Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Truth Victimized By Outrage

I was struck by an open resignation letter printed in the New York Times written by one of those vilified AIG bonus recipients to AIG Chairman and CEO Edward Liddy. 

The letter, written by Jake DeSantis, an executive vice president of the American International Group’s financial products unit, basically communicates his feelings of betrayal in terms of the perceived duplicity of Mr. Liddy, noting that while Liddy had on multiple occassions reiterated his intention to honor bonus payments to be made to people who had nothing to do with the meltdown associated with credit defaul swaps, he changed his tune in the face of congressional and public outrage and threw the employees under the bus.

The letter, assuming that the facts contained within it are all true, is a sad commentary of how easily public opinion can be manipulated by selective dissemination of the facts. Either duped themselves or seeing an opportunity to sound spectacularly populist to Joe Taxpaper, politicians line up at the podium to bash the greedy businesspeople, the newspapers put it on the front page and the cycle perpetuates. Some of the tabloid headlines included "A.I.G. IS A P.I.G." (New York Daily News); "OUTR-AIG-E" (San Jose Mercury News); "BONUS BLOWUP" (am New York); and "OH NO YOU DON'T" (New York Post).

I had written in an earlier post that I was concerned of the lynch mob mentality of the backlash. The problem with lynch mobs is that emotions sometime get in the way of the truth. It seems that some of that might have happened here.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Theologically-Dubious Christian Songs

A couple of weeks ago, Reyn, the pastor of our daughter church came to preach and spoke about the preeminence of God's glory as part of our series in Numbers. In part of his sermon, he referenced a popular Christian song and embedded theological inaccuracy. He wasn't hating on the song per se, but it did remind me that it wasn't the only song that might be considered "theologically dubious".

By the way, I firmly believe that praise songs that speak of an aspirational response of worship, such as "You are my all in all" knowing well that we struggle to live out such lofty words do NOT belong in the theologically dubious category. The Psalms are full of such "aspirational" language (in the spirit of "Lord, may it be so that I...") and are clearly appropriate for worship. So without further adieu, here are a few that come to mind with YouTube links embedded.

"Above All" by Michael W. Smith

Laid behind the stone
You lived to die
Rejected and alone
Like a rose
Trampled on the ground
You took the fall
And thought of me
Above all

PROBLEM: Reyn gets credit for this one, but I'll rehash his point. The song makes the implication that Jesus was thinking, above all things, about us as He was being crucified. Not so, he pointed out. Above all things was the regard and the passion for the Glory of God, which is yes, manifest in his steadfast love to His people. Hebrews 12:2 further goes on to tell us that Jesus endured the cross for the "joy set before him."

WORKAROUND: The preacher pointed out that if you view the chorus as "You took the fall and thought of me (PERIOD)," then the "above all" immediately following it simply becomes a poetic tag. Uh... sure.

"We Are The Reason" by David Meece

And we are the reason
That he gave his life
We are the reason
That he suffered and died
To a world that was lost
He gave all he could give
To show us the reason to live

PROBLEM: It's similar to the dilemma in "Above All" which is the inaccurate implication that the primary driving force behind Christ's work is focused on the elect - the fact that the song references it as "the reason" makes it tough to navigate around, and he compounds it by implying that the purpose of the atonement to secondarily serve as a teaching point that we have a reason to live in the spirit of "It grieves me that humankind lives meaningless lives, so I shall die to give them a reason to live." Ugh. I can understand that singing "We are part of the reason that he gave his life" doesn't sound quite as catchy.

WORKAROUND: This is a tough one. It's a very moving song and you hate to rain on the parade of David Meece's voice cracking with emotion, but between the above commentary and the lyrics around "On a dark and cloudy day a man hung crying in the rain because of love" I'm thinking it's not going to be featured at our church any time soon, let alone PCA General Assembly.

"I Believe in Jesus" by Marc Nelson

I believe in Jesus
I believe He is the Son of God
I believe He died and rose again
I believe He paid for us all

PROBLEM: If you lean reformed doctinally, you clearly believe that Jesus did NOT pay for us all. The concept of limited or particular atonement holds that Jesus' substitutionary work is limited to those who are the elect, or predestined for salvation. He paid for the elect, not for all.

WORKAROUND: You might make the argument that you're singing this chorus within a congregation of elect, so "us all" could refer to "all of us here, the predestined elect who could only sing this song in sincerity given these beliefs we profess." Yup, there ya go.

Those of you who are readers of the blog can probably come up with others. Fire away in the comments section.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Grading the Grading

While I had railed against obsessive parental academic pressure in a previous blog posting, I fully acknowledge that I grew up in a household where my brother and I were expected to excel. What my parents had to navigate through were non-standard grading mechanisms in elementary school to assess whether I was at the top of my second grade class or not.

There's an article in the New York Times which reports on an elementary school's use of a numbers-based grading system, which try to assess students in a numerical format ranging from 1 (not meeting New York State academic standards) to 4 (meeting the standards with distinction) around a number of very specific skills. The program has been met with some frustration as parents try to "decode" what this actually means in terms of relative performance to others, especially given the relatively low bar of New York State academic standards. As one educational pundit said, "You really don’t know whether anybody has learned anything. They could all have done miserably, just some less miserably than others.”

What I think happens with these newfangled grading mechanisms is that academic-focused parents essentially come up with their own translation of the grades (e.g. 1 = A, and 2 through 4 = no more toys or television for three months). In my elementary school, our grading system was comprised of E(xcellent), M(ore than satisfactory), S(atisfactory), and U(nsatisfactory). I remember coming back home with a report card in second grade with about 30% E's and 70% M's and my distraught parents called for a conference with my teacher and principal, who couldn't understand why I wasn't scoring E's across the board. I vaguely recollect that my teacher had tried to (in vain) explain to my parents that M's were good (more than satisfactory, after all), but my parents were having none of that.

Threats to me, my teacher, and my principal to ship me off to parochial school notwithstanding, I plodded through okay. Well, more accurately, I plodded through more than satisfactorily.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Hope for Life in Pluripotent Stem Cells

There's an interesting article in Newsweek where a former member of President Bush's domestic policy staff expounds upon the hope of a scientific way around the ethical dilemma at the heart of the embryonic-stem-cell debate. The breakthrough procedure, known as "somatic cell dedifferentiation" would take an adult cell and turn it into the equivalent of an embryonic cell without the need for an embryo. In other words, the benefit of the research from embryonic stem cells would thus be accomplished without the destruction of human fetuses. Bush, for all his foibles, stood his ground in terms of his conviction that nascent human lives weren't to be terminated and sliced and diced for laboratory fodder, and he pushed strongly for the investment in this option which might lead to a perfect middle ground.

