Monday, March 28, 2016

Tears at Easter

I cried a lot yesterday—tears of both joy and grief. I'm not sure why, exactly, but maybe it was just one of those days when the Spirit of God broke through the shell I usually and unthinkingly wear.
Christ the Lord is risen today
    Al-le-lu-ia!
Sons of men and angels say
    Al-le-lu-ia!
Raise your joys and triumphs high!
    Al-le-lu-ia!
Sing, ye heavens, and earth reply,
    Al-le-lu-ia!
For some reason that carol (or is it a hymn?) shook me up. How many hundreds of times have I sung it? Or maybe it wasn't this song, but another one near the start of yesterday's 11:00 service at PCC that got to me.

In one of his Lake Wobegon monologues, Garrison Keillor mentioned a certain "Uncle Mike" who, when asked to pray at Thanksgiving, started by thanking God for forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ, and then, in talking about how that forgiveness was purchased—viz., through Christ's dying for us on the cross—broke down and started weeping, and there was this awkward interval where hungry people were waiting for him to finish so they could dig in.

Perhaps Uncle Mike wasn't the best choice to pray for everybody, but Mike was more conscious of that spiritual reality than others at the table. They were eager to enjoy God's material and sensual blessings—which are good things—but Mike was focused on God's greatest gift.

Anyway, yesterday would not have been a good day for me to pray in front of a crowd; I was trying not to cry too much during the opening song or songs.

Then came this line in the sermon

I was visiting my parents, who both have Alzheimer's. They're living in a care facility, and I was there holding my father's hand, thinking "What am I doing here? Why did I drive 4 hours…"

Dad can't talk any more, and I remember thinking that I'd give anything just to hear my father talk to me again.

And I said, quietly, "So would I, Gary; so would I." I'm tearing up even now as I recall the moment. (Pastor Gary went on to say that his Heavenly Father came to him at that point and encouraged him about the world to come, but I was for a moment stuck on missing Dad.)

Back in the '80s, Carol and I went to a Crabb/Allender seminar about counseling, where we heard Crabb talk about the ache we have while here on earth. Contrary to the "name it and claim it" talk of the so-called "prosperity gospel," Crabb echoed the message of pain found in Romans 8:

22We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
Romans 8:22f [NIV 1984]
Ain't that the truth! Yes, the Apostle Paul also told us to "Be joyful always" and "Rejoice in the Lord always", but there's this other part, which is also true.

Baptisms

And several folks got baptized yesterday. As the first one came out of the water, my face wasn't quite as wet as his was. I was remembering my friend Ali, who was baptized two years ago. He had come from a country racked by sectarian violence. He told me that he would be called an infidel back home, because he wasn't ready to kill someone in the name of God.

He heard that Jesus is kind, and visited our church, where he heard more about Jesus and decided to follow him. The church office put Ali in touch with me and another man, and we met him a few times and talked about his questions (he had many) and Ali asked how he could become baptized.

Ali was baptized in Pastor Frank's office. He told me about it a week or two after the fact. I told him, "We are brothers!" As indeed we are. Forever.

I also remembered my own baptism, in Half Moon Bay, maybe 37 years ago. I waded into the water, and Pastor Ron asked me, "What's your name?" I answered, and he said, "Collin, based-on-your-profession-of-faith-in-the-Lord-Jesus-Christ, I baptize you in-the-name-of-the-Father-and-the-Son-and-the-Holy-Spirit" as he dunked me into the water. He pulled me out a half-second later and the next person waded toward him.

I was shivering all over, but my heart was warmed by the love of God and the fellowship of my brothers and sisters. That too was a day of great joy. As is today.

This is the day the Lord has made
Let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Psalm 118:24 (approximately)

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

So the problem is...

<rant>

OK, it's not the problem, but it is a big one. The short version is that the political establishment, I mean both democrats and republicans, have been bought and paid for by "the one per cent," and have thus steered us to ruin.

The first thing is that marginal tax rates for the top income earners went from 70% (single; 55% MFJ if memory serves) to no more than 39.6% today. Most of that drop happened under Reagan, and nobody has even tried to push the top marginal tax rate back up.

