Thursday, December 31, 2009

Dentistry and Math

Back in the early '70s, I used to hang out some evenings (once a week maybe?) at the UH math department, where someone would give a talk and then we would go to "Chico's" at the foot of St. Louis Heights (where City Mill is today). Most of the guys would drink beer but I'd have a 7-up or similar (I was under age).

These were interesting characters. One of them, a PhD student, said on one evening that he didn't believe the fundamental theorem of calculus. I don't know how you can be working on a Ph.D in mathematics and not believe the fundamental theorem of calculus, but there you are.

One evening, a professor (it might have been Dr. Wallen, department chair) told us about his dentist. (I've told this story 2-3 times on this vacation, and as the lovely Carol points out, I laughed out loud each time, so I decided I should write it down.) So he was at the dentist one day, and the dentist asked (you know how they do, when your mouth is full of whatever and you can't answer), "So what do you do?"

"Mf-fa-muh-fix," he replied.

The dentist made some enthusiastic noises, and the professor thought, yeah right, and endured the rest of his dental treatment. But as he was leaving, the dentist said, "Wait, when can I come over?"

Come over?

"Yeah, come over and do math. I have some papers..."

So at the appointed hour some days later, the prof opens the door to find his dentist with a sheaf of papers and a bottle of vodka. (This is the part where I always laugh. Dentistry, vodka, math -- what a great combo!) So they drink and the prof looks over the dentist's papers.

Relating this story to us, the prof said, "This guy was powerful." He had worked out a conjecture regarding the infinite series Σn 1/nx; he wasn't sure, but it seemed to him that if x was bigger than 1, then the series would converge, otherwise not.

It turned out that this was correct; if x=2, the sum converges to π2/6; if x=1, it diverges; if x=–1, it converges, but I forget what it converges to. I thought this was called "Cauchy's theorem," but a quick search (it has been about 35 years) doesn't connect that name to that theorem.

The most recent occasion for telling this story was when talking with my nephew (currently taking high school calculus) about some of my experiences "when I was your age." It was fun re-living those experiences, and also helping him review some of his math and giving him a preview of the fundamental theorem of calculus (which I actually do believe, ftr).

Oops! November 2014 update

OK, that part about –1 is completely wrong. What I meant was, the series 1/1 - 1/2 + 1/3 - 1/4 + 1/5 - 1/6… which is not Σn 1/n–1; it's actually Σn 1/(-n)1

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Science of [staying in] Love

Reading the thinkmarriage blog, I saw this article from Scientific American Mind (which I hadn't heard of before). Here's the blurb:
Nothing is more fulfilling than being in a successful love relationship. Yet we leave our love lives entirely to chance. Maybe we don’t have to anymore By Robert Epstein
It's worth a read.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Worship the other day -- was "Ten minutes for a post"

Sunday, when we were staying in Kailua at a very nice "inn" -- not really a B&B -- we decided to walk to church.

There were signs posted near Wanaao and Awakea for "New Hope Kailua" iirc; we tried to follow one and it didn't work. We tried another one, and right next to it was one that said "Hope Chapel Kailua", which further explained that they met in the Kailua Rec Center. We thought "New Hope" and "Hope Chapel" were the same thing -- ha! Even "Hope Chapel Kailua" doesn't mean "Hope Chapel Kailua" -- one has a website and meets at the Windward Mall; another has no website and meets at the rec center.

It turns out that "New Hope" (at least this one) meets at the school next to the rec center -- maybe 200 yards down the street? But we went to Hope Chapel.

Since I only have a few minutes to write this (we're on vacation and the lovely Carol wants her computer back), I'll tell you about something that happened to me during worship. We sang "Beautiful One" and for some reason on this particular morning the words, which talk a lot about God's wonderful love, hit me especially strongly. That happens to me sometimes, and good thing, too.

Because I sometimes don't feel all that excited, I mean God loves me and that's great, but it doesn't really make an impact on me, you know?

I sometimes think that the Israelites were rather silly to forget God in the desert -- didn't they have the pillar of cloud and fire every single day? But I think that for them, as for me, it all became just everyday.

May the Lord deliver us from feeling that his love, which is with us every day, is just an everyday (as in "commonplace" or "ordinary") thing.

Duke's in Waikiki

The lovely Carol and I are on vacation in Hawaii, and last night went to Duke's in Waikiki. Here are a few things we discovered, so you don't have to :).

My niece's husband, who used to work there, explained that it's in the Outrigger Hotel -- 2335 Kalakaua Ave, Honolulu (note). As you drive down Kalakaua Av, it's on the right after Seaside Ave. -- it looks to be about half way between Duke's Lane and Kaiulani Ave. Kalakaua Ave is one-way toward Diamond Head in this area (Ala Wai being one-way toward Ewa). I dropped the lovely Carol off on Kalakaua and went to look for parking.

There are probably better/closer parking spots, but I took a left on Kaiulani, left on Kuhio, and right on Seaside. Almost at Ala Wai, I found the Island Colony apartments/hotel and parked in their garage. It's $3 for 30 minutes. Plenty of parking available there. I walked straight down Seaside, crossed Kalakaua, and walked the 250 yards or so to the Outrigger. I was at the hostess stand at 5:00pm, about 15 minutes after leaving my sweetheart there. This was on a Monday night, and we got a table in the dining room (Duke's Canoe something) one row back from the railing.

Something we didn't know is that there's a dinner menu and a bar menu. The bar menu, which you get by sitting in the bar (which may be at beach-level), is lower priced than the regular dinner menu. If the main reason you're going is for the view of the sunset, you might prefer the bar menu.

As I said, we didn't know that, so we took the dinner menu... the entrees (which I think started around $22) include the salad bar. The recommended fresh fish was "opa", a very light fish. My sweetheart took that fish in the recommended macadamia-nut crust. She shared a bite with me, and I thought it was terrific. Like halibut -- as our server said. I had the seafood luau, which was fish, scallops, shrimp, with coconut sauce. Also very good.

We also didn't know what the salad bar would be like. You can make a meal out of the salad bar -- besides freshly tossed caesar salad, other usual salad bar stuff like spinach and green leaf lettuce and beets and carrots and tomatoes, there is steamed rice, rolls, potato salad, black beans, grilled vegetables, corn, macaroni salad... all for $15 I think. I don't know if you can get the same salad bar in the bar area.

When we arrived, a fellow was playing in the bar, quite close to the dining room. It was one voice and one guitar, but he was very good and had quite a variety of stuff: Johnny Cash, the Beatles, some Hawaiian tourist music, some CSNY I think, and some stuff that's too recent for me to know. His name is Ellsworth, and if you have a choice of evenings to go, you should ask when Ellsworth is playing. That is, if you like any music from the mid-'60s to now.

Beautiful view, very friendly service, great food.

Monday, December 28, 2009

What do you do at the office?

Someone asked me, and I flatter myself that some other reader(s) might want to know too.

I work for (but don't speak for) NetApp, a great place to work. I started there in 2002, after getting laid off from HP along with 20,000 others in the wake of the Compaq thing. I kept my 2002 résumé for some reason.

My first NetApp assignment was on management software -- this was portable C (Solaris, Linux, and Windows) -- then I worked on replication (SnapMirror and SnapVault) for a few years. In 2005, I became part of a "quality team" within the Engineering organization (I told them a "mediocre team" might be a better fit, but they weren't buying), where I helped institutionalize static analysis tools. It's all very well to say "Thou shalt run lint frequently and study its pronouncements with care..." but when you have hundreds of programmers, thousands of files, millions of lines, and schedules to meet -- not to mention interruptions and other pressures of a commercial software organization -- integrating static analysis tools feels rather like adjusting the ignition timing while rolling down the freeway.

Since then I've worked on various other initiatives in engineering tools and our home-grown build system. It turns out that I now write more English prose than code. This is not a big problem, since I do get to code now and then, albeit more in Python and bash than in C or assembly. My current mission at the office is to make life better for development and QA engineers, whether by streamlining some process or making it easier to get at information that's otherwise hard to discover.

Sometimes I do some work on the product (troubleshooting mainly) in areas of logical replication that are not widely understood. Earlier this month I had an opportunity to meet with a customer to describe how we use our own technology in our build and release processes (the dog-food theory) to provide some great advantages to our developers and to the operations folks.

Also, for the past 18 months, I've shared an office with a young fellow right out of college. I've helped bring him up to speed, and I'm very happy and proud to be involved with his professional development. My boss told me a few months ago that I was an "awesome mentor" and that she's never seen a new college grad become a solid contributor in so short a time. (Is there anything in professional life better than that?)

