An Experiment In Scotch

I write to discover what I believe

Notes On A Sermon – The Right Time

Then I felt too that I might take this opportunity to tie up a few loose ends, only of course loose ends can never be properly tied, one is always producing new ones. Time, like the sea, unties all knots… — Iris Murdoch in The Sea, The Sea

As God’s fellow workers, we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. For he says “In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.” I tell you, now is the tie of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.
II Corintians 6:1-2

Whereupon I begin a series of possibly 1 to N posts writing my thoughts down on the Sunday morning sermon at Kessler Park United Methodist Church. This Sunday we talked about time and our usage and abuse of it, our habit of treating it as an unlimited resource and our stewardship campaign of this year which is called Connect 52. A central theme of Connect 52 is giving an hour to God and possibly the church every week so that if everyone participated, we would collectively spend 52 hours each this year on God.

Of course, this likely caused some anxiety in those people prone to the disease as they wondered where in the clearly not unlimited supply of time they hold could they possibly find an extra hour. Reverend Magruder wanted to address this anxiety because finding that proverbial extra time in our not so unlimited time bucket was not the intent. The intent in fact is an analyzation of our usage of time to see if the way we currently spend our time is in fact both useful to God and to ourselves. The question is not “can you please find an extra hour in your week to spend with God and the church?” but instead “can you find an hour, any hour, not an extra hour, that you are currently spending frivolously and instead redirect that to a more meaningful use, a use for God or for growing relationships or giving back to the community?”

Framed in this way, the question becomes clear and anxiety free. Well, except that Rev. Magruder invoked the Death Clock as his main tool for bringing to the forefront our typical attitude towards time as an unlimited resource. The Death Clock tells you when you are going to die. It’s morbid. But it’s also surprisingly freeing in a Stoic way that causes us to confront our own impending death (and no matter what the Death Clock says, our deaths are impending from a geologic consideration of time). I’m going to die on September 21st, 2046 which saddens me because that’s before the State Fair of Texas starts that year. There is another Death Clock which apparently got their actuarial tables from some guy at State Farm whose cat just died as they are significantly more depressing. According to that site, I’m done for on Monday April 12th, 2038. The good news is I won’t have to pay taxes that year. Oddly, average male testers with my BMI have an average life span of 81.7 years. Death-clock.org must somehow know I had 3 donuts and a handful of Hershey’s kisses for lunch yesterday.

Regardless of the results of the fun sites above, I apparently have less than 30 years left and in the case of the latter, less than 20. I was sure I was going to live forever. Thinking about such things might in fact reintroduce the aforementioned anxiety regarding time even if the church didn’t selfishly want .03% of my remaining 169,995 hours. Or instead, the results might refocus one on things that matter and time wasted in a very limited lifespan. There is nothing that can be done about the time washed under the bridge at our feet and so we shouldn’t worry about the past. Also, nothing can be done with the time we have left though we can try to increase our allotment with healthy choices. Instead, only the moment is important and how we are spending it which is what II Corinthians 6:1-2 was saying.

Rev. Magruder then talked about what he thought were the four top ways we misallocate our time. The first was by spending too much time on work. I am fortunate in that this is not a problem for me mostly. I have come to a certain detente with my position at work and for the most part, never think about it at home and I rarely work extra hours. Others are not so lucky and spend an inordinate amount of their limited lives thinking about something for which they aren’t properly rewarded or considered. If you are working for The Man as they said in the 60s, you owe him no more of your life than the agreed upon 40 hours. Even if you don’t work in a salaried position, there is always the question of if spending time on work is better for you than spending it on something more rewarding.

The second big time misallocation is distraction, especially in our distracted, divisive anti-social world. We are regularly manipulated through our own actions and the actions of corporations vying for our eyeballs and money to spend our time in ways we may look back upon in disgust when the Death Clock man comes calling. iPhones apparently now have a way to see how many times you looked at your phone and what you did on it. Android P has something similar. I do struggle with this one as my 16.2K tweets can attest. Luckily, those 16.2K tweets are hilarious and widely read.

The third misallocation of time is not spending enough time with God. This of course almost goes without saying, even for those who regularly give to God and the church, as our society becomes less and less religious over time. Even for those who are non-believers, this can be phrased as not spending enough time doing things that improve society or community.

And the fourth misallocation is procrastination which is a massive loss of time for me. There is always tomorrow. I can work out tomorrow. I can stop eating carbs tomorrow. I can stop drinking tomorrow. I can write that novel or application or whatever tomorrow. But as the verse above points out, now is the appropriate time. There is no other more appropriate time then now to begin.

Facing the fact that time is rushing away through our fingers like sand at the beach can be depressing. Or it can be a way to refocus (or possibly focus for the first time for many of us) on what is important. With only 169,995 hours left, I better go do some pushups. And start writing a great deal more often.

Turks And Caicos Trip 2018

My employer’s semi-occasional trip to the Caribbean was this past weekend when we whisked off to Turks and Caicos for four days. This year, Harper had aged out of the “kids under 2 get to go” rule and so we had our first trip in two and a half years sans Wobbles. This was exciting and terrifying, lonesome and relieving all in one. We left on Thursday from DFW. When we got to the airport, we learned that there had been scheduling problems with the 767 we were supposed to fly on and that it was still in Italy. For a replacement, Atlas Air had decided to send us on one of their 747s which was big news. The plane sat 460+ people and since we only had around half that, there was plenty of room to go around. Alas, it wasn’t as James Bond-ish as I had hoped. There was an upper deck but it was just seats, no disco ball, no gold lame wallpaper. It was mostly just flying on a REALLY big plane. As a plane junky, I’m glad I got to do it but it wasn’t overly different than a 767.

Upon arrival to the T&C airport, we disembarked in a rain shower and proceeded through customs and immigration which for a Caribbean country went pretty smoothly. However, waiting for taxis to the resort was less so. There, the natural tendency towards inefficiency kicked in. It’s always shocking to first time travelers to these countries how different attitudes are towards getting anything done. As we stood in the taxi line for 30-45 minutes in the fall Caribbean heat, I was reminded of David Foster Wallace’s essay on cruise ship travel, highly recommended. Travelers, largely (and large, sometimes extra) American and European stagger off planes into the humidity of the tropics and expect to be whisked away to the lovely all-inclusive air conditioned resort enclave, the brochures of which they have been staring at longingly for weeks. Instead, they are met with the “taxi line” where four empty vans sit across the parking lot while a bunch of people with no apparent logic try to figure out what nine people out of the line of a thousand should get on the next van.

My first inclination is to attribute this to an intention to manage the experience whereupon the workers mean to keep people in the heat and misery so that when one gets to the resort, one is struck by the wonderful contrast and therefore thinks the resort actually is paradise. However, this would require coordination amongst multiple entities and frankly, coordinating multiple entities in the Caribbean is an impossibility. So I have to assume the taxi-line phenomenon is just an artifact of “island time” writ into employment. Nothing seems to happen with alacrity on an island there. In fact, alacrity is an oxymoron of sorts. Things can happen quickly or things can happen cheerfully but nothing can happen briskly and cheerfully. Return travelers know this going in yet still, the American tendency towards “things must be done NOW” is so ingrained that after 15 minutes of standing watching nothing happen, it becomes almost impossible not to take over the process.

