Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Book Review (#82 of 2014) George F. Kennan: An American Life by John Lewis Gaddis

George F. Kennan: An American Life 1st (first) Edition by Gaddis, John Lewis published by Penguin Press HC, The (2011)
I learned a lot from this authorized biography, the author was given "unrestricted access" to Kennan's journals, writings, and personal friends with the understanding that this book would be published after his death.

Kennan's thoughts and work have much to offer 2014 as we see an inter-Slavic conflict in Ukraine as well as the U.S. battling Islamic extremists in Iraq and Syria. Kennan would have understood very well Former Secretary of State Clinton's criticisms of the President for not having a coherent, consistent foreign policy. But he would also have been sympathetic to FDR's struggle with a hostile congress just as he was with JFK's struggles with Congress. After the breakup of the USSR, Kennan had argued for its non-alignment with NATO and criticized NATO expansion to Eastern Europe in the 1990s as unnecessarily provocative. He would probably see the current conflict as inevitable given the tensions that had built up. He would also see Putin's strongarm tactics as continuation of Russian history. Kennan was one of the first to recognize that the USSR was just the latest face on the flow of Russian history, led by strong autocrats with empirical ambitions and deep phobias about the Western world. He noted that dispatches written by diplomat Neal Brown from Russia in the 1850s could have just as easily been written in the 1950s, very little had changed.

But Kennan always quoted John Adams on foreign policy: Don't go abroad looking for monsters to destroy. The U.S. should be strong and set a definitive alternative vision for the world in contrast to Soviets, Islamic extremists, etc. Fight for freedom and democracy where feasible, but not every monster was a Hitler and some conflicts (like Vietnam, which he was fervently against) are best left avoided. Military strategy should be made concordant with political policy, and this is a theme I saw echoed in Robert Gates' recent memoir.

Kennan essentially had three fathers: His own, George Kennan (one of the first Americans to widely travel Russia and the Caucasus) who was Kennan's grandfather's cousin but shared both his birthday, name, and affinity for Russia, and Chekov. Every man has suffered a wound that shaped his development, Kennan's came from the loss of his mother in his infancy and rejection by family members-- including the above George Kennan's wife who made sure her husband had nothing to do with him (a shame, really). Nonetheless he was a "happy child" and a "normal boy" who got his first taste of overseas life (and learned fluent German) when his family lived in Germany for a time. From that he developed an appreciation of foreign culture and a wanderlust.

After a military high school, Kennan barely makes it into Princeton and wrote mix feelings about it, mainly finding it "homogenous" and remarks on the lack of foreigners or broader world view. He begins writing letters to his sister while at school, a lifelong endeavor that would be the source for many of his memories in this book. He got passport, took a boat to Europe one summer and fell upon the mercy of the U.S. consulate in Italy. After returning, he graduated from Princeton in 1925 and joins the newly-formed Foreign Service. After passing his exams, he is posted to Geneva, then Hamburg. Not enamored with complaints and lives of expats, he fell in love with a girl, and wanted to resign and also pursue graduate studies.

Kennan as bored, frustrated, physically exhausted, and cynical is a recurring theme. He often grows whimsical about doing other things, like farming, writing, or teaching. He is usually given a way out and a new chapter begins. This time, the FS sent to US for 6 months of leave where he elected to join a new program to train in critical languages-- he chose Russian in part out of family affiliation, even though the elder Kennan would have little to do with him. He was then stationed in Talinn, Estonia.
While studying in Germany, Kennan passes his Russian exam and marries a Swedish girl (Anna Sorensen). The Depression hits, bankrupting his parents, and Kennan begins to write very pessimistically about civilization. This would continue throughout his life. While professional and stable at home and the office, Kennan is crankily pessimistic, insecure, and often depressed. From 1931-1936, Kennan would be a part of the first U.S. diplomatic mission to Moscow after FDR officially normalized relations with the USSR in 1932. Kennan became one of State Department's most respected Russian experts. When FDR negotiated diplomatic recognition of Moscow in 1932, Kennan warned that Russians would break any agreements signed. This would also be a recurring theme of 20th century history.

While Kennan made a decent salary, he was often physically ill, could not stand working for political appointee ambassadors, and received a transfer to Jerusalem only to later be sent back to Moscow when the State Department reorganized its affairs. The depth at which the Soviets had penetrated the State Department and other branches of government during this time was truly remarkable and disturbing. Kennan was definitely anti-McCarthy but recognized areas where he saw Soviet influence.

