The Disappearing Alphabet

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The Disappearing Alphabet

"Not Invented Here" syndrome and the language wars

The alphabet is going away. Controls on machines, electronic or otherwise, now use ideograms instead of words. I wouldn't be so annoyed if they used an existing system of ideograms (like, say, Chinese used by billions of people). But no, they have to invent an entirely new system out of whole cloth. Now we have a daily struggle to decipher a language which is evolving daily, has no extant literature, no textbooks or even dictionaries, and hundreds of dialects. I have to help my family with questions like, "Dad? What does the character with 3 different sized circles in a horizontal row, a horizontal line underneath, and a short vertical line on the left mean?" ("I think that means Check Engine - look in the owners manual, maybe they have a translation.")

I often hear it said that "young people understand technology". On a surface level, that is blatantly false: young people have very little understanding of how computers or any modern technology work. Any actual questioning of their understanding quickly reveals monstrous misconceptions and ignorance. What young people are doing is learning a new language - which they can do much more quickly than adults. And I'm not talking about something useful like a computer language or a foreign language (although a few are doing that as well). Young people learn almost instantly what 2 short vertical lines next to each other means on a button, or what a circle with a single radial segment at the bottom means on another button.

Quick quiz: what does two diagonally crossed lines - where the upper left to lower right line has a small semi circle on each end, and the lower left to upper right line is thicker at one end than the other - mean?

Extra credit: if you took on the project of creating a dictionary for the evolving Western ideograms (which would lock in a nice income stream for some time due to the regular updates needed), how would you sort the characters? (Hint: look for existing practice in another system.)

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Anne Christine Gathman

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Anne Christine Gathman

As remembered by her son

Died Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Memorial Service Saturday, February 25, 2017

The original eulogy

My mother was a woman ahead of her time. She refused drugs giving birth, comparing the pain of childbirth to an extreme sport. She fed us raw milk, whether “moose milk” or goat. We raised chickens and geese from eggs and gathered more eggs. We carefully blew out the contents of goose eggs through pinholes to make omelet, and decorated the shells for Easter. My friends were freaked out by the occasional pin feather in hand plucked chicken and by goat stew. She effectively homeschooled us so that formal school was largely a formality. But when my dad brought home a portable teletype from work, she was spooked by the machine typing on its own.

Her decor was organic, favoring wood and fabric and eschewing glass and steel. She embraced the Japanese ideal of a garden – wild in appearance, but carefully managed. She knew the names of all the plants – even if the name “vitis vibenum” came up suspiciously often. She took us on hikes without bringing food – gathering it wild from the forest when we were hungry. We dehydrated vegetables from the garden and made jerky from meat to bring on other trips. She did successful surgery on a sheep in the bathtub. She never really understood physics, but successfully taught a high school physics class – by making the kids teach her!

When she played “Wonderful Grace of Jesus, deeper than all my sin” on the church piano, I wanted to hear the lively, almost militant rendition again and again. She sang us to sleep with “Oh how I love Jesus, because He first loved me.” Canaries flew around the house, singing along as she sang “I am Jesus’ little lamb, ever glad of heart I am”, the cat watching hungrily but never daring to attack in her presence – that aspect of the Disney princess never seemed fanciful to me. The bird poop was a little gross, so my dad eventually built her a greenhouse apiary. Many lovely afternoons and evenings were spent at the National Cathedral for her practices and performances. After wandering the mazes of the formal gardens in the late sun, I would listen to the music of the choir floating through the vast cathedral caverns and still echoing in the hum of the motor on the sleepy ride home.

She didn’t just read God’s word, she had us memorize it. Summer camp was conditional on reciting our assignment from memory.