So that's the summary. Any questions, please leave a comment here. Thanks for reading!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Choosing the matrix

"Cypher," the Judas character in the 1999 film The Matrix, decides he'd rather live a life of pleasant illusion than deal with reality:
Agent Smith: Do we have a deal, Mr. Reagan?
Cypher: You know, I know this steak doesn't exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss.
Agent Smith: Then we have a deal?
Cypher: I don't want to remember nothing. Nothing. You understand? And I want to be rich. You know, someone important, like an actor.
Agent Smith: Whatever you want, Mr. Reagan.
from The Matrix [script]
Excellent arguments have been made about why this is a dumb idea (more), but surely nobody would actually decide to live a life of illusion, would they?

Perhaps not, but people do it for days or weeks. That's what John Edwards and Mark Sanford and Tiger Woods all did when they involved themselves in extramarital affairs. And on a shorter time scale, Eliot Spitzer and many many many other unfaithful husbands consult high-end prostitutes.

Why do I say these men are living a life of illusion, particularly the prostitutes' clients? Levitt and Dubner offer this description of one high-end prostitute, "Allie":

She genuinely likes the men who come to her, and the men therefore like Allie even beyond the fact that she will have sex with them. Often, they bring gifts: a $100 gift certificate from; a nice bottle of wine (she Googles the label afterward to determine the value); and, once, a new MacBook. The men sweet-talk her, and compliment her looks or the decor. They treat her, in many ways, as men are expected to treat their wives but often don't.


Allie is essentially a trophy wife who is rented by the hour. She isn't really selling sex, or at least not sex alone. She sells men the opportunity to trade in their existing wives for a younger, more sexually adventurous version--without the trouble and the long-term expense of actually having to go through with it. For an hour or two, she represents the ideal wife: beautiful, attentive, smart, laughing at your jokes and satisfying your lust. She is happy to see you every time you show up at her door. Your favorite music is already playing and your favorite beverage is on ice. She will never ask you to take out the trash.

Super Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner,
pp. 52-53
This is about illusion -- and not a steak-and-creature-comfort illusion; it's fundamentally an identity illusion. It's about being being attractive and sexy and funny, about being being validated by a "beautiful, attentive, smart" woman, about being known. In short, the illusion is about being a real man.

But as Mike Erre asks on the back cover of Why Guys Need God, "Why, after years of being told otherwise, do we still chase after bigger paychecks, better homes, and cuter women to define us as men?" I haven't read the book (except for a few pages on, but I think he's on to something very important. He's talking about pursuing an illusion, whereas Allie is providing the illusion in participatory form.

Now I'll say that some illusions are harmless (think "Happiest Place on Earth"), but the illusions fed by psychotropic drugs, pornography, and prostitution can destroy lives and families. Must we avoid all illusions, all escapes -- all entertainment? I sure hope not! But how to draw the line?

Let me know when you have it figured out, will you please?

Friday, December 25, 2009

What do you want?

One of my children gave me a copy of Donald Miller's A Million Miles in a Thousand Years which, like an earlier book, starts off silly but actually has a lot of depth.

Here's something that struck me: the question of what you (or I) want, and what that says about the story we're living. One of the things that makes the movie Star Wars so great, he says, is

... if I paused the DVD on any frame, I could point toward any major character and say exactly what that person wanted. No character had a vague ambition. It made me wonder if the reasons our lives seem so muddled is because we keep walking into scenes in which we, along with the people around us, have no clear idea what we want.
A Million Miles..., p. 113
Then some pages later, this:
The ambitions we have will become the stories we live. If you want to know what a person's story is about, just ask them what they want. If we don't want anything, we are living boring stories, and if we want a Roomba vacuum cleaners, we are living stupid stories. If it won't work in a story, it won't work in life.
A Million Miles..., pp. 124-125
Well, I guess I'm living rather a boring story because I've got just about everything I've ever wanted. I wish some problems would go away (we all have problems after all) but that's stuff I don't want.

So why do I think this is so profound? He mentioned a family where a 13-year-old daughter was caught in a bad story. She had pot in her closet and dated a boy who was bad for her. After thinking about the story they were all in (girl misbehaves, father yells, mother weeps), her father came up with another story. He did some research and heard about an organization that builds orphanages in other countries. He found out how these orphanages helped kids -- kids who were otherwise in all kinds of danger.

He decided that the whole family should work toward building an orphanage. This would cost some $25,000. They didn't have this sort of money lying around, so living out this story would would involve some sacrifice, but it gave them a sense of purpose, and drew them together as a team. Rather than bickering while adrift, they were heroes working toward a greater goal.

He should have consulted his wife first, but they came to embrace the vision. The daughter dropped the bad boy; heroes don't put up with abuse.

It's nice that the story is turning out well, at least for now, but what I take away from it more than that is: I probably should have a clearer idea of what it is I want in this stage of my life.

And how about you? What do you want? If your life (or mine) were a movie and we froze the frame right now -- and if a viewer pointed at you... what do you want? What's your ambition, your story? What do I want?

Our answers are important, not just for us, but for those around us, too.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Guidance: Do you really want it?

Sometimes in the Christian life, we think we want to hear what God wants us to do, and we want to be quite sure about it. I don't mean what he wants in the sense of should I commit adultery, should I cheat someone, or something else where God has already spoken. I mean about asking this or that person on a date, to go to this vs that college, to study this or that, or in particular to take this job or that.

Here are a couple of stories where people got very clear instruction from God along those lines, but they were not very happy about it. In one case, a missionary family had moved to China, intending to live their lives there. But the husband came down with some illness, and on advice traveled to another city to receive medical care. The treatment had unfortunate side effects, the upshot of which was that they returned to the United States, where he basically had to lie on his back for the next year or so.

He told us some time later that this gave him a chance to reflect upon what was really important in life, so he used that time to some profit. And I remember thinking at that one good thing about the ordeal was that they now had no doubt about whether they should be in China. Not to say they erred in going there in the first place, but it became clear that their future was elsewhere. Heck of a way to find out, though.

Another case, written up by Rich Stearns in his 2009 book The Hole in Our Gospel, describes how the CEO of a luxury tableware outfit became US president of a World Vision. It went something like this: Many years back, when he and his wife were planning their wedding, he didn't want to participate in the gift registry thing as long as children were starving on our planet. So they didn't.

Fast forward a couple of decades or so, and he's worked his way up the management ladder at Parker Brothers (of board games) and then Lenox. He drove a Jaguar to work every day from their 200-year-old 10-bedroom farmhouse, the kids were thriving at expensive private schools, and so on. One of their church friends called him up one day. He was a fund-raiser for a seminary and was moving over to World Vision -- they, in turn, were looking for a new president. His friend said he had a sense that Rich was going to be that next president.

"That's ridiculous," Rich replied. He wasn't interested, he didn't think he was qualified, he liked his job and his company car and the old farmhouse. He didn't want to move the family across the country, etc. His friend pushed on him a little, but Rich wasn't interested.

Then one of his vice presidents sent him a hand-written note. Attached to the note was a clipping from the Wall Street Journal (the daily diary of the American dream). The note basically said, Rich, I saw this job opening and thought you would be a great person for this. But don't take this wrong -- I love having you as a boss and think you're doing a great job. But I thought you'd be terrific at this, if you ever decided to do it.

The job opening was, of course, for the presidency at World Vision. It was from the one day that they ran the ad. Rich tried to ignore it.

Then one day the phone rang. It was a recruiter from World Vision. No, he had not talked with Rich's friend. Rich said he wasn't interested, he brought up one objection after another (which the recruiter knocked down one by one), he tried to get off the phone... and then the recruiter said, "Rich, are you willing to do this if it's God's will for your life?" or something like this.

He couldn't refuse, and over time it became increasingly clear that this is what he was supposed to do. On the day he was going to fly across the country to visit World Vision before making his final decision, a man from a Lenox business partner in England came for a visit. He also offered Rich the chance to run his china business -- a step up in responsibility, prestige, and wealth.

Would Rich abandon his 200-year-old farmhouse, move his family across the country, take a 75% pay cut, and start a job that he felt completely uncomfortable in? Or would he move his family across the Atlantic, give them an exciting experience, take a significant pay increase, and continue working in an industry he was comfortable and capable in?

Reading his account, it seems like he felt like he was being herded somewhere he didn't want to go. Knowing that God is good probably helped, and I think he's glad he followed God's leading. But being herded -- not a fun sensation.

So -- do we really want guidance? I'd have to say: only if God thinks it's really important. And sometimes I'm glad that I'm not supposed to do anything Really Important.

Monday, December 07, 2009


Heard on NPR: Hook's Cheese of Mineral Point, Wisconsin, has a 15-year-old cheddar currently for sale at about $50 a pound.

By weight that would be on the order of a $75 bottle of wine. Mr. Hook says he has some older cheese -- about seventeen years old -- but it's not for sale. It's only for him and his family. A brilliant PR move -- my covetousness was aroused and I immediately began thinking about this. $12.50 for ¼ pound... that would be an interesting experience. I mean, that's less than movie tickets for two!

