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.

Does anyone read this thing?

views since Feb. 9, 2008