Kennan is the ultimate expatriate, who knows one can never truly go home again. While he loves America, he also loathes its bad characteristics increasingly on every home visit. Kennan was fluent in Russian and well-versed in its history but remarkably ignorant of U.S. history. In 1938 he writes of how America needs a stronger central government led by elites with women and blacks kept from voting. It echoes the "Gentleman" concept of the late 1700s and the Founding Fathers but the author doesn't mention this; Kennan was just ignorant of previous American thought. Kennan later softens after seeing the brutality of fascism, Stalin's purges, and other acts of brutality by non-democratic governments. But he hopes America can rebuild from the Depression in such a way that the proletariat doesn't take the reigns as they did under Hitler in Germany. His journal writings come across as fairly anti-semitic, but he did work to get Jews out of Eastern Europe and Germany before America entered World War II, something he did not get much credit for.

Kennan is stationed in Prague during early days of the war and witnesses Nazi occupation. His wife's father was tortured by Germans when they took over Norway. Kennan Meets Germans in Prague who are against Hitler, but little anyone can do. He found the hypocrisy of the German army toward the Jews detestable. Kennan had missed the Soviet-Nazi pact, didn't forsee it. He is transferred to Berlin where he is later interred with other Americans after Pearl Harbor. While in Berlin, Kennan had affairs, which led his wife to leave kids with sister in U.S. and return to Europe. The details of Kennan's affairs are always a mystery but he has a roving eye his entire life, despite loving his wife. After being released, Kennan is stationed in Portugal where he negotiates on behalf of FDR for the use of Portugese land and bases. Eventually, he returns to Moscow under Ambassador Harriman. He is disturbed by the Roosevelt administration's lack of concern with human rights, especially with how FDR quashed talk of Polish mistreatment by Russia for election purposes. Kennan called Russia correctly, writing that they cared/talked only of international cooperation when they needed Western assistance, otherwise it was about grabbing power. Kennan warned various administrations not to let atomic knowledge fall into hands of Soviets for this reason.

Kennan again grows frustrated and weary. He tried again to resign in 1945 but was discouraged by his superiors because of his expertise and value. After Stalin's 1946 speech denouncing rest of the world, Kennan wrote "the long telegram," and 8,000 word document that essentially explained Soviet policy and established U.S. policy in addressing it. This made Kennan famous in Washington and then England and USSR compelled own ambassadors to write similar reports. It essentially launched Kennan's modern career. However, in 1947 he again wanted to resign again from foreign service, felt he could only do so much as diplomat. He had traveled Russia, Siberia (for his namesake) and seen more of the country and read more of its literature than any other American. Eventually, he was given an appointment at the newly-established War College in D.C., being paid well and able to teach/lecture to Army, Navy, and FSOs. Was making $15,000, a decent sum for the time.

An article penned anonymously by him appeared in the July 1947 edition of Foreign Affairs that outlined a policy of containment, which essentially became the Truman Doctrine. Kennan, more than any other diplomat before or since, had shaped U.S. foreign policy for the century. Kennan worked Worked under Sec. of State Marshall, and I enjoyed that this book gave me a different chapter on Marshall after reading Thomas Ricks' The Generals which focused much on Marshall's leadership and management style. Kennan helped craft the Marshall Plan, basically saying that U.S. policy should be to confront Russia on every front politically, even clandestinely. His recommendations in regards to Yugoslavia and China were also accepted-- China was to be left alone. Kennan was even sent to Japan and did brilliant end-run around McArthur and his "psychophants." He recommended independence for Japan along with aid, like Marshall Plan. The Marshall Plan took Stalin by surprise.
However, in 1948 Kennan began a "great reversal," going back on previous recommendations after becoming alarmed by the U.S.'s increasingly militarized response to Soviet aggression and fear of a third World War. Kennan had recommended pushing for a unified, neutral Germany and wanted to formulate an end of the Cold War rather than it go on indefinitely.

He was Director of Policy Planning-- and the book shows importance of this role in light of today. In 1949 Dean Acheson replaces Marshall as Secretary of State. Kennan advocates separating Communism from Russian Emperialism, which would help isolate Kremlin from places like Tito's Yugoslavia. He also recommends supporting Tito's communism as affront to Kremlin. However, many in Congress do not distinguish "good communists" from "bad communists" and Kennan's views are out-of-step again. He comes to loathe McCarthyism and the far right-wing of the Republican party. Sec. Acheson viewed Russian threat as primarily military and disregarded much of Kennan's policy advice. Kennan believed the Russian people would eventually "come around," and generally wanted peace, but was pessimistic that a peaceful outcome would be reached by the powers.

Kennan befriends Robert Oppenheimer and worked for the Institute for Advanced Study, writing and lecturing. Both Kennan and Oppenheimer publicly opposed developing a hydrogen bomb, convinced they would be used if they were ever made. He got onto the Princeton faculty with some considerable controversy and eventually his published books are acclaimed enough to justify his position there. Kennan also sponsored Russian dissident organizations, helping exiles get incorporated into American life. He published book, a "realist" view of foreign policy based on his surprisingly very popular lectures at U. of Chicago. Kennan's works would win a couple Pulitzer prizes. While lecturing at Princeton, he advises the State Dept. to negotiate an end to the Korean War. Kennan ends up being the conduit the Soviets choose to send the message--the Russians told him in a private meeting that they urged N. Korea & China to accept American truce proposal. This earned Kennan more favor with the Truman Administration, and Kennan is appointed Ambassador to the USSR in 1951.

