Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Thomas Friedman is Right (as usual)

The McCain-Clinton gasoline tax proposals made him so mad he came out of hiding to write "Dumb as We Wanna Be" today in the NY Times. Thank goodness. He has serious campaign frustrations (I bolded the stuff I resonated with):

But here’s what’s scary: our problem is so much worse than you think. We have no energy strategy. If you are going to use tax policy to shape energy strategy then you want to raise taxes on the things you want to discourage — gasoline consumption and gas-guzzling cars — and you want to lower taxes on the things you want to encourage — new, renewable energy technologies. We are doing just the opposite.

Are you sitting down?

Few Americans know it, but for almost a year now, Congress has been bickering over whether and how to renew the investment tax credit to stimulate investment in solar energy and the production tax credit to encourage investment in wind energy. The bickering has been so poisonous that when Congress passed the 2007 energy bill last December, it failed to extend any stimulus for wind and solar energy production. Oil and gas kept all their credits, but those for wind and solar have been left to expire this December. I am not making this up. At a time when we should be throwing everything into clean power innovation, we are squabbling over pennies...

While all the presidential candidates were railing about lost manufacturing jobs in Ohio, no one noticed that America’s premier solar company, First Solar, from Toledo, Ohio, was opening its newest factory in the former East Germany — 540 high-paying engineering jobs — because Germany has created a booming solar market and America has not.

Thank you Thomas Friedman for still telling the truth. None of our politicians give a hoot about reducing dependence on foreign oil or increasing renewable energy. They just say they do on TV, and try to convince you that their opponents do not.

*Update* Greg Mankiw has linked a couple articles pointing out that you can't find an economist anywhere who supports these proposals. Last night on PBS Newshour I watched Len Burman from the Tax Policy Center. I thought his speaking abilities were mediocre, but he writes Mankiw to say:
Yesterday I was on the NewsHour to talk about the gas tax holiday. I asked if there was another guest and the producer said, "We tried, but we couldn't find anyone to argue the other side (that the gas tax holiday made sense)."

Monday, April 28, 2008

Rural Adventures continued (Part 4)

On Saturday, Joni and I drove up to Lake City and across to picnic in Norris Dam State Park, a 4038 acre forested area. We like to go new places. Here are some pictures of the dam. We also visited a restored old grist mill and threshing barn along our drive through the park.

We discovered that this past weekend was a holiday weekend for many locales, with festivals, flea markets, and exhibitions. Driving through Norris (the quaintest town) we saw a classic car show and a concert in the local park. We ate dessert at Shoney's and watched stunt guys doing motorcycle tricks at the ATV store next door. We bought some local raspberry-honey jelly (80% honey).

I also added some "You know you're in East TN when..." moments to the list.

You know you're in East Tennessee when...
...You see a pickup truck painted orange with a 01 like the General Lee. On the back windshield it says "Lost Sheep", and on the rear gate it has a large painting of a Confederate flag and an American flag.


...You see several carvings in your picnic table made by lovers. One reads:
Skeeter + Nubby = 4 Ever.

Ah, Skeeter and Nubby. Wonder what they named their kids? And sorry I didn't stop to get a picture of the pickup truck. The owner didn't look like the kind of guy who would take it too kindly.

Also of note, Lake City (Pop 1900, median household income in '05: $15,100) has a welcoming sign that says "Proud Past, Bright Future!" After driving through it I can say that if selling crystal meth is the future, then the sign got it right.

Maybe next weekend we'll hit some flea markets.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Campaign Frustrations (Part 2)

If you're like me, you have sort of a knee-jerk reaction to the Clinton campaigns smear tactics that have always worked so well for them. You feel angry, almost feeling sorry for Obama and knowing that if Clinton gets elected we can look forward to 4-8 more years of half-truths and attacks on the media for their unfair bias. The "how dare you criticize us?" mentality.

The recent criticism of who Obama associated with in college comes to mind. McCain's echoing of Hillary Clinton's criticisms left a bad taste in my mouth. Because isn't Obama supposed to unite us all?

But Thomas Sowell (famous African-American conservative economist) soberly writes:

Barack Obama's own account of his life shows that he consciously sought out people on the far left fringe. In college, "I chose my friends carefully," he said in his first book, "Dreams From My Father."

These friends included "Marxist professors and structural feminists and punk rock performance poets" -- in Obama's own words -- as well as the "more politically active black students." He later visited a former member of the terrorist Weatherman underground, who endorsed him when he ran for state senator...

His voting record in the U.S. Senate is the furthest left of any Senator. There is a remarkable consistency in what Barack Obama has done over the years, despite inconsistencies in what he says...

The irony is that Obama's sudden rise politically to the level of being the leading contender for his party's presidential nomination has required him to project an entirely different persona, that of a post-racial leader who can heal divisiveness and bring us all together.


There is no evidence that Obama ever sought to educate himself on the views of people on the other end of the political spectrum, much less reach out to them. He reached out from the left to the far left. That's bringing us all together?


Realistically, it doesn't look good for anyone against the Democrats. So, which Democrat is the least worrisome at this point? The answer to that question causes me to look beyond the rhetoric and platforms they lay out. You have to factor in items such as which one will bend to Congress more (especially after Republicans retake the majority after 2 years of Democrat rule). My answer is "I don't know." But, unlike Jenna Bush, I'm not enamored with Obama and I am squarely in the McCain camp.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

How to Play Deal or No Deal

My wife caught me watching Deal or No Deal last night after I'd vowed never to watch it again. She threatened to go public, but I told her I was watching it with a spreadsheet open, hence making it educational. So, I confess to watching.

There are several bloggers out there attempting to determine what the formula is the banker uses to make his offers. In searching through them, I learned that Howie Mandell is a germaphobe, and that's why he doesn't shake hands with contestants. He does "the rock." He hates touching people. He also gets mad when dumb contestants miss out on much-needed cash by pressing their luck.
So, a fun game you can play at home is "touch Howie," count how many times he physically touches someone and does so without cringing. Take bets on whether or not he runs from contestants when they win big money and want to hug him.

So, here's how to play along at home to determine whether or not the player should take the deal: You add up the probability of being left with each individual case. At the start of the game this is ((1/26)*.01)+ ((1/26)*1)+((1/26)*5), etc.
This ends up being the average of all the values on the board (much quicker to figure). That is the contestant's expected value (payoff) of continuing to play.
This guy has a nice, clean Excel sheet that lets you do this quickly.

If the banker makes an offer higher than the expected value, then the contestant should take the deal. So, if you're ever on the show you should always average the values of whatever is left on the board and wait for the banker to make you a higher offer.

