Gas prices slowly coming back down

I just paid less than $2.50 at the gas pump today, for the first time since Katrina hit.

Gas prices are coming down again

Gas prices have been inching down recently, but today felt like a milestone of sorts.

Dating – is it right for Christians?

Some of my best blog posts seem to start as comments on someone else’s blog. This one was a comment I posted over at The Happy Husband, in his post titled Courtship is now in session. Here’s what I said:

Josh Harris certainly started a whirlwind of discussion with his book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, didn’t he? I think you’re [The Happy Husband is] perfectly right that much of the heated argument is coming from mutual confusion over definitions, especially about the word dating.

I think to Harris, and many other people, dating means “what the secular world calls dating”; in other words, a euphemism for shallow relationships built around premarital sex. No wonder they’re against it — we all should be! It’s not surprising, then, that they swing around to the other extreme and say, “Christians just plain shouldn’t date; they should find other methods of courting potential spouses”.

There’s also the fact that when people write books on dating, the first audience they think of to address (it seems to me) is high school and junior high students, who are either just going through puberty or only a few short years past it, and still in the middle of an onslaught of hormones. They’re noticing for the first time in their lives that the opposite sex looks really, REALLY good, and trying to figure out what to do about it. But most of them are years away from having the emotional, spiritual, or social maturity for marriage. For that audience, a book that says, “Don’t date, there are better ways of relating to the opposite sex” may be very good advice.

But I think there’s another segment of the Christian population middle ground that these authors are missing: adult Christians. People with the social, emotional, and spiritual maturity necessary to make a good marriage work. And that, I think, is the group of people who are probably saying to Harris and other “Christians shouldn’t date” proponents, “What are you talking about? You’re just plain wrong.” And again, it probably boils down to different definitions.

When I think of dating, I think of spending some time alone with a Christian woman I’m interested in getting to know better. We’d go out to dinner, or on a walk, or ice-skating, or some other activity that allows for plenty of time to talk. And we’d ask questions, find out about each other’s families, each other’s relationship with God, and each other’s interests, dreams, and passions. All the while, the question would be at the back of my mind, “Could she make a good wife for me?” And she’d be thinking the same thing: “Could he make a good husband for me?” If the first date was enough for a clear “No” for either one of us, the right thing to do would be to share that, politely of course, at the end of the date. “Thanks for a fun evening. I probably won’t ask you out again, but I’ll see you around at church.” Or, when I drop her off and say, “Let’s get together again sometime,” she might say, “Thanks for the offer, but I think I’ll pass. I appreciate the compliment, but I just don’t think it would work.”

(Incidentally, it’s a lot kinder to let someone down, gently but firmly, sooner rather than later. If you’re wanting to avoid hurting their feelings, consider this: they’ll be hurt, at least a little, no matter when you tell them, “Thanks, but no thanks” — but if you tell them as soon as you’re sure, you’re sparing them the pain of having the “What if…?” drag on, and on, and on.)

Christian dating, as I see it, should be all about evaluating the other person as a potential marriage partner. It should only be undertaken by those who are themselves ready for marriage, and it should be undertaken with the greatest of respect for the other person as a fellow child of God. That means, among other things, back off on the physical. Don’t kiss on the first date, or even on the second. Only kiss when you mean something by it, when there’s already some level of emotional commitment and you both know you’re getting serious about each other. Exactly what level of commitment is something you’ll have to decide for yourself, but you should at least have known each other for a while and know what you’re getting into. For myself, I’ve decided that I only want to kiss a woman after I’ve asked her to marry me. I’m not saying that everyone should follow that rule, but you should at least know that you plan to date only this woman for a while. In other words, you should be “going steady” before you kiss. (Now there’s a useful phrase that should be brought back into the language!)

