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# Monday, 17 March 2008

For those of you that don't keep an eye on my work blog, my team at Infragistics just published a new Silverlight 2 sample application, faceOut, using prototypes of Infragistics' Silverlight controls.  If you're interested in Silverlight 2 and/or interested in what Infragistics is doing with Silverlight, you should check it out.

Monday, 17 March 2008 08:54:27 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Disclaimer  |  Comments [0]  | 
# Tuesday, 26 February 2008

I just had a remarkable experience (hence I'm remarking on it :) ).  At work, I park way out at the edge of our parking lot, which backs up against some undeveloped land.  I do it because I figure I gotta get some exercise somehow, but today I got an unexpected and delightful surprise.

As I was sitting there in my truck, finishing my yogurt and rosary, I took note of a group of red-breasted robins hopping around.  Robins are cute, but I don't find them remarkable in themselves.  But then I saw a male cardinal.  I think those are one of the most beautiful common birds with their striking red feathers.  So I was enjoying watching it, musing about its etymology, as one, two, then three blue jays flitted into view, which is another beautiful bird in my book. 

At this point I was thinking, wow, this is really cool.  Then a squirrel showed up and started chasing one of the robins around; I guess the bird snatched something he had his eye on.  I see squirrels all the time around here, so that wasn't particularly notable in itself, but it was just like slapping on extra gravy to the full on wildlife experience I was getting.  At this point, I was feeling like St. Francis. :)

But it didn't stop there!  I looked to my left, where a robin was eyeing me suspiciously, and something else caught my eye, flitting around on the ground.  When it paused to take a breath, I realized I was looking at a chipmunk!  Talk about brother sun, sister moon!  I don't think I've seen a chipmunk in the wild before.  Cute little boogers.

So I finished my stuff and was just about to step out of the truck when an iridescent black bird swooped in to roost right in front of my truck.  Icing on the cake, my friend.  Robins, cardinals, blue jays, a blackbird, a squirrel, and a chipmunk--right there around me all together.  Who needs a zoo!?

Now, nobody better start parking out there with me after reading this!  (For those of you not from around here, yes, this really happened--in New Jersey!)

Tuesday, 26 February 2008 11:14:40 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Disclaimer  |  Comments [3]  | 
# Tuesday, 05 February 2008

Dominican Cross Given that tomorrow (Ash Wednesday) begins our season of Lent1, it seems appropriate to me to comment on the Dominican "colors" of black and white.  The friars habit (their outfit) is black and white (well, you might say white and black, depending on your perspective).  The Dominican cross' most distinctive mark is its alternating black and white, and many other derivative insignia use those two colors.

So what's up with these colors?  Were they picked just because they look good together, have great contrast, or what?  Well, they have a meaning.  The black represents penance, and the white represents joy. 

What an odd combination, eh?  After all, isn't penance about being truly sorry for one's sins, turning away from those sins, intending to not sin again, and even doing things to try to make things right (reparation)?  How can you have joy if you're penitent?

The thing is, that penance is really an act of faith, an act of hope.  Without faith and hope, it doesn't make any sense.  If you don't believe in a transcendent, objective Good (i.e., God) from whom the nature of good flows, it is hard to know, concretely, what evil is (essentially a negation/privation of good).  Sin is a moral evil; that is, it is an act that is not in accord with the transcendent, objective Good and thus in some way negates and loses that Good. 

Penance is an act of hope because without hope of forgiveness, of restoration of the good we've deprived ourselves (and sometimes others) of, there'd really be no point in penance.  Why even bother trying to make things right if there is no hope that they can be made right?  It just wouldn't make sense to do that; it'd be a waste of time and energy, and instead we'd just waste away in despair.

But for those who have faith and hope, penance makes a lot of sense.  And its precisely that--that faith and hope--that makes penance essentially an act of joy.  We can take deep consolation and joy in penance because we know that we are making things right through God's grace.  The good that we've lost is restored and then some, and that's where the joy comes in.

So tomorrow starts what we call the penitential season of Lent, about forty days of observing a spirit of penance prior to celebrating that greatest of all days, when God made it possible for us to get things right--Easter.  Tomorrow we get ashes to remind us of our fragility and mortality: "remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return" echoing the words of God spoken to Adam as the consequence of that original sin. 

But the story doesn't end there; if it did, we may as well just do as Job's wife suggested--curse God and die.  No, the story goes on to the redemption of humanity through the Incarnation and atonement that makes it possible for us to restore that original good and in fact to go beyond that to become partakers in that transcendent, supreme Good, that Divine nature. 

So we can with true joy be sorry for our sins and do concrete acts of penance (fasting, abstaining from meat, giving to the poor, visiting the sick, and many others) because we have the end in view; we know the story doesn't end with our screwing things up if only we accept in faith and hope the grace made available to us to make things right.

So I hope that Christians will join me in joy as we celebrate this season of penance looking towards the resurrection of our Lord.  And maybe those who are not will better understand why it is we do what we do. :)

Notes
1. The word "Lent" is from earlier English and Germanic words for spring (because it's around springtime).  "Easter" is another one of those where the Church co-opted an English word for Church use; good symbolism, though--the east, the rising sun, the celebration of the rising of the Son of God.

