Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Sci-Fi/Fantasy Franchise Ring

Mrs. Chaka and I started talking tonight about science-fiction/fantasy franchise crossovers. You know, like how since Star Wars took place a long time ago in a galaxy far away, and time travel happens in every third Star Trek movie, you could have a movie where the Enterprise joins in the attack on the Death Star. (This crossover is Mrs. Chaka's idea. I had not fathomed that such a thing was possible.)

That reminded me that I had heard of a Star Trek/X-Men crossover (apparently what I was thinking of was this comic book). If they did a movie crossover, Patrick Stewart would get to negotiate between the Federation and the X-Men as both Captain Picard and Professor Xavier. That scene makes the whole project worth doing.

And from that point, we tried to connect the cardinal science-fiction and fantasy franchises to each other. Jim Broadbent connects Harry Potter and Narnia; Christopher Lee connects Star Wars to Lord of the Rings . . .

It took some brain-racking (and eventually some help from IMDb), but this is what we came up with:There are other, more marginal franchises we could tack on: Batman, X-Men, Terminator, Pirates of the Caribbean. But they would destroy the symmetry of the above.

Incidentally, several of these franchises to Kingdom of Heaven. I'll let you flesh out the connections in the comments.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Idea for competitive exercise

For two teams of 2 or more players

Equipment: 2 jump ropes, room to run (a 100-meter course would work well)

Object: Be the first team to reach 1000 jumps

Rules: Each team has a jumper and a runner. The jumpers begin doing (single-under) jumps. If either jumper misses, it's a fault, and the runners start sprinting.

Let's say the two teams are called "Legends" and "Leaders". Assuming it was the Legends jumper who faulted, then if the Legends runner loses the sprint, the Legends have to do an extra 100 jumps. If, on the other hand, the Legends runner wins, his team suffers no penalty.

While the runners are sprinting, the jumpers may rest, change jumpers, or continue to jump. If they miss a jump during the sprint, it's not considered a fault, and there are no game effects.

First team to hit 1000 jumps (plus any penalties they've incurred) wins.

If someone can do 1000 single-under jumps without missing, feel free to substitute double-unders.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Computer viruses and the OT

Fascinating story of the computer virus that ground Iran’s nuclear program down to a halt. An excerpt:

“Originally, all eyes turned toward Israel’s intelligence agencies. Engineers examining the worm found “clues” that hinted at Israel’s involvement. In one case they found the word “Myrtus” embedded in the code and argued that it was a reference to Esther, the biblical figure who saved the ancient Jewish state from the Persians. But computer experts say "Myrtus" is more likely a common reference to “My RTUS,” or remote terminal units.”

Myrtus is the genus of the myrtle plant, and Hadassah means “myrtle”. (Which makes me wonder why we don’t just call her Myrtle.)

If I were writing a virus to save the Jews, I’d call it CyRus. (Cyber Rescue Virus)

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Phrases from Homer to Incorporate into Daily Conversation

nothing loath (=quickly)
Now tell me, and tell me true . . .
. . . and his armor rang rattling around him as he fell (This one will have to go into the file with "I threw down my enemy and smote his ruin on the mountainside"--someday I will bust this out. Someday. And it will be awesome.)
vouchsafe X to Y
Tell me, O Muse . . .
and while he was thus in two minds . . .
and they put their hands on the good things before them
the blessed boon of sleep
the child of Morning, rosy-fingered Dawn

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Reviewing the Iliad

I’ve been listening to the Librivox recording of the Iliad during my household chores. I’m really enjoying it, despite the unevenness of the readers (Pete Darby, yay! Hugh Mac, your talents lie elsewhere).

I can’t help but compare it with that other great work of the ancient world, the one with which I am much more familiar. You know, the Hebrew Bible. There’s really very little in common between the two, except for one episode: 2 Samuel 2:12-32 feels reminiscent of the Iliad, what with the fighting, the spoiling, the speeches in the midst of battle.

But anyone who thinks of “the Old Testament God,” or of the Old Testament itself, as bloodthirsty . . . well, one wonders if they’ve examined the competition.

The Iliad, like the Bible, also uses a lot of stock phrases: So-and-so kills such-and-such, “and his armor rang rattling around him as he fell heavily to the ground.” There are maybe a half dozen of these phrases that Homer cycles through to describe somebody biting the dust (actually, “he bit the dust” is used now and then in the text—yes, there was a time when this wasn’t a cliché). I enjoy this stable of phrases, but some people apparently find them irritating. (Scroll down to the review entitled “One of the most important works of literature ever - and a damned good read too” for some unintentional humor.)

Last night the idea for a game based on the Iliad came to me in a dream. I still haven't perfected my game based on the wars of Alexander the Great's successors, but the Iliad one is simpler . . . I know what I'll be working on over Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 12, 2010

For some reason, this kind of argument (X has an ungodly/pagan origin and is thus unacceptable for Christians) drives me insane. See also, Al Mohler on yoga, Frank Viola on "the institutional church." (As an aside, Viola claims that he doesn't reject ideas just because they're pagan. Well, that's the impression I got from reading Pagan Christianity. In fact, I'd call that list of "straw men" an accurate summary of the book's theses.)

Now that I've asserted but not argued anything, I'll drift on to other points, if you don't mind.

My parents and their home church rejected Halloween because of its pagan origins. I heard some great, lurid stories about the origins of jack-o-lanterns and trick or treat.

I call the stories "great" with only partial irony. Now they sound to me like folk etymologies, but I was interested in them at the time. I was in a phase when I wanted to find out the etymon, the true origin, of everything—words, names, symbols, customs.

There is a perennial attraction to the quest for the etymon, a feeling that once you find it, you’ve grasped true meaning. I’m still very interested in etymons, but more because they often make for a good story than because they’re the key to ultimate meaning. The kind of meaning I find more relevant is how the word (name, custom) fits into the larger system. In anthropological terms, I’ve moved from James George Frazer to Claude Levi-Strauss. In linguistic terms, from Jakob Grimm to Ferdinand de Saussure.

Take yoga. The Christian anti-yogaists are dismayed that Christians would put their body in a pose dedicated to a Hindu god. The woman at the health club teaching a yoga class might not be a Hindu. She might not even know anything about the pose's link to a deity. But if you go back far enough, the argument goes, the etymon lies in pagan worship. So the yoga pose *means* devotion to another god. Taking on the pose is like speaking praise of that god, which a Christian should not do.
If the etymon of the yoga pose truly lies in pagan worship, that would be an interesting story. I have my doubts whether the story is true. If I were in a real argument on the topic, I'd like to see some non-polemical scholarship on the question. But would such an etymology imply that the pose *means* pagan worship?
I was thinking that it could mean such a thing in a sacramental view of the world. Sacramentalism does emphasize that we're not disembodied minds, that what we do with our bodies has spiritual impact. But to call this position sacramental would be an insult to sacramentalism. Even in sacramentalism, the body cannot mean what the person as a whole does not mean. You could bless the public swimming pool on a hot day in July, but that doesn't mean all the swimmers become baptized.

Hence, I submit to you that to believe that yoga constitutes pagan worship isn't even sacramental. It's purely magical. It's a pagan idea if there ever was one. (Look, the argument just folded in on itself!)