More about Anne

She raised Angora rabbits, gathered the wool, carded and combed it, spun it into yarn, and knitted scarves. When I proposed gathering acorns to make acorn bread like the Native Americans, she helped make it happen. We shelled and boiled them (to reduce the bitter tannic acid), roasted and ground them, and baked that bread. (Some varieties of oak are edidible without the boiling treatment.) We served milkweed pods for dinner (boiled in several changes of water to mostly remove the bitter toxin). We even tried new pokeweed shoots in the spring (which also require changes of water). Daylillies were much easier, as they are directly edible. We served sumac punch to guests (no, not poison sumac which is a different species).

She made her own stained glass window, depicting the vine of John 15. She carefully leveled the back patio at our first long term home in Maryland, and filled it with water in the winter to create a skating rink. She trained grape vines to cover the walkway to the house, and you could reach up and pick a cluster for refreshment after playing outside. She enameled the basement floor, and cleared an area for roller skating.

On long car trips (including from DC area to California by herself with five kids), she did not stop for bathroom breaks. We had bottles for pee and a small kid sized plastic chamber pot. Our cats were named things like Nanki-poo, Ångström, and Phet Thong Aroon - each inviting idependent inquiry by her children. When a mother cat lost her litter (the kittens not claimed by a human met with a CO "accident" in the garage) she got an unwanted runt miniature collie puppie named Jennifer, and gave her to momma cat to nurse and raise. Jennifer was a dog the size of a large cat who always buried her business - proof that this behavior is learned.

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National Disaster

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Oh man. Esther in 45 minutes. At least give me 2 sessions! There are so many types of salvation in this story which we couldn't get into.

The Troublesome Greeks, Esther 1

The Persians appointed satraps (governors) over the many provinces of the empire. The Greeks were particularly troublesome, as they had numerous city states, sometimes at war with each other, sometimes rebelling against Medo-Persian rule. Some Greek cities accepted Persian rule, others sought independence.

As our story begins, Xerxes has spent the first 3 years of his rule finishing the preparations for a massive invasion of Greece begun by his father. Herodotus lists 2,641,610 soldiers, which with support personel would make an army of 5 million. (Other sources list as "few" as 2 million.) The final planning session lasts 6 months, and involves all the generals from at least 46 provinces of the empire. The book of Esther opens with this extended strategy session described as a 180 day "feast". At the end of the session, there is a 7 day celebration.

While Xerxes is in conference (or feasting) with his generals, Vashti his loyal queen has the wives of the governors and generals at the women's palace. In addition to having their own party, they are effectively hostages against any assasination attempts on Xerxes.

On the last day of the 7 day celebration, Xerxes has too much to drink, and orders Vashti to appear before the men wearing [only] her royal crown. For Vashti to obey, in addition to the personal humiliation, would put Xerxes life at risk. She refuses.

Having the queen refuse a direct order on the eve of battle is a very bad start for the invasion of Greece. His advisors have him banish Vashti (a permanent restraining order). Now the king is depressed - an even worse start for the invasion of Greece.

The invasion sets off for Greece with millions, and returns with 10,000, and only marginal success in putting the troublesome Greeks in their place. The expense of the invasion was enormous, the loss of life staggering, and this setback is a national disaster. The popular (and very violent) movie "300" depicts the battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans hold back tens of thousands of Persian troops (from every part of the empire), before finally succumbing to exhaustion on the 3rd day.

Introducing Esther, Esther 2

After losing his Queen, and only technically winning the war, Xerxes is really in a bad way. His advisors advise him to find new love in a beauty contest with involuntary contestants from all over the empire. He chooses Hadassah (hidden) as his new Queen, but he knows her as Esther (after the goddess Ishtar, the namesake of Easter), for her uncle Mordecai has instructed her to keep her heritage hidden.

Introducing Mordecai, Esther 2:21-23

When David flees the rebellion of his son Absalom, Shimei, descendent of Saul, throws stones at David and curses him. His men go to execute Shimei, but David commands that he be spared. Centuries later, Mordecai, a descendent of Shimei, is instrumental in saving all Israel. [2 Samuel 16]

Mordecai "sits in the kings gate", which means he was a government clerk or lawyer. The "gate" was the ancient version of the courthouse or DMV.

