Russian Orthodox Fragility

An article by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev of the Russian Orthodox Church [link] points out that the Revolution of 1917 did not spring out of thin air and impose atheism on Russia, rather, the society and even the Church itself was becoming atheist and hollow already:

It has been said that Russia was baptised but not enlightened. Indeed, as far as the 19th century is concerned, it is clear that enlightenment was very often in conflict with religion: the masses of illiterate peasants kept their traditional beliefs, but more and more educated people, even from a purely religious background, rejected faith and became atheists. Chernyshevsky and Dobroliubov are classic examples: both came from clerical families, both became atheists after studying in theological seminaries. For people like Dostoyevsky religion was something that had to be rediscovered, after having been lost as a result of his education. Tolstoy, on the other hand, came to a certain type of faith in God but remained alien to the Orthodox Church. It is clear, when one looks at the pre-revolutionary period, that there was a huge gap between the Church and the world of educated people, the so-called intelligentsia, and this gap was constantly growing.

The Archbishop goes on to cite some specific examples from that time of creeping atheism:

I remember reading a book by Father Georgy Shavelsky, the Protopresbyter of the Russian Army and Navy under Nicholas II. Himself one of the senior members of the Holy Synod, he testified that the Synod was in fact very far from the life of people, that it did very little (if anything) to prevent atheist propaganda from spreading among ordinary people. To show how little remained of the people’s traditional devotion to God, Shavelsky cites the following example: when attendance at the Liturgy became, by a special imperial decree, no longer obligatory for Russian soldiers, only ten per cent of them continued to go to church.

Another testimony of the same kind is that of Metropolitan Veniamin (Fedchenkov), who became the Bishop of the White Army after the revolution. He writes that none of the students of the St. Petersburg Theological Academy, where he had studied, ever went to see Father John of Kronstadt, and that some of the students were atheists. He describes the atmosphere of spiritual coolness inside the Orthodox Church, the lack of prophetic spirit. He claims that it was not by mere chance that there arose people like Rasputin:
against the common background of indifference towards religion he appeared as a charismatic figure and was at first accepted as such by the ecclesiastical authorities, who then directed his steps to the imperial palace.

The third testimony which I would like to draw on here is of a more personal kind: it is that of Father Sergei Bulgakov. Himself the son of an Orthodox priest, after studying at a theological seminary, he became an atheist, following the steps of Chernyshevsky and Dobroliubov. In his autobiographical notes he asks himself how this happened, and answers: “It happened, somehow, almost at once and in an imperceptible manner, as something taken for granted, when the poetry of my childhood was replaced by the prose of the theological seminary… When I began to doubt, my critical thoughts were not satisfied with traditional apologetics, but rather found them scandalous… My revolt was strengthened by the compulsory devotion: these long services with akathists (and ritual devotion in general) did not give me satisfaction.” Fr Bulgakov gave up his religion easily, without a fight, and neither his clerical origins nor his theological education helped him to resist the temptation, of atheism and nihilism.

He then points out that many people joining the Church today in Russia still don’t believe in God, but are following a fad:

It seems to me that, though the numbers of believers has immensely increased during the last years, Russia is still far from being a Christian country. To be baptised, to be Orthodox has become a fashion. I would not be surprised if the majority of people, when asked whether they are Orthodox, would now give a positive answer. This does not mean, though, that they all go to church. It only means that most of them have assumed a new outward identity to keep up with the ongoing ‘religious revival’. I remember asking one teenager who came, together with her mother, to be baptised: ‘Do you believe in God?’ ‘No,’ was her answer. ‘Why then do you want to be baptised?’ I asked. ‘Well, everybody gets baptised nowadays,’ she said. This case, one of many, illustrates that many people take religion in a very superficial manner, sometimes without even believing in God. Remaining inwardly atheists, they become outwardly Orthodox.

He warns against a type of reactionary Orthodoxy that I see all too much of in the news:

The second danger is that. of militant Orthodoxy, which would be a post-atheist counterpart of militant atheism. I mean an Orthodoxy that fights against Jews, against masons, against democracy, against Western culture, against enlightenment. This type of Orthodoxy is being preached even by some key members of the hierarchy, and it has many supporters within the Church.

