Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Library Audiobook Mysteries

My grandmother enjoys mystery novels.

I am thinking of getting her an MP3 player so we could listen to audiobook mysteries together and have another thing in common to talk about.

I somehow grew up without reading the classic mystery novels that define the genre. In contrast, the bookshelves at my wife's mother home are lined with such books.

Curious, I made a list of the authors for which my mother-in-law owns the most books and then searched for how many audiobooks for each author are part of the Eugene Public Library collection. The results are:
  • Agatha Christie: 53
  • Lilian Jackson Brown: 21
  • Dorothy Gilman: 13
  • Dorothy Sayers: 4
  • Josephine Tey: 1
  • Dell Shannon, Susan Dunlap, Amanda Cross: 0
Clearly the Eugene Public Library's audiobook collection is not a representative sample of mystery writing that features female authors.

I repeated the experiment with a few other major mystery novelists who were male.
  • Ross Macdonald: 9
  • Dashiell Hammett: 4
  • Gilbert Keith Chesterton: 1
  • Raymond Chandler: 0
Not a whit more representative.

For the fans of mystery novels out there, what audiobooks should I first request the library acquire?

Quarters, Dollars, and Pennies

I'm still working on collecting all of the state quarters.

I also found out that the currently minted dollar coins are of a more convenient size than the older silver dollars, and they look cool.

I have started carry a few dollar coins with me in my diaper bag. Smiley gives them to homeless people asking for money: he learns charity and they get a small amount of financial help that is also a weather-proof conversation piece.

I also got a roll of them for my math department office. Most mornings I taught, I purchased a toasted bagel for $1 and it was nice to use the dollar coins for that. I simply find coins more pleasantly tactile than bills.

The Federal government has finally announced when it will stop minting pennies, which should have happened when I was a child. It would be nice if pennies were replaced by a $5 coin. Except for grocery shopping, most of the places I spend money I spend only a few dollars at.

UPDATE: Oops. The "stop minting pennies" was an April Fool's joke. A new trouble with doing an internet search while blogging to satisfy a random curiosity!

Assorted Bad Math

I sometimes come across articles describing abuse of statistics. Only a few of these would be appropriate to share with Math 25 students.

Here are two, about cell phone charges and circles in graphs. Here is a close-up of the graph with circles in the latter.

Assorted Politics

During 2009 I blogged much more about investing and the economy than ever before. Had I realized how much, I would have created a post category for investing. Oh well.

I sincerely hope both issues are boring in 2010 and I have no need to muse about them!

Remember to take advantage of adjusted capital loss for your 2009 taxes! Tomorrow will be the last day to sell depreciated investments and have the tax man absorb part of the sorrow.

Here are some final investing/economy links from my bookmark folder, to wind up the topic for the year.

Back in October there was an article in Forbes comparing the current recession with the Great Depression. It mentions Milton Friedman, whom I have blogged about fairly often in 2009, so I link to it now. It concludes by discussing the velocity multiplier, which is way down. Another article continues the discussion by describing other problems the low multiplier causes. A third article adds a bit more about how bonds play a role.

Here is a catchy slideshow about the spread of unemployment by county. Working less is not always a bad thing, as this article describes. (Personally, my wife and I are both working fewer hours than we did before little Smiley was born, with only a happier life from all the changes. A similar story even if our work week reduction was for family reasons instead of being caused by the recession.)

My blogging this year has occasionally betrayed my preference for Small Government at the Federal level. Classical Values rants about the 2008 Farm Bill, which is a intriguing read even though he exaggerates current problems. In contrast, City Journal reports about one event where the power of local government was needed when a supposedly benevolent charitable organization failed to help people in need.

Finally, Greg Mankiw graphs the "dead zone" that traps people in poverty.
Notice that as earned income rises from about $15,000 to $30,000, income after taxes and transfers is roughly flat. Indeed, it could even fall. The bottom line: If you are poor, the government is inadvertently ensuring that you have little incentive to try to improve your condition.

New Math 20 Lectures

Blogging has been scanty this month.

Much of the reason is spending holiday time with family in Southern California. I try to arrange my internet identity so that finding me or my cell phone number is easy but finding my home address is impossible. But I cannot be sure there are no paths from my name (and thus blog) to my home address, so publicly advertising that I am away from the house for a few weeks seems a needless risk. Thus I postpone blogging about holiday stuff until I return home.

I also have been working a lot on the RPG and on math preparations for next term.

