Thursday, November 19, 2009

Counterfeit Gods

Last night I read Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters.

Counterfeit Gods is a book about idolatry. Modern, 21st century, 2009 idolatry. It begins with a discussion about God granting the desires of a man's heart, and how that leads only to destruction. We never think of the desires of our heart as being a bad thing to receive, but Keller illustrates very well how those desires are destructive when they are not God. A book that illustrates this point rather vividly (without the emphasis on making God the desire of your heart) is Needful Things: The Last Castle Rock Story by Stephen King, one of the best looks inside the human heart I've ever read. But back to this book... Keller then goes on to illustrate how Love of family, and love itself is a form of idolatry if it is held as more valuable than God in our lives.

Keller has a chapter on Money that is also well written, although not filled with as much revolutionary thinking because that area has been recognized in the church for a while. But the following chapter on success is again very, very eye-opening, and not-just-a-bit convicting. This is followed by a chapter on power, and its role as an idol in our lives. The chapter on hidden idols reveals how _anything_ that we hold as valuable, anything that we utilize to validate our self worth, anything that we do short of look to God for that love and acceptance is idolatry.

Keller then tells the story of Jacob wrestling with God and how when Jacob, and relates Jacob's transformation as he finally sought for a blessing from God rather than the things of the world, even in spite of the permanent physical wound he bore from the struggle. This likewise was very powerful as we look at the story of Jacob's life, and all of his failures, and then see how God used him in spite of those failures, but really only after he finally sought God's blessing instead of the blessings of Isaac, Rachel, etc. The book then turns very practical at looking at how we can work to remove idolatry from our lives.

This book is brilliantly written. Scripture is interwoven throughout, as the stories of the bible illustrate the concepts Keller is trying to communicate. As a result, this book has authority behind it. It is an expository book in this regard, drawing critical life lessons out of scripture and working to apply those to our current social economic context.

Without question, Counterfeit Gods is the best book I've read this month. And I've read a LOT of books this month. Highly recommended.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Day 15 of the TV Experiment

After putting the kids to bed Patty and I sat in the living room and read. I can't think of the last time we both did that. I finished up Manias, Panics, and Crashes: A History of Financial Crises by Charles Kindleberger. This book wasn't nearly as good as I hoped it would be. It really focused on the idea of the need for a "Lender of Last Resort" in financial crises.

Kindleberger clearly knows his stuff, but this book is written almost as a book by an economist for economists. It expects that you have a clear understanding of events like Tulipomania, the British Government debt crisis of 1763 in Amsterdam, the South Sea Company bubble, Banque Royale, etc. While I am familiar with some of these things I found myself often confused as I read this book.

It is also interesting to read this book post-2008, as the US government, IMF and central banks all around the world worked to stop last year's financial meltdown from becoming a full-on worldwide economic collapse leading to a long depression. I'd venture that most of the economists who were making those decisions have read this book.

As a lay person though, this is a difficult read. I started it on Sunday and wasn't able to finish it, which is unusual for me right now.

After this I read A Short History of Financial Euphoria. I've read this book before, but I found myself wanting to read it again after reading Manias, Panics and Crashes. This book is an excellent introduction to why this stuff happens in the first place. I really like this book, it's a quick read and it gives you a good picture of how these things happen and what factors lead to their development.

What this book does so well is analyze the psychology involved as well:

"Although only a few observers have noted the vested interest in error that accompanies speculative euphoria, it is, nonetheless, an extremely plausible phenomenon. Those involved with the speculation are experiencing an increase in wealth—getting rich or being further enriched. No one wishes to believe that this is fortuitous or undeserved; all wish to think that it is the result of their own superior insight or intuition. The very increase in values thus captures the thoughts and minds of those being rewarded. Speculation buys up, in a very practical way, the intelligence of those involved."

Galbraith predicted the crash of the stock market in 1987 a few months earlier. He was widely vilified for this pronouncement. But as it turned out, he was very right. He has a good understanding of the speculative cycle and its impact on world markets. If you have any interest in why things happen the way they do, this is the book to read. Highly recommended.

As for music, we only listened to one CD: Yes No by a Japanese group called "The Square" at the time, and now known as T-Square. My friend Keiichi Yano turned me on to this a long, long time ago. I still like it.


Monday, November 16, 2009

Two Weeks without TV - Patty's Perspective

I have had a few requests to hear from the rest of the family. Here's their take:

Coming from the wife and kids, it’s been good overall. We have transitioned much better than I thought we would. Kids haven’t complained about missing their favorite programs – that is unless you ask them about it. They are needing more attention/direction, but are adapting quite well overall. Fights on way to school are not so bad. I think this is because they can think clearer while getting ready for school.

Since we live in a rural area and can’t get High Speed Internet that is worth our investment in it, I have felt a bit out of touch with what’s happening in the world. Felt lost with regards to the World Series, the November elections, the Healthcare Bill. On the positive side, ignorance is bliss. Just feeling ignorant.

One day when I was doing a lot of cooking preparation, I thought about popping in a DVD or viewing one of my TiVoed programs while I worked. It took awhile to reprogram and put in CDs instead for background to keep the pace. Wondering why silence is so hard to handle.

Thankful for the break from Xbox. When the kids play Xbox a lot, they do seem more aggressive and easily agitated with each other. When we do turn the tv back on, I’d like to make Xbox only on the weekends.

