On Attention

In a wide ranging, often insightful, occasionally politically passive aggressive article, Craig Mod writes about how he got his attention back. It’s long and given the attention span of the Internet these days, chances are you didn’t even read it. Wow, speaking of passive aggressive. I digress. I do think it’s important piece that feels around the edges of what has gone wrong with our society, not just this year but beginning decades ago when we stopped paying attention to those things that weren’t immediate. He talks about the 2016 election as if it was a huge surprise, a geologic shift in the tectonic plates of our nation when in reality, it was the logical conclusion of our click-bait, always on, flood of misinformation economy. The fact that Donald Trump as President is a surprise to people shows how little we pay attention.

The information society has become machine scale. No longer can you pick up one paper and know approximately what is going on in your town or nation or world. Perhaps you never could but only those things that were actually important bubbled to the top. Now, false stories are spread at the click of a button and because the information landscape is so chaotic, we have no hope of performing the necessary validation ourselves. Any rebuttals are missed entirely because they don’t fit our world view. We live in echo chambers where people post and repost and tweet things that are demonstrably false but that fuel our moral outrage. They fit our world view and so have long and unjustified lives. Michael Tracey has been one of the few I’ve seen writing about this. The net effect is that we are actually less informed and we are less able to feel outrage when it is truly justified and necessary.

The current chaos is the natural progression of information flow. Fifty years ago, information was limited, slow and filtered. Now it has become unlimited, immediate and unfiltered. It is the difference between human scale and machine scale. We are uniquely unprepared to deal with it because the scale is so immense. We are driven by the reptilian feedback mechanisms to try and keep up which only results in anxiety and loss. Studies have shown that we check our phone 85 times a day on average. Let that sink in for a moment if you can. Of those 85 times, almost none of them are truly important. Perhaps none of them are. We have fully achieved the consumption society. We spend all day eating and drinking junk food while ingesting huge quantities of empty, sugary information. We live with attention deficits and nutritional deficits and financial deficits and physical deficits. Not only do we live with them but we actively pursue them with a zeal and a pride that when analyzed closely is at least mildly terrifying.

Of course, when you attempt to check out, people look at you like a Luddite. My aunt recently deleted her Facebook account. When someone does this, they are often accused of not wanting to hear about things they don’t agree with. But throughout recorded history, we have done fine not hearing about things we don’t agree with and also many of the things we do agree with. Those times were not more scary than the times we now live in when everyone is “informed”. People could think and act for themselves then. Now our opinions are given to us in a constant stream of media soundbites, many of them false or misguided, all of them driven by some bias we can’t verify. We are the most informed and yet uninformed generation.

The irony is that just when we need our collective attention most to sort through the chaos, we have precious little experience in it. Just like you must work hard physically for long periods of time to be strong enough to handle times of shock, our attention should be cultivated and exercised so that we can handle times of informational chaos. That is not the state we find ourselves in. We find ourselves on the informational couch, fat, lazy, hands covered in the Cheeto dust of informational nuggets of nothingness. At the very time when our President and media are actively making the media landscape more chaotic and warlike and we need to rise up and fight, we cannot walk up a flight of stairs to defend ourselves.

Of course, we find ourselves in this position because it is all so much easier. It is easier to buy something you can’t afford on a credit card. It is easier to buy a Big Mac than it is to make a decent meal at home. It is easier to sit on the couch than it is to go for a walk. It is easier to read Twitter than it is to create art. It is the path of least resistance and with few exceptions, we have gone down that path until we can hardly walk or stuff another calorie into our face or another byte into our head. Of course, with physical or nutritional deficit, we know we have failed. It is obvious all the time. But with attention deficit, there is no physical representation of our inability to focus, no out of breathness when we reach the top of a hill. And that is the most dangerous kind of debt, one you cannot see until it is too late.

Is there hope? There is always hope. The more people check out and return their focus to their families and the community and their local leaders, the more good it does. The collective effort of people doing small things for people who matter to them will change more than any consumption of information ever will. A key quote from Mod’s article:

There is a qualitative and quantitative difference between a day that begins with a little exercise, a book, meditation, a good meal, a thoughtful walk, and the start of a day that begins with a smartphone in bed.

Or a smartphone at any time. Gathering our attention back in, refusing to parcel it out to whatever outrage happened today, using it to actually do something, those things create quality. Perhaps slowly, over time and with great effort, we can regain our attention. That would be the greatest success of all.

Infants and Humor

As our little midget grows into a laughing, funny little creature, it’s interesting to know and read about how early infants understand humor.

Friday Morning Ramblings

For Christmas, I received Desert Solitaire which is a tale of one man in the American West, specifically the desert region of southern Utah around Moab and the Arches National Park. Abbey writes beautifully of the desert and of the wilderness in general which he was afraid was becoming urbanized and lost. His tales of adventures like rafting down the Colorado river in two inflatable dinghies with a friend, sans any life jackets, just so they could see Glen Canyon before Lake Powell was built reminds me of John Graves Goodbye To A River which I read last year. The poignancy of Graves is contrasted with an almost militancy of Abbey who rails against the loss of a wilderness once haunted only by Native Americans and wildlife. Abbey’s works later became the basis for many environmental anarchists which is unsurprising. He quotes Bakunin, the great Russian anarchist, in one place in the book so I assume he must have read and probably approved of the philosophy in many ways. The intrusion of the state into what once was pristine wilderness was a theme of both Graves and Abbey, each in their own way. Bakunin wrote (slightly paraphrased) that “sometimes creation can only be achieved through destruction. Therefore, the passion for destruction is also a creative passion.”

On its face, this seems illogical but is in fact how the natural world and in theory the capitalistic world operates. Only through destruction of the weak as well as the unlucky can things evolve. The flash flood that roars down a dry arroyo sweeps away much but allows nature to regenerate and change in ways a central planner could never even conceive of. In the same way, when a business fails, it opens a hole in the ecosystem for a better or more appropriate business. Of course, the mule deer fawn unlucky enough to be born in that arroyo is destroyed as well when he cannot outrun the flood, a incident of bad luck unrelated to fitness. This is the concept that we as conscious feeling humans cannot bear. However, our inclination to save all things is carried to far when we save those things that are irreparable or fundamentally flawed. We “save” things that should be dead. This is evident in all aspects of our life from our artificial struggles to extend life at its boundaries, our bailing out of banks that should be tits up, our desire to keep wildfires from the forest and so many other examples. Our drive to protect from events like a flash flood or a forest fire or a global financial melt down causes us to only postpone and worsen the event when it happens. This is proven over and over again. This central planning eventually fails, in all cases. In theory, our federation of states protects us as a country from this but over time, our states have become more bureaucratic and our central government has become more powerful especially financially and militarily.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes of this failure in central planning a great deal in Antifragile. Bureaucracies are like black holes unfortunately, in that they eventually achieve their own gravity, sucking in the galaxies that surround them. Without constant involvement and care, our governments become larger and larger because people have a natural inclination to “do things” when oftentimes doing nothing would be the right choice. This makes me think of code and the effort required to keep it running and error free. As we become more distracted and riddled with our own problems, we do not have the capability to devote to keeping our civilization and government under control. In the same way that invariably we eventually throw something away and replace it with something new, our liberal democracy will eventually be thrown away because we did not invest the required effort to keep it running. This seems unlikely, possibly even impossible, in a country that has not had a revolution in 150 years. But it is the nature of the world and we are part of the world. Without regular care and pruning and hard choices that none of our current mass of politicians and their cushy jobs for life can manage, liberal democracy will go away. We see this happening at the edges now and ignore it at our peril.

