Friday, July 31, 2009

Görüşürüz!

In about an hour I will depart Bolivar for Central Asia. So, there will be no blogging until I return on 8/8. I look forward to being away from the U.S., hopefully it's what I need to be more appreciative of my country and less grumpy about it.

See you later!

Book Review (#12 of 2009)

According to BusinessWeek, The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell has been the #1 long-run business bestseller for a long time. I didn't find a cheap copy until Christmas, and didn't start it until about a week ago.

I greatly enjoyed this book, especially the first 3/4 of it. Gladwell has recently taken flack for some of his work from economist Bill Easterly, been criticized by Seth Godin, and ridiculed by basketball fans for some things Bill Simmons quoted him saying. So, I'm sure one can find all kinds of details that are questionable in his book... like talking only about William Dawes and Paul Revere while never mentioning Samuel Prescott...

Anyway, the Tipping Point is actually about church planting. When I get some time I'd like to search the interwebs and see who this book helped in thinking about their churches. Gladwell only uses examples of churches in one place (explaining how John Wesley's model was so successful, experiencing exponential reproduction) and probably isn't a Christian. But his observations of natural phenomenon from sociology to various human organizations give us some things to think about.

Church planters should use his book to ask:
1. How can I make the message more sticky?
2. Who are my Connectors...those people who just seem to know everyone?
3. Who are my Mavens, people who others go to for advice or for expert opinions on what book to read or what car to buy?
4. Who are my Salesmen, those natural evangelists?
5. How can I think about myself and my congregation in context? People behave one way in one context, and another way in another context. This is just a fact. How can I better understand how this behavior affects the dynamic of my church?
6. Why is my church more than 150 people? No church should ever be bigger than 150. Through the centuries everyone from generals to the Fortune 500 have figured this out... but churches don't seem to.

I didn't like the last couple chapters, found them a little bit tough to stretch the rest of the book around. But the book is great for encouraging thinking and discussion. And if you want to know how children shows like Sesame Street and Blue's Clues developed, this is your book.

4 stars out of 5.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Economics as Religion

Whenever I feel I have a spare hour I try to read up on economic blogs, namely macroeconomic blogs. And I usually have an intense look and furrowed brow.
Explanations of the financial crisis-- the before, during, and now after-- are usually contradictory while each having kernels of truth.

This is because macroeconomics really developed different schools in the 20th century akin to the branching of denominations in Christianity/religion.

You have to decide, are you:
simple Neoclassical, old-school Keynesian, New Keynesian, Post-Keynesian, Monetarist, Austrian, etc.? (Some of these are considered "heterodox" and there are other heterodox schools).

You can be a New Keynesian with a monetarist bent just like one can be a Reformed Southern Baptist (Reformed= Calvinist). But most schools/denominations fall back on the same catechisms, the same principles.

So, it's tough to decide. You shop around to see which one you like, examine the assumptions behind the doctrines, etc.
Which one is the clearest to understand? While this may be a factor in deciding, it perhaps shouldn't be. Perhaps the best schools of thought are the most complicated.

Which school of thought explains current events most accurately, or predicted them? Pretty much all do in retrospect due to hindsight bias.

Which school you associate with is usually a function of your upbringing and education (like seminary). If you went to a "salt water" economics school on the coasts then you probably don't believe in efficient market hypothesis and are some brand of Keynesian. (If you went to a religious seminary in one of those schools you also probably don't believe in the total inerrancy of Scripture and are probably Episcopalian or Lutheran).

Asking "what do the data say" rarely works here, because you have to ask "which data?" and so much of that data depends on the presenter.

My brow remains furrowed (though to the best of my understanding I'm a New Keynesian who is flirting with converting to full Monetarism).

What led you to choose your current religious affiliation? When you chose you probably understood some basics, had heard a couple arguments you liked, but were by no means an expert. And you may have been an adherent all your life and still not understand everything. Or was it that you just liked the people associated with those arguments and felt comfortable and welcome there?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Book Review (#11 of 2009)

I spend a lot of my time reading textbooks and don't count those as books read. But this is sort of a textbook and I will count it anyway because it was for fun.

The ARRL Ham Radio License Manual: All You Need to Become an Amateur Radio Operator.

This book is to prepare you for the Technician exam, which is the first level of ham radio operator. Why become a licensed amateur radio operator? Isn't that an archaic hobby?

