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…

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.

Some, I assume, are good people

Almost everyone, except Trump and his most loyal followers, have come to the conclusion that Biden is our next president. Regardless of where you stand politically, this is a good thing for the country — and for the rest of the planet.

I watched a video of a John McCain townhall, from what feels like a lifetime ago, where I think the Trump strategy might have been born. Ignorant people get the microphone, and make racist, bigoted statements about then-rival Obama, and Senator McCain with dignity and class, politely but firmly shuts them down, explaining that while they disagree on politics, he respects his opponent, and believes Obama to be a good family man, who is serving his country. I imagine it was moments like that where someone like Trump (or Bannon, or Conway) realized that they could appeal to a wide range of Americans by ejecting civility and playing to people’s ignorance — leaning into stupidity and legitimizing into a political platform of its own.

That’s exactly what Trump has done: he’s legitimized the worst of human behavior, and made himself a vocal champion of the ignorant thoughts that people might harbor, but previously wouldn’t dare to say out loud. The oppression of decency is over-thrown by a leader who, according to his base, might be “rough around the edges, but gets things done!”

This year’s election didn’t throw out conservative politics — nor did it halt the cancer that is over-taking that body. But it did excise a significant tumor, and gave the patient an opportunity to improve its quality of life. What remains to be dealt with, though, is the lingering odor of decay that surrounds the site: the devastating collateral damage that comes from close association with the sickness that is Trumpism; the possibly irredeemable damage to the testimony of people who claim Christ, but also claim Trump is His messenger.

I cannot, and will not, defend Trump, or the horrifying shift toward base and degrading behavior that was exhibited by his fan club. But I do have to say some things in defense of the almost-half of the country that felt compelled to vote for him…

For better or worse (and I am convinced it’s for worse), America has a two party political system. The result is an increasing series of false dichotomies that drive people inexorably into one of two camps. Are you for gun control, against babies, for gay marriage, and against religion? Then you’re a Democrat! Are you opposed to taxes, do you hate women, love God, but hate gay people? Then you’re a Republican! And if those simplifications sound stupid to you, then you must be a swing voter, and therefore a pawn in the machinations of a 24-hour news cycle that wants to sell you one of two insane world views.

And of course we all know that, but that doesn’t stop anyone from vilifying the other side. Given how reprehensible a human being Trump is, its all too easy to say “I can’t be friends with anyone who votes for Trump!” And given how extreme some left wing positions have become, its understandable that some people can be convinced that Kamala Harris (a former criminal prosecutor!) is actually a secret operative of Antifa. But labeling the other side with broad strokes obscures the fact that there are only two choices; two buckets into which all discourse, debate, thought and study, has to be sorted into.

I am for Obamacare. The country I come from has universal health care, and while its far from perfect, the fact that getting sick in Canada doesn’t carry a risk of bankruptcy is an important foundation for actual freedom! But while I think the idea has merit, the actual application here in the States has serious flaws. My car mechanic is a friend, and his health insurance went from $30 a month to $300 a month when the Obamacare mandate took effect. That’s not right — its supposed to help people, not cripple them. Unfortunately, our government can’t have a discussion about how to fix the implementation, because one side will fight to the death to keep it as is, and the other is doing everything in their power to reverse it entirely. That’s not a functioning government; that’s two toddlers in a sandbox fighting over a toy they want.

I am opposed to abortion on principle. I believe that at some point during gestation, the fetus is imbued with the image of God, a consciousness emerges, and that tiny baby is a human being that should have the same rights as the mother. But I don’t know when that point is — the Bible doesn’t clarify this, and science can’t explain why or when consciousness occurs. Up until that point, whenever it is, the mother’s rights should prevail over all other decisions. Our society was not set up to give women autonomy, and to use the law to take control over when and if a woman chooses to become a mother is to endorse a systematic rape. I don’t have a uterus, so my opinion on this matter isn’t worth much, but for whatever its worth, the morality of this issue for me hinges on a moment I don’t understand, during a process that, despite everything I learned about it while Nicole carried our three kids, still seems mysterious and miraculous. For legislators (usually old white dudes) to determine that they know exactly what is right in every situation, and can declare their opinion to be a law applicable to every woman all the time seems ludicrous, indefensible and cruel.

