July 27, 2008

Week 30 of 2008

If anybody cares, my Blackberry says this was the 30th week of the year. For me, it was a pretty good week. Nikki’s been gone since Friday the 18th, so home is a little lonely. I’m doing OK, though.

TABA Empire Expansion

On my own time, I run a project called There And Back Again (TABA) at work; it’s a program that parses publicly shared Outlook calendars and builds a database of trips from one Epic campus to another. I also wrote and maintain a couple of webpages that allow you to search trips if you’re looking for a ride, or add/modify/delete your own trips if you’re part of the program. At the beginning of the week, I had a little more than 80 users (people who’ve given me permission to parse their calendars). That number has been fairly static for the last couple of weeks. The main way I grow and popularize the program is by mass-mailing Epic campuses, explaining the merits of the program, and bribing them with cookies. Epic reimburses your travel expenses from one of its campuses to another, which can add up to ten to twenty dollars in a month. Almost nobody bothers to collect this reimbursement because it’s not enough to bother keeping careful track of your travels. But my program can do it automatically. This is the program’s main selling point, though my primary purpose in writing it was to make it easy to catch a ride from one place to another.

Anyway, I extended my empire to another one of our campuses this week. I mass-mailed them and made what the recipe called “cinnamon snicker-doodles” (the main ingredient in the dough was yellow cake mix). It went pretty well; I now have a little more than 140 users. I found and fixed a couple of more bugs and got some more feedback, most of it quite positive. It’s fun to do and feel that I’m helping people out.

The cookies turned out awesome by the way.


On Thursday, I found out about a tech conference here in Madison called BarCamp scheduled for this weekend. I attended the kick-off event on Friday and spent most of Saturday (from 10am to roughly 8pm, though the event was going much later. I tired out around that time and came home and watched TailSpin). It was a lot of fun! I’d never been to a nerdy tech conference before, especially not one as flexible as BarCamp. The day’s schedule is created on-the-fly; scheduling a session is a simple as writing a topic on a sticky note and affixing it to an open slot on the chart. I actually wound up presenting a topic of my own: the first session I attended was on Lisp. During the course of the discussion, we very nearly ran off on a rabbit trail about the best way to train beginning programmers. I for one was very interested in that rabbit trail, so I scheduled a session to discuss it. Around a dozen people showed up, and we spent an hour discussing and diagramming the best way to train new programmers. It was a lot of fun.

Let me see here, I attended sessions back-to-back from noon until 7, so what were they? Intro to Lisp, a discussion for improving on HTTP (or moving beyond/below it), Web accessibility, making the world a better place through the Internet, the importance and impact of social media, and of course my own impromptu session. I was tired by the end of it. Food and attendance were free (amazingly), and the pizza served for dinner was more than adequate. Next year I’ll have to invite Moore and anyone else in the reasonably-surrounding area and attend whatever conference is offered then.

Deep Blue Quote Found

One last thing. I had a few free minutes waiting for my psychologist appointment this week, and I finally tracked down the source of a quote Ravi Zacharias used many years ago. I think it’s a brilliant article, though a few things in it rub me the wrong way.

As background, Gary Kasparov is widely regarded as one of the greatest chess players of all time. In the late 90s, he was the world chess champion. There was a very famous match between him and Deep Blue, an IBM supercomputer specially designed for playing chess. The match was notable because it was the first time a reigning world chess champion had lost to a computer. There was much hue and cry: some people wondered if it was a sign that computers had become more intelligent than human beings, if this was a harbinger of the sunset of mankind. This Time magazine article was written by David Gelernter, a professor of Computer Science at Yale. I’ll use the quote Ravi Zacharias gave.

But when you think about it carefully, the idea that Deep Blue has a mind is absurd. How can an object that wants nothing, fears nothing, enjoys nothing, needs nothing and cares about nothing have a mind? It can win at chess, but not because it wants to. It isn’t happy when it wins or sad when it loses. What are its apres-match plans if it beats Kasparov? Is it hoping to take Deep Pink out for a night on the town? It doesn’t care about chess or anything else. It plays the game for the same reason a calculator adds or a toaster toasts: because it is a machine designed for that purpose.

Computers as we know them will never have minds. No matter what amazing feats they perform, inside they will always be the same absolute zero ...

One of the biggest obstacles has been technologists’ naivete about the character of human thought, their tendency to confuse thinking with analytical problem solving. They forget that when you look out the window and let your mind wander, or fall asleep and dream, you are also thinking. They tend to overlook something that such mind-obsessed poets as Wordsworth and Coleridge understood two centuries ago: that thought is largely a process of stringing memories together, and that memories are often linked by emotion. No computer can achieve artificial thought without achieving artificial emotion too ...

The more powerful your computer, the more sophisticated the behavior it can imitate. In the long run I doubt if there is any kind of human behavior computers can’t fake, any kind of performance they can’t put on. It is conceivable that one day, computers will be better than humans at nearly everything. I can imagine that a person might someday have a computer for a best friend. That will be sad–like having a dog for your best friend but even sadder.

