Ed Giese's Web Log

Pronounced 'geese-y.' Random thoughts on culture, spirituality, and technology.

The Limitations of Blogs

Posted on 2020-12-06 21:00:00 in Technology

I wrote a post in response to another post I read on David's blog. David responded with an email, and I responded to the email "inline," as they say in emails -- that is, I duplicated his email and interrupted the flow with my own responses. David replied with a yet longer email.

The "inline" format will not work for this longer email. The problem with inline responses is that the organization of composition is dictated by the original email. It also seems to encourage a kind of oppositional writing. "You say this, but I say this," is an easy pattern to fall into.

I want to do justice to David's objections, but I cannot do it without writing way more than anyone is likely to read in one piece. So, in order to be fair, I'm reproducing David's response below. I'll link to it later, so that anyone can read his own words, but just as he did not reproduce my entire post in his email, I'm not going to do that again.

I thus cede the rest of this post to David without comment, except for the very general observation that even the organization of ideas affects them. Do we communicate in emails, debates, blog posts, or essays? Each would, I think, result in a different kind of reasoning. Martin Luther was very proud of his work The Bondage of the Will, which is a point-by-point refutation of a much shorter essay by Erasmus called simply A Diatribe. Erasmus was stung by Luther's response and wrote a very lengthy book of his own to answer Luther. Medieval convention, apparently, said that the best writing exhaustively refuted an opponent's work at every point. It makes for very long reads.

Thank you for including my thoughts in another blog post and for your detailed response. I’m sure this topic is difficult to discuss dispassionately for both of us. You’re frustrated that I say the question isn’t entirely rhetorical; I’m frustrated because I feel like you aren’t giving me the benefit of the doubt.

When I wrote the post, I had been exploring the relationship between faith and righteousness. As you know, I think God is unfair to judge people based on their faith. My question comparing the agnostic to the Christian came out of this exploration. In any event, I am sincerely interested in the question. As I admitted, it is somewhat rhetorical because I do suspect I know the answer, but I am not entirely sure that I do, and I’m open to thoughtful counterarguments like the one you’ve made about unconscious actions. If you consider this “trying to have it both ways,” then I guess I am.

Let me clarify a few points in my last response: First, while this wasn’t obvious, I mentioned utilitarianism and intentionalism as examples of why the question is interesting. I wanted to demonstrate that you were too quick to turn the questions into assertions. I didn’t mean to imply that the questions were meant to ponder utilitarianism. As you said, it would have been odd if it had been. Second, you imply I am judging a “belief system by the weakness of its adherents,” but I’m not, and you should have given me the benefit of the doubt that I wouldn’t be so unfair. I know Christians who do good to go to heaven, but I’m not judging a belief system by its adherents. I’m judging Christianity because it prioritizes faith over works; these individuals are just examples of why the system feels inconsistent.

Your main point is that it is difficult to compare a Christian and an agnostic. I agree, but I don’t think it is impossible or meaningless. I’ll say more about this later, but this comparison isn’t my original interest in the questions. To illustrate this, consider a similar question:

Two Christians live outwardly identical lives—the first has a strong faith, the second has a weak faith. Which Christian is more righteous?

I think the Christian with weaker faith is more righteous. If Abraham had known that Isaac would be saved before the knife struck, would his sacrificial journey have been credited to him as righteousness? If you knew without a doubt that Jesus, the creator of the universe, existed, loved you, and wanted a personal relationship with you, then should you get much credit for praying and reciprocating that relationship as you do now, being somewhat sure, but far from completely? These examples demonstrate that weaker faith allows someone to be more righteous. Furthermore, if faith didn’t matter, why does God hide from most of us?

My original question is the limiting case of this analysis. The agnostic has no faith. So what is it about a little faith that changes the comparison so much? It’s like an ethical state change. This is the issue I’m primarily interested in. I don’t understand why God emphasizes faith so much.

You may object that two outwardly identical lives are impossible; the difference in faith would alter their behavior somehow. I would be happy to explore this further, although clearly, two individual actions can be performed by people with different degrees of faith. Thus I suspect the entire life comparison isn’t impossible. It is only a thought experiment. Now I’ll return to the main point of your two posts.