Actually, for the price of two movie tickets ($10.50 a pop at the local multiplex) you could rent a couple of movies at Blockbuster and have ¼ pound of the 15-year-old Cheddar. H'm...

"Life has loveliness to sell -- buy it and never count the cost." No idea whether I'd consider the experience lovely, but it did arouse my curiosity.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

What was God thinking...

At yesterday's meeting of Good to Great Dads at our church, one of the speakers said that God's interest isn't in accountability; rather, it's in our healing and transformation. He wants us to be all that he had in mind for us.

Our speaker then asked the question: "What was God thinking of, when he thought of you?" Put differently, "What did God have in mind when he decided to make you?"

I don't know what the specific answer is for you, but I do know this: He had something marvelous and wonderful in mind, and two things in particular:

  • To show the riches of his grace in kindness toward you in Christ (Ephesians 2:6-7)
  • To bless the world through you (Ephesians 2:10)
What would this look like? It depends on your gifting, the people you're in contact with, and other circumstances you're in. To discover the answer may involve prayer and solitude and community.

So I don't have anything profound to say about that -- I just liked our speaker's question and wanted to share it with you. Because God really did have something wonderful in mind when he thought of you. (Oh, and please think prospectively, about that -- you know, "today is the first day of the rest of your life", not "oh, crap, God had this great idea for me and I've so far wasted however many decades not being that." See Philippians 3:13)

Because essence precedes existence

There are some people who claim that existence precedes essence for human beings. That is, we show up (existence) first, then we define ourselves (essence) later. You can believe that if you want, but you'll be disagreeing with Psalm 139 at least:
For you created my inmost being;
     you knit me together in my mother's womb. 
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
     your works are wonderful,
     I know that full well. 
My frame was not hidden from you
     when I was made in the secret place. 
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,
     your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me
     were written in your book
     before one of them came to be. 
and also the Apostle Paul: "...even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world..." (Ephesians 1:4).

So if you're imagining what God was thinking of when he thought of you, I'm here to tell you that you're wondering about something that actually happened! God really did think of you and he really did have something marvelous and wonderful in mind when he did that.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Japanese Bus Stop -- no relation to Inge. (bus schedule, actually)

We were moving some furniture around and the lovely Carol found this piece of nostalgia taped to the door of our shoe cabinet.

Shoe cabinet? Yes! As you may know, we don't wear shoes in the house in Japan, so it's nice to have shoes in the place where you're about to put 'em on before going out. And what else do you use the inside of the shoe cabinet door for?

So here's what it's about: Centered across the top, in big letters, it says "bus schedule". On the right is

  • Kashinodai 3cho-me ji-chi-kai ("3rd subdistrict of Kashinodai neighborhood association" -- Nelson's dictionary says "student council" -- probably the publisher); and
  • Heisei 9nen 5gatsu genzai (effective May 1997).
    Many dates in Japan have, instead of "1997" for the year, "the 9th year of the Heisei Emperor." To enter a date-of-birth on some Japanese forms, one must put both the emperor (sometimes indicated with T/S/H for Taisho, Showa, Heisei) and the year -- e.g., someone born in 1992 would be H.3
On the left, reading from top to bottom:
  • (bold letters) Kashinodai 2 cho-me
    This is the name of the bus stop. It doesn't say "Main and Jefferson" or something like this, because many (most) streets don't have names. The bus has recorded announcements for each bus stop.
  • a boxed 28 and a boxed 22. These are the route numbers. I think the ideograph next to the 22 means that it goes in a loop.
  • Ta-keh-no-dai kei-yu (via Take-no-dai district)
  • (bolder print) Sei-shin chuu-oh eki mae yuki -- i.e., destination: the bus stop in front of the "Sei-shin chuu-oh" (west Kobe central) station
You can see that we've written that the upper table is for buses going from the red mailbox (context is everything) to the "eki" -- the station. Also that the top "half" of that table is for Mon-Fri and the bottom for Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays.

The numbers are the hour and minute for when the bus is supposed to depart (I think) the bus stop in that direction. They were pretty much on time, except when there was a record-breaking snowfall. Then you were better off walking.

The bottom table (which was cut off) was "Nishi Tai-ik'kan yuki" meaning "to the West Gym" -- we never went there, but it told us about what time I could get off the #28 bus if I took that one from the station.

It's pleasant for me to recall some parts of our life in Japan, and to share them with you.

Power to change ourselves

Have you ever heard anything like this: "I used to be greedy, selfish, tormented, impatient, and cruel, but by studying psychology I've become generous, loving, kind, and peaceful"? Of course not! Psychology can certainly help us understand ourselves and others and thereby become more tolerant, and it's certainly provided models and techniques that have helped people overcome OCD, phobias, and other problems.

But we face problems far beyond psychology's reach: "For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, spending our days in malice and envy, hated by men and hating one another." (from Titus 3). As Karl Marx almost said: The psychologists have only interpreted the mind in various ways—the point however is to change it.

How can we address those problems? We can't do it on our own, but we can get help. Jesus Christ said that "the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!" (Mark 1:15). The word translated "repent" means to change our minds. The Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 12:2, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." Practically, here are a couple of my earlier essays with "simple" 3-step programs to overcome anger and anxiety. They take 20-30 years and may need to be repeated. But they actually work:

I believe it is these practices -- the spiritual (or soul) disciplines, that will change us. Insights are helpful, yes, but knowledge alone isn't enough; we need the power of God to effect change in us.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

“After church, I sometimes feel empty inside...”

If people say that, it a problem? Whose problem is it? And regardless of whose problem it is, what can or should we do about it?

A friend said something like that to me the other day, and it reminded me of another person's comment: "We try to have perfect signs, perfect music, perfect A-V, perfect coffee, but still people visit and don't come back. I don't know why.... When we traveled, we visited another church, where the music was led by a pastor who had to look for his guitar. He found it, and he didn't play all that well. But at the end of the service, we knew we'd had an encounter with the Lord."

My feeling was that these folks have a point. Not that we should get sloppy with the A-V or ruin the coffee on purpose. But what?

I'll tell you: I don't know. Here are a couple more questions I can't answer either. First, what "actual" need (as distinct from "felt need") brings congregants to us on Sunday morning? Is it a need for social interaction? Do they need a touch of transcendance in their lives? Are they too apt to sleepwalk through life, hence they need a reminder of God's presence in the world and in their lives?

Here's the other: What does "success" mean for us on Sunday morning? That is, at 12:45, when we're more or less closing the doors, how do we decide how well we've done today? A few things that come to mind:

  • We had more people come than last week (or last month's average, or last quarter's average)
    • Alternately: we've had increasing attendance for the past ___ weeks
  • No glitches in the video presentation, missed cues for lighting or song lyrics, etc.
  • Every visitor was met with a smile
  • Every attendee who wanted it had a caring personal interaction with someone.
  • Of the ____ people who asked for prayer about particular issues the previous week, over 80% of them were asked by someone else, "How is your ________?" (job situation, health problem, injured/ill relative, relationship issue, whatever they mentioned last week).
  • Music was an appropriate balance (traditional/contemporary, etc.) and was connected to the sermon's main point
  • No logistical goof-ups -- signage, doors, snacks, coffee, chairs, etc. all met guidelines.
  • Each volunteer and staff member carried out their tasks with love and grace
  • Participants in the worship center felt a strong sense that "God was with me every day last week, he's here and cares for me now, and he will be with me, guiding and caring for me, every day in the coming week."
  • All congregants felt after the service "I've had an encounter with the Lord."
  • A significant portion of the worship service (___% of the minutes) was spent in prayer.
Well, there are a few anyway.

What do we think our answer should be? What do we think it actually is? That is, as we look back on the service, what makes us say, "Good day today"?

I don't know the answer to either, but I suspect the answers aren't the same.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Why I shop at our neighborhood Key Market

Last week, the lovely Carol ordered a turkey for today's big gathering -- about 25 folks will be coming today for a sorta-pot-luck. These are people without family nearby, many of them from another country. A few are students; most aren't.

Rather than picking up our turkey on Thursday (with bazillions of other shoppers), we decided to pick it up this morning. That way, we could just bring it home, stuff it, and pop it into the oven -- no need to make room for it in the 'fridge, etc.

Yesterday, while we were out hiking at Rancho San Antonio, someone called from the meat department at Key to tell us that there was only one ordered-but-not-picked-up turkey left -- ours. "We'll be here 'til one o'clock." They had called maybe 11:30; we got home about 1:30.

Wasn't that nice? They knew we ordered a turkey (I guess they didn't notice we ordered it for today rather than yesterday), and they called to remind us about it. Think you'd get a call like that from one of the big guys? Ha!

So I dropped by this morning and inched the door open over in the meat department. Pete came over to help me. "We ordered a turkey?" I said.


I told him, and yes, it was the last one. "Thanks for calling us!" I told him. We did a little more shopping, paid, and left happy.

