Tom Pittman's WebLog

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2018 October 9 -- Writing What You know

I can't say I ever heard of Joe Haldeman before, but there he was on the sci-fi shelf in the library. It was a collection of short stories, some of them reasonably good, at least one, maybe two (I can't remember, and I don't want to remind myself) so bad I abandonned  it without finishing. The remarkable thing about this collection is the author's introduction in which he disparages the notion that you (should or do) write what you know -- and then spends the rest of the book proving what he tried so hard to dissuade you of.

The cover blurb mentions that he's a Vietnam veteran, but it's totally unnecessary, because most of the stories make it an integral part of the sotry. It got tiresome. "Cussing like a sailor" is a well-known extreme, and it figured in my abandonment of one of them. But it was an important -- and evidently unhappy -- part of his life, and he wrote what he knew. He's an author and teaches writing, and several of the stories centered on the arts, often other than writing, but certainly with the focus on the common elements.

Obviously Haldeman invented stuff -- and more than once admitted to stealing it -- but it wasn't like he wrote about the details of a domain he understood as little as Michael Crichton understood computers (most notably Prey, see "Artificial Life" ten years ago) or law (see my collected comments on Crichton). Michael Crichton wrote best when he wrote what he knew. So did Joe Haldeman and every other author I have read and enjoyed. My regular readers know how many times I have said that.

2018 September 26 -- Subscription not Membership

Some four years ago the church I went to hired a new pastor, who seemed to have a higher opinion of formal membership than his predecessor. I had political reasons for not joining the church at that time, but I decided to give the topic due diligence in case God taught otherwise. I found God gave no such teaching, and I wrote my findings up in an essay "Local Church Membership: Is It Biblical?" -- and (because I have a long-standing policy not to fight the pastor in his own church) I eventually left that church.

But one result of that study is a heightened awareness of the significance of membership. The next three churches I was there only on a temporary basis, but after coming to Ore-gone and doing the church-shopping thing (see "Choosing a Church" last year), it was a significant part of my selection criteria. Asking the question seems to predispose the pastor to be more open and accepting than his otherwise inclination. At least that was my experience.

Anyway, in the mail yesterday was the subscription renewal form for the one remaining magazine that formerly carried news worth reading, but which I still read, and it vigorously promoted "membership" not subscription. I complained the previous time (on the renewal form) to no effect, so this time I emailed the "CEO" and a couple other email address that seemed relevant, and he said they use the word "member" because their readers are much more active than the average subscriber. Most of the magazines I subscribe to have very vocal readers, so this is not really true. Worse: however much I react to this (or any other) magazine, they print one or two letters, and then never again. I'm a zero. No "rights and privileges" such as true membership in any honest club or organization confers, not even a vote, I'm just a zero, a nothing. They want my money, but not enough to alter anything they do to get it.

The last time I objected to being called a "member" when all I wanted was to read their periodical was with a Darwinist rag -- I no longer remember the name, they're probably defunct now -- and I certainly did not want them telling people I was a "member" in their church. So I didn't renew. Maybe that will happen again. sigh

But I'm a zero. Nobody cares what I think. Except one month this year and last year, somebody cares enough about what I think to pay me for it. I'm not a "member" of his organization -- I don't think even he is -- but I'm not a zero to him. Nor to the kids in his summer program: they listened and they delivered a knock-your-socks-off product in four weeks. Twice.

I moved to Ore-gone for no other reason than I have a nephew (and mostly his wife) who do a good imitation of esteeming me more than a zero. Not much more, but they invite me to celebrations, and took me to the airport and back last week, and this week I get to do the same for her when she takes her vehicle in for service. It's more than zero. She let me help her study her math in the job retraining program she's in at the local Community College, but I think she preferred the help she got from her Dearly Beloved. That's OK, I can accept being a zero. I hope, when I reach the John 21:18 stage in my life, not to be totally abandonned, but I have no kids of my own, so this was my best shot. So I'm a "member" of my family. But mostly they live their lives and I live mine. Two ships passing in the night.

But the pretense of "membership" where there is none at all offends me. It's a lie, and I do not take kindly to lies.