The math work is more interesting to blog about. About half the topics from the previous math class are not used in Math 20, but are needed in the next math class. Traditionally all the review topics are dealt with during the first two weeks of class. But this causes two problems. First, the students do not see new material until the third week, which means students that do not have time in their busy lives to handle Math 20 do not realize this until annoyingly late in the term--and too late to receive a financial refund if they drop the class. Second, those review topics that are not needed until after Math 20 are rusty or forgotten by the time they are useful.

So I am moving the review topics not needed until after Math 20 to the very end of the term. This will solve both problems. I am also adding to my lecture slides a lot of the talk about study skills and class pacing that I do aloud each term, for the benefit of students who miss a class.

Today I finished revising the first lecture. The links will change soon, but for now you can compare the old and new versions if you are interested.

Best Chai in a Tin?

I once wrote about how my wife makes chai in a big pot during the Winter.

One of my holiday presents this month was a tin of Masala Chai from Pet's Coffee & Tea. It's remarkably good. Although still not the same as making it from scratch the way my wife does, it's close.

Previously I have tried chai from Stash Tea and other companies and never found any that are at all close. It is reassuring that someone can package good chai in a tin.

Charitable Giving Graphs

It is almost the end of 2009. Lots of people are doing year-end charitable giving before the tax year is finished.

TaxProf had an recent article about charitable giving, with nice graphs.

Remember, scripture advises using your money for charitable giving and to buy friends!

Car Problems

We drove from Eugene to San Diego to visit my grandmother for Chanukah and my wife's family for Christmas.

Our car is old enough it burns oil, but normally not a noticeable amount in 16 hours of driving. We made sure all our fluid levels were refreshed before leaving Eugene and stopped thinking about it.

However, it seems that 16 hours almost all at once and at freeway speeds does burn almost all the engine's oil. We began to hear alarming noises near Dana Point. We took the car to the Laguna Niguel Auto Center.

A common problem when very low on oil is broken connecting rod bearings, since these are supposed to be completely submerged in oil. Raul the Mechanic removed the oil pan confirmed the connecting rod bearings were broken but the connecting rod and crank shaft were not damaged, and made repairs.

Raul did not use oil additive, which our car likes. The engine noise was louder, and the engine differently responsive, until the additive was used. Now our car sounds and behaves as we are used to.

UPDATE: How was driving that far with little Smiley? He is amazingly good in the car, but lousy at sleeping in a motel room. At the end of the drive we are sane but needing sleep. Favorable roads and weather graced us.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Keep the Blog's RSS Feed?

I am thinking of switching my blogging from blogspot to just using a text editor and having each month be a page on my website.

I know I would be too lazy to manually update an RSS feed for blog posting. Would any of my blog's readers care if the blog's RSS feed disappeared?

(Legibility would improve. I would lose the feature of displaying posts by category. I'm not sure what else would change.)

UPDATE: Okay, I'll keep the blog in its current format. Thank you to those who commented!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Nice Day with Family

Friday night was not only Erev Shabbat but the last night of Chanukah. It began a very nice day!

My family is visitng my wife's parents and brother. Vacation has been nice.

I have been enjoying reading Craig Keener's commentary on John and got to do that more as the evening began. Later we lit the Chanukah candles and had a nice Shabbat dinner. I had a nice walk around the neighborhood with Smiley riding on my back in our Ergo. We got to look at holiday lights and even at one house dance.

(A house had lights that blink in time to music, combining two of Smiley's favorite things. If only the object thus decorated was not a house but a big truck!)

After Smiley was asleep, my wife and bother-in-law played a RPG adventure. I fell asleep listing to my JNT audiobook, which was a treat for I only recently figured out how to get it to play its tracks in order.

In the morning I got to do much of the typing up of the RPG adventure. That day included three "walks" around the neighborhood that mostly turned into meeting and playing with the neighbor kids, as well as playing with Smiley inside. I got to do a lot of blogging. I relaxed and had some prayer time. I even managed to find a one-page dungeon from the 2009 contest that needed almost no work to use that evening.

But after dinner the very nice day ended. Smiley has caught a cold, and his nasal draining buildup caused him to throw up twice in a very messy way, exacerbated by our not having our usual precautions in place at grandma's house. So no RPG adventure or relaxing audiobook on Saturday evening: clean-up and laundry instead. Smiley's breathing troubles interfered with his sleeping so he woke up flustered at 1am. I held him for an hour until he fell asleep again, and was awake much of the night as he made more coughing noises but did not himself waken.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Construction Eating Kit

We're not getting this for Smiley, but it is utterly cool.