Thankfully, the interminable wait eventually ended and we did arrive at Beaches Turks & Caicos which is a semi-walled resort on the north side of the main island. Here we checked in, were handed rum drinks and sent off to various rooms throughout the compound, all of which had the AC set on the Ice Age setting. Driving from the airport, it is fairly apparent to anyone with a sliver of observational skills (which is about a quarter of the van as everyone else is staring at their phones) that air conditioning is not a universal luxury on the island and in fact, almost no buildings seem to have it. Yet here, every room of the sixteen thousand or so rooms all have their thermometers set on “Turn the sweat dripping off the Americans into icicles”. Self awareness kicks in (I assume) and I am struck by this juxtaposition. The people of the island, who I might remind readers lived through a category 5 hurricane just the year before that devastated the island, have none of the luxuries we are affording ourselves of. Compounding the contrast is the fact that almost all of the tourists are white in shades ranging from Scandinavian Pale to New Jersey Mafia Gold to Italian Bronze, sponsored by Glidden while almost all of the workers are black. Knowing that many of the workers go back to homes at night with exactly none of the amenities we are enjoying makes clear that the majority of the money ends up in the coffers of some monolithic development company in one of the aforementioned very white countries. it raises a certain amount of touristic guilt. Making things worse, Turks doesn’t seem to be the kind of place you leave the resort much (though some intrepid people did) and so most money spent is not shared with the islanders.

So just as DFW noted in Shipping Out, there is something unbearably sad about the place, a place where rooms go for upwards of $2000 a night in the high season which is about 1/15th of the per capita GDP. While the experience is not nearly as structured for pleasure as it might be on a cruise ship, it is still quite controlled. Which is not to say it isn’t a very relaxing place to be especially if you are into having all the food and drink you want at pretty much any time you might want it. We ate 3, sometimes 4, meals a day. Occasionally, we had multiple entrees at the same meal because, well, it’s included. Diving was included which is the best part of the trip. Regardless of the rest of the experience, time spent in the water on a pristine, protected reef, is amazing. The dive boats were crowded this time but not overly so. We saw several large sharks, a big ray, turtles, barracuda, lobsters and a whole host of Caribbean fish. Grace Bay is a protected area and it shows. Just snorkeling off the beach resulted in seeing four sea turtles and tons of fish. It’s a marine paradise.

While on the trip, I read Goldeneye: Where Bond was Born. It’s the story of Ian Fleming’s time in Jamaica, a similar island paradise with similar political and cultural history (they were both British colonies, Jamaica achieved their independence in the 60s while T&C remains a British dependency). Jamaica was a rich creative source for Fleming but he lived there in drastically different circumstances than the ones under which we visited T&C. He bought a few acres on the north coast with a beach that had been only reachable by boat. He built a very spartan, masculine house where the ideas for Bond would be embellished and worked on in an ascetic atmosphere (though he still had a staff of 3 or 4 and plenty of fancy parties to go to. He wasn’t much of a party goer though).

During that time period, the rich of the Western world were discovering the Caribbean in general and Jamaica in particular. The country was undergoing many of the issues that I discussed earlier in becoming a resort destination. American hotels were being built frequently and the charms of colonial Jamaica were being lost. Many of those charms may seem nostalgic under close examination but there is no doubt that visitors at that time were forced to interact with the people of the country in ways that visitors to T&C are not. When one is whisked directly from the airport to a walled resort, it is easy to ignore any thorny cultural or political problems. I do recommend the book if you are a Bond fan or if you are interested in the history of the end of the British Empire. It struck me as being not dissimilar to what America may very well be going through today. Our exercise of empiric powers was never quite as overt as the British but there can be no doubt we have had our fingers in places throughout the world. When the British Empire began to crumble after WWII, many people such as Fleming (and Noel Coward, heavily discussed in this book) longed for the old times of the Empire, times when relations between races and peoples were more clear cut, less ambiguous and the native peoples didn’t make so much noise about independence and self governance. It is fascinating to read about Fleming’s experiences during this time period.

If you have the opportunity to visit Beaches Turks & Caicos, I do recommend it if you have a taste for extravagance and pampering. It is not a real experience in any meaningful way but for a brief time, you can experience what it is like to be rich and waited on for everything. Many of the guests are what one might consider nouveau riche. They bring entire families to a destination by plane where upon arrival, everything is handled. Dinners are all the same, regardless of location, not because the food is the same but because there are no real choices involved. Activities are structured and there is no real danger of having a terrible time. If you don’t like the food, order something else. There are no consequences, no searching, which I suppose is appealing to some people. But consequences are often the spice of life, the genesis of stories you tell as a family for years to come. In 12 months, I will remember nothing of the food or drinks I had this weekend. But six years later, I still remember the muffuletta from Frank’s after walking through the French Quarter in the late August heat of New Orleans in search of the restaurant. There was nothing pleasant about trying to find it, sweating in the New Orleans tropical weather, making wrong turns, etc. But then the cold beer, the attitude from the waitress, the sandwich itself, the time spent with a new found love of my life. All of those things are what make experiences memorable. Getting served two entrees because I couldn’t decide what I wanted while the staff probably went home to eat things they had to? Only memorable in its American ostentatiousness and gluttony.

It was odd to me this year to come back from the trip so unrelaxed. Much of that is due to other circumstances like owning two houses and the ongoing insanity at work. But I believe it’s also because I want real experiences now, not manufactured, all you can eat extravaganzas. Our daily life is “all you can eat” in many ways. Everything is already out our finger tips and visiting a place that provides that same thing in spades is boring in many ways, maybe all ways. I terribly enjoyed the ability to read for hours on end without too much interruption but that could have happened anywhere, in a campsite in the East Texas woods or at a small VRBO place on the Texas coast. I love the salt life, the diving, the beach and incredible blue waters of the eastern Caribbean but there are probably other ways to experience all of that.

As always, we wonder if this is the last trip for OT and there are plenty of signs it might be. It will be the last one for many of my coworkers who will move on to other places of employment. It is wonderful to work for an employer to provides this amazing perk but much like my ongoing ambivalence and confusion about my continued usages of Amazon, the trip causes me some level of anxiety, a certain amount of wallowing in American style guilt and a regular examination of the consequences of traveling to these locations without once venturing into the town to experience something less tourista and more local. I think our next family trip will likely be a trip to the coast but a coast that requires us to deal with consequences and contingencies and I am looking forward to it.

Western Roadtrip 2017 Part 2

This is the second installment of a multipart effort detailing last year’s two week road trip through the Western US. You can read the first one here.

Last time I talked briefly about Kantian ethics and the idea of Duty in the philosophy of morality. For Kant, utilitarianism (the most happiness for the most people) was insufficient as a source of morality and instead we had to rely on Categorical Imperatives, rules or maxims that are unconditional and universal. “Don’t murder” is a Categorical Imperative and for Kant, it was universal and objective. Which of course raises questions about application of the Imperative, in for instance, my current moment when the neighbor’s rooster is yet again crowing at 5:45 and I want to walk over and rip its head off and watch it run around and then fall over dead. “Always write a blog post about your family’s trip” is an imperative that isn’t Categorical because obviously, if we all had to do that, I would have had this series of essay’s completed last year to fulfill my duty to the Categorical.

Categorical Imperatives make up a deontological theory of morality where the system is based on a set of inviolable rules which is attractive to those of us who prefer to not deal with the messiness of people, i.e. engineers. However, there are some clear issues with this type of system. Do not murder means exactly that so then one has to further define what one does in a situation where one is attacked by someone intent on murder. Is it murder if you kill someone in self defense? What about war? What about preemptive war like what the US does these days with drones? When you think about it that way, maybe we could use a little more categorical imperative in our political world.

What does any of this have to do with a road trip with my little family? Nothing except that it’s things I contemplate as I look around the world and wonder about the state of it. It’s interesting to consider that at one time in the not so recent past, philosophy had large effects on the popular understanding of life. Philosophers were written about in newspapers and as recently as the 1950s and 60s, philosophy (existentialism) had a profound impact on the world. Today, it seems we lack any clear exposition of how to live our lives, how to interpret the events of the world, how to make things better. Without the guiding force of the nuclear family and with the further degradation of religion in the Western world and with nothing like a coherent philosophy of morals to replace those things, we have become largely a narcissistic ephemeral society with no larger meaning expressed in our lives. Categorical Imperatives start to sound useful in a situation like this where it seems like no imperatives at all exist in our society other than if you can yell the loudest, you get heard.