As we continue to grow the throw away society that we currently operate under, it only becomes more and more ingrained that fixing things is an outdated idea for the dustbin of history. Already, self-reliance is almost unheard of (though in some urban settings there is a resurgence of things like gardens and chickens which is promising until the city you live in decides to outlaw the practices). Our debt fueled society and world is already beginning to groan under the weight as growth slows down. We tell kids to get a college education, any college education, at any cost, student loans can be worried about later and then wonder why they can’t spend money in our consumerist society even if they are lucky enough to get a job. We give people larger and larger portions of increasingly crappy food and wonder why we have a health crisis blowing up. We have a pill for everything, the easy way out instead of the hard way. Our lives of comfort leak into everything that affects us and we often unquestioningly choose that which is easy or that which seems protective, forgetting that it is through hardship and struggle and even destruction (or the removal of something) that causes growth.

Is all of this so much “Hey you kids get off my lawn!” or the age old complaint by your grandparents that you never had it so easy? To some degree, perhaps. But we know that when we go longer than we should without some form of destruction or deprivation, the resulting event that nature wreaks on us is larger and more painful. Turns out three meals a day for life probably isn’t good for you, any more than giving trillions of dollars to the four largest banks so that they could continue to leech off our blood was. Without destruction, there can be no creation. They are opposite sides of the same coin, one that we have flipped in our society and forced it to come up heads for too long. When it finally lands on tails, it will be too heavy for us to pay what’s due.

There is a beautiful sunrise out my eastern kitchen window. The way light is morphed into so many colors is fascinating. I took a half day off Wednesday and we went to see Monet: The Early Years at the Kimball. He was a master at studying and recreating the effects of light in a way that if you look closely turns to painted gibberish. I wonder how many of our artists today study and reflect on light in the way the Impressionists did. I wish that my view wasn’t obstructed by power lines and neighbors trees and houses. A sunrise like this on the prairie or mountains would be truly magnificent. Still, the light changing from pinks to orange with light blues interspersed and streaked between is wonderful.

Grapefruits

Of all the most humbling tasks in the world, peeling a grapefruit ranks in the top 3.

Navel Gazing 2016 Edition

Whereupon I write stuff about the year that was 2016 and try to figure out what to do in 2017. Warning: this is fourteen year old girl level introspection stuff with only the thin veil of some philosophy from the 1950s to make it look acceptable. Read at your own risk.

As in 2015, in 2016, I had five main goals: learn more Spanish, write more, read more, exercise more and watch more movies. Because I’m a data geek, I track those goals because evidence shows that you need to be very specific in your goal setting if you want to actually succeed. In 2016, I achieved 75% of my movie goal, 63% of my exercise goals, 50% of my book goals, 27% of my Spanish goals and 15% of my writing goals. Super successful then. Though I did achieve all of my diaper changing goals. So there’s that. So then the natural reaction for a navel gazer is to wonder what happened. Were the goals too aggressive (maybe)? Was the desire to achieve the goals insufficient (probably)?

Of course, it’s not like nothing momentous happened in 2016. I now have a daughter who is beautiful and happy and healthy and absolutely fills my heart with a sensation I can’t even possibly begin to express within the limits of a language like English (maybe French or Russian but given how far from my Spanish goals I ended up, I’m doubtful of writing French poetry any time soon). But on an actual personal level, I feel pretty unaccomplished this year (and here’s where all the other parents stand up and say “welcome to the club”). I didn’t write much and almost all that I did was in February, read half as many books as I wanted, watched two-thirds of the movies (and some of those were repeats), exercised some early in the year but basically gave up in the last several months and didn’t advance much on the bilingual front (which isn’t entirely true, last time I logged into Duolingo, I was 10% fluent but it’s still way behind my goal).

One of the benefits of tracking specifically the goals as well as having the same goals over multiple years is that you can compare the progress. Were things better in 2016 than 2015? Yes, mostly. I learned significantly more Spanish, exercised moderately more and read more books. I wrote less in 2016, at least from a public production stand point and watched 2 fewer movies. But overall, 2016 got better than 2015.

I did just finish reading At The Existentialist Cafe which is a broad sweep of the philosophers who created existentialism including Simone de Beauvoir who my daughter’s middle name comes from. It is a fantastic look into a time when major magazines covered philosophers and their work, examining the impacts and the celebrity of these thinkers, i.e. the opposite of 2016 where major magazines covered an unbelievably terrible election and totally missed the entire thing. Existentialism focuses on the actual events of life, the things as they are when the layers of crap have been stripped away. It also focuses on freedom, a fundamental characteristic of being human and the implications that characteristic has on our every day life. Reading this book, which examines both the men and women who developed existentialism and the time period from which they came (WW I through about 1960), it was striking how much attention in the actual world was paid to a philosophy and how much influence that philosophy had in art and literature and even politics.

Man is condemned to be free. Because once he is thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. Jean-Paul Sartre

We don’t often think of freedom as a condemnation, do we? And yet, the constant need to make decisions brings upon us an anxiety that many of us find too difficult to deal with. Freedom isn’t all fun and games. It is this constant interplay between choice and anxiety that existentialism focuses on. It’s interesting to think about freedom as a burden but it is because with choice comes consequences. Don’t want to exercise? Have fun with heart disease or back surgery. Don’t want to read because Facebook seems more fun today? Don’t be upset when you aren’t any smarter than you were yesterday.

But choose well and your life is at least 75% yours, probably as long as you don’t have something terrible happen. Obviously there are limits to what control you actually have over your own life but everyone has some control. Sartre argued for the concept of authenticity, of being true to what it was that you are. Here’s a quote from the book:

If this sounds difficult and unnerving, it’s because it is. Sartre does not deny that the need to keep making decisions brings constant anxiety. He heightens this anxiety by pointing out that what you do really matters. You should make your choices as though you were choosing on behalf of the whole of humanity, taking the entire burden of responsibility for how the human race behaves. If you avoid this responsibility by fooling yourself that you are the victim of circumstance or of someone else’s bad advice, you are failing to meet the demands of human life and choosing a fake existence, cut off from your own ‘authenticity’.

As I read this, I thought about all the times I made a choice that was not only bad for me but also bad for the whole of humanity. Certainly, this is a heavy burden but imagine the changes in the world if we even slightly considered humanity when we made decisions.

