Friday, February 27, 2015

Sermon of the Week (2/22 - 2/28, 2015) Tim Keller on Matthew 6 "Adoration: Hallowed be Thy Name"

"Adoration: Hallowed be Thy Name" on iTunes.
There is not another word in English that has quite the same meaning as "hallowed," even though the word is not frequently used anymore (same as imputed, propitiation, etc.). The ESV and other modern literal translations keep the "hallowed" for that reason. Keller notes that our prayers reflect what we most value. If you hallow anything more than God then you will only pray when that thing is at stake. If the only time you pray is when a family member is ill or in crisis, for example, then it says what you really think about God compared to your family.

When I was young someone taught me the acronym ACTS -- Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication-- as a map for prayer. Keller teaches us that if we get the adoration part right, we'll have much peace and joy when it comes to the supplication.

Great sermon, enjoy.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

American Sniper by Chris Kyle (Book Review #19 of 2015)

American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History
Since the movie got so much attention and I was hearing how "every American should see it," yet how Kyle exaggerated various stories, how it portrayed the Iraq war in too nice a light, yet how it was helpful in shedding light on PTSD. Both praised and cursed, I thought I'd read the book for myself.

First of all, it's a pretty tame book-- perhaps even boring for a war autobiography. Kyle notes that he didn't get his 160+ kills mostly by his skill, but rather by opportunities (staying alive, re-upping, and seeing plenty of targets in Iraq) and luck (being at the right place at the right time). Lone Survivor (my review) is a more interesting/intense book if are looking for adrenaline and close calls. By the end of this book, killing becomes "no big deal," and what was probably harrowing and dangerous seems pretty mundane and routine. You probably need a movie theater to make it better.

I think the endearing aspect is that Taya Kyle writes parts of it, describing what a jerk Kyle was, how it was difficult to be married, the changes she saw in him after his deployments, and her love for him growing as he finally decided to put his family first and not re-enlist. Most books of this nature don't have the spouse's perspective, so that made it interesting. At the Oscar's last week, Taya is quoted:
"It's not just our story; it's every veteran's story," she said. "People have been relating to it so much, as well as healing. We're hearing stories of couples who were in combat 30 and 40 years ago, who are walking away [from the film], opening a dialogue they haven't been able to open before. So, I think it's just an honor to be able to help in some way, and have it be more than just our story.""

The book begins similarly to Lone Survivor because, like Marcus Luttrell (who Kyle later befriends), Chris Kyle was raised a Texas patriotic country boy who can simultaneously profess love for Jesus while cursing like a sailor. He was an effective cattle ranch hand and college dropout. He was initially denied Navy entry due to screws in his arm from a rodeo injury. After the Navy called him back,  a recruiter lied to him to forfeit his signing bonus saying that he had to do it if he wanted to make the SEALs.

His Hell Week and BUDs training read a lot like every other such story I've read. He broke foot in BUDs (Luttrell broke his arm in his story). He's disappointed not to see combat in Afghanistan after 9/11, but he does engage in anti-piracy activity and his platoon is called up a year later to fight in Iraq. His initial deployment seemed unremarkable, Taya notes that he returns with symptoms of PTSD. He appreciates the American well-wishers but remembers the protestors most of all, and bitterly. He makes a good point that people shouldn't protest soldiers sent to fight the battles that elected officials vote for-- protest Congress instead.

He eventually enrolls in sniper school, but graduates about the middle of his class. He details the work he did with Polish special forces in Iraq, speaking highly of them. During the insurgency, he notes Iraqi insurgents of different stripes-- nationalists, Baathists, Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamists. He notes that they had evidence many were on drugs to "boost their courage."

Repeatedly, Kyle puts country ahead of family as in "God, country, family." His wife continuously does not want him to redeploy, but he can't not. So long as he's healthy and his country is at war (which is now perpetually), he feels he has to go serve. It takes him over 10 years in the service to get over this. He does multiple tours before suffering any casualties among his close friends. He loses two friends close together, and it affects him deeply.

There is not a whole lot related to leadership or management in this book. One good quote: "I had a lot of good commanders. The great ones were humble."
He notes the tediousness of strict adherence to Rules of Engagement. How every kill in Ramadi (and he had a lot) required filling out a detailed after-action report along with other reports to confirm that the killing was justified. On one occasion an Iraqi family of a dead insurgent protested that her husbands had been carrying a Koran  rather than a rifle, which gets investigated. Kyle is not complimentary of Iraqi army, writing that it was a mistake to put an Iraqi face on the war and to train them to take over in the middle of insurgency.

He gets arrested on one homestay, a bar fight with "scruff face" who Kyle later claimed was Jesse Ventura, who is now suing Kyle's estate for $1.7 million. (Dude, just say "it couldn't have been me" and move on. The damage to your reputation is greater from the lawsuit than from Kyle's potentially mistaken claim.) Eventually, he decides he needs to be a husband and a father, that he's not irreplaceable to his family like a soldier is with a new recruit. It took him a lnog time to get over SEAL life and guilt over getting out, but he gets there.

In the end, he helped start a company to train snipers, does charity work for wounded warriors, and finds a new identity apart from the old. It is a shame that he was killed by someone he was trying to help.
3.5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Money Answer Book by Dave Ramsey (Book Review #18 of 2015)

The Money Answer Book
I checked out this book because I’m teaching Dave Ramsey’s FPU next month and have been working through the course material. This book is a FAQ for Dave Ramsey’s advice.
Each Q/A is a couple pages long and the book is a fast read. There is nothing in this book that you can’t learn by Googling for the information. The questions range from “what is a debit card?” to “My spouse and I have separated and I’m terrified he will bankrupt me. What do I do?”

All of the teaching points and anecdotes from Dave Ramsey’s course are in this book. If you’re teaching the course (and do so frequently) then look at buying a used copy of this book. Otherwise, you would do better to check this book or Total Money Makeover out from the library and use them instead of paying full price for his course. If you’re engaged or newlywed, check out Matt Bell’s Money & Marriage as it’s the same information and advice.

The thing I like least about Ramsey is his investment advice not including investing in index funds. Just signing up for a mutual fund, even a no-load fund, is going to result in higher fees and results that are repeatedly proven over time to be no better than an index fund. An index fund isn’t available, however, if you want to invest socially or avoid certain companies. This book does contain a couple of alternatives if that’s your thing.

He is also pretty nonchalant about finding a second job to make ends meet when trying to pay down the debt of past mistakes. There are quite a few people for whom it’s not that easy, and they don’t need the guilt trip.

My experience qualifying for a mortgage with no credit history also differs from what he claims is reality. The world is different than it was 10 years ago.

He misunderstands giving 10% as a biblical mandate and rips some scripture out of context. He’s a (non-licensed?) financial adviser, not a theologian.

There are some nuggests of wisdom and factoids worth repeating:
“Only contentment brings peace.”

70% of households live paycheck to paycheck.

“Laziness is a sickness, and it will get you absolutely nowhere in life….You need to learn from your mistakes or you--and your children-- will be doomed to repeat the cycle.”

“The German root word for ‘debt’ is the same as for ‘guilt.’”

“Many a man has failed because he had his wishbone where his backbone should have been.” - Ronald Reagan

“A little bit of controlled pain when you’re six will change your life when you’re thirty-six.”

“A budget is telling your money where to go instead of wondering where it went.” - John Maxwell

“We do make enough to save money; we just aren’t willing to quit spoiling have enough left to save...It just has to become a big enough priority for you.”

3 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Memos to the Governor: An Introduction to State Budgeting by Dall W. Forsythe (Book Review #17 of 2015)

Memos to the Governor, Second Edition, Updated: Memos to the Governor: An Introduction to State Budgeting
Dall W. Forsythe was New York State's Budget Director and has served in a similar capacity for other government, private sector, and non-profit entities. This book is used in Public Administration 
courses (apparently at places like Harvard and other Ivy League schools likely to produce governors) to introduce students to state budgeting in a simple format. The back cover sums it up well:
"Dall W. Forsythe, who served as budget director under Governor Cuomo, outlines the budgeting process through a series of memos from a budget director to a newly elected governor--a format that helps readers with little or no background to understand complicated financial issues. He covers all of the steps of budget preparation, from strategy to execution, explaining technical vocabulary, and discussing key topics including baseline budgeting, revenue forecasting, and gap-closing options. Forsythe brings fresh insights into such issues as the importance of a multiyear strategic budget plan, the impact of the business cycle on state budgets, the tactical problems of getting budgets adopted by, legislatures, and, of course, the relationship between governor and budget officer. Memos to the Governor is a painless, practical introduction to budget preparation for students of and practitioners in public administration and public-sector financial management."