I’ve come to this opinion gradually, though reading books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Passion and Purity by Elisabeth Elliot, Boundaries in Dating by Cloud & Townsend, and A Return to Modesty by Wendy Shalit. I’ve also had long conversations with other Christian guys, some married and some not, about their dating relationships, mistakes they’d made in the past, and pain they’d suffered. One thing I was surprised to learn is just how much of an emotional bond is established just by kissing. But when I thought about it, I realized that I shouldn’t have been so surprised. The process of becoming one flesh isn’t just about sex and physical intimacy, it’s also about emotional, mental, and spiritual intimacy. They’re all connected. One married friend of mine (male) put it this way: “Physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual intimacy in a relationship are like four sliders tied together with a rubber band. If one of them gets too far ahead of the others, the rubber band is stretched. And if it’s stretched too far, it’s in danger of breaking. The thing is, the other sliders have to be pushed, but the physical-intimacy one has a motor driving it forward.”

There are many ways of dealing with that motor that tries to drive physical intimacy forward. Some of them involve putting very careful limits — chaperones and the like — on opportunities for any physical involvement at all. Others involve setting limits for yourself, and then getting good friends to check up on you every once in a while: “How are you doing with your boundaries?” Ultimately, though, the goal is that once you get married, you know your soon-to-be-spouse well enough on all levels — mental, emotional, spiritual, and yes, physical too. The physical should be held back some, but I think it would be a mistake to hold it back all the way down to “No physical intimacy whatsoever,” the way I’ve seen some people suggest. Shalit, in A Return to Modesty, mentions people who don’t even kiss until their wedding day — the kiss at the altar is their first kiss. Shalit makes that sound like an ideal to live up to, but another married friend of mine (actually, the wife of the person I mentioned in the previous paragraph) said, “That sounds like a supremely bad idea to me. Unless you want to wait a few weeks before you have sex, that is.” Expanding on her husband’s analogy of the sliders and rubber band, she explained that holding the physical back so much is going to put a lot of tension on your relationship, and pushing it forward all the way from “no kissing” to “sex is OK” in one day is also far too much change at once, and would put its own kind of stress on the relationship.

So that’s what I think of courtship and dating. Basically, understand that physical intimacy will pretty much drive itself forward, and concentrate on pushing the other three — mental, emotional, and spiritual intimacy — forward in your time together. And figure out how you’re going to hold physical intimacy back to a proper pace: slow, but not completely stalled. Talk about your physical boundaries with each other, agree to respect each other and hold each other accountable for them, and then (because you’re both going to be strongly tempted at much the same time, so just holding each other accountable won’t always work) find a few good friends who can help. And then spend lots of time together, and talk a lot. And the last thing, which I haven’t mentioned yet although I really should have said so from the beginning, bathe the whole process in lots of prayer. If you do that, you probably won’t go too far wrong.

Desires of the heart

My friend Andrew writes about the desire to be great — to leave one’s mark on the world, so that one will be remembered, that one’s name will not be forgotten. I know exactly what he’s talking about, although for me it’s slightly different.

When I was in high school, I was on my school’s Science Bowl team. One evening, as we were driving back from the regional competition, my teammates were joking around about what each of us would be famous for later in life: Lars would discover a new element, Eric would find a cure for cancer, and so on. Then someone mentioned me, and said something I’ve never forgotten: “Robin? Robin won’t be famous.” (pause). “But everybody will know him.”

It says something profound about me that that statement made such a mark on my memory. It articulated so well one of my fundamental desires: to be known. Not to be famous — there’s a difference. Famous people get tabloid articles written about them everytime they so much as sneeze. I’ll pass on that one, thanks. But what my Science Bowl teammate said about me sounded like the best of both worlds — if that were true, then I’d avoid all the downsides of being famous, while still getting what I consider to be the only real advantage: to be known. To be recognized. Not to be a nameless face in the crowd. To have others greet you by name and be glad to see you when you visit them, when you go to church, when you meet them by chance in the grocery store.

