Friday, May 31, 2013

Elitism of the Biblical literature writers

There is an interesting blog post by James Bradford Pate about there being a possibility of an elitist mentality by the authors of biblical wisdom literature (such as the book of Proverbs and the Book of Wisdom by Ben Sira). In his blog post, James postulates how an elitist milieu behind the authorship of the biblical wisdom literature plays a role in how the biblical wisdom literature addresses evil. Another example given is how the biblical wisdom literature addresses certain social practices, such as Proverbs and Ben Sira saying that people shouldn’t provide surety for someone’s else’s debt. Indeed, one verse that puzzled me when I read the book of proverbs is the repeated advice by the author not to pledge security for the debts of another (see  Proverbs 6:1, Proverbs 17:8, Proverbs 22:26). It is an advice which does not seem to be characterized as an instruction on morality but more of an advice on practical dealings. But does the author intend for his words to be an blanket exhortation against engaging in the practice of suretyship, and is this a view that culminates from elitist mentality? For instance, I do know that the provision of certain scholarship or training bonds requires the signee to obtain the signatures of guarantors who risk having to pay the cost if the signee forfeits in his contract. I suppose this will help ensure that the signee is of reputable character and to further hold him to his obligation to stay in a programme. But according to the proverbial advice, should one stay out of being a guarantor under all circumstances?

Matthew Henry’s commentary on Proverbs 22:26-27 seems to have curtailed the wide-stroke nature of those Proverb Passages. He interprets the passage as conditional on whether the pledger first knows whether he is able to pay for the debts, and that the one who is being pledged for is not trying to take advantage by getting to pledge for his broken fortune. An excerpt of his commentary below.

“We must not associate ourselves, nor contract an intimacy, with men of broken fortunes, and reputations, who need and will urge their friends to be bound for them, that they may cheat their neighbours to feed their lusts, and by keeping up a little longer may do the more damage at last to those that give them credit…For, if a man appeared to be so poor that he had nothing else to give for security, he ought to be relieved, and it was honestly done to own it; but, for the recovery of a debt, it seems it might be taken by the summum jus—the strict operation of law. 3. We must not ruin our own estates and families. Every man ought to be just to himself and to his wife and children; those are not so who live above what they have, who by the mismanagement of their own affairs, or by encumbering themselves with debts of others, waste what they have and bring themselves to poverty. We may take joyfully the spoiling of our goods if it be for the testimony of a good conscience; but, if be for our own rashness and folly, we cannot but take it heavily.

I found the post by James interesting because I don’t usually consider biblical authorship or agendas when I read the bible. My current take on the bible is that it is the inspired word of God, although I have read that this is a matter of dispute amongst the theological circles. And there are probably differing views on how biblical divine authorship works. Do the bible authors write with their own personal style and inclinations featured into the texts? And what about their personal prejudices, such as this allegation of elitism of the biblical authors of the wisdom literature? And does it remain divinely inspired even under such subjective authorship?

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Addressing Singapore’s rising food cost

During a break session at the Meet the People Session, MP Faishal talked about the undergoing efforts by the government to address the rising cost of food. He thought that one of the reasons for the rising food prices is vendors raising their food prices to increase their profits. I pointed out that at NUS, food prices at canteen are regulated to ensure that vendors do not raise the price of the food they sell beyond a certain cost. MP Faishal concurred that that is one of the measure that a committee addressing this issue is considering, and it seemed like a good idea to him. Another resident volunteer at the session on the other hand felt that the price of food ultimately boiled down to rental cost, and that regulation has limited ability to curtail food prices from rising. MP Faishal mentioned though how certain food vendors who owned their outlet had taken advantage of a renovation of the food centre where their stalls are to make an excuse to increase the price of their food, even though the entire renovation had been funded by the town council. I could imagine that a food vendor would readily defend his pricing policy by saying that this is to recoup losses and opportunity costs while their stall was unable to operate during the renovation phase, but it seems that the increase in food prices is more likely going to be permanent than especially if it increases profits for them.

I had learnt while studying theory of firms for economics in my junior college days about how a firm’s ability to set prices depends on the type of market in which the firm is in. The theoretically ideal perfect market conditions where there are so many firms in the market competing selling the same good and barring for market imperfections like transaction costs would give a firm no ability to set its price. I think that a food vendor have market power and some ability to set prices of its food once it becomes an owner of an outlet at a food centre. By contracting for price regulation at the leasing stage, the pricing would be factored in the bidding process where there are more competitors, thus providing a more market competitive environment.