This battle with anxiety in order to achieve authenticity is fundamental to existentialism and the more I think about it, to human existence. I tracked all my goals this year as I often do. But I didn’t track how many times I mindlessly opened Facebook or Twitter because it was an easier choice than picking up a hard book or writing code. I made excuses: I only have 15 minutes, the baby may wake up, I’ve had 3 beers – but excuses are just that, a way to escape from the fact that choices were made that lessened authenticity in my life.

So while 2016 was way behind on the goal scale, perhaps things can change in 2017 assuming the world doesn’t end in WWW III or the zombie apocalypse. This is the only life we have, regardless of what you think happens when it ends. Existentialism teaches us to focus on our choices and to choose a path to our greatest authenticity.

At the end of the book, there is a discussion of existentialism and technology. Interestingly enough, Heidegger wrote extensively on this topic and it seems even more relevant today in a world where our lives seem to be almost entirely lived out online (irony duly noted that I’m saying this in an online forum). The Internet (and I’m thinking specifically of Facebook and Twitter here) removes depth and authenticity from everything. When I post to Facebook, I do so on a platform created specifically to profit from my data. Once I do that, that experience is no longer mine, it belongs to the “Other” from existentialism, the concept of that which is outside ourselves. A post, a picture, a note on Facebook reduces me to the sum of those things and removes context and depth and privacy from my actual self. It steals my authenticity except that it was my choice, made freely, and thus is actually me reducing my authenticity voluntarily.

In 2017, I want to spend more time with my daughter and less time with my phone. I want to spend more time with my wife and less time with social media. I want to spend more time with my parents and in-laws and less time giving away my authenticity. I want to spend far more time in the outdoors, teaching my daughter about nature and the world and less time wondering if anyone liked something I said on a platform that uses me as the product. These are things that will increase my authenticity. They will increase my intellectual abilities and not make me feel weirdly anxious after doing them.

So my concrete goals for 2017 remain mostly unchanged from 2016: 120 hours of Spanish work (down from 180 in 2016, 50 accomplished in 2016), read 18 books (9 read in 2016), watch 12 movies (9 in 2016), exercise 180 times (115 in 2016) and write 26 things (down from 52 in 2016, 8 accomplished in 2016).

More specifically, I want everything I do to increase my authenticity. So for January, I’m going to start an experiment. All content will be placed here on AEIS instead of Facebook or Twitter. I’m not sure that’s totally an improvement but for at least one month, I won’t be the product. I won’t be driven by likes or retweets or any other false metric for authenticity. Additionally, we as a family are going to take a technological Sabbath every Sunday as well. We will focus on each other, our extended families, our house, our animals, our experiences and we will not be online. We will produce and create, not consume and absorb. We will read an actual newspaper and play actual games and go on actual walks and hikes.

Here’s to a stronger, blessed 2017. I hope your year turns out to be everything you choose it to be.

Books read in 2016
Thirteen Moons
The Black Swan
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy
The Age of Unreason
Star Island
Then We Came To The End
Waiting for Godot
The War of Art
At the Existentialist’s Cafe

Movies seen in 2016
It Happened One Night
Herb And Dorothy
Goldeneye
Ocean’s Eleven
The Long Hot Summer
Secret Lives of Pets
Tomorrow Never Dies
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
Scrooged

Brett’s Drunken Tech Ramblings

Steve Yegge once wrote an internal blog at Amazon that later became a public blog not at Amazon called Stevey’s Drunken Blog Rants™. Anything I do here is a poor approximation of those masterpieces but we must all have mentors to look up to and convince us we are still terrible. So this is a Friday night, three glasses of wine and possibly one more on the way rambling about what I’ve been thinking about in tech today or this week or possibly it will devolve into kitten videos. Who knows.

screen-shot-2016-10-07-at-9-11-43-pm

Lots of thinking lately on old code, rewrites, fancy new technologies and a monstrous Windows Service that can’t be opened in anything other than Visual Studio 2010 led me to that tweet. There was a brief conversation around whether that was true and that led me to start thinking about analogies for code and applications and the crap we produce on a daily basis. I recently read this article on building technical wealth instead of accumulating technical debt. I’m not sure that’s actually possible outside the concept that an application can make enough money to justify it’s existence. Still, one part of the article stands out and thats this item:

Stop thinking about your software as a project. Start thinking about it as a house you are going to live in for a (very very very very interminably) long time.

I added that part in parentheses but still, that concept is at the heart of my original statement that all code is technical debt. Almost no one pays off their house in less than 30 years and frankly, most people buy a new one and up their mortgage and don’t pay off a house for 40 or 50 years. All that time they have a house payment not to mention yard work (done by the Mexicans Trump wants to eliminate) and dishes and maintenance and whatever else you do with a house. And because so few of us have 15 year mortgages, we pay 40-50% in interest but it’s invisible because it’s just a monthly payment.

It’s no different with code. When an application first hits production, it’s like signing that mortgage. Except most of us treat our code like an acid driven hallucination powered by Home Depot. Instead of just making sure the plumbing is solid and cleaning the gutters and painting the shutters, we build a second wing, add on a third floor, tear out the garage and make it a disco parlor. And slowly (or quickly in some things I’ve seen) the second law of thermodynamics starts to kick in and soon we have chaos. Making a change means a week of testing. Deleting that third floor no one wants is impossible because maybe our fourth cousin by marriage is actually living up there and we don’t want them to be homeless (or worse, living on our floor). Just like it gets harder and harder to keep our bodies in shape the longer they are around especially if the only shape they’ve ever really been in is “round”, it gets harder and harder to get the code into shape.

And so then the day comes when we get a new management structure who believes us when we say “it’s all a bunch of technical debt” and they say “rewrite it” ignoring the fact we wrote the first part of it and off we go to creating a whole new piece of technical debt that can’t possible even do what the original piece of crap did because it evolved over time with the business and so the new piece of crap is hated and eventually gets thrown away entirely.

The moment you write a single line of code, it’s legacy code. I don’t even care if it’s covered by unit tests like Michael Feathers says it should be. It’s legacy. And some day the tests will get thrown away because they take too long to run and they have to wire up 14 dependencies in IOC because that’s how we roll and then you’ve got crap. Keeping a system running smoothly with a minimum of debt requires a Herculean effort that frankly is almost non-existent in the software world that I inhabit. Then you say microservices will fix everything but you don’t add any logging or monitoring and everyone quits to work at remote jobs and the CEO thinks it’s NHibernate that’s causing all the problems when really it’s just the fact that none of us can manage to maintain our damn cars very well much less a complex system written over years of changing business requirements. Maintenance is hard. It’s harder than writing a bunch of new crap in the latest hot technology. But no one pays hundreds of thousands of dollars for maintenance programmers because that’s what the people in India are for. Never mind that they can’t read the output of a build program to understand why something broke.

