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A journalist\’s take on how to eliminate snoring during sermons

First things first: I am not a pastor. While I have nine years of Lutheran primary and secondary education, my degree came from the University of Missouri and I have exactly zero days of formal, master’s-level theological training.

But I am a published author, I spent four years and thousands of dollars (and thousands more of scholarship money) studying journalism. So hopefully what I lack in Bible knowledge, I make up for in writing knowledge. And if denominations are to grow, especially the more conservative ones, I think more of the latter is going to be a necessity.I am writing this because I heard a sermon today that was relatively good. It disappointed me mostly because it could have been one of those sermons that people remembered for the rest of their lives. So let’s get down to business.

Write on a sixth-grade reading level. Your morning paper is written on that reading level. Newspapers are publications for the masses, so they are unwilling to assume that the majority of people can digest anything more complex than that level. Jesus made a point of demonstrating that Christianity is simple enough that a child can understand it. Therefore, a child ought to be able to understand the pastor.

And I’ve got something else shocking for you. What about the more intellectual publications? They’re written on a 10th-grade level.

So how do you write on that kind of a level? I’ll give you some tools. Eventually it becomes automatic.

Lose the big words. Most Lutheran pastors are academics. When it takes four years to get your master’s degree, you have to be. And if you want anyone outside of your own congregation to listen to you, you almost have to go back and get your doctorate.

But the problem is that while pastors and their colleagues are academics, the overwhelming majority of the congregation is not. The people who most desperately need to be reached certainly are not. And while I firmly believe that the pastor can stand in front of the congregation and read recipes for 20 minutes and God will make sure the person who needs to hear Him will hear exactly what He wants, I also believe it’s better for God to work through the guy standing up front more than in spite of him.

If your English Composition teachers were anything like mine, they required you to use five words you’ve never used before in every piece. But your English Comp teacher isn’t in the audience. Good writers know the rules of writing. Great writers know when to break them. William F. Buckley Jr. isn’t the rule. He’s the one guy who can get away with breaking so many.

Lose the long sentences and paragraphs. Your English Comp teacher probably told you a paragraph is a minimum of three sentences. That should be the first rule you learn to break. Short, punchy paragraphs are fine, and so are short, simple sentences. There’s nothing wrong with an eight-word sentence.

Practice writing on a sixth-grade level. If you use Microsoft Word, you can easily turn it into a tool for checking your writing. Go to the Tools menu, select Options, click Spelling & Grammar tab 4, and tick the box next to “Show readability statistics.” Now run a spelling/grammar check, click ignore on anything it flags, and it’ll give you your reading scores.

Try shortening up on some words and simplifying some sentences to see how the changes affect your work.

Relevance. A single mother of two who has never had a healthy relationship with a male doesn’t care about the original Greek or Hebrew in any given Bible passage. That’s an extreme example, but virtually everyone who walks through the doors of a church comes in carrying some baggage. It’s usually the only way God can get them there. It’s when life becomes its least bearable that people are most willing to find out what the Creator of life has to say about it. Unfortunately, sometimes it seems like the place you’re least likely to hear what God has to say about life is church.

That’s unfortunate. When you read the four Gospels, it’s clear that part of the reason thousands of people followed Jesus instead of the Pharisees was because Jesus talked about the things that mattered to them, while the Pharisees did not. If that contemporary church down the street is growing and your conservative church is not, the reason might not necessarily be the guitars and drums. The reason might very well be that the pastor gives good advice every week on how to get through this life.

I know plenty of people who attend my church for exactly that reason. They have no great love for the electric guitars and distortion–but they put up with it so they can hear how to have a better life every week.

While you don’t want to single out anyone and talk about his or her problems to the whole congregation, speaking about issues in general terms is good. Does the Bible have anything to say about credit card debt? Diet? Spoiled children?

I’m no fan at all of daytime talk shows–I think they’re God’s curse on the unemployed and unemployable–but I do believe that this world would be a better place if pastors would tune in to them once in a while. It gives you an idea of what kinds of problems people think about and face–and may not be willing to talk to you about–and it gives you some idea of what the world is saying about them. Your job is to tell the congregation what God says about those problems.

Get out more. I used to know someone who was required by his congregation to spend some time hanging out in bars. Ostensibly his job was to win converts. But I think it accomplishes some other things too.

