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Christianity and America

In case you did not know, I am a Christian. Until recently, I went to church every Sunday. (In case you’re reading this from the future, in this part of 2020 there’s a “novel Coronavirus” keeping us away from large group events like church and sports, so I have been watching a church service online.) I generally don’t feel the need to talk about my Christian beliefs. I don’t consider myself a leader of the Christian world and I don’t often feel like I have a good handle on the details. But occasionally I publish my opinions online, especially in times where I feel like have something to contribute or can offer a perspective not often given.

Photo of the interior of a Roman Catholic Church, with an ornate cross above an altar in the center surrounded by beautiful columns and topped with an arched roof

Why did I feel the need to express my opinion? For 20 years now, I have been living away from my parents’ home and in a big city. I went to college and have been working for 15+ years. I’ve also been using the Internet and social media to listen to lots of different types of voices from around the world ever since I got my own e-mail account in about 1996. I’ve also been following mainstream media and, to some extent, mainstream entertainment/pop culture, and I have seen some trends that disturb me and also do not coincide with my experiences.

These are some things I believe Christianity stands for that various political parties support or oppose:

  • Love your neighbor and the world. Take care of this world that God gave us. Treat your neighbor as you would yourself. Treat your enemies with love, even. Help out those less fortunate. And your neighbor is every person, even your enemies, no matter their beliefs or skin color, among many other differences.
  • Life should be preserved if at all possible. This includes unborn babies, murderers, and those who would like to end their own life. Also, I’d say that war is very rarely justifiable if at all, but in the past, I thought it was justified sometimes because I was angry.

Those are two really broad areas of belief. Christians across the country and world vary widely on how they interpret the relative importance and the method of making these things happen. But my main point is that I don’t believe that either party in America represents these perfectly—at least the way I interpret and prioritize them. I do not think Christianity as an institution should be political anyway. Individuals are free to be political if they want, though. Until about 60 years ago, Christianity was not tied to a major political party like it is now, if I’ve done my history research correctly.

In fact, one of the tenets of the United States of America is religious freedom. I think it’s a very important part of our democracy. Most of the original founders came to America for the ability to worship or not worship as they pleased. It seems like many Christians in America today believe that Christianity and their nation should have the same values—for many, it feels like that is what they had once upon a time. I believe that America was never a Christian nation and the fact they feel it once was is some misplaced nostalgia. As Christians, we should instead fight to our keep religious freedom. For if we try too hard to make American values align with Christian values, we run the risk of losing religious freedom completely.

In today’s America, Christianity is mostly known to non-Christians by the pronouncements of Christian leaders, many of which today are closely aligned with one political party. Or they have a personal experience of being a part of a Christian church and being told what they have to believe and have left because they cannot reconcile that with their personal values. But at least in the churches I’ve been to all my life and among my friends, there are a wide variety of political ideologies and personal values. Many of the most highly-regarded Christian leaders do not talk about politics in America regularly. They don’t endorse candidates. The churches these leaders run are filled with people from both parties. Not too surprisingly, though, the fringes of American Christianity are the most vocal and their views get covered a lot more in the media.

I think American Christianity’s close association with politics is giving a bad impression of what Christianity is to the un-churched. The average American may think I must belong to a certain party and that all Christians do follow that party’s values and leaders. I honestly am scared to tell my co-workers that I am a Christian because they will think I hate them the way the most vocal Christian leaders of today revile them and their beliefs. I don’t want to hide the fact that I am a Christian but I do not want anyone to think I identify with the politics that is pretty much synonymous with Christianity in America today. I honestly do not believe that any one party is necessarily bad, but this close affiliation makes it very hard for persons who are aligned with other parties to respect Christians.

With the wide variation in interpretation of what it means to be a Christian, do we agree on everything? No, but we agree on the major beliefs and try to have a civil discussion about the disagreements, if possible. Ideally, we can put aside our disagreements from time to time and work together to make the world a better place. I think that’s the best course of action in this time when America is so divided. When I get a note from a friend who sees things differently, I sometimes get a bit angry at first. “Obviously I’m right and they’re wrong!” But then I hopefully stop myself and decide I need to think and pray about this more before responding angrily. I need to mull over whether they had a point and if I need to change my mind and heart.

