Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Foray for a Fortnight

I'm off to Budapest and Vienna for two weeks. I lived in Vienna and worked in Eastern Europe from '79-'82, but I haven't been back to these two cities since I left 25 years ago.

When you live somewhere, it seems there's never time to see the sights and take in all the cultural offerings. In preparing for this trip, I've been amazed at the incredible museums in Vienna that I didn't even know existed. And there are a half dozen high-quality concerts each evening to choose from. I think I'm going to enjoy being a tourist.

What am I looking forward most to? That'd probably have to be Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" on March 3 and Bach's "St. John Passion" on March 8, both in the fabled Musikverein. My seat's in the 3rd row for the first one, and the 1st row for the second. I can hardly wait.

But while I wait, I'll be enjoying some of Vienna's Kaffeehauskultur (that's "coffeehouse culture" for you who don't speak German). Coffee and cakes, with a heady dose of atmosphere. What could be better - except, of course, a Bach concert? And Heaven, I concede.


Monday, February 25, 2008

Interview with Tim Keller

The First Things website has posted a lengthy interview with Tim Keller. Keller is senior minister at Redeemer Presbyterian (PCA) in New York city.

The interview is largely about his new book (have any of you read it?), though many other topics are covered, as well. I was a little surprised at his comments regarding church planting and Catholics, to name only two of the other subjects. Maybe you will be, too.

If you're interested in Keller or the PCA, check it out.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

How to Reverse the Drop in Housing Prices

It's very simple. The Economist reported in its January 17 issue that in the U.S., "immigrants ... accounted for 40% of the growth in homeownership between 2000 and 2006."

More immigrants = more demand for housing = prices rise. So let's throw open the borders. Whatever we've been doing hasn't been working. Time to try something new.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A Spirited Debate, But Not A Spiritual Issue

If you live in Georgia and think you ought to be able to buy wine on Sunday for your communion service (or beer for your evangelistic barbecue), you can sign a petition online asking legislators to approve a bill that would allow the people in each county/city to vote on whether to allow such sales. The petition is here. It takes about 60 seconds.
As I write this, there are 5400 signatures. That's up from about 3000 yesterday.

For some reason, our governor, lieutenant governor, several key legislators, and quite a number of evangelicals seem to think society will collapse if people can buy alcohol on Sunday afternoon. 47 other states have found otherwise.

If you were reading my blog a year ago, you know why I don't think Sunday alcohol sales is a religious issue. Rather than rehash everything, I'll just give you the link to my previous post, if you're interested.

Monday, February 18, 2008

News You May Have Missed: Bobaraba

The BBC has informed us of the latest dance craze in Cote d'Ivoire, West Africa. It's called Bobaraba, and it's driving women in the country to seek injections and creams to increase the size of their . . . no, not those. Those other things. Their, uh, . . . bums. You can read all about it here. Or you can just watch the video below.

For some reason, I find this hilarious. Maybe I need counselling?

My roommate Paul is from Cote d'Ivoire. He doesn't admit to doing this dance, but I have been wondering why he keeps the door to his room closed so much of the time.

Friday, February 15, 2008

My Friends Are Famous

My friend Patrick got a nice writeup on PGA.com. They asked him why a successful golf professional would leave a good job in the U.S. to pursue uncertain prospects in China. Read the article for his answer.

Patrick has his own blog, too, which you can read here; and a second blog here.

P.S. He's right about Chinese food.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

How to Save Money on Valentine's Day: Move to Saudi Arabia

The airfare is admittedly expensive. But think of all the money you'll save once you're there. Saudi Arabia's religious police have thoughtfully banned the sale and gifting of red roses around Valentine's Day. Just to be safe, they've also banned the sale of any items of a scarlet color.

Nevertheless, there are some lawbreakers: "Sometimes we deliver the bouquets in the middle of the night or early morning, to avoid suspicion," one florist said.

You can read the fascinating story here, courtesy of ArabianBusiness.com.

No word yet on the availability of chocolate.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Cost of Commitment

The "Hallmark Holiday" is tomorrow. My condolences to you (guys especially) who must fall to the god of manufactured expectations.
Sorry if I'm restating the obvious, but the schoolyard rhyme reminds us that after love comes marriage, and then comes baby in the baby carriage. And with the wife and kids come responsibility.
Will Allen is a blogger, mostly about issues of business travel. His latest entry is something altogether different, though, and really highlights the importance of choosing a job and career wisely. Will your career and lifestyle choices now lead to regrets later? Allen's blog entry is a little long, though highly readable, and I'm pasting the entire thing below. I have no kids (or wife, for that matter), but if I did, I'd want to have his perspective:

Epiphany In London

In the late seventies I became a management consultant, and with that decision, I began to travel frenetically. At the time I thought of consulting as a temporary job.

