Monday, August 30, 2010

Accident Prone

Just when I thought I’d make it to the end of the month without any more threats to my health, I cut my right thumb while preparing green bell pepper for tonight’s dinner, pepper steak. And tomorrow’s the first day of class. I won’t be wearing heels.

Salutations and Compliments

Eventually, when proofreading a friend’s cover letter for a job application, there will be a clash of ideas about what’s “proper.” I believe it was back in the third grade* when I learned how to write a “proper” business letter. Sign with “Yours truly” or “Very truly yours,” a very simple rule, later corroborated by Emily Post. I’ve followed it faithfully in letters, and even some formal emails, for well-over two decades.

So when my friend used “Best,” I was puzzled. And when he protested against “Yours truly,” I was annoyed. What other way is there than the “proper” way? So I Googled* business letter format, and discovered self-appointed letter-writing gurus advocating “Best” and even the dreaded “Cordially yours” as the most proper ways to close formal letters. What an outrage!

I calmed down enough to ponder the situation. Propriety is certainly a fluid concept. In Jane Austin’s time, it was apparently perfectly respectable to send one invitation to an entire household, including houseguests, but that had become vulgar by the time round two of the cult of domesticity came around. Perhaps the post-Baby Boom world didn’t know what to make of “Yours truly,” mistaking it as a term of endearment. I dare say the new recommendations are no improvement.

What does “Best” mean? “Best wishes”? But why send your best wishes to a potential employer or other business associate? That’s rather impertinent, don’t you think? “Cordially yours”? If it hasn’t retained the condescension Emily Post complained about, then how is it any different from “Warmly” or “Affectionately,” which have been disregarded as too intimate? If these were intended to avoid a misunderstanding brewing over being “Yours truly,” it appears that business letter writers have actually gravitated towards becoming increasingly informal. But what else is to be expected from people on a first name basis?

*The image in my mind is the yellow Calvert textbook that taught cursive, although I might have learned “proper” letter format from a different book around the same time.
**I used Google, but I was just wondering: Is it still “Googling” if another search engine is used?

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Church at Ground Zero

My heart just broke when I read earlier this morning about the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s treatment towards the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America over getting the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church back on its feet. I recalled the horror I felt when I first learned about the church, not on September 11, 2001, but earlier this summer while watching Ric Burns’ documentary New York. One of the interviewees, focusing on the American symbol of financial power, marveled that only the World Trade Center was targeted and only the World Trade Center was hit, adding the little church as if it were an unimportant afterthought.

He must have been right. While local Christians, churches, and parachurch organizations collected money and supplies to send to families connected with the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and to soldiers sent to Afghanistan, I heard not one word about the church building* that was utterly destroyed. And now there’s so much clamoring about building a mosque a few blocks away from the site, as if its presence is the highest affront to Christiandom, while everyone ignores the port agency’s pointed snub of a congregation that has suffered miserably and is trying to rebuild itself. People have accused American Christians of caring more about money and warfare than their Christian brethren around the world. Now we can be accused of not even caring about each other.

*I still haven’t been able to find out if anyone was killed.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

First Comes Love…

This morning I learned from a friend of mine about the great cover-up involving the National Survey of Adolescents and Their Parents: Attitudes and Opinions about Sex and Abstinence, a report prepared in 2009 for a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. So with my curiosity then aroused, I read it. One thing that really stood out to me was one view consistently expressed by both the surveyed adolescents and their parents, across religious service attendance, income levels, race/ethnic groups, and both genders: Of the reasons chosen for when it was okay to have un-wed sexual relations, “Having sex okay if plan to marry” came out strong.

This came as no surprise to me. That’s been a popular view in America since the Puritans landed. From ancient times to today, the line between “not married” and “married” has been blurred by different ideas about what the courtship or betrothal period involves. But unlike the Puritan girls, an American girl today can forget about using the strong arm of the law to force the father of her child into marriage. And while pregnancy naturally led to weddings during our grandparents’ generation, the current one seems to feel less socially obligated to do so. It’s not that the past didn’t have the tragic ending of the deflowered girl abandoned for someone prettier or wealthier. It’s that everyone would’ve agreed that her boyfriend was a cad.

But times have changed. A young woman, convinced that she’s going to marry a particular young man, or perhaps promised marriage, still agrees to sleep with him. When she discovers she’s pregnant, she still expects him to marry her. That’s just how things are done. However, today, the ending often isn’t marriage; it’s abandonment. And no one sympathizes with her. Instead she’s criticized for giving up her virginity before obtaining a legally-binding marriage. Forget the fact that she gave it up under the most socially-accepted terms. Forget the fact that human society has flourished for thousands of years with shot-gun (sling-shot?) weddings. She and the baby go at life alone, until the next boyfriend appears.

The problem is a lot like the one popularized by the relationship self-help book He’s Just Not That Into You: Girls need to stop and realize that they’re not the exception. Children don’t guarantee commitment. Drastic measures are needed, like the one the name of the fast-growing movement No Wedding No Womb clearly suggests. While I remain optimistic about the situation, I do recognize that the “baby daddy” mentality won’t disappear overnight. We just need to find successful ways of attacking it. Really, where’s the Spanish Inquisition, enforcing flippant promises of marriage, when we need it?

Confidence Restored

Like most little girls, I wanted to be a ballerina when I grew up. I could sing and dance a whole day away. And every once in awhile, my mother would let me try to stand in her old toe shoes. At home, there was a stage, and I was always a star. That soon changed.

When I was about eight-years-old, I took my first dance class: a basic ballet course. I had mixed feelings about it. Although I felt very grown up, learning how to dance “for real,” it was a blow to my ego messing up in front of the other girls. The self-confidence I had dancing with my sisters at home shattered when I sensed that I was being judged by a room filled with strangers.

I remember the instructor: I thought she was wonderful, but she rarely danced because she was very pregnant.* She helped me when I put on my tutu incorrectly, and would “shh” anyone who laughed at my poor technique.

