Sunday, September 28, 2008

Quality of Life

I've been doing a lot of blogging recently, when I really ought to be doing real work. But I've got something personal to share, so I hope you'll stick with me here...

In the past few days, I have been processing through several seemingly disconnected concepts, and they just kind of congealed into a consistent theme this morning.

Here are the three motives, and also two figures that fill the spaces in between them:
A Global Financial Crisis has occurred because the world no longer has faith that America can make good on its debts. And I'm starting to think that they're absolutely right not to trust us--As a country, we are upside-down, deep underwater, drowning in debt, and it's entirely possible that we can't be resuscitated. As this article in Time magazine puts it:
Japan and Germany make cars. Saudi Arabia pumps oil. China supplies the world with socks and toys and flat-screen TVs. What does the United States produce? Lots of stuff, but in recent years this country's No. 1 export--by far--has been debt.

When you look at things this way, it becomes clearer what the frenzy in New York City and Washington is all about. There are major quality issues with our nation's flagship product.

I'd like to hope that we're just facing a mild recession, but realistically, if we're going to prevent a profound Depression, we have give the rest of the world a reason to have confidence in us. We need to pay back our debts (personal and national) and start living within our means.
So while today's crisis management makes a certain amount of sense, returning to the borrow-and-spend status quo afterward seems like a disastrous idea. If the U.S. is to have a future as an economic power, its long love affair with borrowed money has to end.

And so our race for a bigger and better Quality of Life has become a death march.

Two weeks ago, we had a huge windstorm in Cincinnati. Most areas lost power for days. But I've heard a lot of people talking about the good things that came out of it--Neighbors got to know each other; families played games together; we were all forced to slow down and interact with people, instead of wasting all of our free time in front of televisions and computers.

Maybe McMansions, SUVs, and HDTVs aren't the secret to happiness after all.

I believe that there's a better way to live.

About two years ago, I lost my job, and we lost 50% of our household income. I immediately rushed into another job, earning less than half of what I had been making.

It was not a good job. It was juvenile and frustrating, but I stuck to it. It took a couple of other life crises to bring me to the point where I was broken enough to quit.

The thought of being unemployed terrified me. I was afraid of fighting with my husband about money, I was afraid of losing our house, and I was afraid that my career was in a downward spiral, circling the drain. My sense of self-worth was totally tied up in the idea of earning a six-figure income.

I have to believe that the past two and a half years have been God's way of showing me that that's not what my life is supposed to be about.

You know what? Saying "God has a Plan" is just too glib, too simplistic. These two and a half years have been SO hard. I had been worried about a financial crisis, but I wound up in a crisis of faith.

I felt like every single time I got back on my feet and started moving forward, another door would be slammed in my face. I said that to my husband several months ago, and a few of weeks later, I found a couple of quotes from C.S. Lewis saying exactly the same thing:
Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be--or so it feels--welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become.

Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not, 'So there's no God after all,' but, 'So this is what God's really like. Deceive yourself no longer.'

He's talking about the death of his beloved wife. I was grieving for my personal goals and dreams. (How crazy is that?) Fortunately, the story doesn't end there:
Your bid--for God or no God, for a good God or the Cosmic Sadist, for eternal life or nonentity--will not be serious if nothing much is staked on it. And you will never discover how serious it was until the stakes are raised horribly high, until you find that you are playing not for counters or for sixpences but for every penny you have in the world. Nothing less will shake a man--or at any rate a man like me--out of his merely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs. He has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses. Only torture will bring out the truth. Only under torture does he discover it himself.

And so, perhaps, with God. I have gradually been coming to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted. Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face? The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it: You are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.

The analogy is perfect. You have to be so exhausted, so very nearly dead, that you stop struggling and go limp, and that's when God can finally start to turn things around. That's exactly what a crisis of faith feels like.

So in the meantime, my husband and I had to cut back on ways that we were spending money. We had to give up going to Hawaii and the ski trips out West that we had been doing every year. We ate out less, and we didn't buy new clothes. I started getting books from the public library, instead of spending hundreds of dollars at Barnes & Noble. My husband deferred a lot things that he wanted to do--taking a sabbatical to finish the basement, buying woodworking equipment, purchasing an HDTV, etc.

