Sunday sermon-ettes

No, this is not intended to be overly spiritual. It is intended to offer a few vignettes, some spiritual, some historical, and some pedestrian.

– The Erie Canal is turning 200 years old. What I did not know is the US government did not want to fund its $7 million cost which was privately raised. That is astonishing as the Erie Canal (as the Panama Canal did later) significantly increased trade and promoted several cities like Chicago, Detroit, Rochester and Cleveland to prominence.

– I have been witnessing a letter to the editor debate on whether Jesus would have made the cake for the gay wedding couple, the refusal of which launched a court case. My favorite summed up my sentiments – Jesus would have made the cake and accompanied it to the wedding. We should remember, Jesus tended to hang out with the disenfranchised. He also said something about he who is without sin should cast the first stone.

– The ABC show “What would you do?” warms my heart and reveals the good in people. This Friday it aired a show where the ruse was an American Muslim couple waiting to be seated at a restaurant, but other couples were offered seats before them. When the couple complained, the female maitre’d said openly we don’t want to offend our other customers. Couple after couple stood up for the American Muslim couple, some leaving and one inviting the Muslim couple to join them. It made me feel better about real Americans.

– The Catholic Church has benefited greatly from the people’s Pope Francis. Surprisingly, there are some within the Church that do not care for the openness and discussion of considering changes to traditions. Although, I am not Catholic, we should remember when traditions began. Priests were allowed to officially be married until about the 12th century and some were married as late as the 16th century. The reason – money and property. If a Priest were married, he would retain control over his assets. A retiring Priest said today the Church is missing out on some very good ministers because of this restriction.

– Finally, I read today from one writer that it is not the job of the President to be a role model. I could not disagree more with that statement regardless who was President. Bill Clinton lessened his otherwise effective  Presidency by chasing women outside of marriage. John Kennedy’s womanizing may have as well had he lived longer, but the Press did not report everything like they do now. Invading Iraq under false pretenses damaged George Bush’s credibility. And, Donald Trump has shown Americans how not to act and has turned up the flame on incivility. The President sets the tone and can help reduce tensions, but the incumbent throws gasoline on some fires and starts others.

That is enough sermons for today. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Undoing how we make decisions

Best-selling author Michael Lewis’ latest book is called “The Undoing Project – A Friendship that Changed our Minds” which focuses on how we make decisions. Two transplanted Israeli psychologists named Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky partnered together for years and were acclaimed for their work in showing we are less rational decision-makers than we think we are, especially where risk is involved.

In short, we include our biases in how we interpret data and probabilities, so we do not all see the issue the same way. But, even more telling is we can be influenced by how the question is posed to us. Their analysis eventually led to a Nobel Prize in Economics, which was awarded to Kahneman after Tversky had passed away. The reason is their work created a new breed of economics called “Behavioral Economics.” But, their work had converts using it in the practice of medicine, setting public policy and even in making NBA draft picks. They ask that people step back and question things. Your bias may lead you to pick the most improbable cause or choice, so if you question yourself and others you may find the best probable path forward.

The other key takeaway is the tremendous partnership these two had over the years. They were very different personalities, yet it was difficult for them to know who had more input into their work. They often flipped a coin to decide whose name should go first in a paper. Their partnership was so constructive, it was difficult on people in the US who tend to believe one of the partners was a greater contributor. Tversky, being more outgoing and confident, was more easily and incorrectly thought of as the lead. Kahneman questioned everything even when he was far more right than wrong, so he came across as less confident. Ironically, it was his questioning things that challenged Tversky to reconsider strong positions. They yin and yanged like an old married couple.

It would be difficult for me to define their work in such a short piece, so let me share some of their examples which may be illustrative. Their most famous piece is called “Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk.” If you were given two options where (1) gave you a 50% chance to win $1,000 and (2) provided a gift of $500, most people would pick (2) as a sure thing. Yet, if the question is reframed and the two options were (3) which gave you 50% chance to lose $1,000 and (4) which provided a sure loss of $500, most everyone would pick (3) the gamble.

As they dived further into questions like this, they discovered that people would regret losing the sure thing as they did not have the money, yet were more risky with money they did not have. When they altered the probability of winning or losing, the same result would occur, even when the odds were much more in your favor to win (or not lose). But, they also learned how the questions were framed made a huge difference.

