Friday, December 30, 2005

The "S" word

Over at Xooglers I recently posted a note about all the people who have been writing me asking for advice on how to get jobs at Google and sundry other things. In a fit of pique regarding certain aspects of my correspondents' style, I employed a certain anglo-saxon epithet which nominally means excrement, but which I employed in a more colloquial and idiomatic style merely to provide emphasis and a little more semantic interest than a word like "things".

Will Ray posted an interesting comment on my choice of terminology. It's interesting because he seems to object to my use of the "S" word, even though he doesn't actually come out and say it. Instead, he engages in some armchair psychoanalysis of my character. (I won't comment on the accuracy of his assessment except to observe that there's hardly any sport in diagnosing someone -- anyone -- as insecure, especially someone who has chosen computer programming as a profession.)

I don't really care so much about what Will Ray thinks, but I am concerned about the possibility that I might offend people by using an expletive, even where the use is defensible. Personally I've never understood why people get so upset about certain words. It's even more puzzling to me that it's acceptable to use these words if you change the spelling even though everyone still knows exactly what you mean (e.g. F***). But regardless, I have become keenly aware of the fact that one can completely undermine one's position just by being an a*****le, to say nothing of the fact that there's just no need for it.

So now I am torn. On the one hand I really don't want to offend anyone, but on the other hand I don't want to give the appearance that I agree with those who think that using swear words is a Terrible Thing. (I also don't want to give the appearance that I'm caving in to pressure, for fear that this will encourage more Will Rays to crawl out of the woodwork to critique my writing or catalog my personal failings.) So should I go back and edit that entry? Post an apology? Do nothing?

Quite the moral quandry, this one.


Upon reflection I have decided to go back and edit the entry. I decided this for a couple of reasons, but the overriding one was that Xooglers isn't my blog, it's Doug's blog, and I don't want my bad language to reflect poorly on him. I guess I'll just have to risk giving Will Ray a reason to feel smug. Will, if you're reading this, don't be under any delusions: I didn't do it for you.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

21 Grams

A rhetorical question for those who believe that the soul weighs 21 Grams:

Does that mean that as long as a fetus weighs less than this it cannot possibly yet contain a soul and therefore it's OK to abort it?

And another thing....

As long as I'm on the topic of being frustrated by people undermining their arguments with the wrong choice of words, I'd like to say a word about the abortion debate in the U.S. Not about abortion mind you, just about the debate, which is framed as being between the "pro-choice" side, which is for abortion, and the "pro-life" side, which is against abortion.

No! No! No! And a thousand times no! People who are pro-choice are not "for abortion"! (Well, maybe some of them are, but there are crazies on all sides of an issue.) No sane person could possibly be "for abortion" any more than they could be "for amputation" or "for mastectomies." All sane people agree that abortion is a bad thing and that the fewer of them there are the better. The only disagreement is over the best mechanism to use to minimize the number of abortions. The "pro-life" side thinks that the best way to reduce the number of abortions is to make abortion illegal and throw people who attempt to provide them in jail. The "pro-choice" side is too busy cramming its head further up its metaphorical butt by allowing the myth to persist that they are "for abortion" to have anything coherent to say about the matter at all. (Hm, what was it I was just saying about how descending into obnoxiousness tends to undermine one's argument? Does that still hold when one is calling one's own side names?)

I fear, though, that there are too many people with vested interests in the status quo of stalemated debate for any real progress to be made, even when the path is so clear.

Why do atheists have to be so obnoxious?

I am constantly frustrated by atheists who write beautiful and lucid expositions and then completely undermine their arguments by being obnoxious. I can certainly understand the temptation to descend into name-calling (e.g. "Our Christian enthusiasts are evidently too stupid, as well as too insecure, to...") but it serves no purpose. I was going to paraphrase what came after the elipsis, but it hardly matters. No one but the already (un)converted is going to read past that phrase.

I have the same problem with U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III's blistering rebuke of Intelligent Design in the Dover, Pennsylvania case. Obivously I agree with his decision, but did he have to use the phrase "breathtaking inanity" to describe the ID position? The only effect it will have is to convince the ID proponents that Jones was prejudiced against them and they need to redouble their efforts.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

A fine bit of irony

Amidst the kerfuffle over the liberal assault on Christmas it is deliciously ironic to note that there actually was a time in American history when serious attempts were made by Christians to ban the celebration of Christmas.

UPDATE: Turns out that you don't have to go into history to find Christians who are against Christmas.

Even some major denominations, including Baptists, which today trumpet the birth of Jesus with carols and yuletide symbols, dismissed Christmas as unimportant, even pagan, until the early 19th century. Another was the Pasadena-based Worldwide Church of God, which until a major theological upheaval in 1995 had forbidden its members to celebrate Christmas. Some members then left the church and affiliated with breakaway churches that continue to hold Christmas at bay.

Monday, December 12, 2005

On Writing

Since I've started posting on Xooglers a number of people have written to compliment me on my writing (thank you all!) and to ask for pointers. So here in a nutshell is what I've learned about writing.

There are two main ways to learn to write:

1. Read
2. Write

I'm not trying to be glib. I think that really gets to the nub of the matter. You can't really be taught to write well, sort of like you can't really be taught to program well. You can be taught the basics -- grammar, structure -- but to get from there to really being good at it you have to figure it out on your own. I wish it were otherwise.