Tuesday, 05 February 2008 22:56:16 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Disclaimer  |  Comments [0]  | 
# Saturday, 19 January 2008

One of the questions that gets asked and re-asked over the generations is "how can a good, all-powerful God exist if there is so much evil in the world?"  There's even a specialized term that's been created for dealing with that question--theodicy.  Needless to say, as many times as it has been asked, there have been answers given.  For some, these answers are sufficient, but the fact that it keeps being asked indicates that for some the answers are not sufficient.

I'm not about to say I have found the answer to silence the question, and even if I had, very few people will ever read this. :)  But I do think the correct answer is what has been offered by others, which is that evil exists so that greater good may come of it.

This answer is hard to swallow when we can't see the greater good, when we're being brought face to face with great suffering and the terrible things that people do to others or even just the suffering of the poor, those afflicted by natural disasters, and those who suffer as a result of accidents.  I think some would argue even that "natural" death itself seems to be an evil.  It can be very hard to see the greater good because these things stand out in stark, ringing, painful contrast to what we think of as the good life we want for ourselves and hope for others.

What is Evil and From Whence?
Tied up in this question is the deeper question of "just what is evil, anyways?"  If I recall correctly, St. Augustine of Hippo, one of the great Christian philosophers and theologians, proposed that evil is the negation of good.  Depending on how you take it, this may be a good definition.  A friend of mine once suggested he thought that evil wasn't just the negation of good but that it was the twisting, or perversion, of good, but I can see that falling under St. Augustine's definition in that if you are twisting or perverting something, you are refusing it as it is and changing it into something it is not, which I think is essentially a negation.

On this question, I tend to hold with St. Augustine, as his definition seems to be a simple one that really does encompass the meaning of evil, and it reflects even our common understanding of evil--as inclusive of human suffering and death as well as the rejection of God, the ultimate good.  I do think that human suffering and death are, taken solely in themselves, evil, though not absolute or unconquerable evil.  I think that such evil can be overcome by good.

To reinforce that suffering and death are evil, apart from it seeming obvious common sense, we also see in divine revelation that we humans were not made for suffering and death.  God made us and our world and said "it is good."  Our sin, that is, our turning away from the God who is the source of our life and joy and our turning inwards on ourselves, introduced the possibility for death and suffering.  I think the curse of Adam is not so much an external punishment inflicted by a seemingly vengeful God than it is an affirmation and explication of the natural consequence of our willful separation from the source of all being and happiness.

The Transcendent Good that Overcomes Evil
But God foresaw this and, from the foundations of the universe, planned to redeem us from our turning away from our natural end, which was and is eternal sharing in God's goodness, his love, his joy, and his peace.  He planned to come down to us and become one of us, taking on our whole human nature, purifying it, restoring it, and further dignifying it by infusing his own complete divine perfection. 

He thus empowered us to turn back to him and to receive from him again that which was our natural end to begin with--that complete human participation in the perfect divine goodness.  By becoming human, taking on our whole humanity, he not only restored us to our status as "good" creatures of God, he adopted us as his children.  Through Jesus, the only, eternal Son of God--through his incarnation and sacrifice--we can now truly become children of God.

The redemption of humanity through God's becoming man and atoning for our sin, in itself, is almost an infinite good.  As far as we humans are concerned, I think it is the most perfect good, and its goodness overcomes (is greater than) pretty much all evil throughout all human history, including the supreme evil of our turning away from our source of life and happiness, which is what got us into this mess in the first place.

By joining ourselves to the incarnate Son of God, we can come to share in this unspeakable goodness.  All suffering pales in consideration of this goodness, and in fact, we can take consolation in our own suffering by uniting it to the suffering of Christ.  In offering our suffering in such a way, we make that suffering a loving act, a gift, for our own sake and for that of our fellow human beings.

Through his overcoming of death by his own resurrection, he enables the rest of us humans to do likewise.  And that is why death, for a faithful Christian, is not an evil, but a good.  We know that we have eternal life through Christ.  We know that in death, we come to share more fully in the infinite perfect goodness of God.  This is why the Psalmist can say "precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his saints."

Now this is not to say that suffering isn't real by any means.  This is not to say that suffering and death are not evil.  They are.  Suffering and death is the natural state of humans separated from God; it is a consequence of our original turning away, which has created a real physical and spiritual corruption of the good human nature that we were created with.  Suffering and death are very real, and they are very painful.  When speaking of good overcoming them, we are not minimizing them; in fact, I'd say that the very reality of these is a stimulus to make us more aware of the incomparable goodness we receive from God through Christ.

Why Freedom?
Given all of this, the question remains, though, of why God would have allowed us to turn away from him in the first place.  Why grant us such freedom in the first place?  After all, we human parents restrict our children's freedom in order to protect them from hurting themselves.  Why didn't God keep us from hurting ourselves by turning away from him and entering into a state of suffering and death?

It is a fair question.  I think the answer is essentially the same--so that a greater good could come of it.  In this, I see two greater goods.  The first is the incarnation of God--God becoming human so that we humans could become more like God.1  This is why the original sin is known as the "happy fault" according to our ancient liturgy.2  Our original damaging of our nature occasioned God's joining himself to us and elevating our human nature, not just restoring us to our original state of human goodness but elevating us to be true children of God, more fully able to participate in his infinite goodness.

