Author Archives: Migdalin

An Open Letter to Microsoft’s New CEO

Dear Mr. Nadella,

Congratulations on being the new Microsoft CEO. Are you going to make them fix the bugs (some of which have been around for ten years)? Will there be patches to fix bugs? Or will we still have to purchase a new version of Office/Windows to have non-security bugs fixed, only to discover that some of the more egregious and hateful bugs and UI annoyances still have not been addressed, and that “new version” yet again means “the UI has been rearranged,” often with pre-existing functionality now unavailable or painful to access?

In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, let me itemize a few things that come to mind.

  • Pressing Escape while editing an email causes Outlook to try and close the window, leading to a dialog asking, “Would you like to have this window close and lose what you’ve been doing the last half hour?” The editor window for an email message is a window, not a dialog box. A windows doesn’t close in response to Escape. This is called a Common User Access Rule. Microsoft needs to start adhering to those rules. They’re rules for a reason.
  • Pressing Page Down and Page Up in Word sometimes causes the screen to shift, and then shift back, giving the impression that the user is moving through the document when, in fact, no progress is being made at all.
  • Word thinks that a quote following an em-dash should point outboard rather than inboard.   As in, “What the –“
  • The spellchecker should understand that if Nadella is a properly spelled word, then so is Nadella’s.
  • Changes in taskbar arrangement and other settings should be persisted immediately, not when the system successfully shuts down.
  • Windows Explorer continues to be treated as an afterthought, with few options for user-customization. In particular, there’s no way to turn off of the Libraries (and other miscellanea) that clog the tree view. Having Explorer be both the user’s interface to the physical machine AND the operating system’s shell is dumb, and it helps explain why Explorer does neither well.
  • Eliminating the desktop mode of Windows shows how inflexible and brittle the underlying software is, as well as how insular and out-of-touch the software development process is at Microsoft. It’s called software for a reason. It shouldn’t be “one size fits all.” If you want to support handheld devices, fine. Why does that mean you have to stop supporting desktop users? Apple and Google both like to shove the “one true way” of doing things down users’ throats. Microsoft can differentiate itself by not doing that!
  • It takes way, way too long to “Configure” and “Prepare to Configure” Windows before and after yet another forced restart.
  • When I choose to delete three files totaling 12K, I don’t expect to see a dialog box show up that says “Calculating….” Calculating what, exactly? PI to three billion decimal places? Given the speed and power of modern machines, what could possibly take long enough to justify opening a dialog box, never mind having the dialog sit there for ten or fifteen seconds “Calculating…”?
  • List views should remember their settings.
  • Right clicking on something should bring up a context menu that, in addition to “What’s this?”, should offer the option to configure whatever was clicked on, up to and including the option of “Stop Doing That.” (In Word, for example, right clicking on the Zoom control on the status bar would offer the option of disabling the shortcut key sequence that causes the text to suddenly shrink by ten percent.)
  • When I explicitly open Task Manager and tell it to shut down an application, that’s what it should do. I don’t expect to wait a minute before Task Manager tells me the application in question isn’t responding, especially when – in some cases – the application IS responding, and will react to a polite “Please Shut Down” message by opening another ten copies of itself.
  • The Windows Registry needs to be phased out. That thing has been a source of system corruption and performance problems since day one. It is a generic solution to dozens of specific problems, each of which should be handled in a domain-specific way, thereby reducing the ridiculous and opaque HKEY-REF A328B8879-…-22E33F44G that points to an entry that points to an entry that might or might not have anything to do with why Office can neither be uninstalled, reinstalled, or repaired, and only a Microsoft specialist with a list of keys could ever go in and figure out why. Here’s a quote taken from the social.technet forum of microsoft.com:

“Windows … require[s] complex entries in the Speech Token section of the HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE registry. We have not found a single Voice installer that makes the correct entries in this registry nor have we located anyone who knows the details of what is required. There is an extensive description of the registry entries….”

How much of that do you need to see before you realize something’s broken?

  • The “Extended” tab on the Services applet is a joke. It serves no purpose other than to force users to first switch to “Standard” view, before then double-clicking on the “Name” column to expand it (yet again) so that it shows more than the first twelve characters of the service name. At the very least, “Extended” should be made the optional view, not the default, thereby saving the world at least a million mouse clicks a day.
  • Support configuring high-quality audio through the operating system. If I connect a receiver to the HDMI output of my video card, I should be able to convince Windows that the receiver is an audio-only output device, not a third monitor.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I realize bugs like these are trivial and tedious and far below the cool, exciting work that Microsoft engineers have come to expect. Still, some of us are hoping you will place professionalism and attention to detail above “Gosh, isn’t it cool, Spiffy?”

