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, February 24, 2007

Appeasement, Then and Now

We watched the special features on the Remains of the Day DVD, on which actor Anthony Hopkins and novelist Kazuo Ishiguro speak quite intelligently about the pre-World War II desire for "peace in our time" and attempts to appease Hitler. Rather than doing the easy and natural thing -- deplore those silly saps, recite another "never again," and bask in how morally superior we are now -- both of them make it clear that hindsight is 20/20 and that none of us can really know how we would have acted in those times. They also pointed out that attempts to appease our enemies, in spite of it's general ineffectiveness, are still going on. They both mention Bosnia, so I suppose the featurette must have been shot ten years ago.

But it got me to thinking about our current situation in the Middle East. The commonly accepted liberal wisdom, swiftly becoming the commonly accepted mainstream wisdom, is that all this strife with Islamic fundamentalists is of our own making. If we just spoke with them, understood them, respected them, accepted them, then they wouldn't hate us so much and they'd want to be more like us. It's a cultural form of the strategy of appeasement: let's make nice, and maybe they won't kill us.

But Nick Cohen pointed out in Friday's Wall Street Journal ("An Upside Down World") that all the liberals in America and Europe who are rushing to defend Islam and show extra-careful regard for Muslim delegates are trapped in a contradiction, since those very delegates vehemently oppose everything they hold sacred: liberalism, secular humanism, and feminism. Those same smug liberals who assume they would sooner die than shake hands with Hitler are still seeking "diplomatic solutions" with foes whose ideologies are perhaps more morally repugnant than the Nazis'.

Ah, but them's fightin' words. Anyone who points out the fundamental contradictions in our values and the values of Muslim fundamentalists are deemed viscious hawks determined to foment a religious war. Still . . . at some point, even for liberals, our determined multiculturism must fail and give way to outrage. The Taliban was just dastardly enough that all the Western world could work up a good hate long enough to bomb them back to the Stone Age (which, admittedly, was not far to go in Afghanistan.)

I am actually not that hawkish, these days. Nobody is. How could they, what with our asses getting kicked in a war of questionable value? But I do think it's important to look back at history and recognize that the decision to fight is rarely an obvious one, at least at the time, and that it is possible for our enemies to take advantage of our lofty ideals.

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Friday, February 23, 2007

Getting In

Yesterday NPR aired an extensive story, both morning and evening, about the college admissions process, and how many admissions professionals are calling for a major rethinking of the stressful, pressure-laden rite of passage. Applying and being admitted to prestigious schools is a teenager's initiation into social stratification. Parents and teachers call upon them to "be their best," which in this case is inevitably translated to, "get accepted to the top-ranked schools." The frenzy of test preparation, test-taking, personal coaching, strategic planning of extracurriculars, all for the sake of looking better than everyone else, is enough to make the "greedy 80's" look like European socialism.

At first I thought it sounded like a marketing dig from the smaller colleges: "Oh, those big schools aren't so great. You can get a fine education at a smaller school, with more interaction with professors and peers and a better atmosphere." To a generation schooled in educational elitism, any call for "re-thinking educational goals" sounds a lot like apologizing for less-than-optimal performance. The parents, more than anyone, are interested in brand-names: "I'm not paying that much money for a chummy, collegial atmosphere. I'm paying that much money for Yale, dammit! Harvard!"

But the call for change is coming from some of the top schools in the country. The dean of admissions at MIT, one of the most selective schools in the country, is saying the emperor has no clothes. The system of college ranking, she claims, is a tyrranous system that forces colleges to game their numbers. To make their stats look good, they encourage people to apply who really shouldn't, just so they can boost their percentage of applicants denied admission. They also are highly rewarded for having high graduation rates, which means there are strong disincentives for having high academic standards and flunking people out. In the end, the academic mission of the schools is being compromised for a sake of a highly orchestrated kabuki dance of social status.

What interests me most is that the call for new perspectives on college admissions sounds an awful lot like what the Self Knowledge Symposium has been saying for the last fifteen years: "Why are you in school? What do you want to accomplish here? Your life is about more than just finding a job or lining up an upwardly-mobile career. Find a setting and lifestyle that will let you do what you really want to do." Maybe our hardworking, ambitious culture is finally ready to let young people be young, and let them explore aspects of life that don't necessary translate into paychecks.

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

A really truthful engine

We were visiting my brother-in-law last week, seeing their new baby boy, and I among the books I was reading to the kids was "Thomas Breaks a Promise." What was curious about it was the subtitle: "(previously published as 'Thomas Tells a Lie')". That was enough to pique my interest: what was the lie, and what was the promise, and why did they change their minds about the title?

