Tom Pittman's WebLog

(or something like that)

2008 April 25 -- Energy Diet

The cover on the current issue of USNews shows a compact fluorescent light bulb (CFLB) with a tape measure pretending to check out its waistline. I've had some experience with CFLBs, and I don't think we are being told the whole story.

I use a CFLB here in my work area. The first time I replaced the incandescent bulb with a CFLB, I was looking for something not made in China, and bought one with an "8 year" warranty made in some eastern Europe country. It went "pop" in a month. It cost me more than the price of several incandescents to mail it back and pay the tax on the replacement. That one lasted about a year. I didn't bother to send it back.

My father once told a story about a clothing dealer who had a load of very low quality socks. So he raised the price and offered them with a "lifetime guarantee, if they ever wear out, we'll replace them for free." Irate customers came back within a few days, and he cheerfully handed each one of them another pair of socks. I felt like those customers. GE honored the warranty on the bulb, but at what cost.

Now you can't find anything but Chinese CFLBs. I have problems with that.

First of all, if you are buying CFLBs to protect the environment, it doesn't make any sense to buy them from a country that is one of the world's worst polluters. China and India are both exempt from the Kyoto protocol, and not likely to submit voluntarily. Buying Chinese manufactured products makes the environment worse, not better.

Even if the Chinese were sweetness and light (or I could still find CFLBs made somewhere else), it's not a proven fact that CFLBs actually do much to save the environment. An incandescent bulb has four components: glass (made from sand), a thin wire of tungsten, attached to an aluminum base screw by copper wires. All common materials, non-polluting. The CFLB, however, has all those, plus mercury (a poisonous heavy metal), noxious phosphorescent chemicals inside the tube, and a ceramic or plastic base containing electronic parts to make it come on. If you break an incandescent bulb, you need to sweep up glass; throw it into a landfill, and it becomes part of the earth from which it came. Break a CFLB and you release poisonous mercury vapor into the air. Special procedures are required for their safe disposal, to keep mercury and other poisons from contaminating our ground and water supply.

Somebody disingenuously offered a diagram of the total murcury released into the air from a CFLB smashed into a landfill at the end of its life, compared to an incandescent bulb. Of course the incandescent has no mercury at all, so they calculated the mercury released by burning coal to provide the electricity -- nevermind that most of the electricity in this country does not come from coal.

What about the energy used in manufacturing, and the extra energy required for their safe disposal? I'm not the first to think of this, but I could find no answers on the internet, only others asking the same questions. What are they hiding?

What the environmentalists don't want you to realize is that even if every incandescent bulb were immediately replaced by CFLBs, it would have no significant impact on the carbon footprint in this country. It would not bring us any measurable bit closer to meeting the Kyoto treaty protocols that the USA wisely never agreed to -- and even if the USA did meet those draconian requirements, our contribution to the mitigation of global polution would be overwhelmed by India and China. And it's still not known that carbon dioxide is significantly responsible for global warming, nor that the impact of global warming (at present rates) cannot be adequately compensated by other technology.

I don't buy CFLBs on account of the environment, I think the so-called "global warming" scare is political hooey. I did get tired of buying new incandescent bulbs for my work area, and I did hope to spend less on electricity. I have my doubts about how much I saved on electricity, over the cost of the bulbs. I do know that they do not give off their full rated illumination until several minutes after they are turned on -- so I need to turn them on early to compensate. I have not noticed -- probably because they never last that long for me -- but I read that they also give diminished light at the end of their lifetime.

I am much more concerned about the known low-quality products available from China where corruption is rampant, and there is no adversarial system between the government watchdogs and the government-owned factories to ensure adequate protection from abuses. Communist countries have always had the lowest quality products and made the worst pollution because of this problem; China is only a holdout from the Cold War era in this.

Furthermore, I prefer not to reward the Chinese human rights violations with my spending. It seems I don't have much choice any more, but I still try.

Show me a CFLB without these problems, and I'll buy it.

2008 April 19 -- True Forgiveness

In the mail today -- no doubt in connection with a solicitation for funds -- was a booklet "What is True Forgiveness?" by Gary Inrig and published by what used to be the Radio Bible Class. I looked on their web site for a reference to this booklet, but could not find anything. Most non-profit web sites are like that, they focus so hard on making it beautiful that it fails their organizational mission.

The remarkable thing about this booklet, which sets it apart from most treatises on the topic -- including R.T.Kendall's popular book Total Forgiveness, quoted (and deprecated) by Inrig -- is that he insists (as I do) that true forgiveness requires repentance on the part of the offender.

So I'm not alone, other peopler can also read the Bible and see what it actually says. That's encouraging.

2008 April 15 -- It Ain't Free No Mo

You know how I keep saying there's no such thing as free? And then there are those "free" movies I keep talking about? The Law of Supply and Demand finally kicked in. Parkinson's Law states that the demand for (expenditure of) any resource will always meet or exceed its availability (income). Everybody wants free. The server software, being based on "free," is no doubt Linux, and as might be expected from that implication, very slow, often taking several minutes to display a single page. A few weeks ago it suddenly got faster, not much, but noticible. My guess is that their servers bogged down on all the hits, and they dragged in some programmers to make it faster. It didn't last long.

