Get defense in depth with antivirus by installing Avast as a secondary scanner

Two antivirus programs on one system? Heresy, right?

Well, not if one is designed to play second fiddle. As it turns out, Avast, one of the best free antivirus programs, can do just that. Just download it, run the installer, and pick the second option–“Compatible install – install as the second line of defense.” Be sure to de-select the option to install Google Chrome and make it your default browser, unless you want that. Free programs often come with ridealongs.

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Working for Canonical doesn’t make you pro-Free Software?

Stuart Langridge works for Canonical. Canonical produces Ubuntu, a popular Linux distribution. Apparently, this means he favors proprietary software in some people’s minds.

Yes, this is the same Ubuntu Linux you can download freely. You can make copies of it and sell them, legally. You can modify it, if you have the ability and inclination. Just setting the record straight.

Canonical does what it has to do to get Linux working well on your computer. And it succeeds rather nicely. If a computer can run Windows XP or newer, it can run Ubuntu, and installing Ubuntu will be easier than installing Windows in many cases. The computer this website runs on was built on a variant of Ubuntu, and it literally took longer to burn the CD than it took to run the installation. It blew my mind.

This is a case of software being like religion.

I am Lutheran. Almost militantly so, to the annoyance of some people who know me. I break from the traditional Lutheran camp in two regards: favoring music in the service that was written during my lifetime, and not being uptight enough about doctrine. I take the concept of grace alone, faith alone very seriously, and to an outsider, that plus the Lutheran definition of grace–God’s riches at Christ’s expense–is enough to make you Lutheran. That’s good enough for me. Some vocal Lutherans expect you to be able to recite precisely what makes John Calvin a heretic. I neither know nor care about that. I read the Bible, in its entirety, and concluded that Calvin puts certain responsibilities on you, a human being, that Luther puts on God. Since I believe that God is more reliable than me, I concluded that the Lutheran view is safer. I believe that ought to be enough.

The big question is whether I care if I’m Lutheran enough for some people. And the answer is no, I do not. I just ignore the rants about heresy that I see on Facebook, or better yet, stay off Facebook for long stretches at a time, and go about my business.

I guess that’s easier said than done in the Free Software community. There are a lot more witch hunters in that group. I suppose the people who can’t write working code try to make up for it by concentrating on ideology, or something like that. I do know it’s a whole lot easier to crusade for ideology than to write code.

The silent majority of people just want a system that works. They don’t want to hunt down drivers and compile them, or spend hours editing configuration files. I can’t tell you how many e-mail messages I received over the years from people who tried the most popular Linux distribution of the time, ran into difficulty, and gave up. (It’s one reason my e-mail address isn’t on this site anywhere anymore.) Even if the problem was something I could answer relatively easily, they just gave up and installed Windows instead. In their minds, if Dave Farquhar knows how to make that work, then whoever made that particular Linux distribution ought to make it work automatically. And they have a point.

So if Ubuntu installs a driver or some other low-level code that isn’t completely Richard Stallman-approved, the majority of people really don’t care. They’re happy it works. If their freedoms are infringed upon, they don’t know it.

I’ve said before that I could re-train my mother to use Linux. In fact, she could probably get all of her work done in Linux and emacs, and I’m sure John the Baptist Richard Stallman would be absolutely thrilled. But it would take her several years to learn the nuances of emacs, and some of her job duties would take much longer. Perhaps she wouldn’t mind occasionally spending hours to do something that can be accomplished in minutes using a more specialized, albeit proprietary, tool. In the end, when she’s a master of emacs, I’ll be able to tell her that she’s free. And she’ll tell me, “It wasn’t worth it.” Or, if she’s feeling a little more reasonable, she’ll throw something at me.

It’s easier said than done. But perhaps when the witch hunters come knocking, it would help to ask them if they had anything better to do?

After all, he could be a total sell-out like me. In my job, I’ve recommended Linux-based solutions when appropriate, but I spend the overwhelming majority of my time supporting things that run on Windows. Perhaps they would prefer he do that.

But I wouldn’t. I really like the work Canonical is doing.

Help! I do tech support for everyone I know! (Version 1.1)

Here’s an interesting dilemma: How do you avoid becoming the primary technical support contact for all of your friends and family?

