Thursday, December 20, 2007


I guess this has been around for a little while, but I just heard about it, and I think it's cool.

Kiva is a website that lets you lend small amounts of money ($25 or more) to small entrepreneurs all over the world to help them grow their businesses. The website has profiles of the entrepreneurs, including descriptions of what they want the money for. Most of the people are only trying to borrow a few hundred dollars. When you lend to someone, you get updates about how the business is doing, and as they pay the loan back, you get paid back. (Kiva's repayment rate to date is over 99%). Then you can cash out or reinvest in another business. Right now, you don't get any of the interest the borrowers pay, so it's a charitable act and not an investment. Here's how it works.

I've only heard bits and pieces about microfinance, and I know there are downsides. But for the most part, I think Kiva's model is really interesting. The loss of the interest on $25 or $100 for several months is not something most middle-class Americans would even notice, but that money could make a massive difference in someone's life. And unlike most traditional giving programs (which I also support), it could help build economies and sustainable occupations. And it's easy. And it encourages people who might not otherwise give to get involved.

Automatic Take-my-money Machine

Today, I pulled up to the ATM with some checks to deposit, put them into the envelope, and stuck the envelope into the machine. It made that grinding sound that it does when it's sucking in your envelope, and the envelope disappeared into the machine. But the grinding sound did not stop. The ATM screen asked if I needed more time to complete my transaction. More time? My envelope was already gone--what more did I need to do? But there was no way to communicate this to the cold, inflexible machine. It told me that my transaction was incomplete, gave me a "receipt" that in no way reflected the fact that it had just received $1000 worth of my checks, and sent me on my way with nothing.

For years, I have resisted making deposits at ATMs. I figured that if I was going to hand over my valuable negotiable instruments, I wanted some human person to see them, take them, and give me a receipt. But everyone told me I was being ridiculous. "I make ATM deposits all the time!" they said. "It works fine!" they said. Well, I've done it four times now, and one in four times it has taken my checks without giving me credit. I don't like those odds.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Christmas Pandora plug

As most of you know, I love Christmas music, and commercial Christmas radio stations sort of suck. So I've taken to listening to Pandora. I think someone (fuzzy?) may have posted about this a while back. The way it works is, you type in a song title or artist, and it generates a custom radio station for you with stuff it thinks you will like. You can guide it along the way by giving thumbs up or thumbs down to certain songs, and you can skip ones you don't like.

It is amazingly effective for Christmas music. I typed in "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," selected a version by a choir, and since then have been treated to a beautiful series of traditional carols. There's not a "Christmas Shoes" or "Holly Jolly Christmas" in the bunch, and the well-known songs are mixed in with lots of lesser-known but awesome songs like "Once in Royal David's City" and "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming."

You have to register after you listen to a few songs, but it's free and easy and worth it.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Romney's faith speech

I heard Mitt Romney's speech, and I think he gave the best possible speech he could have, given his audience of Christian conservatives. I also respected that he basically said that he was a Mormon and he wasn't going to distance himself from that to get elected.

Two problems, though:

(1)Disturbingly, there was absolutely no suggestion anywhere in his long speech that he has any respect for non-religious citizens--their rights, their potential contributions, or their morality.

(2) A key component of his message is incoherent. He thinks:

(A) it is illegitimate to "have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church’s distinctive doctrines" because doing so "would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution"), yet
(B) it is legitimate for a candidate to proclaim in his campaign speeches that he believes that "Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind." (as he did in this speech).

He won't answer questions about his Church's doctrines, but he will answer questions about what he believes about Jesus? The implicit message is that a belief in God and Jesus is not a "doctrine"--rather, it's the baseline faith we all agree on, the standard. But to many people--Buddhists, Wiccans, animists, Shintoists, people who consider themselves "spiritual," agnostics, atheists, doubters, questioners, and adherents of traditional American Indian and non-Western religions--even the belief in God is a distinctive doctrine, not a given. When he talks about God and Jesus, Mitt IS talking about the distinctive doctrines of his church. So I don't see how he can get all self-righteous if people ask him to get more specific about what he thinks about Jesus and God.

Mitt wants to draw the line between "faith" (what a you can ask a candidate about without it meaning you're imposing a religious test) and "doctrine" (what you can't) exactly where it best suits his political goals: right next to Jesus. I don't see that as a principled position.

