Happy birthday, Rubik’s Cube!

Rubik’s Cube turned 40 this week. In a reflection of how much faster the world moves today than it used to, I remember Rubik’s Cube from the early 1980s, when it was a big, national craze. I had no idea at the time that it was invented in 1974 and took six years to reach the U.S. market. I asked for one for Christmas in 1981, and so did everyone else I knew. We all got one. And none of us could solve it. Granted, some of that may have been because we were in grade school, and the early years at that. My best friend’s older sister, who was in sixth grade or so, had a book, and she could solve it with the book’s help.

It was even the subject of a short-lived Saturday morning cartoon. I only watched it once or twice. It turns out it’s not easy to make engaging stories about a six-sided puzzle. There were tons of cheap knockoffs out there too, but unlike the knockoffs of today which are generally regarded as better, the 1980s knockoffs were generally worse. After a year or three, the craze died down. We moved in 1983, and I don’t remember anyone in our new town talking about Rubik’s Cube. Mine ended up in a drawer. I’ve looked for it a few times over the years, but never found it. Read more

Why total freedom of expression is a reader’s worst nightmare

A longtime reader asked me about news writing, and writing in general, after complaining about the sorry state of writing these days. I think a lot of things are in a sorry state, and the writing is a reflection of that. But maybe if we can fix the writing a little, it’ll help everything else, right?

Kurt Vonnegut once said writers should pity the readers, who have to identify thousands of little marks on paper and make sense of them immediately, an art so difficult that most people don’t really master it even after studying it for 12 long years.

He says to simplify and clarify.

As writers, we’d rather live by Zeuxis’ mantra that criticism is easier than craftsmanship. But one way to avoid criticism is to make sure the readers understand what we’re writing in the first place.
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Editing. Or not editing.

If you were one of the 25 people who read my ramblings earlier today, I apologize. I accidentally posted what amounted to a bunch of disorganized notes. I’ve since edited them into better shape. I still think they wander too much, but that’s a reflection of me, I guess. My writings are all over the place because I’m all over the place right now.

Can the Royals be saved?

So the Royals managed yesterday to avoid losing their 100th game this season. They have to win 14 games in a row to avoid their third 100-loss season in four years. While a 14-game winning streak to stave off that 100th loss isn’t impossible, it’s unlikely. This is a team that dropped 19 straight last month, after all.

Keep in mind that the cross-state Cardinals, the winningest team in baseball, haven’t won their 99th game yet.

So what do you do with a team that’s had a worse run than the 1962-1966 Mets, who at least had the excuse of being an expansion team?Get some average players. The problem with the Royals since, well, about 1990, is that they don’t have enough average players. Let’s face it, the addition of Barry Bonds to this team wouldn’t result in very many more wins because big hitters need people to get on base ahead of them if they’re going to produce runs, and they need some protection behind him. The Royals’ two best hitters are David DeJesus and Mike Sweeney. DeJesus isn’t a power threat. The Royals’ biggest power threats behind Mike Sweeney are Matt Stairs and Emil Brown, neither of whom have ever been able to hold down a regular job anywhere else, primarily because they’re average hitters and below-average fielders.

Get two hitters and one pitcher. Whenever I’ve run computer simulations, I’ve been able to turn the Royals into a .500 team with the addition of one good pitcher and one good hitter. Of course, the last time I ran that simulation, the Royals had Carlos Beltran, so now they’d need two hitters to accomplish the same thing. Since David Glass has expressed a willingness to raise the payroll to about $50 million and they’re about to shed more than $10 million in dead-weight salaries, it’s possible for the Royals to pay three $8 million salaries. The question is whether the Royals can manage to attract three $8 million players.

Even though San Diego has been trying for years to unload Phil Nevin, the Royals have never bitten. Nevin wouldn’t be happy in Kansas City, primarily because Nevin wouldn’t be happy anywhere. He’d be bad in the clubhouse, but the Royals only have a few guys who are good in the clubhouse. At least the guy can hit.

Maybe the Royals should take a chance on Rafael Palmeiro. Clearly nobody else wants him, and the steroids are a big question mark. Maybe he’ll never hit more than 14 homers again. Maybe he’ll never play baseball again once Congress gets hold of him. The Royals already have too many 1B/DH types but if Palmeiro can deliver a cheap 25 home runs from the left-hand side of the plate, he’s an upgrade. A slimmed-down Palmeiro would still be the second-best hitter on this team.

Do one thing well. The Royals are at or near the bottom of both leagues in fielding, hitting, pitching, and stolen bases. Doing just one of those things well would make a big difference. Defense is the cheapest of those problems to address. The Royals have been criticized for moving slick-fielding shortstop Andres Blanco to second base and handing him the job. But he’s hitting above .200, which Royals second basemen have struggled to do this year, and he’s making the plays at second, which Royals second basemen haven’t done at all this year. His bat won’t win any games, but arguably his glove won at least one game this past week against the White Sox. Yes, the White Sox made two bad baserunning mistakes and Blanco gunned them down, but with Donnie Murphy or Ruben Gotay playing second, you get away with those mistakes.

A team of seven Andres Blancos plus Mike Sweeney (whose glove can’t hurt you when he’s DHing) and David DeJesus (who wields a good glove in center field) would get about seven fewer hits a week than what it gets now, but it wouldn’t give away runs. The Royals would win a lot more 1-0 games.

Stolen bases are the second-cheapest problem to address. You can draft guys with good speed and/or trade for them, and then coach them. The Royals won a lot of games in the 1970s and early 1980s by relying on guys who could beat out an infield single and steal second or stretch singles to the outfield into doubles, then get driven in by a 3-4-5 combination of George Brett, Hal McRae, and John Mayberry/Willie Aikens/Steve Balboni (in other words, any affordable first baseman who could hit .250 with 25-30 home runs). And for that matter, Brett could steal bases and stretch singles into doubles, and until about 1982 when age caught up with him, so could McRae.

Since the Royals don’t seem to have anyone in the organization who is succeeding in teaching guys how to steal bases, why not find out what Davey Lopes is doing? Lopes has always been one of the best teachers around at the art of the stolen base, even going back to his days as a player.

Scout better. One reason last-place teams usually don’t stay there long is because they get the best draft picks. But from 1997 to 2002, the Royals have managed to draft exactly one #1 who is still in the big leagues. The one they drafted in 2002, Zack Greinke, is 4-16 with a 5.95 ERA. The kid clearly should have been in Omaha this year. A lot of people are giving up on him–he’s been touted as the next Greg Maddux–but critics forget that Maddux went 6-14 with a 5.61 ERA when he was 21.

