Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Is Santa Claus Real? You said you can prove that he is.

Coming to terms with the truth about Santa Claus.

About my junior year of college I became obsessed with the philosophical question of truth and absolutes. It is still something that is quite important to me and something on which I've spent a great deal of time thinking and writing and one of the side effects has been coming to the startling conclusion that Santa Claus is, indeed, true.

I didn't really reach that stage until I well into my graduate studies. I remember it well. I was in the second year of my doctoral program, reading a couple books that had nothing to do with Santa Claus and suddenly it all coalesced in my mind: if this stuff is right, then Santa Claus is true! I hadn't really believed in Santa Claus for more than 20 years at that point, so one can see the intensity of such an epiphany. Hopefully, as you read this post you can come to understand, also, that Santa Claus is real.

Positional Truth

First of all, we have to understand that there are a number of ways that something can be true. This was driven home to me on a recent visit to a mechanic's shop. The mechanic at that shop gave me a list of things wrong with my car and the price to fix them, which was quite astronomical. I made a few phone calls to friends who were more mechanically inclined and ultimately came to the conclusions that not everything on that list really needed to be fixed. For several days I moped around. It wasn't just the cost of the repairs that had upset me, it was that I felt that the mechanic had been "dishonest" with me. He is a member of my church, so it hurt. Once the shock wore off, I realized that from another point of view, he hadn't been "dishonest." Everything he'd said about the car was factual. Were I in a different financial position, I'd probably want everything fixed. It was only dishonest when speaking to someone trying to get by on the cheap.

This kind of truth is called positional, or contextual, truth, or truth from a point of view. From the mechanic's point of view, he was being honest. In fact, I bet he'd say it was dishonest not to insist on fixing everything wrong with a car if one is going to fix any of it. From my point of view, that seems like an unnecessary expense that benefits him. So, you see from one point of view it is true that my car must have all those repairs done. From another point of view, that is not the case.

It is not a stretch to believe in Santa Claus from a positional vantage. It is also almost cynical. When a child comes down the stairs and sees the toy for which she'd been waiting, the child knows that these toys came from Santa Claus. If she tells you that she got her new toy from "Santa," she is not lying to you, even if her father tells you how much it cost. When a child later shifts positions, and no longer sees Santa the same way, it can be troubling. Still, from that early vantage, Santa was true.

Some postmodernists will argue that all truth is positional and contextual. They argue that everything is logically built on propositions that are all really suppositions that are only true within a context. Others, including myself, disagree. We argue that while our personal experiences all indicate a particular perspective which is true for us, that those experiences are experiences of something wholly greater than the mere perspective that we enjoy. Were this not the case, learning itself would be an irrational activity because one already has a perspective, and they are all equal. No, to argue that Santa Claus is real from a contextual argument is really saying nothing at all, but does provide us the first insight that we need in order to move toward an understanding of Santa Claus: that there are different kinds of truth.

Truths that do not arrive at Santa Claus

There are also other kinds of truth from which we cannot derive Santa Claus. One kind of truth is mathematical truth. Mathematical truths are realities at which we derive from things which are true simply by definition. One does not get far into geometry before one begins to see that all mathematical truths are simply true because we say so. A triangle has three sides and three corners because that's how we define a triangle. If we define a triangle differently, or define something else as being a triangle it will have the properties of a triangle. We can define a right triangle as one that has one that has a 90° angle on one corner. To a sensible student, this raises the question of what is a degree. A degree is 1/360th of a circle. Why are there 360 degrees and not some other number? Because that is how we define a degree because that is how we define a circle. There is no better reason than that. On this right triangle, we will find that the square of the longest line is equal to the square of the other two sides. So if we have a right triangle with sides which we measure 1" by 1", the longer line will be √2which is known as an irrational number because it clearly exists as a mathematical concept, but you can't exactly "count to it," even using fractions. Here's the thing though, it exists by definition only, if we define our 1" as another set of units, we will call them "monkeys" and say that the very same triangle is 2 monkeys long on its short sides, then the long side is 4 monkeys long, plain and simple, a number to which one can count. So you see, the difficulties in mathematical truths all come down to definition. So, mathematically, if I define Santa a particular way, I can prove he exists, but only based on my definitions. I've never been impressed with mathematical truth, because you could always define things differently and arrive at different conclusions.

Another kind of truth what we call "scientific" truth. In my discipline of Communication Studies and in other humanities it is called "intersubjective" truth. In the sciences, it is called "objective" truth. This is the idea, that while we all see things differently, there are some things that we see as the same. If I pour half a cup of milk into my measuring cup and ask multiple people to look at it and see if they think it is half a cup, and they agree that it is, I probably actually do have half a cup. When one's perceptions are verifiable in this way, repeatable by multiple parties and yields predictable results that are also verifiable and predictable, we say that it is "scientifically," "intersubjectively," or "objectively" true. Scientific truth is really useful but has one major flaw when using it to design one's life. That is that things can be objectively true, but nothing can be objectively untrue. We can say something lacks scientific truth because it hasn't been widely observed, or there were large discrepancies between observations, but we can never say that something is scientifically untrue. Generally, when children find out that Santa Claus is "not real" what they are really learning is that he lacks scientific proof, which is not the same as saying it is not true, just that it can't be proved objectively.

Mathematically and scientifically, we cannot prove that Santa Claus is real. Mathematically, Santa Claus's existence or lack thereof is a matter of definition. Scientifically, the existence of Santa Claus is not objectively verifiable or repeatable. So, because of this failure to prove Santa Claus's existence, many (including myself for nearly 20 years) believed that Santa Claus is false. A great deal of that came from a misunderstanding of how both mathematics and science arrive at truth. I hope that I have corrected that here and we can move on to other forms of arriving at truth.

Truth as Social Construction

One of the ways in which truth can be understood is as a social construction. There have been a number of detractors who attack a social construction method of understanding truth. Most of those detractors, I'd argue, do not really understand the theory and seem to think that it stands opposed to concepts of mathematical truth, scientific proof and proof as a form, which we'll discuss next. Far from being opposed to these, it is the source of the first, the means of seeing the second and one way of processing the third.

Although we can get very complicated as to this means truth finding, and indeed, multiple books have been written on the subject it comes down to this: many things, if not almost everything exists or does not because in communication as a society we say it does or does not. On the surface, that sounds sort of ridiculous, but lets take some examples and you will see that this is actuallytruth.

On January 20, 2009, Barack Obama became President of the United States of America. It wasn't the voting that made him President. The voting had occurred two months earlier and showed that the majority of the American people would agree with the idea that he should be President. No, what made him President was taking the oath and accepting the position. How did he get to become President? Well, that's complicated. There is a long history, but it all comes down to a few white men sitting in a smokey room in Philadelphia using their imaginations and imagining a person with certain powers who would be able to do certain things and writing it down on a piece of parchment. We call that parchment the Constitution and it doesn't physically do a darned thing. From a scientific standpoint, it is a piece of goat skin and ink. From a mathematics standpoint, well, I guess you could measure the area of it or the volume of ink used in its construction or something like that.

Still, while mathematically and scientifically the Constitution doesn't do anything, most Americans are very much aware (and often wrong) about all the things it does do. It doesn't do any of this by any kind of mathematical or scientific method. It does it by acting socially, to construct us. The Constitution of the United States would be completely powerless except for the fact that we generally agree that it is not. That is how the social construction of reality works. We create truth by agreeing, generally, that something is true. We agree that Obama is President, so he is.

It is the social construction of reality which creates, among other things, Presidents. Obama is not President because of anything mathematical or scientific we could measure about his body. No, he's President because we generally believe that he is because we generally accept the Constitution. There are people who do not believe that he is, and they are wrong. Why are they wrong? They are wrong simply for the reason that most people disagree.

Once you see that the President is socially constructed, you can move on to other things. Even physical things are socially constructed. You are reading this on a computer that exists because someone had an idea, wrote it down, other people interpreted that idea and tried different things to make that idea work better and wrote down other ideas and tried them out until a computer appeared on your desk (or wherever).

"Sure," you might say, "but not everything is socially constructed." And I agree with you but you might say, "what about the trees!" Do you mean the trees growing within the borders of the National Forest, the ones planted by landscapers in your yard or the ones growing between the cracks of the sidewalk someone designed? Surely you can see that these are only here because of the direct decisions of certain people.

"Yes, well, what about the sun, the moon, the stars."

You're right of course. No human being constructed these things. Still, the naming of the stars, the differentiation between the sun and other stars, calling the moon at one time "full" and at other times "new" these are all social constructions. There is almost nothing that we can experience that is not in some way socially constructed. When the moon is full, it is full because that's what we agree to call it. If you don't call it that, you are wrong. The reason you are wrong is because we all say so, simple as that.

Within this concept, Santa Claus certainly exists as a social construction. It would be ridiculous to say he does not. I've read books about him. I've gotten gifts from him. I even saw him at the mall a few times. Perhaps you think what I saw at the mall was just a man dressed up as Santa, not really Santa. Well, let's apply that logic to other social constructions. Is Obama really President, or is he just a guy that lives in the White House and gets on TV and acts like the President? I know some people who think that while he is President, that he does not act like one, and he should. I tell you, he is the President and the man at the mall is Santa and when that guy at the mall goes home, he won't be Santa anymore and when Barrack Obama ends his tenure as President, he will not be President anymore. Santa Claus is real as a social construction, every bit as real as the President of the United States.

