Upgrade?

I am thinking about upgrading my wordpress  so that I can build a custom design for this blog. I would also like to improve the professionalism of my entries, and to start building maps again, since that was the original purpose of this blog.

Hardly anybody reads this, but that is ok. Quite a few searches have hit up the Global Orphan Population post, however, which tells me that there may be a demand for similar maps and data, and I would love to be able to help people get the information they need.

Time and Study

Last week  I only had events two nights of the week, and it was glorious. I will no longer be working with my refugee family, for lack of vision and lesson plans on my part, and one church group on Wednesday nights has disbanded gracefully.

I can’t express how much of a relief it is. I feel like I’m breathing again. I am doing some things on the side, learning among them, but it feels nothing like before.

Now, I just finished listing to the audio book of “When Helping Hurts” and want to write about that. Having a degree in Anthropology, I learned the angles that can be used for getting a holistic picture of any particular culture. I learned the tools to think critically about peoples and groups and values and traditions and things. But I have yet to apply that knowledge to any specific culture. I also get really excited about language and have a bad history of trying to learn more than is realistic or healthy. As I listened through “When Helping Hurts”, it began to dawn on me just how much knowledge and experience must go into effectively helping even just one group of people. It was very humbling as I realized that my lofty language goals and desire to know many cultures are a mix of arrogance, ignorance, and disconnect from reality. Less a desire to help all of those people, my wish to learn many languages stems primarily from the desire to be cool.

So I’m in the process of simplifying, and I feel I am getting much more done, but there’s plenty work to be done still.

 

Electronic Communication in High-Risk Foreign Territories

That title sounds way more formal than it should.

About six months ago, several people hosted a party for a friend returning from a very dangerous country in North Africa. Several friends there had been through the process of using code names during the course of their missionary work, and one common theme kept appearing:

“They read your emails.”

I frowned. How would you even know a government was reading your email? “Oh, they do.”

I didn’t want to be a jerk, so I didn’t press the issue too hard, and it was actually a pretty interesting conversation, but as a technical person, I’m not content with those sorts of answers. It is common for people to ascribe powers to governments that either do not exist or only exist in very limited contexts.

Now, playing it safe doesn’t ever hurt (or does it?). I’m not so bold in my knowledge of technology that I would say, “Yeah, sure, go ahead and talk about Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit. Feel free to announce which cities you are in and what sort of missionary work you are doing and when.” Here are some thoughts on this subject:

  • There is nothing that inherently connects you to your email address. You can create an account for John Doe 999 or anything on gmail and Google isn’t going to know any better. They can correlate the IP address you are registering from, but you can register through an anonymizer or go to a coffee shop and register from their network.
  • Governments can’t (yet) break AES. Seriously, if your connection is encrypted, you’re pretty solid. Now, this can be circumvented if you are using a browser or computer that has been tampered with. In this situation, if you login to your email from that location others can potentially ‘see’ what you access. But this is a very particular situation and is a separate issue from the government having access to your email. In this case, you technically give them access. It is also different from them reading your emails or even having access to the emails that you do not open.
  • You can’t court-order information from a company that does not operate within your jurisdiction. This one is almost a no-brainer. However, many countries operate together. Beware the gag order. But you have to be kidding me if you think governments have the time and budget to court-order access to every traveler within their borders. They do profile people, however, but limited budgets means you have to be a big fish to turn up on the radar.

Another note: it’s great to be security-conscious about what you are sending through email, but I have yet to hear anybody talk about deleting sensitive words from all of their previous emails. In the discussions I have heard, it is always about what you are actively sending. It depends what you truly believe by “they read your emails.” See how this gets very technical very fast?

Anyway, this has been on my mind lately and I’d like to do more research. Time permitting, it would be really fun to put together a paper outlining the research and some solid conclusions that can be used in the field.

End of an Era

It’s painful to feel the rawness of a community’s end. It’s easy to want to blame somebody or brand the former days as the better, but that’s all nonsense.

Two years ago, I began participating in a church in Aurora as part of a Sunday night Bible study. It was full of people involved in various ministries who would come together to share what God had been doing in their lives, and it was a tremendous breath of fresh air. I did not know many of the people, so I often sat in the corner, but it was the sort of corner-sitting that left you feeling welcome and accepted, and it was tremendously hospitable just hearing the words of those who hungered and thirsted for the Lord.

