Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Dreamer

Talking narrative, Joseph is the most fleshed out character in Genesis and, excluding Moses, maybe the whole Torah.

In the past few weeks I’ve had three different interactions with Joseph.

1) My father is a graphic designer, and sees Joseph as a businessman and as an outsider relating to the world. As a freelancer, my father’s work places him both deep within companies and at their margins. He supplies ideas, consultations and overhauled images, but he is always an independent contractor. The power of Joseph for him is the power of being second in command, a returning concept in Jewish history from Maimonides, to Albert Einstein, to Joseph Lieberman.

Read this way, the Joseph story is a very conservative one — that through smarts and personality, anyone can get themselves from the pit to the tower. There is a flip side, though. The consultant is always accepted and treated with skepticism at the same time. Ultimately, Joseph’s success in Egypt creates the foundation for the Jews to become enslaved under a new Pharaoh. In other words, the consultant can often make greater changes than those in power, but the ground is always less stable and the future is harder to see (even with prophetic dreams).

2) Dr. Owen Cosgrove is a minister at the Northside Church of Christ in Waxahachie, and in interviews with him over the past few weeks, he cited Joseph as a favorite character in the Old Testament. He mentioned how Joseph embraced forgiveness and eschewed envy and lust. In expanding his thoughts — my words, not his — I think Cosgrove sees Joseph as a New Testament figure, specifically in avoiding the seven deadly sins: 1) Lust, by turning down Potiphar’s wife, 2) Gluttony, by setting up the storehouses, 3) Avarice, by remaining second in command, 4) Sloth, by getting out of the prison and his work ethic once free, 5) Wrath, by refusing to take revenge on his brothers, 6) Envy, in opposition to his brothers, who envy him, and 7) Pride, well, this one is tough. Joseph shows pride throughout his life. Actually, it’s the first trait we find in him. But before he reveals his identity to his brothers, he weeps so loudly the Egyptians can hear him. Perhaps that moment is so cathartic because he has sloughed the last of his vices: that’s when he credits God with pulling the family apart and darwing them back together.

3) J.J. Keki is a politician and coffee farmer in Uganda, and is also a Jew. He is part of the
Abayudaya, a community of Jews in Eastern Uganda that began in 1918, when a British missionary decided the New Testament did not add truth to the Old Testament. He ripped those pages from his Bible and circumcised his community. At their height, the group numbered 3,000. But Idi Amin gave them the traditional Jewish choice — convert or die — and by the time he was ousted from power in 1979, there were only 300 left. Keki was one. Only 19 at the time, he set out to rebuild the community, which is now 800 strong, and has a school and a synagogue. Over the years, outside Jews learned of the Abayudaya and brought books, Torahs and other Jewish accouterments.

Keki was in Dallas last weekend for an art auction to raise money for a health clinic in Uganda. Speaking with him was enlightening for many reasons, and I hope to return to them in this forum, but the one thing that struck me was Keki’s relationship with Joseph.

One of the largest issues facing the community is how they relate to the world. They have been embraced by some sects within Judaism, and held in skepticism by others — particularly the Israeli government. In 1948, listening to radio broadcasts about the founding of Israel, they went out in the field to wait for airplanes, figuring all Jews would be taken back to the land.

Today, They are making decisions about how to grow into their new knowledge of the Judaism of the West while maintaining their own traditions. For instance, because they had never heard the traditional tunes, their songs are common Jewish lyrics set to African melodies. Do they keep those tunes now, or abandon them?

Keki sees Joseph as a family man in exile. He has written that when other Jews come to Uganda to visit and work, the community feels like Joseph did when his brothers come to Egypt — that moment of weeping for Keki isn’t about sloughing pride, but about finally belonging, about ending isolation. They are outsiders geographically and historically, but insiders in faith. Home is where their people are — be it Dallas or Uganda. Their reuniting isn’t complete — they are still separated from the masses and from the land — but it is completing — because they finally experience belonging. The Abayudaya are the younger brother, just like Joseph. They have to teach themselves about their family, and to learn about their chosen religion in bits and chunks over decades while they create a new version for themselves.

Keki is the first and only Jewish politician in the nation’s history. He works to foster relationships between the Muslims, Christians and Jews in Uganda. Just like Joseph, he is the outsider trying to enact change from much larger groups. Like my father, he understands his role as the consultant, and like Dr. Cosgrove, his righteousness has fueled his success.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Blind To Their Actions

The Dallas Morning News ran an article today about a father and son sparring over political differences. The father is a strong supporter of the Republican Party. His son is seventeen, and has recently become interested in the Democratic Party. In protest, the father decided he would cut off his son’s college tuition unless the boy switches affiliation. In counter-protest, the son created a Web site called, where — similar to others — people can buy ads at the rate of one dollar per pixel. He will use that money to pay for school.

