1.31.2012

Ditch the Car


Bulls-Heat on national TV. And a big marathon clogging up Miami's streets. Ticket holders were urged to seek alternate routes to the arena. The man they all came to see took the advice to heart. That's right: LeBron James biked to work. (Big ups to him for wearing a helmet, too.)

We are so trained to drive everywhere that we forget how impractical it is sometimes. There are tons of times that biking, walking, and public transit are vastly superior, and not just for purposes of saving the planet. For example, James' three-mile ride was probably the fastest way from Point A to Point B in those circumstances. Here are some other pluses, just off the top of my head:

* Active commuting is often funner. It is always better for your physical health, and depending on what routes are available to you, it can be good for your mental health, too, if you can trade in road rage for tree-lined greenways.

* Even if you don't factor in the all-in cost of using your car, driving can be more expensive, when you consider gas, tolls, and parking.

* It can be inconvenient to park your car and then have to come back to it to drive it home. What if you want to start at Point A, stroll from there to Point B, and then go home? Well, you can't, because you have to double back to Point A because you left your car there.

Of course, there are more noble reasons to ditch the car. But don't doubt that there are completely selfish reasons, too.

1.29.2012

Four Points for the Next Generation


For my visit to my friend Simon Hauger's new school earlier this month, the Sustainability Workshop down at the Navy Yard, I was expecting to get a tour, meet some students, and grab lunch. I was not expecting to give an impromptu talk to his eager beavers. But within minutes of arriving, Simon has informed me that I was to address his school before we headed out to lunch. Needless to say, I couldn't help but think about what to say, even as I was being toured around by one of Simon's star students and hearing about the projects she and her classmates were working on. (Did you know one of the student teams even downloaded, read, and incorporated my vacant land study in their presentation? There are people in my own firm who haven't looked at my vacant land study!)

Anyway, I pulled something together and the students seemed to enjoy it. Here's what I focused on:

1) Competition matters. Everywhere I was toured, student teams were prepping for some competition. And that's good, because it's a huge motivator. That's what makes capitalism so effective, as the old ad goes, because when businesses compete for your business, you win. I happen to think competition is good in the public sector, too, like President Obama's Race to the Top in education reform.

2) Innovation matters. Another fundamental aspect of capitalism is its disruptiveness. At some point, someone decided to stop making horses and buggies a little bit better than the next person, and decided to start making the engines needed to power cars. Of course, the invention of the car put the horse and buggy manufacturers out of business and cost a lot of jobs, but no one would say we are worse off as a result. Innovation is what is needed to power our economy, and I was heartened by the amount of innovative energy among these students.

3) Sustainability matters. Walmart, however vilified, finally got religion a few years back, when they realized that being green is good business, and is at the core of its business model, which is to wring inefficiency out of the system and thus drive down costs. I liked that many of the student projects focused on how to get rid of waste (example: the waste involved in a light blub giving off heat rather than just light) and do so in a way that turned a profit.

4) Policy matters. Being a nerdy economist, I mentioned the word "externalities" at the end of my 10-minute talk. But externalities are why policy matters, because the private sector doing its bidding doesn't always get to an efficient outcome for all, since sometimes regulations and policies and taxes and subsidies are needed to make sure that the public good is being preserved even as private gains are being extracted. Think open space preservation or pollution regulation or public education, things we are better off for as a society but which we would not have if we left things to the free markets to clear.

I concluded my talk by saluting the students for their moxie, and encouraged them to keep on exploring. I also asked them to keep working hard, because us old heads need their blood, sweat, toil, and tears to keep our economy going. If there are more of these great young kids out there, my hope for the future of this country is high.

1.28.2012

Anatomy of a School Lunch


In the spirit of documenting the minutiae of my life for my future edification, I present to you a breakdown of what goes into my kids' school lunches. Let's hope the future me isn't horrified by this list, either for dietary or financial purposes.

Drink. Bottled water, which we refill with Brita water and then replace every week. At $4 for a 24-pack, that works out to about 3 cents a day.

Entree. PB&J for Jada, turkey and cheese for Aaron. A loaf of bread is $1.50 for 24 slices, so that's about 12 cents per sandwich for the bread. PB&J can't be more than 10 cents per sandwich (figure $6 each for huge tubs of peanut butter and jelly, each lasting about 120 sandwiches). Turkey and cheese are both about $5 a pound, so if I'm putting about a half-ounce of each in each of Aaron's sandwich, that's about 30 cents total. Plus a light spread of mayo is about 3 cents each ($3 tub lasting about 100 sandwiches). So that's 22 cents each for Jada and 45 cents each for Aaron.

Fruit. Either half an apple or half a pair. A bag of apples is usually about $3 for 12, so let's call that 12 cents each.

Dairy. Gogurts (my kids and I call them "squeezy yogurts") I hold out until they're on sale and I have a coupon, so I can usually get them for $2 for 12, or about 16 cents each.

