Archive for January, 2010

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A God-given Right

January 31, 2010

It is hard to be open-minded, not just willing to allow a person to talk uninterrupted, but truly open-minded to listen and try to understand an opposing point of view.  The real test of open-mindedness comes when a particular view directly opposes a deeply held belief.  To be open-minded, one must accept a person has an undeniable right to their belief, even if they have no foundation for it.  In most cases, we find one side is not wholly right and the other is not wholly wrong.

Civility demands politeness during discussions.  However, having good manners is not the same as having an open-mind.  Of course, even civility is lacking today.  Rather than win a debate on point, in the current environment, one simply shouts down any opposing view.  All that we hear is the loudest voice.  Maybe it’s fear that brought this about.  Fear of losing ground or of having an opinion dismissed.  Until we restore civility to the public debate, new and differing ideas fall on deaf ears.

Once civility returns, the hard work of trying to understand opposition begins.  In the United States, the classic battle between conservatives and liberals takes place.  In the days of Sam Rayburn, the debate was healthy and full.  Today, watching Congress on C-SPAN, we see only ideologues screaming at each other and refuse to find common ground.  While Congress is quintessential example of a closed-minded organization, the same behavior permeates our daily lives at all levels.  We never reach a point where we do what’s best for the whole; we only support what’s best for those that agree with us exactly.

Our Founding Fathers understood the need for open-mindedness.  In the days and weeks before the vote on our constitution, much debate took place on matters they intended to include.  In the end, some deeply held personal beliefs of these men were put aside for the good of the whole.  Benjamin Franklin put it best in his speech of September 17, 1787:

“I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them: For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise.  It is therefore that the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others.  Most men indeed as well as most sects in Religion think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them it is so far error.  Steele a Protestant in a Dedication tells the Pope, that the only difference between our Churches in their opinions of the certainty of their doctrines is, the Church of Rome is infallible and the Church of England is never in the wrong.  But though many private persons think almost as highly of their own infallibility as of that of their sect, few express it so naturally as a certain French lady, who in a dispute with her sister, said “I don’t know how it happens, Sister but I meet with no body but myself, that’s always in the right”

Franklin understood no one of us is as bright as all of us.  He kept his mind open and was willing to change given good reason.  In the end, he knew compromise was required for the best outcome and all opinions hold value, even if that value only reinforces the truth by being wrong.

Within each person lives ideologies and prejudices that color our view.  We can build walls to support our limited understanding or tear walls down and invite varying opinions that challenge us to defend a viewpoint.  Truth can stand up to challenge; it is tempered by it.  When we open our minds and try to understand other points of view, our own becomes refined and stronger.  While it is a God-given right to have an opinion, God did not guarantee the wisdom to make your opinions sound. That is up to us as individuals to accomplish and it is only accomplished with an open-mind.

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Over Stimulated World

January 30, 2010

Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, and most of the other Founding Fathers shared many attributes between them.  One great example was their ability to accomplish large volumes of work in many areas of interest.  Much more than it seems we do today.  Have you ever wondered why?  Perhaps we are no different really, just over stimulated.

We hear a catch phrase like “multi-tasking” and think it a good thing.  Maybe for a very few it is.  For the vast majority of people it is just a distraction.  This distraction increasingly occurs in our lives.  No longer can we simply watch the news, they split the screen into sections and provided information along the bottom and side.  Rather than concentrate on one subject, our attention is constantly switching between the sections.  The result being we do not have understanding of any one of the topics presented.

Movies over stimulate too, each one offering more explosions, blood or raunchy behavior than the last.  Rather than intrigue us with top-notch acting, complex plots, and well-crafted dialogue, our senses are overwhelmed with pyrotechnics and special effects.  The problem with this approach is it requires nothing from the viewer, we invest no thought into what we see, we react to its visual stimulation.  Even worse, we no longer require actors to act, it can all be computer generated.  That is not necessarily a bad thing but it does open the door to even greater feats of distraction as the laws of physics are easily ignored.

Not even the food supply is immune from over stimulation.  Sugar is everywhere.  Even French fries at many fast food restaurants contain added sugar.  Here in the South, everyone loves a good glass of iced tea.  Of course, its sugar level is through the roof.  This holds true for salt and other spices as well.  We become numb to the taste and need more and more to have the same stimulation level as before.  This phenomenon also describe how an addiction works.

Strangest of all is the long-term effect over stimulation has on people.  Rather than allowing for a better life, getting more accomplished, understanding the world around us, and living healthy – we are frustrated, constantly confused, and fat.  Over stimulation does not allow us to enjoy life’s simple pleasures.  We constantly need more and more stimulation for the sake of stimulation.  Just as we take in food without nutritional depth, we take in junk-food style information that deprives us of mental nutrition.