2018 September 22 -- Travel Is Broadening

I'm home again, only three or four pounds heavier than when I left, not all of it swag. The show put out a steam table with good European (Belgian, but not unlike French) cooking for lunch the two official days of the show, and fruit salad with awesome pastries at break times. Some of the people I was with talked about Belgian waffles, but the only waffles I ever saw were cookie-sized, put out at break time a couple times at the show (along with tiny muffins and raisin snails and croissants etc., once even almond macaroons).

I often tell people "I drink my coffee cold and bubbly," but the only carbonated caffeinated beverage I ever saw (both on the airline and at the show, also in vending machines and a few fast-food places) was Coke. I normally buy other things than Coke, but I drank a lot on this trip to stave off jet-lag.

We walked around the center of Brussels the first day (Monday), but one of the people I was with seems to have a blood-sugar problem or something, so he needs to eat on a schedule (not me: I tell my body when I will eat, not the other way around). As a result, my first meal in Brussels was a middle-eastern fast-food joint with a menu not unlike the food carts across the street from the Portland State campus where we ran the summer program. I was with the same guy the next evening walking back from the show venue to our lodgings, and we found an authentic Belgian "charcouterie" (which I translated as "steak place" althought the menu also had other things). I like my meat dead, but if you ask for it that way, the cook gets offended and makes a mess of it, so I usually don't order beef. Good thing, too: my companion ordered some kind of steak thing that wasn't hot yet in the middle. He suggested the Belgian fish soup, but the waiter said they were out, so I got shrimp in garlic, which was pretty OK and not very filling (which suited me fine, I was already eating too much). The next two evenings I ate their lunch and snacks and didn't need supper.

I walked a lot more than I'm used to. I sit down in front of the computer all day, sometimes get up and pace to think through hard problems, but the most I walk is a mile to church (and usually another mile back). We probably walked a mile that first day, and then a mile from the hotel where one of the parents stayed (we were driven there in the vans from the airport) to the youth hostel where the rest of us stayed. From the hostel to the show venue was a couple miles, and we went in cabs each day, but walked back twice. Plus probably a couple or three miles total between terminals at the various airports carrying a heavy suitcase. So I guess I walked maybe eight or nine miles this week, more than four times my weekly habit. There was nowhere to sit near our display area at the show, so most of the day I was standing up or walking around near the exhibit, perhaps the equivalent of walking another five miles each of three days. My feet still hurt.

Youth hostels offer low rates to their patrons, in part because they are government-funded (which means little or no oversight, the same way industry in socialist countries are more polluting and produce inferior products compared to their capitalist equivalents) and partly because the keep the costs down (less maintenance). The room I was in was one of the few with a private bath, but the water flow in the shower was exceedingly slow, probably less than a pint per minute; one of the other rooms had a shower down the hall but the faucet handle was broken. They're kids, maybe they didn't shower at all. Posters on the walls encouraged conserving water, and I guess they also encouraged it the way abusive (leftist) governments everywhere do things, by compelling compliance using counter-productive measures such as low- or non-flow faucets (see "Low-Flow Taps Waste Water"). Or maybe it's nothing more than lack of maintenance with no oversight to compel minimum standards of quality, like my kitchen faucet at home, perhaps both due to the accumulation of corrosion inside the pipes over the years. It's not in my budget to bring in a plumber to fix the water flow, and probably not in theirs either.

I watched two and a half movies (the first was a dud, which I abandonned in the middle) on the flight eastward across the Atlantic (seven hours). The flight back was nine hours, and I barely squoze in two flicks because I couldn't stay awake. Considering that I had to be up at 5am (Belgian time), and arrived home after midnight (Pacific time, which is nine hours later than Belgium), I was (except for sleeping on the plane) up (one "day") more than 28 hours.