Snacks. Fruit cups or applesauces are usually $2 for 6, or about 33 cents each. A bag of chips is $6 for 32, or about 19 cents, or else a granola bar is about $2 for 10, or about 20 cents.

All told, it works out to about $1 to $1.25 per kid per meal, or about $10 to $12 per week for our family. Health-wise and money-wise, I can live with this. Thankfully, my kids are very predictable, and don't insist on a lot of variety, which makes buying and preparing much easier.

1.27.2012

More Musings about Penn Alexander


Some stray thoughts from the Penn Alexander post earlier this week:

1) In Philadelphia, good public school education is scarce but not that scarce. I’m sure the good people at Lea Elementary (where I will send Aaron if he doesn’t get a spot in Penn Alexander) are rolling their eyes or worse at comments about how the long line for kindergarten registration at Penn Alexander should show everyone that there should be more good places to send your kids to school. Lea isn’t utopia, but it’s a pretty darn good school, and a more than suitable alternative location for my family should there not be room at Penn Alexander. I am aware of many other really good neighborhood schools all throughout Philadelphia. Yes, there should be more. But amid the long line at Penn Alexander, and the media and social media frenzy surrounding it, it is a little insulting to insinuate that that school is the only good school in all of Philadelphia.

2) On the other hand, I am sympathetic to the families who paid as much as a $100,000 premium to locate within the Penn Alexander catchment with the expectation that part of what they paid for was the guarantee that their kids would get to go to Penn Alexander. The removal of the guarantee has, unsurprisingly, sent a chill in the real estate markets, and it has sent a similar chill in the minds of current residents, who weren’t expecting that all that their premium got them was the right to wait in line for 24 hours for the possibility of getting in. My boss correctly reminds me that when people buy a house in Haddonfield or Lower Merion, they are doing so because they know their kids will never be turned away from the good schools in those districts. Since my neighborhood can no longer say the same, that becomes problematic. Notice, though, that a guarantee is not without its downsides: places like Haddonfield and Lower Merion (I say “like” because I am making a generalization, and not making any specific statement about Haddonfield or Lower Merion, which I do not know much about) have to guard that guarantee by being very vigilant about adding density within their boundaries, since every new development comes with it the prospect that school-age children will follow, stretching the capacity of their pristine schools. I’m pretty sure most people in my neighborhood don’t want to be known as people who only want their own to be taken care of, and let’s pull up the drawbridge and prevent others from getting in too. But life is full of trade-offs: if you want to be welcoming, and you have a great public resource that is not shareable (vs. a park, in which lots of people can “consume” it without me not being able to consume it), then scarcity (and lines!) will follow.

3) Supply and demand tells us that when demand vastly outstrips supply, one of two things has to happen. One is that price goes up. Two is that supply goes up to match demand. In the case of Penn Alexander, tuition is free, but the “price” of getting in has gone up, in the form of waiting in line longer. If folks thing it is absurd to wait in line so long, then let’s all band together to help the School District increase supply. Parent groups have formed, and while they cannot possibly speak for every single motivated parent, I am appreciative of their leaders because I think that by and large they have done a good job of calling for transparency and accountability, mobilizing parents to take an interest at policy matters, and aggregating themselves so that the School District, the Mayor, and the Governor have to take notice. I suppose it’s a free country, so you have a right to complain about how sad it is that there are so few good schools in Philadelphia. But if you complain and don’t get involved and don’t get informed, then all you’re doing is complaining, you’re not actually helping move the system to a better and more equitable place. I realize school reform is hard and complex, and that by putting yourself out there as a champion you are going to make enemies with some formidable opponents. But when was anything worth doing ever easy to do?

4) I’m surprised that no one has seen the long line in the cold as a grand opportunity. A church could win major points by providing blankets, fire, and sustenance. Or, a business could garner incredible publicity by setting up tents and passing out refreshments. I appreciate the grassroots nature of parents helping parents, and neighbors taking pity on us as we shiver and wither, but there’s room for more. I wonder if this is reflective of our neighborhood’s inherent opposition to advertising and to top-down solutions.

1.25.2012

Cool School


I had the pleasure of visiting my friend Simon Hauger down at the Navy Yard yesterday. He has started a new school, the Sustainability Workshop, and he is supervising 30 really bright students as they make preparations to compete in real competitions with real ideas using real-world skills. In the real world, of course, we compete, present, solve problems, and work in teams, all skills that are hugely important in the knowledge economy, and none of which get much time or instruction in a typical classroom setting. I salute Sustainability Workshop's attempt to turn education on its head, and prepare its students for success in the process.