A Vanishing Protagonist

Blood Song by Anthony Ryan is a military fantasy that – after a “peek at the future” prelude – spends the first half of the book following the adventures  of a young boy, Vaelin, who – following the death of his mother – is placed in a military training academy by his father.

The premise here isn’t anything new, but the execution of this part of the story is impressive.  The level of detail is high, making the story more believable even as it adds a level of uniqueness to a familiar scenario.  The various characters seem to have real personalities, while the child characters evolve as the story proceeds.  Meanwhile, the overarching plot (graduate!) helps tie the material together, thereby smoothing over the “collection of related short stories” feel that would otherwise have prevailed.

At the end of the training, however, the book stumbles.  Vaelin (actively, aggressively) ceases to be a protagonist.  He effectively tells the King, “Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it, no matter that it runs counter to everything I hold dear.”  And that’s what happens.  The King becomes an off-screen protagonist (a.k.a., an excuse for why things don’t make sense), while the POV character becomes a puppet, going around doing things that he doesn’t agree with, believe in, or fully understand.  The result is a sequence of events that the reader at best finds painful, but more likely finds unconvincing and uninvolving.

After all, if the POV character doesn’t really care about what he’s doing (or would rather be doing something else), then exactly how is the reader supposed to feel?

At one point, Vaelin argues with the Voice of Fate (literally).  “I didn’t ask for this…  I never wanted it.”  To which Fate replies, “Want is nothing….  You are a plaything of [the plot outline]….”  Vaelin attempts to rebel but fails:

“I’ll choose my own fate,” [Vaelin] said, but the words were faint, empty, a [puppet’s] defiance….

These quotes remind me of various push-back moments in the Harry Potter series, where Harry complains about his lack of skills or his being excluded from the main plotline (see my book Destiny Unfulfilled for more details).  In both cases (with Rowling and here with Ryan), I believe we’re seeing the author’s subconscious crying out “This is WRONG!”  As writers, we have to be sensitive to what our characters are telling us, because often they speak with the voice of our inner elves.  Those elves will do what you tell them, but it’s a good idea to listen when they mutter about orders that don’t make sense.

Protagonist = Plot.  And to be a protagonist, a character must have a goal that they pursue.  Their own goal, not someone else’s.

Brilliance by Marcus Sakey

Brilliance by Marcus Sakey is a five star book with a five star gaffe in it.  The writing is superlative, the prose flowing with grace and panache.  Descriptions are spot on, dialog is believable, the pacing is strong, and the white knuckle, page-turning factor is high.  The premise is somewhat familiar (gifted people in an Us vs. Them conflict with normals), but the execution is good enough to make this a worthwhile read even for the jaded.

The protagonist is an active force, driving the story forward.  He’s recognizably human, his motivations believable and clear, his range of emotions wide.  He has a moment of forced petulance at one point, but the book (thankfully) doesn’t try to wallow in that state, and that was the only place where I noticed characterization being actively subverted for purposes of the plot outline.

The descriptions of various settings, from D.C. to Wyoming, from country to woods to city, inside and out, are believable and well done.  In a few spots, the story puts too much description all together in a clump, but that only happens a couple of times.

The plot is intelligent, some of the individual steps along the way impressive.  And then, there’s the gaffe….

Unfortunately, the gaffe hurt.  It hurt a lot.  It was like going to a five star restaurant and finding a cockroach in the soup.  The gaffe is this:  one of the “gifted” has made too much money day trading on the stock market.  So every government in the world shuts down every stock market in the world.  And keeps them shut down.

Wow.  Luckily, this stinking whopper arrives after the cut-off point of the free sample.  I truly wonder if I would have plunked down the coin for this book had it been otherwise – and that would have been unfortunate.  Still, this isn’t a simple oops, it winds up appearing in several places in the book, including at one spot that might be called a turning point.

The reader’s trust in the book is damaged.  For some, I suspect it’s impossible to get past such a ridiculous idea.

