Saturday, August 30, 2008

Being in a Big Family

Last night we started talking about some of the more unusual parts of growing up in a big family.

1) At different times, all the kitchen cabinets holding food were padlocked. This wasn't to be controlling. Kids would be up at all hours of the night and eat all the cereal, milk, frozen pizzas, and lunch meats while mom and dad were sleeping. Sharon and Rob believe that this led the children to take the doors off their hinges.
2) The refrigerator was under lock and key at night.
3) The thermostat has a plastic industrial casing on the outside (with a lock) that prevents the children from constantly changing the temperature.
4) Day-old bread was purchased regularly at a special store.
5) Saturday night was bath night and oatmeal for dinner.
6) We ate pretty healthy: Shaklee, co-op foods, very few desserts, fruits and vegetables, no sugar cereals, etc. In the few times that our family was eating sugar (in desserts) then Hostess knock-offs would also be purchased at the day-old store.
7) Hand-me down clothes were welcomed.
8) When handing out gum, only half-sticks were given. *This ritual has continued to the present day as my dad just offered my sister Catherine a half-stick after she bought the gum for him. (He did offer to pay for the pack, but it is so ingrained to have half a piece.)
9) A can of soda used to say that there were 2 servings per container. This was all the proof needed for everyone to share their soda.
10) The oldest kid would always have their own room in the house and sit in the front seat.
11) Our autos went from sedan to stationwagon to van to 15 passenger van.
12) Extra food donated to our church camp that couldn't be used in summer was given to us. Lots of government peanut butter and cheese.
13) Very little privacy....

When I was young, I had a very strict sense of right and wrong. And maybe a bit of a Catholic sensibility on morality (except for stealing change from mom and dad....). When a friend and I were looking around for change throughout the house, we came upon some condoms in my parents bedroom. I was horrified and the next time I saw mom in the house, I yelled 'MURDERER'!

Mom was more disgusted than anything else and told me I would talk to my dad when he got home.

Friday, August 29, 2008

In Chicago

I took a flight yesterday into Chicago and am staying with my sister Catherine. Brage is already here from Minneapolis and Sharon will be here in a couple of hours.

We have our cousin Laura's wedding tomorrow and are really excited for her.

I'm told that a lot of the family will be able to come but not everyone.

It is SO fun to be with family.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Small Rebellions

I wonder what are all the ways in which we are rebellious. Sometimes its a sign of ethical protest, sometimes a selfish act.

As a population:
-When driving we turn our headlights on to notify other drivers of police cruisers up ahead.
-We use radar detectors
-We speed
-In the Freakonomics calendar yesterday, it said: "Among the many forms of customer sabotage, one of the most prevalent occurs in bookstores, where customers hide books by certain authors (Ann Coulter and Michael Moore, for instance) out of political protest. Some stores have even eliminated garbage cans, since too many partisan books were ending up in the trash)." This hurts the bookstores and could be considered theft.
-In video stores we hide the movies we want for a later time or hide "bad" movies from the public.
-A large portion of certain sectors of the economy don't report their earnings to the government: waiters, child care, construction crews, and small business owners.
-Three major revisions to US tax implementation have netted the government billions of dollars: making parents file their childrens' social security numbers if they claim them (eliminating millions of extra exemptions), having employers withhold and file taxes (thus eliminating the government trying to collect from millions of people and now only collecting from thousands) and eliminating much of the overseas tax shelters.
-Stealing cable, stealing music, stealing movies by downloading them off the internet.
-Not saying what is really wrong with our house/car/boat when selling it.
-Betting online even though its illegal.
-March madness betting pools at work.
-Spouses having affairs, violating their covenant and contract with each other.
-Deliberately watering the lawn in non-approved watering times.
-Calling in to work sick when not sick
-Using work items (computers, phone, time, pens) for personal use.
-Not paying enough when sharing a meal at a restaurant.
-Running stop signs.
-Claiming more tax deductible donations to the IRS than actual donations were made.
-Not returning library books
-Not returning tools, books, movies of friends

We all have our justifications for why we do what we do. Sometimes I wonder if we actually obey that much at all.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Rides To/From High School

Traveling to high school by bus, the kids were always half-asleep. On the way home from school, the kids were rambunctious.

