Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Book Review (#28 of 2013) Decision Points by George W. Bush

Decision Points reads like any memoir: highlighting the good while opening oneself to criticism for what your memoir doesn't say. It is nice that Bush published this brief memoir so early, he wants to set records straight while events are still somewhat fresh on peoples' minds.

I have read a few books about life in his administration, particularly in the first term, so I already came into this book with colored lenses. 

Something you don't expect to hear is that Bush read hundreds of books, particularly history, while in office-- including 14 biographies of Lincoln. (Contrast that with FDR who aides never knew to read a single book.)  Yet, his breadth of reading didn't make him softer or more open to varying points of view-- he still boils events down to black-and-white values and simple choices. How can a man who reads that widely not think more deeply? Or at least not be able to argue with the press and debate better-- produce more intelligent soundbites? It boggles the mind.

One problem I had with the book is that it's not chronological, Bush is looking at certain decisions he made and oftentimes context is lost because there's no mention of what was going on that complicated the fallout of that decision. For example, the early decisions and deliberations on invading Iraq were made very close to Afghanistan still being secured. In hindsight, that's a frequent criticism of Bush's decision-- taking his eye off the ball cost us Bin Laden. Bush spends a few sentences defending himself on this point, but largely the context of the massive nation-building Afghanistan was already going to require is lost in his decision.It was as if it were made in a vacuum.

In some cases, Bush makes strong rebuttals of critics' talking points. For example, he chafes under criticism that No Child Left Behind was an "unfunded mandate," pointing out that he increased federal education spending by 38% and that the program saw the improvements in test scores among minorities and the most vulnerable. He gives a timeline of the Katrina disaster and explains why he praised Mike Brown-- because other aides were praising him-- and gives a detailed list of the federal resources made available before the hurricane hit, and the Constitutional problems he had doing more for the state without the Louisiana Governor's express permission.
Bush throws few people under the bus in his memoir. Certain "junior congressmen" and "a Senator from New York" go unnamed. But he selectively quotes Harry Reid several times to illustrate what was either hypocritical or ridiculous criticism.

He does express regrets. He regrets going after Social Security reform after re-election, saying he should have pursued immigration reform first; in the end, he got neither. He regrets not looking at the intelligence on Iraq more closely (but argues that every major nation in the world--including Russia and China, which opposed the war--gave the U.S. intelligence that Iraq had active WMD programs). He points out that his position-- that he'd make the same decision to invade Iraw today with the same information he was given then-- is the same that John Kerry expressed in the 2004 campaign.

One other weakness of the memoir is on Bush's early life. He's shown as sort of moping through colleges and trying various jobs and experiencing all kinds of things without explaining that he was able to do so because of his parents' money and resources. He loves his parents and the Bush's upbringing of their son is evident, but there seems to be a disconnect between his understanding of his life and what an ordinary mortal would be able to experience. 

So many major events happened in Bush's eight years that I look forward to many future biographies and scholarly research done on his administration. 

On a side note, I listened to this book on my commutes and the reader, when sped to 1.75 normal speed sounds an awful lot like Bush with his mannerisms. So, the publisher made a good choice.

In all, I give it 3.5 stars out of 5. I enjoyed hearing Bush's defense and his triumphs and failures as a manager.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Book Review (#26 of 2013) 101 Games and Activities for Children with Autism by Tara Delaney

101 Games and Activities for Children With Autism, Asperger’s and Sensory Processing Disorders was very helpful not just in giving ideas for activities, but in explaining why those activities are therapeutic and exactly which areas of a child's development they are focused on. Delaney gives first-hand experience as a therapist on many of the activities. She has had exposure to a wide range of children on the spectrum, and this is helpful to any parent who would read this book.
I marked about 1/3 of the activities to try out with my son, some of which he already really enjoys. Others of which have helped us see things he struggles with and we need to work on.The book includes practical things, like ways to involve your child in helping with household chores and how to modify popular board games into sensory and social thinking exercises. I highly recommend this book to any parent of an autistic child looking for ideas.

5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Book Review (#25 of 2013) The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene.

I have long wanted to read Brian Greene's books, and enjoyed seeing his Nova episodes on time and space. Physics tells us that "every moment in time already exists," which is a concept that will blow your mind and make you a five-point Calvinist. At least until you read about string theory and how it counters determinism, if you can understand exactly how that is. That's what The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory is all about.

Greene has a talent for taking something that is purely theoretical and mathematical--the exploration of the universe--and making it somewhat intelligible for the reader with imperfect analogies and stories. He explains his own contributions to the world of physics and is quick to give credit to a host of colleagues.

You will learn a lot about the history of 20th century physics in this book, especially quantum mechanics. I listened to the audio version, and am glad as it's one of those books that can get really dry, despite Greene's best efforts to come up with imperfect analogies. I found the book harder to follow as it went on as it delved into the discoveries, re-discoveries, and debates of M-theory over the last 25 years. Where the conflict arises between higher mathematics and higher physics. The devil is in the details. Are there 11 dimensions and how does that work? Is it science, philosophy, both?

You will learn a great deal from this book. The fact that Greene is an expert in a highly complex field makes it hard to know whether his thoughts are accurate or not. What sorts of physicists disagree with him? Hard to know.

I give it 4 stars out of 5. It expands your universe, check it out. 

Book Review (#24 of 2013) Simply Christian by N.T. Wright

Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense is the first N.T. Wright book that I've read, and he made a pretty good first impression. I expected this book to be somewhat like C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity, but it's much less apologetic in nature and more of an exposure to a non-Christian of what Christianity is and is not.

I enjoyed Wright's apologetic, although a committed neo-Darwinist atheist would be unpersuaded, I think. The part that was most persuasive, for me personally, was that every society and people group has an idea of justice-- there are wrongs and rights, and everyone has a universal desire to see the wrongs righted. That indicates that we lost something somewhere in the annals of human history, we are all crying out for redemption and justice.

I appreciated Wright's emphasis on the importance of Scripture in the center of our worship-- corporate reading of Scripture is part of Jewish tradition, is prescribed in the New Testament (1 Timothy 4) and is not often done by churches anymore.

Wright walks the reader through God's redemptive story, from creation to the Exodus, to Jesus. It's a brief overview of biblical theology for the non-believer. Wright's politics creep in occasionally, his assumptions of pacifism and international debt forgiveness, for example. But he does not strike me as a liberal heretic.

I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5. I enjoy checking out some of Wright's "deeper" works.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Book Review (#23 of 2013) The Verbal Behavior Approach by Mary Lynch Barbera

I bought The Verbal Behavior Approach: How to Teach Children With Autism and Related Disorders to get some insights into the ABA methodology my son's therapists use. Barbera became a BCBA after her son was diagnosed with autism, and she includes personal anecdotes in with her writing.

This book focuses on the practical and is a fairly quick read. Barbera stresses the importance of early diagnosis and intervention, ABA looks to saturate your child with as much therapy as possible (cost prohibitive for many). But she stresses the importance of parents as therapists, and this is something I have taken to heart.

"A parent is a typical child’s first and best teacher, and that’s even more true for parents of children with autism there really is no way for you to take a backseat and be just a parent."

"when asked how many hours per day a child should receive ABA/VB programming my answer is always 'during most or all of his waking hours.'"

She gives a brief overview of what ABA is and how it differs from other approaches. I have a better understanding of the definitions that ABA uses, such as receptive language versus expressive language.

"Two of the biggest misconceptions about the Verbal Behavior approach are that it is only useful for children who aren’t talking, and conversely that it is only useful for children who can speak. Neither is true."

I found most of the book to be unhelpful, however, as our child does talk and already does a lot of the basics that she focuses on. ABA is better for children who are not communicating much. We were told in our child's evaluation that we were already using some methods similar to ABA that we'd just come up with on our own, so maybe he's just adapted. 

"less is more and the fewer words used, the easier it is for the child to process."

