Tuesday, July 31, 2012


Last week after a long bike ride, a group of us went to IHOP for lunch. After all, 60 miles of riding entitled us to some hardcore sugar! The menu had a discounted section for Seniors (55 and older).  I was quite taken aback by the thought that I’m five months from being able to order off of it. I carefully avoided looking at what any of the choices were. I enjoyed my Cinn-a-Stack of pancakes without thinking any more about being a Senior. 

Later last week, I got yet another letter inviting me to join AARP. They are getting craftier—the envelope included no indication who sent it. I felt a credit card in the envelope, so I opened it. It was an AARP membership card rather than a credit card. Once I realized what it was, I promptly tore it up. I have no desire to join such an organization. I was beginning to think maybe I am getting old. 

Then, a couple days ago, one of the ads on Facebook was for seniorsmeet.com.  “Ready for some love? Interested in another chance at romance? Meet local mature singles at SeniorsMeet.” Another one asked, “Retired and bored?” Talk about something I can’t comprehend! 

Generally, Facebook ads are depressing—I need to gain muscle using a simple secret, get rid of wrinkles doing one quirky thing, and meet mature singles. I’m not sure if I’m more depressed by what that says about my age or the inadequacies of Facebook’s ad placement algorithms.

The message from all sides is that my age is something that needs fixing. I need discounts more than younger people with families. My wrinkles and gray hair need to be eliminated. Why?  

I don’t think that aging was always perceived so negatively. Not that long ago age was something that was valued. Gray hair and wrinkles were signs of wisdom. There are a couple verses from Proverbs I’ve long been a fan of:
16:31 A gray head is a crown of glory; It is found in the way of righteousness.
20:29 The glory of young men is their strength; And the honor of old men is their gray hair.
You can see why I like those! In Biblical times, and indeed until fairly recently, the wisdom of the elderly was cherished and sought after. Ben Witherington III in Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor states:
“…there is something profoundly wrong with a society that doesn’t do what the Bible says should be done with those in their so-called golden years – that is, honor them, learn from them, and continue to allow them to do meaningful things for the Kingdom.”
Sure as I age, there will be things I will be unable to do. Maybe I’ll have to cut down the length of my bike rides. On the other hand, I know someone who rode in the MS150 well into his seventies.

One perspective that I’ve long appreciated on what old is comes from Paul Simon’s song Old from You’re the One. 


Simon's lyrics near the end of the song go like this:
The human race has walked the earth for 2.7 million
And we estimate the universe at 13–14 billion
When all these numbers tumble into your imagination
Consider that the Lord was there before creation
God is old
We’re not old
God is old
He made the mold
So, what do I plan to do as I age? First, I will try and do a better job of appreciating those older than me. While some parts of their bodies and even minds may be declining, they still have much to offer. For myself, I plan to try and fight the ravages of age. But, my goal is not to be young. Instead, I will try to keep my body healthy (though gray and wrinkled) and continue to grow my mind. After all, God is old, not me!   

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Quick book reviews (#3)

As I've done previously, I’ve written some brief reviews of books I recently read. These reviews use a scale of one to five stars based on Library Thing. I am generally a tough grader, and even though these books don't get more than four stars, they were all worth reading.

Race against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee (3.5 stars)

This is a fairly short book (with a really long title) that explores technology’s effect on our economy and employment. The basic premise is that computers and related technology are accelerating at a rapidly increasing pace which is straining our economy and employment picture. The authors show how technology is changing the balance between superstars and average people, high-skill and low-skill labor, and capital and labor. For the superstar balance, they explain how in the 1800s, the best singer in the world would be hard pressed to sing before more than a very small fraction of the people in the world. That inability to be heard by most people left room for lots of local singers who made decent livings. Now, practically everyone in the world has heard the music of the pop stars of the day (who make enormous sums of money) and most singers cannot make a living singing. Generally, the book is very thought provoking and at least somewhat depressing. The book’s premise fits it with an observation I had—unions, and others, fought automation and robots in manufacturing during the 70s and 80s. So, jobs moved to low-cost geographies. Now, manufacturing jobs are returning, but they are heavily automated. Basically, the automation originally planned is now being welcomed because the jobs are already gone. This book gives a lot of data that helps explain that. The authors provide a tons of information, but I have to admit that I don’t have the necessary background to know what the other side of the story is. I recommend this book to anyone interested in economics and the future of employment in America and around the world. It will force you to think.

