Friday, December 30, 2005

Write a letter to your Representative about domestic espionage

I wrote a letter to my Congressman about the recent revelations of domestic wiretaps by American spies of American citizens without a warrant, authorized by the American President. I'm posting this letter so other people can read it and, if inspired, learn more about these issues and send a letter to their Representative.

You can read all about the domestic surveillance scandal in a New York Times article that broke two weeks ago, reproduced here. There are also several good posts by security ruminator (and computer security expert) Bruce Schneier on his weblog with pertinent links. Here's what he said about the NYT article: "This is a very long article, but worth reading. It is not overstatement to suggest that this may be the most significant violation of federal surveillance law in the post-Watergate era."

The upshot is that if you want to begin surveillance of an American citizen, you need a warrant; if you don't have probable cause, you can get a special warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) from a secret court. All you have to do is show that someone may be the agent of a foreign power.

President George W. Bush repeatedly authorized a program in the National Security Agency (NSA) to wiretap American citizens without any warrant whatsoever. Recent news reports are that purely domestic calls were intercepted.

Aside from being illegal on its face because it violates FISA, the program smacks of an illegal search prohibited by the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. The President says this is justified by executive "war powers" under Article 2 of the Constitution, but this would make a mockery of our checks and balances. By his legal theory, he can break laws that the Congress creates in the name of preventing terrorist attacks. What could he do next?

In a last great irony, now people charged with terrorism are using this revelation to assert that evidence against them was obtained illegally and should be thrown out. If you watch Law and Order you know that the worst thing that can happen to the lawyers is when the cops do some monkey business like not reading a suspect their Miranda rights. Cases get thrown out on these technicalities. If you want to read about how deep this goes, read this take from a former prosecutor.

So here is the letter I wrote. Crib from it, love it, weep for our country, laugh at the bleeding-heart. But the year is steadily churning backward from 2005 to 1984. We are the worse for it as a nation.

Dear Congressman Bishop:

I write to you asking for representation on a very important issue: the domestic surveillance of American citizens, without a warrant, by the chief executive. As you no doubt already know, this surveillance occurred (and still occurs) as a secret program in the NSA with no meaningful Congressional or judicial oversight.

There are practical reasons to abhor such a scheme. It violates the privacy of presumed-innocent American citizens. The potential for abuse is unchecked; for example, the system could be abused for partisan political purposes, or even for personal reasons, whether by the executive branch leadership or by individual NSA employees.

Still worse, the program is illegal. It violates explicit surveillance powers of the President set out in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. A warrant must be obtained to spy on Americans, and it can only be granted if the American is an agent of a foreign power. No such warrants were obtained.

The President justifies this illegal behavior by claiming that his emergency war powers in the war on terror trump Congress' passage of legislation restricting his freedom and barring such actions as criminal. In the long run, I believe this specious reasoning will be exposed. There are many reasons why, but the main one is that it makes a mockery of the rule of law.

A President defying Congress through emergency powers in a years-long emergency, in a war on terrorism that has no final enemy and no foreseeable final victory, is a grim and terrifying specter for our democratic ideals. To a crime without charges, a prison without a country, a cell without a number, a prisoner without a name, and torture without practical or moral justification, we can now add a wiretap without a warrant. Against these horrors we had set blind justice, that no violators would be safe from the law, that all victims would be secure in the law.

I appeal to your principles. Protect the innocent by taking this oversight seriously. Call for and participate in hearings on domestic espionage, FISA, and presidential war powers. Don't let the terrorists win by destroying the great principles our country was founded on. Believe in our system of government: in checks and balances, in innocent until proven guilty, in no person above the law.

Thank you for your thoughtful consideration.

Daniel Lewis

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Quick Hits

Someone searched in looking how to tune a mandolin by the hertz. This should be easy enough to find out, but the easiest way is to tune the bottom strings to a standard acoustic G string (from EADGBE), then tune in fifths (7 frets) up the instrument.

Here are my initial brief takes on Kuhn, though I haven't quite finished the book. I haven't started reading in my area yet, but the technology is new enough that I may be embarking on a pre-paradigm specialization for my thesis. This makes me very nervous, so I am entering the next semester with a lot of questions about how to search for standard methods, algorithms, data tests in natural language processing.

Second, I am interested in analogies to historiography, historical paradigms. It seems to me the main difference between history and science is that history never repeats, so there is no consensus reality. This makes different paradigms legion, because not only are the same facts interpreted from different paradigms as in science, but different facts are admissible. I think this makes crisis and revolution dependent on unimpeachable facts that alter a dominant paradigm. I don't know if that makes revolutions rarer or not in historiography.

Third, and somewhat related, I am interested in how coherence theories of truth work for religion. I've read a lot of unclear arguments about religion that pretend it is possible to criticize one religious paradigm in terms of another, or look for disproof of a religious paradigm in its anomalies. All theories have certain anomalies in them. Even in the physical sciences, it can take decades or even centuries before they are resolved, but they don't necessarily lead to a crisis. What that means is that you shouldn't take rejecting a religion lightly; that goes equally for my opinion of Islam as it does for someone else's opinion of Jesus.

This point of view is helping me think through some well-meant but naive things I have done in my life with religion, especially talking to other people about Christianity. Sigh. One that came to mind as I was typing is the Campus Crusade 4 Spiritual Laws/Knowing God Personally tract. It is a thumbnail sketch of Christianity, but calling it a presentation of anything like the Christian paradigm (or even the 21st century Protestant paradigm) is laughable. Evangelism revolving around such a tract seems dreadfully untenable to me, but YMMV.

So Mere Christianity looms ever larger as a primer on Christianity, because it isn't a sustained argument; it is a paradigm presentation, or using a term from David Tracy, a systematic theology. It is the story rather than the apologia, so it actually communicates with people of other paradigms. Lewis writes something like "I believe Christianity... because by it I see everything else." The connection to Kuhn is clear. If you think about religions as paradigms, ways of seeing, as opposed to theories to accede to, religious dialogue changes a lot.

For one thing, we would all have a lot more listening to do.

I got to think about all these things in depth yesterday on a very relaxing day off for my 3rd wedding anniversary. I have a thousand days of marriage under my belt... and boy are my arms tired! Insert your own joke. Anyway, here's hoping for many more.

That in-depth thinking time was at least partially inspired by this essay. I heard many echoes of myself in it; time will tell if I become rich and famous through science though. It's entertaining either way.

Tonight Sarah's brother Brian is coming over to watch Alex so Sarah and I can go out to Belated Anniversary Dinner Date, then we'll play his newest addiction, Settlers of Catan, which we got for Christmas. Yes, we hooked another one. First one's free! Seriously, download Sea3D at the link to the left if you want to know what the hubbub is about.

Happy New Year, and go Pac-10!

Friday, December 23, 2005


Yet Another Gone For Christmas Post.

As you may have been reading elsewhere, there is a war. A war on a holiday. That holiday is on Sunday.

Well, I am a soldier in that war. This "Christmas" has left me no spare time to become rich and famous through blogging. Instead it takes all of my money and renders me more profoundly insignificant than several months of idiotic blather. This is an affront to my patriotic sensibilities.

Unfortunately, I must march half a mile half a mile half a mile onward in my struggle with "Yuletide". So actual thinking must be deferred in favor of Southern Comfort eggnog, Shaq v. Kobe, Amazon wish-lists, and sundry carols, presents, seasonal films, et al.

A thousand apologies.

[The actual thought most on my mind this week has been our President's unilateral circumvention of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution (prohibiting unlawful searches and seizures). He did this by wiretapping American citizens without a warrant. There are lots of reasons you don't want the President to do this, but the simplest one is that it is completely illegal.

Running a close second, I've been reading Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions for the first time, and trying to decide how to apply it to my research. With the book in my left hand and a pen in my right hand, writing in a diary. Very interesting stuff, but I feel somewhat adrift without knowing much of the history of science.

Back to normal in a long time.]

Sunday, December 18, 2005

To my newest readers

Hello, all. I have been detoxifying from a particularly stressful semester and have been unable to come to the blog or the internet. Time with family. Meanwhile, I have been reading your blogs (friends, you know who you are) and I will be back shortly... more longly than shortly, it appears, but still. I will be glad to talk to you.

More long thoughts in a few.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Light posting

I was up pretty late working on finals, so I won't be posting till tomorrow. Instead, it's a post-semester celebration and an early bedtime.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Monday, December 12, 2005

Busy bee

I had a couple of projects due over the weekend. I'm happy to say that the one I really cared about came out fantastic. The other one was ok, but probably too much work for one man anyway.

I can't wait for the week to be over. This semester has been too much for me and I am ready to become a genius in thinking computers and concentrate on my thesis.

    1. Write a thesis in knowledge-leveraging natural language processing.
    2. Work for Google? Or...
    3. ????
    4. Profit!!

Longer thoughts coming after the end of the week...