Part of the difference is that Maddux had veteran pitchers to learn from at 21. I’m not sure that Jose Lima is the best example for young Greinke.

But I digress. The Royals need to start scouting better and drafting better. In 1999 the Royals drafted Kyle Snyder. The Cardinals drafted some kid who was attending college in Kansas City named Albert Pujols. Which one have you heard of?

And yes, I’ve run the numbers. Albert Pujols doesn’t drive in quite as many runs in a Royals lineup and he doesn’t hit for quite as much average with only Mike Sweeney to protect him, but he turns the Royals into a winning team. And for some reason Sweeney hits better with Pujols in the lineup. Imagine that.

The way you get good players when you can’t trade for them and you can’t sign them is to draft and develop them. The way you do that is to scout well. If the Royals aren’t willing to pay their draft picks (Alex Gordon is still holding out for more money), they need to use that money to lure the best scouts in the game. Find the scouts with the best track records and pay them double what anyone else is willing to pay. The result will be a team that drafts smarter and trades smarter.

Is there a bright side? In Mike MacDougal, Ambiorix Burgos, Andy Sisco and Jeremy Affeldt, the Royals have four lights-out relievers. If the Royals can get a lead after the sixth inning, their chances of nailing down the win are pretty good with those four pitchers, assuming good defense behind them. I happen to believe that either Sisco or Affeldt should go back into the starting rotation, but strong bullpens make good starters out of mediocre ones so I can see keeping them where they are. Affeldt’s been roughed up of late, but that’s more of a reflection on his fielding ability than on his ability to pitch.

Greinke has demonstrated that he has the ability to pitch, but he needs to turn that promise into results. Runelvys Hernandez and Denny Bautista have demonstrated an ability to pitch, but both have been injury-prone. A seasoned Greinke along with a healthy Hernandez and Bautista give a solid basis to build from. Given a couple of veterans to anchor the staff and teach them, it could go somewhere. I was too young to know at the time, but I wonder now if the reason the Royals kept Paul Splitorff and Larry Gura around in 1984 when both had ceased to be useful pitchers was to teach their young pitchers how to survive in the majors.

So I think the Royals’ poor pitching is temporary. Now if only I could say the same thing for the management…

How to build and paint miniature buildings (and make kids have fun with what they learn in school)

I found this tutorial on building a miniature building and a companion article on painting. The intended audience is wargaming, but the same tricks work for buildings for train layouts, or for kids to build cities for their Matchbox/Hot Wheels-brand cars or their action figures.To me, the gem was the technique on painting windows. I have never figured out how to draw or paint a glare on a window that looked the least bit convincing.

The most convincing way to get a glare or reflection on a window is to cut out the window, cut a piece of slide glass–or, in a pinch, plastic packaging–and glue it into the window. Or if you’re not going to detail the interior of the building, cut a piece from a gallon milk jug. Nothing looks more like a window than a window.

But for those times when that’s impractical, or for those times when you want a bit more of a toy look, the technique in this article is exactly what you need.

Don’t discount this as a fun craft for kids. Kids get bored easily, but this allows them to use their creativity, and it teaches them hand-eye coordination, problem solving, and it’s the only fun and interesting application of math I’ve ever found. If a child is struggling with division, like I did, here’s a motivation.

How do you turn this into a math lesson? Instead of eyeballing the size, encourage the child to figure out how big the building ought to be. If the building is intended for die-cast cars, measure a toy car. Then measure a real car. You now have a ratio. (Most die-cast cars scale out to somewhere between 1:64 and 1:76 scale). So, figuring that a one-story house is about 12 feet tall, multiply that by your ratio to figure out how big a floor should be. Measure doors and windows and multiply that by the ratio to figure out how big those should be.

The result will be toys that look better because some thought went into their proportions, and your kids might learn to enjoy math a little bit. I know I would have paid a lot more attention in math class if I’d realized I could use it to make cool toys.

At some point you might want to head down to Radio Shack to pick up some miniature light bulbs and teach your kids a little science lesson too. Horror of horrors, they might find they like that too.

Or, if your child is very inclined towards math and science, and hates art class, this might be a way to give them a bit more appeciation of what they learn in those classes.

Love is patient, love is kind, love is not a license to say anything you want

Yep, I’ve got another pet peeve. Last weekend I wrote about passing “Christian” judgment.

This week I’d like to talk about another favorite tool of the fundamentalist: so-called “Christian Love,” which, when it has the qualifier, often is anything but.Many fundamentalists belive that Christian love is a license to rip someone a new one any time they feel like it. They justify it to themselves by saying it’s their duty to point out their Christian brothers’ and sisters’ faults.

No one has ever shown me the verse that gives us that right. And that idea isn’t exactly compatible with Jesus’ command to get the log out of your own eye before worrying about the speck in someone else’s (Luke 6:41-42), or that he who is without sin should cast the first stone (John 8:7). (Note that in John 8, He Who Was Without Sin refrained from throwing any stones. He told her to cut it out and go home. He didn’t even tell her what to cut out. She knew full well.)

Let me tell you why I think “Christian love” is often anything but. Let’s refer to 1 Corinthians 13. I know you heard it at the last wedding you went to. But this chapter has a whole lot more to do with interpersonal relationships than it does with weddings.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

My pastor is fond of personalizing this. “Dave is patient, Dave is kind. Dave doesn’t boast and isn’t envious, and he isn’t proud or rude.” And he interjects “Tell me when to stop,” in there frequently, because he knows none of us can measure up to this chapter. The fact is, too often we aren’t patient, we aren’t kind, we boast like crazy, we burn with jealousy, we try to make ourselves look good… Need I go on?

So the next time you get the urge to chastise your Christian brother or sister, and you feel the need to sign, “In Christian love…” drop your pen, grab your Bible (don’t rely on your memory; it’s selective) and turn to 1 Corinthians 13. If what you’re writing isn’t patient or kind, then don’t sign it like that. If it’s a record of wrongs, you could be in for a world of hurt. See Matthew 18. The part of Matthew 18 that everyone likes to forget about, that is (verses 32-35):

“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

“This is how [God] will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”

Christianity isn’t a race. We don’t get extra floors on our mansions in Heaven for each sin we point out. We have nothing to prove. Max Lucado once pointed out the futility of this with an illustration: What if God changed the rules and said forget all that stuff in the Bible; all you have to do in order to be saved is jump to the moon on your own power. So get to it.

Well, it doesn’t matter if you’re Michael Jordan or if you’re Christopher Reeve. Michael Jordan might be able to jump 15 feet in the air if he tried. Christopher Reeve can’t jump at all. But when the goal is the moon, which is a quarter of a million miles away, Michael Jordan’s 15 feet is a rounding error. Who cares? Someone standing on the moon wouldn’t be able to see it!