Some highlights from rides home:

1) Some guys got trial lipsticks from departments stores and would flick them out of the bus into passing passenger cars. I saw one get flicked into a car with the red lipstick making a diagonal line across a woman's white blouse.

2) We got pulled over by a policeman once because there was so much paper being thrown out of the windows while driving. He didn't arrest anyone, and by the time our bus pulled away from the cop car, the front of his car was covered in paper.

3) Guys used to buy hair conditioner and throw the conditioner all over people on the bus.

4) Guys would fill water guns with urine and spray people.

5) Bus seats are incredibly fire retardant. I know a kid who had his lighter trying to burn the plastic seat almost the entire ride home.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Playing the Lotto

I don't really like gambling, because structurally it preys upon the poor. Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, who run Berkshire Hathaway, said something similar at their shareholders meeting in 2007. However....

When the Powerball gets above $147 million*, Jara and I will buy one ticket each. My justification is that the reward is then greater than the risk. Because the odds of winning are 1 in 146,107,962.

I need help with the math part. But if I simplify and say that I was getting odds that were 50/50, the price to enter was $1, and the prize was $2, then I shouldn't enter because it's a break-even proposition. Any prize over $2 should be taken from a mathematics perspective.

So what am I missing?
1) Is it that I didn't figure out the odds of someone else splitting the ticket prize with me?
2) Is it that I didn't figure that the immediate cash value is less than half of the stated prize, because the prize is structured as an annuity over 30 years?

*Actually I thought the odds were closer to 175M to 1, so that was our historical target for buying a lotto ticket.

Things I Learned on the Zoo Train

1) Zebras' stripes are not black and white; they are brown and white
2) There is a scimitar horned antelope-looking animal whose horns are so close together on their head that they often fuse into one; which has given birth to the myth of the unicorn.
3) An ostrich's eyeball is bigger than its brain.
4) A peacock only refers to the male. Peahen refers to the female.

Sadly, I already knew this (from Wikipedia):
Elephants replace their teeth six times. At about 40 to 60 years of age the elephant no longer has teeth and will likely die of starvation, a common cause of death.

Monday, August 18, 2008

In Honor of Dink

So Josh Duenke is coming to town. He is visiting with his wife and children and the Landreths have invited us to a get-together on Thursday.

I plan on going to visit; I like Dink.

However, back in college, Josh pushed me (on purpose) into a urinal while I was urinating, causing me to pee all over myself.

Jared says I always tell that story when Dink comes. So this time its on the internet.

Is an Epidural a Sin?

I know...the question is absurd. And it is asked in a tongue-in-cheek way, mostly. I asked this question in a personal journal a few years ago, but had forgotten about it. It was resurrected by a comment thread in a previous post.

My reasoning goes like this:
In the beginning, God punishes humanity because of their wickedness. There are three general categories of punishments in early Genesis (besides the punishment of specific people like Cain). I may write later about God's graciousness in spacing out these punishments and letting humanity demonstrate its intentions over time.

If today, humanity tries to "undo" some of the punishments of God, is that a new form of arrogance and rebellion or is it good and part of wanting to bring about the Kingdom (which reverses the sin-order)? To use an analogy: If a parent punishes a child, say, by making them go to their room, at what point does the child rebel against the parent and subvert the justice of the punishment? Leaving the room early? Decorating the room so that it has all the features of the family room (t.v. & playstation 3)?

When I have heard about people wanting to live past 120 years, this has been criticized as trying to "undo" the punishment of God. Yet we put pesticides on our crops each year to minimize the thorns and thistles we experience. And many women use epidurals to counter the pain of childbirth. However, when we talk about reviving a common language, people get scared about one world government and say that God confused the language for a reason. So which punishments are to be taken in fully and which are to be countered?

