Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Ever have one of those days...

... when you can hardly believe how good you've got it? The last few have been like that for me, so even though I'm supposed to be balancing the checkbook, I want to take no more than 15 minutes and tell you about it.

I'm on the "nominating committee" at our church, which among other things means we consider who will become the "incoming class" of elders this September. The congregation recommended several dozen folks (nearly 60) and our job is to meet with and pray about and discuss and try to discern who the Lord wants to appoint: eight of them, to be installed this September. We've been meeting for about an hour a few times a month, and given the long weekend, I thought to invite them over for dinner.

So even before that, I have to say that is tremendously nourishing and encouraging and uplifting and very sweet to spend time with these mature, committed, energetic folks, focused on this very important task.

OK, so I thought about dinner, and it occurred to me that it might be nice to roast some lamb. I have a Weber® kettle barbecue, which actually smokes small cuts of meat quite well. The local market had apple chips, which as it turns out give a terrific flavor. "But," I said to myself, "not everybody likes lamb" -- especially something like a roast leg of lamb, which is practically baaa-ing when it comes to the table; I mean it is really lamb-y.

So I thought, fine, I'll take a leg of lamb and roast/smoke half of it, and make stew out of the rest. Our son-in-law gave us a gift card (long story) for Safeway, and they had boneless lamb legs. Yes!

But even the lamb stew might be too lamb-y for some folks, I thought, and having in mind the recent news story which said your chances of dying in a 15? year period were 20? per cent higher if you ate a lot of red meat, I also got a salmon fillet. I decided to smoke half of it and grill the other half after marinating it in "soy vey" sauce.

What occurred to me part way through this whole thing is, I guess I'm part "Japanese mother" -- as some story goes, the mother shows her affection for her children by what she packs for them in their lunch-boxes. In a similar way, I guess it was my fond affection for these dear brothers and sisters that expressed itself in these four dishes (only three of which involved the Weber).

The other thing of course was the abundant blessings I've received, not only the gift card but the time and resources to prepare something like this; one of my friends said "We're going to eat like kings" and indeed we did: not just the stuff I prepared (and some very kind words were said about my cooking) but also things others brought: cole slaw made from a family recipe, an exotic "cheesy-potato casserole" from the wilds of Ohio, a rice salad... and a home-made lemon cake, made with Duncan's assistance. Duncan Hines that is.

But how many people throughout history have been able to eat like this? How many people today have friends they're involved with, working on a task that's bigger than all of them and has nothing to do with making money? How many people are as fortunate as I am?

And as I sometimes say, there are few pleasures in this life greater than preparing food for dear friends and enjoying it with them.


My employer allows us to take days off to do volunteer work, and that's what I did for most of Tuesday. This wasn't building a house or feeding the poor—not directly, anyway. There's some programming work that needs doing for a nonprofit organization; they do medical education around the world. Anyway, I've been taking a day or two a month for the past few months and slowly progressing this work. They are patient because I'm doing it for free.

How many companies give employees a paid day off to do volunteer work? How many of us get to do things they love to do, to help accomplish something really important?

During the day, I took some time off to interview someone who may be an elder starting this fall. Another committee member and I heard about his faith journey, his desire to serve the Lord, the things God has been doing in his life and the way God has been using him. Wow -- how often do we get to hear stories like this?

That was rhetorical, but the answer for me is: three times this week! I had another one that evening, and I have one scheduled for this coming Saturday.

I've spoken with both my daughters this week and my wife a couple of times today (they're all in other states at the moment); I have health enough to ride my bike to and from the train station; our friends are willing to take the dog for a bit so the poor creature won't be bored to tears, alone at home…

I could go on and on, but it's already been half an hour and I need to get to work.

It has been one of those weeks... how could anyone be so fortunate as I am? I sure don't know—not that I'm complaining! Praise God from whom all blessings flow.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Priority of marriage: quote (almost) without comment

From a 1991 sermon by Tim Keller:
No relationship is more fundamental than the relationship between a husband and a wife. It's the primary relationship. Father/mother/child relationship is secondary. And therefore your spouse and your marriage has to be your #1 priority; it has to come before your career; it has to come before your friends; it has to come before your children--that's a very hard one especially nowadays, it really is; it has to come before anything else.

Now afterwards I got a number of questions about this. Somebody came up to me and said to me, "All right, what if the man thinks that he is putting his marriage first but the woman thinks he's not? How do you solve that?" Or, "What if the woman thinks she is putting her marriage first and the man thinks she isn't? How do you solve that?"

It's simple: if one person thinks the marriage is first and the other person thinks it's not, then it's not. It's simple.

