Thursday, March 26, 2015

Look Me in the Eye by John Elder Robison (Book Review #26 of 2015)

Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's
The foreword to this book is written by Augusten Burroughs, Robison's younger brother (referred to as "Varmint" by Robison). I have not read nor seen Running With Scissors and I don't plan on it after reading John Elder Robison's memoir. 

I read memoirs of those with autism as a parent of a child on the autism spectrum with many similarities as Robison. The "Aspergian" (Robison's term) memoir I could best compare this work to was David Finch's The Journal of Best Practices (my review). Robison gives insights (and explanations) into the mind of someone on the autism spectrum but it comes after enduring the details of various stories, sometimes outlandish, sometimes mundane. These get a little old, particularly the stories of his pranks-- he became very good at making up lies that sounded real. One wonders how much of this book is actually made up as a result. 

The tragic portion I'll get out of the way up front: Robison had a mother who was mentally ill and a father who was an abusive alcoholic. While a childhood psychologist helped some, the psychologist was himself insane and abused the family. Robison eventually gets some reconciliation with his father and a greater appreciation for his mother. 

Robison was self-conscious of his social deficiencies from an early age. He felt he was a "failure" and was always "alone on the playground." But he had the remarkable ability to slowly learn social thinking and correct social responses as he gets older. This was encouraging to me as I watch my son go through therapy involving deliberate social thinking (and I live and work among likely undiagnosed people on the spectrum and observe their levels of self-consciousness as well). He is finally diagnosed with Asperger's when his own son is six, and he both sees some of the same traits in his sons and cares very much for his social development. Elder Robison still gets admonished by his son ("Dad, stop being autistic!") when he has problems sitting still and such. 

One important point Robison makes, which every testimony from an autistic author I've read includes, is that he did not want to be alone, even though he was most comfortable playing alone. He desperately longed to be able to make social connections, he just didn't know how. Repeatedly in the book he laments his lack of ability to start conversations, to ask the right questions, to show empathy, to show interest in girls, etc. It's important for us parents to remember-- our kids sometimes need us to help them make social connections with friends. 

"I have logical empathy," he writes. Viewed logically, the things we neurotypicals get upset about don't make sense. Why do we get upset when we see a plane crash on the news, knowing that we weren't on it and the odds of it happening to us are quite small? Robison had problems with his expressions. On hearing that someone died, he might grin-- logically he thought "I am glad it wasn't me or someone I know. I am glad I do not have to endure the hardship this person is going through," and he was therefore thankful and would smile-- not an empathetic response. 

Robison had similar fixations as Finch and others-- trains, cars, electronics. He has owned and fixed up 17 Porches (selling them after he completely fixes them). After dropping out of high school, he ends up spending time on UMass' campus, working in their labs and reading engineering textbooks. He develops his own electronics workshop, which eventually leads to a gig touring with KISS and designing their famous pyrotechnic guitars and sound system. This should make him quite popular, but he remains shy around the band's groupies and lives in his own world in the midst of all the sex, drugs, and rock and roll of the band. This is after a brief stay in Montserrat jail with a band Robison played with.

Somehow, he and "Little Bear," fall in love at an early age and remain an item-- eventually getting married and having a child. He does not share much about how this relationship worked, other than she traveled with him some while he toured. There are not a lot of deep emotional insights other than they were fairly disconnected from each other. Those insights would have helped the book, but Robison does share more about the things his second wife does that helps him. She observes him carefully to determine his moods. She is patient with his repeatedly asking the same questions. She uses touch and hugs to calm him when he's anxious. She carefully observes his interactions with others and later explains nuances and important things he might not have picked up on. "Martha" brings him "joy and tranquillity" like he's never known. 

By the time he's 23, he's matured and gotten a good-paying job with Milton Bradley developing their electronics. He works on the Microvision-- a precursor to Nintendo's Game Boy-- and works with a partner to save the company millions by fixing a critical defect. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microvision. While Microvision and Milton Bradley implode, Robison tries to move on to other corporate jobs. He eventually manages a team of engineers at Simplex Time Recorder and others before pursuing his love of cars by becoming his own dealer. This leads to another stint in poverty. His wife goes back to college as the relationship sours, and they have a son, "Cubby," who John cares for deeply. 

The most interesting component of the book, for me, was Robison's comments about brain plasticity and how his autistic traits have lessened. He hypothesizes that some autistic children suffer the pain of social awkwardness and turn inward, becoming savants or obsessed with their own worlds as he was with mathematics and electronics. Now, however, he has worked hard at developing social awareness and when he looks at his old circuits and designs he can no longer recognize them or recreate them. He has re-wired his brian, in a sense. He ends up at a high school reunion and it's a different experience for him as he's now able to converse and make friends. 

Despite the childhood setbacks and nagging voices in his head calling him a "failure," he has pressed on in the manner of his favorite childhood storybood-- The Little Engine that Could. He has since written other books for people with autism, which I'd be interested to read. 

In all, I give this book 3 stars. I had to wade through a lot of seemingly unnecessary stories for the pearls of insight I gleaned. There is a lot of profanity in the book and some painful situations. It is remarkable that Robison overcame discouragement and childhood disadvantages. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Kentucky Politics and Government by Penny Miller (Book Review #25 of 2015)

Kentucky Politics and Government: Do We Stand United? (Politics and Governments of the American States)
This is a textbook that discusses the history of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, in particular its political institutions. It was (or perhaps still is) required reading for some political science courses at the University of Kentucky. It was published in 1994 after several reforms had taken place under the Brereton Jones administration, but little has changed in the last 20 years sine publication. This book should be required reading for all elected representatives to the Kentucky General Assembly as well as anyone who works in the Executive Cabinet or Legislative Research Commission (LRC). There is a wealth of helpful information about the evolution of Kentucky's constitution, its tax system, and its political culture. (The other prerequisite is Night Comes to the Cumberlands.)

I took several pages of notes and will keep this book as a reference in my current job. I personally found it helpful to see the evolution of the tax code, how we got to where we are today. The biggest epiphany came in the final chapter looking at the 1993 health care reform crusade led by Gov. Jones, which was basically Romneycare long before Jonathan Gruber and Mitt Romney. I'm amazed that the comparison does not come up more (see below).

"Politics is the damndest in Kentucky" is an oft-quoted line by poet James Mulligan delivered in a 1902 banquet for members of the KY General Assembly.
"The landscape is the grandest - and
Politics - the damnedest
In Kentucky."

Those of us who score bills and watch the political point-scoring in Kentucky know this adage to be true.

"Kentucky's political elite govern through family ties or position," and several names have long existed in the legislature. Kentucky basketball unites the state to a great extent, as does the influence of Southern Baptists ("A legislator in Frankfort can hear a Baptist voice a long way," quoted from a 1992 Herald-Leader article). In other ways, Kentucky is highly divided with distinct geographical and economic regions. There are 2,000 units of local government and more counties per square mile than any other U.S. state (third in counties, total). Each county has constitutional offices that may not have power but statutorily must be filled. This sets the stage for "little kingdoms," rife with waste and corruption. Republicans have historically dominated the southeastern part of the state, while the western portion has leaned Democratic in party (but not in most values) since the painful Reconstruction era.

Kentucky was an early battleground for state rights, with Thomas Jefferson penning portions of its original constitution and resolutions condeming the Alien and Sedition Acts. Kentucky was technically neutral in the Civil War but had a Confederate government in exile when many counties seceded and later found "its heroes and postwar character in the Confederate cause." Hatfields-McCoys and other feuds spread out of civil war rivalries, and Appalachia was fairly strong Republican stronghold of Big Coal until FDR's New Deal (swinging back strongly Republican only recently in the 2014 Senate race).

One amusing quote is from the 1890s: "Legislation was so sloppily drafted that it became the object of public ridicule." Kentucky's constitution has stood since 1891, while amended several times Kentucky voters have five times rejected an entirely new document. Kentucky's first lottery was used to raise funds for Transylvania University and throughout the 1800s before the 1891 constitution banned them (before the 1990 amendment during the Wikinson administration). The first Republican governor was elected in 1895 due to division among Democrats into Populists and Democratic groups. In 1899, Democrat William Goebel earned Kentucky the distinction of having the only sitting governor assassinated, by Republicans angry at his populist anti-railroad and free silver positions.

