Author Archive

I’ve been reading the Andrew Lang edition of The Tales of King Arthur to my kids at night the past week. Last night, we read the end of the quest for the Holy Grail (or Graal) where Galahad is sort of “taken up in the spirit” and breathes his last.

Late that same evening, I decided to withhold putting in another hour on my contract programming work and looked for a book to read instead. Since the new James K.A. Smith book hadn’t shown up in the mail yet, I grabbed a classic from Lewis – The Problem of Pain. Imagine my surprise then, when in the introductory chapter, he references and even quotes from the exact scene I had just read to my children an hour earlier as part of a brief survey on how men throughout the ages have held the supernatural in awe.

Quite the coincidence!

But then again, not really. The reason I chose the Lang edition out of about ten different variations I discovered at Powell’s City of Books in Portland over Christmas, was because I remember Tolkien repeatedly referring to Lang in his essay On Faerie Stories. So I was intentionally reading something Lewis would have been very familiar with already. So it shouldn’t be so surprising to find a footnote in the same circle. It was fun though.

On a side note, I must say that I am disappointed in this Lang edition. It is largely a condensed version of Mallory, but hasn’t been cleaned up much. Nearly none of the supporting characters are given an introduction. For example, Lancelot just shows up out of the blue with zero explanation of who he is. The following chapters refer to his sin, but there is no hint as to what it might be (his affair with the queen). The whole thing is a mess. I need to try again and find a different retelling. This one assumes far too much of the reader.

In Ethiopia, Bernd Bierbaum
Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren (read aloud to the kids)
Paradoxes of Faith, Henri de Lubac
The Art of Biblical Poetry, Robert Alter
The BFG, Roald Dahl (read aloud to the kids)
Hope is Cut: Youth, Unemployment, and the Future in Urban Ethiopia, Danial Mains
Parenting with Love and Logic, Foster Cline and Jim Fay
The Princess and the Goblin, George MacDonald (read aloud to the kids, 2nd time)
Studies in Words, C.S. Lewis
The Door in the Wall, Marguerite de Angeli (read aloud to the kids)
Aleka, Ketema Desta (A very obscure short novel translated from Amharic)
The Castle in the Attic, Elizabeth Winthrop (read aloud to the kids)
The Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris
The Power of Continuity: Ethiopia through the eyes of its children, Eva Poluha
The Indian in the Cupboard, Lynne Reid Banks (read aloud to the kids)
The Return of the Indian, Lynne Reid Banks (read aloud to the kids)
Punished by Reward, Alfie Kohn
Tales of the Kingdom, David and Karen Mains (read aloud to the kids, 3rd time)
Tales of the Restoration, David and Karen Mains (read aloud to the kids, 3rd time)
The Secret of the Indian, Lynne Reid Banks (read aloud to the kids)
Notes from the Hyenas Belly, Nega Mezlekia
Ethiopia & Eritrea, Lonely Planet Guide
Seven Sevens of Years and a Jubilee, Rowland Bingham
The Mystery of the Cupboard, Lynne Reid Banks (read aloud to the kids)
The Changing Face of Christianity: Africa, the West, and the World, Edited by Lamin Sanneh and Joel A. Carpenter
The Missionary Factor in Ethiopia, Edited by Getatchew Haile, Aasulv Lande, and Samuel Rubenson
Summoned from the Margin: Homecoming of an African, Lamin Sanneh
Dismissing Jesus, Doug Jones
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling (read aloud to the kids)
Desiring the Kingdom, James K.A. Smith
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling (read aloud to the kids)
The Cost of Community, Jamie Arpin-Ricci
Patterns of Plausible Inference, George Polya
Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White (read aloud to the kids)
Ramona Quimby, Age 8 (read aloud to the kids)
Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About, Donald Knuth
The Adventures of Robin Hood, (read aloud to the kids)
Masters of Doom, David Kushner
Understood Betsy, Dorothy Canfield, (read aloud to the kids)
The Harpooner (Advent Devotional), Thomas McKenzie, (read aloud to the kids)
A Short Systematic Theology, Paul Zahl

“The prologue to the Gospel of St. Jon is eighteen verses. Yet it tells you everything you ned to know about God in his relation to the human race. The eighteen verses are not exhaustive, but they are complete. Their implications are inexhaustible.”

-Paul Zahl, A Short Systematic Theology, p.2

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

The same was in the beginning with God.

All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.

He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.

That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.

He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.

