A Second Civil War?

After witnessing this week’s mob takeover of the US capitol building, I’ve been thinking a lot about the fate of our nation. Is a second civil war inevitable? Can our union survive the challenges of the moment? Seeking answers, I went to see President Lincoln. This afternoon I sat on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial reading Jon Meacham’s excellent book The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels.

The Lincoln Memorial is one of my favorite spots in Washington DC. The words from the Gettysburg Address on one side and the speech from his second inauguration on the other speak to a time of national division, and have never failed to move me. President Lincoln’s visage in the middle is strong, but not stern. It’s not an attractive face, but it’s compelling. It manages to convey both an unyielding nature, as well as malice toward none. It’s an exceptionally good piece of art.

Today I gazed at Lincoln’s face and asked him what kind of character it took to hold together a nation so intent on tearing itself apart. It certainly took the last ounce of his devotion and, in the end, his life.

After Lincoln’s death the country had to go on without him. Others rose to take his place. President Johnson, by most accounts, was terrible. The union may have won the war, but Johnson did his best to lose the peace. But our institutions and Lincoln’s legacy were enough to hold the country together until better leadership arrived.

When President Ulysses S. Grant was elected he brought with him not only the fighting spirit of a victorious general, but convictions powerful enough to lead others in knowing what to fight for. President Grant continued to fight for the principles of the Civil War. A Republican president, he created the Department of Justice to prosecute the Ku Klux Klan, pushed for ratification of the 15th Amendment, and enshrined our American values of equality into law.

At the risk of making a bold comparison, we find ourselves today in Lincoln’s shoes. We have the treble task of holding our country together, shoring up her institutions, and making our children ready to assume leadership in the future.

“If you can do those three things,” Mr. Lincoln whispered to me, “the next Grant will be ready to take up your unfinished work.”

From Thomas Paine to Jack Dorsey

Tonight at dinner, our conversation was driven by President Trump’s expulsion from Twitter. I wanted the kids to understand the significance of the Presidential use of digital media in a post-media world, and what it means that he no longer has access to The Bully Pulpit. I thought I’d bring you into our dinner lesson here at Rivendell Academy (our in-house name for the schooling we do at home).

We began by discussing Thomas Paine. His pamphlet, Common Sense, is responsible for galvanizing colonists into what amounted to a civil war; a war against their fellow Englishmen. Common Sense is as important to the existence of the United States as is the Declaration of Independence.

We talked about Benjamin Franklin and his fellow publishers, who wrote newspapers without much regard to objectivity. We talked about Pulitzer and Hearst and the age of Yellow Journalism (or tabloid journalism, or checkbook journalism). Many historians cite this approach to selling papers as the main cause of the Spanish-American War.

We talked about President Teddy Roosevelt and the way he used the media to govern. As he was speechwriting and composed an especially delicious passage, he is reported to have said something like, “My opponents will accuse me of preaching. But haven’t I got a Bully Pulpit!” (Bully, in this case, was used as an adjective and meant something superlative.) President Roosevelt used the media so deftly that he set a precedent for thought leadership and agenda-setting as one of the most important facets of US presidential leadership.

I explained that in the following decades, a golden age of journalism flourished, driven by specific journalistic ethics (like objectivity) and reinforced by specific practices (like quoting and triangulation of sources). This trustworthiness created by these ethics made the media the eyes and ears of the American people, enabling them to hold their government accountable in an entirely new way. Government corruption was significantly diminished as a result.

We talked about the media’s role as The Fourth Estate, an unelected but necessary piece of the relationship between electors and elected in the United States.

Due partly to squeezed media revenues following the internet’s democratization of publishing, newsrooms have fewer editors than ever before. Those all-important keepers of journalistic ethics have been seeking innovative business models, and they haven’t been as free to groom the next generation of Woodwards and Bernsteins.

Though previous US Presidents have used social media, President Trump actualized the potential of direct communication with the people of the United States (and, indeed, the world). For the first time, no one was mediating the president’s messages. He often governed directly in public, even firing cabinet secretaries and announcing major policy initiatives in full public view.