I'm almost done with A Tale of Two Cities. I am noticing some weird stuff with how Dickens did long time dilations. Where a modern author would just skip ahead and fill in the pieces slowly, he always provides a transition from this week to 3 YEARS LATER, like the white text at the bottom of some political thriller movies. Also, I don't know if I'm getting a sense of how the story is coalescing exactly. The nouements aren't hitting me quite right, with Charles returning to France. Maybe it's because I kind of remember the story from high school, but not completely. I'm enjoying the language but, hey, I'm an adult and so is Dickens, maybe the plot sucks.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Site design

It just occurred to me that for a blog about Letters and Papers, I have a pretty bland site design. I have all 26 letters at my disposal, as well as countless pictures of piles of paper, things made out of paper, manuscripts, books, correspondence, and so on. So my blog could look pretty cool. All I have to do is learn CSS and graphic art and have fun. I like the current colors, but perhaps I need a little more zazz to become rich and famous through blogging.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Free Time + Carol Sunday = ... ?

Here's a little ditty I composed the Tuesday morning after we did Christmas Carols for church, on few hours' rest, while waiting for a Software Engineering teammate.

What spy is this, who cover-blown,
Keeps Rove and Cheney from sleeping?
Whom pundits greet with yawnings sweet
While prosecutors watch are keeping?

This, this, is Valerie
Whom agents guard and traitors flee
Haste, haste to come to trial
The Plame, the spy N.O.C.

When will she bring the civil suit
Where unindicted are paying?
The president drinks because he thinks
The architect won't be staying

I guess that is rude, but the whole story is pretty rude (not to leave out treasonous).

Monday, December 05, 2005

An atheist's take on religious people,3604,1567604,00.html

This article does some interesting talk about whether religion actually changes you, not just the moral stuff we all agree on (religion or no). "Yet men and women who, like me, cannot accept the mysteries and the miracles do not go out with the Salvation Army at night," the atheist writes. He can't quite put his finger on what is different about these people, or rather, what mysteries and miracles have to do with the moral stuff he agrees with.

For me, the Christian answer is that the disconnect the author sees is between belief and action. There is the stuff we threaten to threaten to threaten to do (an Andrew Bird allusion), then there is the stuff we actually do, and they are not close to the same. One contrast with other religions is that Christianity has a theory about how to alter your human condition; many other religions just order you to get busy altering, adding rituals and theology, maybe, but basically leaving the onus on you. What this turns into is another set of beliefs that cannot be rejoined to action. What can you do when you are the problem? Christianity sees this as the human condition that Christ changes, in a mysterious spiritual way, by way of his death on the cross; Jesus extends to people the opportunity to be remade and live differently.

This opportunity is extended in community, in churches and small groups of friends. Christians (with their hearts in the right place, one hopes) bring people into the new life, not into some farcical parroting of the Christian doctrines. The missionary impulse is to help people live authentically, to give people true action to match their deeply held beliefs. Like the columnist says, rich men become poor to advance the cause of authentic, new life.

The columnist's evidence is all anecdotal, but clearly your religion is working right if it's taking you places you don't want to go, to serve those with whom you disagree, for the sake of a mystery that "civilized" people think is fairy circles and moonshine, to honor a God that you can't see. I don't mean this as an argument that the religion is true; but the religion is lived out in your life, and that's more true than the finest theology. And this kind of religion is hard. Like he says, these religious people have gravitated toward "the monotonous performance of the unpleasant tasks that relieve the pain and anguish of the old, the sick and the homeless".

That reminds me of another man.

Interlude: A dumb post on Washington Monthly

[This is a post for Don P, a poster on the Washington Monthly who said some truly stupid stuff about how Christianity is the vilest thing on the planet. If you don't care about my rebuttal, skip this post. Otherwise, read on.]

Don P, "the values and ethics of Jesus--not to mention the rest of Christianity's sacred writings--strongly support all the horrible things I listed" is an overreach. But your list of claims about Christianity, I can only assume is not a troll because you have argued for so long and vehemently in this thread. But they sound like a troll anyway, so you got me; I'll bite.

The first non-starter in your list is the meaning of the word "Christianity", as in "Christianity has traditionally oppressed women." One wonders what evidence could possibly disprove this sentence. Christianity is not a character in history; it is not a person. It is a hodgepodge of religions, streams flowing from a vast ocean. There are three enormous divisions between the traditions of Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant, and the subdivisions of Protestant are too numerous to count; if you want to throw Mormon and Jehovah's Witness into the mix, Protestantism has spawned whole new religions. The Quakers, Lutherans, Anglicans, Pentecostals, and Messianic Jews aren't even included in the above divisions.

"Tradition" also cuts broadly. Do we pay attention to the GWB Christian right or the backwater missionaries or the Sunday upper class publicity whores or the ritualized pre-Vatican II ultra-Catholics or the revival altar-call walkers or the pacifists or the soldiers or the dark poets? And that's just in the last few decades. How about a Japanese Catholic novelist educated in Europe in French literature who sees a certain resemblance between a view of Christ that emphasizes his weakness and Mahayana Buddhism? Is that not also Christianity?

Frankly, the varieties of Christian experience are unclassifiable as a whole, and take an especially vague character in the grand statements divorced of cultural and historical context that you've made. The form of the argument is so bad that I'm not going to list counterexamples. If you can't agree that Christianity is at least a mixed bag, full of sinners and saints like all of humanity, including atheists, Hindus, Muslims, artists, scientists, feminists, mothers, and favorite uncles, you're not only wrong, you're blind. e.g.

The most charitable spin I can put on your argument is that some statements in the Bible are so full of oppression and vileness and have twisted so many people to evil, that they are responsible for the ills of the human race. It would be quite a testament to the writing's power to move, for good or evil, that such a thing was true.

So let's examine some of your statements and see if the premise that "the values and ethics of Jesus--not to mention the rest of Christianity's sacred writings--strongly support all the horrible things I listed" actually have support in things Jesus said. I'll give examples of things Jesus did and said, and things that the New Testament Christians did and said, that cut against the grain of your worthless generalizations.

"Christianity has traditionally oppressed homosexuals... Christianity has traditionally oppressed Jews, Muslims and other religious minorities."

Jesus was silent on the subject of homosexuality generally, but had a lot to say and do for minorities. For instance, he frequently held up Gentiles, people who did not believe in Yahweh, as examples of great faith, like the Roman centurion and the Syrophoenician woman. He appeared to Peter in a vision and said "Let no man call unclean what God has made clean," which caused the early Jewish Christians to abandon their tribalism (they were "God's chosen people") and accept people of other backgrounds as brothers and sisters. He preached a parable about a Good Samaritan being more holy in God's eyes than a priest or a Levite. This would be like a neo-Nazi telling a positive story about a black man. This is also the same Christianity that proclaims loudly that "You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." The kinds of things he did not say were "Black people are inferior to white people" (unless you think the Mormons represent all Christianity, and even they changed it eventually) or "Jews are better than everybody". He spent his public life reviling the most religious people in his religion and had no respect for class.

I admit that the record of Christians through the ages toward minorities is mixed (witness the Abolitionists vs. the Race Rehabilitationists, or today's religious right vs. the Christian left).

"Christianity has traditionally regulated sex, marriage, reproduction and family life very strictly."

It's true Jesus did affirm the Jewish view that marriage is when "a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh." But he also said that a man's right to divorce his wife for any reason (which his culture promulgated) was illegitimate, and that divorce apart from infidelity was adultery. For the man this is stricter; for the woman this is safer. He elevated the rights of the woman in marriage to equal to the man's. Paul did this too when he said that "the wife's body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband's body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife." And it's true that Jesus believed in sex within the confines of marriage but not otherwise. But I think his treatment of prostitutes tells us more about how important he thought issues of sexual sin were.

"Christianity has traditionally supported economic and political policies that produce large economic and social inequalities."

In Jesus we find a penniless preacher, not a political program. Remember, the same Jews that welcomed him in to Jerusalem on Sunday as the political Messiah who would free Israel and rule the new kingdom killed him days later after he preached in the temple square daily. What did he say, I wonder? There is some speculation that he freed the Jews from the very illusion you ascribe to Christianity; that it has a well-defined political or social program. When Pilate was trying Jesus for treason, he asked if Jesus was a king. He responded, "My kingdom is not of this world."

Your statement applies with more force to modern capitalism than Christianity, as in "Modern capitalism has traditionally supported..." You could also say "The Hindu caste system" or "Communist China" though.

"Christianity has traditionally taught the reality of heaven and hell, judgment and damnation, and that unrepentant sinners are cast into hell where they are punished for all eternity."

That's more or less true, Jesus talked about it a good deal. I'll give you the reality of heaven and hell, judgment, and damnation. Who exactly goes to hell and what exactly is going on there are subjects of considerable debate in the breadth of Christian tradition.