I could go another couple weeks, possibly until school lets out for Christmas break. I don’t think I’d like to do this “cold turkey” thing permanently, but I do feel we use our entertainment center far too much.


Day 14 of the TV Experiment

We are two weeks in. On the whole it is a great thing. There are definitely times when I wish we had it on, mostly to watch DVD's now. That's the weird thing. Haven't watched the USC or Anaheim Ducks games and haven't missed them. Haven't watched mythbusters, destroyed in seconds, the office or any of the other shows we like. Haven't missed them either. I do imagine that if this was the Formula 1 season I would miss that. Still haven't decided if we are going to turn back on DirecTV at the end of the month, but I'm leaning more and more away from it.

I have more time to read than I can ever remember having. Going without TV has also really highlighted how much we no longer listen to music around the house. Without the TV on, CD's get played more. I really enjoy music, and listening to it in the living room is a far different experience from playing it in the car or listening to it at my desk at work. I love iTunes, but a shuffle of thousands of songs is not the same as putting in a CD and listening to it from start to finish.

I am almost done with another book, I'll post a review when I've finished it.


Saturday, November 14, 2009

Holler if you Hear Me

Searching for Tupac Shakur

When I was at Fuller Seminary a man mentioned Tupac in one of my classes. I had heard of Tupac as part of the "Hard Core" rap scene in the 90's, and wasn't surprised when he was killed. In the 90's it seemed that hard core rap stars being shot was about as common as brittney spears showing cleavage during her heyday.

Somehow though it seemed that Tupac was different. You don't see paintings of Notorious B.I.G., but you do see them of Tupac. You don't see statues of Biggie Smalls but there are statues of Tupac. You don't see kids stop and pause at a lithograph of Soulja Slim, but they do with Tupac. I asked the guy in my class what made Tupac different. He said that Tupac sang about the issues that mattered to the black community, and that he was very spiritual. That didn't exactly gel with my impression of Tupac, so I asked him where I could learn more. He suggested this book: Holler If You Hear Me by Michael Eric Dyson.

The book starts off a bit like a starry eyed fan book, with the writer talking about trying to get comments from Snoop Dog and others about Tupac. They clearly have respect for Tupac, but it doesn't make for great reading. It improves quickly though as it goes into a biography of Tupac's early life and then talks about his work, the end of his life and his legacy. There is also a very good section about the treatment of women in black culture and rap in particular.

Did the book answer my question? I believe it did. I am going to share a few quotes that illustrate a difference between Tupac and so many other dead rap stars:

Quoting reverend Willie Wilson: "He was their preacher, if you will, who brought a message that [young people] can identify with, related to what was real, that spoke to the reality of the circumstances, situations [and] environments they have to deal with every day." If Wilson's words appear outlandish to some, perhaps even sacrilegious to others, it might help to remember that Tupac was obsessed with God. His lyrics drip with a sense of the divine.

Dyson then goes on to back up that assertion with quotes of songs and discussions of their religious themes.

In a later chapter Dyson continues "It is as if he were saying, 'I will be your sacrificial lamb. I will suffer for your sake, in your place. I will tell the story of your entombment in poverty and stunted social ambition. I will narrate your lives through my chaotic, desperate, self-destructive public life. And when I die, it will be to immortalize the similar deaths of anonymous black males whose names will never scar the tissue of public attention.'"

One final quote:

"The thought of Tupac's body lurching backward in suffering as he sought to dodge his murderer's assault is the thought of black males left vulnerable to arbitrary destruction. Whether it is of their own making or the doing of sinister forces outside their communities, though important to know, cannot finally deter the love that must embrace and save them."

This, then, is how at least some of the black community sees Tupac. In reading the book I got an appreciation of Tupac as a man who was intelligent, soft spoken and well read, yet horribly insecure who got caught up, by his own choice, in a lifestyle that was not survivable.

Reading this book a week or so after reading "Outliers" is very telling. Outliers is all about the situations and circumstances that lead to success. Holler if you Hear Me is all about a man who had the worst of circumstances and situations and managed to become a huge rap star, but never was able to shake those circumstances and situations, ultimately ending up dead as a result of them.

Reading this book definitely helped me to understand why Tupac is revered when others are forgotten. It also made me sad for the plight of the poor in our society, when even if they are brilliant and successful, the culture they live in makes demands on them that keeps them down.

I am not a fan of rap music, I am not a fan of Tupac, and I am not a fan of violence. Still, I think this book was well worth reading to understand a significant part of our culture and why this man is viewed the way he is by many in our society. Tupac is, to me, an American tragedy. Recommended.


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

Somewhere, a long time ago, I picked up a copy of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer. For $3. It looked interesting. But it's also intimidating, at 1143 pages. This book was a bit of a surprise, both for William Shirer and his publisher when it was released. The initial run was only 12,500 copies. Ultimately, it sold over 1 Million copies in hardcover, and another million in paperback! As for me, it sat unread on my bookshelf for years. For some reason this fall I found myself in the mood to read it, and so I did.

This book is nearly fifty years old and has been succeeded by many books analyzing the third reich, as well as movies, tv shows etc. Rather than review the book in the classic sense, I'm going to extract a few things that really stood out to me as I read it. Think of it as leadership lessons of Adolph Hitler.