There are two main things to keep in mind as you write:

1. Everything comes out shitty the first time. You have to debug writing the same way you debug code.

2. Good writing is dramatic, and drama is all about conflict. This is why crappy experiences make much better stories than pleasant ones.

There's a wonderful episode of The Simpsons that illustrates this point beautifully. Marge goes on a crusade to eliminate violence from television -- and she succeeds! The result is an episode of Itchy and Scratchy where they just get along. It is, of course, stultifyingly boring (and at the same time uproariously funny).

So let it be written.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Queasy about Christ

I don't want to be a religion-basher. I recognize that religion plays an important role in many people's lives and serves a genuine human need. But, to be perfectly frank, I get a little queasy about Christianity some times. (I get a little queasy about Islam too, but I know so little about it that I can't discuss it intelligently.)

There are two main facets to Christianity. The first has to do with how we live our lives here on earth (love thy neighbor, turn the other cheek, etc.) I have no quarrel with that. It's the second aspect that makes me nervous, the one having to do with what happens after you die.

The problem is that a strict reading of Christian doctrine says that anyone who has not accepted Jesus as their personal savior is damned for all eternity. It says so right there in John 14:6. "No man cometh unto the father but by me." (Funny that none of the other Gospel writers thought to include this little tidbit, but who am I to second-guess the inspired Word of God?)

Let's try to put this eternity thing in persepctive. Let's say a person lives to be 100. That's 36525 days (more or less -- it depends on exactly where the leap years fall), 876,600 hours, 52,596,000 minutes, or somewhere in the neighborhood of three billion seconds. Most people would agree that next to the span of an entire human lifetime, a single second is pretty insignificant.

And yet a second is an infinitely greater portion of a human lifetime than a human lifetime is a portion of eternity. Eternity is a dreadfully long time. A lifetime (or any finite amount of time for that matter) is a mere blip by comparison, all but imperceptable against the vastness of the infinite. All of the human suffering that has been endured since the beginning of time is nothing compared to the anguish of even a single soul that dies without having accepted Christ.

Against the prospect of eternal damnation, nothing else matters.

I think very few Christians have really come to grips with this and what it implies. If you accept John 14:6, then unless you are a truly cold-hearted son of a bitch you must dedicate your life to converting as many people as you possibly can by whatever means necessary. You cannot allow doubts about Jesus to be voiced for fear that they will lead someone to lose their faith. The consequences of that are immeasurably worse than a thousand holocausts, a million Stalinesque purges, billions upon billions of 9/11s.

John 14:6 leaves no room for doubt of any kind. In fact, it leaves no room for anything but an absolute dedication of your time here on earth to cementing your relationship with Christ, and getting as many of your fellow humans as possible to do likewise.

I think this is the reason that we're seeing discontent about people saying "happy holidays" instead of "merry Christmas". If "happy holidays" causes people to think that it's somehow acceptable not to believe in Jesus, that's a truly terrible thing. In fact, if it causes anyone to doubt that Christ is the Way and the Truth and the Light and no man comes to the Father but through Him, then merely uttering the phrase is in fact a heinous crime, vastly worse than murder.

Viewed in this light, the current grumbling is actually a pretty restrained response.

The Right Answer, I think, is to recognize that it's possible that whoever wrote John just might have embellished the truth a bit. After all, none of the other Gospels mention this quip, and you'd think that they would considering how important it would be if it were true. Remember, if John 14:6 is true, nothing else matters. But this requires the capacity for humility and doubt, something that seems in short supply among many self-professed Christians noawadays.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Welcome to the new PC

By which I mean Political Correctness, not personal computer.

A professor of religious studies was beaten after making comments deemed insulting to Christianity.

He has also, as a result, resigned as chair of the religious studies department of the University of Kansas, and withdrawn a course he was going to teach on creationism and intelligent design.

For now at least, is seems the terrorists have won.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Suddenly feeling the pressure

I previously reported on my experience installing a pressure reducing valve on the main water inlet to our house. Well, it seems there's still some kind of problem. We've been noticing that one of our showers occasionally starts to drip water. I had thought that it was a bad seal in the show spigot (it's kind of a cheap fixture). Today it started dripping again and just on a hunch I went outside to check the pressure gauge that I installed on the main water line.

It read 130 PSI.

Holy shit! That's double what it should be, and 40 PSI higher than the maximum pressure that the pump is able to produce.

This is really bizarre. I have no idea how the pressure could have gotten up that high. The inlet pressure at the main is 30 PSI and the pump only pushes that up to 90. Somehow we're getting an extra 40 PSI from somewhere, and it's getting past the PRV, which is set to 65 PSI and is supposed to be good up to at least 150 PSI on the inlet.

The only thing I can think of is that we have an air bubble trapped somewhere in a hot water line. Maybe the air is heating up, expanding, and compressing the water in the pipes in the house. It seems pretty farfetched, but that the pump could suddenly produce twice the pressure that it normally (and that this would coincide with a failure of the PRV) seems pretty farfetched too.

As the King of Siam would say, is a puzzlement.

If anyone has any idea what might be going on here please let me know before my pipes burst.