But here's the crazy thing: We didn't really miss most of those things. And we didn't fight over money, and we didn't have to sell our house. (My husband deserves full credit for that, because he's the one who insisted on using conservative estimates for our income when we first established our budget for building the house five years ago.)

And three months ago, I wound up with a job that is a hundred times better than anything I could ever have imagined. I'm only earning about a third of the salary that I was making before, but I'm not wasting my life feeling tired, and anxious, and stressed out all the time.

I'd love to say that the story ends here. "And we lived happily ever after." But that would be glib and simplistic too.

I still have hopes and dreams that may go unfulfilled. I still struggle with thoughts like, "God, if you love me, why won't you give me the one last thing that I so desperately want?" I still have bouts of self-pity and depression. And it's still really hard for me to accept that I'm not the One in control of the Plan for my life.

So I guess you'll just have to stay tuned...

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The How's & Why's of the Financial Crisis

There's a fantastic story on NPR about the process that caused the current credit crisis. I highly recommend reading the entire transcript, or you can go to this website and click on the "Full Episode" link to listen to the piece online.

In a nutshell, here's how it goes:

1. The "Global Pool of Money" essentially doubled from 2000 to 2006. Global investors were looking for safe ways to make a reasonable profit on investing this money. Since the US government was keeping interest rates low on treasury bonds, these investors started looking for other places to invest that money.

Adam Davidson: How does the world get twice as much money to invest? Lots of things happened, but the main headline is all sorts of poor countries became kind of rich making TVs and selling us oil: China, India, Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia. Made a lot of money and banked it. China, for example, has over a trillion dollars in its central bank, and there are office buildings in Beijing filled with math geniuses-- real math geniuses-- looking for a place to invest it. And the world was not ready for all this money. There's twice as much money looking for investments, but there are not twice as many good investments. So, that global army of investment managers was hungrier and twitchier than ever before. They all wanted the same thing: A nice low risk investment that paid some return...

Think how attractive a mortgage loan is to that 70 trillion dollar pool of money. Remember, they're desperate to get any kind of interest return. They want to beat that miserable 1 percent interest Greenspan is offering them. And here are these homeowners, they're paying 5, 7, 9 percent to borrow money from some bank. So what if the global pool could get in on that action?

2. Banks and mortgage brokers discovered that they could bundle mortgages together and sell them as securities.

Adam Davidson: There are problems. Individual mortgages are too big a hassle for the global pool of money. They don't want to get mixed up with actual people and their catastrophic health problems or debilitating divorces, and all the reasons which might stop them from paying their mortgages. So what Mike [Francis] and his peers on Wall Street did, was to figure out how to give the global pool of money all the benefits of a mortgage-– basically higher yield-- without the hassle or the risk.

So picture the whole chain. You have Clarence. He gets a mortgage from a broker. The broker sells the mortgage to a small bank, the small bank sells the mortgage to a guy like Mike at a big investment firm on Wall Street. Then Mike takes a few thousand mortgages he’s bought this way, he puts them in one big pile. Now he’s got thousands of mortgage checks coming to him every month. It’s a huge monthly stream of money, which is expected to come in for the next thirty years, the life of a mortgage. And he then sells shares of that monthly income to investors. Those shares are called mortgage backed securities. And the 70 trillion dollar global pool of money loved them.

3. The demand for these mortgage backed securities became huge, and brokers got creative in finding ways to supply Wall Street with new mortgages.

Alex Blumberg: So Wall Street had to find more people to take out mortgages. Which meant lending to people who never would’ve qualified before. And so Mike noticed that every month, the guidelines were getting a little looser. Something called a stated income, verified asset loan came out, which meant you didn't have to provide paycheck stubs and W-2 forms, as they had in the past. You could simply state your income, as long as you showed that you had money in the bank.