Some Spiritual Lessons

Back at the end of October and in early November I wrote about what I have been up to: where God has been most active in my life, and all the things I do besides parenting and math teaching.

So this December I probably will not send out a holiday or New Year's card to friends and family. (My wife and I have done that most years since our marriage, but not every year.)

But this past year has taught me some spiritual lessons that are worth sharing with friends and family but did not fit into either of those previous blog essays. So here they are, in no particular order.
Many religions teach about being constantly mindful of God. But scripture calls us to something deeper: to be constantly conversational with God.

Becoming a parent did not lessen my sense of personal entitlement. But it did compact it. I can pack a whole lot of entitlement into enjoying my morning cup of tea before I leave for work or Smiley wakes up. Spiritually this is as problematic as if all that entitlement was spread out through the day.

God's great love is seen in his eagerness to suffer so much for children he knows will continue to be distant and resistant to being fixed. (His greatest suffering happened once, to bring nearness and health to his distant and hurting children. But that event, although awe-inspiring, was not about his greatest frustration nor most enduring demonstration of love.)

A good father allows his children to help, or even participate while imagining they are helping. For example, I let Smiley "help" me pushing the wheelbarrow even though it only makes that task slower and trickier. Thus it is appropriate that salvation, something done for us and to us for which we must agree and make room but we cannot help, was provided through a personality other than fatherhood.

Yeshua did evangelism by saying "come and see" and visiting people. His goal was very friendly disciples whose lives were visibly full of his life. I again need to work on having greater kindness and warmth.

SI Unit Stimulus

I had an interesting thought about a month ago, as I taught about SI Units to my Fall term Math 20 class: since the Federal government is wanting to employ people during this recession, why not take some steps towards switching to SI Units?

Merely changing all speed limit signs to kilometers per hour would provide many temporary jobs, and nearly all cars on the road show their speed measured that way.

I'm not sure what other switches would not cause too big a ripple of bother in industry, but there must be some similarly easy first steps towards SI Unit use. Switching to SI Units will eventually happen anyway; we might as well use that work as recession stimulus.

Loving and Truthful

About a week ago I heard a nice religious saying. A friend on Facebook used it as his status message.
It’s easy to stand for truth if you don’t love, and easy to seem loving if you forfeit truth. But living for Jesus requires both.
I think it is attributed to Rick Warren, but I am not fluent in Twitter abbreviations. Perhaps it was authored by someone else and Rick Warren merely tweeted it, and my friend then relayed it.

Whomever wrote it, it's a worthy saying to ponder on the last day of Chanukah as we conclude a week of personal rededication and purification.

Board Books of Mimicry

Smiley is enjoying two board books from the local library that allow him to mimic what the person or penguin is doing on each page.

The first is I Can by Helen Oxenbury. The second is Busy Penguins by John Schindel.

For either book he usually prefers to have me cause a stuffed animal to do each page's action. But he will also manipulate the stuffed animal, and sometimes is in the mood to act out the actions himself.

More First Sentences

A week ago I mentioned when Smiley first used spoken syntax, saying "Yurm-yurm choo-choo."

Since then he has possibly said three more sentences.

He does not say the word upstairs but does describe things as "up high". Three days ago he used that adjective phrase with a noun for the first time. He was downstairs with mommy, and saw me upstairs, and said "Da-da up high".

Two days ago he coughed after drinking milk before his nap. He probably said "a cough" since using the indefinite article would be much more typical of his speech. It sounded like "I cough," but that unlikely case would be his first use of the personal pronoun.

He has recently become find of "hi". Today while eating breakfast he waved a mommy who was baking in the kitchen. "Hi, ma-ma. Ma. Hi, mommy," he said as he continued waving.

Free RPG Rule PDFs

Recently Michael Wolf's blog has featured three free role-playing games, downloadable as PDF files.

I'm sharing theme here for my brother-in-law. He enjoys reading about RPG rules that use only six-sided dice, because it is an interesting intellectual challenge to use only these common dice to create satisfying game mechanics for a RPG.

The first two of the three free games use only six-sided dice, an in very different ways.

The first free game is an abbreviated version of Fantastic Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment named Free FATE. The download is here.