What I fail to see is how this meme has affected humanity. Unlike the others in your list, this is a point of theology without an obvious story of woe attached. Bach? Dante? Thomas Aquinas? They believed this story and it didn't seem to make them into serial killers. I believe this story and all I am is a Christian blog commenter who is feeling a bit snarky at the moment.

"This all seems to be considerably more consistent with James Dobson's version of Christianity than with contemporary liberal Christianty, which often seems to be little more than the Golden Rule dressed up in a bit of religious drag."

So let's be frank. You make sweeping generalizations about my religion, compare two sects to each other and decide that one is more faithful to the breadth of Christian tradition than the other, which breadth you show no signs of acknowledging or understanding. You would rather trot out the same tired cases and tropes of the evils of organized Christianity; as if every other society had no evils of its own! As if the evils of Christianity were beyond comparison! How is that less hidebound and anti-intellectual than the fundamentalists themselves? How am I supposed to intelligently come around to your views? Maybe I haven't been snorting the same propaganda.

hamletta said "I think comparing him to the whole of Christian history is dopey." You said "Why?" Well, the answer is that you can make broader generalizations the wider you draw your view, but the generalizations are more likely to be wrong. The devil is in the details, but God is in the details too. On a scale from dopey to inane, I give your generalizations a resounding 10.

So you ask, "Why? The claim was that James Dobson, and presumably conservative Christians in general, does not represent real or authentic or true Christianity. Why should we believe contemporary liberal Christianity is more real or authentic or true as Christianity than Dobson's variety?"

Well, I guess to answer that question we would have to take up a long comparative study and define things like "true Christianity" and "represent". I've made a few quotations and claims above that suggest my idea of true Christianity, and I could go on.

The dominant threads I might suggest as a starting point are "But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong." and "Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!"

But it's sufficient just to say that the arguments are fraught with difficulty and intelligent people have disagreed for hundreds of years, so strong statements like yours are not credible.

So I'll let Billy Madison have my last word:

"Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul."

Saturday, December 03, 2005

The Day After Yesterday

Well, I did some kind of weird stuff at the concert, like take short videos with our Kodak EasyShare from the balcony and write down all the set lists for both bands (the better to remember you with, my dears), but I enjoyed myself thoroughly. I was on the edge of my seat most of the time.

I went with my friends Paul and Stacy Petersen. They were excited about the concert as I was, and we bought our tickets pretty early. We were lucky, because it sold out in six weeks. We had a nice drive down, discoursing on many topics, and got some pizza on the way. I thought I was getting sick because of the weird taste in my mouth at dinner time, but it turns out it was the water in our pitcher. Somehow I don't find that reassuring. The parking lot was full, so we had to park at the high school next door. We walked out on the black-iced blacktop and slid into our seats right on time, just as the head honcho of the theater introduced the first act, Andrew Bird.

Andrew Bird is quite stunning live. You have never seen anything like him, I tell you. He was a scarecrow in a three-piece suit, and he still looked like his thin legs shouldn't support his weight. His hair flew around when he shook his head in time to his music. He gestured with his violin bow, not like a conductor, but like a fiery orator stabbing his finger into your chest to convince you otherwise. And that wasn't even the music.

Paul says he sounds like Beck, but with a good voice. Here is how you do that: He starts a groove pizzicato on his violin, then sends it looping, then another one and loop. His drummer comes in and starts an awesome beat, then he starts whistling pure notes and playing the glockenspiel at the same time. A few times through the loop, then he starts singing and playing the electric guitar. Later, the drummer starts playing a keyboard with his left hand. You just won't believe it if you don't see it.

He is on the Live Music Archive, so you can listen to tons of his music. His album, The Mysterious Production of Eggs is very different from the live shows and can be heard in its entirety at the link. And I just found something awesome: a live video of a concert he did in May 2005. I managed to get it running ok at 56K in IE (I have 256k DSL and would prefer Firefox, but this is what I got to work) so you will probably need a true 500K connection to see it well. So you can see for yourself; the drummer is in that one.

The song of the night was probably "Capital I". I have heard a lot of runs of this song, but that one was incredible. It will only see the light of day in concert because the lyric, "We all live in a capital I," is from a song on Sesame Street ("Capital I" is about why kids are so mean to each other, and the answer turns out to be something like the number 1, Isolation, Independence, and I; maybe a religious person would add Iniquity). If you listen to his live shows, listen to that and you will see how arresting it is. He played a new song too, "Plasti-cities", that I'll call second best. It was very human, about the power of art and song against the dehumanizing marketing and consumerism of modern Plastic society (at least, that's what I took from it; I only heard it once). It was catchy, and, for a song lionizing art, more free from the arted-up filigree than some of his songs from his latest album.

In "Why" he did something very interesting; I never imagined it while I was listening to the live concerts on the Archive. He played this part in the song very strangely, like not with the loop or in rhythm or in tune; he is a sort of twitchy artist live, but this looked like he was totally nuts, like he was really frustrated and barely able to handle himself. So right in the middle of the song, he does this sort of dialogue where he says, for the audience, "Why'd you do that?" Then he answers for himself, nervously: "Why'd I do what? I'm just standing here, you know." And so on, listen to this to hear what one is like (incidentally, "Why" is also in the video I linked above). It was like an Andy Kaufman joke where you can't be quite sure if he's pulling your chain. The more I thought about it, the funnier it was.

He finished his set, took a bow, and then quickly dismantled so Nickel Creek could come on. Paul and I used the facilities, then headed back in.

They dimmed the lights once, then dimmed them down all the way. I'd just finished telling Paul that they would probably be introduced (Andrew Bird had gotten an introduction last time). But instead Nickel Creek all came out together. The cheering was electric, so loud. I hope they felt like rock stars. I really think my voice wasn't very loud because I had yelled it out the other day. But I clapped with the best of them.


Thursday, December 01, 2005

What not to do the night before a concert:

Do Johnny Bravo impression by making muscle poses and expressive grunts, just because it makes your son cackle like a drunken sailor.

My throat may be too hoarse to scream at Andrew Bird, and Nickel Creek.

There is a video.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Ditty Bops

Ever wondered what They Might Be Giants would be like if they were women with good voices singing close harmony? Playing acoustic? Well, it's The Ditty Bops.

Listen to them live. Listen to their complete debut album. Buy their 2006 Bicycle Bikini Calendar.

That is all.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

CS Lewis article in the New Yorker

This article is very interesting. It documents the twin pillars of Lewis' life, myth and allegory. I don't agree entirely with the article. In particular, this paragraph:

For poetry and fantasy aren’t stimulants to a deeper spiritual appetite; they are what we have to fill the appetite. The experience of magic conveyed by poetry, landscape, light, and ritual, is... an experience of magic conveyed by poetry, landscape, light, and ritual. To hope that the conveyance will turn out to bring another message, beyond itself, is the futile hope of the mystic. Fairy stories are not rich because they are true, and they lose none of their light because someone lit the candle. It is here that the atheist and the believer meet, exactly in the realm of made-up magic. Atheists need ghosts and kings and magical uncles and strange coincidences, living fairies and thriving Lilliputians, just as much as the believers do, to register their understanding that a narrow material world, unlit by imagination, is inadequate to our experience, much less to our hopes.

What I take from this is that the story experience is irreducible, is demonstrative knowledge like the inputs of the senses. This ignores a quality of stories: their propensity to come to life.

Good authors manage a curious trick. Whether it is creativity by randomness or subtle twinges of the subconscious, divine inspiration, the Muse, what have you, this effect is displayed when readers come up to an author whose work they have enjoyed, and ask if the story "really meant" X and Y and Z. The author reflects for a moment, and says, "Oh. Well, I suppose it did." And the trick is that it really did.

Human existence overflows with stories. We are story beings, naturally desiring to know. And that's not just Biblically or scientifically, it's knowing something inside out, divining whatever meaning envelops us constantly. Just as there is an infinity of sentences from a finity of words, there is an infinity of associations and meanings from a single sentence.
The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.
-- Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

In fact, we always think that our story has meaning. Without exception, we are the authors of our own stories, asking (if we are awake) what our life means and where we will go next. We have to take up the questions, even if we choose to lay them down and live in the moment, asking no more meanings from existence. If a close friend, knowing our life story, draws together the tapestry of actions and dreams to point out a recurrent thread, we do not retort (if we are honest) "That's not what I was doing at the time!" Instead, we say, "Oh. You know me better than I know myself." And the trick is that they really did. That's because we are more than newspaper articles.

The paragraph from the New Yorker that I quoted comes up to this point and draws back, where it says, "Atheists need ghosts and kings and magical uncles and strange coincidences, living fairies and thriving Lilliputians, just as much as the believers do, to register their understanding that a narrow material world, unlit by imagination, is inadequate to our experience, much less to our hopes." To see what I mean, just start rereading that sentence from "a narrow material world."

I am thus confused by the article's "this is the futile hope of the mystic", that the story means more than it says it does, that the aesthetic experience corresponds to something beyond itself. When language, human thought, and life itself are mystical, gainsaying the mystic is truly futile. The writer was not connecting the dots.

