What is progress?

Humanbot progress chart
Humanbot progress chart (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just as every nation has its own concept of nation and finds the constitutive characteristics of nationality within itself, so every culture and cultural epoch has its own concept of culture.

Carl Schmidt

To measure progress, we need to state a direction in which we are progressing. If progress is defined as distance, I can wander randomly and every step I take is progress. If I am in a desert and need to save myself, progress would be motion either out of the desert or towards an oasis. If progress is spiritual enlightenment, walking around may or may not mean progress at all.

In many cases, progress isn’t obvious; To an academic, progress can be failure – failed experiments or hypotheses; To an engineer, progress can be lack of failure or efficiency in production regardless of aesthetic; To an artist, progress can be quality and aesthetic of production regardless of cost; To an businessman, progress can be profit-margin for production.

Progress for one person is not progress for the other. Even worse, in some cases, progress for one is actually regress for the other.

So, while individual progress is not important, there is one definition of progress that many believe is constant and permanent.

Many feel that now we are living the pinnacle of human life, we have more stuff to use, more technology, we live longer, we “live like kings”. The storyline goes that through our collective efforts, we have built a great society and continue to progress rapidly into a brave new world. By those measures, we are better off than we’ve ever been and things are only getting better.

English: A silhouette of human evolution creat...
Progress! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is true, we live longer, have more stuff, and do not have the need to be constantly searching for simple food and shelter like some of our ancestors did. We are more productive and have access to more information than ever before. Yet is this progress?

By many secular and technological standards we have progressed further than any previous age.

For the elite who now have access to technologies and lifestyles previously reserved for the greatest of kings, it sure feels like it.

For the guy I used to see every day sleeping on the street under a streetlamp, I’m not as sure.

But no, the story told throughout the media, TED talks, etc. is that this is progress and the only way to continue it is to become even more productive, create even more technology (without consideration of consequences), build more businesses, to work work work.

I’ve heard and read this all before. Yet, the statement above contains it’s own fallacy – The Texas Sharp shooter fallacy. We are further along than any previous generation because we have drawn the target around where we are moving furthest. We are more productive than ever, but at what cost? In the US and Canada our leisure time is less than ever. In many cases both parents in households must work to pay the bills. We are so individualistic that many extended families never see eachother. We have less spirituality than ever, possibly because we have less time than ever, and our communities and social action has been reduced to pitiful non-violent rallies that make us feel good but accomplish very little.

Yet, we are in the best of all worlds because that is what we are doing best this century.

I can hear some of the more tech-worshipping followers reading this thinking: “Repent Harlequin!”

In a theological age, everything runs smoothly if theological questions are in order; everything else is “provided” by definition. The same is true of other ages. In a humanitarian-moral age, it is only necessary to inculcate morals, whereby all problems become problems of education. In an economic age, one needs only solve adequately the problem of the production and distribution of goods in order to make superfluous all moral and social questions. Mere technical thinking also solves the economic problem with new technical developments. All questions, including the economic, recede before the task of technical progress.

If humanitarian-moral progress is still expected by many today from the perfection of technology, it is because technology is magically linked to morality on the somewhat naive assumption that the splendid array of contemporary technology will be used only as intended

Carl Schmidt

A fairly controversial political philosopher I have been reading discusses how every century draws the target to define progress based on what they are progressing in. From that definition of progress, the elite (or state) derives its power precisely because defining progress defines good and bad; an enemy-friend grouping.

Hence, one century marks it as piousness and religious progress and leads to religious wars, another marks it as philosophical and educational and leads to revolution, yet another marks it as economic progress and leads to economic wars and colonialism. The previous century marked it as technological and consumer based progress — we are more advanced than our predecessors because we have more tech, more stuff. We are better because we are efficient.

This makes us feel happy, feel accomplished, and feel comfortable with the status quo. While it is not a conspiracy, it also has the effect of encouraging the general population to support whoever is in power, not necessarily elected officials, but general elites. It defines friend and enemy groupings and ensures that those who are part of the larger grouping will have more power.

Yet, we must ask is this the progress we want. Is this right? In the last 15 years due to more pervasive technology, we work more than ever. Many people carry their smartphone with them and feel that they must respond to emails and work requests at all hours of the day, essentially working 12+ hours a day.

Some IT techs I know are on 24 hours alert, work well over 40 hours a week and don’t get paid for any overtime. They forbid the idea of unions or collective bargaining to attempt to be properly paid for their work because unions are not efficient (and they aren’t). Yet, if we have no leisure time, why the hell are we working so hard? Who are we working for?

It can’t be the next generation, so many people feel so overworked that they refuse to have children. Many make excuses for this, but I believe it comes down to the same reason people in famine situations don’t have children. If you are working your ass off to stand still, how can you believe there is enough of anything for the next generation?

It can’t be for us to simply live. We have had enough food and housing for decades. We have so much productivity surplus in the US that it is being wasted during a needless recession/depression because we pay more attention to the false golden idol of money than to the fact that people are wanting to work and they simply aren’t being allowed to.

It can’t be for our own leisure. Even leisure time is based on the utmost efficiency. Bucket lists are simply checklists for leisure, many don’t go to these amazing places to actually be in awe. They go to be able to outdo the Joneses.

