28 Jan 2006

More on abortion

I was skimming today's paper and just had to respond to one of the letters in it, yet another screed on abortion. I totally cribbed from Chris Tessone on this one:

Abortion debate is in the air this week; Stacy Monti's letter echoed Kathryn Lopez's article and others, and the anti-choice activists once again make their emotional but vacuous arguments that don't address the real problems.

First, "choice" is equated with abortion, as if once presented with the choice, a woman couldn't help but choose abortion. (Ms. Lopez' column is especially egregious in this regard.) Just because the option is there doesn't mean she has to take it. "Choice" means you have more than one, and women who feel guilty about having had abortions don't get to blame their freely-taken choice on the fact that it was legal. People who believe abortion is wrong are always free not to get one.

Next comes the rhetoric about murder. The Bible, which the anti-choice activists are usually so happy to quote, says otherwise. Immediately before laying down the "life for a life" punishment for murder of an adult, it very specifically gives a different punishment if the victim is unborn: "the guilty one shall be fined as much as the woman's husband demands of him, and he shall pay in the presence of the judges." (Ex. 21:22) Money, awarded as damages in a civil lawsuit. And that's if someone attacks a woman and kills the fetus; it says nothing about if the woman terminates her pregnancy voluntarily.

We hear emotional appeals about "tiny babies known only to God". Religiously speaking, what's the problem here? When a soul goes straight to heaven, is that not a cause for joy?

The equation then drifts from "abortion = murder", which is misleading and arguable, to the vague "supporting legalized abortion = murder", which is simply false. If anything, the reverse is true. Many studies in many countries have repeatedly shown that legality doesn't correlate with frequency; people just get abortions anyway. But places where abortion is illegal, including many places the US has forbidden from conducting abortions, have a high incidence of women being maimed or dying from complications from abortion. Culture of life? I don't think so.

To quote a friend of mine, we Christians "are called to a much less adversarial and judgemental relationship with the people around us, and we should be even more eager to use this approach when the question involves young women who are routinely marginalized by our society." I don't like abortion, and I wish more women would choose not to have them. But even more than that, I wish our society didn't put so many women—and young girls—into situations where they felt that was their best option.

Hopefully, it should be published sometime next week.

"Help control the local pet population: teach your dog abstinence." --Stephen Colbert

Posted by blahedo at 4:07pm | Comments (4)

Fire aftermath

The rubble from the fire is still hot, and they are still using a few hundred gallons of water a day to cool it off (having used a couple million gallons on the fire itself). And we have a better perspective on the more long-term damage.

The big news is that there may have been a casualty after all, but we still aren't sure. A guy who had been at a bar across the street, and was seen walking down Main a half hour before the fire was called in, has been missing since then. No body has been found, but it'll be a while yet before they can get in there.

The middle building on Prairie took a ton of damage from the collapsing wall. The upstairs apartments lost their living rooms, so the tenants were mostly able to recover kitchenware and some clothes, but lost most of the stuff they had in their main living space. The downstairs businesses lost their back rooms and offices. The news is not all bad for them, though; the Frame Works owner has recovered a painting from his office he thought lost, one that his mother had made thirty years ago before dying in a car crash. Not a scratch on it. Most of his inventory was okay, and he's setting up shop in the old Galesburg Glass storefront on Broad. The scrapbook store was moving to internet-only operation anyway (they were already doing clearance sales), so they appear to have just done that a bit early. The building itself, though? They won't know for a month or two, but there's a good chance it'll have to come down too.

A wall on the other side crashed into the top of the lawyers' office building, actually buckling a structural support. At last report, they were fairly sure they could bring in some extra supports to shore it up.

An ember actually got under the roofing of Billiards on Main, across the street, and started a fire there that nobody could find for a little while; fortunately the only damage there was a bit of wall scorching in a stairwell, nothing structural.

No word on the Red Cross building. The rumours a few days ago were that it, or at least all the equipment inside, may have been a loss, but maybe no news is good news, eh? They've temporarily moved their operations into a building the fire department uses for training.