Still, if this were the only way in which Santa were real, it would be kind of sad. There is at least one way that Santa is real than just this.

Truth as Form

Socrates and Plato are generally credited with positing a method of truth finding as being something external to the concrete experience of day to day life. It is probably fair to say that they codified it better than anyone before, but multiple religions and philosophical systems assumed it previous to Socrates. This was not true of all religions. Many placed their deities and powers withing the physical realms, but certainly Hebrew and Hindu teachings assume an externality that imposes itself on our perceptions and which is, in fact the source of truth.

Forms are ideas, or rather ideals. They are perfect concepts of things to which we, using language, compare them. For Plato, if we see a chair, even if it is quite unlike any chair we've seen before, we recognize it as a chair because our minds compare it to all the possible ideals and come to the conclusion that what this comes closest to is the concept of "chairness." We experience frustration with our experience not living up to the ideal. For instance, when I am not an "ideal" husband. I've never met an ideal husband and would argue that in our physical reality, such a man has probably never existed. Nonetheless I have a concept of that ideal, and that concept is the truth to which I compare experiences. Sometimes I have peak experiences; perhaps I meet a man who in this moment at this time seems to be behaving as a perfect husband. In those moments I see a type of the form to which I can aspire.

The concept of the form has been a great way to understand what is going on in our lives and even when trying to find application of other's stories to our own. Following the concept of the form, the Apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians (a Greek people, quite familiar with Plato) about using the Platonic forms to understand Old Testament scripture, referring to the rituals of the Old Testament as "Shadows," a direct allusion to Plato's "Allegory of the Cave," one of the places where Plato explained forms. Following Paul and Plato, Carl Jung developed a way of understanding the forms in places outside scripture which Jung called "archetypes."

Human understanding of truth as form, wherever it has been posited, assumes some sort of revelation. There is some means by which the human mind apprehends the forms and makes use of comparisons. Whether by some pre-incarnate experience, a connection to the Holy Spirit or a tie of our conscious mind to the collective unconscious or some combination of all three we become aware of the forms and use them as comparison.

To me, Santa Claus as a true form is the most consequential proof of Santa Claus. This semester, like all semesters, I asked my students to engage in a service learning process. As is normal in the fall semester, many students chose to work with some organization preparing in some way for Christmas. There were a number of such charities helped. Literally thousands of dollars were raised for charities such as "Toys for Tots," "Shop with a Cop," the school backpack program, local food pantries and specific groups gathering food for Christmas dinners for those who can't afford it. The students worked mostly anonymously to gather goods and money, most donated anonymously. All presented for the joy of others that they will never see and from whom they can never hear a "thank you."

And in this moment, I have one of those peak experiences that Jung and Plato discussed. I see a shadow of Santa Claus, even if I don't hear him "ho-ho-ho." This person who comes and gives generously in the night, not waiting for or wanting a "thank you." This person who ties his generosity in time of year to the ultimate act of generosity, the giving of God's son. This person whose red suit is bright in the dark of the year and warm in the cold of the year. We don't see Santa Claus, but we see his shadow, as he becomes the face for our own anonymous generosity. Those ways in which we reach out and disappear neither waiting for nor even wanting gratitude.

This shadow of Santa Claus is the surest evidence of his existence, even greater than his social construction. Certainly, mathematically and scientifically, the truth of Santa Claus is very difficult to find. Still that doesn't mean he isn't real. It just means that he is too generous to wait for a thank-you. If you still do not believe in Santa, I really think you're missing something important. You are probably missing a part of yourself. I really feel sorry for you.

Monday, December 5, 2011

I love Christmas

I love it all:

I love the fruitcake, the eggnog, the gingerbread, the multiple dinners at every organization of which I'm a part and right now, I am not going to worry about the diet.

I love the trees, the tinsel, the holly the mistletoe and the brightly wrapped gifts, and no, I do not think I am worshiping Odin if I kiss my wife beneath those poisoned berries.

I love the cheesy specials on TV and the campy songs in every store and I am well aware that they are cheesy and campy but they are wonderful.

I love that it lasts from Halloween to New Years and that Thanksgiving gets caught up in it because you'd have to have the worst kind of obsessive compulsive disorder to want “one holiday at a time.”

I like shopping for gifts for friends, family, the less fortunate and the most fortunate.

I love Santa Clause and can prove that he's real and that while he may not be the “reason for the season” he is part of the celebration.

I love the giving and receiving, and don't worry if it is too “materialistic.”

I love candle-light church services, where the wax burns the hand and I am not concerned about the fire danger.

I love pine needles on the floor and the cat in the tree and yes, it is a mess, and no, I don't care.

I love dashing through the snow, driving across the country during the worst weather of the year, the one time of year when it is the most foolish to travel and if I die on the road, I die with a carol in my heart.

I love the baby in the manger and don't care that we don't know, historically, when his birthday might have been.

I like little girls dressed up as angels and don't care that all the angels mentioned in the Bible are masculine.

I love the shepherds and the wisemen and I don't care if they weren't there on the same day, and the wise men came later, once Mary and Joseph had found a house; they're all in the barn with the little drummer boy for me and Mary is HAPPY to have some kid banging on a drum in front of her newborn.

I love Christmas and I celebrate extravagantly because the Nativity is something worth celebrating extravagantly and if you don't like it, I'll take your share, and you can go lock yourself up in your house and develop seasonal affective disorder, but don't try to foist your negativity on those of us who are having fun.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Now it is almost Halloween.

I can't believe I haven't posted since August. This has been a very busy semester, but still. . .

And now it is almost Halloween. Halloween is a great time for me. Growing up, Mom would start playing Christmas music the day after Halloween. Probably for that reason, to me, Halloween is the beginning of the holiday season. It is non-stop party from here on out:

October 31, Halloween
November 17-20, The National Communication Association Convention
November 24, Thanksgiving
November 28, My wife's birthday
December 5-8, Final Exam Week
December 10, My birthday
December 25 Christmas
December 31, New Years Eve!

Hardly a break in the fun anywhere!

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Multiple User Shutdown in Ubuntu

Coming to terms with shutting down the computer

Most of the time, my wife is the last person on the computer at the end of the day. Often, as we get ready for bed, I remind her to shut the computer down. If I am also logged on to the computer, it means she'll have to click a couple extra buttons to shut it down. She doesn't like that. So, I made some changes that make this unnecessary, and created this tutorial in case anyone else needs to do it too.

I have to admit that for the average Ubuntu user, following the advice of this tutorial I made is a bad idea. It might lead to unsaved work being lost.

One of the things I love about Linux, however, is that you can make changes to yours software, even if it is kind of dumb.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

My Archetype

Coming to terms with Archetypes:

The idea of an archetype began, as most of our ideas did in Western Philosophy, with Plato. Of course, his concept of an archetype varied pretty substantially from the concept that has developed from his work. To sum up Plato's ideas, the archetypes were absolute forms and all of experienced reality was a shadow of this truth. For instance, we could see something and know it was a chair despite being different in color and material than any other chair we had seen because our souls recognized the archetype of the chair.

Still, it was Carl Jung who picked up Plato's idea and developed the archetype as we understand it today, innate prototypes for concepts that appear as universals across cultures as interpretive templates for understanding reality and literature. Jung claimed that there were a large number of archetypes some those that are commonly sited are from his book Man and his Symbols (with Marvel Superheroes as examples):

  1. The self, the part of us that regulates (Dr. X, Mr. Fantastic, Captain America).
  2. The Shadow, the wild and untamed part of ourselves (Hulk, Deadpool, Phoenix).
  3. The Anima, the archetype of the feminine (Storm, The Invisible Girl, sometimes Shadowcat)
  4. The Animus, the archetype of the masculine (Wolverine, The Thing).
  5. The persona, the mask, the hypocrite, the part we show to the world (Spider Man, Johnny Storm, Iron Man).
This was never meant to be a comprehensive list and Jung as well as Jung's disciples, especially Joseph Campbell added to it. These others included: the child, the hero, the savior, the great mother, the wise old person, the trickster, the devil, the scarecrow, the teacher and rebirth. the list could go on indefinitely. People have found an understanding of these archetypes very useful in understanding them as part of themselves, or as reoccurring concepts of literature.

It has also become popular for many people to use these as an instrument for interpreting Old Testament scripture, using new testament scriptures like Hebrews 8:5 as a basis, and seeing New Testament examples, especially those dealing with Jesus as "true types" rather than archetypes. Of course, the writer of human writer of Hebrews could not have been aware of Jung's theories, but if we accept the concept of Divine Inspiration, we can accept that God was.

What has gotten really interesting to me has been the archetypes that Jung developed in his book Psychological Types. He really developed just a couple types there: the rational judge and the irrational perceiver. Each of these could be divided into three. The rational judge could either be a thinker or a feeler. The irrational perceiver could either be sensitive or intuitive. Some of you are probably already seeing something familiar developing here, The Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) to which Katherine Briggs and her daughter Isabel Meyers added the archetypes of "the introvert" and "the extrovert."

