Friday, December 30, 2005

Somebody should write this book

For Christmas (or for no reason) I got myself a copy of Prophets Idols and Diggers by John Elder (out of print, Bobbs-Merrill, 1960). What a find! I'll bet you didn't know (I sure didn't) that in the late 1700s "among educated people... scepticism and [a]theism were so widely prevalent as to be nearly universal. During a period of four years... Dartmouth College graduated only one man who believed in God." (p.17)

That was back in the days before archaeologists found a bunch of biblical sites that we now know to be historical. "It is not too much to say that it was the rise of the science of archaeology that broke the deadlock between historians and the orthodox Christian. ... one city after another..., whose memories were enshrined only in the Bible, were restored to their proper places in ancient history by the studies of archaeologists." (p.18)

Somebody should write a novel, set in maybe the 19th century, when some of these discoveries were being made. One character should say to another, "Surely you know, my dear, that those pseudo-scientists pooh-poohing the Bible have been thoroughly debunked by the recent finds in Persia." Or whatever.

It should be called "The Leonardo Cipher" or something like this, and should feature a dashing fifty-something engineer who reads archaeology journals.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

An open letter to an atheist friend of my daughter

I hate to begin with, "When I was your age," but here I go.

When I was your age, I also said I was an atheist, and I mostly believed it. I didn't know about any Big Bang, but I believed in evolution and determinism and behavior modification and operant conditioning and mathematics.

But there were two things that got me off that track -- two "interruptions" if you will, in the language of this weekend's sermon at MPPC.

The first was a pair of annoying question about ethics. Are they real or are they imaginary? And if they're real, where do they come from?

I had a sense, as I think you have, that "right and wrong" are real rather than imaginary, more akin to Columbus than to Zeus and Hera. Some people claim that ethics are relative, but I don't think they really believe, for example, that
Murder is wrong for me but I'm not going to judge you if that's your culture.
Well, maybe they do, sort of. Until it affects someone they care about.

But if ethics are real, where do they come from? I took a couple of classes in college on this -- in fact, I was one of Michael Bratman's first Stanford students. What I learned there was astonishing. There are several schools of meta-ethical thought -- meta-ethics being the question of "What is the nature of statements like 'X is good' or 'X is praiseworthy'?" There are non-naturalists like G.E. Moore, naturalists like (forgive me, this was over 30 years ago - Hume maybe?), and non-cognitivists like A.J. Ayer(?), but each position has serious flaws. And there are no others.

Sorry for the digression. This "where do they come from?" is a very difficult question for someone who doesn't believe in God. Kant formulated the categorical imperative, but it doesn't really work because, as Hume says, it doesn't engage the passions. J.S. Mill's attempt to reduce ethics to utilitarianism doesn't wash because its foundation is based on some verbal sleight-of-hand (or -pen). I feel another digression coming on.
The proof that something is audible is that you can hear it, wrote Mill. Likewise, the proof that something is desirable is that you can desire it. Hence, ethics, to promote desirable things, must necessarily promote the things that people desire.

I'm oversimplifying Mill, and probably distorting him, too, but I'm confident that I got the comparison between "audible" and "desirable" correct. The problem, of course, is that what *can* be desired, or what *is* desired, is not what "desirable" means in the ethical sense. Rather, when we say something is desirable in the moral sense, what we mean is that it ought to be desired, that it should be desired, that it is honorable and good.
In the opening essay of Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis writes that the human perception of right and wrong gives us some valuable clues to the meaning of the universe - the meaning of life.

But at your age, this argument didn't do much for me. Neither did the next one, but I'll tell you anyway.

The Empty Tomb

The essence of Buddhism, or Taoism, or Yoga or TM or any other philosophy or ethical system, is a set of principles. You follow the 8-fold path, you do certain practices, you train your mind and/or body in certain ways, you suppress desires, and you get the goodies. Exactly where the principles came from isn't the point -- the point is the principles themselves. Did the Buddha reach enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, or was he on a ship at sea? Who cares? Did Baba Ram Dass do mescaline, or was it LSD or "magic" mushrooms? Who cares? The point is that the adherents or practitioners do the practices, they train themselves, they empty their minds, they do whatever.

But isn't Christianity the same? To be sure, there are some similarities. Do some religions teach that desire brings suffering? "Do not love the world, nor the things in the world," says the Bible.

Is self-denial important? Jesus says, "... let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me."

How about charity? "Sell your possessions and give to the poor."

