Thursday, December 18, 2008

Dear Wal-mart, Welcome to the Digital Age

A week or so ago, I finally got my family to sit still in our living room long enough to snap a quick family photo for use on Christmas photo cards we planned to send out this year. After editing the image just a bit to fix some weird shadows, adjust the colors, and try to fake some depth, I called Amy up to inspect the results. She was pleased: "It looks good. It almost looks like a professional photograph." So, I uploaded the image to walmart.com, selected the photo card layout I wanted, and ordered a bunch of them. Here's the photo:

I got a call a couple of hours later from the local Wal-mart Photo Lab:

"Hello, Mr. Pilato?"

"Yes I am."

"We're sorry, but we can't print your photo cards unless you bring us a release form."

"But ... but ... I took the picture myself with my little Canon S410!"

"We've been looking at the picture for a while, and it really looks professionally done."

There ensued another few minutes of hassling here, some of which revealed that if our fireplace had been black instead of gold, it wouldn't have looked so much like a faux matte background. Finally, the Wal-mart employee gave up some critical ground:

"Mr. Pilato, if you could just make a release form giving yourself permission to print the image, we'll do it. We just have to cover ourselves. I'm sure you understand."

"Wait. You want me to what? You know what — nevermind. I'll do it. Thanks."

I hung up the phone, paused for a moment to verify that I wasn't dreaming all of this, and fired up OpenOffice Writer. The following is the release letter I took with me when I picked up the photo cards the next day:

Even though I find it completely ridiculous that I have to do such…

I, C. MICHAEL PILATO, do hereby grant unlimited printing release to MYSELF for the following:

One (1) photo of my own family (Mike, Amy, Gavin & Amy), taken by myself with my own Canon Powershot S410 Digital ELPH camera (serial number **********) in my own living room, with the camera set to use the 10-second shot timer while sitting on a 6-inch mini-tripod atop one of my TV stands, in front of my fireplace – which is gold even though my wife wants it to be black (because that's what the previous homeowners liked, we suppose) – and Photoshopped on my wife's computer to crop the original image, brighten the photo, adjust the colors a little bit, and fake some depth by slightly blurring everything in the image except the human subjects in the foreground.

This release is fully transferable by the above named FOR ANY REASON WHATSOEVER, and a copy of this document should be considered adequate proof of release.

Note for printer: While I am not a professional photographer, I am a pretty darned good image editor, and pride myself on making photos taken with a sub-professional, non-SLR camera look as if they were taken by more advanced equipment. However, if further information or verbal confirmation is needed per your company policy, please do not hesitate to call me at ***-***-****.

I guess this bit of sarcasm is on file somewhere at Wal-mart now, protecting them from the threat of a copyright-related lawsuit.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Q4H: What did the seven thunders say?

Today's reading has me in the book of Revelation. This book is an interesting read, as the whole thing is a massive vision given to a man named John who was living in exile on the tiny Greek island of Patmos. Is the vision full of allegory and metaphor, or is it to be interpreted literally? Well, that's an entirely different — and much larger — "question for Heaven".

Today, however, I have a more specific question. (Though, I won't be surprised if this turns out to be just the first of many such questions I have about this book's content.) In chapter 10, John is witnessing a strange event. A mighty angel is straddling earth and sea and toting a little scroll. Read with me from Revelation 10:2-4:

2 He was holding a little scroll, which lay open in his hand. He planted his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the land, 3 and he gave a loud shout like the roar of a lion. When he shouted, the voices of the seven thunders spoke. 4 And when the seven thunders spoke, I was about to write; but I heard a voice from heaven say, "Seal up what the seven thunders have said and do not write it down."

By now, my question is probably obvious: What was it that the seven thunders said, and why was John instructed not to reveal this?

I'd love to hear some scholarly opinions about this. Googling around turned up all kinds of not-so-defensible opinions, but maybe somebody else has a saner suggestion?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Faithless footnotes

Mood: A little confused, with a hint of irritation.

The Bible I primarily read is The Student Bible, an NIV version "with notes by Philip Yancey and Tim Stafford." Today's reading has me in the minor prophet Micah's little book. As I started reading chapter 4, the text sounded a little familiar to me. Sure enough, I ran into one of the mini-sidebars in the text added for explanation presumably by Misters Yancey and Stafford. The note reads:

4:3 Parallel with Isaiah

Micah 4:1-3, which describes the wonderful future in store for the world, has an almost exact parallel in Isaiah 2:2-4. Isaiah must have quoted Micah, or vice versa, or perhaps both quoted a third unknown prophet. Both prophets spoke in Jerusalem at about the same time.

My questions of the note-writers are: "How can you possibly have crawled the entire Bible, adding scholarly notes at a rate of approximately one note per every two chapters, and come to the conclusion that the only way Isaiah and Micah could have both managed to reveal the word of the Lord near-identically is if they were sharing source material? Did it never occur to you that God might say the exact same thing to more than one person?"

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Freedom and the legislation of morality

The United States of America boasts of many things, but this country has prided itself foremost on being a symbol of freedom — for its own citizens, as well as for those around the world who live under the thumb of oppression — for as long as I can remember. We sing about liberty and freedom in our songs. We chant them in our pledges. We've inscribed them into our Constitution and pretty much every other defining document related to this great country. And yet, every day someone in this country — or perhaps everyone in some fashion — hurts because there's a giant hole where some aspect of what they would deem their personal freedom should be.

A few days ago, Americans in three states voted affirmatively on propositions which ban gay marriages in their states via amendments to those states' constitutions. The most newsworthy of these appears to be the passage of Prop 8 in California, a state typically viewed as a bastion of liberalism. Homosexuals and their supporters are crying foul, frusrated that freedoms and rights have, in their eyes, been stolen from them by a statistically unimpressive majority of voters. Opponents of gay marriage, however, will celebrate these amendments as victories in their struggle to prevent government approval of lifestyles they believe are immoral.

The infamous Roe v. Wade decision which legitimized abortion over 30 years ago is far from a matter of settled case law. People are still investing their entire lives into either fighting for the reversal of, or fighting for the preservation (and perhaps expansion) of, that ruling. Those in favor of the right to abort fight in the name of women's freedom; those against fight for the freedoms of the defenseless unborn.

Freedom and its pursuit takes us into many other hotly contested areas, often with serious consequences for poor decisions. There are lives at stake in foreign wars. There are lives at stake in our immigration situation. In the financial collapse. In our lack of energy self-sufficiency. In our education system. In our collapsing family structure. Everywhere you turn you find cold, hard realities that demand an answer. On my darkest days, I'd swear that freedom is literally killing us.

As I approached the voting booth on November 4, all of this was weighing on my mind, so much so that I felt absolutely joyless as I participated in what should have been an exciting thing. As an American, I have the ability to influence (albeit somewhat indirectly) the leadership of my country. When you really think about it, that's awesome. I didn't get to choose my parents. I have very little choice about the links in the chain of command above me at my job. But I get to help choose which people will sit at — and in the neighborhood of — the most powerful desk in the entire world. But despite the sheer power I held in my black pen as I marked that ballot (we don't yet have cool electronic voting systems here in Cabarrus County), I felt no joy. None.

Why is voting such a drag for me? What tempted me so strongly to stay home on Tuesday and sit this one out?

I guess I have to blame myself, really. I've deferred for so many years the formation of a solid, defensible opinion about a single topic, and that topic has in the last two Presidential elections demanded a clear stance. The topic is the role of Government in legislating morality, and specifically how to balance the freedom we all have to sin with the fact that even personal sin isn't good for society as a whole. Perhaps naively I'd like to think that Government could gracefully back out of most of those discussions, but practically speaking that doesn't seem to be the reality of the situation. Whatever the state of things, by not having a clear stance on the matter, I feel like I cheated my country out of a well-informed vote. For this, I apologize. Unfortunately, I stand today in no better position than I did this past Tuesday.