Going back to the example of our Founding Fathers, one possible reason they achieved so much was their ability to concentrate on one subject at a time, to give a subject its proper deference and thought, to understand a subject in-depth.  Couple that with a diet that nourishes more than stimulates and they had the energy to devote to one subject after another.  After all, it is the volume of quality work we remember them for, not just volume.

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Politics Cannot Define Obligation

January 29, 2010

A man said to the universe:
“Sir I exist!””However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”
Stephen Crane, War is Kind

Around the world, terrible events take place every day, wars, flooding, hurricanes, earthquakes, famine, disease; the list seems endless.  Every day news organizations bring us quick views, snapshots if you will, of a small portion of humanity standing up to the longest of odds, simply to survive.  How do we respond?  Do we rush in and do all we can or simply watch from the comfort of our homes?  Perhaps something in between is called for.  No matter the response, what we really need to understand is our obligation.

As human beings, what obligation do we have to each other?  Some Christians are fond of pointing to the story of Cain and Able to give guidance, to were the famous quote “am I my brother’s keeper?”  (Gen. 4:9) comes from.  To think this obligates us is taking it out of context.  Cain killed his brother and lied about it to God.  It is a story about jealousy and deceit.  Looking at it, Cain’s question to God is rhetorical and self-serving.  Cain never intended God to answer it.

Debating God’s intentions is not required to answer the question of obligation.  In the end, the world owes us nothing, nor does the universe as Mr. Crane points out, or even God for that matter.  The government of one nation owes nothing to the people of another.  It is people that are obligated to one another; the responsibility cannot pass to another entity.  Regardless of Cain’s intention, the answer to his question is yes, we are our brother’s keeper.

While we are not obligated to aid others as if it were a debt or binding contract, we have a desire to help others.  Our internal wiring controls our actions; it is our nature as humans to provide aid and comfort to others in need.  The recent earthquake in Haiti illustrates the people of the world’s desire to aid.  Everything from giving money to actually going to Haiti is taking place.  Money, supplies, and resources have flowed in so quickly they have overwhelmed the country’s damaged infrastructure and created frustration with delays.

Last week, a French Minister named Alain Joyandet, complained about the United States “occupying” Haiti.  The source of Mr. Joyandet’s irritation is with a French relief plane forced to wait one day to land and unload its medical aid.  The United States Military took control of the airport at the request of Haiti’s government until they regain the ability to do it themselves.  While it is unfortunate that much-needed aid is required to wait in a queue due to the physical limits of the situation, it is understandable.  The French Minister’s response seems to be more aligned with Cain’s jealousy of his brother than promoting the good will of the French people towards Haiti.  The minister seems more interested in waving the French flag than in helping.

The aid a government gives is an extension of its people.  The fact that the United States is geographically close to Haiti allows that aid to include logistics.  As bad as it is, imagine the utter chaos if the airport had no control.  It is self-serving hubris on the part of Minister Joyandet to suggest our aid is an occupation.  It takes the good will of the French people and puts a national pride upon it; it supplants that good will with nationalism.  Government involvement in relief efforts must remain an extension of its people.  That is our (the United States) intent regardless of what some silly Frenchman has to say about it.

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Life’s Instant

January 27, 2010

Life is but an instant, yet we still seem to want it to go faster.  Quicker, easier and now are the catch-words that have come to own society over the last forty or fifty years.  It is understandable how we’ve been caught up with speed as it leaves time for more.  What do we do with that more?  That is the real question.

I was working in the yard one day clearing some trees.  I had to remove a few rather large ones that some kind of tree crud had taken over before it spread to the whole of the yard.  With chainsaw in hand I started in.  As I fell the first big one, I was really pleased with the new chain, remembering how the old one was struggling to make a clean cut.  Truth is it was plain easy – too easy.  After a mere three hours of work, I had reduced the water oaks to about two cords of firewood.

Now a chainsaw will wear you out and stacking wood still takes effort but when I look back on how the task was accomplished 150 years ago, I did have it easy.  It would have taken several days without my gas-powered assistant.  I do not wish to return to the type of manual labor like cutting trees with axes and handsaws, but it does illustrate the point, work was reduced by several fold.  We do this with everything, cooking, cleaning, the list goes on.  Even instant messaging is not fast and enough, we have to abbreviate everything.