Mike Garner: The next guideline lower is just stated income, stated assets. Then you state what you make and state what’s in your bank account. They call and make sure you work where you say you work. Then an accountant has to say for your field it is possible to make what you said you make. But they don’t say what you make, just say it’s possible that they could make that...

Then the next one came along, and it was no income, verified assets. So you don't have to tell the people what you do for a living. You don’t have to tell the people what you do for work. All you have to do is state you have a certain amount of money in your bank account. And then, the next one, is just no income, no asset. You don't have to state anything. You just have to have a credit score and a pulse.

Alex Blumberg: Actually that pulse thing-- Also optional. Like the case in Ohio where 23 dead people were approved for mortgages.

4. The mathematical models for the mortgage-backed securities said that they were safe, but the models were based on historical data, from previous decades when banks didn't give mortgages to people who couldn't afford them.

Adam Davidson: As we now know, they were using the wrong data. They looked at the recent history of mortgages and saw that foreclosure rate is generally below 2 percent. So they figured, absolute worst-case scenario, the foreclosure rate may go to 8 or 10 or 12 percent. But the problem with is there were all these new kinds of mortgages, given out to people who never would have gotten them before. So the historical data was irrelevant. Some mortgage pools, today, are expected to go beyond 50 percent foreclosure rates.

Alex Blumberg: To be fair, they knew there were risks. But investors have a system to assess those risks. They’re these special companies. Credit rating agencies. Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s, Fitch. Their job, their main job, is to assess risk for Wall Street and the global pool of money. They rate every kind of bond according to its risk. Triple A is the safest, then there’s double A, single A, all the way down to single B and below. And that’s all most investors look at-- the letter grade. They trust the credit rating agencies. And these agencies blessed most of these mortgage-backed securities. Gave them AAA ratings, which means they were considered as safe as a US government bond. This was the magic of this whole system. You could take a pool of thousands of risky mortgages, and create a security that was called money-good, as safe as any investment out there. At least that's what people thought. But now we know those agencies relied on the wrong data. That same historic data that had nothing to do with these new kinds of mortgages.

5. And as if the mortgage-backed securities weren't risky enough, someone found a way to integrate even more risk into them by creating something called a Collateralized Debt Obligation.

Alex Blumberg: Let’s translate some of that. A mortgage-backed security, you remember, is a pool of thousands of different mortgages. These are all put together and divided into different slices. Jim [Finkel] used the word tranche. Tranche is just French for slice. Some of these slices are risky, some are not. OK, a CDO is a pool of those tranches. A pool of pools. And Jim and most companies like his weren’t buying the top-rated tranches-- the safest ones, the AAAs. They were buying the lower-rated stuff. The high-risk stuff. Jim’s company was buying tranches that came from Glen Pizzolorusso’s company. The guy who hung out at nightclubs with B-list celebrities. The guy who said he was selling mortgages to people who didn’t have a pot to piss in.

Adam Davidson: There's another term the industry uses, no joke, they call these lower-rated tranches toxic waste. They're so high-risk, they're toxic.

Alex Blumberg: So, a CDO is sort of a financial alchemy. Jim takes that toxic stuff, these low-rated, high-risk tranches, puts them all together. Re-tranches them, and presto: He has a CDO whose top tranche is rated AAA, rock-solid, good as money. If this seems too good to be true to you, you're in good company. Guys like billionaire investor Warren Buffet said the very logic was ridiculous. But back in 2005, 2006, the global pool of money couldn't get enough of these things. And the CDO industry was facing the same pressures everyone else was at every other step of this chain-- to loosen their standards; to make CDOs out of lower and lower rated pools.

6. From 2003 to 2006, more people were qualifying for bigger mortgages, and the increased demand for housing drove prices up, creating a bubble.

Alex Blumberg: The problem was that even though housing prices were going through the roof, people weren't making any more money. From 2000 to 2007, the median household income stayed flat. And so the more prices rose, the more tenuous the whole thing became. No matter how lax lending standards got, no matter how many exotic mortgage products were created to shoehorn people into homes they couldn't possibly afford, no matter what the mortgage machine tried, the people just couldn't swing it. By late 2006, the average home cost nearly four times what the average family made. Historically it was between two and three times. And mortgage lenders noticed something that they'd almost never seen before. People would close on a house, sign all the mortgage papers, and then default on their very first payment. No loss of a job, no medical emergency, they were underwater before they even started. And although no one could really hear it, that was probably the moment when one of the biggest speculative bubbles in American history popped.

