Richard L.

I had a moment of clarity today while talking to my wife. I realized that I have had the same experience multiple times with various Christians.

The title of my post was typical: We will call him Richard L. Richard and I were buds. He lived in Raleigh, and I lived in Chapel Hill, but that didn’t let that keep us apart. I would come to Raleigh regularly to help Rich with the storage shed he was building, ride bikes together, etc. We even went on several business trips together, as we were both members of the same professional trade organization.

My wife had a bad feeling though. She kept warning me that Rich was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Rich was the “leading brother” of the particular brand of Christianity that we were involved in at that point in our lives. I must admit that in that role, I found Rich to be a bit difficult. He was authoritarian, for sure. But I stuck with Rich stubbornly. He seemed genuinely interested in having a relationship with me. And, as usual, I had the emotional need for a relationship with another man.

Eventually, Rich completely and spectacularly rejected me. The circumstances around this are strange. One day Rich and I were best friends. The next day he simply stopped talking to me. I later found out, via gossip (which I normally try to avoid, but I was desperate) that Rich had had an affair, and his marriage was in trouble.

At that point, I called Rich and really pressed in. If he was having a tough time in his marriage, didn’t he need someone to talk to? Couldn’t I still help him? Couldn’t I still be his friend? I mean, how else was he going to process what had happened to him?

But, no, Rich would not talk to me. Most of all, he would not talk to me, because by doing so, he would have to confront his feelings. And we can’t have that, can we? Oh, no! In the Christian circles we ran in, if a man came home from a drunken brawl and confessed to an affair, his wife was expected to clean him up, put him to bed, and then continue to love and forgive him after that. All the while, never, ever talking about it. Oh, no! We don’t want to give any glory to Satan. Talking about our sin? How would that help?

Rich was only one example though. I have developed what I called last night a “flinch”. Basically, when I start to become intimate with someone, I want to spew out all of my stuff all at once, warts and all. I am saying: “Are you going to reject me? Go ahead, then. Please, get it over with. Put me out of my misery quickly, please. I don’t want to emotionally invest only to be disappointed again one more time.”

I need to work on that, I suppose.

Larry

I met an interesting man recently, named Larry. We were total strangers when we met, but circumstances threw us together, and we ended up having dinner. In the course of dinner, we shared our views on spiritual matters. This discussion was very fascinating to me.

Larry is a putative Christian at the moment, but I suspect that is in flux. I sensed from Larry a bit of dissatisfaction with his current state, which I generally heard as this:

  • The existence of God is required due to the existence of the physical universe. I have previously talked about the anthropic argument (that is, arguing for the existence of God based upon the evidence of nature). I find this position fairly satisfying, actually. I am continually struck by the wonders of nature, and how they seem to speak loudly about the existence of God. Certainly, a person of faith receives a strong jolt of confidence when he or she considers nature.
  • If God does exist (see above), then He / She would naturally want to communicate with His / Her creations. That is a very common argument, but it does not necessarily hold water in my view. I call this belief the Personal God. That is, the creator of the universe, with all of the trillions of galaxies, etc., wants to have a personal relationship with me, which includes monitoring my very thoughts (including this one!) in real time. Several issues:
    • Many philosophers conclude that if God does exist, it would be utterly impossible for Him / Her to communicate with us. This view of God is referred to as the Divine Watchmaker. Deism holds this view, for example. Many founding fathers of the US, including Thomas Jefferson, for example, were famously deists. Thus, the idea that God is personal does not necessarily follow.
    • Even according to early Christian doctrine, it is not actually possible for God to “want” anything, due to His / Her eternal nature. This was the view of Augustine, for example, who famously stated that a special place in Hell was reserved for those who asked silly questions about such things. Augustine believed that God existed outside of the physical universe, and thus was not bound by space or time. Since He (we’ll stick with the masculine for the moment) does not exist within time, He is in the Eternal Now. Thus, He is perfectly wise, perfectly happy, perfectly at peace, etc. In that state, according to Augustine, God has no unmet desires and thus it is not possible for Him to “want” to be in relationship with His creation, or anything else for that matter.
  • And here is the clincher: Assuming God exists and wants to have a relationship with His creatures, then the Bible represents his attempt to do so. Bingo! And therein lies the rub. That simply does not follow logically, period. The collection of ancient documents we refer to as the Bible is simple one of dozens of alternative religious texts that exist on this planet, each of which is regarded as sacred. For example, the Buddhist scriptures represent the accumulated wisdom of the religion we know as Buddhism. Similarly the Hindu religion has several texts including the Gita, the Vedas, etc. And, finally, Islam has the Quran. One thing I did when I lost my faith in Christianity was to read many of these texts, and consider the claims made by each of them. I concluded that:
    • The competing claims of each religion cannot be reconciled.
    • There is no compelling reason to accept the writings of one religion (including the Bible) over any other. All religions have a similar basis for existence. Christianity is not unique in this regard, despite the claims of those within Christianity. Each set of writings of a given religion is a work of human culture, nothing more. Yes, they are beautiful. Yes, they can be transformational. But that does not make them divine, even if God exists.

