Sunday, October 16, 2016

A Personal Theology - Heresy and Universal Truth

The following is a short talk I gave at the Kingston Unitarian Fellowship (KUF) back in 2012:

I really appreciate the opportunity to give my own personal testimony on the Sunday when the theme is "Freethinkers and Heretics", because I do consider myself as a freethinker or heretic. Probably many of us here do. When I was young, my mother brought me and my sister to church on Sunday. At first, to the United Church in Collins Bay. Later, to the Christian Reformed Church just a few blocks north of here, presumably because the United Church was not sufficiently orthodox. At that time, I thought I should be a Christian. My first act of heresy, then, was abandoning the faith of my

When I first started thinking independently about theology, I thought about the concept of "universal truth". That is, is there a religion that would apply everywhere in the universe and at every point in time. I quickly came to the conclusion that no Earthly religion could possibly make such a claim. Later, in university, I took a course in world religions. And although Buddhism and Taoism appealed to me in theory, in practice they too seemed to miss the mark.

"Freethought", according to the Wikipedia, is the philosophy that opinions should be formed on the basis of logic, reason, and empiricism, and not authority, tradition, or other dogmas. By that definition, I suppose I am a "Freethinker". But I'm not really comfortable with the term, probably for the same reasons I'm not comfortable with the term "atheist". Consider the question of "God": Science doesn't really tell us that God doesn't exist. Following the scientific method, the most we can say is that God is untestable. And if untestable, there's always the possibility that there is such a thing. That is, to me, saying that there's no God seems just as dogmatic as saying there is. Which is perhaps a heresy to most freethinkers.

But to be clear, although I can acknowledge the possibility that there may be a God, since it is untestable, I find little use in the concept. Even those who do fervently believe in a God can have vastly different opinions about the deity. And so, at a practical level, I believe we must live our lives assuming there's no such thing, and use our intellect and compassion to guide us. I like the quote attributed to the Italian heretic Galileo: "I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use."

The way I see it, science is the best tool we have to understand the universe around us. But scientists themselves are the first to admit that science has definite limits. (Or they should be.) While science can model how something happens, it can't explain why. For example, why do some things seem to happen just when we need them to happen? Often, I want to know if there's some specific reason for my existence. And, I think many of us have some vague sense of something just beyond our five senses. I know there are no definitive answers to these questions. But that doesn't stop me from pondering them and considering the possibilities.

I first learned about Unitarianism in the early 1980's from an article in the Toronto Star, and later, I started attending Sunday service at the First Unitarian Congregation, when Chris Raible was its minister. After a few years, I moved further away and stopped attending. So for a while, I considered myself a "lapsed Unitarian." When we moved to Kingston in 2010, Sylvana suggested that we check out KUF, and I readily agreed. And soon thereafter, we signed the membership book. We came for several reasons: First, we wanted our daughter to benefit from the religious exploration program. Second, as newcomers to the city, we wanted to meet new people. Third, I liked the idea of a weekly spiritual retreat.

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

Lately, I've been participating in a number of UU discussion groups on Facebook. On-line, I see a lot of diversity among UU's. So much so that, when I offer my point of view, I sometimes feel like a heretic. But the way I see it, the diversity is a real strength of Unitarianism. Many of us approach the great questions of "Life, Universe, and Everything" through spirituality. It seems that fewer of us deal with these questions analytically. Can we use analytical tools in matters of faith? I believe we can. For example, I think the validity and usefulness of the "Golden Rule" can easily be demonstrated empirically. And it's the one principle that practically everyone can agree on regardless of faith, or heresy. And so, the way I see it, the "Golden Rule" is probably the closest we can get to the concept of "universal truth".

Cheers! Hans

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Customer Service and Dieting

My weight loss since September

For health reasons, Sylvana and I knew we needed to lose weight. And so back in September, we both joined Weight Watchers. Based on our previous experience, we knew this was the best way to meet our goals, and so far, it has been successful. We both still have a ways to go, but Weight Watchers gave us the tools to make it work. And hopefully stick this time.