He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:

Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

John bare witness of him, and cried, saying, This was he of whom I spake, He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me.

And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace.

For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.

No man hath seen God at any time, the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.

You can follow people online, even their relatively personal posts if you have them on Facebook, yet be in the dark about what is most significant in their lives. Some friends of mine was recently posting pictures of themselves smiling a Christmas party. The were also regularly tweeting jokes. My wife called them up to ask about getting together since we were going to be passing through their town on our holiday travels. It turns out their family is in the middle of upheaval and the wife just spent a day in the hospital with a severe depression/anxiety attack. Who knew? I’m confidant they will get through this – they are a spiritually strong and mature couple. This is a bump on the road. But it was invisible to outsiders, even to the relative “insiders” of social media contact. I was surprised to learn what was going on, but I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that SOMETHING was going on.

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I’ve been able to post here pretty steadily this year with several substantial essays this spring and nearly a hundred other thoughts here and there. But now, nothing for twenty days. What gives? Transition. After 13 years working full time in the public sector, I’ve decided to strike out on my own as computer programming contractor. I was able to get position with a fairly respected consultant. It’s risky though. Gone is the 6-month job security lag. I can be fired quite literally overnight. Gone also are all the benefits – I have to buy my own health insurance, life insurance, disability insurance, pay my own social security taxes, buy all my own tools, and there are no vacation days. Also, the work bodes to be much more challenging. I’m going to need to really bust my rear, especially for the next three months and the learning curve for several new languages and tools will be steep. That isn’t going to leave much time left for reading or blogging or, well, anything. I’ve already axed several extracurriculars with the kids that weren’t as high on the priority list. It’s been, frankly, an anxiety-filled couple of weeks.

So why? My wife and I have been married for nearly 11 years now and we were looking at our long-term goals and what could be done to accomplish them. One is to get a 100% telecommute job so we’ll have greater homeschooling flexibility with the four kids. Another is to get more cash to pay for ongoing medical expenses. Even after insurance, I was on the hook for $9000 in surgery expenses this past year for my daughter and it’s very likely she will need to have a similar surgery done in the next year. I can’t swing that. Something has got to change. Also, the administration of my current employer has made it very clear that there is absolutely no opportunity for any career advancement whatsoever. Raises of any sort have been permanently out for years, but now the one remaining path for improvement – applying for higher vacant positions within the company (Something I’ve done 4 times in a row) – has been severely restricted. How this is supposed to improve anything is completely baffling. Dilbert is funny because it’s true folks. Sometimes you can’t make this stuff up. I figured it was finally time to go, even if it wasn’t going to be easy. Finally, I really do look forward to the intellectual challenge. I’m a pretty lousy armchair theologian, but am equipped (from my childhood and steadily since then) to be a decent programmer.

So the bottom line is that activity on this blog is likely to be sparse for some time. I know there is only a handful of you who actually read this with any regularity and you are plenty busy yourselves, but if you are curious, that is what gives.

Merry Christmas!

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Here are quotes from two different individuals.

As we gradually learn to harness the optimal computing capacity of matter, our intelligence will spread through the universe at (or exceeding) the speed of light, eventually leading to a sublime, universe wide awakening.

Machines will follow a path that mirrors the evolution of humans. Ultimately, however, self-aware, self-improving machines will evolve beyond humans’ ability to control or even understand them.

and

I do believe that the goal of AI is to know more about ourselves, about the world, about how to interact. If God exists (as I do believe), the creation of physical artifacts will never contradict that existence. it will just, actually, make it even more visible. How, I don’t know. But I am not afraid of pursuing the AI goal, because I do believe that knowing more about myself and knowing more about the world can never lead me to the conclusion that God doesn’t exist. I don’t think that I would get to that end. Just the opposite.

Alright. One of these people is famous and is always on PBS or NPR or pick-your-favorite-respectable show. He could be on a segment right after Yo-Yo Ma or Maya Angelou. He’s visionary and interesting.

The other is a scientists who actually programs robots for a living and has nearly a hundred academic papers published on serious AI topics.

One you see quoted all the time – in Wired or the Wall Street Journal. The other you’ve never heard of.

One is a ridiculously rich white guy from New York City. The other is a little-known Portuguese woman.

And I am convinced that one of these people knows what they are talking about and the other is full of hot air.

