Monday, December 31, 2007

AppleTV underrated

For those who haven't heard, AppleTV is a device that connects to your TV, and syncs up with your iTunes to deliver whatever cool stuff is on your computer on into your living room. Given the rate at which my little girls seem to destroy DVDs, we decided that HandBrake combined with an AppleTV was our best bet at remedying that problem.

So far, however, the reviews have been pretty bad for the poor device, most of them claiming that the AppleTV doesn't do what they want it to, i.e. replace their Tivo or their DVD player. Well it doesn't do either of those things really. But if you know what you're getting when you get it, it's actually a really nice unit. The image quality on my Bravia 40" is terrific, and we can watch ripped movies, listen to all our music, show iPhoto slideshows, and watch movie trailers and YouTube videos easily. Its profile is classy and unobtrusive. I've been far more impressed by that unit than I have by HD cable...

I should mention at this point that my opinion of something is usually measured by the difference between what I got and what I expected. I got a lot more than I expected out of the AppleTV, but now that you've read this, if you buy one you might not. =)

Spanish diacritics on the Mac

Writing something in Spanish on your Mac? Diacritics are pretty easy:
  • accent (á, é, í, Á, É, etc.): option-e, then the letter
  • tilde (ñ, Ñ): option-n, then the letter
  • upside-down question mark (¿): option-? (which is option-shift-/)
  • upside-down exclamation point (¡): option-1
  • weird quotation marks (guillemets, actually -- «, »): option-\ and option-|
Wanna see the other cool characters you can type? Go to Apple menu->System Preferences->International->Input menu, then turn on the Character Palette and Keyboard Viewer options, then click "Show input menu in menu bar". Now in your menu bar off to the right you should see a US flag -- open that menu and select the keyboard viewer, and push on the option key to see what character you'd get if you pressed option before hitting a particular key.


Saturday, December 15, 2007


An invaluable (that means "valuable", right? =) timer for OS X. Free, and updated.

I use this thing almost every single day.

Big Lie.

The big downside of living in temporary housing that has free cable with HBO is that every time I flip through the channels I bump into it.

Usually HBO is not interesting enough to catch my attention, but tonight I happened to land right in the middle of "Big Love", HBO's show on polygamists living in Utah. I didn't stay long, but long enough to catch the following lines:
  • "Don't you dare look me in the eyes when you talk to me."
  • "If you go to Mormon seminary you're going to turn into one of those snotty ******** just like all the rest of them. They'll brainwash you -- make you think your body is dirty."
  • "I know what I saw." .... "Let's never talk of this again."
  • "You were drivin' real fast..." "Yeah, I was late for work. Gotta go, see ya."
  • "Just stuff from my old life. And I hate it."
Look, I don't know who the writers are, but they've never met me and my family. This stuff is *ridiculous*, not only in content but in *attitude* and *feeling*. In 3 minutes (!), they've managed to portray Mormons as authoritarian, manipulative, flesh-despising, deceiptful, and deeply angry people.

That's not Mormonism. That's the opposite of Mormonism. If Mormonism were like that I wouldn't be a Mormon. "Learning" about Mormons from that show is like learning about life in America in an Al Qaida training camp. I'm surprised the church hasn't sued for slander -- but then again I imagine very few active members are watching it.

There's a warmth and comfort about being a Mormon that is more beautiful and meaningful than I've seen anywhere else. Why would someone construct a story to misrepresent it so badly?

But as angry as it makes me, I still have to step back and remember that it's not *my* church they're misrepresenting -- it belongs to One who will address the problem far better than I ever could. And I'm okay with that.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Leopard: Print to PDF in 3 keystrokes!

I love that OS X can create PDFs of anything you can print. I was even more thrilled that the new Preview app (part of OS X) can combine documents, reorder pages, etc., and save a new PDF -- wonderful.

But creating PDFs always required the mouse, which was irritating. Now with Leopard, not anymore:
  1. Apple menu -> System Preferences -> Keyboard & Mouse -> Keyboard Shortcuts
  2. Hit the "+" at the bottom of the list
  3. "All Applications" --- Menu Title: "Save as PDF..." (must be typed perfectly!) --- Keyboard Shortcut: cmd-p
  4. Click "Add"
Now, whenever you want a .pdf file created, just hit cmd-P twice.

Love it!

Sunday, December 9, 2007

"But I can't vote for Mitt Romney... Mormon beliefs are just too weird."

I'm surprised how many times I've heard that.

I have lots of friends who aren't Mormon, but few ask me questions about it. They get their information (and misinformation) about Mormons from somewhere else. But not just information, they get their attitude toward Mormons from others -- which seems to include a lot of distrust, and more skepticism.

What do people think Mormons believe anyway? That we all get lots of wives and are quietly prejudiced and think Adam is god and god was once a regular guy and we kill sinners and that people live on the moon? I think those are the worst of the ones that I at least know where they came from. In high school and college, kids told me that we worship Joseph Smith, that an apostle has to sleep with every woman who goes in the temple, that we don't believe the Bible, and that Mormons have horns (and lots of other things).

Well, all of those are flat wrong. And we don't believe any of them.

In the early days of the church they didn't have tape recorders or video cameras. Their speeches were written down by whoever happened to be there. Most of those statements in the first list above were written by folks listening to Pres. Smith in the 1840s and Pres. Young in the 1850s-80s. And all of those statements been downplayed by subsequent prophets as inaccurate, or at least incomplete.

I happen to think they were misunderstood or mistranscribed by the writers.

And guess what: not everything that every modern prophet or apostle says or writes is considered church "doctrine" (or "official teachings"). We are only required to believe things that are in the scriptures, that are told to us by the prophet (President of the Church), or that the Holy Ghost has put in our hearts and we *know* to be true. That's why I don't believe any of those things that I listed above.

So what do Mormons believe? Joseph Smith himself answered this question in 1842 in a letter to "Long" John Wentworth who was the editor of the Chicago Democrat. His response is now referred to as the Articles of Faith. So here's a challenge for you: write down the first 3 Mormon beliefs that come to your mind. Then, go see if you can find them in the Articles of Faith.

Let me know how you did. =)

Thursday, December 6, 2007

TomTom -- Tool or Toy?

I grew up in AZ, and aside from stints in CA, TX, and Ecuador, I lived there my whole life. I've been all over the state, and could probably find my way home from just about anywhere without a map (and with enough gas =).

But a week ago we arrived in Huntsville, Alabama, and now all that navigational comfort has gone out the window. I've scoured the maps, but since we're driving all over househunting, I often get turned around (but never "lost" =). Yesterday I drove halfway to Decatur because I didn't realize there wasn't an exit for County Line Rd.*

So 3 days ago I saw that the TomTom One, 3rd edition was on sale for $149 ($100 off!). Amazon reviews were good, so I picked one up, hoping to not be too disappointed going with the bottom-of-the-line unit. At first I thought it'd just be Kyla's Christmas present, but I didn't even get out the door at CompUSA before I realized that wouldn't work -- remember the bowling ball with Homer's name on it?

Anyway, as soon as I turned it on I knew I was going to like it.

I guess first I'll give the rocket scientist's primer on navigation. Navigation probably conjures up images of old maps and compasses and sextants, or maybe Netscape and Lincoln Navigators. But for ships and planes and missiles and cars, navigation seeks to answer the question: "Where am I?" This goes hand in hand with guidance, which goes after the questions: "Where do I want to go?" and "How do I get there?" And the autopilot makes sure you don't kill yourself on the way.

So the TomTom handles the navigation, and the last part of the guidance, "How do I get there?" And it seems to do a terrific job. Turn it on, and it tells you exactly where you are, with a nice perspective line drawing of the roads around you, their names, and other miscellaneous stuff.

Tell it where you want to go, via a stored "Favorite" place, an existing Point of Interest (POI), e.g. shopping, hospitals, gas stations, etc., a street address, a crossroads, a latitude/longitude point, or a spot you pick out on the map. Instantly it figures out the best route (minimizing travel time), and shows you which direction you need to go with a big green arrow on the display.