The to-do list
The to-do list (Photo credit: Digging For Fire)

Perhaps the bucket list is a clue, we need to create stuff, we need to be more efficient, we need to be productive – at all expense. If we are productive enough, then we will get some undefined reward because we have supposedly contributed most to society. It makes us feel better than those who are unable to find work or, by the definitions of meritocracy in our society, are deservedly poor. It reinforces the friend-enemy dynamic we want so badly around the “neutral” idea of efficiency and productivity.

We work this hard, at the expense of family, spirituality, religion and happiness, because that is how we defined progress.

Yet, in the end I don’t think we have progressed at all.

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2 things I’ve learned from having a newborn for a month.

So, William is now officially just over one month old. As a new father, I’m learning some very surprising and useful tools for dealing with him and maintaining sanity. Most of which revolving around that short period in the evening when either Suzanne or I want to get some rest. Overall, the kid seems to be healthy and happy, so I think the first month has been successful. He is starting to look at people more and respond to conversation which is really nice because before that he always seemed totally lost to everything.

I was thinking the best way to lay out this month is to put down the 2 main things I’ve learned to share with other possibly new fathers coming down the pipe so they don’t make the same mistakes. Pretty simple stuff that you don’t realize really matters until you need it.

#1 It’s not safe to go to sleep naked

While sleeping naked wasn’t a common thing for me, every once in a while I’d come out of a bath, be comfortable and just crash. I have discovered that this really isn’t wise once you have a kid kicking around, and not just for when they grow up. You may be needed at a moment’s notice to spring into action, and unless you have access to a self-dressing Iron Man suit, you are going to end up having to work (and run around your living quarters) in the buff. As a father, your duty is to take action when the mother is tired and exhausted and just needs a few more minutes rest before she has to breastfeed again. This means keeping the baby quiet while you address all of his needs.

Before you have a newborn, this isn’t entirely a problem. Once you get a moment to breathe, you can throw on some pants or a shirt and be off to work. However, you don’t get the luxury of taking your eye off a bawling newborn for that long. If the baby cries too much or too loudly, you will have failed at your primary task, ensuring mother gets a few more winks of sleep. If the baby is calm, but on a changing table, you really can’t take your eyes off of them for a moment. Thus, if you are naked when you start, it’s quite likely you’ll be naked while carrying a crying, wet, and possibly random-liquid spraying baby with you while trying to desperately calm him down.

All of which could’ve been avoided if you threw something comfortable on before you went to bed.

#2 At night, go pee before you change the baby

Do you know what almost always takes longer than you’d expect… changing a baby’s diaper. It’s not that it’s complicated. It’s actually one of the easier tasks I have to do day-to-day. However, there are always surprises.

Everyone knows about the sudden pee fountain, which is easy enough to avoid and usually just involves another diaper change. This, however, is the least of your concerns. The ones I’ve cataloged so far include:

  • the baby volcano, where just as you get a new diaper in place and ready to tie up, baby decides to take the longest and most bubbly poop ever. So named for the resemblance to the science volcano from when you are a kid and the fear you have that it will either burst or spill over the edges of the new diaper.
  • the poonami (I’ve stolen this from a friend), where baby suddenly decides to expel liquids from all orifices at the same time. Ensuring a fun and extensive clean up time as baby giggles at you.
  • the super-duper-pooper, baby poops just enough to ensure you need to change his diaper, waits for you to complete the change when, *Bblllrrprpr*, he poops just enough to require yet another change. Wash-Rinse-Repeat for about 3-5 runs.

Now, imagine having to pee really badly through all of this, and knowing you can’t actually go pee until the baby is properly dressed and back in the crib safely. As well, having the weird impetus to pee emphasized by the fact that baby has no problem at all peeing… everywhere.

I realize that both of these revolve around baby, nighttimes and bodily functions. However, for the first month, that’s really where 90% of your memorable interactions with baby come from. During the day, when you are sane, clothed, and awake, the interactions are fairly straightforward. Baby will eat, sleep and poop, almost like a cat. Your job is to clean up the poop and ensure he keeps on eating.

At night, unlike a cat, baby will continue these operations and still require you to be on the ball, being ready for this is key for any new father, and having read very very many father books I never saw these two lessons listed out.

They are important.

Trust me.

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Sorry for the lack of updates

Writing
Writing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa. Since my new baby boy has arrived I’ve had lot of interesting drafts, but not enough time to clean them up and get them live for you.  I am hoping in the next week once I’ve caught up on some of the major Panda Rose projects I’m elbow deep in, that I will be able to find an hour or two and get them out.

Lots of interesting topics to come though. For example:

  • “Hope is not Optimism”
  • The Boston bombing, panopticon, police and Reddit.
  • Reflections on 3d printing, and what needs to be done to break through that glass ceiling
  • The hidden propaganda of popular government programs (laws)
  • The false assumption of progress
  • Some interesting graphs and progress on the n = ab = (x-y)(x+y)
  • Some progress on what Average Mutual Information is, and why it may actually be a useful measure of ontology.
  • Liberalism and the Tower of Babel
  • “Business is relationships.”

As you can see, just because I’m not publishing, doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot coming down the pipeline. Hopefully I will be able to get some of the more timely ones out for everyone in the coming weeks.

Have fun,

Panda Waving
  KJR

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IBMimmix news

System i Main Menu
Ah… the old green screen. Boy will it be nice to move some of these functions to a clean immix install.