President Trump’s tweeting has been Twitter founder and CEO Jack Dorsey’s biggest blessing and curse. One the one hand, the president’s choice of platform has kept the company at the very center of relevance for public discourse. On the other hand, as far as anyone can see, President Trump didn’t self-censor much. His use of the platform often took him beyond the bounds of the company’s normal terms of service. He gave new color to President Roosevelt’s term ‘Bully Pulpit’. Dorsey, a thoughtful person, came up with a rationale that kept Twitter from having to ban the leader of the free world. He argued (and his company wrote a new policy stating) that there’s a public interest served by having direct access to the thoughts of national leaders, even if those leaders say things that would normally get others banned from the platform.

Among others, there is a major downside to President Trump emphasis on the importance of public communication relative to the other functions of executive authority. Beyond neglecting the more mundane functions of governance (like whipping votes around a given legislative agenda), it also puts the presidency’s most prominent power in the hands of one unelected person: Jack Dorsey. When Dorsey, feeling pressure from employees and shareholders and probably anticipating future congressional testimony, decided to suspend President Trump’s Twitter account, he was able unilaterally take the bully out of the Bully Pulpit.

Future leaders will have to make some hard decisions about how to communicate and exercise thought leadership. They’ll need to use the power of the internet without becoming beholden to its business models.

Tragedy Tolls the Bells of Christmas

Christmas 2020 is one that many of us would like to forget. People are either spending Christmas in COVID lockdown or risking exposure to be with those they love. Either way, the specter of more than 326,000 COVID deaths in America looms large over this happiest time of year. On a personal level, I’m reflecting on the deaths of several friends. There are a lot of empty chairs at a lot of tables this year.

Of course, sadness and tragedy remembered at Christmastime aren’t new. Most people have the experience of living through the first Christmas after the death of a loved one. My wife’s grandma told us that Christmas is always hard, even though her partner has been gone for 20 years.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, writing from the middle of the American Civil War, wrote the poem Christmas Bells. Two years prior, his wife of 18 years was burned to death. His country was falling apart around him. Then, in March, his son left without permission to join the Union Army. This national tragedy had become personal for him, compounding the aching left in his heart from the loss of his wife. In late November, his son was wounded and near death. Two weeks before Christmas, they returned from Washington DC to Cambridge, Mass., where he was tending to the boy’s wounds.

Longfellow sat down to write on Christmas Day. His poem starts with a Christmas Card-perfect rendition of familiar holiday felicitations. Christmas sunrise, in his telling, is especially sweet.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
    And wild and sweet
    The words repeat 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
    Had rolled along
    The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
    A voice, a chime,
    A chant sublime 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

But in the fourth verse tragedy overtakes tradition, and the bells of Christmas are overwhelmed by the peals of cannon-fire. His bitter pain is palpable, jumping from the page and into the hearts of everyone who knows what it’s like to awaken, only to remember the pain that sleep had interrupted.

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
    And with the sound 
    The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
    And made forlorn
    The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

For Longfellow the cannons weren’t an abstraction. His broken son lay in the other room as a testament to their reality. No matter the seeming rightness of the cause, the cost of war was real and threatened to steal Longfellow’s faith in goodness and justice. Surely, all light would soon be swallowed up.

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
    "For hate is strong,
    And mocks the song 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

But somewhere between the 6th and the 7th verse, Longfellow went on a journey toward redemption. I don’t know how long he lay down his pen, nor what passed through his mind while he looked out the window into that wintry New England day. But he found, in his faith, the answer to the pain and injustice that he felt.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
    The Wrong shall fail,
    The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."

Longfellow found hope in God’s existence. He realized that, though the purposes of Divine Providence be obscured, they still exist. His writing echoes the words of Job from the Biblical book that bears his name: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end He will stand on the earth.” (Job 19:25)

There is a redeemer, and the hope you can have this Christmas is the hope that you place in Him. Wherever redemption you’re needing, I pray that this Christmas, you’re able to make part of Longfellow’s journey.

The biggest problem with ‘Foreign Aid’

Note: I’m writing this as an American citizen to my fellow American citizens. I am not speaking in any official capacity or speaking on behalf of the US government.

Foreign aid is not popular in the US. It’s never been popular. Why does the US congress insist on passing budget appropriations to spend American taxpayer dollars in other countries? Don’t we have enough problems at home? Shouldn’t our money be spent in our own country? Those are good questions, and they deserve an answer.

