On Leaving The Fellowship

The Decision To Leave

It’s not easy leaving a church. We stayed with the Kingston Unitarian Fellowship (KUF) for as long as we did because we valued the friendships we made there. I also very much enjoyed my volunteer duties within the fellowship, which included managing the website and editing the monthly newsletter.

Our decision to leave KUF was several years in the making. Over a period of about three years, our dissatisfaction gradually grew. By December of last year, we both knew it was just a matter of time before we would submit our resignations from the fellowship. That time came in the Spring with the selection of a candidate for settled minister.

Regarding that candidate minister, we read every word on her biography website. We both came to the conclusion that, although she seemed very qualified, and certainly very personable, she was not our minister.

The Theist – Humanist Divide

Unitarians are a varied bunch. One of the biggest challenges for any church is to balance the needs of all of its members. The biggest divide is between the theists who want a more spiritual church and the humanists who generally want a more rational, issues-oriented church. This is the so-called “theist-humanist divide”.

When we first went to KUF back in 2010, its services reminded me of the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto, where I sometimes attended service back in the 1980’s. In 2012, I gave a short talk in a series called “Personal Theologies” which reflected my views on Unitarianism: “A Personal Theology – Heresy and Universal Truth”. As far as I could tell, it was well received at the time. Here’s the key paragraph from my talk:

But finally, I come here to be challenged. To me, the most important avenue to personal growth is to stretch the limits of your comfort zone. I don’t just want an environment where people are unconditionally accepting of my beliefs and values. Although we should be respectful of each others’ beliefs, I believe that you honor my beliefs best by understanding them and expressing your thoughtful disagreement with them if necessary.

Since then though, a gradual change occurred. The word “covenant” kept cropping up, defining how KUF members were expected to behave towards one another. I cringed whenever I heard that word, since it was often used in a context of criticizing someone. I often heard people accuse someone of acting not in accordance with covenant.

For us, Unitarianism was losing its edge. Accord among members was being seen as more important than issues. The fellowship was shifting that delicate theist-humanist balance in favor of some sort of feel-good spirituality. And the choice of candidate minister just seemed to shift that balance even more into the spiritual end of the spectrum. This was not the Unitarianism we embraced six years earlier.

We know that many people joined KUF because of social activism. We also know that some people checking out KUF don’t stay since they didn’t find the social activism they expected.

The Wider Context

Over the Summer, I spent a lot of time thinking about what happened. My research led to an interesting finding, that the trend to a more spiritual church was not limited to KUF. Rather, it seemed to be a more widespread trend. The decision to re-brand Unitarianism was made at the UUA back in 2012. This was described in an article in Boston Magazine called “Selling God”. This paragraph sums it up:

What UU needs to survive, he [Dave Ruffin] believes, is a radical rethinking: It needs to stop defending its liberalism and embrace being a religion. “We need permission to be the people of faith that we are,” he says. “We need to actually get religious.”

When I read this, it hit a nerve. After announcing our decision to leave KUF, I often told people that we left when it stopped feeling like a church and started feeling like a religion.

Another article I came across described exactly what I was feeling. At the TheHumanist.com, you can find a piece written by Michael Werner called “Regaining Balance – The Evolution of the UUA”. It’s worth reading the entire article, but here’s its conclusion:

Can humanism in the UUA be revived? I think so, but it must be led by a ministry that sees the need for the humanist lifestance to be unapologetically embraced as it once was. It will require courage and open minds to balance tolerance and reason, heart and mind. This form of humanism won’t appeal to everyone, but a return to humanism offers the UUA a chance to revive itself for the twenty-first century’s secular revolution.

To be clear, I don’t want to be seen as bitter about what happened. I still very much value my experience as a KUF member. And I certainly don’t want to burn bridges. I offer this in the spirit of the Unitarianism I used to know, to encourage people to think about their place in a changing church.

Cheers! Hans

 

 

 

Take Back Control Of Your News

Face it, Facebook sucks at news. We all know that. This was all too painfully clear over the past year, with fake news stories being spread like wildfire throughout the social media. Facebook understands the issue and is taking steps to mitigate the problems. Whether or not these steps are enough is, however, questionable.

Personally, I’ve never been much of a Facebook fan. I use it since it’s pretty much a fact of life these days. Like it or not, it’s now the way to connect with people. My main issue is that Facebook decides what we should see in our feeds with precious few options to customize our preferences. (For the past few weeks, it seems that Facebook has decided not to put any items from my liked groups and pages into my news feed.)