The last leg of the flight back was memorable. It's a commuter flight from Portland to Medford, usually about an hour. Five minutes into the air, still on the edge of Portland metro area, the seatbelt signs just got turned off and the beverage cart is pushed up past me to the front of the plane, and I started smelling smoke, and a shrill alarm began sounding beep-beep-beep-beep. The stewardess immediately told the guy pushing the beverage cart to take it back and stow it right now. Then she hustled the guy in the rest room out and back to his seat, then immediately sat down and buckled into her own seat. She was talking on the intercom phone to the cockpit and I looked around to see if I could see the source of the smoke. Nothing inside, but out the window, I saw the left propeller was stopped (but no flames I could see). I figured these planes are designed to fly on one engine, and the pilots are trained to land on one engine, so no big deal, he was probably looking for a nearby airport to land in. The captain came on the speaker and said the oil temperature in the left engine was high, so he had shut the engine down, and would soon be returning us to Portland. As we landed, there was a row of fire engines next to the terminal building with red lights blinking, and we taxied to the fartherst pad in the terminal, a good hundred yards from the terminal building itself. A couple hours later they'd commandeered another plane (I think they cancelled their flight to Seattle and shuffled its passengers off to other airlines), and we were back in the air for the usual uneventful trip to Medford. I've been on a lot of planes flying to many different places, but never before with take-us-back-and-start-over engine trouble.

2018 September 20 -- Knocking It Out of the Park (Again)

Maybe I earned my fare from the director's perspective. The kids programmed these cars (see "Was It Fun?", only one car in August, the second car was identical, used as a spare for this trip) to drive around a track taped up with masking tape on the carpet, but only one of them actually ran when we arrived. As the senior tech expert, I was able to give some clues as to what the problem was, and they got the second car going (but poorly, probably a programming error in the code written by one of the guys who didn't come). They improved the performance of the first car so that it could turn around in the space we had been assigned for our track, and then ran it pretty much continuously the two days of the show.

I stood around, and when one of the show attendees paused to look, the director engaged him. When another came by, I took him on and promoted the program as if I were being paid to be there. The kids could explain their own work, so as soon as I could, I handed the attendee off to a kid to do that, then sought out another fish to hook. The kids were less agressive at snaring the passers-by, but I'd had a lot of trade show experience when hawking my own software. I knew how to do this, and I did it. The director was looking for donors; I don't know if I know how to sell that, but I gave it my best shot.

The main purpose of the show, as near as I could tell, was to give a venue to venders of the peripheral sensors that the (still future) autonomous car industry needs to detect their surroundings; inviting the kids to show their car was more fluff than anything else, but at the awards dinner, we won the Best of the Show trophy. Today one of the kids represented the group in a 20-minute slot in the final session of the program. I took it upon myself to coach him and work with him to make it a good presentation. I was his "audience" for several run-throughs, and I tried diligently to boost his confidence so he wouldn't freeze up at the mike. Some of his run-throughs were more polished than the actual presentation, but basically he did well, and was well received.

During the Q&A at the end of his formal presentation, one guy in the audience -- I was later told it was one of the show execs -- asked if their experience in this project would encourage them to consider a career in the automotive industry, and the guy who took the question said that before the summer the answer would have been "No," but now he would consider it. It seems that the best tech people coming out of the colleges want to work for start-ups or famous tech giants like Google, and one of the automotive industry execs confessed to the show guy, "We can't attract good tech recruits." Just that one kid's answer might free up some industry donations for the program. Or not.

Another questioner asked each kid in the lineup to give a single word expressing their perception of the summer program. I don't remember the specifics [when the video comes out in a couple weeks I can refresh my memory] but the kids chose words like "challenging" and "complex". One of the attendees later remarked to me that none of them said "fun." I allowed as maybe they were thinking forward to linking to the video in their college applications, and "fun" would be less impressive there. I asked one of them later about it, and he said it was definitely fun, but he couldn't tell me why he didn't say so.

On August 11 I couldn't say this was a "knock it out out of the park" presentation like last year, but AutoSens made up for that.

2018 September 17 -- Brussels

You recall (see "Cognitive Burden" a couple years ago) I have not flown much in the last decade or two. So here I am flying to Portland again. I look out the window at the clouds below, and it looks to me like there are straight cuts in the cloud cover, not all the way through to the ground, but like the clouds are following the contours of the ground beneath: sort of lumpy-flat like a forest top, with these clear-cut highways criss-crossing the landscape. I can't see through the clouds to see if there really are roads beneath the notches in the clouds, but that's what it looks like. Maybe the forest (if that's what's below most of the clouds here in this part of Oregon) produces more moisture or coolness than the clearings for the roads, resulting in deeper clouds. It would be interesting to know, but there are a lot of things I'll probably never know. That's OK, I have no "bucket list" like Morgan Freeman's character in the eponymous movie -- or maybe I did, and I already did all those things.