That desire interacts in some very interesting ways with the other great desire of my heart, to serve. To serve God, and to serve His servants. That’s why I’m heading off to Africa — to put my computer skills to good use in His service, by making my skills available to the other missionaries there. But as I mentioned, one of the things I love to receive is recognition from others. And I certainly get that when I help fix someone’s computer — they remember me years later. I’ve been out of college for over four years now, yet I keep on running into people who remember me rescuing their term paper off a dying floppy disk or some such thing. And I have to admit that it gives me a bit of pleasure to find out that I’ve been remembered for being helpful. As far as ego-boosts go, that’s a pretty healthy one, but nevertheless, am I helping people just so that they’ll remember me? Is that the reward I’m working for? Jesus had a few things to say about that sort of thing, after all.

Fortunately, I don’t think I’m really doing all this just for the praise of others. When I take the time to examine my motives, I find that I really am just wanting to help. It’s nice that people remember me kindly for helping them, but I’d still help them even if they wouldn’t remember me at all. That’s a relief.

But there’s something else, something to which I fall victim much more often. And again, my friend Andrew has it nailed. (Thanks, Andrew!) In the second half of his post, he goes on to talk about how the desire to be great can twist even our desire to serve God into something perverted, a kind of “servanthood contest” where one is trying, not to serve God to the best of one’s ability, but to somehow be a “better” servant than everyone else. Once you actually look at that desire, of course it’s ridiculous. But it got me thinking — the other great desire of my heart, as I mentioned, is service. And I’m heading off — to Africa, no less! — as a missionary. It would be far too easy to get sucked into the “more spiritual than thou” game. Have I ever been tempted to play it?

And suddenly as I phrased the question, I had my answer. Yes, from time to time, I certainly have been. I get tempted to look down on those whose calling is not to the mission field, but to a “comfortable” life in the United States — forgetting, of course, that God has called them to service, too. In fact, some of those very same people, that I’m tempted to look down on, are people whose shoelaces I’m not even worthy to tie. True prayer warriors, whose daily prayers for hundreds and hundreds of missionaries are only known to God — for now. In heaven, though, we’ll find out. We’ll see a saint, covered in the glory so bright it almost hurts our eyes — and when we peer into their face, we’ll recognize that small, unassuming elderly woman who always showed up at the prayer meetings, or the man we only knew as the church janitor. And then we’ll hear about the thousands upon thousands of lives their prayers touched, and we’ll be amazed.

No, there’s nothing inherently special or spiritual about being a missionary. It’s just another way to serve God.

Pork futures look strong in the Senate

Well, the Coburn amendment (to kill a $220 million pork project in Alaska and redirect the money towards hurricane relief in Louisiana) failed by an 82-15 vote (3 not voting). The good guys:

Allard (R-CO), Yea
Allen (R-VA), Yea
Bayh (D-IN), Yea
Burr (R-NC), Yea
Coburn (R-OK), Yea
Conrad (D-ND), Yea
DeMint (R-SC), Yea
DeWine (R-OH), Yea
Feingold (D-WI), Yea
Kyl (R-AZ), Yea
Landrieu (D-LA), Yea
Sessions (R-AL), Yea
Sununu (R-NH), Yea
Vitter (R-LA), Yea

11 R’s, 4 D’s.

Landrieu and Vitter are from Louisiana, so it’s no surprise they voted for it. Their vote can’t be taken one way or the other as to whether they’d be in favor of getting rid of pork or not. So there are only 13 Senators, ten Republicans and 3 Democrats, who can be really counted on to fight against pork-barrel projects in Congress.

Discouraging, but it just means that if you care about pork, you’d better contact your Senators and let them know your disapproval. Tell them, “Unless something drastically changes in the next year or so, you just lost my vote.” Especially if your Senator is one of those running for re-election in 2006 — they’ll be especially attentive to what you say.

Do your part to restore some measure of spending sanity to Congress: contact your Senators today!

