Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Respect and Worship in the Right Place

My church recently heard sermons on two of the more practical areas of life and two areas of personal interest: politics and work. These are two teaching areas which can tricky - the first can be prone to the extremes of "If you're a Christian, you should vote for X or Y party given biblical passages A, B and C" or "Sincere Christians stand of different points of the political spectrum, so let's just not talk about it. Now let's have some bagels and coffee." The second can similarly be oversimplified into "Evangelize at work" or "Make sure you tithe". I'm happy to say that Pastor Randy Lovelace handled both topics with great wisdom and humility and I certainly found areas for introspection.

On the politics front, Pastor Lovelace made the very good point that in light of the charge to "Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king," (1 Peter 2:17) we're often prone to overemphasizing the place of government, and in the same vein, overemphasizing the political identity and affiliations of others. If we believe that government is truly the hope of our world, our country and our lives, we'll naturally obsess about the state of our government and obsess over the need to enact change through government or the leaders whom we elect. Pastor Lovelace astutely noted that there's a danger here of flipping the charge and instead "honoring God, but fearing the king (or applicable government leader)". At the extreme, this becomes a failure to recognize God's sovereignty and has the effect of not only idolizing government, but viewing people in the church as primarily "politically right or wrong" (correlated with snap-judgment around Christian devotion or maturity) as opposed to brothers and sisters in Christ, which leads to unnecessary disunity.

This also frees me to respect the authorities who God has placed over me in our government, even if I'm in strong disagreement around their position in certain issues. I can pray for them with the knowledge that God is sovereign and ultimately God will judge. Now what I won't address here (which is highly complex) is the actions of someone like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a revered Christian and church leader who plotted to assassinate Hitler (and was executed for it). It's a complicated answer, one which I've discussed with both Pastor Lovelace and my former pastor, Charlie Drew. For the answer, feel free to buy Charlie Drew's book on Faith & Politics - actually, wait for the upcoming edition which will directly address this question (half-joking).

The more healthy alternative to knee-jerk judgment and all-consuming faith-flavored political rage, of course, is to dialogue about these topics and humbly understand other perspectives (besides our own) on how one honors Christ through the political process. Yes, Christians are called to do justice and love mercy, and to pursue this we should use all means - including the political process and our right to vote. We should rightfully stand for what we believe is right and true and act accordingly. But what clearly becomes a matter of conscience is the appropriate strategy to pursue that justice, whether that be the punishment of lawlessness, alleviating poverty, ensuring the sanctity of life or stewardship of the earth.

These aren't necessarily new ideas, and I've had other posts that have dealt with this here and there. But it's good to remember that while the schism of partisanship seems to get larger and more bitter day after day, this is something that needs not happen in the Church. Our shared belief in a redemptive God of justice Who will, in His time, make all things new should help us help us to dialogue without hating each others' guts.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Accidents, Irrationality and Tragedy

A few weeks ago, Rose Mankos, a 48-year old attorney who was either en route to or from a workout jumped down to the Lexington Avenue subway line tracks to retrieve a gym bag containing clothes, deodorant and a cell phone. As a subway train bore down on her, she alternately tried to crawl under the platform and onto the platform, then froze as the subway crushed and killed her, leaving her arms and head visible to horrified witnesses.

It's a sad story, and as a regular NYC subway rider, I wonder at time just how close I come to those sort of stories. I don't have a fear of closed spaces (claustrophobia) or heights (acrophobia), but if there's a word that describes a paranoia related to blacking out, tripping or slipping and falling into a subway trench just a train speeds into the station, maybe I have that. Let's just say that I don't feel particularly comfortable walking on the "stay behind this line" zone at the ledge of the platform - though maybe most people aren't.

Details were still sketchy in terms of what exactly happened, and it's likely that we'll never know why Ms. Mankos made the decision that she did. News reports disclosed that she was going through some personal problems and that she had a mother in a nursing home suffering from a serious chronic illness. Whether it was a case of horrible judgment - officials used the tragedy as an opportunity to remind riders to never retrieve personal items dropped on tracks, but to instead alert a police officer or MTA employee - or a case where a despondent woman lost the will to live or a emotionally and physically exhausted woman lacked the mental facilities to make the right decision, the loss of life is tragic.

The same article asserts that there might have been an opportunity for a bystander to save her by pulling her up, but most froze in the frenzy of the moment, opting instead to scream warnings and instructions to her. As mentioned in an earlier post, the instinct to risk one's life to save another isn't as natural as we would all hope.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

So Parking My Kid in Front of a TV Doesn't Make My Kid Brilliant?

Yet another study has come out that downplay the developmental benefit of the Baby Einstein videos that parents so commonly park their infants and toddlers in front of. What's somewhat alarming is that this recent study seems to imply that there's a detrimental education effect - that kids will actually learn less words than children who aren't exposed to a potpourri of hand puppets, pinwheels and kids playing with toys with repetitive patterns while classical music plays in the background.

