Down the Ethereum rabbit hole

I know smart people who react to cryptocurrency with everything from outright skepticism to guarded indifference to enthusiasm. This year I finally looked down the rabbit hole for myself, and was surprised how much potential is there, specifically in Ethereum; this post is an attempt to collect what I’ve learned. So first, links and commentary on the most interesting stuff I’ve read, and then some personal reactions for anyone who wants to know how crypto relates to guns and Alexander Hamilton.

This is a long post (4k words), and it links in enough material to make a book. Here goes.

What is cryptocurrency?

Here’s Wikipedia. Consider reading the Bitcoin Whitepaper; as the first cryptocurrency, bitcoin demonstrates and implements key concepts. It is system whereby a decentralized network of computers can achieve consensus on which anonymous users own how many tokens, which uses a cryptographic proof of work consensus mechanism to maintain security, and rewards those who operate the network by paying them in tokens. For the rest of this piece, I’m going to assume you have some basic concept of what a cryptocurrency is, and how bitcoin works.

What is Ethereum?

If bitcoin is like a currency based on adding machines, Ethereum is like a currency based on macro-enabled spreadsheets. The bitcoin network keeps track of balances, allows sending and receiving of funds, and has limited other capabilities. Ethereum does all that, and furthermore is Turing complete and can execute code (“smart contracts”) of more or less arbitrary complexity. There’s an explainer here, and again, consider reading the whitepaper. Activity on the Ethereum network is paid for in “gas fees” denominated in ether; simple transfers of ether will have relatively low fees, and arbitrarily complex code will have arbitrarily high fees. So Ethereum is a platform for doing all kinds of blockchain, currency, and contract-related stuff. Ether is both the Ethereum system’s currency, and the medium used to pay fees for all its other use cases.

What can I do with Ethereum?

Obviously you can send and receive ether, to buy stuff from any willing counterparty. But decentralized systems are where it gets fun; you can do some pretty fancy financial engineering using smart contracts. Applications include:

Prediction Markets. You can participate in decentralized prediction markets on topics like the 2020 election; Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin made $50K doing this (note that this link includes discussion of decentralized lending and automated market makers, other technologies described below). In my opinion, this is a very promising use case; for many uncertain events (i.e. absent prophecy or other special knowledge), forward or futures markets tell us just about as much about the future as we can reliably know. Last I checked, activity in this area had ground to a halt, as Ethereum fees have gotten prohibitively high, but fixes are in the works for that (keep reading).

Decentralized lending. The most interesting decentralized lending scheme is MakerDAO, which allows you to post collateral (e.g. ether, bitcoin), pay an interest rate, and receive in return a quantity of dai, a currency that is pegged to the U. S. dollar. Then you can use the dai as a low-volatility medium for transactions, such as in prediction markets, or with merchants who don’t want 10% daily fluctuations in their unit of account. If your collateral value drops, you face what’s basically a margin call; either repay the dai, or the smart contract will automatically do a fire sale of your collateral (auctioning it for dai on the open market) in order to maintain the peg. The peg has held pretty well over several years of experience, including the pandemic and various major crypto price moves. Holders of an underlying governance token, MKR, set the requirements around collateral and benefit from the interest charged—so they are incentivized to require decent collateral and charge market rates, lest they blow up the system (and their holding in it).

If you like, instead of using the dai as a stable currency, you can turn around and use it to buy more ether! Leverage! This makes cryptocurrency values prone to flash-crash type corrections; drops in the ether price can generate further selling pressure, as people either liquidate their holdings or get liquidated automatically for being under-collateralized.

On a more positive note, this type of mechanism could theoretically generate synthetic assets that track any price of interest. You could in principle have trustless, decentralized dai-euro or dai-gold or dai-TeslaStock or dai-inflation-adjusted-global-GDP, assuming non-trivially that you have a reliable index to track (the oracle problem). Of course using a volatile asset to collateralize a token tracking another volatile asset will only work if you accept very high collateral ratios or very high risk of liquidation…hopefully we all have a sort of natural intuition that tells us that using Bitcoin as collateral to do a leveraged purchase of synthetic Tesla stock on the Ethereum blockchain is not wise. But still, this is cool from a technical perspective.

Non-fungible tokens. Ethereum allows purchase or creation of non-fungible tokens (NFTs), proving a verifiable right of ownership to…something (right now most NFTs do not actually convey a copyright). Spending millions of dollars on an NFT is roughly analagous to spending millions on an original painting: in either case, anyone can typically look at the art online, and probably even hang a realistic copy of it on their wall, but the buyer gets the mimetic satisfaction of possessing it in a way that others can’t. In both cases, not something I am likely to do anytime soon, but I’m perfectly content to see a new mechanism by which artists creating public output can take patronage from (possibly very silly) rich people.

Arbitrary tokens. You can create arbitrary fungible tokens, such as currencies or points. This means that yes, if you must, you can create YourNameDogeCoin, piggybacking on Ethereum’s security (and paying ether gas fees) to create your very own highly secure cryptocurrency, and trade it with your friends. And since you can, many people have. Thus stories like this, where a low-liquidity (but nominally high market-cap) coin was donated/thrown away away to the tune of several billion dollars.

Automated market makers. You can implement, supply liquidity to, or trade against automated market makers, notably including constant function market makers, for other crypto-related assets. Thus you can make it really easy for people to trade their bitcoin for YourNameDogeCoin, and earn small commissions when they do! Automated market makers can even be used to do things that aren’t obviously useless, like facilitating prediction market trading (previously linked prediction market story did this) or trading in governance tokens (like the MKR token underlying MakerDAO).

Insurance. You can in theory build smart contracts that pay out only if a hurricane hits a given area, or if rainfall is less than X, or if Donald Trump wins the presidency in 2024 AND there is an earthquake in San Francisco that year, or in the case of any event for which reliable data is available to feed an oracle. Mostly this is still hypothetical, but supposedly you can actually buy flight delay insurance, crop insurance is being sold in Kenya, and various other applications are in the works, so that’s something.

Is front-running trades a problem?

Suppose you see a great opportunity for a trade on Ethereum, so you submit it. What happens next? Very possibly, you get front-run, i.e. someone else sees the trading opportunity and grabs it (or at least part of the value of it) for themselves. This is obviously a problem in traditional markets too, but in Ethereum, with generalized code, it gets really weird.

What if you realize your smart contract has a bug, such that anyone who understands the exploit can drain all the currency from the contract? You might be tempted to just exploit the bug yourself, get the currency safely in your wallet, then fix the bug. But generalized front-runners lurk. These are programs that are listening to the market, automatically testing transactions they see—even complicated, obfuscated contract interactions that have never been done before—and front-running anything that gives an apparently desirable outcome. Thus the fascinating horror story of the Dark Forest.

This is avoidable, however, if you collaborate directly with Ethereum miners to get preferential treatment for your transaction (secret execution that cannot be front-run). Thus you can escape the dark forest.

But if miners can give preferential treatment to otherwise front-runnable transactions, they can equally give preferential treatment to frontrunners, or engage in front-running themselves, thus capturing miner-extractable value (or MEV). There’s an amazing paper “Flash Boys 2.0: Frontrunning, Transaction Reordering, and Consensus Instability in Decentralized Exchanges” by Daian et al (link) that goes over the history of generalized front-running (including multiple bots programatically bidding against each other to front-run the same transactions) and the challenge of MEV.

Miners could theoretically band together to make sure that everything front-runnable is in fact optimally front-run, with value split between miners and those who identify the front-running opportunities. And in fact this has happened over the last six months, via Flashbots, which is now used by over 80% of the network’s hash rate (cryptographic processing power).

This is extremely fair, in a sort of inside-out way that mirrors other cryptocurrency phenomena: it is stable, rule-driven, transparent, logically predictable, and secure, with the cost & benefit of resulting in a hard-edged environment and zero forgiveness for mistakes.

You could also write your own bot to exploit any simplistic behavior by generalized frontrunner bots, and indeed this has been done; one Reddit reaction to generalized frontrunning bots losing a ton of money to this was the classic “Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.”

What are the big challenges for Ethereum right now, and what’s to be done?

Ethereum’s transaction throughput capacity is fully utilized, fees for that capacity have been bid up to fairly expensive levels, its underlying mining algorithm is wasteful, and much of the network activity seems frivolous.