Once, the entire class lined up to attempt the grand jeté. I remember being nervous that I’d make a fool of myself, but I’m sure I was beaming afterwards when the teacher said “Very good” in front of the whole class. When she chose me to lead in the back row for the dance routine we were preparing, I had regained much of the confidence I’d lost. By the time of the spring performance, I felt like a princess, gliding effortlessly across the stage. I could dream again.

*I believe the baby was due the week after our dance recital.

I’m 100% Sure You’re Crazy!

“How sure are you? Fifty percent? Seventy-five percent? Ninety percent?”

Huh? I was doing some contract work. After being asked about some particular detail, I promptly gave the best answer I could, saying that I was “quite sure” it was accurate. When asked to give a percentage, I almost laughed. He just had to be kidding. Isn’t that something only junior highers would say?

I came to find out, after polling three of my four siblings, that not only were fully-grown adults guilty of asking this, but they asked in all seriousness. Rebecca said it reminded her of the “On a scale from one to ten, how much pain are you experiencing?” question asked by medical professionals. There’s an illusion that the number means something concrete when it’s actually very subjective and, in my opinion, less useful than a normal answer. Clearly, we place too much value on our ability to quantify and rank things.

I recall a professor who was against reporting statistics to three or more decimal places. He was always concerned that a long train of digits would give a false sense of accuracy and precision, leading an undiscerning reader astray. That’s what I see happening when someone says, “I’m eighty percent sure of X” as if there’s a Federal grant worth of data behind it. It’s a meaningless number. In contrast, saying “I’m pretty sure” is upfront about the situation. “Here’s my personal opinion. Take it, or leave it.” The other party’s forced to decide whether or not to trust what he hears. In both cases, there’s risk, but I guess some people feel more secure about a phony statistic than an honest opinion.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Consumption with Negative Utility

This afternoon, I subjected myself to a third tuberculosis test in nine years. Given that TB has a reputation for being a “poverty disease,” and that more than half of the cases in the United States are found in foreign-born individuals, the most efficient use of precious public and private funds would seem to be to screen members of “high risk” subpopulations. Yet, instead testing’s universal for many municipal, community college, and public school positions. In addition, it’s mandatory for incoming kindergarteners, something which has proven to be one of the biggest money wasters in this state due to the ridiculously low rates of TB found among them. At the end of the day, I just want to ask: Who’s making money off of injecting all that bacteria?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

I’m Gonna Live Forever, Part 1

Every so often, I come across another person who, grounding his faith firmly in modern medicine, hopes to attain the ripe old age of 200. It’s always 200. And the person is generally male, religiously an atheist, and politically a libertarian.

The argument goes something like this: People used to live until 50. Now they live to 80. So, if the government doesn’t interfere with scientific advancement, I must be destined to reach 200.

This drives me absolutely crazy. Overall life expectancy in the United States (see Table 1) has been in the seventies since my father was two. This has led to speculation in social science circles that there is, in fact, an upper limit on life expectancy at birth. Others see the trend continuing to increase very slowly. Either way, that’s far cry from the layman predictions I’ve heard.


What’s not being appreciated is how much of that increase in the average lifespan should be credited to Louis Pasteur’s disciples rather than any current developments. Now that childhood is virtually non-life threatening (Baby Boom anyone?) and “dying in childbirth” is something that’s discussed among genealogists, medicine has been devoted to giving us a few extra precious months with grandma…not 100 more years. Barring some revolution along the magnitude of hand washing and efficient sewage systems, we’re not likely to see any significant change in the average.

But that doesn’t mean someone can’t live 200 years!

Well, those suggesting that are assuming away an important concept: maximum attainable age. Despite the upward, albeit slowing, trend in newborns’ life expectancies, our supercentenarians haven’t gotten any older (see Table 2). We’re just now more aware of their awesome presence thanks to birth registration and international media.


I’ll admit that we haven’t yet given the babies who received the largest gains in life expectancy a chance to break the world record. Maybe I’m already biased against them, believing since my childhood that the Bible sets the highest average lifespan at 80 (Psalm 90:10) and the maximum attainable age at 120 (Genesis 6:3), give or take a few years to compensate for ancient reckoning of age. (I’ll admit there’s good reason not to take the first passage literally!) However, I have thought of how some other data might clue us into the likelihood of anyone today breaking 122. Stay tuned for Part 2.

*TABLE 1. Data series constructed from “Table Ab644-655 : Expectation of life at birth, by sex and race: 1850-1998,” Historical Statistics of the United States Millennial Edition Online (2006); “11. Life expectancy by age, race, and sex: Death-registration states, 1900–1902 to 1919–1921, and United States, 1929–1931 to 2006,” “United States Life Tables, 2006,” National Vital Statistics Reports, Vol. 58, No. 21, (June 28, 2010).

**TABLE 2. Life expectation data series constructed from “Table Ab644-655 : Expectation of life at birth, by sex and race: 1850-1998,” Historical Statistics of the United States Millennial Edition Online (2006); “11. Life expectancy by age, race, and sex: Death-registration states, 1900–1902 to 1919–1921, and United States, 1929–1931 to 2006,” “United States Life Tables, 2006,” National Vital Statistics Reports, Vol. 58, No. 21, (June 28, 2010). Highest age data series constructed from “Chronological list of the verified oldest living person since 1955,” “Oldest People,” Wikipedia (Accessed August 24, 2010); “Supercentenarians who died before 1955,” “Oldest People,” Wikipedia (Accessed August 24, 2010). Note: Non-Americans are included in the lists of oldest people.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Diversity Sensitivity Training

Earlier this summer, a friend of mine who’s heavily involved in political activism was bemoaning the fact that there was a discouraging turnout at a local rally, even from among known supporters. He couldn’t think of why that happened and blamed it on a growing indifference about our country’s future.

I asked if he’d considered another explanation. Perhaps the real problem was the type of event. He thought a rally would be successful because he liked rallies. But local rallies always seemed to me to be organized and attended primarily by middle class and working class whites. In an area with a lot of upper-middle class whites and middle class and working class Hispanics, a rally (or that particular type of rally) might be unable to drum up enough interest. What was needed was someone to figure out what type of events would attract these other subpopulations.

His response? Well, people should be interested enough in the purpose to attend anyway.