The only reason that Larry accepted Christianity was because of his cultural context. If he had been born in Saudi Arabia, he would make a similar argument for Islam. Ditto for Bangalore with Hinduism, Tibet with Buddhism, etc.

Now, assuming that the Bible is not the Word of God, where does this leave me (and Larry)? Figuring it out on our own, I suppose. Based upon recent life experiences, I conclude that I am much better off doing that than trying to adhere to the teachings of an ancient religion based upon the assumptions of a different culture.

Nice, Nice, Very Nice

I have been thinking about the idea that religious people are somehow nicer or more compassionate than non-religious people. This seems to be a prevailing concept in our culture, especially among Christians. But is it true?

This website, which is by a Christian, points out that according to a large variety of measurements of morality, ethics, compassion, etc., Christians fare no better than non-Christians.

In my own life, I have experienced the “not-niceness” of Christian religion. Being a fundamentalist, Evangelical Christian kind of made me an asshole. There were several things about this mindset that did not sit well with my personality at all:

  • As a Christian I was taught that the world was divided into two groups of people: Folks like me who have been saved by the blood of Jesus, and are therefore going to heaven, and other folks who are lost, and are therefore going to Hell.
  • I was also taught that there is one Revealed Truth of the heart of God: The Holy Bible. Other so-called religious books were works of the devil.
  • Even where the Christian teachings were moral, I always complied with a reluctant heart, out of obligation and fear. Thus, I was not very loving and giving, oddly

Now that I am in what I call a “post-Christian” state, I seem to be nicer. At least that is what the folks around me (notably my wife) tell me. One thing I have noticed, especially with respect to my wife, is that my attitude about her dramatically shifted after I let go of the sin thing. Prior to that point, I loved my wife dearly, and wanted to be married to her. But there was something galling about the religious obligation. It was almost like I was doing something that I should do, according to the religious traditions, and that took some of the joy out of doing it.

Don’t get me wrong, I want to be with my wife, and I want her to be with me. But now I basically woo her continuously. I don’t assume that she will stay with me out of religious obligation. It’s a moment-by-moment thing. I actually want her to choose to be with me, continuously. The only way to achieve that is to truly love her, out of my heart, not out of duty. Thus, letting go of the idea of religious duty gave me something more in that very important relationship.

The first two points, though, caused me to have great hubris. When I was a Christian, I was utterly convinced of my own righteousness, and the correctness of my position. I had no doubt at all about that! And that made me completely obnoxious to many people, especially non-Christians. I looked down upon these poor lost souls. I prayed for them, but only in a hope that they would become like me. It never occurred to me that I might have something to learn from them.