Note: name is still in progress, but I like it for now IBMimmix for the IBMi module for immix.

So, IBMimmix is really coming together. It currently integrates entirely with an existing IBMi authentication and security structure. This means management of immix access controls is as simple as adding existing IBMi users to proper groups; such as IMXUSR or IMXADM. We have a preliminary RPG report display and saving structure in place, and should have the ability to interact with spooled documents and printers right within immix, making it a lot easier to get PDFs or administer this area of immix.

Other features are coming which will allow for rapid integration of existing IBMi programs into a web environment. If you program on IBMi, you should keep your eyes on this blog for screenshots and details. This could make your life a lot easier with creating attractive and useful frontend displays and outputs for your clients without sacrificing all of the existing green screen work.

Some future features will be building a AERIS IBMi Appsuite into the framework so users of the advanced accounting platform will be able to interact with it using the immix interface, opening up a whole new world for those users.

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Energy creation without constraints is just a bomb in space.

Simplified piston animation.
Simplified piston animation. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have found it has become quite vogue to go into long rants about how great everything would be if only there was more freedom and less restrictions. Probably because we live in such a safe time and place in the world, we don’t realize how much the laws and structures around us protect us from risk and harm.

Yet, many seem to feel that we should let the energy of the markets run free, and it will sort itself out.  It is imperative that you don’t constrain or restrict it in any fashion, otherwise you won’t reach the highest levels of productivity. Structures to constrain it will emerge themselves.

Well, at least structures that haven’t already emerged naturally from millenia of political growth and evolution.

I would like to entirely ignore any discussion around the immorality of using social darwinism through the markets for the moment. Instead, let’s take a more pragmatic angle.

I think I understand where the idea behind removing all market interventions comes from. If there is no artificial constraints to the system, then from a game theoretic perspective, the system should achieve an effective Nash Equilibrium where all parties are getting the maximum benefit they can possibly want. While not a social optimum, it has the effect of allocating resources in a fashion which no one person can take responsibility for and is still maximized for a really bastardized version of maximized. As well, structures should form that protect those most capable of producing the maximum capital, similar to how political structures form to protect those with the most power, usually with lots of guns.

What is it maximized for? Generation of value in order to trade and make capital, which can be used to make more value which can be used to make more capital. It’s very similar to a runaway reaction in thermodynamics — heat encourages other molecules to breakdown and release more heat until you have a maximum release of energy in a very rapid period of time. Generate the most value and capital as quickly as possible, and you will be the most successful in a pure capitalist system.

Arguably, generating lots of value can be an end in itself. Yet, that doesn’t make sense to me. What is the point of producing value without any aim as fast as possible? In a similar vein, if you have a runaway energy-producing reaction without any constraints, you simply have a bomb. I guess if you want to blow something up, it’s useful. However, in most circumstances it’s not very productive.

There is a concept I heard while I was working with Stuart Kauffman that I really enjoyed: “enabling constraints.” The idea, ultra-simplified, is that by putting constraints in complex or chaotic systems it is possible for emergent behaviour to be encouraged. You move the chaotic system towards the critical line until it is in an optimal position to produce complex behaviour. One way I visualize it is in the terms of an explosion — Uncontained, an explosion is pretty much useless. Put an explosion into a metal tube and put a piston on one side, you have the start of an engine. A method for turning chaotic and destructive behaviour into something that is productive and useful. A method to derive work from chaotic energy production.

I’ve mulled over this in relation to a variety of societal structures. For example, sports benefit greatly from enabling constraints. There is no baseball or football or hockey without at least some rules. These rules make the sport interesting, and emergent behaviour in the form of strategies exciting to watch. Without any rules, most sports would likely degenerate into some variant of UFC except with hockey sticks, or on a running track. You have to note that even UFC has a cage that constrains the fight to the arena.

In relation to economics, the link seems even more obvious. I generally see value-creation as a form of energy in an economic system. Successful companies work almost like volatile compounds, as described above. In the purest form, they continue to create value as quickly as possible with the only intention of bringing in more capital to allow them to create more value. Yet, if the analogy continues the companies will all continue to produce value quicker and quicker with no structure or creation.

Thankfully, in most modern societies, we have constraints in the system that allow corporations to produce directed value for society as a whole.

Value!

For example, if a company’s only purpose was to maximize profit, then most would just make giant piles of cocaine and heroin and be done with it. No better business than the drug business, once they are hooked you have customers for life, as short as their lives may be. Hence, we have laws in place explicitly there to prevent this destructive form of value-creation.

There are other softer constraints though, for example religion. These are enabling constraints to guide value-creation towards more emergent behaviour that benefit the group as a whole. However, as our society becomes more secular and individualistic, as morality becomes more relativistic, the strength of that constraint is decreased significantly. So, while we have still have independent ideologies, the constraint differs for each individual — having all particles heading in a different directions with no structure is simply chaotic behaviour and wastes a large amount of value creation.

However with enabling constraints, the value creation can cease being chaotic and volatile and instead in some sense be more productive.

To be honest though, I don’t know what constraints would be most effective, how to implement them, or what would work best. I have theories on what would work based on societal structures which have guided growth in society to this point. We are where we are, in safe, more or less clean, and low risk societies because of these structures. I think knocking them down, as we have been, for the utopian thinking of constraint-less capitalism is asking for trouble.

