Radical Reformation, or the Anabaptists

I recently came across a great, informative and interestingly-taught sermon series that provides a brief intro to my strand of the Christian Church, the Anabaptists. The Radical Reformation happened in the era of the Protestant Reformation, and the “Anabaptists”, or “re-baptizers” (so branded by other Christians) frequently found themselves tortured, drowned, burned, and otherwise killed or imprisoned by Catholics and Protestants alike. The pastor is Bruxy Cavey, of a Brethren in Christ church in Canada.

Two notes in advance:

  • The sermons are given with the expectation that further processing will happen in “home church” groups, with notes provided to aid discussion.
  • Don’t look at the notes before you listen to the sermons. That’s not what they’re for, and the sermons provide significant context. Just don’t.

The series

  • Radical Reformation #1 – Anabaptists & Us (audio, notes): “This episode kicks off our discussion of Anabaptist beliefs and behaviours with a magical mystery whirlwind tour of the history of the Radical Reformation.”
  • Radical Reformation #2 – Anabaptists & Scripture (audio, notes): “Anabaptists didn’t follow the Bible. They followed Jesus. And that’s why they studied the Bible.”
  • Radical Reformation #3 – Anabaptists & Church (audio, notes): “The Radical Reformers saw the church, not as an institution, but as a family. And that opened the door for more participation from all ages, stages, and statuses.”
  • Radical Reformation #4 – Anabaptists & Peace (audio, notes): “Anabaptists have always rejected the way of violence in favour of Jesus’ way of peace… except when they haven’t. This week we discuss the Munster Rebellion and other Anabaptist failures.”
  • Radical Reformation #5 – Anabaptists & Mission (audio, notes): “How did Anabaptists go from early evangelistic zeal to living in isolationist communities in the country? This week we address this and other challenging questions.”

As with anything, don’t consider posting to be unqualified endorsement or concurrence–but the series is worth your time.

Reflections welcome in blog comments. Or probably welcome. I reserve the right to play the “get off my lawn” card–or, since posts are moderated, to bar the gate. 🙂

Playing Your Own Music In The Cloud

If you don’t know me, my career has been in computer software. I started programming in my pre-teens, took a college programming class at 13, binary-edited executables in DOS for fun, etc.

I think I’m becoming a Luddite.

The cloud is great. Keep all your documents, all your photos, all your data on the cloud. Access it from anywhere. And don’t even worry about what you own–stream video from Netflix or Amazon, music from Spotify or its competitors, and gain access to the world’s library of media!

But you want to put your own music on the cloud? Woe to thee, for thou hast entered The Dead Zone! Amazon used to run a music locker. As did the “legitimate” side of that pirate site whose name I can’t remember. As did a number of others–most of which have folded. Google Music offers some storage, but if you want to set it up on all your family’s devices…woe to thee, for darkness, despair, and error messages await!

All of this is a long path to saying–doubleTwist’s CloudPlayer app is wonderful, a secret I discovered after spending far too many hours trying to solve a simple problem. Basically: put your MP3s in the cloud. Probably on a Google Drive account that you set up on all of the devices that your family uses. And then, install CloudPlayer, and point it to them. It will take a bit of time, but it will index your files, let you view them by album, artist, and all the other usual attributes (even storage location), show you album covers…and let you play them. Simply. Just like any music player. From anywhere with an Internet connection. Exactly as easy to set up and use as a cloud-music solution should be. The link above is to the ad-supported version–but buy the Pro version. They deserve some money for building this.

If you have other great solutions to this problem, I’d be glad to hear about them. I’m unlikely to use them, though, if they involve installing a server on my laptop or setting up a Raspberry Pi or a Linux box somewhere on my home network–or even renting a virtual server to install my personal media server.

The Singer

Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.

G. K. Chesterton, “Tremendous Trifles”.

I recently stumbled upon a book that was on my parents’ shelves as I grew up: The Singer Trilogy:  The Mythic Retelling of the Story of the New Testament, by Calvin Miller. It’s an allegory of Christianity, written by a Southern Baptist, published in 1975 . Veeerry promising, right?

