Wizard’s Heir–free for the next five days

Glencairck

For the next five days, June 27 to July 1, the first book in Gwydion’s story is free on Amazon.

Wizard's Heir, by Michael A. Hooten
Free from June 27 to July 1

Gwydion ap Don is a talented harpist, and a known rogue. But his Uncle Math sees something more: a young man with the magical talent to succeed him as Lord Gwynedd. But to learn magic, Gwydion will also have to learn self-control, duty, honor, and the martial arts. He’s not sure which will be the hardest. And when his training in magic begins in earnest, his whole world will change, as well as how he sees himself.

Based on the ancient Welsh myths from the Mabinogion, but set in the world of Cricket’s Song, this new series looks at one of the three great bards of Glencairck, Gwydion. But long before he became a great bard, he had to learn how…

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Believing in something outside yourself is hard work

Since my last post, the woman who has been calling for LDS women to become priests has been excommunicated.  The church did not publish the announcement, she did, and even though it shows that her church leaders have been working with her officially since at least December of last year, she has been obstinate in her path.  Good for her, and I wish her well, but the freedom of association works both ways: any organization who feels that one of its members is working to undermine it declared principles is free to revoke that person’s membership.

But in wondering how to approach the subject, since it tends to be somewhat outside the average American’s understanding (the doctrine isn’t hard to follow, its just that most Americans don’t even realize that the LDS church can and does excommunicate people), I came across this article:

Religion shouldn’t be this hard.

An assembly that exists to help people shouldn’t be so willing to hurt people — by declaring them worthless, unacceptable, undesirable or strangers at the gate.

An assembly that should relax into the serenity of God’s unconditional love shouldn’t be so filled with hatred and fear.

An assembly that should do what Jesus did shouldn’t be so inwardly focused, so determined to be right, so eager for comfort, so fearful of failing.

An assembly that follows an itinerant rabbi shouldn’t be chasing permanence, stability and property.

An assembly whose call is to oneness and to serving the least shouldn’t be perpetuating hierarchies of power and systems of preference.

Faith should be difficult, yes, because it inevitably entails self-sacrifice and renewal. Life, too, is difficult. Dealing with Mammon is difficult. Speaking truth to power is difficult. Confronting our own weakness and capacity for sin is difficult.

It bothered me, and it took me a while to understand why.  He first says that Religion should not be hard, then explains failings of institutions of religion, then affirms that personal belief can indeed be challenging.  I’m sorry, but my understanding of religion is that it is personal first, and then organized.  Of course religion is difficult; we have to deny the selfish impulse, learn to think and care for others, and then work at putting our beliefs into practice in a world that does not often respect or reward those who do.

He says that religion shouldn’t be hard, and then proceeds to show why it is hard: because human beings have a natural tendency to gather together in groups that have similar beliefs, but without constantly working at practicing those beliefs, the gatherings tend to become corrupt, excluding some harshly, responding angrily to criticism, seeking after monetary or social gain instead of working together for the common good.

This article offends me because he paints every church with this broad brush, says that all assemblies suffer these problems, that any organization that professes to be religious in nature will suffer these issues.  And I call foul.

Any large institution can be faulted at some point for failing to live up to its ideals, but this applies to corporations, governments, and home owners associations as well as churches.  You don’t get a free pass to apply your critique solely to church organizations because you have “36 years of serving churches as a pastor and consultant”.  If anything, that kind of experience should allow you to understand that men will always turn to evil in any setting unless actively fighting the impulse.  It should show you that even bad men can repent of their bad choices and make good choices, affecting not just their lives, but the lives of many around them.

And you should have seen that for every person who changes for the better, a dozen more change for the worse, because that is the easy path.

Never forget that the itinerant rabbi drove people away from the Holy Temple.  That He healed, forgave, and then commanded: go forth and sin no more.  That His teachings, though full of love and acceptance, also affirmed that no imperfect creature could return to God.  And the church He belonged to cast Him out and had Him killed, and yet even when He overcame death, He never denounced that church, that religion, and had His disciples remain faithful members even as they tried to improve it.

Evil works very hard to defeat good.  We have to work harder to defeat Evil.  And this applies not just to our institutions, but to our own hearts most of all.

Religion was never meant to be easy.  It has all the forces of hell arrayed against it.

I don’t have to change for anyone

There is an assumption in America that we are individuals, capable of self-determination, and protected by the Constitution from being forced into betraying our deeply held beliefs.  I’m beginning to wonder if this is true.