But when I opened the wrapper, I wasn't so happy any more. I called the number that they'd left yesterday. "Meat department, Pete speaking."

"Hi, Collin Park, I picked up a turkey, oh, half an hour ago?" He remembered -- it's not real busy over there today. I went on, "I opened it up and it don't smell so good."

Pete told me to bring it in, and he'd give me another one and open it up and we could make sure this one was okay. This sounded good to me. "You can sanity-check me too," I told him.

So I zipped on down there, and Pete took a whiff. "It's a little sour all right," he said. Then he pointed out a change in the coloration on the drumstick ends; they were a little yellow. It's been five years, he said, since he'd had anything like this happen. "Too bad it happened to you," he added. He got another bird out of about the same weight, and slit the wrapper with his box cutter. We both took a whiff and it smelled a lot better.

Pete wrapped it up for me, then walked out with me, past the cashier. I thanked him and came on home.

The bird's in the oven now, and it's about time to go baste it again. But I wanted to share this experience with you. Could we have gotten a bigger bird at Costco for the same amount of money? Well, maybe. But a pleasant shopping experience -- that's worth something to us too. Don't get me wrong -- I like Costco and buy things there I can't get easily elsewhere. But the neighborhood grocery store has a lot going for it too.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thankful for... a ten-minute exercise

Well, it's the 4th Thursday in November, and though it's trite, here's a list of things that come to mind that I'm thankful for:
  • The lovely Carol, who's put up with me over 23 years
  • Our children, who really are young women now, and following the Lord
  • ... and who are here with us for Thanksgiving!
  • Our little dog: though vexing at times, brings us much joy
  • A roof and four solid walls
  • Gainful employment
  • Being already forgiven, by the blood of Jesus
  • The promise of heaven
  • Friends to spend Thanksgiving evening with
  • Money to give to the poor, and to help spread the good news of the Kingdom of God
  • DVDs of Star Trek TNG
  • The ability to host a pot-luck tomorrow for 25 internationals at our house :)
  • A place of worship -- MPPC -- and Open Door Church San Mateo, a campus thereof
  • People we know who honor the Lord by taking steps of faith -- some big and spectacular and some not so visible
  • The work of the Holy Spirit around the world in bringing many people to faith in Jesus
Oops, time's up. PUBLISH POST...

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Dad: Here's how to be a breakfast hero

There it was on the front page of the San Jose Mercury News: there was an Eggo deficit, which threatens to put breakfast in the deep freeze. Huh? The inventor would have been dumbfounded.

But this gives you, Dad, a chance to be a breakfast hero: "No, kids, no Eggos were found in the store, but I, your father, a heretofore unsung maitre de cuisine (pardon my French; that's master of [the] kitchen), will save the day!" Here's how.

First, ascertain whether you have a working waffle iron. If yes, you're all set. Start the waffle iron preheating and spray it with "Pam" or similar. To mix the batter, follow the instructions either

  • here (but no butter; use 1/4-1/3 cup of vegetable oil instead) or
  • on the Bisquick box (if you have the latter in the kitchen)
and you'll be a hero. Allow yourself 45-60 minutes the first time you do this, even after ensuring you have all the ingredients on hand. The good news is, with practice you can have this down to less than 20 minutes from "Let's have waffles!" to the first plateful -- even without a baking mix.

If you don't have a working waffle iron on hand, then it's pancakes. Make sure your griddle is in good shape: the manly task of surface prep may have just fallen to you. Use either my recipe (to make from scratch) or the one on the Bisquick box, if you've got some. Dealing with a griddle takes considerably more practice than an automatic electric waffle iron, but you'll get used to it. The main thing is to have the right amount of heat (my recipe above gives some hints, but a more professional set is here -- oooh, but you might want to turn the heat down once you get the griddle to the right temperature -- and also to PAY ATTENTION while doing the pancakes.

When your first plateful turns out perfect, don't get cocky and think you can fire up the coffeepot between pouring the batter and flipping the 'cakes! Well, you CAN fill the kettle (and remember the 'cakes), and you can put it on another burner (fire up the correct burner, and check the 'cakes). And maybe you can even find the coffee (check the 'cakes) and then find a paper filter (and check the cakes), then measure the coffee grounds (check....)

You get the idea. You probably don't want to do this every day, but you can do it once a week. There is NO SHAME in using a mix like Bisquick or Jiffy -- or better, Krusteaz, which requires only water instead of eggs+milk! In fact, I think I'll tell you here that if you're going to do this, go out and get yourself a box. That way you have just one bowl and one "real" ingredient. Whoever has to do the dishes (maybe you) will be happy about that. It's also better not to have to fish eggshell fragments out of the batter, or out of your pancakes.

You can do this once a week and you'll get proficient pretty quickly. If there are some blueberries or strawberries in the 'fridge, they can be added -- probably on top (you don't have to plan in advance; you can just open the fridge to look for butter, and -- hey, strawberries! -- slice a few up and it's a gourmet breakfast). My younger daughter liked to add chocolate chips to the batter when I was about half-way through (some of us don't like chocolate-chip pancakes). There's all kinds of fun stuff you can do. Your wife will think you're a genius, too.

Did Christianity Cause the Collapse?

I read the title of Hanna Rosin's piece in the Atlantic, and was immediately annoyed. "That's like asking of Islam caused 9/11!" I said to myself.

But wait, we asked that question a lot, didn't we? And many thought "yes" even if they didn't articulate that explicitly. Which brings up the question, "What is 'Christianity'? What is 'Islam'?" Or, put differently, "Who is a 'Christian'? Who is a 'Muslim'?" How you answer that question (either one) determines what you'll think about whether those religions caused recent events.

One possible answer to "Who is a ______": "Whoever I think is one!" This had disastrous consequences for an Coptic Christian, from Egypt, who was shot by some idiot here in the US, because said idiot thought the guy was a Muslim and therefore affiliated with whatever group flew airplanes into the World Trade Center.

Of course, there are people who think everyone from North America is a Christian. Britney Spears, Hugh Hefner (if anyone remembers him anymore), those pro wrestlers on WWF, and Carrie Prejean -- all Christians, right? Oh, and Adolf Hitler was a Christian too, right?

Is a "real" Christian one who does what Jesus taught, and a "real" Muslim one who does what Muhammad taught? What documents are used to determine what these prophets said, and who gets to decide? For Jesus, is it the four gospels? For Muhammad, is it the Qur'an only, or is some Hadith (which?) included?

Let me short-circuit the next thing: there is nobody that follows all Jesus said: Love your enemies, turn the other cheek, sell your possessions and give to the poor. Some do some of that more than others, but nobody does it all.

Here's another alternative: we could say "A Christian is anyone who says they're one." and the same for Muslims, Jews, etc. But that brings some disagreement into the mix. There are some Christians who would claim that <some_unfavored_person> isn't one, because of this or that. Again, same for Muslims, Jews, etc. OK, so here's one answer to Ms. Rosin:

If by "Christianity" you mean "what Jesus taught" then the answer is "Absolutely not!" Jesus said his kingdom isn't of this world. There's no record that he ever owned any property. When people asked him about paying taxes, he even borrowed a coin to make his point. He had, by his own account "no place to lay his head."

But if "Christianity" means "whatever was taught in any building labeled 'church' by someone with the title 'pastor'," then sure it caused the crash. It also caused the Jonestown massacre, the Branch Davidian disaster, and all kinds of other awful stuff. That definition of Christianity isn't too different from what some people in the Muslim world call Christianity -- viz., anything coming out of North America.

But let's see if I can clarify that a bit.

To answer “Did Christianity cause...” we need to know...

... what's uniquely Christian. In other words, if the crash resulted from some teaching X, then it only makes sense to blame the crash on Christianity if:
  • X is taught by Christians and not by others; and further if
  • X is a significant contributor or a deciding factor in the crash's occurrence.
So it seems to me that to answer Ms. Rosin's question we have to decide what's uniquely Christian -- i.e., stuff typically taught by pastors in churches but not taught much outside of churches by people who aren't pastors. I just made this definition up, but in a pluralistic society I think it may be a helpful way to talk about what's unique to Christianity as practiced in the US, but without getting into theology, hermeneutics, the authorship of Mark 16, or other rather esoteric issues. Here are a few things with my shot as to whether they're unique to Christianity:
  • You can and should be rich: NO
    • It's taught a lot outside churches
    • Though it's taught in some churches, it's not something that a majority of churches would agree with
  • You can have your sins forgiven through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ: YES
    • Taught in most churches, not taught much outside churches
  • You should handle poisonous snakes and drink poison: NO
    • Though not taught much (if at all) outside churches...
    • it's not taught much in churches outside a very small subset in a certain geographical area (see Salvation on Sand Mountain)
  • You should give money to the poor: NO by this definition
    • Taught both inside and outside the church: it's taught in Mosques/Masjids and synagogues as well as by some non-religious non-profits.
      (Side note: according to this article by Jonathan Haidt, religious people tend give more money -- and blood -- than secular folks do.)
  • It's OK to lie, kill, steal from people outside your group: NO
    • Taught by a minority of churches but not by most.
    • Taught by organizations outside the church.
  • God is holy, and man is not: NO by this definition
    • Taught by churches, but...
    • ALSO taught in other religious traditions, notably Islam and Judaism
    In other words we could say this is part of Christianity but it's not uniquely Christian.

