A piece my best friend wrote was recently posted over at Mockingbird. (Trigger warning: this story recounts sexual abuse) No words of mine can do it justice. Here’s a brief glimpse:
Hope sought me out in that place. It clothed me and gave me water. It bade me to follow and find rest. Hope didn’t require me to be clean. It didn’t require me to be well-behaved. It wasn’t contingent on my political standing or sexual orientation. It was a rescue without requirements.
It’s painful and moving, exploring trauma, storytelling, and grace. I can’t recommend reading it enough. Proud of you, Collin.
From Alan Jacobs’s essay, Reverting to Type:
In many respects, going back to the kinds of books I used to read has also meant going back to the kinds of reading habits I used to have. Just as there was a point in my life when I had to remind myself to grab that pencil, the time eventually came when I had to remind myself to leave it where it was and grasp the book (or the Kindle) in my two otherwise empty hands. The object now was not to prepare for class or develop a scholarly argument, but rather to become lost in a book, as I once was often; to be self-forgetful for a while.
Jacobs’s work first came to my attention when I was in college working on my senior project. His book How to Think, published last year, and his presence at this year’s Mockingbird NYC conference brought him back on to my radar. Although I’d been interested in the intersection of theology and literature while in college (I essentially wanted to do his current job for a living; things took a different turn), I never realized how much our interests overlapped. Take, for example, this other passage from the same essay:
I have similar thoughts about Danny Hillis’s wonderful little book The Pattern On The Stone: The Simple Ideas That Make Computers Work, which was the book that made me believe I could learn at least a little scripting, if not full-fledged programming. Like Dawkins’s account of how evolutionary biology builds up reliable historical evidence, Hillis’s account of computer design explains how the simplest elements — Boolean logic applied to the most elementary distinction of all, that between on and off, yes and no, 1 and 0 — ultimately yields the staggering power of modern computers and their networks. How cool to think about. How useful to internalize these procedures — or at least to attempt to — in order to structure and buttress one’s own thinking.
Coincidentally, Hillis’s book provided the impetus that actually drove me into full-fledged programming. It’s encouraging to see someone in the humanities extend their interests in technology to the point of trying to code themselves. Although only two years in to my software career, I find myself trying to do the same thing from the other side of the humanities/STEM divide; extending my interests beyond detached observation to actually engaging with them, even though I may not make a career of it.
But I digressed completely from why I started writing this in the first place. I’ve been rediscovering the joy of reading and writing again; not for personal development or career advancement, but “to be self-forgetful for a while.” Although there are times I wish I could get paid to read books or study a subject and write and teach about it, software development has been a blessing not just for the opportunities it’s provided me, but for the fact that it’s forced me to learn the joy of reading and writing for their own sake - to learn to love what I’m doing and forget myself for a bit.
I became an old fogey young; I looked backward habitually and gladly. So, I think, did a good many of my generation. The real question therefore is: where did this love of the past come from?
Well, I think it came from living just one age after the end of the modern era. I grew up reading ~Popular Science Monthly~ in the thirties. I will never forget its rapt narration of the coming wonders of the new age; but I don’t think we will ever see that dewy-eyed scientific Messianism ever again. Back there, in the dark of the depression, newness was still the great watchword, just as it had been in the twenties. At Hiroshima, the newness blew itself sky-high, and when we finally did crawl out of our holes, we all began to look around for something a little less violently new. ~The Waste Land~ was no longer an avant-garde way of talking about life; it was the way our world ~felt~.
An odd bit of reflection from a book ostensibly about marriage, but that’s one of the wonderful things about Capon’s writing — immediate concerns are almost indistinguishable from transcendent ones. Thus, Bed & Board is about marriage, but also more than marriage. Ultimately, I would say the book is about everyday grace.
Some readers (as well as Capon himself, later in life) have noted that some of the statements in the book are a bit dated, if not outright sexist, in their views of men and women. But despite these shortcomings, the book’s message of embracing the absurdities of marriage holds up well. As CJ Green writes in his foreword to the new edition, “…it is its unfailing levity regarding everyday life that resurrects Bed and Board day after day, keeping it fresh, relevant, and completely true no matter the decade.”
