Ignorance with Piety

I’ve written a few flaming posts lately — I’ll admit, there’s a level of emotion in my blog that I haven’t mustered in awhile. Unusual circumstances and all. I’ll admit too, its nice to see some engagement and responses to those posts. Of course, such engagement will come with differing opinions, but my post on conspiracy theories seemed to have provoked a significant reaction — and one I’d like to partially address. I won’t post the reply in its entirety, because I know the person, and I’m embarrassed for them (you can read their full thoughts in the comments, if you’d like). But I will engage, in part, to clarify and continue the admonition:

Last month I read a piece that someone had written and people had shared. After I read it, Holy Spirit said to me, “Well, that was the most anti-Christ thing I’VE ever read.”

…I wanted to share this with you because I never saw the anti-Christ agenda so clear before. It really is just anti Christ (opposite of Christ). I used to think that the spirit of the anti-Christ meant that someone would come in shouting, “Down with Jesus!” But, God has shown me that it is a lot more subtle than that. We need to be on the look out for what is exactly opposite of Jesus. We need to be on guard against the devil’s schemes.

My first rebuttal then, is a very important clarification: I am not anti Christ, or a part of the anti-Christ agenda. For absolute clarity, I am a Christian, a believer in Jesus, the Son of God, who died and rose again in propitiation for my sins. His Word, the Bible, and His guidance of the early church that sometimes took the form of signs and miracles, provide Holy instruction for life. “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Aside from 10 years of education in a Christian school, and 2 years of my childhood on the missions field, I also have a Certificate of Theological Studies from a conservative Christian seminary. All that said, more often than I would like to admit, I find myself ashamed of those who claim a similar background.

Then, God showed me about this need to believe in science. He said, “So, people are going to put their faith in science, the same science that tried to tell the children about darwinism in schools? That is anti Christ.”

There’s few things that make me doubt a message is from the Holy Spirit more than the person claiming God spoke it to them directly. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but I am saying its rare. God doesn’t really need to breathe blog comments into the average person — He breathed His Word, and He guides through the Holy Spirit, but WordPress isn’t usually where He physically interacts with His people.

In fact, maybe the only thing that makes me more wary about a message that claims to be from God is if the content of that message is opposed to the laws of nature He established. And here again, I’ll grant you our imperfect understanding of how He works, but Biblically, suspension of His ordered universe is a relatively rare occurrence. I certainly am not a proponent of Darwinism (but I’ll do the man the respect of capitalizing his name), although I understand the human need to make sense of what appears to have been a miraculous creation event, but I do expect that in most cases, science is a use of our Imago Dei to learn about, and exert dominion over, that creation. We first practiced the God-given gift of science when we gave names to the animals. (Shortly afterward we were compelled to develop the study of crop science!)

When a repeatably observable behavior in the physical universe is established, then behavior outside that documentable “law” is reserved for the Creator and Orderer of that universe. If the behavior of radio waves transmitted from a radio tower is known, then a dramatic and heretofore impossible change in that behavior, such that it can suddenly cause or activate a virus, is either a) the assumption of a lunatic or b) the miraculous intervention of the Creator of that behavior. Unless God is miraculously causing 5G cell phone towers to give people a virus, then it is not happening. And unless you can show me how a secret change to the behavior of radio waves is a part of His Gospel of reconciliation and salvation, then you are sowing fear.

Second, it was suggested that a person needed to have 3-5 years of schooling in order to have a valid opinion on something. God said, mirror that to the theology that is given. This writer would then believe that no one can tell another person about the Good News of Jesus until they have 3-5 years of schooling. Then, Holy Spirit said to me, “Is that how Jesus got the Good News out? Did He only use learned people? “No,” I said, “He used fishermen, prostitutes, tax collectors, etc

Herein you might be more correct than you think: the best historical estimates are that Jesus spent 3 to 3.5 years with His lay-person disciples, walking with them in earthly ministry. During that time He instructed them, corrected them, and even rebuked them. He educated them until they were ready to lead the church without His physical presence. James, most probably the brother of Jesus, specifically wrote: Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly – James 3:1.

Nonetheless, none of that was my premise. My premise was that people on Facebook who have zero knowledge on the science of viral transmission or radio signal capabilities are irresponsible if they share misinformation on those topics as if it were fact.

