Thursday, July 21, 2016

Saved by… obedience?

For years I've heard (and sometimes said) that salvation comes “by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.” So I was a little surprised to read in Hebrews 5 that Jesus “became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.” (emphasis added)

What's this about obedience? Does that contradict "by grace alone"? Maybe not.

Suppose you're in the middle of the ocean, after a plane crash or something, and can't see any land. A boat comes along, offering to save you. Sounds like grace to me! But when someone says, “Grab this rope,” you gotta obey and grab it.

If you instead say, “Wait, obedience? I thought this was by grace alone,” then you won't be saved. Silly, I know. But earlier in the letter, we read that faith and obedience come to the same thing.

[T]o whom did God swear that they would never enter his rest if not to those who disobeyed? So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief.
Hebrews 3:18–19 NIV (1984)

So no, we aren't saved by obedience; it really is by grace alone through faith alone. But if I'm unwilling to obey, that's not a disconnected random bit of information; it speaks to my lack of faith. And without faith … hey, without faith it's impossible to please God! Without faith, grace doesn't do me much good.

So it's not a paradox or a contradiction after all.

Update: the next morning

I opened my reading plan in the "Bible" app, where I read this:
... But the Hebrew word for 'faith' - emunah - is less about KNOWING, and more about DOING.

'Emunah' literally means "to take firm action", so to have faith is to act.

How about that! The Old Testament writers Weren't confused at all about this the way We modern evangelicals sometimes are. Guess I shouldn't be surprised.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Thoughts on the 3rd lap

It struck me on my third trip around the jogging track how similar the first parts of these verses are:
Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling… (Hebrews 3:1)
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved… (Colossians 3:12)
Ignoring the context for a bit, I find it wondrous to think of myself as holy, chosen by God. How did this ever happen to me, of all people? Or you? Yet we are told this over and over in the Scriptures: Jesus says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you….” Paul says that God “chose us… before the foundation of the earth that we should be holy” and “He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ.” There are many, many more like this. The word “holy” means, basically, to be set apart for some purpose. We’re chosen, in other words, for a purpose.

I’ve heard this many times in sermons as well, but it still takes my breath away, because I know that I’m weak and easily distracted, my mind cluttered with carnal thoughts. I often see myself as a child, tossed back and forth by the waves, blown here and there, wishing I were more grown up. So these passages remind me that God has indeed set me aside for a purpose. Besides being deeply loved, I “share in the heavenly calling,” so I’m not rudderless. God has called me heavenward; he is working in me to fulfill his purpose as I seek him. Good news!

In both passages, this astounding good news of our identity as beloved holy brothers (male and female) is mentioned in passing, an “as-you-already-know”; the authors are about to tell us something even more important. What could that be? And is there any overlap in what follows?

Well, there’s not a lot. Hebrews chapter 2 ends with the encouragement that our brother Jesus knows our sufferings and temptations and can help us; then in chapter 3 we’re told, “therefore,” to consider Jesus, to fix our thoughts on him, and how he’s greater than Moses, worthy of greater honor. The author loves to tell us how great Jesus is: greater than the angels, greater than the priests of the old sacrificial system, and so on.

In Colossians, this reminder of our identity stands in the midst of a list of exhortations to live a holy life (3:5–17). In this letter, Paul seems fond of giving us lists of five: put to death sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed (3:5); to put aside anger, wrath, malice, slander and abusive speech (3:8). And then:

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone, just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.
Colossians 3:12–13
There’s more after that, but what I wanted to notice from these passages is that the implications of our identity (as holy, chosen, beloved, called) involve our attitudes and actions (Colossians 3) and also how we focus our thoughts (Hebrews 3). Turning that around, when I remember I’m holy, chosen, beloved, called, then I’m better equipped in my efforts to fix my thoughts on Jesus and to live a holy life.

In other words, it’s not just the good news itself, but also the remembering of this good news, that enables me to become a good man.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Stockholm, random notes 2016-07-09 Saturday.

We heard yesterday in Helsinki (where prices are lower!) that one can take a ferry overnight to Stockholm, spend a day here in S-town, and take the ferry back to Helsinki. And, I suppose, the reverse.