Two cells divide during the early stages of pregnancy. Is this the image of God? I don’t know — and I don’t think you do either…

I believe my church should have a right to perform a religious ceremony based on the teachings of our religion. In my religion, we define marriage as being between a man and a woman. We’re allowed to do that, because I’m pretty sure that’s what “freedom of religion” means. I do not believe a government should be able to redefine a religion, and force my pastor to do something he doesn’t believe. But I also do not believe that my religion is public policy — it is freely chosen by its followers, or it is not really faith! This separation of church and state goes both ways, and is fundamental to this country. But my church’s religious ceremony has nothing to say about someone else’s sense of self, or feelings of love for another. We teach our kids that love is love, that God loves everyone, and that we should never judge someone for who they are, or act in a way that belittles their journey or their feelings.

I can’t vote, but given these brief opinions on today’s hot button issues, which way would I vote? Would I vote to keep a flawed Obamacare, to progress toward late-term abortions, and for an increase in gay rights? Or would I vote to eliminate any progress toward universal healthcare, jail women who seek the protections of Roe v. Wade, and strip the rights of two dudes (or two ladies) who love each other? And if the answer is not clear, then you must have empathy for Trump voters (and for Biden voters, if you consider them equally reprehensible) because these things are not simple issues.

Some, I assume, are good people

There are some who voted for Trump because he embodies and emboldens their ignorance. They revel in the permission to act badly. But there aren’t 70 million of those people. Many millions of them exist in the gray space in which neither party represents them, and where they are forced to choose the one that seems like it might steer the nation in a direction that looks a little less confusing, and a little less uncertain. And while millions of voters may have chosen the other old white dude this year (the one whose main platform was not being Trump) they aren’t really aligned with Biden either. As a nation, 2020 has exposed some deep flaws in our structure, in our systems, and in our hearts, and we should forgive each other when we don’t agree on how to move forward — because none of us are really sure how we recover from this year…

There’s a lot of opinions out there — mine are worth less than a single vote. Its OK to disagree with each other. But if you label any opinion that is not your own as a crime against humanity, then you are a victim of this two party system. Worse, you are willingly complicit in a polarization that seeks to eliminate all discourse, all compromise, all cooperation, and drive people further apart. If you voted for Biden, make friends with a Trump voter in 2021, and walk a mile in their shoes — try to understand their fears and their vulnerabilities. If you voted for Trump, take down your stupid lawn sign, walk away from that sore loser, and buy your Biden-voting neighbor a coffee (or a beer) — find some common ground. Go forward together from there, cause if we don’t, then we all lost this election…

Winter is Coming

Monday’s headline reads “Ohio surpasses 200,000 Covid-19 cases,” while the story inside reports than 18,235 people have been hospitalized in the State, and that the median age for the infected is 41. We turned 40 this year, so that last fact is hardly comforting. It is comforting that deaths are going down – we are getting better at treating this thing. But the stats don’t really tell the whole story: this is a country where hospitalization can leave a family financially devastated. I had two very minor surgeries this year – the kind of incisions you might inflict on yourself if you accidentally sat on a pocket knife you left open. The combined bill was over $20,000. Fortunately insurance covered all but about $3000 – which we were able to manage through our HSA (Health Savings Account.) But we are hardly the norm – medical insurance remains far from universal, despite the last President’s best efforts to drag the nation into the First World.

For the two previous weeks, our county had been at the “Orange” risk level – a data-based assessment from the governor’s office, in cooperation with the State’s health department. According to the school district’s health and safety plan, this should have led to a switch to hybrid schooling – reducing the number of kids in the classroom by alternating in-person days. Instead, the county health office agreed with the school board to make no changes. On Thursday, the risk level was changed to “Red” – which, according to the same plan, should have indicated a move to fully online schooling. On the same day, the high school emailed parents about a potential (later confirmed) case, and a teacher was identified in a nearby school with a confirmed case. Two more confirmed cases followed on each subsequent day. In response, the school district held a public meeting where they explained that not only were they not going to move online schooling, they weren’t even going to implement hybrid mode; there would be no change in response to the obvious risk of infection. As explanation, they proffered that having children at home could lead to child abuse, and that kids were better off at school even with the virus. Besides that, they justified, only one family had pulled their kids out of school, so obviously no one is worried about Covid-19 anymore – why should the school district be any different?

We’re that one family. We’re the lone, crazy isolationists, crying “won’t someone please think of the children?!”
And so it goes in small-town, Trump-voting America. Reality doesn’t matter any more – individual rights are more important than your neighbor, the downtrodden, your community, or the world in which you live.

