Book 3 of 15 - Blue Like Jazz

I'm on a serious book-reading roll this month. I promise I'm calming down now, because, well, the next book on my plate is The System of the World...

After my mom saw that I was reading Jesus For President last fall, she thought I might like this one by Donald Miller, the sub-title of which is Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. The authors of Jesus for President footnote Blue Like Jazz a couple of times, so I was already familiar with the book by reference.

I have a hard time deciding which one I like better, to be completely honest. On the one hand, Jesus For President was a hard-hitting look at Christian discipleship in a time when we find ourselves pulled more and more toward secular positions. It made me feel a bit bad about times in which I should have been a better follower of Christ, and guilt can be a powerful motivator!

On the other hand, Blue Like Jazz makes me feel a little more normal about feeling bad. Miller is a fantastic personal story teller, and his insights into his own spiritual growth are engaging, enlightening and motivating. One of the underlying themes is learning to love (God, others, yourself), which Miller introduces as being like learning to appreciate Jazz music – he didn't like Jazz until he saw someone playing soulfully with their eyes closed, and then he loved Jazz. Being able to accept the forgiveness and grace that comes with salvation and a personal relationship with Christ is parallel to loving yourself (and everyone else).

He also spends a good amount of time recalling events from when he was auditing some classes at Reed College. I have an extended member of the family who went to Reed, and I'm now suddenly very interested in asking him about some of the more sordid events which supposedly take place there. I don't want details, mind you, but an additional perspective would be fascinating.

There's one story that sticks with me after turning the 181st page: Miller was part of a small group of Christians at Reed (a certain minority on one of the most secular campuses in the country). During the annual Renn Fayre celebration, the group put up a "confession booth" in the middle of the campus. Rather than accepting confessions, which was likely to cement them as the negative stereotype many viewed them to be, they did the confessing. They confessed their sins, the sins of the church and of Christians at large. They moved people and were changed by the simple experience of saying things like "Christ tells us to feed the poor, and I know I haven't done the best job of that." and "Christ said to love your neighbor, and I've certainly had a bad attitude when I'm woken up by loud noises from next door.", etc. This sounds like such a profound experience.

Now that I've thought about it a little more (ok, the span of a few paragraphs), I did like Blue Like Jazz more. A little, anyway.

Jan 29th, 2010

Book 2 of 15 - The Reluctant Fundamentalist

This was on sale for about two bucks in the discount bin at Barnes and Noble. It looks interesting. And short.

It was both of those things. This could easily be the end of my post, but I actually liked the book...

At 181 pages, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is an incredibly quick read. Mohsin Hamid pens this tale in the first-person, speaking to an unidentified individual (who we are led to believe is a journalist) at a cafe in Lahore, Pakistan. This story of a young Pakistani coming to America and finding both academic and professional success only to reject it all and return home within five years is quite compelling. It's not thrilling, and I make this point singularly because one of the praise notes on the cover is one that makes this book out to be some amazing work of thriller fiction, when in reality it's not all that suspenseful. In fact, most of "the next page" is fairly obvious, even if it is an interesting story.

Hamid expertly weaves the theme of "fundamentals" throughout the book, and I have to believe that this was the purpose behind the title, using the oft-spoken phrase "Islamic Fundamentalism" as a mental trigger to engage the reader. In fact, there is almost no presence of said fundamentalism in this book, save the last dozen or so pages. Instead, the narrator experiences different aspects of fundamentals throughout this story: the life of an immigrant in America, the academic talents which propelled him into the business world, the business acumen which gave him professional success, love with a woman who was fundamentally unavailable to him, and then the return home to his family in Pakistan.

I really liked this $2 discount book, and I felt a bit insulted for the author that Barnes and Noble was practically willing to give it away.

Jan 18th, 2010

Book 1 of 15 - Virtual Light

This month has already started out as a fantastic reading month. Whether by choice or by circumstance, I've found 20-80 minutes almost every day to keep up on whatever I'm reading at the time. (This post is late by an entire book - I'll post about The Reluctant Fundamentalist later.)

I've been meaning to read the rest of William Gibson's books for a while now. Having read several a few Christmases ago, I've been nearly as hooked on his writing as on that of Neal Stephenson. Admittedly, Gibson's books are shorter, easier reads. They're also not quite as compelling. Win some, lose some, I suppose.

Virtual Light begins the Bridge trilogy, a trio of stories set around what has become of the Bay Bridge between Oakland and San Francisco, California. The environment, a more anarchistic version of our present, set "in the future" of 2004, is somewhat like the reality of Gibson's Sprawl trilogy. It is different enough, however, to separate the literary works into distinct macrocosms.

The book is excellent, though not quite as dweeby as some of his earlier stuff. I've gotten the impression while reading each of Gibson's books that he started out writing Cyberpunk and has been trending towards Conspiracy Thriller ever since. I don't dislike the trend overall, even if I found his first books more interesting. I'll have to pick up the next two in the series soon to keep the momentum going.

