Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Candidate

Some weeks back there was a knock at the door. I answered and a pleasant volunteer stood there exhorting me to vote for someone. When asked why she affirmed that the person she represented would help:
  • strengthen families
  • strengthen the city
  • create jobs and improve the environment
My reply was, "Wonderful. These are fantastic things that I want! But how will your candidate accomplish this? You know, even Atilla the Hun could advocate such things."

Her response was a bit of deer-in-the-headlights quickly followed by, "let me get the candidate." It wasn't necessary and I thanked the volunteer nonetheless. My neighbor dropped in a bit later and we were chatting when the candidate showed up a minute after that.

The Candidate was an altogether pleasant person and I could tell that if elected, she'd do everything she could to accomplish those admirable goals she enumerated. But she was a bit vague on how she'd accomplish them. I figured that it would be rude to press her at this point and changed the subject.

Our cul-de-sac is evenly split into two factions as fierce as the slave-state vs free-state conflict of years bygone. You can characterize our conflict in our cul-de-sac as the Forces of Light versus the Forces of Darkness. I explained to her that in the last year or so the business of putting up street lights has come before the city commission and I asked how she'd vote. (I think the lights we have now work fine without the city dunning us a few thousand bucks to put them in.)

Her answer showed her skill as a politician, because she said what I wanted to hear, but didn't actually commit herself to either Light or Darkness.

At this point, I wanted to know who's team this rising star was playing on. I had a suspicion, but I wanted it confirmed. The race is a non-partisan one so one has to ask sneaky questions to ascertain Republican versus Democrat. What's her resume look like? She's worked in child-protection stuff. I said, "Oh, that's how Hillary Clinton got her start." I figured that if she flashed on the name, she'd out herself as flaming lib or raging clinton-hater. She said nothing. Very astute.

She left me with her campaign literature and my neighbor went home too. Scanning the literature I went through the names of endorsers. Ah, the usual suspects appeared, all of whom are more-or-less identified with one party. OK, good to know which team she's on.

I figure she has a bright future in politics. At least she's following to the template of her party. It becomes clear when you look deeper and compare/contrast with the other candidates that this party has put up in the last few election cycles.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan won a landslide election over a fellow who complained of malaise as he blamed the American people for his failings. Listening to NPR at the time, the complaint was that Reagan's politics were vague and sugarcoated and they obscured hard things that must be done. The response was a fellow from Minnesota who promised to raise taxes and another landslide followed. After another Massachusetts liberal lost another election, Mr. Clinton reversed this losing streak by promising middle-class tax cuts and complaining the worst economy in 50 years was caused by 12 years of greed.

I believe Mr. Clinton's party didn't understand why Mr. Reagan won. They thought his success was pure charm & platitudes. And Mr. Clinton's success seemed to vindicate this opinion. Since then I've seen a pattern repeated in campaigns from folks on that side of the aisle.

There are a lot of yard signs for the candiddate. She dispatched another volunteer who handed out her retooled literature today. No policy details, but lots of endorsements. I am grateful for her brother's service to our country in Iraq. Her opponent has caught up somewhat in the lawn sign department.

To be fair, the candidate hasn't made a secret of what she wants to do. If you goto her website, she provides a vision of getting every penny of tax money due our community and funding safety programs (such as more street lighting!) and stricter regulation to protect our children. In fact, we'll create jobs while restoring the environment. I wonder why her volunteer didn't say this at the beginning?

The election is August 2nd. It should be interesting to see how the candidate does.

Monday, July 18, 2005

What's Wrong With The Dutch

I live in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where a large number of Hollanders settled upon leaving their imperfect homeland for a better land. They've enriched the west side of Michigan by their presence. (And I'm not being sarcastic.) But I have a problem with the Dutch.

Same problem with Dr. Laura. I think a lot of Grand Rapids Dutch people like Dr. Laura. I quit listening to Dr. Laura when a woman called who was distraught, consumed with guilt after having broken one of the Ten Commandments. (About which Dr. Laura wrote a very good book I used in my Baptist Sunday School class several years back.) What made me turn off Dr. Laura was her reply to the guilt-consumed woman: You did it. Suffer. (She probably said something kinder, but that's what I heard.)

Dr. Laura is right to condemn Christians for being too quick to forgive or expect forgiveness. Catholics with their crucifixen helpfully remind us that though grace is free, its price is infinite.

But humans are only human and certain reasonable accommodations are in order when you live in this fallen world. Human nature is flawed and humans make mistakes. Sometimes humans choose an expedient over the right thing.

Obviously, one can lose weight by eating less and exercizing more. The mere application of the will and self-control suffices to make one lean and strong. I have a friend of Dutch descent who accurately put forth this opinion when I went on an Atkins kick. And he's right. Ask Ten Dutchmen and you will hear the right answer. I like being around folks of Dutch descent because they keep me sharp and keep me trying 100% to stay on top of things. My complaint here is that being right isn't enough.