One tool I gleaned from this book is the importance of continual positive reinforcement. We incentivize our son heavily, and find that it works. Many times we may want to stop incentivizing him, when it needs to continue for a many more successes, however. She also gives some useful tips on potty training we probably need to implement. Another area that requires some changes on our part are using fewer words, and perhaps his name less (although he already responds well to his name).  

I give this book 4 stars out of 5. If you have a young child with special needs and are wanting to learn about ABA, this is a great and encouraging place to start. 

Monday, December 02, 2013

Book Review (#22 of 2013) Love and Respect by Emerson Eggerichs

Love and Respect: The Love She Most Desires; The Respect He Desperately Needs is a book with a simple thesis: the root of marital conflict comes from men and women talking and behaving past each other.

Eggerichs outlines the "crazy cycle," where the husband is (unwittingly) unloving to his wife, whose response is to be (unwittingly) disrespectful to her husband, who is then unloving in response, and the cycle continues. Who starts the cycle is besides the point.

Husbands don't need love, writes Eggerichs, they need respect. Wives need love, to feel cherished. It is, unfortunately, hard for men to love others and hard for women to express respect. Eggerichs links this thought with Ephesians 5:22-33.

My wife and I read this together and I'm glad that we did, it helped us see how we'd been hurting and misunderstanding one another. I'd recommend the book and wish we'd read it years ago; it's practical. Assuming you know what your wife really meant when she said something is a fatal error for many men in marriage. Eggerichs helped me correct some long-standing misgivings.

The book is fairly quick read but could be a whole lot shorter, probably a 10-page essay. Most of it is filled with anecdotes from the couples Eggerichs has counseled or received letters from. The details of the book-- husbands figuring out how to better express love, and wives convincing their husbands that they respect them-- are the hard part for every couple.

I give the book 3.5 stars out of 5, even though I recommend it. My wife had issues with a couple of pages and his line of thought, the book was perhaps harder to read for her than for me. He opens the book with what I'll call the "respect bomb" which seems tough on women (but it seems the response he ultimately gets is positive). But I think there is definitely something to what he's saying.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Book Review (#21 of 2013): Lords of Finance by Liaquat Ahamed

This book has won several awards, including the 2010 Pulitzer for history; it is well-deserving. This is the third book on the Great Depression era that I have read this year and I would recommend reading this book and Amity Schlaes' The Forgotten Man (my review) back-to-back. You can't understand how we got to the Great Depression without this book.

In my Money & Banking courses, I would always play the "Anatomy of a Crisis" episode of Milton Friedman's Free to Choose series. In it, Friedman laments that Benjamin Strong died in 1928, believing that Strong would have pushed the Federal Reserve to take the steps necessary to inject liquidity into the American system. It was Friedman and Schwartz's work that showed the U.S. needlessly hoarded gold, keeping monetary policy tight and forcing a chokehold on the U.S. economy. This book tells that part of the story well, including the insights of why France did the same thing. I see nothing to contradict Friedman's assertion that the Great Depression was a monetary phenomenon.

But one cannot understand that period without understanding the role that German reparations had on the entire system. That becomes the snowball that starts the avalanche. Ahamed gives a biography of the central bankers who propped up the gold standard after World War I, their context, psychology, and their interpersonal relationships. He details the decisions in monetary policy made throughout the twenties and early thirties. The life and writings of J.M. Keynes during this period is also chronicled and other prominent economists, such as Irving Fisher, are mentioned as well. Presidents and Prime Ministers are viewed through the lens of monetary policy and international finance. The book is not boring at all, the narrative is quite riveting.

I give this book 5 of 5 stars, it is a must-read for anyone interested in economics of the 1920s and 1930s. I learned a great deal.

Book Review (#20 of 2013) Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War 1939-1945 by David M. Kennedy

Freedom from Fear won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize in history. It is a 900+ page tome that is essentially two books, The Depression and The War. I decided to read it as a comparison to Amity Schlaes' The Forgotten Man (my review).

As far as The Depression goes, Schlaes' treatment is much deeper and more detailed, including the 1920s context and the personal histories and travels to the USSR of FDR's "braintrust." Kennedy skips or glosses over certain crucial details of the New Deal that Schlae's emphasizes, like the critical Schechter case. However, Kennedy does a good job explaining how the New Deal had to be mostly undone to fight World War II. He also does a better job integrating the important of international events on FDR's decision-making in the later 30's.

Overall, I don't find many contradictions to Schlaes' treatment of FDR and the New Deal, which is remarkable given how much the Left has poo-poohed Schlaes' account. FDR comes across as inexperienced, contradictory, weak in negotiations, and not very literate ("None of his advisers ever knew him to read a book) in both accounts-- quite different from the adoration he receives today. The New Deal was more about more fair redistribution than economic stimulation, which is why the restrictions it put on free enterprise had to be let go to allow businesses to produce the war machine.

FDR's decision to take the U.S. off the gold standard was the greatest economic boost. His sudden determination to raise taxes and reduce the deficit helped cause the 1938 recession for which he almost faced a tough re-election.

Kennedy does a good job giving a play-by-play overview of World War II, including many details revealed by recent research; that's quite laudable. FDR's ill health and failings at Yalta are detailed. Kennedy does a decent job giving some home-front industrial policy and statistics throughout the book, including WWII, but I think fails to capture the sociology of the American people during the War years. He does look at certain aspects, such as internment camps, and the role of women (and their eagerness to get back to homemaking according to multiple surveys-- something that is forgotten about the 1940s by many modern talking heads).

In all, I give this book 4 stars out of 5. It's not great as a detailed account of both periods, but is a very good overview of both.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Book Review (#19 of 2013) My Life and Times in Turkey by Cyrus Hamlin

This is a follow-up to the post I wrote about Hamlin being a pioneer of what is now called "business as missions." Hamlin (Wikipedia entry) is a forgotten American gem and his book is both a fantastic look at both pre-1850's New England and life and politics in Istanbul in the decline of the Ottoman Empire in the mid-1800s.

Hamlin's life begins rather un-remarkably, he was born into a fairly successful Maine farming family. Hamlin's father died while Cyrus was little and left the estate to his wife who then had to figure out how to run it. The family learns to farm through trial-and-error and the help of neighbors. Hamlin recounts holidays-- he laments how modern 4th of July celebrations have "lost the spirit of '76," for example. His mother was devout and church was a Sunday ritual. Hamlin and his family also shared a love of reading, and Hamlin (helpfully) records which books were available.

At sixteen, he moves to a city to begin an apprenticeship as a silversmith, something he is successful at. Eventually, he reaches a conversion point, embracing his Christian faith and pondering whether he is called to full-time ministry. Eventually, he decides to enter full-time study and is supported by his church in the effort. He completes a prep academy, a college, and then a seminary, with honors. He has an engineering mind, determining at one point to build the first steam engine in Maine. He finds he can lecture on certain subjects for the public for a fee to support himself, as well as fill pulpits while awaiting his appointment as a missionary with the American Board.

Hamlin provides a nice snapshot of the American Church and missions in that time. His family is appointed to Istanbul to work with the minority Armenian population there. He arrives and witnesses great persecution among Armenian Protestants, primarily from the Armenian Orthodox who Hamlin maintains are taking orders from the Orthodox heads in St. Petersburg, Russia. Hamlin eventually founds a seminary, but finds his Armenian students are too poor to study well. So, he ignores the criticism of his Board and builds a workshop to train them in marketable trades. This allows several to find employment enough to feed their families and pay for their ministry activities. Hamlin claims that ultimately the workshop provided enough funds to build thirteen Armenian churches, as a revival sweeps the area.

Hamlin also builds an oven for baking bread, catering to Western tastes. When the Crimean War starts, the British maintained a large hospital in the area and Hamlin becomes the sole contractor of bread (and later laundry services). He meets Florence Nightinggale, who cleans up the hospital.