So here we are, preparing for a long winter. The odds seem evenly split over who wins this hotly contested election, but one thing is certain: the loser will not go quietly. We are unlikely to see a clear verdict on election night, and it seems increasingly likely that any ambiguity in outcome will lead to acrimony in the streets, and in the courts. A trip into our town is a journey through a forest of giant Trump signs – good people, convinced that a horrible man will have a better second term than his devastating first. Good people, so incapable of putting others before themselves that our government – alone among the G8 nations – has declared that it cannot control the pandemic (but has somehow claimed victory anyway.)

Source: Ohio.gov

We bought a chest freezer, and we’re stocking up on food. We pulled our kids out of school, and Nic has, once again, re-arranged her life around their online class schedules. We’ve started tucking away emergency supplies, like we did in March when this thing first hit. We had a few months of relative normalcy this summer, when activities were outdoors and the risk was lower, but the data already indicates that things are getting worse again – only this time, no one cares. Between pandemic fatigue, and people believing the whole thing is just a left-wing conspiracy anyway, all but us crazy folks are just going to pretend it doesn’t exist any more.

There’s a lot to be said about how the media spins a message to support one viewpoint or another: I’ve got no patience for the Left’s attacks on Amy Coney Barrett’s faith or humanity: you can disagree with her, you can certainly disagree with the rushed, hypocritical process by which her nomination was pushed through, but her judicial record and her personal life are admirable, and she doesn’t deserve the vitriol spat in her direction all month. And if I hear one more Fox News talking point about how Biden is an agent of the radical left that is going to destroy America – while the sitting President flails incompetently, accompanied by their cheers – I’m pretty sure I’ll just vomit on the spot. But it’s the ability to totally disregard inarguable data in favor of a clearly biased interpretation of events so that they align with one of two twisted ideologies that really boggles the mind.

Our plans for the holidays are now very modest – and very tentative. We can’t visit family in Canada, because Canadians know better than to open their borders. In-country air travel is statistically very safe, so if we can, we’ll visit friends in a less insane State for a big event in their lives. And we’ve jettisoned plans to go somewhere warm, because all the warm States are even crazier than ours. Instead, we hope to enjoy a couple secluded get-aways closer to home. We don’t know what the election will bring – and there’s a significant chance our long-term immigration status will be impacted by the outcome – but we do know that God is in control… even though the country that claims He is a part of it has completely forgotten how He told us to behave

Mac Classic II

I normally only post these projects in their own separate little nerdy section of the website, but this one was special, ’cause my son had the lead…

My son and his Classic Mac

The Classic II was no one’s favorite Macintosh. A compromised system architecture (a 32-bit chip throttled by a 16-bit data path) made it a poor replacement for the now-legendary SE/30, it did find itself a niche as a low cost compact computer for education. That was the history of our Classic II: purchased from a retired teacher, who’d acquired it after it was retired from a classroom.

The cosmetic condition wasn’t well-disclosed on the Facebook Marketplace listing: previous attempts to remove the permanent marker identifying it as classroom computer “#30” had resulted in stripped finish and smeared marker on the top of the computer — which had been covered by a mis-matched off-white paint. The keyboard had similar markings, although without the attempt at removal.

Cosmetics aside, the computer was also deader than advertised: “works as great today as it did 15 years ago!” bragged the listing… but powering it up did not include the happy chime (or even a sad one) and the display very slowly warmed up to a dim checkerboard pattern. Clearly this particular Mac needed some love. Given that I purchased it for only $60, and that only true fans would mourn its possible death, I decided this would be the perfect project for my son to go solo on.

I took care of the plastics, removing the paint with hot water followed by a baking soda scrub. The permanent marker mostly came off with a 50/50 mix of isopropyl and acetone. A dunk in a liquid peroxide 40v at a 20/80 mix with hot water and a few hours in the sun, and it came out looking pretty respectable — given its history.

Ben built an inventory of the through-hole capacitors on the analog board, which I double checked, and I identified most of the SMDs on the logic board. A trip to Mouser.com and a few days for shipping, and we had a box of new parts. It took the better part of two months, but after school every day Ben would de-solder 4 or 5 caps, then re-solder and mark the replacements. He did the whole analog board, with only a few touch-ups from me. One pad lifted on removing a stubborn cap, but did not break. We tested for continuity, then reinforced with hot glue.