Travelling and seeing some of the world was one of the things I sort of wanted to do, and I did that. I really wanted to see Israel "from Dan to Beersheba," and I did that too. Brussels and Belgium were never on the list. But here I am flying off to Brussels with the same guy who made Israel possible for me. I got my first taste of Belgium on this commuter plane to Portland: The beverage service included a couple of cookies in a foil wrap, and the fine print declared them "imported from Belgium."

We met up with the summer program director and about two thirds of the kids in the program (all whose parents were willing to pop for the air fare and lodging) and flew from Portland to Brussels, where they are scheduled to present their autonomous car project to the international AutoSens conference. The airline gave us a meal, a choice of "chicken or pasta." I overheard one of the other attendants say the pasta was a veggie meal, so I chose chicken. The inkjet label printed on the cover of the hot dish said "Chicken Tao" and it looked vaguely oriental, four finger-sized blobs of something that tasted ever so slightly more like chicken than beef or fish, but with a consistency more closely resembling pudding.

They speak French and Flemish (like Dutch, which is like German) in Belgium, apparently mostly French here in Brussels. I took two years of French in high school, then switched to German as soon as it became available, because my father had told me that German was the language of science. Maybe it was when he studied to be a chemist, but now English is the international language of the whole world, and the language that any significant scientific research is published in. But that was long long ago, and although I spent a spring term in France in an overseas study program sponsored by the seminary I went to, I have forgotten more than I remember. Even with dictionary in hand, I stumbled badly. Many people spoke English; many more only French and/or Flemish. I could pick out a word or three when I heard them speak French, and nothing at all from the Flemish, but seeing signs or menus in the two languages, the French words I did not recognize, I often could make out the sense from the Flemish which vaguely resembled German.

I don't know why I'm here, maybe (like the trip to Israel) the guy thinks he owes me a favor. I've always been goal-oriented ("purpose driven" long before Rick Warren ever thought of his book title), and while Israel was a goal, Belgium never was. But he is my only significant source of income right now, so if he wants me to go, I go. It's not like it's costing me anything more than my time, and time I seem to have a lot of. So here I am.

2018 September 15 -- Thinking: Work or Audacity

A couple years ago I started reading Moby Dick. It was heavy going, so I'd read a couple chapters, then read something else -- mostly library books -- for a while. Some library books are real page-turners, and I stay awake late and finish them is a couple days. Others are so full of gutter language or inner turmoil they just are no fun to read, so I don't finish them, but most of the books I bring home take up to a week to read. You never know, so lately I've been piling up a stack of four books, so I won't find myself out of reading material before the next weekly trip to the library. Last week there were two duds and two fast reads, so I took the time to finish Moby Dick, and was impressed by this odd remark eight pages from the end:
Here's food for though, had Ahab time to think; but Ahab never thinks; he only feels, feels, feels, that's tingling enough for mortal man! to think's audacity. God only has that right and privilege. Thinking is, or ought to be, a coolness and a calmness; and our poor hearts throb, and out poor brains beat too much for that.
I see it the other way around. God certainly was the first to think, and the image of God created in Adam conferred that ability on all of us, but it's hard work, and not many people want to put the effort into it. At the end of the day, even I get too tired to think, and must set my work aside and take it up again the next day. I used to be able to work longer hours, but part of that was a sense of purpose, which -- except these last few months -- is largely gone. So I do more brainless reading. Moby Dick was not an example of brainless reading.

One of the books I picked up this week similarly was heavy, partly the same reason as Melville: this author invented a lot of strange terms for commonplace ideas to make it feel alien and other-worldly, where Melville used 170-year-old terminology (and not a few words no longer in the English language nor my vocabulary). So when it became obvious that the author praised on the cover for his military prose was actually planning to do the feminazi thing, I didn't feel bad about putting it down after only two chapters. If reading a novel is not "a coolness and a calmness," why bother?

I mentioned space-op novelist David Drake earlier this year, because he's a fun read. He thumbs his nose at the establishment. He also evokes the feeling of cultural difference between the warring empires in his RCN series, not by inventing odd terminology, but by the judicious switching off between metric and English units of measure, both familiar to his readers, which he is ever at pains to explain is in both cases a translation of whatever units a far future culture actually would use. So he gets the feeling of alienness without making us work to read it. The best of both worlds.