And I would say the quote I opened this post with demonstrates its relevance very well. I’m unsure whether or not Capon would be surprised, but the “dewy-eyed scientific Messianism” seems to have returned, at least among some — a quick perusal of Hacker News comments will reveal this. But as the newness of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica and Twitter flame-wars and hyper-partisan clickbait of all varieties have blown our civil discourse and sense of community/stability sky-high, I can’t help but wonder if people are seeking out ways of being, interacting, and consuming information that are “a little less violently new.” I certainly am.
So it’s been over a month. Hello again.
That having been said, I suppose the fact that I travelled across the country and back twice in the same month more than accounts my silence here. Pittsburgh for RailsConf one week, NYC for Mockingbird the next. Two cities for two very different conferences.
Both trips were a blast. I walked away from both with much to think about, and (hopefully) much to write about, especially Mockingbird. The latter conference crystalized a number of things that I had been feeling but hadn’t given voice to. A few friends of ours were present at the conference this year, one of whom co-wrote a book(!). (Congratulations to both Charlotte and Stephanie, by the way. While I have yet to read it, Jenoa began it after the first night of the conference and let out a laugh about every thirty seconds.)
“Grace in divided times” was the conference’s theme. I could hardly have thought of a more appropriate or poignant emphasis. To paraphrase Alan Jacobs (whom we had the pleasure of hearing speak twice), anger/wrath is the great sin of our time. It’s a notion that makes everyone complicit in the division that seems so pervasive. The very thing that truly does unite us is our mutual guilt and need for grace. And, mercifully, the even deeper unifier is the truth that abundant grace is given to all.
The message of that is what drew me to Mockingbird, and that’s the same message I hope to communicate with much of what I write here.
From J.R.R. Tolkien’s, The Hobbit—
”If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”
Those words are among the few spoken by Thorin Oakenshield as he lay on his deathbed. I recently finished re-reading The Hobbit and am currently working my way through The Lord of the Rings. It’s passages like that that make Tolkien’s more popular works resonate deeply with me.
I decided to revisit them this year as an antidote to cynicism. I get that his work might seem dated, even (gasp) irrelevant when compared with the gritty worldliness of series like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Ugly human nature and realpolitik are on full display in GRRM’s work, and how appropriate those elements are for our “post-truth” culture.
And while we need the unflinching honesty of ASOIAF, I would also argue that we equally need the unflinching courage and hope that Tolkien’s legendarium exemplifies. My default dispositions are cynicism and despair. Such attitudes are not difficult to come by, but nor are they useful — they do not bring healing or change, but simply perpetuate the pain, loneliness, and animosity that characterizes much of public and private life.
Call it naive, escapist, or whatever you will, but I read these books — and write this blog — because I believe that there is good worth believing in.
The chorus of Thrice’s “The Long Defeat”) puts it well —
So keep holding on to hope without assurance Holding on to a memory of light But will the morning come? For all I know we’ll never see the sun But together we’ll fight the long defeat
Oddly enough, inspiration for those lyrics came from Tolkien as well.
Someday, it will be a merrier world.
So this “blogging consistently” thing is really hard. Anyway, hope you’ve had a good March. Mine was great, albeit hectic. Family visiting, friends getting married, wife starting new job at W+R Studios (yes, we work together now). All wonderful things, that sometimes mean neglecting other activities, like writing here. I was hoping to do some holy week reflections, but even then, the ideas aren’t necessarily restricted to holy week. I have a list of blog ideas, that will be related to things I read or thought about days or even weeks ago. I’m terrible at the “hot take” or “real time” thing. Probably for the best.
Edited by author Robin Sloan, Penumbra’s New Fiction periodically publishes digital fiction, but with a twist — it can’t actually be read “digitally”. Rather, readers are required to print the stories themselves. The current story, “The Unbeatable Deck of Ronan Shin”, is more than worth your while. A story about a Magic the Gathering-like game, friendship, and bullying. It’s fascinating and uncomfortable. At 8 pages, it’s worth the few minutes it takes to read.
Penumbra’s New Fiction is also an interesting exercise in what publishing on the internet could look like. It’s a reminder that the web is still a place where beauty and creativity can surprise us.
Role models are fine. But not when they get in the way of embracing our reality. The reality of not enough time, not enough information, not enough resources. The reality of imperfection and vulnerability.
