Thursday, February 26, 2015

American Sniper by Chris Kyle (Book Review #19 of 2015)

American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History
Since the movie got so much attention and I was hearing how "every American should see it," yet how Kyle exaggerated various stories, how it portrayed the Iraq war in too nice a light, yet how it was helpful in shedding light on PTSD. Both praised and cursed, I thought I'd read the book for myself.

First of all, it's a pretty tame book-- perhaps even boring for a war autobiography. Kyle notes that he didn't get his 160+ kills mostly by his skill, but rather by opportunities (staying alive, re-upping, and seeing plenty of targets in Iraq) and luck (being at the right place at the right time). Lone Survivor (my review) is a more interesting/intense book if are looking for adrenaline and close calls. By the end of this book, killing becomes "no big deal," and what was probably harrowing and dangerous seems pretty mundane and routine. You probably need a movie theater to make it better.

I think the endearing aspect is that Taya Kyle writes parts of it, describing what a jerk Kyle was, how it was difficult to be married, the changes she saw in him after his deployments, and her love for him growing as he finally decided to put his family first and not re-enlist. Most books of this nature don't have the spouse's perspective, so that made it interesting. At the Oscar's last week, Taya is quoted:
"It's not just our story; it's every veteran's story," she said. "People have been relating to it so much, as well as healing. We're hearing stories of couples who were in combat 30 and 40 years ago, who are walking away [from the film], opening a dialogue they haven't been able to open before. So, I think it's just an honor to be able to help in some way, and have it be more than just our story.""

The book begins similarly to Lone Survivor because, like Marcus Luttrell (who Kyle later befriends), Chris Kyle was raised a Texas patriotic country boy who can simultaneously profess love for Jesus while cursing like a sailor. He was an effective cattle ranch hand and college dropout. He was initially denied Navy entry due to screws in his arm from a rodeo injury. After the Navy called him back,  a recruiter lied to him to forfeit his signing bonus saying that he had to do it if he wanted to make the SEALs.

His Hell Week and BUDs training read a lot like every other such story I've read. He broke foot in BUDs (Luttrell broke his arm in his story). He's disappointed not to see combat in Afghanistan after 9/11, but he does engage in anti-piracy activity and his platoon is called up a year later to fight in Iraq. His initial deployment seemed unremarkable, Taya notes that he returns with symptoms of PTSD. He appreciates the American well-wishers but remembers the protestors most of all, and bitterly. He makes a good point that people shouldn't protest soldiers sent to fight the battles that elected officials vote for-- protest Congress instead.

He eventually enrolls in sniper school, but graduates about the middle of his class. He details the work he did with Polish special forces in Iraq, speaking highly of them. During the insurgency, he notes Iraqi insurgents of different stripes-- nationalists, Baathists, Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamists. He notes that they had evidence many were on drugs to "boost their courage."

Repeatedly, Kyle puts country ahead of family as in "God, country, family." His wife continuously does not want him to redeploy, but he can't not. So long as he's healthy and his country is at war (which is now perpetually), he feels he has to go serve. It takes him over 10 years in the service to get over this. He does multiple tours before suffering any casualties among his close friends. He loses two friends close together, and it affects him deeply.

There is not a whole lot related to leadership or management in this book. One good quote: "I had a lot of good commanders. The great ones were humble."
He notes the tediousness of strict adherence to Rules of Engagement. How every kill in Ramadi (and he had a lot) required filling out a detailed after-action report along with other reports to confirm that the killing was justified. On one occasion an Iraqi family of a dead insurgent protested that her husbands had been carrying a Koran  rather than a rifle, which gets investigated. Kyle is not complimentary of Iraqi army, writing that it was a mistake to put an Iraqi face on the war and to train them to take over in the middle of insurgency.

He gets arrested on one homestay, a bar fight with "scruff face" who Kyle later claimed was Jesse Ventura, who is now suing Kyle's estate for $1.7 million. (Dude, just say "it couldn't have been me" and move on. The damage to your reputation is greater from the lawsuit than from Kyle's potentially mistaken claim.) Eventually, he decides he needs to be a husband and a father, that he's not irreplaceable to his family like a soldier is with a new recruit. It took him a lnog time to get over SEAL life and guilt over getting out, but he gets there.

