Maintainers of Lightning – Part 2

When I was a young computer nerd, back in the early days of a consumer-friendly Internet, formal computer education in high school was limited to whatever rudimentary understanding our middle-aged teachers could piece together for themselves to pass on. But there was one tool that taught me more about web development than any book or class or teacher ever could: View > Source.

View Source MenuYou can do it now, although the output is significantly less meaningful or helpful on the modern web. Dig around your Browser’s menus and it’s still there somewhere: the opportunity to examine the source code of this, and other websites.

It was from these menus that I learned my first simple tricks in HTML, like the infamous blink tag, and later the more complex capabilities offered through a simple programming language called Javascript that increasingly became part of the Web.

Javascript and the web’s DOM (Document Object Model) taught me Object Oriented Programming when my “college level” computer science course was still teaching procedural BASIC. Object Oriented Programming, and the web as a development platform, have defined my career now 25 years hence. I owe an unpayable debt to the View > Source menu. It was the equivalent of “popping the hood” on a car, and it allowed a generation to learn how things work. Your iPhone doesn’t do that – in fact, today’s Apple would prefer if it people would stop trying to ever open their hardware or software platforms.

This, I assert, is why people fell in love with the Apple II, and why it endures after 40 years. It was a solid consumer device that could be used without needing to be built or tinkered with, but its removable top invited you to explore. “Look at the amazing things this computer can do… then peak inside and learn about how!”

As soon as our son was old enough to hold a screwdriver, he was taking things apart to look inside. I’m told I was the same way, but as parents Nicole and I had a plan: we’d take our kid to Goodwill and let him pick out junk to disassemble — rather than working electronics from around the home! I consider it a tragedy that some people outgrow such curiosity. Dr. Buggie has not – in fact, in my brief conversation with him, I think curiosity might be one of his defining characteristics…

Have PHD, Will Travel

Some time in the early 70s, Stephen Buggie completed his PHd in Psychology from the University of Oregon. Finding a discouraging job market in America, Buggie decided to seek his fortunes elsewhere. The timeline from there is a little confusing: he spent 12 years in Africa, teaching in both Zambia during its civil war (he vividly recalls military helicopters landing beside his house) and Malawi. He was in America for a sabbatical in 1987, where he saw computers being used in a classroom, and at some point in there he taught at the University of the Americas in Mexico, who were early adopters of the Apple II for educational use. His two sons were born in Africa, and despite their skin color, their dual citizenship makes them African Americans – a point he was proud to make. He taught 5 years in South Carolina, before joining the University of New Mexico on a tenure track. He maintains an office there as a Professor Emeritus (although rarely visits — especially in the age of COVID) and still has his marking program and years of class records on 5.25” floppy disks.

Apple II Classroom Computers – Seattle’s Living Computer Museum

Buggie found community amongst Apple II users in the 80s and 90s. Before the World Wide Web there were trade magazines, Bulletin Board Systems and mail-in catalogs. Although there was no rating system for buyers and sellers like eBay has today, good people developed a reputation for their knowledge or products. As the average computer user moved to newer platforms, the community got smaller and more tight-knit. Buggie found a key weakness in maintaining older hardware was the power supplies, and scavenged for parts that were compatible, or could be modified to be compatible, and bought out a huge stock – one he is still working through, as he ships them to individual hobbyists and restorers decades later. His class schedule made it difficult for him to go to events, but he did finally make it to KansasFest in recent years, and still talks excitedly about the fun of those in-person interactions, and the value he got from trading stories, ideas and parts with other users.

To be certain, Buggie’s professional skills are in the psychology classroom. He doesn’t consider himself to be any sort of computer expert — he’s more like a pro user who taught himself the necessary skills to maintain his tools. And maybe this is the second theme that emerged in our conversation: like the virtue of curiosity, there is an inherent value in durability. This isn’t commentary on the disposable nature of consumer products so much as it is on the attitudes of consumers.

We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.

My dad worked with wood my whole life. Sometimes as a profession, when he taught the shop program at a school in town. Sometimes as a hobby, when he built himself a canoe. Sometimes out of necessity, when my parents restored our old house to help finance their missionary work (and the raising of three kids.) His tools were rarely brand new, but they were always well organized and maintained. He instilled in me a respect for the craft and in the artifacts of its execution.

Computers are tools too – multi-purpose ones that can be dedicated to many creative works. When we treat them like appliances, or use them up like consumable goods, the disrespect is to ourselves, as well as our craft. Our lack of care and understanding, our inability to maintain our tools beyond a year or two, renders us stupid and helpless. We cease to be users and we become the used – by hardware vendors who just want us to buy the latest versions, or credit card companies that want to keep us in debt, or by some imagined social status competition…

In those like Dr. Buggie who stubbornly refuse to replace a computer simply because it’s old, I see both nostalgia and virtue.

The nostalgia isn’t always positive – I’ve seen many Facebook posts from “collectors” who have storage rooms full of stacked, dead Macintosh computers that they compulsively buy despite having no use for, perhaps desperate for some prior stage of life, or to be able to claim a part in the computing revolution of yester-year that really did “change the world” in ways we’re still coming to grips with. There is a certain strangeness to this hobby…

But there is also virtue in preserving those sparks of curiosity, those objects that first invited us to learn more, or to create, or to share. And there is virtue in respecting a good tool, in teaching the next generation to steward well the things we use to propel and shape our passions or careers or the homes we build for our families.

Fading Lightning

I joke with my wife that our rec room is like a palliative care facility for dying electronics: my 1992 Laserdisc player is connected to a 2020-model flatscreen TV and still regularly spins movies for us. I still build apps for a mobile platform that was discontinued in 2011 using a laptop sold in 2008. In fact, these two posts about the Apple II were written on a PowerBook G3 from 2001. Old things aren’t necessarily useless things… and in fact, in many ways they provide more possibility than the increasingly closed computing platforms of the modern era.