Certainly one could travel Helsinki to Tallinn and back -- probably just a few hours each way. On arrival in Stockholm we had a choice of transportation:

  • excursions organized by the cruise ship line (which are more expensive but you get preferential treatment: first off the boat; they'll hold the boat if you're late getting back; if you can't dock in port, that portion of the tour fee is refunded)
  • hop-on hop-off tours:
    • bus: 300 SEK (or SKr?) -- at $1=8.5 SEK, that's about $35
    • boat: 180 SEK or about $21
    • bus+boat: bus+boat, 400 SEK or about $47
  • The above options are offered by red sightseeing and also by the green outfit. Price and itineraries are basically the same, EXCEPT
    • first few departures of the RED boats from cruise ship dock go directly to the Vasa museum. This is a deviation from the published route (wherein you'd make 5? stops before getting there). I don't know if the green boats go there; I suspect not.
    • According to one of our fellow-passengers, the green boats were smaller and fuller -- that is, you might not be able to board!
  • According to one of the guys, boats come every 15 minutes. i don't think this is true: Carol swears we waited 30 minutes at one point. I'm not sure it was quite that long, but it was definitely more than 15 minutes. But every time we saw a green boat, a red boat was not far behind.
  • Decided to get on the red boat. Because of price we went for boat-only. We got red by pure dumb luck, and went to Vasa museum. Admission 180SEK each, I think. We took the [free] English-language tour; guide was excellent.

    The Vasa was commissioned in 1625 and construction completed in 1628, taking 2+1/2 years to build. King Gustav II Augustus (I might have that name wrong) wanted to have 72 cannon on board--never been done before. The shipwright/architect said it would be unsafe, but as the king wanted that, he got it. Due to the unprecedented weight, the ship was built with very strong+heavy timbers belowdecks (this was usual) but also above (this was not usual) to support the heavy armaments. Turns out only 64 of the requisitioned 72 were ever delivered...

    Vasa was the eldest of four sisters: two big and two smaller vessels. The king was annoyed because Vasa took so long to build: usual construction time was well under two years. Construction of Vasa's sister (whose name I've already forgotten) was halted while all hands were on deck so to speak to complete Vasa.

    Vasa sailed on her maiden voyage, and the 2nd gust of wind tipped her a bit too much, and water rushed into her gun ports. The listing to one side was exacerbated by [1] all the cannon being on one side of the ship (I guess port side but am not sure) to fire a salute to the king, who was not even there to hear it; and [2] ballast in the stern (I think rocks) which shifted to the side, accentuating the list. Water entered the ship through the gun-ports and she sank in 20 minutes, killing we think 30 or 40 souls. Fifteen skeletons were found inside when she was raised in the 1960s; others escaped the ship but were drowned (couldn't swim).

    Vasa's sister was given a hull one meter wider and I think with fewer cannon. She sailed for 30 years (vs 20 minutes), so i guess they did learn something.

    The Vasa was discovered in the late 1950s (1956?) by some guy who was looking for it with a coring tool. After finding black oak in quite a large area, he understood that he'd found Vasa, but it took several years to rescue her from the bottom. Steel cables were placed under the keel, and affixed to pontoons floating on either side. (This was attempted shortly after she sank, but with ships anchored on either side. This is why many anchors were found atop Vasa when she was eventually raised.) The wood began to warp (etc) and they began spraying her with polyethelyne glycol (sounds like Saran Wrap(R) + antifreeze). They replaced her bolts with iron bolts (today most of these have been replaced yet again with stainless steel bolts). Once they got the water out of her, she floated! She was made of wood, right?

    btw she sank in very cold and brackish waters, which contributed to her survival. also there weren't any shipworms (i guess these things eat ships).

    About the sculptures around the boat; the bow has the lion, representing Gustaf ii adolphus/augustus/whatever. Near bow, on starboard side, is a man hiding under a table, supposedly for fear of the lion. The Swedish king was younger brother and protestant to the king of poland, who was Catholic. But Swedes didn't want to be Catholic. Other statues near the bow are the likenesses of Roman emperors; Gustav identified with them.