Here are a few reasons:
1. In the case of emergencies you can communicate with a wide range of people and services that you might not be able to otherwise.
2. If you want to be a tornado or storm spotter then you need your license.
3. If you want to be able to carry your police scanner in your car legally you have to be licensed.
4. If you want to be able to talk to astronauts on the international space station you have to be licensed.
5. If you want to be able to communicate with people in far off countries that may not have internet access, or may have it limited by their governments at times (see: Iran) then ham radio is an option.
6. The internet ironically has made amateur radio more powerful. You can now electronically access other repeaters internationally through the internet and use programs like Skype to chat with people who don't have anything other than radio. Can't do that without a license.

I passed the exam on Saturday. I actually took the General class exam and was 3 questions short of passing that as well! So, I hope to skip buying the General manual and just take some practice exams and upgrade my license soon. The exams are a composite of knowledge of regulations, electronics, some physics, and good practice on radio.

Anyway, something I've accomplished this summer... about 15 years after I first decided it would be a good idea. :-/

The manual I give 3 stars out of 5. It gets the job done.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Book Review (#10 of 2009)

The last of the garage sale $1 audio books: The Boys of Pointe Du Hoc: Ronald Reagan, D-Day, and the 2nd Ranger Battalion by Douglas Brinkley.

This book chronicles the history of the 2nd Ranger Battalion (drawing heavily on other more definitive sources in that regard), Ronald Reagan's views of WWII through his acting roles at the time, then chronicles the writing of the two 40th anniversary of D-Day speeches Reagan delivered in 1984.
I have to say this book was pretty boring. The mini bios of Peggy Noonan and others involved in the writing of Reagan's speeches and the minute details of how these speeches developed were a little much for me. The backstories and glossing over of politics of the time were only somewhat interesting to me.

The speeches were considered to be among Reagan's most powerful and memorable. If you're a huge Reagan fan then this book is for you, if not then read something else. Most interesting to me was Reagan's admiration of and sometimes emulation of FDR. He wasn't exactly the Goldwater conservative that liberals like to remember him as.

Recordings of the two speeches are included after the epilogue (here's one reprinted).

2 stars out of 5.

Friday, July 24, 2009

On health care...

Laura Meckler at the Wall Street Journal has a good write up on the challenges facing Peter Orszag, the Obama administration's health care expert, and chairman of the Office of Management and Budget (formerly chair of the CBO). A "wonkish economist."

My opinion is this: Congress should do what he says. If he is silent on whatever legislation congress finally passes then we're doomed. If he's publicly happy about it, then we did the best we could.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Exactly!

Brad DeLong sums it up nicely.

For those of us pondering an imminent dollar collapse due to our creditors who are concerned with the projected unsustainable debt per GDP in the future, it's hard to find any evidence the market is actually worried about it. So, if you believe the market is all-knowing and has perfect foresight then you have to say "there is no storm coming, no danger at all." So, I feel like Chicken Little saying "the sky is falling, the sky is falling!"

However, if you have doubts about the efficiency and foresight of the market, then you basically wonder if you're the only one who can see the storm coming--you're Noah and not Chicken Little. You remember that when Rome was sacked much of the city was in the coliseum choosing to be distracted...

Monday, July 20, 2009

Happy birthday!

I want to wish my sweet wife a happy birthday. She's good to me in so many ways; foremost she puts up with my eccentricities.
Today for her birthday lunch she chose an Indian buffet place. This is probably, in a sense, why I married her. She's not afraid of cultures or things different. She's not a fru-fru type girl, she's real. So we enjoyed the Indian food (Elias too!) which is one of my favorites.

I love you, babe!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

They shall no longer be called "news media"

I am too young to remember a Walter Cronkite delivery of the news. All I know about him are the clips I've seen and his '96 documentary (re-aired updated tonight on CBS). But from what I've heard about the man he abhorred the thought of becoming more than the news. Someone mentioned that he should run for office since he was "the most trusted man in America," and this idea angered him because it was never about him, it was about the news.

I think CBS has really dishonored his memory this weekend. They refused to report the news on Saturday night, using their entire 30 minutes to talk about Cronkite.

Dan Abrams of the Huffington Post writes:

Actions speak louder than words. Even in reporting on his death many journalists have violated one of Cronkite's basic tenets: report the news don't become it. How many times this weekend have we heard top journalists memorializing Cronkite with sentences beginning with the word I. "I met Cronkite in. . ." or "I remember seeing him. . ."


CBS Evening News has lagged in the ratings for years and you would think they'd figure it out. I now think it's a SHAM to call them journalists. 25 minutes for Michael Jackson, 30 minutes for Cronkite. When there are wars, major legislation, terrorist attacks, and domestic news as well. SHAME ON YOU, CBS!