While Kant’s philosophy is probably too restrictive and has serious implications for our (overly?) liberal political world, it’s interesting to consider what the imposition of Categorical Imperatives might cause. For example “Always be fair” seems like an interesting start to me as it would refocus our narcissistic attentions away from our own little world and refocus them where it matters, on our interactions with other people. Studies show that children, from an early age, seem to deeply understand the concept of fairness though those kids haven’t chatted with my kid about who gets to play with Melmo (Elmo). So one has to wonder where things start to go wrong?

Probably enough contemplating our (lack of) moral philosophy, it’s not what you came here to read. Unless Google sent you here in search of ramblings about Kant to which I have to say I’m deeply sorry.

Wednesday, August 16th 2017
Miles traveled: 161

Our Campsite the morning we left Navajo and a view of the lake.

We left at 11 AM and I have no notes as to why the start was so late. I think we were just enjoying the mountain air and the view across the lake. In the last installment, I forgot to mention eating at Joseph’s Bar & Grill on old Route 66 in Santa Rosa, NM. One of those places that appear in idealized memories of a bygone era, Joseph’s has been around since the 50s and is a fun place to stop. It’s off the main highway but anything of value is off the highway. We met other traveler’s and talked about destinations and where we were headed. Harper got to run around with other kids and explore the gift shop.

It’s always interesting to me how some places survive the changes of technology and progress while others fade away. What are the reasons why Joseph’s is still around but other nameless places are not? How much of it is talent or work or effort and how much of it is sheer accident, contingency, luck? We hate to think about how much of our life is accidental because it seems to negate our own agency but the fact of the matter is that everything about humanity is contingent, effects building up over time of random accident. I’m glad Joseph’s survived even though others did not.

Leaving Navajo, we had a plan and that was to get to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. This seemed totally doable, it’s only 161 miles from Navajo and we’d had a day of rest. Of course, as with much in life, doable plans some times go awry. This was our first day driving in the passes in Colorado and let me just tell you, dragging a trailer with a big truck on the plains of Texas is drastically different than the passes in Colorado. To this day, I’m pretty sure I still have nightmares about making a mistake and tumbling over the side into oblivion. I can’t imagine what semi drivers deal with.

The trip up to Durango and over to Silverton and Ouray was both beautiful and nerve wracking. We stopped in Silverton for lunch at the Brown Bear Cafe and wished for more time to explore this small town filled with Harley riders and tourists taking the train to Durango. But we loaded back up and headed up the Million Dollar Highway towards Ouray. This is an incredible drive, more so from the passenger seat I presume. Once you come back down out of the mountains, you head across the plains towards Montrose. If you know anything of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, this seems confusing. This park is supposed to be a magnificent canyon, one that is awe inspiring and breathtaking yet here you are driving across mostly flat plains as the GPS says 60 more minutes. Then you head east out of Montrose and start climbing up what seems to be an average hill in Colorado. As you enter the park, you still don’t really see how this could be such a big deal.

But once inside the park, this chasm, this rift in the earth suddenly appears out of nowhere. Luckily, you don’t have to drive very close to the edge and we’d already parked the trailer at our campsite. I’d had enough of near death hallucinations pulling a trailer for one day. It’s one of the most awe inspiring vistas you can see in a state with more than its share of inspiring vistas. Pictures don’t really do the place justice, at least not the pictures I took. We stayed here two days taking in the place, spending a chunk of one day down on the river learning about the crazy people who used to try to explore the entire canyon.

All along our journey, we encountered historical figures who attempted incredible feats or took these incredible risks to try and accomplish something that had never been done before. The Gunnison river was the first of these areas that drew people like moths to the light of adventure and (I suspect) fame. The Uncompahgre Valley just west of the canyon was essentially a desert before the 1920s. People living there came up with an idea to dig a tunnel from the Gunnison river through the canyon wall to the valley to provide irrigation water. I can’t imagine thinking such a thing is feasible today with the technology we have but in 1900, I would have thought it ludicrous. But of course, after four years of toil, those crazy people built the tunnel in 1909. I wonder who their JIRA admin was?

Next up, we head towards the desert and the heat and Dinosaur National Monument.


Joseph’s Menu and History


Molas Pass


Molas Pass


Day one hike at Black Canyon


Sunset our last night in Black Canyon

On A Two Week Roadtrip

This is going to be a multipart effort designed to catalogue last year’s road trip. Also, I need to throw away the sack of brochures I have been keeping around for a year.

I have been reading a great deal of moral philosophy lately. Well, “a great deal” is like 4 pages a day because it’s HARD but that’s 4 more pages then almost all of my readers so it qualifies as “a great deal” if you ask me. My reading has been predominantly focused on Plato, Kant, Wittgenstein and how we derive or justify morality in an increasingly secular world. Luckily I haven’t had to read all of those people because that’s craziness. Instead I’m reading Metaphysics as a Guide To Morals. For most of my readers, stick with me because this essay isn’t actually about moral philosophy, at least not primarily. I promise to be just as entertaining as I typically am.

One of the main developments of moral philosophy was Kantian ethics (also called duty ethics and I just made you say “doody”) wherein there are two types of duties (types of doodies), perfect and imperfect. A perfect duty is one that everyone must follow. Kant believed you should never lie under any circumstances because once you decide it’s OK to lie in this one instance, the line becomes fuzzy and you can convince yourself to lie in lots of other circumstances, mostly to yourself when you say things like “Yeah it totally makes sense to put the house on the market immediately after a six month ordeal of getting a crazy successful play up and running”. I digress. An imperfect duty is something like giving to charity. Yeah you should do it but how much? How often? That’s pretty much up to you and Kant wasn’t going to bust into your home and fill out that Paypal form for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital.

What does any of this have to do with a two week road trip? Nothing really except I needed an intro and I feel an imperfect duty (it’s clearly imperfect since it took 12 months to complete) to write about our travels as a way of cataloging our lives for the time 18 years from now when Harper is in therapy and needs to track her violent crime spree back to something and she can remember through my words about the time we spent fourteen days in a tiny trailer for no apparent reason whatsoever. It’s enough to make anyone homicidal.

Sunday, August 13th, 2017
Miles traveled: 349
We planned to get an early start and so we left at 11:40 AM. Plans are for work, random late starts are for vacations. We drove to Amarillo and stayed the night with my parents, the last time we’d see a non-camping shower and toilet for 10 days. In fictional literature and education, this is what’s called a harbinger. Typically harbingers are for bad things like when the Raven shows up on Poe’s doorstep. This is no different. It was nice to spend a night with my parents.

Monday, August 14th, 2017
Miles traveled: 461
We left at 9:20 AM which actually is early in the grand scheme of organizing a one year old and also knowing this is the last time in ten days you’ll be in a bed that wasn’t purchased at a camping store. We didn’t really have any clear plan other than to head towards Pagosa Springs. Not having a plan is the defining characteristic of the quintessential Western road trip you idealize in your head. Not having a plan with a one year old in a car seat is the defining characteristic of madness. Still, we drove and drove and ended up in Navajo State Park which is actually 35 miles past Pagosa Springs. We actually did have a plan and that was to make it to the mountains on day two so that the rest of the trip could be somewhat more leisurely. Mission Accomplished.