Interestingly, the formula for the banker's offer appears to have changed recently. The banker previously would make offers lower than the expected value until about the 6th round, when the offers would go above the expected value, enticing the player to quit playing. However, it now appears that the banker always offers a number lower than the expected value, and that the offer might be a random number within a certain percentage. Perhaps this is because they want someone to finally win the $1 million? Perhaps it is because they want to extend the game and minimize contestants and therefore minimize their total payouts?

On WikiAnswers, someone has posted a formula that they say will get you within the banker's offer by $10,000.

Last night's game featured another unusual twist. The contestants had to wager their winnings on the Deal Wheel, a game where they had a 35% chance of halving their winnings and a 65% chance of at least doubling them. I think the contestants should be able to opt out of gambling their winnings as such. Throughout the show, Howie made it sound like contestants would triple their winnings automatically. Instead, there is only a 21% chance of tripling them (if we counted correctly).

So, I'll now be testing the various formulas people have posted online for accuracy.

Note: You can also read the entertaining blog of The Banker. He berates various commenters and causes an angry furor.

I'll never watch it for fun, only for mathematical intrigue. (Except wagering on "Touch Howie" might be kind of fun).

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Campaign Frustrations (Part 1)

(HT to Greg Mankiw for the articles today).

A good NY Times article by David Leonhardt on McCain's economic adviser, Douglas Holtz-Eakin. Eakin is a smart, honest guy but economists are frustrated with McCain's proposals that would balloon the deficit.

As Mr. McCain’s plan currently stands, The Economist magazine concluded that it “will not come anywhere close to paying for the tax cuts.” Most telling, I spoke over the past week with several other economists who admire Mr. McCain and have advised him over the years. None would defend his current fiscal package (or be quoted).


In this U.S. News Q&A, Holtz-Eakin does a good job answering questions and explains the hopes/plans McCain has of cutting pork barrel spending to help keep spending down by the amount he cuts taxes. It's as thorough and on-the-record as any interview with any candidate's adviser.

What is the key to dealing with healthcare?
The fundamental problem with healthcare is rising costs. The focus on the Democratic side is covering everybody. That's a laudable goal, but the reality is even if you were to snap your fingers and cover everybody who was uninsured ... and in exchange for their insurance you had them pony up $3,000 apiece, you would raise $150 billion, which is a lot of money, and now everyone would be in the system and given 6 to 8 percent cost growth a year, you would chew up that $150 billion within a year, and now everybody is in and it's getting more and more expensive every year and that is why companies drop insurance and people can't buy insurance. The Democratic formulation solves the wrong priority first.


This jives with what I've heard from doctors-- universal health care won't keep costs down.

McCain is at least honest about NAFTA, even to his detriment in "blue-collar" states.

Conservative David Brooks had a good editorial last week on the subject of how the Democrats do America a disservice in attacking trade deals like NAFTA.

Barack Obama delivered a speech in Pittsburgh on Monday on the economic stresses facing American workers. In the speech, he devoted one clause in one sentence to the single biggest factor affecting the workplace: technological change. He then devoted 45 sentences to one of the least important: trade deals.

Economists differ over how much outsourcing will change the American job market in the future, but there is little evidence that trade has been a major cause of job loss or even wage stagnation so far. As Robert Z. Lawrence of the Peterson Institute for International Economics wrote in a recent study: “The recent increase in U.S. inequality ... has little to do with global forces that might especially affect unskilled workers — namely, immigration and expanded trade with developing countries.”

And yet all Democratic domestic policy discussions have to start with trade and, in 99.9 percent of the cases, end with trade.

So, good for McCain for telling the truth about NAFTA and jobs. Shame on him for not coming up with any headlines other than the stupid repeal of the gasoline tax for the summer. Shame on him for not explaining how it's not a contradiction that he wants to fight the deficit yet make it worse at the same time.
You must do better, Senator!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Doing Math for the Doctor

Joni has felt a little pressure from her doctors to consider scheduling an elective cesarean section for her birth because it is looking like the baby is going to be above-average birthweight.

The doctor told Joni that medical journals recommend c-sections if the baby is over 4500-5000 grams. "Or 9.5 to 10 pounds." That's what he said. The implications were that if the ultrasound next week "determines" that Elias is 9.5 pounds or above, then we should opt for a c-section

However, a quick check of his math reveals that he's off:
4500 grams is 9.921 pounds, pretty darn close to 10.
5000 grams is 11.023 pounds. That's 10% heavier than the 10 pounds he stated.

So, the threshold for when you need to start thinking of having a C-section is actually 10-11 pounds, and NOT 9.5-10 pounds. His statements made it sound like above 10 pounds is getting past the safety threshold, when the journals he's quoting don't even recommend it until after 10 pounds.

"Big deal, he's 1 to 1.5 pounds off," you might say. Well, if you're fine with a 10% margin of error then you might want to move on. But, I'm not, and I decided to take it a couple steps further.

The CDC allows you to analyze all kinds of birthing information by year. Demographics, methods, mortality rates, everything. The CDC reports that in 2005 there were 159,582 births of babies who were 9.5 pounds or more, or 3.9% of all births. 10+ pound babies accounted for 1.1% of births.*

If the journal recommends 5,000 grams or 11 pounds to have a c-section, then that's not many babies. Only 4,715 babies weighed more than 5,000 grams, that's .001 of all births.

So, why is it that now 31% of all babies come by C-section, and the number of elective c-sections continue to increase?

You've probably heard that question asked on the evening news. There are a number of factors, this MSNBC article mentions about a dozen. But "there is no question that malpractice issues play a part." Doctors have been sued for not performing c-sections by parents whose babies were injured during vaginal birth. It's also more convenient for all parties involved to just schedule a c-section rather than try natural birth and end up having an emergency c-section. A couple reasons why the U.S. has the highest C-section rate in the world, higher than the World Health Organization says is necessary to improve medical service.

So, was the doctor's mistake a mathematical one or did he purposely make it sound like we need to sign some paperwork if Elias looks to be 9.5+ pounds? I don't know, but you can bet I'll be at the doctor's office for the ultrasound next week.

Through the CDC site, I was able to look up vaginal vs. cesarean births for 28 year olds and the number of injuries that occur:

In 2005, for 4500-4999 gram babies (10-11 pounds) There were 7 injuries reported in 957 vaginal births (0.7%). There was one injury reported in 730 c-sections (0.1%).