There are no movie stars. Merely people who portray them now and then.
I always appreciate Seth Godin’s candor. Someone as successful and respected as he is could pitch their advice as a fool-proof framework for excellence and success in one’s work—indeed, many do.
“Imposter syndrome” is a term that gets thrown around a lot amongst software developers. It’s the mindset that we are not good enough, not a “real” programmer. We could think this way for any number of reasons—lack of formal CS education, lack of experience, lack of knowledge around the cool new framework that everyone is talking about on Hacker News, lack of concern about what anyone even says on Hacker News, etc.
It’s easy to look at other, more experienced programmers and think that they have it all figured out. Yet some of the most profound things I’ve learned have come from hearing senior devs admit they don’t have an answer for the technical or architectural problem at hand.
My boss once told me that as I progress in my software development career, I’ll come across increasing problems for which there is no blog post, no tutorial, no Stack Overflow answer, and that that is where the most interesting growth happens.
Although we should work against the shame and deleterious effects it entails, “imposter syndrome” shouldn’t be confused for humility. Rather, by embracing our not-enough-ness and vulnerability, we can avoid hubris, learn, grow, and make something good.
Seven days in and March is proving to be a hectic month, full of good things, but full of things nonetheless. I haven’t allotted myself the time I normally do for ruminating. That said, I feel I ought to share/reflect on David Zahl’s reflection on Andrew Sullivan’s essay on America’s opioid epidemic. Admittedly, I haven’t read Sullivan’s piece in its entirety, but DZ’s thoughts on it are worth sharing nonetheless. There are lots of gems in there, but I thought this passage especially poignant. Writing about how in our culture (and churches), we prefer to avoid addressing the real problems ailing us, he states:
…we opt instead for false positivity or spiritual to-do lists. It’s acceptable to preach a topical sermon on marriage (on the right) or racism (on the left) but not… despair. Which is, ironically, the most relevant topic of all when it comes to the Christian religion.
If, as Zahl argues, the current epidemic can’t be reduced to its political and economic factors (relevant though they may be), but reflects a much deeper crisis of widespread despair, then the response of Christians ought to be one that addresses that despair with countervailing hope.
Readers who don’t share my beliefs may find such assertions ludicrous, if not offensive. The response is fair and warrants another conversation entirely, one I’d be glad to have. But at the same time, I would argue that the deepest need of our time is grace in a world bereft of it.
And I think that’s what I’m trying to communicate with this blog—exploring how to think and live and treat others with grace in a world where disagreement is thought of as violence and political leaders flex their nuclear muscles on social media and billionaires launch their cars into space. My hope, I guess, is to see how truly transient these things are—and how the apparent madness of our time needn’t have the final say. Indeed, it won’t. I’ll close with DZ’s close:
The gospel, if it is to find traction in the age of fentanyl, must speak to the Crystal Champs of the world. It cannot stop at sobriety or hang on willpower; it must resonate in the Wet House as well as the dry. This gospel, if it is to be actual good news, must address men and women whose hearts and bodies are infected with all manner of trouble, bereft of hope, who see God as an exacting cop (if at all), not a loving father who meets us where we are, in our shame and sin, with mercy, help and the spirit of adoption.
Thankfully–and miraculously–it does. The gospel in the age of fentanyl is the same gospel as ever, the message about the God who intervenes upon us with outlandish charity, at a cost to himself, offering life eternal to those who’ve been checkmated by the here and now. Not one who gives hope to the hopeless, but who is hope to the hopeless.
I attempt to make a habit of blogging at least once per week, if not twice. Given that the last post was published nearly two weeks ago, it’s clear I did not meet last week’s goal. Oops.
The last week was more hectic than normal, so I’m going to give myself some grace. I’ve brainstormed some what else I’d like to see on here. Given that I haven’t used Facebook in years, and that I recently left Twitter, I’m floating the idea of having a newsletter subscription that notifies you of a new post, or just sends the entire contents of the post straight to your inbox. I’m also working on adding a blogroll.