    At the stern, Gustav is seen (did i take a pic of this?) leading and protecting his people.

    Back to the Saran Wrap + antifreeze stuff; they've stopped spraying that. instead Vasa is kept in a temp/humidity-controlled environment. On many places the ship has reflectors. They want to preserve her for another 100 years (she was underwater for 333 years!) so want to be able to measure when she's deformed by gravity, by the wood's compression as it settles, etc.

    Something like 98% of the wood in Vasa was preserved; there are a few places where it was replaced. The bowsprit is one; the stern-most mast is another. You can tell by the color of the wood (new=lighter). Not all of Vasa is inside the museum; there are three masts visible outside the museum, indicating the full height of the original ship.

  • Afterward, we walked to Skansen, enjoying the beautiful Stockholm weather along the way. We entered Skansen by the not-main entrance (Hazelius?) and walked in. We saw King Oscar's Terrace and the rose garden, then turned to Makaloes (oe=o-umlaut) and followed the path to see reindeer and elk and some other domestic & wild animals.
  • Then we took the 15? minute walk to the hop... boat around to the first stop moderately close to Gamla Stan. The "Miss Behavin'"(?) Bar was right there, and we had 3 hot dogs (the "alex wiener") for SEK175; a cobb salad (another SEK175) and a beer (SEK75? 85?). Yeah, that's like $20 per entree, and about $10 for a beer.
  • At about 2:25 we boarded the boat, arriving at the pier about 3:10. We were on board well ahead of the 3:30pm deadline.

Friday, May 20, 2016


Some years ago, the elder ex-teen (now the mother of two) and I spent some time in Professor Carter’s book integrity, which goes into various areas: intent, due diligence and so on. In other words, integrity means more than simply not telling lies. When put that way it seems obvious, though I don’t usually pay so much attention.

The question of integrity came to mind recently when a friend (I’ll call him “Dieter”) told me about an incident at work. Dieter’s a software guy, like me, and his company’s website (I’ll call the company “JCN”—not the real name) describes a project they did internally. In the article is a statement of why they did this project. The statement is not true; JCN actually did it for a completely different reason than their website says.

JCN’s stated corporate values include words about ethics and integrity, and they have an email “hotline” for that, so Dieter sent them a note pointing out that, paraphrasing, “Our website says the project was ‘first and foremost’ about doing X better, which everybody knows is not true.”

In fact, when the project went “live” at JCN, X was much worse. Dieter admits that today, X is not that much worse than it was before the project. That said, the project really wasn’t about improving X; it was done for a completely different reason.

Dieter acknowledges that this false statement isn’t critical to the company. They’re not promising something their products can’t deliver; nobody’s going to sue JCN or cancel a purchase order because of this statement. But as Dieter told the “integrity” people at his company,

When we make a statement about why we did something, and that statement is not true, that is what makes it a lie.
Please remind me not to get into arguments with Dieter.

JCN’s “integrity” people didn’t see it that way. Dieter was quite bugged by this; he even considered leaving JCN for another employer. But then remembered a couple of things.

  • He’s an American; he knows that his government has killed people in other countries and overthrown democratically-elected governments. But he’s not thinking to become a citizen elsewhere.
  • The prophet Daniel worked for a cruel and arbitrary boss, King Nebuchadnezzar. But would Daniel have quit, given the chance? Probably most bosses at the time were pretty similar, and maybe incompetent to boot. The same thing is probably true of American corporations.
Dieter came to understand that when the company says “integrity,” what they mean is, “Don’t do anything illegal, anything embarrassing, anything that will alienate a customer.” He wasn't happy with that conclusion, but anyway it was a conclusion.

Something else happened that I thought very interesting. After concluding his dialogue with JCN’s “integrity” folks, he told me, “my back stopped hurting!” His back has been complaining (yeah, he’s old enough for that) for some months. The pain hadn’t been debilitating, but he says that was the first afternoon when his back didn’t hurt at all.

What brought relief to Dieter’s back? Was it his acceptance of his employer's Newspeak, like the 5th stage of death and dying, that did the trick?