At some point I stopped despising earlier Christians for the pagan customs they retained/redeemed—and started admiring them for their audacity. (This is one of the things that made Chesterton my homeboy, finding that he had this attitude.) Maybe it had something to do with learning about all the good things in my life that had “bad” backgrounds—Christmas trees, Easter eggs, eeny meeny miny moe, the European settlement of America, most of the names of God . . .

If you want to reject everything with a tainted origin, what will you be left with? Utopia, I suppose. Nowhere to stand.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Medieval Mentality

From a review of Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin:

Perhaps we need a new word, one that is broader than the current definition of genocide and means, simply, “mass murder carried out for political reasons.”
My first thought on reading this sentence was, "Isn't all war 'mass murder carried out for political reasons'?" If the international community is to allow war but criminalize some mass murders, what makes the criminal ones criminal?

My second thought (and now you're going to laugh) is that the difference between war and criminal war is . . . chivalry.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Jesus and Violence


In an interview several years ago for Relevant Magazine, Mark Driscoll (well known pastor of Mars Hill in Seattle) said,

“In Revelation, Jesus is a prize-fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is the guy I can worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.” (You can find the original interview here).

I frankly have trouble understanding how a follower of Jesus could find himself unable to worship a guy he could “beat up” when he already crucified him.

Now I'm going to have "The Hammer" in my head all day. HT: Matt Tebbe

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

"What a blessing it will be to attend a banquet in the Kingdom of God!"

Is it sacrilegious to say that the wine at last Sunday's Eucharist was particularly excellent?

I don't think so. The Eucharist is many things simultaneously. Among those things, it is a foretaste of the Messiah's banquet. And we know that the Messiah serves the good stuff.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

George Clooney's Secret

He's really Peter Sagal.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Wasting Time and Money

Mrs. Chaka and I have made the dangerous discovery of two hours of Star Trek (TOS and TNG) being broadcast each night. Last night's episodes (The Changeling and Emergence) were somehow archetypal; each embraced all the joys and absurdities of its respective series.

It's always amusing to see how dated the future is. The Changeling made frequent reference to data being stored on "tapes". Then again, in Emergence, Dr. Crusher had a pretty cool blue iPad.

Oh, and I had a Double Down a week ago. Definitely not worth the price of admission.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Spite Food

I read (on the Wait Wait Don't Tell Me blog) that KFC introduced the Double Down because of complaints that there wasn't enough chicken in their chicken sandwich. If true, it places the Double Down in that delightful genre, Spite Food.

Potato chips are the best-known example of Spite Food. To quote the Wikipedia article:

"The original potato chip recipe was created by George Crum, the son of an African American father and Native American mother, in Saratoga Springs, New York on August 24, 1853.[citation needed] Fed up with a customer who continued to send his fried potatoes back complaining that they were too thick and soggy, Crum decided to slice the potatoes so thin that they could not be eaten with a fork. As they could not be fried normally in a pan, he decided to stir-fry the potato slices. Against Crum's expectation, the guest was ecstatic about the new chips."

I'm still hoping to eat one of those Double Downs; haven't got to it yet.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Endless Rain

Blogging has suffered, what with the moving house, the many calls to AT&T trying to convince them to take my money, the computer dying, etc. But I just discovered this and had to blog it:

YouTube Repeat!

Insert the word "repeat" into a YouTube URL before the ".com" and the video will loop endlessly. I'm using it to listen to this over and over. Helps me focus on the giant pile of work.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Wading through Stacks

Adam Graber directed me to this New York Times article about the consequences of digital (and hence, mashable) texts. The whole thing is interesting in its entirety, but what drew my attention was this quote:

“Online research enables scholars to power-search for nuggets of information that might support their theses, saving them the time of wading through stacks of material that might prove marginal but that might have also prompted them to reconsider or refine their original thinking.”

This strikes me as a very real problem. It’s really easy to be a bad scholar. The task of refining your thinking and mastering your subject requires time, focus, and discipline—three things we have in short supply. For all their benefits, digital texts make it easier to veil poor thinking and inadequate mastery of the subject. The power of machine searching delivers a trade-off: a vastly greater pool of data with a vastly more superficial grasp of it. The efficiency of search obsoletes that horribly inefficient part of research, “wading through stacks of material.”

(Perhaps I should qualify my pronouncements: I obviously speak for myself, not for all of academia. My academic credentials amount to a master’s degree and a single journal article*. The temptations and follies I describe are my own.)

A few weeks later, Adam noted that Oxford University Press is trying to address these concerns. In brief, they’re producing “a straightforward, hyperlinked collection of professionally-produced, peer-reviewed bibliographies in different subject areas—sort of a giant, interactive syllabus put together by OUP and teams of scholars in different disciplines.”

The Oxford Bibliographies will no doubt have efficient search capabilities, quick retrieval of the desired documents, and a large pool of data in one place. But by foregrounding the texts that scholars have judged most important, they encourage you to wade through material that should be known, even (especially?) if it’s irrelevant or destructive to your thesis.

As you can tell, I like this image of “wading through stacks.” It sounds like a mixed metaphor, but it makes me think of walking the key shelves in the library stacks. The mass of (potentially) relevant titles thicken the air in that spot, slowing your pace to a shuffle. You look up and down the shelf, pulling out a volume, browsing, letting your mind quicken as your feet slow.

Interestingly, the library in which I picture myself wading like this is the University of Edinburgh library, where I spent a mere six months (as opposed to the four years at the University of Minnesota and three years at Trinity University). I suppose it’s related to the fact that British syllabi encourage more wading. Instead of telling you about the five required books and when you’re supposed to read each chapter, British syllabi give you a list of forty books and tell you to have fun. Read around, master the subject, and at the end of term, write a big old essay about the subject (which will be 100% of your grade for the course).

In my experience, this system results in lower grades but better habits.


*Forthcoming :-)

Monday, April 19, 2010

"It made me feel significant and connected to ancient traditions"

A little satire on Philippe the Postmodern Evangelist:

"Read it again, more slowly this time. I want to hear the poetic forms and imagine myself in the context of the ancient tradition."

That cuts close, that does.

HT: Lingamish

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

KFC's Double Down

This makes me feel so conflicted about being an American. Disgusted? To a point. Proud of my country? Absolutely.


A while back I posted a massive regular expression that finds Bible cross references. Something like that must be behind Logos's RefTagger, which I'm trying to get working on this blog. This is a test:

Gen 1:14
Gen 3:14
Matt 1:1
Phlm 3
Philemon 3
Rev 45:2

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

David Lloyd

Christopher Lloyd, comedy writer, writes about his dad, David Lloyd, comedy writer.

I had no idea that the man responsible for the immortal "Chuckles the Clown" worked on Frasier. No wonder that show was so funny.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The “Is that contestant on American Idol a Christian Scorecard”

It's a privilege to bring you a guest post from Jon Acuff, Christian satirist extraordinaire, author of Stuff Christians Like. Like a lot of Christians, I'm sure you're interested in supporting that worship pastor or soloist who's trying to make it big in the secular music world. Well, you're in luck. Mr. Acuff has written up a scorecard to help you add up the clues and hints to pinpoint the secret Christian:

26. After they make the final 12 they thank Jesus = + 2 points (Now we're talking. Everyone thanks God in big moments, but few people will drop the "J" word.)