This leads me to think that Russia suffered greatly in missing out on the Reformation. The Bible was never put squarely into the life of the people and the Church missed out on a great opportunity to be soaked in the Scripture. In the same way I believe that the modern Russian Orthodox Church misses exposition of the Scripture and reevaluation in the light of the Word. Of course I could be wrong. Perhaps there are movements within Russia that are moving ad fontes back to the Scriptures, but what I see is a reactionary movement that glories in the past and believe in a crystalized version of unchanging doctrine. I believe all this is greatly to the disadvantage of the Russian Church and nation. May God grant them more light and the ability to change where they need to.

Our Future

It is hard to imagine what the future of the USA will look like, and forecasts are useless anyway, because none of us actually KNOWS the future. That said, we face such tidal waves of debt in this nation and globally that a reckoning day will come. [I will make my own useless forecast] Since we are unlikely to cut spending much or raise taxes much, my guess is that the reckoning will be in the form of hyperinflation. Inflation makes debts small at the cost of destroying the currency and punishing savers. What all this means for me and my children is worrisome.

I am post-millennial, which means that I think the future is ultimately bright for Christ and His Church. I think things have gotten better since the Resurrection. You only think things are the worst now if you don’t know history very well. While I expect a form of “collapse” for the USA I don’t think it will be “end of the world” collapse, just something like the collapse of the British Empire. We won’t be able to police the world, tell everyone what to do, and so on. Rod Dreher talks about where to live and whether or not to move on his blog. Will there be social unrest? I would think so. I don’t think living in cities will be pleasant at times. On the other hand, living in extremely rural areas doesn’t seem great either due to driving distances, lack of supplies, and so on. If oil prices go up, driving distances may become untenable and low income / fixed income folk aren’t going to be able to commute. All of this seems to point to suburbs and smaller cities becoming more livable, walkable and pleasant, so that is an upside.

I would imagine that our standard of living will stagnate, but on the other hand it seems possible that there will continue to be an uber-class of vastly wealthy elites and an underclass of the proletariat who cannot protect their savings with gold, overseas banks and the like. Stress will come on the institutions of governance and perhaps they will fall apart. And yet technology affords the government with unprecedented means of spying, control and punishment.

Perhaps a public burned by experiences with debt and disabused of the notion that the Messianic State can take care of everything will mature in wisdom. Perhaps fragments of our society can begin to return to taking care of local things instead of always worrying about national issues that we can do nothing about. Or perhaps we are in for several centuries of darkness, where fragility and uncertainty reign and the political landscape shifts all the time. Either way, there are great opportunities for the Church in the coming century, due to technology, upheaval and the failure of institutions that are given over to evil.

My iPad Review

Yes, I am one of the fanatics that stood in line on day one of the iPad release to get one. The line was short and it only took about thirty minutes. Here are my disjointed thoughts on ten days with the iPad:
* Heat dissipation. I don’t know where heat from the iPad goes, but there is none to the touch on the unit. You know how when you use a laptop on your lap for any length of time, how the heat is billowing out and you start sweating? The iPad seems to emit no heat and is much easier to cradle when you are reading, surfing, etc.
* The keyboard. It’s still not ideal. Obviously it is far superior to the iPhone, and when you just want to fire off a quick email or something, it works fine. But when it comes to writing stuff like this, or working on documents, it is less than ideal. I bought the keyboard docking station [which I’m typing on right now] and it make life much easier. Personally, I’d be happy with a tablet that assumes the size of a small keyboard [such as this] as a starting point and built the form-factor of the tablet based on that size, but maybe that’s just me.
* Apps. There are some great apps already, and I can only imagine what is to come. I have been drawn into the ABC app in particular, watching Flash Forward and Lost episodes in really nice resolution. I’m a little baffled as to why Safari still doesn’t tab browse on iPad, but I bet that will change. The main thing I want to see is a better reading experience for Google Books. I have lots of old books on Google Books that I plan on reading, and I don’t want to have to reload them every time I come back to the Safari session. Come on Google, [or someone]. The ESV Bible App is slick and it is the first electronic Bible that I can actually enjoy reading due to the portability of the device.
* iBooks. Yes, it is a great reader. Reading anything on the iPad is nice. Web pages are easy to read, zoom in on, and read like a book. They scroll very fast. Mail is clean and nice to read. Books on iBooks are nice as we’ve all seen. The downside for me to date is that the books *I* want are all somewhat esoteric and are not available on iBooks, or Kindle for that matter. The religious section of the bookstore isn’t too impressive right now, but I expect that to get way better too. I like reading plain old PDFs on the iPad, and that may be the primary route I go as time goes on.
The reading experience is better than any other computer platform. You can carry it anywhere and read in any position. On the floor, upside down, in a chair, the usual convoluted ways that I sit when reading a book I can duplicate whilst reading on the iPad. Not being captive to a monitor, not having to worry about heat, and having an immense battery life all make this possible. The battery goes on and on compared to a laptop – it is as good as advertised.

