My New Home

This is a brief post to simply announce my move over to a new home on the web. I’ve owned this domain for a short while, figuring that it was a good idea for me to finally acquire it. More importantly, setting up WordPress on it means that I can consolidate all the writing that I’ve done on the web for the last 11 years or so in one place.

Needless to say, it had been a while since I had read the earliest posts that I had done, back in the early years of college. I remember myself being a lot more conservative, and having a lot more free time. My apologies if any of it is poor writing.

Anyway, Medium did not give me enough control over my own identity compared to my own domain and WordPress. So, here I am. More posts coming soon.

On the Degradation of the Formerly Stable and Well-Understood Pillars of the World

“The world has changed.
I see it in the water.
I feel it in the Earth.
I smell it in the air.”

— J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

Like many around the country, and indeed around the world, I feel as though something has come undone. To all outward appearances, the world continues as it always has. We all go shopping, watch movies, do our taxes, chortle at politicians, and laugh at memes. And yet, the continuation of the everyday routines seems somehow empty now, doesn’t it? Those routines are a bromide, a salve covering over wounds.

Of course, if you’re fairly liberal, you’re thinking about the President, his actions since the Inauguration, and the bitter election campaign. You’re thinking about the Electoral College, the popular vote, bogus email stories, pussy grabbing, tax returns, Muslim bans, border walls, and on and on. It’s deeper than that, though. If you’re a supporter of the President, you voted for him because of this feeling that things aren’t right. You’re thinking about liberal disdain, your lost job(s), maybe the fact that your parents made more money than you, your friends and family with drug addictions, and all the other groups who seem to get all the help that you never get. All of us together are feeling it. Unfortunately, we’re all treating the symptoms of a profound disease.

There are foundational assumptions that we all have about our place in the world, and about how the world works. The last fifteen or twenty years or so of modern life have fundamentally assaulted at least two of these assumptions. I have the image of strong pillars; pillars of our inner life. Unbeknownst to us, these pillars of our own lives are also pillars of the world, supporting our relationships with each other and the right functioning of our society. Many of these pillars are crumbling, but I want to talk about two of them.

“Rage! Sing, O Muse, of the rage of Achilles…”

— Homer, The Illiad

The Internet: wonder of wonders, font of knowledge, beacon of the modern world. And, perhaps inevitably, engine of our rage.

When we’re children, our social circles are small. We find groups of friends, and establish our place in them. Whether one is the funny one, the talkative one, the popular one, or whatever traits one becomes known for, one always finds a place. We become important and influential in our own ways in our own groups, and this continues into adulthood. This ability to find belonging in a group is that first pillar of the world.

The Internet gave us a way to turbocharge this ability. Indeed, it deserves greatest praise for giving all of us unparalleled ability to communicate and connect. However, it has also forced us to come into direct and constant contact with groups and individuals that are different. Indeed, not just different, but so different as to repulse us. Every single day, we’re assaulted by the horror of someone being wrong (in our eyes) on the Internet. Even with all the best lessons of our parents, we are not prepared to meet the true diversity of human thought. Moreover, we’re not prepared to face our own potential insignificance within it. Our opinions cease to matter when they can be replaced by literally any other opinion with the flick of an app, and we rage. We call out on Twitter and Facebook, fuming into our self-constructed groups (which agree with us already) about the wrongness of it all. We also delight in the confusion and anger of the other side when things go our way. Liberals shout the facts about climate change not to make change, but to belittle rubes. Conservatives gleefully mock “liberal tears” and “social justice warriors” not to enlighten, but to degrade and enrage “cucks”. It feels good.

Is this really a problem? Well, we see the results in our public life. Being a janitor polls better as a career with high school students right now than running for office. Neighbors all too frequently don’t know each other. Formerly bustling forms of community involvement, whether it’s the Church, the Legion, the lodge, or the temple, now seem quieter. Students demand to be shielded from opinions that challenge their own at a time when that challenge is so desperately needed. We’ve all found our groups to belong to, we gather into them online, and we rage into our phones at the teaming hordes of others all around us.

This has all set the stage for two political parties who literally talk past one another, talking instead at the cameras who will feed their words into the Internet rage machine almost instantly.

“Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.”

— Yoda

None of this is to say that truth is relative (I don’t believe it is), or that both political poles are contributing equally to the discord (one clearly dominates). Truth is not what you decide it is, and the things that offend you are not “fake news”. However, we can’t allow the profession of truth to be one more thing that allows us to retreat into our own tribes. Once we’ve started down the dark path of rage against all the Others, the more truth acts as a knife that cuts instead of a light that guides. I don’t know what solution there is, aside from awareness, but the rage is dominating our destiny even when we’re in the right. I feel it every day myself.

It is not just the Internet that pits us against another, though. It is but the self-reinforcing amplifier of a gnawing fear that hacks at another pillar of our minds.

Liberals and conservatives are becoming consumed by the same fear. Liberals respond to it by continuing to push for single payer universal health insurance, more generous benefits from employers and governments, and even universal basic income. Conservatives respond to it by pushing for protectionist trade policies to safeguard jobs that will not come back easily (if ever), laws reducing immigration, and stricter and more punitive policing.

The fear is that our jobs, the basis of self identity, and arguably of self worth in our country, are leaving or even being taken from us. People on both sides cast about for who to blame, but the answer is clear (though conservatives right now are having trouble seeing it). It relates to the force eroding the first pillar that we mentioned. Except in this case, the Internet is but a harbinger.

Even if I wanted to explain the relationship between modern technology and jobs in my own words, I would never be able to do as good a job as CGP Grey has. Behold, the shape of things to come:

Grey is right: this is a huge problem. The problem, however, is not that automation is coming for most of the paying jobs out there. Given a long enough time scale, that is inevitable. The issue is that we, liberals and conservatives both, repeatedly assert that our work and jobs are the thing that give us meaning and purpose. This thinking has massively deleterious effects on how we think about and treat the unemployed and homeless. It also makes us cower in fear (and anger) that one day, something will take our jobs and livelihoods away from us.

That something is coming. It might not be tomorrow, but it will be sooner than we think. Those of us who assign all value to specific jobs and livelihoods, and who rage against the Others who are capriciously stealing it all, are assigning value to sand falling through their fingers. We all forget one of the oldest truths there is: memento mori. Everyone is enraged over protecting things that you can’t take with you even if you could protect them.

“…for you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”

— Genesis 3:19

Many have a hard time with the idea that the high performer, the rich man, the entrepreneur, the CEO, and the president are actually no better than the refugee or the homeless. Nearly every religion reminds us constantly that we are equal. Machines will eventually remind us all that we are not only equal, but are equally incompetent at both driving cars and picking investments, both the blue collar and the white collar. Furthermore, how can there be a meaningful difference between capital and labor when the labor is done by machines and the capital is moved around and invested… by machines? What will happen when our own creation robs us of the jobs that give the majority of us our self-worth (and indeed a key criterion by which we judge others)?

Does all of this mean that we stop having pride in what we do? Do we stop trying to contribute (and thus earn) as much as we can? I say no. It is indeed important to feel the sense of purpose that comes with good work. But, if we forget the foundational truth of our equality, the rage will spread as our creations take more and more employment from us. Machines built to make our lives easier will make it easier… to get on the Internet and rage at one another.

I won’t pretend that everyone will see and ponder our circumstances as deeply as the current situation would suggest is necessary. For some, people who can’t find jobs and money have no virtue and don’t deserve any help. For others, no corporation or capitalist will ever be anything but a rapacious buccaneer. For still others, nothing other than their own lives matter and no politics is relevant to them (these I fear the most).

What I do know is this: these twin forces of our own making have begun to put us to the test. As the pillars of the world crumble, will we be able to put aside our natural tendencies and build new ones?

I believe there is a better world waiting for us, but that we have to build it, brick by brick. Let us begin.

One Year Review of Wellness Stuff

Those who know me closely know that I’ve lost a fair bit of weight in the past year. Truthfully, the motivation for doing this didn’t initially come from within, and I didn’t expect that donating almost all of my clothes would be the end result. Rather, I have a few simple tools (both hardware and software) to thank. This is a short review of those couple of things that made the biggest difference, in order of importance.

Apple Watch

First and foremost, my Watch.

The Apple Watch is easily my favorite product that I’ve gotten in the last couple of years, and it’s what started me down the path of running more. Since I got the stainless steel Apple Watch, I wanted to make sure that I took maximum advantage of as many features as I could. I like getting my money’s worth from things.

I had had fitness trackers in the preceding years (several Jawbone ones), but none of them were ever as motivating as the Apple Watch. Something about having the three activity rings right on my Watch face just made me want to fill them every day. It helps you summarize your day like the photo below. More details here:

The Activity app on Apple Watch

I’m now at the point where I’m taking brisk walks every time I have a break at work, and telling my Watch to start an walk in the Workout app beforehand.

I didn’t expect the wellness features of the Apple Watch to be my favorite thing about it, but that’s how it ended up. I’m excited about the Activity watch faces and the new Breathe app coming in watchOS 3 this fall.

If you’ve been on the fence about an Apple Watch, consider this my recommendation.

Withings Body Scale

As it turns out, there is an entire ecosystem of health devices that can feed data to an iPhone, all communicating with the phone using a framework called HealthKit. Withings makes a whole slew of them, but the most important one for me is their scale. They make a few models, and I actually have an older one, but that’s okay. The main thing that it does is transmit my weight every morning over to the Health app on my iPhone.

The Withings body scale and its app

Since getting the scale in January, I’ve got a graph of my weight that gets updated every day that I’m at home. It also measures my body fat percentage through my feet via some voodoo whose explanation I haven’t researched, and records my body mass index.

Smart scales are absurdly expensive compared to the $35 scale from Amazon, but heck if they’re not useful. Once you have one, you can’t go back. Recommended.

A Treadmill

The treadmills in my apartment’s clubhouse are my exercise command center. Due to having been treated for melanoma in the past, my dermatologist would hit me with a brick if I regularly went running outside. Or at least, I’d have to do a whole bunch of prep work with mineral sunscreen, find a hat appropriate to working out, and trust that the armband I have for my enormous iPhone 6s Plus will actually keep my phone on me. And then in the winter I would, you know, do nothing.

The treadmill has grown on me to the point that I like it though. I can control my exact pace and time on it (I run for 30 minutes, or about 4 miles, a few times a week). I also have a workout playlist (which I change only very infrequently) that I have timed to the exact points when I typically increase my pace.

My cavemen ancestors ran from freaking leopards and stuff every other day to stay fit. I run on a machine in an air conditioned basement. Modern living.

Lose It!

The last tool is a software based one. I have a bit of a problem with an app centering itself (and even naming itself) primarily around the concept of weight loss specifically instead of wellness generally. That said, my workplace periodically does wellness challenges in which we have to record things, and this is the app we use. I also have almost a year’s worth of food habits built up in it, and don’t want to change.

This app lets me track what I eat. I now do this so habitually that almost everything I even semi-regularly eat has an entry that I can add almost instantly. There is also a bar code scanner in the app, so I can add many new foods quickly. I use this information mainly to keep myself more honest than I was in the past about portion sizes. I think it’s the least scientific part of my setup in terms of real data, but setting a weight goal in here and then eating fewer calories than it suggested seemed to help.

I usually skip days when we travel or have some kind of family celebration. A billion kinds of food set up buffet style is a pain to track. My scale usually tells me that I’ve temporarily gained 2 pounds after days like this, but it always goes down again, so I don’t mind.

Wrapping it up

One doesn’t necessarily need all of these things to lose weight, or maintain weight, or even to exercise. It’s funny that in the developed world, staying fit is more easily done when we construct an environment around ourselves to do so. That said, these are the tools that have helped me get into the best shape I’ve been in in years, probably since high school, and I recommended any one of them.

Remember, remember

People in rich countries like the United Kingdom and the United States seem to have forgotten what the majority of human history has been. That is, the history of ceaseless conflict, war, and death. Sure, there were periods of relative peace, given grand names like Pax Romana and Pax Mongolica. However, the spread of humanity around the globe generally led to the spread of human conflict.

One hundred years ago, after centuries of conflict, civilizations had built themselves up to become immensely powerful and wealthy empires. They did this not just via the fine accomplishments of their arts, their learning, and their exploration, but also via colonialism, invasion, and exploitation. Rich, modern civilization had emerged, but it was sustained by yet more human conflict. Empires built in this way, all based on the same Continent, inevitably came into conflict themselves, and the Great War bloodied the world. We have forgotten.

People were sure at the time that World War I would end war. Surely humanity had just learned a great lesson, and the mistakes of the past would not be repeated. Meanwhile, the victors of that war imposed great penalty on the losers, and the stage was set for more conflict.

Seventy years ago, one of those losing nations was led by a sociopathic demagogue into believing that one group of people was particularly responsible for their troubles. “This group is not like us, and they are undermining and destroying us and our society,” they thought. To further “protect” themselves, they invaded and subjugated their neighbors, rather than joining with them in peace. We have forgotten.

The United Kingdom was all alone. They looked across the Channel, and saw nothing but invaded lands, controlled by the enemy. They could have asserted their own independence, and sued for peace with Germany. Sure, Hitler probably would have passed on that, but Britain could have tried to make a deal to remain free. Instead, Churchill said:

We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

They fought, and we fought with them. And they bent the great arc of human history away from conflict and towards enduring peace. I’m overly glorifying the victory, I know. Things haven’t been perfect since that time; conflict has still happened. However, we are now in an era of unprecedented peace, where fewer and fewer people per decade die by war, terrorism, or violence of any kind, despite what the media would have you believe. Those people who fought on the beaches and the landing grounds gave their lives so that we could have such peace. Our present world is the greatest achievement in human history so far, and it was built by Allies making a common cause. We have forgotten.

Institutions built since the War (especially the EU) have not just immeasurably enriched their country and most others as well. They have also stood as a bulwark against the senseless urges that led to the deaths of countless millions; not just in the last World War, but in all the long centuries of the past. The people of the UK have not just simply rejected a political arrangement. They have looked their forebears straight in the eye, and spit in their faces. It’s made even worse by the fact that many of those who voted this way are older voters. Their parents fought and continued fighting against all odds not just for themselves, but for free people everywhere who were not British.

These voters cast all of this aside, just because they’re afraid that someone with a different skin color is going to come and take their job. They have forgotten.


We must walk without fear

I only wish I could understand those who say that the solution to all of our problems is to close ourselves off from the world. Or, rather, to close the rest of the world out from us. I don’t rightly know where I first developed the aversion to such thinking. Perhaps during my Catholic education growing up, or perhaps realizing in college that there are so many valid philosophical viewpoints. Perhaps it came from traveling to another country for a time and really appreciating another culture.

Should we slip so easily into abject fear, even in the midst of loss? Surely our great society, and all sympathetic societies, are immune to collapse due to the crazed actions of fanatic zealots. They are the weak, the simple minded who cannot tolerate the idea that the world is not black and white. They lash out at us with their simple minded tools, their guns and bullets. These things cannot destroy the society built by Washington, Lincoln, Emerson, Hawthorne, Whitman, Roosevelt, Kennedy. Why should we react in a way that suggests that they have any real power?

The frightened in our midst want to close our borders, not realizing that the answer is not to reject others, but to embrace them. Foreigners do not pollute our culture; they enrich it. Every Syrian refugee who dreams of getting to America should be able to dream of becoming American. The more who come to add to and share in our culture, the stronger that culture becomes and the weaker the culture of the zealots. Together, we are complete. Edward R. Murrow said that “we will not walk in fear, one of another”. It is more true now than ever.

The burden of a free society with liberty and justice for all is heavy. It’s heavier than just a strong national defense. It includes a burden of spirit, of optimism, that we all must share even in the face of all of our society’s flaws and problems. It has to include a belief that no darkness can overcome the light. Do we have cold slime in our veins, or hot red blood? Do we believe the words on the Statue in the harbor?

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

When the towers burned and fell, the Statue remained there with her words, defiant, a symbol of us all. She is only as brave as all of us.

Chrome for Mac – Thoughts

I’ll start out saying that I really want to like Chrome on the Mac. After seeing it blow away the competition on the PC, I looked forward for months to having a fully baked version on OS X. Even though I’m an unabashed Apple partisan, I’m eager to see Google competing with Apple on so many fronts. Even though Chrome and its open source foundation, Chromium, are based on Apple’s pioneering WebKit project, I think Chrome has admirably differentiated itself from Safari. Unfortunately, I cannot acclimate myself to daily use of Chrome, for several reasons. First, however, I should mention some strengths that Chrome has going for it.

The Good

The big thing that Chrome offers on the PC, its speed, is its strength on the Mac as well. While I did not do any actual measurements, pseudo-scientific or otherwise, to compare the performance of Chrome versus that of Safari, Chrome just feels faster. Actual numbers have been crunched by others, but these results may be significantly changed now that Safari 5 is in the wild. Numbers aside, Google has managed to craft a browser that feels lighter and faster than the already minimalist Safari – no small feat.

The other great thing about Chrome is its search bar. This thing is a fantastic innovation, and yet it’s also no surprise that Google would implement such a feature. The ability to search from Google right within the search bar is very nice and convenient. Also, until last week, the ability to search one’s history in a natural way (i.e. not depending on URL syntax) was a major win for Google as well. Fortunately, this ability is now baked into Safari 5. We’ll therefore call this but a narrow win for Chrome.

The Bad

Now then, despite these positives from Chrome, I can’t make myself switch to it for everyday use. After using it regularly for about a week, there were too many little annoyances that kept getting in the way of my browsing workflow (leisure-flow?). Here are all the deficiencies that I found annoying:

  • Zero support for AppleScript. This is a major sticking point. I use AppleScripts all the time to send bookmarks and archives to Yojimbo. Not supporting AppleScript means that Chrome is not a fully fledged OS X citizen. Google has got to fix that.
  • No ClickToFlash. This is such an integral part of my Safari browsing sessions that I barely remember that it’s an add-on. I know that there are ways to partially block Flash in Chrome as well, but ClickToFlash is the whole enchilada, it works fantastically, and it’s only for Safari.
  • Speaking of add-ons, I find that Chrome extensions are a bit pokey in general. More in line with my actual usage, though, is the lack of a good 1Password implementation in Chrome. I know that Agile is working hard on getting this fantastic product to work with Chrome, but I’m spoiled by how flawlessly it works in Safari.
  • Lastly, the Find dialogue in Chrome. You know, the standard Command-F shortcut. While it sometimes works just fine, there have been times when I’m looking for a word on a site, and Chrome refuses to show me a Find dialogue, no matter how many times I try to invoke it. This is a bug that will be fixed, I’m confident, but Safari wins here.
  • No Readability-like feature. This is a recent addition, but I have to mention the amazing utility of the newly-added Safari Reader feature in Safari 5. While I had the Readability bookmarklet installed before having Safari 5, I never used it. Building this ability into the browser and having it just a shortcut away was a great move on Apple’s part.

I admit that two of these issue stem from my use of particular add-ons in Safari, so I’m not trying to claim that Chrome is useless by any means. These are simply the things that kept me from keeping Chrome as my daily browser. With that said, I’m leaving it installed, and will periodically update it. I’m very confident that Google will keep making Chrome for Mac better and better.

You’d think Apple broke up with Adobe

Much has been made in recent weeks about Flash, Adobe, Apple, and the iPhone OS. Collating a list of links here pertaining to the debate would take all day, and it seems like everyone has their two cents to throw in. This is not even accounting for the protracted geek debates that I’ve seen on Twitter on the subject.

My opinion is this: Flash gives me nothing, as a user of the Internet. Actually, I take that back: Flash gives me crappy ads that have a good chance at crashing my browser, even on the relatively crash-proof OS X. Even with an add-on like Click2Flash installed, Flash gives me ugly, randomly sized gray boxes in the middle of websites. The Internet didn’t always have this shabby look that many sites have taken on due to Flash.

Think back 10-15 years, to a much earlier Internet. Sites specializing in displaying text (a vast majority of sites at that time) did not have anywhere near as many obtrusive animated ads that brought one’s computer to its knees. Yes, I admit the era’s animated .gifs were annoying, but it was nothing like today, where I can’t even read a newspaper article without Flash ads being shoved in my face in three different sections of the text. Google might be an evil empire trying to seed its ads to the all the ends of the Earth, but at least their text ads don’t bother me and don’t crash my browser.

The flip side is that on that same early Internet, online video was essentially limited to playing in RealPlayer, usually at convenient postage stamp resolution. Yes, Flash eventually allowed better solutions to this problem, and yes, we should remember Flash fondly for that. However, HTML5 has solved this issue. Go to YouTube and turn on the experimental HTML5 feature – the videos are no different, except now you won’t have to engage in an aural battle with the din of your laptop’s fans, since Flash won’t be busy kicking your computer in the CPU.

The real issue is that developers have invested time in using Flash. I’m not saying that Flash is completely useless, but it certainly has no relevance on a platform like the iPad, whereupon a developer can write a native app that looks, feels, and functions ten times better than a Flash equivalent would. Cross-platform development tools, speaking from a user’s point of view, are rubbish. Have you ever preferred using a Java-based app on your Mac (or PC, for that matter) over using a native application?

The iPad and the iPhone present an environment on which we can finally start leaving a dated development model and tool behind us.

Steam for Mac cannot…

  • minimize properly and on command using command-M
  • close properly all the time, giving crash notices
  • have a “Start when I log in” item that is not checked by default
  • download reliably, for some reason liking to pause active downloads
  • avoid installing game data in my ~/Documents folder as though that makes sense

I know it’s just a version 1.0 for the Mac, and I’m really excited about having access to my games, but heavens. It feels like a Windows app with a Halloween costume on.