So, I will no longer watch CBS Evening News with Katie Couric and I miss Bob Schieffer behind the desk. Heck, I wish they'd bring back Dan Rather at this point.

As the people at PBS NewsHour recently reminded me, Journalists have a duty to discern what is newsworthy and what affects the American people, not to solely pursue ratings or present stories they think the most people will watch.

Friday, July 17, 2009

On Health Care Rationing

My question: How do pro-life (evangelical) conservatives feel about health care rationing?

NY Times' current #2 most-emailed article is an op-ed entitled "Why We Must Ration Health Care."

The question is this:
You have advanced kidney cancer. It will kill you, probably in the next year or two. A drug called Sutent slows the spread of the cancer and may give you an extra six months, but at a cost of $54,000. Is a few more months worth that much?
What if this person was in your insurance pool? Or was on Medicare and your taxes were funding treatment? Do you still approve the treatment? What becomes the prohibitive cost/benefit ratio, and how do we measure it?

I suspect the unthinking knee-jerk reaction of most evangelical conservatives is: "You can't put a price tag on life."

I remember in the White House health care roundtable on ABC last month a woman whose mother received expensive treatment was supposed to live 6 months but was still alive 10 years later (or something, don't remember exactly). President Obama acknowledged the difficulty of choosing (citing his own grandmother's situation), basically admitting that the woman's mother probably wouldn't receive the treatment in his world unless a team of experts felt it was necessary and cost-effective.

Health care costs rising faster than overall inflation are what is helping paint a very bleak fiscal picture. Saying "no" to expensive treatments that have questionable value is a crucial duty of any health provider. If our government provides health care, then people behind desks will have to make that call for the good of the entire nation (ie: to avoid economic catastrophe).

It may not make you feel good that the government will make that call (and Republicans reportedly have opposed rationing when it comes to Medicare...bizzarely enough) or a guy behind a desk in a private insurance company, but the call needs to be made sometime.

Any thoughts?

Lack of posts

Sorry for the lack of relevant posts, just don't have much to say. Been confused and overwhelmed by health care legislation, I guess. I don't have much value to add to analysis of current events that isn't being added by other bloggers.

I just discovered that Delicious will let me organize articles I find for my classes in such a way that I can provide them to the individual classes via RSS feed. So, articles that I tag for "microeconomics" will show up on the course website's RSS feed reader. I'm now a huge fan. Discovering simple things that make your life easier is always good.

Hope everyone has had a good week and enjoys the weekend.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Book Review (#9 of 2009)

For Father's Day Joni got me Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam. David Brooks said
"If I could put one book on the desk of every Republican officeholder, Grand New Party would be it. You can discount my praise because of my friendship with the authors, but this is the best single roadmap of where the party should and is likely to head."

The first half of the book is a history of American politics (including various critiques of previously written histories) from the New Deal to the Republican defeats in '06. They criticize conservatives who believe in a Reagan myth by showing he was no Goldwater small-government conservative, he believed in a powerful goverment that was helpful and not harmful. They explain why the middle class,"Sam's Club voters", keep swinging back and forth between parties in their voting patterns.

The authors identify some major demographic and economic problems that threaten the American way of life, including the growing divide between the upper class and the working class. They then propose a list of (mostly economist-produced) legislative solutions to win the Sam's Club voters and renew the Republican Party. Among them:

1. Expanded child tax credits and other subsidies for parents.
2. Embracing suburban expansion rather than urban renewal. Ideas include funding new interstate construction and implementing congestion pricing and such.
3. They propose Brad Delong's health care plan of requiring all workers to put 15% of income into an HSA, and allowing the gov't to pick up the tab once that money has been spent as a way to reduce health care costs.
4. Replacing the current income tax system with a consumption tax instead (Huckabee's Fair Tax).
5. Scrapping farm subsidies and replacing them with green technology subsidies or other subsidies to encourage business development in the farm states.
6. Providing college tuition credits to every high school graduate.
7. Replace wasteful subsidies with federal money to local gov'ts for the expansion of police forces. (This would create jobs for low-educated people as well as teach them discipline and curb the crime that is likely to appear...this makes sense as part of a stimulus package during a recession, IMO).
8. Smarter immigration reform by...well, this part wasn't quite clear.

