Category Archives: Society

The world is still a good place

At times like these, it is easy to think of the world as a cold, evil place. Perhaps in some ways, it is. I saw this quote from Fred Rogers floating around today:

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.

Sometimes I think that Fred Rogers’ wisdom is so often under-appreciated. What he says is true, very true.

I know what it’s like to fear for my child’s life. And sometimes the shoe has been on the other foot, when I have been one of the helpers.

Many of you know these last few months have been the most difficult in my life. And despite having gone through the deaths of three relatives, nothing has quite compared to this.

I can not even begin to express my gratitude for all the care, compassion, and love that has come my way and towards the boys. People I barely knew before are now close friends. Random strangers have offered kindness and support. I have never before needed to be cared for like that, and in some ways perhaps it was hard to let myself be cared for. But I did, and all that caring and generosity has made an incredible difference in my life.

Most of us don’t see our pain on CNN or BBC, but that doesn’t mean it’s less real. And it doesn’t mean there’s nobody that cares. Open up to others, let them care for you. Things can and do get better.

The people in Newtown did nothing to deserve this. No matter what evidence is found, they will never get an adequate answer to “why?” Children have been frightened, families torn apart, lives ended, for no reason at all.

But they will survive the terrible pain. In time, they will find happiness again. And they will feel love and compassion from people around the world — something to sustain them in their grief. I am certain of this.

I recently read this quote, part of a story about a dying cancer patient:

“Don’t forget that it doesn’t take much to make someone’s day.”

Yes, the world is still a good place.

Crazy Enough?

So far this year, I’ve read somewhere in the neighborhood of 5000 pages. As I’ve started to read more, I’ve started to watch TV, movies, and Youtube less, because they are simply boring and shallow in comparison. War and Peace, in particular, deeply touched me. Lately I have been reading the Wheel of Time series, which has its own unique characteristics.

Whether an epic (or super-epic, such as Wheel of Time) novel, or the Sherlock Holmes series, or nonfiction works, there is something magical about reading a book. We often see characters, real or fictional, that rise from obscurity to do great things for the world. We are transported in time and place to a time or place we will never be able to experience, perhaps because it is long past, or perhaps because it never was. But in any case, we can be inspired.

I am reminded of this quote:

“The people crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones that do.”

If someone told me that a street vendor in Tunisia would, in less than a year, cause the overthrow of 4 dictatorships and reform in a handful more, I would have, yes, thought that was crazy. And while Mohamed Bouazizi isn’t a household name in much of the world, he managed exactly that. But not just him. It took crazy unarmed people to occupy Tahrir Square, some to die, for progress to be made in Egypt.

This story is written all over history. People have done the impossible, have defied all odds, through sheer belief that they could. Civil rights have been granted due to the leaders we all know, but also due to the millions of marchers we don’t. Changing the world doesn’t have to mean that the world knows you. It just has to mean that you love the world, as Tolstoy pointed out:

Love hinders death. Love is life. All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love. Everything is, everything exists, only because I love. Everything is united by it alone. Love is God, and to die means that I, a particle of love, shall return to the general and eternal source.

Whatever your stance on religion, this is a powerful quote. Sometimes particles of love might look crazy. But isn’t it then that they are the most alive? Isn’t it then that they are the greatest hindrance to death and despair?

Geeks, Hobbies, and Free/Open Source: Feedback Wanted

I’ve been thinking lately about ways to improve ways in which I interact with Free Software projects, and ways in which they interact with me. Before I proceed to take steps or make suggestions, I’d like to see if others share my traits and observations.

Here are some questions I have been thinking of. If you’d like to help give me anecdotal evidence, please post a comment below this post. Identify the question numbers you are answering. It helps me if you can give specific examples, but if you don’t have the time or memory for that, no problem.

I will post my own answers in a day or two, but the point of this post is listening, not talking, so I’ll not post them immediately.