Flash forward to earlier this month, when President Obama found it fit to reverse President Bush's executive order and release the floodgates of funding for embryonic stem cell research. What President Obama failed to do is acknowledge, as the writer states, that ethics must be clear in firm because science is flexible, as demonstrated by these new advances. 

This is why I find it ridiculous when President Obama tries to self-righteously insist that scientific decisions must be "based on facts, not ideology" and that "dogma will no longer guide American policy." That's so incredibly disingenuous on so many levels. The reality is that facts themselves morally neutral, that's why you absolutely need ethics to guide scientific research. Nazi scientist Josef Mengele conducted ghastly experiments on Jews to determine, for example, the ability to survive certain amputations and chemical injections. At the end of the day the results of those experiments became fact. But those facts bear no moral compass on whether the experiments themselves were ethical or not.

And as for ideology and dogma? Let's be frank - the "new" policy around stem-cell research is absolutely driven by ideology and dogma. It's the ideology and dogma that a human embryo is not a life, and that the proliferation of death of human embryos is absolutely worth the chance that we'll find a cure for degenerative diseases. It's an ideology and dogma fully subscribed to by President Obama and his supporters.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

America's Pastime, Dominated by Asians

Congratulations to Japan, who won the World Baseball Classic in a 5-3 thriller over Korea. For the American baseball apologist, there are many ways to explain this alleged atrocity - the relative unpreparedness of the American players given the timing of the tournament, the fact that many of the United States' best players opted out of playing in the tournament in deference to their Major League teams, etc. There are plenty of reasons to believe that the Americans are still the best at the sport.

What is undeniable is that the rest of the world is getting better, and that's something that's good for American baseball. The global interest in the game is simply going to raise the bar in terms of the quality of play, with an increasing pool of talented players who will benefit from techniques and strategies that are explored and developed all over the world.

So I tend not to agree with former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda's jingoistic declarations earlier that the United States could not afford to let other countries win the tournament (which they did). I couldn't help but see shades of Wayne Gretzky choking back tears when the United States beat Canada in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey and losing in the Olympics to the Czech Republic in Nagano saying things such as "It's a crushed locker room right now. It's probably a crushed country. It's a hard loss to swallow. It's devastating."

While I appreciate his zeal and love for his country, I tend to think that statements such as "baseball is America's game" and "hockey is Canada's game" aren't really intended to reflect a sentiment that either country has a God-given right to dominate it. Both countries had the honor of seeing the invention and the first steps of the sport - let them go and flourish wherever they might.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Game Within the Game

My neighbor is a huge booster of Seton Hall Pirates basketball, and on a couple of occassions, he's been generous in treating me to a game or giving me tickets that he's not planning on using. His seats are terrific - center court just three rows up from the court, so you're very close to the floor. You can hear Seton Hall coach Bobby Gonzalez screaming at the referees and the players complaining that they didn't get a call. Being that we were fifteen feet from Gonzalez, I can't help but think he ought to stick to language befitting a coach from a Catholic university, but we'll get back to that later.

Something that I always noticed, that was recently featured in an article in the New York Times, was the precision and execution around each of the time-outs. It looked like something from a NASCAR pit-stop. The timeout would be called, and then a series of lackeys (team managers, perhaps?) would scurry over setting up small chairs in a perfect circle as the coach took a knee and diagrammed a play. Simultaneously, cups of Gatorade and towels were distributed and collected when the horn sounded ending the timeout. Within seconds, the players were back on the floor and the chairs were off the court.

The other interesting thing about college basketball timeouts is the "on-court entertainment" which is featured to dazzle the crowd. This takes the form of t-shirts being fired from a high-velocity cannon (R.I.P. Maude Flanders) or dance routines from cheerleaders and other collegiate dance troupes. Now I understand the desire to emulate the routines that are done in the NBA, but I have to say that a lot of these routines are awfully provocative with overt sexual overtones. I can't help but see the priests that are standing with the team looking out to center court wondering if the cheerleaders' pelvic gyrations were part of what Archbishop James Roosevelt Bayley had in mind back in 1856 when he founded a Catholic college and a diocesan seminary ministering to the Diocesan community.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Magic Garden at the White House

Kudos to the Obama family for breaking ground on an organic garden at the White House, which they hope will champion healthy eating in the face of rampant obesity that plagues the entire nation. Michelle Obama yet again showed her mom skills by astutely noting that her daughters tended to be more open to eating vegetables that they themselves had planted, which is tactic that is used by parents everywhere.

It's clear that we're a fat nation and a great deal of the problem starts with children who aren't provided guidance or meals which are conducive to healthy development or eating habits. That being said, there's always room for skepticism.

I found it interesting that much of the cheering for the Obama garden comes from advocates for organic and locally grown food who argue that the White House garden may help set a positive example for families short on time and money, who are often tempted by cheaper, highly processed food. That's the dilemma right there. In a bearish economy, are people going to opt for diseconomies of scale by paying to growing only the amount of produce they family can consume when going to their local supermarket would save them money? Given the limited square footage in a personal garden, doesn't increased diversification just compound the negative economics? I'm just not sure how people who are short on time or money will find this proposition attractive.

Of course, if the economy plummets even further and job losses skyrocket, many of us might have no choice but to live off the land. As someone who doesn't like vegetables and who doesn't own a rifle, I'm wondering if I need start dusting off the old fishing pole.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Lean on Me... When You're Unemployed

I talked to a friend last week who shared with me that he was being let go by his company after more than fifteen years of service. I appreciated his honesty around struggles around bitterness, the challenge of communicating the news to his family and the difficulty of emotionally settling down to the point of being able to determine next steps. My heart really goes out to my friend, and I did my best just to listen to him share and sympathize, not forcing unsolicited advice or hackneyed answers.

I remember coming across blog post which leaked the presentation that Yahoo! managers were given to guide them in layoff conversations a few months ago. I found it a little chilling, in part because it was completely spot-on in terms of what I would expect - the controlled script, the vanilla language, the thinly-veiled legalese. I've been fortunate not to have been on either side of the desk around this conversation up to this point, though I don't assume for a second that I never came close nor do I assume I'll never be on the receiving end of one.