That's it, then. Hopefully in the months to come we'll develop a good plan for that space. I definitely think condos should be somewhere in the mix, because there needs to be something downtown for the people who are at a point in their lives where they want to stop renting, but aren't interested in the picket-fence-and-a-yard route (or just don't like shoveling the sidewalk). Maybe some condo units over a large catering space with a broad hardwood floor at least 40' by 60'? I suppose that would be too much to hope for. :)

"If it is abortion that is actually being fought, criminalizing it is not the most effective answer. This should not surprise Christians---we are called to a much less adversarial and judgemental relationship with the people around us, and we should be even more eager to use this approach when the question involves young women who are routinely marginalized by our society." --Chris Tessone

Posted by blahedo at 2:45pm | Comments (0)

27 Jan 2006

DwtS again

I said I wouldn't review it every week, so for now all I'll say is: well, thank goodness, it's about time.

Now off to do more housecleaning....

"As for this being the stupidest column I've ever written---ha! not even close! I've written lots of stupider ones. You just need to read more." --Eric Zorn

Posted by blahedo at 11:10pm | Comments (0)

23 Jan 2006

Galesburg's burning

UPDATE: Pictures.

Holy crap, downtown is on fire! I was just closing down for the night, letting Nutmeg out, and the sky looked funny, so I leaned out and saw huge flames leaping an undetermined distance to the south-southeast. So I grabbed my coat and camera, and ran down Cherry Street; as I got closer it was clear it was right downtown. It looks like it must've started in the antiques mall in the old OT's department store, then spread to the adjacent antique store; these fell as I got to Main. The old warehouse in back of OT's was billowing black, black smoke at this point. I kept going to Simmons, and hung a left, but cops were keeping people on the far side of that street, and with good reason, because embers were flying at least two blocks and the wind was blowing that way. Thank God there's ice and snow on all the trees, or we could have had the whole downtown on fire. As it was, we nearly lost the entire block—the wall with the lawyers' office was on fire, though I think they contained it, and despite their best efforts to keep it wet the building across the alley from the warehouse was catching fire too, though just a little and it seems they got inside, so it was probably okay. By the time I ended up back around by the warehouse, the first two floors were burning and the uppers were billowing black smoke, and as I stood there—in a parking lot a half block away, it became unbearably hot just to look at it (and this in an ambient temp of 27), and I had to back up a ways, not to mention the flying fiery chunks of stuff that were coming at us, against the wind. "Us", because quite a crowd was starting to gather at this point (thank God again that this was literally in the middle of the night, because if it weren't, they'd have serious crowd control problems, as Norm pointed out). I stood and talked to the Zephyr guys for a while as we watched the fire progress. After the back wall exploded and the righthand corner column collapsed, the fire died down a lot. Hopefully the other corner column falls inward, because otherwise it could seriously damage the building across the alley even if it otherwise escapes the fire. While we were standing there a guy with a scanner told us there were two other fires in town, one down on Grand and the other on Henderson, but we never got confirmation although we heard sirens heading towards Henderson. At this point there wasn't much left to see, so I headed home, because I had stupidly left Nutmeg outside when I left (of course, I get back and he doesn't feel the least bit cold). I had to post this right away, of course. I took over a hundred shots, and I think my camera cable is at work, and I'm seriously considering driving in right now to upload them. The Zephyr guys were taking pictures, and I saw a couple people who might have been Register-Mail photographers, but I don't know how early they got there. TKS probably didn't get any, but then they don't go to press till Wednesday so there's no rush there. Man, I'm feeling disjointed right now. Half of a square block just burned to the ground in a matter of an hour or two, and the rest of the block isn't quite out of the woods yet. Aside from the lawyers' office I already mentioned, there's a bank, the Red Cross chapter, a loan company, a few apartments, an IDOT bureau, a scrapbook store, and I think one or two other things on that block. I wonder what the city will do with the empty space now? Maybe a park... one of the people I talked to pointed out that Galesburg needs some green space downtown. I certainly hope they don't just pave it into more parking lots.

Posted by blahedo at 4:12am | Comments (6)

20 Jan 2006


And tonight we see a stellar example of the flaws in ABC's elimination rules for Dancing with the stars. It's fine to have viewer input figuring into the tally, shaking things up a bit, but by making the scores only count by rank, being second-worst with a lead of 6 is no better than being second-worst with a lead of 1, and there is no way for the judges to signal that one dancer is just so bad that he shouldn't continue; and when you get celebrities whose fan base is large and will call in lots of votes for them, they simply can't be gotten rid of. I would happily cast votes against this jackass if they'd let me, and I think a lot of other people would too.