Hobbies (General – any geeks)

  • H1: To what degree do you like your hobbies to be challenging vs. easy? If something isn’t challenging, does that make it a good, bad, or indifferent candidate for a hobby
  • H2: To what degree do you like your hobbies to be educational or enlightening?
  • H3: How do you pick up new hobbies? Do you go looking for them? Do you stumble upon them? What excites you to commit time and/or money to them at the beginning?
  • H4: How does your interest wane? What causes you to lose interest in hobbies?
  • H5: For how long do you tend to maintain hobbies? Sub-hobbies?
  • H6: Are your hobbies or sub-hobbies cyclical? In other words, do you lose interest in a hobby for a time, then regain interest for a time, then lose it again? What is the length of time of these cycles, if any?
  • H7: Do you prefer social hobbies or solitary hobbies? (Note that many hobbies, including programming, video gaming, reading, knitting, etc. could be either social or solitary, depending on the inclination of individuals.)
  • H8: Have you ever felt guilt about wanting to stop a hobby or sub-hobby? (For instance, from stopping supporting users of your software project, readers of your e-zine, etc) Did the guilt keep you going? Was that a good thing?

Examples: video games might be a challenging hobby (depending on the person) but in most cases aren’t educational.

A hobby might be “video game playing” or “being a Debian developer.” A sub-hobby might be “playing GTA IV”, “playing RPGs”, or “maintaining mutt”.

Free/Open Source Hobbies

  • F1: Considering your answers above, do your FLOSS activities follow the same general pattern as your other hobbies/interests, or are there differences? If there are differences, what are they?
  • F2: Has concern for being expected to support software longer than you will have an interest in it ever been a factor in a decision whether to release source code publicly, or how public to make a release?
  • F3: Has concern over the long-term interest of a submitter in maintaining their patch/contribution ever caused you to consider rejecting it? (Or caused you to avoid using software over the same concern about its author)
  • F4: In general, do you find requirements FLOSS projects place on first-time contributors to be too stringent, not stringent enough, or about right?
  • F5: Have you ever continued contributing to a project past the point where your interest would otherwise motivate you to do so? If so, what caused you to do this? Do you believe that cause is a general positive or negative force for members of the FLOSS community?
  • F6: Have there ever been factors that caused you to stop contributing to a project even though you still had an active interest in doing so? What were they?
  • F7: Have you ever wanted to be able to take a break as a contributor or maintainer of a project, and be able to return to contributing to it later? If so, have you found it easy to do so?
  • F8: What is your typical length of engagement with FLOSS projects (such as Debian) and sub-projects (such as maintaining a particular package)?
  • F9: Does a change in social group ever encourage or discourage you from changing hobbies or sub-hobbies?
  • F10: Have you ever wanted to stop working on a project/sub-project because the problems involved were no longer challenging or educational to you?
  • F11: Have you ever wanted to stop working on a project/sub-project because of issues with the people involved?

Examples on F9: If, say, you are a long-time Perl user and have gone to Perl conferences, but now you are interested in Ruby, would your involvement with the Perl community cause you to avoid taking up the Ruby programming hobby? Or would it cause you to cut your ties with Perl less quickly than your changing interest might dictate? (This is a completely arbitrary example and isn’t meant to start a $LANGUAGE thread.)

Changes over time

  • C1: Do you believe that your answers to any of the above questions have changed over time? If yes, then:
  • C2: What kinds of changes have happened?
  • C3: What caused the change?
  • C4: Do you believe the changes produced positive results for you? For the community?

Review: Travel as a Political Act by Rick Steves

Rick Steves is known for writing books, and producing public TV shows, about travel to Europe. He encourages people to get out of their comfort zone, advocates staying in homes instead of hotels, and giving yourself permission to struggle to communicate in a land of unfamiliar language. That way, you get to experience not just the landmarks, but the culture and history. That was the approach we favored in our recent trip to Europe, and after being there (and seeing tour groups), I think Rick Steves is right on.