When someone responds in a way you don’t expect or disagree with, do not assume they are worse than you or somehow uneducated in the “right way”. Step back, take a moment, and try to have a discussion. Ask them why they say that. Listen to their stories of their life experiences. We all have different personal histories and that is what makes America the beautiful land it is. And we have to learn from our neighbors if we are going to make America even better, no matter how our beliefs or political leanings differ.

Personal Internet Security Basics MinneBar 14

Here is a PDF of the slides from the presentation:

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Minnebar Launching Your Site Presentation

Below are my slides for the "3...2...1... Launching Your Site" at Minnebar 12 on March 25, 2017.

Thanks to all who attended and get back to me if you have any questions, comments or feedback. I'd love to hear it.

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Come to MinneBar 11!

The Twin Cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul) technology community is a vibrant place to be. One of my favorite events of the year is coming up in three weeks, the 11th annual MinneBar un-conference. If you are at all a member of the technology community, sign up for a free ticket and join us for a day of learning, sharing ideas and networking. Did I mention there's free food and beer?

The local version on the BarCamp network, MinneBar is one of the largest BarCamp events in the nation. This year, as it has been for the last 6 years, MinneBar is held at the Best Buy Campus in Richfield, MN. Fifty minute sessions are held throughout training classrooms and an auditorium on the campus while the cafeteria is used for free breakfast, lunch and beer after the day's sessions. That's right, stay fed and hydrated while you are learning for free, thanks to the event's sponsors. (Thanks to Best Buy for hosting the space.)

What kinds of sessions will be taking place throughout the day? Well, right now anyone can propose something in the MinneBar Session Picker and others can vote that they will attend the session. The best sessions will get put on the schedule that goes out a few days before the event. As you can see, sessions may be presentations, panel discussions, or even just meetups or discussions among the community members that attend. The topics can vary, from technology topics such as hardware, software, web services, or more to how technology imp\acts the community or even the business side of technology and the local technology and venture capital market. As a PHP web developer, personally, I don't find many of the sessions impact my everyday professional work, but it's great to be curious and learn about other parts of the business and other ideas that local peers are working on. And everyone is there to learn and share knowledge, so feel free to ask questions and discuss ideas as it seems appropriate. Minnebar is also a great chance to see other developers that are local but I do not often see.

How do you attend this event? The tickets are free, but there are some hoops to go through to get them. Sign up for the Minne* E-mail List to be notified of details, but at precisely 7pm on Wednesday, April 6 and 2pm on Thursday, April 12, about 500-600 tickets each will be released on their EventBrite registration page. I recommend you be signed into your EventBrite account and reloading the page to get a ticket, because these tickets usually get snatched up in 5-10 minutes. So set your calendar and you can get a ticket! It's free and just takes a bit of scheduling.

Thanks to the Minne* sponsors and organizers, and I'm looking forward to attending my eighth MinneBar on Saturday, April 23rd!

Why You Should Watch "Person of Interest"

Note: The following article contains mild spoilers about the television show "Person of Interest". The spoilers only reveal much of what is fleshed out in the pilot and the first few episodes as well as the general direction the show goes over it's run so far. If you are averse to spoilers, then suffice it to say that I think you should at least watch the first half of the first season to get a good feel for the show.

Photo of Reese and Finch at a bank of computer screens

I watched the first 10 minutes of "Person of Interest"'s pilot on live TV back in 2011. I turned it off. The show started with a man in bed with his girlfriend. Then he was drinking in the subway. He beat up a few street kids. I figured it was an origin story of an all-to-predictable CBS cop show. But six months later, friends online were raving about the show. It wasn't until September 2012 when it was on DVD that I was able to give it a second look and found that the remaining 33 minutes of the pilot (and the ensuing seasons) proved me wrong. "Person of Interest" is now my favorite show on television.