Politics test – my results

You are a

Social Moderate
(43% permissive)

and an…

Economic Conservative
(70% permissive)

You are best described as a:

Capitalist

Link: The Politics Test on Ok Cupid

The best movie I never want to see again

I just saw Serenity, the movie based on Joss Whedon’s TV show Firefly. Nearly everyone who’s seen it so far has loved it. My reaction was more complex. If I had to sum it up in one sentence, I’d have to say something like “that was the best movie that I never want to see again.”

I think it was the excellent writing and the familiar characters that did it. This was the first movie where I didn’t have that subtle disconnect, the sense that I was watching a movie. Instead, I was caught up in the reality of it — it really felt like I was watching real people deal with a real situation.

And normally, that would be a really good thing in a movie. A REALLY good thing. But… that meant my sense of reality was also engaged at other moments during the movie. Like the scene that’s still haunting me, two hours after the movie’s over. No spoilers here, but if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know which scene I’m talking about. It’s the one where they’re on a planet, and they find a holographic recording of a woman describing something that happened on that planet. I really, really needed my normal “I’m watching a movie, this isn’t real” detachment for that scene. Especially the end of it. And because the writing was so good, the scene just slipped underneath my normal emotional “armor”.

It’s three in the morning right now. Two and a half hours after I walked out of the movie theater. And I’m still desperately looking for distractions, trying to forget what I heard in that one scene. I don’t intend to go to bed anytime soon.

It’s been a very long time since a movie did that to me. On the one hand, that’s some really good writing. On the other hand, I never ever want to see this movie again, and I almost wish I hadn’t seen it in the first place. Not that it was bad — as I said, it was one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. If it hadn’t been such a good movie, it wouldn’t have left me this profoundly disturbed.

Make of that what you will.

How to stay poor

My previous post on the subject of poverty referenced John Scalzi’s article “Being Poor“. Scalzi gives a very moving account of what poverty feels like, from the inside.

Now, here’s an article that pretty much shows why some people stay poor.

One thing I noticed about Scalzi’s article, and especially the comments, is that it was written by someone who used to be poor. But because he, and many of his commenters, didn’t fall into any of the self-destructive traps Ms. Phelps mentions in her article, he didn’t stay poor.

There are those who are poor because of circumstances beyond their control (for example, one of the commenters to Scalzi’s article had to have cancer surgery while unemployed and insurance-less. That will pretty much wipe out anyone’s resources.) But there are also those who are poor because they’ve never been taught how not to be poor, and they’re trapped by the consequences of their bad decisions. The former just need a bit of extra help: a raise, a job schedule centered around the public transportation timetable, discounts on necessities like food and clothing. The latter, as Ms. Phelps’ article demonstrates, would actually be harmed rather than helped by that kind of assistance. What they need, essentially, is an authority figure who will — lovingly but firmly — tell them, “If you don’t change X, Y and Z in your life, you’ll never escape poverty.” And then — this is important — sticks with them. Otherwise it becomes the kind of condescension that the Bible condemns in James 2:16, mere words without action, utterly useless.

Anyone who reads Scalzi’s article and doesn’t feel compassion for the poor, and a desire to help them, has no heart. But it’s important to understand the individual you’re helping, and know exactly what kind of help they need. If the brain does not work alongside the heart, your well-intentioned assistance may end up actually harming the person you’re trying to help. Brain and heart working together, though, are a powerful combination.

The logistics of Katrina relief

I haven’t posted anything about Hurricane Katrina yet because I haven’t had anything to say that hasn’t been said elsewhere, and usually better. But I wanted to point out this rant on Hurricane Katrina by a guy who’s been in the military and knows logistics. Relief efforts take equipment — lots of equipment. And to move heavy equipment you need vehicles and people, and fuel for both the vehicles (gasoline) and the people (food, water).

Read his article, and the multiple links at the top of his article (particularly this one). You’ll come away with a better understanding of what the disaster-relief efforts are facing, and why it’s taking so much time (summary: the affected area is HUGE, a lot larger than just New Orleans, and trucks and helicopters don’t just magically move themselves).

