Brandon's Notepad

October 31, 2017

October 31, 2017: Momento Mori, Matthias Hauser, A Dark Room

Filed under: My Stack — Brandon @ 5:43 pm
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ShortURL: https://wp.me/pb7U7-2M8

Momento Mori
“Remember death!” To practice momento mori is to remember that you too shall die one day. It is a reflection, a meditation on life, death, and the meaninglessness of earthly pursuits. Reminders of death were embedded in European art — paintings, sculpture, architecture…even the figures in large clocks — during the Medieval period and eventually the concept spread to the New World. One common practice is to keep a human skull (a replica will do) on the desk where one works or studies. I happen to follow a religious sister on Twitter who advocates this practice, and I must admit, I may be a bit late in stowing my Halloween decorations at work this year.

Matthias Hauser
Matthias Hauser is a fine-art photographer with an impressive portfolio, ranging from stunning landscapes to timeless still lifes. He even has a collection of mesmerizing fractal images. I first became familiar with Matthias’ work, however, when I found a few pieces from his Google Deep Dream collection posted on social media. For some reason beyond comprehension, I am fascinated with the Deep Dream Burger, which upon further inspection begins to resemble a conglomerate of creepy-crawly organisms more than it does food.

A Dark Room
This 2013 Open Source role-playing game by Doublespeak Games caught my attention sometime in the last year. It is text-based and single-player, which doesn’t exactly sound like a lot of fun; unless, of course, you are a fan of text-based games like I am. Unfortunately, it’s been gathering virtual dust in an open browser tab ever since, and I have not had time to sit and play with it for very long. I will admit, it starts off a bit slow, but I’ve read very promising things about it. I’m adding this to my stack, partly because I want to revisit the game, but also because my interest goes beyond the game itself. I want to see how it was written. That’s the glory of Open Source! Hopefully, I can do more with it soon.

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October 5, 2017

Amoris Laetitia

Filed under: Christianity — Brandon @ 4:22 pm
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ShortURL: http://wp.me/pb7U7-2K5
Home > My Research > Christianity > Selected Papal Writings > Amoris Laetitia


Synopsis

This is Pope Francis’ controversial exhortation (2016) that followed the two Synods on the Family (2014 & 2015).

Resources

Observations

  • The title (The Joy of Love in English) is derived from the first words of the document.
  • Paragraph 57 states, “The Synod’s reflections show us that there is no stereotype of the ideal family, but rather a challenging mosaic made up of different realities…”. This seems to be a deviation from the Church’s perennial teaching that both the Trinity and the Holy Family are indeed stereotypes of the ideal family. These examples are even cited in paragraphs 29 and 30.
  • Paragraph 78 clearly indicates that those in “irregular unions” do not (but may someday) enjoy sacramental marriage.
  • Paragraph 83 asserts that the Church rejects the death penalty.

Summary

Introduction

  1. Family love is much desired today, especially by young people.
  2. The synod examined complex modern marriage/family issues to provide clarity to the Church.
  3. Solutions need not be doctrinal, but can differ by culture.
  4. The process was eye-opening. Contributions and considerations are recorded herein.
  5. It is fitting to write this in the Jubilee Year of Mercy.
  6. I will cover Scripture, current issues, Church teaching on marriage, love, pastoral advice, and a call for mercy and discernment.
  7. Many questions were addressed, hence the length of this writing. Read carefully and with purpose.

Chapter 1: In the Light of the Word

  1. The Bible is full of stories about families and their problems.
  2. The union of man and woman has existed since the beginning.
  3. The couple is made in God’s image, a sign of his creation.
  4. The fruitful love of the married couple is an image (icon) of God’s Trinitarian nature. Salvation history progressed through families, and thus, through the ability of the married couple to beget life.
  5. Love is an encounter, each giving the self to the other.
  6. The union is not merely physical, but the clinging of two souls in harmony.
  7. Children are a sign of continuity and are the building blocks of society.
  8. God should be found in the home, the domestic church.
  9. Faith is passed down through the family.
  10. Parents are responsible for education, and the children should respect them.
  11. Children are people, not property.
  12. Pain, evil, and violence can break up families, love and purity can be overturned by domination.
  13. The Bible also contains stories of family violence and hatred.
  14. Family problems are woven into Jesus’ parables.
  15. Thus, Sacred Scripture does not contain abstract ideas, but comfort for the suffering.
  16. Man is a laborer and work is essential to human dignity.
  17. Labor sustains the family and develops society.
  18. Unemployment, poverty, and hunger diminish the serenity of family life.
  19. Sin results in social degeneration and injustice; this includes the abuse of nature.
  20. Christ taught the law of love (by word and example), which bears the fruits of mercy and forgiveness.
  21. Love moves us toward tenderness.
  22. Thus we have examined the family in Scripture, a communion of persons in the image of the Trinity that should become an even greater dwelling place for the Holy Spirit.
  23. The Holy Family of Nazareth, and Mary in particular, are models for understanding the family experience.