Dr. Timothy Keller, Marriage as Priority & Friendship September 8, 1991
starting about 12 minutes in

You might also be interested in Dr. Keller's explanation of The #1 cause of marriage problems, which he also mentions in the above sermon.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

[A glimmer of] Understanding the PCUSA

Updated 2013-04-07 because's domain registration expired; links have been adjusted to point to
I'm a member of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, which is currently affiliated with the PCUSA, a denomination in some turmoil. Here is an issue that I found vexing; thanks to my friend Simon, to an article by R.R. Reno reminding me about Jonathan Haidt's work on liberals and conservatives, and to a book by Jack Rogers, I now have a glimmer of understanding.

What issue, you ask? Sorry, I got ahead of myself. The issue was ordination of women in the church. To you this issue may be a slam-dunk, but I had to spend some hours studying the Scriptures and considering my own motives and prejudices. Part of my study involved reading a lecture attributed to Tim Keller [online here or here] where I read this rather surprising extract:

Some 15 years ago, we would have entered the Presbyterian Church USA to minister, but we were told that our view of women-in-ministry precluded us from serving there. Though we would have worked beside people with different views, those on the other side of the fence would not work with us.
Women and Ministry [link]
Redeemer Presbyterian Church
By Tim and Kathy Keller 11/89
Jack Rogers reports this has been the case for some time:
In its 1974 decision, the Permanent Judicial Commission in the Kenyon case cited the Confession of 1967. The PJC decision stated that the equality of women and men is an essential of Presbyterian theological beliefs…

I found it vexing and incomprehensible that on one hand the PCUSA would consider Tim Keller unfit for ministry, and on the other hand has no problem with someone like John Shuck who believes

that "God" functions as a symbol. The concept of "God" is a product of myth-making and "God" is no longer credible as a personal, supernatural being. For me, "God" functions as a shorthand for the Universe and sometimes for qualities and aspirations I wish to pursue or to emulate.
Unlike the Apostles Peter and Paul, unlike the author of Hebrews, Shuck doesn't believe Christ died for our sins:
The passion accounts in the gospels that we hear in church and that we watch on film and that preachers relish in recounting from the pulpits are fictions. Stories. These events didn’t happen. The theological explanation is based upon pure imagination.
He notes in this posting that he has been elected by Holston Presbytery to serve as a voting commissioner to the PCUSA’s 2012 General Assembly.

How can Tim Keller be unfit for ministry, and John Shuck be elected by his presbytery as a commissioner for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) general assembly? That was something I found incomprehensible and vexing. But after some helpful input, I now find it only vexing.

A few weeks ago, my friend Simon and his wife joined me for dinner. It was a time of sweet fellowship, getting to know each other a little more and discussing some of these questions. I'll say here that Simon and I don't necessarily fully agree on all issues. Anyway I asked him if he had any insight into the above question: how can the question of "who can be nominated as an Elder?" be essential in a Christian denomination, whereas belief that Jesus Christ died for our sins isn't essential? Simon proposed the following possible position of the denomination:

There's a place for every family member at the table. If you don't believe exactly as we do on some issue (even some very important ones), you can still have a place at the table. But one thing you mustn't do here is oppress your sister.
Side note: What's there not to fully agree with here? Only this: Membership in God's family isn't inherited, or automatic for everyone who, say, goes to a certain church or a certain seminary; to be in God's family someone must welcome Jesus into their life, and believe in him (John 1:12) in order to become a child of God. Put differently, we need to be adopted (Romans 8, Ephesians 1) into the family, or as Jesus said, "born again" (John 3). He also said, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 7:21). These are not proof-texts; Jesus also says that the path leading to life is narrow, and few find it; he talks a lot about those who are on the inside vs on the outside; if a brother refuses to repent even when confronted by the congregation, we should treat him as an unbeliever; he warns us to be aware of wolves in sheep's clothing. Not everyone who claims to be a brother or sister truly is one; I don't see how we can escape our responsibility to at least try to discern whether someone has been adopted and truly is a family member, vs being a wolf in sheep's clothing.
I may not have the exact wording, but need I say I was impressed with this answer? This is at least a coherent position. I don't fully agree with it (more at right), but it is at least comprehensible to me.

Another piece of the puzzle may have to do with being more "contractural" or liberal vs being more "beehive"-oriented or conservative (the quoted terms are from Haidt's 2007 article on misunderstanding religion. Haidt has done some interesting research on ethical perceptions:

In my dissertation and my other early studies, I told people short stories in which a person does something disgusting or disrespectful that was perfectly harmless (for example, a family cooks and eats its dog, after the dog was killed by a car). I was trying to pit the emotion of disgust against reasoning about harm and individual rights.