7. And now that the bubble has burst, no one wants to take a risk on any mortgage-backed securities.

Alex Blumberg: Tonko Gast estimates that most of AAA rated mortgage-backed CDO's that the industry created since 2006, are now worth less than half their value. Some are worth close to zero. But remember to all the investment managers in the global pool of money who bought them, AAA meant safe as government bonds. AAA was called a cash equivalent, money in the bank. It's as if the global pool of money put trillions of dollars in a savings account, came back one year later, and found out that half was gone. Put another way, it's as if the global pool of money thought it was putting trillions of dollars in a savings account, but really, half of it was going into a furnace. The money is gone, burned up, never to come back. And that's what's led to the new term you've been hearing.

Adam Davidson: Maybe you've noticed that the press and others don't call it a sub-prime housing crisis as much anymore. They call it a credit crisis. The global pool of money still has no idea how much money they lost. How much went into the furnace. And because of that, they’ve totally changed their thinking. They used to be obsessed just with getting some profit, trying to make a slightly higher interest rate return. Now the global pool of money has the exact opposite obsession. It wants no risk whatsoever. It just wants safety. Suddenly, those US government treasury bonds-- still near historic lows of 1 and 2 percent-- are beautifully attractive. Because they're safe. They won't blow up like sub-prime CDOs did. The global pool of money is avoiding anything with even the slightest hint of risk and that affects everybody, no matter who you are. It's harder to borrow money to buy a house, or build a factory, or bring your country boldly into the 21st century...

This freezing of credit all around the world is something new, the world has never seen anything on this scale. When the crisis hit, last August, central bankers and finance economists couldn't figure out how bad things might get. There was this question people would ask: will things get like the 1930s or the 1970s? There was real fear that, just like in the '30s, hundreds of banks would collapse, there would be massive unemployment, there was talk of a new Great Depression.

So that's how we wound up here...

(Thanks to E!! for pointing me to Culture11, where I found the link to the NPR story.)

Facts of the Debate

So I watched the Presidential Debate last night. (Mostly for lack of anything better to do.)

Debates are known for being full of facts. Unfortunately, facts aren't the same as truths. Here are some basic truths:

  • All politicians have voted to raise taxes at some point or another.
  • (Because...)
  • All politicians are in the habit of spending more than the amount of revenue coming in.
  • (Because...)
  • The only way to get funding approved for their pet projects is to approve funding for everyone else's pet projects.

  • Everyone supports the troops and wants to bring them home as soon as possible. (Definitions of ASAP vary wildly.)

  • No one is especially happy with the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Iran, or North Korea.

McCain claimed that he would try to eliminate wasteful spending by the government. I'm all in favor of that. Obama claimed that he would continue Bush's tax cuts for households making less than $250,000 per year. I'm all in favor of that too.

Like Obama, I think we should make changes so that more people have access to affordable health insurance, but I strongly agree with McCain that the government (aka the least effective way to do almost anything) should not be in charge of our healthcare system.

Overall, the debate included a lot of senseless bickering, accusations, and half-truths being thrown around at random, which doesn't help resolve anything. In a nutshell, the debate was exactly what I was expecting it to be.


I was kind of hoping for something different.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Wind Power

Here's a short list of things I've seen in the past week, in approximate order:

  • Tornados of mulch, accompanied by the sensation of being inside a very dusty hairdryer

  • Traffic lights bouncing like popcorn

  • Our patio furniture sliding around the deck

  • Trees split in half down the middle, trees broken off at the trunk, trees uprooted from the ground, trees covering houses, tree limbs everywhere

  • Lots of houses with siding and roof shingles ripped off

  • Broken power lines, draped across streets and lawns like bedraggled party streamers

  • A couple of street signs bent over and/or uprooted from the ground

  • Gas stations with cars lined up around the corner

  • Mounds of tree limbs piled up along every street, waiting for the city trucks to come turn them into mulch

The official weather report and some photos can be found here, and there are plenty of other photos here.

