Saturday, February 28, 2009

Here's a Tip: Lose the Gratuity

I eat out a lot. In fact, I seldom eat in unless it is food that I have had delivered. Once in a while, probably less often than once per week, I cook dinner, which usually consists of some ready-to-cook meat dish, a frozen or canned veggie, and some instant mashed potatoes. The remainder of my home cooking consists of opening cans of soup or popping a packaged entrée into the microwave.

So with all that eating out it stands to reason that a relatively large part of my budget goes to tipping. But I have to confess that I’m not a big tipper. In fact, I’m not a huge fan of the whole concept of a gratuity.

I’m not a cheapskate. It’s not like a leave a buck on the table for a twenty-dollar meal. But I seldom go above 15 percent and I tip begrudgingly. I think I have some fairly good reasons for loathing tipping.

In some countries, such as Japan, tipping is not common at all. Wait staff at eateries are paid a wage commensurate with their work load and performance by their employers. That’s the way it should be everywhere, with tipping being completely optional.

Yes, I know that would make the price of the meal go up. But so what; we’re paying the higher price anyway when we add on 15 to 20 percent for a gratuity.

But since tipping is the norm, I believe the criteria we use for determining the amount we give to a server should be modified. The status quo is that we tip a certain percent of the check. But that really doesn’t make any sense, when you think about it.

Consider a scenario in which two people are dining at the same table but splitting the bill. One person orders fillet mignon for $30 and the other orders chopped steak for $12. Both entrees come with a baked potato, salad, dinner roll, and a vegetable. Both are brought to the table on the same size plate. It takes exactly the same amount of time and effort to deliver the filet as it does to deliver the chopped steak to the table.

But when the checks arrive, the filet eater’s total is more than twice that of the customer who ordered the chopped steak. His tip, therefore, will by custom need to be more than twice as much. So, for the same service and effort, the server receives a much bigger tip from one diner than the other even though both are following standard tipping rules.

A better and fairer method of tipping would be to base the gratuity on service and friendliness alone, without regard to the amount of the check. Start with a base amount, determined arbitrarily based on the type of restaurant and the meal being served. For argument’s sake, let’s say that at a typical, moderately-priced restaurant, the base tip is three bucks for lunch. That is the amount you add to or subtract from based only on the quality of service you get from your server.

The very best server is one who is invisible until you need her (or him). She greets you and takes your drink order promptly. After the drinks arrive in a timely manner, she immediately asks if you are ready to order. If so, she smiles and takes your order, being friendly but not too talkative. I don’t really care about what kind of day she has had or that her mother is in the hospital for surgery.

A good server will bring your appetizer, soup, or salad within five minutes. She will then disappear until you are finished, at which time she will have the entrée ready for you. After a few minutes to allow you to dig in, she will stop by only once to ask if everything is alright and if you need anything else.

She then disappears again until you have finished your entrée, but she is quick to respond if you decide you need another dinner role or a refill on your beverage. You don’t have to wait around to find her; she knows when you need her.

After you have finished your entrée, she is right there to ask if you would like dessert and to take your empty plates. Assuming you don’t want desert, she immediately places the bill on the table.

Now here is the most important part. Once you get the bill and place your plastic inside the folder, the server must pick up the check and bring the receipt back for you to sign within two or three minutes. When I’m ready to leave, I loathe waiting at the table for a slow server to finally come and pick up my payment.

At the end, after she returns your receipt, she will always smile and thank you for visiting. She makes it seem as though she generally appreciates your patronage, even if she’s only doing her job.

Those types of servers are rather rare. But, without seeming like I’m giving a plug to the chain, Olive Garden seems to have more of those types of servers than most places I frequent. And so they get a bigger tip.

I would have no qualms about doubling the base tip for a server like that, even tripling it if she were really great. On the other hand, I would not feel squeamish about taking a dollar off the tip of a server who was never there when I needed her and who seemed like she would rather be doing anything but serving me. In fact, etiquette suggests that it is entirely proper not to tip a server who is really bad. And there have been a few servers from which I have withheld my gratuity entirely.