I had taken MBTI tests before and never really worried about them until I was married. So, I fall into an archetype sort of, who cares? It wasn't until I was married to someone who lives in the world in a very different way than I do that I was concerned. Suddenly, I was required to explain my thoughts and actions, and I lacked the words to do it.

This blog is about "coming to terms" and for me the MBTI has really helped me come to terms. I learned more about my type and more about my wife's type and have been able to really improve our relationship through it. Learning about myself this way has also had some really fascinating side effects. I have been able to find out what my type should do to improve our work habits, something that has helped me at my job. I have become more aware of my personality weaknesses and have learned to put myself in situations where they don't matter or where they can be worked around. Finally, I have found groups on the internet that discuss my type, and we can all help us understand it. Here is a post I made in one such group based on the comment one group member made, recommending that we exclude those not of our type:
  • I joined the open group and then asked to join this one because it helps me think about myself in a more systematic way. Even those who are not INTP seem to be trying to come to terms with the archetype, which is what I am trying to do. I am trying to come to terms (defined: find language) for explaining myself, especially to my ENFJ wife. I really do think it has helped and should probably thank the active posters in this group for that, even those that are not INTP.

    It is true, that some people who post the most here are not INTP. I am far more likely to respond than post (I), but generally willing to give my thoughts on the subject. If we didn't have people here ENGAGING our archetype, we'd probably have a pretty empty board.

    I also get annoyed by people who seem more "J" than "P," especially those who take a particularly anti-religious bent, actively stereotyping and categorizing using categories that they don't seem to see bleed too much and are too anomaly pocked to be useful. Still, we get so much "J" from the religious point of view, that it is also interesting to hear the "J" arguments from secular perspectives.

    Finally, I am not sure what criteria we'd use if we wanted to exclude people. Even the best indicators misapply, and I am not sure that mathematical tests are the best for applying the concept of the archetype. I think there is a reason that Jung is considered fringe in the Social Sciences, but widely accepted in the Humanities. It is because a literary reading of oneself seems to indicate the validity of the existence of archetypes. Granted, in three out of the four types my scores are so strong that the mathematical tests always agree, but I do occasionally get "F". Where statistical significance fails, the best scenario is to read about the archetypes and see where best fit seems to be. It doesn't really make sense to exclude people based on this.

Studying archetypes is fun for looking at the Bible and literature, but it has recently also made a difference in my life. It has helped me to understand why I act the way I do, and either change it or explain it.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

7 Epiphanies

Coming to terms with those enlightening moments

You know those moments where things just click and you suddenly realize
something life changing. I've been thinking about those times in my
life lately, and there are lots. Still, I think I can break it down
into seven really big epiphanies.

  1. 1984: I can choose to beleive
    what I want.

    I wasn't just raised in a Christian home, my Dad was a pastor. We had a
    great youth minister who did puppet shows. Still, I wasn't entirely
    convinced about the whole God thing. I had an active imagination, and
    the whole thing struck me as one of my little fantasies; what if you
    had an invisible friend who could do anything? It was fun to play, but
    was it real? I remember my church had a prayer meeting and everyone was
    real into it and I was just hanging out, as usual, trying to be good so
    I didn't get spanked. I looked at this one guy's eyes when he openned
    them at one point and they were different, glossy, I guess. I started
    looking at everyone's eyes and they were all doing the same thing. I
    asked my Dad on the way home what was up with everyone's eyes and I
    don't really think he understood what I was asking. I started watching
    eyes. I noticed this same thing happenning sometimes when people were
    taking communion or having a good prayer meeting. Finally, I made a
    connection. This is a real tangible thing that happens in the presense
    of God. Imaginary things don't make real changes.

    Still, I thought there might be more to it than that. I realized that I
    still didn't have
    to beleive in God, even with this "evidence." I found it pretty easy to
    move back and forth between believing and not. So, I realized then that
    a person can choose to believe things. While the choice to believe in
    God is a pretty big thing, realizing that beleifs in and of themselves
    were a choice was pretty big in and of itself. Since then, I have been
    able to "try on" beliefs about all kinds of theoretical or
    controversial things. Sometimes that's worked. Sometimes it hasn't.
    God, on the other hand, has shown me results again and
    again. I admit that miracles still wig me out, but I know that God is

  2. 1987: I am in control of what my
    mind does.

    When my parents moved to a place that was not in a town, they thought
    they were doing something good for me. They might have been, but I
    didn't see it at the time. Previously, we'd lived in a town with about
    2500 people and I had things I liked to do. I loved getting change
    together and going to the drug store to get a comic book or the
    convenience store to get a soft drink. I was an avid window-shopper and
    loved walking downtown and looking at stuff. It was a small enough town
    that I could go about unattended and it was safe. Moving to the farm
    was, to me, boring. I would often read fantasy novels to deal or just
    walk around and wish I could do something. One day, I was in one of my
    fantasies and I realized it had been fun. I realized that I never
    needed to be bored. I hurried in and told my mom that I never needed to
    be bored because if nothing interesting was happenning, I could always
    still think about interesting things. She thought it was so funny. She
    told my dad about it later and he laughed. She told my grandmother
    about it and they laughed together. I know they thought it was funny,
    but to me, it is still one of the defining moments in my life. You can
    choose to be bored. You can choose to be scared. You can choose to be
    angry. You can choose what your mind does because if you don't like
    what it's doing, you can just think about something else.

  3. 1991: I don't have to tell
    people everything.
    My cousin and I were into music and decided to go together on one of those
    CD of the month clubs. We'd divide up the CD's and the cost. It was a
    pretty good deal, but I wasn't sure what my parents would think. Would
    they be against spending the money, especially on secular music? That's
    when my cousin pointed out that I really didn't have to tell them.
    Honestly, this had never crossed my mind. Not only could I just not
    tell my parents things, there were all kinds of things I didn't need to
    tell. If I thought someone would disagree with my point of view on
    something, but I didn't want to fight, I just didn't have to tell them
    I dissagreed. Before this, I really kept myself apart from people
    because I was afraid they wouldn't like me if, say, I told them I
    didn't have a nintendo or something when they were discussing games.
    Now, I realized I could just not mention it. I wasn't lying or even
    letting someone believe a lie. I was just not talking about it. My
    parents wouldn't be actively believing I wasn't in a music club. They
    just wouldn't be thinking about it. In the end, it was my cousin who
    got in trouble for joining the club. My parents found out, but I don't
    think they cared.

  4. 1995: I can learn to like things.
    I really don't count most of my college epiphanies here. One should
    experience epiphanies in college. I had millions of minor epiphanies
    during that time, but a couple of big ones. One of these epiphanies
    came as a result of my Music Appreciation class. I always liked music.
    I sort of liked pop (of the early 90's), I liked "alternative" music
    and I liked quite a bit of rap. I didn't like classical. That changed
    in my classs. Not only did I learn to understand other genres, I
    learned to love them. As I found out more about differences in the eras
    of music and differences in the styles of the composers, I fell in love
    with classical music. This taught me that it was possible to learn to
    like things I didn't like. Sometimes, I still let myself dislike
    things, but if something seems to have stood the test of time and seems
    to be loved by the best and brightest, I find out why. Then, I learn to
    like it too.

  5. 1997: There is absolute truth.
    Realizing that I could choose to beleive things or not, and realizing
    that I could control what my mind does left me a bit of a relativist. I
    mean, I beleived what I did, and thought about what I thought about and
    if you wanted to beleive other things, go for it! One of the things I
    loved to do, however, was argue. Not in a mean way, just finding
    someone with an opinion and trying on the other side. We'd hash it out
    and have a good time. It was exactly one of these that pompted my
    fourth epiphany. A very good friend of mine said something that took a
    relativist position. So, I jumped on the other side. The fact that a
    lack of absolute truth is so obviously self contradictory not only
    convinced the other party in the argument, but it convinced me too. I
    can choose to beleive anything, but sometimes my choice is true,
    sometimes it isn't.

  6. 2005: I can learn anything
    anyone else can learn.

    I've never been all talented in math.This was a problem for me throughout grade school and high-school. When I got to college, some very patient teachers finally got the ideas into me. Continued patience in graduate school helped me even more. The fact that I could learn something I didn't think I could learn should have brought about this epiphany sooner. Still, I felt like I was dependent on these really caring people, and on my own I couldn't get it. I finished my dissertation and decided to reward myself by doing something I'd always wanted to do. I built my own computer. I had upgraded my computers several times, and thought I knew the ends and outs. When a box of parts came in a big brown box, and I began looking through them, I realized I was in over my head. I got online and started reading about different parts and procedures and before long, it all started to make sense. Not only did I build my own computer, I really taught myself how. Since then, I've taught myself all kinds of practical skills. academic skills and just fun things to learn. I now realize that I can learn anything anyone else can learn. It may be slower in an area where I am not talented, but that's all.

  7. 2009: I can do anything if I
    have to.

    In 2009 I lost what I thought was a secure, tenure
    track job at a small midwestern liberal arts university. I began
    immediately applying for new positions, but to no avail. Eventually, I
    had to pay my bills, so I found jobs. They were mostly horrible jobs,
    shovelling rotten beans, driving railroaders, cleaning up after old
    folks in rest homes. I hated them, but I did them. I learned something
    really important then. There is no job to hard, to gross or too
    demeaning that I will not do it if I have to. That also means that I
    could make myself do those things at other times. It didn't make me
    happy, but I did it.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Why it's not all over for America.

