Sunday, February 24, 2008

hooray for PG&E

So the lovely Carol and I were sort of half-asleep this morning, and about 6:30 or so I heard the furnace sort of stutter and stop. I rolled my eyes "up" to look at the clock on the headboard -- dark. "Shucks," I said.

Pulling out a flashlight, I looked up "Pacific Gas & Electric" in the white pages. I called the 800- number, and got an automated voicemail thingie that actually worked. What kind of outage, it wanted to know? "Electric," I said. Complete or partial? "Complete." A few questions later, we were done. The nice lady's voice told me what she thought my address was, and I confirmed it.

Brought in the camp stove to make coffee, tea, and pancakes. The lovely Carol showed me a better way to beat the egg-whites. Pancakes turned out fine. Then we went to church.

I came back a few hours later and the electricity was back on. One of our computers automagically comes back on when power is restored. It said: "12:17pm up 1:52 ..." So power was out for a little less than four hours.

Where else in the world, when the power goes out, can you call a toll-free number, have your report taken by an automatic system that knows where you're calling from, and have power restored in less than four hours -- with the full expectation that it'll be weeks or months before the next time? Though we sometimes complain about things, we really are living in a time of astonishing convenience.
Update: late in the afternoon, lights flickered and went off, then back on... several times. The lovely Carol suggested that we leave the computers off (fsck, anyone?) until the power stabilized. It's now been a few hours since then. So hopefully this'll stick.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Charlie Bartlett, Fred Rogers

You can read summaries/reviews at imdb, yahoo and rotten tomoatoes. I don't think the sexual encounter was really necessary, though it did add to the moral ambiguity/ambivalence of Charlie's character.

The film had some shortcomings, but the title character was truly likable if flawed. He befriended the social outcasts; he was generous and helpful. There was a poignant moment when Kat Dennings says something about being ditched by one parent and watching the other lose his mind -- leading to a not-very-good prognosis for their offspring. You can see Anton Yelchin’s character (Charlie) identifying with her.

I think what's appealing about this character is that he has the desire to help others. It's not entirely unselfish, but whose desires are?

Recently NPR aired an excerpt from Fred Rogers’s goodbye speech. I'm not sure if it was his last television appearance, but I found it on youtube, and wrote down what he said:
You know it happens so often, I walk down the street, and someone 20 or 30 or 40 years old will come up to me and say, "You are Mr. Rogers, aren't you?" And then they tell me about growing up with the neighborhood, and how they're passing on to the children they know what they found to be important in our television work, like expressing their feelings through music and art and dance and sports and drama and computers and writing, and... and invariably we end our little time together with a hug. I'm just so proud of all of you who have grown up with us. And I know how tough it is some days to look with hope and confidence on the months and years ahead. But I would like to tell you what I often told you when you were much younger: I like you just the way you are. And what's more, I'm so grateful to you for helping the children in your life to know that you'll do everything you can to keep them safe and to help them express their feelings in ways that will bring healing in many different neighborhoods. It's such a good feeling to know that we're lifelong friends.
Charlie Bartlett wanted to help those kids because of goodness in his heart, but also to a large extent because he wanted to be liked. "What's more important than that?" he asked the adults in his life. His mother couldn't answer. The principal, though, did: "What you do with that popularity," he said, was more important than just being popular....

Fred Rogers, on the other hand -- if you look at some other video clips there on youtube, or watch some of his shows -- Mr. Rogers was the genuine article.

I remember that he was on Prairie Home Companion once, and Garrison Keillor was plainly in awe of him -- or at least in deep respect. He could hardly believe it, he said, sharing the stage with Mr. Rogers. Keillor is a great entertainer -- we saw him a few months ago at the Marin Center -- he is absolutely brilliant in person.

But Fred Rogers is one of my heroes. Keillor is by comparison just an entertainer, and Charlie Bartlett just an okay movie.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

An unsuccessful cover-up

Today's New Testament reading starts on Easter morning. The previous Friday, Joseph of Arimathea had placed Jesus's body in a tomb and rolled a big stone in front of the entrance (Matthew 27:58-60). Sunday morning, two women...
...went to look at the tomb.

There was a violent earthquake, for an angle of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.
Matthew 28:1-4
I certainly can't blame the guards, as I'm sure they had never encountered anything like this before.