Apparently, he couldn’t separate the message from the medium. But the truth is, if the latter doesn’t work, it has to be changed. Otherwise efforts to get out the message are doomed to fail.

That conversation reminded me of a sermon I’d heard awhile back. The preacher talked about his seminary class going door-to-door ministering to people. In the poorer neighborhoods, people answered the door and were eager to talk to them. In the richer neighborhoods, no one answered the door. From this, he reached a conclusion about the rich’s unwillingness to hear the gospel.

At the time, I had just finished some research on differences in behavior across social strata. I wanted to tell him that the “rich” value their time differently than the “poor,” so they are less likely to welcome solicitors. In addition, the “poor” answer their doors because they tend to value neighborhood friendships, while the “rich” have reason to suspect a stranger as a potential burglar. And to top it off: The “rich” were probably away at work or other activities, while the poorer neighborhood likely contained housewives who can’t afford to get out much and the unemployed. In other words, going door-to-door wouldn’t be the best way to reach the unsaved “rich.”

Unfortunately, this preacher hadn’t considered alternatives that would capture their attention. He preferred to stick with his usual MO. Similarly, my friend insisted that others should put the message before their personal preferences, while he refused to do the same. That’s like an American missionary in another country refusing to preach in anything other than English. When he doesn’t get any converts, he has no one to blame but himself. No reason to give the target audience a brush off.

As We Have Also Forgiven Our Debtors

Earlier today, I was reading Hosea, and something in the fourth chapter stood out to me. God accuses Israel of forgetting him and warns of a coming judgment (Hosea 4:1-11) and then directly links sinning against God to sinning against man by declaring that He will not punish the wives for their adultery and the daughters for their whoredom because of the men’s unfaithfulness to God (Hosea 4:12-14). I can almost visualize the prophet yelling to be heard while the people ignore him, too busy organizing community stonings, too focused on their own vengeance.

This passage reminded me of Jesus’ teachings about forgiveness and His “Parable of the Unmerciful Servant” discussed in Matthew 18:15-35. There’s a strong correlation between how we show forgiveness and mercy to each other and how God does the same for us. Like the men in Old Testament Israel and the debtor in Jesus’ story, it is wicked and foolish to expect compassion when there is none. It’s significant that our Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13, Luke 11:2-4) suggests that having mercy on others plays a central role in our petitions to Him. To forgive means to be forgiven.

Friday, August 20, 2010

F Is for Phonics

There are some experiences that are so tragic that they remain imprinted on your mind forever: Age: three closing in on four. Setting: our apartment in the Pomona Valley. My parents had heard about four-year-olds mastering reading, so it was time to get started. “School” went from jumping up and down on the “dance mat” in the middle of my bedroom and singing “A, B, C…” to sitting down quietly in the livingroom doing exercises in the dreaded “red book.”

To my parents, it was a success. Samuel L. Blumenfeld’s Alpha-Phonics: A Primer for Beginning Readers did teach me phonics, but I hated every minute of it. I had mastered the alphabet, but its relationship to sounds continued to baffle me. And just when I thought I was getting it, the worse part came.

I have one memory of sitting by my mom at her Estey spinet,* parked under the stairs, and being proud of myself for sounding out the word above the music. Then my mom told me that the word was pronounced fugue because it was German and German had different phonics rules.


So now that I’ve finally made sense of one set of phonics rules, I have to learn another one? My heart sank as I imagined a lifetime of red books. And looking back at it now, I’m not one bit surprised that remembering correct pronunciation is the highest brick wall preventing me from furthering my French and Koine Greek.

*She still has it, and it still works (sort of), despite all the abuse it got from her seven younger siblings and five children.

Bad Hair?

I just got home from a screening of My Nappy Roots: A Journey Through Black Hair-itage (site, imdb). I guess my expectations were originally set too high. This is one of those cases where a small independent studio jumps on a great idea, but needs more people and a bigger budget to make it a real success. However, it holds a lot of promise, so I’m expecting improvements before the final cut is released.

From the very beginning, My Nappy Roots appears to be taking sides in the natural-versus-processed debate. However, as it gets further along, it settles into a more educational role. The film focuses on traditional and contemporary hair styles, cultural identity, prevailing attitudes about black hair, and how these are intertwined together. The brief discussion about pre-slave trade African hair was completely new to me, although it made sense that ethnic hair styles, along with music and language, were purposely wiped out to eliminate slaves’ prior identities. Other topics covered include the Indian wig industry and the history of the black hair care industry in America. I was also pleased that Madam C.J. Walker, America’s first female millionaire, got some well-deserved attention.*

My Nappy Roots addresses ethnocentricism, politics, and economic rivalry through interviews while maintaining a bit of objectivity. However, there’s a noticeable absence of certain voices (racially mixed individuals, blacks from the rest of the world, and the “white” hair care corporations). It also troubled me that one interviewee, in reaction against Korean competition, declared that the only thing blacks had economically was the hair industry. Rather than considering that as a reason to support black-owned businesses, it made me wonder if this attitude is keeping black entrepreneurs from pursuing other opportunities with broader markets. Those failing in the hair business should be encouraged to look for a comparative advantage in another industry.

*The Association for the Study of African American Life and History featured her in their 2010 Black History Kit that focused on economics and entrepreneurship, hence my recent familiarity with Walker’s life.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Had Your Cake

Economics is very much a study of opposites. There are positive incentives and negative incentives. Positive externalities and negative externalities. Gain and loss. Marginal benefit and marginal cost. But about a month ago, while doing some early preparations for my upcoming class this fall, something hit me: Is there a corollary to the sunk cost?

Sunk cost is probably best defined as something incurred in the past that an economist says doesn’t matter to the decision at hand, but any rational person is stubborn enough to consider it anyway. My suggestion is that, if there are retroactive and prospective costs and there are prospective benefits, (theoretically) there should be retroactive benefits. What would such a thing look like? I came up with two examples that might work:

Say a couple has dated and each half has to decide now whether or not to enter an official relationship. The sunk costs could be anything from the extra effort spent to shower right before the date to the overdraft fee on the credit card used to pay for a five-star meal. These costs have been incurred regardless of whether the couple decides to break up or “go steady.” So the sunk benefit, assumedly, would be the past benefits incurred (a pleasant evening with someone nice, the envy of everyone at school, an hour-long make-out session, etc.) Like the sunk costs, the couple would be told not to take these retroactive benefits into account.