The book opens with the birth of the third reich in 1933, and then resets to 1918 and the death of the second reich and the birth of the weimar republic. Amidst this general chaos Adolph Hitler was assigned to investigate the German Worker's Party (soon it would change its name) by the military. This event ultimately lead to him becoming the 7th member of the party, and very quickly he became its leader.

On November 8, 1923 Hitler attempted to seize control of Germany through an event now known as the "Beer Hall Putsch." At this point Hitler was still generally unknown throughout Germany, as was the National Socialist German Worker's Party (the full name of the Nazi party). This bold plan was far too early, and it failed miserably and quickly. Shirer puts it this way "The nazi putsch had ended in a fiasco. The party was dissolved. National Socialism, to all appearances, was dead. Its dictatorial leader, who had run away at the first hail of bullets, seemed utterly discredited, his meteoric political career at an end."

This is where we really begin to see the genius of Hitler. His genius was not in military strategy, like he claimed, but in his understanding of people and how to get them to do what he wanted, as well as his sheer tenacity. On February 26, 1924 he went on trial for treason. Rather than being the end of his career, he made it a launching pad. For twenty four days Hitler spoke, cross examined, and pronounced his love for Germany to the world.

Rather than try to get out of any charges Hitler stated "I alone bear the responsibility. But I am not a criminal because of that. If today I stand here as a revolutionary, it is as a revolutionary against the revolution. There is no such thing as high treason against the traitors of 1918." As Shirer puts it "By the time it had ended twenty four days later Hitler had transformed defeat into triumph…and emblazoned his name on the front pages of the world."

There were two things that really struck me out of this. First, people are desperate for leadership with strong ideals. Even though many people didn't necessarily support what the National Socialists stood for, Hitler stood for SOMETHING and that gained him respect. Second, he brilliantly turned a crushing defeat into a personal victory. His trial for treason became his own platform to tell the world of his ideas and to make them familiar with his name.

Hitler took this same attitude to his time in prison, which for many people would have been demoralizing and radically changed their course. For Hitler, it solidified what he wanted to do. He used the time in prison to write Mein Kampf. In this tome he lays out his ideas, including many that unfortunately he followed through on… By the end of his time in prison this is what he faced: "The Nazi Party and its press were banned; the former leaders were feuding and falling away. He himself was forbidden to speak in public. " The deck was clearly stacked against him.

This is the next thing that Hitler did really well. Rather than try to speak in public anyway, which would have gotten him arrested again and likely deported to Austria, he used this time to work behind the scenes. Hitler was also a great organizer and so he set about making the party strong again, but now organizationally rather than from his incredible speaking talents.

In 1932 Hitler ran for president of the republic. He came in second with 36.8% of the vote. In the summer there was another election, for the German Parliament called the Reichstag. In this, the Nazis ended up with 37% of the vote. They didn't have the majority they needed to seize power. How did Hitler respond? By demanding the chancellorship (the Nazi party, at 37%, was the largest party in the reichstag) and a large number of key positions elsewhere in the republic for the Nazi party. He was refused.

In November there was another election, and the Nazi party lost votes, and by consequence, seats in the reichstag. They were down from 37% to 32% of the vote now. The Nazi party was on the wane for the first time since Hitler's return in 1925. Hitler responded by continuing to demand the chancellorship and working the political side of things along with Goebbels, Hitler's brilliant minister of propaganda. Ultimately, on January 30th, 1933, with only 32% of the vote, Hitler took power. The Nazis only held control of three of the eleven cabinet seats, but it was all Hitler needed.

How is this possible? Quite simply, the opposition was divided, and Hitler exploited those divides at every opportunity. Each of the groups were far too focused on their own issues, and on maintaining their own power bases, to unite against the Nazis. 32% of the vote is what it took to bring Hitler to power. 32% of the vote brought the world to the brink of destruction, and unleashed unspeakable horror on millions of people.

From that point on, it was simply a matter of time as Hitler consolidated power and took more and more control away from everyone else. I found this aspect of the book, the rise of the third reich up until September 1, 1939 simply fascinating. There is no shortage of material either, as Shirer devotes 596 pages to the rise of the third reich prior to world war II.

In some ways it reminds me of Han Solo when he says to princess C3PO "Never tell me the odds!" Hitler didn't get overwhelmed by the obstacles in his path, he simply plowed through them. As someone who works numbers and percentages, it's eye opening to realize how at times these things don't matter at all. As a church leader, I realize that we need to be bold when we feel that God wants us to do something, treating obstacles not as setbacks, but as opportunities.

This book documents very well the good things the Nazis did, as well as the atrocities. Unfortunately for the world, Hitler followed through on the things he said he would do in Mein Kampf. There is a chapter in this book entitled "The New Order" in which I became physically ill as I read through the evil acts committed by the third reich against the jews and others. While I admire Hitler's tenacity and leadership skills during the period leading up to World War II, I shudder with the rest of the world at the unbridled evil that came along with those talents.

The other thing that reading this book did was make me less patient with those that believe we should appease and negotiate with unreasonable people. Had the French simply attacked Germany when Germany attacked Poland, World War II would have ended in 1939. They had 100 divisions to something like 6 on the German side. It was painful to read how Neville Chamberlain, a man who undoubtedly had the best motives, continually bowed to Hitler's demands.