For 5000+ gram babies (11+ pounds) there were zero injuries in 76 vaginal births. There was one injury in 109 c-sections (0.9%).**

So, the risk to the baby of a healthy 28-year old like Joni giving birth naturally to a baby 10-11 pounds is pretty slim. The risk is even more slim for a c-section. But, you have to weigh the slim differences in risk (0.7% vs. 0.2% total) against all of the long-term complications and risks of having a C-section.

For one, the mortality rate for mothers is higher with a c-section than that of vaginal birth. It's a major surgery. It creates complications for having future children that have to be considered. The list goes on.

It's not something that we can say "Well, he might be 10-11 pounds, so we might as well sign up for a c-section!" as if it's something on our gift registry. And I'll be happy to point out to the doctor what the data say.

So, next week we'll have an ultrasound to try and estimate Elias' size. I imagine that the accuracy and margins of error of an ultrasound will be my next post on the subject. :-)

*
(note: 2005 is the most recent year you can get detailed data. The CDC lists them in weight groupings [4000-4499 grams], so I had to multiply by the percentage difference to get to 9.5 pounds, so there is some slight estimation. So, give or take 20 babies).
** (There were more births of both types in 2005, but many did not state on the certificate whether or not injuries occured. So, the "unknowns" are left out of the analysis).

Does this picture bother anyone else but me?


President Bush on Deal or No Deal, probably my least favorite game show ever. Saying "I'm thrilled to be anywhere with high ratings these days."

From the NY Times:

"Elitism is to the 2008 campaign as communism was to 1950s politics: a career breaker. And pop TV is the antidote, a free platform to rub shoulders with viewers who only glancingly pay attention to the news... None of the presidential candidates want to be seen as snooty or overeducated, which must be why on Monday all three provided taped greetings to wrestling fans watching “WWE Raw” on the USA network."

WWE Raw, are you kidding me???

"The novelty of politicians showing their lighter side on national television has begun to weigh heavily on the campaign season. The surprise lies not in who does which show, but who doesn’t do them at all, and at this point only the pope has held out."

So, the political campaign for president has essentially boiled down to who can be the funniest on these comedy shows? Who comes across the most as likable? Because Americans are too uneducated to figure out whose proposed policies will have what real and long-lasting effects on our country?

I don't care if Obama bowls or if Hillary has suddenly gone on a barroom drinking binge. How do I explain all these antics to my son?

"Well, Elias, in the old days people used to care about ideas and want to vote for highly-educated people who were serious, reminded us of our forefathers, and who had experience fighting wars and such. These days, we give our votes to whoever is funniest because it makes us feel happier and more numb as we try not to watch our country implode."

Sorry, this post was pure commentary. The data say many people watch Deal or No Deal and that Bush made a taped guest appearance on it.

Monday, April 21, 2008

How will your favorite NFL team do next season? (Part 2)

I'm testing regression to the mean of win-loss records of NFL teams.

I broke down the records of teams from 1993-2007, recorded what each team's record was the following season and how many years it took that team to get improve/regress to .500. In 1993 the current system of free agency was put into place and helped increase parity. Four teams were also added over these years (hypothetically spreading the talent pool more thin).

Here's the breakdown of team records. (Note: I did not include the 6 teams involved in ties in this distribution. I only used those teams records in the year-after recording (ex: The Falcons won 7 games in '01, and 9.5 games the next [9-6-1 record]) .


This analysis is useful for two things:
To see how long, on average, a team with a given record take to regress to .500 (8-8).
To see how some teams take more than 2 standard deviations more than the average to get back to 8-8. Those teams are either run very well or run very poorly. Which teams are those?

Here is the average change in wins for each given record (+/- the standard deviation), and the average number of seasons it took to get to .500 (+/- std. deviation). *NOTE* These averages do not include teams that have not yet regressed to the mean. Therefore, they slightly (in most cases) understate the Years to .500. Example: The Patriots have been above the mean since '01. They did not get a Years to .500 recording in any of their seasons. They're a phenomenon of a few deviations beyond the mean, truly unexplainable by randomness.


*Note 2* Five of the 9 teams that have gone 14-2 returned to .500 or below the following season. The other 4 have yet to return to .500, including two 14-2 Patriot teams.

Notice how every team in the NFL is essentially 2 seasons away from .500 or better/worse. Dynasties are a rarity.

Teams who took longer than 2 standard deviations beyond the mean to regress to .500 from their given record (* = 5%, **=1% significance levels):
49ers from 1993-1999**
Chiefs from 1993-1998*
Packers from 1993-1999*
Dolphins from 1997-2004**
Eagles from 2000-2005*
Patriots from 2001-current**
Colts from 2002-current*

You don't often think about the Chiefs and Dolphins as "dynasties" since they weren't in Super Bowls. But what they did was statistically amazing. How did these teams defy the odds? I can think of a few reasons for the Patriots. 5 MVP QBs represented on the list, but perhaps that's endogenous. Note: If Mike Holmgren has another winning season in Seattle in '08, he will have been a part of 3 dynastic teams.

Now, the worst "dynasties," a monument to historically bad statistical significance. Teams who took a very long time to get to .500 from their given record (*= 5%, **=1%):
Saints 1994-2000*
Rams 1993-1999*
Bengals 1997-2003*
Cardinals 1999-2007** (!)
Texans 2002-2007*
Lions 2001-current**

No surprises here, except the Rams turned things around with a Super Bowl in '99. The Cardinals' management must be really bad. If I were a fan of any of these franchises, I'd be all over the media to publish how the team management is scientifically suspect.

It looks like losing teams regress to .500 slightly slower than winning teams, meaning it's harder to improve than get worse. It's not significant though (if it's even there).

So, how can you use this information? You can't really for your fantasy team. But, remembering regression to the mean is useful in picking players.

The Bengals went 7-9 last year. 7-9 teams have some of the most volatility and are tough to predict. They are slightly likely to improve. There's a 68% chance that they'll go somewhere between 4-12 and 11-5 this year. A 95% chance that they'll go somewhere between 1-15 and 14-2.
If you think they have a good draft and keep Chad Johnson, you might predict an improvement toward the 11-5.

You can compare the chances of a team getting a certain record and compare it to what Vegas predicts (which I'll revisit here at the end of June). Looking at Brian Burke's method is very useful, my data above will just help you quantify the chances a little bit.

How will your favorite NFL team do next season?

Being a sports statistician/economist blogger has to be the best gig on the planet if you make money from it.

