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Month: February 2008

Voltaire quotes

Voltaire quotes

“There are men who can think no deeper than a fact.”

“The true triumph of reason is that it enables us to get along with those who do not possess it.”

New car time? The instrument cluster story.

New car time? The instrument cluster story.

If you’ve been in the loop, you know that I’ve been ‘just about’ to get a new car for about 2 years now. I get into some test drives, kind of narrow it down, then decide I’m just as happy with the old car and don’t want to have car payments again. Yep, the 15 year old Nissan is still running strong and this year I should top the 200k mile mark. But to help myself along the process, I’ve been fixing all the little niggling problems that I would need to in order to sell my old car. One of which has been a problem I’ve had for the last two years – and this one turned out to be really cool.

The problem was that on very cold mornings (i.e. only in winter), when you turned it on, the speedometer would jump to 30-40mph – while you were still in park. If you put it in gear, it had no power and wouldn’t shift into overdrive. On REALLY cold days it would be stuck at 0mph and wouldn’t even shift out of first. You had to wait about 5 minutes for it to warm up and then it would be perfectly normal. At first I thought it was a transmission problem – so I didn’t do much with it as a rebuilt tranny would be about 1/2 the value of the car. But with a possible sale pending, I knew I needed to at least know what the problem was for full disclosure to the person buying it.

I took it to a great transmission guy I know – and he said there was nothing wrong with the transmission at all. No codes, everything is fine. Instead, he said, what was happening is when the speedometer was reading 30, the car thought it was going 30, and shifted to 3rd gear (hence no power). When it was stuck at 0, it wouldn’t shift because the car thought it was going – well – zero mph and should stay in first. He sent me to an electrical guy that reproduced the problem and found that all the speed sensors and engine sensors were working fine. It wasn’t in the sensors or wiring – it was in the actual speed cluster itself (pictures are from when I tore the heater core out – how’s that for lucky!). Huh? The actual instrument cluster was causing bad shifts? I had a hard time swallowing that at first, but he seemed sure. Problem was that a new speedometer cluster was $950 – that’s more than what it would have cost to get a rebuilt transmission put in my car. Sigh. He didn’t have a line on any used or refurbished ones because I have a really unique speedometer cluster – one that has a heads up display. Yep, my 15 year old car has a fighter-pilot era polarized glass/heads up display. I wasn’t ready to dump that kind of money – so I told him to hold on while I made a few phone calls.

I called my favorite junk yard – and they happened to have a 93 nissan altima in the lot. I had them pull the cluster and they charged me a much more reasonable $50. I took it to the mechanic guy who put it in, but it then wouldn’t read any speed, nor shift out of first. Huh. It was from an automatic car – but the junk car didn’t have a HUD. Could it make that much of a difference? The backs were almost identical – minus the HUD sending unit. I also picked up an interior light dimmer switch for $5 from the same junk car because mine seem to have a short in it and would blink the interior lights when it went wacky.

Off to the Nissan forums, posted the question/pics, and got an answer back – better than an answer actually. Answer is that in Altimas, the non-HUD clusters don’t work in HUD cars and vice-versa because the speed sending units are analog vs digital (respectively). But this guy actually has a HUD cluster he’ll sell me for $60. I buy it and go to a speedometer shop (because I was very unsatisfied with the previous shop as they left my dimmer unplugged so I had no interior/console lights when driving at night and they were very slow/a day late on the work they did) where he rolled the odometer to match the old mileage and plugged it in (I also leaned over and put the new dimmer switch in at this point and verified the old one had a short). Voila. It shifted (and the lights dimmed!), but would it solve the problem? I would need to wait for a cold morning. Note on this kind of work: I would have done it myself (20 minutes worth of work), but you need a shop that will officially vouch for the mileage or you get nailed by DMV brands your car as having invalid or odometer tampered mileage – usually knocking 1/2 its value off.

Next cold morning – 100% success! Shifting problem fixed. In fact, it shifts more cleanly in everyday driving too. Who would have thought a speed cluster would cause a shifting problem. Live and learn. Now to get out and make sure it’s up to snuff.

Here it is – we’re pink

Here it is – we’re pink

Finally – Here is the map by county with real numbers. This is what I’ve been curious about for some time

RealtyTrac has reported the numbers of mortgage foreclosures for 2007 – by county/state. It appears the Portland area is pink to red – higher than I originally expected. The rates of change are dramatic- the number of forclosures from 05-07 increased dramatically – and this year is shaping up to be even more than last. This is a problem that will only get worse before better by most experts accounts.

