Thursday, June 2, 2011

Love your neighbor as yourself

In Mark 12:28-34 Jesus is asked the question, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?"

His answer was that the most important commandment is to love God with everything you have. Then He added that the second most important commandment is to "love your neighbor as yourself."

Most sermons I've heard on this passage talk about the implied need to love ourselves, but I think Jesus was talking about something deeper than whether or not we like ourselves or have a good self image. He took it as a given that we love ourselves. This wasn't something He was commanding us to do. He knew that it was part of our human nature.

Here's my take on how we love ourselves and how that applies to the commandment to love other people.

We always judge ourselves by our inner thoughts and intentions, but we judge others by their words, actions and results. Loving others as you love yourself means always trusting that their actions are done with the best of intentions even if what they're saying or doing feels really hurtful.

I look at code I wrote more than a year ago and think, "man, that guy really didn't know what he was doing!" I know that I was doing the best I knew how at the time and it did produce the desired result. I have to remember to give others the same grace that I give my past self.

I know I have great potential and I'm learning new and better ways of doing things and relating to people all the time. I tend to look at myself through that hopeful filter. Loving others as I love myself means looking at them with unwavering hope for who they can become — believing in their potential and not getting hung up on their past mistakes.

In general, we are quick to forgive (or justify) ourselves. Even the worst criminals don't think of themselves as bad people. In the opening chapter of his book, How To Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie tells a few stories to make this point. Here's one of them:

When Crowley was captured, Police Commissioner E. P. Mulrooney declared that the two-gun desperado was one of the most dangerous criminals ever encountered in the history of New York. "He will kill," said the Commissioner, "at the drop of a feather."

But how did "Two Gun" Crowley regard himself? We know because while the police were firing into his apartment, he wrote a letter addressed "To whom it may concern." And, as he wrote, the blood flowing from his wounds left a crimson trail on the paper. In his letter Crowley said: "Under my coat is a weary heart, but a kind one — one that would do nobody any harm."

A short time before this, Crowley had been having a necking party with his girlfriend on a country road out on Long Island. Suddenly a policeman walked up to the car and said: "Let me see your license."

Without saying a word, Crowley drew his gun and cut the policeman down with a shower of lead. As the dying officer fell, Crowley leaped out of the car, grabbed the officer's revolver, and fired another bullet into the prostrate body. And that was the killer who said: "Under my coat is a weary heart, but a kind one — one that would do nobody any harm."

Crowley was sentenced to the electric chair. When he arrived at the death house in Sing Sing, did he say, "This is what I get for killing people"? No, he said: "This is what I get for defending myself."

The point of the story is this: "Two Gun" Crowley didn't blame himself for anything.

Loving others as ourselves means looking at those same people and not thinking of them as bad people, but instead hoping and praying that they find grace and mercy. Remember to "first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye." Matthew 7:3-5

Proverbs 10:12 says, "Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all sins." If we ever make a mistake, we do everything we can to quickly cover it up and make sure nobody sees it. How often do we work that hard to cover up someone else's mistakes?

Loving others this way is not easy — that's why it has to be a commandment. We naturally love ourselves, but we can only love others as we love ourselves with God's help — that's why it's the second commandment.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Free often leads to entitlement

I just read Fragility of Free and wanted to share my own experience with offering a service for free. Back in the mid 90's, I created a system that gave people in the Greater Seattle area free local long distance calls. It was a great experience and taught me that once you start giving people something for free, they will start to think of it as something they'll always have a right to receive.

We'll need to start with a bit of a history lesson.

Long before we all had free nationwide long distance on our cell phones, land-line phone companies charged a lot for local long distance calls. In the Greater Seattle area it was more expensive to call from Renton to Redmond than it was to call New York! However, if you were inside the city limits of Seattle, then you could call to/from both of those locations as a free local call. This was true for most of the Seattle suburbs within King County.

Also, before the time of PBX business phone systems, there was a type of phone line known as Centrex, where all the switching was done at the central office. In order to transfer a call, you would do a hook flash and then dial the destination phone number.

At the time, I was writing code in Delphi 1.0 on 386 hardware and Windows 3.11. We knew that we could combine a Seattle centrex phone line with hook flash transfer to offer people in the suburbs free local calls. At the time, several so-called experts told us that in order to do that, we would need to use Windows 95 and a voice card that cost about $1000.

However, we were convinced that we could get it to run on a 386 and a $27 voice modem. It was late one Friday night (maybe even early Saturday morning) when I finally figured out that the bang (!) character would cause the modem to hook flash and I successfully transfered a call. That remains one of my favorite coding breakthrough moments of all time.

My partner's grandmother lived in an area where she could get phone lines with a Seattle prefix, so we order some Centrex lines and put 3 computers in a closet in her spare bedroom and started promoting the service.

When someone called the Seattle phone number, one of the 3 computers would answer the call and play a 30 second ad. Then it would prompt for an access code and the number they wanted to call and would transfer the call. As soon as a call was transfered, that phone line and computer were free to take the next call. At the peak usage, we were processing about 40,000 calls per month. We had a log of every number that was called through the system, but I don't think we ever did anything with those numbers.

We knew the phone companies wouldn't be happy about this, but we did want to make sure what we were doing was legal. Being young and without the budget to hire a lawyer, the best we could determine was that it was legal as long as we never charged anyone any money to use it.

We had advertisements built into the system from the beginning, but we also thought it would be illegal for us to sell ads to anyone else, so we just made our own ads for our other business.

People could get an access code to the system by visiting our website and passing a 10 question quiz. Answers to all the quiz questions were within the text of our website, so this was a way to make sure people read our site before we gave them free phone calls.

People really loved our service. We had our domain name painted on the side and back of our van and one time while stopped at a red light, the lady from the car behind us got out of her car and ran up to tell us how much she loved our free calling network! We also had jackets with our domain name on them. One time at a restaurant we met some guys that operated a BBS who said we were saving their users a lot of money. We also got our picture in the local paper along with a great article talking about what we were doing.

Needless to say, this whole thing was a very fun experience! However, we eventually decided that it wasn't worth the cost to keep it going, so we shut it down. I think if we could have charged a subscription fee or even could have sold advertising, it would have been a profitable venture. But the phone company had already shut off the phone lines once and we weren't sure how much longer we'd be able to keep it going anyway.

Much to our surprise, a short while later, we received a notice from the Better Business Bureau that someone had filed a complaint against us for shutting down our free service! Once we explained to the BBB rep that it had been completely free and that we never made any statements about how long it would be available, they closed out the complaint, but it has always made me think twice before ever offering something for free that cost me money.

As a Gmail, and Twitter user, I am thankful that these free services exist, but I also understand that if they change the deal or try to force advertising into the platform, they're just doing what they need to do in order to continue providing something for free that does actually cost them a lot of money to run.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

"Save Game" for programmers

If you've ever played an adventure or saga type of video game, you're familiar with the option of saving your game. Just before a really difficult section or before facing a challenging level boss, you hit save so that if (when really) you died you could try again from that saved point.

Have you ever wished you could do that in real life? Just before embarking on some tough challenge you could hit save and easily get back to that point to try again until you were successful.

Well, if you're a computer programmer, that's exactly what you can do with version control! I've heard a few programmers ponder if it's worth it or not to use a version control system when working on a solo (or hobby) project, but I think it's always useful. Maybe even more so when working on a project that you only touch occasionally in your spare time.

Also, if you haven't checked out a distributed version control system (DVCS) such as Git or Mercurial, then you're working on an older generation of the technology. The lack of file locks and the ease of branching and merging make these systems a joy to work with.