The format of the book addresses the reader as a governor who is getting a crash course on budgeting. I cringe thinking that there may be some governor or major policy adviser out there whose only introduction to budgeting is this book. *shudder* But better this book than nothing, I suppose. I work in a state budget office and work in the revenue forecasting side while also working with a particular agency's expenditure forecast. I most enjoyed the chapters in the book dealing with putting together the economic and revenue forecasts. This book ought to be given to everyone in my office when they first start working as it gives a great picture of how all the pieces fit together (and I don't live in a state mentioned in the book).

"Governors need people around them who are prepared to speak truth to power, and by position and training your budget officer is expected to play that role" (p. 7). 

Forsythe occasionally injects his own opinion into the descriptions:

"I believe that state budget officers will serve their governors better by...broadening their roles into full-fledge chief financial manager and budget strategist and tactition"(p. 9).

There is acknowledgement of the ultimate obeisance to the bond market, ie: the credit rating agencies (22).

I shrug a little when he writes
"Your revenue estimators will keep in touch with their counterparts in other states and with other economists with regional perspectives," because in my experience that does not happen much (p. 23). I do enjoy his admonishment that "it is dangerous for you or your top staff to try to tinker with individual revenue estimates" as it "creates a dangerous dynamic in the relationship between you and your budget officer (or office)" (p. 25). In reality, governors are politicians and their officers are often political appointees expected to support the Governor's policies and agenda. Incentives matter, in other words.

Most of the book is a step-by-step primer in how budgets are put together, negotiated, sold to the public, signed into law, and adjusted when economic realities emerge. Forsythe has included many historic examples (mostly from the 1980s and 90s) from several states, not just New York. I gained a greater knowledge and understanding of my budget analyst colleague's work due to this book.

I recommend this book to anyone serving in state government, as it's important for everyone to understand how the budget process works. 4 stars out of 5.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Antifragile by Nassim Taleb (Book Review #16 of 2015)

Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (Incerto)

I read Fooled by Randomness (my review) in early 2008, before the complete collapse of the housing market and financial system, and it changed my world like perhaps no other book has. I was not really ready to read another Taleb book before I had read so many other works he cites. Since 2008 I have read Plato, Xenophon, Adam Smith, Hayek, Kahneman, Keynes, Mandelbroit, Ferguson, Shiller, and others and studied a good bit about Ancient Greece, Rome, Anatolia, and the Levant. I would probably not currently read the Classics and philosophy were it not for Taleb's rule (not kept by himself either) to not read anything newer than 700 years old.

Nassim Taleb is a flawed individual (aren't we all)? His biggest flaw is his penchant for responding to critical reviews quite harshly, whether wading into the comments section on Amazon, allowing himself to be trolled on Twitter, or writing detailed responses to critics' articles. This is odd because Taleb has written that critics aren't worth regarding, and praises criticism in Antifragile. In Fooled by Randomness, Taleb points out that most philosophers (Karl Popper foremost) live contradictorily to their philosophies-- they are logically inconsistent. While Taleb falls prey to this same problem, he does not readily admit it on these pages.

Taleb reads books that have bad reviews, books that have ticked off the intelligentia, because he knows that book might contain some original thoughts outside the mainstream and therefore be worth reading and probably correct. I've seen bad reviews of this book and think that was their secret point in solidarity with Taleb. I really enjoyed most of this book, too much to savage it, but I hope my praise of it does not keep you from reading.

There is apparently no word in any language that captures the precise idea for the "opposite of fragile." Some cultures, likewise, do not have words for various colors. Ancient Greeks, for example, only had a few colors in their lexicon something which was not discovered and confirmed until the 1800s (by a non-expert, which made it harder for the establishment to agree with). Other cultures have been tested and proven to not be physically colorblind, but they don't distinguish, say red, orange, and yellow in their vocabulary.

This book is ostensibly about how the way we do things-- economics, medicine, politics, genetically modified foods, etc. -- makes our world more fragile, and how we could do things differently to increase the world's antifragility. Taleb vehemently opposes the "Soviet-Harvard" arrogance that complex systems can be understood, predicted, and made less volatile.

Fear of randomness leads to fragility. "Stressors and randomness have their role in daily life." For example, doing the same exercise over and over leads to repetitive motion injuries and rapidly diminishing marginal returns. Mix up your routines to increase stress and the benefit. Fast from food occasionally and see how your body reacts. (One suggestion in Fooled by Randomness was to not set your alarm occassionally, live with the variance of times at which you will wake up for better mental fortitude). Eliminating the randomness neither good nor desirable, evolution itself depends on the randomness. "But try explaining this to politicians."

We want linear outcomes and a normally distributed world, but that's not how the world works. There's convexivity and concavity, second-order effects, etc. Rather than accepting randomness, embracing it, preparing for it, and using options to hedge our risk we instead try to suppress it, dismiss it, ignore it, and then it gets you-- like the housing bust. If I say "It would be terrible and very costly if X broke, but I don't think it will because of _________." What is in the ______? For Ben Bernanke it was "housing prices have never fallen together nationwide before." Just because there wasn't historical precedent (which there was, by the way) does that mean that housing prices couldn't fall? This is the plight of the turkey. Every day the farmer comes in and feeds him well. Over the years, he sees the farmer as harmless and not a threat. Until the farmer eats him. That is the black swan event, a 6-sigma and seemingly impossible event with enormous consequences. Antifragility focuses on those seemingly small events with large consequences.

There is an early diatribe against academia as being petty, vindictive. We send students to business school to be trained by people who have never run businesses and it's like "teaching birds how to fly by lecturing them." Taleb's research shows that academic ideas don't make it onto the trading floor, but vice-versa. Traders find what works. Maybe some day the trading strategies will be researched and end up in a classroom. Likewise, how many drugs has been discovered via research funded by the NIH? Very few. The vast majority have been found by private industry. The industrial revolution was largely spurred by private tinkerers, many of the foremost "experts" of that era were titled "Reverend." Academics of that era were mostly lecturers, not experts expected to produce cutting-edge research, until the late 1800s. Fragility is what makes us antifragile. Immune systems strengthen immunity by exposure to disease, the coffee maker on my desk owes its success to the hundreds of inventors who tried before and failed. We all stand on someone else's shoulders. Taleb's ideas, to me, seem very Hayekian although he hardly mentions Hayek (he does praise Schumpeter's idea of creative destruction, though not Schumpeter's later policies at naive interventionism). He critiques Hayek's talk of knowledge as Hayek ignores optionality as a substitute for knowledge.

Seneca is Taleb's hero. He was prominent stoic philosopher but said that education was for the lecture hall, and he was also a practitioner foremost-- the richest man in Rome.

Someone else's review summed it up thus:
We need entrepreneurs and risk-takers, else we end up as "Mediocristan." Mediocristan is where normal things happen, things that are expected, whose probabilities of occurring are easy to compute, and whose impact is not terribly huge. The bell curve and the normal distribution are emblems of Mediocristan. For those not very familiar with statistics, the bell curve represents the normal distribution, where small, low-impact changes have the highest probabilities of occurring, and huge, wide-impact changes have a very small probability of occurring. Exstremistan is a different beast. In Extremistan, nothing can be predicted accurately and events that seemed unlikely or impossible occur frequently and have a huge impact. Black Swan events occur in Exstremistan.

Yet, Taleb writes, the system should not be built such that others lose when one fails-- ie: creditors. Debt makes one less antifragile, here therefore opposes nations that run up debts and is opposed to personal debt. A Dave Ramsey fan can find commonality with Taleb here. Even though the odds of disability or death and therefore inability to pay off your mortgage may seem very slim, in the event that randomness strikes the consequences are enormous.

