Sunday, May 31, 2009

Throne Improvement

You might think that the nature and quality of a toilet answers only to the purely pragmatic function of getting waste out of the building as swiftly and smell-lessly as possible. But in this, you'd be wrong. The appearance and condition of toilet parts can be as important as whether or not it flushes. A recent case in point was our upstairs toilet (the one between the changing table and the glass block wall). Here is its original condition:

Besides looking like it came from the--well, whatever decade it was that wood-grained toilet seats came into fashion--our seat had the added liabilites of seeming a little grungy on the undercarriage and beginning to deteriorate at its brass hinges. At least, they used to be brass. However, as if sickened by their position in society, the copper flanges had long ago turned green:

Now instead of metal mounting screws, plastic bolts hold the seat to the porcelain bowl. Though safe from corrosion, I don't know whether the plastic will hold up as well to the normal stresses of human weight, ups and downs. We'll see.

At worst, I'll have to replace the toilet seat every couple of years. That would be an expensive proposition, I'm sure, if we wanted to keep the natural wood grain look. However, with the help of Wallie-World and plastics, throne improvement comes at just $10 a pop.

Have a seat!


Friday, May 29, 2009

The Power of Decision

Microsoft just hired Qi Lu, super-brainiac-mastermind-guru-of-internet-searching, in order to boost its chances of getting an elbow into the market that Google dominates. Qi Lu is at the core of a new effort by MS entitled "Bing." You can check it out here.

Clicking on the "Why Bing" button, I found an introductory letter about this "Coming Soon" engine.

Another search engine? Nay! Don't call it a "search engine"--here's why, in an excerpt from that letter:
"So far in 2009, there are four and a half websites created EVERY SECOND as the web continues to expand. While more searchable information is cool, nearly half of all searches don’t result in the answer that people are seeking.

At the same time, the way the world searches is changing. You want more than just information. You want knowledge that leads to action.

The truth is you've evolved. It's time search caught up.

So we had an idea. Start over. And we did.

We took a new approach to go beyond search to build what we call a decision engine. With a powerful set of intuitive tools on top of a world class search service, Bing will help you make smarter, faster decisions. We included features that deliver the best results, presented in a more organized way to simplify key tasks and help you make important decisions faster."

Did you feel that? Did you feel the earthquake?

Probably not--the tremors have been going on for about a decade.

Bing acknowledges what we already knew: "nearly half of all searches don't result in the answer that people are seeking." In other words, Google is a firehose of internet information, and we're trying to drink from it. Or the internet is a forest, and we're scavenging for food. We want "knowledge that leads to action." I want a drink, or edible roots and berries--not the poisonous ones. Bing has unearthed--again, for the first time--the great liability of the search engine: increased access to information (or choice) does not necessarily lead to better decisions.

So we need a "decision engine." We want "smarter, faster decisions." Genius. Pure genius. Bing has hit the nail on the head.

Bing will sift your search results into logical categories (like, in the case of searching for a restaurant to patronize tonight, the categories of parking, prices, rating, and others) and display results in rankings on each page of results. Want to know where will have the best prices in San Francisco? Bing will tell you just where to go. It will search, categorize, sort, and rank, so that your search becomes a decision. Just like that.

That move from search to decision-making is one that will make us all breathe a sigh of relief. After all, I cannot count the number of times I have searched on Google, only to find I have to modify and repeat my search in order to get what I really wanted to make a decision (about, say, where to buy treehouse lumber).

The thing about hitting the nail on the head, though, is that you have to ask, Who put the nail there?

We can be clear that a Google search will show us the most popular sites that contain our keywords. But how precisely will Bing determine its categories? Will I trust that Bing's "logical" categories fit the way I think about the search at hand? If I'm looking for a restaurant that's been in that neighborhood the longest, that's family-owned, and has the friendliest staff, how will I know Bing will address those categories? Or will it always be about parking, price, and critics' ratings?

The power of a "decision engine" is that it takes the chaos of the internet search and narrows it to make choice easier. This narrowing is necessary--without it, we would never be able to choose anything. But how we narrow our choices may be as important as how quickly we choose. And who chooses the categories by which we make choices has the real power in the process of choice. By using Google, I know that my choices will be narrowed only by number of hits on a site. I get to narrow it further by searching again. More work--but more freedom. With Bing, my choices will be narrowed for me--less work for me, but taking one step closer to having the choice made for me. Isn't the fastest and easiest decision the one that is made by someone else?