The other greater good is wrapped up in this:  Our freedom enables us to truly love.  Love, the free giving and sharing of ourselves with others, is the greatest act of good, and God desires for us to share in that goodness.  Without freedom, we cannot love; we can only mimic the act of loving.  We would be marionettes in God's great play.  In granting us freedom, however, God enables us to experience this supreme act of goodness, which is love--love of him and of others.

Eventually, we parents must let our children strike out on their own.  We must let them learn from their own mistakes and make their own decisions.  Only in doing so will they fully become their own selves, more fully human, and not an extension of us.  Loving parents will do what they can to protect their children, but they will also let their children develop into independent human beings.  Loving parents will teach their children the best path for them to walk in life, but they will also be there when their children choose to stray from that path and hurt themselves.

So it is with God.  In wanting us to be fully independent, to share fully in the goodness of love (that is, to become fully human), he grants us freedom, even freedom that we can use to harm ourselves.  He teaches us the right path to go.  First, in creating us, he imprinted upon our hearts a knowledge of the right path,3 then he reinforced and further illuminated this through his revelation of Himself--directly to Adam and Eve and later to Abraham, then through the Mosaic Law and the prophets, and finally in becoming human himself, teaching the Apostles, and through their writing and oral teaching, directing the Church with the Holy Spirit.  So he gives us freedom and shows us the best way to use it, but he also foresaw that we would not use our freedom wisely, so he planned from the beginning to pick us up and heal us from our fall, much like a loving parent treats the scraped knee or helps us recover from other, larger mistakes.4

So we see that God can be truly all powerful, perfectly and infinitely good and loving, and yet still allow evil to exist.  Evil exists both as a result of our freedom but also as an opportunity for good to abound, as a thing that spurs us on towards the good and to overcome with good.

The Ordinary Good That Overcomes Evil
Yet I realize that there are those who may be unable to perceive and appreciate the transcendent goodness of God in his creation, his giving us of our freedom, his revelation to us, and in his Incarnation and atonement that effects our redemption.5  Even so, for those, there is more to offer here.  I would suggest that even the ordinariness of human love, especially familial love, from a strictly proportional perspective, far outweighs all the evils in human history.  Think of it this way.  Almost every human being that has ever existed has experienced some, probably a lot, of just ordinary human love--love of parent, love of sibling, love of children, love of friends, and (for many) love of God. 

One could say that throughout our lives, the average human is surrounded by a swirling sea of human love that we never recognize because it is so ordinary and mundane.  It is not heroic.  It's just all those everyday experiences of kindness and sacrifice that are so small that, in themselves, they are not noticed.  But taken as an aggregate, I would suggest that these far outweigh the more shocking instances of evil in our history.

I would further suggest that especially when we see evil, some notable and notorious evil, the everyday human reaction is sympathy.  Think of 9/11, the tsunami, Katrina, earthquakes, floods, genocides, war.  For every great human evil, there seems to be a corresponding outpouring of ordinary human love.  In fact, it is often noted that such tragedies bring people together who would otherwise not be sharing with each other.

And so I think we should not wonder at the existence of evil.  Even in a purely human perspective, it seems to me that there is far more love in this world than evil and hate.  The fact that we seem to take more notice of evil strengthens this view because, as a rule, we humans tend to notice the out of the ordinary more than the ordinary. 

When you add on to all of this ordinary love the transcendent, infinite love and goodness that God has wrought in human history, all the evil pales all the more and we become truly thankful and at peace while enduring and witnessing evil because we know that there truly and actually is a greater good all around us every day, often increased in response to such evil, and we Christians have the firm hope of sharing in the eternal infinite goodness of God, leaving behind the evils of this present world and realizing the fullness of our human potential for good.  In light of all this, rather than wondering why evil exists, should we not be pondering why God created such a world in which love is so ordinary and yet so transcendent?

In pain, sorrow, and distress, suffering and death, let us not lose heart.  Let us cry out in our humanity with the Psalmist "O Lord my God, deliver me!", but also "I love the Lord, for he has heard the cry of my appeal."  For we know the trials of this life, however painful, are already answered through the work of Christ.  Let us not forget the ordinary love that surrounds us each day, and most of all, let us put our trust and hope in Him for "those who put their trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, that cannot be shaken, that stands firm forever."6 

--
Given on the Memorial of Blessed Andrew of Peschiera, O.P.

Notes
1. St. Athanasius put it this way: "For the Son of God became man so that we might become God," which is to say that we might become partakers of the divine nature.
2. From the Exultet, an Easter Vigil hymn of praise.
3. This is what we call "natural law," which is essentially an inherent human capability to know from reason what is the best way to live.
4. Let's not presume, though, that God models his actions on ours; it is the opposite.  We understand something about God's fatherhood through our limited understanding of what good fatherhood is here on earth.  But that's part of the beauty of God's revelation--he meets us where we are, teaches us through humans, through words, actions, and the image of God that we have received from him that has been perfected in Jesus Christ.  When we try to understand God's paternal love, we must keep in mind that we do not judge him by our understanding of paternal love but rather use paternal love as a means to better understand his actions in human history, including our own history.
5. It is worth noting, however, that given our presuppositions about God and his revelation and action in human history, we Christians can make a pretty good account of why evil exists.  A person's inability to appreciate it, which is understandable for those without faith, does not change the fact that we can make an account for why God allows evil to exist. 
6. From Psalm 116 and 125, respectively.

