Friday, October 24, 2014

Sermon of the Week (10/19 - 10/25, 2014) Robert Glenn Smith - Regeneration Church on Deuteronomy 5:17

Regeneration is a relatively new church in Georgetown that has raised the bar of marketing, taking out space on a digital billboard, making a good website, and the only local church I'm aware of with an iPhone/Android app. The pastor is local, but trying to do something differently. I'm not a big fan of the sermon style, and if you're not from Kentucky you will be bothered by the accent. (Okay, I'm from Kentucky and I'm bothered.) They recently completed a series on relationships and are now looking at some of the Ten Commandments that deal with relationships. This sermon is title "Relationally Speaking about Life." The point of this message that has stuck with me all week is that in the Bible,
"The unity of the community always trumps the prosperity of the individual."

This is why God commanded that rebellious children be stoned to death, and there were Jubilee laws. This is why James blasts the prosperous for not sharing with their brethren, and why the wealthy Corinthians were dying from gorging on the Lord's Supper before the poorer had a chance to partake, and why Paul admonished us to consider others better than ourselves. Jesus prayed for unity in the garden, of all the things.

If the accent bothers you, just pretend he sounds like someone else you listen to. That's a good mental exercise I do with everyone I listen to; it helps remove any biases I have over how a person sounds.

I've posted a link for Regeneration on the right hand side.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Aristotle in 90 Minutes by Paul Strathern (Book Review #100 of 2014)

This is another in the Strathern series on philosophers. I found this work to be more succinct than the one on Socrates. Strathern gets criticized for leaving too much out, but these books serve their purpose. For me, they give an overview of the philosopher's life, his context, and some of his contributions to later thought and even modern society before I read the subject's work.

Aristotle was a polymath who studied under Plato and developed the formal discipline of logic. Christian apologetics today hinges on the use of Aristotelian logic, which is why Christian classical schools teach dialectic and logic early on. Aristotle apparently rivaled Plato as he developed, which led to some separation between the philosophers. He made contributions to many areas, including science, and the author also points out many things he was remarkably wrong about. There is an argument that paradigm kept Aristotle from discovering truths he perhaps should have, such as the earth orbiting the sun rather than vice-versa.

I find it interesting that Aristotle, like many of the Greek philosophers and writers, was largely forgotten or ignored by the West until about the Renaissance, but all of his works were studied by Islamic peoples and Aristotelian thought permeates Islamic doctrine.

In 2015, I intend to read Aristotle's Politics along with Plato's Laws. Strathern alleges that Aristotle's work is more pragmatic, rather than constructing the ideal society he sets out how to govern in reality. I want to complete these, some Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius' Meditations before tackling Augustine's City of God. 4 stars out of 5. I enjoy Strathern's series.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Zero to One by Peter Thiel (Book Review #99 of 2014)

Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future.
This book is touted by many as the "Business Book of the Year" for 2014, so I was eager to read it. If it really is the best biz book of 2014, then it's a disappointment. Thiel writes that the book is compiled from notes of his course lectures at Stanford's business school. Forbes Magazine got it partly right, Thiel's weakness is his attempt at amateur philosophy. He quotes Marx and Engels frequently, blasts Rawls and his contemporaries, and even ends with a critique of Ayn Rand. Tyler Cowen praises the book, but I think that's mainly because Thiel's hypothesis about the future of technology and the labor force jives with Cowens' in Average is Over.

There are some contradictions within the book's chapters that I hope Thiel's students raise in class. The author's personal anecdotes from his various start-ups such as Paypal are interesting, but one senses he has huge cognitive biases-- he assumes he's the smartest person in the room. Much of the book reads like a standard microeconomics or managerial economics text-- what is competition, what is monopoly, etc. Thiel's ideas are Marxist in that he believes capitalism is destroying itself via competition. He writes that "capitalism" is a misnomer since profits get competed away. "The more we compete, the less we gain." We have an absurd system of government-enforced property rights where one hand grants monopoly (patents) while the other prosecutes it (antitrust prosecution).