First, it gives you a good feel for how people talk. Since these are the people who most need to be reached, you need to sound like them (minus the four-letter words).

Second, it gives you an idea what these people care about. You’ll probably overhear more about women and money than anything else. Significance and security are two very basic needs; if you can manage to illustrate every Sunday how God is the ultimate source of these two things, the size of your church will probably double every five years.

Granted, you don’t have to hang around in bars to hear people talk, but bars are where the broken people are most likely to go, and if your goal is to do what Jesus did and reach broken people, I think it helps to know what one looks for and what a broken person looks like.

The end. Like I said before, I’m not a pastor. I’m just a writer of above-average intelligence. It’s rare that a sermon sails over my head, and that was nearly as true when I was in the 4th grade as it is now.

But I’m not everyone, and the college-level dissertations that are all too common in many denominations every Sunday don’t do much, in my experience, to strengthen the church. Yes, to a degree I am advocating the dumbing down of the Sunday sermon. Hebrews 5 is relevant. You can’t assume anymore, in this day and age, that the majority of the people in the congregation can handle spiritual solid food. The Sunday sermon is the place for milk. The place for solid food is in Bible study, whether it occurs on Sunday morning before or after the service, or on some weeknight. And even then, I believe a lot of studies need to be serving milk.

But if every church serves milk long enough, the general public’s knowledge of the things of God will progress to the point where it can handle solid food on a much more regular basis.

What needs to happen for Linux to make it on the desktop

I saw an editorial at Freshmeat that argued that there’s actually too much software for Linux. And you know what? It has a point.
I’m sure some people will be taken aback by that. The number of titles that run under Windows must number into six digits, and it’s hard to walk into a computer store and buy Linux software.

But I agree with his argument, or at least most of it. Back in my Amiga days, the first thing people used to ask me was, “What, do you not like software?” Then I asked why they felt the need to have their choice of 10 different word processors, especially when they’d just buy pirate Microsoft Word or WordPerfect anyway. (Let’s face it: Large numbers of people chose PCs in the early 90s over superior architectures was because they could pirate software from work. Not everyone. Maybe not even the majority. But a lot.) I argued that one competent software title in each category I needed was all I wanted or needed. And for the most part, the Amiga had that, and the software was usually cheaper than the Mac or PC equivalent.

Linux is the new Amiga. Mozilla is a far better Web browser than IE, and OpenOffice provides most of the functionality of Microsoft Office XP–it provides more functionality than most people use, and while it doesn’t always load the most complex MS Office documents correctly, it does a much better job of opening slightly corrupt documents and most people don’t create very complex documents anyway. But let’s face it: Its biggest problem is it takes an eternity to load no matter how fast your computer is. If it would load faster, people would be very happy with it.

But there is nothing that provides an equivalent to a simple database like Access or Filemaker. I know, they’re toys, and MySQL is far more powerful. But end users like dumb, brain-dead databases with clicky GUI interfaces on them that they can migrate to once they realize a spreadsheet isn’t intended to do what they’re trying to do with it. Everyone’s first spreadsheet is Excel. Then someday they realize Excel wasn’t intended to do what they’re using it for. But you don’t instantly dive into Oracle. You need something in between, and Linux doesn’t really have anything for that niche.

People are constantly asking me about a WYSIWYG HTML editor for Linux as well. I stumbled across one. Its name is GINF. Yes, another stupid recursive-acronym name. GINF stands for “GINF is not Frontpage.” How helpful. What’s wrong with a descriptive name like Webpage-edit?

More importantly, what was the first non-game application that caught your fancy? For most people I know, it was Print Shop, or one of the many knockoffs of Print Shop. People love to give and receive greeting cards, and when they can pick their own fonts and graphics and write their own messages, they love it even more. Not having to drive to the store and fork over $3.95 is just a bonus. Most IT professionals have no use for Print Shop, but Linux’s lack of alternatives in that department is hurting it.

Take a computer with a CPU on the brink of obsolesence, a so-so video chipset, 128 megs of RAM and the smallest hard drive on the market, preload Linux on it along with a fast word processor that works (AbiWord, or OpenOffice Writer, except it’s not fast), a nice e-mail client/PIM (Evolution), a nice Web browser (Mozilla), and a Print Shop equivalent (bzzzt!), and a couple of card games (check Freshmeat) and you’d have a computer for the masses.

