Tom Pittman's WebLog

(or something like that)


2007 December 31 -- Bilingualism

I was in France for a short while in I think it was 1970. There are two kinds of theaters in Paris showing American films: about half of the screens are dubbed into French, and the other half are subtitled. Those of us (both French and American) trying to learn the other language went to the subtitled flicks.

The USA was involved in the unpopular VietNam war, and a lot of the movies expressed that discontent verbally. This one had a protest song during the opening credits, with the lyrics in French subtitles. There was a line that got translated "...kiss a nun..." but the sexual activity described in the song itself was rather more obscene. Half of the audience roared with laughter. The other half were not bilingual.

Last week the movie I downloaded was subtitled in Spanish. It wasn't long before I noticed that they were a rather free translation. It's been a long time since I spoke much Spanish, so there were numerous words I didn't know. I never knew any Spanish cuss words, but after a while I noticed that they all got translated by the same Spanish word, "Maldicion," which means (approximately) "cussword."

I guess the French and the Spanish prefer their movies with a cleaner vocabulary than Hollywood. I suspect a lot of Americans would agree, but Hollywood doesn't get it.

This week's downloaded movie didn't bother with subtitles. About a third of the dialog was in Spanish, and only a small part of it was translated into English for the non-Spanish-speaking characters (and viewers). The rest -- well you could tell what was going on, but it's so much nicer to be able to understand.

Bilingualism confers a deep insight into the nature of understanding that just is not available to speakers of only one language. I see it in dialog with people who consider themselves intellectual, but are totally clueless linguistically (like "Charlie"). I also get it from the other end. The linguists I'm trying to market my Bible translation software to start out assuming I'm one of those clueless dorks, so the first half hour always needs to be spent establishing my credentials -- not just the alphabet soup after my name, but the fact that I have that bilingual insight which is so hard to learn as an adult. Every time.
 

2007 December 29 -- No Gifts for Christmas

Full Disclosure: I'm a humbugger. The only fond memories I have of Christmas was from a number of years ago, when I was a member of a church that held Christmas Day church services every year. Nothing so well expresses the nature of "Christ-mas" as being in church to worship the Christ of Christmas. Here in the so-called "Bible Belt" they tend to cancel regular Sunday services if it falls on Christmas day.

But today my focus is on "gifts" rather than the day or its celebration.

A gift, by definition, is given without any expectation of return. I don't know many people who give true gifts. SciFi novelist Robert Heinlein coined the word TANSTAAFL (There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch) in recognition of that fact.

Christmas is no exception. People don't give their "gifts" to people who cannot or do not give something in return. There are a few exceptions. My sister goes and helps feed the homeless on Christmas. That's a gift. She gets nothing in return, not even much in the way of approval from her peers there.

My sister also sends gifts to her mother. She gets little or nothing in return, but she keeps hoping. In that sense the "gifts" are intended to be payment for approval, even though she doesn't get it.

Many people think of Christmas as God's Gift (Jesus) to us. They certainly don't much want to give anything in return. Their theology explicitly denies that there can be anything we give in exchange for the gift of salvation.

Me, I wonder if God isn't thinking more along the lines of my sister. God wants people to be good, and His "gift" is intended to make that happen, even if we don't respond as intended. In any case, the people who reject His salvation not only don't get to keep it, they end up in rather a dismal alternative. The gift seems rather qualified and contingent from my perspective.

I recently was involved in dialog with a fellow who wants to disclaim any gift at all in his eternal destiny. He seems to think that true justice requires God to grant him a reward for his good works. I gave that some thought, and wrote a response, "Sin and Justice" to express why the Biblical message is both Just and Gracious. Let me know what you think.
 

2007 December 24 -- No Truth in Marketing

The "long-life" fluorescent light bulb burned out again. That's four in the last three years, about the same lifetime as the incandescent bulbs costing less than 1/10th the price.

The first "Guaranteed 8 Years" fluorescent bulb I bought lasted about a month. I mailed it back and got a coupon for another. The tax (which I still had to pay) was almost as much as the incandescent bulb it had replaced; the postage to mail it back could have bought another three or four. The replacement bulb lasted about a year. I didn't bother to send it back. There were no more 8-year bulbs on the shelf (I wonder why?), so I bought a 3-pack of "Guaranteed 5 Years" bulbs, the second of which just now blew out.

I think I was in college when my father told me about some businessman who bought up a load of inferior socks and was having trouble selling them. So he tripled the price and promoted them as "Lifetime guarantee: If they ever wear out, we'll replace them for free." They sold like hotcakes. The next week the unhappy customers started coming back. He smiled and handed each one another pair of socks. I suspect that's what GE is doing with their crummy bulbs.

I used to read Consumer Reports to find out about stuff like this, but their reviews were increasingly irrelevant to my buying habits and their left-wing politics was becoming annoying -- they don't take ad money from the vendors, but they do take money from the government, so they cannot be truly neutral. Anyway, the slimy vendors have a way to defeat once-a-year reviews: they just change the products, so the reviews don't apply.

I try not to buy Chinese products, so not to reward their persecution of Christians. It's really difficult, but the 8-year bulbs were made in Bulgaria or some such east-European country. Now all of the crummy stuff (including those "5-year" bulbs) is made in China. I sent an equal donation to Voice of the Martyrs in penance (which doubles the cost of the product, but I did not include it in my calculations here). VoM gets a lot of money from me these days.

I did the math. With electricity running $0.09/KWH, the incandescent bulbs cost about a penny per hour to run, perhaps $40/year including the cost of bulb replacement. The fluorescents claim to use 1/4 of the energy (if you can believe that), but cost a lot more, about $20/year, for a net savings somewhere between 25% and 50% (depending on whether I include VoM). OK, the fluorescents are worth it, but not by much. If I were into "green" I think they would be a net loss, because the energy debt in these more-expensive bulbs is surely a lot greater, plus the mercury usage and other noxious chemicals requiring the extra costs of special disposal. The incandescents contain only glass (sand) and three common metals, so land-fill disposal simply returns to the earth what came from the earth. The Arabs also persecute Christians, so there's no moral benefit either way, so long as we import so much energy from those scum.
 

2007 December 21 -- Seeking Truth

"Charlie" promotes himself as a "truth seeker". I don't know if he really believes it, or if it's part of his con, but he's unlikely to find much truth where he's looking.

Charlie wrote a book, a historical novel about a Bible character, to express his ideas. He mentions some Bible names and places, but everywhere that the Bible has this person in direct contact with the Almighty, Charlie's novel describes the event in terms of delusion or flat-out lies. I held a short email dialog with Charlie. It didn't take long for my impression from his book to be confirmed.

It's really hard for a novelist to hide his worldview from the pages of his story. Charlie is no exception. He cagily put it, "I admit a prejudice against unnecessary miracles that would have been as easily explained by human ignorance or lying." I can agree to Charlie's statement literally, but I do not have an apriori prejudice against ideas I cannot explain. That's something like a Mormon calling himself a Christian because he believes in Jesus Christ. That's his only point in common; everything else is different. Charlie's problem is, as I described elsewhere, that he finds liars under every bedstead. I prefer to find them mostly only among those people predisposed to look for them. Which suggests to me that Charlie's book is a crock.

I tried to engage him on epistemological grounds, what can we know, and how can we know it. He preferred a tactic he called "the octopus evasion: Squirt out a cloud of ink and run." After sending me a confusing frothy piece on different kinds of knowledge (basically how he feels about the information he has), he stopped replying.

Charlie is a classic most-modernist: there is no such thing as absolute truth to a post modernist, only stories (fictional allegories, like Charlie's book) and ways to exert power over other people. Moral absolutes are anathema to them, because absolutes are an anchor you can hang onto, which keeps the hurricane of relativism from blowing you away. Absolutists are not easily overpowered by the rhetoric from relativists. That's why they hate us.

And that's why Charlie stopped replying. I can know the Truth, the Truth that sets people free, and he only wants to "believe" his version with some degree of warm fuzzies. Especially he doesn't want God telling him what to do. That was the cover thesis of his book. There is no Truth in self-absorption.
 