First, Jesus never called the common, every day people names. He called names to the Elites of his time, the Pharisees (Matt 12:34), but he never called the common people names.

You’re right, my post was a little harsh. But I wrote it in response to a former church leader with no education on the topics I mentioned, using his leadership position to sow discontent with the government on Facebook. I did not say that Christians shouldn’t share the Good News unless they have three years of education — but since you brought it up, a minimum of three years does seem like a reasonable defense against bad theology.

Then, this morning God asked me to ask you, “What side are you going to be on?”

Skipping over the fact that God probably didn’t ask you to ask me that, I am on the side of reasoned faith. I am on the side of a Creator of the universe who loved us enough that He didn’t thrust us into a random, frighteningly unpredictable world so that we could live in fear of things we don’t understand. He placed us lovingly in an ordered world, instructed us to care for it and then, when we made a mess with our sin, He sent his Son to provide a way for things to be good again. He then called us to share His message of hope with those who need Him (Matt 28:19) — and He specifically told us not to sow fear (1 Tim 1:7, 1 John 4:18, Romans 8:15) or rebellion (John 19:11).

I’ll close this one with another admonition from Scripture:
When I am with people whose faith is weak, I live as they do to win them. I do everything I can to win everyone I possibly can – 1 Corinthians 9:22

I’ll start with myself: I get that I could be more gentle. Many are genuinely afraid right now — and for good reason. A lot is happening in the world, and most of it can be hard to understand. Aside from just dealing with a virus, people have lost jobs, security, and access to loved ones. Events have triggered the exploration of deep sin within our systems. It sucks, and it leaves us all feeling uncertain. I’m probably not winning anyone to my view of the world by yelling at them.

But fellow Christians, as gently as I know how, I have to tell you: you are no friend of the Gospel if you espouse dangerous, hateful, or fringe viewpoints on public forums. When you are unreasonable and uninformed on topics like vaccinations or viruses or the experiences of minorities, it is too easy for the unchurched to extrapolate that you are also unreasonable and uninformed on other topics — like Jesus. Exegeted logically, the Bible, the ministry of Jesus, and His gospel are compelling (or condemning) to anyone who would approach them earnestly. But when you mix your faith in with your fears, and your superstitions in with your beliefs, or your religion with a political party, you present to the world an unattractive, and unjustifiable testimony, and you will win no one. You are not pointing to a loving Father whose hand of providence is active through this tough time; you are not becoming weak for the sake of winning others… you are showing your faith to be too weak to be any good.

Second System Syndrome

In software development, there’s a common error that occurs as a system evolves. The first version is lean and focused on a small initial set of capabilities. Lessons are learned during development, features are added, and bugs are found. At some point, the development team begins to feel that their first version contained too many compromises, and that it would be better just to start over from scratch with new ideas. Competent at managing the existing system, but forgetting some of the challenges of its implementation, the team determines that they’re equipped to start again — armed with the lessons of the past and newer technology and skills.

Invariably, this second system proves way more difficult than the first. While its true that the first system had some real issues, its users are unable to sacrifice features they use at the alter of a clean slate. The relatively short history of software is full of the fall-out: The new version is less capable, users complain. The new version has new and different bugs to work around, customers get frustrated. “The new versions sucks — why couldn’t you just improve the old one?!”

I first learned of the “de-fund the police” movement in a Facebook discussion a couple days before it started trending — and I was alarmed. In the wake of almost continuous police brutality hitting the news, I understand the reflex, but the position that police departments should go away seemed extreme to me. Upon probing the post, I found there’s a little more nuance to the position. Depending on who you’re talking to, “de-fund” might mean “reduce funding” or “fund alternate community supports.” But it might also mean “get rid of all police.”

I have just two thoughts in response:

When bad people make it into the police force, we should have mechanisms to deal with them — but we shouldn’t be surprised: the human race is made up entirely of broken people who will be involved in any system we build! Humanism’s only hope is that we can muster enough good behavior from the human condition to out-weight our flawed natures.