Eventually, Hamlin is instrumental in founding Robert College, named after an American whose donations made it possible. After years of lobbying and struggling with Turkish-Armenian politics, Hamlin is eventually issued an Imperial edict to construct a building for the school and for it to fly an American flag and be under American protection, the first institution of its kind in the Ottoman Empire. That's a remarkable story, made more remarkable by the fact that Robert College still exists and is considered one of the best high schools in Turkey.

I loved this book for many reasons, and I learned a lot from it. I learn a lot from every book I read from the 1800s, and Hamlin, thankfully, wrote another about his time in Turkey and points me to many others written by his acquaintances. Five stars out of five.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Economics devotional on scarcity

The fundamental problem economics addresses is that of scarcity-- we have limited resources to satisfy our unlimited wants and needs. But why do we have scarcity? Why do we have unlimited wants and needs? How should we reflect on it as Christians?

Genesis 3:22-23 (NASB): Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to cultivate the ground from which he was taken.”

In the Garden, man worked without sweat or pain. Food, shelter, life, and God were in abundant supply. Man rejected God’s commands and provision in the Garden, and the result was scarcity became a reality. This is the reason why we struggle to “make ends meet,” why we stress about our grades and job performance, why we struggle to keep from doing things that ultimately harm us. The story would be a depressing tragedy if that’s all there was to it.

But God provided a sacrifice--Jesus-- to atone for our sinfulness. The Living Sacrifice made a promise to those who follow Him: “Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:2-3).

Christians have the promise that one day God and all we need will again be in full supply,
“and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain” (Revelation 21:4). This should encourage us-- the scarcity we study in this class is a temporary thing-- if we are Christians.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

How to calculate your calories burned without a heart rate monitor

Until a few weeks ago I had gone through a lot of P90X and Insanity without a heart rate monitor. Both programs give you a generic guesstimate at calories burned. P90X says estimate 600 calories per workout, Insanity advertises 1,000 (which is a gross overestimate). But making estimates like this is like never looking at your paycheck from work-- you WANT to make sure every penny is there.

Calories burned during a workout vary depending on your sex, height, weight, and heart rate. Smaller women burn fewer calories than large men (which women sometimes gripe about).

Here's the basic formula, taken from someone's fitness website

Men use the following formula:
Calories Burned = [(Age x 0.2017) + (Weight x 0.09036) + (Heart Rate x 0.6309) -- 55.0969] x Time / 4.184.
Women use the following formula:
Calories Burned = [(Age x 0.074) -- (Weight x 0.05741) + (Heart Rate x 0.4472) -- 20.4022] x Time / 4.184.

But how do you know what your heart rate is without a heart rate monitor (which would calculate calories for you anyway)?
What you can do with Insanity and P90X, both of which have periodic breaks as part of the sort of interval training, is take your heart rate at the breaks. Look at the clock on the screen and take your pulse for 10 seconds. Write that number down each time (I logged it in my phone as I jogged, stretched, whatever).

I put all those numbers down in a spreadsheet and averaged them. Since the intervals are irregular in some workouts, I looked what the time was for each part and calculated a weighted average. Multiply your average by 6 and you have your BPM to plug into the formula above.

Since I've bought a heart monitor, I've been able to check my calculated averages. I had varying results. For some Insanity exercises, the break is right after a lower-impact exercise in which my heart rate had already come down anyway, so I was never really measuring the time in between when my heart rate spiked. In other cases, vice-versa.

My advice? Avoid the hassle of focusing on counting your pulse correctly and later averaging it by spending the money on a heart rate monitor. I got a Polar FT7 for $80 from Amazon and love it, it does all the work for me and has other cool features.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Cyrus Hamlin - The first BAM practicioner in Turkey

Business as Mission and Business for Transformation (B4T) are something being "discovered" by the Church thanks, in part, to people like Patrick Lai. But as I read books from the 1800s, I discover a whole lot of history, ideas, and "pioneering" that have simply been forgotten...there really is "nothing new under the sun" (Ecc. 1:9).

Cyrus Hamlin is a case in point, a truly remarkable American missionary to Armenians in Istanbul from 1838-1876. His life story is told in his autobiography, My Life and Times, which you can read for free. It is that book which which I quote from below.

Before entering full-time ministry, Hamlin had been an apprentice silversmith and jeweler in Maine. He had an engineering mind, and even created the first steam engine in the state of Maine while he was an undergraduate. He took his skills overseas when he was posted to Istanbul, after completing seminary.

Hamlin helped establish a Protestant seminary in Istanbul, reaching Armenians. His students were poor, requiring scholarships, and were facing heavy persecution from both Armenian Catholics and the  Armenian Orthodox, which forbid congregants from doing business with them, and tried to get the seminary shut down.  Hamlin begged the American Board to grant him funds and permission to start a workshop at the school to teach his students' viable trades. The board complained that Hamlin was trying to "secularize the ministry:"

"The skill and industry of the boys became too interesting and attracted too much attention. The Turks considered me specially Satanic, because, has has been stated, all skill and invention according to their theology, or demonology, come from Satan. Then, too, my Christian brethren feared that I was secularizing the missionary work. It was not liked at the Missionary House. My brother Hannibal, then residing in Boston, heard so many unfriendly criticisms, that he wrote to me, begging me to make a defense of my course...I was doing, in a poor feeble way, and in only a few cases, what our Saviour did for the lame, the halt, and the blind. I had the lame and the blind, and I resolved to help them in the best way I could and to the extent of my ability, fearing naught" (276-278).
Hamlin's plan worked. Training students in basic metalwork and carpentry helped them secure jobs and start businesses of their own.

"The success of our workshop enabled me to give various employments to the most necessitous of men with families, who had not been able to obtain any work" (291).

The Christian nature of Hamlin's students endeared them to the community, as one customer said "These Protestants do not overcharge and cheat like other men, but they are just and speak the truth!" (292).

These tradesmen went on to pastor churches, and provide income for churches they were a part of. Hamlin converted part of the workshop into a bakery that became wildly successful-- Hamlin secured the contract to be the sole provider of bread to the British Army's hospital in Istanbul during the Crimean War. Hamlin credits these enterprises for the funds to build thirteen protestant Armenian churches in Turkey (272). There was apparently a great movement of God in seeing Armenian churches planted in these years, and Hamlin's courage to teach enterprise alongside theology was a part of what helped it grow.

Hamlin's reputation in the community and around the world helped him found Robert College, an institution which still stands in Istanbul today. I'm sure he'd find it amusing that in 2013 several missions organizations are now exploring "business as missions" and maybe even patting themselves on the back for their pioneering work.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

I like interval training

I got this infographic off of Pinterest and enjoy it. My favorite factoid is "It takes approximately 5 calories to consume 1 liter of oxygen." I think about that when I'm breathing A LOT while doing Insanity, which is a lot of interval training (though it doesn't quite fit the guidelines of the three programs above). I'm a minimalist-- get the most that you can with the least that you can; high-intensity interval training is the way to do it. You'd better be consuming your carbs and protein afterwards, though-- you burn a lot of calories fast!

Here are two articles on interval training from the NY Times' Well Blog that I recommend.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

One Christian's Proposed Compromise for Action on Syria: Drop Barriers, Not Bombs

Instead of dropping bombs, why not remove the quota on visas granted to Syrians to live and work in the U.S.?  We would open the door for tens of thousands to improve their lot rather than live for years in limbo or be forced to return to a dangerous situation. That would be a lot cheaper than an airstrike that may or may kill and might not deter further chemical weapons use. What better way to lead by example than to say "Give me your tired, your poor. Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free"?
Why not also help airlift refugees here (similar to what we did in 1975 when Saigon fell)? Right, now a Syrian refugee has to find a way to travel (and be granted entry) to far-away places like Berlin, Rome, and Vienna in order just to apply for asylum in the U.S. That doesn't strike me as very practical or hospitable.

Law professor Peter Schuck made a similar argument in the Wall Street Journal in March 2012. He argued that we give sworn defectors asylum in Western countries until Assad fell, in return for the refugee returning to rebuild Syria after Assad fell.  Schuck points out that under the Refugee Act of 1980, the President may exceed statutory refugee quotas-- that's what I think we should do for all Syrians who want it, not just people who will swear to return when Assad falls (the chaos could be worse after Assad falls).