Yes, the show does start as a twist on the usual cop show format. Mr. Finch (Michael Emerson, "Lost") has built a surveillance machine, and it gives him social security numbers. He investigates the person to find if they are a murderer or a victim. He needs Mr. Reese (Jim Caviezel, The Passion of the Christ and The Thin Red Line), an ex-military, ex-CIA operative to work things out in the field. Their goal is to help people, if they can figure out what is going on in time. A classic TV mystery.

As an aside, one reason I enjoy "Person of Interest" is it's style. Cuts between scenes show the inner workings of the surveillance machine, all the mundane traffic and security cameras that make up it's data. Backstory is given via The Machine's audio and video clips as well. Most scenes are given a very cinematic but realistic look that makes it look great but also gives the feeling that this could be actually happening. The best part, though, is that the show is shot on the streets of New York City, which looks and feels much more grounded in reality than any Hollywood backlot. The location crews find great, real places on and off the streets and it's hard to tell where the real world end and the set dressing begins. And finally, there's plenty of action. Mr. Reese is not trying to kill the bad guys, but he knows how to stop them in their tracks with a well placed punch, bullet, grenade, shoulder cannon or being T-boned by a truck.

Shot of The Machine's data overlaid on a traffic cam

But while you watch the first season's mysteries, you find that something else is going on along with the "person of the week". What is the nature of The Machine that Mr. Finch built? Why did he build it? What is his background? Also, a hard-working cop (Taraji P. Henson, "Empire" and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) wants to apprehend these do-gooders that are rounding up the bad guys and leaving before she can talk to them. Another cop is working with Mr. Reese to figure out these mysteries even though he doesn't know where the "person of interest" comes from. And they start running into various forces within the city, from corrupt cops to mobsters and even some groups more technologically inclined. So while the show has a weekly format, there is great character development and a storyline that flows through the seasons.

The show also has a science fiction undertone as well. Not that it takes place in a whole different world, but it takes place in a world where the surveillance state is heightened. While today's government organizations likely are able to monitor lots of data, there's no way they can process all of it in real-time. The Machine can process all surveillance data and predict where bad actors may pop up. But also, The Machine starts showing signs of being somewhat of an artificial intelligence. "Person of Interest" explores the consequences of surveillance and an AI having some say in what happens in the future. What does an artificial intelligence think of the humans that created it? What would happen if it ran the world? These ideas are being explored more and more in the 3rd and 4th season. Becaiuse of this, less and less episodes are the mystery of the week but instead are a more serialized storyline.

Photo of Mr. Finch looking up at a surveillance camera

"Person of Interest" has been my favorite show on all of TV since I started watching in 2012. It was not the mystery of the week that really drew me to the show, although that draws some, but it was the bigger story that built over the first season that got me hooked and made it my favorite show on television. These themes continued to expand throughout the next three seasons. I thought the latter half of the fourth season was a little weak, but I hope for a return to form in the fifth and potentially final season. But hey, if you watch the four seasons this fall and then watch on TV or CBS.com this winter, hopefully "Person of Interest" will continue to create great characters, riveting action and speculate on the effects of tomorrow's technology for a few more years. I sure hope it does.

"Person of Interest" seasons 1-3 are now available on Netflix streaming in the US. I also have them on Blu-Ray and DVD if you want to borrow them. I have season 4 on Blu-Ray as well, as well as season 4 comes to Netflix on September 22. Also, starting September 3rd, check out my favorite new network TV show of the 2014-2015 season on Netflix—it's called "Madam Secretary".

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Introduction to Web Accessibility Slides

In an hour or so I will be giving this presentation at Twin Cities DrupalCamp 2015. I am no expert at Web Accessibility, at least not yet, but I wanted to share what I have learned.

2 + 2 = 5 Shirt

The return of the T-shirt posts! This is a shirt I've had for a year or two and, like some of the other geeky, math-related shirts I have, they get lots of response. Sadly, most comment that the shirt is wrong because they do not understand the match concept, but a small minority of knowledgeable folks know the details and quietly and calmly say they like the shirt. Here's a bad photo of it:

2 + 2 = 5 Shirt

The shirt says "2 + 2 = 5" in big yellow chalkboard-style lettering with smaller text of "For extremely large values of 2" beneath in smaller letters on the front The black shirt has nothing on the back. The shirt was given to me as a Christmas gift from my sister and brother-in-law, if I remember correctly. (Good math fans to pick that one out.) The shirt was then available from ThinkGeek.

