By John Rieping | Published 25 Jan. 2014 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
My New Year’s Day resolution to spend less time on Facebook is somewhat intact as January approaches its end. Meanwhile an uncharacteristically action-oriented drive for self-improvement twirls and leaps in my heart like a child who emptied a bag of Halloween candy.
There is movement in the deep.
One superficial wave provoked by such unseen churning has been, as mentioned in a previous column, an online class I’m taking in computer programming from Harvard University. Another is a renewed self-investment in websites built to help people connect in real life.
Those who know me in person realize I am an introvert, that strange species of human whose thoughts leisurely walk a meandering path to every destination. There is a quiet efficiency born of a kind of laziness in the brain of every introvert, and a secret garden behind the sometimes nondescript walls that surround it.
Nonetheless all introverts, whether cool or warm blooded, have a heart that feeds life to countless screaming “children” who have no one else — our desires and dreams, loves and loyalties. By these children, man differs from machine. They are — in a sense — born of a union between the natures of angels and beasts.
The efforts of this introvert to meaningfully connect are hardly unique. In 2012, a 30-something mathematician, Chris McKinlay, found a fruitful distraction from writing his University of California, Los Angeles, dissertation for his Ph.D. in applied math. He wanted to find the optimal strategy for finding a true match on a popular dating site.
So he set up 12 fake dating accounts and programmed his computer to gather information on the female members of the website who fit his general requirements for a mate. After collecting the answers of 20,000 California women on 6 million questions, he learned that they clumped into seven distinct clusters.
Based on their traits, he nicknamed the clusters: Diverse, Dog, God, Green, Mindful, Samantha, and Tattoo. The Greens were new to online dating. The Gods were strongly religious or ethical. The Samanthas were often relatively older, professionally creative, and adventurous. The Tattoos had multiple tattoos and sometimes as many jobs. And so on.
He then set up his real dating profile to honestly answer the questions that were relevant to the clusters of women that most interested him, and then had his computer visit more than 10,000 of their online pages on the site in two weeks. He soon received 400 views of his page daily.
Online messaging and in-person dating followed until, on date 88, he found the woman with whom love bloomed — 28-year-old artist Christine Tien Wang. At the moment, they’re engaged to be married.
Some may find his calculated efforts to find Miss Right cynical, offensive, or immoral. But Wang, as quoted in the February edition of Wired magazine, commented: “People are much more complicated than their profiles. So the way we met was kind of superficial, but everything that happened after is not superficial at all. It’s been cultivated through a lot of work.”
One insight McKinlay uncovered in his labors is the importance of not presenting one’s opinions in a timid fashion. The dating website he used has members assign a weight (from “irrelevant” to “mandatory”) to one’s own answers to a question as well as those of others. Agreement on weightier questions is interpreted as a greater match.
His tests revealed that, regardless of whether you wanted to appeal to many or to a select few, a wishy-washy presentation of one’s views was the worst possible strategy. Either wholeheartedly answer the most divisive topics or reply to the innocuous ones with equal gusto. But a lukewarm person fares badly.
How often many of us allow a desire for the approval of others to dim the unique light we have to offer. Instead of beaming, we glow comfortably. The Jewish founder of Christianity allegedly had a low opinion of such behavior. If the visionary testimony of his “beloved disciple” is true, Yeshua (Jesus) compared it to an unappealingly tepid beverage.
“I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot: I wish you were cold or hot. So then because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of my mouth.” (Revelation 3:15-16)
Come. Let us shine.
By John Rieping | Published 18 Jan. 2014 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
A week and a half ago the mysteries of my genetic programming were tentatively explained to me. For a $99 fee, a California-based genomics company analyzed my DNA.
It estimated my heritage is 67.2 percent European, 18.5 percent Native American, and 1.7 percent African (the remainder is unclear). Delighted, I forgetfully shared only the first two aspects of that result with a co-worker Wednesday.
"Well, that was kind of obvious," he replied. "We already knew what you were."
He had a point. Those who know me well are aware my father immigrated from Germany, and my mother's parents came from Mexico. You don't need a degree in Mexican history to know the nation's population is heavily "mestizo" (a Spanish term for someone of mixed Spanish and Native American descent).