It’s all technical debt. Maybe the people who work at Google would disagree but all the software I’ve seen in the business world is technical debt and we’re drowning in it the same way the world is drowning in regular debt and some day the bill will have to be paid. But maybe you and I will have moved on to cushy jobs that are greenfield or at least have “Consultant” in their titles.

On a happier note (unlikely, this is a drunken blog rant), I listened to the first half of this podcast with Jay Kreps on Kafka Streams and it got me to thinking about what streams are and how they are underutilized in most of software. Kreps’ definition of a stream (paraphrased) is that it’s the mashup of batch processing and future services. You write a service to process events in the future. You write a batch process to process events in the past. Streams are this lush, fertile middle ground where you can build near real time apps using a tool like Kafka.

The canonical stream I think of is a data analytics stream like click tracking or user actions on a website. But I started thinking about streams as a replacement for jobs, jobs that are almost always written as batch processes but invariably should just be a stream. We have a job at work that’s happily run for years. Until recently when it seems to be the main culprit in tipping over the database occasionally (which is similar to but not the same as tipping over a cow, a pastime I am only tangentially familiar with as an Amarillo native). This job only processes 500 or so records at a time so how could it possible tip over a Mae West size database? Maybe the data is bad. Which it is. This job cancels certain customers for a variety of reasons and frankly is a batch process job only because it’s easy to do such a thing.

But in reality, this is just a stream, a stream of events that cause my company to want to cancel a customer. If you turn this into a stream, not only do you have to worry less about tipping over the database (because the processing is spread out over time and space), but you can also begin to action on the events, possibly monitoring the performance or the number of cancelations or a whole host of other things you can do with a stream along with the main activity.

There are streams everywhere but we treat them as chunks of past events because processing chunks of past events as batches is easier from a technological perspective or at least it has been up until now. But streams make more sense in almost all cases.

Speaking of streams, the kid needs a diaper and it’s past 10 PM which means I’m turning into a pumpkin.

Weekend Activities

We are now T-minus 11 days and counting until mini-me makes an appearance. We know this because yesterday we picked a delivery date which is a little like picking a date to burn down your house or to marry a schizophrenic. Typically these things just kind of happen and at least you have the benefit of the surprise. Here, we know full well when life is going to CHANGE in a capital sort of way. Before all the natural birther types in the audience start sending me hate mail, this isn’t a lifestyle choice unless you consider crazy high blood pressure and possible seizures a lifestyle choice. There are extenuating circumstances that require us to bring the demon child future Bambi killer sweet angel into the world. Because we are sympathetic to the natural birth strategy (we did spend every Tuesday night for 8 weeks going to a Bradley birthing class, for heaven’s sake), efforts are underway to avoid or at least mitigate some of the modern miracles of birth science whereupon you show up to the hospital and they convince the previously unwilling uterus of the expectant mother to decide Man actually does know better than Mother Nature using drugs like Pitocin which your natural birthing Bradley teacher thinks is somewhere on the scale of Mexican tar heroin in the drug universe. Some of the aforementioned efforts at convincing said uterus to naturally decide it’s time include borage oil (don’t ask, I didn’t), acupuncture, foot massage and a witch doctor dance we learned down on Elm Street in Deep Ellum one night. I kid. Only partially.

All that is the long way to say life changes are coming so the final todo list is underway. Today’s activities included mowing the jungle and planting two peach trees that had been purchased several weeks ago on a half price sale. The yard was a jungle because I made the mistake of fertilizing two weeks ago right before it rained 3 feet and apparently fertilizer makes grass grow. A lot. Who knew. I did not fertilize last year because I don’t actually like to mow the 8000 acres any more than is necessary according to city code. This year, I guess I looked in the future and thought “Mowing is probably way better than changing a diaper”. Concerning the peach trees, for several weeks in April and May, I had regularly monitored the prices of fruit trees at Lowe’s and Home Depot, knowing that they always had too many trees and that they would have to put them on a half price sale at some point once the hellish temperatures of North Texas became imminent. And they did, right on cue so I picked up two peach trees, a La Feliciana and a June Gold. I’m pretty sure this happened May 14th which by any basic calculations is a month ago. However, it takes me at least two weeks to finish any project so the pressure of a living creature like a peach tree meant it took four weeks to decide where to plant them. Finally I did. Today. So they are out on the edge of the property because peach trees are only pretty about two months out of the year and there is a city owned lot that direction that regularly imitates the Amazon rain forest in growth characteristics. Perhaps the trees will block the view a bit. The June Gold is planted nearest the street which is only mentioned so that I can remember next year when I wonder which is which.

The other main Saturday activity was taking a box of magazines to the library to donate. The funny story behind that is that last year some time, M got a form letter from Delta Airlines saying that she had X number of miles that were about to expire and they weren’t really enough to fly from Dallas to even Fort Worth so maybe she’d like to spend them on some magazine subscriptions. Because we are readers and also because we are idiots, we thought that was a fantastic idea. While we did not have enough points to take a Greyhound to the airport, we did have enough for 5 magazine subscriptions. Note, we already had 3 or 4 magazine subscriptions including Garden & Gun which I love but haven’t read lately (like 4 months) because we have a hoarder’s stack of other magazines to read and Kiplinger’s which is perfect bathroom reading because nothing in it requires any focus. This story reminds of the days of Columbia Music House where you went through the catalog picking out the 12 free albums plus the three bonus albums for a penny more. Probably not worth retelling that one. I’m sure you have had the same experience. So we picked out five subscriptions. While I cautioned strongly against any weekly rags, both Time and the Economist were chosen along with Fortune, Vogue and Western Horseman. One of these things is not like the others. I’ll give you a few minutes to work out which one. However, that one (assuming Western Horseman is the one you chose as the black sheep) is the only one that regularly gets read cover to cover. If I can’t live on a ranch in Montana, I can live vicariously through those who do. Time never gets read and the Economist only barely. Frankly, the pressure of even getting the Economist, knowing the postman delivers it probably thinking someone important lives here, is more than I can stand. It haunts me. I have dreams about throwing away unread issues. There are probably 6 Vogues still in the wrapper and Fortune turns out to be worse than Kiplinger’s when it comes to useless advice. At least Kiplinger’s actually analyzes stocks and stuff.

So right off we knew we had to atone for the small Asian rain forest that was being sacrificed monthly to deliver magazines to our house. I found out that the library took donations and started boxing up the hoarder’s paradise. I envisioned small unfortunate children without the ability to ruin their lives with magazines from Delta finding the Economist and resolving to change the world. The library probably throws them away since it’s a British magazine and we live in Texas. I digress. M said 3 months ago when she was still mobile that she would take the box on Tuesday to the library. I think this may have been in early April only slightly before I bought two peach trees. This morning, as I sat on the couch trying to write code, Picasso the cat started staring intently at the box which always means he is either about to poop or there is an insect close by. Based on the sounds in the box, I knew it was the latter. So once it got light, I dumped the box out on the front step, killed the small baby Kafka-like creature that was stuck in the box and put the box near the back door to take to the library post haste. I traded seven thousand magazines for This Side of Paradise which is what I assume life is about to be about. What side that is, I have no idea.