Some left and then others, arguments happened,  groups shifted, and it all fizzled out. But I kept going on Friday nights and made several friends. I was still excited to be a part of a community that wanted to make a difference. I guess I kept telling myself things would improve, but they never really did. One by one my friends disappeared, and several times I would turn up only to find one or two people I knew. Last week it became clear to me that the community was gone. I attended their Christmas party tonight, but it will likely be the last.

It’s extremely difficult to find people who are interested in the things that I am. There is, of course, the internet, but I’ve never been a fan of chatroom discussions and long-distance friendships. I never understood why more of my peers didn’t want to really do something with their lives, so fitting in at church has always been difficult. There are plenty who want to be missionaries, but not many who want to use their professional skills to do missions. And if you want a good sociological discussion, you’re an extreme minority.

I just want to fit in, to feel like I belong. I want a community I can call my own. I guess we never completely get that. I’m not really sure what the future holds. My current church is good, but I don’t feel a great deal of resonance with their vision, at least not yet. They might be going to Nepal again this next fall, so maybe God has some plan for me yet in the midst of this.

It’s the end of an era, and I’m sad. I don’t want to think about how change can be good and how we grow, or about how sometimes it isn’t wrong when things fall apart. Right now I just want to face the questions inside, or scream the litanies I prepare for myself in fake conversations. Were I a better man, I could probably handle this more admirably, but for now I’ll accept it for what it is.

 

Thoughts on North Korea

My sister and brother-in-law spent a few weeks in South Korea several years ago, and ever since my sister has taken a liking to the place and started to learn the language. I enjoy feeding off the energy others have for subjects that interest them, so over the past couple weeks I’ve been watching YouTube videos on North Korea and what’s going on there.

There seem to be rumblings that the regime will collapse before 2020. Even just this week China agreed to stop importing coal for three weeks in order to comply with one of the UN Resolutions that was passed. Who knows what that could do? The sanctions have only gotten tighter, and Kim has stopped granting the gifts he used to give.

I hope the regime does collapse, but I have one great fear that doesn’t seem to make it on any of the news websites, and I don’t understand why. If the regime falls, it will likely do what Hitler did and murder everyone in the prison camps. After all, that seems like something the current regime would do, but it also might be done to destroy evidence of all the atrocities that have occurred in those camps, which they adamantly deny.

Yeah, that scares me. Hopefully that does not happen, but I do hope the regime falls soon.

The Plight of Refugees

I saw my Burmese refugee family yesterday for the first time in about a month. One week Po’s son David was sick, another week I was swamped and had to postpone, and then for the past week and a half, my texts went unanswered. It isn’t like Po not to answer texts, so I thought I would swing by just to check that everything was okay. You never know when something could happen, and Mai doesn’t know enough English to know who to contact or how.

Po’s cell phone is a single point of failure, so I imagined that if it got smashed or dropped then that would explain the loss of contact. I was pretty close, but Po had a different, temporary phone, and he said something about needing to pay for the other one. I didn’t catch whether that was from lack of funds, but it could easily have been from contract terms as well.

I wasn’t planning to teach as I knew I would be dropping in on them unannounced, but I turned up because I wanted to check that everything was alright. Knowing that everything was okay was a good thing, but since I was there Po had some questions about the mail he had received, which was pure English legalese. He had applied for a green card but he did not know if any of his mail was related to that. There were four envelopes from Medicaid, one for each person in the household, which said that a particular “primary care medical provider” would be automatically assigned to them if they did not choose a different provider, and the other four envelopes simply stated that their applications for resident status that had been received.

I found a new strategy to help them out: I would type a summary of what I believed the letters meant into my phone on Google Translate and would then show Po the resulting Burmese. It appears to have worked fairly well, but he was still worried he needed to take action, when surprisingly he didn’t. I did a couple small translations to try to clarify that.

Those Medicaid letters. Do those bureaucrats really expect refugees from the far corners of the world to understand what in the world they mean? Oh, sure, the back of the envelope was stamped with Arabic, Spanish, and two other “common” foreign languages, but is there not one America in the whole city who could provide a translation to Burmese? Not one? There is no freaking way you can send these people legal terminology and expect them to understand it.

And I get it. Budgets. I guess you can’t translate everything into every language. But it still makes me angry. I can’t imagine being thrown into a completely different world and then being absolutely drowned in legal paperwork. State societies are notorious for this and they rely on it to function.

