Celebrating Women Through Islamic Caligraphy

Oh, good! Our Celebrating Women Through Islamic Caligraphy calendar arrived!

If we’re being precise about it, we never technically ordered a Celebrating Women Through Islamic Caligraphy calendar, but here one is anyway, courtesy of a kindly charity. This will help us remember all the important Islamic dates in 2013. Sorry, I mean 1434-1435.


Our New Calendar?

There’s the beginning of Safar and of Rabi’ al-awwal… “Columbus Day /  Day of Arafat”… the birth of Jesus…

Wait, go back to that last one. Christmas? And Christmas Eve? Is it possible that Christmas has become some kind of secular holiday, available to people of all faiths? Unthinkable!

I’m also a little confused about the quote on the cover. The calendar is titled Celebrating Women Through Islamic Caligraphy, so each page features an inspirational quote about women. For example, March features this quote: “The best of Life’s enjoyment is when one is blessed with a righteous wife.” And a righteous wife I have!

But the cover’s quotation reads “اتقوا الله في النساء” which they’ve translated as “Fear Allah in all dealings with women.” The “all dealings” translation seems a little loose from what I’ve read. But more importantly, that quote comes from a passage of Sahih Muslim #2803 that’s historically been used to justify beating women. One translation of the full passage reads (emphasis mine):

Fear Allah concerning women! Verily you have taken them on the security of Allah, and intercourse with them has been made lawful unto you by words of Allah. You too have right over them, and that they should not allow anyone to sit on your bed whom you do not like. But if they do that, you can chastise them but not severely. Their rights upon you are that you should provide them with food and clothing in a fitting manner.

But in other sources, “chastise” has been translated more harshly to various synonyms of “hit” or “beat”.

I certainly don’t mean to imply that the calendar’s authors intended to convey that message — nor, for that matter, does it seem Imam Muslim did. But the choice still strikes me as peculiar for the cover of a calendar specifically celebrating women.

The moral here, if there is one at all, is to avoid sending these calendars to non-believers with a Google account and a couple hours to spend on research. In related news, I imagine I can expect Google’s advertising for me to be a little off-target for a while.

Government Help

Business owner Ray Gaster of Savannah, Georgia made headlines recently with a highly visible response to President Obama’s recent remarks about how government helps make commerce possible. Obama had remarked, “Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

Gaster’s response: signs hung prominently outside his three storefronts declaring that he built the business without any help from the government.

Government No Help

Government No Help

It’s a valid and powerful message… that completely misses the point. I like this annotated version itemizing some aspects of his business that Gaster clearly didn’t build himself:

Government Help

Government Help

Obama isn’t saying that everyone needs direct and explicit government help to start a business (e.g., with borrowed government funding), but rather that surrounding every business is a system of infrastructure, laws, and commerce that makes the endeavor possible.

The government built the roads carrying customers and merchandise, laid the wires that carry electricity and communications, established the police and fire departments that protect the building and its occupants from theft and disaster, and developed the civil justice system that provides recourse against fraud.

Critics of this image suggest the fallacy is that these things are all funded with taxpayer dollars, so it’s ultimately still the business owner paying for all of it. The trouble is that no one person’s tax dollars could fully fund all the services from street lights to sewer lines the government currently provides. Just hiring enough police officers to provide protection around the clock would use up every dollar I’ve paid in the past several years.

But private police forces are at least theoretically possible. (We could have a system where only people who have paid for police protection receive it.) Other government-run services are impossible to separate in that way. I could, for example, pay for the construction and maintenance of the roadway in front of my house, but that road is only valuable to me when it’s linked to other roads leading elsewhere in the city. If my neighbors don’t care about roads, how could I get across town?

Two years ago, Colorado Springs turned off its street lights, inviting residents who wanted the lamps relit to write a check to cover the cost of their lamp’s electricity. And while I’d be happy to pay for the electricity to the lamp outside my house, I like that when I go running in my neighborhood at night, every lamp is lit.

Ultimately the disconnect here is understanding the difference between what our government officials do and what government does. Maybe your roads are crumbling, your mayor is a crook, and your governor has been embezzling tax dollars for years — and there’s no excusing any of that. But their failures don’t eliminate the need to have a government of some kind. There are some things we just can’t do on our own: like building a business.