In an age where companies sue customers who attempt to repair their own products, there is something to be said for an old computer that still invites you to pop the top off and peer inside. It says that maybe the technology belongs to the user – and not the other way around. It says that maybe those objects that first inspired us to figure out how things works are worthwhile monuments that can remind us to keep learning – even after we retire. It says that maybe the lessons of the past are there to help us teach our kids to shape their world, and not to be shaped by it…

Thanks for visiting! If you missed Part 1, check it out here!

Maintainers of Lightning – Part 1

Of the subset of people who are into computers, there is a smaller subset (although bigger than you might think) that are into vintage computers. Of that subset, there’s a significant proportion with a specific affinity for old Apple hardware. Of that subset, there’s a smaller subset that are into restoring and preserving said hardware. For that group of people, something like a Lisa (the immediate precursor to the Macintosh) or a NeXT Cube (Steve Jobs follow-up to the Macintosh, after he was kicked out of Apple) holds special value. Something like an original Apple I board holds practically infinite value.

If you are in this sub-sub-sub-group of people, then you have undoubtedly come across the eBay auctions of one Dr. Stephen Buggie. You’ll know you’ve purchased something from him, because whether its as big as a power supply or as small as a single key from a keyboard, it comes packed with memorabilia of either the Apple II, or his other hobby, hunting for radioactive material in the New Mexico desert. Hand-written, photocopied, or on a floppy disc or DVD, he always includes these small gifts of obscura.

Last year, after the fifth or sixth time one of his eBay auctions helped me rescue an Apple II machine I was restoring, I reached out to Dr. Buggie and asked him if I could interview him for my blog. His online presence outside of eBay is relatively small. You can find him on YouTube, presenting at KansasFest, an annual meeting of sub-sub-sub-group nerds entirely focused on the Apple II line-up of computers. Not all of these folks are into restoration. Some are creating brand new inventions that extend the useful life of this 40+ year-old hardware. Some have been using the hardware continuously for 40+ years, and still live the early PC wars, full of upstarts like Atari, Commodore and Amiga, gearing up for battle against IBM.  Many still see the Macintosh as a usurper, and pledge more allegiance to the machine that Wozniak wrought than the platform that begot the MacBook, iPhone and other iJewelry that all the cool kids line up for today. If you search really hard, you may even find references to Dr. Buggie’s actual, although former, professional life: that of a world-traveling psychology professor. What you won’t find is any sort of social media presence — Facebook and Twitter don’t work on an Apple II, so Dr. Buggie doesn’t have much use for them.

The 5 Whys

What I wanted to know most from Buggie was why Apple II? Why, after so many generations of computer technology had come and gone, is a retired professor still fixing up, using and sourcing parts for, a long-dead computer platform? I don;t think I got a straight answer to that: he likes bringing the Apple //c camping, because the portable form-factor and external power supply make it easy to connect and use in his camper. He likes the ][e because he used it in his classroom for decades and has specialized software for teaching and research. But as for why Apple II at all… well mostly his reasons are inexplicable — at least in the face of the upgrade treadmill that Intel, Apple and the rest of the industry have conspired to set us all on. He uses his wife’s Dell to post things on eBay, and while still connected to the University, he acquiesced to having a more modern iMac installed when the I.T. department told him they would no longer support his Apple II. But if it was up to him, all of Dr. Buggie’s computing would probably happen on an Apple II…

OK, But What is an Apple II?

It’s probably worth pausing for a little history lesson, for the uninitiated. The Apple II was the second computer shipped by Steve’s Jobs and Wozniak in the late 70s. Their first computer, the Apple I (or just Apple) was a bare logic board intended for the hobbyist. It had everything you needed to make your own computer… except a case, power supply, keyboard, storage device or display! The Apple II changed everything. When it hit the market as a consumer-friendly device complete in a well-made plastic case, with an integrated power-supply and keyboard, that could be hooked up to any household TV set, it was a revolution. With very little room for debate, most would agree that the Apple II was the first real personal computer.

Apple I, with aftermarket “accessories” (like a power supply!)

As with any technology, there were multiple iterations improving on the original. But each retained a reasonable degree of compatibility with previous hardware and software, establishing the Apple II as a platform with serious longevity – lasting more than a decade of shipping product. As it aged, Apple understood it would eventually need a successor, and embarked on multiple projects to accomplish that goal. The Apple III flopped, and Steve Jobs’ first pet project, the graphical-UI based Lisa was far too expensive for the mainstream. It wasn’t until Jobs got hold of a skunkworks projects led by Jef Raskin that the Macintosh as we know it was born. By then, Apple II was an institution; an aging, but solid bedrock of personal computing.

The swan song of the Apple II platform was called the IIGS (the letters stood for Graphics and Sound), which supported most of the original Apple II software line-up, but introduced a GUI based on the Macintosh OS — except in color! The GS was packed with typical Wozniak wizardry, relying less on brute computing power (since Jobs insisted its clock speed be limited to avoid competing with the Macintosh) and more on clever tricks to coax almost magical capabilities out of the hardware (just try using a GS without its companion monitor, and you’ll see how much finesse went into making the hardware shine!)

But architecture, implementation, and company politics aside, there was one very big difference between the Apple II and the Macintosh. And although he may not say it outright, I believe it’s this difference that kept the flame alive for Stephen Buggie, and so many other like-minded nerds.

Image stolen from someone named Todd. I bet he and Dr. Buggie would get along famously.

That key difference? You could pop the top off.