I was probably as shaken about the credit downgrade as anyone. It hits our national pride, our sense of self and our view of the world. That at least one of the three major indices sees the American economy as worse than that of France or England, makes us feel a little bad. Still, I wouldn't say that America is down for the count. We have a few things going for us.
  1. We don't have to be #1 to be pretty amazing. Maybe a hit to our national pride isn't such a bad thing. Honestly, do you have any fewer tangible assets since the downgrade? We don't have to be the biggest fish in the pond to be a fish too big for the other ones to eat. Maybe recognizing that there are other fish just as big will keep us from being jerks.
  2. We are a nation of immigrants. I think that this part of our national character is something that S&P forgot. This means a number of things. First of all, if the economy is bad in one area, we are willing to move. We have always been willing to move and have a system of laws that make it relatively easy. It is true that people became rather embedded for a few decades after World War II, but dying in the place you are born is not the American way and never has been. Our economy will be strong because where the economy is strong, people will go. This also means that we will continue to import the best and brightest from around the world and include them as full members of our society. This is not true of the other great economies.
  3. We are bound by a dream that makes us work hard. Americans are not a homogeneous group. We have differences in race, ethnicity and religion. We disagree over some really basic issues. Still, we all want something and it is that idea which is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. We are all out to get life, liberty and of happiness, and we will keep pushing for it. We want to live our lives outside the bounds of another's control. For many that means owning one's own home and business. For others, it just means being able to get a vacation in. In either case, we don't judge the other because we recognize that they have the right. We know that we don't have the right to happiness, but we definitely and defiantly have the right to pursue it. We will always work toward this end, and that is what will raise our economy out of any depression. This is not true of all the other great economies.
  4. We are a bunch of hackers. Come to any poor neighborhood in America, and you'll see cars on blocks. This is the result of trying to make one working car from a bunch of broken ones. When alcohol was outlawed in the US, people built stills. When sales of gun magazines over a certain size were outlawed for sale in the 1990's people made their own. Our national foods, the hamburger and hot-dog, are made out of the parts of the animal you'd otherwise not eat. The DMCA has just taught us how to break encryption quietly, and accept the downgraded product. Sure, we probably like quality as much as the Swiss do, but when we can't get access to it, we make something work rather than do without. We will always make it work. Even our own laws or our own economic problems cannot stop us. This is not true of all the great economies.
  5. We have many diverse natural resources. We actually have debates as to whether or not to import our oil, or just use our oil here. There is coal, iron and copper all over the place. We even have a lot of gold. Our farms feed the world and our forests replenish quickly. Our lakes are huge and our rivers, full of fish and hydroelectric energy. We have vast sunny planes for solar power and huge windy areas for windmills. Yes, we have to be careful with all this, but we haven't really touched our potential. I'd venture to say that none of the great economies are as well situated.
So, we might be okay. I am not saying that America will last forever, but I think we'll get through this.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Public Speaking Lecture Series

I may not have blogged for a couple weeks, but I have been very active in the digital world. I put together a lecture series about public speaking. I put together my Rhetorical Quest Public Speaking Lecture Series mostly for my own online public speaking class, but was careful about licensing to make sure it could benefit everyone. The production values I ended up with were not what I envisioned when I envisioned the course. Perhaps one day I can re-work the series using high-quality cameras. I also think it would be more fun with an audience. Still, it is out there and I really would love for you to take a look.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Grading criteria

Coming to terms with grading

To my students:

It is difficult to explain how much you mean to me. Without you, my work would be meaningless. You never fail to amaze me with your ability to accomplish great things. I see so many of you working so hard, struggling with balancing lives that incorporate so much more than your studies. I know that you have dreams and goals and are working hard to accomplish those goals.

And then I have to assign a number and a letter to your work. I have to look at it and decide whether it is worthy. I have to sit in judgement and pontificate as to the merits of the work you have done. While I am sometimes surprised at the work you have done, I am also often surprised as to the reaction to my judgement. Sometimes I see delight in a grade higher than expected. Other times, I see disappointment in your faces. I really believe that neither of these is necessary. You should know the criteria according to which I judge your work.



This work is below the level that any college student should ever submit to the instructor. The work may have been received after a due date. Significant aspects of the assignment are probably missing. Numerous, serious errors appear throughout the assignment. The work shows a lack of understanding of the material or worse, a disregard for instruction. Any of these criteria constitute adequate grounds for failing on an assignment.



The work may have excellent potential, but fails to meet the level of work expected at the college level. Some portion of the assignment may not have been accomplished. The work may appear not to have been edited for spelling or grammar, may not follow an approved citation format or in some other ways falls short of basic standards that should be expected of all college level work.



The work is acceptable, college level work. The assignment might still contain insignificant stylistic errors, but has clearly been edited and proofread and redone to correct the majority of them. Everything is done precisely as it is required in the assignment. If the assignment requires four sources, there are four sources. If the assignment requires a 5-7 minute speech, the student gives a speech between 5 and 7 minutes. If the assignment requires the student to state an opinion, the student states an opinion. The list could go on indefinitely, but the student is doing precisely what the assignment says and is performing at a college level.



The assignment not only accomplishes all requirements precisely as stated, but some aspect of the assignment has exceeded the quality expected of a college student. If there are any errors in style at all, they are rare and incidental. Often there is a level of professionalism and polish which moves beyond what the assignment could require. Sometimes, the execution of the assignment shows special insight into the nuances of instruction. Other times, the student has found a way to incorporate their own personality in new and creative ways.



The assignment vastly exceeds the quality of work expected of a college student. All requirements of the assignment are met and most are met with an extraordinary level of professionalism and/or creativity. Additionally, the student may have worked within the confines of the assignment to do something bold and innovative.

I hope that reading this chart can help you. I am relatively certain that most of my instructors and professors in college held similar criteria. In fact, a few of them shared their criteria with us early in the semester. I remember being thankful for their clarity. I think you should be comfortable knowing that if you do what the assignment says, you are always going to pass. I also think you should know that if you really do work that exceeds the requirements of the assignment, that you will be rewarded with a grade which is better than passing.

** edit 8:40 7/20/11 because I saw a spelling mistake.

Friday, July 15, 2011

My Sweet Ride.

Coming to terms with debt, frugality, hope and junker cars.

My wife and I have degrees, and the debt that comes with them. Actually, we have more significantly more debt than people do who get out of college, but I have a PhD and she had significant family issues in college both of which caused a pretty severe accumulation. If we pay on them like we are supposed to, I will still be making student loan payments with my retirement checks. We don't want to live that way however.

Lately, while the federal government has been making plans to raise their debt ceiling, my wife and I have been actively working to reduce ours. We have quickly moved out of consumer debt and now only have those student loans on which we can make payments above and beyond the official plan.

Living within one's means when one's means are massively reduced by student loan debt is not easy. We have made sacrifices. We have missed out on things. Our lives are struggles, but we are not just struggling to make ends meet. We are struggling to see those ends disappear. I have taken extra assignments and teach extra classes at work. We live in a tiny apartment. We drive junker cars. We are going to do this.

Still, we have to live. We need groceries, electricity, transportation to and from work and fun. We need these things even while we are living in a tight way. So we have to make these things cheap. We've generally tried to live with just one car between us. It is an old car, bought with cash, and requiring no payments. Still, it really isn't enough. Most days we can mash sharing the car with bus schedules (the bus stop is only a mile away) and make it work. Sometimes this is really, really difficult.

Furthermore, our cheap, old car is really not the best for getting some of the cheapest fun around. We live in a town on the edge of the beautiful Gila National Forest and the Chihuahua Desert. Hiking, camping and nature are obvious and free-to-cheap fun. Our little car, however, doesn't do well on Forest Service roads.

So I needed something with better clearance and that I could drive maybe once or twice a week to work. The problem was that it would have to be a second car purchased while living on our tight budget. I found one. I bought a car this morning for only $250. It meets all our needs.

To me, finding any functional automobile at all that fit in our budget was a miracle. You might say: "That hunk of junk! How is that a miracle?" We can afford it. It can get me to work a couple days a week and will be a great fishing, camping and hiking car. It's perfect. It's a miracle. It gives me hope.

Furthermore, I really think that junker cars are usually a better deal. I always drove junkers growing up. My dad always drove junkers. One day, when I was 19 and knew everything, I decided I was tired of buying junker cars. So, I went into debt to buy a "reliable" car. It was an Oldsmobile Cutlass Sierra. I bought it for $3000. According to an online inflation calculator, that would be 4355.56 in today's money. I ended up spending more on repairs every month than I did on payments and to make both I took out that first student loan.

Junker cars save alot. According to an article originally posted in Kipplinger's Personal Finance, the average American spends about $479 per month on a car loan. To me that means that if you buy a $500 car about every two months, you're money ahead. The truth is, that no car I've ever bought for this amount has lasted fewer than three years. See how much I haven't spent?