Re-assembly is a pain on these old compact units — especially after a couple months during which we forgot exactly how it came apart! But we got it back together, ran a long extension cord to power strip in another room, crossed our fingers, and powered it on. When the circuit breaker did not trip, we peaked around the doorway and saw the screen bright and clear and booting happily from the old hard drive! At this point, I had cleaned, but we had not re-capped, the logic board, so we weren’t entirely surprised that there was still no happy chime, nor sound when triggered from the Control Panel. Off it went for another tear down.

Before starting the logic board, we practiced a hot air and solder paste technique on a junk board. While that went very smoothly in rehearsal, it did not work as well on the old Mac. The paste spread too far, and formed little bridge balls in undesirable areas. We decided to go with our more proven approach with traditional solder. Removing SMDs is nerve-wracking no matter how you do it, but I’ve had the most luck with cutting off the top and gently pulling the remains off their pins, before using heat to dispatch the remnants and clean the pads.

After taking lots of pictures, Ben patiently removed all of the old SMD caps, and replaced each with a tantalum cap. Some angles were difficult for our little lefty, and he cleverly came up with a sideways mounting approach (that I ultimately re-did with my right hand). After each grouping, we’d slide the logic board back in and re-test. After the second set, the happy chime was finally heard! Ben completed the remaining caps the next day, and he gave it a fresh OS install using my Floppy Emu — his first end-to-end restoration! Not bad for a 13-year old!

After he went to bed that night, I went to perform a few final adjustments, including the scary high-voltage tweaks to calibrate the display. As I removed the case, the insides slid unexpectedly and cracked the neck of the CRT’s vacuum tube. I was heart broken — there’s no repairing a vacuum seal! Fortunately, I have a couple spare-parts Macs in a closet, and after some advice from the nerds online, Nicole and I discovered that the CRTs can be swapped — as long as the yoke connector is (very carefully) ported over to the doner. There remains a small amount of bowing in the bottom right corner that we don’t recall having seen on previous power-ups: possibly the tube, possible that we didn’t mount the yoke connector with exact precision. Given how close we got to perfection, despite all its been through — and the risk associated with fragile high voltage electronics, we decided to call it a win.

I offered to sell the Mac and let Ben keep the profit — including about $14 worth of capacitors, the spare CRT, and about $10 to replace a missing keyboard cable, we spent less than $100 on this restoration. It could likely sell fairly quickly for $150-200 — not a bad flip for a 13-year old. But he’s opted, at least for now, to have it in his room. We don’t allow Internet-capable devices in bedrooms, but a 29 year-old Mac is fairly safe — and he’s certainly entitled to have it in a place of pride!

Note: This post is available in Portuguese at Macnarama.com

M*A*S*H

For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.
– Ephesians 6:12

This is the second post of thoughts on the responsibility of Christians in what is undoubtedly the roughest year of my life time — if you haven’t already, read part one first. We live in a rural “red” neighborhood, surrounded by Trump signs, and we really have no choice but to try to reconcile the goodness we see in our neighbors, with the man most of them want for President. Its really challenging, because by no objective measure can Trump be called a good person.

Love

Most of those we know who vote for him are not apologists — they acknowledge his faults, but maintain that his party is closest to their values. Whether those party’s values are most like Christ is debatable, but as someone who can’t vote, I can have empathy for the position they’re in. And I guess that’s where I’d like to start off:

Both sides will tell you they’re not being understood; they’ll bemoan the death of nuance in political conversation (even as their chosen leaders shout each other down). Many people from both ends of the political spectrum are capable of reasonable conversation, and of hearing the other’s viewpoint respectfully — but the national discourse obscures that rationality, the two-party system drives people to increasing polarization, and cognitive dissonance forces people to defend their choice rabidly. Mark 12:31 says “Love your neighbor as yourself” — a statement that requires you to feel for someone else; to understand their context, their fears and needs, their ideals and their goals. Empathy starts with acknowledging the validity of another’s viewpoint… even if you don’t agree with it.

Its tough for me to say this, and even tougher to do it, but for me, this means that it is counter-productive to write-off anyone with a Trump flag as an ignorant racist idiot (despite Trump’s gleeful courting of ignorant racist idiots.) Its also means that it is neither true, nor reasonable, for Christians to claim that anyone who votes for Biden is voting to kill babies. Every issue, idea and problem that a country is facing cannot be sorted into one of two buckets. And an earnest voter, forced to stack rank the issues, then choose a candidate that they hope and pray will aggregate to some over all-improvement, deserves respect, empathy and consideration.