A few days ago, the New York Times posted an article written by a layoff victim detailing some practical advice around how to best support friends who are in the midst of a job search. Given the state of the job market, it makes a lot of sense to keep these in mind - either as a potential giver or recipient.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

AIG Bonuses & the Lynch Mob

There has been almost universal outrage expressed at the recent news that AIG gave out bonuses totaling $165 million to employees, including bonuses to almost all of the people who were in the financial products unit responsible for creating the exotic derivatives that caused A.I.G.’s near collapse and necessitated a taxpayer-funded bailout totaling $200 billion.

While I share in the utter disgust around what amounts to massive retention and incentive payments for galactically poor performance, what I find slightly alarming is just how over the top much of the anger is and some of the suggestions that are coming out of otherwise reasonable people. It's nothing short of a lynch mob mentality.

Republican Senator Charles Grassley not-so-subtly suggested that AIG executives commit a form of Japanese honor suicide in light of their poor performance, and a number of congressmen such as Chris Dodd and Barney Frank have been strategizing how they can somehow finesse tax laws so we can selectively strip recipients of their bonus. New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has demanded the names of the bonus recipients. To what end? Is his next step to post their addresses and telephone numbers on a website so people can bombard them with threats? Or is there a hope that by "outing" these individuals, they'll repent and return or refuse these bonuses for fear of their own or families' personal safety? Is that what we've come to as a society? If you think I'm being exaggerating, read this article in the New York Times which details the harassment endured by AIG employees and their families which has led many to hire personal security guards.

While we're at it, let's go ahead and leverage every government body to "legally" make it utterly distasteful for them to accept their bonuses. How about making it clear that the Internal Revenue Service will certainly be conducting heavy audits of their personal finances for the rest of their lifetimes?

My common refrain around other similar government attempts to regulate and adjudicate with a heavy hand is to be very careful in terms of how that power is used, lest we plummet down a slippery slope or get blindsided by unintended consequences. I agree that paying bonuses to these individuals is absolutely ridiculous, but are we really going to become a country which abrogates legally-binding contracts (or finds some other means of essentially doing so) because a small group of people have ludicrously, though legally secured compensation that we find hard to stomach? And are we going to start using extreme measures to somehow "make things right" in the mob's eyes? Even Democrat Charles Rangel, no fan of Wall Street, warned that the tax code should not be wielded as a weapon.

If I'm not mistaken, in the late 18th century there were also masses of people who felt that a small segment of the population were unfairly getting more than their due. The venue was France and it went far beyond an increasingly progressive tax code. The rumblings of class warfare might be on its way, folks.

Friday, March 20, 2009

All The News That's Fit To View on a Mobile Device

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer printed its last print newspaper on Tuesday, and is the largest newspaper which has fallen prey to the growing customer preference to view content online. In terms of conservative firebrand Ann Coulter's glee that legions of journalists, editors, photographers and other support staff are rightfully out of work because they were the chief propaganda officers for a liberal agenda, I find her reveling in the hardship others distasteful and her theory a bit wrong-headed.

In truth, the media's general liberal leanings aren't the key culprit behind the bankruptcies of newspapers. The real driver is plummeting ad revenue because paid readership is down, not simply because people don't like to read people with the same persuasions as Maureen Dowd, Frank Rich and Paul Krugman (all who are doing quite fine at the New York Times, I believe), but because people would much rather read the same articles and columns for free on their laptop or Blackberry. Besides, have you tried to navigate through reading a newspaper on a train with minimal elbow-room? And the newsprint ink gets my delicate and perfectly manicured hands all dirty.

So where do newspapers go from here? Some have proposed a pay for online access model, but this is going to be a tough sell as newspapers play a prolonged game of chicken with each other. If online ad revenue is driven by visitors, every media outlet is going to be terrified of the prospect of risking alienating its user base by charging for something that had previously been given away for free. Once this happens, there's no guarantee that making your services free again would ever bring them back. 

Their only hope is some sort of collusion where every single media outlet agrees to impose their visitors a fee for reading content (let's ignore the antitrust violations for a second). It's sort of like the prisoner's dilemma scenario in which the benefit of colluding leads to the reasonable gains for everyone. Unfortunately per the theory, inevitably somebody cheats - in this case offers their news services for free - thus causing people to flock to their website at the expense of everyone else.

I wonder if what will happen is the "you get what you pay for" phenomenon. Over time, the quality of news will suffer and people will be left reading bland "ticker" quality news releases supplemented with hack blogger opinions like those provided by people like me. Who knows? Maybe over time people will decide that informed news and thoughtful analysis is something worth paying for. In the meantime, I'm afraid droves of people in the newspaper business are going to need to adapt quickly.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

2009 March Madness Time!

It's time for the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, where people start filling in their brackets and put petty cash and their bragging rights on the line. All in all I thought the selection committee did a bang-up job of getting the right teams in. Certainly not as bad as the past travesties around the exclusion of well deserving mid-majors like Drexel in 2007. Here's how I see things unfolding:

I'm anticipating just a couple of minor upsets in this bracket, with Arizona taking out Utah and USC beating a Boston College team that infamously lost to Harvard at home. Louisville is peaking at the right time, and after winning the Big East tournament, I think they'll be tough to beat, especially given a weak bracket at the top, where I'm predicting early departures for a Kansas team which is not nearly as good as the team that won it all last year and a Michigan State team that was the best of the pack of a mediocre Big Ten.

Regional Final
Louisville over West Virginia

I'm predicting that Cornell continues the Ivy League streak of tournament futility in losing to Missouri. This bracket isn't going to see a lot of upsets, and I see each higher seed holding serve through the second round. Connecticut just isn't the same team without Jerome Dyson, and while their path isn't terribly arduous, I think they'll fall to a Memphis team which is the best defensive team in the entire tournament.

Regional Final
Memphis over Connecticut

Pittsburgh, notwithstanding their early departure from the Big East tournament, will be a force to be reckoned with, and aside from a couple of minor upsets, like Tennessee taking out Oklahoma State, I think the bracket will go through pretty much as planned. I was very tempted to have Texas knock out Duke in the second round, but I realized I was projected more what I was hoping as opposed to being objective. I similarly am hoping Villanova will take out Duke in the round of 16, though I think Duke is peaking at the right time with their ACC Tournament championship. I'll be happy eventually when DeJuan Blair helps muscle the Panthers past the Dukies in the regional final.

Regional Final
Pittsburgh over Duke

I'm predicting a couple of upsets in the first round, with former Penn coach Fran Dunphy and Dionte Christmas beating Arizona State and cagey coach John Beilein figuring out some sort of scheme to push Michigan past chronic tournament underachievers Clemson. I'm also looking for Syracuse to continue to ride Johnny Flynn and what's left of their adrenaline all the way past Oklahoma to the regional final, where they'll run out of gas against a strong North Carolina team.