1.24.2012

Waiting for Superlong







Well, the long-anticipated "waiting outside in the cold to register my child for kindergarten" has come and gone. Lots to share. I've chunked it up as follows:

Context.
Penn Alexander is a really good school, right in the heart of University City in West Philadelphia, not far from the Penn campus. When Penn agreed to invest in this school, boundaries were drawn that demarcated who could attend the school. Not surprisingly, given the dearth of good public school options, once the school began to be known for quality administration and faculty, demand for residential locations within the boundaries soared, driving up real estate prices and creating a glut of school age kids in the area. While kindergarten was always first-come, first-served, those on the waiting list could previously comfort themselves with the reality that their child would be assured a spot starting in first grade. But about a year ago, overcrowding in the school caused the school to announce it could no longer officially guarantee a spot in any grades. Hence, the value of a kindergarten spot soared: once you're in, you're in, but if you're out, you may be out for several grades. As a result, the lines have started to form before the first day of registration earlier and earlier in the past two years.

Getting in line.
This year, the official start of the line was about 8:30am Sunday morning, some 24 1/2 hours before the official 9:00am Monday morning registration. But, unofficially, the lines started form many hours before then, as multiple parents hovered nearby on foot and in cars, waiting for someone to plant their flag as the first in line. Sure enough, once someone did (our friends across the street from our house), the emails, texts, and calls started circulating furiously. The kids and I were settling into morning service at church at 10:30am, not knowing that Amy (who was home sick) had texted and called me several times. The first one I had a chance to see, at 10:31am, said "As of 10 there are about 40 ppl lined up at pas." My heart sank. There went my preconceived plan to head out there at about 7:00pm that night. Amy bravely volunteered to get herself out there and hold down the fort until we returned from morning service. She got there around 11:00am and claimed the 63rd spot, bundling herself up and trying to block out her sniffles and general achiness.

Preparation.
With temps expected to be below freezing, I had laid out my clothes the night before: a pair of boots, three pairs of socks, thermals, flannel pants, wind pants, cargo pants, three long-sleeve shirts, a wool hoodie, a fleece pullover, my heaviest coat, two pairs of gloves, and two ski masks. I also packed up my sleeping bag, crank lantern, reading materials, crossword puzzles, two sandwiches, fruit, granola bars, M&Ms, gum, a bottled water, folding chair, umbrella, and Aaron's registration materials.

Shifts.
I brought the kids to Amy around 1:00pm to relieve her. She had already made friends with the parents to her left and right, so though she was shivering she was in good spirits. She asked if I needed her to do another shift and I replied, "Likely." She left behind two blankets and a yoga mat, all of which were to come in hand by the end of the waiting. By 3:00pm, my toes were tingling, and I called Amy to ask her to do 4:00pm to 6:30pm. The next hour I passed the time by thinking about how I would spend the time inside and what additional layers I would put on.

Back inside, back outside.
4:00pm arrived, and so did Amy and the kids. I set her up in our chair and then took the kids back home. Walking home, I could feel the circulation returning to my toes. When we got home, I set the kids up in front of the computer to watch Pink Panther and then proceeded to pee, run on the treadmill (to Minority Report, fast-forwarded, in case you're wondering), and take a hot shower. The kids and I ate a long and hearty dinner, cooked by Amy while I had been waiting in line that afternoon, and then I started to layer on again. I added a heavier pair of socks, a scarf, and a sweater to my mix, and took the kids out to relieve Amy again. We got back in line at 6:30pm, by which time the line had swelled into the 70's. I braced myself for a long night and morning ahead.

Sleeping outside.
The wind had died down, taking a little bit of the bite out of the cold. By 10:00pm, folks were fading, and the chatter diminished considerably. Tents were pitched, sleeping bags unfurled, and heating devices set to full tilt. I laid the yoga mat and blanket on the brick sidewalk, got inside the sleeping bag, and listened to tunes. (I had long since given up reading or doing crossword puzzles, as my brain was now turning to mush.) Mercifully, the rain held off until about 5:00am, but still I slept fitfully, between being on a hard surface, hearing cars whizzing by just feet from my head, and it being below freezing.

Morning.
I probably got about four hours of fitful sleep in all, before staying up for good around 5:00am. My cell phone had died, and I knew I would need it for registration, so I ran home to plug it in and to pee, as well as to wake up Amy and get her to call her dad. (In case you're wondering, the good people at CVS across the street were letting us use the restrooms there, which I had done at around 11:00pm the night before, but didn't want to use theirs more than once.) I scurried back into line and waited out the last couple of hours. Since Amy was leaving for work early in the morning, Amy's dad drove in to take care of the kids and get them off to school. They finally opened the building at 7:00am and we filed in and claimed our official number. I got #65, two more than my unofficial line number, because there were two sets of twins represented in line. I scurried home to drop off all my belongings and grab my phone before scurrying back to the school. All the parents spent the rest of the morning filling out forms and, after 9:00am, waiting for our number to be called so we could submit our paperwork. I finally got out of there around 11:30am, trudged home, biked while watching the football games from the night before, showered, ate, and then worked a half-day from home before picking up the kids.

