Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Sheri will only go to one college next fall

The elder teen said I should post this recommendation letter on my blog, so here it is:

Sirs and/or mesdames:

Let me begin by outlining Sheri's weaknesses; this section will be quite short. Sheri can't do multiple integrals in her head and doesn't intuitively understand why log a / log b = logb a. She doesn't always put things away, and occasionally makes a wrong turn while driving. She manages her time no better than her 50-something dad does; consequently she sometimes finds herself pressed for time as a deadline approaches. I would not use her as a packhorse on a backpacking trip. And she has an inflated estimate of my practical and intellectual capabilities. (I have no such illusions about hers.)

About her strengths: I hardly know where to begin. You've seen her grades and test scores; what you haven't seen, as I have, is her ability to see things more quickly than the rest of her family. When she went with me to see Superman Returns, she expressed her surprise at how much of a Christ-figure the hero was. Once she made the connection for me, it was obvious (his self-sacrifice and “resurrection”). Also a few years back, when she heard of N.T. Wright's then-new book, Simply Christian, it came to her immediately that the title was a ripoff of Lewis's Mere Christianity.

I love her passion for the visual arts, which took her on several summer programs and a semester at the Oxbow School. Sometimes at home she will put a canvas on her easel and spend hours creating, revising, refining.

Her desire to engage the world took her to the South on “Sojourn to the Past” and led her to co-sponsor (with her sister) a child in the developing world. We have had many conversations about what she wants to do with her life, how she can make a contribution, make a difference.

Sheri is no stranger to the performing arts. You should see her in action with the (K-5) Sunday school kids, where she leads songs and skits as a long-term regular volunteer. She is, in the words of the church staff, “a rock star.” She is also a terrific dancer, with a pile of medals and trophies from competitions.

Her intellectual curiosity is another of her strengths. She is better read at 17 than I was at 25, having read many articles from the Atlantic, nonfiction like Why We Buy and The Tipping Point, besides a bunch of literature that I don't track. None of this was for school, but for her own edification and entertainment.

What makes Sheri unique? It would have to be the combination of generous and compassionate engagement with her world, joyful and talented expressiveness, intellectual curiosity, and her ability to see things others miss.

Monday, December 29, 2008

A great moment in parenting

My buddy "Bob" told me about a recent dinnertime conversation. His college-age daughter "Irene" is reputed to be an expert at waking people up. Here's what Irene said:
My roommate Lori had just one day between the last day of classes and her first final exam, so she told me to wake her up so she could get an early start studying. I woke up a little before her alarm went off, and lay in bed thinking. Her alarm went off and she hit the snooze button. She usually does this. But half an hour later, I decided it was time to take action.

"Lori..." I called, and she grunted.

"Lori... If you wake up... I'll make you some hot chocolate!"

She sat right up and said "Okay!"
Somebody remarked on this great technique, and as Bob tells tells it, she looked at him and said, "I learned it from my dad!"

As "Bob" says, "I don't have many great moments in parenting, but this was one of them."

I guess it was!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Christmas cards -- on NPR!

This evening, on NPR's All Things Considered, an opinion piece came on, talking about a recent Christmas-card trend. Instead of Jesus and Mary, this person said, one tears open the envelope to find -- photos of the senders! Maybe it's a summer vacation photo, taken on some Caribbean beach -- or maybe the family dressed in red and green....

I like family photos, he says, but he would rather prefer to see them inside the card. Think I'm being too picky? he asked. He suggested that for your next birthday card, he'd send one with a photo of himself on the front. Bad taste? Exactly.

On the outside of the card, how about the Holy Family instead of your family? How about the Virgin Mary instead of the Virgin Islands?

I'm not Catholic, but I certainly enjoyed hearing the man's perspective (he's a Jesuit priest) -- and on NPR too! He was realistic -- he realizes he's fighting Shutterfly and Kodak &c., but still....

Monday, December 15, 2008

The key?

In George MacDonald's eponymous story, a boy finds The Golden Key at (surprise!) the rainbow's end. "Mossy" soon meets a woman calling herself "Grandmother," who tells him he must find the matching keyhole. "That is your work," she tells him. "I cannot help you."

She meant, "I can't do it for you," because she feeds him and gives him some advice for his journey. She also assigns him a companion, a girl called "Tangle." (The 19th century "boy meets girl" dialogue is sweet and truly precious.)

I don't know exactly what MacDonald meant by the story, but here is what came to me as I re-read parts of it on this particular morning of my 53rd year:
  • This year I feel (like Mossy) as though I've found a keyhole (not the keyhole) corresponding to my particular mix of gifts, skills, inclinations, etc.
  • Like Grandmother, I can do no one's work for them, but I can offer help of various kinds.
  • It's good to have a companion, though if you get separated for a while, the quest remains.
I guess I should confess: yes, I have the hubris to think you might be interested in what "a keyhole" might be for my gift mix. But that's not the only reason I want to tell you; I also hope that what I found might be encouraging to someone. So here are a few things that, when I do them, as Eric Liddell famously said, "I feel his pleasure":
  • Meeting with people in small groups -- sometimes very small groups (i.e. 1-1) to listen to them and cheer them on. Young people who desire to grow spiritually are especially fun for me to be with, because it is so exciting to see the steps of faith they're taking, and also because I can tell a story or ask a question that will stimulate their thinking or encourage them in their walk.
  • Doing practical things that serve people. In the past few weeks, I've had a great time preparing and delivering food to the needy, shopping for groceries and other gifts (again for the needy), and doing construction on a Habitat for Humanity home. I probably should do more of this.
  • Obviously, I also enjoy writing (prose and code) and solving complex problems. Which I suppose is no less of a gift and need be no less part of my mission, though I consider those more just for me :) than for serving others.
Not earth-shaking, but that's what came to me. Some readers may note a lack of ambition: I don't have designs on becoming a bishop; at the office I rather doubt I'll ever become Director of anything. Sure it would be nice to invent something that would save a billion lives (as Norman Borlaug did), but let's face it -- that's not me.

But being Grandmother to other "Mossy"s -- and at turns being "Mossy" myself -- that's what brings joy to me and pleasure to my Master, and it is, for this stage anyway, what I do. And I'm grateful today to be able to enjoy this great life.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Who are those citizens?

Yesterday, our worship leader chose "Come All Ye Faithful," which I'm sure I've sung hundreds of times. But we had something new in the second verse:
Sing, choirs of angels
      Sing in exaltation
      Sing, all ye citizens of heaven above.
"Glory to God,
      all glory in the highest"
As we started the line "Sing, all ye citizens" our worship leader pointed at us!

Now from the context it's clear that when the lyricist wrote "all ye citizens of heaven," the intention was to address the angels. They are the ones who, as Luke tells us, sang "Glory to God...' to the shepherds.

But our worship leader's gesture reminded me that in fact we are citizens of heaven, as the Apostle Paul tells us: "But our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body into conformity with his glorious body, by the power which he has to subject all things to himself." (Philippians 3:20-21)

What a great verse, and a great reminder that is! King Jesus rules over all things, and that same power is what he's using to transform us and make us clean. Good news!

Friday, December 05, 2008

Caltrain woes

Wednesday I put my train pass and my corporate badge into the other bag, and forgot to switch it back that night. So when I got on the train Thursday morning, I had an OOPS moment. I had a brief chat with the conductor: "I just realized that I forgot my monthly pass in the other bag."

"Oh, okay," she said. "You're going to stay in this car? We've already done our check in here." Whew -- she believed me.

When I got to Mountain View, I went ahead and bought a VTA ticket. The VTA fare inspectors only show up occasionally, and there's no chance they'd recognize me.

Well, I got to work and had to "tailgate" to get into the building; fortunately it was someone who recognized me.

Thursday evening, I was chatting with my buddy Jay about this, and he handed me his credit card receipt. "I just carry this in my bag all the time," he said. The amount -- $106 for a monthly two-zone caltrain pass -- is usually enough to convince the fare inspectors that you probably have a pass.

We got back to Mountain View, where I was going to transfer to Caltrain for the ride home. Guess what -- Caltrain had apparently lost signal capability earlier in the day, so they were giving out free rides. Whee!

And on Friday morning...

I arrived at the Menlo Park Caltrain station to see an announcement scrolling by on the electronic signs. There was an "incident" in San Mateo, and southbound trains would be delayed. They didn't say how long. I got in my car and turned on the radio as I started the drive to work. The incident involved a pedestrian on the tracks. Uh-oh.

So I had my pass today but didn't use it.

We have got to stop killing people with these trains. I think most of the time, people are taking a shortcut or are just impatient. I don't know what it was this morning....

Monday, December 01, 2008

The chicken or the egg?

Through her exceptional book The Nurture Assumption, Judy Harris has profoundly influenced the way I read and understand the findings of social science research. One gem was her explanation of how data can be sifted, sliced and diced to produce puzzling results, which are sometimes utterly meaningless. Another was an insight about the (dis)connection between causality and statistics.