I really like Warren Ellis’s notion of the “Republic of Newsletters”, as a not-quite countervailing but potentially antidotal force to the utter mess that is now social media. I still think blogs can serve the same purpose, but I understand that without a reader or some means to click “subscribe” it requires some seeking out, making it more susceptible to falling off readers’ attentional radars. In a recent newsletter, Ellis listed some suggested alternatives to the now-defunct Google Reader that people still use to subscribe to RSS feeds. It’s all a matter of finding new ways to connect to the things you want without the platforms getting in the way.
And that’s what it seems like Facebook, Twitter, etc. are in the business of doing. Getting in the way. I can’t speak for Twitter, but it seems widely understood now that Facebook’s primary business is not showing you what you asked for but what it wants you to see—what it thinks will keep you more engaged. I was talking to a fellow developer a while ago, who pined for Instagram before “Facebook ruined” it. Sure, it shamelessly appropriated Snapchat’s features and lets you do funny things to people’s faces, but I miss the chronological display of what I asked to see. I don’t want an algorithm’s suggestions, or things I missed.
In contrast to the social media bazaar, writing blogs and newsletters can feel like dispatching messages in bottles from a remote island. But the web is not Facebook, or Instagram, or Twitter, or even Google. Writers, creators, artists, programmers, and everyone who wants to share something has options. Sure, potential visibility is impaired when you don’t use one of the major platforms, but even then, it’s only potential visibility — none of those services care whether or not your work is seen. Obviously, I’m not trying to market my writing, so I do have the luxury of not having to figure how to leverage those platforms to build an audience. Nonetheless, I’m content to write to whatever audience finds me here, in this quiet corner of the web. And given how noisy the major players make the world seem, I’m more than glad to keep things quiet over here.
In Free of Charge, theologian Miroslav Volf writes, “Left unchecked, the slide away from generosity robs us of significant cultural achievements, on which our flourishing as individuals and communities depends” (15).
The book was published back in ’05, before so many were aggressively thinkpiece-ing about political polarization, the deleterious effects of social media, fears of automation, etc. It was oddly prescient back then, and, having been written before the aforementioned hot topics were much of a thing, suggests that our current cultural malaise, real as it may be, is an issue of the human heart before all else; a spiritual problem that precedes a technological problem. Nonetheless, I think a slide away from generosity is one possible description of what our culture currently experiences.
My senior thesis in college was on the influence of Jonathan Edwards in the fiction of Marilynne Robinson, which included the theme of generosity — not just material generosity, but spiritual. The kind of generosity that assumes the best of others and seeks to give grace in spite of difference and disagreement. Such a disposition toward another person is profoundly challenging, and, as I argued back then, and still do, profoundly necessary.
We’ve achieved some great things. But before we tackle the big problems, perhaps we’d be wise to tackle the problems of our own miserliness toward one another.
Andy Weir’s Artemis can best be described as an organized crime thriller on the moon. It’s quite a departure from his Mars-survival-blog, The Martian, but enjoyable nonetheless. Those who enjoyed his first book for its intricate technical aspects might find themselves wanting when reading Artemis. The details and descriptions are there, but the plot is what drives the narrative, not the engineering.
Nonetheless, I enjoyed living in the head of protagonist Jazz Bashara. She has all the wit, gumption, and intellect of Mark Watney, and is in some ways more developed as a character. I don’t think I enjoyed this novel more or less than The Martian, I just enjoyed it differently. I’m excited to see what story Andy Weir engineers next.
I’m starting to become less patient with nostalgia.
I get it. I enjoy playing Goldeneye and revisiting Nickelodeon cartoons. I remember when X-Men and Batman Begins were released, and they heralded exciting new possibilities that didn’t feel like they were being rehashed every summer.
But at the same time, many of the people I know who thrive on nostalgia, seem hell-bent on just rehashing the past.
A complaint I recently heard about Star Wars: The Last Jedi was that it was just Disney trying to make money on new characters that “no one cares about”. Yet there are people who care about the new characters, more particularly kids. Kids who are the same age that my friend who voiced the complaint likely was when they first watched A New Hope.
According to the Dictionary app on my Macbook (using the New Oxford American Dictionary), the word “nostalgia” seems to have entered English usage in the late 19th century, initially meaning “acute homesickness”. I certainly can empathize with nostalgia at a much deeper level when considered in that sense.
But perhaps part of maturation is to build a home for oneself and one’s own. To continue to create memories in the present.