What's next.
So the big question is: is #65 enough to get Aaron a spot? My guess is that we will not get a spot right away, but that by the time the school year starts, we will have moved up from wait list to in. For context, I got either the last spot or the second-to-last spot two years ago with Jada, with #53. Last year, they ended up getting to #77, between increasing class size, cracking down on illegal addresses, and some kids dropping out because their parents had chosen to put them into different schools. As for this year, we'll just have to wait and see.

Community in action.
Cold weather aside, it was really quite pleasant to get to know our neighbors and fellow school parents. Some we knew but some we were embarrassed to have not yet made their acquaintance, given how close we all live to one another. Some of us had past war stories to share, and in general people were quite civil. Despite the high stakes involved, people were courteous about holding spots in line, but no one tried to abuse that courtesy. Speaking of community in action, some parents from last year, remembering their ordeal, came by with cookies, coffee, and hand warmers, while a generous person living in the apartments right across the street from where we were all splayed out bought pizza for all 70+ of us, right at 9:00pm when the evening chill was starting to get to us and our stomachs were grumbling. I was buoyed time and again by the many acts of decency, graciousness, and generosity in the midst of physical discomfort and competition for scarce resources. What a neighborhood we live in, that can have so much racial, ethnic, and socio-economic diversity, and yet that can come around the shared value for education and for staying warm in the cold?

Popularity vs. liability.
The school, and by extension the district and Penn, have an ambivalent reaction to these growing lines. On the other hand, it is a very real pat on the back, as the local paper's headline suggested: "A school so good they line up to get in." On the other hand, they are careful to say they don't sanction the lining up. Which is true: lining up like this is fed by us nervous parents and fanned by a story-hungry media. But it's the school that takes the blame for such a crazy ritual, and it's the school that's going to get in trouble - rightly or wrongly - if a parent should suffer serious injury exposing himself or herself to the elements for so long.

Fairness vs. personal advantage.
While I understand the complaints of those who marvel at the spectacle of 70+ parents lining up for 24+ hours in the dead of winter, I don't harbor any ill will toward the school because of the way registration has morphed into such an affair. The fact of the matter is that kindergarten space is a scarce resource, so the two best ways to dole it out are to line up for it or to do it by lottery. (No one has yet dare suggest that the slots are auctioned off to the highest bidders, although that would just be juicy to discuss.) Given how often school lotteries seem to be gamed in this town (i.e. the well-connected seem to always find themselves with a spot), I tend to think that lining up is the least inequitable of the approaches. It does significantly disadvantage those who do not have multiple adults to help out; most parents had spouses and/or grandparents with whom to tag in and out to avoid staying out in the cold for too long, but some had to go it alone, and even more heartbreaking, some could not find help to watch their kid so had to have them out there with them. On the flip side, you can't say the school isn't giving parents an early start on demonstrating that they will be involved in their kids' education. (Btw, many have asked me about the "no sibling preference" rule, but while it disadvantages me, it is a fair rule, as it further spreads out the scarce resource instead of concentrating it with the "have's." Call me a rube, but "fairness" to me does not always equal "in my favor.")

So there you have it. I'm sure other parents share some of these experiences and takes, and I'm sure there is a lot else to say and think. But that's where I'm coming from. Let's hope it ends up with a spot in the school for Aaron.

1.23.2012

Lazy Linking, 66th in an Occasional Series


What I liked lately on the Internets:

66.1. It's getting harder and harder to be an introvert in the New Economy. [Hat tip: kottke.org.]

66.2. Gas prices that are too low cause all sorts of problems - geopolitical, environmental, resource allocation - and Business Week thinks Iran is a good role model for the US to follow to fix that.

66.3. Is Google, the search king, whose name is now a verb, quietly getting out of the business? [Hat tip: Marginal Revolution.]

66.4. I don't know anything about this Paula Deen, but her recent appearance on the Today Show shows me she's an evil genius. [Hat tip: The Consumerist.]

66.5. The three deadliest words in the world: "it's a girl." As an adoptive father of an abandoned baby girl, I find this so very sad. [Hat tip: kottke.org.]

66.6. The reason why our emails are so easily misread is that we're too self-absorbed to think our recipients could "hear" our words any differently from how we intended to "say" them. [Hat tip: Marginal Revolution.]

66.7. Is private sector experience relevant to being President of the United States? If the experience is as a consultant, Megan McArdle is not so sure it translates well. Ergo, neither Mitt Romney nor I would make a good POTUS.

66.8. On SOPA, Greg Mankiw says the details may be wrong but the principle is right - intellectual property warrants stringent federal protection.