It is by now a commonplace that children who are praised tend to be sunnier and well-behaved, whereas children who are scolded and beaten tend to be ill-mannered. It's been presented that way as a finding of social science -- there are probably dozens of citations because it seems to me I've been reading this for decades. (I won't look them up for you; I'm offline at the moment.)

But statistics can't tell you whether kids are well-behaved because they're praised, or praised because they're well-behaved. In other words, the correlation between good behavior and good treatment could just as well be explained as:
Nice children get praised; surly children get beaten.
So why did we hear the converse for so long? Well, "nice children get praised, surly children get beaten" just doesn't sound very interesting. I mean, Duh! How much would you pay a researcher to tell you that? An article with that "shocking result" would never get printed! But "praised children are nicer" -- now that's an interesting conclusion -- even if it's misleading and useless!

Here's another one. I read somewhere that happy people tend to be healthier, more successful in their careers (and thus financially) than unhappy people. Or was it that healthier, richer, more successful people tend to be happier? (The comparisons were within the same culture; it wasn't saying that Americans were happier than Ethiopians for example.) Cross-sectional data won't tell us; we need time-series data -- we need to monitor people for decades. We must find happy 25-30 year olds, and see how healthy and rich and successful they are at 45-50. Or we can just assume that the causality works one way, and declare our assumption to be the assured results of a rigorous statistical analysis!

I tend to think that happy people tend to succeed, rather than the other way round. People who tend to be unhappy don't become happy when their plan works, when they get that promotion, or when their bank account grows. And happy people, who smile and encourage others -- realistically happy people I mean, not Pollyannas -- are easier to work with than Eeyores. It's easy to believe they get more promotions and find success more often, too. But that's just a hunch; the statistics so far neither prove nor disprove my guess.

A final example: religious people give more blood -- this according to Jonathan Haidt, the honest liberal atheist and psychology professor. Do these religious people give more blood because they believe in God, or attend church or synagogue? Or do generous people (who give blood as part of a generous lifestyle) tend to believe in God and join churches and synagogues?

I tend to believe the former, because I think God has the power to change people, but honestly I don't know how much of the effect is due to each cause. It could be that generous, religious people get that way because they're more aware of how much they've received. Statistics don't say.

As an engineer, how do I deal with all this? Well, as an engineer I simply note the correlation when it's useful to me. As a human being and a Christian, though, I pray (no statistics on that) and I give. And when I read "A new study shows that..." I think a little more than I used to about whether the study might show something else.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

33 for Thanksgiving (the day after, actually)

Thirty signed up for our pot-luck, plus the three of us (the elder teen didn't travel cross-country to join us for the 4-day weekend -- go figure). Some canceled; I think we had about 25. Friends loaned folding chairs and long tables, and we rented flatware and more folding chairs from an outfit downtown.

Who came? Immigrants from Japan, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Korea, China, and the UK at least. Some Americans came, too. "Red and yellow, black and white...."

People brought fabulous food, and good times were had by all. The lovely Carol had asked me to say a few words about thanksgiving (the practice and the American holiday), since we weren't sure everyone knew the story. So I mentioned the foolishness of some early colonists, who ate all their seed grain, and God's provision in spite of their silliness -- the idea being that even when we do dumb things, God is willing and able to help us out.

Then I talked about the idea of giving thanks as a spiritual practice: if you're feeling depressed, it's hard to stay that way after writing down a dozen items I'm thankful for. At least it's hard for me. It's actually not that hard to write a dozen items -- do you have two arms and two legs? Do you know how to read?

I related a conversation I had with a friend at church last Sunday. By making it a habit to give thanks, I said, we can take a step in the direction of more love, joy, and peace. My friend also mentioned his friend's 94-year-old aunt. Her diabetes had reached an advanced stage, and both her legs had been amputated. But when her nephew walked through the door, she turned toward him, her face like the sun. "Johnny! How nice to see you!" He asked how she was doing -- "I'm doing great!"

Now do you suppose that she was grouchy most of her life, then decided at age 90 to become joyful instead? I don't think so! I don't know a lot about this woman, but I think it's a safe bet that thankfulness was a long-standing habit.

One of the attendees added that those who know Jesus have this additional reason to be thankful: that God showed his love toward us in the person of Jesus Christ. He mentioned the passage in 1 Thessalonians 5 that talks about giving thanks in all circumstances -- not necessarily for everything that happens, but whatever happens, we can give thanks to God.

So here is my list for tonight:
  1. I can read. (I'll let you decide whether you think I can write.)
  2. I have access to the internet
  3. great food, in especially great abundance the past few days
  4. a corner market that stocks King's kim chee (or "kimchi")
  5. appliances that work
  6. the knowledge that I'm already forgiven, and the promise that one day I'll be made perfect
  7. ten functioning fingers (or as we'd say in junior-high, eight fingers and two thumbs)
  8. a fascinating, beautiful, sexy wife
  9. enough turkey gravy for once (1½ quarts)
  10. a keyboard setup that more or less works for the lovely Carol
  11. leftovers
  12. blue sky today
  13. orange clouds at sunset
  14. the younger teen's whistling
  15. Ender in Exile (Card)
  16. Return of the King (the novel and the film)

Sunday, November 23, 2008

I can't watch this!

This has been an unusual week; we watched movies for four hours, Friday and Saturday nights (about two hours each), and another hour or so on Wednesday. So if you feel so inclined, take a guess about which film we were watching when I stood up and left...
  1. Frank Capra's It Happened One Night, with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert;
  2. V for Vendetta, with Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving; or
  3. Woody Allen's Match Point
Let's see, #1 was corny, #2 was full of blood and gore, #3 had Scarlett Johansson, who in her younger days looked like Janet, who we know from church.

Well, it was #3, but not because I disapprove of Scarlett Johansson (I thought she was terrific in Lost in Translation). Rather, I didn't want to watch the tennis pro character, Chris, manipulate the people around him, particularly his girlfriend (and ticket to the executive suite) Chloe. After reading wikipedia's plot summary, I was especially glad I didn't watch it 'til the end.

V for Vendetta was scary in a completely different way. No-warrant wiretaps by the Bush administration, and the military's (historical) deliberate release of viral agents provided some of the fodder I suppose for this dystopian thriller.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Will there be layoffs? Let's try this first!

OK, this is absolutely not the view of my employer, my employer is not contemplating layoffs, but let's be realistic, nobody knows what the future holds, right?

So if things get so bad that a company is considering layoffs, here is an alternative I heard several years ago from an old boss. You've heard of the graduated income tax? This is the graduated income cut. The idea is that some people in the company make a ton of money (as one CEO said, "They pay me more than I know what to do with") and others make a lot less. The CEO-class of annual income could tolerate quite a large pay cut with a little inconvenience, whereas for the latter, even a 5% cut could be quite painful.

So, instead of doing a 10% pay cut across the board (as was sometimes done at HP), what if we said
  • At $250,000 or more annual income, you can tolerate a 20% pay cut without any real "pain."
  • At $50,000 or less, we probably don't want to cut your pay at all.
  • For ranges in between, we'll cut your pay by an amount that varies linearly with your annual income in excess of $50,000
Let me give some examples:
  • $50,000 and below: 0% pay cut
  • $51,000: 0.1% pay cut
  • $52,000: 0.2% pay cut
    ...and so on...
  • $60,000: 1% pay cut
  • $70,000: 2% pay cut
  • $80,000: 3% pay cut
    ...and so on...
  • $100,000: 5% pay cut
  • $150,000: 10% pay cut
  • $200,000: 15% pay cut
  • $240,000: 19% pay cut
  • $249,000: 19.9% pay cut
  • $250,000 and up: 20% pay cut
Call me a socialist, but I think the 5% lost by the $100,000 guy will hurt him or her more than the 20% lost by the $250,000 guy.

Now if you're in an industry or a part of the country where $50,000 is a ton of money, well, you can slide the figures around to where they make sense. But this is just a Dumb Idea™ anyway with no traction I've ever heard of -- except at one, ah, exceptional company.

The algebra for the above is like this. Let
A = current annual income
N = proposed new annual income under this graduated pay cut scheme.
  • N=A if A≤$50,000
  • N=0.8A if A≥$250,000
  • N=A(1 - (A-50000)/1000000) otherwise.
There's probably a generalized formula if one wants to have a linear increase in the pay-cut from 0 at annual income A0 to Pmax at annual income A1, but it's now time for me to drill holes in the walls so we can hang aprons up on them.

Our tax dollars at work -- in the DA's office!

After the ordeal we endured for our kitchen countertops, I had brief (5-10 minute) phone conversations with some attorneys, who advised me to file a complaint against Eco Design Resources (old website). It would be useless, they told me, to file a lawsuit for this amount of money.

I finally got around to requesting a copy of the canceled check, then assembling a package (the quote from Eco Design, a letter acknowledging receipt, credit card receipts, etc., and sending the whole kit and caboodle off to the DA's office -- consumer and real estate fraud unit.

Yesterday I got a call from a Mr. Finney, who had some interesting information for me.