(If this sounds vaguely familiar, yes, this is a revised version of something I wrote a year and a half ago.)This was a question Richard “Rich Job” Jobity asked two Christmases ago. I thought it was an unbelievably good question. I had to think about the answer for a while. That label fit me for a very long time. Sometime within the last couple of years it stopped, but I never knew exactly why. He made me think about it, and I found I’d done some interesting things on a subconscious level.

There was a time when I didn’t mind. I was 16 and still learning, I had some disposable time on my hands, and, frankly, I enjoyed the attention. You can learn a lot by fixing other people’s computers. It can also be a good way to meet lots of interesting people. And I used at least one of those friends as a reference to get my first three computer-related jobs. But over time, my desire changed.

I think a good first step is to identify exactly why it is you don’t want to be the primary technical support contact for all your friends and family.

In my case, I spend 40 hours a week setting up and fixing computers. And while I definitely spend some time off the clock thinking about computers, I also definitely want to spend some time off the clock thinking about something other than computers.

I have a life. I have a house to take care of, I have meetings to go to, and I have a social life. Not only that, I have bills to pay and errands to run, and physical needs to tend to as well, like cooking dinner and sleeping. And people get really annoyed with me for some reason if I don’t ever wash my clothes.

I’ve been in that situation. Once I had a friend calling me literally every night for a week with some new computer problem and keeping me on the phone for several hours a night while we tried to sort them out. A couple of years before that, someone in Washington was running a computer company and using me as his primary (unpaid) technical support, often taking an hour or two of my day, and getting upset if more than about 12 hours passed without me responding.

I think it’s perfectly understandable for any reasonable person to not like situations like this. So here are my tips for someone who wants to head off that kind of a problem.

Have realistic expectations on all sides. So the first step is to make sure your friends and your family understand that you have responsibilities in life other than making sure their computers work. You’ll do your best to help them, but it’s unrealistic to expect you to drop everything for a computer problem the same way you would drop everything for a death in the family.

Limit your availability. Don’t help someone with a computer problem while you’re in the middle of dinner. You’ll be able to concentrate better without your stomach growling and you won’t harbor resentment about your dinner getting cold. Have him or her step away from the computer and go for a walk and call back in half an hour. The time away from the computer will clear his or her mind and help him or her better answer your questions. Don’t waver on this; five-minute problems have ways of becoming hour-long problems.

Here’s a variant of that. I had a friend having problems with a Dell. She called Dell. She got tired of waiting on hold. “I know, I’ll call Dave,” she said. “Dave’s easier to get ahold of than this.”

She may have tried to call me, but last week I was everywhere but home, it seemed. She didn’t leave a message, so I didn’t know she’d called. The moral of the story: Don’t be easier to get ahold of than Dell. Or whoever it was that built the computer or wrote the software.

What if I’d been home? It depends. If I’d been home and playing Railroad Tycoon, I’d be under more obligation to help a friend in need than I would be if I were home but my girlfriend was over and we were in the middle of dinner or a movie. The key is to remember your other obligations and don’t compromise on them.

Sometimes that means not answering the phone. In this day and age when 50% of the population will answer their cellphone even if they’re sitting on the toilet, this is heresy. I usually make a reasonable effort to answer the phone. But if I’m in the middle of something, I won’t. At least one time when I made no effort to answer the phone when my girlfriend was over, she took it as one of the biggest compliments she ever got. (That relationship didn’t last, so maybe I should have answered the phone, but hey, at the time I didn’t feel like it.)

Whoever it was didn’t leave a message. If it’d been important, either they would have left a message or they would have called me back. (Maybe it was the friend who’d thought of using me as a substitute for Dell tech support. Who knows.)

Don’t do a company’s work for them. If someone’s having a problem with a Dell, or having a problem dialing in to the Internet, I stay away from the problem. If a Dell is having hardware problems, the user will have to call Dell eventually anyway, and the tech will have procedures to follow, and there’s no room in those procedures for a third-party diagnosis. Even if that third party is a friend’s cousin’s neighbor who supposedly wrote a computer book for O’Reilly three years ago. (For all the technician knows, it was a book about Emacs, and you can know Emacs yet know a whole lot of nothing about computer hardware, especially Dell hardware. But more likely he’ll just think the person’s lying.) For the record, when I call Dell or Gateway or HP, I jump through all the same stupid hoops. Even though I’ve written a computer book and I’ve been building and fixing computers my entire adult life.