In the end, he helped start a company to train snipers, does charity work for wounded warriors, and finds a new identity apart from the old. It is a shame that he was killed by someone he was trying to help.
3.5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Money Answer Book by Dave Ramsey (Book Review #18 of 2015)

The Money Answer Book
I checked out this book because I’m teaching Dave Ramsey’s FPU next month and have been working through the course material. This book is a FAQ for Dave Ramsey’s advice.
Each Q/A is a couple pages long and the book is a fast read. There is nothing in this book that you can’t learn by Googling for the information. The questions range from “what is a debit card?” to “My spouse and I have separated and I’m terrified he will bankrupt me. What do I do?”

All of the teaching points and anecdotes from Dave Ramsey’s course are in this book. If you’re teaching the course (and do so frequently) then look at buying a used copy of this book. Otherwise, you would do better to check this book or Total Money Makeover out from the library and use them instead of paying full price for his course. If you’re engaged or newlywed, check out Matt Bell’s Money & Marriage as it’s the same information and advice.

The thing I like least about Ramsey is his investment advice not including investing in index funds. Just signing up for a mutual fund, even a no-load fund, is going to result in higher fees and results that are repeatedly proven over time to be no better than an index fund. An index fund isn’t available, however, if you want to invest socially or avoid certain companies. This book does contain a couple of alternatives if that’s your thing.

He is also pretty nonchalant about finding a second job to make ends meet when trying to pay down the debt of past mistakes. There are quite a few people for whom it’s not that easy, and they don’t need the guilt trip.

My experience qualifying for a mortgage with no credit history also differs from what he claims is reality. The world is different than it was 10 years ago.

He misunderstands giving 10% as a biblical mandate and rips some scripture out of context. He’s a (non-licensed?) financial adviser, not a theologian.

There are some nuggests of wisdom and factoids worth repeating:
“Only contentment brings peace.”

70% of households live paycheck to paycheck.

“Laziness is a sickness, and it will get you absolutely nowhere in life….You need to learn from your mistakes or you--and your children-- will be doomed to repeat the cycle.”

“The German root word for ‘debt’ is the same as for ‘guilt.’”

“Many a man has failed because he had his wishbone where his backbone should have been.” - Ronald Reagan

“A little bit of controlled pain when you’re six will change your life when you’re thirty-six.”

“A budget is telling your money where to go instead of wondering where it went.” - John Maxwell

“We do make enough to save money; we just aren’t willing to quit spoiling have enough left to save...It just has to become a big enough priority for you.”

3 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Memos to the Governor: An Introduction to State Budgeting by Dall W. Forsythe (Book Review #17 of 2015)

Memos to the Governor, Second Edition, Updated: Memos to the Governor: An Introduction to State Budgeting
Dall W. Forsythe was New York State's Budget Director and has served in a similar capacity for other government, private sector, and non-profit entities. This book is used in Public Administration 
courses (apparently at places like Harvard and other Ivy League schools likely to produce governors) to introduce students to state budgeting in a simple format. The back cover sums it up well:
"Dall W. Forsythe, who served as budget director under Governor Cuomo, outlines the budgeting process through a series of memos from a budget director to a newly elected governor--a format that helps readers with little or no background to understand complicated financial issues. He covers all of the steps of budget preparation, from strategy to execution, explaining technical vocabulary, and discussing key topics including baseline budgeting, revenue forecasting, and gap-closing options. Forsythe brings fresh insights into such issues as the importance of a multiyear strategic budget plan, the impact of the business cycle on state budgets, the tactical problems of getting budgets adopted by, legislatures, and, of course, the relationship between governor and budget officer. Memos to the Governor is a painless, practical introduction to budget preparation for students of and practitioners in public administration and public-sector financial management."

The format of the book addresses the reader as a governor who is getting a crash course on budgeting. I cringe thinking that there may be some governor or major policy adviser out there whose only introduction to budgeting is this book. *shudder* But better this book than nothing, I suppose. I work in a state budget office and work in the revenue forecasting side while also working with a particular agency's expenditure forecast. I most enjoyed the chapters in the book dealing with putting together the economic and revenue forecasts. This book ought to be given to everyone in my office when they first start working as it gives a great picture of how all the pieces fit together (and I don't live in a state mentioned in the book).