So a couple of weeks ago, Sylvana went on-line to renew our memberships, but she noticed that WW already automatically renewed us both at the 1-month price. This isn't what we wanted. We wanted to renew at the 3-month price, which is more economical. Sylvana went to the chat line on WW's web site. The customer service rep was friendly, and connected her with someone in the billing department, Abdul. Abdul, however, didn't respond. In spite of several prompts over 20 minutes, there was nothing from Abdul. Sylvana closed the connection, and tried again. Again, she was connected to Abdul. But this time, he closed the connection immediately.

Needless to say, Sylvana was furious. This is an absolutely unacceptable level of customer service. We discussed the issue, and decided it was time to terminate our membership. We decided to stay with the program until the middle of March, but not to go beyond that.

However, the lousy customer service is not the main theme of this blog posting, nor is it the main reason we're quitting Weight Watchers. WW has changed. The biggest change is a new points program, called "SmartPoints", replacing their PointsPlus plan.

(As an aside, years ago computer programmers used to have a saying: Whenever Microsoft uses the word "Smart", be on the lookout for something dumb.)

Some time ago, they had a simple points regime, based on calories, grams of fat, and grams of fiber. The formula was easy to remember, and you could easily figure out the points just by looking at a nutrition label. But almost 20 years ago now, they introduced the PointsPlus program. Instead of counting calories, the formula now counted grams of carbohydrates and grams of protein, giving more points to carbs and fewer for protein. You pretty much needed the WW calculator to properly compute points, or you had to look up the points in their books.

Late last year, they introduced the SmartPoints system. When we joined WW, we knew (or at least should have known) that something new was coming since the books and points calculator for the old plan were available at discounted prices. In the new program, you punch in calories, grams of saturated fat, sugars, and protein into the calculator.

Of course, they claim that the new program is much better, claiming faster weight loss than ever before. However, we have issues with the new program. In the past, they encouraged a slow and steady approach to weight loss since there can be health issues associated with rapid weight loss. And they always advertised their programs as allowing you to eat anything you want. But under the new program, foods with lots of carbs come out with a lot more points. So many more points that many of your favorite foods are now effectively out of bounds. Looking at how heavily carbs are discouraged, I wonder what's the difference between the SmartPoints program and the Atkin's Diet?

Sure, limiting carbs is a good idea. But there always has to be balance in any diet. And while it's a good idea to favor protein over carbs, in our opinion, it's not reasonable to penalize carbs so much. By denying your favorite foods, you run more of a risk of falling off the wagon, with all the associated repercussions, including the possibility of binge eating.

That said, we will continue with our dieting. This is still too important for us not to continue. We just won't do it anymore as Weight Watchers members. And we'll continue following the PointsPlus system.

And just to be clear, we don't want to discourage anyone from trying the Weight Watchers program. The new plan may well work for some people, just as the old program works well for others. Weight loss isn't always easy, and you may have to make some effort to find a strategy that works for you.

Cheers! Hans

Saturday, September 26, 2015

My Next Musical Instrument?

A couple of years ago, someone asked me what was the difference between the baritone ukulele and the tenor guitar. I couldn't answer the question since I never heard of a tenor guitar before. Later, I did a bit of research and discovered the answer.

The tenor guitar is a slightly smaller guitar with the neck of a tenor banjo, originally made so tenor banjo players could easily play guitar instead. Like the tenor banjo, standard tuning of the tenor guitar is in fifths, CGDA. However, other tunings, such as DBGE, are also very common. Compared to a baritone uke, the tenor banjo is a bit bigger but with a narrower neck.

Like many other ukulele players, I have a modest collection of instruments. I've never really been a fan of the baritone, and so I've never been tempted to add a baritone to my collection. But I rather like the tenor guitar. Sometimes, you can find a tenor guitar made by Kala at the local music store, and I must say, it sounds rather nice. It combines the sound you'd expect from a guitar with the ease of playing of a ukulele. I really can't justify buying a new instrument right now, but I find this instrument very tempting.

So why choose a four-stringed guitar instead of a conventional six-stringed instrument? Think of those two bass strings on a normal guitar, tuned to E and A. For many chords, these strings aren't used at all. When strumming, many chords require that you don't touch those strings at all, and yet, they will still vibrate and contribute to the sound. This is fine for some keys, but for others, you really need a capo to avoid dissonant notes from those two strings.