If an Asian disease was expected to kill 600 people and you could take one of the following actions, which one would you choose where Option (1) would save 200 people and (2) had a 1/3 chance of saving all 600 and a 2/3 chance of saving none? Most people chose Option (1) to save 200 people. Yet, if the question is framed as Option (3) where 400 people would die and (4) where there is a 1/3 chance none would die and 2/3 chance all would die, most people chose Option (4). Yet, it is the same question.

Another key concept they introduced through study is “representativeness.” If you added information to a question, people would believe the greater accuracy meant they should choose that option. This would even be true if the information added was irrelevant or unimportant. In other words, if something is described in more detail than other options, it creates an information bias. They illustrated this to be true with experts in a field, as well as with laypersons.

Lewis uses the example of medical doctor who embraced Kahneman and Tversky’s work named Don Redelmeier. Redelmeier would question quick conclusions by doctors made under stress, where they would use information bias. A good example came when a car accident left a woman with an irregular heartbeat after they treated her. The doctors hung their hat on the fact she had a medical history of excess thyroid hormones and just assumed that was causing the irregularity.

Yet, this was a remote probability. They were led down this path because of the extra piece of information. Redelmeier had them question this remote idea and look further. It turned out the more likely cause was indeed the reason for the irregular heartbeat – a collapsed lung from the accident. Because they had more information on a condition, they stopped looking for other causes that did not obviously surface.

I encourage you to read the book for the two reasons Lewis wrote it. It is more than just the work of Kahneman and Tversky on making decisions. It is also about how two different people can collaborate so successfully and be far more together than they were separately. They valued this partnership and made it work well for them and us.

Note: Lewis also wrote “The Blind Side,” “Moneyball,” “Liar’s Poker” and “The Big Short,” to name a few.


Is it thrifty or environmentally friendly

I have mentioned in the past I am both a tree hugger and capitalist. On the latter, I like to spend money wisely. But, it goes hand-in-hand with being environmentally friendly, as conserving resources is both cost effective and good for the environment.

My wife laughs at me as I will eat leftovers for several days. She will usually join in for one more meal, but she will abstain from further meals. It gives me satisfaction to finish food off. This is especially true as we as a country throw so much food away. And, I hate to throw food away.

We are also doing our best to drink filtered tap water. My wife tells folks my husband won’t let me buy plastic bottled water. She likes to tease me about things like this as many spouses do. However, I can assure you my wife won’t do anything unless she agrees with it. She understands this will keep from adding to the floating plastic in the Pacific.

We also live in an area of the city which is a couple of miles away from three shopping areas of various sizes. As I like to walk, I often will become a pedestrian shopper. It saves on gas emissions and gets me some needed exercise. And, since most car accidents occur within a mile from home, it helps me with the odds.

I mention these three things as they are easy things to do to save money and the environment.  I am sure each of us have things we could do that would save on both. What are some of your actions?

So, it is more than OK to be a little thrifty. Of course, my wife threatens me to not to turn into her mother who raised five kids on her father’s salary.

Giving makes me feel like I’m living

The above title is a quote offered by Morrie Schwartz, the subject of Mitch Albom’s book “Tuesdays with Morrie.” The book continues to sell with over fifteen million copies sold in 45 countries. It describes Albom’s weekly visits with his favorite teacher and mentor named Morrie.

Albom shared today on CBS This Morning, he was not the only person to routinely visit his mentor. Others went with the goal of cheering up Morrie, but they would leave being comforted as Morrie would invariably ask them about their lives and challenges.

When Albom inquired about this of Morrie, he said “Giving makes me feel like I’m living.” What profound words coming from a teacher. To me, this echoes the term I have used called “psychic income.” Giving to others with your time, ear, support, donations, etc. provides you with a psychic income.

Yet, like with lessons in the book, Morrie’s phrasing of why he gives is much more profound. Albom notes this is the reason his book strikes a chord with so many.

Please honor our teachers, mothers and fathers by paying forward their giving to us. We will also benefit.

No caveats found

Going through my mother’s old things, I came across a book mark that must have resonated with her, as it did with me when I found it. My mother was a teacher in public schools and as a bible study fellowship leader, so even after her death, she can still teach me something.

The book mark quotes Jesus’ words in John 13: 34 – 35, which says:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for another.