"Governors need people around them who are prepared to speak truth to power, and by position and training your budget officer is expected to play that role" (p. 7). 

Forsythe occasionally injects his own opinion into the descriptions:

"I believe that state budget officers will serve their governors better by...broadening their roles into full-fledge chief financial manager and budget strategist and tactition"(p. 9).

There is acknowledgement of the ultimate obeisance to the bond market, ie: the credit rating agencies (22).

I shrug a little when he writes
"Your revenue estimators will keep in touch with their counterparts in other states and with other economists with regional perspectives," because in my experience that does not happen much (p. 23). I do enjoy his admonishment that "it is dangerous for you or your top staff to try to tinker with individual revenue estimates" as it "creates a dangerous dynamic in the relationship between you and your budget officer (or office)" (p. 25). In reality, governors are politicians and their officers are often political appointees expected to support the Governor's policies and agenda. Incentives matter, in other words.

Most of the book is a step-by-step primer in how budgets are put together, negotiated, sold to the public, signed into law, and adjusted when economic realities emerge. Forsythe has included many historic examples (mostly from the 1980s and 90s) from several states, not just New York. I gained a greater knowledge and understanding of my budget analyst colleague's work due to this book.

I recommend this book to anyone serving in state government, as it's important for everyone to understand how the budget process works. 4 stars out of 5.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Antifragile by Nassim Taleb (Book Review #16 of 2015)

Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (Incerto)

I read Fooled by Randomness (my review) in early 2008, before the complete collapse of the housing market and financial system, and it changed my world like perhaps no other book has. I was not really ready to read another Taleb book before I had read so many other works he cites. Since 2008 I have read Plato, Xenophon, Adam Smith, Hayek, Kahneman, Keynes, Mandelbroit, Ferguson, Shiller, and others and studied a good bit about Ancient Greece, Rome, Anatolia, and the Levant. I would probably not currently read the Classics and philosophy were it not for Taleb's rule (not kept by himself either) to not read anything newer than 700 years old.

Nassim Taleb is a flawed individual (aren't we all)? His biggest flaw is his penchant for responding to critical reviews quite harshly, whether wading into the comments section on Amazon, allowing himself to be trolled on Twitter, or writing detailed responses to critics' articles. This is odd because Taleb has written that critics aren't worth regarding, and praises criticism in Antifragile. In Fooled by Randomness, Taleb points out that most philosophers (Karl Popper foremost) live contradictorily to their philosophies-- they are logically inconsistent. While Taleb falls prey to this same problem, he does not readily admit it on these pages.

Taleb reads books that have bad reviews, books that have ticked off the intelligentia, because he knows that book might contain some original thoughts outside the mainstream and therefore be worth reading and probably correct. I've seen bad reviews of this book and think that was their secret point in solidarity with Taleb. I really enjoyed most of this book, too much to savage it, but I hope my praise of it does not keep you from reading.

There is apparently no word in any language that captures the precise idea for the "opposite of fragile." Some cultures, likewise, do not have words for various colors. Ancient Greeks, for example, only had a few colors in their lexicon something which was not discovered and confirmed until the 1800s (by a non-expert, which made it harder for the establishment to agree with). Other cultures have been tested and proven to not be physically colorblind, but they don't distinguish, say red, orange, and yellow in their vocabulary.

This book is ostensibly about how the way we do things-- economics, medicine, politics, genetically modified foods, etc. -- makes our world more fragile, and how we could do things differently to increase the world's antifragility. Taleb vehemently opposes the "Soviet-Harvard" arrogance that complex systems can be understood, predicted, and made less volatile.

Fear of randomness leads to fragility. "Stressors and randomness have their role in daily life." For example, doing the same exercise over and over leads to repetitive motion injuries and rapidly diminishing marginal returns. Mix up your routines to increase stress and the benefit. Fast from food occasionally and see how your body reacts. (One suggestion in Fooled by Randomness was to not set your alarm occassionally, live with the variance of times at which you will wake up for better mental fortitude). Eliminating the randomness neither good nor desirable, evolution itself depends on the randomness. "But try explaining this to politicians."