On the plane to Europe, I read his Travel as a Political Act. This is not a guidebook, but more a book about the philosophy of travel. As usual with my book reviews, unless indicated otherwise, all quotes here come from the book. He starts out with this statement:

I’ve taught people how to travel. I focus mostly on the logistics: finding the right hotel, avoiding long lines… But that’s not why we travel. We travel to have enlightening experiences, to meet inspirational people, to be stimulated, to learn, and to grow. Travel has taught me the fun in having my cultural furniture rearranged and my ethnocentric self-assuredness walloped.

I read this book mostly on the plane to Hamburg, or the week prior to leaving. I can credit Rick Steves directly for encouraging me to strike up a conversation with a random German on the bus from Hamburg to Lübeck, which I’ll discuss here in a couple of days. Probably the biggest lament from Rick Steves is that the people that really ought to travel — the ones that are so sure that their ways are correct and best — are least likely to do so.

Make a decision that on any trip you take, you’ll make a point to be open to new experiences, seek options that get you out of your comfort zone, and be a cultural chameleon–trying on new ways of looking at things and striving to become a “temporary local.” … My best vacations have been both fun and intensely educational … Travel challenges truths that we were raised thinking were self-evident and God-given. Leaving home, we learn that other people find different truths to be self-evident. We realize that it just makes sense to give everyone a little wiggle room.

The book is set with an introductory encouragement to travel, followed by seven vignettes of different countries he’s visited, and descriptions of how it’s impacted him. He gave a lesson of the opening of the German Reichstag (parliament building), which he was present for in 1999. He was surrounded by teary-eyed Germans — and a few tourists “so preoccupied with trivialities — forgotten camera batteries, needing a Coke, the lack of air-conditioning — that they were missing out on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to celebrate a great moment with the German people.”

He comments that we can learn from other countries — that no one country has a monopoly on good ideas, and it is plenty patriotic to insist what we adopt good ideas (such as drug policy) from other countries and adopt them for our own.

Particularly touching to me was the description and photo of a memorial in El Salvador, very much looking like the American Vietnam memorial — except that one remembering loved ones lost fighting the United States. How many Americans even know that we were involved in a damaging war in El Salvador?

A large part of his book was, for me, “preaching to the choir,” as this comment illustrated:

In the European view, America is trapped in an inescapable cycle to feed its military-industrial complex: As we bulk up our military, we look for opportunities to make use of it. (When your only tool is a hammer, you treat every problem like a nail.) And then, when we employ our military unwisely, we create more enemies…which makes us feel the need to grow our military even more. If an American diplomat complained to his European counterpart, “America is doing all the heavly lifting when it comes to military,” the European might respond, “Well, you seem to be enjoying it. We’re building roads and bridges instead.”

That’s a sentiment I’ve agreed with for quite some time already, and as such, some parts of the book moved slowly for me — though I imagine his target audience included people that had never seriously considered these arguments before. Then there were surprising facts:

by the end of World War I, an estimated half of all the men in France between the ages of 15 and 30 were casualties. When some Americans, frustrated at France’s reluctance to follow us into a war, call the French “surrender monkeys,” I believe it shows their ignorance of history.

And again, I’d agree with him on that point.

The vignette on Iran was particularly interesting, as he described his experiences in person, they sounded far different than the picture we often get in the media.

I have realized, incidentally, that I am terrible at writing book reviews. So rather than inflict more paragraphs upon you with this one, I’ll summarize by saying that this is a touching, informative, and motivational book, which I highly recommend. I’ll leave you with this quote:

Mark Twain wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” These wise words can be a reallying cry for all travelers once comfortably back home. When courageous leaders in our community combat small-mindedness and ignorance… travelers can stand with them in solidarity.

I didn’t travel to make some sort of statement or as a “political act.” But I was enriched in many ways by travel — of course the obvious ones of contemplating the history of a 900-year-old beautiful church, but also in seeing the different character of different cities, being with two families for a couple of days, and seeing different approaches to common problems. I am very glad I wasn’t shut off from this behind a tinted window in a tour bus.


