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.

“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 words about each person in this cafe right now

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

Church: some feedback


Dear Church,

Having by now experienced well over a thousand of your services, meetings and gatherings and having over the several decades of my life participated in no small number of your rites, initiations, sacraments and ceremonies, I’ve got some feedback for you:

Let us begin with the bad:

  • Does anyone like pews?  Hemorrhoids.   Lack of circulation to the legs.  Not great.
  • The pipe organ is a questionable instrument — more interesting architecturally than musically .  Granted, your average pipe organ must be quite difficult to replace or decommission, but all good things must come to and end.  It’s time.
  • Most of your buildings seem to be too large for the crowds they attract.  Perhaps they were built for a time when more people were interested in you.  I would consider downsizing — perhaps all the excess real estate could be used to house the poor?
  • It often seems that you would rather your members adopt the worldview of a person from the 15th century — what with all your contextless talk of the supernatural.  I’m afraid that this has become a problem for me because I happen to be sane.  (This probably bears some relation to the previous point.)
  • I am alarmed that you’ve been complicit in such a panoply of acts of racism, sexism, homophobia, cultural genocide and exclusivism.  Might I suggest that you consider renouncing violence in all of its forms and become less of a dick?
  • Honesty seems to be hard for you.  Take the Bible for instance — a  book I believe is somewhat important to you as an institution.  Can we all admit that there’s a ton of crazy and evil stuff in there that should be disregarded and denounced?
  • Please define the following words since you use them so often.  Alternately, please admit that like me, you don’t know what the fuck the following words mean:  God, soul, miracle, heaven, hell, prayer, angel and spirit.  I could go on.

And now, the good:

  • I would like to congratulate you on your influential role in western civilization, music, art, philosophy etc…  Sure there were blips: purges, witch hunts and the like.  But overall, I’d have to credit you with doing more good than harm.
  • You’re faithful, I’ll give you that:  you flung your big wooden doors open when I was born, gave me friends, helped me fall in love, caught me when I fell out of it.  You’ve never left me — and I’m sure you’ll help me die.  This sounds flippant but I mean it.
  • Jesus: worthy of followers.  Every religion needs a main character and one could do a lot worse.  From you I learned about a man obsessed with healing, poor people, justice and the end of the world.  Three out of four ain’t bad right?
  • Bread.  Wine.  Water.  You’re at your best when you keep it simple and keep the food coming.
  • You seem to traverse cultures pretty well which is more than be said of most institutions.
  • Potlucks.
Church: some feedback

The rocket of the self


To a sub-hypomanic aspiring polymath like me, life is an arcing parade of aspirations, goals, and might-have beens — other identities that never quite came to fruition or were discarded before being allowed to develop.  But lest such a notion come off as entirely depressing, let’s regard this possibility as not as any sort of evidence of lifelong disappointment but instead as the proud contrail of a personality — a rocket of the self, that must burn up the raw fuel of other potential selves and shoot them out at the world in a great arc while the true self lurks always just beyond the horizon of understanding.

All of which is to say I’m now going to make a list of all of the things I once wanted to be when I grew up.  I’ll go back as far as I can people:

  • at age 3 I began to wish I were an opera singer — I used to wear a towel as a cape and sing at the TV (that explains a few things.)
  • I wanted to be a car wash attendant … or so the grainy photographic evidence would suggest
  • From quite early on (I was born in Europe to American parents and would sometimes fly over the Atlantic as a little kid) I wished to be a commercial aircraft pilot
  • I wanted to be a policeman for about two days in elementary school.
  • As a young teenager I wanted to be Gary Gygax (inventor of Dungeons & Dragons) or a similarly famous RPG designer.
  • I wanted to be a doctor, because I though it was respectable.
  • I wanted to be a PhD in something and teach that thing.  Maybe it’s because my father did this.
  • I wanted to be a historian.
  • Also, a philosopher.  My role model was Bertrand Russell, also David Hume.  Now there was a real philosopher.
  • I wanted to play the following sports (in order of when I wanted this and the intensity of the desire:) hockey, baseball, soccer.
  • I wanted to be a cook.
  • I wanted to be a Republican Senator.
  • I wanted to be a US Marine.
  • I wanted to be a famous writer (emphasis on famous.)
  • I wanted to be all of the following kinds of musicians (and to be fair I actually was some of them if that counts): classical pianist, blues pianist, jazz pianist,  electronic producer, composer of musicals.
  • I wanted to be a poet.  I did this for a while but my poetry became lost and/or wasn’t any good.
  • I wanted to be a civil rights attorney, a intellectual property attorney and/or an immigration attorney.  I’m sometimes told by others that I would have made a good attorney.
  • I wanted to start a nonprofit organization (mission undefined — once I find a mission I might still do this)
  • I wanted to be an actor
  • I wanted to be a software developer.  Mission accomplished on that one.
  • I still (despite what Dorian Corey might say) want to change the world in some way.
The rocket of the self

