Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 Book List

Due to the overwhelming number of comments on the previous list, I will endeavor to continue the list for 2014.

> Jon Meacham: American Lion; Andrew Jackson in the White House (It is fortunate for us that the man who could have been our Caesar was so dedicated to popular liberty and bank busting. The personal turmoil throughout this administration is astonishing and may have helped limit the already expansive increase in executive power. Long, long read.)
> G. J. Myers: A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918 (Truly a masterpiece representation of the the first World War. Extensive provision of context, welcome portraits of the men who changed the war, and an unyielding sense of the weight of the subject)
> Peter L. Bernstein: The Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation (Having an even greater impact then even the transcontinental railroad, the project that made New York an economic triumph. Delightful work on an oft neglected subject matter.)
> Alexander Rose: American Rifle: A Biography (Rifles. Industrial Development. Personal machinations of inventors, soldiers, acquisition officers. generals. industrialists. Recommended for anyone with an interest in firearms or military development. 
> Paul M. Barrett: Glock (Lightweight, benevolent history of a pistol that changed the face of the worldwide firearms industry)
> Amity Shlaes: Coolidge (I learned an enormous amount of US history through the eyes of one of my favored presidents, a hand of character attempting to stay the progressive tide. Long but worthy read for minds interested in what it takes to reduce a federal budget)
> Susan Cain: Quiet The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking (This TED Talk has all of the book)
> Jim Powell: FDR's Folly (Good documentation of the mess that was the New Deal. Hard to get through, but each chapter is an essay worthy of completion in its own right)
>John C. Wright: Transhuman and Subhuman: Essays on Science Fiction and Awful Truth (Highlights include a keen review of the Hobbit movies, strong female characters, and the warping of the modern man by a worldview excluding the Creator. Recommended for scifi and apologetic types).
> Nathaniel Philbrick: The Last Stand: (Custer, Sitting Bull, Little Big Horn, a battle that is full of characters richly canvassed. If you like history told with notes on the footnotes and lively personal drama, this is it. )
> C. S. Lewis: Mere Christianity: (Exemplary apologetic, rarely shows it's age as Lewis discourses through timeless truths)
> Steven Dubner & Steven Levitt: Think like a Freak (Thin and repeats a lot of the podcast material. Did not care, they bring an A game to the table and it's worth the short time investment. I will be telling more stories as a result of this book.)
>Thomas Cahill: How the Irish Saved Civilization (intriguing survey of the classical world's collapse and the effect of Patrick's conversion of Ireland on Ireland and continental Europe)
>Maury Klien: The Power Makers: Steam, Electricity, and the Men who invented Modern America (Workman like prose, takes a lot of pages to describe the evolution of electricity
 in the US. Not for idle reading but I found it informative)
> Danny Silk: Keep Your Love On! (Could have been condensed to 24 pages, not compelling or revelatory or terribly helpful)
> Michael Pollan: The Omnivore's Dilemma  (Food Inc sourced a lot of material from Pollan's writings, but even after viewing Food Inc I still found fresh and engaging content throughout,. It did accomplish it's unstated goal, to have this reader review my food choices)
> Cityview Church: Perseverance; True Stories from Mineral Wells
>Margaret MacMillian: Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World
>Mark Kurlansky: The Big Oyster; History on the Half Shell
>Michael Lewis: Boomerang