And if someone can’t dial into an ISP, well, I may very well know more about computers than the guy at the ISP who’s going to pick up the phone. I may or may not be more intelligent and and more pleasant and more articulate than he is. But the fact is, I can only speculate about whatever problems the ISP may be having. And seeing as I don’t use modems anymore and haven’t for years, I’m not exactly in a good position to troubleshoot the things. Someone who does tech support for an ISP does it every day. He’s going to do a better job than me, even if he’s not as smart as I am.

Know your limits. A year ago, a friend was having problems with OS X. She asked if I’d look at it. I politely turned her down. There are ideal circumstances under which to try to solve a problem, but the moment you’re seeing the OS for the first time isn’t it. She called Apple and eventually they got it worked out. It’s a year later now. Her computer works fine, we’re still on speaking terms, and I still haven’t ever seen OS X.

Around the same time, another friend toasted her hard drive. I took on that challenge, because it was PC hardware and she was running an operating system I’d written a book about. It took me a while to solve the problem, but I solved it. It was a growth opportunity for me, and she’s happy.

And this is related to the next point: If you’re not certain about something, say so. It’s much better to say, “This is what I would do, but I’m really not sure it’s the best thing to do” than it is to give some bad advice and pretend that it’s gospel. Get your ego out of the way. There’s no need to try to look good all the time. No matter what you do, you’ll be wrong sometime. And one of the easiest ways to be wrong is to run your mouth when you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Limit your responsibility. If your uncle has a six-year-old PC running Windows 95 and ran out and bought a USB-only printer because it was on sale at Kmart and now he’s having problems getting it running and he never asked you about any of this, how much responsibility should you be willing to shoulder to get that printer running?

I’m inclined to say very little. It’s one thing to give some bad advice. It’s another to be dragged into a bad decision. If the only good way to get the peripheral running is to buy Windows XP and wipe the hard drive and install it clean, don’t let that be your problem.

Don’t allow yourself to be dragged into giving support for free software downloaded off the ‘Net, supercheap peripherals bought from who-knows-where, or anything else you can’t control.

You can take this to an extreme if you want: Partition the hard drive, move My Documents over to the second partition, and then create an image of the operating system and applications (installed on the first partition, of course). Any time you install something new, create a new image. When your friend or relative runs into trouble, have him or her re-image the computer. He or she can reinstall Kazaa or whatever notorious app probably caused the problem if desired, but you can disclaim responsibility for it.

Which brings me to:

Disclaim all responsibility for poor computer habits. Gatermann and I have a friend whose brother repeatedly does everything I’d do if I wanted to set out to mess up someone’s computer. He downloads and installs every gimmicky piece of free-with-strings-attached software he can find, turning his computer into a bevy of spyware. He runs around on Kazaa and other file-sharing networks, acquiring a busload of who-knows-what. He opens every e-mail attachment anybody sends to him, amassing a large collection of viruses. He probably does things I’ve never thought of.

Gatermann installed antivirus software on the computer, and we’ve both run Ad-Aware on it (if I recall, one time I ran it I found 284 instances of spyware). Both of us have rebuilt the system from scratch numerous times. The kid never learns. Why should he? Whatever he does, one of Tim’s friends will come over and fix it. (I guarantee it won’t be me though. I got sick of doing it.)

Some good rules to make people follow if they expect help from you:
1. Run antivirus software and keep it current. This is a non-negotiable if you’re running Windows.
2. Stay off P2P networks entirely. Their clients install spyware, and you know about the MP3 buffer overflow vulnerability in WinXP, don’t you? Buy the record and make your own MP3s. Can’t afford $17 CDs? Buy them used on Half.com then.
3. Never open an unexpected e-mail attachment. Even from your best friend. It’s trivially easy to make e-mail look like it came from someone else. If someone who knows both of you got a virus, you can get virus-infected e-mail that looks like it’s from that friend.
4. If you don’t need it, don’t install it. Most free Windows software comes with strings attached in the form of spyware, these days. If you don’t want to pay for software, run Linux.
5. If you must violate rule 4, run Ad-Aware religiously.

Don’t take responsibility when someone asks your advice and then refuses to follow it. That unpaid gig doing tech support for a computer company in Washington ended when he had a computer that wouldn’t boot. He sent me the relevant files. I told him how to fix the problem. The next day he complained it didn’t help, and sent me the files again. It was obvious from looking at the files that he didn’t do what I told him to do. I called him on it. He got defensive. He caught me on a bad day and I really didn’t want to hear it. The next day he sent me a long list of questions. I answered the first two or three, then said, “Sorry, I’m out of time.”