What this means to me is that math is somewhat relative. Usually, "2" is assumed to be an integer, but in math, "2" could be representative for any number, such as "2.3" or "6.0". And, more importantly, as a programmer, after a bit of programming with numbers you learn that math is hard. In many languages, how the data is stored and represented during processing can make the math not work as expected. For example, if you add integer "2" to decimal "2.6", the language may just automatically convert the decimal to an integer by lopping off the decimal part, so the answer may be the integer 4. To get an accurate result, you may have to force the integer to become a decimal "2.0" and then you'll get a decimal result, "4.6", from an add operation. So, to me, it shows that math is not as simple or straightforward as you think it may be.

Incidentally, all employees behind the counter at the Highland St. Paul Chipotle this afternoon were adamant that this shirt was completely wrong and one was even disturbed that someone would not agree it is wrong. I, as usual, just smiled and said it's a confusing math joke.

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Building SEO-Friendly Sites with Drupal Slides

Today I gave a session at Twin Cities DrupalCamp 2014 called Building SEO-Friendly Sites with Drupal. Attached here is a PDF of the project slides. Thanks to all who came out to the session.

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"Grace Is An Ocean" T-Shirt

The T-shirt blog posts are back! This photo is definitely not very flattering, mostly because the shirt text is down the side of the shirt. But the content makes up for it. It's a maroon shirt with text written down the right side in a serif font.

Photo of a maroon shirt with 'If Grace Is An Ocean We're All Sinking' printed on it.

This is one of my newest shirts. The words "If Grace is an Ocean We're All Sinking" is a line from a song titled "How He Loves". Although the song was made popular by the now defunct David Crowder Band, the song was originally written and performed by John Mark McMillan. McMillan is a man that loves to make rock music that is still somewhat worshipful. Here's the song's full lyrics:

He is jealous for me
Loves like a hurricane
I am a tree
Bending beneath
The weight of his wind and mercy
When all of a sudden
I am unaware of these
Afflictions eclipsed by glory
And I realize how beautiful you are
And how great your affections are for me

Oh how he loves us so
Oh how he loves us
How he loves us so

Yeah he loves us
Oh how he loves us
Oh how he loves us
Oh how he loves

We are his portion
And he is our prize
Drawn to redemption by the grace in his eyes
If grace is an ocean we’re all sinking
So heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss
And my heart burns violently inside of my chest
I don’t have time to maintain these regrets
When I think about the way

That he loves us
Oh how he loves us
Oh how he loves us
Oh how he loves

You can hear one of John Mark McMillan's recordings of the song at his website. It's good stuff. Very raw and rock 'n' roll but also worshipful.

I got the shirt as a bonus for donating money to his campaign to create a new album. It was successful, and I have to say that "Borderland", the resulting album, is his best yet. Plus it's got cool, gutsy artwork. If you like the sound, you should certainly grab a copy.

Borderland CD Cover

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The iPad & the Birth of Digital Publishing

First, a personal note about the iPad. For me, as I explained in my post about why I don't want an iPad, the new, thinner, lighter iPad mini is probably the only iPad I am interested in buying. This is because it is lighter, thinner, and, as Apple is quick to point out, easier to hold in one hand and easier to hold up without getting your arm tired. However, as a person who is in front of my computer at any time when at home and is happy with my iPhone as a traveling companion, I still cannot find a reason I need to buy an iPad. Between my iPhone and my MacBook Pro, there's nothing I really want to do that makes me think, "I need an iPad." The only reason I might want an iPad is for digital magazines, and that is my main topic for today.

The publishing industry is scared. They know that someday, no one will buy their newspapers and paper-based magazines. The world of paper books will probably live on longer in a niche market, much like music on vinyl still exists. In fact, many are not buying these paper magazine/newspaper versions anymore and instead just visiting the publication's website for their content. But I don't think the end of paper is coming nearly as quickly as these companies are thinking. No, this prediction has nothing to do with the apocalypse like the TV show "Revolution" or the movie "The Book of Eli". But I firmly believe there are some conveniences of paper publications that are still not solved digitally. Until these hurdles are overcome, paper will still be more universal and preferred.