Sacred Marriage: What If God Designed Marriage to Make Us Holy More Than to Make Us Happy by Gary Thomas (3.0 stars)

The title of this book is a very good summary of its contents. That premise is a good one and is well worth considering. We often think of marriage in terms of what can we get from it or in terms of meeting our needs. Thomas turns that thinking on its head and proposes that marriage should instead be about what God and the world can get from a marriage. That is a refreshing and healthy perspective. The problem for me was that the book is rather dry and the examples did not really relate to me. I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a fresh perspective on marriage, but it will take some perseverance to finish it.  

 The Honest Truth about Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves by Dan Ariely (4.0 stars)

I’m a big fan of Ariely’s work and this book is no exception. As in his previous books, he uses a number of behavioral experiments to explain how people act. This book was not as good as Predictably Irrational, which I would recommend to everyone. But, The Honest Truth about Dishonesty is well worth reading. The experiments he looks at are variations on one or two primary ones. Basically, they bring in people to take a test that is fairly hard and time consuming.  Each person gets a reward such as one dollar for each correct answer. They then vary the conditions to allow for opportunities to cheat and see how that influences the score. One of the big things they do for most of the experiments is have people score the results themselves and then shred their answer sheets. Basically, that means they can cheat and no one will know. Generally, people cheat some, but not too much. So, if there are ten questions and people who can’t cheat would answer five, when given the opportunity to easily cheat, they might claim seven, but not ten. All of this is very interesting, but what makes the book more interesting for me are some of Ariely’s personal examples coupled with his conclusions. One of the interesting takeaways is that just reminding people not to cheat has a positive effect.

Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World by Laura J. Snyder (3.5 stars)

I only gave this book 3.5 stars because it took me a long time to finish and because it is probably of interest to a limited audience. That said, however, I found the book to be very enjoyable. It is a book about four college friends—Charles Babbage, John Herschel, William Whewell, and Richard Jones. They decided, in the way that college students often do, to change the world. Their world was that of science, though in the 1800s, the scientific world was very different than today. They started by changing the notational system of calculus from the obscure English system of Isaac Newton to the French system we use today. You can imagine how hard it was to make that change at the university where Newton had been a professor! They went on to define how science would be conducted throughout England and the whole world. They influenced the next generation of scientists like Charles Darwin and their influence continues in science today.

I had only heard of Charles Babbage prior to reading this book, because of his work on computers before there were computers. He turned out to be the least interesting of the four, and the biggest jerk. While Babbage arguably invented the computer, the others made major contributions to fields as varied as astronomy, geology, economics, and mathematics. They also did things as different as serving in government, coining the word “scientist”, heading a major university (Cambridge), translating Greek poetry, and pastoring a church. They were indeed a group of college friends who changed the world.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

DNA: Destiny or Distraction?

A few years ago, the goody bag from the first TED conference I attended included a kit for 23andMe. That kit is basically a tube you spit into (it requires a lot of saliva and takes a while) and mail to the company. Doing so allowed me to participate in an early version of genetic testing. 23andMe does not do a full genome sequencing, but instead an examination of only one million SNPs (Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms) of the billions in your genome. However, that is plenty to tell a lot about you. 

One 23andMe tests your saliva, there is quite a bit you can do with that data on the Web site. You can learn about your ancestry and find relatives among the subscribers. So far, the closest relative I’ve been able to find are fourth cousins. I have no idea who they are or if it is correct. 23andMe has made some real contributions to science by polling its members and comparing their answers to their genetics. As someone who loves data, I have found the information fascinating.

The most interesting data is related to diseases and what my SNPs say about my susceptibility to them.  Over the years, 23andMe has added more and more diseases to its databases.  They put things in terms of what a particular SNP indicates about you versus the general population. They also indicate the confidence in the underlying science on which the data is based.