Chapter 2: The Experiences and Challenges of Families

  1. The family is the future, and many studies have examined the challenges of today’s family, including the Synod.
  2. The family continues to evolve. It receives less outside support than in times past, but benefits from duty-sharing and improved personal communication.
  3. Extreme individualism is a danger to relationships, commitment, and the generous giving of self.
  4. In the light of such individualism, family life is seen as a benefit only when convenient.
  5. Christians cannot stop advocating marriage and should not impose it by rule, but should better understand and convey the reasons for choosing it.
  6. Marriage has been presented as an abstract theological ideal, with far more emphasis on the procreative aspect than on the unitive.
  7. Doctrine, bioethics, and moral issues have been the focus, not presenting marriage as a path to development, fulfillment, and grace.
  8. Thankfully, most people value permanent relationships and many experience the grace of the Sacraments, but too much pastoral energy has been spent denouncing worldliness instead of teaching how to find true happiness. The Church’s message is perceived as different from Jesus’ teachings.
  9. Christians cannot stop warning against cultural decline. Relationships are increasingly commoditized: consumed for certain benefits and then disposed of.
  10. The reasons for avoiding or postponing the start of a family are many. We must learn to arouse the courage of young people.
  11. Today’s culture does not harness affectivity, resulting in the inability of people (and thus marriages) to mature properly.
  12. Population decline is the result of politics, science, industrialization, social fears, consumerism, etc. The Church opposes State promoted/enforced population control.
  13. Weak faith in modern culture leads to distance from God and loneliness, both in individuals and in families. The State is responsible for helping young people realize plans for having a family.
  14. Public policy (juridical, economic, social, fiscal) should reduce family suffering (unemployment, healthcare, etc.) so that the family can nurture relationships within as well as participate in society.
  15. Irregular family constructs, war, terrorism, crime, and hardships of urban life contribute to the suffering of children. Scandalous abuse occurs when and where they should be the most safe.
  16. Migration can be beneficial to the family in some cases and destabilizing in others. Pastoral programs should be offered to those who leave as well as for those who stay behind.
  17. The family that welcomes a child with special needs is a special witness to faith and the gift of life.
  18. The same is true for the family that loves and cares for its elderly members, who too-often are considered a burden. The Church opposes euthanasia and assisted suicide as threats to the family.
  19. Poverty can greatly inhibit the personal growth of a child. The Church should offer comfort rather than judgment.
  20. Family life is often affected by everyday challenges such as job-related stress/exhaustion, addiction to television, lack of a common family meal, fear of the future welfare fo the children, etc.
  21. Drugs, alcohol, gambling, and other addictions contribute greatly to the breakdown of the family today.
  22. The weakening of the family threatens individual maturity, communal values, and moral progress of society. Only the family based on the traditional marriage can ensure the future of society. Other family constructs can only secure a certain level of stability at best.
  23. Some countries allow for polygamy, arranged marriages, and cohabitation (premarital and/or permanent), and legislation increasingly favors individual autonomy over the value of traditional marriage.
  24. The recognition of women’s rights has advanced in general, but a dignity equal with that of man is not yet fully realized.
  25. Men play an important role in family life and their absence is detrimental.
  26. Various forms of gender ideology deny the differences between man and women, thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family. Also, scientific advances allow for the separation of procreation and parenthood. Man today is tempted by culture to take the place of the Creator, instead of being a creature who respects what has been created.
  27. The challenges that families face today should drive missionary creativity.