Economics major best friend: “So what if he was a good kisser last night. Will he be a good kisser next weekend?”

My second example has to do with consuming free promotional items before choosing whether or not to buy anything, and it’s not nearly so interesting.

Science Isn’t in a Vacuum

As I mentioned before, the reading list during my “recovery” included Michio Kaku’s Hyperspace. In the chapter discussing non-name Theodr Kaluza’s harmonization of Riemann’s, Maxwell’s, and Einstein’s work, Kaku explains how historians of science neglect to appreciate how unrevolutionary it was:

Given the continuity of physics research, these historians are startled to find a new avenue of science opening up without any historical precedent. But their amazement is probably due to their unfamiliarity with the nonscientific work of the mystics, literati, and avante garde. A closer look at the cultural and historical setting shows the Kaluza’s work was not such an unexpected development. As we have seen, because of Hinton, Zollner, and others, the possible existence of higher dimensions was perhaps the single most popular quasi-scientific idea circulating within the arts. From this larger cultural point of view, it was only a matter of time before some physicist took seriously Hinton’s widely known idea…[T]he work of Riemann pollinated the world of arts and letters via Hinton and Zollner, and then probably cross-pollinated back into the world of science through the work of Kaluza. (pp. 103-104)

This relationship between scientific study and the “real world” wasn’t entirely new to me. When writing a paper on the 1900 San Francisco outbreak of the Bubonic plague,* I studied Alexandre Yersin’s research in Hong Kong a few years earlier. As part of the Pasteur Institute, it’s no surprise that he purposefully searched for a bacterium to fault, but what amazed me was how he went about it. He took local superstitions and “old wives tales” seriously! You’ll get the plague if you find a dead rat in your house. You’ll get the plague if you touch a warm dead rat, but not if you touch a cold dead rat. Et cetera. Et cetera.**

What the research on the plague and research on the fifth dimension have in common was foundations in the surrounding culture, and I don’t doubt that there are other examples. The thing to note is that good science doesn’t always outright reject that what was “unscientific.” Instead, it can utilize it quite effectively. And yet there are people who wish to keep science quarantined, forcing it to miss out on all the exciting interactions.

Human observations will continue to lead to new theories and discoveries, so what better to observe than human society in action? And as I mentioned in an earlier post, I am quite optimistic about the current video gaming subculture’s ability to devise ways to stave off nuclear warfare. No previous society has needed to create a wall between science and everything else to make successful scientific advancements. Why should we?

*Spending six months reading medical journals and old San Francisco Board of Health reports did not cure my fright of anything medical related.
**These are the two I remember, and there’s no way I’m going to look anything up right now.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Girls Will Be Techies

Iridescent, an educational center promoting science (which likes homeschoolers, by the way). Girls in Tech, a social network promoting women’s technological creativity. Google. Microsoft. And a bunch of teen girls. End result? A phone application that tells you who you’re going to marry.

After hearing about the winning Technovation Challenge (iridescent, git) team’s idea, I had to find the video to see for myself. I never was into fortune-telling games as a kid, but I do remember another girl teaching me M.A.S.H. (Mansion, Apartment, Shack, House). (I didn’t like the outcome.) However, the phone application was a rather clever proposal to make, and proves that they know their clientele.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Proof Is in the Unattainable

Pain killers can do funny things to people. To pass time while my sprained ankle healed, I read books that have been collecting dust for years. One of them was Michio Kaku’s Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps, and the 10th Dimension (which I’ll tell you more about some other time).

When I went through the chapter about Charles Hinton’s search for a fourth spatial dimension, I didn’t really think much about it. But then that night, I lay awake trying to make sense of the hypercube, a concept that hadn’t been known to make me uneasy in the past. Finding the analogous unraveled cube example lacking, I set out to “prove” to myself how that the funny-looking cross was indeed an accurate representation of the unraveled hypercube. I wasn’t just going to take these guys’ word for it.

After a few hours: I’d constructed a proof* for the number of lines, sides, and angles in a hypercube. I’d unraveled the cube from its square-in-a-square “shadow” (rather than from the cube itself as Kaku showed). And I’d unraveled the hypercube from its cube-in-a-cube “shadow,” the unit tesseract (something Kaku should’ve showed so I could’ve gotten some sleep).

I’ll come to my point. This story isn’t about me attempting to reinvent the wheel in sciences I don’t understand. It’s about being obsessed with proof. When it comes to highly complicated things, I’m willing to trust the experts. However, when something seems within grasp of my level of understanding, I become more demanding.

I’ve seen this in my students too, especially in my microeconomics class last year. There were times when the students would just accept a model as an advanced concept never to be met with again. And there were other times when, believing they had the skills to master everything, they insisted on challenging every point.** Good or bad, the reasons for this remain a mystery to me. I’ll just accept it.

*It was to my satisfaction, but I don’t plan on showing it to any of the three mathematicians in my family.
**Note to self: When students won’t settle down, use the C-word (calculus). It always works.

One Out of Three Say, De Gaulle Who?

Another week or so has gone by, so here’s an updated statistic on the responses to my WWII Political Leaders Opinion Survey. (I repeat: I won’t be sharing the important stuff until the polls close on January 1.) Unlike Churchill, Hirohito, Hitler, Mussolini, Roosevelt, and Stalin, Charles de Gaulle went into office after World War II, but 65% of the respondents probably recognized him primarily for his leadership in the French resistance. It took some serious thinking, but I finally remembered a story that remotely connected with the forgotten Frenchman’s legacy:

One hot summer, I attended a math workshop at a university in the Inland Empire. (For those of you unfamiliar with Southern California, that might as well be asking someone from Mediterranean to spend record hot days in the Sahara.) Like most campuses, the summer is the time for “road destruction,” as my father calls it. It was impossible to walk between the main parking lot and the campus, so students were transported by bus.

