On Action

We cannot spend the day in explanation.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ryan Holiday’s book The Obstacle is the Way is a book on implementing Stoic philosophy with three main attack vectors: perception, action and will. The book is designed to help with how the reader deals with obstacles in the path first by changing how we perceive them, then how we act against them and finally (I assume, I’m not this far into the book yet) how we stay focused on them until they are dealt with.

The Emerson quote particularly struck home with me. The full context of the quote regards how Emerson must write when the Muse strikes him, regardless of what else is going on in his life. Of course, it is easy to act when the Muse is heavy upon us. The real power in a bias towards action lies in all the days when the Muse is silent or hungover or generally feeling sorry for Herself. Continuing to act on those days is a super power, one that results in a lifetime of results and more importantly, improvement in the craft.

This is something I have come to struggle with a great deal. I THINK about doing things all the time. Projects, todos, phone calls, letters, cleaning tasks, garage organization, websites, they all rotate regularly through my consciousness. Yet, at the end of the day, I’m more like James McMurtry than Emerson when he said “All I want to do now is sell all my stocks and sit on the coast. I don’t believe in Heaven but I still believe in Ghosts.” Ghosts of previous days when I was in shape or when I did build websites or when things got done.

Action is hard. It gets harder when you think about right action or “not having to do it again” action. But in reality, doing things twice is better than not doing them at all as long as you aren’t writing software for the Space Shuttle or doing heart transplants. If you’re learning to write or playing the piano or drawing or learning some new technology, any action is better than mere thought about action. When I read Emerson’s quote, I want to apply it not in an anti-social way regarding rejecting all in times of Muse-y-ness but in an admonition against the constant “thinking about action” trap that I regularly find myself in.

One way to do this is to be present in the moment which unsurprisingly is another tenet of the book. In The Untethered Soul, Michael Singer hammers this point home that no amount of concern or thought can change either the past or much of the future. You only have this moment now and the worry and anxiety of results from the past or potential disasters in the future are wasted time. Focus on this moment, pick something to act upon and do it. My main struggle in this area is just the size of many projects and the fact that if I start now, I may get interrupted or I only have 1 hour so why bother. But 1 hour done regularly can make a world of difference. Building a bias towards action can overcome the long, tedious middle ground of a project or craft when it seems nothing is changing, no progress made.

A focus on the present also removes all fear of failure or internal discussion of ability from the equation. We cannot fail in the moment. Failure is an artifact of the past viewed through the lens of history and hindsight. Remaining here in the moment removes failure as a consideration. There is only right now, learning another chord or writing another paragraph or putting a few more strokes on a painting. Thinking about anything else immediately introduces failure as an option. Focusing on that failure puts the obstacle right back in your way.

In The World Outside Your Head, Matthew Crawford explains an interesting phenomenon as a motorcyclist. I have encountered something similar on a bike. If you are going along and you notice an object in your path, you must note it and then immediately move your eyes back to the path or road ahead. If you do not do this, invariably, the bike or motorcycle will track directly at the object until you hit it. The obstacle becomes the focus and try as you might, you cannot avoid it. Where we focus our attention is critical not only to our success but also our progress along the path.

Combining presence with action will undoubtedly change the output and result of any task, project or obstacle. I find that it my focus on the final result that hinders my progress. I think of how great it will be to be done or what it will provide. But who can know what the final result of anything might be? The Stoics would tell you that you have little control over the future, that this might be your last breath so use it as if it were. Some people then find this approach fatalistic and it’s important to avoid this. If you have no control over the future, why do anything? This is where I think Stoicism reveals itself less as a philosophy and more as a structure for self control. The Stoics say little about morality or values as guidance for what to do. You must augment Stoicism with a set of values that you develop separately. Your values tell you why and what to do, Stoicism tells you how.

If we can combine our values with the Stoic principles of presence and action, we can live a fulfilled life. We will be both less concerned with final results and more able to achieve them successfully.

Playing With The Hand You’re Dealt

“Poker is a combination of luck and skill. People think mastering the skill part is hard, but they’re wrong. The trick to poker is mastering the luck.”

Tonight was workout number 2 of the CrossFit Games Open, affectionately named 14.2 by those of us in the know. Last week, we had to do as many rounds as possible in 10 minutes of 30 double unders and 15 75 lb power snatch. For those not in the know, that means you had to jump a bunch of rope except every time the rope had to pass under your feet twice instead of once to be counted and you had to throw 75lbs over your head 15 times.