2007 December 12 -- The "God" the Atheists Hate

There seems to be a recent upsurge in atheist propaganda, books with an open agenda of opposing theism of any kind, but particularly Christianity. They seem to have one feature in common, that they find the morals of the Christian God repugnant. It's a curious perspective, which ignores four important facts:

If there is such a thing as a Creator God -- what are they arguing against if there's not? If there is such a Person, then He gets to define what is moral and ethical for us, not the other way around. We have no right to tell God what is repugnant or virtuous; He tells us what is Good and what is Evil. If we don't like His categories, tough.

Furthermore, it is the nature of a supernatural God that His logic is better, more perfect, than our limited mortal reasoning. If we do not understand how His ethics work, or if we see inconsistency in it, whose fault is that? Even the atheists admit to the possibility of an older race "out there someplace" in the universe with better ethics that we could learn from, because their wisdom and experience would exceed our own. How much more so if the alien "race" is God Himself?

All of these militant neo-atheists grew up in a culture dominated by Christian values and morals, and they mostly adopted those Christian values unknowingly, long before they were old enough to know what they were doing. Because they did so unwittingly, their value system is ungrounded in any logic or reason, and has numerous inconsistencies -- but it is essentially Christian nonetheless. They are arguing flawed Christian ethics against the perfect Christian God.

A good atheistic perspective has no morals because it has no god to enforce them. Sometimes they admit to a "nature red in tooth and claw," but rarely do they acknowledge that all Darwinian ethics are unalterably selfish, without any social virtues at all. Unfortunately, the real world does not fit the Darwinian model in many ways, this being only one of its flaws. The atheists are compelled to explain the existence of social virtues -- and they try -- but they cannot, because altruism (sacrificing personal benefit for the good of others) only confers survival on its practioner in a culture where the majority already carries the altruistic genes. Otherwise the first carriers of such a mutation die out before passing their genes on to the gene pool. The bottom line is that an atheist arguing ethics is an oxymoron. The very nature of atheism and Darwinian values-free survivalism implies that nothing they say can be trusted beyond what can be independently verified.

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2007 December 8 -- Leaping Galoshes

The current issue of PopSci Fashion -- AKA  WIRED: they've long since given up being a magazine for digiratti or even wannabes, and now do mostly People interviews, with a few pseudo-science tech tidbits thrown in for flavor (there are more clothing and car and booze ads than anything else). At $10/year, you know the upscale ads are paying for the ink.

Anyway, one of the articles is about a texting contest sponsored by cell phone maker LG -- I think the letters stand for Lowest Grade or maybe even Lousy Garbage -- which made the phony I carry, which shows a time readout 18:88 in mid morning.

This phony is only a half year old, and the battery (or maybe the charging circuit) is already bonkers. In the evening the battery indicator shows "full up" 4 little bars inside the battery icon, but if I don't plug it in, it wakes me up at 2am announcing a dead battery. About an hour after I plug it in, it gives the little "full charge" chirp, which used to take some four hours after using it for three days when it was new. That was 11pm last night, and I did not get up. This morning I unplugged it, and it immediately announced that its battery is completely depleted. So I plugged it back in, and one minute later it was fully charged again.

So what's with the texting contest? If you don't have a quality product to sell, then you need to sell the sizzle. WIRED reported that a 13-year-old won. I would guess no adult was willing to waste the time on their trash getting good at it.
 

2007 December 7 -- How Do I Know?

Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain.
In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling... -- Psalm 127
I rise early and stay up late, toiling on this computer program. Is it in vain? Progress is slow, and it looks like it's going to be a hard sell. How can I know? My friend asks the same question: "How do I know I'm not in denial?"

I know somebody in denial. She recently got a medical diagnosis: amputation. I offered to take her to another doc for a second medical opinion, but she decided to pray about it instead. I have been telling her that there are three kinds of diabetes patients: those who are off sugar, those who are on insulin, and those with foot and kidney problems; there is no fourth category. Maybe the fourth category is those who jump off the pinnacle of the Temple and expect God to send angels to catch them [see Matt.4:5-7]. God is not in the habit of doing that.

So how can I know if I'm in denial? A good indication is if somebody is telling me I'm wrong. Maybe they are wrong instead, but at least I need to check out the facts. If they are professionals and I am not, maybe get a second opinion, but ultimately, the professionals are in a position to know things I cannot.

At least in my case, nobody is telling me I'm wrong. Besides, I am the professional.

I do have this to go on: God is Good. Abraham offered this observation as a rhetorical question, "Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?" God agreed. If a person is screwing up and doesn't know it, justice requires that somebody tell him. There is no requirement to tell him again. I need to pay attention when somebody tells me I'm off-base. There are a couple of clues to know when the other guy is wrong, but second opinions don't hurt. I like to think Scripture is a good defense, but not many people can make sense of that; I need to be careful I'm not one of them. At least in this case, nobody is telling me I'm wrong. Of course in a Feeler-driven church, I'm not likely to hear it either.

Then there is the First and Second Great Commandments. If what I'm doing is consistent with these Commandments, it's probably not in vain.

This comes down to a general policy: If I have a passion to do something beneficial for other people (the 2nd Command), and nobody is telling me otherwise, do it. If it isn't beneficial, find something that is. If God has other plans for me, God will make sure I know.

Well, maybe it's not necessary for me to know, if I just do it. That's where I am today. I hope.
 

2007 November 23 -- False Chiasm

God has mercy on whom he will, and whom he will he hardens. -- Rom.9:18
Dr.Greg Christopher, Dean of the Graduate School at Baptist Bible College in Springfield MO, is known in his church for promoting "chiastic structure" in his sermons. The concept reversal ABBA is a literary device called "chiasm" or "chiasmus" after the Greek letter chi (which looks like an X). Dr.Christopher is currently teaching a study series at his church based on Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians, and points out the chiastic structure of the text. So chiasm was not far from my mind as I was reading in Romans this morning and came upon this verse that resembles God's promise to Abraham in Gen.12:3
I will bless those who bless you, and
whoever curses you I will curse
"Wow!" I thought, "another chiasm." Indeed it was -- in the English translation I was reading, but not in the Greek. sigh

The verse first caught my attention for a different reason. How can anyone be so bone-headed? And there it was, God has His reasons for "hardening" people, and I should thank God that He didn't choose me to be that kind of hammer (with a head as dense and hard as iron). At least I hope not. Other people may have a different opinion, but they seem unable to articulate their perspective. I suspect it comes not from being stupid -- nobody could be that stupid -- but perhaps willfully ignorant.

Anyway, it's not my problem. That's the point of the verse.
 

2007 November 21 -- Miller's Law

Upon some recommendation, my sister bought a video -- then loaned it to me before watching it herself. Stupid behavior is not entertaining to me, and the stupidest character in this movie called himself a computer programmer, which made it even more offensive. You cannot be a competent programmer by ignoring details. Thinking my sister liked such things, I returned it without comment. Today she called to complain that I didn't warn her it was a stupid movie. sigh

This got me to thinking on the nature of fiction and communication. Fiction works because of the suspension of disbelief. You accept the premise of the story as "could be true." Otherwise you can't get into the story at all. That was my problem with the movie. Maybe there are people that stupid somewhere, but certainly not a computer programmer. I think that character was there for people to ridicule, not empathize. People dislike geeks.

Suzette Haden Elgin is a retired professor of applied psycholinguistics. As is common with people who have one brilliant insight, she has written several books in The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense series, but you only need to read any single one of them to get the whole message. The title of the book is misleading. While she does deal with holding your own in verbal combat, the one luminous idea she acknowledges getting from George Miller; she calls it "Miller's Law":

In order to understand what another person is saying, you must assume it is true and try to imagine what it could be true of.
This is exactly what suspended disbelief is in the appreciation of fiction. I cannot imagine people being as stupid as that movie portrayed them.

In verbal combat -- this is Elgin's title topic -- I try to assume the other person is honest, and go from there. Once in a while, it just doesn't make any sense. Nobody can be that stupid! Maybe they are ignoring some crucial information? I try to supply the missing data, if I can. But if they assume I'm dishonest -- remember, people dislike geeks, and imagine of them all sorts of unsavory attributes -- then there is no communication in that direction, and ultimately none at all in any direction.

Miller's Law.
 