Boy Scouts of (Un-)America

The Boy Scouts of America supposedly spent the past two years reevaluating whether to allow gay Scouts and volunteers to participate in their organization. They decided against it.

“The vast majority of the parents of youth we serve value their right to address issues of same-sex orientation within their family, with spiritual advisers, and at the appropriate time and in the right setting,” said Bob Mazzuca, chief scout executive of Boy Scouts of America.

This logic is baffling mostly because it necessarily implies that gay people cannot be in a room with children without talking about sex. Granting unequivocally that parents want to discuss sex and adult relationships privately with their own children at home, shouldn’t these protesters also be worried about the conversations your straight leaders are having?

Perhaps more importantly, though, this rationale assumes that absent direct contact with an actual, “real life” gay person, children will never hear about homosexuality outside their home. My daughter wasn’t in Kindergarten more than three months before she came home asking if two boys could ever get married. That’s what Kindergartners do!

In Kindergarten Cop, on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first day in a Kindergarten classroom, a boy stands up and proudly proclaims, “Boys have a penis; girls have a vagina,” to giggles from the rest of the class. In my daughter’s actual classroom I heard similar assertions about death, politics, mathematics, religion, spelling, clothing, pets, and family relationships. And apparently, one day, someone took ten seconds at recess to announce that sometimes two boys will marry each other.

Sometimes sheltering children from the complexities of reality is useful and warranted, but attempting to shelter children from the diversity of other people they’ll inevitably encounter in adulthood is both futile and harmful. However much good the Boy Scouts might do (and they do some considerable good), our society cannot tolerate any group that teaches children to discriminate and to exclude.

Not coincidentally, while the Boy Scouts spent the last two years deciding gay people are worthy of their group, I’ve spent the last two years refusing to participate in their organization in any way. Let’s watch the Boy Scouts decline into obsolescence as more tolerant groups rise to take their place. Perhaps the more tolerant Baden-Powell Service Association is our first step?


I recently signed up for the financial website Mint to see how it compared to our existing financial organization (a fancy Google Spreadsheet). Though Mint came highly recommended, it doesn’t compare favorably.

Mint does a good job of aggregating account information in one place, so I can now see on a single screen our credit card charges, banking transactions, investments, mortgage balance, and home equity (using the current estimate for our property’s market value from Zillow). This gives an excellent picture of our net worth at a glance, which is fun to see.

Mint's "Spending Over Time" Graph

Mint's "Spending Over Time" Graph

The site then categorizes expenses and graphs your spending on coffee (for example) over time. This is imperfect but it’s easy enough to correct errors.

But the point of any financial tool isn’t to analyze past spending but to budget future spending. Mint’s offering there is fairly weak. The entire model is built around categories so you can budget your coffee consumption or groceries for the month.

That’s not a bad idea, but it overlooks several major aspects of how people spend money. I’ll outline five of them.

First, our real budget accounts for several fixed once-monthly expenses like Netflix. That’s clearly an “Entertainment” expense, but it’s not really an optional expense from month to month. Unless we cancel the service, Netflix will charge us exactly $7.99 at some point in January, which means we have $7.99 less to spend than our paychecks say. The same is true for phone service, cable television, and other monthly activities. In Mint, though, you can’t track particular bills; you can only track categories. It might report that you’ve got $30 left for entertainment, but does that include Netflix? Or do you really only have $22.01 left?

Second, we account for some variable once-monthly expenses like our electric bill. I don’t know the amount for January’s bill but I know we’ll get one. This means our budget may set aside $200 for electricity but when the bill arrives we pay only $100 then we instantly have an extra $100 to spend on something else. In Mint, if your utilities budget is $200 and you’ve spent only half of it, the other half is still ready to go. There is no concept of being “done” with an expense.

Third, Mint does allow some control for unusual or one-time expenses in that you can set a budget for a certain category in only one month, but the reasoning is opaque. In my spreadsheet I may add a line for “Dentist Appointment” but in Mint I must instead increase the budget in my “Health & Fitness” category by that amount. If the appointment moves I have to decrease this month’s amount and increase next month’s.

Finally, Mint’s budgets are generally confined to a single month; there’s no clear picture of the annual budget. We pay our car insurance premium in full in January and July, which means we overspend dramatically those months. January’s budget alone makes us appear to be living well beyond our means. But a complete annual budget shows that we more than make up the difference in the other ten months and in fact save nearly $200 on our premium in the end.