We arrived at Navajo right at sunset. The park is on a huge lake that spans the Colorado and New Mexico border. It’s very beautiful. We ended up staying in Navajo for 2 nights which was pretty much the pattern everywhere we went. We decided that it was more fun to do slightly fewer parks but for longer periods of time. We (the Royal We, where it’s defined by “Brett”) also thought packing up every piece of gear every morning and getting it back out every night sounded insane. We spent time exploring Navajo and just enjoying being somewhere that was cool in the morning and pleasant in the afternoon. There are some great trails at the park, none particularly long, and they are well suited for families like ours. The lake was created by the damming the San Juan River but at the beginning of the lake is the San Juan and the Piedra confluence which you can explore.

Navajo has some large campsites and we spent some time ogling the massive trailers that some people were hanging out in. At this point in the vacation, we were still in the honeymoon phase and while later, we would ogle these types of trailers with insane jealousy and plans of a coup, it was mostly just fun to see the varieties, from tents all the way up to trailers that were larger than my first three apartments combined.

I seem to recall some attempt to get milk or other necessary good on 8/15 where I drove 20 miles or so up some random road looking for a convenience store at 7 PM at night. I also recall total failure in this attempt. Luckily, there are no notes in the Bullet Journal to catalogue this failure.

On Wednesday morning, we packed everything up and headed for Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. I think based on today’s millennial attention span and my need for feedback and closure, I’ll break this retroactive travel journal into multiple posts. I can’t promise I’ll do one every day until it’s done but one needs goals. And plans.

What Will It Take

What does one do about gun violence in America? What does one do? As Dr. Brian Williams says in the production of Babel, if 20 dead white kids in Sandy Hook can’t rally America and her Congress to do even the simplest of things like a universal background check which 90% (read that again, NINETY PERCENT) of Americans supports, what can happen to foster change?

This speaks to a more fundamental problem with America today, this disconnect between her citizens and her elected leaders. This is an idea that 9 in 10 Americans supports including 70% of NRA members yet when legislation comes up after Sandy Hook to implement universal background checks before purchasing a gun, it gets voted down in the Senate. What can we possibly hope to achieve or change when 20 white kids get shot at their school and nothing changes?

Fundamentally, I think this underlying issue is why both Obama in 2008 and Trump in 2016 were elected, each by their own movements but for a core reason: the American people want something to change. They may not know what that is but they know what we have is no longer working. And so they elected a young, African American Senator in 2008 hoping for change. Contrary to the Democratic elite’s public line, they got very little. So another faction in America took control and elected a total outsider to the process, someone who ran as a populist but that has turned out to be an authoritarian crazy person. Change doesn’t particularly seem forthcoming in this administration either. The oligarchs remain fully entrenched. So at what point do the American people, badly underserved by the financialized political system that has evolved out of Wall Street and Citizens United, decide to do something even more radical than Trump?

In the comforts of our homes with our big screen TVs purchased on credit, we largely remain distracted, too distracted to actually do anything. It seems crazy to think of a revolution in this country, a real revolution, but revolutions have happened in countries like ours in the past and the comfortable in those countries never saw it coming.

I don’t have any real answers. I feel compelled in many ways to try to impart change but my day to day life is so overwhelming that I can’t even imagine when to contribute time to a cause. I can only assume it is worse for people in worse situations then I am so when change comes, it seems likely to originate from places and people so bad off that they don’t even operate in the normal channels of change in America. And maybe those channels only exist in the minds of idealists and academics anyway.

When we can’t get a protection or a law voted on in Congress that 90% of Americans support yet every day laws are written by our elected leaders that no one has read except the lobbyists that crafted them, it just seems like we’re ripe for a different kind of change to sweep the land, a stronger, more violent change riding on a wind of oppression and apathy, a change that stops being civilized and starts being a great deal more animalistic. Perhaps we are too distracted by our lives of convenience but societies rise and fall throughout history so there is nothing special saying it couldn’t happen here.

As of February of this year, there have been 63 school shootings as defined conservatively by Time using EveryTown.org’s data on school shootings. 63 times some idiot or deranged person has walked onto a school campus and shot people. Yet nothing changes. Today, we send our kids to schools across the land and squash those insidious fears in the back of our head that today, it could be our school that it happens to. Maybe the thought of the event is just so alien and horrifying, that the part of our brain that might rationally act to foster change can’t function. Maybe our lives, like mine, are so worn down by the day to day demands that we can’t even be brought to write a letter to an elected representative. Maybe the problem is so broad and so complex that we don’t know where to even start. But it strikes me as problematic that our kids are being killed by weapons of war in places they should be most safe and we are doing nothing about it.

Why can’t we institute universal background checks? I guess it’s because the people who could demand it are so overwhelmed or apathetic or desensitized to events in the world and can’t be bothered to do the hard work of forcing our leaders to implement our collective will. But it’s even more fundamental to that. Our elected leaders know that when these horrific events happen, they are seemingly random anomalies that in our 24 hour news cycle will grab headlines one day and disappear from the collective conscious the next. There is no pressure, no constant throbbing pressure to change because all we do is move to the next link on a web page. Until it happens that enough people stay engaged for long enough to convince the idiots we elect to actually do something, the status quo remains. Only at Presidential election time does the populace seem sufficiently organized and focused to do something crazy. I can’t imagine what it will take in America to actually make a difference at a national level. Ironically, I’m not sure I’ll be able to stand it when it does happen.

On Reading Deprivation

For years now, approximately 4 at least, I have been trying half and quarter heartedly to work through The Artist’s Way. Just this year, I have tried three times to complete the course, never making it past the third week (which is about the time that all habits, good and bad, die on the vine). But finally after the beach trip and somewhat seriously into a Whole 30 experiment, I have managed, for the first time ever, to make it past week 3 and into week 4. Leaving aside the fact that I skipped week 1 entirely this time, it feels good to charter new territory.

However, that territory comes with the hardest task yet. It’s called Reading Deprivation and like its evil twin cousin Donut Deprivation, it leaves a mark on the soul and the tongue. Reading Deprivation is exactly that: other than the chapter in the book and the tasks for week 4, the initiate on the Artist’s Way is not allowed to read things. Like books or blog posts or Twitter or even watch TV. For a person that has of late been both very active in the book world and the Twitter world, the effect is quite jarring. One quote from the book goes like this:

The nasty bottom line is this: sooner or later, if you are not reading, you will run out of work and be forced to play. You’ll light some incense or put on an old jazz record or paint a shelf turquoise, and then you will feel not just better but actually a little excited. Don’t read. If you can’t think of anything else to do, cha-cha.

The idea obviously being that if you can’t distract yourself with reading (the book, written in 1992, predates the literary addictiveness of Twitter and Facebook but it alludes to our narcissistic self-absorbed world when it talks about the banality of TV), you’ll eventually produce something. I am on day three of this nefarious, likely Russian based, form of torture and it has been somewhat eye opening. Previously, if I gave up social media, I still read books or magazines or whatever. But with this, nothing is easy. Nothing comes to hand to distract. If I had a shelf to paint turquoise, I would have done so. If I was a bachelor, I would have built a table in the garage or would be playing my sax. Part of the problem of having a two year old is having to be somewhat quiet once they go to bed.

On the upside, unlike Donut Deprivation, it’s actually quite pleasurable to replace reading with something productive like coding or writing exercises or pushups. Today on the train, I listened to Dexter Gordon’s Take The A Train. And by listen, I mean really listen, to the tone of the sax, to the bass solos, to everything. I experienced the record as if I was sitting in the Jazzhus Montmarte on that night in 1967 when Gordon took the stage and welcomed the audience as an integral part of the proceedings.