I take the Christian story as marvelous and true, where God has created a world invested with meaning. The article would have it that the question of Christianity's historicity does not speak to its richness for humanity: "Fairy stories are not rich because they are true, and they lose none of their light because someone lit the candle." On the contrary, marvelous things that are really true cut us differently than beautiful lies. I just talked about that, come to think of it.

More on these thoughts later. But read the article, it's well worth the time.

via Neil Gaiman.

Two meters

Sarah and I bought our first car in May 2003. I had recently completed driver's ed in Utah and obtained my first driver's license at age 22. The same day I got the license, we went about an hour south to buy a lease-return 2000 Toyota Corolla LE. I say it's purple, Sarah says it's blue.

When we bought the car, it was about three years old and had 38432 miles on the odometer. This is between 12 and 13 thousand miles per year (I think it was a company fleet vehicle). Last week we hit 50000, going 4 or 5 thousand miles per year as a family.

I was going up a hill in Sardine Canyon, on the way home from Brigham City to Logan. I got to watch it turn over from 49999 to 50000, because I was pretty alone in my lane.

When we got home, we had something like 50016. I don't really remember the number. That's because milestones are curious numbers. We approach them, we mark them, even celebrate them, like a 40th birthday or Cal Ripken's 2131st consecutive baseball game. They stopped the game so Cal could take a bow, then he ran around the stadium high-fiving fans.

The same change happens the next year, the next game, the next mile, but nobody marks their 41st birthday, Ripken's 2132nd game in quite the same way.

Just over a month ago we passed a round number in Iraq. There was much fanfare about it, how that week there was a perfect storm in politics for the American President. I think Libby was indicted that week too, something else happened.

Today I read an article that mentioned in passing that more than 2100 soldiers have died in Iraq. All I could think was, When did that happen?

Saturday, November 26, 2005


Hi, everyone. Thanksgiving break is over and it ended with a most curious dream.

In this dream, I met an old friend, a girl I haven't seen for several years. We were in a classroom talking, and some teacher who looked like Condoleezza Rice came over to listen to us. I started shouting at the teacher, "Get out of here! You don't have permission to intrude on our privacy!" The girl blushed and was happy that I'd do something so forcefully on her behalf.

When I woke up I thought about this for a bit, and I realized that this particular girl and I had not actually lived a life of privacy together, of shared secrets. I wrote letters to her that I never sent (every time I think this now, I hear a Sean Watkins song called "Letters Never Sent"), chronicled our meetings and moments in Masoretic detail, and credited her with attitudes and feelings that were, at their best, holy. My half of our relationship was, to put it mildly, ungrounded, and the secrets were not shared; I was the one with the secret.

My memory of her is suffused with this attitude, enough that sometimes I cannot separate the living person from the marble statuette. The things I remember clearly are shared moments, when we disagreed or moved around together. They are surprisingly brief, and they make me think I never knew her. The memories I made up by myself are literary, not in a positive sense. They are beautiful at times, heartbreaking to remember. Fiction. I remember our last disagreements. Reality.

I try to remind myself of this as I troll around the internet, looking at the footprints she's made, pictures and things she's written, where she is. I could email her this second, for good or for evil. But I have been unsure about what it would mean to me. I've had other dreams, that I'd tell her I was proud of her, proud of what she's become. But frankly, that is all made-up stuff again, my relationship to dead artifacts.

I also try to remind myself that I have my own secrets now, sequestered in the four walls of my home with my wife and my son. I know how much must go unspoken in any conversation with her. Like Levin at the end of Anna Karenina says, "... there will still be a wall between the holy of holies of my soul and other people, even my wife..." and how much more so, with this lady who is practically a stranger to me.

It has a strange hold, memory. She has never given me any sign she knows I exist, not since we talked years and years ago. She doesn't look for my pictures or articles. I don't know if she even remembers me.

Yet I want to write; yet I wonder. And I feel a little bit strange trying to explain this all to Sarah. But I will, and it will be another secret just between us.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Thanksgiving blessing

Happy is a yuppie word
Nothing in the world can save us now
It's empty as an argument
We're running down a life we won't cash out

Jon Foreman of Switchfoot wrote this song after a Bob Dylan quotation "from a 1991 Rolling Stone interview. Dylan was asked, on the occasion of his 50th birthday, if he was happy. Dylan replied, 'Those are yuppie words, happiness and unhappiness. It's not happiness or unhappiness, it's blessed or unblessed.'"

If you want to put things this way, happiness and unhappiness are a matter of your instinctual reaction to your circumstances. When we long for happiness, we long to control our circumstances to the point that all our desires are endlessly satisfied, and we ride on a wave of pleasures to our eventual death. But it's good while it lasts.

I should have said, rather, to our eventual unhappiness, because the kind of control necessary here is impossible. This is one of the things the machines couldn't understand in The Matrix: "Some thought we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world..." It's in a CS Lewis book too (Pilgrim's Regress) that advising people to the pursuit of happiness is like advising someone to enjoy unbroken good fortune.

Blessedness is not about luck. It rejects the power fantasy of the yuppie world. This is the first way that blessedness is about weakness. Here are some other ones.

[3] Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
[4] Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
[5] Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
[6] Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
[7] Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
[8] Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
[9] Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called sons of God.
[10] Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessedness is not a question of circumstances. It is an orientation toward the world, an allegiance to a point of view. That point of view is to understand the world as overflowing with meaning, rain or shine. It is to understand the seasons of living.

For Christians, blessing lies beyond the horizon of this world. Still, they find blessings everywhere. But that's a story for another day.

May your lives and your families be blessed this Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Banner news I keep forgetting

It's the pre-holiday homework stress. But last week I got my first business cards ever. I am now the Product Manager for a piece of Proprietary Software at My Company. I'll scan a card sometime. I think I might be leaving my job soon though, so they did that just in the nick of time. It only took three years from my first days on the job.

And last week they mailed me my Bachelor of Arts diploma. So, crappy grades and all, I officially made it to the next level. I am a Linguistics journeyman, to go with my journeyman Computer Science 5k1772. I have mixed feelings about my linguistics education, but I guess it is still serving me.

I stayed up late and I'm tired, but I still have more work to do. Thirty minutes asleep might help.

NPR story on Jose Padilla

One of the most famous detainees in the war on terror, Jose Padilla, was finally charged with a crime. Padilla is an American citizen arrested in the United States, who was labeled an enemy combatant and denied habeas corpus rights and access to counsel for three years. His case has been working its way through the courts for quite a while. Now I suppose the constitutional problems his case raises for war-on-terror detention powers won't be heard by the Supreme Court. Google and the Washington Post think, lo and behold, I might be right.

Originally the government said he was plotting to detonate a radioactive "dirty" bomb. Now they are charging him with fundraising for NGOs suspected of funding terrorist organizations. With the three year head start, you would think that the government would be farther ahead by now.

I heard something on NPR about this as I came home. I've been unable to locate the report to link to it.

The report ended with this line: "Padilla faces life in prison if convicted."

Take a moment to let the irony sink in.

Nickel Creek tour

Supergroup Nickel Creek is coming to a town near you. I really can't say enough good for them. If you poke around on you can listen to their newest album for free from beginning to end. Guitarist Sean Watkins has a new solo album out. It is in stores in March 2006 but he wanted everyone to hear it, so it is pay-to-download mp3s.

Their Utah show on 12/2 is sold out. I'll be there. I am extremely excited. It's been two years since I last saw them live.

The grueling schedule continues with a show in Spokane, WA 12/3 and at the Paramount in Seattle on 12/4. I can't recommend this concert highly enough. The opener, Andrew Bird, is extremely talented as well and we will be there early to see him. He is a one man symphony, playing the guitar, violin, and glockenspiel, whistling and singing, remixing his loops live.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

CS Lewis on Intelligent Design and Evolution

Just a quick note since I'm busy with end-of-semester projects. You might think the subject of this post curious, because CS Lewis died the same day as President Kennedy in 1963, but the term "Intelligent Design" wasn't invented until the early 1990s.

Do not be scared by the word authority. Believing things on authority only means believing them because you have been told them by someone you think trustworthy. Ninety-nine per cent of the things you believe are believed on authority. I believe there is such a place as New York. I have not seen it myself. I could not prove by abstract reasoning that there must be such a place. I believe it because reliable people have told me so. The ordinary man believes in the Solar System, atoms, evolution, and the circulation of the blood on authority -- because the scientists say so. Every historical statement in the world is believed on authority. ... A man who jibbed at authority in other things as some people do in religion would have to be content to know nothing all his life.

This quotation is from Lewis' modern classic, Mere Christianity, which is a thoughtful exposition and interpretation of a certain core of Christian belief, leaving debates about details on the fringes to the theologians and historians.