Chapter 3: Looking to Jesus: The Vocation of the Family

  1. Families must be formed around the proclamation of the Gospel message (i.e. kerygma).
  2. Our teaching on the family must be inspired by, and indeed, can only be understood in the context of the Gospel message.
  3. This chapter is a summary of the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family.
  4. Marriage is a gift from God and must therefore be safeguarded.
  5. Jesus not only reaffirmed that marriage is indissoluble, but also taught that it is a restoration of God’s original plan for man.
  6. Jesus redeemed marriage and the family and bestows on them the grace to reflect the love of God and our communion with him.
  7. Jesus’ ministry was filled with interactions with families.
  8. The beauty of family life is exuded in the Nativity and the life of Jesus prior to public ministry.
  9. Nazareth can teach all families how to be a light in the world.
  10. Marriage is a community of life and love grounded in Christ through the spouses (Gaudium et Spes), and the Body of Christ is built up via the domestic church, making the Church manifest (Lumen Gentium).
  11. Church teaching has developed to include the responsibility of parenthood (Humanae Vitae) and the relationship of the family to the Church (Evangelii Nuntiandi).
  12. Family love is the way of the Church and, thus, marriage leads to holiness (Gratissimam Sane, Familiaris Consortio).
  13. Marital love based on the love of Christ becomes an icon of God’s relationship with his people (Deus Caritas Est), and love in general is a key principle of life in society (Caritas in Veritate).
  14. The Trinity resembles a family, and just as the Holy Spirit is a sign of the Father’s love for the Son’s bestowed at his baptism, so Holy Matrimony is a sacramental sign of Jesus for the Church.
  15. This sacrament is a sanctifying and salvific vocation, not merely a social convention, ritual, or sign of (human) commitment
  16. Marriage is a serious commitment of complete self-giving. The spouses become one flesh, just as Jesus took on the flesh of mankind.
  17. Physical union is expressed in complete consent; thus, marriage points to the mystery of the incarnation.
  18. The (Christian) man and woman are the ministers of this sacrament, which is manifested by their mutual concent and expressed in physical union. When a non-Christian couple is baptized, their (affirmed) marriage automatically becomes sacramental.
  19. The Gospel helps even immature and neglected marriages grow.
  20. Human relationships can only be truly understood in the context of Christ, yet (at least some of) the reality of marriage can be seen in other religious traditions.
  21. Pastoral care is warranted for those in irregular unions and the Church seeks the grace of their conversion, which, through deep affection and noteworthy stability, may lead them to sacramental marriage.
  22. Pastors must clearly state Church teaching while exercising careful discernment (situational awareness), and must not judge those seeking counsel.
  23. The conjugal union is naturally procreative. Children are the fruit and fulfilment of love.
  24. Man and woman share in the work of creation; thus they are instruments of God’s love.
  25. Having children is increasing becoming a small varible in a couple’s life plan, and the Church applauds couples who accept children into their lives, including children who are adopted or have disabilities.
  26. If the family is the sanctuary of life, then it is hypocritical for the spouses to reject or destroy it. Putting the right to one’s own body over the right of another to live effectively asserts that the other person is one’s property (sic. the right to choose when and how the property will be disposed of). This is the rationale for supporting the rights of conscientious objection and of a natural death (i.e. without treatment or euthanasia), as well as the rejection of the death penalty.
  27. The education of children is a right and duty of the parents, and all others involved (i.e. schools) are subsidiary and complementary, but cannot replace parents.
  28. The Church supports and assists parents in this vocation that is an intrinsic part of marriage.
  29. The family perpetuates the faith in its many facets. (CCC 1657)
  30. The Church is a family of families, and the Church and the family mutually benefit one anouther.
  31. Family love continually strengthens the Church, and the role of the family vocation is unique and cannot be replaced.

More to come…


October 4, 2017

October 4, 2017: Dutch Ovens, IdeaBoardz, Like Fab Ostpay Bork!

Filed under: My Stack — Brandon @ 4:45 pm

ShortURL: http://wp.me/pb7U7-2I8

Dutch Oven Dude
Camping is a lot of fun in its own right, but being able to prepare meals over a campfire beyond hot dogs and s’mores takes the experience to a whole new level. Dutch oven cooking is a time-tested method and a favored one for many campers. Basic ingredients go in and surprisingly awesome dishes come out, almost as if by magic…almost. Don’t camp? No problem! Dutch ovens are great for backyard cooking too. If you are new to dutch ovens or just want a long list of recipes to try, I highly recommend visiting Dutch Oven Dude. The site has a bunch of recipes and I have had great success with the ones I’ve tried so far. There is also a ‘Getting Started’ section for beginners, tips on how to season, clean, store, and fix your cast iron cookware, and even instructions on how to determine how hot your dutch oven is before pouring in the ingredients!

IdeaBoardz
In a recent class on Agile development, I was introduced to IdeaBoardz, a collaborative site for hosting restrospectives, brainstorming sessions, and other types of card-based or ‘sticky note’ meetings online. The site is free, though an optional login account can be created to help keep track of previous meeting links. At the time of this writing, there are fifteen formats for collaboration boards, including to-do lists, pros & cons, several types of retrospective styles, and generic boards with 1 to 10 sections. The cards (or sticky notes) can be merged, moved, and even liked by meeting participants. A link to a board can be shared with anyone (e.g. via e-mail), so it doesn’t look like information is truly private; however, if card content remains fairly generic and the board is used in conjunction with a more secure channel of communication (e.g. a conference call), then privacy may not be a huge concern.

English to Chef/Jive/Val Speak/Pig Latin Translator
I found this novelty online translator quite by accident. It translates English words and phrases to one of several other ‘languages’ (or a combination of all). Written in C/Lex, it is the brainchild of John Burges Chambers, a (former) doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin in the 1990s. The source code is still available for download.

September 14, 2017

TFS / VSTS Customization

ShortURL: http://wp.me/pb7U7-2DL


I started working heavily with Microsoft Team Foundation Server (TFS) in the summer of 2016 and may be migrating to Visual Studio Team Servcies (VSTS) in the not-so-distant future. The need to customize TFS operations was almost immediately obvious, and the complexity of the customization only increases in proportion with the use of the tool. This page is a (growing) list of links that I’ve found useful.