Politically, Taleb does not argue against all interventionism, but rather "naive interventionism." For example, when America attacks ISIL, it might drive it underground but that will only make it a worse problem later. (Taleb is a Lebanese Christian who grew up during the civil war there.) Taleb writes much about iatrogenics - an adverse condition in a patient resulting from treatment by a physician. Iatrogenics kills more people than cancer annually. To me, Taleb seems somewhat inconsistent on medicine. He is angry with doctors who prescribe age-old remedies with little evidence of their benefit while blasting prescriptions backed by studies which are done by modern researchers and pharmaceuticals. He makes a good point, however, that things like Mediterranean diet may have benefits due to more than eating. Greek Orthodox Christians who live on the Mediterranean fast for lent and other occasions, a stressor which is shown to have health benefits. Don't try the diet apart from the lifestyle, in other words.

Taleb writes that we should let kids fall, allow more microbes, etc. because this increases resiliency in the long-run. But my question is: what if one of those falls is the small-probability/large-consequence event? At what point do we aim for antifragility?

In the latter part of the book Taleb attacks economists and business schools directly. He writes that strategic thinking is just "superstitious babble," for instance. I do not agree with him, nor would many entrepreneurs that Taleb praises. It does no good to start your engine and not have an idea of your destination. A good strategic plan allows for randomness and can be made antifragile.

Taleb reserves special venom for Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate who failed to forecast the implosion of Fannie Mae and continues to acknowledge his error in either his books or his articles. Peter Orszag was a Stiglitz protege who headed Obama's Office of Management and Budget before taking a position at Citibank.
"The Romans had engineers sleep under the bridges they had built. The U.S. government should have made Orszag and Stiglitz sleep under Fannie Mae as they would have exited the gene pool and done us no more harm." Having "skin in the game" is the best way to make forecasting antifragile.

At least one investor critic has pointed out that applying Taleb's strategy to options is shown to historically lose money. Volatility has trended downward since 2008, should it go back up? Should we always be long volatility? This is a good critique here. "Taleb himself was in there angrily responding at length to these negative reviewers, and his cult-like fans piled on. From a guy who writes in Antifragile that criticism should be welcomed, his response to criticism is consistently hysterical"

Personally, I have thought more about framing things in terms of antifragility in my own life. Why do I want to pay off my debts faster

So, I recommend this book if you've read most of the other economists/philosophers/celebrities mentioned above. You need to have some background on ancient Greece and Rome, as well as Soviet history which Taleb often refers to. He flaunts his Latin and Arabic, so those languages are also a bonus in reading Taleb.

In all, I give this book 4 stars out of 5. It is thought-provoking. Great books lead the reader to read more books and Taleb's books are great in that fashion.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Most Misused Verses in the Bible by Eric J. Bargerhuff (Book Review #15 of 2015)

This book went free on Kindle the week I happened to be listening to Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology lectures (available here) on biblical interpretation, so I couldn't pass it up. 

I was at least 30 years old before I learned how to read my Bible, or perhaps I should say how not to read it. I grew up going to "Bible-believing" Baptist churches that never taught me proper exegesis, and I never saw improper exegesis corrected. The church newsletter ("The Porter Vision") ripped Proverbs 29:18 out of context. "Life verses" like Philippians 4:13 and Jeremiah 29:11-13 were common and inappropriately painted on walls or included in various decorations. I attended Bible studies where "I think passage means..." were common. I even read deep theological books (Piper, Packer), but none of them ever dealt with teaching the reader how to read the Bible. Now I understand that's the most important thing a pastor can do for his congregation.

I thought I understood context. I recognized, for example, that Habakkuk 1:5 was a verse of judgment, God was raising up the Chaledeans to conquer Judah as a consequence of its sin. So, when people (like the missions arm of the denomination) used Habakkuk 1:5, I could say "wait a minute." But I was still prone to begin my Bible reading with "God, what do you want me to get out of this passage today?" and come across a verse seemingly related to what I might be feeling or dealing with and say "Aha! A sign!" Like, I might be wondering whether to ask for a raise and then happen to read 1 Timothy 5:18 and say "Yes, I should!"

The proper question should not be “What does this passage mean to me?” but rather “What were the author’s original intentions and how did the audience who first received it understand those intentions in the original context?” And then, only after discovering this is it appropriate to ask, “How then does the timeless biblical principle contained in this passage apply to me today? (loc. 1815).

I see a difference among fairly recent graduates from seminary, who seem to grasp this point, and those who graduated decades ago. The younger preachers I listen to are always harping on "don't take this verse out of context," etc. whereas I never used to hear that. Not reading Scripture properly has led to a whole host of problems in our churches, like in exercising church discipline (see example below).

Bargerhuff quickly takes the reader through several verses, teaching how not to read them. This is a short book that fulfills its purpose nicely: illustrate the importance of proper interpretation. Ask yourself: Who was the original intended audience? What else is happening around this verse, this passage, this book? Does this passage relate to a particular theme found in Scripture?

I think Bargerhuff does the best job on Jeremiah 29:11-13. This is similar to Habakkuk 1:5, it is a verse intended for Israel. The Christian can take comfort that God is in control and that one day we will live in Christ's kingdom, but Jeremiah 29:11-13 was specifically for Israel at a specific point in time. Most who were alive and heard Jeremiah's words would have died in exile before experiencing their fulfillment.

"God is speaking to the Israelite nation of Judah here. This is his plan for the nation, not necessarily a personal promise that is directed to any one person per se. It is a 'corporate' promise. Therefore, we should be cautious about grabbing it out of its context and inappropriately applying it to individual believers in the twenty-first century...The majority of people who hear this promise from Jeremiah’s lips will never see it fulfilled in their lifetime. They will likely perish in exile before it comes to fruition...I can still use Jeremiah 29, but I must apply it appropriately. Without a doubt, a future 'heavenly hope' exists for those who have placed their faith and trust in Christ alone for their salvation" (loc. 423-457). 

Other verses:
Matthew 7:1 - "Do not judge..." about hypocrisy
Matthew 18:20 - "Where two or more are gathered..." - God is omnipresent, He is there when only one person is present. This is most likely about the affirmation of decisions reached among Christians about reconciliation and church discipline.
"Jesus is saying that whenever the church is pursuing and is involved in a reconciliation process with someone who has refused to repent, they can rest assured that God’s blessing is with them in their efforts. In other words, as the church renders judicial decisions on matters of right and wrong that are based on the truth of God’s Word, they should be confident that they are doing the right thing and that Christ himself is right there with them, spiritually present in their midst" (loc. 593).

John 14:13-14
Rom 8:28 All things work together . . . this verse is about being conformed into the image of Christ.

Col 1:15 Christ the firstborn . . . an apologetic against Jehovah's Witnesses.
I Tim 6:10 Money the root of all evil . . . many forget the "love" part and context matters.

I Cor 10:13 No more than you can handle . . . this is about temptations, not trials. It's important to remember that early Christians suffered unto death, which is often not on the mind of people who quote this verse.

Proverbs 22:6 Train up a child... the literal Hebrew allows for a few possibilities, but it is not a promise so much as a common sense correlation.
Philippians 4:13 I can do all things . . .this is about contentment.
Exodus 21:23-25

James 5:14-15 "Is anyone among you sick...?" I think think Bargerhuff does his worst job in this chapter. He wonders why God did not respond to his prayers when his father dies. His father was deteriorating after a series of heart problems. Scripture tells us in many places to pray for the sick, but it's not God's will to heal everyone. That would be enough-- we're still to pray. But Bargerhuff rightly points out that the word translated "sick" is not the same Greek word used elsewhere in referring to those with disease. Mark 6:13 for example "And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them," at first glance reads a lot like James 5:15. But the words in the Greek are different, the root in Mark being used extensively but a quick check of my lexicon says the word used in James is only used elsewhere in Hebrews, and really only works there as "weak." Bargerhuff suggests this passage in its entirety is dealing with reconciliation and those who had fallen under pressure due to persecution. I know from studying church history that dealing with those who betrayed the faith under persecution was a big deal for the early church, and that seems to fit into the theme of this passage.