Free Fate uses two six-sided dice for all skill attempts. The character's skill and the difficulty of the attempt are given matching numerical ratings, for example "fair" is 2 and "great" is 4. The two dice should have different colors, and one is named the Plus Die and the other is the Minus Die. Only the lowest rolled die has effect, and its value is either added or subtracted from the character's skill. So a character who is "great" at the skill who attempts something of "fair" difficulty would succeed if the Plus Die was the lowest with a total of 4 plus some die value; success would also happen if the Minus Die was 1 or 2 and the Plus Die was higher, for then the total would be 4-1=3 or 4-2=2, still equal or greater than the attempt's difficulty rating.

The second free game is Mini Six. The PDF download is here.

Mini Six uses six-sided dice quite differently. Skills are rated not with a numeric value but with a number of dice, and attempts are rated with higher target numbers such as 11, 21, or more. A character with 4 dice in a skill would roll that many six-sided dice and sum them when making a skill attempt; one of those six-sided dice has a distinct color and its 6's cause it to be rolled again (perhaps more than once if more 6's happen), which allows a character of low skill a tiny chance of success in a difficult skill attempt.

The third free game does not use six-sided dice, but I will link to it for the sake of completeness. It is Chill, Third Edition, and the PDF of its quick start rules is here.

UPDATE: The link to the Free Fate file has been changed, as requested in the comments.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Sansa Fuze Tag Pickiness

In August I wrote about my Sansa Fuze mp3 player.

Today I was putting different songs onto it and some were not appearing in the Genre categories. Some online research told me the problem was that the Sansa Fuze only is happy with id3v2 tags using the ISO 8859 character set.

Fortunately, the utility EasyTag can be quickly asked to change all the id3 tags in my entire music folder to that format. The processing will take a while, so I will check back in the morning.

UPDATE: I found another problem. The Sansa Fuze does not like the tag "number of tracks in album". Removing it fixes the mis-sorting of tracks I had been experiencing in one album.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Horror versus Thriller: Hellblazer

Today there is freezing rain outside. It is probably the end of a week of bitter cold.

(In Eugene, until the very end of December, it never snows. If there are clouds then they trap the daytime heat and keep the night time low above freezing. If there are no clouds then the city's heat escapes and both days and nights might be below freezing, but without clouds there cannot be snow! The only chance of snow is right when a stretch of several frozen and cloudless days end, such as today.)

It is a good day to talk about one of my favorite comics, the Hellblazer graphic novel named Freezes Over.

But to start, I need to expound about what makes a tale a horror story...

Back in 2006 I wrote on Shamus's blog about how the literary genre of horror has merged with the genre once called thriller. More recently I studied the horror genre because of its similarities to political intrigue. The relevant summary is that today a movie is called a "horror film" if it has frightening moments and gore (what used to be called a thriller) rather than the older definition of having an atmosphere of eeriness, helplessness, desperation, and confusion.

Personally, I have no interest in movies or comics that are thrillers. Unlike many people, I do not find quick frights at all entertaining. But I do enjoy a creepy setting where something is disturbingly abnormal and the protagonists have to experience it while they are outclassed and really just want to be somewhere else.

Enter John Constantine.

His comic book series has been published for many years, and has seen many writers. (The Freezes Over story is four comics, #158-161, written by Brian Azzarello.) Initially Constantine was an occult expert who could outsmart both criminals and evil creatures. The local library has those stories, but when I looked at them they held no interest for me.

Eventually the writers decided he had a unique superpower they named serendipity. Unless he really tries hard not to, Constantine will always say the right thing.

It is a fascinating literary device.

Foremost, it allows Constantine to share the reader's foreknowledge that the story's ending will be happy. Constantine will survive, the bad guys will be punished, and innocents will be saved. This greatly aids the realism in the tales without breaking the fourth wall: Constantine would never suspect he is a comic book hero, but he has reason to act like one anyway.

Second, it fits well with the original horror genre. The serendipity power wants to punish the bad guys but requires Constantine to talk to them. So Constantine always gets captured and threatened, and often gets beat up. He (and the reader) usually lacks any idea about how he will escape or how badly he will be treated before he eventually emerges victorious. Those four key qualities of a true horror story--eeriness, helplessness, desperation, and confusion--are quite compatible with his superpower.