Yet, to me, my ancestral ties to Germany, Mexico, Spain and, unexpectedly, Africa felt a bit more solid now, like tilled adobe clay of a local farmer's field under my feet.
My genes hold more than markers to my family's past, however. Apparently I also am sensitive to alcohol because of a shortfall of proteins to break it down in my bloodstream. So it may be more harmful for me than for others. Fortunately I've never been much of a consumer of the beverage, despite living in wine grape territory.
I'll spare you details on my earwax type, muscle performance, and more. Needless to say, I've been amazed at this glimpse of how much about me had been influenced already at the first moment of my conception. I am reminded of a song lyric of Scripture: “For it was you (God) who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb…
"My frame was not hidden from you, when I was made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my 'embryo' (in Hebrew, “golmi” or “golem”). In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.” (Tehillim/Psalm 139:13, 15-16).
Naturally my parents played a pivotal role in my formation. Some may recall my tale a year ago about their courtship (see http://goo.gl/2ZGACN). Fifty years ago today, Saturday, Jan. 18, they wed in my mother's childhood church, St. Alphonsus of Liguori, on historic palm tree-lined Kearney Boulevard in Fresno.
This (Saturday) afternoon at 1 o'clock, Joseph and Theresa Rieping, their five children, 16 grandchildren, and two great grandchildren will thank God with a Mass at St. Joachim Catholic Church. Anyone reading this who wishes to attend will surely be welcome.
In one of the Scripture passages my father chose for the Mass, the apostle Paul writes, "If God is for us, who can be against us?" (Romans 8:31b)
It is a statement of the obvious that we believers seem to forget in times of uncertainty, pain, or menace. After all, if we believe God is all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good, and loves us, then what do we have to fear? We should always overflow with confidence.
Needless to say, we don't. Most of us falter in it at times, and for some of us insecurity or anxiety is normal. This is partly because we know firsthand how situations can twist against us, despite even our best efforts. We remember or we imagine, and our heart quakes.
Yet Paul went on to write: "Can anything cut us off from the love of Christ -- can hardships or distress, or persecution, or lack of food and clothing, or threats or violence?" (Romans 8:35)
Trusting in God doesn’t mean we’ll never suffer trials, as my parents well know. In marriage, your beloved won’t just be with you amid trouble -- your spouse may sometimes be the source. As my mother once told my father: I will always love you, but right now I just don’t like you.
And there are some marriages, unlike that of my parents, in which it seems evil has the upper hand, or has triumphed. Who of us have not encountered this?
Even so, Paul rightly wrote, "No; we come through all these things victorious, by the power of him who loved us." (Romans 8:37)
How can he say this? Because this is true victory: that "nothing already in existence and nothing still to come ... will be able to come between us and the love of God" (Cf. Romans 8:38-39).
If God is truly as we believe, there is no greater achievement than to have such a lover.
By John Rieping | Published 11 Jan. 2014 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
Starting this week, I’m going to Harvard University — sort of. To be exact, Harvard is going to me.
I have enrolled at www.edx.org, a website that offers online courses from a variety of universities such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Georgetown, Cornell, Berklee College of Music, and more. Anyone can audit a class for free. Those more ambitious can do the homework, tests and final projects for a certificate or — for a fee — college credit.
My chosen challenge is CS50x, “Introduction to Computer Science,” taught by David Malan, Ph.D., who apart from his doctorate in computer science is also a volunteer emergency medical technician and former forensic investigator. After viewing his opening lecture, I can add he’s an entertaining teacher as well.
I’ve long had an interest in programming. I first encountered computers during my fourth grade year at St. Joachim School. A computer lab shared by the entire campus featured primitive educational games on Apple computers — long before the days of Windows, Mac OS, Android or iOS.
But that wasn’t enough. Like a burglar at the doorstep, I wanted to get inside. At one of my favorite refuges, the Madera County Library, I would read and re-read the sole book on programming in the children’s section.
A year or so later, my dreams came true briefly when my father bought a discounted TRS-80 personal computer from the local Radio Shack. Not long after, the store chain discontinued the product, which apparently had the nickname “Trash-80” from critics. It had, by today’s standards, an incredibly bulky screen and keyboard. Files were saved onto a 5-inch floppy disk or a magnetic cassette tape.