Acts 2:38 Repent & be baptized . . . an apologetic against those who baptise for the remission of sins.
Proverbs 4:23 Guard your heart . . . has nothing to do with making yourself less vulnerable in relationships.The word for "heart" does not contain our American understanding of it.

John 12:32 "When I am lifted up I will draw all men to myself" - this is referring to Jesus' crucifixion and many worship leaders talk about "lifting Jesus high" in appropriately referring to this verse. It's like they're saying "I want to see Jesus crucified again and again!"

I give this book 4.5 stars out of 5. It is succinct, well-written, and does not contain a lot of fluff. Just enough detail, I highly recommend.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Podcast of the Week (2/15-2/21, 2015) You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney

The podcast You Are Not So Smart, by author David McRaney addresses heuristics, congitive biases, neuroscience, and behavioral economics. I have not read McRaney's books (yet) but I think he does a good job of covering those I have read on those topics.

This episode was inspired by Brian Williams' "misremembering" events from the Iraq war. It features interviews with Dan Simon and Julia Shaw. Shaw discusses an experiment in which she implanted false memories into her college students' brains. Shaw - (quoting Elizabeth Loftus) "100% of our memories are false," meaning they contain falsehoods of varying degree. Brian Williams essentially "played telephone with himself" - our memory of events is shown to change over time as we tell stories about it, get feedback from others, and deal with emotions attached to the memory.

Shaw describes the method by which she "implanted" false memories in college students, making them think they'd committed felonies when they were teenagers. This reminded me of an experiment I heard a professor do after 9/11, where he had students write down where they were immediately after the event. Just 5-10 years later he did a survey and many of them had a different memory of where they were when it happened.

You might ask "what does this have to do with me?" Well, ponder the statement above that 100% of your memories contain falsehood. What is it that you remember vividly, like it happened yesterday? It probably didn't happen like that. This has implications for our perceptions of others, for our legal system (if you listened to Serial you got a great example), and even the Gospel. Forensic scientist- turned pastor/author J. Warner Wallace (Cold-Case Christianity) gives his view as a former detective in his books and on his website.

Witnesses are always separated as quickly as possible to get differing versions. This is to avoid collusion and confusion, you might misremember something because of a friend who says he saw it
differently. He writes on his website that
"When people have the opportunity to align their statements, yet still refuse to do so, I know I am getting the nuanced observations I need to properly investigate the case. The Gospel authors (and the early Church) certainly had the opportunity to eliminate alleged contradictions, but they refused to do so. As a result, we can have even more confidence in the reliability of these accounts. They display the level of variation I would expect to see if they were true, reliable eyewitness descriptions." 

Continuing elsewhere:
"Even though I accept and affirm the inerrancy of Scripture, inerrancy is not required of reliable eyewitnesses. In fact, I’ve never had a completely inerrant eyewitness in all my years as a homicide detective. In addition, I’ve never had a case where two witnesses have ever agreed completely on the details of the crime. Eyewitness reliability isn’t dependent upon perfection..."

Wallace points out that the question the interviewees were presented with matters. How many angels, for example? Okay, so Wallace says he never met two eyewitnesses that exactly lined up. Yet, we cannot be satisfied with "reliable witnesses," as we have to keep with "jot and tittle" inerrancy in the Gospel accounts. How do we do that?  Wallace concludes:

"Let me be clear about something here: after examining the gospel accounts, I don’t believe that they contain any true contradictions or factual errors. I do, believe however, that they contain scribal variants, and these variants are already identified on the pages of scripture by the publishers of our modern translations. While I do believe in the inerrancy of the original text of the New Testament, I entered my examination of the gospels with a very different standard; I didn’t demand that the witnesses be inerrant, just reliable. A witness can be mistaken about some small detail, yet considered reliable related to his or her larger claims. Although it is clear that the New Testament we possess today contains “variants” that we have accurately identified by comparing over 24,000 manuscripts fragments and larger documents, this has no bearing on whether or not they are reliable. These variants may be an excuse for some to lazily dismiss the claims of scripture, but good investigators don’t have the luxury of being lazy. Instead, it’s our duty to separate the artifacts from the evidence so we can solve the case and determine what really happened at the crime scene. Similar diligence is needed if we are ever going to fairly assess the claims of Christianity."
You can determine for yourself if you're satisfied with Warner's explanation (and Norman Geisler's, who Warner quotes) of inerrancy. He and others note that there may be paradoxes but not contradictions, and if there were two angels then there also had to have been one angel, etc.

Listen, read, learn, enjoy.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

A poem for Elias

My wife decided to flee the record cold we're experiencing in Central KY (it was -7F without the wind chill this morning) and took our son to visit his cousins in Atlanta for the weekend. While I'm glad they're warmer, I miss them.
One serendipitous moment occurred last fall when I gave Elias my old copy of Shel Silverstein's A Light In The Attic. He loved it, and I gave him Where the Sidewalk Ends for Christmas (which I think is a better book). Where the Sidewalk Ends contains the poem "Put Something In" that Elias likes and which I think describes him perfectly. I might have it blown up and framed to put on our wall:

Draw a crazy picture,
Write a nutty poem,
Sing a mumble-gumble song,
Whistle through your comb.
Do a loony-goony dance
‘Cross the kitchen floor,
Put something silly in the world
That ain’t been there before.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch (Book Review #14 of 2015)

The Epistles of Ignatius (free text, free audio)
Why don't evangelical Christians study these historical texts more? There seems to be something taboo about quoting the early church fathers, yet nothing taboo about quoting 20th century sources, Puritans, or whomever else after, say, Calvin.  These epistles from Ignatius Bishop of Antioch to the churches at Ephesus, Magnesia, Rome, Smyrna, Philadelphia, Tralles, and to fellow bishop Polycarp  are great history. If you've ever asked "what happened next?" while reading Paul and Peter's epistles, read Ignatius.

I believe these works also help in determining whether we're interpreting a New Testament text correctly. How does Ignatius quote from the gospels and epistles? He's writing to Ephesus and others after Paul, Peter, and John did, knew their strengths and weaknesses. Ignatius is writing from Syria (Antioch). He came to be Bishop of Antioch around 67 A.D. knew Polycarp, would have known John and was likely discipled by him. He died a martyr in 108 A.D.  Ignatius was the first to use the word "catholic" for the universal church, which was later given a capital "C" and that makes Protestants today uncomfortable.

I find Ignatius continues the concern found in Peter and Paul's epistles for orthodoxy. Ignatius comments on the eucharist, the body and the blood, remind many of transubstantiation and makes them uncomfortable. Without a commentary, I see him referring more to the danger of gnostic influences who denied that God took on flesh. I also am reminded that the order of succession was important to the early church; if you didn't get your teaching from either the circulating gospels or epistles, or from someone who knew and got their commission from the Apostles, then it was in error. I think this sheds light on his exhortation not to take the eucharist or be baptised apart from an elder.
He has similarly strong Pauline and Johannine concern about the influence of Judaizers: "For Christianity did not believe in Judaism, but Judaism in Christianity."

Ignatius wrote these epistles rather hastily, likely on his way to martyrdom. For early Christians, that was just a given reality-- Jesus, his disciples, and the next generation expected and met that end with joy and peace. But Ignatius wanted them to meet it holding fast to the right gospel as well.

"I am God's wheat, and I am to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may become the pure bread of Christ."