Sir Topham Hat tasked Thomas the Train Engine with checking all the signal lights on a new stretch of track. Thomas started the job but then became distracted when he came across a carnival. Thomas only remembers his lapse when he hears Sir Topham Hat talking to another engine about the new route at the end of the day. Thomas doesn't volunteer the information that he didn't finish checking the track. If he had fingers, we would probably have crossed them, and hoped that nothing bad would happen. But, as it happens, something bad does (almost) happen, and Sir Topham Hat dresses him down for his lapse, and Thomas is a reformed, safety-obsessed little train after that.

"Telling the truth" and "keeping a promise" are two principles that are frequently confused. Witgenstein came up with the whole notion of "language games" to help explain the difference. He found the language of science to be an incomplete way to engage the world, because sometimes we care about more than just descriptive truth. The rules for keeping a promise are similar to the rules for telling the truth -- both require a certain kind of integrity -- but they aren't the same.

So: is it more important that you tell the truth, even when it's painful, or that you do what you say you're going to do? It's a toughie, because you want your kids to feel free to tell you the truth, even when it might compromise their position, so you might be tempted to focus on the disclosure and not the original shortfall. People will always "sin", in the original sense of the word ("missing the mark"), but at least they can be honest and forthcoming about it. And yet, in the end, what you do matters a lot more than what you say, truthful or otherwise, and you could view the entire endeavor of raising kids to be teaching them how to make and keep committments. On the other hand . . . a lot of commitments get broken because people weren't honest enough to face the truth to begin with.

I think I'll go with the publisher's revision: the original sin, and the more significant one, is that Thomas failed to keep his commitment. The cover-up was secondary. If you keep your commitments, you won't find yourself in a position of needing to lie about it.

Next time: "Thomas Commits Perjury," previously published as "Thomas Fails to Fully Disclose."

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Programming Karma

A couple people commented on my post yesterday about Programming Support by Google, and I wanted to clarify a few things. Mostly, just soften my position.

Both Janet and Kenny pointed out that giving help to others online, with little realistic expectation of being remembered, was pretty altruistic. One of the fundamental rules of building community is that people give as well as get; and if I benefit from the postings of others, I have karmic debt to repay. Not only should I feel free to post my discoveries (no matter how ego-motivated they may be) but I have a moral obligation to do so. That karma is bigger than just the geeky world of programming; all of society is ultimately based on collective action, and we can't expect to have world peace and justice unless people give in to the urge to help others just because it's the right thing to do.

There are also perfectly rational (but still self-serving) reasons to share one's knowledge. Most of the people who maintain blogs or post in newsgroups are consultants like me, programmers for hire who want to generate attention for themselves and demonstrate their chops. There is no pretense that they are sharing their code out of the goodness of their hearts, unless you're hanging out with the Richard Stallman crowd of GNUbies and think proprietary code is evil. The posters are just out stumping for their new book, or their professional services, or just doing their jobs as technical evangelists. So it isn't just cheap ego-thrills -- it's just good business.

And besides, it's not always the ego boost that you expect it to be. Often people will post to say that your code doesn't work for them, or doesn't work in all situations, or even that it's a retarded way to do it and you should try this instead. Those with superior knowledge will trump you constantly. The feedback can be bracing.

The best motivations are probably the predominant ones: sympathy, and enthusiasm. You, also, have suffered with intractable problems, and felt relief and gratitude when you found the answer thoughtfully prepared by someone else. It makes you feel good to know you can make someone's day, recover their lost weekend, and maybe save their marriage by your gift. But that's hardly ever spoken. It's the enthusiasm, the naked thrill of technology, that has voice: "Isn't this cool?!"

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Programming Support by Google

For the last several weeks I've been in crunch-mode for four different programming projects, all of them coming due (or overdue) at the end of this month. Collaborating with others to solve technical problems was the first true application of the Internet, back when it was chummy fraternity of DARPA wonks and university researchers, so it should come as no surprise that it's still the best place to go for solutions to programming problems.

I've been experiencing the Wikipedia Effect, the ultimate paradox that:
  1. No matter how obscure your problem is, someone else in the world has asked the same question before and often already found the answer.
  2. No matter how seemingly common your problem is, often nobody has found a good solution for it.

This paradox is what stokes the blogosphere and inspires millions of programmers (yes, and I mean that literally -- there are millions of programmers in the world) to sit down and share their knowledge. Many of us pull up instant answers to questions five times a day: "How do get the process ID for your program? How can you validate an email address?" But then you hit a question where the answer is not forthcoming. You find post after post in newsgroups where geeks concede defeat, in various states of panic or resignation: "Yeah, I ran into that problem, but no, there's no really good way to handle it."