I like the illustration in Matthew 25:34-40.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

There seem to be several points to this verse, but one of them is that we won’t know all of our good deeds. I wonder sometimes if the truly righteous don’t know any of them, and I wonder if, when God counts our good deeds–which don’t get you into heaven; remember, Isaiah 64:6 calls our good deeds “filthy rags” in the nice translation, and in the not-as-nice translations, it uses words closer to “soiled undergarments”–maybe when God counts up our good deeds, maybe only the ones we don’t know about are the only ones that count.

Because it sure seems to me those are the only ones we do without some ulterior motive.

So tear up that note. Skip that conversation. Read 1 Corinthians 13 out loud, substituting your name for “love,” and then read Romans 2 for good measure.

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance?

Kindness leads people to repentance. So what’s the best way to be kind? Start with love. How do you love? See 1 Corinthians 13.

It’s funny how the people who are best able to take those two passages to heart have the best, longest-lasting relationships. Non-Christians like those people too. It’s funny how non-Christians are impressed by kindness and forgiveness.

It must be because usually when they look for it in the places it’s supposed to be, they don’t find any.

Fide et fortitudine

Fide et fortitudine. That’s the motto on my family crest. It seems appropriate. If I didn’t have fidelity and fortitude, I wouldn’t be making this post, because I wouldn’t care. I’d talk about how to use Samba and Ghostscript and your favorite free Unix to set up a print server that spits out Acrobat-compatible PDF files or something.
I guess it’s an indication of how my readership has changed over the past year that I only got one e-mail message like this. A year ago I wouldn’t have dared write on the subject I wrote about Friday, for fear of alienating readership. Well, I alienated them anyway, somehow, some way, and in the process picked up a bunch more, so who cares, right?

I’ve had three days (or is it four?) to formulate a careful response. I didn’t take that much time. That says something. Obviously I’m still OK with what I wrote.

Anyway… I never know how to present reader mail, which is why I prefer people use the comments system here–I’ll call attention to the comments when there’s something good there. Speaking of which, be sure to check out yesterday’s comments. There’s some good stuff there, and I managed to change the subject just slightly by telling a story of how I gained some popularity for my writings in high school.

Back to the subject at hand. I guess I’ll turn this into a dialogue, even though it wasn’t a dialogue. Daynoter Matt Beland took issue with Friday’s post. So he wrote me.

MB: Hi Dave,

Like you, I get asked about religion a lot, mostly by family members. They don’t seem to understand how I can work in “that industry” where so many of the workers are not Christian (or an acceptable variation, such as Muslim or Jewish.) I personally am not particularly religious, of any flavor, despite having been raised Roman Catholic. I do, however, have a number of friends who are religious of all types, and I have to say you’re being extremely unfair in your comparisons. I mean no criticism of Christianity or you personally, but it’s not a good idea to be critical of other religions without more information.

DF: Now you’re painting with awfully broad strokes to call Islam or Judaism an “acceptable variation” of Christianity. Neither of them would appreciate that label. I’m sure you already know this, but for the benefit of those who may not, here goes.

Christianity is derived from Judaism (Jesus was, after all, a Jewish rabbi). Islam is the newest of the three but it, like Judaism, traces its origin back to the patriarch Abraham. Abraham had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. Isaac gave rise to Israel and Judaism; Ishmael gave rise to the Arabic nations and ultimately to Islam. Yes, the figure that Christianity calls “God the Father” is Judaism’s Yahweh and Islam’s Allah. Islam regards Jesus Christ as a prophet, but not the Great Prophet (that title belongs to Muhammed), while Judaism regards Jesus as little more than another heretic.

But your point wasn’t to write a broad explanation of Judaism/Islam/Christianity, just as mine wasn’t to write a broad explanation of pagan religions and the occult.

MB: The first thing I usually show those members of my family who ask is from the Jargon File, if you’ve not seen it before. In Appendix B, “A Portrait of J. Random Hacker”, there’s a section on religion. This is what it says:

“Religion

Agnostic. Atheist. Non-observant Jewish. Neo-pagan. Very commonly, three or more of these are combined in the same person. Conventional faith-holding Christianity is rare though not unknown.

Even hackers who identify with a religious affiliation tend to be relaxed about it, hostile to organized religion in general and all forms of religious bigotry in particular. Many enjoy `parody’ religions such as Discordianism and the Church of the SubGenius.

Also, many hackers are influenced to varying degrees by Zen Buddhism or (less commonly) Taoism, and blend them easily with their `native’ religions.

DF: Eastern religions blend nicely with one another and with Middle Eastern and Western religions, almost by design. There are neo-Christian sects (such as the Moonies and Hare Krishna) that do the same thing and have been doing so for longer than computers have been available to the masses.

MB: There is a definite strain of mystical, almost Gnostic sensibility that shows up even among those hackers not actively involved with neo-paganism, Discordianism, or Zen. Hacker folklore that pays homage to `wizards’ and speaks of incantations and demons has too much psychological truthfulness about it to be entirely a joke.”

DF: Indeed. And some Christians do take offense, rightly or wrongly. I know of Christians who pick Linux over one of the BSD Unixes strictly because of the Chuck the Daemon mascot, even though FreeBSD is the demonstrably superior OS under many circumstances. Personally, I could live without the pentagram on the Sorcerer Linux logo, but I don’t throw a fit about it because Gentoo Linux is a lot better anyway.

With computers, people can, and do, try anything. I have seen people resort to witchcraft to get things working. And in one case I’ve seen it work.

People will also tend to explain away something that’s hard to understand by drawing parallels to something else that’s hard to understand.

MB: First, let’s look at this part: (quoting Friday’s piece).

> Someone sent me a nice explanation for it. It’s a little longwinded, so
>I’ll summarize and paraphrase. It said we’ve been telling God we don’t want
>Him. And God’s a perfect gentleman, so when He’s told He’s not wanted, He
>butts out. We’ve told God we don’t want Him in our schools. We’ve told Him
>we don’t want Him in our courts. We don’t want Him in our government. We
>don’t want Him in our business. We don’t want Him in our streets. We don’t
>want Him on our televisions and movie screens. And each time we’ve told Him
>to get lost, he’s sorrowfully complied.

No, we don’t want your God in our schools. We don’t want Him in our movies, books, newspapers, streets, or most especially our government. That’s not because we’re all evil, it’s not because we don’t have faith, and it’s not because we don’t necessarily believe. It’s because we don’t all believe in the same things. No matter who you choose to represent as “God” in schools, in government, in any public forum, you’ll be leaving someone out.

