Saturday, December 17, 2011

Collin reads actual literature

The lovely Carol is pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree in—no, not computer programming or mathematics (the latter especially being a very Fine Art)—Creative Writing. Consequently, new books appear on our shelves and in our travel bags. One of these books, a short story collection by Andre Dubus, caught my attention (actually, the lovely Carol may have asked my opinion about one of the stories) and WOW! I read every one of them.

Todd Field wrote the preface to this collection, named after his 2001 film In the Bedroom, which was based upon Dubus’s story Killings. Field’s title does not mean what you think; according to this wikipedia article, the rear compartment of a lobster trap is called the "bedroom," and if two males and one female are together in it, one male will kill the other. Killings, the first story in the collection, is superbly crafted, the story of a moral failure following a tragedy I hope never to experience; if it happens, I pray I have the strength to do what Jesus would have me do.

Yet the story drew me in, and convinced me of how a man might murder his son's killer and feel the inevitability of his own crime, and paradoxically also remorse.

Dubus’s writing is accessible; if literature must be abstruse, opaque, ponderous, difficult, painful reading, then this isn't it. But these stories are filled with deep insights expressed in beautiful language. Here's Dubus in Rose:

Rose and Jim... could not see a single act of renunciation or affirmation of a belief, a way of life. No. They had neither a religion nor a philosophy; like most people I know, their philosophies were simply their accumulated reactions to their daily circumstances, their lives as they lived them from one hour to the next. They were not driven, guided, by either passionate belief or strong resolve. And for that I pity them both, as I pity the others who move through life like scraps of paper in the wind.
Rose, from In the Bedroom, Andre Dubus
(Vintage Contemporaries, 2002), p. 65
Rose is also a tragedy. I do not like tragedies, but the insight Dubus brings to the tale makes it a gem—no, an X-ray, exposing the human condition with its faults: living without thought, without courage, without taking responsibility for our careless words and actions. There is an awakening and a repentance and a victory, and perhaps it isn't really a tragedy after all.

So what do I find so captivating? Besides the beauty of the language—the expertise he brings to the craft—is the deep thought behind the insight evident in these stories. Field writes in the preface that Dubus desired from a young age “to understand how my two sisters had to live in the world compared with the way I had to live as a boy.” (op. cit., page x)

The other thing is that I have come late in life to an understanding that just as "A gallon of good California red in the kitchen closet will do more for your cooking than all the books in the world" (The Supper of the Lamb, p.33) so this book of short stories will do more for a person's soul than all the math and computer science books in the world.

And there is the pleasure, particularly in the last story of the collection, titled All the Time in the World:

"I want a home with love in it, with a woman and children."

"My God," she said, and smiled, nearly laughing, her hands moving up from the table. "I don't think I've ever heard those words from the mouth of a man."

"I love the way you talk with your hands." (146)

and near the end of that story:
And this time love was taking her into pain, yes, quarrels and loneliness and burning rage; but this time there was no time, and love was taking her as far as she would go, as long as she would live, taking her strongly and bravely with this Ted Briggs holding his pretty cane; this man who was frightened by what had happened to him but was not frightened by the madness she knew he was feeling now. (148)
Why that story in particular? I guess I'm a sucker for a feel-good story, and as the father of daughters it pleases me to read about a young woman discovering the truth about herself (on p. 142 I read that "[s]he wanted love, but she did not want her search for it to begin in someone’s bed.") and then taking a step toward the life she actually does want.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Keller talks on marriage at Google

It's at

Here are my unsanitized incomplete distracted inaccurate [etc] notes.

Preface: Presenting Christian views of marriage. Some of you think, "That's partisan." Well, whatever your view, it's partisan; it's religious or quasi-religious; it's not scientific.

Essence of marriage

You've heard it said, "I love you, why do I need a piece of paper to tell me I love you?" "Marriage is just a piece of paper" but what does the piece of paper do? What does the covenant relationship do?
  1. Adds security. There are two types of relationships:
    • consumer-type relationship. You buy stuff at the store, that's great, but if you find another store that provides same stuff at better prices, you'll go there, because your needs are much more important than your relationship with the grocer or whoever.
    • covenant relationship. If your kid cries and is selfish and bratty, you have responsibility; you can't just dump him somewhere with "you're not meeting my needs."
    If you're "dating" and not married, you don't have a covenant, you're in a consumer-type relationship where the other person could just leave at any time. So you have to continuously sell yourself; you can't just be yourself; the covenant creates the security within which you can be vulnerable and honest.
  2. Adds stability. 2/3 of "unhappy" marriages, if they stick it out, are happy 5 years later. What keeps you in there, through hard times, to something really great? Think Ulysses past the island of the sirens, tied to the mast.

    Auden, "Any marriage, happy or unhappy, is infinitely more interesting than any romance, however passionate" because it's the product of time and will, not just of fleeting emotion.

  3. It adds freedom. Kierkegaard: if you don't know the discipline of making a promise and sticking to it, you're not free; you're slave to your impulses, the moment, the circumstances, your feelings. Hannah Arin: without promises, no identity. Smedes, "when you make a promise you are most free."

"He loves me but doesn't want to marry me." Keller: "He probably means, ‘I don't love you enough to marry you, to lose my independence, to bind myself to you in a covenant relationship.’"

Mission of marriage

What's your marriage for? What do you hope to accomplish with it? To many people, it's passion and romance, maybe to combine your fortunes together to form a more comfortable life.

The Christian purpose is for deep character change through deep friendship. People want a compatible soul-mate... who will accept me the way I am and whom I can accept and appreciate just the way they are; someone who won't try to change me. If you want that, that's why you're not married yet. You want someone low-maintenance who won't change and won't try to change you. But no such person exists, and you're not that way either. You pose like someone who is, but you're not; you've got flaws. What might some flaws be?

  • fearful person with tendency to anxiety
  • proud person who tends to be selfish
  • inflexible person who tends to be demanding
  • undisciplined person who tends to be unreliable
  • perfectionistic person who tends to be too critical of others
  • impatient, irratible person who tends to hold grudges
  • a cowardly person who tends to twist the truth to look good
Everyone comes into marriage with these kinds of things. Your parents told you, your siblings told you, but you didn't really believe them. But you get married, and those issues that caused small problems now cause big problems. Marriage doesn't create flaws, it reveals them.

Hauerwas says, we assume there's someone out there who's just right for us, but this overlooks the fact that we always marry the wrong person.

Marriage is a huge thing and it changes us. So we change. Hence even if you could find someone compatible to marry, after you've been married awhile, they won't be any more! So what are the Christian responses to this?

  • First, not to be surprised, because the Christian view is we're all selfish. Think Kim Kardashian. Embrace the conflict.
  • Don't look for a finished statue, look for a great block of marble. You want to be in love with the person as they are, but you want to love the person they're becoming. Don't overdo what they look like, as that'll change. Don't focus too much on their character as it is today, but who they could become!
  • Look for someone who could be your best friend. Remember that great friendship doesn't come out of great sexual chemistry; it's other way around. The praise of the praiseworthy is its own reward.

    The feeling I got the first time I kissed her was shallow; it was all ego. It wasn't about her; I had no idea who she was. It was about me, the thrill that she liked me. Now it's like a deep river that makes no noise, vs a babbling brook one inch deep.

The secret of marriage

To be able to love your spouse for periods when you're getting very little back. They might be discouraged, sick, absorbed in their problems. Very important to keep on giving love. That takes a source of love from outside.

Seen this happen a lot of times: give to child, don't get much back, but you give and you sacrifice [etc] anyway for 18 years. These actions engender deep feelings of love. But your spouse -- if you don't love me the way I want, I won't love you the way you want, and at the end of 18 years, you love your kid, you don't love your spouse, and the marriage falls apart.

And it's your fault because what you did with your kid you didn't do with your spouse. "Love philanthropy." Financial philanthropy possible when you got a lotta money. Love philanthropy possible if you got a lotta love from God.

Christ loved us not because we were lovely but in order to make us lovely.


  • On finding a spouse, not just physical; what criteria? 4 or 5?

    First, someone who really understands you, maybe better than you know yourself. Who isn't surprised by your reactions. Second, someone you can already solve problems with -- had a serious conflict, solved it in a way satisfactory to both people.

    btw if your faith is important to you, then for somebody to "get" you they have to share your faith.

  • I think we have a great marriage, my husband would say I have a lot of flaws and am not making real good progress. How can I change? I think I'm trying but it's harder than I thought.

    If you agree on what needs to be changed, then 2/3 of your problem's over; you just need a coach. You might want to get a 3rd party involved. You need add'l fellowship.

  • Love analogy of truck exposing stress fractures in a bridge; kids are like a 2nd truck. Your perspective on that?

    You spend more time together but you're not talking with each other as much as talking through the kids. Probably not so much disagreements about children, but time. You might travel less, work fewer hours, to get time with family -- but time with my wife very specific.