Now, don't misunderstand me. If I thought I was going to have to live this way forever, I'd be borderline suicidal. I don't believe that. I think that finding a car for $250 is a miracle. I think that miracles happen like this all the time if a person is managing his or her finances correctly. I believe that more miracles are coming and that we will be able to get out of debt much sooner than our creditors think and that when we do, we will be able to buy very nice cars, with cash, and no car payment.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Excited about budgets

Coming to terms with Budgets, Math and being a nerd.

The story.

I recently posted on my status on Facebook:
So, in case there was any doubt as to whether or not I'm a nerd, I'm really excited about our fiscal month budget for July 15-August 15."
My brother responded with "porque" and the answer became something much longer than should really be on a Facebook status. So, it is now a blog.

Reason #1: it's Math and I Can Do It.

There is probably just something about my nerd nature that makes me love budgets. I've always been a nerd, more comfortable with my imaginary friends than with real ones, but I couldn't always accept it. First of all, I really wanted to be cool. Secondly, I wasn't really good in math in grade school and high school. How could I be a nerd if I didn't like math?

I didn't like math because I wasn't good at it. I wasn't good at it because I had trouble keeping things in neat rows. That meant that it was hard. My teachers were always frustrated because they could tell I understood the concepts, I just got the answers wrong. Not being good at math continued into college. It wasn't until I was in graduate school and had to take statistics that I learned my way out: spreadsheets. Spreadsheets keep everything in nice neat rows anyway. Furthermore, when you use spreadsheets, the concepts and the data are all you need. They make it neat for you. So, I like it. I feel like I can do math because I can make the computer do math. It is like a blind man suddenly seeing.

I like it when all the numbers add up and it all just works. Really, since I use a zero-sum budget, ultimately, I am excited that 1-1=0. I have no money at the end of each fiscal month, exactly as it should be. I enjoy watching it all come together as I enter the data. Each bill paid with money that hasn't come in yet feels like a foe vanquished. I enjoy a filled out zero-sum budget because it lets me imagine a future and causes that future to come into being.

Since this blog is primarily a response to my brother's question, and since we are both table-top role players, I think he will understand this: It is like filling out a character sheet for a role playing game. You put in your abilities, their modifiers, relate them to weapons and can imagine how such acts will work out in "real life." It is the same with budgets.

Reason #2: we're winning and we know it.

My wife and I fell off budgeting when we were between academic jobs and having enough money to buy groceries was all we could hope to accomplish. Since we have come into a better position, we went back to the zero-sum budget. Every month as we work out our budget, we can see real progress. We use goals advocated in Dave Ramsey's Seven Baby Steps to gauge our progress. It seems like every month we move closer to our goals. As we do so, life becomes easier.

In the next fiscal month, we will be completely free from consumer debt and we have already been able to vastly increase our payments on student loan debt as a result. We've also been able to start saving seriously for a second car, a trip home for Christmas and other necessities. All of this will be happening while simultaneously increasing our individual discretionary spending: that means money we can play with. That is something that can really excite a person. It isn't just that we are paying our bills and can feel okay, the budget puts it all there in black and white. We are improving our lives. I didn't get a raise, I just have more money all the time because when I get money I know how it will be used.

Reason #3: Because I am a nerd.

I like budgets because I like budget-type things. I set goals for each week and each work day and put them in little charts and cross them out when they are done. Each week on Wednesday I draw up a menu for the entire week, go through the cupboards to see what I don't have to cover that menu. Then I make a shopping list in which I buy everything I need to make everything I need that week. The shopping list is a function of the budget and the menu.

It is fun. My motto is that you can always change your plans if you have plans. I like plans. They give me comfort. Today is July 8th. Do you know how much you are spending on groceries the week of August 8th? I do: $45. I may go as low as $40, but $45 is my max.

Now, things happen that are unplanned. A good budget has contingencies built into it. If I get a speeding ticket or the car breaks down, we can make it all work. If a person gets the attitude that since there are contingencies there can't be a plan, it all breaks down.

So there.

That, my brother, is why I am excited about the budget we just created for 7/15-8/15.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Relational Dialectics: The Hope of Paradox

Coming to terms with Dialectics, realtionships, relational dialectics, dialectical models and dialectical tensions.


One of the basic terms we learn in the study of Communication, especially those of us who use humanities based methods, is the "dialectic." It is so basic we generally teach the term to freshmen and expect little from them until they understand it.

Dialectic is the working out of two opposing propositions. There are different methods by which this has been done. The Aristotelian model of resolving dialectic is to allow each side to present its best argument, and whichever argument seems to be the most logical and hold the most support is taken to be the right one. The American legal system is based in this philosophy. Hegelian models hold that when two opposing propositions are discussed, they eventually merge into a synthesis. If our legal system is Aristotelian, then we could see our political system with its arguments and compromises as being very Hegelian. A third method of dealing with dialectic is often associated with Spengler's thought. In this method, one side of a dialectic is given preƫminence for a period of time until it becomes untenable, then it switches the other side. This is seen as a cycle or pendulum swinging back and forth between opposing ideas. Another method of resolving dialectics is the paradox, which holds that although the propositions seem to be conflicting, they are both true. This is often the language of religious dialog: "it is more blessed to give than to receive," for instance.

Dialectics and Relationship.

Two Communication researchers, L. A. Baxter and W.K. Rawlins, published in the same year, 1988, articles in two different books, proposing that there are dialectics which exist in our interpersonal relationships that we are constantly attempting to resolve. They argued that much of the difficulty and argument within close relationships come from disagreements over how to solve our dialectics. While they each used different verbiage to describe these dialectics, over time they have been distilled by the scholarly community into six pairs
  • Autonomy and Connectedness
  • Favoritism and Impartiality
  • Openness and Closedness
  • Novelty and Predictability
  • Instrumentality and Affection
  • Equality and Inequality.
These six dialectics are felt as real and powerful needs within each individual, despite the fact that they exist in contradiction to each other. However, as will be illustrated below, the difficulty does not only lie in meeting needs in contrast to their opposite, but in ways of meeting needs in contrast to other dialectical tensions.

Exempli Gratia my own relationship with my wife.

Like all people, my wife and I feel these needs and have met them in different ways.

  • Autonomy and Connectedness
    • I meet my need for autonomy by needing free time to do what I wish and free, open space in which to move around. For connectedness I meet my need by physical closeness (I'm a cuddler).
    • My wife meets her need for autonomy by freely spending money and meets her need for connectedness by engaging in public activities together.
  • Favoritism and Impartiality
    • I see favoritism, being special, as having special services done. I try to show impartiality by including my wife in every decision.
    • My wife feels special by having special things and extra portions. For her impartiality is gained through generosity of the one that has to the one that doesn't.
  • Openness and Closedness
    • For me, openness is about not keeping things shut. My wife knows all my passwords (I think) for all my Internet accounts. She has keys to every place I am allowed to give her keys. I enjoy it when she looks over my shoulder to see what I am reading or writing. She can go through my closet and drawers as much as she likes (except at Christmas time). I don't however, volunteer much information verbally or talk much about what I see as confidences: problems in friends' relationships they've shared with me or what happens at work. For me, those things stay closed.
    • For my wife, openness is about verbally sharing confidences. She enjoys telling me secrets about her job and friends. She does not, however, like it if I read an email she is writing (so I try not to, but it is so, so hard), or peek in one of her storage bins.
  • Novelty and Predictability
    • For me, my need for novelty is met by having new experiences and learning new things. However, my need for predictability means having things like schedules, budgets, goal charts, menus and lists.
    • For my wife, the need for novelty is met by having new things (especially bear figurines). Her need for predictability is met by organizing those things in space.
  • Instrumentality and Affection
    • My need to be useful in the relationship corresponds quite literally to "putting food on the table." I work for money to buy food. I shop for food. I cook the food. I put it on plates and I put the plates on the table and I expect to be rewarded for these actions with extra affection. I expect unconditional affection when things are beyond my control, like sickness, when I make mistakes, or when I accidentally break something. That is when I need to be held and told everything is okay.
    • My wife feels that she is useful by providing "gifts" either by purchasing things for me or by telling me to purchase something she knows I want. She thinks that in doing so, she will earn my affection. She wants unearned, unconditional affection when she violates social, cultural or moral norms. She needs to know that she is loved no matter how "bad" she is.
  • Equality and Inequality.
    • For me, equality is all about portions. I want an equal portion of our spending money (although I enjoy spending it less). I want an equal portion of foods and drinks. When I make one of our favorite meals (Brats and Tots) I literally count each tater-tot and make sure they are the same for us each; if there is an odd number I rip one in half. If she has 20 square feet of shelf-space, I want 20 square feet of shelf space.
      But, I want to be "superior" too. Especially when it comes to making the final word on moral and ethical decisions (matters of value and policy). I expect her to fall in line.
    • For my wife, equality is more about sharing struggles together. She feels if one of us is hurting, angry or frustrated, the other one should feel equal pain about that subject. She likes to be superior on matters of fact. This is fine, because I can readily admit that she is. She knows the name of the actor that played in a movie or exactly how much our electricity bill averaged in our former house. I guess and estimate and don't care if I am wrong about facts as long as I am right in principle.

For the most part, our dialectics are resolved, sort of . . .