It is a fact that Christians and non-Christians are operating under different ethical frameworks and that this needs to be accounted for. However I think they can be.

A little formalism may help me explain why. Imagine that each ethical system provides a righteousness function. This function takes a vector of a person’s contextualized choices as its input and returns a “righteousness value” as its output. Imagine the righteousness value ranges from 0 to 1. Let’s represent it using this equation: R = F(C). In reality, we can never know C, but that’s okay because this whole exercise is a thought experiment. There are similar functions for individual actions: r = f(c).

There are many ethical systems, each with its own function. God has one; the Old Testament is the story of the Israelites’ R values perpetually being too low. Each of us has one, be it vague and time-varying. Different religions and time-periods have them. Christians value their relationship with God and evangelism, while Buddhists value meditation and monastic donations. A Hindu ethic cares if you choose to eat beef, while a Christian’s doesn’t. Thus, some choices only matter for certain righteousness functions. Other choices matter for nearly all of them; most of us agree we should give the hungry food, cloth the naked, and visit the sick; thous shalt honor your mother and father; thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not murder. These seem universal, and it is this universality that holds society together. I also think the overlap extends beyond consequentialism. Like you said: “No one likes that kind of kid.” Most people care about intentions a lot—just because we don’t always know what they are doesn’t mean we don’t care about them. If someone says something offensive, we care if it was intentional. I think the agnostic also has to struggle with motives. Certainly, we feel like a billionaire who publicly gives away a lot of money is less righteous than the one who anonymously does.

I recognized the difficulty of comparing a Christian and an agnostic when I wrote the post. That is why, in the first question, I said, “two people do the same good deed” and in the second question, I said, “two people live equally charitable lives.” I used the term charitable to denote the righteousness-comparison was being made in the overlapping regions. I believe I even considered a few alternate words, before selecting charitable. (Note that I had not thought of this formalism at the time—this only occurred to me while writing my response.)

I suspect you will say that the non-overlapping portions matter so much that any comparison is meaningless. Perhaps you are right, but I don’t think it is so obvious that the question must be a rhetorical sleight of hand. If you say this, then I think it has to do with our differing understanding of Christianity’s righteousness function. Maybe I think it is more similar to the typical agnostics than you think it is. For example, I’m still surprised that your function excludes any deeds that were consciously done. I thought God wanted us to have free will. Otherwise, why create the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? If only the unconscious deeds count in the final judgment, couldn’t God have made us robots? (By the way, I think you’re right that one can pray and fast without being conscious of the motives. This is also a good point.)

The only response I could think of is that, although unconscious deeds are all that matter in the last analysis, they do so not for themselves but because they are the only true reflection of our internal moral state. If you think this moral state is fixed, then we don’t have free will. But if it is not fixed, then how would we change it? It seems that it must be changed by conscious deeds. Thus, conscious deeds lead to unconscious habits. If this is the case, then it seems like the conscious deeds are still the ones being judged. One could then compare the Christian who, desiring heaven, formed righteous habits to the agnostic who, wanting to have a good self-image, formed righteous habits.

Thank you for pointing me to Matthew 25. I read it a couple of times, and while I see the point you are making about sheep vs. goats (and I recall you making this in sermons past), it is subtle. I’ll have to take your word on the theology—I shouldn’t have questioned you on this in the first place.

I left out some personal remarks. There was also this from a later email:

I was a bit surprised by you reasoning here:

The fact is, everyone knows this story, even millions of unbelievers. How many people took every opportunity to visit a stranger? And, conversely, how many were so callous that they never took a single opportunity to do so? A simple reading of this situation leads to a ludicrous result.

In particular, when Jesus said the story, it wasn’t the case that everyone had heard the story. Why do you think it’s appropriate to reason from how we would interpret how the story sounds to us today back onto its original meaning?

It seems to me that if the God wanted us to be unconsciously good, the sermon on the mount could have made this much more explicit. E.g., instead of:

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

It could be

“Beware of practicing your piety before yourself in order to improve your self image; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So give alms often and earnestly enough so that you no longer consciously consider your motives, do not give to charity as the anonymous agnostic philanthropists do, so that they may feel good about themselves as they approach their old age. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do it without thought of an outer physical reward of eternal heaven, nor of the outer reward of other people seeing you do good, nor even the inner reward of a positive self-image, so that your alms may be done in secret even from your own mind; and your Father who sees what you do unconsciously will reward you."