First, Eco Design Resources is, according to a fictitious business name notice, owned by the same Michael Schaeffer who owns the Green Building Exchange, which you can read about in this September article and this announcement. Mr. Schaeffer apparently has an office there, at 1 Chestnut Avenue South San Francisco, 650-588-1113.

Mr. Finney also said that he talked to Ernestine Jensen at Scan-Top, who apparently are owed some $36,000.

He seemed quite concerned because this sure looks sleazy -- Schaeffer apparently has not filed for bankruptcy, contrary to the signs that my wife found at the old building in Redwood City. It might be a police matter, but we don't yet have enough information to know whether that's the case or not.

The Green Building Exchange is re-opening today in South San Francisco. I plan to head on up there soon, with copies of the quote from EDR, the canceled check, and the complaint filed with the DA's office. I will show these to Mr. Schaeffer and ask for my money back.

I'll also have several more copies to hand to any reporters who happen to be there, in case he doesn't come through.

So if you hear I've been shot, or my body was found in some random alley or in the bottom of the bay, it won't be an accident or some random violent act. But hey, my life insurance (not with AIG) is paid up, and I know where I'm going, so what's the worst that could happen? (H'm, I suddenly remember that film A River Runs Through It).

Update: what happened

Well, I asked a couple of people if Michael was around; they seemed to think he was wandering around somewhere, but I never did find him. I talked with one young fellow who was working there ("I'm out $5,000 myself," he said), essentially volunteering, because he believed in the idea of green construction practices, building materials, etc.

Here's what I think: I think he's working for a very persuasive fellow. He's volunteering right now essentially -- reading between the lines, it looks like he just hasn't been paid. The hope, he says, is that business will pick up and Schaeffer will be able to pay people what they're owed. I don't know how much business he'll have to do to pay his bills, but it looks like right now he's just not paying people.

I told this young innocent (who said that Michael "did what he had to do to keep the business afloat") that you can't take one person's money and use it for something else.

I did wander around a bit, looking at some displays and chatting with one or two of the vendors. Whole Foods had donated some food -- I enjoyed a tasty apple.

I could have tried harder to find Michael, but confrontations like this are not my idea of a good time.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The best shopping trip ever

So our church is working with the "Samaritan's Purse" people to provide gifts for disadvantaged children. The idea is that you stuff a shoebox, or similar-sized container, with goodies -- they provide good/bad lists (chocolate is on the "bad" list, probably because of tropical temperatures in transit), add some cash for shipping, and they take it from there. I saw no spare shoe-boxen lying around, so with encouragement from the younger teen, opted for the container.

Last night I went to Target (pronounced tahr-JAY by some of us pseudo-sophisticates) and roamed around before asking (hey, I'm a guy) about shoebox-sized containers. The helpful staff led me right to them -- less than $2 for a Made-in-USA plastic box of just the right size.

Then I found stuff to go into it: toothbrush and toothpaste, a hairbrush and comb set, a box of 24 real wood pencils, a sharpener, and 3-pack of Pink Pearl® erasers. A box of eight Crayola® crayons (which claim to be "preferred by teachers", maybe because of the low price). A notebook. A pack of Post-It™s. Multi-colored paper clips of two kinds (the binder-clip kind and the kind French people call "trombones"). An Etch-A-Sketch™ (that  brought back some memories for me). As I placed each item into the box (I wanted to make sure they'd all fit), I imagined the recipient discovering it. Oh, I could use this for... (or My friends and I could...). The whole thing put me in a good mood.

And for my last purchase: a T-shirt. By the way I wandered around (hey, I'm a guy) any semi-observant person could have told I never buy girls’ clothing there. Eventually, though, I found the T-shirts, excuse me, the tops.  There were some plain ones, and some with fancy designs on the front -- pictures of way too much jewelry, but cute. Yeah, I spent the extra $2 for the fancier one.

The whole thing cost me less than $50 -- less than $40 actually, since the younger teen had donated $10. I think I've enough cash in my wallet for shipping the box. I can't recall the last time I had so much fun in a public place. (Actually I can, but I won't tell you about it here. It was in Hokkaido, and what happens in Hokkaido stays in Hokkaido.)


But when I got home, I completely forgot about a 7:30pm phone appointment with someone in Bangalore -- until 90 minutes after the fact. Imagine my embarrassment! So I'm wearing my Alzheimer's Association T-shirt today.

He graciously allowed me to reschedule it for 6:30 this morning, though, and we had a great conversation.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

What, me worry? Well, I'm worried about this!

The conflicts around California's Prop 8 have got me worried about the erosion of a civil right in this state. I'm not talking about the right to get married, but the right to express an opinion.

Lawn signs have been stolen -- in the newspaper I've read only that "Yes on 8" signs have been stolen (apparently thousands of them), but I've heard that in some neighborhoods, "No on 8" signs have also disappeared.

Threats have been made, and people have gotten into fistfights -- we're talking about expressing an opinion here!

What ever happened to "I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it"?

Unlike many other countries, laws are supposed to mean something in this country. Here we're supposed to play by a set of rules, and I'm afraid we haven't had a lot of shining examples of that lately. Bush's no-warrant domestic wiretaps, Mayor Newsom's unauthorized "issue same-sex marriage licenses," and so on.

So when I see a sign I dislike, well, why not steal it when my neighbor isn't home? Or put an opposing sign right in front of it?

If someone's marching in a demonstration, and I don't like what they're saying, why not punch them out?

If some business donated money to a cause I don't like, why not vandalize their building?

Two reasons why not:
  1. Because it's wrong and unfair; or if you don't believe in right and wrong...
  2. Because this is America, for goodness's sake, not Zimbabwe.
Violence and lawlessness is not just "the final refuge of the incompetent" but it will bring about the downfall of civil society. If we don't play by the rules, we will become Zimbabwe.

Now, is it OK to call for a boycott on some business because I don't like their policies? Sure, that's your right.

Is it OK to march peacefully outside? Of course it is!

Is it OK to barge into a church and disrupt their meeting? Only if it's also OK to barge into an abortion clinic and disrupt legal activities therein. In other words, no!

I would like leaders on both sides to repudiate violence and lawlessness. Is that a vain hope?

When it comes to freedom of speech in California -- Oooh, do I worry....

Update November 19

Well, the San Jose Mercury News makes my point in this editorial:
Had supporters of gay marriage shown as much fervor for their cause before the Nov. 4 election as they have since, they probably would have defeated Proposition 8. But they will surely fail in their campaign to repeal the ban if threats and coercion continue to be among their tactics.
We may disagree on the merits of prop. 8 (or lack thereof), but they have it exactly right that vandalism and coercion are counterproductive and should be out of bounds.

Herhold goes even further in this piece:
You can understand why the advocates of the right to gay marriage are furious.
But the grass-roots plan for a boycott of the people and businesses who contributed to Proposition 8, from Leatherby's Ice Cream in Sacramento to the Cupertino dentist who gave $1,000, is the wrong tactic, a blunt club when a scalpel is called for. It will backfire.
Same deal here -- we disagree on prop. 8, but agree that civil discourse is important in a civil society.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Power of Jesus’ Name

"How can I pray for you today?" the lovely Carol asked me this morning. That I could be a good listener, I said. I was having lunch with "Jane," a mother with small children who works not far from my office.

I headed downstairs at the appointed hour and found Jane in the lobby. After some talk about the economy and such, we got onto spiritual topics. Jane bemoaned her lack of focus.

What would it look like to be more focused? I wondered.

"Just finding 10 or 15 minutes to open the Bible and do a meditation or something -- doesn't seem... I mean, it's not happening." She wasn't wailing or anything, but clearly carried a burden of needless guilt.

I was glad Carol had prayed for me, because somehow this came to mind
Suppose Jesus were right here right now. What do you suppose he'd want to say to you? "Jane, you should have done a meditation this morning"?
So I gave it a shot. This got a smile, because Jane knew (but needed a reminder) that our Lord Jesus is not that kind of person. Paul tells us that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ (Romans 8:1), and John tells us God is love, and there is no fear in love (1 John 4).

Jane went on to say that there are times when she didn't actually feel like being with her kids, and she felt bad about that -- also about not doing crafts with them. Fortunately, the lovely Carol had recently attended a mothers' group at our church, where the speaker debunked the myth of the "perfect mother." So this concept was fresh in my mind, and I mentioned to Jane that we have this myth, especially in the church.

I guess it was my day for doing the priestly thing, because Jane told me she wished she had the energy to keep her house looking picture-perfect as well -- the "Martha Stewart" image. I mentioned that given a choice between the teachings of Martha Stewart and the teachings of the Lord Jesus, let's go with the Lord Jesus -- who said this:
Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about many things. But only a few things are important, really only one. Mary has chosen the good part, and it shall not be taken from her.
Luke 10:41-42
Do you know what? I learned something today. How many times have I sung "All hail the power of Jesus' Name"? Today I saw the power of the name of Jesus in action. Not like "In the name of Jesus, be healed!" And not like "What would Jesus do?" (so now you or I have to do the same -- yeah right, feed five thousand, raise someone from the dead.)

