Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Status quo on the status quo

At the end of James Hall's series on philosophy of religion, he spent one or two sessions trying to justify religion's beneficial role in society. I think he was concerned that religious thought would be perceived as always being "the bad guy," the force of arbitrary authority that was always standing in the way of "progress" towards more enlightened ways of thinking. To counterbalance that impression, he discussed the "priestly" versus the "prophetic" traditions in religion: one tradition that tried to preserve the "one truth", and the other that overthrows the status quo and calls for renewal.

I was totally with Hall through most of this -- yes, obviously, you need a dynamic tension between the forces of stability and the forces of change. However, I found that he was giving away his own liberal bias by the way he was framing up the question. To hear him tell it, the prophetic voices were always the good guys, and the priestly traditionalists were always the bad guys. He never really commented on all those times that prophets called for change and were wrong. He doesn't comment on them, because of course he doesn't consider those people to be prophets; no, they are crackpots or charletans. He does not dare call it "heresy," because that would make him one of those bad, bad traditionalists who prevent progress. No, when someone proposes a new, bad thing in the name of religion, those people are just obviously wrong, don't you see?

In fact, there are no conservatives or progressives. Different people believe different things, and the labels conservative and liberal merely tell us what direction they happen to be pushing at the moment. Sometimes the political liberals are calling for change (e.g. gay marriage) and sometimes they are calling for things to stay exactly as they are (e.g. Roe vs. Wade, no school vouchers).

You can always tell what side people are on, just by seeing how they frame up the language of change. If you like the way things are, you call it "stability", "security", "order", "due process", "treasured traditions", "our way of life." If you don't like the way things are, you call it "the status quo", "repressive", "intractable", "hidebound". If you want things to change, you call change "progress." If you don't want things to change, you call change "anarchy".

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Act yourself into feeling

On the way back from Brevard Janet and I were listening to more of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink. In one section Gladwell talks extensively about the work of two psychologists who intensively studied the face and all its possible expressions. They knew that they could discover all kinds of information if they could just decipher all the minute, sometimes split-second expressions that occur on people's faces. Or, more accurately, they were trying to figure out how we get all that valuable information all the time, since being able to read someone's face is functionally indistinguishable from mind-reading, and yet we do it on a daily basis.

As a part of their research, the psychologists needed to learn how to make all the expressions they were studying. They spent hours watching each other making the expressions, learning how to do them at will and learning how to recognize them immediately. An unintended and totally unexpected side-effect, though, was that when they spent long periods of time making expressions of pain or fear, they really started to feel bad. Once they realized what was happening to them, they did formal studies with other subjects to prove it: making the facial expressions of certain emotions would completely mimic the physiological effects of actually having the emotions spontaneously. The researchers concluded that the expressions on the face were not merely communicating the emotion; they actually were the emotion, or some critical part of it.

These conclusions are interesting at a philosophical level, because they are a step towards resolving the connection between the body and the mind. I'm not really thinking about resolving classic mind-body dualism, a la Decartes. Even the prominent spiritual thinkers of our day do not believe that the body is a machine inhabited by a ghost. Either the mind is an emerging property of the body (as the materialists would have it), or the body is a corser, more obvious manifestion of a reality that has more subtle, encompassing aspects (as the integral spirituality of Ken Wilber would suggest). Either way, there is no separation between mind and body; they are two aspects of the same entity.

No, I'm thinking more of the practical and moral implications of this research. I'm especially thinking of the whole question of "faith versus works", or intent versus action. Which is more important: your intent and desire to do good, or the actual good works themselves? The answer is both, but not for the reasons most people assume. Intent and action are both important because they are two aspects of the same reality. What you believe and desire will affect what you do. What you do will also affect your beliefs and desires.

For years, people have been consciously aware of the connection between thoughts and actions, but they have been working it in only one direction (at least, in the religious and spiritual realm). Whether it's a "power of positive thinking" Christianity, or a "I create my own reality" New Age practice, its all trying to use the mind to enact tangible results in the world. Everyone presumes that this must be easier -- after all, isn't it easier to imagine yourself slim and happy and successful, rather than really be slim and happy and successful?