First, let me clear up some misconceptions. The the Coronavirus relief portions of the bill passed by the House and Senate on December 22 don’t include foreign aid. They were passed as part of a Consolidated Appropriations Bill, along with the regular budgeted spending of the US Government for normal business. You can read that here: Consolidated Appropriations Bill, 2021 (.pdf). This consolidated appropriations bill (including most of our regular US annual budget, requested from Congress by the White House) contains other, non-COVID expenditures that count as ‘foreign aid’. The only section that contains COVID relief is Division M and Division N. It’s easy to see why there’s confusion because regular government spending was passed at the same time. This means that Coronavirus relief money isn’t being spent on ‘foreign aid’. You can see how the Coronavirus legislation actually spends money in the graphic below, courtesy of the Tax Foundation.

Takeaway 1: Coronavirus relief money isn’t being spent on foreign aid.

So why is US taxpayer money being spent overseas?

By now we know that Coronavirus relief money isn’t being sent overseas, but the older question remains: Why is US taxpayer money being spent in other countries at all? Why is it written into our annual budget? Don’t we have enough other things to spend money on within our own borders?

This brings us to my biggest problem with foreign aid: the name. When we talk about spending money in other countries, the term ‘foreign aid’ makes it sound like we’re giving money to other countries, charitably, because we have a bunch of extra money to spend. This couldn’t be further from reality.

The US engages in other countries because there are US interests at stake. We spend money in other countries for one of two reasons: to protect US interests, or to promote US values.

Takeaway 2: We spend money in other countries for one of two reasons: to protect US interests or to promote US values.

The definition of US interests and values is a matter of great debate, and I won’t address that here. Instead, I’ll show you where you, the American taxpayer, can see what we’ve defined as current US interests.

Your United States Department of State publishes, for all Americans to see, our strategy for engaging with each country where we have a mission. You can read our mission priorities by country here: Integrated Country Strategies.

Take the country of Malaysia as an example. Here is a direct link to the Integrated Country Strategy for Malaysia (.pdf). The US has three main priorities in Malaysia. The first is peace and mutual security. The second is good governance and the rule of law. The third is expanding and deepening commercial and economic interests. You can read the complete justification for these priorities in the document above. The first priority affects US security and the protection of American citizens. The second priority promotes US values. The third priority protects US jobs and the financial interests of US companies.

The modern city of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, as seen from a Chinese temple.
Photo (c) 2018 by Andrew Shinn

As you can see from the Malaysia example above, the US isn’t just giving away money: everything we spend money on promotes US interests or US values. Politicians are driven by votes. Politicians in the executive and legislative branches don’t spend money in other countries because other countries are voting for them; they spend money because the folks back home depend on connections to other countries for their livelihoods.

California farmers want to be able to export cherries and wine to foreign markets. The money our government spends as (badly-named) foreign aid helps to make this possible. The folks in Columbus, Indiana who manufacture forklifts or the people in Midland, Texas who drill for shale oil depend on being able to export those products to other countries. The US spends money to ensure that they’ll have stable markets and stable societies to keep buying their products.

Are people in other countries helped by US spending? Certainly. Educating women in Pakistan makes for a more stable society; one where terrorism isn’t able to flourish as easily. But the ultimate point of that spending is to protect Americans or promote US values.

Another reason to spend money in other countries is that it’s part of great power competition. China’s One Belt, One Road initiative will spend between $4 and $8 trillion to create a network of trading partners in 65 countries. They’re planning to connect China to Malaysia, Mombasa, and Madrid. International trade isn’t a zero-sum game. But if the US wants to maintain a seat at the trading table, we need to be prepared to spend some amount of money.

Spending money in other countries, so-called ‘foreign aid’, is done to benefit Americans. That’s why, after all these years (and with no natural overseas contituency), our legislators keep doing it.

All Americans should be debating what our interests and value are. I encourage you to talk to your legislators about how they can best promote American interests and values in our spending priorities. But the fact that we have values to promote and interests to pursue in other countries is beyond dispute.

What COVID has taken… and what’s left

It’s Saturday during a COVID holiday season in Arlington, VA, and some things still look normal. As I drive, I’m enjoying Christmas lights diffusing their way through an early-morning fog. There are a few lights and decorations around the shopping areas of Arlington, but I can’t wondering help what a normal Christmas would look like here. COVID has taken away the normalcy of our Christmas traditions this year.

I drive past a church. Since arriving in the Washington DC area this summer, we haven’t been able to darken the door of a church. I grieve when I realize that we’ll probably never get a chance to visit this church and meet its people – and we’ll probably never experience the variety of churches (from Quaker to Orthodox) that are part of the communities around Washington DC. COVID has stolen the opportunity to enjoy the in-person richness and deep ceremony of religious observance.

