Seminary is awesome!

Seminary is awesome!

At the beginning of September, my wife and I were sitting around wondering “what now?” We have kids, a home, Becca is done with school, business is good… We reached most of our goals, so what should we be doing next?

As we discussed this, we decided we needed to focus on the religious side of things more: get better at daily scripture study, go to the temple more often, consistently have Family Home Evening on Monday nights… The basics that we had been letting slide a little bit.

That evening we watched Only a Stonecutter as a family. The movie was pretty bad but the story was interesting. It told the story of a man who worked as a stonecutter for the Salt Lake City temple. An accident caused him to lose his leg. Instead of quitting his calling, he literally made himself a new leg so he could continue walking to the temple so he could fulfill his calling. Pretty intense.

The next morning we were out as a family when I got a call from the bishop. He asked if Becca and I would be willing to be seminary teachers. We said yes, and then had a day to ponder the implications.

We’d have to cut back on our family travel time. We had been spending a lot of time on the road and out of town, which isn’t possible when you teach every morning. We’d also have to move to a regular schedule (go to bed on time, wake up on time) instead of going to bed when we felt like it and waking up whenever. We thought about the Only a Stonecutter video and realized these minor sacrifices were nothing compared to what others have been asked to sacrifice, so we put our doubts behind us and cheerfully moved forward with the calling.

Without realizing it, we had been turning our living room into a seminary room. We hung a chalkboard in the living room the day before the bishop called us. We had a bookshelf with plenty of room for the students’ scriptures. We had enough seating and hymnals. We were ready to go!

Anna in front of the chalkboard the day we hung it on the wall.

Anna in front of the chalkboard the day we hung it on the wall.

So now we’ve been teaching for about 4 months. It has been awesome! There is a new manual this year, which has made the whole experience much more enjoyable. We have 7 kids in our class, and they are all amazing. We try to have one of them give a short devotional before class each morning, and they always have a great insight into the gospel or a meaningful personal story to share.


Our seminary class according to Tanis.

Anna occasionally joins the class, and is always eager to blurt out the answers to the easy questions that our students aren’t always willing to answer. Sometimes she makes them look bad by memorizing scripture mastery scriptures that they haven’t put in the effort to learn yet.

Anyways, we are grateful for this calling, and so grateful for the group of kids we get to see nearly every morning!

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BYU Speeches player with history

Update 10/26/2012: The history functionality needs some work. I’ve tweaked it to only log a play if you listen for at least 30 seconds (to avoid accidentally logging something that you didn’t actually listen to), and it won’t log additional plays after the first play until you’ve switched to a new talk (so you don’t end up with 15 “you started…” records in a row for the same talk). I made the talk title and author name link to the appropriate pages so you can easily find what you want to listen to. I’ve also added some social sharing stuff (per Joey’s request) in case you really like a talk and want to send it to a friend.

Original post:

The BYU Speeches website provides over a thousand devotionals and firesides in MP3 format. The speakers include people you’ve never heard of, and a bunch of big name people, too (like apostles and prophets). I used to download the PDFs of the talks and read them, but I thought I’d give listening a try.

I stumbled on a player written by a friend of mine, Joey Novak, but the pretty looking version of it wasn’t working on my computer and it was missing a few features I wanted. Rather than bug him to change it I decided I’d just make my own. I got to work on it this morning and have a pretty functional player ready for use. There are a lot of features I’d like to implement, but I’m not going to go too crazy devoting tons of time to this until I get a chance to use it and see what would actually be useful.

The first step in building this was scraping the data. I wrote a small script that looped through all the content at BYU Speeches and scraped the author(s), speech title, date it was given, and the URL to the MP3. I shoved all of this into a database. Next I searched for a free MP3 player script, and found the same one that Joey was using. Turns out everyone uses jPlayer. It didn’t take long to get a basic working player up with a random playlist selected from my database. A great perk of using jPlayer is that it looks great on a mobile phone. I spent a few more minutes and added in the ability to pull up a playlist for a specific speaker.