> Isaac Asimov: The Currents of Space (Asimov brings a sci-fi who-dun-it. Fun and engaging)
> Douglas Adams: The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (Hilarious and unrelenting in surprise)
> Douglas Adams: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (Funny and continues the humor)
> Douglas Adams: Life, the Universe, Everything (moments of hilarity, too oft a story lost)
> Neal Stephenson: Snowcrash (Clever conceits, a collapsed world run by 'franchise city-states', skateboarding delivery teens, enormous virtual reality engagement, Sumerian myth, the Holy Spirit as an information virus transmittable from humans to virtual reality, a world spanning monopoly on the internet run by a renegade Pentecostal, an Aleut man with a hydrogen bomb... fun concepts which require enormous suspensions of disbelief to overcome chronic biblical mis-information. Audio version was dull. may be better in paper. Tremendous tongue-in-cheek humor. Frustrating characters due to thin thought processes. Unbelievably contemporary for being 22 years old, worth a looksee for sci-fi readers)
Arthur Conan Doyle: A Study in Scarlet (Sherlock Holmes)
> Larry Correia: Hard MagicBook 1 of the Grimnoir Chronicles (Story. Plot. Characters. Historical context. Magic. Steampunk. So. Good.)
> Larry Correia: SpellboundBook I1 of the Grimnoir Chronicles (An equal to the excellence that is Hard Magic)
> Edgar Rice Burroughs: Princess of Mars (classic interplanetary romance adventure science fiction, for boys young and old)
David Liss: Whiskey Rebels: (Mediocre historical fiction in the period following the war for independence. Yawn.)
>Larry Correia: Warbound Book III of the Grimnoir Chronicles. (Corriea manages the Everest of multi-part fiction, a conclusion worthy of its mighty predecessors. I listened to the audio versions all and they were tremendous, I will be seeking out paper copies to keep on the shelf.) 
>John C. Wright: City Beyond Time (Short stories of time travel and the people who live at the end of time and have to deal with the obnoxious consequences of those who travel in time. Thought provoking in the way good science fiction ought to be)
> Edgar Rice Burroughs: At the Earth's Core: (Fun and fanciful Sci-Fi/Fantasy of a long time ago. Felt like a compilation of a magazine serial feature)
>Arthur Conan Doyle: The Sign of the Four
>Arthur Conan Doyle: The Hound of the Baskervilles
>Victor Davis Hanson: The End of Sparta (I didn't think it was this way when I read it, but this book has a great stick-to-the-ribs-of-the-mind quality about it, and that is a good thing)
> Homer: The Illiad
> John Stienbeck: The Pearl (Deserving of the term 'classic' for its treatment of the heart of man)

In Process:
Homer: The Odyssey
John Piper: What Jesus Demands from the World

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

"That, Detective, is the Right Question"

“How did it come to this?”

-King Théoden, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (movie) 

History is stories. History is facts. History is events. History is thematic. History is legend. History is truth. History is written by the victors. History is a weapon. History is an argument without end. History is the hand of the Almighty. History is people. History is interesting. History is context.

Yet if you ask the average American, I suspect the most common refrain will be ‘History is boring’. Why is that? What takes the natural curiosity of a child looking for answers and turns it aside with ruthless efficiency?

It is in no small part an absence of a need for understanding. People learn best when there is a definitive and useful application. You look both ways to cross the street to avoid a jarring life event. People brush their teeth to retain molars and smell pleasant. Many children even develop the skill of walking because there is a perceived use. Humans like to see immediate application of what we are learning. The common refrain of students learning algebra is “Why does this matter to me?” In the case of algebra, the material must be known for the future despite its minimal application in the present. It can be taught effectively through rigorous exercises and rote coursework. There is undeniably a correct answer, a solution without dispute. Where math can be effectively compelled, history becomes more obtuse and ephemeral with regimented pressure. It is far from obvious to the reluctant student that history has applications or benefits today or tomorrow. Humans live and learn in the present, often inconsiderate of future needs or utility. In history education, this barrier must be overcome.

The separation of a great teacher from a merely competent teacher is the ability to offer value to the pupil. History will not endure as a litany of dates and facts. It is and must be taught as greater than the sum of its parts. One robust way is through stories[i]. We like stories; our western minds intuitively seek the beginning, the middle and the end. Our empathic side can transport us into the story, riveting us in the search for detail and meaning and purpose. When the application and benefits of learning history escape notice this backdoor of stories can endow appetite. In the absence of this, history education frequently fails the ‘Why does it matter to me?’ question. We want and need the answer to ‘How does it matter to me?’ to prompt the Théoden question, ‘How did it come to this?’