Again, the real question, with what are we filling the extra time?  The idea was to give us more free time so how is it we seem to have less of it?  What people fail to grasp is technology does make things easier but all we do is increase the level of expectation.  About twenty years ago, the big buzz in business was the “paperless office.”  Computers were supposed to reduce the amount of paper we wasted because we could do things like proof-read on the screen and store documents electronically.  What ended up happening is it became easy to create even more piles of paper.  A manual that would take a month to produce, now takes a week.  That just gives us more weeks to make more manuals and generate more paper.

During the industrial revolution, people worked ten or twelve hours a day, six days a week.  The entire work force became exhausted.  It was easy to see something had to be done.  Over time, things like the forty-hour work week came to be.  As we have moved away from the manual labor of the past, it is our minds that now work the sixty or seventy hours a week.  We check email, talk business on the cell phone at dinner and so on.  The wireless age has become a yoke we bear.

I worked for a fellow one time that saw things differently.  He demanded your get your work done in an eight-hour day.  His favorite saying was “if you can’t get a day’s work done in a day, maybe I don’t have the right guy in the job.”  At five in the afternoon, he wanted you gone.  I asked him about it one time and his reply changed my life.  He told me “work is what you do to live.  When you live to work, you are a slave and I don’t believe in slavery.”  I think about that when I am doing things.  I ask myself just how much needs to be done today and work to that goal.  Truthfully, more ends up getting accomplished this way.  Maybe that was his true motive all along.  It really does not matter; the result is to have a life beyond work, satisfied with things taking the proper amount of time.  Try to slow life’s instant down and make every bit of it have value.

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“Catch-22” and the Creative Student

January 26, 2010

The news often contains stories about a student bringing an item to school that creates a problem.  Sometimes only involving the student, other times ending with the evacuation of the entire school.  The latter took place earlier this month at a middle school in San Diego, California.

According to the San Diego Union Tribune, Millennial Tech Magnet Middle School evacuated students and teachers due to a vice-principle seeing a student with the ubiquitous “suspicious object.”  The object turned out to be a project the eleven-year-old student made in his garage at home.  The project’s housing, a half-liter Gator Aid bottle, has electrical wires and electronics within.  At first glance, it appears the vice-principle concern was valid.  Looking further, there is more to it.

Millennial Tech Magnet Middle School focuses on technology and encourages students’ creativity.  According to their mission statement: “All Millennial Tech Middle School students will cultivate their technology skills to enhance their motivation and curiosity to excel academically in order to become productive citizens that will drastically impact the developing information age.”  In the case of the young man involved, they achieved the goal; he designed and manufactured a motion detector on his own.

While it is understandable for a school official to have concern, the reaction, in this case, is beyond understanding.  Given the horrible events in schools over the last twenty years, ensuring the safety of students is paramount.  Still, for a school that encourages creativity of students, reacting with such force only serves to stifle creativity.  It is passive-aggressive behavior on an institutional scale.

Obviously, the district and school have jurisdiction over what sort of materials students bring to school.  In hindsight, more thought by the student could have prevented this event.  Given that he is eleven-years-old, that type of forethought is unrealistic.  Just as obvious, the school has no policy to address the creativity they cultivate and provide students with a means to bring such projects to the attention of teachers and fellow students without creating problems.  Even if the young man was totally wrong, the school’s must have a policy in place that addresses the matter without the need of the local police and bomb-squad responding.

It cannot be forgotten that the purpose of the school is to encourage this type of behavior.  For school administrators to lack sufficient processes and controls that allow the students to be creative while keeping everyone safe is unacceptable.  Going back to the schools mission statement, they sure “drastically impacted” this student’s creativity, just not in a positive way.

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Shades of Truth

January 25, 2010

Human nature has both good and bad points.  Compassion is a good thing; taking advantage of people is bad.  The problem arises when the two get mixed up.  For sure, human nature has many facets to it, and each has many books concerning it.  Today’s post only looks at compassion and taking advantage.

First, just because someone does something, it is not automatically human nature.  It could be the person is simply an ass.  The actions we take are our individual nature, the ability to be an ass is human nature.  It may seem a small point but it is a critical one when trying to figure out our role in life.

There are times when society accepts lies as a good, such as telling Aunt Rose, “I love your hat!”  It is easy to see that by lying you spare her feelings in this case.  Of course, the opposite is equally true.  We would never accept “my child is dying of cancer,” as a way of gaining sympathy at large.  The repercussions would be swift and severe when the truth came out.  It is human nature to filter truth in an attempt to spare people hurt.  It is individual nature to take advantage of people with the same device.