That’s the brief rundown. I look forward to future versions of the device, and for Google to enter the market in the future. I think we’ll see all kinds of innovation in this market, and the need for laptops and even desktops may fade away for many home users. The world is shifting around us again.

Subsidies for the World’s Most Expensive Healthcare

Writing a market analysis for Citigroup’s weekly Portfolio Strategist newsletter, Steven Wieting outlines a dire future for America’s government debt. Note that this is far from a partisan magazine, it is a real-world analysis of possible scenarios for investors. An extensive excerpt follows:

§ Markets may still be overestimating the short-term vulnerability of the U.S. economy amid a strengthening and self-sustaining cyclical recovery. At the same time, the risks to U.S. economic performance in the long term have actually never seemed more dire.

§ Far from hoarding labor (unlike others), the U.S. has just endured the deepest two year decline in employment of the post war period. Signs abound that production, employment and investment declines have been unnecessarily severe, an overshoot. Friday’s data surprised with three consecutive months of private employment gains, with some confirmation in the separate survey of households.

§ But few had ever contemplated entering a well-advertised period of demographic weakening and higher dependency levels with a U.S. budget deficit so large as a starting condition.

§ The structural budget deficit looks potentially unmanageable even five years from now, when employment is assumed to be “full” and the financial supports of the recent crisis are paid back as fully as they ever will be.

§ Higher taxes have always seemed necessary to cover elder-care entitlements in the period ahead. But as a start, taxes are being raised instead to cover expanding entitlements further and can’t be used again for initial deficit reduction or offsets to future large increases in spending programs in place.

§ With the presumed passage of expanded subsidized healthcare coverage for nearly all in need, U.S. consumers, taxpayers and employers will have to buy more of the same healthcare goods and services sourced at the highest observable cost per unit in the world.

Unusual Digression in Short and Long View

On visits to clients across different parts of the world in recent weeks, we have continued to sense at least a worrying complacency with the long-term outlook for the U.S., against residual fears that the economy is incapable of cyclical recovery. In essence, many investors seem to overestimate cyclical vulnerability, while underestimating structural economic risks for the U.S. over the long run, in our view.

Far from hoarding labor (unlike others), the U.S. has just endured the deepest two year decline in employment of the post war period. Signs abound that production, employment and investment declines have been unnecessarily severe, an overshoot.

[…]

At the same time, the risks to U.S. economic performance in the long-term have actually never seemed more dire.

A demographic bulge in the dependency ratio has always loomed beginning in the early- to mid 2010s. That “bulge” worsens gradually for the following 25 years.

Few had ever contemplated entering this period with a U.S. budget deficit so large as a starting condition. This structural budget deficit looks potentially unmanageable even five years from now, when employment is assumed to be “full” and the financial supports of the recent crisis are paid back as fully as they ever will be.

