My spiritual journey

I guess this is as good of a time as any to write my spiritual autobiography. It’s not as long of a story as some–years of apathy have ways of shortening stories.
I guess I could sum up my current state in a couple of lines: Reach the world. Work within the system and change it from within.

Here’s how I got there. Read more

Promise, not powerhouse

I went to a fund-raiser at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Ellisville, Mo., last night. St. John’s is known as the Lutheran Megachurch. Last year it made a list (I forget the source) of 200 outstanding Protestant churches in the United States.
St. John’s does just about everything my home church, Faith Lutheran in Oakville, Mo., does, but it generally does it bigger and better because it has more people and more money. This was the church where I received a quickie crash course in video training about a year ago.

They pretty much blew me away. We’ve got some outstanding musicians at Faith, but St. John’s has dozens of outstanding musicians. On very special occasions we’ll write our own material at Faith (I co-wrote a song a couple of years ago with our now-departed music director) but they do this kind of thing all the time.

“Some day, some day,” I muttered to myself and to the seminary student I went with.

Yeah, I was impressed, but I’m not going to defect. Every time the thought even crosses my mind, a few lines I wrote to someone about four years ago come back. “Sincerity once was everything, and loyalty was absolutely priceless. But you wanted powerhouse, not promise, so now they’re not worth anything.”

I’m not that kind of guy. I’d rather take part in the building of something cool than just have it fall in my lap. There’s something about being able to watch it develop. And when it’s reached powerhouse status, you get the satisfaction of knowing you played a role–however small–in it getting there. Besides, I absolutely hate Manchester Road, which is the street where St. John’s is located.

I need to spend more time at St. John’s, so I may even make a trek up there a monthly thing. We need to learn from them. We’ve worked together in the past, but we ought to do that more.

How Linux could own the education market

How Linux could own the education market. I spent some time yesterday evening working on computers. They were contrasts to the extreme: One, a brand-spankin’ new 1 GHz AMD Duron system with 512MB of RAM and 80 GB of 7200-rpm storage (IDE, unfortunately–but for $800, what do you want?). The other was an elderly AST 486SX/25 running Windows 3.1 belonging to a local teacher who goes to my church.
She teaches kindergarten, and the AST used to be her home computer. When she bought a Compaq Presario a couple of years ago, she took the AST to school. It’s more useful there than in her basement, and there’d be no computer in her classroom if it weren’t for that.

I don’t understand why that is. As much as my sister jokes about it, we don’t exactly live in the ghetto. The school district has money, but it isn’t spending it on computers. Whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on your point of view. The majority of people living in Oakville probably own home computers, so this probably isn’t contributing to the technology gap. But I wonder sometimes how things might have been if I’d been exposed to computers a few years earlier.

I was shocked how much I remembered about Windows 3.1. And I was able to figure out how to get her CD-ROM drive to play music CDs. Don’t ask me how; this was the first I’d messed with Windows 3.1 since 1994 and I’d prefer it stay that way–I was so impressed by Windows 3.1 that I’m one of the 12 people who actually went out and paid money for OS/2. I own actual, retail-box copies of OS/2 2.1, 3.0, and 4.0. And I remember distinctly thinking that her computer has enough memory to run OS/2 at least as well as it runs Windows 3.1…

I also remember distinctly thinking that my employer pays someone $15 a pound to haul better computers than hers away several times a year. We regard 486s as junk; low-end Pentiums may also go out, depending on whether the right person finds out about them beforehand. Usually they work just fine–the problem isn’t the computers, it’s people trying to run Internet Exploiter 6 and Office 2000 on them. They’d run Windows 95 and Office 95 perfectly fine.

But a lot of times we can’t give these old computers away because the licenses for the software that originally came with them are long gone. Old computers are useless without software, so no one would want them anyway.

Now, let me tell you something about kids. Kids don’t care much about the computers they use. As long as there’s software on them, they’ll use them. When I was a kid 20 years ago, I used Radio Shack TRS-80 computers at school. The next year, my family moved, and my new school had Commodore 64s. I couldn’t tell much difference. My next-door neighbor had a Radio Shack Color Computer. They were computers. The Commodores had better graphics, but from a usability standpoint, the biggest difference was where the cartridge slot was so you could change programs. Later on I took a summer class at the local junior college, learning about Apple IIs and IBM PCs. I adjusted smoothly. So did all the other kids in the class. Software was software.

Kids don’t care if the computer they’re using runs Windows or Mac OS or Linux. All they care about is whether there are cool programs to run.

So, businesses throw useless computers away, or they give useless computers to schools so they don’t have to pay someone to haul them away. And schools don’t generally know what to do with obsolete computers that lack software.