Part of the American experiment is the melting pot, that we can come together and get along, and work side by side.  I think it used to be understood that this meant that the Dutch, the Irish, and the Italians could work together in an office or factory without regard to where they came from, and then go home at night to their own neighborhoods.  The Italians didn’t force the Dutch to accept Catholicism, the Dutch didn’t force the Italians to become Protestant, and both sides let the Irish fight it out amongst themselves.  In other words, professional integration, but personal segregation.  I can work with you, and you with me, but we respect each other’s lifestyles, religion, personal philosophy, etc. Not agree with, mind you; there is nothing that says that the Italians, Dutch, and Irish had to always like or get along with each other.  It’s just that in America, we didn’t start with ancestry, religion, skin color, or language.  What mattered was can I be your friend and you mine, despite our differences?

Because in addition to our personal culture, we had a civic culture as well.  We told stories about what it meant to be American without mentioning background or belief, and that was okay.  None of the Founding Fathers had the exact same theological understandings, and were of many different backgrounds, educations, and experiences.  They came together to work out how they could make such diversity workable, not to meld it into a cultural hegemony.

This is why even though I understand with what the infamous Vox Day says about multicultural diversity being untenable for long, I think that he is wrong.  What makes America unique, and successful, is allowing everyone the freedom to have personal individuality as long as they support a civic culture that is more homogeneous.  Where he is right is that some cultures refuse to be subservient in the public square (or professional arena) so that all can have personal freedom.

And that is where we are today.  The leaders in our media and entertainment industries have certain beliefs, and if you disagree with them, well, you must be wrong.  And very possibly evil.  Certainly not worthy of having your own rationality for why you believe what you believe.  They have looked at the alternatives, chosen the correct path, and you are expected to fall in line.  It’s the only conceivable option.  And they have plenty of ways to make you feel pressure to conform.

But conformity was never the American ideal.  We were not founded with the idea that we should all hold the same beliefs.  We were founded with the understanding that our laws would protect the ability of the individual to choose their own beliefs, as long as this did not cause harm to others.  And this means real harm, not just have your feelings hurt.

I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints–a Mormon.  We believe that only men are allowed, by God, to hold the priesthood.  There is a group that believes that women should hold the priesthood as well, because that is fair.  Their idea of social equality cannot, and should not, trump my religious belief.  In fact, the proper response, if they believe that there is a theological reason to let women hold the priesthood, is to form their own church.  And if they claim divine revelation for doing so, all the better.  But their insistence that I change my belief because it goes against their belief doesn’t help either of us.  Believe what you want.  Don’t force it on me, and above all, don’t think I have to change because you have polls, and popular culture, and celebrities, and political leaders on your side.  It doesn’t matter.  And if it does, then I claim God to be on my side, and I win.

Oh, that isn’t fair?  As the Grandfather in The Princess Bride says:

http://www.hark.com/clips/gfvnzryvdh-life-isnt-fair

It is not fair that women are sexually mutilated in some cultures.  It’s not fair some of the richest men in the world come from countries that have high populations of abjectly poor people.  It’s not fair that most great Western art comes from Europe.  It’s not fair that the Amish have to do without most modern technology.  Oh, wait, that last one is a choice of the Amish themselves?  And I could choose to live that way if I wanted to?

You don’t say.

You’ll notice that even though my church claims divine authority, so does every other major church.  It’s one of those church things, I guess.  And you don’t see the Pope demanding that we stop allowing bishops to marry, or the Baptists demanding that we stop baptizing people.  They may want those things, they may try and convince me of those things, but in the end they let me choose for myself.

I’m sure Ordain Women thinks that they are just trying to convince people that they are right, too.  And they are.  In that sense, I have no problem with them.  I have also known good Mormons who have shopped on Sunday, and don’t think that they are doing anything wrong (if you don’t understand that, it’s because we believe in keeping the Sabbath day holy, in the Old Testament tradition).  What bothers me is that they are not trying to convince me that I’m wrong, they are trying to convince society that I am wrong.  We all know that society thinks my church is wrong about a lot of things.  But remember what I said about the American culture is about professional integration and personal segregation?  Yeah, that means that even if you convince the entire non-Mormon population of America that my church should changes it’s practice, it doesn’t have to.  Go convince the Amish to use cell phones while you’re at it.

Chutzpah

I heard on the radio this morning that the Obama administration was going to offer intelligence assets to the Iraqi government… this after being completely caught off guard by the current insurrection.

I do not know know how this offer will be received, but mocking laughter might be a good start.