Another good friend pointed out that the way he stopped being disappointed in movies was that he stopped expecting to undergo an experience by them. He instead learned to embrace them on their own terms.
And perhaps the cure for nostalgia is to embrace what is in front of us instead of pining and mourning for the experience of the past. It’s not like we cultivated such cherished memories by mourning the past then.
Aside from blogging here, I’ve been trying to build my writing habit by working on a short story. I wrote some short stories while in college, and thoroughly enjoyed it.
My best friend, Collin, writes quite a bit. He credits me with initially inspiring him to write, but he has since far surpassed me in quantity of output, and, I would argue, quality. Although he doesn’t code, he said he imagined storytelling and programming to be similar disciplines, or for there at least to be an overlap in skills and practice.
I think his hunch is true.
A bit of advice sometimes given to writers is to stop writing in the middle of a scene, or a point of tension in the narrative. That way you have something to work with when you return to it.
I’m finding a similar practice has been helping me with programming lately. I’m currently working on a tool for importing legacy configurations into a new schema in a new system, and trying to use test-driven development while doing it. The whole export/import system is fairly involved, taking me more than a day to build, and starting the day with a new function or component to write without knowing exactly what you want it to do, let alone how, can be fairly daunting.
In the spirit of true TDD, I write a failing test that expects a certain output, and then code the feature until the test passes. But, instead of spending tomorrow morning determining the “shape” of data I want and writing a new test, I ended today by writing a failing test, giving me an explicit objective to complete in the morning. I’ll admit it felt uncomfortable leaving this undone, but having something clear to accomplish in front of my when I start my day tends to be very motivating, and provides fuel when moving on to each successive task.
Never underestimate the power of interdisciplinary insights.
In “Damage”, from his collection What Are People For?, Wendell Berry writes—
The trouble was a familiar one: too much power, too little knowledge.
The context of the phrase, the “trouble”, was a section of woods floor sliding down a hillside into a pond the winter after he decided to level some of the forest for pasture.
Toward the end of the essay, he also writes—
Only when our acts are empowered with more than bodily strength do we need to think of limits.
As a technologist, it might be ironic that Berry’s pastoral and agrarian experience brings wisdom to bear on my profession. I wonder how many software projects go awry because we fail to understand the purpose and proper implementation of the wide array of tools at our disposal, or the business domain of the problem our programs try to solve.
Technology, by its very nature, empowers us to act beyond our bodily strength, and software is no exception. Berry might be inclined to look askance at my profession, but his point deserves consideration nonetheless. We can do impressive things with software, but the freedom and possibility that our tools give us should prompt us to think of limits — financial, societal, and ethical. We should not fear discussing and exploring controversial or innovative ideas, but we must consider our responsibility to those whom the ideas might affect, and how it might affect them. As programmers, we frequently discuss “soft skills” alongside technical skills, and how we ought to cultivate them. Perhaps we should add knowledge of “moral skill” to the category of soft skills. Both ourselves and our users would benefit. Berry warns in the essay that the damage done to the land is also damage to himself.
He also writes—
When the road of excess has reached the palace of wisdom it is a healed wound, a long scar.
May we learn from the excesses of others and take a different road altogether.
A recent episode of Virtue in the Wasteland mentioned the notion of a “newspaper renaissance” on the heels of a discussion about the anxiety induced by the perceived exigency of mobile news alerts.
There seems to be increasing awareness and discussion surrounding the mentally and socially corrosive nature of social media. I haven’t used Facebook for almost 5 years now, and removed myself from Twitter last year. I still maintain a private Instagram profile, but don’t even have the app installed.
I’m finding enjoyment in newspapers myself. The LA Times’ e-newspaper is delivered to my inbox daily, and soon the print version of the Sunday edition will be delivered my front door. I don’t read the whole thing, and I don’t feel the need to. And, contrary to the designs devised by UX researchers for all of your favorite apps, it’s not engineered to make me feel that need. In many ways, it’s the antithesis of the algorithmically generated feed – static, focused, and rhythmic. It’s not perpetually updated or A/B tested. And in many (though not all) ways it feels like an antidote the to the malaise of a perpetual noise cycle.