A friend whom I was discussing this issue with pointed out however how it would be difficult to regulate food prices. For one, vendors could start using poorer quality ingredients rather than increase prices in order to cut cost and increase profits. Moreover, regulation probably comes with its own costs as well, especially if regular audits have to be made.

The price of rental for food vendor is also another factor in the food pricing issue. I have heard about how middlemen subleasing the food vendor outlets drive up rental costs. For quite some time now, the Singapore government has adhered to a free market philosophy in addressing food prices. I heard that in the past, there were regulations for owners to tend the outlets that they own, but that this has been done away with by the government. Perhaps the difficulty in regulating middlemen is to distinguish between middlemen owners who add value to the industry by managing the food centre outlets. Moreover, perhaps the government think that free market conditions would be self-regulating if there are enough food centres around as middlemen owners can’t raise the prices of sub-leases without food vendors choosing other areas to operate where the rental is lower. But could it have been a mistake on their part to allow middlemen from coming into the food business in the first place?

What I have written so far pertains to competitive market pricing rather than the cost of food itself. I was wondering whether there are supply issues of food in Singapore that causes cost of food to go up, and whether this is the case worldwide or in surrounding neighbouring countries. My personal observation is that prices of food in Singapore is higher than those in comparatively similar developed country such as Hong Kong or Taiwan.

It’s been a long time since I read up on economics, and I suspect that the issue is much more complex than what I have written in my blog post here and requires extensive economic analysis, and there is unlikely to be an easy solution that will cure the high food price problem.

Hard Drive - Bill Gates and the making of the Microsoft Empire 7

For my reading of Hard Drive – Bill Gates and the Making of the Microsoft Empire by James Wallace and Jim Erickson today, the authors accounted the prelude to the joint venture between IBM and Microsoft; How Microsoft positioned itself to seize the opportunity of being in a joint venture with IBM, and how it came to target the WordProcessing and Spreadsheet Program market.

Microsoft saw the potential of a better processing chip to become the industry standard for the personal computer. At Page 142 – “He[Bill Gates] and Paul Allen had strategically positioned Microsoft so that it was in the right place at the right time when IBM broke with tradition and went looking for a software vendor for its entry into the personal computer market. They made one of these strategic moves early in 1979, soon after Microsoft set up shop on the eight floor of the Old National Bank building in Bellevue. Intel had recently released a new chip called the 8086, and although some in the trade press suggested it would never become an industry standard like the 8080 chip, Gates and Allen believed otherwise. They were certain this new chip would become the engine for the next generation of personal computers. As a result, they asked Bob O’Rear to begin work immediately on a BASIC for the 8086. It had been four years since the Altair appeared on the cover of Popular Electronics. The 8080 chip had indeed become a standard, and the industry had invested heavily in programs that ran only on that chip. But it was never intended to supply the brain power for the advanced needs of microcomputers. Its makers at Intel had envisioned the 8080 chip going into such things as traffic light controllers. With the 8086, however, Intel’s engineers had designed a microprocessor especially for the personal computer. Technically speaking, the 8086 chip represented 16-bit architecture, rather than the 8-bit architecture of the 8080 chip. This meant it could process packages of information of up to a million characters at a time, while the 8080 chip was limited to 64,000 characters. Intel’s new chip could run rings around the old chip. Not only was the new chip many times faster, but it could run much more sophisticated software programs.

While displaying their 8086 chip model at the National Computer Conference and marketing it to business executives there, the Microsoft crew came across products being sold by other tech firms which caught their attention. At page 145 - 146 – “Microsoft’s 8086 BASIC drew a lot of attention at the National Computer Conference in New York City that June of 1979, but not nearly as much as a slick electronic spread sheet program that was unveiled on an Apple II computer….About the same time VisiCalc hit the market in the fall of 1979, a company called MicroPro began selling a word processing program called WordStad. Application products such as VisiCalc and WordStar represented a potentially vast and lucrative new market for software developers.

Steve Smith, Microsoft’s first marketing director and genuine business manager saw the need for Microsoft to move into those software markets. At page 147 - “What we realized at that time was we had a lot of products, we dominated the languages business, but the only product that really made a lot of money for us was BASIC. That’s because you had to have a copy of BASIC on every computer to make the applications run. And then we saw WordStar, and realized that MicroPro was a one product company. And then we saw VisiCalc. Now we had no intention of being a one product company. What we realized was we needed to be in those markets.”