During one particularly miserable afternoon, I boarded an empty bus, only for the bus driver to inform me that he was going to wait another twenty minutes before heading out. Exhausted from hours of grueling brain activity and a long walk across campus, I wanted to get home as quickly as possible. However, the bus driver, probably bored and lonely, decided to make conversation…defined as trashing-talking Americans.

Every American probably experiences a variation of this conversation at least once in his life: “You know nothing about my country” followed by attack after attack about how close-minded, self-absorbed, and stupid Americans are. During the course of the conversation, however, the non-American’s comments usually just prove that those traits are prevalent worldwide.

Despite my partial dehydration and headache from the heat, I eventually got at the root of the problem. This guy was bitter because the inferior American universities wouldn’t accept his superior Algerian coursework, and he didn’t want to start from the beginning. So he was stuck working as a bus driver. I informed him that paperwork messes were a problem for everyone and that he should talk to an admissions counselor. He insisted that there was nothing they could do.

Okay. Well, some American university bureaucracies just might not be accustomed to dealing with Algerian students since, in relative terms, there aren’t very many of them coming here. I proposed that he complete his degree in a country that has had a longer and stronger relationship with Algeria, like France, then return to the United States to work.

“Why France?”

Pause. Well, I’d hope French universities know what to do with Algerian students. They’ve had at least a hundred years to figure it out.

“What makes you think that?”

Pause. Well, it’s generally common for students from a colony or former colony to attend the imperial country’s schools.

“How did you know that?”

Pause. Know what?

“That the French used to be in control.”

Umm…Image of a thin mustached man in uniform appeared in my head. My high school history textbook. Where else?

“Most Americans don’t know that.”

Really? I wonder how many he asked.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Sometimes a Woman’s Got to Do What a Woman’s Got to Do

I’ve always admired the Biblical character Ruth. She took some serious risks, choosing to live in a strange land with her dependant mother-in-law Naomi, and choosing to startle Boaz out of his hangover by propositioning him. However, I failed to truly appreciate her actions recorded in Ruth 3 until last night when I realize the connection to Hosea 9:1 (ESV):

Rejoice not, O Israel!
Exult not like the peoples; for you have played the whore, forsaking your God.
You have loved a prostitute’s wages on all threshing floors.

This reference to an actual custom had completely escaped my notice: Prostitutes earned their wages on threshing floors. I did found a mention of this in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: Q-Z (gbooks), but it seems to be completely absent from commentaries.

So what I wasn’t told in Sunday School is that, by meeting a man at a threshing floor, Ruth was risking her nice girl reputation and the protection it gave her (Ruth 2). She didn’t just risk a scandal. She risked being branded for life as a harlot. All this would explain Boaz’s initial reaction to her presence (since it would’ve been otherwise normal for a servant to sleep at his feet) and his insistence that no one find out about it.*

Ruth and Naomi were a lot more gutsy than I certainly am. I think we Christians today are very quick to excuse ourselves from getting things done because of concern about our reputations. Not to say that things will always go as planned, but that some risks just need to be taken.

*And now the whole world pretty much knows. Poor guy.

Back in the Kitchen

Between a sprained ankle and a bruised tailbone and the pink eye virus, I haven’t been cooking much lately. (Actually, I haven’t been doing much of anything!) So today I decided to make one of my favorite dishes, Mongolian beef, with some steamed veggies. My baby sister, on break from school, pitched in with rice balls (onigiri, she informed me), shaped into hearts with a cookie cutter. It got kind of messy, but we’ll make our brother do the dishes.

Making a Big Deal out of Nothing

This morning I was writing in my journal about a past experience when something occurred to me: I was probably overanalyzing the situation. Isn’t that what people always tell me I’m doing? Wait…Isn’t that what people always accuse others (especially women) of doing? I began to wonder how many other people overanalyzed things in their journals.

I’ve read quite a lot of personal writing: diaries, journals, letters, etc. Keeping a diary was some sort of rite of passage for little girls in Western countries, and women tended to save every letter imaginable. It’s no wonder that historians have relied heavily on these records to reconstruct life in the past. Sometimes writers and interviewees are accused of lying, jumping to conclusions, misinterpreting facts, and having imperfect information, but never of overanalyzing a situation. If anyone’s accused of that, it’s the historian interpreting the primary source documents. Unless there are clearly disputed facts, most content generally seems to be taken at face value. Same with oral history.

However, I’d really like to read someone’s thoughts on this issue. I’m not really advocating a new historical method, just an extra dimension by which to evaluate personal papers. What does an overanalyzing document even look like? The term is so subjective, used when one person feels that another is overthinking what’s been happening in a relationship, that it’s not clear what would qualify as “overanalyzing” a situation. Maybe this is a job for the psychologists.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Racist’s God: Clarification

Yesterday, I received the following comment on my post “The Racist’s God”:

The thing is, the name Allah is not merely a word for a god, capitalized into God, but is a name for a specific pagan deity; unlike theos, deus, gott, etc. It would be like the Germanic tribes saying, "Can we call the God of the Bible Odin, or Thor?" or the Greeks Zeus, the Romans Jupiter, etc. Our ancestors didn't let the Greeks, Romans, or Germans pick a name of one of the gods from each of their respective pantheons, and let them use that for God; why should we let converts from Islam use the very same pre-Islamic deity name that was preserved by Islam?

I don't see racism at work here; rather, I actually perceive consistency of principle. Not sure where you're coming from, on this. But I believe you're mistaken, sister.

I appreciate the comment and decided to devote an entire post to my response. So about the first comment: The commenter was correct about the specific pagan use for a supreme creator. However, I’d argue that this pagan use of Allah is very different from the pagan use of Zeus or Thor. The apostle Paul didn’t hesitate to make a connection between a specific deity recognized by pagans and the true God (Acts 17:22-31). This Greek deity was “unknown” and Paul immediately made the connection with the concepts of the creator and the supreme deity. It’s very possible that this line of reasoning was used in missionary efforts to people of other nations.