Indeed Chamberlain's "Peace for our time" quote is the punchline of a joke for it's sheer ridiculousness. Chamberlain really believed that he had negotiated peace. In reality, what he did was gave Hitler a year to better arm Germany to go to war.

There are also leadership lessons to be learned from HItler's conduct during world war II, most of them negative lessons about how not to assume you are smarter than everyone else and to ignore wise council. But those are also very well documented virtually everywhere…

Except for chapter on The New Order (something that really is essential, IMHO), I really enjoyed this book. It was a fascinating read despite (or perhaps because of) the incredible level of detail. It's not a great history book, in that Shirer is _far_ too editorial, calling people names and using very uncomplimentary adjectives for people he does not like, but he also lived through world war II and spend much of the 1930's in Germany, so there is a lot of raw emotion here.

This is not the only book you should ever read on World War Two Germany by any stretch, but it is a very good place to start to get a detailed picture of how the Nazis came to power and ultimately unraveled. I don't think this is in print anymore, but it shouldn't be hard to find a copy in any used bookstore.


The Desert Fathers

Today I read The Desert Fathers. (ok, I started it yesterday)

I have been looking forward to this book for a long time. I have a certain fascination with the monastic life, and the desert fathers take that isolation a step further, living as hermits in the desert. This book contains some historical information that is ok, but the heart of this book is the sayings of the desert fathers. The main portion of the book has these sayings organized by topic. There are some very random things in here, but there is also some great stuff:

…no one in this world ought to be despised, let him be a thief, or an actor on the stage, or one that tilled the ground, and was bound to a wife, or was a merchant and served a trade: for in every condition of human life there are souls that please God and have their hidden deed wherein He takes delight: whence it is plain that it is not so much profession or habit that is pleasing to God as the sincerity and affection of the soul and honesty of deed.


This follows us a story where an old man finds great hearts in people he did not expect. I am always amazed at how much we tie to an occupation, indeed, one of the very first questions we ask someone is "what do you do?"

Another quote stuck out to me:

And he was silent for awhile, and then poured water into a vessel and said, "Look upon the water." And it was murky. And after a little while he said again, "Look now, how clear the water has become." And as they looked into the water they saw their own faces, as in a mirror. And then he said to them, "So is he who abides in the midst of men: because of the turbulence, he sense not his sins: but when he hath been quiet, above all in solitude, then does he recognize his own default."

This is told in the context of encouraging the desert lifestyle, but I think we can learn from this without denying everything and retreating to the desert. In our chaotic lives we do not allow time for reflection. When we are in the car, our radio is on. When we are at home, the tv is on. Our lives are constantly filled with noise and distraction. We desperately need to reflect, and we don't give ourselves the chance. To reflect takes time, like it takes time for murky water to clear. This is the reason behind the tv experiment, which has given me time to read this book…

Then there is this quote:

A certain philosopher questioned the holy Antony. "How," said he, "dost thou content thyself, Father, who art denied the comfort of books?" He answered, "My book, philosopher, is the nature of created things, and as often as I have a mind to read the words of God, it is at my hand."

In the church we often over look the general revelation of God, that is, how He is revealed through His creation.

And finally, my favorite quote from the entire book:

An old man said, "The prophets wrote book: then after them came our fathers, and wrought much upon them, and again their successors committed them to memory. But then came the generation that now is, and wrote them on papyrus and parchments, and laid them idle in the windows."

'nuff said!

This book is worth picking up. There is great wisdom within.


Day 10 of the TV Experiment

I didn't blog days 8 and 9 because you really don't need to read about me shopping for a camera on the internet (Monday) and leading a cub scout meeting (Tuesday). The only thing of interest would be reviews of the music I listened to, but I don't think they are good enough to stand on their own...

Today is Veteran's day. We spent the morning working on the heating and air systems in our house, getting the humidifiers and air cleaners working properly again. One of the humidifiers had become a residence to a mouse at some point, and was filled with insulation blocking the fan. That's why we check these things...

I've asked Patty to write up her view of this crazy "month with no tv" experiment, so you should hear from her in the next few days. I might ask the kids to do the same. In the meantime, today I read The Desert Fathers, a book that I found fascinating (review to follow). Patty and Grace were gone for part of the day, which allowed me to put on a little more of "Daddy's Music" :-)

(1) AC/DC - Powerage - Not their best effort by any stretch. An average 70's rock album.
(2) Diana Krall - Live in Paris - My favorite Diana Krall album.
(3) Bond - Shine - Remember Hooked on Classics from the 70's? Classical music to a beat, but not nearly as cheesy as those were.
(4) Genesis - We Can't Dance - The last Genesis studio album that matters (Calling All Stations doesn't count).
(5) Linkin Park - Meteora - A really, really, really great modern hard rock album.
(6) Evanescence - Fallen - A friend of mine handed me a burned copy of this disc years ago. I played it once, loved it so much I ordered the real thing from Amazon. Simply outstanding.

Yesterday rather than watch TV we played "Sorry" as a family, which was fun right up to the point where Jacob ran out of the room crying... On the bright side, it gave me the opportunity to parent him about his attitude, and he seemed to wake up today with the desire to do better on that front.

Still have to lead a bible study tonight and then I'll probably tackle another book. I'll add that to tomorrow's entry if I write one.


Monday, November 9, 2009

Selected Writings of Saint Thomas More

Another book I read yesterday was Saint Thomas More: Selected Writings.

