Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Our Brain on Costco

What our brain is doing when we shop at Costco:
Consumers aren't always driven by careful considerations of price and expected utility. We don't look at the electric grill or box of chocolates and perform an explicit cost-benefit analysis. Instead, we outsource much of this calculation to our emotional brain, and rely on relative amounts of pleasure versus pain to tell us what to purchase. (During many of the decisions, the rational prefrontal cortex was largely a spectator, standing silently by while the NAcc pleasure centers and insula secretes aversive feelings argued with each other.) Whichever feeling we feel most intensely tends to dictate our shopping decisions. It's like an emotional tug-of-war.

Retail stores manipulate this cortical setup. They are designed to open our wallets: the frivolous details of the shopping experience are really subtle acts of psychological manipulation. The store is tweaking our brain, trying to soothe the insula and stoke the NAcc. Just look at the interior of a Costco warehouse. It's no accident that the most covetous items are put in the most prominent places. A row of high-definition televisions surrounds the entrance. The fancy jewelry, Rolex watches, iPods and other luxury items are conspicuously placed along the corridors with the heaviest foot traffic. (The fresh food is always located in the back of the store, so that we have to parade past the profitable aisles of temptations.) And then there are the free samples of food, liberally distributed throughout the store. The goal of Costco is to constantly prime the pleasure centers of the brain, to keep us lusting after things we don't need. Even though we probably won't buy the Rolex, just looking at the fancy watch makes us more likely to buy something else, since the coveted item activates the NAcc. We have been conditioned to crave a reward.

But it's not enough to just excite the NAcc: retailers must also inhibit the insula. This is where Costco really excels. When consumers are repeatedly assured that low prices are "guaranteed," or told that a certain item is on sale, the insula stops worrying so much about the price tag. In fact, researchers have found that even when a store puts a promotional sticker next to the price -something like "Bargain Buy!" or "Hot Deal!"-but doesn't actually reduce the price, sales of the item will still dramatically increase. These retail tactics lull our brain into buying more things, since our normal response to price tags is pacified.

Fortunately we don't have a Costco nearby yet, just a Sam's Club and I am betting they haven't figured any of this out yet. I do love the free food samples, though.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

If We Approached Slavery Like We Aproached Health Care

Minnesota state Senator John Marty, a candidate for governor, (and son of church historian Martin Marty) isn't thrilled with the new federal health care bill:
If the country had approached slavery like we have approached health care," he says, "we'd still have slavery, but Democrats would be bragging that the slaves only work 40 hours a week now. We haven't fixed the problem. There will still be people dying from lack of health care, and going broke.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Where Has Obedience Gone

This is why I could never be Catholic:

So, we had a trade organization — the Catholic Health Association — which calls itself “Catholic” and we had religious Sisters who call themselves Catholic, saying, “Sorry, bishops, you got it wrong, here is the teaching of the Church.” The Lord Jesus Christ, unworthy though the bishops are, called the bishops to lead the people in faith; He did not call anybody in the Catholic Health Association and he did not call any of the Sisters in Network.

The bishops are called to teach, sanctify, and govern. But, as I said before, with regard to the Holy Father, if people will not recognize authority, then they cannot lay responsibility at the feet of those to whom they are disobedient. The pope and the bishops are only responsible when their authority is accepted. The then-Cardinal Ratzinger himself has said, in our contemporary world, the word “obedience” has disappeared from our vocabulary and the reality of obedience has been anathematized.

This is Bishop Robert C. Morlino of Madison, Wisconsin chastising Catholics who disagreed with the bishops on the health care vote.

HT Andrew Sullivan

On Disbelieving Pastors

I said I was going to respond to this article.

For eight years out of seminary I served a Church of the Brethren congregation in northern Ohio. I still remember the Sunday after worship when a parishioner came up to me and told me that my recent sermons were "undermining the faith of our children." I don't remember what I was preaching on; but I distinctly remember the responses I was getting at the time.

Just out of seminary I spent the first half of my tenure at that church getting my pastoral legs under my feet. I spent the second half of my time there beginning to find my own faith. It was a messy process for me. Looking back on my time there it is not surprising to me that some people sitting in the pews must have been wondering why they were paying this pastor to raise question that might challenge their faith.

To be fair to me in many ways I was just tinkering around the edges, sharing a little bible scholarship about sources and sitz im leben and discrepencies in the Greek text of the NT, etc. My own biblical studies were being re-invigorated by the work of the Jesus Seminar, but I wasn't giving them full doses. And I wasn't sharing anything about my own deeper questions about Jesus and the reality of God.