But still, a lot of people get their news from Facebook. One study found that a majority of Americans get their news from Facebook. This is a frightening result considering the control Facebook has over what we read. What can we do?

A few days ago, I came across an article that reminded me of a protocol that has dropped in popularity over the past few years, but still has relevance: Why RSS Still Beats Facebook and Twitter For Tracking News.

RSS stands for “Rich Site Summary” (or “Really Simple Syndication”). RSS provides a standard way for news sites and blogs to present information. Using an RSS aggregator, you can view news and opinions from the sources you trust, not just the stuff Facebook thinks you want to read.

To get started, check out one popular RSS aggregator, Feedly. It’s what I now use to read news on my tablet. You can easily search for news feeds and select the ones you’re interested in. Alternatively, if you know the URL for a blog’s RSS feed, you can paste it into the search field and add it manually to your list. For example, to see the RSS feed for this blog, click here. If you want to read my ramblings as soon as they’re written, just add the URL of that page to your aggregator.

It’s time to take back control of your news feed. Don’t count on Facebook for news. Go take advantage of RSS aggregators, and view the news you want.

Cheers! Hans

4 String Chord Explorer

Some time ago, I wrote about a method of building your own ukulele chords. I’ve always realized that the process can be done automatically. But only recently, I finally got down to coding, and came up with an easier solution, which you can now try, at 4 String Chord Explorer.

This is a set of tools any ukulele player can use. Or the player of any stringed instrument with four courses, such as tenor banjo or mandolin. I realized that the algorithm used for determining ukulele chords could apply to any instrument. You can even choose your own tuning if I’ve missed any instrument. (Once you get past four courses, things get more complicated, so to make things easier, I decided to limit the tools to just four courses.)

There are six separate tools. First, choose the instrument you’re dealing with. If you want a completely different tuning, you can select the notes for each string. Next, choose the function. Currently, there are six you can choose from, each one using the specified instrument or tuning.

Chords by chord type: Select the root note and type of chord. Then click on “Selected Chords” to show possible fingerings for that chord.

Chords by root note: Select the root note, and click on “Chords by Root”. You’ll see 24 different chords for that root: major, augmented, 7th, minor, etc.

Chords by family: Select the key, and click on “Chords by Key”. You’ll get a table showing the most common chords for that key.

Search for chord: Finally, a reverse-search tool. Specify the fingering for a chord, click on “Search for Chord”, and you’ll see the chords that match the fingering.

Custom chord chart: Start by clicking the “Chord Chart” button. You’ll get a bunch of chord diagrams, 13 for each key. If you prefer a different fingering for a particular chord, click on the chord. Once you’re satisfied with the selection of chords, go to the bottom of the page. Specify a custom title and page size, click on “Create PDF”, and you’ll get your own single page chord chart that you can print out.

Create chord collection: Use this to create a zip file containing diagrams for the selected chords in png format. After you extract the image files on your computer, you can  drag and drop the images into a word processor document.

Cheers! Hans

I Am An Atheist

Some four decades ago, I read a book, a collection of essays by some famous scholar. In one essay, he promised to offer a proof for the existence of God, and I must admit, I got rather excited. I eagerly turned the page and continued reading. But I still remember my disappointment when the “proof” turned out to be nothing.

Frankly, no one would be more pleased than me if there were solid proof for a supreme being. I’ve often wondered if there is something just beyond what our senses and instruments can observe. Sometimes I wonder if I have some sort of “guardian angel” watching over me. And sometimes I wonder if there is some higher purpose to my existence.

But over time, I’ve come to accept the conclusion that there’s no proof for any supernatural deity. Indeed, no proof is at all even possible. How can there be? The best tool we have at our disposal for understanding the world around us is science. And yet, science can only deal with issues in our natural existence, not in some vague concept that exists in some hypothetical supernatural realm.

There is simply no evidence for anything supernatural. Over time, every phenomenon that was once assumed to have a supernatural origin has been found to have a natural cause. Consider lightning for example. It was once believed that thunder and lightning were caused by demons in the clouds. Churches, which were often the tallest structures in most towns, were often struck by lightning. Frequently, these structures caught fire. And bell-ringers, who were called upon to drive away the demons, were often electrocuted.

But eventually, one scientist, Benjamin Franklin, determined the true nature of lightning. Franklin used that knowledge to invent the lightning rod. Churches were reluctant at first to use this simple invention. But soon, most churches recognized the usefulness of this scientific advance.