This P idiot has repeatedly shown disdain for the judges, for the sport, and for the show, and has no interest in actually doing a dance that looks good, rejecting everything that ballroom dancing is about, and preferring to just do his own thing. Fine, but get off the damn show then. He has now been promoted past at least two dancers better than him, one significantly so, and he doesn't even appreciate it. As a result, we will next week be subjected to yet another dance that is ugly and painful to watch, instead of getting to watch a dancer who wants to dance well, dancing sharply and prettily.

Let me be clear: I have no problem with watching beginners. I teach dance twice a week, and I go to competitions, and I have fun watching people who are still learning to dance. They muck up the steps a bit, and they have bad form, but they're still fun to watch. And at least seven of this batch are (were) even better than that: in an amazing burst of effort, they have learned in a few weeks how to dance quite well, and as I said, Giselle's tango yesterday was great, something that would have been in the running even in a real ballroom comp. And yet, the rapper gets the callback instead, because his fans, who wouldn't know a foxtrot from a paso doble, call in all their votes for him just so he can win, nevermind that it's a competition of which he has rejected the premise, the evaluation, and the spectators.

Hey judges, you read blogs? Here's what you need to do: award everybody except P a 9 next week. That will tie them all for first, and he will be sixth, and the viewer voting will have to rank him #1 for him not to be eliminated. At this point, gaming the system is about all you can do.

Other viewers: I'd bet anything that lots of people did just what Greg and Carrie did last week, and that's exactly why Jerry got called back instead of Giselle. Seriously, if you're going to commit vote fraud (and why not, it seems to be encouraged), you should at least spread your votes over the bottom three or so, to avoid this problem. Anybody whose viewer ranking is as much lower than the judges', as P's is higher, will get knocked out before he does.

(In other news, what the hell is DwtS's deal with thinking that music from Rocky counts as a paso doble? Last season, Joey danced to "Eye of the Tiger", and tonight the professionals danced—under protest, I assume—to "Theme from Rocky". Yechhh.)

"Miss Manners recommends dropping whatever else you are doing to go hunt for salad knives. It will not be easy, but the small knife, also sometimes called a tea knife or a youth knife, is the only correct one to use. You need them, because you are at an impasse. You are right that meat knives should never be used on salad, but your partner is right that one has to defend oneself against inconsiderate and lazy salad-makers." --Miss Manners

Posted by blahedo at 9:36pm | Comments (0)

Dancing with the stars, season two

I'm not going to run a weekly commentary on the new season of Dancing with the stars like I did last summer (1 2 3 4 5 6), but I do plan to check in from time to time.

It's pretty amazing, quite frankly. With the exception of the surly guy that got eliminated the first week and the big galumphing elephant that will hopefully get eliminated tomorrow, the talent here is quite good. There is definitely significant competition at every step along the way. So far, I have agreed with nearly everything the judges have done, except for their curious love affair with Drew Lachey, who is far from bad but not nearly as good as the judges make him out to be.

This week was certainly the women's week to shine. All four of them were better than all four of the men. Even Freaky Lips Lisa looked good out there; hers was the only jive that really had the triple-steppy bounce of the dance down. And that's a dance to show off the follower, and a hard one to follow—she picked a hard task, and really did well at it. (Probably a wise choice, as I don't think her tango would be as good.)

The top three performances of the week were the other three women, though, and Giselle got totally rooked on her tango. From a non-dancer perspective, I'd love to see the final dance-off come down to Giselle vs. George, because they both have the wittiest banter and play off each other very well. But as good as he is at the dancing, she's got him beat, and she got my online vote this week.

Not needing my help at all were the other two women. Stacy's tango was so sharp, I was sitting in my living room shouting at the TV: "Holy cow! Look at her head snap! Oh my God!" Good choreography and good song choice, too. The judges were surprisingly negative in their commentary, and I had resolved that if she got anything less than a 27, I'd have to throw something at the TV. No need, although I still think it deserved even more. Tia's, then, was just as precise, and she had the emotion and aggression the judges claimed they wanted, and she threw in some positively gorgeous Argentine moves that really enhanced everything, so I thought she'd have to tie or beat Stacy, though there again I was slightly disappointed.

So much good dancing! The elimination choice this week is easy, and I hope the audience doesn't screw it up, because I can't take another week of "Master P", and I feel really really bad for his partner, who is a real trooper. But after he's out, there are still seven left and it will be genuinely hard to decide who I like least. At this point, they've all given some really good performances, and it will start to come down to consistency, I think.

(And when I think, geez, these guys have only been dancing for a month and a half, well, that just makes the outcomes that much more impressive and enjoyable!)