If you look at this, you can see we have mostly used a Hegelian model in resolving our dialectics. Here is the thing about Hegel's model, however. The emerging proposition that comes out the the opposites becomes a proposition to be countered in a new dialectic. In other words, solving ones problems via consensus, compromise and shared sacrifice and shared benefit results in new problems.

We have been married three years and while the whole thing might be thrown out of kilter when we have kids, right now we pretty much go at an even keel. The problems that we have don't come from the tensions described above, but when our method of resolving one tension messes with another. The way I manage my need for predictability with a stable budget does not interfere with my wife's need for novelty. It interferes with her need for autonomy. My wife meets her needs for predictability, not by interfering with my need for novelty, but my need for affection, specifically in times when her order is compromised. My need for equality does not interfere with her need to be superior, it interferes with her need for favoritism, to feel special. We can guess from this philosophical investigation that our arguments will probably go on forever.

But what are the other methods?

An Aristotelian model is another means of solving relational dialectics. In that model, someone wins and someone loses on each issue. While I love this method in resolving political and academic questions, it is not probably the best for interpersonal relationships. The winner take all mentality makes the winner into a bully. Perhaps in the dissolution of an interpersonal relationship, that is, a divorce, and Aristotelian model is necessary. You can't both have the house, so whoever has the best argument gets the house. There is unnecessarily adversarial for interpersonal relationships we hope to maintain.

A circular or pendulum method might work. I know couples who really do use this method: "you get what you need for a while then I get what I need." I suppose this is fine so long as you both are on the same cycle. I believe, however, that this merely necessitates cycles of tension. I see this as always being angry with the other one. To me this sounds like cycles of constant frustration.

Finally, we have the solution of paradox. Such a solution involves bringing into the interpersonal solution what Kenneth Burke referred to as the "both/and." From what I have seen, most mature relationships, those going on for 20 years or more, in which both members are relatively happy, use this model. It is probably the best in that it embraces the whole of the human condition. I could easily see this as the best.

But I don't know how to achieve it. I think that it may be a state reached over time spent in a relationship, if both members are committed to that relationship. I think it might come as a slow epiphany where eventually the couple realizes that the tensions are still there, but they are comfortable with them. My parents and my grandparents seem to be in this state. I think most of my Uncles and Aunts are too. My pastor and his wife look to all outward appearances like they are there. They are all great models and the method I seem to hear to arrive there seems to be "time in the relationship."

On the other hand, I can think of other long-term relationships where I know this is not the case. I know people who have maintained mean and nasty relationships for many, many years. So time, in and of itself, is not the answer. Time seems, from what I am seeing in my limited experience, to need to be coupled with a desire for self sacrifice and for the other party's happiness. I don't think one achieve's paradox without both.

Get ahold of me in 2031 and see what I think then.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Married for Three Years Today.

The early days,

Three years ago today, my wife and I got married (If you're reading this and thinking: "I thought his anniversary was several days ago," you are probably reading it on Facebook which picks up my blog several days after it is posted). We'd started dating three years before that. We got together just as I was finishing graduate school. She was still in undergrad, and our relationship was long distance as I hopped around various short-term teaching gigs.

First we dated long-distance while she was in Ohio and I was in Virginia. Then we dated long distance while she was in Ohio and I was in Kansas. Then we dated long distance while she was in Ohio and I was in Missouri. Then there was a confluence of factors that made me think I should get married. First of all, we'd been dating three years, and if a man doesn't want to get married to a girl he's been dating for three years, they should probably break it off. Second, she was graduating from college. Since she'd already be moving, why not just move in with me? Finally, I saw the teaching gig I had in Missouri as tenure track. I was happy there and got along with people.

So, on 06/07/08 we got married. One could say it was a simple affair, but the complexity was more than I could handle well. My wife's belongings were put into a pickup and a trailer and we carted them across the plains to Missouri. Things weren't perfect for her there. It was a very little town and she had a terrible time finding appropriate employment. We struggled, like most new couples do. We fought terribly about money. Our budget was so limited and our needs were so great. Until we discovered Financial Peace University, I think we were headed to a one-year marriage.

The bigger struggles

Then in February of 2009, having been married only 8 months, I got news that made our struggles worse. My contract for teaching was not to be renewed. I was shocked, upset and angry. To this day I do not know why, really. There were lots of things going on: the economy was falling and the schools endowment with it. The dean and I didn't see eye to eye on some issues, but I was being submissive. I'd heard rumors that there were rumors about me engaging in illicit drug use (which were false). I really don't know what all went into it.

I began actively applying for other jobs. I went on interviews all over the country and had, I thought, some really good prospects when the semester ended. Still, I didn't have anything yet, so, my wife and I decided to move in with my parents until I found a permanent position. We packed up our stuff and moved almost another thousand miles to western Nebraska. I was sure this would be at most a couple months. It was over a year.

We took jobs doing whatever we could. None of them paid well. Most were thankless. We got a little apartment because it really doesn't work for one's wife and one's mother to live in the same house. We put our student loans into forbearance (we thought) and did whatever we could to make ends meet. In some ways, it was awful. In other ways it was nice. I got to really reconnect with my family. Our last anniversary was spent, however, living in fear that we would have to live like this another year.

Coming to the southwest

It wasn't until much later, I think it was July, when I finally got a call from my current employer offering me a "temporary, one year position." Packing up and moving another thousand miles to southern New Mexico for a temporary job would not generally sound like a good plan. It was better than staying and working at no real job, however. So, we took it.

Someday I may write a blog about miracles. When I do, I will almost definitely include stories about that trip.

We moved down here and I recently finished my "one year" of teaching. It has been good. My wife has gotten a job with Americorp, doing community work. The job pays about as poorly as those we worked in Nebraska, and also only lasts one year. The good thing about it, however, is that it really got us integrated into the community. The university and city have a great culture, and we like it. Of course, we were concerned that we might have to move again. The job was offered as "temporary."

That is not the case, however. Through hard work on my part and the part of many of my colleagues here, I have been moved up into a tenure track position. That means I'm staying.

The struggles go on

The struggles are not over. My wife's job ends soon, and we really need to find a way to get her full-time professional work. That is difficult because this is such a depressed region. What she makes now is not much, but we need it. The student loans we thought were in economic hardship forbearance were dropped from that status without our knowledge. They were put, instead, into default. Getting that fixed costs a lot and is going to cost a lot for some time. We still struggle each and every day.

You know what I've been thinking, however? I'd struggle no matter what. I've struggled my whole life. I've worked hard and built only to have everything knocked down time and time again. Here's the thing, though. I used to always do it alone. Now I struggle with my wife at my side and that makes it so much better.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Non Pacificum

Coming to terms with war, memorial day, & freedom

Non Pacificum
To my grandfathers:

Splashing shoreward on a tropical beach
the green Pacific reflecting blue sky
tall bay trees and palms up toward heaven reach
all lost on the men who came here to die.

The bullets hit before their sound can come.
The mortars raise shrapnel, smoke and dirt.
The weight of the pack, wet boots and the gun
cannot slow them down, or else they'll get hurt.

Cheverolet, and Mom and good apple pie
are the furthest things from these soldiers' thoughts
which are slog and shoot and duck and don't die
and fire and cover and keep what we've bought.

So we should keep it, for it was bought dear.
We would be cowards to sell it for fear.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Open Source Video Editing

Coming to terms with, open source, video editing, creative commons

I love open source tools. Even if you never read my blog at the previous site, any of my new readers since the move (thank you!) should have ascertained this by now. I have a tendency to wax almost hagiographic in my love of both the philosophy behind open source and the tools that we are given from the open source community. We've probably all heard about how Apple users have a religious experience with Apple imagery. I probably experience something similar when I see Tux or a picture of a Gnu.

Part of that is a somewhat selective view of the world. We all do this. When something doesn't correspond to our preconceived notions, we tend to explain it away, rather than explaining aways our notions. In communication studies, we call this "selective distortion." It allows us to live in a world that is constantly not measuring up to expectations. Without this technique, we tend to fall into despair.

I experienced this phenomena in one area, and that has been video editing. Don't get me wrong. There are some truly awesome open source video editors out there. Cinnerella is a powerful tool for professional movie makers. For the novice, however, it is about as user friendly as a wild walrus. Avidemux is better, because they have a massive online user manual, and in only a few years of research, it is understandable and usable. What if I don't want to go out and get an internship in movie production, but I want to make cute little videos for the web?

There are actually quite a few open source video editors that are available for the casual user. The Ubuntu system ships with PiTiVi. I've used it and it is stable and always works. Unfortunately, all it can do is string clips together. There is no panning, no effects, no transitions, nothing. In other words, it works, but not to do anything interesting. Kino has all of these features, but it constantly crashes and interferes with every other operation one is doing. It is hard to figure out where your stuff is in the story-board. I made a couple videos with Kino, but I tried to make many more. They crash.

So, what is an open source user to do? I am embarrassed to admit this, but since my job almost always gives me access to a Windows computer, I use Movie Maker most of the time. Other times, I will go to one of the mac labs we have at work and use iMovie. I honestly feel, in admitting this, like I felt when I told my pastor I sometimes go to the Episcopal church on Ash Wednesday because I like to get the ashes and our tradition doesn't do that. Luckily, I have found an answer.