Fundamentalist Christians (along with other Christians) accept Jesus Christ's godhood on the basis of the authority of the apostles who wrote about him, or on the essential trustworthiness of their books about Jesus and the action of Holy Spirit in the early church (collected in the New Testament). That's what "for the Bible tells me so" means. But they don't accept Darwinian evolution even though the scientists have been saying it with one voice for decades in peer-reviewed journals. Seriously, disbelieving evolution is like disbelieving global warming: all you have to do is ignore the people who know something about it, and listen to the cranks.

CS Lewis, at least, is not on their side. This is not an isolated quotation in his work. At every conflict Lewis is on the side of a kind of conventional wisdom; not the kind that is constructed out of clouds of jello by our all-spinning mass media, but the kind of wisdom that sensible people have all agreed upon over the years. An Experiment in Criticism thinks about the wisdom of common people in regard to reading books, Mere Christianity considers the main thrust of Christianity as believed by the great mass of Christians down the centuries, The Abolition of Man considers the morality that is common to people of all religions and cultures. The Narnia books are, in the main, stories of ordinary, even weak people thrust into extraordinary situations, who triumph over the rich and powerful of their age by common virtues. I could go on.

I'm not on their side either. As a journeyman scientist, I cringe to think of what the fundamentalists will make of ever-stronger AI, and what they will make of me as a scientist who tries to explain it to them.

I had a conversation with a friend several years ago, before I dreamed of becoming a computer scientist, where I said, in effect, that I didn't know how somebody doing computers could be as good a Christian as someone doing ministry work. Needless to say, he was doing computers at the time, and I was volunteering a lot of my time to a university Christian group. I've since apologized to him, but I understand how easy it is to let "ministry" assume an undeserved primacy in your religion.

There is a reason why religious figures like Robertson and Falwell and Dobson dominate the public religious conversation. It is an undercurrent in Protestantism, that people who have given up their lives to listen to God and do what he wants are more qualified to speak for Christians than people like me. They are the truly sold-out.

I am wishy-washy. I am too secular, which is only a step or two from idolatrous to the minister-pushers. They think I am building silicon sand-castles. They regard the world as the Titanic, and me as a microchip-polisher.

CS Lewis's main job was as a lecturer and writer at Oxford, the chair of Medieval and Renaissance literature. He excelled at his job, writing a permanent volume in the Oxford History of English Literature, on the 16th century (excluding drama).

What I've learned in the years since I talked to my friend is that good work glorifies God. I only wish the Intelligent Design agitators would learn it too.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005


Tuesday morning, it was cold in Logan. I had parked down the hill from campus near the football stadium, which is a 5 to 10 minute walk. I was bundled up well and put up my hood as I approached the crosswalk to go down the hill. The light turned green, so I started walking through the crosswalk. Maybe eight steps into the street, a black sedan cut in front of me, turning right, from behind me. It was so close that I could have touched it. To prove that fact to the very dangerous person behind the wheel, I started walking forward, and kicked the car in the back right panel before it passed me. I hope they got a dent. Remember, drivers and pedestrians are equal, except that the driver can kill the pedestrian. What am I supposed to do, honk my horn? Several other revenge fantasies played out in my head as I walked to my car, and I stopped for a pedestrian at the first light on my way to work. I have felt smug and superior about the whole incident ever since until now.

I played checkers with the computer (it was for class! really!) and was leading four kings to two kings and a piece when I made a stupid mistake and the computer jumped three in a row. But I shouldn't feel too bad; our last big project in AI class is to make a computer program that can beat us. I think I must have been playing a dumbed down version of the checkers AI, otherwise I wouldn't have even been close.

I made potato soup that tasted like my father's chowder, clams not included. It made me very nostalgic for his kitchen. Was the secret the sour cream (and whole milk and cream)? The scallions? The bacon? My recipe made a gallon (!) of soup. Great for the winter, and for heating the house.

I have loved the end of our grad school seminar because of all the new cooking time. Sarah has been sick and I bet all the leftovers have helped her relax a little. We also had shepherd's pie on Monday, another one from my dad's kitchen.

Oh, and someone really should've told me that after you've uncorked a bottle of wine, it only keeps for a couple of days. I have a bottle in my fridge door of some fruity white that I used for a stir fry about a year ago. The things you miss out on because you're a debate math drama honors nerd in high school. Found out on I Want That!, the show with the misleadingly selfish name, about gee-whiz gizmos etc. for the home. It's going in the trash when I get home.

For obsessive coverage of the Valerie Plame CIA leak investigation, read firedoglake.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Habeas thou a corpus?

4 days ago, the Senate passed an amendment to an appropriations bill brought by Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina). The amendment narrowly circumscribes the habeas corpus rights of enemy combatants in America's secret prisons (and not-so-secret prisons like those in Guantanamo Bay). The vote was 49 in favor to 42 against with 9 abstentions.

What is habeas corpus? It is the only individual right in the Constitution itself: the legal right to challenge your detention in the courts. "The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it." The exceptions are rebellion and invasion, where obviously there might not be time to convene a court to justify the detention of a soldier while the British are attacking the prison. But the Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism is not against a rebellion or an invasion. Discuss.

Why do they always release suspects within 24 hours on Law and Order? Habeas corpus. The government has to justify holding you or give you up. Now, habeas corpus is not the best thing if you are trying to prosecute a case. It makes things more difficult on the Bensons and Stablers and Gorans and Eameses of the world. When it is obvious who is the criminal, we naturally want every tool at our disposal to aid the good guys and hinder the bad guys.

But habeas corpus is the best thing in the world if you can't tell apart the good guys and the bad guys. And it is the best thing in the world for you if you are arrested. Without it, the government doesn't have to release you, even if you are completely innocent. The government doesn't have to explain what they are doing with you, much less justify it. Habeas corpus is the guarantee that a justice system which is predicated upon fairness is in charge of your fate, not a mercurial, sometimes cruel government.

Habeas corpus is also the best thing in the world if you are labeled an enemy combatant. The American President can label anyone an enemy combatant (since the PATRIOT act was passed in 2001) and leave them in the oubliette forever.

Our democracy took a major left turn when we gave the power to suspend habeas corpus to any President at all, much less George W. Bush, who has shown a propensity to defend and exercise any privileges the executive has been afforded by our laws. This power has not sat useless against the day it would be required to Defend Freedom; it has been used over and over again.

If you read about this in the papers, you will find out that even the crippled military tribunal process has found many detainees to be completely innocent. The detainees have remained in prison. Here's an example:

"In late 2003, the Pentagon quietly decided that 15 Chinese Muslims detained at the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, could be released. Five were people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, some of them picked up by Pakistani bounty hunters for U.S. payoffs. The other 10 were deemed low-risk detainees whose enemy was China's communist government -- not the United States, according to senior U.S. officials.

More than 20 months later, the 15 still languish at Guantanamo Bay, imprisoned and sometimes shackled, with most of their families unaware whether they are even alive."

That quotation from the Washington Post is drawn from a series of posts on Obsidian Wings, 13 in all, addressing Graham's amendment and a counter-amendment by a Senator Bingaman to restore habeas corpus to enemy combatants. They are indexed here. They're recommended reading, of course, and they say all this in much more eloquent and sourced detail than I have.

Clearly this is a miscarriage of justice. But consider carefully that for these men, it is a miscarriage of no return. These men have no way back through the looking glass. Many of them were picked up for having the wrong skin color, or being in the wrong place. Some of them were tortured to the ultimate point of no return.

If you were labeled an enemy combatant, you would live and die at the mercy of your interrogators. Your dossier would languish at the DoJ, and you would languish in an Eastern European prison, location classified. The President would say "We do not torture."

I don't know about you, but that sounds more like the Ministry of Love than the United States of America.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Batman Began

I finally saw Batman Begins, an excellent rendering of the Batman mythos. It is very satisfying, so see it if you haven't. I'd say that I will be shocked if they leave the cast they assembled on the shelf. Sequels are coming! That's what I think anyway. I really liked the way the movie portrayed poor people. A lot was filmed on location in Chicago, I gather, which accords somewhat with some high school memories riding on a bus through the bad parts of town to Wrigley Stadium (I was there for a math contest). I also liked its take on justice and mercy. They picked a great Batman, great director. Not much wasted dialogue either, just really really well done.

Food for the mind as well as the thalamus. Please let there be more.

[Edited 11/16 to delete redundant reference to the portrayal of poor people]

Saturday, November 12, 2005

"We do not torture"

There is a reason why a President of the United States said those words.

Here's another one: "We do not use chemical weapons on civilians". [some swearing]

And another: "We do not imprison Americans without due process". What happens when you are labeled an enemy combatant?

What's next? "We do not engage in human sacrifice"?

What kind of country is President Bush making America?

Needless to say, I agree

Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced -- even a proverb is no proverb to you till your life has illustrated it. -- John Keats

This was one of the Slashdot page quotes. I never knew Keats said this, but I am sure glad he did.