But "What is Jesus saying to you here and now?" He doesn't reproach or accuse. Each time I brought his name into the discussion, it seemed to me that a weight came off Jane's shoulders. Because the Lord Jesus is true to his word:
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
Matthew 11:29-30
All hail the power of Jesus' name!

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A Busy Week

Watching the Obama speech last night I felt very happy. "It's a new day in America," I said. Not so long ago black people couldn't even vote in some states, but now a black man will be our next president. So I feel hopeful for our country -- like we may be making progress in spite of the very disappointing current administration.

But I also want to tell you about last week. Tuesday morning, the lovely Carol's computer crashed. It was gradually getting worse, and Tuesday morning it decided "enough of this gradual stuff." The crash-LEDs claimed it was a problem with RAM, so I pulled out more DIMMS, but that didn't help. The lovely Carol graciously accepted the lack of computer for the day, and I went off to my breakfast appointment.

Only my car wouldn't start. I later found out I'd flooded the engine, but I was already running late, and Carol graciously offered me her car.

So I got over to Denny's and the kitchen was closed for remodeling! I had breakfast -- pie and coffee -- with my buddy anyway. We had a good chat and prayed together.

I began to wonder what all this meant -- I mean, these were inconveniences, not catastrophes; still, I usually don't see quite so many at once.

I returned home and called AAA to get the car towed. I also emailed the office to say I'd be working from home.

The garage is a ten-minute walk from the house, but I rode with the tow truck anyway. The 1986 Toyota was due for a tune-up, and it got new plugs, cap, coil -- and a new battery as well. I'd been meaning to get to that, and now somebody else would. That was about $300.

I don't remember the rest of the week, except that Saturday we had a drop-in event -- noon to 8pm -- to show off some of Sheri's art (see link at right) and to celebrate our completed kitchen. It was a good time, but tiring for an introvert like me.

Finally, on Sunday afternoon, I fixed our "new" used computer. The problem was a bad DIMM! So I was feeling pretty good. Car fixed, party went well, computer fixed...

Then came a cry for help from the laundry room. The washer had overflowed! Fortunately, there wasn't *much* water on the floor -- we swept most of it out, I siphoned out enough from the washing machine tub, then had to fix it -- a loose hose.

So what does all this mean? An opportunity to learn patience? A reminder that my life really isn't under my control? (It was a gentle reminder to be sure; these events were really just inconveniences.)

As one of our pastors said recently, now would be a good time to shake the illusion that we're in control, that "more" will somehow be enough, that we don't need God. Indeed.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Salvation as... rest?

In Chaim Potok's The Chosen, David Malter tells his teen-age son that he wants to be worthy of God's rest -- he wants his life to have counted for something when he dies. Such talk of course frightens his son, but I found it interesting that he mentioned the concept of rest in connection with Moses (who of course never entered the Promised Land).

The book of Hebrews also talks about rest, in chapter 3 and also in chapter 4, but for us who believe in Jesus, the rest is not something we must earn through Important Accomplishments (Malter was involved in international politics), but rather through faith, as I have written about before.

But what I want to talk about today is the nature of that rest.

Hebrews chapter 4 begins with the concept of entering God's rest:
Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith.
Hebrews 4:1-2
We can learn more about this rest by looking at the surrounding text. (You can see more if you click here.) Here are a few things that pop out:
  • Some were barred (3:11) from entry because they rebelled (3:8) and persisted (3:10) in rejecting God.
    • Every day (3:7) we have another chance to listen to God rather than rebel and harden (3:8) our hearts.
  • The issue is that of turning away (3:12) from God in disbelief.
    • In contrast (3:13 begins with "But") we are to encourage one another daily.
    • We need the encouragement because sin is deceitful and will tend to "harden" us.
    • Hence the encouragement probably has something to do with correcting sin's deception.
  • The negative model of rebellion is from Exodus 17:1-7 (Hebrews 3:15 is a quote from Psalm 95:7-11, which points there). In this incident, the Israelites embraced fear, panic, and rebellion rather than faith, peace, and obedience. These can keep us from entering God's rest.
  • It's possible to fall short of entering God's rest, simply by not believing the good news.
    • This can lead to panic, which can then make us stupid -- too stupid to obey.
    • The concepts of not obeying and not believing are tied together, both in 3:18-19 and in 4:3-6.
Putting that all together, I think we can see that "entering God's rest" doesn't mean an eternal sleep, but rather that we cease from our own work and instead do God's. As Jesus himself said, "Take my yoke upon you... and you will find rest for your souls." (Matthew 11:29)

So what does this look like? What kind of work do we stop doing, and what do we do instead? Well, in some sense we lay down ultimate responsibility for what happens to our lives. We still look both ways before crossing the street, and we still fasten seat belts, but we can relax about it; as Piper wrote, we do all those things as though not doing them -- apropos of our upcoming elections, we vote as though we were not voting.

We lay aside the work of worrying -- of fear, panic, and rebellion -- and instead embrace God's work, which Jesus defined very nicely: "This is the work of God: to believe in the one he has sent." (John 6:29)

So in whatever we do, the work of God is to believe in Jesus, to tie our hopes, our dreams, our dreams to him only. To work as though we did not! And to entrust ourselves fully to the Lord Jesus.

And having written that, it strikes me that someone who lives like that has been freed from anxiety, from the tyranny of the do-list, from uncertainty, from the unbearable weight of having it "all depend on me."

Someone who lives like that is someone who's been saved.

Can we disagree without being disagreeable?

Have you noticed that there's an election coming up? And that there's an atmosphere of incivility around here? We've got a local measure, which I support but our mayor doesn't. It appears there is incivility on both sides of the issue; she doesn't like being called names, but I can't say I like it either.

We have in California a famous (or infamous) ballot measure, which all Thinking or Enlightened people oppose. Without question. Anybody who supports Proposition 8 is supposed to be a bigot and a reactionary, blah blah blah. But incivility has reached new heights; a friend sent me this account:
In the past week I did an experiment with my son to help him understand the American democratic process:

I heard from several friends that their "Yes on 8" lawn signs were destroyed or stolen. As an experiment, I picked up a "Yes on 8" sign and put it on my lawn last Sunday. Some of my neighbors have "No on 8" signs in their yards.

I asked my son to measure how long this "Yes on 8" sign would be tolerated.

The result is "less than 4 days". I put out the sign on Sunday afternoon. It disappeared between 3-7PM on Thursday.

Why do I say "less than 4 days"? I was warned that damage to the signs happened late at night. Hence, I carefully took the sign indoors after 7PM every night, then put it out again every morning at 7AM. I guess someone must have been by earlier, but couldn't find the sign after 7PM -- so they finally decided to strike before I got home at 7PM. I wasn't sure when their first attempt was. That's how long their tolerance of different opinion really is.

Lessons my son learned:
  1. Just because there are several "No on 8" signs in the neighborhood, and only one "Yes on 8" in front of our house doesn't mean we are wrong -- just that somebody stole all the "Yes on 8" signs from other people's property to create that false impression. And now the last one in the neighborhood is also gone, but that doesn't mean nobody supports "Yes on 8".
  2. While the main reason to support "No on 8" is "equality for all", they don't really respect others' rights to express their opinion.

    In other words: Don't just listen to what the slogan says; the slogan is always politically correct. But watch the real agenda behind the slogan -- they want their way no matter what it takes.
This kind of thing really makes me mad. This is supposed to be the United States!

Apparently conservative republicans aren't the only ones who use "dirty tricks"; Politically Correct liberals sometimes use 'em too.

Some of us can

At a party the other day, a friend shared her views on Proposition 8. I said, "I've heard this argument, but I'm not convinced." Then I mumbled something about how it's a complicated issue. She didn't agree.

"The issue is very simple, really, but it's an emotional issue." That statement I could agree with.

As we parted, she looked at me and said, "I'm not going to convince you, am I?"

I smiled and shook my head. "I'll still be your friend," she promised. And I'll be hers, too. We've started an e-mail conversation on the topic.

Not that this is the most important thing in the world to talk about, but I think we're in agreement that coal miners' lives are more important than coal companies' profits, that the innocent shouldn't be persecuted and criminals should be punished. But this is an issue where we differ, so we'll talk. And I'll predict right here that it's going to be more about how we each think and feel than about the issue itself. Here's one article illustrating the complexity of what we call moral reasoning.

And does this help?

For those who follow Jesus, it's important to remember that the election results are not the be-all and end-all of our lives. My friend Jan sent me a link to this article, which says it much more clearly than I could.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A visit with Max, the man of faith

Carol was laughing. "Maybe you can talk some sense into him, Max." She handed me the phone.

"I'm done talkin'," he said, "I'll beat it into you."

"I wish you would!" I said. "In fact, I'd like to come over so you can do that for me. But we don't know how to get there."

The key was this: he lived on Cypress Way, not Cypress Street.