Items of note:
  • TomTom tells you when to turn in a spoken voice so you don't have to watch it: "Turn right". It's a pleasant voice, too, not a backseat driver voice (though you could probably add one if you think you need that).
  • It does *not* tell you when the light is red, or when someone is stopped in front of you and you need to stop -- obviously. Still, I'm not used to a device telling me where to go, and my brain had to draw a new line where the device's job stops and my brain has to pick up...
  • It appears to be about 98.5% accurate; it thought we needed to turn right into Wal-Mart when it was really a left, and one street it had the totally wrong name for. All the rest of the time, though, it's been dead on, usually picking out the right house on the street.
  • If you make a wrong turn, TomTom doesn't choke -- it just recalculates a new "best" route. It also doesn't criticize you for lapses in attention. =)
I love the feeling that we could just go driving -- randomly turning whichever direction looks best, even in a different city, or even state. At any point, we click "Navigate to", then "Home", and it puts us on the right road back to our life. And unlike cellphones, since it's getting its info from satellites, you have coverage everywhere in the world! (except maybe caves)

I'm thrilled. Tool or toy? Both!

* Note, I didn't have the unit with me when I did this...

Mitt on religion

Well spoken.

Sunday, November 25, 2007


Ah, how I love humble-pie!

So it's all my fault. The day we get back from our Disneyland trip, I tell my parents and brother to turn on "Remote Login" on their home Macs so I can log in and copy the pictures to their computers over the internet. I love how connectable these machines are! Soon all the pictures are transferred and everyone's happy.

Um, ssh is "secure", so we don't really need to rush turning "remote login" back off -- right???

'Bout a month later my mom calls and says, "Uh, our computer is acting weird -- your dad can't log in until I reset his password, which I do, but then the next day it's broken again."

My heart sinks. That does *not* sound good! Hackers. Or bots.

So once I get there, I start poking through the logs. Guess what I find -- about a billion ssh login attempts for root, admin, and every other username you can imagine. On my brother's computer, the attempts started *less than 2 hours* after he turned on remote logins. Wow.

Upon further investigation, it looks like the hacker installed "energymech". All I could really recognize was a shell script that swaps out the /usr/bin/cron binary with a different one, and some config files authorizing some guys from undernet to do "stuff". I find other miscellaneous junk in /private/var/tmp, but no porn/mp3/spam stashes like I would've expected. What else would bots do? DoS attacks? We reinstalled the OSes in case they mucked with any of the other OS binaries.

Lessons learned:

  1. My mom's machine was hacked, my brother's was not. Why? On my mom's machine all short usernames were the same as the passwords, but on my brother's they were different. It would've taken a *very* long time to match a correct username to a password on his machine. SSH is only as secure as your password. Bottom line: Don't make your username and password the same, and a complex password (has numbers, letters, and symbols) is better.
  2. The machines were found on the network within hours. Hours! There must be a *lot* of bots out there scanning the networks. Even with good passwords, once they find you they'll sit there and pound on your system until they find a match -- maybe for years? That's a lot of junk traffic wasting bandwidth on your network. I'll bet, though, if the ports are closed, they move on. Bottom line: Leave network ports ("Sharing" options) closed unless you need them open.
  3. Even getting bit like this, I'd still rather have a Mac than a PC. I'm pretty sure my sister-in-law's PC is already virused/botted, and with 100k+ spyware packages for Windows, I don't trust a single thing that happens on that machine. Bottom line: The Mac isn't inherently insecure, it was me that was insecure. And you might be the weakest link in your system's security too.

A lesson I won't soon forget.

ps. Note, those with routers between their modems and their computers have to do extra steps to allow remote logins, i.e. instruct the router to pass traffic for the ssh ports on to your particular computer. If you don't know how to do that, there's a good chance this won't affect you.

pps. I wonder why OS X doesn't watch the security logs, and after a dozen or so unsuccessful logins under various names, advise the user that someone (or some machine) may be trying to hack in. I'd much rather click a button that says, "I know, don't tell me again", than find out a month later that a million attempts had been made to get into my machine when I had no idea... A lockout of IP addresses that have met some "hacking" criteria would be nice too. And why aren't the ISPs blacklisting machines that are doing this stuff?

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Leopard text rendering engine


A hint on macosxhints talked about double command-clicking on text URLs doesn't work anymore because command dragging is for discontiguous text selections. Well guess what else Apple changed in Leopard: they added column selections!

In Terminal, TextEdit, and probably any other app that uses core-text rendering, you can now:
  • command-drag over other text to create a discontiguous selection
  • option-drag a region to create a rectangular text selection (yay!)
  • command-option-drag to select discontiguous rectangular text selections (wow!)
Rectangular selections work even if the font isn't monospaced -- and it seems to go by what you see visually, not by character position, so you now can rip a column out of a space-delimited table without a bunch of pre-processing with regular expressions. Nice job, Apple!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

To Leopard, or not to Leopard?

My 2 cents? Wait for another month.

Apple made some fairly significant changes in Leopard under the hood (LDAP, CUPS, 64 bit, fully "Unix", X11, etc.), mostly for the better, but it's going to take some time for the kinks to get worked out in the new implementation.

You're probably going to like:
  • Time machine: easy backups, and done by creating date-stamped folders on the backup drive with your entire disk structure in each -- their secret is "hard links", which I'll explain another time, but is rather ingenious (requires another connected hard drive; watch out if you use Entourage 2004, your mail database, which for lots of people is pretty big, probably changes every time you get your email, so Time Machine is going to back it up every hour which will fill your backup drive in a hurry)
  • Quick look: select a file and hit the space bar to see a quick preview of it -- nice
  • Spotlight: is much faster (replaces Quicksilver as my launcher of choice), answers math questions and defines words for you
  • Preview: lets you combine pages from .pdf files and save them to a new .pdf -- this is *awesome* if you need to send any kind of compound document to anyone, mix and match Excel plots with Illustrator pages with PowerPoint slides -- love it!
  • Screen sharing: as if you're sitting in front of your Mac from almost anywhere, all built-in (see wikipedia on VNC)
But we pulled our hair out over:
  • After printing one job on our HP Deskjet 812c printer, the second one comes out as a single line of text across the top of a few pages; we have to shut it off before it'll print right again
  • Tried the guest user account, hard-locked up the machine within 30 seconds -- not sure what happened, couldn't even ssh in from my linux box
  • Bunches of third-party apps won't launch, who knows why
  • A co-worker upgraded and his Finder locks up with the spinning beach-ball of death (SBBOD) every time. He had to create a new user and start copying over all his stuff to keep it from doing that -- hopefully he'll know soon what's causing it
  • X11 breaks a bunch of stuff, notably multi-monitor support
  • Firewall took a huge step backward, I don't even understand it anymore
Give it another month and it'll be fine.

Nuggets of wisdom

Here are a few of my favorite little nuggets of wisdom I've gathered so far in my life:
  • Good decision, bad outcome -- 2 hours before your flight you leave for the airport, but on the way someone runs a red light and the crash leaves you paralyzed. "Oh, if I'd only left a few minutes later I wouldn't be left this way!", you begin to think. But we can make the right decision and still have a bad outcome because there is an inherent risk in everything. You still made the right decision. (source: Dr. Jeff Goldberg, UofA college economics professor)
  • Cause and effect -- You have a headache and someone gives you only one pill of a new medicine you've never tried before. Later you realize that it didn't work, so you ask yourself, "Did I not take enough, or does this stuff just not work?" I posed this to a great friend John Holman, who without thinking fired back: "Yeah, it can be hard figuring out cause and effect." I don't think anyone's ever broken such a big mental log-jam for me with so little effort. Just because two things seem to go together doesn't mean one caused the other. Look at the economy for some good examples. David Flynn put it another way (if I remember right): "Correlation doesn't imply causality."
  • EQ is supposedly a measure of one's ability to understand and control the emotions of themselves and others. The neatest people I know seem to understand how others feel, and they care. This is not like IQ, which a person supposedly can't change -- people can improve their EQ by working on it. (source: Jared Thompson, co-worker)
  • Intentions -- "Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity." - Hanlon's razor. You tell someone about a mistake you made, and they respond, "Oh, that sounds like you." Instantly you take offense at the verbal jab: "What?! I can't believe you just said that!". But instead, take a step back and study the person's body language and see if there's really any malice there -- often they're just focused on something else and didn't think long enough before speaking. Just let it go.
  • Win the hearts of your children -- Mormons believe that the family unit can continue on beyond the grave into the eternities. The key here is "can". If you have kids, read this article, Love of Father and Mother, by Joseph F. Smith (nephew of the original prophet Joseph Smith), reprinted in the August 2004 Ensign. A beautiful explanation of how our relationship with our kids can and should develop.
  • Wise as serpents, harmless as doves -- This one's straight out of the Bible:
    "Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves." Matt. 10:16.
    I love this approach to the "world".
  • You need only believe the truth -- Some think Mormons believe unusual things because they have to. But we don't have to believe anything, see Articles of Faith 11. "There is no truth but what belongs to the Gospel," Brigham Young said. "'Mormonism' includes all truth." Henry Eyring, Sr., said it this way:
    All day long, on a fiercely hot Friday in September 1919, I hauled hay in Pima, Arizona. On Monday I was going to start classes at the University of Arizona, where I was to study mining engineering. In the evening my father, as fathers often do, felt that he'd like to have a last talk with his son. He wanted to be sure I'd stay on the straight and narrow. He said, "Henry, won't you come and sit down. I want to talk to you."