The quotes are from:

Ray Kurzweil, from The Singularity is Near, 2005

Manuela Veloso, from a panel discussion, 1999

You remember in the 1990s when everyone was talking about “virtual reality” and “cyberspace”? Blah blah blah. All talk. Who was actually doing the work? Programmers like John Carmack who spent six weeks holed up in a hotel room figuring out how to get ray-tracing to run on a 386 when everyone else on earth thought it was impossible. You have him and his quiet ilk to thank for opening the door to much of the 3D technology you see today in movies, games, and simulations. They made real progress while everyone else was yacking on the conference circuit and wooing gullible investors.

That is why I don’t trust the futurists. None of the really smart and productive people I know in IT (or medicine or engineering) believe them. Only the hype-loving people who stood in line in the cold last week to buy an iPad Air seem to hang on their every word. Them and journalists. Maybe there is a really great programmer or engineer out there who actually believes all this Singularity stuff. But I haven’t met him/her yet – not even close. I’m open to be surprised though.

Open up Popular Science and you’ll find someone going on and on about how their new virtual reality nano-robot whatever is going to revolutionize heart surgery. Then you look at the cover and realize the magazine is 20 years old and the robot is nowhere to be seen. Meanwhile, some guy you’ve never heard of has made heart surgery more effective by figuring out a better way to grind scalpel blades so they stay sharp longer.

I suggest we focus on what can be done with the tools and resources at hand. Solve problems and take them a bit further. Don’t be tempted by talk of quantum leaps. Remember the limitations of the human body and mind. The greatest know this humility.

 

Alright, here is my attempt at an Advent playlist (not a Christmas one). Most of these are on the somber side of things. Remember, Jesus hasn’t come yet.

  • Fantasia on Greensleeves, Ralph Vaughan Williams, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields recording
  • The Holly and the Ivy, Loreena McKennitt, from A Midwinter Night’s Dream
  • Veni Veni Emmanuel, Loreena McKennitt, from A Midwinter Night’s Dream
  • O Come O Come Emmanuel, Chanticleer, Our Heart’s Joy
  • Noel Nouvelet, Anuna, from Christmas with Anuna
  • It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, The Honey Trees, single
  • Creator of the Stars of Night, High Street Hymns, from Love Shall Be Our Token
  • People Look East, Al Petteway and Amy White, Winter Tidings
  • Advent Suite, John Michael Talbot and Michael Card, Brother to Brother
  • Christmas in the Room, Sufjan Stephens, from Silver and Gold Vol VIII
  • Christmas Lights, Coldplay, single
  • O Come O Come Emmanuel, The Cascade Horns, from Christmas Brass

Notes: Probably any recording of the Vaughan Williams piece will do.

The Advent Suite from Talbot and Card is a real power house. You might need to stop and replay that one a few times.

Sufjan Stephen’s 10-disc Christmas album is absolutely bizarre and not recommended. There are a few gems though. Make sure you listen to the volume 8 version of this song. The other one is terrible.

The Coldplay song is not bad, really.

There are about 30 brass quintet versions of O Come O Come Emmanuel and I’ve heard many of them and performed several. This is, without question, the very best one. And no, it’s not on iTunes so good luck.

Here Knuth reflects on his early pioneering work in digital publishing and typeface creation:

When I first began to use a computer to produce letter forms, I thought the task would be easy. But actually I had to work on the task for five years before I got anything that satisfied me. And the first book that came out was a great disappointment to me after I saw it in print. I BURNED with disappointment – I actually felt a hot flash when I first saw it. I opened the covers, expecting to be really happy, but “Oh, no!” it was back to the drawing boards; still more work was needed.

When you design something yourself you are overly sensitive to it. You can’t view it dispassionately. If I’m watching a lecture in which my fonts appear in the slides, I can’t concentrate on that lecture; I keep wondering whether I shouldn’t have changed the letter S a little bit. I’m sure all artists go through this trauma. The more subjective a task is, the harder it is for you to know that you have produced anything of quality.

-Donald Knuth, Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About, p.131

I don’t have much to say about this. The highlighted sections are ridiculously true. Don’t forget.

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During a panel discussion about computer science and religion in 1999, Donald Knuth made this comment while complaining about the sensationalized accounts of theoretical physics research that often appears in places like Popular Science or Scientific American:

The extra detail that gets suppressed when quantum physics gets popularized amounts to the fact that, according to quantum mechanics, the universe actually consists of much more data than could ever be observed. [Paul] Dirac states, for example, that:

[Nature's] fundamental laws do not govern the world as it appears in our mental picture in any direct way, but instead they control a substratum of which we cannot form a mental picture without introducing irrelevancies.