It's cliché to say that Election 2008 was yet another instance of being forced to "choose between the lesser of two evils". Mind you, I don't actually think either candidate is evil. But I've been taught that those things which are unethical or immoral (by God's standards, not by the shifting sands of society's ideals) are precisely the things which ought not to be legitimized, romanticized, or endorsed by Government. And so it's very hard to be happy about even the most charismatic and intelligent of candidates when he'll likely be a fat rubber stamp on the sin-endorsing legislation of his far-less-respectable Congressional peers. But then, it's equally hard to be happy about even the more experienced candidate when you believe his best ideas are someone else's and the rest of his ideas are only as well-formed as, well, my opinions on this matter — that kind of cluelessness in the uppermost ranks also leads, ultimately, to lost lives.

So, it seems I've got some homework to do over the next couple of years. Studying the writing of our country's founders. Studying our Constitution. Understanding freedom. Understanding "rights". And trying to do it all while remembering that "a more perfect union" is an overwhelming challenge when all of its parts are so far from perfection.

Got suggestions for my reading list?

Monday, November 10, 2008

Oh yeah? Well...

About a week ago, a worship leader was introducing himself to me and my family. Gavin proudly routed around my legs to shake the stranger's hand.

"I'm Gavin," he offered. "And this," he said while pointing to Aidan, "is my brother Aidan. I'm five, and he's three."

Pretty routine, as introductions go, right? But then, after a brief pause, Gavin let Mr. Worship Leader know exactly how this particular introduction was unique — how at this moment the man was shaking the hands of a very cool family. Gavin aimed his grin at the man's face, and fired a single round: "And my Mom runs Linux."

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Pascal's Wager found useless — news at (Hebrews) 11

One common argument that Christians use to persuade atheists to risk a belief in God runs like so:

God is or He is not... Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.

Of course, it typically comes out these days sounding a touch more linguistically modern: "If God exists and you believe in Him, you win big; if God exists and you don't believe in Him, you lose really big; and if God doesn't exist, it doesn't matter what you think. But why risk it?" The original quote sounds old because it is — it comes from 17th century mathematician Blaise Pascal, and is commonly referred to as Pascal's Wager

I grew up hearing this sort of argument all the time. All the time. It wasn't until much later in life that I learned of its origins. And of its shortcomings. Namely, that the whole thing depends on God necessarily rewarding folks for believing in Him. Christians, of course, think that dependency is met by simple evaluation of the nature and recorded words of God — of course God wants us to believe in Him. But you can't play those cards with an atheist, since you have yet to establish that the God with said nature exists.

Now, if you're reading this and expect my next paragraph to be a newly revised wager that's logically solid, I'm sorry to disappoint you. I'm only here to say to that in my Bible reading for today, I came across a verse that — perhaps loosely interpreted — pretty much shoots Pascal's wager in the foot on the same grounds. Hebrews 11:6 says:

And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

Did you catch that? Not only does the author of Hebrews state up front that belief in God's existence requires faith — that is, cannot be proven empirically — but then he says that even if you get that far, you need still more faith to believe that God actually wants you to seek Him. This pretty much buries Pascal's Wager. But at least atheism can't say it was first to bury it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

"...there's just something about that name."

A most peculiar thing happened in and around me on the flight back from Germany last Friday. I was pretty tired when I settled into seat 35C of Lufthansa flight LH428 from Munich to Charlotte. In fact, I fell asleep before the plane was pushed back away from the gate, and woke nearly an hour into the flight. As I was waking, a young child was just settling into her Daddy's lap for a nap in the seats to my right (and back a little ... a half-row offset). The family in seats 35D-35G was comprised of a man, woman, and two beautiful little girls of maybe 3 and 6 years of age. The youngest girl was the one nodding off as I woke. After taking in my surroundings (since my sleepy head clearly missed the chance to do so when I boarded the plane), I turned my attention elsewhere.

A couple of hours later, the little girl woke, whining. The whining turned to crying tinged with the occasional "Owie", and then the whole bit transformed into outright screaming. She was obviously in pain, not merely unhappy. My guess was that her ears were bothering her. She continued quite loudly expressing her pain for at least five minutes, during which she was passed from her father to her mother. Many in the cabin were rubbernecking to see what was going on, and when the mother was asked directly about the child's problem, I overheard the response: "She has an ear infection."

If there's one thing I knew at that moment, it was how painful flying with ear issues can be. On a recent return flight from California, both of my ears refused to "pop", and I was tormented for a half-hour by the nearly unbearable pain that results. It can be a bit like having nails driven into your ears, if you haven't experienced it. I tried everything at the time—drinking water, yawning, chewing gum, forcing high pressure into my ears. Nothing worked.

As I recalled that pain from just a few months ago and imagined what that precious little girl was going through, I realized something: my cheeks were cold, with trails of tears coming down them. Some may say it isn't "manly" to cry. I say it isn't manly to be so self-consumed that you risk not caring for the suffering innocent. And so I did the only thing I could do at the time: I prayed.

Now, I don't consider myself a prayer warrior by any stretch. I don't lay claim to any of supernatural spiritual gifts so celebrated in charismatic congregations today. I'm guilty of slapping the old "inJesusnameAmen" at the end of my utterances, and usually with nary a thought as to who Jesus is and why in the world we pray in his name, anyway. But the seeming injustice of a little girl in pain on this airplane was overwhelming to me at that moment, and so I prayed for her relief. And because I've been taught that there is power in the name of Jesus, and because at that rare moment I was able to believe wholesale that God could and would spare this child, I prayed specifically in the name of Jesus Christ for this relief to occur.

Now, if there another thing I knew at that moment, it was about waves of warmth. I take a medicine that can cause flushing incidents—basically, your body feels like it's on fire on the inside, your skin turns splotchy red, and for a couple of hours everything that touches you feels like it's made of straight pins. I also know that when I get emotional—especially when I'm angry—a wave of heat passes over my body and I'm a sweaty mess in three seconds flat. But at the very moment that I invoked the name of Jesus in my prayer, I felt something like that wave of heat pass over me, but without the typical tell-tale sweaty results. Almost immediately, the screaming girl in row 35 began to calm down, and soon was asleep in her father's lap again.

In the name of full disclosure, I noticed that at about the time I was praying, the parents were administering an oral medication. Maybe that stuff is powerful enough to dissolve that kind of pain in thirty seconds flat. I can only speak to the situation as I perceived it, and to the extent that I was involved.

To the family in row 35 of flight LH428 on Friday, October 17, I hope your little girl heals quickly. You as parents showed an incredible amount of patience in what could have been a stressful and embarrassing situation, and are to be commended for it. And while I'll never be able to say for sure whether God intervened in this situation, I am confident of two things: He is a just God who cares for people, and for once I did in faith exactly what I was supposed to do.

Monday, October 20, 2008

SubConf/Munich trip wrap-up

Last week, after a wonderful beach vacation, I was in Munich, Germany for SubConf 2008. First of all, I'd just like to reiterate how weird it is to think that this little open source software project called Subversion has become such a worldwide ... thing. If you had asked me seven years ago how I saw all this playing out, I'm not exactly sure what I would have said, but I can pretty much guarantee the words "worldwide user conference" would not have been a part of it. And this year—bonus!—we were able to combine the user conference with a simultaneously happening developer summit.

The start of the week found me still awake, very sleepy, and frantically working to setup a new work laptop. We got back from vacation Saturday afternoon, picking up this new laptop from Amy's parents' place before we arrived at our own home. We unpacked the car, began sorting the dirty laundry, and started the night-long process of cleaning every article of clothing in the house. While the washer and dryer were doing their thing, I was shrinking partitions and installing Ubuntu Linux and copying data from backup. So, with three hours of sleep, we headed off to church on Sunday morning. And after church, we came home just long enough for me to pack some last-minute stuff and drive off to the airport.

Now, the flight from Charlotte to Munich is not a short one, but I was only able to grab about an hour-long nap. I arrived in Munich on Monday morning, took a pair of trains to the Riem stop, and began the half-mile walk from the train station to the NH Hotel (where I was staying, and where SubConf was held). Along the way, I passed some friends headed into Munich for some sightseeing: Mark Phippard, Paul Burba, and Hyrum Wright. We agreed to let me check in and drop off my stuff so we could all head out again together.