Of course, I don’t believe that humanism is the answer. I believe that part of the situation we’re in is that truth has become relative. We tolerate an extreme right and an extreme left because we’ve all agreed that people can have their “own” truth. We reject absolute truth, but acquiesce to extreme relative truths. There is an Absolute Truth that is not subject to the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights, or to your opinion, or to mine. And without that Absolute, any human system will fail.

I despair though, that the Christian Church — the hands and feet of Jesus who are supposed to be carrying that Truth — has become so focused on advocating a political viewpoint, or an immoral President, or some imagined prophecy, that no one is really interested in what we have to say any more. Others are doing a better job of being salt and light, and we are not hearing the pain that our systems are causing.

I saw a viewpoint on Twitter the other day that makes some sense to me. It suggested that as Christians, who should be in a posture of humbly listening right now, maybe we need a different set of leaders. Maybe those who have been last among us for so long should be first for awhile, so we can hear of Jesus work through the cross that they have been carrying. Let’s not throw out the systems we built. Let us with humility, and repentance for where we have failed to excise the sin in our camp, ask the people who are most impacted by the problems to lead us in fixing them.

Update: obviously my viewpoint on this amounts to an opinion. I don’t have first-hand experience with either policing, or being a victim of white-on-black racism. This article, from someone with both experiences, is well worth reading.

Air Hockey Scoreboard Project

Last year, our church got a donation of an air hockey table, for use by the youth group. It was in nice shape, save for the electronic scoreboard, which wouldn’t keep score. It would light up and make sound when powered, but the score was stuck at “88” to “88.” We resolved to see if we could fix it.

The electronics were wrapped in a plastic banner that crossed the middle of the table, and had only a few wires running to it — one from a puck “catcher” on each side of the table, with a simple switch that was pressed when the puck was present, and one modified ethernet cable running to a small control panel that let you start a timer, or reset the game. Our initial hope was that it would just be a wiring problem, that Ben and I could fix together. It turned out to be much more complicated.

All the wiring was fine, and via various traces, ended up connected to a small logic board — this turned out to be the cause of the problem: it was dead. The board had a part number, but no amount of Internet searching could find a source for a replacement part. We theorized that the actual logic being performed was fairly simplistic, and that we might be able to replicate it with a Raspberry Pi Zero — roughly the same size, and equipped with sufficient GPIO pins to map to the existing wiring. Connecting the puck catchers was easy, and with a little Python code, we could count score and show it on a connected SSH Terminal. The control panel was a little more difficult, but we managed to find a solution for some of its basic functions. The remaining problem was the seven-segment LEDs that actually show the score.

For those we called in some help from an engineering student we know, and managed to come up with the logic to light the LEDs by reverse engineering an array of bit values that could be toggled via the Pi’s GPIO. In theory it was going to be possible to restore displays, and 90% of the functionality of the system. In practice, it didn’t work out that way.

The seven-segment LEDs work in pairs-of-pairs: two LEDs for each player, and double that to mirror the value on the other side of the board. 4 LEDs, with 8 wires each makes for 32 tiny wires that needed to be run. Only half that needed to go the GPIO, since the other half were just mirrored values, but that’s still a lot of wiring — turns out there’s a reason most electronics use a printed circuit board. I briefly entertained designing such a board, and paying to have it printed, but we were still going to run into voltage problems. Once the LEDs were running, very little voltage remained in the little Pi for the blinking lights and buzzers that make the experience fun.

After literally months of soldering, brainstorming, and frequently ignoring the now very-messy project out of frustration, we decided to abandon the banner, and go all in on a Raspberry Pi 3B+ with an add-on display. The logic still worked fine for score-keeping, although I had to come up with a new routine for displaying the score in ASCII characters that filled the screen. The girls each composed a little ditty that gets bleated out by the buzzer when someone wins the game, and Ben designed a mounting shim and 3D printed it. We removed one of the two support poles for the scoreboard, and mounted the Pi to the other — neatly running the wires up the pole. I used plastic cement to attach a reset button and the buzzer to the side of the Pi’s case, providing the key features of the original control panel.

After a successful beta test, we refined the design and improved the crude graphics a little, then installed our new system in the Air Hockey table using most of the original wiring. Its not perfect, but its quite elegant — and I was pleased by how much we all learned putting it together.