The masses do not need 385 text editors. Sysadmin types will war over vi and emacs until the end of time; one or two simple text-mode editors as alternatives will suffice, and one or two equivalents of Notepad for X will suffice.

Linux’s day will eventually arrive regardless, if only because Microsoft is learning what every monopolist eventually learns: Predatory pricing stops working once you corner the market. Then you have to raise prices or find new markets. Eventually you run out of worthwhile markets. So in order to sustain growth, you have to raise prices. Microsoft is running out of markets, so it’s going to have to raise prices. Then it will be vulnerable again, just like Apple and CP/M were vulnerable to Microsoft because their offerings cost more than Microsoft was willing to charge. And, as Microsoft showed Netscape, you can’t undercut free.

But that day will arrive sooner if it doesn’t take a week to figure out the name of the Linux equivalent of Notepad because there are 385 icons that vaguely resemble a notepad and most of them have meaningless names.

And I passed the test…

They got my test results back yesterday, and according to the late Professor Emeritus Wolfe’s analysis, I have the potential to be a competent computer programmer. Of course my high school CS instructor could have told them that and charged a lot less money for it.
As for the question of what programming has to do with a sysadmin job… Well, an NT administrator does have to write logon scripts. I’ll leave the reader to come to his or her own conclusion whether such a test is necessary to determine whether you can write logon scripts or not. It’s not in my best interests to comment on that. I will say there have been a few instances in my professional career where I’ve had to sit down and write some code (besides batch files), be it a quick-and-dirty-utility in QuickBasic or C or KiXtart, or some maintenance programming in Perl. I’ll also say it hasn’t been much of a struggle.

So now I know I’m promotable without changing employers, and that feels good. There’s pressure on me from outside to change employers, and they have some valid points. I guess I like having options.

Dan Bowman sent me a link, which is currently 120 miles from me (I’m in Columbia), which he speculated was a response to what I wrote yesterday. I read it and I concur. The argument there was that you shouldn’t necessarily look for fulfillment in your job when you can find fulfillment in what’s staring you square in the face when you get home: your wife and kids.

There absolutely was a time when I believed that, and there may come a time when I’ll believe it again. My gut reaction to Dan was my standard gut reaction to everything: “Why, that reminds me of a story…”

I had a late dinner a week ago with a buddy and some of his buddies. Technically it was his bachelor party, though some people might argue that a preseason hockey game followed by dinner doesn’t count as a real bachelor party. His 21-year-old future brother-in-law was there. And at one point, the subject of relationships came up. I argued that if you’re alone until you’re 40 when the right relationship comes along, that’s better than bouncing around from wrong relationship to wrong relationship until you finally find the right one. He disagreed.

“Nothing’s worse than being alone,” he said. “I know. I’ve been alone a long time.”

I told him I’ve dated exactly three girls since I turned 18. The first of the three was much worse than being alone. At one point I wouldn’t answer the phone, just in case it was her, for fear of what she’d say. She was always mad at me about some piddly little thing or another. It was cool for about a month. The last two months, forget it. We broke up and I was a whole lot better for it.

The second of the three was always mad at me for some piddly little thing or another too, but at least she didn’t nag. We broke up twice. A few months after the second breakup, she started talking to me again out of the blue. Another female friend asked why we didn’t get back together. All of a sudden it hit me. She had no respect for me. When I told my friend that, her attitude changed 180 degrees. “Forget that,” she said. “Everybody deserves respect.”

The third of the three was worse than being alone too. She was always mad at me because I only e-mailed her every second or third time she e-mailed me, and my messages were always shorter than hers. She only called me once or twice, so I wasn’t afraid to answer my phone, but I was afraid to check my e-mail. She prompted me to write my first-ever mail filter. For some reason I wouldn’t stand up to her. I never understood the relationship, because we never had long conversations, there was no emotion whatsoever, and we never laughed. She didn’t get my sense of humor, and I certainly didn’t get hers. All we could do was talk about baseball. Of course, I could talk about baseball with my guy friends, and they never nagged me.

That lasted roughly six months, if I remember right. I wanted to find out whether being with her was better or worse than being alone. Finally I decided I liked being alone better.