Mining currently consumes an immense amount of electricity and a significant fraction of global graphics card production capacity, mostly to do “proof of work” cryptographic calculations that are then immediately discarded. Hence the wastefulness problem. Some people worry about this from an environmental perspective; I care more about the economics—the cost of all that electricity must ultimately be getting extracted from Ethereum network users. The plan here is to transition to proof of stake, so that transactions are secured by validators who prove they own ether (the stake), rather than by miners who prove they own computing hardware (proof of work). Dishonest validators automatically lose the ether they staked, so they can’t stay dishonest for long, and you would need to buy a significant fraction of all ether in existence to attack the network.

Ethereum then has a roadmap for increasing throughput, principally via sharding (splitting the blockchain into a set of parallel, inter-referenced chains to expand capacity) and rollups (aggregating many off-chain actions into a single on-chain entry). I am optimistic about the Ethereum community’s ability to pull this off in the next few years.

I expect that the chain will return to full utilization pretty quickly after sharding is implemented; if it ends up with spare capacity and low fees someone will just use it to emulate Minecraft, in which they will then emulate a computer, in which they will then emulate an entire universe. (Conclusion: you yourself are probably just a simulation inside the computer-Ethereum-Minecraft-computer of a higher universe! Except not.) But in all seriousness, it does seem like available capacity will tend to be used. It feels like building a toll road in a high-demand area: as you expand it, you may end up with much higher throughput (and tolls) and stubbornly comparable congestion.

So much for wastefulness, fees, and throughput; solutions seem to be underway.

But what about frivolousness? Isn’t this all a bubble?

Much of current cryptocurrency activity does indeed appear to be frivolous and speculative. On one level, this is disturbing. If the hope is for blockchains to provide bank-like services worldwide in a censorship-resistant, decentralized, anonymous way, then CryptoKitties are not what success looks like. Arguably crypto activity is no more frivolous or speculative than Hollywood or Las Vegas, though it is younger and less widely understood. And Hollywood and Vegas are here to stay. But that’s hardly a ringing endorsement.

The early internet bubble makes for a slightly more sympathetic comparison. There were many deeply stupid businesses, many “why would anyone want that?” or “why would anyone trust that?” reactions, and many grossly inflated asset values. But meanwhile, Amazon, Google, and similar businesses were beginning to take over the world, via exponential growth from small base levels. Crypto may be at a similar point.

And there are some niches where the crypto dream really is happening. Nigerians are importing goods from China, using bitcoin to bypass a dysfunctional banking and regulatory environment. I mentioned insurance and prediction markets above. And organizations facing legal sanction (whether deserved or not) really can use crypto to anonymously transact. Admittedly some of these crypto users are ransomware organizations who absolutely do deserve legal sanction, especially the ones who make my job harder. But that’s sort of like saying some people who use guns are criminals—it’s even true, but I argue we’re still better off in a world where people have access to such things. It’s getting harder for tyrannies to control their citizens’ economic activity. In one sense ransomware is sort of the bug that proves the feature.

Undoubtedly, though, much crypto activity is pure speculation (e.g. Dogecoin knockoffs). So…

How can I think about ether’s value, vs. other cryptocurrencies or cash?

Most cryptocurrencies will likely be more or less worthless in the long run; they compete directly with each other, and there are winner-take-all network effects. Thus we might expect there will be only one general-purpose cryptocurrency in the same way there’s only one Google or only one Facebook. There might be any number of subsidiary tokens, like the MKR governance token for MakerDAO, but these behave more like equity securities, not currencies in their own right. And there will probably be a Yahoo-analogue, limping along for decades, sustained by a few niches long after it has lost the war. But which one will be dominant?

An obvious first question is “what’s dominant now?” Bitcoin and Ethereum are head-and-shoulders above the rest of the pack. So which of those two is feature-dominant? Obviously Ethereum.

Maybe Ethereum is the MySpace of crypto, and it will be taken down by Algorand or Cardano or some other “Ethereum killer”…but the very phrase “Ethereum killer” points out where the action currently is; Ethereum seems to have a formidable advantage in developer support and adoption. Thus arguments for Ethereum Maximalism (dated, but has aged well), and the view that Ethereum should overtake bitcoin in market cap. Those links lay out the case for Ethereum in more detail.

So assume Ethereum will be dominant. We can then value it based on projected profit from transaction costs and some assumed discount rate. Ethereum fees are currently order-of-magnitude $10B/year. After proof-of-stake operating costs will be low, so the system then looks kind of like a business generating $10B/year of profit. (There are a number of moving parts given pending updates, which will result in fees being burned and stakers receiving newly minted ether, but assume the total incentive to stays on the same order of magnitude.) At a current market cap around $300B, $10B in profit gives a price-to-earnings ratio of 30, which is not too crazy for a tech business experiencing meteoric growth that plausibly aspires to take over significant chunks of the banking, payments, insurance, and tech industries.

The sort of ultimate bull case is that Ethereum, along with its various fee-paying dependencies (including stablecoins), becomes widely used as a blockchain platform, supporting all the applications above and facilitating decentralized economic activity in ways we now struggle to imagine. AirBnB, now a pretty standard kind of internet business, was more or less inconceivable in the first decade of consumer internet; by analogy, there’s no reason to expect we can fully predict the economic consequences of smart blockchains. Maybe it turns out to be CryptoKitties all the way down, but there appears to be some open-ended upside. If it does turn out that Ethereum is comparable to a major currency (with money supply in the $trillions) plus a major tech business (market cap over a $trillion) then its current valuation is cheap.

What can go wrong for the network?

What if people break current cryptographic methods, e.g. by quantum computing? This has been considered; reportedly quantum-resistant cryptographic methods are available, and simply not in use because they are currently less efficient. (The author of that comment is an Ethereum cofounder and has around a billion dollars in value riding on himself being correct, so he should not be casually dismissed.)

What if huge bugs are uncovered in Ethereum? Fortunately the community is paranoid and key network components have multiple implementations, so hopefully they do not all suffer the same bug simultaneously, and those that remain functional hold up the network. There’s also a precedent from one “too big to fail” bug, the issue with “The DAO,” that resulted in a hard fork. This means that most of the network agreed to adopt a sort of arbitrary ex post facto fix (violating the normal logic of the system) that successfully resolved the issue, while the rest of the network split off and became Ethereum Classic, which has relatively little value or adoption.

What if there’s a successful proof-of-work attack attempting theft or denial-of-serice? It’d cost a lot to do – you’d have to either buy a significant portion of global GPU production for several months, or pay a whole set of miners (who already have been buying a significant portion of global GPU production) to kill the goose that lays their golden eggs. And the attacker would have to start soon in order to do it before the transition to proof-of-stake.

What if there’s a successful attack after proof-of-stake? An attacker could buy a significant portion of the ether market cap and then spin up enough validators to execute an attack, either stealing funds or locking up the network. As mentioned above, this would be expensive, and a fair amount of thought has gone into ways the balance of the network could penalize such an attacker (principally by taking their staked funds away) and recover.

What if crypto is declared super-illegal everywhere, and the full force of the law comes down on ISPs to make it impossible to use? Then we’re probably well on our way to a dystopian police state, but I think this is quite unlikely in the U. S., where significant portions of the tech industry and a good-size retail investor base would be howling if there was any indication of going down that road.

What if it’s technically legal and doesn’t get attacked out of existence or dominated by a competitor, but suffers some combination death by a thousand regulatory cuts, slow adoption, significant technical hurdles, delays to the development roadmap, and a continuing lack of non-frivolous use cases? This sort of thing is the most likely failure mechanism in my mind. However, I am optimistic that the forces of ingenuity will triumph over the technical obstacles, outrun effective regulation, and find value-generating ways to use such a powerful new tool.

How does this relate to your broader philosophy?

I would love to see people in dysfunctional countries have alternatives to using local currencies that suffer from inflation, capital controls, demonetization or expropriation risk, etc. I can imagine smartphone-based stablecoin usage becoming significant in much of Africa, which could be a very good thing. It could act like M-Pesa, but with potentially lower fees and/or reduced exposure to government interference.

I also broadly favor free trade and commerce, domestically and internationally, so to the extent cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology facilitate that, that’s a good thing.

