And now I think it’s time for a new doctor

I’m sick. I’ve been sick for about three weeks. Not major major–I’ve only missed a day of work–but it’s irritating. And it’s been three weeks. A cold lasts about 10 days.

So I asked my wife to see if I could get in with her doctor. I don’t like my doctor very much. But my wife’s doctor isn’t accepting new patients until February. No political comments, please–I couldn’t find another doctor accepting patients in a reasonable time when Clinton or Bush were president either.

Last night, my throat started bothering me worse. My wife pulled off a miracle and got me an appointment with my doctor the same day, at 4:15.

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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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Well, I\’m a Christian and I don\’t crave violence

I saw a particularly ignorant comment on Digg today in regards to Christianity (blaming evangelical Christianity for G. W. Bush’s misguided tortue policies). I know I really shouldn’t dignify ignorant comments on Digg with a response, but this time I have to. I responded there, and I’ll respond with more detail here.Here’s the quote:

Evangelicals love torture, they are taught it in spectacular detail in the Bible, and they are taught from a young age to abhor nudity and sex, but crave blood and sacrifice, any form of violence really, as it signifies the “end times”. So, the logical extension is, a state where torture is encouraged. The real problem is, like a cult being lead by a twisted, violent leader, Evangelical christianity needs to be treated as a sickness in society.

I (somewhat reluctantly) fit the definition of an evangelical Christian and I take issue with this comment. I say reluctantly, because I don’t like being associated with this stereotype.

Bloody, old-testament-style sacrifices have no place in evangelical Christianity, or any Christianity. The ritual of sacrifice pointed toward Christ. It was replaced by Holy Communion (aka the Eucharist, if you come from a Roman Catholic background). The whole idea of Christianity is that GOD shed blood (HIS OWN blood) and suffered himself, so that we wouldn’t have to. Substitution. Period. Ritual sacrifice was just a ritual, because animal blood cannot attone for human sin, any more than cheap wine can. Both the animal blood and the cheap wine remind us of the blood of Christ. (If you’re Lutheran or Roman Catholic, it goes even further and you’re taught that the wine is the blood of Christ.)

A central point in the Bible is this: I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. It appears in the Old Testament in Hosea 6:6, and in Matthew 9:13 and Matthew 12:7, Jesus quotes it when the scholars of his day lose sight of it. I would agree with the statement that many people today have also lost sight of these verses.

Few evangelicals I know look forward to the End Times, because if you actually read the Bible (and I have read it cover-to-cover), there’s nothing pleasant happening in the End Times. It’ll be nice when it’s over, but if we had a choice, most of us would choose for our lives to occur entirely before the End Times happen. Those who would like to live in the End Times generally crave it just because they believe there may be some position of honor in heaven for having lived through the End Times and survived it.

The Bible actually spends more time talking about money than it spends talking about what’s going to happen in the future. But that isn’t its main premise either. Most of what the Bible is talking about is the dual idea of “Love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” The bad things that happen in the Bible are illustrations of what happens when people don’t do those two things.

The Old Testament started with Adam and Eve having paradise and losing it because they got greedy. And it goes on down the line, telling the stories of people who did good and bad things and what happened to them. Read the newspapers today, and you’ll see that human nature hasn’t changed much since the time these books were written.

Do I believe that God punishes people, or uses other people as agents of his wrath? Yes, sometimes. But I believe usually there’s no need. The natural consequences of our actions are usually enough. If anything, I think God in his mercy often intervenes and lessens the blow of those consequences. You see it in the Old Testament, and I certainly see it happening today.

I believe the Left Behind books are partially responsible for the stereotype of evangelical Christians as blood-craving, eschatologically obsessed fanatics. But “Left Behind” is based on questionable theology, and the concept of a Rapture originiated in the United States and started to take hold roughly in 1837. It makes for much better sci-fi than traditional interpretations of scripture.

The ads for those books promote co-author Tim LaHaye as a Bible scholar, but he is not universally regarded as such. Sales of his books should not be interpreted as an endorsement for his belief system. From what I understand, Roman Catholics won’t buy them, period. Some Lutherans will buy them, but regard them strictly as fiction, as they would a Tom Clancy novel. Lutheran scholars vigorously oppose the theology.

I won’t get into the details here, because I’m not qualified, but I’ll sum up the problem. Most “End Times”-obsessed theology is based on overemphasizing the books of Revelation and Daniel. Revelation and Daniel are probably the two most difficult books of the Bible to understand. When Jesus was trying to make a point, he generally tried to make it very easy to understand. And when he didn’t, he took the inner circle aside and explained it to them, and the Gospels include that explanation.