66.9. More than you wanted to know about the possible origins of AIDS.

66.10. Does an app that provides walking directions that avoid high-crime areas represent a triumph of the pedestrian-centric urban perspective or a modern-day form of redlining that keeps blighted areas blighted? Discuss.


1.22.2012

Step Back, Step Forward


I was just getting into my clip-on step-counter two years ago when I broke it. Thankfully, my in-laws bought me a nice watch for Christmas with a built-in step-counter. I love turning it on in the morning and then seeing how many steps I got to at the end of the evening. (Here's my first week's worth of stepping: 15,544; 15,575; 11,322; 11,886; 11,914; 17,330; 19,644.) We only get one body, so let's keep it moving.

1.20.2012

1.18.2012

The Lesson of Leviticus: Love the Law, for the Lord is Life


In my morning Bible reading time, I find myself in that most scintillating Old Testament book, Leviticus. I admit there are passages there that are a little dry: the instructions regarding skin infections in Chapter 13 come to mind. Nevertheless, studying this book never ceases to surprise me with profound insight and practical counsel.

Christians, or religious people in general, are often accused of simply being rule-followers, which is perceived as restricting and leading to self-righteousness. But the nature of the laws set forth in Leviticus point to far better reasons from God and outcomes for man. Reading this book, you get that God cares about our bodily purity and the sanctity of our relationships with one another. He instructs His people to leave the corners of their fields and the fallen fruit of their vineyards, so that the poor among them will have provision. In the famous verse, Leviticus 19:18, which Jesus quoted when telling the rich young ruler how to obtain eternal life - "you shall love your neighbor as yourself" - that exhortation is contrasted with taking vengeance and bearing a grudge, indicating the high value God places on reconciliation and forgiveness. Later in the same chapter, there is a far less famous use of that phrase, "you shall love your neighbor as yourself," and there its context is taking care of the non-natives among them, since God's people were also once foreigners in a new land.

In other words, far from sucking the life out of our lives, God's commands, even the ones in Leviticus, are meant to be life-giving. For life which deemphasizes harmony among men, charity towards those in need, and fairness for strangers in your midst, that is not as rich or right a life. You read it first in the book of Leviticus.

1.17.2012

The Kingdom of God is Like a Potluck


This past weekend, a number of my church friends gathered together to celebrate a birthday. It was a good time, made even funner by the quantity, quality, and variety of foods provided by the host and by many of the guests. Such is often the case with good parties, and it seems a particular strong suit of our congregation.

It occurs to me that this party, and parties like it, are a powerful metaphor for Christian community in general. As we socialized, we took pleasure in partaking of many different kinds of foods: Brie, Pakistani-style rice, pastries from Chinatown, and even fried chicken and pizza. We delighted in offering our best, and in complimenting others for letting us share in their best. And there was particular joy in discovering new dishes and new combinations of flavors, and in talking about their cultural context and familial significance.

The Kingdom of God, in other words, is like a potluck. The differences, accentuated, draw us together, rather than divide us. And the joy is both in the giving of our best and in the receiving of others' best. What a nice treat to have a taste of it together as a church family, and to think that that is just a faint foretaste of a greater and eternal party to come.

1.16.2012

What the Suh


My son Aaron's tantrums are well documented on my Huang Kid Khronicles blog. He's made considerable progress in this area, though he still has his moments. It's taken all Amy and I have, but when the sirens go on, we rein in our inner boiling and do our best to starve the fire by not feeding the boy any attention in response. If we do communicate with him on this issue, it is to calmly say things like "we don't use tantrums," the thought being that it is our job to teach the boy that you don't get what you want by making a stink.

Except that in reality, being a little bit of a bad boy is often a prerequisite to greatness. I had to do a double take this morning when, while feverishly racing through yesterday's playoff football games, I thought I saw Ndamukong Suh making a guest appearance during CBS's pregame show. Suh has developed a bit of a reputation around the league, his biggest infraction being his stomping of a downed opponent during a Thanksgiving Day game. I didn't actually watch the pregame shoe but can guess that he was penitent and cooperative, while his co-hosts alternated between being gracious, tiptoeing around his past trangressions, and tactfully addressing those issues head-on.

My point is not to chastise or salute CBS for giving Suh the air time, or to explore their motives for doing so. It's just to say that, in our modern society, we may think we want good boys and girls, but we actually reward hotheadedness. And I'm not talking about how we fawn over Hollywood's bad boys, although that is an example. It seems, whether in sports, politics, or business, we want our heroes to have a little edge. As Puritanical our national upbringings, we in this country give wide berth to the fallen, the flawed, and the tempestuous.

What's a dad to do with a defiant child? Of course, I'm going to play it straight. But if we don't quite work all the tantrums out of Aaron's system, I hope that at least he can use them productively, so many successful people in this country have.