Even though people are supposed to be getting reprieves from the government for a month or two, most experts (and I would agree) don’t think this will help.  When the average behind mortgage owner about 5-9 months behind in payments; a month – or even 6 – probably won’t matter.  They bought too much house with too little money.  They simply must refinance to a reasonable rate, or they need to get out.  And I hate to say this, but probably most of them need to get out of homes they can’t, and never could, afford.

As someone that is saving up money for a down payment on a house, here’s what I’m thinking (to all you experts). I’m sitting on my money. And I’m going to sit on it at least a year or two. There is still way to much danger of these mortgage problems spreading and with recession on the lips of many – prices are NOT going to go up any substantial amount. There is simply NO good reason for me to pull my money off the sideline right now. You might quote that Portland area property values are holding strong – if not seeing a small 2-3% increase even last year. Interest rates are at and even LOWER low than they were during the boom. One might point on that mortgage interest is deductible and a house is a great tax shelter. Again true, but if the house you’re buying today for $300,000 is worth $250,000 next year – no amount of tax deductions will offset that.  On top of that, if it depreciates  more than 5-10%, then it’ll take me 3-5 years to recoup that lost equity.  Also, even if the average growth for last year was 2-3%, there is still a lot of properties that are overdue for an adjustment based on location and I am getting an FDIC backed 4.5% on my savings account -right now.  Finally, interest rates aren’t likely to go up any significant amount anytime soon; so there is no rush to lock in now.

On the bright side of things, houses that are priced reasonably sell very well and quickly in Portland. I’ve been watching houses come up and get sold or sit for months around my neighborhood. If you’re overpriced, you’ll be sitting there a long time. One arrogant fool started by asking 1.3 million for a condo nearby about a year ago. It’s now a year later and she/he is down to 950k and it still isn’t even close to selling. Meanwhile, in the same complex, I’ve seen 3 units sell for 350-550k in just 1-2 months. However, one thing is for sure – I’m actually seeing for sale signs. Up until about a year ago, stuff sold so fast that they didn’t even put the sign up before a bidding war was on. I had friends tell me they had to put bids on things sight unseen just to get a chance to look at the property. I taught me again that one should never buy during a boom/high demand period – that is the definition of high. Instead, buy at times like now – when people are licking their wounds, people are losing their property, etc. That’s what buy low and sell high looks like – at least in this case – and it isn’t pretty.

Anyway, here’s where Oregon is:

State rank in # of foreclosures: 22
Total # foreclosure filings: 10,746
% Change from 2006: 12.25%
% Change from 2005: 56.76%
Total proprties with filings: 8,461
% Households (foreclosure rate): 0.543%

So, that’s the story. Feedback?

Dark Materials book review (in honor of Golden Compass movie)

Dark Materials book review (in honor of Golden Compass movie)

The Golden Compass topped the box office the weekend it came out, but had lower than expected revenue. I personally expected a lot more controversy.  Before I knew the movie was coming out I had started reading the books based on the recommendation of a friend.  The Golden Compass was the first of the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. The second book is the Subtle Knife and the last is The Amber Spyglass. I just recently finished them all.

I almost don’t know where to start as it’s like trying to sum up the Lord of the Rings.  I didn’t know much about Pullman or his atheistic leanings before I started, so I kind of came blind into the controversy surround the author.  That was actually nice because it helped me stay more objective (I hope).

Non-spoiler summary:

Overall, I’d give the books a C+/B-. For one, I just wasn’t drawn into the characters like I did with other kids-level books such as Bridge to Terabithia, Charlie and the Chocolate factory, or the Harry Potter series.  The biggest turn-off was that I found myself disliking Lyra.  She spends a good deal of the book lying about things, yet she is continually rescued from the problems her lies cause by the other characters.  He goes so far as even rewarding and praising this behavior.

I loved the armored bears but not so much how they were treated in the book. Overall, I felt mixed about a lot of it – mostly because its mixed messages about Lyra’s behavior. Would I recommend it? I wouldn’t recommend them to kids honestly, but it is a fast read. Probably the fastest trilogy I’ve ever read. But by the last third of the last book, I was just ready to get done and move on to some other reading (namely a dual-language version of Beowulf with great commentary). I found that it did leave me with a few ideas to ponder for later; but mostly about the message he was trying to get across. Which is in the spoiler section below.