There is this widely-held belief that when scientists discuss things, they are talking about the REAL world while theologians are just hanging out in a made-up fantasy world. People who love to sport T-shirts emblazoned with the idiotic “Flying Spaghetti Monster” are of this ilk.¬† Today, nearly every psychologist in business is trying to get the “neuro” prefix worked into his title somehow to emphasize how much what he is studying occurs in solid, actual “nature”, rather than some dubious construction. Mathematicians work in an imaginary world, but they are given a pass since their work ends up being fundamentally useful to natural scientists in the end. There is some popular push-back against physicists that like to talk a lot about “string theory” or “chaos theory”. Even the dimmest person in the room can detect the funny smell of a made-up world behind their conjectures.

But wait! This is all a false dichotomy. It’s not us and them. It’s not the real and the imaginary. The real is indeed very real, and what is going on in our heads is a representation of that – not the reality itself. This is equally true for both philosophers and engineers. We are working inside of a mental picture we have formed. Lots of details have been boiled down so we can contain them. And what gets introduced along the way? Irrelevancies. Garbage. Biases. Mistakes. Misunderstandings. Wildness. You name it – stuff that causes problems because we are working with a sampling of the universe small enough to fit in our heads, not the universe itself.

Everyone is doing this all the time, and doing a good job at it requires some musing. This is why artistic creativity often proves to be a boon to scientists, rather than some kind of saboteur. Boring, unimaginative scientists and theologians are equally bad. Some of our best science has arisen from science fiction. Talking about God well requires a sense of adventure rather than a micrometer. What can keep the cancer researcher picking up her pipette for the 100,000th time? Imagining cancer to be a dark evil worth slaying. What can keep the pastor coming back to comfort his wayward parishioner for the 1000th time? Love, and the belief that the doctrine of the Trinity might actually be a valid “theory of everything”.

Come on all you people now! You’re already dreaming. Dream bigger.

Here, computer scientist Donald Knuth explains his experience digging through biblical commentaries for the first time in the library. Having grown up in church, he was at least familiar with scripture, but hadn’t ever dug into much theology before. His account here rings true to me and is especially of value I think because of his status as a bit of an outsider to the subject but familiar with research writing.

Some of the commentaries I ran across were big disappointments to me. in some cases the authors did a superficial job, nt looking closely into the material as a good scholar would. They ignored the challenging questions that other commentators wrestled with. In other words, they were writing for another audience, not for me.

In several other cases the comments seemed to me very lifeless and dry They reeked of academic gamesmanship. Being a college professor myself, I think it is fairly easy to smell such pretensions from a long way off. Of course, I can’t help but sympathize with people who work in academic departments of theology, because they have to deal with much harder questions than I ever need to face. it must be enormously more difficult to do innovative work in a field that has been in existence for thousands of years than it is to do computer science research today. I supposed the best way to get tenure, as a theologian, is to say the wildest new things while not disagreeing too strongly with the people at your institution who received tenure just before you did. In any academic field, people’s egos are bound to intrude on the work they do, especially when their livelihood is at stake.

Fortunately, enough people are left who really love what they do and who aren’t just acting out some supposed strategy for success. I did run across a number of commentaries that I thought were not only excellent but also truly great. They combined superb scholarship with a genuine love for the subject that came through in the writing.

-from Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About

You see that part at the end: “People that combine great scholarship with genuine love for the subject”. People that are untainted by money and the stress of deadlines and the politics of the academy. Who does that sound like who is writing this “truly great” stuff? I’ll tell you who. AMATEURS. That’s right. Hobby bloggers and even some self-published enthusiasts are writing some of the best dang stuff out there – concerning all subjects. Oh, but we need professionals to do the best stuff. Nonsense. They have a bunch of other problems they have to deal with that often prevent them from working through really good (or new) ideas. Amateurs might have the true love and creativity, but without the hurdles that come with an attached career. This difference is now it’s easier to discover or become(!) one of these people than ever before.

Ah, can you tell I dug up an old hard drive and found a bunch of projects I did 10+ years ago back at the university? This one was for a friend of mine who played bass clarinet. This solo part has been adapted to keep the lines within a nice range, occasionally taking certain phrases down an octave. Double stops have also been either removed or replaced with arpeggios. If I recall, she didn’t get the opportunity to actually play this with an orchestra. It’s a good piece though and should actually sound pretty nice on a B.C. provided they could get enough volume out of it.

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