At my writers' group I was chatting with a friend of Dutch descent and the topic of children in public came up. Ah yes. I recall how it was when my kids were very young and what it was like taking them out in public. A harrowing affair. My attitude toward parents with misbehaving children changed when I saw how difficult it was to keep rein on my own tykes. No, my kids were all very well behaved, but the peril that they might not struck fear into my heart. Mindful of this, I'm more inclined to shrug when kids slip the leash of their parents' iron discipline.

It's said that Germans make no small mistakes. Since everyone makes mistakes, that should hint at the kind of mistakes that Germans make. And I think Dutch and the Germans are a lot alike. (Being of both Dutch and German ancestry, there's a lot of that in me.)

Having described the behaviours of the Dutch that trouble me, I'll try to explain what I think the problem is. Let me explain.

A decade back I bought a book entitled "Design Patterns." I gave it a quick skim and put it on my bookshelf. I noted the chapter headings and a few buzzwords. Design Patterns are cool and I'd feel a bit of a poseur if the topic came up. I knew of patterns better than I knew patterns. I never had a need to use patterns and if I did, I'd learn then. It wasn't that the book wasn't interesting. It's just that the book was a little bit like a dictionary or an encyclopedia. Something you read when you're in high school on a lazy summer day and you're bored. Thus the book's excellent contents never made it from the bookshelf into my brain.

My boss went on a trip and he read another book on the plane. "Head First Design Patterns" He came back and bought a copy for everyone in his department. My first reaction was an eye-roll. "This stuff is fluff," I thought. But the publisher was O'Reilly. I read the first chapter and it consisted of an apology for the fluffy appearance of pictures and cartoons, etc. Ferinstance, it told me to drink lots of water so my brain would work better. And it got across the point that if the info in the book didn't make it into my brain, the book failed in its purpose.

That's what I think is wrong with the Dutch. They (we) fail to take imperfect human nature into account. Like Dr. Laura they throw up their hands in the face of human failings. Seeing this response to failure motivates those around them. If you haven't failed this time around, you'll be terrified into making sure you don't fail next time around. Or maybe you just shut down in response.

My whole point is effectiveness. People are motivated by high standards. The Dutch set high standards. When standards are too high, standards demotivate and discourage. What's wrong with the Dutch is they can forget to take imperfect human nature into account and act accordingly. The Heads First book lowers its sights to accommodate the shortened attention spans of harried software professionals. Thus it accomplishes something The Gang Of Four didn't.

For further reading:

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Harry Potter And The Half-Wit Fundamentalist

No, I'm not going to bash fundies. Well, maybe a little. There's times when I cringe, because I identify myself as a fundamentalist Christian. Or maybe an Evangelical. What makes me cringe the most is when a preacher starts talking about science. Since science guys have tended to bash bible thumpers, thumper preachers like to bash back. And when you're a science guy and a bible thumper... that's another story.

This essay is about Harry Potter. But before I go there, I'll recommend you go here to take this quiz. I took the quiz and my score most closely matched Harry Potter!

Well, if i'm Harry Potter, I'd better explain how one does magic. I figure there's two approaches you can take to do magic:

1) bargain with some powerful being who performs some magic task for you. Ferinstance, the Devil and Daniel Webster. This kind of magic is a very personal thing. You have to establish some relationship with some being with whom you become codependent. Sorry, Alladin. The Witch of Endor (not Endora, that was on TV) summoned the prophet Samuel and that was personal, too. The Bible is pretty clear that this is a Bad Thing and Not Approved. Though, I suppose you could count Moses and the Prophets in this category as they did miracles thru their personal relationship with God. And that explains why this sort of magic is disapproved. The First Commandment says to have no other gods before God.

2) the second way to do magic is impersonal. pretty much anybody who says the incantation and does the gestures right unlocks some magic-power that does something. Larry Niven's Magic Goes Away stories. And Wiz Zumwalt. And of course, Harry Potter.

Ok, i've been playing fast and loose with fact and fiction to this point. But think of what it must have been like to be Isaac Newton. You've just invented calculus and you've stuck knitting needles in your eyes to figure out optics. You're messing with maths and formulae. And the some guy on the other side of campus is trying to turn lead into gold and figuring out physical chemistry in the process.

Newton didn't have these neat categories we have today of science and magic and alchemy. They were all smashed together in his head. I imagine he could have looked at the alchemists and their dark arts and foul smells and felt a twinge of guilt that he was doing something Not Right. Indeed, Newton managed to make a muddle of alchemy and physics, never really untangling them.