Tipping is a built-in part of the service industry in America, so there is little chance it will become obsolete anytime soon. And, unfortunately, it is mostly still based on the total bill, especially in restaurants. But, personally, when I tip from now on, it will be based on the Wilson system. It is inherently fairer and much more logical.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Spread the Truth from Within

Back during the McCarthy era of the 1950s, the overreaction to anything communist and the public fear that we would be taken over by communist sympathizers working for the Soviet Union grew out of a concern that the communist philosophy was to infiltrate from within, by indoctrinating young people into the communist way of life.

It’s true that one strategy employed by the Soviets was to plant young communist sympathizers in the U.S. in hopes that it would spread from within. But it was not their main strategy and it didn’t work very well anyway.

But the idea is a good one if you belong to a group that wants to spread your word to the unwitting masses. And sometimes it does work ever so well.

The evangelical movement, since the 1980s, has been using just such a strategy to promote their view of biology. They believe that God created the earth and everything on it in six literal days about 6,000 years ago. It used to be called creationism, but the U.S. Supreme Court nixed any effort to include the creationist agenda into science classrooms. The term du jour is Intelligent Design. Its philosophy is that life is too complex to have evolved, so there must have been a creator of some kind. It doesn’t specifically identify God as the creator, but everybody knows that God is who the ID crowd has in mind as their creator of choice.

It hasn’t gone all the way to the Supreme Court, but a federal judge in Pennsylvania a couple of years ago ruled with no uncertainty that ID is not science and must be kept out of the Dover, Pa science classes.

But that ruling was only a speed bump in the road for the relentless evangelicals. They write books, preach to their congregations, and open pseudoscientific museums espousing their views on creation. It has been, and continues to be, a massive public education campaign railing against evolution and Charles Darwin. And it has worked.

Polls continue to show that no more than half of all Americans accept evolution as the best explanation for the diversity of life on earth, even though far more than 99 percent of scientists don’t question it. That’s because the theory has withstood 150 years of scientific scrutiny.

Officially, most Christian denominations have no problem with evolution at all. And only about 20 percent or so of Americans call themselves evangelical Christians. So, logically, there should only be about 20 or 25 percent belief in biblical creation with most of the remainder opting for an acceptance of the standard scientific theory of evolution.

So why do twice as many people reject evolution as one would think based on the percentage of evangelicals? It’s the old infiltrate-and-conquer strategy that may have been used by the Communist Party in the 1950s, but this time it is working.

A few years ago, back when I attended church on a regular basis, I went to the First Christian Church Disciples of Christ. Their semi-official stance on evolution is acceptance. And when I wrote a column for a local paper back then quoting the head of the Indiana Disciples of Christ who said the church has no problem with evolution, it prompted at least two long-standing members of the church’s congregation to leave. They had no idea that their church accepted evolution. They were horrified and so they left the church.

The problem is that many members of congregations whose churches have no problem with evolution do not accept evolution themselves. Why not? It’s because they have gotten their ideas about evolution from the evangelical propaganda that is pervasive throughout society, regardless of which church one belongs to. And the churches who do officially accept evolution do not have a public relations campaign promoting that view on evolution.

At least they didn’t until fairly recently. In 2004 Michael Zimmerman of Butler University began The Clergy Letter Project. He enlisted members of the clergy to sign a letter in support of the scientific view of evolution. Since then, the project has grown into Evolution Weekend, the weekend closest to Darwin’s birthday, February 12. This year, Evolution Weekend got a boost because it was the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth and the sesquicentennial of the publication of his book, On the Origin of Species.

In 2006, 467 congregations participated in Evolution Weekend. This year, nearly 1,000 congregations announced their plans to participate, with others participating unofficially.

During Evolution Weekend, pastors of local congregations make an effort to educate their flocks about evolution and how an acceptance of the theory does not preclude a belief in God.