A few minutes later, we parked on the street and there he was, smiling and wheeling toward us in his electrically-powered chair. Vera was inside, and their daughter Judy had just arrived.

Soon we heard about wonderful things God did for them. They hadn't been doing well in their house, and were ready to move into a senior living center or something. Judy didn't think so. "You're doing fine," she told them.

But Max straightened her out. "We are dying. I weigh 128 pounds now."

Soon she relented. They visited a nice-looking senior residence, put down a deposit, and proceeded to wait a lot longer than they'd been led to expect. Meanwhile, son-in-law Jason had apparently heard something he didn't like about this place. He paid them a visit and started asking pointed questions about elder abuse.

Well, that was the end of that possibility; they found another senior residence, which is working out much better. When Vera fell in a doorway, both she and Max had call buttons hanging from their necks, and Max was able to summon help immediately.
At the other place, you had to make your way over to a cord hanging from a certain place on the wall. If the cord was in the other room, and your unconscious wife was in the doorway where your walker couldn't get over her -- well, I can't imagine what that would have been like.
At the hospital, the doctor told them to take Vera to this rehab center or that one -- nowhere else! Turns out that one of the executive directors or something at their residence knew someone at that rehab center. She got a bed by the window.

Now about their house: they had to sell it to pay the costs of the senior residence. They put it on the market, which had already started to decline. And I guess with the expenses of moving and all, they were behind on their giving. Max said, "Let's pay our tithe once we sell the house."

But the house didn't sell and didn't sell -- not even a nibble -- and after a while Max decided he couldn't stand it any longer. "I couldn't sleep," he said. So he told Judy to just write the check, come what may.

She dropped the check into the plate on Sunday morning; Monday there were four offers on the house.

For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him.
from 2 Chronicles 16

Saturday, October 25, 2008


The kitchen is just about complete now. The latest is that we have knobs. From Italy. These knobs influenced the design and color scheme of the whole kitchen. This photo shows the kitchen in its, uh, natural state.

Allow me to point out a few of the features of this kitchen, besides the knobs. The vacuum cleaner actually fits in one of the pantry-cabinets you see on the left; it's out for cleaning up sawdust.

The cylindrical trash receptacle is nice to have for two reasons: first, if you're breaking eggs, say, somewhere other than where the pull-out trashcan drawer is, you can drag the trash-can to where you're producing the empty egg-shells and drop 'em in forthwith. Second, if you're loading the dishwasher, then the trashcan drawer won't open! Well, it'll open a couple of inches, but not enough. So having a portable trashcan is a big help.

Then there is the white step-stool. When you're 5'3" or so, as we are, it's awfully nice to have. This step-stool has a very nice characteristic: no matter where you stand on the platform, your weight will be inboard of the stool's legs. We have had others, shaped like "TT" where, if you stood on the outer edge, your weight could tip the thing over, resulting in a cracked skull or a broken toe.

Finally, there is the chair with the cushions, covered by the skin of the fabled Nauga®. One can sit at the breakfast bar in these chairs, but... the kitchen floor is higher than the living room floor, and if you position the chair a little too far from the bar, it'll lean back and crack your skull. I think we'll hide the chairs for our kitchen-warming party.

Still thinking you'll vote for McCain? My vote doesn't matter, but yours might

My vote doesn't matter because I live in California, and all its electoral votes will go for Obama regardless how I vote. But if you're registered to vote in a state that's still "up for grabs," here are some reasons to think McCain might not be the right choice.
  • Colin Powell's endorsement of Obama. Not just the endorsement itself, but take a look at what he said. Here's another article about it.
  • Take a look at "Why Obama Matters" from the Atlantic... which is not exactly your bastion of left-wing demagoguery.
  • You've got your opinion about whether quagmire is spelled I-R-A-Q; take a look at "The Wars of John McCain" to see his.
  • (And if you think from these two that the Atlantic is a fountain of left-wing political correctness, take a look at "The War Against Boys," which puts them on AAUW's hate list, or "On Abortion: A Lincolnian Position," which I'm sure brought about fear and loathing from the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and NOW.)
But back to the election.

Since I brought up the Lincoln article, I don't like the democratic party's position on abortion. But nearly 20 years of republican supposedly pro-life presidents have done precisely nothing with respect to Roe v. Wade. At this point I don't believe that Republicans can do anything about the issue. We should think about people already walking around. How many Americans and Iraqis have paid too high a price for our military misadventures already? And VietN..., uh, I mean, Iraq is winnable?

What about coal mining deaths here at home, the dire consequences of the disastrous anti-labor administration we now have? How would John change any of that?

Yeah, I'm a registered Republican, and I will probably change that some day. But that doesn't matter for this general election, since I can vote (actually "have voted") for the Democratic presidential candidate. I hope you will too.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Unsupported protocol: Mordac to the rescue

User: When I try to access this file, I get "Unsupported protocol"

Mordac: Let me see... what host are you on? A-HA! You're not on an IT-conforming box. Try one of the "cycle" servers.

User: OK... <typing noise>... Now I get "No such file or directory."

Mordac: Problem solved! I'll close the ticket now.

User: ...?

The sound of one Schedule-Chicken clucking

Schedule chicken! If you haven't heard of it, it goes like this:
  1. BOSS: OK, we have system test coming up next Tuesday.
  2. MGR1 (sweating): We're on track for Tuesday (thinking: if a miracle happens).
  3. MGR2 (avoiding eye contact): 90% complete; we'll be done next week.
  4. MGR3 (to MGR2): But my guys tell me the API isn't even checked in yet! You were supposed to have that 2 weeks ago! With just a week to go, it's not possible...
  5. BOSS (looking around): So when can we enter system test?
  6. MGR3: Two weeks after his (indicating MGR2) APIs pass unit test.
  7. MGR1 (silently): (Whew! I have 2 more weeks now!)
  8. BOSS (to MGR2): So you'll be ready next Tuesday, right?
  9. MGR2: Thursday
  10. BOSS: But you said you'd be ready for system test next Tuesday, which was the system test deadline
  11. MGR2: I said "next week".
  12. BOSS (to himself): How can I get these guys to quit lying?
How indeed? Let me start by saying that the answer is not for BOSS to stand up and yell, "Will you clowns quit lying?" or threaten to fire the next poor fool he catches doing it. Unfortunately, BOSS (and the system he uses) are a major parts of the problem, because his subordinates have a perverse incentive to play the Schedule Chicken game.

Before we can figure out how to get rid of it, we have to start with "where did this come from?" Here are a few observations.
  • #1: How did BOSS (or whoever) decide the system-test date? Why are we talking about dates in the first place? In other words, one issue is the whole focus on "meeting" a milestone.
  • #2, #3: MGR1, MGR2 make completely unverifiable (and unfalsifiable) statements! Note that BOSS doesn't challenge them. Information about who's really not finished won't surface 'til system test actually starts -- or when it doesn't.
  • #4: This is the first objectively true or false sentence that's been uttered. These accursed milestone meetings are filled with lies, but hardly anything falsifiable.
  • #4 again: Why are we only talking now about something that's 2 weeks late? Shouldn't this conversation have happened 2 weeks ago?
  • #7: Why does MGR1 think he has more time just because MGR2 is late? Why has BOSS trained him to think so?
  • #8-#11 Deliberate deception! Probably driven by an overly competitive atmosphere
  • #12: I'm going to say that all this lying is strongly encouraged by the environment. The focus on when (mistake #1) something will be ready (mistake #2) is a source of all kinds of trouble.
It's true that BOSS has to be concerned about the when question, but why do we pay BOSS the big bucks? Because his job includes this onerous task:
  • translate what I need to know into terms that will produce the desired behavior in MGR{1,2,3}.
It's also true that BOSS has to predict the future. But we pay him to predict the future, and not just by rolling up unverifiable (and unfalsifiable) predictions from MGR{1,2,3}. Where's the value-add in that? No, what BOSS should be doing is getting factual data about the past and present from his subordinates. Things like:
  • Have the unit test specs been reviewed and approved by <insert Test Spec Reviewer's name here>?
  • What % of the unit tests have been run?
  • What % of the unit tests have passed?
  • How many staff-weeks (or staff-months) have been spent out of your budget for this task?
  • How much of the overflow buffer (or "contingency account") has been spent?
That last one takes some explaining.

We're all optimists, aren't we? That's why our estimates are always too low. "Sure, two weeks," we say, but that assumes things go as planned. Really now, how often does that happen?

If BOSS pads the schedule, then workers will do the "student syndrome" (wikipedia) thing and not start 'til 2 weeks before it's due. And things don't go as planned, and even the padded schedule is missed.

How do you fix that? The key insight is in item #5 on this post: by tracking other things than what you track now:
  • effort estimated (budget)
  • effort expended (out of budget) -- not % but actuals
  • how much is left in the "contingency account" or "buffer"
Of course there's more than that required to fix the Schedule Chicken game. But it's a great start.

Not "How close to 'done' are you?" (answer: 90%! Always!)