The angel gives the women some information and instructions, and they also meet Jesus himself. But I want to focus on what happens next with the guards.
[S]ome of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened.
At this point in the story, a part of me hopes that the chief priests will slap their foreheads and cry out, "Holy smokes, guys, we've been wrong about this guy! He really was who he said he was! We'd better pray and ask God what to do!" (These guys are supposed to be priests of God for crying out loud!) Alas...
When the chief priests had met with the elders... they gave the soldiers... money, telling them, "You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble."
from Matthew 28:11-14 (inset added)
The guards really did have something to worry about, as they would normally have been executed (see Acts 12:18-19 for example). But these chief priests and elders -- what were they thinking?

Whatever it was, I'm quite certain they didn't turn from earnest intercessors into God-deniers, from seekers of truth to purveyors of lies, overnight. They didn't, in other words, wake up one morning and say, "Yeah, I've had a career of representing people to God, but I'm going to chuck it all today and instead become a political shark, without changing my clothes."

No, they took little steps away from integrity toward compromise, away from the rarified air of the priestly calling and toward the comfort of status, prestige, power.

Most of us don't have the ability to go around corrupting government officials, but we certainly can corrupt ourselves. How often have you or I excused our own self-pitying thoughts or self-indulgent actions? How long has it been since the last time we spoke an unkind word or slighted someone we thought beneath ourselves?

So let us beware -- it's all too easy to wake up one morning, see a stranger in the mirror, and wonder how we got that way. A day at a time, a small step at a time -- that's how. As the Apostle Paul wrote: "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from the body of this death? Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord." (Romans 7:24-25)

The other bit of good news is that if we seek him, we'll find him (as the Lord promised the Israelites in Jeremiah 29) and that he will forgive (Isaiah 55:5-8) and clean us up (1 John 1:9).

Which is good news!
posted 2008-12-20

Sunday, February 10, 2008

What are we doing here? What should we do, and why?

The lovely Carol was talking about a small group she's involved with, and some decisions that have to be made--how to handle this and that kind of situation, that sort of thing.

I asked the question, "What is the purpose of the group?"

She told me that it was spiritual transformation. D'oh!

And that made me think about the class I'll be teaching soon. What to include, what to leave out, what sort of ground rules to set up, and so on?

I can easily list three different ways of deciding this sort of thing.
  1. Tradition: "We've always done it like that."
    This could be done just through laziness (too lazy to think). But it can also be done based on the idea that "I'm not necessarily smarter than all my predecessors."
  2. Reaction: "I always hated it when they did it like X, so I'll do the opposite."
    I can be grouchy, and I can be selfish, so I can sometimes feel like doing this. But it's not necessarily bad -- for example if something really has been done sub-optimally in the past, and it's good to change... this will work.
  3. Popularity: "How do you guys want to do this?"
    There are many things about which the leader/teacher doesn't necessarily care, so why not? On the other hand, it might be a sign of insecurities....
The thing I didn't think of (well, one thing I didn't think of) was: "What is the best way to promote spiritual transformation for everyone here?"

That needs to be the principle guiding our thinking about meetings, classes, events, etc. Which was sorta implied by what I wrote before about church programs.

And that should guide the way I choose and present the content for my class as well.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

→ PHB-ness

This little dialogue here shows how it's done. Let's listen in...


high-level manager
middle manager

Trevize: So, is there anything else you want me to do about this?

Branno: You? Don't you have your people do this for you?

Trevize: Umm, does it really matter?

Branno: [after a brief pause] I guess not, since I'll take all the credit for it anyway.

NOTE: Names have been changed to protect the innocent the privacy of the individuals involved.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

You got $10 on paypal! What's it good for? Not bloody much!

So some days ago, I took a survey for somebody, JetBlue I think.

The other day I got email from paypal... "You have $10.00!"

"Great," I thought. "I've been wanting to order a book... Your God Is Too Safe -- I wonder if I can get it on Amazon for less than $10?"

Yes I can! But they don't take paypal.

Ebay does, though -- so I found one on offer. 99 cents, $5 shipping (yeah right). So I win the auction, I've got $10 in my paypal account, so I say, "Pay for the item."

No joy! I have to send those guys a BANK ACCOUNT number in order to send even one penny anywhere!

However, I have received dire warnings never to give a bank account number to PayPal -- not an account with any money in it, anyway.

So I'm not doing that. Poking around the paypal site, I see I can request a check. But wait, they want my credit card information -- number, expiration date, and security code??!?

Why do I feel like I've got to take a shower after visiting this website?

Update... a few days later

Figured it out. Got a "virtual account number" from citibank -- this is an account that will expire at the end of, hmm, next month. So I still have a window of vulnerability, but it's not as long as my sort of "real" CC#. After giving them that information, Paypal let me pay for my eBay purchase using the funds in there.