This week was a little more complex. The exercises were 95 lb overhead squats and chest to bar pullups. An overhead squat involves holding weight on a bar over your head, in this case 95 pounds, and doing squats with it. It is the ultimate core exercise as any weakness in your midline (read: abs) causes the bar to get all wobbly (which is the scientific term) and tends to come back to earth. Chest to bar pullups involve regular pullups except some part of your chest below your collarbone has to actually touch the bar.

This post started out in my head as a manifesto on how CrossFit, while a meritocracy, has become unbalanced in favor of those who are genetically gifted. That post may still happen (because I believe it’s true) but instead, I think it’s more important to talk about what CrossFit is on an individual level apart from any Games hyperbole or fluff. For most of the year, CrossFit is without a doubt the most effective way to increased health and fitness. The Games is a special time when we focus on the best in the world and that’s good. But the real story is how CrossFit makes you a stronger, healthier human being.

Last week, I wrote about my experience with 14.1. In that post, I complained about not bringing my own rope, about the gym being crowded making a warm up hard and about the fact that people who were more genetically gifted had a better chance at workouts involving weights. Tonight, I started to write about how the bar was wobbly and that 95 lbs was almost half my body weight which put me at a disadvantage. However, what I realized before I wrote that post (thankfully) was that CrossFit generally and the Open in particular aren’t about a level playing field. They aren’t about equal competition or fair play or any of that. CrossFit is about being stronger and healthier in the most effective way possible. On top of that, CrossFit allows me and other athletes (and we’re all athletes, regardless of skill level) to achieve things we never thought possible on an INDIVIDUAL level. That’s what’s important.

I wrote last week that 3 years ago, I did the same workout and managed 125 reps. This year, 3 years older and at an age when lots of people feel like the best is behind them, I did 165 reps. That’s a 32% improvement. It’s the opposite of the idea of aging we have been taught to believe in. It’s proof that no matter where you start, it’s possible to heal the things that afflict you and grow stronger and healthier.

While at this time of year, the Open causes many of us to focus on the competition of CrossFit, the real benefit of CrossFit is the improvement in health and well being of individuals across the world. While I could complain about being smaller than most people and thus at a disadvantage, it misses the very important point that without CrossFit, I would be a weaker individual physically, mentally and emotionally. We aren’t guaranteed to be dealt a fair hand in life. We have afflictions, we have shitty bosses, we have distant families, we have pain and anguish and sorrow. The hand itself isn’t what is important. It’s what we choose to do with that hand. We all make decisions every single day as to how we face life. Most of us choose to complain and wish for something better. That’s the path I started down tonight when I was disappointed in my performance on 14.2. I didn’t want to think that instead of wishing everything was just right, I made the most of what I had. I wanted it all to be equal. But that’s not how life works. And the happiest people in the world are those that realize that and refuse to let it affect them.

That quote in the beginning is hard to understand for lots of people. How do you master the luck? Some people are lucky and some people are unlucky. But almost everyone can take the luck they have and turn it into something. We worry about jobs and bosses and spouses and fortune when we should worry about taking the cards we’re dealt and playing the absolute best way we can. Tonight, I didn’t do nearly as many reps as I wanted to. If I’m honest with myself, that’s because I wanted more than I was capable given the amount of work I had put in. Instead of having expectations, take what you have and do the very best with it. And then do what you can between performances, whether it’s CrossFit or work or whatever and concentrate on getting better individually. Because it’s not about what you did compared to everyone else. It’s about what you made out of the abilities you had. That’s what CrossFit is about.

Please Don’t Learn To Speak French

This essay is a parody of this essay. You should read it as such. It will be of little interest to the great majority of my readers but there was no point in putting it on my rapidly dying technology blog.

Today (regardless on which day you are reading this) on Twitter, a hundred or so people publicly declared their desire to learn French. A noble gesture of some sort or the other to be sure but if any of these people need to learn French to do his or her job, there is something terribly, deeply, horribly wrong with the state of whatever it is that his or her non-French requiring job happens to be. Even if those hundred or so random people did learn how to speak French, I expect we’d end up with something like this:

Le vin a du gros cuisses. C’est la vie. Translation – The wine has fat thighs. Such is life.