Like a ukulele, the only notes you get out of a tenor guitar are from the vibrations of the four strings. That is, you get a more pure sounding chord. Many guitar players who use just a strumming style of play would get along quite nicely with this four-stringed guitar.

Don't get me wrong, I love guitar music. The guitar is a very flexible instrument, and can produce wonderful music from a skilled player. It's no wonder that it's such a popular instrument. However, many who try it get discouraged and give it up, never bothering to try playing music again. Like ukulele, the tenor guitar should be given more of a chance.

Cheers! Hans

Monday, March 16, 2015

Adventures in Banjo

Is the ukulele a gateway instrument? I suppose many kids who learn ukulele in school move on to guitar, and that's great. An instrument as easy to learn as ukulele can easily give kids an appreciation for music that can last a lifetime.

As James Hill once said, for middle-aged folk like me, ukulele can be a second chance at music. I started playing uke about seven years ago, and I've loved making music ever since. I know I'll never be good enough to play professionally, but that really doesn't matter. Ukulele has also been a gateway instrument for me. Ever since I was young, I secretly wanted a banjo. A couple of years ago, I satisfied my long-held desire, and added a banjo ukulele to my modest collection of instruments. As fun as ukulele is already, the banjo uke is even more fun. More recently, I added another banjo to my collection, a tenor banjo.

When most people think of banjo, they think of the five-string banjo, a staple of bluegrass music. While I love bluegrass music, I didn't want to limit myself to that genre. To me, the four-string tenor banjo offers more flexibility when playing, allowing both strummed and picked styles of playing.

However, the tenor is not as common as the bluegrass banjo. You just don't find many to choose from in the local music stores, if you can find any at all. I found an inexpensive Trinity River tenor in a local pawn shop, but one poster in an on-line banjo forum recommended against it. But a couple of months ago, while visiting Renaissance Music, I found two tenors, one a used Gold Tone tenor, which I ended up buying.

Note that there are multiple ways to tune a tenor banjo. (Heck, there are lots of ways to tune the bluegrass banjo too.) The standard way is CGDA. But other common tunings include mandolin tuning (GDAE) and "Chicago" tuning (DGBE). The latter is also how you tune a baritone ukulele. When I tried out that Gold Tone tenor in the store, I had a hard time getting what I thought was the A string into tune. When that string snapped at home and I got a new set of strings, I realized that the instrument was tuned to DGBE, not CGDA.

I noticed that CGDA tuning is similar to standard ukulele tuning, GCEA. When I installed the new strings, I reversed the C and G strings, and tuned the D up a whole note. This allowed me to play the tenor using ukulele fingering, while keeping the same range of notes as a standard tenor banjo. But that tuning sounded odd. The difference between the second and third strings was just too great. So I then took the original B string, and replaced the third string, tuning the new string to C. And so I ended up with a banjo tuned exactly like my low-G tenor ukulele. In the future, I may experiment with re-entrant high-G uke tuning on this tenor.

I still have a lot of practicing to do before I play my new toy in public. The frets are further apart and the strings closer together, making left-hand fingering a bit trickier. Like the banjo ukulele, any time you touch the instrument, it makes noise, which has to be controlled. But also like my banjo uke, my new tenor has a resonator that can be removed, which can make the instrument a tad quieter, useful when practicing at home.

Most every month, you can find me performing with my banjo uke at the Kingston Sing-along Society sessions, normally scheduled for the first Friday of the month, at the Kingston Unitarian Fellowship. At some point, after more practicing, I'll bring my new tenor.

Cheers! Hans

Friday, June 13, 2014

Voting, and Why You Should Work At a Poll

This morning, I was awoken an hour earlier than I wanted. You see, yesterday I had to be up by 7:00am to get to my polling station at 8:00am. But when it was all over, I forgot to reset my alarm back to its usual time.

I've participated in several elections, not just as a voter, but working on election day. I volunteered a couple of times for a candidate, working as scrutineer. But the last time I acted as scrutineer, I looked closely at the job done by the staff at the polling station, and I decided that I could do that. And unlike working for a candidate, I would get paid.