Saturday, 19 January 2008 15:17:21 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Disclaimer  |  Comments [2]  | 
# Friday, 11 January 2008

After posting my ramblings about software as a biological ecosystem last night, I kept thinking a bit more about the topic of managing complexity and what seems to be the high-end industry response to it.  Put simply, it seems that we're trying to manage complexity with yet more complexity (the whole adding gasoline to the fire analogy).  The more I think about it, the more absurdly ludicrous this approach seems.

And it suddenly came to me--we are seeking The Ring:

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

This is the solution the industry seems to propose with things like enterprise rule management software and other centralized IT governance initiatives. 

One Policy to rule them all, one Policy to find them,
One Policy to bring them all and in the darkness bind them. 
[Feel free to substitute System, Architecture, or any other grandiose schemes.]

Do we really want to be Dark Lords?  Is "the architecture group" the land where the shadows lie?  I guess some might indeed aspire to be dark lords ruling from a land of shadow, but it never ends well for dark lords.  As the history of Middle Earth shows (and indeed human history), you can't oppress life, creativity, passion, and freedom, at least not for long.  The yoke of tyranny will always be thrown off.  Life will find a way.  Attach other pithy axiom here.

Create software, systems, and policies that are alive, that encourage life, that can grow, adapt, and evolve.

Friday, 11 January 2008 21:19:33 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Disclaimer  |  Comments [0]  | 

This thought occurred to me the other day.  Maybe the right approach to managing complexity in business software is something akin to creating a biological ecosystem.  By this, I mean designing correcting mechanisms to address chaos as it emerges and, ultimately, (the dream) would be designing systems that are biologically aggressive, that is, they look for niches to fill and also take steps to preserve themselves.

I don't know.  I'm sure I'm not the first person to think about this.  It just hit me the other day as I was walking into work.  It seems like the more common approach we take is to try to create a mechanical system as if the complexities of human interactions (i.e., business) can be specified and accounted for in a closed system.

I attended a session on managing complexity at the ITARC in San Diego last October, and the presenter was, if I recall correctly, advocating the usage of more precise specification of business rules through the use of Object Role Modeling (and in fact Dr. Terry Halpin was in attendance at that session and was a active participant).  I had attended another session the previous day by a fellow from Fair Isaacs on business rule management software.

All of these folks struck me as very intelligent and knowledgeable, and yet it seems to me that they are going in exactly the wrong direction.  In fact, I left that conference feeling very whelmed.  I felt as if I were living in a separate universe; at least I got the sense that there is a software multiverse, parallel software development universes, with me living in one and a lot of those guys in another.  All this talk of "governance" and highfalutin systems (e.g., grid SOA) leaves one feeling so disconnected from the everyday experience of being a software professional.

It seems to me that the solution to complexity in IT is not to create ever more complex mechanical systems, policies, and infrastructure to "govern" the problem.  It seems like that's throwing gasoline on the fire.  Not only that, it seems fundamentally opposed to the reality that is business, which is essentially a human enterprise based on humans interacting with other humans, usually trying to convince other humans to give them money instead of giving it to some other humans that want their money.

Because humans are intelligent and adaptable, particularly humans driven by, dare I say, greed (or at least self-preservation), these humans are constantly tweaking how they convince other humans to give them money.  The point is, business is fundamentally a human and an aggressively biological, enterprise.  It consists of humans who are constantly on the lookout to fill new niches and aggressively defending their territories.  So it seems to me that business software should be modeled, at a fundamental level, on this paradigm rather than on the mechanical paradigm. 

Of course, the problem is that the materials we're working with are not exactly conducive to that, but therein lies the challenge.  I tend to think that the efforts and direction being made by the agile community and approaches like domain-driven design are headed in the right direction.  At least they're focusing on the human aspects of software development and focusing in on the core business domains.  That's the right perspective to take.

Extend that to IT governance, and that means giving various IT departments within an enterprise the freedom to function in the best way that meets the needs of their local business units rather than trying to establish a monolithic, central architecture that attempts to handle all needs (think local government versus federal government).  It means developing with a focus on correction rather than anticipation, building leaner so that when change is needed, it is less costly (in a retrospective sense as well as in total cost of ownership).

I'm not advocating giving ourselves over to the chaos; I'm just thinking that this is a better way to manage the chaos.  And as we learn the best patterns to manage complexity in this way, it seems not too far a stretch to think that we could start automating mechanisms that help software systems be ever more agile and ultimately even anticipate the change that is needed by the business, either automatically making the adjustments needed or at the very least suggesting them.  That would be true business intelligence in software.