Actually, the book’s beautiful: a classic that seems undeservedly forgotten. There are parts, admittedly, that make me wince a bit, for one reason or another–and I haven’t even finished the trilogy in my current reading (the last one was in my teen years or earlier). But Miller knows the language of myth*, the power of story. In transposing into poetry and an alternate Earth the stories that have come to us from Palestine and the Roman Empire a couple of millennia ago, he brings alive the stories followers of Jesus believe: echoing them, reflecting them, illuminating them from new angles.

For a follower of the Singer, one who echoes the ancient star-song, there’s determination, there’s weariness, there’s grimness and tragedy, there’s death. But there’s awe, there’s warm affection, there’s meaning, there’s transcendence. In his allegory, Miller seems to catch, and to play for his readers, some true phrases from the song heard when “the morning stars sang together, and all the angels/[sons of God] shouted for joy”.

I found the audiobook a terrific way to experience this telling. Print would presumably be decent as well (Kindle seems less than optimal), but audio is superb.

* Regarding “myth”: the word as used here refers to the foundational stories by which a group of people define themselves. It includes nothing of the often-assumed “false story” connotation. See Wikipedia for an intro to the subject.

Embracing Advent

Pater noster qui es in caelis, sanctificetur nomen tuum. Adveniat regnum tuum…

“Our father in heaven, may your name be honored. May your kingdom come…”

We’re entering the season of Advent, a reminder of a world waiting in anticipation, in desperation. Our world was, and is, one that waits for the coming–for the “advent” of a Savior, for the coming of a reign of light, of peace, of justice, of joy.

As far as I can remember, I didn’t grow up experiencing the “church season” of Advent; my closest encounter was an Advent calendar, with cardboard doors we opened each day as Christmas approached. I’m now in the process of learning to embrace the season, as ritual, as commemoration, as anticipation. I thought I’d share a few resources I’ve come across; explore as you wish.

  • I expect the daily-office and liturgical resources in my “Inner space” post to begin engaging Advent-related scripture in this season, part of the magic of a lectionary.
  • The Jesuits in Ireland apparently produce print versions of their resources. An Advent-specific prayer book for 2017-2018 is available here (and, of course, for Kindle).
  • I recently stumbled upon the intriguing Rookie Anglican site. They have a print-ready PDF (using the Anglican Church in North America’s lectionary, not the Revised Common Lectionary) of a booklet of daily offices for the Advent season.
  • Last year, Pray As You Go produced a lovely series of articles on the “O Antiphons”, the ancient worship meditations that have come to us as “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”. They produced an audio “Advent retreat” to go with it, available on SoundCloud.
  • Forward Movement, from the Episcopal Church, provides another option for the daily offices–together with a nice (paid) Android app.
  • If you’re thus inclined, MennoMedia produces two prayer books as well, for the seasons of the church year. You’ll need the corresponding hymnals. The prayers are also available on Google Play. I may be wrong, but my impression is that they don’t include as deep a cycle of Scripture as I’d wish.
  • And…dive down the rabbit hole of lovely resources that Sarah Bessey has provided here.

Efficiency and resilience

I stood on the sidelines recently of a Facebook debate over online shopping vs. buying locally. The thing is, I sympathize with both sides of the debate–but I think both are incomplete. Two of the biggest considerations are efficiency of a system and resiliency of a system. Other effects, harder to quantify or predict but real nonetheless, matter as well–but let’s stay primarily with efficiency and resilience.

First, let’s consider efficiency. A few questions worth asking include what efficiency means, whether (or in what cases) it’s good, and what tradeoffs it includes.

To be efficient is to accomplish a goal with a minimal investment of resources: time, money, energy, labor, or whatever you consider. Thus, to say a system is “efficient” is always to say that it is efficient in accomplishing [some effect or product]while minimizing the use of [some input], in [a specific environment].  Efficient use of one resource often involves the use of other resources or the introduction of other costs. For example, inter-state travel takes less time than it did in the era of the Oregon Trail, but at the cost of natural resources (petroleum fuel), environmental quality (pollution, paved roads), and even social capital within local communities. The system is designed to work “well” in an environment where energy is relatively inexpensive.