I’ll cover why that’s important — both then and now — and more about my chat with Dr. Buggie in Part 2

Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra

My anguish over the state of the church in America is plain enough that some good friends suggested some reading material to help me cope. Costly Grace is by an American Evangelical Minister who came up in the Regan-era, bought into Christian Conservative politics, became an ardent leader in the Pro-Life movement, and eventually came face-to-face with the reality that the Republican Party is not actually a function of the Church, or a Holy institution mandated by God. He didn’t change sides of the aisle — he’s still a Conservative — but he did have to reckon with the fact that not all Conservative positions are Christ-like.

Rev Rob Schenck prays in the Capitol

Its a good story, made better by the documentary he was in, Armor of Light, that followed his exploration of how Pro-Lifers can also be Pro-Gun advocates. The mental gymnastics necessary to align the Second Amendment with the Gospel have always been fascinating to me, as a Canadian living in America. I’m not opposed to gun ownership, in general, but I am in favor of reasonable regulation and licensing, and I can’t seem to find anything in the Bible that would suggest not giving guns to people with criminal records or a history of mental health issues is sinful…

This middle position we’ve been in since we first moved to the States is rarely a comfortable one. Growing up in Canada, it never occurred to me that one of two available human political parties could be all good, and the other all evil. The fact that I’m aligned with some Conservative viewpoints, but not with others, renders me suspect to both sides. I take some solace in being in decent company: Bill Gates recently said “its lonely in the center.” But we’re not really sure what to do about it when friends and neighbors “unfriend” us for pointing out that Donald Trump is very obviously not Christ-like. Blogging about it is cathartic, but its not changing anyone’s mind — if you’re still reading this old rag, you probably already agree with me on the main points. Those who aren’t reading have already written me off as a liberal, or worse, apostate, because I haven’t sworn allegiance to America’s newest golden calf

Yup, they actually made a graven image of Donald Trump

We’re not liberals, though (sorry if you thought we were and now you have to dislike us…) We’re quite willing to listen to both viewpoints, and while sometimes the “truth lies in-between”, we can’t buy the whole Democrat package either. So what is a moderate Canadian family to do in the upcoming civil war in America?

Well, I’ll tell ya, we’ve thought about moving. Its not off the table. But Canadian politics are far from perfect either, and the economic timing is… well it would be disasterous at this point. While my skills are so marketable in the US that my immigration lawyer’s current strategy is a “National Interest Waiver” — literally an assertion that it is in the country’s best interest to keep me (a determination I’ll leave up to the powers-that-be) — in my home country, I can’t find any employer willing to match even 75% of my current salary with the 25-percent-less-valuable Canadian currency. And our 3000+ square foot house on 2.5 acres of property in Ohio is worth half what 2000 square feet on a postage stamp is worth in Ontario. We just can’t afford to give up the American Dream at the moment.

So that leaves us with the question, if we’re stuck here, is there anything we can do to make things better? And I think the Lord has led us to two conclusions:

First and foremost, we do not believe that America is strategic for the Kingdom in the way it once might have been. Maybe once a shining light on a hill, this country has defaced itself on the world stage repeatedly. No developing country will believe that a white missionary from America has a lock on moral truth any more — we are too compromised by decades of sin to be seen as de facto leaders in guiding people to the Truth. That doesn’t mean we can’t work along-side others, as servants, as fellow seekers, or even as guides within the context of a relationship built on trust and humility, but the day of Americans showing up to bestow American culture and beliefs on another country is over — and well it should be. This is a culture that stubbornly refuses to confess and repent of its original (and ongoing) sin of racism. This is a culture that is quick to make idols of celebrities and politicians and political parties. And this is a culture that is historically, and currently, prone to division and disunity.

These things are true wherever there are humans — racism is not unique to America, idolatry is not unique to Americans. But in the past, the success of this country lent its missionaries some credibility. That’s gone now, and humility must take its place. God has His people all over the world, and we have something to learn from cultures that haven’t made a religion of themselves, but are busy practicing true religion. For Nicole and I, that means re-prioritizing our giving outside of this country. This is not a small realization: giving is our primary ministry outside of our home, and the related tax benefits are significant, and a major part of our strategy.

Secondly, we understand we are to “bloom where we’re planted.” By that I mean, if God put us here, we should do our best to act in our community in a Christ-like manner. Our community is, almost exclusively, Conservative Christian — and many of them are angry, suspicious and… in error. It would be easy to keep criticizing them, and pointing out their misapplication of Scripture (or science) as I’ve been doing on this blog for the past year. It would be even easier to break fellowship with them, and write them off as dumb Trump-supporters, conspiracy theorists, or right-wing nutjobs. But doing so does not help heal the wounds in this country, or help the Church behave better, or make Christianity more effective in showing God’s love. When Paul said the whole Church was one body, he knew about the assholes and the arm pits — he understood that not every part of the body is great all the time. But the body doesn’t work if one part says to the other “I don’t need you!

So ya, there’s a lot of smelly parts of the body right now — more than usual. And we could stand to clean up our act a little. But God knew that too; He knew He was entrusting His mission to a bunch of assholes, and He still told us to be about His business. So if we need each other, then we have to figure out how to help each other. For Nicole and I, that means we can’t disengage with the church or our conservative community, we have to be a part of the body — and maybe help rub a little “wisdom soap” and a “love loofah” on the parts that need to freshen up. I can help other Christians find verses in the Bible that challenge their political perspectives, specifically because I have empathy for those perspectives and some modest equipping and experience exegeting the Word we both hold as sacred… but only if I don’t alienate those people first.

It is when we decide that the “other” is irredeemable that we cease to function as a society — and as a Church. Fortunately, we have a God that looks on the lowliest of sinners, and sees none that cannot be redeemed. If He hasn’t given up on us yet, then we can’t give up on each other either.