Maybe it's a pipe dream, but I think that without such dreams, we don't improve.  At the very least, I think it suggests that the agile approach to software is the right one, and that this approach should be extended and improved, not only in software development but also in architecture and IT in general.

What do you think?

Friday, 11 January 2008 00:01:33 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Disclaimer  |  Comments [2]  | 
# Sunday, 30 December 2007

"How many kids do they have??" asked the bemused co-worker upon hearing that someone is having a fifth child.  I am similarly bemused why so many people seem to feel negatively towards those with large families.  I guess that people may not really think about it or, if they do, maybe they really don't know why anyone living in the 21st century would want to have more than the popularly accepted family size of two, maybe three.  The best I can do is offer why my wife and I are choosing to have a large family.

You see, I did not grow up in a large family.  I have one brother and for most of my childhood, my mom was single.  Nor did any of my immediate family or even my friends have large families; I think the largest family had three kids.  I recall it as being a mostly happy childhood--I'm not complaining.  I only mention it to say I did not inherit or learn by example how or why to have a large family; it didn't come naturally. 

For my wife, Christiane, and I, it wasn't a decision to say "we want N number of kids" at some point or other.  Early on in our engagement, we did toss around the idea of four.  Christiane grew up in a family of six (that's four kids for those counting), my mom has three siblings, and so it seemed like a good number somewhere between two and some unthinkable number beyond four. :)

But as we progressed in our philosophical and spiritual journey, we became convinced that setting some artificial limit up front just didn't make sense.  Yes, we became Catholic in this time period, and yes, Catholicism has a rather radical teaching on this matter.  The essence of the Catholic perspective on children is that they are a blessing, a gift from God, and that we should remain truly open to these wonderful gifts.

Despite some Catholic caricatures, this does not equate to being irresponsible and just having as many children as you possibly can.  For example, the most recent authoritative Catholic teaching on the subject, Humanae Vitae, specifically speaks to the issue of responsible parenthood, saying that couples can decide to avoid conceiving "for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts."1  And in doing so, we're supposed to use the most effective, safe, mutually respectful, character-building, and morally commendable means when doing so--abstinence during fertility.2

There's obviously no one-size-fits-all family size. Some couples are infertile.  Some couples find the wherewithal to have a dozen or more children, even while relying on remarkably limited income.  In considering the question of how many children to have, there are a number of common concerns that need to be addressed.  Since this is a short piece, I can only touch on some of them, particularly those that seem to be the most common, and offer some positive reasons to have children.

What Do We Value?
For us, the question is not so much how many kids we should have.  I think the question is rather what do we really value in life?  Some time ago, Saturday Night Live had this series of crazy fake commercial where this couple were blatant cheapskates when it came to their children but would lavish luxury on themselves, advertising a fictitious online store for such parents--cheapkids.net.  It was ludicrous, but it is poignant.  I think this caricature speaks to those who, by their choice, remain infertile and yet enjoy a lavish or even just a very comfortable life as a married couple.  This satire portrayed a couple who at least had kids, even if they were cheap with them, but it seems to me that those who refuse children or limit them artificially and frivolously might want to ask themselves if they are denying life to potential human beings in order to live in relative luxury.  Are those things more valuable than human life?

Of course, I do not speak here of those who live in poverty or who truly would endanger the lives of their family by having more children.  I speak here of those who, like me, live in relative luxury compared to most of the humans in this world.  People who are not hardened have their guts wrenched by the poverty of many in this world (and rightly so), but there is another kind of poverty that goes unnoticed--the poverty of life, the poverty of being denied even the opportunity to exist solely so that another can live in ease and comfort.4 

From this consideration, it seems that the original perspective (of bemusement or even distaste or disgust at having many children) should be turned on its head.  The question becomes, instead, how can so many otherwise nice, well-meaning people deny so many more the chance to exist?  Perhaps folks should not respond with puzzlement or condescension to those who remain open to life but rather respond with admiration and respect.  We all know that kids, though they are indeed the most amazing and wonderful blessings we can naturally receive, are a handful to say the least, and so I think people should be a tad more reticent when criticizing those who have many.

Why Limit Family Size?
Are there good reasons for regulating birth?  Obviously.  Even beyond the grave economic reasons, I think there are others.  Perhaps there is real psychological concern for the mother or father.  Perhaps there is a physical or mental condition that a parent or child has that would make further growth of the family unwise.  Perhaps there is a real threat to the mother's health.  I'm not writing to address every conceivable circumstance; I'm writing to address popular notions concerning children that my wife and I have had to think about (and are often confronted with) in our own working out of how we live out what it means to be responsible parents wanting to live in the best way possible, trying to have the most perfect family we can.

Before moving on considering the common reasons given to limit family size, it is worth noting that the decision to have children should flow from a lifelong commitment.5  Just like there are not so good reasons to limit family size, there are not so good reasons to have children.  Having babies seems to be a pastime for celebrities these days.  It should be obvious that getting more attention/publicity, trying to save a marriage, keeping up with the Joneses, extending the family tree, etc. are not so great reasons.  Children are human beings, having the full dignity of human beings, to be treated and loved as such; they are not accessories, trophies, or any other means to an end--they are end in themselves, and we should be just as careful about our motivations for having them as we are in our motivations for not having them.