    Well, I'd rather do that than pitch hay any time. So, I went over and sat down with him.

    "We're pretty good friends, aren't we?"

    "Yes," I said, "I think we are."

    "Henry, we've ridden together on the range, and we've farmed together. I think we understand each other. Well, I want to say this to you: I'm convinced that the Lord used the Prophet Joseph Smith to restore His Church. For me, that is a reality. I haven't any doubt about it. Now, there are a lot of other matters that are much less clear to me. But in this Church you don't have to believe anything that isn't true. You go over to the University of Arizona and learn everything you can, and whatever is true is a part of the gospel. The Lord is actually running this universe. And I want to tell you something else: if you go to the University and are not profane, if you'll live in such a way that you'll feel comfortable in the company of good people, and if you go to church and do the other things that we've always done, I won't worry about your getting away from the Lord."

    That's about the best advice I ever got. It has simplified my life. All I have to do is live in a wholesome way, which is best for me anyway, and be busy about finding truth wherever I can. I suspect that you would enjoy that formula too.

    The significant thing about a scientist is this: he simply expects the truth to prevail because it is the truth. He doesn't work very much on the reactions of the heart. In science, the thing is, and its being so is something one cannot resent. If a thing is wrong, nothing can save it, and if it is right, it cannot help succeeding.

    - Henry Eyring, Reflections of a Scientist

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Life in space

A few interesting tidbits about living in space, from Discover Magazine.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

"University" Life

I recently was talking to someone at work about what Mormons think about other religions. It's no big secret that Mormons strongly believe theirs is the true and living church of God on the earth, and this person wanted to know what we thought of people who aren't members of our church.

Here's (more or less) how I responded: God made the earth as a place for us to learn and to be tested -- and it's happening everywhere! People out in the middle of the jungle are learning tons of things that God intended for them to learn while here on the earth -- all the "grade-school" stuff.

Those attending other churches get the next level of education; they learn a great deal of truth from the Bible and elsewhere, however they are missing some of the core doctrines that are essential to making the most of this life. Instead of a Thanksgiving feast, they get a few carrots and some gravy -- which is still good...

In that sense, then, the LDS church is God's university here on earth, where we get the best classes, lessons, and homework for what He wants us to become. It really is.

That's about as far as I got with the person. I get the feeling sometimes that folks at work who know I'm LDS end up feeling a mix of pity and vague concern for me -- as if I'd been duped into it and now I sacrifice time and money and effort for a vain cause, and they somehow wish they could think of the logic to gently offer to get me out of all of it. But nothing could be farther from the truth! Just like any good university program, it's not easy, but at stopping points along the way you realize how much you've learned and how far you've come. Not duped, I have my own proof!

The courses can be hard, but I never doubted they were worth the effort. Here are a few example of "courses", and some of the benefits I've seen from having taken them:
  • Public speaking -- being asked to give periodic talks in Sacrament Meeting and give lessons in classes means I don't get nearly so nervous when addressing large groups anymore
  • Human interaction -- having to talk to total strangers every day for 2 years on my mission, and then often with hometeaching and elders quorum callings means that I don't get nearly so nervous when meeting new people either
  • Management -- be active in the church and it won't be long before you have a leadership calling; there you get lots of training and practice managing and leading people -- the key word there is "practice", which people (including me) seem to need a lot of before they're worth anything as managers or leaders
  • Foreign language -- spend 2 years in Ecuador among the people and you're bound to learn Spanish
  • Tithing -- paying 10% of your gross income to the church to many sounds crazy; it does force you to be careful with your money, but even more important is that it invokes blessings from heaven that pretty much every tithing-paying member in the church will attest to
  • Relationships -- we interact a lot with other members of the church; we get called into callings that put us in situations where we have to learn to get along with people who are different from us, which is always a growth opportunity; also, at work I mostly only know engineers, but from church I have good friends who are mechanics, doctors, lawyers, welders, managers, and pretty much anything you can think of; we all help each other out, which is really a wonderful blessing for us
  • Personal revelation -- I won't say much about this except that we believe that members are entitled to personal revelation through the Holy Ghost, which means that we have a direct connection to a source of absolute truth that can fill in the blanks in our understanding of the gospel that no earthly teacher could -- I wouldn't trade that for anything in the world
  • (and very timely, since it's going on this weekend) General Conference -- 10 hours every six months where we get to learn directly from the seventy, 12 apostles and the prophet. These aren't paid preachers or professional showmen -- these are guys from 60 to 100 years old who remind you of the super-loving grandpa you may not have had. They are perfectly lucid and "bright" and sharp, delivering gentle and powerful lessons and discourses from the scriptures and their own lives. Of all the people I've met or known or read about, these are the best individuals I know of: healthy, devoted, sincere, powerful, loving, gentle, wise, complete. These broadcasts are priceless.
"By their fruits ye shall know them."

If only I had time and occasion to explain all that to the folks with the pity.

Friday, September 14, 2007


I've been found! I'm not sure how Jacie found me since I don't think I've really told anyone about this, but she is pretty resourceful.

Anyway a few items of note from this week:
  • A move to Huntsville is still a distinct possibility -- depends on how attractive the final offer is, of course.
  • Bryan Hampton and I really got lambasted by an IT guy last week when we suggested that Macs would be a better choice than linux for the kinds of analysis we'll be doing -- "I don't get into religious discussions", he said. Ha, little did he realize who he was dealing with. =)
  • On a related note, 2 more engineers from my work approached me this week interested in buying Macs. I don't personally know anyone who's bought a Mac that's wanted to go back to Windows (I don't think, anyway).
  • A few neat little quotes this week from my boss, Glen Wilcox: "You know you're a leader when people follow you." "We all have to practice being the people we want to be." "If you truly know yourself, you can't be offended."
  • We've also had a few more folks stop by interested in the house -- it'd probably go better if I kept the lawn mowed and painted the front and sides of the house, but who has time for that?
Hope you're having a great week, more soon.

ps. If you like reading blogs, check out Google Reader. It's like an "inbox" for the web, only showing you postings that have been updated via the RSS feed mechanism.

I just subscribe to the blogs of all my friends (and a bunch of other cool news-type sites), click "Show: updated", and then they only appear in the list when they've written something new. Very cool way to keep up on everybody's "goings on" without having to plow through a bunch of websites with stuff I've already seen.

If you've got any spare brain cycles left, try this one:

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Ubuntu day 2

Awhile back I signed up for the "Employee Purchase Program" at work, which means you can buy a 3-year old PC that they're getting rid of for $50. It's a lottery, so once you sign up, they throw your name in a hat, and if they pull it, you get one.

Well, last week my name was drawn.

I get headaches just looking at "Start" buttons, so immediately after plugging everything in I downloaded supposedly the most user-friendly linux build -- Ubuntu -- burned a CD and booted up. After a little trouble with ATA1 errors (I had to pull the jumper off the hard drive), it booted up just fine. Install was easy, updating software was easy, adding a bunch of games and cool apps was easy. Didn't come with tcsh or nedit, but nothing a "sudo apt-get" couldn't fix. Otherwise very smooth.