So here's my final answer: No, nothing caused the crash that's uniquely taught by Christianity. Greed is taught in many places outside the church, and is not universally or generally taught inside the church.

I'd say that rather the crash was brought about by greed. Subprime loans, the excesses of the credit default swap market, the stock bubble -- all those things were only symptoms; the real cause was greed. My opinion.

Friday, November 13, 2009

This one was from Pakistan for sure

Some years ago, when "Kirk" and his wife were starting out in Pakistan, they lived in a neighborhood with other missionaries. There was a boy from a refugee camp, maybe 15-16, hired by another missionary couple to do the gardening for them.

Through interactions with that missionary couple, "Ahmed" became interested in Isa al-Masih (Jesus the Messiah) and gave his life to Isa. The couple gave Ahmed a copy of the Injil (Gospel) in Arabic, which Ahmed carried around in his bag during the week. However, when he rejoined his family in the refugee camp on weekends, Ahmed left the Gospel behind at the missionary couple's home. (Side note: Nowhere in the Qur'an does it say that the Bible is corrupt; indeed the Qur'an itself says a lot of very positive things about Isa al-Masih, and indeed many Muslims have a lot of respect for him. However, some Muslims -- Ahmed's family in particular -- consider that the injil is bad news, and anyone who reads it may no longer be a Muslim.)

One weekend, Ahmed forgot to censor his bag. His mother found the gospel, and, seeing what it was, told Ahmed, "Wait 'til your father gets home." Ahmed's family was from Afghanistan, and his father was a mujahideen commander. He wasn't home at this point because he was back in Afghanistan fighting Russians.

Ahmed returned to the missionaries and told them what had happened. There was much concern, especially when the rumor mill picked up the story that Ahmed's father was coming back soon. Here's what happened: the father heard that Ahmed had become an apostate, or was about to become one, etc. So, in order to save his son's soul (as the father thought), he was going to put Ahmed in the front line. According to the Mujahideen view, when he died in battle, would go straight to Paradise. This would be much preferable to living to be 80 or 90 and going to hell.

The missionaries understandably felt it was important to pray for Ahmed. For some reason, Kirk and his wife were involved in praying for Ahmed. So while he slept, Kirk and his wife prayed. As he describes it, "We grew up Lutheran; for us it was rather a strain to pray for an hour, but praying all night was way beyond us. But we alternately prayed and slept, and nothing happened to Ahmed."

EXCEPT that the next morning, Ahmed woke up with a big smile on his face. He'd had a dream -- the same dream many times, actually. He was holding a candle, and some men (his father's men?) put his candle out, and Ahmed didn't like that. He was about to stand up, but The Man in White (apparently, Isa al-Masih usually doesn't speak in these dreams) put his hand on Ahmed's shoulder and wouldn't let him stand up. Ahmed was given to understand that The Man in White would take care of the situation. This whole thing repeated many times.

Something else happened that night, but Kirk and the other missionaries didn't learn about it 'til later. Meanwhile, they prayed for Ahmed over the next few days, and as far as they knew, nothing happened.

Some time later, they found out. Ahmed's father did indeed return, on that first night. He knew where Ahmed was sleeping, and he came in a jeep with his men, everybody packing AK-47s. When he got to Kirk's house, where Ahmed was sleeping (aha--that's why Kirk and his wife were praying for Ahmed!), he saw four men standing over and in front of the adobe structure.

Ahmed's father, and his men, understood that these were not four ordinary men; they were angelic beings. The AK-47s were useless. They fled in their jeep and never came back.

Nobody knows why things like that happen sometimes, and at other times people just get killed. But it was clear to me that something pretty important happened there. In an "insignificant" little village, an "insignificant" boy from an "insignificant" refugee camp somehow got some very significant divine intervention on his behalf. You can be quite sure that "Ahmed" will remember this incident the rest of his life. As Kirk did, these decades after it all happened.

An incident in Pakistan... waitaminute

The other night, our teacher told us about an experience he had in Pakistan. At least I thought so, but the incident involves Shi'a Muslims, which makes me think it must have been closer to Iran? Well, here's the story, which I found rather astonishing.

Our speaker, let's call him "Kirk", was a photographer. There was a ceremony, a rite, wherein many young Shi'a men flagellate themselves (there are real razor-blades and real blood), and Kirk was taking lots of pictures. This ceremony commemorates the death of two of the Prophet's grandons. At one point, Kirk got down off the roof or wall or whatever and headed into the street, where he was swept along with the crowd.

They were chanting, and Kirk was shooting embedded in the crowd and surrounded by these six-foot guys, and somebody near the front starts shouting "Death to America!" Now Kirk isn't a real large guy, maybe 5"5' and 150. As the wave of "Death to America!" rolled toward Kirk's location, his cultural guide said, "Let's get you out of here."

But there was no getting anywhere; this was a real mob scene. Right next to Kirk, this huge guy was waving an arm in rhythm with the chanting. It went like this: (arm waving) "Death to America!
Death to America!
You there -- where are you from?
Death to America!"

Kirk wondered briefly whether he could do a convincing French accent while speaking the local language. But then he thought to himself (you know he doesn't get killed, because we're hearing his story), "Well, I've had a lot of adventures, it's been a good life." He turned to this huge guy and replied that he was from the US.

The guy keeps chanting, waving his arm "Death to America!
-- Really?--
Death to America!
--Hey, my brother is in Chicago--
Death to America!
--can you help me get there?--
Death to America!
Death to America!"

Whew! The only damage Kirk suffered from this incident was when one of the guys was getting ready to scourge himself, and nicked the barrel of Kirk's wide-angle lens.

"And your point was...?"

Well, there really was one. I mean, besides the fact that things are not always what they seem. Here it is: Why do these guys hit themselves with these metallic things (Kirk said they were razor blades, and from the scars on these fellows' backs in photos Kirk shot, I believe it)?

They believe that Allah sees the blood of their sacrifice (though generally they don't bleed to death) and forgives their sins.

Don't look so shocked -- don't we say that the blood of Jesus our Lord washes our sins away? And didn't the Israelites sacrifice sheep and goats and bulls?

Kirk told us that it's a lot easier to talk with these folks than with typical American materialist/atheists. I believe it.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Why did God put that tree in the garden?

where "that tree" is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil -- which as it turns out was intended to give Adam knowledge by his NOT eating the fruit!

Just posted over on waywords, with my thoughts on that.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Visiting the kids

"Your kids will start giving you trouble at that age, unless they're like Collin's perfect children."

I heard that remark some months back, and it made me wonder what I'd been saying about the kids to my colleagues. Whatever it was, I guess it reflects my view of them.

The lovely Carol and I have been visiting the kids, now that they are both away at college, and seeing them in their new environs makes me even more aware that they are, well -- they are not "girls" any more; they really are young women. They have their own campuses, their own friends, their own rooms. We don't hear them coming home after class or after meetings or.... They really are "away"; they've left the nest. You might imagine that this has created a lot of complicated feelings in both parents, and you'd be right.

This morning, I picked up Merton and opened to his chapter on "Sincerity", which I don't recall reading before. Here I found this:

Your idea of me is fabricated with materials you have borrowed from other people and from yourself. What you think of me depends on what you think of yourself. Perhaps you create your idea of me out of material that you would like to eliminate from your own idea of yourself. Perhaps your idea of me is a reflection of what other people think of you. Or perhaps what you think of me is simply what you think I think of you.
I suppose I "knew" -- in a manner of speaking -- that how I think of the kids is affected by my view of myself. But which of Merton's distortions is operating when I look at the kids? Or is there yet another one? There are ways in which I wish I were different -- more understanding, less inept socially; I wish I were a better friend, less of a procrastinator -- am I projecting the person I wish I were -- dumping that onto my poor kids? I hope not! I know they are better students than I ever was (as their grades attest) -- so I'm not making that part up. They have nice friends -- for the most part, nicer friends than I had in high school. And they do sometimes procrastinate, though not as badly as I did in college.

Well, as I've said before, "Every father thinks his kids are geniuses, and I'm no exception." I know that the lovely Carol has something to do with them, as do I, but Harris's The Nurture Assumption makes me hesitate to take too much credit.

So I don't have this all figured out, but I wanted to tell you about it anyway. It sure is complicated being a dad -- not just stuff that a dad "does," but the personal growth that comes with it. It's definitely not for wimps.

Friday, October 30, 2009

What did I do today?