This has been a disaster for our nation's infrastructure, by which I mean roads, railroad tracks, bridges, tunnels and so on. It has also been a disaster for public primary and secondary education, public universities and community colleges, parks, and so on. We still want a civilized society, but those best able to pay for it (the top 1%) have corrupted the political system; now nobody's paying, and civilization is disappearing.

Trade

I didn't vote for Clinton in 1992, but when he won the general election, I thought, "Well, at least he'll hold China accountable for all the repression of their own citizens…" Wow, was I wrong! China got permanent MFN, under Clinton I believe, and that accelerated us on the race to the bottom.

NAFTA and other free-trade agreements have benefited a lot of people, and hurt a lot of people: benefits came to the rich and near-rich; pain came to the poor and near-poor. Factories moved from the US to Mexico. But it's not just about US employees losing their jobs; it's also about US mechanized agriculture driving small farmers out of business in Mexico and elsewhere.

A Ray of Hope

Did you hear Rubio's speech March 15, 2016? It was religious! He quoted 1 Chronicles 29:11-13 and Proverbs 16:9, from memory I think. In this Marco was right on: our hope is not in politics or in candidates or in the reform of our political system. In fact every human system is corrupt, and although we should work to fix these systems, they are not our salvation. They are not our hope.

That said, even a merely human perspective allows us to see that corruption isn't as effective as some people want it to be. Who donated millions to try to limit President Obama to a single term? It didn't work very well. In California, the criminals at PG&E spent some 40 million dollars to support a ballot initiative that would strengthen their monopoly. That initiative was defeated decisively.

What must be done?

First, hold individuals accountable; jail criminals. That's right. Don't just fine the corporations; fines are a cost of doing business. Don't just fine governments that break laws; jail the individuals who make decisions. Who poisoned the residents of Flint, Michigan? It wasn't some machine; one particular person signed off on switching the water supply to a dangerous one; another person stopped the anti-corrosion treatments that raised lead content in the water to unsafe levels. These individuals knew they would never be held accountable; worst case, somebody might fine their agency or department.

Attorney General Lynch crowed about criminal indictments against Citigroup. That's horsefeathers; criminal indictments against a corporation mean absolutely nothing. Put the decision-makers in jail, like we did in the S&L crisis of the '80s; that'll mean something.

Second, tariffs! Business "leaders" say tariffs will provoke a trade war? Bring it on! Who's got more to lose in a trade war, China or us? Hint: Look at the trade deficit! The other thing about tariffs: products sourced or assembled in low-wage countries must be made more expensive to purchase in the US, in order to protect US jobs.

Third, raise marginal taxes on the One Per Cent! Make America great again by restoring the pre-Reagan tax rate schedules! Cap the limit on charitable deductions at 20% of AGI! Limit the mortgage interest deduction at something reasonable: $30,000 a year, say. Heck, even $100,000 a year.

What, you say, people won't be able to afford housing? News flash: they already can't afford housing. But if we stop the tax expenditures, guess what? Prices will drop, and builders will build more stuff people can afford by themselves.

You want a five-million-dollar home? Fine. You want the rest of the country to subsidize your mortgage payments? Forget it!

</rant>

Too thorough?

Is such a thing even possible for an engineer? Maybe not in a literal sense, but what does it mean when a VP or director says it (because they do say it)?
Short version: When a VP or Director says that, they probably mean “You're giving me too much detail (which I don’t want/need to know); let's get to the high-level information (which I do need to know).” Details follow.

Some years back, when I was working at HP, my boss and I had a meeting with “the great Bernard” (my boss's phrase) to talk about a proposal from a customer—it was AT&T actually. They wanted us to port some of their code into the HP-UX™ kernel, and provide support.

We had studied their proposal; I even had a look at their code. We had prepared some slides (think "powerpoint") and went to see Bernard. Bernard had talked with hundreds of customers and partners, and had a clear idea of what he wanted us to say.

It was not what we had written. Our slides discussed capabilities, testing, limitations and such; we had numbers and details. Bernard took a pad of paper, turned it "sideways" ("landscape" orientation), and started writing:

  • HP is fully committed to AT&T System V

His next points talked about how this would have to be an HP product, available to all our customers.