Energy creation with no constraints is simply a bomb in space and value creation with no constraints is just as pointless.

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My love for good, accessible and clean documentation

Panda Rose Visual Guidelines (© 2013 Panda Rose, ARR)
Panda Rose Visual Guidelines (© 2013 Panda Rose, ARR)

When I was in first year at the University of Waterloo, a very large number of friends I had took a course on “technical writing.” It was generally regarded as a smart move with the co-op program since it immediately gave them a benefit they could leverage with early co-op terms before they got more experience under their belt.

I don’t follow the herd well, so I did the thing I usually do. I bought the textbook and decided to teach it to myself. I read it religiously twice through. Once during the school term and once while I was working at the Canadian Space Agency, and used it as a reference many times.

Unfortunately, I don’ t have it anymore because it’s hideously out of date and was in bad shape, but I do have an old copy of the Canadian Press Stylebook on my shelf and Strunk and White kicking around for when I need to verify something.

(I guess it’s important to note though that I don’t follow any of the rules with my blog. This is a free-for-all as far as I am concerned.)

When I wrote up the documentation and procedures for the Payloads team at the CSA, I really enjoyed doing it well. The material was dry most of the time. So, to make it more interesting I spent considerable time laying out the documents so they looked good and matched the CSA’s rigid guidelines. This really energized me, I loved the look of the documents when I printed them out on the high quality printers — They were clean and I could see they followed the rules I had learned from my technical documentation book.

I’ve done a some documentation with wikis, such as Gracefultavi documentation for QA at Net Integration since then. As well, since I program a ton, I’ve documented lots of code code. However, I haven’t really spent the time building up a solid, accessible document template and series of documents until recently. For many years, I thought I’d be able to do it in a wiki, but it has a few properties that make writing clean documentation very difficult.

  1. It’s too easy to clutter a page with nonsense and lack of structure. While the wiki languages generally force a header-level structure. I found that many people ignored these entirely and every page was all over the board, even when you spent the time trying to clean it up. Without a large force of people dedicated to it, like Wikipedia, many pages just got cluttered and useless.
  2. It’s too easy to edit and publish. It is always possible to get the pages to date, since there isn’t a formal publish point. Thus, it is very easy to publish pages that are only half-completed with the intention of completing them later. This generally leads to many pages that are incomplete or wrong making the entire wiki questionable for accuracy and more work than when you started.
  3. It’s too hard to make custom pages for special needs, or it’s too easy to make pages that are an entire mess. You either have a WYSIWYG or HTML editor or you don’t. If you don’t, then good luck making fancy pages without macros. If you do, you can now do whatever you want on every page based on day-to-day whims. Since everything is on it’s own page, one change in look and feel makes all of the content look out of whack with each other.

This all combined to make me not really enjoy building documentation up for many year. I actually found myself thinking it was just a short joy, during a early university period of my life. Similar to how I used to love writing 500 page novels as a teenager, but haven’t been able to get myself to sit and structure out one in a long time.

Panda Head Guidelines (© 2013 Panda Rose, ARR)
Panda Head Guidelines (© 2013 Panda Rose, ARR)

Recently, I was inspired by some work I’ve been doing around ISO27002 and some visual guidelines documents I’ve received.

Since we are going to change the Panda Rose logo entirely soon, I decided to take the new branding and formally write up guidelines around wordmark and logo use both for internal documentation and external uses. With the intention of cleaning up the brand identity and providing answers to all of the questions developers have been asking around how to use elements like the wordmark correctly.

When I started, I didn’t want to end up in wiki-hell where the project would die. So, I decided that I would not only formally define how the stuff was to be used, but also ensure the documents worked within the Word 2010 system for templating and structure. I could learn a new skill and, in theory, create a template that would allow fully accessible PDFs.

As a bonus, the template and style sets could be reused specifically for other documents that are generated for Panda Rose — something to happen very soon with the large amount of immix and standards documentation coming for both internal and external use.

Everything is win-win-win, as long as I enjoyed it enough to follow through.

Luckily, as I proceeded defining the structure and building page after page, I realized how much I loved creating these. I enjoyed spending the time not only getting the typography and the look right, but also making sure it presented the material in as clear of a fashion as possible to ensure that any end user could read it and not miss important details.

I rediscovered that I enjoyed creating clean, and accessible documentation.

Security Guidelines - Remote Access (© 2013 Panda Rose, ARR)
Security Guidelines – Remote Access (© 2013 Panda Rose, ARR)

In the last few days, I went even further and started to construct other documents defining our corporate structure. For example, I have been creating a formal security guidelines document for Panda Rose. Inspired by ISO27002 and IBM documentation for the IBMi, I thought I would start with this and work up to a formal security framework.

While we already have clear procedures and structures laid out around this in our internal wiki, I felt that I was enjoying building these documents so much that I would take a swing at that. It was a good check on if I enjoyed building these as it allowed my security geek side to play as well.

Now, I find myself spending more time than I’d like to admit on it. This is beyond spelling out stuff that’s already in our internal wiki. I find myself thoroughly researching the techniques we are using and making sure they are best practices, adding pieces to improve the quality of our servers, and removing security procedures that are useless and irritating to end users.

By forcing myself to write it in a final product fashion, documentation became a fantastic way to force myself to make sure what you are writing is as valid as possible. When what you are writing is not just an editable wiki, but something that is intended to be a final product, at some point, I may hand this to someone and say, “this is the guidelines, please follow them.”