Regional Final
North Carolina over Syracuse

Pittsburgh might not play enough offense, and North Carolina doesn't play enough defense. The sports corollary is that a strong defense always beats a strong offense. I think this game proves to be the exception as North Carolina manages to squeak by a Pittsburgh team which can't throw the ball into the ocean. North Carolina over Pittsburgh

Louisville coach Rick Pitino and Memphis coach John Calipari are both snappy dressing Italian-American men with great college coaching records and bad stints in the NBA who happen to lead excellent teams. This semifinal will be a classic, but the game comes down to guts, and the Louisville Cardinals will have the advantage in toughness after fighting through that steel cage match known as the Big East. Louisville over Memphis

North Carolina, after getting waon down with tough fought victories over Big East teams Syracuse and Pittsburgh finally run out of gas, with a still-recovering Ty Lawson unable to handle the high pressure speed and defense of Louisville. Rick Pitino celebrates another National Championship, and in the middle of his victory speech strangely asks CBS to cease playing replays of "the shot" by Christian Laettner and his subsequent reaction every March. Louisville over North Carolina

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Church's Demise in the Conscience of the Country?

You can almost visualize New York Times columnist Frank Rich gleefully and smugly wringing his hands as he opines of the demise of largely evangelical Christian-led movements which have championed pro-life and other "culture-war" efforts in the United States.

The gist of Rich's point is that nobody (at least nobody who matters) really cares about things as petty as the use of live human embryos to be used for research or the proliferation of abortions overseas or the defense of traditional marriage. He points to two reasons for this. First, "the family-values dinosaurs that once stalked the earth — Falwell, Robertson, Dobson and Reed — are now either dead, retired or disgraced" and the Republican party has run found these topics to be radioactive in light of most Americans' primary concerns around the economy. So all you have left is a bunch of scattered Christian "wackos" who will huff and puff about their moral outrage but will have very little impact beyond their blustering within the walls of a church.

Oh, speaking of the Church, Rich takes some gratuitous pot-shots at that, too. Here's what Rich has to say about a theory that the bad economy will bring people back to God:

Wrong again. The latest American Religious Identification Survey, published last week, found that most faiths have lost ground since 1990 and that the fastest-growing religious choice is “None,” up from 8 percent to 15 percent (which makes it larger than all denominations except Roman Catholics and Baptists)... How the almighty has fallen: organized religion is in a dead heat with banks and financial institutions on the confidence scale.

I can't help but see this as a challenge to the Church. Is Frank Rich correct in that the Church is on the trend of becoming utterly irrelevant? What does it mean for the Church to love mercy and do justice and stand for those who cannot stand for themselves? On a previous post I had written about what new government advocacy might look like for people of faith. Mr. Colson and Mr. Rich clearly stand of different sides of their belief of how faith should play in society as a whole, with Mr. Rich seemingly being a proponent of keeping faith personal and in the closet, and never dare speaking up to challenge the new American faith as Mr. Rich sees it - the “secular religion of social consciousness” - the same one which is embraced by people like Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher. Don't take my word for it, take a gander at the reader comments.

To be sure, people of faith and the Church will always have challenges and will always need wisdom and discernment in how to effectively and rightly influence society on issues that really matter. And there have been missteps in the past. But ultimately the Church will be just fine. Many decades and even centuries from now after Frank Rich and all of us are no longer on the face of this earth, it is the Church that will still stand. It's just that Frank Rich won't be around to editorialize around its alleged irrelevance.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Similar Only in Net Worth

In what I think is a severe lapse of judgment, Forbes magazine has included a kingpin of a Mexican drug cartel in its list of "self-made" billionaires in the world. While Forbes has not as of now officially responded to criticism, it's possible that rationale of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera's inclusion is that the reports is simply a survey of individuals' bank accounts, making no judgment on the legitimacy of the accumulation of that wealth.

Despite likely claims from Forbes to the contrary, the inclusion of Guzman Loera to the list has the effect of legitimizing cocaine trafficking as a means of wealth. The allure and buzz of the report is clearly about shining the spotlight on these individuals as entrepreneurial, resourceful, and hard-working businesspeople who have managed to amass huge sums of money without the benefit of a massive trust fund or by work within an enterprise that already been created. Unless the editors are completely naive, there's a subconscious stream of thought for a reader along the lines of "Here is a list of people who have made tremendous amounts of money on their own; what can I learn and emulate to drive my own personal success?"

As a society, we already struggle with the unhealthy high regard for "gangsta" culture (especially amongst certain segments of our youth) and the pervasive message of money and bling through any means necessary. We are a society, as President Obama has said, that has failed of late largely because of our lost value for honest hard work, and the embrace of shortcuts that seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. I'm thinking that lumping people like Guzman Loera with people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett fails to honor that important distinction.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Facebook and Tech-Savvy Parents

There's an interesting story from my wife's old neck of the woods, where a couple in suburban Hartford were busted for serving alcohol to underage friends of daughter when these same friends posted photos of their boozing on Facebook. One of the things that is emerging is the arms race between parents and children when it comes to being technology savvy, specifically in the area of privacy and the monitoring of activity that a parents deems as being unhealthy or inappropriate.

One of the things that I found interesting from the article is a quote that really sums up the generational divide:

"For parents, the question is, 'Why would you put that on the Internet?'" Van Petten said. "For teenagers it's, 'Why wouldn't I?'"

But for my generation of parents, I wonder how the game will be played. I'm on a number of social networking sites so I'm pretty familiar with most of what's out there. There's no doubt that Web life will continue to evolve over the next 10-15 years, and there's no guarantee that I'll be able or willing to keep up. Or as it notes in the article, will Daniel or Sophia accept if I "friend" them on the next-generation Facebook? Would I insist upon them accepting as a condition of them using it? Or would that just drive them (as I would probably do given my conniving mind) to create a "cover" Facebook identity for more public and parental consumption, while having a separate account which would be for privileged insiders? 

A few years ago I had talked to a friend from church who also happens to be a tenured professor in computer science at Columbia University. He's served as a government consultant in the Microsoft antitrust case, is brilliant and obviously goes far beyond the "power user who can write code" classification. I remember having a tongue-in-cheek conversation with him a few years back around how he planned to protect his young children from the dangers of the Internet, and while we talked about the usual safeguards which are available at your local Staples (this was before OpenDNS, I believe), I pretty much came to the conclusion that given the proliferation of public WiFi networks and increasing functionality of electronic gizmos that are WiFi enabled, it's pretty hard to safeguard a kid who wants to roam unfettered. The arms race of safeguards that parents install and workarounds and hacks which kids can implement marches on, and a kid who wants to roam off the reservation is usually going to be step ahead.