Third, the superpower is not intelligent or alive but can take over Constantine's life. Unless he carefully monitors what he is about to say and do, he almost lacks free will as the serendipity puts words in his mouth. To complicate matters, the power only tries to protect innocents: many of Constantine's friends and allies are not innocents and often they get killed during his adventures. Constantine seldom knows if he could have done something different to save them: all he knows for sure is that they would still be alive if he completely avoided his superpower, but then other people would probably have died, and in any case Constantine cannot quit because he is addicted to fighting evil and needs his serendipity to survive that. Thus the comic fits the horror genre not only because of the stories but even by the very nature of the protagonist's superpower, which prompts the reader to think about free will and the value of life.

(At this point many blog readers might complain that I am misrepresenting Constantine by only presenting one side of his character. That is a valid criticism but I will ignore it. I am discussing the side of Constantine that I most enjoy, in preface to describing why a particular adventure is so great.)

Enter the events of Freezes Over.

The story is easy to summarize. A huge snowstorm has closed the roads in rural Britain and drivers looking for a place to wait out the storm collect in a roadside bar. The bar's owner, his wife, and the bar's three regulars are soon joined by a family of four, a trucker, Constantine, and three violent criminals making their escape after committing a murder and robbery crime. There is also a car in the parking lot with someone in it; Constantine notices this as he arrives, and talks to the man, who is a serial killer. By always saying the right thing, Constantine convinces the serial killer to commit suicide in his car, and then inside the bar arranges circumstances so that the three violent criminals end up dead but no innocents are hurt. The bar owner's wife hits someone, and is hit back. The father in the family of four threatens someone with a gun and gets shot, but only suffers a minor shoulder wound.

The story has absolutely none of the magic or occult stuff that characterized the early Hellblazer tales. The characters and their actions always seem quite real, except for Constantine who in this story gives his serendipity full reign to direct him. But everything Constantine says makes sense in the end: why it was important that he initially act like a weak jerk, then he became spooky, and then gruff and tough. Azzarello's writing is superb.

Key to the story is a regional legend about The Iceman, a monster that the bar's regular customers fear. Constantine is initially ignorant of the legend, but after hearing it he weaves it into most of what his serendipity causes him to say. He uses the legend to manipulate people, until at the very end of the story he debunks his own myth. The reader of the story is prompted to think about the power of myth and how myths control us because Constantine is himself aware of the similarity between his superpower and myths: both heartlessly control people, but both are necessary. He says:
All I'm sayin', is choose the right words and you can talk a person into just about anything... I been doin' a lot of sayin' tonight... keeping a legend alive is a good thing... Faith and fear's what it is. The glue of humanity. It's important s***. An' like any dirty job..."
Finally, the story's eeriness stays with the reader in a good way. A real horror story makes us more grateful to have life, health, and family. Not because it implants fears about an imaginary monster hiding around the corner, but by reminding us how fragile our lives are--how much we owe to quiet, predictable days, the ability to enjoy what we already have, and the generosity of providence.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Thursday Milestones

Back in September I mentioned that Smiley had started pretending. His imagination has passed two more milestones.

First, he now clearly cares about his stuffed animals in ways he did not before. He not only hugs them for his own comfort, but he pretends to feed them, gives them a blue cloth to hold, takes them for rides in his doll stroller, and becomes distraught when they fall down as if they could get hurt.

Second, he today did his first pretending that involves imagining an object is something completely unlike what it really is. Before he would drive toy cars on the ground, pretend a bowl had food in it, etc. Today he pretended two of his wooden blocks were bottles of lotion, and used them to put imaginary lotion on my cheeks as we do after I shave.

He also used grammar for the first time today.

As a bit of preface, I need to share that during the past few days he changed how he said "yummy" from yurm-yurm to nyum-nyum and his usage also broadened. Yurm-yurm always meant precisely yummy: "that is something am looking forward to eating, or am enjoying eating." But now nyum-nyum can describe anything he enjoys: for example, yesterday afternoon he said it repeatedly while being happily reunited with two of his stuffed animals after his nap.

This afternoon I had to interrupt him playing with his duplo train to change his diaper. Before taking him off the changing table, I asked him, "Do you want to go back to your train, or do you want to help me with laundry downstairs and climb on the bed?" (I fold laundry after bringing it up to my bed, and being allowed on the bed is an unusual treat.)

He replied, "Nyum-nyum choo-choo." I'm not sure if that involved an adjective or a verb ("enjoyable train" or "I'll enjoy the train"). But either way, I think it was his first spoken syntax.