So here's a true confession. I know, somewhere inside me, that I am not my accomplishments. When I wake in the morning, I try to remember that place in Matthew 3 where Jesus is baptized. Before he healed the first sick person, before he preached his first sermon -- before he "does" anything at all, really, the voice of his father comes from heaven, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased."

But my natural tendency is to want to do something, to feel, you know, productive. In other words, besides the part that knows I'm not my accomplishments, there's another part that's not really sure. So I feel restless sometimes.

If I spend a day at the office and can't get anything done, I feel frustrated. If I spend a day at home and nothing I try to do succeeds, then I feel like I want to have success at something, even if it's something mundane like frying some chicken parts (yes I am serious). That might not be so bad, but the problem comes when I'm on vacation, as I am today. The lovely Carol is asleep, and I probably should be, too. But what did I do today?

As some of my colleagues would say, "I'm an idiot." I cared for and enjoyed my family (the part that's here, anyway; the ex-teenager is at Big Event); I sought the Lord (not every moment of the day, but some); I obeyed the traffic laws; I stayed within our budget. I even wrote something sorta spiritual this morning, though it was mostly an extract from Merton. In other words, I did "enough" (what an awful word!) for today.

But there's that silly part of me that longs for "something" accomplished. Bah!

Lord, change my foolish heart. Soften it, as you told Ezekiel (36:26) you would. Turn my heart away from seeking vanity. Create in me a pure heart.

And now it's time to practice the discipline of sleep.

Merton on Prayer

From No Man Is an Island starting at page 44:
There are many levels of attention in prayer.

First of all, there is the purely exterior attention. We "say prayers" with our lips, but our hearts are not following what we say although we think we should like to mean what we are saying...

At other times, we think of God in prayer but our thoughts of Him are not concerned with prayer. They are thoughts about Him that do not establish any contact with Him. So, while we pray, we are speculating about God and about the spiritual life, or composing sermons, or drawing up theological arguments. ... if we take prayer seriously we will not call them prayer. ...

Then there is the prayer that is well used: words or thoughts serve their purpose and lead our minds and hearts to God, and in our prayer we receive light to apply these thoughts to our own problems and difficulties, to those of our friends, or to those of the Church ....

There is a better way of prayer, a greater gift from God, in which we pass through our prayer to Him, and love him. We taste the goodness of His infinite mercy. We know that we are indeed His sons, although we know our unworthiness to be called the sons of God....

...there is another stage in prayer, when consolation gives place to fear. It is a place of darkness and anguish and of conversion: for here a great change takes place in our spirit. All our love for God appears to us to have been full of imperfection, as indeed it has. We begin to doubt that we have ever loved Him .... Instead of complacently calling ourselves sinners (and secretly believing ourselves just) we begin to find that the sins of our past life were really sins, and really our sins--and we have not regretted them! ... This is the time when we really learn to pray in earnest....

The man who can face such dryness... finally enters into pure prayer. Here the soul goes to God in prayer without any longer adverting either to itself or to its prayer. It speaks to Him without knowing what it is saying because God Himself has distracted the mind from its words and thoughts. It reaches Him without thoughts because, before it can think of Him, He is already present in the depths of the spirit, moving it to love Him in a way it cannot explain or understand.

from pages 44-50
I cannot say I have ever experienced that last, though I think it's what Paul talks about in Romans 8:26-27

Thursday, October 22, 2009

No flu shot for you!

So my employer isn't having flu shot clinics this year. Instead they gave us instructions on printing out coupons redeemable for a free shot at... various places. Since I live up here, I tried going to the Long'sCVS in San Carlos. Flu shots were supposed to be offered 3pm-7pm.

I called about 4:30 and asked them if they were going to have enough of the vaccine....

The answer was noncommital.

So I got on the train in Mountain View at 5:46 and off in San Carlos around six.

You guessed it--they ran out of the vaccine at about 5:45, according to the pharmacy clerk.

Well, the vaccine might not do any good anyway. (I guess that's what they call "sour grapes.")

Oh, and because of the shortage of the vaccine (though I don't see the connection), my free flu shot coupon expires... today.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The best dinner-serving time ever

Well, almost. CityTeam's Recovery Center is less than 20 minutes' drive down 101 from our house, and we got there a few minutes after Salina and Katie Jo did. When we signed in, the receptionist confirmed that the chef was out on a break. We chatted with our friends and met "Sol," a recent graduate of the recovery program. Pretty soon a fellow came in, wearing an apron. I asked if he was the "chef du cuisine" (pardon my bad French). Otis introduced himself and we shook hands. He denied being the chef, though he admitted to being the lead cook (my French is worse than I thought). When he heard that our group wasn't all here yet, he wasn't in a big rush. "We can wait for 'em," he said, and headed back into the kitchen.

After a while a bunch of other folks showed up--from another church! It turns out that both our churches were told "I'll hold the 3pm-7pm slot for your group." As we would soon find out, though, there was plenty to do. Around that time, Stephen arrived, as did Tim and Susie.

I headed in toward the kitchen and told Otis about the population explosion we just had. "I'll tell the pantry man the good news," he said. Meanwhile, I headed back to the lobby and brought the two groups into the dining area.

Despite his earlier demurral, Otis really was the chief of the kitchen. "I need two young men to help rearrange the pantry." Two from the "River of Life" group went with the pantry man to restore order. "A team of two over here, and I'll show you how to work the dishwasher." He explained how to deal with the trays, silverware, etc. Stephen and I worked on some baking trays (when you bake a lot of chicken, grease happens!), bowls, strainers, etc. The lovely Carol worked on tables, countertops, etc., along with others from the River group. Around 4:30 there was a lull in the activity.

Otis told us that the big help was needed during and after dinner. I took a break in the dining area with "Jim", one of the residents who was actually assigned to pots and pans for the afternoon. He had a tattoo of praying hands on his left arm, and he told me a little of his story: his mother was a preacher, and he was baptized as a 10- or 11-year old. He asked me if we were from a church group, and we talked about our spiritual lives. The lovely Carol joined us after a while. It turns out that Jim used to drive a forklift and is now interested in getting a class-A license to drive trucks. "How can we pray for you?" Carol asked. He told us a couple of things and added, "We could pray right now!" We held hands and prayed for each other.

Pretty soon Otis came out of the kitchen, asking Jim to be in charge while he took a break. "Rock and roll in 5 minutes," he said, and headed toward the lobby. There was an announcement for the residents to come in for dinner. (There are not a lot of them.) They ate quickly, and some took positions near the doors. "Victor" was in charge of the water and the cups. He had a "Mel's" T-shirt on -- it said "original" too. We talked about the chain, the movie, and Philly cheese steaks. "A high-fat kind of deal," I remarked, and Victor stuck two thumbs up. "Yeah!" he said. I think he's got a fast metabolism.

Somewhere in there the folks from the River group loaded up 50+ dinner trays. They reminded me of grade school. I arranged the trays for rapid pickup -- stacked two deep on each of two shelves, and one deep on the serving counter. The lovely Carol worked with the dessert person behind the counter, to accelerate the whole process. Soon we were ready.

The door opened and the guests filed in. Victor led everyone in a short prayer, and the guests walked the by trays, each taking one. Otis watched them to make sure that once a person touched a tray, they took it. Can't have people touching a bunch of different trays; it would slow the line down to a crawl. "You touched it, you bought it!" he said.

I stood near Victor, keeping watch over some donated rolls/pastries (one package per guest) and, when Otis left, also over the line. "You touched that one; it's yours!" I called out to one guest. He didn't resist.

They were mostly men. Some had wheeled walkers -- I saw one put his tray onto the walker (he had a white hand-towel for it). He looked like he'd been a manager in a tech outfit -- I don't know how many tech workers have been laid off in Santa Clara county in the past year.

The room filled up pretty quickly. Victor told me that they don't usually get that many people. He explained to me about watching over the water spigot and the cups. Guests aren't allowed to help themselves to water; he's the only one authorized to touch the urn, because who knows what viruses these folks have on their hands. Someone came up to report major spillage; another guest had lost control of his tray.

Victor couldn't leave the water, so I trotted over there to see what was going on. It was the former tech manager. First, I asked him, did he get enough to eat? Yes, he was done. Not all that much had spilled onto the floor, and I tossed about half of it back onto the tray in a couple of seconds. "If you have a dustpan or something I can help clean..." he began.

“Idiot! Don't take away the guy's dignity,” I thought to myself. I told him I'd look for one, and took off with the tray. Otis said there ought to be a dustpan somewhere in the dining area, so I looked. No joy, but I did see mops in buckets. Grabbing a 3' length of paper towel (no perforations!), I raced back to the guy's table. We both picked up what was left on the floor, then I squeezed out a nearby mop so he could finish while I ran the garbage over to a trash can. He stood up and wielded the mop; when I got back, the floor looked fine. I thanked him and ran the mop back to its bucket.