Munich is a beautiful city, and we had a great time trampsing around it. Much of what I saw was stuff I'd seen last year, but it was great to revisit these places with a different group of folks. We got a few rounds of laughs at Hyrum's "mission", which was allegedly about picking up some textbooks for his professor from a German bookseller, but wound up looking strangely like a shakedown of a nice elderly German lady in a faux antiquities warehouse. And Mark's running narration of a pseudo-history of Germany was a steady source of humor (though, I do fear for his children's future social studies grades).

On Tuesday, the developer summit began. We chronicled much of the happenings there at http://svn-summit.open.collab.net/, so I won't repeat them here. But I think overall the meeting (which continued Wednesday and Thursday, too) was useful for all. Tuesday night the devs sat in a horseshoe shape in front of sixty or so Subversion users to "get drilled" with questions and complaints, but the drilling never happened and folks were (for the most part) quite polite in their feedback.

SubConf proper began on Wednesday. I mostly stayed with the other devs in the summit room. I gave the last talk of the evening in one of the tracks, just providing a heads up about what we expect to be released in Subversion 1.6, as well as a little bit about what's currently in the oven for future releases. As always, I was a touch nervous when I first began the talk, but I got over it quickly enough. Honestly, I'd prefer to just field questions so that I know that what I'm saying is at least addressing one person's needs, rather than dumping my previously prepared information in the laps of folks who may or may not care at all.

Thursday I again chose to attend the developer summit rather than the SubConf presentations.

I still managed to find my way into many side conversations with non-devs over the course of the three days, so I definitely would not count this as a missed opportunity to connect with Subversion's users. And of course the nights ran long as I was hacking on Subversion's 'fs-rep-sharing' logic, releasing ViewVC 1.0.7, and so on. When I finally landed in Charlotte Friday evening after a ten-hour flight, I think I'd had about twenty hours of sleep in six days. But it was so worth it!

Here are some of the highlights for me, in no particular order:

  • The Subversion Developer Round Table, which I half-suspected was going to be underpopulated and shy on audience participation, was neither. Conference organizers were surprised by the turnout, and there were almost no moments of awkward silence.
  • Meeting some of the other developers I hadn't met before: Erik Hülsmann, Bert Huijben, Neels Hofmeyr, and so on.
  • As Hyrum noted on his blog, the somewhat spontaneous emergence of the idea of "packing" Subversion FSFS revision shards was both unexpected and a source of pleasant reflection throughout the conference.
  • High-bandwidth discussion with other developers. I love my wife and kids, and they are great sounding boards for development ideas, but the feedback quality is — somewhat lacking.
  • Erik H. rockin' the red corduroy pants, red sweater, and red-and-white striped shirt beneath. I can't pull off style like that.
  • Souvenir (and dinner) hunting with Hyrum on Thursday evening.

Oh! And as a special treat, I got to design the T-shirt for the developer summit. It's pretty geeky, a cartoon about the resolution of so-called "tree conflicts". But then, why shouldn't a geek gathering have a geeky commemorative shirt? (By the way, I did the entire design in Windows using OpenOffice Draw, with final touch-ups in PhotoShop—much thanks to the folks at Contagious Graphics in Charlotte who fast-tracked this order through while I was at the beach.)

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Mistrials in the Court of Public Opinion

Last night, Amy and I watched an hour-long preview of the DVD release Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West. (I'm not sure how you can call an hour-long movie a "preview" when the full version is only 17 minutes longer, but I digress.) We got the DVD from a friend who lives in Charlotte, who had gotten it via its inclusion in a recent edition of The Charlotte Observer. We were in the mood for a movie, but it was getting late and we didn't want to invest in a two-hour romantic comedy, so we popped this disk in instead.

As a piece of documentary, it was interesting. Not the most exciting thing in the world, but definitely interesting. The film begins with a pretty clear explanation that it is talking exclusively about a particular minority subgroup of the Muslim population that promotes and engages in acts of violence, not about the majority of Muslims who are peaceful, law-abiding citizens. Most of the film consists of footage from Iranian and Arabian television broadcasts, with bits of commentary from a handful of folks (a former PLO terrorist, the daughter of a suicide bomber, an anti-Semitism expert, an ex-Hitler Youth officer, etc.) between clips. The television footage — especially the stuff showing children passionately reciting jihadist poetry and huge assemblies of people chanting "Death to America" — are intriguing enough. But the commentators serve to add the "personal touch" plea for awareness and action by all people (Muslim or otherwise).

After the film was over, Amy and I were both of the same frame of mind. You might assume we were angry at Islam or something. You'd be wrong. Our mindset was one of sadness on behalf of the children taught to hate and kill in the name of Allah. We had brief discussion about the movie, then turned off the lights to go to sleep. But just as we were doing so, Amy wanted to know more about the folks who produced the film. I had noticed that the copyright on the disc was for 2006, which seemed odd as I was seeing it for the first time in 2008. I had even rhetorically asked Amy earlier, "Why is this just now coming out, seven years after 9/11?" And we both wondered if the Observer was the only newspaper that participated in this distribution. So we got back out of bed to hover around the computer.

The movie's website wasn't able to quickly answer the question about which newspapers participated in the distribution of the DVD, so we started Googling around. (We later found some of that information on the movie's Wikipedia page.) We visited a handful of top results in our Google searches, and every site we found was criticizing the film, its producers, or the recent distribution. But what turned our mood from sadness into frustration was that none of the criticism was about factual inaccuracies in the film, but about tangential issues. Most of what we saw was one of the following:

  • Complaints from Muslim groups saying that the film enforces a negative stereotype of all Muslims and would encourage hate crimes against Muslims. I dunno. The movie does carry the disclaimer I mentioned at the beginning of the film, carries video footage of Tony Blair echoing the same sentiments in person at the end of the film, and everywhere in-between the commentators are careful to speak about "radical Islamists" or "jihadists" and appealing to the peaceful majority of Islam-dom to decry the violence of the radical wing thereof. I guess I don't see how this piece of film could possibly affect the Muslim stereotype more than is already done every time one of the Islamic terror groups gets mentioned on the evening news for perpetrating their violence d'jour.
  • Complaints that the film is clearly a political piece promoting a particular candidate for the U.S. Presidency. But I don't recall the movie or its packaging ever mentioning any such candidates or political parties. Unless I'm mistaken, the only times you see American political figures in the film is in radical Muslim propaganda footage portraying George W. Bush as evil (which is pretty common in American media, too). The claim is apparently that the film's backers are decidedly pro-McCain, anti-Obama. But that sentiment is simply not present in the film itself. You'd need out-of-band information to draw that conclusion, the most influential of which is the viewer's already-formed opinions about a particular candidate's ability and willingness to respond to the described threat.

In other words, what we quickly found by Googling around was the online equivalent of a mistrial.

To the Muslims concerned that documentaries on radical Islamic jihadists will enhance negative stereotypes of all Muslims: It is certainly disappointing that that's probably true for some viewers. Every documentary about Death Row enforces negative stereotypes of black males in some folks' minds. Every documentary about gang violence enforces negative stereotypes of the ethnic groups represented in those gangs. Every documentary about The Crusades or Christian abortion clinic bombers enforces negative stereotypes of Christians like myself, too. (Sheesh, the media tends to negatively portray even peaceful, law-abiding Christians, for that matter.) I think people cling to stereotypes because we all inherently like to categorize stuff, and stereotypes are the intellectually easy way to do that categorization. The questions that all folks who are victims of unfair stereotypes must ask of themselves is, "What am I doing to correct or refine that inaccurate stereotype?" Are you and I and the Jew and the black man and the Latino and the [insert stereotyped person here] supporting our respective stereotypes with our lives, or do we daily disprove that we are what the weak-minded claim we are? Do we speak out against the crimes committed by people "like us", or does our silence allow folks to assume we support those crimes?

I don't know if there's some political agenda behind the recent distribution of this film. My heart tells me there probably is. But if that's the point that everyone is dwelling on, am I alone in thinking that's sorta bad? Is the documentary a giant lie? If so, discredit it with the truth. But if it isn't — if, in fact, radical Islam is as the DVD suggests a historical recurrence of the pattern last seen in the ethnic cleansing perpetrated by Nazi Germany — does it ultimately matter why the documentary was distributed? Would not the terrorism itself be considered a somewhat more high-priority issue than who paid what to inform us about it and why they did so? One would think so.