Linux won’t run fabulously on old 486s, but Debian with a lightweight window manager like IceWM will run OK. (Let’s face it, Windows 3.1 doesn’t run fabulously on them either–it crashes if you breathe wrong.) I know of a project to clone Oregon Trail on Linux. Great start. How about Sea Route to India? I remember playing that on C-64s at school. It may have been a type-in out of a magazine–I don’t remember where exactly it came from. In these violent times, Artillery might be too controversial, but it taught us early on about angles and forces. Artillery was an ancestor to games like Scorched Earth, but without the heavy-duty nukes. Close wasn’t good enough to win in Artillery. You had to be exact. And no blowing up the mountains between you and your opponents either. You had to figure out how to get over them.

But what about doing homework? By the time I was in the sixth grade, they were teaching us how to use word processors and databases and spreadsheets. AbiWord is a fabulous lightweight word processor. It gives you fonts and spell-checking and good page formatting. (I learned word processing on Bank Street Writer. AbiWord is a far, far cry from that. Frankly, I’d rather write a paper with vi than with Bank Street Writer.) Besides being feature-rich, AbiWord’s been lightning fast on every computer I’ve tried it on. Gnumeric is a nice, fast, capable spreadsheet. I don’t know of a free-form database, but I haven’t looked for one lately either. (I don’t think we need to be trying to teach our 6th graders SQL.)

But what about for younger kids? I remember a program called The Factory. The object was you combined chemicals to make monsters. Different chemicals made different monsters. I seem to remember you played around to see what chemicals would make which heads and torsos and arms. Then the computer started showing you monsters and you had to figure out what chemicals to give it to match them. I also remember a program called Snooper Troops. I don’t remember much else about it, other than it was a mystery and you went around looking for clues, and one of my classmates accidentally formatted the disk one day before any of us had managed to solve it. We couldn’t get the disk replaced, because it was out of print.

And Spinnaker had all sorts of simple titles for younger kids that let them tell stories and other stuff. It seemed cool at the time. But that was almost 20 years ago, so about all I remember was that sailboat logo and some corny theme music.

The other thing about those old days was that the majority of these programs were written in Basic. An ambitious teacher could modify them, to make them easier or harder, or improve the graphics a little. As we got older and learned to program, some of us would try our hand at making changes. You can’t do that anymore with Windows or Macintosh educational titles. Open source can bring all that back too, provided the programs are written in languages like Perl or Python. And it can give cash-strapped schools a way to get computers where kids can use them.

Now I’m wondering what it would take to write something like The Factory in Python…

That faith thing.

I talked to Brad again last night, since Brad’s my go-between to Katie’s family, whom I hardly know (and who have absolutely zero time to be talking on the phone right now–they talk to Brad and let Brad talk to the rest of the Oakville gang, then my little tidbits go out to who-knows-where).
Dan Bowman forwarded some comments from a nurse that were encouraging. I passed those on to Brad. I read him the comments from yesterday’s post. Brad asked me if I’d print him a copy to keep. I set some sort of land-speed record hitting ctrl-p. (Mice are for wimps.)

And I got to thinking aloud about that huge plan God’s got again. He knows twelve billion people better than I’ll ever know any single human being. I’m not even certain I can tell you who I sat next to in church last Sunday. I certainly can’t tell you all the names of the people immediately in front of me and behind me. God knows all the hows and whys and therefores about them.

One summer I sat down and wrote out on paper an algorithm that I could translate into a computer language and simulate a baseball game. Alternatively, I could do the math using a calculator and some dice. Run it 162 times for each team in a league, and I could simulate a baseball season. I could tell you what 48 players might do in a single game, what 624 players might do over the course of 162 games. I was pretty proud of myself for figuring that out.

So I could figure out what might happen if the Royals were to somehow pry Rafael Palmeiro away from the Texas Rangers. But God knows what would happen. No questions about it. And He knows how it would affect quality of life, and even if it would affect operation of a stoplight across the Kansas border in Olathe for some bizarre reason.

And He knows about the things that really do matter. I can simulate something as trivial and, as much as it pains me to say it, unimportant as a baseball game. It stretches my little brain to its limits, but I can describe it mathematically. I can’t even begin to do that with a human life.

Knowledge is power. He’s got the monopoly on both of them. Good thing He’s on my side. Yours too.

So why do I find myself not trusting Him all the time? It doesn’t make any sense.

I guess if I ever needed any proof that I’m human, I just got it.

