Sunday, October 21, 2007

Od Magic

I just finished reading Od Magic, a 2005 book by one of my favorite writers; Patricia McKillip.

Od is a giant of a wizard of saves the kingdom of Keilor from it's enemies. In return, the king allows her to establish a wizards school. Generations pass until Od invites Brenden to be a gardener at the school. Brenden's arrival sets off a series of events which leads to a series of questions around magic, control of education, and expecting the unexpected. There's magic afoot that the wizards know nothing about.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Brief review of Discover Your Inner Economist

Just finished reading Discover your Inner Economist, by Tyler Cowen. Dr. Cowen is an economist (oddly enough), who writes the often intriguing Marginal Revolution blog.

This book is a loosely tied together collection of themes on how we can all improve our inner economists, and learn how to use incentives to succeed in life, and to know when incentives don't work. Cowen is a polymath, and he ranges far and wide in interests and expertise. This book is one of several "pop" econ books trying to bring economics to the non-economist people. Books such as Freakonomics, and The Underground Economist (read the former and recommend it, and haven't yet finished the latter).

I was very interested in the chapter on how to save the world, subtitled "More Christmas Presents won't Work," something dear to the hear of my fellow Jeff St. church members and our annual Reclaiming Christmas project.

Anyway, Cowen suggests we don't give money to beggars, mainly because the more beggars become successful, the more beggars there will be (same argument against buying and freeing sex slaves, because the price will rise and more people will be kidnapped in order to be freed by payments). He suggests giving the money to the poor who don't try very hard (a poor family sleeping on the sidewalk, and not expecting $$, for example). He also has ideas on giving to charities; one of the most interesting being being loyal to a charity and giving to them on a regular basis, so that they won't keep sending you mailings that cost them money (how much does email cost now?)

He has an extensive chapter on how to eat and cook well (tips for while in a foreign country, how to become a better cook), how to become a better art lover (in a museum pretend to have enough $ to buy some paintings and decide what you would choose). Seems like an interesting way to stay focused in a museum.

I took away how important it is to know human nature, tendencies and behavior in order to make the world a safer, healthier place.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Very interesting

How to describe this? South Korean boy soccer fans act like a giant LCD, creating shapes and designs. Humph. I can do the wave, so there.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The War

I've seen most of the 3 episodes that have aired so far of The War, the new Ken Burns documentary currently running on PBS.

It has moments of tediousness, and moments of terror and beauty; what war is like, I guess. I'm struck by the honesty of the production; mentioning how we didn't know how to fight early on; the mistakes made by the generals at Anzio, for example. I had read about the sacrifices made by all Americans to fight this war, but this documentary really brings it home. A real contrast to the current war; where military families are making the greatest sacrifices, while most Americans go on with their normal lives.

I was also struck by how the later civil rights struggles were planted in the 40's in the South, as African Americans demanded jobs, equal treatment, the chance to fight. The membership of the NAACP zoomed much higher in this time.

Highly recommended, and so far much more thought-provoking than much that is on TV.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Paul Potts

I can't seem to stop watching this video; I've lost track of the number of times I've watched it. I just love it that the results are different than the judges first think. I wonder how often we make the same judging first appearances mistake?

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Something I stumbled upon from A Pale Blue Dot. One technique I've heard for reducing the irritants found in our daily lives is to ask, if in the grand scheme of things, what's got you in a bother will ultimately matter. Here's a more eloquent version of that technique, given in a speech by the late astronomer Carl Sagan:

"We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity -- in all this vastness -- there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It's been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known."

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Well, hmm

You scored as Hermione Granger, You're one intelligent witch, but you have a hard time believing it and require constant reassurance. You are a very supportive friend who would do anything and everything to help her friends out.

Hermione Granger


Ron Weasley


Remus Lupin


Albus Dumbledore


Sirius Black


Draco Malfoy


Severus Snape


Harry Potter


Ginny Weasley


Lord Voldemort


Your Harry Potter Alter Ego Is...?
created with

Monday, July 09, 2007

When the Music's Over

One of the more interesting book anthologies I've come across recently is When the Music's Over, edited by Lewis Shiner. I just received it in the mail today. Put together in 1991, Shiner asked his contributers to write stories where violence was not the solution to solving a problem in a story. In other words the writers were deliberately constrained by the need to write in a non-violent manner.

I'll write a brief review after I finish it.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Miserliness vs. Charity

Over on the Freakanomics blog, there's a post of a Q & A with Steven Landsburg, author of More Sex Is Safer Sex: The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics.