A lot has happened in the thirty years since, mostly good, but I never lost the feeling that it was just a temporary job. It certainly wasn’t a career. Don’t get me wrong. There have been many rewarding aspects to the work. I’ve seen the world on consulting assignments. Sometimes the money has been good. I’ve met some of the most interesting people on the planet on consulting projects.

Nonetheless, consulting requires travel away from home a minimum of five days a week, every week. Sometimes, like the recent gig I signed up for in London, you must commit to being away from home and family for a month.

Regular readers will know that early last week I flew to London for just that job, leaving my wife and two young kids behind. But the London project did not work out for me, and I’m back. Why I am back may be worth knowing to you if you travel constantly, as I have for three decades, especially if you have a family at home and care about them.

I arrived in London last Tuesday morning. By Wednesday morning I had not slept since Sunday night due to worry and concern over being away from my family exacerbated by jetlag. I suddenly became aware that I was excruciatingly unhappy.

Had I known that I would be so miserable being away from my family, I would never have accepted the gig, of course. In earlier years before my wife and I had children, I wouldn’t have given such an extended absence from home (27 days) a second thought.

Suffering from severe sleep deprivation, I discussed the situation with my lead colleague on Wednesday morning early. We both agreed that it would not work for him or for me, and it wasn’t best for the client. Though we had client intro and fact-gathering meetings scheduled last week, the analysis didn’t officially begin until Monday the 11th, and there was time to replace me.

I have always loved consulting work per se, and I still do. But suddenly I realized while sleepless in that London Hilton room that I just can’t be away from my kids for a month without going home.

I didn’t know how strongly I felt about that until I got to London and could not sleep. If you read my blog often, you will remember my post a couple of weeks ago entitled, “Dread.” The dread I felt was about more than subjecting myself again to being beat up in the travel system; it was especially about being away from my kids.

The consulting firm I’d contracted with also muddied the waters the week previous to my travels when they called me out of the blue with a second offer—and then suddenly withdrew it—to lead a consulting project for a new railroad client in Florida. When they offered it, I expressed my strong interest, citing my expertise in rail and deep experience with white collar reorganizations, which is that company’s issue.

I also emphasized my strong preference to remain in the United States so that I could be home every weekend with my family. The U.K. work was strictly business process mapping, and while I do have lots of that experience, so do many others. The rail/reorg experience combo, however, was a much different and rarer requirement. I therefore agreed to the London gig reluctantly, which I realize now—too late—didn't help matters.

I’m not making excuses or pleading for forgiveness. I made a commitment to go work in London for a month, and I backed out once I got there. The politest thing I can say about my action is that it was “inconvenient” that I experienced the epiphany once there, instead of before I left, that being with my kids is more important to me than being absent from them for a month.

It was certainly inconvenient for them to have to scramble for a sudden replacement, and it was an extremely costly decision for me, since the consulting firm will not now reimburse me for any of my substantial expenses to get there, to reside in London at a Hilton, and to get home.

Be that as it may, last week’s extraordinary experience is a life-changing turning point. I don’t want to be away from my family that long ever again. This is a revelation to me. It may seem obvious to others, but it wasn’t to me, until now.

I am completely at peace with my decision last week to come home. Even in immediate hindsight, I recognize that it was foolish of me to think I could be away that long. Old habits die hard. I thought I could do what I’d been doing for thirty years, and I can’t, not any more. Having my kids has changed everything.

A little background is in order to put this into sharper perspective: I took off about half of 2007 because I could afford it (for awhile). I wanted to see what life would be like at home every week. Honestly, I didn’t know.

I found the adjustment to being at home difficult at first last year. Though my wife and I have a strong bond, I frequently felt like a stranger in the house. Her frantic routines to balance her professional career as a research sociologist and our two kids’ school and extracurricular activities were constructed of the necessity to act as a single parent during the five days each week that I had been gone for years. Frankly, from Monday to Friday each week I was in the way and unappreciated for the first few months.

Gradually, my wife and I retooled child responsibilities such as after-school activities (soccer, basketball, swim team, piano lessons, Chinese lessons, etc.); meal preparation for breakfasts and dinners; doctor appointments and emergency response to child sickness; homework monitoring and assistance; and coaching the kids in their own daily chores (bed-making, garbage-emptying, table-setting, dishwashing, pet feeding and pet care, yard work, etc.). I took over the myriad of tiny but persistent headaches, like keeping the vehicles licensed, inspected, maintained and filled with fuel. Home repairs and upkeep also fell to me. And so on.