After nearly bankrupting the empire, Xerxes is hated by many citizens, and there are many assassination plots. In fact, he is eventually assassinated. In August 465 BC, Artabanus assassinated Xerxes with the help of a eunuch, Aspamitres. Greek historians give contradicting accounts of events. According to Ctesias (in Persica 20), Artabanus then accused the Crown Prince Darius, Xerxes's eldest son, of the murder and persuaded another of Xerxes's sons, Artaxerxes, to avenge the patricide by killing Darius. But according to Aristotle (in Politics 5.1311b), Artabanus killed Darius first and then killed Xerxes. After Artaxerxes discovered the murder, he killed Artabanus and his sons.

Mordecai overhears one such plot, and reports it to the king. The matter is investigated, and found to be true, and the conspirators executed. There is no reward for Mordecai - it will come at the perfect time.

Introducing Haman, Esther 3

In Exodus 17, Israel is attacked by the Amalekites. God says he will "wipe out their name". 1 Samuel 15, God tells Saul to wipe out the Amalekites. He mostly does so - except for king Agag and his family. Good thinking Saul - it's not like the survivors are going to carry a generational grudge against Israel or anything. Samuel executes Agag, but his sons escape. But the survivors are no longer called Amalekites in fulfillment of prophecy - they become the Agagites.

Centuries later, Haman, a descendent of Agag, is instrumental in nearly destroying all Israel.

Descendent of Saul versus descendent of Agag - the rematch!

Haman is promoted to prime minister. Everyone on the street bows to him - except that miserable clerk Mordecai. This is against the kings command, and Haman looks into the matter to see what punishment is in order for Mordecai. To his consternation, he discovers a 100 year old decree from Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 3:29 - the Jewish Religious Freedom Protection Act. "Therefore I make a decree, That every people, nation, and language, which speak any thing amiss against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed–nego, shall be cut in pieces, and their houses shall be made a dunghill: because there is no other God that can deliver after this sort." (We covered Daniel 3 on December 13 in sunday school - sadly, I forgot to make this connection in class today.)

Since the Jewish religion forbade bowing to anyone except their God (who didn't even have a statue to bow to), and decrees of the kings of the Babylonian and Persian (and even Greek until Antiochus IV) empires could not be repealed, and no one wanted to be cut in pieces, the commandent to bow before Haman had an exception clause for Jews. Clearly, the only way to remove this affront to Haman's dignity is to exterminate all the Jews, as their ancestors had done to his.

Haman makes his pitch to Xerxes by describing the Jews as a troublesome lot that did not keep his laws and should be exterminated. But the best part? It would be paid for by Haman personally, and by confiscating the property of the Jews killed. Still paying off the disastrous invasion of Greece, a self financed operation seems like a great feature, and getting rid of a troublesome people so cheaply would help people forget the Greek disaster. Xerxes issues the decree. The citizens are not so happy. This Jewish genocide seems senseless to most - especially after the Greek disaster.

If I Perish, I Perish!

We read Esther 4 aloud in class, as I guessed this was the part from the official lesson. Mordecai informs Esther of the decree and the gravity of the situation. Esther agrees to see the king uninvited at the risk of her life after 3 days prayer and fasting. Notably, Esther's male (eunuch) and female attendents pray along with Esther, Mordecai, and Mordecai's friends. What has Esther been doing in that harem?

Verse 4:14 is of special note: "Deliverance will arise from another place." God has prepared ahead of time a response to every possible human choice, and will always accomplish His will.

The Long Day: Esther 5-7

Everything in these chapters takes place over 24 hours, which I summarized in class. Esther is accepted by the king, and invites Xerxes and Haman to a private dinner. At the banquet, Xerxes, knowing full well that Esther did not risk her life to invite him to dinner, asks her what her request is. Esther asks him to a lunch, at which she will reveal her request.

