Enjoy your Starbucks, but don’t think it makes you a better — or worse — person

For those who haunt places like Starbucks, you can sometimes get the impression that you’re doing much more than enjoying a $5 drink. What? Well, according to the Starbucks itself (from the back of a cup): Everything we do, you do. You stop by for a coffee. And just by doing that, you let Starbucks but more coffee from farmers who are good to their workers, community and planet. Starbucks bought 65% of our coffee this way last year–228 million pounds–and we’re working with farmers to make it 100%. It’s using our size for good, and you make it all possible. Way to go, you” (emphasis original).

This kind of ultra-coolness can go to your head. So much so that people say things like: “I think we have managed to, with a simple cup of coffee and a very unique experience, enhance the lives of millions of people by re-creating a sense of community, by bringing people together and recognizing the importance of place in people’s lives.” That’s actually a statement from Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, as quoted in Bryant Simon’s new book “Learning About America from Starbucks,” which tells us in bits and snippets how Starbucks shapes our lives.

Kevin DeYoung, in a great post at his Gospel Coalition blog, cuts through a lot of the baloney with some great insights. For one, he says churches have almost nothing to learn from how to be a “community” from Starbucks. Rather, DeYoung says, you would do better reading Ephesians. As far as coffee culture, don’t get too wrapped up in being cool or uncool, hip or unhip. You’re not saving the world with you five-cent donation, but enjoying coffee and coffee house trappings is not the worst thing in the world either. Enjoy your coffee, by all means, but love your neighbor as yourself. That’s good advice from the Bible, not a coffee cup.

The condescendence of Scrabble players

OK. Maybe not all of us are this way. But we’ve all seen it. You know what I mean. The person who just can’t allow you to somehow stumble to a big play or win against them. “I had a really good word for that spot but you messed it up.”

I am not a high-level player, not even close. I do enjoy playing the game, though, and that’s why this amused me. It’s an account in Slate about how one person scored a record 830 (!) points in a Scrabble game, including a record 365 points on one turn when he played QUIXOTRY between two triple-word spots. Here is how author (and self-proclaimed competitive Scrabble player) Stefan Fatsis described what Michael Cresta, along with his oppponent Wayne Yorra (who scored “only” 490 points) accomplished.:

I asked Jason Katz-Brown, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology junior ranked 10th in North America, to analyze the game. Unlike most players mid-level and higher, Cresta and Yorra didn’t keep track of the letters they drew on each turn, so it’s impossible to fully examine their possible moves. But we do know what letters they played on each turn. When Katz-Brown input those into a Scrabble-playing computer program he co-wrote called Quackle, he found that Cresta and Yorra had better moves on 14 of their 22 nonbingo turns. One example: Cresta scored just 30 points using the second blank when he could have held it and tried for another bingo.

Technically, Cresta’s strategy was unsound. Fishing for a once-in-a-lifetime play might be understandable in a casual game, where winning is less urgent. But in competitive play—even in a club setting, where there’s less on the line than in a rated tournament—exchanging letters three times, as Cresta did, to enhance some combination of Q, U, I, and X is unorthodox at best, suicidal at worst. (The strategically correct move was to dump the cumbersome Q and move on.) In Scrabble, the player who waits for the miracle word usually loses. The implication: Cresta wasn’t terribly worried about whether he won or lost.

(By the way, for those like me who don’t know, to “bingo” means to use all seven tiles in one turn)

So Cresta didn’t play the “sound” way and he was rewarded with an incredibly high score and a catty article by Mr. Fatsis. In the end, Fatsis proposes that Cresta’s score stand as the mark for club  play while the previous record (held by “Mr. 770” Mark Landsberg in a 1993 California tournament) stand as the mark for competitive play. Somebody call the waambulance!

Getting away from it all: The McFarthest place in the U.S.

mcdonaldsMy best friend lives out on the rolling plains of South Dakota in a place that seems far from everywhere. I have visited him there once and long to go back there again. I tell people he’s a real-life cowboy because he ranches with his brother-in-law and often the mode of transportation is a horse. I like that one of the nearest towns is called Faith, because you have to have a lot of it to live so far away from the “modern” conveniences.

