Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Bono at the 2006 National Prayer Breakfast

Most of you probably know Bono for his other venture. The most valuable thing he's done for the world, however, is unrelated. If you don't yet have an opinion of Bono's advocacy for the vulnerable and poor, watch his keynote address at this year's National Prayer Breakfast.
A leader of the ONE campaign, there can be no doubt Bono is doing some very positive things. What do you think?

Sunday, February 26, 2006

When you're hot, you're hot

Check it out

This is an amazing basketball story. Truly a reason for sport to be celebrated.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

The problem of homelessness

Malcom Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and Blink, earlier this month wrote a fascinating article on solving the problem of homelessness.
Says Gladwell:
In the nineteen-eighties, when homelessness first surfaced as a national issue, the assumption was that the problem fit a normal distribution: that the vast majority of the homeless were in the same state of semi-permanent distress. It was an assumption that bred despair: if there were so many homeless, with so many problems, what could be done to help them? Then, fifteen years ago, a young Boston College graduate student named Dennis Culhane lived in a shelter in Philadelphia for seven weeks as part of the research for his dissertation. A few months later he went back, and was surprised to discover that he couldn’t find any of the people he had recently spent so much time with. “It made me realize that most of these people were getting on with their own lives,” he said.

Culhane then put together a database—the first of its kind—to track who was coming in and out of the shelter system. What he discovered profoundly changed the way homelessness is understood. Homelessness doesn’t have a normal distribution, it turned out. It has a power-law distribution. “We found that eighty per cent of the homeless were in and out really quickly,” he said. “In Philadelphia, the most common length of time that someone is homeless is one day. And the second most common length is two days. And they never come back. Anyone who ever has to stay in a shelter involuntarily knows that all you think about is how to make sure you never come back.”

The next ten per cent were what Culhane calls episodic users. They would come for three weeks at a time, and return periodically, particularly in the winter. They were quite young, and they were often heavy drug users. It was the last ten per cent—the group at the farthest edge of the curve—that interested Culhane the most. They were the chronically homeless, who lived in the shelters, sometimes for years at a time. They were older. Many were mentally ill or physically disabled, and when we think about homelessness as a social problem—the people sleeping on the sidewalk, aggressively panhandling, lying drunk in doorways, huddled on subway grates and under bridges—it’s this group that we have in mind.
Wow, fascinating stuff. I had not previously heard these statistics, but it rings true. So the problem, says Gladwell, is what do we do with this last 10%? Gladwell profiles a homeless man named Murray Barr who lived in Reno, Nevada, who episodically became drunk and was forced to be hospitalized. Over the course of ten years, it was estimated that treating him cost the city over a million dollars. Said Reno policeman Patrick O’Bryan,
It cost us one million dollars not to do something about Murray.
Hmm, so what can be done? Gladwell outlines a solution; in the case of Murray Barr,

It would probably have been cheaper to give him a full-time nurse and his own apartment.
He goes on:
Simply running soup kitchens and shelters...allows the chronically homeless to remain chronically homeless.
Philip Mangano, President Bush's executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness suggests the following:
Take some of your money and rent some apartments and go out to those people, and literally go out there with the key and say to them, ‘This is the key to an apartment. If you come with me right now I am going to give it to you, and you are going to have that apartment.’
This has been done in places like St. Louis and Denver with some success. The problem people have with it, of course, is the fairness factor. Says Gladwell,

That is what is so perplexing about power-law homeless policy. From an economic perspective the approach makes perfect sense. But from a moral perspective it doesn’t seem fair. Thousands of people in the Denver area no doubt live day to day, work two or three jobs, and are eminently deserving of a helping hand—and no one offers them the key to a new apartment. Yet that’s just what the guy screaming obscenities and swigging Dr. Tich gets. When the welfare mom’s time on public assistance runs out, we cut her off. Yet when the homeless man trashes his apartment we give him another. Social benefits are supposed to have some kind of moral justification. We give them to widows and disabled veterans and poor mothers with small children. Giving the homeless guy passed out on the sidewalk an apartment has a different rationale. It’s simply about efficiency.
Is this the answer to dealing with homelessness? So say the statistics are correct, 10% of the homeless are chronic and the offenders we have come to identify as homeless. That means the other 90% are doing well. So we have a system that is 90% efficient. And we have a potential economic solution to the other 10% of the problem. Is it a good one, though? What do you think?