In looking at this, three words jump out beside the key word “love.” The first is “commandment,” meaning this is so important it is an additional commandment to the first ten. The second is “everyone,” which means he wants all to see the love each has for another as an exemplar. The last is “disciples,” meaning followers of Jesus should love one another.

Throughout this quote or in adjacent bible verse, I found no caveats. He did not say love only those who agreed with you. He did not say love only those who are heterosexual. He did not say love only people of your race. He did not say love only Christians or Jews, since we have to remember he was a Jewish teacher and referred to often as Rabbi.

In our and our leaders’ efforts to win arguments, we have overlooked what is more important. We need to treat others like we want to be treated. Love may be too strong a word for strangers as we are not nearly as good a person as Jesus, but we should treat each other with dignity and respect. We should listen and hear what others are saying. Winning an argument means little if people are harmed by the outcome.

Have hope not fear

Have hope, not fear. These are the words that mentor and advocate Wes Moore said he wanted on his tombstone during a recent interview at High Point University in North Carolina. They relate to lessons he received as a child.

Moore came to fame when he wrote and did a documentary on the other Wes Moore, who was born to the same circumstances as the author, but made mistakes, was not encouraged and ended up in prison. The author got a Rhodes scholarship and went off to fight in Afghanistan.

When asked what accounted for the differences in the two outcomes, Moore said something simple and profound. He said it is not one thing, it is a lot of things that made a difference. Expectations, encouragement and environment change played roles.

When the author was a smart aleck teen, he was sent to a military school, which he hated. He ran away five times before settling in. What he regrets is he found out his grandparents mortgaged their house to  pay for the school and if had been kicked out, they would have lost everything for nothing.

Moore was quite interesting, but I was left with two comments. As he advocates and mentors young folks, he asks the question, “Who will you fight for?” Be more than just a major, job, or career, be willing to fight for people.

The other is a wonderful quote from entertainer and advocate Harry Belafonte. Belafonte’s reputation as an advocate cannot be overstated. He fought for people. Yet, he offered a selfish reason to go along with his selfless activism. He said rather than getting up and calling my accountant like some performers, I can get up and call Nelson Mandela. Who has the more interesting life? When you fight for the disenfranchised, your life is more interesting.

Have hope, not fear. Let’s fight with hope for a better life for many. If we fight with fear, we will become narrow minded. Plus, if we help others, our lives will be far more interesting. Moore and Belafonte tell us it is so.

The more smug, the less convincing

Over the past several years, I have noticed the more smug* a politician, pundit or public official is when they push back on an issue, the less convincing they are with their argument. The tactic is used to overwhelm the interviewer in a condescending manner, making them look stupid for daring to differ or ask a question.

Our new administration and its supporters seem to be using smugness as a weapon of defense more than any other group I have witnessed. And, as I have noted before, I believe organizations take on the personality of their leader, so they are taking their cue from our President. When caught in a lie, it is never (or as close to never as possible) Trump’s fault or he will try to convince you it is not a lie.

Whether it is Spicer, Conway, Miller, Preibus, Bannon or other officials who have been interviewed, the smugness is brought out like a weapon. “How dare you ask that question or think that way?” is the manner intentionally used to belittle the interviewer.

Yet, the elephant that cannot be ignored in the room is their boss has a very hard time with the truth. During the campaign he is on record as lying about 70% of the time per fact checkers. Not ironically, the fact checkers have revealed he is lying about 70% of the time as President. And, even during his more presidential speech, he had eight or so major misstatements, not to mention the little embellishments. Sadly, this was a prepared speech which could have edited out these misstatements.

But, none of this is new. He has worked with six authors to write biographies and his most popular book, “The Art of the Deal.” In a group interview these authors have noted the man treats truth as a commodity. And, an attorney who worked with him said he lies all of the time, even about inconsequential things. This attorney was amazed at how routine the lying was, especially as he stiffed contractors – Trump would say it was due to bad service, but the frequency of stiffing folks was too common for that to be correct so many times.

So, the next time Trump or one of his spokespeople pulls out the “smug” weapon, listen even more carefully to what is being said and the opinions and questions of the interviewer. Smug does not make you right, it just means you are smug. With a 70% rate of untruthfulness, the odds are the boss is not right and should not be so smug.


*Smug is defined as:

having or showing an excessive pride in oneself or one’s achievements:
“he was feeling smug after his win”

synonyms: self-satisfied · self-congratulatory · complacent · superior ·


pleased with oneself · conceited