Monday, September 29, 2008

ALL YOUR TEXT-BASE ARE BELONG TO US

I was thinking about some T-shirt designs this weekend, and one train of thought derailed into the following diversion. Enjoy.

Background: A couple of months ago, Greg Stein announced his intent to return to Subversion development, among other things. Since then, Greg's been undertaking a beast of a task: redesigning Subversion's working copy management library. As for the "All your base…" stuff, see Wikipedia's "All Your Base" page for more on what that's all about.

Greg: sorry, buddy, I couldn't help myself. Glad to have you back.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Righteous war: snapshot of a five-year-old's mind

My five-year-old son, Gavin, just came upstairs to my office — a pint-sized bundle of tornadoesque energy and noise. Today "the good guys" and "the bad guys" are flying fighter jets (which look, ironically, exactly like the ASL handshape for "I love you"). Now, I'm still not terribly comfortable with my kids embracing imaginative play involving weapons. On the one hand, I know that boys — especially at my boys' ages, and unlike their female counterparts — need rough and tumble play with strong male role models as part of proper gender identification. On the other hand, I don't want my little guys desensitized to unnecessary or unlawful violence (though I'm fighting an uphill battle against the entirety of mainstream media in this, it seems). So I decided to interrogate Gavin about his play today.

"What makes the Bad Guys bad?" I asked.

"The Bad Guys are the ones doing bad things, Daddy."

"Okay, but sometimes you do bad things, too. So do I. So does Mommy. So do your Good Guys, I'm sure."

"But my Bad Guys are the ones with the guns."

"Your Good Guys have guns, too, though. I dunno, Buddy — I can't see any difference between your Good Guys and your Bad Guys."

At this, Gavin paused. You could almost smell the grease in his mental gears as they warmed into steady rotation. Finally, he asserted, "But the Bad Guys are using their guns to hurt other people, and the Good Guys are trying to help those people."

"Well done, son. Have fun playing."

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Version Control With Subversion, 2e

The second edition of Version Control With Subversion went off to the print shop this past Friday, and you can already read the official O'Reilly digital version thereof on their Safari Books Online service. This second edition covers Subversion 1.5.0 and all its new features, including merge tracking, changelists, sparse directories, SASL support, and so on.


Click to Buy

I dunno how my co-authors (Ben Collins-Sussman and Brian Fitzpatrick) feel about it, but I am really glad to be finished with this edition. Authoring a book — even just filling in the holes of an existing book for a second edition thereof — is a really time-consuming process! Our first edition was published in 2004 and covered Subversion 1.0. So that meant we needed to have the text updated to cover four more years' and four more major releases' worth of Subversion's maturation. Granted, we'd been more-or-less keeping our text up to date with each release of Subversion as it came out. But the text authorship was nothing compared to the copyediting stages and the tight production schedule there at the end.

Lest anyone misunderstand me, I want to state for the record that all the folks we interacted with at O'Reilly are awesome. Not only were we able to write our book in a completely open format (DocBook XML), but O'Reilly now does all the book fancification in the same format. They were cool enough to give us commit access to their production repository so we could more quickly port changes between our book source files and their copies, and vice-versa. O'Reilly rules!

The pain for us was the scheduling — both the overall length of the process, and the final drive to completion. We were originally contracted to put out a book about Subversion 1.4. But it started looking like Subversion 1.5 would be released about the same time as our 1.4-based book. Well, clearly it didn't make sense to do that, so we negotiated with O'Reilly a change of plans — to publish a book that covered Subversion 1.5 instead. Sadly, Subversion 1.5's schedule slipped. And slipped. And slipped some more. Scope creep and eleventh-hour code reworkings there meant more writing and re-writing for us, and, of course, delayed the whole publishing schedule. And it would have been worse were it not for some incredible volunteer technical reviewers that stepped up to help double-check our work.

But enough of my whining. The point of this post is to announce that the hard work and late nights has finally paid off. We have a second edition at the print shop right now, and only three months after Subversion 1.5.0 was released. We've already gotten some great early feedback on the new edition (the book itself is developed in the public under an open license at http://svnbook.red-bean.com), so we are optimistic that this new edition will serve as a useful addition to the libraries — physical or digital — of Subversion users of all flavors.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Mission accomplished. Well, mostly.

My wife's computer is now running Ubuntu Linux 8.04 (hardy heron). She no longer has any dependency on Microsoft software. I didn't think it was possible, but I might have fallen just a little bit more in love with her.

Actually, the sad truth is that for now I'm the one that still has a couple of Windows dependencies. (Those would be easily remedied by a conversion to Apple products, but that's never struck me as worthwhile maneuver.) I maintain a personal wiki page that tracks the pieces of software I need to be available (and not awful) on Linux before my dependency is broken, and over the years progress has been steadily made in that space. So, if you're a FOSS junky and you work on multi-track audio software, multi-track video editing software, DVD authoring software, or a good Microsoft Money/Quicken clone, you have my undivided attention!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Control at Any Cost, Revisited

In Control At Any Cost: Copyright vs Christian Rock, I told the story of my school-of-hard-knocks introduction to the Internet, copyright, and the often ugly places where the two collide. Judging by the banner I saw today atop pwarchive.com — a popular Christian praise and worship music website — I'd say that not much has changed in the decade since those events occurred.

Pwarchive.com is a site similar in some ways to OLGA or the old CCM Guitar Music Archives, but much more technologically advanced. The site maintains a database of common Christian praise songs, and tracks separate bits of metadata about each song (such as its lyrics, chords, stanza information, etc.). You can hide or show each class of metadata independently of the others as you see fit, and — perhaps the handiest feature of all — you can even dynamically transpose those chords into arbitrary keys.

Pwarchive.com has — for as long as I've been aware of it, anyway — been sensitive to copyright matters. Many of the songs don't allow you see the lyrics at all, but instead display floating guitar chord names atop the spots where lyrics would have appeared. If you're familiar with such a song, that tends not to be much of a problem, especially since you can generally find the song's lyrics elsewhere online pretty easily. But I call out this fact about pwarchive.com to make a point: the folks running it appear to be genuinely trying behave within the bounds of current copyright law.

And so it was disappointing to me to find the following notice near the top of pwarchive.com's pages today:

Here's what that pink notice box says:

Notice
Pwarchive has been contacted by the Church Music Publishers Association and have been asked to remove all lyrics from the site due to copyrights. Over the next few days, work is going to be done to comply with this. Please join the mailing list for all future updates. Want to help?

Additional details on this matter can be found on the copyright page which will contain future updates. Sign the petition to as CMPA members to grant licenses to Pwarchive.

I'm well aware of many of the criticisms leveled at the so-called Christian music industry. I'm familiar also with the "Christian artists have to pay bills, too" defense of this type of pre-litigation action. And, as the fine folks over at QuestionCopyright.org can attest, notices of this sort are (unfortunately) common indications of "business as usual" in the Digital Age. Few — if any — industries are exempt from the complexities of copyright law and its enforcement.

But I struggle to understand what causes a mostly evangelical subculture to actually go out of its way to prevent the most widespread dissemination of its message possible today via the Internet. Why are Christian musicians giving up their rights to publishers like this? Or at least, why are they doing so in ways that permit those publishers to restrict the viral expansion of music and lyrics penned — if the artists themselves are to be believed — to honor God and reach others with Christ's story of sacrifice? Jesus' made some observations about the ultimate extent of true loyalty, found in Matthew 6:24 (and again in Luke 16:13): "No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money." Which master is being served here?

I signed the petition. If you, too, think the CMPA isn't doing "what Jesus would do", perhaps you'll sign it, too.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Flooding in Harrisburg

My town of Harrisburg, NC — and indeed the entire region — has been in a state of moderate drought for the past, I dunno, fourteen months or so. So when we got a solid day of rain yesterday, Amy and I were thankful for it. Who wouldn't be? As helicopters hover over my head right now, I'll tell you who wouldn't be: our neighbors down the street.