    Mothers get a lot of their "skin hunger" addressed with kids and don't have as much desire for physical intimacy as husbands have. Husbands' desire is less complex.

  • Criteria... sounds like it could take a long time to be sure about that.

    If you go to a film, have dinner, that's maybe an hour of conversation; doesn't have to take a whole lotta time.
    At other end, you describe the case of both spouses withdrawing, and it's been going on 18-20 years, what do you do?

    Too general a case. There are grounds for divorce so I don't know that you absolutely can work it out. Intervention.

  • About attraction -- ego rush vs real love?

    Ego rush is inevitably there. If the main thing that attracts you is physical (women disproportionately look at height and economics; men likewise disproportionatelylook at body and face)... you need something more.

  • Role of dating? Dating vs engagement etc?

    Nothing in Bible about dating. Lots about marriage in the Bible. All I can tell you is, get a picture of marriage and let that affect dating. As you get older, probably you shouldn't be dating if in your view there's no way you could get married to that person.

  • Advice for an engaged couple? Not premarital counseling.

    The book is basically about that. So don't get discouraged in the short term. The basic cancer is self-centeredness. It's not "I've got into conflict w/spouse; marriage has brought me into conflict with my self-centeredness." Mission of marriage: become best friends and figure out how that happens. Look at sex as a covenant renewal ceremony, or covenant cement.

    Sex outside marriage is no preparation for sex within marriage. They're completely different.

  • What you've said about marriage, most of that would apply to gay marriage. What role in society?

    Christian view of marriage is that it's between a man and a woman, because primary mission connected with bringing together people of diametrically opposed genders. We clash and mesh. It's intrinsic to the Christian idea of marriage. My wife teaches me things that I could not learn from another man.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

"Count it all joy" -- no, really

At this weekend's services at MPPC , USC philosophy professor Dallas Willard addressed several questions on the topic of pain and suffering. One was, "How do we find God in the midst of suffering?"

The answer was a call to something proactive: to be turned toward God before suffering comes, so that you're not in a position to have to go looking for him when it comes. This is also a clue to following James’s command to "Count it all joy" when you meet various trials (James 1:2 NKJV). Now the text says that since trials test our faith, and this produces perseverance and maturity, therefore we can rejoice in the trials. Paul also writes something similar but it seems to me that this perspective itself requires wisdom most of us lack. Perhaps this is why James tells us immediately afterward to pray: "But if any of you needs wisdom, you should ask God for it. He is generous to everyone and will give you wisdom without criticizing you." (James 1:5 NCV)

Dallas shared some of his wisdom: that if my life is oriented toward God, if I have faith in God—who's big enough to take care of things—then trials give me an opportunity to see him in action; I'll even greet them with anticipation! (I confess I'm not writing this from first-hand experience, but I can appreciate the theory.)

And what is joy? How can we have it in the midst of sorrow and pain? Joy, Dallas said, is a pervasive sense of well-being. It's like peace, not an action but something in the background.

Well-being in the midst of pain and suffering—how does that work? Dallas said we need to have a big vision of a big God. Two illustrations come to my mind: the first is from Anne Lamott's book Operating Instructions, where she writes about feeling vulnerable in a new way, shortly after her son is born. Before this, she says, she felt she could survive anything. She writes something like, "I could die, and somehow survive even that"—which is not logical, but it made emotional sense to me: a sense of strength and well-being beyond any circumstance.

Another example that came to mind is due to Larry Crabb, Jr., who talked about deep longings that we all have, and the wrong strategies we often use to fulfill them. Depending on our perspective, he said, painful events can be to us like a five-foot fall from a platform (something that will hurt, may cause injuries, but probably won't kill us), or a five-mile fall from an airplane (which probably will).

With that background, here's the example I was thinking of, which I think was presented in a 1987 lecture. There was a guy who often spoke of wanting to ride in a hot-air balloon; his wife bought him tickets for his birthday, and early one morning, she watched the balloon take off with her husband and I think one of their kids. But in a freak accident, the balloon met some power-lines; it literally crashed and burned, killing all aboard. Because she was deeply connected to Jesus, this tragedy was a five-foot fall; she had that pervasive sense of well-being in the midst of terrible tragedy.

Now there's an inner strength to admire—not an inner strength of the "self-made" tough-guy, but the strength of one who knows their own weakness and clings to Jesus. May the Lord so strengthen us, that we have the power to count it all joy when we meet various trials, and to rejoice in our tribulations.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A useful exercise

This morning the lovely Carol and I talked briefly about thankfulness. Psalm 65 has some things, and I neglected a whole lot of things in the list below, but here are a few things I'm thankful for anyway...
  • that I can walk without straining, limping, or lurching
  • that the VTA stops close by the office
  • a car in case I need to drive to the office
  • a job (i.e., an office to go to)
    -- though I complain sometimes about having a day job,
  • the lovely Carol to come home to
  • a house with a roof and walls and locking doors
  • healthy parents -- not to be taken for granted at their age, or mine
  • loving children (though they're not kids any more)
  • the knowledge that I'm forgiven
  • the promise of eternal life
  • a place of worship
  • the freedom to worship there
    -- though I sometimes complain about meetings...
  • circuit breakers (rather than fuses) for the power in our house
  • Long's and Safeway at the Caltrain station
  • money to buy stuff there
  • Friday bagels
  • a great team at work
  • the ability to enjoy reading/writing code
  • big windows near my cubicle
  • enough clothes to protect me from the air chilled by those windows
  • a functioning clothes washer
  • the ability to fix it (again) when it overflows
  • hanging things to dry the laundry on
  • a working clothes dryer for when laundry can't (or shouldn't be) hung
  • a seat on the train
  • mobile wifi

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Collin writes a program*

(* Title borrowed from Ron Carlson Writes a Story)
A few times in the past months, someone's commented that they have no idea what it's like to write a computer program, so I've been thinking about a sort of gentle introduction to the fun ("joy" seems a bit overstated) of programming. Then it happened—the puzzler from Car Talk was announced, and I thought it was perfect. So in the next 45 minutes I want to write a program to solve last week's puzzler. It goes more or less like this:
Imagine a very long hall with 20,000 lights hanging from the ceiling, all off. These lights are controlled by a pull-chain: pull it once, the light turns on; pull it again and the light turns off.

Now someone comes through the hall and pulls every single chain. The lights are now all on. Person #2 comes through and pulls every 2nd chain, so that now lights 2, 4, 6, 8 and so on are now off. Person #3 comes through and pulls every 3rd chain, thus changing the state of lights 3, 6, 9, 12 and so on; they turn some lights on and some off. Person #4 comes through and flips lights 4, 8, 12, 16 and so on.

And so on, until person #20,000 comes through and only tugs on the chain of the 20,000th light.

Can you predict which lights will be on, and which will be off?

Now with a pencil and paper you might be able to figure this out in five or ten minutes, but like my first math professor, who spent ten minutes figuring out how to avoid a five-minute calculation, we'll go through the process of writing a little program to show how at least some programmers think.

We'll use the programming language Python here. I briefly considered using something like Ruby or OCaml, so we could go through the experience of learning a new programming language together, but I'm long-winded enough that...

Right. So Python. Here's what we're going to do: We'll create a list representing the state of each light fixture. And rather than forcing the program to do exactly 20,000 hanging lights, we'll provide a parameter to say how many lights there are. The pattern will be obvious with as few as 100 lights, so let's start with that. Here's a first partial whack at it.

# Adjust the following line to be however many lights you want
howevermanylights = 38

# "light_states" represents the states of howevermanylights
# Initialize it to have just some junk in element 0
light_states = ['junk']

# Add the states of however many lights
for a_light in range(howevermanylights):

# We'll add code here to manipulate the lights' states

# Now show the state of each light

for a_light in light_states[1:]:
    if a_light:
        print '*',
        print ' ',

for a_light in range(howevermanylights):
    # print last digit of a_light
    print (a_light % 10),

and if I run the program (which I imaginatively called "ceiling") it does this:
$ python ceiling
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
(The bold blue text is what I typed in response to my computer's prompt.)

This shows that light #0 is, oops... do you see that? I wanted to show the state of light #1, #2, #3 etc., but for some reason the numbers are 0, 1, 2, etc. I need to fix the digit printed. That last part will now read:

for a_light in range(howevermanylights):
    # print last digit of a_light
    print (a_light+1) % 10,

OK, that worked. Why did I have that "bug", or error? (Programmers call their mistakes "bugs"; it sounds so much better to say "I had 5 bugs in my code" than "I made 5 mistakes (or more) in my code.")

Well, actually I put it in on purpose. No, really; I wanted to mention that Python, like Perl, starts its lists with index 0 rather than 1. This is why I wrote above

# Initialize it to have just some junk in element 0
light_states = ['junk']
if light_states has howevermanylights elements in it, they will be numbered 0 up to howevermanylights-1.