Shaka, when the walls fell

I grew up watching Star Trek, and in one of the most meme-worthy episodes, the valiant Captain Picard and a strange alien are stranded together on a planet, and forced to figure out how to work together without a universal translator or any of the technology that makes these “first contact” situations easier. They learn to communicate through a shared language of stories and parables that resonate with their individual and cultural experiences — they find what’s common, despite their differences, and figure out how to talk to each other through it. Maybe its naive to think we can make things any better… but if we’re stuck as aliens in this strange country, maybe God would have us try to help His people communicate…

Gongs and Cymbals

Now that Trump has been defeated (then defeated again, and finally defeated again) and the prophesied storm didn’t come to save all patriots from the evil, child eating Democrats, we’re left to deal with the mess he made during his 4 catastrophic years.

For some people, the challenge to be faced lies in undoing his policy positions, trying to restore some modicum of dignity for America on the world stage, and scrambling to roll out a 12-month delayed response to a virus that the previous administration couldn’t really sustain any interest in.

For some, the new leadership means an opportunity to tackle environmental concerns, and revive green initiatives. For others, it means we can acknowledge the racial injustice that has plagued this country, and try to finally do something about it.

But for others, the most important problem to address? Well its the fact that, for some inexplicable reason, people don’t want to hear from white Christian conservatives any more.

For this group of people, there was little or no outrage about the attack on the capitol, a streak of unjust executions of black people, or a President so concerned with his own self-interest that he faces his second impeachment for crimes against the nation he was was supposed to lead. For this group of people, the single greatest problem that our new President needs to address is the fact that no one wants to hear from Focus on the Family any more.

This was my neighbor. I did not love him as I ought.

This man was named Jerry. He lived in one of the wealthiest cities in America. In the late 90s he was the victim of a random shooting on his way home from work. He was a blue collar machinist — one of those hard-working heroes that make up the “real America.” The doctors barely saved his life, but he was left disfigured and destitute. He lived another 20 years, on the streets, where he was well known for his positive outlook and recognizable appearance. By all accounts, he never tried to “game the system” — even though it failed him utterly and completely. He died alone, a victim of a gunshot and of a nation indifferent to its down trodden. It is a tragedy that the government programs and social safety nets couldn’t help him, but it is blasphemy that for more than 20 years, he didn’t come across a Christian — not a single a believer in Christ — who was willing to do what it took to get Jerry off the streets. He died without knowing sacrificial love. He died without knowing how much Jesus loved him.

There are two camps in Christian circles right now, those who want to move on from Trump (or who never wanted him in the spot to begin with), and those who still believe he was some kind of champion of the church and of Christian morals. I can have empathy for those in the middle, who recognized the sinfulness of Trump, but hoped God would use him for good anyway. I’ll even overlook the fact that the same people who positioned Trump in their mind as some kind of Nebuchadnezzar, are often the ones who hold that Obama was a secret Muslim, and Biden’s faithful attendance in church for his entire adult life was really a 60-year ploy to trick Christian voters.
But regardless of how they interpret the circus of the last four years, my admonition to all American Christians scrambling to defend conservativism is the same: shut. up.

Literally, the Republican party is the worst possible representative of Christ right now. American Christianity is so dirtied by its chosen political leaders, and in particular, the behavior of the last 12 months, that the absolute best thing we can do for our testimony is to voluntarily suspend our own Twitter accounts, let Parler fail, cancel Focus on the Family, exit stage left, and repent.

Jesus doesn’t need you to fight for your rights. Jesus wants you to care about your neighbor more than yourself.
Jesus doesn’t want you to take Twitter to court. Jesus wants you to feed the hungry.
Jesus doesn’t want you to lobby for less government regulation. Jesus wants you to walk the extra mile for the oppressor.
Jesus doesn’t want you to stand up against Covid-19 restrictions. Jesus wants you to bring hope to the hopeless.

You will not save the world by condemning it because it doesn’t share your beliefs. You will not win the lost by telling them how important your rights are. Stop it. Jesus promised hardship, and his Word tells you to count it pure joy — not to rise up against it.

To my Christian friends who think the time is coming for the church to stand up for what it believes: sit down!
To the Christian churches defying your government in order to keep the pews warm on Sunday: don’t just sit down, throw yourself on the ground at the mercy of a Savior who laid down His life for your arrogant pride — and for all the lost who are now angry with you, or worse: afraid of you. Christ did not call you to insurrection, He called you to sacrifice and to love.

If we get 4 years, or even 8 years, of Democrat leadership that doesn’t do a single thing in support of conservative positions, but during that time, we re-establish the Church as a place where people are loved unconditionally, and Christians as people who serve unselfishly, then maybe we will have earned back some of the moral high ground. If we can be the hands and feet of Jesus again, in a nation that is broken and hurting and trying to find a way forward, then maybe we will have earned the right to try again to speak with His voice — or our opinions.

Until, and if, we can humble ourselves enough to tangibly demonstrate love for our neighbor again, then every time a Christian opens their mouth to try to make sure their point of view is heard, the sound that we make is just a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal

Why not kick off 2021 with a coup attempt?

The predictable and inevitable outcome of 4 years of having a vile, sinful man, occupied only with his own self-interest, as the President of a country that has elevated its own self-love to idolatry, reached a violent and shameful zenith at the seditious urging of a sore loser, continuing to tailor his 4th grade speaking-level message to the most ignorant of Americans. These self-titled patriots stained the walls of their capitol with literal human waste, and desecrated their own country in a violent orgasm of obeisance to their sin, their leader’s sin, and the cheers of a so-called Conservative media, claiming Christian values — right up until they came face-to-face with the death that is the Biblically described consequence of that sin. At which point, they tried desperately to blame someone else.

Trump did not make America great. He made it the worst I’ve ever seen it. The values he championed, right until their violent ends, are not Christian — shame on any believer who has twisted the Truth in order to defend that man. We must do better in 2021.