That’s why I had a smile when I came across this post by Stephen Von Worley where, while lamenting the spread of the strip mall to the country, he plots the point in the United States that is the most-distant from a McDonald’s. Why McDonald’s? Well, Worley puts it well when he says: “To gauge the creep of cookie-cutter commercialism, there’s no better barometer than McDonald’s – ubiquitous fast food chain and inaugural megacorporate colonizer of small towns nationwide.”

Using data from AggData, which is cool site in itself, he came up with the answer: the rolling plains of Northwest South Dakota.

When I saw this, I was amused because it is the neighborhood of my cowboy friend. If there was ever a place (in the U.S., that is) you could say you were getting away from it all, it would be where he lives. This is where he calls home:

I can testify that you can survive without a McDonald’s down the street. I know, I’ve talked to him from time to time and he’s quite normal. I’ve never heard anyone say they can’t live without McDonald’s, but the point is that there is more to life then what we consider “modern conveniences.”

Dangerous living: The danger of unprotected text while driving

Because we have built our automobiles to resemble living rooms (comfy seats, radios, AC, cupholders, etc.) rather than vehicles, it is not surprising that people want to bring their phones and TVs along for the ride as well. The idea that we could make a trip of any length without being pacified by songs, movies or texting seems unthinkable to most children, as well as many adults.

But think it over: How in the world do people expect to drive competently when they are trying to send the latest text message about what they’re going to be doing in the next five minutes? Yes, cars are easier to manipulate these days then in the past, but traffic is still traffic and goodness knows it would be nice to give some attention for the sake of those around you.

With that in mind, Car and Driver has done a study as to just how texting affects a driver’s ability to react. The test was pretty straightforward: Two subjects were tested in their response to a mounted red light (meant to simulate a brake light in a lead car). They were tested driving on a straight route with no other traffic. Their results were tested based on no impairments, when legally intoxicated, while reading texts and while sending texts. The results were clear:

The results, though not surprising, were eye-opening. Intern Brown’s baseline reaction time at 35 mph of 0.45 second worsened to 0.57 while reading a text, improved to 0.52 while writing a text, and returned almost to the baseline while impaired by alcohol, at 0.46. At 70 mph, his baseline reaction was 0.39 second, while the reading (0.50), texting (0.48), and drinking (0.50) numbers were similar. But the averages don’t tell the whole story. Looking at Jordan’s slowest reaction time at 35 mph, he traveled an extra 21 feet (more than a car length) before hitting the brakes while reading and went 16 feet longer while texting. At 70 mph, a vehicle travels 103 feet every second, and Brown’s worst reaction time while reading at that speed put him about 30 feet (31 while typing) farther down the road versus 15 feet while drunk.

Alterman fared much, much worse. While reading a text and driving at 35 mph, his average baseline reaction time of 0.57 second nearly tripled, to 1.44 seconds. While texting, his response time was 1.36 seconds. These figures correspond to an extra 45 and 41 feet, respectively, before hitting the brakes. His reaction time after drinking averaged 0.64 second and, by comparison, added only seven feet. The results at 70 mph were similar: Alterman’s response time while reading a text was 0.35 second longer than his base performance of 0.56 second, and writing a text added 0.68 second to his reaction time. But his intoxicated number increased only 0.04 second over the base score, to a total of 0.60 second.

The upshot? We all know that driving while drunk is terrible. But driving while texting is way worse. How much? Consider the time it takes to break at 70 mph:

  • Unimpaired: .54 seconds to brake
  • Legally drunk: add 4 feet
  • Reading e-mail: add 36 feet
  • Sending a text: add 70 feet

I haven’t heard about any group called Mothers Against Texting Drivers yet, but the more we hear about accidents and deaths caused by texting, inattentive drivers, the likelier it may be.

American Idolatry: When your pleasure becomes your god

There is a danger every day to make an idol out of something or someone in our lives. Because I live in a country and in a time when there is such a great deal of luxury and leisure time, it is a great danger. With that in mind, John Piper has written about 12 ways we can recognize the rise of covetousness in our lives:

Most of us realize that enjoying anything other than God, from the best gift to the basest pleasure, can become idolatry. Paul says in Colossians 3:5, “Covetousness is idolatry.”