Along the way, I’ve met The One several times. I’m sure everyone knows what I’m talking about. You meet the world’s most beautiful woman, and she turns out to be really nice, and funny, and has several other qualities about her too. But I always ran into a problem. I could never talk to The One. Well, I could talk, but the words never came out right.

So, at best, The One and I would become very casual friends. And that was it.

Then a few months ago I read something that sounded wise. I don’t remember where I read it, but it sounded like it was directed at me. If you’ve met The One several times and you keep blowing it, you’re probably putting too much pressure on yourself. You’re trying to say the one line or one word that’ll win her heart for good, and you’ll never do it, so you’re fighting a losing battle. The article said to forget that approach. Get used to talking to women, it said. If there’s a woman around, talk to her. Not even if you’re not interested in her–especially if you’re not interested in her. Do that, and you accomplish two things. You learn what women think about and what they like to talk about, and you eventually quit putting pressure on yourself, so when you finally do talk to a woman you’re interested in, you sound natural.

So a few months ago I started doing that, to a degree. It’s not like I walked up to every woman I passed in the grocery store and started talking, but since I work with a lot of women, I had that opportunity at work. I talked to a moderately attractive intern at work. I struck out hard. Then I ran into someone who reminded me of someone I used to know, but I couldn’t place her. I walked up to her. “I feel really stupid asking, but you look really familiar,” I told her. I told her my name, and asked if it meant anything to her. Turned out I went to high school with her. We had a couple of long, pleasant conversations, and she didn’t run and hide! I was on a roll!

So I kept on. One thing I learned I should have known all along. There’s a girl at work who’s still in college, working part-time, who was getting some help on a project from someone else. I happened to be in Someone Else’s cube fixing her computer at the time. At one point, Someone Else asked me how you’d adjust the leading in Microsoft Word. I gave her the bad news: You can’t, which was why I wrote a lot of my papers in college in QuarkXPress–I could finely adjust leading and tracking all I wanted, to make a paper whatever length the professor was looking for. At one point, Someone Else went upstairs for coffee, leaving the part-timer and I alone in her cube. She and I talked, mostly about my job. It was pleasant.

The next day, I was in her area, so I stopped in. I asked how her project was coming along. She was completely floored. “It’s almost done. Every second it gets closer and closer,” she said. “Thanks for asking. That’s so sweet!”

Lesson #1: Take an interest in what girls are doing. Especially The One. Judging from this girl’s reaction, she doesn’t get that from guys her age very often. Lesson #2: I already knew Lesson #1, but rarely expressed it. So if you’re interested in what she’s doing, make sure you ask.

So now I’m sure you’re wondering what I’ve accomplished. I’ve talked to all these girls but haven’t found The One lately, right? Wrong. I don’t know if she’s The One, necessarily, but she’s a good prospect. We talk a lot and she doesn’t run away. I know her well enough to know there’s a joke hidden somewhere in almost everything she says, but I don’t know her well enough to catch it every time yet. She understands. I don’t fret when I talk to her, and I don’t dread hearing from her. We seem to understand one another. Good signs, definitely. So what am I doing about it?

I didn’t look for a smooth way to ask her out. I brought it up. She saw it coming. I wasn’t visibly nervous, but I got choked up for a minute. You can’t control your subconscious, after all. “I’ve been thinking,” I said. She saw it coming and seemed to enjoy it–here’s a guy who’s confident, yet vulnerable. My vocal chords betrayed that. (Girls seem to like confidence spiked with vulnerability.)

Then I asked her out.

She said yes. She left herself a small door for escape. Then she closed that door.

And that’s the end of the story, for now.

Now, if I were in the mode of relying on wife and kids for my self-fulfillment, I’d be a basket case right about now. What if she cancels? What if it doesn’t go well? What if it does go really well, but then when I propose to her she says no? What if I never find another girl like her?

That’s thinking way too far ahead. That’s too much pressure. It’s not fair to her. She’s got too many other things to think about to have to deal with all that. Every worthwhile girl does.

I’ve said a few things to her that seemed to really make her feel good. So yes, I get some fulfillment from that. I get some fulfillment from work. I get some fulfillment from this site, though it’s been months since I’ve checked my logs so I have no idea how big my readership is now. I get some fulfillment from the things I do at church. And I get some fulfillment whenever a friend calls up and asks for advice or a favor.