Does this second version reflect what you think is meant by the passage? If not, what would you change about it to make it align with your thinking?

Emails have their own limitations. The above actually condenses an edit from a later edition of an email. In emails, one cannot revise easily. Perhaps there is some variation of a source code control system that could serve better the needs of these kinds of idea discussions. In the mean time, I'll just make do with this post and move on later to comment as I have time.

Christians Have their own Ethics

Posted on 2020-12-01 05:30:00 in Spirituality

David responded to my earlier post by raising some questions and objections. I'll try to answer these point-by-point.

To make reading this easier, here is David's original, short, post in full:

Two people do the same good deed—the first believes they will be rewarded, while the second is unsure. Which deed is more righteous?

Two people live equally charitable lives—the first is a Christian with a strong faith, the second is an agnostic. Which person is more righteous?

To summarize my original response, linked above, I assert as a fact that Christians and non-Christians are operating under different ethical frameworks, and so comparisons between them must take that into account.

Here is David's response to my post, with inline responses:

I don’t think the Christian is necessarily less righteous than the agnostic; I only think they are at most equally righteous. I think some believers are like “rascally children.” I know some who are explicit about this. There are also many believers who are utterly sincere in their motives. I would say these Christians are equally righteous. Thus, your assumption is mostly correct, but not [quite].

Furthermore, at least to some degree, the question really is posed as a question. I’m not pretending that the implication isn’t there, but I think you jumped past the question too quickly. A utilitarian would say the two acts and the two people are equally righteous. The two acts are no longer equal if you say the intentions matter too. Would you agree with this: If you are an atheist but an intentionalist, and if two people do the same good deed—the first believing they will be rewarded while the second is unsure, then the second person is more righteous? If not, why?

These paragraphs are a little frustrating. My first impression here was that you want to have it both ways -- to deny that you are claiming moral superiority for an agnostic, and then to assert it anyway. When you say you personally know Christians who are "rascally children," (a reference to a hypothetical in my earlier post) you are implying that at least some Christians have self-interested motives. Leaving aside the unfairness of judging a belief system by the weaknesses of some of its adherents, you seem to be saying that a Christian has an obligation to rid herself of such impure motives, while an agnostic need never wrestle with motive at all. How else do you conclude that "they are at most equally righteous?" For I can see no possibility in either your original questions or your argument above that the agnostic is ever less righteous than the Christian, given equal utilitarian outcomes.

When you write, "at least to some degree, the question really is posed as a question," then you definitely are trying to have it both ways. Your original questions posit as a given (which I did not challenge) that the actions of two people are equally good. Who decides that? I was granting that perhaps in some utilitarian way, they were the same. What other standard could there be between a believer and an unbeliever? Without granting this, the questions as posed are meaningless. What is left is motive. It is the whole reason for the questions. You have just confirmed in your response that the inferior motives of Christians are your concern here, so how can you possibly claim, then, that your questions are not rhetorical? Unless this is some strange way to tip your hat to utilitarianism.

If, in fact, you are really curious whether a simple utilitarian calculus is a sufficient basis for morality, you chose a very odd set of questions to pose it. And to say that the overtone of curiosity is there seems odd.

I think you make an interesting point when you say righteousness can be decreased by purely mental motivations. I certainly agree that doing good works publicly is less righteous than doing them privately.

Wasn't this the entire point of your questions? It is confusing here, because you appear to be switching between two different worldviews without always recognizing it. If there is no God, then I would assert far lower importance to motive, and quite possibly there is none at all. I don't know anyone's motives but my own, and so how am I to judge a person by them? I can certainly judge motives in the abstract. It isn't hard to think of cases where knowing someone's motive may put their seemingly virtuous acts in a worse light. Still, it is impossible to judge a person on that basis because motives are never truly known, even to the person who holds them.

On the other hand, if there is a God who has revealed a preference for actions and attitudes, and who can see the motivations, then this becomes the basis for all righteousness.