From the Fall (Genesis 3)
1) Women: Increased Pain in Childbirth
2) Women: Desire for her Husband. He will rule over her
3) Men historically but both men and women: Cursed is the Ground
4) Humanity: Thorns and Thistles come from the ground. Humanity shall eat from the plants of the field (Refer to earlier post and comments about whether eating crops is part of the curse of God)
5) Humanity: Death
6) Humanity: Banished from Eden

From General Human Evil (Genesis 6)
7) Humanity: Lifespan shortened to 120 years
8) Humanity: The Flood, wiping out most of humanity

From the Tower of Babel
9) Humanity: Confuses their language
10) Humanity: Scatters them across the world

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Book of Job

One of the best books I've ever read was Gustavo Gutierrez's "On Job". This book was fascinating, healing, and ground-breaking (at least for me).

As you may know, the story of Job takes place chronologically early on in the Bible story, somewhere in Genesis.

Gutierrez writes that the book of Job sets the tone for understanding the right nature of our relationship with God. It is designed to be revolutionary and to counter-act the prevailing attitudes of the day about religion.

In Job's day (and I think in ours), we have a notion that we have a quid pro quo relationship with God. We obey God and we are blessed, with material provisions or health or family. God blesses us and we give thanks....a reciprocal relationship that Gutierrez says is no different from any superstition.

The story of Job is trying to disconnect the state of the world (its blessings AND its curses) from our praise of God. I find myself praising God for good things that have happened. But when I have traveled overseas, I have asked myself what people are praising God for? A woman isn't praising God because of having a good family, because her dad might have abused her. A boy isn't praising God because he has good health; years of drug use has taken its toll. An older woman isn't praising God because she has a lot of possessions to leave her children; she is destitute and alone in the world. If the West praises God for material blessings, will our praise become silent when we don't have as much? (I have left out of course, the reality of praising God for Jesus and His redemption of humanity, despite the rough shape of things around us).

There are a number of beautiful parts of Gutierrez's analysis. What he says is that Job acts honorably by requesting/even demanding an audience with God. He wants to know the charges against him. Gutierrez then builds an interesting case where he separates Job's innocence from Innocence. What I'm getting at is that Job is not without sin, because humanity is not without sin. But Job is not guilty of any personal sin that predicated God's punishment (which God validates later in the story).

God, in his complete love, granted Job's wish and met with him, which is exactly what Job wanted. Everyone else around Job had the old notion that Job MUST have sinned because of these bad things that were happening...Quid pro quo: God punishes because man has been disobedient. But God is turning this notion on its head. Both the wicked and the upright have bad things happen to them and both the wicked and the upright have good things happen to them.

I probably even took his analysis farther in my mind, in that I felt I could hold on to my existential beliefs about the world and so much of its "randomness" because this would be the truest test of our obedience. For instance, as a society we make all sorts of laws to create incentives to do the right thing. Without penalties, humanity falls into all sorts of traps. Even for Christians, how long after police officers stop writing tickets for speeding would almost everyone be speeding?
Incentives (both carrot & stick) are our best measure against our sinful nature.

The truest test of our REAL desire to do right is a world without incentives....a "seemingly" random world where a person is just as likely to be punished for doing right as for doing wrong. This bypasses behavior modification that human structures put in place to get us to do the right thing. A "random" world means that Job is honored if he theoretically praises God in good times AND bad (or just as tell God why he is frustrated and doesn't understand; sometimes I think this is a more childlike, pure, and honest form of praise anyway).

Gutierrez emphasizes that God answered the call of Job by meeting together: God and man/face-to-face. I have gotten hung up on the "stern-ness" of the words of God while talking to Job. I have become afraid of calling on God because of the awesomeness of God's reply to Job's questions that dwarf humanity.

But Gutierrez doesn't lend as much analysis to God's words as he does to God meeting with Job at all. This alone is the victory.