Our house is on one of the higher pieces of ground in a neighborhood that is bordered on one side by a creek prone to occasional flooding. So we were blissfully unaware until a few hours ago, as we went about our morning, that just 200 yards away were several homes whose first floors were under water! Amy had left the house to take the boys to Romp n' Roll for some activities, but called my cellphone shortly thereafter saying she was coming back home — she couldn't go anywhere without hitting flood waters.

From our neighborhood, the rest of the world is accessible (by road anyway) only via Stallings Road. To the west, Stallings Road was flooded across some low-lying cow pastures; to the east, it was flooded at the bridge over that creek that borders the neighborhood. Our neighborhood and the one just west of it are now effectively on an island! It's an island full of people who couldn't get to work today. And, sadly, it's an island not quite big enough (or high enough) to hold all the houses in the neighborhood.

We took a walk down the street to see the damage and find out if there was anything we could do to help. Here are some photos I snapped while there. You can see in some of the photos how high the water line was before we even got down there to take the pictures.

I was told that one of the houses now under water was for sale, set to close today. And while the potential buyers are probably glad they didn't sign yesterday on the place, the sellers have certainly had their world turned upside down. My mother called to tell me that in her neighborhood across town (which is bordered by another creek), the water level rose by over ten feet. Apparently, there are crews acting there in boats to get people out of their homes. And another section of the same creek that runs by my mom's neighborhood flooded over yet another key road, according to the Lathams.

My neighbors appear to be in good spirits, and helping each other. I imagine that elsewhere in Harrisburg, NC, folks are doing the same for their neighbors. And that's just … Right.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Context. It really does matter.

Context is everything.

3 Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and your plans will succeed.

Yes! Prosperity Theology! Name It and Claim It! "Dear God, I commit unto You my big plans to win the lottery without even playing it! I know You have the power to accomplish this in my life, so now I await your outpouring of success."

4 The Lord works out everything for his own ends — even the wicked for a day of disaster.

Doh! "So, um, God … scratch that last one, will You?"

(Quotes taken from Proverbs 16, verse 3 and subsequent verse 4.)

Monday, August 4, 2008

Q4H: Why does God allow suffering?

I was reminded this morning of a question I think most theists — and many atheists, when in let's-just-suppose mode — ask at least once in life: Why does God allow suffering? What's the deal with all the floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, tornadoes, and so on? I certainly have asked this question of Heaven myself.

Some time ago I was pointed to an online audio clip of an NPR interview with John Piper, a pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. You can listen to the interview yourself at http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/Interviews/1678_The_NPR_Tsunami_Interview/. I think Piper's responses throughout the entire interview are amazing — his mastery of Scripture and natural ability to deploy it as needed are incredible. But two threads in this interview really stuck with me:

  1. God is sovereign. Not only can He do anything, He rightly and justly may.
  2. God is always mingling judgment and mercy, both of which are useful for bringing people back to Himself.

Judgment and mercy. The Flood and the Ark. The sweeping through Egypt of the Death Angel and the passover sacrifice. The wages of sin (death) and the gift of God (eternal life through Jesus Christ).

What brought this interview to mind today was a bit from this morning's Bible reading. I'm in the book of Job, now. If you don't know Job's story, it runs something like this:

Once upon a time, there was an extremely wealthy and extremely righteous man named Job. Job had a wife, kids, and crazy amounts of livestock and servants. Job pleased God.

One day, Satan and God were chatting, and God asked Satan if he'd noticed what a good, righteous guy Job was. Satan replied, "Well, of course he's righteous. You've given him everything he could possibly want and more. He only loves you because you're good to him." So God granted Satan permission to do whatever he wanted in Job's life, so long as Job himself was granted immunity. Satan used his temporarily extended leash to kill all of Job's children and most of his servants, and to have his livestock stolen by raiders.

Job was shellshocked, but remained faithful to God (a fact that God bragged about to Satan). Satan said to God, "Yeah, yeah, okay, so he passed the test. But that's only because you didn't let me touch his body." So God fed Satan a few more feet of tether, and Satan struck Job with terrible sores over his entire body.

Thirty-five chapters' worth of (really poetic) dialogue fly by. Job's bummed but still faithful, his wife isn't offering much by way of help ("Just curse God, die, and get it over with already!"), and he has three friends who've come by to cheer him up but seem to offer more mouth than mind. Finally, God Himself comes[1] to speak to Job and his buddies, to set the record straight, and ultimately to restore Job's wealth and rebuild his family. And they all live happily ever after.

Anyway, while reading about Job this morning, I noticed this bit from Job 12:13-15:

To God belong wisdom and power; counsel and understanding are his. What he tears down cannot be rebuilt; the man he imprisons cannot be released. If he holds back the waters, there is drought; if he lets them loose, they devastate the land. [emphasis added]

Why do we — why do I — find it so easy to assign credit (blame) to God for the holding back of good things, yet routinely fail to assign credit (praise) to Him for holding back the bad stuff, too? God may let many problems come our way, but just think about the ones He didn't let come. Two things routinely taught in Christianity are that mankind has a supernatural adversary (Satan) who seeks our ultimate destruction, and that Satan has been given dominion over the earth. How long do you suppose we'd survive if those were the only two factors at work here? So why do we remain? Mercy.

Job had it right. After Round One...

At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship and said: "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised." In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing. [Job 1:20-22]

...and then after he was bodily afflicted:

[Job] replied [to his wife], "You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?" In all this, Job did not sin in what he said. [Job 2:1-3]

[1] By the way, I love how God enters the scene here in Job 38:1-3: "Then the Lord answered Job out of the storm. He said: 'Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.'"

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Justincasion

Over at Stuff Christians Like today, Jon Acuff is remixing one of his previous posts on the topic of subtly finding out if others drink beer, too. It's a humorous look at the awkwardness that exists when two Christians with potentially differing views about the morality of alcohol consumption try to discern each other's beliefs without revealing their own.

I left the following comment on his post:

Jon, this issue is just one of many flavors of a general problem with the Church called "justincasion". Not to be confused with "justification" (remember "just as if I'd never sinned"?), justincasion ("just in case I ever sin") is quite the opposite. Its symptoms include blurred vision, inaccurate depth perception, paranoia, and an odd fascination with sidewalk chalk. To best learn how to identify a person (or organization) suffering from justincasion, let's look at an example. Say, alcohol consumption.

Two people -- one with justification, one with justincasion -- read the same Bible. They both see the same texts prohibiting drunkenness, both read about Jesus turning water into wine, etc. Now, the person with justification recognizes the value of what these scriptures offer: the freedom to drink what he wants so long as he keeps his head, the freedom to celebrate (rather than stifle) important cultural gatherings such as weddings, protection from the consequences of bad decisions made with judgment impaired by alcohol, etc. To the justified person, the law exists to give freedom, not to restrict it.

Enter the justincased guy. The minute he sees words like "not" or "never" in the text, his paranoia kicks in. He begins to sweat the definitions of words such as "drunk" and "wine" and ... "and". While still a little woozy from this sudden onset of Heavenly pressure and the threat of eternal damnation, he does the only thing he knows how to do -- he reaches for his sidewalk chalk. He eyeballs (as best as he can in this state) a "safe zone distance" from the forbidden thing, doubles the distance "just in case", and then draws a circle at that radius around this particular evil on the ground. That line is never, ever, to be crossed. All must remain outside the circle.

Of course, the problem with said circles is that, once you've drawn one around each and every sin in the Book, you find there really isn't all that much of the Earth left not in one of those circles. Getting from one place to another requires carefully planning and often some quite complex acrobatics to avoid falling inside one of the circles and (of course) certain death. The law becomes a burden, causing these people to spend all their time looking down at the ground and the circles instead of looking up to their God.

In fairness to some, there was an important freedom I neglected to mention that is available to the justified person: the freedom to avoid drink altogether for any personal, non-judgmental reason that seems fit to him. This includes abstaining in the presence of others who don't understand the other freedoms, or avoiding things which he from past experience knows leads him into temptations he cannot resist. When in doubt, our relationships with each other should be of far more concern than our relationship with the bottle.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Pranks are fun (and fun is violent)

My wife, Amy, and I have a very playful relationship. We've always placed great value on smiles and laughter, and we want to create for our children an environment which encourages such. Marital roles are a complicated-yet-structured thing, and the overarching goals of the design involve mutual love, respect, co-edification, and a joint effort towards holiness. But when pressed for a quick explanation, we'll skip the philosophy of it all, and tell you that marriage ought to be full of good clean fun!