Why do Python and Perl (and C and java too) start numbering lists/arrays at 0 rather than 1? Well, it's for convenience. The first ten elements (or "decade" of elements) in an array are numbered 0-9; the second ten are numbered 10-19. So you can tell which "decade" we're in by looking at the tens digit.

This stands in contrast to our system of years, where the first century is years 1-100; the second century is years 101-200... the 20th century is 1901-2000, and so on. See how inconvenient this is? The 21st century started in 2001 (not 2000) so you can't tell just by looking at the top digit. A computer scientist didn't come up with this system for numbering years.

So a list of 5 elements (for example) has its elements numbered 0,1,2,3,4. Similarly range(5) gives 5 numbers -- also numbered 0,1,2,3,4. To wit:

$ python 
Python 2.6.5 (r265:79063, Jul  5 2010, 11:47:21) 
[GCC 4.5.0 20100604 [gcc-4_5-branch revision 160292]] on linux2
Type "help", "copyright", "credits" or "license" for more information.
>>> range(5)
[0, 1, 2, 3, 4]

Anyway, light_states starts at 0, and we number the ceiling lights starting at 1, so I put some junk into element 0 of the list so element 1 could correspond to ceiling light #1, etc.

OK, now let's put some more code in to deal with persons #2–howevermanylights.

# Adjust the following line to be however many lights you want
howevermanylights = 38

# "light_states" represents the states of howevermanylights
# Initialize it to have just some junk in element 0
light_states = ['junk']

# Add the states of however many lights
for a_light in range(howevermanylights):

# Code to manipulate the lights' states
# We have person#2 upto and including howevermanylights.

for a_person in range(2, howevermanylights+1):
    # Flip every "a_person"th light:
    for a_light in range(a_person, howevermanylights+1, a_person):
        light_states[a_light] = not light_states[a_light]

# Now show the state of each light

for a_light in light_states[1:]:
    if a_light:
        print '*',
        print ' ',

for a_light in range(howevermanylights):
    # print last digit of a_light
    print (a_light+1) % 10,

The new code is shown in this color and basically, um, does what it says -- assigns the variable "a_person" all values from 2 upto and including howevermanylights. And for each such person, flips every "a_person"th light.

When I run the program, it does this:

$ python ceiling
*     *         *             *                 *                     *    
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Right, that's not 100 lights, and I've only printed the last digit of the light number, but lights #1, 4, 9, 16, 25, 36 are left on. (If I make howevermanylights much bigger than 38, then you won't be able to see the result on a single line.)

Time's up and you got the basic idea

OK, the above was 45 minutes' worth, but let me take a little more time to do two things:
  • First, let's change this line to say 1000 instead:
    howevermanylights = 1000
  • And let's just list out which lights are on, rather than printing out the state of all the lights:
    # Now show the state of each light
    # Don't do that; just list out number of each light that's on
    for a_num in range(1, howevermanylights+1):
        if light_states[a_num]:
            print 'On:', a_num
And when we run it?
$ python ceiling 
On: 1
On: 4
On: 9
On: 16
On: 25
On: 36
On: 49
On: 64
On: 81
On: 100
On: 121
On: 144
On: 169
On: 196
On: 225
On: 256
On: 289
On: 324
On: 361
On: 400
On: 441
On: 484
On: 529
On: 576
On: 625
On: 676
On: 729
On: 784
On: 841
On: 900
On: 961
Do you see the pattern there? Every number that's a perfect square is left on, but composite numbers are off. Why perfect squares? That's an exercise left to the reader.

Anyway I hope that gives an idea of some of what it means to write a program. Most of what "real programmers" do is quite a bit more complicated, but that ought to give a flavor for at least some of the tasks. I hope that was fun reading for you; it certainly was enjoyable for me to write.

Finishing(??) touches

OK, it's now the next morning and I wanted to sort of finish the program off, and to give you the whole program in one snarf'n'barf-able blob so you can tweak it yourself, if you've got the interest.
#!/usr/bin/python -utt
'''Program to solve cartalk puzzler

Basically this:
    Imagine a very long hall with 20,000 lights hanging from the
    ceiling, all off.  These lights are controlled by a pull-chain:
    pull it once, the light turns on; pull it again and the light
    turns off.

    Now someone comes through the hall and pulls every single chain.
    The lights are now all on.  Person #2 comes through and pulls
    every 2nd chain, so that now lights 2, 4, 6, 8 and so on are
    now off.  Person #3 comes through and pulls every 3rd chain,
    thus changing the state of lights 3, 6, 9, 12 and so on; they
    turn some lights on and some off.  Person #4 comes through and
    flips lights 4, 8, 12, 16 and so on.

    And so on, until person #20,000 comes through and only tugs on
    the chain of the 20,000th light.

    Can you predict which lights will be on, and which will be off?

The program calculates (not predicts) which lights will be on.

Provide the number of lights in a parameter (default 100)'''

import sys

def main(howevermanylights):

    # "light_states" represents the states of howevermanylights
    # Initialize it to have just some junk in element 0
    light_states = ['junk']

    # Add the states of however many lights
    for a_light in range(howevermanylights):

    # Code to manipulate the lights' states
    # We have person#2 upto and including howevermanylights.

    for a_person in range(2, howevermanylights+1):
        # Flip every "a_person"th light:
        for a_light in range(a_person, howevermanylights+1, a_person):
            light_states[a_light] = not light_states[a_light]

    # Now show the state of each light
    # Don't do that; just list out number of each light that's on
    for a_num in range(1, howevermanylights+1):
        if light_states[a_num]:
            print 'On:', a_num

if __name__ == '__main__':
        num_lights = int(sys.argv[1])
        num_lights = 100
So this does a few things beyond what I had last night:
  1. You can give a parameter and it'll do the calculation for the number of lights provided
    % ./ 38
    On: 1
    On: 4
    On: 9
    On: 16
    On: 25
    On: 36
    % ./ 100
    On: 1
    On: 4
    On: 9
    On: 16
    On: 25
    On: 36
    On: 49
    On: 64
    On: 81
    On: 100
  2. It's got documentation:
    % pydoc ceiling | cat
    Help on module ceiling:
        Program to solve cartalk puzzler
        Basically this:
            Imagine a very long hall with 20,000 lights hanging from the
            ceiling, all off.  These lights are controlled by a pull-chain:
  3. It's easier to debug (google "python debugger" for more info).
  4. It returns a "success!" code so the system thinks the program worked.

Can I mess up God's plan for me?

Suppose someone says, "I know God has a good plan for me (Jeremiah 29:11), but what if I mess it up? Will it then become his plan for someone else?" How do we answer them?

I certainly understand this sort of thinking; it comes from the old performance mentality, the same old lies that say, "you're OK only until you mess up; then you're irredeemable." We think we can pass the audition but if we miss our cue or flub our lines, an understudy will take over and we'll be thrust out the backstage door into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

But wait, you say, that's true, isn't it? If the star of the show shows up drunk or something and can't perform, the understudy takes over, yes?

Let's have a look at where this verse comes from to see why I think God's plan is not like a play or concert or opera performance. The passage is in Jeremiah 29; it's part of a letter to Israelites living in Babylon. These people are in Babylon because the nation has not obeyed the Lord -- Israel was full of violence and greed and idolatry. In other words, the plans to prosper the Israelites, to give them hope and a future, were announced after they disobeyed the Lord for generations—hundreds of years of disobedience! And yet he says, "I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart." (Jeremiah 29:11-13)

Hundreds of years of disobedience by millions of Israelites didn't thwart God's plans for their nation, and yet we worry that a few decades of disobedience by one individual might lead him to break his promise. As if we could disappoint him so much in a way he didn't already know!

I mean, did God say "Before a word was on your tongue, I knew it completely (Psalm 139) but then you came out with that??" Or "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you (Jeremiah 1) but then you went and did something else." Or "I chose you in Christ before the foundation of the earth to be holy and blameless (Ephesians 1) but then you went and messed it all up."

I don't think so. As I wrote last month, God already knows (Isaiah 44:6-7, 46:10) what will happen; there is no way that we can surprise or disappoint him, and there is no way that he will change his mind about his plans. He doesn't do that.

And isn't that good news?

Thursday, November 03, 2011


I hate making mistakes, which is really a pain because I do it all the time. When I read the gospels, though, I don't feel so bad, because I see that the disciples made mistakes all the time, too. Peter was forever putting his foot in his mouth—In Mark 9:5 he's having this dazzling experience with Jesus, James, John, Moses and Elijah, and he has to blurt something out. Right afterward, a cloud appears and a voice tells Peter (and the rest) "This is my beloved Son; listen to him!"

In Mark 16, we see Mary and Mary and Salome going to visit Jesus’ tomb. They have no idea how they're going to get in there (Mark 16:3)—planning's not so good. Once they do get in, they receive instructions (Mark 16:7 "But go, tell his disciples..."). They don't obey the instructions (Mark 16:8)—execution's not so good.

There are lots more like this, and as I said, this gives me hope because... well, no need to go into details.