Until it perished, I created simple games and animations using the aptly named B.A.S.I.C. language (Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code). My digital graphics even provided a fake FBI piracy warning, title, and credits for a stop-motion video, filmed with the help of an elder brother. A small Casio music keyboard provided the soundtrack.
At Madera High School, I moved on to using Apple computers to produce “The Maderan” school newspaper, which grew to rival The Madera Tribune in size and sophistication, for publication once every four weeks. For me, computers became mainly tools for writing, photography, and art. But I still dabbled in creating story games and music using B.A.S.I.C. on a secondhand Epson Equity D.O.S. (Disk Operating System) computer at home.
At Drake University in Iowa, every student’s room included free cable television, a computer, and access to an alien bit of magic known as the Internet. They became addictions, although initially the “web” consisted of image-less text — mostly from schools and government agencies.
For a half dozen years, I became a reclusive “wizard” (a volunteer programmer in a C language) for text-only, multiplayer, online, role-playing games known as M.U.D.s (Multi-User Dimensions). They were forefathers of Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games. Embarrassingly, high-ranking wizards were referred to as “gods” and “demigods” of the virtual worlds they created and ruled.
Video game addicts and their de facto widows, please don’t hate me for my tiny role in history. I realize now that “with great power comes great responsibility” (thanks, Spider-Man). I intend to help wreak less social havoc with my worldwide web-slinging superpowers this time around, depending on the havoc.
One aid in programming is the “algorithm,” which is a detailed way to handle a problem better. The idea is hardly new. The word itself dates to the late 17th century, and Christians have claimed for two millennia they’ve found the perfect “way” — in Jesus.
Yet, as Pope Francis noted Tuesday, “the path of Jesus Christ [is] abasement, humility, [and] humiliation as well. If a thought, if a desire, takes you along the road of humility and abasement, of service to others, it is from Jesus. But if it brings you to the road of sufficiency, of vanity, ... it is not from Jesus.”
Christians believe the path of Jesus includes a love generous enough to accept even a death marked by rejection (Philippians 2:5-8).
Francis concluded: “So many times, our heart is a road. Everything passes there. Put it to the test! Do I always choose the things that come from God? Do I know which are the things that come from God? Do I know the true criterion by which to discern my thoughts, my desires? ... The criterion is the Incarnation of the Word.”
For believers, Jesus is our algorithm.
By John Rieping | Published 3 Jan. 2014 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved
I'm not one for New Year's Eve resolutions at the moment, but I recall being so in the past. They were always like Lenten goals or sacrifices except I usually remembered and kept those. Resolutions? Not so much.
Perhaps that's the attraction of beginning a new year with dreams of a new self. The only person who might care you forgot would be the one who forgot. It's a lawyer's "corpus delicti" escape clause (Latin for "body of fault") -- if there's no proof, there's no crime.
This year of 2014, doubtlessly taking advantage of its short stature to ambush me, hit me with a spontaneous resolution on New Year's Day: to reduce time spent on Facebook. That website is, to some such as myself, an insidious nibbler of time.
Keep in mind that a piranha fish could similarly be described as a timid "nibbler" of meat -- at least when solo. However a school of piranhas has a notoriously voracious appetite, and so it can be with social media.
I'd like to claim this intention emerged from a noble desire for self-improvement, the alleged font of all resolutions. But that was more of a secondary perk.
No, honestly, recent stresses of life had shortened my temper like a U.S. military barber cutting hair during the first days of basic training. I didn't display this in person, I hope, but online I sometimes battled temptations to bite off more than a nibble of those who frustrated me.
Those who know me would testify that isn't normal for me. So, shortly before the year 2013 changed its name to 2014 in hopes of a fresh start and less junk mail, I impulsively deactivated my Facebook account.
That lasted until past noon on New Year's Day.
The problem is that social media has become, for some of us, like another telephone number, mail address, or email account. I even get paid a wee bit to regularly update the Facebook page of a local business. Cutting off access has consequences, social and otherwise.
Thus my unplanned resolution took shape: to greatly shrink the time I spent puffing my ego, feeding my curiosity, and being amused (better known as using Facebook). I'm hoping that briefly visiting the website no more than once or twice a day, with a few days away each week, will be practical and more than sufficient to do what should be done.