All this and it’s only Saturday. Maybe tomorrow I’ll cure cancer. Or perhaps even finish the sprinkler project I started three weeks ago. We all need goals.

Caprock Canyons Aoudad Hunt

DSC_0102

Alone on the highway again, Bob squinted at a wadded quilt of cloud crawling over the sky. There unrolled beside the Saturn the level land, every inch put to use for crops, oil gas, cattle, service towns. The ranches were set far back from the main road, and now and then he passed an abandoned house, weather-burned, surrounded by broken cottonwoods. In The fallen windmills and collapsed outbuildings he saw the country’s fractured past scattered about like the pencils on the desk of a draughtsman who has gone to lunch. The ancestors of the place hovered over the bits and pieces of their finished lives. He did not notice the prairie dog that raced out of the roadside weeds into his path and the tires bumped slightly as he hit it. A female red-tail lifted into the air. It was the break she had been waiting for. – From That Old Ace In The Hole

Driving into the canyons on Tuesday morning, I think to myself “There is nothing I find more beautiful that a sunrise the the Texas Panhandle.” This is the country I grew up in and its palette still stirs my soul. I’m on my way to Caprock Canyons State Park for an Aoudad and feral hog hunt that I have won through the Texas Parks and Wildlife draw hunt system. I am meeting my father-in-law in the park who drove nine hours from Rogers, AR yesterday with his RV that I will stay in instead of having to camp in a tent in the middle of winter. I have pretty cool in-laws. In my preparation for the hunt, I found very little first hand knowledge on the web so this is my review of what I did to prepare, what the hunt was like and any other tips that come up.

Equipment
Rifles: Weatherby Mark V in 7 MM magnum, Savage Axis in .243
Boots: Danner 8 inch High Ground
Binoculars: Steiner 8×22
Rangefinder: Redfield Raider 600

DSC_0078

Preparation
My physical preparation involved CrossFit about every other day starting in October. In December, I started ramping up leg work, specifically squats, cleans and deadlifts. At the beginning of the hunt, I was back up to 3×5 back squat at 195lbs with a max around 235-245. I also started running 5 miles once a week in January. Going in to the hunt, I was a little nervous about my preparation given the description of the hunt which is “This is a VERY strenuous hunt.” As usual though, CrossFit prepares you better than you think. I always feel weak and unprepared before physical challenges because CrossFit exposes your weaknesses. But it over prepares you for everything else. Over the course of 3.5 days of hiking in extremely rugged terrain, my only issue was tight achilles which I suffer from anyway. I was never sore which made starting days at 5:15 much easier. This is definitely the hardest physical hunt I’ve been on and I wouldn’t want to go into it unprepared.

DSC_0095

Day 1 Scouting
I arrived at the park around 8:30 and got settled into the trailer. I headed out to scout around 10 AM and started in the North Prong parking lot headed north towards Fern Cave. I walked all the way to Fern Cave that morning glassing the walls of the canyon as I went. There probably wasn’t any hunting reason to go all the way up but Mara and I had been here in September and not made it so I wanted to see the ferns. I didn’t see any sheep or hogs on that section but there were plenty of places that looked promising. In the afternoon, I walked the Canyon Rim trail out to where it started down into the Canyon. This trail bisects the Orange Compartment. There were some very sheep-y looking spots along the canyon rim and down into the canyon at the end. However, if you shot something down in one of those canyons, I don’t think there’s any way you could get it out. The orange compartment looked decent from this side of the park but I found out later that the opposite side along CR 29 was pretty forbidding. That night, I met one other group of hunters who were camping. A father and daughter, I think it was her first hunt. They were tent camping a couple of spots down from me. He had talked with the rangers pretty extensively and apparently the hunt two weeks before us had been pretty successful with 13 sheep killed though 1 guy had killed 8 of those. Apparently he was some sort of sniper and saw a herd 750 yards away. He took out 8 before they realized what was going on I guess. I guess sheep don’t pay much attention when Bob drops dead next to them. That’s also pretty impressive given everything I read online said aoudads were very hard to kill.

DSC_0096

Day 2 Briefing, Compartment draw and hunt
The draw happened at 9 though standbys had to show up at 8:30. There were six groups total, at least one of which was standby. There are seven compartments so no one got turned away. We signed all the liability waivers and then got the pre-hunt briefing from the coordinator. Basically, it boiled down to be careful, wear your hunter orange or get kicked out, be ethical hunters and don’t touch the middle wire on the boundary fence. Apparently, bison require fairly forceful reminders that there is a fence there. We drew for compartments and I got Green South. This wasn’t any of the areas that I scouted of course but the person in charge of the hunt seemed to think it was a good compartment. Three days later, I decided she was just being nice to me. This hunt had two dates and 24 permits available which would come out to 12 per hunt date. The officer in charge has said there were two cancellations but that still doesn’t add up to 12 so I’m not sure what was different. After we drew, the hunt officially started and everyone headed out to their compartments. The ranger who did the briefing gave pointers to everyone on their compartments and generally seemed pretty knowledgable. I got to my compartment around 10:30. I hiked up Canyon Loop Trail about a quarter of a mile and headed right into the compartment. Green South is in the middle of the park and doesn’t have any canyon walls like several other compartments. There is a large ridge/plateau that runs east and west through the compartment which looked the most promising and was where the ranger and sent me. I hiked all the way around it it that afternoon glassing for sheep up the plateau and hogs in the flatter areas. Everywhere I went I saw tracks, torn up prickly pear and scat. However, that’s all I saw all day. I couldn’t walk five feet without seeing tracks, mostly hog, but never saw a single animal. Unfortunately at some point, my shirt that I thought I had tied to my backpack disappeared. I backtracked about half a mile but never found it. I stayed out until right at 6. Legal shooting hours were from 7:15 to 6:30 but I wasn’t sure how far of a hike I had back to the car. Turns out, it was a pretty long one over rough terrain and I finally hit the Canyon Loop trail at dark. On the way out, there were a pair of great horned owls in trees on the bluff which was neat to see. Not as neat as an aoudad or hog but better than nothing. I signed out at 6:45 and chatted with two other groups. They were in blue and orange, both had seen nothing either all day.