One of the most interesting pieces was this Q & A:

"Q: You argue that miserliness is equitable to charitable contributions in the net use of resources, while giving more to one single charity is better than giving less to different charities. What is your personal approach to charitable contributions ( i.e., how much do you give, and to whom)?"

Landsburg responds by writing (snippet only. See blog for full response):

"Miserliness is equivalent to charity in the sense that both the miser and the philanthropist forego consumption, which makes more goods available to others. If you give your money away, someone else gets to eat better. If, instead, you squirrel your money under your mattress, it’s still true that someone else gets to eat better, because whatever you’re not eating is available to someone else."

"So if you want to be charitable, all you have to do is hoard your money, or for that matter burn it. But that’s not the best way to be charitable, because you can’t control who gets the benefits. Miserliness is like a random act of kindness; effective philanthropy is about directed acts of kindness."

Not sure what I think about this except to say that it's intriguing. Wondering how it fits with the book of James in the Christian New Testament? James 1:5 says to ask God for wisdom if anyone is lacking, because God "gives to all, generously and ungrudgingly. The implication here is that God gives to all because there is enough (unlike our current economic system that implies scarcity).

Later in 1:17 the writer says: "Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights..." (NRSV translation).

This seems to be saying that we're to model our giving after God, who gives generously. So, this falls on the giving side, and not on the miserliness side). Landsburg's books sounds like an interesting one, for that matter Freakonomics was also interesting.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Earth Day 2007

We celebrated Earth Day today. Yes, it's earlier in the year, but we wait until the weather is nicer and we can be outside. The picture is part of the Jeff St. String Band, who did all of the music today.

Here's a reading from Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek that I read as part of the service:

"It's still the first week of January, and I've got great plans. I've been thinking about seeing. There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises. The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But--and this is the point--who gets excited by a mere penny?

If you follow one arrow, if you crouch motionless on a ban to watch a tremulous ripple thrill on the water and are rewarded by the sight of a muskrat kit paddling from its den, will you count that sight a chip of copper only, and go your rueful way?

It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won't stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It's that simple. What you see is what you get."

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Reading Stack May 07

Reading Stack May 07
Originally uploaded by Kurwin.

Great new time waster on Flickr of photos of people's reading stacks. Here's mine as of last night (May 7).

Saturday, May 05, 2007


We interrupt the ongoing environmental posts for me to share one of my all-time favorite quotations, by Frederick Buechner (Wikipedia):

"Listen to your life, see it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom & pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness; touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and the hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace." (from Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons)

Perfect thoughts for our current visioning process, eh?

Here's another one for good measure:

"A vision is like a lighthouse, which illuminates rather than limits, giving direction rather than destination." James J. Mapes, Foresight First

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Strategic Consumption: How to Change the World with What You Buy

Worldchanging strategy #2:

2) Lengthening our time horizons: A great number of costlier green products are smart investments when viewed from the perspective of long-term cost. This is true of everything from more efficient home appliances (which can pay for themselves through energy savings) to low-flow shower heads. These are big-ticket items, requiring substantial industrial investment to manufacture. Buying them represents a wise investment and speeds up the process of higher standards being more widely adopted, but it also requires spending more up front -- sometimes a lot more. (It'd be easier if we all adopted the Japanese approach of requiring today's best performance levels to be the minimum allowable a few years hence.) This kind of sustainable consumption makes good sense.

Further thoughts:

I've noticed that oftentimes those things that are convenient often create environmental hazards: the throwaway rubbermaid containers get into the landfill, leafblowers create noise pollution and air pollution. Right now it's also mostly the case that more environmentally-friendly products usually cost more.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Incentives for going Green?

From Tree Hugger:

Toronto calls itself a green city, and its wholly owned power distribution subsidiary Toronto Hydro has been handing out the CFL's and advertising conservation like mad. It has been so successful that the electricity loads in the city fell by 178.5 million kilowatt hours — enough to power 178,000 homes for a month — between spring 2005 and the end of 2006. Oops, that means a $10.4 million drop in revenue, leading to a 6.3% increase in hydro rates to cover it, eating up almost every penny of the savings. This is such an incentive to turn out the lights, telling everyone to spend money to conserve and then penalizing them for doing it. Only in Green Toronto. ::CBC No, wait, there is the green province of Ontario, encouraging people to invest in green technology. Max Woschnigg did, building a big 80Kw turbine and saving $ 3,600 a year in power, while selling excess back to the grid. He just had his property reassessed for tax purposes and guess what, it is worth more with the turbine and his taxes just went up about $ 3,600. Another great incentive from the Green Government of Ontario. ::Tyler Hamilton in the Star And we wonder why people aren't being serious about conservation.