It is odd, though, what luxuries some of us in the U.S. may consider necessary. Meanwhile, others in the world would be thrilled to have indoor plumbing, lighting, refrigeration, and other "basics" I tend to take for granted.
While I may struggle with self-proclaimed stress, people in South Sudan mourn 1,000 killed last month amid a new civil war. Nearly eight times that number in non-combatants died last year in "liberated" Iraq, the toll in Syria's civil war has passed 130,000 (a third of that civilians), and so on. Compared to any of that, I don't know the meaning of the word stress.
A man wounded by personal tragedy wrote Pope Francis recently: "What has happened to the hearts of men?"
I can hear his question echo personally to myself: what has happened to my heart, so often unmoved by the difficulties of others or captivated by its own concerns? Though I "feel" for others, how hard it is to prod myself into action -- or worse yet sacrifice -- on their behalf. An occasional act of kindness is enough for me to crown myself a hero.
Interestingly, I asked a similar question in this very newspaper column on Jan. 11, 2013. "Every boy dreams himself a hero / and sees his face in every epic life. / Yet what changes within our hearts / that we rise less and less when called?"
Years gallop on while we limp forward and call it progress.
Even so, the answer then is the same now, and the season of Christmas recalls it annually because we need to hear it that often or more. What answer? Christians believe it is this: humanity has been offered the gift of a God who became man so that we, in exchange, may be able to share in the divine life, which above all else is supernatural love.
It is not a love that does what is expected, reasonable, or fair. It is a love, empowered by God, that reflects the very face of God to friend and foe alike.
Let us resolve anew to love like God loves us.
By John Rieping | Published 28 Dec. 2013 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved
"I will kiss you!" / cried a little bird to the Sun up above / Her little heart light with love
"Come," laughed the Sun, / "and we shall be wed!"
But, though she flapped, / Sky would not bear her / Her wings grew so heavy! / Soon down to the mud sank she
"I am too weak to fly up so high," / the muddy bird cried, / and how deeply she did sigh
Sun beamed and laughed, / "Then I will come down!"
And He did.
And no, my greeting is not late -- at least for me. For centuries, many Christians have celebrated Christmas not as a single day nor as a season that ends Dec. 25. The traditional carol "The 12 Days of Christmas" and even the title of William Shakespeare's play "Twelfth Night" continue to remind us of this.
While the calendar of the Catholic Church will observe the Christmas season through Jan. 12 this year, the traditional "12 days" extends from the evening before Christmas to the holiday of Epiphany, which customarily falls on Jan. 6. Epiphany looks to the visit of the magi to the newborn Jesus, described in Christian scripture and seen by believers as the first revelation of the Jewish messiah to non-Jews.
In many nations, such as Mexico, gifts used to be exchanged for centuries on Epiphany, not Christmas. But the U.S. tradition, which in the 20th century was exported globally together with the myth of Santa Claus, changed that for many.
Catholics extend the Christmas season until the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which commemorates that ceremonial washing of Jesus in the Jordan River by his cousin John the Baptist. For Eastern Orthodox Christians, this latter event is instead remembered on Epiphany, which is for them the primary holiday of this time of year -- not Christmas.
Regardless these times are not jolly for all, whether Christian or not.
One Madera (California) couple I know inwardly grieves the absence of their babe, who died months ago -- far too soon for Christmas. Another couple elsewhere in the U.S., cousins of a friend, has a two-month old boy, Atticus, in intensive care (to help with the medical costs, see http://goo.gl/MmogHC). Due to his precarious health, he received his baptism and confirmation Friday.
A third couple has been bereft of two grandsons, one to a drug overdose and the other to jail. Grief colors their holiday. Meanwhile a fellow columnist at this newspaper had a serious and unexpected brush with death.
Then there is the local family planning the funeral of a 15-year-old boy who died shielding his 13-year-old brother from bullets in a purposeless shooting (how that noble act calls to mind John 15:3).