Fortunately, the odds of this linguistical (sic) flight of fancy are zero and for good reason. Most of those people are just tweeting shit out their ass and have no desire to put in the requisite effort to actually learn French. Hopefully, they have other things to do in their day to day job like dig ditches or take out the trash or…do I need to go on?

To those of you arguing that speaking French is an essential skill we should be teaching our children right up there with reading, writing and arithmetic (Is anyone really arguing that programming is an essential skill? Or are we arguing that the world needs more programmers, let’s see if there are people out there who are interested?): can you explain to me how this random person I picked off the Internet would be any better at her day to day job doing whatever the hell it is if she woke one morning as a crack French speaker (it’s at this point in the essay where I really want to go off on a tangent about a modern day Kafka and a French speaking roach but I’ll refrain. The essay I’m parodying is bad enough as it is.) It is obvious to me how being a skilled reader, a skilled writer, and at least high school level math are fundamental to performing the job of a whatever job it is that that poor random person linked above does. Or at any job, for that matter. But understanding what “gateau” or “chat” means and to be able to use them in a sentence? I can’t see it.

(A minor digression from the parody. It’s interesting how we jump from “reading, writing and arithmetic” to “being a skilled reader, a skilled writer and at least high school level math”. It’s as if teaching our children the basics of all three will make them experts at two but average at the math part. But we know that Jeff thinks writing is hard. He said as much back in 2006. In that post, he said writing was just exercise and the more you do of it, the better you get at it. This is absolutely, unequivocally true up to a certain, God given talent threshold. But isn’t the same true for programming? Can’t I take any random person of average intelligence off the street who is willing to put in an hour a day and have them improve drastically as a programmer? If they want to be a better programmer – or writer – why question their motives? This is one of the fundamental flaws of Jeff’s entire argument not to mention an interesting clue into what he really thinks about reading, writing and math and the ability to become good at some but not others.)

Look, I love French (and the French and France and French toast.) I also think knowing how to speak French is important…in the right context, for some people. But so are a lot of skills. I would no more urge everyone to learn to speak French than I would urge everyone to learn to weave baskets.

(Another digression – here lie some big fucking dragons. Did he really just say that he thinks programming is right for the right people in the right context? Seriously? That’s like code (pun intended) for some serious discrimination at the very least. Maybe not racial or gender discrimination but he’s clearly supporting a position that has been shown to be untenable for decades in most other arenas. To hop up on a big ass high horse and say programming may be right for me but it’s not for thee is opening a can of worms he can’t possibly mean. I have to chalk this up to some truly bad writing. I hope.)

— END OF PARODY due to lack of ongoing interest in parodying a self-parody.

In the pantheon of Coding Horror entries, this one is going to go into the list of “Top Three Horrifically Bad Essays”. No one (to my knowledge) is saying that “everyone should learn to code”. But if coding (or French or any other skill) interests you, what a wonderful, amazing time to be living in. There are resources available (like CodeYear, the site Jeff is going out of his way to denigrate) that make learning to code (or speak French, hello Rosetta Stone) infinitely easier than it was 20 years ago. Why write a thousand words telling people to not do something they might have a genuine interest in? No one in their right mind would tell people not to learn to speak French. Do what you want. That’s the beauty of the Internet and the spread of information it provides.

Please DO advocate learning to code (or speak French) just for the sake of learning how to code. This is exactly why we should learn anything, for its own sake. For too long, education in this country tried too hard to take the enjoyment and satisfaction out of the act of learning. Places like CodeYear are fighting an uphill battle to change that. Do everything you can to support learning for learning sake. And if it results in a $79K a year job, God bless you and the Internet.

Why would Jeff malign the Mayor of New York’s light hearted attempt to learn programming? Zed Shaw thinks it’s because of resentment. This may be true but invoking Hanlon’s Razor (and with apologies to Atwood, I don’t actually think he’s stupid, just rather misguided in an overly public way this time), let’s not attribute to malice what can easily be explained by stupidity. Jeff can write (not in a Cormac McCarthy kind of way but in a “my audience is largely .Net programmers who like to play video games and build computers that glow” sort of way) as evidenced by the post before this “Don’t Learn To Program” atrocity. His post about automatic cat feeders is interesting, amusing and not likely to offend anyone other than my cats for whom I’m immediately considering getting automatic feeders for. He can write as long as the subject is clear, concise and lacking in any kind of subtlety.