Education
The most common concerns we hear are monetary, the top being about the rising cost of sending kids to college.  I, for one, did not get a dime from my mom to send me to college--she didn't have it to give.  I made good enough grades in school and fared well on the ACT, getting a decent scholarship to a private school, and then worked for and borrowed the rest.  I have known many others, many of them my friends, who have similar stories.

We all want the best for our children, but is the "best" sending them to a good college?  I think that a good, liberal arts education is deeply valuable in itself.  I have a degree in history and humanities, but I worked my way into software.  I am glad of my education even though its credentials don't mean a lot in my occupation; I value it more highly than had I spent the same effort on a technical degree. 

But a degree, even from a good university, only goes so far in life.  Ultimately, it comes down to an individual applying himself or herself with the talents and desires he or she has.  You can teach a child a good work ethic for free at home that will do more for them in the long run than any degree would.  And I'd suggest you can teach such an ethic more easily in large families where mutual help from all members is a necessity. 

You can teach a child to be a lifelong student, to enjoy learning and to think critically, for free at home, and that, too, goes further than any degree.  You can teach a child values of honesty, integrity, commitment, kindness, charity, compassion, and other virtues for free at home that simply are not taught at university, and these as well far exceed the long-term value of any degree.  And I'm not talking about home schooling; I'm simply talking about setting an example, teaching, and encouraging your children in addition to any regular, formal schooling.

I'm certainly not opposed to college or formal education in general, but its value has been way overemphasized in our culture.  The purveyors of formal education have much to gain from this, as do lenders and investment companies who help you invest to save for your child's education.  I think we need to be careful not to be blinded to the economic realities involved in all of the marketing about education and simply recognize formal education for the value it does have.  It shouldn't be the ultimate deciding factor and choice in parenting.6

There are affordable alternatives for higher education, and if it is important to the child, he or she can make an effort to realize such goals.  Furthermore, I have no doubt that a large majority of parents who at some point use this reasoning actually end up not saving or investing properly or find themselves in a situation later where the investment was truly needed for other reasons.  In short, I tend to think that a vague concern about "sending my kid to a good school" is not a viable reason to limit family size. 

Expense
Apart from higher education, there seems to be a general consensus that children "are expensive."  I'd like to suggest an alternative to this maxim.  Children can be expensive.  Just as with higher education, you can choose to spend more money than you need to on each child, but it is a choice, not a given.  And it is on this point, more than any other, that we see the rubber meet the road in terms of a challenge of values.

If we are given over to our contemporary culture, children are indeed expensive.  If each child needs his or her own expansive room, if each child needs new, brand-name clothes on a monthly basis, if each child needs more toys than he or she could possibly enjoy, if each child needs his or her own car, then yeah, they can be very expensive.  But lets not stop with the kids.  If mom and dad need a brand-new car every few years; if they have to have new clothes every month, new jewelry, new perfume, new golf clubs, new computer, Playstation, or Xbox games, if they need to go to plays or other high-culture events regularly, and if the family has to eat out every day, then definitely, a large family is "too expensive."

Put simply, if one is a purebred consumer, yeah, a large family costs too much.  Doesn't it speak volumes that our primary concern and objection about large families is economical?  Doesn't it drive to the very heart of the matter if that is the chief concern?  Ultimately, doesn't it say that we truly do value things, comfort, and luxury more than we value people?  In short, doesn't it imply that we're just plain selfish?

What's truly sad about this is that we are deceiving ourselves.  I can attest from experience that all of these things don't really last--the return on investment just isn't there.  In fact, all these things actually "increase our sorrow" because they increase our worries and consume our mental and physical energies (in working for, acquiring, securing, insuring, storing, moving, caring for, and maintaining them).  Not only do we tend to get bored with new things; they tend to have a net negative effect on our lives that we've become blind to.  No, we're not really blind--we recognize the deficit they produce, but like a dog returning to its vomit, we try to ladle on the salve of more things, which only exacerbates the problem.  We're blind to the remedy; we're not blind to the effects of the problem.

The Common Good
There is another common concern that is not economical (at least on the individual scale), and it seems to be less pronounced these days than it was for the previous generation--that of the concern about overpopulation.  For Christiane and I, this has always seemed to be more of an excuse than a reason.  It seems that an uncertain, future concern about one day overpopulating the world is not a compelling reason to overcome the more sure, immediate positive reasons to have children.  Even so, it is a common enough concern to warrant addressing. 

A good deacon friend of mine put it another way that gives this concern a bit more weight.  If everybody in the world decided to have ten children, what would that mean for the common good?  He suggested that we may just be lacking in imagination to think how we'd address such a situation, and maybe so--we humans tend to get pretty inventive when we need to.  No doubt we'd figure something out.  But I have to say I am not suggesting that everyone have ten children.  I don't think that would be responsible for many, perhaps most of us.   Being truly and actually open to children does not necessarily equate to having ten.

On the other hand, I tend to think the larger problem, as it is with most of these life issues, is our generally selfish culture.  We're so busy looking out for number one that we accumulate for ourselves far more than we need in order to have a good and happy life.  I'm not advocating socialism or any kind of enforced equal distribution of goods; I am advocating charity as a core cultural value.  If we, the human race, shared this core cultural value, I tend to think that concern about overpopulation would be a moot point.  And in any case, it remains that it seems to be a rather vague, unsubstantiated reason to limit family size.