Isn't the birth of Jesus supposed to bring peace and good will to humanity? That oft-repeated phrase is a variation of the words sung by many angels to shepherds outside of Bethlehem: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will." (Luke 2:14)
Yet, despite Christmas, pain of all kinds remains and there are no easy answers. This mystery of suffering can only make sense at the foot of the cross, upon which the grown babe Jesus died -- the self-sacrifice for which Christians believe he came. If we Christians believe even our God was not spared a terrible cross, how can we think we will? Yet that is not cause for despair or stoicism.
Jesus himself would tell his closest followers, the apostles, "Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you -- not as the world gives, I give to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid... These things I have spoken to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have affliction, but take courage. I have conquered the world." (John 14:27, 33)
Peace and courage can be found in God, even amidst hurt.
May the love of God be born anew in our own hearts that we may bring what consolation we can offer, by prayer and deed, to those in need. Let us be men and women of good will to those around us and to our own selves.
"Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:13)
By John Rieping | Published 21 Dec. 2013 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved
The elderly widow of the tribe of Asher took each step carefully as she climbed the stairs up mount Moriah, upon which stood Solomon's Temple and the highest point within the metropolis of Jerusalem.
The stone would not be forgiving if she fell.
Though not a festival or holy day, Hannah would have company enough. Services took place daily. Each week a new shift of priests, chosen from all parts of the land, would perform all the functions of the temple, with a different priestly family responsible for each day and all working together on the Sabbath. Few faces were familiar to her.
But she did not come for them. No, the daughter of Phanuel lived up to her sire's name, for she longed for the "face of God" ("penuel" in Hebrew).
At the top of the stairs she rested, her vigor slowed by age and fasting. But she had learned patience. Behind her the city sprawled, each quarter set apart by sandy, gray and white walls. The roads flowed with people, though not equally or always well. The cool of morning was preferable to the heat of the afternoon.
The interior courtyards of rich homes lay exposed from above, encircled by narrow buildings that looked like absurdly thick walls, some with red sloping roofs and others topped flat -- private paths upon which to look down or out on the city. The homes of the poor were not so impressive, but no less lively.
In either case, all manner of washing, play and work could be seen -- and all seemed equally small now. They did not captivate her attention as in younger years.
Her eyes may have lingered, out of reverence, upon a square building rising above the others with a pyramid-like top pointing to the heavens. Within it the bones of King David rested. How long until one of his kin would sit again upon the throne instead of a puppet of Rome? When would come the mashiah? (Hebrew for "anointed one," in Greek "christos")
Hannah continued onward toward her daily appointment with the love of her life. The view of Jerusalem could be contemplated no more as she walked upon the wide open space of the temple mount, lined with great roof-topped pillars on all sides. Here was enough room for several temples (or 24 football fields), but such multiplicity was unthinkable. On great festival days, massive crowds could be seen here, human overflow from the one temple of the one god.
Smoke rose from the altar of sacrifice, hidden in the heart of the temple, which sat tall at the center of the level top of mount Moriah. "Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place?" sang the psalmist in her memory.
"He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false, and does not swear deceitfully... Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob." (Tehilim/Psalm 24:3-4, 6)
Beyond an ornamented railing that non-Jews could not pass, another tier of steps ascended, but a kindly stranger assisted her with them. Soon she entered the walled-in court of the women, the treasury. Beyond it, she too would be allowed no further.
Coins clattered in the 13 wooden boxes that could be found between columns that supported a covered passageway surrounding the court. The offerings were dropped into each box via trumpet-shaped openings of bronze, and some liked to guess and judge the generosity of others by listening for the distinctive sound different-sized coins would make. But she had no interest in that.
As she walked forward, her eyes spotted a particular crack in a stone and a memory awoke of a woman charged with adultery. The penalty for her fault was death, as dictated by the law (Debarim/Deuteronomy 22:24). Hannah's eyes grew wet, and she directed her heart to God and began her prayers.
She remembered the woman, her late husband, her own children and grandchildren, and more. Each loved one led her thoughts to another as she emptied her heart before her God. She lifted each of them up with a trust born of long experience that God listens and cares. "For I know that my redeemer lives, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth." (Job 19:25)
Thus she prayed upon the stones, and she was heard.
No column of mine appeared in The Madera Tribune last Friday or Saturday because I was sick with a cold. My apologies. I'm feeling relatively much better this evening.