My opinion is that it is along the lines of being right. There are other possibilities too, though. If you're saying that some of these folks may never be contributing members of society again without public assistance, why keep them in the city, the setting for their constant failure? Maybe a camp for homeless people out in the country would be a better and cheaper possibility. Send people out to work on a farm where products could be sold, and thus allow them to contribute in that way--bringing some financial return back. They would be away from the presence of drugs and alcohol, and in a community of their peers. Is that an option? Others would simply say we should lock them up in jail for chronic loitering and public drunkenness. Although jail would be more expensive than just renting them an apartment, it would still potentially be cheaper than treating them medically as frequently as is often necessary.

In any case, it's a very interesting article well worth reading and encourage you to check it out. I won't even go into the application of power-law distribution to cleaning up the air of our cities that Gladwell cites.
(for now...)

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Oil riches, diverted

Open sewers line a street in Ndjamena, Chad, and trash is everywhere; courtesy the New York Times

A recent article in the New York Times describes agonizingly the problem facing world efforts to lift many Third World countries out of poverty.

Chad is a country that has recently had an incredibly lucrative asset realized in oil. In exchange for a loan allowing them to facilitate exportation of that product, a deal was signed with the World Bank promising that all profits would go to alleviating poverty within the country. Unfortunately, Chad has recently seriously weakened this law in order to direct the money towards other government spending, including military. True needs are not being met.

Worldwide campaigns have mounted to urge First World countries to offer debt relief to Third World countries. Outright debt forgiveness is advocated. The problem is, many of the countries where poverty is most rampant are the most corrupt. Some of these countries, such as Chad, even have resources that could bring them out of poverty if they were distributed.

It does not seem reasonable to suggest any help to the governments of the countries on the list of the most corrupt countries in the world. However, how do you help the poor residents in those places? Is there an easy answer?

Saturday, February 18, 2006


Humorous Video Clips:

Video Link #1: Bouncing Bear

Video Link #2: Scared Kid

Vote for your favorite.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

I have a secret.

Hmm... I'm not sure how to say this. I don't want to come across the wrong way, but at the same time I need to get this off my chest.

Oh, heck, I'll just get it over and done with: One of my absolute favorite sporting events to watch in the whole wide world is the women's Olympic figure skating competition.

There, I said it.

Now you might reply, "Greg, what's the big deal? Women's figure skating gets the highest TV ratings at the Olympics every time around." Well, yes, but you don't understand. I really like women's figure skating. I'm not a casual observer in the matter. I'm an obsessive fanatic.

I think it goes back to my childhood. My mom loved watching Olympic figure skating, so it was on my TV at a young age. At first I watched just because it was on. I sort of figured out who the Americans were and started rooting for them. Of course, this was back in 1988 when Katarina Witt was dominating everything. I was 8 at the time and didn't understand why my mom enjoyed watching Witt skate. For my part, once I identified Witt as "not an American," I was rooting against her and pulling for Debi Thomas, the American. For some strange and unknown reason, my mom wanted "everyone to do well."

As fate would have it, Witt crushed my youthful exuberance in '88 and won her second Olympic gold medal in a row, solidifying her place in history among the all-time greats. Thomas got the bronze, which from my point of view, was respectable and made me proud to be an American. Of course, had I been the judge, I'd have given Thomas the gold and Witt the icy cold shoulder. But I'm not exactly an unbiased observer, now am I?

The Cold War: During the 1988 Olympics, Canadian silver medalist Elizabeth Manley (left) and American bronze medalist Debi Thomas (right) did their part to contain the Communist threat.