The Gift That Keeps On Giving
It seems to me that people, especially children, are truly a gift that keeps on giving.  If we lavish our care on them, they tend to give back in equal, if not greater, measure.  That's the funny thing about authentic love.  It's like investing in a sure thing--you give and you'll get back, well-measured, shaken and packed down, and running over.  It may not even be the recipient giving back.  That's another odd thing about authentic love; it tends to be its own reward--there is joy in the act of loving itself.

We often think that children are just a big hassle.  In Stumbling on Happiness, the author suggests, based on subjective surveys, that children do not in fact make us happy, that it is, rather, a big, consensual lie that we tell each other.  It is claimed that the people interviewed said they were happier after their children grew up and out of the house than they were when they were in the house.  Despite the author's disclaimers, I think this really takes a shallow view of happiness and does not account for the deeper happiness that is satisfaction, which results from seeing effort come to fruition.  These parents experience, naturally, a certain happiness and lessening of difficulty at having reclaimed time for themselves once children are out of the house, but they also share in the abiding joy of having their children "all growed up"--their investment, as it were, has come to completeness.

The survey also does not, I think, account for the consideration that perception is a large part of reality.  Because our culture sells us a bill of superficial bull about what makes us happy (i.e., things, comfort, entertainment, and luxury), our perception is deeply skewed and we see children as detracting from our attainment of these things (taking us back the the monetary objections discussed above). 

Indeed, it makes perfect sense, and I've seen it in my own life, that when my children cause me the most "trouble" and frustration is when I am turned in on myself (being selfish in some way).  They are taking me away from what I want to do or they prevent me from getting something I want, so I perceive them as a nuisance.  Usually, though, when I am in the right frame of mind, I see their activity for what it is--exploring the world, learning to function according to all life's little rules, or maybe simply just wanting to spend time with you because they are infatuated with you.  This latter dies away as they age I suppose, but wouldn't you agree, if you're being honest with yourself, that a large bit of the friction between parents and kids comes in the first two?

The point is that it is generally those times that we are most frustrated that we are being the most selfish.  In other words, it is not that the kids are the problem--we selfish parents are the problem.  If we change our perspective (which takes practice, I can promise--I'm still working on it), and learn to not fight for our selfish impulses against our children but instead indulge in authentic love (self-giving) towards them, we will find one of the greatest joys in life--shared, familial love

Once Christiane and I recognized this, it seemed almost a no-brainer that we'd want to increase this joy as much as we can.  We saw that instead of thinking how few children can we have, we think how many children can we responsibly have?  This way of thinking is, we think, the best not only for us but especially for our family as a whole. 

When we are considering when to have our next child, we do try to be responsible.  We think about how this new person will fit in our home both logistically and socially, and we consider the psychological impact on the other members of the family.  In the end, we try our best to err on the side of openness and only choose to delay for what seem to be good, unselfish reasons.  We're not perfect by any means, but this seems to us to be a big step on the the path toward a more perfect family life.7 

--
Given on the Feast of the Holy Family in the Year of Our Lord 2007

Notes
1. At this point, my darling 1-year-old, Brendan Patrick Irenaeus, toddled over to me with one of my house shoes.  Thanks, Brendan!  My feet are freezing... now where's the other one?
2. Without digressing too much, let me briefly touch on this subject which is so awesomely opposed to our popular culture these days.  My wife and I practice what is called Natural Family Planning (NFP).  You can read about all the details elsewhere; let me just add my own personal testimony.3  For a brief time early in our marriage, we did use artificial birth control, but for the vast majority of our 8.5 years together, we've practiced NFP.  I can honestly say that you don't die by not doing it; you can be just as happy and fulfilled.  (And trust me, this is coming from a very red-blooded, American male, if you get my drift.)  

Based on our experience, I do feel that mutual abstinence does indeed build character, build mutual self respect for each other, increase understanding of the way God's made us, increase affection for each other, and help you appreciate even more the times when you don't abstain.  Plus, not using artificial birth control (or rather, being truly and actually, not just hypothetically, open to the creation of life) does enhance our relationship and our intimate time together.  In short, we find the practice of natural family planning to be a significant positive influence on our marriage.  And it does work!
3. Now John, my three-year-old son, is yanking at my arm and climbing on me (took a while to type this); ah, tickling is a good deterrent.. now the other two are attacking.. :)  Bridget, my six-year-old daughter, is dancing around and tweetling (best onomatopoeia I could come up with for it).
4. This touches, of course, on the sensitive topic of abortion (and indeed the desire to have few to no children is directly related to abortion), but that's not the focus here.  Here I'm speaking in a more generous sense of even those who would otherwise never consider abortion, and yet make the regular, conscious choice to refuse the potential life of another human being for less than serious reasons.
5.  This comes from the understanding of the true good and beauty of marriage discussed in "On the Good and 'Right' of Marriage."  See particularly the section entitled "The True Good."
6. Besides, we've all seen and heard stories of parents' painstaking planning being tossed to the wind by children who have other plans for their lives.  There's no guarantee that even those who save and have money for their children's education will see that money go to good use. 
7. And thus we see that the teaching of the Catholic Church (as is actually true of all Catholic doctrine when you truly understand it in all its beauty and truth) is a positive prescription on how to live the good life to its fullest, that is, how to have abundant life.  And I have to admit, we've inherited this from our Jewish siblings.  Scripture, especially the Psalms, regularly laud the blessing that children are, and it is not talking about them being a help on the farm, i.e., large families are not only good in agricultural societies!