Furthermore, I favor free citizens having access to tools that make them more or less ungovernable by an oppressive regime. Thus I think citizens of a free country should be able to own guns, communicate privately using strong cryptography, associate online or offline as they choose, transact without anyone’s permission using media of exchange of their choice (gold coins, cryptocurrency, tantalum bars, whatever floats your boat), and so on. Cryptocurrencies could be an important tool in the arsenal of future dissidents, and their existence thus tends to make freedom more secure—a good thing. The last few paragraphs are more or less the libertarian cypherpunk case for cryptocurrencies.

From a different angle, cryptocurrency is fascinating as an experiment in natural law and institutional design. I believe in natural law morality: there are some things that are inherently right or wrong, independent of any specific divine decree, and that God observes and promotes these laws rather than imposing them ex nihilo. Torturing people for fun is wrong, and God both will not and cannot change that. (The Book of Mormon talks about this sort of thing, in one case stating “Now the work of justice could not be destroyed; if so, God would cease to be God.”) So there are right and wrong ways to conduct human affairs, that need not depend on any central authority. Simultaneously, I am aware that men are fallen creatures, and that they are likely to reach the best outcomes within institutions that incorporate checks, balances, incentive design, etc. such that they can’t easily oppress each other.

The crypto community is working towards institutional arrangements that are cognizant of cheating, yet can nonetheless create common goods and implement natural law (Thou shalt not steal double-spend! Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy [blockchain]!), all without reference to any externally imposed law. In this view, Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin is potentially a sort of 21st century Alexander Hamilton-as-hacker: a heroic figure driving forward groundbreaking institutional and economic developments that ultimately promote freedom and prosperity around the globe. I would watch that Lin-Manuel Miranda musical any day.

Or again, maybe it’ll just be cryptokitties all the way down, or fail (or languish) for regulatory or technical reasons. We shall see.

Are you invested, and how?

Yes; I have a small holding of Ether via Coinbase Pro.

My personal investment theory is that in general, I am not smarter than the market, so I should have most of my net worth in (1) home equity and (2) very broad, very low-cost stock index funds (e.g. VTI). And that is basically what I do. I hold a bit of company stock to be a good sport, and then allow myself discretionary investments with a small percentage of the cost basis of my non-checking, non-emergency-fund, non-retirement financial assets—whence my small Ether holding.

I expect to hold for perhaps 5-10 years (diamond hands? lazy hands?), to let the current development roadmap play out and see what people do with the resulting capabilities. Recent market turbulence doesn’t concern me too much; I bought before the peak, the investment thesis is that Ether could plausibly be an order of magnitude more valuable within 5-10 years, and nothing about that has changed.

I purchased (and hodl) in Coinbase Pro. There are many other exchanges, and some with lower fees, but Coinbase seems to be the dominant safe option. They have managed their business to a level where U. S. banks, auditors, regulators, and so forth seem to have some confidence that they aren’t just a ponzi scheme for absconding with client funds. They also allow withdrawals in either cash or Ethereum—so cryptographic keys can be had if I decide to use the Ether directly, which is good, but I don’t have to keep track of them myself, which is probably also good. Pro looks to have lower fees than the base version of Coinbase.

My investment is in part a self-conscious act of capital allocation; I think Ethereum is the sort of thing that is worth developing and funding, and I am willing to assume risk of total loss in order to (hopefully) help it along in some small way. Despite a significant risk of total loss, I do think it’s expected-value-positive, which is as close as I’ll come to assuming a distribution of probabilities for different Ethereum outcomes.

I want to go deeper…

I originally saw a bunch of these links via Marginal Revolution, my favorite economics blog (not crypto-specific, and worth following in general). I’ve also been getting the Week In Ethereum News, which gives a nice weekly cross section of what’s going on, particularly on the development side.

But what I really want are cryptocurrency rap videos.

Here you go: bitcoin and dogecoin.

If indeed you have figured something out here, why did it take you so long?

I think one factor was that I never wanted to transact with a sketchy exchange; finding out Coinbase was there, as an option to get exposure without obviously losing my shirt to fraud or fees, was a big deal. So thanks, Coinbase. I also (correctly) figured the ICO boom was pretty shady and (incorrectly) viewed bitcoin as a sort of silly curiosity in 2012-13, when I first recall becoming aware of it. (I spent 2010-11 mostly off-grid as a missionary in Brazil.) And frankly with my diversified investment strategy and limited means immediately after college (graduated 2014), I have not historically contemplated investing in such things. Coverage on Marginal Revolution this year got me interested enough to do the work to understand Ethereum, leading to my current opinions. We’ll see how I feel about it in ten years.

Leisurely Consecration

Public Square Magazine recently put up a piece I wrote on Josef Pieper’s “Leisure: The Basis of Culture” and his concept of leisure/worship as contrasted with laziness/idleness/acedia. I’m quite proud of it; give it a read!

The Request Batting Average

There may or may not be stupid questions, but there are definitely stupid requests. I have a concept of a “request batting average,” computed as [number of approvals] divided by [number of requests]. You can tell a lot about the quality of an engineer asking for money, or a Christian saying his prayers, by looking at the relevant batting average.

Opportunities to spend money constantly confront a refinery engineer. This valve doesn’t shut very tightly; we could get a new one. We could repair this heat exchanger less frequently if we bought one made of stainless steel. This sixty-year-old pump is not designed to modern standards, and its mean-time-between-repairs suffers for it. That pipe could use a paint job. Maybe we should tear down that pressure vessel that has been sitting there unused for longer than I’ve been alive. This refinery would be easier to manage if we just built a new one made entirely from indestructible nickel-moly-chrome alloys right beside it, and then abandoned the old one. All of these ideas have some degree of aesthetic appeal, would be desirable if free, and would in some sense result in a “better” refinery.

But the plant manager cannot possibly fund every pleasant engineering idea. He operates with a basically fixed budget, so ideas compete for funds. And even if there is slack in the budget, the plant manager also wants the refinery to achieve its broader purposes, notably making net cash so the company can pay the dividend to its owners, the Benevolent Ladies’ Association Retirement Fund (BLARF, for short) and other stockholders.

An engineer could just say “Well, I will just throw out as many nice ideas as I can, and management can pick which ones they want!” Then management has to wade through a flood of half-baked proposals, most of which are not aligned with their priorities. The pattern will quickly become clear, as will a corresponding pattern where the engineer’s requests meet with skepticism. His batting average will be low. And since only 20% of his past ideas got funded, his future ideas are assumed to have only a 20% chance of meriting funding.

Alternately, the engineer can triage ideas himself. He must develop a sense of what management is likely to approve and critically evaluate, in light of this, whether a given idea is worth developing further. Each idea he chooses to develop should become completed staff work, a fully developed concept and justification such that predictable questions are answered and difficulties resolved before presentation to management. This engineer will have a high batting average, and managers will quickly recognize that when he asks for money, they are usually going to say yes.

Now, an engineer should be willing to pursue non-obvious ideas, rather than just parroting management. Sometimes it takes significant development to see whether an idea is good, and it’s often worth doing the work even when you know there’s a 75% chance that you yourself will later kill the idea. And it would be a mistake to target a 100% batting average; it’s hard to be perfectly calibrated on what management will want, and management does want to see options and make choices. But an 80% batting average may be achievable and desirable—so if you have twenty ideas and you expect management can only fund four, give them the top five. Maybe your #5 idea is better than you think, and you’re missing key information that disqualifies your #3. (And in any case, managers need to say “no” occasionally just so everyone can feel like they are doing their jobs, themselves included.)

A good engineer will focus efforts and requests on things management is likely to be interested in. You want this kind of engineer working for you. You want to promote this kind of engineer to management, given that they are demonstrating an ability to do management prioritization and drive towards the organization’s goals.

There are parallels between well-done funding requests and effective prayer. So think about a prayer batting average, [number of approvals] over [number of requests].

You could pray and ask for any number of things. Please bless me with perpetual health and beauty. Please bless me to know if a parenting idea I’ve been thinking through is on the right track. Please bless this double-chocolate brownie to “strengthen and nourish my body,” by some miraculous violation of all known nutritional science. Please guide me with thy Spirit in a situation I’m about to face. Please give me specific needed blessings me as I work to fulfill this worthy goal. Please bless that I can get lots of Lego for Christmas, and also win the lottery. Please bless me with spiritual strength to “submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon [me], even as a child doth submit to his father” (Mosiah 3:19).