Over time, my own level of atheism has changed. Since any concept of any possible supreme being is untestable, there’s always the possibility that such a being (or beings) might exist. But since such a being is not making itself obvious to us in this natural realm, it’s useless to belabor the point. The only reasonable conclusion is that there is no God.

Richard Dawkins proposed a seven point scale, where 1 represents a strong belief in God, and 7 represents a strong conviction that there is no God. For a long time, I was a 6. That is, a “de facto atheist”. But lately, I think I’m moving ever closer to a 7.

This is a big topic, and I’ll have more to say later.

Cheers! Hans

 

New Age Woo

I’ve always been interested in religion. I even took a course in comparative religion in university. During that course, I became interested in some Eastern religions, such as Buddhism and Taoism. And I enjoyed reading the Tao Te Ching and the Zhuangzi.

But over time, I realized that, no matter how noble the original intentions of any religion are, inevitably all religions become corrupted. And that there’s nothing as dangerous as religious leaders and teachers who seem to feel ennobled by their “holiness”. Many may well be sincere, but even the most sincere can be corrupted.

Yesterday, in my wanderings through cyberspace, I came across Naropa University, a liberal arts school in Boulder Colorado. Initially called Naropa Institute when founded by Chögyam Trungpa in 1974, the school offers a unique “contemplative liberal arts education”. Although it claims to be secular, its programs are heavily influenced by Buddhism. It’s reputation is, however, questionable since its credits are not recognized by any other university.


By BuddhaNU (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL]

 

Chögyam Trungpa is an interesting character. Although revered by many, he clearly suffered from human failings. Here is a excerpt from the Wikipedia story on Trungpa:

In some instances Trungpa was too drunk to walk and had to be carried. Also, according to his student John Steinbeck IV and his wife, on a couple of occasions Trungpa’s speech was unintelligible. One woman reported serving him “big glasses of gin first thing in the morning.”

The Steinbecks wrote a sharply critical memoir of their lives with Trungpa in which they claim that, in addition to alcohol, he spent $40,000 a year on cocaine, and used Seconal to come down from the cocaine. The Steinbecks said the cocaine use was kept secret from the wider Vajradhatu community.

Trungpa’s successor as head of the institute, Ösel Tendzin, was no angel either. He lied about his HIV positive diagnosis and transmitted the virus to at least one of his students. Worse, Trungpa told Tendzin that as long as he did his Vajrayana purification practices, his sexual partners would not contract the virus. (See Controversy.)

There’s more. According the RationalWiki article on Naropa University, one student fell under the spell of her dance instructor, which, it is believed, led to her psychological breakdown and suicide. In response, her parents established the organization Families Against Cult Teachings.

For more interesting reading, visit the blog The Boulder Buddhist Scam, written by a former student.

Kingston Pen Tour

We finally got around to taking the tour of the old Kingston Pen. Last Summer, the tours were very popular, and by the time I went on-line to buy tickets, they were all sold out. This year, I booked tickets well in advance, and had a good selection of tour times.

Here are some of the pictures I took during our visit:

A Photo Walk Along Eglinton West (2008)

I was going through some old photos and I came across a batch I took about nine years ago in the Eglinton West area in Toronto. I thought I’d revisit some of these photos.

Now and then I like to wander around and take photos. On this day in April 2008, I took an exceptionally large number of photos, 250 all together. When started out in the Eglinton West area, the sky was dull. That’s okay. Although the photos look dull in color, desaturating the photos can give a different flavor to the pictures.

As you can tell by the photos, this is gritty working-class neighborhood, typical of west Toronto. Like most of the city, there’s a variety of different cultures.

Adventures in WordPress

I’m an old school programmer. I remember a time when internet access was slow and we could see images slowly appear on web pages. At the time, understanding the technical aspects of HTTP and HTML were important to properly balance out design considerations and performance.

But times change. And I’m getting too old to worry too much about the nitty-gritty details. In my professional life, I dealt with one content management system, Zope. We were trying to develop a system based on Zope and Plone, but for various reasons, the effort wasn’t successful. I’m a big fan of Python. But sometimes it seems that, because the language is so easy to use, systems built using Python can get bloated very easily.

About five years ago, I learned PHP. It’s an ugly language with a less than stellar reputation. But it is ubiquitous and widely supported. Likewise, there are aspects of WordPress that grate with my old-school programmer creds. But it is widely used and supported. Sometimes you just have to be pragmatic.