Of course, alchemy has to become chemistry, chemistry has to figure out electron orbitals and physics has to elaborate the quantum mechanics of those orbitals. All this stuff is uniformly repeatable, but as it has been frequently said, "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Since I was trained in the sciences in the 20th century at a Christian college, I had the advantage of having all those cool things figured out by the science boys for me, and I had a Christian world-life-view that indicated this thing called science was really Natural Law. Francis Bacon's two-books, with one of them being nature that discloses organizing principles of itself that we can figure out and we can build technology upon. Thus, incantational magic begat alchemy, alchemy begat science, science begat Natural Law, a new way to appreciate deity.

I guess that makes me the half-wit fundamentalist, because I buy into that Natural Law stuff that came to us through the circuitous route described in the last paragraph. I cringe when CNN has various preachers on who say Harry Potter readers are going to hell. (Remind me to revisit hell.)

I'm not cringing about the pope's criticism of Harry Potter. But I figure that catholics are magic-users as I've described above. But they can get away with type #1 magic described above since they are appealing to God for that magic.

And I suppose I'm OK with that. I'll pray to God and trust him to do the miracles of redeeming me in a type #1 mode. And I'll continue to play with technology and science and that's the kind of #2 mode magic.

It's important not to mix up the two. You can't approach God impersonally. If God were the force, you could do the right thing 100% every time you'd get a predictable result. But if God's a person, then he'll grant favors and hear requests on his terms and on his schedule. And as a person, he may even give you what you need instead of what you ask for or want. If God were 100% predictable when you did things like pray the prayer of Jabez, it would be strong evidence that God is not a personal being.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

For Every Delta There Is An Epsilon

In the aftermath of the London bombings, conservative commentator, math geek, and British expatriot John Derbyshire lamented that the western civilization has become so debased and corrupt that appeasement of the terrorists is inevitable.

I have a friend who's a couple years older than me who is an old-fashioned John Bircher and a paleocon. She is equally pessimistic.

I think that laments of our culture's death are premature. I am no fool who says that international terrorism is a nuisance that should be treated with therapy and indictments. Islamis assassins are merely pursuing statecraft in the same way that they did during the caliphate. Though Europeans have responded with tribute and appeasement, Americans since Thomas Jefferson have sent the Marines.

I am optimistic that despite some reversals, we'll ultimately win the day. Look at where we were just a few years ago:
  1. "Conservative" president Nixon was instituting wage and price controls.
  2. President Jimmy Carter was flailing away at killer rabbits and responding to Soviet aggression by cancelling a sporting event.
  3. The guys in black ski masks had state sponsors and safe havens in Moscow, Tripoli, Damascus, Baghdad, and Tehran.
  4. Thousands of Russian tanks sat poised at the Fulda Gap in Germany.
Today we have seen improvement in all of these areas. The threats to the West are greatly reduced. We've moved to asynchronous low-level conflict because our adversaries know that to directly confront American arms is to die.

But, but, but, the problem is corruption from within. Think back to the days of Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss. Treason was kept secret and denied whereas today fellows like Ward Churchill speak treason openly. Frankly, I think it is better that the traitors speak openly where they can be publicly rebutted.

Indeed the threat is from within. Western culture is the aggregate of all our contributions to culture. The voices of our enemies are as loud and as articulate as when they cost us the Vietnam war. And their victory then has emboldened them today. The punks who earned their chops betraying the US in the '60s are now running one of the two major political parties. Their fellow-travellers who chronicled their activism in college newspapers are now running media corporations that serve as an echo chamber, amplifying their propaganda.

But today we can hear other voices. Last Thursday a caller to Rush Limbaugh mentioned the Vietnam war and said, "If there'd have been a Rush Limbaugh we'd have won that war." The silent majority has a voice and the watchful dragons are commonly bypassed. What's going on in Iraq? Ask one of the guys in uniform who are in the field each day, and ignore the guys with microphones who never leave the hotel. There are thousands of bloggers scribbling away at the samizdat that routinely outperforms the Exempt Media.

Each of us can contribute to our culture. In mathematics a small change is termed a delta. And in calculus, the metaphorically smallest of numbers is termed an epsilon.

"Great men" from Dan Rather to Jason Blair have demonstrated their gullibility and been shown to be frauds. But there are lot more epsilons with a much smaller circle of influence and it's up to us to engage culture, speak up, write novels, etc. Each of us who carry the Conservative torch have a contribution to make. Instead of darkly muttering and slinking away, we must join the scrum and push the ball a little bit in the right direction.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Thank You, Young Man

The kids went downtown for the fireworks display and I planned to sit around the house on the evening of the 4th. But Mary whined and nagged and I relented. We drove downtown and it started to rain. I parked in a lot where you have to pay and started trudging through the rain in the darkening dusk. I was unhappy and I scowled all the way across downtown, to the Pearl street bridge, over the bridge to the Gerald Ford Museum's yard between it and the river.