Some might find it ironic that a software developer eschews new media in favor of something old and established. On the contrary, some of the best principles and practices of software development are rooted in tried and true practices (object-oriented programming, SOLID, KISS, etc.). Knowing that might help the unfamiliar reader better understand my disposition toward old and boring things.
Furthermore, restricting the form of my news intake has practical benefits for my work; the less noise, the greater the ease of concentration. And anyone who has programmed software will tell you the importance of focus in deep work. Cal Newport has written extensively on this.
Many of our distractions and anxieties are engineered for us. Do what you must to curb them, and let your work and life flourish on your terms.
Jenoa and I recently returned from a three-week trip back east to visit my extended family for the holidays. I love the tri-state area; the trees, the cold, the food. I now desire a Taylor Ham, egg, and cheese on a roll and resent its being beyond my reach.
And yet I’m glad to be here again. Despite my complaints about Southern California, it is home. Despite the dryness, the traffic, the sense of inescapable crowdedness, it is home. I look forward to new projects, old friends, and ongoing living. Sunday morning church services, Saturday night games and drinks. Weeknight meals with Jenoa.
Strange as it my sound, I look forward to work. It’s a blessing that I get to solve interesting problems daily alongside thoughtful and energizing people.
I thrive on quotidian rhythms. I hope to add blogging to them again, alongside a few other projects. And I value the place where I experience these rhythms, the place that nourishes the roots of who am I and what I do.
It’s been a couple of years since the last time I published a “cool stuff from 20**” blog. It’s actually been some time since I’ve blogged in any shape or form, now that I think of it.
2017 was an eventful year. Marriage, career growth, therapy. All exciting and good, yet heavy and significant. Hence the silence. I have missed writing quite bit. At one time, I thought it would be my bread and butter. And I do write every day still, if writing software counts. But I’d like to start dabbling in English alongside Ruby again.
Reading’s been a constant through this time. I think this post will mostly focus on books I enjoyed reading this past year. Listed in roughly chronological order.
Here and Now: Living in the Spirit - Henri Nouwen
Henri Nouwen’s words are like medicine for the soul. I’ve read a few of his books, but Here and Now remains an excellent introduction to his work, in my opinion. Short, digestible sections make for material that’s comprehensible and perfect for pondering. Nouwen’s applies the life and words of Christ to the reader in a gracious and profound way.
Born to Run - Bruce Springsteen
I could have sworn that I read this late 2016, but my Goodreads account says otherwise. A fantastic memoir that’s both epic in scope and intimate in its revelations. Springsteen goes beyond giving the reader a simple narrative of his musical career, meditating deeply on families, fatherhood, and masculinity.
Mistborn - Brandon Sanderson
I’m just going to give the whole series its own entry. Although I’m still working through the third novel in the initial trilogy (The Hero of Ages), Sanderson’s fantasy writing is some of the most original and engaging I’ve ever read. His action scenes are quick, descriptive, and gripping. Any of fan of Tolkien, Jordan, Martin, Rothfuss, etc. etc. ought to give Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn books a shot.
The Mindful Twenty-Something - Holly B. Rogers
I know, I know. The title. I know. Damn millennials should just toughen the f*** up. I know.
But something marriage has been teaching me is that the one of the most important things a man (or woman) can do is swallow their damned pride, admit that they are not okay, and pursue health and wholeness for the sake of those they love. I came to grips with the fact that I have an anxiety problem after much prompting from Jenoa, and, after receiving a proper diagnosis, pursued therapy. Part of this has been exploring the currently trendy practice of mindfulness meditation. I commend this book to you in large part because of how it demystifies mindfulness and gives practical instruction for implementing it.
Silence - Shusako Endo
I received this as a gift last Christmas and finally came around to reading it this December. If you’ve seen the Scorsese film, then you’ll be familiar with the plot; the adaptation is remarkably faithful. Yet, Endo’s words are still worth reading for their own sake. The notion that God’s presence can be most deeply felt in his apparent absence, that he speaks loudest in silence, that grace is still present in even the most barren spiritual wilderness, points to a theology of the cross through and through. Even if you’re not a believer, the historical novel’s narrative of tenacity through suffering is moving and worth experiencing.
That’s all I have for now. There are a number of possible entries that I’ll probably kick myself later for not including. I hope to share with you more frequently this coming year.