Some basic stats about the effects that the windstorm had on Cincinnati:

  • By Sunday night, 90% of the greater Cincinnati area had lost power-- More than 700,000 homes and businesses.

  • By Monday night, that number stood at around 580,000 homes and businesses without power.

  • On Wednesday night, more than 15% of the homes and businesses in the Cincinnati area still did not have power.

  • All of the Cincinnati Public Schools were closed for at least 3 days. Some schools were closed for the entire week.

  • As of Friday afternoon, 5 days after the storm hit, 125,000 homes were still without power.

Whoever thought we'd spend a week recovering from Hurricane Ike?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Math, in the Blink of an Eye

As someone who has studied a lot of math, I find this article intriguing.

Be sure to check out the fun little "blink and you'll miss it" counting test that is referenced in the article.

I believe that our ability to do math probably involves several different areas of the brain. I can do calculus, but for me, it mostly just involves following the rules. On the other hand, anything involving geometry has always been very intuitive for me-- I can easily visualize Statics, Kinematics, and Dynamics problems in 2-D, or even 3-D.

SIDEBAR: For the non-engineers in the audience:

  • Statics = How loads are distributed through (hopefully) non-moving objects like bridges.

  • Kinematics = How mechanisms (like levers and gears) move.

  • Dynamics = How things accelerate and impact other things.

My master's thesis involved developing a computer program to calculate the forces and moments generated at the shoulder due to dynamic, 3-dimensional arm movements.

But I can't do basic math in my head to save my life.

My husband can do all sorts of calculations in his head, while I'm lucky to be able to add one two-digit number to another. An average fifth grader could easily beat me in a multiplication time-test.

It only makes sense to say that there must be several different types of "math" which are processed by different areas in the brain. Surely everyone has strengths and weaknesses in different areas.

Unfortunately, lots of kids get turned off by math at an early age. (I hated math in 4th & 5th grades.) Maybe there are people who would have discovered an unexpected gift for calculus, but they gave up after struggling through algebra and geometry? It makes you wonder...

Monday, September 15, 2008

Hurricane Ike

We got pounded by the remnants of Hurricane Ike yesterday. We had virtually no rain, but a furious windstorm all afternoon, which brought down trees all over the city. As of last night, 90% of the greater Cincinnati area was without power, and the statistics haven't improved radically today.

Frankly, I'm not sure why Cincinnati isn't being mentioned on the national news, except that it may be just too hard to explain how a hurricane can do so much damage in the Midwest.

Obviously, we're pretty happy to have power back on at our house, but there are still plenty of other areas that are waiting. (We lost power from 2:30pm yesterday afternoon until about 3:30pm today.)


In Hamilton Country, the "tornado" sirens are activated anytime there's a Severe Thunderstorm Warning in our area. The sirens are also activated if the conditions are upgraded to a Tornado Watch or a Tornado Warning.

Now you might be asking, "How do you figure out what the sirens mean?"

Well, we turn on the TV (assuming that we still have electricity) to see what the weathermen are saying.

You might say, "But if it's a Tornado Warning, that means that you should be heading for the basement. IMMEDIATELY."

That's a very valid point, and I have no good answer to that, except to say that it would be extremely silly and pointless to run to the basement every time the siren goes off.

You might suggest, "Maybe they should only activate the 'tornado' sirens if there's actually a Tornado Warning."

Another very valid point. Hamilton County says that the sirens are meant to act as a warning that conditions aren't safe outside and people need to seek shelter indoors.

Here's my thought: If there's thunder and lightening and a torrential downpour outside, I would hope that people would have enough sense to come in out of the rain. (And if not, they're probably good candidates for a Darwin Award, and who are we to interfere with their destiny?)

Now returning to the main topic...