Since I let go of religion, I have been having a lot more interesting relationships with random perfect strangers. I seem to be able to relate better. Since I am now equally convinced that I know absolutely nothing, I am more teachable.

Not saying I have arrived here, but I seem to be on the right track.

Platform Wars

I recently returned from Barcelona, Spain, where I traveled for VMworld 2013 Europe. As usual, I was “traveling heavy” as I call it. Here is my charging station from my hotel room in Barcelona:

TowerofPower

I call this the “Tower of Power”. I am charging six devices here, which include:

  • A MacBook Pro 17″ which I am typing on as I write this. By far, my favorite electronic device of any kind. I am constantly embarrassed about how much better the Mac is than an equivalent Windows box. But more on that later. I just updated this device to Mac OS 10 Mavericks.
  • My EMC-supplied Lenovo Thinkpad, running Windows 8, fairly current build.
  • An Apple iPad 2, rather dated now, but still running the current iOS 7 build.
  • An Apple iPhone 4s, which has now gone into a state where it stubbornly refuses to update itself. This is a recurring problem, and I have spent time fixing this before, but since I don’t really like this device very much, I am not willing to mess with it right now. As a result the iPhone is running the older iOS 6.
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 2. Also getting rather long in the tooth. But quite a capable device, for the money. Very favorably compares to the iPad, in my opinion. And the newer version, the Galaxy Tab 3 (which AT&T will not allow me to buy annoyingly) blows the iPad away, especially at the inflated price Apple is asking. Again, more on this later.
  • Samsung Note 2 cell phone. This is my personal phone, and the device I probably use the most. A stunning phone overall. In every way this device blows the Apple iPhone away, and the new Note 3 is even better.

That means that I am presently carrying around every relevant platform known to man. Especially considering that I have a variety of Linux distributions running in VMs on both my Mac and Windows box. The question is, with that level of platform exposure, where I use all platforms available everyday, which one is better?

In my opinion, for the kind of work I do, I almost always figure out a way to use the Mac if I am going to be creating content. With VMware Fusion, on my Mac I have been able to create a mobile lab running 5 VMs:

  • 2 VMs running Linux as Oracle database servers
  • 2 VNX simulators as source and target storage arrays
  • A Windows client running things like Unisphere, EMC Replication Manager server, etc.

I am told that’s a lot by most folks I show this to. I am able to do this on an 8 GB box because Mac OS is fairly stable and well-behaved, and the underlying mass storage is all SSD. Even when the device swaps a bit, performance is still OK. Thus, I can over commit the memory without a huge issue.

For any type of creative work, definitely the Mac is better. Even for browsing the web, or reading email, I would prefer the Mac over Windows at this point.

Not that I don’t use the Windows laptop. I do, many hours per day. Especially for my corporate Outlook client which still runs better under Windows. Also, things like VPN, IM, and such, especially if they are supported by our IT folks, seem to work a bit more cleanly on the Windows box.

Now, how about the other devices? For the phone, no question, the Droid phones have the edge at this point, at least to me. Certainly, Droid is no less usable than iOS, and it is a lot cheaper. You can get a killer Droid phone for a fraction of the price of an iPhone. And I did. The Note 2 was around $200, and it kills the iPhone 5 that my wife bought (and returned) for $400. I see similar prices right now when I shop online at the AT&T store.

The tablet is similar. I had a platform moment earlier today. I have most of my online e-Books in the Nook marketplace because I started out with a Nook as my first tablet-like device. On the Droid devices, Nook is supported just like any other market. I can purchase books inside the app, no problem. With my iPad, though, when I finish reading the sample of a book I have downloaded, I cannot purchase that book inside the app. Similar restrictions exist for apps which sell music, video, etc.?

Why the Apple restrictions? With Droid invading Apple’s turf with the killer phones and tablets that are now available, Apple has to hold onto market share somehow. The way they are doing that is through jealous protection of the iTunes marketplace.