Xbee lessons

I’ve been using the Digi International Xbee radios in a project at work, and I thought I would share a few findings that weren’t always clear on some of the internet guides I found.  I use the Series 2 (or ZB) version, which you can get at Mouser for $17.  These have the ability to use the mesh networking feature of the Zigbee protocol.

The first bit of disinformation I have found regards the use of API or Transparent mode.  The first uses a packet of bytes to tell the radio what data to send, how to send it, and where to send it.  The second allows serial data to be transmitted directly, without the need of a frame.  Most tutorials indicate that all your radios should be set up in one mode or another.  This is incorrect.  Dave over at Desert Home tipped me off to this, and has a bunch more excellent examples of using Xbees.  I guess I should warn any readers that this discussion is for those who have some knowledge of Xbees already, and understand terms like API, transparent, Router, Coordinator, and PAN ID.  Otherwise, Dave’s site is a great place to get started, as is Jeremy Blum’s tutorial.

I can think of a very valid reason for using a mix of transparent and API modes, and it has to do with the how easy it is to change the settings in each mode. In transparent mode, changing the destination address, or any other setting for that matter,  requires entering command mode.  This is not too bad if you’re connected to a serial port display like Putty, but can be a bit cumbersome when using  a micro-controller or some other programmed interface.  In API mode, however, the packet can be constructed to change the settings on the fly rather easily, because you don’t have to put the radio into a special mode, you just have to know how to build the right packet (something that micro-controllers are very good with).

So why would you ever use transparent mode with an Arduino, for instance?  Because there are plenty of times that you  don’t need to change anything.  You just need to configure it once to send serial data to a known destination (usually the Coordinator, but the other most common destination is Broadcast, which sends the data to every radio on the network).  And yes, you can use an API Router with an transparent Coordinator, if you’d like.  The point is that you can mix and match the radio setups.

That leads into the next bit of disinformation, that the radios have to have the same baud rate, API mode, etc.  The truth is that only some of the settings on the radio regard how it communicates on the network: PAN ID (both 16 bit and 64 bit), serial number, destination address, operating channel, and the like.  In the X-CTU software, these are grouped together under the Networking and Addressing categories.  Security is another big one, but not often used.

But the category of Serial Interfacing, which is where settings are most often changed,  only deals with how the radio communicates with it’s host, whether that’s a computer or an Arduino.  If you have one radio transmitting in API enable 2 set, you must provide escape characters when you assemble your packet.  But if the receiving radio has API enable 1 set, that data will be read out with no escape characters.

And one last thing to remember, which I haven’t seen anywhere else: Xbees want to be on a network.  They will seek out whichever is available unless they think they are already on one (which has burned me a few times).  And if they are a Router, they don’t need a Coordinator in the network to get new nodes to join.  According to the Xbee data sheet:

A coordinator has the following characteristics: it
•Selects a channel and PAN ID (both 64-bit and 16-bit) to start the network
•Can allow routers and end devices to join the network
•Can assist in routing data
•Cannot sleep–should be mains powered
•Can buffer RF data packets for sleeping end device children.

A router has the following characteristics: it
•Must join a ZigBee PAN before it can transmit, receive, or route data
•After joining, can allow routers and end devices to join the network (emphasis mine)
•After joining, can assist in routing data
•Cannot sleep–should be mains powered.
•Can buffer RF data packets for sleeping end device children.
An end device has the following characteristics: it
•Must join a ZigBee PAN before it can transmit or receive data
•Cannot allow devices to join the network
•Must always transmit and receive RF data through its parent. Cannot route data.
•Can enter low power modes to conserve power and can be battery-powered.

In other words, if you are working on a set of radios, and decide to set up a different network nearby, even if you remove the Coordinator from it’s power, your new radios will try to join the first network if any of the Routers are still powered.  It can cause all kinds of fun and hours of entertainment!  The best bet is to remove all power to the first network, set up the second network, and make sure the second is configured properly before powering up any Router or Coordinator on the first network.

I’m sure there’s lots more to learn about these great little radios, but I thought I’d pass along these tips now.

Lessons from Iraq

For those of you living in caves (i.e, without internet service), you probably don’t know that Iraq is rapidly collapsing into a morass of sectarian violence.  Of course, you probably aren’t reading this, either.  But I have a perspective on the issue that I’d like to share.