A thousand congregations may seem like a trivial number, considering the number of congregations that exist in this country, but the movement is only four years old. It will, hopefully, grow. And it represents a paradigm shift in the effort to educate Americans through their churches about a much-maligned theory of science. It’s an effort to nix the divisive view of the evangelicals that tends to undermine recent efforts toward ecumenical cooperation.

The Evolution Weekend project may be a tide-turning effort to infiltrate congregations with an idea based on truth and science, and to evict the archaic notion of special creation from the psyche of churchgoers nationwide once and for all.

There is a long road ahead if the effort is to succeed. It won’t be easy, because the evangelicals have had a long advantage in spreading propaganda. But it’s an effort that probably stands a better chance than just taking creationism to court. That doesn’t change any minds. Spreading the truth from within, using the leaders of the church, might just work.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Would Darwin be Surprised at the Controversy Today?

This month is being celebrated by the scientific community, and by people in Britain, because it marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of the great men of science, Charles Darwin, the English biologist who put forth his theory of evolution by natural selection. This year is also the sesquicentennial of Darwin’s greatest work, The Origin of Species.

If Darwin were alive today, I can’t help but believe that he would be stunned that his once-controversial theory of evolution was still a very contentious topic even today. Of course, in reality, whether evolution occurred is not debated at all among scientists. No, far more than 99 percent of all scientists worldwide take the theory of evolution for granted. It is a factual account of how all life on Earth developed. There is no wrangling over whether evolution occurred or whether some competing theory best describes the diversity of life on Earth. In fact, there is no other scientific theory that explains the existence of life’s diversity. Evolution is it.

In Britain, as well as nearly all of Western Europe and in fact throughout the entire developed world, evolution is not controversial even to ordinary people. It is not even a controversy to the mainstream Christian churches, including the Church of England, the Catholic Church, and many protestant denominations such as the Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Lutheran Church, the Episcopal Church, the Disciples of Christ, and myriad other smaller denominations. Most of the mainstream religions have come to terms with evolution and accept it as scientific fact.

But only about half of all Muslims in the U.S., and far fewer than half, about 25 percent, of the evangelical Christians in the U.S. accept evolution. They believe that life appeared on Earth by an act of creation by God during a six-day period around 6,000 years ago. In other words, they believe the bible, and specifically the Book of Genesis, is true and literal.

Why they believe this when their more mainstream fellow Christians are able to interpret the bible more liberally I can’t say. It is especially puzzling to me how they insist that the Creation story in Genesis is absolutely literal, but they are willing to overlook obvious falsehoods and inconsistencies in other parts of the bible.

Even within Genesis there are two separate and mutually-exclusive stories of Creation. In Genesis 1, God takes six days to create the universe as follows: On day 1 he created light; on day 2 he created the sky; on day 3 he created the land, sea, and vegetation; on day 4 he created the sun, moon, and stars; on day 5 he created the animals; and on day 6 he created man and woman.

In Genesis 2 it does not enumerate on which day he created what. But it does begin with the earth after it was created and presumably after the land and sea had been separated, which would have been day 3 from Genesis 1. But it also said that there was not yet any vegetation, which there should have been.

The first creation of life by God in Genesis 2 was man. After that, he created vegetation, and planted a garden in Eden for the man to take care of. Following that, he created animals. Finally, he created woman.

Now, it’s obvious to anyone who reads these accounts that they are conflicting. But evangelical Christians will say that one story just expands on the other or that it is told from two different viewpoints.

But there can only be one literal interpretation. Either it’s literal or it isn’t. Either God created vegetation before man or he created man before vegetation. You can’t have it both ways.

And do the evangelical Christians also believe that there is a huge ocean of water above the sky? It clearly says in Genesis 1 that on the third day God separated the waters of the earth from the waters of the heavens by placing the sky between them.

My mother is an evangelical Christian and that is how I was raised. I went to Sunday School and learned all the bible stories. But when I grew up and started questioning things, I learned the truth and I came to understand that those bible stories were meant to enhance people’s spirituality. They are not historically accurate.