One of the things I was most anticipating about moving my family to Washington DC was sharing with them all the museums and historical sites I’ve enjoyed in the past. To be fair, we’ve had tremendous experiences as the good people at Mount Vernon, Manassas, and Monticello worked to reopen with safety measures. The day the National Museum of American History re-opened, we were there with timed entry tickets. I thanked an employee for his work, and I flushed with tears when he welcomed me back and told me that all their work was for our benefit. His eyes said what his voice couldn’t: that he wanted the people back as much as they wanted to be there. But those museums are closed again, and the brief taste of re-opening has increased our longing to return to normalcy. COVID has closed our public spaces, making it more difficult to share our heritage.

His eyes said what his voice couldn’t: that he wanted the people back as much as they wanted to be there.

Of course, others have lost far more than me. Millions know someone who has died from COVID. The fact that they were previously sick or healthy doesn’t change the fact that they’re now gone. COVID has robbed us of our loved ones. Many people will live with still-unknown long-term consequences from this disease.

More millions have lost jobs, savings, homes, and businesses during this time. Though the stock market is buoyed along by the expectation that we’ll return to normal some day soon, the savings accounts of many Americans may never recover. Every stadium in America could be filled with those face hunger or eviction, and a good price on the S&P 500 doesn’t calm the rumblings of a child’s empty stomach, or the despair and the shame of a parent who can’t afford to feed her. COVID has taken the food from many bellies, and tossed many out of their homes in the world’s cruelest Christmas gift.

But for as much as COVID has taken, it’s left some things behind. Masks aren’t enough to block a stranger’s smile. Businesses have innovated at near-unbelievable pace. Many (not all) children have gotten more parental attention.

Though there have been deep divisions in America over how to handle a pandemic, we still direct most of our disagreement at governors far away or and abstractions like governance structures. The real flesh-and-blood people who work at our grocery store, deliver our food, staff an emergency room, or drive an ambulance are our new heroes. The term ‘essential worker’ is an overdue recognition of how important many previously unheralded members of our society are.

The irrepressible ingenuity of American business has been on full display this year. Despite the economic devastation, there’s been a raft of new services that will outlast the pandemic. Traditional grocery stores now offer curbside pickup, everything carry-able is now deliverable, online shopping is now the norm, we’ve learned a lot about how to do online learning, and manufacturers have pivoted to make masks and ventilators and any number of new products. There are always people who suffer in the process of creative destruction that Joseph Shumpeter popularized, but the creation part of the equation leaves an overall better world in its wake.

For those who have been able to work from home, there’s another side to the insanity coin that is living (and working) full-time with children constantly at your elbows. The minute I take a break for lunch or stop working for the day, my kids are there wanting to spend time with me. I can sit on the ground and play a simple game of “roly-ball” with my 4-year-old instead of walking with colleagues to a parking lot to commute home or go to an after-work happy hour. I’ve lost the chance to network and make friends with some amazing colleagues. While I grieve that, my children will look back at this pandemic as a time when they had the most precious gift I can give: time and closeness during their formative years. My 4-year-old, Joshua, will know what it’s like to have Daddy fully available. He’ll live the rest of his life with the unshakeable foundation of the knowledge that when it matters, I’m there for him. When I’m on my death bed, that’ll matter more to him than the size of my savings account.

There’s another side to the insanity coin that is living (and working) full-time with children constantly at your elbows.

COVID has stolen a lot. We owe it to ourselves and each other to grieve with those who have lost: opportunities, jobs, and loved ones. But it would a further tragedy if we didn’t acknowledge what COVID has left behind.

So friends, this Christmas season, let’s do what we can: see each other with compassion, tell you loved ones what they mean to you, take measures to protect others, give the gifts that don’t cost money but always outlast our savings accounts. Not all of us will make it out of this. But those who do carry the responsibility to remake the remaining world into a better place.

We’re up to it. I’ll see you on the other side.

What’s the solution to income inequality?

In December, Lisa and I visited the palace of Versailles, the residence of French royalty from Louis XIV to Louis XVI, or 1682 – 1789. It was awesome – and terrifying. The opulence on display was truly breathtaking. Marie Antoinette, it turns out, had an entire village built in the garden out back so she could cosplay as a commoner. (No, I’m not joking.)

But the entire site exists as a monument to hubris.