Our standard narration of history begins with our first evidence of the written word in ancient Sumer, where we learn of clay tablets and many things we don’t actually know. Then Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, Here Be Dark Ages, Vikings, Leonardo Da Vinci, 1492, The Mayflower, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, light bulb, trenches in Europe, Nazis, Atom Bomb, and JFK. None of these things matter in the daily life of most adults, less so in the daily life of a K-12 student. This only begins to matter when people look and ask our Théoden question. When asking this question, people are seeking context; now history matters a great deal. To understand History and its context a personal desire is required.

The challenge for history education is to encourage and enable a student to ask our Théoden question. I propose we work backwards from our present position. Trace out present context in reverse by noting the turning points along the way. Ask “Why are all Americans treated as equal under the law?” We want to trace this idea to its genesis. Tell of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. Share the story of Ricky Branch and Jackie Robinson. Let Susan B. Anthony be known. Tell the story of Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation. Skip not Andrew Jackson’s Trail of Tears and the Great Compromise of Clay. Remind us of the Dred Scott decision. Tell of John Quincy Adams and the Amistad. Honor our bedrock of the US constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Tell of the elder Adams and his defense of the law and impartial justice, of Jefferson and his defense of man, of Madison and the separation of powers, of Monroe and his pen, and of Washington and his integrity with power. Teach of those binary stars Burke and Paine. Recall Locke and Hobbes, Cromwell and John Cooke, and the still earlier Magna Carta. Know that Hammurabi of Babylon did codify laws and that the Medes and the Persians held their monarchs bound. Let us never forget that all men are created equal, each created in the image of his creator. The vast sweep of history and context require understanding, yet the knowledge must find rest in the fertile soil asking the why and the how.

Will that fertile soil come into being? Not all students will muse as Théoden, nor should we force them to. It is imperative to understand that force-fed history is worse than no history at all. It provides the veneer of knowledge through possession of paperwork certifying completion. It fosters distaste for the subject of the past. No one eagerly anticipates the next glass of milk if the previous one was curdled when consumed. Let us not behave foolishly and ruin the minds which may become agreeable to this study in the future by souring the mind in the present. Let those who wish to ignore history do so as their choice, and leave the minds that will choose to concern themselves with the context of history unsullied with milk miserably curdled.  

[i] Practical Note for grades K-6th: Look at the Landmark series of history books published by Random House. These are a vast collection of narrative histories and biographies written by prolific children’s authors from the 1950’s-60s, and do an extraordinary job of embedding the story of people’s lives into the factual narrative of history. 

[ii] Here are some thoughts on why history matters to civilization and public policy choices of the electorate from 2012. 

[iii] Title From I, Robot,

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Why Guardians of the Galaxy Matters and Will Not Matter

(Spoilers are limited to names and places of characters and generalizations of story conclusions.)

James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy is quick. It moves with deft speed through characters, scenes, story pieces, combat sequences, moral conundrums and always present humor. I found it to be fun, humorous, and complex. It is a pinnacle of the great American art form, the blockbuster summer movie. Great tie-ins to the other Marvel movies, edge of the seat adventure and subtle actions by off-focus characters that fill in the world as real and not a mere set piece on camera. A tree powerfully voiced by Vin Diesel. A cybernetic being resembling a raccoon with a wicked sense of humor and affinity for large weapons. We see Titans, empires, and galaxy spanning political machinations. Flashing lights and witty dialogue and eye candy coalescing into one enormous mound of cotton candy. It passes time enjoyably, but departs from the superhero movie norm by failing to nourish.

Guardians is a pinnacle and a new standard of what a blockbuster summer movie can, and maybe should be visually At no time is there an animation awry, no sound emits out of place, no character is poorly shown. The suspension of disbelief is complete, and one is transported into a world far beyond our own. It’s magic, and it is what a good movie ought to do. But I cannot imagine what the next frontier is. In my lifetime, we have moved beyond the mantra that ‘the graphics are so much better’ for the next big movie and the next big game console. Today, the ‘graphics’ are so reliably superb (Pacific Rim, The Avengers, Super 8) that there is no room for significant improvement. A simultaneous trend in storytelling has been to pace faster, to tighten up the sequences, to accelerate the story for an audience with failing attention spans. The pace Gunn sets in Guardians is warp 9; comprehensive stories cannot develop faster in the future.  Americans, we treasure our witty dialogue and want ‘take-home’ lines to pepper our conversations on and off Facebook. From Guardians, there will be no shortage of one-liners, not the least of which starts (I am…spoiler).