"It's still possible to get locked out of a private home, but usually this requires the help of another in the form of a playful spouse, rowdy friends, or just a toddler who pulls closed a door for whatever reason toddlers do most things." --Snopes

Posted by blahedo at 1:53am | Comments (3)

19 Jan 2006

Thank goodness for spam blockers

Good heavens. This blog has been blessedly free of comment spam for a very long time, and I had mostly forgotten its existence. Aside from the only-slightly-annoying bot blocker question to post a comment. But I just checked the logs and there have been twenty attempts to post spam comments just since midnight. In the nearly ten months since the start of this logfile, there have been more than 12,250 attempts to post comments (a few of them legitimate, obviously, but most not).

Jiminy cricket, that's a lot of spam that's been blocked.


Posted by blahedo at 1:56am | Comments (5)

18 Jan 2006


A reader wrote in with the following question:

Do you like living in Galesburg, and if so why? What makes it tolerable? What are the good things about the town (as opposed to the many benefits and satisfactions associated with Knox...)?
and I thought it would be a nice topic to write about here.

The first answer is, yes!, I love living in Galesburg. "What makes it tolerable" is exactly the wrong question, because it means you've already rejected the city and are trying to talk yourself back into liking it. I don't tolerate the city, I enjoy it—not that it's perfect, of course.

The second half is also a bit fallacious, because divorcing the college from the town is really throwing out quite a lot of good. When school is in session, hardly a weekend goes by that there isn't some sort of performance on campus, and near the end of the term there are often so many that one can't even attend them all. Local theatre fans already know that Knox has a fabulous theatre department, with a major production three times a year and a score of smaller "black-box" productions, directed by students and sometimes even written by them. They aren't always great, but they are rarely terrible, and some of the best have actually been the student productions. Knox also doesn't hurt for musical ensembles, both vocal and instrumental, which perform regularly. (The Knox Jazz Combo performs at McGillacuddy's every week school is in session.) Sporadically, there are also art shows, film screenings, and lectures, most of which are open to the general public, and easy to find out about if you're interested in that sort of thing.

But the cultural cachet of the town isn't restricted to Knox's offerings. Sandburg (the community college) has its share, as does the community at large; there are two local community theatre groups, various city musical groups, an art gallery downtown, and Q's Cafe has recently opened its walls as a gallery for some pretty good local artists (in addition to selling great sandwiches, and don't miss their bread pudding).

Which brings me to the food. Alas, we do not have a wide selection of ethnic food (though the Mexican food is decent—Jalisco's is fantastic, and El Rancherito isn't half bad either). But we do have some pretty good restaurants, including the Packinghouse and the Landmark (try the Bananas Foster Crêpe, the rum caramel sauce is out of this world) down in the Seminary Street district and the Steak House up on Henderson Street. Uncle Billy's is a high-quality bakery, also in the Seminary Street district, that uses all-natural ingredients, organic where possible, and is attached to Cornucopia, which is a pretty complete natural foods store. I manage to buy nearly all my food there, the only lack being soda and organic/free-range meat. For that, though, one can go (though I haven't, yet) to Thrushwood Farms or one of the local food co-ops, and get locally-grown meat that may not be technically organic but fills a similar niche.

And I can't help but mention that Galesburg is small and cheap to live in. Small, so you can walk or bike pretty much everywhere; and cheap, so you can buy or rent for a small fraction of what you'd pay most other parts of the country. If you own a house elsewhere, and have more than a year or two of equity in it, you'll probably be able to buy a house in Galesburg for cash. Better yet, get a mortgage here and use the rest to restore your century-old house to its original Victorian, Edwardian, or Tudor splendour. It's a local hobby.

Galesburg has downsides, of course. If you get the midnight munchies, your options are pretty much limited to Steak and Shake, Alfano's Pizza, Taco Bell, or one of the 24-hour supermarkets. There's no club scene downtown, just live and DJed music at the various bars, not that everybody will see this as a downside. It's still rebounding from recent manufacturing plant closures, though the local economy is coping pretty well, and new businesses are still opening every month. The trains run through town on two major cross-country lines (Chicago–San Francisco and Chicago–Los Angeles) more or less constantly, which is really something that you get used to fast, but it does bother some people. And it's really lacking in specialty stores like yarn shops and game shops and ballroom dance shoe shops, but for these things it's nice to note that Peoria and the Quad Cities are each a 45-minute drive away and Amtrak runs three times a day from downtown Galesburg to downtown Chicago and back. This also helps some people get their Thai and Indian food fix. :)

So yes, I really do like living in Galesburg. It's a small city, but it's a city, and it's an interesting city with nice people, and it busts most of the bad stereotypes that coastal folks seem to have about "small Midwestern towns" (though to be sure it fulfills several of the nicer stereotypes). I'm always happy to encourage people to join me here!