Finding Hope in a Long Dark Night

Last night the Whitehouse turned off its lights for the first time in history. The president hid in his bunker while the country he promised to “Make Great Again” burned. There’s no explanation but cowardice, and no voice has emerged to fill the leadership gap. America desperately needs hope, but is left with only anger — two sides with no recourse but to point and shout at the other.

Police form a line on H Street as demonstrators gather to protest the death of George Floyd, Sunday, May 31, 2020, near the White House in Washington. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Part of me wants to attend a protest, and add my voice to those calling for justice. Part of me is saddened by the anger and violence that often results. (We settled for donating to a bail fund.) But the narrative we’re getting from the news is flawed. Not all protests have led to violence, and not all violence has started with protestors. This is a nation that is in tears — and sometimes tantrums — but there is no question that what’s going on is the result of deep pain.

We’re all a little on edge, after months of being locked down by a virus we don’t really understand. But the reality is, the effects have been disproportionately distributed among parts of the American population, creating fuel for a fire that only needed a spark to ignite it.

When you add to that a string of crimes that are blatantly racially motivated, you’ve provided the ignition — and no one should be surprised that this blew up in our face. Those reacting with self-righteous indignation about property damage are ignorantly denying years of systematic injustice. Individual Americans may largely be innocent of intentional racism, but we’re all participants in a system-wide failure to ensure every human being gets the same fair shake. If you live in our neighborhood and don’t believe me, come with me to East Cleveland and see first-hand results.

Between the pandemic, and the social injustice it has highlighted, America is facing a reckoning. We haven’t done all we could — and I’m a part of it. We haven’t loved our neighbor, we haven’t cared for the “least of these”, we haven’t lived up to the ideals this nation was created with. Instead, we’ve withdrawn from our position of global leadership, and turned inward to fight about our right to go shopping and get haircuts — while ignoring our neighbor’s right to a fair trial.

All is not lost, though. This is still a great country — despite its flaws. And there’s no better illustration than this weekend’s space launch. More than just a technical triumph, and more than just a multi-culture, multi-discipline team working together to reach a challenging goal: this weekend’s events are the result of a bi-partisan, cross-administration effort. The end of the shuttle program was a sad day in America, but the Obama administration’s move to allow commercial investment in the next generation of technology created new hope. That hope might have died without the Trump administration’s decision to double-down, and invest in it. Granted, “Space Force” sounded a little funny (and made for an entertaining new Netflix show), but Trump did good here — and that should be called out too.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft carrying NASA astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken lifts off during NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., May 30, 2020. REUTERS/Joe Skipper

For me, and many others, space represents a reaching out. In the same way we are like little children, crying in pain or screaming in petulance from this playpen called Earth, we are also learning to pull ourselves up, to stand on wobbly feet and understand that we are not the center of the universe: we’re just a tiny part. For those who believe in God — or at least something greater than ourselves — its hard to look out into the void of space and believe that our current condition is all there is. It puts our childish problems into context, and provides hope that we can do better as we grow up.

Part of growing up is learning to work together. We have real problems right now… We have a virus with no cure. We have a latent racism that has not truly been healed. We have a wealth gap that is un-crossable by too many people. But if bi-partisan government and private industry can work together to get a couple dudes into space in less than 9 years, maybe we can solve some of these other problems together too…

I believe that part of the solution is a recognition that we are fundamentally broken at a level we cannot fix on our own. Humans are not naturally good — tough situations make that painfully obvious. Our natural tendencies aren’t toward making things better; we really have to work at that. And like children, we need a loving parent to help us figure it out. True hope is found beyond the human condition. And a loving Father waits with open arms to pick us up, and show us what He intended life to look like.

Ignorance with Impudence

It seems like people think a pandemic gives them license to let all their worst characteristics out on display. Here in the States, we went from fear of the virus, to frustration of being stuck inside, to angry protests about rights, to finally just pretending its not a thing any more — all at break-neck speeds. And the few voices that spoke out about the irresponsibility of it all were shouted down awfully fast. Turns out you’re within your rights to show up en-masse armed for battle at a government building — as long as you’re white. If you so much as jog through the wrong neighborhood, or pass a bad check while black, you can be killed on the spot.