Here is a blog worth visiting:
Brian Burke's NFL Stats site. Burke looks exclusively at the NFL and does a lot of regression analyis.
I came across Burke's site by Googling "NFL regression to the mean." I believe the NFL has more parity than any other league, and the season outcomes depend greatly on luck. Because of this, a team can go 1-15 one year and 10-6 the next. Teams regress to .500 very rapidly.

I was reading Dean Oliver's book about the NBA and regression to the mean. He found that winning franchises revert to the mean more slowly than losing ones. He determined what the chances were of a 25 win team winning 55 games the next year and so on. I wanted to do the same analysis for the NFL.

Burke found that Vegas tends to ignore regression to the mean in setting its over/under before the season. A team's performance in the previous season doesn't hold as much prediction value for their record the following season as it does in other sports. Burke did the math and figured pretty simply how to beat Vegas. Here's Sabermetrics (another great sports stats blog) review of it.

Burke kindly pointed me to another website that shows the average change in NFL wins per given record. It made a prediction for last year's teams against the Vegas over/under. This is what I wanted to look at, but I wanted to apply Oliver's logic and see how long it takes for teams to regress towards the mean. I also wanted to go back to '93, which is when the current free agency system went into effect. Standard deviation is also important, and other sites don't often address that.

So, I'll post my results tomorrow in an attempt to be a real sports economist/statistician blogger.

Friday, April 18, 2008

More Fun with Sports and Probability- How Important are Matchups?

Previously, I used Tecmo Super Bowl III to demonstrate that 1 game cannot tell you who the better team is. Replaying from the beginning 50 times is better.
Since then, I've been trying to find a basketball game for the SNES that we could learn interesting things from about real-life sports. However, none of the SNES games keep track of the stats that I would need.

Before the NCAA tournament, several websites used Monte Carlo simulators to simulate the tourny 10,000 times using different types of data. The Monte Carlo predictions were highly accurate this season as the favorite teams romped. However, none of them gave results of particular matchups. For instance, most gave a good chance to Davidson of making the Elite 8. But, they gave a better chance to Georgetown. What I would be more interested in knowing is this:
If Georgetown had a 55% chance of beating Davidson then, in all the simulations in which Davidson won, how did they fare against simulated opponents in the next round? Which opponents did they do the best against?

Because, I might have picked Davidson in my bracket to upset Georgetown in the 2nd round if I knew the odds of Davidson also beating their possible 3rd round opponents were pretty good. Matchups matter.

I have found that Tecmo Super NBA Basketball is useful to examine probabilities of outcomes in the playoffs, and see how seeding/matchups work out. (*Disclaimer* Nothing in this post took me more than an hour to do, so don't be concerned about how I'm wasting my time ).

The game uses data from the '91-92 seasons. I simulated the season and got these standings:

Golden State and Portland have dominant records, with the Bulls not far behind. Here are the brackets:
The top seeds in the West were Golden State and Portland. In the East they were Chicago and Cleveland. It takes about 10 seconds to simulate the playoffs on the emulator (the computer only gives game scores, not stats for these games. It does compile individual stats as the season progresses but not a full box score). So, in my make believe Monte Carlo simulator, this is how it turned out in 30 simulations:

Championships won:
Portland- 10 times
Golden State - 7
Chicago - 4
Phoenix - 2
Detroit - 2
Lakers, Utah, San Antonio, Cleveland, and Indiana all had 1 apiece.

Golden State is an interesting case for matchup issues. They had the NBA's best record but don't win the majority of championships. Why?

In the simulation, Golden State wins the title 23.3% of the time. The win their first round series 27 of 30 times, but get upset in the 2nd round 50% of the time.

The majority of their 2nd round matchups are against the Lakers (who advance to the second round 2/3 of the time). The Lakers win their 2nd round matchup 14 of 20 times (70%).

So, Golden State is a very good team relative to other teams in the league, but the Lakers match up well against them and beat Golden State more than Golden State beats them.

Another example is Utah. Utah only gets out of the 1st round in just 3 of the 30 simulations. However, in one of those simulations it wins the championship! Utah beats Portland in 1 of 3 (33%) series. This might suggest that Utah matches up better against a Portland team than a better San Antonio team which loses to Portland 26 of 30 times (87%).

So, matchups matter. Golden State has a tougher 2nd round matchup, so it struggles to live up to its seeding. It wins 11 of the 12 series in which it gets past the 2nd round, indicating it's better on average than most teams but not the Lakers.
Utah has a tough 2nd round matchup, but if it could just get past San Antonio it might upset Portland fairly often.

These are the things I think about.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

For Azlan

A few days ago I wrote about Patriot, the 3 year old who loves Jimmie Johnson. His little brother Azlan is equally a hoot, and is in the running for the Favorite Nephew award.
That's Azlan in the middle holding the ball. He's about 18 months old. I really like two things about Azlan.
1. He always has a smile for everyone. A few weeks ago when I was doing long hours of data entry, Azlan comes into the house, comes right over to me and gives me a big hug and a smile. That's just the kind of kid he is. I have another nephew who runs away from me and screams every time he sees me, so Azlan lets me know I'm OK.

2. He eats like a college kid. I'm not exaggerating! He's been eating adult food since he was like 6 months old, they just put him in a chair next to the table, cut up some food for him, and he cleans his plate. No fuss, no spoon-feeding for this little man.

One night, I watched him down a Sonic corn dog and tater tots, and then sample from everyone else's plate. If you're eating food in front of him, he wants some. I watched him down a big dinner one evening, and later his dad came by with a Chili's cheeseburger and fries. Azlan wasn't content until he ate all the fries, and then stole his daddy's drink and quickly downed it. That was me in college, but he's only 18 months old. I was in awe.
Here's a picture from his 1st birthday party. Here's some more from his mom's blog.

He's not fat, is really active, and his parents are active so there's no concern for any health issues. But, I think dude is going to grow up to be a left tackle. Here's some video of him knocking around a golf ball, I think this was before he was even a year old.


video

He learns a lot from his brother, but is also his own dude. I tried to get him to wear a Jimmie Johnson hat to take a picture of him in it, but he would have none of that. He made it clear he wouldn't sellout his convictions. I respect that.

So, here's to you Baby A! Won't be long before you'll be able to read English.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Book Review (#12 of 2008)

Shepherding a Child's Heart by Tedd Tripp. Easily the most convicting book I've read in a long time. It really opened my eyes to the importance of understanding your child's struggles and guiding him toward the Lord. In order to demonstrate genuine Lordship to him, you have to be authentically surrendered to the Lord, and that's tough every day. I highly recommend this book to all parents or soon-to-be parents!