I’ve fought hard to keep “God” out of schools. I’ve not fought to prevent schools from holding non-lead “Periods of Reflection” where students may pray or meditate as they like. What’s the difference? The students have the choice. If you as a parent have raised your child to be a true Christian, then they will probably pray and make you proud. However, the child in the next row who’s Buddist or neo-pagan should have the right to make *their* parents proud, too. No one has asked you to keep God out of your life, or your home, or your family. We encourage that. But your God is your choice. My God is not your choice. It’s very easy for the christians to say “but we just want everyone to share in the glory of our God” – the problem is, the rest of the world remembers that christians have not always offered others a choice. And the current refrain of “you’ve pushed God from our lives” sounds remarkably the same – you don’t want to offer others a choice.

DF: We’ve gone to the extreme of teaching relative morality where there no longer is any right and wrong, only what works for you. The end result? A couple dozen evil men hijacked planes and crashed them into buildings (or tried) because it worked for them and they could use a twisted form of Islam to justify it. So now we’re finally starting to think about right and wrong.

Should we teach Christianity in the schools? Not necessarily. Should a Christian group be allowed to assemble just like a model train club could? Absolutely. Unfortunately that hasn’t always been permitted, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly be damned.

I never said no one else should have a choice. I talked about my personal choice and gave my justification for it. And yes, it bothers me that some of the 17-year-olds I know who would like to start up a Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter in their school cannot, on grounds of Church and State.

And I disagree that we can’t teach morality. You can boil the world religions down to a set of moral principles that won’t offend anyone, except possibly those who refuse to keep them. Then again, Benjamin Franklin wanted them taught, even though he wasn’t willing to keep them in their entirety.

I would also think that if you don’t want God in the movies or on TV, if you have no problems with Harry Potter, then you’re practicing a double standard.

MB: Love your God. Rejoice in your God. But love your neighbor, as well, and allow them to worship the God of their choice.

DF: Again: I never said no one else should have a choice. I talked about my personal choice and gave my justification for it. And you seem to have missed the biggest point: Anyone who follows Christianity ends up inadvertently fulfilling the requirements, as far as is humanly possible, of any other religion. And, unlike any other interpretation of God, this one doesn’t leave you to your own devices to fulfill what’s required of you. So tell me who has the kinder God? But He doesn’t force Himself on anyone, and neither do I believe in forcing Him on anyone. Indeed, you can trace many of Christianity’s problems to it (or a different form of it) being forced on people who don’t want it (or who wanted a different form).

MB: Next: (again, quoting Friday)
>And I believe in the Holy Spirit. I can’t explain the Holy Spirit. But I’ve
>seen His work, I’ve felt His presence, and yeah, it’s weird. But powerful. I
>know some of the appeal of Satanism and of pagan religions like Wicca–most
>of the appeal–is power. They don’t compare to Holy Spirit power. And
>personally, I’d much rather go to a God who’s willing to look bad by saying
>no when He knows what I’m asking for is bad for me or someone else, rather
>than going to a god who’ll give me whatever I ask for to ensure I come back
>for more. God’s a whole lot smarter than me, and has a much better
>perspective than me. I’m better off when I defer to Him.

No. None of this is correct. It’s what most Christians belive, but unfortunately that doesn’t make it true. Many of my friends and coworkers are neo-pagan, Satanist, and so on. “Neo-pagan” is a very broad term, including Wicca, Druidism, Animism, Witchcraft (which is NOT Wicca), and other variations. I personally know members of each of the above religions, and my own curiosity has lead me to investigate all of those and many others as well. Please note that Satanism is not considered a Pagan religion, either by the pagans or by the satanists.

DF: I didn’t state that paganism and Satanism were related, other than that they have similar appeal. That’s what the extra “and of” is there for. Had I said, “appeal of pagan religions like Wicca and Satanism,” then you’d have a case. That doesn’t mean the same thing as “appeal of Satanism and of pagan religions like Wicca.”

MB: Let’s tackle the hardest one first. Satanism. Please note that Satanism is not considered a Pagan religion, either by the pagans or by the satanists. Christians have absolutely no doubt about this one – they’re evil. Worshipping Satan!

The first thing the followers of this religion will explain is that it’s simply not true. Christians believe in Satan, the fallen angel who defied God. They are not Christian, they do not believe in hell or heaven, and they do not worship the christian Satan – despite movies and what they consider christian propaganda to the contrary.

Here are some basic facts:
* They do not worship a living deity.
* Major emphasis is placed on the power and authority of the individual
Satanist, rather than on a god or goddess.
* They believe that “no redeemer liveth” – that each person is their own
redeemer, fully responsible for the direction of their own life.
* “Satanism respects and exalts life. Children and animals are the purest
expressions of that life force, and as such are held sacred and precious…”

The founder of the Church of Satan is a very controversial figure; his primary motivation appeared to be financial, and as such many followers of the church and of the religion do not regard him to be a true Satanist. They use the church, however, since it provides a legal framework and foundation for their beliefs and legal (if not social) protection from persecution.

DF: There are at least two forms of Satanism. The Satanism of Anton LaVey (The Church of Satan) has more to do with hedonism than the Biblical figure of Satan. That’s the Satanism you describe, and the Satanism that is best-known. Supposedly LaVey once stated he wrote the Satanic Bible as a joke but it caught on. I don’t know if that was ever verified, and I remember he died back in 1997 or 1998 so he’s not around to answer any questions anymore. I am aware that they state their Satan isn’t the same as the Judeo-Christian Satan.

There’s also another, darker religion that calls itself Satanism. Most people think it only exists in the movies, but in the small town in Southeastern Missouri I lived in for five years, they wish the Satanists practiced LaVey’s religion. These people don’t hold life in particularly high regard, either animals or humans. They drink blood, systematically break the Biblical Ten Commandments, and practice sacrifice. Sometimes they attempt human sacrifice. This dates back almost 15 years, but a Satanic group in that town had a hit list and at least two of my former classmates were on it. One of them opened her locker one day and found a cat skull in it along with a note that stated, simply, “You’re next.”

This was not Christian propaganda. I knew these girls. I went to school with them and to church with them. To my knowledge it was never publicized aside from their families asking people they knew to pray for them.

Maybe there are similar stories in Christian propaganda. I don’t go looking for that kind of stuff so I don’t know. Most of the Christians I know, sadly, are too busy beating each other up to pay attention to that sort of thing.

If Anton LaVey didn’t want to be associated with this subculture, he should have called his movement something else. If today’s Church of Satan doesn’t want to be associated with this subculture, it can always do what the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints did in order to differentiate itself from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (aka the Mormons): Change its name.