I joined the Navy in 1992, and served for six years.  For context, Bush the Elder was president, L.A. was melting down in riots over the Rodney King verdict, and the very first medal I got was the National Defense Service Medal.  This was given for participation in an ongoing conflict, and was automatically given to service members from 1990 to 1995.  I’m not sure why they stopped.  Goodness knows that in 1997, my ship was in the Persian Gulf, enforcing an embargo against Iraq, and we were still maintaining no-fly zones.

The point is that although Bush the Elder declared that the war was over, nobody bothered to get Saddam to agree with that statement.  He continued to fight us, through means both overt and covert.  He used a lot of propaganda and PR efforts to try and discredit the United States and our ongoing mission to contain him.  I remember reading about how American pilots would regularly destroy innocent shepherds in the no-fly zone, just to prove that we were still needed there.

So here is what it looked like from a military point of view: Iraq invaded Kuwait, we declared war on Iraq, kicked Iraq out of Kuwait, and then left resources in place to contain Iraq, but not to actively fight them.  The only people in the world that would term this a victory are people who are so sheltered from true violence that they think that you can just stop fighting, yell “WE WON!” and be done with it.

That’s not the way the world works, and definitely not the way war works.  But the American people don’t have the stomach to wage war to it’s logical conclusion, or so we’re told.

America has the largest all volunteer military in the world.  There is significance in this, because the American military does a remarkable job of policing itself.  We can yell and scream about the incidents of sexual assault and sexual harassment that exists, and should be dealt with, but let’s face it: we have nothing like the rampant corruption and abuse that regularly occurs in other military forces.  Most occupying forces rape and pillage freely; ours was chastised for humiliating prisoners.  Nothing like what would happen to almost any American prisoner of war anywhere in the world.  More like what people in America would endure in order to win a cash prize, or a new car.

So what we have in Iraq is a nation that we went to war against in 1990, and never signed a peace treaty with.  We only had a cease fire in effect from 1991 to 2003.  The biggest failure of the George W. Bush in foreign policy is not that we went to war in Iraq.  It is that he never adequately explained that we never stopped being at war with Iraq, and that they were harboring known terrorists who wanted to repeat 9/11.  We needed no new pretext to resume hostilities.  All we needed was to show that Saddam had violated terms of the cease fire, which was easy enough to do.

And then, having renewed hostilities, our first act should have been to destroy everything connected to Saddam Hussein.  Every palace, every statue, every monument, every public work, and even his childhood home.  And most especially his family.  Send the message first and foremost that everyone connected to the Butcher of Baghdad would have violence rained down upon their heads until even the mention of his name was considered dangerous.  Anything less sends the message that we don’t have the cajones to deal with those who violate our will.

And make no mistake, all foreign policy is a game of will power.

But what about the will of the American people?  Well, I think everyone knew that by leaving Saddam in power, we were risking him attacking us, or his neighbors, or his own people again.  And if we needed proof of what he was doing, we could always ask the fine folks at CNN for evidence.  They had plenty that they admittedly ignored and suppressed.

But what is done is done.  We cannot go back and fix the mistakes of the past, nor are we in a position to help those dealing with the consequences now.  There is one thing that could have been done as recently as six months ago, and that was to declare the Taliban to be enemies of the Untied States that would be hunted down and destroyed, and that we would not respect any country who gave them shelter.  Had we said that, and then followed though with the necessary action, we may have instilled the proper level of fear to keep other factions in check.  As it is, Al-Qaeda operates throughout the Middle East with impunity, Putin does whatever he likes, and our allies distance themselves from us.

I think that the American people would be willing to wage war effectively if we had a political class who was willing to take the heat for doing the right thing.  But as it is, we have sold our birthright for a mess of pottage.  And don’t think that our enemies are not preparing to take advantage of that.

Raspberry Pi

I’m an electronics engineer, and specifically, I design electronics that test other electronics.  I love my job, and I love finding new technology to solve problems.

Right now I am exploring the world of single board computers (SBCs).  I have four, and I am always looking at new ones.  I have the Raspberry Pi Model B, the UDOO Quad, the PCDuino (the link is for a version 3, but I have several of the originals), and the Iteaduino Plus A20.  Each has something that sets it apart from the others, and each is touted as the greatest thing ever.

But from an engineering perspective, there are trade-offs.  The biggest one is the cost/benefit ratio.  The RPi is the least expensive, at about $40 in most places, while the UDOO Quad comes in at $135.  The feature sets are reflective of the price, fortunately: the RPi has 512Mb of RAM, and a single core ARM1176JZF-S  processor running at 700 MHz.  The UDOO has 1Gb of RAM, a quad core ARM Cortex-A9 running at 1Ghz, and a built in Arduino Due.  These are not minor differences, and the price reflects it.