It transforms to what we see today as the Microsoft Words and the Microsoft Excel as the standard software application used in most computers of today. I wonder though how Microsoft developed their own version of these applications without running afoul of intellectual property laws, and would be interested in reading about this aspect further in the book

Monday, May 27, 2013

Hard Drive - Bill Gates and the making of the Microsoft Empire 6

In my reading of the Hard Drive – Bill Gates and the making of the Microsoft Empire by James Wallace and Jim Erickson, the authors accounted the early deals and business practices of the fledging Microsoft company.

Gates spent much of his time farming the OEM market. At page 118 – “, An OEM, or original manufacturer, is the brand name under which a product is sold. When a car buyer purchases a General Motors car with Goodyear tires, General Motors is the OEM because it buys the tires to use on equipment General Motors sells. In the case of the computer industry, an OEM would buy a computer from another manufacturer, build it into their own equipment and then sell the complete package, ready to run. Many OEMs, for example, made high-tech computer equipment for hospitals such as imaging systems. Others specialized in graphics or robotics. But they all needed a high-level language such as BASIC or FORTRAN for their machines. It was a very lucrative market, and Microsoft received a substantial portion of its early revenues from contracts with OEMs.

Gates managed most of the aspects of the company in the early stages, from its technical developments, sales, and even some of its legal matters. At page 119 – “”I always focused on new ideas and creating new technology,” Allen said. “Bill would occasionally jump in and get involved in that, but he was always more focused on the business side, more attracted to the business relationship side of things.” At Harvard, Gates had read business books like other male students read Playboy. He wanted to know everything he could about running a company, from managing people, to marketing products. He even checked out books on corporate law. He put his studies to good use at Microsoft. He not only negotiated the deals, he also wrote the contracts, as Wood found out one day when he met with Gates to discuss a nondisclosure licensing agreement for FORTRAN, for which Wood had written the code. Gates quickly drafted the agreement. According to Wood, Gates seemed to know more than the lawyers did. Not only did Gates understand what needed to be done, but he was able to do a lot of the contract writing himself, saving Microsoft expensive expert legal advice. “Bill did it all,” said one of the programmers. “He was the salesman, the technical leader, the lawyer, the businessman…You could go on and on.” Gates did get legal help on some of the company’s big-money contracts. One such contract was the one Gates closed with Tandy. Around the Fort Worth area in Texas, the Tandy Corporation was known as the “McDonald’s of the Electronic World.”

I was wondering how businessmen draft up the various contracts necessary for the operation of their businesses, especially when contract documents can be complicated with many technical clauses on how the contract should work. I wonder whether business school teaches business students how to draft up contracts, or whether they are told to delegate that aspect of business operation to lawyers. But from what I heard, contract drafting is pretty much a copy and paste procedure based on the available templates already drafted up by other law professionals. There are books with standard clauses that one can use to come up with boilerplate contracts. I have also heard that in Singapore, business owners are supplied with contract templates by some business association organization which they can use for the various business purposes.

I have also heard about how there can be a knowledge divide between the business aspect and legal aspect of a company’s operation. An account I heard from a friend who works in an IT company was how the lawyers at the company reproduce contract templates from other business models which were not suited to the business model of the IT industry, leading to certain inconveniences for the IT professionals when dealing with their customers. Moreover, according to this friend of mine, the IT industry suffers from a lack of local lawyers who are adept at knowledge of how the IT industry works and the legal expertise that should be tailored to it.

Gates’ business philosophy was to capture the market share by introducing his products early, even at the possible expense of defects in the product released. At page 120 – “Not only did Microsoft hook up with Tandy in 1977, but the company also licensed BASIC 6502 to Apple for the Apple II computer. Microsoft had begun to set the industry standard with its software. And that’s exactly what Gates had wanted, what he pushed for in meetings with his programming team. “We Set the Standard” became the company’s motto in Albuqueque. It represented Gates’ basic business philosophy. Of course, trying to be first out the gate with a new software product just to create an industry standard sometimes caused problems. Too often, Gates set unrealistic goals for product development. Deadlines were missed, products weren’t always well-designed, and contracts had to be revised due to unforeseen obstacles or delays.”

I suppose the decision to release a product onto the market is a decision that requires a balancing between the criteria of being early in product release onto the market with the quality of the product released. And sometimes, it is better to release an inferiorly made product ahead of time in order to seize the market share, and then slowly improve on it by releasing updates onto the market.