Being poor sucks.

The difference between living frugally and being poor is that when you live frugally, you’re choosing to spend little money. When you’re poor, you have no choice.

I suspect that John Scalzi and I differ widely in our political opinions on certain subjects. But I believe we agree on the goals, we just disagree on the best means to get there.

On that subject, I’m rapidly getting sick and tired of people accusing their political opponents of being evil. Both Democrats and Republicans tend to do it, although it seems to be more highly concentrated in whatever party is currently out of power. I just wish people would wake up and realize that those on the “other side” are also people of good will. More on that in another post.

Four L.A. men charged with conspiracy to commit terrorism

Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath is getting all the coverage right now, and rightly so. But if it were a slower news day, this story would be all over the media. Four men in Los Angeles have been arrested on charges of plotting terrorism. They are accused of plotting to attack synagogues, and possibly other targets, in Los Angeles. They allegedly plotted to carry out the attack during Jewish holidays, when the synagogues would be packed, so that the number of victims would be as large as possible.

Once Hurricane Katrina coverage settles down and the media start covering other stories, this will be a trial to follow closely.

Green! Purple! Green! Purple!

After the 2004 elections, we’ve all seen the state-by-state results maps:

red/blue election results map

But the other day, it occurred to me that I’d seen this kind of political process before on a certain T.V. show. Everyone sniping at the other side, unwilling to listen to reasoned arguments, insults flying everywhere… That map had the wrong colors. Here’s a more accurate map of the 2004 U.S. presidential elections, state-by-state:

green/purple election results map

Fans of the T.V. show Babylon 5, who are currently busting a gut with laughter, will need no explanation. For the others, you can read an episode description here.

Lawyer “war stories” – very well-told

What’s one of the first things that comes to mind when you think of lawyers? A sense of humor? Probably not. But all that means is that you don’t know too many good lawyers. The really good ones are folks like Bill Dyer and his friend Walter Workman. Bill Dyer has a collection of stories that happened either to him or to Mr. Workman, and they’re really incredibly funny. I especially enjoyed the second story, about what Workman allegedly said after badly losing a case. I won’t repeat it here to avoid spoiling the punchline — just go read it. (Hat tip: Hugh Hewitt).

What you may not know about Hiroshima and Nagasaki

I’ve gotten into a few arguments over the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and whether there was any possible justification for them, so I was fascinated to read this article in the Weekly Standard. The author discusses transcripts of radio intercepts from 1945, some of which were only released fifty years later in 1995, and most of which I had never read before. It’s fascinating reading if you’re interested in the last days of World War II: it knocks down — or at least radically modifies — just about every major theory that I’ve heard advanced regarding the end of the war:

  • The bombings saved hundreds of thousands of lives, because the Japanese would have fought to the end in a land invasion? But it’s far from clear that a land invasion would have happened at all, even if the bomb had not been dropped. MacArthur still favored an invasion, but it looks like he was the only one. According to this new information, President Truman saw dropping the bomb not as a means to prevent a land invasion, but as the only way to end the war at all.
  • Japan was looking for ways to surrender, and the atomic bombings were completely pointless? Intercepted radio messages from diplomats (of various neutral countries whose codes the U.S. had cracked) suggest otherwise. These diplomats, who were stationed in Japan, wrote home assessing the probability of a Japanese surrender. It’s true that some did suggest the Japanese were interested in negotiating peace, but a lot more wrote home to say that in their opinion, the Japanese would never surrender no matter what. (Their definition of “no matter what” did not, of course, include the then-unknown devastation of a nuclear bomb). And in fact, even after the second bomb, the Japanese were still looking for ways to end the war without a real surrender. On August 10, the day after the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, they gave an offer to surrender “with the understanding that the said declaration does not comprise any demand which prejudices the prerogatives of His Majesty as a Sovereign Ruler” — in other words, the emperor would still rule in Japan, and could still commit his country to any action he chose, such as unilaterally starting another war once his military had been rebuilt. Only once this was rejected did the Japanese accept surrender terms that stripped the emperor of real power. It’s clear that without the atomic bombs, Japan would never have given up on those terms — or, most likely, on any terms at all, short of invading Japan itself. (And see above for why the invasion was unlikely).
  • Japan would have surrendered after the first bomb, and so the second bomb was simply a pointless massacre? Possible; the article mentions nothing about intercepts from Japan between August 6th and August 9th, so there’s not really any new evidence for or against this one. I guess I shouldn’t have said that the article knocks down every theory about the end of the war. For myself, I’m still inclined to think the second bomb had a larger psychological impact than the first one, and therefore that Japan would not have surrendered after just one bomb, or at least not before a land invasion and the concomitant high casualties on both sides. For proof of my theory, I offer the fact that it was on August 10th, not on August 7th, that the emperor ordered his cabinet “Find terms for surrender NOW“.