And what’s the moral of this story? Dieter doesn’t know. Neither do I

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Confession: taking one for the team

Last week, I sent out a confession at work. I'd read an encouragement to do things like that, and…well, it's pretty self-explanatory. Here's a lightly edited version:
   From: collin <email.address@here>
     To: <recipient-list here>
   Date: Last Tuesday
Subject: Confession

Short version: I did something dumb and confess it.
Busy people can stop reading here, though I hope you read this at some point--maybe while waiting for one of your tests to complete. Details follow.
I picked up a free copy of The Soft Edge when they were being handed out at the cafeteria some weeks back. In it was an encouragement to celebrate successes and also to confess mistakes--especially big successes and big mistakes (cf. “Asoh Defense”).

I saw the power of this a while back when a colleague told me about a mistake, looking somewhat sheepish. “We’ve all done that,” I said. Just to make sure, I added, “I’ve done it myself.”

Well, I’m not the most empathic guy but I felt the weight lift off their shoulders. “You’ve done it?” they asked, incredulous. Yep. It was probably about 20 years ago, but I’ve done stupider things before. And since.

Fast forward to the present. There have been lots of failures in <test case name here>. Some of them happen only when nobody is watching, and have defied analysis. But one of them should have been fixed (by me) right away: burt987303.

It happened in February, then again 8am on May 2. The symptom was a timeout on a “d-volume-create” zapi. “Hey,” I thought, “if the simulator (in this case) can’t come back within 100 seconds, then maybe it died. I could look more, but since it won’t happen again for another 2 months, how much time should I spend on this?”

The answer was: Just a few minutes more--long enough to RTFM and adjust the timeout. You see, it happened again May 4th. You can read <internal document name here>, but the short version is that zsmcli has a “timeout” parameter: I coulda just set that in the command to extend the default 100s timeout.

I’m happy to tell you that I checked in a fix, and that said fix prevented another failure on 5/7 (in <log file name here>, there’s a 118-second d-volume-create execution).

To be clear, the issue was in a test script; the issue wasn’t in the product. I’ve introduced, or incorrectly fixed, product defects before, but this particular issue is in a test case, not in any product sold by my employer.

Is there a moral to the story? Well, the obvious one is to rtfm. Or the help message, as the case may be.

The second is, if you’ve done something like this (it could be more or less dumb; we’re not being precise), don’t feel too bad about it. Performance reviews are over; you could tell somebody. If you’re more senior--or just old--you could tell someone younger; it’ll probably help them feel better. And that in turn might help them think more clearly, too.


Why did I say that telling a younger person about your mistake might help them think more clearly? Because when we reduce the pressure they feel to appear perfect (even if the pressure originated inside their own head), they’ll have less anxiety—less stress. Less anxiety, clearer thinking.

It also makes you appear more human, more real. And we need more of that—more live, human connections (as distinct from mere contractural, transactional connections) in the workplace. Out of the workplace too.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Too Thorough? part deux

In part 1, I tried to make the point that when a VP or Director calls someone “too thorough,” s/he may mean
“You're giving me too much detail (which I don’t want/need to know); let's get to the high-level information (which I do need to know).”
In other words, sometimes our presentation doesn't match the audience. I resemble this remark, I hope progressively less so as the years have passed.

Another way we're sometimes “too thorough” is that sometimes we spend too much time delving into details that have no bearing on the problem we're trying to address. By the way, I sincerely do mean “we,” as this post attests. About 3/4 of the way through that post, I wrote, “In other words, I was done.” I could have stopped there. Arguably I should have, since I demonstrated that my explanation fit all the facts, and that my code change banished the symptom.

That last sentence is the key. We are not FreeBSD maintainers; we are FreeBSD users. As such, once we know enough to plausibly assert we know what's going on, and to demonstrate that we can make the symptom vanish, we know enough, period.

So why did I continue there? No doubt some of it is a kind of engineering curiosity, not altogether a bad thing. It was exactly that engineering curiosity that drove me to ask my colleague to configure a virtual machine with a disk that could take coredumps, and to find the uninitialized struct component. That is, a certain amount of engineering curiosity is required if we're to make progress. I'll claim it's worse to have too little curiosity than too much, though the truth is probably more nuanced than that.