DSC_0098

Day 3
I signed in at 6:15, first on the sheet. I didn’t have a very good feel of where to go so headed back to a similar spot though on the north side of the plateau. I glassed there once the sun was up and then moved along the north side from ridge to ridge, glassing as I went. Same story as the day before, lots of sign, no animals. I eventually did see three mule deer about 600 yards north of the plateau. I ended up circling the entire plateau this time with the exact same result. About 5 hours in the field. On the upside, I did find my shirt from the day before which was pretty lucky given the terrain. So it wasn’t a completely lost morning. The scenery was beautiful and it was nice to see the sun come up in the canyon. I decided to head up to headquarters around noon to see if anyone had bailed or if they had any other tips for my compartment. As it turned out, someone had already headed home. He was another single hunter like me (we were the only two singles) and had drawn Orange. He had signed in at 9:15 and back out at 11:30 and said he was done. I thought I would give his compartment a shot since it had looked semi-decent on my scouting. I decided to go around to where he was hunting from on the far eastern side along CR 29. As it turns out, I see why he quit. I’m pretty sure the rangers sent him this direction and it is VERY difficult hunting from there. If you shot something, there’s no way you could drag it back to the road. It was cut by several deep canyons running north and south. I hiked in in two places and immediately was stymied on going further. The funny thing is, the access from Wild Horse campground is way better and you’d have a decent chance to drag something out if you shot it. I assume the rangers know best but in this case, the north end of Orange along Mesa trail would be much easier to get into while still looking like good sheep terrain. I headed back to headquarters to switch back to Green South. The office was closed so I texted the hunt coordinator to see if I could switch back. My plan was to walk in from Wild Horse. I didn’t hear back from the coordinator but assumed no one else had signed into green while I was out. I walked in from Wild Horse and headed west on the Lower Canyon Trail. After I crossed the river, I walked up a mesa to glass. The Lower Canyon Trail is the boundary between blue and green but I had assumed no one was hunting that slice of blue north of the park road. However, immediately upon sitting down, I saw a flash of blaze orange on the mesa just south of me. One of the blue hunters was looking west along the river. I decided I didn’t want to be looking the same direction and switched to the other side of the mesa. About 20 minutes later, I saw him walking east on the Lower Canyon trail towards the trailhead and Wild Horse. I immediately got worried that someone had in fact signed into green while I was in orange. I didn’t want to be hunting in a compartment that had other hunters who didn’t know I was there so I hiked out at that point to confirm what compartment I was in. As it turned out, I was in green and had been switched. At that point, it was 4 PM and after a ton of hiking up very rugged terrain and seeing nothing, I decided to call it a day early.

DSC_0092

Day 4
The wind was blowing hard out of the southwest this morning which affected where to hunt. I could have gone back into North Prong area but it would have been a hard walk in the dark across the plateau so I decided to head down from the Wild Horse campground in search of a downwind spot. Yesterday, I had come to where the Canyon Loop trail crosses the river but it was deep enough to cover my boots and the thought of wet boots didn’t interest me much. This morning, I headed east on the Mesa trail and the river was much more navigable. I decided to climb the first mesa north of Mesa trail which overlooks the river in two directions, a creek and the trail junction. It was a good spot downwind with excellent vantage. Unfortunately, like all other days, Mother nature didn’t agree with me. I stayed there getting wind blowing 20-30 MPH winds until around 9. At that point, I headed into Green South and hiked about half a mile in over two mesas and looking into the canyons. Nothing. At this point, it was about 10 AM and the hunt ended at noon. I didn’t want to walk farther in because on the extremely unlikely chance I saw anything, I wasn’t sure I could drag it out by 12. So I sat on the mesa overlooking the river and just contemplated the previous days. About 10:30, I caught movement in the river to the east near the Mesa trail about 600 yards off. My excitement was short-lived as I turned my binoculars to the area and saw that it was 14 bison. The camp staff had been trying to round up all the bison over the past month and maybe these were the main holdouts. I watched them walk them walk the Lower Canyon Trail and then double back up the hill towards the Wild Horse Trail. They were magnificent to see and made my morning given how much terrain I had looked at without seeing anything. I gave them about a 15 minute head start and then headed down the mesa towards the car. I ended my hunt around 11 AM having walked close to 25 miles over 3.5 days. I had seen only 3 mule deer. I signed out around 11:15. Another group hadn’t shown up the last morning leaving only 4 groups out of 6 remaining. The ranger had taken the father/daughter team to a new compartment because it was her first hunt and they were hoping to at least shoot some hogs having seen no aoudads in 2 days of being in a promising compartment. I had spoken with the father the night before and he had said another group was going to hunt their compartment. As it turned out, that was the group that didn’t show up leaving what looked like the second best compartment (Pink on the map) empty on the last day of the hunt. I wish I had known that and in the future, I will confirm with parties their plans. Even going in blind, that compartment is much more sheep-y and who knows what a new day would have brought.

DSC_0120

Overall, the hunt was a fantastic experience even without seeing a single shootable animal. It was physically challenging in the extreme and I felt good in my preparation. In retrospect, I’d do two things differently. First, I’d definitely confirm people’s intentions towards the end of the hunt, especially the last day. This is the second draw hunt I have been on and on each occasion, people have not hunted the last day. This leaves compartments available and in this case, a good one. Second, for this hunt in particular, after first light, if nothing showed in promising areas, I would walk more canyons in poor compartments just looking for hogs. Apparently that’s how the rangers hunt the park. The hogs will hole up in the canyons during the day.
I’m thankful to the excellent staff at the Caprock Canyon State Park for the job they did in organizing and helping the hunters. I’m also grateful for the experience. The odds of drawing this hunt are very low (1 in 1200 or so for 2015) and I feel blessed to have had the opportunity. I may try to do standby here in the future, especially if weather is worse because they seem to have cancellations. Even this week, a perfect week weather-wise (though I think colder weather would have helped move the animals around), 2 groups cancelled leaving an empty compartment. The one standby group got a really good compartment so there’s no reason not to try it if the schedule allows.

There is a certain emotion with events like this that are expected for so long and then over in 3 days. I still feel a pang of a hazy nostalgia when I think of the trip over a month later. I planned for and thought about those three days for 5 months prior to the trip so it is only reasonable to feel a sense of loss when it is over. But even more than that, it’s a nostalgia for the plains of the Panhandle, for the stark beauty of the canyon, and the openness of the prairie beyond the windshield of the car. There is a breadth to the Panhandle that seems to consume and minimize you along with your fears and desires. There is nothing soft there, only angles and wind and a thousand things that can stick, bite or sting you. Yet when night falls and the Milky Way opens up above your head or the sun rises over your shoulders while walking along a prairie trail, a sublime beauty emerges from the starkness capable of soaking your soul. There is little else there and the quiet and the darkness still the mind allowing for peace to return. It’s a beautiful place beyond my expectations and one I always treasure.

DSC_0117

Software Gambles

Bear with me, this isn’t going to sound like a software essay for a little bit. But trust me, I’ll get there.

Ask a random sampling of people who know me at a level somewhere north of “mere acquaintance” what one word they would use to describe me and I’d bet at least 30% of them said “gambler”. I’m not going to get into the details of why that might be the case here on the public internet but the moniker might be warranted based on certain extracurricular activities. On the surface, this seems weird because I’m not much of a chance seeking, thrill riding enthusiast in regular life. But I do love action when it comes to football games, casinos and golf matches. Early on in my gambling career, there were lots of losses and not so many wins. Gambling, like any other skill, involves some experiential instruction that can’t be readily gained from reading about it on the internet. But there’s a dirty little secret to gambling that most people on the outside looking in don’t understand. Good gamblers rarely take risks on the unknown or combinations of bets because they know as a general rule, you have a much higher chance of going broke when you do. The fat tail of gambling failure is similar to the old adage about the stock market: it can stay irrational a lot longer than you can stay solvent. Betting on 10 games on Sunday is a fast way to go broke unless you have very real, very hard empirical data that says you can win 56% of the time (and that’s all it takes to be a very successful sports bettor which is a shocking fact to many people and one reason why you should never, ever trust someone who is trying to sell you picks that claim greater than 57% winners. If they could really pick ’em at that clip, they wouldn’t be selling picks).