To add up your score with over a 130 other ideas on this scorecard, visit

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Holy Saturday


Jesus played the man
He stared into the abyss
And for my sake, fell.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

I'd be a better me if I hated the iPad

David Pogue's twofold review of the iPad assumes the Eloi/Morlock distinction (explained here). Pogue doesn't use those words, but he writes two separate, widely diverging reviews, one for "techies" (=Morlocks) and one for everybody else (=Eloi).

What I find hilarious about this is how much I want the first review to be relevant to me . . . but I'm seduced by the second. I don't actually fit Pogue's description of a techie, and the Eloi review awakened within me deep longing for the device.

The key to understanding this paradox (hypocrisy?) is in Pogue's summary: "It’s not nearly as good for creating stuff. On the other hand, it’s infinitely more convenient for consuming it — books, music, video, photos, Web, e-mail and so on."

There you have it, folks. I want to believe that I'm creative, but I'm just a consumer. I will now take a deep breath and remind myself: Buying things can't make you creative.

I mentioned a while back Stevenf's prediction that New World computing belongs to the Eloi. The iPad is just the beginning. In some ways, this makes sense. Computational machines were always somewhat of a strange device for mass consumption. They can do so much more than home users need them to do. Winnowing things down to what people really use seems inevitable.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Small Town Opinions

For no particular reason, I find myself vigorously disagreeing with what people say about small towns.

It began when Adam Graber sent me a link to this review. I objected to several of the reviewer's notions: that small town culture is in decline (like any living culture, it's changing, not dying), that "when you want to write an epic, you set it in a city" (not sure what we're talking about--what's an example of a contemporary epic?), and that people in the Chicago suburbs call their metropolis "downtown," not "Chicago" or "the city" (here in Carol Stream, I mostly hear "the city").

None of these notions are at the heart of Crispin's review, but I'm always one to latch on to the incidental. If I come out with my small-town epic in 15 years, I'll have her to thank for getting me going. Here are some of the elements that an epic in a contemporary small town would have:

The rivalry with the small town down the road
One major employer that dominates the economy
Everyone goes to the (single) high school's sporting events
People go off to the military
The community college
The town you go to with the stores you don't have
The yearly town festival (parade, flea market, some wacky theme)
The radio station
Chautauqua/band shell
Layers of immigrant communities--anglo-saxons, scandinavians/germans, a few greek/jewish/asian merchants, latino laborers, african/asian refugees
You always know someone in the paper's obits, wedding announcements, and/or police blotter

What would you add to my list?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Marginal Member Blends

I knew what a portmanteau was in the Lewis Carroll sense long before I ever saw a non-Carrollian portmanteau. Actually, I've never seen a non-Carrollian portmanteau in the flesh, and I'm not sure exactly what it is, other than a sort of suitcase. Here's a picture of one, anyway:

(HT: I stole the picture from a blog about portmanteaux. If that's how you pluralize it.)

My Intro to Linguistics textbook chose to use the more dignified term blend to describe a word that combines two independent words (e.g., smoke + fog = smog). I've been wondering recently about what motivates people to coin blends. Obviously, pure inspiration and the delight of wordplay are a big part of it. You say the words and suddenly feel the joint where they can be collapsed into each other.

Some blends are halfway between their two constituents (brunch), or both constituents at the same time, even paradoxically so (frenemy).

The class of blends I refer to in the title of this post are those that describe an unusual, unexpected, or marginal member of a category. These take a head noun for the category and combine it with a modifier that shows the marginality.

For example, "Nick used to be a manny" (man + nanny). "This year we're going away for real: no more staycations" (stay + vacation). Webinar, etc.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

How to Use This Book (Or Else)

More authors ought to do this. Instead of writing a boring old dedication, write a curse. In a 1518 manuscript of the Gospels, Psalms, and a work called Thekaras, a scribe named Theophilos Iviritis wrote:

I beseech all who come across this book not to dare cut it up shamelessly, in order to take it apart and remove either the Gospels or the Psalter or Thekaras or any other office or part, or even a single leaf, but let it remain intact, just as it was written and bound by me. Should the binding become worn, may it be rebound just as it is now. If anyone should act against what I say, the curse of my sinful unworthy self be upon him. And may whoever owns this take care not to leave it lying idle on the shelf but always make full use of it; for this is why the book was written, so that he might not suffer the same condemnation as he who hid the talent. And if he should neglect his own salvation, let him give the book to another who cares greatly about being saved so that he might use it to gain the riches of heaven and to pray for my wretched self, who is responsible for a thousand wicked deeds and is unworthy of either heaven or earth. May the Lord have mercy upon me and deliver me from eternal damnation; therefore, I beseech you, all the holy fathers, to pray for me.
The Apocalypse famously contains a blessing on the one who reads it (probably referring specifically to the lector, the person reading it out loud in the church meeting) and a curse on anyone who tampers with it. Probably too heavy-handed a tactic for some, but it does promote that whole author-reader interaction thing.

(HT: Evangelical Textual Criticism)

Monday, March 08, 2010

KJV and me

The King James Version has had an immense impact on literature in English. Take, for example, this exchange (from Right Ho, Jeeves, also used as the opening riff of a Mark Steyn piece):

“Is he still upset about that income-tax money?”

“Upset is right. He says that Civilisation is in the melting-pot and that all thinking men can read the writing on the wall.”

“What wall?”

“Old Testament, ass. Belshazzar’s feast.”

“Oh, that, yes. I’ve often wondered how that gag was worked. With mirrors, I expect.”

There are a few phrases that I hold in my heart, waiting for my chance to drop them into conversation. One of these phrases is, of course, "I threw down my enemy and smote his ruin on the mountainside," which sounds like the Bible but isn't. Another of these phrases is "Old Testament, ass."

Anyway, Robert Alter has written a book about the KJV's impact on American lit in particular (HT: JT). Sounds entertaining. I'm doing that whole "read the Bible in a year" thing for the first time, and I decided to read the KJV because I'm largely unfamiliar with its "cadences and diction". I know a verse here and there, mostly from hearing them quoted by people from an earlier generation. It's striking how difficult it is to understand Paul's letters. The company I work for was born out of a man's desire to make Paul's letters understandable for his children. Take a slog through Romans in the KJV and you'll understand why The Living Bible was a hit.

There are some awesome phrases in the KJV, though. My current favorite is:
All that openeth the matrix is mine.
(Actually, I should admit that I'm mostly listening to the KJV while doing the cooking and the washing up. You can go to BibleGateway to listen to Screwtape read it.)

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Brisket and Banks

When I married my wife, I got a lot in the bargain. Like what, you ask? Well, for example, my father-in-law can smoke a superb corned beef brisket. I don't even want to think about how sad it would be if I'd never experienced that corned beef, sliced paper thin, piled high on homemade rye bread, with white wine sauerkraut . . .

Another example: because my father-in-law served in the Navy, his daughter is eligible for membership in USAA. And because I lucked out and married her, I'm included as well. We have a credit card with USAA, as well as our car insurance, renter's insurance, and life insurance. The last time an eager beaver insurance agent foisted a car insurance quote on me, I pitied the poor soul. He couldn't come anywhere close to USAA's rate. And I doubt that his company would turn it's profits into a credit on my account, like USAA does.