LaVey also didn’t do anyone any favors by portraying the Christian Satan in movies, but that just adds fuel to the argument that his motivation was money, or a joke, or both.

MB: The most common Pagan religion today is Witchcraft, including the subset of Wicca. I know many witches, including some who identify themselves as Wiccans. They do not ride brooms, they do not wear black (other than as a fashion choice – most actually wear Earth-toned clothing, brown, grey, green, etc.) They don’t fly, light candles with their breath, or anything else you may have seen in the movies.

They do, however, believe in limits.

DF: I’ve known a number of wiccans, and at times considered them friends. I even built a computer for one a few years ago. We’ve lost contact but I don’t hold anything against them. They dressed more or less like I do, hung out at a lot of the same places I did, could only fly in an airplane, and at least one of them didn’t even own a broom.

MB: (Again, quoting Friday):
>And
>personally, I’d much rather go to a God who’s willing to look bad by saying
>no when He knows what I’m asking for is bad for me or someone else, rather
>than going to a god who’ll give me whatever I ask for to ensure I come back
>for more.

Um. No. The first rule (as was explained to me by the first witch friend I aquired when I expressed interest in the matter) is the Threefold Law:

“Ever mind the Rule of Three
Three times what thou givest returns to thee
This lesson well, thou must learn
Thee only gets what thou dost earn!”

This is interpreted that any spell, any action of any kind, which affects anyone, will return to you three times. This eliminates any possibility of “black magic”, because the results of the spell will supposedly return to you with three times the power of the original spell. It’s also the belief that any spell you cast with positive effects for others will be returned threefold – so it’s better to give, for by giving, you will receive.

Also, spells and requests do *not* always work. You only receive what you request from a Deity (usually “the Goddess”, but there are others) if it meets the following basic conditions:

1. It is truly your heart’s desire, rather than a simple “I want this” – you
have to want it badly enough to accept the cost, because everything has a
cost.
2. It has to be something which is beneficial to you and to those around you.
3. The second law – “And it harm none, do what ye will”. It cannot be
something which would harm anyone or anything.

True, Witchcraft (and pagan religions in general, so far as I’ve seen) place more of an onus on the practitioner for their decisions and for life in general. No pagan would ever say “How could God/Goddess/the Gods allow this to happen”, because they don’t believe it works that way. The works of Man are the works of Man, for good or for ill, and preventing evil from the works of Man is also the responsibility of Man. They believe that there is no deity who will make things right – they believe that is their job as human beings. I recently gave one of my team members permission to take a day off so she could attend a Coven meeting to try to repair some of the spiritual damage done by the September 11 attacks. A prayer meeting, if you will, except that instead of asking God to help those who need it, they believe that a part of themselves goes out to all those who need it – and that if enough of them give enough of themselves, they can repair the damage to people’s hearts as much as is good or possible. (I didn’t understand that at first. She explained that they do not want to take away the pain entirely – it should hurt when you lose a loved one, because you’ve truly lost something. If it didn’t hurt, if there was no pain, then there would be no appreciation of the loss. However, they do believe it is also the responsibility of the loved ones who remain to help soften the blow as much as possible.)

Is the appeal power? I don’t know about that. It seems to me, from what I’ve seen and what I’ve read, that the power they believe themselves to have is balanced and more by the responsibility they’re given. They can’t just DO things. They have to accept costs. They have to accept pain. They have to accept that they are responsible for their own actions, and they have a near-contempt for the christian practice of Reconciliation. It’s not any God’s place, they say, to forgive them for their since. Only the people or things they’ve sinned against can do that, and it requires more than a prayer or two – you have to earn it.

DF: What you just described is power. And the forgiveness you just described isn’t much different from Judeo-Christian forgiveness. Unfortunately most Christians don’t celebrate Yom Kippur anymore, but human-to-human reconciliation is what Yom Kippur (Judaism’s Day of Atonement) is all about. Jesus Himself once said that if you’re in the temple offering a sacrifice and you realize your brother (and “your brother” means anyone and everyone) has something against you, leave your sacrifice there and go reconcile with your brother. Reconciliation is more important to God than worship! That’s something not many people seem to know. Merely asking God for forgiveness is only half of it. Some would argue that asking God without asking the other person isn’t true repentance–true repentance is turning from the sin, hating it, and wanting to make it right. Often we only go two for three on that front.

But that does bring up the other big attraction to either Satanism (especially LaVey’s Satanism) and paganism, and one they share with atheism and agnosticism: lack of a central moral authority. You’re accountable to yourself, and to the people you want to be close to, but that’s it.

I also remember reading in a philosophy class an essay titled, “Why Women Need The Goddess.” It was written by a feminist who argued that no woman should practice any religion that used male pronouns in conjunction with a deity. So maybe there are people who worship “The Goddess,” for purely feminist reasons, but there again, the motivation is partly power, although in this case it would be political power more than spiritual power.

MB: There’s more, there’s a lot more. Most christians don’t bother to look. For all the preaching about God’s love and preventing evil in the world, the most common trait I see among christians (unfortunately) is intolerance, followed closely by hatred and fear. That team member who wanted to attend a coven? She was afraid to approach me because she didn’t know if I was christian or not. She was afraid that if I was, I might do something – fire her, maybe, or just make life so hellish she had no choice but to quit.

DF: A lot of Christians don’t bother to look at their own religion, but Christians don’t have a monopoly on that. Any religion that isn’t being persecuted has plenty of complacent practitioners. Persecution tends to weed those out, which is why persecution tends to make a religion grow, rather than stomping it out. If you want to destroy a religion, subsidize it. It worked splendidly in Europe. First it twisted Christianity beyond recognition, leading to atrocities like the Crusades, then it eventually reduced it to a government-subsidized subculture. Today there are more Christians in Africa than there are in Europe.

You also see plenty of hatred, intolerance, and fear in many Muslim sects. You see it in Orthodox Judaism as well. If the tables were turned, you’d see it in the pagan religions too. It’s called human nature.

Am I being intolerant here? Some might see it that way. But I didn’t set out to tell people why they should be what I am. I set out to tell people why I am what I am. If they want what I’ve got, great, I’ll answer any question, any time of the day. If they want to leave it, that’s their choice.

MB: At first, I thought she was being paranoid. The only reason she felt comfortable talking to me about it was that I commented on a piece of jewelry she wore which signified witchcraft, and I did so favorably and in a way which showed I knew what it meant. Then I noticed a few things:

“I don’t think witchcraft is a religion. I would hope the military officials would take a second look at the decision they made.” Who said that? Gearge W. Bush, while still Governor of Texas, in regards to a decision by the military to allow soldiers to practice Witchcraft as their religion.