We want linear outcomes and a normally distributed world, but that's not how the world works. There's convexivity and concavity, second-order effects, etc. Rather than accepting randomness, embracing it, preparing for it, and using options to hedge our risk we instead try to suppress it, dismiss it, ignore it, and then it gets you-- like the housing bust. If I say "It would be terrible and very costly if X broke, but I don't think it will because of _________." What is in the ______? For Ben Bernanke it was "housing prices have never fallen together nationwide before." Just because there wasn't historical precedent (which there was, by the way) does that mean that housing prices couldn't fall? This is the plight of the turkey. Every day the farmer comes in and feeds him well. Over the years, he sees the farmer as harmless and not a threat. Until the farmer eats him. That is the black swan event, a 6-sigma and seemingly impossible event with enormous consequences. Antifragility focuses on those seemingly small events with large consequences.

There is an early diatribe against academia as being petty, vindictive. We send students to business school to be trained by people who have never run businesses and it's like "teaching birds how to fly by lecturing them." Taleb's research shows that academic ideas don't make it onto the trading floor, but vice-versa. Traders find what works. Maybe some day the trading strategies will be researched and end up in a classroom. Likewise, how many drugs has been discovered via research funded by the NIH? Very few. The vast majority have been found by private industry. The industrial revolution was largely spurred by private tinkerers, many of the foremost "experts" of that era were titled "Reverend." Academics of that era were mostly lecturers, not experts expected to produce cutting-edge research, until the late 1800s. Fragility is what makes us antifragile. Immune systems strengthen immunity by exposure to disease, the coffee maker on my desk owes its success to the hundreds of inventors who tried before and failed. We all stand on someone else's shoulders. Taleb's ideas, to me, seem very Hayekian although he hardly mentions Hayek (he does praise Schumpeter's idea of creative destruction, though not Schumpeter's later policies at naive interventionism). He critiques Hayek's talk of knowledge as Hayek ignores optionality as a substitute for knowledge.

Seneca is Taleb's hero. He was prominent stoic philosopher but said that education was for the lecture hall, and he was also a practitioner foremost-- the richest man in Rome.

Someone else's review summed it up thus:
We need entrepreneurs and risk-takers, else we end up as "Mediocristan." Mediocristan is where normal things happen, things that are expected, whose probabilities of occurring are easy to compute, and whose impact is not terribly huge. The bell curve and the normal distribution are emblems of Mediocristan. For those not very familiar with statistics, the bell curve represents the normal distribution, where small, low-impact changes have the highest probabilities of occurring, and huge, wide-impact changes have a very small probability of occurring. Exstremistan is a different beast. In Extremistan, nothing can be predicted accurately and events that seemed unlikely or impossible occur frequently and have a huge impact. Black Swan events occur in Exstremistan.

Yet, Taleb writes, the system should not be built such that others lose when one fails-- ie: creditors. Debt makes one less antifragile, here therefore opposes nations that run up debts and is opposed to personal debt. A Dave Ramsey fan can find commonality with Taleb here. Even though the odds of disability or death and therefore inability to pay off your mortgage may seem very slim, in the event that randomness strikes the consequences are enormous.

Politically, Taleb does not argue against all interventionism, but rather "naive interventionism." For example, when America attacks ISIL, it might drive it underground but that will only make it a worse problem later. (Taleb is a Lebanese Christian who grew up during the civil war there.) Taleb writes much about iatrogenics - an adverse condition in a patient resulting from treatment by a physician. Iatrogenics kills more people than cancer annually. To me, Taleb seems somewhat inconsistent on medicine. He is angry with doctors who prescribe age-old remedies with little evidence of their benefit while blasting prescriptions backed by studies which are done by modern researchers and pharmaceuticals. He makes a good point, however, that things like Mediterranean diet may have benefits due to more than eating. Greek Orthodox Christians who live on the Mediterranean fast for lent and other occasions, a stressor which is shown to have health benefits. Don't try the diet apart from the lifestyle, in other words.

Taleb writes that we should let kids fall, allow more microbes, etc. because this increases resiliency in the long-run. But my question is: what if one of those falls is the small-probability/large-consequence event? At what point do we aim for antifragility?