1.14.2012

A Historic Neighborhood


One of my clients at work operates the Civil War 150 Road Show, which is a very cool portable exhibit showcasing the Civil War from Pennsylvania’s perspective. The traveling exhibit makes over 20 stops a year and will run from 2011 to 2015. When it stopped in Philadelphia last year, at Franklin Square over the Fourth of July weekend, I took my kids and we reveled in the artifacts and displays.

It turns out that my neighborhood has a very strong Civil War connection. Satterlee Hospital, located around present-day Clark Park, was the Union’s second largest hospital, and opened on June 9, 1862, almost 150 years ago; it treated over 60,000 soldiers and had a remarkably low fatality rate, given the unsanitary conditions of the time. Also, a number of Civil War soldiers are buried at Woodland Cemetery

To say my neighborhood is historic is an understatement. I was fascinated by this write-up by the University City Historical Society about the neighborhood’s history and evolution. Did you know, for example, that Clark Park was once used as a reservoir? That explains the “bowl” that you find there today, a one block by one block depression in the middle of the park. (The next time you take an epic sled run down one of the slopes, put out of your head that that bowl area was also once used as a dump.) I was particularly tickled by references to iconic architectural styles represented by certain buildings that exist to this day (like the 4200 block of Spruce Street and the 200 block of South 42nd Street), and by the connection between transportation infrastructure and real estate development (ferries made possible the construction of large mansions for rich Philadelphians seeking to escape Center City’s oppressiveness, and then trolley lines led to the construction of homes for the working class).

I knew, when I first came out to Philadelphia for undergraduate studies in 1991, that I was coming to a city steeped in history. Who knew back then, though, that the neighborhood where I would settle and raise a family would be so rich in such things?

1.13.2012

Councilman Oh


"Councilman Oh, it's good to see you." Man, I've been waiting eight years to say that.

I stopped by David Oh's new office in City Hall yesterday to catch up with him. You may have seen in the paper that he's been given chair of a new Global Opportunities committee. That's a really good fit for David's interests and assets.

I appreciated David's humility as I asked him about his first few days on the job. Philly, you've got a good public servant here, and I for one am looking forward to seeing him do good stuff here in the city, and to helping out where I can.

1.12.2012

It is Better to Give Than to Get


Earlier this week was my first board meeting with Spruce Hill Community Association. I’ve already made the connection between this group and my church before, but I’d like to draw another similarity. At one point in the meeting, we were talking about membership, and I asked, “What do people perceive they are getting out of being a member?” I meant it both in terms of tangibles (a free T-shirt, discounts on special events) and intangibles (warm fuzzies, camaraderie). We proceeded to have a spirited discussion on the subject, and I’d like to continue the stream of thought in this post. As I reviewed our membership brochure, it occurred to me that the benefits of membership are similar to what the benefits of membership in a church should be.

When you are considering joining a professional group or a trade association, your goal is to see if the value you can get out of the affiliation exceeds the cost of membership. That value may come in the form of credentialing, discounted conference registration fees, and networking opportunities, and if you think this particular organization can get you more value through those things than what it costs to join, you join. Conversely, if you don’t think this particular organization is of that much value to you, you don’t join.

What doesn’t “count” as much in your calculations is what general good that group does for you. If it lobbies Congress or sets policy or writes position papers or defends the reputation of your group, you get the benefits of all of those things whether or not you pay your dues. So those general goods that groups provide aren’t the reason for joining, since you can be a free rider and get them regardless of your membership status. Why you join goes back to whether the group gets you more value, in the form of things that only members can access, like preferred status at meetings or members-only publications and gatherings, than what you pay in dues.

But community associations are not quite like this. Sure, there may be specific gains that accrue only to members, whether it is being on a members-only mailing list for special publications or simply having the satisfaction of saying that you are a dues-paying member of your neighborhood association. But good community association sell you on the benefits of membership by inviting you to give, not to get. Our brochure isn’t emblazoned with snazzy marketing messages like, “Join now and get a free mug!” or “Pay two years of dues and you’ll get a free pass to our next gala!” Rather, it lists all of the good stuff we are doing, and invites you to join so you can get involved in those things as well, whether they are education advocacy or zoning issues or block clean-ups or special events.

For a variety of reasons, we have become a far less communal people. People come and go, the housing crunch leads to high turnover and pervasive blight, and crime keeps us on our guard against strangers. As a result, the neighborhood feel that many of us remember from our childhoods is far weaker today, and busier schedules make it harder to care or to take the first step in doing something about something you care about. Community associations offer a salve, by organizing people around topics of interest, and providing easy on-ramps for getting involved and making a difference.

It may seem strange to pay for the opportunity to give, rather than expecting to get. But it’s what good community associations, and churches for that matter, are about. And I think we’d all be better off, our neighborhoods and our souls, if we took these opportunities to get involved and to give.