I also now look around at people's behavior and weaknesses and determine how they must have been raised (kind of an odd side effect of reading the book). I don't agree with 100% of the parenting advice written, but I agree with 100% of the principles they were getting at. I learned a whole lot. Tripp and his wife now have a series of Shepherding books on their website.

I give the book 4.5 stars out of 5.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Finally


Jimmie Johnson gives Hendrick Motorsports a much-needed first win of the season. This time last year they were straight dominating. Now, it's a big win for driver and crew chief.


Chad Knaus (above) deserves much of the credit, making the gamble on fuel in the closing laps. Knaus' calculations had Jimmy coming up a lap short. Yet, they waited to see what everyone else would do. Once everyone else had pitted, Jimmy had a 10 second lead. Chad simply told him to slow down, even lied to him that he had a 20 second lead. It worked. Jimmy even had enough gas to do one of his famous burnouts. Way to go, team!

Last weekend I watched the race on the huge HDTV at Joni's brother-in-law's in Cincinnati. They have two kids, the oldest of which is Patriot at 3 years old, pictured standing here. During the race, Patriot came downstairs, looked up at the TV and said "That's Jimmie Johnson!" His parents aren't sure how he even knows who JJ is. He quickly said that Johnson is his favorite and can even tell you what number he is. I could have cried and just hugged the kid to death.
NASCAR- even little kids like to watch the race cars go fast!

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Housing Market

So, a couple people have asked me "when is the housing market going to come back?" Probably because I'm supposed to be an economist.

I saw Yale economist Bob Shiller on ABC news the other night and they displayed this chart he made almost 2 years ago of home values over time (courtesy NY Times).
Shiller was asked what the housing market was going to do. His answer: "I don't know. No one knows." A good economist says 2 things: "I don't know" and "it depends" (2 ways of saying the same thing).

Click on the graph to enlarge. Notice how people who bought houses about 1912 had to wait over 35 years before they could sell them for profit. A similar thing happened the late 1950's, buyers didn't sell their homes for profit until the 80's.

Shiller's point: People used to buy their houses to LIVE in, and not as a profitable investment. The bubble we saw the past several years was purely speculative-- people were investing in homes like stocks, hoping to flip them quickly. (People also buy homes for use as a tax shelter, responding to the government-given incentive). Low interest rates and the flood of investment money buying up subprime loan packages created an aggressive stampede.

A former classmate of mine once went on and on in class about how real estate was the easiest, most guaranteed money there was. "Prices will never go down. The market will never go down." I wonder what he's doing now? (probably making $50,000 a year somewhere). I argued with him at the time, noting that people in Malaysia and Thailand had said the same thing just before the East Asian financial crisis. When their markets went south, all of the speculative real estate values burst and now there are a ridiculous number of nice brand new empty apartment buildings. I doubt he learned anything from our somewhat heated exchange or reality.

About a month ago, Joni and I looked at an older house for sale nearby. The house had been on the market for several months, and last I checked was still on it.
The owner had bought it a couple years ago to flip it. He put new carpet in, done some repainting and put in new kitchen appliances. I went through my list of questions: "How old is the roof, is the attic insulated, how old is the water heater, does the crawlspace flood, etc.?" He knew the answer to none of them. He was struggling to understand why the house wasn't selling.

I thought "Man, the market must have been nice if you used to could expect to turn a quick profit with just some cosmetic touch-ups." Interestingly, there were a few other houses being flipped in the neighborhood, and houses for sale everywhere. East TN has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the U.S.

So, here is what I guess from reading articles and blogs over the past year:

1. The days of speculating and turning a quick profit from flipping houses is over for at least a decade. (Fast-growing metropolitan areas are the exception).
2. Now that investors are loathe to invest in securitized loans there is less money available to make loans for people wanting to buy or build houses. This will continue for a while.
3. The global savings glut means there's still a lot of money to put into real estate, it just won't be put into bonds like it was previously. There will be more direct buying of properties by large funds.
4. Eventually population growth + immigration will lead to an increase in housing values.

Another good economist answer is "If you wait long enough..."

Friday, April 11, 2008

Churches and Finance, Part 5: Conclusion/Epilogue

Today concludes the brunt of my talk on churches and finance. What should you take away from my series?

1. Never judge a church as "miraculous" or having the "hand of God" on it simply because its numbers are growing rapidly and it can afford to do a lot. Megachurches that are growing rapidly are in fast-growing communities that are seeing per-capita income grow rapidly. There is nothing miraculous about the growth of these communities or the churches in them. They have succeeded in attracting wealthy people whose giving make the programs higher-quality, and this has caused the church to expand and attract even more of the wealthy. These churches don't appear to have any more discipleship or miraculous works of the Spirit than the 200 member church down the street (maybe even less so). Willow Creek's apology should be a wake-up call to all those who copy these churches' recipes.

2. Word Faith churches have large numbers, worldwide ministries, and a lot of money. They also preach a false Gospel and have leadership who live lavish lives. If money and numbers is how we judge a church's blessing, then Word Faith churches must be considered blessed. The fact that they don't pass any Scriptural tests should cause us to re-evaluate how we judge churches. Check out this John Piper video to find out what he thinks.

3. If you want to grow your small church into a megachurch the key is to attract a few wealthy people. These will allow you to grow your programs disproportionately to your attendance, and attract more people. Plant/move your church into an area where population and incomes are growing rapidly, and attract the upwardly-mobile income earners who are moving into it.

4. There will always be a small number of the congregation that does a much higher proportion of the giving than the rest. This happens even if everyone gives 10%, it is simply because there will always be some who are very wealthy and their 10% makes the majority of the giving. It's a mathematical identity.

Story 1:
The aforementioned church that was $200,000 in debt has been preaching a series about the dangers of materialism. Now, the easiest way for the church to get rid of its debt would be to attract a few wealthy people. The church, in my estimation, is following the recipes of church growth literature produced by a megachurch. However, by preaching sermons that repel the high-income, the church is shooting itself in the foot. You cannot have it both ways; either gear your programs around the income of your congregation, or continue to aim high and attract the wealthy.

Story 2:
I once attended a church that was engaged in a large building program, the church was growing, and everyone's talk was that the "hand of God" was on it. The church's programs were well-attended, and discipleship was program-driven. However, it didn't look any more like the book of Acts to me than the churches it considered rivals. Due to some internal problems, the church lost most of its high-income 10% whose giving made up 90% of church funds. The church had to tighten its belt in many areas, and many sermons were preached on how "if you just had more faith, you would give more money. If you want to see more people get saved, then give more money." It didn't seem to grasp that the 10% it lost were the ones that had funded these programs that it pointed to as evidence of its "blessing." It kept on with its building program, going into debt to complete it. The church sees completing the building program as evidence of God's blessing carrying them through the hard times.