This morning he also did something new with toys. He had built a tower of duplo squares (at his age we've restricted his duplos to train cars and 2-by-2 cubes to minimize his frustrations) but wanted it to be even taller. So he went into his cupboard and took out three pieces of wood. He appeared unsure exactly what he wanted, but using gestures he asked me to add the wood to his tower. I stacked the wood on the floor and set the tower on top of it, which pleased him.

Except for using some toys as containers and other toys as items to put inside, this is the first time I can think of that he combined types of toys to do something.

Finally, he still cannot do color matching.

He owns a bunch of eight-sided dice of different colors. These were initially merely things nice to put inside containers, or share with people. Then they became small blocks to stack. Later they also became small things that work well as cargo for his toy dump truck and front loader to carry. Eventually we can use them to help learn numbers (both counting how many dice and looking at the numbers on the dice) and colors.

Anyway, today when he asked me to read his book about colors I wondered if he could match the dice to the colors shown in the book. He did much better than randomly, picking the green and yellow dice when looking at those pages in the book. But when I repeated the experiment with colored blocks he no longer made any correct matches. He must have been lucky.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Monk Puns

Jewish humor has the village of Chelm.

I propose a new archetype: the pun-fortunate Monastery of Mendelian Monks.

In its early days, the Abbey of Saint Theodore was only famous as a place where heretics were judged. In 1822 a violent, midget warlock was caught speaking with the dead. He was brought to the abbey in chains, to be sentenced by the abbot, but the next day escaped. The abbot hired a boy to run through the nearest town to warn people about a small medium at large.

Many monasteries are known for their practical yet beautiful gardens, and the Abbey of Saint Theodore was no exception. However, in the late 1800s its location near the sea allowed that abbey, during the life of Brother Bruno, a monk with particularly brilliant culinary ability, to also be famous for its fish and chips. Bruno's fame lasted nineteen years, until a scandal happened when a food critic from Prague visited the abbey and discovered that it was actually the chef's assistant, Brother Alvin, that prepared the fish so exquisitely: Bruno himself only had skill with potatoes. Soon all of Prague was gossiping about Alvin and the Chip Monk.

Brother Alvin the fish chef also became famous for his failed theory that a meditative trance could prevent pain during surgery. (All other Mendelian Monks used special herbs they had developed, which could numb an area quite well.) Alvin tested this idea himself while having a tooth pulled. The trance did not lessen the pain; he could not transcend dental medication.

After the Order of Mendel was established in the early 1900s, the Abbey of Saint Theodore became a hub of biology research. Initially the monks only had success in developing new kinds of plants. Their attempts to breed lizards were all disastrous cases of reptile dysfunction.

Inspired by their success in creating new and beautiful plants, some of the Mendelian Monks began selling flowers. The abbot was horrified at monks using their order's secret knowledge for personal financial gain, and ordered a stop to all selling of plant material. But one monk ignored the decree. The abbot could not discover which monk was rebellious until he hired a detective named Hugh Hurvl. In gratitude the abbot proclaimed that only Hugh can prevent florist friars.

In the 1920s the Mendelian Monks found how to breed marine mammals that could live forever if fed seagull meat. An immoral monk participating in that project began to trap seagulls on a nearby private beach owned by a nobleman named Count Rulf. Rulf noticed footprints on the beach and thought robbers were visiting the beach at night to plan a burglary, so he purchased two trained lions to patrol his property. The next day the monk encountered the lions, but used his secret Mendelian animal lore to put them to sleep. However, after trapping another seagull that monk was seen by the Count and arrested for transporting gulls across sedate lions for immortal porpoises.

Another famous Mandelian Monk was Brother Hiltguard, who by day saw genuine, glorious visions of his Lord but by night was plagued by nightmares in which his Savior spoke to him with urgent words impossible to understand because the Son of God had steaming, putrid breath. Brother Hiltguard always walked barefoot, even in Winter, and the soles of his feet grew so tough that he could walk comfortably on snow. The rest of his body was not as resistant to cold, however, and he died of pneumonia: a super calloused fragile mystic hexed by halitosis.

Busy Outings

Today was a very busy day!

Smiley used to have a limit of three stores before he would melt down, frustrated at switching so much between being in and out of the car. But today we managed ten!

I've never heard of "shopping patience" as a developmental milestone, but perhaps it should be.