I’m aware that somehow this position is a political one. Generally, as a guest in this country, I try to remain politically neutral. I don’t believe that either of the two available extremes are completely right (or completely wrong), and I empathize with those who have to try to vote from their conscience in a two-party system. In Canada, I’d probably be a Conservative, but here in the States, where we have fewer and less nuanced options to choose from, I can’t really align myself with the country’s conservative party, the Republicans. Donald Trump is a reprehensible, vile human being, and that party is increasingly aligned with reprehensible, vile human behavior.

Edit: adding that time the President of the Unites States of America threatened to have American citizens shot by the miltary… via Twitter. Feel free to contrast the statement from that liberal, non-Christian former President.

And this is a source of real despair for me: of the two positions, one claims Christian ideals and Conservative morals, the other does not. But people spewing hate, spouting ignorance, or acting horribly when asked to wear a mask often identify as Republicans. While the rational folks, listening to the guidance from experts, acting in ways that protect others, and decrying the senseless death of people of color… those often claim the non-Christian Democrat party?!

Let’s call these things what they are:

Reprehensible human beings gather their weapons and Trump signs to demand the right to share a virus with the nation’s vulnerable

If you have a position on economic policy or the role of the government, then choosing to align with a particular party might make sense. But if your alignment with that position requires you to turn a blind eye to the suffering of the black community, or block hospitals with your protests, or share an article that suggests that people should die until we develop herd immunity, rather than take a vaccine… If your politics support the kind of behavior we’ve seen over the past couple months, then damn you to hell.

You look nothing like Christ.

Hobby Horse

Susan Kare's original happy MacFor the record, I was 39 years old before I had a hobby.

I mean, I do things outside of work and school, but none long enough to move from amateur to hobbyist. Then, when I got around to picking out a hobby (or maybe it picked me), it ended up looking a lot like my profession.

It’s not though. Its technical, but there’s no way I’ll ever get paid to do it. It’s nerdy, but not in a way that has any commercial value. And its geeky, but not the kind of geeky that redeems itself. And it took 39 years and moving to rural Ohio before I actually had the spare time.

If you want to read about it, there’s a new section of the website and a separate RSS Feed: the Restoration Museum. For everyone else, normal posts will remain in this category.

That Time I Talked to Apple’s Co-Founder

In the fall of 2000, I signed up for a fledgling online auction site called eBay. I wanted to find a relatively obscure piece of Apple Computer kit I’d always wanted, called a Newton MessagePad. I didn’t quite understand how eBay worked, so I offered the maximum I’d be willing to pay on 6 different listings… it was probably a full hour before I realised I’d just committed to buying 6 Newtons! Fortunately, I was out-bid on 5 of them, and only had to pay for one.

Nonetheless, I was a proud owner of a Newton MessagePad 120 — proud, that is, until I learned about the MessagePad 2100. The grand-father of portable computing, killed off in its prime by Steve Jobs in his return to Apple Computer in 1997, the Newton remains an audacious and ambitious piece of computing history.

In 2002, after saving up, I managed to get my hands on an upgraded MessagePad 2000 and began my first experiments with wireless networking and different kinds of after-the-fact hacks and expansions to the long-dead platform. An impressive community of hobbyists had sprung up to keep Newton alive, adding Bluetooth, Wifi, MP3 playing and web surfing. It may have been my first experience in coaxing new usefulness out of abandoned hardware.

I didn’t do much for the community, but I did talk about it a lot — on this very home grown website, and other early-Internet forums. Enough, I guess, that a writer for Wired Magazine found me and scheduled an interview for an upcoming article in his series about the culture of Apple fans. That article appeared a couple months later, and you can still find it if you search the right keywords.

18 years later, that article got me invited to speak at a Worldwide Online Newton Users Conference. Turns out there’s still interest in the little green machine, and more than 70 nerds were gathering online to share their recent hacks, collections and uses for Newt. Of the participants in attendance were some of the original Newt dev team, a well-known tech journalist, and the remaining co-founder of Apple Computers, Steve Wozniak.