It seems that you are generalizing this even further so that only someone who is doing good works unconsciously is fully righteous. I agree that if this is how you define righteousness, than an agnostic may be less righteous than a Christian. I’d like to think more about the implications of such a definition, since I hadn’t heard it before.

Perhaps to begin with, what makes you think that this is what Jesus meant in Matthew 6:3? It seems to me that verse 1 is providing a general principle—don’t do righteous acts in front of others. Then there are a few examples. The other examples involve praying in front of others and fasting in front of others. It seems unlikely that prayer or fasting could be unconscious deeds, thus it feels like you are reading more into the text than is there. Are there other verses that make similar claims?

You are correct in your conclusion about my argument, and I'm very pleased that you saw it! My point was primarily based on Matthew 25, and not Matthew 6, because the account of the final judgment specifically excludes all deeds that were consciously done. How else could the believers be surprised that they had done them? It is what we do without thinking, I would argue, that shows what we really are -- as horrible as that thought is. Otherwise, Matthew 25 leaves us with a question, "how many good deeds must a goat perform to turn itself into a sheep?" One doesn't need modern biology to know the answer.

Regarding your objection, even prayer and fasting can be done unconsciously, at least with regard to motive. The repeated refrain in the Sermon on the Mount, "you have received your reward," ought to lend clarity to that. My point from before stands: even an agnostic can receive his reward, if the deed is done for the sake of conscience or self-image. Take away all of those deeds, for both Christian and non-Christian alike, and you have a very different picture. It is these ethics that matter to a Christian, I would argue, because they are based on relationship, and not some abstract deontology. One might reject the entire framework and still do some good things -- even unconsciously -- but something done outside of that framework will always remain outside of it.

The Evil of the Five Factor Model

Posted on 2020-11-29 17:40:00 in Culture

Rod Dreher has a great article in The American Conservative. It is good enough that I'm going to forward links to several friends who rarely receive links from me. It is especially poignant for anyone like J.D. Vance, and Rod Dreher himself, who has struggled with his roots while crossing class boundaries. That hasn't been my experience by and large, but in my case, I think a kind of cluelessness saved me from painful situations.

Dreher makes the point well, similarly to Glenn Reynolds -- who has written similar claims many times -- that current issues with race are really about class:

Put more bluntly, I think the “privilege” discourse among middle class educated white liberals is mostly about rearranging prejudices to make lower class white people deserving of the scorn of the uppers.

Read Dreher to see the point made, illustrated with a review of Netflix's "A Hillbilly Elegy," and also some powerful comments about balancing mercy and accountability, as well as the baleful effects of reverse snobbery. Enough good writing that I'm going to be checking in there more often. I'm not going to try to summarize Dreher here -- as they like to say, "read the whole thing."

Instead, I'd like to respond to something that Dreher discusses in passing, which is the correlation of a personality trait called "low openness" with conservatism. This "trait" comes from the so-called Five-Factor Model. Dreher appears, on a certain level, to accept that much conservatism in middle America arises from this personality trait, although he claims that he is still a conservative even though he is quite open to new experiences and things.

Consider for a moment the stunning condescension implicit in defining a term like "low openness" in a personality. While the term can be defined neutrally, and it appears to be in the 5-factor model -- inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious -- it rarely stays that way. It isn't that there aren't variations in curiosity or caution, or that some people may be more inclined to be one way than the other. Rather, it is that there is a subtle value judgment even in the terms themselves. No one writes stories or makes movies about consistent, cautious people. In fact, in stories and movies, it is the cautious who act as foils for the curious. The hero, in other words, is always open. A person may be relatively incurious or cautious, but few people would admit this.

Some people see the glass half full, and others half empty, the saying goes, and while this is undeniable, I've never met a person who willing calls herself a pessimist. That is a label others may use, but the term has negative connotations. The analogy is exact. The "openness" trait in the five-factor model is value-laden and judgmental. Its uses are often evil, a way to dismiss people.

I recall one protagonist whom one would describe as incurious: the copyist Akakiy Akakievitch in Gogol's "The Overcoat." This description of him has stuck with me:

One director being a kindly man, and desirous of rewarding him for his long service, ordered him [Akakievitch] to be given something more important than mere copying. So he was ordered to make a report of an already concluded affair to another department: the duty consisting simply in changing the heading and altering a few words from the first to the third person. This caused him so much toil that he broke into a perspiration, rubbed his forehead, and finally said, "No, give me rather something to copy." After that they let him copy on forever.