Where I spent most of my time was working on a history system. I’ve added the ability to log in using a Google account, and then I’ll (confidentially) track what you listen to. This needs some work and I’m not satisfied with how it looks, but the basic functionality is there. It will let you know when you started listening to an item, finished listening to an item, and (bonus!) won’t select stuff you’ve already listened to when you pull up a random playlist. This is what I was really wanting because it drives me nuts to get 15 minutes into a talk only to realize I’ve already heard it. With about 1,400 talks at around 30 minutes each, I doubt I’ll ever run out of stuff to listen to.

I think I’ll eventually modify it to only log that you started listening to something once you’ve been listening for 60 seconds or so. This gives you time to decide if you want to listen to it or not without falsely thinking you’ve actually listened to it. I’m also planning on adding a “resume” function, so it will remember what you were listening to last and how far in you got, so it can automatically pick up where you left off when you pull the page up.

I also need to write an RSS parser so I can update my database whenever they announce new content. I don’t expect this will take long, I just haven’t gotten around to doing it yet.

Anyways, click here to check out my BYU Speeches player.

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Donations in kind to the LDS church

I’m a Mormon, and so I pay tithing to the LDS church. For me, this means 10% of my gross income. That is a lot of money, so I take advantage of any tax deductions that the government feels inclined to offer to those that make charitable donations. In the past I’ve just written a check, but I recently learned that donations can be made in kind. Back in the day that meant pigs, chickens, corn, things like that, but nowadays it means stocks and real estate.

I unfortunately do not possess any real estate, so I decided to donate some stock. Why not just write a check? Tax benefits! Lets say I bought stock XYZ a few years ago for $10 per share. It is now worth $50 per share. I could sell the stock and pay taxes on the $40 profit per share, or I could donate them to a charitable organization, avoid capital gains tax, and still get a deduction for the full value of the stock.

So here is a real life example from my portfolio: In 2010 I purchased some shares of VTI for a total price of $7,213.39. These shares are now worth $8,038.75, for a total increase of $825.36. My marginal tax rate is high enough that I’m required to pay capital gains tax on my investments, which is currently 15% of the profit, so if I just sold these shares then I’d be on the hook for $123.80 in federal taxes. By donating directly to the church, I get to keep that $123.80 and I still get a tax deduction for the full $8,038.75.

There are, as always, caveats. My understanding is that this only works for stocks that you have held for at least one year and thus qualify as long-term stocks. For 2012 you won’t pay any long-term capital gains taxes unless your marginal tax rate is 25% or higher, so you won’t see a benefit if your marginal tax rate is less than 25%. In 2013 everyone gets to pay long-term capital gains taxes regardless of your marginal tax rate, so this would work for everyone at that point. Of course I’m not a tax professional and I’m certainly not your tax professional, so you’ll want to talk to your tax professional before trying to utilize this part of the tax code to your advantage.

There are also a few other benefits to donating stock:

  1. Get rid of stocks without paying brokerage fees. The Church has accounts at many brokerage companies (including the one I use the most, TD Ameritrade), and most brokerage companies will do internal transfers for free.
  2. Keep your local ward from knowing how much money you make. The Church Donations-in-Kind office doesn’t report your tithing donations to your local ward, so they’ll never know how much tithing you paid, and thus won’t be able to multiply your tithing by 10 to get a rough estimate of your earnings.

Anyways, I decided I’d give it a shot. I have some long-term stocks that are worth more than I paid but I no longer want in my portfolio, so I decided I’d donate them as tithing. The LDSTech wiki says to start by calling the Donations-in-Kind department, so that is where I started. I dialed the number and was promptly greeted by an employee of the church. I let them know that I wanted to make a donation in kind and that I’ve never done it before. He asked what brokerage I use, I told him, and he quickly emailed the information I needed for the transfer. Maybe a 2 minute phone call, completely painless.