But "What % of your unit tests have been run? Passed? How much (not what %) of your budget is used? How much is left? How much is left in the contingency bank?" Track all of those. That's where you add your value.

And that's also why there's not enough money in the world to get me to do that job.

And by the way

Rothman's article on student syndrome (which came up in a google search while I was writing this) is brilliant. Her consulting group's homepage is here but don't hire them unless you're prepared to do what they tell you.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Ikea Stockholm cabinet assembly: 109067 etc.

I went to Ikea with the lovely Carol, and we selected a black Stockholm cabinet. Of course some assembly was required. Step 1 was to screw in twenty (20) pegs or whatever. Whew -- felt like having a beer after that, but with 21 steps to go, I dared not.

Subsequent steps were easier, until I got to step#14, which was an exercise in science (physics, materials science, anthropology, textual criticism, etc.) because I did not grok the picture. Well, I got the idea that for this step I should be sure to use the 109067 screws, not the 100344.

What's the difference between the two? From the picture (in the image scanned here and in the front of the instruction booklet) what I noticed was:
  1. 100344 is shorter;
  2. 100344 is fatter;
  3. 100344 has coarse threads (vs finer threads of 109067).
  4. And: 100344 has a combo Phillips/slotted head whereas 109067 has a Phillips-only head; I didn't notice that before!
The instruction book said that all eight of these lookalike screws were supposed to be in bag#1, but there were 4 in bag#1 and 4 in a separate bag all by themselves (the "elite" screws).

Now when I looked at the "elite" screws, I found they were maybe a little longer than the others, which argued for their being 109067. They felt a little fatter than the others, which contradicted the length thing. The threads had exactly the same pitch AFAICT, though the "elite" screws had a threadless part on the shank, like lag bolts. The "elites" were sorta brass-like in color vs chrome, and they had a combo Phillips/slotted head.

With those differences, I decided that the "elites" were 100344 and the common screws were 109067, based on the following logic:
  1. 109067 is for a right-angle bracket that's pretty thin, hence we want the screws there that have threads all the way up to the head. In contrast, 100344 is for attaching a sorta "arched" part of the hinges, so their lag-bolt-ish feature wouldn't hurt.
  2. The other screws that hold the hinges have both
    1. a brass-like color and
    2. combo heads, not Phillips-only.
  3. 100344 goes into particle board but 109067 goes into something that looks like hardwood. Though the holes looked about the same size, it stood to reason (I thought) that the hardwood stuff didn't need as fat a screw in order to hold.
Since this took a fair amount of deduction etc., I thought I'd tell you about it.

The good news is: in the process of writing this I discovered that the picture indeed showed 100344 with a combo head (connecting "D" above with "2.b", so my judgment was vindicated. Whew!

Bottom line

The definitive difference between 109067 and 100344 for this cabinet is that 100344 has the combo Phillips/slotted head, whereas the 109067 is regular Phillips. Ignore the differences in length and thread-pitch suggested by the pictures in the instruction book. 109067 may be in bag#1 (with 100344 in a separate bag) or they might be packed together in bag#1 as the instruction book says.

Good luck and enjoy!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Out of the mouth (or keyboard) of the elder teen

Parents are supposed to have all this influence on their kids, and bring blessing into their lives and so on. What I'm thinking about today, though, are a two prophetic pronouncements from the elder teen.
By the way, when I say "prophetic" I don't mean in the sense of "foretelling the future"; rather I mean "bringing a message from God."

That's my short definition of the role of a prophet: one who represents God to Man, typically by bringing a message of some kind. The role of a priest is to represent Man to God, typically by praying for and/or with them. Of course one person can play both roles; Jesus did prophet and priest and king.
The first was some years ago. We'd just had a Bible study with a Japanese couple who were not yet following Christ. We were using the "Glad Tidings Bible Studies" created by our friend Mailis, a Norwegian Lutheran Missionary from Finland whom we'd met in Japan. These are terrific materials -- now you can download them in a bunch of languages other than the original Japanese and English.

Anyway, these folks had been engaged with the study, and I hope with the Holy Spirit, and I was very excited to have been part of that. "At times like this, I feel like I could be a missionary!" I said.

Then came the prophetic statement from the then soon-to-be teenager: "You are a missionary."

Oh, that's right, isn't it? What makes a missionary is acting like one, not a title or a box in an org-chart.

What brought that to mind was something that happened a few days ago. I was IM-ing with the now soon-to-be ex-teen-ager. One of her friends (one of our friends, I should say) had asked me to write a "pastoral recommendation" for a short-term mission opportunity, and it hadn't occurred to me that I would be qualified.

The second prophetic pronouncement (maybe not quite verbatim) came across the wires: "You have been pastoring her, right?"

D'oh! What makes a pastor is acting like one, not a title or a box in an org-chart.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Class of '78 Reunion

Last week's party was loud and crowded, but I was very glad I went: skipping it would've made me feel silly since I'd spent nearly $200 for the tickets!

Seriously though, I had conversations that brought me great joy.

The lovely Carol came with me, trouper that she is, even though she only knew one couple there. We talked with Meg and Clinton and heard that their twins are doing well. I got to see Mark and John, who are really bright guys. (As an undergraduate, Mark's prof told him that "you've seen things some of my colleagues would miss." I think John might have gotten one 'B' at Stanford, maybe -- or maybe not. One of his papers came back from the prof with nothing written on it until the last page, which simply said: "Brilliant! A") We spent a lot of time together as undergraduates.

John started a business with another of our classmates, and he's the principal author of the most widely used software for, ah, something to do with soils and environmental engineering; he's traveled to Europe and the Middle East on consulting trips. Mark is a med school professor and edits a journal involving something really important related to evidence based medicine.

Besides the many pleasant memories evoked by seeing these folks, there's also the sense I got from them that they're doing things that really suit them well. It was wonderful seeing others as well. Luigi looks terrific; so does Rick, though he lost some weight. We all have shorter (or less) hair. Dan's got a beard now.

There were some sad moments, recalling some of our classmates who have passed away. My freshman roommate died, as did two others we knew from that dorm.

The high point of my evening, though, was hearing from another guy I knew from the dorm. He told me the story of how the younger teen "saved my daughter's butt!"

His daughter transferred as a junior from a small (Catholic?) school to Menlo Atherton (M-A) High School, which is huge by comparison. Those two factors caused some concern. As this father related the story, "ONE girl," (he held up an index finger) "One girl welcomed my daughter, invited her to eat lunch with them...." Gave her a group to be part of, helped her find her footing.

That sound you just heard? That would be my buttons popping.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

This is so nerdy...

So my daughters (or maybe one of them?) got me a T-shirt that says "enjoys calculus" which I'm afraid I've just demonstrated in wikipedia's article on "Volume" -- particularly in the derivation for the formula for the volume of a sphere.

Here's how it happened. I was thinking about spheres for some reason, and I couldn't remember how to calculate the volume of a sphere. In fact I couldn't remember how to calculate the surface area either. I mean, one could look up the formulas somewhere, but how can you derive the formulas?

I couldn't think of any way to get any of them other than through calculus -- integrating the area of circular "slabs" parallel to the x-y plane as you take z from 0→R, which yields 4πR3.

Anyway, the lack of a non-calculus derivation bothered me because it seemed to me that when we learned this stuff in geometry class, we didn't know any calculus. H'm... On the other hand, maybe it was like, you know, the centripetal force formula mv2/R, which we just memorized in high-school physics but turns out to be derivable by parameterizing (x,y) in terms of t....

Judy suggested that I google on "volume of a sphere" and see what other calculation methods might be out there... didn't find anything easier than the first method on wikipedia's "Volume" article. That's when I noticed that the previous version had a gap... there was this weird "(This substitution is difficult to" in it, immediately followed by "Thus, the sphere..."

So I put something there I thought easier to follow. Oddly, the page was vandalized within 15 minutes... fixed immediately.

off-white and nerdy....

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Open letter to a Stanford computer science undergraduate

Dear C_______,

Although I was representing my employer when met you at a recent career event, what I'm about to write here is not a statement of my employer or of anyone else.

The short version of what I want to say here is:
  1. Your resumé is very impressive.
  2. Your resumé tends to make me feel worried about you.
On #1, I don't guess you needed me to tell you that. I mean really, your accomplishments, both technical and in promoting women's participation in STEM, are exceptional. I would love to have you work with us next summer if we could find something that interests you; we have a lot of problems to work on, and we have a lot of freedom in the intern program to let you work on them. But there are also many other companies who would love to have someone like you work for them. Some of those companies are household names, so I consider that we would be very lucky to be able to snag you. So provided that the economy doesn't go completely down the tubes, you'll be in high demand. Including by us.