A nice Sunday surprise

I had a big surprise Sunday night. A couple of months ago, I was up at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in north St. Louis, and they asked me if I’d come to their Christmas banquet this year. I said I’d love to come to their Christmas banquet. They said they’d send me tickets. “Some” ended up meaning five. They’re generous people. I ended up using one–I didn’t feel like looking too hard for a date, and I felt weird asking a bunch of my friends who’ve never been up there to go with me on a rainy Sunday night.
My relationship with Bethlehem goes back several years. I moved to St. Louis in Nov. 1998, and immediately started going to a church in Oakville, a semi-ritzy, very white-middle class suburb in south St. Louis County. I was driving 30 minutes to go to church every Sunday because I had connections there, and I’d never seen a church that was so on fire. I liked it there. It was a church that made me better, and, as I would quickly learn, it was more than willing to let me make it better too. Mark my words: When you find a church like that, keep it. They’re harder to find than you might think.

In Faith Lutheran in Oakville and Bethlehem Lutheran in St. Louis, I’ve found two. And I’m much the better for it.

The north St. Louis neighborhood around Bethlehem is about as opposite of Oakville as you can get. It’s not ghetto, but the buildings are well past their prime. A number of them are condemned. Many others are boarded up. It’s lower-middle class at best. But there are people there who are trying to make a difference.

I’d been going to Faith Lutheran in Oakville for a couple of weeks when I started receiving its newsletter. And in that first newsletter was a blurb from The Rev. John Schmidtke, the pastor at Bethlehem. Faith is one of five suburban churches that has partnered with Bethlehem to reach out to its community. Pastor Schmidtke’s letter was a wish list of sorts, but he wasn’t wanting money or objects. He wanted people. “Who can help us build a computer lab so we can teach elementary computer skills to the people of our community?” he asked. “Who can help us give our children a safe, welcome place where they can sit down at a computer and do their homework?” At the end of the letter, he gave his phone number.

The next day, I called him.

He said he already had some beat-up PCs that had been donated to him. I asked when I could come look at them. I don’t really remember many specifics anymore, other than driving into north St. Louis in a snowstorm one night to come look at a pair of beat-up Compaq Proliant servers. They were DX2-66s, decked out with external SCSI CD-ROM towers. One of them had three SCSI drives. The other had five. They were pretty snazzy servers… in 1993.

It was a humble beginning. Pastor solicited some obsolete computers from other businesses, and since this was the midst of the Y2K crunch, he was able to find plenty of people willing to give up some 386s and 486s they’d just retired. The best catch was a pair of non-compliant Pentium-75s. One of them even had a hard drive–a 40-megger. No, not a 40-gig drive. A 40-meg drive, like most of us had in our first AT clone.

Basically, we had a whole lot of nothing, and I did a whole lot of nothing with it. Sure, I was able to impress a few people by taking hard drives out of 486s and putting them in those Pentiums and booting up DOS, but as far as doing anything useful, we didn’t have much. So the project pretty much sat there, a pile of beat-up PCs in the corner of a storage room.

Then one day in the summer of 2000, I got a voice mail message. It was Pastor Schmidtke. He sounded excited, but there was a certain plea in his voice. He had a grant for several thousand dollars, and it was pretty much there for the asking, assuming he knew what to ask for. He didn’t know what to ask for. So he asked me if he could have five minutes of my time to tell him the wisest way to spend a few thousand dollars to build a computer lab.

I hopped on the ‘Net and checked it out, then faxed him a shopping list. For the budget he gave me, I figured I’d be able to get several name-brand PCs and a laser printer. The grant needed three competitive bids, so I priced systems from IBM, Compaq, and Dell to give him ballpark figures, plus phone numbers to call to get hard quotes if that was what he needed.

A few months later he had the money. A couple more months after that, we’d turned that money into eight new Compaq Deskpro PCs. I wasn’t going to leave him high and dry at that point–what good is a room full of computers when no one there knew how to make them go? A couple more months after that, some volunteers had turned that storage room into a nicely laid-out computer room. So then I set about taking those PCs, installing network cards, cabling and hubs, configuring them identically, and connecting a printer. We had a usable network. An Internet connection was the tough part. I took one of those Pentium-75s, installed a 56K modem and an Intel 10/100 NIC, and configured Freesco. We were live. While 56K dialup split among 9 PCs isn’t fabulous, it’s better than it sounds–while people are reading pages, after all, their computers aren’t loading stuff. I tried setting up a Squid server to help ease congestion a little, but Squid seemed to hurt as much as it helped, so I scrapped that idea.

So now, three years after we initially met, they have a working, useful computer lab. Neighborhood kids come in and research and type. Pastor’s family comes in, and with that many computers at their disposal, the kids can play around all they want for hours and his wife can get work done. It’s not the best, but it’s worlds beyond a pair of Pentium-75s. And in a neighborhood where a Pentium-200 is considered a luxury item, it’s doing a lot of good.