Well, actually, no. The mind is excruciatingly difficult to control, as almost any unhappy person will tell you. As it turns out, it is much easier to manipulate gross action, and to let that action affect the mind, rather than the other way around. "Assume a virtue, if thou hast it not," declares Hamlet. We have to mind our actions, being faithful in little, because it affects our soul much more immediately than we imagined.

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Unnaturalness of Virtue

We listened to most of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink on the way up to my parents home in Brevard. I had listened to it before, but Janet needed to cram for a book club session she was leading in January. "It's pretty depressing, all that stuff about hidden racial bias," she said.

Yeah, I agreed, on the face of it, it is. None of us want to believe that we are racists, or bigots, or that many attitudes that we hold can be beneath our conscious and even contrary to our conscious beliefs and values. And yet that's exactly what Gladwell is showing.

On the other hand, it helps if you consider that the entire history of civilization is a long upward climb of conscious values that flew in the face of natural temperaments. Think of all the things that we consider "civilized" behavior: tolerance, the rule of law, equality under the law. Think of even the most basic social skills we try to teach our children: waiting patiently, taking turns, sharing. It's all un-natural, directly contradictory to our base instincts. We may consciously believe that a secular society in which people can disagree is a good thing . . . but every once in a while you'll hear a radio commentary or radio essay in which someone fantasizes about being "king for a day," and when people dream about having unlimited power they want to repress those things they find strange, unpleasant, or wrong about their neighbors. "Those guys with the boom boxes on the bus, they'll be the first ones up against the wall."

So I don't think the tests of which Gladwell is speaking are only applicable to racial bias. I think you could take almost any aspect of the things we value, and find out that our hearts are not completely into it. But that is only a failure if you are a liberal -- that is to say, if you judge yourself and others according to your intentions. The absolute triumph of civilization is that our conscious minds can rule our unconscious urges. We are not born knowing how to share, but we can learn to do it.

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Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Busman's Holiday

I'll be posting on the run during the holidays, I think, since I'm on the road and never know when my next internet connection will come from.

Of course, here I am trying to fix my mother-in-law's computer. Why do techies inevitably start fixing things when they ought to be relaxing. But it is oddly relaxing, though. A change is as good as a rest. After the noise and the hullaballoo of family and travel and playing with the kids, some quiet focus on a novel intellectual challenge is very calming. Plus it puts me back into myself, so to speak . . . I often feel rather disconnected during the holidays, because so much of my time is spent in ways completely un-like my usual routine.

Trite cliches about balance would usually surface at this point, which my Stoic breeding, German genes, and SKS training would strictly forbid. But work can be so pleasant in small doses.

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Monday, December 25, 2006

Christmas Loot

I had a very good Christmas this year. All of my presents were things I actually wanted:
  • Kierkegaard's Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing
  • Parables of Kierkegaard, edited by Tomas Oden
  • 1776, by David McCullough
  • The Absolute Sandman, Vol. 1, by Neil Gaiman
  • How the Mind Works, by Steven Pinker
  • A gift certificate to Audible.com
  • A Garmin StreetPilot c340 (an auto GPS system, given to me by my employer. Kewel.)
  • A sweater. Angora wool, light and sleek.

So, you may notice that it's almost entirely books. Yes, I am such a geek. As an adult male with limited media exposure, limited musical tastes, no sports interests, no tool interests, and no video games . . . I mean, what's left? Underwear, sweaters, and books.

And, I'm not counting all the of my kids' toys that I'm playing with. I'm having a blast with the foam-padded swords, the air hockey table, and even some of the board games. I had a good time playing today. And, apart from the theological significance, that's really what Christmas ought to be about.


Sunday, December 24, 2006

Why .NET is cool (yes, seriously)

I suppose I could write about something deep and significant on Christmas Eve, but after all the careful attention paid to making it an optimal experience for the kids, I'm worn out. It's a lot easier, for the time being, to go on auto-pilot. Which, for me, means to talk geek stuff.