I never heard from him again. But at that point it was just as well. Why help someone who doesn’t respect you enough to follow your advice?

A less extreme example was when an ex-girlfriend’s younger brother refused to give up Kazaa. Every time I fixed the computer, he reinstalled Kazaa and one problem or another came back. Finally I told him, her, and their parents that I’d fixed the problems, but they were going to keep coming back as long as he used Kazaa. Ultimately they decided that free music was more important than a stable computer and staying within the law, but that was their decision.

Have other interests besides computers. My former high school computer science teacher took me aside a few years ago and asked me if it wouldn’t be great if someday people asked me as many questions about God as they were asking me then about computers.

I have relatives who know I’m into Genealogy, and they know that I’ve traced one branch of my family through William the Conqueror and all the way back to before the time of Christ. But some of them don’t know I fix computers for a living.

Some nights when I come home from work, I don’t even turn a computer on. I go straight to the basement, plug in my transformers, and watch a Lionel train run around in circles. I might stay down there all night except for when the phone rings (there are no phone outlets in my basement) or for dinner. Ronald Reagan used to do that. He said it helped him relax and take his mind off things. My dad did too. It works. And no, there’s no computer hooked up to it and there won’t be. This is where I go to escape from computers.

So I don’t find I have the problem anymore where people only want to talk to me about computers. Balance is important. Don’t let your computer knowledge keep you from pursuing your other interests.

Charge money. I don’t charge my family members, but with very few exceptions, I don’t do free technical support. I do make sure I give friends, acquaintances, and neighbors a good deal for their money. But if helping them is going to keep me from mowing my lawn, or if it’s going to force me to cancel plans with my girlfriend, then I need to be compensated enough to be able to pay someone else to mow my lawn, or to take my girlfriend out for a nice dinner that more than makes up for the cancellation.

It’s all about balance. So what if your entire block has the most stable computers in the world, if your grass is three feet tall and you have no friends and no significant other because you can’t make time to meet anyone for dinner?

I’ve had employers bill me out at anywhere from $50 to $75 per hour. Under ideal conditions, where they drop the computer off with the expectation of getting it back within 2 weeks, I bill myself out at significantly less than that. But for on-site service at odd hours, I believe it’s perfectly appropriate for a computer professional to bill at those kinds of rates.

Even if you’re a hobbyist, you need to be fair to yourself. Computer repair is a skill that takes longer to learn than mowing lawns, and the tools required are every bit as specialized and every bit as expensive. In St. Louis, many people charge what amounts to $25 an hour to mow a lawn.

And? This doesn’t mean I never get computer-related phone calls. One Sunday when a family member called me with a noisy fan in a power supply, I found him a cheap replacement. I’ve fixed girlfriends’ computers before. The last computer I built was a birthday present for my current girlfriend.

But I’m not afraid to answer the phone, I don’t find myself giving people longshot answers just to get them off the phone long enough for me to go somewhere or start screening my phone calls. And I find myself getting annoyed with people less. Those are all good things.

Tiny assembly language Windows utilities

Tiny utilities. While I was debating whether to go buy a copy of Extreme Power Tools, I thought I remembered seeing a couple of programs similar to what they offer. So I went hunting and found other stuff, of course.

People tend to get annoyed if you just link to their files, so I linked to the pages that contain links to the files. Some of these pages get pretty heavy, so use your browser’s search function if you have trouble locating the file. Also, there are a few files on one of these pages that can be misused, such as buffer exploits and a program to reveal hidden passwords in dialog boxes. Whether they were intended to be misused, or to demonstrate Windows’ inherent insecurity, I’m not sure. That said, there are some other utilities on these pages that didn’t seem too useful to me, but they may be useful to you. I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater, so here are a couple of dozen free utilities, linked using proper netiquette.

The listed file sizes are the size of the executable, not the download. The downloads are larger because they include additional files, usually source code.

Files from http://titiasm.cjb.net :

Memory Info. Want to know how much memory your system is using? Here ya go. This is faster than running Norton SysInfo or Microsoft System Monitor. 5.5K.

EdPad. Assembly language NotePad clone. Unfortunately it lacks search/replace. See TheGun for a closer NotePad replacement. 16K.