At church on Sunday, Dr. Magruder talked about reading the Scripture from a sense of place, of context, an idea that stems from Wittgenstein and Derrida and the Structuralists in many ways. With Decartes, there was an idea of a single moment being useful and telling. Cogito ergo sum, I think, therefore I am. As if this single moment could be of use to us in our understanding of ourselves, our reality, our world. But in truth, only in the context of all the other events that lead up to this moment can we really understand the now and its meaning. It’s important to think about these things and examine them, not just as we read Scripture, but in everything else because without that context, we tend to be lost in ego, in selfishness and in pettiness. The context of our history brings, or should bring, humility to our understanding of ourselves and of our present moment. The context of this contingency, the fact that an infinite number of events had to happen in a particular order to allow us to arrive at our present moves our attention from inner to outer. Matthew Crawford’s excellent book The World Beyond Your Head examines this idea in wonderful detail. The answer to happiness comes not in better understanding our jumbled up inner lives, it comes from moving our attention to the intersection with our noumenal inner world and the phenomenal empirical world.

Reading deprivation does something similar in that it causes me to be focused clearly and without distraction on a single thing and with that focus comes the context of the event in my imagination. Reading deprivation allows (forces?) me to explore other avenues of time consumption and does so in a way that the time is spent actively and not passively. In those moments when I would have reached, metaphorically, for Twitter, I now have to either spend it pointlessly thinking about things in my head or doing something productive.

Which is not to say reading doesn’t have its place. I’m already looking forward to next Tuesday when I can continue to read Metaphysics as a Guide To Morals. As much as I enjoyed Gordon’s saxophone today, there is something about reading a difficult book that is pleasurable and challenging. But for now, and the next four days, I’ll have to continue to find other ways to stay entertained. If nothings else, I always have the cha-cha. I should probably pull the drapes closed first though.

On Free Lemon Bundt Cake

First, a little history. The house across the street has sat empty for approximately twelve months, perhaps fifteen. An old man and his second wife built it in the 1960s. Last year in the winter, the old man died after a long illness. Oddly, the woman and her adult daughter who had been living there abruptly moved out. We discovered from the daughter, named Princess, that as it turns out, the old man was something of a scoundrel and had taken out a second mortgage without telling his wife. Further, they had little equity left in it and suddenly the clan of the old man, quite uninterested in his well-being in life, showed back up in death to contest the house.

And so it sat, a small house, around 1700 square feet all summer and fall and winter again until spring. Still it sits there actually, in the name of the estate of Mr so and so. However, I now have a mobile near two year old who I once took across the street to race cars in the drive way and who then assumed we would go over there every day to do the same as well as climb on the higher steps and bang on the door that no one ever answers.

Today, we wandered across the street, me holding Wobbles hand according to our rules and our custom. She immediately ran up the steps and I noticed there amongst the flyers that fall off the door and accumulate on the porch, a red package. Odd, I thought, a package on the door step of an empty house left weatherized and sullen through a Dallas summer and a Dallas winter. Wobbles ran up and down the steps a few times before noticing the package which she then picked up. Curiosity got the best of me and I mounted the steps to find out what misguided company had placed a package on a porch that had seen no steps in over twelve months. I thought perhaps that it was wrongly delivered and being somewhat human, I assumed I could find its rightful owner.

The package was from The Swiss Colony which is not some pacifist terrorist organization as one might expect but instead a company in Wisconsin that sells a variety of baked goods, meats and cheeses, nuts and snacks, all through the convenience of mail order catalogs. It’s like Schwann’s but without the trucks driving around the neighborhoods. Three of my four readers have no idea what I’m talking about when I say Schwann’s. That’s ok.

Anyway, so here is this red package from The Swiss Colony which I hold in my hands. The addressee is the very woman that was mistreated by the dead scoundrel which is somewhat surprising given her non-existence at this residence of over twelve months. The package has a big sticker on it saying PERISHABLE – REFRIGERATE AT ONCE 23 OZ LEMON BUNDT CAKE. Enquiring minds want to know who sends a perishable item to a house no one has lived in for over twelve months. Then I notice that on the label, the gifter is listed: We love you Mom, Anne and Kirk. We don’t apparently love you enough to remember twelve months later that you no longer live at this address but still. I made that last part up.

So immediately the imagination begins to run amok. I try to think of simple reasons why something so crazy might happen. Perhaps they have an account with The Swiss Colony, this loving daughter and son-in-law or son and daughter-in-law and they just forgot to update the fact that their mother no longer lives at this particular address before they sent the yearly birthday gift from The Swiss Colony. But seriously, who in this day has an account with The Swiss Colony besides landlocked and bored Midwesterners? Perhaps these people are exactly that.

Or maybe it’s a son and daughter-in-law and it’s always the son who doesn’t remember these things because he’s busy doing man things and can’t be bothered to remember even call much less remember where his mom lives. Just last week, she probably called him to nag that “you never call me” and he felt momentarily guilty and sent her a cake unironically to the wrong address.

Perhaps they are estranged and just got news through the telegram service that their father-in-law is dead and they are trying to snuggle up to the estate. Pardon the telegram service thing, been reading a lot of mid twentieth century Southern Lit lately. Probably not the answer.

Then things get darker. Maybe they’ve got some reason for sending a cake twelve months after their mom moved out of the house she never really owned. Maybe they have a beef with the sister who has constant access to Mom and they are trying to poison her. Or worse, give her diabetes. Maybe no one told them she had moved because the daughter, Princess, wants to cut them out of the will, leaving aside the fact there can’t be much will since the house was reverse mortgaged and they left when they didn’t have any equity in it. The nefarious possibilities seem endless.

In the end, I have no idea. But my thoughts then turn to the fact that I have a lemon bundt cake in my hands that, based on Wobbles and my trips across the street, has sat outside for up to two days. Still, I’m a human being and go inside to ask the wife if she has the contact information of Princess. She does and texts her asking if she wants this waylaid cake or even knows that it exists. A reply text says that they realized their mistake and sent another. Convenient cover story but my interests are now with the cake

So what exactly is the statute of limitations on a lemon bundt cake, one of my favorites, that has possibly sat on a forlorn porch for up to two days in the late spring heat of Dallas Texas? I put in the fridge and upon putting Wobbles to bed and eating left over Buca di Beppo, decide that the statue of limitations for something with as many preservatives as this cake must have in it is probably a week at least. I open the package and cut a generous slice. It is moist and tasty, exactly what I would expect from a mail order bundt cake. My aunt Jan Cook makes a far superior cake but then it would be surprising if she did not. Still, free cake makes the trip across the street with Wobbles completely justified.

The cake has gone back into the freezer, questions largely unanswered about Anne and Kirk. I wonder if they sit in their quiet Midwestern home tonight, believing they have delivered a fitting Mother’s Day gift to their wonderful mom. Or perhaps, they are in their car at the bottom of some lake and the murderer has sent the gift as an alibi, not realizing that by delivering it to an address no longer in use, he has doomed himself to discovery by the intrepid hero of this story, the detective who recovers from alcoholism to solve the case.

I probably shouldn’t be reading much more Eudora Welty.

All The Pretty Horsies

From time immemorial, I have struggled with procrastination. Here it is, the night before our first window is open and I am just sitting down to write All The Pretty Horsies. Not only that but for the last hour, I’ve been screwing around on Twitter and chatting with my boss’ boss about work and doing nothing related to actually writing this tome that takes hours of reading Past Performances and distilling them down to what I hope are semi-hilarious findings, none of which should be the basis for any bets you place on any horse.

And this year, nature conspired against me in sending a lung eating virus to infect everyone in the household and it is only through the wonder of my Wolverine-like immune system that I’m even able to function today. But enough about excuses, I suppose we should get down to the writing. This quote from last year’s entry should remain at the top of your mind as you read along:

One thing you should keep in mind at all times while reading the following is that I have almost no idea what I’m doing. You will forget this at your own peril. I know next to nothing about horse racing other than what I have gleaned from reading the Daily Racing Form over the past years and while that is likely infinitely more than you know, you should still not trust anything I say. As the evening wears on and the bourbon takes effect, I may become more witty or engaging or funny but at no time will I become a better judge of horse flesh. You have been warned. Horses are followed by odds as of this evening along with trainer and jockey.

If you are a patron of Darly Downs and not a random passerby caught in the glare of the following prose, you should also remember that it’s quite possible one or more of the horses below won’t make it into the Derby, either because of injury or the owner’s failure to pay the requisite fees. If you bet on a horse that doesn’t get in, it’s a donation. In 2015, Stanford was a pretty solid favorite and he got scratched on Wednesday after everyone put their money on him. A word of advice, don’t put all your money on one horse. But then, that goes exactly contrary to one School of Handicapping in another related document so what do I know.

We’ll start with the current favorites and move our way down the list. In the 7 or 8 years I’ve been running this pool, I have yet to write about all 20 likely entrants. In some years, this has caused me great despair like when Mine That Bird and Animal Kingdom won as 50-1 long shots. In other years, like 2016, it just meant I didn’t write about the horsie that came in second (Commanding Curve). I will try to write at least something about all horses but we’re already 500 words and 2 fingers of rum in without any words about horses.

Horses are listed by name then opening odds then trainer then jockey.

Justify 3-1 (Baffert/Mike Smith) – Sigh, I suppose we had to have a Baffert trained horse rise to the top some year but it’s been nice of late hearing less of him. This horse is fast. Really fast. Fastest of the year if you are going on the Beyer numbers in which he ran three triple digits this year including fastest of the year at 107 in his last win at Santa Anita. It’s Baffert so he knows how to win the Derby. Mike Smith is a good jockey though he hasn’t had much luck at the Derby, winning once in 2005. All of that means he should win right? Not so fast. The most damning evidence against this horse is that he wasn’t raced as a 2 year old. Racing a two year old? That sounds like child abuse. But in horse racing, it’s a heuristic that tells you how experienced a horse is. This horse is as green as the Jolly Green Giant. The Derby hasn’t been won by horse that didn’t race as a two year old since 1882. It’s called Apollo’s Curse. The data minded amongst you are mumbling about small data sets and maybe you’re right. But the real problem with unexperienced horses is that the Derby is like nothing man or horse has ever experienced. According to the DRF Derby Fan guide, it says this horse got distracted by commotion on the infield. There were 40K spectators then. At the Derby, there will be 160K all screaming and spilling their juleps and generally being obnoxious. Not to mention, the Derby has 20 horses in it. He’s going to get bumped and crashed into and have dirt kicked in his face a little probably. Maybe this horse has value at 6-1 or something but I just don’t see him being the one that breaks Apollo’s curse.

Mendelssohn 5-1 (Aidan P. O’Brien/Ryan Moore) This horse is a half brother to Justify, both sired by Scat Daddy. If you’re a bloodline bettor, that is probably a good thing. This horse has the second fastest Beyer of the year at 106, run at the UAE Derby. The UAE Derby is run in the United Arab Emirates (hence the UAE) and no horse that’s won there has ever been particularly competitive at the actual Derby over here in the Land of the Free. I like to think that’s because God is a horse bettor but I may be biased. Really what it is is that the UAE Derby is a metric shit ton of miles away from Louisville and there might just be something to the idea that flying a huge horse over here to race isn’t that great for them. This horse, like Justify, has to overcome some serious history to win at the Derby. On the upside, he won the UAE Derby by 18.5 lengths against subpar competition so at least he didn’t let up. His trainer is one of the best if not the best in the business. On the downside, I don’t think you should name your horse after a romantic composer. This horse is talented but not sure there’s much value for him in our pool.

Magnum Moon 6-1 (Pletcher/Luis Saez) – This is another horse that is fighting the Curse of Apollo, not having raced as a juvenile. He’s been pretty good in his last 4 races though winning all four without much challenge. He’s run different styles (fast, pace, stalker) and won them all which bodes well for the Derby. But it’s that experience thing that always comes back to worry me. The Derby is a unique experience. We don’t typically wonder what it’s like to be a horse but imagine coming from your quiet little race track at the Arkansas Derby where you kicked dirt in the faces of the other 8 horses you face and then being led out into the craziness of the Derby where 160,000 people will be yelling at you and 19 other horses will be trying to kick your ass. I just don’t see it happening.

Audible 8-1 (Pletcher/Javier Castellano) Despite being named after an Amazon buyout victim or maybe something Peyton Manning used to do a lot, this horse has some potential, especially at 8-1 or higher. He’s won four straight and has gotten faster with each race. He ran a 99 Beyer in winning his last race, the Florida Derby. Always Dreaming, last year’s winner, also won the Florida Derby, was trained by Pletcher and ran a similar 97 Beyer. This horse hasn’t raced since March 31st so he’s well rested. The main drawback is that he hasn’t really beaten any other horsies of note. Lots of his competition was crummy and so it’s hard to think he’s going to change that here where all the talent is in the same race. Additionally, he’s in the 5 Post which makes it really hard without a good jump to have a decent trip. Both Justify and Mendelssohn have better post positions and so unless Audible can get to the front without being collapsed on, he might get stuck.

Bolt d’Oro 8-1 (Mick Ruis/Victor Espinoza) – Every year somebody’s got to go name their horse something cute like Bolt of Gold. In his defense, his sire was Medaglia d’Oro which roughly translates to Made His Owner A Shit Ton of Money At Stud. This horse has Rachel Alexandra in his bloodline which is a good thing. He also doesn’t violate the Stupid Horse Names Don’t Win the Derby though he slightly flirts with it. The Golden Bolt finished second at Santa Anita to Justify recording a 103 Beyer and was a very strong two year old. This horse was the early Derby favorite but has largely been forgotten by the betting crowd and that’s a good thing. I don’t know who Mick Ruis is (this is his first Derby) but Espinoza has won 3 Derbies, most recently aboard American Pharaoh in 2015. I like this horse at somewhere north of 10-1 and he might get there in our little field of 20 bettors. This horse has heart and heart wins the Derby a lot.

Good God, an hour of writing, two bowls of Rice Chex, a large glass of wine, 1500 words and we’re only 5 horses in. This is why we can’t have nice things. The Royal we of course since I’m the only one reading any of this at this point.

Good Magic 12-1 (Chad C. Brown/Jose Ortiz) – This horsie has heart in spades and will be flying way under the radar after being an early Derby favorite. I hope all of the other fine patrons of Darly Downs has fallen asleep and don’t get too interested in this horse. He had a Beyer of 100 in the Breeders Cup Juvenile way back in November and then had a disastrous trip in the Fountain of Youth where he basically looked like a mob victim in cement shoes. He rebounded in winning the Bluegrass Stakes with a reasonable 95 Beyer and looks to be improving. The notes from the Bluegrass say he came out strong and drove clear which is just what he’ll need to do in the 6 Post at the Derby. The Brown-Ortiz combo is a formidable one and he has Curlin as a sire who has been throwing off sperm that wins big races since 2013. Gregor Mendel might have been on to something with this genetics thing.

Vino Rosso 12-1 (Pletcher/John Velazquez) – This horse has great bloodlines just like Good Magic, his half brother on the sire’s side. His dam is a half sister to Commissioner who was a great long distance racer. So he has the heritage to win this race. He improved greatly in his last race, the Wood Memorial. Alas, he seems to have had trouble with crowds before that and they put new blinkers (the things on the horses head to keep them looking forward, not turn blinkers. They only turn left in the Derby anyway) on him in the Wood. Jittery horses that need blinkers to win the Wood do not engender confidence on my part in the Derby. Plus his name is pretty lame. On the good side, Pletcher and Velazquez won last year’s Derby so maybe they are on a hot streak.

Hofburg 20-1 (William I. Mott/Irad Ortiz Jr.) – This horse is inexperienced but improving. He has a world class trainer and might be a really good value at 20-1 especially in boxes or trifectas or other exotic bets. The problem is, none of those pay off at Darly Downs. We only like winners and for this horse to be a winner at the Derby, he’s going to have to dramatically improve on his second place finish at the Florida Derby where he was beaten by Audible. His sire is Tapit who is known for siring Belmont Stake winners, the much longer race in June. All that said, he seems to be making great leaps towards figuring out how to run races and might be worth a shekel or two at higher odds. But keep him in mind for the Belmont in a month where I really like his chances especially if he skips the Preakness.

Promises Fulfilled 30-1 (Romans/Lanerie) – On the upside, Corey Lanerie knows the Derby and this horse has an affinity for the track. He’s a fast horse who might be aided by a slower pace that he could rest on early and sprint to the finish. Unfortunately, in his tune up race at the Florida Derby, he ran a 47 Beyer (which is as slow as that character from Flowers for Algernon) and decided to start walking in the final turn. Hint: Horses that like to walk in final turns only win the Derby if there’s been a fortunate meteor strike. If you think the pace might be slow for this Derby (which is not the consensus opinion), he has value as a 50-1 longshot. Otherwise, save your money for more important things like dentures or something.

Flameaway 30-1 (Mark Casse/Jose Lezcano) – Flameaway is probably a throwaway but he has won 5 of his last 9 and was second once to the far more talented Good Magic. His Beyer times are increasing rapidly which is a good thing for horsies in the spring and the Derby but there doesn’t seem to be much in his bloodline (though he is another offspring of Scat Daddy making him a half brother to a couple of our favorites) that says he’ll be good at this distance and he struggled in his only start last year at Churchill. However, he is improving and worth a shekel or two at the odds you might see here at Darly Downs.

My Boy Jack 30-1 (Desormeaux/Desormeaux) – His mom’s name is Gold N Shaft which is what I call your mom when we fight. Or something. This horse has a bad case of the thirds. As in that’s pretty much where he finishes most of his races. He’s a closer which is good for the Derby but he hasn’t shown enough heart to make anyone think he can close at the length of the Derby. He is the most experienced in the field (which is also what I call your mom) at 10 races but 10 races of mediocrity does not a Derby contender make. He’s in the field because we need 20 horses, not because he might win.

Enticed 30-1 (Kiaran McLaughlin/Junior Alvarado) – This horse is enticing at 30-1 because he has the speed and chops to win this assuming he makes a big jump in speed. He wasn’t there yet in his last race but he won the Gotham with a 95 Beyer before that and then came in second (lost in Ricky Bobby voice) to Vino Rosso in the Wood Memorial. There is probably zero chance he makes the leap but with the right trip and a decent pace, he could show some heart and win it as a big underdog.

Solomini 30-1 (Baffert/Prat) – This horse hasn’t decided what he wants to be when he grows up. Right now, he’s been flunking out of school on trust fund money but has shown some flashes of deciding he wants to become a valedictorian with a late flourish. Personally, I don’t see him making the leap until he has a couple more races under his belt but it’s the Derby so you never know. At > 30-1, you’d hate to see him come through with you having nothing on him.

Noble Indy 30-1 (Pletcher/Geroux) – 30-1 coming from post 19? No thanks. Still, he won the Louisiana Derby and has been steadily and consistently improving his speed in his last four races (77, 86, 91, 95). He’s going to have to have a magnificent trip, either a quick first step (which he’s actually had trouble with in several races) or making a beeline for the rail and getting lucky enough to get through the crowd late.

That’s 14 of 20 horses and covers all but the longshots at 50-1. Calling it quits before I die of tuberculosis which is what it feels like I have.

On A Life Well Played

I recently finished Arnold Palmer’s autobiography A Life Well Played and it was a wonderful reminder of the man’s class, dignity and personality. In it, he remembers the great moments of his life as well as many of the worst. He talks about the influence of his father on his life and how that was the defining characteristic of every thing he did in life. His father was a typical man of the early 20th century. There was little softness in him but he clearly cared for and loved his family. He didn’t want to be his children’s best friend. He wanted to provide them the direction and the guidance necessary to have successful lives. Arnold followed his lead.

In today’s world of narcissism, it’s refreshing to hear stories of Palmer giving back to his fans, to his community, to society at large. He also tried to pass these values on to other people. One of the chapters talks about appearance and the way you are seen in public. Palmer was always conscious of his image, not because of how handsome he thought he was or to impress other people but as a way to express how things ought to be. He once ran into a young tour player who hadn’t gotten too close to the razor one morning before a practice round at Palmer’s tournament at Bay Hill. Palmer told him that he hoped the next time he saw him on the course that he would be clean shaven. Today, we see that as an invasion of someone’s right of expression. But perhaps we’ve gone too far in our relaxation of what is correct when it comes to public appearance. Maybe this relaxation of norms actually has deeper philosophical implications when it comes to self-discipline and self regulation.

We worry about being too hard on our kids or possibly not being considered their friends. I think about this a lot now that I have a little genetic clone of myself running around the house. Somewhere along the past 100 years, social norms concerning child raising have changed, often drastically and in a way that leaves our kids unprepared for what they face outside the home. Palmer was prepared for life because his father had been laser focused on raising him to be a man regardless of the result of a pro golf career. He was taught sportsmanship and hard work and discipline. Then when the time came that he needed those lessons to lean on, he had them at hand.

Palmer once got mad during a junior golf tournament and threw a club. He ended up winning the tournament and was congratulated by his friends and the gallery. But on the ride home, his father told him that if he ever threw a golf club on the golf course again, he’d never play golf again. Self control and graciousness are more important than winning. I wonder how many fathers (or mothers) would do the same thing today in the same circumstance or with the same force.

Self discipline, more than any other characteristic, is how success is achieved. All other things equal, the ability to control one’s actions leads to success in health and life and business. These aren’t things we talk about anymore. We’ve elected a President with the self-discipline of a puppy. We’ve followed an economic path for years that is the opposite of any form of restraint. Our foreign policy in the last 20 years has been defined by rushing into situations without planning or consideration for possible long term implications and I fear, it’s about to get worse. It seems simplistic to think that our society’s relaxation of cultural norms like hard work, discipline and an empathetic understanding of the guy across from us on the 18th green or the business table or the world stage might be leading us into our current broken state. But I’m not sure how you can look at the events of today and not at least consider how things might be different with a nation of strong mothers and fathers teaching their kids not how to express themselves at every turn but instead how to restrain themselves. There is a time for expression. But there is more time for self regulation and we have lost that balance.

The irony of our cult of expression is that at the time we seem most free we are actually more restricted than ever. We carry more debt both as a people and as a nation than we ever have before. These debts restrict what we are capable of achieving. Our government continues to grow to sizes never envisioned by the Founders. A few corporations control huge portions of our economic and social life, directing our attention without us even realizing it. The “freedom” of social media actually makes us anxious and depressed.

Goethe said “It is in self-limitation that a master first shows himself.” I believe this is true in life as much as it is in art or music. A successful life comes from self-limitation by respecting your future self and delaying gratification of desires. Being able to control one’s own mind is critical to achieving goals. The question is, how do we teach our children this in a world where instant gratification is literally built into every thing we do? Not giving your child a cell phone is probably tantamount to abuse these days yet more and more data is emerging that says screen time for children is almost surely a net negative. We want our children to behave so we hand them a mobile device instead of the much more unpleasant option of forcing boredom on them.

