Saturday, July 31, 2010

Book Review (#12 of 2010)

Foundations of Christian Thought: Faith, Learning, and the Christian Worldview by Mark P. Cosgrove.
This book was required for a summer faculty development course I took on integrating faith into teaching. Cosgrove has a PhD in psychology from Purdue. This book explores the various worldviews (atheistic existentialism, secular humanism, etc.) and tests each world view by whether it's possible for people to actually live it out and whether it has any logical inconsistencies. He shows where some worldviews have thinking that align with a Christian world view, and where their thinking differs. It ends with a brief apologetic demonstrating that only the Christian worldview passes all tests.

The book illustrates the importance of incorporating faith into our teaching, but how we shouldn't be afraid to embrace secular strains of thought where they conform with Scripture. He talks about the importance of learning and knowledge--how all Christians should be scholars and not take anything for granted.

The book is written for the layperson, sort of like a "Dummies' Guide." Almost every page has a question box to address a common objection to a case he's making. (This becomes annoying over time...) Cosgrove writes very humbly and with humor, and the book is short.

I give this book 4 stars out of 5. I've not seen as concise a summary of other world views in a format that would be easy to share with a non-Christian scholar.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Myths, Lies, and Proposition C

On Tuesday, Missourians will have a chance to vote on Proposition C, an amendment to state law where, according to the "Fair Ballot Language,"
A “yes” vote will amend Missouri law to deny the government authority to penalize citizens for refusing to purchase private health insurance or infringe upon the right to offer or accept direct payment for lawful healthcare services. The amendment will also modify laws regarding the liquidation of certain domestic insurance companies.

A “no” vote will not change the current Missouri law regarding private health insurance, lawful healthcare services, and the liquidation of certain domestic insurance companies.

If passed, this measure will have no impact on taxes.

Emphasis mine. The co-sponsor of this amendment, Rep. Ed Emery, was in town recently promoting a "yes" vote and railing against "Obamacare." His comments were then repeated by the local newspaper without correction, which really irked me.

According to the article, Emery claims that Prop C "will block a federal penalty for not purchasing government health insurance." This is clearly wrong on two counts:
1. The wording of the amendment clearly says "PRIVATE health insurance."
2. There is no such thing as government health insurance unless you're on Medicare or Medicaid. There is no "public option." (those denied private insurance would be eligible to enroll in state-controlled high-risk health insurance pools, similar to what happens when you're denied auto insurance).

Emery states that the government needs everyone on its (non-existent) "healthcare plan" in order to make it sustainable-- ie: you have to have the healthy as well as the sick in order for any insurance plan to work. The article then repeats Emery's diatribe about how we "lost America" by having the federal government trample states' and individuals' rights.

This is article is problematic to me on two counts:
1. Rep. Emery is the co-sponsor of this amendment yet ___________.
a. he doesn't know how it reads.
b. he doesn't know what the PPACA actually does that Prop C is attempting to address.
c. he is lying.
d. all of the above.

2. Rather than point out a-d., the local journalist just ran with it and even links to a partisan website at the bottom where it's difficult to make out fact from motivational propaganda. Why not just link to the text of the amendment?

Conservatives like Reihan Salam oppose the PPACA on several grounds including the infringement on state rights. Conservatives can raise good, accurate criticisms of the PPACA without lying, which I think is what I personally believe Ed Emery is doing in order to gain political points. There is some confusion about Prop C and even more confusion about "Obamacare" here. This article didn't help.

It is unhelpful to the conservative cause for conservative politicians to spout untruths and for conservative-leaning newspapers to repeat those untruths as fact. Thus, here is the letter I sent to the Bolivar Herald-Free Press:

Dear Ms. West (cc: Editor),
I am stunned by the clear lack of journalistic fact-checking in your article "Prop. C Will Protect" in the Wednesday edition of the BHFP. I think that the article is quite misleading since it repeats some falsehoods as though they are truth. When reading the article it is difficult to distinguish what you are simply repeating from Rep. Ed Emery and what you're reporting to be the actual facts of the proposed legislation and the federal law. I believe more space in the article could have been used to point out that some of Mr. Emery's statements were completely bogus.
For example, Proposition C does not block a penalty for "not purchasing government health insurance." The penalty is for not purchasing private health insurance-- since there is currently no government-provided health insurance (ie: no "public option" as many on the political left wanted, but could not get written into the legislation). Those who have been denied coverage by private health insurance become eligible for state-run high risk pool insurance plans (similar to how it works if you've been denied coverage for automobile insurance.) The idea that the federal government is forcing people onto a federal plan and that Proposition C is the means of opposing it is ludicrous and should not be repeated as fact. The federal government is mandating people purchase health insurance or pay a fine, simple as that, and that is what Prop C is addressing, but this fact is found nowhere in your article.
Secondly, I do not believe that the "government's health care plan" (misleading because, again, it sounds like you're talking about a public option) is "commonly called ObamaCare" except by political pundits. The act passed by Congress is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, more commonly referred to as the "Affordable Care Act" or by its acronym the PPACA. The law itself is not mentioned anywhere in the wording of Prop. C.
The fact that you use the rest of your space simply repeat Emery's vents about "losing America" seems to indicate you'd rather express his opinion rather than stick to informing readers about the topic at hand-- Proposition C. This view is reinforced by your linking to a partisan political website at the bottom of your article, rather than linking to more factual/informational websites about the legislation (both Prop C. and the PPACA).
As the Springfield News-Leader pointed out on Sunday, there is a good bit of confusion about Prop C. I think your article has simply confused readers more by allowing Rep. Emery to mislead them. If Rep. Emery doesn't understand the facts, then that's truly a shame. But for repeating his misunderstandings without some journalistic fact-checking I have to say shame on you too.
Justin Tapp

Monday, July 26, 2010

Book Review (#11 of 2010)

The War, an Intimate History 1941-1945 by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns (published to compliment Burns' PBS documentary).
This looks at the war from more of the "common man" standpoint. Burns follows several different soldiers from their small towns to the battlefront. He tells the war from the viewpoint of places like Mobile, Alabama as well as the front. I liked that approach, but the later chapters are mostly just war with very little mention of life at home.

This book isn't looking to expose new facts about the war, or tell stories you haven't already read about or seen in movies. He leaves out a lot, and just focuses on what the war looks like mostly from the point of view of the G.I. on the ground. Along the way there are some interesting tidbits, but those aren't the point of the book.

I think Burns does a good job illustrating the cost of the war-- the giant machine at home that employed so many people, the psychological trauma to the soldiers, and the sheer amount of destruction and loss of life. He shows how it's possible that every American was affected by the war in some way.

I also enjoyed that the war story was told chronologically. You get a real sense of what happened when, and in relation to other important events.

I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5. I've never seen the documentary but would jump at the chance to.

Book Review (#10 of 2010)

Knowing God by J.I. Packer.
I didn't read this book in college, like you and everyone else did. At some point, we ended up with two copies of this in our house, one of which was sent by a friend. So, it really needed to be read.
It's a great Scripture-rich read, but it's also quite readable with short chapters. Packer is simply focusing on the attributes of God, how we should respond to those attributes, and really just focusing on the sufficiency of God. He is a Reformed pastor who isn't making an apologetic case to non-believers, but instead encouraging believers to trust in God's Word. So, good familiarity with the Scripture is required before reading this book.

I got a good bit out of this book, it reads like a Piper book but not as deep. My only criticisms are that sometimes he ignores or is ignorant of scriptural context (I think he misinterprets Revelation 3:14-16 and others). The book is acclaimed by everyone, but many people who acclaim it probably still have crosses and other such imagery in their churches, which Packer clearly frowns on in the very first chapter. He also seems open to gifts of the Spirit including tongues, healings, etc. which is a view not widely shared by people who frequently quote him.

However, I could be wrong since I've not read any of his other works.

I give this 4.5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Book Review (#9 of 2010)

The Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy by Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw (Here's also a Wiki dedicated to the book.)
Full disclosure: I've owned the book since first semester of grad school and have read certain chapters for use in papers and such, and I also own and have watched several times the PBS-produced DVDs that excellently tell the story (you can too at the link). But, I'd never read the entire book all the way through.

This book is the most comprehensive story of the neoliberal revolution ever written. It explains the post-WWII transition to state-run economies and top-down development to the much more free market oriented neoliberal revolution that started with the end of the 1970s, and the book goes through 2002.

Scott Sumner calls these events an "underreported phenomenon" in an essay he wrote recently, which reads as sort of a brief summary of this book (which I don't know that he's read).

I don't know that it's "underreported" so much as it seems to have been forgotten in the wake of the Great Recession and the backlash against capitalism, and what people perceive to be "market failures" that are really just consequences of unmitigated greed.

Billions of people in China, India, SE Asia, Eastern Europe and elsewhere have risen from stark poverty to a much more empowered lifestyle because of their governments' embrace of freer markets. Governments all over the world used to own everything from train lines to nightclubs to grocery stores, but eventually re-figured out that those would be better run privately. Modern-day Greece is a perfect example of where near statism gets you-- 25% of Greece's population had a lifetime-guaranteed government job going into their EU-mandated fiscal austerity plan. Governments, including the U.S., used to commonly set wages and prices which led to shortages , surpluses, and poverty.