Pretty soon, people started lining up for seconds, waiting first for everyone who hadn't yet had anything. The last guest come in, and the "seconds" people told him, "Go up to the front!" He hesitated, so I walked him up to where he could get his dinner.

Dinner was soon over, and the guests were gone. I gave Jim a hand with the dishes, mostly running stuff from the sinks to the storage shelves. I asked him about his daughters -- two are local, and he has three grandchildren nearby. Others worked various cleanup tasks. I'm sure Tim took at least a few hundred photos.

It was pretty cool working with the residents. They're asking the Lord to help them get their lives back together. They aren't pretentious -- they know they need help. And the staff: they're great. They're pros. They're serving the Lord and bringing glory to him.

What a great thing, to be a part of that!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Some people knew it would take a million...

Reading James Fallows in the upcoming Atlantic, I came upon his piece "Blind into Baghdad" from nearly six years ago. About half way down you'll read someone quoting General Eric Shinseki:
Guys like Shinseki, who had been in Bosnia [where he supervised the NATO force], been in Kosovo, started running the numbers and said, 'Let's assume the world is linear.' For five million Bosnians we had two hundred thousand people to watch over them. Now we have twenty-five million Iraqis to worry about, spread out over a state the size of California. How many people is this going to take?
Thomas White
Secretary of the Army during Gulf War II
quoted in "Blind into Baghdad"
(J. Fallows, Atlantic, January/February 2004)
Wow, 200,000 US soldiers for 5 million Bosnians, and there are 25 million Iraqis. That's a million US Army regulars required, assuming the world is linear -- which it's not. I'm sorry, but Donald Rumsfeld is clearly a traitor, sending our boys (and girls) into Iraq in insufficient numbers, with insufficient armor. How many deaths is that criminal responsible for?

Heck, by the 2004 election even I knew that "W" had to go. Looking at recent history I just feel ill.

On the other hand, as I told a friend last week, "As a Christian I am not worried. No world lasts forever, much less a nation-state. But as an American I'm quite concerned" about our future.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Quote without comment: Cox on Dawkins

I think of Richard Dawkins as the kind of Jerry Falwell of the atheists. In a way, he’s a kind of fundamentalist.
Harvey Cox

Friday, October 09, 2009

Daily Bible reading

What's the connection between technology and spirituality? On one hand, it's reasonable to wonder whether people are out of touch with the spiritual world because of the pervasiveness of entertainment media. On the other hand, there's . These folks offer 13 reading plans -- they'll send you an email every day or every weekday, depending on the plan you choose. You can get through the Bible in a year, or the Proverbs in a month (but you could just read chapter 1 on the 1st of the month, chapter 2 on the 2nd, etc). I'm on the lazy man's plan -- New Testament in a year, weekdays only.

If you prefer a pure hardware solution, Tyndale's excellent One Year Bible is pretty nice. Please feel free to refer to my daily essays, which are keyed to those readings.

So why did you mark this with the "computers" label?

Well, as it turns out, those emails you get from don't have a chapter of Bible text in them. Instead, they have pointers to a website; you click on the link and read the text from somewhere else -- I think.

So back before I started using an http-enabled email client, I wrote this little procmail script to go out and get the text from that website. The recipe looks like this:
* ^From:.* (or something like this)
* B ?? http://
URL=| grep http: | sed -n -e "1s/ *//gp"

TEXT=| lynx -dump "$URL" | grep -Fve http -e '['

| ( echo "$TEXT"; cat; )
See, "URL" gets the blank-stripped "http://..." string; we pass that as a parameter to lynx to get the text, then we remove the lines that contain '[' or 'http' and replace the message body with the Biblical text. Thank you !

So procmail and lynx are technological aids to spirituality too.

Other reading plans

There are a lot of 'em. Some of them involve charts and checklists; others are websites: There's also Our Daily Bread which gives you a little reading but doesn't take you through the whole Bible in a year or even a few years.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Phone bill processing: MySQL, Python, bash

Here's an automated phone call I was actually glad to get: it was Verizon telling me we were close to exceeding our "shared minutes". Well, I wasn't glad about being close to the edge, but I was glad to know about it so we could do something about it.

I went to the website and grabbed the call information: one of our lines had used 297 minutes already. "Drilling down" to that line, I got a list that looked kind of like this (numbers, etc., have been changed):
Date Time Number Minutes Desc
12/11/2008     7:35 PM     2025558713     2 Paris
12/11/2008 7:35 PM 2025558713 1 INCOMING
11/11/2008 7:19 PM 2025558713 1 Paris
12/11/2008 6:32 PM 2025559062 1 INCOMING
12/11/2008 4:34 PM 2025554587 1 INCOMING
12/10/2008 7:58 PM 2025553291 4 ATLANTIC CY
12/10/2008 7:54 PM 2025555994 1 ATLANTIC CY
12/10/2008 1:11 PM 2025550001 1 DATA
12/10/2008 1:03 PM 2025553862 2 EL CENTRO
[[... about 180 lines elided...]]

Unfortunately, this doesn't quite tell me what I want to know, viz., which numbers were the "heaviest" in minutes?

Fortunately, I have a Linux box, in my case SuSE 9.3 at home, and OpenSuSE 10.2 at the office. I snarf'n'barfed it into a file named "297m.txt" and considered how to process it.

A few possibilities came to mind:
  1. shell script -- using 'dc' or 'expr' to add up the times
  2. Python -- use dictionaries (one entry per phone number)
  3. MySQL -- using "SELECT PhoneNum SUM(mins) GROUP BY PhoneNum"
One could write something in Perl, Java, or C, but why bother? I think it was the great Brooks (in the Mythical Man-Month?) who said that you should use the highest level language that could be appropriate.

The shell (bash)

This is perhaps the least elegant of the three solutions we'll consider, but it has a sort of retro appeal, particularly if you're running on a 20th century computer, or one that just doesn't have a database or Python.

So... how to keep track of data? The shell has arrays, but it's a lot easier to just create one file for each phone number and add the numbers up in each one.
rm -rf purgeme # a directory to put the files in
mkdir purgeme
grep '^[1-9]' $INPUT | while read date time ampm num min city; do
# The grep gives you lines that begin with a digit..
# The "read" takes "words" from each line; note
# that you need a shell variable for each word --
# one for "7:35" and one for "PM" for example

echo $min >> purgeme/$num
# The above says: to the file named PHONE_NUM, append
# a line containing the number of minutes. So for the above
# sample data, the file named '2025558713' would have 3 lines:
# 2
# 1
# 1


# OK, now we have a bunch of files in the "purgeme"
# directory. We're going to have "dc" calculate the
# totals for each file. To do this we'll put a '+' at the
# end of each line in the file. We give "dc" a "0" to start
# with, add each number in, and finally we'll say "p" so that
# he'll give us a total. The whole thing goes into `backquotes`
# so that we have the result of running the program.
# OK, here goes:

for f in purgeme/*; do
echo ${f#*/} `{ echo 0; sed 's/$/+/' $f; echo p; } | dc`
# We put the phone number first (that "#*/" stuff
# says to remove everything from the beginning of
# "$f" until the first '/') and then the total
# calculated by "dc" (explained above)

done | sort -k2nr | head
# OK, the "done" is the end of the "for" loop. We
# sort the for-loop's output -- "-k2nr" means the key
# (thus 'k') is in field #2, numeric (the 'n'),
# and reverse order (the 'r'). The "head" means
# we only want the first 10 lines (the Top Ten phone
# numbers, as defined by minutes, that is).
When run on the phone bill data, the result is:
$ ./
2025553788 196
2025553291 141
2025555994 67
2025555521 57
2025556932 54
2025553799 45
2025555876 44
2025559980 38
2025557102 32
2025556930 23
As it turned out, the -3788 number is in our vendor's network, so that 196 there didn't push us toward our limit. The -3291 number, and the -5521 number, though, did. We were able to modify our calling patterns and avoid the onerous over-limit charge. Whew!


I've become rather a Python fan, which doesn't mean that I'm any good at it. But fortunately, this problem is simple enough that a few lines of Python will handle it:
#!/usr/bin/python -tt
fonebill = open("../297m.txt", "r")
mapping = {}
for a_line in fonebill:
(date, hrs, ampm, nr, mins, where) = a_line.split(None, 5)
# because some lines are blank or something
# Actually, this catches the headings "Date Time..."

# DEBUG CODE #print "nr", nr, "mins", mins
mapping[nr] = mapping.get(nr, 0) + int(mins)
# I don't know how to sort a dictionary, so make a list.
alist = []
for a_num in mapping:
alist.append((a_num, mapping[a_num]))
alist.sort(lambda x,y: cmp(y[1], x[1]))
for (x,y) in alist:
print x,y
We can run it like this and get results:
$ ./ | head
2025553788 196
2025553291 141
2025555994 67
2025555521 57
2025556932 54
2025553799 45
2025555876 44
2025559980 38
2025557102 32
2025556930 23
That "| head" you see there is so that we get only the Top Ten phone numbers (and the total of minutes for each).