The area where Mint works well is for ongoing expenses like groceries and entertainment. As long as your spending categories align with your budget categories, the budgeting tool works well. What you can’t do is budget entertainment and clothing as a lump sum while still tracking spending in each category separately.

I update our budget spreadsheet every day with our most recent expenses. The task is the worst part of a spreadsheet budget and it’s what Mint does best. For Mint to be useful as a financial tool, the budgeting needs to improve.

I’d like to see a focus on (and organization around) expenses: the kind you know in advance and the kind you don’t. Categories are great for analysis, but they shouldn’t be so critical in budgeting future spending. And there needs to be a better “big picture” view of an entire year (or more).

Mint is already immensely powerful and it’s completely free. As several people have pointed out to me, for someone who doesn’t already have a household budget, Mint would be an excellent place to start. And maybe after a while you too can setup a Google Spreadsheet!

Job Chart

As Sophie gets older we’re naturally expecting her to do more chores. She already cleans her own room and now also makes her own bed, does homework every night, and helps out around the house with tasks appropriate for her age. We’ve started seeing “Job Chart” or “Chore Chart” systems to help organize and reward these responsibilities, and so far they’re shockingly harmful ideas.

My Job Chart is the ultimate example, using high technology to solve the problem. Parents assign tasks via a website and award points for each task completed successfully. Children can then redeem those points through the website for parent-approved Amazon purchases, in-home treats, or family activities. This is a particularly advanced approach, but is structurally similar to what’s been done on paper for years: list the chores to be completed and list the rewards available for a job well done.

The entire idea (whether on paper or online) is fundamentally flawed.

First, individually rewarding specific behaviors encourages children to seek a reward for every behavior. Why help put away the Christmas decorations if the job doesn’t pay well enough? Plus, if each chore carries a reward, they all seem optional (“I don’t want a new toy this week so I won’t clean my room.”)

Second, much good behavior that deserves a reward doesn’t belong on a checklist. I recently saw a child Sophie’s age throw himself to the sidewalk screaming that he couldn’t get dinner from his favorite restaurant. I’m glad my daughter doesn’t behave that way (and told her so), but I would never have put “don’t throw a tantrum” on a checklist.

Finally, material rewards are… well, materialistic. Many systems encourage using “family rewards” instead — “spend time with Dad” and “read a bedtime story together” are popular suggestions — but that idea should be downright horrifying. We’re suggesting bedtime stories are conditional? If the child doesn’t finish her homework she doesn’t get time with Dad? “Sorry, honey; I can’t love you today. But if you clean your room tomorrow I’ll be able to love you for 30 whole minutes!” Worst of all, if both monetary and non-monetary rewards are available, the child can put a price on priceless activities. When twenty “points” buys either a $5 toy or a fun day with Dad, could she also buy an extra Dad day with $5 of her allowance? Would I have to charge extra for hugs?

These limitations do not translate to adulthood. We get rewards constantly (paychecks not least among them) but never with an itemized receipt for our behaviors. If I fail to vacuum the living room my wife will not automatically refuse to put away the dishes. If I do only the tasks assigned to me at work and never offer my own ideas I will be passed up for promotions and may even lose my job to a more “motivated” employee. Why would we create an artificial environment for our children that teaches them skills they can’t use as they mature?

Adults’ responsibilities are mandatory. We suffer consequences (e.g., unemployment or spousal fights) when we disregard them. Moreover, though, we expect the rewards we get. I did not earn the privilege of my wife cooking dinner yesterday, or any particular dollar of my paycheck last month.

We should offer the same expectations to our children for their own responsibilities. Sophie must clean her room; if she doesn’t, we’ll dispose of the mess. If she doesn’t eat a healthy dinner her supply of treats will run dry in a hurry. But bedtime stories are an every night event, and she gets “time with Dad” whenever either of us asks for it (not to mention “time with Mom” which doesn’t even make the cut for recommended Chore Chart rewards).

Let’s do our kids a favor and eliminate “Chore Charts” from the world.

School Pictures

The economics of school portraits are entirely nonsensical.