My assessment: eh.

Not because of Ubuntu, mind you. Ubuntu appears to be a fairly clean and easy to use version of linux -- if you have a PC lying around, I highly recommend giving Ubuntu a shot. My problem is with linux itself -- it seems almost like a new dog that with a little training will do a bunch of cool little tricks. But in the end, that's all you've got -- a dog that does tricks. Where are MS Office, Quicktime, AppleScript, iTunes, iPhoto, Photoshop? They're replaced by clunkier versions that yes, are free (very cool), but feel like they're duct-taped together (bad). What else do I use a computer for? Turns out, not much.

So in the end I have a computer that my girls can use to play on, and I don't have to worry about them getting a virus or messing up the OS.

I guess that's worth $50.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Airport security

Kip Hawley, head of the TSA, gets asked all the questions about airport security that are usually muttered as complaints in that security line...

A few terrific quotes:
I have the sinking feeling that you're defending us against a terrorist smart enough to develop his own liquid explosive, yet too stupid to read the rules on TSA's own website.
This feels so much like "cover your [tail]" security: you're screening our shoes because everyone knows Richard Reid hid explosives in them, and you'll be raked over the coals if that particular plot ever happens again. But there are literally thousands of possible plots.

So when does it end? The terrorists invented a particular tactic, and you're defending against it. But you're playing a game you can't win. You ban guns and bombs, so the terrorists use box cutters. You ban small blades and knitting needles, and they hide explosives in their shoes. You screen shoes, so they invent a liquid explosive. You restrict liquids, and they're going to do something else. The terrorists are going to look at what you're confiscating, and they're going to design a plot to bypass your security.
Kip actually has half-decent answers to these questions.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

NPR interview with Alice Cooper

I have a lot to say about Terry Gross' interview with Alice Cooper (mp3), but unfortunately I'm too tired to say it right now... Still, if you have any curiosity about the bizarre and extreme heavy metal rockers of the 70s and 80s, this is an interesting perspective.

Given that he's famous for shows with guillotines, electric chairs, and lots of fake blood, unless you're quite familiar with Alice/Vincent's life you're probably in for something of a surprise.

I probably couldn't name 2 songs written by him, nor do I think I've ever heard a song of his all the way through. Still my initial prejudices about what kind of person he must be ended up almost entirely wrong...

Friday, July 27, 2007

LDS CIO has a Mac!

When it comes to LDS software in the past, Macs have been pretty much ignored. PAF was available on the Mac years ago (OS 7-9), but fell into disrepair and is unusable on new Macs. All the audio and video was Windows Media which was a huge headache (until Flip4Mac came out, anyway). And I believe at least some of the websites required IE 6 to look right.

Recently however things have started to turn around, and it looks like I may have found the reason. Check out #6 -- that's the CIO of the church mentioning in passing that he has at least one Mac at home. In fact, it looks like that may be their primary machine at home, at least for the kids, since trying "the Vista thing" was farther down on his list than writing that post!

There may yet be hope for us LDS Mac users.

Monday, July 16, 2007

One lightning bolt: $145

This afternoon lightning struck so close to our house that it shook the whole place.

When I got home, the internet wasn't working and neither was our phone. So after about 15 cycles of plugging and unplugging things in different orders, for different amounts of time, I finally decided that the modem was shot. So I drove down to Wal-Mart and bought a new modem. A quick phone call to Cox and the internet was back up.

Whew, fixed!

Oh, except our phone still didn't work. See, our phone service is through Vonage, meaning that it acts like a regular phone except that the call travels the distance over the internet instead of a traditional phone network. That all happens through a little $50 box. Apparently that was blown too. So I drove back down to Wal-Mart and picked up another Vonage/Linksys VoIP box. A quick call to Vonage and my phone was back up.

Note, I didn't mention that both ethernet cables were bad too, I had to replace them to get things working again.

So in summary, that one lightning bolt wiped out my cable modem, my VoIP box, and two ethernet cables. Net cost to me: $145. Ouch.

On the bright side, my Mac was fine. Thanks to my network devices for making the sacrifice.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007


Here's an impressive set of graphics by Megan Jaegerman, praised by Edward Tufte who has championed the art of conveying complex concepts in print.

Reading down through all the images, I went from "gee, that's cool" to "wow, I need to save all these..."

Saturday, June 30, 2007

iPhone first impressions

I probably won't buy one for a long time, but since yesterday was its debut I had to go at least play with one at the AT&T store near my house:

Here are my first impressions:
  • smaller and lighter than I expected
  • lots of fingerprints on the demo, finger grease all over the screen -- I wiped it on my pants though and then it looked fine
  • finger gestures become second nature really fast, and the single button "take me back to the main menu now" is surprisingly comforting to have
  • others have mentioned this, but it's nice that when you reach the end of a list of things, if you continue dragging the stuff moves, but then bounces back -- "Yes, you can go that way, but there's nothing to see there..."
  • very easy to get to everything, iPod music and video, phone calls, photos, internet, maps (which zoom in and out with the pinch gesture, very cool!)
  • feels very un-complicated, which made me feel like "Is that it?" -- but after doing all those different things so easily (and without a manual!) that's a very good thing
How does it handle scratches and drops? PC World shows us (ignore the Windows Vista commercial that plays first =).

I'm impressed.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Lowe's, Home Depot, and a Wireless Network

I think of Lowe's as a relative newcomer in the home improvement landscape -- I didn't even know it existed till I was in my 20s. On the other hand I've been going to Home Depot my whole life. I spent many hours shopping for electrical fittings, conduit, and wire with my dad as a little kid. Home Depot is also closer to my house here, so I have something of a bias in that direction.

That said, Home Depot's service on the floor is usually somewhere between "apathetic" and "totally absent". Most of their products (except for the Ridgid brand*) are lower quality, and their selection seems to be more limited. Their stores are often messier, and busier.

Lowe's on the other hand has always been good to me. I came in at 9pm one night with ~20 tiles I needed cut to size. They cut the whole batch for free. Also, since Lowe's isn't as busy, I almost never have to wait in any lines. They also have a lot of little things that are hard to find elsewhere, like extra screws for receptacles and coarse-grit sandpaper for my sander. Their paint seems to be better quality too. They often send me $10-off cards, or 10% off your next purchase coupons, which only sweeten the deal. Now when I have a choice I go to Lowe's.

Another story from this week. My work refused to buy me a Mac laptop, so I finally acquiesced and let them buy me a PC laptop. I hadn't used XP much and figured maybe it wasn't as bad as Win98 and 2000 had been. Since the new laptop has wireless, I decided to buy a wireless router for home so I could use it anywhere in the house. Sweet! So I plug in the router, reset everything, set all the wireless network settings via ethernet from my Mac, then for kicks checked first to see if my Mac could see the network through the wireless connection. Yep, the Mac saw the wireless network and connected to the internet on the first try.

Now for my fancy new Windows laptop: click on wireless networks taskbar icon and ... "No wireless networks were found". Hmm. Repair connection. Nope. Troubleshoot. 6 steps later, no change, "Sorry, this problem cannot be resolved by this troubleshooting utility." Start twiddling configuration in the adapter and client. No good. Install the software out of the wireless router box. No change. Try the auto-configuration option on the router. No good. Reboot. No change. Grr!! Finally out of frustration I disable the wireless card adapter, then reenable. Hey, I can see networks now! Yeah! Type in my password and... Doh! "No wireless networks were found" again! Disable and reenable the adapter again, and now it connects!

It's nonstop pain with Windows. That's all I have to say about that.

* This sander (R2600) and this angle grinder are my only 2 Ridgid tools so far, and I just love them. The grips are rubberized, the plugs are lighted and sturdy, the cables have built-in cable ties, and they all come with cases. I used the infamous Dynabrade pneumatic sanders at the cabinet shop and believed that no electric sander could come close. Well, this sander indeed is a very close second -- I actually like sanding now! The angle grinder is very nice also. They're manufactured by Emerson Electric Co., which also makes very high-quality ceiling fans. I don't own any stock, but I probably should.

Update: yesterday I went looking for a replacement skylight dome, starting at Home Depot. Guess who had it...