On his way home, Haman sees Mordecai, and orders a gallows built for Modecai (Persian gallows were a high platform from which you fell onto a bed of sharpened wooden spikes). The king can't sleep - maybe he was still agonizing over the Greek war disaster, maybe he was wondering what Esther could possibly want. He has a clerk read court records to put him to sleep, he hears about Mordecai saving his life, and asks how he was rewarded. He wasn't.

Early in the morning Haman comes to ask permission to execute Mordecai, but the king interrupts, and excitedly asks what should be done for one the king delights to honor. Haman, thinking he is the one, describes an elaborate ceremony, and the king tells him to do so to Mordecai. Haman decides it's not a good time to ask about executing Modecai.

Haman runs home to his family in shame, and his advisors prophecy that "since Mordecai is a Jew, once you have begun to fall before him, you will surely fall." Then the eunuchs arrive (with a litter? chariot?) to take him to the luncheon. The king asks Esther what her request is. "Save me and my people from this wicked Haman, who has sold us for slaughter." The king steps onto the balcony to calm down, and Haman throws himself on Esther to beg for mercy. As the attendents pull him off, the king comes back in saying, "Will you even assault my Queen in my presence?" The attendents cover Haman's eyes (to show he is marked for execution) and helpfully inform the king of the gallows Haman had built for Mordecai. Haman gets to test drive his gallows.

One of the boys in the class pipes up, "Now that is irony!"

The Decree Which Cannot be Repealed, Estern 8-10

The decree to exterminate the Jews was still on the books, and could not be repealed. I asked the class what could be done. One of the boys piped up and says, "let them defend themselves!" Good job parents! The defense was successful, and Purim is celebrated to this day.

Esther completes the work of Saul, Esther 9:13,14

Then said Esther, If it please the king, let it be granted to the Jews which are in Shushan to do tomorrow also according unto this day’s decree, and let Haman’s ten sons be hanged upon the gallows. And the king commanded it so to be done: and the decree was given at Shushan; and they hanged Haman’s ten sons. Unlike the sons of Agag, they did not escape.

In a speech on January 30, 1944, Hitler declared that if the Nazis were defeated, the Jews could celebrate a second Purim. Hitler said in Mein Kampf, "I am embarked on a struggle to the death with the Jews for the hearts and minds of men. The Jews have inflicted two wounds on mankind. Circumcision for the body, and conscience for the soul. I am come to free mankind from their bondage." And again in Rauschning, Hitler Speaks, p. 234, "The struggle for world domination will be fought entirely between us, between Germans and Jews. All else is facade and illusion."

On October 16, 1946, 10 Germans were hanged to death (11 were to be hanged, but one committed suicide). The court specifically prescribed hanging, as in Esther's original request.

 "Only Julius Streicher went without dignity. He had to be pushed across
 the floor, wild eyed and screaming "heil hitler". Mounting the steps he
 cried out: "And now I go to God." He stared at the witnesses facing the
 gallows and shouted "Purimfest, 1946" Newsweek Oct 28, 1946.
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Why do we Praise?

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The Cyrus Administration

Cyrus believed it was far less of a drain on the treasury to have people willingly accept your rule, than to send vast armies. The Cyrus Cylinder was part of his propaganda effort after an unusually bloodless conquest of Babylon. Nabonidas, the king of Babylon, had been put in that position by his mother Adad-Guppi, the quintessential Disney Evil Queen - who brags on her steele how many of Nebuchadnezzar's descendents she had to assassinate to achieve that.

An incompetent person [i.e., Nabonidus] was installed to exercise lordship over his country.

Nabonidas was an archaeologist, and much to his ambitious mother's consternation, had no interest in kinging. He was absent for 7 years at a time, effectively putting an end to much of the religious ritual in Babylon - which required the king's presence.

he put an end to the regular offerings (and) he in[terfered in the cultic centers; x x x he] established in the sacred centers. By his own plan, he did away with the worship of Marduk, the king of the gods,

Even worse, Nabonidas brought many of his finds back to a museum in Babylon.

