We will do what you say.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Portfolio: The RELATE Institute

I suppose I should mention that I am the primary developer behind the RELATE Institute web site.  It utilizes C#, ASP.NET, XSLT, XSL-FO.  It is divided into several class libraries and an ASP.NET web front-end.  A significant class library behind the site is about to be open-sourced so I can work on it even after I leave to work for Microsoft.  Almost all the lessons that I post on my JMPInline blog comes from my developing RELATE.