These two stories helped inspire these posts, along with looking at the church growth literature in bookstores and on blogs today. Churches often don't have a grasp of the importance of their wealthy 10%. Other churches are trying to grow larger, rather than deeper, because the fast-growing churches are pointed to as examples of "God at work," even though their growth is purely due to economic factors. They're following recipes to attract the rich rather than finding ways to make true disciples. Where is your church in this spectrum? Where does it want to be?

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Rural Adventures Again (East KY)

We drove from Cincy to East TN on Monday morning. Now, I never recommend getting off I-75 for any reason other than Sonny's Barbecue and to stop for gas. You don't have to go far from the road before you start to hear that tune from Deliverance. We stopped in London at one of the last Speedways on I-75 S to get gas and use my Speedy Rewards Card, and we had a serendipitous discovery.

Joni spotted it first. There outside the National Guard Armory was a big crowd gathered around an 88 Car of Tomorrow. We stopped and got pictures.
It was being used as a recruiting tool, which is why the NG sponsors him. It was cool to see the car up close, especially to see how cramped it is for the driver. So... you never know what you'll find when you stop in East KY.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Commercial Break

Gonna take a break from the church series to let it sink in and work on the appendix. I thought I'd do a post critiquing the commercials we were bombarded with throughout the NCAA tournament and sort out how my brain has been washed.

Coke vs. Coke Zero. Hidden cameras poking fun at real lawyers. Guys saying random and funny things. A few of these were funny and were replayed hundreds of times. They have now gotten old. Message to Coca-Cola: We KNOW that Coke Zero tastes like Coke but without the calories. If no one is buying it, then maybe you should market it differently. Thank you.

DiGiorno. "It's not delivery, it's DiGiorno." I think they had 1 commercial, the one where the husband pretends to order a pizza while actually calling his wife in the kitchen.
Question: Who sets up a TV in the middle of the backyard? You couldn't even see the screen due to the glare from the sun... just saying.

Enterprise Rent-a-Car: Okay, is there ANYONE in America who doesn't know that Enterprise can pick you up for free if you rent a car??? I mean, they've been playing the soccer mom commercial for at least 5 years. People have probably quit using Enterprise because they're sick of their commercial!

Burger King: Futuristic the King. The year is 3000 again and everyone is weird and lame. A robotic The King shows up and delivers a breakfast wrap. A female appears and says "He's so great with his hands!" and you're instantly creeped out. The ad agency that made it is Crispin Porter + Bogusky. Call them up and tell them they failed.
Seriously, I am creeped out enough to not eat Burger King for a while... except to get some BK Joe. I wish I could snap my fingers and have some Joe...

DirectTV: Message from the Future. What's with the creepy futuristic commercials? Just tell us what DirectTV has to offer and get off my screen.

Degree Antiperspirant: More creepy futuristic robots!? Seriously, why would we have robots that are constantly scanning our bodies to see how much we are perspiring?? As another blogger put it:
Ok, so you had a robot apply your antiperspirant in the morning and were nearly late for your meeting - especially after having to deal with that robotic dog who wanted to bite your butt. Should I just try not to think about why a robot would want to chase or bite you? Luckily there was a jet-pack thing there that got you to the meeting - with your holographic boss? And the hologram analyzes you for sweat? What. The. Hell?


DirectTV Board Room commercials: These were mildly funny. A cable marketing executive uses corporate lingo to pretend to come up with ways to compete against DirectTV. "Let's go viral; blog it out over the Net. Boom, our numbers are up 800%. Can we say Q3 anyone?" But, the 50th time I see this it will be less funny.

Cadillac's various commercials. Joni's brother-in-law thinks the "Does it return the favor" quote made some guy's career. It apparently has a rabid following on YouTube.
The one where the guy says "life is high school, just with bigger toys," really annoys me. He implies that he "graduates" from that silliness because he bought the biggest toy of them all: an Escalade. Yeah, buddy, you're impressive.

Pizza Hut's new pasta. I've tried some of these, and they're decent. Slightly better than Fazoli's. But, I don't recommend anyone order anything from Pizza Hut; just make it yourself.
Pizza Hut is reportedly going to change its name to Pasta Hut and phase out the pizzas if this is successful. Hmm.. they figured out they're not doing so well in the pizza business. Imagine that.

Anyone have any others they'd like to talk about? I know I left out a couple.

My favorite commercial: Nike's My Better is Better. This commercial gets me hyped, and sometimes this song shows up in my dreams.



"Thank you very much for coming."

Monday, April 07, 2008

Churches and Finance, Part 4: How to Start a Megachurch

In one of my posts last year on rational behavior vs. spiritual behavior, I talked about how 10% of churchgoers do 90% of the giving and service. I concluded that if you see a church where more than 10% of the congregation is giving and serving, then it can't be easily explained and is probably supernatural (Spirit-led).

However, I was mostly wrong. Indeed, Barna does conclude that only 8% of Christians tithe, or give at least 10% to their local church, which indicates a free-rider effect. And I've had several conversations with pastors who complain about the 90/10 effect in their own churches. I've heard pastors espouse this from the pulpit in efforts to get more of the congregation to give.

But, in terms of money, a small percentage of your congregation will always do the majority of giving as a purely mathematical reality. (It's similar to how 10% of Americans pay 67% of the taxes).

Observe:
Imagine a church of 100 people who all earn $35,000 a year. All of these give 10% so the church's income is $350,000. Now, suppose 10 members who earn $100,000 a year join the church and give 10%. The church's income has increased by almost 29%. These 10 families now make up almost 1/4 of the church's income. Now, suppose a $1 million earner joins and gives 10%. The church now has $650,000, and almost half of its income is from 11 people (10%).

As you add some high-income people, the number moves closer to 90/10.

What does this have to do with megachurches?
In our example above, the church membership grew 11% while it's income grew 85%. A church with $650,000 can do substantially more than it can with $350,000. It can suddenly renovate its sanctuary, and buy a projector. It can put up new signs and buy better musical instruments. It can make its bulletin more modern and print it on glossy paper. The increase in resources suddenly increases the quality of what the church's output (glossy paper, better signs, better instruments, etc). The staff doesn't change, and the overall nature of the church doesn't change; it just can afford to do more.