So what it really comes down to is not trying to compete in the arms race. That's not to say that you shouldn't use safeguards, but it's really a matter of having frank conversations with your child on why he or she needs to be careful and protected in the Internet. At the end of the day, it's not simply a matter of keeping a kid from "forbidden fruit", but a mutual agreement that it's a dangerous (cyber)world out there.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Wrestling Down to the Worst Common Denominator

I was doing a little channel surfing a couple of nights ago and after watching West Virginia dispatch Pittsburgh in the Big East Tournament, I came across the introduction of a Pro Wrestling match featuring a Middle Eastern stereotype in the form of (as I discovered later) Sheikh Abdul Bashir. Bashir walked down the runway of the runway in traditional Middle Eastern garb flexing his muscles and upon getting to the ring, he fell to his knees, stretched out his arms and looked heavenward, and then bowed prostrate in a exaggerated prayer towards Mecca. All of this, while the crowd booed lustily.

After vanquishing an adversary named Rhino, Bashir retrieved his headdress and disdainfully threw it over his fallen opponent lying facedown on the mat. He then continued to gesture mockingly to the crowd as they continued to hiss at him.

I found this sad. Not following Pro Wrestling in recent years - okay, I honestly never really did - I didn't realize until now that ugly sterotypes and thinly veiled racism depicted in Pro Wrestling hadn't died out in the 1980's. I grew up in the heyday of the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), where predominantly white "good guy" wrestlers such as Hulk Hogan, "Macho Man" Savage and Hillbilly Jim would beat the crap out of "bad guy" wrestlers such as the Iron Sheikh, Mr. Fuji and Abdullah The Butcher. In fairness, there was token diversity, such as the (African-American) Junkyard Dog and (half-Asian) Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat being good guys; and evil caucasian "Rowdy" Roddy Piper.

But largely it was painfully obvious, even to an 8-year old kid, that the WWF was shamelessly trying to exploit and even prey off of people's ignorance and distrust of racial minorities to get a little blood pumping and buzz in the crowd. There's nothing like hate-fueled bloodlust to drive people's passion for sport. If you were a laid-off autoworker in Detroit in the early 80's, it wasn't going to take much for you to hate Mr. Fuji. I wouldn't be surprised the WWF masters showed a video clip of him at the arena taking a sledgehammer to an American car just to rile people up. Or maybe they had the Iron Sheikh burn an American flag. It's pathetic.

Has society really progressed so little in 20 years in terms of racial sensitivity? Or maybe it's just the segment of the population that Pro Wrestling cynically exploits - those who are less educated and have less opportunity to actually meet an immigrant or person of color who shockingly isn't so evil after all. A quick Google search helped me find an article around just this topic: Does Pro Wrestling Breed Intolerance? It's a decent article, but isn't this a rhetorical question? They've been making money out of this for, apparently, the last 20 years.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Used Car Salesmen are Not (Good) Crooks

In what has to be one of the dumbest capers I've heard in recent memory, an owner of a Nebraska car dealership tried to "steal" 81 cars from his own lot and sell them off as his own. Suddenly these cars disappeared along with the owners, and some of the cars were found and sold in dealerships and auctions in Utah. There's a lot of things that show lack of intelligence and forsight into this grand larceny attempt.

First, don't you think someone would notice 81 cars were missing from a lot? It's not like you're trying to steal airbags and sell them on the black market or swapping out pricey Xenon headlamps with less expensive lights. And nothing says "I'm guilty" more than disappearing along with the merchandise. Wouldn't it have made more sense to phone in the disappearance yourself, suspect that you got hit by Nicolas Cage's character in Gone in 60 Seconds and then claim the insurance while also collecting on the sale of the cars, the proceeds which would be laundered through an offshore account? And couldn't you have swapped at least some parts with VIN etchings with that of used vehicles to make the stolen cars harder to trace? And you need to get your accomplice network in order - why weren't the employees fed a plausible cover story which could provide a decent red herring for authorities to chase? Maybe a impending sale of the car inventory to a shadowy mob figure? Wouldn't that tie wonderfully into the mysterious disappearance of the three executives?

See? I'm not even a felon and I can easily devise better schemes with the circumstances this numbskull did. Well, maybe it comes too easily for me, but that's besides the point.

Anyway, not a smart caper. It's sort of like that idiot who tried to finance a $50 billion pyramid scheme by getting people to give him money to invest, while he was simply putting into a bank account, and then paying them off with the money received from other suckers. It's not like he would ever get away with such a ... oops, never mind.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Demise of the Arts in the Downturn

One of the perhaps forgotten victims of the economic downturn is the arts. A recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote of severe staff and salary cuts at the Philadelphia Orchestra Association, which has been hammered financially due to lagging giving and an endowment fund which has plummeted in value. The article also outlines a number of "self-inflicted wounds" and missteps by the Orchestra, including a poor perception from music critics and the messy past with former music director Christoph Eschenbach.

The crisis faced by this orchestra as well as other organizations dedicated to the arts does not surprise me. It never escapes me that whenever I go to a Lincoln Center concert, the Playbill has traditionally listed major financial institutions as members in it's highest ring of honor for benefactors. Given the pounding these companies have taken, as well as the trickle-down effect upon consulting companies and other traditionally generous benefactors, I'd assume that giving is constrained.

And then there's the box office phenomena. I was talking to a friend after church on Sunday and somehow the conversation led to the funding of the arts. The discussion actually originated around how free markets, through supply and demand, revealed the true value that society and people place upon certain areas of life. The friend, who is a teacher, pointed out that educators are ridiculously underpaid. I told that I agreed, but felt that people often would say one thing with their lips, and act completely differently with their wallet. If people truly valued education more and showed a willingness to pay more for better services, teachers' salaries would increase.

To reiterate an example from our conversation, let's take the arts. Certain people can say that they value, let's say, classical music, but when push comes to shove, would they rather shell out $100 to go to a Lang Lang concert with a significant other? Or would they rather go to four movies at the theater the same price? Or rent 40 movies at the same price? Or see a Yankees game at the same price? Aggregate that decision for a given population, and you'll see some definition of true market value. There are parallels in education, in terms of people's willingness to pay for supplemental education instead of X, Y and Z. It's a fundamental issue of people "putting their money where their mouth is", and despite lip service from people around how much they support their kids' education and the arts, their money ain't going there.