Douthat and Reihan have undoubtedly discussed some of their ideas with economists like Tyler Cowen, but they really gloss over some of the weaknesses of their arguments. Some of their ideas make great sense but require more political will than currently found. What the book really lacks is a works cited, they give a whole bunch of facts, quotes, and figures with no citations.

I found much of the history to be informative, but seeing how the GOP has devolved since this book was written is rather depressing. I was hoping this book would inspire me and renew my faith in the GOP. It has given me some ideas but seems to do little to address the current pressing problems. If the GOP makes gains in Congress in 2010 then I'll be interested to see how many have read this work, if not the party is probably doomed. David Brooks also said:
"It may take a few defeats for the G.O.P. to embrace a Sam’s Club agenda, but sooner or later, it will happen. Trust me. "


My favorite quote from the book (on the ever-increasing divide between the upper-class and the working-class):
"As the educated class became dismissive of religious faith, the religous traditions they had abandoned turned increasingly anti-intellectual, with Tim LaHaye and Jerry Falwell suceeding Reinhold Niebuhr and Thomas Merton; this, in turn, made America's meritocrats more contemptuous still toward organized religion. As highly educated consumers abandoned Newsweek and the networks in favor of the more highbrow pleasures afforded by cable television and NPR and HBO, the mass-market magazines and the networks turned to bread and circuses--game shows and blockbuster movie coners, reality TV and self-help columns--to keep their audiences hooked, which only encouraged further defections by their highbrow readers and further cultural polarization. The more that elites kept patriotism at arm's length and treated national pride with a sophisticate's tolerance, the more the breach was filled by Sean Hannity-styled jingoists. The mor the mass upper class seemed to look down on the rubes in "Red America," the more the rubes returned the favor, embracing a self-conscious anti-intellectualism that ran from George Wallace to Ross Perot and reached its apotheosis, perhaps, in the era of George W. Bush."


In all, I give it 3.5 stars out of 5.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Feeling justified

I'm feeling justified in my complaints about the lack of real journalism last week in the wake of Michael Jackson's death.

Jeffrey Brown hosted a panel discussion about the Michael Jackson media overkill called "The Missing Coverage" yesterday on NewsHour. Here's an mp3 of the discussion from the NewsHour page.

The evening of Jackson's death I sent NewsHour a "thank you" email (they solicited feedback from viewers via Twitter) for covering non-MJ that night unlike the other network news broadcasts. NewsHour covered the more important political and economic stories of the day.

The next day, NewsHour led with an interview with Quincy Jones about MJ, but then proceeded with another 50 minutes of real news coverage. I was fine with that, but apparently even that led many NewsHour viewers to write in with outrage that it would be their lead story (it was all the other networks covered that night as well).

The point one of the panelists makes is that the networks missed out on one of the most significant pieces of legislation ever to be passed in Congress (cap-and-trade), giving it zero coverage in favor of Michael Jackson. I pointed out several other stories that were missed in my original post.

Brown cites a survey that 2/3 of Americans thought the MJ coverage was "too much," yet ratings for the network news broadcasts were higher than they had been for a long time. So, Americans seem to only care about the news that is unimportant to them but admit that it's not really news.

The question it raises is: Should journalists shoot for ratings and higher ad revenue or be better filters and only report on what really affects Americans?

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Hard to say goodbye...

90% of posts on this blog were written on my HP Pavilion ZV5000, which I have just dismantled. The computer served me well but developed a problem recently that I discovered HP had settled a class-action suit over last year. I was one of the very fortunate ones not to have a problem with it until now.
I just now took out the hard drive and destroyed it with a hammer. Why? Because I plan to recycle the computer responsibly. And most recycling centers end up shipping the computer waste to places like Ghana where the parts are stripped and the hard drives searched for anything that might be used for financial gain. I watched another good expose on this last week on PBS Frontline World, and recommend it. It was enough to see formatted hard drives being scanned of their content and a defense contractor's classified documents coming to light, much less people's wedding photos, budget statements, etc. Poor people in Ghana or China or elsewhere will use alchemy to get copper and such from the motherboards, making decent money but shortening their life spans considerably, polluting and driving up cancer rates in their developing countries... Remember that next time you throw away an electronic device.

So, adios HP Pavilion. I have replaced you with an Asus EEE 900 netbook that is about 3 pounds and has a keyboard slightly larger than a couple of my smartphone. This will take getting used to, so expect to see more typos in these posts as well as more text/Twitter-style shortcuts.