We went to St. Vincent de Paul's because they are currently accepting donations of styrofoam peantus and we had a big box of those to get rid of. Then we went to REI to return a plastic mug that made tea taste like plastic. Next to REI is a Used Bookstore I have been curious about, so we stopped there and Smiley got two Little Golden Books. Then we went to Hartiwck's to return a strange kitchen gadget I had bought as a joke gift for my aunt, only to have my wife had remind me I had given her one years ago. Then we drove to the local State Tax Office to pay our quarterly taxes so I would not need to do so next month during the busy days as the Winter Term started. Then we went to Toys 'R Us to buy a car window shade for Smiley's window. Then to True Value, where we returned a salt and pepper shaker set we did not need and bought more storage boxes for Smiley's closet. Then to OfficeMax to donate empty inkjet cartridges. Then a snack at the Supreme Bean coffee shop, which was supposed to be a treat for Smiley but he was too busy flirting with another customer to eat. Finally to Safeway, since we needed more organic whole milk before his nap.


Can you tell I don't like driving somewhere just to return something? Items to return tend to collect in the car's trunk for a month or more, and eventually I do a bunch at once.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Dutch Sheets on Intercessory Prayer

Last week I finally finished reading Intercessory Prayer by Dutch Sheets.

The book took me a very long time to read, because it is exactly the kind of book I cannot stand. Some people find it very readable to learn theology from anecdotes and poor scholarship. But my mathematician's mind prefers a concise set of assertions and supporting facts, and I wince at Biblical word studies formed from abusing Strong's and invoking the "Law of First Mention" (at the very least use the BDB and check on every instance of the word in scripture)!

However, I know many people who are really fond of the book. So, for the sake of discussions with them, I finally finished it.

I was determined to find worthwhile teaching in the book, to talk about with my friends. I extracted about one idea per chapter, which I reorganized and paraphrased below.

I should also add that I do appreciate what the book attempts. The topic of "spiritual warfare" is huge in contemporary Christian circles and certainly deserves a short, readable introduction to the subject. The book, although a poor match for me, has helped many people. As far as I know, no similar but better book is out there. Internet resources are no better: for example, the website Prayer Warrior even lacks its own articles directory!)

I also enjoyed learning a bit more about Duch Sheets. Before reading the book all I knew about the author was from reading his response to the Lakeland scandal last year. (That statement was mentioned by friends in Israel who pointed out that Pastor Sheets, by claiming he must obey God and become a self-appointed spokesman for others, was actually exemplifying the lack of consultation, confirmation, and submission for which he apologizes. It wasn't the most favorable introduction to the man.) I do enjoy anecdotes about how God has used people--just not in the middle of a chapter teaching theology.

Without further caveats, here is the "good parts" version of the book.

We are distributors of good things God provides in Yeshua's name (pages 41-42, chapter 3). What do we distribute?
  • meetings of God's mercy and God's justice (page 51, chapter 4)
  • experiences of God's presence (page 52, chapter 4)
  • the Holy Spirit hovering over a person or place (pages 122-123, chapter 8)
  • removing evil through our helping bear its pain and suffering (pages 66-67, chapter 5)
God does not automatically provide these good things if we fail to distribute them. Some sufferings could have been avoided, but happened when God's people neglected to do this distribution (page 32, chapter 2).

When praying, we can benefit from God-given timing (pages 82-83, chapter 6) and aim (pages 96-98, chapter 7). To paraphrase, we must actively follow directions to distribute those good things from God.

Part of distributing good things from God is to pray for the removal of what prevents the distribution from being received. Prayer itself accomplishes much; prayer is more than merely asking God to accomplish something (pages 200 and 208, chapter 12). Similarly, the words spoken by prophets themselves accomplished much and were not merely a declaration of what God was accomplishing (page 225, chapter 13).

People resist perceiving God and receiving from God when they exalt themselves, their plans, or philosophies (pages 168-175, chapter 10). Counters to these three exaltations were carried in the Ark (Aaron's rod proclaiming God's authority, mana that reminds us of God's provision, and the tablets of the Sinai covenant) and should similarly be visible in the lives of Yeshua's followers (page 192, chapter 11).

The Adversary, despite lacking the authority to do so, still attempts to use his power to oppose what God is doing (page 153, chapter 9). God does not automatically protect his people from the Adversary; we are told to stay alert because God often prefers to warn us about opposition so that we may participate in resisting it (page 237, chapter 14). Therefore, a fifth good thing we distribute is warnings about and prayers against the Adversary's attacks.

Fleming, Mocking

It's been a long time since I wrote about any audiobooks.