One way in which we have fun is by playing mild pranks on each other. For example, a few nights ago we were playing Monopoly in our living room. Now, our living room has through the North Carolina summers a tendency to attract such unsavory and unwelcome guests as house centipedes (which we lovingly refer to as "thirty-leggers") and American cockroaches. From June to August, we very rarely enter that room without a cursory scan of the ceiling and fireplace area for "critters". Lately, we haven't seen as many of them, but this didn't stop Amy from — in the middle of our Monopoly game, with my back to the fireplace, and with her giggling about something else — pointing behind me and gasping as if she'd seen the largest dual-headed, ten-legged, armor-plated mutant cockroach in the world about to dig into my skull for some cranial pudding. To say that I "was startled" and "jumped" would be an understatement. Truth be told, I was lucky to survive the ordeal with wearable underpants!

My opportunity for revenge came today. I was working downstairs, and Amy went upstairs to shower before lunch. I gave her some time before heading up after her, then — figuring she was already in the shower — burst into our bathroom feigning a child's voice and saying, "Mommy! Mommy!" Well, she wasn't in the shower. She was almost in the shower, standing on the bathroom scales. At my outburst (or is that, "inburst"?), she grabbed for a towel to cover herself so quickly that she broke the towel rod off the wall. Once she realized it was only me (and the towel rack finished bouncing off the walls and floor), we had a great laugh about it. Oh, sure, I still got the requisite and well-deserved smack, but it was all so worth it.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Subversion 1.5.0 commit history, visually

I was recently introduced to the code_swarm project, which produces this nifty software for generating visual representations of version control repository activity. For kicks, I pieced together a visual history of Subversion 1.5.0. Enjoy! (You might need to view it in fullscreen mode to actually read the committer names and datestamps.)


Subversion 1.5.0 (code_swarm) from C. Michael Pilato on Vimeo.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Aaron Spuler — making Mozilla smile

I've been using Aaron Spuler's Mozilla themes for a few years. I don't know the guy, but for some reason his graphical vision just leads him to places that put happy thoughts in my head. (This is rather in contrast with the default Firefox and Thunderbird themes, which are, shall we say … uninspired.) Anyway, peruse his (free) wares at http://www.spuler.us, and consider sending him a small donation if you dig it, too.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Subversion 1.5 released

Subversion 1.5 — the single largest post-1.0 release of Subversion — was released today. The long wait is over.

And boy do I mean "the long wait". Over two years have been invested into this release, with most of the effort surrounding the flagship feature it delivers — semi-automated tracking of merges. In that time we've added nine fantastic new full committers to the project, a handful of partial committers, and seen contributions from many other volunteers. And I've nothing but praise for Hyrum Wright, our unpaid, volunteer release manager, who patiently endured not just alpha and beta releases but eleven (yes, *sigh*, eleven) release candidates.

One personal benefit of this lengthy process has been the opportunity to speak publicly on the topic several times. From local LUGs and developer groups, to SubConf in Munich last October, to JavaOne CommunityOne last month in San Francisco, and in various blog posts and webinars, I've been able to talk about Subversion 1.5's new features and improvements. I'm not a particularly suave public speaker, but I was surprised to find that I wasn't nearly as nervous about doing these gigs as I thought I would be. But more importantly, each of these public appearances allows me to talk with other folks I've never met before and hear about their excitement around Subversion and the other tools in the Subversion ecosystem. In a few weeks, I'll be in London, speaking at the itSMF-BCS Conference, and once again talking about Subversion 1.5. But this time it will be different. This time, I can talk about the release in the past tense!

For the intimate details of what this Subversion 1.5 brings, what upgrading means in terms of compatibility matters, and so on, I refer you to the official release notes. Also, my employer (CollabNet) has a handy-dandy collection of Subversion-1.5-related documentation, webinars, training session, and other material available.

Subversion 1.5 with merge tracking is released. ALL YOUR BASE[LINE] ARE BELONG TO US

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Songs I wish I could sing

But as for me, I will always have hope; I will praise you more and more.
My mouth will tell of your righteousness, of your salvation all day long, though I know not its measure.
I will come and proclaim your mighty acts, O Sovereign Lord; I will proclaim your righteousness, yours alone.
Since my youth, O God, you have taught me, and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds.
Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, O God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your might to all who are to come.
~ Psalms 71:14-18 (NIV)

Friday, June 13, 2008

"Programmer Insecurity"

Ben Collins-Sussman seems to have found himself squarely in the middle of the "centralized vs. distributed version control" debate. It's not exactly what he intended to do, of course. Ben is just one of those folks who has years of experience in people-watching, and a keen ability to summarize the patterns he sees.

Ben's latest blog post (at the permalink-less URL http://blog.red-bean.com/sussman/?p=96) is more of that observational goodness. This time he tackles programmer insecurity. If you're a programmer, check it out — perhaps Ben is describing someone you know.

(Oh, and his post ventured into The Land of Version Control Tools, so if you wait a few days to read it, you'll almost certainly get bonus entertainment provided by a slew of comments aimed at furthering the which-kind-of-version-control-is-better debate.)

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Final technical review of Version Control with Subversion, 2nd Edition

Ben Collins-Sussman, Brian Fitzpatrick, and I — the primary authors of Version Control with Subversion — are nearing the end of the editing cycle for the second edition of that book. Last week, I put out a call for technical review assistance to the Subversion development community, which you can read at http://svn.haxx.se/dev/archive-2008-06/0278.shtml.

Would you consider helping us out with this task? We can't promise you fame and fortune, but we'd be glad to list you in the acknowledgments section of the book!

Friday, June 6, 2008

It's All Part of The Plan

Today's Bible reading had me in the book of 2 Kings, another in a series of relatively dry books describing the history of the Jews after they settled into the Promised Land. It's been a pretty depressing read as of late. Over twenty times in the books of 1 and 2 Kings alone does the Bible say that somebody — typically one of the kings of either Israel or Judah (yes, a nation split into two, as if the story wasn't enough of a downer) — "did evil in the eyes of the Lord". And usually, that phrase is followed with "… like his father". [Sidebar: Dads, if you think you've got even a remote chance of your kids not learning to behave from own example, you've got another think coming!]

So today I braced myself for more tales of war, deceit, betrayal, and some good old-fashioned doin' evil in the eyes of the Lord. And the reading didn't disappoint. 2 Kings 21 briefly describes Manasseh and Amon as two more of the evil kings.
But there was one bit in a previous chapter (chapter 19) that was actually hopeful; that actually made me read it twice over. In 2 Kings 19, the prophet Isaiah is comforting King Hezekiah (of Judah) with words from the Lord regarding the very real threat of an Assyrian takeover of Jerusalem. Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, had been pen pals as of late with Hezekiah, but was using his quill to hurl insults against God and his people. Hezekiah knows the score: Assyria has basically conquered every land they've stepped foot it, and without some divine intervention, Jerusalem would surely be just another statistic in the Assyrian conquest. And now Isaiah is presenting to Hezekiah God's response to Hezekiah's earnest prayers for help.

You can read the response for yourself in 2 Kings 19:20-31, but if I may, I'll summarize it here. The response goes something like this:
My dearest Sennacherib,
You're nothing.

Yeah, yeah, you talk all big. You've got some military successes behind you, and you're getting a kick out of bragging about all that. I get it. But — oh? what's that? — oh, you didn't know? All that stuff you think you did back then?

That was all me.

You say you knocked over some strong cities? That was me. Oppressed some people? Me again.

It's all part of my plan, a plan I developed looooooong ago. And per my plan, you're time has come. Enough is enough. Lights out. Game over.

Sincerely, Almighty God
Within the time span of the next six verses, Assyria is struck by a plague that kills 185,000 people, and Sennacherib is murdered by his own sons.