So I Tied An Onion To My Belt – 2020 Edition

I write these annual re-cap posts every year, but never before has the gap between expectations for a year, and the reality I have to write about been so drastic. This past year, we’d planned a big trip west for the summer, visiting friends in Seattle, taking a ferry trip to Alaska, and stopping by to visit family and an old friend on the way back. None of that happened for reasons that are both obvious and less than. Forming a plan to get some portion of our family just across the nearest border proved to be enough of a challenge, once the pandemic hit.

If we’d known this was going to be our last big social gathering, we would have tried to squeeze more people in!

The year started fairly normally, with a couple nice highlights. Since Christmas 2019 was spent in Grand Cayman, we connected with Ontario family at Niagara Falls in February. We hosted our church youth group for the Super Bowl. And I started a trip to LA for a work event. When we looked back at the pictures of these gatherings, Eli remarked: “its strange to see us with other people and no one is wearing masks.”

It was on that trip to LA that we learned how much things would change. Of course there were inklings of it — I remember seeing people in masks at the airport, thinking they were over-reacting. It was on a stop-over in Minneapolis that I got the call: event canceled due to pandemic. I had no choice but to complete the trip to LA and try to schedule an earlier flight back — home and into quarantine. Like for most others, March through May were tough months: cancelled birthday parties, suddenly home schooling, trying to help the kids understand what was happening. As summer crept closer, and cases started dropping, we witnessed an even more upsetting change in our American life. Trump signs and flags appeared, while mostly white folks began complaining about their rights — apparently oblivious to the fact that a significant portion of America with an actual legitimate complaint was pleading for justice. The battles lines for the looming election were drawn: haircuts and backyard parties are part of the American dream, due process for minorities, and scientific decision-making are not.

The kids chose this picture, and wanted to point out that Ahmaud Arbery, Tamir Rice, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and everyone else who weren’t given justice in 2020 still matter.

Never before have we been so ashamed of where we live, or some of the people we considered close. We were horrified — shocked and in disbelief. We wanted to be a part of reasoned discussion, we wanted to insist on rationality. We went to a protest (before most of them turned unreasonable) and I blogged desperately and at length, trying to explain, trying to reason, admonishing the increasingly insane things that our neighbors, and even family members were saying online. But Trump kept on tweeting, and people kept on trying to explain, defend or even advocate conspiracy theories, unhinged medical recommendations, and a bizarre persecution complex emanating from the most undeserving, self-entitled Republican leader — and base — that I have ever witnessed. If COVID-19 wasn’t reason enough to withdraw, American politics sealed that deal. Our circle of people we wanted to be with in 2020 shrank dramatically.

Fortunately, some wonderful people and wonderful experiences were left:

We tapped our neighbor’s maple trees, and made maple syrup (and were reminded that there are still some reasonable and loving Conservatives left in this two-party nightmare.)

We learned how to throw a Zoom birthday party, met new people virtually, and connected with some far-away friends we wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

Our annual Family Camp tradition was cancelled, so in its stead, we took over an entire campground with two other families, and enjoyed a socially isolated weekend fishing, boating and singing songs about Jesus around the outdoor cookout spot.

Instead of long-distance trips, we raised chickens at home, worked on some fun projects, and explored some of God’s beautiful creation right here in Ohio — and did manage to get most of the family back to Ontario for quarantine and a visit eventually.

We even got to be a special part of a beautiful wedding, capping off a year that maybe wasn’t great, but definitely had some redeeming moments.

And I guess that’s a fairly good description of humanity right now. It is obvious to anyone who survived 2020 that we are a fallen people — we are not who God meant for us to be, and we cannot redeem ourselves; not through politics, not through discourse, and not through societal changes. We will always fall short. But every once in awhile, you catch a glimpse of something pretty great, and its a reminder that we were made in His image: a glorious, creative, thoughtful and beautiful image. And that some day, we will be what He intended…

No, 2020 wasn’t a great year — not anywhere on the planet, and especially not in America. But, we’re still all God’s kids, and we’re still growing up. We’re not ever going to get it right until He comes back, but that doesn’t mean we’ve quit trying. Only He knows what 2021 holds, but we got through 2020, and with His help, maybe we can all do a little better this year.

Complicated Thoughts About the State of the Pandemic

I don’t resent our governments imposing restrictions during a pandemic. Part of their elected duty is to protect their citizens, and as long as they’re making data-based decisions, and applying them without bias, I have no complaints.

I don’t resent my job becoming primarily about sitting on Zoom meetings all day. I had the privilege of working from home before and feel blessed that the pandemic hasn’t impacted me professionally, or our household financially.

I don’t resent staying home more, or spend too much time bemoaning the adjustment to our social lives. Here again we have some privilege – there’s plenty of space, and lots to do (my project backlog has shrunk considerably this year!) And I’ve never enjoyed superficial interactions or large gatherings, so 2020 was more my scene anyway.

We’ve been lucky, and I acknowledge the privilege that has made 2020, while less-than-ideal, certainly not catastrophic for us.

But I do have one complaint about this virus: its impact on our ability to travel. To see the world, to visit family and friends, to give our kids different and varied experiences as they develop; these are things that are important to us, and Covid-19 just doesn’t care.

We did manage three adventures over the holiday season, each with different levels of risk – and each followed by two weeks of effective isolation. That’s more freedom than our family in Canada has available to them. There’s plenty to be said about the incompetence that steered America through this pandemic, but I do feel we’re facing a new phase here: one that should be defined by responsible management of a factor in our environment – instead of fearful withdrawal from the unknown.

Cases in the US continue to look insane compared to the rest of the world, but unlike in March and April, where we didn’t understand this thing, we have new tools in our tool belt…

The vaccines are a scientific marvel – but despite the press, they weren’t invented in a year. In fact, the mRNA approach has been refined for decades; this year gave us way to put those learnings to use for the benefit of everyone. Our household isn’t anywhere near the front of the line to get our jabs, but as soon as we can, we will.