The majority of this book is the unfinished work "The Sadness of Christ" which delves deeply into the passion. There are some great passages here, some passages that cut right to the heart. For example:

"They went out to the Mount of Olives," not to bed. The prophet says "I arose in the middle of the night to pay homage to you," but Christ did not even lie down in bed. But as for us, I wish we could truly apply ourselves even to this text: "I thought of you as I lay in my bed."


Unfortunately the Sadness of Christ is an unfinished work, and an unedited one. It is difficult to read, partially because of it's level of detail, but also because it is very repetitive. One cannot help but wonder how marvelous this work would have been if More had been able to take the time to revise it and finish it. Sadly, the lust of Henry VIII for Anne Boleyn and his madness for power saw More beheaded due to his refusal to declare the marriage legal in the eyes of God.

The very small section, Instructions and Prayers, is EXTREMELY powerful. These are written by a man, confined to the Tower of London and condemned to death. They are prayers of forgiveness and meditations on the Lord. Imagine that you have been condemned to death for your refusal to sign an oath to an evil king, and are due to die within a few days. Could you honestly say you would write this:

Give me the grace to amend my life and to have an eye to mine end without grudge of death, which to them that die in Thee (good Lord) is the gate of a wealthy life.

or the opening of another work written during this time:

Bear no malice nor evil will to no man living.


The book closes with a collection of letters, mostly to his daughter, and a biography of Sir Thomas More by his son-in-law. By far my favorite part of the book was the middle section on prayer. Overall, not one of the strongest entries in the vintage spiritual classics series.


Go Green, $ave Green

On Sunday I read Go Green, Save Green by Nancy Sleeth. A friend of mine gave me this book because he had no interest in it and he received it in the mail as part of the catalyst pack. I figured it might be interesting so I read it.

Nancy and her husband were on vacation when they decided that the planet was dying, and he should quit his job and devote all his energies to this goal. This book is designed to be a practical guide on ways to save the planet, and save money in the process.

The book is filled with a lot of pages of tips and such, but the problem is that for the most part these tips are nothing you haven't heard a thousand times before. Buy compact fluorescent bulbs, turn off lights when you aren't using them, unplug unused appliances, give away the second refrigerator etc.

The "lawn and garden" section gives great tips for residents of the northeast to midwest, but only pays slight lip services to the rest of the country. It is almost assumed that your house has a basement, for example, and lots of tips involve things like rain gutters. Where I live we get, maybe, three days of rain a year. We don't even have gutters.

The book felt very repetitive in each of its sections, and some of the advice didn't even seem well founded. For example, buy a hybrid is one of the mantras of this book, and she explains that your fuel savings over five years will be around $4000. What she misses is the fact that a car similar to the prius but non-hybrid costs somewhere around $10,000 less than a prius (she dodges this by claiming the average price of a new car is higher than a prius, but those are much bigger, and nicer cars), and gets similar or better gas mileage… She also mentions putting bricks and milk jugs in the backs of toilets to make them use less water. The problem with this idea is that those toilets aren't designed to flush properly with 2 gallons of water, so you end up flushing multiple times to remove the, uh, evidence...

I like some of her advice, like buy local produce and such, and I think people do need to think more about what season vegetables and fruits should be eaten in to encourage less transpiration of food, but by and large I found this book unfulfilling and unmotivating. Unless you haven't a clue how to save money or reduce your energy usage, this book is a pass.


Day 7 of the TV Experiment

I am still sick, but feeling a bit better. The challenge today is not overdoing it. I took a nap after church, and that seemed to help. Hopefully I can get to sleep tonight.

Jacob and I played oh-Wah-Ree, a game I played with my dad when I was about his age. The first game I beat him handily, but taught him strategy all the way along. The second game I helped him more, and made a few intentional not-the-best-moves and he won. He was quite pleased :-) So was daddy.

I read a book today, Go Green, Save Green (review to follow) and wasn't terribly impressed. At least the music was good:

(1) Shelly Berg Trio - Blackbird. - This is an excellent CD suggested by my friend Brett. Well performed it is not terribly adventurous musically, but most enjoyable.

(2) Star Wars Episode III soundtrack - I don't even remember buying this one. I think I must have imported it into iTunes and then dropped it in the box at home. I am not sure I've ever listened to it end to end. Although the movie was good, the music isn't all that special.

(3) Phil Collins - Hello, I Must Be Going! - This is pop at its best. Phil's vocals are awesome and the whole album is light hearted and quick.

(4) Billy Joel - River of Dreams - This album is very hit and miss. It opens strong with "No Man's Land" which laments the commercialization of America, and goes right into The Great Wall of China, a song that is at least memorable. The album pauses for the forgettable Blonde over Blue, and then launches into the soulful "A Minor Variation" a song that sounds like it belongs on the Storm Front album. Next up is the overproduced and very forgettable Shades of Gray followed by the equally forgettable All About Soul. Lullaby (Goodnight my Angel) follows, and it is beautiful, a borderline masterpiece. The signature piece of this album is the wonderfully complex river of dreams, the one big hit from this CD. Unfortunately, these two songs are by far the high point of the CD. It finishes with the Goodnight Saigon rehash Two Thousand Years and the bland Famous Last Words. In this day and age I'd say buy the high points on iTunes and skip the rest...