It should be obvious, but his venture capital firm searches out start-ups that they think have the best shot at developing a monopoly. He writes much on how to capture dominant market share:

1. Proprietary technology - Create a product that is 10 times better than its closest substitute. Invent something new, or completely different.

Thiel writes that people with Aspergers do well in Silicon Valley because they do things differently, they do not follow the crowds. He looks for contrarians when he interviews people, asking job candidates "What's something you believe that others do not?" However, he would seem to contradict himself as later in the book he critiques Ayn Randian solo crusaders. Stanford MBAs all carry Clausewitz and Sun Tzu, they're mostly carbon copies of one another-- and that's the problem.

2. Capture network effects - Make being part of the network essential. People use PayPal because it's popular-- a lot of others use it. Go after small markets where network effects will take hold faster.

3. Achieve economies of scale - High fixed costs, low marginal costs. Achieve scale quickly and keep competitors from being able to enter without a lot of help.

4. Brand - aka differentiation, value proposition, etc. "Brand" is a code word for monopoly.

Apple is an example of a company that accomplished all four of the above.

Thiel hates the modern idea that success is largely a product of chance and circumstances, which was popularized recently by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers. Thiel wants to eradicate Rawls and Gladwell from our universities, and eliminate pollsters from politics who make winning seem like pure statistical probability, and teach everyone that success comes from effort and winning. He does not seem to think his own birth into an educated German household that happened to migrate to America had anything to do with his own success.

The author decries the modern sense of pessimism, pointing out that the 1800s Industrial Revolution was a very optimistic time, even though living standards were quite less than today. Optimism birthed creativity which brought productivity and greater prosperity, all the way through the Reagan 1980s. Now, everyone is skeptical and bought into the belief that success is luck or beyond most to achieve.

Thiel gives some insight into how his VC fund vets prospective companies for investment. He studies the founders and examines their background and personal chemistry. He looks for companies that have found a secret. Secrets are important, the key to any startup's success is to find secrets that are hidden in plain sight-- like Uber and Dryve. Keep your secret hidden from some, but not all, find that "golden mean" between disclosure and non-disclosure.

Other observations from Thiel that are pretty textbook:
Organizations should be run by interchangeable managers rather than dynamic individuals.(This is generally the purpose of a board of directors, to free up the dynamic individual to be the creative frontman). Never let your board exceed five people, three is ideal. The bigger the board, the less effective the oversight. Thiel only invests in companies where the CEO is dependent on profit, or takes the lowest salary to mitigate the principle-agent problem. He demands that firms demand "total commitment" from employees.

Thiel also writes of the Power Law, or the 80-20 rule.  "The biggest secret in venture capital is that the best investment in a successful fund equals or outperforms the entire rest of the fund combined." Returns are not normally distributed, the author writes Taleb-like. Can you be a power? Obviously, if you could identify the grand champion, you'd be rich.Thiel seems to suggest he has an ability to spot the champion. "You are not a lottery ticket," he writes, but I disagree. Thiel himself writes that his friend Elon Musk got lucky in his timing, securing crucial federal funding for Tesla right before the green bubble burst and such investment became anathema.

Social entrepreneurship-- people who combine non-profit ideas with for-profit enterprises, come under fire from Thiel. They may aim for social impact, but are they actually good for society? Thiel heavily critiques the companies that got squashed when the green energy bubble burst. He refused to invest in "greens that wore suits." Solyndra is one of many examples of green energy companies that had poor management, silly ideas, and unrealistic projections. Tesla is the one exception, because Tesla answers the "seven questions:"