I created the following video using an open source tool I recently found: Openshot Video Editor. It is a great tool for the casual user. It is every bit as good as Movie Maker, for Windows. No, it is not i-movie, and when I really need to do something a bit better, a video presentation for colleagues, for instance, off I will go to find a Mac.

As you have seen this is just a bunch of still pictures. The main point was to show the effects and transitions available. This is a pretty good tool.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Does God get what he wants?

Coming to terms with predestination, free will

Is there a Reason?

My wife and I would like to have a baby. Sometimes, especially when we are looking at our budget, enjoying quiet time alone or trying to figure out how to schedule our busy lives, I think I am nuts to want the expense and complication of a child. Sometimes when I watch the news or even walk downtown, I question whether it is really wise to bring a child into this messed up world. Still, it is what we want. It is a desire of our hearts, especially of my wife's heart.

Unfortunately, the heart is not the only anatomical member with a say on the subject. Certain health complications have made conception difficult and we haven't been able to get there. We don't have the money at this point for the expensive treatments that could increase our chances and that financial lack also produces difficulties in adoption. So, for now, we have only our pets for which to care.

This has not been easy for us, but I know people for whom it is worse. We have not been able to conceive. There are a number of couples I have known for whom conception has been relatively easy, but they have been unable to carry a child to term. I witness their pain, but I know it is far beyond my comprehension. The devastation in their lives is really awful. Yet, so often I hear them say, or people say to them, that all this has happened for a reason; that this is somehow all a part of God's plan.

I know how people arrive at this conclusion, but I need to argue against it. God did not kill those babies. He did not do it so that you'd be stronger or be a better parent when He finally let you have a child. He did not do it because he needed a soul (that is a creepy thing I've heard too often). He also is not striking folks with cancer (or even a common cold) to make them better people. He did not make planes fly into the World Trade Center on 9/11/01. Not everything happens "for a reason" and even those things that do happen "for a reason" the reason is not always because God willed it.

Things happen that God doesn't want.

Understanding the basic concept that somethings happen that God doesn't want is the first intellectual hurdle one must jump in order to get to the place where we stop saying "everything happens for a reason." On one hand, it is fairly obvious from scripture. We know that "God is not willing that any should perish" (II Peter 3:9) on one hand, but on the other hand "small is the gate and narrow is the way that leads to life and only a few find it" (Mat. 7:14). God wants us all to go to Heaven, but we're not all going. We don't even have to go so far as eternal salvation to make this clear, we know that God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16, Mark 10:9), yet we have all met divorced people. We know that things happen that God simply does not want to happen. The very existence of sin, which can pretty much be defined as doing what God doesn't like, means that some things happen that God simply does not want to happen.

Yet, it seems almost blasphemous to say: "things happen that God does not want to happen." In fact, it has been said in a way that probably does border on misunderstanding if not outright disrespect for God. In his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner makes the argument that things happen that God does not want to happen because God is not really omniscient, omnipresent nor, most importantly, omnipotent. Things happen that God does not want to happen simply because God is too weak to do anything about them.

This makes sense from our point of view. If we could do anything we wanted, we would do anything we wanted. If we could stop anything we didn't want from happening, we would stop those things from happening. In fact, in our legal system, if you know about a crime and do nothing to prevent it, you can be charged as an accessory to that crime. If bad things happen and you could stop them but don't, it is seen as the same as if you had done those things. We are so scared of making God and accessory to murder, that we have made him a murderer.

Things happen because there are forces at work in the world.

The Bible is clear that there are evil forces at work in the world. The Devil, Satan, the Bible says, goes about seeking those he can devour (I Peter 5:8). He is a jerk, he is evil, and he literally wants to ruin everything. We know from the Book of Job, among other places, that God has put limits on what Satan can do, but he is still allowed to make his mischief. Mischief might be too casual a word. The Devil is allowed to do evil things. He is allowed to steal, kill and to destroy (John 10:10) and will definitely do it. He is awesomely powerful, older and smarter than anyone on earth and has an army of awesomely powerful demons who are older and smarter than anyone on earth. Some things happen because the Devil does them.

Then there are people. People do things all the time. Some of these things are good. Some of these things are evil. Some of these things are not really good or evil, but are practical or impractical. I don't feel, as I write this blog, that I am experiencing some special leading of the Holy Spirit that compels me to write it. I have felt that before. I have also not felt that before, but gone back and read something and recognized that it was there and I wasn't aware. Right now, I feel like I am writing this blog because I choose to. I think it is a good thing to do, but I think there are other equally good things I could be doing instead. Writing a blog like this which follows a strict Ciceronian structure, often helps me organize my thoughts around a subject, but I can't really say that it is inherently a good or evil thing to do.

Sometimes, we do evil things, and God lets us. When I was a child, I enjoyed hitting my sister. It helped me deal with the rage I was feeling and gave me a sense of satisfaction. It was also an evil thing to do. I was not obeying the will of God, in fact, I was sinning, and knew it. God did not allow me to hit my sister so that I could be better or she could be better. He allowed me to make a choice, on choice he approved and one he disapproved. I chose the one He did not approve, sometimes. I could hit my sister, some men rape their children, some men fly airplanes into buildings and others throw their bodies on grenades to save their friends' lives. God has given us the choice to serve him, or not, because service is not slavery. There is always a choice.

Besides the Devil and people, there are principles at work that God simply allows to work and rarely violates. These include natural principles: if I jump from my office window to the parking lot below and break a bone, this is not a punishment from God. It is a natural combination of gravity, bone density, velocity, weight, hardness, etc. It also includes social principles. If I talk trash about my boss, she may hear and fire me. If I cannot pay my bills this month, it might not be God punishing me. It might be because I blew my wad of dough at the movie theater. There are also spiritual principles, like the concept of sowing and reaping(Galations 6:7). If I sow corn, sunflower seeds, love, anger, money or negativity, I will generally get back more than I put in of the same. I guess maybe one can say "everything happens for a reason" if sometimes that "reason" is something like, "if I throw a baseball at a window, it will break."

Why do people say that, then.

It is not because they are crazy. The fact is that there really does seem to be some implication in the scripture Romans 8:28-30 says:
  • 28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
Ephesians 1:11 says "we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will." Furthermore, Hebrews 4:13 says that God is not surprised. In exclusion, that really does make it sound like God planned everything. These people, millions of them over the history of Christendom, are not crazy.

The assumption they're making is that since God knows everything, and everything that happens is allowed by him, that he planned it. That is not the case.

God is a planner.

One thing that God and I have in common is that we are both planners. I make shopping lists, budgets, weekly menus and put my short term goals up on the wall of my office at work, checking them off as they get done. My fun is very much spontaneous, but happens at the time and within the budget I set aside for spontaneity. Sometimes, I do something that seems very spontaneous, like buy my wife flowers or something, but the truth is that I have found a way to work it into the budget.

God is the same, just way better at it. He makes plans and they always happen (Psalm 115:3). That does not mean that He plans everything that happens. Let's go back to my listing habit. On Tuesdays, the advertisements come in our newspaper. On Wednesday, I create the menu for the next week and do the grocery shopping. Perhaps one day during the next week, someone invites us over for a meal. In that case, I did not plan the event. The one who invites us planned it, I just planned around it.

That is what God does too, for the most part. He does not plan for us to sin, but he knows we will. Because of this, he plans around it, by preparing a way for our salvation. God even knows what the Devil is going to do. While God often allows the Devil to do what the Devil wants to do, God plans around it. God does not do evil to people, but he knows evil will be done and bad things will happen and he plans around them.

God does not plan evil, he plans around evil, to accomplish good.

And then there are miracles.

God does not just plan around things. It is true that sometimes he just bulldozes through them too. Sometimes, the principles, natural or spiritual, are suspended. Sometimes the Demons are driven out. Sometimes people are thwarted in their evil plans. These things really do happen and when they do, they are confusing. Why doesn't God always do this?

I might deal with this more in a future blog, but I want to be careful here. I can deal with generalities, but cannot deal with particulars. There are two answers. The first is, that God will. In the end, evil will be dealt with (Revelation 20:14).

The second answer is that God loves us and gives us a choice. A person who forces others to love them does not experience love. God wants us to love Him but if He forced it, it would not be love. A choice has to be a real choice.

To be a real choice, there have to be real consequences. That means if I do evil, there has to be an evil ripple effect that hurts and hurts and hurts. If I do good, there also has to be a real ripple effect, that helps and helps and helps. If I behave unwisely, like not getting adequate vitamins or having good hygiene, I will get sick. Not only will I get sick, but my body becomes a germ factory for others. I made a real choice, and there are real consequences, not just for me. God can heal me and heal the others affected by my choice. Even if he doesn't, however, he will plan around the sickness and still accomplish his will.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Can Sony Learn a Lesson about Apologia?

Coming to terms with Apologia, PS3, Linux, Geohot, and hacking.


As everyone who uses the Playstation Network has surmised by now, Sony owes us an explanation. Their network as been down for several weeks now, and we have been unable to use the online features of our games. We've heard that this is the result of hackers, and that our financial information has probably been compromised. We've gotten emails from Sony, and they have expressed regret. There was a letter from the Senior director of Corporate Communication even offering identity theft protection. Still, what we are really lacking here is not sorrow. We are lacking a real explanation as to why this happened. In the absence of hearing a coherent explanation from Sony, I will offer one here. Unfortunately for them, my explanation may not be one they like.