Our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. . . Our security emanates from the justness of our cause; the force of our example; the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

– Barack Obama, inaugural speech, Jan. 20, 2009

This, right here, is why, for the first time in my life, I actually feel good about an American president. Why I have hope about our government for the first time in years. Why I’m glad I used a vacation day to sit on the couch and watch TV yesterday.

On the occasion, once every 4 or 8 years, that is a celebration of American strength, power, and pride, we see our new president speaking of humility, of peace, of moral leadership, this is something remarkable.

Past presidents have used occasions such as these to speak of crushing our enemies, of wanting people dead or alive, of grand government promises that turned out to triple the national debt.

Obama spoke of extending the hand of friendship to anyone that would unclench their fist.

He spoke that we had kicked the can down the road too far, and now we’ve reached the end of the road. We have to stop thinking that we can have everything: low taxes, expensive programs, and a large military, simply by mortgaging our future.

And he leveled with us: we all are in this together, and all have to work to make it better.

Conventional politicians assumed it would be political suicide to say even half of what Obama has said. Yet he went out there and did it.

He was blasted during the campaign by people on both sides of the political spectrum for being just “words”. He’s the first presidential candidate that meant what he said about bringing Americans, and their representatives, together. The shock in Washington has he invited — gasp! — both an openly gay bishop and an anti-gay evangelical minister to give prayers was telling. It’s as if people were saying, “Wait, he really MEANT that?”

Yes, he did. Let’s hope he can pull it off.

And as Rev. Lowry concluded with his benediction:

With your hands of power and your heart of love, help us then, now, Lord, to work for that day when nations shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks will be beaten into tractors, when every man and every woman shall sit under his or her own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid, when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream. . .

Let all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen. (amen) Say Amen! (Amen!) Say Amen! (AMEN!)

A Realistic View of the Economy

Yesterday, I read an article on CNN called From $70K to food bank.

It describes a woman who was laid off in February from a job paying $70,000 a year. “Weeks later”, with bills “piling up and in need of food for her family”, she went to a food bank.

The article proceeds to talk about the subprime lending situation at great length, which is largely irrelevant to this person’s situation.

Then we learn she applied for food stamps, but was denied. There’s a quote from this person about how frustrating that was, and general “tugging at the heartstrings” trying to make us feel sorry for this woman with two children whose mother moved in to help make the house payment. It seems to me that this is a correct decision; someone that can pay a $2500 mortgage each month ought to move into an apartment before trying to leech food or money from social service agencies.

And that’s where this story gets interesting.

She has an interest-only mortgage, and is managing to pay the $2500 bill each month.

If you’re not familiar with an interest-only mortgage, here’s how it works. The bank loans you money to buy your house — say, $200,000. This is a loan, and you have to pay interest on it each month, just like a regular mortgage. But with an interest-only mortgage, you never pay off the loan. You could be making monthly payments for 30 years and still owe $200,000. In general, the only ways to “pay off” this kind of loan is to sell your house, or get a conventional mortgage that pays off the interest-only loan.

Interest-only mortgages were largely banned after the Great Depression. Prior to that time, they were how mortgages normally worked. But there are several problems with them. One is that you have to pay on them forever, even after you retire. Another is that you can’t move unless you can sell your house for at least as much as the bank financed, even if you’ve lived there for 20 years. In times of declining housing prices and unemployment, that really stinks. People often default on the loans, and from a bank’s perspective, that really stinks, too.

Interest-only mortgages are usually used by banks financing construction (we had one for a few months when we renovated our farmhouse) or other short-term projects such as professional real-estate investors that buy old houses and fix them up to sell at a profit. Except for these things, in general, they should never be used for a primary house. It’s not in the interest of the bank or the homeowner.

But since you never pay off the principal, the monthly payments can be lower. It seems likely that this woman took a knowing gamble, buying a home more expensive than she could afford, and somehow found a bank willing to finance this. Problem is, both she and the bank took a knowing risk. If she ever ran into financial difficulties, she’d have to sell the house quick. But now the house is probably worth less than the value of the mortgage, so selling it won’t remove the loan — BUT it would let her pay off a large part of the principal, reducing her monthly payments and giving her some wiggle-room to buy food and pay off the rest of it.