Lately I have been listening to James Bond books from the local library. They are great as audiobooks: not too many characters, fast pace, and pleasant balance of plot and setting.

I especially enjoyed one I recently finished, On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

It had the normal elements of a James Bond novel: our hero has to travel, falls for a beautiful girl, is menaced by a thug of stereotyped nationality, gets captured but escapes, and returns for an exciting final clash with the evil mastermind. (Note the lack of gadgets, car chases, and other traits found only of the films. Also, in this novel the beautiful girl is a genuinely strong woman and Bond gets happily married, which would never happen with the film Bond.)

Moreover, the novel also contains a terrific parody of the College of Arms that must have been the inspiration for Pratchett's similar scene in Feet of Clay. Besides being entertaining, this chapter was encouraging because Ian Fleming was clearly mocking his own country and enjoying doing so.

As I mentioned above, part of the formula for a Bond novel is a henchman to the evil mastermind whose merciless thuggishness is "explained" by invoking a racial-national stereotype, the spy story equivalent of how in a fantasy setting Tolkein has Saruman employ orcs that are inherently brutish. This literary device is unquestionably out of date and politically incorrect. But I'm willing to go along since the author also enjoys fictional parodies of his own culture and leaves no evidence that he himself believes any of his novels' insulting generalizations.

My next audiobook is Anathem by Neal Stephenson. I hope it works. I have only read Snow Crash by that author, which I enjoyed, but that is no evidence that the new novel will work well as an audiobook.

Wrapping MP3s

There is a now-standard Linux utility for merging MP3 files named mp3wrap.

Unfortunately, it often plays havoc with the duration of the resulting file. I finally found what fixes this.

The utility ffmpeg is the needed tool, and the command is:
ffmpeg -i FileName.mp3 -acodec copy NewFileName.mp3
Then delete the old file.

(While searching for the solution I also came across Ubutnu hotkeys and themes, which I do not care about but some of you might enjoy.)

Smiley's Early December Words

In mid-November, Smiley had two vocabulary-related developmental breakthroughs.

First, he began saying many more words repeatedly and correctly. Before then he understood many words but used few himself.

Second, he began the toddler habit of recognizing that certain words had two syllables but incorrectly saying the word by repeating the first syllable (for example, pup-pup for puppy).

Here is a list of the words he uses repeatedly and correctly at this time, for anyone who is curious...
bir (bird)
boow (bowl)
bubble (bubbles)
burmp (bump)
bu-par-par (butterfly)
ca (car)
co (cold)
da (dad)
dah (dark)
die (diaper, dice, drive, dry)
ha (hot)
joo (juice)
ight (light)
tay (okay)
no (nose)
po (pillow)
pum-pum (pumpkin)
pup-pup (puppy)
sta (star)
up high
aye (yes)
yurm-yurm (yummy)

Smiley probably does not know any colors yet, but he does enjoy repeating the color names after we say them while pointing to objects. He may be using blue correctly more often than not, or that might be a string of coincidences.

He has favorite bits from the alphabet and counting songs. He says "8, 9" and "w, v" a lot while playing or in the car. Less frequently he'll say "a, b, c" or "2, 3" or other letters or numbers. (He gets w and v out of order because I often sing the alphabet song backwards.)

His apparently bizarre version of butterfly is a blend of the English butterfly and the Hebrew parpar. That word is one of the few my wife realizes she knows in English, Hebrew, and Spanish and she enjoys quizzing him with all three when reading picture books ("Where's the mariposa?").

Smiley's Favorite Catalog

In December we receive even more catalogs in the mail than usual.

For about two months Smiley has been old enough to enjoy looking at them with mommy. The household item catalogs are useful for his vocabulary practice. The clothing catalogs are useful for practicing color names. But his favorite catalog is the Heifer gift catalog with all of its photographs of animals.

Board books tend to have illustrations of animals, not actual photos. They almost never have llamas or water buffaloes. They are smaller, too: he likes turning the bigger pages.

We have not used that gift catalog in a couple years. But the charity does good work and is well ranked, so I expect we will use it again sooner or later.


Usually the Rochester Review that my wife receives lacks articles of interest to me. But this month's edition had a fun article about a class that teaches the Python programming language using little robots.

I fondly remember Logo from my elementary school days. I'm glad the modern version is even cuter and includes enhancements like obstacle detection.

Of course, when I was a kid the classroom computers were Apple IIe, and the teacher had one of my nerdy classmates hack the Logo disk to make it able to be copied...