The real problem is Jeff’s writing doesn’t lend itself well to subtlety. Attacking an idea like “More people should learn to program” requires a deft touch and a subtle ability to tease out nuances, assuming there is any reason to attack such an idea in the first place. Frankly, that’s just not how Jeff writes. Telling people “Please Don’t Learn To Program” in bold H1 at the top of your post while inserting a small “I suppose I can support learning a tiny bit about programming just so you can recognize what code is, and when code might be an appropriate way to approach a problem you have” sentence at the end isn’t the best way to explain why you think CodeYear is a bad idea. This is one of those posts that Jeff should have run through multiple censors before hitting the publish button. If he actually believes any of the horrifyingly illogical suppositions he puts forth in the essay, he needs to try much, much harder in explaining them because this time, he’s come across as a resentful, maladjusted programmer who wants to take his ball and go home.

Why I’m Not A Football Christian

Does God know particulars? Before you answer that, take a moment to consider the ramifications of the answer, both pro and con. Like answering the question “Did you ever get caught masturbating in the closet?”, any answer you come up with is a net loss if you’re a Believer (or a closet masturbator). If you answer yes, God does know particulars, the implications are staggering to the concept of individual freedom, choice and whether God is actually very nice at all. If you answer no, you’re implying that God isn’t omniscient, that some things unfold without His knowledge and suddenly you have to be OK with some significant changes to the general understanding of Him. What exactly is my point? I hope to convince you that while God may be intimately interested in Tim Tebow as a human being, his interest in the outcome of particular events that Tim Tebow is involved in, particularly football games, is non-existent if we are to believe God really is a loving God who wants us all to succeed and that if He is not, then we’ve got generally bigger problems to deal with from a religious standpoint. Specifically, any resulting numbers from any football games that loosely correspond to Tim Tebow’s favorite Bible verse are completely coincidental and our noticing them tells us more about our own personal biases than it does about God’s interest in football games.

This past Sunday, the Denver Broncos, led by their quarterback and exceptionally open Christian Tim Tebow, defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in a playoff game. The Broncos were large underdogs in the game meaning no one, not even the very smart people in Las Vegas, gave them much chance to win the game at all. (As an aside, that part about the smart people in Vegas thinking anything about who was going to win or not isn’t technically true but for the matter at hand, we can let it pass.) All week leading up to the game, the focus was on how bad Tim Tebow, and by extension the Broncos, had played in the previous game. He had gone 6 for 22 and 60 yards with zero touchdowns and one interception. In a game that values completions and yards and touchdowns scored, this was not good. All the talking heads assumed that the vaunted Steelers defense would dominate the game even though Ryan Clark, an integral part of that defense, was not playing due to a life threatening blood disease that had forced the removal of his gall bladder and spleen after playing in Denver in 2007. The talking heads also assumed that even though the Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had a bad ankle injury and their starting running back was done for the season with an ACL tear from the previous week’s game and their staring center was not playing due to an ankle injury, the Steelers offense would produce enough points to beat the anemic Denver Broncos, maybe 13-3 or something.

Of course, this is not what happened, otherwise I’d have no real impetus for writing this essay. The Broncos scored 29 points including 6 in the overtime courtesy of an 80 yard touchdown to win the game outright and the mighty Steelers were sent packing while the lowly Broncos, led by Tim Tebow, the evangelical Christian, moved on to the divisional round of the playoffs. In the game, Tebow threw for 316 yards. He averaged 31.6 yards per pass completion. And finally, the game’s TV ratings was 31.6 Because we as humans tend to find patterns in everything, it was immediately noted that these were the numbers for John 3:16, one of the most quoted and influential passages in Christianity.

This caused “tebow 316” to blow up on Google and for a lot of what I’m assuming are normally very intelligent people to go slightly, or completely, crazy. People started saying things like “I still think it’s ironic that he threw for 316 yards” on Facebook, displaying for all the world that people still think Alanis Morissette was a poetic genius given the fundamental misunderstanding of irony. Pastors on the web said things like “I don’t know if it is necessarily an act of God, but I don’t think anything happens by accident either”, fundamentally misunderstanding the idea of causation. Things that aren’t accidents imply intention and with intention comes reason. If it wasn’t an accident, Someone came up with a very elaborate mathematical plan. Lots and lots of normal people hungry to find any concrete example that God loves us grasped at the fact that numbers 3, 1, and 6 showed up 3 times in various forms during the game.