Runtime Environment Variables

Environment variables are available for use during both build and release operations. These are my go-to references when I need to figure out how to get to runtime data.

Marketplace Extensions

The Visual Studio Marketplace offers many useful extensions for TFS & VSTS. Some implement or extend features such as dashboards, but the ones I’m most interested in (at least for now) are the build and release tasks. Like apps on a smart phone, these little gems eliminate the need for writing extensive scripts to compile code and deploy products. I’ve found it important to check the Marketplace often for new items as well as for updates to extensions already in use.

Favorites

Futures

Forgo

  • Hopefully, I won’t have to add any extensions in this section.

Custom Scripts & Extensions

If you can’t find what you need in the Marketplace, you can always write your own deployment scripts and extensions. These can be published or retained for internal use only, your choice. Here is a list of useful resources for beginners.

Extensions

Powershell

REST API

More to come…


September 6, 2017

Creativity Deconstructed

ShortURL: http://wp.me/pb7U7-2FT


Before you can effectively and consistently boost creativity, you must first understand what creativity really is. As I always say, words are important, and the study of words can reveal some truly amazing things. In this case, creativity appears to be a fairly simple etymological study.


The root word of creativity is obviously create, so it is not surprising that most English dictionaries define the word as the ability to create. Personally, I don’t find that definition very satisfying, because when we talk about creativity or when we describe someone as being very creative, we typically have something much greater in mind than the simple ability to make something. Some dictionaries extend this definition to include the ability to think new things. The Oxford dictionary explicitly ties the act of creation in this context to the use of the imagination and notes that the resultant thing or idea is original. The Cambridge definition goes even further to suggest that the ideas produced also possess the property of being unusual. I prefer the word unique over unusual, but the latter does connote that the thing or idea is not only one-of-a-kind, but also out-of-the-ordinary.

One must be careful throwing a word like create around too loosely, however. All too often, people equate it with the word make, as in, “let’s go make some art”. This seldom works in reverse, because you never hear things like, “I’ll create the coffee in the morning”. The word make has other meanings that are also incompatible; for example, phrases like “please create your bed before leaving for school” and “I hope you can create it home in time for dinner” make no sense at all!

The same problem is inherent with the word produce (the verb, not the lettuce). Does an artist produce great works of art in the same way a manufacturing plant produces widgets? Obviously not. In Latin, we can distinguish the verb creo from produco, facio, and fabrico (think produce, manufacture, and fabricate respectively). Things can be made (produced/manufactured/fabricated) according to a design, but the creative act must, by definition, occur before or coincident with the design. This ties in well with the notion of originality: a new creation’s origin is an outcome of the creative act.

I am rather partial to the definition of creativity that I first heard in a Lynda.com training course titled “Creativity Bootcamp”. In that course, author and instructor Stefan Mumaw explains that “creativity is problem solving with relevance and novelty.” Relevance is a binary property: a proposed solution either solves a problem or it doesn’t. Novelty (i.e. “newness”) is where originality comes in. Why does Mumaw include these two properties in his definition? Because he wants to emphasize that creativity is not the same thing as artistry. An art (from the Latin ars) is a skill that one learns through practice. So, while a very skilled artist can, say, paint impressive landscapes, there may be little or no creativity in his work, because he is not solving the problem — capturing and expressing the essence of the place — in a new way.

So where does that leave us in terms of understanding the nature of creativity? More importantly, does this understanding bring us any closer to learning how to consistently deliver creative solutions? At a minimum, it helps us define our boundaries. If a problem truly calls for a creative solution, it is either because the problem itself is new or all previous solutions have proven to be ineffective or suboptimal. Also, we can recognize that looking for ideas (e.g. Pinterest) is the antithesis of being creative, and may in fact hinder our own creativity in most cases. Instead, we should focus on analyzing and solving the problem outright, and then researching to see if our “best” solution has already been attempted by someone else. Finally, we can completely dismiss the notion that creativity is inextricably linked to artistic talent. In fact, scientific discovery and invention are predicated on creative thinking. Thus, creativity is not so much about the solution, but about how we, as creative beings, approach the problem.


August 29, 2017

Creativity: A Study

Filed under: Art,Productivity,Psychology,Self Improvement — Brandon @ 8:50 am
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ShortURL: http://wp.me/pb7U7-2FL


I consider myself to be a fairly creative person. I grew up in a household that encouraged self-expression and experimentation on many levels, including the arts. As a result, I’ve always enjoyed writing, sketching, painting, and playing music, even at times when I felt like I wasn’t very good at them at all. And like most people, I too have periods in which I lack inspiration and need a little boost to get the creative juices flowing. In fact, finding myself in a creative slump is exactly what prompted me to start studying the nature of creativity.