At the time of publishing, Kentucky's legislature still met on a biennial basis, making it harder to govern professionally. The legislature passes 1/3 of all proposed compared to 4-6% by Congress (not sure what the numbers are now). The 1992 General Assembly filed 1,378 bills where as the 2015 short session filed over 1,500. The book contains many demographic comparisons of the makeup of the legislative body over the years. Before there was the "golden greed bill" regarding state pensions in 2005, there was the "greed bill of 1982."

The budget process has evolved from being completely Governor-led in the 1960s to being a tug-of-war with the legislature. Imagine, the 1966 budget bill was presented by the governor, passed within days, with no dissent recorded. Miller explains the evolution of the LRC and how various administrations changed the makeup of the Cabinet. In 1950, the gas tax was the largest producer of state revenue at $35.1 million, compared to just $5.5 million for property taxes. One of the most pitched battles of the 2015 General Assembly dealt with whether to "freeze the floor" on the gasoline tax to keep it from shrinking further.

Federal aid to Kentucky has grown from 1% of state revenue in 1890 to 34.3% in 1968 (LBJ's War on Poverty) to 24.4% in 1990. The Appalachian Regional Commission has long spend millions in Kentucky on highways, area development, and various economic development projects-- with little lasting impact to show for it.

Kentucky's Supreme Court has had a heavy hand in how much power locals have. For example, the 1985 Toyota tax credits were on face unconstitutional. The 1891 constitution had been written with a fairly Progressive anti-railroad sentiment. But the court upheld them because it served "a public purpose" for "relief of unemployment," a broad ruling that has led to many more tax credits for businesses. Likewise, the Lexington-Fayette County merger was allowed by the Supreme Court, and since the 1980s things have shifted in locals' favor. In 2014-2015, counties are moving on minimum wage, right to work laws, etc. and it remains to be seen how the courts decide in these cases.

The various personalities of governors are also highlighted. Happy Chandler was a fascinating character. Wallace Wilkinson is vilified by Miller as a populist mistake (the book was published while the FBI's BOPTROT sting was still unfolding). Brereton Jones gets the most positive ink for reorganizing government, fighting for health care reform, and bringing consensus-building leadership. The legislature took on reforms intended to curb corruption and influence during the Jones administration as well.

In 1992, there were 450,000 Kentuckians not covered by insurance and Gov. Jones called a special session in 1993 to deal with it. His recommendations, from two large panels studying the problem, look a lot like what would be later known as Romneycare: 
1. "Managed competition" among health care providers, not a single-payer approach. 
2. All health plans in Kentucky would be required to offer certain minimum level of benefits. 
3. An employer mandate. A tax of 3.75% of payrolls for not insuring employees. Subsidies for "vulnerable" small businesses. 
4. Creation of a "megapool" - state and local gov't employees, unemployed, self-employed, prisoners in same minimum package. ($2 million state pool operated by state government.)
Present and future Medicaid recipients would go into the megapool. Employers who did not wish to purchase their own insurance might participate in the megapool, making it a HICCUP (health purchasing insurance cooprative). 
There was even an agreement on tort reform to limit lawsuits. 

Eventually, business lobbyists and some hospitals killed the reform efforts. One imagine Gov. Jones was later envious of Gov. Beshear's ability to move with the Obama Administration to expand Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act in Kentucky by executive order only.

There is much more in this book about coal, health and Medicaid, education, race relations, etc. I give it 4 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Reason Why I'm Glad I Switched to Android (in no particular order). Reason #1:

I gave up my iPhone 4s in 2014 with some coaxing from a co-worker who sent me a OnePlus One invite. I was able to get iPhone 6 power and functionality for a fraction of the price, so I made the leap. I've not blogged about the advantages I've gained because there are so many, but occasionally I'll post one here.
One annoying aspect of an iOS device is that you can't just plug a flash drive into it and go. For my iOS devices I would quickly port things on-off using Dropbox or other file-sharing services, but those have limits without paying and I need to transfer gigs at a time. My 32 GB iPad 2 is full of my own media and no room for my son's, and I can't just plug his flash drive into the iPad to get them at will. But I can plug a drive into his Android tablet anytime. Porting movies and apps onto my iOS devices from iTunes is like banging my head against the wall. Behold the simple fix of Android: This is a Kingston Digital 16GB Data Traveler Micro Duo USB 3.0 Micro USB OTG (DTDUO3/16GB). You can see it's small, fits on my keychain.Standard USB on one end, micro USB on the other. It cost me $10.



I copy a few gigs worth of files off of my desktop onto the drive, plug the drive directly into my Android phone, copy them off in 30 seconds and am good to roll on. No muss, no fuss.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The City of God by Augustine of Hippo (Book Review #24 of 2015)

Free at Gutenberg.org and Librivox.org
Augustine is probably the most-cited but least-read of the early church writers. Everyone claims a piece of him. I think the massiveness of this work keeps some people from starting, but I found it quite readable and interesting-- particularly if you want a good overview of Scripture. This is the longest and most important book I've consumed in a long time. It is highly rewarding. Every Christian should read this book. I listened to the audio, took notes, and reviewed the text.

The first ten books of this offer an apology to the Greco-Roman philosophers for the Judeo-Christian God over the purported deities and religious systems set forth first by the Greeks and later by the Romans. Books 11-17 deal with creation, time, the heavens, and foreknowledge of God. Augustine gives an incredible Jesus-on-every-page exposition of Genesis and then continues through book 18 through the rest of the Old Testament. In book 19 Augustine parallels walks through a timeline of world history, paralleling Jewish history with that of Egypt, Greece, Assyria, Babylon, and Rome. In Book 20 Augustine delves deeply into eschatology and an exposition of Revelation. His interpretation of prophecy is interesting, and he explores a few theories. In some places he takes as symbolic what others more commonly take as literal today. Augustine closes the work (Book 22) by recounting supernatural miracles he and others witnessed, as well as a treatment on the importance of a bodily resurrection.

Prerequisites for this book I'd recommend: Read Plato's Republic and some other works. I'm glad I read Xenophon's Memorable Thoughts of Socrates before I started this book. You might also check out Seneca and some stoics to understand a few lines of thoughts Augustine is engaging. You definitely should read an overview history of Greece and Rome beforehand. Also, an overview of the Old and New Testaments. I recommend Mark Dever's Promises Made (OT) and Promises Kept (NT).
I read Confessions before this, but it wasn't necessary. The audiences and intention of the book are quite different.
Also, know the word "felicity" as Augustine (translation) uses it frequently. It means an intense feeling of happiness.

The book begins with a look at burial customs and respect for the body. Augustine is living at a time of persecution of Christians, persecuted because of popular backlash that Christianity was eroding faith in Roman gods and customs. Hence, Christians were blamed for famines, fires, and other maladies. Augustine writes that it does no good for enemies of the faith to mutilate the bodies of Christians: "there are indeed many bodies of Christians lying unburied; but no one has separated them from heaven." We show respect for the dead body because that's the example we have of Christ in Scripture:
"Our Lord Himself, too, though He was to rise again the third day, applauds, and commends to our applause, the good work of the religious woman who poured precious ointment over His limbs, and did it against His burial. And the Gospel speaks with commendation of those who were careful to take down His body from the cross, and wrap it lovingly in costly cerements, and see to its burial."

Augustine also deals with the wickedness of suicide, whether it is sinful or not. He concludes that it is murder and wicked at all times to take one's life. Otherwise, why not just kill Christian converts immediately after they were baptised in order to keep them from sinning? He examines Roman noble ladies who were ravaged and killed themselves to protect their honor, declaring it wrong nonetheless. Two wrongs don't make a right, in other words.

"he cannot without wickedness say, 'Kill yourself, now that you are washed from all your sins, lest you fall again into similar or even aggravated sins, while you live in a world which has such power to allure by its unclean pleasures, to torment by its horrible cruelties, to overcome by its errors and terrors?' It is wicked to say this; it is therefore wicked to kill oneself. For if there could be any just cause of suicide, this were so. And since not even this is so, there is none."