To be fair to them they were a very traditional Brethren congregation. They were mostly pacifist and service oriented, the best of my tradition. They were also mostly union folks and liberal on economic issues, definitely a plus. But they held very traditional and moderately evangelical views on sin and salvation, the "purpose" of Jesus, and the authority of the Bible. And the issue of homosexuality was a "live" issue in that congregation but the subject was taboo. I didn't preach about it from the pulpit but I was talking about it a lot with individuals and families. From their perspective I am sure it felt like I was messing with their faith.

I began to realize during my last few years that I could not keep doing what I was doing. I couldn't say one thing from the pulpit - the safe thing, the traditional thing - and think something else. I couldn't not talk about some issues because it made some people uncomfortable. I couldn't lead the congregation in prayer to God when I wasn't sure there was anybody up there listening.

So I decided to resign. The fateful moment actually was brought about by a congregational vote to turn down an offer made by a local company to take a piece of the church's large property and build on it a child-care center paid for by that company who would also share the building with the church. It was in my view a huge no vote to mission and to the viability of the congregation. It was time for me to go.

At first I interviewed at several other churches. But in each case I realized that it wasn't going to work. They were asking me questions about biblical authority and the virgin birth and I wasn't going down that road again. So because of my wife's employment and education situation where we were in Ohio, I began to look for other work there.

When I got the call from a denominational representative to consider planting a church in the twin cities I initially said no. He said he was sending me the material anyway. So it came and I began to realize that this might be an opportunity for me to be a pastor and to be honest about my faith. If I started from the very beginning saying "this is what I believe" then those who came would know what they were getting into and those who stayed would stay because they appreciate this way of being a person of faith.

Seventeen years later I am still saying "this is what I believe" on Sunday mornings. Not "this is what the Bible says you should believe" or "this is what you must believe to be a Christian" or "this is what I believe" (but secretly I don't). I have found it to be a recipe for growing a thriving liberal Christian community where some non-Christians also find a spiritual home. I have also found it to be a recipe for sleeping well at night.

I sympathize with pastors who feel trapped because their own faith experience doesn't match the faith experience of the congregations they serve. I was there once. And I don't think there is one right response to being in this situation. Some pastors have the cross-cultural skills to make it work. They love the people they are with for who they are and have the vision and persistence to work at bringing people along little by little over time. (I realize this may sound patronizing and it is certainly true that growth happens in both ways. But I also make no apologies for saying that it is part of the pastor's job to "bring people along," i.e to grow; and bringing people along towards a more open and progressive vision is in my view a good thing.)

Other pastors don't have the temperament or the skill set. Or they simply have lost their faith. For them there is no sleeping well at night. I know some of them. For their own sake and for the sake of their congregations it would probably be better if they found a new career, or better yet started a new church where they could figure out their faith among like-minded people.

Feeding on Fear

I just received a fundraising appeal from a liberal organization that begins its pitch this way:
We knew that power concedes nothing. So did President Obama. So did the members of Congress who courageously voted for reform, knowing that the special interests and the extreme right wing would retaliate swiftly.

The attacks are fierce. Deceptive ads are hitting the airwaves in swing districts. GOP lawmakers are pushing to repeal reform -- and preventing the Senate from performing basic functions. A few Republican attorneys general have launched a baseless attack to overturn the legislation. But that's not even the worst of it.

A conservative blogger posted the home address of Congressman Tom Perriello, urging tea partiers to "drop by." Other members have had death threats. Democratic offices have been vandalized...
This is one of several similar emails I have received in the last few days from liberal groups. I don't like it one bit. I get that this is a proven method for raising money. I get that the right wing does it too. And I am not disputing the veracity of the charges leveled here. The Republicans are pretty much unhinged from reality right now; some of them are treading in dangerous and possibly illegal waters.

But do we have to stoop to the same level? Do we have to ratchet up the rhetoric to a fever pitch so we can meet them mano a mano in the gutter? If we want cooler heads to prevail on the other side shouldn't we model it on ours?

I don't give money to any organization - political or religious - that uses fear as a motivating tool.

