Monday, April 26, 2010

Allow Me To Be Wrong

It was just a matter of time before I got around to a religious topic; the only question was what would trigger it.

My son is receiving his First Communion in two weeks. My wife invited our extended families to celebrate this occasion with us, followed by a luncheon. Knowing that parts of our families have incompatible belief systems, she carefully worded the invitation to state that you don't have to go to the church, it would be fine to just come to the house for lunch.

Our families run the gamut from "fairly devout Christian" to "atheist". One of my brothers publicly declined the invitation, referring to the Eucharist as "ritualistic cannibalism." I, for one, was somewhat amused by this, but I knew that it offended other family members. I can't blame them; religious mockery is a far cry from religious tolerance.

I've been wrestling with issues of religious tolerance for some time (Is it measurable/quantifiable?). Engineering jokes aside, I've always thought that tolerance of any religion other than your own would imply some doubts about your own religion. After re-reading parts of Acts (a book in the Christian Bible), I see that the Apostles allowed for some religious tolerance in Acts 13:51. Paul and Barnabas left Antioch, leaving the Jewish population to their beliefs, but not before declaring them unworthy of eternal life (Acts 13:46). It makes me wonder if this really is an example of religious tolerance, or if it was more, "We can't do anything about it, so we're walking away." Maybe religious tolerance can only be displayed by the group currently in power.

A great deal of my time has been spent studying various religions, starting with my roots in Roman Catholicism and general Christianity, inspecting all the Abrahamic Religions, researching the major Dharmic Traditions, and ending with deism and some Native American culture. The fact that all these religions refer to some sort of supreme being is not lost on me. Instructions on how to treat other living creatures is also a common thread among them, especially in dealing with other people (even if there is frequently a 'them/us' division). With so many faiths having that much in common, I find it extremely difficult to dismiss the idea of God outright. However, a person could make the argument that an omnipotent deity would have found a way to communicate his/her will with his/her creations a little more consistently.

I try to treat others' belief systems with respect. They might not mean much to me, but to them, they must be important, or they wouldn't be telling me about them. I always listen to another person's reasons for why they believe. In the best case, they give me something to think about. In the worst case, they allow me to work on my polite nodding skills.

There's a saying about not discussing religion and politics in polite company. I welcome all persons to speak with me about their faith. Please don't be offended when I don't agree with you.

Until another time,

Thursday, April 22, 2010

I'll Take My Chances

I accept a lot of information at face value.

Specifically, I'm thinking about the news. If someone comes on the radio or the television and says, "There was an apartment fire, and four people were rushed to HCMC, two have since died," I don't really feel the need to call up HCMC and ask to speak to the burn unit about new arrivals. I just accept it.

On the other hand, if someone come on a thirty-second advertising spot, and tells me that their brand of automobile has the best mileage in its class, I feel a need to find out what that exactly means. For example, what class are they talking about? Are they speaking on average, of their whole fleet in that class; perhaps they mean that in that class, they have the vehicle with the best mileage? I need to know.

Choice of words can affect how I think about an ad, too. There's a carpet cleaning company now, ZEROREZ, that claims to use no soaps or detergents, instead using "Empowered Water™," which is an "innovative, non-toxic water based cleaning agent." Now, I'm no chemist, but this just seems...dodgy (thanks for the perfect word, Dan). I, for one, am less likely to use their services after such language.

Of course, any time someone puts REAL numbers in a spot, I'm instantly suspicious. There's a spot out now for CurrentSafe, a service sold by Muska Electric. The spot has facts such as "99 out of 100 homes have an electrical defect" and "there are more than 68,000 reported home electrical fires in the United States each year."

Now, I like numbers, but I like them better with sources. The USFA (United States Fire Administration) has a page that is exactly this information! After some searching around, I found that the most recent year I could get data for from this source was 2007. The document itself expresses that it is not 100% inclusive of all fires, that participation by fire marshals and other state agencies provide this data completely voluntarily. However, it's the best compilation of data I could find.