I suspect that human nature has always facilitated at least two manners of storytelling. There are stories we tell to amuse, and stories we tell to expand ourselves. Stories for amusement pass the time, offer escape from the mundane, tell us about whom people are, and provide glimpses of worlds and times beyond our own. Stories that expand us inspire, instill morality, illustrate good versus evil, pass the time, offer escape from the mundane, tell us whom people can be, draw us into worlds and times beyond our own, and have the capacity to endure. This endurance springs from being at least partly rooted in the character of the divine. It is the character of God to love, to protect, to give life, to prosper, to be victorious, and to sacrifice. The latter stories possess some measure of this.

Compare two movies in the same universe: The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy.  Both are successful movies at the peak of their craft with enormous pop culture resonance. Guardians’ is a story told only to amuse. Part of the entertainment offer is mockery of the story, intentionally destroying the atmosphere of nobility that may incidentally creep up on the characters. The sole moral direction appears to be ‘I don’t have friends, we’re totally doing stuff together, let’s be friends because friends are the most important part of life. Also I mostly don’t trust you.Guardians is a mirror to this cultural moment. It is loud and brash and self-depreciating and in constant search for the next diversion. It borrows weight and gravity by using words of which the audience will have a passing but incomplete understanding. Eastern myth is found in the vile Ronan (pronounced Ronin); the Greeks are not forgotten so long as Thanos and the Titans exist; the God of Abraham still resonates so long as the foul Ronan is called The Accuser and Gamora (pronounced: Gomorrah) walks among us. It reflects today because our affections lie with the outlaws and those on the fringe, but there is somehow a powerful yet benevolent government at the end of the day to offer us solutions (Nova Prime).  The religious are the troublemakers (Ronan and his Kree-ness). Our heroes are a band of misfits who claim no identity beyond individual selfish greed or revenge (except the tree (of life?)). Only vaguely does the team form through a collective self-interest (for money, pronounced Units) that is treated with featherweight gravity within the film and finds little resonance in my heart. There is no moment where the characters must strive to be greater beings then they have been before.

The Avengers is something different. The Avengers are a team formed to accomplish something greater than the sum of the parts; it requires sacrifice of the team members to be part of the whole. It represents a morality that says ‘Other people are more important than me, and I have the ability to make a change for the better. I am and will be the shield of protection and the sword of justice’. As in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Lucas’ Star Wars, Whedon’s Avengers show heroes becoming something greater then themselves. Guardians lacks in this essential, and I expect it will be largely irrelevant within a decade.

For the sake of my children to come, I find this irrelevance a desirable conclusion. The stories I want the children of my clan surrounded by should build up, edify, and offer a life giving view of the world. Classically, Homer’s Odysseus endures the foul play of beings beyond humanity to return to Ithaca, not for the land and treasure alone but to reunite with Penelope and restore justice. In literature, we find Tolkien’s Eowyn, shieldmaiden of Rohan, following her conviction and entering battle with Merry the hobbit at her side, which led to her circumventing the witchcraft, striking down the foul undead lieutenant of Sauron and changing the course of battle. More recently, Spiderman’s Uncle Ben cautions us “With great power comes great responsibility”. Del Toro in Hellboy ponders: “What makes a man a man? A friend of mine once wondered. Is it his origins? The way he comes to life? I don't think so. It’s the choices he makes. Not how he starts things, but how he decides to end them.”