Pretty soon my downloads started aborting. I used to select maybe eight movies to download all at once, and the last three would terminate all at once at somewhere between 10% and 40% of the whole file size. Then within a couple days, they all aborted. Still guessing, I wondered if their servers were detecting the multiple downloads. I don't do cookies, but they still have the IP number. A single download made it. A few more days, and single downloads were failing too.

I'm not paranoid, everybody really is out to get me. Are they really tracking my IP number across days? I doubt it. I think their servers just got overloaded, and they started dumping users willy-nilly. Linux is pretty slow, and they are a non-profit. That means "no money" to pay for quality software.

Just on a hunch, I tried their FTP link. That turned out to be a lot faster -- probably a different server -- and I was able to get five or six downloads going at once again. For a couple days.

Now half the time, the FTP servers can't even load a directory.

One antonym of "free" is "busy". It ain't free no mo.

2008 April 11 -- The Love of Money

Tax season is here again, turning everyone's heart to -- money.

Hopefully not everyone. I did my taxes a couple months ago. I don't particularly like the tax laws, but not because taxes are so high (my tax bill this year was under $100). Rather it is the time I must waste every year filling in the forms.

Other people resent the taxes themselves. They call it "stealing" from the people. That would be inaccurate. Stealing is unlawful. Stealing is taking what you have no right to. Somebody asked Jesus whether paying taxes was just or wrong, and he pointed to the picture on the currency and asked who that was. "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's," he said. Every dollar bill in this country has a picture of Washington on it. Render unto Washington the things that are Washington's. In other words, pay your taxes without grumbling, they have a God-given right to collect them.

Whence then this resentment? I suspect that it flows from an improper understanding of the other half of Jesus' answer that day, "and [render] unto God the things that are God's."

What belongs to God? Your first love and devotion. Money gets in the way of that. Jesus said that too.

Which got me to thinking about "the love of money." I suspect some people will not like what I have to say. If your idea of serving God is to make lots of money so you can give a generous tithe to Christian ministry, you will be offended by what I said. Don't bother to read it.

2008 April 9 -- Evil or Genius?

The magazine cover shows the Apple logo in a sinister black, and the story tries to contrast Apple corporate policy against the fabled Google motto "Don't be evil," thus coming to the awkward conclusion that "evil works."

Google's is a good motto -- as far as it goes -- but it helps to know what constitutes "evil." Author Leander Kahney doesn't have a clue, so he makes a valiant stab in the dark by using the most popular Google corporate policies as a definition. That might be more credible if everyone agreed that Google has lived up to their motto. Considering Google's capitulation to China's censorship policies, that's hardly a given.

The problem flows from a congenital aversion to all things Christian -- including a very good definition of evil -- shared especially by the techies writing for and (more importantly) editing WIRED. Good is what glorifies God, and evil is the absence of Good. It's that simple. God is glorified by the First and Second Great Commandments, first to love God, and second to love your neighbor as yourself. Aside from the obvious failures in the first part, Google and Microsoft and Apple -- and just about everybody else in business -- succeed at what they do exactly to the extent that they obey the Golden Rule, and they ultimately fail when they violate it. That is the simple definition of "evil" and it's quite workable.

Bill Gates is a consummate businessman, and in his heart he truly wants to serve his customers. He largely succeeds at that. His relatively few failures make some people unhappy (including me and many other techies), but most of what Microsoft does does indeed serve his customers. Microsoft is not "evil," nevermind what the leftwing bigots in San Francisco think.

Google is another success story, powered not only by serving their customers and the general public -- I don't pay them for their services, but I benefit from Google -- but also by providing extra perqs for their employees.

Apple succeeds in exactly the same way. Apple invented the appliance computer: you take it out of the box and plug it in, and it just works. The whole personal computer industry came out of that insight, and we are all the better for it. With the Mac in 1984, Apple made the desktop computer usable by real people, not just geeks. Bill Gates is a better businessman than Steve Jobs, so Microsoft took Apple's invention to the masses, but it was Apple that gave it to us, and we are all the better for it. There have been some duds (OSX is one of them), just as Microsoft and Google have made their own mistakes, but by and large, Steve Jobs has the vision to create products that people want. That serves the people, and is therefore not evil, by definition. Even his employees, while they may cringe at his abusive management style, stay there by choice. Obviously they are getting value other than affirmation. That is not evil.

2008 March 31 -- Appropriate Force

One of the problems robot researchers have making their robots behave properly is applying appropriate force to the actions. When a human picks up an egg, the pressure needed to hold it so it doesn't fall is much less than the force needed to hold the handle on a heavy suitcase. If you apply too much pressure, you crush the egg -- besides the unneeded fatigue from applying all that pressure. The robot scientists solve that problem in part by putting pressure sensors in the robot fingertips, so the robot can guage when the pressure being applied is appropriate to the estimated weight of the object being lifted.

Apropriate force is (ahem) applicable in many circumstances, some of them metaphorical. I'm thinking here of the legendary pushy insurance salesman whom nobody likes. Making a product available to people who know they need it is like picking up the egg gently. The so-called "hard sell" might be appropriate for people who do not yet know their own needs, but too often it ends up crushing the friendship.