Below are a set of questions I set out to answer in the course of this study:

  • What is creativity really?
  • Is being creative the same as being artistic?
  • What is a creative process?
  • Can creativity be measured?
  • How do I find inspiration?

As my study progresses, I will post my findings here. If you would like updates on my progress, please follow me on Twitter.


August 23, 2017

Catholic Hate Groups

ShortURL: http://wp.me/pb7U7-2Fq


Amidst the many news articles and commentaries published last week about the violence in Charlottesville and the tearing down of Confederate statues, I happened to notice a few Tweets about the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hate Map. I ignored them until someone started to point out that fourteen Catholic organizations were included. I had to learn more.


The Southern Poverty Law Center

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is a nonprofit organization that specializes in civil rights litigation. It was the brainchild of Morris Dees and was co-founded with Joseph J. Levin Jr. in 1971. Beginning with the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in 1979, the firm continues to monitor several categories of hate organizations across the United States and files lawsuits on behalf of victims when hate-related events occur. The Wikipedia article about the SPLC includes a list of their most notable cases. As part of their monitoring, the SPLC maintains lists of organizations that conduct hate-related activities. The Hate Map featured on the SPLC website is a visualization of these lists that can be filtered by category and by State. (There is also a Wikipedia article dedicated to maintaining a cumulative listing, but it currently holds only three years of list data.)

What criteria must be met to end up on the map? The answer to that seems to be a bit subjective. The most basic criteria is that a listed organization attacks or maligns a specific class of people. Beyond that, inclusion is handled on a case-by-case basis. In the 2006 Winter Issue of the firm’s magazine Intelligence Report, the twelve (at the time) Radical Traditionalist Catholic groups are described, and it is clearly stated that their primary target is the Jews. The article was posted online in January 2007.

The Catholic List

Of the 917 organizations on the list, fourteen of them are categorized as “Radical Traditional Catholicism”. Here is the list as it appeared in August 2017:

  1. Christ or Chaos [Dr. Thomas A. Droleskeyis, Website]
  2. Culture Wars/Fidelity Press [E. Micheal Jones & James G. Bruen Jr., Website]
  3. Robert Sungenis [Website, Wikipedia]
  4. Catholic Family News / Catholic Family Ministries [Joseph John Vennari, Website, Wikipedia]
  5. Most Holy Family Monastery [Michael Diamond, Website, Wikipedia]
  6. In the Spirit of Chartres Committee [Website]
  7. IHS Press [Website, Wikipedia]
  8. Catholic Counterpoint [John Maffei, Fr. Gregorius Hesse & Fr. John O’Connor, Website]
  9. IHM Media [Website]
  10. Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary [Fr. Leonard Feeney, Website, Wikipedia, Catholicism.org]
  11. Fatima Crusader, The / International Fatima Rosary Crusade [Fr. Nicholas Gruner, Website, Wikipedia]
  12. The Remnant Press [Michael Matt, Website, Wikipedia]
  13. OMNI Christian Book Club [Website]
  14. Tradition In Action (TIA) [Website]

All Wikipedia articles linked above include an indication that the organization in question is included on the SPLC list.

Commonalities

An examination if the organizations’ websites and related information, a number of similarities start to arise:

  • All of the organizations oppose (to some degree) the teachings of the Catholic Church.
  • Almost all of the organizations sympathize with schismatic (e.g. SSPX) or heretical groups.
  • Almost all of the organizations are owned/operated by or are based on the work of single individuals or small groups.
  • Many of them offer literature or share content written by the same authors (e.g. Sungenis, Vennari)
  • Only one organization appears to promote physical activities. The remainder author or publish literature.
  • None of the organizations appear to promote violence.

Wait…what? All of these organizations oppose the Church? Indeed. For those not familiar, there are a number of believers who identify as Catholic but who do not align themselves with the present-day Church. Vatican II was a breaking point for most of them due to its wide-sweeping reform in both the Church’s customs as well as her approach to man’s problems in the modern day. The Latin Mass was no longer the norm (thought by many to be forbidden), church architecture leaned toward the modern, and ecumenism seemed to trump dogma. Some view Pope Pius XII (d. 1958) as the last true Pope and consider all of the Popes that followed to be antipopes. This topic has become a hotbed for Catholesque conspiracy theories written à la Dan Brown.

While ecumenism typically involves building relationships and resolving differences with other Christian denominations (i.e. getting a little too chummy with those Protestant heretics), the post-conciliar Church also boosted its involvement in interfaith dialogue with members of other religions, particularly Jews and Muslims. Traditional Catholics (or “Trad Caths” as they are often called these days) only see this fraternizing as an opportunity to compromise the faith, and thus they label the modern Church and its leadership as traitors against Christ. They speak out vehemently against her, stating in no uncertain terms exactly with whom they do not believe the Church should associate and why. Recall that one criterion for being on the Hate Map is that the organization maligns (syn: defame, slander, vilify, slur and revile) a specific class of people? With that in mind, could it not be said that the literature associated with this movement isn’t only anti-Semitic, but anti-Catholic as well?