First off, Lyra.  She’s a strong-willed girl who is prone to a good bit of mischief. This isn’t bad itself as I grew up around my grandfathers farm and probably did even worse at times.  There is, however, a recurrent theme of her lying about things to manipulate others and must be rescued by her friends.  Yet these friends always seem more than willing to sacrifice themselves for her lies without bothering to question the young girl’s behavior or have a good sit-down and ask her if she might want to re-think some of her behavior. Probably the most egregious example is when she lies to the king of the bears (saying she is Iorek’s daemon and promising to become his daemon if he fights Iorek).  She does this under the auspices of saving Iorek Byrinson, the armored bear who is coming to rescue her.  Lyra then apologizes to Iorek for the lying and he then calls her ‘silvertongue’ for this.

This reference caught my eye because Saint Anthony was known as the ‘silver’ tongue of truth – and his tongue is actually in-corrupt and publicly visible to this day. This is a key word for at least the Catholic community for those that speak the truth and are later vindicated. Now, Pullman clearly wants to paint Lyra as his protagonist in speaking truth against the magisterium. This is fine, but in this case Lyra is in one of the most exuberant bits of lying and manipulating the bear king. In St Anthony’s case it is the opposite behavior.  He spoke the truth even when others didn’t wish to hear it.  Yet Lyra is clearly lying but gets vindicated because the end is good.  While this king was certainly a bad fellow (poisoning the previous king, exiling Iorek, and is a general scoundrel), promoting the use of deception, lying, and manipulation of folks to get your way so long as the ends are ‘good’ certainly isn’t the best or highest ideals of truth I’d like to see kids imitate.  This is something that bothered me greatly and it happens several times in the book.  Flawed characters aren’t a problem, it’s just that when tearing down another system’s moral/ideological systems I would hope one should at least posit a heroine to be imitated or admired.  Maybe our author was implying these values aren’t important.  But even then, as a kids book I think it is a subtle distinction that young adults would need guidance to understand.

The second aspect of the book I had a hard time swallowing is how readily able and willing people are to just lay down their life for Lyra after having just met her and do not question Lyra’s behavior.  I don’t know about you, but grown men and women usually don’t usually go around following a young girl into death without so much as batting an eye to her lying and manipulation.

The biggest theme I had difficulty with was the core themes at the end.  Pullman seems to be indicating consciousness and life really comes from a cosmic ‘dust’ that is flowing around and used by our minds. God (the authority) is just a being that exists in a parallel world (one of many) and got the title of God most likely by our misdirected interpretations.  His power was mostly transferred to a lesser ‘angel’ as he got old. This angel got overly ambitious and both die in the end. There’s lots of symbolism in how he handles these themes. The mountain of God in the battle is heavily wreathed in smoke and grandeur but hides a largely inept and feeble old guy who wasn’t really God. This is basically the same pulling-back-of-the-curtain on the real wizard behind the great and powerful Oz.  I felt it was all contrived and rushed in the last book.  I mean, why would beings of another world really care about the souls of folks in another world and go so far as to imprison them for … well apparently no purpose other than to lock them up after they die.  There is just bits like this that left me scratching my head.

I also found it interesting how Pullman resolutely works within the Catholic doctrinal world by using the terminology of faith – but to give them other interpretations.  While interesting, it doesn’t actually work very well if you are well versed in the actual subject matter.  My take is that he thinks the church has some of the ideas right but got the theory wrong and he is there to set it straight.  If I had one real criticism of this whole approach it is this:  the Catholic Church doesn’t think this way.  Instead, it’s the same, tired old rehashing of a medieval, Hollywood-ized perception of Catholic teaching as oppressive and backwards.

