This is a post about politics and religion

In his recent essay,  Fake News, Faith and Reason Jerry Adler makes the somewhat obvious argument that the current right wing pestilence of fake and false news is dangerous because there exists some large slice of the American electorate who are apparently willing forgo any sort of critical thinking about what they read or hear.  Adler asks whether religious people are particularly vulnerable to this lack of critical thinking.

… is there something in the mindset of a religious believer — someone who accepts the reality of an unseen deity, based on ancient accounts of events with no parallel in everyday experience — that encourages the acceptance of unprovable claims in the realms of politics or science?

Um … yes!?

For example, the Christian tendency to privilege supernatural faith over reason is expressed by the Augustinian dictum credo ut intelligam (I believe in order to understand.)  In other words:  in order to be properly understood, reality must be viewed and filtered through the lens of faith, whose origins lie outside of the provable or experienced.  Adler observes (somewhat overly-charitably I think) that all of this doesn’t banish reason entirely, but orders it after faith, so in that sense today’s fundamentalists go way beyond Augustine’s idea by just skipping the ut intelligam altogether.

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I’ve struggled for most of my life to reconcile my lack of a supernatural worldview with my sense of belonging to the Christian religion.  I’ve further speculated that the today’s church is driving away many intelligent, honest and curious people from their religious heritage by demanding at least deference to supernaturalism in others (i.e.: don’t break someone else’s faith by interpreting the world or religion naturalistically around them) and at worst (and quite commonly) by requiring magical thinking in all its members.  Adler suggests that to the extent that the church encourages or tolerates magical, ancient, supernatural and uncritical thinking among its members, it fosters the development the kind of mental habits which would seem to have landed us in exactly the sort of political mess in which we find ourselves today.

I believe that the church has a moral duty to all people to at least enforce Augustine’s dictum in its entirety (both parts) … or even better encourage deep, free and critical thinking in every aspect of life without fear and reservation.

Whether anyone likes it or not, credo ut intelligam has been de facto inverted by 1600 years of history, the centrality of science and the evolution of human understanding.  In other words, it is we who have changed over the past 1600 years, not (fundamentally) our religions, and not the world.  We must now affirm this reversal of polarity — that faith is sustained by a congruence with and not opposition to reason and nature.  If we fail in this admission, the final counter-proof may come in the form of our own collective demise.

This is a post about politics and religion

Fear and Coding

There exists in the technology world today the myth of the glorious failure.  The praiseworthy failure.  The gently notorious and spectacular failure.  Everyone should fail all of the time, right?  Companies should fail fast — fail well.  Fail in  a humorous way maybe, suitable for later rehashing over craft beer.  Not failing?  Push harder — you will.  To fail is to be epic and to learn.  Worstward Ho and all that.

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“Fail better” is now experimental literature’s equivalent of that famous Che Guevara photo, flayed completely of meaning and turned into a successful brand with no particular owner. — Ned Beauman in New Inquiry

But when it comes time to  actually fail for real in the world of technology and business — particularly in the world of very large platforms with millions of users and millions of dollars at stake — I suspect that I am not the only software person who doesn’t find much relevance in the startup-era jingoistic kind of failure.  The fact is that we have basically managed to completely divorce ourselves from the psychology of what it means to thoroughly fuck up.  Moreover — failure sucks.   It’s excessively and inappropriately worshiped by people who work on the interwebs and build companies, but who (I suspect) do little of the un-sexy work that actually props up most of the web.

At my job, I’ve been tasked with a rather broad technical project which might be said to fall into the category of low reward, high risk.  It involves the underlying data structures and some of the hidden internal plumbing behind a product used by tens of millions of people every day.  A mistake on my part could at best introduce hard-to-find bugs,  or worse temporarily render parts of the product unusable for a short time,  or worse still corrupt some underlying data that would take a long time to restore, resulting in a wide outage.  Success, on the other hand, means that nothing (apparently) changes.  Status quo.  I’ve feared failure in this project.  I’ve really feared it.  I’ve feared that one day I’d start some script off running and realizing it was doing something horrible and then be unable to un-do it.

I think this kind of fear of failure has been useful.

It’s been fear that caused me to approach this sort of work with the caution it deserved.   I’ve been checking and testing all the code I write many times.  I’ve been allowing time for problems to emerge and others to weigh in before I move on to the next phase or task.  I’ve built redundant safeguards into the code so that data-destructive things that shouldn’t be happening have a vanishingly small chance of ever occurring.  I’ve slowed down and not pretended that every. single. thing. on the web or with people needs to happen at light speed.