Early on, Augustine introduces his theme of the City of God-- there are throughout scripture and history two cities, the City of God's people, and the City of Man-- those not of God's people who are under judgement. The City of Man is opposed to the City of God, "but let this city bear in mind, that among her enemies lie hid those who are destined to be fellow-citizens, that she may not think it a fruitless labour to bear what they inflict as enemies until they become confessors of the faith." The population of the City of God (the elect) is also fixed by God's omniscience.

The first 10 books give a history of the pantheism of Greece and Rome, how the various gods and religious systems were logically inconsistent. How those who cite the ancients in one area neglect the ancients in another. Augustine quotes heavily from Plato and the later Cicero's De Republica. Augustine shows that the morals of Greece and Rome have long been eroding. For example, Socrates banned artists from his Republic but in modern Roman life the artists were hailed as quite influential. Rome should have known better.
" For a long while the virtue of Rome was uncontaminated by theatrical exhibitions;[ and if they had been adopted for the sake of gratifying the taste of the citizens, they would have been introduced hand in hand with the relaxation of manners. But the fact is, that it was the gods who demanded that they should be exhibited to gratify them. With what justice, then, is the player excommunicated by whom God is worshipped? On what pretext can you at once adore him who exacts, and brand him who acts these plays? This, then, is the controversy in which the Greeks and Romans are engaged. The Greeks think they justly honour players, because they worship the gods who demand plays: the Romans, on the other hand, do not suffer an actor to disgrace by his name his own plebeian tribe, far less the senatorial order. And the whole of this discussion may be summed up in the following syllogism. The Greeks give us the major premiss: If such gods are to be worshipped, then certainly such men may be honoured. The Romans add the minor: But such men must by no means be honoured. The Christians draw the conclusion: Therefore such gods must by no means be worshipped."

Augustine points out that ancient earthquakes and other calamities were blamed on gods and such, that the innumerable Greek and Roman gods were generally cruel and inconsistent. Why, then, do Romans now blame Christians for similar calamities? Had Christians existed in prior days, the persecution would have been more severe. Augustine makes an apologetic for the Christian life as being life-honoring and virtue-upholding, in contrast to the Greek gods who have allowed virtue to be eroded:
"But, further, is it not obvious that the gods have abetted the fulfilment of men's desires, instead of authoritatively bridling them?"

Augustine gives a few of a Christian worship and preaching from a "raised platform":
"They, then, are but abandoned and ungrateful wretches, in deep and fast bondage to that malign spirit, who complain and murmur that men are rescued by the name of Christ from the hellish thraldom of these unclean spirits, and from a participation in their punishment, and are brought out of the night of pestilential ungodliness into the light of most healthful piety. Only such men could murmur that the masses flock to the churches and their chaste acts of worship, where a seemly separation of the sexes is observed; where they learn how they may so spend this earthly life, as to merit a blessed eternity hereafter; where Holy Scripture and instruction in righteousness are proclaimed from a raised platform in presence of all, that both they who do the word may hear to their salvation, and they who do it not may hear to judgment. And though some enter who scoff at such precepts, all their petulance is either quenched by a sudden change, or is restrained through fear or shame. For no filthy and wicked action is there set forth to be gazed at or to be imitated; but either the precepts of the true God are recommended, His miracles narrated, His gifts praised, or His benefits implored."


He concludes Book IV with a simple summary of the God of Israel. How much simpler and logically consistent God's law is, and Israel's punishments were in line with with keeping them conformed to that law rather than simply letting virtue decline.

In Book V, Augustine critique's Cicero's refuation of the Stoics. Cicero did not believe God could have foreknowledge and Augustine takes his argument apart. You get a good understanding of Augustine's view, which I think (especially after hearing R.C. Sproul refer to himself as Augustinian) lines up with the Reformed view:
"Our wills, therefore, exist as wills, and do themselves whatever we do by willing, and which would not be done if we were unwilling. But when any one suffers anything, being unwilling, by the will of another, even in that case will retains its essential validity,—we do not mean the will of the party who inflicts the suffering, for we resolve it into the power of God. For if a will should simply exist, but not be able to do what it wills, it would be overborne by a more powerful will. Nor would this be the case unless there had existed will, and that not the will of the other party, but the will of him who willed, but was not able to accomplish what he willed. Therefore, whatsoever a man suffers contrary to his own will, he ought not to attribute to the will of men, or of angels, or of any created spirit, but rather to His will who gives power to wills. It is not the case, therefore, that because God foreknew what would be in the power of our wills, there is for that reason nothing in the power of our wills. For he who foreknew this did not foreknow nothing. Moreover, if He who foreknew what would be in the power of our wills did not foreknow nothing, but something, assuredly, even though He did foreknow, there is something in the power of our wills. Therefore we are by no means compelled, either, retaining the prescience of God, to take away the freedom of the will, or, retaining the freedom of the will, to deny that He is prescient of future things, which is impious. But we embrace both. We faithfully and sincerely confess both. The former, that we may believe well; the latter, that we may live well. For he lives ill who does not believe well concerning God. Wherefore, be it far from us, in order to maintain our freedom, to deny the prescience of Him by whose help we are or shall be free. Consequently, it is not in vain that laws are enacted, and that reproaches, exhortations, praises, and vituperations are had recourse to; for these also He foreknew, and they are of great avail, even as great as He foreknew that they would be of. Prayers, also, are of avail to procure those things which He foreknew that He would grant to those who offered them; and with justice have rewards been appointed for good deeds, and punishments for sins. For a man does not therefore sin because God foreknew that he would sin. Nay, it cannot be doubted but that it is the man himself who sins when he does sin, because He, whose foreknowledge is infallible, foreknew not that fate, or fortune, or something else would sin, but that the man himself would sin, who, if he wills not, sins not. But if he shall not will to sin, even this did God foreknow."

While Romans knew not God, they still relied on Him to enlarge their kingdom. God fixes the boundaries of nations, so ultimately He is responsible for their rewards. Augustine explains the philosophy of Roman conquest and the difference between the desire for glory and the desire to dominate.

Augustine takes apart the various Greek gods and determines whether they are worthy of worship or not, or which gods are better than others. He basically just illustrates the confusing web of contradictions and evolution among the Gods. Is Mercury speech or giver of speech? If he's the giver of speech, then is he the one who allowed other gods to speak? Is war Mars, or is Mars the god of war? It matters because we might worship war. Augustine also shows how the ideas of these gods and others-- like Romulus and Remus-- have evolved over the years from mortals to immortals. In Book VIII he addresses demons. Greek gods were interested in human affairs yet distant, relying on demons for info and intermediation. Hence men worshipped demons. But this creates a problem, how is it a demon could be contaminated from contact with humans yet still commune with the gods? How is it that the gods allowed people to worship the demons?

Likewise, there are many contradictions among natural scientists in Augustine's day.

In Book IX, Augustine shifts toward focusing on Jesus as being the only one worthy of worship as being both man and God.
"But if, as is much more probable and credible, it must needs be that all men, so long as they are mortal, are also miserable, we must seek an intermediate who is not only man, but also God, that, by the interposition of His blessed mortality, He may bring men out of their mortal misery to a blessed immortality. In this intermediate two things are requisite, that He become mortal, and that He do not continue mortal. He did become mortal, not rendering the divinity of the Word infirm, but assuming the infirmity of flesh. Neither did He continue mortal in the flesh, but raised it from the dead; for it is the very fruit of His mediation that those, for the sake of whose redemption He became the Mediator." This contradicts Plato who said that the "god holds no intercourse with men."  

At the end of IX and into X, Augustine deals with demons and angels.
Apparently, demon worship was such that Augustine felt the need to address it firmly. He illustrates the differences between angels and demons, which gets a little bit into his view of time and creation. Angels are eternal in the sense that they were with God when he created the physical universe and have a physical body which apparently does not die, but not eternal in the sense that God existed before the angels.
"That which we say, that the angels who are sent to announce the will of God to men belong to the order of blessed immortals, does not satisfy the Platonists, because they believe that this ministry is discharged, not by those whom they call gods, in other words, not by blessed immortals, but by demons, whom they dare not affirm to be blessed, but only immortal, or if they do rank them among the blessed immortals, yet only as good demons, and not as gods who dwell in the heaven of heavens remote from all human contact. But, though it may seem mere wrangling about a name, yet the name of demon is so detestable that we cannot bear in any sense to apply it to the holy angels."