If you want the (mostly) complete story, read Commanding Heights. The appendices alone are great for reference. I recently used the book to refute a fairly well-known liberal blogger's view that "there are zero historical examples of conservatives mobilizing to make the deficit smaller." The young liberal pundit class apparently don't remember anything further back than 15 years and never leave the country. And they parse things in simple terms: "How'd that free market thing work out for Mexico and Bolivia?" ignoring rampant government intervention in those economies or poor monetary policy, or other things that are vitally important.

If Commanding Heights has one obvious flaw, it's at the conclusion of its chapter on Russia. On one page it notes that the new freedoms that Russians enjoy, including freedoms of the press, can never be rolled back. Then, on the next page, it paints a dark uncertain picture where those freedoms are indeed rolled back by Putin & co. Perhaps this is the result of bad editing in a revision?

If you want the most complete picture of world economics from 1945-2002, read Commanding Heights. If you want a view of some of the guiding principles of that neoliberal revolution, read Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, or Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom, or just watch Milton Friedman's Free to Choose series. If you want a more on-the-ground view of how the neoliberal revolution looked in the 1990s, read Tom Friedman's The Lexus and the Olive Tree or The World is Flat. If you want to read a critique of much of the above, read Joseph Stiglitz's Globalization and Its Discontents.

Monday, July 12, 2010

How my iPod makes me more productive

Since I'm overdue posting about lots of things, I wanted to at least post about what I use my iPod for. I don't have any music on it, and the only videos I have are YouTube captures and a purchased Super Why! episode from PBS Kids to entertain the 2 year old in crisis situations.

My iPod is mainly used for productivity. In short, I'm reading a LOT more than ever before.

Here are my most useful apps:

1. Delicious- I did a presentation in January for how faculty can use Delicious to provide articles for their students. This app lets me do that while browsing the web with Safari on my iPod. I simply tag and go, just like I would on my PC.

2. Instapaper. I've blogged about Instapaper before. I bought the full version of this app, though the free version is nice. It has several options for advancing through text, including a tilt-scroll option. It has a nightime reading function with white letters on a black screen. Several other apps sync with Instapaper (see below).
My reading list has gone from 10-20 articles to 40-50 articles, and I can't seem to get it below that number.
I still Instapaper articles (20 at a time) to my Kindle. But reading on the iPod isn't bad at all.

3. Byline RSS reader - I tried using News Gator's NetNewsWire app, but it didn't have the functionality that Byline does, for free. Byline syncs with Google Reader and automatically downloads posts, including pictures. For feeds that don't incorporate full RSS capability (like the NY Times' blogs, where you have to actually go to their website to read the post) Byline downloads those full pages for you automatically, complete with pictures, so you can read offline.
Byline has greatly increased the ease of reading blogs for me. And I can add posts to my Instapaper with the app, which is a huge bonus. When online, I can open the posts in Safari and add ones for students via the Delicious app (above). I love this app.

4. 5-0 Radio Pro - This is the first app that I paid to get the full version of. It aggregates various police/public safety feeds from around the country, including Polk Co. here. The paid version also gives you easy access to thousands of radio stations, sorted by genre, from all over the world.
When we had some tornadic storms in the area last night, I used this app to listen to the law enforcement and storm spotters in other counties. I can run it in the background while I call up doppler radar. That's something I can't do with just a ham radio or scanner because they're too far away.

5. Olive Tree Bible Reader - This is the best Bible app out there, better than YouVersion or some of the other popular ones. Easy interface, allows split screen for simultaneous versions, and the Holman Christian Standard Bible (the "official" Southern Baptist/Lifeway translation) is available for free download. The catch is that if you want to read NASB, ESV, and some others you have to pay to download those versions ($20-35). The interface is very easy to navigate, you can get to book/chapter/verse very rapidly.
At church yesterday, I was easily able to take notes on verses being discussed in Sunday school with the app. No worries about running out of room in my Bible margin or any other such (I haven't carried a paper Bible to church in a while).
During the sermon, I called up a John Piper sermon over the same text simultaneously and had it split screen with my HCSB version of the text. All of Piper's sermons are available for free with the app as well.

Other apps I use frequently:
Tweetdeck, the app (for watching NASCAR races in the palm of my hand!), Pandora, and Dragon Dictation (for when I get tired of typing).