I had them send me a check for the rest (less $1.50 handling fee -- bah!). After telling them that, though, I had the idea I should have sent the whole amount elsewhere -- to some cause (like Neoffice, FSF, world vision, or that guy who posted instructions on making boot floppies).

Oh well. Anyway I now have a book on its way to me, so that's what the $10 was good for. Now I just have to watch the credit card account to make sure no untoward activity comes by way of the virtual account. (Hey, I wonder if I can deactivate it now...)

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Watch out!

Today's reading from Proverbs reads like a scene from some action/adventure film:
I saw among the simple, I noticed among the young men, a youth who lacked judgment.... Then out came a woman to meet him, dressed like a prostitute and with crafty intent.... She took hold of him and kissed him and with a brazen face she said: "... Come, let's drink deep of love till morning; let's enjoy ourselves with love! My husband is not at home; he has gone on a long journey...."

With persuasive words she led him astray; she seduced him with her smooth talk. All at once he followed her like an ox going to the slaughter, like a deer stepping into a noose ....
from Proverbs 7:7-22
What is going on here? Is Solomon a misogynist? Why is the young man a victim and the (older) woman a predator? Is he saying this is the usual pattern, that young men are normally led astray by older women?
And what is the danger he is talking about? It's a danger largely forgotten these days, though occasionally a prophet speaks, even outside the church -- someone like Donald Hall, in a poem like "When the Young Husband" -- about the disastrous consequences of adultery. "tears, treachery, anger, betrayal; / marriages and houses destroyed; / small children abandoned and inconsolable."
Here is what I think. Solomon was writing to a son (as Proverbs 1:8 says, "Listen, my son, to your father's instruction..." ); if he were writing to a daughter, the example would probably differ. Now I don't think this is some sort of allegory, where the woman stands for other religions, her husband stands for some false god, etc. But I think the warning against adultery can be profitably applied to other things.

In other words, beware of temptations -- sexual temptations, temptations to vanity (wouldn't a young man be flattered by the attentions of a sophisticated woman, even if she were a little older?), the temptation to fudge or cheat a little on his tax returns or expense reports, etc. Sexual temptations, yes, but not only sexual temptations. Sexual temptations aren't just about sex anyway; they're about ego and vanity too.

Here's something else. Maybe the point of this was, "Son, this isn't the usual pattern, but trouble can happen this way, too!" Well, maybe not. But this particular pattern certainly has happened -- just ask Joseph (Genesis 39:7).

As far as what this means to me, well, I think it's generalizable. Sometimes a thing that appeals to my vanity, that looks like it'll be fun or a pleasant experience -- sometimes things like this are dangerous. And people who, like me, sometimes lack judgment -- people can get into trouble by paying too much attention to the attraction and not enough to the danger.

I think the young man in the passage from Proverbs simply wasn't aware of the danger. This is something we can ask God to help us with -- to help us see danger (not risk for Christ's sake, but danger in temptations to immorality) and flee it.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Notes on discernment -- from 2001

A young friend is facing a big decision, and I mentioned a seminar I attended a while back. The speaker was Gordon T. Smith of Regent College. Among other things, he talked about discerning the Lord's will. Here is the list that I had, apparently something to do with Ignatius Loyola's Rules for Discernment.
  1. Recognize discernment is a choice among good alternatives -- discerning what's best for my life. The good is the enemy of the best.

  2. Choose for today, not for yesterday. Stop "If only"ing myself -- or others. Because of Ephesians 3:20, we always underestimate God.

  3. What's happening to me emotionally -- consolation or desolation? Desolation is the appropriate Christian response to the brokenness of this world.

    SIDEBAR: some theories that may not be right

    There is a "blueprint" theory of God's will; you can tell it because somebody talks about being "in the center of God's will." Dr. Smith doesn't believe in this theory, because if the one I'm supposed to marry goes off and marries someone else, then I'm immediately off the One True Path and doomed to 2nd best for the rest of my life -- because of somebody else's mistake! This doesn't seem right.

    There's the "open door" theory -- if God opens a door, then I'm supposed to go there. But see 2 Corinthians 2:12-13 for the refutation.

    Then there's the fleece theory (Judges 6:37-40). Dr. Smith made the observation that after Pentecost, we should be listening to the Holy Spirit instead.
    Make no decision, make no changes in course while in desolation.