Upon hearing their cries, the lord of the gods became furiously angry and [x x x] their borders; the gods who lived among them forsook their dwellings, angry that he [sc. Nabonidus] had brought them to Babylon. Marduk, the ex[alted, the lord of the gods], turned towards all the habitations that were abandoned and all the people of Sumer and Akkad, who had become corpses. He was reconciled and had mercy upon them. He examined and checked all the entirety of the lands, all of them,he searched everywhere and then he took a righteous king, his favorite, by the hand, he called out his name: Cyrus, king of Anšan; he pronounced his name to be king all over the world.

There was one major battle at Opis, as Nabonidas made a token resistance before going back his latest archaeological dig1. Cyrus was greeted in Babylon itself by crowds waving palm branches. It is not clear whether this was genuine relief at getting rid of the highly corrupt Belshazzar, whom Nabonidas had left in charge of Babylon while he was away - or if it was a collective case of "I for one welcome our new overlords!" His general Darius, killed all the politicians - who were conveniently gathered together in a large banqueting hall as recorded in Daniel 5.

Agade, Ešnunna, Zamban, Me-Turnu, Der, as far as the region of Gutium, the sacred centers on the other side of the Tigris, whose sanctuaries had been abandoned for a long time,

I returned the images of the gods, who had resided there [i.e., in Babylon], to their places and I let them dwell in eternal abodes. I gathered all their inhabitants and returned to them their dwellings.

In addition, at the command of Marduk, the great lord, I settled in their habitations, in pleasing abodes, the gods of Sumer and Akkad, whom Nabonidus, to the anger of the lord of the gods, had brought into Babylon.

May all the gods whom I settled in their sacred centers ask daily of Bel and Nebu that my days be long and may they intercede for my welfare. May they say to Marduk, my lord: "As for Cyrus, the king who reveres you, and Cambyses, his son, ... (text unreadable)

The people of Babylon blessed my kingship, and I settled all the lands in peaceful abodes.

The Decree concerning Judah: Ezra 1:1-8

Ezra records the specific decree concerning the Jews:

Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, The Lord God of heaven hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth; and he hath charged me to build him an house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Who is there among you of all his people? his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and build the house of the Lord God of Israel, (he is the God,) which is in Jerusalem. And whosoever remaineth in any place where he sojourneth, let the men of his place help him with silver, and with gold, and with goods, and with beasts, beside the freewill offering for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.

Note that the parenthesis (and capitalization) are added by the editors. Cyrus didn't think that the God of Jerusalem was any different than the god of Zamban. 2 The passage actually reads, "he is the god which is in Jerusalem." The decree recorded in Ezra is not found in any surviving Akkadian documents, but then nothing concerning Judah is found in any surviving Akkadian documents. Judah was apparently considered somewhat unimportant.

Question for the class: Was there any reality to the gods of the other cities?

The student consensus was that no, the other gods were imaginary. I had them read Daniel 10:12-13 and Ephesians 6:12

The First Worship Service (after Babylonian Exile): Ezra 3:1-13

The lesson skips over lists of gold and silver utensils, and the members of the reconstruction party.

When the rebuilding party arrives in Jerusalem, they set the altar on its base and reconsecrate the temple service utensils returned from Babylon. When everything is ready, they hold a very emotional worship service.

Question for the class: Why does God want us to praise Him?

"We delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation."

Does God have a self image problem? Following the line of thought from C.S. Lewis' Reflections on the Psalms, we talked about why we praise other things: football plays and sunsets. The sun does not need our praise, but our praise is how we enjoy the game or the sunset. Or God Himself. According to the Westminister Catechism:

What is the chief end of man? To love God, and to enjoy Him forever.

Question for the class: Do objects deserve praise or criticism?

Following the line of thought from the opening chapter of C.S. Lewis' Abolition of Man, we talked about the story of Coleridge at a waterfall. Is "This is sublime!" a statement about the waterfall, or statement about the speaker's feelings? There really was not enough time to go through the steps to understanding this deep question. The best shortcut I could come up with was this modern result of the "separation of fact and value":

It's wrong to impose your morality on others!