The amazing thing about this, and something the writer did not point out, is how the father and son are flipping ideologies. Originally agreeing to pay the tuition was a fiscally liberal thing to do. On a microcosm, the father essentially created a small welfare state. And the son, faced with an empty bank account and the desire to go to college, is turning a Web page gimmick into a business, thus harnessing the free-market to “pull himself up.”

The Democratic and Republican Party spokesmen quoted don’t seem to understand this at all, perhaps because the argument for them is about Democratic and Republican but the actions are about liberal and conservative — and those two group-sets are becoming less and less aligned.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Strange Effects II

I previewed the planning and zoning meeting again this week, the only difference being I put a byline on it. Previously, I thought of the preview simply as a way to publish the agenda, and so I figured it should run without a byline. I realized, though, that once I start putting the agenda into sentences I am interpreting the document, and that interpretation demands a byline for accountability.

At the meeting, two people spoke at the public hearing, neither in the 200 foot range the city is required to notify. Last time I wrote about this, my concern was alerting people who had information that might change the outcome of the vote. This time, the residents were concerned about what exactly this development would be.

That means I didn’t adequately describe or research the development in advance. The questions those residents asked the commission were questions I should have asked several days ago and printed. I have previously discussed the virtues of a wider radius. My wider radius worked better this time than last, but ultimately failed. That I reach more people than the city is irrelevant in the face of content concerns. Or: telling a lot of people not enough information doesn’t help any of them.

This reinforces a growing belief I’m acquiring. Investigative reporting is held as the highest example of how a newspaper can change a community. And while I do think it is important to be keep pressure on those in power, to have them know someone is watching, there is another side of the operation that gets ignored. And that is reporting about the processes of powerful entities: government, business, law, science and technology. These entities have become so complicated that regular people cannot access them without outside help.

One great investigative piece can initiate a cycle of great change, but 100 smaller articles explaining how a municipality works creates an educational foundation for people to stop being tricked in the first place. Or: explanatory writing can open up area of knowledge that can become closed to laymen and help break down the world where experts can only talk to experts.

Monday, March 06, 2006

How to Plant a Money Tree

In my wallet there is a gift certificate from Border’s Bookstore given to me last December from my grandfather, and despite frequent use, I can never seem to spend the last remaining amount.

The reason is interesting.

At $100 it was a sizable gift. I couldn’t spend it all at once, and so every weekend I head over to the store and buy one or two items. When you buy a product at Border’s, your receipt becomes a coupon for the following weekend. The idea, obviously, is to lure customers back.

However, because I have a large gift card, I have to return anyway. By splitting up my purchases over several weekends, my buying power increases. Instead of $100, it has ended up being closer to $125. Border’s is banking on customers both spending and saving more. I am only saving more.

In addition, through various promotions and sales, the cost of my purchases have been reduced. So instead of $125, it’s more like $200.

On the road to California in January, I had a thought about deceleration. If I was driving 75 mph and I was exactly 75 miles from my destination, then it would take one hour to get home. But what if at every mile marker I instantly decelerated exactly one mph, so that at 74 miles away I dropped to 74 mph, and so on? How long would it take me to get home?

A long time.

Calculating in reverse, the last mile alone — where I would be traveling one mph — would take one hour to finish. Getting from mile marker two to mile marker one would take 30 minutes, because I would be drive one mile at two mph. Getting from mile marker three to mile marker two would take twenty minutes, or one-third of a hour. Each preceding mile back to the starting point would be a fraction of a hour. The first mile — going from mile marker 75 to mile marker 74 — would take 1/75 of an hour or 48 seconds.

Fine. I think this is what the “N” does on a fancy calculator.

Then I had another thought. Instead of decelerating only at each mile maker, what would happen if I decelerated constantly, so that I decelerated one mph over the course of each mile?

I would never arrive. At one inch away, I’m moving at one inch per hour. At 1/10,000th of an inch away, I would be moving at 1/10,000th of an inch per hour.

This is the same as the story about a frog crossing a pond. With each hop he covers half the distance remaining. Because space can be infinitely divided, that poor frog never arrives. He just hops less and less until he dies with his long tongue stretched toward the sandy shoreline.

This is similar to Zeno’s Paradox of the Tortoise and Achilles.

The tortoise — who is obviously getting big headed after his race with the hare — challenges Achilles to a race. The tortoise gets a 100 foot head start as a handicap. Whenever Achilles has moved 100 feet, the tortoise has also moved forward a little bit. When Achilles covers that distance, the tortoise has moved again. If space is infinite, then we always have to cover half the remaining distance. The paradox, therefore, states “You can’t catch up.”

Aristotle apparently solved this paradox, which sucks. Otherwise I could spend on my gift card forever.