For several years now I have been working on a computer program to facilitate Bible translation into languages where it does not yet exist. It's an innovative idea, and (in my opinion) valuable for accelerating the progress of Bible translators worldwide. Unfortunately, there is a huge up-front investment of effort before it can start to do that. That means I must convince a dozen or more experienced Bible translators and/or exegetes to catch the vision and spend a year of their valuable time building the semantic database, before anybody can get the benefit from it. The problem is, these experienced linguists, who are world-class experts in their field, know that good quality machine translation is impossible -- and they are right! My program doesn't do it that way, which is why I need all that up-front labor.

How hard do I push, trying to explain the situation?

If this is God's work, then God will make it happen. For three years I worked on that assumption, but now I'm ready for that next step and it's not happening. The gentle grip on the egg did not lift it.

Prior to that, I was more aggressive, more pushy. I crushed the egg.

Maybe I should take the alternative assumption, that this is not God's work, so it's not going to happen.

I don't know. I have no Voice From Heaven.

For now I'm opening up my horizons, looking for other employment.

2008 March 25 -- Shock

It wasn't one of their better movies -- the single reviewer called it a "stinker" -- but it certainly wasn't the worst. It did, however, resonate with a situation I am viewing up close this month.

This woman witnessed a murder through the window across the light well in a hotel, and goes into shock. When she wakes up in a psychiatric hospital, her doctor turns out to be the murderer and she recognizes him. And he sees that. Her very reasonable alarm is used to diagnose delusions and paranoia, hopefully to keep anyone from accepting her claims.

I got to thinking: "Don't fight the nurses. You. Will. Lose."

So what if I'm not paranoid, and they really are out to get me? Like in the movie. Good fiction is like that, a window into reality that gets us thinking, "What would I do in that situation?"

First of all, Don't fight the nurses. You. Will. Lose. The medical people will win. Your only choice is whether you are on their side, or the losing side. That's true of the law too, but the legal system has more protections. Maybe.

In the unlikely case that one or two of the medical people really is evil -- in this movie the doc couldn't really bring himself to finish the patient off, but his nurse-lover had no such qualms -- you must assume professional courtesy, so getting hysterical with the other staff is counter-productive. Better to speak calmly and quietly with some outsider. The woman in this story could have politely asked to speak to her husband alone. Modern hospitals have a patient advocate, who comes around and informs you that you have the right to refuse medication. As if. But calmly requesting a different doctor would probably be honored.

"And if not," the three Israelites affirmed with respect to the fiery furnace [Dan.3:18], I get to Heaven quicker.

I pity the person afraid of what God can do [Luke 12:5]. They have no hope [1Th.4:13].

2008 March 19 -- Call Me Ludd

A small legal procedure -- I've been expecting it sooner or later for the last five years -- alerted me to a security flaws in the American legal system, or at least those of the State of Misery. This bumped up my priority on finding an honest job -- preferably in some other state, which is almost a no-brainer anyway. There are no jobs for my skill set here in this part of the country, except maybe in academia, but recent history kind of scorched those for me. In good faith and due diligence I looked anyway.

Six years ago when I last looked, the Council For Christian Colleges & Universities web site had a listing of faculty openings, where I found several good opportunities, three interviews, and eventually an offer I accepted. Today their web site shows only a half-dozen PR news items referring to member colleges, plus a broken-image icon labelled "Web 2.0" suggesting that other links might be available on their site if only I would allow viruses onto my computer.

No way.

So I Googled "college faculty jobs" and started clicking though to the paid-for ad sites at the top of the list. Although most of the listings were for instructor at 2-year community colleges (for which I am overqualified), I did find a number of promising leads. And a couple of duds.

One college required that all supporting documents be submitted as PDF documents. In my opinion "PDF" stands for "Pretty Darn Foolish". It's an inefficient (huge and very slow), non-portable document format implemented on a small number of platforms by a single vendor with a long history of prosecuting (aka persecuting, having them thrown in jail) independent developers trying to port their formats to other platforms. I prefer not to reward such antisocial behavior with my money and support. Scratch that one.

Another college insisted that all applications must be made on their website (URL given, but not linked for easy clicking). I went there and the page came up blank. I looked at the page source, and as I suspected, it was nothing but a single JavaScript call. JavaScript is the basis for nearly all web nasties such as popup ads and phishing and assorted other viruses and trojans. My browser is not allowed to activate it for any reason ever. As a consequence I have never had this computer infected by a web virus, despite that I am also unwilling to pay the internet mafia for "protection". It probably also helps that this is on a Mac, which is much more robust than Windoze or some flavor of Unix such as Linux or OSX.

It occurs to me that if you want to hire somebody able to teach computer technologies, a good initial filter is to require applicants to use popular computer technologies before they can be considered. That eliminates from consideration anybody who doesn't know what they are doing -- and the few of us smart enough not to touch the third rail.


2008 March 15 -- Blame Hollywood

My sister sent me a couple seasons of MacGyver on DVD. Like Darwinism, the physics in MacGyver looks credible to a layman, but actually can't work that way. And like Darwinism (at least to its fanatics), MacGyver is a jolly good show.

Except for one thing: it's on DVD.

These DVDs were previously owned, with various scratches and fingerprints on the important side. The anti-American jerks in Hollywood managed to buy enough influence in Congress to prevent the American Way (aka market economics) from working to provide us with robust DVD players. So my computer froze and/or crashed several times in the watching of these videos -- at least one time taking out valuable data with it.