Computers might one day be capable of expressing themselves in vivid prose or fluent poetry, but unfortunately they will still be computers and have nothing to say. The gap between human and surrogate is permanent and will never be closed. Machines will continue to make life easier, healthier, richer and more puzzling. And human beings will continue to care, ultimately, about the same things they always have: about themselves, about one another and, many of them, about God. On those terms, machines have never made a difference. And they never will.

Never is a very long time. I am not as certain as Dr. Gelernter that computers will never have a mind, never have artificial emotions. If they ever do, though, they would have ceased to be machines and become living things. And it would no longer be proper for us to treat them the way we do now. But until then, I will have no compunctions about reformatting my machine’s hard drive.

I hope you’re doing well. Drop me a line if you think of me during the next week.

Posted by Leatherwood at 06:34 PM
This post has been classified as "Public Address"

The Glory of Achilles and the Glory of God

Nearly three years ago, I wrote about the idea of a “life worth living”. Last week, one of my short topics discussed my own insecurity about my life’s worth. There’s a part of me that longs to be great. To be the best, to be the hero. I discussed this during my meeting with Dr. Stewart this week. And I related this story: at the beginning of Troy, there’s a short scene that grabbed my attention. Agamemnon, one of the great Greek kings, is attempting to conquer somebody. The armies meet on the field of battle and prepare to slaughter each other. To forestall the bloodshed, one king proposes that the contest be settled by single combat between the greatest warrior on each side (reminiscent of David and Goliath’s battle). The one king summons his greatest warrior, a confident giant of a man. Agamemnon summons Achilles. But Achilles isn’t with the army. A small boy is sent to find Achilles and bring him back.

Once the boy finds Achilles, there’s an interesting exchange while the boy helps Achilles into his armor. The boy nervously says that Achilles’ opponent is a giant, ending with the plaintive phrase: “I wouldn’t want to fight him.” Achilles looks at the boy and answers “And that is why no-one will remember your name.”

That story isn’t from the Iliad. At least, I don’t remember it being there. But Achilles is given a clear choice at the beginning of the Trojan war: he can go to war and die there before his time, yet win undying glory as the greatest warrior of all time. Or he can stay at home, marry a lovely woman, raise children, and have a long and happy life ... and be utterly forgotten in a few generations. He chooses to go to war.

“What a colossal ego!” the psychologist interjected at this point. I was surprised. He seemed to believe this dilemma a simple one: you obviously choose to stay at home. I however, do not feel this a simple dilemma at all. A very significant part of me agrees with the choice of Achilles. He chose glory.

This is in line with one of the defining values for the Greeks, the concept of areté. Quoting from this page, “Translated as ‘virtue,’ the word actually means something closer to ‘being the best you can be,’ or ‘reaching your highest human potential.’” As I understand it, the Greeks longed for greatness and glory. To be the best. I think one of the driving forces for this is the universal human fear of death. Every culture must come to grips with the mortality of its members. And I think the Greek answer, at least in part, was to strive for greatness. To do something so great that your name would be remembered forever.

Our own culture owes much to the Greeks and we have inherited this desire as well (though not to the same extent as the Greeks, most likely). How many times in books and movies have you seen people do things to be remembered? “Eternal remembrance” is a common selling point used to get the elderly rich to invest in something: you offer to name the project after them. This is employed for all sorts of things, large and small. The larger the better. People like to believe that their achievements will be remembered.

Of course, they will not. Almost all people are utterly forgotten within a generation or two of their death. Almost every accomplishment, no matter how laudable, is forgotten. Yet still we press to be remembered. At least partly because there are some people who are remembered ... we’re still telling the story of Achilles. And George Washington. Yet even these monuments will fade. And I guarantee you the glory of Achilles will not outlast the heat-death of the universe.

The hope of doing something great enough that your name will live forever is a cheat and a mirage. But, as with all hopes, its roots are in something true. We humans find death unacceptable. Some counsel us to reconcile ourselves to death, to the void. Yet we cannot. “God has set eternity in the hearts of men.” We were not meant to die and be forgotten forever: this is the cry of the human heart. And if the Christian belief is correct, the human heart is right. We were not meant to die and be forgotten forever. And we don’t and we aren’t. No one is forgotten forever. No one really dies (in the sense of ceasing to exist anywhere). God remembers the housewife, the tailor, the boot maker. They too have a place in the kingdom of God, along with the “great”. Actually, they will enter much sooner than many of the great. For God measures greatness differently.

Striving for a Prize

So is there anything to strive for? Anything to pour your heart and mind and soul into? Is there nothing to compete for? Is there no true greatness, no real undying glory?

I think our love of heroes springs from more things than our fear of death and being forgotten. It also springs from a genuine admiration for great deeds. God may measure greatness differently, but measure it He does.

“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’” (Revelation 2:7, ESV)

“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’” (Revelation 2:11, ESV)

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.’” (Revelation 2:17, ESV)

And there’s always the parable of the talents.

“For it [the kingdom of heaven] will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

(Matthew 25:14-30, ESV)

Beware of wasting the talents God has given you.