Whatever your previous theory about the end of World War II and America’s bombing of two Japanese cities, I think you’ll find it modified after you read the article. In the traditional blogger’s phrase, go read the whole thing.

I’m happy about these results…

The “Which ____ are you?” tests that are all over the Internet are usually just amusing, with the questions not really reflecting the results. But this one seems to have actually had a bit of thought put into it; the questions are good, and the answers make sense, at least for me:

Gandalf

A wandering spirit caring for a multitude of just concerns, you are an instrumental power in many of the causes around you.

And so am I, very dangerous: more dangerous than anything you will ever meet, unless you are brought alive before the seat of the Dark Lord.

Which Fantasy/SciFi Character Are You?

It makes sense, too, in more ways than one. The test is based on personality and motivations and asks you “What would you do in this situation?” types of questions. But if you think about it, it makes sense in another way, since I’m such a computer geek.

Wizards in fiction are sometimes portrayed as good (like Gandalf), sometimes evil (like Saruman). But one thing they always have in common is their command of magic, which is (in fiction) always based on pieces of obscure, arcane knowledge. So they’re constantly reading, absorbing knowledge for its own sake, as well as for the understanding of magic that it gives them. And magic, in fiction, is usually tricky to get right: there are certain magical runes that must be drawn in exactly the right way, certain magical incantations (which seem like nonsense syllables to anyone who hasn’t studied magic) which must be pronounced exactly right if the spell is to work right, and so on.

Well, my nose is almost always in a book. There aren’t many people who would see the book “802.11 Wireless Networks: the Definitive Guide, 2nd Edition” in a bookstore and say “Ooh, I’ve been meaning to study those!” But that’s exactly what I did about six weeks ago: I pulled that book off the shelf and spent the next hour absorbed in the arcane realm of TCP/IP, 802.11 WLANs, and WPA/PSK. See? Looks like nonsense syllables to anyone who hasn’t studied magic computers, right? And let me tell you, if you get your WPA configuration wrong, your wireless network will just plain not work. It will sit there and do absolutely nothing useful. Until you contact your local “computer wizard” (see? even the terminology carries over) and get him to fix it. Then suddenly everything works, and your wireless NOTwork has been turned into a wireless NETwork.

I think there’s a reason why fantasy worlds like Tolkien’s appeal to so many computer geeks. It’s because, in a way, they’re a reflection of the work that geeks do.

You paid HOW MUCH for that?!!?

I couldn’t believe it until I saw it with my own eyes. Oracle — the 800-lb gorilla of database servers, the mighty Oracle — cannot distinguish between an empty string (“”) and a NULL! From the current Oracle documentation, available on-line at their Web site (although you have to register and give them your E-mail address to get access to it):

“Note: Oracle Database currently treats a character value with a length of zero as null. However, this may not continue to be true in future releases, and Oracle recommends that you do not treat empty strings the same as nulls.”