Augustine wrote in Latin and was very familiar with Latin translations of Greek works, while not reading Greek himself. While he uses Greek occassionally, it is to point out difficulties in translation between certain words and concepts. Latin words don't portray the full idea of worship to Augustine's satisfaction. "For this is the worship which is due to the Divinity, or, to speak more accurately, to the Deity; and, to express this worship in a single word, as there does not occur to me any Latin term sufficiently exact, I shall avail myself, whenever necessary, of a Greek word."

Mercy is the true sacrifice. God does not require sacrifices for their own sake but requires the mercy that the sacrifices symbolize.

Augustine writes in Chapter 8 of Book X on miracles. God does some miracles through angels to strengthen the faith of his people. The created world itself is a great miracle we take for granted because it is always in front of us. Operating the world and its processes is greater than any miracle we can conceive of. God is timeless and intervenes as such:
"For man himself is a greater miracle than any miracle done through his instrumentality. Therefore God, who made the visible heaven and earth, does not disdain to work visible miracles in heaven or earth, that He may thereby awaken the soul which is immersed in things visible to worship Himself, the Invisible. But the place and time of these miracles are dependent on His unchangeable will, in which things future are ordered as if already they were accomplished. For He moves things temporal without Himself moving in time. He does not in one way know things that are to be, and, in another, things that have been; neither does He listen to those who pray otherwise than as He sees those that will pray. For, even when His angels hear us, it is He Himself who hears us in them, as in His true temple not made with hands, as in those men who are His saints; and His answers, though accomplished in time, have been arranged by His eternal appointment."

Augustine rejects cessationists and naturalists who argue there is no such thing as miracles:
"Will some one say that these miracles are false, that they never happened, and that the records of them are lies? Whoever says so, and asserts that in such matters no records whatever can be credited, may also say that there are no gods who care for human affairs. For they have induced men to worship them only by means of miraculous works, which the heathen histories testify, and by which the gods have made a display of their own power rather than done any real service. This is the reason why we have not undertaken in this work, of which we are now writing the tenth book, to refute those who either deny that there is any divine power, or contend that it does not interfere with human affairs,"

A contrast between the City of God and the City of Man is found in how they handle treasure.  "The Psalmist did not say, It is good for me to have great wealth, or to wear imperial insignia, purple, sceptre, and diadem; or, as some even of the philosophers have not blushed to say, It is good for me to enjoy sensual pleasure; or, as the better men among them seemed to say, My good is my spiritual strength; but, 'It is good for me to be united to God.'"

Augustine also addresses Plato's thoughts on reincarnation, some of the logical contradictions of reincarnation. He shows it to be inferior to the belief in an eternal soul and resurrection of the body.

Beginning in Book XI, Augustine sets out to chronicle the history of the City of God. He starts with wrapping his mind around an infinite and eternal God. Why did God create the universe, knowing what was to come? Similar to today, Augustine is trying to answer the arguments of those who say the universe is eternal and those who argue over the time of its creation and how many years have passed since the "beginning." Augustine even answers Greek philosophers' thoughts about "cycles of time," and whether we're in an infinite loop (as some string theorists contend today).

Augustine starts in Genesis and works through the days of the account, there is too much to unpack in this review. Again some emphasis is put on the creation of angels and when they were created. Citing Job 38:7:
"'When the stars were made, the angels praised me with a loud voice.' The angels therefore existed before the stars; and the stars were made the fourth day. Shall we then say that they were made the third day? Far from it; for we know what was made that day. The earth was separated from the water, and each element took its own distinct form, and the earth produced all that grows on it. On the second day, then? Not even on this; for on it the firmament was made between the waters above and beneath, and was called 'Heaven,' in which firmament the stars were made on the fourth day. There is no question, then, that if the angels are included in the works of God during these six days, they are that light which was called "Day," and whose unity Scripture signalizes by calling that day not the 'first day,' but 'one day.' For the second day, the third, and the rest are not other days; but the same "one" day is repeated to complete the number six or seven, so that there should be knowledge both of God's works and of His rest. For when God said, 'Let there be light, and there was light,' if we are justified in understanding in this light the creation of the angels, then certainly they were created partakers of the eternal light which is the unchangeable Wisdom of God, by which all things were made, and whom we call the only-begotten Son of God; so that they, being illumined by the Light that created them, might themselves become light and be called 'Day,' in participation of that unchangeable Light and Day which is the Word of God, by whom both themselves and all else were made."

Some angels received more "enlightenment" than others and were able to choose rebellion.
"Some of them, having turned away from this light, have not won this wise and blessed life, which is certainly eternal, and accompanied with the sure confidence of its eternity; but they have still the life of reason, though darkened with folly, and this they cannot lose, even if they would. But who can determine to what extent they were partakers of that wisdom before they fell? And how shall we say that they participated in it equally with those who through it are truly and fully blessed, resting in a true certainty of eternal felicity? For if they had equally participated in this true knowledge, then the evil angels would have remained eternally blessed equally with the good, because they were equally expectant of it."

There are deep thoughts on the foreknowledge of God and the will of man.
"Wherefore, if the infinity of numbers cannot be infinite to the knowledge of God, by which it is comprehended, what are we poor creatures that we should presume to fix limits to His knowledge, and say that unless the same temporal things be repeated by the same periodic revolutions, God cannot either foreknow His creatures that He may make them, or know them when He has made them? God, whose knowledge is simply manifold, and uniform in its variety, comprehends all incomprehensibles with so incomprehensible a comprehension, that though He willed always to make His later works novel and unlike what went before them, He could not produce them without order and foresight, nor conceive them suddenly, but by His eternal foreknowledge."
...
"For God would never have created any, I do not say angel, but even man, whose future wickedness He foreknew, unless He had equally known to what uses in behalf of the good He could turn him, thus embellishing the course of the ages, as it were an exquisite poem set off with antitheses."

What is the cause of bad will?
"However minutely we examine the case, therefore, we can discern nothing which caused the will of the one to be evil. For if we say that the man himself made his will evil, what was the man himself before his will was evil but a good nature created by God, the unchangeable good? Here are two men who, before the temptation, were alike in body and soul, and of whom one yielded to the tempter who persuaded him, while the other could not be persuaded to desire that lovely body which was equally before the eyes of both. Shall we say of the successfully tempted man that he corrupted his own will, since he was certainly good before his will became bad? Then, why did he do so? Was it because his will was a nature, or because it was made of nothing? We shall find that the latter is the case. For if a nature is the cause of an evil will, what else can we say than that evil arises from good, or that good is the cause of evil? And how can it come to pass that a nature, good though mutable, should produce any evil—that is to say, should make the will itself wicked?"
Key point:
"Let no one, therefore, look for an efficient cause of the evil will; for it is not efficient, but deficient, as the will itself is not an effecting of something, but a defect. For defection from that which supremely is, to that which has less of being,—this is to begin to have an evil will...This I do know, that the nature of God can never, nowhere, nowise be defective, and that natures made of nothing can. These latter, however, the more being they have, and the more good they do (for then they do something positive), the more they have efficient causes; but in so far as they are defective in being, and consequently do evil (for then what is their work but vanity?), they have deficient causes...if the good angels made their own will good, they did so with or without will? If without, then it was not their doing. If with, was the will good or bad? If bad, how could a bad will give birth to a good one? If good, then already they had a good will. And who made this will, which already they had, but He who created them with a good will, or with that chaste love by which they cleaved to Him, in one and the same act creating their nature, and endowing it with grace? And thus we are driven to believe that the holy angels never existed without a good will or the love of God. But the angels who, though created good, are yet evil now, became so by their own will. And this will was not made evil by their good nature, unless by its voluntary defection from good; for good is not the cause of evil, but a defection from good is. These angels, therefore, either received less of the grace of the divine love than those who persevered in the same; or if both were created equally good, then, while the one fell by their evil will, the others were more abundantly assisted, and attained to that pitch of blessedness at which they became certain they should never fall from it," 

My understanding of the point:
Men and angels while loved and created good, were not perfect like God with perfectly good will. Some angels (and men) received less grace than others, hence a "defection from good" was possible. Relying on the Apostle Paul: "But unless divine grace aid us, we cannot love nor delight in true righteousness."