If I’ve learned anything, it’s that fulfillment shouldn’t come from one place. All of those things will let you down at one point or another. But if you’ve got enough other things, when one thing lets you down the others can still buoy you up.

Optimizing BIOSes and optimizing DOS

Optimizing the BIOS. Dustin Cook sent in a link to Adrian’s Rojak Pot, at www.adriansrojakpot.com , which includes a BIOS tweaking guide. It’s an absolute must-read. I have a few minor quibbles with a couple of the things he says, particularly about shadowing and caching your ROMs with Windows 9x. He says you shouldn’t do it. He’s right. He says you shouldn’t do it because Microsoft says not to do it with Windows NT, and Windows 9x “shares the same Win32 architecture.” It does and it doesn’t, but that’s flawed logic. Shadowing ROMs isn’t always a bad thing; on some systems that eats up some usable memory and on others it doesn’t, depending on the chipset and BIOS it uses. But it’s pointless because Windows doesn’t use the BIOS for anything, unless you’re in safe mode. Caching ROMs makes very little sense; there’s only so much caching bandwidth to go around so you should spend it on caching memory that’s actually being used for something productive. So who cares about architecture, you shouldn’t cache and shadow your ROMs because Windows will ignore it one way or the other, so those facilities are better spent elsewhere. The same thing is true of Linux.

Still, in spite of this minor flaw I found in a couple of different spots, this is an invaluable guide. Perfect BIOS settings won’t make a Pentium-90 run like a Pentium III, but poor BIOS settings certainly can make a Pentium III run more like a 386DX-40. Chances are your BIOS settings aren’t that bad, but they can probably use some improvement. So if you want the best possible performance from your modern PC, visit Adrian’s. If you want to optimize your 386 or 486 or low-end Pentium, visit the site I mentioned yesterday.

Actually, it wouldn’t be a half-bad idea to take the downloadable versions of both guides, print them, and stick them in a binder for future reference. You’ll never know when you might want to take them with you.

Optimizing DOS again. An awful lot of system speed is psychological. I’d say maybe 75% of it is pure psychology. It doesn’t matter so much whether the system really is fast, just as long as it feels fast. I mentioned yesterday keyboard and screen accelerators. Keyboard accelerators are great for people like me who spend a lot of time in long text files, because you can scroll through them so much faster. A keyboard accelerator makes a big difference in how an old DOS system feels, and it can improve the responsiveness of some DOS games. (Now I got your attention I’m sure.)

Screen accelerators are a bit more of a stretch. Screen accelerators intercept the BIOS calls that write to the screen and replace them with faster, more efficient code. I’d estimate the speedup is anywhere from 10 to 50 percent, depending on how inefficient the PC’s BIOS is and whether it’s shadowing the BIOS into RAM. They don’t speed up graphics at all, just text mode, and then, only those programs that are using the BIOS–some programs already have their own high-speed text routines they use instead. Software compatibility is potentially an issue, but PC power users have been using these things since at least 1985, if not longer, so most of the compatibility issues have long since been fixed.

They only take a couple of kilobytes of memory, and they provide enough of a boost for programs that use the BIOS that they’re more than worth it. With keyboard and screen accelerators loaded in autoexec.bat, that old DEC 386SX/20 feels an awful lot faster. If I had a copy of a DOS version of Microsoft Word, I could use it for writing and it wouldn’t cramp my style much.


I know there’s a word for this
I know ’cause we’ve all at some time said it
like when we were little kids
we’d fight each other ’til someone would give in
and you’d make him tell you ‘uncle’
  –Aimee Mann, “I Know There’s a Word” (Whatever, 1993)

Those lyrics came to mind the instant I read this.  My talkback is #22. There’s little point in reproducing any of it here.

I had a run-in with Mr. Darren (I recognize his style) the summer before last. Typical story Jerry tells. Jerry talks about Apple attack dogs who leap on anyone who dares write anything negative about Apple. Same principle here. Eventually you reach the point where you get sick of it and therefore don’t write anything at all about the subject to avoid the attack dogs.

The ignorance these people display about how computer journalism and the computer industry itself operate is unbelievable. Is it so unusual to learn something about a subject before opening your mouth about it?