God intervenes often in the stories of the Old Testament, but I appreciate how He reminds us now and again that He's ultimately in control of everything, even the stuff that looks at first glance like it's only happening to us because He's too busy to notice how we're getting dumped on.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Review: Buon Gusto Ristorante, South San Francisco, CA

Tonight I had the opportunity to make my second visit to South San Francisco's Buon Gusto Ristorante (located at 224 Grand Avenue). My first visit was probably two years ago, and while I couldn't remember what I'd ordered that night, I did remember two things: I had thoroughly enjoyed the visit, and the complementary Marsala was wonderful. So, finding myself in the area on business with no better plans for the evening, I decided to see if a second visit could live up to the expectations of those memories.

Short answer: you betcha. I'm, like, a sub-amateur reviewer, so don't look for grandiose words here (other than, maybe, "grandiose" — but that's it, no more!). I just know what I like. And tonight, I liked everything.

I was greeted by the owner, who seems like just a classically pleasant man. And the various other staff with whom I interacted shared that quality, too. After being presented with the night's specials, I ordered a glass of the house Chianti, and one of those specials: a sautéed swordfish with a tomato-based and caper-ful sauce, with some spaghetti and vegetables on the side. I opted for salad instead of soup as the appetizer. The salad and wine were each served promptly, and while there was nothing particularly interesting about the salad, it was good. I actually had low expectations for a house wine, but was pleasantly surprised. The entrée arrived soon after I finished the salad, and was also really good.

When I'd wrapped up the main course, I was of course presented with dessert and coffee options. Now, I'm not a tiramisu guy. Actually — and my wife will testify to this — I abhor tiramisu. The idea of eating what typically amounts to cold, soggy, sponges of cookie-cakey-whateverness has repeatedly proven to be a bad one in my experience. But for whatever reason, tonight I clicked that mental "I'm Feeling Lucky" button and ordered the tiramisu (and a capaccino). You'll have to draw your own conclusions, though, because it was incredibly good (and I mean that quite literally). I don't know if it was good because it is what all other tiramisus aspire to be but aren't, or because perhaps it isn't really tiramisu at all and they pulled one over on me — the reasons matter so little to me after enjoying that delightful treat. And, luck of lucks, it came paired with another shot of complementary Marsala. Mmm...

So, plenty of really good food served by nice people in a pleasant atmosphere for $46.50 plus tip compelled me to post this review. As with all reviews, YMMV, but in this reviewer's opinion, it's gas money well spent.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Review: Avista Resort, North Myrtle Beach, SC

I don't typically do reviews. They're so often tied to the reviewer's particular mood and expectations at the time of his or her singular experience with the establishment that, frankly, you need more than just a grain of salt when digesting them. But I'm going to step out of my comfort zone for a bit just to tell the Internet what I think about the Avista Resort in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

My family's first stay at the Avista Resort was, for all intents and purposes, the result of random selection. An Internet search for properties in the Myrtle Beach area returns, what, a thousand options? And you just know as you look at those professional photos of perfectly tanned beautiful people enjoying the facilities of Hotel Whatever that those photos were taken twelve years ago when that facility was actually in good shape. So, it was with some trepidation that we secured our first reservation at the Avista in March of 2007.

My family has now thrice visited the Avista Resort, most recently with a brief trip taken by just Amy and myself to celebrate ten wonderful years of marriage. The reality, in this instance, is that the Avista still is everything its website claims it is. This relatively new establishment still feels like a relatively new establishment. The rooms are clean, the lobbies and halls are clean — stuff is just in good shape. The staff seems to work hard at keeping it this way, too. On our last trip, there was some repainting in the hallways. This time, the parking garage was getting touch-ups. Always busy, always maintaining. And apparently the hotel guests aren't bearing too much of the cost burden of this maintenance — we've found the Avista rates to be very affordable.

We love the area in which the Avista is located too. Maybe it's just luck, but all three visits have been free of the sort of … unruliness of other areas of the Grand Strand. This despite our trips aligning with such festivities as "Biker Week" and "Society of Stranders Spring Week". You can walk to beach shops, restaurants, and nightlife spots. Or you can stay in and visit the hotel restaurant, Just Off Main, which offers a great breakfast buffet (none of this "continental breakfast" nonsense) and excellent lunch and dinner selections.

And the pools? My kids love the pools. Indoor and outdoor lazy rivers. Indoor and outdoor swimming pools. Indoor and outdoor hottubs. Weather is no obstacle here — you can't lose!

My only, only concern with the Avista has been the comfort of the beds. But as the email I received from the property manager today indicates, the resort is "currently updating the mattresses to pillow tops, so hopefully this will make [my] next stay more enjoyable."

When asked by TripAdvisor if I would recommend this resort to my best friend, I first ignored the fact that I married my best friend, then ignored the fact that I don't spend time categorizing the rest of my friends, but then finally answered the question with, "Absolutely yes".

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Non-complementary relationships are a bad thing

In contrast to the loving and supporting wife I described Samson's mother as, Samson himself didn't fair so well in love.

His first bride he chose from among the Philistines, a people group that was oppressing the Israelites at the time. She betrayed him shortly after their marriage, prompting him to go on a murdering spree. Her father, figuring Samson was too angry with her to forgive her, gave her away to "the friend who had attended [Samson] at his wedding" (Judges 14:20). This prompted Samson to go on an arson spree. Which prompted the Philistines, angry at Samson, to burn his wife and her father. Which prompted another murderous outrage from Samson. Sheesh.

After dallying with prostitutes, Samson meets the infamous Delilah. Delilah — working as an agent of the Philistine rulers — tries repeatedly to get Samson to reveal to her the secret of his great strength. And he repeatedly makes a fool of her by feeding her false answers to that question. But the Scriptures record that Delilah keeps pressing. I think Judges 16:15-16 pretty much sums up their whole relationship:

Then she said to him, "How can you say, 'I love you,' when you won't confide in me? This is the third time you have made a fool of me and haven't told me the secret of your great strength." With such nagging she prodded him day after day until he was tired to death.

Given the relationship his own parents had, how in the world did Samson manage to go so wrong when choosing partners?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Complementary relationships are no bad thing

I found this bit from Judges 13:21-23 humorous today. The parents of the yet-unborn Samson are just realizing that lately they've been conversing with an angel of God.

When the angel of the Lord did not show himself again to Manoah and his wife, Manoah realized that it was the angel of the Lord. "We are doomed to die!" he said to his wife. "We have seen God!" But his wife answered, "If the Lord had meant to kill us, he would not have accepted a burnt offering and grain offering from our hands, nor shown us all these things or now told us this."

The Pilato translation into modern language:

The next time the angel of the Lord came to visit Manoah and his wife, Manoah recognized him as angelic and began to freak out. "Omigosh! It's all over for us -- we've seen God!" But his wife maintained her ability to be rational and calmly replied, "Chill out, Sweetheart. If God was going to zap us, he wouldn't have wasted so much time and energy on us."

Thank you, God, for spouses who can normalize our occasional bouts of irrationality.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Q4H: Was the Holocaust a punishment from God?

Today's Bible reading covered Deuteronomy 28-30. It was a hard read, both in terms of the subject matter and the somewhat dry and repetitive writing style. It basically boils down to about 100 verses of God telling the nation of Israel through His servant, Moses, that if they are obedient, things will go well for them; if they aren't, life will be hell. The imagery is so intense, the warning from God so strong, and the foretold methods of discipline so harsh, that I found myself thinking about the Holocaust. Was the Holocaust -- in which millions and millions of Jews were tortured and killed -- a judgment from God of the sort that is foretold in these verses?

Israel's history is filled with repeated cycles of, as my pastor recently put it, "sin, suffering, supplication, and salvation." In and out of slavery, conquered by one nation after the other, the history of the Old Testament tells the tale of a nation that can't keep its eyes on its God, and an extremely jealous God who acts harshly against His chosen people not to "pay them back", but to "bring them back" to Him. But is the Holocaust too harsh even for God?

I Googled around a bit trying to find out what others thought about this question. One of the top hits was an article that claims if this was punishment, it's an unjust one that doesn't fit the crime (or perhaps any crime imaginable). It also points to things like the original Egyptian enslavement which doesn't appear to be a punishment for any particular thing, either. Sometimes, God just does what God does because He's God, and we can't possibly understand His purposes. The article wraps up with:

In our individual lives and in our view of history, we have a choice concerning how we wish to relate to G‑d. We can see Him as that Big Meany in the Sky and interpret accordingly. Or we can see a deep relationship happening between Man and G‑d — something we cannot always fathom, but believe in with unalterable faith. Torah gives you that freedom. In which world do you want to live?