I finally, finally started using .NET on two recent projects. Even though the new Microsoft programming platform came out over four years ago, I put off adopting it until the last possible moment -- that is, until I had a business problem that actually required it. I always considered it a strike against .NET that it had taken four years for me to find an problem that made me think, "Hmm, I think I'll use .NET." Even if Visual Basic 6 is ten years old, it's working, and I'm familiar with it, and I have no time for learning curves.

As it is, I was forced to jump by the usual reasons: everyone else was doing it. Or, more specifically, both Salesforce.com and Microsoft Dynamics CRM were using web services to expose the API for their web-based applications, and the only reasonable way to talk to them was to use .NET. So I swallowed hard and jumped in.

Man, what took me so long? Here are the things I wish I could have told myself at least a year or two ago:
  1. If you're worried about the language changes being too cumbersome, you can relax. Almost everything you're used to using is still there. More importantly, the IntelliSense features in Visual Studio.NET 2005 are so vastly superior to previous versions that you're immediately alerted to important changes.
  2. Speaking of which, I can't say enough good things about the IntelliSense. I mean, I appreciated auto-completion of code and prompts for proper structure, but I was also annoyed at how VB6 would throw a hissy-fit if you deigned to move off a line before you had completed it. Now the syntax checking is unobtrusive and in the background: errors are called out with the little underlining squigglies you're used to seeing for spell- and grammar-checks in Office. Unused or undeclared variables are called out. And it even auto-corrects certain mistakes: I had forgotten that they threw out the "Set" keyword for object assignments (e.g. Set obj = New(, QuoteWerks.Application)) but IntelliSense was so smoothly correcting it behind me that I didn't notice for several hours.
  3. The form drawing features are equally unobtrusive but compellingly useful. As you drop and move controls on the form, the environment automatically handles alignment and spacing, showing you what it's measuring from with little red lines . . . again, helpful without being bossy.
  4. The changes that have been made to the language are sensible ones. The inexorable push towards object-orientation is good, really, even if you've still managed to get through your career without ever writing a class module. It might seem a little odd to think of a form or even a string as a class, but the moment you start using them that way, you're glad about it. All the string-manipulation funtions are now methods on the String class, so you can pop them onto the end of an expression instead of at the beginning (e.g. obj.FirstName.Rtrim() instead of Rtrim(obj.FirstName). And again, the IDE does such a good job of autogenerating all the class-related code that you'll hardly notice.
  5. Web services really do make sense. I was extremely skeptical about the idea at first: "Oh, gee, now we're not only breaking things into different components, but now they're going to live on different machines, too? That will be a joy to debug." But we already have lots of client-server applications talking to each other -- it's just that we had gotten used to using TCP/IP sockets and protocols and such. Now the machinery for inter-machine communication is really easy. I once made a COM+ application as a debugging sample, and it was really hard and next-to-useless. But the .NET web service stuff was easy to use . . . so easy, in fact, that we will see the opposite problem, in which people start making web services for functions that have no business being web services.
  6. Installing the .NET Framework is not that big of a deal. It may seem like a massive runtime engine to install, but with bandwidth and diskspace so plentiful, does it really matter if the runtime is 5 MB or 50 MB, as long as you have to install one at all?
  7. Structured error handling (Try...Catch...Finally) is sooooo much nicer than the old kludgy way of using labelled blocks of error-handling code at the end of a Sub. It's so good that hack programmers like me will actually start doing some real error-handling, instead of throwing in "On Error Resume Next" and praying a lot.
  8. Visual Studio.NET 2005 follows Larry Wall's primary directive for programming environments: "Easy things should be easy, and difficult things should be possible." Easy things, like sending an email, or preserving a form's position between runs, are very easy. Hard things, like rolling your own controls, are more possible than ever, thanks to the class-oriented aspects of everything.

Right now, I'm having a hard time thinking about going back to VB6. So if you haven't tried it, I think you can stop waiting.