Today I also read some of Merton's words about mistakes, which mean so much more to me now that I know he struggled with these things himself. He is like one of the high priests spoken of in Hebrews 5:2, who "can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness."

As long as we are on Earth our vocation is precisely to be imperfect, incomplete, insufficient in ourselves, changing, hapless, destitute and weak, hastening toward the grave. But the power of God and His eternity and His peace and His completeness and His glory must somehow find their way into our lives, secretly, while we are here, in order that we may be found in Him eternally as He has meant us to be.

The relative perfection which we must attain to in this life if we are to live as sons of God is not the twenty-four-hour-a-day production of perfect acts of virtue, but a life from which practically all the obstacles to God's love have been removed or overcome.

No Man Is an Island 7.10 (pp. 129-130)
Doesn't that sound good? To know that mistakes are part of life, nothing to be surprised about, to have God's power and peace &c finding their way into our lives, and to have nothing between God's love and us... sign me up! What's stopping me from getting there? Merton tells us in the next sentence:
One of the chief obstacles to this perfection of selfless charity is the selfish anxiety to get the most out of everything, to be a brilliant success in our own eyes and in the eyes of other men.
I resemble this remark too! Thanks be to God; he knows all this and chose us and called us anyway. And that's good news.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Personality and Perspective: Counseling, Theology

How can people be helped? What do they need in order to start making better decisions, to change directions? Here are three kinds of answers:
  1. There are deep longings, which they are pursuing with wrong strategies, and we help them by exploring the deep longings, exploring the wrong strategies. They change by recognizing those longings and changing those strategies.
  2. The problem is simply the will; their first need is for exhortation, and the second need is for accountability.
  3. People are insecure; they don't know deep in their souls that God loves them unconditionally. Once that fact is a constant part of their awareness, they'll be freed up to choose wisely; we help them by providing community (this is the chief way that God loves us -- through others).
No doubt there are other "mental models" of problems and counseling, but the thing I wanted to say was that the model, the sort of theory in our minds is influenced largely by our personality.

So if you're an angry kind of person and like to tell people what to do, you'll tend to think #2 above is the way people change. If you're into group hugs and you think of "warm and fuzzy" as an honorific, you'll probably like #3. If you like figuring things out and analyzing things--if you like crossword puzzles or computer programming, your mental model is likely to be #1.

This just about follows from the adage, "If your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." Of course these things tend to be self-reinforcing; if you yell at people and things happen, you'll tend to believe it more. As you believe it more strongly, you'll tend to yell more often and so on. So there's a sort of chicken-and-egg question, but I tend to think it starts with personality—because it seems so insightful and because Larry Crabb said it.

Theology and risk-taking

How about the propensity to take risks, to live on the edge? Tell me the verses you like and I'll guess whether you naturally are a risk-taker or a careful planner. Do you like Proverbs 6:6-8 (Go to the ant... it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest)? Or "The prudent see trouble coming and take cover; the simple keep going and suffer for it" (22:3)? I'll bet you're risk-averse. I don't mean you don't trust God; you believe that part of how God provides for our future is by giving us enough today to give, to spend, and to save for future reserves.

But if you prefer verses like "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy..." (Matthew 6:19) or "Whosoever he be of you, if he forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:33) or "Do not worry, saying ‘What shall we eat?’ ..." then I'll guess that you believe we shouldn't have much—that God provides for today's needs today and tomorrow's needs tomorrow.

Something that's important here is (sorry for sounding PC) that we embrace diversity! See, if you're a Proverbs 6:6-8 kind of guy, the temptation is to think of the Matthew 6:19 crowd as being imprudent. You might read this story and think the person profligate or wacky. And if you're a Matthew 6:19 kind of guy, there's a temptation to think of the Proverbs 22:3 crowd as being stodgy if not downright deficient in faith.

But the Apostle Paul tells us, "Let each one be fully convinced in his own mind" and ""with humility of mind let each of you consider others as more important..."  Right? How about Romans 15:7?

Let's think a little more about the visionary without food in the refrigerator. If we all lived like that, who would God move to write the big check? And if nobody dared anything like that, a lot of good things wouldn't happen. Really, it's not for the eye to say to the foot, "Because you're not an eye, you're not part of the body." If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? (1 Cor. 12:17)

Because, like it or not, our views on how Jesus treated people, what he expects from them, and even how people change—our views are influenced more by our personality than by the Scriptures, so we must hold them with humility.

So here's a bit of my view on counseling. (Prayer and the Holy Spirit play important roles in our spiritual and psychological health, but I mean what we do to help people.) I believe that people get into trouble because they use wrong strategies to try to fulfill their deep longings, and that a big part of helping people is to explore those deep longings and wrong strategies. But some are more in need of confrontation and accountability than any exploration. Some need more reassurance, more warm&fuzzies, before they can do anything else. And some may need lithium before anything else.

And risk? I believe that ants (Proverbs 6:6-8) are wise and prudent, not faithless (though I did think for a time that savings accounts were sin!)—but I also thank God for visionaries like the 72 who went into the villages without "a purse or bag or sandals" (Luke 10:4) and people like Hudson Taylor and the founder of Jeremiah's Promise (referred to above).

I hope that what I now think I understand about these things is closer to what God wants me to think, but no way can this be the ultimate truth.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

"All the days ordained for me..."

In Psalm 139, David says, "O Lord you have searched me and known me; you know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You know my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord" (Ps 139:1-4).

Which brings up a question: If God knows what I"m going to say before I say it—if, as Jesus said, he knows what I need before I ask—then what's the point of saying my prayers to him?

Well, the psalm also says "All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be". If all our days are known beforehand, why bother to live any of them?

Right? OK, the point of living life isn't just for God to see what we do, as though he needed new information; it's for us to live it. And the point of prayer isn't just for God to hear what we say, as though he needed new information; it's for us to pray it.

In other words, praying is for my benefit, not his. Sometimes when I pray, and tell God what I'm hoping for, I realize that that's not what I really want, or that I really want a lot more, or something else. And whenever I pray, it reminds me that I need God, that nothing that really matters in life is under my control. It's really important for me to remember that.

But what does it mean, "All the days ordained for me..."? It seems to me that there are two possibilities:

  • If this refers to a prescribed set of days written in God's book (as the translation "ordained" suggests), then one has to wonder, can I get away from it or not? Again, two possibilities.
    • If I can deviate from the plan, then once I've gone off it like in 1961, then my life has been off it since then, and it's not much of a book -- it's more like a fantasy.
    • If I can’t deviate from the plan, that means David couldn't either, and his misdeeds (adultery and murder, to name two) were prescribed by God. As someone once said, "I don't think so."
  • So this must be a descriptive set of days written in God's book. (Not all translations have the sense of God ordaining the psalmist's days; some have more the sense of knowing in advance.) If we can deviate from this description, it's not a very good one. So if we slip up, even if we do terrible things as David did, God knows we were going to do it.
And as with any Bible passage, the next question is, "So what?" Here's what I take from it: that God is not surprised by anything. He knows what's coming; he knows what I'm going to bump into. He knows when I'll overcome, and when I'll goof up. And in spite of the ways I slip up, or willingly deviate from the path, I can say with David: "How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand." (Ps 139:17-18)

I love this psalm; it's so realistic. David seems happy that God is so near in verses 1-6, but then in 7-12 he wants to run away—yet knows he can't; he can neither run nor hide. And David is so honest about his thoughts in verses 19-22, asking God to slay the wicked and confessing his hatred toward them.

I want to finish here quoting David's words -- he began with "O Lord, you have searched me and known me" (Ps 139:1); he ends with "Search me O God and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts... lead me in the way everlasting" (from Ps 139:23-24).

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Words to a young teen

A friend asked me to "take a few minutes and jot a note of wisdom and encouragement" to his son, who is about to enter the teenage years. Wisely, he asked a lot of us for this (more to the point, he asked a lot of people besides me) but anyway here's mine:
You're entering a time of great opportunity and growth, though it may feel more like a maelstrom of confusion and insecurity. When I was your age, I looked at the grown men around me and thought they had it all together: Would I have my life together when I got to be their age? As it turns out, they didn't have their lives as much together as I thought they did, and I spent too much time thinking about what things would be like way out there; I sometimes wish I had taken more time to enjoy the present, back when I had so much more time.

I used to think the most important thing was to avoid making mistakes. I thought if I could just stay out of trouble, things would be okay. The problem with this perspective is that I avoided all kinds of adventures because I thought I might goof up.

So my wish for you is that you take enough time to enjoy what's right in front of you. It's prudent to prepare for the future, to seek guidance and blessing from the Lord and so on, but don't forget that today is part of your life too. And I hope that you don't waste as much effort as I did trying to avoid mistakes -- focus rather on seeking the excitement and adventure and blessing that God wants you to enjoy.