Steve was mostly a silent observer — in fact, at first we weren’t quite sure it was really him. At the outset, I challenged the participant bearing his moniker to turn his camera on and prove it. I’m sure we were all delighted when the real deal himself appeared and shared his memories of Newton. He receded back into silence until we had a break. As other participants shut their cameras off to attend to biological needs, I decided to go for broke:

“Is Woz still on?” I asked

A couple seconds of silence…

“Yup! I’m here! I’ve been here listening the whole time!”

“Would you be willing to take a few questions?”

“Absolutely!” says the fabled millionaire, as his camera springs back to life.

He held court with us for 20 minutes. I asked a series of off-the-cuff questions to start the impromptu interview, mostly about nerdy things, but we also talked about teaching kids computers, Covid-19, and travel. After a few minutes I yielded the floor so other participants could pile on. It ended too quickly and Woz remained a silent participant for the rest of the event, but it sure was cool! He’s remarkably down to earth — just one of the nerds, who likes experimenting with technology and talking about his passions. In fact, that’s how Apple started.

The slides for my little talk are hereDownload

They’re mostly just memories, as this event will be in a couple years. But don’t ever doubt the power of technology — and community — to have an impact on people’s lives. The Newton community made a documentary on just that, and its worth watching.

How to Read the News Online

This post is probably long overdue. I’m guilty myself of scrolling through Google News and letting an algorithm decide what I should see. But now, more than ever, its important to get the best information possible. Outlined here will be my attempt to provide some tips to escape the echo chamber, see past ideological spin, and find better sources of information online.

I should start with the caveat that of course this isn’t perfect. But its preferable to the norm…

App and website developers build for “stickiness” — that’s a primary goal. The longer they can keep you inside their experience, the more you are worth to them. That worth is often in advertising dollars, but its always in data: user and behavior information that lets providers create better personas (digital “voodoo dolls“) of their audiences. To restate that more clearly: the main goal of your favorite news app or website is not to inform you — its to make money off you. The longer you stay inside their experience, the more you are worth to them.

With this in mind, its easy to understand how content is created and prioritized. Content creators want to develop content that is interesting to their audiences. Content selection algorithms want to provide content that you resonate with — even when that’s not good for you. The “news” system is designed to affirm your biases, and reinforce the beliefs that brought you there.

Even information aggregators, like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are running algorithms trying to find what you like and give it to you. They’re everywhere, and they’re cloyingly sycophantic. About once a day Google News offers me a bikini pic of a celebrity along-side other headlines — they know I’m an adult male, and they’re sure I want to see that content. All it takes is one tap to confirm that interest, and tip the algorithm toward more of it.

So if you’re ready to escape the fun house mirror that is Internet news, here’s what to do:

  1. Dump your current News app or go-to website. Google News, Apple News, MSN News, Fox News, CNN news… whatever you use, its all the same. I’m not even talking network bias yet, I’m just talking about algorithm-driven content providers. They’ve all got to go.
  2. Identify raw sources. In the US almost all news comes from the Associated Press first. Each network gets those stories, and puts their own ideological spin on that news. Skip the spin, and find the source: AP, and Reuters are both good for North America.
  3. Identify alternative sources. I’m not talking about fringe sites with extreme beliefs, I’m talking about a source of news that is further removed from the reach of your country’s political parties. In the US, the BBC or the CBC are reasonably impartial observers of what’s happening in your country. Find world news sources that aren’t reported from within your country — you’ll still get the big news items, but the context will be improved.
  4. Once you’ve selected better news sources, find their RSS feeds. OK, I know that sounds like techno-babble, so let’s break out of the numbered list and explain…

RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication (or Rich Site Summary), and its been a backing technology for the web since 1999. If you listen to podcasts, you use it regularly. An RSS feed is just the content from a site, none of the ads, none of the tracking technology, and none of the algorithms. Just the raw content.

Increasingly sites are hiding or obscuring their RSS feeds, because they want you on their site in your browser or on their app, so they can track you. But so far, no one has succeeded in removing it entirely. If you’re technically inclined, you can use tools in your browser to find the feed URL, but if not, there’s easier ways to get it.

I use a service called InoReader. They have a pro version, but the free one has everything you need to search for RSS feeds from the news sources you trust. Once you create an account in InoReader, you can add your selected news sources directly. The content is sucked out of the site via RSS, in aggregate, anonymously and automatically, then made available at the InoReader website or on the InoReader app on your phone or tablet, in a neatly organized fashion. Its a curated news stream that breaks the algorithms that taint the information you’re getting.