(A disclaimer here: a lot of this article blurs the lines between efficiency as described above and efficacy, the simple act of getting things done without reference to the particular costs. I think it’s a fair “blurring” for our purposes, but it is a blurring.)

Efficiency is in itself amoral, but its goals, costs, and benefits are matters of ethics. The Third Reich, of course, was quite efficient in achieving its deadly goals, which we see as evil. Adam Smith and Henry Ford, in valuing specialization, made manufacture of material goods more efficient (and thus more broadly available), with a culture of “artisanship” a casualty, and substantial changes to societal organization. Facebook and Google are increasingly efficient at targeting ads, again re-distributing influence and power. In farming, capital allows ultra-efficient production of crops with respect to human labor–which in turn empties rural communities into cities across the world. Efficiency may be evil, it may be good, but it’s often mixed.

An “efficient” system is generally efficient in a specific environment. Examples abound from various contexts:

  • Darwin’s revelations about finches arose from their varied beaks, each adapted to the particular food sources available to it.
  • Artificial-intelligence systems gain “intelligence” through training. If you train a system to identify butterfly species by showing it many thousands of images of butterflies, it will probably get better and better at making such identifications.
  • Borrowing to invest in real estate, in an era of increasing real-estate prices, is efficient. It makes money, with minimal research required. The same is true for stocks.
  • In the era leading up to the American Civil War, the North became efficient in its use of human labor, substituting capital. The South, with abundant slave labor, was “efficient” in producing a lot of cotton (and money) with little technological capital.
  • For the average 20-year-old, major health insurance is an “inefficient” expenditure–they’ll probably not need it, and if they don’t need it it’s an unnecessary drag on their financial future.

Efficiency usually comes from specialization, a particular emphasis on some areas and de-emphasis of others. When contexts change, though, “efficient” systems often don’t handle the changes well.

  • A finch with a fine beak that’s terrific at drilling into cactus fruits will suffer if the cactus population falls to disease.
  • If your AI butterfly-ID system has been trained on entomological specimens, it might conclude that anything that doesn’t have pin in it with its wings wide open isn’t a butterfly.
  • Leveraged investments in real estate worked well, until they didn’t. You know how 2008 worked out.
  • In the American Civil War, it turned out that manufacturing capacity mattered a whole lot more in a conflict than did cotton production.
  • For the 20-year-old without health insurance, a major health problem can quickly turn “efficiency” into financial disaster.

Higher levels of efficiency often go with higher levels of fragility. We can tune a system to run really, really well (however we define that) in a given environment–but our environment keeps on changing. It’s worth something to reduce the likelihood that a system will crash and burn–in other words, to invest in resilience.

Warren Buffett noted years ago that his first rule of investment is to “never lose money”. He noted as well that any number multiplied by zero is zero–and he has amply demonstrated a willingness to pass over “great investment opportunities” that offer too high a risk of going to zero.

Resilience has value. It even has monetary value, as demonstrated in the insurance, the options, and the futures markets. But the value of resilience goes beyond that–resilience in political systems and social capital has value of its own, even if it’s hard to quantify or monetize. And resilience, over the long term, is essential to maintaining whatever sorts of efficiency a society wants.

Efficiency has value as well, if its goals are good and its trade-offs are understood and reasonable. And a society that’s “efficient” in offering material, spiritual, social, and psychological “goods” will likely be good at achieving resilience as well.

What does this mean for the Amazon-versus-local-shopping debate? You decide. I don’t have comprehensive answers. I do have a few assorted thoughts, though:

  • I love the empowerment and efficiency that Amazon gives me (along with other online stores), and the fact that everything is available.
  • I love the accessibility of local stores, the chances for people to engage the public in their own right rather than as part of a large corporate system, and the chances for multifaceted personal connection as the same people interact in business, in community organizations, schools, and worship communities, as neighbors…and overall, as people rather than as economic units. I’m willing to pay a “tax” to keep this community thriving.
  • Amazon isn’t evil. Amazon is far from an unmitigated good.
  • Local shopping offers much good. It’s far from perfect.
  • We need to keep on engaging this issue on all sides.
    • Local stores can’t stagnate, or they’re complicit in their own deaths. (I went looking for ways to purchase online–or even browse–stuff from Hutchinson-area stores, and came up basically empty. Bluebird Books, with their online presence built on a national platform for independent bookstores, was the shining exception.)
    • On the consumer side, a constant search for the bottom dollar will make it really difficult for local businesses to succeed, with real losses to a community.
    • As utopian as the idea may seem, the online-shopping giants would do well to figure out how to partner with local communities and businesses, rather than just “disrupting” them.