On #2, and this politically incorrect part really isn't a statement of my employer.... Maybe it's because I have daughters rather than sons, but when I look at your resumé, this is what I worry about: I hope you get enough exercise and sleep and fresh air, that you find time to do volunteer work, that you get out dancing or to concerts, that you read novels or poetry and take time to relax and reflect... that you find enjoyment in life outside of math and science. I did not do much of that at Stanford; I was in a big rush, which is a sort of theme of my life.
Apropos of nothing: My daughters are about your age, and I'm just as proud of them as your parents are of you. When I think of why I'm so proud of them, their schoolwork isn't at the top of my list. Of course my heart overflows with affection whenever I think of them, so I'm not really objective. But I think of their compassion, their joy in life, their love for God, their courage and maturity and generosity -- and that is what busts my buttons. Now it doesn't hurt that their verbal SATs beat mine, that they have better grades than I ever got, or that their teachers love them. But that's secondary.
Well, all that was really incorrect politically -- again, not a statement of my employer! -- and I hope I haven't offended you. But I certainly hope that you take better advantage of Stanford than I did -- that you take classes in areas outside math and CS and engineering, and I don't mean Philosophy 161. And that you "waste" time with friends and think and talk about where you're going in life. I hope you get a few Bs and maybe even a C (okay, a B-minus if a "C" is unimaginable) or two because you've taken the time to be with a friend rather than cram for the endless sequence of exams.

Because there's so much more to life than math and computers and engineering. I hope you don't make the mistakes I did, is what I'm saying.

Best regards,

PS: whether you come to work for my employer or not, here are a few things you might enjoy reading. Maybe in a few years?

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Lies, damn lies, and "No on W" ads

You can skip this posting if you don't live in Redwood City (climate best by government test).

Measure "W" in the upcoming general election would require a 2/3 majority to change any "open space" land to permit other uses. Developers don't like this measure because land that remains open space isn't land they could develop, sell, and make a ton of money from. Realtors don't like the measure because land that can't be developed or sold also can't pay them any commissions.

Notice anything about these groups of people? They stand to make less money -- maybe lots less money -- if the voters approve measure W. Therefore, they've decided to invest some money to defeat it. According to this article in the Redwood City Daily News,
DMB Associates, the Arizona firm hired to draw up a development plan for 1,433 acres in Redwood City owned by Cargill Inc. ... contributed nearly $692,000 to the "No on W" campaign, including $113,000 in staff time, records show.
Besides the $692,000 from an Arizona firm, there's another $400,000 from various sources: Oracle Corp., a group of realtors, unions....

By way of contrast, Save the Bay (the "Yes on W" team) have spent about $331,000.

So where do the "No on W" folks get off talking about some Oakland outfit trying to take over Redwood City? Sheesh! I mean for gosh sakes, look at the money! "Save the Bay" have spent less than half the amount that one out-of-state group contributed to the "No on W" campaign.

And if you look at the flyers and the print ads, it's clear that the "No on W" folks have more money. They have nice looking glossy ads. They have spent three times the money that the "Yes on W" team have. They have realtors, Oracle, and $692,000 from an Arizona outfit on their side.

They've outspent us 3:1. They have prettier brochures and more ads. Ads riddled with half-truths and outright lies (including "Big Lies"), but more of them regardless.

On the "Yes on W" side all we've got is volunteers and a few sympathetic friends from the Sierra Club. And the truth.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

it's here!

After going through this ordeal as described on the blog of the lovely Carol, we finally have our kitchen countertops and sink. We started in May and now we're just about done.

We've got some electricity to hook up -- disposal and dishwasher -- and some knobs. But other than that...

The younger teen is having a party -- about a dozen friends watching Disney movies. I was so happy about having the kitchen sink in that I didn't even mind doing dishes. That'll last at least another few hours I'm sure.

Staying un-Pornified

I haven't actually read the book, but it was featured in a First Things article from January 2008. April's letters department contained this observation:
Pornography is everywhere....
    How many times can one man turn away from the billboard, shut off the TV, or throw away the magazine before succumbing to temptation? .... Before anyone will fight a war on pornography, they will have to acknowledge that there is a war to fight.
First Things, April 2008, pp. 8-9
And so the current issue of The Atlantic arrives with an article titled "Is Pornography Adultery?" by Ross Douthat. Now the Atlantic is hardly a proponent of a return to Victorian values or of conservative religious dogma (Hitchens is a frequent contributor), but here is a senior editor quoting Matthew 5:28 and arguing that "the Internet era has ratcheted the experience of pornography much closer to adultery than I suspect most porn users would like to admit."

Douthat covers various viewpoints on pornography, but he argues compellingly that the category of "cheating on your spouse" includes a whole lot more than extramarital coitus. It includes some of Bill Clinton's activities in the White House for example. Would it include "phone sex"? Probably. Staring at, meditating upon, delighting in the image of the "Playmate of the Month"? Ask your wife.

I mean really, if the husband's pledge includes "forsaking all others, to cleave to her only" -- then there's a whole lot of possible behaviors that would violate that pledge.

Douthat closes with this zinger:
Smut isn't going to bring down Western Civilization any more than Nero's orgies actually led to the fall of Rome, and a society that expects near-universal online infidelity may run just as smoothly as a society that doesn’t.

Which is precisely why it's so easy to say that the spread of pornography means that we're just taking a turn, where sex and fidelity are concerned, toward realism, toward adulthood, toward sophistication. All we have to give up to get there is our sense of decency.
"Is Pornography Adultery?" The Atlantic October 2008, p. 86
It was great seeing that in my favorite monthly magazine.

Now let me back up a bit... the rhetorical question in the First Things letter: How many times can one man shut off the TV?

The answer came for me while we were still living in Japan (about a decade ago). My answer was: not enough times. There are things on TV, especially hotel TV, that I should not see, but I saw them and didn't always turn away.

From that day onward, I made a little rule for myself: Never turn on the TV when alone in a hotel room.

Does this mean I'm a chicken or that I'm prudent? Well, yes it does. Paul tells us to flee sexual immorality (not just "avoid actual physical adultery"). Therefore "no hotel room TV" is part of my plan.

And if you happen to see me while I'm traveling on business, or shortly afterward, would you ask me this please:
Seen anything interesting on TV lately?

So many VCRs, so little time

Back in July, the younger teen and I spent a weekend with my cousin's family. They had a copy of Pausch's The Last Lecture, and once I started reading it, I had a really hard time putting it down. The lecture got a lot of exposure in the media.

OK, so here's the deal. He taught this class on user interfaces, which he started off by complaining bitterly about VCRs. You can read about it here -- or click here and click on "Met when @ UVA"; you'll see this:
I had the pleasure of taking Randy's first course on "User Interfaces" back in 92 or 93. How many courses have you heard of where the professor begins the first class by assailing the poor UIs of clock radios and VCRs only to immediately smash them Gallagher style in front of a classroom of undergrads. Randy was one of three truly inspirational teachers that I had the pleasure of studying under during my entire formal education. I still retain and use much of the knowledge that I learned from him.
Anyway somebody gave him a trophy, which had a little hammer on it. The little plate on the base of the trophy read, "So many VCRs, so little time."

Monday, September 29, 2008

I'm silly too

Driving home from church on Sunday, I snickered when someone cut off another car. Golly, that rudeness got him a whopping 20 feet -- almost 7 yards -- ahead of where he'd be if he'd just waited for that one car to pass first. "Probably that guy was in his blind spot," I decided. There was no honking, and I want to say I repented of my contemptuous attitude.

Because maybe five minutes later, I was trying to move left on the freeway when I heard a honking horn. Gaaa! Where did she come from?

Oh, she was in my blind spot. D'oh!

I guess that's mercy in action--or discipline which by the way mostly means "instruction." I apparently needed instruction, a mild reproof, for my bad attitude toward that first guy who had cut off another car.

A good reminder that we are but dust. Dusty between the ears sometimes.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Taming the tongue? It's not about calories...

My buddy Jan is working at the "Desiring God" conference; I looked at their blog and saw this intense list, which bears reading.

Friday, September 26, 2008

I'm 40!

Yes, I am 40 -- your guess whether that's octal (tout à fait, Collin!) or duodecimal or hex or something else. A few reflections:
  • Last night I wrote up a "parent statement" for the younger teen. It began like this:
    Let me begin by outlining her weaknesses; this section will be quite short. She can't do multiple integrals in her head and doesn't intuitively understand why log a / log b = logb a. She doesn't always put things away, and occasionally makes a wrong turn while driving. She manages her time no better than her 50-something dad does; consequently she sometimes finds herself pressed for time as a deadline approaches. I would not use her as a packhorse on a backpacking trip. And she has an inflated estimate of my practical and intellectual capabilities. (I have no such illusions about hers.)
  • My mom and sister both sent me birthday greetings!
  • The younger teen gave me "the first" of my presents: a forest green (a little lighter than that actually) T-shirt with a line drawing of a bicycle on the front with EPA mileage information -- infinite miles per gallon.
  • No cars were illegally parked in the alley last night or this morning, so we had an easy time getting in and out of the garage.
  • I had an easy time getting to the train -- made the left-turn traffic light!
  • a free Chronicle on the news-rack
  • the promise of finding the bagel of desire in the break room, and food and beer on the patio this afternoon
  • lunch with a "gang of four" brothers
Well, I'm almost at work now. Hopefully there won't be any fires and I can actually make progress on that proposal to improve our code-base.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Dismal Time

Economics has been called the dismal science, but that title might better fit the challenge of personal time management. Our pastor has mentioned more than once that there aren't enough hours in a day to do what "they" say you should.