Being and doing 

The dicho so often pulled out by wise ones, that we are human beings, not human doings, has worn well thin. For of course I feel like both a human being and someone who does stuff, and this is the way we all are — even the monk chops wood.  But the saying has a way of calling me back into questioning whether the two parts of my personality are in balance.  If I don’t question this myself, then my body, or the circumstances of my life have a way of doing the questioning for me — they have done so lately.  Too much doing can make me sick or deprived of sleep, or stressed out.  I’ve rarely if ever experienced an excess in being (perhaps in my young and wandering days in India?) but I can imagine a sort of dull or sloth setting in after too much of introspection, too much inward-gazing, too much aimlessness.


a view from my place of doing a few weeks ago
I could use some additional balance right now.  And perhaps this will be my resolution for the week:  some being, some doing, some being, some doing.

Being and doing 

Spare our little tribe any more of your sermons

After nearly forty years of swimming around the periphery of my life, confining its activity to elderly grandparents or to people I knew only vaguely, death has made inroads in recent years. It is only natural, and it sucks.  O death: I would hereby like to request a break.

The first portent came several years ago when a young and vital friend of mine — not a close friend, but a friend — woke up one morning, started the shower, and promptly fell over dead. He was a good eight or nine years younger than me, and in seemingly perfect health. He left a devastated partner and many mourning friends and relatives. We danced and sang him off inside and outside a church on Capitol Hill.

My stepfather died after living with cancer for two decades. These were graceful years too, full of determination and meditation, and also devoid of self pity and despair. When he married my mother he was already diagnosed, but they put together a solid decade and a half of time together before his liver finally gave way, leaving him yellow and weak. not long before death I sat on his bed with him watching Bayern Munich win the UEFA Champions League. He pumped his fist weakly when Robben netted the winner for Munich. Now his son is ill too, with the same cancer. Death marches on.

Family and friends say goodbye to my aunt.  She loved to walk her dogs here.

My aunt was the next to die — my dear, vital, zany aunt, who lived down the street from us and was a frequent and welcome visitor in our house. The cancer diagnosis came out of the blue, though perhaps not as a complete shock since she’d been a lifelong smoker. The surgery did not go well, and she died as a result, over a few terrible months. Our family, particularly my cousin and uncle, are still working through the despair. Some part of me still expects that it will be her, dog in tow, whenever a visitor knocks at the door.

Just recently another friend’s mother died. Suddenly, too young. We sat drinking wine and eating pie as she told us through tears how it had happened.

Enough already, death: I know you are a part of life, and I hope to greet you with serenity and grace whenever you decide to visit. But for now, I’d like to cordially invite you to go fuck off. Go somewhere else for a while, and spare our little tribe any more of your sermons.  We get it.   We know you’ll be back, but we need a break.

Spare our little tribe any more of your sermons

battles, angels, monsters

As I age (imperceptibly! gracefully!) the world seems a more and more ambiguous place — a place brimming with moral dyads of every kind. In the mists of my youth, I was certain that most people were prone to what I can only call an unhelpful preference for complexity, particularly regarding difficult moral and political issues. Right was just right, right? But I feel as though something has changed or is changing within me in this regard, and so I offer these tentative, personal, theses:

I am not always required to fight for my beliefs

The senses of the young strain for any hint of hypocrisy. while their minds seek out arguments and debates of every kind. And while those who know me might observe that both of these tendencies haven’t entirely departed from me, both have been somewhat tempered by the knowledge that not all people who think or feel something — even strongly — must act on those feelings. Of course, sometimes a failure to act is bad. Fascist regimes should be resisted, racists, sexists and homophobes opposed. But also, or so I’ve discovered, some fires must be allowed to burn themselves out, some changes of general opinion (see the legalization of gay marriage which gave me a bunch of civil rights thankyouverymuch) must be allowed to ripen on their own.

I need not defeat all evil, nor must I support all good

We all remember Ralph Nader right? Many of us agreed with much or all of his proposed policies, and were tempted to vote for him. Some 5% of Americans actually did (I didn’t but more than one person I love did.) We all know the result, and should bear it in mind, particularly in this year of wide choice in presidential candidates.

Realpolitik is a normal characteristic of the human universe, and one that I increasingly tolerate and am aware of.

while it is likely to be inconsistent to act as if A&~A, it is possible to act as if A&B where B makes A more likely to be true.

For example, I have come to believe in the power of open source software, some of which I have helped build in one way or another. Thus, there is a non-zero chance that someone with whom I violently disagree is at this moment using my code for evil.  For that matter, since by profession I help maintain a large internet platform (itself based on open source) I therefore enable the actions of anyone who uses it. This most certainly includes many folks whose aims I consider to be completely immoral. All of this is to say, I believe in things like open source enough to tolerate the fact that my code or efforts might be used for ill.

TLDR … As I age, I’m less likely to fight every battle, less likely to oppose every monster, less likely to support every angel and more likely to tolerate, and sometimes welcome, inconsistency.

battles, angels, monsters