As I look at those words, it occurs to me that I haven't outgrown that advice myself.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Collin reads "chick lit"

So we were on vacation in an exotic foreign city and stumbled upon a trade paperback copy of The Pretend Wife, by Bridget Asher (author of My Husband’s Sweethearts). OK, let's at least try to be open-minded, shall we?

The plot has an unsatisfying deus ex machina ending, as some reviews suggest, but the question that interested me from the book is this: What is the appropriate level of, ah, intensity in a marriage?

Gwen, Asher's first-person narrator, had been involved in an intense, overwhelming relationship in college, then broke up with the guy and married "Peter," who

didn't shove love at me. He didn't lavish it on. He wasn't brimming with love. He doled it out in portions. Love wasn't an ocean—it came in packets....

It was perfect for me when we met. In fact it was all I could have handled.

And, later, as I was learning that it was insufficient, I knew that I was asking too much of him.... And, the truth was, we'd have passed any marital test—from a psychologist to a Cosmo quiz. We made each other laugh. We had enough good sex and regularly so. ... We didn't squabble in public, and we barely ever squabbled at all. ... We were, by all accounts, lovely to be with, a sweet couple that looked nice together walking into a room.

I knew that there were many women out there who would have said: It's enough already. Be happy with what you have. They were right—and wrong.   (70-71)

So Gwen's looking for something more: she wants love like an ocean, peace like a river, joy like a fountain? Something like that maybe.

This put me in mind of Lori Gottlieb's article in the May 2008 Atlantic, featuring the graphic at right. Ms. Gottlieb takes what one might call an opposing point of view, as shown in this paragraph:

My advice is this: Settle! That’s right. Don’t worry about passion or intense connection. Don’t nix a guy based on his annoying habit of yelling ‘Bravo!’ in movie theaters. Overlook his halitosis or abysmal sense of aesthetics. Because if you want to have the infrastructure in place to have a family, settling is the way to go. Based on my observations, in fact, settling will probably make you happier in the long run, since many of those who marry with great expectations become more disillusioned with each passing year. (It’s hard to maintain that level of zing when the conversation morphs into discussions about who’s changing the diapers or balancing the checkbook.)
Now to the "fish without a bicycle" crowd, Gottlieb's article probably sounds like “Please tar and feather me.”

I have to confess that Asher's book made me a little uneasy. I think that many males have secret or not-so-secret anxieties about whether they're really enough. Am I enough of a husband to the lovely Carol? Am I enough of a... a... whatever-Gwen-wanted?

Reading Asher I feel insecure; I get a sense of relief from Gottlieb. Gottlieb is single and Asher's fictional Gwen is married; this, plus the grass-is-greener syndrome, undoubtedly affect their views of What To Expect From Marriage.

The Pretend Wife reminds me of a fairy tale: it ends with a hint of "and they lived happily ever after" but we actually have no idea whether Gwen will be dissatisfied about something else after a few years with the other guy.

That's life, isn't it? As Lewis's Aslan says, "No one is ever told what would have happened"; neither do we know what will happen to us. Gottlieb doesn't know how she'd feel today if she had in fact "settled" for one of the men she rejected a few years earlier.

Still, there's a part of me that wants the lovely Carol to think I'm enough of a husband—enough of a man perhaps?—for her. Sure, part of that is my own insecurity, my own ego; another part, I think, is that I want her to be happy. As much as I lack as a husband—I actually know I'm not an ideal one—my best self really wants the best for her.

I'll end with a line from Randy Stonehill, completely out of context: "So if You'll trust me I'll do my best and I'll be trusting You for the rest"

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Does every natural number divide some Fibonacci number?

This puzzle came from a recent CACM. The answer, given in the subsequent issue, was "yes", but I had to think about the explanation before I got it. I'll leave a little whitespace here so you can avoid reading the explanation if you want to think about it some first.

Consider the ordered pairs (fn,fn+1) modulo N, where N is the natural number under consideration. There can only be a finite number of unique such pairs—certainly no more than N2 of them. Hence they must cycle at some point. If we set f0=0 and f1=1, that says there must eventually be some M>0 such that fM=0 (mod N) and fM+1=1 (mod N); this condition is sufficient but not necessary for N | fM to be true. Why must we eventually have this condition? Because given fn and fn+1, we can calculate fn-1 -- that is, the process can be run backward and cannot branch. The CACM answer said that the process can run backward ("Yeah, so what?" I thought) but because I'm slow, it didn't occur to me that since it can run backward, and produce a single result, we could not have the case where f0=0,f1=1 and then at some later point have fX,fX+1 (both nonzero), and at some even later point come back to fX,fX+1 and cycle that way without ever hitting (0,1) again.

Right. Next question: Given a number N, how far must you go to find a Fibonacci number that's a multiple of N? I didn't answer that one; instead I took a very short whack at calculating n>0 such that fn≡0 (mod N) and fn+1≡1 (mod N). Of course a computer program was involved (I think this is what happens to lazy math majors; they become programmers). I wrote the following code before I understood the part about "process can run backward", so...

def doit(the_base):
    apair = 0, 1
    b2i = dict()
    for iter in range(99999):             # arbitrary
        if not SILENT:
            print apair,
        if apair in b2i:
            if SILENT:
                return iter, b2i[apair]
            print '\nDone at %d: %s seen at %d' % (
                            iter, `apair`, b2i[apair])
        b2i[apair] = iter
        apair = (apair[1], (apair[0] + apair[1]) % the_base)
        print "You can't get here --- at least I hope not; base =", the_base
I ran this for several values of the_base and found what look like some interesting patterns. Now let φ(N) be the smallest n>0 such that fn≡0(mod N), fn+1≡1(mod N). It seems that if N=p1p2, p1≠p2, then φ(N)=LCM(φ(p1),φ(p2)): for example φ(2)=3, φ(3)=8, φ(6)=24. and φ(5)=20, φ(11)=10, φ(55)=20

What about powers of primes? It appears that φ(pn)=pn-1φ(p) for n>1. Since φ(2)=3, this predicts φ(4)=6, φ(8)=12, φ(16)=24, φ(32)=48, φ(64)=96. And so it is.

But there are some surprises. Often φ(N)>N; but φ(19)=18, φ(21)=16 (LCM(φ(3)φ(7))), and so on.

After writing the above, I searched on "factors of fibonacci numbers" (no quotes) which led me to; this has a lot more interesting stuff about Fibonacci numbers.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Last week's puzzler

I mean this puzzler [2015-07-26: instead try this] from Car Talk -- yes, that Car Talk. The answer is linked from there, but of course rather than figuring it all out by hand I wanted to use a computer to do something about it.

Here's my paraphrase of the puzzle: What is special about the numbers (and the spellings) in this list: 4, 6, 12, 30, 33, 36, 40, 45, 50, 54, 56, 60, 70, 81, 88, 90, 100? The order is not important, and the property we're talking about is met by no other numbers between 1 and 100. I'll put a little space here so if you don't want to know the answer quite yet, you don't need to see it :)
  OK, so I thought, "H'm, why 'four' but not 'five'? Well 'four' and 'five' are both 4 letters long; 4 is a factor of 4 but isn't a factor of 5. 'six' is three letters, 3 is a factor of 6."

So I typed this little list into a file, which I imaginatively called tmp/cartalk-number-puzzler:

one hundred
Now, rather than counting letters by hand, I did this:
$ while read X; do echo $X ${#X}; done < tmp/cartalk-number-puzzler
four 4
six 3
twelve 6
thirty 6
thirty-three 12
thirty-six 10
Let me explain that.
  • while read X; do means "read a line and assign it to $X, then execute the following."
  • echo $X ${#X} means to echo (on the terminal display) the values of $X and the length of $X (which is the translation of ${#X})
  • done is the other end of the do we saw above
  • < tmp/cartalk-number-puzzler means "and read from this file, not from what I'm typing"
Now 12 isn't a factor of 33, and 10 isn't a factor of 36. So I wasn't sure about this whole factor business. But then I noticed that if you count only letters, then the length of "thirty-three" comes to 11, which is a factor of 33. So I tweaked my little loop:
$  while read X; do  Y=${X// /}; Y=${Y//-/}; echo $X ${#Y}; done < tmp/cartalk-number-puzzler 
four 4
six 3
twelve 6
thirty 6
thirty-three 11
thirty-six 9
forty 5
forty-five 9
fifty 5
fifty-four 9
fifty-six 8
sixty 5
seventy 7
eighty-one 9
eighty-eight 11
ninety 6
one hundred 10
The two new things here are... Y=${X// /}, which means "replace all the 'blank' characters from $X by '' (nothing) and put the result into $Y — and Y=${Y//-/}; which takes $Y (i.e., the de-blanked version of $X) and replaces all the hyphens by '', storing the result back into $Y

We then print the length of $Y -- the de-blanked, de-hyphen'd version of $X -- and by inspection I think these all match the hypothesis: 10 goes evenly into 100, 6 goes evenly into 90, 11 goes evenly into 88, etc.