No religion means anything until it is real like this.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

This last week

Hi all. I have been verrry busy this last week, but a number of notable things have happened.

I acquired a major advisor for my Master's Thesis by a combination of fast-talking, overpowering genius, sheer charisma, and serendipity: Dr. Nick Flann.

You can see from his web page that he is interested in Autonomous Vehicles and Bioinformatics, which, while not repellent to me, are not the focus of my interest. So why him? A passing reference to learning algorithms in my classical AI class, I guess. He has also mentioned interest in the evolution of the brain (Steven Pinker visited our campus recently and Dr. Flann was all over it; I was at work).

Fortunately, he is interested in the Cyc Knowledge Base. This is essentially a computer-understandable, hierarchical database of common-sense knowledge about the world we live in, with associated logic machines, natural language processing, etc. There is an open source version that I am downloading as we speak. This seems like a good fit for my interest in computers becoming creative: see my earlier meandering post. I was extremely lucky to run into him when I did, as I gather that his interest in Cyc is relatively new.

I got the feeling while we were discussing all this that I sounded a bit wild-eyed, talking about creative computers and ruts of abstractions in the brain. But he did say my project sounded cool and real, which is hard to find in an artificial intelligence topic, so I guess I struck gold. I am open to the future of what I can do here, so it should be interesting to see my topic morph over time. I wonder idly if my work will be too closely tied to this particular technology, or if Cyc is the only game in town for my interest. I suppose I will be learning a lot along the way anyhow.

Bonus: next semester I could take a "readings" class that will help me prepare to use this technology. So, much less homework! I guess we will find out pretty fast how much I enjoy the art of research. But I have high hopes.

It snowed in Logan on Friday night. Sarah and I had just finished watching Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (which I found affecting and well-constructed, except for the somewhat pat resolutions of the interweaving story threads) at midnight, and we stretched and saw the snow outside. It stuck at night and thawed in the morning. But it was quite beautiful for a while there.

On Saturday we went to a great store called Ten Thousand Villages. This is an organization that buys from artisans around the world at living wages, then sells locally. I liked the instruments best, but there were puzzles, clothes, jewelry, sculptures, and one exquisitely carved Chinese box. I couldn't believe how cheap some of it was.

We came home from the store because Alex was tired, but then we found out that our water was cut off. What happened, we pieced together later, was that a person who owned the condo below us (and moved out a while back) had come while we were out and shut off her water. Unfortunately, and bizarrely, our water was connected to hers, so ours was cut off too. For the next six hours, we lived without water. Not as easy as it sounds; I kept saying, "Well, we can have eggs without using water," and "How about tuna fish?", and "Well, I can go without a shower, it's ok," even though I almost never do and it almost never is. There were other problems too. A real estate agent with a key came back and turned on the water at about 10 PM.

Today was a banner day because I made my first recipe by James Beard, the Apostle of American Cooking. It was a braised onion sauce with bowtie pasta. Take half a pound of butter, melt, add 6 medium onions, sliced, and cook till soft and transparent. Add a tablespoon of sugar, simmer for an hour, add 1/4 cup of Madeira (I substituted white wine, so maybe it would taste different), pour over fresh pasta, sprinkle cheese. How do people come up with this stuff? I thought it was great, but Sarah was put off by an excess of onions. So there are lots of leftovers. I can't remember the last time I felt so full.

Back to work! But I am way off my 2-post-per-week average. Maybe this week, maybe next week, I will catch back up.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Yikes, a whole week

I've been busy, as you can probably guess. No new books to report having completed. I started A Tale of Two Cities. I have no clue how I read this in high school. Even now, with ten years of good reading under my belt, I stumble over the rhythm of Dickens' words and the almost excessive extravagance of his words and imagery. Maybe I just bleeped over the words I couldn't pronounce, like Linus reading The Brothers Karamazov. And also, I didn't pay such careful attention to the author's choice of words and how they sound or even what they were saying, when I was 15. Back then, I read like a child, only wanting to know what happens next. Now it is more alive to me. Or, most likely, maybe it is stupid to think you can read Classic English Literature in the commercial breaks for South Park.

I don't watch much South Park because I am too busy. But I caught a great episode, "Christian Rock Hard," a rerun from a couple of years back. The boys are starting a band, but Cartman sucks, so the other guys kick him out, and he bets them $20 that he can get a platinum album doing Christian music before the other guys get a platinum album. Then he takes pop songs and replaces the word "baby" with "Jesus", a testament to the blandness of most Christian music these days. But the love songs Cartman picks are about, ahem, adult situations. I laughed and laughed. Cartman gets his million records sold to the adoring CCM community, but the Christian music execs give him a "myrrh" album instead of a platinum album. Cartman loses the $20 bet that he sold all those records to win (and he spent all the money from his recording contract on an enormous celebration of his winning the bet). He can never go platinum (but he can go "double myrrh", what a great line). In anger, he curses Jesus in public and his audience evaporates.

There is a parable in the Gospels about reserving judgment of others until the Judgment Day exposes all people for what we are, at Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43. Here is a good homily on it. I was thinking about this today because it came up in the sermon (we were visiting Aldersgate Methodist in Brigham City). I will have a profounder thought on this later, I hope. But one of the reasons I like that South Park episode is that Cartman has his Day of Judgment for his hypocritical salesmanship of slop to the naive Christians.

I am creating a backlog of promised postings: Hubris, Gay Marriage, and now the Final Judgment. And I also need to do one on our awesome pumpkins. But that's it for tonight.

Update [11/8]: Yikes. I was rereading this post and noticed a misuse of word that I just hate. I have been somehow infected by this word. It is "testament", as in "a testament to the blandness of most Christian music these days.", meaning "evidence of". Hmmm... I just looked it up on Google, which sent me here, and it turns out "evidence of" is now an accepted usage. But that says to me that the word has deteriorated from "statement of belief; credo" and "will". Another casualty of the mush-mouthed MTV generation, I guess.

Sunday, October 23, 2005


As Machiavelli says in The Prince,

"Let him act like the clever archers who, designing to hit the mark which yet appears too far distant, and knowing the limits to which the strength of their bow attains, take aim much higher than the mark, not to reach by their strength or arrow to so great a height, but to be able with the aid of so high an aim to hit the mark they wish to reach."

In other words, try too hard.

That is the story of these first several weeks of my semester. I have finally yielded to the wisdom of my betters and agreed to drop a class. The time pressure has been too much; I barely saw my wife and child last week, much less entertained all my loyal readers ("example of letters of invitations to a musical", I am talking to you). I am readying a long thought on homosexual marriage, having been inspired by some other blog post somewhere.

Today at church I got to explain to a friend, who is teaching the class, why I was dropping. He was cool about it, for which I am grateful.

I have been reading more interesting books. I just finished A Grief Observed by CS Lewis for the first time, and it was quite revealing and sharp; he wrote it after his wife died. But I think I should've known that book-reading is not the only barometer of success.

I'll take suggestions for my first new book. Email me at the address depicted in this picture.

I feel sad that I wasted a great word like hubris on a title to a short post like this one, so I'll write on Hubris, Part II soon.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

A large hard drive

Utah State University's remodeled science library opened recently (also replacing the old generic library, I understand). I was interested in reading the artificial intelligence journals about learning. I couldn't find any. I looked up Artificial Intelligence in the catalog and found out it was in this thing called BARN. I looked at the map of the library and noticed this BARN thing on several different floors. Oh, I thought. There's stacks or something. So I tried the first floor, but that corner of the building was under construction, so I figured I couldn't get in.

I wandered around on the second floor where the current journals and newspapers are, but I couldn't find it, so I checked the map again. BARN, this big rectangular thing in the corner of the map, it was there. I wandered around stacks and journals and study rooms until I finally got to a study area where a woman was reading something in a chair. There were these windows to my right, and I expected to see more study rooms. I looked and everything clicked.

"There are shelves, Neo... endless shelves." My first impression was "human beings are no longer born... they are grown," as I stared out at a four-story-tall warehouse of books. I was behind a window in a wall, so I didn't have vertigo. While I watched, a robot almost like a little forklift wheeled out into the distance, then raised the entire belt to a distant shelf, a miniature little cube of shelved, bound journals, lifted it out of its rack, then carried it down to an exit point and slid the shelf off the robot arm, presumably to be processed by a human once it reached the outside. I watched entranced for a moment, realization washing over me. If anyone had been watching, I would have been embarrassed. But I just thought it was extremely cool.

A few other thoughts occurred to me. First, it might be harder to read for my thesis if every article request required robotic assistance. I don't know what the policy is about checking out multiple journals at once, but I might have to check a few out, return, check a few more out. Maybe photocopy a lot. I haven't found out yet how inconvenient this will be. Second, this thing is like a large hard drive. It seeks out data (in blocks of large predefined size), moves an arm to retrieve the block, brings it back into a more accessible area where a librarian can give it to you (call it a cache), and then a bit of that block of data is actually used for real work. There are more metaphors too, like system call and address space and seek time. And you are a CPU in this scenario. Third, and connected, I find it interesting that we have followed a computer-science model pretty closely to work with our ink-and-paper information. Even our analog is becoming digital. To quote The Matrix again, "Whoa."