"I don't have to be subject to the tyranny of AltaVista." --Stan Zdonik

Posted by blahedo at 11:53pm | Comments (3)

16 Jan 2006


So I remembered to bring my computer today, since I was to be taking minutes at the faculty meeting. I get there at 4(ish), plug in, and when I open the laptop, it appears there are two screens superimposed over each other—as if alternate pixels belonged to two different screenshots. Also, it was completely hung.

After a reboot, all I saw was a lovely plaid. Shutting it down a few minutes and starting it again had no effect (still that crapped-out-LCD plaid pattern). So once again, I found myself taking minutes longhand. Sigh. I really need to learn shorthand.

This especially sucks because I'm in no position to buy a computer just now, and the laptop is it for me for home machines. I was just hoping that, if I was very lucky, the bad part was between the video board and the screen, such that VGA output would bypass the problem and I could hook up my old 15" CRT. I dug out the monitor and cables, hooked everything up, crossed my fingers, and powered up the laptop.

And, of course, it worked perfectly. The laptop screen and monitor both work just fine. The good that comes out of this is that I now have a dual-head system at home, which is pretty nifty. The bad is that I now will not close, sleep, or even really move my laptop at any time until I know I can line up another machine to replace it. (And let me tell you, I'm lusting after one of those 20" LCD iMacs that are going for just $1700 before discount. The fact that I'll have to wait until the first buggy batch is out is probably a good thing.) Maybe I can borrow someone else's laptop to take notes at the next fac meeting....

"Note that these probabilities encode some facts that we think of as strictly syntactic in nature, as well as facts that we think of as more culturally based (like the low probability of anyone asking for advice on finding British food)." --Jurafsky & Martin Ch. 6

Posted by blahedo at 11:52pm | Comments (2)

15 Jan 2006

First time ever:

I bowled a 205 last night! Of course, I followed that with one absolutely awful game and then one that was thoroughly mediocre until I turkeyed in the last two frames. But, still.

My mom's here in Galesburg, since Thursday and until probably Tuesday, and it's quite motivational. Just in the last few days, I've installed a shower curtain ring upstairs, unclogged my laundry sink, unpacked or removed several boxes from the dining room, removed the duct tape gunk off my back door, and probably a few other things I'm not thinking of now. Now, though, I need to get to my grading....

"I will comment, however, that it seems that whoever is baking Jesus for mass these days is using more sugar. There was a distinctly sweet overtone on [Ash] Wednesday that I don't recall being there before." --Tori O'Neal

Posted by blahedo at 11:55pm | Comments (0)

11 Jan 2006

Ok, geek time

I just read the niftiest new thing I've seen in a while. I've hated certain aspects of Java pretty much since it came out in the mid-90s, but for several years now we've known the feature list of Java 1.5, and it addressed my complaints, and threw in a few other nice things that I hadn't complained about, but appreciate the improvement.

So for maybe three years now, I've been raving about Java 1.5 despite not actually being able to write anything in it—it's been out quite a while now, but not on all platforms, and general adoption has been slow in some areas. Anyway, in helping a student decide how to implement a certain aspect of his project, I wanted to check out how Java 1.5 implemented the enumerated types I'd heard about.

They're so cool!

The basic enumerated type has been around for decades: in Pascal, for instance, you could say

type Month = (Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May, Jun, Jul, Aug, Sep, Oct, Nov, Dec);
var m: Month;
m := May;
and this was judged to be cleaner than saying "m := 5" because you couldn't mistake a Month for a Day or a Suit or anything else. However, the identifier May was still really only a fancy name for the number 5 (or perhaps 4); there wasn't anything you got out of it other than readability and type safety. In C, it was really nothing more than a fancy name for a number—you didn't even get type safety out of the bargain.

So I figured Java's enums were out of this mould, probably more like Pascal than C but still just slightly fancy numbers. No, no, no. Java enums are quite a high-level construct, in fact; while you can treat them like Pascal enums, they can also carry data and behaviours just like any other object. Because in Java, an "enumerated type" is just a class whose instances are all known at compile time. So if you have a limited list of things, like notes on a scale or planets in a solar system or items in a pull-down menu, regardless of how complex those objects are, you get to use an enumerated type.

