Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Are You Religiously Smarter Than an Atheist?

The Pew Research Center recently reported on a study about religious knowledge among Americans. 3,412 Americans were asked 32 questions about religion. On average, Americans got half of the questions correct.

The researchers concluded that the survey “shows that large numbers of Americans are uninformed about the tenets, practices, history and leading figures of major faith traditions -- including their own.”

Interestingly, atheists and agnostics came out on top (65.3%) in the study, with Jewish and Mormon adherents close on their heels (64% and 63.4% respectively). This top grouping was followed by white evangelical Protestants (55%), white Catholics (50%), white mainline Protestants (49.4%), unaffiliated (47.5%), black Protestants (41.9%), and Hispanic Catholics (36.3%).

While these religious groupings are interesting, level of education was found to be “the single best predictor of religious knowledge.” The table on page 21 of this previous Pew study (PDF) shows education levels of various religious groups.

Groups with above average levels of post high school education include Hindu (84%), Jewish (78%), Buddhist (74%), agnostic (72%), Orthodox (68%), atheist (65%), Mormon (60%), mainline Protestant (58%), and secular unaffiliated (54%). Groups that ranked below average include Catholic (47%), Muslim (47%), evangelical Protestant (44%), historically black churches (41%), religious unaffiliated (39%), and Jehovah’s Witness (31%).

Regular scripture study and “talking about religion with friends and family” were also contributing factors to answering survey questions correctly. 37% of respondents said they read scriptures at least weekly. Excluding scriptures, nearly half of religious respondents reported seldom or never reading books or visiting websites about their own religion. 70% don’t read books or visit websites about other religions.

Mormons buck the meager religious scholarship trend. “Fully half of all Mormons (51%) and roughly three-in-ten white evangelicals (30%) and black Protestants (29%) report that they read books or go online to learn about their own religion at least once a week.” Only 6% of all Americans and 8% of religious Americans reported such weekly activity.

Of particular interest to Mormons are the following findings. “Around four-in-ten Americans know that the Mormon religion was founded sometime after 1800 (44%) and that the Book of Mormon tells the story of Jesus appearing to people in the Americas (40%). About half (51%) correctly identify Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as a Mormon.” Interestingly, only 93% of Mormons surveyed answered that Joseph Smith was Mormon (see here). I’m not sure what the other 7% were smoking.

The study sought to compare religious and general knowledge by posing nine questions “on history, politics, science and literature” 59% knew the name of the Vice President and 60% knew “that lasers do not work by focusing sound waves.” Only 42% correctly identified Herman Melville as the author of Moby Dick. As with religious knowledge, those with higher levels of education answered more general knowledge questions correctly.

While this study tells us something about the state of religious scholarship among Americans, it reveals relatively little about how Americans experience religion. It reveals little about how people view or experience their relationship with Deity. Pew publications released earlier this year on Prayer in America and Religion Among the Millennials do a much better job in that respect.

58% of Americans pray daily, but frequency of prayer differs dramatically by religious tradition. Groups with high prayer rates include Jehovah’s Witnesses (89%), Mormons (82%), black Protestants (80%) and evangelical Protestants (78%). The rate of prayer increases with age but decreases with income level. Women are much more likely to pray regularly than men.

I discussed the very broad Religion Among the Millennials study in this post. Younger generations are less religiously involved than previous generations were at the same age. But those that are religiously engaged are as strong in their practices and beliefs as were previous generations. Still, it appears that religion is an important part of daily life for a decreasing percentage of Americans.

On one hand, the religious knowledge survey seems like a relatively meaningless exercise in trivia. On the other hand, it gives us a snapshot of how familiar Americans are with religious matters in general, their own religion’s beliefs, and the religious beliefs of others. It’s another piece in a larger puzzle that helps form a picture of the state of religion in America.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Newsprint Going the Way of the Buggy Whip

I started my news carrying career at age 11 when I took over my older brother’s paper route. That job lasted until I was nearly 17. Back then I delivered papers in the afternoon six days a week. I had to get up early on Sunday mornings to deliver the biggest paper of the week. But that was only once a week. And it was on the weekend.

I delivered the paper day in and day out regardless of weather conditions. I collected subscription payments from my customers every month by going to each home in person. Except for a couple of oddballs, every home on my route took the newspaper every day.

That’s all changed. After starting my own family, I didn’t subscribe to the newspaper for many years. Then we succumbed to an offer for a temporary low price on a subscription. We found that we frequently didn’t even bother to take the rubber band off the thing. Unopened papers would stack up in the corner of the living room until we threw them out. So we let the subscription lapse.

A few years ago, my two oldest sons got paper routes. By then all deliveries were early in the morning. Where it had been easy for me to come home from school and spend an hour or so doing my paper route, my sons were rolling out of bed long before sunrise. Sometimes their schoolwork suffered.

By the time my boys started delivering newspapers, fewer than half of the homes on their routes took the paper. There were many different subscription patterns: daily, weekend only, Sunday only, extra Sunday paper, etc. While my boys didn’t have to collect subscription fees, they had to keep track of who got the paper on which days.

Our family did the paper routes for a couple of years, but we eventually had had enough. The early morning paradigm simply didn’t work as well for our family as had the afternoon delivery system of my childhood. But by the time we gave up the routes, members of the family had become accustomed to having the newspaper in the home. So we started subscribing.

Today’s newspaper is a far cry from the papers I delivered as a kid. There is far less news content. Most stories are abbreviated and there’s far fewer of them. Much of the content is no longer “news” by the time we read the paper.

While some members of the family make a habit of reading a lot of the paper, I am more of a spot reader. By the time I get the printed newspaper, I’ve already read most of the content that interests me on the paper’s website anyway. (Some online content is available to me only because I am a subscriber.)

It’s easy to derive the main demographic of print edition readers. I flipped through today’s edition and saw page after page of ads aimed primarily at senior citizens. While the ranks of this demographic are constantly being replenished, the percentage of this group that relies on newsprint is shrinking.

Jay Wamsley had a post a few days ago that described 10 factors in the decline of newsprint. The reasons behind this decline are, he says, “much more layered, much more complex” than can be offered any single explanation.