Medical interventions are better now: we’ve learned how to help people through the virus, and while there are still bad potential outcomes, the data shows a massive change in the death rate, and a drastic reduction on load on hospital capacity. Avoidance is still the best cure, but infection isn’t a death sentence, and we should stop acting like it is.

Cases grew in our county as it got colder, but deaths have shrunk to near-zero

I guess my point is, we live with risk all the time – but we still live. And in 2021, we’re resolved to (carefully, responsibly and thoughtfully) resume some living. Here’s how we made that work in the latter months of 2020:

For Thanksgiving this year, we stayed at a hotel with an attached water park. We’d been to this venue a couple years ago at the same time and learned that it is lightly attended during the holidays. Recent science indicates that virus particles don’t travel as well in warm, humid environments, and when we arrived, there were a grand total of 20 other people in the entire facility. We deemed the risk to be low, and the need for our kids to do something over the holiday to be high. As the second day wore on, the place got busier, so we left.

Next up was the wedding in Boston. The wedding party formed a “pod” where every attendee was tested for COVID-19 before arriving. Our own test was 3 days before we traveled, and we remained in isolation until the date of travel. Airports and well-ventilated airplanes were virtually empty, the State we traveled to has half the cases of our home State, and people were much more respectful of mask requirements than in Ohio. The entire wedding party stayed together in the same house – we were the only ones who stayed in a nearby hotel, and we avoided all contact with people outside the wedding party. More than 90% of our waking time was spent in the safety of the pod, the rest was in masks and socially distant.

Our final trip was to a nearby State park: we stayed in a private cabin, and the facility imposed a strict limit on the number of people in the pool in the main facility. At worst, we came into masked contact with 3 people, and non-masked contact never passed a threshold of 6-feet and only in humid environs.

In all cases, we weighed the potential outcomes, acted as carefully as the situation allowed, and traded some risk for some feeling of normalcy. We were also able to handle the consequences: we isolated when we returned, and we have a well-stocked HSA.

I realize that while the definition of pandemic means that it is global, interpretations of it are astoundingly local. I also realize that not everyone is in a position to select which risks are acceptable to them: I don’t have to go into work, Nicole is free to help the kids with school at home, and our church has been diligent about offering online worship. We can plan targeted events without fear that our daily lives will be impacted. But I guess I do assign some value to that freedom: we wouldn’t have it if we lived in Canada right now.

And maybe that’s one of the reasons travel is so important. We have this one context that we’ve been living in, and if that’s all you know, everything else seems foreign. In Grand Cayman, they locked down hard for 6 weeks, and have been living the rest of the year completely Covid free. Its hard to leave the island, and harder to get back, but that context is certainly foreign here in America – where we’ve just given up trying to beat this thing at all. New Zealand has beaten the virus twice, while Sweden’s grand herd immunity experiment proved to be a total disaster.

I don’t really know what conclusions to draw from this. But I do know that one of the happiest moments of 2020 was on the far side of a journey to Boston, where a little pod of people, who did the work to manage the risk and put the well-being of others first, were able to gather together and celebrate the marriage of two people we all loved. And I know that all the verbs in that last sentence are important things that we need to include in 2021…

Install Microsoft Store Apps on Windows 10 LTSC

Switching my home computers to LTSC was the single best decision I’ve made for the health of my network — and for my sanity. If you don’t need all the latest bells and whistles — and more importantly, if you’re driven insane by the constant feature updates that are often more painful to install than they’re worth, give serious thought to getting a hold of LTSC. In particular, on my Mac Pro, every Windows feature update was a battle to keep it stable. The only feature I care about is that it starts up when I need it.

However, there is one (dubious) down side: LTSC does not include the Microsoft Store for getting access to apps. Lots of apps are available from alternate channels, but occasionally there’s one — like Microsoft’s To Do app — that’s only available in their app store. But don’t panic: you can still get these apps (assuming they’re free). It just takes a little more work…

Update: A reader made a comment below that provides an alternate approach — I haven’t tried it yet, but its a fantastic idea, so I’m adding it here. Thanks, Oliver!

Another option is to install the MS Store app itself. I used this scripted command on GitHub: https://github.com/channel168/LTSC-Add-MicrosoftStore#readme

Step 1 – Find the App on the Web

You’ll need a link to the app from a Microsoft website that has a “Get” button. Here’s a direct link to the Productivity section of the web-based version of the Microsoft Store:

https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/store/top-free/apps/pc?category=Productivity

The Web version of the Microsoft Store can help you download apps on LTSC
The Web version of the Microsoft Store will provide the info you need to get the app without the store

Step 2 – Copy that Link

Grab the URL from your browser’s address bar. For Microsoft To Do, it looks like this:

https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/p/microsoft-to-do-lists-tasks-reminders/9nblggh5r558

Step 3 – Extract Download Links

Paste the URL into this site: https://store.rg-adguard.net/ and hit the checkmark

Adguard's alternate app store extracts download links right in your web browser
AdGuard’s handy alternate store will tell you what packages are associated with the App you want

If all goes well, you’ll get a list of one or more packages. For To Do, there were 5 packages that I needed — but the results had almost 10 times that. Don’t worry, you won’t need them all. Start with the .Appx or .Appxbundle that looks like the app you want. Note, from the possible choices, you’ll want the latest version number, and the correct processor architecture. If you’re running 64-bit Windows, you’ll want the x64 version of the app. Download it somewhere memorable.