If you’re an American and you earnestly believe that a vote for Trump has the most potential for Christ-like outcomes, this Canadian accepts you.
However, if you’re an American, driving in a Trump parade, shouting “Black Lives Don’t Matter”, then even the most enlightened person has grounds to condemn you. And that brings me to my next point.

Humility

If you have arrived at the decision that Trump is the best candidate to represent you on Christian issues, you must realize that you have chosen a man who is nothing like our Savior, that most of his personal positions are not found in the Bible, and that your rational is, at best, a matter of faith: you’re putting your faith in a deeply flawed human being on top of the faith that God’s providence will work good through that man’s sin. If you can get there, and keep your footing on that wobbly ground, then fine — but you don’t get to attack others who don’t share your belief system, haven’t rationalized this dumpster fire the same way as you, and who have legitimate complaints and fears about the outcome.

The issues on which Conservatives Christians are willing to extend themselves beyond science, politics or the general consensus are, by definition, issues of faith. Positions on how the earth was created, when life begins, how to help others find fulfillment and satisfaction in life — they can be looked at with a scientific lens, but for most of us, they’re going to boil down to what we believe. The Bible tells us that some people are not going to believe what we do, and while that sets us apart, it also gives us a responsibility — not to judge, but to love. If an omniscient God can love a sinful human, then what makes us think that we, as sinful humans, are entitled to hate other sinful humans?

Your leap of faith is not a reason to spite your neighbor. Your political party does not represent your Savior.

Reason

And finally, brothers and sisters, while we do believe there is a war going on, it is not a war against elected representatives, or your neighbor who votes for the other political party. The war is a spiritual one, and the lost are not foot soldiers for the devil — they are casualties of that war. When poor black communities cry out for justice, and your response is to condemn their sense of entitlement, you are on the wrong side of the spiritual battle. When women tell us dudes that their needs aren’t being represented in our systems, and your response is to accuse them of murder, then you are not practicing wisdom from above.

Again, this doesn’t mean that the world’s solutions are necessarily the right ones — but to shut down the conversation and brush aside all other perspectives as just being sinful, is to hypocritically claim that your faith automatically makes you right on every issue. Turns out Christians have a history of being wrong on important issues that they thought the Bible spoke to, but actually didn’t. Christians justified racism by saying black people were descended from Ham, and thus cursed — a horribly vile and sinful perspective that has caused more than a few centuries of problems. We put God-fearing but curious scientists in jail because their findings threatened our very human and very flawed understanding of Scripture…

Christianity does not grant us omniscience. It doesn’t even guarantee reason — but our Savior does call us to it.

So What is a Christian’s Role?

When I was young, my parents used to sneak off and watch a show called M*A*S*H. I didn’t know what it was about (although the theme song is permanently implanted in my brain) but my parents sure seemed to love it. As a parent now I understand they probably mostly just needed a few moments of grown-up humor, and a respite from the constant demands of young children. Recently, we started watching it ourselves — mostly for the same reasons.

The main characters in M*A*S*H are in a war — the Korean war, which continues to be a quagmire for the US even to this day. Set in a time of political upheaval, huge clashes between the American left and right, and generational tumult that largely pointed to a younger, more liberal voting block as being responsible for the moral decay of USA, M*A*S*H is interesting not because of the now-very-mild adult humor, but because of the responsibility of the main characters…

Regardless of what was happening in America, or the politics of the war, or the side a particular combatant was aligned with, when a wounded person arrived at the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, the men and women of the unit dropped what they were doing to fight for the life and dignity of that human being. Personal opinions (or shenanigans) aside, they acted in a way that recognized the Imago Dei of every fallen solider.

Christians, this is us! We are in a war — but we know how it ends! And in this war, we are not called to be soldiers, we are called to be doctors. Our love for the lost does not permit any attack on their position. Our mercy for those in need does not allow us to label someone else as “other” or to treat them un-kindly. We don’t have to agree with them, we don’t have to condone sin, but we must be willing to lay down our opinions, our preferences, our fears, our projections of guilt — because our Savior laid down His life for ours, when we were the foulest of sinners. And even then, He did not condemn us.

There was a time when Christians were famous because of our mercy. There was a time when a hospital was a Christian ministry, when the greatest centers of socialized education were Christian, when caring for the poor was understood to be a Christian vocation. If your interpretation of the Bible is that those things are not the government’s responsibility, then show the world an alternative! Show the world that Christian love puts others first.

Maybe the world would be more interested in our ideas if we took the Trump signs off our lawns, and became known in our communities as people who love and serve others again.