God isn’t constrained by a budget; His interest in the pensioners of BLARF goes beyond the fiduciary. But He is still constrained – constrained by His goals. He does not wish to eliminate free will, remove all of life’s challenges, or produce spectacular miracles on demand. He’s been pretty clear about this, too.

Thus I don’t think God is particularly impressed by desire-vomit prayers. You can look in the mirror and pretty well intuit that perpetual beauty is not a part of God’s plan for you (except for you, wife). If lottery wealth was actually going to be good for you in the eternal long run, you’d think God would have created the world to have more of it. And so forth ad nauseam. Asking for this sort of thing results in a low prayer batting average. It could result in frustration with prayer.

The scriptures gently point us away from simply throwing out low-quality requests. Thus in Doctrine and Covenants 9:7-8 the Lord said “Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right…”

Spiritually mature prayers will involve well-considered requests, and the supplicant should have a reasonable expectation that the request will be granted. Getting to know the approver and his plans, and triaging requests accordingly, is a worthwhile effort. Nephi (the son of Helaman) was outstanding at this, to the point that Christ said to him “I will make thee mighty in word and in deed, in faith and in works; yea, even that all things shall be done unto thee according to thy word, for thou shalt not ask that which is contrary to my will” (Helaman 10:5). This is like blank-check spending authority—I approve everything you ask for anyways, so you can just go ahead.

Similarly, he told the Twelve that “whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13). Speaking to a general audience, Christ made a slightly different promise: “And whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, which is right, believing that ye shall receive, behold it shall be given unto you” (3 Nephi 18:20). So we need to make sure we are asking for that “which is right,” and for things that we believe we “shall receive.”

Like in the engineering case, it is sometimes hard to know beforehand exactly which requests will align with the approver’s goals, so we shouldn’t be excessively cautious about bringing up ideas. God wants to know what we are going through, prayer should have a conversational element, and we should not be too fearful – as Paul teaches “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). And we have Christ’s example of praying “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matthew 26:39). This shows both a willingness to be open with God and make a request that may not be approved, and a recognition and acceptance that it likely will not be.

We can and should let our prayers benefit from experience, make sure we are thinking them through, and target a relatively high batting average.

Don’t ask for stupid stuff!

My Stock Advice for Engineering Students

Good engineering students often do a poor job of managing their career opportunities. I want to help.

I’ve participated in career fairs and job interviews various times on each side of the table, hiring and searching. I have been in the room making decisions on who to interview. I’ve been in the room making decisions on who to hire. I’ve offered people internships. I’ve managed interns, and recommended them (or not) as permanent hires. So I have some understanding of how all of this works, and a whole series of stock rants about it.

Often, I interview awesome people who probably have very high potential, but have not optimally developed that potential, or haven’t done what is necessary to communicate their potential clearly. I want engineers to do better—especially BYU engineers. Thus I share my compiled rant/wisdom, such as it is.

(This should go without saying, but this is on my personal site, and it reflects my personal opinions—I do not speak for my employer, Valero.)

Goal: a traditional engineering job

There are various career paths open to an engineer. In this post I’m assuming your goal is to get a traditional engineering job after graduating with a bachelor’s degree. I have an oil & gas perspective, but the principles seem to be similar for engineering jobs in aerospace, automotive, etc. Some engineers instead want to do consulting, patent law, academic research, etc., in which case some principles from this post may apply, but you also ought to find more specialized advice.

If you want a job after graduation, you need to try to get an internship before graduation—ideally several internships, one every summer for the length of your degree. The best way to get an internship is to have had a previous internship. So the perennial question is: how can I get my first real engineering internship? In this post I lay out advice for getting there. Then for future internships and jobs, the same general principles apply.

Focus on developing your resume

You need an attractive resume to get a good engineering job. There are many components to having an attractive resume; it’s nice if you can hit “all of the above” and be a trilingual champion athlete with a stratospheric GPA, a demonstrated commitment to community service, and prior internships in your field. Employers will talk about valuing various thing, and they even do. And you should not base your whole life on employers’ opinions.

But cut through all of that, and you really, really need to keep adequate focus on two key things:

  • Maintain a good GPA
  • Get engineering work experience

It is going to be awfully tough to get a desirable internship if you don’t bring a good GPA and some kind of engineering experience to the table. So prioritize these things over other work!

Engineering students are typically hard workers, and often have non-engineering employable skills. In the short run, they can often make more in other opportunities (random hourly jobs, skilled trade work, running a small business, pest control, whatever) than they can doing anything engineering-related. Engineering homework has a wage of zero. Doing engineering in a club has a wage of zero. Starting out in an engineering research lab often has a wage of zero.

Nonetheless, you may well be better off in the long run doing engineering work for free and focusing on holding/raising your GPA (and taking on student debt as needed), instead of working even a $25+/hr non-engineering job. The difference between getting a top engineering job opportunity and an average opportunity is potentially tens of thousands of dollars a year for your entire career, so play the long game. If you are smart enough to hack it as an engineer, you’re probably better off the sooner you commit.

(Aside: I never actually found out the hourly rate for my first engineering job. Dr. Thomas Knotts, who is great, hired me saying something like “I will pay you whatever the department standard rate is” and I said “ok” and got to work, in the full knowledge that the real pay was the knowledge I was gaining and the experience on my resume. And without telling my whole life story, skills and stories from that job directly helped me get all my other jobs I’ve had since.)

Maintain a strong GPA

As far as GPA is concerned, students often ask “what is a good GPA?” Depends on the company and the individual recruiter. I am familiar with at least two companies that have flirted with a 3.5 cutoff. In my mind, anything in the 3.8-3.9 range is great, and anything above 3.5 is good. Holding a near-perfect GPA can smack of perfectionism, and may not be optimal vs. slacking off a bit more in school and reallocating your efforts to something else (like gaining non-classroom experience). The 3.2 to 3.5 range is OK; it’s not setting you apart from the crowd, but great experience and other factors may be able to counterbalance that. Anything under 3.0 is getting into resume-killer territory. Normally sophomore-level engineers have higher GPAs than junior-level engineers; a 3.8 is a lot less impressive when few of the constituent grades came from hard engineering classes.

It is good to take hard classes early, so that you can take some easy classes later too. Do enough practice problems, spend time on the homework, etc. Avoid overextending yourself.

So enough about academics. Let’s talk about the other pillar of your resume: getting some experience.

Get a real engineering job

It can be challenging to get your foot in the door with engineering experiences, and as mentioned, it can feel like you need to have experience to get experience. My standard advice is to make a list of all the professors in your department, in order of how interesting their research is (use Google, department website, etc.). Take the professor whose research you like the best, read the last couple of academic papers he has published (Google again), and then go talk to him. “Professor X, I am [name]. Here’s my resume. I’ve read your last couple of papers on [whatever] and I think you are doing the coolest research in the department because [flattering comments]. I’m looking to get some engineering work experience. Is there any possibility of getting a research job working for you? I’d be willing to work for free for a while to prove that I can make a real contribution.” If he doesn’t have anything for you, go down the list. This was more or less my process for getting my first MechE job. I can all but guarantee that someone will hire you.

If no one in the department responds to this, then do the same thing with engineering extracurricular activities (Mars Rover, super-mileage car, whatever)—work down the list until you find somewhere you can get some experience solving engineering problems.

These experiences are not a substitute for getting an internship (don’t just do research and assume that is as good as an internship—it is not) but they can help you get your first one. In terms of resume value, paid engineering internship > paid engineering work on-campus > unpaid engineering work > paid non-engineering work, so act accordingly. Also note that teaching assistant jobs are not really engineering work; I don’t think I have ever heard a good engineering problem-solving interview story from a teaching assistant job.

Work hard at writing your resume, and get help

So now you’ve got a good GPA and some engineering work experience, and you need to communicate that to the world using your resume.

I’m going to gloss over this quickly, because resume principles are simple. Emphasize your achievements (I made the company $100K by going above and beyond!), not your responsibilities (responsible for pushing papers around!). Use action verbs. Quantify things. Maximize space spent on your unique achievements, particularly on-the-job achievements. Minimize space spent on the obvious—yes, every student thinks they can use Excel, engineers take engineering classes, etc. Put your GPA and your intended graduation date front and center; the recruiter is looking for this info and will just be annoyed if it’s not prominent, even if it isn’t great. Use standard resume formatting. Stick to one page; engineering students with multiple publications, multiple internships, and multiple scholarships can fit it all on one page, and you can too. Read the top Google results for something like “engineering resume advice” and consider their advice. When you have done all of this, get a few knowledgeable people to mark up your draft. Student organizations sometimes do workshops for this sort of thing, your department may be able to help, parents or family friends may have good input, etc.