Amish Forgiveness

Apparently the Lifetime Movie Network has taken some liberties with the facts of the story of the 2006 Nickel Mines Amish school shooting. The movie Amish Grace, which will air this Sunday, is based on a book by the same name. The movie has an Amish mother showing up at the home of the deceased shooter the day after the killings and confronting the wife of the gunman. The authors of the book say this never happened:
True, Amish people did show up at gunman Charles Roberts' home within hours of the shooting that left five girls dead. They also visited his parents and parents-in-law, all of whom lived within a few miles of the West Nickel Mines School.

But the Amish people didn't go there to express rage or sling blame. They visited the Roberts family because of their compassion for his kin--victims of the tragedy who were also suffering immense emotional pain. One Amish neighbor consoled Charles Roberts' father with a hand on his shoulder and four simple words: "We love you, Roberts." A few days later, at Roberts' burial, parents of some of the Amish girls he had killed showed up and hugged his widow. It was, said one Amish man, "simply the right thing to do."

The authors make a guess that the movie channel chose a different beginning because it more closely mirrors the typical English? reaction to being harmed: first rage and then hopefully forgiveness as time passes. This, say the authors, is not the Amish way. Deeply ingrained teachings and practices of forgiveness as a first response were lived out at Nickel Mines. It apparently made a difference:

The Amish response was "the beginning of the healing process," Ms. Roberts (mother of the gunman) continues. She describes how it compelled her and her husband to visit all the Amish families whose daughters had been shot, and to invite all the mothers and the surviving girls to her home for tea.

Ms. Roberts continues to host teas and swimming parties for the surviving girls, four of whom have resumed relatively normal lives. Her closest relationship, however, exists with Rosanna, the one survivor who doesn't swim because she's seriously disabled. To this day, Ms. Roberts visits with Rosanna for several hours every Thursday evening.

Perhaps the real story of Amish grace is as touching as the Lifetime movie version of it. But as we note in our book, the story of Amish forgiveness is not about remarkable individuals finding "within themselves" the ability to forgive. It's about a community that valued forgiveness and reconciliation so highly before the shooting happened that scapegoating the Roberts family on October 2, 2006, wasn't even thinkable.

That this kind of behavior is taken to be remarkable in our "Christian" nation says something about the nature of our Christianity.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Pope in Trouble

I am beginning to think that the stories of cover-up of child sex abuse by priests in America, Germany, and Ireland are going to bring down this pope:
Top Vatican officials — including the future Pope Benedict XVI — did not defrock a priest who molested as many as 200 deaf boys, even though several American bishops repeatedly warned them that failure to act on the matter could embarrass the church, according to church files newly unearthed as part of a lawsuit.

The internal correspondence from bishops in Wisconsin directly to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future pope, shows that while church officials tussled over whether the priest should be dismissed, their highest priority was protecting the church from scandal.

The documents emerge as Pope Benedict is facing other accusations that he and direct subordinates often did not alert civilian authorities or discipline priests involved in sexual abuse when he served as an archbishop in Germany and as the Vatican’s chief doctrinal enforcer.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Change We Can Believe In!

Finally we have health care for all. What a great night for our country.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Scores that Matter

Well I had Minnesota as a sentimental pick to upset Xavier in the first round of the NCAA men's tournament. It wasn't to be as the Gophers shooting went stone cold in the second half. My whole bracket is pretty much going up in smoke.

I have the games on and the volume muted so I can watch the scores. But I have also been following two other scores that are much more important heading into this weekend. The second and most important score is the vote on the health care bill which is currently scheduled for Sunday. The odds are for its passage are looking better and better as several wavering Dems have indicating they will vote yes.

Part of the reason for that is because of the first big score on the health care bill that came back yesterday from the Congressional Budget Office. The reporters and analysts have been all over this and I have nothing to add except to say that this process - of writing a bill and getting it scored by the CBO and making it at the very least deficit neutral - is what good government looks like.

Republicans rail against big government and promise to shrink it but never do when they are in power. Our last two Republican presidents vastly expanded the size and scope of the federal government. And I have no problem with that because I think we need a big government to meet the many needs of a big country. But Republicans are proven first-rate hypocrites when it comes to the what they say about the size of government when they are out of power and what they do when they are in power.

But what is even worse, at least under the most recent President, is that while they were expanding the size of government they were hiding the costs. The true cost of military budgets to support two wars were off the books, not included in the regular budget. When they passed the prescription drug benefit they silenced the chief actuary charged with figuring out its cost, threatening to fire him if he told Congress that the price was going to be far higher than what the President said it was going to be. Not a peep of protest was heard from the Republican Congress. Why? Because they didn't really care about the size of the government or the deficit. What they cared about was staying in power.