Ever since those '88 Olympics, I basically come out of hibernation every four years to watch these 5' 2" 90-pound international gladiators, or "cold warriors" if you will, battle it out on an unforgiving deathtrap known to us laymen as the ice rink. During this special quadrennial event, I set aside my personal goals and responsibilities to pour all of my energy into my favorite skater, essentially living my life through her every move on the ice. If she succeeds, I feel better about myself. If she fails, then I'm devastated and struggle with self-esteem and patriotic depression. It's a rollercoaster ride like no other; an adrenaline rush that comes but once every four years.

However, women's figure skating is a merciless sport. These lassie assassins train in the dark, early morning hours every day of every week of every month, oftentimes for 10, 11, 12 years in a row before they ever get their Olympic opportunity. And when that time comes, the lights go on and the crowd roars. The pressure is intense. Stray but a little from your routine and that could be the difference between a gold medal and no medal. Or put more bluntly, the difference between having a lifetime of lucrative commercial endorsement deals and a lifetime of sleep-disturbing nightmares about how you blew your one big chance.

I alluded earlier to my "rooting against" certain skaters, and admittedly, I'm not proud of some of my antics over the years. I was probably at my worst during the '92 Olympics. Anytime a foreign skater would stumble, fall, or flat out get robbed by the judges, I would literally stand up and "make some noise." Dances, jigs, fist pumps, pointing at the TV and taunting... everything. Far from simply celebrating my own skater's successes, I delighted in the misery of others. Apparently my outbursts of poor sportsmanship finally set off my mom and she snapped, "Greg! Get out of here and go to your room!"

Yeah, I felt like an idiot, but I had learned my lesson. I shook it off, regrouped, and came back the next night to watch Kristi Yamaguchi become the first American since Dorothy Hamill in 1976 to bring home the gold in women's figure skating. It was beautiful. For the first time in my life, I truly understood what it meant to have the privelige of being an American sitting at home watching the Olympics take place in a country far, far away.

Leading up to the '94 Olympics, Tonya Harding's thugs conspired to whack Nancy Kerrigan's knee just before the U.S. nationals. The assault prevented Kerrigan from competing in the nationals, and nearly kept her out of the Olympics. What a lot of people forget is that if Tonya Harding had been removed from the U.S. women's figure skating team that year, as she should have been, 13-year old Michelle Kwan would have been her replacement. At the time I was 14, so seeing a 13-year old do so well got me to think, "What am I doing with my life?" I then proceded to forget about that question and immersed myself in the Olympic drama. Kerrigan recovered from the injury, faced down her fear, and gave two of the most emotional peformances of any athlete in the twentieth century. The Olympic judges gave her the silver, but the American public will forever give her the gold.

Skating with the enemy: As the rumors swirled during the '94 Olympics, it was surreal to watch Kerrigan (left) and Harding (right) share the ice for warm-ups.

Four years later, 1998, was supposed to be Michelle Kwan's year to claim gold at the Olympics. I was certainly rooting for her, but it wasn't meant to be. Some teenybopper won the gold instead. At least this young'un was an American, so that was sort of okay, but I still had a bitter taste in my mouth. Kwan was the best in the world and I had remembered how she had been robbed of the Olympics four years earlier.

Then came 2002. I was pulling for Kwan more than ever. Yet again, some American young'un came out of nowhere to capture the Olympic gold. I felt like civil war had been declared.

Now 2006 is upon us, and Russia's Irina Slutskaya, the reigning world champion, is favored to win gold this time around.

Slutskaya falling: When I was a naive youth, this would have meant prancing around the living room and taunting the TV set. Now it just means acting like you've been there before.

Sasha Cohen, the reigning U.S. national champion, also is expected to be a top contender.

Note to self: Never get into a kickboxing match with Sasha Cohen.

And while I'm sure that the women's Olympic figure skating will be a great show, I can't help but feel some emptiness right now. After all, the most captivating figure skater of the past decade, Michelle Kwan, recently withdrew from these Olympics due to injury.