The Bible isn’t the only book that’s fuzzy on some details. And what you do when, say, Shakespeare, is unclear is you read the unclear parts in light of the things that are clear.

And this is the reason I left evangelical Christianity for an evangelical-minded Lutheran church. I got tired of having a pastor whose college degree was in math, who had no formal training in theology and who would have difficulty picking out the finer points of Romeo and Juliet, telling me how to read the Bible. I hate to say this, but many evangelical preachers are in over their head, teaching on subjects that they have limited understanding of themselves.

It’s interesting to me that the most evangelical-minded denominations have too many pastors, so their ordained pastors have to have another full-time job. Meanwhile, the Lutherans and Catholics don’t have enough. One reason for this is that it’s really hard to get through Lutheran and Catholic seminary. While I’m painfully aware that the ability to pass all the tests doesn’t mean you have any people skills (and I’ll risk enraging some people by saying many people who make it through Lutheran seminary have no business whatsoever running churches), the fact is that if you manage to make it through a Lutheran or Catholic seminary, in the end you really do have a thorough understanding of the Bible.

I believe some of the backlash against Christianity is due to the unpopular wars that this country is waging. Most Christians I know oppose this war too. We don’t necessarily talk about it a lot. But it’s about as easy to find a Christian who thinks this war is illegal as it is a non-Christian. I know some evangelical Christians who were bailing on Bush in 2004, voting for third-party candidates who had some of the same ideas as Ron Paul. My pastor certainly distanced himself from Bush, and any presidential candidate who ran on Christianity. He said that when things go wrong (and it will, because something goes wrong with every presidency), people will blame it on Christianity. And for that reason alone, it’s not a good idea to vote for a presidential candidate based solely on the faith he or she professes.

That’s obviously what’s happening here–noting that an unpopular president professes to be an evangelical Christian, and blaming the failings of his administration on his religious beliefs.

I’ll buy the argument that there are people in Arab states who dislike the United States because the majority religion in the United States is Christianity. Maybe they’re fighting an Islam-vs.-Christianity war. But we’re not. If it weren’t for the oil equation, we wouldn’t be in these wars.

Bush is more than happy to trade with China and Japan. They have things we want, and they’re happy to take our money. Neither of them are Christian nations.

Most South American countries don’t think too highly of the United States either. The majority religion in those countries happens to be Roman Catholicism, a form of Christianity. But they also happen to be willing to sell us the coffee and metals that we want at prices that we’re willing to pay. We aren’t actively waging war with them, but that has nothing to do with religion. It has everything to do with trade.

Why I never kept up with the Joneses

I had a bit of a financial epiphany over the weekend.

I have a well-deserved reputation for being a tightwad. Part of it is in my blood; I’m largely of Scottish descent, and Scots just tend to act that way. But I think part of it is what I observed growing up.My wife and I were sitting at my mom’s kitchen table, and for whatever reason, we were talking about my teenage years. In 1988, we moved to a new subdivision in Fenton, Mo. Fenton is a boomtown today, thanks in part to urban sprawl and also because of its first-rate school district, but in 1988 it was still largely an industrial town. Lots of people worked there, and not many wanted to live there. But in the late 1980s, the McMansions started sprouting up like weeds, and lots of families started moving there, ours included.

We talked about our neighbors, and something immediately occurred to me. Most of them were in their early 30s. They were the same age I am now. Not only were they my age, but they drove new cars, and most of them had at least two kids. Meanwhile they were trying to make payments on houses that cost $125-$150,000 at the time. According to inflation, they should cost a quarter million today. Not only that, though, in 1988, interest rates were a lot higher–10 percent wasn’t uncommon according to my quickie research.

Dad could afford that lifestyle–barely. He was a doctor and had been practicing medicine for 15 years. But even we made sacrifices in order to afford to live in that house.

The problem is, I shouldn’t say "even." Most of our neighbors had nicer furniture than we did. Some of them drove fancier cars. And their kids had bigger, costlier toys.

The absurdity hit me. I wouldn’t even try to compete with the lifestyle of a 45-year-old doctor. Not at 33. I make enough that a bank probably would let me have a mortgage of a quarter mil. I could lease cars that don’t depreciate quickly in order to keep my monthly payments down. But there wouldn’t be much of anything left at the end of the month, and I could probably forget about retiring any earlier than 73 (which is what Social Security is saying my retirement age should be). Just because I could make the payments doesn’t mean I should.

I wondered why so many of them got together every weekend and drank themselves senseless. And I don’t think I consciously ever realized I was living in a neighborhood full of people living way over their means–even the family next door, headed by a young dentist trying to establish his practice with five kids and a wife who insisted they needed a Jaguar.

Suddenly, sitting there at the table, telling old stories, I realized why that woman was such a psycho. She couldn’t pay her bills.