Over time my wife became far happier, and so did I! I found the rhythms of our new routines suited me, to my great surprise.

I have especially enjoyed the immense amount of time spent with both my kids. Our son is in the third grade (age 9), and our daughter starts Kindergarten in the fall (age 4). I love every minute I am with them! They fight to have me lie down with them each night and to talk before they drift off to sleep. Their sleep problems and behavior issues, while low-grade, have all but disappeared with me home. My wife is not over-stressed and grouchy any more; she is, instead, happy. Two weeks ago I was here when we taught our daughter to ride her bike without training wheels.

I’d been missing all these things, and many more, by being away all week, every week. But just exactly what I was missing was abstract to me until I stayed home and immersed myself in my family’s lives. I could justify being away, despite my own persistent stress and a nagging feeling that I was missing something important, because it wasn’t concrete for me until I became involved.

Why I didn’t see that the last six months of 2007 had changed me I don’t know. It seems obvious now.

Thus I should not have agreed to take the gig in London because of the long absence. I had become much more “normal” than I realized during my time at home last year, and it took a kick in the teeth like going to London and facing four weeks without them to come to grips with it.

Even though I will keep my hat in the consulting ring (for stateside travel only), I intend now, with the sharpened focus of my needs gained suddenly from the experience this week, to look hard for something interesting locally.

I’ve written often since I began this blog about my desire to stop flying so much, because the whole experience can be so difficult these days. Looking back on every post now, I can see my blog was borne of this need, and I am just reaching the point in my journey where the end may be in sight.

This blog’s header, lamenting how airlines routinely rob us of it, says, “Time is all we have… .” I finally grasped last week in London that I want to spend more of the time I have remaining on this rock with my family rather than alone in some hotel room. That knowledge was worth the price.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Noted & Quoted: Faith

"The fidelity of God is more important than the certainty of our minds."

- Overheard on the radio

Friday, February 8, 2008

Everything You Believe is Wrong: Biofuels Are Worse Than Gasoline (Global Warming, Part 8)

Is this the end of our love affair with ethanol?

Science Magazine has published a study headed by a Princeton professor which got some press yesterday. Rather than reprocess the story, I'll simply give you the abstract from their web site:

Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions from Land Use Change

Most prior studies have found that substituting biofuels for gasoline will reduce greenhouse gases because biofuels sequester carbon through the growth of the feedstock. These analyses have failed to count the carbon emissions that occur as farmers worldwide respond to higher prices and convert forest and grassland to new cropland to replace the grain (or cropland) diverted to biofuels. Using a worldwide agricultural model to estimate emissions from land use change, we found that corn-based ethanol, instead of producing a 20% savings, nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years. Biofuels from switchgrass, if grown on U.S. corn lands, increase emissions by 50%. This result raises concerns about large biofuel mandates and highlights the value of using waste products.
If you'd like more detail, Scientific American has provided a longer treatment of the article. You can read it here.

NPR's All Things Considered picked up on the story yesterday. The print summary is here, or if you'd like to listen to the audio, it's here.
All of this only goes to prove that in public policy, the "obvious" answers are rarely as slam-dunk as their advocates present them. Beware of unintended consequences.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Quitcherbitchen: At Least You Don't Live in North Korea

So yesterday was Super Tuesday. Delegates galore up for grabs. Hard-fought political battles left and right.
It's a bit of a tangent, I suppose, but I marvel at our political system. In 2000, when many were convinced the Republicans stole the election, there were no riots in the streets and no gangs out looking for members of the opposition to machete to death. Contrast that with Kenya today - 1,000 dead (so far) in the wake of December's election.
And in 2008, when Hillary's ranting in every campaign appearance about what a sorry mistake George Bush and his current administration have been, nobody's arresting her. Contrast that with current events in Zimbabwe. Or North Korea, where even the children go to jail for the political sins of the parents. The following article from the Wall Street Journal lends some perspective and reminds us of how good we really have it:

Life in North Korea's Gulag

November 30, 2007; Page A16
Seoul, Korea

I was born a prisoner on Nov. 19, 1982, and until two years ago, North Korea's Political Prison Camp No. 14 was the only place I had ever called home.

The camp, established in 1965, is located in Kaechon, about 50 miles north of Pyongyang. When it first opened, the government rushed to fill it with prisoners. Many were charged and detained regardless of when or what kind of "crime" was committed.

Countless others were imprisoned simply because they were relatives of those charged. Under North Korea's "Three Generation Rule," up to three generations of the criminal's family must be imprisoned as traitors.