Bing. Finally, I won't have to work as hard or think as much as Google makes me do. Yes, I've evolved--or maybe Bing will help me evolve. But into what? You decide--and let Bing help you.

May our decisions be not just faster and easier, but better. Who's going to promise that?


Saturday, May 23, 2009

JennyMark Tagged Me

My friend Jenny tagged me in her blog (I think this is the second time she's done this to me) so here it is:  the fourth picture from the fourth folder.

Zoysia grass plugs that Emrys planted in April.  (not that they look a whole lot different now!)

Tag- you're it (that's right, if you click and it's your blog - you're it!): 

Sunday, May 17, 2009

4 Months & New Things

Gwen had her 4 month check up on Friday and measured up to 25 1/2 inches long and 13lbs 10 oz.  She is as healthy as can be: growing and developing by leaps and bounds.  She has great control of her neck and is on her way to sitting up on her own.  

We gave her her first bits of rice cereal last night.  Once we got the consistency to her liking, she ate it up!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

There's Always Next Year

In a couple of months I hope that you'll be viewing images of robust red strawberries from our new raised bed. In order to give full credit where credit is due, I want to share a few photos from last summer, when I had the help of some friends in creating the bed. (These didn't make it into the collection last summer.)

Here's the bed measured out:

Here's Jordan trying out his skateboarding skills on a 4 x 4; I'm not sure what Sean's doing:

Here's the crew around a post hole, represented by the feet (Sean, Jordan, Matthew, and Yours Truly):


Monday, May 11, 2009

And now for something--

--completely different.



Exhaustion set into our home by about 11 am on Saturday morning. We had been out all night for Relay for Life.  G-baby was a total trooper, sleeping in her fleece-covered-car-seat in our tent. Emrys and I had both dozed a bit at different points in the night but with an abundance of over activity in the two weeks prior leading up to an all-night event, naps were in order.  3-1/2 hours for Gwen and Emrys, 2 for me.  Followed by an early bedtime and by Sunday, we were close to feeling human again.  Although, I have no complaints about the extra dose of sleep I got this morning either!

Bathroom Revolution

Our Hollywood bathroom upstairs is big enough to park an Alfa Romeo. The size of the bathrooms (on both floors) comes as a side-effect of the house's origins. In order to avoid code enforcement on new construction, the builder and owner constructed the house as an "addition" to an old outhouse, whose cinderblock footprint matches the footprint of the bathrooms. Rather than move those cinderblock walls, the owner just super-sized the bathrooms.

The porcelain throne sits between two royal glass block walls in the center of the bathroom. The glass allows the occupant of the throne to survey the whole bathroom, and even into the hallway and down the stairs to the front door if necessary. Here is the throne room as we bought it:

However, as the French discovered to their pain, royalty must give way to the next generation. In order to make room for a changing table, one of these gorgeous block walls had to come down. Here's the storming of the Bastille:

After the tearing down of the old order, the room is ready for the new:

The vacancy left is then filled with some leftover furniture from my mother's continual home turnover:

And with the one final addition of a changing pad, the dais is ready to receive the new queen of the household:

Et voila: le trone de Gwendolyn! At least until she can claim the porcelain throne for her royal behind.



Part of any child's education is the discovery of animals big and small. Gwendolyn has already, of necessity, discovered Sadie, our dog. Recently she had the opportunity to discover an animal of the larger variety: a horse named Stitch. Here she is in the spring sun, ushered to the encounter by an eager young lady who both owns the horse and is jazzed about sitting for Gwendolyn.


Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Confession of Faith

Sara gave me U2's most recent album, No Line on the Horizon, for my birthday. Before peeling back the impossible plastic around the jewel casing, I had only read a few reviews of this work. Those reviews had echoed the sentiment of one rag, which referred to "the album's ballyhooed experimentation" as "either terribly misguided or hidden underneath a wash of shameless U2-isms."
These sentiments did not dimish my excitement for receiving the album. At first listen, I found it different than all the other U2 albums I know, but also distinctively U2 (perhaps because of its "U2-isms"?). And I kept listening.

It's different enough that if I had sampled it in a music store or heard it on a website without knowing who the band was, I would not have purchased it. And precisely at the moment I realize this virtue of the album, I re-discover a truth about myself.

I trust U2.

I have such faith in U2 that I will listen to melodies, harmonies, chord progressions and electronica that otherwise would not appeal to me. I will give them a chance, and hear their story; I will come to these songs on their own terms because I trust this band.