There is no easy opportunity to go back and change them when it’s finalized.

This is it. This had better be good.

And oh man is it fun. I research every word, every detail and I’m learning so much along the way. All this while also ensuring that Panda Rose will improve as a organization with every step. Good documentation and guidelines make for a good organization. Accessible documentation ensure consistency and structure to the organization. Clean documentation ensure that everyone will be able to understand the follow it.

But most of all, writing good, accessible and clean documentation is just plain fun.

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Barefoot Running on the Treadmill
Faster man faster! (Photo credit: LToTheYnn)

Failure counts as done. So do mistakes.

~ Bre Prettis (Cult of Done Manifesto)

I have this terrifically frustrating habit — I always want things to be entirely cleaned up and done well. I’m unusually satisfied when I believe I’ve completed something well, cleaning a room is one of the tasks that works best for me. However, finishing a contract that I’m pleased with the outcome of is just as satisfying.

This trait comes out in negative ways as well.

I hate seeing food in the cupboards. It just seems to be taking up room and you can’t just clean the cupboards with it there. So, when I get frustrated with my lack of progress elsewhere, I find myself either eating food or throwing out food which has gone bad from the fridge simply because it is there. It took me a long time to figure this strange habit out, and it really actually explains the swings I have in weight. When I’m getting a lot done, my weight goes down dramatically, when I find myself struggling to get things done, it goes up. I don’t have an eating problem as much as a ‘need to feel like I’m accomplishing something’ problem.

In other circumstances, it has taken away from the joy I see everyone else have at large pomp and circumstance celebrations. To be honest, the day I graduated from Waterloo was probably one of the more sad days I can remember. Not because I didn’t feel proud that I made it, but rather because I didn’t feel like I had completed everything I wanted to. There were still courses in the C&O program I wanted to take, there was still things left to be learned.

I was successful because I had accomplished what was needed to pass. That wasn’t what was driving me though. I wanted to collect all the credits, I wanted to get much higher marks than I got. I didn’t feel like I’d done what I’d come to do. Sadly, I didn’t feel that accomplished.

This has also combined with another personality trait of mine which Ze Frank calls the FILDI (F*ck it, let’s do it.) In general, I cannot stand waiting on the sidelines of anything. If I see a book in a field of science or theology, I generally want to read it – no filter, I mean anything. I’ve read advanced books in post modern political science and books on how to write comedy for children. I bought them and read them in the hopes that I would have some interesting thought that I could expand upon and create something actually new, interesting or helpful. 

I will note that people who recognized this habit in me have abused my friendship around it. Thankfully, over time I’ve recognized those people quicker and I address the matter much sooner than I used to.

I always reflect that perhaps in an earlier age, this could have been a really amazingly useful trait. At one point it was actually possible for a person to know a significant majority of human knowledge. With that, there was the possibility I could have a new and unique thought that pushed forward the boundaries of our knowledge, or created a new machine that improved all of our lives.

Yet, this FILDI combined with the “Complete all the things!” is more of a curse in the modern age. As anyone who has tried to be a renaissance man will tell you though, a jack of all trades is a master of none and you succeed in modern society by drilling down in one subject and being indispensable for that one topic. Something, I’ve tried to do, but haven’t fully succeeded. I get too distracted by too many subjects to get deep enough to create. At least, I always feel when I have a unique idea I quickly discover someone else has beat me to it. How do you find out if an idea has already been discovered, you read books and papers, and then you hit this frustrating realization: There is not enough time.

One day I stared at my massive library and worked out that to read everything in the library at the rate of 1 book per week would require four lifetimes and that would miss the entire point of why I owned a lot of the books. I also deduced that on average most books drove me to wanting to read more primary source material, so regardless of what I did, I always ended up behind.

I bought them because I wanted to create, not because I wanted to absorb. I wanted them to know what was at the edge of their fields so I could, in theory, create something new and interesting. Instead I kept on jumping onto the Red Queen’s treadmill. I had to run as fast as I could to stand still.

I haven’t honestly found a way around this habit. However, I recognize it, and I work on it by targeting specific tasks and trying to throw out ones that I acknowledge I cannot complete successfully.  This has involved me throwing out entire baseball card collections, large chunks of my library, and old blogs (anyone remember 1337hax0r?). I would stop when I eventually realized the goals I desired behind them were simply not achievable with the effort/capital/support I had available to put into them.

What to do next? Well, at least now I know my order of things in importance. Something that was forced on me in stark terms recently. As I try to follow it, with God’s help, I’ll figure out some balance.

Perhaps, just perhaps, I’ll get something big completed in the fashion I want.

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Enter title here

If you play with fire, don’t be surprised if you get burned

Match
Match (Photo credit: Samuel M. Livingston)

Here is where I get controversial, but I feel it’s about time someone just said this.

The world is not a safe place nor is it a perfect place. Perhaps we in the western world forget that while we live in our relatively safe communities, but we aren’t free to do anything we want without consequences. Simply put, not every person we meet is sunshine and rainbows.

We all want it to be perfectly safe, and we all have our own ideas of what, specifically, is going wrong and what could be done to fix it. However, it’s not. This isn’t a bad thing – fighting through the bad and difficult things are what defines us as a species. It’s how we get to the bottom of the ocean, or to the outer reaches of space in manned vehicles.