1. The Engineering Question: Do you have a breakthrough technology?
        - is it 10x better than the alternative?
“Horizontal or extensive progress means copying things that work— going from 1 to n. Horizontal progress is easy to imagine because we already know what it looks like. Vertical or intensive progress means doing new things—going from 0 to 1. Vertical progress is harder to imagine because it requires doing something nobody else has ever done.”
2. The Timing Question: Is your timing right?
3. The Monopoly Question: Do you have something no-one else has?
4.  The People Question: Do you have the right people?
    "As a general rule, everyone you involve with your company should be involved full-time…anyone who doesn’t own stock options or draw a regular salary from your company is fundamentally misaligned. At the margin, they’ll be biased to claim value in the near term, not help you create more in the future. That’s why hiring consultants doesn’t work. Part-time employees don’t work. Even working remotely should be avoided… If you’re deciding whether to bring someone on board, the decision is binary. Ken Kesey was right: you’re either on the bus or off the bus.”
5. The Distribution Question: Can you sell and market your stuff?
        - sales and marketing matter, but Thiel critiques companies who don't have a product 10x greater than others for failing to market. This seems another contradiction.
6. The Durability Question: Will you be still around in 10 years?
        - network effects matter here.
7. The Secret Question: Do you know something nobody else does?

Thiel is apparently a die-hard libertarian but ends his book with a critique of Ayn Rand. "Rand's villains were real but her heroes were fake. There is no Galt's Gulch." However, he concludes the book with an exhortation to "think for yourself."

In all, I give this book 3 stars out of 5. It has good stories and a good critique of recent events, such as the green energy bubble, but the philosophy is pretty weak and much of it is textbook material.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Sermon of the Week (10/12 - 10/18) John Piper on Romans 8:26-31

This sermon comes from the 2014 Desiring God Conference that focused on Romans 8. They are all excellent, but this was my favorite: "Predestination, Justification, No Separation" (iTunes, or watch it here) is an 83 minute sermon on Romans 8:26-39. It is Piper at his best, and the audience appears on the edge of their seat, eager to applaud the high points. You will not find much better exegesis of this passage. I highly recommend listening.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp (Book Review #98 of 2014)

One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are

This book reads like poetry, prose, and a sermon with vivid illustrations at points. Voskamp develops a theology of thanksgiving. She begins with her own realization that Luke 22:19 tells us Jesus gave thanks when he broke the bread and blessed the wine that symbolized his soon-to-be-broken body and blood. The Greek word for this giving thanks is "eucharisteo," which Voskamp holds as the "holy grail" of joy. It holds the root "charis" (grace) and "chara" (joy). A search shows that this word is used 36 times in the New Testament (and probably 360 times in the book)-- giving thanks is central to the life of the believer. "God set (the eucharist) at the very center of Christianity." He said "Do this in remembrance of Me." We begin each week being thankful for the Gospel.

This book is popular among women, including my wife, and reading it reminded me both of Foster and Beebe's Longing for God (my review) and The Shack (my review).Why The Shack? Because the underlying theme of both books is that God is sovereign and good. They both begin with tragedies that lead the authors to ask "How could a good, loving God let this happen?" which leads to the discoveries that we are free to give thanks in the midst of tragedy and pain because "nothing happens to you apart from God's will." When we accept God's gifts with bitterness and self-pity, we're implicitly saying that Satan's way would be better--it's blasphemy. Voskamp rightly states that distrust and worry are atheism. Jesus commanded us not to worry, and most of our anxiety comes from our lack of trust in God. Unlike The Shack, however, Voskamp openly quotes Scripture to explain her points and tell stories to her children. 

Israel was covenanted to regularly observe days of thanks for what God had done for them, just as Jesus commanded us to observe the eucharist "in remembrance of Me." Remembrance should bring joy. But what about the dark memories of death, abuse, pain? Those events, too, were part of God's purpose. Voskamp writes that distance and time makes us appreciate them more for the gifts they were-- though we may never understand fully. Gratitude, she writes, is the foremost characteristic of a disciple. Jesus gave thanks for the very thing that would break and crush him. We give thanks for being able to die, for dying with Christ daily.

I appreciated her observation that we all read Ephesians 5:20, have heard sermons, and have books on our shelves reminding us to "give thanks for everything," but the more we broad-brush say "I'm thankful for everything," the less we're truly thankful for. She accepts a dare to record 1,000 things she's thankful for, developing a discipline of thankfulness. When we count our blessings we find out Who can be counted on. These range from boiled eggs to sorted clothes to the smell of the woods-- everyday things she experiences as a housewife on a farm. At this point, she discovers work as worship, finding that she can worship God by serving others as a housewife-- washing potatoes can be an act of worship. She quotes Dorothy Sayers (doesn't everyone?) on these points but I would have loved to see some Tozer and others in there as well.  