Early in my career, my manager wrote on a review that I tended to work fast and rely upon experiment. This was a nice way of saying that I sometimes rushed in with an answer without fully assessing the situation. He was right, of course. Back in those days, I would never have written that blog post, because the experimental result would have fully satisfied me; I'd be on to the next thing.

Is it just curiosity then? I guess there's some sort of pride in there, too—the desire for mastery. I love it when I have a complete explanation for how something happened—when I've mastered it. Of course that's not what my employers pay me for; they pay me for solutions to problems that they choose.

The next question for an engineer is: What problems are worth my attention, my curiosity? Senior people are supposed to just know; if something looks odd, is that something worth looking at today, or can it be safely ignored until it becomes a real problem? Is the "obvious answer" truly the answer, or does it simply make the "root cause" harder to find?

Well, we don't know. We need to look far enough to feel confident enough to make a decision, and we need to be lucky enough to not get blindsided too much.

So what's my plan? I'd like to say that the next time I'm hot on the trail of something, I'll stop and think, "Do I truly need to be investigating this?" and make a sober assessment of whether I'm being compulsive, vs. just exercising due diligence.

Maybe that's like saying, "The next time I'm about to say something stoopid, I'll bite my tongue." Does that sound totally useless? Well, if I can remind myself that I have this tendency, or limitation, that's the first step, right? As the engineering guru Clint Eastwood said, "A man's got to know his limitations." Or weaknesses. And of course women do, too.

Well, that was a lame ending. That's because I don't really have this one figured out. Maybe you have some ideas? Leave me a comment :)

Monday, April 25, 2016

Citizens?* Or mere taxpayers?
[* I don't mean Citizens United]

In a recent Harper’s, Marilynne Robinson remarked that whereas our society used to have citizens (who may have a sense of identity based on their country, maybe even pride in or aspirations for their country), we now speak mainly about taxpayers. Both the citizen and the taxpayer are creations of political rhetoric, she wrote, pointing out the power of words to shape our thinking.

But I want to write about paying taxes. As a taxpayer, I’m pleased that my federal and state income taxes are lower than they might be. As a citizen, however, I think it’s outrageous that marginal tax rate is so low for someone with my income.

Back in the 1970s, the top marginal tax rate was about 70% for single taxpayers and about 55% for married couples filing jointly. But ever since the Reagan administration, the top marginal tax rate has been something like 39.6%. I’ve paid this rate. My income hasn’t decreased since that time, but my marginal tax rate for 2015 was 28%. Which is nuts!

Why is the national debt ballooning? Why don’t we have enough money to repair roads and bridges, and to pay our teachers a decent wage? Yes, I know that teachers are paid with state and local taxes, but the federal government also contributed to education funding; these federal subsidies have decreased dramatically since the 1980s.

I also know that we’ve wasted a lot of money fighting wars that we never should have started, and that we have furthermore wasted billions on “security theatre” at the nation’s airports. But if you say, “I’ll support higher tax rates when the government stops wasting money,” you’ll wait forever.

Those are problems I can't solve, but there is an issue I'm considering. I had solar panels installed on my roof last year, and consequently I'm eligible for a tax credit. The question is: Should I ask the federal government (read: "my fellow citizens") to pay for part of my solar panels?

Because tax credits—and, to a lesser degree, tax deductions—are expenditures. A dollar not collected because of tax deductions or tax credits is a dollar not available to fix a road or a bridge; alternately, it's a dollar that can't be used to pay a park ranger, or a dollar we've got to borrow...

Why should I ask my fellow citizens to pay for [part of] my solar panels? I understand the offer is there, and that it's permissible for me to receive it, and as a taxpayer I "should" take it, as I'm entitled to.

But as a citizen, do I really have an obligation to? Following Kant, do I want my fellow citizens to take every legal tax credit and deduction available? As a taxpayer, all I'd care about is myself, but as a citizen...

So there's my quandary.