5 stars.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Advanced Strategic Planning by @amalphurs Aubrey Malphurs (Book Review #13 of 2015)

Advanced Strategic Planning: A 21st-Century Model for Church and Ministry Leaders
This is the second book of Malphurs that I have read (the first was Money Matters in Church [my review], co-authored with his pastor (Stroope).  While he includes Scripture references in much of what he writes, Malphurs is a pragmatist overall, those in the Reformed tradition who caution churches on such things will find much to dislike in this book. (If you think Bill Hybels is pragmatic, Malphurs probably takes it a step too far for you). Some of the elements that made me uncomfortable in Money Matters, mainly regarding capital campaigns and a flippant approach to church debt, made its way to this book and there were other things I took issue with as well. Malphurs is weak on a biblical approach to polity, opting for efficiency rather than biblical precedent. For example, in his chapter explaining and critiquing various forms of church polity in doing revitalization he rejects elder rule in favor of a board who oversee the pastor/elders (think Trustees if you're in a traditional Southern Baptist context) and does not see how elder-led churches can be compatible with congregationalism. That is odd given his background and the range of churches with whom his consultancy has worked. Capitol Hill Baptist is an elder-led Southern Baptist church that is still quite congregational in its membership and budgeting decisions, for example. How can you biblically justify a board of governors that is ultimately responsible for the spiritual health of the church, checking its consistency with doctrine, and holding pastor/staff accountable but they themselves not be the ones who teach and shepherd--ie: hold the office of elder/overseer? 

I can just say I've seen mixed results with trustee-accountable churches, and I think the current thinking in churches that care deeply about biblically-based polity is that such a system, while perhaps effective in certain contexts, is not biblical; I think Malphurs is on the wrong path here. Revitalization should include an effort to become more biblical in issues of membership and church discipline, which Malphurs does not address. (I'm open to corrections if I've erred here.)

However, the first half of the book I really liked as an introduction to strategic planning for churches who are looking to revitalize.

"Strategic planning is the fourfold process that a point leader, such as a pastor, works through regularly with a team of leaders to envision or reenvision and revitalize his church by developing a biblical mission and a compelling vision, discovering its core values, and crafting a strategy that implements a unique, authentic church model" (32).

"The strategy accomplishes the church’s mission and vision and includes five key elements or steps: reaching out to the community, making mature disciples, building a ministry team (congregation, staff, and possibly a board), assessing the ministry’s setting (location and facilities), and raising the necessary finances to carry out the mission and vision" (35).

Malphurs pulls no punches, if churches should be growing then we need to critique ourselves and ask tough questions. It's one thing to plateau or decline in heavy persecution, another to decline because your church no longer serves your community or devotes its resources to programs that don't match up with the vision and mission of the church. If the church has no mission or vision, where can it go? It does no good to rev your engine without a destination-- Malphurs refers to pastors and leaders in the church in the revitalization process as "navigators," an analogy he uses throughout the text. Appendix A is a good questionnaire to gauge both the pastor's and the church's readiness for change-- don't invest in the process unless it has some probability of becoming reality. If a pastor isn't willing to commit 5-10 years to see the effort through, isn't a perpetual optimist, does not handle conflict resolution well, and cannot consistently articulate the vision of the church then he shouldn't even start down the road. Malphurs minces few words in telling leaders to step aside and find someone else to revitalize their church, or to close the church so the flock can go elsewhere.

"Survey results show that 85 percent of churches which have grown off the plateau have reevaluated their programs and priorities during the past five years, as compared to 59 percent of churches which have remained on the plateau. Similarly, 40 percent of ‘breakout churches’ have developed a long-range plan, as compared to only 18 percent of continued plateau churches...many if not most churches that are making a difference for the Savior are led by or at least staffed with strategic thinkers who, if they don’t have a plan in hand (articulated on paper), have one in their heads” (p. 29).

"Gary McIntosh of the American Society for Church Growth estimates that only 20 percent of America’s 367,000 congregations actively pursue strategic planning" (p. 38)

Once you meet the initial hurdles and commit to the process, Malphurs' book is a step-by-step guide through the process. How to assemble the planners, hold your strategy meetings, involve the larger body in execution, and evaluate yourself in the fulfilment of the vision. I basically sum up the meat of it like this:

What is our mission (usually just Matthew 28:19-20)?
What is the pastor's/elders' vision (what does the church ideally look like in 5 years?)
What are our core values? (member care? prayer? community service?, etc.)
Do our current ministries & programs line up with our values and vision?
What needs to change, be removed, or started in order to better match our values and vision in the fulfilment of the mission? (this is the strategy)

I think it's a useful exercise for the stakeholders to be on the same page about what the values and vision are, so they can understand how to build a strategy to live up to those things. If you have multiple people proposing multiple new programs they each feel passionately about then these ideas need to be prioritized according to the values the congregation feels most strongly about. You can also see how balanced your programs are. If everyone feels passionately about helping the poor but there is no action with benevolence, then this doesn't match up and adjustment should be made.

This is where I see a benefit of 9Marks-- a pastor could lay those out as a list of values. Then, for example, you could state a vision that every church member be in a small group by 2020 because those relationships are essential to a healthy and biblical view of church membership, which we value. Then the strategy answers the question: How do we encourage small groups to form? (quarterly leadership training, volunteer sign-up, etc?) If a member is not in agreement the basic values, he may need to do some soul-searching. None of the crucial issues like church discipline make their way to Malphurs' prescriptions for churches in this book.

Both this text and from pastors I've spoken with, often times long-range planning devolves down to an unhealthy focus on building a new building. While Malphurs devotes the last portion of the book to the "setting" of the church, including its building and grounds-- and how to run a capital campaign to finance construction-- he warns readers up front that a plan to build a building without the greater focus on mission, vision, and strategy to fulfill the  mission will likely end in an unused building that reminds members of a previous pastor who is no longer there. (This is partly why I think his later approach to debt is highly dangerous.)

I'm writing this review from the standpoint of a finance committee chairperson in a small-church context. While I wholeheartedly agree with Malphurs that pastors need to have some basic education in finance, often missing from seminary, I disagree that the pastor needs to know who is giving what amounts, cultivate "giving champions," manipulate people emotionally (see my review of Money Matters), and get Monday-morning flash reports on per-capita giving from the day before. Delegation is key to any leadership position, and I see micromanaging finance as akin to waiting tables -- let someone better equipped do that, and make sure they give you the important info. Pastors are too tempted to gauge growth purely by numbers and finance. Some of the worst churches in the world are the largest and wealthiest, and we can't have it both ways.

I can say I highlighted more passage in this book more than most, there is much that's helpful. If you're in the 20% of churches that want to do strategic planning, I'd recommend not hiring an expensive consultant-- buy this book instead and work through it with a group. Beware it's an investment requiring teamwork and positivity. 3 stars out of 5.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Should Christians Have Fought in the US War of Independence? Podcast of the Week (2/8 - 2/14, 2015)

Should Christians have taken up arms in the American Revolution?

Certainly plenty did, and there were plenty who signed the Declaration of Independence. The first act of the Continental Congress (1774, two years before the Declaration of Independence) was to open their meetings in prayer to consider what they were doing.
But John MacArthur states that this was sinful rebellion, a violation of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:13-25. Any undermining of government authorities is forbidden in Scripture, as the authorities are God-ordained. In contrast, I attended a (large) church recently where the pastor stated that the Declaration of Independence was "God's covenant with America." These positions are obviously contradictory and I believe both are problematic.

Happily, I found that Baylor University's Research on Religion Podcast devoted an episode in 2012 to present three different viewpoints on the American Revolution.
The first point of view is MacArthur's via Greg Frazer of Master's College. He argues a straight biblical viewpoint and disregards any context, legal or historical, in regards to the Revolution. The Founders were as guilty of sin as Bonhoeffer was in trying to undermine the Nazis (to give a modern example). Frazer states that states have the right to go to war with one another (which becomes important in a counter-argument below).

The first opposing viewpoint is from Jonathan der Hertog, who recently published a book entitled  Patriotism & Piety: Federalist Politics and Religious Struggle in the New American Nation.
der Hertog's argument focuses on how pastors and theologians, including George Whitfield, thought and wrote about the Revolution at the time. The Puritans of the American Colonies drew on the writings of their Calvinist forebears when deciding whether rebellion was justified. MacArthur et al often espouse the writings of Puritans and early Calvinists but apparently ignore their theological wrestlings when it came to the wars they fought in the 1500s and 1600s against their governments (some of which had Calvin's support). der Hertog points out that John Jay and others, out of their religious convictions, worked hard on an "olive branch" approach which King George rejected in favor of war.  
An interesting point not drawn out in this episode is that Calvinists fought rebellions against their governments and the state religion in the 1500s in Scotland, France, and the Netherlands. (That is discussed by John Owen IV in this recent episode, it's fascinating).