And therein lies the rub. As a person who prefers an open environment, where all of my personal data is available on all of my devices, Apple’s proprietary strategy definitely hurts my feelings. (Enough that I threw down the iPad in disgust, and went and got my Droid device, so that I could go ahead and complete the purchase inside my app.)

As long as Apple can hold onto enough customers with that kind of stranglehold, they are not going to go out of business anytime soon. Question is: Does that lead to customer loyalty, or (like me) customer annoyance?

So where am I? On my desktop-like platform, I have yet to find anything better than the Apple device I am typing on now. For mobile, I think the tides may be turning against Apple. I wish Apple well, always have. I was a Mac user way back in the 80s and 90s. I think Steve Jobs is one of the greatest humans to have ever graced this planet. Problem is, I have a job to do, and a life to live. My devices need to empower me, not encumber me. I am currently choosing to embrace Droid while I stay on Mac OS for my full-blown desktop. But I am very promiscuous when it comes to platforms, as you can tell.

Ender’s Game

I saw the trailer for the up-coming movie version of the book Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (OSC). I had some travel on my calendar so I downloaded and started burning through the book again.

In my opinion, Ender’s Game is one of the supreme works of human genius. I know, I know. I am one of those. But, you have to remember that I am smack-dab in the middle of the baby-boom generation. So I was pretty much raw meat for the Ender’s Game thing.

Although I was a bit too old, really. Ender’s Game really appeals to young boys around the age of 10 – 12. The way it unflinchingly describes bullying and hazing, with all of the ugliness revealed. And Ender’s Game especially appeals to the technically oriented, math/science crowd. Well, that part was certainly me, only like I said a bit late.

Ender’s Game was first written as a short story way back in 1977, so the root of what OSC wrote is pretty old. But the book version appeared first in 1985, at the so-called dawn of the computer age. I was 31 at the time I first read Ender’s Game, and I had just touched my first computer, in my case an early RISC-based UNIX system. In that context, what OSC described was this:

  • A world-wide (planetary system-wide?) networked computer system which enabled communication in real time across vast distances among virtually all of mankind
  • Entire political movements arising and transforming human culture, as a result of this computer network
  • A three-dimensional virtual reality game with numerous players in which Ender interacts with avatars (either computer generated, or representing another player) in solving interesting problems (including battle) within the virtual landscape
  • A threaded written communications system in which you post messages in a forum, and others interested in that subject are free to read what you read
  • Another mode of the communication system in which individuals or groups can engage in private interaction, using either a real-time (like text) or store-and-forward (like email) method

To name just a few of the things OSC foresaw. I am sure you could argue that others had written similar things by the time OSC wrote what he did. And I would certainly not disagree. But that does not matter. Because of the period in history when OSC was writing, and was so hugely popular, he influenced the work of thousands upon thousands of technical professionals who worked in IT during the 80s, including myself. It would not be overstating the case to say that we built the environment that we did (on which I am typing as I write this) because OSC told us to do so. This very social networking environment is hauntingly familiar to me when I read the description of the world in which Ender lived.

Oddly, this slightly disadvantages OSC in the current era: Because he so perfectly describes the technologies that we use everyday, the tendency is to assume that OSC wrote the book after he had access to the internet. Not true, though. OSC did not have access to any of the technologies that he describes. He made it all up. It just looks so much like home to us now.

But even that is not the supreme genius that I mention at the beginning of my blog post. The one idea that affected me the most was the way he describes Ender’s unique insight. What Ender saw, what Ender understood when no one else did, was the power of individual initiative. Other armies in the Battle School practiced memorized drills. Ender would have none of that. Instead he created a group of individuals who were capable of exercising individual initiative in interestingly unpredictable ways, while still maintain coordination with each other. This became the team which was able to finally defeat the buggers.

I liken this to being in a jazz band. I have played many kinds of music. Classical music requires that you follow the notes on the page, and add value through your phrasing, intonation, dynamics, etc. Anything else is a mistake.