In the end, I felt it left things a little empty/weird and simply left a lot of unexplained details.  Dust (aka the power/energy of the universe that allows the use of reason) was interpreted as sin by Lyra’s magisterium.  This implies that original thought was to be discouraged and blind obedience honored.  There’s a soul-like element in us that turns back into dust to spread around the universe again and find form in order again.  I was confused by this.  So why were the daemons so important?  We had people in the land of the dead without their daemons and bodies but were still ‘themselves’.  Yet that was the part that turned back into dust – so what were the daemons about?  How does the body/’soul without a daemon’/daemon/dust equation work out?  Dust is apparently drawn to the creative/order-giving(enthalpy)/inventors and helps them do the work of thinking and creating. Dust also seems to have a sort of consciousness of its own (like the idea from Greek philosophy that we all come from and return to the same world-fire).  We can travel between parallel worlds (e.g.  recent theories of constantly forking universes to explain quantum mechanical properties) via the subtle knife which can cut between the universes – but they won’t do that anymore because it leaks dust but to where exactly isn’t clear.

Overall, I felt left with a lot more questions than answers and that all this is a bit much for a kids book.  There are tons of philosophical, religious, and existential themes in the book; but one needs to have a lot of background on these themes to understand what he is saying.

So what do we do?  Were left with a new philosophy that says we should all think for ourselves, not accept what authority tells us (this in itself is a self-refuting argument), and have a heroin that seems to boil down to the idea that everything you do is ok as long as the results are good.  Unfortunately, history has shown again and again that the road to the gas chamber was paved with good intentions (Samuel Johnson).  Clearly we need something much more robust as that.


One final bit/rant: There’s one thing that makes me sigh that is a major theme in this book – but is hashed and re-hashed all the time. I’m not going to be very eloquent with all this as I’m just writing from the hip right now. But the idea is that faith/the Catholic Church/religion are still depicted in as requiring blind obedience and torture for questioning what is taught. As someone who has spent 5 years reading the history of the Christianity – the actual writings of its doctrine, saints, and teachings – blind obedience was even at its earliest stages was strongly discouraged. Obedience had its place for sure, but we see that word obedience with modern connotations – not the ones that they were originally written to mean (this is true of the word freedom our founding fathers used – read the Greek/classical understanding of the word freedom they intended for an eye-opening experience).  Obedience in many of these writings means a voluntary conformity of will – a critical, fully-aware turning of self to what ones hopes is a better way of life. Much like obedience to an exercise plan that might be hard and require discipline or consequence if you skip, but is desired and believed to hold great reward for the person doing it. It was also always meant to be fully voluntary and entered into with understanding of what one is undertaking. Most of the great saints talk of their questions, doubts, and working through of issues openly in their writings (which is why their such good reading). Blind obedience and harsh punishment are simply something I never experienced while living at the seminary/monastery with the monks.

This is always sticky because there ARE elements of blind following in certain people’s individual experiences and I don’t doubt there are misguided believers that staunchly discourage or even get violent if doctrines of faith are questioned. But we call that literalism/fundamentalism – which can become a problem far any religious or philosophical system.  Unfortunately, our faith is transmitted through people – and sometimes those people don’t get it right or carry agendas of their own.

I argue (the Catholic tradition and my experiences with a life of faith backs up) that one *necessarily* must question and have doubts and struggles in their faith in order to truly believe. Guys that were blindly obedient at the seminary rarely stayed very long (I don’t think I even ran into someone that fit that category like they portray in the book). I was constantly encouraged to dig up solutions to my questions and challenge things at the seminary. Something I did all the time. My best talks on the hill were with the monks and my instructors about things that I had trouble buying into.  As an example of this criticality, the Catholic Church are supporters of the idea of evolution (also coming out many times against the much more problematic doctrines of creationism and intelligent design), they embrace scientific experimentation and thought, admitted to and apologized for the mistakes of the past (yes, it was slow coming for Galileo – but come it did), spells out the rights and dignity of the human person – affirming that each person has an inaliable right to choose their faith free of coercion, and many others. I find it helpful to think of the Church as a person. She is sometimes very stubborn, sometimes very slow to say its sorry, sometimes right well before its time – but that’s not much different than most of us (since the Church is made of us after all).

Even with that cleared up, there’s another point about holding the past over peoples heads as an excuse to write it off. I don’t go around asking my scientific friends (I have a computer *science* degree myself) how the alchemy is going, or if the blood-letting has cured their cold, or phrenology led them to the murderer, or if they’ve finished calculating the square root of 2 all the way because it’s certainly a rational number. Has the Church made mistakes in the past – you bet. Has science made mistakes in the past – you bet.   Apologize when needed, yes. Make amends where possible and take responsibility and accountability best you can. But I always remind myself that even with what we have today – we’re going to probably look as equally barbaric, stupid, and prejudiced to our future generations in 500 years too.