My good friend Karl let me borrow a book some time ago entitled Who Wrote the Bible?, which (like many such scholarly books) points to multiple authors of the Pentateuch whose writings were later woven together and attributed to Moses. One of the most memorable things the author notes, though, is that if you separate the various contributing texts from one another, and read them individually, you no longer see this dichotomy in God's nature of being both compassionate and judgmental. One text will consistently describe the compassionate Abba Father God; another takes the "Big Meany in the Sky" approach. But clearly they all are talking about the very same God.

So I wonder, too, how much of what we attribute to God's nature comes exactly from what we want Him to be? How many Christians desperately need to believe in a loving God that won't zap them with lightning when they fail, thereby relaxing the standards they feel compelled to live up to? How many atheists desperately need to believe that the God of the Jews is cruel and unjust and therefore can't reasonably be God at all, thereby saving themselves the trouble of living up to His standards at all? Isn't the whole problem with our understanding of — and relationship with — God the fact that those things naturally have to occur on our terms and with our language, the weaker of the two communication protocols?

Ruling out the idea that the Holocaust was punishment because it was too extreme might work well for those who forget that God isn't required to adhere to our ideas of justice because He defines true justice. Insisting that all bad things happen as punishment for some shortcoming or sin works fantastically for those forget that God isn't required to adhere to our ideas of love because He is love. In the end, it seems we're all still left guessing, and trusting that the models of justice and love we have were given us because they reflect — as best as humanly possible — those facets of Almighty God.

The passage in Deuteronomy today leaves for me no doubt that these two vectors of God's nature should not be superficially limited by what fallen Man has to say about justice and love. To extents entirely unnatural, God fiercely judges:

You who were as numerous as the stars in the sky will be left but few in number, because you did not obey the Lord your God. Just as it pleased the Lord to make you prosper and increase in number, so it will please him to ruin and destroy you. You will be uprooted from the land you are entering to possess. Then the Lord will scatter you among all nations, from one end of the earth to the other. … There the Lord will give you an anxious mind, eyes weary with longing, and a despairing heart. You will live in constant suspense, filled with dread both night and day, never sure of your life. In the morning you will say, "If only it were evening!" and in the evening, "If only it were morning!" — because of the terror that will fill your hearts and the sights that your eyes will see.

...and God forgivingly loves:

When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come upon you and you take them to heart wherever the Lord your God disperses you among the nations, and when you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you. Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the Lord your God will gather you and bring you back. He will bring you to the land that belonged to your fathers, and you will take possession of it. He will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Love, rubies, and leaky faucets

In Christian circles, you hear much about the "Proverbs 31 wife". Proverbs 31, the last chapter in that book, ends with a lengthy description of a "wife of noble character." The verse which begins this epilogue (Proverbs 31:10) sets the tone for and summarizes the twenty verses that follow:

A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies.

Now, my daily Bible reading schedule hasn't brought me to Proverbs 31 yet, so why does it appear that I'm skipping ahead? Because my reading has brought me through the first twenty-seven chapters of Proverbs, where we learn much in tightly packaged little metaphors about the wrong kind of wife.

After coming across the term "quarrelsome wife" for what felt like the hundredth time today, I wanted to review all such references I'd hit so far. As it turns out, there really aren't that many of them, but this brief collection is enough to get the point across:

A wife of noble character is her husband's crown, but a disgraceful wife is like decay in his bones. (Proverbs 12:4)
A foolish son is his father's ruin, and a quarrelsome wife is like a constant dripping. (Proverbs 19:13)
Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife. (Proverbs 21:9, and again in Proverbs 25:24)
Better to live in a desert than with a quarrelsome and ill-tempered wife. (Proverbs 21:19)
A quarrelsome wife is like a constant dripping on a rainy day; restraining her is like restraining the wind or grasping oil with the hand. (Proverbs 27:15-16)

Now, these verses will probably send feminists into a tizzy. But I post them here not because they sound like the type of grumbling that husbands do about their wives over beer and pizza (albeit, a little less eloquently). I post them here because I'm thankful for the wife God gave me, and just want to encourage other husbands to love their wives. Just love your wives. Check your love against one famous description of true love found in 1  Corinthians 13 — does it pass muster? Are you loving at full capacity?

I'm guilty of not loving my wife Amy at full capacity all the time. Sometimes I'm not patient, kind, unselfish, and so on; that's something I need to work on. Thankfully, after nearly ten years of marriage (April 25 will mark our first decade as husband and wife), Amy is still all of those things. She's a Proverbs 31 wife, and gracious enough to be mine. The only "constant dripping" I have to suffer through comes from the toilet tank in our master bathroom.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Subversion talk at Charlotte.PM this Wednesday

If you're in the Charlotte area and interested in an overview of Subversion plus the highlights of the upcoming 1.5 release thereof, consider attending the Charlotte Perl Mongers technical meeting this Wednesday, February 27th at 7pm in room IT4134 at CPCC, where I'll be giving just such a talk. And if time permits, we'll also get a demo of svk, another version control system build atop Subversion's core libraries — bonus! See the official meeting notice for details.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Q4H: How random is random?

The "little bit o' Proverbs" segment of today's reading covered Proverbs 16:22-33. Now, verse 33 in my Bible is squeezed into the top of a column, immediately above a drop-cap-style "17" (the next chapter). I almost didn't see it there, but I'm glad I did. The verse reads:

The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.

This was interesting to me because it seems to overlap so many things I've read about just in this past week or so.

In Sunday School, we've been looking at Jonah. Most folks know at least the rough details of Jonah's story. But I recalled one detail revealed in Jonah 1:7. Jonah is on a ship, running away from God's command for him to preach in Nineveh, and a violent storm comes up. The sailors are all freaking out, and — in truly superstitious fashion — decide to cast lots to see which person on board is to blame. Guess where the lots fall? To Jonah. What are the odds? The boat was big enough to have a deck that you could go below (because Jonah did) — how many hands were required to operate such a vessel?

Discussions around another topic with Amy have had us reading in the book of Acts as of late. There (in Acts 1:21-26), the eleven disciples (the original twelve minus Judas the Betrayer) decide to cast lots to see who would replace Judas in the lineup. The odds here are less interesting — there were only two contenders. (A dude named Matthias won.) Of interest to me was that until today, I had always thought, "What a stupid way to choose a ministry partner!" But if the Lord controls the lots, maybe it's not so stupid after all.

Finally, I read much about the debate between Evolution and Intelligent Design theorists. Evolutionists essentially believe that all that is today is the result of random mutations of cells and sub-cell bits, plus this idea of natural selection (where the mutations that prove beneficial get to stick around through future generations, and those that don't … don't). Pure IDers don't necessarily have any beef with those processes, but also don't believe that they are alone enough to explain the vast degrees of change over the assumed period of time that the Evolutionists claim. IDers believe there is an intelligent agent in the mix somewhere, perhaps guiding the selection process or somesuch. But if random isn't truly random (as our verse in Proverbs could imply), maybe the selection really is natural, and the it's the mutations that carry the intelligence.

Unfortunately, if we extrapolate this fully, things start to feel wrong. Is gambling okay because God controls the outcome? (Or is it only okay if you're winning, because God is blessing you?) Should we flip coins to find marriage partners? Roll dice to decide whether to attend or skip school today?

Certainly we aren't called to demonstrate a lack of discernment. Take the decision about the new twelfth disciple, for example. Among the thousands of Christ-followers to choose from, only two were proposed. A great deal of filtering had occurred before the lots were cast. Both men were equally suited for the job, and the coin-toss approach was as good as any a way to pick one without hurting the other's feelings. Also, the Bible does reveal moral absolutes — you can be sure that if chance, luck, Fate, or whatever drives you is driving you against those grains, it ain't God casting the lots.

Use your head, and don't leave the game of life up to mere chance and guesswork. Unless, of course, you work for Hasbro.