Jazz is not like that. When you are playing with a jazz band, even if you are not soloing at the moment, you are nonetheless expected to improvise a little. Otherwise, you sound too robotic. And of course, when you are soloing, then the sky’s the limit. You want to do a key change? No problem, and others playing along with you had better be able to follow.

Thus, a member of a jazz band, like a member of Ender’s army, is expected to intelligently exercise individual initiative in the context of being part of a team. And the level of individual contribution is much higher with a jazz band than it is with, say, a string quartet. But nonetheless, what matters most is still the performance of the entire group, not the contribution of the individual member.

And that resonates with me. I very much want to be in a team like that, even if it means I have to create it myself. But I am not delusional: I am not Ender. I have yet to get a large group of people to follow me like he did. Perhaps someday, though.

Ekman

In my previous post entitled Lie to Me, I briefly discussed the show Lie to Me with Tim Roth. I have discovered that this show is not entirely fictional: There actually is a literal character who is similar to the Cal Lightman character from the show. That is, he co-discovered human micro-expressions and teaches others in the art and science of deception detection. This person is Dr. Paul Ekman.

I have looked at some of Dr. Ekman’s stuff. I have not taken any of his online classes, though. (They are quite pricey.) But I think I understand the science fairly well. What Dr. Ekman discovered was the following:

  • Dr. Ekman categorized and classified all human emotions, which are apparently completely universal.
  • Each human emotion has a corresponding facial expression. We are not taught this set of facial expressions, as humans know them regardless of whether they have had human contact. Thus, we have these expressions from birth. They are instinctive.

The conclusion is inescapable: In the area of emotions, at least, we are running a complex piece of software. We use our visual and auditory senses to observe others. This causes us to experience emotions, which are reflected on our faces. Others respond to those emotions, and so forth.

Each emotion is hardwired to a specific human expression. Thus, we are effectively born with a fairly complex system of communication.

I find this incredibly cool, actually.

Burning Down the House

Now that the US government shutdown is over, I have been thinking about the motivations of the Republicans, particularly the Tea Party wing, in orchestrating this particular crisis. Of course, my bias is showing now. But, from what I can tell, the Tea Party wing simply created a crisis out of the whole cloth, and marched us all the way down to the wire, before finally conceding defeat.

The interesting question is why would anyone want to do that? It’s simple really. The Republican Party is doomed, unless it fundamentally reinvents itself. This is due to the relentless march of demographics. The Republican Party (and particularly the Tea Party minority) are:

  • Caucasian
  • Old
  • Male
  • Affluent
  • Religious

For those reading my blog right now, if that sounds good to you, trust me, it isn’t. The problem is that the country is slowly but surely becoming:

  • Ethnic (i.e. non-caucasian)
  • Young
  • Female (in the sense of registered voters)
  • Poor
  • Secular (i.e. non-religious)

In every respect, the demographic trends are hurting the Republicans, and benefitting the Democrats. Like I said, it’s relentless. Eventually, unless the Republican Party fundamentally changes (and in the process becomes more similar to the Democratic Party) it will simply vanish. Once the Republican Party can no longer successfully compete for the Presidency, and the trend in both houses of Congress becomes clear, then the Republican Party could simply fade away. I think that’s very unlikely, though. The more likely scenario is that the Republican Party will simply become more, well, liberal.

Of course, that’s anathema to the Tea Party Republicans who have been called the American Taliban. Like the Taliban, many of the Tea Party folks are willing to do something I call “burning down the house“. A jealous ex-wife or ex-husband will often attempt to burn down the former family home, upon learning that it has been invaded by the ex-spouse’s new main squeeze. In a similar manner, the Tea Party may decide that if the Republican Party throws it out of the political process, it needs to become more radical.

That may lead to an insurgency. It is apparent from countries like Iran and Afghanistan that if a sufficiently large minority of the population does not want the current government to succeed, they can certainly sabotage that success. Is that what the Tea Party has come to?