It’s also how, in our youthful search for hedonistic pleasures, we get ourselves into a whole lot of trouble.

Statement 1: “If only people wouldn’t hurt other people”

To enact positive change you cannot pretend the world is not the way that it is. The claim that if only all people with guns in a warzone stopped fighting eachother we’d have peace, or the classic 60s pacifist line of “if only the soldiers would stop fighting, there’d be no war” is patently silly.

For better or worse, you are correct if this perfect world was achieved, the world would be perfect. However, that isn’t how things work. If you are in a warzone, and you are running through a field with no armour, you are probably going to get shot.

Facts:

Bullet wound vs shrapnel wound
Ow! – Bullet wound vs shrapnel wound (Photo credit: theMatthewBlack)

Were you asking to get shot? No. Did you deserve to get shot? No. Were you shot? Yes. If you had entered the war zone prepared differently would have have been shot? Possibly no, but If anything, there would be a lower chance of long term injury. If you didn’t enter the known war zone in the first place would any of this had happened? No.

However, these facts seem to be non-permitted in today’s modern politically correct dialogue. You end up being told it’s area verboten. Yes, it’s more important that the injured party get treated and ensured they are psychologically and physically in good condition. After someone is injured there isn’t much you can say to them because they played with fire and got hurt.

However, while it would be nicer if we could just make people nice and good, there is nothing wrong with using this to teach others that bad things can happen if you are not careful. It is possible to make it clear that entering the warzone isn’t safe, that running around as an unarmed target is going to get you injured. It may be fun and exciting and play to a self-destructive hedonistic desire, but it is dangerous and the possibility of things going horribly wrong is quite high. I’ve heard this called “victim-blaming”, but it is not. This is common sense education: If you walk around a dangerous neighbourhood with thousand dollar bills hanging from your pants and clear sign that you couldn’t fight off an intruder even if you wanted to; you will likely get mugged. It isn’t right, and definitely is symptomatic of a deeper problem.  The people who commit these crimes are terrible people and should be dealt with properly. However, there is also a onus of being aware of the dangers of any situation you get yourself into, and maturely accepting the consequences should the situations go bad.

Maturity and Growth

A mature adult takes ownership of the decisions they made, regardless if someone else caused the problem. If I walk into a situation that is known to be hazardous and I get hurt, I should take ownership of my original decision. I should acknowledge that I knew the situation could have been difficult, and if I didn’t realize that, I should be willing to teach others so they are better prepared than me.

The world is not perfect, humanity is imperfect, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. There are sociopaths and psychopaths that would use every opportunity they get to take advantage of these situations. You can pretend they don’t exist, but that is only because you haven’t been immersed in them or had to deal with them daily. Ask any police officer and they’ll tell you. The world isn’t fair, and it isn’t safe. To pretend otherwise and then act surprised when all hell breaks loose is to play with a tinder box and be surprised when it blows up.

This doesn’t mean that I think all men are evil, or that all of one class, racial, etc, group are evil. This means that if you want to play with fire, don’t be surprised if you get burned.

Apollo 1 Crew in Training
Apollo 1 Crew in Training (Photo credit: NASA APPEL)

This isn’t a bad thing, the Apollo 1 astronauts went into their capsule knowing full well what could have happened, and did happen when they all died. Yes, I do blame them for that, but I blame them for having the bravery and dedication to do it. It was an incredibly stupid act from the perspective of self-preservation, but it was an incredibly honourable act from the perspective of driving us forward as a society. They made a decision, they followed through on it, and they got the consequences.

If we didn’t “victim-blame” them, we wouldn’t be able to honour them, since it wouldn’t be their decision any longer, it wouldn’t be their fault.

This, sadly, goes for any situation where an individual decides to go in knowing the possible consequences if things do not go fully the way they planned.

Statement 2: “If we made it illegal (made a rule), then the problem will go away.”

My father made a statement to me when I was little and I got into the “Why don’t they just make it illegal?” mentality. He told me

If it was made illegal, then only criminals will do it.

I was too young (7 years old) to really understand what he meant. However, after myriad experiences over the past 15 years, it’s starting to become clearer. Rule, laws, specific structures aren’t a panacea. In fact, they can have the opposite effect desired in many cases. Ie. the more they are enforced, the more criminals will charge to provide access to this limited supply of goods, and the more criminals will want to provide it since the profit margins are massive.

An arrangement of psychoactive drugs
An arrangement of psychoactive drugs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Drug War has had one very positive effect on the US economy. Drugs are more expensive than they need to be and have funded the black market incredibly effectively without having to pay taxes on any of them since technically they are illegal anyways. It’s the ultimate tax-free business, assuming you don’t get caught. It has likely boosted the economy dramatically in the US.

Yet, drugs are illegal to sell, so only criminals sell drugs. The people we least want to be involved. People who don’t follow any of the other rules and are more than willing to break some of the most central ones to maintaining a stable society.

In the same vein, it has been shown that written rules encourage rule breaking. Before a rule is written down, the spirit of what needs to be followed is “the rule.” Once it is in a written form though, most people almost immediately work to find loopholes in them. Many social psych studies have shown that people will actually be more anti-social when rules are explicitly laid out for social interaction. Many people become almost like lawyers, trying to find the loophole where they get gain even though they are “technically” following the rules.