Resolver. A tiny utility to match Website URLs to IP addresses, and vice-versa. 4.5K.

Files from http://spiff.tripnet.se/~iczelion/source.html :

MP3play. A minimalist MP3 player. Also capable of playing WAV. MID, RMI, AIF, AU, and SND files. Supports playlists. Hint: Right-click in the program window to access its features. 10K.

Also includes miniMP3, a 3.5K player that just plays a single file you specify.

WordEdit. An RTF word processor/help file editor in assembler. Aside from being able to read Word 6 documents, it would make a fabulous WordPad replacement. Includes multiple-level undo and redo, font and color support. Major features missing from a full-blown word processor: spelling/grammar and print preview. Delete the included file splash.dll to eliminate the splash screen and long boot delay. 112K.

FileMan. A graphical two-pane file manager, like Norton Commander. 87K.

Clipboard. Intended mostly as a demo program, but it’s useful beyond its original design. Intended use: Put it in your SendTo folder and you can send file paths to the clipboard from a right-click on the file. Nice. But additionally, having a large object on the clipboard can slow down your system. Some programs ask when you exit if you want to clear it. Others don’t. This program pastes the command-line parameter you feed it to the clipboard, so a shortcut to this program that passes a single-character argument effectively clears your clipboard. Neat, huh? 2.5K.

EWCalc. A scientific calculator. Additionally, it’ll do decimal/hex/octal/binary conversion. 30.5K.

PlayCD. A simple CD player. 7.5K.

QuickBar. A lean replacement for the MS Office toolbar. 20K.

HTTP Downloader. Feed it an url, and it downloads a file through HTTP, like Unix wget. 20.5K.

TheGun. A slightly enhanced replacement for Notepad. Edits large files, includes Ctrl-A hotkey for select all, and includes search/replace. Source not included. 6K.

QuickEdit. A more full-featured editor, includes HTML-to-text conversion and strips carriage returns. Download includes TheGun and a quick-and-dirty textfile viewer. Source not included. 27K.

Files from http://www.rbthomas.freeserve.co.uk/:

Screen savers. I hate screen savers, as everyone knows. Normally I use blank screen. This package includes a 6.5K 32-bit assembly language replacement for blank screen. (Microsoft’s blanker is 16-bit!) The others in the package prove that even when written in assembly, graphics-heavy screen savers eat up far too much CPU time.

RWave. Records and plays back WAV files. A suitable replacement for Sound Recorder. 5.5K.

Timer. This program isn’t a substitute for a common utility, but it’s useful for me. I’ve never gotten around to getting a timer for my kitchen. Now I can let my computer do the job. If your apartment’s as small as mine, or if you have a computer in your kitchen (why? Never mind. I don’t want to know.) yours can too. 31.5K.

More for less, but who wants it? And David Huff reports the P4 prices will plummet today. I thought I mentioned that, but maybe not. The 1.7 GHz model will launch at the insane price of $350 (Intel had planned to launch it at $700 or so). Margins? We don’t need no stinkin’ margins! Intel’s definitely running scared.

Enough of that. Time to take a hint from Frank. What else is there in life? I realized one night last week that I hadn’t gone record shopping in a long time, so I hit the local used shop. The pickings were a bit more sparse than usual, but I’d written down a couple of longshots to look for and I found them, along with a couple of surprises. First I found Starfish, by The Church, which features the track “Under the Milky Way,” a mainstay of ’80s radio and compilations. That’s probably the standout track, but for a band usually considered a one-hit wonder, it’s a really good album.

The other big surprise was Look Sharp!, which was Joe Jackson’s 1979 debut. I was surprised to find it’s mostly a guitar-bass-drum album. Jackson’s a piano player–and a darn good one. Jackson’s piano appears, but he’s rarely playing the lead instrument. The tracks that everyone remembers (“Is She Really Going Out With Him?” and the title track) are definitely the best parts of this album, but it was a strong effort. I can see where his following came from. But it was weird hearing him do what amounts to punk rock with a dose of literacy.

The first longshot was an album I’ve been looking for used for years: Doolittle by The Pixies. The Pixies are very much an acquired taste, but I acquired it. How to describe them? Dark, usually. Weird, always. This was generally regarded as their best album.