Kennan found life in Moscow harder, like being in prison. He was lonely and isolated. At one point he requested the CIA provide him with suicide pills ostensibly because he thought war was inevitable, didn't want to be tortured and put in solitary. He also possibly had an affair and feared the news leaking. His wife eventually was able to come and didn't find it so intolerable. Kennan took everything personally, thought Stalin was out for him; indeed he was given a test by a fake dissident proposing assassination. Like a later Ambassador McFaul, Kennan made statements that enraged Kremlin and was banned. Kennan said his ambassadorship reminded him of his internment in Berlin (said while in Berlin). This comparison with the Nazis engraged the Kremlin and it Seems Stalin himself made the call to banish him.

Kennan eventually retired in 1953. He was succeeded in Moscow by Charles Bohlen, who was a long-time colleague and intellectual adversary that was also seen as too much of an "appeaser." Bohlen was later demoted, forced out in 1957, and Kennan had to defend him and others from accusations of collaboration with the Communists. Kennan lives the life of an expatriate and scholar. He becomes critical, almost spiteful, of his own country and its faults. "I didn't leave my country. It left me."

After Kennedy's election, Kennan is consulted for advice by JFK, who would meet with him 14 times in his Administration and exchange many letters. JFK gives Kennan the choice of ambassodorships, Poland or Yugoslavia, and Kennan chooses Yugoslavia. JFK pushes a crucial Trade Act through Congress, but the conservatives strip provisions in the bill that would maintain Poland and Yugoslavia's most favored nation status, something that would be a brutal blow to those countries. JFK gave promises about aid to Poland, Yugoslavia, but reneges. Kennan himself had lobbied Congress in person and made calls from Yugoslavia. JFK even promises to criticize while signing, and further reneges. Oddly, Kennan did not fault the President for not keeping his word, or the political situation. Domestic politics wins, and JFK wanted to look tough on communism. JFK later meets with Tito and apologizes while Kennan resigns his post. Kennan writes an article for Foreign Affairs on how the lack JFK's foreign policy is actually the fault of a paralyzing Congress eager to block the President at all turns (sounds familiar). LBJ is mentioned only briefly and comes across as distant, brooding.

The Kennans became world travelers while George lectured and wrote his memoirs. He also cultivated "friendships" with various ladies, including Stalin's daughter who defected in India. He became increasingly concerned about policy toward Southeast Asia and testifies before Congress (on national television) against intervention in Vietnam, which polls showed actually swayed public opinion.

Kissinger spoke highly of Kennan and Kennan had apparently tracked Kissinger's intellectual progress. Kennan was initially critical of detante but supported the idea of greater dialogue. Natan Sharansky (whose Case for Democracy I remember) and Alexander Solzhenitsyn later widely criticized Kennan. I would agree with them on this point, according to dissidents life got better for them when the U.S. took a harder line; it got worse when it got what it wanted through detant. Kennan was criticized for lack of moral clarity, but Kennan believed the U.S. could have little impact on what USSR did with its citizens. He appears to misjudge the U.S.'s influence on this point.
Reagan oddly enough echoed Kennan's writing, speeches, and policy-- negotiating arms reduction with USSR, but Kennan gave him no credit and was constantly critical. The author contrasts this with Kennan's affections for JFK who lied and did nothing, while Reagan actually opened dialogues and reduced the danger. Kennan was simply more cranky and vain in his old age. He probably hated Reagan for being from movies and ads, part of what he hated about America. He still assumed nuclear war inevitable.

To understand Kennan's worldview one need read a lot of Russian literature, primarily Chekov, along with Carl Von Clausewitz and Gibbon's Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon's work was instructive in developing Kennan's thoughts on the USSR. He felt that, like Rome, the Soviets had conquered too widely and spread their defenses too thin. Eventually the Soviet bloc territories and sattelites would be too expensive to maintain.
One weakness of this book is the lack of mention of hardly anything else in the State Department at this time, and how Kennan's work influenced other Russian/Soviet policy experts who came afterward. I would look for that aspect in another book, this one solely focuses on the man and his immediate impacts.
I give this book 4.5 stars and recommend it, especially to those interested in foreign policy vis a vis Russia.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Book Review (#79-81 of 2014) Tithing and the Church, Is Tithing for Today, Tithing: Low-Realm, Obsolete and Defunct