The kids were supposed to be south of the stage and we didn't see them. We walked northward through the crowd and saw no sign of them. We got to the north edge and started back south alongside the stage. The rain had silenced the band and now it was getting dark. No sign of the kids and it was dark enough that we'd be unlikely to pick them out.

I noticed a young man handing out tracts. To encourage him I asked for one. Mary suggested we go back up the ridge to look for the kids and I said, "No," and decided to follow the tract guy. He proceded along the front of the crowd handing out tracts and my eyes happened to spy someone sitting in a lawn-chair cowering beneath an umbrella. It was a friend from my old church. I tapped him on the shoulder and said, "Hi." He was on the edge of a large tarp whereupon the group with whom my kids had gathered. I saw my son, Dan, standing alongside them and we were set. My daughter was in a rain poncho huddled against the rain. I caught up to the tract guy and thanked him for helping me find my family. He probably thought me quite mad.

We stood around for a half-hour in the rain and then the Elvis impersonator started singing again. Dan complained that he tended to say, "thankaverrymuch" overmuch. So, when he got started, i started calling out the count of how many times he uttered the stereotypical Elvis phrase. We got to six before he finished the set.

Then the fireworks began. The fireworks were to the right of the stage and across the river. Looking up while rain was pouring down made watching the fireworks exploding directly overhead difficult. After a few minutes of fireworks, I noticed a young Marine to my right wearing a dress uniform. He looked sharp and neat as he stood there watching the fireworks and enjoying the show.

I can't recall having seen a better fireworks display. I may have seen larger or longer displays, but I was never as close. When the fireworks would lull, I'd glance over and see the Marine. His presence would remind me how much I owed him and his colleagues and why we were all there.

The fireworks built to a crescendo and in the final display, it must have been a dozen mortars went off mixing both low-level and high-level displays. The display was glorious. Glorious. And I was overwhelmed with emotion.

The display ended and I looked over at the Marine. I hesitated and the crowd moved us in different directions, thus I didn't get a chance to thank him. I wish I had. I can only offer my heartfelt thanks to this young man whose name I'll never know and all of his peers in the military.

Thank you for your service to our country. God bless you and I'll be praying for you.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

The Magical Christian

This has nothing to do with the movie starring Ringo Starr, Peter Sellers, and Raquel Welch. Instead, it is about Roman Catholicism versus Reformed Christianity.

It has been pretty clear for millenia that Christianity renounces "salvation by works." But sinners often cry out, "What must I do to be saved?" If I *DO* something, how do I know if it's one of those works that won't save me? There is something of human nature that demands we tie specific actions to acquiring salvation or growing closer to God pursuant to salvation. That second part afflicts many of my Baptist brethren. Sure, you're saved by faith alone, but if you aren't in the church twice on sunday and wednesday night and if you don't forgoe drinking, smoking, chewing and loud rock music, you're a second-class Christian who has some growing to do.

The Reformed Christian is somewhat more Zenlike. You relax, and passively rely upon mercy and the grace that God alone can deliver. Use that thing outside yourself from God's hand to impute Christ's life to you forensically and to inhere Christ's life in you daily thereafter. Augustine expressed this when he prayed, "Grant what thou commandest and then command what thou wilt."

This prayer caused a British monk named Pelagius to offer the opposite sentiment. He was ultimately declared a heretic, because he openly taught salvation by works. The Roman Christian rejects Pelagius and his reliance on works for salvation, but Rome insists that you can lose your salvation if you do something to make shipwreck of your faith. Having committed such a mortal sin, Roman Christianity provides a mechanism for reconciliation. Roman Christianity has declared "semi-pelagianism" heretical, but it still mixes something called sacraments that are performed by the believer to unlock, or dispense God's grace.

My Baptist brethren have their own sacrament-like activities that they demand in order to dispense God's grace. I think "The Sinner's Prayer" or walking an aisle at a Revival Meeting or an Evangelistic Crusade. There are people who make money going around from church to church demanding such things of believers. Finneyism is a drug that loses potency with overexposure as the objects of such abuse develop a tolerance to psychological manipulation. This is much worse than Roman Christianity's sacraments, because at least the Catholic sacraments have more biblical warrant than "going to the prayer room."

Is walking the aisle at a Billy Graham crusade a work, or is it an act of faith? Rome claims that its sacraments and penances are not works, but the believer's response of faith. That line of reasoning applies to my brothers who recite "The Sinner's Prayer" to get saved and I can accept that.

The underlying concept is that God lets himself get entangled with some kind of religious machinery he's set up so that if you drop the right coin in the slot and push the right buttons thereon, God is obligated to dispense a dollop of grace in response.

This machinery is a form of "incantational magic," the stuff that Harry Potter does. And I don't believe in magic.