I’m finishing up this project now, and it looks like it will have — not failed.  I’m glad I took it slow.  I’m glad I was afraid.

Fear and Coding

A few days among the digital nomads

I spent the last few days on Jeju Island, South Korea at a meetup for digital nomads. A DN is a person who works both online and remotely, often in some kind of technology, while moving around the world. Some DNs (like my co-worker Steph Yiu) are completely nomadic, without any permanent address. Others (and I fall in this category to some degree ) have a definite home base, but nomad regularly, and work while they do.

There were some interesting folks at this meetup:  Pieter Levels, founder of Nomad List, a site that provides community and reviews for nomads, Kavi Guppta who writes for Forbes about the future of work and is working on all sorts of interesting projects, Youjin Do, who is working on a documentary about DNsPete Rojwongsuriya, a photographer, designer and adventurer from Thailand and Aloïs Castanino of Kickpush, a french designer based in London. Everyone, including me and Steph, gave short talks about our work, living remotely, traveling and the culture of this sort of remote work.  Steph and I were interviewed by several reporters from the Korean technology press.

Digital nomadism is strange enough in the West, but in a place like Korea it runs against quite a few deep cultural currents. The parents of the Korean middle-class generation now in their twenties and thirties worked hard to establish themselves in company structures (think Samsung, Hyundai, etc.) or professions (medicine, law etc.) that were the guarantors of family stability. Sadly, the desire for stability is often the child of trauma, and for many of the current generation’s parents, war and its results were a part of living memory for them or their parents. It is not hard to see why the idea of working in this new, remote, loose way from a beach, or a mountain, or a bicycle, is at the very least confusing and possibly threatening to the older generation and its accomplishments.

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raw fish and conversation, Jeju-si

After the meetup, I sat drinking Korean beer and eating rather recently dissected raw fish at a low table with about fifteen others.  Besides our group of DNs, the other diners in this upstairs diner hidden deep in a fish market were mostly middle-age Korean businessmen.  They laughed loudly while drinking rice wine over steaming pots of spicy crab soup and piles of kimchi. I looked around the gathering at the pure energy and impressiveness of the group of global young people around the table.  I marveled for a moment at the privilege of it all (how fortunate each of us was to be here — how the hell was I here for that matter) but also the possibility and raw potential energy in the room. Soon, this new nomadic way of life will be less strange, even in East Asia. But for now, especially in booming, adventurous South Korea, the group around me felt less like nomads than pioneers.

A few days among the digital nomads

Happy birthday Buddha

This year in Korea and much of Asia, May 14th is calculated to be the day on which the Buddha’s birthday is celebrated.  Having never attended his birthday celebrations before, a friend and I hopped on a cab to the nearby Yakchunsa Temple 약천사(제주) here in Jeju Island South Korea to see what was up. Here’s a bit of what we saw:

Happy birthday Buddha

Nine (more) working titles for ill-advised books I’ve thought of writing recently

Almost a year ago, I jotted down few working titles for some books I’d thought of writing at some time in the future.  Despite the fact that as of May, 2015 I had written a total of zero books, and also despite the fact that my output of books has increased not at all in the past twelve months, I will nevertheless dare to propose a few more possible titles for the consideration of the universe.

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But first, I wish to note that I have in fact written one or two fragments that could actually fit into at least a few of my proposed titles of a year ago.  For example, I did a rather minor amount of autobiographical writing, most of it while at least mildly intoxicated, which could later be folded into The Gayest Stork, my proposed honest-to-the-point-of-brutality portrait of myself as a seventeen year old.  Likewise a certain amount of what one might charitably call my journaling could be imagined between the covers of Pickled, a chemical history of my extended family.  Little writing, but much practical research has been conducted for the Sub-Herbia project, my proposed collection of interviews with nontraditional marijuana users and on WordPress: a History.  I regret to being able to announce almost no progress on Consolidated Diversified (my imagined manual for organizational development), Borked (my graphic novel about web security) nor any of my other titles, whose names escape me, along with the tab on my web browser containing them, which must be around here somewhere.

But I digress … on to this year’s titles, all of which I have — with varying degrees of seriousness — contemplated writing in the past twelve months:

Saying no to God, Saying yes to Dog
How to lose your religion while gaining a pet.

Mennonite Rampage
A killer is loose among the Amish

A Bomb in the Pram
Religious radicalization leads to sectarian violence among a group of bored upper-middle-class supermoms in suburban London.