To clear, I'm not saying that this is how areas such as education and music should be valued. I'm just saying that discretionary income invested really exposes how much society actually does value a given area. And going back to the original point, I think when push comes to shove in a lousy economy, getting people to invest in the arts is tougher. If you argue that non-free market adjusters (essentially subsidies which are not indicative of true market demand) such as government endowments and corporate charitable giving will also decrease, the near-term outlook looks even worse.

The Changing Religious Landscape in America

A recent study done by Trinity College indicates that the United States has become a less "Christian" nation (at least self-identified) in the past 20 years. The same study also shows that numbers for both evangelical Christians and those profession no religion are growing, while numbers for those who are "mainline" Protestants are decreasing.

I agree with William Donohue, president of the Catholic League when he theorizes that a societal shift towards individualism over the last quarter-century has a lot to do it: "The three most dreaded words are thou shalt not. Notice they are not atheists -- they are saying I don't want to be told what to do with my life."

I think we're largely a society which has embraced the rejection of authority in the name of self-directed freedom. As the generations pass by, I wonder if this phenomenon will get increasingly worse as the even-more liberated children of baby boomers and hippies will suddenly have to do a 180 and teach their children that some external boundaries are actually healthy and good. Of course, this is often done in the form of "I lived as a rampant individualist and my life was absolutely empty and miserable - don't make the same mistake as I did."

I found it interesting, though not surprising to see the continued fall of the mainline Protestant church. Some would say (cynically) that these churches have lost ground to evangelical churches only because the evangelicals have seduced people from their flocks with fancy presentation, hip music, and flashy programs. Maybe that's happen on some scale, but I think more of it has to do with the fact that many mainline Protestant churches have largely lost their way and Christ and the cross is no longer prominent in the preaching and ministries of these churches. As a result, many of the former mainline Protestant church goers have simply stopped going to church altogether.

If the key message for many of these churches is simply to "be good" and "follow the Ten Commandments", this becomes increasingly stale and almost indistinguishable from a center for ethical culture or good humanism. Alternatively, you could join a community service organization with people with the same values. The most healthy and thriving churches, I'd argue, need to aspire to the highest calling, which is making disciples of Jesus Christ through evangelism, discipleship and worship, with the components such as mercy and social justice flowing out of that worship. Otherwise, you run the danger of being the Key Club with an organ.

So some in the mainline Protestant church have simply left because what the church stands for is so ambiguous and not compelling. Others have left, drawn to a churches (often evangelical) which are providing not just spiritual food, but a resonating mission and purpose. The third category are those which have been turned off by evangelicals, which I think are largely the same as the first category.

As for the evangelicals (and I count myself as one), it would be wise to consider this as a cautionary tale: Stand clearly for that which is eternal significant and meaningful and have a vision which is focused on this - or risk becoming irrelevant.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

More Than A Just A Number on CNN

I had a conversation today with a friend which which made the economic meltdown hit closer to home. He shared with me that 18 people were laid off in his office of 100, and it's likely that that he'll be out of job by the end of the year. The silver lining, at least as he sees it, is that he'll have a good amount of time to plan his job search.

I suppose it's easy to get desensitized to news about job losses as they roll in from the news. Here's just a quick sample of announcements in the past 60 days:

Corning, 3500 job cuts
Baker Hughes, 1500
Navistar, 700
Avery Dennison, 3600
Volvo Trucks, 650
Weyerhaeuser, 220
Target, 1500
Caterpillar, 20000
Pfizer, 20000
Sprint Nextel, 8000
Home Depot, 7000
Texas Instruments, 3400
ING, 7000
Deere, 700
Time Warner, 800
Microsoft, 5000
Rohm & Haas, 900
Harley-Davidsn, 1100
Circuit City, 30000

After a while, those numbers may seem like abstract figures on a spreadsheet. But each individual that makes up that number is a human being who either was or is going to receive a call or e-mail from their boss or human resources, and will be filled with a combination of anxiety, distress, and anger as they are being told that they are being let go. 

That person may very well have a spouse or children who they'll have to go home to and break the difficult news, and perhaps amid some sadness think hard about how the family will work together to try to make it work. Maybe those braces will have to wait another year, a trip to see the grandparents will be cancelled, or a weekly family dinner out tradition will need to end. Others may be fearful of an inability to pay for healthcare or make their car or house payments.

Perhaps "drastic" measures may follow. Do both spouses need to search for work? Perhaps try to find odd jobs? Does the family consider moving in with relatives? Perhaps moving to another town and starting from scratch? Does a child in college quit to look for work?

The last two weeks at church, we've sung a new praise song which I think is particularly relevant for our times. It's "The Lord Is" from Sovereign Grace's Psalms CD and is inspired from Psalm 23:

The depths of Your grace who can measure
You fully supply all I need 
You restore my weary soul again and again 
And lead me in Your righteousness and peace

You’re with me through every dark valley
There’s nothing that I have to fear
You are there to comfort me again and again 
Protecting me, assuring me You’re near

The Lord is
The Lord is my shepherd
The Lord is
The Lord is my shepherd
I shall not want

You gave Your own life for my ransom
So I could rejoice at Your side
You have shown Your faithfulness again and again
There’s nothing good that You will not provide

I will dwell in Your house
All the days of my life
I will dwell in Your house
All the days of my life

You watch over me
You take care of all my needs
You provide in every situation
So I sing...

It's a great song just to close your eyes and meditate upon, to truly own the lyrics in the depths of your soul - to be reminded that our job security, the good graces of our employers, our savings account, and our shrewd politicking is not where our hope and security resides. If nothing else, this economy has been fantastic of reminding us of this.

And that invitation to come and rest our weary souls is one which is overwhelming. It's an invitation that everyone and anyone who has been driven to their knees by the events of the past year, employed or unemployed, can embrace and accept. I know I will.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Technology Gone Bad

This past weekend, Sarah and I watched Eagle Eye, an action/thriller starring Shia LaBeouf and Michelle Monaghan as two people (SPOILER ALERT!) who are ensnared by a frightening scenario where the government, in the form of a Department of Defense supercomputer gone haywire, essentially compels a group of people through intimidation and manipulation to carry our various tasks in support of an assassination. I thought the movie was fairly entertaining with its car chase scenes and action sequences. Sarah thought it was completely unrealistic ('C'mon honey, it's a movie. How realistic are hobbits and elves?") and absolutely hated it.