But wait, that's not enough! The puzzler specified that these are the only numbers between 1 and 100 with that property. I'm way too lazy to type 'twenty-one' and 'seventeen' and 'eleven' in, and I thought somebody must have written a routine to do this, so I googled "python numbers to text" (no quotes) and downloaded "Convert Numbers to Words (Python)", which works like a champ. I coded this little thing which uses num2word, like this:

import num2word 
for i in range(1,101):
    tweaked = num2word.to_card(i).replace(' ', '').replace('-', '')
    if i % len(tweaked) == 0:
        print i, tweaked, 'len =', len(tweaked)
What this says is, take all positive integers up to and including 100, and calculate "tweaked" -- which is the de-blanked, de-hyphen'd version of the textual representation (i.e., num2word.to_card(i)( of the number. Then, display a message on the terminal if the length of tweaked is a factor of i. The result was:
4 four len = 4
6 six len = 3
12 twelve len = 6
30 thirty len = 6
33 thirtythree len = 11
36 thirtysix len = 9
40 forty len = 5
45 fortyfive len = 9
50 fifty len = 5
54 fiftyfour len = 9
56 fiftysix len = 8
60 sixty len = 5
70 seventy len = 7
81 eightyone len = 9
88 eightyeight len = 11
90 ninety len = 6
100 onehundred len = 10
which was the list we started with.

"You've done it again—you've wasted another perfectly good hour listening to Car Talk."

Monday, September 12, 2011

London sept 2: British Library and Museum

We went to the "new" British Library -- there was no budget for it so it seemed to take forever. (The reading room and collection used to be inside the British Museum.) Construction workers were reported to say they were working on the Library and thus were employed for life.

I saw a few pages from an early printing of the King James Bible of the 17th century, which I could actually read; I can't say the same of either the 16th century Gutenberg Bible (it's in Latin and the font is sufficiently strange to me) or the 5th (not a typo) century Codex Sinaiticus. The latter was opened to Psalms 9-13 but the lighting was quite low and the ink rather light (faded, or just written that way). I don't know Greek either. (The sign nearby said that psalms 9-10 were written as a single psalm in the Codex, a single acrostic poem. I suspect this was the way the LXX has it too.) Anyway I thought I recognized a word, but turns out I was wrong. At least I think I was.

But it was pretty darned exciting to see these old documents. Codex Sinaiticus especially.

At the British Museum we saw the Rosetta Stone! I mean the real one! Its story is the stuff of adventure film -- rediscovered by French soldiers, but then being given to the English as spoils of war; Thomas Young's attempts at deciphering it; then Jean-François Champollion's discovery of several keys, which enabled him to see ancient monuments and, for the first time in maybe 2000 years, being able to say what it meant.

Champollion was apparently given to fainting; he'd translate a monument, faint, and translate another. Can't say I blame him, though; if I were the first person in 1500-2000 years to be able to read a monument I'd be pretty excited, too.

Lunch was at "Tas" Restaurant, 22 Bloomsbury St.; their domain registration seems to have expired, but here's a cached copy.

We took the £9.15 per person lunch menu -- 2 persons minimum. Lots of good stuff, no meat. What I can remember it had: eggplant, something like ratatouille; hummus; bread of course; tabbouli; cracked? bulghur with walnuts, spinach/yogurt, fresh hot falafel, freshly baked(?) thing that reminded me of spanakopita but was probably pronounced something like "boo-regh".

was at the Ebury Wine Bar at Ebury and Elizabeth Streets, right next to the hotel.

St Paul's Cathedral 8/31; also brief remarks on Sept. 1

Quick: what is a Cathedral? Are they all Catholic? Is the Crystal Cathedral a real one?

Answers: where the seat of a Bishop is; No, the Church of England has Bishops; No, the Crystal Cathedral has no bishop and hence is really no cathedral. Finally, a cathedral need not take hundreds of years to build, though it seems a lot of them did.

But today (8/31) we learned that St. Paul's was designed by Sir Christopher Wren in the 1660s and completed within a few decades -- within his lifetime. I was shocked to hear about the speed of construction, knowing only about cathedrals what Fred Brooks and Eric Raymond wrote about them -- Brooks writing in The Mythical Man-Month that cathedrals generally have their designs changed multiple times during construction (Rheims being one of the few exceptions) and ESR writing in The Cathedral and the Bazaar about ... well, you can read it.

As it turns out, the current St Paul's Cathedral seems to be the fifth on that site, being built after its predecessor was destroyed in 1666's big fire. The astonishing speed of construction was, our guide (Mary here, not Tom) surmised, because it was a replacement and thus urgently needed.

You can read a lot about St Paul's online; that the building endured a few bombs (some parts were rebuilt) was interesting, as was the information that Wren didn't want any memorials in there. There aren't as many memorials there today as there are in Westminster Abbey, and I wonder if Wren lived to see the first one, but memorials there are. There is an American Chapel -- dedicated to the Americans who lost their lives in England -- within the building, which is nice I suppose, though it strikes me a little strange.


Lunch was at the Counting House [review], 50 Cornhill, London EC3V 3PD, phone 020 7283 7123. Generous portions, tasty food. I almost left my camera there, but someone from our tour group saved me. I had the "coronation chicken sandwich"; Carol had the steak and ale pie.

For supper we wandered over to our nearby La Bottega just down Ebury St at the corner of Eccleston. Carol had a small plate with salads; I had some eggplant lasagne and "spinach" (maybe New Zealand spinach?). Tasty, moderate prices. They close at 7 on weekdays, 6 on Saturdays.

While I'm here I'll tell you about Thursday 9/1

We went to Windsor Castle. The group met before 9am and walked to Victoria Station, where we caught a train to Clapham Junction. From there we took a train toward Windsor, which stopped short in Staines(?) because of "a police incident" (a "suspected fatality" -- hello, are you dead? I say, are you dead?); there was no guess about when the trains would run again, other than "you'd better take the bus."

We took a pleasant walk to the bus depot, and after a while the #71 bus came. We piled on (quite a few standees, as you might imagine), and after a bit more of a while the bus took off.

There were some gorgeous views, including one of the castle along the route from Ascot (the road the Queen takes when she comes to Windsor). Not far from the castle, our bus came to a halt, and we disembarked, walking up to the Guild Hall, which has underground rest-rooms on either side of the "porch."

The building was designed by Christopher Wren, originally with no interior columns. The townspeople insisted on columns (or we won't pay you) so Christopher Wren put the columns in, but they don't actually touch the ceiling.

Immediately to the left of the guild hall is the Crooked House, on Queen Charlotte St.; they serve "tea" all day starting around 9am. The food and drink were fine (we got the afternoon tea service for two, £32.00) but the tea and coffee were served in stainless-steel pots. Fine functionally, but if you prefer china/porcelain tea service, cross the bridge into Eton and take your tea at, umm, House on the River? River House? It's on your right at the Eton end of the footbridge.

Anyway, the castle is humungously enormous (Tom's description) and it surely is. Some of the "decorations" on the castle were added in the 19th century (it's way older than that) to make it look the way some people thought it should. The garden in the "dry moat" is gorgeous.

We made our way back to Victoria Station without incident. With no dinner plans, we scattered. Carol grabbed a salad from... was it M&S simply food? and on our way to the exit we saw "wasabi" -- a food cart(iirc) in the station. This wasn't gourmet food, but was every bit as good (or maybe I was hungry) as the stuff from a Japanese convenience store. The o-nigiri even had nori separated from the rice; after removing the tear-around strip and easing the sides off, you've got a crispy seaweed wrapping around the triangular rice-ball. Dee-lish!

Picked up some nigiri sushi, a plastic cup filled with eda-mame (they were salted just right as far as I was concerned), and one packet each of shoyu and wasabi paste. Grabbed a light Italian beer (Peroni I think) from La Bottega on our street. It was great.

Learned a few interesting things today (8/30)

First, "Peace in our time" or "Peace for our time," as Neville Chamberlain said after a 1938 meeting with Hitler, was not nearly as daft as some have claimed. He was no dummy and certainly knew Hitler was plotting war; he knew England would need to prepare for war. He also knew that England wasn't ready to fight in 1938; by apparently appeasing Hitler he bought the UK time to prepare.

Until today, I'd heard only the traditional view, that Chamberlain was silly for believing Hitler. But upon reflection, what I heard today makes a lot more sense. The wikipedia article at offers both sides of the story.

Something else we heard today was that during WW II, relationships were formed much more quickly than had been usual before that. Young people would meet in Trafalgar Square -- scandalously, without regard to social class, level of education, etc. -- and take the short walk to St James's Park, which was not mowed during those years. London suffered nightly bombings 57(?) days in a row at one point, which made people ever more aware that tomorrow we may die. Besides disregarding class, some of these young people even ignored nationality (how many thousands of British married Americans during the war?) -- and England (indeed the world) was never the same.