For example, my risk of prostate cancer is only 6.8% vs. 17.8% for the general population of European descent. My genetics also indication good news regarding my susceptibility to melanoma, colorectal cancer, Type 1 diabetes, and celiac disease.

Of course, not all of the news is good. My risk of Psoriasis is 22.4% vs. 11.4%; gallstones, 11.1% vs. 7.0%; and Rheumatoid Arthritis, 5.0% vs. 2.4%. I have to say that none of those worry me. Of greater concern is my risk for Venous Thromboembolism is 41.8% vs. 12.3%. That is obviously a significant risk. That data is useful as I now know to make a real point of doing things like getting up and walking around on longer airplane flights. It also played at least some role in my conversion to using a standing desk at work. Of course, proper diet and exercise are in order as well. 

There is a piece of data, however, that is very scary to me even though the risk is lower. This data comes from fairly recent research. It indicates that my Alzheimer’s risk is 14.2% vs. 7.2% for the general population. The very specific wording is: 

14.2 out of 100 men of European ethnicity who share Bill Catchings' genotype will develop Alzheimer's Disease between the ages of 50 and 79.

Bill Catchings has one copy of the APOE ε4 variant. APOE ε4 is not the only factor contributing to Alzheimer's disease. Although it is associated with increased risk of Alzheimer's, many people with the APOE ε4 variant never develop it.

The heritability of AD is estimated to be 60-80%. This means that genetic factors contribute more to individual differences in risk for AD than environmental factors do. Genetic contributions to AD risk include known factors, such as the APOE gene variants we describe in this report. There are also rare mutations in other genes that cause early-onset (before age 65) forms of AD that run in families; this report does not currently include information on these mutations, or for additional genetic factors that have relatively weaker effects on AD risk. Non-genetic risk factors for AD include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, poorly controlled diabetes, and history of head trauma. 

As you can tell, they are very careful in their wording. The reason this one worries me more is that my dad suffered from Alzheimer’s as did at least my grandfather. It is decidedly not a good way to go. It certainly makes me freak out when I forget someone’s name, like I often do!  A book I read a while back, Where Did I Leave My Glasses?: The What, When, and Why of Normal Memory Loss is helpful to know what is normal.

I also have to keep in mind that these are only probabilities based on the current best science. Even in the last couple of years, I've seen the risk percentages change on 23andMe.

Given all of that, is it good to know this data? I think that depends upon your personality. At one level, it is good to have real data to help inspire yourself to change your life. At the same time, however, the answer is almost always cut down on stress, eat a good diet, and get plenty of exercise. 

Beyond that, however, I have to acknowledge that this is out of my control. I can’t say as that I’m happy about that. On the other hand, that is certainly is the lesson I need to hear (and actually learn). God is in control, not me. And, he is better at being in control than I am.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The power of sports

As you might guess, I’ve been following the Tour de France over the last week. In fact, coverage of this morning’s time trial is playing in the background as I write this. At one level, the Tour de France is fairly boring—even if the scenery is beautiful. At the same time, I have long found it strangely compelling. I remember watching Greg Lemond’s dramatic time trial on the last day of the 1989 Tour. Lemond was coming back from a near-fatal shotgun injury a couple years earlier. After over 2,000 miles, 50 seconds separated Lemond and Laurent Fignon, a renowned time-trial cyclist. I also remember tearing up as Lemond overcame what was considered an impossibly large time deficit to defeat Fignon by 8 seconds. Even today, I find watching that video enthralling. 

What is it about sports that I (and billions of others) find so compelling? In the case of cycling or basketball, it might be because I love or have loved participating in the sport and so identify with the participants. I don’t claim to be able to ride anywhere near as fast as Greg Lemond or to have the post-up moves of Charles Barkley, but I at least have some idea what they are doing. On the other hand, I find sports like soccer or football compelling even though I really have little idea what playing them is like. I think there is something in our basic nature that identifies with competing. Especially with competing against a superior opponent. 