Pagan Semitic peoples who used Elohiym for a creator would have started using it for the Christian God. Pagan Greeks who used Theos for some sort of philosophical conception represented as divine, as Plato did, would have started using it for the Christian God. It would’ve been natural for pagan Semitic peoples who used Allah for a creator to then use it for the Christian God. (This has been mirrored by non-Christians all over the world to use God to convey their supreme deity in English.) Perhaps it wouldn’t be wise for Christians today to appropriate terms from false religions, but I’d be hard pressed to suggest that there was something wrong with the early Christians who did it first.

As for the second comment: Christians have consistently used Allah for two thousand years, following the habit of pagan and Jewish Arabs preceding them. I see no reason to discontinue that traditional use. We Christians didn’t stop using “the Way” once it was appropriated by the Buddhists. We Christians still use Yahweh, Jehovah, and Elohim, which were appropriated by the Mormons. Why should we Christians quit using Allah because it was appropriated by the Muslims?

Now, as for the concern about Christian converts from Islam, I’m not sure what’s appropriate. If they join churches that preserved Allah for linguist or cultural reasons, they are now tied to that pre-Islamic Christian heritage and have a right to anything inherited from their religious predecessors.

Also, since Islam grew out of a reaction to Christianity, and the entire Qu’ran is devoted to criticizing what’s argued to be the Jews’ and Christians’ incorrect and evil views of Allah, in the mind of Muslims everyone’s talking about the same deity, even if a number of Christians disagree. This is something Christians should capitalize on, again following Paul's example on Mars Hill. Ex-Muslim Christians need to use Allah to hit home the idea that Islam does not provide a superior alternative to Christianity.

As for third comment, the part about “racism,” I tried to imply that some sort of “ethnocentricism” was my concern. Many Christians are quick to excuse remnants of Greco, Latin, and Germanic paganism found in American language and culture but criticize any traces of pre-Christian language and culture found elsewhere. I lean towards the position that most of it is harmless, but perhaps that’s better left for another post.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

My First and Last Post on Marriage

A few months ago, I read what I hope will be the final book I read on marriage and relationships: Henry Cloud and John Townsend’s Boundaries in Dating: Making Dating Work. Chapter 4 detailed so clearly what I’ve seen to be the most prevalent position taken by Christian writers and speakers on marriage, dating, courtship, betrothal, and the like:

In order to cure your fear of being alone, you need to put a boundary around your wish for a relationship. Cure that fear first, and then find a relationship. (p. 73)

How do you cure your aloneness without a dating relationship? (p. 73)

The more you have a full life of relationship with God, service to others, and interesting stimulating activities, the less you will feel like you need a relationship in order to be whole. (p. 74)

It is a curious thing, but the process of spiritual growth itself can help cure aloneness. (p. 74)

Buried under the façade of warnings about making unwise choices and entering bad relationships is the basic assumption that there’s something wrong with seeking a relationship before you cure your loneliness through alternative means. In other words, the God-given cure (an intimate relationship with another person) is inferior to a man-made one (a relationship with God, etc.).

Now for the obligatory discussion of Adam: He had a relationship with God that the rest of us can’t even begin to contemplate. He had plenty of work to do tending the Garden of Eden and naming the animals. And yet, he was lonely.

Did God respond with the above quotes as Cloud and Townsend did to their readers? Did God deliver the “be content in Christ” line heard from the lips of other Christian leaders? Did God distinguish between “healthy” and “unhealthy” loneliness? No, no, and no. God’s solution was Eve.

The Bible appears to provide only two “reasons” for marrying, and neither is directly related to legitimate procreation, financial security, or being better suited to do the Lord’s work. (Those are in verses discussing what marriage should be.) Instead, people should get married so that they aren’t alone (Genesis 2:18-20), and people should get married so that they won’t fall into sexual sin (1 Corinthians 7, 1 Timothy 5:11-15). Is it a mere coincidence that so many people teach that loneliness and sexual temptation are the two reasons not to marry?

This anti-marriage sort of reasoning has got to stop. It’s done a great disservice to the current generation of young Christians, and I hope with all hope that the next generation completely ignores it. I should note that, although this is something that I’ve thought about for awhile, I’m certainly open to debate. If anyone can think of something I’ve missed, please share.

Celebrity Crushes: Who Needs Them?

Recently, I was on RottenTomatoes rating films and completing a profile that had been bare for over a year. When the social network’s system asked who my “celebrity crush” was, I had to laugh. Crushes in general are a bit idiosyncratic, after all beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The targeted individual is loved. But the celebrity crush, whether it’s the most popular guy at school or a Grammy-winning star, is common and utilitarian.

Little Girl 1: I’m going to marry movie star X when I grow up.

Little Girl 2: Well, I’m going to marry movie star Y.

Little Girl 1: Oh! Well, I’m going to marry movie star Y too!

Unlike a normal crush, the celebrity crush is almost always unattainable, so the reason for his existence has nothing to do with hope. Rather than being an object of affection, he better resembles a tool for obtaining social status. When he does something unforgivable, or someone new comes along, he’s cast aside rarely to be mentioned again until former adorers are ready for a comeback in twenty years…and even then their purpose in attending is just to feel young again.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Racist’s God

Late last year, I was saddened to hear that the Malaysian government had declared a Muslim monopoly over the word Allah. How ridiculous is it for them to forbid Christians to use the Name passed down from their Arabic religious forbearers long before the advent of Islam. But what distressed me even more was the response from some fellow American Christians. Their reasoning was that, since allah had a pre-Christian pagan usage, it was inappropriate for Christians to use it.

This infuriated me. Many terms for a pagan deity – theos, deus, god (and other Germanic forms) – were and are used for the true God in common speech, Bible manuscripts, and vernacular translations. Even the origin of elohiym is suspect since it was commonly used for pagan gods as well. The thought that English-speakers who wouldn’t think to give up God would criticize Christians of other cultures using Allah disgusts me. Is linguocentricism a word?

Wax On, Wax Off

Over the years I’ve met good waxists and bad ones. By “bad” I don’t mean someone who will give you Bette Davis’ eyebrows…That’s ugly. I mean that there are spa employees who feel very self-conscious about touching other people, even for the most mundane services. Rather than being patient, meticulous, and clean, they’re hurried and sloppy.