What prompts this paean is the fact that I just opened a letter explaining changes to our credit card account because of new federal regulations. The letter and the card agreement were lucid, straightforward, and to the point.

Contrast this with my bank (TCF), which silently began charging a $2.50 monthly fee this February. When I called to complain, they were willing to stop charging it. But--they warned--my online banking statements would now only go back 60 days instead of 18 months. What was once free was now a premium.

Though in fairness to TCF, I was always pleased that their name wasn't in the news over the last year and a half. So I guess they're doing something right.

Monday, March 01, 2010

What digital books should look like

From A Working Library (but I'm just copying and pasting from Text Patterns)

On the page, the rhythm of the text emerges from both the macro design—the pleasing shape of the page, the proper amount of thumb space—and the micro—the right amount of leading, the evenness of the word spacing, the correct break of a line. On the screen, the rhythm of a text encompasses all of these things and more—the placement of a link, the shift from text to video and back again, the movement from one text to another. The rhythm becomes more complex as the orchestra gets larger, but the desire for rhythm does not subside.
In order to create this rhythm, the book must be designed and composed for the screen. A beautiful digital text can no more be arrived at by “converting” from a print design than a beautiful print book can be created by converting a Word file. The digital book will never come into its own so long as it is treated as a byproduct, unworthy of attention.
Furthermore, digital books should no more adhere to identical designs than their print counterparts; different types of writing, different voices and tempos, require unique approaches to design. The current crop of ebook formats were designed for the novel, and on that they do a fine job; but countless other texts—cookbooks, technical books, graphic novels, books on art, plays, verse—are rendered unreadable by that conformity. If the form of the book is changing, it ought to lead to more variety, not less.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Center. Margin. Villain. Hero.

I thought this article was fascinating: "Shylock, My Students, and Me". What's most interesting to me is how the students' mass reaction to The Merchant of Venice has changed over the years, from sympathy with the dominant, majority culture within the play to sympathy with the oppressed, minority culture. Now everyone identifies with Shylock--everyone has been oppressed in some way, they've been made to feel different, like an outsider to the dominant culture.

Cohen (the author of the article) points out that the new generation of students are the ones who have been sensitized to diversity and oppression in school. I don't remember getting much of that training in high school, but it was a huge part of my college orientation. If I remember right, the closing session of orientation was a cringe-inducing small group discussion where each person was asked to share some way in which they had been marginalized. At least, it was cringe-inducing at the time; having passed through the system now, I could probably handle it. Even find it meaningful. But oh, how I wanted to jump out the window at the time.

Like Cohen, I don't want to say that this impulse to identify with the oppressed is a bad development, but it feels incomplete. The move from hiding your victimization and dehumanizing the outsiders to cherishing your victimization and dehumanizing "the insiders" (whoever they are nowadays) represents less progress than could be desired.

Simply put, we haven't learned that your position in the center or on the margin does not determine whether you're a hero or a villain.

Or does it? You tell me.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Reading in Dreams

I remember a post by Chaka a while back about dreaming a word game he didn't know the rules to, and this made me think of that on some level or another. Your guess is as good as mine.

Last night I had a dream that I was taking a test, and the second question on the test was asking something along the lines of "A man named Nathaniel Bohr used an atom with 5 ... to describe ... blah blah blah ... What is the name of this atom?" (that is all I remember of the question from waking up).

When I first read the question, I had no idea what it was talking about. My first thought was that BORON is the 5th element in the periodic table. Then I looked through the test to see if it contained a periodic table I could reference. When I did not find one I decided to read the question again. The name "Nathaniel Bohr" instantly clued me in on the answer of Bohr's Atom.

Obviously, the facts in the question are all wrong, I have no idea what his first name was, almost definitely not Nathaniel. Secondly, it was not a specific atom but a model for describing atoms. Thirdly, it did not have 5 specifically of anything, it could be used to describe any number of atoms with any number of proton/neutron/electron combinations. etc, etc. But that is NOT the point.

After I realized the answer I started writing it in my answer booklet. I had finished writing the letters "BOHR" (which I specifically remember seeing in big block letters) when I realized I had written on the line for the NEXT question's answer. So I crossed it out and wrote it again "Bohr's Atom" on the correct line. Then I decided to quit taking the test and the dream took a turn for the weird, but that's a different story.

The reasons I posted this dream are
1) I remember specifically reading the question and having NO idea what the answer was at first. I find this interesting, because some part of my own brain had to create this question from scratch, yet another part of my own brain was not able to answer it right away.
2) Second, I remember specifically READING the name "Nathaniel Bohr" along with READING the rest of the question a second time. Do you ever remember READING in a dream? For some reason I thought READING was impossible in a dream. Usually what happens to me is I see some scribble of jumbled text-like drawings and just KNOW what it's trying to say. In this case, I actually remember READING the english words, not a jumble of text.
3) I very distinctly remember the big block letters spelling "BOHR" which, like part 2, is something I've never remembered in a dream before. Maybe I'm just not thinking back enough or remembering enough other dreams, but there were actual letters representing an actual word which actually stood for something in the real world. And not only did I READ it, but I was also WROTE that word "BOHR" letter-by-letter on the wrong line in the answer booklet. And then I crossed it out and wrote again: "Bohr's Atom" on the correct line.

I don't know about you folks, but I found it all interesting enough to post here.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Alafraganza and Alfraganus

I've been listening to episodes of the Gunsmoke radio show here. It's funny how you get used to the same two or three actors voicing all the bit parts. For principals, you've got Matt, Chester, Kitty, and Doc (who is Floyd the Barber from the Andy Griffith Show, btw). But this week's down-and-out sodbuster sounds suspiciously like last week's shifty gambler.

Given the fact that sets are no object on a radio show, it's surprising how the same places figure in almost every episode: Matt's office, Doc's office upstairs, Front Street, the Texas Trail, where the first thing you hear is always Kitty's "Hello, Matt!" . . .

Sometimes they venture into one of the other saloons in town: the Long Branch (which happened to be the name of the bar in my hometown) or the Alafraganza.

That last one is a bit of a mystery to me. It's a fitting name for a saloon--a bit of exoticism to set the brand apart--but where does the name come from? How do you even spell it?

The only google hits for the word relate to the Gunsmoke show. There are no suggestions for alternative spellings.

It's possible the show's creators made the name up out of thin air, but today I read in a commentary to the Inferno that Dante's knowledge of Ptolemaic cosmology probably came via a work by the Persian astronomer Alfraganus. There's a pretty strong correspondence between those names, but can a connection between them be established?

On the other hand, that -ganza ending looks like the ending of extravaganza--also a good theme for a saloon. Is this a blend of some kind? If your bookstore was offering 70% off ancient Persian astronomy texts, would it be an alafraganza?

Update: Is there an expert on Italian out there who has an opinion on this word? Google Translate offers "going between wings" for "ala fra ganza."

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

More Thoughts on Libraries

If you liked my last post on my personal library, you'll like this much better one by Ben Myers even more. (HT: Addenda & Errata, Evangelical Textual Criticism)

(Come to think of it, I suppose that if you hated my last post, you'd also like Myers's post more. So it's a sure bet.)

Myers gives twelve theses about libraries and librarians. Some of them are downright Chestertonian: drawing the poetry out of the most commonplace things, among other delightful inversions.

