Sunday, August 29, 2010

Today's ride

Well, we started our day with an early wake-up -- 5am to take the teen-ager to the airport. Did the 8am service at MPPC and returned home. The lovely Carol took a nap.

Then, around 12:40, we loaded bikes onto the car and parked on Edgewood Road near Cañada Road. I rode on Cañada Road with the lovely Carol until we got to the Filoli entrance, then headed back toward Woodside. Went right on Woodside up to Skyline, and took the photo at right. Fashion sense? More like fashion non-sense.

Turns out the ride was 23 miles, according to the folks -- with one "category 2" climb. I wonder what their site thinks about the Old La Honda Road climb.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Self-pity, or...?

What do you do if you move to a foreign country, become permanently disabled, and your spouse dies?

It would certainly be understandable if you wanted to lie around feeling sorry for yourself for a while (hey, I probably would), but then what?

Today's New Testament reading is from 2 Corinthians 1, where Paul talks about troubles: Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ... who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).

Two things stand out to me from this passage: first, that when troubles come, I need to seek comfort from God. He's willing to comfort but I need to be willing to accept it. This isn't as easy as it sounds; we sometimes blame God for the calamities we encounter -- even (as Proverbs 19:3 says) those we bring upon ourselves.

Something that has helped me in the (mostly minor) difficulties I've faced is remembering the Lord Jesus, who endured much hostility from sinners against himself (Hebrews 12:3), though he was and is free from sin. The psalms also tell us that "He knows our frame; he remembers that we are but dust" (Psalm 103:14). Jesus Christ, our high priest, can sympathize with our weakness, tempted as he was in all things as we are, yet without sin.

The second thing I need to remember is that God wants to use my troubles, and the comfort he's given me through them, to bless others. In other words, the comfort he's given me isn't for me alone -- it's to equip me to bring comfort and encouragement to others. I know what it's like to be laid off, I know what it's like to have a foolish boss, I've had pneumonia and sleepless nights and unanswered prayers -- not like the Apostle Paul (these didn't hit me while I was out preaching the gospel or planting churches), but I have had these experiences.

And when these things hit someone else, I can offer some understanding, and I can share some comfort that I've received. I don't know why these things hit people, or why they hit one person rather than another, but I know someone who cares, and that he's always taken care of me.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Finding scholarship money for college -- even if you "own" a home in California

You already know this, but there are two kinds of "financial aid" for college: need-based and other. I put "financial aid" in quotes because colleges include work (e.g., working in the cafeteria) and student loans in their "financial aid package" even when the loans aren't subsidized.

If you're a California home "owner" then the need-based aid is probably not for you unless you have 2-3 kids in college at the same time, and even then maybe not. You know that you need to fill out the FAFSA, probably online, and that it'll give you a number for "expected family contribution" iirc. For a California homeowner, that expected contribution may be something like 50K$/year.

So how about non-need-based aid? Some schools Just Say No. St John's College (Santa Fe or Annapolis), Carleton College, and I think Macalester, as well as other name-brand schools, fall into this class. What's that about, anyway?

Here's my understanding of it: colleges don't do non-need-based aid for love; they do it because they want their student body to have certain characteristics. St John's, Carleton, and some of these other schools can just admit the kids they want, because a high percentage of admittees actually attend.

Other schools use their financial resources to "engineer" their incoming class. Schools seek racial diversity, geographical distribution, gender parity, and so on; so if you're looking for an incentive, find a school that wants what you've got.

How do you find such a school? Fill out the profile on the PSAT (do they still call it PSAT/NMSQT?), and if you're in an underrepresented class, then for goodness's sake let them know about it! Then watch the marketing literature come in. Some of the schools that try to "sell" themselves will have incentives available.

It goes without saying that you should try to get a good score on the PSAT and SAT. National merit finalists have doors opened for them and money thrown at them. It is not necessarily a lot of money, but it could be. Rumor has it that a national merit finalist can get a full ride at the University of Fairbanks for example.

A word about underrepresented classes: if you're applying for admission to the University of California and you have a Japanese or Chinese surname, you're not in an underrepresented class. BUT if you're thinking about going to Calvin College in Grand Rapids (not a bad choice in my view) then you would be underrepresented there, and Calvin has some incentives to offer. Other schools do, too, but I know about Calvin 'cause I've visited there.

Unless you're headed for a traditionally mostly-male school, then boys are underrepresented in colleges these days. So it usually helps to be a boy, if you're looking for financial incentives.

Sometimes a visit will help. I know one father who visited Oberlin with his daughter. In the last interview of their visit, he said "she likes the school a lot, but I'm looking at an additional $80,000 over 4 years, vs. sending her to UC Santa Cruz." The admissions officer said something like, "Well, let's see if we can't do something about that" and basically made up the difference!

I have also read of colleges whose staff reasoned, "they came to visit, so they must be motivated to attend here -- no need to bribe them" -- in other words, visiting reduced their chances of getting financial aid. (If memory serves, that particular college has changed its ways.)

Pure dumb luck plays a role here. There was a college that was trying to increase the number of out-of-state students (as distinct from international students). In particular, one admissions officer had the mission to double the number of California freshmen over a 2-3 year period. Financial incentives were available, up to and including a full ride scholarship to this highly-regarded public university on the east coast.

This sort of thing is quite rare; I expect that the more usual thing is for a college to offer a nontrivial incentive ("scholarship" or "bribe" or "discount" if you prefer) if they think you might come, and pay the rest. Here's what I mean. Suppose two colleges, each charging about 50K$/year, compete for similar students. Now if college A offers a 12K$/year incentive to a student, and college B doesn't, there's a fair chance that college A will collect 38K$ from that student's parents, whereas college B collects zero. Obviously college A can't offer that big an incentive to everybody, but if you're the kind of student that fits college A's desiderata, that could help your cause.