Gutierrez tells of the static nature of conversation from Job's friends, in contrast to Job's transformation in dialog and understanding...even before God talks with Job. There is a pre-conversion of understanding with Job because he expands his predicament from just his own suffering to the suffering of humanity. He rightly places his pain in the context of the pain of the world and that God should respond not just to him but to humanity.

God comforts Job by being with him in his pain. Something foreshadowing Jesus and God bearing the suffering of the world.

Another Silas Quote

Silas and Kimberly just got a dog for the family on Wednesday: A five year old, trained & vaccinated short-haired pointer* named Brownie.

Which promptly ran away on Friday.

And they are all praying they can find Brownie again. I saw a picture of the dog and it is quite beautiful.

Silas was saying that Jedidiah was walking the dog and it took off. And that everyone was really sad. I said "Oh, does Jedidiah blame himself for the dog running off?" to which Silas cut me off by saying "WE BLAME HIM".

He only said that in front of me. When talking with Jedidiah he said that even though Jedidiah didn't do the right thing, that we give grace to each other when we don't do the right thing. And not to feel bad.

So there was good parenting too.

*I'm not 100% sure that I remembered correctly the type of dog....I don't know dog breeds.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Silas West Quote

Silas: "Our neighborhood has a lot of character. It also has a lot of characters."

Saturday, August 9, 2008

The Garden of Eden

I have to say that I was mad at God for a long time because of the story of the Garden of Eden in Genesis.

I didn't understand why God would put the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the garden and then tell Adam and Eve not to eat of the tree. At my worst point, I speculated about who was the greater villain, God or the Devil (the serpent). At my worst, I thought that God may have been the greater tempter in the story.

People would talk to me about Adam and Even needing to be given a choice to do right or wrong, be given free-will, and be given the chance to do the right thing in spite of the "allure" of the wrong thing...eating of the fruit. They also talked about the serpent and that the real sin was pride...wanting to be like God.

I was not convinced, because I thought that Adam could have sinned in any number of ways (by refusing to name the animals, etc). He could have evidenced rebellion against God in any number of ways besides eating of the fruit.

So all these reasons fell on deaf ears.

Matt Timm told me that Orthodox Christians have a different interpretation of the story of Eden. In Orthodox Christianity, God intended for Adam and Eve to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, just not yet. They were not mature enough to eat of the fruit.

What I understand from this is, if God says that we are His children, made in His image, breathed into, and are co-heirs with God, then this was God's design for Adam and Eve. Additionally, they were immortal (since that was one of the punishments of their sin...the sudden introduction of death and returning to the earth). This design of God to have Adam and Eve mature before eating of the fruit fits with this picture of God loving His creation and inviting humanity into close community. This fits with God wanting closer and closer community as time passes.

I was comforted by this interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve.

One of the more interesting parts of meeting with Wes Jackson is that he believes the story of Eden is confused with the story of Cain and Abel. To Wes Jackson, the Fall is intermixed between the two stories; eating of the fruit entailed more a loss of innocence than a sin and was more accidental than pertinent. The story of Cain and Abel highlights Wes' belief that sin entered the world through farming (the first time we started to damage the planet). Abel's sacrifice was acceptable because it was of the hunting & gathering period (offering meat from grazing animals). Cain's sacrifice was unacceptable because his offering came from farming, which raped the land of its nutrients. To Wes, we need to either cross-breed crops from annuals into perennials (making it like grazelands for humanity) or return to hunting and gathering.

I found this perspective fascinating even if I can't accept in wholly.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Jason from Kentucky

When WMF was in Wilmore, our office was located in a church ministry center that also held other Christian non-profits and residents. At one time, it may have been a retirement center.

When WMF first moved in, we had a neighbor named Jason. I developed a friendship with him, probably because we were so different. Jason was a red-bearded home-town guy. He had held one or two jobs in his life but didn't like working for other people.

He was a trapper. He asked farmers nearby if he could trap on their farms and then would collect the animals, get their skin and meat, and hold the meat in his deep freezer. He used it as a bed; his mattress was located on top of the deep freezer.