Sunday, 30 December 2007 00:00:54 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Disclaimer  |  Comments [0]  | 
# Saturday, 22 December 2007

I've been getting friendly with Windows Live lately, and after getting terribly tired of having to switch to HTML view in Windows Live Writer in order to insert a note (could be a footnote or endnote depending on how you look at it), I decided to see if I could write a plug-in to make my life easier.

So was born the Blog Notes plug-in.  Unfortunately, there is no extensibility for just marking up existing text (e.g., adding a superscript button to the markup toolbar), so I had to go with the option to insert some HTML using the  interface.  I really was trying to keep it simple and lightweight (for my own sanity), so it is pretty basic.

The functionality is pretty straightforward.  Thanks to Mark James for the free icons.  Once the plug-in is installed, you should see an "Insert Blog Notes..." option in the Insert pane on the right side as shown below.

Insert Blog Notes in Insert Pane

Clicking on it brings up the Blog Notes dialog:

Blog Notes Dialog

Clicking "New Note" will insert a new superscript number (the next one in the sequence).

Clicking "Reference Note" will insert the selected number as superscript.  You can also just double-click the number to do that.

The "Notes Section" button will insert a notes section.1

Lastly, "Write Note" simply adds the selected note plus a period and couple spaces.

As you can see, it's pretty basic, but it saves a few seconds for each note (assuming you bother to switch to HTML view, find the number, and put <sup></sup> tags around it like I do [did]).  You can also tweak one option/setting.  Go to Tools -> Options, and select the Plug-ins tab:

Live Writer Plug-ins Options

Clicking Options... on the Blog Notes plug-in brings up a tres simple dialog:

Blog Notes Options

This one option will toggle whether or not the plug-in uses in-page anchor links for the notes so that the superscript numbers would link down to the corresponding note in the Notes section.  I originally added this feature without realizing the implications.  Because blog posts are often aggregated and otherwise viewed in unexpected places, using in-page anchors is iffy at best.  Community Server seems to strip them out, and dasBlog keeps them, but since it emits a <base /> tag to the site root, all of the anchor links are relative to the site homepage instead of the current post, which effectively renders them useless.  I looked at the dasBlog code where this happens, and it's in the core assembly.  I was concerned what side effects changing it to use the current URL would have, so I didn't do that.  But if you have blog software that will let you use this feature, by all means, enjoy!

Caveats

  • Because of the way the plug-in framework works, I use a static/shared collection to keep track of the notes.  This means it acts a tad goofy if you close out of Live Writer or write multiple posts while it is open.  If you close and come back to a post, the notes count is reset.  To "fix" this, just re-add however many notes you had (if you want to bother).  If you write multiple posts, you just have to deal with it.  I don't know if there is post-local storage for plug-ins, but I didn't have time to dig into it.
  • Your mileage may vary.  I wrote this mainly to save myself time and get familiar with the Live Writer extensibility model, so it ain't a finished product to be sure.

Get It!
Since there are numerous tutorials on the Web (that I learned from) to write Live Writer plug-ins, I won't go into those details here, but you're welcome to download my code and learn from it directly if you want.  I think I have comments and such in there.

  • Download the Plug-in Only - If you just want to use this plug-in, this is what you want.  Drop the DLL into your plug-ins directory and go (typically C:\Program Files\Windows Live\Writer\Plugins).
  • Download the Source Code - This is a VS 2008 solution for those who want to learn, enhance, extend, whatever.  The license is more or less the MIT license.  You'll need Live Writer installed to reference its API.

Notes
1. This is the "Notes Section."  The button adds the "Notes" header and writes out any existing note numbers.

Saturday, 22 December 2007 14:07:12 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Disclaimer  |  Comments [0]  | 

Papal Approbation of the Order of Preachers Today marks the 791st anniversary of the official establishment of the Dominican Order.  It's so cool to be a part of this ancient order, being fraternally connected to the many Dominican saints, blesseds, and regular folk like me.

Happy Birthday, Order of Preachers!  May you have thousands more!

 

Of course, just being a member of the Catholic Church, the "one continuous intelligent institution that has been thinking about thinking for two thousand years,"1 is pretty dang cool, too. :)

Notes
1. From G.K. Chesterton's "Why I Am a Catholic," circa 1926.

Saturday, 22 December 2007 13:07:07 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Disclaimer  |  Comments [0]  | 

Disclaimer
The opinions expressed herein are solely my own personal opinions, founded or unfounded, rational or not, and you can quote me on that.

Thanks to the good folks at dasBlog!

Copyright © 2017 J. Ambrose Little