For about 6 years, I was the webmaster for our church, the Kingston Unitarian Fellowship. Up until recently, the site was hard-coded HTML using SSI and Javascript. And it took some effort to make the site mobile-friendly. But back in January, the board directed me to use WordPress for the church website. It was not entirely surprising since we talked a bit about it before. And it made sense since other people in the congregation would then be able to update content. That was an important consideration for me since I knew it was only a matter of time before we would end up resigning our membership.

Starting from zero knowledge, I had most of the site converted within a matter of hours. Over the next week, I gained the knowledge to move over the dynamic content, and fix a few other glitches. And after a few months, I learned the “right” ways to do certain things, such as where to load the custom CSS and Javascript files.

With that new knowledge and experience, I decided my own web site needed a revamping. It most definitely was not mobile-friendly, and I hadn’t done much with the site for years other than occasionally update the genealogy section. But there was some content that sometimes prompted visitors to drop a few bucks in my “tip jar”. So I set out to bring my web site solidly into the 21st Century.

My site had literally hundreds of static pages. How to approach such a task? First, photo albums took up a large number of pages. I decided to implement the photo albums using a custom WordPress plugin with Ajax loading of the photos. Conversion of the content was made easier with a custom script.

The next biggest group was a set of about 200 pages, each one for a specific area in the city of Toronto. Again, I wrote a custom plugin with Ajax loading of the individual pages, and converted the pages using a custom script.

The rest had to be handled manually. That put a lot of pages in the main menu. So many in fact, that I reached a hard limit, making it difficult to update the menu. I ended up adding smaller sub-menus included at the top of some pages. Over time, I’ll do more of that to make the main menu more manageable.

Finally, I copied over blog postings from my blogs hosted on Blogger.

There are always trade-offs with any project, such as a web site. I like the freedom you get with a hard-coded site. But that takes much more of an effort. I’m not a big fan of the choices of theme you get with a content management system, but I can live with the options provided by the default scheme that comes with the current version of WordPress.

Cheers! Hans

Solving Sudoku – Four Group Intersection

Here we come to the most challenging technique yet for solving Sudoku. This one involves looking at the intersection of two rows and two columns. Look for a situation where you have the same possibility in four unsolved cells, where those four cells are the corners of a rectangle. Consider the following diagram:

Here we have 4 as a possibility in the fours cells marked in green. Examine the other marked cells. If 4 does not occur in any of the red cells, then it must not exist in any of the blue cells.

That is, if 4 is not in any red cells, then there are two possible arrangements for the 4‘s in the green cells: upper-left and lower-right; or upper-right and lower-left. Either way, with just the green cells, the columns will already have their cells with value 4. If there are any 4‘s in any of the blue cells, they can be eliminated as possibilities.

In practice, this situation is rather rare. Sometimes, you’ll find cases where you’ll find the same value in four corner cells. But more often than not, you find that value in both the rows and columns. In those cases, see if it’s possible to eliminate possibilities to get to a state where you can apply this technique.

Note that this technique can also scale up to three columns and three rows. But that’s an even more rare situation.

Well, those are all the techniques I’ve figured out. To summarize, continually use the basic techniques until you reach an impasse. If you’re lucky, and the puzzle author is kind, the basic techniques will be sufficient. But once you find yourself needing to make notes, you’re probably into the realm of the advanced techniques. First look at the groups with lots of solved values, and the cells with few possibilities. And keep plugging away at it. With experience, you’ll find it easier to recognize the situations where you can apply the more advanced techniques.

Hans

Solving Sudoku – Rectangle

This is the fourth posting in the series of techniques for solving Sudoku puzzles. First, I discussed the basic techniques. Then, I discussed single-group partitioning and two group intersection. Those techniques are enough for the vast majority of puzzles. Here, I discuss another technique that might be useful.

This technique takes advantage of an important characteristic of Sudoku puzzles. All puzzles have (or should have) one unique solution. Consider the cells at the four corners of a rectangle, for example:

Consider the cell at the lower right. If values 6 and 7 were eliminated, we would be left with an ambiguous state. That is, these four cells would all have the same two possibilities. There would be two possible solutions. But we can’t have that. We must have a unique solution.

Therefore, the possibilities 6 and 7 must remain, and we can eliminate the possibilities 4 and 5 from that cell:

And of course, once possibilities are eliminated, other opportunities to proceed will open up. In this particular example, if there were only three possibilities instead of four, we could write that in directly.

Next up, four group intersection.

Hans