So yesterday, we had a swirling, howling windstorm. Gusts were frequently in the 60-80 mph range. I was outside for maybe 20 minutes of it, and let me just tell you that the flying dust and debris alone were potentially blinding, literally, not to mention the risks of being injured or killed by falling trees and limbs.

The storm went on for five hours, and the emergency sirens were never activated.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Donald Miller - To Own A Dragon

Today I read To Own A Dragon by Donald Miller, the author of Blue Like Jazz.

It's an awesome book. Wonderful in every sense of the world. The first three chapters blew me away. Funny, profound, and beautiful prose.

Here's a paragraph that I can especially relate to:
I say this because there aren't many pleasures I enjoy more than sleep. I sleep till I am done, normally, and haven't set an alarm in years. I'm not lazy, mind you, I just find it odd anybody would program a machine to wake them. God made the brain so it would wake on its own, and as a follower of Jesus, I am a strict adherent to His system. Call me a fundamentalist if you want.

The book was written for guys who have grown up without fathers, but everyone should read this book-- If you had a difficult relationship with your father, if you have a friend who has grown up without a father, or if you are in a position to be a mentor to a fatherless child, then you will be inspired by this book.

In addition to being a great author, Donald Miller is also a founder of The Belmont Foundation. Their goal is to establish long-term mentoring relationships for fatherless boys.
In the United States, there are more than 11 million children being raised by a single parent. Of those, roughly 85% are being raised by single mothers.

According to the information in the back of the book, children from fatherless homes account for:

  • 85% of all youths in prison (20X the average)

  • 71% of all high school dropouts (9X)

  • 63% of youth suicides (5X)

They're also 20X more likely to show behavior disorders and 9-10X more likely to wind up in a chemical abuse center or state institution.

Mentoring can change these odds dramatically.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Seven Years

First off, let me just say that I don't agree with most of the things that Ann Coulter says. Ditto for Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern, etc. As a general rule, I have a strong distaste for shock-jock mentality, including inflammatory news and radio programs on both sides of the political divide.

That being said, I have to admit that Ann Coulter's column for 9/11, BUSH 7, TERRORISTS 0, raises some pretty good points:
As many have pointed out, the reason elected officials tend to neglect infrastructure projects, like reinforcing levees in New Orleans and bridges in Minneapolis, is that there's no glory when a bridge doesn't collapse. There are no round-the-clock news specials when the levees hold. You can't even name an overpass retrofitting project after yourself -- it just looks too silly. But everyone's taxes go up to pay for the reinforcements.

Preventing another terrorist attack is like that. There is no media coverage when another 9/11 doesn't happen. We can thank God that President George Bush didn't care about doing the safe thing for himself; he cared about keeping Americans safe. And he has, for seven years.

If Bush's only concern were about his approval ratings, like a certain impeached president I could name, he would not have fought for the Patriot Act and the war in Iraq. He would not have resisted the howling ninnies demanding that we withdraw from Iraq, year after year. By liberals' own standard, Bush's war on terrorism has been a smashing, unimaginable success.


The ferocity of the left's attacks on Bush even scared many of his conservative allies into turning on him over the war in Iraq.

George Bush is Gary Cooper in the classic western "High Noon." The sheriff is about to leave office when a marauding gang is coming to town. He could leave, but he waits to face the killers as all his friends and all the townspeople, who supported him during his years of keeping them safe, slowly abandon him. In the end, he walks alone to meet the killers, because someone has to.

That's Bush. Name one other person in Washington who would be willing to stand alone if he had to, because someone had to.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again--

I respect politicians who are willing to take a stand on an issue because they firmly believe that it's the right thing to do, even though I may disagree completely with their opinions.

I believe that both Obama and McCain meet this criteria. I may not agree with either of them on every issue, but I do believe that they're both trying to act in the long-term best interests of our country. (And the reason why I have never had any respect for either of the Clintons is because they constantly pursue only their own short-term self-interests.)

So given the fact that I actually respect both of the Presidential candidates, I just wish that they would campaign based on a constructive dialog about real issues. It would be nice to see candidates demonstrate this kind of dignity all the time, and not just on momentous occasions.