I was a slave under club and fist. It was a world where love, happiness, joy or resistance found no meaning. This was the situation I found myself in until I escaped to China, and then South Korea. There, I was told why I was imprisoned by my distant relatives, who had escaped to the South during the Korean War.

In the midst of that conflict, two of my father's brothers fled to freedom. Because of this "traitorous" crime, my grandparents, father and uncle back in the North were found guilty of treason and crimes against the state, and were arrested. My father and uncle were separated from each other and my grandparents, and were stripped of all identification and property.

I am still not sure why my mother was incarcerated. While serving their sentences in Kaechon, my parents were allowed to marry. (Sometimes, inmates are given permission to marry if they work very hard and find favor in the eyes of the State Security agents). This was how both my brother and I were born as political prisoners.

Although we were a family by fiat, there was nothing familial about us. We showed no affection for one another, nor was that even possible.

When I was 14 years old, my mother and brother were arrested while trying to escape. Although I had no idea they were planning to run away, I was detained in another part of prison. The State Security agents there demanded that I reveal what my family was conspiring to do. I was tortured severely for seven months. To this day, I still carry the scars on my back and shudder at the memory of that time.

On Nov. 29, 1996, my mother and brother were found guilty of treason and sentenced to public execution. I was taken outside and forced to witness their deaths.

Upon returning back to Kaechon, I finished what passes for a middle school in the prison and began working in one of many factories on the prison grounds making garments. It was here that I met another inmate who had once lived outside of the prison camp. He told me stories of the outside world, and I increasingly longed to become part of it. We plotted our escape and on Jan. 2, 2005, we attempted to run away. I was successful, but he fell on the prison's barbed wire. I glanced back once; he appeared to be dead.

As I sit here writing this op-ed comfortably in Seoul, I can't help but wonder at the vastly different lives South Koreans and inmates of Political Prison Camp No. 14 live. In South Korea, although there is disappointment and sadness, there is also so much joy, happiness and comfort. In Kaechon, I did not even know such emotions existed. The only emotion I ever knew was fear: fear of beatings, fear of starvation, fear of torture and fear of death.

Even though I did not escape Kaechon expressly to inform the world about such conditions, I feel that I cannot keep silent. Today, tens of thousands are suffering silently in government-sponsored political prison camps in North Korea. Inmates are given only enough food to be kept on the verge of starvation, and they often fight with one another in hopes of getting one more meal. Many people have resorted to eating grass, tree bark, clay, rodents and insects. Torture is open and rampant, and beatings occur every hour of every day. Women often undergo forced abortions and children have no childhood.

These political prisoners live with no dignity as human beings. They are treated, and taught, that they are merely beasts without intelligence, emotions or dreams. If a prisoner attempts to escape, he is severely punished and will most likely be publicly executed.

Humans should never be treated this way. It is time for us to stand up for those being persecuted in North Korean gulags. They do not deserve to die in silence. We must protest these violent acts against humanity. We must become their voice.

Mr. Shin was born and lived in a North Korean gulag until 2005. He is the author of the Korean language book "I Was a Political Prisoner at Birth in North Korea" (DataBase Center for North Korean Human Rights, 2007).

Friday, February 1, 2008

Kneeling on the Outside, Standing on the Inside

Last Sunday, my Bible reading plan brought me to Mark 10.17-34, the story of the so-called "rich young ruler" (I put the title in quotes, because it doesn't seem to occur anywhere that I can find in the Bible). If you've read the Bible, you know the story. If you haven't, here's the part that relates to today's post:

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. "Good teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

"Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: 'Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.'"

"Teacher," he declared, "all these I have kept since I was a boy."

Jesus looked at him and loved him. "One thing you lack," he said. "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."

At this the man's face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

What struck me as I read this is that this man ran up and knelt before Jesus. This was obviously a sign of respect and submission. He starts the discussion with Jesus kneeling. But he ends it by walking away.

This story makes me uncomfortable. The "rich young ruler" submitted much of himself to Jesus, maybe even most of himself to Jesus. But submitting most of oneself ultimately may be no different from submitting none of oneself. Jesus wants it all.

Later that same evening, I was at church, and, ironically enough, we were singing this song:

I'm falling on my knees, offering all of me.
Jesus, You're all this heart is living for.
Hmmm. Easy to say (or sing) . . . as a concept. It reminds me of how the Israelites said, "We will do all that God commands," before they fully understood exactly what He wanted from them [Exodus 19.8, et al.]. It's easy to say in ignorance. It's easy to sing on Sunday. But after Sunday comes Monday.

I like to sing the song. I like the song on Sunday. I don't like it so much Monday through Saturday. Sometimes I wonder if the rich young ruler had more integrity than I do.