    NOTE: Discern true vs. false consolation. The following all tap into a perversion of the good created order.
    • Inordinate desire for possessions etc.; the evil one's lie is that you need more to be happy (GK Chesterton commenting on Francis).
    • Inordinate desire for honor, prestige, recognition. The evil one's lie: Fame (&c) in this earth is #1
    • Misguided desire for power and influence. When we till the soil, we alter the contour of created order. This is good. Naming the animals is exercising authority. This is also appropriate and good. The evil one's lie is: you need more power, more influence. But the true secret of influence is empowering others through generous service (Drucker)

  4. God's peace is conditional on others. Say you want to be pastor of our congregation. God gave you peace to apply for this position; he gave us peace to reject your application. You have peace to be a candidate but that's all; you can't know what somebody else is going to decide.

    Avoid the temptation to overstate the significance of peace!

To hear the voice of the Holy Spirit...

...we need two disciplines.
  • Solitude with Jesus. Jesus's example: Mark 1:35-38. Note that everybody wanted him to do one thing; he knew he had to do another. It was more important to Jesus to be a servant (i.e., the servant God wanted him to be) than to be thought a servant.
  • Community -- being in fellowship, being subject to accountability. When people know me, when they know my ambitions, my gifting, my strengths and weaknesses, and I tell them about a decision I'm considering, they can point out my blind spots -- if I give them the freedom to.

Well, those are my notes. I'm afraid I haven't done justice to his marvelous talk.

On that last discipline, about fellowship, James 5:16 comes to mind, as does Hebrews 10:23-25.

Withdrawing money from a Fidelty 529 plan

I just got off the phone with a Fidelity rep, and I am not too happy with them. Here's the deal.

Suppose you put $2900 (e.g.) into a 529 account with Fidelity in 2004. Over time it grows to $3500, and in 2007 you pull out $3500, emptying the account.

Early in 2008, you get a 1099Q form with this exciting information:
  • Box#1 says you took out $3500.
  • Box#2 (earnings) says you earned $3500.
  • Box#3 (basis) says $0.00
In other words, the 1099-Q says that $3500 came out of thin air. It might be S/T capital gain, L/T capital gain, dividend payout, or gambling winnings -- the 1099Q doesn't say.

Well, fortunately it was only back in 2004 so I still have records showing how much I put into the account, so the cost basis is actually knowable. Especially since this account only had one deposit (the opening one).

Now if these had been mutual funds in a non-529 account, they would have (at least I assume they would have) tracked the cost basis, but for 529s they don't do it.

Bottom line: If you use Fidelity for your 529 accounts, and if you spend anything at all on non-qualified expenses (living expenses, for example), wherein you will want to know the cost basis for your account (so you can calculate earnings), then you are SOL (simply out of luck). So keep track of those contributions yourself!

CIO Magazine??!?

The phone rings. I punch the button. "Collin Park."

"Hi, this is Ashley from CIO Magazine..."

I'm thinking, "CIO Magazine??!?" This reminds me of "CFO Magazine" whose "CFO of the Year" award for some years running was always in jail by the time the next award was about to be given out. I mean the Enron guy, the Tyco guy, ... They stopped giving out the award after the string got a little too long.

But Ashley was continuing. "I'm calling today to tell you about a special roundtable we're having February 13th, in San Francisco."

"Well... are *you* going to be there?" I didn't say. Though there was potential to have a little fun at her expense, I thought it would be more gracious to say, "Thanks; not interested. 'Bye."

Which is what I did.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Is life unfair?

In case you're wondering how I got hold of the photo below... well, I didn't go looking for it. I was reading something else at the Fortify blog, and when I saw that photo I realized that it related to something I'd been thinking about. It makes me think about Cain and Abel, but that's a posting for another day.
Every day, people are born in Mali, and people are born in Connecticut. Some are born with the genes and pre-natal care to have terrific intellectual potential, and others don't get enough nutrition to be healthy. People are born that will grow up to be ugly or deformed, or average, or good-looking -- and occasionally someone is born that will grow up to look like this:

What do you see in this picture? I don't notice a lot of details in the picture itself; what I do notice is that my stomach muscles contract -- I lean forward slightly. And something in my legs -- an itching to walk to wherever this woman is.

Those urges pass in less than a second, but what are they about? I have to think there's something biological. I read in a recent Atlantic that babies gaze longer at photos of "beautiful" faces than "average" ones -- there's apparently a genetic component causing us to be attracted to certain female faces.