So here's the summary of my advice: Study diligently but not obsessively, get the best grades and best test scores that you reasonably can, read the marketing literature, take care in filling out the applications, be earnest in the essays, and pray both for guidance and provision.

NOTE: Sorry, I started off addressing this to parents, but then ended up writing as though to students. Maybe I'll fix this later...

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Wise as serpents?

We were talking the other day about the passage where Jesus sends his disciples out to preach and tells them, "I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves." (Matthew 10:16)

A quick internet search shows that at least part of a serpent's wisdom is prudence in avoiding trouble. Indeed as Solomon warns us, "The prudent see trouble coming and take cover; the foolish keep going and suffer for it" (Proverbs 27:12). What kind of trouble should they (and we) avoid?

One train of thought is that we should beware of cults and brainwashing. I think this is prudent (avoiding suicide cults like Jonestown for example), but I don't believe that's what Jesus was talking about. Such cults didn't exist in that day, and he tells the twelve "I am sending you out as sheep among wolves." Rather, as he says in verse 23, "When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another." (He also mentions getting arrested -- verse 19.) In other words, he's mainly talking about persecution.

But again, what does this mean? Note that Jesus doesn't say, "If you come to a village and it seems you'll probably be arrested, go to the next one." And look again at verses 19 and 23 -- the text doesn't say "if they arrest you"; it says "when they arrest you." Likewise: "when they persecute you in one place..."

I'm afraid that we (I include myself) tend to put too much emphasis on the idea of prudence, that is, I want to stay out of trouble so that I can arrive safely at... the day of my death.

Not thus are spirits fortified!
   Not this way went the crucified!
"Ja, you can't be too careful," say Garrison Keillor's apocryphal Minnesota Lutherans, but in fact we can be too careful; we can be so careful that we can miss the whole point: "For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it." (Mark 8:35). The writer to the Hebrews says:
Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.
from Hebrews 11:35-39
And in Revelation we read, "They overcame him (the accuser) by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death." (Revelation 12:11)

What are we to make of this? The Scriptures have a balanced view of prudence: it's a good thing, but let's not get carried away. So we know some missionaries who went to Pakistan, which has never been a safe place for Christians. They came home when their agency told them to. That seems to me to be prudence in balance. Likewise when Paul learned of the plot against him, he informed the authorities of it (Acts 23:13-18).

Suppose one of my children felt called by God to go to a dangerous place to serve Him in missions work -- what would I say? Would I support them in that? Well, I'd want to be satisfied that reasonable precautions would be taken for their safety. I won't know until it happens whether this will be like Nehemiah's experience, where he had "army officers and cavalry" for his journey (Nehemiah 2:7-9) -- or like Ezra, who was "ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us from enemies on the road" (Ezra 8:22-23).

Because even if they're more likely to die for their faith overseas, they're 100% certain to die even if they stay home. And is it so much better to live for nothing, than to die for something?

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Teaching without being a "teacher"?

A young friend tells me she wants to teach, but teaching at the college level usually requires a PhD (thus several more years of school), and elementary/secondary education has a well-known set of issues: unmotivated kids (especially in required classes), uninvolved parents (or over-involved "helicopter parents"), budget shortfalls, layoffs, etc. And after hearing some of my cousin's stories (she's a high school science teacher), I have a hard time recommending the California public schools as a career for anyone.

But then it struck me that I also do some teaching -- though not usually in a classroom -- and that it is one of the highlights of my job. For example, our department's intern asked me about a certain web-server. Did anything happen to it? she wanted to know. I asked her what computer and what port (8080), then typed "netstat -tln | grep 8080" -- which showed no server listening on that port.

I did an uptime(1) on it -- up 1:12 (i.e., about 72 minutes). "The last time it worked was about an hour ago," she said.

"Could it maybe have been an hour and 13 minutes ago?" I asked. "Because apparently it was rebooted an hour and 12 minutes ago."

She allowed as it could have been. I asked where the root of the webserver (an apache 1.3 installation I think) was. I "became her" with su and then executed "apachectl start" on her behalf.

I pointed the browser at port 8080 on the box of interest, and the apache test page came up. Success! She wasn't familiar with "apachectl" so I sent her a screenshot of the "start" operation. This got her past the immediate problem (can't reach web server) and also showed her how to get past it the next time this happens. I love it when I can "teach a man to fish."

Another colleague came by with a question about an html page his script was serving up. He wanted to change its appearance, and didn't understand why it looked the way it did in his browser.

"Where is it?" I asked. It was in his office, 3-4 doors down. He had a test page, a static HTML text file, so we could do some easy experiments. The file was open in a text editor window, and rendered in a browser window. I pointed at a "<td colspan=3>" on the text-edit window, and asked, "Why does this say colspan=3 here?" He saw the problem and changed it to 2 -- there and other places in that table. He reloaded the page and a spurious border disappeared. One down, one to go.

The other issue was some nested tables were surrounded by whitespace, which he thought ugly. This arose some tables didn't take the entire width of their cells. I said something about this, and wondered out loud if ‘width="100%"’ might make a difference. He added it to the <table ...> line for one of the "spacey" tables. "Quotes?" he asked, meaning around the "100%" part. I thought so (I checked later and apparently HTML 4.0 does require them in this case). Another reload showed that the other problem had disappeared. Now all that remained was to make his script output the syntax to match his test page.

He did all the typing himself, which was a good idea on his part. (I probably should have had the intern do all her own typing too.)

True, this isn't most of what I do. And not everything you might want to teach will necessarily be possible to teach outside of a formal classroom setting. But it's a thought anyway.

By the way, Parker Palmer's The Courage to Teach is a terrific book, though I'm not sure I could have appreciated it before I turned 40.