Your thoughts?

 

Inner space

I live in a world different from the one I was born into, in a a vibrant, bursting-at-the-seams Asian megacity. On my way to work, I weave my way among buses and motorcycles in a cacophony of horns and pollution, or I negotiate a rickshaw fare and let someone else take me.

As fulfilling as life in an “adopted” world can be, it takes a lot of energy–especially for a strong introvert without a lot of energy to spare. As I’ve moved into this life, I’ve increasingly found the importance of building an inner scaffold, a connection with meaning, rest, and contemplation. In this post, I’m mentioning just a few of the tools I’ve found useful:

  • The daily offices from The Trinity Mission offer a daily way to engage with the spiritual aspect of existence. I didn’t grow up in a liturgical tradition, but have found the offices to be deeply nourishing. I love the ancient hymns, the well-considered prayers, the Psalmic worship and the simple, matter-of-fact presentation of portions of Scriptural text. And even more, I love the sense of participation with a Church that transcends time and space. It’s also been interesting to find the beautiful Orthodox chanted settings of some of these hymns.
  • It’s been occasional thus far, but engagement with the Ignatian spiritual practices has been quite enriching as well. Sacred Space is a lovely text-based guide through prayer and engagement with a Scriptural text; 3-Minute Retreats offers brief guided prayers around short excerpts of Scripture; Pray As You Go does the same in audio, with lovely contemplative music. Each of these comes in website or in app flavors. The Ignatian Examen is a practice I haven’t yet explored substantially, but one that looks valuable. (Note that for this non-Catholic, the occasional Marian-leaning meditation doesn’t do much for me, but they actually seem comparatively rare.) Pray As You Go also offers some audio retreats and archives on Soundcloud.
  • In a more secular vein, the Headspace app offers an education in building inner quietness. Each guided meditation offers a short experience of quietness, while over time building the tools and reflexes to live from a position of cognitive and emotional calmness.

Why Kids Should Code

I came across a nice article from Tufts offering a good argument that kids should learn how to code

Coding can be a playground that allows children to become producers, and not merely consumers, of technology
[…]
The playground approach to coding moves the conversation beyond the traditional view of coding as a technical skill. Coding is a literacy. As such, it invites new ways of thinking and carries the ability to produce an artifact detached from its creator, with its own meaning.

Book: The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way

I just finished a wonderful book, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, by Amanda Ripley–a book on education with endorsements from both Michelle Rhee and Randi Weingarten! Ripley tells a good story both fun to read and meaningful, pursuing a question: why do kids in some education systems rock in international academic comparisons, while others (such as the USA)…well…don’t? In chasing her answer, she follows several American exchange students to Finland, Korea, and Poland, exploring the people and environments (schools, friends, teachers, education leaders) surrounding them both in their exchange countries and in the US.

Ripley offers some thoughts, extrapolating from this anecdotal exploration, that resonate. The common thread in top-achieving countries is high expectations for students, a.k.a. “rigor”. Several of the ideas Ripley explores, especially in fleshing out what “rigor” means in practice:

  • A high-school graduation test that really means something for a person’s future.
  • Uniform expectations of student performance, at least up to a certain level. Especially in the Finnish system, language or family weaknesses or learning difficulties are generally met with extra support in meeting the universal expectations, rather than with lower expectations–a substantial contrast with the U.S. system.
  • High expectations of teachers, with high autonomy, respect, and effectiveness as a consequence. Finland sets a really high standard for who gets to become a teacher, and they’re quite effective. The country’s system went through a fairly painful transition to emphasizing rigor in education and selection of teachers, with a lot of stipulations about how to teach. As the value of rigor became entrenched for both students and the educational system, though, policy moved toward giving a lot of autonomy, though with accountability for outcomes. Interestingly, there’s also a fair amount of autonomy given to kids (esp. high-school kids, in this book) for figuring out how to use their time responsibly. The basic academic expectations make a difference.
  • South Korea offers a different example as described in her book, of students who study at sub-par schools from 8 AM to till late evening, and then go to private tuition until 10 for “real” study. The market forces a fairly high level of effectiveness and customer service on the private teachers–but in a way that’s both inefficient and inequitable for society overall.
  • Letting kids fail early, in school where the stakes are low, is a lot kinder than letting them fail later, when they can’t get a manufacturing job because it requires substantial thinking and communication skills that they haven’t learned.
  • Most of the kinds of ways American parents get involved with schools don’t improve educational outcomes. The ways parents can make a difference at school? Read to your young kids, “coach” your kids with warmth and firmness. (See also Brain Rules for Baby for more on the “warm and firm/strict” parenting style, the most “successful” among styles.)
  • And, surely this isn’t news–but tying sports with schools harms education. It’s not that sports are bad, and physical activity is certainly good. It’s just that sports programs add a priority to schools that’s completely unrelated to academics, divert energy and finances, and make it more unlikely that a school system will excel in preparing its kids for life.
  • Common Core is one effort to limit the “system loss” in kids’ learning as kids move from place to place or from teacher to teacher–e.g., if you know every kid in your class has learned fractions, there’s no need to cover them again for those who haven’t, boring and wasting the time of the many kids who’ve covered them several times already! Multiply this by many times for many subjects, and you have a substantial contributor to the weakness of American schools.

As a homeschooled kid who had a great experience*, I’d encourage my friends to consider homeschooling their own kids, especially if they value education. In fact, it seems as though intentional homeschooling can offer one, particularly intensive, way for parents to be “involved in education” in the very ways that Ripley identifies as beneficial. But on a national level, I’m quite aware of the importance of a thriving public (or otherwise broadly accessible) school system, both for national competitiveness and for social equity. I would be thrilled to see both the country of my birth and the country of my residence learn from successful systems around the world–a movement that does involve changes at the top, but also involves a lot of awareness at the grassroots.

Read the book. It’s an engaging, “human” read, and thought-provoking. The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, by Amanda Ripley.

* Re. “a great experience”, it wasn’t just that it was nice. It was. I have great memories of reading book upon book upon book for pleasure, of opening the hydrant out back and digging out “river systems”, of various other encounters with “real life” when other kids were sitting in school. But from quite early on, I can’t ever recall testing below the 99th percentile in standardized tests. That had its own cost in inviting a fixed mindset, but I don’t think I have any reason to be embarrassed by the academic excellence of my education at home through elementary and high school.

Audible kids’ sale: ages 8-10

Some interesting books from Audible’s sale through 27 Nov 2017 on hundreds of children’s audiobooks–this time for kids 8-10 years old. (A similar post for kids 5-7 is here.) It’s primarily highlighting some interesting books for my friends; your mileage may vary. Likely omitting many great books, and including some garbage.