I will review three books in this post, which were free online (I will then break them up in my Goodreads and Amazon reviews). I recently wrote a strategy document related to church finances and had to think a bit about giving and think more about how other people think about it. Giving and tithing are often, erroneously, used interchangeably in churches today and that is a symptom of greater theological error. I am convinced I was taught erroneously about tithing both in Southern Baptist churches I've been a part of as well as from pulpits of other churches of diverse denominations I've attended. Asking what New Testament giving should look like, however, is like asking what our modern churches are supposed to look like. Our American Baptist churches are more liturgical and business-like than the ecclesia of Asia Minor in everything from finances to Communion.
My reading from Scripture and recorded history is that the earliest churches differed, sometimes contentiously, on various doctrinal issues (see Acts 15:7, 22-29; 21:21-26, Galatians 1, etc.). The predominantly Jewish church in Jerusalem (particularly before destruction of the Temple) likely had members and leaders who tithed and kept other parts of the law, and expected others to as well, contrary to the practice of the mainly Gentile converts in Asia Minor. As such, I can respect a wide variety of opinions on tithing (see Romans 14). I attend church with many who state varying viewpoints; it's important I know where I stand without offending them. But, where possible over time, I want to humbly and gently try and correct what I see as their misunderstanding of who we are in Christ. So, I found books arguing different view points, inspired by this post on the subject: "You can't outgive God...and other stupid statements."

The only book of the three I recommend reading is Matthew E. Narramore's (likely a pseudonym) book, which I use to critique the other two books.

Tithing and the Church is by Gary North, who is a "Christian economist" and Reconstructionist. He is in the "Austrian economics is Christian economics" camp, and is one who would remake America into a theocracy with reinstituted Jewish law complete with stoning adulterers. His take is one of the more crass, but his arguments are in line with the common legalistic arguments in favor of a mandatory 10% tithe.

North's view of the church is institutional. It is far removed from the New Testament example of believers sharing all they have in common, encouraging one another in love, etc. North draws no New Testament examples-- he does not cite any of the several examples of church giving from Paul's epistles, for example. His church is the same "storehouse" that was the Jewish Temple, deacons are basically Levites commanded to receive tithes and keep aliens from partaking of sacraments. The pastors are essentially priests with great legal authority over individual believers. While this may sound extreme, it is essentially the logical conclusion you must reach if you believe that the Old Testament tithe is binding on Christians today.

North begins with the common prooftext Malachi 3:8-12, which appears to say that God blesses tithers and curses non-tithers. But North does not give any context to this passage (nor for any passage he quotes). God is not speaking to individual Christians in this passage, verse 9 is clear that it's for an entire nation--Israel--which had neglected God's covenant with it for hundreds of years. By applying its blessings and curses to Christians today, North is claiming the church is under the Old Covenant. If that is the case, it is not clear what Christ died for-- this is clearly contrary to the Gospel. You have to at least eliminate Paul's letter to the Galatians to follow North down this path.

North also never explains the nuances of the Mosaic tithe-- provisions were made for the poor (Leviticus 14), for example-- not everyone was simply giving 10% of everything as North implies. Sadly, North is concerned that even though he gives 10% of his income he may still "come under God's corporate negative sanctions" because others aren't doing likewise.

Dangerously, North's view on a mandatory tithe seemingly makes it easy to judge a person's spiritual condition. If blessings aren't flowing on that person, he probably isn't tithing. North actually advocates deacons to check the tax returns of church members to ensure they are tithing.

North then stretches Hebrews 7, another common prooftext of tithers, to fit his paradigm, claiming that the Lord's Supper is "the restoration of the Old Covenant's covenental feast of Salem." He wrongly confuses Abraham's tithe with the Mosaic tithe without giving explanations as to why he links the two. North claims that Melchizidek was Christ, and "any attempt to escape the obligation of the tithe is an assault on the New Covenant's High Priest, Jesus Christ." This is erroneous for many reasons, a few simple ones:
1. Abraham already had a covenant with God that was not predicated on his giving.
2. God did not tell Abraham to tithe, nor do we have any evidence that he did it again.
3. Abraham's tithe did not come from the "increase" that North claims we must all tithe from. It was spoils of war and essentially cost him nothing, since he gave the rest of his spoils to the king of Sodom. This contradicts North's beliefs about what the tithe should be.
4. God had already blessed Abraham and made him rich on the basis of His promise alone-- not on the basis of his tithe to Melchizedek.