And a few things come for free when you define an enum, like values() and toString(), which along with the "for-each" loop (another grand new construct in Java 1.5) lets you write stuff like

  public enum Suit { SPADES, HEARTS, DIAMONDS, CLUBS }
  for (Suit s: Suit.values() ) {
    System.out.println (s);
and it will print out the names of each suit, in order. Nifty, eh?

The Joys of Finnish:
"Kokko, Kokoon koko kokko." ("Kokko, gather together the whole bonfire.")
"Kokoko kokko?" ("The whole bonfire?")
"Koko kokko, Kokko." ("The whole bonfire, Kokko.") --Eric Dahlman

Posted by blahedo at 5:19pm | Comments (8)

10 Jan 2006

Shallow grave

Me and my Tivo, we find some interesting stuff sometimes. I just caught a show that aired on the Indy Film Channel called Shallow grave; a really neat trip through what a suitcaseful of money will do to the friendship of three roommates. Though it dragged in spots, there was a lot to appreciate; Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston, and Ewan McGregor have a compelling chemistry going on, and the plot is far from formulaic. After watching it through, I spent another twenty minutes going back through and watching little snips—some great character moments in there—and it really made me appreciate the character and plot development a lot more. And the fact I went back and immediately rewatched bits of it, if that's not the sign of a good film, I don't know what is.

The thing about watching a film with Scottish actors, though, I love listening to them, but afterwards my internal monologue runs on in a Scottish accent. Not that I can speak in a Scottish accent, no, I'm just thinking in one. That's loads better, I'm sure. :P

"It is horrifying to have to fight our government to save the environment." --Ansel Adams

Posted by blahedo at 4:41am | Comments (0)

8 Jan 2006

Holy cow!

I actually got some unpacking done this weekend. Like, a dozen or so boxes are now empty and broken down. Also, some miscellaneous other housework. But mostly, I've gotten almost everything out of my dining room that was there before my parents' last visit. (Things new as of that visit remain in the dining room, but those are more long-term, and will probably just get moved upstairs.)

My house is nearly... presentable. Huh.

"Oh, wait, I was talking! I got us confused." --Don Engel

Posted by blahedo at 11:56pm | Comments (0)

6 Jan 2006

The Book of Daniel

Jonathan is on the AFA list—that's the "American Family Association", damned if I'm going to lend them my Google karma—for laughs, and from time to time he posts some of their funnier stuff. The latest was a dire alert about needing to boycott NBC for a new show called Book of Daniel that none of them had seen but they were sure was going to be very very bad and nobody should see it.

Why? Because it depicted Christians, of course.

But they're real people too, and so of course they aren't perfect; it is prime time TV, so there has to be drama of some sort. Turns out, it's actually pretty good. The AFA notwithstanding, I think this is actually a pretty positive portrayal of Christians. (I can understand if the Episcopalians get their noses slightly out of joint, but I don't think the show ever meant to say that the ECUSA had a lock on imperfect people.) It reminds me of a slightly edgier Seventh Heaven. I think 7H has dealt with drugs, racism, and end-of-life issues, anyway, though I'm not sure about homosexuality. (The BoD writers throw in some really funny scenes with the gay son, though; not to be missed.)

In any case, I've season-passed it on my Tivo, at least for a few weeks. We'll see where it goes from here. Thanks, AFA! You always pick the best stuff....

"I have found this to be true in 90%+ of all applications I've used: command line IS faster, more robust, more flexible, less resource intensive and less conducive to error and physical [health] problems such as RSI, than GUI. It's just not as 'pleasant'." --Hans Forbrich

Posted by blahedo at 11:55pm | Comments (2)

5 Jan 2006

On Catholicism and catholicism

Sunday I was in Urbana, and rather than going to St Pat's as usual, I attended St Mary Magdalene's, the Church of Antioch congregation that Chris has joined. They are, as they put it, an "independent catholic church".

Thinking about it in advance, I had understood that this was the culmination of a conversation from months previous, about the Nicene Creed and its individual parts—and whether in fact we believed them. A phrase near the end caught particular attention:

Et unam, sanctam, catholicam, et apostolicam ecclesiam.
We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church ....
In this context, “catholic” refers to the universality of the church (note that it is not usually written “Catholic”, and non-RCC churches use the phrase too), and “apostolic” to its continuity from its founding. And I do find these important. So much so that it seems to me that the exclusivism of the RCC is a little inconsistent; if there's only One Church, and all the different congregations aren't just manifestations thereof, then what are they? It was easier when people believed that members of other sects didn't believe in the true God, of course. But we acknowledge now that, say, Catholics and Anglicans worship the same God, and participate in a larger community of Christian faith. This seems to me to be the very meaning of there being one catholic church.