  • Gaiman’s Coraline. Creepy/surreal fantasy.
  • American Girl books. From what I’ve hard, some good lessons for kids. Also perhaps leaning fairly white/Euro.
  • Brandon Sanderson’s Alcatrez vs. the Evil Librarians books. I love most of Sanderson’s work, but have never felt that much interest in these.
  • Amos Fortune, Free Man.
  • Anastasia Krupnik
  • L. M. Montgomery. I have a Y chromosome. I liked Montgomery’s Anne books and the related ones. You have a problem with that?
  • The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. Church culture meets the kids who actually find the stuff worth finding.
  • Birmingham, 1963. Reluctant to get this in audiobook; seems almost certain to be much better in print.
  • Bridge to Terabithia
  • Brighty of the Grand Canyon
  • Caddie Woodlawn
  • “Chasing Freedom: The Life Journeys of Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony, Inspired by Historical Facts”. Pleasant, short-ish intro to two remarkable women and their places in history.
  • Crispin books by Avi. These look like intriguing stories–though I’ll probably pursue them in print when the girls are a bit older.
  • Crow Call by Lois Lowry
  • The Door in the Wall
  • Eight Cousins / Louisa May Alcott
  • Esperanza Rising – Mexican workers/California/Great Depression
  • Louise Erdrich / The Birchbark House and The Game of Silence. The first two of a four-book sequence featuring a young Ojibwe girl. The other side of the Little House on the Prairie era.
  • Jean Craighead George. Just get these. Julie of the Wolves, Julie’s Wolf Pack, My Side of the Mountain. I have fond memories of George’s books. As I recall, my young perceptions were that she doesn’t shy away from tension or sadness (especially in the Julie books)–but writes wonderfully.
  • The Magician’s Nephew / C. S. Lewis
  • Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. Nostalgic memories of this book.
  • My Life With The Chimpanzees / Jane Goodall.
  • Never Forgotten, of a kidnapped boy sold as a slave, looks good…but I suspect much better in print.
  • Passage to Freedom/Baseball Saved Us – Japanese kids in American internment camps learn to play baseball; a Japanese ambassador disobeys orders to save Jewish lives in 1940 Lithuania.
  • Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes.
  • A Girl Named Disaster – intriguing-looking Zimbabwe/Mozambique story
  • Rascal, by Sterling North. Wonderful classic.
  • Rifles for Watie. US civil war hist. fiction.
  • Sarah, Plain and Tall. Classic.
  • Sea Star / Marguerite Henry. One of her many horse stories; her most well-known is Misty of Chincoteague.
  • The Skeleton Tree – two kids have to work together to survive in the Alaskan wilderness.
  • Sounder. Sad, but classic for good reason.
  • Stella by Starlight. Racism themes.
  • Strawberry Girl / Lenski
  • Sugar / Jewell Parker Rhodes. Looks interesting, though I’m unfamiliar w/ the author. African-American girl on sugar plantation finds herself intrigued by Chinese workers there.
  • Treasures of the Snow / Patricia St. John. Tale of forgiveness.
  • Unbound: a family flees slavery to freedom in the Dismal Swamp. A “novel in verse”. Looks interesting.
  • The Watsons Go to Birmingham: 1963: looks like an interesting book. Per the blurb and reviews–lots of humor…and the Birmingham 1963 bombing.
  • “Who Was…” series. Biographies are a lovely approach to history.

Chromebook School: Learning to Code

I believe my kids’ lives will be better if they learn at least the basics of computer programming. They’ll learn a logical way of thinking, learn patterns of analysis and synthesis, and gain an ability that adds value in a wide variety of careers. I’m not alone in this belief.

Fortunately, a lot of budget-friendly, kid-friendly options are available for learning to code. Here, I’m listing just a few, most of them available for a “Chromebook School” environment:

  • One fun offline option: ThinkFun’s Robot Turtles board game, an introduction to basic programming concepts, where kids tell the adults what to do. 🙂
  • codeSpark Academy with The Foos (USD 8/mo, ages 4-9). Apparently based on the Scratch visual programming language. It looks like a very “cute”, fun approach to learning basic coding concepts.
  • LightBot Jr (ages 4-8, USD 3) and Lightbot (ages 9+) use visual tiles to “program” an on-screen robot to turn on various lights, learning programming concepts along the way.
  • Scratch Jr (free, ages 5-7) is a free, visual programming-language environment for young kids to play in; Scratch is its fun, but more textual, big brother. This has been the inspiration for a number of other apps.
  • Khan Academy (free, ages 8+) includes quite a number of courses. Their “hour of code” projects are listed here.
  • CodeCombat (free/USD 10 depending on options) is, I think, oriented more toward older kids, and those with a competitive streak–but looks intriguing as well.
  • For kids who’ve “caught the bug” of programming, check out the post The Coding Game (Dewdney’s book, long out of print, should still be awesome!), or Project Euler for a simple, no-frills series of exercises. Or check out CodeWars for a environment with some “pizzazz” that offers coding exercises as “katas”,  or HackerRank for yet another community and set of pre-made challenges.
  • Check out other resources at Code.org. Or here. Or here.
  • I haven’t even started to talk about “real-world” robotics. For now, Google it.