Hebrews was written to Christian Jews to convince them to keep their faith in Christ and not turn back to their old ways of Judaism. They put their trust in being descendents of Abraham, and the author points out that Abraham paid tithes to a king and priest of the most high God who was not of his own lineage; we don't know who Melchizedek's parents were, nor his descendents but he was still a priest of the Most High. Psalm 102 tells us that Jesus would be a priest like that, as the author of Hebrews tells us that priests in the Mosaic covenant did not come from Judah. The point is that the covenant has changed, and that Jesus' is superior. (Other sources have phrased it better than this paragraph. I recommend D.A. Carson et al's New Bible Commentary for one of the best, most concise takes on Hebrews 7). North neither acknowledges nor addresses these millenia-old arguments against a binding tithe on Christians.

Another problem with North's view is that only 10% of what we earn is God's, and the other 90% is totally ours. The reality is that everything we own is God's, and we are simply stewards of it; from Genesis through Revelation, this is what we're told repeatedly. In his view, we can earn righteousness and blessing-- diminishing Christ's sacrifice and manipulating God-- simply by paying 10%.

Another disturbing aspect of North's argument is that his most commonly cited source is himself-- his other books. His social theory examines the relationship between the Church, the State, and the Family. He sees the Church has having delegated economic authority to collect 10% and its refusal to preach its moral mandate as "cutting its own purse strings." He sees the State's encroachment on economic freedom through taxation as a consequence of the modern Church neglecting its economic mandate. He believes there will one day soon be an economic collapse in which the people of the world will no longer look to the State as guardian of the economy, but why would they look to churches who have neglected their moral authority and are so weak economically, he writes?

The second half of the book devolves into long argument against his father-in-law R.J. Rushdoony, who apparently lost his senses even more than North. Apparently there were some doctrinal schisms in the Reconstructionist movement and North decides to use this book to attack Rushdooney's odd positions. In the end, one can easily conclude that both North and Rushdooney are dangerous cranks, oblivious to any criticisms and the Reconstructionist movement something to be cautioned against. This is a zero-star book that no one should buy. It is terribly written.

One thought-provoking part of North's book that I agreed with was the urgency of churches to stay out of debt. Perhaps one day soon the government will remove the tax deductability of donations to churches, which will further erode churches' financial positions.

John F. Avanzini's Is Tithing for Today? is a shorter book that also looks at references to tithing out of context. Avanzini differs from Gary North in that he claims tithing started in the Garden of Eden-- Adam and Eve took care of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil but were forbidden to eat from it, which the author equates to a tithe. This is quite a stretch and it stands to reason that if this were the case it would be held up elsewhere in Scripture-- it isn't, and people like Avanzini who make this claim do so with a bad understanding of the New Covenant. Avanzini also takes Malachi 3 and Hebrews 7 completely out of context, doesn't bother to explain the context, and does not consider anyone's explanation of the text. He even claims that Hebrews 7 provides a "biblical account of the Christian church receiving tithes well into the church age," which is clearly unjustified. Part of the problem with Avanzini and North is that they rely on the King James Version rather than examine the Greek to see what words were added by translators.  

But Avanzini goes a step further in making our righteousness dependent on our tithe, rather than on Christ's sacrifice on the Cross. A person who is not seeing God's physical blessings flow on them is probably not tithing, according to Avanzini. Neither Avanzini nor Gary North teach the Gospel or explain Jesus' propitiation in their books-- that is easily the most damning aspect of their books. God's favor is something we can earn by giving just 10% of our income, that seems like a bargain but it's not the Gospel. Zero stars, do not buy this book.

Matthew E. Narramore (probably pseudonym)'s Tithing: Low-Realm, Obsolete & Defunct does an excellent job not only debunking arguments in Gary North and John Avanzini's books, but by explaining the Gospel. Narramore does not attack anyone by name, and accepts that God blesses people of all different views. Someone who gives 10% cheerfully and sincerely is pleasing to God, but that person also misunderstands the Gospel and who we are in Christ.

Narramore works carefully through the prooftexts given by those advocating a mandatory 10% tithe and explains their context succinctly. He explains what the various Mosaic tithes were and how the New Covenant is superior to the old.

"Ten percent is not an eternally sacred standard of giving. God required much more than the tithe under the Law of Moses. There were many more sacrifices and offerings that were commanded. Many interpret the Law to require two separate tithes and some believe that it required three...Jesus never called anyone to a ten-percent commitment. His call was to absolute abandonment of all things for him and absolute commitment of all things to him."

"The leaders in Jerusalem concluded that they would give the gentile believers only four instructions...But even some of these instructions were based on faulty theology. Paul made it clear in 1 Corinthians chapters 6, 8, and 10 that eating food offered to idols is not an issue if you have a revelation of the truth in Christ. If tithing was as important as it is said to be, the church leaders in Jerusalem would have certainly mentioned it."