The real Catholic Church (headed by the real Pope) does not promote hate of any kind (as it is a mortal sin) and it does not compromise on faith and morals — even if some of its members do. Despite what the Traditionalists believe, the purpose of the Second Vatican Council was not to reshape the Church to conform with the world’s norms, but to understand how the Church could better serve the world in its Catholic ministry. It should also be noted that there are traditionalist Catholic groups on good terms with the Holy See who accept (in spirit anyway) the documents of Vatican II and who have been approved to practice the traditional rites of the Church.

Reaction

It’s hard to believe that anyone would want to be called a racist or a hatemonger, but given their dedication to the cause, it is rational to assume that many wear it as a badge of honor. But is this true of the Radical Traditional Catholic crowd? A few articles I found would suggest the answer is an emphatic no! In Philadelphia Magazine’s 2013 piece What Hate Groups Say About Being Called Hate Groups, Catholic Counterpoint owner John Maffei, the follower of an anti-Semitic renegade priest, denies being a racist, stating that he is simply nostalgic for the way life used to be. Only a few days ago, on August 16th, Micheal Matt of The Remnant defended the 50-year-old newspaper after the local CBS television station in Minnesota, WCCO-TV, attempted to link it with the white supremacist protests in Charlottesville, VA based on the paper’s inclusion on SPLC’s list. He referred to the SPLC as a generator of fake news, which is a popular name for propaganda containing false or misleading information presented in a way that makes it look like real news from authentic sources. Similarly, two days later, Brother André Marie of the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary posted Civil Unrest Means Hate Map Time for Lazy Journalists, asserting that the SPLC profits greatly by framing conservative organizations as hate groups and providing false information to journalists and law enforcement, while ignoring leftist extremists. (It seems that the SPLC has cast a few stones in Brother André’s direction as well.)

Conclusion

While it is clearly wrong (indeed, quite sinful) to hate another person or group of people, it is not necessarily wrong to disagree with them. In fact, the right to harbor and even promote differences of opinion is protected by the Constitution of the United States (yeah, that whole First Amendment thing again, with its freedom of speech and religion). A line must be drawn somewhere, and it seems that the primary conflict between the SPLC and the “Radical Traditionalist Catholic” groups is that they don’t agree where that line should be. I invite readers to seek out and review the literature on their own. Does it call for the active extermination of the Jewish people? Or does it lay out in scholarly terms an argument based on hard facts that supports the notion that Jewish beliefs pose a real threat to Christianity? Is it somewhere in between? Does it attack people or ideas? How much of it is based on assumptions and speculation? And where is Dan Brown when you really need him anyway?


August 15, 2017

Great Leaders GROW

Filed under: Book Reviews,Business & Economics,Management,Self Improvement — Brandon @ 4:52 pm

ShortURL: http://wp.me/pb7U7-2F2


This is a short review of “Great Leaders GROW: Becoming a Leader for Life” by Ken Blanchard and Mark Miller.

The story is straightforward. Blake Brown loses his father, a successful business executive, just as he is about to complete his college degree. He reaches out to Debbie Brewster, a long-time associate of his father, seeking career advice. In a series of one-on-one coaching sessions, she shares with Blake what his father had taught her both by word and example over many years. Meanwhile, Blake lands a job at one of his preferred potential employers, Dynastar, but is assigned to a cold, heartless boss with impossible expectations. With Debbie’s advice as a guide, Blake manages to lead the company out of a bad business position and helps the boss confront a difficult personal situation to boot.

Just in case it wasn’t obvious, “GROW” (rendered in the title in capital letters) is a mnemonic device. It represents four activities that help people become good leaders. Each activity focuses on an area of continuous improvement. They are revealed by Debbie as the story progresses, and while I would love to provide a summary, I feel like I would be taking away the whole purpose of reading the story. If you really must get to the point without taking the time to read, there is a very concise summary of the activities at the end of the book. Also, Blanchard himself gave away the first three (G, R and O) in this 2012 interview with Forbes, and covers all four in a series of ‘blog posts about the book made just prior to its release.

Was it a good read? Yes. As I said, the story was straightforward and easy to follow. The plot and character development was sufficient for a work of this length. In my mind, it played out like a drama-comedy show (sometimes called a dramedy), despite the seriousness of some of the scenes. I mentally cast a young Jason Bateman in the role of Blake (think The Hogan Family, not Horrible Bosses), a conservative Jack Black as Sam, his ne’er-do-well coworker at Dynastar, and Ellen Barkin (Animal Kingdom) as Debbie Brewster. Ms. Barnwell, the impossible boss, was played by one of my former coworkers (who shall remain nameless), but Michelle Monaghan (Made of Honor) or Liv Tyler would be a close visual approximation. Cinematography akin to that used in shows like The Office or Boston Legal accommodated the serious bits, yet allowed for humor, sarcasm, and plenty of those sideways ‘whatever’ glances. I felt that picturing the books’ scenes in this “format” was appropriate given its length; after all, isn’t that what sitcoms are all about? All problems solved in thirty minutes or less?