Bad people will always break the rules and, in turn, generally will hurt people. Yet, even good people try to find ways around the rules and, in turn, can hurt people but feel justified since it still matched the rules. This is why some laws in the US go for thousands of pages.

Regardless, referring to Statement 1, we like to play with fire.

Is this a bad thing?

No! We are human. When rules exist, we try to break them. This is how we do awesome stuff like fly, go to the moon or build smaller and smaller computers. We hate being restricted, and that urge drives us to invent new and better ways to “break these rules.” People like to play with fire, and if we didn’t, we wouldn’t have come up with some of the most amazing (if incredibly dangerous) prototypes to break them.

Yet, we need to accept responsibility for when our decisions go wrong and not get upset when someone points out to us that if you decide to stick your finger into an outlet, you will get zapped. We made the decisions, knowing full well the world isn’t perfect. We can make the rules, knowing full well that they won’t be followed (and that is not a bad thing.)

We cannot make a decision that goes wrong, then protest and claim that we cannot take responsibility for our own decisions, regardless of the intentions behind it. As mature people, we cannot argue that while the possibly foreseen negative consequences weren’t planned, we are not responsible for initially playing with fire. Yes, we can punish bad people, but we cannot forget that bad people will always exist. We can’t hide from the fact that no matter what happens, we are not and will never be free to do anything we want with no consequences.

Going to the moon can have consequences, exposing yourself to physical harm for hedonistic gain has possible consequences, and making decisions to play with fire can have consequences. You can put the fire out afterwards, but you can’t claim the only reason you got burned was due to the fire.

Fire is hot, it’s fun to play with because it’s dangerous, but don’t be surprised if you get burned.

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Rebuilding the societies that build a nation.

The emblem of the Knights of Columbus
The emblem of the Knights of Columbus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I feel that the extreme individualism that permeates western society is holding us back from accomplishing anything of significance – Either major positive social change or major social projects that we, as a society, will benefit from in the long term. One thing I’ve discussed is how the internet has decreased our capacity to integrate into large, diverse social groups. It’s not that we don’t have more little tightly knit cliques, it’s that we have so many fewer broad organizations that we feel a part of. We insist on “being ourselves” and only spending time in echo chambers rather than actually trying to build up a society.

As an example, say you are part of a clique. Let’s say you are a goth. You dress in black, like Victorian clothes, enjoy reading Edgar Allan Poe, and in general are quite dark in demeanor and attitude. You have an incredibly tight circle of friends. Who, in general, don’t disagree much on anything of real significance. Effectively, you are all very tightly knit and for tasks that your entire group has the capacity to do, you can accomplish them easily.

However, if you need to find a job, they aren’t going to be of much use. If they knew of a job that was available, you’d likely already know about it and be applying. However, if they don’t know of a job for you, well, then you are stuck to shotgunning it and cold calls. That is, unless you have an entirely different type of network available to you.

In fact, this was discussed in a study from 1996 by Andreas Flache, Michael W. Macy, referenced by The Power of Habit. In this study, it was shown that having only strong networks is really, really bad. Weak networks were far more useful for this task. We learn about new job opportunities  from “weak-tie” acquaintances. People we haven’t talked to in month, but know us enough to be willing to provide a recommendation, or to at least listen to what we have to say. These are people we don’t match up with exactly, but people that we still associate with. People we have good manners with and we respect our differences. People who we adjust to relate to and understand.

People who we deny our extreme individualism to meet and understand and build relationships with.

Similarly, if the clique wanted to do something to change the world in some major way, and they all agreed, but had no social ties beyond the clique (or very few), they aren’t going to get anywhere. They can accomplish items that only their small group is capable of, and won’t have access to more resources (skills, capital, etc.) that a larger, less unified group would have.

Note, there are still societies that help with this, but they seem to be small, dying, or becoming so open that they end up existing of cliques that pretend to be under a common banner.

You need to find a society where there are actual rules, manners and structures, it needs to actually require some effort to join, and it needs to be open enough that if people are willing to deny their individualism for a short period of time they are able to join.

Historically, religious societies like the Knights of Columbus are really amazing at this. Generally, you are already religious before you join, so you have a familiarity with the general rules and etiquette expected. When you join, you learn the rest of the rules and social norms which are expected from you. You are taught to respect the group as a whole, while also contributing meaningfully to it.

You learn from the elders of the community, you teach your knowledge to others, and you work with everyone towards common goals. Yes, you may not agree on every aspect of what every person in the group believes, and you may not be the most dogmatic individual. However, by having a common tie that is strongly ethical and moral you overcome your differences, your fears, and work towards a common good. You learn good etiquette and you build something bigger than just yourself.

In the end, you accomplish greater and more lasting change than you could ever achieve alone or in a small isolated clique.

I am specifically referring religious (or ethics/morality based) societies, and not the school newspaper or similar. However, any group that matches the above is better than no group, completely open group, or highly isolated clique.

Doug McAdam studied the “Freedom Project” of the 60s to go down into the south and register black voters. For those unaware, this was an incredibly dangerous proposition during segregation. It was very likely that by participating you would be imprisoned, gain a criminal record, and likely have your life threatened by those who disagreed with the civil rights movement. Even so, many people applied and, if I have my numbers right, about a thousand people were accepted, of that thousand only 700 actually went.

Doug McAdam studied the differences the actual people who went versus the people who didn’t go after being accepted.