The biggest problems is that publishers need to make reading ubiquitous. Amazon.com has done the best of this so far. I can read my Kindle books on my computer, on my iPhone, and on my Kindle itself. There's maybe a limit of devices i can load some content on, but I've never run into it. It just works, and it works everywhere. But magazine/newspaper publishers have a long way to go in this area. One of my favorite magazines was Paste Magazine, which had to stop printing a year or two ago. Shortly after that, they announced a weekly e-magazine available on their website for a couple bucks a month, and I've purchased it. But honestly, I haven't really read it much I'm just not sitting at my computer at home thinking, "I want to read about music and movies right now." I mostly read Paste in print while on long car trips or airplane flights, among other places, and I really cannot do that with the Paste mPlayer product right now. Heck, their product (last I checked) doesn't really work on my iPhone for reading either. However, they have announced they plan to have an iPhone and iPad app sometime in the future, which promises more great reading time.

Another favorite small magazine publisher of mine is Relevant Magazine. They are still committed to printing a magazine, which I love. I still subscribe and do read them. But now they also allow me to read them on their website if I log into my account, and I appreciate that. Their new website is very well-designed as well--it's amazing how it feels like a magazine, almost, with colorful graphics, enlarged blurbs from the article, and multimedia in the margins. It's one of the best publishing websites I've seen so far (much like The Verge, which I will accuse them of plagiarizing a bit). Relevant does offer a beautiful iPad app, I'm told, but since I don't have an iPad, I may never experience it. Still, though, I should be able to read Relevant everywhere. I'd read it more if they had an iPhone app in addition to the iPhone app. I'd read the articles on my Kindle if it didn't cost more and was an available option. Yes, I know, in these formats I would not get as much of the fancy graphics, the meticulous layouts, and the experience of reading a glossy, full-color magazine printing, but is that so terrible? In the end, I want to read the content, and for the most part, it is about the content, not the presentation. Don't get me wrong: the presentation is great, where available. But I would rather be able to read the words anywhere and be aware that I am missing a bit of the experience instead of not reading at all.

Another problem with digital distribution is the reader's lack of rights. If I get a paper version, I can meticulously save them on my shelf for reading whenever I want. I can easily borrow them to a friend. I can even give them to my kids, if they do not fall apart by then. I own these books. These days, when you purchase digital books, you do not own them. You are given a license to read them that can easily revoked by the seller or the publisher. You get much less rights than with a paper book or magazine. A couple weeks ago, a woman's account from Amazon was deleted and she was not told why. Most likely, she violated some parts of the terms of service, but still, she may have spent hundreds of dollars on electronic goods that she no longer had access to and very little recourse to getting her books back. The printed word does not come with a 20-page legal agreement attached--it just comes with a copyright and that's about it.

Digital distributors like Amazon have done a lot to mitigate these problems. I can read my books on numerous devices, and Amazon keeps track of where I am at on one device and lets me pick up from that spot on another device. They even have a mechanism for me to lend a book to a friend's Kindle account for a preset amount of time. You can also borrow books from the worldwide Kindle pool at your local library for a specified amount of time. But, again, all of these are subject to the agreements of Amazon.com and the publishers, so you may find some of this not working from time to time. That said, I love my Kindle. There's no other easy way to carry around dozens of books in one small, lightweight package that can easily be tossed into my backpack.

Within the last month the publication Newsweek announced they would stop printing a magazine at the end of this year. Many smaller publishers have started distributing digitally first and then printing a book copy months later for the die-hard fans. I think these are signs of the times, and digital distribution is so much cheaper. But at this point, paper is still just as convenient and comes with more rights. Will Newsweek lose readers when they stop printing? For sure. Will they have a viable business in the e-publishing world? Only time will tell. But I think that digital publishers need to make their content much more available everywhere digital goods are sold in order to gain the widest audience, not just on the iPad or Kindle store. In the end, the product available everywhere will make the most money. It is a problem of building the infrastructure and standards to enable that availability.

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