My favorite thesis is number 8, which contains a great quote from one Giorgio Agamben: “Like a true maze, the library [leads] the reader to his goal by leading him astray.”

One idle afternoon I was wandering the stacks at the University of Edinburgh's library when I found yards of books bearing the name G. K. Chesterton. I've heard of him, I thought. He's got something to do with C. S. Lewis, doesn't he? And I picked up All Is Grist.

There are echoes of Umberto among Myers's theses as well. The twelfth thesis reminds us that the librarian is a mistress of hidden knowledge. It plays on the fantasy that animates The Name of the Rose, The Thirteenth Tale, and countless other novels: finding the lost book. It may be forbidden or forgotten, rumored or restricted; what's actually in the book varies from novel to novel and is ultimately irrelevant. What matters is getting your hands on that book that no one else has held.

This story arc is the book lover's erogenous zone. Work it into your next novel, and librarians and book reviewers will melt into a puddle for you.

Other novels with a lost book theme include: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell; the Harry Potter series; others?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Burning through my books

Moving house is to libraries as fires are to forests. Burn out the dead wood and make room for new growth. It's part of the natural life cycle.

The first part of packing is easy--you box up the "absolutely yes" books and set aside the "absolutely no" ones. These two categories make up perhaps 40% of my collection.

Then it starts getting hard. That set of thirteen volumes about twentieth-century theologians? It does pad out the theology section nicely, but will I ever read them? My little section of Mormonalia? Those copies of Faust and Crime and Punishment from the Nobles County Public Library book sale?

The danger at this point is that weighing a certain book's fate (holding it in your hand, checking out the publisher, reading the back cover copy) can lead to sitting down on a pile of boxes and reading the text itself. Sometimes this can be instructive: after finally giving Velvet Elvis a go, I couldn't make it past the first page. So that's a no, then.

At other times, though, you sit down with Dante's Inferno and end up having to read the whole thing. And then, because you understood so little of it, you need to consult the separate commentary volume. Hours can be lost this way.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Leadership Lessons from a Shirtless Dancer

Do either of these guys (the shirtless dancer or the narrator) have a book deal yet?

HT: Kouya Chronicle

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Sad Songs

I've been playing Bob Dylan's "North Country Blues" for the last week or so. It's relentlessly melancholy. Two chords and despair.

It got me thinking about the saddest songs I know. Here's my very short list.

(Okay, I was going to link to songza here, but it looks like they grew discontent with their niche in the Internet and are trying to be Pandora and/or Grooveshark. Grooveshark's embedded songs take too long to load. So . . . the links go to YouTube.)

"North Country Blues" by Bob Dylan
"The Snowy Downs" by The Roe Family Singers (sorry, I couldn't find this one online)
"Last Kiss" by Pearl Jam et al.
"Top of the World" by the Dixie Chicks

These are different kinds of sad song. Some are sentimental, some are horrific, some are just bleak.

What's the saddest song you know?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Regular Expression for Bible Cross References

I've been working on this bit-by-bit for weeks. It's a regular expression (see here for a tutorial) that recognizes Bible cross references (e.g., 1 Sam 1:1; Matt 2:1) in a variety of formats. The hardest thing about it was dealing with book names that contain numbers (1 Kings, 2 Corinthians, etc). Even now I'm not thrilled with the way it handles those, but I'm satisfied.

The "flavor" of reg-ex that this was developed in is VBScript. Other flavors might be able to handle things more elegantly. For example, I wish that I could just use \w for whitespace (including non-breaking spaces), but that shorthand character class doesn't seem to work. The only thing I've found that works for the space between a number and a word in a book name is ([^A-Za-z0-9]| | ), where the final character is a non-breaking space.

Anyway, here it is:

"\b((G(e(nesis)|e?n)|Ex(o(d(us)?)?)?|L(eviticus|e?v)|N(u(mbers)?|u?m)|D(euteronomy|(eu)?t)|J(os(hua)?|o?sh)|J(udg(es)?|gs|d)|Ru(th?)?|Ezra?|Ne(h(emiah)?)?|Est(h(er)?)?|Jo?b|Ps(alm)?s?|Pr(ov(erbs)?)?|Ec(c(les(iastes)?)?)?|S(o(ng( of (Songs|Solomon))?)?|g)|Is(a(iah)?)?|J(e(remiah)?|e?r)|L(a(mentations)?|a?m)|Ez(e(kiel)?|e?k)|D(a(niel)?|a?n)|Ho(s(ea)?)?|J(oe)?l|Am(os)?|Ob(a(d(iah)?)?)?|Jon(ah)?|M(i(c(ah)?)?|c)|N(a(h(um)?)?|h)|Hab(akkuk)?|Z(ep(h(aniah)?)?|p)|H(ag(g(ai)?)?|g)|Z(ec(h(ariah)?)?|c)|M(al(a(chi)?)?|l)|M(at(thew)?|(at)?t)|M(ar)?k|L(uke|[uk])|J(oh)?n|Ac(ts)?|R(o(mans)?|o?m)|G(al(atians)?|l)|Ep(h(esians)?)?|Ph(il(ippians)?|p)|C(o(l(ossians)?)?|l)|Ti(t(us)?)?|Ph(ile(m(on)?)?|l?m)|H(e(b(rews)?)?|b)|Ja((me)?s|m)|J(ude?|d)|R(e(velation)?|e?v)|Bar(uch)?|Add([^A-Za-z0-9]| | )?Dan|Pr(ayer)?[^A-Za-z0-9]?(of )?Azar(iah)?|Bel( and the Dragon)?|S(on)?g( of the |([^A-Za-z0-9]| | )?)Three( Children)?|Sus(anna)?|Add(itions to |([^A-Za-z0-9]| | )?)Esth(er)?|Ep(istle of |([^A-Za-z0-9]| | )?)Jer(emiah)?|J(udith|dt)|Pr(ayer of([^A-Za-z0-9]| | )?)Man(asseh)?|Sir(ach)?|Tob(it)?|Wis(dom of Solomon)?)|(([1-4]|First|Second|Third|Fourth|I{1,3}|IV)([^A-Za-z0-9]| | )?(S(amuel|a?m)|K((in)?gs)?|Ch(r(on(icles)?)?)?|Co(r(inthians)?)?|Th(ess?(alonians)?)?|T(i(mothy)?|i?m)|P(eter|e?t)?|J((oh)?n)?|Esdr(as)?|Macc(abees)?)|(SAM|KGS|CHR|COR|THE|TIM|PET|JOH)[1-3]))(\.?)([^A-Za-z0-9]| | )?([0-9]{1,3})(([:\.,]([0-9]{1,3})(f{1,2}|[a-z])?[-–]([0-9]{1,3})[:\.,]([0-9]{1,3})(f{1,2}|[a-z])?|[:\.,]([0-9]{1,3})(f{1,2}|[a-z])?[-–]([0-9]{1,3})(f{1,2}|[a-z])?|[:\.,]([0-9]{1,3})(f{1,2}|[a-z])?|[-–]([0-9]{1,3}))?)([,;]([^A-Za-z0-9]| | )?(((([1-4]|First|Second|Third|Fourth|I{1,3}|IV)([^A-Za-z0-9]| | )?(S(amuel|a?m)|K((in)?gs)?|Ch(r(on(icles)?)?)?|Co(r(inthians)?)?|Th(ess?(alonians)?)?|T(i(mothy)?|i?m)|P(eter|e?t)?|J((oh)?n)?|Esdr(as)?|Macc(abees)?)|(SAM|KGS|CHR|COR|THE|TIM|PET|JOH)[1-3])(\.?)([^A-Za-z0-9]| | )?([0-9]{1,3})([:\.,]([0-9]{1,3})(f{1,2}|[a-z])?[-–]([0-9]{1,3})[:\.,]([0-9]{1,3})(f{1,2}|[a-z])?|[:\.,]([0-9]{1,3})(f{1,2}|[a-z])?[-–]([0-9]{1,3})(f{1,2}|[a-z])?|[:\.,]([0-9]{1,3})(f{1,2}|[a-z])?|[-–]([0-9]{1,3}))?)|([0-9]{1,3})([:\.,]([0-9]{1,3})(f{1,2}|[a-z])?[-–]([0-9]{1,3})[:\.,]([0-9]{1,3})(f{1,2}|[a-z])?|[:\.,]([0-9]{1,3})(f{1,2}|[a-z])?[-–]([0-9]{1,3})(f{1,2}|[a-z])?|[:\.,]([0-9]{1,3})(f{1,2}|[a-z])?|[-–]([0-9]{1,3}))?))*\b"