Big zip lines

They say this is the biggest zip line in the world, but I still think the Selvatura tour in Costa Rica's Monteverde Cloud Forest is better.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Professional Preachers

I just got done listening to a recording of what I suppose was a sermon in a modern Christian church on the Star Spangled Banner. It's a beautiful story about those early patriots desperately clinging to their freedom, and finally withstanding the strength of the entire British armada.

But more than the content, I was struck by the manner of this sermon.

Let me give you a little background -- LDS churches don't have professional preachers. In fact, if you go to an LDS church on Sunday, you're not likely to find anyone there who receives a salary from the church.* What you are likely to find are the members themselves assigned to speak in church, and teach lessons in classes. They don't get paid for this, and they sure didn't ask for it. But they do it, and the end result is that you have sincere honest people learning the gospel, and how to teach and interact with people at the same time.

So LDS "sermons" are often delivered by folks who aren't professional speakers, nor do they have any personal agendas while they're speaking. They're sincerely trying to share an uplifting message and do the best they can. But they're often nervous and paced -- imagine how you feel when you talk in front of a group.

Back to the sermon I just heard -- this fellow's tone was quite different from that of LDS speakers. In fact, it sounded exactly like the tele-vangelists you see on TV. I think I can break the entonation down into 3 main types:
  1. Pounding -- the last word of each phrase is emphasized, as if being pounded into the congregation with a hammer
  2. Opera -- the vowels are drawn out and filled with vibrato, almost as if they were singing opera; most notable on the words "lord" and "me", for some reason
  3. Whisper -- hushed tones to offset the earlier poundings
I'm not trying to be facetious, only to make a point: these people are trying to make a living. I can see why some sermons become show, and preachers become entertainers -- they have to. If they don't impress the people, the people go somewhere else. So in that light it's easy to see where some congregations are fed "milk" instead of "meat", or candy concepts instead of doctrinal vegetables. Or choosing fun over of service, parties over personal preparation, rowdy bands over reverence.

This sermon was a show.

Contrast the words of the Savior:
"But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life." - John 4:14
That's the best description I can find of how I feel about my church experiences, and I wouldn't trade it for anything.

* General authorities (church-wide leaders) receive a "stipend", which I understand most of them turn down because in general they are a) generally mature/retired, or b) already quite wealthy from their own non-religious professional careers. Full time seminary and institute teachers are paid, as well as those who work for church industries (printing, food storage, distribution, etc.). Missionaries are *not* paid, and neither are ecclesiastical leaders, temple workers, or anyone called to positions at the ward or stake level. It's a volunteer organization.

I wonder what people think when they realize that President Hinckley does not live in a church-funded mansion nor does he live an extravagant lifestyle. Church service is not a professional endeavor for LDS members -- it's about doing our duty as citizens in God's kingdom, and enjoying the blessings of citizenship.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Apple's first foray into DRM-free music

On April 2, 2007, Steve Jobs shocked the world with it's announcement that it would be distributing DRM-free music from music company EMI.

Why shocked? Because everyone just assumed that the DRM was to keep people from buying anything but an iPod. Without the DRM, people could play the music on any mp3 player they wanted.

The obvious question is: Why would Apple do that?

People immediately began pointing to Apple's trouble in Europe (especially Norway) where it was claimed that Apple was taking unfair advantage of it's position by not allowing music purchased on iTunes to be played on other devices. DRM-free music = maybe get out of trouble in Europe.

But the real question is: Why would EMI allow that? Doesn't that take us right back to the Napster era where people buy a song and send it to 200 of their closest friends? (Or just download it off some .ru website...)

It now appears that Apple and EMI had an ace up their sleeve: turns out they embed your name and possibly email address into each "iTunes Plus" song you buy. Sure, share that song with your friends, but there'll never be any question where it came from.

Privacy advocates are up in arms. "How can you send out my personal information like that?! Er, I mean, how can you let me send out my personal information like that?"

I say, "Brilliant!!" Everybody wants to share everything except one thing: their personal information. Apple has instantly achieved their primary goal: people can listen to their music on any device they like, and they'll think 3 times before distributing it. And EMI has achieved their primary goal: get more people to buy their music, including those without iPods. And users get freedom (and slightly higher sound quality, which I didn't bother to mention since almost nobody can tell the difference anyway).

Not to say there aren't potential problems. Your best friend may not have as many qualms as you about forwarding your favorite song on to his 2nd-best friend. And that guy won't have any qualms about sharing it. Also, what if your computer is stolen and all your music ends up on that .ru site? It'll be interesting to see how it all plays out. But these are exciting times, and it looks like Apple's firmly in the driver's seat.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

PBS: The Mormons -- Another response

Here's a more energetic and complete response to PBS's documentary on the Mormons from a month or so back by a university professor who's LDS:

Response to PBS Program on the Mormons

by Thomas E. Sherry, May 8, 2007

Dear PBS,

I was disturbed and disappointed in the imbalanced portrayal of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints which you aired on April 30 and May 1, 2007. I wish to state some of my disgust with your method and message. My comments, of course, represent my own views and I am not speaking in any way as an official representative of the LDS Church. Nevertheless, I do have some qualifications: I am an adult convert to the LDS Church; my masters and doctoral degrees included a minor in religious studies; I have been an LDS Religious Educator for 34 years, the last 28 of those at Eastern Washington University, Pennsylvania State University, Brigham Young University, and Oregon State University. I teach World Religions, Bible and Christian History, LDS History and Doctrine. I serve as adjunct faculty of the OSU History Department, and on the Boards of the Holocaust Memorial Committee and Religious Advisors Association at OSU (the latter is a coordinating body of the 28 religious groups which function on the campus of Oregon State University). My experience and education have contributed to the sense that producers had just accomplished one of the most seriously skewed programs I've ever seen. When I view "anti-Mormon" films and literature, at least they are overt in their mission and purpose; yours, however, was a program from which viewers expect fairness and balance but which delivered just the opposite - a sort of "wolf in sheep's' clothing" experience. You described a church that I do not recognize which did not portray my beliefs, and almost wholly missed the mark for accurate journalism.

My family has been staunch and consistent supporters of PBS both in time, devotion, and money - this program causes me to re-evaluate the respect we have held for you and our future financial support. If on a subject of which I know much, you present such an imbalanced representation, what does that mean for so many other programs for which I know little? That is a disturbing thought.

Before going further, I wish to recognize the admirable portrayal of certain topics: The international welfare and humanitarian aid efforts of the Church; the conversion story of the former drug addict; and, your sensitive treatment of the challenges of homosexual lifestyle and Church doctrine & practice regarding such. Thank you for those elements.

PBS Purpose and Vision For days after the program I sincerely wondered just how the mission and purpose of your presentation had developed. Had it begun ostensibly with the intent to broadly "explore" Mormonism or was it driven by a darker mission? Regardless of the original intent, the show felt like the producers at some point progressively digressed from a balanced exploration to an intent to "expose the under-belly of Mormonism." In an interesting comment from one of my university students, he said that he (a new convert) had invited his non-LDS roommates to watch the show with him. During the show he felt terrible and wondered what "damage" he'd done by so inviting them. But afterward, they turned to him and said; "I thought we were going to learn something about your Church in this program but this was just a rehash of all the crap we hear constantly - we didn't learn anything new." By the way, the most uniform observation I heard from students was that from the first minutes of the program, they knew this would be a bad experience - it felt dark, ugly, and ominous. Did the producers and interviewers just become enamored with all the controversy and forget their journalistic responsibility? It's a baffle to me. But the program evidenced a production that seemed intent on:

1) "Knocking Mormonism down a notch or two;"

2) Tipping the "great American religion" off its pedestal" (if it ever were on one); and,

3) portraying Mormon history and doctrine as cultic, deceitful and secretive, absurd, and outlandishly weird.