Many (but not all!) of the principles are the same across religions, but most important is the man Jesus. His birth is important, but not nearly as important as his death and resurrection. Two of the four evangelists, Mark and John, don't mention his birth at all; Matthew mentions the Magi, and Luke mentions the shepherds. There are no discrepancies, but little overlap.

But all four evangelists mention his death and resurrection, and the resurrection is shown as the pivotal event. When the frightened, demoralized, scattered bunch of disciples encounter the resurrection, they turn around and turn the established religious order upside down.

Peter, who before the resurrection denied Jesus before a servant girl, became a bold spokesman who faced beatings, scourgings, imprisonment and death for him. The others do similar things.

The principles are important to Christianity, but the center is Jesus Christ himself, and in particular the fact of the empty tomb -- his body has never been found, in spite of the best efforts of very powerful, highly motivated people.

So why is the empty tomb so important? Here's how I understand it.

The gospels report -- as do the records of Josephus -- that Jesus of Nazareth said a lot of important things. Among them were:
1. The Scriptures (what we today call the Old Testament) are the infallible word of God.
2. That God is my father and I am one with him in a unique way.
3. I will be killed but will rise on the third day
4. After I leave, I will send my spirit, who will guide you in all truth and tell you what to say (and, by implication, write)
Because #3 came true (his body has never been found), that's an indication to me that #1-#4 are all true.

People may say the gospels form a self-serving fantasy, but whom do they serve? The disciples do not come off looking very good. Consider Mark chapter 16:
When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus' body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, "Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?" But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. "Don't be alarmed," he said. "You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.'" Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
Whom does this serve? Mary and Mary? I don't think so. At the beginning, they go to the tomb without a plan. They receive instructions to "go, tell his disciples..." but they say nothing to anyone.

Then does this serve the male disciples? Nah! You have to understand that at the time this was written, the testimony of a woman was not admissible in a court of law. If this were a fantasy that was supposed to make the men look good, the men would have been the ones to get the angelic visit. And they wouldn't have muffed the instructions, either!

"OK," some have said, "Maybe it's not a self-serving fantasy; maybe it's a fantasy serving some vision of a greater good. These guys were really dedicated fanatics." A valid point, but let's consider how likely it really is. These guys stuck to their guns, many of them to horrific deaths. I have never read Foxe's Book of Martyrs, but you might find it instructive.

In Born Again, Charles Colson deals with this theory. The men involved in the Watergate break-in believed they were doing the Right Thing, but the conspiracy fell apart pretty quickly. What were these guys threatened with? A few months in a minimum-security facility. Would they be killed? Tortured? Ha!

The contrast is laughable. Smart, well-educated lawyers threatened with a few months in a minimum-security facility couldn't hold a conspiracy together even a few months, for something they believed was a worthy goal. How likely is it that Jesus's disciples, these (for the most part) uneducated men could hold on to a lie their whole lives -- in the face of starvation, torture, and death?

I'm sure these arguments won't convince you.

That's all right. If I've sown a few seeds of doubt in your faith of atheism, that'll be fine.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

My grandmother's story -- and mine

The lovely Carol said it would be a good thing to tell my Grandmother's story, and some of my own as well. I've taken some liberties with the details, some of which I forgot and others of which I never knew. But that doesn't stop me from making them up.

This story begins in Korea, when my grandmother was about 17. She knew from the servants' whispers that something was up. Her mother came to her. "Listen to me. Your father is going to suggest something to you. It might sound interesting and exciting, but you should absolutely say 'No' because you have no idea what you'd be getting yourself into." You can see it coming already, can't you?

The proposition was to get on a boat for Hawaii, where she would marry a nice-looking young man (he had sent his photo). She thought about it. Their house had been burned down once before (apparently some traditionalists didn't like the idea of Christians in their neighborhood), and life seemed to her a little boring. The man looked nice, and she thought Hawaii sounded fine. No snow there in the winter! So, against her mother's advice, she left.

It must have been quite a shock when she realized what it would mean to board the ship alone. I wonder when she realized that she would never again have a servant to command. At the end of the voyage, her husband-to-be greeted her, but he was several decades older than the man in the photo. A friend of his had posed for the picture! But now she was in Hawaii, and that was that.

Soon she was a young widow who picked pineapple to support herself and spoke no English. Friends set her up with a young man, and they married and started having children. Shortly after the birth of her seventh baby, she found herself again a widow, living in plantation housing, and working in the fields. One day, when she was in the fields, the baby came down with something at the sitter's, and never recovered.