In 1938, news of growing violence against Jews in Nazi-occupied Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia was being widely reported in the U.S. A poll taken at the time showed 80% of Americans were against doing anything-- including expanding visas for Europeans. FDR combined quotas from Germany and Austria, which saved the lives of several thousand Jews in 1939. (FDR had a mixed record on Jewish refugees, documented here). I think history suggests we should have done more at the time-- German statements at the time show Hitler would gladly have given the U.S. all the Jews it could handle-- with the Fuhrer paying for the shipping himself (info taken from this book on the period). I see the Syrian situation (and Darfur, and other ethnic cleansing horrors) as similar to Europe and Japanese-occupied China in 1938-- Western powers reeling from slow economic growth and bitter about the previous war didn't want to take any steps to confront the problem. If we really care about the human rights of the most vulnerable, shouldn't we open our doors to them?

Might pro-democratic Syrian opposition be better organized and able to use the Internet from the U.S. than from a tent camp on the Turkish border? Might we be able to show that we're not interfering in Syrian politics purely out of a goal to strike Iran or gain oil or some other non-humanitarian motive?

"What about terrorists, won't they come too?" was one objection raised over Twitter. Well, the U.S. currently has a screening process that keeps terrorists out. Syrians are largely moderate in their religious beliefs, and how many Syrian terrorists have we dealt with compared to Saudis or Yemenis? I suspect that the number of grateful, peaceful Syrians would far outnumber those who might take advantage to do harm. I'm not calling for a blanket open door, just to open the door wider than it is currently, and to expedite the process.

18 months ago, I was an advocate for strong multinational intervention in Syria, to prevent the country from descending into further genocide-fostering, infrastructure-destroying, refugee-creating brutal civil war that might lead to chemical weapons usage. Now, attempts to impose peace would be much more costly, and the required international will and resources aren't there. Syria's neighbors aren't wealthy democracies with long histories of incorporating immigrants into a melting pot. This is where the U.S. can lead.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

I hope Ed O'Bannon's lawsuit cleans the NCAA's clock. The Johnny Manziel fiasco.

If you've been a long-time reader, you know that I have ethical qualms with the way America runs its minor-league "amateur" sports programs through its university system-- contrary to what the rest of the world does. I question what value it adds to schools and society (see posts here, here, here, and here), the use of tax dollars and illusion of non-profit status to promote the sport, the hypocrisy of profiting the NCAA's profiting off of players who are not allowed to do so themselves (here and here), and the ethics of demanding more of 19 year olds than you demand of yourself. As someone who used to teach undergraduates, I question the ethics of forcing low-income minorities to undergo grueling physical labor, discarding them if they get injured, in order to receive a college education-- which is often watered down to so little value as to be of no use to them. I recommend watching the PBS Frontline series on Ed O'Bannon's lawsuit and following other articles in the links above.

The latest icing on the cake is the Johnny Manziel fiasco. Two recommended readings: David Wetzel's reaction:
"Johnny Manziel was punished – lightly, but still punished – by the NCAA because he knew someone was going to make money off his likeness and he didn't stop it.
It sure is a good thing the NCAA is cracking down on that kind of activity from nefarious entities interested in profiting off 'Johnny Football' T-shirts, sweatshirts, posters, etc., not to mention using his image to promote a commercial product to be sold … you know, nefarious entities like the NCAA, the SEC, the BCS, Texas A&M, Nike, EA Sports, CBS, ESPN, Yahoo! Sports and heaven knows how many other 'partner' businesses."

Also read this piece by CBS's Houston affiliate on how the NCAA basically got blackmailed into narrowing down Manziel's punishment:
"The source said prominent names from virtually every major football conference were found to have had a relationship at some level with the brokers.
The NCAA hence was faced with the prospect of damning evidence involving widespread alleged improprieties perhaps becoming public. It would have been the latest of the NCAA’s numerous embarrassing moments and might have forced the NCAA to rule on numerous cases that spanned several years similar to Manziel’s."

But every fall, people "renew their vows" with college sports-- eager to watch young men beat their brains out (ie: damage their brains) for fleshly entertainment and the kinsmanship it gives with their tribe. I have never heard this ritual, and the dollars (private and tax) that flow to it, questioned in a pulpit. I see no Senators giving speeches on the floor threatening to take away the NCAA's tax-exempt status. All I see is fans willing to turn a blind eye to the unethical nature of it all-- or even defend it-- in order to satiate their appetite and be vindicated that "our team" is better than "your team." I just really wish it were different. I really wish Christians, who care about morality and ethics, human trafficking, poverty, and education to start waking up to the realities of what the NCAA is all about and the damage it causes, and start demanding change in our institutions-- and to put their money and mouths where their convictions should also be. 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

I'm busy-- opportunity costs

The opportunity cost of blogging has gone up in the last week as I've been busy making economics videos like this:

Normal blogging to resume at some point...

Friday, August 16, 2013

Do I need to take a multivitamin?

In "The Vitamin Myth: Why We Think We Need to Take Supplements," Dr. Paul Offitt tries to shed light on the origins of why we take vitamins, and highlights some recent studies showing vitamins are correlated with an increased risk of cancer and other health problems. He wrote a similar, shorter piece in The New York Times as well. The message is clear: vitamins are harmful, not helpful.

The basic premise is that your body absorbs synthetic vitamins differently than it does natural vitamins. Thanks to Linus Pauling, many people believe the myth that Vitamin C can cure the common cold and prevent other diseases (like cancer), and therefore the vitamin industry thrives on peoples' ignorance-- to our own detriment.

Offitt has impressive credentials, but I've looked at a few critiques of his pieces and wanted to post them here as well. The Linus Pauling Institute (no vested interest there!) argues that Offitt is cherry-picking the studies he quotes and misrepresents Pauling's positions. Since 40% of Americans are vitamin-deficient in their diets, it's better they get supplements than not enough vitamins, they say.

Paul Jaminet, a Harvard astrophysicist-turned-dietician and relational economist(!) writes a more scathing critique of the Offitt piece. He attacks the statistical techniques used in one of the studies Offitt cites. I'm sympathetic to this critique as I have "fit a curve" or two in my day as well. (Jaminet has some "halo effect" for me though because of his background and devotion to Ronald Coase.)

I tend to agree with this James Hamblin piece, on The Atlantic's website in June, that "(Vitamins) could shorten or extend your life; at this point, taking vitamins randomly is metabolic roulette." This is similar to Jaminet's conclusion that "nutrient needs differ among persons depending on their health and age, and whether a person will benefit from a nutrient depends on whether the rest of the diet is deficient in that nutrient. So any given supplement is going to be harmful in some circumstances, beneficial in others" (emphasis mine).

As Offitt and others point out, vitamins are not recommended for "otherwise healthy people." I make sure I eat a "ranbow on my plate" and keep track of my estimated nutrient intakes by entering everything I eat into myfitnesspal.com. I'm confident I'm getting the vitamins and balanced diet I need-- mostly through natural sources like the plants I'm consuming. So, I've given up my multivitamin. I know of other very health-conscious eaters and vegans who seem to supplement with vitamins "just in case." The studies cited in the articles above seem to show the "just in case" might mean too much, and harmful.

If you're taking a multivitamin, why are you taking it? 

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Perfect green smoothie recipe (with nutrition info and Magic Bullet modification)

After experimenting over the past few months, I've settled on this simple smoothie as a wonderful post-workout recovery green smoothie. I make this in a Black & Decker Crushmaster blender (which holds 42 oz.) and it makes about three 12 oz. servings.

I usually fill up some 12 oz. drink containers and freeze them immediately after making. Thaw and drink at your leisure. However, single-serving fresh with a Magic Bullet is the way to go.