I didn't read the map very carefully, or I would have known that BARN means "Borrower's Automated Retrieval Network".

It's a pretty cool new library, but I have started to wonder if I will need to take trips to Salt Lake City and the University of Utah to carry out this research of mine. Or maybe I will become the Interlibrary Loan's best customer. I just don't know if there are enough books here.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

I get letters

Searches, that is. To this point I don't know if I have succeeded in communicating much on this blog. Maybe indirectly. I get few comments and no emails. But the name of this web site causes a certain class of people to find me. All of the examples are within the last 12 hits on the blog, people searching like this:

"example of letters of invitations to a musical"

Dear Patron of The Arts,
Come see ___[lead actor]___ and ___[lead actress]___ light up the stage at ___[theater]___ in this ___[adjective]___ production!
Art Purveyor

"sample moving memo letter"

Once more unto the paper jam, dear friends, once more
Or fill the toner up with our Cubiclish dead!

"free letter of explanation"

This letter does not explain this sentence, which means what this phrase says, which is that this sentence does not explain itself, but the rest of the sentence explains the beginning of the sentence, and this is the rest of the sentence.

"examples how to make a letter for a child go out for vacation"

Free subscription to Letters and Papers for the first reader who can parse this search. "child go out"? Or "letter for a child" "go out for vacation"? "go out" "for vacation"? None of the beads on this string make sense to me.

"sample letter explain poor credit rating"
"sample letter escape situation"

Seriously, these ones make me sad and I don't plan to make fun of them.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Victory in the spam war

Attention: we have won the spam war completely, at least in my mailbox. We can't declare total victory until middle-aged men stop clicking the links for C1A7i5, and we all pray they do, but Spam Assassin has obliterated spam for me.

How do I know? I received a spam today. Huh? Am I being paradoxical? Not at all, just read what I received:

Re: Bernardo Hansley Meidictions
[omitted a few headers]
brexis $um $xenacra $traecia
170 30 pi161 90 pi 135 30 pi
llslls lls
get additional info

If I can't even read the advertisement or figure out what it is for, why send me the email? There were no links or pictures. It didn't cost me any brain cells to delete this piece of trash. Maybe Thunderbird is doing some work for that too.
Aux armes citoyens
Formez vos bataillons
Marchons, marchons
Qu'un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

How Brains Think

Actually, as fascinating as the subject is, I don't totally care. But I am reading How Brains Think, by William H. Calvin, and not just for my neuroscientific education. I have zeroed in on a broad research area for my MS, and it has to do with thinking. So, I am learning evolutionary explanations for how this pile of meat feels conscious and how learning works. It is challenging me, but I don't mind. So Nick, since you lent me this book 5 years ago or so, I hope you are happy to know that I got around to this eventually.

My research topic revolves around learning and thinking. I had been chewing over topics in artificial intelligence, and came up with it walking down the hill after a lecture by the resident network security professor at USU, Dr. Erbacher. Basically, the department is trotting out all the professors to talk about their research. I have been listening carefully to all of them to see if they like to think about what I want to study.

So far the closest to my interests has probably been the lovable, a bit wild-eyed professor Hugo de Garis, who wants to bring about Ray Kurzweil's Singularity and phase out the human race in favor of superintelligent machines. He makes artificial brains by evolving neural networks at hardware speeds, using FPGAs, and then downloads them to PCs that can run the programs. He is making a mine-seeking robot dog for DARPA, but he is mostly just interested in the brains. He gave a spellbinding, wide-ranging lecture on his research and the coming Singularity (when artificial intelligence will be evolving too fast for us to predict the future of the technology or even [horror movie organ interlude] the human race).

My topic was inspired indirectly by Dr. Erbacher though. He visualizes network traffic by changing connection logs and data flow into pictures. This makes it easier to spot patterns and detect network attacks. His lecture was excellent too, but one thing bothered me: his visualizations depend on a human looking at the picture and interpreting it (as far as I understood him). I thought afterwards about whether computers can interpret things, even things they've never seen before. I came around to the idea that computers should be able to create abstractions, but can't.

I think I talked about this earlier, but the trend in the way we interact with computers is toward higher-level abstractions. You used to have to speak 1s and 0s to work with a computer; as time has gone on, we have created ways to summarize a lot of those 1s and 0s when we talk to computers. Among many other things, this trend makes it easier over time to create useful software and information.

Unfortunately, it has up to now been all on people to pull the computers into intelligence. Even learning approaches to artificial intelligence, which have shown some great success, have run into a ceiling, summarized as follows by Stuart Russell and Peter Norvig in Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach.

Very powerful logical and statistical techniques have been developed that can cope with quite large problems, often reaching or exceeding human capabilities in the identification of predictive patterns defined on a given vocabulary. On the other hand, machine learning has made very little progress on the important problem of constructing new representations at levels of abstraction higher than the input vocabulary.

In other words, computers are not creative in the sense that they can find patterns in disparate ideas, name them, and reuse them to think about a problem in a simpler manner. If we want computers to have a knowledge base to draw on to solve problems, we have to put it all in by hand.

What would a computer do if it could make up words? Learn like a person, but voraciously, at DSL speeds, by reading the Wikipedia? Reveal hidden mysteries? Talk back?

Anyway, I think that is what I want to do for the next two years. That's why I'm reading How Brains Think: I actually need to know, in order to make a computer create abstractions. Was it safe to unleash me on this problem? God alone knows.

That is, if any of the professors will take me.

Note: is a liberal religious community site that spun off of Daily Kos. I like it quite a bit. I posted the following comment there; it explains a little why I consider myself a Protestant but not an evangelical. I added a few explanatory notes in square brackets.

I have bobbed up and down in my Christian faith over long periods of time. I am a Christian today because I think Jesus died and then lived again, but the beliefs surrounding that belief have been morphing slowly, ever since I became a Christian at age 18.

Once, I considered myself an evangelical because I believed it was truly important to believe certain things about X, Y, and Z; if you didn't, you were in a precarious, possibly deadly position. The evangelicals believed that too, so I fit right in. I tried to define truly important beliefs sharply, to find real traditional orthodoxy. It was a big project for me to learn what all Christians have believed, to come to my own mere Christianity.

I understood the futility of this endeavor a few years ago. I was leading a Bible study and met one of the guys in it by chance one day. I explained to him that I'd spent a lot of time taking apart the engine of Christianity, analyzing it to pieces, and very little time putting the engine back together, slapping it in the car and driving. I realized it was true as I was saying it, so I had a new project: to live out my Christian life with less emphasis on true belief than on integrity, true action.

Down the road, I realized that it was foolishness to set myself up as a judge of the orthodoxy of other beliefs, and thus a judge of other people who believed those things. I could trust God to manage his details, to see truly what I glimpse darkly. I also didn't understand the meaning of the line in Romans, "For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all." [Meaning at least that God's salvation works in mysterious ways, and questions of heaven and hell are too deep for us to know.]

Another realization came when Fred Clark of Slacktivist said, in a post on Left Behind, that evangelicals lack metaphor [not evangelical people necessarily (Hi Dad!), but evangelical ideology]. The more I thought about it, the more I thought it was true. That was probably my decisive break with evangelicalism.

I still consider myself a Protestant Christian, but I don't feel guilty about voting for Democrats. Or thinking subversive thoughts about God, Jesus, and church. Or asking hard questions of my faith. Life has been much better ever since.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Religion and a-religion

Posted this at Daily Kos:


One prejudice some secular Democrats could do without is this: religious people must have blind, irrational spots where their religion touches reality, while secular people have thrown off the shackles of the oppressor and stopped drinking the narcotic Kool-aid of the masses, and are such great Vulcan logic machines that if you prick them, they bleed green.

In other words, religious people have failed where freethinkers have succeeded, to find objectivity and a rational way to live in the world. As Maher put it [on Real Time with Bill Maher: "That - people of faith - and when I hear 'people of faith' I think, well those are people who suspend rational judgment for nonsensical ******** that they believe." ... "No - I had a mental block when I was a child when they taught me this nonsense and when I got to be an adult, I got over it." ], he grew up, but I never did. Pardon me if I'm not convinced; let me just point out that the same claim may apply in reverse, equal and opposite: religious people have found a rational way to live in the world while freethinkers have failed.

Without prejudging the outcome of a debate between religion and a-religion, just think about how unhelpful these equal and opposite arguments are in formulating the basic questions about life, the universe, and everything.

It's up to religious people, like me, to counter that prejudice by talking about what real religion looks like (and not sounding like idiots in the process), and to reject our fellow believers' truth-avoiding behavior.