From angels, Augustine pivots to the history of God's people (the City of God) who will one day be "united to the immortal angels." This leads to a lengthy commentary on Genesis. It is a must-read. Augustine contends that "sons of God" are sons of Seth while "sons of man" are sons of Cain. Cain represents city of man. Abel, Seth represent City of God.

Book XIV
I had erroneously thought Augustine extended the Platonic error of the idea that anything done in the body was dirty and sinful. Augustine writes that it's not the body but the corruptability of the body that is the problem. Evils do not come from the flesh, as the flesh is good.
"for in its own kind and degree the flesh is good; but to desert the Creator good, and live according to the created good, is not good, whether a man choose to live according to the flesh, or according to the soul, or according to the whole human nature, which is composed of flesh and soul, and which is therefore spoken of either by the name flesh alone, or by the name soul alone. For he who extols the nature of the soul as the chief good, and condemns the nature of the flesh as if it were evil, assuredly is fleshly both in his love of the soul and hatred of the flesh; for these his feelings arise from human fancy, not from divine truth. The Platonists, indeed, are not so foolish as, with the Manichæans, to detest our present bodies as an evil nature;[22] for they attribute all the elements of which this visible and tangible world is compacted, with all their qualities, to God their Creator. Nevertheless, from the death-infected members and earthly construction of the body they believe the soul is so affected, that there are thus originated in it the diseases of desires, and fears, and joy, and sorrow, under which four perturbations, as Cicero[23] calls them, or passions, as most prefer to name them with the Greeks, is included the whole viciousness of human life"

Augustine again delves into issues of Greek and Latin translation, such as Jesus' dialogue with Peter "Do you love me?"

He looks at the first sin of pride and its consequences. He also deals with lust in an interesting fashion. He seems to fall into the Platonic error of acts committed in the body. While copulation is good, there is a passionate lust component involved that is perhaps not good.
"Lust requires for its consummation darkness and secrecy; and this not only when unlawful intercourse is desired, but even such fornication as the earthly city has legalized."
Augustine speculates that if it had not been for the fall, perhaps men could have procreated asexually-- like worms.

Abel:
"Accordingly, it is recorded of Cain that he built a city, but Abel, being a sojourner, built none. For the city of the saints is above, although here below it begets citizens, in whom it sojourns till the time of its reign arrives, when it shall gather together all in the day of the resurrection; and then shall the promised kingdom be given to them, in which they shall reign with their Prince, the King of the ages, time without end."

There is much interpretation of the numbers of offspring each descendent of Adam had and whether the number symbolized transgression/sin or righteousness.
Augustine deals with the life spans in the geneology and how the difficulties of how the Greek Septuagint and Hebrew differ in years in the chronology.

Augustine defends the position that it was not angels who were the "sons of God" who procreated with women on earth, as some do. Rather this refers to descendents of Seth and Cain. The text indicates that giants were already in the land, such that the union of the two did not itself produce giants.

At the end of Book XV, Augustine examines Noah's story. Noah's ark represents Jesus' body (its dimentions of length, breadth, height correspond to that of a man). Noah didn't hunt for the animals, God brought them according to His will (the same as those brought to Jesus today). In Book XVI, this exposition continues: The animals of all kinds prefigure the representatives of nations that would be saved. From there, the geneology of the City of God continues:
"Salah begat Heber. And it was with good reason that he was named first among Shem's offspring, taking precedence even of his sons, though only a grandchild of the fifth generation; for from him, as tradition says, the Hebrews derived their name, though the other etymology which derives the name from Abraham (as if Abrahews) may possibly be correct. But there can be little doubt that the former is the right etymology, and that they were called after Heber, Heberews, and then, dropping a letter, Hebrews; and so was their language called Hebrew, which was spoken by none but the people of Israel among whom was the city of God, mysteriously prefigured in all the people, and truly present in the saints."

Since Heber and his descendents were already mentioned before Babel, it was the early Hebrew people who were saved from the curse of the languages.

Onto Abraham:
Augustine that Abraham's sacrifice confirming his coventant with God represented five dispensations, five periods of history of God's interaction with man. Augustine sees a foreshadow of the tribulation of the church as found in Revelation:
 "But the fowls coming down on the divided carcases represent nothing good, but the spirits of this air, seeking some food for themselves in the division of carnal men. But that Abraham sat down with them, signifies that even amid these divisions of the carnal, true believers shall persevere to the end. And that about the going down of the sun great fear fell upon Abraham and a horror of great darkness, signifies that about the end of this world believers shall be in great perturbation and tribulation, of which the Lord said in the gospel, "For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not from the beginning."

Augustine derives a threefold meaning of many prophecies: "now to the earthly, now to the heavenly Jerusalem, and now again to both."
"Yet, in holding this opinion, I do not blame those who may be able to draw out of everything there a spiritual meaning, only saving, first of all, the historical truth. For the rest, what believer can doubt that those things are spoken vainly which are such that, whether said to have been done or to be yet to come, they do not beseem either human or divine affairs? Who would not recall these to spiritual understanding if he could, or confess that they should be recalled by him who is able?"

So, Augustine walks through the Old Testament finding Jesus prefigured on every page. It's fascinating. Some things I had never seen elucidated before, such as Hannah "personating the church." On Hannah's prayer of thanksgiving after giving birth to Samuel:
"Do you say that these are the words of a single weak woman giving thanks for the birth of a son? Can the mind of men be so much averse to the light of truth as not to perceive that the sayings this woman pours forth exceed her measure? Moreover, he who is suitably interested in these things which have already begun to be fulfilled even in this earthly pilgrimage also, does he not apply his mind, and perceive, and acknowledge, that through this woman—whose very name, which is Hannah, means "His grace"—the very Christian religion, the very city of God, whose king and founder is Christ, in fine, the very grace of God, hath thus spoken by the prophetic Spirit, whereby the proud are cut off so that they fall, and the humble are filled so that they rise, which that hymn chiefly celebrates?"
...
"What then does she mean when she says, 'The bow of the mighty hath He made weak, and the weak are girded with strength; they that were full of bread are diminished, and the hungry have gone beyond the earth; for the barren hath born seven, and she that hath many children is waxed feeble?' Had she herself born seven, although she had been barren? She had only one when she said that; neither did she bear seven afterwards, nor six, with whom Samuel himself might be the seventh, but three males and two females. And then, whenas yet no one was king over that people, whence, if she did not prophesy, did she say what she puts at the end, 'He giveth strength to our kings, and shall exalt the horn of His Christ?'"

Hannah's seven is referring to the seven pillars of Revelation, and the seven churches John wrote to in Revelation.

In Book XVII, Saul also represents the Israel whose kingdom was snatched from it to be handed to someone else, namely the gentiles.

Book XVIII begins with a summary and then looks at a parallel history of Babylon, Assyria, Greece, Rome, and Israel. It's a theology of history. This is a fascinating read, like a timeline of world history. For example:
"In the reign of Mamitus, the twelfth king of Assyria, and Plemnæus, the eleventh of Sicyon, while Argus still reigned over the Argives, Joseph died in Egypt a hundred and ten years old. After his death, the people of God, increasing wonderfully, remained in Egypt a hundred and forty-five years, in tranquillity at first, until those who knew Joseph were dead. Afterward, through envy of their increase, and the suspicion that they would at length gain their freedom, they were oppressed with persecutions and the labours of intolerable servitude, amid which, however, they still grew, being multiplied with God-given fertility. During this period the same kingdoms continued in Assyria and Greece."
When judges ruled young Israel, Greek philosophy began to form, various poems were written, and myths recorded. Assyria conquered Asia about 1,000 years after the flood, so the population was relatively small and resistance relatively weak. Rome replaces Babylon, and is the daughter of Babylon. Augustine gives a fascinating rebuttle of the writings of Porphyrys, which called into question biblical prophecy.

He explains and laud's Jerome's translation of the Hebrew into Latin, but works through difficulties in the translation and what it means for messianic prophecy. For example, was Jonah in the whale 40 days or 3 days? If 3, then the "sign of Jonah" referred to by Jesus is fulfilled by his three days in the tomb. If 40, then it's the days after his ascension and before Pentecost. Either way, the prophecy works.

Augustine then moves into the post-Haggai and Malachi world of the Greek and Roman conquest of Palestine, paving the way for the Messiah.