Posted by Leatherwood at 06:32 PM
This post has been classified as "Musings"

July 20, 2008

Short Topics

Hey everybody! Another week has passed by. I have a note on my Blackberry where I keep track of ideas to write about. Here are its cryptic notes for this week:

  • Using the name of the Lord in vain means using it inappropriately.
  • TS is highly honored at Epic.
  • You cannot write about it all.
  • You cannot pray about it all.
  • Pr 13 3 is interesting.
  • Life in a square foot.
  • Post on evolution.
  • I read a sci-fi book.
  • Redemption and renewal.
  • Corporations as AI.
  • What do you want the truth to be?
  • Isa 6 9–10: people harden their own hearts because they don’t want to hear.
  • Nikki is gone so editing might be worse.
  • Rom 1–2 state of man and the West; people are corrupt and none of us have an excuse. West like children of Israel; we have the law and think we’re better than the rest of the word but we do the things we preach against.
  • I dreamed of a mission project with my family in DC. At the end of it there was a presentation to a church and a love offering taken and I was richly rewarded. And my dad said he was proud of me for the way I’d handled the first assignment. “They also serve who...” I’d filled out a time sheet like I do at work, but only for the first day because I’d forgotten, yet I still was rewarded. People were also really impressed that I worked for Epic.

And that was only the thoughts that have occurred me worth writing about in the last week! We’ll see how many of them I get to, but what I wrote is true: you cannot write about it all. And this is by God’s design and it is good.

If there are any of these thoughts you want expanded that I don’t expand, let me know.

Passing through the list for the short ones:

Using the name of the Lord in vain means using it inappropriately.

I realize this seems trite. We all know the fourth Commandment: “‘You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.’” (Exodus 20:7, ESV) But normally what comes to mind as examples of taking the Lord’s name in vain is profane cursing: using God or Jesus as an expletive. And I as a “good” person don’t do that, so I tend to sort of check that one off and move on.

But it occurred to me that this commandment applies directly to places where we use God’s name to legitimize our own goals. As an extreme example, if the comic book that Cynic found is genuine (which it probably isn’t), it probably classifies as a violation of this commandment. So could the sale of some of the trinkets one can find in Christian bookstores: the name of God is being used to sell key chains and bumper stickers and plush toys. Many of the things we do “in the name of God” have little to do with honoring Him and more about advancing our own interests. This classifies as a violation of the 4th commandment.

I don’t want to take this too far to the point where I disapprove of everything that strikes me as “insufficiently holy” ... as a matter of fact, doing so is a exactly what I’m talking about: I disapprove of something so I use the name of God (or the excuse that I’m acting in defense of His dignity) to squash it.

TS is highly honored at Epic.

One of the things I strongly approve of in working for Epic is the role that TS (Technical Support) plays. This is the group of people that directly interfaces with customers after they install our software. They track down the bugs and cleanup the aftermath of stupidity (both ours and our customers’). This is what’s cool about Epic:

TS is very good. They are not undereducated grunts who don’t know what they’re talking about. They are intimately familiar with the ugly hacks and weird things that are possible within our environments. They are advocates for our customers (TS will bug you about fixes their customers are waiting on) and they can write some fairly spiffy utilities. Their code may lack some of the professional polish that ours as software developers has, but it gets the job done cleanly. I don’t want their job, but they do it well.

You cannot write about it all.

This follows directly from the principle that time is limited. There are an infinite number of things worth writing about. There is a finite amount of time and passion for doing so. This is the way God wrote the world, and it is good. There is no shame that you can’t get to everything: you were never meant to. Not in the span of a life, anyway.

You cannot pray about it all.

Ibid. Looking at the prayer bulletin in church today was daunting. Considering my family and my friends and my country and my world (and my own life, which tends to be #1, sadly), there are an infinite number of worthy things to pray about. And a finite amount of time in which to do it. There is no shame in being unable to pray about everything in the time you have: you were never meant to.

Pr 13 3 is interesting.

“Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin.” (Proverbs 13:3, ESV)

I talk a lot. I should be careful about that...perhaps I shouldn’t.

Life in a square foot.

A shamefully few times in my life, I’ve knelt down and carefully examined a few square feet of ordinary grass. It’s marvelous. There is so much there! Little bugs you don’t know the names for, toiling along. Putting yourself in their perspective the world is an incredible place! Every grass blade is different. There’s always something odd that makes you wonder “How the heck did that get there?” And there’s an answer to that question ... that you’ll probably never know. What’s the story of the stray twig? How did it get there? What has this bug done today? Where’d that trench come from? This universe is a miraculous place. In both directions. The size and glory of the planets, star systems, interstellar space, galaxies, intergalactic space, local clusters ... it just gets bigger. Pondering the size of the universe and the wonders it holds is one of the most exciting things for me. I know I’ll never be bored.

But the universe is equally large and amazing in the other direction: in the unnoticed life of insects and birds and small creatures, in bacteria and viruses, in cellular life and molecular interactions, in atomic and subatomic and quantum interactions ... it’s a marvelous universe in every direction.