Whether Wamsley’s 10 points are totally accurate or not, it is undeniable that a huge cultural shift is underway. It is causing significant changes to the news market. Those that have long held top position in the news world are understandably upset that multi-faceted competition is destroying their vaunted kingdom. Disgruntled about losing their gatekeeper status — loss of power over what others think — they are frequently reduced to name calling, suggesting that those that don’t subscribe to newspapers are uninformed barbarians. They seem oblivious to the odd fact of life that insulting your potential customer base is unlikely to win customers from that group.

Some hard core news folks are reduced to pandering for government subsidies to keep the fa├žade of their naturally diminishing dominions artificially in place, at least for a while. Although such action may have temporarily saved the likes of AIG and GM, subsidies would not have kept the buggy whip industry afloat for long once people adopted automobiles.

Newsies have rarely demonstrated much of an understanding of economic principles. So let’s put this as simply as possible. Despite all of your high minded declarations of the importance of your product, no product is so valuable that its production can long be sustained when no demand for the product exists.

Put out a product that people are willing to buy — willing to buy without government coercion — and you will have a viable business. Put out a product that people are not willing to buy and you will go out of business. It doesn’t matter that masses of people were once willing to purchase your wares. Times change. If your business model can’t keep up with those changes, you cannot stay in business.

It’s harsh. But facts are facts.

Friday, September 24, 2010

I Love Early Autumn

I have always loved early autumn. Brisk mornings. Golden days that never get too hot. Warm afternoons. Evenings that cool as the sunsets come earlier and earlier. As the angle of the sun changes, the shadows look different. The leaves are still on the trees, but they come in varied hues ranging from green to yellow, to orange, to deep red.

I just like the way early autumn feels. “Not me,” says a friend of mine. “Autumn reminds me that a cold, dark winter is on its way. It makes me feel like the year is dying. It reminds me of my own mortality,” he says.

It starts to feel somewhat that way to me too, but only later in the season. About two centuries ago, Thomas Hood wrote this poem titled November about the cold, overcast late autumn in England:
No sun - no moon!
No morn - no noon -
No dawn - no dusk - no proper time of day.
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member -
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds! -
November!
But by late November, we’re all moving on to the festiveness of the holiday season. So we’ve got other things to keep our minds off the bleakness of the weather. Besides, the lawn doesn’t have to be mowed anymore by that time of year and there isn’t yet much snow removal to do, so it’s not all bad.

I think it gets more difficult after the beginning of the New Year. The festivities are over. We’re still in the darkest segment of the year. It’s dark when I go to work. It’s dark when I come home. There’s cold, ice, snow, and attendant snow removal duties.

Even the dead of winter is not without its pleasant side. I used to be an avid skier, but it costs so much to take the family skiing nowadays that we rarely do so. I’m still a pretty good skier. But three or four hours of skiing is enough for me anymore.

I didn’t start this post to write about the upcoming winter season. I just looked out the window and appreciated the glorious early autumn day I saw going on outside.

I have watched the colors on the mountainsides around me change over the past several weeks. We’re still some time away from peak autumn colors around here. But last weekend when I was at Camp Fife, I enjoyed looking around at the changing colors. I even noted where almost every imaginable color of leaf was found on some individual trees.

Perhaps I’ll never be able to rationally explain my love of this time of year. It feels and always has felt somehow wholesome to me. Oh, I enjoy other seasons of the year as well. I like living in an area where we actually experience all four seasons. But early autumn is still my favorite. It’s always been that way, and I suspect it always will be.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

I'm So Glad It's Over

Over the weekend, we held a tri-district Scout camporee. In my council, fall camporee events are usually held separately by each district. But the council decided to combine districts into clusters this year as part of the BSA Centennial celebration. The event was dubbed the Fall Encampment. All clusters in our council held their encampment events simultaneously. Our cluster was assigned to Camp Fife.

Staffing and Preparation
When several Scout districts run an event together, coordination efforts increase. I first met with the camping chairmen of the other two districts last winter, not long after my district’s winter camp. Over the next few months, we met many times and frequently coordinated by phone and email. We developed plans, made assignments, reported on assignments, etc. We recruited help from our districts, gathered gear, and trained people to do their parts.

Two years ago, my district held a somewhat similar event at the same venue. We sponsored it, but we invited two other districts to join us. We made a monumental effort to recruit attendees from our district starting in the spring. One of the other districts made a decent recruiting effort. The third district made registration info available to its units. That year we ended up with about 650 overnight campers (youth and adults). We invited Cub Scouts to join us the following morning. That doubled our numbers.

Recruiting
This year we did not get our recruiting effort seriously underway until toward the end of summer. Once summer hits, Scouting units (and commissioners) in my area don’t think about much other than their summer program. They don’t really start thinking about their fall program until the boys are in school. The earlier camporee is held in September, the less lead time you have for recruiting attendees. Of course, spring recruiting is problematic too. It’s just too darn early. It’s an annual conundrum.

Still, I like to hold camporee in September because the weather tends to become more of a challenge in October. With most units in our area being sponsored by the LDS Church, the first weekend in October, which is the church’s semiannual general conference, is off limits. The council often holds other events in October with which we can’t conflict. Pretty soon, you’re pushing up against Halloween and even into November. We already hold one district winter camping event each year. So September ends up being my preferred month for fall camporee.

This year’s fall encampment event focused on Boy Scout troops. Cubs were not invited. Varsity and Venturing units were welcome, but we did not provide events aimed at those groups. Given that the two districts we teamed with this year were smaller than the districts we teamed with in 2008 and the council had problems with its online registration link, I expected that we’d get about 500 overnight campers. I don’t have final numbers, but I believe that we were closer to 425.

The final weeks leading up to the event were nightmarish for me. Trying to manage the assignments of numerous volunteers is very much akin to herding cats. I delegated as much as I could. But some matters simply cannot be easily parsed out to others. With an event like this, you can unquestionably know that some plans are going to fall through the cracks. So you work hard to cover the essentials while hoping that enough of the rest will fall into place to make for an overall success.

I mentioned in this post that I had received two new church callings during this period, while still having to handle the calling from which I was being released. Throughout the end of August and beginning of September, I found myself taking almost any opportunity to escape the mounting burdens endemic to my involvement in this event. Going to a movie with the family, doing manual labor at a Scout camp, and working in the church welfare orchard became exercises in escapism. But putting off unpleasantries off can increase the burden, since you generally have to deal with them anyway.

Last Thursday evening as I was getting the final gear together, I started to feel my burdens ease as I tipped over the fulcrum point from preparation to execution. There was almost nothing more I could do to prepare even if I wanted to. All that was left was to do what had been planned. Whatever was going to work would work. Whatever was going to fail would fail. And like good Scouters, we’d adjust.

Executing the Event
I popped out of bed at 5 am on Friday. I would be totally engaged in the event for the next 39½ hours. By 11 am, I had the truck completely loaded. I caravanned to the camp with another leader. My counterpart from another district had been working at the camp all Thursday evening and all Friday morning. I immediately jumped in and started working. Being that it was hot and sunny, I was soon sweaty and sticky. My job was to set up 70 event sites. I finished that task around 5:40 pm.

We had spectacular weather. It was warm and sunny. A stiff breeze often moves up or down the canyon in which Camp Fife is situated, especially later in the day. I was pleasantly surprised that we had very little wind at all throughout the event. Still, it was so dry that we prohibited campfires except for the one we had for the camp wide event at the official campfire bowl on Friday evening.

While I did event setup, the registration folks arrived and got set up. Although the event technically opened at 3 pm, we only began to see units arrive around 5 pm. Most were in camp and were at least somewhat set up by 7 pm. At 7:20, the event chairman realized that no one had been assigned to emcee the evening assembly that was scheduled for 7:30. Having done many of those, I took over. We had troop yells, a flag ceremony, and some songs. Then we headed for the campfire bowl.

They were having some difficulties with audio/visual equipment, so one of my sons and I ended up leading the restless crowd in several songs before the people running the campfire event were ready to roll. Then we had a very nice event that featured skits, songs, and patriotic presentations. Many people left the event quite moved around 9:30. Starting at 10 pm, we had a senior staff meeting in the lodge that unnecessarily lasted a whole hour. I trudged back to camp, where my sons and I bedded down for the night. Although it had been hot, it got quite chilly during the night.

I rolled out early on Saturday morning to distribute materials to event sites that were scattered over an area about a quarter mile long. I was wearing a winter coat. As the 8:15 am morning assembly approached, the sun came up on the parade grounds. We went from winter jackets to short sleeve shirts within five minutes. In the meantime, many of the people running the events showed up and got their stations set up. After flag ceremony, we turned the crowd loose on the events.

I immediately noticed that at least a third of the events were not staffed. Some events kind of ran themselves. Others needed staff for safety reasons. Most required staff for instruction and organization. Most of the events that were not staffed were non-critical. They were mostly for fun rather than fulfilling a specific scouting purpose. We had plenty of other fun events that were staffed.

There was one event I felt was critical that went unstaffed. But it required specialized skills and the assigned volunteer had not shown up. There was nothing that could be done about that. I ended up spending the day running between four unstaffed events that were in close proximity to each other. I could tell that many boys (and leaders) enjoyed themselves, despite the shortage of event staff.

Short Campouts
Scouting attitudes and practices have changed since I was a boy — at least in my area. I have found that people expect overnight Scout events to be finished by lunchtime. Many of the single district camporee and Klondike events I have run wrap up at 11:30 am because the venue where these are held will charge us another day of rent if we go past noon.

We saw some people heading out of camp almost as soon as flag ceremony was over. There was a pretty steady stream of vehicles heading out from 11:30 am to 12:30 pm. After I had no customers at my events for 20 minutes, I took a break for lunch and broke down my personal gear. I had more customers after that, but the crowds continued to thin out.

Cleanup
By 2:30 pm, the place was dead. There were only a few boys left doing any of the events across the camp. I immediately began dismantling the event sites I had set up the day before. With it being hot and sunny, I was soon sweaty and sticky all over again. But the stuff came down far more rapidly than it went up. I loaded stuff in the truck as I went.

By 3:45, we were vacuuming and mopping the lodge. By 4 pm, I had my truck fully loaded and everything tied down. There were a few more loose ends to tie down. Then I hit the road, arriving home around 5 pm.

My wonderful wife immediately came out and started helping me unload. We managed gear as we unloaded, parsing out personal gear, district gear that could be stored at our home, gear that required attention before being stored, and borrowed gear. By 6 pm, I was on the road again, returning borrowed gear.

I spent an hour and a half taking care of gear, cleaning the truck, etc. I was grateful for how well it all went to its proper place. Around 8 pm, I was finally able to head to the shower. It is difficult to describe how glorious that felt. At about 8:30 pm, I was able to plop down on the couch in the family room. Months of preparation, followed by 39½ hours of execution were finally over. I had a deep sense of relief, but also a sense of accomplishment.

The Trust Factor
As I mentioned in my earlier post about stresses, my capacity to handle the past several stress filled weeks had much to do with my willingness to trust in God. My preparation for this event included countless prayers. When I was in tune enough to listen, I was always told that everything would work out alright. And it did.

Throughout the event, I uttered many prayers of both need and praise. I was often stunned at how rapidly my prayers of need were answered. Over and over, it was reiterated to me that if I don’t give up on the Lord, the Lord will not give up on me. The first point of the Scout Law is, “A Scout is trustworthy.” This characteristic strives to emulate God, who is eternally trustworthy.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Doing the SUV Thing

I have been writing about the automobiles I have owned in my last three posts (part 1, part 2, part 3). At the end of the last post, I mentioned that our two most recent vehicles (that we still own) were acquired at the same time. One was our fourth sedan. The other was our first SUV, a white Dodge Durango.

We felt fortunate to pick up the Durango when we did. It had been a fleet vehicle and it had about 11,000 miles on it. But we bought it in its same model year, and the thing came decked out with some nicer extras that we hadn’t expected and that cost us little.

When we got the Durango, it was a substitute for what my wife really wanted: a Chevy Suburban, the traditional “Mormon assault vehicle” that is common in our area. But a Suburban with comparable features would have cost about two-thirds again what we paid for our Durango. We could buy the Camry and the Durango without incurring new car payments, but we couldn’t hope to do that if we were to buy a Suburban. So we settled for the Durango.

And the Durango has been a fine vehicle. It has had a few maintenance issues. Most of those were handled while the vehicle was still under warranty. It has full-time all-wheel drive and available four-wheel drive. You can shift between the two on the fly. The vehicle is very sure footed in all kinds of terrain. It works great on the freeway and on rugged off-road areas.

Our Durango was the first vehicle we owned that had a built-in audio-visual entertainment system. We only use this when we are going for drives of more than an hour or so. But it has been an amazing feature for managing children on longer trips.

Due to our positive experience with our Durango, my wife developed an interest in a decade-old black Dodge Durango that one of our neighbors was selling. She thought it would be good for us to have enough vehicles for all of the drivers in our family.

I was dubious about this old vehicle. It had lots of miles and I knew that the thing had been the domain of that family’s oldest son, who had not been gentle on it. I was opposed to getting a vehicle that was destined to require lots of mechanical work because I am not mechanically inclined. It’s one thing to buy an old junker if you can work on it yourself. It’s quite another to buy such a heap when you’re going to have to pay a mechanic to work on it.

We ended up buying the black Durango for my oldest son to drive, despite my objections. We paid nearly top book value. Over the next few months, we put as much money into the thing as we had paid for it. The transmission required major rework. We put new tires on it. And there were a variety of other problems. We discovered that the power steering system needed repair after my son got in a minor fender bender in a parking lot when the steering failed to respond.

About the time my son started driving this vehicle in 2008, gas prices started soaring like crazy. It got horrible gas mileage, so it was expensive to drive. But my son liked the vehicle.

This older model Durango was not like our white Durango. It was not sure footed at all. It was full-time two-wheel drive with optional four-wheel drive. But it was hard to get it in and out of 4WD and it tracked sloppily when in 4WD. The transmission never did work right, even after it was repaired.

One day as my son drove to school, the brakes failed as he approached a stop sign. In his panic, he was concerned that he might roll if he tried to turn. He looked at oncoming traffic and figured that his best bet was to go straight through the intersection and then try to figure out what to do to slow or stop the vehicle after that. It never entered his mind to shift down or apply the emergency brake.

Unfortunately, he didn’t realize that he couldn’t get a good view of traffic coming from the right due to the way the road is sloped there. As he blew through the stop sign, a fast traveling vehicle came over the rise and slammed into the passenger side of the black Durango. The Durango careened over onto the driver side and slid toward a truck stopped at the stop sign on the other side of the intersection. Upon colliding with the truck, the Durango popped back up onto its wheels. My son turned off the motor and the thing came to a stop.

On one hand, I was grateful that my son was driving that big gas guzzling SUV. He walked away from the crash with a minor scrape on his ankle. Looking at the smashed vehicle, it seems unimaginable that no one in the vehicle was seriously injured or killed. On the other hand, my son wouldn’t have crashed at all had he not been driving an old piece of junk that (we later discovered) had a history of intermittent brake failure.

The old Durango had to be sold for scrap, since it was not repairable. I disliked the thing even before we bought it, so I was not sorry to see it go.

And that is the final segment in my history of automobile ownership up to this point. Ten vehicles: some new and some used. A couple pretty great, some just adequate, and others detestable. This story will, of course, continue until we no longer need automobiles. I just hope that I have learned enough to avoid some of the problems I have dealt with in the past. We’ll see about that. I still have kids that will need to learn to drive as they come of age.

Sedan Parade

In my past two posts (part 1, part 2), I wrote about four of the ten vehicles I have owned during my lifetime. My starter car was an old beater, but the three others I discussed were brand new. Two of these four cars were two-door coupes and two were minivans. Now it’s time to tell about my sedans.

When my wife and I first married, we were privileged to have the use of a small truck belonging to her parents for a number of months. When that vehicle was no longer available to us, we had to find something else to meet our transportation needs.

We were in the midst of building a new house and didn’t want another car payment. (We were still paying on our Astro van.) So we bought an old four-door Chevy Impala that was the same medium blue as our van. The junker only worked for a few weeks before the engine burned out. Repairing it was out of the question. Replacing it would have cost twice what we paid for the car. So we sold it for scrap.

After looking for used cars, I found myself in a familiar position looking at new cars that were cheaper than the used ones we had been looking at. We stood one night on a car lot in front of a four-door Hyundai Excel that we knew was essentially a disposable car. I figured it would last seven years at best. But it cost no more than used vehicles we had looked at. And it certainly had to be more reliable.

Given my experience buying the Astro van, I loathed the idea of dealing with a salesman at a car dealership. But this turned out to be a very low pressure experience. We took a few days to consider our options and ended up bringing home a brand new charcoal gray Hyundai Excel.

My wife, who likes driving stick shift vehicles, opted for the manual five-speed transmission. That saved $800 on the price of the vehicle. The stick shift was great until we started having kids. Then my wife discovered that it’s sometimes beneficial for a parent with young children in the car to have one hand free.

We were now saddled with a second car payment just as we were about to move into a new house and start making larger house payments. That caused some consternation over the next couple of years, but we eventually paid off the car loan early, just as we have every other car loan we’ve ever had.

The Hyundai got good gas mileage and managed fairly well in the snow. It had occasional maintenance issues, but the mechanics were so simple that even I could often do the repair myself. (I am not mechanically inclined.) It was a satisfactory vehicle.

When the Hyundai was about eight years old, I was driving up the dirt road to a local scout camp one day when the transmission made a nasty sound and then wouldn’t work anymore. After a lot of messing around, I was able to get it into a high gear and it limped back to town.

We took the car to a trusted mechanic. He informed us that it would cost $2,500 to fix the thing. It was worth only about $1,200 at the time. This guy said that given his experience with that model, he wouldn’t advise fixing it even if the repair would cost a lot less. Those cars, he said, tended to start having everything go bad at about that age.

We had had a pretty good buying experience with our Mercury Villager minivan several years earlier, so we went to a Ford dealer. They sent us across the street to their Hyundai dealership, where they had a one-year-old white Ford Taurus four-door that had been a fleet vehicle. It was reasonably priced and they gave us a more than satisfactory price on the trade in of the broken down Hyundai.

The Taurus had more room than the Hyundai. We welcomed the automatic transmission, A/C, and power windows. But we immediately noticed that the car suffered from shoddy craftsmanship. One window never did seal well when rolled up. Various features didn’t fit well. The quality was far below that of our Mercury Villager. It seemed like repairs came along more often than with the Hyundai, including a couple of major repairs as the thing aged.

Still, the Taurus lasted nearly 10 years. It went lots of places, including many scout camps. We could fit lots of stuff in the trunk. Its gas mileage was worse than the Hyundai’s had been, but it was OK.

One weekend, I followed our scoutmaster in his Jeep up the dirt road to Willard Basin. I hadn’t been on the road since I was a kid, when it was common for regular cars and even school buses to traverse the route. It had deteriorated to a four-wheeler road by the time I was driving on it. Despite the bumps and scrapes, the old Taurus made it to Willard Basin.

But on the way back down the following day, I smashed up the undercarriage so badly that the transmission fluid leaked out and the transmission stopped working. The engine, steering, and brakes worked just fine. Fortunately, most of the nine miles of rugged dirt road we had left to cover were almost all downhill. The scouts had to push briefly about three times. There were times we nearly came to a dead stop before gaining a little more momentum, then we’d continued on downhill. Other times we were going way too fast for the road.

Somehow we made it over all nine miles of rugged road. We cruised out onto the pavement and coasted half a mile through the town of Mantua before coming to rest in a church parking lot. A relative of another dad on the trip came and towed us to a repair shop near Pleasant View. The mechanic repaired the car enough to make it drivable, but advised us to get rid of the beast.

Times had changed since we had last shopped for cars some 10 years earlier. We did a lot of shopping online before we ever set foot on a car lot. After considering our financial situation, the state of our two aging vehicles, and our options, we ultimately decided to buy two new vehicles.

After much research, we went to the sales arm of a car rental agency and asked to look at the vehicles we had made a list of. We traded in our old Taurus on a medium brown Toyota Camry four-door model that had less than 7,000 miles on it. And we supplemented our fleet with a white Dodge Durango that had about 11,000 miles.

We have the Toyota to this day. It’s been a great car. I’ll write more about the Durango in my next post.

Next time: Doing the SUV Thing

Friday, September 17, 2010

Minivans Forever

In my last post, I wrote about the first two cars I owned. The first one was an old, massive beater that got horrible gas mileage. The next was a frill-free Japanese hatchback that got great gas mileage. It was a fine vehicle for what it was. But even though I was single at the time, the car was often too small for my duties as a scouting leader. I started lusting after more commodious vehicles.

About that time, the minivan arrived on the scene and was making big waves throughout the automotive industry. I started shopping around and eventually decided that I kind of liked the Chevy Astro van. There were drawbacks, to be sure. It cost a lot more than my Mazda. I’d be going back to rear-wheel-drive. And friends warned me to stay away from brand new models for the first couple of years until the kinks got worked out.

But a better job, an opportunity, a heavy handed salesman, and an inexperienced young adult all combined with the result that I drove home a new medium blue Astro van one early summer evening. I was dumb enough to fall for the PremaPlate and a worthless extended warranty scams. Due to the van’s safety rating, my insurance premium remained the same, although; the thing cost nearly three-times what the Mazda GLC I was giving up had cost.

The problems started right away. The Astro model I got was really a cargo van with windows. It had no seats, air conditioning, or cruise control. When the salesman arranged for seats to be installed, I didn’t realize that they would be plush aftermarket models instead of the basic factory type. I quickly discovered that I would have preferred the factory seats. The seats could fold flat, but they only held in place if the stars aligned and you held your tongue the right way. The plush seats were so thick that they left almost zero room for storage behind the rear seat.

The aftermarket cruise control and air conditioning that were installed never did work as well as original equipment would have. That experience left such a bad taste in my mouth that I have avoided adding aftermarket equipment to any of my vehicles, with the exception of mud flaps and runner bars.

The inability to open any of the rear cabin windows of the van presented a problem with ventilation. The A/C system only blew from the dashboard. It was totally inadequate for people riding in the rear of the vehicle. The engine bell housing intruded too far into the cabin. The front passenger had very little foot room. The engine was so tight in the compartment that working on it was a nightmare.

Despite the problems with the Astro van, I paid it off early and kept it for over seven years. It was a reliable vehicle that worked for me as I married and we started to have kids. But it could also reliably make me cuss.

I gratefully sold the Astro when an opportunity arose to buy a brand new higher end Mercury Villager minivan at factory invoice price. We had to order the thing from the factory and had to wait nearly two months for it to be built and shipped. But it was an amazingly luxurious vehicle compared to what we had been used to.

Our two-tone medium/dark brown van drove like a luxury sedan instead of like a truck. The front-wheel-drive immediately offered advantages to the Astro van. Although, we did find that it was kind of sluggish going up steeper grades. We were also once again saddled with a car payment, but as usual, we worked to pay it off quickly.

The Villager’s rear cabin had tinted windows and boasted its own stereo and climate control system. There was at least some storage room behind the rear seat. Not only could the seats fold flat, the middle ones could be removed and the rear one could be slid up so that you could fit sheets of plywood in the back if necessary.

The new van sported a digital dashboard that I still like better than the dashboard of any other vehicle I have owned. The engine was out front so that the housing didn’t hog cabin space. Working on the engine was a breeze compared to the Astro, but it wasn’t that big of a deal because the Nissan-made engine turned out to require little maintenance.