That last sentence sounds promising until you realize that it’s been there since version 7, and Oracle is now at version 10.

From now on, when someone’s extolling the virtues of Oracle to me, I’ll just ask them, “Oh, and have they fixed their empty string == NULL problem yet?”

Favorite hymns: Here is love

One of my favorite hymns:

Here is love, vast as the ocean,
    Lovingkindness as the flood,
When the Prince of life, our ransom,
    Interposed His precious blood.
Who His love will not remember?
    Who can cease to sing His praise?
He will never be forgotten
    Throughout heaven's eternal days.

On the mount of crucifixion,
    Fountains opened, deep and wide.
Through the floodgates of God's mercy
    Poured a vast and gracious tide.
Peace and love, like mighty rivers,
    Flowed incessant from above.
Heaven's peace and perfect justice
    Kissed a guilty world in love.

The basic unit of politics: groups, or individuals?

I was listening to an interview segment on NPR today, and one of the interviewees said something that caught my attention. He was making an argument for why one shouldn’t tie the concept of sacrifice to citizenship because, he said, “Different groups, including some privileged or relatively-privileged groups, are going to feel that “we’ve made so many sacrifices”, and that fuels the politics of resentment.” The only specific example of a group that he named was tobacco farmers — an interestingly-loaded choice of an example. But that wasn’t what caught my attention. What I noticed was that all three of the people on the show — this interviewee, the other interviewee, and the show’s host — were all discussing politics as it would relate to various groups. Economic, social, ethnic, whatever category, they were thinking about politics as if the basic unit of politics were the group.

But what is a group? A collection of people, of individuals. Without the individuals that comprise it, there is no group. And any concept that applies to groups can also be applied to each individual. Thus, the reason that racial segregation was wrong was not because it relegated blacks as a group to second-class status, but because it relegated each and every black individual to second-class status. The reason why prejudice is harmful is not because it harms groups, but because it harms individuals, judging them not fairly on their own merits but unfairly on the (perceived) merits of their group.

Groups are easier to talk about, certainly. It’s much easier to say, “Blacks voted overwhelmingly for Kerry, whites went for Bush by a strong majority, and the Hispanic vote leaned slightly towards Kerry”, than it would be to interview all the individual voters and find out why they voted the way they did. (Although exit polls help). And there is quite a bit of utility in talking about groups that way — blacks do, as a group, vote consistently for Democrats rather than Republicans. But do all the members of the group behave that way? Absolutely not — even among groups that are close to uniform (for instance, the black vote in the 2004 elections) there is still a significant number who buck the trend. Pick ten black people at random, and chances are you’ll find one who voted for Bush.

There’s a point there: groups are not the be-all and end-all of political thought, because there are always exceptions to any group classification. And there larger the group, the more exceptions you’ll find. If you only think about politics in terms of groups, you’ll be in danger of forgetting those exceptions, which can lead to policies that make sense for groups but make no sense for individuals.

Let’s illustrate this with a current, very controversial, example: monetary reparations for slavery. The idea is that non-black Americans, as a group, are seen as carrying some responsibility for slavery that they, as individuals, never participated in — and (reparations advocates suggest) should therefore give monetary compensation to black Americans as a group, whether or not any of those black Americans as individuals were enslaved or were the descendants of slaves. (A strong case can be made for reparations to the descendants of slavery, even on an individual basis: if their ancestors had had a chance to earn money for their work, the family inheritance would have been much larger and the descendants would have been better off financially).

As you can see from the way I wrote the above paragraph, reparations makes sense when you look at it from a group perspective — black Americans were oppressed, therefore black Americans should be compensated. But when you start to look at it from an individual perspective, suddenly it gets a lot more complicated, because of all the exceptions. Indeed, most of the arguments against reparations that I’ve read are written from an individual perspective, asking the question, “OK, so who gets paid, who has to pay, and please explain to me why they, as individuals, should be in those categories?”