1/2 cup of blueberries
4 strawberries (remove the stems)
1 banana
1 large handful of kale
2 tbsp of Body Fortress Super Advanced Whey Protein, Chocolate Peanutbutter
(Just add a little peanut butter if you don't want the whey protein).
Some ice cubes and water, depending on how many ounces and thickness you want.

The kale has a ... fruitier...taste than spinach, it's quite good (we're fortunate to have some locally grown kale). The smoothie will turn a nice strawberry pink color (it's not actually green).

Nutritional information:
1 serving:
107.3 calories. 2.8 grams total fat. 20.1 grams of carbs (12.3 grams of sugars). 2.3 grams of protein.  25.9 mg sodium. 415 mg potassium.
Daily allowances:
Vitamin A: 13.5%
Vitamin C: 51.4%
Calcium: 2.6%
Iron: 3.7%

With a Magic Bullet I modify it like this:
1/2 cup blueberries
3-4 strawberries
1/2 a banana
1 tsp - 1 tbsp of Body Fortress Super Advanced Whey Protein Powder (Chocolate Peanut Butter)
a smaller handful of kale

Nutritionally, this is about 1.5-2 servings of the above recipe.

Warning: If you drink one after doing an Insanity workout, you will suddenly feel fired up to do another workout! Enjoy!

Friday, August 09, 2013

Book Review (#18 of 2013) 25 Things to Say to the Interviewer to Get the Job You Want

25 Things to Say to the Interviewer to Get the Job You Want by Dexter Hawk was a quick read, and its reviews on Amazon are mostly either five star or one star; you either hate it or you love it. I would recommend this book to a graduating student who is out there interviewing for the first time. But he might have a hard time saying some of the 25 things without experience to prove it. Here's the list:

1. I don't guess or assume anything.
2. I'm ready for problems before my boss and they are staring me in the face.
3. I take responsibility when things go wrong.
4. I crank out more work than is expected of me.
5. I compete fair and square.
6. I've serious goals; I work hard for them.
7. I write lucid, succinct memoranda.
8. I'm always on time.
9. I'll get to know my business.
10. I read trade magazines.
11. I fit in anywhere.
12. I understand boss-speak.
13. I'm looking for a career.
14. I've a sense of humor.
15. I take a stand only on big issues.
16. I don't dismiss or underestimate anyone.
17. I get to know and learn what everyone in my company is doing.
18. I don't waste time settling scores.
19. I deliver on my promises.
20. I don't whine or complain.
21. I've a good sense of timing.
22. I keep my mouth shut (to both co-workers and outsiders).
23. I speak the truth.
24. I turn out good work.
25. I get along with my co-workers; I make myself get along with my boss.

I thought back to my last corporate interview-- a job I didn't get-- and wonder if it would have made a difference had I incorporated some of the above-- namely #11, 12, 15 and #22. Hawk goes quickly through the points, mainly giving his rote interview sentences that go along. The point is to get the job, not necessarily to be completely honest (because nobody does #22).

I think one can argue that all 25 points are biblical, or could find a Bible verse or anecdote to go with them. Truthfulness (#23), going above-and-beyond (#4), and humility (#16) are all found in the list.

As such, I liked the book. Not much meat in it-- no advice on how to insert these things to your cover letter, for example. But I'd recommend it to someone graduating from school going on interviews the first time. 3 stars out of 5.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Obamacare and Incentives -- Why They Matter

Today's Politico has an op-ed by Jared Bernstein and Paul Van de Water arguing that firms aren't cutting workers back to part-time to avoid the employer mandate. (Bernstein was VP Biden's Chief Economic Adviser for two years.) But the article contains a couple weaknesses I want to highlight:
"In the case of health reform, we recognize that the part-time incentive exists. But it hasn’t shown up in the data yet..." 

Key word: "Yet." The local news doesn't seem to have problems finding workers whose say their hours are being cut due to the Affordable Care Act's employer mandate. Indiana University, for example, is eliminating all 30+ hour positions. Even in my small offline world, I'm meeting people who say "I was told my hours are being cut due to the ACA..."

Fact: Rational people (and firms) respond to incentives. Where the incentive exists, actions will follow. Journalists and pundits on the Left have realized this. Ezra Klein, for example, argues for repeal of the employer mandate.

Bernstein's statements strike a nerve because I'm reading through Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (Oxford History of the United States) having recently completed Amity Schlaes' work as well. Both the Hoover and FDR administrations ignored incentives as they engaged in policies that exacerbated unemployment-- strong-arming businesses to pay higher wages, prosecuting small business owners for noncompliance (under the NRA), ordering crops to be destroyed (under the AAA) in order to eliminate excess supply (at a time when citizens were starving), and increasing taxes. By 1938, when unemployment was again rising as the U.S. swooned into another recession, FDR's closest supporters were disillusioned and wondering "what went wrong?"

Bernstein, however, doubles down with his statement:
"American history is replete with warnings that employer mandates we now take for granted — about minimum wages and workplace safety, for example — would have large and disruptive impacts." 

Depends on what "large and disruptive" means. Minimum wage laws became constitutional in 1937, in the middle of a deflationary Depression-- on top of a host of labor-friendly bills designed to mandate increases in wages and benefits. While unemployment would eventually drop below 1930 levels, it would never again reach the 3% levels of the 1920s-- meaning hundreds of thousands of people looking for work were still unable to find it.

Bernstein has previously made similar arguments (on his blog) in regards to the minimum wage. Bernstein uses the same argument FDR's economists did in the 1930s in regards to corporate profits--they can afford to pay workers more. In FDR's case, he forced companies to pay dividends rather than see that money reinvested to expand the companies (FDR was hoping to increase consumption). Bernstein wants to reduce business investment by forcing firms to pay higher wages. Both acts give companies an incentive to lay off workers-- which was the result in 1936, same as with the minimum wage hike in our recent recession.

Sure, a higher wage is great if you get to keep your job/hours and see prices stay the same. But that never happens. Ask an African-American teenager in Detroit, an elderly person in Appalachia, or others who got axed after the last minimum wage hike in 2007. Ask American Samoa and other U.S. territories who lobby congress to be exempt from minimum wage legislation so their unemployment problem doesn't become worse. But Bernstein apparently doesn't consider the numbers affected "large" enough to merit thought, even though they are the ones at the bottom of the economic ladder that Progressives say they care about the most(!) Businesses also respond to wage mandates by raising their prices, nullifying the positive effect. Bernstein surely knows this.

In short, the employer mandate disincentive to hire full-time workers is another example of the government forcing aggregate supply to shift leftward. "A little bit here, a little bit there" leads to too much unemployment.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Book Reviews (#16 & #17 of 2013) Your Guide to Google Analytics by Ryan Dube and Learn How to Give a Great Massage by Marsha Masters

Today I review two self-published "How To" books available free (sometimes) or cheap for Kindle. I support self-publishing efforts like this, especially where free.

Your Guide To Google Analytics is a great help to using Analytics, written by someone who relies on his own (multiple, I gather) websites to generate commerce. There are many features of Google Analytics that users never get into, like the Custom Reporting and Intelligence Events, that are quite powerful and helpful. Dube has provided good screenshots and examples for every option. It's helped me customize my own Analytics setup, and I'll keep it as a reference. 99 cents. I give it 4 stars out of 5.

Learn How to Give a Great Massage is a compilation of 52 short blog post lessons by a masseuse. When it showed up as a free Kindle book one day, my wife sent me the suggestion to get it. I think she hasn't been incredibly pleased with the results. First, there are no pictures or video, only word descriptions of movements. So, what comes out on text is hard to practice. Unless you have a partner willing to read it with you and reciprocate, it's hard to get better because you have no idea what you're doing. Imagine any complex, skilled task that you can only have described to you-- doesn't work well. I wouldn't buy this book for the current $10 it's listed at, or the $17 at the author's website. At best, 2 stars out of five. Go to YouTube instead.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Can you really keep your autistic child eating healthy? Gluten-free, casein-free, sugar-free?