So I got to the banquet Sunday night and sat down at a table. There was a program sitting there at every place. I looked at it. “That’s nice,” I was thinking. “Star of Bethlehem Awards.” There were two people listed. Then I saw people were picking up the program and flipping pages. So I picked up mine, turned to the inside, and saw there were more than two people listed. Two more on page two, and then I turned to page 3 and saw my name. With a really kind write-up to go with it.

They read the write-up, along with everyone else’s writeup, after dinner. They gave each of us plaques and asked us to say a few words. I don’t remember exactly what I said–I’m not very comfortable giving impromptu speeches. It was Pastor Schmidtke who had the vision and who got the money. And it was Cathy, a member of the congregation, who made all the phone calls and made all the runs to Office Depot to get things like power strips and network cables when I ran out of power outlets or didn’t have quite enough reach. Maybe I could have done it all without them. But chances are I wouldn’t have. No one would have. One person can’t take on a project of that magnitude alone. It’ll kill you.

The speaker who read the write-up on me was interrupted by applause a couple of times. I got a round of applause as I walked up and another one as I sat down. Helping people like them is easy, because they appreciate it so much.

I hung the plaque up right after I got home. I guess that says something about priorities–I have an expensive Jesse Barnes print I bought more than a week ago that isn’t hung yet. But the sentiment behind that plaque is worth more than a room full of Jesse Barnes prints. It’s a nice plaque. It reads:

New Birth at Bethlehem

We Thank God For You

David Farquhar

For your ongoing support, encouragement, and Christian love to the ministry of Jesus Christ through Bethlehem Lutheran Church. You are God’s Star for the ministry of Bethlehem.
…Daniel 12:3

December 16, 2001
Bethlehem Lutheran Church, St. Louis, MO

Daniel 12:3 reads as follows:

“Those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”

There’s just one more thing I wish I’d said Sunday night. They’re a group of people trying to make a difference in north St. Louis. A lot of them are there by choice. They didn’t have to give me an opportunity, but they did. I’m glad they did.

Look out City, Suburban Boy’s coming to visit!

St. Louis makes a huge distinction between St. Louis City and St. Louis County, much like most cities I’ve visited. One thing I’ll say for the City: Being older, it has a whole lot more character. The St. Louis suburbs are, well, for the most part pre-fab, cookie-cutter, chain-infested boroughs. An outsider would have a hard time telling the difference between Mehlville and Oakville. It takes some looking to find a building more than 50 or 60 years old, and chances are few of the buildings you do find will still be standing in 60 years. I live in the county because I work in the county, and the City taxes you if you live in the City but work in the county–the intent of that law is to punish executives who work in the City but live in ritzy suburbs like Clayton or Ladue or Town & Country, but young professionals like me who live in the city because we like it but who happen to be employed in the county take a tax hit. Really, that kind of living should be encouraged–we’re bringing suburban money into the city, and during rush hour we’re driving against traffic, lessening congestion. And young professionals tend to eat out a lot and spend lots of money. If anything, there should be a slight tax incentive to live in the city and work in the county. But, once again, there are obviously issues involved here that are beyond the capacity of my little brain.
So I now live in the suburbs. But I prefer the City because I like character, and St. Louis is an old enough city to have some character (Europeans will scoff at that, but consider our standards–and really, you can develop some character in 150-200 years).

I’m meeting two friends for lunch later today. Both of them live in the City. One asked where to meet and where to go. I didn’t suggest Burger King in Oakville. But, typical of males, none of us could decide where to go, so I piped in. “Well, aren’t we just the bastions of decisiveness. Look, I’m Suburban Boy. There are great places in both of your neighborhoods, but I don’t know what they are. I’ll defer to your better judgment.”

Well, there’s a deli within a mile or two of where one of them lives that’s supposed to be out of this world. So that’s where we’re going. I know, in this day and age Subway has totally homogenized our idea of a deli, so a good local deli, when you can find one, is a delight. Two local chains used to have locations near where I work. There was Ruma’s, in Concord Village, which was good, and there was Amighetti’s in Crestwood, which was to die for. Both locations are now a Quizno’s. Quizno’s isn’t bad but you can’t get a giant pickle there like you could at Ruma’s, and there’s nothing on Earth that compares to Amighetti’s bread–you could cook yourself up a big ol’ hunk o’ tire and put it on Amighetti’s bread and it’d taste good, if not fabulous. And it didn’t hurt that the girls who worked there were all drop-dead gorgeous. Man, I miss that place. St. Louis has a great Italian heritage, and we’re willing to sell it all out to Subway and Quizno’s.

So.. A neighborhood deli where I can eat outside and converse with two really cool people… Sounds great to me.

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