The prohibition of the RCC on Roman Catholics participating in Communion in non-RCC Masses is based on the following parts of I Corinthians 10:

20 But the things which the heathens sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils and not to God. I would not that you should be made partakers with devils. 21 You cannot drink the chalice of the Lord and the chalice of devils; you cannot be partakers of the table of the Lord and of the table of devils. ... 27 If any of them that believe not, invite you, and you be willing to go; eat of any thing that is set before you, asking no question for conscience' sake. 28 But if any man say: This has been sacrificed to idols; do not eat of it, for his sake that told it and for conscience' sake.
“But wait,” you say. “Heathens? Idols? Devils?” This is a passage about sacrifice to other gods. Using it to justify a closed Communion and forbid Catholics to take Communion with others seems like a relic of the bad old days, not exactly in tune with the modern ecumenical sensibility.

So on Sunday, I attended the 10am Mass at St Mary Magdalene's (hosted at the Channing-Murray Foundation at the UIUC campus). I feel that the liturgy got a lot wrong, but it got a lot right, too; Father Gary is trying to work in Gregorian chant call-and-response formulae and generally make congregational sung participation a larger part of the Mass. Would that more RCC congregations did likewise; it's actually called for by all the relevant Vatican documents, but most priests just plain ignore it.

The downside of the St Mary Magdalene liturgy was that it just doesn't go far enough to take a stand, and works very hard not to offend anyone. The “Our Father” was barely recognisable, and it was kind of a joke for the priest to introduce it as praying “as Jesus taught us”. There was a Sanctus and a Benedictus, but rather than the traditional

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of [power and might],
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.
there was some self-congratulatory thing that I don't remember and bore little relation to the original other than following the form “Holy.... Blessed is he who....” It wasn't even good as liturgical poetry.

That was probably the biggest single problem with their liturgy (one that the RCC is not entirely innocent of itself): in their mad rush to make everything modern, they have entirely lost any poetry, so that you're left just saying a bunch of stuff. Which makes it a lot less effective. (For an RCC example, consider which is a more poetic and effective phrasing: “This is the Lamb of God, ...”, or “Behold the Lamb of God, ...”? That's what I thought.)

The consecration approached, and it became quite clear through the liturgical prose that this church has a sacramental Communion with the Real Presence, though not totally clear whether it was conssubstantiative or transsubstantiative. (That particular theological debate is a lot more subtle than most people realise, anyway; it's mostly a sectarian political thing.) I've complained before about the bells some RCC churches ring at the consecration, but in this Mass it definitely added to the liturgical power of the moment. Communion itself was self-serve (as in, walk around the altar and take the host yourself, intinge it, then eat it), which was feasible because of the small congregation, but they really need to rethink this because it makes it feel a lot less personal and a lot more like a cafeteria.

Certainly an interesting experience all around. As Reverend Jack would put it, this priest definitely had the mojo to perform the sacraments. He and his congregation were clearly worshipping the same God as Roman Catholics, if perhaps according to a somewhat different liturgical norm. He, and they, participate in a long and continuous path following scripture and tempering it with tradition.

And that is what it means to belong to the church catholic.

"I believe it would be much healthier for society, for the poverty situation, and for the effectiveness of social welfare programs if instead of all poor people having a shitty job and a miserable life, half of those poor people had decent jobs and the other half were on the dole." --Zach Miller

Posted by blahedo at 3:08am | Comments (1)

4 Jan 2006

This Abramoff affair

The thing that I find most interesting about all the manoeuvring involving Jack Abramoff is W's reaction. The administration is carefully not claiming that W didn't ever meet Jack Abramoff, distancing them as much as possible but still hedging for the possibility that they may have shook hands or had their picture taken, etc, etc.

But W is famous for his ability to remember people. Whatever his faults, his people skills are unparallelled, He remembers folks he met once years before; during his frat's hazing period, he successfully named upwards of two hundred guys he'd just met that week. When Reagan started in on his whole "I do not recall" routine, it was an awful lot easier to believe.