Voskamp has gotten some criticism from people like Tim Challies (I will probably write another post critical of his review for several reasons.) for quoting Dallas Willard, Teresa of Avila, and other "mystics." Challies neglects to mention that she also quotes John Piper, J.I. Packer, Tim Keller, John Calvin, and other Reformed non-mystics heavily. The book gives little information of her education, but she's clearly well-read. Voskamp's words are similar to poems written by John Piper, her quest for the joy parallel's his quest for joy as explained in Desiring God. For Voskamp, the key to joy and "paradise" is in a life of gratefulness and thanksgiving.

When reading this book, I'm very aware that women think differently than men. A man would turn this book into a how-to manual with bullet points summarizing the scripture references. She writes from her own experiences, putting all her emotions out on paper. Women probably trust personal experiences and testimony more and professional credentials less (are there studies backing me up?). I listened to her read the book, so I experienced her tears and her laughter in a personal way.

With all the positive above, there are a few caveats about the book. My biggest issue came at the conclusion where there is a weird scene where she's visiting Notre Dame cathedral in Paris and experiencing a "union" with and "caresses" by God that are a bit disturbing. "God makes love with grace upon grace, every moment a making of His love for us. [C]ouldn’t I make love to God, making every moment love for Him? To know Him the way Adam knew Eve. Spirit skin to spirit skin?” She has a sort of ecstasy here that I find disturbing and off-putting, and it is definitely not akin to how the Apostles wrote about their experience of Jesus in the New Testament.

While the sovereignty and goodness of God are clear, the holiness of God is not so clear. Neither are the entirety of the death, burial, and resurrection. A Christian reading this book can find great encouragement, but a non-Christian reading this book might admire her ability to find joy in her tragedy and trust God to give her all good things, but still be confused as to how that's possible-- through Christ's atonement for our sins, and his physical resurrection. The book is not a complete autobiography, but it is very inward-focused. It is almost entirely about "me." My feelings, my daily life, my children, etc. That got to be a little too much for me.

In all, I give it 3.5 stars out of 5. I enjoyed it, and was encouraged to live with more gratitude and remember to "consider it all joy."

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Sermon of the Week (10/5 - 10/11, 2014) Jack Brooks: "Jesus in the Book of Numbers"

Pastor Brooks of Ironworks Pike Community Church (one of only two Nine Marks churches in the area) recently concluded a series through Numbers. You don't see many braving that task so much, and I can't honestly say it was the most exciting series but I learned from it. He concluded the series with an overview of how Jesus was present in, and fulfilled prophecies within, the book of Numbers. It's a good listen (mp3).

Thursday, October 09, 2014

What I see when I work

I appreciate that I work in more scenic environs than most people. I often take strolls around the grounds and surrounding neighborhoods. These are some of the pictures I snap with my phone on nice days while trying not to look like a tourist.

Sometimes I get here really early in the morning.

This is a nice attraction. The fountain is drained for cleaning about half the time, though.

This is the only Frank Lloyd Wright home built in Kentucky during his lifetime. I sometimes see the owner doing yardwork. It seems superfluous to say "Nice home."

I bet this is also a pretty nice place to live, most of the time.

The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg (Book Review #97 of 2014)

The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan
Jenny Nordberg (her website) discovers the practice of "bacha posh," a Dari term meaning "dressed up like a boy," a practice that was apparently previously unknown, or at least undocumented, in Afghanistan. She finds rumors of it while interviewing Afghans but is also cautioned to avoid looking further into it. She later discovers that even her "bacha posh" contacts are often unaware of others like them. The author raises the valid point: if the West has missed this custom, what else is it missing in dealing with Afghan culture? In the course of her investigation, she's given incredibly intimate access into the lives of a diverse group of Afghan families of differing ethnicities and languages. The access is remarkable given that she is a foreigner relying on a translator and they are engaging in a practice that is not widely acknowledged or accepted. She doesn't just document this practice, she documents life as a female in Afghanistan generally. I know people who have laid down roots in these places, become fluent in the language, and yet were still not granted the same access. That makes me skeptical of some of her reporting, particularly where she relays events she would have heard in the third-person as though she was a witness herself. In her afterword she acknowledges that the translator character in the book is actually a hodgepodge of several real-life translators she used, each with varying backgrounds.