Hearing this, I immediately thought "Of course!" though I wouldn't ever have come up with the insight myself.
Not nearly as important...
but we had lunch at The Two Chairmen, a nice pub at the end of Lewisham St. (really an alley) where it meets Old Queen Street. The address seems to be 39 Dartmouth St.; more location info here.

In the National Gallery

Our guide, the superb Tom Hooper, explained several paintings hanging in the National Gallery; I remember some of his comments on two of them. The first, which you see at right, was the Arnolfini Portrait. Tom's comments were not quite the same as what Wikipedia says, and you can look up the latter, so I'll try to relate what Tom told us. First, the man is considerably older than his wife. She's wearing green, not an expensive color (Wikipedia says it's fur-lined, indicating its expense). Tom also pointed out that the man is wearing fur, but not the most expensive fur; he's of the merchant class and has done well. The girl is not pregnant, but she's got enough of a belly to show she's been eating well; lifting her green outer garment, we see that her inner garment reaches to the floor (further emphasizing the wealth of her husband-to-be).

By the way, the perspective and realism of the painting (note the convex mirror along the back wall) were what one would expect for the period (dated 1434 by Van Eyk), but this sort of technique hadn't made it to England by then.

One interpretation of the painting holds that the girl is afraid because of the high expectations placed upon her (at this time: to bear sons), communicated by the ample but not extravagant clothing she wears, by the age difference, by her submissive posture. The dog (man's best friend; most faithful creature) suggests the husband expects faithfulness from his new wife (or -to-be). The picture may document a betrothal (note the date/signature on the rear wall).

The idea of this picture as documenting the new/prospective husband's possessions (does he consider the girl as one of them?) and expectations is rather a mind-blower to me. As a father of daughters I find it offensive, but I also understand that the world often is and was that way.

Tom also interpreted for us "An Allegory of Venus and Cupid," seen here at left. The painting was evidently a "gift" for Francis I of France. Here's my recollection of his interpretation.

Cupid (Eros), son of Aphrodite (Venus), is here fondling his mother's breast and kissing her on the lips -- a kiss she's returning. An act of incest is about to happen, which Oblivion (upper left corner, with eyeless sockets) is trying to cover up. Father Time (upper right, with hourglass on his shoulder) is trying vehemently to foil oblivion -- suggesting that in time, one's sins will find one out.

Cupid's posture is unnatural (as the act of incest would be?) and he's about to step on a bird (a European swallow??); there's a girl on the right side of the painting also with a very unnatural (impossible) posture: she seems to be looking over her left shoulder at us (that's her left hand holding something near Venus's left arm). The girl's right hand holds a scorpion's tail (or something resembling it), and her left foot (near the right foot of the rose-clutching boy) is some sort of animal's paw -- so she's not really a normal human girl but some sort of mixed creature; foot of a wolf?, tail of scorpion, hands and head of a girl.

The old woman(?) in agony, whose head is below Venus's right elbow, may represent syphilis, which according to some accounts eventually killed Francis I.

Putting together syphilis on the left, the scorpion's tail on the right, and Father Time at top, one might think the painting a warning against indiscriminate sex: the danger of disease, the eventual exposure of the deed, and a (delayed) sting. Personally, I suspect that Cupid's unnatural and uncomfortable posture (Venus's too) suggests a great deal of discomfort may accompany the act itself.

Rather a shocking message to send with a gift; I tend to think it rather a futile gesture, but who knows? Maybe it was sent with good intent (Proverbs 24:11; James 5:20). Whatever the motive, the intensity of the painting's message rather shocked me.
We took a break at our hotel then had dinner at Boisdale (of Belgravia). Quite fancy decor (white tablecloths, etc.) and the music is great (live jazz most nights I think). The food was OK -- Dave ordered a mini "haggis" -- Carol and I each tried a bite. I had sausage and mash -- which was not low-sodium. The "Jacobite Menu" is a prix-fixe set -- three courses I think for about 20 pounds. Not bad considering the decor and music.

First days in London

We arrived without incident on United 954 (nonstop SFO→LHR), went through immigration (passport control), picked up our bags, and exited via the line marked "Rien à déclarer" (or it should have been -- I don't remember what it actually said in English - "No declarations" maybe).

We exchanged some money -- quite a spread as I recall: I think we paid something like US$ 1.88 to get UK£ 1, but if we have any £s left over, each will get us $1.49.

Anyway, we took our little trolley (that's what they call baggage carts here) down some ramps then up an elevator to the central bus station by 7:40 -- next bus to London was 8:30am and it was £5 per person; great.

With 50 minutes to go, we visited "Caffe Nero" for snacks and a decaf latte. When our bus (501-London) appeared in the window, we went outside to the pick-up location -- stand#8 or something like this. The staff were unloading baggage from the belly of the bus.

Some of you grammarians may complain about my choice of verb in the preceding sentence. You're American, aren't you? Here's the thing: what pronoun would you use for "the staff" -- would you say "they"? Well yes, because two or more people are being discussed. So if I said "The staff appeared very quickly" then "they were unloading baggage..." the verb would be correct there, wouldn't it? Therefore "The staff were unloading" is fine, right? It's like in the advertisement "Pan Am are now offering direct flights to..." which I read in an English paper some decades ago....
Once the Heathrow baggage was off, they checked our tickets and took our bags. The bus went directly from Heathrow's central bus station to London's Victoria coach (in the US we'd normally say "bus") station -- not to be confused with the "Victoria Station" that usually means the rail or Underground or "tube" station. Once off the bus, we retrieved our bags and walked to the Lime Tree Hotel.

The hotel is just a few minutes' walk away. We arrived before 9:30am, and the fellow at the desk greeted us warmly. No, our room wasn't ready; yes, he could prioritise the cleaning staff's work so that the room would most likely be ready by 10:30. (This wasn't necessary, as it turned out.) And yes, he could suggest some interesting things to do. First, he told us how to get to Buckingham (pronounced “bucking’em”) Palace for the changing of the guard at 11:30, but he also told us about a smaller ceremony at the nearby St James's Palace where we wouldn't have 4,000 people blocking the view. What we didn't realize at the time was the ceremony at Bucking'em would take an hour, vs. 15-20 minutes for the smaller ceremony (viewed from maybe 15 yards away).

Then, as we had tickets for the musical Chicago that afternoon, we asked him how to get to the Cambridge Theatre. He took out his pink highlighter and showed us where to catch the #34 bus, what route it would take and where to get off. Very helpful!

We "popped our bags round the corner," and headed off, eventually finding St James's Palace. We also found an astonishing little plaque commemorating a visit of a legation (delegation?) from the Texas Republic! After watching the ceremony (which involved a 1978 Barry Manilow song) we walked to St James's Park and had lunch at the restaurant, just missing a brief but intense rain shower.

After lunch we headed back to the hotel, got settled in briefly, then had a run-in with the bus ticketing system: exact change required! A mad dash followed, but we got on the bus in time to allow for a little confusion at the far end. But we eventually got to the Cambridge Theatre, and we even got to our seats before they lowered the lights. The musical was "Chicago" -- about which I knew nothing. The acting was superb, but the costumes were a little disconcerting. wikipedia told me it was a satirical account (I had thought it rather cynical before reading that).

There was water on the ground when we emerged from the theatre around 5:30, and we got a light supper at "kopapa". There was a large hanging on the wall; I thought the material and colors looked Hawaiian, but our server called it a "tapa" from New Zealand.

We caught a cab back; our driver was a former investment banker. Quite a job change I'd say. He recommended "Boisdale," which has live jazz most evenings and is within a block or two of our hotel.

Sunday 8/28

From our little map we saw that "St Michael's" was a short walk away from the hotel. Their website gave a good impression, so we attended their 10:30am service. We couldn't see how to get in, but the guest organist's mother (who was visiting) led us round to the entrance. We sat down directly, and the lovely Carol said to the young lady in the next chair, "Hi! We're from California." Jennifer Garner (her real name) said, "Well I'm from North Carolina!"

The congregation was very friendly, and one of the folks, Mary-Lois I think, turns out to know the pastor who officiated at our wedding 25 years ago. Small world indeed.

We enjoyed the hymns, the readings from 1 Timothy 5 and Luke 14, and the sermon -- which was about parents (well, really about our priorities). Jennifer joined us for lunch -- she recommended a pub round the corner, probably the Thomas Cubitt -- we ate outside, but moved inside when the raindrops fell.

We met our tour guide, Tom, that afternoon, and he took us on a walk around the neighborhood. We got practice catching the bus and the Underground, and ate together at Grumbles, not too far from Victoria Station.

This tour includes a transit pass (bus and tube; also discounts on some boat rides) for the week. I'm tempted to buy a weekly pass for our time in Paris too, but we'll see....

Monday 8/29

In the morning, we visited Westminster Abbey -- quite impressive. If you're lucky, you'll do this tour in the morning rather than late afternoon (when "people lose their will to live"). A lot of people are buried under there.