And that was also probably why another neighbor wouldn’t go anywhere without a thermos full of wine, and why another young couple who lived nearby smoked pot every Saturday night.

They had everything any reasonable person could dream of having at 32, but if anything at all ever went wrong–a layoff, an extended illness, or a serious injury–they would be in serious danger of losing it.

For whatever reason, I never measured my lifestyle against them. My first few jobs didn’t make me a lot of money, but they let me do pretty much anything I wanted. I had a nicer apartment than Dad had at a comparable age. I could go out to eat any time I wanted. I could buy a new computer every year if I wanted to, as long as I didn’t go overboard on it, and for a few years I did. I drove small cars, but there were always at least two or three cars in the parking lot that weren’t as nice as mine, so I was content to drive my 1992 Dodge Spirit. When it died, I got a 2000 Dodge Neon. It wasn’t a status symbol, but it had power locks and windows, which were two things Dad’s 1981 Chrysler LeBaron didn’t have. It had a nicer radio too. And that LeBaron was supposed to be a luxury car.

My lifestyle was far ahead of where Dad’s had been at my age. And not only that, I had money left over at the end of every month.

There were two things I wasn’t happy about. At the time, I didn’t have a steady girlfriend. And my apartment rent was going up by about $50 a year but the management company wasn’t taking care of the place. When stuff broke, they fixed it halfheartedly, and I didn’t want to pay $575 a month to live in a slum.

When my rent hit $575, I told them I wasn’t going to pay it. They offered me a seven-month lease at about $550. Conveniently, I had enough in the bank for a down payment on a house, and I figured I could afford to pay a couple hundred more every month for a mortgage. I just didn’t want to throw that kind of money away on rent.

So I bought a house. There was a neighborhood about a mile away that reminded me a lot of the neighborhoods I grew up in. I found a house about the size of the house we lived in before we moved to St. Louis. It cost more than I had planned, but it was big enough that I could get married and have a family there and not have to move again. I hate moving. Plus, it was (and still is) in a good school district, all the schools are close by, and anything I could need was close. I didn’t know it right away, but in an emergency, the nearest grocery store AND the nearest car repair place are both walking distance.

For an extra $100 a month, it just made sense. I bought the house. And every night, I filled up that Dodge Neon with everything that would fit, drove to the house, and unpacked. Several friends with vans or pickup trucks helped me move the stuff that wouldn’t fit in my tiny car.

Even though my 1-bedroom apartment was stuffed to the gills, it wasn’t nearly enough to fill a 3-bedroom house with a living room, family room, a study, and a basement. But it didn’t take long for that problem to solve itself. Several people offered me some nice furniture. They were hand-me-downs, but there wasn’t anything really wrong with any of it. Before I knew it, the house was full.

A couple of years later, the right girl came along too. At first she wanted me to get nicer stuff. The problem was, even though I’d gotten promoted to a server administrator at work, they were still paying me my old desktop support salary. The house had wiped out my savings, and I couldn’t really take on another monthly payment on anything. We fought about it a little. I showed her how little was left at the end of every month, and I argued that everything in the house was nicer than anything my parents had at my age. For that matter, most of it was nicer than the stuff they had when I was a kid.

She relented. I don’t know how happy she was about it then. But she didn’t complain.

A few months after we got engaged, I lost my job. I was mad about it. I was convinced I would lose everything I’d worked for. I guess for a minute I thought I was like those neighbors.

But because I’d lived within my means, I survived and soon I ended up with a job with a competitive salary for the first time in my professional career.

Something else came out of it too. The day we got married, neither of us had a job. We started a small business out of necessity. Our final paychecks made the mortgage payments during that summer, and we used our wedding gift money to get the business going. Soon it was bringing in enough to make our utility payments and buy groceries. When I got a full-time job, she took the business over and I helped out at night and on weekends. It allowed her to not have to work outside the home. There are probably things she could do that would make more money, but she doesn’t have a lot of stress, and she enjoys the flexibility.

The odd thing is, we’ve been able to upgrade our lifestyle on the cheap. For example, there are three light fixtures we’ve been wanting to replace for a long time. This weekend I found two light fixtures at a yard sale for a buck apiece. My sister rolled her eyes when I told the story, but these fixtures don’t fit the yard sale stereotype. A sticker on them says they were made in February 2005. Home Depot still sells the same fixture (or something extremely similar) for about $30. That’s not terribly expensive, but $1 is a lot less than $30. The third fixture we need to replace is smaller. We can get something that will look fine with them, and look much better than what we have, for under $20. The result will be a significant upgrade in how the kitchen and living room look, at well under 1/3 the price.