I was able to get Po a copy of the first 19 questions of the citizenship test in Burmese, and he was pretty excited about that. I started studying Burmese last year but realized my motivation for it was far too low, so I passed it up. What I do know is the Devanagari script and, like, five words of Nepali, so you can imagine I feel a bit torn right now. My desire to go to Nepal is far greater than it is to see Burma, and you have to pay attention to what motivates you or learning a language will become unbearable. Still. I’m curious how often people take advantage of refugees who do not understand the language. Hey, half the time I don’t read full contracts.

Oh, and Burmese people have difficulty saying “Thanksgiving” =). It happens to us all, you should hear me try to roll an “r”. It took me awhile to understand that Po was saying his work does not give Thanksgiving off, so they are celebrating on the Sunday after. It’s good to see they are getting the cultural experience.

On an unrelated topic, Mai was the one to first greet me at the door, but shortly after I turned up, she disappeared into the back room, which has never happened before. The last time I was there, Po told me that they had another child on the way, and I know some cultures believe that women should remain in isolation when they are pregnant, but Po’s primary desire for English lessons is to help Mai learn. There could have been any number of reasons for this, but my inner Anthropologist is interested. And you can’t just lump people as “Burmese”, this family comes from Kachin State, which has its own customs. This family is also Christian, and that may change how they live out those costumes, too.

Anyway, Po and Mai are of course not their real names, I simply stole these from George Orwell’s “Burmese Days”. I’m thinking of ways to help, it may even be worth teaching them some common legal terms, or at least enough to help them with Medicaid and the green cards.

Dreams

I read an article today that was written in 2014 about the Christian Writer’s Guild shutting down. So it’s been gone for a few years now. That makes me sad.

Back in highschool, I wanted to be a writer. Some of the stories I wanted to write are still with me today. I found the Christian Writer’s Guild and really wanted to be a part of it, but my parents didn’t have the money. I wanted to write, publish, all that, even considered majoring in English with a minor in Business to that end, but dreams change.

Only this past week did the Guild cross my mind. And it comes at a time in life where I now see that programming and computers will play a critical role in my life and career. I’m not sure how I feel looking back to the past, those days in Colorado Springs, where so much growing up took place. It isn’t surprising that Jerry Jenkins didn’t make any money from the guild, but it seems to have been a dream of his. I don’t believe it was a failure, but I do think of all the failed dreams. The small business failures. I see used book stores go out of business a lot, but every owner seems to really love books, so I wonder what those people must feel when everything goes up.

“But God, didn’t you put this in my heart for a reason?” “I thought I was doing your will.” “I spent so many years earning this education, but I’m still in debt for it and struggling to live a normal life….”

If it weren’t for programming, I would probably still be paying on my loans. And that’s for an Anthropology degree. I’m one of the lucky ones, though of course the story involves a lot of God and a lot of events lining up.

I don’t know. I feel sad, and a bit melancholy. My own efforts in the world have taught me the value of a career, and I think I’m definitely on the right path with software development. I always heard that writing for a living was hard, and I’ve seen the struggles of people with humanities degrees. What happened to all of those dreams? All of the training, the time, the prayers, and the tears? Some do find their place and thrive there. But it took Jerry’s “Left Behind” fortune to allow him to dump his money into an otherwise money-losing enterprise. Maybe that’s why God gave him the money in the first place. Who knows?

What about the others? Who want to serve the disadvantaged, the broken. To kindle art and enthusiasm, to invest in people and who they are and how they express themselves? I’ve been to enough estate sales and seen enough urban exploration videos on YouTube to know that everything rots in the end, but what about the lives? We are so lost without the Lord, and we are so lost without the Church.

I’m waxing a bit, but everyone has dreams. Yet each one seems like just a drop in the bucket. People die and passions fade. All I can think is that we cannot put all of our hope in our dreams.

Psalm 39

I said, “I will watch my ways

and keep my tongue from sin;

I will put a muzzle on my mouth

while in the presence of the wicked.”

So I remained utterly silent,

not even saying anything good.

But my anguish increased;

my heart grew hot within me.

While I meditated, the fire burned;

then I spoke with my tongue:

“Show me, Lord, my life’s end

and the number of my days;

let me know how fleeting my life is.

You have made my days a mere handbreadth;

the span of my years is as nothing before you.