His results:

The greatest indicator of whether a person would go was whether or not they were part of an organization at their university. However, when the society was a religious society, the numbers went up even more. If the individual was simply very religious, but not part of any religious society, there was no difference. Being religious didn’t imply dedication to a larger cause.

However, every person who expressed a religious orientation and belonged to a religious organization went.

Why? I believe this is true is because a religious faith structure allows you to overcome the inherent fears, because you are doing what is right and not simply the safe route. Yet, this power is very easily overcome when you don’t have any support structure. You don’t have a peer group that can help you out.

The other part is that being part of a society with weak-ties encourages you to follow through on your promises. You are contributing to the group you are part of, but even more, you want to follow through on the values that you have agreed to. It’s easy to have an independent religion that perfectly accepts all of your views, but that doesn’t make any difference if you cannot build anything on it.

I think we need to be willing to give up some of our individuality again to build for the future.

One way to do it is to not encourage random religion, nor to encourage dogmatism, but to encourage group societies based around common ethics and morality, and to build and grow these societies.

We can start anew by creating random religions like they did during the French Revolution, or we can use the tools and churches that are right there and have been for millennia. Personally, while I agree things need to evolve, throwing out the baby with the bathwater never helped anyone.

This is just one piece of the puzzle, and it will be done one individual at a time. However, We can tear down this destructive individualism and start to build again for the future.

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Don’t give up on yourself, or your stained shirts.

Bleach! (Clorox™)

I’ve had this happen twice for me. I got a stain with some chemical or food compound that everyone universally tells me is impossible to get out. That I need to either accept the stain as is or throw out the shirt. One of the first times was with one of my favourite white shirts when I cut open a glow stick and sprayed the flourescent liquid all over my shirt. The warning even told me this would happen. Pro-tip: don’t cut open a glow stick unless you are ready to be covered in hard to remove glowing liquid.

Now, the shirt got a weird glowing yellow splash on it. It felt that regardless of how much bleach I used or spray wash I put on it, it wasn’t going to come out.

Naturally, I couldn’t wear it anymore until I either fixed it or threw it out. My wife, and my good friend Joe simply told me to just throw it out, but I viewed it as a challenge. It’s a white shirt, the worst that can happen if I use too much bleach is it falls apart (and then gets thrown out) or it gets clean. I may as well condemn it to the trash when it’s actually unfixable, not just a bit dirty.

So, thus began my adventure with getting out stains. After many many washes, using many different techniques (soaking in bleach, coating stain in spray’n’wash™, washing in hot water, washing in cold water, beating it up, etc.), it actually came out. Every time a little more came out, and then suddenly the shirt was clean. I could’ve thrown it out, but because I had faith it could be cleaned or at least wouldn’t throw it out until it was totally destroyed, it actually got cleaned. I saved my dress shirt.

This is actually the shirt. It’s so kawaii!

Sadly, this happened again with a a favourite t-shirt I got in Japan. I think I spilled salsa on it, and didn’t realize it until it was well dried into the shirt. To make matters worse, I had run it through the dryer with the stain still in it.

And… this shirt was coloured and had a cute panda bear design on it. I couldn’t simply use bleach or so I thought, but at the same time, I was determined that I’d rather destroy the shirt (bleach it to white, have it fall apart, etc) before I threw it out. I wasn’t going to condemn it until it was actually destroyed.

Amazingly… it got cleaned after a few dozen washes, and it didn’t fade either.

It was a great feeling, actually. Both times I saved a favourite item, simply by not giving up on it.

These shirts were cleaned about a year ago, but for some odd reason it all came to mind when I heard the gospel reading at mass. The famous one most of us have heard where Jesus saves an adulterer from being stoned to death.

Specifically this line stood out to me:

“Woman, where are they?
Has no one condemned you?”
She replied, “No one, sir.”
Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.
Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”

John 8:10-11

It seems to me that Jesus is not saying that we shouldn’t ignore wrongs that people commit, or ignore the fact that we ourselves all have stains. This story is saying for us to not give up on ourselves or others. That we can all be washed clean. He doesn’t say she is without sin, nor does he forgive her sins. He says, “it’s ok, you are worth saving, go forth and try, and don’t get more dirty.”

He saves her from being condemned not for simply being unclean, but because they believed she was uncleanable.

I think we have been called to repentance because we don’t need to wear the stains either. We all are sinners (ie. that famous Catholic guilt), but that doesn’t mean we are all condemned.

So many people give up on getting rid of their habits that, in the end, make their and their friend’s and family’s life worse. Even more seem to think the Catholic guilt that points out these stains somehow makes them worse, that they can’t be cleaned, so why point it out. They get viscerally angry at those who can see the stain and introduce them to the tools that can be used to get out the stain. Yes, sometimes these tools are hard on us, just like bleach and spray’n’wash can be hard on fabric, but it’s possible to get it out. You just need to keep on trying.

And once you get it out, you are actually free and clean. You are actually forgiven.

I think that’s the great feeling so many converts to Catholicism say after their first reconcilliation, that’s the feeling so many Catholics who have lost their way don’t understand anymore.

In today’s easy come, easy go mentality, it’s easy to forget that. It just takes a bit more effort and you can get out the worst stains you can imagine.

And once those stains are out, you’ll have back your favourite thing.

You’ll have back yourself.

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