I invite other parents of autistic kids to share their experiences here (see the bottom of the post). 
I recently reviewed this book by Dr. Mary Herbert recommending dietary changes for kids with autism. Read my many criticisms of the book, but one can't deny that some kids see changes when their parents experiment with different diets. We're blessed that our son isn't terribly picky, particularly when he's hungry. He also doesn't have celiac disease or any digestive issues. We try to put a rainbow on his plate all day (because that's what we eat). We focus on whole grains, fruit and nuts, green vegetables, and try to get him some lean chicken and such. We rarely give him candy or other high-refined-sugar "treats." But it happens. For example, when we eat out he eats a Happy Meal while we eat salads.

The book above gives a (sensational) example of a child on a gluten-free diet who must be rushed to the emergency room after her grandmother unknowingly gave her some dinner with a gluten product. The implication of the example is that even small doses of harmful stuff matter. But America is the land of processed meat and sugar, high fructose corn syrup, etc.

So, is it possible in a life stage of public school and birthday parties to totally go off gluten, processed meat, high fructose corn syrup, etc. with our son? If he gets just a little, how much is too much? How do other parents answer that question?

My two examples that lead me to say "I don't think it's possible to be ____-free":
Elias attended a summer program for special needs kids sponsored by the county school system. There were a lot of autistic kids there, the teachers and helpers had special education expertise. Every day they had a snack, which were donated by the parents based on a list given by the teachers. It included lemonade drink mix, graham crackers, peanut butter crackers (despite signs on the school door about no peanut products being allowed on-premises) and cookies. They took a weekly field trip for a snack-- once to a donut shop, another to Sonic. Elias loved it, of course, but it's not exactly healthy, and not quite what I'd expect from special education specialists if diet matters in the behavior of kids. If these adults are giving my child that kind of food, how about someone untrained?

Yesterday at church, kids in the children's session were given marshmallows and other candy. When he saw the bag Elias immediately said "I want a marshmallow!" which he repeated several times. He doesn't know what's good for him, only what he wants. And most volunteer adults in a situation as the teacher yesterday would, of course, give it to him. Otherwise, he's the one left out (or I'm the adult in the room who becomes the "bad guy"). So, I let him do the marshmallows but intercepted the other candy. Had I not been there, who knows? (I don't blame the volunteer, she was only following the prescribed Sunday school curriculum to give out marshmallows. Our society makes it hard to present kids with healthy choices.)

If we want to be hard-core with our nutrition boundaries, we have to more forcefully advocate -- send Elias to school with his own food, which the teacher would probably have to take the time to help him open and eat; supply a note to every church we visit not to feed our child during their services, etc. In short, we'd have to be "those parents." Our son would have to be even more different than he already is, which bothers me most. It seems a high opportunity cost. So, what do we send him with? How long do we do that? 

Anyone want to contribute their experiences?

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Book Review (#15 of 2013) Incidents of Travel in Greece, Turkey, Russia and Poland (Vol. 2) by John Lloyd Stephens (1838)

See my review of Volume 1 here. Download the entire book here.

John Lloyd Stephens was an American treasure, one of the greatest American explorers. One has to admire his boldness, traveling without a great deal of plans and leaving his fortunes to chance and the hospitality of strangers. I've done that a bit myself, but not in the vastly underdeveloped days of the 1830s.

I enjoyed Volume 1 the best; there is much less excitement in Volume 2. Means of transportation is the hardest thing for the modern reader to comprehend, but is the centerpiece of this book as Stephen travels Eastern Europe on long carriage rides. Stephens and his fellow travelers, (he picks up a new one at each destination), hire a coach and a servant/driver, then are left at the mercy of the post houses, all of which are operated by Jews. It seems commonly accepted that these Jews were out to cheat the traveler, particularly foreigners, and Stephens' disdain comes through clearly.
Many of the words of vehicles Stephens travels in come from either the French or Russian, a few of which are found in the dictionary on my iBooks reader, meaning they were incorporated into English vernacular at the time. One has to imagine what he's traveling inside, and how he's sleeping on hay at the bottom of carriages; uncomfortable, to say the least. He gets the benefit of traveling to Russia in the summer, at least.

Stephens doesn't come across many Americans in Moscow or St. Petersburg, though he does spend some time with the American consular in St. Petersburg, an actual American instead of an installed local. Stephens retells Napoleon's failed taking of Moscow, and other parts of the Napoleonic wars relevant to the lives of veterans he comes across-- many French veterans were residing in Moscow at the time, some by exile.

I've looked at the same "world's largest bell that's never been rung" and "world's largest cannon that's never been fired" that Stephens marveled at in the Kremlin. He visits many palaces and museums in St. Petersburg, some of which no longer exist. He expertly retells highlights of the lives of Russian czars, and the reader wonders if Stephens learned the information while he was there, or had known it his whole life. He communicates in fluent French to most he meets with.

Stephens befriends a Pole who travels with him to Warsaw. Poland is suffering under Russian rule after a failed revolution in 1830. I learned a lot about Napoleonic history and Polish history from this book, Stephens does a good job informing the reader of its importance. I also learned of the Polish heroes who fought in the American Revolution, who apparently all Americans still honored in the 1830s. Tadeusz Kościuszko being one of the most important. Kosciuszko was inspired by Washington and Jefferson to fight for democracy in Poland in the 1790s. This admiration of American freedom and democracy is often found among peoples Stephens encounters. They love meeting an American, although they are surprised to find he has white skin (ie: not an American Indian).

The Poles strike Stephens as romantically patriotic but maddeningly bureaucratic. Few speak any languages he does, and he has a very hard time getting visas for his travel (visa issues are a recurring issue in his book, quite amusing to travelers of any era). By the time he visits the tombs of Polish kings in Cracow, he's ready to be done with Eastern Europe.

The book ends rather abruptly as Stephens departs. I give the whole book as 5 stars out of 5. One can learn a lot about European and American history through Stephens' retelling.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

How to do P90X (my tips)

Last Sunday marked my Day 90 (technically, Day 97 because I repeated half of a bad week). This was my second time to do P90X seriously, but my first time to complete 90 days (I got injured about Day 74 last time). I share my recent fitness stats at the bottom.

Here's what I've learned and recommend:
1. Follow a diet plan, either P90X's plan or something else that allows you to keep track of your calories and nutrition. I recommend myfitnesspal.com (with a great iPhone app). Most people don't eat enough calories in their day and wonder why they don't lose weight. Many people don't eat enough of the right stuff (ex: protein) and don't realize that their reps/performance suffer as a result. Tony Horton often points out that most people don't even need to work out if they'd just eat right. Calculate how many calories you need to maintain your current weight (roughly 1800 for me) and know that if you eat less than about 1200 calories (varies per person) your body is going to go into starvation mode and you won't lose the weight or be healthy.

2. "Drink your water, people!" Get hydrated. You need to drink 64 oz. of water a day even without exercise. More with exercise. Are you drinking two glasses of water before you eat breakfast and get your first cup of coffee? Your overall health and fitness performance suffer if you do not! Do this:

Here are my tips on each workout:
1. Ab Ripper X - Do this first on your combo days. I struggle with good form when I do it while wasted after the first exercise. I don't want to come back at the end of the day, finish Ab Ripper and take another shower.

2. Chest & Back; Chest, Shoulders and Triceps - Get a combo pull-up/push-up bar like this one. I was fortunate to work in a basement that had a mounted pull-up bar, so I just used my combo bar for push-ups. Also, mount some bands from the ceiling for when you're "feeling wasted." I would try to do max reps on the pull-up bar, and then with whatever time was left do a few reps on the bands.

3. Plyo X - I saw an interview where Tony talks about how Beachbody doesn't let anyone wear running shoes in their workouts as the lateral movements will hurt your feet. Get some Trainers or go barefoot (what I do).
Also, consider subbing some Insanity exercises for Plyo X to burn more calories.My in-laws have Insanity and I borrowed Plyo Cardio Circuit for these days.