Let’s go over this, just in case it isn’t clear.  Shutting down the stock markets permanently would be catastrophic.  They wouldn’t do it.  They just wouldn’t.  It would be akin to saying “We’re shutting down all the banks, because they put us into this global recession, and they need to be taught a lesson.”  It doesn’t matter if they plan to open the banks again in two years or whatever.  There won’t be any government left to reopen them.  Society (the few million who survive) will have been forced back into a hunter-gatherer existence.

Shutting down the markets maybe isn’t as obvious, but it’s there.  Most billionaires and millionaires would be rendered insolvent.  Investment companies, insurance companies, banks:  devastated.  Millions of retired individuals who have their retirement accounts locked up in mutual funds:  screwed, homeless, helpless, bereft.  From there, watch the dominoes fall.

No.  It won’t happen.  Look, if they want to stop the day traders, it’s easy:  you set a minimum holding period on all stock, bond, and futures transactions.  Once you buy it, you can’t sell it again for two days, two weeks, two months.  Pick a timeframe.  If you don’t like that, then just set the tax rate to 100% for any stock, bond, piece of real estate, etc., held less than the specified time.  Investors like Warren Buffet would probably applaud the idea.  Actually, I recall the man saying he wished the market would be open one day a week (or something like that), to give people more time to think about what they’re doing.

Legislate:  maybe.  (Probably not, because if they were going to, they would have already.  Think about the number of crashes spawned by people who use the markets as a gambling device or a get-rich-quick scheme.  It’s been a problem at least since the 1500s.)  But total shut down, no.  And if they did, there wouldn’t be people driving the highways, filling up at gas stations.  There would be people learning to chip stones to turn them into axes.  It would make the Great Depression look like a period of economic prosperity by comparison.

Sorry for the rant, but that’s the effect this sort of “you’ve got to be kidding” idea has on certain types of readers.  Look, we may be unstable, but our money’s just as green as anybody else’s.  Please give us a revised edition that doesn’t have this … this madness in it.

Conclusion:  this is a great book held back by a jaw-dropping goof.

Defending the Old Testament: Genesis 3

At a writer’s conference recently, I spoke to a woman whose college-age son has left the church.  The woman told me that her son “feels there’s too much violence, bigotry, and superstition in the Old Testament.”  I suspect this woman isn’t alone, and that many people are driven away from Christianity because of the OT.  As a result, Christians need to be able to defend the OT against the most common objections.

The first step in defending the OT is to understand what the objections are, and that is what we’ll be doing in this OT commentary.

For our first lesson, we’ll be looking at the story of the Fall of Man, as described in Genesis, chapter three.

Naturally, some critics classify the entire story of the Fall of Man as a fairytale, pointing out that it features a talking snake and a God who walks around in human form.  To make itself more believable, the story also “explains” why snakes don’t have legs, why childbirth is so painful, and why life is so brutish (which it certainly would have been during the bronze age).

Ignoring such complaints, today we’ll focus instead on criticisms that are more difficult to answer.

If we remember the story, God tells Adam and Eve not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, saying that “on the day that you eat from it, you will die.”

God’s commandment to Adam and Eve is where the trouble starts.  For one thing, the critic wonders why God would want humans to be ignorant of the difference between good and evil.  In addition, God doesn’t explain the reason for his demand.  Instead, he tells Adam and Eve that eating fruit from the tree will kill them.  Thus, right from the beginning of the OT, humanity’s relationship with God is based on irrational demands that are backed up with the threat of punishment.

As we move further into the story, the situation only becomes worse, because the serpent points out God’s apparent lie.  When the serpent asks Eve if she can eat anything in the garden, she says that only the one tree is forbidden, because eating it is deadly.  Once the serpent shows her that the tree isn’t poisonous, Eve understandably eats the fruit.  After all, knowing the difference between good and evil seems like a pretty important skill to have, especially when you live in a world where God lies to you.

God’s behavior again becomes problematic when he wanders into the garden “searching” for Adam and Eve.  God’s apparent surprise to find them dressed makes him appear less than omniscient.  And once God discovers Adam and Eve’s enlightened state, the OT makes matters worse by having God say, “If they eat of the tree of immortality, they will become like us.”  Thus, the OT seems to be promoting not only a very limited and weak God, but also polytheism.

Finally, in placing a curse on the entire human race for Adam and Eve’s disobedience, the OT makes God seem unjust and tyrannical.