So when I began discussing things like the age of the earth and evolution with my mother, I fully expected that she would refute everything I told her. To my surprise, she did not. She believes that God did create everything, but she is more than willing to admit that it might have taken him longer than six days. She reminded me that, to God, a day may be like a thousand years. She acknowledges the existence of fossils and understands that there may have been evolution taking place. She told me the bible doesn’t tell us everything God did or how he did it. And she said God may have used evolution as his tool of creation.

I was pleased at my mother’s open-mindedness. At the same time, it made me wonder how a 75-year-old woman who didn’t even graduate from high school could come to understand and accept the fact that maybe the bible shouldn’t be taken literally when so many college-educated, otherwise rational adults insist that every word of the bible is literal.

It’s one of life’s amazing mysteries to me, and I’m sure it would be a great wonder to Charles Darwin if he were still around today.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Caution Needed when Funneling Tax Money through Churches

Pres. Barack Obama has signed an executive order that extends, and tweaks, former Pres. George W. Bush’s Faith-Based Initiative. It was a fulfillment of a campaign promise.

But like his predecessor in office, Obama may be flirting with violating the First Amendment’s prohibition against government entanglement with religion. He claims this isn’t the case and says he will appoint the right people to make sure there is no entanglement. But in the trenches, who can really be sure? Has Bush’s initiative already become a slippery slope, one that even Obama can’t walk away from?

The Bush initiative was fraught with violations. Of course, the Bush administration couldn’t care less, since the former president was an evangelical Christian himself. Some of the religious leaders that are involved in Obama’s revamped initiative are worried that they may not be able to participate without compromising their religious beliefs. But the moderate Christians and those on the left are also not happy. They want to undo the Bush administration’s practices on hiring as quickly as possible.

Obama wants to reevaluate hiring practices to make certain that those in charge of distributing government funds do so in a purely secular manner, with no evangelizing. But once taxpayer money starts flowing into religious institutions, it opens the possibility that some of that money will filter over to the evangelical side, as happened during the Bush administration.

Besides, Obama doesn’t really need to kowtow to the religious right. They are all but irrelevant these days. The country took a major turn to the left last November, and that left the evangelicals crying foul. And none have cried louder than that ultra-conservative loudmouth Rush Limbaugh. But that just proves my point, Limbaugh and his ilk of brainless whiners are irrelevant. Obama doesn’t need to pay them any heed whatsoever, and that includes continuing the faith-based initiative of his predecessor.

Now, it’s true that faith-based organizations, such as churches, are flung far and wide across the country and that they are already set up to distribute charity to those in need. They already have food pantries, shelters, and distribution centers for clothing and other goods. So it does make a certain amount of sense for the government to use this infrastructure.

But it is also very important to keep in mind that those who run this infrastructure of charitable giving have a larger purpose in mind. They want to convert the masses to religion, and most of those doing the converting are evangelical Christians. It is dangerous to put government money into their hands.

As an illustration of how the thought processes and worldview of the religious right differ from secular humanists, take the example of the bus ad wars going on in London. A secular group paid to run ads on the sides of London buses that said, “There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

The slogan made no definitive pronouncements about God. There is nothing in the slogan that requires them to prove anything. It’s just a statement of their belief and it leaves nothing to question.

But after a failed attempt to get those ads banned for being “offensive,” the religious groups decided to fire back with an ad campaign of their own. Their bus sign reads, “There definitely is a God. So join the Christian party and enjoy your life.”

Notice the absolute certainty espoused by this ad. The sentence proclaiming that there definitely is a God requires proof. Yet they offer none. It shows a level of narcissism lacking in the secularists’ ad. And the Christian ad also asks people to join with them, something that is lacking in the secularists’ ad. Secularists aren’t recruiting.

That type of mentality is widespread among all Christian conservatives. They can’t help it; it’s who they are. Throw government money at them, and they will find a way to use it to further their religious causes. They will find ways to use it to proselytize or coerce.

The caveat that Obama seems to already be aware of, but one which requires constant attention, is that when you give tax money to religious groups for them to use for purely secular purposes, there must be a system in place to make sure it is being used properly and with no strings attached.