Step 4 – Open up Powershell

The command to install is a simple one:

Add-AppxPackage -Path "path-to-appx-you-downloaded"

When you run it, you’re likely to get a scary red error dump. Inside that message are helpful tips telling you that the app needs one of the other files from Step 3. Go get it — again paying attention to version number and processor architecture.

Powershell install errors will help you get the dependencies each App needs
The Powershell install error will tell you what dependency package to get next

Step 5 – Repeat

Run the Add-AppxPackage command on each download, then re-try Step 4. Each time it will tell you about another file it’s missing. If you’re feeling confident, you can guess ahead — but to be on the safe side, go file-by-file, grabbing exactly the one it complains about after each attempt at Step 4.

Eventually you’ll have all the dependencies installed, and the app you wanted will actually install — assuming its compatible with your version of Windows, you can now use it like normal!

I’ve got lots more ideas for keeping old systems alive — read more of them here!

Behold a pale horse

I had genuinely hoped that I could wrap up the year in blogging with this post: a plea for moderation and communication. That if we could all just agree that hiring a failed real-estate agent/reality TV star/serial woman abuser to be President was a bad idea, then we could go back to the business of comparing notes on differing opinions and trying to ride the swinging pendulum of politics forward together. I continue to hope that, once Trump is gone, our disagreements — although important — could once again take a back seat to neighborly love, and community.

My sister disagrees with me — she thinks now is not the time for moderate views. She might be right. 2020 is winding to a close, and there’s a glimmer of hope in this pandemic, but the crazy continues to ramp up. Not one, but three loving Christians, reached out to send me a link to Giuliani’s unhinged and bizarre press event as evidence that all the conspiracy theories about a stolen election were true. These followed the now-annual holiday rant from my favorite irate uncle, declaring Trump to be the end of Christianity as we know it. The crazy uncle might be closer to the truth.

Folks, Giuliani’s press event came on the heals of the Trump campaign’s most recent loss in the court of law. Every suit alleging electoral fraud that has been brought before different judges in different States has been dismissed because the Trump legal team could present no evidence. Faced with an oath to the truth, and the threat of perjury, not even Trump’s lawyers will stand behind his claims in court. A press event, though, has no oath — and no consequence for lying. When they failed to prove their case in the legal system, they decided to take it to YouTube. An aunt who I love dearly sent me that YouTube video, and when I sent back 8 links to 8 different analysis and news sources spanning the political spectrum, all fact checking the event as largely false, she blocked me on Facebook. Good Christians don’t want to hear the truth, they just want their man Trump to be right… they just want their political candidate to win.

If that’s not you, if you actually care about truth and character and the Biblical qualifications for leadership, turn off YouTube and read the details of 11/11 court case:

The court: I understand. I am asking you a specific question, and I am looking for a specific answer. Are you claiming that there is any fraud in connection with these 592 disputed ballots?
Mr. Goldstein: To my knowledge, at present, no.
The court: Are you claiming that there is any undue or improper influence up on the elector with respect to these 592 ballots?
Mr. Goldstein: To my knowledge, at present, no.

And if you’d like to accuse me of cherry picking, here’s the full transcript:

Also in PA, you can see the revised allegations here.
You’ll see that they started by claiming fraud, but when challenged by the judge for evidence, they revised the suit until there was no case at all.

When Tucker Carlson, Fox News’ most vile conservative mouthpiece, asked Sidney Powell to come on the show and present the evidence of the claims they made in their press event, her only response was to tell him to stop bothering her.
Update: Turns out her allegations were too crazy even for the Trump campaign.

In fact, the entire event crumbles under a conservative, Christian fact check.

Is it possible that there was some manipulation of votes in some counties? Sure.
Is it possible that more than 470 counties, in strategic areas, coordinated a complex plan without communicating with each other, that somehow involved Venezuelan technology, to steal an election by more than 6 million individual votes and 74 electoral college votes?
Or is it more likely that those counties were hardest hit by Trump’s complete failure to manage a pandemic, and they all decided its time to hire someone who knows what he’s doing?

Let me try my plea a different way. You can be conservative — at least 50% of us should be! You can believe in Jesus — His message is hope and love, and everyone should have a chance to meet Him. But if you equate Trump with Jesus, and Trump’s lies with conservative, Christian values, Ephesians 2:2 is for you: you are walking in the ways of this world and the spirit who is now at work in you is disobedient. You are condemned by your acceptance of lies, and you condemn your fellow believers when you endorse or expound on conspiracy theories.

I’m looking forward to going back to sporadically blogging about the kids or an old computer I fixed. I’m tired of trying to be a voice in the middle pointing out crazy on both sides of the aisle. I’m even more tired that all the crazy seems to be coming from the side that claims Jesus — and not just tired, I am ashamed. I am heart broken. Trump lost — not by much, but by enough to make clear that he is not a leader, he is not a spokesperson for the church, he is not a fit president or even a fit business person. He is an adulterer, a cheat, a liar, a selfish thief. The best thing to happen in 2020 is when he lost the election. Get over it, and start acting like Jesus told us to again.

Managing Social Media: Google

The company that started with the motto “Don’t Be Evil” has spent the last decade or so flirting with ideas that are awfully close to evil. That doesn’t mean that the organization is bad — any more than a hang nail means a human being is dying — but Google sure could use a pair of nail clippers.

When GMail first came out, I was ecstatic to get an invite. They were transparent about the trade-off at the time, and we all accepted it as reasonable: Google has automated systems that read your mail so that they can personalize advertisements to your interests. If you send an email to someone about how you burnt your toast that morning, seeing ads for toasters in the afternoon seemed fairly innocuous — even a little amusing! At the time, though, Google’s coverage of your digital life was just search results. Adding e-mail felt natural and not really that intrusive.