In relationships, the lines are blurry on when we lie to spare feelings or to get our way.  Idealistically we would never lie to our partner.  The truth is we do it all the time.  It becomes our individual nature to lie to avoid conflict.  This leads to lying to avoid blame.  Each time the line we will not cross inches further and further out.  At some point, we no longer even know where it used to be.  This is a very dangerous road to walk, for when you do not trust your partner with your mistakes you take advantage of them.  Furthermore, when you do not allow your partner to make mistakes, you grease the skids along the path of deception your mate will follow.

It would be easy to say we should never lie about anything.  Of course, that would go against our compassion that is part of human nature.  It would be better to never have the need to lie.  Trust is the key for this to work in a relationship.  If you ask your spouse how something looks on you, you would hope they would be honest because you trust them to help you not look silly.  At least we should.  When they tell us, “no, it does not,” and we look hurt about, we will never hear the truth again on that subject.  It would be better to accept they love us and want us to look great.  Ask more questions about why they feel that way so you understand.  They just may have a point.  Even if they don’t, it is better to talk it out and keep the line of communication open.

With the best of intentions, lying can only be looked at as the lesser of two evils.  It is never really a good thing.  When we lie to get what we want, we have crossed the line that makes us an abusive person.  It is then the greater of two evils.  It starts you down a road from which it is hard to turn.  Over time, human nature will allow you to sink beyond redemption but it was your individual nature that opened a hole in the floor beneath you.

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The False Détente of U.S. Debt

January 24, 2010

The False Détente of U.S. Debt

After World War II, the United States and Soviet Union started a series of economic, political, and military moves that resulted in the Cold War.  With both sides armed with nuclear weapons, the gravity of allowing the tensions of the Cold War to turn into a hot war could not have been higher.  Something had to change; both sides adopted a policy of détente.

Détente defines as an easing of tensions between nations or adopting policies that ease tensions.  To that end, our national debt has achieved some of détente’s objectives.  Several nations own substantial portions of the U.S. Treasury Bonds used to finance the national debt.  Adopting policies that anger one or more of our creditors is unwise, to say the least.  The problem with this is the debt is one-way.  It lacks a balance of power.

Last November, according the U.S. Treasury, our national debt was a whooping $3.6 trillion or with all the zeros – $3,600,000,000,000.  Here is a partial list of who owned our debt that month:

Country Dollar Amount Percent
China, Mainland $789.6 21.95%
Japan $757.3 21.05%
United Kingdom $277.5 7.71%
Oil Exporters $187.7 5.22%
Carib Bnkng Ctrs $179.8 5.00%
Brazil $157.1 4.37%
Hong Kong $146.2 4.06%
Russia $128.1 3.56%
(Dollar amounts are in billions)

If you count China and Hong Kong as one, we owe them close to one trillion dollars.  Two more points about the Treasury Department’s figures:

  1. Oil Exporters include Iran and Venezuela, two countries with whom we really have issues.
  2. The Caribbean banking centers have notoriously loose reporting requirements making them a prime location to deposit drug money or hide money’s true source.  The same argument applies to sources within the oil exporters too.  Our debt could be funding the very terrorists we are fighting.

Franklin Roosevelt believed a large national debt was not a real problem, as he put it “Our national debt after all is an internal debt owed not only by the Nation but to the Nation.  If our children have to pay interest on it they will pay that interest to themselves.  A reasonable internal debt will not impoverish our children or put the Nation into bankruptcy.”  Given the breakdown of investors in our debt, President Roosevelt’s thoughts are no longer true; our debt is not internal.  This is a debt we owe others.  It is long-term and our children will be paying the interests on it.

A number of economists see owing debt to other nations as a form of stability, in other words, economic détente.  We are unlikely to undertake policies that upset our major debt holders for fear of them dumping the debt and destabilizing our currency.  These same economists are quick to point out it is not in the best interest of the debt holder either to quickly dump our debt and that creates stability through “mutually assured destruction” of all economies concerned.  The problem with this thinking – it does not take into account motives other than national economic stability.

The more our debt moves overseas, the more control over our economy other governments have.  As some point, the economic cost to a particular country will not be near as high as the damage they can inflict upon us. In the case of China, if they dump our debt they hold for a loss, other nations will follow suit to limit their own losses.  Think of it as a run on a bank at a world level.  To do so throws their economy backward but they would remain stable.  Such a move will destroy ours.  As our debt grows, we no longer have balance with other nations.  We owe other nations.  When the music stops, we will be the ones left without a chair.  How much of their national debt do we own?  Without that, how was there ever balance?  How was there ever détente?

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