Are you listening, Hollywood? I'm not buying any of your worthless virus-infected technology. This DVD player came with the computer, but I would buy a VCR player (known to work, and is smarter than any DVD player I've ever seen) before spending a plug nickel on DVD or HDTV or Blu-Ray, or TV that I cannot watch on an old TV set, or whatever other silliness you are promoting this year.

For all its problems, Marxist "open source" is a more workable system than government-enforced monopolies like DMCA.

2008 March 7 -- Time and Money

The cover story this month promotes "Free / Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business" but it's a lie.

When you get to page 194 -- good luck finding page numbers in this issue, they decided to make a joke of them -- the author makes it somewhat more clear that his "free" applies only to the stated price on a small number of things, but the real currency in his new new economy is time and respect.

Every few years WIRED promotes a "new economy" totally different from the old economy that has worked for thousands of years. The last time was just before the "dot-bomb" bubble burst and showed their prediction to be a hoax. This is no different.

He does have a point. Economics is defined (by the author, quoting econ textbooks) as "choice under scarcity." That's somewhat misleading. People need food and protection from cold (read: clothing and housing). When those are satisfied, they look for other things to acquire, such as entertainment or excitement. They pay for this with whatever they have of value that people will take in exchange for what they are selling. Usually everything is measured and transacted in money, and the less you pay for one thing, the more you have left over for other necessities or pleasures.

Money has no intrinsic value, it's only worth what people are willing to sell for it. Just before Y2K, people were arguing for hoarding gold, because its "intrinsic value" would survive after the world economy collapsed. Gold has no more intrinsic value than dollars or Euros, it's just harder to make more gold than it is to print dollars. But even a gold economy can suffer runaway inflation, as it did in Solomon's kingdom.

I answered the Y2K critics by pointing to labor (time) as the only intrinsic value, but strictly speaking, that's not true either. People are willing to pay more for my labor programming than they are the guy flipping burgers at Mickey Dee's. But time has one feature lacking in gold or dollars: you can't make more of it. You can dig more gold out of the ground, but everybody has exactly the same number of hours in the day.

So this guy's claim of $0.00 is somewhat disingenuous. There is still no such thing as a free lunch (TANSTASFL), you still buy and sell commodities of value, and the "free lunch" turns out to have a real cost that people are willing to pay. It just happens to be paid in some other currency than dollars. Sometimes. He says all that, but not clearly.

2008 March 3 -- The Sin of Idolatry

Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you. -- Psa.32:9
It was four or five hours before my normal bedtime, but I couldn't stay awake. I guess the stress of the last couple days was more than I realized.

She had foot surgery. The operation was a success; all the problems came afterwards when she fought the nurses for control over her medication and body functions. Don't fight the nurses. You. Will. Lose.

She lost. They medicated her, and she slept the rest of the day and all morning the next day. She was barely awake when I visited around noon, but still fighting the nurses.

She didn't want to take her pills because she didn't recognize them. The nurse carefully explained what was in the little cup -- a couple drugs whose names sounded vaguely familiar, a multi-vitimin, vitamin C, and zink. In prior contests the excuse was that the pills and the meal did not arrive at the same time, but this time the meal was sitting there untouched on the little table. They brought her a little can of orange juice. I ask for more, and they brought it. The nurse left to attend to other duties. Her pastor came and prayed over her -- then beat it out of there (probably discomfort over prior unresolved conflict with me).

She wanted to know what the "red and green pill" was. I told her it was the vitamins. I made that up. "Vitamins come in all colors," I said, "sometimes several colors in the same bottle in the grocery store." I think I once saw kids' vitamins in multiple colors and shapes. These were not kid's vitamins. "The vitamins are to make your foot heal." The nurse had said that, I was just repeating it. "Zink helps people not to catch cold," I said. She often complains about people coughing in the same room, because she "will catch it." I chain-suck cough drops when I visit her, so to stop the tickle. I think it's a regional allergy, I didn't have it in California. The nurse said the zink was to promote healing. I repeated that too.

Eventually she took the pills -- most of them, anyway. She poured the little cup into her hand, then dozed off. The pills rolled off onto the blanket and sheet. I took the little cup and tried to recapture them. She complains about the nurse putting her finger inside her glass of water. The nurse cleanses her hands with a powerful germicide every few minutes, all day long, no germs are going to contaminate anything. But I was careful not to touch any pills or food. She dozed off again, lightly snoring when I left.

Did I lie to her? There was no intent to deceive, only to overcome her own self-deception with something closer to reality. Even my fabrications could likely be true. I just don't know, not with the confidence I exuded yesterday.

This is only the beginning. Her mother at this age was already well into dementia and fighting the nursing staff. The horror stories you read about people doped up in nursing homes, she's going to be one of them, and there isn't anything anybody can do about it.

I look at this and I think about 1Sam.15:23. She acts like she believes she knows more medicine than God and all the doctors and nurses put together. As the joke goes, she's not paranoid, they really are out to get her.

And I think about my own independent streak. "There but for the grace of God [and 20 years] go I."

Seeing this, I keep reminding myself: God is bigger than all the people out to get me. And God is Good. I can trust God to make the doctors and nurses -- and everybody else -- do the right thing to me, even if I don't fully understand what's going on. Or maybe especially when I don't understand. I hope I remember that 20 years from now.

2008 February 29 -- Reducing the Influence of Lobbyists

This started out to be a paean praising an insight in Marvin Olasky's editorial in last week's WORLD magazine, but I made the mistake of trying to link to his quote online. Like many dead-tree media, WORLD is trying to adjust their business model to cope with the internet, which means that many people -- including subscribers like me -- cannot access their online texts.