In the latter part of the book Taleb attacks economists and business schools directly. He writes that strategic thinking is just "superstitious babble," for instance. I do not agree with him, nor would many entrepreneurs that Taleb praises. It does no good to start your engine and not have an idea of your destination. A good strategic plan allows for randomness and can be made antifragile.

Taleb reserves special venom for Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate who failed to forecast the implosion of Fannie Mae and continues to acknowledge his error in either his books or his articles. Peter Orszag was a Stiglitz protege who headed Obama's Office of Management and Budget before taking a position at Citibank.
"The Romans had engineers sleep under the bridges they had built. The U.S. government should have made Orszag and Stiglitz sleep under Fannie Mae as they would have exited the gene pool and done us no more harm." Having "skin in the game" is the best way to make forecasting antifragile.

At least one investor critic has pointed out that applying Taleb's strategy to options is shown to historically lose money. Volatility has trended downward since 2008, should it go back up? Should we always be long volatility? This is a good critique here. "Taleb himself was in there angrily responding at length to these negative reviewers, and his cult-like fans piled on. From a guy who writes in Antifragile that criticism should be welcomed, his response to criticism is consistently hysterical"

Personally, I have thought more about framing things in terms of antifragility in my own life. Why do I want to pay off my debts faster

So, I recommend this book if you've read most of the other economists/philosophers/celebrities mentioned above. You need to have some background on ancient Greece and Rome, as well as Soviet history which Taleb often refers to. He flaunts his Latin and Arabic, so those languages are also a bonus in reading Taleb.

In all, I give this book 4 stars out of 5. It is thought-provoking. Great books lead the reader to read more books and Taleb's books are great in that fashion.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Most Misused Verses in the Bible by Eric J. Bargerhuff (Book Review #15 of 2015)

This book went free on Kindle the week I happened to be listening to Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology lectures (available here) on biblical interpretation, so I couldn't pass it up. 

I was at least 30 years old before I learned how to read my Bible, or perhaps I should say how not to read it. I grew up going to "Bible-believing" Baptist churches that never taught me proper exegesis, and I never saw improper exegesis corrected. The church newsletter ("The Porter Vision") ripped Proverbs 29:18 out of context. "Life verses" like Philippians 4:13 and Jeremiah 29:11-13 were common and inappropriately painted on walls or included in various decorations. I attended Bible studies where "I think passage means..." were common. I even read deep theological books (Piper, Packer), but none of them ever dealt with teaching the reader how to read the Bible. Now I understand that's the most important thing a pastor can do for his congregation.

I thought I understood context. I recognized, for example, that Habakkuk 1:5 was a verse of judgment, God was raising up the Chaledeans to conquer Judah as a consequence of its sin. So, when people (like the missions arm of the denomination) used Habakkuk 1:5, I could say "wait a minute." But I was still prone to begin my Bible reading with "God, what do you want me to get out of this passage today?" and come across a verse seemingly related to what I might be feeling or dealing with and say "Aha! A sign!" Like, I might be wondering whether to ask for a raise and then happen to read 1 Timothy 5:18 and say "Yes, I should!"

The proper question should not be “What does this passage mean to me?” but rather “What were the author’s original intentions and how did the audience who first received it understand those intentions in the original context?” And then, only after discovering this is it appropriate to ask, “How then does the timeless biblical principle contained in this passage apply to me today? (loc. 1815).

I see a difference among fairly recent graduates from seminary, who seem to grasp this point, and those who graduated decades ago. The younger preachers I listen to are always harping on "don't take this verse out of context," etc. whereas I never used to hear that. Not reading Scripture properly has led to a whole host of problems in our churches, like in exercising church discipline (see example below).

Bargerhuff quickly takes the reader through several verses, teaching how not to read them. This is a short book that fulfills its purpose nicely: illustrate the importance of proper interpretation. Ask yourself: Who was the original intended audience? What else is happening around this verse, this passage, this book? Does this passage relate to a particular theme found in Scripture?