What follows is some comment on areas in which I feel you did a disservice and left viewers with skewed and erroneous impressions:

Imbalance: Krister Stendall, former Dean of Religion at Harvard University and Episcopal bishop of Stockholm, Sweden, has stated 3 rules which guide his participation on interfaith discussion and exploration of other religions. The first two are: 1) "If you're going to ask the question as to what others believe, ask them - not their critics, not their enemies because what one tradition says of another is usually a breach of the 9th commandment - "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour." It is important that we do not picture the other person's faith in a manner they do not recognize as true; 2) "If you're going to compare, don't compare your bests with their worsts. Most think of their own tradition as it is at its best and they use caricatures of the others." In the case of your program, it was not so much one religious view opposing another, it was the slick and sophisticated portrayal of the "intellectual and dissident" view verses the "un-intellectual and blindly obedient" Mormon mainstream and leadership - an unfortunate and mistaken dichotomy. Regarding Stendall's rules, PBS somehow decided to give a time ratio of approximately 10-1 to non-LDS commentators and those who are bitter former members with an axe to grind (several of whom I know personally). Do those persons have a legitimate story to tell and a right to tell it - of course. But those persons were given the overwhelming amount of time and when time was given to the few LDS commentators - particularly in part 1 -- it was in short and awkward clips with little context and sometimes so weird and irrelevant that you wondered why PBS even included the clip. For example, with an almost dismissive manner you trivialized the Book of Mormon by numerous references to a strange and magical translation story, DNA accusations of unreliability, and Antebellum American context for book which you portrayed as very human and very flawed. No matter that the book is among the most widely sold books in the world, that millions of converts trace their conversions to the text, and that intelligent people actually believe it. No, the best you could come up with on a positive note was a non-LDS "poet" commenting on how he really enjoyed the Book of Mormon as a quaint self expose of Joseph Smith and hot button issues in his culture. Additionally, Terryl Givens (a respected author) was given the bulk of his time on the first night to an exploration of Mormon "dance" as theology - what's up with that? Weird? Yes. Representative? No. So was that the modus operandi of PBS - to emphasize "weird?" Did Givens misrepresent us? No, but the relevance of that portion to LDS history and theology was so insignificant and strained, and the presentation so mystical that it effectively conveyed strangeness - a seemingly central intent of the producers. And that relatively irrelevant portion was given more time than any other issue from LDS commentators in program 1- shameful misappropriation of time.

Mystical strangeness was the hallmark of nearly every piece of art, shadowy background, and eerie music selections which dominated the show and exercised such an oppressive feeling. Did you want to portray Joseph Smith and LDS belief as demented and strange-perhaps even evil? Even the voice intonation and script of the main commentator added to the "secret, strange, and oppressive" aura of the show which focused on the sensational and eschewed the compelling and easy to understand story of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its international growth. As such, the expose was masterfully crafted if what PBS wanted to emphasize was "strange, secret, and oppressive." Watching the show was akin to reading one of the tabloids on the news stand - titillating but unreliable and misrepresentative. Is that what the producers sought to accomplish? If not, one would ask where the art loved by Latter-day Saints was; where was the light, cheery and faith filled art, music, and landscape which so represents us and is produced 100-1 over that which was chosen by the producers? Where were the pictures of Joseph Smith that looked normal? And where were the devoted, faith filled "normal" every-day Latter-day Saints in the show - particularly in Part 1? By the millions, they are the real story of the Latter-day Saints. Where were the intellectuals, scientists, and eminent public servants who believe? Apparently including such would have worked against the purposes of PBS. Doesn't it seem rather contrary to logic to assume that anyone who believes in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its doctrine is ignorant, oppressed, or mentally incapable to discern "the real story" astutely "uncovered" by PBS? That's the message your program conveyed. Yes, you did give attention to Mitt Romney and Harry Reid, but the context made no effort to cast them as reasonably intelligent disciples - rather, it was to explore whether a Mormon could be elected to any significant office given the strangeness of this religion.

Balance in the Issues: In Part 1 (Monday evening), you took roughly the first 100 years of LDS Church history. HALF of that program was reduced to 2 events - plural marriage and the Mountain Meadows massacre. The rest was devoted largely to your view of how strange, mysterious, and weird Joseph Smith apparently was. Was that the best you could do for 100 years of history, accomplishment, and contribution?

1) Mountain Meadows - no question about it, this is the darkest piece of LDS history with despicable acts by members and local leaders - thank you for including Elder Dallin H. Oaks comment on it. Among historians in and out of the LDS Church, there is significant challenge and varied interpretation in print on this subject and you covered NONE of the debate except a brief statement by one LDS historian who said he was satisfied that blame did not lay in the office of Brigham Young. But he had maybe 3 seconds, compared to 20 minutes by critic historians. The truth is, the most debatable aspect of this story is the knowledge and responsibility of Brigham Young. You gave that debate almost no time, not even mentioning it as a legitimate point of disagreement among qualified historians. After allowing critics to lambaste Church responsibility for the event you feature a preposterous summary statement as proof that the murderous edict came from Brigham Young - "Young was governor of the territory and nothing happened without his knowledge." What a silly statement. The Utah territory was a big chunk of land (encompassing current Nevada, Utah, and parts of Wyoming and Colorado), and pre-dated telegraph services at the time (Mountain Meadows was a 3-day hard ride from SLC). Just how did Brigham Young magically control and know "everything" going on in the territory? And how about the indisputable historical record that a rider was sent to Young to get advice on the pending crisis but could not have arrived, conferred, and returned before the massacre had occurred? On a related matter, consider the restrained position of Brigham Young regarding not harming any individual from the invading forces of the United States Army who were heading into the valley? He did direct harassment and the capture of supply wagons; he did prepare members to once again leave their homes in the valley and to burn them if necessary to give the army no benefit from arriving in SLC. But it is well known that with all the skirmishes and threat, no direction was ever given to contest by firearms the invasion. Doesn't that seem a little contrary to Brigham Young then turning around and ordering the deaths of men, women, and children in an immigrating pioneer train? So where was the balance in the PBS report on this issue? You strongly accused Young and others of "running out of town" federal officials sent to govern Utah. But where was the coverage of those same officials acting illegally and mistreating the saints? Again, that was a balance you seemed uninterested in covering.

2) Plural Marriage - here again, where were the first-hand journal records of this policy and practice being a blessing to people, a trial of faith that in the end strengthened their testimony of Joseph Smith's inspiration in the matter and of the Lord's hand in this? No where to be found. But by far the greatest disservice done in the PBS report and other writings on this subject was to cast it as a sex-crazed policy of a lunatic gone mad with power - as though this practice was invented by Joseph Smith. Did you check into this interpretation - or was it just the sensational and pejorative that you were interested in?

Point One: Plural marriage was a common Bible practice. COMMON - not exceptional and weird to Bible peoples. All Bible believers, both Jewish and Christian must wrestle with that. And Jesus himself held up as the quintessential prophets and people of faith those who practiced plural marriage (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, etc.). The Savior even went so far as to liken himself to the great Moses and heaven to Abrahams' bosom. Sounds like Jesus didn't have a problem with the practice. But did you mention that? Of course not - it didn't seem to fit in your production purposes. After all, that would make plural marriage in modern times a restoration of lauded biblical precedent instead of a weird invention of Joseph Smith - not a message you apparently wanted to risk conveying. Latter-day Saints do not apologize for following the Lord's direction on this matter. We have nothing to hide. I may personally never wish to participate in the practice but it is not a source of embarrassment.

Point Two: Did you look into the history of this with Joseph Smith? Do you know that while studying the Bible he came across the plural marriages of these early venerated prophets and was in such shock that he went to the Lord in prayer to ask how in the world such a practice could be acceptable? And to his dismay and disgust, he was answered by the Lord - but not with an answer he could have ever imagined. In our publicly accessible scriptures (Doctrine and Covenants 132) the Lord answers by saying that He would tell Joseph Smith the answer, but once He did, Joseph would be asked to live the same law. This is among the best known and accessible of historical records on the subject but was never mentioned by you. And what a surprise - none of the critics mentioned it either!

Point Three: You erroneously portrayed plural marriage as an LDS requirement to enter heaven. That is how many fundamentalist polygamists think (you gave a lot of coverage to them!). But that has never been the doctrine of the LDS Church. Celestial marriage is a practice whereby two worthy individuals enter a marriage covenant and have it sealed by one having priesthood authority - period. That policy includes monogamous and plural marriages but the latter does not overshadow the former. You altogether failed to make this distinction in your show even though you devoted 40 minutes to the subject. And where were the respected LDS voices on the beauty of this belief? No where to be found in your skewed representation.