I have heard the album through about ten or fifteen times now, and I am starting to really enjoy it. The enjoyment has only come with repetition: learning the melodies, discerning the limping meter of Moment of Surrender, and being led into the shadows of the final track. Part of the journey, too, is searching out which song on any given U2 album is the worship song. (Which one is it on No Line on the Horizon?)

It's worth sticking it out and getting to the marrow of the album, because here I discover what I have discovered about all U2 albums (even the least-received Zooropa and Pop): U2 will speak the truth about human experience. For their muddled, twisted, topsy-turvy exploration of the human condition that appeals to my generation, I trust U2. This is my confession of faith: I trust U2 to probe the nooks and crannies of the cosmos and set memory to music.

They do it differently than Metallica, Pink Floyd, or Christina Aguilera--though I think I can hear the cousin of Metallica in the first track, and the lunar shadow of Pink Floyd here and there. And it's always U2. Is that what the reviewer meant by "U2-isms": the fact that I can always seem to tell that it's Bono behind the microphone?

If so, then I'll take some U2-isms, as long as they're still dealing out something even better than the real thing: poetic chords ringing and cords singing for the depth of human experience. And I hope they're shameless. The poet ashamed of his work ought not to sing at all.



Hemlocks are the dandelions of the conifer world. They grow swiftly, like weeds, and they have the goal of taking over the world. The forest which comprises seventy-five percent of our property is more than fifty percent hemlocks.
Hemlocks are soft wood, so they can grow faster than hardwoods, but therefore a mean wind storm or lightning strike can rip one of these bad boys in half. Because eleven hemlocks had reached a height of seventy or more feet right next to our home, our roof and second story were in danger. So we called in a pro to do some tree felling. Here he is (with no top rope!) scaling our trees to prepare them for their downfall.
The hemlocks devoured the north side of our house with shade, so the difference in their absence is stunning.

What's more, hemlock needles, like all conifer needles, are acidic. Years of hemlock needles falling on the ground burns the soil and inhibits other plants from growing (part of their scheme for world domination).

Not to mention what year after year of needles do to roofs and gutters.

I had thought hemlock was junk timber, good for nothing but bonfires and battering rams.

It turns out that for barns, garages, and of course treehouses, hemlock lumber can serve quite well.

So of these ten hemlocks (and one white pine) that just came down:
About half are going to become treehouse . . .
The tree guy brings over his portable mill on May 15th. Stay tuned!



(Caution: this is an entry in which the text does not relate to the photos. The pictures were taken during the crafting of a new headboard for our bed.)