First off, their website uses SSL -- I think it stands for "Secure Socket Layer", a protocol that only works between computers that share access to trusted certificate registration authorities, which is not the case for us. As a consequence my browser goes through the tedius alternative protocol for fabricating a temporary certificate, and then (correctly) warns me that anything sent over this protocol is inherently insecure. Not that I care: I don't send sensitive information over the internet (unless it is encrypted in nonstandard -- read: unbreakable -- ways), and I have no reason to be concerned over the security of a magazine article that anybody can pick up in a public library.

Then they wanted me to "log in" but nothing worked. Their computer seemed to think my zip code is different from what is printed on the magazine cover, and if I ever previously succeeded at logging in, I have no idea what the password might have been.

So if you want to look, this link to the first two paragraphs of his editorial may or may not work, but it does not include the interesting line anyway, which is:

Reduce the amount of lobbying? The only way to do that is to reduce the amount of money Washington controls. (If you build a centralized government, the lobbyists will come.)
Nobody likes the lobbyists, but most people (like McCain) try to stop it by legislating more controls and more bureaucracy. That never works, but nobody ever explained exactly why -- until now. Conservatives have long called for less government (and I agree), but nobody ever offered more than a feel-good rationale for it -- until now.

Bravo, Marvin Olasky! Even if you do hide your wisdom behind an inaccessible web site.

2008 February 28 -- Bullish on Capitalism

The movies download site, as might be expected from Linux-based "open source" products, is chaotic and incredibly slow, but hey, it's free. And some of the movies are quite good, in a back-handed sort of way. Let me tell you about this one...

"The Middleton Family at the New York World's Fair" could best be described as an infomercial for the Westinghouse pavilion at the 1939 Fair. The hero of the story was a docent for the exhibit, an unashamed enthusiast for technology and capitalism. Against him, competing for the heroine's affections, was an artsy Marxist. Remember, this was 40 years before the collapse of the world's foremost Marxist government, and still during the depression, when millions of people were out of work and dependent on Roosevelt's WPA. But the father of the family was a solid capitalist, the owner of his own hardware store. Ultimately the artist suitor was shown to be a liar and a fraud, and everybody else lived happily ever after.

The story was fictionalized from Westinghouse corporate optimism, and I am normally opposed to painting the philosophical opposition in such villainous colors, but the economic issues were dead on. Marxism today is dead just about everywhere except for a minority operating system here and there (see "The Problem with GPL") and a few university faculties where tenured professors are not required to contribute value to society (see "Tenure"). For 79 years ago, the movie was remarkably prescient.

2008 February 22 -- The Race Issue

The cover of this week's U.S.News asks over the face of Barack Obama, "Does Race Still Matter?"

I think everybody is still trying to ignore the elephant in the room.

It's not about the color of your skin. It's cultural values.

Most Americans of African descent came out of a culture of slavery and oppression, and a certain racist political party in this country has cultivated that defeatist victim mentality in them as a way to maintain their own voter base and power structure. They (the Democratic Party) succeed by making the blacks fail.

Barack Obama did not come out of that culture, and it shows. Except for those with substantial ghetto constituencies, most successful black politicians and high government leaders have managed to evade that mentality. Obama didn't have to evade it.

Those inside that culture have a name for blacks outside the culture: "Oreos" are black on the outside and white inside. It's not about skin color at all, but what's important, their values.

America is a great nation today because it was built by people with spunk and determination. We choose people like that for our national leaders, because that's who we are. The whiners and the losers and the victims choose for their leadership, people who prey on that mentality, but they are in a minority. If Barack Obama has a credible shot at the White House, it will be because he's an "oreo" with spunk and determination, not a whiner or loser or victim. The color of his skin is essentially irrelevant. A few people will vote for it, but they are still a minority. A few people will vote against the color of his skin, but they are also a minority.

Most Americans vote for optimism and a willingness to make nice. Not victims. Not losers.

If his policies weren't so far off to the left, I could vote for Obama. He's certainly better than Hillary.

See also my related blog posting, Obama's Intolerance

2008 February 9 -- Occasional Reminders

During the years that PromiseKeepers was holding stadium meetings, I would go once every three or four years -- often enough, I told people, "to remind me why I shouldn't go." There is a gender problem in the American church which PK tried to address, but the PK organizers were (and as far as I can see, still are) totally clueless about its cause.

For more than two decades now, I have been avoiding unix (also known as Linux and OSX), failing often enough, I told people, "to remind me why it's a good thing to avoid." I'm in the middle of one of those episodes as I write this. I want to buy a laptop able to do the one thing that "open source" promoters offer over their more robust competition, and the vendor's Linux guru claims that would make it "unstable" (his word).

Most of my life I have been aware that my thought processes are totally different from almost everybody I know, but every once in a while I try to assume otherwise, which ends up reminding me that my thought processes are totally different. This week is one of those events...

The speaker finished up his presentation with the opinion that everybody is self-deceived, and "if you think otherwise, you need counselling." By amazing coincidence, he also is in the counselling business.

Self-deception has always struck me as an oxymoron, self-contradictory by its very nature, so I mostly ignored such claims in the past as nonsensical. Deception is intentionally causing a person to believe what is not true. It's not in my value system, how could I even make any sense of deceiving myself? Or cure the problem, if it were true?