2007 November 19 -- It's Not Greek

The movie opened with a quote attributed to the ancient philosopher Tyremus in a script that looked vaguely like ancient Phoenician or early Greek. I couldn't make out any recognizable words, until the end of the flick, when they put the quote back up, then offered a "translation".

Google knew nothing of any philosopher "Tyremus" -- but helpfully offered to search for "tires" (I think "tyre" is the British spelling).

The "Greek" had another problem: there were too many letters, and a back translation just didn't fit.

Then I suddenly realized as I was trying to sound out the letters, it wasn't in Greek at all! Somebody had transcribed the English text into ancient Greek letters -- even got it right-to-left, so they knew something about the ancient script -- but it was English spelling, not Greek.

The movie was great fun too. Not quite as well executed as the "quote", but still a jolly good show.
 

2007 November 12 -- Blind Spot

Every once in a while somebody takes it upon themselves to correct my "misunderstanding" of some relationship issue. I have spent a lot of time and effort researching relational issues, and while I am no expert, these guys don't show much evidence that they know more about it than I do. Nevertheless, I learned from my father not to refuse to learn something, no matter where it comes from. One exception: if they are appear to be retaliating, it's not worth my trouble to investigate. Anger often makes dishonest (flattering) people honest, but it more often simply clouds their reason so they cannot think clearly.

Anyway, I got to thinking about how one would go about persuading another person that they have a perception failure. If they can't see it, how do you show it to them? Simply announcing to them that they have a "blind spot" in their vision is a non-starter. It only insults the other person, effectively telling them that their internal mental processes are broken. If that makes them angry, they stop thinking and anything else you have to say is lost.

The problem is worse than that. Suppose the other person really does understand the situation, and the self-appointed "instructor" is the one who doesn't see the whole picture? Then he just looks foolish. That happens to me a lot, where I already understand what the guy is saying, and I also see its implications which he is ignoring. A few times when I was younger, it happened to me the other way around. I don't like feeling foolish, so I try to do my homework before engaging.

So how does one go about it in a way that neither antagonizes the intended recipient, nor looks foolish if he already understands the issue? I like Jesus' way of teaching, using questions. Not simplistic yes/no questions which obscure subtle or complex issues, but leading questions to encourage the other person to think through the implications and consequences. Then if the answers aren't what I expected, I can adjust my thinking to accomodate it, possibly exposing my own misunderstanding. I need to use this method more often. The few times I did were highly successful.
 

2007 November 1 -- It's Greek to Me

I have been reading Biblical Archeology Review for many years now. It's a fascinating commentary on the land and times of the Bible. Sometimes their dates are bogus, and many of their authors are anti-Christian, but the archeology is generally good. The cover story this month is about the Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest known full New Testament (with parts of the Old Testament, also in Greek). On the cover is the photo of one wrinkled page.

Being somewhat of an amateur Greek scholar, I tried to read it. The cover logo obscured important parts of the text, but the full page was reproduced inside. Unfortunately it's not very big, and the lettering is hard to read. But I did make out a few words near the front, mia klasma epimuliou epi kefalhn, literally "one fragment of an over-mill on head," or something like that. Unfortunately, the Greek word klasma occurs in the New Testament only in the plural, in reference to the leftovers after feeding the 5000 -- certainly nothing to do with anything about a mill or millstone. In fact, epimulion isn't even in my Greek dictionary. Another word nearby looked like the Hebrew word for king -- except this text is in Greek, not Hebrew. So I gave up.

Then I noticed another photo of another part of the Codex, somewhat easier to make out (but many letters still blurred). Again I looked for words I could identify and find in my Bible. This time I succeeded. Near the bottom of the fourth column I found a very clear line ...en tw foti autou... "in his/its light." That line I could pinpoint to John 5:36, and then I was able to place the whole page, as beginning in verse 7.

This success encouraged me to try the cover page again, now looking through the Old Testament for something about a millstone. I found it! Judges 9:53 has a woman throwing an upper millstone on the head of Abimelech. The Septuagint (Greek) text exactly matched the photo. The "king" word I saw really was Hebrew; it's part of Abimelech's name -- literally "the king is my father."

Now I should get back to work...
 

2007 October 29 -- The Video Game Mentality

I face this dragon almost every day, sometimes in more than one way.

Nine months ago, in my "Life Isn't a Game" post, I made the observation on how video games encompass and oversimplify the complexity of the world we live in, so that without very much effort gamers can convince themselves that they are as proficient as the experts in real life modelled by the game. Of course it's all a lie and we game programmers work very hard to sustain the illusion.

Today I am programming not a game, but a real-life tool for doing a real job. Actually, the program is pretty much complete, and I'm using it the way I expect my customers to use it, while writing the documentation that will help them do so. It's a natural-language translation program, and writing the grammar for translating into English has taken three weeks so far (out of an initial estimate of four). Except for an occasional bug I need to fix, the program is working as planned. What worries me -- the topic of today's post -- is that users accustomed to playing video games will expect a credible translation from this tool in minutes or at most a few hours, not weeks or months.

Bible translation professionally done by trained linguists takes 12-15 years to do the New Testament. I'm hoping to knock a big chunk off that, but there's no way computers will reduce the task to a few minutes or hours. Trained linguists still need to study the language, and they still need to think hard about how to render complex theological concepts into languages that don't have words for "lamb of God" (or even sheep) or redemption or repentance. This takes years. My program does not help in those areas, it only automates the process of forming correct sentences in that language after you know how to say what needs to be said.

Like the linguists I hope to be helping, I am a professional. Writing complex programs like this takes years. People can write simplistic "Hello, world" programs in a few minutes -- and I have written some of the tools to help them do it -- but that is not the same as what I do. Professional sports players command multi-million-dollar contracts because they spent years training their bodies to deliver particular plays. No video game is going to make that kind of pro out of a couch potato. But it sure feels like it when you play those games!

I am not a professional theologian. I studied Greek and Hebrew in seminary (and I still try to keep fluent), but professionally I am a computer technologist. The video games of theology are the Bible search software programs you can buy, and the comparable internet sites which do similar things online. In a few minutes anybody can run a word search and copy-paste some erudite-sounding theological ideas, which are no more real and meaningful than swinging a Wii wand to hit a home run in a baseball game. I can get better results than the gamer, but only because I have spent (and still spend) the time to do the job the way it needs to be done.

My sister is a professional (licensed) family therapist. She has the training and experience to understand dysfunctional relationships and to recommend changes to correct the problems. I'm more of an amateur, the way I'm an amateur theologian. I read a lot of what the professionals write, and I spend a lot of time thinking about it, but I'm not a professional. As in theology, I have skill levels somewhere between the professionals and the gamers. I don't know what counts as "video game" in relationship therapy (Sims?), but I do know that every once in a while somebody with no more insight than a video gamer tries to instruct me in the finer points of relationships. If they have studied the training materials available to professionals half as much as I have, their opinions and methods don't show any hint of it.

I'm not even an amateur musician. I like to sing, but lack voice control. I took one year of piano lessons as a child, then convinced my parents to let me stop -- and have been kicking myself ever since. You cannot play a musical instrument well enough to keep the audience from cringing without lots of practice and training -- mostly practice. I spend my time on other things. Our church pianist is competent but not concert quality; she makes occasional (but relatively few) mistakes, but it would be foolish for me to try to tell her how to play better. I read a few weeks ago about new video game hardware that lets you do Wii-like (in other words, fake) motions and plays great music for it. Every once in a while one of those gamer types tries to play something on a real instrument at church, or sing karaoke. Their lack of practice and training shows. Everybody politely claps. Everybody is a bunch of liars.

When it comes to running the sound board at the church, my skill level is about that of a gamer. They ask me to do it because nobody else is available, and they get what they pay for -- like a loud "pop" in the middle of the service last night when I tried to bring another mic online. At least I know what I don't know. When somebody comes along who has more training and/or experience than I, I will gladly yield to his greater competence.

In sports -- well, I write the video games, I don't play them. I'm not even a gamer.