I think Bargerhuff does the best job on Jeremiah 29:11-13. This is similar to Habakkuk 1:5, it is a verse intended for Israel. The Christian can take comfort that God is in control and that one day we will live in Christ's kingdom, but Jeremiah 29:11-13 was specifically for Israel at a specific point in time. Most who were alive and heard Jeremiah's words would have died in exile before experiencing their fulfillment.

"God is speaking to the Israelite nation of Judah here. This is his plan for the nation, not necessarily a personal promise that is directed to any one person per se. It is a 'corporate' promise. Therefore, we should be cautious about grabbing it out of its context and inappropriately applying it to individual believers in the twenty-first century...The majority of people who hear this promise from Jeremiah’s lips will never see it fulfilled in their lifetime. They will likely perish in exile before it comes to fruition...I can still use Jeremiah 29, but I must apply it appropriately. Without a doubt, a future 'heavenly hope' exists for those who have placed their faith and trust in Christ alone for their salvation" (loc. 423-457). 

Other verses:
Matthew 7:1 - "Do not judge..." about hypocrisy
Matthew 18:20 - "Where two or more are gathered..." - God is omnipresent, He is there when only one person is present. This is most likely about the affirmation of decisions reached among Christians about reconciliation and church discipline.
"Jesus is saying that whenever the church is pursuing and is involved in a reconciliation process with someone who has refused to repent, they can rest assured that God’s blessing is with them in their efforts. In other words, as the church renders judicial decisions on matters of right and wrong that are based on the truth of God’s Word, they should be confident that they are doing the right thing and that Christ himself is right there with them, spiritually present in their midst" (loc. 593).

John 14:13-14
Rom 8:28 All things work together . . . this verse is about being conformed into the image of Christ.

Col 1:15 Christ the firstborn . . . an apologetic against Jehovah's Witnesses.
I Tim 6:10 Money the root of all evil . . . many forget the "love" part and context matters.

I Cor 10:13 No more than you can handle . . . this is about temptations, not trials. It's important to remember that early Christians suffered unto death, which is often not on the mind of people who quote this verse.

Proverbs 22:6 Train up a child... the literal Hebrew allows for a few possibilities, but it is not a promise so much as a common sense correlation.
Philippians 4:13 I can do all things . . .this is about contentment.
Exodus 21:23-25

James 5:14-15 "Is anyone among you sick...?" I think think Bargerhuff does his worst job in this chapter. He wonders why God did not respond to his prayers when his father dies. His father was deteriorating after a series of heart problems. Scripture tells us in many places to pray for the sick, but it's not God's will to heal everyone. That would be enough-- we're still to pray. But Bargerhuff rightly points out that the word translated "sick" is not the same Greek word used elsewhere in referring to those with disease. Mark 6:13 for example "And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them," at first glance reads a lot like James 5:15. But the words in the Greek are different, the root in Mark being used extensively but a quick check of my lexicon says the word used in James is only used elsewhere in Hebrews, and really only works there as "weak." Bargerhuff suggests this passage in its entirety is dealing with reconciliation and those who had fallen under pressure due to persecution. I know from studying church history that dealing with those who betrayed the faith under persecution was a big deal for the early church, and that seems to fit into the theme of this passage.

Acts 2:38 Repent & be baptized . . . an apologetic against those who baptise for the remission of sins.
Proverbs 4:23 Guard your heart . . . has nothing to do with making yourself less vulnerable in relationships.The word for "heart" does not contain our American understanding of it.

John 12:32 "When I am lifted up I will draw all men to myself" - this is referring to Jesus' crucifixion and many worship leaders talk about "lifting Jesus high" in appropriately referring to this verse. It's like they're saying "I want to see Jesus crucified again and again!"

I give this book 4.5 stars out of 5. It is succinct, well-written, and does not contain a lot of fluff. Just enough detail, I highly recommend.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Podcast of the Week (2/15-2/21, 2015) You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney

The podcast You Are Not So Smart, by author David McRaney addresses heuristics, congitive biases, neuroscience, and behavioral economics. I have not read McRaney's books (yet) but I think he does a good job of covering those I have read on those topics.

This episode was inspired by Brian Williams' "misremembering" events from the Iraq war. It features interviews with Dan Simon and Julia Shaw. Shaw discusses an experiment in which she implanted false memories into her college students' brains. Shaw - (quoting Elizabeth Loftus) "100% of our memories are false," meaning they contain falsehoods of varying degree. Brian Williams essentially "played telephone with himself" - our memory of events is shown to change over time as we tell stories about it, get feedback from others, and deal with emotions attached to the memory.