But what about usefulness?  I am looking for something that runs a Linux distro, but has GPIO pins I can manipulate.  Both do this.  I’d like to talk to it using serial communications, and have support for I2C and SPI bus communications.  Okay, still good on both.  And I need to collect data, collate it, store it, and push it out to a cloud platform.  Again, both meet this need.

What I don’t need to do is stream videos, have a super cool GUI, or act like a desktop replacement.  And yet… both will do this, though the UDOO is better at it. And I am not making a DIY tablet, which is good, because both have drawbacks for that application.

And for me, the kicker is this: both need a monitor, a keyboard and mouse, and some kind of SD card for both the operating system and for storage.  So for what I intend to use it for, the Raspberry Pi is a more cost efficient solution.

I’m not going to stop looking at all the new SBCs that are coming out, though.  Maybe one of them will have something that I really want.

Math Problems

Everyone agrees that Math is Extremely Difficult and All Children Resist Math (except for those few oddballs who we can’t possibly understand or relate to).

But how true is this, really?  Consider: the proof of simplicity is that 2 + 2 = 4.  Everyone knows this, it is so logical that if 2 + 2 equals something other than 4, that is an invalid system (yes, I am thinking of Common Core here).  So everyone knows that math is extremely difficult, yet everyone uses a math equation to prove simplicity.  Which is it?

Like most paradoxes in education, it comes down to false equivalencies.  Basic math is simple and advanced calculus is not, but that does not mean that both should be avoided.  And we definitely should not teach both in the same way.  The person who is ready for even beginning calculus will be taught with certain expectations about the student’s ability, namely, that the student will understand basic addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, that the student will understand basic algebra and have the ability to manipulate equations, and that the student will be able to graph equations, especially in a Cartesian system.  If you got lost anywhere during that, I suggest that you are not ready for calculus.  But that doesn’t mean that calculus is hard.

Let’s look at it a different way.  We teach kids how to read, but we do not give them Plato’s Republic to read by themselves for their first book report.  It’s true that some would say that Plato is beyond the understanding of any but college age kids, but that is also manifestly untrue.  See Marva Collin’s work with “unteachable” kids.

But just like reading, math requires guidance from a knowledgeable teacher, one who knows  the material and knows that it is possible and even enjoyable to get from memorizing times tables to solving quadratic equations.  And we have raised a generation of teachers who are both ignorant of math and resistant to it.  And that’s what they are passing on to our children.

How easy is math?  This easy: have children memorize addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division tables from 0 to at least twelve (though 20 would be a better goal).  This is the phonics of math, and the stepping stone to higher concepts.  Math is all about pattern recognition, but it uses a special language, and all that rote memorization gets children speaking in numbers.  And it has the added benefit that 90% of the math they encounter in their daily lives will be understood with just this little bit of training.

But whatever you do, don’t start with the idea that it is too hard.

More from the good Count

This was written in 1862, but could have been written today:

After all this, compare the dogmatic school of the Middle Ages, where truths were indubitable, with our school, where nobody knows what truth is, and to which the children are nevertheless forced to go and the parents to send their children.

Tolstoy goes on to make the argument that the only form of education that could possibly justify state force would be religious, since religion is the only subject that professes eternal truth.  It seems counter intuitive at first, but that I think is more from the modern sensibility that even religion is not unchanging.  But the fact remains that it is hard, if not impossible, to demand unyielding compliance to an educational system that may be completely overturned in the next generation.

Think about it: the science books of our grandparents have no mention of electronics as we know it, and their grandparents probably learned very little about electricity at all when they were in school.  But the state, in its presumed wisdom, wants to tell us what we should be learning now.  And when challenged for a reason for their curriculum choices, they usually point to studies that are less than a decade old, and very nearly unproven in any real world setting.

What do we know?  That reading is the first key to unlocking any future hope of education, and that English, being a basically phonetic language despite all the bastardizations, can be best learned as a series of symbols to decode.  We call this phonics (although I suspect someone could make a fortune by repackaging it as “Lingual Decryption”, and for which I formally claim copyright).

That takes care of the language arts, and all that depend on it: writing, history, social studies, and every soft science.  It will even get you going in some of the harder sciences, like computer science.

But what about math?  It is universally acknowledged that Math is Very Hard.  Or even Extremely Difficult.  And the corollary is this: All Children Struggle with Math.  I think this is incorrect, and I’ll talk more about it in my next post.