We then took a boat ride, and had a very capable narrator describe several sights around the river. He called out the various bridges, the Tate Gallery, the London Eye, and so on. He mentioned the Bloody Tower (the Tower of London actually has several towers), relating the answer to the question "Which one is the Bloody Tower?" -- i.e., "the one behind the bloody trees, which is why you can't bloody see it."

Upon landing, we ran off to get lunch (we went up the hill to "EAT") then back for a Beefeater tour. These fellows have all served at least 22 years in the British Army with (in their words) no misdeeds detected, iirc. It was disconcerting to think of all the killings that happened in the tower complex.

We made our way back to the hotel for a quick freshen-up, then walked to Victoria (tube) station, transferred at Oxford Circus, and emerged above ground at Marylebone (pronounced "Marley Bone") for fish and chips at "Seashell", a short walk away. Very generous portions (a HUGE piece of cod) were provided, though Carrie's piece was seriously undercooked (we shared a table with her and Jim). They corrected this cheerfully and promptly. Good food.

Friday, September 09, 2011

What a Rosetta Stone Can't Do

My buddy Todd posted this the other day, with this note on facebook:
Imagine what might be possible if we had a Rosetta Stone to help us actually "hear" what others really meant, instead of what they were saying.
I saw the Rosetta Stone last week, at the British Museum. It's got an astonishing story, having been decoded by an Englishman and a Frenchman, the latter having quite a tendency to faint. Not that I blame him; if I were the first person in over 1500 years who could read the inscription on some monuments, I'd faint too.

Remarkable as the rosetta stone is, I'm afraid that it won't do what Todd's posting wants for at least two reasons:

  1. The Rosetta Stone only showed equivalent sentences in different scripts (ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, demotic, ancient Greek); we need to go to a much higher level.

    To describe what I mean by a higher level, let me first describe some lower levels. In the 1980s, the International Organization for Standardisation (ISO) defined a reference model for computer communications. Lower levels described signaling techniques, like this one, describing an encoding technique at the "physical layer":

    ...a logic 0 is indicated by a 0 to 1 transition at the centre of the bit and a logic 1 is indicated by a 1 to 0 transition at the centre of the bit.
    A higher layer might describe how data are presented -- e.g., is "Ô" represented as 11010100 (iso 8859-1) or 11000011 10010100 (UTF-8) or 00100110 00110000 01111000 01000100 00110100 00111011 (i.e., "&0xD4;"), etc.

    A yet higher layer might specify how semantics are communicated, e.g., if we want a file named "foo" to instead be named "bar", do we say:

    • mv foo bar
    • rename foo,bar
    • os.rename('foo', 'bar')
    As "mv foo bar" is higher than "a 0 to 1 transition at the centre of the bit", so deriving human intentions between individuals is a higher level than translating between "tres heureux de faire votre connaissance" and "delighted to make your acquaintance."
  2. Even if our intentions could be translated, they're in conflict because of The Fall.

    A buyer for example has the intention of paying the lowest possible price for a box of goods, whereas the seller has the intention of getting the highest price. We can translate the intention, but we all knew that anyway.

    What if "Anna" wants a world where we pay teachers more if they have to work harder to educate tougher kids who have less parental support, but "Michelle" wants to pay teachers more when they work in districts with higher property tax revenues? Is it reasonable that a richer district should be able to pay its teachers more? Is it reasonable that among teachers in the same county, teachers with harder jobs should be paid less than those with easier jobs?

    Suppose "Billy" wants a world where their companies can destroy competition by exploiting monopoly power but "Sherm" thinks government should restrict what he calls "anticompetitive" behavior. What do these have in common?

    How about if "Phyllis" wants popular media to affirm family values (e.g., marriage commitments that survive conflict, hardship—even betrayal), but "Jane" wants to show "the world as it is" including the behavior of typical US college students, the high US divorce rate, etc.?

    Besides conflicts like this, how about the observation that we've had decades now of consumers fighting workers and finally winning? Even within one person, the desires/goals are terribly mixed up.

I don't think the answer is to give up and die, but neither do is the answer as simple as clearly communicating our intentions and goals. I'd like to think that if like-minded people will listen to each other in search of common ground (think "marriage counseling"), this could make some things better, but I'm afraid there will never be a "silver bullet."

I'll be happy to be proven wrong!

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Washed and Waiting by Wesley Hill

It's subtitled, "Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality." (Zondervan, 2010; excerpt here; publisher info here)

I found this small volume on the book table at an Anglican church we visited in London. My impression, not backed up with statistics or anything, is that books mentioning homosexuality and Christianity often say things like:

  1. My church rejected me as soon as I told them I was gay -or-
  2. The Scriptures commonly used to condemn homosexual behavior are either
    • misinterpreted [they're really about idolatry, lack of hospitality, promiscuity, etc] or
    • outdated (like the prohibitions against eating bacon and shrimp, wearing braids/jewelry, etc]
    and in either case irrelevant; -or-
  3. I prayed this prayer [or went through this process] and was cured of my homosexuality [and you too can be cured if you're willing to...]
What don't I like about these things? The first thing is that they side-track attention from what I might call The Real Problem, or rather the Remaining Problem:
  1. complains about the lack of real acceptance in our congregations; this is a real issue too, but even if the congregation (both clergy and laity) fully accept people like Hill who have homosexual feelings, problems do not thereby all go away.
  2. tries to explain away "troublesome" Scriptures, but many Christians can't believe either the "really talking about idolatry..." explanation nor the "bacon and shrimp" one (indeed, as indicates, some gay Christians find such explanations specious).
  3. is no more satisfying to an un-"cured" person with homosexual feelings than a "faith healing" testimonial would be to someone paralyzed in all four limbs.
No, what I mean by The Remaining Problem is this: suppose Joe Christian experiences homosexual feelings; when he tells his pastors and church friends about the feelings, they pray with and for him, accept him as he is, listen and speak to him with compassion and understanding. Suppose further that as Joe reads and studies the Scriptures, he remains unconvinced that they condone any sexual relationship other than marriage between one man and one woman. And suppose that in spite of much praying and fasting and seeking healing, Joe continues to be attracted only to other men.

What then? The Remaining Problem is: what do we say to gay Christians about their desires -- not just sexual desires, but the desire to belong with and to another, the desire to know and be known, intimately, by a life partner? Do we say it's all right to disobey the Scriptures (you relativists out there can read this as "disobey the Scriptures as they understand them")? That seems like a really bad idea.

Do we say, "Pray so that you can be healed from this"? I think that's a wonderful idea, which also applies to our brothers and sisters with other persistent issues (those paralyzed in one or more limbs, those dying from cancer or AIDS, brothers and sisters who are blind, who can't sleep nights, who struggle with chronic depression, etc.) -- but what happens when, as in the vast majority of cases, healing doesn't come?

We should not say they lack faith [etc] -- we've no right to say that, and besides we could be 100% wrong anyway. Eutychus was dead and therefore had no faith at all when Paul raised him to life (Acts 20:9-10) -- ditto Jairus's daughter (Mark 5:35). And if the problem is sin, well, everybody's got sin, even those who did get healed or raised from the dead.

No, The Remaining Problem is, when all that other stuff has been tried, how do our brothers and sisters live when they

  • have homosexual urges;
  • feel no attraction to members of the opposite sex;
  • believe the Scriptures that tell us the only acceptable sexual relationship is in a marriage between one man and one woman;
  • earnestly desire to trust, obey, honor, serve Christ; and
  • yearn for love and intimacy and acceptance just like the rest of us?
How do we encourage them to live for Christ in the midst of unfulfilled and possibly unfulfillable desires?

Hill's book addresses these questions with compassion, integrity, poignancy. He tells his own story, and also describes some struggles endured by Gerard Manley Hopkins and by Henri Nouwen, both of whom had homosexual urges but did not act upon them. Hill points out that he has the same unfulfilled desires as many fellow believers who remain single, but not by their own choice. An excerpt from the introduction:

[T]his book is neither about how to live faithfully as a practicing homosexual person nor about how to live faithfully as a fully healed or former homosexual man or woman. J. I. Packer, commenting on Paul’s hopeful word for sexual sinners in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, writes, “With some of the Corinthian Christians, Paul was celebrating the moral empowering of the Holy Spirit in heterosexual terms; with others of the Corinthians, today’s homosexuals are called to prove, live out, and celebrate the moral empowering of the Holy Spirit in homosexual terms”† This book is about what it means to do that—how, practically, a non-practicing but still-desiring homosexual can “prove, live out, and celebrate” the grace of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit in homosexual terms.

This book is written mainly for those gay Christians who are already convinced that their discipleship to Jesus necessarily commits them to the demanding, costly obedience of choosing not to nurture their homosexual desires....
† J. I. Packer, “Why I Walked,” Christianity Today 47 (January 20, 2003) 46.

Washed and Waiting p.16
Hill does a terrific job in this small, readable volume; every church leader should read it. →