My comments here are not intended to belittle the amateur programmer or theologian or therapist with a lower skill level than myself. I too have a lower skill level in sports and music and family therapy. I have chosen how I prioritize my time, and it does not include pumping iron nor practicing the piano four hours every day. That's why I'm no good at those skills. Other people have other priorities. I respect their choices -- but not their hubris if they depend on their game mentality to qualify them at a skill level comparable to the person who invests the time.

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2007 October 26 -- The Prisoner Exchange

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. -- Rom.2:1
It started innocently enough, a flippant remark taken wrong. When the battle escalated to the point that he was hitting harder than I wanted to hit back, I did as I always do when I am hurt: I asked myself, am I doing the same thing? And I was! So I offered what I call the "Prisoner Exchange," where both parties know they were both off-base, and both agree to stop. This is usually accompanied with mutual forgiveness -- essentially a promise to desist.

I first became aware of the mechanism a few years ago, in an asymmetrical conflict where I caught the other guy off-base, and a third party tried to pressure me into confessing some fault. I couldn't figure out why at the time, but later realized he was aiming for a Prisoner Exchange. I have a long history of being victimized over past faults, so I don't volunteer that information.

The Prisoner Exchange is not particularly Christian -- Christian repentance is unilateral and unconditional, not dependent on the other guy responding in kind -- but it seemed appropriate in this particular conflict. He rejected it outright. Come to think of it, all the Prisoner Exchanges I have seen attempted tend to be imposed by a third party. It's like somebody's mom saying "It doesn't matter who started it. You can stop it." So I did, unilaterally. It's pretty hard in the face of a relentless barrage of hostility to not fight back -- I think I slipped once or twice -- but his prisoners have pretty much died of old age. Lacking some new confession (which as I said, I am reluctant to volunteer: you need to catch me in the act), he no longer has much to exchange.

Reading in Romans today reminded me of the problem of accusing another person of a fault the accuser is guilty of. Jesus said not to do that. So I wondered, was Paul guilty of all the sins he painted the Romans with? I don't think so. Paul had his faults -- he apologized in Acts 23:5 -- but I don't think he was guilty of the sins he lists in the first couple chapters of Romans. So in principle, it can be done.

I still like the Christian way of doing things. If you are guilty of wrong, confess it and stop doing it. Don't wait or press for an equal confession from the other person. After you have cleaned up your own house, if the other guy is still doing wrong things, you can (with all integrity) ask him to stop. If he refuses, there are procedures involving church authority, but the bottom line is to either cut the ties or else become an enabler and codependent.

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2007 October 23 -- Damon and Pythias

Wiki gives two slightly different versions of the Damon and Pythias story. The 1962 "spaghetti sandal" movie is rather different from either Wiki version. In the movie, Damon is a Syracuse scoundrel who would do anything for personal gain; Pythias is a True Believer in a rather anachronistic eastern ("we are all One") mysticism, who goes from Athens to Syracuse to convey a message to the Athenian mysticism missionary, who is hiding from the Syracuse authorities. Pythias needs (and pays for) Damon's help in his quest, and Damon then betrays him to the authorities for a fine horse.

Damon's conscience gets to him, and he warns and helps the missionary escape, but Pythias is caught. Damon goes back and offers himself as a temporary substitute so Pythias can go comfort his dying wife. But he must return or Damon dies. Despite the ruler's attempt to prevent his return, Pythias does and everybody in Syracuse comes to realize that friendship is better than hostile greed, so everybody lives happily ever after. It's fiction.

Real life doesn't work that way. In the movie Damon starts out as a scoundrel, and later becomes a worthy friend. In real life (mine anyway) it's the other way around. sigh
 

2007 October 20 -- Team Building

The church held a "family camp" this weekend. The spiritual emphasis came from the last few verses in Ephesians 4. The presenter offered four insights:
1. Be honest;
2. Be timely;
3. Attack the problem, not the person; and
4. (I can't remember his exact words) something about right attitudes.
He could have taken all four examples from my previous week. For honesty he wanted us to seek a balance between truth and kindness, with the focus on not telling everything you know. I tried to do that in my own situation, but the other guy had some other agenda. I'm into timely; that was the root of my problem, because he kept pounding on obsolete data. And that other guy was very much into attacking the person. Not this person, not any more.

They scheduled two activities at the camp for "team building" but I don't think they worked very well. For the first event they divided everybody into small groups, then blindfolded one group member. His job was to assemble a Lego car. The rest of the group was not allowed to help, except to tell him (or her) what to do next. In my group the guy's family members -- mostly his new wife -- did all the talking. I just sat there and watched. So much for team building.

The second event was a scavenger hunt. My team took off in a dead run, leaving me in the dust. I never even got to see the clues.

To be fair, I'm the outsider. These folks know each other from college, and they are similar ages. I'm the old geezer.

Twenty years ago I wandered into a Christian student group at the state university where I was on faculty. I was the old geezer (as one of them later admitted), but they made it a point to draw me into every activity. Here there could have been instruction on drawing people in, but there wasn't. Small wonder that I was the only older person there.

In all honesty, I'm not overly bothered by it. I didn't volunteer to go, they urged me. But I think they either ought to make an effort to have the activities live up to their name, or else be more honest about what it's all about. By contrast, they are far more intentional about greeting everybody on Sunday mornings, both before the service, and also during "the little moment of chaos" after it starts.
 

2007 October 18 -- Drunken Rats

I've been reading the monthly mail-out from Voice of the Martyrs (VoM). This month they feature India. The lead editorial discusses the "drunken rats" that are a problem in a country where every animal is sacred. But most of the issue is about persecuted Christians, who do not enjoy that protection. From p.4:
When he was informed of the demolition of their church, the pastor rushed to the ruins. A police officer met him and urged him to name anyone he suspected. The pastor knew [who] had done it, but refused to name [them]. He gave a statement in writing that he did not charge anyone with the crime.
I'm still struggling with the boundaries of the no-rat value system. Jesus ducked when the people of Nazareth wanted to throw him off the cliff, but he walked right into the crucifixion. The early "apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name [of Jesus]," but Paul demanded his rights as a Roman citizen. Some of the Christians VoM reports hide from their persecutors; others embrace it.

In my own case, I disparaged a friend's fixation on money and it ruined the friendship. He eventually became obsessed with what was an obvious (and subsequently admitted) but futile attempt to trap me in some violation of my own value system. Although not guilty, should I confess to the trumped-up charge and accept persecution for the Name? Or duck and hide? My natural inclination is to duck. For four months I fought that urge, and tried to reason with him. In the same circumstance, Jesus was much better at turning the tables than I am.

I'm still unsure of this -- my natural inclination is usually the wrong response -- but I reasoned that

a. To confess to his fabricated charge would be dishonest;
b. To fuel his immoral agenda would be to participate in it;
c. The friendship was already and quite evidently beyond hope; and
d. I had a choice (few if any martyrs have any alternatives).
I ducked.

With a few notable exceptions, this fellow denied feeling hostile. However, his behavior was unacceptable and preventable even before I recognized any agenda, and he consciously chose to persist in that hostile behavior, despite my best efforts at dissuasion.

Today's reading in Luke includes the story of the Publican and the Pharisee in the Temple. It reminds me of John Bradford's line, "There but for the grace of God go I." I suspect I've probably actually done the same myself, but nobody called me on it. Or maybe they did, and I was as dense as this fellow. I need to watch for that. At least this year (since January) I have been on the alert.

A smarter way of dealing with the problem, back in June when I first recognized that the bridge was out and he didn't want it repaired, would have been to quietly and gradually stop responding. I even thought about it, but consciously applied the Golden Rule. I want to know when there's a problem. Bad Idea. Most people don't want to hear about it. They prefer to believe they are perfect and it's the other guy's fault. I prefer to believe that too, but at least I carefully investigate the alternatives. Usually (as in this case) I am able to identify places where I could have responded better, more Christ-like. Now I know.

I would be interested in any other Scriptural insights or opinions on how to deal with this kind of harassment.
 

2007 October 17 -- Digging Through the Rubble

After a particularly difficult experience, I tend to spend a lot of time reflecting on what happened and setting new priorities. When my business partnership failed, I thought maybe the catastrophe could be prevented. The next failure proved that wrong. Then I supposed that good procedures might make things more tolerable. That was also wrong: the university had policies in place -- I checked in advance -- but they weren't followed.