(5) Genesis - Nursery Cryme - The first Genesis album worth listening to. The strongest number, The Return of the Giant Hogweed, is better on Genesis Live. Still, The Musical Box and Harold the Barrel are quite good.

(6) Genesis - Foxtrot - Not as good as Nursery Cryme. It starts strong with Watcher of the Skies (also on Genesis Live) and then but for a few brief moments is unremarkable.

(7) Cusco - Apurimac - Some albums age like fine wine. This is not one of them.

I also read Saint Thomas More: Selected Writings. I'll review that in another post.


Saturday, November 7, 2009

Day 6 of the TV Experiment

Today was tough. Very tough.

I went to bed last night feeling sick. It got so bad that I had to get up and take Ny-Quill. If you know me, I am the type of guy that tends to look at a missing arm as a "flesh wound" and avoid the world of medicine unless absolutely necessary. It was absolutely necessary...

I woke up this morning feeling a bit like someone who had spent the night being slammed into trees. This is exactly the kind of day that would find me laying on the couch in and out of consciousness watching hours upon hours of college football. It is days like this where I find myself watching games like Nevada verses Fresno State...

Anyway, that wasn't an option. And the brakes in the van desperately needed to be changed, so I went over to my friend's house to work on the van, as well as another friend's volvo. We got the brakes done, made slow progress on the engine replacement for the volvo, and ultimately both guys looked at me and said "you really should go home and take a nap" which is exactly what I did.

Jacob complained he was bored, which makes sense because he spent like five hours playing video games at Mark's house. I had little sympathy. I took my nap, got up for dinner, and got back into bed. I did manage to read today though. Since these books are lighter fare, I'll include the reviews here instead of in a separate post. I read a small book entitled Fortress Introduction to the Prophets. I found it rather unfulfilling. It gave cursory introductions to Amos, Hosea, Micah, Habakkuk and Isaiah. Then it spent half of the book talking about Jeremiah. What happened to the rest of the prophets is anyone's guess. To me it seemed like Rodney Hutton wrote a book on Jeremiah that was too short, so they tacked on the first half of the book to make it saleable. It's not a bad book, I actually enjoyed the cursory introductions, I found them informative and interesting. But I was left feeling like I didn't get the whole book. Not recommended.

I then shifted genres entirely and read The Halfling's Gem, a fantasy book by R.A. Salvatore. This is the third book in the Icewind Dale trilogy, a series my cousin Scott turned me on to. These aren't Lord of the Rings caliber books, but they are quite entertaining to read. They tell the stories of four friends, a dwarf, a barbarian, a halfling and a dark elf. They are well written, and draw you in and keep you turning the pages. If you like fantasy, these books are worth picking up.

Music today was mostly quiet. After the kids went to bed I put on Chick Corea's Akoustic Band. I bought this when it was released in 1989 and long ago lost count as to how many times I have played it. As always, the level of musicianship displayed here by Chick Corea, Dave Weckl, and John Patitucci simply defies understanding. These guys have definitely put in more than their 10,000 hours...

I followed up Chick Corea with Hemispheres by Rush. This is a lesser known work that is, IMHO, one of their very best albums. If you like Rush and haven't heard this, it's time to pick it up or download it from iTunes.

Finally I put on Duke, by Genesis. This album is the last of the big rich sound tapestries that were a hallmark of Genesis through the 1970's. It includes two hits, Turn it On Again and Misunderstanding, that were the start of what became a more pop song orientation for the band through the 1980's. I don't look at that as a bad thing, simply different. This album is the bridge between those two worlds. Well worth a listen.

Today was hard without TV, I'll admit. It would have been a simple day to just lay on the couch and watch TV. On the other hand, I got the brakes done on the van, and being outside was probably good for me. Sleeping in my bed was probably better than watching tv all day as well. In the end, I don't think it would have been a better day with the tv.


Day 5 of the TV Experiment

Today was different, in that we had a plan. For my birthday I received a new board game, The Settlers of Catan, from Patty's brother and sister in law. I was really hoping to have it for this month, so it's arrival was greeted with much joy. This game was created in 1995 and is probably the best board game to be created in the last twenty years or more.

What makes Settlers so great is that it is fun for all ages. I know that phrase is always used for any game, but this one really was fun for mom and dad and kids alike. It's a strategy game, in which you build roads, settlements and cities, all the while competing for resources and such. It sounds complicated, and at first glance it kind of is, but once you've played it once, it's really rather simple.

The best thing about Settlers of Catan, and where it is so genius, is that there is a random element to it. You can win this game by planning a brilliant strategy and executing it perfectly. But there is also luck, and that luck can strike at the worst times for the brilliant strategy. When we played it took us about two hours, and my daughter ended up winning. She was probably the least planned and strategized, but the game fell into her hands at a few key moments (daddy might have helped her strategize a bit too...).

The game involves trading, which makes cooperation with one another essential, yet at the same time, has a way to trade with "foreign lands" if nobody will trade with you, making the game still fun if everyone turns against you and refuses to trade. I am really impressed overall with the design of the game.

Oftentimes games with a luck element feel pointless, because it's all just luck. This game is not. Strategy is crucial and makes a big difference, but the luck element is there to insure that the best player doesn't always win. Another great feature is the fact that the game board can be set up randomly, so that it is different every time you play. This avoids the "everyone wants austrailia" element of repetitive strategy you find in games like Risk.