The second was a quote on the http://www.religioustolerance.org/ website. They’re a Canadian group who have essays and information on every religion, lined up equally. They’re no more critical of christianity than they are of any other. Apparently, this makes them unpopular with christians for some
reason.

DF: Insecure people in any group tend to lash out when they feel attacked, whether the attack is justified or not. Christianity as it’s been practiced through the centuries has problems, yes. It always did. The bulk of the New Testament is St. Paul’s criticisms of Christianity as the churches of his day, many of which he founded himself, practiced it. Even when Jesus was alive there were problems. He had a lot of harsh words for the Scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees, but He had plenty of harsh words for His own disciples too.

Don’t project the ravings of a vocal minority on the entire group.

MB: “Neopagan faiths are modern-day reconstructions of ancient Pagan religions from various countries and eras. They experience a high level of discrimination and persecution in North America. They are rarely practiced in public for reasons of safety.”

Who’s doing the persecuting? Simple statistics says it’s not other pagans –

“About Christian Faith Groups We treat Christianity in greater detail than other religions, simply because about 88% of North Americans identify themselves with that religion. Christians outnumber the next largest organized religions by about 40 to 1 in the U.S. and Canada. We are not in any way implying that Christianity is superior or inferior to other religions.”

Please. Worship whomever you like. Write about whatever you like. But label fiction as fiction, or else write the truth when you talk about religion.

DF: Disagreement with or misinterpretation of something doesn’t make it fiction. As far as I can tell, you objected to my statement that paganism’s appeal is power (then you went on to describe power as I definie it), and you misread a clause so you thought that I was calling Satanism a pagan religion, which I was not. I glossed over a few things that you would have preferred I talk about in more detail. Neither does that make it fiction, or false.

Or maybe you just misread my intentions. Hopefully this explanation clears that up.

I can’t tell if you want me to come out and say that any other religion is OK to practice. I won’t come out and say that–that would make me a Unitarian Universalist, which I am not. I won’t try to stop anyone from practicing something else. That’s all I ask of anyone else, and that’s all the Constitution asks, so that’s all I’m going to give or ask for.

Applying Ezekiel to 9/11

I was reading Generations, a book that tries to predict the future by looking at history’s cycles, just last week, reading about how certain generations have reacted in the past to crises–because, like it or not, every generation faces one, if not several–and wondering.
Yesterday morning, I was minding my own business, driving to work, noticing that traffic was annoyingly heavy on I-270 and mad at myself for not being in the far right lane where I can make the snap decision to exit onto Tesson Ferry and wind myself back to work over back roads. It seemed like a typical, ordinary day in St. Louis. The only thing unusual about it was that the sky was actually blue, rather than Missouri Gray. Then the DJs on the radio station started acting really weird after traffic. Something was going on in New York. I gathered that much. None of them seemed very eager to talk about it.

The details were sketchy. A plane hit the World Trade Center. They were trying to evacuate the building. The only detail was that it was a twin-engined plane. That could be anything–it could be a relatively small civilian plane, a cargo plane like a Beech 18, or an airliner. They didn’t seem to know. Then they started talking about baseball. I flipped the station. More details came in.

As I pulled into the parking lot at work, they started talking about another plane.

You already know the rest. My day at work was probably just like yours. We didn’t get anything done, we got our news accounts however we could; the big boss got on the intercom and briefed us on the situation (I already knew those details and a few more–I had better sources than he had) and he said a prayer (maybe your boss didn’t) and he told us he knew we were distracted because he was distracted, just get done what absolutely has to get done, and pray a lot. Actually I think he said we could pray constantly if we wanted. My big boss is cool like that.

He didn’t mention this, but as all of this was unfurling, I thought of Ezekiel 22. The story of Ezekiel 22 basically goes like this. God’s chosen nation had gone astray. (Sound familiar?) God went looking for a few men who would turn from their wicked ways and stand in the gap, providing leadership and praying for their nation. (Sound familiar?) If someone would stand in the gap, the nation wouldn’t be destroyed. (Sound familiar?)

No one stood in the gap.

I hope that part doesn’t sound familiar.

Then I recalled that when Abraham was having a little chat with God about a couple of towns that were situated where the Dead Sea is now, Abraham asked God if he would spare Sodom and Gommorrah if he could find a small number of righteous people there. God said yes. Then Abraham started nickeling and dimeing God down, until Abraham talked him down to 10. “What about 10? Will you spare those cities if I can find 10 righteous people there?” And God said yes, He would spare those cities for the sake of 10 righteous people.

Now, I’m pretty sure that Abraham could have talked God down to three–his brother-in-law Lot and his two daughters. But Abraham wasn’t that bold.

Late in the afternoon, one of the elders from my church called and asked if I knew about our prayer service that night. I’d heard. He asked if I’d be there. I said of course. I told him about those two passages. Then I pointed out that there would be more than 10 people there. We needed to stand in the gap.

Incidentally, there were closer to 800 people there. And a large percentage of them were under 30. So I have an idea now how my generation reacts to a crisis, and I’m glad to say I’m impressed.

And that’s why I don’t really know what to say now. Not because I’m impressed, but because I was too busy standing in the gap. And no, I’m not sorry. And no, I don’t really give a rip how many people I’ve just offended. Some of you won’t be back. Others of you will try to sabotage this site, because some of you have tried in the past when I’ve used the G-word for something other than swearing. But I can live with that.

Oh yeah. Jesus loves you.

Yes, I know there are many who will say that praying doesn’t do any good, it won’t make our problems go away, God is dead and no one cares and if there is a hell I’ll see you there and more garbage like that.

But I’m gonna go back to that stand in the gap thing for a minute, just in case I haven’t annoyed you enough with it yet. There’s no sin in the United States of America? I can’t stand to turn on the blasted tube because that’s all that it fills my living room with. The only useful purpose my TV serves is to give me something to set my stereo on. And since I know God will forgive me for saying something blasphemous just to make a point, I will. Let’s say it doesn’t matter that it hurts God. Fine. It hurts us and it hurts those we love. Or should love. I argue that if we truly loved our spouses we wouldn’t do half the things we do to them. A big part of me is really glad I don’t have a spouse because I know living with the awful things I’ve done the last few years would have hurt her more than any human being should be hurt.

But what’s that have to do with foreign terrorism on U.S. soil? Everything. With friends like us, who needs enemies? We treat each other like the stuff we scrape off our shoes, and we treat foreigners even worse. Dmitry Sklyarov is a political prisoner, under house arrest in California by special interests, being persecuted (yes, persecuted) under an unconstitutional law. Folks, we are no better than Red China, who held our servicemen for no reason. I’ll say that again. The sin of the United States of America is just as bad as that of Red, Pinko Commie China.