You see, at the same time we started listening to Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. Written 80 years after the French Revolution, Dickens’s descriptions of the grinding poverty found elsewhere in France while the palace was occupied by Marie Antoinette are striking. They paint a picture of income inequality that should terrify anyone who might be considered an economic elite.

The French Revolution illustrates conditions that can be considered an upward boundary on income inequality. Once inequality hits this boundary, social contracts fail and the laws that govern society unravel (or dissolve entirely).

Effort to reduce income inequality (or at least mask it) aren’t only for the poor – they also serve to protect economic elites from the fate of Louis XVI. The rich kids of Instagram have the opposite effect.

So if income inequality has some sort of practical upper boundary, what about conditions below that threshold? Is there a solution to income inequality?

I think of income inequality as a description or measurement, a bit like temperature. Is it ever the wrong temperature? No, because temperature is descriptive; it doesn’t have a moral dimension. But can it be too hot or cold for survival? Absolutely.

The question in the title comes from a friend, who asked me about it on Facebook. I’m going to reframe it thus: “What sort of economic policies should we pursue?” I have a few reasons for this. First, a measurement or description can’t be ‘solved’, in the same way that you’d never try to solve a temperature reading. Second, the real world needs solutions that are directional instead of idealistic. We should be informed by ideals, but policy should be able to take the real world and move it in the direction of those ideals.

The wisest economic policy prescription I’ve read come from the book Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. This book describes societies from colonial America to the Soviet Union to North and South Korea. It spends a lot of time talking about societal elites who create extractive, oppressive political systems that create the sorts of injustices that led to the French Revolution.

The antidote to this is to focus economic policies on inclusivity. When everyone is able to participate in an economy (start a business, own property, buy things and sell them at a profit), you have the conditions for a more just society. When some are excluded from full economic participation (for example, not being able to own property because of gender or tribal affiliation), injustice follows. Embedded in this is the idea that economic participation requires political participation. People who can’t vote will find themselves excluded from full economic participation pretty quickly.

This is both achievable and realistic. It avoids the pitfalls of forced income redistribution, which leads to a stifling of innovation and an overall lower standard of living. It also avoids the pitfalls of an elite-driven system of monopolistic capitalism, which keeps people trapped and unable to be economically mobile.

This, then, is the basis for any economic policy I consider: does this policy move us toward or away from economic inclusivity?

Help me out, dear readers. Add to this conversation. What books have you read that helped your thinking in this area? What am I missing?

Church in the age of COVID-19

This morning we tuned into online church and it was a fascinating experience. It was different from the way we normally participate and I wonder how many of these differences will persist into a post-COVID world.

Church choice

When we decided to attend online church, we had our choice of different churches. Without the strictures of geography, we could attend any church in the world. We actually attended parts of two church services. I wonder if churches will begin competing for viewers/attenders/congregants? With geography irrelevant, what will be the main attractors? Will churches take some of the money that they’ve spent on buildings over the years and pour it into online delivery innovations? How many church attenders will continue attending online instead of going back into the old offline modality?


The activities within a western church service haven’t changed much in my lifetime. There is a time of singing, some announcements, a greeting time, and a sermon or message. None of this format is prescribed by scripture, though there are loose precedents in the book of Acts for singing, praying together, and preaching. When the delivery is different, how will these elements shift or change? Using Facebook live, we were able to leave comments that everyone can see. In the future, will offline church attenders expect a tech conference-style backchannel discussion? How will pastors change their sermons when everyone else has a real-time feedback channel?


While we participated in church we built Legos, journaled, and ate lunch. Far from distracting from what was happening in the church service, this allowed us to take care of needs (especially for the little ones) that would have otherwise distracted us while we were sitting in the pews of a physical church. I found this to be overall a much more family-friendly experience. I wonder: where and how will we attend church when this COVID-19 pandemic is over?

The Rise of AI: a 3-Way Reaction

We just finished watching the show Hello World on YouTube, hosted by journalist Ashlee Vance. This episode was entitled The Rise of AI, and was about the emergence of the artificial intelligence industry in Canada.

Below I’ll post some of my thoughts, along with written pieces by Liam and Clara, who watched the episode with me.

Clara’s Reaction

I just finished watching “The Rise Of AI” on Youtube. There were a couple of people who talked to the main person (Ashlee Vance, see below) about Artificial Intelligence (AI for short). It was very interesting. If you would like to watch it, click here. Here are the speakers (listed order of appearance).