We played until almost ten pm. I altered the rules a bit to end the game early, because the kids were getting REALLY tired. We need to try it again, starting earlier.

We listened to only two CD's last night, primarily because we were all playing the game so we didn't really need music on...

Before playing Settlers I put on Supernatural by Santana. This album is a masterpiece. Most known for the megahit "Smooth" the album is excellent from top to bottom. The collaboration with other artists means that the sound varies quite a bit while still retaining a cohesiveness.

We also listened to Much Afraid by Jars of Clay. To be honest, I was never all that impressed with this CD. It simply blends into the background. It is the musical equivalent of beige. It served it's purpose (background music to settlers of catan) perfectly.

All told, a very good night. A TV-less one.


Friday, November 6, 2009


Last night I read the book Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. My dad first mentioned this book to me in July, and I finally picked it up about a week ago. This book was utterly fascinating!

If you haven't heard of it, this book analyzes specific factors that contributed to the success of individuals. It looks beneath the "rags to riches" stories to reveal the unique advantages that well known figures had in rising to the top. It is very interesting to see that birthdate is one HUGE factor in a person's success.

For example, to be a pioneer (and get very, very rich in the process) in the personal computer industry, you basically had to be born around 1955. This put you at the perfect age when computers were entering universities, when the market was just developing etc. Gladwell backs up these assertions with very clear examples, and identifies what likely would have happened if, say, Steve Jobs or Bill Joy had been born five years earlier.

It's not just computers either. Gladwell analyzes the garmet industries of Jewish immigrants at the end of the 19th century, the big takeover law firms of New York city, the tycoons of industry at the end of the 19th century etc. In some cases he compares people to their not-successful parents and shows how the circumstances and timing had far more to do with their lack of success than their character makeup, which they passed to their very successful children.

Gladwell spends quite a bit of time analyzing the fact that IQ does not equal success, but tells the stories of Chris Langan and Robert Oppenheimer (yes, THAT Oppenheimer). Chris Langan has a higher IQ than Oppenheimer, but nowhere near the success. Gladwell identifies the factors that contributed to the outcomes of lfie for each of these men, and again the results are fascinating.

There is also good analysis of plane crashes, and how cultural factors contribute to plane crashes far more than equipment failure. Then the book addresses how airlines have been able to reduce their crashes by understanding those cultural issues and training their pilots to change their behavior in the interest of safety.

Gladwell also digs into the idea that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something, and cites research that demonstrates how practice is far more important than raw talent in becoming an expert. Again, fascinating stuff.

He addresses the difference in educational development of low income families verses high income families over the summer. The income gap made little to no difference during the school year, but over the summer there was a huge difference. The more well off families took their kids to the library, sent to them to camp, engaged them in things that allowed them to continue to grow and develop. The lower income kids may have had a lot of fun over the summer, but came back to school behind the kids who had continued to develop.

In the section entitled "Legacy" Gladwell looks at how our cultural and genetic makeup affects our behaviors, generations into the future. He cites research into how people respond to being offended and how those responses tie together with their ancestors professions (wild stuff!). He closes with a very personal section about his parents and how their success (and by consequence his) is also tied to events that happened long, long ago and how they benefitted from the fallout from these things. Once again, timing was crucially important.

I absolutely loved this book. Practical application for me really boiled down to this: Seize the opportunities in front of you, because success is as much about opportunities and circumstances as raw talent, work ethic and intellectual prowess.


Day 4 of the TV Experiment

I didn't writeup day 3 because it really wasn't much different than it would have been with the tv on. Last night though was awesome. I got home around 5-ish, and remembered that it was "National Men Make Dinner Day" so I put on Rush: Signals(a longtime favorite album), and started making tacos. Nothing special, but since I didn't remember until I got home, I wasn't prepared to make anything cool. I was going to grill something, but Patty said that was against the rules.

After dinner I sat down and started reading Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. I'll review it in another post but it was an awesome book. Jacob was on the couch reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Book 6) having just finished book five. I'm amazed at how fast he reads, he just started reading Harry Potter at the end of the summer. Now that he's gotten into it and isn't watching TV, he read book five in a little over a week.

Besides the aforementioned Rush album, we listened to:

Huey Lewis & the News: Fore! - Haven't heard this one in a LONG time. Good stuff.

Falco: Greatest Hits - Yes, I'm weird for listening to German pop music, but it made for good background music while I read.

Dave Brubeck: Time Out - An absolute classic. Most known for "take five" but a very good album top to bottom.

Beethoven: Sonaten - Pathétique & Mondschein - To my mind this is THE definitive collection of these piano works. I've never found another recording that, for me, captured the essence and spirit of these pieces. I use this CD as the standard to which I try to match when I play them. Unfortunately, I need to practice a lot more :-)

I'm amazed at how much music we listen to now, and lament how much of our life has been filled with the soundtrack of tv or video games...

We are four days into this experiment and every day our likelihood of turning DirecTV back on at the end of the month diminishes.


Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Paul: In Fresh Perspective

I really like to read, and turning off the tv for a month opens up the time for me to read a lot more. Last night's read was Paul: In Fresh Perspective by N.T. Wright. This is not an easy read. It took serious concentration and effort to get through this book in one night.