Post on evolution.

That is not a small subject. It deserves its own post ... book, more like it.

I read a sci-fi book.

So I did ... and it is not a small subject either. I should write the book’s author ...

Redemption and renewal.
Corporations as AI.
What do you want the truth to be?

Nope: too big.

Isa 6 9–10: people harden their own hearts because they don’t want to hear.

And he said, “Go, and say to this people: ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”

Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, and the Lord removes people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. And though a tenth remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, whose stump remains when it is felled.”

The holy seed is its stump.

Isaiah 6:9-13, ESV

I have struggled with this passage (or, more correctly, its New Testament citations) many times. It always seemed to me to mean that God Himself swore to “make the heart of this people dull...” so that they would not turn and be healed, similar to times in strategy games where I would do things to ensure that my enemies would not offer peace before I wanted to accept it (since rejecting an offer of peace was a no-no for a democracy, IIRC).

But I think I may have misread it. What if it isn’t God who hardens people, but people themselves? There have been times when I choose to (or at least am strongly tempted to) stop listening, stop seeking to understand because I know (or fear) that if I keep listening, if I keep trying to understand, I will ... and that I’ll have to change. Easier to stop listening now, before my choice to not believe what I know to be true is no longer a secret ... from myself as well as others.

Nikki is gone so editing might be worse.

My wife has departed on a three-week vacation to Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado. Normally I run my posts through her: she reads them, points out editing errors, and gives me advice on controversial posts. She isn’t here now, though, so my writing will probably be rougher.

It’s hard to sleep without my wife. One of my most favorite things about marriage is snuggling close to Nikki before going to sleep. I’ll survive somehow, though. :) On canned soup, mostly. :)

Rom 1–2 state of man and the West; people are corrupt and none of us have an excuse. West like children of Israel; we have the law and think we’re better than the rest of the word but we do the things we preach against.

It occurred to me that much of what Paul says about the children of Israel in Romans 1 & 2 can be applied to the modern West. The Bible is deeply embedded in our culture (much to the annoyance and frustration of some ...) and Christian mores are a foundational element of our ethics. We have the law. And, like the Jews, we have a tendency to think it makes us righteous.

But if you call yourself a Jew [Christian] and rely on the law and boast in God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth—you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles [non-Western world] because of you.”

For circumcision [Christian culture] indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision [Christian culture] becomes uncircumcision [heathen culture]. So, if a man who is uncircumcised [a heathen] keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision [heathen-ness :)] be regarded as circumcision [Christian culture]? Then he who is physically uncircumcised [does not call himself a Christian] but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision [Christian culture] but break the law. For no one is a Jew [Christian] who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision [Christianity] outward and physical. But a Jew [Christian] is one inwardly, and circumcision [Christianity] is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.

Romans 2:17-29, ESV, comments mine

It is a common error among people possessing a Christian culture to believe themselves superior to those without it and to ignore their own violations of it. As Wilson has put it (and I can’t find it so I’ll paraphrase), such people believe inane things like there are no noble or wise people from non-Christian cultures, that being a Christian automatically makes you one of the “good guys” and not being one one of the “bad guys.”

I dreamed of a mission project with my family in DC. At the end of it there was a presentation to a church and a love offering taken and I was richly rewarded. And my dad said he was proud of me for the way I’d handled the first assignment. “They also serve who...” I’d filled out a time sheet like I do at work, but only for the first day because I’d forgotten, yet I still was rewarded. People were also really impressed that I worked for Epic.

Granted, this was a dream. I remember only wisps of it now (which is why I wrote notes for it as soon as I could). Yet God is not above using dreams (e.g. Joseph, Nebuchadnezzar) and I felt this one was ... special. That it was (at least in part) God’s way of letting me know he is pleased with me. That he hasn’t written me off as a loss to His kingdom, even though my field is not mission work or the pastoral ministry and even though I seldom see much eternal value in what I do. IIRC from the dream, I never did anything fantastic or terribly ministry-related. I just did the things I normally do. And yet I was still richly rewarded.

As the son of a wonderful missionary, with siblings dedicated to the ministry and a strong family culture of serving God with one’s life, I often have nagging doubts about my own value. I’m a bloody computer programmer. I don’t save people, I rarely talk about my faith, my life seems fairly sterile. I often wonder if God is secretly disappointed in me. I wonder if He’s written me off as a failure and has turned His face to more promising children. People who do things right. Who dedicate their lives to Him and serve Him wholeheartedly. I wonder if God hates me. Or just doesn’t care. Or has forgotten me. Or if I’m just one of millions of children he vaguely loves but never thinks of (believing that such children exist is heresy).

I hope that counts a post, and that you didn’t mind its haphazard switching among topics. If you have any comments, either leave them openly here or send them to me. (If you don’t know my e-mail address, post a comment asking for it. I’ll try to get it to you.)

Peace be with you all.

Posted by Leatherwood at 05:33 PM
This post has been classified as "Musings"

July 13, 2008

Master Moore's Wedding

I've decided that I'll try to use Sunday as my day to update my blog and write my family. Hopefully that means I'll be more consistent at both now that I have a certain day of the week set aside to do it.