I found that disgust won in nearly all groups I studied (in Brazil, India, and the United States), except for groups of politically liberal college students, particularly Americans, who overrode their disgust and said that people have a right to do whatever they want, as long as they don't hurt anyone else.

Haidt, 2007 [link]
A little later in the article, Haidt lists four principles summarizing a new synthesis in moral psychology. I'm particularly interested in this one:
4) Morality is about more than harm and fairness. In moral psychology and moral philosophy, morality is almost always about how people treat each other. …

OK, so there are two psychological systems, one about fairness/justice, and one about care and protection of the vulnerable. …

But if you try to apply this two-foundation morality to the rest of the world, you either fail or you become Procrustes. Most traditional societies care about a lot more than harm/care and fairness/justice. Why do so many societies care deeply and morally about menstruation, food taboos, sexuality, and respect for elders and the Gods? … If you want to describe human morality, rather than the morality of educated Western academics, you've got to include the [Emile] Durkheimian view that morality is in large part about binding people together.

From a review of the anthropological and evolutionary literatures, Craig Joseph (at Northwestern University) and I concluded that there were three best candidates for being additional psychological foundations of morality, beyond harm/care and fairness/justice. These three we label as ingroup/loyalty (which may have evolved from the long history of cross-group or sub-group competition, related to what Joe Henrich calls "coalitional psychology"); authority/respect (which may have evolved from the long history of primate hierarchy, modified by cultural limitations on power and bullying, as documented by Christopher Boehm), and purity/sanctity, which may be a much more recent system, growing out of the uniquely human emotion of disgust, which seems to give people feelings that some ways of living and acting are higher, more noble, and less carnal than others.

Haidt, op. cit. (emphasis added)
Haidt has written another book, The Righteous Mind, which R.R. Reno read and discussed in the aforementioned article from First Things; apparently Haidt's list now consists of care, freedom, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity; liberals care about the first three only and may actively reject the others. Reno quotes Haidt on this: When I speak to liberal audiences about the three 'binding foundations'—Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity—I find that many in the audience don't just fail to resonate; they actively reject these concerns as immoral.

So here's my current whack at what's going on, why Shuck is accepted by the PCUSA but Keller is rejected. First, there has been a shift in the denomination away from an admittedly flawed understanding of how to interpret the Bible. I'm assuming that Rogers has not caricatured some past mental models, but certainly trying to read Genesis 1 as a chronology, or saying creation happened in 4010 BC, or that women mustn't wear braids in church (and how about that gold jewelry?) is a problem. Perhaps the baby has been thrown out with the bath-water, but it's easy to see how this can happen. This may explain why the PCUSA has no theological essentials. (Seriously. There is not a single tenet you must believe—I mean about God or Jesus Christ—in order to be ordained in the PCUSA. I'll happily be proven wrong on this, but I don't think that's happening.)

Second, contracturalists (or "liberals") have risen to power in the denomination. (Note that this is separate and distinct from being theologically liberal.) This is how care, freedom and fairness have become the essentials.

Do I care about care, freedom, and fairness? Yes I do, but who gets to define all these terms? For example, is it fair that someone who believes in Jesus is part of God's family, whereas a much nicer person isn't—even if that person is more polite and patient, gives more to charity—because they don't believe in Jesus?

Would I refuse to attend or support Redeemer Presbyterian Church because they don't ordain women as elders? I would say it's an issue for me but I don't know if it would be a controlling issue. (I disagree with Dr. Keller's views on women in the church, but it's not essential for salvation or fellowship that we agree on that issue.) I think I'd be more concerned if the crucifixion and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ were not preached -- based on my understanding of the Bible, I think this is essential for salvation.

At this point I still disagree with the PCUSA, and I disagree less with them since reading (most of) Rogers's book. But at least the position is comprehensible.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Converting two date(1) outputs into a time delta

So I wrote a little shell script that went something like:
and I wanted to calculate the time between the first date and the second. It's not rocket science; by inspection you can tell whether the start and end are on the same day, same hour, etc., and do the necessary "borrow"s -- if something started at 1:59:59 and finished at 2:00:17 then it obviously took about 18 seconds.