This book is about putting Paul in context, specifically context that many scholars overlook. Wright digs into the three realities in which Paul functions: Jewish second temple culture, the greek cultural influences, and living in a Roman world. Wright describes it this way: "As should be apparent, this world could profitably be described in terms of its multiple overlapping and sometimes competing narratives: the story of God and Israel from the Jewish side; the pagan stories about their gods and the world, and the implicit narratives around which individual pagans constructed their identities, from the Greco-Roman sides; and particularly the great narratives of empire, both the large-scale ones we find in Virgil and Livy and elsewhere and the smaller, implicit ones of local culture."

These narratives are important to understanding the writings of Paul because they would have been immediately apparent to his audience. If I use the phrase "Yes we can!" it has an immediate, and in many cases emotional, connection with my readers. I might utilize that connection to save myself a lot of time and writing because my audience has the same context I do. On the other hand, were this blog to be read in 100 years (unlikely, but bear with me) and I titled a post "Yes we Can!" it would be either completely meaningless to the reader, or it might have a vague familiarity along the lines of "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!" which is a phrase I know, but have no idea what it means.

Wright then digs into this contextual understanding of Paul, giving examples of how these shared understandings color the reading of Paul. He closes with a discussion of how we need to use this hermeneutical approach to fully understand our role as a church in a post-modern society.

I have mixed feelings about this book. I love the study of the meta-narratives in which Paul operates, and anytime we are working to understand things in proper context, I think we are doing good work. On the other hand, I felt a little bit like I wasn't quite up to the challenge of this book. Ironically there are United Kingdom cultural references in Wright's work that I don't "get" and without good internet at home, I don't have time to research them. Likewise, there are scholarly debates that he expects his reader to be well versed in that I have not studied.

On the whole I think this is a good book, but not a great one for me.


Day 2 of the TV experiment

Day 2 without TV was better than day 1 for the family. Patty said the kids didn't fight on the way to school and were treating each other better. Weird, didn't expect THAT from this experiment. I got home from work at the same time they got home from Girl Scouts, and Jacob sat on the couch and pulled out Harry Potter book 5, while Patty and Grace were doing email or something like that in the office.

As for me, I read Paul: In Fresh Perspective by N.T. Wright. I'll do a review of that in another post.

Around bedtime we read to the kids out of the The Book of Virtues. We bought this book in 1996 or so when it came out, and always planned to read from it to our kids. The last time we tried they were too young. They really enjoyed the stories and poems we read and it seemed like a great thing to do before bed. We read one story and one poem and they asked for more, so that was a good sign. We will try it again tonight and see if they are still into it!

With no TV on we listen to music more. Last night I put on three CD's:
(1) OK Computer by Radiohead. I bought this CD because it was so highly regarded in a book I read, but I honestly don't care for it much. It's a weird mix of screeching guitars and melancholy vocals that just never quite works. In Rainbows is a far superior effort, IMHO.

(2) Debussy and Ravel Piano Works - Long, LONG out of print, this is a fantastic CD of some not-all-that-well-known piano pieces. Alain Planes really does these pieces justice. I purchased this for "LA CATHEDRALE ENGLOUTIE" many, many years ago but the entire CD is top notch. It was really nice to hear this again, as I rarely listen to classical music on iTunes.

(3) The Look of Love by Diana Krall. I really enjoy Diana Krall and have been in the mood for her stuff a lot lately. This is a very mellow, romantic (duh) CD that really shows off her sultry vocals and gentle touch at the piano. The only downside is that I always feel like I should be in a smoke filled bar when I listen to her...

All told day 2 of the tv experiment was awesome. I can't think of anything we could have done as a family with the tv on that would be better than the last two nights. We had told the kids we MIGHT use the tv for a family movie night this month, but I am rethinking that with how much better it has been with it off. More to come...


Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Day 1 without TV

This isn't exactly a dramatic travelogue where I am going days through the desert without food and water, but pulling the plug on the tv is not only counter-cultural, it definitely shows how much time we waste in front of it.

Last night I would have sat down after work and watched the world series. That would have cost me 2.5 hours of the evening (got home at 6). No idea what I would have done after the game was over. Instead I did the following:

(1) Cleaned up the living room, packing up the xbox to lend to a friend for the month.
(2) Read Creator and Cosmos and Fingerprint of God, both by Hugh Ross.
(3) Listened to three CD's - Joe Satriani's The Extremist, Sting's Fields of Gold, and Diana Krall's The Girl in the Other Room while I was reading those books.
(4) Practiced piano for 30 minutes or so.

It was weird how much I got done. The real test will be what I do when I am fried. Yesterday I was feeling good when I got home, so it was easy to tackle various things.

I'll keep you posted as the month goes on.


Monday, November 2, 2009

November Unplugged

I called DirecTV this morning and asked them to suspend our service until December 4th. Then I unplugged the tivo and went to work. Today begins a month of no tv, no video games, and no dvd's (we did tell the kids we would not enforce this during our vacation).

It seems that too much of our lives get spent in front of the black box, and we decided that we were going to take a month off and see what life is like without it. To be honest, I'm quite excited about it, even though I will miss game 5 (and 6 and 7 if necessary) of the world series.

It will be interesting to see how the dynamics of our house change with the tv off. It will be interesting to see what gets done that has been lying undone, sacrificed to the gods of prepackaged entertainment. It will be interesting to see what God does with us during this month as well.

And how much our electric bill drops...