Defaulting to Green

Yesterday I started a series of posts related to creating our sustainable future. It's the folks at World Changing doing the writing and thinking.

Here is strategy number 1:

"1) Defaulting to green: When relatively equal alternatives exist, routinely choose the greener one, even if its impact is only minimally better (for instance, choose recycled toilet paper whenever possible). This may not produce massive change, but it helps solidify the gains of greener products. We ought to be working to put obviously dumb products -- like bleached, pulped-forest toilet paper or toxic chemical household cleaning solutions -- out of business. That'd be a pretty clear market signal."

My additional thoughts:
In the past, major environmental change occurred when major corporations were convinced to move from Styrofoam to paper, to turn off their PCs on the weekend, mainly because of their large size and footprint. Now, we need individual consumers to begin making their own lifestyle changes, as well as providing the politicians with the political cover they need to create new laws, tax incentives and breaks. Low hanging fruit can taste as good as the fruit at the top of the tree.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Buy our way to a better future?

The folks over at WorldChanging are blogging about how to create the sustainable future we must have. Over the next several days, I thought I'd paste in some of their ideas for further thought. Here's the starter. If you'd like to see the whole article at once, you can find it here.

You cannot buy a better future, at least not the sort of bright green future we talk about here at Worldchanging. That sort of future -- a sustainable one, a future that itself has a future -- is not available for purchase: It doesn't yet exist. You can't find it on shelves, and you can't even order it up custom, no matter how much money you're willing to spend.

You can be heroic in your efforts, but at the moment it's essentially impossible to live a North American consumer lifestyle and do no harm. You can buy only organic food, recycled products, and natural fibers and you won't get there. You can even trade your car for a hybrid, harvest your rainwater and only run your CFLs off your backyard wind turbine, and you still won't get there, both because the waste associated with consumerism is so massive and because the systems outside your direct control upon which you depend -- from your local roads to your nation's army to the design of the assembly lines used to build your car, rain barrel and windmill -- are still profoundly unsustainable.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Tom Swift

Growing up, one of my favorite series of books to read was about Tom Swift, and his friends. Tom always invented cool gadgets that would get him out of scrapes, was always chasing Communist-sounding bad guys, was hyper patriotic, didn't see much need for girls ("Bye Tom, oh please be careful," they were known to murmur), while they stayed at home.

Nevertheless, they were great fun, and launched me on my science fiction reading interest. I love the internet, for I recently came across a great essay on Tom Swift. Enjoy.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Micro Lending

Micro Lending is high up in the news rotations these days, especially after the Grameen Bank founder, Muhammad Yunus, received the Nobel Peace Prize this past year.

So what if we want to learn more about micro credit or lend money to people in developing countries, or people in the United States, who are starting their own businesses?

Here's an article on Slate that details one person's investigation of micro lending companies.

One thing I found interesting was the article's assertion that the best way to give is to give consistently to a few organizations, it creates a larger "bang for the buck."

What's this got to do with poverty? While government has an important role to create level playing fields so that the many have an equal chance to make it, citizens also have a role. What if we could divert some of the billions that we Americans spend on coffee, makeup or other "essentials" into anti-poverty programs that work; such as micro credit? What would that do to reduce poverty?

Unemployment and Homeownership

In the spirit of Freakeconomics research, (i.e. research that leads to some interesting thinking), here's a study about the relationship between home ownership and structural unemployment. The more mobile you are (no mortgage), the more willing you are to move to new places, and take new jobs, you are less likely to be unemployed.

From the article:

English economist Andrew Oswald has shown that across European countries, and across U.S. states, high levels of home ownership are correlated with high levels of unemployment. More conventional factors such as generous welfare benefits or high levels of unionization don't explain unemployment nearly as well as the tendency to own houses. Renting your home and staying flexible do wonders for your chances of always finding an interesting job to do.