“Covetousness” means desiring something other than God in the wrong way. But what does that mean—“in the wrong way”?

The reason this matters is both vertical and horizontal. Idolatry will destroy our relationship with God. And it will destroy our relationships with people.

All human relational problems—from marriage and family to friendship to neighbors to classmates to colleagues—all of them are rooted in various forms of idolatry, that is, wanting things other than God in wrong ways.

Piper goes on to identify 12 ways we can do this when it comes to enjoyment. He says enjoyment is becoming idolatrous when:

  1. It is forbidden by God.
  2. It is disproportionate to the worth of what is desired.
  3. It is not permeated with gratitude
  4. It does not see in God’s gift that God himself is more to be desired than the gift.
  5. It is starting to feel like a right, and our delight is becoming a demand.
  6. It draws us away from our duties.
  7. It starts to awaken a sense of pride that we can experience this delight while others can’t.
  8. It is oblivious or callous to the needs and desires of others.
  9. It does not desire that God be magnified as supremely desired through the enjoyment.
  10. It is not working a deeper capacity for holy delight.
  11. Its loss ruins our trust in the goodness of God.
  12. Its loss paralyzes us emotionally so that we can’t relate lovingly to other people.

This is just the list, read the article to get the full explanation. Be happy in God.

Great technology at your fingertips

ESV Study BibleIn these heady days of new technology, it is easy to get caught up in the latest great must-have new gadget. As Exhibit A I would present myself. Ignoring the gentle jabs lobbed my way, I tote my MacBook to men’s Bible study on Friday mornings so I can view the ESV Study Bible online and quickly jump to passages. I love it.

That said, I can appreciate this post by Tim Challies talking about how he fell out of love with his Kindle. It did it’s job, but couldn’t quite match the technology it was trying to replace:

Something changed between then and now—I came to see that all of the things that frustrated me about the Kindle were things that made it not like a book. It’s book-like qualities were it’s best qualities; it’s non-book-like qualities were the ones that got to me. All of the things that annoyed me were the things that made the experience more like operating a computer and less like reading a book. Pages took too long to turn; I could not splash yellow highlighter on the pages; I could not skim through the book looking quickly for a word or phrase or note; I could not scrawl notes in the margins. Sure, there were a few advantages—the notes I did take (saved in a text file on the Kindle) could be exported to my computer simply by plugging in a USB cable; books were less expensive and instantly added to my collection; hundreds of classics were available for free. But overall, the Kindle experience paled in comparison to the happy, familiar, comforting experience of sitting down with a book. Everything I wanted the Kindle to do, a book could do better.

He goes on to list more reasons why the book is the perfect technology. Perhaps this will change one day, but for now I can see his point. I work at a newspaper, which I hear every day is a dying industry. Yet, there is a feeling of holding a newspaper in your hand or the anticipation of picking up the day’s news off your front porch (or wherever it lands!) or handing a section to your wife so you can have the sports pages that so far has not been replaced. A common joke in our family is that an e-mail doesn’t exist for my in-laws until it is printed out and held in their hands. Some things are hard to replace.

So, we can appreciate new technology, but don’t be so quick to trash the old technology (or the people who are devoted to it). God works in mysterious way.

New iPhones: Apple wants you to stimulate the economy

A little silver lining on the dark economy cloud as reported by the Associated Press:

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Apple Inc. slashed the entry price for an iPhone in half and rolled out new laptops for $300 less than previous models Monday, the company’s first dramatic price cuts since the recession began a year and a half ago.

Apple unveiled two new models of the iPhone – the 3G S – that will sport a faster processor and sought-after features like an internal compass, a video camera and an improved photo camera. A 16-gigabyte version of the 3G S will cost $199 and a 32-gigabyte model will be $299. The 8-gigabyte iPhone 3G, which came out last year, will be cut to $99 from $199.

All those people who dished out $599 two years ago for lesser phones will be really glad to hear this news. Or not.