And the last longshot was Oyster by Heather Nova. Who? Yeah, I know. I once saw her mentioned in the same context as Aimee Mann and Dot Allison, so I kept an eye out. I think the comparison to those two is a bit shallow. Yes, the three of them are all blonde, female, and write their own songs, and both Nova and Allison play guitar (so does Mann, but she’s mostly a bass player). I recognized “Walk This World” as a song that got a fair bit of airtime on alternative radio about five years ago. Like Allison, her lyrics can get a bit suggestive sometimes, though there are plenty of people who get more so. Compared to Madonna, they’re both tame. But comparing them to an MTV-manufactured pop star is heresy, so I’ll stop now. The variety of styles Nova dabbles in on the album surprised me. Some tracks are dreamy and atmospheric reminiscent of Allison’s band One Dove, but right in the middle of the album is some pure hard rock in the form of a song called “Maybe an Angel.” Somehow that song avoids being over the top like a lot of hard rock does, and it’s far and away the best song on the album. And I’ve thought about those Allison-Mann-Nova comparisons. She’s dreamy and atmospheric like Allison, and often introspective like Mann, so maybe that’s the basis. At any rate, I’ll be keeping an eye on her, and not just because she has a really cool name.

01/15/2001

Mailbag:

Misc things; The trade; Depression

Why am I still messing with 486s and low-end Pentiums? I found a reference to this on the Ars Technica message board. Let’s see. I’ve got a genuine IBM PC/AT case sitting under my futon doing nothing other than looking old. I’ve got a Media Vision Pro Audio Spectrum sound card with a SCSI port on it. I’ve got a couple of old SCSI CD-ROM drives. I’ve got an AGP video card I can put in it. I’ve got a network card I can put in it, of course. And I’ve got hard drives. Plus I’ve got systems with DIMMs in them that I put there because I’d rather put too much memory in a system than have it just sit in a drawer. So basically I can have a modern system for a song. A Backstreet Boys song.

I’ve got mail. Hopefully I’ll take care of it this evening.

The American Dream again. Friday’s R.I.P.: The American Dream got a far greater response than anything I’ve written since college other than Optimizing Windows itself, which had more than a year’s head start. I had some people write in saying I was right. Frank McPherson’s response echoed another common sentiment: the original dream may be dead, the problem is that this generation needs to find another. That’s certainly a valid point.

One letter asked if I really thought we need a depression. Now, mind you, I don’t want one, and I’m certainly not advocating sabotage of our economy. I think we’ll get our own depression anyway–the Great Depression came about because of heightened expectations that grew unrealistic. Had it not been for regulatory brakes on the system, I think we’d already have had one, because there’s a widespread Las Vegas mentality in investing these days. People aren’t content to double their money in seven years anymore. They want to do it in seven months. And while people can do that, it’s like Las Vegas: the odds are against you. So they take irresponsible risks. People who understand the math much better than I do tell me that if you save 10 percent of your income and just dump it in an index fund–a mutual fund that follows the stock market–and do that from the day of your first paycheck to the day of your last, you’ll retire a multimillionaire. No genius involved. And now that we have Roth IRAs, we can pay our taxes up front and reap the benefits tax-free.

I’m testing that theory. I forget what retirement age is supposed to be for my generation. Is it 70? Like those details matter. Come talk to me when I’m 70 and I’ll tell you how it worked out for me.

Let’s get back to that idea of finding another dream. Frank McPherson pointed to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream. That’s productive use of our discontent. I like that. It’s something we should be doing anyway, but often we have to have a certain degree of angst before we’ll consider doing the things we ought to do.

But will it give us fulfillment? Some. Is it better and more noble than materialism? You bet. Should we? You bet. But will it solve the problem?

No.

I’ve thought about it a lot myself. And yesterday one of the people I respect the most made an observation. God is popular. God’s making a comeback. He’s a star. There’s a wave of spirituality crashing through Hollywood and there’s even another one in Washington. The stars are finding God. Filmmakers are making movies about Him, or at least letting Him make cameos. Slimy politicians are talking about God. Heck, even some not-as-slimy politicians are. C.S. Lewis once observed that there are longings in our being that no travel, no education, no spouse can ever fulfill. He said it made sense that the existance of those longings suggests the existance of something that can and will one day fulfill them: God. So we’ve got some people turning in that direction now. This is good.

Or is it?