"People who have wrong beliefs about tithing can still be greatly blessed, according to their faith and how they follow the leading of the Holy Spirit. But no matter how blessed and successful they are, it doesn't validate their doctrine and it doesn't mean they have all that God has made available. The glorious life of Christ cannot be fully experienced while following a way of life that was intended for men who lived before the resurrection...When the church gets a revelation of their union with Christ they will start living to serve God. They will have to be told to stop giving instead of having to be constantly harangued to start giving...The New Covenant has ended the compartmentalization of life. No part is more spiritual than another. In God's family enterprise we are expected to live for him with all of our resources, not just money." 

"If failure to tithe makes me a God-robber, then my righteousness depends on tithing. If failure to write out the first check on payday to the local church causes me to lose the favor of God on my life, then my righteousness must depend on doing that. If tithing is what redeems the remaining 90 percent of my paycheck, then the blood of Jesus did not redeem it. If a curse is going to come upon me for not tithing, then Christ has not redeemed me from the curse of the Law."

I give this book 4.5 stars as it is concise, clear, and biblically-based.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

On Twitch and Reminiscing about Nintendo Power

"On Monday, Amazon said it would spend more than $1 billion for Twitch, a website for watching video games. The site, which started three years ago, was never supposed to exist. Today, thousands of players are broadcasting, or streaming, their games on the site at any given moment, with many amassing a loyal audience...Those viewers can translate into revenue: Top streamers can earn money from ads, donations and subscriptions from their followers, who watch videos on the site for almost two hours a day, according to Twitch" (from the New York Times).

Besides spending hours a day in front of screens playing games, kids apparently spend hours in front of screens watching others play games. I first noticed this phenomenon on Justin.tv, which Twitch spun off from, where some of the most popular streams are just someone streaming their video game progress. While many internet users had not heard of Twitch before this week's announcement, "Twitch accounts for nearly 2% of peak U.S. Internet traffic." Ostensibly this helps you get tips and tricks to getting further in the game or just serves as entertainment. There has been some marvel at this, and I've recently read articles of parents (who are about my age) complaining of their kids spending so much time watching video games rather than playing them. My first thought was "Really? That's what kids waste time on these days?"

But was my generation in the 1980s any different?  I used to subscribe to Nintendo Power magazine which showed me screenshots of games I didn't have, previews of upcoming games, and tips or step-by-step guides to beating levels on games I did have.

Mall rats used to hang out at the arcade watching people play Street Fighter or other games they couldn't afford at the moment. My sister had a friend who could beat Mario Brothers pretty easily, and a couple times she called him to come over and show us how he beats the game (there was one level he could only complete if he used his feet instead of his hands on the controller...was bizarre but good entertainment). That's a good hour or two watching someone go all the way through that game. Nintendo Power also had a 900 number hotline you could call for help with specific games where one of their "Game Counselors" would pop in a particular game and play it over the phone to get to the level you were having trouble with; walk you through step-by-step.

So, I guess it's not that unusual and had been in the workings for a while. Seth Godin recently wrote that he had an idea for an early version of Twitch back in 1989, but couldn't find an investor willing to stick with it. Some of the programming courses on Udemy are essentially recorded screenshots of programmers writing code, solving particular problems in order to teach a language. I think that's a decent use of screen time.Just not as popular as video games, I guess.

Monday, August 25, 2014

DIY Pullup Bar

Since we bought a house a few months ago weekends have been about various DIY projects. A neighbor and fellow church member helped me clear out a sturdy wooden wheelchair ramp that was taking up a lot of the garage space, which cleared room for me to convert part of our garage into a gym. The disadvantage had been that there was no mounted pull-up bar in the garage (I mounted a Perfect Pull-Up bar inside the house).

I used the supplies and instructions from this website to construct the pull-up bar you see below, made from plumbing supplies you can get at Lowes and a 2x6 left over from the wheelchair ramp. This version allows you to grip the bar in multiple ways (there are two other hand grips that will also go into the base of this one, but I've left them off for now).

I recommend his set up, but I found getting all of the components to be rather expensive relative to the basic pull-up bar also found on that website. The 3/4" iron crosses had to be special ordered as Lowes, Home Depot, and no local plumbing supply place carried that size. I later added tennis racket grip tape to make it easier on the hands; take my advice and wear rubber-palmed gloves while assembling the bar.

The biggest issue I had, however, were the lack of studs going the direction I needed. I have studs going horizontally across my garage which gave me only about 1.5" to play with. I found it quite the challenge to mount this thing over my head. I recommend a vise (which I did not have) to help you tighten all the connections in the pipes.The bar ended up being a little higher than is ideal, but this at least makes me less likely to cheat; I have to go all the way up and down.

So far, so good, it's been a sturdy bar to work out on in the mornings. The same weekend I built it, I added this and a bunch of weights to my collection of from a neighbor's garage sale for $25.