My mom, aunts and uncles grew up in rural Maui. There was no snow, but there was plenty of work. As the older kids got jobs, they would turn over their earnings to Grandma, who saved it up; when she moved to Honolulu and bought a house, she did not take out a mortgage. Somehow she had managed to save up the full price. That house is worth over a million dollars today.

Long after Grandma died, I heard that my mom and her sisters had gone to boarding school. How could Grandma have afforded that? I sure don't know, but when I heard that, I gained a greater appreciation for the high value she had placed on education.

About that house: there was an apartment, what might be called an "in-law unit" today. (I don't know exactly when she sold the house to my parents.) She lived there, and when we were growing up, she was often in charge of us. She spent a lot of time trying to pass on her values, and to warn us about what lay ahead. "This world goes by fast," she said. Was she ever right! It seems like only yesterday when she told me that, one evening over dinner. It might have been one of those nights when I decided to eat with her in her apartment (she didn't always eat with us in the house.)

One day, I came home from school with a report card. What was on it, she wanted to know. I had one "A" and the rest "B"s. She wanted to know why not one "B" and the rest "A"s?? My mother had routinely gotten straight As, and had spent a year abroad on a Fulbright fellowship.

One day, Grandma came home and announced that she was now a US citizen. She had signed up and taken the class, then the exam, without telling anyone about it -- until she was sworn in.

Later, she moved to an apartment near the Ala Moana shopping center. She never drove a car, but took the bus everywhere.

My parents shared Grandma's esteem of education. They told us kids that they'd pay for four years at wherever we wanted to go. I don't know how they managed to do it, but they saved up. Growing up, though, I never thought we were poor. We ate out once a week (my sister reminded me of that recently); We had two big famiily vacations - getting on airplanes and flying all the way to the mainland - when we were growing up. We also had camping trips and a lot of picnics. We did go to the neighbor islands, too, but I'm sure we didn't travel every year.

I was very fortunate in high school to have a math teacher who believed in me. My high school didn't have a calculus course -- I don't think there were any AP courses at all -- so she encouraged me to take courses at the university. I went to summer school to get some requirements out of the way, and by the time I started my senior year I had almost enough units for graduation. That year, I took a full load at the University of Hawaii (seven minutes on a bicycle from my parents' garage!), which cost a whopping $120.76 per semester iirc. I remember complaining to one of the profs about the price of one of the textbook -- over $10, and no used copies were available.

My math teacher, a staunch 7th Day Adventist (I was a devout heathen at the time) strongly encouraged me to go to Stanford. She must have written a great recommendation because I got in. With the head start on my classes, and taking a full load the next summer (at UH), I finished in two years. This was real important to me because Stanford was ridiculously expensive: over $1100 a quarter just for tuition (and there were three of them in an academic year). I was convinced this was a scam to get more money out of us, and was eager to get my parents' money's worth. My youngest sister went to USC, where she finished her undergrad work in three years. A couple of months ago, at my parents' anniversary party, my dad remarked that everybody in our family has a degree -- except him (he ran out of money). They didn't run out of money for us, though. They saved and paid the bills and never took out loans for college. Did I mention that somehow I never thought I was poor?

When I was about to graduate from Stanford, Grandma got together with my parents. She was done traveling, she said, but she wanted to spend some money on a present for me: she gave them four thousand dollars -- for my first new car! It's difficult to imagine now, at the beginning of the 21st century, what that meant, but I happened to run across one of her old payslips from the pineapple cannery (she had "graduated" from the fields at some point). They paid her a few dollars a day at the time she was retiring.

My parents were astonished by this -- my mom said something about not being fair to the other grandchildren. Grandma was incensed. "Isn't this mine to do with what I want? Do you want to wait 'til I die and divide up what's left?" she demanded. My mother was taken aback (maybe some day I'll ask her about it), and said something or other. Grandma would not be mollified. "What meaning that?" she asked. (I don't remember how it was I got to hear this conversation, but I clearly remember her exact words -- "What meaning that?")

Some years later, she broke her hip and moved back in with my parents. She died at 89. Sometimes I wish I could ask her opinion about things.

Out of college, I got a job with HP, where I worked for 26 years. I started with my parents' view of money. It's OK to have a little fun, I thought, but you'd better save, because you never know when a rainy day will come. But then, something happened: I met Jesus. And I read William MacDonald's True Discipleship, wherein he claimed Christians shouldn't have savings accounts, especially not savings accounts for a rainy day. I memorized verses like "Sell your possessions and give to the poor" and "Do not store up treasures for yourselves on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal." In perhaps an over-reaction, I emptied my savings accounts. Donor relations people visited me and invited me to lunch a couple of times. Apparently they didn't realize I was making under $30,000 a year, so the bonanza they'd just seen from me would never be repeated.