Everyone is but a breath,

even those who seem secure.

“Surely everyone goes around like a mere phantom;

in vain they rush about, heaping up wealth

without knowing whose it will finally be.

“But now, Lord, what do I look for?

My hope is in you.

Save me from all my transgressions;

do not make me the scorn of fools.

I was silent; I would not open my mouth,

for you are the one who has done this.

Remove your scourge from me;

I am overcome by the blow of your hand.

When you rebuke and discipline anyone for their sin,

you consume their wealth like a moth—

surely everyone is but a breath.

“Hear my prayer, Lord,

listen to my cry for help;

do not be deaf to my weeping.

I dwell with you as a foreigner,

a stranger, as all my ancestors were.

Look away from me, that I may enjoy life again

before I depart and am no more.”

Global Orphan Population

orphanpopulationmap4Several years ago, one of my friends put together a blog on orphans, as orphans are very close to her heart. Although I cannot say the same, I had taken several mapping courses in college and had wanted to apply my mapping skills to something socially active, so I pounced on the chance to construct a Sqlite database that contained orphan population data for each country.

What was most astonishing was that the data did not already exist. UNICEF publishes these kinds of statistics, but for half of the countries, it seems, there was no data on the orphan population. In my database I started recording the sources of each figure because metadata and accuracy are so very important when building out maps like this. And I don’t believe the problem is happening at the UN level, I believe it is happening at the state level. We cannot be sure these administrations have the budget or even the resources to accurately assess these statistics.

To be fair, tackling any statistic about an entire country must be incredibly difficult. Statisticians rely on data models to produce reasonably sound estimates, but actual person-by-person counting is impossible. Statistics may be easier to gather as the information age continues to blossom, but the United States can’t completely force people to submit their information in the census. The IRS is probably the only government structure with the budget to come close to forcing every individual to file their information, but even they do not have the budget to audit everyone.

All this to say, gathering statistics is extremely difficult. And I have seen widely varying figures for these orphan statistics, too. Some people disagree on the definition, and some countries disagree on who counts as a nation state! The United Nations list differs from the CIA World Factbook.

And, for those familiar with relational databases, the join in my query likely does not perfectly match the country names in my dataset. I found this out with the Democratic Republic of Congo, where one source had “Congo (Democratic Republic of the)” and the other had “Democratic Republic of the Congo”. Apparently there are a few ISO standards for each country, but getting people to adhere to those–to even know about those–cannot be an easy task.

I may look for a way to open-source my data table. Scouring the internet for figures on each country is not easy. Tackling each continent separately is probably a better approach.

Note:

It is generally considered bad practice to include more than five or six ranges on an Equal Interval map such as this, but I chose to break it down into groups of 500,000 because there is so much variance in the data. There are several enormous outliers, such as India and Kenya, and I did not want to mash these together with countries that actually have significantly fewer orphans.

Survivor’s Guilt

Many people in the United States Church are mistaken in thinking that we somehow have more time than people elsewhere in the world. I’ve known several church-aholics who get angry when others don’t share their dedication to being a part of everything. There’s this idea that because we have so much in the US and because life is so easy relative to the people’s lives we hear about in Haiti or South Africa or Nepal, that the only way we can show God we are thankful is to neglect life and spend every free minute studying a language, witnessing, or doing service projects.

I call this “Survivor’s Guilt” due to its similarity to what many combat veterans experience when they return confused from war not knowing why it is that they survived and their friends died. We, similarly, don’t know why we were born here. Philosophical musings aside, those of us who read the news and the stories of suffering usually feel a need to do something; too often the truth is that we can’t do anything.

It’s hard working 40+ hours per week, and we may not work in sweatshops in China, but we do work a lot. Life here is not cheap and perhaps we have too much entitlement, but overcoming our own culture requires extreme effort, and I don’t ever want to downplay that. I have worked at reducing my possessions for the past 8 years, and even though my friends agree I don’t have very much, there are still things that I want.

Let’s be perfectly clear: We do not have any more time than anybody else. Yes, we have more money and generally more comfort, but our wealth does not extend to our time.  I don’t believe that God expects us to come home after 8+ hours of work just to do “his work” for the rest of the day, every day of the week. Perhaps “His work” is really just being there for our families (also downplayed by many people in missions). Does the Bible not talk about rest? And what happened to the Sabbath? We don’t talk about that. We use logical fallacies to guilt people into busyness. “If you truly loved the Lord, wouldn’t you dedicate every waking hour to Him?” Apparently that means watching a movie or playing a video game is out.