  1. After wrapping up what he was working on, Nabonidas came to Babylon to surrender to the new king. Cyrus granted him a research budget and sent him back the field to carry on his archaeology full time. 

  2. At least at the time. The additions to Daniel in the Apochrypha record a later conversion of Cyrus. Note that Daniel 6 is about his general Darius who was serving as regeant of Babylon in place of Belshazzar. 

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The Dark Story of Christmas

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Most people think of Christmas in terms of a pre-school pageant with angels, shepherds, friendly animals, and gifts. The reality is far darker.

War of the Wives

In Genesis 29:31-30:24 Rachel and Leah are vying for the affection of their shared husband Jacob. As they are in labor, they see dimly through the curtain of time, and prophesy the future of Israel as a nation as they name their sons. At long last, Rachel has a son herself, and calls his name Joseph, or "adding", saying "the Lord will add to me another son."

A Voice Weeping in Ramah

In the wilderness just west of Ramah, while traveling toward Bethlehem, Ephrath, a woman cries out in anguish, her cries echoing in the desolate hills and down through the centuries. Her husband has been told to return to his ancestral city, and her baby has chosen this inopportune moment to enter the world outside the womb. It is Anno Mundi 2240 (~1800BC), and there are no inns to turn them away. The woman is Rachel, and Rachel is dying. As she dies giving birth, with her face toward Bethlehem and Jerusalem, time and space begin to compress, and like Mr. Well's hero, the walls of her tent grow transparent and she sees the events of the centuries around Bethlehem compressed into a few moments.

Ghostly warriors run by her, cutting down the men fleeing east from Gibeah toward Ramah. The ground is littered for miles with 25,000 corpses of the fallen - all valiant warriors. They are her children from six centuries later. All but 600 men of the children of Benjamin - her children - are slaughtered while fleeing from Gibeah toward Ramah to the East in a bloody civil war. Rachel weeps for her children that will be no more.

Then she hears the voice of a man speaking her name. It is Jeremiah the prophet, another six centuries later warning Judah,

Thus says the LORD, "A voice is heard in Ramah, Lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; She refuses to be comforted for her children, Because they are no more." Thus says the LORD, "Restrain your voice from weeping And your eyes from tears; For your work will be rewarded," declares the LORD, "And they will return from the land of the enemy. "There is hope for your future," declares the LORD, "And your children will return to their own territory.…

Now there is a crowd of young people around her. They are in chains, and they are being led away by soldiers in metal armor. The soldiers speak like Chaldeans from the north. As they leave, one of the captives turns and smiles at her through the intervening centuries, as if to say, "Don't worry! 'Israel' - God rules!"

Pastoral scenes alternate rapidly with unspeakable atrocities as another six centuries go by. Then she looks toward Bethlehem again, and she sees soldiers in strange armor bearing the emblem of a golden eagle, advancing on the tiny village. She hears a voice, and turns to see a man, unmistakeably the young man among the captives, but now an old man. He says,

"But rumors from the East and from the North will disturb him, and he will go forth with great wrath to destroy and annihilate many. "He will pitch the tents of his royal pavilion between the seas and the beautiful Holy Mountain; yet he will come to his end, and no one will help him.

But what are the soldiers doing? They are not cutting down opposing warriors, they are going house to house and killing the toddlers. Mothers are screaming in anguish, and their screams seem to intensify Rachel's own anguish, and she cries out anew in despair.

She hears a voice hear at hand. It is the midwife saying, "Don’t despair, for you have another son!” Rachel names him Ben-Oni, "son of my sorrow", before the world fades away altogether.

When the son is presented to his father Jacob, Jacob changes his name to Benjamin, "son of my right hand".


Eighteen centuries later, one toddler escapes Herod's soldiers by fleeing to Egypt. He will be called a Man of Sorrows. But after his anguish, his Father will say to him, "sit at my right hand".

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