When I was a student I’d bring home a sample portrait (stamped “SAMPLE” to ruin its usability) and an order form for procuring prints in various sizes. Now what comes home is a complete portrait package with five sheets of fully finished prints. Parents send back any they don’t want along with payment for the ones they’ve kept and an order form for any more they still need.

So parents already have the product in hand and are just paying to keep it. And since there’s no resale value for a specific child’s prints, parents are really paying to not destroy the prints they already have.

Most of the apparent illogic here is surely the result of phenomenal economies of scale. Once the photographer is on site and has setup all his equipment, taking one more child’s picture adds almost no expense. Once the expensive photo printers are up and running, printing five more sheets is similarly inexpensive. The possibility that having all those pictures of their children in hand will incentivize some parents to pay justifies the small up-front expense.

What’s less easy to explain is this: I own a scanner. So when a beautiful, glossy 8×10 photograph comes home in my daughter’s backpack, I am not motivated to pay for it. I’m motivated to scan it in high resolution, and then return it for free.

That would probably violate either an implicit contract with the photographer or copyright law, but the very nature of the product makes its duplication impossible to police. I’m never going to be caught selling illegal copies of my daughter’s school picture on eBay, for example. Virtually the entire worldwide market for this particular item lives in my house.

Is this business model founded on trust in parents not to just make copies? Or on an assumption nobody’s smart enough to try it? Or are there just so many new parents buying prints now that losing a few to scanning technology is justifiable?

Whatever the reason, I’m not sure I want to discourage the practice. It looks like I may be able to get twelve years of free portraits out of it.

The Myth of Pay as You Go

I’ve found myself with little need for a cell phone now that I’m working from home — I just use it for occasional solo errand runs and as security against freak roadside emergencies. So I’ve switched to Boost Mobile’s “pay as you go” plan.

The plan is designed for this situation. There’s no monthly fee or contract; I just bought the phone outright (paying all of $30 for a basic “makes calls, sends texts” phone) and I pay 10¢ a minute any time I make or take a call.

Here’s what’s not in their marketing: credit on your account expires in just 90 days. The actual policy reads:

Note: You must add money to your account at least once every 90 days.If not, any unused credits in your Boost™ Prepaid Account Balance will expire and your account will go to zero, but don’t worry because your account will be automatically recharged with Auto Re-Boost.

“Don’t worry” — it’s okay that we’ll throw away your money if you haven’t paid us in a while, ’cause then we’ll immediately come take more money automatically! Since the smallest automated payment they’ll take is $15, that’s a guaranteed minimum expense of $5 / month, even if the phone was turned off the entire time.

That’s called a monthly fee. Let’s not kid ourselves.

Yes, I could turn off “Auto Re-Boost” (their automatic payment plan), but that doesn’t stop credit from expiring; it only stops it getting replenished automatically. I’d still have to pay them every three months, but with the added risk that I might forget and render my phone unusable. On the other hand, manual payments can go as low as $10, making the monthly cost a lower $3.33.

I’ve had the phone for three weeks now, and in that time I’ve rung up $1.90 in calls, with 90¢ of that on initial setup (e.g., validating Google Voice and trying to disable voicemail).

(For the record, the “pay as you go” plan does not support conditional call forwarding, but you can disable voicemail entirely. You just have to call Boost until you get someone who knows what you’re talking about.)

It’s a lot better than $50 / month, but we’ve got a long way to go before this is quite the service it’s made out to be.

No Grooms Allowed

Wedding planning involves shopping for a lot of big items — a venue, a caterer, a professional photographer, and myriad other services. All are unique in their offerings, but almost every vendor we’ve encountered has shared a fundamental assumption about weddings: the groom is just dead weight.

One venue toured us through the luxurious bridal suite with four-poster bed and adjoining private bathroom, and then through the groom’s room with some chairs and a poker table. At our actual venue the bride is promised chilled champagne and a plate of fruit, while the groom should expect a twelve-pack of domestic beer. (It’s the “domestic” that really sells it.)

Conclusion: I will be so bored at my own wedding I’ll want to bring a deck of cards and get drunk with my friends while my bride carries out the celebration on her own.