Augustine confronts Stoic philosopher who seek the "supreme good" in themselves and this life, calling them "fools." I think of this as stoisicm has been popularized by many today.
"I am at a loss to understand how the Stoic philosophers can presume to say that these are no ills, though at the same time they allow the wise man to commit suicide and pass out of this life if they become so grievous that he cannot or ought not to endure them. But such is the stupid pride of these men who fancy that the supreme good can be found in this life, and that they can become happy by their own resources, that their wise man, or at least the man whom they fancifully depict as such, is always happy, even though he become blind, deaf, dumb, mutilated, racked with pains, or suffer any conceivable calamity such as may compel him to make away with himself; and they are not ashamed to call the life that is beset with these evils happy. O happy life, which seeks the aid of death to end it! If it is happy, let the wise man remain in it; but if these ills drive him out of it, in what sense is it happy? Or how can they say that these are not evils which conquer the virtue of fortitude, and force it not only to yield, but so to rave that it in one breath calls life happy and recommends it to be given up? For who is so blind as not to see that if it were happy it would not be fled from? And if they say we should flee from it on account of the infirmities that beset it, why then do they not lower their pride and acknowledge that it is miserable? Was it, I would ask, fortitude or weakness which prompted Cato to kill himself? for he would not have done so had he not been too weak to endure Cæsar's victory. Where, then, is his fortitude? It has yielded, it has succumbed, it has been so thoroughly overcome as to abandon, forsake, flee this happy life. Or was it no longer happy? Then it was miserable. How, then, were these not evils which made life miserable, and a thing to be escaped from?"
...
"And therefore the Apostle Paul, speaking not of men without prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice, but of those whose lives were regulated by true piety, and whose virtues were therefore true, says, "For we are saved by hope: now hope which is seen is not hope; for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for? But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it." As, therefore, we are saved, so we are made happy by hope. And as we do not as yet possess a present, but look for a future salvation, so is it with our happiness, and this "with patience;" for we are encompassed with evils, which we ought patiently to endure, until we come to the ineffable enjoyment of unmixed good; for there shall be no longer anything to endure. Salvation, such as it shall be in the world to come, shall itself be our final happiness. And this happiness these philosophers refuse to believe in, because they do not see it, and attempt to fabricate for themselves a happiness in this life, based upon a virtue which is as deceitful as it is proud."

His words are relevant to the prosperity gospel teachers of today. Christians know that our hardships are momentary afflictions that pale in light of eternity in the City of God.

Augustine argues against Cicero that Rome was not a true republic because there was no real justice there.

Into Book XX, Augustine begins delving into the end times with an interesting view of eschatology. These chapters are more difficult to read to tease out what exactly he means. He uses the term "two regenerations," which I don't hear much these days.
"As, then, there are two regenerations, of which I have already made mention,—the one according to faith, and which takes place in the present life by means of baptism; the other according to the flesh, and which shall be accomplished in its incorruption and immortality by means of the great and final judgment,—so are there also two resurrections,—the one the first and spiritual resurrection, which has place in this life, and preserves us from coming into the second death; the other the second, which does not occur now, but in the end of the world, and which is of the body, not of the soul, and which by the last judgment shall dismiss some into the second death, others into that life which has no death."

Referring to Gog and Magog, Augustine does not believe they represent a specific geographical location (unlike many modern prophecy promoters on television). He writes that these represent the City of Man.
"For these nations which he names Gog and Magog are not to be understood of some barbarous nations in some part of the world, whether the Getæ and Massagetæ, as some conclude from the initial letters, or some other foreign nations not under the Roman government. For John marks that they are spread over the whole earth, when he says, "The nations which are in the four corners of the earth," and he added that these are Gog and Magog. The meaning of these names we find to be, Gog, 'a roof,' Magog, 'from a roof,'—a house, as it were, and he who comes out of the house. They are therefore the nations in which we found that the devil was shut up as in an abyss, and the devil himself coming out from them and going forth, so that they are the roof, he from the roof."

There is also not one geographical Meggido where the war takes place, but all over the world where the City of Man wars against the diaspora of the saints of the City of God.

As to the "Book of Life," Augustine writes:
"This book is not for reminding God, as if things might escape Him by forgetfulness, but it symbolizes His predestination of those to whom eternal life shall be given. For it is not that God is ignorant, and reads in the book to inform Himself, but rather His infallible prescience is the book of life in which they are written, that is to say, known beforehand."

There was a lot in XX to think about.

In Book XXI, Augustine argues against those who argue that hell and punishment is not eternal nor contrary to God's love.

He raises the interesting point that in the parable of Lazarus, the wicked man is suffering torment in hell. But since the resurrection had not occurred, it could not be in bodily form. (What forms do we have in the pre-resurrection afterlife?) Therefore, it was his soul being tortured. No part of the body can be pained without the soul. Augustine quotes Virgil heavily in this book.

He also focuses on "marvels," the miracles of nature that we take for granted. He tells an anecdote about the antiseptic qualities of peacocks, for example. The natural laws. The war against sin:
"Now, such a war as this would have had no existence, if human nature had, in the exercise of free will, continued steadfast in the uprightness in which it was created. But now in its misery it makes war upon itself, because in its blessedness it would not continue at peace with God; and this, though it be a miserable calamity, is better than the earlier stages of this life, which do not recognise that a war is to be maintained. For better is it to contend with vices than without conflict to be subdued by them. Better, I say, is war with the hope of peace everlasting than captivity without any thought of deliverance. We long, indeed, for the cessation of this war, and, kindled by the flame of divine love, we burn for entrance on that well-ordered peace in which whatever is inferior is for ever subordinated to what is above it. But if (which God forbid) there had been no hope of so blessed a consummation, we should still have preferred to endure the hardness of this conflict, rather than, by our non-resistance, to yield ourselves to the dominion of vice."

He writes critically of those who offers prayers for the dead as deliverance from eternal punishment. Catholics pick some of these passages as references to Purgatory, but the text is unclear. In some places it looks like Augustine is arguing against a purgatory in other points he seems to neither affirm nor oppose the idea. He does not oppose the idea that there are differing levels of punishment for those in hell, according to the revelation given them on earth. This paragraph seems to argue against Purgatory:
"But let us now reply to those who promise deliverance from eternal fire, not to the devil and his angels (as neither do they of whom we have been speaking), nor even to all men whatever, but only to those who have been washed by the baptism of Christ, and have become partakers of His body and blood, no matter how they have lived, no matter what heresy or impiety they have fallen into. But they are contradicted by the apostle, where he says, "Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variances, emulations, wrath, strife, heresies, envyings, drunkenness, revellings, and the like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, for they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God." Certainly this sentence of the apostle is false, if such persons shall be delivered after any lapse of time, and shall then inherit the kingdom of God. But as it is not false, they shall certainly never inherit the kingdom of God. And if they shall never enter that kingdom, then they shall always be retained in eternal punishment; for there is no middle place where he may live unpunished who has not been admitted into that kingdom."

Deserters of the faith are not saved, including those who continue in communion.