3) Missionary Service - In night two, you devoted a fair amount of time to a subject which deserves it - the amazing missionary program of the Church. But what was the dominant message you conveyed? It was that LDS missionaries are mindless automatons doing what they cannot choose not to do - no choice, no choice, no choice - "you go, you go, you just go," was the repeated message. And then to make things worse, 3 of the 4 voices you gave time to were missionaries who apparently went under real or imagined duress and subsequently abandoned the LDS Church. What a disservice - skewed and bigoted, flawed and incomplete. You portrayed such service, the LDS culture which encourages it, and the Church program which sponsors it as oppressive, mechanical, and regimented to the point of intellectual and emotional pain. It was Jesus that "commanded" (yes, commanded - not lightly "suggested") that disciples go into all the world and preach repentance, faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, baptism, and enduring in obedience to the gospel - "Mormons" didn't make that up. Over the years, I have worked with hundreds of young men and women and older couples who were preparing and did serve missions. In my experience less than 1% have any such feelings which you portrayed as "normal." They deeply desired to serve, they saved and sacrificed to serve, and they count the time as the best years of their lives. Where was that message in your presentation? You did give the positive some time but there, again, it was minor compared to the negative interpretation. I can, again, only surmise that the overwhelmingly positive experience of hundreds of thousands of individuals was of little interest to you - you had a purpose and that overwhelming set of evidence did not fit within your purposes so you largely left it out.

To your credit however, you did give liberal time to the story of one woman convert and how the gospel had blessed her. Also, you allowed Marlin K. Jensen to tell his mission experience. Thank you for doing that.

4) The LDS Church is secretively rich and power hungry - I think you would have done well to return to the public record on this and how President Gordon B. Hinckley has repeatedly summarized in public interviews the wealth of the Church. Most of that wealth is in income consuming, not income producing ventures - the bulk of which are chapels and other worship and welfare structures and land. To the amazing credit and faithfulness of members, many do fully observe the Law of Tithing and pay 10% of their income to the Church - we don't look at that as a suppressive burden. But again, that's a biblical precedence of which we again follow in our day whereas you portrayed it as a mysterious coupe accomplished by secretive power hungry church leaders. "They have devious plans and bilk their members so they can exercise power over them to get personal gain and insure that no one questions their practices" - was the ridiculous mystique purveyed by critics. It's just plain wrong on it's face, wrong in fact, and wrong in interpretation but none of that deterred the producers.

For many years I have been part of and witness to the extraordinary auditing practices of the Church to insure that all sacred funds are handled legally and appropriately - I can assure you that it is done in minute detail. In addition, the Church hires non-LDS auditing services to assess its handling of these funds and to make an annual public statement. While the individual expenditures are not public record, those expenditures are publicly audited (a requirement by the Federal government for "non-profit" organizations).

I am grateful for the law of tithing, that as members we can share the blessings granted us and elevate our brothers and sisters around the world both in and out of LDS membership. Tithing monies allows the work to go forward throughout the world and those few leaders (very few by comparison), who do receive a living stipend receive very little. They are poorer than if they held normal jobs in the world and anyone who portrays the leaders as accessing income from tithing funds to live luxuriously is mistaken. Those who publicly portray this message are ill-informed or downright dishonest.

You did equally poorly on the portrayal of temples and their purposes, on Church disciplinary councils, and governance. I am very familiar with these issues and you did not portray an honest and balanced perspective. Again and again your cast and backdrops were intended to convey strangeness, weirdness, thoughtless obedience, and extreme authoritarianism on the part of LDS leaders and the membership. You portrayed little respect, a great deal of antagonism, and a general avoidance of the grandness of the Church and its doctrines. One wonders just how the LDS Church could be growing at all given your abysmal assessment. Was that irony lost on you? Or do you simply explain it by adjudging LDS members and converts to be from the poor and downtrodden, the uneducated and desperate and hence largely unknowledgeable and indiscriminate?

I could go on with other subjects but I hope I have adequately made the point. I'm sorry that you chose to do the show you did. I think you have done a serious disservice to the viewing public and to the reputation of PBS. I believe that viewers were left with erroneous ideas and impressions and the responsibility for that lies directly on your shoulders.

I especially like Thomas' comment about the artwork and music in the documentary. I had neither seen nor heard 80% of the music and pictures from the documentary -- I'm not sure where they got it all, but I wasn't particularly fond of it. LDS music is bright and cheerful, and so is LDS artwork. To see what I mean, download some of the free music and art from, which is a lot better. Make sure you check out the seminary music for the youth, it's quite well done.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

How to win at racquetball

Racquetball seems so easy -- all you have to do is hit the giant 20x20 foot wall in front of your face with the ball. Oh, and it's okay if it bounces of a few other walls in the process. But if you've ever been unable to score any points on a man whose only few hairs on his head were bright white, and who was unashamed to wear green-striped tube socks up to his knees, you know there's a little more to it.

Here's the secret that Old Ned knows all too well:

You know those shots that hit the front wall 2 inches off the floor in the corner? Those are called "kill shots", and if you can do that every time, you'll pretty much win every game.

Already knew that? Oh. Well then, most people can't hit shots that accurately (including me), so here are 6 shots that have a nice margin of error, and can be really tough to return -- each picture shows 2 different types of shots -- your opponent isn't pictured, but his location doesn't usually matter much for these shots. =)

Corners are always a good place to send the ball.

Any time you can bounce the ball off of both side walls in a single shot you're going to get some interesting effects from the spin (see the high-z and offensive splat shots above).

Also, unless you're playing with little kids, when you're in the middle of the court resist the temptation to hit the ball right in the middle of the front wall. Hit the side wall first, as low and hard as you feel comfortable so it'll still hit the front wall. These are generally much tougher to return.

You probably still won't beat Old Ned, but at least your other friends will get some exercise.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Monday, May 21, 2007

The mundane

Ever seen the acronym "WWJD"? It stands for "What would Jesus do?". I often ask myself that question when difficult problems arise -- and usually the answer is not immediately obvious. For example, someone who is obviously homeless asks you for money for beer or "smokes" -- what exactly would Jesus do in that case?

Knowing the right thing to do can be tricky. I think I figured out one special case this week that I didn't want to forget:

Suppose God came down and told everyone in the world they needed to do some really boring and pointless task a thousand times. What do you think an apostle such as Elder Eyring or Elder Oaks would do? Get a really determined look on his face, and doggedly start into it? Or maybe consider it a painful sacrifice and fully suffer through all the iterations?

I think I know -- none of the above! He'd turn it into a game, and make it the most fun thing around -- so fun that other people would want to join in just to be part of it. Pretty soon everyone would be hanging around, singing and telling jokes, trying different techniques or challenging themselves to do the best job they could. And they'd be sad when it was over.*

Enduring to the end is not about white knuckles or dogged determination so much. It's about finding ways to enjoy the journey, and help others to honestly feel the same. These people are never really sad, and to me that just seems like a great way to live.

* Sounds a little like our dry packing service projects at the cannery...

Well-traveled paths

When I was younger, subconsciously I'd find myself selecting actors and actresses from TV and movies as heroes -- men I thought I wanted to be like, and women I thought I wanted to marry.

Unfortunately time and again I would discover that my heroes were mostly dirtbags in real life. For example, remember Fred Savage from the Wonder Years? I happened to catch a trailer for his latest series on HBO*, which appears to be mostly a series of sex scenes interrupted by bad acting.

But Fred's not an anomaly, Hollywood does this to people. Anne Hathaway, Lindsay Lohan, and Macaulay Culkin come to mind at the moment -- beautiful people coerced off into dark places and imprisoned in their own personal hell.

"It's beautiful art! The glamour and the glitz and the money aren't the only benefits -- there's plenty of alcohol, drugs, and flings too!"

Get ready for the truth: some guy writes out his fantasies and finds sad beautiful people to act them out. Then they are paid for it. And guess what it's called when someone has sex with someone else and gets paid for it?


I still catch myself looking for role models in the movies, but memory and experience soon bring me back to the real world.