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Budget Planning with Excel: The Expense Form

The biggest time-saver in my hack of Excel is the expense form I created:

You can design forms like these in the Visual Basic Editor. (Here's a tutorial.)

When I enter a receipt into the budget (yes, we save all our receipts; I know it sounds like a pain, but it's helpful), I select the column of the account that I paid with and the row that shows the date. Then I launch the expense form (I assigned it to Ctrl + E).

The picture above reflects a Target receipt from February 1. We bought items in three budget categories: A supplement that falls under health expenses ("Out-of-pocket"), conditioner ("Toiletries") and soy milk ("Groceries"). I enter the total bill in the first box, assign the expense to at least one budget category in the "Budget" frame, and add a comment (usually the name of the store where the purchase was made).

The form is particularly helpful for split checks like this one. When I add second and third budget categories, the form calculates how much of the bill remains in the first category. This means I can just enter the retail prices for the soy milk ($2.59) and conditioner ($3.14), and the form will deduct the remainder of the bill from Out-of-pocket. (This ends up sticking one category with all the tax, but I'm content with that level of imprecision.)

When I hit OK, my Visual Basic code takes the information from the form and writes it to the proper spots on the spreadsheet: the expense is taken out of the account, the proper budget categories are docked, and the comment is created. Before 2010, I was doing each of these actions separately. Splitting a receipt like this one into multiple budget categories required redundant comments on each cell involved.

So, what does this code look like? Something like this:

Dim expense, c2, c3, c4, c5 As Currency

Private Sub cbOK_Click()
'Write the textbox contents to their correct cell.
   Dim r, i As Long
   Dim cExpense, cCat1, cCat2, cCat3, cCat4, cCat5 As Long
   Dim s As Worksheet
   Dim txtArr(3)
   Dim cbArr(3)
   Dim colArr(3)

   Set s = ActiveSheet
   r = ActiveCell.Row
   cExpense = ActiveCell.Column

'Choose column based on combobox contents.
'If there's an amount for the category, write the amount to the correct column.
   If Me.cbCategory1.Value = vbNullString Then
      MsgBox "Specify a budget category"
      Exit Sub
      cCat1 = ReturnColumnNumber(Me.cbCategory1.Text)
      If s.Cells(r, CInt(cCat1)).Value <> vbNullString Then
         MsgBox "Please create a new line for this transaction."
         Exit Sub
      End If
      s.Cells(r, CInt(cCat1)).Value = CCur(-1 * Me.txtCategory1.Value)
   End If
'Try using arrays of controls to cut down on code for categories 2-5
   Set txtArr(0) = Me.txtCategory2
   Set txtArr(1) = Me.txtCategory3
   Set txtArr(2) = Me.txtCategory4
   Set txtArr(3) = Me.txtCategory5

   Set cbArr(0) = Me.cbCategory2
   Set cbArr(1) = Me.cbCategory3
   Set cbArr(2) = Me.cbCategory4
   Set cbArr(3) = Me.cbCategory5

   For i = 0 To UBound(txtArr)
      If txtArr(i).Value <> vbNullString Then
         If cbArr(i).Value = vbNullString Then
            MsgBox "Specify a budget category."
            Exit Sub
            colArr(i) = ReturnColumnNumber(cbArr(i).Text)
            If s.Cells(r, CInt(colArr(i))).Value <> vbNullString Then
               MsgBox "Please create a new line for this transaction."
               Exit Sub
            End If
            s.Cells(r, CInt(colArr(i))).Value = CCur(-1 * txtArr(i).Value)
         End If
      End If
   Next i

'Write the expense
   s.Cells(r, cExpense).Value = CCur(-1 * Me.txtExpense.Value)

   If Me.cbComment.Value <> vbNullString Then
      ActiveCell.AddComment (Me.cbComment.Value)
   End If

   Unload Me
End Sub

Private Sub cbCancel_Click()
   Unload Me
End Sub

Private Sub txtExpense_Change()
   Me.txtCategory1.Value = expense - c2 - c3 - c4 - c5
End Sub

Private Sub txtCategory2_Change()
   Me.txtCategory1.Value = expense - c2 - c3 - c4 - c5
End Sub
'There's an identical subroutine for the text boxes for categories 3, 4, and 5. Not shown in this post.

Private Sub UserForm_Initialize()
   Dim i As Integer
   Dim catList As String
   Dim catArr As Variant
'Fill in date
   Me.txtDate.Text = ActiveSheet.Range("A" & ActiveCell.Row & ":A" & ActiveCell.Row).Text
'Populate budget category comboboxes
   catList = ListBudgetCategories
   catArr = Split(catList, "|")
   For i = 0 To UBound(catArr)
      Me.cbCategory1.AddItem (catArr(i))
      Me.cbCategory2.AddItem (catArr(i))
      Me.cbCategory3.AddItem (catArr(i))
      Me.cbCategory4.AddItem (catArr(i))
      Me.cbCategory5.AddItem (catArr(i))
   Next i
'Populate comment combobox
   catList = ListComments
   catArr = Split(catList, "|")
   For i = 0 To UBound(catArr)
      Me.cbComment.AddItem (catArr(i))
   Next i
End Sub

Private Function ConvertToCurrency()
   Dim txtArr(4)
   Dim valArr(4)
   Dim i As Long
'Validate numeric entry and set variables equal to box contents.
   If TypeName(Me.ActiveControl) = "TextBox" Then
      With Me.ActiveControl
         If Not IsNumeric(.Value) And .Value <> vbNullString Then
            .Value = vbNullString
         End If
      End With
   End If
'For things in Budget frame, need to refer to the control within the frame control.
   If TypeName(Me.ActiveControl) = "Frame" Then
      With Me.ActiveControl.ActiveControl
         If Not IsNumeric(.Value) And .Value <> vbNullString Then
            .Value = vbNullString
         End If
      End With
   End If