In 2007, there were 260,471 residential fires reported to NFIRS. Since CurrentSafe refers to "home electrical fires," I'm going to equate those. Of those fires, 6.6% were attributed to "Electrical Malfunction," which figures to be roughly 17,191 fires. Not really close to 68,000 (26.1%). 2.1% were attributed to "Appliances." Now, not all appliances are electric, but, let's suppose they are, and add that in (if you're keeping score, we're up to 8.7%). 3.2% were caused by "Equipment Misoperation/Failure," bringing our total to 11.9%. I can't really see a way to get many more of these sources to be "Home Electrical Fires," so let's quit thinking rationally, and start being silly.

18.4% of the fires reported have a cause of "Unknown." Adding that in brings the total percent to 29.3%, which is a little high...about 3.2% high....which is, coincidentally, the percent of fires attributed to "Equipment Misoperation/Failure." I wonder how Muska got their numbers.

Now, none of this has any context without knowing the number of homes in the United States (there are 110,692,000 regularly occupied housing units, according to the 2007 American Housing Survey). This means, supposing that every fire reported as "Residential" was occupied (which gives us the largest percentage), 0.2% of residences experienced a fire. Using CurrentSafe's numbers, 0.05% of residences had an electrical fire (using government numbers, 0.02%). For the mathematically challenged, your odds are 1 out of every 2000 homes, or 1 out of every 5000 homes, respectively. 

Considering that 1980 out of 2000 homes (or 4950 out of 5000 homes) have an electrical defect according to Muska, I think we'd all be better served spending our time money improving our culinary skills (32% of residential fires are attributed to "Cooking").

Until another time,

Monday, April 19, 2010

Cat's In The Cradle

My elementary school teachers used to say all the time, "You are unique."

I know my son is getting that, too, because he made a comment about it while watching "The Incredibles" during the scene in the car after Dash got picked up from detention, and the mom says, "Everyone is special, Dash," and he faces the window and mumbles, "Which is another way of saying that nobody is."

The Cub Scout Motto is "Do Your Best." Even before I was in Scouts, my dad was always telling us kids, "You can't compare what you do to what anyone else did. You have to decide you did the best you can, and leave it at that." If I was ever down about my performance in a class or competition, he'd admonish me with, "If you did the best you could, then there's no problem. If you could have done better, then you have something to be sorry for."

I worked as a counselor at a residential summer camp, and I was reasonably well-known among the staff for being full of bad puns and terrible plays on words. Whenever I got a particularly loud groan or boo from the staff, I'd to say, "If you think that's bad, you should meet my dad!" No one believed me, until one weekend, when my dad came to pick me up. I was not quite packed to leave, so he was invited into the staff lodge while I went to my tent to finish packing. When I returned, I waved to him through the window, and we left. He drove me back to camp Monday morning. As I made my way up the stairs to the staff lodge, the camp director met me halfway up. "Having met your dad," he started, "You make a whole lot more sense."

When I was growing up, my dad worked "with computers" (that was my understanding of it). We had some computers at home, I learned some basic programming, but I swore up and down that I was not going to get into programming for a living. I was going to blaze my own career trail, and I ended up going to college intent on majoring in Physics (figuring that was a good science to start in before getting a Masters degree in a narrower field).

I never finished that degree, and instead I ended up with a BSE, an educator's degree with an emphasis in mathematics. I got my teaching license, and started teaching math to seventh and eighth graders.

After three years, I quit. If I had 27 kids in a class, there were three that were great, three that were awful, and 21 that were "just there."  I really value the time I spent teaching. If I learned anything that I could apply as a parent, it's that I need to show my children that I am interested in their education, and that it is important to me. I'm not particularly concerned about my children being the smartest in the class; I will be proud of my children as long as they are the ones putting forth the most effort (you know, doing their best).

That summer, I got a temp job doing data entry. A friend of mine heard I was looking for work, and contacted me about a job opening where he was currently employed. Paraphrasing, he said to me, "You can think in a straight line, you can get a job programming here."

With a few misgivings about it, I did. I learned that I ... really liked it. I got into databases, and optimization, and it really scratched an itch I didn't know I had. The immediate gratification moving from "your program doesn't work" to "your program works" could be had in a day, much different from the full year required to move a class of kids from "you don't know algebra" to "you know algebra."

While working there, I referred my dad to a job opening in the data storage group. One of the company executives commented that it's the first time in his experience he'd heard of a son getting their dad a job.