This kind of crap makes me glad that now I’m not writing a book about Linux and Windows that might actually suggest that some people might have reason to run Windows. Oh, hell. I’ll go ahead and say it. Attention zealots: You know what software your beloved O’Reilly uses to write and edit its manuscripts? Microsoft Word!

On to a more pleasant subject. Good thing there’s a whole lot more to life than just computers. A friend called me up and told me to make sure I picked up the November issue of Vanity Fair because of a brief Aimee Mann/Michael Penn feature in it, plus Elvis Costello’s Top 500 recommended CDs. Good stuff. The issue kept me distracted from my article (due ASAP) for the better part of an hour.

Elvis’ best line: “As for the hit records of today, maybe some of them will sound just fantastic in 20 years’ time. It’s your life. So! No Marilyn, Korn, Puffy, Eddie Money–sorry, Kid Rock–Limp Bizkit, Ricky, Britney, Backstreet Boys, etc., etc.”

Here here!

Mail later. Probably. Assuming I bother.

It’s later. In March of 1999, Jerry was having some or another Linux problem, he got mail-bombed, and I sent him a letter, addressing him but also the Linux zealotry, asking, “What do you want? Do you want to be a punk computer like the Amiga, that no one uses? Repeat after me: Criticism of Linux is not a personal attack on me.” Jerry printed it, the result was a lot of mail.

One of them was this letter, to which I started writing a response but never got around to finishing because I couldn’t figure out what he wanted from me. This is, I’m pretty certain, the same “Darren” who wrote the “Jerry Pournelle finally admits he’s a Microsoft shill” headline at Linuxtoday.

I believe that what he and others like him are calling for is not journalism, nor is it editorial (which is where you call it like you see it–technically, that’s what Jerry Pournelle does. He’s a columnist, not a journalist) but rather, sheer advocacy.

I present it here. Opinions welcome–the mail link’s to the left, and you can leave comments by clicking on the skull icon at the end of the message (that’s what that’s for–I just haven’t gotten around to changing it).

From: Darren [SMTP:PCTech1018@netscape.net]Sent: Thursday, March 11, 1999 11:09 AM
Subject: RE: Your letter on Chaos Manor


You asked the question “What do Linux Users want?”.

We want ACCURATE reporting.  This does not mean that we do not accept negative commentary.  This means that we are sick and tired of people with obvious Microsoft slants propagating unsubstantiated FUD while claiming journalistic objectivity.

Jerry Pournelle has a long history of being pro-microsoft.  His negative comments about Linux have a history of being based in ignorance. When he first started working with Linux and complaining about the lack of usability of Linux, he hadn’t even gotten a Linux system up and running. Why does he want Linux to continue to exist? So that Microsoft will continue to improve and dominate. These are demonstrable facts.

Journalists have continually spread anti-Linux FUD from Microsoft most often without any basis in fact. Until recently, the “difficult to use” argument was the predominant position. KDE, FVWM and other “easy-to-use” interfaces have existed for YEARS. This FUD has only recently been dying off after Microsoft’s demonstration of Caldera in court. There is the “lack of support” FUD argument. This FUD is finally dying off now that IBM, HP, Compaq, et al, have joined in the Linux “support” bandwagon. What is really ironic is that they are simply repackaging and using the same support mechanisms that have existed since the introduction of Linux 1.0 in 1994. Now we have a concentration of the “lack of applications” FUD. As more people become aware of HOW to use the sites such as www.linuxapps.com and www.metalab.unc.edu, this argument will also become apparent for the FUD that it is.

What do Linux users want? We want techno-journalists who do more than simply repeat the latest FUD out of Redmond.  They claim to have a certain level of expertise in the technical arena, but are most often only successful at demonstrating their own ignorance.

You obviously feel that we have been out of line in our treatment of certain journalists.  Would you care to give me an example of negative Linux reporting that was accurate from Jesse Berst, Jerry Pournelle or Ben Elgin? How about you give me any example at all from ANY journalist?

I am confident that I will be able to take any example you give me and show you how it is slanted, inaccurate, and not worthy of being published by professional journalists.

I do not intend this to be a flame mail, I just want to do my part to kill the bad journalism.


I also have some (very lengthy) mail from someone who I believe is taking a much more constructive approach, or at least whose criticisms are much more valid. That should appear soon.