Some people were upset that Kwan was even put on the team after sitting out the nationals with a groin injury, but not me. She deserved a spot on the Olympic team over any of those other teenyboppers. As far as I'm concerned, I'd let her go out there and compete in a wheelchair if that's what it took. She's paid her dues and earned the right.

Yes she Kwan: 9 U.S. national championships, 5 world championships, 2 Olympic medals, 1 living legend.

Honestly, when Michelle Kwan first skated onto my parents' TV set in 1994, I was both surprised and inspired to see a 13-year old finish second at nationals and nearly make the Olympic team. From that moment on, I wondered, "How good could she become?"

This past Sunday, twelve years later, I finally received a definitive answer to that lingering question when USOC chairman Peter Ueberroth introduced Kwan at that somber news conference in Torino, Italy:
Michelle Kwan means more to the United States Olympic Committee than maybe any athlete that's ever performed. She's been a leader, she's been gracious, she's somebody that cares for so many youngsters that are training in our country.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

A man among boys

This past weekend I had the chance to attend a high school basketball game at Northwestern University between Glenbrook North (Northbrook, IL), the top rated team in Illinois, and Lawrence North (Indianapolis, IN), the top rated team in the country.

For those who don't know, LN is where Greg Oden plays. He is a senior in high school, but many NBA scouts say that he would have been picked first overall in the NBA draft last year if he had been eligible. He will be attending Ohio State next year with his high school teammate Michael Conley, Jr., members of the nation's top recruiting class.

Needless to say, LN dominated and won this game. They are a great team. And most of all, Oden was a man among boys. He's a phenomonal high school player, and already, at 7'1" and 245 pounds, has NBA size. Nobody at the high school level can compete with him, and he was quite obviously the best player on the floor.

I was very impressed. Oden will be very good at the college and NBA level. It will be very interesting to see how well Oden and his teammates will do next season at the NCAA level. Will they surpass Michigan's Fab Five and win an NCAA title?

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Quail Identification

A quail:

Does this man look like a quail?

I have to admit, I don't think so.

I guess I could be wrong though, because apparently at least one fellow did...
Read all about it here.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

You say Turin, I say Torino

Opening Ceremonies of the 2006 Olympic Games in Torino, Italy / AP photo: Gene J. Puskar

Isn't it great? After four long years away, the Winter Olympics are back!

Unfortunately, there's some confusion regarding where the Olympics are being held. Most people agree that it's in Italy, but is it in Torino or Turin? After all, if you are watching on NBC, they'll say Torino. But if you're reading an AP story, they'll say Turin. So why the discrepancy?

This MSNBC story explains why most print publications say Turin:
“Turin is the English translation of the Italian word Torino,” said Clara Orban, a professor of Italian at DePaul University. “Standard practice in the United States is if a city name has been translated differently, go with the English translation.”

That’s what The Associated Press is doing. Its policy — and it was around long before Turin was awarded the Olympic Games — is to use the English version of foreign cities. It’s Rome, not Roma. Munich, not Muenchen. Moscow instead of Mockba or Moskva.

That same MSNBC story also explains why NBC says Torino:
The official name of the games is “Torino 2006,” and the International Olympic Committee refers to the city by its Italian name. When the games were awarded in June 1999, then-IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch announced, “The hosts of the 2006 Games will be Torino.”

After NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol took a trip to Turin, he decided the network would go with Torino, too. NBC has the U.S. broadcast rights to the games.

“Dick was hearing the way the locals were saying Torino, and how it’s so magnificently Italian how it rolls off the tongue,” said Mike McCarley, vice president of communications and marketing for NBC Sports.

Of course, if you're reading this blog, you probably won't be making it to Turin or Torino for the 2006 Olympic Games. If that's the case, you might want to check out the recent Google Earth and Google Local upgrades, Virtually Torino, to get a feel for what the city's like and where the various venues are.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

eBay atheist

You may or may not have heard of Hemant Mehta. He is the fellow who has become known as the "eBay atheist". Basically, he's an atheist who offered, via eBay, to go to the church of the highest bidder's choice.