Guardians of the Galaxy, for its fine craft and stupendous storytelling, does not build up, edify or nourish the parched places. There is no call to the heights of greatness, only an approbation of the false bravado and persistent mockery of all subjects within reach. Here lies the empty humor of sarcasm and bitterness, which does not give life. Watch and be amused, for Guardians does amuse. But man was not meant to subsist on cotton candy alone, be sure to feast well elsewhere.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Wage Limitations

EDIT: This is a response to an article on Yahoo!: Why We Need a Maximum Wage

Minimum wage is a labor restriction created and maintained by the US Federal Government. The rationale for its existence is to keep employer from driving down the cost of wages to the point where the wage no longer benefits the laborer. This is absurd. People don’t work when they don’t receive adequate compensation. In economics jargon we would say that the marginal benefit of the pay must exceed the marginal cost of the labor input. There are several problems with the concept that minimum wage laws help the poor or under employed, and they are standard fare for economics coursework. By artificially raising the price of labor, employers employ fewer workers and find alternative solutions. 

This is because of the nature of employment in a market environment. A business will not, and indeed, cannot, employ a workforce that costs the organization more than that work force increases revenue. This cost accounting must include payroll, healthcare, taxes, and all other costs associated with the employment. If any of these areas increases in cost, the profitability of each employee decreases and raises the ceiling for increasing or maintaining the size of the workforce. 

These cost increase can be in the form of higher pay, higher taxes, and increasing benefit requirements; indeed, we have seen this take place over the past decade with disastrous results on the employment level of the US labor force. It is apparent that mandating increasing the cost of employment has damaged the labor market.

In short, the relationship between an employee and an employer is a win-win relationship. The employee is receiving compensation in excess of value of their input. The organization is receiving more value from this employees work then they are compensating the employee. This is a wonderful arrangement as both sides willingly forego value in order to acquire a greater value offered by the counterpart.

There is a growing concern that income inequality in the US is a problem spot that requires remedy. Critics of high levels of income point to the disparity of wages at the very top when compared as a ratio to the wages of the average worker, or indeed, the minimum wage level of the US. The current solution to this perceived dilemma is a progressive marginal tax rate, where greater levels of income are taxed at a higher rate the income bracket beneath it.[i] This has the effect of permitting high wages while punishing those increased wages with higher levels of taxation. This results in lower taxes for the lower marginal tax rate brackets, so that the lower levels of income pay far less then do the higher levels of income. The current rate of income tax paid by the top 10% in the US is over 70%[ii], while the remaining 90% of those in the US making less than the top ten 10% pay only 30% of income tax. It is clear that low income tax payers benefit mightily from the taxes paid by the ‘elite’.

Suppose we capped the level of income to say, 1000 times the level of minimum wage[iii]. That is roughly 15 million dollars annually for the very top level income earner. The threshold for the top 1% of household incomes is 350,000[iv]. Very few households would be directly impacted by such a law, right?
In light of taxation impact from top income earners, this is wrong. Capping wages would reduce the income taxes paid by top level earners, thereby increasing the tax burden on the lower levels of income or increasing the spending deficit.

Let us return now to the micro question: Why do organizations employ individuals? Because the marginal benefit of that employee is in excess of the marginal cost to the organization. What holds true for the janitorial staff, the attorneys and the mid-level director holds true for the CEO. At some point, the perceived value of that employee was in excess of their rate of pay. While that may not continue to be the truth, it was nevertheless a crucial decision made along the way.

What water does that bucket hold? Payroll is not the only form of compensation. In the Great Depression, the US Federal Government restricted pay increases and other forms of compensation. In the finite wisdom of a government agency, it supposed that restricting pay increases would help win the War. As a result, companies found other ways of acquiring and retaining talent. Enter employer-paid healthcare insurance, or what we now call ‘benefits’[v].

The point is this: Exceptional talent (or those perceived to be) is highly prized in the market. In a marketplace where organizations are bigger then national governments, and annual revenues exceed that of many nations, the stakes for having the best at your helm is extraordinary and demands extraordinary compensation. Salary and bonuses are easy to see, stock options less so, and other forms of compensation become even more opaque. 

Simply capping the level of income will do little to reduce compensation; organizations will just find other ways to compensation top flight individuals. In the process, that low-income worker who has a lesser tax burden will suddenly find higher taxes or increased deficits, not a reduction in the ‘oppression’ of wage disparity. 

To summarize again: Wage inequality is not an injustice, to cap income for the wealthy is to damage all income classes, and compensation will continue despite a cap on income.