I’ve often wondered if it was because these women were from cultures that prohibited close contact with strangers. Or perhaps they were just uncomfortable around people of different races. Another thought was that they were paranoid about being perceived as lesbian rather than approaching their work like an impersonal physician.

Unfortunately, when strangers are clearly uncomfortable, I tend to avoid bringing up any problems. It’s easier (although not easy) to criticize a manicurist or hair stylist than a waxist who’s trying to keep ten feet away.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Silent Voices Crying Out

Back in January, I attended a screening for Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country (site, imdb), a chilling documentary about the September 2007 protest against the current military regime in the Union of Myanmar. The film documents the event with footage captured illegally by underground video journalists, smuggled out of the country, and then distributed to the international media by the Democratic Voice of Burma. The film shows firsthand the bravery of these political rebels and the daily risks they continue to take to expose economic and political oppression.

However, what moved me about the film wasn’t the hidden camera crew. It was the decision of the Buddhist monks and nuns to leave their secluded homes, outright refuse the government funding they relied on, and take a stand publically against oppression. They endured terrible treatment and even death, risking their special privileges, because they felt a responsibility for their people. Although the protest failed to improve the poor conditions, I have a feeling that the event is permanently imprinted on the minds of the Burmese people, and that their faith and commitment to Buddhism is all the stronger for it.

He Who Laughs Learns

School starts in a few weeks, so I’ve been weeding through books, study guides, DVDs, and online articles for supplemental material with which to spruce up my lectures. One resource, which unfortunately I won’t be able to use this semester, is The Cartoon Introduction to Economics, Volume One: Microeconomics, co-authored by a man who calls himself the Stand-Up Economist. Although my initial reaction was, You’ve got to be kidding, I came to like this comic book because, besides being funny, it’s thorough.

Taking after my mom, I’ll use anything short of a song and dance routine to successfully communicate with my students. However, I’ve found most comic strips (concepts overly simplified) and blog posts (content too advanced or partisan) seriously lacking. It’s unfortunate that, from a student’s perspective, humor in academia is divided into two parts: that which seems irrelevant or only indirectly related to the lecture topic (laughs for the sake of waking up the class) and that which only those who pass the class understand (inside jokes). I hope to show my students that what they’re learning itself can be entertaining because I honestly believe that will help them retain the information longterm. But resources are definitely slim pickings.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

My Enemy’s Enemy Is My Ally

If you listen to any politically-minded individual or group in America, you might hear claims that X is the “right” way to maintain, repair, or eliminate the current system and that “they” (some identified other group) are taking the “wrong” approach or making the “wrong” arguments. These would-be benevolent dictators are anxious to micromanage movements and declare “my way or the highway” when someone else offers anything different. I’ve found this to be especially true when recommending alternative ways of reaching out to different races, religious persuasions, social classes, etc. when a particular movement has trouble appealing to those demographic subgroups. The response I invariably get is “We’re right, so they should adjust to us.” So I was thrilled after attending a screening of The Singing Revolution* (site, imdb) earlier this year.

The film begins with the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the paper that gave Poland to Hitler and the Baltic States to Stalin, and traces the multifaceted resistance movement in Estonia during Soviet occupation. There were organizations working within the Communist Party to improve conditions at the same time an illegal independent government was being formed by more outspoken political opponents. There were environmental groups who protested Soviet projects and cultural groups that raised awareness about Estonian heritage and Soviet oppression. The media (press, radio, and television) played roles as did literary groups, artists, and singing festivals. The elderly illegally registered to vote while the teens sported seditious haircuts. The end result of all this chaos was freedom from the USSR.

Although the message of the documentary seemed to be that culture and pride in one’s heritage can lead to victory, I saw an example for political activists everywhere. A disorganized revolution can be successful.

*Homeschooling parents may be interested in the DVD Extra’s interviews about school indoctrination.

Activate the Force Shields

On Saturday, July 31, a friend and I attended a screening of Countdown to Zero (site, imdb). If I’d paid more attention to what it was going to be about, I might have stayed home. To me, most anti-nuclear films seem to be needless scare propaganda funded by babyboomers who feel jipped about never experiencing an attack after numerous air-raid drills during the Cold War. It’s as if they want to insure that successive generations live in the same constant fear they had growing up.

Considering the main arguments and proposed solutions, the film seriously lacks real value, but if anyone needs a beautiful example of argumentum ad populum, please look it up. In addition, the silence regarding opposing views was absolutely deafening. I don’t recall anything being presented even for the purpose of refuting it.

However, I don’t regret viewing the film because I finally managed to pinpoint what had bothered me for years about discussions concerning nuclear weapons, pro or con. Carefully avoided is any indication that there might be ways for a country to defend itself against ballistic missile attacks.

Here I should mention that I’ve spent a good two-thirds of my life hearing about the Ballistic Missile Defense System. If anyone is unreasonably unafraid of a nuclear attack, it is I. Yet this is a solution that needs a public voice. For a generation raised on cartoons and video games featuring “force shields” and the like, there is no need to make them paranoid. They have the imagination and means to do something about the threat, regardless of whether or not we approach zero.

Monty and the Cats

I was sorting through some really, really old papers and began to laugh when I found this writing assignment from 1995. That year, my siblings and I had the same special assignment every week, and Dad was the one who chose the topics and graded them. At fourteen-years-old, I fancied myself a future Pulitzer Prize winner for children’s literature, so this story was tailored for my greatest critics: my younger siblings. I’m posting it, with some minor corrections, as a bit of nostalgia. See if you can identify the nine cartoons that were my primary influence:

At about four-o-clock one Tuesday afternoon, Monty Mouse sat on an empty park bench and opened that week’s edition of the Cheezy News, the most popular newspaper in Rodentown. He scanned the classifieds until he had found the article he was looking for. It read the following:

For sale by owner. One cozy mouse hole. Furnished. In a nice home. Very inexpensive. At 441 E. Rodentia Drive. See George Mouse.

How nice, Monty thought to himself. Already furnished, inexpensive, and in the nicest part of town too.

He rose from his seat and stretched. “I’d better go and hurry over to see this hole,” he said, “or someone else will buy it first.” He walked across the park to the nearest bus stop and boarded on to the Prairie Dog Express.