Now I need to figure out how to make some weight racks for my disc weights and dumb bells. I also plan to install a holder for hanging resistance bands from the ceiling and my ultimate project is to create something that I can dangle a climbing rope from.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Sermon of the Week (8/17-8/23, 2014) From Worry to Worship, Dale Anderson

Dale Anderson is formerly a pastor of Grace Evangelical Free church in Louisville but filled the pulpit at Ironworks Pike Community Church in Georgetown on 8/3 and preached a great sermon overview of Habakkuk 1-3 (mp3).

Habakkuk focuses on God's wrath on Israel. The word "wrath" has become unpopular in churches, as this recent story about the Getty's hymn In Christ Alone makes clear. Habakkuk's response to God's promise of wrath on Israel and surrounding nations is to trust God, worship, and find joy.

Habakkuk 3:16-19

"I hear, and my body trembles;
    my lips quiver at the sound;
rottenness enters into my bones;
    my legs tremble beneath me.
Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble
    to come upon people who invade us

Though the fig tree should not blossom,
    nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
    and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
    and there be no herd in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
    I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
19 God, the Lord, is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the deer's;
    he makes me tread on my high places.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Nine years of marriage

Yesterday Joni and I celebrated our ninth anniversary. "Four of the best years of our lives," as the old joke goes. We ate lunch (on my parents, thanks) at Sage Garden Cafe in Frankfort, which is one of the best restaurants in all of Central KY. That was a good time.

I'm thankful for Joni for many reasons, but most recently for how supportive she has been of my endeavors. When I come home from yard sales or Big Lots with exciting finds, she indulges me. When I wanted to convert half the garage into my workout area, she obliged and even helped me complete a major physically-taxing project there last weekend. Every week she makes homemade protein fiber bars that get me through morning workouts and late afternoons at work. She sets up the coffee maker the night before so I am motivated to get up and at it. She listens to my concerns and generally hears me out. I have posted several books on this blog which have been helpful to us in communicating, we try go go through a couple together every year, although we are imperfect at executing all we intend. She agreed to come along when I wanted to teach preschoolers at church. She handles the financial record-keeping and I'm able to trust her in finding the best deals on things.

A lot I could say. I'm thankful for my bride of nine years. Here's to you, babe!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Book Review (#78 of 2014) The Generals by Thomas E. Ricks

The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today
How important to the health of an organization is it to have the freedom and wherewithal to fire people who are not living up to the organization's standards? It is vitally important, and this book is an excellent case study.

Ricks' Fiasco, on the 2003 Iraq war, basically defined that war for me when I read it in 2005. This book, in turn, has changed my view of several other wars. You cannot read Ricks' books and not be skeptical of the plaudits for the U.S. military's competence and professionalism. We go to war with the army we have, and that is why we end up in protracted conflicts.

Part I of the book looks at World War II, particularly at George Marshall's role in shaping the military. The "Marshall Rule" is held up as the gold standard. Marshall wanted vigorous young generals who could be team players internationally, who erred on the side of aggression, and did not hesitate to relieve commanders at lower levels who were not up to the job. Marshall also stood up to FDR on occasion--he pushed back.

Marshall got along well with Eisenhower, who held many of his views. It was not unusual for division commanders to relieve incompetent or ineffective battalion commanders in WWII, but Ricks tells many stories where failures to do so resulted in unnecessary losses. As Ricks writes elsewhere,
"Forget about Saving Private Ryan, with its fantasy of a handful of American soldiers blocking superior German forces in improvised street fighting. The real deal was that the Army General Eisenhower threw into Normandy, for better or worse, was undertrained and all too often horribly led. Almost all the pre-invasion preparation was about getting to the beach, with little taught about what to do after crossing it. Many officers knew more about how to transport troops in trucks than about how to lead them in combat. Gole notes that even data from the previous two years of fighting Germans in North Africa and Italy was largely ignored. "

After WWII, firings in the Armed Forces went from an action crucial to the health of the organization to a little-used politically-tainted decision often left to civilians to make.

Part II looks in depth at battles and strategy in Korea. MacArthur, of course, is the poster child of a bad commander. The wonder is how MacArthur could have been so lauded, when he was so narcissistic and unethical-- accepting medals he didn't earn as well as cash from foreign governments, and trying to command a war from a country away. In Korea, one sees a disparity between the Marines and the Army in terms of relieving commanders and general tactics that still exists today.

Lt. Col. Don Faith, Jr., whose regiment lost 90 percent of its force in the disaster at the Chosin Resevoir is one that is singled out as both an example of command failure and a victim of it-- his own commanders were inept. The draftee army of the 1950s suffered from micromanagement as officers could not tell who was competent with only a couple years of time to get to know soldiers. Ricks mentions the 1950s management bestseller The Organization Man which stated that companies should focus on conformity and groupthink in making decisions--this was the Army.