He used to brew some sweet tea and we'd drink and play chess out on the porch after I'd finished a day of work with WMF.

He'd yell at me, in a good natured way: "Get a job, Brent". And he also didn't understand much about computers because, when I introduced him to Command and Conquer, he broke my mouse by slamming it again and again against the desk because his computer army wasn't doing what he wanted.

He talked about being in high school and his dad would call in to school, saying that Jason had a fever and needed to be excused. Jason said his dad just left off the part that he had DEER fever, and was going out hunting that day.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Rituals and Superstitions

I've been privileged to attend some weddings and wedding receptions this summer. One of which, Daphne and Caleb's, was refreshing in its departure from some of the rituals we normally keep but whose meaning has become divorced from its form or practice. It made me start thinking of all the rituals and superstitions we practice in the States but don't know why.

Why do we?

-Have a bouquet toss at receptions?
-Have a garter toss at receptions?
-See newly husband and wife cut the cake together and shove it in each other's faces?
-Have the father walk the daughter down the aisle when the preacher says "who gives this woman to this man?" Why not abandon this altogether because of its sexism? Or have a mother walk a son down the aisle while the preacher says the same thing?
-Why in the movies do preachers pronounce someone MAN and wife? Is it that manhood is conferred upon marriage and intercourse? Or is it sexist because the wife's relationship is dependent on her relationship to the man and the man's identity is not dependent upon anything else?
-Why, as a Christian, do we celebrate Christmas with Christmas trees?
-Why do we celebrate Easter on a Lunar calendar (moon based calendar) instead of a Solar calendar?
-Why do men wear neckties or collars?
-Why do we ask: If anyone has anything against this couple getting married, speak now or forever hold your peace? What do we hope is going to be accomplished? A big scene? A preacher calling off the wedding?
-Why do so many hotels not have a "13th" floor elevator button but skip over it to 14?
-What if, at the beginning of time, men started wearing their hair long and women wore their hair short? Would that trend continue today?

Monday, August 4, 2008


Bob Mabrey was telling us that it shouldn't be so subtle when parents give their children luggage as a graduation present.

Teenagers think: 'Oh great, this will come in handy as I pack for college' or something to that effect.

But really, to Bob, it means "get out".

I Was Legally Deaf as a Child

When I was an infant I had terrible ear aches that has led to a little scarring in my left ear. I also had fluid in my ears so doctors put tubes in them when I was three and, when they fell out because I was growing, again at seven.

In that time, I had to have an older boy walk me to school because I couldn't hear the traffic. I also became an expert at reading lips. I was legally deaf but I grew out of that hearing loss.

Nowadays, I don't usually have trouble hearing but I don't always do well separating noises. When there is background noise, I can have trouble separating sounds. It is the worst when I'm on my cell-phone. Folks at WMF make fun of me, because I'm usually shouting into the phone. HELLO, THIS IS BRENT!

Also, I'm almost always covering the other ear with my finger because it seems like the person on the other line is always whispering. Even when my phone is at its highest volume setting.

It has become a running joke between Ron McAvaddy and I. He would always laugh really hard when getting into my car because the radio is always so LOUD. I gave him excuses...that I need to hear it over the engine, over the A/C, its talk radio so it needs to be louder to hear the conversation. I could tell that each excuse just made Ron laugh harder. So my excuses turned to: "I was legally deaf as a child and I had to have an older boy walk me to school."

Friday, August 1, 2008

Being Welcomed At the Airport in El Alto, Bolivia

What a fun way to be received! Two mariachi guitar players and singers wrote their own songs for my arrival!!

Thanks to everyone in Bolivia and Peru! I enjoyed being with you so much!

Market Failures Con't

One of the most severe critiques of the free market is its inability up till now to price-in externalities. Externalities are hidden financial costs passed off to others without those people being compensated. Years ago, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani wasn't able to get strip clubs out of the city based on moral grounds. So he calculated the increased costs for the city and the surrounding neighborhoods in purely financial terms. He was able to show that surrounding these establishments there were more fights, more DUI's, and more vandalism... all of which required a greater police presence which cost money. He was able to get rid of these establishments by putting on paper the actual costs.