1.11.2012

What Do You Remember



Looking back on an entire childhood's worth of memories, I find it a little strange that a disproportionate number of those recollections are of times I was sick, or times I was being transported from one activity to another. After all, I wasn't sick that often, and time in the car en route to baseball practice or piano was far exceeded by time spent in baseball practice and piano. Why is it that these memories, which may represent less than two percent of my childhood by time, may represent well more of my childhood memories?

Maybe someone can chime in with an eloquent explanation. As for me, I conjecture that being sick represented fond memories of my mom taking care of me (propping up my pillow when I had a sore throat, or making me soup when my braces hurt), while short car trips represented reflective "in between" moments with both of my parents (eating snacks while going from school to piano lessons, pounding my mitt in anticipation while my dad took me to baseball). Whatever the reason, you have to agree that these types of moments are disproportionately memorable for kids, right?

I say this because I am making some of my own memories this week on the parental side. Though my kids are usually indestructible, Aaron threw up one evening this week after complaining about his tummy at dinner, so while he looked and felt good the next morning, I decided to keep him home from school to play it safe (and also as a courtesy to his classmates, in case he was still infectious). Aaron quietly reveled in the positive attention Amy and I gave him as we cleaned him and his bed up, and was pleased as punch to be able to stay home from school and watch TV.

This week was also the start of Jada's ballet class, which is the first weekday extra-curricular activity for either of our kids, and which necessitated all sorts of running back and forth to get her from school, get her to ballet, get back to school to get Aaron, get him home for dinner, and then head back out to ballet to pick up Jada. All the hustle and bustle seemed to draw Jada, sleepily, closer to me: she sidled up to me on the bus ride to the studio, held my hand a little tighter as we headed down a new street and into a new building, and was affectionate with me as she changed and snacked when I returned to pick her up.

Who knows what, out of all we've put our kids through, they'll remember about their childhoods when they're all grown up. But my money is on moments like this week.

1.09.2012

Lazy Linking, 65th in an Occasional Series


What I liked lately on the Internets:

65.1. A double shot from Fortune Magazine - (1) I like how Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is pushing women's rights around the world as a matter of economic growth. (2) Not sure why skipping the checkout line by paying with your mobile phone isn't more mainstream.

65.2. The free parking we viscerally insist on is actually quite expensive. So says Donald Shoup, the topic's guru. [Hat tip: kottke.org.]

65.3. Leave it to those resourceful (and somewhat odd) Japanese to create a car seat that will scan your butt to protect your vehicle from theft.

65.4. How do doctors, who know more about health care than we do, take care of themselves? When it comes to facing death, they choose less treatment, not more.

65.5. For my last link of this post, I give you the entire 2011 year-end issue from Business Week. From good, concise writing to clever infographics, it was just a really good summation of the year and a really fun read from cover to cover.

1.07.2012

The Spectacle of Football



Like many Americans, I am chomping at the bit for the NFL postseason. (Unlike most Americans, I will be whizzing through the games at 30 minutes per the next morning while riding my exercise bicycle, but that's neither here nor there.) At a point in my life in which I have very little discretionary time, watching pro football is a tiny sliver of guilty pleasure that I thoroughly enjoy. (I lament only that we don't have cable so that I'm stuck with whatever the network stations are airing as well as that the season is only five months long.)

Ah, but I am starting to feel a little guilty for watching. No, not because I'm not allowed this little indulgence. But because it all feels very much like "Christians vs. lions in the Roman Colosseum." Because I am in a hurry, my thumb is quick to hit fast-forward (yes, I tape games on VHS tapes using my trusty ol' VCR). Dead time between plays, commercials, even extra points, field goals, kickoffs, and punts get the fast-forward treatment. I've also trained my finger to hit fast-forward when a player is shown hobbling or down, because I know that oftentimes that too means a longer than usual delay between plays, followed by a commercial break.

Whizzing forward until play resumes means I don't have much time to dwell on how sad this is. Grown men in the prime of their lives, unusually physically gifted, undergoing the equivalent of a head-on car crash with little more than plastic padding to protect themselves. Over a handful of times each game, multiplied by 16 games per week and 16 weeks per season, serious injuries are sustained, on the order of concussions, broken or fractured bones, and torn muscles and ligaments. Watching at home, we are fed a steady diet of the following images: replays of just how the gruesome injury occurred, followed by a close-up of the player grimacing in pain and/or being helped up by his team's trainer. Even worse, if the player is slow to get up, the networks cut to a commercial break, where we can be bombarded with advertisements for cars, fast food, beer, and potato chips. What a country!

It's a free country, and football players are compensated handsomely for their high-risk professions. My indictment isn't necessarily of the players, the networks, or the advertisers. I'm just pointing out that it is kind of sad what this spectacle called watching football has become. I'm not so sure the last days of the Roman Empire were much different, even though they happened so long ago. They may not have had a fast-forward button like I do, but they likely showed the same lack of concern for the wounded that I do when I gloss over a serious injury in order to hasten the arrival of the next play.