Jan 17th, 2010

The Book-A-Month (Plus) for 2010

A semi-repeat from last year, when I aimed to read one book per month, I've set a goal for 2010 to read fifteen books, which seems/feels a tad ambitious. These are the first eight in my pile for the year:

Virtual Light by William Gibson

I have another goal to read all of William Gibson's books, and this one is next. Thought I'd kick the year off with it and pick up the next two in the Bridge trilogy later on in the year.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Moshin Hamid

This was on sale for about two bucks in the discount bin at Barnes and Noble. It looks interesting. And short.

Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller

After my mom saw that I was reading Jesus For President this fall, she thought I might like this one as well. (Shane and Chris footnote this book a couple of times as well.) Looks like another thought-provoking read.

The System of the World by Neal Stephenson

I read the first volume, Quicksilver, in 2008. I read the second, The Confusion, in 2009. I have several trips coming up in February and March during which I'm certain I can polish off the bulk of this tome. I mean, it's only 928 pages...

Getting Back To Even by Jim Cramer

My brother-in-law got two copies for Christmas and gave me one. I like free books, and a free book that intends to help you save money seems like a sweet deal, right?

Anathem by Neal Stephenson

I have been forcing myself to wait to read Anathem until I completed The Baroque Cycle. I should be ready to attempt yet another magnificent Stephenson volume by this Summer.

The Fifth Vial by Michael Palmer

My wife read this one a year or so ago and thought I'd like it. Might as well actually read it this year.

A Skeleton in God's Closet by Paul Maier

See previous statement, but substitute "a year or so" with "several years ago". Beyond the second and third members of the Bridge trilogy, I'll need to find myself another five books to read this year. This probably will present little difficulty. Actually getting through all of them will be hard enough!

Jan 9th, 2010

Book-A-Month - December 2009 (#2)

Two books in a week... had last January started this way, I would have been done with my 2009 reading by Valentine's Day with room to spare. Sadly, not all books are as quick and interesting as Tom Brown's The Wormwood Archive. Tom is a local (to my in-laws) author writing a set of structured criticisms of his home church's rise to megachurch standing. This would probably be boring on its own, but Tom follows C.S. Lewis' epistolary style, and pens his thoughts as letters by or to Wormwood, as found in The Screwtape Letters.

Tom's church underwent a transformation into a megachurch over the course of a few years. The transformation seems to have followed the methods produced by the Willow Creek Association, shifting its focus from its traditional, family-focused roots toward more contemporary, performance-driven styles of worship aimed at younger, more casaul seekers. Tom's criticisms certainly are not the first of Willow Creek and their methods, but his hit a bit closer to home, having lived through the transition as a lay leader in a once happy, family-like congregation. Since Willow Creek's admission a couple of years ago that they might have done it wrong, the criticisms seem more poignant.

To me, however, Tom's criticisms of his fictionalized self are the most interesting part of the book. He characterizes his own weaknesses as possible in-roads for negative persuasion by "Wormwood" and his minions. This level of honesty and objectivity, while criticizing what has been your faith home for so many years, cannot have been the most trivial of tasks. There is a strong sense of humility, even within such an obviously critical work.

Overall, this was an excellent book, and even if you haven't read The Screwtape Letters, it's quite a good read.

Jan 1st, 2010

It's Electric!

When my wife and I bought our home, we knew that at some point, there would be semi-serious things we'd want to change about it. The yard, for instance, was a huge sore spot. If you followed me on twitter last spring, you'd know that the initial work we did involved tilling, which really sucked, and that was only for the first 1000 square feet. Of an acre.

Yeah. We hired people with really, really big machines to clear the rest.

Anyway, having (thankfully) already passed that milestone, the attention turned to the kitchen. Our stove is of normal size, but it's primary burner is flaky to the point of useless, it has a huge exhaust fan that sticks out too far and too low. The oven has but a single rack, and no matter who I ask, there seem to be no replacement racks. So, guess what we're replacing first? Yes, that's right: The dishwasher.

Er, no, wait. The stove. Right, the stove.

The existing stove is on a 40A/240V, 2-pole circuit. This is about as normal as you can get for an electric range, though I seriously doubt we ever pull more than 20-25 Amps, save maybe when pre-heating the oven to broil. The new stove, of course, needs a 50 Amp circuit. I know enough about electrical wiring to know that I can probably pull off replacing the breaker myself. Buying the right one, on the other hand, well that's another story.

My electrical panel is a standard-size Siemens panel for a 200 Amp service. I even have a couple of empty breaker bays for expansion, should I need to do so. I figured, Siemens is a well-known brand, there have to be breakers for it at Lowe's, except that I was wrong. I phoned the family electric guru and it was suggested that I buy a Square-D breaker. It should fit.