The complete article is here:

Friday, March 09, 2007

Falwell Knew Of Gingrich Affair

9:37 PM (38 minutes ago)
Falwell Knew Of Gingrich Affair Before Clinton Impeachment
from Huffington Post by The Huffington Post

In an interview with Focus on the Family founder James Dobson that aired Friday, Gingrich admitted to the affair in 1998. In 2000, he divorced his second wife, Marianne, after his attorneys acknowledged his relationship with Callista Bisek, a former congressional aide now his wife.

"He has admitted his moral shortcomings to me, as well, in private conversations," Falwell wrote in a weekly newsletter sent Friday to members of the Moral Majority Coalition and The Liberty Alliance. "And he has also told me that he has, in recent years, come to grips with his personal failures and sought God's forgiveness."

How much longer will we have to wait before the hypocrisy of some on the religious right is seen for what it truly is: not piety but a power grab. Funny how God and the right easily forgive Republicans: Newt, Rush, etc., but Democrats are bound for hell...

I saw the "it depends on what is is" parsing going on today: it was okay for a Speaker of the House (2nd in line to the Presidency) to have an affair, it's not okay for the President. Oh, what's that? Newt was a Republican?

Gingrich tells Christian group of affair - Yahoo! News

Gingrich tells Christian group of affair - Yahoo! News

Sigh. What more needs to be said? Perhaps something about planks and specks?

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

A good listen

Need something to listen to? Check out the 12 Byzantine Rulers podcast.

History Lecturer Lars Brownworth gives 13 short (15 min or less) lectures on 12 key emperors of the Byzantine empire. Dull you say? Not at all!

Mr. Brownworth is very engaging, and provides key information as well as anecdotes that bring these ancient figures to life. (Loved the anecdote about the emperor Diocletian retiring to grow cabbages). Highly recommended.

Poverty work

In my classes, we often ask "Why are people poor?" "Why does poverty exist?" The issue is fairly complex, and one of the most interesting groups talking the problem in developing countries is the Millenium Promise Project. Their goal is to "eliminate extreme poverty by 2025."

From their website: "Our flagship initiative, the Millennium Villages, now operating in 78 villages across 10 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, takes a comprehensive approach to addressing extreme poverty. By combining the best scientific and local knowledge, Millennium Villages address all the major problems simultaneously -- hunger, disease, inadequate education, lack of safe drinking water, and absence of essential infrastructure -- to assist communities on their way to self-sustainable development."

Here's an excerpt from a hopeful email I recently received:

"Koraro, Ethiopia has seen dramatic and hope-inspiring changes since the community began working with Millennium Villages in February 2005. More than 150 new homes dot a landscape that was once barren. Crops like maize and sorghum now grow where only splintered rocks and dusty earth once stood. And parents are now deciding that it makes more sense to send their kids to school than to keep them home to work.

One of the first efforts of the project was to give farmers improved seeds and fertilizer. This together with new farming techniques and the hard work of the villagers has produced crop yields four times as large as when the project began. During the last planting season, in July 2006, many villagers decided to diversify their fields to include oranges, bananas, coffee, coriander and ginger—crops that will improve nutrition in the village and command a higher price at local markets."

For more information on this project, and how to end poverty, see Jeffrey Sach's book: The End of Poverty
Monty Python's Dead Parrot Sketch performed in a unique way!

For complete information on this, read the 419 Eater Blog for all the information on this scamming of Nigerian scammers.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Iraqi Blogs

Seems like I found this collection of Iraqi blogs in an airplane magazine back in January. One way to connect the dots is to seek out different experiences and viewpoints. I offer these blogs, without endorsing any particular viewpoint:

Iraq the Model

Neurotic Iraqi Wife

A Family in Baghdad

A Star from Mosul

Here's a blog on introducing Islam:

Introducing Islam

Friday, January 19, 2007

More words for thought

So how do we feed and nourish our spirit, and the spirit of others?

First find a path, and a little light to see by. Then push up your sleeves and start helping. Every single spiritual tradition says that you must take care of the poor, or you are so doomed that not even Jesus or Buddha can help you.

...There are people in this country who are poor in spirit, worried, depressed, dancing as fast as they can; their kids are sick, or their retirement savings are gone. There is great loneliness among us, life-threatening loneliness. People have given up on peace, on equality.

From "Let Us Commence," by Anne Lamott. Found in her book Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Words to live by

"How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because some day in life you will have been all of these."

George Washington Carver

(from a colleagues email signature line)

Saturday, January 06, 2007

New for 2007

I've done a major update on the sidebar info, and promise that I will be refreshing the blog more often in 2007. Of course, now that I'm ready to post, I've dried up with things to say....