Now, if this is how we treat Russia and Russian citizens, then it’s likely that we’ve offended other people. Well, we know Europe hates us. We bailed the Allies out of World War I and then we came in and won World War II, and we even paid for a lot of the rebuilding effort, and they still hate us. We must have done something really wrong somewhere. And the Middle East, well, they don’t like us because we acknowledge Israel’s right to exist. But they’ve probably got some other grudges against us too.

Regardless, somehow, at some point, knowingly or unknowingly, whether we’re in the right or in the wrong this time, we offended someone to the point that he decided it’d be a really good idea to hijack some airliners and crash them into some high-profile buildings.

That ought to give us some pause and make us examine ourselves a little bit. Chances are we’re right and this guy’s wrong. But it helps to be sure. And a little reflection puts us in the right mindset.

And let’s face it. Even if you’re not so sure there is a God, if you’re willing to admit even the slightest possibility that He does exist, He is all powerful, and He does care about us, isn’t some small part of you glad there are people who want to seek Him out, and make sure He’s on our side this time?

A few words of St. Paul seem really appropriate here. “Each of you should look out not only for your own interests, but also the interests of others.”

If we all did that, we’d make heaven obsolete, folks. We’d have it right here.

I’ve got just a few other things to say, then I’ve got an overdue appointment with my pillow.

Yes, there needs to be retaliation, once we know who perpetrated it. The retaliation must be swift, effective, and harm as few innocent people as possible. What happened yesterday was a tremendous atrocity. Taking the high road isn’t enough. We need to take the very highest road.

We’re unified. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, home of one prime suspect, there was firebombing last night. Benjamin Franklin’s wisdom behind his Join or Die cartoon holds just as true today as it did some 225+ years ago. We need to stay unified. We’ve become a nation of special interests ever since the end of the Cold War, and we’re the worse for it, in every possible way.

This will not destroy our country. We will do a fine job of doing that ourselves. I love to fly, but right now the idea of hopping on board a commercial jetliner has negative appeal to me. My first thought after this happened was that we need to have two or three, or two or three dozen, armed Marines on all domestic flights, under orders to shoot first and ask questions later. Countries who resort to similar tactics don’t have problems with hijacking.

We can arm this country to the hilt, and we’ll have very few problems with safety. Police states have their problems, but safety generally isn’t one of them. We can trade our freedoms for safety, but in 20 years we’ll be wondering what happened to our Republic, or what’s left of it.

This is not the apocolypse. Don’t get in the gas lines, don’t rent a U-Haul and then go to the grocery store and try to fill it up with milk and toilet paper. People in St. Louis today were acting like the disaster had happened here. Nothing has really changed. A terrorist with limited resources crashed a bunch of our resources into some of our other resources. There is no direct connection between this and the supply and demand for gasoline, milk, and toilet paper. The U.S. economy will keep on chugging away, if anything, at a better rate now that people are thinking more about survival than about how to turn 20 bucks into a million by investing in the right technology stock.

I’ve only got one other thing to say. God bless you, and God bless the United States of America. He knows we need it. Desperately.

Failures (of the modern man).

I love Joy Division references. For those of you reading this on the front page who can’t see the title (I’m sure I can fix that but I’m lazy and it’s late), I titled this “Failures (of the modern man),” which was the title of an early Joy Division song. I don’t remember what it was about. It was just a really cool title.
I saw another ghost today. Not literally. A ghost from the past. Someone I knew a long time ago, someone I hadn’t seen in eight years. I know I looked vaguely familiar to him because we made eye contact and he gave me the I-know-you-from-somewhere-but-I-don’t-know-where-so-I-won’t-say-anything look. I gave him the very similar I’m-pretty-sure-I-know-who-you-are-but-I’m-not-saying-anything-just-in-case-I’m-wrong look.

I met him in 1991. I’d just turned 16 and this was my first job, at a place called Rax, a now-defunct fast-food joint whose specialty was roast beef sandwiches. I was ambitious and worked hard. I had several reasons for working: It was something to do. I liked having date and weekend money. (Not that I got many dates–so it was mostly weekend money.) It was another place to meet people outside of school.

A lot of people looked down on me because I was working in a restaurant, and a fast-food restaurant at that, and it made me mad sometimes. I got the job easy and I didn’t want to make a lateral move, so it made sense to stay there. At that point in time, it was virtually impossible for a 16-year-old male to get a job outside of food service because until you turn 18, you can’t be prosecuted if you steal stuff. At a fast-food joint you can steal little stuff but they can fire you for doing it, and that’s usually enough deterrent. And I was ambitious. This was my job until I turned 18 and could get something else. Then when I turned 18 it was hard to get something else because not many places were hiring in 1992. We were in a recession. So I stayed until I left for college. No shame in any of that. I worked hard, I did the job well, I was good at it, and I did move up. My next job was in retail, hawking consumer electronics for two summers and two Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks. My next job after that was as a part-time computer tech, which grew into a full-time network administrator job.

I’ve been a young professional for just over four years now, and I can look back over the four years, see good reviews, a lot of work accomplished, and a steadily increasing salary, presumably a reflection of how my employers have valued my work. My car’s a 2000, I wear a tie most days, and I command respect. I guess I turned out OK.

Back to this guy I saw yesterday. He worked part-time. He was the guy who walked around the mess hall “dining room” and cleaned off the tables. He swept the carpet. He washed the trays. He got people refills. He was a good guy, a nice guy, personable. He didn’t strike me as dumb either. I remember him being reasonably articulate. He’s not of old European stock; he’s at most a second-generation American and more likely he’s an immigrant, but he had a very light accent.

I don’t know how well respected he was. One night I came in, and the general manager asked me to fill out the night’s lineup. The positions were usually pretty obvious. You had to be 18 to run the slicer, so you’d put the 18-year-old there. One of the people working until close took the salad bar, and the other closer took the drive-thru. Of the two people left, one took the dining room and one took the front register. Most of us had our specialties. I was good on the register, fast at making change, so I was usually on the drive-thru or up front. So I filled out the lineup, handed it to her, and asked if it was OK.

“No, put [this guy] on front cash,” she said, then laughed. “No, it’s great. Post it.”

I don’t know when I last saw him. The store closed in 1993. I left a little before that to go to college, but I remember the store’s last day. I don’t know if I came in just to say goodbye, or if I came in that day to get my last paycheck. I know I didn’t see him that day. The store fell on tough times near the end, because the company was struggling big-time, and just about all of us knew it. More often than not, we went without someone in the dining room. The salad bar person or the front cashier would pop out there and clean up the dining room when things were slow, which was often. He probably didn’t make more than $4.50 an hour, but if the store could save 9 bucks by not having him there from 5-7, the pressure was there for them to do it. He may well have sought employment elsewhere long before the store closed.