Book XXII deals with miracles, and is the most personal of all the books as Augustine gives testimony to miraculous events he had witnessed and which had dozens of other witnesses, including other church overseers and deacons. Augustine was not a cessationist. I think this book perhaps embarrasses some of the Reformed (John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul, etc.) who otherwise claim Augustine. But, like the resurrection and Jesus' miracles, Augustine is writing of things that had a huge number of witnesses and no natural explanations. He counts at least 70, not all of which he describes here. He is writing both to answer Christians who ask "Why are there no miracles today?" as well as naturalist philosophers who argue there is no action without a natural explanation (he could be writing this in the 21st century). He mentions the "closed canon" argument used by theologians today. The Bible contains the miracles that were universally confirmed and agreed upon, whereas modern miracles are of a local nature and rely solely on local witnesses to confirm:

"Why, they say, are those miracles, which you affirm were wrought formerly, wrought no longer? I might, indeed, reply that miracles were necessary before the world believed, in order that it might believe...How, then, is it that everywhere Christ is celebrated with such firm belief in His resurrection and ascension? How is it that in enlightened times, in which every impossibility is rejected, the world has, without any miracles, believed things marvellously incredible? Or will they say that these things were credible, and therefore were credited? Why then do they themselves not believe? Our argument, therefore, is a summary one—either incredible things which were not witnessed have caused the world to believe other incredible things which both occurred and were witnessed, or this matter was so credible that it needed no miracles in proof of it, and therefore convicts these unbelievers of unpardonable scepticism. This I might say for the sake of refuting these most frivolous objectors. But we cannot deny that many miracles were wrought to confirm that one grand and health-giving miracle of Christ's ascension to heaven with the flesh in which He rose. For these most trustworthy books of ours contain in one narrative both the miracles that were wrought and the creed which they were wrought to confirm. The miracles were published that they might produce faith, and the faith which they produced brought them into greater prominence. For they are read in congregations that they may be believed, and yet they would not be so read unless they were believed. For even now miracles are wrought in the name of Christ, whether by His sacraments or by the prayers or relics of His saints; but they are not so brilliant and conspicuous as to cause them to be published with such glory as accompanied the former miracles. For the canon of the sacred writings, which behoved to be closed,causes those to be everywhere recited, and to sink into the memory of all the congregations; but these modern miracles are scarcely known even to the whole population in the midst of which they are wrought, and at the best are confined to one spot. For frequently they are known only to a very few persons, while all the rest are ignorant of them, especially if the state is a large one; and when they are reported to other persons in other localities, there is no sufficient authority to give them prompt and unwavering credence, although they are reported to the faithful by the faithful."

A couple interesting miracles:
"The miracle which was wrought at Milan when I was there, and by which a blind man was restored to sight, could come to the knowledge of many; for not only is the city a large one, but also the emperor was there at the time, and the occurrence was witnessed by an immense concourse of people that had gathered to the bodies of the martyrs Protasius and Gervasius, which had long lain concealed and unknown, but were now made known to the bishop Ambrose in a dream, and discovered by him. By virtue of these remains the darkness of that blind man was scattered, and he saw the light of day,"
...
"I know that a young woman of Hippo was immediately dispossessed of a devil, on anointing herself with oil mixed with the tears of the presbyter who had been praying for her. I know also that a bishop once prayed for a demoniac young man whom he never saw, and that he was cured on the spot."

In some cases the healings took place when people touched relics or visited shrines dedicated to Stephen the Martyr, which are obviously problematic for cessationists. Augustine writes:
"What am I to do? I am so pressed by the promise of finishing this work, that I cannot record all the miracles I know; and doubtless several of our adherents, when they read what I have narrated, will regret that I have omitted so many which they, as well as I, certainly know. Even now I beg these persons to excuse me, and to consider how long it would take me to relate all those miracles, which the necessity of finishing the work I have undertaken forces me to omit. For were I to be silent of all others, and to record exclusively the miracles of healing which were wrought in the district of Calama and of Hippo by means of this martyr—I mean the most glorious Stephen—they would fill many volumes; and yet all even of these could not be collected, but only those of which narratives have been written for public recital. For when I saw, in our own times, frequent signs of the presence of divine powers similar to those which had been given of old, I desired that narratives might be written, judging that the multitude should not remain ignorant of these things. It is not yet two years since these relics were first brought to Hippo-regius, and though many of the miracles which have been wrought by it have not, as I have the most certain means of knowing, been recorded, those which have been published amount to almost seventy at the hour at which I write. But at Calama, where these relics have been for a longer time, and where more of the miracles were narrated for public information, there are incomparably more."

To Augustine, however, the most "incredible" thing is that Jesus is risen, that the world believed it, and that it was a small group of uneducated men who sparked the worldwide spread of the Gospel.

Augustine then closes the book, awkwardly, on bodies-- responding to Plato and other Greeks' views. He hypothesizes on whether babies will be given adult bodies at the resurrection and such. There are some interesting comments about anatomists there, scientific inquiry of that era into the body was interesting to me. But Augustine writes that God has given us many blessings in this life, enjoyed by all, but those in the City of God enjoy more blessings in the life to come:

"Who can enumerate all the blessings we enjoy? If I were to attempt to detail and unfold only these few which I have indicated in the mass, such an enumeration would fill a volume. And all these are but the solace of the[Pg 529] wretched and condemned, not the rewards of the blessed. What then shall these rewards be, if such be the blessings of a condemned state? What will He give to those whom He has predestined to life, who has given such things even to those whom He has predestined to death? What blessings will He in the blessed life shower upon those for whom, even in this state of misery, He has been willing that His only-begotten Son should endure such sufferings even to death? Thus the apostle reasons concerning those who are predestined to that kingdom: "He that spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also give us all things?"[1023] When this promise is fulfilled, what shall we be? What blessings shall we receive in that kingdom, since already we have received as the pledge of them Christ's dying? In what condition shall the spirit of man be, when it has no longer any vice at all; when it neither yields to any, nor is in bondage to any, nor has to make war against any, but is perfected, and enjoys undisturbed peace with itself? Shall it not then know all things with certainty, and without any labour or error, when unhindered and joyfully it drinks the wisdom of God at the fountainhead? What shall the body be, when it is in every respect subject to the spirit, from which it shall draw a life so sufficient, as to stand in need of no other nutriment? For it shall no longer be animal, but spiritual, having indeed the substance of flesh, but without any fleshly corruption."

"The foremost of the philosophers agree with us about the spiritual felicity enjoyed by the blessed in the life to come; it is only the resurrection of the flesh they call in question, and with all their might deny. But the mass of men, learned and unlearned, the world's wise men and its fools, have believed, and have left in meagre isolation the unbelievers, and have turned to Christ, who in His own resurrection demonstrated the reality of that which seems to our adversaries absurd."

5 stars, don't miss out.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferriss (Book Review #23 of 2015)

The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman
While this book is more informative, and better, than the 4-Hour Workweek (my review) it's not as easy to read. It's like reading a cookbook, especially one where several recipes are similar but slightly different. You like the idea of trying each recipe but acknowledge you'll never be able to, so just knowing that recipe exists and you won't enjoy it brings you down a bit. Ferriss lets the reader know up front that it's not to be read in order, but the reader should skim for chapters applicable to himself and then dive in. But where to begin, as it's mostly loosely connected? Even then, each chapter contains links to videos and more material elsewhere. Some people have devoted their lives to trying all of it piecemeal. (Follow the link, the guy has made some handy PDFs of the major stuff.)

The value of this book comes from the fact that Ferriss has harnessed his OCD to getting his bloodwork taken multiple times a week, even buying a real-time glucose-tracker he's constantly connected to, and recording every workout he's ever done since age 18 in order to meticulously analyze everything he does. He has broken, torn, bruised, and damaged just about everything. He is a "human guinea pig," from which the reader reaps the benefit. Better yet, he's reading scientific studies and cold-calling the researchers for the inside scoop, sometimes hanging out with them or recording in-depth interviews. It's not just doctors and scientists but body builders and professional athletes.

The goal is to get the minimum effective dose (MED) in all you do so you can maximize productivity and minimize time. But to do so requires a large amount of up-front cost in examining the methods Ferriss presents, trying them for yourself over a long period of time (to be certain of the result), and tweaking them. So, in a goal to increase our output and happiness, I find Ferriss has rather decreased mine. If you're familiar with Seth Godin's The Dip, these are the activities you can do in relatively little time that help you scale your skill or attribute rapidly but not to a meticulously elite level. So, Ferriss increases his vertical jump dramatically in a couple days.

Want to quickly become a decent baseball hitter? Swim faster, hold your breath longer? Increase your testosterone? Your sexual prowess? Build muscle mass and increase your strength with little more than 30 minutes in the gym? Up your bench press by 100 pounds in a few months? Get six-pack abs without crunches and Ab Ripper X? Run faster and with less injury? Run a mountain marathon while running more more than a 5K in training? Sleep less, but more effectively? Lose weight without working out? Heal your back and other seemingly irreversible injuries? This book is for you.

I recommend skimming the book's website, the book itself has links to many hidden items on the website.

From 4-Hour Body, I have basically modified my previous diet to more of a "slow-carb diet." But while it sounds like Ferriss stays on the diet during his travels around the world, it's not clear whether he recommends it when trying out the various chapters. For example, if you're working on increasing your strength and running speed ("geek to freak"), do you add a starch or not? Do you lift three times a week or five? Do Occom's Protocol I or II? Or do the weightlifting regime used to boost the runners' time?