Here's how it (doesn't) work:
  • Poll health care professionals for an idea of how much sleep you need. Not how much would be ideal, but just the amount of sleep that a human being should get regularly over the period of a month (say).
  • Get information from experts on how much time you should spend on work-related things: time on the job itself, work-related reading, in-service training or seminars. Not what it takes to turbo-charge your career, but what it takes just to stay current.
  • How much time should you spend on physical exercise--not "to prepare for the Olympics" -- just to stay in shape? Poll personal trainers or whoever the right set of experts is.
  • How about on your marriage and friendships? Again, we're not talking about being the best spouse in the world or the most excellent girl/boyfriend, but just maintaining.
  • If you attend a church, synagogue, mosque, temple (etc), they probably have an idea of how much time you should be spending on their prescribed activities: prayer, meditation, Bible study, etc. -- not to become a "religious professional," but just to maintain your current spiritual/religious state.
  • Of course you occasionally need to buy stuff or take it to be serviced (or fix it yourself), etc.
Add those up and it comes to something like 35 or 40 hours... a day. Over a period of months.

So you're going to shortchange something or other -- at least as defined by the experts. What'll it be?

In an ideal world, we could figure out limits on various activities, and stop when we hit that limit. These days we might track that stuff on a Palm Pilot® or iPhone™ or CrackBerry device.

But most of us aren't that organized; I know I'm not. What I do instead is kinda dumb, but it is sustainable (i.e., it's easy). Basically, I have habits. It's important to me to worship God weekly with others, so I have a habit of doing that. But I also have an idea that about 4 hours (wall-clock time out of the house) is my limit for that, based on the load it puts on me to have to be "up": friendly, sociable, etc. Meeting new people is OK, but I can only do so much of it if I'm going to have a pleasant day.

We have home improvement mini-projects that I could spend time doing, but I've found out that on weekends I need some time reading and writing, or I get grumpy. For a similar reason, I want no more than one weekend a month with church-related "special" events.

What about crafting a schedule from scratch?

All that's fine once you've figured your limits out, but suppose the school year has just started. Then I think what I'd do is write out what I think I did last week and say, basically, "How many hours did I spend on activities X, Y, and Z?"

Then tweak it. "Not enough sleep -- wanted 10 hours more spread from M-Th; spent 4 hours shopping, 9 hours in club activities, 4 hours in church, 5 hours at the movies..." and some non-negotiable time going to and from class, personal hygiene, eating....

What if you cut shopping to 2 hours every other week, cut club activities to 4 hrs/week, and for the movies, do one the week you go shopping and two when you don't? That gets you about 10 hours a week on paper, but if you're distracted with the reduced recreational schedule that might make your studying less effective; on the other hand, getting more sleep might make you more effective at studying. Basically I think you just have to try it.

And adjust as needed.

Most likely adjustments will be needed over time, because there really aren't enough hours in the week.

But the good news is...

... you have enough time today for all the things God wants you to do today.

Can I prove it? I think this is indicative, if not an iron-clad proof:
For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have.
2 Corinthians 8:12 (NIV)
And as it says in the psalms: "he knows our frame; he remembers that we are but dust"

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

a beautiful day

Got up this morning rather early, a little after 5:30, and decided to take advantage of it by going for a swim. Left an email for the younger teen: "went for a swim; back about 6:45," but not before noting that my daily Bible reading from 1 Timothy 2 began with a command to pray for the government.

Drove to the "Y" in the dark, heard an interview with some senator or another where he questioned the wisdom of bailing out people who got into trouble largely because of their own actions (he was talking about investment bankers, insurance companies, and mortgage lenders). You can be sure I prayed for our lawmakers.

At the "Y", two other guys were already in the shower, waiting for the pool door to open. I was #3 into the pool. It felt good. Pretty soon I had to share my lane; I did about 600 yards and levered myself out of the pool -- last April I couldn't do that. After showering and getting dressed, I called the younger teen on the cell. Should I buy milk?

Yes! 1½ gallons please! OK, off to Safeway. I had picked up The Anti-Alzheimers Prescription the other day, and he said to drink purple grape juice, so I bought some concentrate. Three for $6 so I fell for it.

She took Sophie (our '96 Toyota) but I decided to do a little later schedule. I prepared some oatmeal and made a cup of coffee, took my medicines, then processed some work email and reviewed somebody's code. Thank goodness for DSL!

Got on my bicycle about 8:10 or so, and took a leisurely ride over to the Redwood City train. The train showed up; it was fairly crowded. I took a seat opposite a young woman in a bright blue dress, quite short (the dress I mean). I tried not to look. But it made me acutely aware that I've been sleeping alone -- three nights in a row now, since the lovely Carol left Sunday evening for a writing workshop.
...which reminds me of a story I heard the other night on As It Happens (NPR); apparently men are less intelligent when they sleep with a partner than they are when sleeping alone. Same men -- the study took childless heterosexual couples and had them sleep together 10 nights, then sleep apart 10 nights (or was it the other way round? Maybe the sequence was mixed?). In the mornings, they took tests designed to assess cognitive impairment, and apparently the men were smarter after sleeping alone, even though they claimed they didn't feel any dumber. (Apparently the women were only slightly dumber after sleeping with their men.) I don't know quite what to make of this; I sure don't feel smarter today than last week.
We got to Mountain View, where I got onto the VTA light rail. Blue went elsewhere, to my mixed disappointment and relief.

Work was unremarkable, except that I executed three code reviews and answered a bunch of questions. So maybe I was more effective. To heck with that, though; I'd rather sleep with my hand on the lovely Carol's body. She called a few times today with requests for computer help, and it sounded like she was having a good time.

Oh, I attended my last meeting of this review board at work. This is a one-year kind of deal, and last month I had sent Audrey (who runs it) this email:
I'm not unhappy, and it's not that I don't love you, and really it's not about you, but... how long is the term for this review board? 12 months?
So this month my successor came with me to the meeting for a quick transition. Afterward Audrey emailed me, copying my boss, thanking me for being helpful and industrious and all kinds of other good stuff my boss can put in my next review (to be written next summer).

I appreciated the acknowledgment, I told Audrey, but "I notice you didn't forward the 'It's not that I don't love you' or the 'Don't leave me!!' emails." Yeah, trying to be like professional or something.

After work, I called the younger teen as I walked to the train. What should we do about dinner? Pick up at the Hawaiian Drive Inn! Not J&J, she said. She would start some rice for us.

The VTA vehicle came in a few minutes, and I typed away at another posting (which I might get up tonight, I'm not sure). Pretty soon we were at Mountain View, and a petite young lady asked me if this was the last stop. I noticed her NetApp badge. Where was she going?

Caltrain. It was her first time. Which way was she headed? South, so I walked 10-15 yards with her and pointed across to the San Jose platform.

It was warm! Now that it's officially fall (as of Monday), the temperature has risen. Train came pretty soon, and two stops later, I was off. I made it across the tracks to my bike before the gates activated, and I got across Broadway with the train's help. In a few minutes I was pulling my bike through the door at the Hawaiian place.

Most of the items on the menu came with rice, but here was a "braised noodle plate" -- the winner! Everything is made to order (unlike the steam tables at J&J) and I filled in a few more squares on this morning's New York Times crossword, which was focused on "jack" -- a male donkey, a lifting tool, a playing card.

There is something about doing a crossword puzzle rather than a sudoku -- the latter can be solved by a computer program (here, here, and here) but how would a program figure that "place for a fall" should be "EDEN"? Dinner was ready pretty soon, and I rode home fairly slowly, holding dinner in one hand.

Came through the door and popped open a cold one. Boy did it taste good! Rice on plate, some barbecue stuff. Mmmm. I sliced up a cucumber, took a few lettuce leaves, and drizzled a little salad dressing over all.

The younger teen pulled an ice cream carton out of the freezer. It had thawed and re-frozen in a freezer accident (don't ask). She thought it was yuck, but I sliced up a banana (are you detecting a theme here?), dumped it over some ice cream, and drizzled some Kahlua® over all. Definitely detecting a theme here. Mmmm... Hey, I rode 4 miles and swam 600 yards today.

Could we go to the library and pick up some books? Sure we could. Sophie was nearly outta gas, so we stopped and filled her up first. The elder teen called as we were pulling out.

"The answer is yes," I heard. Ah, they're talking about a birthday present (for me!). We talked briefly about what spirit/soul/body means (1 Thessalonians 5.23-24 for example) but didn't come to any conclusions.

We then headed over to the library with a full tank. I pulled a couple of quarters out of the car to feed the meter... but our money was no good -- free parking tonight!

I went to the card-less catalog and found that Diamond's Collapse might be here -- right here in Redwood City! Collapse with a capital "C" and that rhymes with "D" and that stands for ... well, nevermind.