I won't comment much on the outcome of yesterday's provincial election. So far, among my Facebook friends, there has been precious little discussion about yesterday's surprise result, of a Liberal majority. Clearly, most Ontarians didn't much care for Tim Hudak's brand of "Tea Party conservatism". In my riding of Kingston and the Islands, although there was a noticeable lack of red lawn signs, 40% of the population still supported the Liberal candidate, with the Conservative candidate coming in third behind the NDP.

For those unfamiliar with the election process in Canada, here's a short description. When you arrive at the polling station, you are met by a greeter who directs you to the appropriate table. If you have your voters card, the greeter will direct you to your poll, which is staffed by two people: a deputy returning officer (DRO) and a poll clerk (PC). The DRO sits with the ballot box and checks your identification. The PC finds your name on the voters list at crosses it off. The DRO instructs you on the process and tears off a your ballot. You take it behind a "voting screen" (actually little more than a cardboard box, but large enough to allow you to vote in privacy), and you mark your choice. You then show your folded ballot to the DRO and then you drop the ballot in the ballot box.

Yesterday, I worked as a DRO and Sylvana was my PC, the first time we did that as a team. This was my second time working as DRO, but the first time I worked through the entire 14 hour day. In the last provincial election, I signed up too late and on election day, I started off on the reserve list. However, at noon I was called to the polling station in Barriefield to replace a DRO whose car got totaled in an accident in the parking lot and was too distraught to continue.

It's a long hard day for all the polling station workers. The greeter, in particular, is on her feet for the whole time. But I can tell you that sitting for 12 hours isn't fun either. By 9:00pm, everyone is exhausted, but that's when the most important job starts: Opening the ballot box, counting the ballots, and recording the results. But the instructions are clear and explicit, which makes the job easier. Fortunately, our totals balanced at the end of the evening. Savvy poll workers know they can ensure a clean count at the end by occasionally cross-checking the voters list with ballots remaining during the day. That way, problems can be identified early if they crop up.

Why should you consider working at a polling station? I'm sure there are lots of reasons people do it. For young people, it's a way of gaining experience. And yesterday, there were a few of them at our polling station. One DRO was 18, in fact. For others, it's a way to augment their income. For some, it's a chance to get out and meet your neighbors, if you work a poll close to home.

But although it sounds hokey, I think many of us do it to serve the public, and participate in the democratic process in a very concrete manner. Along with the necessary training, you can see clearly how the process works. Although there are many steps to the process, you can see how things work close up. You get to understand the reasons behind the steps, and you can be certain that the process operates in a fair manner, with all the necessary checks and balances. Although I'm sure most people have their own opinions about which candidate should win, the vast majority of election workers are committed to following the rules in a totally unbiased manner to ensure a fair election.

To summarize, by all means, do go out and participate in the process, either by working at a polling station, or by volunteering as a scrutineer. You can see for yourself how the democratic process works in Canada.

As for me today, I'm going back to bed.

Cheers! Hans

Tuesday, May 6, 2014


What is life other than a continual series of transitions? Four years ago, we were preparing to move from Toronto to Kingston. When we thought of the possibility back then, the transition made a lot of sense. And to a great extent, we met the goals for that move. We did it to provide our daughter with a safer environment to grow up in. And seeing her develop in maturity, we know we did the right thing. The move was a no-brainer for us.

Moving Sylvana's mother and sister to Kingston was also challenging, but again, made a lot of sense. As they age and face increased care needs, having Sylvana nearby to advocate on their behalf is vital to their well-being.

But other transitions are more difficult. Finding software development work in Kingston hasn't been easy. I.T. is simply not a good career choice for those of us over fifty. I'm still an active computer geek, and all my skills could be put to use. But I just can't bear having to report to someone thirty years younger than me. My last job in Kingston was intolerable due to the working conditions, and I quickly reached that "Take this job and shove it!" moment.

So now I've reached the point where I simply have to consider myself "retired". This is not an easy transition for me, and it's going to take me some time to wrap my mind around the idea. What will I do? What challenges await me?

One thing I need to do is make a break from my professional past. It's been almost eleven years since the staffing shuffle that moved me out of the iSeries group at the IBM Toronto Lab, but I still follow some iSeries related groups on-line. There's just no point to that anymore. I need to burn some bridges, and that's a good place to start. In addition, I've already deleted my LinkedIn account. I need to look forward to the future, and not dwell on my past professional life.