Unquestionably the biggest event of the past week was Moore and Sharon's wedding, which I was privileged to attend. I nearly missed it, since I haven't looked at the main Shadow Council page in a very, very long time. I vaguely knew that Moore and Sharon were getting married, but certainly not when or where. Master Wilson was kind enough to fill me on on both of those when I talked to him last week. Thankfully, the wedding was in Illinois, so I was able to drive down and make it. It would have been a great shame to miss it, both for the sake of seeing Moore and Sharon and also because so many of the SC would be there. It was great to see you all.

The bride and groom were radiant, as they should be. I don't think I've ever seen a groom and bride quite so happy and ... at ease. I feel no foreboding regarding their future together. While my own wedding will always rank first in my own eyes (both for reasons of loyalty and in an objective sense, at least thus far), this was a great wedding to attend. All the more so because my own lovely bride was able to come with me and share the event. However, I failed to bring my camera, so you must rely on others for photographic evidence of the event.

I don't have many long-winded thoughts to share on the event. The things that stand out most about it to me that I'll share are these:

  1. As previously mentioned, the bride and groom's great happiness and unharried joy. The time leading up to a wedding is almost always stressful; Moore and Sharon handled it wonderfully.
  2. My wife really enjoyed the event. She was worried that she wouldn't have anyone to talk to; she was pleasantly surprised to be fondly remembered and to have plenty of people to talk to. In talking about this afterward, we reckoned part of this to the fact that the intervening years have given us all stuff to talk about and catch up on, and another part due to the fact that so many more of them are now married themselves. I was the first of my peer group to be married and Nikki often felt that my friends of my "former life" weren't quite sure how to react to my new married status. But we've all had practice, both for us in relating to others as a married couple and for them in relating to formerly-single-now-plural friends. It's all part of growing up. I am very pleased she enjoyed herself; thanks for making my wife feel welcome!
  3. There was dancing at Master Moore's wedding. Few of the dancers had any experience, but at least that made us all equally foolish. Unfortunately, my wife did not want to dance, so I wasn't able to dance with her. But I was able to dance with Miss Tucker, and I greatly enjoyed it, both for the dancing itself and for the friend herself. Dancing and music-playing are two arts I would greatly enjoy being better at ... but they go into my good-idea-someday bag, which has an awful lot of wonderful things in it.
  4. We went out for bowling afterward and ate good pizza. I generally tend to be partial to thicker pizza (Pizza Hut tends to be my and Nikki's favorite), but this was thin pizza, and it was very good.

It was good to see you all. I've missed you.

Posted by Leatherwood at 05:30 PM
This post has been classified as "Public Address"

Mitchell Senti

It's been a long time since I wrote a eulogy. I suppose that can be viewed as a good thing: one doesn't recognize a person worth eulogizing every day. It would be wise to keep the list relatively small, so as not to dilute the praise I offer them.

But it's also a good thing to add to the list. Life goes on, and I continue to meet varied and wonderful people worth remembering. And I present one to you today: Mitchell Senti.

Mitch and Rochelle Senti

Nikki and I first met Mitch and his wife Rochelle soon after we moved to Bellingham, back in 2005. This was before he started the Three Trees coffee house in Bellingham that he's most known for today. Mitch invited us to a meeting with a few friends; we shared some food, artwork, and some our various talents. IIRC, I recited "A Nauseous Nocturne" (from Calvin and Hobbes) to much acclaim. :)

Over the next two years, I met Mitch off and on. I attended a men's bible study in his home with him and a small group of other guys. While the theological opinions of that fellowship were often ... interesting ... the love was genuine and the faith fervent. It was not a waste of time, which is high praise for any meeting. :)

Three Trees Coffeehouse was a brainchild of Mitch and his wife and a few others from the community. They had in mind a place where anyone could come and be welcome and talk about God. They succeeded. I've written about it once before; it was a place I visited to sword-fight, debate, and to see Mitch. Here's another perspective on the place I turned up in finding the links for this post.

We fenced with boffer sticks off and on over the years, sometimes by ourselves, sometimes with others, generally on Thursday night. Sometimes Mitch and I would walk to his home together, a distance of a mile or two, discussing Jesus and other things of the heart.

People who genuinely remind one of Jesus are rare and precious. Mitch Senti is one of them. Like all of us, he's am imperfect person; he's young and has maturing to do, but he honestly reminds me of Jesus; both in his words and in his actions. His love for others is genuine, and his joy in life is real. He's a good sparring partner and a fine friend. One of my greatest regrets in leaving Bellingham was leaving the Sentis: Mitch, Rochelle, and their son Jonathan. They're a fine family that this world is not worthy of.

To Mitch:

Thanks for everything. I enjoyed our every conversation and relished our every duel. You're a fine, rare man; it's a pleasure to see God work in your life. Thanks for the encouragement you were to me over the years, and the blessing knowing you and Rochelle was to me and Nikki. God bless you.