In rhetorical studies we refer to such explanations by the Greek word "apologia" which is the root from which we get our English word "apology." Understanding the English word might be a good place to start. There are two major meanings for "apology" in English. The first, and most common, is to take responsibility and admit wrongdoing. The second meaning is really only used in theological circles, and it means offering explanation for things that, on their face, seem incredible. The term "apologia" really encompasses both these meanings simultaneously and a bit more.

The term also implies a defense, but not a denial of one's actions. Rather, apologetic rhetoric seeks to ascribe motivation for those actions to circumstance ("A Pentadic Analysis of Senator Edward Kennedy's Address to the People of Massachusetts, July 25, 1969." Central States Speech Journal 21 (1970): 81–86). For instance, if a person breaks into my house and I shoot him, I will not argue that I shot him. That will have been established. Rather I will argue that circumstances were such that I had to shoot the person [note to readers, don't break into my house].

I hate to say it, but Sony's behavior in this entire fiasco has been indefensible. So, if I offer an apologia here, it is not for Sony. Instead I offer an explanation for the hackers who have brought the network down and compromised my bank account.

How I came to love the PS3

When I decided to buy a seventh generation console, I was torn. The XBox 360 seemed to have the most to offer in the way of new games, and that is really why we buy consoles. However, Sony's offering, the PS3 had three things that really sold it for me. The first was the ability to play Blu-ray disks. I'd compared the usability and features of both Blu-ray and the HD-DVD disks that were its competition at the time. I saw Blu-ray as the future, and didn't want to have to buy two devices if one would work.

The second reason was that, at the time, the PS3 could run all of my games from my PS2 and the old Playstation games. That meant I had a whole library of games without forking over more money immediately. That was an awesome selling point

The third big selling point for me was that the PS3 could run a second operating system along side its own, a Linux operating system. Now, I love Linux and the possibility of running it on my console thrilled me. My computer at home runs Linux exclusively, I have a small Linux partition on my work computer for things I just can't do in Windows. I even carry a small Linux OS on a thumb drive in case I need to use someone else's computer. Linux is great operating system made for hackers by hackers. It is totally open and can be altered, so if a hacker needs it to do something it doesn't, they can just write a program to do it. Even better, they can share that hack back with the community and we can all improve our systems.

For me, this was the biggest selling point on the system. Not only was I getting a game console and a Blu-ray player, I was getting a second computer. I would be able to surf the web, write and play silly games while my wife was using the computer!

I bought my console used off of Ebay, and began to play. I fell in love with the device. It did everything I wanted and so much more. It wasn't long before I found the Playstation Network was free and offered all kinds of fun things. There were people I knew who were buying Wii's, and I would have fun at their houses, but was able to play comparable moving games using the PS3's sixaxis controller. I became very evangelical for the PS3.

The relationship faltered

Then I started to hear weird things in the tech news. The newest PS3's being made were no longer backward compatible. Weird, I thought, why would they do that? I could no longer be wildly evangelistic about the PS3. Mine is still backward compatible, but I can't use that to talk my friends into buying a new one. Luckily, I knew some folks in the hacker community were working to fix this. As a Linux user, that is what I feel like hackers do. They fix things.

There were people, I heard, looking to find a way to put backward compatibility on the new machines. From my open-source inspired point of view, I saw this as a win-win for Sony. They were saving money by producing machines without backward compatibility, but other people could put it on the machines. Hackers were helping Sony out!

Finally, someone made the first big step toward that end. It was a hacker-kid aliased, Geohot, who was pretty famous already for his work on the iphone. What he had done on the iphone was engage in privilege escalation, or as it is known in hacker slang, "jailbreaking." He was able to do the same thing on the PS3. He used an opening in Sony's ability to use Linux in order to get full access to the firmware of the system. Using this, people could put retro compatibility back on!

When I read about Geohot's hack, I was proud of him. I hoped that Sony would start to fund his work a little and allow him to further develop useful hacks on their system. I guess that just shows how out-of-touch open source users are with the rest of the world. Sony did not praise Geohot, instead in their next update they deleted the Linux partition from everyone's machine, including mine.

That's when the stuff hit the fan.

Geohot figured out a way to put everyone's Linux partition back onto their machines. Sony responded with another update which would prevent that. The hacker community then created dongles which allowed users to get around Sony's updates. Then Sony created another update that made the dongles quit working. Then they made, I think, the biggest mistake of their corporate lives.

Not only were they not funding him or thanking him, they were suing him! For those of us with ties to the hacker community, including every open-source user and advocate, this was a horrible insult. The proceedings dragged on with arguments over jurisdiction and definitions. Finally, they settled out of court. Geohot can't hack on the PS3 network, which he says he never did (he just hacked his own hardware), and Sony has to leave the poor boy alone.

When we bare our teeth.

The matter may have been settled with one hacker, but the open community were still a bit miffed. Hackers began an actual attack on Sony's Playstation Network. See, for the most part, hackers are good people who want our hardware to work better. However, there are some who are not good. Furthermore, I think the majority, who are very good people, take a bit of a vigilante view of justice. Since our community felt that Geohot had been wronged, some members of the community set out to right that wrong.

People don't know how dangerous those of us in the tech community really are. I think that if they knew, they would pay me better. If I am a hacker at all, I am probably the least skilled hacker on the planet. I have ties to the hacker community because I am primarily a Linux user and I find ways, often with help, to make things work. Still, I carry a flash drive with a small Linux OS on it. With that I can get into the files on your computer, if I can get my hands on it, even though I don't know your password. Using those files, I can get your passwords if you've saved them, your bank account records if you use a program like that, and for sure a list of your favorite sites. There are ways to stop me, but you probably don't use them (and neither do I). All you use is a firewall and a virus scanner. I don't break firewalls and I am generally against viruses. I can do it, and I am not awesome.

Hackers with more skills than me can be more dangerous. Much like cuddly dogs, however, they are dangerous only if provoked. Suing Geohot was extreme provocation. Several members of the hacker community have attacked the Playstation Network and done what some analysts are saying is 1.25 billion dollars in direct losses. Not only that, there have been further losses to third party developers for the PS3. Perhaps most disturbingly, the hackers got our credit card numbers and names. I've read some of the chat logs from the hackers working on this, and they were shocked that the information was stored in plain text. That's right, Sony stored our credit card information with absolutely zero encryption.

Probably most of the hackers who worked on this project are interested in hurting Sony, not the players. Honestly, after this fiasco I trust a group of unnamed hackers more than Sony. Sony has now said that they are going to pay for identity theft protection for all of us on their network, but all our information is out there now. Among other things, this prompted me to also change banks. The hackers have the number for an account that does not exist.

So who needs to apologize?

Sony needs to apologize. They need to explain why they are taking away our features, and they cannot give the normal corporate drivel about "security." That argument is gone for them now. They need to show that they understand this was a mistake. They need to promise return Linux functionality and backward compatibility to their systems. They need to stop discouraging homebrew applications. They need to promise a more open system.

When they do this, the hacker community needs to back off. This will be hard and is the biggest problem with vigilante justice. Vigilante justice seems to go beyond an eye for an eye and begins to demand a life for an eye. We can't let that happen here. If Sony repents we need to leave them standing.

Sony did some very wrong things, but the answer isn't to bring down the company. The answer is to bring the company in line with an ethical code which includes the freedom to use homebrew applications. Then it can function just fine alongside, or even working with the hacker community. If the hacker community doesn't back off when Sony comes to its senses, we won't have the credibility to demand accountability from future potential corporate tyrants.

The hacker community also needs to make sure that none of that account information is misused. The idea of the attack on the network was to bring pain to Sony. It was to vindicate those who payed money for certain services that Sony took away. It was not to steal money from those people. If those credit card numbers are misused, Sony is able to make the hacker community into the wrongdoers.

What should your average Joe do?

Well, Joe, avoid buying a PS3 or anything else from Sony for now. Sony is a great brand and has built lots of great stuff. However, they cannot be trusted right now. They sell products and services, then take those products away from their customers without refunding the money. I just don't trust them right now. If they change this attitude, by all means, buy them. Don't get rid of the stuff you have. That is just silly. I am going to keep using my PS3 and keep enjoying it, but if it breaks, I'm selling my games and buying an Xbox.

If you have a Playstation Network account, CHANGE YOUR BANK ACCOUNTS. The hacker community, as a whole, doesn't want to steal your money. However, with this hack literally thousands (possibly millions) of people have access to your credit card and debit card information. One of them might be evil. Call your banks or account holders and ask them to change your numbers. My wife and I even decided to change banks entirely (but there were other reasons besides just the Sony hack for that: the closest branch was far away; her job stopped doing direct deposit; it was a hat trick). And you know what, even if Sony repents of its sins and I start buying stuff off the Playstation Network again, I am not giving them my credit card number ever again. You can buy Playstation Network cards at your local big box store.

If you have a Playstation Network account, change your password as soon as things are back up and running. That has been compromised too.

Otherwise, support open applications written by hackers. As long as we are all working together, fiascoes like the Playstation Network outage do not need to happen. Hackers are good people who just want to make things work better. If we let them, we all benefit.