Monty Mouse liked the Express and took it often. In his opinion, it was nicer and more reliable then the new, expensive Underground Mole*-Road, that was usually too crowded for a fat mouse like himself.

He paid the driver and walked towards the back of the bus. Monty usually sat in the back because it was always empty and quiet.

Almost always.

That day it was so crowded the only empty seat was next to a pair of teenage, female gophers. They giggled and talked loudly the whole time, which greatly annoyed him. Monty Mouse was glad when the bus reached his stop.

He stepped off the bus, walked to the corner of Beaver Boulevard, and down the street on which his new home would be on.

It was a fine house, white with red brick. He strolled up the driveway, looking carefully at everything around him. He didn’t want to be cheated in any way.

Monty went up to the mouse hole door on the side of the house and knocked. A tall, thin mouse in a suit opened the door and let him inside.

“Welcome, friend,” said the thin mouse. “I am George A. Mouse. What can I do for you?”

He is very friendly, thought our little, bright Monty. “I am Montague Maxwell Mouse,” he replied to George. “I have come to look at this mouse hole that you have advertised about in the newspaper.”

“Ah, yes,” said George, rubbing his chin. “As you can see, it is entirely furnished and well kept. Everything is in working order.”

“And what is the asking price?” asked Monty.

George looked guilty. “How about two hundred rodent coins?”

Monty Mouse was surprised. “Only two hundred!” he exclaimed. The he glanced at George suspiciously. “Is there something wrong with the house?”

“Well, yes,” replied George. “The lady who lives in the house has three cats. Mean cats. They always keep me from getting cheese from the kitchen.” He paused and then asked, “Are you still going to buy the hole?”

“Of course. Why turn down a good deal just because of some cats,” said Monty. “I will buy this hole right now.”

Monty and George signed the papers and arranged for Monty to move in the next day.


The next day, that is Wednesday, after Monty Mouse moved into his new mouse hole, he went to see off George A. Mouse, whose business had caused him to move to a different state.

“Goodbye, old fellow,” George said, before he got on the plane. “I hope you like your new home.”

Monty left the Flying Squirrel Airport and returned to his new hole. After reading for a few hours, he realized it was time for lunch. He went to the refrigerator and took out the food he had bought earlier.

After eating a big meal, Monty Mouse still wasn’t satisfied. Then suddenly he smelled cheese. Monty could hardly contain himself. He rushed to the back door that lead into the house, opened it, stuck his head out, and sniffed.

Oh, how he could smell that wonderful cheddar cheese. The lady was in the kitchen making herself a sandwich. The telephone in the livingroom rang, so the lady left her sandwich on the counter to answer it.

Monty knew this was his chance. He could run into the kitchen, climb the counter, and take the cheese before the lady came back. His plan worked. He ran fast for a fat mouse, but before he could make it back to his mouse hole, he’d found himself cornered by two large cats.

“And who do you think you are?” asked the black one, grinning viciously.

Monty wasn’t a mouse who panicked easily. He stood up as tall as his little body could and in a strong and dignified voice replied, “I am Mister Montague Maxwell Mouse, III.”

The two cats looked at each other with surprised faces.

“He talked, Felix!” said the fat, orange cat.

“Yeah!” said the black one. He turned back to Monty, who was considering the best escape. “You’re the first mouse who’s ever talked to us. Most just run away, screaming.”

Even though that had been his first intent, Monty tried to hide it. “Oh! I would never do that,” he lied. “There is no point in screaming and running. That would be useless.”

“Yep,” said the fat cat, speaking quickly. “We’d just pounce on ‘em and feed ‘em to Cleo. By the way, I’m Garfield and this here’s Felix, my pal. I was named that ‘cause, well, I like to eat.” His orange face reddened when he spoke.

Monty, not comprehending what the fat cat had said, looked at Felix, the black cat, hoping he could explain things clearer.

“Where do you live,” asked Felix. It was obviously hopeless to get anything out of him. He was too busy asking questions to bother answering yours.

“Right over there,” replied Monty, pointing to his new hole.

“In the MacMouse’s old hole,” said Garfield, sniffling sadly. “They were such a nice family.”

“They were so kind,” Felix said, and to Monty’s surprise, he started crying too!

“The Mrs., she would always bake us birthday cakes,” Garfield cried. “And the little ones. The baby, sweet, little Janie Anne, she would call me ‘Big Pussy.’”

“Everything was fine,” said Felix, “until Cleopatra ate them all.” Both cats started crying again.

Monty, not one who takes a liking to crying cats, tried to change the subject. “Who’s Cleopatra?” he asked.

“Shh! Be quiet,” Felix said suddenly, and the crying came to an abrupt halt. “Hear that?” he asked.

Monty listened carefully, but couldn’t hear anything.

“It’s Cleo,” whispered Garfield, sitting down. “You’d better hide.”

Monty hid himself behind Garfield just when he heard Felix say, “Why, hello, Cleo. We weren’t expecting you to come home for lunch today.”

Monty saw a thin, white cat with a black head and mean eyes walk into the kitchen. “Oh, shut up Felix,” she said. “I came back for lunch, and you’ve got it. Where did you hide that mouse?”

“What mouse?” Garfield asked innocently. Monty quickly crawled under his big pays when Cleopatra stomped up to him.

“The mouse you’re hiding, dummy!” Cleopatra hissed in his ear.

Felix hurried over to her. “Cleo,” he said, “if we had a mouse we’d give him to you, right? So why bother arguing. We’ll tell you when we’ve caught a mouse.”

“Well, you’d better!” she said. Then she walked away with her nose in the air.

“You can come out now,” said Garfield, looking down at Monty.

“She could’ve eaten you,” said Felix. “You’d better stay away from here.”

“Oh, Cleopatra doesn’t scare me,” Monty said with false courage. “And I’ll come and visit you every day.”

As he was walking back to his hole, he heard Garfield say to Felix, “What a brave, little mouse.”

But they didn’t know just how brave Monty Mouse was. He knew that he would only visit him when he was sure that Cleopatra the cat was not around.

*Moles are not rodents, but are insectivores. They have been added only for the convenience of the writer.