Higher taxes have always seemed necessary to cover elder-care entitlements in the period ahead. But as a start, taxes are now being raised instead to cover expanding entitlements further and can’t be used again for initial deficit reduction or offsets to future large increases in spending programs already in place.

Following the recent political debate, many Americans might have come away with the notion that health insurance companies “charge too much” for healthcare. Perhaps the insurers need to hire their own cheaper doctors and build their own cheaper hospitals to compete with the existing supply of them. Assuming otherwise, they will still need to pay the same amounts for hospital stays, procedures and medicines as before, at the highest observable cost per unit in the world. But now, with the presumed passage of expanded subsidized coverage for nearly all in need, U.S. consumers, taxpayers and employers will have to buy more of those same goods and services, sourced from the same supply base.

Aside from small experimental steps to develop competitive exchanges for individual insurance coverage, never before have we seen a U.S. policy solution seem so detached from the underlying problem it purports to address. Americans want more healthcare, and will need more as the population ages. But the existing system fails in almost every way to match economic benefits with costs, obscuring them instead.

And while the latest reform effort purports deficit reduction over ten years, it does so on roughly six years of expenditures and 10 years of tax increases. More importantly, medical entitlements have never been “overpriced” into budget outlooks allowing for positive cost surprises (see Figure 11). The healthcare overhaul achieves the bulk of its purported spending cuts through limiting Medicare payments to doctors, hospitals and nursing homes, cuts that Congress has failed to pass through repeatedly since 2003, instead opting for more spending. Private insurers, meanwhile, would see some ostensible limits to their pricing, but generally would need to expand coverage, and purchases of healthcare services and goods.

In two places in the developing and developed world, laypeople mentioned to us that healthcare in the U.S. would now properly come for “free” for those unable to pay for it. If only that was true. Instead, future tax payers will have to come to grips with the costs of a system that for now is neither disciplined by competitive market forces nor rationed like other public welfare programs.

But if not in healthcare, rationing will take place in other places. Public education outlays for the future taxpayers have reportedly been a target of near-term budget constraints. While never free from waste, these are human resource investments that contribute to the future economic output. There are investments in the individuals who will carry the larger future tax burdens of the dependency bulge of coming decades.

We have been concerned for some time that a greater, unsustainable share of future entitlement outlays will end up deficit financed, with costs simply put off further into the future. At least that may be attempted. But among other concerns, lenders to the U.S. may feel less than certain about that stream of future income and output if incentives are so skewed against those who will need to provide it.

Bing Maps is better than Google Maps

At least for the moment. I watched this video which led me over to Bing Maps which I have been using with more frequency over the past six months. You may have to click “Try it now” for the new Bing Maps once you get there. There are several icons on there that let you zoom to city, region, state etc.

The really cool thing is the 3D view from above and the WAY cool thing is the street-side view for areas with it enabled. I used the location of our old church in D.C. to look around and it was fun to use. Add to this the nearby Photosynths and I think Microsoft is on to something. It almost makes me wish I had a Windows machine for some things! In our day, innovation is rapid but catch up is also rapid; I expect Google to have something similar in the near future, that’s just how it works. But it is good to see some life out of M-soft, and overall I think that by 2020 we are going to have roll out, thin, scroll-like computers that provide imagery, text and video on an almost mind-boggling scale of beauty and ease of use. Of course, it will be so ubiquitous that we won’t even think about it anymore.

What’s Wrong with SkyDrive?

So here we are in 2010 and Microsoft SkyDrive is still sitting around not doing much. Yes, you can now edit Excel and PowerPoint files online, but Word, the tool that most of the world still has to use, is still unavailable for editing. Also, when you view your Documents folder, you have no option to select multiple files at the same time and perform an action to all of the files at once….in 2010…from the biggest software company ever.

They must be devoting a paltry amount of money and time to this service. Then, there is Office Live Workspace, which offers a better view of files, albeit one that looks like SharePoint in the cloud. Still, there is no ability to edit the document outside of Word on your local PC. What is the deal? Google Docs, which does not have as good an interface as Word, is still able to do all these things and has been for some time.