There is a strange turn of phrase in the Christian world: "substitutionary atonement." In a most basic sense, it means that the separation between the divine and the human has been overcome (atonement) by someone, namely Jesus Christ, dying instead (substitutionary) of us. This phrase has come to some level of importance in the history of the Church. Some institutions make substitutionary atonement an essential piece of orthodoxy. One institutional statement of doctrine I found recently declares that Jesus Christ "died a substitutionary death for sinners." I call this phrase strange because I'm not sure that in the redemptive saga of Jesus Christ we may actually call his death or atonement "substitutionary."
To "substitute" is to put something in someone else's place. The verb has the same sense as our prepositional pair, "instead of," in-the-stead-of, or in the place of. Something happens to one in order that the other may be spared. "Substitutionary atonement" or "substitutionary death," which usually have the same meaning in Christian circles, mean the same thing: Jesus Christ died in stead of us. Here's my problem: we still have to die. This throws a wrench into the idea of "substitution." If I am called for jury duty, and my friend says, "I'll go instead of you," and she serves, then all is well and good. But if the county informs me three days later that I still have to show up for jury duty, I'm going to tell my friend that she really didn't substitute for me.
So what's the deal? How can the death of Jesus be a substitute for my own if I still have to die? This would be enough to deal with, but there's another prong on this fork. Not only do I still have to die, but according to the gospels, I will be called to follow Jesus Christ toward the same death he died (evidenced by "take up your cross and follow me"). Not only do I still have to die, but I'm being called to death--maybe a shameful, incriminating death like his. What kind of substitution is this?
What if we play with the meaning of "death"? Is there a way in which Jesus Christ might have died that, because of his death, we don't have to follow? If we can't be spared physical death, might we be spared some other kind of death that Jesus went through?
The Apostles' Creed speaks of Jesus' "descending into hell." And most Christians who acknowledge the existence of hell would affirm that believers in Jesus don't have to go there after physical death. In fact, this has been one of the great selling points of faith in Jesus throughout the life of the Church: faith in Jesus offers us (among many other things) freedom from hell and entrance into heaven. Perhaps this is the aspect of Jesus' death which is substitutionary. He went to hell instead of us, so we don't have to go there.
All well and good; except for a testamental hiccup. It's possible to make a New Testament argument that Jesus died (or, at least, descended into hell) instead of us. However, substitutionary atonement stands on an understanding of atonement; and death for atonement rests on an Old Testament (Hebrew scriptures) understanding of sacrifice. Here's the hiccup: I cannot find where in the Old Testament the people of God are told that "this sacrifice (of an animal) is being killed in stead of you." So blood, by which atonement is made in the Hebrew scriptures, even when it is spilled in sacrifice, does not spare the people from dying. They are atoned, but death is still their lot. Is it really atonement--bringing God and humanity back together--if the Hebrews killed all those animals and still had to die?
I suspect that the Hebrew problem of sin evolved between the Old and New Testaments into the problem of sin, death, and hell; there was no hell for the Hebrews. Real substitutionary atonement would mean we wouldn't have to die anymore. (Maybe Yahweh saw the problem with effecting real substitutionary atonement as it would affect world population and already mismanaged food sources.) So Yahweh did something different: Jesus came to go with us into death.
How do you transform Death from a dead-end mine shaft into a worm-hole into another dimension? Send Life through it. But to do so, one has to get the great Fish of Abbaddon to swallow the hook of Vitality. The bait? Life that can die, otherwise known as the Incarnation. Put the ephemeral flesh on Life, and Death will swallow the pill. So in Jesus Christ, Life goes with us--like a parent putting a child on his lap for the waterslide tube--into Death.
But Death can't hold Life. It's like pouring a jug of anti-matter into . . . well, anything. A reaction must occur, a transformation must happen. Death, incapable of engendering anything new, can't foot the bill of transformation, so what happens? Life becomes New Life: Resurrection.
See what's happened? In Jesus Christ we are carried onto the great waterslide of transformation into new life. But we are carried on it; Jesus does not go through it in stead of us. Perhaps Jesus goes into hell instead of us--or perhaps when Jesus gets there, we won't mind being there with him. Who knows? At any rate, "substitutionary" may be the wrong way to describe Jesus' passage from this world. Perhaps "accompanying" would be better. Try that on, and see if it fits. (It already makes me feel better about following him into death.)
I dropped the atonement piece. So do we still have to atone? Or did Jesus do that in our stead?
"Atonement" is, quite literally, "at-one-ment," or the becoming one of two things formerly separate. This Incarnation, the Life with Flesh On It, is the coming together of the human (that which must die) and the divine (that which is Life). They are one in Jesus Christ. Which means that atonement occurs (or must have already occurred) when Flesh and Life become one. Again from the Apostles' Creed, this happens at the conception of Jesus.
The "accompanying" or participatory death of Jesus Christ is enabled by the fact that Jesus Christ is both human and divine; thus, atonement happens in him, from the moment when divine and human, formerly separate, come together. Perhaps we should move from "substitutionary atonement" to "zygotic atonement"--or perhaps that would be too nerdy.
If we view the life of Jesus Christ as atoning, and his death as accompanying ours, then the call to die the death that he dies (taking up the cross) becomes clearer and more frightening. After all, if Jesus' death was something more than a dramatic re-enactment of animal sacrifice using a human body, then we must attend the other factors surrounding his death. If before his birth Jesus had atoned for human sin, then why did he die?
He died because the human machine of society and politics didn't want him, and viewed him as a threat. He was assassinated not because the priests recognized he was a sacrifice needed to appease Yahweh, but because he threatened our version of Yahweh. Yes, Jesus died for our sins, but because of our sins rather than to atone for our sins. Yahweh atoned for our sins in Jesus first, then the world said, Up yours, God! Go to hell!

Of course, we're Christian because that didn't work.
Jesus joined us in order to transform death from a pit into a wormhole. But if we join Jesus we're going to be killed--in whatever sense that verb is most terrifying for us--and probably at the hands of the people whose approval we usually seek. And to receive the atonement that does not substitute but accompanies us, we must also accompany the Life who died. I suppose now that Death swallowed the hook the remaining question is: Will we jump through the wormhole?