Over the weekend I watched a documentary, I Am, recommended by a good friend. The movie was generally good, but at one point it tried to contend that human nature is cooperative, not competitive. The Bible, and my observation of human nature, indicate that quite the contrary, human nature is largely competitive. David’s battle against Goliath is something that resonates with us at a very deep level. 

Is competitiveness wrong? While David defeating Goliath was good triumphing over evil, Cain and Abel was not. I think it is safe to say that it depends what one is competing against.

But, what about sports where there generally is not a good versus evil motif? If you think maybe that the Miami Heat is evil, what about children’s soccer teams or church basketball leagues? Is that kind of competition something to be encouraged or avoided?

In the Bible, Paul uses sports metaphors to describe aspects of living a Christian life. In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Paul says, “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. There I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.” Paul in other places talks about running a good race and fighting a good fight. He seems to view at least parts of sports to be commendable. There is real value in disciplining our bodies (and minds) in the pursuit of excellence—both in the Christian life and in competitive sports.

Based on that, I plan to try to improve my bicycle riding abilities, even as I age. And, I plan to cheer on athletes who dedicate themselves to pursuing goals. I will try to keep in mind that the goal is not victory at all costs, but rather the discipline that comes from sport. That means I’ll try keep perspective and remember that cycling needs to be kept in the proper place in my life. And, to choose the competitors I root for not just based on where I live or whether they win. Go Spurs! And, go whomever is actually not cheating in cycling!

Monday, July 2, 2012


Susie and I visited Philadelphia a little over a week ago.  That visit, coupled with the approach of Fourth of July, has made me think about patriotism. We went to most of the typical tourist sights. We had each been when we were kids, but thought it would be interesting to see again. One place we visited was Independence Hall where they signed the Declaration of Independence. The picture below is of that nicely restored room. The tour guide was very careful to let us know that though the furniture was of that era and matched descriptions of the original, it was not all original pieces. Regardless, it gave a sense of what it would have looked like. 

The guide told us that even though they worked on the negotiations during the heat of the summer, they kept the windows closed and the blinds drawn so no one would know what they were doing. He told of the risks they took in signing that document. 

A relative of Susie’s (John Hart) was a signer and his role led to him having to go into hiding and the British raiding his farm. My initial thought was that I wished I had the opportunity to stand up and risk everything for my beliefs and my country. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I was glad that I did not have to as I am not certain how well I would act. Further, it is not like such opportunities all vanished 200 years ago. They are available today. Those were very humbling thoughts.

Fourth of July makes me think of the people who are risking (and giving) their lives for America today. It reminds me of a very powerful moment two years ago when I attended the Fourth of July parade in Milltown, NJ where I grew up. Milltown has always celebrated the Fourth in a fashion befitting a much larger town. There are fireworks, fishing tournaments, and a big, good, old-fashioned parade. Parades seem to be dying out in the era of ubiquitous entertainment. Why go to a little parade in the heat when you can stay at home and watch highlights from the best parades in the country? Milltown’s parade, however, still is well attended. The video above gives a bit of a flavor of it. It may not have been the best parade in America, but it was a good example of small town America at its best.

The picture to the right is of a woman carrying a poster of a soldier who died. I don’t remember whether it was her son or husband or whether it was in Iraq or Afghanistan. As she walked by with a highly decorated soldier marching behind her, I found myself tearing up. Click on the picture to zoom in and look at her closely and see if it does not affect you similarly. The young man on the poster had made the kind of sacrifice that the signers of the Declaration of Independence had risked.  And, in a different way, so had the woman carrying the poster. Again, very humbling. 

Years ago someone asked me if it was possible to be patriotic if you did not agree with your country. My response was something to the effect that it is sort of like being in a family. You may not always agree with your family members, but they are family and you stand by them. You try to correct them, you try to improve them, and you try to serve them. You may even have to give them tough love and stand in the way of them doing something wrong. But, you love them and you stand by them. 

In that sense, I aspire to be a patriot. I may disagree with much that is going on in my country, but it is my country. As such, I must try to improve it. Even if that means risking something. I hope I can find my way to live up to the Founding Fathers of our country. And, to that young man whose picture was marched through the parade.