I'm getting used to it. But I still try to make sure I gave it my best effort (or make appropriate policy changes if not). This time I hung on too long. I keep wanting to believe "Christian brothers" are telling me the truth. They don't even know what is true when they are angry.

The anger did not come from the fact I wasn't buying his agenda. He wasn't even trying to be a good salesman. It's much older than that. Nine months ago I attacked his god, and everything went downhill in the proverbial handbasket from there. I immediately pulled back as soon as I figured out what was happening, but it was too late. On one occasion he admitted he had been retaliating, and a couple more times he admitted to anger (once indirectly), but generally it was complete denial -- plus relentless hostility (which he also denied feeling). I find it hard to believe he really thought he was being a "friend" but people tend to be oblivious of truth when they are "not-angry." His preferred label for such disconnect was "disingenuous and dishonest." He should know.

I don't seem to be very good at flattery when people make immoral choices. Maybe I should duck faster when they hit back. sigh
 

2007 October 15 -- Update on My Own Medicine

On September 20 I posted:
Nobody ever has the integrity to tell me why they got unspeakably angry at me...
The person I identified as a "former friend" responded (you know who you are; unlike most other blog posts, this one is about you). I won't quote him directly, but instead I will quote from my correspondence to him while I was still trying to preserve the lost cause, a month earlier. I said:
The reality I live in is neither the fabrication you concocted from in-person meetings, nor the fabrication you concocted from my email and blogs, nor any composite of the two. I live in this reality 24/7/365, while you only make guesses from 500 miles away without investing enough effort to verify your conclusions.

So long as you kept your silly concoctions to yourself, we got along fine. It is only when you decided to "help" me by rescuing me from this fictitious world you imagine I live in, that we run into problems.

The response I got from him last month was buried in a stream of invective -- no doubt some of that "unspeakable anger" he considers himself qualified to explain -- which I quite frankly don't have the heart to read. So I failed to notice until today that it was in fact a confirmation, both of what I said in my post, and what I had previously told him privately (quoted above).

So there I have my answer. People get unspeakably angry at the fabrication of their imagination, and they lack the integrity to verify their suppositions objectively nor to find out who I really am. The problem is, this guy really seems to believe his fabrication. I think I would hate the described person too, if he existed. I can't do much about that, except stay out of their way. People who have lost touch with reality can be physically dangerous. I've seen it happen -- fortunately not yet with this fellow, but I don't intend to give him the opportunity.
 

2007 October 11 -- Embracing Truth

But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, "Even the dust of your town that sticks to our feet we wipe off against you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God is near." -- Jesus
Rethinking my previous post on Self-Sacrifice, it occurs to me that I should be taking my instruction from Scripture, not movies. I'm reading in Luke this month, and Jesus did not shun hostility nor truth when the other guy was wrong. Of course he got crucified for it. Not a particularly pleasant prospect, but better than the alternative.
 

2007 October 8 -- Self-Sacrifice

I have been mulling this over for a couple weeks now, trying to make sense of it. An event yesterday helped to crystalize my thinking.

The movie I downloaded was "Gangster's Boy" and its central crisis revolved around a value system it praised and promoted. I don't share it, but many people around me obviously do. The hero of the story took the rap for his friends, lying about what happened. His life ambition would be destroyed by it. This is fiction, so the friends eventually fessed up and the charges were dropped and everybody lived happily ever after.

Self-sacrifice is a Christian virtue -- it is a central theme of the Cross -- but never at the expense of truth. As I said, it's never been very high on my agenda. Rather, I prefer to see it as a particular implementation of the Second Great Commandment (which is certainly high in my priorities) rather than a virtue in its own right. Truth, however, is part of the First Great Commandment in my thinking, so it takes priority. Truth is a moral Absolute. Self-sacrifice is contingent.

The dilemma I struggled with was to find resolution between these two values. It is clear that if I lived a value system that promoted self-sacrifice over truth as in the movie, I might not have gotten myself fired. Or more likely, I would have still been fired but they would consider themselves my "friends" afterwards. There is a value system disconnect here. Can it be resolved? Yesterday I saw how it might be possible.

Earlier this year the church sound expert moved away to take employment in a different town. Another person picked up the technology, but soon he was to leave for South America as a missionary. I'm a technologist, so I volunteered to learn the system until they could find a more permanent solution. That turned out to include running their video system. I'm no fan of PowerPoint, and trying to discern where in the sketchy sermon notes I should click in the next slide -- or worse, some animation in the current slide -- has been somewhat intimidating. Yesterday I shared the booth with a church staff member who decided in the middle of the sermon to instruct me on using the keyboard instead of the mouse, with unfortunate consequences on-screen.

Wondering how to explain the visual anomaly, I decided to aim for a middle ground between the movie values and mine, self-sacrifice and truth. I could say, "I'm sorry, that was on my watch, and my attention lapsed." Which was true, the other guy had brought up the wrong slide before I realized what he was doing. Fortunately, nobody was crude enough to ask, so my rehearsed speech went undelivered. The pastor is always very gracious about my miscues. Other people have made a point of praising my efforts, so much so that I wondered if they weren't primed. I will never know.

Truth is like that. Once you take leave of it, nobody ever knows if you are honest or not. Whether I can truthfully take the blame in other circumstances remains to be seen. I'm not overly optimistic.
 

2007 October 3 -- Serving My Employer

In a small town like this, it was a little surprising to have so few encounters with university faculty and staff. Last week, in a rare exception, I learned why. I think the most offensive thing you can do to me is slander based on invalid assumptions. When it happens behind my back, it comes off as a violation of God's Commandment against "bearing false witness" and "cursing the deaf."

I can't do much about the past, but at least I can state clearly and publicly what my policy is and was, which I wrote up in an essay "On Being an Educator". Universities often ask prospective faculty to write about their vision of education. When I was interviewing five years ago, I only told half the story. The other half was there but not expressed. It was unfortunately the most important part, and incorrect assumptions about it apparently led to inappropriate consequences. Hopefully this clears the air.
 

2007 October 1 -- Two If By Sea

The complete 26 episodes of Victory At Sea is one of those $5 Wal-Mart DVD collections ($30 on Amazon.com). I remember watching it as a teen -- probably as reruns, because it was much later than the copyright date. Each episode picks a battleground (north Atlantic, D-Day, south Pacific) and shows how WWII was fought there. The first few episodes were mostly about the USA losses (Pearl Harbor, German U-boats), but after that they always ended in upbeat victory scenes.

Episode 18 followed the same basic pattern in the first half: the loss of Guam to the Japanese, then its recovery by the USA. Then it turned a corner. The last half of the episode was rather plotless, just a sequence of battle scenes under narrative readings from "Pacific Fleet Communique number..." (the numbers ranged from somewhere around 116 up to about 139), mostly bland announcements of "advance" but not complete victory. Much of the audio time was just music and no voice-over, depending on the graphic battle scenes to communicate the depressing interminability of war.

The most remarkable feature of episode 18 was something you would never hear on TV today. It began with an (unidentified) reading from the Bible (Ecc.3:1-8), with other Bible readings interspersed throughout the episode, perhaps 20-30% of the total narrative. Like the episode title, none of them were identified in any way, but those of us who know American history immediately recognize the title as a quote from the famous Ride of Paul Revere, and those of us literate in the Bible also recognize those quotes for what they are.

Bravo!
 

2007 September 24 -- Vulnerability

Throughout history, and in many cultures of our own time, vulnerability has been considered a liability. The word is not used the Bible, but the idea is certainly taught in a negative context (and never encouraged):
Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. -- 1Pet.5:8
So why is vulnerability considered a virtue in our own (pseudo-)Christian society? This has puzzled me for a long time. After a fairly close encounter with a situation where it could be a factor, maybe I can make a guess.

Vulnerability is a defense measure imposed on strong or virtuous people to bring them under the control of unGodly opponents. The classic example of this is the Samson story [Judges 16], where the Philistine city officials, fearful of Samson's great physical strength, prevailed on Delilah to learn the secret of his strength. "How can you say, 'I love you,' when you won't confide in me?" she demanded. What kind of love is that? This is a fraudulent guilt, and as we know, Samson was a fool for submitting to it.