Now, with your resume in hand and great engineering stories to tell, you’re ready for the career fair?

NO! There is much more work to do before the career fair!

Do sophisticated research on companies of interest

There is a stupid idea out there in the world that “the career fair exists so that students can learn about companies.” But if you want a job, the career fair is not a place to learn—it is a place to perform. So you need to prepare.

Prepare for the career fair like it will determine the course of your entire career, which is very possible. Read the list of employers, so that you know in advance who is hiring. Pick your target companies. If employers are taking 4 resumes per interview, and doing 4 interviews per hiring slot, you’d better be having quality discussions with at least 16 target employers to get your 1 job. (Or better yet, more, because 1 expected-value-probability job is not the same as 1 actual signed job offer.) Research each target company.

(Please, please, never, ever utter the career fair suicide-phrase “so what does your company do?”)

Base-level research consists of Googling the company, finding out what industry they are in, and scanning through some of their stock HR-speak about “exciting opportunities to develop yourself, while working with a team of the best and greatest people, in the context of the best and greatest HR organization.” This is good. If you have not done this, you will likely disqualify yourself from getting an interview. But every other credible candidate has already done at least this level of research.

If that’s basic research, what does sophisticated research look like? For any public company, you should look at the company’s annual report and investor slides. Let me repeat, look at the company’s annual report and investor slides. Every publicly traded company will produce an annual report and investor slides that contain information like:

  • What is this company’s leadership most proud of? If you think it’s cool, tell the recruiters! They probably agree, and will be flattered.
  • What are the company’s main strategic projects and priorities? More flattery-fodder! Also, these supply ready-made questions for the recruiters. “Has your department had any involvement with [strategic project]?” can start an interesting conversation.
  • How does this company view its relationships with competitors? Is it trying to be a technology leader? A low-cost producer? The biggest? The best in a narrow niche? This can help you talk intelligently about the company itself, rather than just the company’s industry.
  • What parts of the company are the most profitable? How do the parts of the company relate to each other? Having a concept of this can help you understand how your recruiters fit into the business, and what you might do if hired, again contributing to intelligent conversations.

To really take it up a notch, could also read the most recent quarterly earnings press release, or even listen to their earnings call (or better yet, read a transcript), where company high-ups reviewed the quarterly results with the investment community.

You can also learn about the company by talking to employees. Prepare for this appropriately, by reading all of the above stuff. Then ask recruiters, alumni from your school, friends of friends, etc. who work for the company if you can quiz them about it for twenty minutes sometime. Many people are pretty open to chatting about their jobs, even with random strangers. This can be a more frank and lower-stakes discussion than the moment when a recruiter says “any questions for us?” (That actually means “prove to me that you are actually interested in my company by asking me insightful, well-researched questions” and is not the best time to ask any question that could imply less than starry-eyed enthusiasm about the company.) One caveat: recruiters are busy during career fair week, and you should already be interacting with them at the career fair and info session. So plan ahead and do networking calls early, or find people other than recruiters to talk to.

Even for your 16th-favorite company, you should still spend a half hour looking at their investor slides. You need them to feel like you are seriously interested, and you will be if you have no other job opportunities! Doing half an hour of research on 16 companies is only one day worth of work. Not that hard.

Do sophisticated research!

Make the most of career fair week

So now you’ve got your resume tuned up and printed, you’ve done your research, and it’s time for career fair week.

The career fair is almost 100% about getting an interview. Hiring decisions are made based on interview performance, and interview decisions are based largely on resume and career fair performance.

Make sure you attend the info sessions for your target companies, which are often before the career fair! Participate during the info session. Stay after the info session, introduce yourself personally to the recruiter, give them a resume, and ask them one or two intelligent questions. Listen to their answers to other students’ questions.

At the career fair, work down your previously selected list of target companies. I’ve only been involved in one virtual career fair (which didn’t seem to be very effective), and I’m hopeful that we will have in-person career fairs within a year or two. So I’ll give advice on for in-person events, although similar principles apply to virtual career fairs too.

Walk up to the recruiter with a smile on your face and a resume in your hand. Introduce yourself and hand them your resume before they ask (they are expecting it—no need to even say “here is my resume”). Express interest in their company for a specific reason, ideally “I am interested in your company because of [unique capabilities and positioning within industry]” rather than “I like [industry, including you and all of your competitors].” Show you have done your homework and actually care. Draw their attention to a few key points of your resume—maybe give a twenty-second summary of your best work experience. Answer any questions they have; some recruiters treat the career fair like a mini-interview, and/or will want more detail on certain experiences on your resume. Ask one or two intelligent questions about the company. Express your desire to have an interview. Say thank you for their time. Don’t rush, but do avoid monopolizing the recruiter’s time if there’s a line to talk to them; a two or three minute conversation is often about right. Do talk to other recruiters from the same company.

Consider practicing your personal introduction with your roommate or the mirror or whoever until you can do it smoothly. If ye are prepared, ye shall not fear. Watch other students, and imitate the better ones. Ideally you should attend the career fair as a freshman, when stakes are low, just to see how these interactions go.

Hopefully all of this effort impresses recruiters and gets you some interviews.

Study for interviews like they are tests

A job interview is like a final exam on your professional life up to that point. Study for it like an exam! (Maybe more than for an exam…I know how some students approach exams.) Practice for it!

Most engineering employers will use behavioral interviews. The theory of a behavior interview is that past performance is a good predictor of future performance, so if you tell an employer how you have acted in the past, they can predict how you will act in the future. Or if you have never acted in the past, they will wonder if you will ever act in the future—this is why you need relevant job experience, as discussed above.

There are only so many ways to ask someone “were you a good engineer at the last place you did engineering,” so most behavioral interviews end up being pretty similar. To prepare, Google “behavioral interview” questions/techniques/etc. and read the top 5 or 10 articles to get a sense of what the questions are likely to be, and the standard advice for giving a clear answer (e.g. STAR, talk about Situation, Task, your Action, and the Result). Make a list of common questions from those articles, write out your answers to them, and literally practice telling your story/answer out loud until you can do it smoothly. Seriously, practice!

Since many of the questions are variations on themes, if you have a dozen really good behavioral interview answers, chances are at least one of them will fit almost any question. Your answers should probably be 3-5 minutes long, with a focus on concrete details (no hypotheticals) and things you personally did (no “we”). Some interviewees fell the need to tell me what they learned from an experience; I would generally prefer more detail about what they did.

Also think about whether the company in question has any specific values or needs that might come up in questions other than those on the standard list, and what stories you might tell related to those. For example, safety is very important to Valero (this is obvious from our website, info session, etc.), and thus our engineering job interviews pretty much always include a question about safety. Wouldn’t be a bad idea to ask older students what kinds of interview questions they have received…the types of questions you get will probably be similar, and even the exact wording of a given company’s questions might go unchanged for years.

Classwork-related answers can be OK, but are often weak. I think one day, more than half of the people I interviewed used the same group project as one of their stories; hard to stand out from the field with class-related stories when everyone else has taken the same classes. This is a huge part of why you should put so much effort into gaining engineering work experience: so you can have good, unique interview stories about actual engineering work. When looking for a job, you should ask: “is this a job where I will be able to get good engineering interview stories?” (Or will I basically be doing rote tasks?) And on the job, remember that being an outstanding employee will often result in a good story, and similarly, thinking “what would I want to tell an interviewer that I did” can help you act like a great employee. So get and use non-classroom engineering stories.

Anticipate a question about your geographic preferences. Remember that companies do not have a lot of flexibility; they are usually trying to fill specific positions in specific locations, not create a job just for you. Consider the long run; employers may be looking to get interns who they can then hire long-term in the same location, so going somewhere you hate “just for an internship” may be silly for both you and the employer. At the same time, you can and should be open-minded. Good job experience in a dubious location beats homeless unemployment in your first-choice location. Be and act as geographically flexible as you honestly can be. Less is more: “I am very flexible” is music to a recruiter’s ears, and whatever you say is probably going to be condensed into a yes/no or single sentence summary anyway, so don’t load them up with a lot of ambiguous information. “I am very flexible, and I’d be especially enthusiastic about [location] because I have [family/connection/interest/etc] there” could also be appropriate, or “I am very open to all of your locations except California.”