In truth, we have a whole the whole DVD set, and from the get go the claims of educational value were dubious at best. I think the value of the videos, akin to many other videos aimed at children is mostly based on the convenience of capturing their attention and engaging them for a period of time while a parent takes a nap, washes the dishes or tapping out a blog. Think of it as a substitute for a babysitter or a physical playpen.

It doesn't surprise me at all that too much exposure at certain ages are deleterious. I remember the look on Daniel's face as he watched these years ago, and it was sort of this glassy-eyed trace-like state with his mouth slightly agape waiting for drool to stream out the side. Sort of something you'd expect to see from a bad drug trip. Not that I've ever witness or experienced anything like that, of course. Moving on...

What I also found interesting in the article was the overload of stimulation and the false premise that "stimulation = smart kids". As a result, we're bombarding our youngsters with sensory overload at a very young age, and continue that trend by overloading them with extracurricular activities at an early age out of the fear that not giving them a foundation where they're musically, athletically, linguistically and academically advanced will jeopardize their chances of getting into an Ivy League school. And much of this is coming at the expense of the best diet developmentally and emotionally - face time and free play time with human beings.

I'd continue this rant, but I need to take Daniel to his karate lesson.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Pulitzer-Material in Odd Places

When I was a young tot, I remember sitting in my mother's shopping cart and peering at the front pages of The National Enquirer and World Weekly News at the checkout line. The headlines, which ranged from actors' illicit affairs and secret battles with cancer (Enquirer) to wolfboys and proof that Abraham Lincoln was really a woman (WWN), seemed a heck of a lot more interesting than the boring stuff that we had at home in the copies of The Journal News. Despite my curiosity, my mom would tell me that those "checkout line" periodicals were trash and not worthy of our attention.

Apparently, we dismissed these periodicals a little too quickly, now that The National Enquirer is getting some major props for breaking the news and keeping the spotlight on former presidential candidate John Edwards' affair and love child while a most other major news outlets stayed away. It send a platoon of investigative reporters to prove and to dig, and eventually led to the downfall of a person who at the time had a sterling public reputation and a thriving political career. Accolades around it's robust investigative journalism have led to the Enquirer being nominated for a Pulitzer-prize. Some people in the journalism establishment are probably up in arms. But to be fair, let's look at New York Times' take on the Enquirer at the Edwards situation:
But The Enquirer stays ahead by doing what other papers won’t. It threw reporters at the Edwards story, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on expenses, conducted stakeouts, paid informants and ran pieces based entirely on anonymous sources.
Okay, the last second to last item is borderline (around the paid informants) and the last items very sketchy (pieces based entirely on anonymous sources), but isn't good journalism all about putting lots of people and resources on a story and going the extra mile to find out what really happened? It would bother me that other news outlets didn't emulate and follow their lead.

In any case, I can't imagine how Bob Woodward would have felt losing the Pulitzer to the same guy who wrote the article: "MARLA MAPLES: SEX WITH TRUMP THE BEST I'VE EVER HAD".

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Don't Bring that Red Doo Rag into Chuck-E-Cheese

Daniel's fifth birthday coincided with us being between homes, so we figured that it would make sense to "outsource" the party as much as possible, so we ended up holding his party at Chuck-E-Cheese. It wasn't a bargain, but was a fairly painless way to get a bunch of kids to scarf down Jeno's-quality pizza and provide them a generally good time, even if the party was 5% interactive and most of the time was spent with kids all over the place doing their own thing, namely wriggling through that overhead ceiling tube or playing video games.

The interesting thing about Chuck-E-Cheese is that a good 50% of the games are "adult-appropriate", meaning that they're games that you'd see at the "adult" version of Chuck-E-Cheese, also known as Dave & Buster's. These include the ever popular "Pop-A-Shot" basketball shooting game, where you can square up head-to-head against a number of friends, Guitar Hero, Air Hockey, the Brave Firefighters virtual firefighting game, and a number of other "shoot 'em up" games which simulate you hunting or killing bucks, faceless bad guys, dinosaurs, ghosts or such (on a side note, while playing one of these games with another dad at the party while propping up our kids on our knee so they could "shoot", I wondered aloud to him if these games were really age-appropriate).

The prices of the Chuck-E-Cheese tokens are pretty cheap (maybe around 25 cents per play), so it begs the question, is it worth paying two to five times more to play that same game at a place like Dave & Buster's so you can drink a rum and coke while you play? And laugh as you will, this whole "adults and video games" stuff definitely has some street cred. I remember that when I lived in NYC, there was a this place called "BAR CODE" in Times Square was very much trying to be "Dave & Buster's" before Dave & Buster's arrived in Manhattan. Not only was it a jumping place, but it was also notorious for gang activity, and (I believe) was shut down after a number of unpleasant episodes related to gang violence.