I love the word "should". See, the breaker does fit, but it violates electric code to mis-match your breaker. (Nice corner on the market each of these electrical companies have, you see.) While I don't really care all that much about electric code when it comes to something that isn't actually risky, I do care when it comes to selling my house some day. I'd prefer to not do this twice.

All of my existing breakers are either Westinghouse or Siemens. Turns out that Siemens AG licensed or something-ed their residential power generation business to Westinghouse Electric at some point, and in 1994, Westinghouse sold its electrical controls business to Eaton, who markets their home products under the name Cutler-Hammer. Which is only sold at Home Depot.

All of this, by the way, is the real reason that people spend money on electricians. Not the danger, mind you, just to avoid standing in the electrical aisle looking like an idiot until a random electrician walks by and says "You're in the wrong store. Go to Home Depot." and then runs away before the Lowe's employees catch him.

I wrote this about two months ago and completely forgot about it. Oops. Since then, we've done way more to this kitchen than I had originally intended at the time. I'm certain that a future buyer will be very happy with the choices we've made, but really what I care about now is that the WAF is very high.

Dec 30th, 2009

Selling Jobs? I'm Not Buying!

I wrote this several months ago after a particularly annoying set of calls with a “recruiter” from a local staffing firm. At the time, I was helping another team in my division interview candidates for a Senior Developer with exceptionally strong JavaScript skills. In one particular month, the same recruiter called me four or five times, each time using a different name from the same “services” firm. It is entirely possible that he actually was someone new each time, but each call sounded the same to me. Every time my response was nearly identical:

I don’t make financial decisions related to hiring, so I’m not in a position to hear about recruiting services, nor do I have any interest, but thank you anyway.

Each time, he kept talking.

Dude. I know you’re just doing your job, but you’re doing it wrong.

As a hiring manager, I have a strong personal distaste for recruiting firms and staffing agencies. I know that sometimes, these services are necessary in order to find the right candidate for a specialized position, to find a short-term whiz to save the day on a tough project, etc. I have nothing against recruiting companies that are working for me. I am, of course, notably complacent when it comes to the one time I needed a staffing firm in order to find gainful employment. That experience was incredibly painless, having met a representative from the firm at a job fair and starting work the next week.

No, this sort of experience has nothing to do with what ails me. Instead, my beef has to do with the cold calls from folks I’ll refer to as Job Sales Engineers, or JSEs for short. I absolutely will not paint them with the same brush as I do the recruiters I work with on a more regular basis inside of my company for the primary reason that the technical recruiters in the office are pretty darn good, and it would do them a serious disservice to be categorized in such a way.

So, Rant on:

Read on
Dec 29th, 2009

Book-A-Month - December 2009

I’ve been working on Jesus For President since early October, having received it for my birthday a couple of weeks beforehand from my dad. My initial impression was something along the lines of “wow, this book sure looks cool!”, and while that impression surely stuck for the next few hundred pages, it was merely a sub-text for a book filled with in-your-face analyses of Judeo-Christian history and sharp challenges as to what true discipleship means as a follower of Christ.

The authors, Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, walk through the socio-political history of God’s Word(s) from Genesis to Revelation, and use it as a framework for discussing discipleship in the present tense. I spent much of the book thinking I’d approached parts of my life woefully backwards, and other parts of the book thinking “this is what I was raised to think - why does it feel so new?”.

Shane and Chris spin an excellent yarn here, and I’d strongly recommend it to anyone who is interested in digging deeper into their walk with/for Christ. There is a lot more to say about this book, but my words would not do it justice. I do think, however, that I may read it again in a few months as a refresher.

Dec 26th, 2009

Book-A-Month - November 2009

I'm perilously behind on my goal of reading a book a month this year. This one almost feels like a cop-out, but really, I read (almost all the way) through this entire 200 page book in an afternoon over Thanksgiving weekend. Admittedly, I skipped a chapter that I couldn't care less about, but we'll count it anyway.

Jay Rossier's Living With Chickens gives a great overview on raising these creatures, be they for food (meat), food (eggs) or fun (as pets). I can't imagine folks keeping them as pets, but as I start to think more and more about living sustainably, I feel a draw towards raising a small flock for a regular supply of eggs. I even looked at some interesting coop designs over at Backyard Chickens. It looks like fun to raise chickens!

On the other hand, it also looks like a TON of work. I have a toddler. Gosh, that's enough work by itself, and I'm in the office 50+ hours per week! Maybe the chickens will wait a few years.

I'm 3/4 of the way through the book I really should be posting about, Jesus For President, which my dad sent me for my birthday this year. I'll probably write way too much about it when the time comes, so until then...

Dec 13th, 2009

50 Cent on Connecting With Your Audience

The public is never wrong. When people don’t respond to what you do, they’re telling you something loud and clear. You’re just not listening.

50 Cent

As silly as this might sound, this is from a really great post over at copyblogger.

Dec 1st, 2009