"The Overcoat" is dark comedy, and while the story itself is immensely influential, its protagonist was anything but. No one would aspire to be this protagonist, even in an age of anti-heros. This despite the character's positive qualities, which were definitely there. But Akakievitch's picture could be next to the definition of "consistent/cautious" in the 5-factor model.

Given its post-culture-war progeny, the entire 5-factor model appears to be a weaponization of anodyne observations about personalities into a cudgel. No one starting in the 1980s could credibly claim to be neutrally improving on a mother-daughter application of Jungian theories with the same naive innocence. No one today could try seriously to discuss intelligence differences between "races" without being -- rightly, in my opinion -- booed out of the public square. Whether one can write down the numbers of individual tests and categorize them to draw conclusions is irrelevant, since it has evil results. It leads to individuals being dismissed by facile and deceptive generalizations. It is apparently just fine, though, to do similar "innocent" groupings of people by their response to questions such as, "I prefer to do things the same way as my father did," and imply that they are hapless losers whose highest life aspirations could be fulfilled by a photocopier.

It is certainly convenient for supercilious mediocrities hanging on the ever-growing edges of a bloated academia to say that it has been "scientifically proven" that people who disagree with them politically are more likely to be prejudiced and bigoted, and that the root cause is their oppenents' own inherent inferiority in a changing world. Left unasked in such rushes to judgment are questions like, how does someone who is "closed to new experiences" ever gain a tradition to prefer? Also unasked is, how quickly should a huge group of people adopt a new approach or value system without trying it, given the stakes of failure? Far easier it is simply to say, "closed to experience" and stuff the pigeonhole with something close to half the population.

Doubtless the purveyors and supporters of the 5-factor model would say that they imply no value judgments. I'm not buying it -- and even were they to prove their own neutrality in the matter, they cannot control the endless stream of pseudo-scientific pontification from left-leaning publications celebrating conclusions that are unwarranted. It is a nearly exact parallel to talking about race and intelligence, but it will never be treated that way. It is just too convenient.

Facts not in Evidence

Posted on 2020-11-27 10:00:00 in Spirituality

David has a provocative little entry in his blog titled Faith and Righteousness. It is so short that I can quote it in full:

Two people do the same good deed—the first believes they will be rewarded, while the second is unsure. Which deed is more righteous?

Two people live equally charitable lives—the first is a Christian with a strong faith, the second is an agnostic. Which person is more righteous?

I ran these questions by a friend, and he didn't have an immediate answer, even though this friend is a knowledgable Christian. So my first reaction is, "good job, you found a difficult point." On second thought, my response to these two questions is, "you are assuming facts not in evidence."

First, for my own assumption: since the two questions are posed by themselves, with parallel construction, I assume that David means to assert an equivalence between the first question and the second one. In other words, his implication is that Christians are less righteous than agnostics even when they do good things, because Christians believe that their acts of righteousness will be rewarded. This is what I'm assuming the argument is here.

Second, let me give this argument its due. It's a strong emotional argument. It captures the situation -- played out in countless dramas real and imagined -- of someone who has figured out a hidden evaluation and games it. Mom and Dad are looking to see who will spontaneously clean their room to find out who gets to choose where they go out for dinner. So one child, overhearing the conversation, and knowing that the command to clean the room is not far behind, gets the jump and gets the choice. The whole situation seems unfair -- the one child knew something the others did not and was acting not virtuously, but in self-interest. No one likes that kind of kid.

Emotional -- yes. Powerful -- maybe. Valid -- no. The argument assumes that a "righteous act" is the same thing for a believer and unbeliever. This is simply not true. It assumes a fact that is not in evidence. It is beyond a simple preliminary answer like this one to explore the definition of a righteous act in full. It is complicated enough, though, that this emotional argument -- implying that believers are rasacally children who have overheard some secret to finding divine favor -- simply does not hold water.