1.05.2012

Need to Go Easy on the J


No, I am not into marijuana. The "J" I am referring to is the "judging" half of the "judging vs. perceiving (P)" split. J's like things buttoned up, while P's like to keep things loose. Think of social plans: J's want them to be set, while P's want to keep options open.'

As with all Myers-Briggs splits, neither is inherently better or worse than the other, but people do tend to lean one way or the other. And, in Myers-Briggs parlance, I am a hard J, something on the order of 90/10. People often compliment me for getting stuff done, but may not know the driving force behind that isn't competence or smarts as much as it is an almost maniacal need to be done with something and not have it hanging out there.

Of course, in life it is impossible to be "done." Work projects come faster than they can be completed, relationships require ongoing cultivation, kids are ever evolving, and the world's problems have a nasty habit of just hanging around. For hard J's, our J-ness can become a source of anxiety, frustration, and despondency.

"Stop and smell the roses" is such a trite screed, and yet there is some truth to it. Better still is a mindset that remembers that God is in control, and that His timing and resolution are perfect: things will eventually resolve on His watch, and they will do so at the perfect moment. Indeed, to be a hard J and chafe in light of so much that is up in the air is to commit a grievous sin, of doubting in God's goodness, sovereignty, and timing.

If you are more on the P side, I hope you won't just dismiss my rantings this morning with a "loosen up, buddy" (even though I do need to hear that), because these are important soul matters and I am wrestling with them. If you are a fellow J, I hope you will be similarly exhorted, as I am exhorting myself. And whether J or P, let's go to the truest source of peace, which is a God who is running things, and who will eventually make all things right that are not right.

1.04.2012

2011 Car Usage


This is the third year I have tracked car usage, so I think it's safe to say this has become a habit. As has the nerdy tracking and graphing of it in Microsoft Excel. (You can check out 2010 here and 2009 here.)

As before, the Philly totals represent, in order, number of trips, number of legs represented in those trips (i.e. going to and from my in-laws, making one stop to get gas, counts as three legs), and number of legs in which I was driven (rather than driving). The other city totals represent, in order, number of times I was in that location, number of days I was in that location, number of trips, number of legs represented in those trips, and number of legs in which I was driven.

Philadelphia 92/223/21
Harrisburg 4/4/0/0/0
Kentucky 1/2/1/4/0
New York City 2/2/0/0/0
Ocean City 1/7/4/9/0
Pittsburgh 1/2/0/0/2
St. Thomas 2/10/4/11/33
San Diego 1/3/0/0/5
San Jose 3/21/19/46/18
Washington DC 1/1/0/0/4

Yet again, I was able to average far fewer than one leg per day, thanks to our urban setting and the many everyday locations I can get to without a car. Here's hoping that that delays when we need to purchase a new car, and that it makes a difference for the environment.

1.03.2012

Huang Family Newsletter, December 2011

Amy is hitting her groove at her new job: although the work is hard and the hours are long, she is enjoying it and is good at it. Lee juggled many projects at work, spoke at a conference in Pittsburgh, and preached a sermon at his church. The kids enjoyed holiday light shows downtown, their ballet and basketball classes at the Y, and many thoughtful Christmas presents from friends and family. Lee's dad was diagnosed with lung cancer but was able to have it successfully operated on and is now on the way to recovering. Lee took the kids to California between Christmas and New Year, where they saw Lee's parents in San Jose and also made road trips to see friends and family in Los Angeles, Merced, and Gilroy.






1.02.2012

This is the Last Year I Can Say I'm 39 and Not Be Lying


It's my 39th birthday today. I feel young and old. Young because hopefully I have more than half my life ahead of me, because I feel good, and because I have a lovely wife and two beautiful kids to keep me going. Old because more and more famous people I read about, past and present, are or were younger than me. Did you know that Malcolm X and Martin Luther King both died at 39? George Gershwin and Roberto Clemente only made it to age 38, while John Lennon and Edgar Allan Poe made it to 40. All these accomplished far more than I ever will, even if live twice as long as they do.

For us ambitious sorts, growing old is a matter of making peace with what you can and cannot do. I can no longer read about something cool that someone has accomplished and think, "If I apply myself, I can attain to that by the time I get to be their age," because in more and more cases, these people are younger than me! It's enough to make you feel over the hill.

I am being overly dramatic and melancholy for effect. I am not feeling down about myself. But nor am I glamorizing the aging process, or putting on false airs of humility about being able to be at peace with who I am. I still struggle with drivenness and discontentment, with wishing I could accomplish more and beating myself up that I have not accomplished more. Turning 39 is a natural marking point to look forward and back. I like who I am, who I've been, and who I'll have time to become. But I wrestle daily with my demons, as I'm sure do many like me who are in my stage of life.