Posted by Leatherwood at 05:29 PM
This post has been classified as "Eulogy"

Time Is Limited

As I mentioned last week, I continue to see a psychologist. I don't feel a strong need to, but I think it can benefit me. His name is Dr. Stewart. During our discussion, I tried to restate my problem in simple, universal terms: I feel upset and guilty because I know I'm not doing all the things I should. The list of things I ought to do is endless, and instead of doing them, I escape into books or video games: somewhere I don't have the face the crushing pile. I generally do those things that are truly necessary (meaning those things with a deadline in the immediately foreseeable future (like the next 3 days)) and leave things that "ought" to be done to the undefineable future.

Dr. Stewart interjected here; I have a valid reason for wanting to escape: the to do list is endless and daunting, and it never gets any smaller. When I do work on it, it never diminishes in size (at least, not for long), and I find it emotionally exhausting to try. He then brought up an old proverb of time management: "Work is infinite. Time is not. You cannot manage the infinite." There's a lot of truth in that.

I have never managed to accept that I cannot actually get done all the things I ought to do. I feel that if I tried hard enough, I could. Feeling this way results in guilt when I fail to get everything done, because I feel that if I tried hard enough, I could. But I can't.

I related a joke I used to tell in college: I wished that I only needed to sleep for a single hour ... and that none of my professors knew that. Dr. Stewart asked me why I would want to only sleep for one hour. I was taken slightly aback: the benefit of only needing to sleep for a single hour was so evident to me that I'd never bother to put it into words. Basically, I desired to need less sleep so that I could get more stuff done. But, contrary to the firm belief of modern American culture, getting more is not a path to happiness, but to futility. Even desiring to get more stuff done is dangerous if you find your value in what you've gotten done. If you get more done, you believe yourself more valuable. If less, then less. And just as the desire of man is infinite (being made to be satisfied with God, who is infinite), so is the list of things that would be worthwhile to do. It's infinite.

I occurred to me at this point that this limitation is built into the universe. It is not even the result of the Fall: it is part of the way human beings perceive time. Even if we live forever, we perceive time in indivisible units. To choose to devote time to one thing is to choose not to devote it to another. Only God can get an infinite number of things done in a finite amount of time. Desiring and striving to do so yourself is futile ... and reminiscent of Satan's boast.

Dr. Stewart then proceeded to refer to the fundamental limitation of time as a gift ... a blessing. I was sharply taken aback, because I had been thinking of it as a curse. A nasty limitation on human beings that keeps us from being like God (a rather diabolical thought). But it is in fact a blessing. Because our time is limited, we are free to be humans and not gods. To be able to do everything leads to an obligation to do everything. I'm not arguing God has an obligation to us to do everything, but in some ways he has one to himself. God never makes a mistake. Never misses an appointment. God does everything He's supposed to. (Though only He knows everything He's supposed to do). To a certain extent, He has to: He's perfect and He's God.

We are free to choose how we spend the limited time we have. Not everything can be done. Scarcity gives rise to value, as every economist knows. Our time costs us something.

I still have a lot of work to do ... finding, setting, and living with priorities. I still play more video games than I should. But I strive to let go of the notion that I can do everything that's worth doing. I can't.

Once I got back on from my appointment with Dr. Stewart, I wrote this message on my whiteboard at work:

Work is infinite.
Any given span of time is not.
Therefore, within any given span of time, there will be work left undone.
"And God saw that it was good ..."

A friend of mine noticed the message. He looked at it for a minute or to and proceeded to make the following changes:

WorkBeer is infinite.
Any given span of time is not.
Therefore, within any given span of time, there will be workbeer left undoneundrunk.
"And God saw that it was good ..."

I have left it like that.

Posted by Leatherwood at 05:28 PM
This post has been classified as "Musings"

July 06, 2008

Trusting Smart People

Nikki and I missed the fireworks because Wisconsin and Illinois all have their fireworks on July 3 ... a fact we did not discover until July 4. There's got to be something unpatriotic about not having fireworks on the 4th. :) Instead, we went to see Wanted. I didn't like it and advise you not to see it if you haven't already. It was rather good in a technical sense, had some interesting plot twists, and did some daring things as a story ... but I didn't like it. I think it's fair to say this film deserved an R rating, and it's a film that should be avoided on those grounds.

However, watching it was useful in one respect: it led to a really good conversation between Nikki and I me as I mused about the thoughts and feelings we had about the film and explored the rabbit trails that discussion turned up.

Nikki chanced to say something that really caught my attention. We were discussing the attitude I take toward some of my friends; how much I trust and value their opinion (don't ask me how we got here from Wanted: I have no idea). Nikki pointed out that a great deal of the reason I trust and value these people is because they're really smart.

I place an enormous value on intelligence. Perhaps because I place fairly well on that scale. I have a healthy skepticism about my own infallibility, but Nikki pointed out that I have no such skepticism about people I consider smarter than me. I suppose my underlying belief is that my fallibility is a result of not being smart enough: if I was smarter, I wouldn't be as fallible.