It seems to me that she is unwilling to own up to the calculated risk she took, and wants society to help bail her out. Don’t get me wrong; I think we need to help people that run into hard times. We need to help make sure they still have the tools they need to find a job and a place to stay. But bailing out people that take huge financial risks shouldn’t be the job of society. Let’s help them land softly, but not be enablers keeping them in a home they never could — and still can’t — afford. Fortunately, I don’t think anyone in government (or running for president) is suggesting we should.

Not only that, but her bank shouldn’t have ever made that loan. Banks should be held accountable to not sell unwise products to people that rely on them for their primary residences.

Here’s another interesting point: in just a few weeks, she had burned through her entire savings.

This, unfortunately, is a quite typical situation for many Americans. My financial planner, and I think most experts, suggest that everyone ought to have 6 months of income in liquid non-retirement assets (savings accounts, investments, etc.) in case something like a layoff happens. Very few Americans have this.

And when it comes down to it, isn’t that part of the problem? The economy thrives on consumer spending. Or, put more starkly, overconsumption. If people start saving like they ought to, and stop feeling like they’re outcasts just for not keeping up with the Joneses and buying every last gadget or the biggest house, we’d all be in better shape — but the economy wouldn’t have grown as much.

The growth it would have seen, had we all been more responsible, would have been a lot more durable and recession-proof, I think.

Death sure is cost-effective, isn’t it?

I just read Death Be Not Proud (But It Is Cost-Effective) by Chez Pazienza. In his story, Chez talks about his stay in the hospital to have a marble-sized brain tumor removed. Across the room during his stay in neuro ICU, he saw a person far worse off than himself: staples all around his head, barely able to stay conscious, unable to speak. After a few days of this, Chez asked the nurse what had happened to the other person.

It was the same thing.

The difference? Chez had good insurance, and the other person didn’t. So Chez got the modern surgery with the latest technology, and the other guy got the Neolithic version. The other patient’s family came to visit, clearly heartbroken at his condition, not knowing whether he’d ever be the same. And knowing that even if he’d survive, he’d have years of physical therapy ahead of him.

Then there was the story of the girl whose insurance company denied a liver transplant, calling it “experimental”, sending her to her death. He says:

Regardless of what Fox business-creature Neil Cavuto may have to say on the subject, healthcare and profit are two thoroughly antithetical concepts. Giving CEOs the authority to stand on the edge of the arena and issue a final thumbs-up or down while we lay incapacitated or dying is like charging a lion with protecting the Christians.

I entirely agree.

Young People NOT Delinquent?

Here’s an interesting and probably controversial article. It starts with:

When I hear people my age (35+) rip the younger generation I usually keep my mouth shut. But I have something I need to say, so this is my public response to the people who think there is something wrong with young people today.

Let me tell you what I think about young people:

The kids coming of age right now are the greatest generation, and we don’t give them the respect and freedom we were given and it is shameful.

And it goes on from there.

Also I should point out that George Bush is a baby boomer.

The Climate Crisis


We just watched An Inconvenient Truth. Not much in there was new to me, but to see it all presented at once is amazing.

There are vast undisputed scientific facts out there — for instance, that CO2 content in the atmosphere is higher than it’s been ever — and we can go back 650,000 years. The linkage between that and temperatures is inescapable.

Gore makes a good point: shouldn’t we be worried about more than terrorism?

Does the thought of parts of Manhattan, San Francisco, and large parts of Florida going underwater suggest a problem exists?

This really is critical and urgent.

We’ve already been thinking about it lately as we renovate our house. We’re paying a little more now for things like airtight insulation, low-energy lighting, efficient heating. Not only will it save us money in the long run, it will help improve our lives and Jacob’s life down the road.