I still have heroes, but you won't see them in the movies. They're the older ones who've stayed strong year after year, doing what they know is right and smiling all the while. Grandma Jones, my parents, Neal A. Maxwell, and a few others I won't mention -- beautiful happy people whose lives seem to say, "Hang in there, you can do it!"

* Note, I don't have cable.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Blind, unquestioning obedience?

The other day a friend at work asked me about the Mormon church demanding "complete" or "blind unquestioning obedience" of its members. Just hearing the phrase brings to mind the horrors of Nazi Germany and the Peoples Temple in Jonestown, doesn't it?

Every time I hear reference to that, I unconsciously cock my head to the side, finding myself trying to connect to what the person might be talking about. Am I a pawn on some huge chessboard, being used to do someone's dirty work?

The idea is hard to discredit personally since it implies I've been duped from the start and my disbelief is merely an indicator that they've done a good job duping me. Sort-of like the claim that the Masons are running the government. "Don't believe it? Well you're not in on it, so you wouldn't know!"

Bottom line:

Do I obey my priesthood leaders? Yes!
Do I obey God's commandments? Yes!

Why? Because I trust both God and my priesthood leaders because they've proven themselves trustworthy to me time and again throughout my life. Over and over I've been asked to do things, and I knew and felt at the time it was the right thing. We constantly are out counseling, helping, training, teaching, reasoning, listening. The bishop directs these efforts, and it's a wonderful experience. Given that history, if my bishop asked me to do something strange, I would do it because I trust him. It's the same as if it were my best friend asking me to do something. It's all about trust.

There's a big difference between being asked to do something hard and being asked to do something that's wrong. I often obey and do things that are hard, even if I disagree*, because I know I've been blessed for my obedience in the past. When all is said and done, I will do my best to obey God or His servants, and the record will show that. On the other hand, I've never been asked to do something I thought was wrong, nor do I know of anyone who has (except for a couple of scriptural accounts, Joshua, Saul, Nephi, etc.). If I were asked, I would spend a lot of time on my knees making sure it was what God wanted. I don't follow men, I follow God who works through good men, and it's up to me to make sure I'm on His side, wherever that is.

* It's rare that I disagree, I almost always believe it's what's best at the time. One example of me disagreeing was when we were asked by a Stake President to not watch TV for a month. I didn't think it made much sense at the time, but I understood the point and I did it. I think in the end it was a good experience, and I felt good knowing my willpower was strengthened a little. Even so, those kinds of requests are incredibly rare in the church...

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Why I love my mom

Most folks on Mother's Day talk about how wonderful and perfect their mothers were -- but I'll spare you that.

My mom is a terrific mom, but that's not why I'm writing this. A clean house, great figure, and fresh baked bread don't matter much to a little kid. This little kid, yours truly, appreciated the band-aids on scraped knees, her time teaching me to make chocolate chip cookies and snuggling on her lap when it was cold. I miss that comfortable and secure feeling knowing that mom was there, and everything would be okay.

Not only that -- my mom never gave up, even when things went wrong or crazy (even in the rare case when the wrong or crazy was her fault). Having that example is priceless for a kid surrounded by people giving up when things got hard. At every crossroads in her life she had a choice, whether to do the easy things, or the right things -- but she knew what was right and she did it.

You do what your parents did unless you consciously decide to do differently. I'm so grateful for a good set of "defaults".

I love you, Mom.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Approaching Mormon Doctrine

Learning about a religion can be daunting, especially when practically speaking, unbiased information doesn't exist!

Today the Church released a nice summary of how to approach "Mormon" doctrine. I especially appreciate the emphasis on the need to distinguish what's important from what's not. The core "Mormon" doctrine is not about polygamy or temples or jello salad -- it's about Jesus Christ and his mission. Everything else is ancillary.

Along a similar vein, for those who are skeptical about the Book of Mormon and still haven't read it, here's a 2-page summary of the doctrines from the January and July 2004 Ensigns (Church magazines).

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

PBS: The Mormons -- Update

"Mormonism teaches love and respect, but..."
"The Mormon home is a haven from the world, but..."
"For Mormons, temples are the holiest places on earth, but..."
Sound familiar? I'm seriously surprised that this program would've been considered "balanced". Most of the speakers were non-members who were only casually knowledgeable about the church, or excommunicated members*. This is like producing a piece on Germany using mostly British and French university professors (and German expatriates!).

For those who are troubled by what was said, make sure you visit Jeff Lindsay's site. There's another side to the issues that wasn't presented. "Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish." - Austin Farrer. And there's *plenty* of argument for most of what was said.

* Getting excommunicated is not easy -- you basically have to either do something terrible, or actively do very wrong things and flat refuse to even *try* to change. These aren't just poor souls who didn't fit the "mold".

Monday, April 30, 2007

"And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not."

Conjecture, innuendo, rumor, and outright falsehoods are vomited back into our faces once again. The new PBS Frontline special, "The Mormons", is almost entirely negative -- ignoring beautiful truths and positing misunderstood tenets as the shaky foundation of a rotten religion. Sad.

Each aspect of the church's history can be viewed in a positive light or a negative light. The producers have chosen mostly to ignore the positive viewpoint and only present the negative viewpoints, over and over. I fear mainstream Christianity would fare much worse if given this same treatment.

Early faithful church members wrote their point of view, and outsiders and disaffected members wrote theirs -- I wasn't there, so I don't know for sure which is true. However I have entire books written by the men being denigrated here, and their words are incredibly inspiring. Feel free to read the writings of Brigham Young or Wilford Woodruff to see what I mean. "Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet [water] and bitter?"

The masses wanted Jesus crucified in his day, and things haven't much improved. Don't buy it.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Rotating desktop pictures from an iPhoto smart album

When I was little we'd often go on long roadtrips. I remember being surprised that my dad was constantly fascinated by the scenery, especially the scenery he saw the last time we drove down that road! Still, as long as the view changed noticeably between times when I'd look up out the window, I felt like we were making progress.

Same deal for my desktop picture. As long as it changes periodically, I feel like I'm getting somewhere. If it's set to random, my brain somehow thinks that someone smarter than me is driving this car, and we'll be at a better place soon.* "How much longer?" "5 more minutes."

But tonight, I noticed that if I select an iPhoto album, it grays out the "Change picture" option, meaning that I have to drive the car! Why can't it drive? What could be so hard about that?

Well, here's an option for people who really want to do it and who aren't afraid of copy/pasting regular expressions and into the Terminal:
  1. Make a new folder called "Desktop Pictures" (or whatever) in your /Pictures folder
  2. Open a new plain text document in BBEdit ($$) or TextWrangler (free, both available from
  3. Open iPhoto, then select all the pictures in the album you want and cmd-drag them to the new BBEdit or TextWrangler document -- this should insert the path to each of the pictures on its own line
  4. In that text document, replace "(.+)" with "ln -s '\1' ." (without the double quotes, make sure "Use Grep" is checked on)
  5. Open up the terminal, enter this and hit return: cd ~/Pictures/Desktop\ Pictures
  6. Then select all the lines from the text document and drag them into the Terminal window
  7. Switch back to the Desktop system preference, pick "Choose folder", and select the /Pictures/Desktop\ Pictures folder
Now you should be able to on-click the "Change picture" setting. It won't auto-update if you change the contents of the album, but this is pretty close to what we wanted. =)

* Not really, but a little. Ask me about sleeping on an elevated bed sometime.

Saturday, January 6, 2007

Response from Senator Kyl

Here's the response I got from Senator Kyl:

I'm not really sure if he read my email or not. Of course I would expect that a good politician would respond to letters and emails, probably with a canned/bland smattering of gratitude and praise. A better politician would have his staffers generate a dozen or so canned responses to common concerns and mechanically dole them out. The best politician would have his staffers weed out the banal and asinine, then personally review the rest. I like to think my idea was more than just a general concern about balancing the budget, but I guess I don't know exactly what goes on over there.

It's too late for my idea now. Here's a new one: Appoint an independent commission to monitor congressmen -- if any accept anything material from a lobbyist or insert any "pork" into a bill, they're sent to jail.

We'd probably see quite a few not run for reelection. Of course, what congressman in his right mind would vote for that bill? So who exactly is going to make Congress do the right things? Us? The President?

That was really the point of my original suggestion.

Does anyone read this thing?

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