No surprises -- the numbers and their totals match what we got using the other method. It's nice when computer science actually works.


This is in my view the most elegant and tersest solution. So here's the deal. You need access to MySQL server somewhere. If you're on a reasonably current GNU/Linux distribution, you can probably get one right on your desktop or laptop. The client program is called simply "mysql". You might have to install it (using "sudo rpm..." or "sudo apt-get...") and you might have to start the server (on my box it's "sudo /etc/init.d/mysql start")...

What makes this program so easy in MySQL is that we can create a temporary table, stuff our data in there, yank it out, and then pitch the temp table. Here is the unvarnished truth -- the commands I gave MySQL to produce the desired report:
  • use test
    Use (d'oh!) the database named "test" -- in other words, if you refer to table XYZ rather than <DATABASE_NAME>.XYZ, MySQL will interpret that to mean test.XYZ. The database "test" is world-writable I think in a default MySQL installation. By the way, "use" doesn't require a semicolon as a statement terminator.
  • create temporary table fb (nr INT(10), mins INT(10));
    Create a temporary table (really!) named "fb", for fone bill. It contains two up-to-10-digit INTeger fields, named "nr" (for NumbeR) and "mins" (minutes).
  • load data local infile 'xxx' into table fb fields terminated by ' ';
    This says to load the table "fb" with data from a file. In this case it's a local file (meaning here on the MySQL client). If not local, you have to supply the filename as it would appear to the server. I don't like to do that, because the server is likely running as another userid (like "mysql" maybe?) and it isn't necessarily allowed to read the file/directory that has the data. But it's my file, so I know where it is and certainly have permission to read it, hence I prefer "local".
  • select nr, sum(mins) as tot from fb group by nr order by tot desc limit 10;
    The "select" statement is the workhorse of SQL. Let me break this one down for you.
    • select nr, sum(mins)
      So we're going to select the phone number (nr), and we're going to add up (sum) the minutes (mins)
    • as tot
      This means we're going to refer to the column as "tot" rather than "sum(mins)"
    • from fb
      We're selecting from the table named "fb" -- i.e., the temporary table we created above.
    • group by nr
      Whenever you have a "sum" or "avg" or "min" (etc) in a table, you have to answer the question "of what group?" -- hence you need a "group by" clause in your SELECT. We're saying here to add up the "mins" among entries which have the same "nr" value.
    • order by tot desc
      If you don't say "order by" then MySQL will spit out the result in whatever order it feels like. Here we want to order by the value of "tot" (which is the sum of the minutes for each phone number) and we want the largest number first, hence I specified desc (for "DESCending").
    • limit 10;
      says we only want the first ten results.

You can probably think of several improvements, but here's the actual script that invokes MySQL with the above commands.

awk '{print $4,$5;}' ../297m.txt | grep '^[0-9]' > xxx
# That "awk" thing prints the 4th and 5th "words"
# from each input line. The result is fed to
# "grep", which gives us only lines that begin with digits
# (because we don't want that "Date Time Number..." line).

# The following line runs mysql giving parameters "-t" (tabular
# output) and "--local-infile=1" (because we're going to
# tell it to take something from a local inputfile soon).
# The "<< ThatsAllFolks" means "Feed this script
# to mysql's stdin from here until you see 'ThatsAllFolks'"

mysql -t --local-infile=1 << ThatsAllFolks
use test
create temporary table fb (nr INT(10), mins INT(10));
load data local infile 'xxx' into table fb fields terminated by ' ';
select nr, sum(mins) as tot from fb group by nr order by tot desc limit 10;

Running it gives this result.
$ ./ 
| nr | tot |
| 2025553788 | 196 |
| 2025553291 | 141 |
| 2025555994 | 67 |
| 2025555521 | 57 |
| 2025556932 | 54 |
| 2025553799 | 45 |
| 2025555876 | 44 |
| 2025559980 | 38 |
| 2025557102 | 32 |
| 2025556930 | 23 |
Now perhaps I should have said
select nr as 'Number Called', sum(mins) as Minutes
so that the table would have nicer headings, but hey, it's only ASCII "art" anyway.

I enjoyed writing that; I hope it was interesting, helpful, or entertaining.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Power of prayer?

Just put this post on waywords. I hope you enjoy it.


by request of the ex-teenager

The trickiest part is getting the temperature right on the griddle. Then it's just a matter of paying attention; don't be distracted by things like making coffee or setting the table—do that before or after cooking.

Start the griddle preheating. Don't turn the stove up too high! At our house, putting the big burner at about 40% will work if you get started right away.

  • 2 eggs
Start whipping the egg whites in your KitchenAid® or other mixer; you want soft peaks but if you overdo it, not to worry. If you're watching your cholesterol, discard one of the egg yolks (the pancakes will still taste fine).

If you can place your sifter safely above the egg yolk(s), do so; otherwise sift into a separate bowl:
  • 1+1/3 C flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 Tbs or more sugar
If you used a metallic measuring cup for the flour, now would be a great time to melt
  • 2-3 Tbs butter or margarine
in the cup on your griddle.

Combine the dry ingredients, egg yolk(s), and
  • 1+1/3 C milk (dairy or soy)
and mix until more or less uniform.

Stir in the melted butter.

Check the egg whites -- whatever state they're in at this point, they're probably done. Add them to the rest of your ingredients. You don't have to fold them in real carefully like you were making some kind of French cake or something; just mix them in.

The griddle is almost certainly at the right temperature; a drop of water should dance on the surface. Place about ¼C of batter, maybe a little more, onto the griddle at a time; turn once, when bubbles break and stay broken. (If you're not sure, lift a pancake edge and check the color; be aware that the heat under your griddle may not be uniform.)


When it's just the two of us at home, I used ½C flour (and an equal amount of milk), just 1 egg, and slightly lesser amounts of everything else. The main thing is the consistency -- keep flour and milk roughly equal and use about 1 tsp of baking powder for ½C of flour, 2 tsp for 1–1½C flour, and adjust the sugar, salt, butter as you feel like. For 1C or more of flour I'd use two eggs.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

A cinematic trend I like

Some decades ago, an InterVarsity staffer asked, perhaps rhetorically, when the last time I saw a movie casting married sexuality (as distinct from the one-night-stand variety) in a positive light?

At that time, I had to think back... to, ah, Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People. Today, the lovely Carol and I went to see "Julie and Julia," which incidentally celebrates the happy sex lives of two married couples. It seems to me that this sort of thing is becoming more common, though that may just be my rose-colored glasses (yeah right).

We did enjoy the film. But I ate leftovers (thank you Shelly!) for lunch and made fried rice for dinner.

So how does pornography affect ...

I wrote earlier that I wondered how pornography affected the sex drive of middle-aged men.

Part of the answer appears in Doidge's book, The Brain that Changes Itself, on page 104. For at least some men, "pornography... initially helped them get more excited during sex but over time had the opposite effect." Doidge explains further:
Pornography is more exciting than satisfying because we have two separate pleasure systems in our brains, one that has to do with exciting pleasure and one with satisfying pleasure. The exciting system relates to the "appetitive" pleasure that we get imagining something we desire, such as sex or a good meal...

The second pleasure system has to do with the satisfaction, or consummatory pleasure, that attends actually having sex or having that meal, a calming, fulfilling pleasure.

ibid., p. 108
What pornography does is like creating the smell and sound of a fresh, crisp apple (say) or the aroma of a juicy steak -- while simultaneously sewing your lips shut so you can't ever have the apple or the steak.

This chapter in Doidge's book is not for the squeamish. It is, however, a healthy corrective for the thought that pornography is a victimless crime. The victims are first the consumers, then their wives/girlfriends, and (though Doidge doesn't say so) to a lesser degree every woman they come into contact with. And Dr. Doidge isn't a preacher or a scold, though he does advocate healthier practices.

True confession time: If I could press a magic button and somehow make all pornography and only pornography disappear forever from the internet, I'd press it. You're probably thinking all kinds of things about what pornography really means, how could you possibly know what effects a particular image will have on a particular man, etc. But before you condemn me as a moralistic scold (I wouldn't be scolding, just censoring), read the chapter -- I mean the chapter in Doidge's book, not some Bible chapter.

Oh, and I'd probably start looking for a button that could remove pornography from any other electronic media because of my own weakness, which I know is not uniquely mine. (The Marriott Corp. knows, too -- it gets them lots of money from business travelers and their employers.)

I'd do it for the same reason I'm against cigarette advertising targeted at kids (or at anyone else for that matter): that a society has a duty to its less capable members to protect them from those who want to exploit them. And don't kid yourself--a man addicted to pornography is no master of himself, any more than some teen-ager is when s/he gets hooked on cigarettes of any kind.