Yesterday, I pointed out that megachurches are found in the zip codes with the fastest-growing income levels. Above, I've shown that it only takes a few rich people, and all of a sudden you've got higher quality stuff that attracts even more rich people.

Once your congregation gets larger, economies of scale kick in. (Larger churches have lower marginal costs and can afford more programs that attract more people, I've discussed this before).

I think that most of the church growth literature you see in Christian bookstores today are actually recipes on how to attract the wealthy. Wealthy people are higher educated and demand higher quality goods. They won't enjoy a clanky old piano and an overhead projector. They also have a higher premium put on their time, which means they prefer shorter services (this is why higher-income churches [and denominations] tend to have shorter services than lower-income churches on average).

The church that acquires a few wealthy people can increase its production disproportionately to the small increase in membership. The more high-quality products it can offer, the more wealthy will join. Soon, the majority of giving is done by the high-income member. The low-income member also enjoys more services while giving the same amount, and can even just free-ride without affecting the church.

So, if you want to grow a large church then my advice to you is to recruit some wealthy people. They will do the vast majority of the funding of your programs which will do the greatest amount to draw all people into the church. Move your church location near an area where income levels are rising and drawing in the more educated. If the area is attractive for settling down then also try to draw in college students as they will be the future high-income givers of your church. Avoid spending money on projects that only help or draw in low-income earners, at least initially. Your mission should be growth, not helping the poor.

As the church grows in size you'll likely begin to appear in church journals that document your miraculous growth, someone might even write a book about how other churches can do the same. Warning: Your pastor might be poached by a larger church that pays more and whose literature was the inspiration for your own church growth strategy.


Tomorrow, I'll give a stories of (anonymous) churches that failed to understand the 90/10 concept and I'll explain how they're struggling.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Churches and Finance, Part 3: Where Are Megachurches?

In Part 1 of this series I asked you what things you consider when you look at a church and say "Man, God is really blessing that church." I think it (sadly) usually boils down to what the church's programs are like or what it can afford to do.
I pointed out that Word Faith churches are rich and large, but Biblically contrary. The early Church had characteristics of miraculous things that only God could do, and I think that's a better measure.

At any given bookstore the church growth literature seems to center around the things that megachurches in the U.S. are doing. Churches all over the country scramble to copy the programs of Rick Warren or Andy Stanley into their own churches. These are all considered to have "miraculous" growth, and people point to that as a sign of God's blessing, or the church's success. So, it seems that people consider these churches as special and many want their churches to grow in the same ways. I think this is folly. Why do I think that?

Observe the following pictures. The first shows the location of megachurches in the U.S. The second shows the location of the 500 fastest-growing cities in the U.S. according to the Census Bureau. Notice how identical the two graphics are.


If megachurches are considered blessed or miraculous because of their large numbers and rapid growth, does that mean that the rapidly-growing cities they're in are also blessed? Should we scramble to hire their city planners and publish books on their mayors' strategies too?

The 500 fastest-growing cities in the U.S. also have the fastest-growing income levels in the U.S. The cities are growing because people are migrating to where the money is. These cities are seeing growth in human capital due to the increase in high-skill, high-pay jobs. This helps explains how the megachurches can afford to do so much: increasingly wealthy people are growing the church's membership. No surprise that most of the megachurches are also built in neighborhoods with very high per-capita income.

Megachurches have large buildings, elaborate programs, the latest technology, and the highest-quality materials. They can afford much. People look at all they can afford to do and consider them "blessed." But, I haven't seen anything about them that looks any more like the New Testament than the 200 person church down the street. Willow Creek, probably the most copied church in America, even apologized when it realized that its programs weren't helping people grow spiritually. Increased participation in activities didn't correlate with spiritual growth. The various works of the Spirit I listed in Part 1 aren't found at these churches.

In Part 4, I'll elaborate on how to start building your megachurch. (In part 3 I said I'd do that today, but I decided to break it up into 2 parts. Sorry).

Friday, April 04, 2008

Churches and Finance, Part 2: Should Churches be in Debt?

Few churches go into debt, per se, most simply become "under budget." When making their annual budget for the following year, the church lays out activities and expenses onto a calendar and determines how much it needs to raise per month to support all of them. If January and February see low giving, then maybe some of May's activities get tentatively cut from the schedule. (Churches also usually have an endowment of sorts, money that is invested or put into real estate, assets that it can liquidate to cover shortfalls if need be).

It's become a pet peeve of mine when I hear of churches being consistently under budget. It seems to happen at churches much more than would be acceptable in the business world, and I think it is a bad witness.

Jesus said:
"For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him saying, 'This man began to build and was not able to finish.' " Luke 14:28-30.

Jesus was talking about the cost of discipleship, but the principle is the same: You need to count your cost well before setting out to do something. Living beyond your means will eventually draw ridicule. I see 3 things that happen when a church is severely underbudget:

1. The staff look like poor planners.
2. The congregation look like poor givers (which is unfair if #1 is true).
3. The preacher begins to preach sermons on the importance of giving, urging his congregation to give more money. The preacher becomes a fund-raiser rather than a preacher of the Gospel.

Tithing is very important and it is true that there are unspiritual free-riders in the church who don't tithe. But, the blame can easily go on poor planning.

I recently heard of a church that has just over 1,000 in attendance that was $200,000 under budget. Clearly, this church had some big ambitions that its congregation couldn't cover. But, it was also determined that the median tithe was about $20. A tithe is typically 10% of a person's income; this goes back to Abraham and has been the benchmark for millenia. If I am giving $20 to my local church every 2 weeks when I get my paycheck, I am making $400 a month or $4800 a year. No one in the church is making that little money (except the teenagers working part time at McD's), so clearly the median tither isn't giving anywhere near 10%.

Joni and I went through the Dave Ramsey Total Money Makeover, which encourages debt-free living and disciplined control of finances through a budget. (I sometimes wonder if church staff need to go through something like this before publishing their budget.) But, seeing how 10% of Americans with mortgages owe more than the house is worth, and seeing how so many have racked up huge credit card debts, I've reached the conclusion: Many Christians simply don't know how much money they have available to tithe.

Completing the Ramsey course with fellow believers and seeing how it opened their eyes, I've reached a conclusion that most Christians do not have control of their finances. Since most use Direct Deposit for their checks, they often do not think to look at their account and see how much their check was, and most don't immediately write a check for 10% to their church. Many have debts that squeeze them out of giving to the church. Many think they're giving 10%, but aren't. Most could give much more, but don't know it's a possibility.