I have lived in rural Central Asia, though not in Afghanistan, and can attest that many of the cultural norms she describes are very much prevalent. Her descriptions of the nikah, the bride price, weddings, relations with the mother-in-law, syncretism etc. all brought back memories. While anthropological research and sociological commentary make up only a tiny fraction of the book, it's very helpful to the reader. The impact of ancient Zoroastrianism in the world ranging from Afghanistan to the Balkans and its syncretism within Islamic life in these areas is well-described. The practice of "bacha posh" is found in many patriarchal cultures and Nordberg even supplies examples from Western history.

Bacha posh solves a problem for families in highly patriarchal cultures with no son. One knowledgeable expatriate relays the story of a woman who was the seventh daughter of a son-less family and the village mullah deemed her a boy and blessed her parents' decision to raise her as such. As an adult, she is now an "honorary uncle" in the family and gets to act as a go-between for the genders. "Better a pretend son than a girl," it is said, and even if relatives and neighbors are wise to the child's real gender they tacitly approve of and respect the family's decision. It solves the practical problem of sibling girls not having a male escort when going out. It Helps families be more socially acceptable and also gives these girls freedom to run, play, be educated, fly kites, etc. But it also causes problems in a culture with strict rules about segregation and can be potentially dangerous if the truth is known. Typically, the boy is turned back into a girl when she reaches puberty or marrying age. One father comments that his would-be daughter will be even better at marriage having lived part of her life as a male.

Nordberg's transgender friends vary in their practices. Some eagerly return to being girls, others choose to remain female. Some are in a limbo. One woman, Shukria, worked as a male nurse at a hospital where her future husband saw her and decided she'd make an industrious wife after learning her true gender. But Shukria found that she does not feel comfortable being intimate with either men or women, and while it produced children he divorced her. The ease of divorce for males-- just speaking the word-- is contrasted with the illegality of female-initiated divorce. Nordberg documents the domestic violence that occurs in these families, including beatings from the mothers-in-law as well as the husbands.

The author lucks into a good relationship with Azita, a female parliamentarian who sees no other choice but to turn her fourth daughter Mehran into a boy. Azita is an interesting story in herself. She's a Parliamentarian, was raised in the city but forced to marry uneducated villager cousin despite an upbringing by her progressive parents hoping she'd become a doctor or some other profession. She is married off as the second wife to an illiterate husband for desperate economic reasons. She's beaten by mother-in-law and her husband, negotiates with the family through her remorseful father, and deals with life. Eventually, she gets elected from her village and the reader is given some insight into this part of modern Afghan culture. Azita lacks the status of someone from important city or with powerful backers, gets daily threatening phone calls, and eventually loses her bid for reinstatement.

There is also Zahra, a tomboy teenager who struggles with puberty and refuses her parents’ attempts to turn her back into a girl and Nader the undercover female police officer who trained with U.S. special forces. All have fascinating stories. Other things I learned are that Jack Bauer & 24 were quite popular in Kabul and what it's like to watch the wedding of William & Kate from an Afghan perspective. Nordberg also includes some analysis of the failure of foreign aid to lift country's standard of living: "Too much money, too many cooks in the kitchen." Afghanistan is essentially a working laboratory to experiment with foreign aid. One wonders what will happen to these would-be women when the U.S. troops fully withdraw and the NGO presence dwindles.

I give this book four stars out of five. Much of what she wrote rang true in my own experiences in Central Asia, but I'm skeptical how much is actually true given (particularly when the men open up to her about domestic violence) from her background as an infidel foreigner working through a translator.