Now, before we dive into an examination of whether God really does love Tim Tebow enough (and by extensions hates the Pittsburgh Steelers) to influence the outcome of a human football game, let’s look back at the original question, does God know particulars? This is a thorny question integral to discussions in religion and philosophy for hundreds of years, not only in Christianity but also in the Arabic and Judaic worlds as well. At a high level, the issue is that if God is omniscient and thus, knows particular details of the world, say that someone is going to be raped and killed at some point in the future, how can we reconcile that with our idea of God as a loving and forgiving God? On the other hand, if God does not know particulars and thus is not implicitly implicated in the evil in the world, how can we reconcile that with the idea that God is omniscient? Logicians and scholars infinitely smarter than I am have discussed this idea for generations. Some scholars do some fancy hand-waving and imply that God’s knowledge is fundamentally different from human knowledge and that because of this, it is essentially not ours to reason why, etc., etc., etc. This is good for the internal consistency of said scholars belief framework but not helpful for those of us writing two thousand word essay at 4 in the morning.

When I look at the question and try to answer it (without any real review of the history or scholarly works pertaining, I’m not writing this essay for publication), here’s what I come up with. God has knowledge of particulars in a probabilistic way, Einstein’s belief that God doesn’t throw dice notwithstanding. I think that God has a framework for how things might turn out but that there are hundreds of thousands of events every day that God isn’t that interested in from a global standpoint and that however those things work out are largely left to chance, human interaction and possibly some influence of chaos theory. If we are to believe the text of the Bible, God already gave us the way to get into heaven in the very quote now being used to convince us He exists through the actions of a 22 year old NFL quarterback. I find it exceptionally hard to believe that God feels the need to influence an NFL game just to give those of us with a blog and too much time on our hands a new sign that He does in fact exist. If God truly does know exact particulars of every single human action in some divine knowledge, the implications for His goodness are staggering, at least to my limited human mind. You can hand wave and say He has a reason for everything but that reason in many cases seems to then be at the very least tinged with malice if you consider events that are bad for the humans involved. It’s nice to be able to say “God has a reason for everything” and go on about your daily business but that’s intellectually lazy as far as I can tell. Maybe it’s not our position to know the workings of God’s mind but if He laid out all details long ago for all people, I find it impossible to ever see Him as anything more than a merry prankster at best and possibly actively malevolent at worst.

Instead, I think God has a general framework for how things are going to work out and beyond that, He doesn’t much care or know of any particulars in advance. He may intervene on the part of truly good or truly evil people (see Brett Favre’s fall from grace in particular) but as a general rule, I think He lets us go about our daily business using our best judgment as to the actions we should take and their outcomes. He may have a general plan for our lives but I’m not even convinced that He knows exactly how they’ll play out, because again, the idea that He kicks things off knowing particular people will be tortured and murdered is directly in opposition to any idea that He gives one damn about what happens to us. Thinking God doesn’t know everything is slightly (slightly? Deeply is more like it) heretical but far better to think maybe God isn’t omniscient than that He’s actively evil.

All this brings us back to our little football game (I know you were wondering if it would. Or maybe you’re asleep by now anyway, like I should be at 5 AM). The people like the aforementioned pastor who believes everything happens for a reason also has to believe the following things:

  1. God gave Ryan Clark a devastating blood disease AT BIRTH that caused him to lose his spleen and gall bladder after a 2007 game in Denver JUST so he would be prevented from playing in this game in 2012 negatively affecting the defense of the Pittsburgh Steelers and allowing Denver to win. Almost no one with any football knowledge would assume that the outcome would be exactly the same if Pittsburgh had been able to play their starting free safety.
  2. God intentionally hurt Brett Keisel, the Steelers’ starting right defensive tackle, during the game to affect the outcome. Keisel went out in the first half with an injury that undoubtedly affected the game plan and effectiveness of the Steelers defense.
  3. God intentionally hurt Maurkice Pouncey months ago, preventing him from playing in this game. Pouncey was the starting center for the Steelers and without him, Doug Legursky filled in. He had several terrible snaps including one before half that moved Pittsburgh out of field goal range.
  4. God intentionally hurt Ben Roethlisberger who was extremely hobbled with an ankle injury, drastically limiting the Steelers game plan. This one might actually be true since Roethlisberger might have some atoning yet to do for his violent incidents with women not so long ago. If you said God knew the particulars of this one, I might agree with you.