Mark David Hall focuses more on the legal context, something the pastors of the 1700s were well aware of. 75% of the colonists were of the Reformed tradition and had always (as mentioned above) wrestled with Romans 13:1-3 as it begs the question of what is "legitimate" government, something Thomas Aquinas had written widely influential thoughts on centuries before. King George's rejection of a peaceful solution is important because it was essentially a declaration of war on the colonies. The King withdrew protection from the colonies in violation of their charters, and Parliament had also violated the agreements. In short, the British acted as armed invaders of 13 sovereign states, justifying their self-defense-- something Frazer above grants to sovereign states.

The episode raises a question I wish had been posed to Frazer: Suppose America is invaded by an outside force. Frazer contends that it's just for sovereign states to defend themselves in wars with one another, so Christians would be justified in taking up arms. But what if America's army is defeated and the invader sets up an occupying government, as the Nazis did in Vichy France. At what point would Christians no longer be justified in taking up arms? What if the war simply goes underground in attempt to retain the sovereignty of America, which has significant probability of success? This is where MacArthur's position is problematic and again begs the question as to what "legitimate" government is.

I highly recommend these podcasts and subscribing to it.

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Cost of the Affordable Care Act on Employers, the Workforce, the Taxpayer, Kentucky

The Atlanta Federal Reserve's macroblog has been running a nice series on U.S. labor force participation and examining trends in part-time versus full-time employment. A recent post asks "Are We Becoming a Part-Time Economy?"

"Compared with 2007, the U.S. labor market now has about 2.5 million more people working part-time and about 2.2 million fewer people working full-time. In this sense, U.S. businesses are more reliant on part-time workers now than in the past. But...almost all jobs created on net from 2010 to 2014 have been full-time. As a result, from 2009 to 2014, the part-time share of employment has declined from 21 percent to 19 percent and is about halfway back to its prerecession level... the decline in part-time utilization is not uniform across industries and occupations. In particular, the decline is much slower for occupations that tend to have an above-average share of people working part-time. This portion of the workforce includes general-service jobs such as food preparation, office and administrative support, janitorial services, personal care services, and sales... The economy has been generating full-time general-service jobs at a much slower pace than in the past." (emphasis mine)

One interpretation could be that manufacturers have a larger workforce and likely already offer health insurance. Or they have to have 100+ FTE employees to run the plant (think Toyota and its suppliers) and therefore will offer insurance instead of paying the penalties.
Smaller service firms, like Staples, may have had a mix of part and full time employees in the past but are trying hard to push their FTE employees below 100 in order to avoid the ACA penalties: $2,084 / [12 * (# of FTE employees – 80) ] in 2015. (FTE – 30 in 2016, denominator gets bigger, as does the $2,084).

Now, Alice is working far fewer hours — and if she clocks above 25, she may be fired.”

Here's an important point: 
An employer can also avoid the penalty by enrolling employees in Medicaid if they are eligible (those employees are subtracted from the FTE hours in the penalty equation). If limiting employees to fewer hours also helps limit their incomes to be eligible for Medicaid, easier to do in an expansion state like Kentucky where the income limit is 138%, the firm has a clear incentive to do so. 

What does this mean? More people on Medicaid, fewer hours worked, and less tax revenue. Casey Mulligan's analysis from his book (my review) suggests "3 percent fewer aggregate work hours, 2 percent less GDP, and 2 percent less labor income." 

People, including shareholders, respond to incentives. On the labor supply side, which often gets overlooked, if I'm in Kentucky and my part-time income keeps me below 138%, what kind of a job would provide enough income or benefit that makes it worth it for me to climb out?  

A household of two 40-year old non-smokers with no kids earning $21,700/year is eligible for Medicaid at 138% of poverty. So, they have full insurance coverage and no hassle on their taxes, they just check a box. However, if they earn just $10 more, they lose Medicaid and now qualify for a subsidized insurance policy via KYnect. 
A Silver plan costs the family $720 for premiums for the year (3.32% of income). The plan pays 94% of costs of covered benefits while the family pays the other 6% with an out-of-pocket limit of $4,500. When applying for the coverage they have to estimate their income over the following year to achieve that amount. They also have to update the Marketplace on their income regularly and file IRS Form 8962 that checks their actual 2015 income against their premium credit. Their tax refund is adjusted by how much of their premium credit they chose to receive up front, monthly, or not at all. That form process is a bear.

A Bronze plan would relieve them of all premiums but they would pay a higher deductible (averaging $5,181?) to and be on the hook for 40% of the covered costs, with out-of-pocket limits at $6,350(?). If the family has any health concern at all the Bronze would be a big risk.

The low-income household above can least afford help on their taxes, but hopefully they'll find some free options available locally. This is crucial because if it turns out they earned more than $21,710 then their subsidy has to be readjusted, and they will owe the difference (it’ll be subtracted from their refund). This whole calculation is what economists call an implicit marginal tax. If you're in their shoes, what would you rather do, spend the money and hassle above or reduce your hours to earn $10 less and keep your health coverage?

Unless you're able to get a job with an employer providing insurance (as some people I know formerly on Medicaid have done with Toyota) then you'd be irrational to earn the extra $10 or more. You're better off with less. (Now, consider what also happens if your employer has to pay you more because of a minimum wage increase, pushing you above the $21,700 line all else equal...)

None of the above states whether the Affordable Care Act is good policy or not. While you have an incentive for workers to see fewer hours and lower income, more will have health coverage under Medicaid, health providers will have more income, you can think of the decrease in hours worked as increase in leisure/family time, the workforce will likelier be healthier, and may have more peace of mind because of the safety net. One just has to compare all the benefits with the costs. Some economic and fiscal impact studies look at the demand side without examining the supply side, it's helpful to look at both.

I welcome any questions, corrections, and clean comments.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins (Book Review #12 of 2015)

The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter, Updated and Expanded
This is a really useful book filled with sage advice for anyone assuming a leadership position, particularly as a former outsider to the organization. It's filled with reminders that you don't walk in with "the answer," that instead winning the trust and respect of your cohorts is a learning process that you should begin with great intensity. The first half of the book relates directly to someone who is assuming a management role, the next quarter of the book is about what to do as a new employee serving under a boss or bosses (perhaps as a mid-level manager). The last bit of the book gives a brief introduction to strategic thinking and the book concludes with questions to ask yourself (and your family) in evaluating your transition. It is applicable to any firm, church, non-profit, and even (mostly) the government.

Here's a summary of the points I gleaned:
    - Establish your integrity in first 30 days.
        - Learn all you can about the organization, put on your "historian" hat.
            - Don't suggest changes without examining what has been done previously.
            - Silence is not accession.
    - Meet with everyone in the organization to evaluate their expectations. Ask them what they think you should focus on.
        - Ask same questions of all so no one treated different and you have a cross-section.
    - Look for "early wins," low-hanging fruit of improvements you can make or other things to boost morale.
Dealing with your boss in the first 30 days:
    - Be proactive, assume it's on your shoulders to build the relationship and get the support you need.
    - Schedule meetings to discuss expectations, evaluations, and personal development.
    - Figure out what would give your boss "early wins." Make his priorities your priorities.
    - Be proactive in doing things that will allow your boss to hear from people he trusts that you're a good worker.
    - Don't bring your boss bad news early, at least without bringing good news too.
    - Don't assume he will change. He has a style, foibles, accept them and work around then and move on. You can learn a lot from a bad boss, and you will likely have many.
    - Examine how others relate to your boss and how he responds.
    - Begin figuring out who you need to move off your team immediately, whose roles need to change, and who you need to evaluate further.
    - Think strategically. After your first 90 days you should be able to present a plan that is actionable.
        - Evaluate the vision of the organization, its values, and use SWOT analysis.
Ask yourself feedback questions every week.
    - What isn't going well. Why? What can you change?
    - What are you least happy about. What can you change about it?
    - What meeting troubled you the most? ""
    - What conflict needs to be most resolved? ""

Family also has to be considered. How is your new role and time commitment affecting your family? Was the move worth it?

The author doesn't state it like this, but focus on doing what's best next.