Now out-of-power Republicans are complaining about the process that is going to bring us this bill's passage, and about secret deals made with some legislators made to get their votes. But the truth is the process has been remarkably visible, straight-forward, and honest. The secret deals have been exposed and removed. Republicans were given every opportunity to participate; remember that the process was dragged out for months to allow the bi-partisan 'gang of six' to see if they could come up with a bill that would get Republican support. (The final bill looks much like what the gang of six came up with but still no Republican support.) Most importantly the bill has been vetted by the CBO and it passes muster as an enormous government expansion that pays for itself. It is possible to be cynical and cast aspersions on the accuracy of the CBO but then who are you going to trust to give an impartial reading on the cost of bills? They are widely recognized as non-partisan and accurate with their forecasts. And imagine what Republicans would be saying if the CBO numbers had come back with big deficit-busting numbers. They would have quoting the CBO report to everyone.

From a progressive's perspective this bill is far from perfect. Single payer or at the very least a robust public option would have been preferable. But the process of getting to this moment, slow and painful as it has been and reaching an end that is not perfect, has been an exercise in good government. The final score matters; I want the bill to pass. But how we get there also matters.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Disbelief in the Pulpit

Via James McGrath I want to call attention to this interesting discussion in the Washington Post based on this article: Preachers who are not Believers. I don't have time today but I plan on commenting on it soon.

Happy St. Patrick's Day

I'm not Irish and apart from marking the day with a good Irish Stout the holiday kind of passes me by. But there is one very good reason to celebrate this day. In Minnesota the sun rose this morning at 7:21 a.m. and it sets this evening at 7:21 p.m. Spring officially begins in 3 days but by the sun's reckoning up here in the north it has already arrived. And it is a beautiful day to boot.

Make My Day

The Washington Post is reporting that some Republicans are mounting a repeal movement in the face of the increasing likelihood that Dems are going to pass health care legislation:
Can Republicans win election this fall by campaigning to repeal the health-care legislation now nearing passage in Congress?

Even as House Democrats search for the votes to send the bill to President Obama, dozens of Republican lawmakers and candidates have signed a pledge to back an effort to repeal the bill, should the GOP take control of either house of Congress after this fall's elections.

Started by the conservative activist group Club for Growth, the "Repeal It" movement first won the backing in January of some of the most conservative Republicans in Congress, such as "tea party" favorite Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). It has since expanded to include some of the party's Senate candidates in liberal-leaning states such as New Hampshire and Illinois.

I think this is a great idea. I hope every Republican candidate runs on repealing health care. I can imagine the slogans: No insurance for your children with cancer! Bring back the donut hole! If you lose your job you don't deserve health insurance!

Back in the real world there is not a single Republican running in remotely close-contested elections who is going to campaign on repealing health care this fall. It would be political suicide. It is all bluster.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

12,000 Calories a Day

If this was your typical daily diet how big would you be:
In a typical day I'll eat four burgers and fries, a loaf of bread with peanut butter and jam, four servings of meatloaf and mashed potato, a large pizza, a chocolate cake with ice cream and cream, 12 cupcakes, two cheesecakes and fizzy drinks.
This is the diet of New Jersey woman who weighs in at over 600 pounds and is trying to get to 1000. She has set up a website where men pay to watch her eat. She is 42 years old and says she is happy and healthy. She also loves sushi and says she can eat 70 big pieces in "one go."

It's a free country, as many say in America. Unfortunately, though, her health care costs are not free. According to the article it will likely be the taxpayers of NJ who will be paying the tab for her gluttony. I have a problem with that. It is one thing to struggle with weight and deal with all of the social and medical consequences. It is another thing entirely to intentionally destroy your body and stick others with the bill for taking care of you.

Rod Dreher is even less charitable.

Rework Takes on Karl Rove

I haven't read Rework which has been on the bestseller NYTimes bestseller list. But Karl Rove's book recently knocked it off the top spot and the author's of Rework have struck back with this amusing video:

I downloaded a sample of the book to my Kindle. Here is the publishers promo:
From the founders of the trailblazing software company 37signals, here is a different kind of business book one that explores a new reality. Today, anyone can be in business. Tools that used to be out of reach are now easily accessible. Technology that cost thousands is now just a few bucks or even free. Stuff that was impossible just a few years ago is now simple.That means anyone can start a business. And you can do it without working miserable 80-hour weeks or depleting your life savings. You can start it on the side while your day job provides all the cash flow you need. Forget about business plans, meetings, office space - you don't need them.