When we met with the AT&T folks, Bernard did a lot of the talking. He said we were going to sell a product based on their code, meaning anybody could buy it from us. They asked if they'd get some of the money, too. "Maybe," he said. That satisfied them.

The discussion continued at a very high level.

So had we been too thorough?

Well, no. But the presentation materials were too detailed for the level of conversation we were having. Fortunately, Bernard was vetting the materials so that we could have a fruitful conversation with the customer (and our would-be partner).

The lesson from this experience, which probably happened in the late 1980s, was to create a presentation to match the audience. If we were meeting with their technical team, like the folks who had written the code, or their QA folks, our materials would have been great.

I've been taught this lesson many times over the years, but I have yet to fully absorb its importance. I tend to ASS-U-ME that people have the same background as I, are fluent in the same languages (like vi(1) keystrokes), will "get" my allusions, and so on. When I'm my best (most culturally-sensitive) self, I remember not to assume too much, and one would think I'm getting better at this as I get older. Well, hope springs eternal…

Too much detail!

The above vignette makes the point that directors and high-level managers think and talk at, well, a high level. No, really! They don't want a lot of details.

This can be bad (consider the Challenger disaster) but it's also necessary: before we can engage in a detailed discussion, somebody's got to set the rules of engagement, or terms of reference. This is obvious when talking with partners or customers; it's less obvious but sometimes still essential within the company.

When a director asks how it's going, she probably doesn't want to know that I've examined so far at 17 of the 26 potential callers of a particular routine. She is thinking about a milestone we need to hit, or whether a particular design decision looks like it was working out. What we need to do is give them the information they want in a way that they'll understand.

And I don't just mean "easy to understand"; I also mean "nearly impossible to mis-understand." But that's another blog post.

But I spent so much time on this!

When I'm in the midst of analyzing logs and core dumps (or trying to), and somebody asks me what's happening, I want to answer the question as I hear it. My whole mind, hence my whole world, has been wrapped up in these log entries, and these backtraces, and so on. The discipline I need to embrace in these moments is two-fold:
  1. to disengage enough from what I'm thinking about and put myself in the other person's shoes, if just for a minute; and
  2. to restrain myself from talking too long about something just because I've been thinking so long about it.
An example of how #2 was done right is from the motion picture industry. In Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker confronts "Jabba the Hutt" at the latter's lair, an intricately constructed craft that looks like an ancient sailing vessel. This thing was carefully designed and beautifully contructed; I seem to recall that there were many arguments over the design and that it took months and months to construct. But it's on the screen for no more than 5-10 seconds.

Why only 5-10 seconds? Because that's as long as the audience needs to look at it. Contrast this with the earlier Star Trek: The Motion(less) Picture, where you feel like you're watching a shuttlecraft approach Enterprise for half the movie.

Conclusion

As my wife often reminds me—or rather, as I repeatedly bang my head against this same wall—there's often a big difference between what she wants to hear when she asks me something, and what I want to tell her about it.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Fred Rogers the Subversive

This morning I heard yet another reason to thank God for inventing a Fred Rogers.

Fran├žois Clemmons was featured on Story Corps this morning with his friend Karl Lindholm. Clemmons, “the first African American actor to have a recurring role on a children’s television series,” talked about how he met Mr. Rogers, and related a scene he played with him:

It was a hot day, and there was a kiddie wading pool, and Rogers was resting his feet in the water. He invited “Officer Clemmons” to join him and rest his feet for a bit. Clemmons accepted, removing his shoes and placing his feet into the cool water in the kiddie pool.

If I have this right, the camera very deliberately showed the contrasting pairs of feet in the water. After a while, as they stepped out of the pool, Rogers helped dry Clemmons’s feet.

Wow! That must have been visual dynamite at the time, probably in the early years of Mister Rogers’s Neighborhood, which began in 1968.

Clemmons also mentioned a time when Rogers was saying his usual, "You make every day special just by being you" while looking right at him. He asked if Rogers had been talking to him.

“I've been talking to you every day, Fran├žois; today you heard me.”

I could never have worked on that show; I'd be crying all the time from the intensity of love and beauty in a time of racial suspicion and hatred; a time of much hostility and ugliness—a time much like ours.