At dress shops (catering legitimately only to women) brides-to-be can bring their friends to solicit advice as they try on sample gowns and evaluate the elegance of various designs. At Men’s Wearhouse, I was handed a book with ten glossy photographs of models in tuxedos and asked to point to one like a kid ordering off a children’s menu. The clerk took measurements and ushered me out the door, without so much as a peek at a physical tuxedo. (We canceled our order there and went to Al’s Formalwear where we were able to see real products and choose the best style shirt, tie, vest, jacket, and pants — and even try on a sample tuxedo. And with the total $70 less, the moral is: never go to Men’s Wearhouse.)

One department store recently invited us to a “Sip & Scan” party in order to create a wedding registry. They’d be serving drinks and hors d’oeuvres, and promised consultants in each department to help us choose the items we’d most like to guilt our friends and family into buying for us. And in each e-mail urging us to come, the bride is reminded to “bring your fiancé (he’ll love the scan gun).” I won’t care what dishes we have or what color our sheets are, as long as I can scan some barcodes!

With the gender stereotypes this overpowering, the wedding industry should be enthusiastically supporting same-sex marriages everywhere. While male couples would unfortunately never set foot in a wedding venue, female couples would be free to spend billions of dollars on their weddings without the restrictive dead weight of a groom.

The Market Rate for Candy

Halloween has always been a great testament to the flexibility of our capitalist economy.

A Halloween Superstore took over a massive (previously abandoned) retail space at our town’s shopping mall this year — an anchor location that might once have been a Sears or a JCPenney. They converted half the space into an enormous stock room and the other half into display areas for packaged costumes, masks, wigs, makeup, accessories (like “Toto in a Basket” to accompany the quintessential Dorothy costume), and elaborate holiday decorations (like bloodied hands you can place strategically under your garage door to frighten unsuspecting children).

Of course, at dawn on November 1st, the entire operation became a liability. The remaining inventory was immediately reduced to 50% its original prices and sold off to people planning for next year. The store closed a couple days later.

The extra candy stockpiled at grocery stores across the country was also reduced to clearance prices on November 1st, kitschy candy buckets in the shapes of pumpkins and severed heads were thrown away to linger forever in landfills, and trick-or-treaters everywhere stuffed this year’s costumes back into dressers and closets to be forgotten until next year.

It’s capitalism at its finest. An industry emerges overnight and disappears by the next morning, all for the sake of profiting from a few hours of children’s entertainment.

But this doesn’t compare in brilliance to the economic transaction a friend of ours offers her children after every Halloween: “I’ll buy as much candy as you’re willing to sell for 5¢ apiece. Then you can use the money to go buy a toy you can keep forever, instead of candy that will be gone after you eat it.”

The kids get toys to play with and eat less sugar, while the parents get to devour Halloween treats without the guilt of taking candy from their babies.

I Pledge Allegiance

Politicians love to defend the Pledge of Allegiance almost as much as they like to oppose burning our nation’s flag. The wholesome, patriotic, downright American tradition of reciting a pledge of loyalty in schools every morning is the sort of thing only an America-hating terrorist would ever oppose.

Unless, of course, you believe that America stands for theological freedom, and find the phrase “under God” at odds with certain religious beliefs. Or you believe that America stands for political freedom, and find the entire notion of mandating allegiance from citizens a bit… Red.

I always got hung up on the “under God” bit. I’m on the record of being in favor of liberty and justice for all. Rainbows and puppy dogs aren’t half bad either. But then some clown crammed an “under God” in the middle of the thing (nearly 60 years after the pledge was first coined, mind you), and didn’t even add meaningful content with it. Instead, the extra appositive phrase just makes the whole sentence almost impossible to parse to a child who’s still trying to get the hang of correctly conjugating the word “is” on a regular basis.

But apart from the atrocious grammatical implications, the phrase implies a certain basic religion: that God presides over our country. Thus anyone who believes in more or fewer Gods than just the one is unable to faithfully pledge their allegiance to the entire country, if following the scripted pledge.

While this makes for an interesting academic argument (and occasionally affords politicians some good sound bites), and while I still believe it wholeheartedly, it may overlook some important details.

My daughter, now in kindergarten, was playing quietly in the living room this morning when she spontaneously launched into this recitation:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the bepuplic for which it stands: one nation, under God, in-invisible, with ligerty and jujace for all.

So she’s not developing a sense of God watching over us, or of mandatory loyalty to an ineffable and eternal nation. She’s trying to figure out what a bepublic is and what made it invisible.