An interview will generally end with a chance for you to ask the recruiter questions. Prepare two or three smart questions in advance, based on your sophisticated research (see above). Do yourself a favor and do not ask “what are you looking for in an intern?” One of the number one qualities most employers want in an intern is literally the ability to understand requirements without having them explicitly stated in great detail.

Do ask the recruiters for their contact information. Send them a short email thank you note, ideally within a few hours of your interview. They may be making hiring decisions before they leave campus, so to the extent you want to impress them, a paper thank you note will likely be too late.

I got an internship—now what?

Purchase and read the book “The Unwritten Laws of Engineering.” You maybe also be able to find some or all of the content online. I was given a copy as an intern, I’ve since have read it multiple times, and I made it standard-issue for my new engineering hires. I do not expect to write a blog post on how to be a successful engineer, because this book, published in 1944, is still the authoritative word on the subject; the principles are timeless.

Wow, this is great advice, thank you!

You’re welcome! Feel free to share this post; some of this is zero-sum (if everyone formats their resume better…) but a lot of it is not. If every engineer ends up better-prepared, notably by seeking engineering experience early, that should actually improve the world’s standard of living. If engineers did better research into companies, they could end up better-matched with their employers, again resulting in welfare gains.

Congrats on making it to the end. Rant over.

“Building Israel” piece in Public Square Magazine

Public Square Magazine just put up a piece I wrote, on Israel (the religious concept, not just the country) as an institution.

This is what I came up with as I took President Russell M. Nelson’s challenge to study what the Lord has promised Israel, in light of my prior reading and interest in how civilizations and institutions develop over the centuries.

The editors were great to work with.

Review: “Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons”

One of my 2018 New Year’s Resolutions was to teach Dan to read that year. He was due to turn 3 in April, knew a bunch of letters, and seemed to have a fair amount of verbal intelligence. It worked. By that Christmas he could read Dr. Seuss. Then we worked him up through a variety of chapter books and got him reading increasingly independently. This year, he got a Kindle (e-reader, not tablet) for his 5th birthday, and its stats show he’s been reading 30-50 hours/month, on top of everything he reads on paper. He enjoys reading books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory under his own power. How did this happen? Phonics, folks. And specifically, Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons, the one phonics book to rule them all.

(This is a book that is near and dear to my heart, hence I’ve distilled my stock rant about it into this post.)

Dan came to reading with some advantages; his mom has read to him regularly since birth, he sees his parents reading all the time, our house contains something like forty linear feet of books working their osmotic magic, I’d like to think his genetics are favorable, etc. But starting him very early, on this specific phonics program, has been a huge component of his success.

The book takes a pretty regimented, common-sense approach to reading instruction. It assumes the child starts knowing nothing but how to talk, not even the alphabet. It assumes the parent knows how to read, how to make their child sit down and pay attention, and not much else.

With those prerequisites fulfilled, it provides completely scripted phonics lessons. The parents’ lines are in red. Stage directions and the desired learner responses are in black. Material the child will read or interact with is in a larger font.

Did I mention it is completely scripted? The book starts by directing the parent to read the child a paragraph-long prepared speech that starts with “I’m going to teach you how to read.” Then Lesson 1 starts off:

And so on. Thus it requires essentially no lesson planning – it’s worth looking over the lesson in advance, especially for the first few, but no originality or creativity is required.

The book relies on building up skills in little chunks, in the Isaiah-approved “precept upon precept, line upon line” manner, with a great deal of review. First the child learns a few individual sounds. Separately, they learn to repeat words slowly, and how to speed up words after saying or hearing them slowly, e.g. “mmmooommm” vs. “mom.” They separately learn how to string sounds together, e.g. “mmmooommm” not “mmm [pause] ooo [pause] mmm.” They separately learn how to move their finger under letters and say the sounds the letters make as they do. Then all these skills are combined to let them sound out simple words.

The sequencing of concepts has obviously received a lot of thought. There are no capital letters until near the end of the book—after all, this sentence contains only one capital letter. Early in the book, all of the letters are continuant sounds (mmm, sss, rrr, etc.), where the child can hold the sound indefinitely while they think about the next letter. Stop sounds (p, t, k, etc.) are harder to sound out without pausing or introducing extra vowels, so they show up later. The names of the letters are taught as an afterthought, well after the sounds, since the child doesn’t really need to know letter names. You can easily read well without ever knowing the name of the letter “h.”

The book goes to great lengths to avoid generating confusion from special cases. Initially, each vowel has a single pronunciation; an “a” is always soft, as in “apple.” The hard “a” as in “able” is introduced later, initially with a line above it so that it’s clearly distinguished. The early examples avoid words with silent letters. Then silent letters appear, but in miniature to make clear they are silent. Then by the end of the book, the silent letters get bigger and the diacritical marks disappear.

The book says it’s for “bright three-and-a-half-year-olds, average four-and-five-year-olds.” Based on my experience, that is about right. I figured Dan is every bit of “bright,” and I was happy to challenge him, so I periodically tried going through some lessons him, starting perhaps a little before his third birthday. The first two or three times, we could get through six or ten days of lessons, but his attention span was a major challenge, and he struggled with certain concepts, notably stringing together sounds and rhyming. In August, when he was about 3 years and 4 months old, we made another attempt, and that time we ran through the program to completion. Elissa and I each did some of the lessons.

The hardest thing about the “learn to read” program was keeping Dan on task. (Somehow we ended up referring to both the process and book as “learn to read,” as in “I don’t want to do learn to read!”) He’s a pretty active, energetic kid. Sometimes I literally had to hold him down, to keep him from running off or squirming into a position where he couldn’t read. There was a lot of “Sit! Point! Read!” – and this is actually an effective pedagogical technique, relying on short reminders and directions rather than lecturing on misbehavior in a way that distracts from the lesson. When that failed, there was a fair amount of “learn to read” becoming “learn to time out.” We’d normally do a lesson right when I came home from work, and sometimes the nominally 20-minute-long lessons stretched to more like an hour.

But it was clear that Dan could do it, and that he’d be happy once he could, so I was willing to fight the battle of wills and make it happen. After all, a parent ought to be able to outlast a three-year-old. We finished up in early December, and he could read Dr. Seuss with Grandma that Christmas. And he was proud that, as a good reader, he would not end up “living in a box under a bridge in Beaumont,” one regularly reiterated purpose of the whole endeavor.

Our one modification of the program was that we ignored all the writing practice; we didn’t think Dan’s fine motor skills or attention span were going to make that a success. Elissa has since taught him to write.

Obviously finishing the “100 Easy Lessons” wasn’t the end of the effort; we continued to practice reading with him—notably by having him help read scripture stories every night—and encouraged him to read on his own. By sometime around four and a half, he was regularly reading for fun under his own power. Now, I just have to get him new books periodically.

One key technique for maintaining this is starving him of electronic entertainment—he gets to watch some movies and TV, but he absolutely does not get to play games on phones or tablets, ever. If he’s bored, he is pretty much boxed into reading or playing creatively with toys. Or whining, but you can only get sent to time out so many times before that loses its luster for a given afternoon.

The other keys are that he has quiet time in the afternoon, and a firm bedtime at night. For quiet time, which normally runs for a couple hours, he has the option to nap, play quietly (and alone) with non-electronic toys, or read. Whatever adults are home are unavailable to him except in emergencies, often themselves reading or writing. He often chooses to read. If you can hear him laughing maniacally, he’s probably reading “Calvin and Hobbes,” which we’ve had to remind him is humor, not a source of role models. Then at night, we have held his nominal bedtime at 7:00 since he was weaned. He’s old enough that he doesn’t truly need that much sleep, but we let him read his Kindle in bed, and he enjoys it. So the post-bedtime period provides another hour or so of time where he doesn’t have to read, but normally does.