Keep in mind that these complaints about the story of the Fall of Man remain valid, whether we read this passage literally or metaphorically, which is why they are more difficult to defend against than criticisms that focus on the fairytale qualities of the story itself.

The outside world reads the OT differently than Christians do.  Once Christians understand this, they can better prepare themselves to communicate with people who aren’t part of the church.

The Orthodoxy of William Lloyd Garrison

William Lloyd Garrison was more than an abolitionist, he was a follower of Jesus who promoted equality for all starting in the 1830s.  For most of his career, Garrison was called a fanatic, while even after the end of slavery in the United States, Garrison was treated by most scholars as a misguided oddball, someone who probably did more harm than good to the cause of abolition, thanks to his support for bizarre ideas like equality without regard to race or sex.  Until Henry Mayer’s wonderful biography of Garrison, All On Fire, we could say that most academics who discussed Garrison were products of their time, their conclusions about him clouded by their own prejudices.

Garrison had other strange ideas, of course.  He promoted pacifism, indulged in homeopathic medicine (in an age when doctors still used leaches and purgatives as cure-alls), rejected organized religion, and promoted a spiritual existence based in individual conscience.

In one way, however, Garrison was quite orthodox, because he continued to revere the Bible, Old Testament included.  To be sure, Garrison did reject the idea of inerrancy, and rather than trying to creatively interpret passages in the Bible that supported slavery, he acknowledged that they were wrong.  Still, Garrison continued to quote from the OT, often using it to support his ideas.

Of course, Garrison quoted anybody who supported his ideas, including poets, authors, and even the occasional politician.  However, like modern progressive Christians, Garrison’s use of the OT reinforced its status as a moral guide.

An Enduring Legacy

Garrison focused his energies not on political maneuvering, but on raising the moral values of the society around him.  His approach is perhaps the only way to truly influence public opinion.

When the U.S. ratified the Eighteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery, Garrison stopped publishing his newspaper.  Unfortunately, while the national constitution now prohibited slavery, Christianity’s constitution — the Bible — remained unchanged, its support for slavery as strong as ever.

As a result, Garrison’s legacy is threatened by the continuing authority of the OT — an authority he helped to maintain.  But Garrison isn’t alone.  For the last several hundred years, “progressive” Christians have been promoting various social reforms in spite of clear OT resistance to such reforms.  Almost always, though, the champions of reform continued to quote the OT as an authoritative guide to righteousness.

In other words, Christian have left a bulldozer parked next to the statue of their accomplishments, making it easy for an unseen future to destroy their legacy of tolerance and inclusion.

The Better Angels of our Bibles

In his New York Times bestseller, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Stephen Pinker describes the many ways that violence has decreased in modern times.  It’s easy for us to overlook just how violent the past was, but torture, wars of conquest, slavery, witch burning, and public executions were all accepted practices.

As Pinker demonstrates, using not only historical examples but also statistics and a number of independent studies, it wasn’t just that people were tortured and burned at the stake, but rather that such practices were treated as “how we do things around here.”  News that someone had been punishing by having a tongue torn out or eyes gouged out would induce shock and horror in a modern audience, but for most of history such “cruel and unusual punishment” wasn’t unusual at all.

While Pinker focuses on the decline of violence and discusses morality only briefly, it seems fair to say that modern society has developed higher moral standards than at any time in history.  As Pinker points out, today we see racism and religious intolerance as intolerable.  We recognize genocide as unlawful and immoral.  We have child labor laws and even societies to protect animals from abuse.

In support of such changes, we’ve embraced the idea that everyone is created equal, to the point where many countries have granted women equal rights under the law, while even in places like the United States, where the Equal Rights Amendment was determined to be unbiblical, women still enjoy many privileges such as the right to vote and to own property.

Pinker’s book offers a number of explanations as to how these changes came about, such as widespread literacy and the ability of fiction, especially, to help us see the world through the eyes of others.  Whatever the mechanism, though, it seems clear that the Second Commandment of “Love your neighbor as yourself” has been quietly seeping into our culture.

Unfortunately, the elevation of our moral standards has left Christians in an uncomfortable position, given their continued reverence toward the OT.

Although our morality has improved, the OT’s moral system has remained stagnant.  This is a rather predictable problem.  So far, the preferred Christian solution to this problem has been to creatively interpret the OT, often inverting the clear meaning of the text.