It's up to non-religious people to take seriously the rumors that religious people can think, and to take with a grain of salt the rumors that religious people are so far-gone in their distorted faith that they are willing to ignore evidence that contradicts their faith in order to retain a sense of peace and integrity about their place in the world. I'm not saying you will never run into people with a distorted religion; I live in Utah, after all, where a lot of people grow up believing a religion just because it's what their mother and father believed and they know in their heart that it's true.

But there is a middle ground for religious politics. Here is a mission statement for religion we should all be able to agree is sorely needed and sadly distant from religion in public life in America:

"Religion is patient, religion is kind. Religion does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. Religion is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Religion does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. Religion always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres."

No matter what religious stripe you paint on your sleeve (including transparent, or paintless), "Religion does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth" ought to be the hallmark of religion in politics for the Democrats. The differences between this and the religious politics of the right are obvious.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

A short note

I am feeling a little better. I started rereading The Magic of Recluce by L.E. Modesitt. I read it in high school or so and enjoyed it, but I felt like I didn't understand it exactly. This book spawned a series that is still going strong a decade later. I stopped reading it when I got to one that spoiled the surprises for me, Fallen Angels, I think it's called. Hover over the note [SPOILER ALERT] to see why.* On rereading, I am enjoying myself more and the spoiler seems more obvious to me.

It has felt a lot better to be reading some fiction. I got some work done last night too and I felt like I might be able to manage this school business.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

It came from beneath the sermon

The last couple of weeks, I have had trouble concentrating during the sermon. Maybe I am missing things that would be really valuable to me, I don't know. But instead of staring silently at the pastor, I decided to write.

Here's clips of things I wrote:

[on emotion and worship]

But emotions are made for the outpouring of our hearts to God and others. They betray our inner life that we keep masked. When we are finally so angry that we can't contain it, we yell or slap the table. When we are so sad, we weep. When we are amused, we laugh.

... When we can't contain it any more, we praise him with our lips and our lungs, we sing him songs. We talk about him without stopping. We betray the life we have kept masked, strip away veneers of dignity and sufficiency, strip away our silence and our rationality...

[on truth and storytelling]

... arguments about true and false rest on truth, not truths. We cannot beat against facts with theories or reason from the general to the specific.

If this is all Hume was saying, it's not much. Scientists don't claim to beat against the facts. Theories are not true. Approximations to the truth have degrees of truth. Stories are truth-telling, but not true.

But who would say there is no knowledge in science or wisdom in stories?


[on journalism and narratives]

Beware anyone who tells stories in narrow contexts. They are shielding their interpretation from the facts. There is no such thing as a competing narrative. Stories do not compete: instead they are adequate or inadequate to the facts. When you hear about competing narratives, you are hearing about a large story pared down to selective, narrow facts.

Journalists write articles nowadays that purport to give equal time to competing narratives, or equal criticism to competing parties. They do this by selecting slices of truths in order to maintain the appearance of objectivity. But the truth is that objectivity is faithfulness to the whole story, the large story, all the facts. Objectivity means that truth resides in the facts, not the theory that opposite narratives are equally true, or the theory that opposite parties are equally sinful or deceptive. ...

I can't recommend inattention to everyone, but I know it's not always the worst thing in the world.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

And the worst part is

I don't even have time to read. Yes, readers, you know your life is dangling around by your ankles and dragging you into a jagged chasm of despair when you don't have time to read.

I mentioned this to Sarah the other night and she commented to the effect that going days without playing with your son and seeing your wife might also give you a clue about the state of your life.

But it's not exactly true; I have been able to see Sarah and Alex on the weekends at least, and some lazy Thursdays. And it's not exactly true that I can't read. I have several textbooks to read and things to learn. In fact, I am basically drowning in things I need to get up to speed on.

But I am starved for stories, for fiction, for a little escape from the grind. I don't read when I walk around campus, on the bus, on my breaks. So my emotions are getting duller too, I think. And I bring a less lively mind to my problems. I am not being surprised and joyful at the new things I'm learning, even though they're incredibly cool. And I have this permanent headache now, throbbing while I listen to music.

Music is great, but it is a poor substitute for a glimpse of real life beyond this incredibly hard semester. Music just makes me feel asleep these days instead of awake. I am not bringing my humanity to it, I am not singing along.

And I worry that my life may turn into this permanently, a furious struggle to get out of debt and make someone else's dreams come to life, then die.

God, let it not be so; show me something to read.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Long week

I think I've mentioned that I have 12 semester credits of computer science this semester. 6 of them are graduate credits. I am also working about 20 hours per week.

So last week all my juggling crashed. I had a presentation to do (will actually do tomorrow), an assignment I can only accomplish on campus, that used proprietary software that I can't afford, and an assignment that I didn't have the proper tools to do. On my half day, Friday, when I usually have nothing to do after 1:30, I was at school until 8 PM.

We spent the weekend unwinding. I saw a truly excellent football game on Saturday morning (Purdue and Minnesota, with 2 or 3 overtimes and superb rushing on both sides), and Sarah and I got out a little bit together and just relaxed. We watched Prince Caspian and Voyage of The Dawn Treader that evening. It was the first time we could sit and watch TV quietly together in recent memory. Usually I am parenting before 8:00 and working on computers after 8:00.

So I owe people emails and such. I was especially glad to hear from my brother, and I'll be writing to him soon.

This week I am looking forward to an orderly school experience, which will eliminate the need for a violent bloodbath.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Free GMail invites

I just read a Wall Street Journal article that said that Google's GMail internet mail service is not easy to obtain. Here:

I thought everyone had an account who wanted one, but in case you don't, I have 99 free invitations to anyone who wants to get their GMail account now. Why 99 invitations? Because I just sent one to to the author of the article.

I have enjoyed GMail; the time it takes to set up a label (= folder) is trivial. Email filtering into the folders can be automatic if you set it up; I'm sure it's no easier in any other mail service. I have 21 labels at the moment, and almost as many or more email filters. I have enjoyed a spam-lite or -free mailbox every day since I signed up for this thing. All my email gets forwarded to me there now.

So email me for your brand new GMail address today. They're not going anywhere fast.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Fedora Core 4

Oh yeah, after a bit of tugging with SUSE 9.1, I decided to bite the bullet and install Fedora Core 4 (which is Red Hat Linux with a different name). To do this, I needed to download 4 CDs worth of installation material.

Joshua, the guy I was sitting next to in AI class while I downloaded this stuff in the lab, said that was awesome. Or cool. You breathe a sigh of relief when you're the companion of friends like these.

Anyway, it took me a while, and I found out a few interesting details about Firefox on the way (Google "why is firefox so slow" to find out how to make it faster), but basically everything about my Linux setup works now. I like working over there much better than in Windows, but I need to know a few more details to use it effectively. Fortunately, Linux is like Windows without the chastity belt, and I can explore to my heart's content. So the answers will come, I'm sure.

Defining moments in marriage

[Sarah starts to hum "In the Hall of the Mountain King" from Grieg's Peer Gynt]

Dan: What are you humming?

[Sarah hums louder]

[Dan joins in, then starts humming too loud and tapping his foot]

Sarah: Dan, stop it.

Dan: Sorry, this song really moves me. [pause] It's about dwarves.

Monday, September 19, 2005


I just ran across this crappy sentence in a reading and writing textbook at work:

An article by Penny Oldfather of the University of Georgia explains how a positive classroom culture and teachers who try to attain an empathetic understanding of their unmotivated students’ perceptions can help them accept and become engaged with literacy learning.

Hold, American Cicero! Why art thou wasted on pedagogy? Get thee hence to the public square, that the unwashed rabble mayst marvel all at the depth of thy masterful oratory. Pretend no false humility!

Kids read better when their teachers understand them inside out and teach toward their problems.


Sunday, September 18, 2005

Puzzle Pirates

So there's this online game called Puzzle Pirates. Basically, you do puzzles, and you're a pirate. You're in a big world full of other pirates (people from around the world) doing piratey things. I suggest you download it and start with a doubloon ocean (these basically require cash to get items, but are free to play indefinitely).

This devilishly clever game makes activities like bilging a pirate ship and firing its cannons into games of Dr. Mario and Bejeweled. The better you play, the better the ship performs. As time goes on, you can captain your own ship, join the commodities market, or become president of an island, all involving mastery of puzzles. Beyond that, you can blockade another group, start wars against the other players, play politics. On your break, you can get into fights and drinking games at the inn.

The interesting thing is that every ship is a set of interdependent systems: get hit by a cannon, then the bilge comes faster into the ship, and you can't sail as fast; fix the hole with carpentry and the bilge problem goes away; sail faster and you can navigate better in battle. It's possible to have computer pirates take over some of these systems, but the best ships have real people working in concert. And of course, the higher-level battles and blockades require intense coordination.

It's fascinating that a bunch of people can conjure this kind of game, but really this kind of community, out of thin air. It's also fascinating that the people who excel at this game can do puzzles really well; it's a pre-built social structure for the chronically shy.

Check it out.