I don't know what came over me, maybe it was finding some verses in the Bible about self deception (which the presenter did not cite):

If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. -- Gal.6:3

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. -- 1Jn.1:8

Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a "fool" so that he may become wise. -- 1Co.3:18

So I invited this guy to "get out [his] appointment book."

The ensuing discussion seemed to disclose nothing more vividly than the fact that whatever he meant by "self-deception" had nothing to do with what those words mean in the dictionary. His final advice suggested that I desist from my quest for truth (although he didn't use those words) and focus on "build[ing] relationships." Bizarre. Well, not so unusual in the church context, just totally different from my way of thinking about Truth.

At least he didn't try to schedule a counselling session.

2008 February 1 -- Science Sucks (not)

A certain magazine that used to be about digital technology, and has in the last few years (ahem) evolved into an upscale People magazine, their cover story this month is about 33 Things That Suck. I wondered if they would figure out how to weave their favorite religion into the article, and I was not disappointed.

One of their items is Science.

"The real reason science sucks is that it makes us look bad." The author, Thomas Hayden, seems to dislike both our inability to master science, and the insignificance of the human race and the planet we inhabit, both of which he blames on evolution and thus science.

He's wrong of course, on both counts.

Science did not invent the vastness of the universe, God did, long before the scientists started to think they know more than God does. And evolution did not put in us a predisposition to prefer being at the center of things, it's more the other way around. Human selfishness and hostility to a God-centered universe is what drove the acceptance of Darwinism. Without any evidence, Darwinism uniquely posits man at the pinnacle of millions of years of evolution, the logical center of the universe. Every once in a while, somebody notices that this doesn't fit the facts, and you get articles like this.

The difficulty of mastering science is again no fault of evolution. In fact, their theory predicts that it should be becoming easier for us, not harder. But the theory is wrong on all counts.

The real reason science is so hard to master is that we are congenitally lazy. Learning true facts of the universe is a god-like endeavor requiring stupendous concentration and focus. Most people don't want to spend the effort. Some people overcome their lethargy, and they win Nobel prizes. Other people play video games where all the hard thinking was done by a programmer, or else write magazine articles about things they only pretend to understand.

Science doesn't suck at all. Science -- especially the science done by all those Christians Hayden ridicules -- is responsible for most of our modern conveniences and prosperity.

2008 January 30 -- Evil Unmasked

The current issue of Digital Vogue (AKA WIRED) has an approving article on "griefers" who get their joy in life out of causing grief to other people -- in this case on the internet. I know people like that. Doug in my Risk games seemed to be that way.

The griefers featured in this article are causing thousands of dollars of damage to people who want nothing more than to live and let live, to play the online game -- notably Second Life -- the way it was intended to be played. Perhaps the griefers have personal ethics, some bounds of decorum they will not cross, perhaps not. The article quoted one of their repeat victims calling them "terrorists." And they are! A terrorist causes mayhem and harm to other people for personal gain according to some agenda not shared by the general public.

Classic Christianity has long recognized the evil inherent in the human heart, so this behavior is no surprise to us. The atheists running the game sites are the ones taken off-guard, because their model for human motivation is fundamentally flawed. And the God of the universe has an ultimate reward for them: they are taken out of the game. Heaven is a place for people who choose to do good to others; there is a different destination for those who prefer to inflict harm.

Not yet online, but in real life the terrorists also get taken out of the game by the rest of society, just as my colleague Doug was always taken out of the Risk game first. Maybe like Osama bin Laden and the Russian cyberterrorists, they run and hide, but ultimately they lose. When the game site owners start to feel the loss of gamer dollars due to terrorism, they will institute a blocking policy that cannot be evaded by the griefers opening a new account, such as by recording the ISP node they log in from and blocking that. Many sites (including Wikipedia) already log this information to prevent and punish terrorism. I expect the practice to become widespread.

It is the God-given function of government to punish evil and reward good. We need government in meatspace, and it is becoming increasingly clear that we also need it in cyberspace. WIRED's value system is, in their word, "expired."

Meanwhile, you won't see me in Second Life.

2008 January 28 -- In the Eye of the Beholder

I'm two days into a 5-day computer run, rebuilding the Greek text for this Bible translation program I'm working on. The program is written in T2, a somewhat portable C-like programming language without all the fragility of C++.

On this Mac my T2 compiler generates 68K code, which is emulated in the PowerPC. JIT-compiled emulation typically runs 3 to 5 times slower than optimized native code, so maybe if I redid the compiler to generate native PowerPC code it would go that much faster. However, I have a good understanding of 68K Mac code, but Apple obstructed dissemination of their PowerPC formats; the learning curve to make that happen is not worth it for a dead system.

I also have a T2 compiler that compiles into C++, which then compiles in Microsoft's VisualStudio to run the same code on the PC. I tried moving this big program to the PC, and it actually ran several times slower, not 10-15 times faster as I would expect from the 5x faster clock and lack of emulation. So I run this build job here on the old Mac. Go figure.