When I think of a parent like Palmer’s father, a man who in today’s world would be considered cold and possibly even mean, I wonder if our norms haven’t changed too far. I want my daughter to love me but more than anything, I want to provide for her the tools necessary to succeed in the world. To me, these tools are self-discipline, empathy and the value of hard work though maybe not in that order. How that happens, I’m not sure yet. But it’s nice to read stories like Palmer’s where the clear influences of a strong parent had lasting impacts on the character of the child no matter how successful he got. That is the true measure of a Life Well Played.

The Right Tool For The Job Isn’t What You Think It Is

This tweet recently took me down a rabbit hole of ideas about software and the epiphenomenon that we produce when we write it.  As is often the case when I start thinking about something, other seemingly random events or articles bubble to the top of my consciousness or Twitter feed or whatever.    Choose Boring Technology had recently popped up, linked from another article on architectural working groups and the idea of talking about technology choices. Outside of all that, I’ve recently been waking up at 1 in the morning thinking about some looming changes at work in our technology stack. It’s weird how the universe knows when you are ready for an idea and suddenly, you can tie multiple streams of thought into a coherent whole. Well, you can at least try. This post is an attempt to do that.

Epiphenomenon is a secondary effect that an action has that occurs in parallel to the primary effect. The medical world is rife with examples of epiphenomenon. I assert the software world is too but that they are poorly documented or catalogued because they are primarily negative. I believe epiphenomenon are what Michael Feathers is talking about in the lede. If you only see the effects of your software choices, you don’t really understand what you have built. It is only when you see the effects of the effect, the epiphenomenon, do you really understand. I contend this is rarely technological in nature but is instead cultural and has wide ranging effects, many of them negative.

How is this related to choosing boring technology? Epiphenomenon are much more well known and much less widespread in boring, well understood technologies. When you choose exciting technologies, the related effects of the effects of your choices are deeper and broader because you understand fewer of the implications of the choice.  These are the unknown unknowns that Dan talks about.  We see this over and over in the tech space where people think that choices are made in a total vacuum with no organizational effects outside the primary technological ones.

At Amazon, they are famous for their service oriented architecture.   It sounds so dreamy.  We’ll have services that allow us to iterate independently and deploy pieces independently and we’ll all be so independent.  The problem is that independence requires incredible discipline, discipline that is paradoxically very dependent on everyone being on the same page about what a service looks like and what it has access to and how it goes about getting the data it needs to function.  Without any of that very hard discipline that rarely seems to exist outside the Amazons of the world, what you have is not your dreamy Service Oriented Architecture but instead a distributed monolith that is actually a hundred times worse than the actual monolith you replaced.

I saw several people disagreeing with that tweet and wondered why it was so controversial.  It dawned on me that the people disagreeing with it were developers, people deep down in the corporate food chain who have this idea of using the right tool for the job in all instances which is great if you are a carpenter but fucking insane if you are a software shop.  When a carpenter uses a miter saw instead of a hammer, it’s because you can’t cut a 2×4 with a hammer unless you are very very dedicated and also the shittiest carpenter in the world.  However, when an engineer says “This is the job for Super Document Database (which by the way we’ve never once run in production)!” in his best Superman voice, he’s saying that in a total vacuum, a vacuum that doesn’t exist for the carpenter (and actually doesn’t exist for the engineer, he just doesn’t know it).  Now you have your data in two places.  Now you need different engineering rules for how its accessed, what its SLAs are, how its monitored, how it gets to your analytics team who just got blindsided for the fourth time this year with some technology, the adoption of which they had no input into, etc, etc, etc, until everyone in the company wants to go on a homicidal rampage.

Logical conclusion time: Imagine a team of 5 developers with 100 microservices.  Imagine the cognitive overload required to know where something happens in the system.  Imagine the operational overload of trying to track down a distributed system bug in 100 microservices when you have 5 developers and 1 very sad operations person.  Ciaran isn’t saying it’s technologically a bad idea to have more services than developers.  He’s saying it’s a cultural/organizational bad idea.  He didn’t say it in the tweet or the thread because he didn’t have #280Characters or just doesn’t know how to express it.  But that’s what he’s saying.  It introduces a myriad of problems that a monolith or a very small set of team or developer owned services do not.

Our industry has spread this “right tool for the job” meme and to our benefit, it’s stuck.  It’s to our benefit because we developers get to play with shiny jangly things and then move on to some other job.  People who don’t have such fluid career options are then stuck supporting or trying to get information out of a piece of technology that isn’t the right tool for THEIR particular job.  “The Job” is so much broader than the technological merits and characteristics of a particular decision.  As Dan points out in his point, it’s amazing what you can do with boring technology like PHP, Postgres and Python.  You better have a really damn good reason that you can defend to a committee of highly skeptical people.  If you can’t do that, you use the same old boring technology.

Our industry and by extension our careers live in this paradoxical contradiction.  On the one hand, a developer can’t write VB.Net his entire career because he’ll watch his peers get promoted and his salary not keep up with inflation and his wife leave him for the sexy Kotlin developer who just came to town.  On the other hand, taking a multimillion dollar company that happens to use VB.net and using that as an excuse to scorch the earth technologically speaking is in my mind very nearly a crime.  There is a middle ground of course but it’s a difficult one, fraught with large falling rocks, slippery corners with no guard rails and a methed out semi driver careening down the mountain in the opposite direction you are going.

Changing technologies has impacts for different arms of the organization and I’ve found it useful to frame these in terms of compile versus runtime impacts.  Developers and development teams get to discover things at compile time.  When you choose a new language, you learn it slowly over the course of a project or 4.  But if you operate in a classic company where you throw software over the wall for operations, they get to find out about the new tech stack at runtime, i.e. at 3 AM when something is segfaulting in production.  The pain for choosing a new technology is felt differently by different groups of the organization.  Development teams have a tendency to locally optimize for pain, e.g. push it off into the distant future because they are under a deadline and trying to get something, anything to work and so decisions are made that put off a great deal of pain.

Technological change requires understanding the effects of the effects of your decisions.  Put more succinctly, it requires empathy.  It’s a good thing most developers I’ve known are such empathetic creatures.  SIgh.  Perhaps it’s time we start enforcing empathy more broadly.  The only way I know to do that is oddly a technological solution.  If you want to roll out some new piece of technology (language, platform, database, source control, build tool, deployment model or in the case of where I currently work all of the above), you have to support it from the moment it’s a cute little wonderful baby in your hands all the way up to when it’s a creaky old geezer shitting its pants and mumbling about war bonds.  Put more directly, any time someone has a question or a problem with your choice, you have to answer it.  You don’t get to put them off or say it’s someone else’s job or hire a consultancy to tell you what to do.  If it’s broken at 3 AM, you get the call.  If analytics doesn’t know how to get data out of the database, you get to teach them.  If you fucked up a kubernetes script and deployed 500 instances of your 200 line microservice, you get to explain to the CFO why the AWS bill is the same amount as he’s paying to send his daughter to Yale.  Suddenly, that boring technology that you totally understand sounds fantastic because you’d like to go back to sleeping or drinking Dewars straight from the bottle or whatever.

We cannot keep existing as an industry by pushing the pain we create off onto other people.  On the flip side, those people we have been pushing pain to need to make it easier for us to run small experiments and not say no to everything just because “it’s production”.  There has to be a discussion.  That’s where things seem to completely fall apart because frankly, almost no developer or operations person I’ve known has, when faced with a technological question, said “I know, I’ll go talk to this other team I don’t really ever interface with and see what they think of the idea.”

Software is just as much cultural as it is technological.  Nothing exists in a vacuum.  The earlier we understand that and the more dedicated to the impact and effects of that understanding, the happier we’ll be as teams of people trying to deliver value to the business.   Because in the end, as Dan puts it, the actual job we’re doing is keeping the business in business.  All decisions about tooling have to be made in that framework.  Any tool that doesn’t serve that job and end is most decidedly NOT the right tool for the job.

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