But suppose you want to do it programmatically -- which I almost always want to, because I may want to know in a couple months whether the time has gone up or down. The second thing that came to mind was to change all those date commands to something more like date +%s, because if what you have is

$ date
Sat May 26 22:20:39 PDT 2012
$ somestuff
$ date
Sat May 26 22:22:29 PDT 2012
it would be a lot easier to calculate the time difference if instead you had this:
$ date +%s
$ somestuff
$ date +%s
but that would make the output more computer-friendly than human-friendly. To paraphrase the old IBM motto, "Machines should do date conversions; people should think."

So here's what I did instead. I wrote some Python to do the conversions -- or rather to call the conversion routines. Here's an extract; it's inside a loop that reads all the lines in a screen-scrape (or script(1) output) file.

    if aline.endswith(' date'):
        expecting_date = True   # Next line will resemble 'Sat May 26 hh:mm:ss' etc
    elif expecting_date:
        secs = time.mktime(time.strptime(aline, '%a %b %d %H:%M:%S %Z %Y'))
        dates.append(secs)      # Will this code work beyond 2038 AD ??
        expecting_date = False
It turns out that in this particular file, whenever you see a line ending with " date", the next line will have output from date(1).

After the loop runs, what we have is a list of times based upon the date(1) outputs: if the file has 'Sat May 26 22:20:39 PDT 2012' (a string) then the list dates will have 1338096039 (a number), which can be compared, subtracted from something, etc.

The routine you want to remember is time.strptime; that magic "format" string is the format that my dates come in. Somehow I had the idea that you ought to be able to just put '%S' or something like this into strptime, and it would know you meant the "standard" (POSIX maybe?) date format. But it didn't work for me, thus the '%a %b %d %H:%M:%S %Z %Y'

That's all there is to it! Next time I'll look for this posting, rather than grinning (or not) and bearing it.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Combining and encrypting PDF files

So I need to send some documents to the guy at the bank; these documents of course have sensitive information -- account numbers at a brokerage, things like this. The bank guy also wants me to sign something and send it back to him. How to take care of everything in one go?

First, I printed the document needing signatures, and signed it, and scanned it in using xsane; I have version 0.997 on my OpenSUSE 11.3 desktop. The scanner can save as ".png" (lossless) and I convert it to PDF using imagemagick:

$ convert scanned.png scanned.pdf

The statements from the brokerage had creative filenames like Statement_03-31-12_3336.pdf and Statement_04-30-12_3336.pdf. So what I wanted to do was combine these three files into a single encrypted PDF:

  1. scanned.pdf
  2. Statement_03-31-12_3336.pdf
  3. Statement_04-30-12_3336.pdf
Here's the incantation that did it:
$ pdftk scanned.pdf Statement_0*.pdf cat output out.pdf encrypt_128bit user_pw MyPassWord
  • pdftk
    is the fabulous PDF toolkit program
  • scanned.pdf Statement_0*.pdf
    is the list of files to be combined
  • cat output out.pdf
    tells pdftk to concatenate the preceding files, and put the output into the file named out.pdf
  • encrypt_128bit user_pw MyPassWord
    means to encrypt the file using the password MyPassWord
It wasn't hard, but I needed some searching and trial-and-error to figure it out. Next time I'll just pull this little post up.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Identity crisis! Well, actually identity theft

So we're refinancing a mortgage (truly a first-world situation) and we find our credit report has a ding on it. Short version, somebody got hold of my social security number (it's out there in the wild, apparently) and got a telephone with it, in Winnetka. That's Winnetka, California, for those who, like me, didn't know we had one here.

So, what to do about it? Someone at the collection agency (EOS CCA) told me to file a police report. In what jurisdiction? I asked. I mean, I'm not going to L.A. to file a police report. So the Redwood City Police Department now has a report. Cool; I'm now an official victim of identity theft.

That report, plus $2.50 (plus tax and tip), will get you a cup of coffee at Stack's; meanwhile, because of my lowered credit score, my loan origination fee is some $800 more than it would have been otherwise.

And I've spent some time this evening writing a letter to AT&T, telling them that the charge was fraudulent, and castigating them for their reckless and irresponsible lending policies. At the time of the fraud (last fall), I'd had an AT&T home phone for about 12½ years—for some of those years it was Pacific Bell, or SBC, or something like that but who cares—my residence address (some hundreds of miles away from Winnetka, CA) was unchanged; etc.

I disputed this bogus charge with all three credit rating agencies. I also mailed them a copy of the police report. TransUnion took a few days to remove the bogosity from my credit report; Experian emailed me today saying to take the matter up with the original creditor.

Would it have been cheaper to just pay off AT&T? Well, I don't know if that would have cleaned up my credit score in time; the other thing is, it would encourage AT&T in their reckless and irresponsible lending practices. Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute!