Archive for January, 2012

Leavin’ On a Jet Plane

January 31, 2012

So, here’s the scoop.  

I’m leading (I use that term loosely!) a group of folks on a trip to Israel.  The dates are November 6-15, 2012.  We will spend seven days in Israel, plus a day on either end for travel.  Cost is $3800/person including airfare from LAX.  A detailed itinerary can be viewed here.  It is also possible to arrange a land-only fare and negotiate your own airfare from elsewhere in the country.  The tour facilitator, Linda, will work with people interested in this option so that we all arrive in Tel Aviv at roughly the same time.  
The cost is almost completely inclusive.  The only things that are not covered in the cost are lunches and gifts/other incidentals that you might wish to purchase.  All entrance fees, gratuities, hotels, breakfasts and dinners are included.  While the minimum gratuity for the driver of the private charter bus and our Israeli Christian guide are also included, there will be a hat passed at the end of the trip for donations over and above the minimum gratuities.  
Anyone of almost any age is welcome to come.  This tour company has experience at working with folks who may not be the fastest movers, and can provide walker assistance and wheelchair assistance for anyone who needs it.  
Please pass the word.  Even if this isn’t something that you’re interested in or able to do, others might be interested.  I’m hopeful that Rev. Bob Hiller will be joining us on this, essentially doubling the fun and quadrupling the intellectual/theological level.  We’re hoping for a group of 15-20 people – maybe one of them is you!
If you have any questions, feel free to contact me and I’ll be happy to provide more information.

Oh Frabjous Joy!

January 27, 2012

Or something close to that.  Monty Python has been a source of joy and irreverent humor for me for many years, so the thought of a near-reunion film venture is very exciting. 

That is all.

Blame it On the Far Side

January 27, 2012

The other evening one of those parenting moments comes along that everyone knows will happen, but very few get the opportunity to choose when, or to prepare adequately for beforehand.

I was engaged in a fierce Nerf-gun war with my three kids.  They were furiously reloading at the end of the hallway as I awaited their heads peeking around the corner for me to take a shot at.  No, they weren’t wearing eye-protection or helmets.  That’s the kind of dad I am.  
I heard my oldest son (aged nine and a half) say something, but I wasn’t sure I heard him right.  So I asked him what he said.  He repeated it, and I still wasn’t sure I heard him clearly.  I asked him one more time, and he obliged.
That’s what I thought he had said the first time, but it caught me by surprise.  He said it very matter of factly, and appeared to be using it in it’s usual context of expressing some level of frustration.  I asked him where he had learned that word.
“From reading The Far Side.”  
My oldest son has – for years – been obsessed with my collections of The Far Side and Bloom County comic strips.  I grew up on them and still love them deeply.  Like his father, my son has committed vast swaths of both of these comic strips to memory, and loves to bring out choice quotes at some of the darndest times.
So, I gathered the troops.  It was clear that he didn’t understand that it was an inappropriate word, so I wasn’t angry at him.  I explained how there are two forms of the word damn/dam.  They understood what the polite form of the word meant, as we had just driven across one a few weeks earlier.  They wanted to know why the other form was bad, and what it meant.  So, I explained the theological underpinnings of the word as best I could and enjoined them not to use it.  They seemed to accept this pretty easily.
At least I haven’t heard them using the word since.  
Can’t wait to see what the next word is we have to explain!

What a Tangled Web We Weave

January 26, 2012

I thought this was a thought provoking blog post.  Sometimes the devil you know isn’t very comforting.  I like how the blog focuses not on the legalistic issue of divorce, but on how Gingrich appears to be dealing with it.

I keep wondering to myself, in the midst of all the political ridiculousness that everyone claims to be upset about, why we continue to argue about which of the proposed candidates for which of the existing parties we’re going to support.  Are we truly that lazy that we’re going to let the entrenched powers of self-interest continue to destroy our country?  Is there truly nothing better to do than settle for the status quo, and make our peace with the frankly disheartening quality of our potential leaders?  
I’ll admit to not even knowing where to start, but unless a whole lot of people make some starts on this, it seems quite clear that nothing is going to change.  
At least not for the better.

So What Are You In For?

January 25, 2012

Spanking your child?

That seems like a tough situation all the way around.
Yet revisions to an existing Mississippi law against child abuse would make striking a child punishable by no less than 10 years in prison, and up to a life sentence.  While the revisions maintain the stipulation that “reasonable discipline” can be a defense against a charge of child abuse, they don’t define what “reasonable discipline” is or isn’t, leading one to wonder how judges will define it.
I received an alert about this through a legal association that we belong to as part of home schooling our kids.  The Home School Legal Defense Association is an organization that home school families can join in order to have prompt legal service should there ever be a question or challenge to their home schooling rights.  It sounds kind of drastic, but there are times when either through ignorance or an intentional desire to curtail home schooling activities, school districts and related officials take steps that they aren’t legally entitled to.  
  • So, to research this, I first read the original alert from the HSLDA.  
  • Using the information on the Bill number, I was able to Google the law as it exists and has existed since 1972.  
  • I also Googled the legal definitions for particular terms that are also included in Mississippi law.  
Why am I sharing all of this?  
Because I prefer to try and see for myself what is being reported to me by third parties.  We have grown accustomed to multiple layers of people and institutions that tell us what is happening, and we have gotten out of the habit of looking at what is happening for ourselves.  Note that the original alert doesn’t include any links directly to the legislation.  I find that annoying.
What do I learn from the research?
As the alert indicates, there are no definitions for the key terms either in the existing legislation or the proposed revisions.  The proposed revisions are more specific in enumerating types of abuse (choking, for example).  It makes me wonder if there are particular cases in recent history that exploited a lack of specificity in the law, for which these revisions are proposed.
I notice that the existing law limits the maximum sentence to 20 years, while the proposed revisions allow for a life imprisonment sentence.  The proposed revisions also mandate a minimum sentence of 10 years.  That seems kind of crazy to me.  Granted, if someone is willfully abusing a child, they deserve to be punished.  But mandating a 10 year jail sentence?  Why?  And why allow for a life sentence?  
After reading through it all, I’m not sure what the overall point of the changes are.  The revisions are just as vague as the existing law.  Changing the sentencing parameters certainly puts some teeth into the law, but it seems to me that if there was a clear case of child abuse, the existing law has enough teeth in it as it is.  If a judge can already sentence someone up to 20 years in prison, why insist that she must sentence the person to at least 10?  
HSLDA sees this as a risk to parents disciplining their children, but the existing law is equally vague enough to provide the same type of risk.  The stakes are higher now – which is a reflection of the growing assumption in our culture that almost any crime deserves jail time and plenty of it.  Resulting, of course, in jails and prisons that are overcrowded already.  It’s a curious and disturbing cycle.  

What Is At Stake?

January 21, 2012

The American Catholic world is all afire with the recent announcement that appeals to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to allow for broader, religious-based exemptions to mandatory contraceptive coverage in national health care guidelines have been denied.  This means that religious organizations must offer free contraceptive coverage to their employees, even if the religious organization opposes the use of contraceptives.  Not only this, but the coverage must provide for contraception at no cost to the individual – no co-pay or other form of cost sharing.  If an employee wants birth control, they can receive it with no additional out of pocket expense.  HHS allows exemptions to required contraceptive coverage only for churches and primary religious institutions, but is denying the exemption to religious schools, hospitals, and other organizations associated with a religious body but not primarily engaged in religious activities.  The only concession appears to be a one-year period during which such religious organizations are to determine how best they can comply with the mandated coverage.  

The Washington Post covers the decision by highlighting the additional year that religious institutions are being given to comply with the ruling.  HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is quoted as asserting “This…strikes a balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services.”  I’m pretty sure that delaying a decision for 12 months is not really a compromise.  It’s a very, very small effort to appear diplomatic and willing to compromise when in fact no compromise is being given.  And how one can defend voluntary contraceptive usage as an “important preventive” service eludes me.  Requiring no cost to the insured is a more expensive options for employers, adding insult to injury.
This article by a British online news service highlights the utilitarian aspects of the decision – it will save money.  The article asserts (no quote) that the decision will help reduce or eliminate “future costs” associated with “treating illness.”  I’m wondering what illnesses free contraception prevents?  Certainly not STDs.  Is the article asserting that pregnancy is an “illness”?  Curious.  A quote from Planned Parenthood asserts that “millions of women” will derive an immediate economic benefit from this decision.  What is that figure based on?  I’d be curious to see data on the estimated number of women employed by (primarily) Catholic organizations that would seek to be exempted from providing this particular type of coverage.  Are there millions of them?  And are all of them currently utilizing birth control that they have to pay for?  And why should contraceptives be mandated as free when almost all other prescriptions carry at least a nominal co-pay?  Curious.
I’m not Catholic, but I strongly empathize with the position of Catholic organizations.  So should you.  Why?  Because the government is forcing institutions and individuals to purchase a product that directly violates their religious conscience.  Whether you agree with the Catholic position on birth control or not is a secondary issue.  What are the implications when the government takes it upon itself to determine not simply what people must have, but must have whether they want it or use it or find it morally offensive?  
Were this an isolated issue, it would be chilling enough.  But when it is coupled with other recent, unsuccessful attempts for the government (Department of Justice) to gain the ability to define who is a minister in a religious institution and who is not, the picture gets more disturbing.  
And for what purpose?  What does the government gain by insisting that there can be no compromise on this matter?  People are free to find employment where they wish.  Nobody is forcing someone to work for a religious organization where they will be denied a particular form of coverage.  How many people are actually affected by this, compared with the large and disturbing implications this sort of decision lays bare?  
Perhaps I’m missing a fundamental argument about why this isn’t a big deal, why this isn’t a blow to religious freedoms in our country.  And if so, I hope someone will point it out to me and I’ll be happy to write a full-blown retraction/amendment to this post.  But I haven’t come across such an argument yet.  Perhaps there isn’t one?

Quantifying Everything?

January 20, 2012

Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living.  But is there such a thing as examining things too much?

I like to cook.  My wife and I like to cook.  Enjoying cooking means a combination of following directions that other people have worked out and figuring stuff out on our own.  Duplicate, create, modify, explore – the possibilities are endless, even if we don’t routinely wander down terribly unfamiliar paths in the kitchen.  
As you cook you learn that some things work and some things don’t.  Some combinations are amazing, others are atrocious.  Are there reasons for this?  I’m sure there are.  Do I need to know them?  No, not particularly.  While a certain level of exploration and understanding are helpful, too much reduces the process to a mechanical state – or at least it has the potential for that.
All to say, I’m not necessarily fascinated by the research referenced in this article.  Consulting a periodic table (or a periodic table of meat) doesn’t interest me.  Part of the fun of cooking is knowing that it could all go wrong.  Part of the excitement – whether innovating or following someone else’s precise instructions – is when it turns out great despite our better hunches.  Life is not made demonstrably better necessarily because of a more precise understanding of some aspects of it. 

There’s an App For That – Posthumously

January 19, 2012

As people spend more of their lives online through virtual communities such as Facebook, increasingly there is a concern about how to treat these digital extensions of ourselves once we die.  

A new app has one way of addressing the situation.
If I Die is a free app that you can download and install on Facebook.  It allows you to create one or multiple text and media messages that are posted to your account should you die.  How does the app know you’ve died?  You designate three people to act as custodians.  If they provide validation of your death, the app posts your creations based on a timetable of your creation.  
It’s interesting, but perhaps a bit more dangerous than people might suspect.  I’m sure that someone without any intention of dying in the near future might indeed decide to record a terrible secret or a final insult.  But some things are best left unsaid, and what is done in jest without serious intention to utilize, might in fact be utilized to devastating effect.
It’s an interesting idea, but one I think I’ll pass on.  At least for now.

Pay (Yourself) to Play

January 19, 2012

A quick reference to a practice that at least in theory makes a lot of sense.  If people play the lottery on the off (really, really, really, really, really, really off) chance of striking it rich, perhaps people would be inclined to put money into savings for the chance to win prizes.  Even if they don’t win, they still have the money they put into savings.  An earlier article on the same idea can be found here.