What's next? As a retirement gift to myself, I bought a new tenor ukulele, and once I get a new set of strings, I hope to explore the possibilities of low-G ukulele tuning. But that's just a start!

Cheers! Hans

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Where Have They Gone?

Sometimes when I visit my parents, I browse through their copy of The Banner, the official magazine of the Christian Reformed Church. Over the past half year, the magazine has echoed discussions going on within that church with respect to LGBT issues. This is not an easy issue for CRC members, and the Banner should be commended for publishing opinion pieces sympathetic to their LGBT members.

Before continuing, some disclosure on my part. I belong to a Unitarian church. Furthermore, I am a member of its board of directors, although I don't speak on behalf of the church or the board. Over the past few decades, Unitarian congregations (or Unitarian-Universalist in the United States) have been on the forefront of promoting progressive policies towards LGBT rights. Unitarian churches were among the first to bless same-sex unions well before same-sex marriage was legalized in Canada and other jurisdictions.

An article in a recent issue of the Banner caught my attention, called Where Have They Gone, written by an anonymous gay Christian. In the article, the author describes his own struggles with coming out, echoing the experiences of many others in the Christian Reformed Church, as well as other conservative Christian denominations. He points out that many gays end up leaving their church, and even their home towns, after learning how their beloved church deals with them after coming out.

Where do they go? Some of them find a welcome in more progressive churches. Within my own church, there are a couple of people with similar experiences, people who actively contribute to the vibrancy of church life. To us Unitarians, there's no controversy. Indeed, the first principle of our religious faith explicitly states that we affirm and promote "The inherent worth and dignity of every person". The third principle also applies: "Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations". These principles are true for everyone regardless of sex, race, or sexual orientation.

Will the Christian Reformed Church adopt more progressive policies, and accept all LGBT people without any reservations? And will the CRC ever allow LGBT pastors? Judging by past experience, any change will almost certainly be very slow in coming. Only a few decades ago did the CRC allow women to become ministers. This progressive advance (among a few others) did not come without struggle, and even resulted in schism. Many CRC churches couldn't accept the changes, and split. Twenty years ago, many of these joined the United Reformed Churches. (Not to be confused with the United Church of Canada, a progressive Christian denomination). Recently, my mother's church hired a woman pastor, and I've been told that three families left in protest.

To get back to the questions posed in the previous paragraph, I don't expect any progressive policies any time soon in the Christian Reformed Church, which bases its theology on the teachings of John Calvin. Compare the first principle of Unitarianism (that is, "The inherent worth and dignity of every person") with the first of the five points of Calvinism: "Total depravity". That is, Calvinists believe that every person is infused with sin. As the Calvinist Corner website puts it:
"Sin has affected all parts of man. The heart, emotions, will, mind, and body are all affected by sin. We are completely sinful. We are not as sinful as we could be, but are completely affected by sin."
To many of us Unitarians, this doctrine is absolutely abhorrent and unthinkable. Given that doctrine, it's not surprising that reformed Christians judge anyone not conforming with their high standards as immoral and unwelcome. But it gets worse. Calvinists believe that all of us are "fallen" not because of any explicit sin, but rather because God wills it. The contradiction is glaring: Gays are shunned, but they were created that way because that's God's will.

If the Christian Reformed Church is to become more progressive, it has to do something that's almost certainly unthinkable to them: They must move away from strict Calvinism. As a start, they must understand why Thomas Jefferson wrote the following words in a letter to John Adams:
"I can never join Calvin in addressing his god... his religion was Daemonsism. If ever man worshipped a false god, he did. The being described in his 5 points is not the God whom you and I acknowledge and adore, the Creator and benevolent governor of the world; but a daemon of malignant spirit. It would be more pardonable to believe in no god at all than to blaspheme him by the atrocious attributes of Calvin".
Harsh words, indeed.

To end this essay, LGBT people must know that they don't have to put up with the regressive attitudes and policies of their conservative Christian church. There are progressive congregations where they will be welcomed unconditionally. If there's not enough emphasis on God and Jesus in your local Unitarian or Unitarian-Universalist congregation, check out the Progressive Christianity movement.

Cheers! Hans