Unfortunately, the disinterested reader isn’t fooled by convoluted interpretive games.  As a result, the darker aspects of the OT serve to drive people from the faith.

The solution to this isn’t reeducation, but honesty.  Christianity needs to focus on the NT, and relegate the OT to the role of a secondary resource.  In short, Christianity needs to focus on the better angles of its Bible.

New Theology, Same Bible

In talking about his 180-degree change of opinion regarding homosexuality, Christian author Brian D. McLaren said in a blog post that he

re-opened the issue, read a lot of books, re-studied the Scriptures, and eventually came to believe that just as the Western church had been wrong on slavery, wrong on colonialism, wrong on environmental plunder, wrong on subordinating women, wrong on segregation and apartheid (all of which it justified biblically) … we had been wrong on [homosexuality].

Never mind all those past (and in some cases, ongoing) mistakes, McLaren’s change of heart didn’t lead him to reject the Bible. In fact,

my love and reverence for the Bible increased when I became more aware of the … now-discredited traditional interpretations…. I was able to distinguish “what the Bible says” from “what this school of interpretation says the Bible says,” and that helped me in many ways.

Sigh.  McLaren comes so close to acknowledging the Bible’s flaws, but then backs away. Putting the blame on the erroneous interpretations of “those Christians back then” and “those Christians over there” is a dodge.  No, let’s be blunt.  Blaming “hermeneutics” is a lie.  And the willingness of Christians to go into a closet for two days, then come out with the opposite interpretation of scripture that they had before, demonstrates how unconcerned these folks are with intellectual honesty.

I think this is such a hard problem because the Bible is God for so many people.  These aren’t dumb people, though.  They’re just people who find the Bible easier to believe in and easier to relate to than the unseen God.  After all, the book is never far away.  You can see it, touch it, and hold it.  It actually talks back!  It’s the most magnificent idol ever.  And all that’s required to believe in it is that we ignore a few hundred (or perhaps a few thousand) anomalies.

The down side of such loyalty, however, and as I’ve said before, is that the OT retains its stature as a guide to morality, even as it continues to support all the bigotry and hatefulness that McLaren mentioned in his post.  I promise you, there will come a day when the OT will once again be used to justify slavery, the oppression of women, religious intolerance, and the oppression of homosexuals.  When that day comes, McLaren and his ilk will bear some of the responsibility, because they preferred to renounce honesty so as to cling to a book.

The Apostate Attendee

If you write for a Christian audience, especially a conservative Christian audience, the Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writer’s Conference (BRMCWC) is the place to be.  With three classes per day, plus a keynote address each evening, the agenda is packed with information, and the people leading the classes that I attended not only had the credentials as practitioners, they were also excellent teachers — a combination that isn’t always guaranteed.  Of course, with more than twenty classes to choose from in most time slots, I sampled only a fraction of the material available, but the consensus of everyone I talked to was that the fire hose effect was a near constant across all the various classes.

The best networking opportunities came during meal times, served cafeteria style, with round tables seating six-to-eight people.  At lunch and dinner, instructors were spread out, one to a table, offering an extra opportunity to pester successful writers, editors, and agents.  Even for a shy person, the meals offer plenty of chances to practice your seven-second introduction and, possibly, your elevator spiel.

Most attendees appeared to revere James Dobson and Focus on the Family (before it went soft, that is).  Still, I managed to make it through the conference without serious difficulty, despite my closet deism/agnosticism and my mission of getting the Old Testament out of the Christian Bible.

I did get a lot of “You want to do what, again”?  A few responses consisted of “You can’t do that,” but an equal number of actual conversations balanced out the rejections from on high.  One conversation actively encouraged me, especially when I mentioned that the OT isn’t really PG-13 material, and the lady I was talking to mentioned the Lot-and-his-daughters story without being prompted.

To offset the encouraging conversation, I only had one near altercation — totally my own fault for pushing too hard against somebody clearly not receptive.  The woman told me I was being too legalistic, which I haven’t quite deciphered even now.  But I got the “you need to be very careful” message, while her opinion that “tolerance and acceptance are going to lead a lot of people to hell” was a good place for the conversation to end.

There may be conferences that draw a more progressive Christian audience, but wherever you fall on the political spectrum, the BRMCWC remains a good place to learn about the craft and the business of writing.