The idea seems to be catching on.  
I’m all for helping people learn to save.  Americans don’t save very much compared to many other less affluent populations.  Programs like this make sense at a certain level.  But they leave questions unanswered as well.
First off, the prizes are paid for by taking a percentage of the interest that would be paid on the savings deposits and, instead of paying it to the savers, pays for the prizes with it.  While that initially seems like a sketchy thing – particularly when financial institutions are paying only the tiniest of fractions of interest on savings of any kind – it may not be too bad.  
In the several initial runs of prize linked savings programs in the US, the average amount of money placed in savings deposits was around $750.  This amount nearly doubled when the number of participating financial institutions tripled.  
Still, even on savings of $1600, the interest that would be paid on it is negligible – painfully laughable, actually.  Which means that to fund this sort of program, larger savers – people who have tens of thousands of dollars or more in savings – will be the ones who pay the majority portion of the cost of prizes.  And this is without the possibility of financial institutions utilizing advertising promotions in exchange for free donations of prizes from merchandisers and manufacturers.
A larger concern I have is that people who save more money are more likely to win prizes.  If participants receive an ‘entry’ or ‘ticket’ for the raffle for every $25 they deposit, it seems as though people with more liquid assets could simply troll around, setting up automatic deposits for $25 every day – or every hour! – and skew the odds considerably in their favor.  The less well-off participant who can only contribute $25 a week or a month has smaller odds of winning.
I suppose this is true in ‘real’ lotteries as well, but it would seem that the statistical odds of picking six or more exact numbers negates the advantage of more attempts.  In other words, if the odds against picking the exact right numbers are millions and millions to one, the fact that I make 100 attempts at it rather than just one probably doesn’t affect my odds all that much.
Still, even if you don’t win the prize, you have the money you’ve deposited into savings, and that’s much better than playing the lottery.  And if the amount of interest you sacrifice is negligible, it isn’t really costing you anything at all for the chance to win.  You’re effectively changing your savings habits at no cost (other than cash flow) with a slight chance of winning a nice prize.  Seems like a win-win.  Would you pay to play?

The Customer Is Always the Customer

January 18, 2012

Only more so, perhaps.

The idea behind restaurants as I see it is that you go to eat food.  That’s oversimplification, of course.  You go to eat food, but it’s also an experiential issue.  We like some restaurants more than others, even if the food is comparable.  But the tradition seems to be that regardless of how well we identify with a restaurant, we are in fact identifying with a restaurant.  Where we choose to eat and spend our money is an indication of who we are, but it’s also true that restaurants have a particular personality, and that we choose that personality because of any number of reasons that are more personal to us.  
But what if what the restaurant offered was not a personality and experience that we could choose to identify with or not, but rather a customized experience?  What if a restaurant could personalize itself to various different patrons.  The same food would be served, in the same building, but the point of contact in the server would be customized?  What if the restaurant identified with us, rather than the traditional other way around?
It’s a common joke about how many aspiring actors and actresses there are in Los Angeles waiting tables, ready at a moment’s notice to slip a script under a producer’s salad plate or break into a bit of improvisation.  But what if that was their job, rather than a necessary side talent?  What if the servers were hired not just for their ability to take orders, deliver food to tables, and look after customers well, but because they could alter their persona from table to table?
Taking mom & dad from Boise out to dinner?  Ask for the server to be extra folksy or down to earth.  Want to impress your date?  Ask the server to pretend they know you as a talented writer or actor, or to demonstrate awe at your table manners or knowledge of early Peruvian salads.  Given the miracle of high-speed access to almost any information, what couldn’t a talented server/performer pull off in terms of a convincing role?
It would be an amazing feat of acting, to be sure.  But it would also be a further interesting comment on our culture.  If we grow too accustomed to everything being personalized for our tastes, what won’t we expect to be personalized for our tastes?  
Granted, this is just speculation and dreaming at this point in time (and not an original dream by me, even, but I’ve lost the link to a blurb somebody else wrote on the idea).  But it’s not a far stretch to think that we’ll see this sort of thing popping up all over the place sometime soon.  iEat?  iDine?  iStrant?  Hmmm…anyone have some investment capital?