I'm trying to decide whether I like the Asus or not. It cost $180, so it's like an extremely powerful smartphone. It needs a couple upgrades to make it run a little faster. It will be nice when traveling or sitting in a lecture. It makes no noise and gives off little heat, which is the opposite of my Pavilion. It has a strong following online with message boards and wikis and such. So, we'll see if this one lasts as long as the HP (roughly 4.5 years). I will have to use Joni's computer or my office computer for any heavy lifting.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Let's go racin'

A couple weeks ago a friend of mine gave me 2 tickets ($30 value) to the Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, MO. The Lucasoil track is a big deal that attracts thousands of people every weekend. It's a new state-of-the-art dirt track facility (oxymoronic, eh?). I enjoyed my time there and took a few pictures with my Nokia e63 smartphone. They have wi-fi at the track so I also tweeted quite a bit. Halfway through the evening I discovered that @lucasspeedway was tweeting race results and updates, which was awesome.

Minor league racing is huge here in SW Missouri. You see plenty of cars here in Bolivar with stickers on them representing their favorite circuit driver. You see more of these than you do NASCAR driver stickers. Bolivar has its own track but we've yet to go. I'd say 50% of the crowd in Wheatland was female, including several elderly people (the elderly woman behind me brought her poodle). I saw plenty of young and old couples on dates at the track. It's the thing to do (but too LOUD for conversation). There were easily a couple thousand people there--in the middle of nowhere, Missouri. Some cars were sponsored by churches (ie: 2nd Baptist Church's logo was on the car) and if I were a pastor I would totally sponsor a car.

Via the link above you can watch races live online and keep up with the action. The track has a jumbotron, luxury boxes, a great cafe place, bar, souvenir shop, and plenty of chairback seats. (I sold one ticket at the track and that payed for my food--Joni stayed home with Elias [and it was 105 degrees out]). I was really impressed. Here are some video and pictures.



video
A view from behind the seats as the sun went down and storm clouds rolled in.

Dirt track racing, the art of turning right to go left! I saw limited late models and modifieds, both local circuit and a national touring circuit that was in town that week. I think each heat was 20 green flag laps. Too many cautions to make it really fun.
Me blending in with my serious redneck look. I'm wearing a Texas A&M t-shirt with a black National Guard Dale Earnhardt Jr. cap (that Joni got free thanks to your tax dollars).

It was fun. Now to go see a NASCAR Sprint Cup race sometime.

Friday, July 03, 2009

On Michael Jackson's Death

A few thoughts, probably not worth posting.

1. I hated all of the evening network news coverage this got. Iran went from being a lead story to not even being a story at all on the day Jacko died. Cap-and-trade, bank failures, Iraq, Afghanistan, and multiple state financial crises also either weren't covered or were on the backburner. This continues with the whole estate & custody battle. Network news is a sham.

Thankfully, PBS NewsHour hardly mentioned MJ and Farrah Fawcett's death and put other REAL news ahead of it.

2. I don't understand why everyone is rushing to download and play his music. 2.6 million downloads and counting this week, an online record. His albums are in this week's Top 10. What?? Were people afraid the music would disappear or something?

It had been "uncool" to listen to Michael Jackson music for years, and radio stations hardly touched it. Now, everyone's doing it. Why? Did his death erase the stigma? If so, why?

3. I had some brief nostalgia. I just had a Facebook conversation with a friend of mine from 2nd grade (1987, when Bad was released). I remembered that he had had a vinyl copy of Off the Wall at his house and was a huge Michael Jackson fan (we all were, which is why I remember it). He's now a drummer and his style of music is what I will call "alternative/metal" (knowing that this is a false mischaracterization, sorry). I asked him if he had erased the MJ fanship of his past. His response:

Nope, I haven't erased that at all, haha. I remember getting the 'Bad' tape and going over the insert so much that the panels came apart! I didn't understand it then, but I just loved the vocal melodies and the tembre of Jackson's voice. To this day after 15 years of playing the drums, it's still vocals that make or break a song to me. To tell the truth, I wish I had Off the Wall on CD and I still think MJ kicks butt[sic]. I should get that and Thriller, too.

Did my parents buy me Bad, or what is an aunt or uncle for my birthday? I think my sister had Thriller, which I just borrowed.
I also vaguely remember someone in my preschool class having "parachute" pants (circa 1983, when Thriller was doing it's 80 week chart-topping). No comment from him, yet.

I'm willing to admit that Billie Jean is one of the greatest pop songs of all time
and it's been in my head all week. You can watch the classic video on YouTube here. Watching this I think that Justin Timberlake in many ways is a copy of the old-school Michael Jackson.