Speaking of, I used to play video games. It was my rest in the evenings. And then I got hooked on knowledge and learning, but I justified this because it was a ‘good use of time’. Until this past week when I realized that I hadn’t played some of my favorite games in years because I’d trained myself feel like any time is wasted that isn’t used to learn something or accomplish something. The other day I finally forced myself to play, and it has been a great relief.

I get caught up in language. At the same time that I’m answering my call to work with information security and software development, I’m thinking about how I need to be learning a foreign language, planning something overseas, learning how to teach better, etc etc, to say nothing of wanting to invest more in my friends, go camping more often, get out more, and find a girlfriend. I have really not given myself any rest. I work with a Burmese refugee family every other week to help them learning English. It seems wrong that I don’t consider that enough. It’s like my pride demands I “accomplish something greater”. Whatever the hell that means.

 

So here’s my plan: 1) study what I need for my career. Dedicate this to Lord, and make sure I’m being generous with the proceeds, because this line of work does come with good proceeds. 2) Make sure I am staying in Christian community. 3) keep working with the Burmese family. They may already be Christians, but they are still my ministry. 4) I would be a happy camper if I could get through chapter 8 of my Nepali book by next summer. That requires only an hour or two each week.

Super Missions Man

I’m not super missions man.

The hardest part about quitting my job is feeling that all of my time must be dedicated to studying programming, security, and technology in general. I have books on Nepali and Arabic that have been languishing on my shelf from even before I left my job, but I feel that studying them is even less of a reality now. Don’t get me wrong. I love studying computer stuff. Heck, it’s why I quit my job, so I could pursue those areas of technology that most intrigue me. But let’s face it, there is another part of me that is dying inside.

I want to be careful how much I share in this blog because I want my friends to know me face to face, and I want them to get the privilege of seeing the real me, instead of all my stories existing publicly. However, I would like to share a little bit of this story.

At the end of a serious of spiritual events spanning several years, I found myself on the final hurdle of college majoring in Anthropology. The subject was the perfect fit for me, and I soaked it up. Even the classes that were less interesting I still valued. I figured that certainly God would call me overseas, and I even remember a few times pacing the geography section of the library praying for the right book to magically stand out. Nothing ever did.

Instead, God brought me to technology, beginning with my last job. I had the aptitude and even some experience, and I went a little crazy on how much I wanted to learn. That job is the reason my student loans are all paid, too. It was important enough that God asked me to stop working with a refugee group my friends at church and I were working with, and it’s why I left my job now. It’s also why I’ve been studying my brains out for the past month. It’s pretty clear that this will likely play a very large role in my life.

But I’m still interested in culture and world missions, even though none of this has allowed me to go overseas. It would have been easy to save up $1500 to go on some mission trip south of Texas, but the calling was never there, so I never went. And having never left the country, I guess it’s no wonder that I feel nobody takes me seriously when I say I’m interested in missions. Sometimes I’m jealous. My missions friends seem to have such purpose, but I can’t play God’s hand for him. I know better than that at this point in life. It drives me insane. I’ve worked with five ancient languages, two modern, I know my grammar and phonology, and I excel at memorizing complex scripts. “I can do this, you fools!” But the calling isn’t there. So I keep waiting.

So I guess here’s the deal. Do you want to be involved in missions? Prepare for nobody to care. Prepare for there to be no glory. Prepare for others to think you are a complete idiot. Prepare for them to think you need to be involved in every ministry available, prepare for them to question how seriously you take your faith, prepare for them to completely ignore you when you say you are interested in going on an extended short term mission trip (that’s a painful one, you will not get that story here). But here’s the deal: you do what God calls you to do. Don’t make up shit so you can feel righteous and holy. Don’t assume that God is asking more than he is. Don’t mistake your desire for adventure as a desire for outreach.

Most importantly, don’t think that you can’t make a difference just because others don’t believe you can.

I’m not super missions man. I’m just a guy. A software developer. And God can use me in whatever way he sees fit. And I want that.

Just needed to get that out. Maybe next post I’ll discourse on language, or maybe even post the map I built several years ago. You know, something related to what I created this blog for.