I give this book 4.5 stars out of 5. I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

His Needs Her Needs by Willard F. Harley, Jr. (Book Review #11 of 2015)

His Needs, Her Needs: Building an Affair-Proof Marriage
My wife and I listened to this book together on a long car ride, where we could pause and discuss when prompted. This is the worst book on marriage that I have read, there are a host of others I would recommend above it. While Harley claims to write from a Christian worldview, the Gospel and the meaning of marriage is completely absent from this book. That, alone, makes it ineffectual and makes me sad that it's held up by so many Christians. If you have an incorrect view of what marriage represents, then you will also diagnose and treat conflict within the marriage incorrectly. In this book, humans are nothing more than products of biology responding to various stimuli and cognitive biases. Therefore, this is a 2-star book at best. My understanding is much of the material of the book comes from the 1970s, even though the first printing was 1995 and this was an updated 2001 version.
Over this book I would recommend Arterburn's Seven Minute Marriage Solution, Emerson Eggerichs' Love and Respect, and many more.

Harley breaks down the basic needs of husbands and wives into five each, focusing more on the male aspects. He is a psychologist and I felt he was coming at everything from an old-school Freudian approach-- everything on the male side comes down to sexual fulfillment. He makes the false claim that 50% of spouses are sexually unfaithful. The reader is treated to the sordid details of stories of extramarital affairs, perhaps made up whole cloth by Harley.

Men's needs:
1. Sexual fulfillment
2. Recreational companionship- the wife should take an interest in doing things the husband likes-- watching football, for example. If she tries it and really doesn't like it, she should find something else they can do together. Couples should spend "15 hours a week" of "undivided attention" on each other, doing the same things.
3. An attractive spouse- there is very little in this book about acceptance and celebration of differences. The wife should change her weight, clothes, and hair to suit her husband. If he doesn't find her "irresistible" he will likely have a passionate affair from which he'll never completely recover.
4. Domestic support- The wife should not pursue a career, and if she does work household chores should be divided according to the needs of the husband. Harley had a good point here about making a list of everything that needed to be done in the house and having each partner put priorities on the item. Whoever ranks something with the highest priority gets to be responsible for that chore.
 5. Admiration - This mostly came at the end of the book, which is a shame because respect really is ultimate to a husband and is the driver (not sex) behind many of the affairs Harley describes.

Women's needs:
1. Affection - Men should learn to be more affectionate. (Eggerichs would just focus on #5 above and #1 here).
2. Conversation - women have affairs with men who will actively listen to them.
3. Honesty and openness - Husbands should have no problem turning their schedules over to their wives, especially if they've been unfaithful.
4. Financial support - Men should be the breadwinners.
5. Family commitment - Fathers should be dads, otherwise women will have affairs with other men who will raise their children better-- including relatives of the biological father. Harley writes that there should be 15 hours together with the children (is that added to the 15 hours of undivided attention for the spouse as well, or do parents get out of that?).

I think my wife was most offended by the section where Harley tells women readers to do their hair nicely, consume fewer calories, exercise more, and consult magazine articles for tips on beauty, or else their husband will cheat on them. Most books on marriage deal with the importance of the man fulfilling his wife's needs during daylight hours ("women are ovens, men are microwaves") by being a supportive husband, this did not put as much impetus on the man. It's up to the woman to respond to her husband's wants, no matter what. 

There is no grace in this book, no acceptance of your spouse as a spiritual creature with a history and a brain, no dealing with expectations or letting go of them and preconceived notions of marital bliss, and no growing together to be like Christ. Your wife is a biological partner you can have fun with, nothing more. While he strongly cautions against divorce, he is pretty flippant in saying sometimes these things just don't work out.

Read this book if you're not a Christian but want a step-by-step how-to guide to fix your marriage as though it were a piece of IKEA furniture.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Money and Marriage by Matt Bell (Book Review #10 of 2015)

Money and Marriage: A Complete Guide for Engaged and Newly Married Couples
This book was free for Kindle several years ago, costs less than $1 in paperback now.
This book is essentially Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace University summarized and targeted more to those who are engaged or newlywed. Bell includes the same essential "baby steps" of building an emergency fund, doing a debt snowball (smallest to largest), instead calling it an "accelerator," the envelope system, and the same allocated spending plan. Many of the quotes and stats in the book are also cited by Ramsey, but Bell gives Ramsey no credit, claiming he learned most of it third-hand from mentors in the afterword. For that, I ding him a star. But practically speaking, I recommend this book over the Ramsey course itself as it's cheaper and takes less time to go through.

One difference is he includes a chapter on identifying your temperament, filling out a personality survey (choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic, melancholy) and giving some general advice on dealing with a spouse of a particular type. The end of the book he recommends Emerson Eggerich's Love and Respect to married couples, and I concur.

I mostly liked how he talked about being generous in giving to a local church. I do not agree with one of the reviews on Amazon that this is "prosperity gospel" teaching, Bell simply writes:
"there is an unmistakable promise seen throughout the pages of Scripture that blessings flow from generosity motivated by a grateful heart. Some people trace material blessings to their generosity. Others have experienced a closer relationship with God...The Bible teaches that the main reason God enables us to prosper is so that we will grow in generosity: 'You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion (2 Corinthians 9:11)'" (loc. 1083). Bell doesn't promise prosperity as a result of generosity.

His approach to budgeting are summed here:
"Use a plan to guide your finances; work as if working for the Lord; give generously to help spread the gospel, alleviate the suffering of the poor, and support those who teach God’s Word; save adequately; avoid the bondage of debt; maintain a good name by managing your credit score; invest patiently; anticipate danger by building walls of protection; and spend wisely" (loc. 2627).
3.5 stars out of 5.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smolin (Book Review #9 of 2015)

The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next
To qualify my review a little better, before I read this book I read:
Black Holes and Baby Universes (Stephen Hawking)
The Universe in a Nutshell (Hawking)
The Grand Design (Hawking)
The Hidden Reality (Brian Greene)
The Fabric of the Cosmos (Greene)
The Elegant Universe (Greene)

Lee Smolin's style is similar to Greene's in that he describes a chronological history of the development of string theory and gives simple analogies to explain complex topics. But his analogies are simple and more brief. Of the above, I'd recommend Greene's work and then try Smolin. If you have to pick one, pick Smolin's work.

I felt fairly well-versed in string theory and its importance to modern physics. While Greene points out some of the controversial, philosophical nature of string theory both he and Hawking purport that a theory need not create falsifiable propositions in order to be a "theory." This has always been problematic for me. Smolin, who is a respected physicist himself, opens this book by asking physics has not made any progress in 25 years. Nobel prizes require verification by experiment, which is not possible with most of string theory. His concern is that string theory is being held up as truth and that physicists suspend the definition of "science." The dictionary definition of "theory" is changing in statements about it. Fewer universities are funding positions to research alternative possibilities, it's become near impossible to get a chair or your research published if it's not pushing string theory. Smolin has purportedly tried to be a bridge between the string theorists and the ever-shrinking non-stringers, but points out through various articles, blogs, message boards, and others how vitriolic the string theorists can be. String theorists seem to always look for verification from "thought leaders" and any criticism is met with hostility. Smolin points out that even Einstein was wrong about things, this is the way science works-- no one should be above inquiry.

One problem with ST is that the various theories that have spun off of it are built on more assumptions and not proof. In fact, one key assumption that string theorists held from 1984-2001--that the finiteness of the theory had been proven long ago-- was discovered by Smolin and others to be false. He contacted the physicist most often cited by researchers as having proved the point, and he admitted he'd done no such thing. That level of blind devotion is a bit concerting. Theorists are a little like economists (which I am) who fit a curve. They invent models with a large number of constants, and then tweak those constants to fit any new discoveries. This is hugely problematic as various theories are predicting things found not to hold in the rest of physics.

What use is a theory that spins off an infinite number of possible theories? It's been two decades and string theory has yet to produce any hypotheses that are testable, with current technology (In The Universe in a Nutshell Hawking writes that you need a particle collider larger than the size of the universe to prove some aspects of string theory, and that's fine with him).
Physicists have bent the rules in order to stick with ST, why don't they demand the old rules for the rest of science?