We just read an appointed Gospel lesson in church that relates directly to this claim and situation. In Matthew 25, Jesus is describing judgment day, as the people of the world are separated into two groups. The king's interaction with the righteous includes this portion:

Matthew 25:

34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016).

If, in fact, life is some kind of trial where people are to be evaluated on the ethics they achieved and rewarded with eternal pleasure or punished forever, then this passage is a giant joke. When it happens, what is the Christian going to be thinking? "Ah, here is the King, just like the story, and now I'm supposed to pretend I didn't know I was doing good things to Him while I did them for some hapless unfortunate"? The fact is, everyone knows this story, even millions of unbelievers. How many people took every opportunity to visit a stranger? And, conversely, how many were so callous that they never took a single opportunity to do so? A simple reading of this situation leads to a ludicrous result. It's as if all of heaven is to be populated by Eddy Haskells.

In reality, Christianity is a relationship, not merely an ethical standard. Ethics are certainly a part of faith, but faith transcends ethics. There are plenty of reasons to be good, and plenty of reasons to encourage others to be good. If, however, the agnostic is to be considered more virtuous than the Christian because of these encouragements (both human and divine), then one must assume that the agnostic herself is not merely acting to mollify her own conscience and achieve some inner self acceptance. How is this any more virtuous than trying to please a god?

The account of the sheep and the goats, if anything, shows how little these acts of righteousness mean to God, when they get noticed on earth. To quote from the other end of Matthew, "when doing your acts of righteousness, do not let your left hand know what the right hand is doing." The only way to keep a secret from oneself is to do it so naturally that it is unconscious.

My buddy Ely preached on this text just last Sunday, and if you are willing to hear the whole thing, I think he makes this point pretty well:

So, in summary, I'd say that this argument sounds compelling emotionally, but founders on assumptions of facts not in evidence.

In Praise of IDEs

Posted on 2020-11-26 11:25:00 in Technology

At one time, I was not a believer in IDEs or "Integrated Development Environments." I learned how to use vim, which I still love, and my early work was on PHP. There were web developers back in the day that bragged that all they needed was notepad. Now, that's extreme, but isn't it better use open source software to develop open source software? A great friend tried to sell me on PHPStorm, but even when I got a free copy at a meetup, I didn't use it.

It was Java that taught me to use IDEs. I told my co-workers, where I was tasked to start doing some Java dev, that I would continue to use vim by itself, and one of them said, "If you do that, you will be very sad." It is true, that Java is just one of those languages that just seems to be made for an IDE. An editor by itself can be powerful, but it is unlikely to be able to scan libraries and automatically populate import statements for you. So your choices are to learn where things are so well that you don't even think about import statements, or to think about them ... ugh. I reluctantly started using an IDE for Java.

Something happened, then, as I went on. Java is strongly typed, and so there were many, many errors that the IDE was catching for me that used to slip by my editing. I found that debugging got quicker, and it was more often that deploying code, it just "worked" the first time.

Now, even when working on a loosely typed language like Python or Javascript, I find that my code is cleaner. Where the IDE shines, though, is in a highly structured language like Scala. I have lost count of the number of times that the IDE nudged me to a better way of doing something, just by doing inspections on my code. Just the act of developing in the IDE has improved my Scala coding.

My personality is one that doesn't like to ask for help. Maybe that's why I resisted the IDE for so long. I'm sold now, though. And I don't mind paying, either. My auto mechanic uses great tools, and he pays for them. Why shouldn't I?

Thankful to Get Started

Posted on 2020-11-25 21:25:00 in Miscellaneous

I just started setting up this blog yesterday, and I've made good progress so far. There is some learning curve for me because Javascript is definitely not my strongest language right now, and there are some confusing concepts in next.js. Still, I finished working yesterday at noon and got a few hours in the evening to start a tutorial, and having finished that, I started polishing the code I wound up with.

The tutorial I used did not show the "recent posts" on the home page, but rather an index of them. (Imagine that: an index in index.js.) I strongly prefer the "latest posts." I also want an rss feed, which was not part of the tutorial, so I needed to learn how to do that. After fooling around with this, off and on, all day, I am in pretty good shape for the evening. Tomorrow I have to dive in and consider sorting by date, limiting post counts, and re-adding the "index" but this time for older posts.

God has been gracious, and things fell my way.