In my own recent encounter the word "vulnerability" was also not used, but the same dynamic prevailed -- except I did not yield. "Delilah" (not her real name) and I both knew that she had no virtuous purpose for demanding an answer from me. That is why she refused to explain her agenda, and it is why I refused to honor her demand with an answer. And that is why "Delilah" is no longer my friend. Friends have no legitimate need to make demands like that; their very insistence betrays their evil intent.

Oh well, there are worse things than losing a friend who is not really a friend at all, as Samson found out.
 

2007 September 20 -- Taking My Own Medicine

Earlier this week I put on paper some thoughts on the nature of criticism. It was in the form of a letter to a grumpy older person who was having trouble getting people to help out with his chores. I was raised as a child with a critical attitude, and while I am aware of the problem and have made great strides in overcoming it (just ask my sister), it's a constant battle.

The letter itself is criticism. Some criticism is unavoidable. If you are responsible for goods or services, you must criticize the work and components that go into your product. Otherwise people have a right to criticize you for your shoddy work. To turn an aphorism on its head, war is criticism by other means. If our nation is unwilling to make war on aggressors, then there will be many aggressors making war on us. That is why my letter was necessary.

Some criticism is best left unsaid. I'm not so good at figuring that out, especially not in real time. I had a friend who seemed to take leave of his senses. One of the foolish things he did was to blog unnecessary and false criticism of other people. I said so, and he angrily stopped being friendly. "Do not judge, or you too will be judged," Jesus said. It works both ways. While this fellow and I were not on speaking terms he was doing other foolish things, and I put a veiled reference here in my blog to one of them. Not veiled enough, it seems. Normally I don't say (nor even think) things like that about my friends without serious provocation, but as I said, we were not friends at the time. Eventually he recovered from his own blog blunder and started reading my blog again, and he saw himself in it and got hostile again.

Knowing what I know now, I would have deleted the remark entirely. I did that on a previous occasion, but that did not stop his continuing wrath, so I suspect it would not have helped here either. Instead I defended my thinking from Scripture. Now he's a "former" friend. I only realized today how that happened. Nobody ever has the integrity (courage? kindness?) to tell me why they got unspeakably angry at me, but sometimes the sequence of events provides clues. It happens often enough that I am starting to recognize a pattern, typically a week or two after the meltdown. It always begins with criticism -- usually unintended. In this case, if I'd known he would try to resume friendly relations, I probably wouldn't have said anything at all about his silly behavior. On the other hand, maybe he was just looking for an excuse to walk away and blame me for the breakup. Whatever. Life goes on.

Sometimes Jesus argued and defended his position from Scripture; other times he refused to answer at all. I'm not entirely clear how to know which stance to take. It is very clear, however, that if you are not agreeing with the other guy, he will understand you to be criticizing him -- even if only tacitly. Jesus got crucified for that. At least I'm in good company.

Continuing to follow that line of reasoning, I believe a case can be made for comparing just criticism to God's Law: the Law is there to bring us to faith and repentance. The unbeliever rejects the Law and the God of the Law, but faith acknowledges our error and accepts both its just consequences and God's grace which overrides those consequences. God is not a bully intent on beating us up, but graciously puts our past sins out of sight; in the same manner, whoever delivers honest and just criticism has no desire to beat people up, but is ready to forgive and overlook the unchangeable past. In my opinion, it is the unforgiving person -- that is, the one who has not experienced God's true forgiveness [Matt.6:16] -- who cannot accept forgiveness with the criticism, and therefore cannot deal with the criticism at all. At least that's how all the puzzle pieces fit together. Any other arrangement I try leaves holes in the picture or leftover pieces.
 

2007 September 18 -- "Love Commands"

Love commands; it does not obey -- The Young In Heart
The movie got it backwards. It was a nice sentimental idea in the story, but true (Christian) love "seeks not its own" [1Cor.13]. Some people are into making demands. That's not a loving thing to do, not even in the movie. I think the memorable line there refers to a personification of the abstract quality of love, that love itself commands us to do what we might otherwise not be willing to do. It's still backwards.
 

2007 September 13 -- Murphy Strikes Again

I spent the afternoon saving some old files so I can clear them off my hard drive. This Mac doesn't have a CD burner, so I needed to copy the files over to the PC. After I got them there, I realized that all the Mac files have resource forks, which the PC doesn't know about and wouldn't get saved properly. So I ran the archive folder through MacZip and sent the ".zip" file over, burned it onto a CD, then tried loading the result back into the Mac. MacZip crashed. It seems it can't recognize some data in the file it just created. That's the first time this Mac has crashed in a long time -- and it was in a badly ported unix program. I once read somewhere, "Everybody knows unix programs crash all the time." They really do.

There are too many files in this folder for CompactPro, but most of them are in a couple folders that are only PC-ready files. So everything else went into a ".cpt" file (CompactPro is pretty robust: I use it for backups every day, and I recover files from it once or twice a month). The smaller folder (with the most files) MacZip could both pack and unpack, but it crashed on the larger folder. Fortunately, that one has few enough files so CompactPro can handle it.

There really ought to be a better way to do this.

First, get rid of the unixy MacZip turkey. The Mac is dead, anyway. WindowsXP does zip files correctly: they just open like a folder, and you can drag files out like any other folder. The only trouble is, they only do half the job: they don't go the other way.
 

2007 September 8 -- Fun Movie

I download most of the movies in low resolution, a couple hundred megabytes for an hour or so of viewing. The local phone company brags about the speed of their DSL connection, but these lo-res movies generally download in about two hours, something like twice their playing time. Streaming them would be awful. I once tried that: you get a few seconds of action and sound, then a couple minutes of frozen silence, then a few more seconds of action... Of course that was over dial-up; at my current DSL speed it might be closer to equal time silence and action, but still unwatchable. In any case I don't have the software to watch modern ".mp4" movies on this Mac, so I download them here, then transfer them to the PC over its "air-gap" firewall, then boot it up into Linux, which is the only system here capable of playing them. It's a lot of hassle, but that would be a good thing: it helps me not waste productive work time on movies.

This week it was Topper. Topper is distinctive in several ways, most significant being that they don't have a lo-res version to download. I could only get the full 1.6GB file, which took 12 hours to download. I'm not convinced it's the phone company's fault, it could be that Archive.org servers are all running Linux and can't handle the traffic. I do know that the movie listing page is the slowest website to load of any I have ever been to -- something more than two minutes before I see anything besides their banner logo. I can watch the status line on my browser, and it's filled with constant activity, continuously downloading 1- to 2MB files that never get displayed (I just want to see the text titles and synopses, probably 20K total). One learns to expect this kind of calamity on Linux-powered web sites; this one is merely the worst. But, hey, it's free. So when I want to download a movie, I pull up their bookmark, then go do something else.

Topper can only be described as a "fun" movie. It's about fun. The principle characters died, but couldn't go to Heaven or Hell because they had not done anything good or bad in their life, all they did was have fun. There's a theological problem with that, but this is fiction (see previous posts "Truth in Fiction" and "Fiction" on the literary merits of fiction). The good deed they set out to do in their ghostly purgatory was to persuade a musty old banker named Cosmo Topper to have some fun. It was all great fun to watch.

I have nothing against fun, but it's not very high on my priority of values. I once knew a fellow who described himself, "If it ain't fun, Al ain't there." It was true, Al [not his real name] was a lot of fun to be around. The problem is that some important activities are not fun. I enjoy writing clever software, but some parts of software development are a drag. However, if you don't do those parts, using the software is not fun. If it's not fun to use, people won't want to use it, and my fun is diminished. So I do those unfun things. Those are the days I get tired early, and end up watching movies like Topper.

Most of the movies are not as good as Topper. I guess that's why they are now in the public domain and available for free download (or on $5 Wal-Mart DVD collections -- often containing many of the same movies I can download). I used to read about "spaghetti westerns" (all the credits are Italian names) and B-movies; now I watch them.
 