'Cycle through array of textboxes
   Set txtArr(0) = Me.txtExpense
   Set txtArr(1) = Me.txtCategory2
   Set txtArr(2) = Me.txtCategory3
   Set txtArr(3) = Me.txtCategory4
   Set txtArr(4) = Me.txtCategory5

   For i = 0 To UBound(txtArr)
      If txtArr(i).Value = vbNullString Then
         valArr(i) = 0
         Else: valArr(i) = txtArr(i).Value
      End If
   Next i
   expense = CCur(txtArr(0))
   c2 = valArr(1)
   c3 = valArr(2)
   c4 = valArr(3)
   c5 = valArr(4)
End Function

Function ListBudgetCategories() As String
   Dim i As Long
   Dim catList As String
'If a column is green in row 4, that means it's a budget category, so add it to the combobox.
   For i = 1 To 55
      If ActiveSheet.Cells(4, i).Interior.Color = 14545386 Then
         catList = catList & "|" & ActiveSheet.Cells(2, i).Value
      End If
   Next i
   catList = Replace(catList, "|", "", , 1)
   ListBudgetCategories = catList
End Function

Function ListComments() As String
'Populate the Comment combobox with the comments that already exist on the page.
   Dim comList As String
   Dim com As Comment

   For Each com In ActiveSheet.Comments
      comList = comList & "|" & com.Text
   comList = Replace(comList, "|", "", , 1)
   comList = Replace(comList, Chr(10), "")
   ListComments = comList
End Function

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Justifying My Media Consumption

While laid up with a hurting back this weekend, I watched a great deal of media.

I also read a great book, How Fiction Works by James Wood. Great writing, beautiful typesetting. I just read a quip about Wood that he seems "to want to be his own grandfather." The throwback design of the book supports that notion, with it's wide margins, section numbers, and running heads that summarize the contents of the spread. I love that stuff, and yes, I've been trying to be my own grandfather for some time now.

But if I go on about literary criticism, I'll be misrepresenting the weekend. What I really did this weekend was consume TV and movies. Specifically:

Several episodes of Parks and Recreation: Great concept and characters. I particularly like the setting and the character of Ron Swanson, who may have the most earnest (= least ironic) mustache on television in the last twenty years.

Several episodes of Family Guy: So, is Peter raped in every other episode now? I think I'm finally writing this show off for good. Then again, they made a joke about Picard's flute from the episode "The Inner Light." So it kind of evens out.

Benny and Joon: This continues our series of watching VHS tapes we got for free at rummage sales. Can't say I was impressed. Johnny Depp's physical comedy was about 10% of the movie. If it had been 90% . . .

Sixteen Candles: The VHS series again. I don't care if you think this is a classic; it just plain stinks. Unintelligible, unfunny dreck.

Moral of the story: recommended books are better than recommended movies.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

What's Wrong with Muscular Christianity?

The New York Times reports "More Churches Promote Martial Arts to Reach Young Men."

As the article points out, this isn't the first time that America has seen a movement to inject more masculinity into a church (and a Jesus) perceived as feminine. The most famous legacy of this earlier iteration of "muscular Christianity" is the YMCA (Young Men's Christian Association).

I suppose I could resent the movement for that. Some of the most hateful hours of my adolescence were spent in my hometown Y, compelled by my dad to work out when I'd rather have been a few blocks down at the library. For years afterward, the smell of that place, the smell of rubber mats and disinfectant, made me queasy and anxious.

For the most part, I've gotten over my hatred of weights and workouts. I attempt a CrossFit workout two to four times a week (and brag endlessly about my accomplishments). I've come to appreciate the joy that the pursuit of fitness can give (sore muscles and creaking joints included). I've come to see the struggle for fitness (the αγων, if you will) as virtuous.

I use that word virtuous intentionally, with an etymological implication. Virtue (the word, not the concept) originates in Latin virtus, "strength, manliness." A man who tests his strength against an opponent, in a footrace or in a fight, does what is fitting for a man.

I hasten to add that none of this should be taken as disparaging women athletes or men who are not athletes. My wife, now 21 weeks pregnant, is still a better athlete than I. It is possible to revel in a quality of manliness without saying that that quality is all there is to manliness; or that men alone own that quality.

In short, it is possible to thank God for being a man without adding "And thank God I'm not a woman."

(Along the same lines, it's possible to say, "I'm proud to be an American" without implying "I'd be ashamed to be one of those poor slobs who's not." But that's another post.)

Which brings us, belatedly, to my problem with muscular Christianity. Its always accompanied by unmanly whining about feminization, ungentlemanly scorn of women and "feminine" men, and unvirtuous assertions of a man's right to lead. For example:

“The man should be the overall leader of the household,” said Ryan Dobson, 39, a pastor and fan of mixed martial arts who is the son of James C. Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, a prominent evangelical group. “We’ve raised a generation of little boys.”

Even if you believe that every man has a God-given right to lead his household, surely it's unmanly to go on about it so. It makes it sound as though the problem is these darn women who refuse to follow. Is there anything less manly than blaming a woman for your failures?

Let men not be taught to shift blame; let them not be given excuses to demand their own way; let them not learn to despise those considered weak.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Brave New World Computers

An interesting post about what the future of computers might look like, once the desktop goes the way of the floppy disk (HT: Lileks). Particularly, how will hackers (in the non-pejorative sense) cope with losing the flexibility and openness of current file systems.

Personally, I hate the idea of hacking going away so soon after discovering it. The stuff about Excel I've been posting is all about getting under the hood of a program to make it more efficient for you. I'm not very good at it, and what I'm doing is rudimentary, but I was hoping to keep at it for awhile. I was hoping that learning this stuff meant I was catching up, but now stevenf tells me it's just turning me into an Old World computer user. Sad.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Dead Rapping Economists

I don't know why this hasn't already taken over the Internet .

Fear the Boom and Bust: Keynes vs. Hayek in a rap video

HT: Caleb Sjogren

From what I've read, the portrayal of Keynes as a playboy is historically accurate.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Budget Planning with Excel: Macros

If you've never created a macro in Microsoft Office, you're missing out. You probably have some repetitive task that you wish you could automate. Well, it probably is possible to automate it (though it might take writing some computer code).

There is a way to create macros without dealing with code: you can tell Excel (or Word, or other Office programs) to record a macro. I won't explain this; if you haven't done it, just search for "record macro Excel" and you'll find the info you need.

To deal with the code that underlies macros, you use the Visual Basic Editor. Open this program by pressing Alt + F11 from Excel. It should look something like this:

Though you won't have the module Budget2010 and its code. That's what I'm going to give you.

I can't take time to explain everything about this editor or the language (Visual Basic) that it uses. There are millions of web pages out there that explain these, as well as a decent help file in the Visual Basic Editor itself.

For now, just try adding a module (Insert > Module) and giving it a meaningful name (instead of the default Module1). Then copy the code below and paste it into the module's code window:

Sub AddAnotherLinetoDate()
'Adds another row below the current one, so you can record another transaction for that day.
Dim s As Worksheet
Dim r, c As Long
Dim d As String

Set s = ActiveSheet
r = ActiveCell.Row
c = ActiveCell.Column
d = s.Cells(r, 1).Text

Rows(r + 1).Insert Shift:=xlDown, CopyOrigin:=xlFormatFromLeftOrAbove
'Give the new row the same date as the original row.
s.Cells(r + 1, 1).Value = d
'Gray out the date in the new row
s.Range("A" & r + 1 & ":A" & r + 1).Font.Color = RGB(169, 169, 169)
s.Cells(r + 1, c).Select
End Sub

The comments (the lines that start with ') explain what this subroutine does: it adds a new row to the selected date. To try the macro out, select a cell in Excel, then go back to the Visual Basic Editor, put your cursor anywhere inside the code, and press F5.