One side note, many of the summaries, commentaries, and reviews of this book (e.g. Washington Post) contain the same line, stating that Great Leaders GROW “is an instructive fable”. This line is so prolific that I imagine it must come from the authors themselves, in the promotional materials perhaps. It’s a bit of a peeve, but this story is not a fable! There are no talking animals at all in this book! It may be better described as a parable, because, like a fable, there is a lesson to the story — a ‘takeaway’ to use contemporary office vernacular — that can be summed up in the pithy phrase that gives the book its title: Great Leaders GROW.


August 1, 2017

How We Decide / Thinking, Fast & Slow

Filed under: Book Reviews,Psychology — Brandon @ 10:57 am

ShortURL: http://wp.me/pb7U7-2E3


I recently picked up two audiobooks from the library, not realizing that they were highly-complimentary works on the same topic: decision theory. Both dig deep into the psychology of the human mind and explain how different functions of the brain play their respective roles in the decision-making process. I listened to Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide first. I was immediately captivated by Lehrer’s storytelling delivered by narrator David Colacci in the matter-of-fact tone of a national nightly news anchor. Being a layman in this area, I decided the work is, if nothing else, very interesting. Kahneman’s work in Thinking, Fast and Slow reinforced and surpassed Lehrer’s, covering more information and in more detail, requiring more time and mental effort to listen to and digest. Patrick Egan’s narration was consistent but didn’t hold my attention as Colacci had. Both authors lean on investigations and experiments in the study of psychology to paint a picture of the human mind for the reader.

One concept covered in depth by both authors is the idea that decisions are made in one of two ways, either by intuition or through cognitive reasoning. Lehrer refers to these modes of decision-making as emotional and rational respectively, whereas Kahneman simply (and admittedly arbitrarily) labels them as System 1 and System 2. Emotional decisions are the ones that just “feel” right, even if rational thought seems to dictate a different position. Similarly, System 1 thinks “fast” and makes decisions based on a set of experience-born heuristics, whereas System 2 thinks “slowly” and is engaged explicitly when a problem requires any measure of conscious thought. This is not to say that the use of one system over the other is strictly dictated by the problem domain, say for example, solving math problems. Kahneman points out that anyone who knows basic arithmetic can visually scan the problem “2+2” and the answer will immediately come to mind thanks to System 1, but being presented with a multiplication problem involving two two-digit numbers requires the application of math rules, which falls squarely in the realm of System 2. Both authors explore the nuances of this segregation of mental duties, though Kahneman is careful to point out that this dichotomy is a convenient way to help classify mental functions but is not indicative of the literal existence of two separate systems or that one part of the brain is solely responsible for this function and another part for that function, etc. While this concept is the focus of Lehrer’s book, it must be noted that Kahneman covers additional topics in his.

Honestly, I am not an expert in psychology and thus not qualified to assess the correctness or completeness of either work, but I found them both very interesting (as a layman), and felt that both authors were successful in introducing the subject matter to a broader audience. I felt quite satisfied after finishing Lehrer’s book, having listened to it first, and I wonder if this would have been the case had I done so in the reverse order. If I had to recommend only one for the casual listener, it would have to be the Lehrer/Colacci book as the presentation is much cleaner and easier to listen to. There is a big caveat with that recommendation, however. In researching the particulars for this review, I discovered that Lehrer’s book, which was published in 2009 was subsequently recalled by publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2013 due to a substantial number of errors and plagiarized passages. Obviously, the recall did not extend its reach to extant copies available in library collections and the book is still available for sale online. Upon further investigation, I learned that some (if not most) of the lifted passages constituted self-plagiarism, also known as “recycling fraud”; however, there was at least one part of Kahneman’s book that I felt sure (System 1) I had heard before, a feeling I initially dismissed as déjà vu, but that now I realize (System 2) may have been one example of Lehrer’s plagiarism. (I do not have the time or inclination to go back to the audio now to find it, so I will leave that depth of research for someone who does.) Having said that, Thinking, Fast and Slow wasn’t published until 2011, but Kahneman does reference a lot of his own prior work, much of which was performed and published with his good friend and research partner, Amos Tversky. In the synopsis on the back of the CD case for Lehrer’s book is the statement, “Jonah Lehrer arms us with the tools we need, drawing on cutting edge research by Daniel Kahneman…and others…”. Scientific American published a short opinion on the matter titled How We Decide (To Falsify), a witty little piece about Lehrer’s other problematic book, Imagine, that explains how scientists can (for a variety of reasons) choose to rely on intuition instead of hard facts, and may resort to fabricating data. The article subtly infers that Lehrer chose poorly when fabricating quotes (possibly under the pressure of a deadline) when both his training as a scientist and the subject matter of his second book should have helped him make a better, more professional, and more ethical decision.