Obama is not a celebutant, and owning a CrackBerry isn't a prerequisite for being a good president. That's just silliness. Why can't they see that these kinds of snide attacks are demeaning to both the attacker and the attackee?

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Evolution of English

The pastor at my church is notorious for accidentally using non-words during his sermons. Or, to put it another way, he's very adept at constructing new words.

(It all depends on your point-of-view about the evolutionary nature of the English language.)

So today, he came up with the word "correlarities." As in,
noun: Things that tend to be associated with each other.


What's not so obvious is why this word doesn't already exist. It's a pretty useful word, and its construction is consistent with other "real" words. So why not?

Several years ago, I met a student from Germany who just raved about how much he loved the flexibility of English.
"You're free to turn any noun into a verb, and any verb into a noun. You can say something like, 'This book is a real page-turner,' and you know exactly what that expression means. If you wanted to say something like that in German, it would be 14 syllables long!"

Saturday, September 06, 2008

The Importance of Mentoring

From a Newsweek article called The Trouble With Boys:
One of the most reliable predictors of whether a boy will succeed or fail in high school rests on a single question: does he have a man in his life to look up to? Too often, the answer is no. High rates of divorce and single motherhood have created a generation of fatherless boys. In every kind of neighborhood, rich or poor, an increasing number of boys--now a startling 40 percent--are being raised without their biological dads.

Psychologists say that grandfathers and uncles can help, but emphasize that an adolescent boy without a father figure is like an explorer without a map. And that is especially true for poor boys and boys who are struggling in school. Older males, says Gurian, model self-restraint and solid work habits for younger ones. And whether they're breathing down their necks about grades or admonishing them to show up for school on time, "an older man reminds a boy in a million different ways that school is crucial to their mission in life."

In the past, boys had many opportunities to learn from older men. They might have been paired with a tutor, apprenticed to a master or put to work in the family store. High schools offered boys a rich array of roles in which to exercise leadership skills--class officer, yearbook editor or a place on the debate team. These days, with the exception of sports, more girls than boys are involved in those activities.

In neighborhoods where fathers are most scarce, the high-school dropout rates are shocking: more than half of African-American boys who start high school don't finish. David Banks, principal of the Eagle Academy for Young Men, one of four all-boy public high schools in the New York City system, wants each of his 180 students not only to graduate from high school but to enroll in college. And he's leaving nothing to chance. Almost every Eagle Academy boy has a male mentor--a lawyer, a police officer or an entrepreneur from the school's South Bronx neighborhood. The impact of the mentoring program, says Banks, has been "beyond profound." Tenth grader Rafael Mendez is unequivocal: his mentor "is the best thing that ever happened to me." Before Rafael came to Eagle Academy, he dreamed about playing pro baseball, but his mentor, Bronx Assistant District Attorney Rafael Curbelo, has shown him another way to succeed: Mendez is thinking about attending college in order to study forensic science.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Images of God


I have to say that I love reading absolutely every article that Rabbi Marc Gellman writes.

Here's a quote from his article on prejudice that was just published in Newsweek:
A story: Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav was walking down the street one day trailed by many of his students. Suddenly he stopped, looked across the street and asked his students, 'Who is that walking there across the street?'

They looked and said to him, 'Rebbe, it's no one. That's just Moshele, the water drawer, walking across the street. He's nobody.'

Reb Nachman shouted at them, 'You are no longer my students until you can look across any street and see any person and say to me, 'O that is the image of God walking there'.'

Talk about a challenge...

We all have prejudices. We all devalue other people for various reasons.

I'm not prejudiced against John McCain because of his age, or Barak Obama because he's black, or even Hillary Clinton because she's a woman. (I don't respect her, but it's for the very same reason that I don't respect her husband, so clearly it has nothing to do with her gender.)

However, I am quick to pre-judge the people in the cars in front of me. Clearly, he's a jerk for changing lanes like that. Obviously, she's an idiot for talking on the phone and not paying attention to where she's going. And surely I'm not seeing them as being made in the image of God.