InoReader’s RSS Based News Feed

Like I said, its not perfect. InoReader knows what you’re reading — but because it serves raw feeds, it can’t alter them without detection (you can always look at the RSS directly to see if they’re changed; in 4 years of monitoring, I’ve never seen it happen.) Another challenge is that sometimes news sites only publish the first sentence or two into their RSS feed, and you have to click through to their website to read the whole article — but when you do, you can visit as a signed-out, anonymous reader (there are other work-arounds, for those comfortable with deploying a little open source software.) And of course, your critical thinking skills are always needed for any media you consume.

But even with the challenges, and the little bit of extra work it takes to make good selections, the difference is night-and-day. Do this for awhile, then compare the real headline with the liberal and conservative spin carried by other sources, and you’ll realize just how bad things are.

The dangers of the filter-bubble are real, and the increasing polarization in the US (and Canada too!) is a very real result. If you’re going to use technology, you should use it responsibly. The onus is on you to consume information that challenges your beliefs, educates you, and makes you more empathetic toward people who are different than you. Popular “news” technology does the opposite.

Update 10/5/2020: Associated Press feeds are increasingly difficult to find. This person has a solution — scroll to the bottom of his associated-press-rss repo to find a working URL.

On Protests and Conspiracy Theories

This virus has drawn some truly amazing behavior out of us as a society, hasn’t it? We’ve seen leaders step up and take decisive action to protect people. We’ve seen science and medical professionals rise to the challenge of treating patients and finding cures. We’ve seen people learn new ways to connect and stay in touch with their loved ones. There’s been a lot to commend us.

But we’ve also seen a lot of really spiteful behavior. We have a president desperately deflecting responsibility for failures, while smirkingly taking credit for small victories that he had nothing to do with. We’ve seen people putting the lives of others at risk to impotently protest the actions designed to keep them safe. And we’ve seen a whole new wave of virulent misinformation and loathsome deception spread across the internet.

I want to give those who act on, and share, these absurd ideas some grace. Most of those doing the sharing are squarely in Dunning-Kruger territory — possessing a false confidence that comes from knowing a little bit about a subject, but not enough to understand how much information they’re missing. I also realize that fear drives people to lash out, and that things they don’t fully understand (like how cell phone towers or viruses work) make prime targets for irrational reactions.

I want to give them some grace, but when you see pictures of nurses calmly blocking an intersection in front of a hospital, literally using their bodies to protect the sick from the misguided protestors who think their rights are being impinged… I just haven’t got any grace left to offer.

In 2009 the FCC ended the broadcast of analog television content, freeing up radio spectrum that had been reserved for this kind of broadcast since at least 1949. 5G is the result of this, and other moves, to re-purpose existing radio frequencies for advanced wireless services. What this means is that the very signals people are afraid of right now have been around for over 70 years! Instead of carrying TV content, those radio waves are carrying Internet data packets, but its still just modulated data. Modulated data cannot be used to transmit or activate a biological virus. It can, however, be used to spread fear and misinformation.

In 2000, one of the world’s most successful business leaders redirected his considerable brain power and money from selling software to solving problems with sewage treatment and medical infrastructure in third world countries. Bill and Melinda Gates could do literally anything they wanted, and they chose to invest their time in helping people deal with poop. In 2015, after fighting the spread of disease for 15 years, Bill warned everyone that we were unprepared for a global pandemic, and that we were heading for trouble. 4 years later, we got trouble, and within weeks people are blaming the person who predicted it would happen, and insisting on their right to be reckless with other people’s lives.

These things are frustrating, because obviously they’re stupid. Obviously no rational person would believe that Bill Gates is using 5G radio signals to cause a pandemic so he can lock people in their houses and take over the world… Except that rational people are actually sharing these ideas like they’re truth. And I can’t escape the correlation that its the people who are most impacted economically, and who have the least formal education, that are the ones spreading these poisonous ideas. I know it sounds arrogant, but it shouldn’t be wrong to point out when someone is doing something stupid out of ignorance and fear. As much as I have been a proponent of, and participant in, a free and open Internet, I am opposed to the distribution and glorification of ignorance.