The issue can’t be ability, because Microsoft has to have the capabilities to do these seemingly simple tasks. Is Microsoft undergoing internal debates about how user-friendly to make these services and thereby taking forever to improve them? After all, who would really want to pay for Office anymore if we have the ability to do everything on SkyDrive, Office Live or some future combination of all these weird services in combination with free stuff like OpenOffice, Adobe Acrobat.com and Google Apps? But that is the future, whether Microsoft fights it or plays along. If they don’t want to make it available, Google will just keep cleaning their clock, even though Google’s interface and icons are corny and cartoonish at this point.

Either way, looking at SkyDrive and all of Windows Live you get the feel of 2004 or so. It looks like no one has thought about it much, it doesn’t work well, it seems poorly designed and it is ugly. Maybe this will all change. I hope so because I’d like to use it more.

Going Paperless

I bought a new scanner – I really haven’t had a workable one for years and years – so I am now setting out to scan every bit of paper in the house that I can and upload it to the cloud. I want to throw away as many papers, documents and magazines as I can and keep it all electronically. This is a laborious process but I expect it to pay dividends in the end. I hope to eliminate a lot of clutter and searching for things this way.

Future Digital Conundrums

Watching the unveiling of the iPad today spurred me to reflect on some possible problems that may occur in future years of our digital age. For example, movies, books and software that I have purchased do not reside with me physically, but are located in the cloud (on a server somewhere in the ether). Assuming that Apple still exists when I die, can my descendants continue to use my Apple ID and password to access all of the accumulated music, books and software I have purchased? Will the government charge an inheritance tax on all the music I pass down via my Apple account? Can someone keep my Gmail account active so that my lifetime of correspondence can be accessed by a future family historian?

And think of the intense amounts of work that will be required by future historians. We think of the Civil War as the most documented conflict due to thousands of diaries and letters that historians must consult in addition to official accounts and government documents. But can you imagine what a future writer on anything will have to wade through in terms of e-communication to get a complete account of something? Millions of web pages, blog posts, e-mails, documents and videos. It staggers the mind to contemplate it. Perhaps they will simply give up and selectively cull the information to try and stay sane. Or perhaps our records now are less permanent unless they are printed. Take away electricity and all of it vanishes, whereas scrolls and books lasted a few centuries in the past. So maybe the staggering amounts of data generated right now will all be gone. But just think of the future historian trying to write a history of the 2008 Presidential election. How did the people see it? How did the media see it? What did the candidates think? Imagine poring through millions of e-mail with some sort of search algorithm or index. Reading texts from Barrack Obama’s Blackberry, posts from millions of common-man blogs, news articles from sites all over the world and on and on.The task seems daunting.

Information Today

According to this post, Google can “can hold an entire copy of the web in memory, all the world’s written information on disk, and still have plenty of room for logs and other data sets.”  Greg says:

A standard Google server appears to have about 16G RAM and 2T of disk. If we assume Google has 500k servers (which seems like a low-end estimate given they used 25.5k machine years of computation in Sept 2009 just on MapReduce jobs), that means they can hold roughly 8 petabytes of data in memory and, after x3 replication, roughly 333 petabytes on disk. For comparison, a large web crawl with history, the Internet Archive, is about 2 petabytes and “the entire [written] works of humankind, from the beginning of recorded history, in all languages” has been estimated at 50 petabytes, so it looks like Google easily can hold an entire copy of the web in memory, all the world’s written information on disk, and still have plenty of room for logs and other data sets. Certainly no shortage of storage at Google.

This morning I chatted via video with my brother in Dubai, this was done via Skype. My daughter talked to his daughter who was literally half the world away. And all this produces a yawn. I can see everything that has ever been written uploaded, searchable, translated, stored and easily retrieved and it will produce boredom in most of the population.

I think there are going to be some huge breakthroughs in medicine, communication, theology and all kinds of other fields in the next century due to this awe-striking mass of information. And yet, talking to my brother on a screen is about as exciting as making toast – the awe-factor is gone in an age jaded by so many astounding breakthroughs. I guess that’s how life always goes.