The Korean conflict improved only after Matthew Ridgeway, a Marshall protege, was given a command and began to relieve officers and make changes that lifted morale and improved outcomes. However, Ridgeway gets a letter from his superiors warning him that relieving too many officers would lead to a Congressional investigation. The legacy of Korea was that it was up to civilians to make changes in the military.

Part III is Vietnam. I have read a few books on both Korea and Vietnam and this one cast both conflicts into a new light. American involvement in Vietnam began in 1955 and originally included CIA and Special Forces training self-governing villages on self-defense, which Ricks writes was highly effective. Former General Maxwell Taylor, who Ricks criticizes (among other things) for his role in getting America embroiled in Vietnam in the first place, convinces the CIA to give the program to the Defense Department, and it quickly comes apart. The Marines again adopt a forward-thinking strategy of holding ground around bases and villages, and slowly expanding outward to bring more civilians under their perimeter. This is criticized and changed until post-Tet 1968 when it essentially becomes official policy and works to bring 95% of the population under protection and actually start winning the war. By that time, however, morale and discipline had so broken down that you had crimes like the My Lai Massacre, for which top commanders got barely a reprimand. In the entire war, only one top general was relieved by commanding officers.

Ricks examines the experience of Gen. William E DePuy, a WWII veteran and believer in the Marshall Rule of accountability and relieving incompetent subordinates. DePuy's firings of incapable battalion commanders came under fire from his superior, for which he expected to be relieved himself. Despite this strength of character, DePuy opposed "pacification" policies-- paying the Viet Cong to stop fighting-- that Ricks writes had worked well in Vietnam and would later become official counterinsurgency doctrine in Iraq and Afghanistan. DePuy would later reform the post-Vietnam Army that fought the 1991 Gulf War.

General Westmoreland fares only slightly better than MacArthur in Ricks' analysis. He is described as being basically illiterate, never known to have read any books, and repeatedly falling back on what he knew as a less senior commander rather than as a generalist, as he was supposed to be. The only consolation is that he was better than his predecessor, Gen. Paul Harkins, who was scarily incompetent. Eventually Gen. Abrams replaces Westmoreland, who was relieved by LBJ. Abrams adopts tactics similar to previous Marine strategies and sees success, but politically it is too late and the Army is essentially broken.

DePuy worked to reform the Army after Vietnam with an emphasis on smaller units, more commanders, and special forces. He built the Army that liberated Kuwait in 1991. But, as Ricks writes "his relentless focus on tactics and training has unfortunately proved to be a poor way to prepare the Army for Iraq in the 2000s."

If there is a weakness of the book it is that the 1980s and late 1990s are hardly mentioned, so generalship in Grenada, Somalia, and the Balkans go unexamined.

Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf is given mixed reviews in the book. Definitely politically inept, Schwarzkopf even negotiated a cease fire with Iraq with little civilian input or advice from his senior advisers. He gave explicit permission for Iraqi's to fly armed helicopters, which allowed them to put down Shia and Kurdish uprisings that threatened to topple Saddam Hussein, something those groups did not forgive the U.S. for allowing. The 1991 Gulf War was "a tactical success but a strategic draw."

Gen. Tommy Franks is painted as MacArthuresque in his incompetency both in Iraq and Afghanistan. From allowing Bin Laden to escape Tora Bora to writing a memoir that paints a rosy and short-sighted picture of the 2003 campaign, Ricks piles the criticism on hard. Sanchez and others also are roundly criticized. I find it hard to believe that G.W. Bush read "dozens" of books on military occupations and wars (as he claims in his memoir) yet did not see the importance of relieving commanders and his own Defense Secretary. Only one general was relieved in 2003, by the Marines, essentially for cowardice. But a battalion commander who conspired with subordinates to cover up murder received only a reprimand from Gen. Odierno. Ricks does not mention Rumsfeld's repeated attempts to resign but that failure of the Bush Administration speaks for itself.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is praised for making changes and for his focus on accountability. This jives with Gates' memoir where he discusses the generals he fired from the battlefield to the V.A. hospital system. David Petraeus is also held up as an "outlier" of exceptional performance.The Army still has yet to conduct an in-depth review of its 2003-2012 conduct in Iraq, even after all the helpful changes Petraeus implemented.

Ricks' epilogue proposes potential changes, such as teaching officers critical thinking and encouraging officers to work toward advance degrees. Some of it is pie-in-the-sky dreaming, such as probationary periods for lower-ranking officers and requiring officer candidates to first do a peaceful term in a cross-cultural situation, such as the Peace Corps.

Ricks has an admiration for the sacrifice of the military, but a journalistic intent to get to the bottom of the story-- the truth. While there is no completely definitive work on Vietnam yet written, Ricks cites several books, such as Dereliction of Duty, as important reading. If you follow his blog and articles, you know he's still following up on research of the characters he documents. I give this book 4.5 stars out of 5.