Let’s say you really can pick football (or basketball or whatever) winners at 55%. Let’s say you have a $2000 bankroll and you bet the recommended amount of 5% of your bankroll on any given bet. If you bet one game on Sunday, you have a 55% chance of winning $100 and a 45% chance of losing $110 (the extra $10 is the service charge the book extracts, that’s another post all to itself), all else being equal, for an expected profit of $5.5. Sweet, we’re going to be rich! Seems like we should be as many games as we can then, right? Well, no. For one thing, chances are you don’t actually pick at 55%. You pick 55% right on games you fully understand and that you have studied. Others, you might not have a clue about. Also, even if this is a very normal distribution AND if you actually do pick every game at 55%, there is a chance you will lose every single game over the course of 2 weeks and go broke. The chance is astronomically low but it exists. And that’s why most professional gamblers don’t bet lots and lots of games every weekend. Limit your risk by taking singular and calculated gambles that you control for.

What does this have to do with software? This essay on building stable systems contains a treasure trove of important ideas for developing good software but one that stood out to me was this paragraph:

A project usually have a single gamble only. Doing something you’ve never done before or has high risk/reward is a gamble. Picking a new programming language is a gamble. Using a new framework is a gamble. Using some new way to deploy the application is a gamble. Control for risk by knowing where you have gambled and what is the stable part of the software. Be prepared to re-roll (mulligan) should the gamble come out unfavorably.

Note the intersection of ideas between actual gambling and gambling on your software projects. Limit your risk by limiting your gambles. At work, I’m currently involved in a high-priority project that has the potential to shift the types of products we can offer our customers substantially. It’s actually been on the books for over two years with fits and starts but finally has the political backing to get it done. Now to me, a high priority, high visibility project like this is in and of itself a gamble. On top of that, this particular project is different from our current set up in a few important ways which increases the risk. That alone should be enough to say: “let’s not introduce any more risk into the project.” Instead, for a variety of reasons both political and technical in nature, we are attempting to deliver this project using a new communication framework (RabbitMQ), integrating a new database (Couchbase), monitoring it using a new stack (ELK), deploying it using a new tool (Octopus Deploy) and possibly utilizing an offshore team in Russia. As exciting as all that sounds technically (except for that last part, that gives me nightmares), it seems to me a project fraught with risk. If our chances of success for the project doing just one of those things is somewhere in the realm of 80%, the chance of getting them all right is tiny. Our best case scenario in a probability function is that each event is unrelated (this isn’t necessarily true if some of the probabilities are related and work in each other’s favor, see Bayes’ Theorem but I seriously doubt implementing RabbitMQ is going to drastically increase the success rate of a Couchbase implementation). Instead of limiting our risk, this project is taking on scope like the Lusitania took on water.

None of this means the project will be a failure. But what it likely means is that many of the gambles added to the project will result in poor implementations that hurt our chances of success in the medium to long term. This is not the way to build a stable system. So how do we manage the risk? One is to push back on all the technological scope. This is possible but difficult in an environment where there are competing interests above and beyond the success of the project. Delivering X is great for the company but delivering X with Y new technologies is better for N number of teams. Saying no means some teams have their darlings at least pushed off into the future if not killed. The problem with this is that my team doesn’t control all these decisions. Another way might be to utilize one technology (RabbitMQ for instance) to ease the risk of another one (Couchbase. By doing database writes via a queue, we could write to both the new and old database to ensure success). This is something the team does have control over and that we will probably implement. Another way is to leverage the expertise of other teams/people for particular pieces (DevOps controls Octopus). But each of these are just Band-Aids on the larger wound of too much risk in a single project.

The right way to have a successful project and move towards a stable system is to bite off only as much risk as you can hedge. Each of the tenets in that essay can be used to build a stable system but it involves engineering discipline and political understanding to get there. If you watched the Republican debate tonight, you know political understanding is a dying characteristic in our society. In the interim, the best I can do is protect the team from the risks to the best of my ability and let strong engineering rise to the top. And hope that the next big bet I make only includes a single gamble. I may or may not like the Steelers at 10 to 1 to win the Super Bowl next year. 🙂

On Disconnection and Isolation

Last week, at 11:17 PM on Tuesday night, our front door bell rang. For most people, this would result in a slight apprehension before answering the door to find out what neighbor is locked out of their house. But if you harbor some anxiety about the neighborhood you live in, justified or not, a rung doorbell at any hour outside of a 12 hour window between 10 AM and 10 PM can have a definitely different reaction. There have been stories lately in our neighborhood of people ringing doorbells to find out if people are home before breaking in or stealing their cars. We have a neighbor directly behind us who have who had their front door kicked in in broad daylight and all electronics stolen. We’ve had a home invasion on our cul de sac in the 18 months we’ve lived there. And so, instead of making a logical decision (it didn’t help that we were long since asleep and not particularly rational when the door rang), I immediately started thinking the worst and worried for the safety of family and home.

By the time I had actually woken up and made it into the living room, handgun in hand, I saw a black truck drive away from the house and turn the corner. We have renters next to us who have been, if not outright unfriendly, then at least aloof and one neighbor behind us has seen people from that house come down and take pictures of our cars. All of these things come to mind at 11:30 at night when the doorbell rings. After making the rounds of the house and seeing nothing outside out of the ordinary and setting the alarm, I climbed back into bed. Immediately the phone rang with a unrecognized numbers. “Weirder and weirder,” I said to Mara but didn’t answer it. Only when I got the voicemail from our friendly neighbor behind the house about our garage door being wide open, did I start to feel exceptionally foolish. Of course it’s a neighbor. That’s what neighbors do. But fears of crime and a general feeling of anxiety turned a neighborly act into a stressful situation. Once upon a time, in a different era, people were more likely to be connected to their neighborhood (though of course we know this is a generalization about a false nostalgia but I don’t think anyone would argue that the neighborhoods of today are more connected than those of 30 years ago when kids played safely on the street and walked safely home from school). A doorbell after 10 might cause concern but not fear. Yet today, in areas like south Dallas, it’s difficult to manage those fears, especially when there is a constant, torrential inflow of information regarding bad things happening to people.