Now it seems that gangs such as the Crips, Bloods, and Latin Kings, being frugal given the bad economy, have eschewed the overpriced games and watered-down drinks at Dave & Buster's and have moved right into Chuck-E-Cheese, leading at least a couple of locations to ban gang-style apparel and contraband. I think the one my kids frequent in the 'burbs is relatively safe, but I'll probably tell them to hold back on any potentially provocative hand gestures that might be misconstrued - for example, Daniel and Sophia are really into fist-bumps nowadays and I'd hate to see either of them capped.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Postman Might Not Ring on Saturdays

Faced with growing deficits and a business model which has been slow to adapt to the services offered by third-party freight companies and e-commerce delivery systems, the United States Postal Service is going through a major crossroad in terms of its future. The latest proposal to get the agency back on track includes some drastic measures including the elimination of Saturday mail delivery.

There are a couple of things I found interesting. The first is that direct mail advertising (more commonly known as "junk-mail" make up 33% of mail. Wow. I'm conflicted, realizing that the the revenue provided by junk mailers to the USPS is largely keeping it afloat, but at the same time considering my disdain for unsolicited promotional materials for both the irritation of the thinly-veiled attempt to get my family to buy things we don't need as well as the environmental waste. Is it possible that me being a willing party to be "junk-mailed" is, in essence, subsidizing or at least making possible a business model where I can sent a letter anywhere in the United States for a darn good price?

Another point made by a number of people is the need for the Postal Service to be given the freedom (which is currently doesn't under the guidelines for an independent Federal Agency) to branch out into different businesses such as banking, insurance, or even the selling of telephone cards or cell phones. One of the "constraints" of USPS cost-cutting is the inability (by law) to eliminate service to any given location in the US, and I understand that it's almost as difficult to close down an existing post office.

This is a huge opportunity, of course. The Post Office sits, in some cases, on some prime real estate, and there are few businesses in the United States that can boast of a comparable network of franchises with the breath of reach as the postal service (McDonald's and Starbuck's come to mind). I'd think that the licensing or sub-lease revenue opportunities would be significant.

As for the mail service itself, that's another nut to crack. Sadly, all of this might simply delay the inevitable, where flat mail (but not parcels or goods) may slowly go the way of the dodo. With electronic delivery of mail and cards becoming sleeker and more socially acceptable, and with technology enabling digital signatures of forms, and with less and less people being adverse to or ignorant in using this technology, perhaps we'll start seeing a Postal Service that looks awfully similar to FedEx sooner than later.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Delayed Response Altruism

A recently released study emerged with some interesting findings regarding how people behave in a disaster, using a comparison of people's actions in the Titanic and Lusitania sinkings. Most everybody is familiar with the sinking of the Titanic, made famous by that lame pose that Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslett made famous at the bow of the ship and that grating and that overplayed Celine Dion song. Its less famous counterpart, the Lusitania, sank when hit by a German torpedo in World War I, killing 1195 of those aboard.

What the study revealed is very divergent patterns of who survived, despite similar mortality rates. The Titanic saw an orderly evacuation where women and children were given priority to board the limited number of lifeboats, at the expense of men who gallantly embraced death (with the exception of that weasel, Cal, who later killed himself after the Stock Market crash... but I digress). In the Lusitania sinking, men pretty much made a beeline for the lifeboats and left the women and children for dead. Why the difference?

The study outlines a number of different reason for this contrast, the most prominent one being time. Benno Torgler of Queensland University of Technology, one of the leaders of the study, cites that the relatively short sinking time of the Lusitania (18 minutes compared to 2 hours, 40 minutes for the Titanic) left only the "survival instinct" for those young men on the Lusitania, without the luxury of time to consider rationally the consequences, merit and honor of their actions. In short, they simply responded to their rawest inclination. Or put another way, if they had time to consider the consequences, merit and honor of their actions - perhaps thinking long and hard about what their legacy would be and how such actions would be assessed in history - they might choose a different path.

This got me thinking about the condition of the human heart. I tend to think that the study is on to something when it notes that the absence of time, in some ways, reveals true intent, or the true heart of a person. There's little time to scheme or plan, and one just does what is most natural to the soul.

But I don't think that all people will instinctually act in "self-interest" when a snap decision is made - why then does a mother, with no time to react, throw herself in front of a car to save her child? Or even if one would argue that such an action is "self-interested" because it involves the propagation of one's genes, how about stories of self-sacrifice for the good of non-family members? Why does a soldier dive on a grenade to save members of his platoon? Clearly, there is something about certain people that provides some capacity to make remarkable decisions of altruism, even without the luxury of time.