2007 September 6 -- Humpty Dumpty Semantics

The American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) in the past described themselves as "an association of scientists who are also Christians" (I considered the order significant). I agreed with their statements of faith and purpose when I was in grad school, so I joined. It subsequently became evident to me that their commitment to the authority of the Bible was contingent on other factors -- thus my observation on the order of terms in their self-description -- and I dropped my membership. I could give assent to their words, but the implementation of those words was somewhat hostile to the sincere faith of a class of scientists which includes myself. The ASA has since that time revised their statements to more clearly restrict their trust in the authority of the Bible to "matters of faith and conduct," a restriction common among persons who do not trust the authority of the Bible in all matters of faith and conduct.

I continued to subscribe to the ASA journal, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, and sometimes read it for giggles. The current issue has such an article, "Extended Humpty Dumpty Semantics and Genesis 1". Almost everything the ASA prints about Genesis 1 is hostile to Genesis 1, but the title -- a reference to a philosophically significant chapter in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass -- suggests that this author is aware of the problem. Alas, being aware of it is no cure for being the cause of it.

Humpty Dumpty Semantics is basically the supposition that words can mean whatever we want them to mean. Mathematically -- in real life Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) was a mathematician -- this is true, but the reckless redefining of words to mean something other than their common usage is a common trick used by charlatans and deceivers (otherwise known as theologians and politicians) to trick people into believing they meant something completely different from what their careful choice of words really say. Mathematicians like me can detect this kind of trickery, but most people start thinking the writer is using the word in its ordinary sense, and thus miss what the author is really saying.

David Siemens correctly tells us in his ASA article that we cannot with integrity redefine the meanings of the words in Genesis 1 -- just before he starts to redefine the meanings of the words in Genesis 1 to more closely align with his preferred cosmology. It is dishonesty like this which led me to drop my ASA membership.

I was disappointed.
 

2007 August 30 -- Google Failure

I have long known that about half of my attempts to find something on the internet using Google end in failure. Most of what I'm looking for is there -- frequently I've seen it, or else find it some other way -- but Google can't find it. Or perhaps more accurately, it's somewhere in those 600,000 hits they report, just not anywhere near the top. When I'm really serious about finding something, sometimes I'll click through the first 30 or 50 hits looking for it, but after I've seen the same three entries ten or 20 times each, that gets old.

The current issue of IEEE Computer magazine, as part of a cover feature on new web search strategies, reports that "50% of all Web search sessions fail to find any relevant results for the searcher." I had thought my failure rate peculiar to my oddball way of thinking, but I guess not.

It is well known that Google is a mechanized popularity contest. The sites with the most inbound links are deemed most popular, so they rank higher in the displayed hit list. Popularity is no predictor of truth. Those of us who care about truth and facts rather than popularity get the shaft. Or maybe that's the best they can do. They are trying. One of the Computer magazine articles was written by Google staff, describing the kinds of improvements they are attempting.

A friend of mine posted on his blog some political propaganda disguised as a technical issue. He has not in the past promoted that particular political bigotry, so I asked where he got his information. His answer: Google. The technical issues are pretty clear and not supportive of his harangue, but half of the country hates the current sitting President (the other half felt the same about his predecessor), and neither side is disposed to let the facts confuse their politics. All the people too bigoted to care about truth, plus the much larger group of people who can't tell their left hand from their right (nor truth from error), they all post all these conspiratorial web sites linked to each other. Guess what? Google sees all those links, and ranks those pages higher. The propagandists know this. I regularly get spammers offering to do the same for my website (for a fee, of course). All my friend ever looked at was the propaganda lies that Google turned up, but he thought his perception was "balanced." Even if the propagandists are not intentionally pumping their Google rank, their excitement over the alleged conspiracy generates far more buzz (read links) than the boring truth does, so you get the same effect.

To their credit, the Google people know about pumping, and they have some sophisticated techniques to minimize its effect, but it's a constant cat and mouse game, which escalates the technology both of pumping and preventing rank fraud. I'm glad I'm not in that business.

To his credit, my friend eventually got around to looking at some of the data which contradicted his posted claims, and has subsequently modified his position somewhat. His revised posting, while retaining some of its political flavor, looks a lot less so.
 

2007 August 20 -- Video vs Truth

The enthusiastic recommendation, plus my own interest in the topic, invited my attention. "Incredible Creatures That Defy Evolution" is a set of three videos arguing the Creation model of origins from design, specifically by noting the remarkable qualities of some unique animals. The narrator, Jobe Martin, has dubious qualifications (he's a dentist turned theologian), and his primary argument is "See, and ask yourself if this could reasonably come from evolution."

I've seen this argument before, not too long ago. It may be good marketing, but it's not a very good way to get at the truth. The problem is that if the viewer is already convinced, then this just makes them feel good. If they are already convinced of the opposite point of view, then asking themselves isn't going to change their minds. The only way to convince somebody logically is to give them information they do not already have, and show where it leads. Dr.Martin did not do that. With one or two exceptions, every one of the strange combinations he described could be imagined -- just on the basis of the information he supplied -- to have evolved gradually by natural selection. Of course nobody is logical anyway, so maybe these videos are just making the best of a hopeless situation.

What was more troublesome was that Dr.Martin seems to be taking instruction from the same playbook as the bogus 9/11 video narrator. Here he is, describing this fabulous ability of all these fireflies turning their lights on at exactly the same time, while the video clearly shows them going on in sequence, starting at the bottom and fanning out towards the top. It is already known how birds in flight turn as a group by a simple cellular automaton mechanism of each bird tracking the movements of adjacent birds (and the whole group) within milliseconds; why can't fireflies do the same? That's what the video shows.

I fell asleep during the second video. Despite that I agree with his conclusion (albeit for better reasons), what's the point of watching bogus propaganda? Maybe I'll pick up where I left off some time in the future. Maybe -- like 9/11 -- I won't bother.
 

2007 August 13 -- Living in Crete

Cretans are always liars -- Epimenides
Philosophers might think the Cretan Epimenides meant that as some kind of joke, an impossible sentence meaning essentially "I am lying when I tell you I am lying." St.Paul quoted him and broke the paradox by pointing out that even lies can contain elements of truth. My friend Phil, a former military intelligence agent, responding to (and denying) my query about possible CIA involvement in 9/11, repeated the same insight:
Propaganda is the "skilled mixing of 99% truth with 1% deception to produce an overwhelmingly convincing message that is 180 degress opposite of the truth."
In other words, the lie is the intent of the whole utterance to deceive, not whether any individual component is true or false.

When I was younger, I was willing to split that semantic hair, convincing myself that I was not "lying" if what I said was literally true, even when it (intentionally, of course) gave an impression contrary to fact. However, working in Bible translation and being exposed to a particular linguistic theory called "relevance theory" helped me to see that the intended and communicated message is what is the lie or truth, not how you split the semantic hairs. Phil got it exactly right.

A policy of absolute honesty (never intending to deceive) has its downside. I tend to project on other people my own values, despite that I live in a modern version of Crete. Diogenes was not the only person who could not find an honest person -- not in Athens, and also not in the USA. I try to believe in their honesty, but sometimes it just doesn't add up. I have a pretty robust "BS Detector" that tells me when somebody is giving me a line, but I cannot tell whether they know it (so it's a lie), or just ignorantly repeating "urban legend." I am not very skillful at distinguishing lies from ignorance. Ignorance can be corrected, but the function of lies is thwarted when they are corrected, so the liar gets very unhappy (aka "not-angry") at my efforts. Again, not my intent.

It turns out there are some incidental phenomena that liars often forget to account for, which sometimes helps:

1.  I call this one the "Moses Test" in honor of its first proponent [Deut.18:22]. Once you catch a person in a lie, nothing they ever say can be trusted. In a smaller context, the same principle applies in debate or when somebody is trying to sell an idea or product: if some of the reasons contradict each other, then they are all lies. The same applies if they tell you about lying to some third party, whether it's true or not, you cannot trust them not to lie to you.

2.  My undergraduate major was mathematics, which is essentially the study of things that are absolutely true. One of the most astounding insights I got from that is that no matter what calculation you use, if you don't make any mistakes, you always get the same answer. If it doesn't add up, something is untrue. Scientists use this methodology all the time in deducing the facts of science, and it's a large part of my "BS Detector". Nobody is smart enough to make all facets of their lies add up, it can't be done. In fact, if all the parts added up, it would be the truth. So all you need to do is check for consistency. Liars don't worry about little failures, they just try a different lie; people who made an honest mistake recognize the problem and withdraw their claims -- or else work with you to find the problem. Contradictions, even in the reasons given, is a robust pointer to a hidden (that is, dishonest) agenda.