"Drowning in cheese is not a kosher death." --Don Engel

Posted by blahedo at 7:25pm | Comments (0)

Digital fortress

Well, up we come on another academic term, but first I need to warn you about an absolutely execrable book. As my faithful readers will know, I like getting audiobooks for roadtripping; I got started "reading" them on the long Providence-Chicago runs, and kept the habit. Of course, now I'm making shorter trips, generally, but that just means that one book gets stretched over a few round trips.

I've read many of the CD audiobooks in the public library that aren't juvenile or non-fiction, so every time I'm in there I feel like I have to look a little harder. This time, a few weeks ago, I picked an offering from renowned author Dan Brown: Digital Fortress.

What. A. Mistake.

I mean, it seemed like a reasonable idea. The Da Vinci Code wasn't fantastic, and it had some plot holes, and it made stuff up. But still, it wasn't that bad. I'm ok with a certain amount of mediocrity in my hack fiction. This novel is so much worse than that, though.

The characters act without motivation, even routinely acting counter to motivation. The descriptions are spare, and then suddenly florid, neither tactic particularly working. The plot is entirely predictable (and not very interesting) from just a short way in. And, most crucially, the characters are really, really stupid, and computers just don't work even remotely like he claims they do. When two—no, three—world class cryptographers can see two names and not spot an obvious anagram that I could catch without even seeing it in print, what the hell am I supposed to think? The book is littered with examples like this: Dan Brown is not a smart individual, but he wants to seem like one, so he builds characters with great résumés, bills them as really smart, and then has them act like morons.

He also tries to give a patter of technobabble that is detailed and convincing, but is in fact just painfully and obviously wrong. And in ways that even a single reading by a mediocre computer scientist would have caught—and been able to propose an alternative that would be correct and still let Brown's unimaginative plot proceed apace. He would have been better off staying really vague on the computer details, or taking the Star Trek route and inventing new words (though I imagine he'd do a job on those, as well). But after catching a lot of the run-of-the-mill stupidity, the computer scientist would be forced to explain to him a few very important things:

  • There is no way to send an email to an address and cause some "probe" to automatically emit a "tracer signal" that says where that email was forwarded to. The best you could hope would be to send runnable code and hope the recipient was stupid enough to run it, but this would still require them to open the email first, and you'd have to know their OS in advance, and it still wouldn't be able to report the destination email address, just the computer address (at best).
  • When you decrypt an encoded message, you are not running it. It could say "Attack at dawn" or it could say "rm -rf /" but either way it's just a bunch of text; merely viewing it does not cause it to execute.
  • Cryptographers and system security specialists would know this.
  • Computers may do many things when they unexpectedly divide by zero, but returning 999999999.99 is not one of them.
  • When someone puts up an encrypted message for universal download, password to follow on later payment, it is not useful to substitute your own version of the file later, because the relevant recipients will have already gotten it, even if they haven't decrypted it yet. Changing your copy will not change their copy. Furthermore, in any modern system, even if you had the password to decrypt it, you would be wholly unable to encrypt your own message to use the same decryption password.
  • Cryptographers would also know this.
  • If the entire encryption/decryption system is itself encrypted and posted, having a password will not be sufficient to decrypt it: you also need the decryption program, because the encrypted executable is, y'know, still encrypted.
  • A world-class cryptographer will not have a five-character alphanumeric password, and if she did, she sure as hell would not think of it as "highly secure", whether it be made up randomly or not.
  • Even assuming that a message were decrypted, and turned out to be runnable, and someone ran it, for a "virus" to do anything on a custom-built, custom-programmed machine, it would have to have been designed specifically to run on that machine, by someone who knew that machine inside and out.
  • And cryptographers and systems security specialists would definitely know this.

The whole book is so maddening. Infuriatingly and needlessly wrong things are on practically every track of every disc. (In an early dabble in "making shit up about the Catholic Church", he informs us that in Spain, they take Communion at the beginning of the Mass. WTF? And at a communion rail, to boot.) I've still got two CDs left (out of ten), and I am just completely uninterested in actually finishing them. I don't normally stop books in the middle like that. This is even what is (presumably) supposed to be the exciting part. But, gahh. Avoid this book at all costs.

"For those who read the Lewis books as a Christian parable, Aslan fills the role of Christ because he is resurrected from the dead. I don't know if that makes the White Witch into Satan, but Tilda Swinton plays the role as if she has not ruled out the possibility." --Roger Ebert

Posted by blahedo at 4:44am | Comments (7)