Perhaps this is something that is "nurture" versus "nature" - the instinct to love sacrificially as opposed to acting in self-interest. For the Christian, this is part of the process of sanctification, and when observed in oneself or in another, it's a great thing to see.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Worse Than Detroit

Detroit is a city that has been gone through years of economic struggle, a mayor who recently resigned and subsequently convicted on criminal charges, is honored by a Robert Plant song "Worse than Detroit", and was the butt of jokes on more than one Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker movie:

From "Airplane!"
Ted Striker: It was a rough place - the seediest dive on the wharf. Populated with every reject and cutthroat from Bombay to Calcutta. It's worse than Detroit.

From "Kentucky Fried Movie"
Pennington: These are the Hartz Mountains of Asia. A terrain so rugged, so treacherous, no country will claim it.
Asquith: Worse then Detroit?
Pennington: I'm afraid so.


Dr. Klahn: The CIA thinks they can infiltrate the Mountain of Dr. Klahn!
CIA Agent: You can't scare me, you slant-eyed yellow bastard.
Dr. Klahn: Take him to Detroit!
CIA Agent: No! No, not Detroit! No! No, please! Anything but that! No! No!

Anyway, people in the Motor City can rejoice not just in the schadenfreude of seeing Toyota struggle with their recall debacle, but residents can also boast of having the best major airport in the United States when it comes to customer satisfaction. Detroit Metropolitan Airport was lauded for "two clean, pleasant and efficient new terminals with fun shops and restaurants." Kudos.

While don't nearly travel as much as I used to in my consulting days, I can certainly appreciate the value of having an airport with clean bathrooms, palatable food, enough waiting space so I don't feel as if my personal space is being invaded along with ample electrical outlets to provide juice to my laptop and other personal electronics.

The last place finisher? Good old Newark Airport, which is my airport of choice given its close proximity. Whatever. I'm not going to drive an extra hour just so I can eat at a California Pizza Kitchen or browse through a Brookstone. Besides, as far as I'm concerned, the best airport is one that gets me out of there as soon as possible.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Olympic Television Bait and Switch

Another Olympics has come and gone, and while I don't recall a Winter Olympics in recent years that (1) the United States has been so successful and (2) I've actually had more than a cursory interest in (probably some correlation between those two things), there are still some things that I found terribly irritating.

It wasn't Kim Yu-Na and her (as NBC commentators called it) "sensual" and "flirtatious" skating, which, thank you very much, just set the "Asian women are not exotic submissive sex toys" movement back twenty years - it was actually the ridiculous "bait and switch" tactics that NBC tried to pull with their complete opaqueness in terms of when you could watch whatever you specifically wanted to watch.

For example, if you wanted to watch the Women's Figure Skating Final on a Thursday night, which is basically 25 minutes of television to watch the key contenders, can you figure out when to tune in? No way. This is the level of detail you found on the NBC 2010 Olympic TV Schedule website:

NBC New York (4) 8:00p - 12:00a (2/26)
Gold is on the line for Rachel Flatt, Mirai Nagasu and Korea's Kim Yu-Na as Figure Skating concludes live (ET/CT). Plus Freestyle Skiing and Nordic Combined.
Medal Event

Gee, thanks, that's helpful. So basically you're left sitting in front of the television for four hours trying to find the 25 minutes that you actually care about. Of course, Bob Costas in the studio isn't helpful, either. Bob will sit at the sports desk and say, "Of course, we're almost ready to bring to you the showdown between Kim Yu-Na and Mao Asada (pauses for dramatic effect) ... but first we'll take you to a (taped from the morning) curling showdown between the Czech Republic and Austria." As a result, you're stuck watching all these crap sports (and commercials, for that matter) while you wait for the stuff you want to see.

I'm completely aware of why NBC does this. They have ratings and advertisers to answer to, and there's no way they're going to kill the golden goose by telling people precisely when they're going to air the most popular events. Besides, they need to play catch up after that Leno-Conan debacle.

And of course there's the tape delay issues. There simply just isn't enough live events to put into the schedule, so what happens is that they throw some of the events on tape delay and lamely attempt to broadcast them as "live events". Michael Rosenberg of SI.com wrote a lengthy article about this and (correctly) noted that part of the problem is that the Olympics is sort of stuck in this uncomfortable place in between a sporting event and entertainment. People don't really care about most events unless "their team" is in the running to win, and the Olympics are not going to arrange the schedule to accommodate each country's patriotic leanings and time-zone specific primetime windows. Furthermore, with the advent of the Internet, can you really keep results of any major event a secret?

But there's a lot to like about the games. For one thing I found it really cool to see Olympic athletes (granted, they were the half-pipe snowboarders) who wear their iPods while competing and laugh it off when they screw up.