The email contained a form-fillable TD Ameritrade PDF and a Word doc with the Church’s account number and instructions. Filling out the form took maybe another 5 minutes (mainly due to triple checking it to make sure I didn’t mess it up). I dropped it in the mail on 9/26, then replied to the Church’s email with my name, address, and summary of my donation (per their instructions).

On 10/1 (5 days later, darn slow postal mail), the shares were transferred out of my account and into the Church’s, and today (10/9, 13 days after I started the process) I received my receipt from the Church. This receipt is vital to keep on hand for tax season, as the IRS isn’t going to be happy about you claiming you made a donation that you don’t have proof of. One odd thing to keep in mind is that the Church doesn’t provide a value for your donation. Instead, the IRS expects you to use the average of the high and low price of the stock on the day it was transferred.

Anyways, the process was really easy. I think I’m going to try doing this a couple times a year instead of paying tithing with a check to my local ward. I loathe checks and feel sorry for the poor ward clerks that have to count up the money. This just seems easier for everyone.

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Going back to college

Going back to college

It has finally happened: I’ve gone back to college. My friend Brandon has pointed out that I’m doing things backwards though. He says “you are supposed to go to school, graduate, be miserable for 40 years, THEN retire.”

Regardless of whether I’m doing it backwards or not, I’m now a few weeks into the semester at BYU-Idaho. If you know that I live in Connecticut, you may be wondering how I’m attending an Idaho school. The answer is the most awesome innovation in education that I’ve had the privilege of participating in: the BYU-Idaho Pathway Program.

Here are the basics:

  • The program is available to all active LDS members that are 18-30 years old (only available in some areas). Keep in mind that BYU-Idaho’s operating expenses are subsidized with LDS tithing, so they shouldn’t be faulted for expecting you to be an active member of the LDS church.
  • You don’t have to have a high school diploma. It doesn’t matter if you are married or single. You don’t have to take the SAT or ACT. The application is only one page long. Pretty much everyone is accepted.
  • Classes are only $65 per credit hour. There are no application fees, matriculation fees, student fees, technology fees, etc. Just $65 per credit hour. To make it even better, for-credit Institute religion classes are free.
  • You can transfer credits from previous colleges, and they have a “no credit left behind policy”. If you took the class, they’ll find a way to make it count for something.
  • Students that maintain a B average can optionally transfer to the BYU-Idaho campus after the first year. Students that choose to stay where they are can graduate without ever going to Idaho.

Most of the work is done online. Once a week the class meets together at the Institute of Religion building for a few hours.

The weekly meeting is split into two parts: an Institute of Religion class taught by a missionary couple, and a class discussion led by the students themselves. I was skeptical at first about the class discussion, but it seems to work really well. My classmates and I are eager to participate, excited about the material, and honestly have fun at these weekly meetings.

So how long until I have a degree? Well I haven’t transferred my credits yet, so I’m not sure. The first year is very structured. I am required to take specific classes, regardless of my background. After the first year I am given some flexibility in what classes I take. With my existing credits, I suspect I could get an associate degree in a year or two without a very heavy load. I’d like to go on and get a bachelors degree, though, so I’ll probably be in a school for a few years.

Anyways, I’m very excited. The downside of course is that I’ll have less time for my business. I think in the long run the knowledge I’ll gain from my classes will make up for the time I spend doing homework and in class.

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The Shepherds

Yesterday at church our Primary watched Luke 2, a short video about Christ’s birth. Part of the video shows angels coming to tell shepherds of the savior’s birth. During this part of the movie I thought to myself that it was a bit random that some shepherds saw angels when Christ was born. What made them so special? Why was it recorded in the Bible? Why weren’t other people visited by angels at this time?

Well, I found a possible answer today on the Temple Study blog:

…the shepherds who were abiding by their flocks in the fields were perhaps watching over temple sheep, sheep that were being bred and protected to be sacrificed at the temple in Jerusalem.

Very interesting, no? What is also very interesting is the article also goes into some detail about which stable/manger Christ was at. I don’t want to ruin the awesome ending for you, so read the full article here.

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