Until another time,

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Think About The Reasons, Not The Numbers

I think about taxes about three times per year.

I think about them in September/October, because there are candidates running for office trumpeting their fiscal skills and tooting numbers that appeal to the masses. I think about them in December, because I need to get all my ducks in a row. The last time I think about them is generally in March, when I submit my tax forms to the respective state and federal government agencies.

As I drove to work, I heard an ad on the radio, for a website, "Tax the Richest". It's just a website, full of hyperbole, doom and gloom, and really large numbers. I could criticize that they provide no solutions, only a blanket rallying cry. I could also take cheap shots at their site design, but instead, I'd rather talk about "The Facts", as noted on their site, on the header menu bar. The document they reference is MN Dept. of Revenue, 2009 Tax Incidence Study (the top link, page 44 in the document, but page 58 in the PDF). But they don't link it, they don't want you to read it for yourself. They want you to take their interpretation, and believe what they want you to believe.

Their spin is that the lowest earners pay the highest taxes...let's check it out.

Let me get into some estimated numbers (you see, this is all estimated on 2011 numbers, which hasn't happened yet). The MN Dept. of Revenue estimates there will be 2,575,557 taxpaying Minnesotan households in 2011, 57% of which will find themselves in the lowest two income deciles (that is, 20%). This 57% of the population will provide $4,759,459,000 of the estimated $21,675,104,000 taxes collected in the year 2011, which is about 22%.

(Those of you thinking critically will say, "Wait, 22% is more than 20%, they really are paying a larger share of the taxes on their share of the income!" And you'd be right. So, we see their facts point to a flaw, but it's not nearly as big as they want you to think.)

It's generally accepted that a sales tax is regressive (meaning it costs the poor more and the rich less), because a poorer family will have to spend more of their income, exposing them to more sales tax (percentage-wise). However, the income brackets they have chosen are by population decile (10% segment). Since nearly 60% of Minnesotans find themselves making the lowest quarter of incomes in the state, this skews the data significantly. If you shift your perspective to income decile (back to the MN Revenue link, page 54 in the document, but page 68 in the PDF), you'll see that almost the entire skew of the "Percent of Income Spent As Taxes" comes from the sales tax issue.

2% is almost exactly the skew from Sales Tax being regressive. Suppose then, that instead of a 7.75% sales tax on purchased goods, we abolish the Sales Tax, and instead increase the State Income Tax by 2.2% (the state average sales tax paid). This would decrease the (estimated) tax burden on the lowest two income deciles by .5-1.5%, and increase the (estimated) burden on the highest two income deciles by .8-1.3%.

Look, a possible solution, to an identifiable problem, achieved through critical thinking!

A possible hangup with this solution, might be the loss of revenue from out-of-state persons who had been paying sales tax, and now are not liable for it (and who obviously don't pay our state income tax). I'm having trouble finding those numbers, though, so if anyone has a finger on those, that'd be great. I can't imagine it's more than .5% of the state income. I hesitate to say, "Raise Taxes on Business" because we all know they just raise prices and pass their costs directly to the consumers.

You know, we could use some critical thinking in politics. I'd run for office myself, but I doubt my platform of "Cut Spending and Raise Taxes!" would be very popular...but we wouldn't be worried about a deficit, or foreign powers owning our debt, or a myriad of other large problems you don't hear about from mainstream politicians.

Until another time,

Monday, April 12, 2010

That's The Way I Like It

I'm in the market for a car.

I know many people take meticulous care of their vehicle, get regular maintenance, keep it clean, and avoid mashing it into other cars/wildlife. However, accidents happen. Also, there are other people who are less consistent with the regular advised maintenance of a vehicle. This group of people tend to have the mentality of, "I put gas it in, it should just keep going!"

So, I guess for the reasons I outlined there, I could amend my opening statement to, "I'm in the market for a new car."

Yes, the arguments to purchase a used vehicle are known to me. A new car, purely by driving it off the lot, loses X% of its value. I am aware that there are 153-point inspections performed by a trained individual or team on all used cars sold from X location, granting them a "Certified Used" status. I know there are 12 month warranties on many used cars. Many dealers will provide a free CarFax History report for the VIN of a used car so you can see its history.