Conspiracy theories are fun intellectual exercises — they’re a “what if” exploration, that in better times make for good entertainment (I mean, who didn’t love the X-Files in the 90s?) But they are not news, they are not supportable with science and research, and they should not be shared with the same weight or given the same attention as actual information. If you see something on the Internet that sounds like it explains a part of the world you don’t understand, you owe it to yourself, to your social media connections, and to civilization as a whole, to respond responsibly. You can either:

A) Pursue a degree in the topic from an accredited higher education institution, or seek out 3-5 years of equivalent on-the-job experience. Because yes, its hard work to develop actual expertise.

B) Shut up, admit to yourself you are not competent on the matter, and acknowledge that your opinion is not worth the bytes of memory it gets stored on.

I have more to say on professional sources of opinion (so called “news”) but I’ll save that for another post — suffice it to say, yes, there is an alternative to the “main stream” media that doesn’t foment conspiracy theories. But instead of going into that right now, I’m going to close this with an additional admonishment to those who follow Jesus. As Christians, the standard for Godly wisdom is clearly provided for us in the book of James:

Wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peace-loving, gentle, accommodating, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial, and sincere.

If what you’re reading is not reasonable, not impartial, and not peace-loving, don’t share it. You damage your testimony by embracing hateful opinions. You malign your Savior by spreading fear. And worst of all, your gullibility makes your faith look foolish.

M-m-m-my Corona

It was a strange progression, from something sort of abstract happening elsewhere in the world, to some minor inconveniences here at home, and finally, suddenly a “stay at home” order from the State government. Nowhere was it stranger than in the White House, where it changed almost overnight from “totally under control” to a full on disaster. It was like a watching a car accident in slow motion, only the whole continent was about to get hit, and there was nothing we could do but wait for the impact.

To be self-centered and honest, though, it hasn’t really impacted us that much. There’s been some cancelled events — Ben’s big class trip to Chicago, Eli’s girl scout camping trip, Abi’s birthday, and numerous work trips. But those are inconveniences at worst. Unlike some of those around us, I’m at no risk of getting laid off, nor do either of us have to go into a job where we might get exposed to someone who is sick. Our little cul-de-sac in the country is pretty well isolated on a normal day, with a couple acres between each house, so crowded situations aren’t something we have to worry about. And the common complaint of boredom certainly doesn’t apply to us — we’ve got even more to do than usual!

That’s not to say this situation is ideal. Like everyone else, we’ll have to ration toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and Clorox wipes. Grocery shopping is a pain due to the panic buying that has swept the nation. And one of our two cars is stuck in the shop for the duration. But overall, there’s more opportunity for us in a situation like this — which isn’t fair, I know, but its true. The Fed’s questionable decision to continually drop interest rates until they had nowhere left to go allowed us to lock in a mortgage re-finance at a historically low rate shortly before banks started closing. And our income tax return left us with spare funds to invest while the stock market is the lowest its been in over a decade.

Its hard to extrapolate from here where things will go. China seems to be on the mend, and if those numbers are true and directionally analogous, then the US and Canada will recover in a similar fashion eventually too. Its unlikely that the economy will ever be quite the same after this, but its equally unlikely that it will completely fail. There’s a sort of twisted fascination with imagining a worst case scenario that looks like a zombie movie or Mad Max situation that I’ve observed others entertaining, but in my estimation, things are not heading in that direction — this time.

Still, the vegetable garden in the backyard has taken on a new level of importance, and I regret that I never got around to the project where I augment our electric well with a manual back-up, in case of emergencies. It really does seem like as individuals, and as a nation (and I’ll include our home country of Canada in this generalization) we are pretty ill-prepared for these kinds of scenarios. The rapid and stealthy spread of this pandemic is tempered by its relatively low mortality rate — should this happen again (and it probably will) with a flavor of disease that is a less discriminate killer, I’m not sure we could really handle it.

The kids are taking it all in stride — they don’t have enough run-time on the planet to understand just how unusual this situation is. Some day they’ll tell their own kids about this period as a generation-shaping event. Hopefully there’s only this one in their lifetime, but if not, hopefully we’re all better prepared — and better people — from having coming through this one.