But it all started with Teach Your Child to Read, which I thought was extraordinarily well-done. (I promise, they are not paying me to write this review; it’s just that good.) Unlike many professional teachers, I have no desire to be unique or be creative or encourage creativity or have fun while teaching my kid to read. I want efficiency. Teaching a child to read is fundamentally a rote task, and I just want to get it done! And the child also just wants to get it done! I don’t want to develop my own lessons or find some niche method to use; I want to deliver lessons that have been painstakingly optimized for efficiency, by professionals, across years of testing. As legendary refinery operations manager Kelly McKeehan says, “all we like is finishing!” The book is 100% aligned with this. Indeed, that’s why it’s Direct Instruction—a pedagogical philosophy sympathetic to the idea that the best way to teach students is to directly tell them things!

This has some common-sense appeal. Beyond that, Project Follow Through, one of the largest educational studies ever performed, found that Direct Instruction beats a variety of alternatives—it even helps kids’ self-esteem more than self-esteem-centric methods do. Of course, it has been pretty obvious since at least the fifties that phonics-based methods are optimal, as this book (written 1983) notes in the preface, but here we are. The Amazon reviews are also pretty compelling—as of this writing, 4.5 stars on over 8,000 reviews—and I think that’s actually how I found the book initially.

So go forth and wreak phonics on your unsuspecting three-year-olds! They will thank you in a year or two, and also as grown adults when they don’t have to live in a box under a bridge in Beaumont.

Will is coming up on three-and-a-half, so his turn starts next week.

Family Christmas Letter 2020

Hello world, this is Tom. Normally Elissa does our Christmas letter, but I’ve hijacked it this year.

Executive summary: we’ve actually had a pretty good 2020, pandemic notwithstanding.

Marie was born on April 18, with a thick head of black hair. She is now babbling and crawling around like crazy. She brings out the best in her brothers and is a joy to have around. The sleep deprivation phase was rough, but at this point our sleep training methods have succeeded. She really loves gnawing on pizza. She’s definitely the highlight of the year.


In other news, we moved to San Antonio in August, as I accepted a new assignment within Valero. We’re pretty well settled in at this point, and we love the new house and area. Relative catastrophe insurance rates confirm that this is, in at least one regard, a better place to live. We’ve also enjoyed all the nice hiking nearby.

With the pandemic, we enjoyed having church at home for a good stretch of the year, although we’re back in person now. The kids make spiritual life interesting; it probably says a lot about our family that we have literally had Dan and Will practice coming in and sitting down for our nightly family scripture study. (“Ok, good, now go pretend to play until I call you in again…now let’s practice: come in for scriptures!”) They enjoyed the practice. Dan and Will also love our “family home evening” devotionals, particularly when we do this one activity where we ask them gospel questions, with chocolate chips for good answers. We’ve had to explain that we can’t just play that game every week, because sometimes, we need to teach them the answers.

We enjoyed some family outdoor adventures this year despite the pandemic – we managed to get to the Destin, Florida area as a family in July, and spent some time in Oklahoma with my parents in November, in addition to some good day hikes around San Antonio. Dan and Will are both pretty good hikers; Will is good for about 2 miles without too much trouble, and Dan can do twice that. Elissa and I also left the kids for a quick trip to Las Vegas and Death Valley in January, which was a blast.

Dan (5) was due to start Kindergarten this Fall, but with all the uncertainty around public schools this year, Elissa decided to just do home school. She’s been following a Charlotte Mason curriculum (Charlotte Mason being a Victorian-era British super-nanny, who made men from boys using Plutarch and the Bible), supplemented with a math curriculum, and Dan is thriving as a scholar. He can now recite Psalm 23 and a couple of poems. He continues to read up a storm; Beverly Cleary is a favorite author lately. He also enjoys drawing and writing; ask him about his book “Invisible Dan.”

Dan is a great older brother…really, Marie, he is

Will (3) is fun to have around. He loves building with Duplo, especially robots and homes for his Duplo animals. Favorite authors include Dr. Seuss and Chris Van Dusen. He prays for his grandma’s health every night (she is fighting cancer), often to the exclusion of everything else (we’re working on it).

Will in Florida

Elissa has been a rockstar parent, managing a newborn and two energetic sons, through a move, in the middle of a pandemic, while beginning to homeschool. Hurricane Laura actually hit near Groves on the week we had planned to move, so Elissa and the kids just evacuated to San Antonio and never came back. Dan, Will, and Marie all just want to be around her all of the time. She was making sourdough before it was cool, but has kept it up lately, and generally puts outstanding food on the table.

Elissa has also been making progress as a writer; she made it to the LTUE writing conference in February, has participated in a couple of writing groups, and is almost done a second draft of her YA fantasy ghost story novel “Nightwalker.” She will self-deprecate all day long, but I’ve read it and I liked it a lot. She has a plan to make revisions next year and release it next September. She’s also working on another novel.

I (Tom) am on my third Valero assignment for the year, all within our planning and economics function. I started the year managing the Port Arthur Refinery’s distillate production, then switched to running the Port Arthur linear program refinery optimization model. Then I accepted the San Antonio job, where I’m optimizing our Meraux refinery’s crude supply and the Gulf Coast system’s intermediates strategy. I’m having a lot of fun – I work with a lot of really sharp and really nice people, and it’s been satisfying to find some ways to improve the operation.

Outside of work, I’ve been reading a lot. One of my New Year’s Resolutions for 2020 was to finish a Harvard Classics volume after every few other books I read, and I’ve held to that, so I’m improving myself by deepening my familiarity with the great books of the Western canon (or at least I’m looking ever more pretentious on Goodreads). Top books include fantasy doorstop “Rhythm of War” by Brandon Sanderson; Christian philosophy in “The Girard Reader” by Rene Girard and “Leisure: The Basis of Culture” by Josef Pieper; and part of the Maxwell Institute “brief theological introduction” series on the Book of Mormon. I’m also doing some scripture-related memorization using Anki, a spaced repetition flashcard app. I’m calling the Mormon Texts Project basically done, and I’ve put up occasional posts on this blog.

Dan and Will did a lot of the assembly on this Lego set, which was a great pandemic purchase

We carried on Nysetvold family tradition by making chocolates over Thanksgiving, and we’re excited to see both sides of our family over Christmas. As we celebrate the birth of the Savior, we’re grateful for each other, our families, and His love.

Merry Christmas!

Review of “The Book of Mormon in One Hour”

Brennen Ricks, a guy from my ward, had the interesting idea of putting together a ~20K word cut of the Book of Mormon. I usually prefer to read complete works, and particularly with the Book of Mormon I wish other people would too. But at the same time I recognize there are readers who don’t share my preference, and this type of cut can have value. Here’s my review of the result, as posted on Amazon with the headline “Good stuff, if not 100% representative of the Book of Mormon as a whole:”

This is a pretty well-done attempt at selecting a short set of Book of Mormon readings. There’s a bit of intro and context for each of the selections, but it mostly lets the text speak for itself. It consists primarily of complete verses, generally in less-than-chapter-length sequences, often with digressing or amplifying verses removed. Verse numbers are provided, so it is clear when this has occurred, and it’s generally done in a way that keeps the reading experience relatively smooth. The result is a reasonable introduction to the Book of Mormon. I would love for thousands of people to read it.

However, there are a lot of possible cuts of the Book of Mormon where the above statements are true. So what type of cut is this?

The Book of Mormon contains some accessible material that would strengthen whatever faith contemporary readers already have, and also contains material that would challenge many contemporary readers’ assumptions. This set of selections consists primarily of what I’d consider to be accessible material. This cut also focuses primarily on doctrine, much of it the relatively straightforward doctrine of Christ. It isn’t a random sample or a fully representative sample.

This is both good and bad.

A casual reader with vaguely Protestant beliefs might get the incorrect impression that there isn’t much to distinguish the Book of Mormon from what they already know. Specifically, the Book of Mormon identifies some contemporary sins and false doctrines that many new readers of the book are likely to share in, despite their avowed Christianity, but those passages were not selected for this book (e.g. 2 Nephi 25-30 discussion of apostasy).

The cut also preserves little plot material (as distinct from doctrinal material) or dialogue. Few of the significant miracles make it. None of the anti-Christ figures (Sherem, Nehor, Korihor) or related doctrinal discussion make it in. Nothing of military or political interest makes it: no Captain Moroni, no Anti-Nephi-Lehi pacifism, no rejection of monarchy by King Mosiah, etc. Nephi’s experiences are trimmed; for example, Laban and the related moral dilemma do not appear. Chastisement and calls to repentance are possibly under-represented relative to the Book of Mormon as a whole.