Fast forward to today, and what Google knows about you is downright terrifying. They don’t just know where you go on the Internet, they know where you’ve been, how often, and when you’re likely to go there again in the real world. And their influence doesn’t stop at knowledge: because of the virtual monopoly of Chrome, and its underlying tech called Chromium which powers most browser alternatives, Google has started making unilateral decisions about how the Internet should work — all in their favor, of course. They don’t like it when you’re not online, because they stop getting data about you. And it doesn’t matter if you’re not using one of their properties directly, because 70% of the 10,000 most popular Internet destinations use Google Analytics. Its actually a great product; it helps web developers understand their audience and build better offerings — and all Google wants in exchange is to know everything about you.

And let’s talk about YouTube, a virtually unavoidable Google property, full of useful content, and a site that historians might one day determine was a leading cause for the end of our democracy. YouTube is awful — and its entirely by accident. Google deflects privacy concerns by pointing out that the analysis of all this data is done by algorithms, not people. There’s probably no person at Google that actually knows how to gather all the information you’ve given them into a profile of you personally. But there doesn’t need to be: their software is sufficiently empowered to manipulate you in ways you aren’t equipped to resist.

YouTube’s recommendation algorithm has been disowned by its own creator as reckless and dangerous, and while its been tweaked since it was launched on the world like SkyNet, the evil AI from the Terminator movie franchise, and now has human over-seers to guide its machinations towards less destructive content, its still a pernicious and outsized influencer of human thought. Look no further than 2020’s rampant embrace of conspiracy theories for proof positive that recommendation engines are not our friends.

Google set out to do none of these things. I’ve been to their campus, and interviewed for jobs with their teams. To a fault, everyone I’ve met is full of idealism and optimism for the power of the Internet to empower individuals and improve society. I actually still like Google as a whole. But if the Internet is Pandora’s box, Google is the one that pried it open, and can’t quite figure out how to deal with what was inside. Humanity is not inherently good, and accelerating our lesser qualities isn’t having the positive outcome Google’s founders might have hoped for.

So, how do you throw the bath water out, but keep the baby? Can you use Google’s awesome tech, without contributing to the problems it creates? I don’t know, but here’s a few of the ideas we’re trying:

Diversify Your Information Holdings

I’ve said this before, and it bears repeating: don’t put all your eggs in the same basket. If you have a Google Mail account for work, have your personal account with another provider. If you use Google Classroom for school, use OneDrive for your private documents. If you have an Android phone, don’t put a Google Home in your bedroom. This isn’t just good security practice, preventing an attacker from gaining access to everything about you from a single hack, its good privacy practice. It limits the picture of you that any one service provider can make. Beware, though, of offerings that appear to be competitive, but are actually the same thing under the hood. The privacy browser Brave may tell a good story about how they’re protecting you, but their browser is based on Google’s Chromium, so its effectively the same as just using Google’s own browser.

Castrate the Algorithm

The YouTube recommendation engine is getting better. They’ve taken seriously the impact they’ve had, and they have smart people who care about this problem working on it. Until they get it right, though, you can install browser extensions that just turn it off altogether. You can still search YouTube for information you want, but you can avoid the dark rabbit trail that leads to increasingly extreme viewpoints. Choose carefully, because browser extensions are information collectors too — but here again, at least you’re diversifying.

Tighten the Purse Strings

Use an ad-blocker, and contribute less to their bottom line. Ad-blockers are relatively easy to use (again, reputation matters here), and available in multiple forms, from user-friendly browser extensions that can be toggled on-and-off, to nerd-friendly solutions you can run on a Raspberry Pi. We’ve eliminated about 80% of the ads we see on our home Internet by using DNS-level filtering — and its remarkably easy to do.

Do a Privacy Check Up

I’ve been involved in software development for 20 years — data really does make software better — but did you know Google will willingly relinquish older data they have on you? All you have to do is ask. Whether you’re an active Google user, in the form of an Android device or one of their enterprise offerings (like Google Classrom), or just an occasionally searcher with an account, you should take them up on this offer and crank up your privacy settings.

Search Elsewhere

Google is still pretty much the top of heap as far as search results go, but they’re far from the only game in town — and the deltas shrink daily. Bing is remarkably close in the search race, although its backed by an equally giantic corporation that is probably no more altruistic with their data acquisition, and DuckDuckGo does a decent job most of the time. Why not switch your default search engine to something other than Google, and switch back opportunistically if you can’t find what you need?

Check Who’s Watching

Just like Facebook has its fingers in most of the Internet, Google is everywhere. A service called Blacklight lets you plug in the address of your favorite website, then gives you a report on all the data collection services that website is cooperating with. The scariest ones are probably the ones you trust to give you news and information. Use RSS where possible, anonymizers, or different browsers for different purposes… which brings me to my final suggestion.

Stop Using Chrome

Oh man, I could go on for pages about how scary Google’s control over the Internet has gotten — all because of Chromium. If you’re old enough to remember all the fears about Microsoft in the 90s, this should all seem familiar. Just like the PC was Microsoft’s playground, and anyone who tried to compete was in danger of being crushed under the grinding wheel of their ambition, the world wide web has become Google’s operating system, and Chrome is the shiny Start Menu that graced every screen. Everything uses Chromium, even Apple’s browser, and Microsoft’s new Edge. It allows Google to basically dictate how the Internet should work, and while their intentions may be mostly good, the results will not be. I’m practically pleading with you: install Firefox and use it as your default browser; switch to a Chromium-based browser only when you have to.

If I sound like a paranoid old man by now, I’ve earned it. I’ve literally been working on the Internet my entire career — my first experiments in web development date back to 1996. I love this thing called the web, and generally Google has been good for it. But a democracy isn’t democratic if its ruled by dictator, and the Internet isn’t open if its entirely controlled by Google. As citizens of cyberspace, you own it to your community to help it stay healthy, and as individuals, you owe it to yourself to practice safe web surfing.