I've made dozens of highlights that I will have to study (29 pages pasted into a Google Doc at 11 point font). In the meantime, I'd already adopted a weight-lifting routine (the Faleev method) Ferriss featured on his blog but not exactly in the book. I've started consuming his PAGG supplement stack ("The Four Horsemen") while modifying my diet to more slow-carb. (Note: My wife was a bit surprised by these changes as I'm usually quite skeptical. Ferriss' self-experimentation and track-down-the-experts style are quite convincing.) I consider it my own experiment, and I'm skeptical of the results.

I'm a little apprehensive to see the results over the next month. I'm not going to spend the money on bloodwork every month, I'm content with my annual insurance-funded blood tests. That said, the book has given me a lot (too much, really) to think about.

Four stars out of 5.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Sermon of the Week (3/8 - 3/14, 2015) John MacArthur "The Essentials of Handling God's Word"

In three sermons, February 8 , February 15, and February 22, MacArthur explains expository study. He gives a little personal background on how he got into studying in order to encourage those trying to figure out how to read the Bible. MacArthur is probably the staunchest defender of the perspicacity of Scripture-- that Scripture is clear in and of itself. I find it interesting, though, that he makes the statement "You can't understand the trial of Jesus unless you've read the history of Pontius Pilate," encouraging Christians to use extra-biblical sources as well. While I might agree, I think that statement undermines the case for perspicacity as most people make it. Histories of Pilate are not exactly plentiful and are contradictory. I reviewed one work last year that looked at a few of those histories. I could say "You can't understand Paul's writing to the Gentiles until you've read Socrates," for example.

No one has ever answered my concerns completely, so I'll just leave it at that. I recommend these sermons as a guide to how to study, with the caveat that not everyone should devote their lives to monk-like study and writing-- most of us need to work on the praxology of what we've learned.


Thursday, March 12, 2015

America's Bitter Pill by Steven Brill (Book Review #22 of 2015)



America's Bitter Pill: Money, Politics, Back-Room Deals, and the Fight to Fix Our Broken Healthcare System
Brill is a writer for TIME and wrote the seminal article on the Affordable Care Act, consuming an entire issue of the magazine, in 2014. This book was largely a result of his research for that article and his own experience, being hospitalized with a heart aneurysm and experiencing the "broken" health care system first-hand. Brill was given access to many in the White House, including President Obama, who wanted his "voice" to be part of the book. The book is the best history of the still-young ACA yet written.

I work in an office of the Commonwealth of Kentucky that looks frequently at Medicaid. I was pleasantly surprised that Brill wrote so much about Kentucky's expansion in this book, several chapters. He juxtaposes Kentucky's competent rollout of Kynect with the federal government's Healthcare.gov disaster. He does not, however, delve too far below the surface of the decisions Kentucky policymakers and implementers faced. The Governor, the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, and the directors of KYNect come across very positively in the book. Brill neglects the political implications of Gov. Beshear's executive order, bypassing the legislature. He also could have strengthened the book by comparing Kentucky's border states and their hesitations and the political battles that have ensued there.

Lest people forget what the impetus was for reform, over 60% of bankruptcies in 2013 were largely a consequence of medical bills, up from 8% in 1981. There was much hostility toward insurance plans that capped what an insurer would have to pay out for any individual, a real problem for those facing medical crises. Brill highlights the "corrupt" system with non-profits that are quite profitable, the "charge master" lists of the exhorbitant prices hospitals charge for supplies ($70 for a $1.50 pack of gauze, etc.) and the "discounts" negotiated with insurers.

From wikipedia:
"Brill claims patients receive bills that have little relationship to the care provided and that the free market in American medicine is a myth, with or without Obamacare...Time magazine's managing editor Rick Stengel wrote: "If the piece has a villain, it's something you've probably never heard of: the chargemaster, the mysterious internal price list for products and services that every hospital in the U.S. keeps. If the piece has a hero, it's an unlikely one: Medicare, the government program that by law can pay hospitals only the approximate costs of care. ..."

Brill's history of the problem essentially begins with WWII, when the Supreme Court ruled health insurance were not wages and therefor not subject to taxes nor wage/price controls. This gave employers an incentive to provide an increasing amount of insurance as compensation and a flood of insurance providers into the market. The U.S. is the only Western country to require employer provision of insurance.

He takes a brief look at the politics of the 1990s, from the early Heritage Foundation recommendations that citizens be held "responsible" to buy private health insurance, to Jon Gruber's analysis of the consequences of various health care changes, which got the attention of Gov. Mitt Romney. Brill outlines some of the ways Romneycare and Obamacare are similar, but does not do a good job showing how they're different. The penalties under Romneycare are much less, and tax deductible, for example.

Obama's initial foray into health policy came at a debate in Nevada when he was an underdog in the Democratic primary. Obama seemed a bit clueless and didn't say anything substantive. Others, like Jonathan Gruber, who had met Obama knew him to be at least knowledgable on the subject (Gruber stayed out of the campaign but later, famously, helped put together the ACA). Eventually, Obama's evolution worked out for him-- but the legacy of him opposing the McCain/Republican-proposed tax credit for the purchase of private insurance came back to haunt him, as did his criticism of Hillary Clinton's preference of a mandate.

In Obama's first term he had a crack health care policy team, but Sen. Max Baucus was negotiating his own health care bill. Ezekiel Emanuel got a seat at Obama's table because of Rahm Emanuel, and other wonks like Larry Summers and Peter Orszag also contributed. The hold-your-nose negotiations with Republicans like Mary Landrieu  This dynamic is interesting, and I hope Chuck Todd's book The Amateur does a better job detailing the wrangling.

Interestingly, the goal was always to eliminate bad insurance policies, yet when it came to millions of these inferior policies being cancelled due to changes in the law, the Administration was suprised and angry. Obama caved under the Republican's repeating ad nauseum his "if you like your insurance, you can keep it." That was never true, never intended to be true, yet somehow surprised Obama when it actually happened. This happened during the healthcare.gov rollout meltdown, which was already an embarrassment. "You guys figure it out" was apparently Obama's leadership style in this project. By the time of the launch, many of the architects had already left for the private sector, exacerbating the problem.

Brill hears from multiple parties that Valerie Jarrett filtered complaints and warnings about the healthcare.gov building process from reaching Obama. "The President wants to hear your solutions, not your problems," they were told. Brill asks Obama specifically about this and the President refused to answer. Obama remained focused on the publicity-- making sure young invincibles enrolled. "Enroll America" was a group of secret donors working hard to promote the new health coverage. After meetings he is quoted as saying "But none of this matters if we don't get the technology right," but it's not clear he had met with anyone working on the machine. Part of the problem is that there was no one in charge, there were multiple agencies and contractors tasked with multiple moving parts. On the day of the launch, Healthcare.gov was only able to handle 10,000 users at a time while being overwhelmed with multiples of that. By contrast, Kynect alone was capable of handling 30,000 users-- just one small state. Brill writes that Obama questioned stakeholders individually, "no drama Obama," and some withered under his calm questioning. In the end, he appoints a "health care czar" and things seemingly improve.

Brill's later chapters deal with the heart aneurysm. He notes that for all of Kentucky's health care strengths, the system is still not transparent enough for heart patients to compare the results and ratings of surgeons, like he can in New York. Brill tries to make sense of his bills, notes the chargemaster numbers and discounts. He even sits down with United HealthCare's CEO who can't make sense of the bill. Even the CEO doesn't understand the "basic communication he sends to customers," and that problem hasn't been fixed by Obamacare.

Brill concludes that while basic medical care is made more readily available for Americans by the law, it still doesn't solve the fundamental problems of health care delivery. Brill's thoughtful solution is to see hospitals become insurance companies, be one conglomerate with price caps and caps on CEO pay and potentially profit. Regulate them like monopolies with anti-trust laws, require that there be a certain number of providers in various locations (New York City might have 5-6, for example). This would cause hospitals to get rid of the "chargemaster" list which CEOs admit is an archaic relic. This would also help do away with the fee-for-service problem. More transparency about prices would lead to better choices and competition. Real innovators and cost cutters could find profit. It's novel.

In all, I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5.