Gates also decide to jump at the Japanese market, seeing it both as an opportunity for further expansion of the company’s growth, as well as a future potential threat to be dealt with. At page 122 – “”Gates began to go aggressively after the Japanese market in 1977 and got a huge jump on the competition. “I went into Japan only two years after I started Microsoft knowing that in terms of working with hardware companies, that was a great place to be,” he said. “A lot of great research goes on there. And also, it was the most likely source of competition other than the U.S itself. I didn’t want to leave that market so that companies would grow up using the domestic market and then come and be that much stronger to compete with us on a worldwide basis. (Today, Japan is Microsoft’s second largest market, after the U.S.)”

I was wondering whether the Japanese who are known for their innovation of existing products invented by the western countries would have developed their own improved version of the operating system. Indeed, there is a Japanese operating system named Tron. And the interesting point made in the Wikipedia article is how Tron has met with opposition by the United States because of Microsoft’s lobbying against it, which is not really much of a surprise considering what I have read so far about how Gates view Japan as a potential threat.

On health-and-wealth prosperity gospel, and why God does not heal

I woke up late yesterday on a Sunday and was late for the church service at the church that I regularly attend. It was a nice Sunday rainy morning, but anyway, that isn’t really a good excuse to sleep in. As such, I decided to visit the service of another church which holds a service later in the day. I settled on going to the service at Lighthouse Evangelism Woodlands, a church that I visited quite some time ago for the miracle healing service.

During the sermon section of the service, they had a live transmission of the recording of a sermon from the other Lighthouse Evangelism at Tampines beamed onto the screens, which was rather impressive in my opinion, something which I think that the church that I regularly attend can pick up. The congregation at Lighthouse Tampines was viewing a sermon being given by this American guy named Larry Hutton. Larry Hutton started off his sermon by giving a prosperity gospel cum sales pep talk for the items that he was selling at the reception area. His line went, “Don’t you know that you are spirit, and immaterial, like God? Oh yes, I tell ya. You are god-beings. That does not mean that you are God, but you are god-beings. Let’s look at John 10:34, which says “Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are “gods”. Let’s also take a look at the passage in Psalms 82:6 where the psalmist says “You are ‘gods’; you are all sons of the Most High.’ And God is spirit, so that means that we are spirit in being as well. And when God made creation, he gave man dominion over all things on earth, and that includes his body as well. Look at how the apostle Paul describes of his body in 1 Corinthians 9:27. He calls his body ‘It’, and talks about bringing it into subjection. We thus have dominion over our own bodies, and authority to command away all sickness whatsoever from our bodies.” And then he talked about how we as believers need spiritual food for our bodies, and these how his book products and audio products are good spiritual food for the believer, how he was so glad when he last came to the church two years ago and saw that the congregants bought most of the items he was selling because it shows that they are hungry for spiritual food, how some people who bought his product testified that they and their families have not been ill for the past decade after buying his products etc.

I wonder whether people who attend these pentacostal churches and listen to these health-and-wealth prosperity gospelist preach buy into these messages. I would think that most people would have come into encounter with sad or difficult circumstances in their lives such as ill-health or poor finance, and where they have prayed most faithfully and repeatedly about the issue and found their prayers go unanswered. Or they would have seen close and loved ones in such circumstances and were unable to do anything about it. How do these prosperity gospel preachers preach their prosperity gospel with that show of assertiveness when what they say don’t square off with any inkling of observations of reality?

Back home that evening, I was looking up on the internet on the question of whether God still heal people today. I came across a video featuring a woman named Joni Eareckson Tada, an evangelical Christian author, radio host, and founder of Joni and Friends, an organization "accelerating Christian ministry in the disability community. She became a quadriplegic in her teens when she dove into Chesapeake Bay after misjudging the shallowness of the water. She recounted how she prayed to God for healing for her disability, how she went for a miracle healing session by a well-known miracle healer, and went away disappointed when she saw that neither her, nor all those paralyzed people in the wheelchair section at the session were healed on that day. And until today, she remains a quadriplegic. In addition to that, she recently had to undergo breast cancer treatment and surgery. Her perspective to the question as to why God does not heal her is that God is more concerned with inner healing of a person for his or her sins, rather than the outer healing of the person’s physical disabilities, and while God may still heal, he doesn’t always.

I could imagine that a person in her situation would have become an agnostic or atheist instead of choosing to remain in the faith. In my opinion, it is disappointing that God does not heal people, especially those who believe in him, or that even if he does, he does not do it more frequently. In that sense, while I don’t believe that health-and-wealth prosperity gospel is true, I would have wished that it was, and Christians would have easy, comfortable lives while they are living on earth.

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