4. Shoulders & Arms, Back & Biceps - Consider using fitness bands for certain sets. You get a great burn, the isometric hold action is great.You also don't have the joint and bone issues with bands-- using bands for certain sets is how I was able to complete all 90 days injury free.

5. Yoga X - DO YOUR YOGA! People think the weight lifting and pull-ups are what P90X is about, but it's not-- it's Yoga! Yoga X is the hardest exercise. Watch these clips with Tony talking about Yoga.

He's one of the most flexible people in the world for how muscular he is. Why? Yoga. You're already doing some of the yoga exercises in the other workouts, so Yoga X day will help you do those better. It will also stretch you out, improve your push-ups, and help your breathing. If you have a problem doing "oms" at the end, then you also should have a problem signing in the shower or humming to yourself during the day as they're essentially the same thing.

6. Legs and Back - No advice here.

7. Kenpo X - Grab some wrist/ankles weights or handweights for these to get some extra burn. Also, consider subbing for Insanity Pure Cardio here if you just want the calories. The Kenpo stretch is money after the previous day's workout, though.

8. Core Synergistics - Just do it. Or substitute some Insanity core-crushing exercise. Core Synergistics is probably my least-favorite exercise.

9. X Stretch - Rarely did X Stretch. I tried to follow Tony's advice in this interview-- don't take any days off. On your off day, do something fit you love like biking, hiking, or something else. I would often do Jillian's 30 Day Shred Level 3 on these days.

(You can learn a lot from this interview.)

I came back from Turkey in February overweight and out of shape, roughly a size 35.
Going into my final week:
My weight: 163.6
Body Fat%: 17.6% (a little on the high side but better than I began)
Body water%: 56.9% (i'm not dehydrated!)
Muscle mass: 128.2
Physique rating: 5 (basically optimal. Could have more muscle mass, but I'm healthy)
Daily caloric intake to maintain body weight: 1779
Metabolic age: 27
Bone mass: 6.8
Visceral fat: 5 (1-12 is considered healthy, 13-59 excess).
I'm a comfortable size 32.

I can't do 130 pull-ups, but I can do many more than when I started. I wrote everything down for the first couple weeks, then I stopped. I kept getting "all jacked up about the numbers" instead of just "do my best and forget the rest." I kept mental track in my head of roughly how many I did last time, how many I thought I could do, and went for it. Keep pushing "play." 

My goal is to keep working to improve my body fat percentage and look better. So, I've started Insanity. I'm considering alternating weeks of P90X with Insanity to keep up the weight training.

Monday, July 22, 2013

My son's superpower

My five year old son was diagnosed as having sensory processing disorder (SPD) a few years ago. He's the type who needs more and stronger sensory inputs to make sense of his world. That means he really loves spinning, going fast, touching everything, and wind & water sensations that cover his body. Hence, running through the sprinkler is really fun and there is no speed that is too fast on an ATV or watercraft. 

One thing he loves is for me to make "April showers" with the water hose, spraying it up in the air so he can stand under the waterfall, like rain. As he stands there and soaks it in it reminds me of the movie Daredevil, based on the Marvel comic. Daredevil is a blind superhero who can "see" via his heightened senses whenever it rains.I wonder if it's a similar sensation for Elias.

When we spend time at my parents, he gets to ride a 4-wheeler, boat, and waverunner. He squeals with delight for the entirety of the trip and says "Go faster, Daddy!" about every 10 seconds. Look how unhappy he looks as we idle along posing for this picture.

"No! Let's go, Daddy!"
We get up to 45 mph on most of the craft in brief spurts, and he just loves it. The waverunner is about perfect with the vibration and the noise, along with the wind and the water splashing. He loves the motion of the waves and being able to spin it around and around. Riding the golf cart afterwards is usually a let-down.

No fear on ATVs and watercraft, my son's superpower.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A follow-up post on Amity Shlaes' The Forgotten Man

(See my initial post here.)
The Great Depression should teach us a few things about the economic consequences of well-intended policies.
As unemployment rose in 1929, Herbert Hoover worked to convince industries to increase wages-- the idea being that an increase in household income leads to an increase in expenditure. FDR later mandated the wage increases under the National Recovery Administration (NRA). The fallacy is that businesses just have extra money sitting around to give employees. If I make a product for $1.00 and sell it for $1.50, and then the government says I have to spend $2 to make that product, I either have to raise my price, cut my production costs (like laborers), or go out of business. Unemployment climbed to over 25% and no one wanted to be without a job, so workers were willing to work for less than the federal mandate in order to keep their jobs. The result was that the Roosevelt administration prosecuted those companies, shutting the businesses down (putting everyone out of work) and further exacerbating unemployment. To whom does that make sense? The Fed kept the money supply too tight and prices were falling. Frustrated business owners had to argue in court that the market determined the price they could sell their products at while prosecutors painted them as immoral people preying on workers and customers. Don't believe me? Look at the court transcripts from the Schechter Case.

FDR, frustrated by the Supreme Court declaring the NRA unconstitutional, pushed the undistributed profits tax into law in 1936. This forced businesses to pay shareholders dividends, rather than saving or reinvesting that money into the company. The rationale being that an increase in shareholders' household income will lead to increase in expenditure/aggregate demand. But most companies like to save for downturns, so that they don't have to lay off workers. They also like to invest in research and development, new plant and equipment, and other expansions that, in turn, employ more workers.
When another downturn hit in 1938, companies didn't have the reserves they would have had in the absence of this tax. It was eliminated in 1939. Did we learn from this?

Maybe not entirely. You can see an echo of this in this misleading article by Jordan Weissmann today, advocating an increase in the minimum wage and lower profits for McDonalds. Sounds like 1929, to me. Raising wages will be great for those workers who don't see their job or hours cut. But given that the typical minimum wage worker is <=25 years old an in a household earning $50,000 or more, does this make sense? Given that unemployment is elevated and the Fed is keeping money too tight ...sounds a lot like 1929.

The Affordable Care Act's employer mandate is the same as a mandated wage increase-- employers who have more than 49 employees have to provide health insurance or pay a fine. So, some employers aren't expanding beyond 49 employees, and some workers are going to see their jobs and hours cut so the company can stay in business. It's not that the company is "immoral" or "cruel" (like FDR said), it's just that the owner wants to maintain his livelihood, and his workers do too. That's a structural problem that is exacerbated by the Fed's passive tightening. There were debates then about the unemployment, how much was structural instead of demand-driven. There are similar debates now about whether businesses aren't hiring because demand or whether it's structural hurdles like the ACA. We obviously didn't know what the impact of the 1930s policies would be, but we can look back and see the consequences. Shame on us if we repeat it with similar mistakes.

When money is tight, fiscal expansion and federal stimulus don't have the permanent effects you would like them to-- it's hard to prime the pump. Tariffs like Smoot-Hawley and mandated nominal wage hikes have greater negative impact than they would normally have (they would have negative impact anyway, and that's important to remember). The Fed is always the second-mover, able to offset through monetary policy any fiscal policy it chooses. But as Scott Sumner and the market monetarists are fond of pointing out-- we don't seem to have learned anything from the Great Depression about having better monetary policy.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Book Review (#14 of 2013) The Forgotten Man by Amity Shlaes

The Forgotten Man The narrative of FDR's New Deal as I learned it in AP U.S. History goes like this:
After the stock market crash of 1929 and ensuing economic collapse conservative President Herbert Hoover refused to do any fiscal policy to help remedy the situation and the gold standard kept the economy from growing. The Smoot-Hawley tariff passed, making things much worse. FDR's New Deal was successful in putting people to work while expanding government and even though the retrograde conservative Supreme Court tried to block him, FDR won on the major issues. But even with the New Deal, the U.S. couldn't reach full employment until World War II. But is that really accurate?