This also leads me to great distress, because smart people disagree. All the time. They like it! I seem to have acquired the idea somehow that smart people are supposed to be right, and therefore they're supposed to agree. This is not the case. As a simple example, in companies that attempt to mandate coding standards there are wars fought over whether a tab in text files should be 8 characters, 4, or 2, and if it should be represented by a tab character or spaces (for the record, I waver between 2 and 4 spaces and would prefer tabs, in case somebody cares). Most of the people doing this fighting are fellow nerds, likely among the smarter half of the population. And they still can't agree.

A closer look at my feelings on that turned up a number of interesting things:

  • I have a tendency to think that failure to agree is failure to understand, and that failure to understand is due to a failure of intelligence (if not adequately explaned by differences in background, training, or communication.)
  • I have a tendency to put people I consider smarter than me on pedestals, constantly comparing my own opinions to theirs and often modifying mine to more closely fit theirs (I seldom carry this to ridiculous extremes, or it would be more obvious).
  • Disagreeing with someone I consider smarter than me is painful until I can find an alternative "expert" who agrees with me. (Not generally a difficult thing to do).

I'm not sure of what to do about this. The problem of knowing truth is an old one, and is intractable from a human standpoint. Smart people are valuable allies in a search for truth ... but every idea under the sun has smart people defending it. And it is perilous to forget this: "In that same hour he [Christ] rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.’" (Luke 10:21, ESV) And even further:

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men."

(1 Corinthians 1:18-25, ESV, emphasis mine)

And further: "Trust in the Lord with all of your heart and do not lean on your own understanding." Or that of someone else.

It is perilous to trust smart people. It gives you an excuse to avoid doing your own thinking. As they go astray they lead you astray. Do not set up smart people as little gods in your life.

Posted by Leatherwood at 04:30 PM
This post has been classified as "Musings"

A Brief History and Update on My Depression

Hello everyone. It's been quite a while since my last post! I'm amazed at the fortitude of those of you who remain. A testament to the power of RSS feeds. :)

Many of you know that I've been struggled with mild depression for the last several years. I was prescribed medication for it at the end of college and have been taking it fairly regularly since August 2006. It has been a long time, and since I'm not sure how much I've ever put into simple writing, so I offer a brief history:

  1. Circa spring of 2003 is when I date the beginnings of depression for me. They were subtle and I didn't really take much notice of them. In retrospect, it became increasingly difficult to do things I prided myself on doing, like schoolwork and regular devotions.

  2. Spring of 2005 was the worst. It was my final semester at college and the first three letters on my report card summarize it succinctly: B A D. (I had an additional B that doesn't fit on that phrase) I hadn't failed schoolwork so utterly since the third grade. Toward the end of that time I saw a psychiatrist for the first time and was diagnosed as mildly depressed (I'd been seeing a psychologist since fall 2002, but it started as just talking rather than needing/seeking help). A 75mg daily dose of a medicine called Effexor XR (the active ingredient is Venlafaxine) was prescribed for me. I took it regularly for six weeks. During those six weeks, college ended for me and we moved to Washington. My depression dramatically improved in that time, but I wasn't sure how much of that was due to medication and how much to not going to college anymore. So I chose to stop taking the medication and see what happened.

  3. For the next six months, things went well. I loved my job at Logos in Bellingham and didn't experience any significant episodes of depression that I can recall. However, my job at Logos ended in December. This wasn't precisely my fault: it was only an internship and was in fact extended by six months. I was an excellent intern, but the company was fairly small and I wasn't impressive enough to hire full time. Over the next few months, I discovered that Bellingham was a lousy place for a software developer without a great deal of experience. My depression returned, though never as black and severe as Spring of 2005 (or I was more effective at playing video games to keep it quiet).

  4. In semi-desperation, I used a temp agency to find something to do while I continued to look for work I liked. I quickly found a regular job at a small packaging company doing factory-type labor, running machines and doing highly repetitive work folding thousands and thousands of tiny boxes. I continued to look for work, now casting my net far outside Bellingham.

  5. I was interviewed and accepted for a job working as a software engineer for the Navy at a research lab in Virginia. This was every encouraging. However, I had to go through a very thorough background check. I was concerned because my family lived in Iraq of all places and because it would be very difficult to find people to vouch for my pre-college days in Mongolia. Those issues never came up. Instead, the problems I had centered on the fact that I'd taken psychiatric medicine at one point and had stopped taking it without consulting my doctor. When it first came up, I agreed to be re-evaluated by a doctor to see if I needed to continue taking it. I went through this evaluation with a doctor who was a close friend of our family. He determined that I didn't need medication, but that it could benefit me. He left the choice to me, and I chose to go back on medication: I thought the Navy might prefer it if I went back on and besides, I had been fairly depressed over the past few months and figured it might help.

    Unforunately, it didn't quite work that way. My security clearance was rejected and I didn't get the job. This was not crushing news; I've always taken a philosophical attitude toward bureaucracies; they follow their rules and there's nothing personal in it. The fact there is nothing personal it it has negative and positive sides; I was experiencing a negative side.