None of this makes me feel any better about used cars. Even the fact that they often cost half as much as they did new doesn't help. Look, I'm going to buy a new car. There's very little you can do at this point to dissuade me.

I currently drive a blue 1997 Saturn SL1, with a manual transmission. Being a driver of a manual transmission car puts me in an extreme minority. As I told the sales rep at a dealership I was courting, "I'll drive an automatic transmission car when my left leg stops working."

So, now I'm on to, "I'm in the market for a new car, with a manual transmission."

Many of the reasons for driving a manual transmission car have gone away. Automatic transmissions are pretty savvy shifters, and the improved mileage you could get from wisely driving a manual has eroded to negligible. Most dealers don't even charge for the automatic transmission anymore, it's just included in the cost. I must admit; when I bought my Saturn, I bought the manual because it was $900 cheaper, and that was a big deal to me back then. For this next purchase, I could probably afford it, but I'm not going to. In addition, my very reliable Saturn has 230,000 miles on it (very nearly a one-way trip to the moon). It still gets 35+ miles to the gallon.

I suppose at this point, "I'm in the market for a new, high-efficiency car, with a manual transmission and is pretty reliable."

I don't want any chrome, or funny wheels, or spoilers, or a sunroof. No extra lights, it can't have an exterior color that is either white or black (I swear, if someone comments about white and black not being colors, I will not publish it), and I don't really want a car with the fuel intake on the passenger side. I don't want to ...

At this point, I feel this post is really long. I'll go into the craziness of actually buying a car another time. So -- 

Until another time,

Friday, April 9, 2010

Let Them Eat Cake

I like grapefruit.

I recently got a Harry and David grapefruit shipment. No one else in my immediate family cares much for grapefruit, so...this is a lot of grapefruit for one guy to consume.

It got me thinking, though (what doesn't get me thinking?). Who decided to cultivate this oversize, bitter, hard-to-eat citrus? I suppose it appeals to a certain segment (heh). I mentioned it to some friends, and one of them mentioned almonds. Almonds come in two varieties, bitter and sweet. One releases hydrogen cyanide, one does not, and it is important to know which you have.

Of course, this led me to thinking about other things.  Now, I know that many things we take for granted were created accidentally (famously: vulcanized rubber, dry cereal flakes, microwaves; perhaps most famously: penicillin), but seriously, the number of food innovations is staggering (alcohol notwithstanding).

Speaking of alcohol, how many failed fermentations ended in vinegar? Who first pickled food with salt and vinegar? What made them think this would be a good idea? I envision someone hiding something in a salt pack, and discovering that it dried and was preserved...but who thought of trying the vinegar solution?

Cooking meat in a fire? Ok, this isn't really that much of a stretch, but the logical leap from "fire hurts" to "dead things put in fire taste better" is still pretty significant.

Who took grain seeds, ground them up to a powder, mixed them with various liquids (milk, eggs, water, etc), then put them on controlled heat? Who discovered leavening (chemical or biological?)? And refined sugar?

My son turned eight at the end of last month. We ate cake at the celebration. However, it wasn't until I was eating my third grapefruit this week that I thought about how unlikely a food cake ever was.

Until another time,

PS And Salt!  Who went around licking rocks and deciding which ones would work with their fire-burned dead things?

Monday, April 5, 2010

It Hasn't Stopped Since

It started with a sandwich. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich, specifically, one that was made for me, not by me.

I very distinctly remember (which will shock many of you familiar with my usually porous memory), I was in the 4th grade. I do not remember the name of the instructor, but I do remember that it was not my regular 4th grade teacher (Miss Nelson) nor was it the enrichment teacher (Mr. Yencho). I even remember the layout of the classroom.

There were five of us, seated at chairs on the long side of one of the rectangular tables that were common in my elementary school. The instructor had some paper plates, a loaf of bread (sliced, in a bag), a jar of peanut butter, a jar of jelly, and a butter knife on the table in front of her. She said, "Imagine I'm from another planet. I understand your words, and can do the actions you tell me to. I need you to tell me how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich."

One kid immediately spoke up, and said, "Well, you put the peanut butter on the bread, and--" and then the instructor picked up the jar of peanut butter and MASHED it down in the middle of the loaf of bread.