I saw him today. I was bad today. I rarely eat fast food anymore, because it’s terribly unhealthy, but today I had a Jack in the Box craving, so I went there. And there, working the dining room, was a dead ringer for the guy I was talking about. This guy had a beard, and he looked older, but it’s been 8 years, so of course he looks older. The name on his badge was a diminuitive form of the name he used when I met him, and it’s not a terribly common name. If I were a betting man, I’d eagerly wager a hundred bucks it’s the same guy.

And I felt bad. I’m 26 now. I said something derogatory about yuppies a couple of weeks ago, and one of my coworkers said, “But you are one.” And I guess he’s right. I wear a tie. I drive a 2000. I can afford a ritzy apartment. (I prefer to bank the money instead.) I’ve done OK.

And here’s a former coworker, in all likelihood in his 60s now, still doing the very same job he was doing when I met him more than 10 years ago. I confess I don’t know what minimum wage is these days because it’s been eight years since minimum wage affected how much money I made. And I never made minimum. My starting pay was $4.50 an hour, when minimum was $4.35.

While all fast-food jobs, outside of management, are considered unskilled labor, cashiers are generally paid better than the people who clean dining rooms. I doubt he made much more than minimum 10 years ago, and I doubt he makes much more than minimum now. Meanwhile, the only way minimum wage affects me is by raising the price of things like soft drinks and milkshakes.

And I’m wondering, where did it go wrong? Maybe he likes working fast food. I don’t know. But he didn’t look particularly happy, so I doubt it.

You can learn a lot in 10 years. I’ve been slacking. I wanted to know Unix by now. I also wanted to be able to read Greek and Hebrew by now. I can build and administer simple Linux servers now, but the only non-English language I know is Spanish, and I sure don’t know much of that. I can find the bathroom and I can ask for three of my favorite foods, I know a good way to get funny looks is to say, “Llavo mis manos con sopa de pollo,” and when one of my coworkers curses in Spanish, I know she’s cursing but I usually don’t know what she’s saying.

But I have learned a lot.

Why hasn’t he? Where were his opportunities? Did he choose not to better himself, or has the door been slammed in his face? I know it’s not the government’s responsibility to see to it he betters himself, or necessarily even to give him opportunities, but isn’t it his neighbors’ responsibility? What have they been doing? What should they be doing? What should I be doing?

Those are tough questions I don’t have an answer for.

Troubleshooting intermittent PC problems

How to troubleshoot an intermittent PC problem. We’ve got an aging P2-233 at work that likes to bluescreen a lot under NT4–usually once every day or two. No one who looked at it was able to track it down. The first thing I noticed was that it still had the factory installation of NT, from about three years ago. Factory installations are bad news. The first thing you should do with any PC is install a fresh copy of Windows. If all you have are CAB files and no CD, don’t format the drive–just boot to DOS, go into that directory, run Setup, and install to a new directory other than C:Windows. With NT, it’s also possible to install from DOS though the syntax escapes me momentarily.

The first thing I suggested was to run RAM Stress Test, from www.ultra-x.com , over the course of a weekend to eliminate the possibility of bad memory. I followed that by formatting the drive FAT and running SpinRite. After six hours, SpinRite gave the disk a completely clean bill of health.

Knowing the memory and disk were good, I built up the system, installing NT, then installing SP5 128-bit, then installing IE 5.01SP1, then installing Diskeeper Lite, then installing Office 97 and Outlook 98 and WRQ Reflection, then running Windows Update to get all the critical updates and SP6a. (Yes, the great hater of Windows works in a shop that runs Microsoft software almost exclusively on its PCs.) I ran Diskeeper after each installation to keep the drive in pristine condition–I find I get better results that way than by installing everything and then running Diskeeper.

The system seemed pretty stable through all that. Then I went to configure networking and got a bluescreen. Cute. I rebooted and all was well and remained well for an hour or two.

How to see if the bluescreen was a fluke?

I devised the following batch file:

:loop
  dir /w /s c:
goto loop

Who says command lines are useless and archaic? Definitely not me! I saved the file as stress.bat and ran 10 instances of it. Then I hit Ctrl-Alt-Del to bring up Task Manager. CPU usage was at 100%. Good.

The system bluescreened after a couple of hours.

How to track down the problem? Well, I knew the CD-ROM drive was bad. Can a bad CD-ROM cause massive system crashes? I’ve never heard of that, but I won’t write off anything. So I disconnected the CD-ROM drive. I’d already removed all unnecessary software from the equation, and I hadn’t installed any extraneous peripherals either. So with the CD-ROM drive eliminated, I ran 10 instances of the batch file again.

The system didn’t make it through the night.

OK. Memory’s good. Hard drive’s good. Bad CD-ROM drive out of equation. Fresh installation of OS with nothing extra. What next?

I called my boss. I figured maybe he’d have an idea, and if not, he and I would contact Micron to see what they had to suggest–three-year warranties and a helpful technical support staff from a manufacturer who understands the needs of a business client are most definitely a good thing. The day Apple manages to figure that out will be the first step towards capturing and keeping more than six percent of the market. But I digress.

My boss caught the obvious possibility I missed: heat.

All the fans worked fine, and the CPU had a big heatsink put on at the factory that isn’t going anywhere. Hopefully there was thermal compound in there, but if there wasn’t, I wouldn’t be getting in there to put any in, nor would I be replacing the heatsink with a heatsink/fan combo. So I pulled the P2-333 out of the PC I use–it was the only 66 MHz-bus P2 I had–and put it in the system. I’d forgotten those old P2s weren’t multiplier-locked, so the 333 ended up running at 233. That’s fine. I’ve never had overheating problems with that chip at its rated speed, so at 100 MHz less, I almost certainly wouldn’t run into problems.

With that CPU, the system happily ran 10 instances of my batch file for 30 hours straight without a hiccup. So I had my culprit: That P2-233 was overheating.

Now, ideally a stress test would tax more system memory than this one did and would force some floating-point operations as well. So for your home system, a good stress test might be to load up several FPS games and let them run in demo mode continuously for a while. A command-line MP3 encoder, encoding the same WAV file and then deleting the resulting MP3 file over and over in a continuous-loop batch file also would suffice to put the floating-point unit to use and would also force the disk into action.

If you have time and parts available, you can troubleshoot a recalcitrant PC by running such a real-world stress test, then replacing possible suspect parts (CPU, memory, hard drive, motherboard) one at a time until you isolate the problem.

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