So it’s sort of like a cut of the Gospels that gets part of the sermon on the mount, excerpts from John’s account of the last supper and intercessory prayer, and trimmed-down nativity and crucifixion stories. That would not be an unreasonable approach to take, and it would be an extremely valuable thing for people to read. But no one ought to read it and feel they truly got the full experience of reading the work of scripture.

So by all means, read this for a sampling of Book of Mormon doctrine; there is great stuff here. And then go read the full book, which is available for free in a variety of formats (audiobook, ebook, hard copy, etc.). “The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text” is a great reading edition (and a beautifully bound hardcover), or the standard issue version is heavily footnoted for study.

Disclosure – I received a $5 Amazon gift card from the author, to buy myself a copy with.

Low-Key Family History: A Call to Mediocrity

Genealogy is cool, and it’s good for your soul to spend some time thinking about your ancestors. For this and other good theological reasons, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints asks members to work on their own family history, particularly on People often seem to either take this incredibly seriously, or do none of it whatsoever, which is a shame. We need more mediocre genealogists!

In the last few years, I’ve developed some very mediocre family history methods, which I now share. (If you’re already a good genealogist, it might be best if you just stop reading here.)

My main, almost exclusive activity is to log in to and use the “Record Hints” function. My family tree, like those of many Church members, is already pretty well populated thanks to work by others in my family. I can trace my genealogy back to England, Scotland, Wales, Sweden, Norway, France, Italy, pilgrims, pioneers, and Pocahontas (really). Going back further there are various royal lines. Hugh Capet, King of the Franks, is my great^33 grandfather, if I just counted correctly, not to mention my link to King Merfyn “the Oppressor” of Gywnned, in Wales. Then at least one of the royal lines bleeds back into fabrication that then lashes back into Biblical genealogy all the way to Adam. I can’t readily find that one right now.

Hugh Capet, in all his oddly proportioned majesty

I’m just saying…there’s a lot there.

However, many of the individuals are not well cited/linked to their substantiating records. “Record Hints” will point this out, often uncovering records that can be linked to an individual but are not currently cited on that individual’s page. There seems to be a pretty decent search algorithm underlying this function.

These records then often have some extra information—a previously unknown child, parent, child’s spouse, child’s family, etc. Or they will be partially attached to a duplicate person or family, which can then be merged. And as long as you’re attaching new records to the person and getting a basic sense for them, you can click “possible duplicates” and merge any that do not have distinguishing information.

This is made easier by my policy of trying not to over-think things. Two family search entities with the same name, who lack any other distinguishing information or differentiating records, are presumptively the same person. People with the same name, birth date, and birth place are presumptively the same. I try to avoid generating new confusion, but if it’s really unclear from the records what is going on, I am ok with the idea of leaving some pre-existing confusion or inconsistency behind and moving on to the next issue. More records and more time will eventually be available to resolve such things. At least in my tree, there is enough scope for resolving obvious issues (duplication, lacking record links) that I haven’t needed to get bogged down in subtleties.

This is like a computer science breadth-first search—rather than diving to the bottom of each rabbit hole in series, I’m first going to survey the whole breadth of the pasture. I think the number of direct ancestors currently identified in my tree almost certainly exceeds 2^10 (=1024), and adding their identifiable descendants (other than my direct ancestors), aunts, etc. for a couple generations off the main line increases that by perhaps two orders of magnitude. So the most basic level of effort—fix obvious duplicates, attach obvious record citations—has given me plenty of work for the last year or three, with no end in sight. As new records keep getting indexed, the work expands.

The final ingredient in my program of family history mediocrity is to spend a limited amount of time on it, not very often. I have an evergreen Google Task to “Poke at family search at least once on even months – every month until temple reopens.” The technical term “poke” means to open the website, open up the record hints function, and try to do something with at least one or two of the hints. Often I’ll get into it, and spend an hour or two at it, but sometimes it’s pretty quick.

So I do a deliberately mediocre job of applying the easiest family history tool, for a limited amount of time, not that frequently – once a month (or pre-pandemic, every other month). And it makes me happy! It’s interesting and fun, and I do think it’s good for my soul. Burnout has not been an issue; smolder is the name of the game. If I get to where I have more free time or a spiritual need to do more, I’ve got a good base habit to build upon. In the meantime, while I have young children and so forth, I feel like I’m making a good faith effort to comply with the exhortation to do some genealogy.

I recommend these practices if you don’t have something better. You, too, can rise up and become a family history mediocrity!

Thanksgiving Reflections

In this Thankgsiving week, I’m taking some time to reflect on the things I’m grateful for.

I am grateful for my family. My wife Elissa is awesome. She is smart, beautiful, creative, funny, makes amazing food, and writes great stories. She is also an incredible mother for our kids, nurturing them along, teaching them, and challenging them to be better.

I’m also grateful for my kids. Dan, Will, and Marie are pretty much exactly what I hoped for in kids. They’re adorable and precocious, they love us and each other, and they are making steady progress towards becoming civilized members of society.

I’m grateful for my parents and siblings (both sets!) and for my extended family: my grandparents, aunts, uncles, my 32 first cousins, and so on.

I’m grateful for the gospel. I’m thankful that Christ lived and died for me, and that thanks to him I can repent and receive the gift of eternal life. I’m grateful to have an understanding of God’s plan for me, and to know that I can be with my family forever by adhering to it. I’m thankful for the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and other revelation that teaches me of Christ. I’m thankful for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which has made a fundamental difference in my life, and its President, Russel M. Nelson, who inspired this post with his recent message on gratitude.

On the meta-level, I’m grateful for an understanding of gratitude. The hedonic treadmill is real: the default human reaction to any good thing includes gaining, almost instantly, a corresponding sense of entitlement. (I have a 5 year old – I am not just guessing here.) Happiness has a lot to do with the difference between reality and expectations. Most people are more interested in changing their stubborn reality than changing their stubborn expectations, but expectations are fundamentally internal, under the individual’s control, and reality is not. The direct appeal to “fix your attitude, stupid” is what makes Stoic philosophy great, but is hard to mentally adopt or sustain. “Be grateful” is easier on the ears and mind, provides a positive program, and gets you to a similar place.

I’m grateful for my job. Valero is an amazing company to work for. All of my supervisors have been good, and my assignments have mattered to the company and the world at large. It feels good to personally shave a femto-penny off global diesel prices, or otherwise help people get the fuels they need. The company has taken care of us financially, supplied my family with excellent medical care, supported me in getting an MBA, and helped me out after Hurricane Harvey. Through it all, the company has made it possible for me to have reasonable overall work-life balance.

I’m grateful to live in the United States. It’s not a perfect country, but there’s nowhere I’d rather belong. I can live my religion. I am largely free to live my life. The taxes are bearable, administered in a reasonably even-handed way, and not completely wasted. The National and State Park system has a lot to recommend it. NASA does some cool stuff. Operation Warp Speed is a good thing. Constitutional checks and balances have warded off disaster pretty effectively so far, and will likely continue to do so. I’m grateful for those who have sacrificed to establish and defend the country.

I’m grateful for instant gratification consumer products. It is super easy and cheap to get useful stuff! I’m not trying to go all “Black Friday” and completely suffuse Thanksgiving week with the crass contemplation of material stuff. But at the same time, the availability of high-quality and inexpensive food, clothing, household goods, tools, books, transportation, etc. etc. is a Good Thing. Capitalism is satisfying all of my needs, and most of my wants.

I’m grateful for books. There are an incredible number of great books out there to read, and most of them are cheap or free! For a small percentage of my income I can read pretty much everything I want to. I am also grateful for Project Gutenberg and the volunteers of the Mormon Texts Project for making a ton of great books free. I’m grateful for technology that makes that (and this post, and even a few other things) possible.

I’m grateful for nature. There are sure a lot of great places to walk, hike, camp, swim, and so on. The variety of terrain, landforms, rocks, plants, and animals in the world is amazing. It’s amazing how much we know about all of it, and how much we can do with it (supercomputers made of sand!). Mountains are amazing. The stars are amazing.

And I’m thankful for you, internet person. Thanks for reading. Happy Thanksgiving!