We were stunned. She said, "Did I do something wrong? I did exactly what you said!" We all nodded, slowly. Another person said, "You need to take the bread out of the bag, first." So, she moved the peanut butter jar, tore open the plastic on the top of the bag, dumped all the bread slices out, and set the peanut butter jar back on the bread.

We looked at each other. We were uncomfortable being so wrong about how to go about this. The instructor cheerfully said, "Would you like to start over?" We all nodded. She swept the bread off the table into a trash can, and produced another loaf of bread from a grocery bag under the table. She repeated her initial statement about being from another planet.

No one wanted to give the first instruction. We kinda looked around, and then I said, "If I asked you to open the bag from the tied end by untwisting the tie, would you be able to do that?" She smiled, and said, "Yes...but part of the fun of this is doing what you say. The idea is that you say what you mean, and are careful with your words, because words have many different meanings. Checking to see if what you said is what you meant should be done in your head, not by asking me after you say something. Maybe you would like some paper to write things down?" We all did.

We went to work on paper. Some of us wrote numbered lists of steps, others drew pictures on theirs. We talked to ourselves, and we didn't listen very well to what the others were mumbling. The teacher made busy pretending not to listen to us (yes, 4th graders can tell).

After a few minutes, she asked us to finish up. Then she picked someone to go first (it wasn't me), and she would not listen to instructions from anyone else, but we were all welcome to watch, and learn from the others' mistakes. It was a series of mistakes ("Get some jelly from the jar and put it on the bread," and the instructor reached into the jar, and blopped a big scoop of jelly on the bread), corrections ("Stop! Using the knife, get some jelly from the jar."), more mistakes ("Using the knife, get some peanut butter from the jar," and the instructor started to try to pry the lid off the jar), and finally, degrees of success.

When we all had something to eat (I hesitate to call them all sandwiches), we discussed what might have helped us get closer to what we had in mind. Like how to describe the action "spreading," using more adverbs (gently, slowly), and we talked about order (first...then...after that...).

I didn't get a perfect peanut butter and jelly sandwich that day, none of us did.

What I did get, is I got a brain that started putting value in watching other people so I could learn from their mistakes, in establishing a baseline for understanding, in assuring precision in language, and in critical thinking about problems.

Until another time,

Friday, April 2, 2010

Keeping Expectations Low

Well, I never thought I'd make it to five posts, much less in just two weeks.

My original (unstated) goal was to post two times a week, because my friends who are writers told me that setting goals and deadlines will make you better at writing. This is probably true, if you're a goal-driven or deadline-driven person, but I thought I'd give it a try anyhow.

Funny, though, that I started this as a critical thinking exercise, I've not really had a lot to discuss. I mean, sure, the Health Care Reform bill passed, and was amended. But there's already a ton of press about that, and in my humble opinion, if both sides are screaming about it, then the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, which is where it should be. I'll probably get to more political items later, but I don't want to drive people off too fast with polarizing topics.

Onward. I signed up to be a Cub Scout leader, starting this summer. I was a Scout from about age seven up through eighteen, and a few years past that as a Scout Camp counselor. There are many things this pack does that is different from how my pack was run when I was a kid. Most of it is just that, different. Some of it is just plain wrong, and I plan to try to help them correct these things. As I've been talking to the other leaders, I've found out that none of them were Scouts when they were youth. That hasn't prevented them from leading with the enthusiasm and energy required to work with young boys, and they are the kind of people I want my son to be around.

I keep comparing this to when I coached the Community Ed baseball team. I never played organized ball as a kid, so all I had to go on was, "Well, they need to throw, catch, and hit. Let's work on that." I read a lot of articles on coaching, and drills, and teaching techniques. We worked hard, we played hard; I don't think our team won two games in two seasons. But I like to think the boys had fun.

So, I'll be the third leader in three years for my son's den, who will be 3rd graders in the fall.  This makes them Bears in the Cub Scout program, the last year before the "real" work as a Webelos starts. I didn't want to be a Scout leader, originally. I just wanted to show up, maybe help if I knew something of use. Now that I've actually signed up to lead, I'm having a hard time keeping my growing enthusiasm in check.

I hope I can help make Scouting as much fun for these boys as it was for me. That's not expecting too much, is it?

Until another time,