Since that time, I've taken a more stewardship-oriented view of money, a trend which only accelerated when I married the lovely Carol and we started having children. The kids are getting to the age where our pitiful efforts at college-savings plans look, well, pitiful. College will cost me about ten times as much as it cost my parents -- per kid! The other day, my younger daughter saw a statement from one of the 529 plans -- with some $20,000 in it. She was impressed that we had that much saved already (ha! that's not even half a year's expenses at a private college today, let alone when she's in college). But that $20,000 represents saying "No" two hundred times to some $100 expense.

There's going to be a lot more of that around here by the time the kids get through college.

For now, though, we take vacations at least once a year. Sometimes we go skiing, sometimes we go to the mountains for a week (or so) with friends in the summer. This year we went to Europe. Jenny has gone on some academic program every year since 2003. Sheri takes dance and art lessons, and will travel to the South with a school group early next year. When I was growing up, skiing and international travel were only for rich people.

Yet with all that, I sometimes worry that we are, as Garrison Keillor said, "somehow less than our parents, and are giving less to our children." In his monologue from 1989, his "classmate" was talking about the knowledge of some really important things. "How did a child grow up in my house without ever hearing 'O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless streets / the silent stars go by'?" he asks.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Skills are not enough

Some of us are reading McConnell's Rapid Development, and this question arose:

Why, ten years after that book was written, are most of the software organizations we know are still messed up? Does McConnell's advice actually not work?

Here was my take on it. Usually I'm not quite so excitable at the office, but I had to read patent applications, and that made me grouchy. Edgy. Whatever.

OK, here's my irrational rant of the day. (my first of the day.)

I believe that the problem is the technical mindset. By that I mean we focus on technique rather than on character. This mindset is endemic to our culture in this period of time: look at all the how-to books. The weakness, however, is seen in the titles of all those "Dummies" books. No matter how much technique a dummy may have, s/he is still a dummy without changes in CHARACTER.

If I think wishfully rather than realistically, that's not a skills issue; it's a character issue. If I deny reality rather than face the truth that (my team and) I have screwed up yet again, that's character, not technique.

I said "culture" above rather than "industry" because Dummies books aren't limited to what we usually think of "tech" (as in technology) subjects, although they *are* focused on "tech" as in techniques, and skills....

In fact, sorry to say, this kind of technique-obsessed thinking has infiltrated the church (you can mentally substitute any other religious or civic group with a fair chance of being correct) -- what do we need for successful small groups, choirs, programs? Skills! Classes! Training! Technique!

Bah! What we need is integrity, holiness (in some areas), zeal, leadership, and guts! Not just technique! Not just skills! Technique and skills are just crap if my head is full of wishful thinking. You can see this if in place of "civic group" you put "marriage." Your wife doesn't want skills and technique (well, maybe in some things), she wants YOU.

What we need in software development, BESIDES knowledge of tools and techniques and skills, is discipline, reality, courage.

What we have, early in the 21st century is lots and lots of technocrats, very smart and highly skilled people who may be OK in the character department, but not great. Not highly courageous. Not highly disciplined.

That includes me.

Reading these accursed patent applications makes me feel very edgy.

Regarding McConnell's advice (in the book) I said:

It would work if only we would follow it. We cannot master software if we only work on technique. We must first master ourselves.


Saturday, December 10, 2005

The final result (for now)

Whew! It's been a while.

Back in November I had an issue with giving blood, where they said they wanted to wait for my next cardiac exam... I guess it would be Bad if I had a heart attack while giving blood? I had a CT angiogram Thanksgiving week. The technology was fascinating, and it showed enough for them to recommend a nuclear myocardial perfusion study. I called the office to schedule it, and the receptionist said, "You want an exercise Thallium?" Sounded about right to me. I had that the following week, and that was very interesting too. They shot me with something radioactive and took pictures of my heart... then put me on the treadmill and repeated the procedure (with a different radioisotope).

You want the pictures to be identical -- that is, the pattern of blood flow into your heart when you're resting should be the same pattern as when exercising. If the patterns differ, then you have an exercise-related blockage which makes you a candidate for some sort of event later on.

In my case, after the last set of pictures, the doctor came in smiling. "Good news," he said, because the two sets of pictures showed there was no significant blockage in those vessels.

So that's good news! I'll bet the blood-donation people will be happy to take my blood now.