Our Mercury Villager is now more than 17½ years old. Despite my best efforts to keep it tuned up, its gas mileage has decreased by several miles per gallon over the years. The thing now always drives sluggishly and we no longer trust it to go more than 100 miles from our home. It has become the domain of our teenage drivers. But the thing still works adequately for the uses to which it is put. It has provided us with many years of decent service.

Next time: Sedan Parade

Thursday, September 16, 2010

My First Car and Beyond

I have owned ten automobiles during my lifetime: four new and six used. One lasted only a few weeks. I’ve had another for more than 17 years. I’ve liked some my automobiles more than others. Some served well. Others not so much. I have learned lessons from each.

My first car was a 1967 Oldsmobile Cutlass two-door. By today’s standards, the car was massive for a two-door vehicle. The main body was canary yellow and the roof was a dark brown. I didn’t really like the colors, but I liked having my own car. The seats were vinyl. The dashboard was mostly metal. It got about nine miles/gallon in city driving.

The Olds Cutlass had belonged to my scoutmaster, who had bought it used from a car rental agency. I rode in that car on many scouting activities. As the car began to hit the stage where it needed more repairs, my former scoutmaster sold it to a neighbor who loved to work on cars. He kept it and worked on it for a couple of years before my Dad negotiated with him to buy the thing for $400. (That was worth a lot more than $400 today.)

When Christmas came a couple of months later, I received an in-dash AM/FM radio with an internal 8-track player along with two speakers. My Dad and I spent Christmas Day out in the driveway in frigid temperatures installing the new stereo.

The car was reliable in that it worked most of the time and I could rely on it to have regular maintenance problems. My older brother used the car while I served a mission for my church. When I returned from my two-year absence, my precious beater was even more beat. Part of that was wear and tear. Part of it was due to vandalism that occurred when the thing was left parked overnight in a rough part of town.

From my first car, I learned that cars need more than just gasoline. The oil needs regular changing, there are all kinds of other fluids that need monitoring and changing (brakes, transmission), tires wear out and need to be replaced, brakes occasionally need work, there are all kinds of other maintenance issues, and some cheap aftermarket 8-track tape players function poorly in cold weather.

I also learned what to do when the car got stuck. I learned to be careful changing lanes in a rear-wheel-drive vehicle when the snowplow has left a ridge of snow a foot deep between lanes. (Fortunately, there was no other traffic around and I simply ended up on the other side of the road facing in the direction of traffic.) I discovered that even a cheap car costs a lot to drive. Insurance premiums, annual inspections, and registration costs have to be paid too.

After climbing the job ladder a bit, I decided to look for a more modern car. I scoped out used Japanese hatchbacks, which were all the rage at the moment. I got sticker shock when I saw how much four- and five-year-old models cost that really weren’t in decent condition. My Dad pointed out to me a sale on brand new Mazda GLCs that cost about the same as the used cars I was looking at. Sure, they were stripped down models that didn’t even have a radio. But they were sure to be better than any used pile of junk I could get.

There’s nothing quite like the smell and feel of a brand new automobile. I remember driving my new beige colored car at night on the freeway just a few days after I got it. I was thinking how cool the lighted dashboard looked. Sure, it had no carpet or A/C, the seats were vinyl, and it had a four-speed manual transmission. But it was brand spanking new. It gave me a feeling of having arrived at some new status.

Of course, the car payments and the higher insurance premiums heightened my sense of responsibility and accountability. My agent said that on his company’s scale where 17 denoted the highest risk (Magnum P.I.’s hot red Ferrari would be in that class), my car ranked at 14. But as a trade-off, I had far fewer maintenance issues and I learned about the advantages of front-wheel-drive. I installed a stereo system and enjoyed my car — for a while.

Next time: Minivans Forever

Monday, September 13, 2010

Pop Music In Sacrament Meeting (by Accident)

My Dad started his career as an electrician’s apprentice in Germany and ended his career as an electrical engineer in the U.S. His specialty was electrical substations. He was one of a rare handful of individuals in the country that had understanding of the theory and practice behind some of the most complex substation elements and systems.

Dad loved to work on and tinker with stuff. It didn’t matter whether it was electrical or mechanical. I used to think that Dad had an innate understanding of how things worked. But I now think it was more like he had an intense interest in such things. This interest led him to work with all kinds of technical items until he understood how they worked and how to fix them.

One of my brothers seems to have inherited Dad’s interest. I did not. When it comes to working on mechanical items, home repairs and renovations, electrical, plumbing, etc, I want to get as far away from it as fast as I can. My experience with home improvement projects is that it ultimately takes me longer, costs more money, and produces less satisfactory results than if I just hire a contractor to do the job. Ditto for automotive matters.

Dad was known in the neighborhood for being able to fix anything. When I was a kid, Dad was always the go-to guy at church whenever something electrical didn’t function as expected. It was because of this that I learned in the mid-1970s that our chapel’s sound system was a short-range FM band transmitter/receiver system.

The microphone in the chapel led to a box under the podium that was an FM transmitter. Under the clerk’s desk about 15 feet away was an FM receiver that fed the speaker system. Although the cabinet could be locked, it frequently was left unlocked. This is probably due to the fact that it was a large cabinet that was used to store a variety of items besides the receiver.

The FM receiver in our chapel seemed to be quite temperamental. The slightest jostling of the thing seemed to upset the receiver setting. Sometimes the contraption could go months without a problem. Other times it seemed like it needed to be adjusted almost every week to synchronize it with the transmitter.

One Sunday, the fellow standing at the podium talking into the microphone was having a devil of a time. His voice kept cutting in and out. Sometimes it was choppy. Other times it was a slow fade. He was intermittently interrupted by static and phantom sounds. It got to be quite distracting.

Finally, Dad got up from the bench where we were sitting and walked up to the clerk’s desk. He opened the cabinet, got on his knees, and started tweaking the setting. At first it got worse. Then the sound cut out completely. Then suddenly we heard the voices of England Dan and John Ford Coley singing, “But there's a warm wind blowing, The stars are out…” quite loudly throughout the chapel.

Right at that moment, Dad got the setting right. The song cut off and the speaker’s voice came in loud and clear. But the whole congregation was laughing and Dad’s face was red. Part of the reason for this is that my Dad always came across as very serious about matters and very precise in his work. It was funny to see him make a mistake.

As soon as everything settled down, the meeting continued as normal. But as a youth, that was one of the more memorable Sacrament meetings of my life.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

I'm a Scouter that Doesn't Collect Patches

As an older teen, I attended a National Order of the Arrow Conference. The Order of the Arrow is a fraternal organization of honor campers that is part of the Boy Scouts of America. The order’s national conference is held about every other year, usually at a university campus. At the time, I was wrapping up my service as lodge chief and was serving as section chief.

I had been involved in scouting since age eight. Anyone that has had much to do with the BSA knows that cloth emblems hold an important place in the organization. Almost everyone has seen scout patches depicting rank, unit number, and council affiliation. But there are also patches for events, non-rank accomplishments, camps, and just about everything that happens in the BSA program. Some patches are simple; others are very elaborate.

Ever since scouts started to have different kinds of patches, scouts have been trading patches with each other. While I had done some patch trading in my time, my teen trip to NOAC offered my first real taste of patch trading. I came with a pocketful of my local OA lodge’s flaps. Our lodge had a rather distinctive totem, so our patches traded well. By the end of the week, I came home with a pocketful of really cool lodge flaps from all over the nation.

But the patch collecting thing never grew on me. Over the next few years, I tried to collect all of the patches offered by my local OA lodge. But the lodge soon began offering so many different patch permutations that even such a localized collection effort exceeded my interest and means. Eventually I gave up on collecting scouting patches.

I think I really got turned off when I discovered full grown men that approached this hobby as if it were a business. I watched men with huge patch collections taking advantage of young scouts by demanding a handful of patches — one or two of them quite valuable — in exchange for a single cool looking but less valuable patch. Nowadays, most adult patch traders deal in cash.

Patch trading started out as a fun way to demonstrate goodwill and fellowship among scouting youth. It has turned into a cash business that is the domain of obsessed grownups. Some of these people have impressive collections. Some have private museums, as it were.

Although I am still deeply involved with the Boy Scout program, I have long since lost my affection for most patches. I get new patches all of the time. I toss them in a box I have in a dresser drawer and rarely think about them again. Many of them signify events of which I have been in charge. Sometimes I give these patches away when somebody else expresses an interest.

I have only the bare essential patches on my BSA uniforms. I regularly get chewed out by other adult scouters for having no knot emblems on my uniform. I have achieved at least a dozen of these awards, but I don’t care about wearing the insignia. I don’t need to be self important. I’m just another adult volunteer trying to help boys obtain some of the benefits from the program that I received as a youth.

Oddly enough, I still have an old and worn paper bag in my closet that contains the OA lodge flaps that I collected at that NOAC event years ago. I have thought about giving these to a real collector — someone that might appreciate them. But for some reason, I never do. They stay in the closet where no one ever sees them.

I can’t really explain this. Maybe I harbor some thought about passing these patches on to one of my sons. Or perhaps one of their sons in some future day. But then I wonder why they would possibly be interested in those old patches. I guess only time will tell.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Tracking School Volunteers

Some of my children attend a charter school. The school asks — but by law cannot require — that each family with students at the school volunteer at least 30 hours during the school year. The school has opportunities for service in administrative tasks, the classroom, field trips, the playground, the lunchroom, technical work, maintenance, moving furniture, handling special events, etc.

Two years ago, I designed a database that the school used to track time volunteered by family members. While the idea was to provide school administration with information about how each family was doing on its suggested volunteer hours, it turns out that it is also important for the school to track volunteers and the time they donate for legal purposes.

When I built the database, I used Microsoft Access because I already had it and it is a reliable single-user database. Volunteers recorded their time on sheets at the school. The data was transcribed into the database by a volunteer on a home computer.

This method worked, but it did not provide current information. There was a time lag between the entry of time on paper and the entry of data in the database. By the end of the school year, I had a better idea of how the database was actually used. I realized that I would have designed some things differently were I to do it again.

Last year, the opportunity to redesign the database came along. There was a desire to have the data in house at the school instead of on somebody’s home machine, since it included personal information. Also, it was felt that it would be better for volunteers to enter their own data live instead of having it transcribed by somebody else. Then administrators could get an up-to-the minute current report anytime.

My first thought was to put the database on the school’s server so that it could be accessed from any computer on the school’s intranet. You can do this with a MS Access database, but you really don’t want to. MS Access is not really robust enough to handle multiple simultaneous user connections.

Also, this method would have required a copy of the MS Access software for each client machine. That runs into real money. Our charter school minimizes administrative expenses, centering its resources chiefly on factors that directly impact the students instead. The budget didn’t allow for buying a bunch of copies of MS Access.

I could have rewritten the application using the MySQL database, PHP scripting language, and Apache application server — open source tools that are available for free. But that’s a very roll-your-own kind of process. I just didn’t have the time to do it.

In the end, I resorted to rebuilding the volunteer tracking database using MS Access 2007. The school purchased one copy of the application and put it on a computer in the office that is dedicated to that purpose. It is not even connected to the school intranet. Volunteers step into the office and enter their hours. Administrative personnel back up the data regularly, keep the family data up to date, and generate reports as necessary.

When I restructured the database, I had to build an entirely new user interface. It’s one thing to have a single person responsible for all data in a database, and it’s quite another to allow input by hundreds of people that rarely touch the system. I designed the interface to be as simple and as error proof as possible.

In my line of business, this is referred to as “dummy proofing.” While this may sound derogatory, it is important to understand that software developers are users as well. We know that we are too are sometimes prone to being the “dummy” when interacting with computer interfaces. “The problem with constantly improving the dummy proofing of our applications,” a colleague recently quipped, “is that the universe responds by continually producing better dummies.”

This system worked well enough last year that I was able to copy it this year. I cleared the data from the copied database, loaded new teacher, student, and family data provided by the school, changed the titles of a couple of screens, and put the application into service with only a few hours of work.

I would still like to rebuild the database and application using open source technologies. But I suppose that, like everything else, that project will wait until it rises from being nice to have to being necessary.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Another Bridge and a Cabin Roof Too

As a follow-up to last month’s post about Camp Loll, I report that this year’s bridge building project went very well. Delose Conner has a detailed post about it complete with photos.

A second project at Camp Loll this weekend replaced the roof of the “old office.” Delose has a detailed post about that project as well.

When my brother announced last month that we would be doing both projects this weekend, I thought the goal was rather ambitious. We had our hands full last year when we built a bridge. How would we ever complete two major projects in a single weekend?

For one thing, we had far more helpers than we did last year. Delose once told me that with 15 good teenagers he could accomplish almost anything. A number of Camp Loll staffers and Camp Cherry Valley staffers showed up late Friday night. A handful of us had spent most of the day Friday getting the bridge supports constructed. We were proud of our work, but we knew from experience that getting the bridge’s six 1,200-lb support beams moved into place was going to be a major task.

Fortunately, one of the volunteers had brought a dump-bed trailer. He used the same trail that the KYBO pumper truck uses and was able to get the huge beams to a location mere yards from the bridge construction site.

Then after breakfast on Saturday morning, about 20 staffers came down to put the beams into place. Although many of us had to wear rubber boots to wade through the swamp, the task of moving the large lumber support beams into place was a walk in the park compared to the same task last year. Before long, we had the beams in place and no one felt like they had seriously exerted themselves.

We used our experience from last year to establish a production method for cutting deck boards, staining them, and screwing them in place. It helped that volunteers provided contractor grade cordless drills for the day. We hoped to get the project finished by lunch, but we ended up putting in another hour of work after lunch. The finished product is beautiful. It will last many years and will be far safer than the bridges that have preceded it.

In the meantime, I was amazed every time I got to the parking lot to see the progress made by the crew that was replacing the roof of the old office cabin, which is a 73-year-old building. The finished project is fantastic.

The years I spent working at Camp Loll were a foundational experience for me that has colored the whole rest of my life in a positive way. I enjoy being able to give something back to the camp. Hopefully the service I render up there will help boys that are going through the Scouting program in the future.

It’s not important that I may never know those benefited by the service. Nor that most will likely have little appreciation for the work done. Giving the service is the right thing to do, and it feels good to do it.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Season of Stress

At this moment, my life is undergoing a season of stress, fostered mainly by change and added burdens. It’s not that any one of the changes or new burdens is, of itself, negative. It’s just that a number of these things have all hit at once. I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed.

I am gearing up to run a tri-district Boy Scout camporee in two weeks. This is the fifth year that I have run our fall camporee. I have a love-hate relationship with these events. Work begins on the event in early spring. While I try to cover my bases well, many factors are simply beyond my control. That drives me nuts.

One year, there was an autumn deluge the day camporee began. Only 12 of 66 units in the district showed up. Some that came had a miserable night. It snowed on us overnight. But many of the attendees still had fun. You can argue that it shouldn’t be so, but many Scout leaders are fair weather campers. If the weather is bad, they just don’t camp.

Last year we had spectacular weather, but we still had low attendance. Due to the way the Scout council scheduled certain events, we were forced to hold our camporee the weekend after Labor Day. Many people use that weekend to get caught up on the chores they missed while celebrating the holiday weekend.

Sometimes those that are assigned to fulfill tasks at the event fall through. Some things just don’t happen, despite my best efforts to make sure that everyone is ready to do their assigned jobs. Scouting is, after all, a volunteer organization.

The last few weeks before the event are very busy. I’m fielding calls from Scout leaders, trying to make sure that all tasks will be properly handled, getting all of the stuff needed for the event gathered and ready to haul up there, and trying to take care of my own family matters as well. It’s a crazy time.

This year matters have been complicated somewhat by the fact that I have just been called to fill two new church positions, one at the ward level and one at the stake level. I continue to hold a formal stake/ward calling from which I will be released within a couple of weeks. In the meantime, I’ve still got to do that calling during this extremely busy season. I hold yet an informal ward calling as well.

I get a lot of fulfillment from my church service. But I’m feeling besieged right now.

Due to reductions and reassignments at work, I have been handed several new assignments in recent days. These are in addition to the assignments I have been doing. I am tasked with doing the work previously done by four people. (For no additional pay, of course.) All of these new assignments require quickly coming up to speed on technologies in which I have little or no expertise.

I appreciate my boss’ confidence in me and I enjoy the opportunity to learn other technologies. But the timing makes it feel like someone jumping on the dog pile of which I am at the bottom. On top of this is the gnawing worry that my employment might be affected by the same kind of reductions that have impacted some of my colleagues.

We all go through seasons of stress in our lives. Some are short lived. I know, for example, that some of the factors contributing to my present burdens will pass within three weeks. Other times we have to endure for longer periods of months or even years.

Effectively dealing with stress is important. Health professionals warn that a “high level of stress puts you at increased risk of serious health consequences” (see Mayo Clinic site). Mayo notes that even ‘good’ stressors can have negative health impacts.

Years ago I went through a period of high stress. Over the space of less than two years, I married, changed jobs (a great promotion), moved three times, built a new home, got two new cars, gained a bunch of weight, worked hard to lose even more weight, dealt with my wife’s job opportunities and challenges, accepted several church callings, accepted a district level Scouting assignment, and on and on.

Most of these factors were good things. But my system rebelled against all of this stress. I later realized that I had experienced a number of relatively mild Multiple Sclerosis symptoms for several years. After adding all of these stressors in a short period of time, however, I ended up experiencing a major MS attack that landed me in the hospital for a week and a half, and kept me out of work for weeks. Since I didn’t reduce the stress voluntarily, my system found a way to force the matter.

As a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, I know that I can turn to Him to relieve my burdens. I know that as I turn to Him, He will take my burdens in His own way and time, according to that which He knows omnisciently and with perfect love to be best for me. But that path takes faith. It takes going out on a limb, so to speak, and doing it His way — a way that can sometimes be uncomfortable.

It all comes down to this one question: how much do I trust God?