Financial discipline is tough, but it's Biblical and necessary. The "live beyond your means!" mentality of Americans permeates the church and, unfortunately, ordained ministers are not immune and have also created churches that try to live beyond their means.

If a church is $200,000 behind budget then it can do a few things:
1. Plan better and more realistically. Go back and evaluate what led you to think there would be an extra $200,000 in the coffers. What expenses are not Scripturally necessary?
2. Change its fiscal period. If the church's fiscal year ends in December, move it to August. This evens out the huge surge in giving that comes in December as people seek last-minute tax deductions.
3. Encourage people to give more. Fund raise.
4. Liquidate assets to cover the shortfall... this decreases future wealth but covers the here and now.
5. Begin reaching out to wealthy people and draw them into the church.

#5 is one of the easiest to do and I will elaborate more on it tomorrow. Tomorrow, I'll talk about how megachurches get started and how you can grow your own megachurch. I will lead this to a discussion on who really are the most important people in the church.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Churches and Finance, Part 1: The Illusion of Blessing?

Word Faith/"Prosperity Gospel" preachers have recently been in the spotlight as they're being called to testify before Congress about their massive wealth accumulated through their supposedly non-profit churches. Stories of lear jets, marble-topped toilets, multiple mansions and Bentleys have been broadcast while these preachers are unapologetic. Their message is simple: If you obey the Word of God, He will bless you with immeasurable health and wealth here and now. They use their own wealth as "proof of God's blessing" a very circular logic since they say obedience to the Word of God comes partly in the form of a pledge or donation to their ministry.

(Most Christians are unaware that this might lead to greater scrutiny and regulation of church finances, churches may soon have to jump through more accounting hoops to prove they're actually using their funding for legitimate uses to be defined by the government).

Question: When is a church to be considered "blessed? " When you say "Man, God's blessing is really on that church," what specific items are you referring to?
I fear that way too often such statements are referring to:
1. The number of people in attendance.
2. The types of programs it's putting on.
3. The professionalism and appeal of the programs, architecture, music, graphics, etc.
4. What the church can afford.

I think #4 correlates with, and usually drives, the other 3,
and this belief is at the heart of this series of posts.

Many people think the wealth and prosperity churches are blessed because the churches are big and their pastors have worldwide ministries. These preachers conveniently leave out Jesus' words about how it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter heaven, how a rich young ruler who refused to give up his wealth was denied entrance to heaven, how Scripture urges the church not to show favoritism to the wealthy, etc.

So, these churches fail in a Biblical test of having right attitudes about money. Are they blessed? Since the words "blessed" and "blessing" have so many contexts in Scripture, I think it's useful to look at how the early church was working and see how many of the Word Faith movement churches match up:

1. The members shared all things in common. There was (mandatory) transparency about incomes and giving. (Acts 2:44-46, Acts 5:1-5).

2. People were genuinely being healed (Acts 5:16).

3. People were responding to persecution (2 Timothy 3:12).

4. People were using their gifts of the Spirit to edify one another, in service, prophecy, tongues, miracles, etc. (1 Cor. 12:4-11).

5. Believers were fleshing out what it meant to be submissive to one another, to authorities, to holding others in high esteem, and not to show favoritism to the wealthy.

6. Believers were holding fast to the Word of God, namely Scripture (Hebrews 10:23-25).

This is a limited set of examples, but they appear the most prominently in Scripture. Many of these are miraculous things that money cannot buy. I think the Word Faith churches miss out on most of these, and for many reasons can be rejected as dangerously in error.

Going back to my original question-- do you see your church as blessed? What is coloring that perception: The Scriptural things that God is doing in your church that are reminiscent of the early church? Or what your church can afford to do? If you took away all of your church's money, would it still be a functioning church? More to come.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Book Review (#11 of 2008)

You get two reviews for the price of one today. My wife and I listened to two books on our travels through Tennessee and Kentucky to Ohio this past week. Both were older books, the first of which I got for $1.

Book #1:
The Lexus and the Olive Tree (Wikipedia review) was written by Tom Friedman in 1999. I often quote Tom Friedman on this blog and have read a couple of his other books. This one is the precursor to The World is Flat. If you've lived in a coma for the last 10 years and don't know/understand what globalization is and how it's transforming the world, then this book is for you.

Friedman attempts to dissect, analyze and categorize this new international system, and explains it by introducing colorful new terms such as: Microchip Immune Deficiency; The Golden Straightjacket; The Electronic Herd; DOSCapital; The Backlash; The Groundswell.

It's interesting to hear his Washington Consensus one-size-fits-all policy endorsements, which seems to contradict with his conclusion that we also need larger government social policies in America. It's also interesting to see how far to the left the pendulum has swung around the world since this was written. 2.5 stars out of 5. (Would have been 4.5 stars out of 5 in 1999).

Book #2:
My wife bought Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg. The book is just like the movie (which I'd never seen all the way through), but it's more detailed and you get to hear the author read it. I guess the audience is middle-aged women. Since I'm not one, I will not attempt to rate it.

We sold both of them at Half Price Books in Louisville and only got $4, which I put towards a $7 book that I look forward to reviewing in the near future.

Rural Adventures (Part 3) U.S. 60 and barbecue

In Part 1, my dad and I went through the boonies of Western KY. We travelled home via US 60 and highway 641. If the Pixar movie Cars made you nostalgic for roads like Route 66, then U.S. 60 is your kind of road. It stretches from Virginia to Arizona. I had never been on US 60 west of Henderson, so that was fun.

On the backroads of KY you notice one thing: Every small town has a barbecue restaurant. There's usually a pig on the sign, and they often only sell pork. Most people outside Kentucky don't realize that Western Kentucky takes barbecue very seriously and considers itself a world capital.

Now, Texas had these kind of places too, but it wasn't quite the same. Most of the good ones were a counter where you told them how much beef you wanted, and they handed you a sheet of butcher paper. (Good, but Joni and I would trade most of the barbecue in Texas just for Sonny's in the rest of the south as far as taste, price, and selection).

Some small towns may only have like 500 people, but they have 2 barbecue joints on the highway. The only real difference in the products is the sauce. And the food is cheap.

We stopped in Marion and ate at Marion Pit barbecue. Marion is a quaint town that has a couple cafes, a bakery, and a couple barbecue joints. Pretty good stuff, we enjoyed the sauce and took a bottle home.

So, next time you're driving through western Kentucky, get off the parkway or interstate and follow a state road to whatever small town is on your map. There you'll find a barbecue joint that only the locals know about but that may serve the best pork barbecue you've ever tasted.