2018 September 11 -- My "Religion"

Last month I mentioned a magazine editor's comment -- which I took as a confession -- that "humans decisively prefer to spread lies over truth." It's a disease that seems to afflict pretty much the whole nation, perhaps even the whole world but I have less access to observe it. I try not to let that include me, but it makes for awkward moments.

I mentored this computer summer program for high-school students, and we recently finished the second year. The director likes to promote it as "the kids do everything," but the real world does not work that way. We need tools to make things happen, and he says "Let the kids do it," except they don't do the kind of quality work you need in tools. How can they? They're just kids. You need experience using the kinds of tools you want to make, before you can make them do what needs to be done. But it's my job to help them do as much as possible. I'm a tool maker. It worked out that way.

This year, one of the things the kids were supposed to be doing is building a model for their program that can be exported to other venues across the country and around the world. We got invited to an international conference to tell them what we are doing -- the fact that it's high school kids makes it look impressive, which probably figured in the motivation for the invitation -- but the nature of scheduling is that we had to commit to going and presenting before we knew whether we had anything to show.

The director has spent a lifetime creating companies that produce quality commercial products, so he knows how to do these kinds of things. Instead of the plastic vacuum-formed body that comes with the radio-control cars we are taking over by computer, he went out and engaged professional designers to make it look industrial. It looks fabulous, but the kids didn't do it. No big deal, they are designing software, not hardware. The director had two cars made up, but they were a little behind schedule: the second one was not fully functional until after the summer program ended. No big deal, we had one to run on.

Getting the software to take the car around the track was a bigger deal, they almost didn't finish. Well-run companies have experienced people in management positions -- or in his case, at least a cultural heritage of doing things Right. These are kids, and they don't have that same heritage. I'm not particularly good at that kind of management either (I told him that up front). At least I know it's not something God made me good at. 55 years ago (at their age) I didn't have a clue, but nobody tried to lay on me that kind of responsibility. In reality, the director was doing it to me, not to the kids.

Here comes the "religion" part... "Religion," you will recall from a couple months ago, is the set of things we know to be true despite any evidence to the contrary. I know I have crummy management skills, and I have lots of experience proving it. That's not religion. The kids are not much better (if any), and I know that too. I do not deceive myself. The director is something else. He has more religion than I do.

I am not completely irreligious, I don't think anybody is -- certainly not the self-confessed atheists: they have much more religion than I ever will. They know about the laws of physics and the entropy law (things get worse over time, not better) in particular, but they prefer to believe that things are getting better, that "people are more likely to be incompetent than dishonest," as one of them recently put it to me. But the evidence supports Virginia Heffernan, that "humans decisively prefer lies over truth."

So I got to thinking, what do I believe as true despite any apparent evidence to the contrary? Not that there is a God, the evidence firmly supports that (see "What's Really Important"), but what kind of God is He? The Bible tells me "God is Good." The existence of calamity and just plain Bad People seems to convince a lot of people that God is either not good or else incompetent. I'm willing to defer judgment, based on the fact that I'm not any kind of god, I'm lucky if I can get my computer programs right, let alone the whole universe, so I have no problem accepting that God can be and is in control. That's the logical difference between a god and us mere mortals.

What about the calamities? Is God Good? The evidence isn't particularly impressive on that, certainly not like the evidence that God is there and running things, nor even as good as the evidence that the Bible is God's work, not mere humans. So really that's all I have: the Bible says so. It's religion. It's not really illogical, God cannot give us free will and at the same time restrain the Bad Guys from doing harm. Free will is good, I wouldn't want to be a robot with no choice. So there are broken eggs. Dostoyevsky gives us a clue to the way out of this: "if there's no immortality of the soul, then there's no virtue, and everything is lawful" (see my blog post "Incomplete Christianity" five years ago). Virtue is rewarded in the future, and the rewards are so much bigger than the calamities, but you can't see that from here. That's why it's religion. Unlike Darwinism, and unlike the notion that people are basically generous and unselfish and giving, it's not contrary to the available facts, but the supporting facts are pretty slim.


The Job Affair -- He didn't have to wait until eternity, he got paid back double his losses in this life
Biological Evolution: Did It Happen? -- Darwinism is more religious than the Christian origins story
What's Really Important -- Why (most) Christian teaching is evidence-based, not religion

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