Founding Sisters
In which — armed with no good evidence — I document the secret gay lives of several American Founding Fathers, interspersed with my own present-day quest to obtain membership in the Sons of the American Revolution.

Freedom in the Hundred Decibel Bedroom
A practical guide for those who sleep with heavy snorers.  Contains many tips, sleeping positions, psychological pressure techniques.

Classic Diseases
A book about all of those diseases you used to hear about all the time but JUST DON’T HEAR ABOUT ANY MORE

More than Hoodies: a guide to nerd chic
Geek approaches to clothes: algorithmic wardrobes, randomness and function as form.

If it’s not Too Much Trouble
A manual of Lutheran “etiquette”

My Six Deaths
A natural history of the six times I would have likely died had I been born in the world before modern medicine.  To wit:  an infected wound, complications from Crohn’s Disease, childhood epilepsy (would have lead accusations of demon possession and ritual death), pneumonia, a severe throat and sinus infection and a bicycle accident and subsequent skin infection.

Nine (more) working titles for ill-advised books I’ve thought of writing recently

A few interesting things I’ve learned by volunteering in a prison

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In this state, prisoners can knit or sew clothing in their cells. They can purchase yarn to do this, except for green yarn.

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One inmate told me this is because the prison administration is worried that men will knit entire camouflaged outfits that will blend into the green lawns surrounding the prison and sneak away.

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Prisons sometimes receive funding for educational programs and then take months or years to provide any classes for inmates.

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Prisoners were banned from growing Jalapeño peppers in the prison gardens becuase the administration was worried they could “weaponize” them. On the other hand, hot sauce and pickled Jalapeños are available from the commissary

Squash

A man who’d served over 13 years told me about the warm summer during which the prison’s farm grew over 3,000 lbs. of squash for food banks.  Nevertheless, the entire horticultural program was cancelled and all the gardens allowed to go to seed when a few prisoners began distributing surplus organic produce to each other for free in contravention of the rules.

In a prison there are very few sacred spaces where the nature of a prisoner’s charge doesn’t matter, his race doesn’t matter, where he comes from and who he is doesn’t matter. At the best of times, one of these few places is the classroom, particularly in the presence of outside visitors.

A few interesting things I’ve learned by volunteering in a prison

A few words about each person in this cafe right now

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Edward Hopper Nighthawks — not the cafe in question, this one’s more crowded

studying awkward part black hair
looking toward friend straw suck
speaking Korean animatedly, still boring
young fella leans sideways at girl
girl crosses arms defensive posture
awkward asian guy displays girlfriend
girlfriend puffy jacket makes decision
tight bun noise cancelling headphones
petite barette handbag over-gesture
solid Korean guy full smile
androgynous spindly woman academic scoliosis
fish mouth man eats soup
grad student 1: blonde, quiet
grad student 2: NEW YORK
grad student 3: verbal backpedal
obease hypertensive L. Ron Hubbard
hippie husband formal lumberjack shirt
hippie wife intense organic shampoo
silent boy book, pizza slice
student reading plays with hair
large depressed bowl-cut face in iPad
pensive girl reads squishes mouth
long beautiful hair dark skin
short shorts distracts herself stares
nursing student salmon pullover stuck
tall thin leading discussion boy
small Chinese girl flops on tabletop
attentive woman stares at know-it-all
unseasonable sweater gamer eats pie
large skirted girlfriend can’t decide

A few words about each person in this cafe right now

The Crimes of Joe Orton

The playwright Joe Orton and his partner Kenneth Halliwell spent six months apiece in Her Majesty’s prisons for defacing library books.  Far from representing crime, these were acts of civil commentary and genius, sadly ahead of their time.

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Here’s Orton discussing his acts of creative vandalism in a 1967 interview:

Well, yes I used to do very strange things on library books.  It was really a joke.  I used to take lots of books out of the library — I used to smuggle them out in a satchel, and then I used to paste a picture over the picture of the author …

…  I remember one of them was by Lady Lewisham, a book on ettiequte actually, and um …  it showed a picture of lady Lewisham in her garden.  And I pasted in a picture of a great nude woman cut from a nude book … people must have been very surprised.

Also, I didn’t like libraries anyway.  I though they spent far too much public money on rubbish.  I didn’t like the books, I mean I don’t think people need books on etiquette anyway.

I have no regrets at all, I had a marvelous time in prison.

You can read more about Orton’s life in and out of the theater in John Lahr’s excellent biography.

The Crimes of Joe Orton