It basically steals elements from the movies Stealth, WarGames, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and 2001: A Space Odyssey. The premise of our increasingly reliance on technology coming back to bite us on the butt isn't a new concept. Eagle Eye sometimes off as a little preachy, but it certainly has some good real-life source materials and context given the liberties around government "snooping" allowed in the Patriot Act, Google's and other Web 2.0 companies' constant monitoring of our searches and surfing activity to profile our consumer inclinations, and the constant monitoring of suspicious activity through closed-circuit television (I had heard that congestion-pricing in Manhattan could happen with existing equipment since every square inch of roadway in midtown is covered by camera).

At the risk of sounding like a paranoid space cadet, I think the scenario is completely plausible. If the NSA supercomputer wants to scrub through my cell phone activity, my credit history, my social network information, my web searches, and my blog to somehow find a way to make me a patsy in a conspiracy, go ahead and try. I'm terribly out of shape and I'm not going to answer my cell phone, so there.

Monday, March 9, 2009

How Two of My Mighty Teams Have Fallen

So while I was joking about Sarah and I waking up early to catch the Korea vs. Taiwan World Baseball Classic matchup, I really did catch the Korea vs. Japan matchup on early Saturday morning. Sophia's going through a "I think I'll wake up at 5am" stage, so at around 6am I went downstairs with the kids, fed them breakfast, and caught part of the Korea vs. Japan game on ESPN2. I figure it's always nice for Daniel and Sophia to see that people of their heritage can play sports at a high-caliber. Yes kids, someday you too can play in the Tokyo Dome with 55,000 people banging on drums, chanting in unison a language you don't understand.

I was watching the ESPN2 ticker (a moving banner at the bottom of the screen which scrolls sports news and results) and two things stood out to me. First, in college basketball hoops, Cornell had clinched a berth to the NCAA tournament by crushing Penn 83-59, marking the the first time since 1958-59 (Dartmouth) that any team besides Penn or Princeton had repeated as Ivy League champions. The fact that Penn got creamed by 24 points in the clinching game simply added insult to injury. My time at Penn was spoiled with three Ivy League championships and one NCAA tournament win vs. Nebraska during the Jerome Allen and Matt Maloney glory days. 

Even after I left Penn, Coach Fran Dunphy consistently recruited and put a contending team on the floor winning a slew of Ivy titles afterwards. Dunphy left to coach Temple and Glen Miller arrived, taking Dunphy's recruits to the tournament the first year, after which point the wheels completely came off. Penn hasn't sniffed the title in the past two years, with Penn's record an ugly 9-17 and 5-7 in the league. It's gotten so bad that a Fire Glen Miller website has emerged, which is actually pretty funny.

Second, China beat Taiwan 4-1 in the World Baseball Classic, eliminating Taiwan from the tournament having lost their first two games. Getting unceremoniously dumped out of an international tournmanet is bad enough, but losing to the country which has historically made thinly veiled comments to invade or launch missiles into your country in the name of "forced reunification" is simply horrible. The people of Taiwan are still smarting over their humiliating baseball loss to China at the 2008 Olympics, an upset so stunning given Taiwan's proud history in the sport (don't you remember their past domination in the Little League World Series?) and China's newcomer status.

Well, at least I still have my Millburn Mustangs.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Family Culture War on the Diamond

Sarah and I woke up at 4:30am last morning to catch to catch the showdown between Korea and Chinese Taipei (puh-leeze, it's Taiwan, people!) in the World Baseball Classic. Settling in front of our television with bowls of kimchee (Korean) or ba-hu (Taiwanese) with rice, We couldn't resist the opportunity to talk trash as a mediocre Korean team (without Chan Ho Park) faced off against an awful Taiwanese team (without Chien-Ming Wang). As the game kicked off on ESPN2, we decided to wake the kids up and force them to watch such an important moment in their shared heritage. Sarah mercilessly heckled me as Korea romped to a 9-0 victory.

Of course this is all completely fiction, as Sarah probably wouldn't stay up past 10pm to watch Game 7 of the World Series, but it does capture some of the intruiging overlaps around my favorite sport and the tri-heritage of my family. I do wonder what it's going to be like for Daniel as he grows up. Where will his rooting interests lie when it comes to the Olympics and other international competitions? I assume, like me, he'll root for the USA first and foremost, but he'll also support the teams of his ethnicity, as well.

Daniel's actually a little confused about this. First of all, my parents and I have simply told Daniel that he's half-Chinese, as opposed to half-Taiwanese (which is true, that he's ethnically Chinese; those of you who are militantly Taiwanese probably want to stab me in the heart right now), and we'll clarify the whole Chinese vs. Taiwanese thing when he grows older. Depending on how he's feeling, or perhaps in an attempt to irritate Sarah or me, he'll respond to questions about his ethnicity in the following way. When asked, for example, "Daniel, are you Korean?" Daniel will respond:
  • "No, Korean and Chinese."
  • "No, I'm Chinese."
  • "No, Korean and Chinese and English."
  • "No, I'm English."
The first answer is accurate, the second answer (possibly purposely) just irritates Sarah, and the third one is almost the most accurate, but is also a confused answer for which we've tried to explain the difference between language and heritage - maybe "American" is just too hard for him to pronounce, or maybe he strongly believes based on his reading of some prominent sociologists that there is no such thing as an American ethnicity. For the fourth one, Daniel is simply ahead of schedule in terms of being a self-hating Asian.

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Obsessive Compulsive E-Mail Checker

There was a recent article on the New York Times which hit home for me, which reported on the obsession to read/categorize/respond to each e-mail received in a timely fashion

As soon as I reached college in 1992, I've loved e-mail. The thought of communication with people far away without postage or a long-distance phone plan was a great way to keep in touch with people, and I distinctly remember the summer of 1995 was a time of massive e-mail usage. Everybody in college was using their accounts, and it became a great way to keep in touch with school chums while busy with our summer internships. My usage of e-mail was so profligate that one of my fellow interns played a practical joke and spoofed an e-mail from "Corporate Information Technology Policy Enforcement" telling me that they were terminating my access and reporting e-mail abuse to my boss. Upon getting the e-mail, I froze in panic only to see my co-worker doubled over in laughter.

After I graduated from college I became a "hoarder" of free e-mail accounts - starting with Juno, though Yahoo!, Excite, Netzero, Bigfoot, Mail.com and Hotmail later became fair game, as I figured that it wouldn't hurt to hold on to multiple accounts until it was clear which service was best. It was simply the best and easiest way to keep in touch with friends, and there was nothing more exciting than to have the monotony of a workday interrupted by an e-mail from a friend. Not wanting to use my work account for personal e-mail, and because Juno mail needed to be "downloaded" by dial-in, I would somewhat obsessively sneak my laptop to an analog phone line every 20 minutes or so to check my personal e-mail.