  6. This was now fall of 2006. I determined to rewrite a chess program I created in college as a demonstration of my talents as a programmer. I had learned a great deal in my internship at Logos and was ashamed of foolish things I had done in my first program. I began work on this in November and finished in January. I began shopping my resume around again doggedly.

  7. I was fired from my job working for the packaging company in spring of 2007. I adjust to doing highly repetitive tasks by teaching myself to do it on autopilot and then letting my imagination wander freely. I have a highly talented autopilot; I can easily walk and read at the same time and be utterly engrossed in my book. My autopilot will keep me on course, warn me when I come to a street, and do many other helpful things (though objects (e.g. tree branches) slighly above eye level escape my autopilot; I've bumped painfully into them many times). However, it is an autopilot and makes mistakes. I made too many over too short a period of time (roughly one semi-bad one a month) and my boss was fed up with it. My highly absent-minded nature does not serve me well in manufacturing-type jobs.

    This was not a devastating blow. It certainly hurt: the thought that I couldn't even do mindless packaging right certainly occurred to me, but for the most part I was able to objectively agree that I wasn't terribly good at manufacturing. Though neither was I terribly bad. It is a very good autopilot and I think my boss was a little too touchy. He cycled through workers regularly. In the months after I left, he frustrated some of his best employees to the point where they quit and considered suing him. I don't know how that business is doing now.

    I continued to look for work.

  8. Oddly enough, putting my resume on Monster.com led to the jobs that led me to my much better current circumstances. I had dismissed the idea of applying on Monster completely, figuring that using it was similar to entering the lottery and had about the same chance of success on either side. But if it was free to enter the lottery, it would make more sense to do so. I have since discovered that while keyword searches may be nearly useless, they are not utterly useless. Or perhaps God "cheated" in my favor. Either way, I got an interview with Microsoft through Volt and with Epic. And a couple others. And the rest you know, or can quickly find out from reading my last few posts. (I'd say my "recent" posts but I'd be lying).

  9. I'd continued to take medication from August of 2006 on. I figured I might as well ... besides, I didn't want to be disqualified from government clearance and figured they might accept me for some other job if I stayed on it. It was not actively harming me. My dose was increased from 75mg/day to 150mg/day to around 225mg/day. Mostly just to see if a higher dose was more effective. There wasn't much of a difference, but it did seem to help a little more.

    When we moved to Wisconsin, I did not wish to repeat my earlier mistake; I found a doctor who was here and continued to take it. I had never taken it terribly consistently. When I mentioned this to my doctor, he took it quite seriously. He didn't want to prescribe medication I wouldn't take consistently. Seeing his point, I determined to make a test of it; I would take the medication consistently for a month and determine if I wanted to stay on it.

  10. This I did, from April to May 2008 (this year). I took a daily dose of 225mg of venlafaxine. At the end, I decided the effect was just too subtle to be worth the trouble and expense of taking. (the drug would run in excess of $200 for a month's supply if I had to pay for it all myself (thank God for insurance).) So I stopped again, this time with my doctor's advice and consent. I tapered off and have finally finished; I am taking nothing at all now.

This text file (I write my posts in a text editor before posting them) is around 150 lines long at present. That's fairly long. Dunno how many of you are still reading. But now I want to reflect on my whole history of depression and medication.

I'll probably deal with mild depression all my life. I'm an imperfect perfectionist, so I'm bound to be depressed. :) As my perfectionism deteriorates and is replaced by healthier thinking, I suspect I'll suffer less. And I have a fair amount of experience now. :)

I don't know if medication ever helped me. My wife reminds me that it had some effect. One of the things it suppressed was the thoughtful semi-depressed mood in which I do much of my philosophical thinking. Likely a large part of why I haven't posted reguarly. It did regulate my emotions; I was mostly content while I took it. It was always a subtle thing, though. Without it, I feel almost the same. I'm more prone to sink into thoughful/depressed silence without it. It's been a long time since I've got out alone into the night to talk to God. It used to be more common; I suspect it may become so again.

If I had it to do again, I probably wouldn't take medication. It never made enough of a difference to me. But that's just me; everyone is different and some people it can really help. I would warn people that they should definitely not stop taking it without the advice of their doctors, both because taking my doctor's advice meant that I had a very gradual "descent to normality" and because the bureaucracy that handles security clearances really doesn't like it. And you might want such a clearance one day. :)

That said, I don't long for a "reset" button. Certainly not about taking medication. I do wonder how my life would have been different if I'd chosen differently about taking medication (either time). But not that much. God does work everything out for good. And I love my job working for Epic.

I do have regrets about my depression; I regret the time I allowed it to swallow up. Months of my life were lost to inaction during which I suffered a painful guilt in knowing that there were things I should do and didn't want to. I still deal with that. I still have a lot of unanswered questions, and a fair amount of discontent with myself. But I'll continue to work through it. Without meds (though I continue to see a psychologist).

Posted by Leatherwood at 01:29 PM
This post has been classified as "Public Address"
Valid XHTML 1.0 Strict
Valid CSS!