April 14, 2017

The Future Workplace Experience

ShortURL: http://wp.me/pb7U7-2vj


This is a short review of The Future Workplace Experience: 10 Rules for Mastering Disruption in Recruiting and Engaging Employees, written by Jeanne C. Meister and Kevin J. Mulcahy and narrated by Nancy Linari.

Is your company keeping up with the trends of the modern workplace? Have you found that you have been unable to retain new hires in recent years? Times are changing and so is the workforce. The benefits people seek in their careers are different than what they were even a decade ago. This book will help you assess how your company fares in the task of providing an awesome workplace experience and will open your eyes as to what it should (and should not) be doing to attract, engage, and retain good workers in the modern labor economy.

The ten rules mentioned in the subtitle are:

  • Make the Workplace an Experience
  • Use Space to Promote Culture
  • Be an Agile Leader
  • Consider Technology an Enabler and a Disrupter
  • Build a Data-Driven Recruiting Ecosystem
  • Embrace On-Demand Learning
  • Tap the Power of Multiple Generations
  • Build Gender Equality
  • Plan for More Gig Economy Workers
  • Be a Workplace Activist

I have personally watched — and in some cases, contributed — to the implementation of some of these ideas in real-world settings, and from what I can tell, the authors are pretty much spot-on in their recommendations. The book is packed with a ton of case studies and research findings that support not only the direction of the trends, but also the efficacy of the changes. Even though I am not a Human Resources professional, I found the proposal and discussion of these rules to be not only interesting but useful. Now some of the things that I’ve seen changing around me make much more sense. The first — and I would classify it as the most fundamental — rule about making the workplace an experience has caused me to have an entirely new outlook with regard to my own career potential and sources of motivation.

Growing up, I perceived that there were basically two roads to success: the corporate ladder and the self-made man (sorry ladies, rule #8 wasn’t in full effect back then). The former seemed like the better way to acquire wealth, but most have to settle for not finishing their careers at (or even near) the top, which always seemed a little sad to me. On the latter path, you start at the top (e.g. opening a corner grocery, like Mr. Hooper on Sesame Street), but there’s only so much monetary reward that can be gained, and of course, I eventually learned about capital and investors and such, and being either bought out or put out of business by the competition didn’t seem very satisfying either. In recent years I’ve come to realize that the legacy you leave doesn’t have to be about how much inheritance you leave for your children, or the possibility that the company may someday name a building after you, or even that the grocery store you created may eventually grow into a huge chain of stores. All things perish, and the best you can truly hope for is that you are able to inspire others. “Others” may include your children, friends, colleagues, clients — whoever gets to hear your greatest stories. And great stories are made from great experiences. Sometimes you can craft your own experiences, but the authors of this book understand that companies that are not actively trying to assist you in that endeavor don’t perform as well today and are therefore less likely to exist tomorrow.

The other rules are also important to understanding the modern American labor market and how HR must help guide companies in this realm. I find the concept of using work space to drive a culture of collaboration and creativity absolutely fascinating. So-called “gig workers” have been around for some time, but I had no idea that this arrangement had become nearly as popular as it reportedly is today. As an active member of a workplace diversity team, I am very familiar with issues surrounding age and gender gaps and how they can lead not only to ineffectivity but also discrimination. And, if not for continuous on-demand training, well, I wouldn’t be writing this book review right now. The attitude of the authors toward continuous learning is precisely what drives me to share my life learning experiences via this ‘blog.

There are two things I didn’t care for in this book and I think they are related. First, I didn’t care for the narration (I listened to the audiobook format). I looked up Nancy Linari online and discovered that she is an actress and acting teacher. I’m not familiar with her work at all, so I watched a few clips online, and I can’t count this as one of her best performances. Her delivery is a little too steady. Overall, I felt like she was just reading a script and that she wasn’t really all that interested in the material herself. The other thing I didn’t care for was the name dropping, list upon list of companies doing this or that. As I said, I’m not an HR professional, so any anecdotal value the uttering of a particular string of company names is supposed to have was completely lost on me. The inclusion of these references became annoying and the narration did little to help in this regard. Linari’s tone would change in just a certain way and I would tell myself, “oh no, not another list”.

In all, though, it was a valuable read. Part of continuous learning is recognizing when that which you have learned in the past — through either study or experience — has become outdated. It is better both psychologically and for your career to learn new things like those discussed in this book outright and to adjust than to allow yourself to become rigid and set in the old ways of doing things.


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