Smolin writes that they probably should have stopped when they got above 4 dimensions necessary for string theory-- instead of the 10 required. The extra six curled-up dimensions seem to be a way of "fitting the curve," so to speak. So-called "M-theory," which Greene holds up as reality, actually has no precise equations. It's very vague and imprecise and fits no definition of the word "theory."

Smolin explains the importance of the hadron collider, he wrote the book before it was finished. The first thing the collider had to show was the Higgs-Boson or else all of physics would be "in deep trouble." He lists other things that the collider would need to show and explains them well. Super-symmetry itself, hopefully to be proven by the collider, does not require string theory, there are other alternatives (which author has worked on).

He explains the evolution of string theory as the grand unifying theory and its requirements:
Requires super-symmetry
Requires that special relatively hold
Requires 10 dimensions "like a car with the features you want but extras you'd rather not have."
- 6 are curled up.
- Calabi-Yau shapes
Richard Feynman himself was skeptical and many physicists jumped ship at various points above. But as string theory evolved, became cult-like-- you were in or out. Researchers speak of its "elegance" and "beauty," and its supposed symmetry, which was never proven, was held up as one of its most important aspects. Smolin has serious "issues" with new string theory pushing a brane universe (he doesn't even mention the latest idea, that we're on a hologram, or Brian Greene's assertion that we're probably all just in a simulated multiverse on someone's computer).

Smolin works in quantum gravity, and points out that if dark matter or dark energy exist then string theory has problems. He takes issue with some of the original research in the 1970s on the inflationary multiverse, which Hawking and Greene basically hold up as true, because the original researcher imagined distributing the cosmological constant randomly across all possible universes while holding all else constant-- where he should have distributed all characteristics, otherwise the prediction of the constant will be even farther off. Indeed as I write this (2015), recent evidence cited to support cosmic inflation appears to be caused by cosmic dust. The media doesn't seem to cover events if they are un-discovered so much as they hype them when they are, as in this case. I found Smolin's discussion of quantum gravity fascinating. When the media reports on evidence found for dark matter they don't point out that it bodes trouble for the string theory and inflation for which they'd recently also run stories.

Smolin points out that NASA Pioneer 10 and 11 vessels travelling through space have not traveled in a trajectory that was predicted by laws of physics. However, the craft showed unanticipated acceleration, confirmed by multiple measurements. See the wikipedia on the Pioneer anomaly.  This measurement confirmed by multiple instruments. Scientists had tried to control for other variables, but had no luck as of Smolin's writing in determining what is amiss. This is important because it may have something to do with quantum gravity. (According to wikipedia, scientists were confident they'd determined the source of the acceleration by 2012.)

Could there be dark matter or dark energy? Is the speed of light always constant? Again, observed data suggest that it might not be and if general relativity does not hold, every string theory falls apart. Smolin contends in a chapter on the "sociology" of the field that theorists have "groupthink," and look to thought leaders for approval. They have not abandoned their quest in the face of evidence and criticism and Smolin finds the trend toward quasi-philosophical thinking quite disturbing.

Smolin writes that quantum gravity seems to be regaining momentum. It creates falsifiable propositions and is potentially a unifying theory itself. Even so, he closes the book with a look at pioneers who have braved poverty, isolation, and losing their prestige to do their own research outside the paradigm. Some have ended up contributing greatly to the field of physics, but the free-thinkers seem to be a dying breed under the pressure of modern academia.

I should note that Smolin is no intelligent design theorist, he rejects what he sees as a false dichotomy put forth by Hawking and Susskind that one either has to believe in God or string theory. He argues that if and when string theory is finally discarded, physicists will still examine other alternatives to explain where the universe came from. In the beginning of the book, he argues about evolution with probably the worst example of supposed Christian apologists I've ever seen, such that I doubt whether they really existed (people who believed dinosaurs are all still alive hiding in African caves). He enjoys philosophy and knows enough not to engage in philosophical debate, except in showing the illogic nature of the string theorists.

I give this book 4.5 stars out of 5. I found Smolin to be concise and engaging, he comes across as a peace maker. Some of the complaining about modern academia sounds a bit like whining, but it's universal across all fields so it's not unique to Smolin. I highly recommend this book and would like to read Smolin's other works.

Monday, February 02, 2015

What's Best Next by Matthew Perman (Book Review #8 of 2015)

What's Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done
Seems everyone is reading this book, but I honestly didn't find it that well-written. It appears as though books related to Perman's topic were released around the time he was writing it, and some get a cursory mention in his last chapters. For example, Perman claims in the opening chapter that there is not much literature on the "interesting" theology of work. But I have a reading list of about 30 books on the topic, many taken from the bibliography of Tim Keller's Every Good Endeavor. Perman quotes from Keller's other works, but Every Good Endeavor only gets a mention as a suggested reading in the last chapter. (I also recommend Hugh Whelchel's How Now Shall We Work and if you want a non-Reformed perspective look at Work by Ben Witherington III, for starters). So, Perman does not seem to be really well-read outside of the management classics. I have not checked his blog to see what's new. This book could have been a lot shorter with better formatting and less repetition ad nauseum from the same sources.

I like Perman's attempt to draw up a Gospel-driven approach to productivity.

"The only way to be productive is to realize that you don’t have to be productive" (loc. 223)
He explains the biblical foundations for productivity and its important in an overall mandate of dominion over the earth (though not as good as Whelchel and others).
"The reason we should seek to be productive is to serve others to the glory of God, and not for the sake of personal peace and affluence" (231).
"productivity is about intangibles — relationships developed, connections made, and things learned."
"God is the ultimate measure and judge of our productivity. Things that do not pass muster at the final judgment are, by definition, not productive in an ultimate sense" (loc. 947).

I liked Perman's recognition that "all areas of our lives are callings from God" (loc. 264). You are called to be a son, a brother, a husband, father, co-worker, manager, servant, neighbor, etc. and we should see our activities in those callings as bringing glory to God.

I've read several books that look at what "vocation" means, basically synonymous with "calling." Perhaps the part I ponder the most is the idea that my "calling" is whatever I would do if money was not a problem and I could go anywhere in the world. I wonder what mine looks like compared to someone else. Perman makes the point that it's pointless to pursue activities that are not getting you closer to fulfilling your calling as described in the previous sentence, which is thought-provoking to say the least.

The second half of the book is a look at various other management guru's productivity hacks through a biblical worldview, and an application based on Perman's personal experiences. I would recommend reading the books Perman suggests before reading this book. I have striven for the same efficiency and productivity described in the book and consider it a constant work in progress.

Most helpful to me was Perman's response to Tim Ferriss' The Four-Hour Workweek (my review). When I reviewed that book I asked if there was a Christian response to it, indeed Perman responds well. While incorporating some of Ferriss' hacks, he notes that Ferriss' goal is to free people up to spend less time dealing with others-- which is really a crucial part of being a Christian. I've often wanted to shut down various aspects of my life to get rid of inefficient meetings, distracting co-workers, and ridiculous emails, but Perman reminds us (with help from C.S. Lewis) that relationships and human interaction are what are important:
"The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own,’ or ‘real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life — the life God is sending one day by day; what one calls one’s ‘real life’ is a phantom of one’s own imagination" (loc. 4144). 

His admonition about making weekly plans, daily to-do lists, etc. are helpful but he doesn't step out of his own job experiences to see how unworkable they sometimes can be. Some of us work in jobs where, even if we set aside a block of uninterrupted "productive time," each day we will still be interrupted by tasks that well-meaning people say need to be a done "ASAP" and could take all day or weeks. That disrupts the entire work plan for the day/week/month, and one never knows what days or how often in a day that will occur. Some people work jobs on-call and never know when the call will come or what their schedule will be very far in advance. We may also have corrupt or incompetent superiors who demand the impractical, and that's grating to the spirit in a way that Perman doesn't really address in the book. He does make the comment that suffering in our work may be part of our calling in glorifying God, he just seems to have mostly worked for Christian non-profits and not done much of that himself.

In all, I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5. I would recommend it to someone just starting a new job, or their first job, as a way to better frame the work he or she does.