Probably the same greed or paranoia which hoarded information about the Apple binary code formats, the DVD player on this Mac refuses to run in my normal configuration, so before playing any movies I need to retune the system and reboot. In anticipation of my weekend movie, I did that before starting the 5-day run. My T2 code is designed to hog the system when nothing else is happening (you could do that in a Mac, but not in other systems like Wintel or OSX or Linux), but due to Apple secretiveness, it cannot know about a movie playing; if it were running at the same time, the movie would get really choppy, so I paused my program while watching.

The really funny thing happened when I went into the kitchen to fix some munchies. I expected it to take some time, so I paused the movie and resumed the build program. When I came back and reversed the pause status, the movie got choppy anyway. My program was paused, but the DVD player dropped from normal 24 frames to something like one or two frames per second, with really bad interlace artifacts. I quit out of the player program and restarted it, and then it ran normally again. Evidently it noticed that I had switched out of the player and/or that while it was paused, the computer was very busy doing something else, and maybe assumed that some hacker was trying to screen-capture the movie or something. I don't know, but I no longer buy Apple computers. I wonder why.

The movie was notable in its own right. "A Christmas Without Snow" was one of 20 movies in a $5 Wal-Mart package, but more recent than some of the others there. I can't say I think much of the back-story (a divorcee leaves her son with his grandmother in Nebraska and moves to San Francisco looking for work), but the story line is about the events surrounding the Christmas program to be put on by the church choir she joined there in the city. I love Handel's Messiah and have sung it chorally many times myself (several times in San Francisco). Most of the background music in this flic was drawn from the Messiah (a little from other Handel music). The theme of the movie was reconciliation -- both family and racial. Bravo!

I can't help but think that the music and message in this 1980 movie was uncomfortable to the average American viewer, resulting in low box-office performance, thus being relegated to 25 cents of a cheapie movie pack along with B&W snoozers from the 30s and 40s. Their loss, my gain.

2008 January 23 -- New

I have a problem with so-called "Web 2.0" -- which usually means it requires the users to enable viruses in their browsers. I don't do that. I don't get viruses and spyware and popup adware and all those other nasty warez, either -- and I don't pay any anti-virus Mafia for protection. The rest of the internet stumbles along in a 1930s gangsterism, but my computer works for me instead of the hoodlums. 75% of all PCs are infected, most of them unbeknownst to their owners. Not this one.

It does have its downside. Some websites don't work for me. I would dearly love to support, but there's nothing there. Their webmaster seems to think his duty is to promote the latest whiz-bang viruses, nevermind that his salary is being paid by people who might prefer he supported their creation agenda instead. That's their problem, not mine. The companies who want my business will make their websites accessible to me. It's simple marketing.

Internet web hosts are some of the worst offenders. I started up this domain on the local ISP, but they began blocking my email. So I switched to the local phone company and invited them to host my domain also. They promised to have a salesman call. Nobody called. A friend of mine was reselling internet services, so I bought from him. The competition is fierce, and he gave up. I tried to just switch my account to his primary host (1&1) but they couldn't do it without taking the whole site down for several days. This is all electronic, and shouldn't take more than a half-second. So I found somebody else, but not before I already opened a new account with a new domain name ( with 1&1. I was planning on getting switched over to 1&1 and collecting my 30-day refund from the other host, but somehow never got around to it. Good thing too.

A couple months ago the Bank of America cancelled my credit card and issued a new one. No reason for it, but it meant I had to go to all the internet companies and give them the new card number. Most of them had no problem with that, they like getting paid. But not 1&1. They insisted I do it on their control panel, which I can't get into because they changed their software to Web2.0.

I had 1&1 register my domain name for me -- big mistake -- so I can't just move it to another host. So I found another domain registrar and created another domain name, Then began the long process of trying to find a web host willing to guarantee that I can access their server, or at least set up the account somehow. I passed up several companies that were as unhelpful as 1&1, and opened accounts with several more before I discovered they too were unhelpful. I finally found somebody.

They wanted a credit card number on their order form, but they don't seem to be aware that SSL is only as secure as your confidence in shared access to a certificate from a recognized registration authority. My computer has no shared certificates with theirs, so SSL is inherently insecure, and my browser correctly warns me of the fact. Fortunately, they also accept a check in the mail. They got a check in the mail. Amazon accepts a credit card number through a secure process known as voice telephone. Amazon is smarter than most other internet companies.

Anyway, some time in the next couple months will disappear. Maybe I can get it transferred over, maybe not, who knows?

In any case, is up and current.

2008 January 18 -- The Linux Business Model

I ordered a new computer from the local system integrator. My Mac laptop no longer boots up, and I need some way to show off the PC software I'm developing.

Nobody sells anything any more with the security, power, flexibility, and just plain performance of the old Mac I still use every day. Maybe some day I can do something resembling a Mac clone -- the "real" Mac, not the eunuchs Apple sells these days. That day is still far off, but it seems more likely that I can build on Linux than Vista, so I asked for a dual-boot computer, WinXP for demo, and Linux to recompile.