As it turns out, he's actually a Chicago area resident, so these events are playing out right around here. A Christian group called Off the Map won the bidding and Mr. Mehta will actually be going to several churches and offering his thoughts.

The latest church Hemant visited and reviewed was Willow Creek. He said,
I’ll admit that if I were to convert, it would have to be at a place like this. They drew me in, and I’m not even a believer. They discarded the numerous rituals I expect to see at other churches. The sermon was interesting, and the activities that they hold would certainly be entertaining...
Read all about it at the eBay atheist blog here.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Evangelicals to push for Environmental Action?

from the New York Times:
Despite opposition from some of their colleagues, 86 evangelical Christian leaders have decided to back a major initiative to fight global warming, saying "millions of people could die in this century because of climate change, most of them our poorest global neighbors."

Among signers of the statement, which will be released in Washington on Wednesday, are the presidents of 39 evangelical colleges, leaders of aid groups and churches, like the Salvation Army, and pastors of megachurches, including Rick Warren, author of the best seller "The Purpose-Driven Life."
It will be interesting to see whether the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) will endorse legislation in Washington that would put further caps on certain pollutants. It is a situation that is somewhat a sticking point amongst evangelicals at this time.
Some of the nation's most high-profile evangelical leaders, however, have tried to derail such action. Twenty-two of them signed a letter in January declaring, "Global warming is not a consensus issue." Among the signers were Charles W. Colson, the founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries; James C. Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family; and Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
It's tough because I see men on both lists who I greatly admire. Personally, though, I have to agree with Ted Haggard, the head of NAE, who says,
In my mind there is no downside to being cautious.

Monday, February 06, 2006

What You Say?

Quick, name off the top 5 spoken languages in the world today...

Before you click, list them as a comment to see how close you get. I'll do the same and we'll see how we all do.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Diamonds in the Rough

Africa is home to many treasures our country cherishes. Its mines produce most of our diamonds and gold is a hot commodity. A recent new hot export however is of a new sort. The latest hot item is African basketball players. Blessed with natural height and athleticism, several locations in Africa have become hotbeds of potential basketball talent; none moreso than Nigeria.

The Washington Post ran an absolutely fascinating series this week on the African basketball "trade". I would highly recommend reading it entirely. Colleges and the NBA are anxiously trying to get their hands on the best talent Nigeria has to offer, but there are obstacles preventing the impoverished youngsters of that country from reaching those dreams. For many, basketball is the brightest hope of a way out of the poverty their family is wallowed in.

Unfortunately, it does not come easy. There are an extremely limited number of visas available for these guys to come over, obtain a college education, and maybe get a chance at the NBA. As well, it has become obvious to outsiders bent on making their own buck that the players are a commodity. This often means they are exploited. Agents, brokers, and go-betweens are turned to in efforts to get to the United States. One man demands 20% of future earnings. All this makes it much harder for any average person there to attempt to come to the United States.

But exploitation often does bring the players possibilities. To most, if they make it here, it's worth it. At the bottom of this is the fact that these are kids whose dream is big but the simple opportunity for an education would suffice. They hope for a future they don't even understand. They are just poor kids who deserve the best. I truly wish all had the access to make of themselves what they could. Unfortunately the system is causing the problem to worsen and even those who make it big aren't able to provide a meaningful helping hand back to their homeland due to the corruption. And those left behind gain nothing. Often the truly talented ones, that deserve a chance, are denied visas due to the greed of a few. The words of one such youth, written to a broker trying to gain him U.S. access, resound sadly:
Hi Coach. we are all praying over here for a positive answer from the embassy. thanks for the last mail it was very encouraging. coach please, i love hearing from u becos u are the only coach that really encourages me. please sir i need some words of encouragement from u and i want u to be my godfather. coach since i lost my dad i have never seen a man as kind as u, so please accept me as your godson. i will be grateful if my request it granted. please.