Shaw describes the method by which she "implanted" false memories in college students, making them think they'd committed felonies when they were teenagers. This reminded me of an experiment I heard a professor do after 9/11, where he had students write down where they were immediately after the event. Just 5-10 years later he did a survey and many of them had a different memory of where they were when it happened.

You might ask "what does this have to do with me?" Well, ponder the statement above that 100% of your memories contain falsehood. What is it that you remember vividly, like it happened yesterday? It probably didn't happen like that. This has implications for our perceptions of others, for our legal system (if you listened to Serial you got a great example), and even the Gospel. Forensic scientist- turned pastor/author J. Warner Wallace (Cold-Case Christianity) gives his view as a former detective in his books and on his website.

Witnesses are always separated as quickly as possible to get differing versions. This is to avoid collusion and confusion, you might misremember something because of a friend who says he saw it
differently. He writes on his website that
"When people have the opportunity to align their statements, yet still refuse to do so, I know I am getting the nuanced observations I need to properly investigate the case. The Gospel authors (and the early Church) certainly had the opportunity to eliminate alleged contradictions, but they refused to do so. As a result, we can have even more confidence in the reliability of these accounts. They display the level of variation I would expect to see if they were true, reliable eyewitness descriptions." 

Continuing elsewhere:
"Even though I accept and affirm the inerrancy of Scripture, inerrancy is not required of reliable eyewitnesses. In fact, I’ve never had a completely inerrant eyewitness in all my years as a homicide detective. In addition, I’ve never had a case where two witnesses have ever agreed completely on the details of the crime. Eyewitness reliability isn’t dependent upon perfection..."

Wallace points out that the question the interviewees were presented with matters. How many angels, for example? Okay, so Wallace says he never met two eyewitnesses that exactly lined up. Yet, we cannot be satisfied with "reliable witnesses," as we have to keep with "jot and tittle" inerrancy in the Gospel accounts. How do we do that?  Wallace concludes:

"Let me be clear about something here: after examining the gospel accounts, I don’t believe that they contain any true contradictions or factual errors. I do, believe however, that they contain scribal variants, and these variants are already identified on the pages of scripture by the publishers of our modern translations. While I do believe in the inerrancy of the original text of the New Testament, I entered my examination of the gospels with a very different standard; I didn’t demand that the witnesses be inerrant, just reliable. A witness can be mistaken about some small detail, yet considered reliable related to his or her larger claims. Although it is clear that the New Testament we possess today contains “variants” that we have accurately identified by comparing over 24,000 manuscripts fragments and larger documents, this has no bearing on whether or not they are reliable. These variants may be an excuse for some to lazily dismiss the claims of scripture, but good investigators don’t have the luxury of being lazy. Instead, it’s our duty to separate the artifacts from the evidence so we can solve the case and determine what really happened at the crime scene. Similar diligence is needed if we are ever going to fairly assess the claims of Christianity."
You can determine for yourself if you're satisfied with Warner's explanation (and Norman Geisler's, who Warner quotes) of inerrancy. He and others note that there may be paradoxes but not contradictions, and if there were two angels then there also had to have been one angel, etc.

Listen, read, learn, enjoy.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

A poem for Elias

My wife decided to flee the record cold we're experiencing in Central KY (it was -7F without the wind chill this morning) and took our son to visit his cousins in Atlanta for the weekend. While I'm glad they're warmer, I miss them.
One serendipitous moment occurred last fall when I gave Elias my old copy of Shel Silverstein's A Light In The Attic. He loved it, and I gave him Where the Sidewalk Ends for Christmas (which I think is a better book). Where the Sidewalk Ends contains the poem "Put Something In" that Elias likes and which I think describes him perfectly. I might have it blown up and framed to put on our wall:

Draw a crazy picture,
Write a nutty poem,
Sing a mumble-gumble song,
Whistle through your comb.
Do a loony-goony dance
‘Cross the kitchen floor,
Put something silly in the world
That ain’t been there before.