With its straightforward language and easy-is-better approach, Rework is the perfect playbook for anyone who's ever dreamed of doing it on their own. Hardcore entrepreneurs, small-business owners, people stuck in day jobs who want to get out, and artists who don't want to starve anymore will all find valuable inspiration and guidance in these pages. It's time to rework work.

Update: Make that Amazon's top spot, not the NYTimes.

NCLB Supporter Changes Mind

Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University and once a supporter of No Child Left Behind. She has a new book out on the subject and writes in The New Republic why she has changed her mind:
As I assayed the evidence about No Child Left Behind (NCLB), I concluded that it has failed. The testing regime that NCLB installed in every public school has not improved American education. By mandating that scores in reading and math must constantly rise, the federal law has removed any incentive to teach the arts, science, history, literature, foreign languages, geography, civics, or any other non-tested subject.

NCLB requires that all students must be proficient in reading and math by 2014. When the legislation was signed in 2002, this goal was wildly unrealistic--and now, it is merely laughable. The target date is only four years away, but no state is remotely close to 100 percent proficiency. Indeed, in 2008, 35,000 of the nation’s schools bore the stigma of "failing" because they weren't making sufficient progress toward that utopian target.

What NCLB has done with its proficiency deadline is set a timetable for the demolition of American public education. In an effort to meet NCLB’s unattainable goal and avoid the "failing" label, most states have dumbed down their standardized tests or their definitions of proficiency. Many states claim that large majorities of their students are “proficient” in reading or math, but their claims are refuted by federal assessments (called the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP) that are given to all students in fourth and eighth grades every other year. For example, Texas reported that 85 percent of its students in those grades were proficient readers based on year-end state testing, but, on the NAEP, only 29 percent were. Nationwide, NAEP scores have gone up in math since 2003, but the rate of improvement has been less than before the passage of NCLB. In eighth-grade reading, there was no improvement at all from 1998 to 2007.
She has reached a similar verdict on the charter school movement.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Don't Eat the Viking

I'm reading this article on the pesticides, hormones, and plastics that we may be ingesting in our foods and how it may be contributing to our obesity epidemic. This is how they analogize about eating hormone-laden beef:
To bring this all home, imagine you've been in a terrible plane crash in the Andes, like those poor souls depicted in the movie "Alive." The only way to survive is to pick one of the dead folks to eat. You're given the choice of an obese, grotesquely muscled, man-boob-toting Minnesota Vikings lineman with shrunken testicles who's been injecting himself with hormones for a dozen years, or someone of normal size and body type and hormonal function. (One of the Kardashian sisters, maybe.) Which would you choose?

Well, every time you eat conventionally raised beef, you're choosing the Viking.

Makes you think twice about biting into that hamburger. They are calling these chemicals run amok in our diet obesogens. Interesting article.

Cat Confessions

I was awakened in the middle of last night by a loud noise. One of our cats, Sampson, was in the bed and jumped up at the sound. I sat up, looked out the window, listened a moment, and laid back down. No sooner had I dozed off when cat number two, Sadie, jumped onto my chest and started meowing in my face. I rubbed her head, she started purring and laid down in bed.

I got up this morning to find a plant knocked over and the ceramic pot shattered all over the floor. Apparently Sadie was confessing her sin and felt that by petting her I was granting her absolution.

HT for photo to Thomas Verenna.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Sauteed Chickpeas

Mark Bittman recently featured a sauteed chickpea recipe. I went looking for the Spanish chorizo called for but couldn't find it in local grocers. I will keep looking. In any case he said the chickpeas turned from mealy to crispy in the pan and were great alone. So I rinsed, dried, and sauteed a can up tonight and he was right. They were great. I put them into a salad with Romaine lettuce, avocado, mushrooms, and olive oil and vinegar. That was dinner tonight.

Cheater's Bible

Today I received via UPS a copy of The UBS Greek New Testament: A Reader's (or cheater's) Edition. It has a translation of all vocabulary words occurring 30 times or less in the NT at the bottom of the page. It's great for someone like me who isn't working in the Greek NT every day but has a decent handle on the vocabulary and grammar. What I don't know or remember is right there on the page.