Fast forward to 2003, when I got my first Blackberry. In some ways, the obsession decreased since Blackberry's "push" e-mail service meant that I could simply get e-mail real-time and not have to actively check it, and adding all my personal accounts to my Blackberry meant that I no longer had to spend time on the Internet checking different accounts. On the downside, for the first two years I had my Blackberry set to "vibrate" upon receiving a message, so time with my wife and friends would constantly be interrupted every 3-5 minutes with *buzz*, [unholster Blackberry], [read message], [reply optional], [delete optional], and [put Blackberry back in holster]. I turned off message alerts to save my sanity and my marriage.

At present, I use my Blackberry Inbox as my "to-do" list of sorts. Things that I receive as an FYI I delete, knowing that a copy exists in the native e-mail account. Things that I need to reply to get kept until I can craft a response, and my desire to deal with things sooner than later to prevent things piling up spur to me to respond quickly, but thoughtfully. And yes, there's definitely a strong sense of satisfaction to see my Blackberry Inbox hovering near empty.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Times Square Piazza Plan

There's been a lot of buzz about the plan to create pedestrian mall in the Times Square area in New York City, with the prevailing theory that closing off automobile traffic to this area would counterintuitively reduce gridlock, make the area safer for pedestrians and spur energy and a unique cultural experience that comes with a bustling car-free but person-heavy and commerce-heavy section of Manhattan.

I actually love the idea. When Sarah and I visited Italy a few years ago, one of our fondest memories were the cobblestone piazzas in Florence, where artists sold art and vendors sold gelato in the shadow of large cathedrals while tourists and locals leisurely walked and soaked in the atmosphere with the faint smell of Italian cuisine in the air.

Granted, the Times Square piazza experience is likely going to be a little different. Replace the Church of Santa Maria Novella with the Bertelsmann Building, the Uffizi Gallery with the Disney Store, and the small trattoria with the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company. Oh, the artists will still be there, but they'll be mostly Chinese immigrants who will draw a portrait of yourself or your name using cartoon characters in 20 minutes.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Loving Convenience More Than People

Taking the train after a major snowstorm is never guaranteed to be an easy trip, and with temperatures below freezing with a killer wind chill, everything was lined up for a tough commute. Sure enough, our train yesterday morning was an hour and a half late coming into New York City due to a disabled train in the tunnel.

On the way home from work last night, were delayed for a few minutes. Those of us sitting on the train heard the conductor's voice blare from the intercom:

"We are being held at the station waiting for medical attention for a passenger. I am unable to give a estimated time of departure."

What I found both sad and revealing was the reaction of many of those sitting around me. You could hear audible murmurs of exasperation and irritation, and one person actually impatiently muttered, "Come on..." as if the fellow that was incapacitated should drag him or herself of the train so the rest of us could make dinner on time. The length of delay when all was said and done was 10 minutes. 

Inconvenience really does expose the condition of our hearts, doesn't it? It's easy for me to be gracious and accommodating to others - but does the depths of my servanthood extend when I pay a personal cost of convenience, time, money or comfort? This is a challenge worth giving ourselves.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Winter's Parting Gift

On Monday, we got what is likely the last big snowstorm of the season and it hit us here in the New Jersey suburbs to the tune of 8-10 inches. Not overwhelming, certainly not as bad as the spring blizzard I remember returning to college to from Spring Break in 1993, but significant enough to cause me work from home (generally in vain, as my little basement office faced frequent interruptions around topics such as *knock,knock* "Umm... Daddy, Sophia's touching my trains", *knock,knock* "Daddy, I just wanted to tell you that Sophia's taking a nap" and such).

One of the benefits is the father-son bonding time in shoveling the snow, and I have to say that Daniel is actually getting better at moving snow away from the walkway and onto the grass as opposed to simply spreading it around. Naturally, the value in him shoveling with me has very little to do with diminished labor on my part. I just love the fact that he's so enthusiastic to help, and joyfully takes direction and suggestions.

I particularly appreciate the lessons that he learns in terms of shared responsibility and the importance of "loving thy neighbor" as take the time to help finish of the driveway of our next-door neighbor. It's great that he's so happy about serving others in this way, where I ask him to "finish off that little pile in front of Dr. Riva's garage door", he excitedly says, "Okay!" and runs over with his shovel. It's almost as if I offered him candy.

Perhaps that's one of the elements of the child-like faith that Jesus speaks about. Isn't it a tragic phenomena when we "mature" into adulthood and view serving others as a chore and burden instead of a joy and privilege? If only we all could embrace the joy and appreciation, as Daniel does at this age, of having the capacity to help another person.

In many ways, isn't it an aspect of our stewardship and recognition of our talents and abilities as being God-owned and gifted as opposed to entitled and earned? Our attitude would then not be one of "Oh great, now what do I have to do," but rather "How cool is it that God has given me today the capacity and opportunity to help someone else?"

Monday, March 2, 2009

Partying Like It's 1929

Embattled Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe is getting a lot of flak for his decision to throw a lavish $250,000 party while his citizens suffer through hyperinflation, food shortages, and disease outbreaks. Is this really an issue? Some would argue that the money was raised by private donations via Mugabe's political party and people who are in power are entitled to lavish parties as heads of state. Maybe he wanted to celebrate all the more harder given the ground-breaking new power-sharing agreement brokered with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.

In the meantime, my buddy, the Urban Christian notes that President Barack Obama threw at $150 million inauguration celebration, more than the last three Presidential inaugrations combined. And for those who correctly point out that the level of poverty and economic destruction in Zimbabwe is at a completely different level than the hardships borne by those in the United States, note that Obama's party was approximately 600 times the cost of Mugabe's - is the Americans who are losing their jobs and losing their homes really 600 times better off than Zimbabweans (according to one measure of per capita income, Americans make on average a mere 80 times more than Zimbabweans)? Just asking.

Naturally, the comparison isn't completely fair and very unscientific. But as the Urban Christian points out in his blog entry, fiscal responsibility can and should start in Washington, D.C.  Maybe there was a leadership-by-example opportunity that was missed by President Obama around good stewardship.

By the way, no truth to the rumor that with Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul performing at Obama's inauguration, President Mugabe had to settle for a slightly inebbriated Amy Winehouse.