Shlaes' book painstakingly lays out a timeline from the 1920s to 1940 that examines the individuals, culture, legalities, and politics of the New Deal and its effect on American life and the economy that examines the above. She looks at the New Deal through the academic articles published at the time, newspaper, magazines, court transcripts, radio shows, diaries, biographies, and other sources that remind us what Americans were thinking and arguing at the time.There's a lot of forgotten history, including the important Schechter case, and newly discovered history since the fall of the USSR

The title of "The Forgotten Man" comes from this essay by William Graham Sumner written in 1883. Suppose persons A and B see person X in need. They agree to draft legislation to help person X, but never consider person C, who must also be taxed to pay for that legislation. Person C is the "Forgotten Man." But FDR's speechwriters used "Forgotten Man" to describe Person X, instead. That contrast is the heart of the political battle in the 1930s.

There were three major problems that turned an ordinary recession into the Great Depression (these are my list in order, taking what I already knew with what Shlaes provides):
1. Tight money. But it wasn't the gold standard that was the problem. In the late '20s and early '30s, the U.S. was running trade surpluses and gold was flowing into the U.S. Under the rules of the gold standard, the Fed should have been printing much more money. But, it chose to sterilize the printing by simultaneously selling bonds, keeping the money supply from growing. Milton Friedman explained this pretty well (with a cartoon) in this video. The Fed also punished banks that were not federally chartered, having different rules of lending for state and federally-chartered banks. Sound state-chartered banks facing runs were not helped, and thus they collapsed. When Bank of United States collapsed (see Friedman video above) the Fed didn't act aggressively to end ensuing runs. The Fed had a fear of inflation, and that was shared by both Hoover and Roosevelt. It's often forgotten that in the 1932 campaign FDR repeatedly blamed Hoover for creating too much inflation a charge that was just as absurd then as now. (FDR later implemented various methods in attempts to increase inflation. Whether his campaign was disingenuous or he had an actual change of heart after office isn't addressed by Shlaes.)

So, banks and industry were starved of needed cash and deflation set in. This would continue to be a problem throughout the Depression, and wouldn't change until FDR removed the U.S. from the gold standard and the Fed printed money to help pay for World War 2.

2. Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930 (read the entire link). Republicans are to blame for this, particularly Hoover who was literally begged by businessmen, friends, and donors to veto the bill. Scott Sumner read every NY Times in this period and concluded that the stock market's decline wasn't irrational, it was in response to what everyone knew would happen if the bill became law. Foreign nations all condemned the law and retaliated, driving up the price of doing business for everyone. There's a reason why Bretton Woods had a focus on increasing trade after WWII and why we have had GATT and the WTO. More trade > less trade--it's a proven fact. Things wouldn't have been as bad if money weren't tight (see #1) but those failures of federal government made a perfect storm.

3. The Dust Bowl. (This aspect is touched on the least in the book.) Famine and major crop failures are a big problem when banks are starved for cash and failing. There is nothing the Fed or the federal government can do when poor agricultural practice hits the proverbial fan other than offer relief and support better practices next time. With #1 and #2, this is a perfect storm.

FDR eventually took the U.S. off the gold standard, but monetary policy was still very poor in the 1930s. I don't blame Presidents for poor monetary policy, though. He also worked to slowly undo the effects of Smoot-Hawley, and the data seem to indicate that this helped business expansion.

Besides #1, however, the New Deal is what maintained the Great Depression and kept unemployment from falling. Shlaes' bias in devoting much of the book to this subject has irked the ire of Progressives, but an honest look at the facts she puts out leaves it hard to question her conclusion.

Herbert Hoover had been in favor of fiscal stimulus-- he was a career engineer who explored ways government could help engineer full employment. When recession hit, he ordered state governors (including FDR) not to cease any projects and to spend as much as they could. This footnote gets forgotten in history, FDR blasted Hoover for not spending "enough" but also for running budget deficits-- the ironic tension is evident in the book.

FDR was the caricature that modern-day Republicans make of Obama today. His policies and campaign statements were often contradictory and hard to reconcile. And FDR had actually proclaimed "war on business," which he conducted vigorously: 
Imagine a world where the federal government starts prosecuting tailors for how they produce certain clothes. Where it's illegal to charge a different price for a clothes iron than what the government says, and illegal to let your customers choose which hen or puppy he wants-- he has to take what he's given. Sounds like Socialism, but that that was FDR's unconstitutional NRA. Forgotten in modern history are things like the important Schecter case, where the Roosevelt administration condemned some Jewish rabbis as "immoral" for butchering chickens to meet with kosher standards and allowing their customers to choose which chicken they wanted, rather than take whichever was pulled first out of the coop. 60 charges were brought against this relatively uneducated Jewish family, who was sent to jail and fined an amount they couldn't afford. This wasn't an isolated incident, multiply this over thousands of small businesses and court cases all across the U.S. Roosevelt was determined to prosecute anyone who did not obey by the rules of the massive and complicated NRA. This continued until the Supreme Court declared the NRA unconstitutional, which Roosevelt of course publicly condemned.

Equally bad, FDR began a war on "tax dodgers" that included prosecuting people for using deductions and loopholes that were perfectly legal at the time their taxes were filed. Andrew Mellon (who had been Treasury Secretary and helped write the tax laws) and Samuel Insull being two of the most famous cases (both were aquitted). Imagine being allowed a deduction for deducting the mortgage on your second home only to have the government prosecute you for taking that deduction a few years later-- that's exactly what happened under FDR, who used his fireside chats to continue to attack the wealthy and justify the court cases. (Shlaes documents how some Democrats in the 1932 campaign voiced their objections to Roosevelt's method of using class warfare as a campaign tactic.) Capital fled the U.S., no surprise.

While the federal government now employed many more people in various programs, there was still a lack of fiscal stimulus. The private sector wasn't contracting because the government was expanding, it was contracting because of the various constraints being put on it (the list is too long for this post, read the book).  FDR raised cut spending and raised taxes across the board in 1937, including imposing taxes on those who had not paid them beofre, in an effort to balance the budget. This alienated some of FDR's advisers who had argued through the 1930s that the solution to the economic problem was government expansion, not austerity. By 1938 the Administration was wondering "what went wrong?" and the Republicans began to gain a foothold again. But war was looming in the background...

Shlaes follows the lives and actions of a few people over two decades-- Herbert Hoover, FDR's brain trust, Wendell Willkie, an African-American leader in Harlem named Father Divine, and Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson.

Several members of FDR's cabinet and "brain trust" (like Rexford Tugwell) were academics who had made a trip to Russia in the 1920s where they were given almost unlimited access to factories, collective farms, and Stalin himself. They were mostly impressed by the Soviet experiment, and this period is documented by Shlaes. When they returned to the U.S., they penned articles for up-and-coming journals like The New Republic, discussing how similar Progressive programs could be implemented in the U.S. Some New Deal programs, like the collective farm run by Tugwell under the Agriculture Adjustment Act, were designed straight out of their notes from the Russia trip. This was pretty fascinating to me. Shlaes documents how the Left, generally speaking, faced an intellectual crisis in the 1930s as Stalin consolidated power and murdered many of the Trotskyites FDR's "Brain Trust" had met with and thought highly of.

Willkie starts as a successful business man, Democrat, and Roosevelt supporter, who then has to bend to the federal government after the TVA was up and running--he was forced to sell the majority of his company to the TVA. He becomes a centrist Republican, running against Roosevelt in 1940 and becoming one of the first to articulate the overreach of the New Deal in a way that garners nationwide support and action.

Father Divine's cult provides lavish meals to the poor of New York during the height of the Depression, preaching peace and racial harmony. He champions an African-American boycott of the 1936 election after FDR refuses to move on anti-lynching legislation and increases his criticism after FDR appoints a KKK member to the Supreme Court.

Recovering alcoholic Bill Wilson co-authors his book and launches the self-help movement, which Shlaes holds as a contrast to the New Deal as a "government must help everyone" movement.

Having read some works on the Great Depression, I thought I knew more than I did. Shlaes book is very interesting and thought-provoking throughout. I highly recommend reading and discussing it. Five stars.