Ashlee Vance

Ashlee Vance was born in 1977. He is currently 42. We follow him around Canada as he talks to the people listed below.

Jeffrey Hinton

Geoffrey Hinton has held onto the idea of neural networks for 40 years. In other words, making a computer think like a human. People call him the godfather of Artificial Intelligence. Geoffrey Hinton can’t sit down, otherwise, his disk comes out.

Suzanne Gildert

Suzanne Gildert started the company Kindred. At Kindred, they use trial and error to train their robots. She talked about her robots. My favorite was the cat robot. Hers is also the cat robot. In the video, there were robot pilots. You’ll have to watch the video to get the whole story.

Justin Trudeau

Justin Trudeau is the current Prime Minister of Canada. He is mentioned three times in the video. He is married to Sophie Grégoire Trudeau who is currently 44. He was born December 25, 1971. He is currently 47 years old.

Richard Sutton

Richard Sutton was born in the US, but Canadian politics brought him over to Canada. He wanted to get away from difficult times in the US. He says in the video that he didn’t like that the United States was invading other countries and that he didn’t care for all that.
My favorite bot was Blueberry. He’s so cute! Watch the video to find out more. I think that AI could be good and bad. Ashlee Vance records some responses to his mom talking, and then he calls her. He used his responses to talk to her, then picks up the phone and actually talked to his mom. He asked her if that was scary. She said it would have been if it had been an emergency. Click HERE to go to that part in the video. Overall, I think this was a good video.

Liam’s Reaction

I just watched a YouTube video called The Rise of AI. It was an hour long documentary about the history of AI, what people are doing with it now, and where it might go. There are many different ways that AI could evolve. Humans could co-exist with AI, or AI could take over the world.

I had trouble finding evidence for AI co-existing with us, because as they become as smart and then smarter than us, they might start to think of themselves as the dominant sentient beings, with a kind of Divine Right of Kings sort of belief. They might start to think that since they are smarter than us, it is their job to take care of us, or maybe they will see the damage we have done to the environment and decide that the planet as a whole would be better off without humans. There was a company mentioned in said video that is called Lyrebird. Lyrebird creates realistic artificial voices. In other words, they can clone your voice. Imagine if someone cloned the president’s voice and then made him say something that threatened the security of the country. Kindred AI is working on AI that can sort stuff such as clothing. It is a real possibility that robots could take over the world.

I know that I have been very negative about AI so far, but there is really no way that we can know what AI will do. Instead of eradicating us because of the way we treat the environment, they might help us fix it. Instead of affixing their dominance over us, they might decide to live with us. There is really no way to know which path AI will choose. That is why I am hoping for the best.

Andrew’s Reactions

AI is an endlessly fascinating topic. There are so many angles from which to approach it: the ethics of AI, a map of the realities of AI, the probable futures of AI, the people behind AI, the implications for future economies and governmental systems, what it means to be human in the age of AI, and more.

I’ve been reading about AI recently. I read Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Kai-Fu Lee’s AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order, and Max Tegmark’s Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. Of the three, Lee does the best job of explaining how AI actually works. Tegmark lays out the most compelling explanations of possible AI futures.

Ashlee Vance (and the rest of the team behind Hello World) chose to focus on the unique contributions of Canada to artificial intelligence. He interviewed pioneering researchers in AI, did a decent job of explaining how the technology works, talked with a few startups commercializing AI, and talked briefly with AI skeptics about some of the possible future dangers.

The portrayal of Geoffrey Hinton was especially touching. Hinton is a computer science researcher at the University of Toronto who, along with academic collaborators, was the first to use a deep neural network approach to AI. He believed in the concept from the late 1980s until 2006, when data processing and data availability were able to prove his ideas valid. His triumph is a testament to both sheer stubborn will and the willingness of universities to employ academics for long periods of time without any evident fruit. It’s a perfect test case of the need to fund basic research.

Amara’s Law states that we overestimate the short-term impact of technology while underestimating the long-term impact of technology. I know the first part of this ‘law’ is true with AI: while startups like Lyrebird are a bit creepy, they don’t represent a Terminator-esque nightmare scenario. But I’m not sure if we’re underestimating the long-term impact of AI. When you read this in the future, you’ll have to leave a comment to let me know!

Called To Leadership

Note: This is an address I gave at the Master’s Hooding Ceremony at Fresno Pacific University on May 3, 2019.