So when you struggle with that problem, and after days of struggle, frustration, and pain, and you finally come up with the solution, you feel like the king of the world. You have something that you know hundreds, maybe thousands of people want to know. So it's no wonder that they climb to the top of their imagined turrets and bellow, "Behold, ye legions of hackers in distress! I, your hero, have found the Way!"

It's happening just often enough to me right now that even I am tempted. I have so little time for the things that matter in my life, and even I am just dying to show the world that I know the best way to have a single instance of a program running in a given user's Terminal Services session. It's not even entirely clear why the ego is so gratified with such an achievement. Others might benefit from your knowledge, but nobody will remember you for it. (At this moment, I cannot recall the name of a single person from whom I've glommed code online.) Mostly it's a vain attempt to get recognition for something that no one else will probably appreciate. Certainly your boss or your customer will never appreciate the amount of effort that went into solving the problem; all they know is that it was broken, and now it works, and you might have spent five minutes or three days solving the problem, and they really don't care. So you turn to your peers, hoping that for a small handful of people, you will be a lifesaver, a godsend, a hero, a saint.

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Monday, February 19, 2007

Do I Dare?

Here's what went out on the UNC SKS wire this week:

The Self Knowledge Symposium
Monday, February 19 at 7:30 pm
Murphey 314

* * *

"When we meet, I don't want to ask you what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for when that door of longing swings open and if you have the courage to feel your own desire. Tell me something you have not told yourself for a very long time. Let it come up from your belly, so we can be surprised together. We will sit here, together, for as long as it takes, waiting for it to come. It's hard to wait alone."

-- from "The Invitation" by Oriah Mountain Dreamer

Last week we talked about what it means to "live up to" your beliefs. How can you tell that you're talking spiritual life seriously? Georg told the story of when he was most serious about it: when he left the woman he loved to pursue a spiritual search . . . and then, a year later, came back and proposed to her. The excerpts from his letters showed that "being serious" is something that happens when you make commitments, when you act on your beliefs and make decisions with lifelong consequences. Whether it's a spiritual quest, or a personal relationship, the measure is the same: we find out who we are by what we do.

It would be nice if we could examine our lives, and know that we are committed to the most important things. And yet, that's not where we seem to find ourselves, most of the time. If we have the courage to recognize our deepest desires and dreams, we often find that those dreams are somewhere far away, seemingly out of reach, and we're still sitting here, still dreaming the dream but not moving toward it. What do you do then?

We'll find out this week. We are joined by Laura Hirst, a UNC SKS alumna who graduated in 2004 and is currently working with AmeriCorps at El Centro Hispano in Durham. Laura has tapped into her own intensity; better yet, she knows how to tap into yours.


Sunday, February 18, 2007

Scooter What's-His-Face

The Onion may be a satirical newspaper, but it usually does a thorough job of checking its facts. A spoof of post-modernism is that much funnier when the author shows they really do know what post-modernism is about, amd what post-modernist professors are really like, before skewering it.

So I was surprised when today I discovered the first-ever factual error in an Onion feature. In their coverage of the Scooter Libby trial, the Onion states that he is "is on trial for identifying CIA agent Valerie Plame to the press." Well, no, actually he's on trial for perjury, for allegedly lying under oath about who leaked the name of Valerie Plame to the press. The person who really leaked the name is already known: Richard Armitage, former deputy secretary of state. He is charged with no crime, presumably because, as it turns out, Valerie Plame's identity wasn't that important (she had a desk job) nor was it particularly secret (lots of people knew about it and the CIA freely confirmed her identity when asked.) See the Wikipedia article for the gory details.

So, it would be more accurate to say: "Scooter Libby is on trial for allegedly lying about a non-coverup for a non-crime."

So why does The Onion's error bug me? (At least, enough to write about it on a Sunday morning?)
  • I happen to know the real story, and feel smug about being right.
  • I get to be morally indignant about how awful such confusions are, since they are exactly the same sort of logical fallacies that make people think Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11.
  • I'm annoyed that I don't get to display my smugness and moral indignation directly to The Onion, since they have absolutely no feedback forms of any kind (no doubt because they got tired of unsolicited story ideas, and no we don't publish unsolicited material, and for God's sake it's just a humor site anyway, Jesus why don't you get a life?)
  • Twenty years of reading Dorothy Rabinowitz's coverage of falsely accused people in the Wall Street Journal makes me especially sympathetic when someone seems to be getting a bum rap.