3.  People invest in what they believe. Talk is cheap, and flattering lies come easily to people with Feeler values or who want favors. However, they will commit a personal investment only in what they believe -- in other words, the truth. This is what makes the stock market a more effective predictor of the future of the economy than the prognostications of a "think tank." To get past flattery, look for what the person is willing to spend their own money on.

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2007 August 9 -- Motivation

In the light of earlier postings this week (Respect and Fantasies), an otherwise unrelated event seemed rather curious to me.

The sayings of Agur son of Jakeh invite us (among other things) to take a lesson from the ant [Prov.30:25] in saving up during times of plenty to tide us over during less bountiful times. This is especially good advice to professionals like myself with highly variable incomes, and I have done that for many years. Although this is one of those lean years, I do have some savings to live on. Other Scriptures advise wise investment [Matt.25:27] and making the world a better place, so I try to do something that also helps people. Funding a mortgage for a family member at below-market rates seems like the kind of win-win transaction that benefits everybody. That was supposed to happen last week, but various misunderstandings and the usual surprises delayed things somewhat.

The remarkable event is the attitude apparently expressed by the couple buying the house. I guessed they were too polite to say this to my face -- getting rid of relatives is a bit harder than dumping an out-of-state friend -- so what I got came through the grapevine, but it really seemed strange that they should be questioning my motives. I can only guess it has something to do with the Feeler mentality or "relationships", because I'm more apt to take a person's word as representing their true attitude -- probably because that's how I operate. This couple had experienced problems borrowing money from somebody else, so I was at pains to emphasize that "what's on the paper is all there is" between us; I'm not going to come back with additional demands after you have my money. The message didn't get through, or maybe some people are incapable of dealing transparently, so they cannot understand somebody who does. I really don't know, and I don't even know how to find out. [I subsequently was told this is not the case with them :-) Grapevines are as unreliable as plain guesses.]

What You See Is What You Get. There are no hidden agendas with me, no dishonest motivations, no withheld information. Well, I don't tell the thief where the family jewels are.

Sometimes, after people beat me up over it long enough, I get the message that they really don't want to know what I have to say, so I stop telling them everything. But that's a courtesy, based on (my perception of) their choice, not mine.

I will never offer you something I hope you don't take. Every offer is genuine, made in the belief that it is a win-win transaction. If you turn it down, I will assume your calculations came up differently from mine, "no harm, no foul." I'm not into pressuring or forcing on people things they don't want. When somebody wants out of my friendship, I make a good-faith effort to save the relationship, but if it fails, I try to let him go peacefully. But I'm not going to lie about it. He wanted to break it up, not I.

What You See Is What You Get. There is no hidden motivation.
 

2007 August 8 -- Crossing the Line of Respect

I first heard the phrase from Dr.Dobson on the radio many years ago. I guess it's in his book Love Must Be Tough, because the best distillation of it I have found is in a book review by Michael Vanier:
Basically, what Dobson is saying is that relationships are founded on respect, and when that respect starts to erode, the relationship starts to disintegrate. If this disintegration hasn't progressed too far, the relationship can often be saved if the disrespected party starts standing up for his or her rights.
I have noticed that a lot of the forums and blogs online require this same line of respect. They even use the same phrase, and define it carefully to mean the same thing.

I bungled it. Too late I realized that the problem with my (now former) friend was a total lack of respect.

I may have even started it, but I'm not sure of that. He asked my opinion on a financial topic, and I failed to realize how committed he was to a different point of view than I offered. We managed to halt the decline for a couple months when I absolutely refused to say anything else about finances, despite his prodding. Then I made the same dumb mistake again.

Worse: He had adopted a completely illogical and indefensible position in his blog, and I was foolish enough to say so. He had invited my comment, but I'm a very poor judge of when somebody is asking me to bless a decision they've already made, rather than asking my honest opinion. Their words are the same, the only difference is the unspoken opinion behind the words. I don't do well at digging out hidden agendas. From then on, his hostility and contempt rapidly demolished any line of respect there used to be. Nothing I could do would restore it, it was over.

Every time I lose a friend, it happens the same way. Well, most of them. In one or two cases the other person withdrew so quietly that I have no clue what went wrong, but all the others clearly turned when I made a negative comment about something they value. It is never my intent to cross that line, but it's always too late by the time I figure it out.

I need to remind myself, in the words of Pastor Wayne Adams, never criticize. Not for any reason whatsoever, because there's no way of knowing where that person draws the line, and nobody has the integrity to tell me before it's too late.

Diogenes was right, there are no honest people.

But I can't do that. It's not honest.

He really was foolish. And then angry and abusive. And I was right to demand that he be polite or be gone. It's that line of respect, and I do no favors to anybody by letting them trample it.
 

2007 August 7 -- Old Man River Keeps Rollin'

The movie Till the Clouds Roll By was twice as long as most downloads. It was a biopic about the career of songwriter Jerome Kern. I suspect he was successful because of his upbeat themes, like this line:
So always look for the silver lining, and try to find the sunny skies in life.
Stuff happens, and people need a way to cope with it. The PollyAnna approach is ever popular, just ignore the problems and pretend they don't exist, and they will go away. There is a better way.

I'm just reading the Bible straight through, a chapter a day plus a Psalm or Proverb, but the divine coincidence of those chapters and current events in my life is sometimes astounding. Today it was Zechariah 11, which is about casting the 30 pieces of silver to the Potter's Field (a prophecy later fulfilled in Judas), and Psalm 7:

O Lord my God, if I have done this and there is guilt on my hands --
If I have done evil to him who is at peace with me or without cause have robbed my foe ...
Arise, O Lord, in your anger; rise up against the rage of my enemies. Awake, my God; decree justice.
Judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness, according to my integrity, O Most High.
My shield is God Most High, who saves the upright in heart.
and more like that. Every now and then I feel like that. Today is one of those days. It's nice that God provided some words to fit my feelings.

In the movie, Jerry Kern was devastated by the loss of his friend and mentor. His grief resonated with me, but the Wiki bio on Kern claims the movie is fictionalized and makes no mention of the friend. Too many things in life get fictionalized beyond all recognition. That seems to be why I'm feeling this way.

sigh
 

2007 August 6 -- The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

It was a popular story when I was in high school -- popular at least with the literati and the school teachers -- this insignificant guy Walter Mitty had all these fantasies about his imagined great accomplishments. Today I think the urge to fantasize is largely sublimated into video games and karaoke and reading romance novels. I have a hard time believing that maintaining a substantial fantasy life unrelated to the real world is healthy, but at least its negative social consequences were relatively harmless, because such people generally kept their imaginations to themselves.

In today's world of unregulated blogs, however, the private veneer of protection is falling off. People write up their fantasies as if they were fact, and if they can successfully limit their inventions to untestable speculations about past events and the unspoken thoughts of other people too busy or important to sue, anybody with more time on their hands than sense in their heads can pick up the lies and pass them on as "truth." This kind of hostility poisons the public discourse and is definitely harmful. Besides that, the uncritical repetition of such slander is unChristian.

The same kind of hostile fantasizing on a more local scale -- that is not published in a weblog -- is just as poisonous and just as unChristian. One guy, already involved in the blog version of public lies, recently defended his one-on-one fabrications as acceptable Christian behavior. He (rightly) claimed that making guesses to fill in missing information is an appropriate way of dealing with a world of incomplete and inconclusive evidence, but somehow he was unable to qualify his assumptions as guesses and to distinguish his fabrications from testable reality. He also refused (for three months) to adjust his guesses to conform to new and better information from people who live in the situation he only speculates about.

I'm pretty sure there's a hidden agenda behind this particular story -- and maybe all of them -- but I'll never know, because he lacks the transparency and authenticity to discuss his opinions honestly. But I can (ahem) guess, by turning his fantasies around.

The Lord accepts my prayer. All my enemies will be ashamed and dismayed. Psa. 6:9,10


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