The God of pop culture isn’t it. The God of pop culture is God on your own terms. It’s a very American God. In America, cars from the factory aren’t good enough. We get special options. Sometimes that’s not good enough either, so we put the car in the garage and we hot-rod it. In America, we build our entertainment systems from discrete components, getting speakers tailored for our environment and other components to best take advantage of it all. Hey, even a lot of the mystique behind the computer is gone, and people are undertaking projects they never would have dreamed of. They visit hardware sites and talk in forums and stumble across sites like this one, looking for advice on the best motherboard, the best hard drive, the best video card, then they go build the computer of their dreams–or the closest thing their budget permits. In America, we get cars, entertainment, and computers–as well as other things–on our own terms.

No wonder there’s so much appeal to Universalism. Eastern religions are nice, because you can take what you like, leave what you don’t, and they aren’t exclusive. If I remember my world religions class correctly, the Buddha was a Hindu, and remained one until the day he died. And Christianity isn’t incompatible with them, at least on the surface. Self-help pioneer Jess Lair once said someone told him his book I Ain’t Much Baby, But I’m All I’ve Got had a lot of Zen Buddhism in it. Dr. Lair was a devout Catholic. How did Zen Buddhism end up in a book written by a Catholic who admitted in his own words that he never thought much about Zen Buddhism? There’s a lot of Zen Buddhism in the Bible, that’s how. Or is it there’s a lot of the Bible in Zen Buddhism?

If linguists can point world languages and say they can trace all of them back to a single language, it only makes sense that at one time there was a single world religion, from which all of them can be traced.

But I don’t subscribe to the idea of Universalism, which says all of them are correct. And even if I’m wrong, why does it matter?

After all, what do the other religions promise? They promise me that if I do certain things, if I lead my life in a certain way, I might find my way to some kind of heaven. The paths are slightly different, and the destination often is slightly different, but you can pretty much boil down the major world religions to that. What they don’t promise is assurance. There are a lot of mights in it. And none of them promise anything bad will happen to me if I don’t believe them, especially if I lead a good life anyway. I may cease to exist, just as anyone else who doesn’t quite do a good enough job would. Or maybe I won’t get reincarnated in the most desirable way. But if that happens, I get another chance.

Then there’s the great teacher Jesus–just about everyone regards Him as a great teacher–who taught something kinda sorta similar. He taught how to lead your life. But Jesus said something else. He said he was the fulfilment of Judaism, that He was the way to heaven. Period. There was no other way. Him or damnation.

I find it interesting that non-Christians regard Jesus as a great teacher today. If you believe one of the other messiahs, what Jesus said is pure heresy. You might find it interesting that members of Jesus’ own family thought he was a madman. His own family! He was either what He said He was, or a madman. The others may not be incompatible with Him, but He is certainly incompatible with them.

But there’s more to Jesus’ message than just that. The alternatives are works-based. Jesus said just one thing: believe. Everything else is a byproduct of taking Jesus for what He said He was and is. Don’t sweat the other stuff. It just happens, and it’s better that way than if we’d done it on our own. And Jesus said one other thing. He promised assurance. With Him, you know exactly where you’re going.

Christianity really is very simple. You can boil it down to a really simple question. Well, two, I guess. God asks, “Why should I have anything to do with you?” Then after you die, God asks, “Why should I let you in here?” The answer to both questions is the same thing. I can put it articulately, but really a one-word answer will suffice. And it has absolutely nothing to do with me.

So if I’m gonna hedge my bets, that’s where I’m gonna hedge them. I was afraid at first what I’d have to give up, but the truth was I didn’t have to give up anything. Given a little time, I just wanted to give those things up.

I realized just after college that I wouldn’t be able to buy happiness, and that the capitalism I spent four years writing about wouldn’t accomplish much. I went looking for something else. I went looking for what every unmarried 22-year-old male looks for. I thought I’d found the key to happiness when I found her. Along the way I picked Christianity back up too. When I hadn’t proven sufficiently the sincerity of my faith, she took a hike. I was crushed, but I still had something. If you subscribe to the belief that it takes 9 positives to counteract a negative, my ratio’s a bit lower than that. The difference is I always have the ace in my hand. So the ratio of disappointments to triumphs really is irrelevant, because I’ve got the triumph that trumps all disappointments.

So I guess what I’m trying to say in a roundabout way is I agree with Frank. Tell materialism to take a hike, go make the world a better place.

Just don’t try to do it on your own, and don’t rely solely on human help.

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Misc things; The trade; Depression

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