Having failed to recompile the only Linux that ever successfully ran and did something useful on any computer I own, one of my requirements is a "script to recompile and install the Linux kernel." You'd think that the virtues of "open source" promoted by the Linux community, this would be a simple add-on. You'd think wrong. It is such a difficult task that the vendor (which claims in-house Linux expertise) went out to an outside consultant -- who tried to argue that it's impractical:

trying to make the kernel universal ... can degrade the system to the point you are taking performance losses in excess of 75% of the system resources. That would be more bloated and unstable than windows.
This is an amazing confession. I downloaded an image of the Mepis Linux, burned it to CD, and it boots right up. With my permission, it installs itself and does something useful. Except compile itself, it can't do that. The Suse linux the vendor gave me with this PC was in what I call "a Terri Schiavo coma: appears functional, but is actually brain-dead." Totally useless. Ubuntu (another download) and Knoppix (CD from a friend) were similarly crippled. Maybe Suse was tailored to the delivered system, but Ubuntu and Knoppix and Mepis were universal boot CDs, which this consultant says loses up to 75% of the system performance.

OK, Mepis is slow, almost slower than the Mac at 20% its clock speed, but it runs. 20% of rated clock speed and running is faster than 100% and dead. The most critical component in my computer's performance is the speed of my mouse and keyboard, not the raw clock, and the 30MHz Mac IIci in my garage was faster at that than any new computer for sale today. Even more important, the program I wrote for the PC using the C++ compiler Microsoft sells (reportedly the fastest code in the industry) runs 3 times slower on the 2GHz PC than the same code compiled direct to native 68K code and emulated (typically 3 times slower than native PowerPC, for an effective degradation close to 40 times slower than) on this 400MHz Mac. But it's fast enough. Raw speed is irrelevant.

The consultant's recommendation:

I would propose ... to give [a] how-to doc to the client, and provide some method of contacting me to ask questions ... and charge hourly for support
This is the bottom line. I already have a how-to doc for recompiling Mepis. It's incomplete (like everything else Linux). He doesn't want me to know how Linux is compiled so I can learn from it how this bugger works (and maybe fix it). He wants me to come ask for help, so he can charge me consultant fees.

You see, open source software is "free" -- which means that the people who work on it must earn their living some other way. If Linux is all they do, then they must make it as difficult to use and incomprehensible as possible, so that the users are continually forced to come for (paid) help. Microsoft and Apple charge you a couple hundred dollars out the door, and then they don't want to see you again -- until they have a new version to sell you. So their software needs to do everything they promise as easily as possible -- but no easier (as Apple learned the hard way). It's a totally different business model.

I like the commercial model better; their software is more robust -- did you catch that "more bloated and unstable than windows" line? -- and better supported.

The Mac was even better than that, but there's no money in it. That's why Apple no longer sells it. And that's why I need to make my own.

So I insisted on a recompile script. If it actually does that, then maybe I can throw out all that Linux bloat which makes it "unstable" and get back to something like the Mac. The GPL requires me to give it away for free, but at least it won't look nor feel like Linux.

2008 January 8 -- The Burden of Truth

Many years ago I was the draft editor for what is now the international standard for computer math. There were four of us on the draft committee, but I maintained the files on my computer. The intellectual heavy lifting was done by William Kahan, then a professor of mathematics at Berkeley; his student Jerome Coonen did the testing; and John Palmer was an engineer at Intel, which provided our industrial link. We spent many hours on that first draft, and often would take breaks during which we would discuss other topics.

Religion was one of the topics, because the committee had four very diverse persuasions: an atheistic Jew, a Mormon, a Christian (myself), and one fellow who refused to discuss religion at all. At one point the Mormon declared that Mormons were "better Jews than the Jews, and better Christians than the Christians." Knowing a little about Mormon doctrine, I asked him, "How many gods are there?" He hesitated, then after some more prodding, announced, "Three."

"There," said I, "You part company with the Jews, because the formost Jewish doctrine is 'Hear, oh Israel, the LORD our God is one.' [Deut.6:4] The first and greatest Christian theologian also declared, 'There is one God and father of us all.'" [Eph.4:6, also Rom.3:30, 1Cor.8:6, and 1Tim.2:5] "It's more complicated than that," he replied. "How about I send some missionaries over to explain it better." I agreed to let them come.

I learned several things from these missionaries. They gave me a Book of Mormon to read, and invited me to "pray and ask the Holy Spirit to tell me if it is true." That was an eye-opener. I grew up in a church where the Christians were told to "pray and ask the Holy Spirit to tell me if it is true" -- but about the doctrines opposing Mormon teachings. I have subsequently learned that the Muslims have a similar verification method.

What is going on here? The Mormons and the Pentecostals and the Baptists and the Muslims and the NewAgers all pray the same prayer, and they all get the same answer: that their particular dogma is correct, and everybody else is wrong.

Either they are all right and there is no such thing as absolute truth, or else the method is broken and cannot be relied on at all. Denying that there is such a thing as absolute truth leads to contradictions -- I have never met anybody who really believes it, not even those who claim to believe it: you simply cannot survive in this world apart from acknowledging an external reality with true facts that we need to be in conformance to, including simple math like 2+2=4.

After puzzling over this problem for a long time, I came up with an axiomatic approach to truth, which puts the emphasis on verifiability (also known as the "Scientific Method").

I still have a residual problem, which is that almost everything I know is second-hand. By rejecting the internal method of the Mormons, I am forced to rely on what other people tell me. Are they telling the truth? Or lying, or maybe merely ignorant? There is a lot of ignorance -- like the tinfoil hat crowd who want to believe (against all evidence) in apricot pit cancer cures and 9/11 conspiracies. There are liars out there -- often I can't tell the difference between the liars and the ignoramuses. How to know if they are telling the truth?

I put some thoughts down in a new short essay, "The Burden of Truth"

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