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.