Note: I just found this article by Andrew Sullivan and this one by E.J. Dionne, which make essentially the same points as I do. And David Brooks has a really good piece too.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Whiny Wednesday

Things that bother me:

1. People who walk around at night in neighborhoods without sidewalks or streetlights, particularly when they wear road-colored clothes. Every day on my drive home I come close to killing many, many people.
2. The word affidavit. I misspell it as "affadavit" 99% of the time.
3. The shape of footballs. You know how virtually every other ball in the world is round? There's a reason for that. Round balls are easy to throw and bounce predictably.
4. Vending machines with weird selections. I'm looking at you, work vending machine that does not have pretzels, regular potato chips, or M&Ms, but does have have multiple types of Fritos.
5. The common practice of that saying "I just do not understand how someone can believe X" as if it's an argument against "X." There are obviously reasons someone believes it--why do you think your proclamation of your own failure to grasp those reasons is an argument?

The fatted calf

I know I don't exactly have the ideal body type for clothes-buying. But not until yesterday did I believe that I was grossly deformed. Yesterday, for the first time in my life, I decided I needed some boots (non-hiking/snow variety) to wear with skirts in winter. I thought this would be simple. Go to the shoe store, pick out a pair of tall black leather boots in a size nine, and move on with my life. It didn't work that way.

After multiple shoe stores and about 20 pairs of boots, I still had not found any boots. Not because I was being picky, but because out of 20 pairs of boots, zero would fit on my body. We're not talking, "hmm, that's a little snug." We're talking, I could not physically move the zipper more than a couple of inches up from my ankle because my calves are so gigantic. I even tried some size eleven boots too see if the calf size would be large enough. No luck. I even tried on boots at a plus-size store that caters to women up to a size 32. No luck. I am a freak!

Monday, December 03, 2007

Mitt Romney and religious questions

I think Mitt Romney's upcoming "JFK speech" on his faith is likely lead to more discussion of the LDS church in the media and more questions for Romney about his faith. So, what should Romney say when reporters ask him about specific questions of Mormon doctrine?

Several months ago, George Stephanopoulos asked Mitt Romney, "In your faith, if I understand it correctly, it teaches that Jesus will return probably to the United States and reign on earth for 1,000 years . . . Have you thought about how the Muslim world will react to that . . . . ?" Mitt's response was "Well, I'm not a spokesman for my church . . . that doesn't happen to be a doctrine of my church . . . Our belief is just as it says in the Bible, that the messiah will come to Jerusalem, stand on the Mount of Olives and that the Mount of Olives will be the place for the great gathering and so forth. It's the same as the other Christian tradition." Then ABC contacted an LDS spokesperson, who clarified the LDS belief: "One appearance will be to the new Jerusalem and another will be to the Jerusalem of the old world . . . It is our belief that the new Jerusalem will be established within the state of Missouri."

I know nothing about this doctrine or the accuracy of George's description of it. But given the LDS church's statement, Mitt's answer looks dishonest and evasive. If a Catholic politician were asked a basic question about a strange but well-established Catholic doctrine (say, transubstantiation), and he answered, "I'm not a spokesman for my church" or "We celebrate Christ's sacrifice in communion. It's the same as the other Christian tradition," I would be annoyed. Those answers suggest either ignorance or shame. It's a basic tenet of the religion--own it.

Now, I don't think issues like this affect a candidate's qualifications, nor do I think a candidate should have to be a spokesperson for his religion. But given that Romney is inevitably going to get these questions, how should he be answering them? Some options:

a. "If you want to talk about the specifics of my church, you'll have to ask the church."
[but can he really do this if he IS willing to talk about the easier-for-Protestants-to-swallow specifics of his religion, like the Mount of Olives stuff above?]
b. Answer honestly, explaining if necessary how the reporter has the doctrine wrong.
[but it could be politically risky]
c. "I'm not sure."
[my sense is this would work only for an obscure or debatable doctrine]
d. Evade and pretend that your doctrine is "the same as the other Christian tradition."
[makes you look like you lack integrity; plus, wouldn't this make LDS supporters mad? Also, if arguably the most publicly visible member of your church is saying it's just like other Christian denominations, why should anyone convert to it?]

Any thoughts?