That $60 savings may not sound like a lot, but we’re constantly finding ways to save a few bucks here and there like that. We’re never the first to have anything, but it seems like we always end up getting whatever it is we want or need, and meanwhile we’re socking money away and whittling down on that house payment.

Judged against the standards of my neighbors in 1988, one could argue I’m a failure. I drive a five-year-old car and most of the time I use a six-year-old computer, and the four shirts I bought in 1998 to comply with my then-employer’s dress code are still in my rotation today.

But let’s look at things another way. Not only do my wife and I have nicer stuff than my parents had when Dad was 32, we also have an easier time finding money for necessities like groceries. She can shop at the health-food stores even though they’re more expensive. As long as nothing unexpected happens, we’ll own everything outright and have absolutely no debt–no student loans, no car payments, no mortgage–well before I turn 40. I stress over some things, but money isn’t one of them.

In my early 20s, I watched some of my friends from high school rack up massive credit card debt. At least it seemed like massive debt at the time. I knew then I didn’t want to be like them, at least not in that regard. Now I know that the average American family has $9,900 in credit card debt. That’s about what one of those friends owed, and about twice what another one owed.

I know who I want to be like. I want to be like my wife’s parents. They paid off all their debt sometime in their late 30s or early 40s. Today, when my mother in law sees something she wants, she doesn’t think about it. She can just buy it. Not only that, she’s retired, and she’s nowhere near 73.

I’m not saying I want to buy anything and everything I see on a whim. But not having to think much at all about money seems really nice.

And I guess on some level I’ve known that for almost 20 years, since I was in my early teens.

04/24/2001

A sense of wonder. It must have been almost 20 years ago, I read a short story in a magazine involving a wondrous new tool. I don’t exactly remember the plot line, but it was something similar to this: a preteen boy comes into a sum of money under questionable circumstances. He’s uncomfortable going to his parents about it, or even his peers. Not knowing where else to go, he turns on his dad’s computer and types his story into it–whether this was a built-in Basic language interpreter like a Commodore or Atari, or a command line like CP/M or MS-DOS, it didn’t say. At the end of the story he hits Return, or Enter, or whatever that key’s supposed to be called, and the computer responds with one sentence:

Sorry, can’t compute.

That line gave the story its title.

I don’t know why I remember that story, except maybe for the technical inaccuracy. At any rate, I seem to recall he left without turning the computer off, so his dad came home, noticed the computer was on, read what was on screen, and confronted him. And that was pretty much the end, at least how I remember it.

Last night I was making up a batch of barley and mushroom soup from a recipe I found over the weekend. I know when I’m out of my element, and trying new recipes without any help at all is among them. The recipe called for 4 tablespoons of dry sherry. Now, I’m not a wine drinker, unless drinking wine twice a year counts. I was pretty sure that sherry is a type of wine. But white wine? Red wine? I didn’t know. As I was picking up the other ingredients I needed, I went to the wine and liquor section of the local grocery store and wandered around a while. I couldn’t find any sherry.

So I went home. I figured I was probably in the minority as far as not knowing anything about dry sherry, but I also figured I probably wasn’t the first one to have questions about it. I fired up a Web browser, went to Google, and typed a question: What is dry sherry? I was able to infer very quickly from the site hits that, indeed, dry sherry is a wine. But I couldn’t find any. So I typed in another search phrase: “dry sherry substitute.” That put me in business. A lot of people have asked that question. One of the first documents hit offered several suggestions, marsala among them. I have a little bottle of marsala in one of my kitchen cabinets. So I made the soup, and it wasn’t bad.

The moral of that short story remains unchanged: A computer still can’t answer questions on its own, particularly questions of ethics–the experiments of www.mindpixel.com notwithstanding. What Mindpixel is doing is storing and cross-referencing the answers to millions of simple questions in hopes of one day being able to answer complex ones. (The results of that are fairly impressive–last night I asked it several simple questions like, “Was Ronald Reagan president of the United States in 1981?” and “Is Joe Jackson the name of both a famous musician and a famous baseball player?” and it answered all of them correctly.) But what Mindpixel, or for that matter, any good search engine can do effectively is gather and retain information. And that in itself is extremely useful, and the idea of search engines indexing a global database and answering simple–and not-so-simple–questions was unthinkable to most people just 20 years ago.

And I found a sale. I’m suddenly in need of a large number of network cards, as regular readers know. Just out of curiosity, I checked CompUSA’s pricing on Bay Netgear FA311 NICs, and–drum roll–they’re $14.99 with a $5 mail-in rebate. That’s a steal. It’s not quite as striking as the deal I found on D-Link cards at Circuit City back in January, but I like the Netgear–or at least its predecessor, the FA310TX–better anyway.

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