And we’re some of the lucky ones. Many people have no idea who their neighbors are. We have the phone numbers of several around us. We talk to them regularly in the street. Still, in certain circumstances, fear is the easier emotion to muster when something happens. A strong crime-free neighborhood can be thought of as a kind of cultural safety net. When something happens, people are there for you. However, as a society, we are more disconnected from each other than ever before. In a world when you can Skype with people in Russia, there is less and less meaningful human connection, more and more isolation as we have to drive farther and farther to get to our jobs and more and more inventions designed to keep our face glued to a tiny screen in front of us instead of lifting up our heads to see the world. This disconnectedness, this isolation, makes it easy to prey on our fears whether the hunters are politicians, marketers or media talking heads. And because we are evolutionarily wired to be alert for danger and react to it (far better to run like hell from a shadow that could be a lion but turns out to be a bush than to “make sure” and be dead), this disconnectedness is a self fulfilling circle. It is not easy to get out of our natural state and try to see things in a different light.

David Foster Wallace wrote a commencement speech for Kenyon College in 2005 called “This is water”. I watch it once or twice a year to remind myself of its lesson which is this: our default setting is almost always self centered and revolves around how poorly we are treated or what bad luck we have. When someone cuts us off, we yell in rage in our confined little cars never once thinking that maybe that person is trying to get to the hospital to see his child born. When the grocery store only has one checkout station open, we mentally fume about how our time is being misused never thinking what it must be like to be that one single clerk servicing all these angry people. It takes a great deal of effort, perhaps more than most people can bear, to step outside this default and assume the best of everything. Because it’s much easier to assume the worst, we fall into traps constantly about what is causing the problems that we have. Now, 70 years after a generation of Americans saved the world from incomprehensible evil, we have a society and a culture that in almost every way is designed to pander to our default setting of selfishness. Yet, we are a social species so we find communities within this selfishness that oftentimes become echo chambers and further the self-fulfillment of “It’s someone else’s fault.” We have at least one full generation who has grown up totally on the Internet where saying things you would never say to anyone’s face is de rigueur. More and more we have created places in our lives where it’s acceptable to do perfectly inhumane things. And while most of our bad behavior is limited to the confines of our car or Facebook or whatever, our politicians have become living caricatures of that behavior.

We have a leading Republican candidate who wants to build a wall between us and Mexico because it’s the illegals who are making it difficult to get a job, not because long ago we allowed our corporations and manufacturers to send perfectly good middle class jobs overseas. We have an entire Republican field who seem to strongly believe the sitting President of the United States should not nominate a Supreme Court justice after Justice Scalia passed away last week. We have a Democratic candidate and former Secretary of State who found it perfectly reasonable to have a private email server for official United States business. We have become disconnected not just from those we disagree with but also from a sense of common decency. Gone are the days of cross-aisle negotiations to get key legislature passed, ala Lyndon Johnson. Our centrist common sense politicians are being replaced through big money and big lobbying with meme spouting rich loud mouths. Our politicians vilify opposing view points as if they were truly evil and not human beings coming to different conclusions regarding certain facts.

But our politicians are and always have been real life caricatures of ourselves. Walk anywhere today and you see people totally disconnected from the world around them, heads buried in their phones or tablets, headphones on to drown out the sounds and distractions of the world they only partially inhabit. People share tiny sound bites on social media that are extremist representations of the political and cultural memes they believe, beliefs that are almost always handed down to them through their families with little thought of how the other side might operate. Other people in their own echo chamber share and promote this extremism. We live our technological lives in mediums that are designed to grab attention as quickly and cheaply as possible. The words “socialism” or “immigration” or “taxes” and a million other talking points encompass entire gray universes of complex issues that we increasingly refuse to accept. And then we are shocked (shocked I tell you!) when our very own extremism and disconnectedness come full circle and are personified in our political candidates. The mediums we choose for communication today drive our inability to discuss and grasp the subtle and sublime in life and in politics.

We don’t do this out of malice. In fact, our technical interaction is largely done for the same reasons and through the same mechanisms as today’s click bait advertising. We want to see the little red circle with a large number of likes or comments in it. And the easiest way to do that is to appeal to the lowest common denominator. A picture of a cat with a cucumber will get more response than a 5000 word essay and slowly our ability to deeply understand and discuss our world fades away. Our relationships become shallower and shallower. In return for our own abandonment of the connectedness of social interaction, we receive politicians who are incapable of consensus building. They can only yell like children that they have been wronged which is exactly what we do every day. It is our default setting and without struggle and effort and vigilance against the forces in our technologically connected but socially disconnected world, we fall farther and farther into that default setting until we are unable to experience someone who disagrees with us as anything but an enemy to be defeated. When that happens, we are lost because there are always enemies enough in life without creating make believe ones ourselves.

Here’s just on example of how this works, how we get caught in our own personal echo chambers driven by social media. Yesterday, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was buried. President Obama attended the visitation Friday to pay his respects but did not attend the funeral. This morning in my Facebook feed was a post from the Chicago Tribune faulting Obama for not attending the funeral saying it was what “Chicago guys do”. I read it and immediately thought of the time an aunt died in my family. I wasn’t close with that part of our family but I took off work to drive to Oklahoma City to go to the funeral. I did this because she had been important to the continuation of our family reunion. But I also did it out of sense of duty, a sense of “that’s just what you do”. So as I read this article about Obama not attending Scalia’s funeral, I did so in the light of my own bias, my own belief system and by the time I was done, I was convinced this was a mistake if for no other reason than the political enemies of President Obama could now use this as fodder for retribution around the entire empty Supreme Court seat. I expected to add this story here as an example of disconnectedness. A moment of reflection and a quick Google search led me to another conclusion. There are perfectly other, perfectly plausible reasons why a President might not attend the funeral of a sitting Supreme Court Justice who died. For one, a Catholic funeral is not an event of state. Having a President attend with all the related logistics would have added significantly to the planning and execution of the funeral. For another, it’s perfectly reasonable he made contact with the family and they expressed a desire to not have him there for the very same reasons. There are myriad other reasons why he might choose not to attend. Yet, as I sat drinking coffee reading one viewpoint that happened to exactly fit my personal biases. I convinced myself this was a major error in decorum. This is a very personal decision made by the President of the United States possibly in conjunction with the family of Justice Scalia but I made it into a political issue because of social media and my default setting and bias. It’s worth noting that this particular bias is actually a good one and is directly related to maintaining a sense of connectedness with those who are important to us. But I managed to briefly turn it into a way to be disconnected because social media and the ever present stream of information it feeds us makes it very easy to do so.

What does all this mean for our society? Our choices of communication enable us to superficially remain connected to more and more people while losing many of the aspects of deep connection. We live two lives, the one on social media where it is easy to isolate and promote sound bites that fit our personal biases, the other in real life in our interactions with our family, friends and the world in general. As we begin to spend more and more time on social media in an echo chamber of our own making, the actions on social media, being easier to accept, believe and promote, will continue to bleed into real life until we have effectively lost the ability to empathize and understand those with whom we disagree. We will have built a society around shallowness lacking civility that is incapable of emotions other than anger and disagreement. When I look at the politicians of today, I fear we may already be a long way down that road.