When faith, or science, or thought reaches out for understanding – we make mistakes because its carried out by people with imperfect knowledge, or worse, their own agendas. The true goal of faith and science is truth – something we are constantly seeking and a basic need of our human nature. They should not be (and the Church would assert that they won’t be) in conflict with each other; but should inform each other. They’ll challenge each other – you bet. Things have to get re-evaluated with every discovery (like the latest quantum mechanics that has really upset the ordered classical physics we had till this century) but we don’t go back and just discount everything some said because we get things wrong and chalk them up as blathering fools that intentionally lead everyone astray (even if partly true). It has been, and will always continue to be, a process of improvement – with plenty of mistakes along the way. So let’s just chalk up the middle ages as a bad time for everyone and get on with it. I want to live in the good I can do *today* – not constantly rehashing and ribbing each other for the mistakes of the past. There’s plenty of that on both sides.

What I wish I knew

What I wish I knew

A GREAT article. The Wisdom Journal blog had an article written by 42 year old Ron if he could have gone back and told 12 things to his 22-year-old self. The link is here, but here were some good ones (my favorite is 5, (#8 on his list))

  1. Stay in school – you’re bored now, but wait until you’re in a dead end job that you can’t stand but you’re afraid to lose.
  2. Establish the habit of living in a budget
  3. Keep insurance coverage at all times
  4. It’s quality of time at work, but quantity of time at home
  5. There is NO shortcut to wealth: Wealth is created when you provide something interesting, unique and valuable to people who demand it. Until then, you will be trading hours for dollars and you’ll always think you’re underpaid.
  6. Make sure your spouses values line up with yours -This one step can single handedly determine your level of happiness more than just about any other.
  7. Never take a job just because it pays more.

I would like to add a few I’ve learned so far:

  1. Don’t let fear run your life – this works in relationships as well as jobs/work. I left my software job to go live with Benedictine monks and study for the priesthood right as the dot-com bubble was bursting. I was told if I left, they were being forced to close all external hiring and laying off internally.  In essence, there would likely not be a way to come back. I took a deep breath, left in good standing, and didn’t regret it. Now, I didn’t do this completely unprepared. I saved up money, I made sure I could afford at least a year (I stayed for 5 years), I did a lot of prayer and research to make sure this is something I knew I needed, and financially/emotionally/spiritually could do. I knew I’d always ask ‘what if’ if I didn’t go. Now I know and I don’t regret the time spent one bit – in fact it was some of the best so far in my life.

    Marriage/relationships are all about trust and risk with another person. But you’ll never grow as a loving human being that can step out of their own desires/wants if you don’t risk stretching yourself by entering relationships at many levels. I learned this not only from dating, but working with homeless, with migrant workers, and those in ministry. Learn where your emotional hot-buttons are, where your comfort zones are, where safe and necessary boundaries are, where your gifts are – then stretch them a bit (it’ll feel like a lot!) in an environment where your boundaries will be respected, and you can get help/guidance if needed. If it all goes sour, you’ll survive – but be a better (usually a less selfish) person for it. And that is what real love is – learning how it’s not about you, but what you give of yourself in a reciprocating relationship.

    If you run around afraid to make mistakes, then you’ll never realize your dreams or aspirations.  You’ll spend all your energy in the mythical ‘future’ of what might be in your mind and heart – but it will never become reality.  Ultimately this robs us of learning who our core self really is – which is where self-actualization can happen, and when we truely become free people – free in the sense we can become fully gift to others. Prepare, research, and plan – but always try it out.

  2. Give it 6-months to a year, but not more than that – In relationships or work. If you’re constantly thinking about whether you did the right thing or not, you’ll kill yourself in the ups and downs of the moment. But also, if you don’t give yourself a goal/timetable – you’ll end up drifting into everything (this happens in relationships a LOT – how many folks do you know just dated for a long time then said, heck, lets get married cause we’ve been together this far). Give your major life decisions a year to work out or not. At the end of that time, then make your choice based on how the whole time went. If after that time frame, you’re still not sure or are uncertain about how it’s going – it is probably not going for whatever reason and time to re-evaluate things.

Seminary took me about 3-5 years to figure out if it was clicking since it was such a radical change. But I had a hard time limit – so put a time on your decision making.