Masters – congratulations! My name is Andrew Shinn, and I’m a member of the faculty of the School of Business. I’ve had the great privilege of working with the MBA cohort being hooded this evening.

The accomplishment we’re honoring tonight doesn’t belong to you alone. Graduates: your families have been there to support you through all the hard work, the late nights of class, the weekends of homework, the trips away. They’ve watched or helped as you’ve complained about a professor or struggled with a project. Graduate, please stand up, look back at your family or the people who are here supporting you, and give them a hand. Tonight belongs to them, as well.

There’s another sense in which the accomplishment we’re honoring tonight doesn’t belong to you alone. As people who have earned Master’s degrees, you’ve now been called to leadership. In Leonard Sweet’s Book, Summoned to Lead, Sweet writes that leaders aren’t born and they’re not made; they’re called into existence by circumstance. Those who answer that call are leaders. The path that you conclude tonight is part of the circumstance that calls you. The response that you get to choose is to now walk into and embody that role.

In your professional lives, people will increasingly look to you as the master in the room. You’re now the one who will assume responsibility. Some of you have already had professional responsibility for people’s lives, for budgets, and for the future. Your task in assuming these responsibilities is to walk the fine tightrope between confidence and humility. You’ll need to balance careful decision-making without waiting for perfect information. You’ll need to show a bias for action while still listening deeply and fully to the people around you. You’ll need to live with your mistakes without letting them make you gun-shy. You’ll need to act like Nehemiah from the Biblical book of Nehemiah. He was summoned by circumstance and answered. He went from working in food service to construction management and then military leadership. He was able to balance both the spiritual and administrative aspects of leadership at the same time. He was what Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, would call a Level 5 leader: the kind of leader who empowers those around him or her. The kind of leader that Jesus was talking about when he said that those who would lead need to become the servants of all. You haven’t been called as leaders for your own benefit, but for the people around you. For the organizations and lives that you’re called to impact.

As leaders, you also need a deep foundation. You’ll need a well to draw from. The best leaders bring both proactiveness and depth to their work. This is a pointer toward the source of that depth:

Leadership assumes hope; it acts on the assumption that the world can be a better place, and that we have a role to play in making it that way. The ultimate hope for this world is in Jesus Christ. At the end of all things, the ultimate hope is in the redemption that Jesus bought with his death on the cross and showed with his resurrection from the grave. As a leader, this is the highest hope, and the deepest well from which you can draw. There’s a God of the Universe who wants to know and walk with you personally. I know we come from a lot of backgrounds, but if you want to start walking with Jesus in a personal way, please talk with one of your professors or a friend who can guide you. Good leaders also need to carefully choose people who can lead them.

Graduates, this is your call: there’s a world out there waiting for you to engage: ideas to create and act on, people to teach, new structures to make, new paths to find. Bring your education and keep learning, bring your passion and keep renewing it. Draw from deep, still waters and create a vision of the world that abides in hope. And then get to work making that world happen. Thank you!

Some of the graduates I had the privilege of both teaching and addressing

Commentary on Acts 1: Old Characters, New Roles

Note: I wrote this in preparation for teaching about the book of Acts in my Sunday School class. I’m not a Bible scholar, but this is my best take at explaining the text. I’ve written a commentary on Acts 2, and that follows in a later post.

Photo by Luke Palmer on Unsplash

Old characters, new roles

Commentary by Andrew Shinn

1 – 3 In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.

Previously, in Luke

Luke is setting the scene here. He’s very efficiently summing up what has happened before and bringing the reader (the now-familiar Theophilus, or “Lover of God”) up to date. He references the people who will be the main characters of the book (the Apostles Jesus had chosen), and drives home the point that Jesus’ friends believed him to be alive. He also gives a timeline, 40 days. The number 40 is often used in Hebrew culture symbolically to mean A Long Time. As in, “Gary, I haven’t seen you in 40 days!” Luke makes clear that the kingdom of God was their main topic of conversation. Watch for that – the 120 disciples (including the 12 apostles) will be primed to think about this matter of the Kingdom of God.

4 – 8 On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with (or in) water, but in a few days you will be baptized with (or in) the Holy Spirit.” Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Jesus outlines Acts

Luke relates the most important teaching that Jesus gave after his resurrection. He’s beginning the hand-off from the leadership of Jesus to the leadership of the Holy Spirit. In doing so, he references all three members of the Godhead. Note that the doctrine of the Trinity is never explicitly taught in the Bible. We infer it from passages like this, and from the co-appearing of the Triune Three at the baptism of Jesus. (Luke 3:21-22) In this way, the co-appearing kicks off both the earthly ministry of Jesus and the earthly ministry of the Holy Spirit.