So there's something objectively there; beauty isn't just in the eye of the beholder. Well, the same is true of height, mathematical ability, cup size, visual acuity, eye color, tendency toward baldness, etc. The distribution of these things isn't equal -- nor is it what we might call "fair."

So is life unfair? Well, the NIV text says about five times in the New Testament that God does not show favoritism (Acts 10; Romans 2; Ephesians 6; Colossians 3; James 2). So the way I figure it, God must have a different idea of what constitutes value -- of what's truly important in life -- than we do. Which makes some sense, come to think of it; isn't it written somewhere that God's thoughts aren't our thoughts? In fact it is, in Isaiah 55:
"For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,"
declares the Lord.

"As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
How can we become like God in this way? How can we come to have an accurate understanding and estimation of value, rather than the warped one which seems to be the default? A few things come to mind:
  • Get understanding from God's precepts (and therefore hating every false way): Psalm 119:104
  • "Give your heart to the heavenly things, not to the passing things of earth" -- Colossians 3:2
  • Don't love the world (exactly how you avoid this is left as an exercise for the reader) -- 1 John 2:15
Yes, these are sort of abstract, but that doesn't make them purely mental exercises. What we need -- what I need -- is spiritual transformation.

I hear that such transformation is possible -- through training. A recent sermon discussed the difference between trying to do something vs training to do something. We train for transformation by pursuing spiritual disciplines -- seeking time alone with God, meditation on God's word, reading it regularly, prayer, accountable fellowship. If we do those things, then I think Philippians 1:6 applies to us: ...being confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it (or something close to that).

Friday, February 01, 2008

Sell my stock? Exercise my options?

The following is not professional advice and is intended just to tell you things I've learned from our financial advisor. Consult your financial advisor before making any big decisions. Your mileage may vary. No warranty, expressed or implied. Blah blah blah.

OK, so lots of people want to know what's going to happen to stock prices -- especially if they own shares in a single company, as distinct from mutual funds and the like. Nobody knows, of course; just remember the time "When Genius Failed" (on Amazon, or Google "LTCM").

My financial advisor recommends against that -- the risk inherent in owning single stocks is not, for investors like me, sufficiently offset by the expected gain. But if you hold options -- for example if you've been granted options as an employee -- then you have a chance to reap some gain if the stock rises.

So when should you sell? Two answers:
  1. if you need the money from the options right away; and
  2. as part of a plan to diversify your portfolio.
The first one is obvious. But what does "need" mean? If you need a few thousand bucks, and you could afford to borrow that amount, should you borrow, or should you exercise and sell? I'll tell you: I don't know. But if for example you want a pile of cash for a down payment on your home (so you don't want to borrow it), that might be a case for exercising and selling. But see your financial advisor.

About diversifying the portfolio: Here's a strategy and some tactics that I use. My financial advisor suggests that I look at the amount of money available in vested options. That is, pick a day and say, "If I were to exercise everything I could and sell immediately, how much would I make?"

Exercise enough options (using whatever strategy) to make 25% of that amount, and sell the stock immediately. DO NOT HOLD the stock, especially if you have qualified options (or "ISO"s). Take your profits and put them into a diversified portfolio.

If you do that once a year, you'll reduce exposure to both upside and downside potential of that single stock. When should you do it? Well, if your stock has traditionally had 12-month highs in October in every one of the past dozen years, and it's never had a low in October, then do it in October by all means! But here is what I do.

In one year, I exercised my 25%-of-vested-dollars near the beginning of January. And near the end of December. The next year, exercise nothing. Here's the method to my madness. Suppose I exercise twice in 2005, and not at all in 2004 and 2006. For my 2005 tax return, I get a big bump in income. But there's no penalty, because the 2005 withheld is higher than my 2004 actual tax liability.

Normally when you owe a pile of tax like I did for the 2005 return, you want to make quarterly tax payments. But in 2006, there's not going to be any stock option exercise (especially there won't be any ISOs exercised) so there is no need for estimated tax payments -- in fact I'll get a refund on my 2006 return.

Then in 2007, I'll exercise in January and December, owe a pile of tax on my 2007 return, but again no penalty because my 2006 actual liability is lower than my 2007 withholding.

Now is January/December a good time of year as regards my company's stock? I'm not sure. But my company moves with the market, so if it's cheap, the market is also likely to be cheap, and since I'm basically buying mutual funds from those profits, it doesn't really matter.

Really, this strategy is all about managing risk; it's not about timing the market. Timing the market can lead to spectacular gains -- or spectacular losses. My performance as a market timer is atrocious so I fundamentally don't believe in it.