The movie’s website is over at

We need to follow the Amish example

Just a few weeks ago, the world heard the news of the tragic school shooting at an Amish school in rural Pennsylvania. A deranged man entered the schoolhouse, bound and gagged female hostages, brought along torture equipment, and shot 10 of them. 5 died, and the remaining 5 are believed to still be hospitalized.

Back in 1990, a deranged man committed a series of murders near the University of Florida campus in Gainesville. The story mentions 5 people that were killed.

Both were tragic situations. Both men killed people that had their whole lives in front of them. Both shook an entire community.

But look at how the communities responded. The Amish responded like this:

CNN reported a grandfather of one of the murdered Amish girls said of the killer on the day of the murder: “We must not think evil of this man.”

Jack Meyer, a member of the Brethren community living near the Amish in Lancaster County, explained: “I don’t think there’s anybody here that wants to do anything but forgive and not only reach out to those who have suffered a loss in that way but to reach out to the family of the man who committed these acts,” he told CNN.

The Amish have reached out to Roberts’ family. Dwight Lefever, a Roberts family spokesman said an Amish neighbor comforted the Roberts family hours after the shooting and extended forgiveness to them.

An article in a Canadian newspaper the National Post stated that the Amish have set up a charitable fund for the family of the shooter. (Wikipedia)

In addition, the Amish invited the Roberts family to attend the funerals for the Amish girls he killed.

Gainesville reacted this way:

Dianna Hoyt, Christa Hoyt’s stepmother, said Rolling’s execution has been eagerly awaited by the victims’ families. Some will be inside the prison to witness it. . .

Sadie Darnell, who was the police department’s media spokeswoman at the time and developed enduring friendships with the victims’ families, said Rolling’s execution still matters, even if it also provides him more of the notoriety he sought.

“Retribution . . . is important because it represents that our society is holding that person accountable,” said Darnell, now a candidate for Alachua County sheriff. (CNN)

We’ve all heard of murders that have taken place lately. Usually they are accompanied by calls by politicians, victim’s family, and sometimes even clergy to kill the perpetrator. In the days after 9/11, there were reports of anybody that looked Middle Eastern being attacked in several different places around the country.

I have never understood this great desire for revenge. How does that help anyone?

What the Amish did was right religiously and morally. They truly followed the New Testament call to love your enemies and forgive. It is not easy to follow all of Jesus’ teachings, and nobody said it would be. But they are doing it, and they have already begun healing. Reports are that the Roberts family has become friends with several of the Amish in the area, and they are working to help each other out after this horrible tragedy.

Even putting religion aside for a moment, the Amish actions are quite simply the right thing to do. By spreading love instead of hate, and friendship instead of revenge, they have succeeded in making sure that no cycle of violence starts there.

In contrast, 16 years later, the families of the victims in Florida still aren’t healing. They are still angry and bitter. They are still seeking revenge. They hope that their lives will get back to normal after the murderer is killed. But after 16 years of stewing about it, will they really? And what about the family of the murderer, whose lives certainly must have been a mess for the past 16 years? They will now lose a family member. Does anyone care about them, or will they now turn angry at society and possibly spread the pain more?

Imagine what would happen if so many more people around the world took the Amish perspective — to forgive those that wronged us. How long must it be before we can forgive? How far back do we spread our hate? Do we still hate those that were involved in 9/11, or can we forgive them? Do we still hate the Germans for what their ancestors did in World War II, or can we forgive them? Do we hate politicians with whom we strongly disagree, or think are liars? Do we still hate all those that have wronged us personally — someone that stole something from us or the sadistic boss?

Knives, electric chairs, and bombs do not buy reconciliation. They can not “win over” the hearts of others. They do not make our lives easier. Hate brings more hate, and more resentment.

Forgiveness is not easy. We all hope that we will never be involved in such a tragedies as these. But let us follow the example the Amish have shown — forgive for all things, big or small, important or not, painful or not.

Only then will we be at peace with ourselves, and only then will we have the chance to be at peace with our neighbors.