The disciples are asking about the restoration of the Kingdom. Remember, this had been the chief topic of conversation, in Luke’s re-telling (though John makes it clear that Jesus did and talked about so many things that any re-telling is a necessary distillation). Jesus steers the conversation to marching orders for the apostles, and Luke puts the outline for the rest of the book in Jesus’s mouth.

9 – 11 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

Jesus Ascends

Again we see Luke’s economy of words. In two sentences, he gives an entire Christ-ian eschatology (from the Greek meaning “last” and “study of”). This scene is almost humorous in its pithiness. These men, presumably angels or other heavenly messengers, break the apostles’ sacred reverie with a kick in the pants toward Jerusalem and a message about the Second Coming of Christ. This is almost the exact same scenario that played out after Jesus’ death in Luke 24:4-7.

12 – 14 Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk (That is, about 5/8 mile or about 1 kilometer from the city.) When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.

Roll call

For now, the apostles are being tracked minute by minute. The church is being born, and Luke passes us all the details. This includes exactly who was in the room. The eleven apostles were explicitly named. Peter and Andrew were brothers, fishermen from Bethsaida. Philip grew up with them, and was probably also a fisherman. James and John were brothers, also fisherman from Bethsaida. The younger James (son of Alphaeus) and Judas were probably Jesus’s biological brothers. Note that there were two Jameses, two Simons (Simon Peter and Simon the Zealot), and two Judases (one who betrayed Jesus and one who was his brother). Luke doesn’t name the women, but he refers to Jesus’s mother and, presumably, an unspecified number of Jesus’s other brothers.

Interestingly, Luke finishes the book of Luke with Jesus referring to this group as disciples, and starts the book of Acts referring to them as apostles. This is just one of the many shifts we’ll see at the beginning of Acts.

15 – 26 In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) and said, “Brothers and sisters (or believers), the Scripture had to be fulfilled in which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus. He was one of our number and shared in our ministry.” (With the payment he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) “For,” said Peter, “it is written in the Book of Psalms (Psalm 69:25): “ ‘May his place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in it,’ and (Psalm 109:8), “ ‘May another take his place of leadership.’ Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.” So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles.

A new apostle

Peter takes on a new role here. He goes from enthusiastic (if bumbling) to being a serious leader and Biblical scholar. Luke records someone, probably Peter, lopping off a guy’s ear when Jesus was arrested, and claiming that he’ll go to prison and die for Jesus (Luke 22). Later in the same chapter, Peter denies Jesus. What explains the change from denier to leader/scholar? In Luke 24:45, we’re told that Jesus opened the minds of his disciples so they could understand the scriptures.

The believers here are numbered at 120 total. This means that there are about 10 times as many in the community as there were in the inner circle of disciples (who became apostles).

There’s a rather gross section wherein Judas (the betrayer) buys a field. Scholars think that this matter of bursting intestines was because Judas hung himself and everyone left the body alone. In this scenario, his body burst open when it fell down after rotting enough to slip out of the rope.

Peter explicitly mentions the Holy Spirit, indicating that he had some understanding of the Holy Spirit’s role in the church and in history. Peter references two scriptures from the Psalms and seems to cherry-pick two phrases out of their original context. This is the same way that Jesus often quoted scripture.

He says that another person is needed to bear witness to Jesus’s resurrection. This makes clear what Peter and friends understand the role of apostles to be: bearing witness to the resurrection. The Greek word for witness here is martyroi, from which we also get the word for martyr. They pick two men who were apparently around for the entirety of Jesus’s ministry, from his baptism until his death. Then they pray about it and draw straws (or roll dice, or the equivalent).

These apostles will be significant. In Revelation 21:14, John writes that the names of the 12 apostles will be written on the very foundations of the new city of Jerusalem. In Ephesians 2:19-22, Paul says that we as Christians are members of the house of God, which is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.

Interestingly, we’ll add a 13th (or, if you count Judas, a 14th) apostle in the figure of Saul/Paul. He calls himself an Apostle in Romans 1, though he’s the only apostle who didn’t know Jesus before his death. But that’s later in the story of Acts.