I read recently that the true cost of gasoline is close to $15 a gallon. What needs to be taken into account is government subsidies to the oil companies, the cost of roads, the cost of fighting wars for oil, and pollution. Charging the "real" or "true" price of a good would help people make better and more rational decisions.

Another example might be a factory that produces plastic 2 liter bottles and employs 100 people but produces a byproduct: air pollution that increases cancer for its 5,000 residents by 400%. The social costs of such a factory are born by the residents, but should be incorporated into the cost of the 2 liter bottles, with the increased medical bills being born by the factory and/or its insurance policy.

In the States, workers that are endangered generally get paid a premium for the risk they endure. Policemen and women, miners, utility workers all get paid a premium. And there are even charts that provide guidelines for how much someone will be compensated in a general accident if they lose a toe as opposed to a foot or are injured in another way. Somehow, we have tried to make economic trade-offs when faced with loss of life/loss of health/loss of limb.

The market has not done a good job of incorporating these costs. Ideally, each product sold should list as much information as possible: what are its ingredients (crops, natural resources, etc.), where each major ingredient/natural resource was ‘harvested’, if for clothes or food...what pesticides, steroids, antibiotics, fertilizers, and fungicides were used, the wages of the "harvesters" and other laborers, how far it traveled and by what method of transportation.

There would certainly be a point when the cost of calculating the information would be greater than the benefits. But legislators could decide on the biggest 4 or 5 economic factors and establish charts rating how efficient the companies were at estimating their costs (ALL their costs) or passing costs onto employees or the environment (both people and the earth).

On a small scale, this has started happening in some food circles. Interested consumers can purchase pork at the beginning of that particular pig's life. Buy the piglet and watch a pig-cam to see how well/poorly their pig is being treated, their living conditions, as well as knowing who sired the pig and if any antibiotics, steroids, etc. were given to the pig.

This has also started happening by some countries who are financially capturing the value of their ecosystems: forests and rainforests. In Costa Rica, payments are made to landowners for their "ecosystem services". The landowner agrees to preserve their forest for 20 years and the governments sells carbon offsets based on that land staying forested. The value of the forest is being calculated based on its contribution to the following areas: biodiversity, scenic beauty, hydrological services, and carbon sequestration.

I heard recently that some countries are demanding payment from the West for keeping their forests intact because they serve as the proverbial 'kidney' of the world. They are filtering a lot of the West's pollution and carbon and should be compensated.

The poor of the US and the poor of the world bear the brunt of externalities more than the middle-class or upper-class. City dumps and high polluting industries tend to get placed in poorer areas because the poor complain less. On top of their earlier economic problems, health concerns get added to the mix as they experience higher rates of asthma, cancer, birth defects, breathing disorders, etc.

I remember traveling to Lima, Peru years ago and in a poor neighborhood seeing a creek that was an unnatural neon green. I remember being told it was a diaper factory. Not only were the factory workers paid a low wage, but the entire community was suffering because of the pollution. That neighborhood paid the price for disposable spending on disposable diapers of the West.

I have heard several times that the climate change we are experiencing is being felt in some regions more than others. For instance, the Arctic and parts of Alaska are seeing their temperature rising more than the continental US. This is causing numerous problems in Alaska: threatening polar bears, killing trees, raising sea levels, causing drought, etc. These climate changes are affecting native Inuit peoples more than US citizens. Eventually we may see a world court where these charges can be settled. The Inuit people should have the right to bring a legal case against the US people and seek damages.

If the market is to function better, it must start to incorporate externalities in its disclosure and pricing. Even mandating that labels on goods incorporate more information would be a good start. The market doesn't have to fail in pricing could start to make relevant costs more 'visible' to consumers. In that way, all of our decisions would be more rational because we would be able to take into account important information previously unreported.