Thinking in terms of groups is a useful tool, but it should never be forgotten that the basic unit of politics is not the group, it’s the individual. Anyone who forgets that is in danger of advocating policies that appear to do justice on a group level, but end up doing great injustice to individuals.

That’s it… Time for a tea party.

Remember the Fifth Amendment? It wasn’t just about the right to remain silent. It also said, “… nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

Are you wondering why I’m writing about it in the past tense? Because the Supreme Court just threw it out the window, that’s why.

That’s it. There’s nothing stopping the government from taking away your home on any flimsy excuse they can come up with. The Supreme Court is ignoring the plain text of the Constitution, and siding with The Government against The People. Remember “The People”? “… of the people, by the people, for the people” — that “The People”? Yeah. I bet you thought that’s what this country was supposed to be about.

I don’t know how, but we’re going to have to have some kind of public protest similar to the Boston Tea Party here. This must not stand.

Throwing pies at those you disagree with. Yeah. That’s REAL grown-up.

The pie-throwing student who hit William Kristol with a pie on March 29 said he did it to protest “superficial dialogue with no real chance for debate.”

Throwing a pie… superficial… check.
Throwing a pie… dialogue… well, no. It’s less than dialogue.
Throwing a pie… no real chance for debate… check.

If he believes that “superficial dialogue with no real chance for debate” deserves a pie in the face, the next person he should hit with a pie should be… himself.

Logix: Lisp with Python syntax

New discovery of the day: Logix. Logix is Python, with macros. Logix is Lisp, with Python syntax. Logix is a programming language that lets you create programming languages. Logix is whatever language you need it to be.

If you’re familiar with Lisp, you already grasp how powerful macros can be. If all you’ve used is Python, let’s take a look at a practical example. Let’s say you’re writing a threaded program, and throughout your code is scattered constructions like:

_lock.acquire()
try:
    print "We have the lock, now doing some work"
finally:
    _lock.release()

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a synchronized construct that would do the work for you? You could write it as a function, but then you’d have to pass in the code you want to run, which means turning it into another function or a lambda, and that just creates more boilerplate. With macros, you’d be able to do something like this:

defmacro synchronized(lock, codeblock):
    lock.acquire()
    try:
        codeblock
    finally:
        lock.release()

Some magic would be required to pass in the codeblock, of course.

Well, in Logix, this is how that macro would be written:

defop 0 "synchronized" "(" $lock:expr ")" ":" $code:block
    macro lock code
        lock.acquire()
        `try:
            *code
        `finally:
            lock.release()

If you’re wondering about the backslashes and backquotes, read the Logix tutorial. It will explain what those do, and in the process introduce you to what Logix is capable of (hint: quite a lot!).

What makes Logix so powerful? The same thing that makes Lisp so powerful: the idea that code is data, and data is code. Which means you can pass around chunks of code to functions, save them in variables, and generally do whatever you want with them. I’ve been meaning to learn Lisp for a while now, but I’ve always been put off by its syntax. That’s because the basic unit of Lisp is the list, and lists inside lists inside lists meant Lots of Irritating Superfluous Parenthesis :-). And I could never get used to writing addition as (+ 1 2 3) instead of 1 + 2 + 3. But Logix is based on Python, and inherits a lot of Python’s syntax. So instead of parens inside parens, you’ve got blocks based on indentation, and colons at the end of lines signalling that a block is about to start. It’s got the same “clean”-feeling syntax that makes Python so easy to read, but it’s also got the power of Lisp: macros, and the ability to pass code objects (of any kind, not just functions) around. I’m looking forward to playing with it and learning it.

UPDATE, 2005-06-06: The code samples I gave above are for Logix 0.4. 0.5 is going to introduce some changes to the underlying structure (in particular, what “chunks of code” are made of is changing), and so the macro syntax may end up looking a little different. If the code above ends up being wrong, I’ll post an update correcting it.

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