Of course, you don't want to have to open the Visual Basic Editor every time you run a macro, so you can give macros keyboard and button shortcuts. I'll explain how to do that in my next post.

In the meantime, you'll want to save your Excel spreadsheet, which now has this code stored in it as well. In Office 2007, you have to save the spreadsheet with the .xslm extension to enable macros.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Dear Stonybrook Center,

How did I get on your mailing list for people dealing with opiate addiction? I figure a good chunk of my junk mail comes from the Evangelical Theological Society selling their mailing list, but I don't think I should blame them. Unless that imminent Evangelical collapse I've been hearing about has finally happened . . .

For the record, I support counseling and believe that it shouldn't bear a stigma. Helping people recover from addiction is a difficult and important task that I respect. I'm sure the folks at Stonybrook Center do a fine job.

Unless they're some sort of scam, which may be why they don't come up on Google and their phone number seems to belong to a moving company.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Mesmerizing Texts

Gorgeous ASCII animation.

I love this stuff.

HT: Alan Jacobs

Budget Planning with Excel: The Columns

What columns do you need in your Excel spreadsheet to track your finances? Well, the way we do it, you need one column for each

1. Source of income
2. Account that holds money (assets)
3. Account that you owe money (debts or liabilities)
4. Category of regular expenses

The first three should be easy to identify. I have one job, my wife has one job, so there are two income columns. We have a checking account, a savings account, and each of us carries cash, so there are four asset columns. We have a few credit cards and some student loans (our debt columns).

Deciding how many of the fourth kind of column (budget categories) you need takes some trial and error. We currently have about 20 budgeted columns. Just to give you some ideas, here they are:

Household supplies/Laundry
Life insurance
Health care
Car insurance
Car maintenance
Renters' insurance
Water/Gas/Garbage [all three of these appear on one bill]
My cell
My wife's cell
Social events

And the big catch-all:


We've set a certain amount of money that goes into each of these columns at the beginning of the month. Any leftover money should carry over to the next month, but the reality is that sometimes you have to steal from one column to make up unforeseen shortfall in another. This is where trial and error comes in. If one column is always short and another is always over, maybe you can change the allocations. Or maybe (if the Groceries column is always short, for example) you need to rein in your spending.

Finally, I should mention one other kind of column that is largely optional. I have columns for the deductions that come out of our paychecks before they're deposited: taxes, retirement, flexible spending accounts. I included them this year for the sake of completeness, but they're out of the picture for the basic monthly budget. They mostly don't interact with other accounts and budget categories, and my pay stub already shows me what the running total is.

In the next post, we'll start talking about the macros and forms I use to save time in entering income and expenses.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Works of Genius

Last night I finished The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan. (Whom I loved at first read.) This book was a delight from beginning to end. I was so often looking up from it to tell Mrs. Chaka what I had just read that I might as well have read the whole thing aloud to her.

After finishing it, I realized that I've read quite a few spectacular books recently. The following are my recent reads that I do not hesitate to call Works of Genius (the star means it was a re-read):

The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan
Planet Narnia by Michael Ward
*Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Jesus of Nazareth by Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)
*The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
*The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Recently read books that I'd place just shy of genius include:

The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis
Word Myths by David Wilton
The Natural History of Unicorns by Chris Lavers
Becket by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Budget Planning with Excel: Cell Format

Tip Number 2: Make ordinary numbers appear as dates and currency.

I use a worksheet for each month of the year. The lefthand column of the sheet gives the date. You don't have to type 1-Jan, 2-Jan, 3-Jan, etc for the whole month. Excel can interpret a positive integer as a date. Here's how it works.

1 = January 1, 1900
2 = January 2, 1900
. . .
40,179 = January 1, 2010

So try this: Put "40179" in cell A5. Right-click A5 and choose "Format cells." Select "Date" from the Category box and choose the Type on the right. You'll see a preview in the Sample window.

Now your 40179 is transformed into a date.

To populate the rest of the dates for the month, create a formula in A6: "=A5+1". After you hit Enter, A6 should show 1/2/2010. You can copy A6, select the next 30 rows or so, and select Paste. You now have a month of dates.

You can redo this for every month (February 1, 2010 = 40,210), or I suppose you could do the whole year in one sheet.

The format for most cells in the sheet (everything east of column A and south of row 4) will be Currency. I prefer the format that shows negative numbers in red with parentheses. When the cells are set up like this, Excel will automatically interpret an entry like "4.1" as $4.10 and -38.5 as ($38.50). High visual contrast and a minimum number of keystrokes. That's what I like.

Budget Planning with Excel: Freezing Panes

Here's Tip Number 1: Learn how to freeze panes properly. This is a feature of Excel that never works the way I think it should, but it is possible to freeze the leftmost column(s) and topmost row(s) so that they're always visible when you scroll elsewhere in the document.

In Excel 2007, the Freeze Panes command is on the View tab. Pre-2007, it's under Window.

The trick is to select the cell that will be in the upper left-hand corner of the lower right-hand quadrant before choosing "Freeze Panes." Got that?

If you select the cell highlighted as "This one!" in the picture above, you'll freeze the top two rows and the leftmost column so they're always visible.

At the risk of belaboring the point, it may help to think of this command as cutting the sheet into four quadrants (the "panes"). Excel will make a cut along the top of the selected cell and along its left side.

If you mess up, there doesn't seem to be a way to adjust where the "cuts" lie. You just have to unfreeze the panes and try again.

(HT: Tech Xpress)

Budget Planning with Excel

I spent New Year's Day gearing up to track the family finances. Since the beginning of our marriage, Mrs. Chaka and I have used an Excel spreadsheet for this purpose. I was planning to migrate to something more fully featured, such as GNUCash, but after playing around with that program for a bit, I felt that a couple modifications to Excel would serve us better. This is because I'm lazy and didn't want to learn a new system.

Now, credit where credit is due: Mrs. Chaka started our budget, using a system she learned from her mentor Jason Falck. Any blunders I've introduced should be laid at my door, of course, not theirs.

You may have heard of Dave Ramsey's envelope system: You put the budgeted cash in an envelope and when the money for that category is gone, it's gone. Our system is like that, except we use Excel columns instead of envelopes. There's a Gas column, a Groceries column, a Rent column, etc. When we make a payment from our credit card or bank account, we deduct the money from two columns--the account and the budget category. E.g.,

On the 5th of January there, the $24.86 we spent at Valli Produce (The Platonic Ideal of a Grocery Store) was deducted from our credit card (USAA) and from the Groceries column.

One of the reasons Mrs. Chaka and I both dreaded working on the budget in the past was the time it took to enter every expenditure twice--sometimes more than twice, since we often needed to use comments to make notes about the transaction.

My goal on New Year's Day was to hack Excel to reduce the number of times I have to enter the same information. In the next few posts, I'll share my results.