In all, the number of things that had to align perfectly for the various 316s to happen and have significance are astounding. Now, you might say that Tebow is some sort of super Christian or a prophet for the times and thus has been picked out in advance to further the message of God. Or you might say that God can do anything and thus He had Tebow throw for 316 yards including one 80 yard play at the beginning of overtime that mathematically manipulated Tebow’s average such that it too was 31.6 (realize that if the Broncos had won with an 80 run, Tebow’s passing average would not have been 31.6. Of course, I don’t think this would have affected the crazies that much) AND had exactly the right number of people tune in to guarantee a TV rating of 31.6. If you argued these things, I’m not going to argue with you because those are not particularly arguable points. However, I would assume that you attribute almost everything to God and thus, we’re not going to have a lot in common to talk about anyway, in the grand scheme of things.

Suffice it to say, I find Tebow slightly hypocritical (sometimes the author’s bias comes out in the beginning, some times at the end) in that he openly prays for his own success on the football field which necessarily implies the failure of others at his expense which seems to me a not particularly Christian thing to do. Let’s be honest, Tebow plays a particularly vicious and violent game, one that often entails gruesome injuries and long term bodily effects on the combatants and to assume that God has a rooting interest in your team because you pray harder is a level of tribalism that exceeds all possible generous explanations for your faith. Of course, I have no idea what Tebow is praying for on the sidelines but since he is often seen kneeling before coming into play, I can only assume he’s asking for protection from people like Brett Keisel who actively want to hit him as hard as they possibly can, this after voluntarily choosing to play a game where people on the other side of the ball want to hit you as hard as they can. This is tantamount to the Crusades and we all know how that worked out for the heathens.

In the end, Tebow is a polarizing and engaging creature. It doesn’t seem likely to me that he’s a messenger from God, only that he’s a particularly open and flamboyant Christian who has engaged two fan bases, the Broncos and crazy people on the internet looking for signs that God really does exist. I don’t begrudge him either of those. I just don’t think God is going to be quite as interested in his success this weekend on the road against New England.


Busquemos la gran alegría del haber hecho (Let us seek the great happiness of having done) – from Juan Ramon Jimenez’s Maximus

Recently, I read an excellent essay in Garden & Gun magazine on the celebration of John Graves’ birthday. In it, the author talks about Graves’ stoneworks at his ranch and his need to create things physically, to “seek the great happiness of having done.” He specifically talks about the need to perform physical tasks while you are able because eventually, that ability will be gone, leaving each of us. I found it interesting to think about physical tasks like fence building or roofing in the context of today’s world that is largely mental in nature, at least at the most successful levels of society. We have become a sedentary mental population, one that actively avoids physical pursuits and will often pay other people to perform the tasks we might once have taken on.

This winter we decided to put in some sort of brick/stone border around several of the flower beds we created in our backyard. When we first moved into the house, gardening was an experimental task, the genesis of which was often a few too many margaritas on Friday night while perusing garden plan books. The main bed in our backyard is a large figure eight laid out in the southeastern portion of our yard. The border is a recycled rubber material, made from tires, found at Home Depot. For several years, it has served its purpose well, keeping the bermuda grass out quite successfully. However, there are a few places where it is installed poorly, below grade, and I fight a constant battle to keep the grass out of the bed. Also, it’s not particularly pleasing to look at, lacking a certain professional appeal found in other beds we’ve seen.

So it was decided that we’d have a stone border put in. We discussed getting estimates from a local nursery but as with many of the projects, the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to do it. There is certainly an appeal to writing someone a check and showing up to find something solved around the house. I’ve done that several times with fencing in particular, both because I have zero experience and because it’s hard to build a fence by yourself. But most other garden projects can be done successfully alone, a physical solitary pursuit towards an accomplishment that can be enjoyed for years. Once I read the article on Graves’, with its romanticizing of the physicality of the stone work, the slow shaping of rock into a form that is both pragmatic and beautiful, I was convinced to do the border myself.

Mind you, I’m no stoneworker and everything was bought from a local big box home improvement store. There will be no mortar involved, not selecting of stones to fit together precisely, no crafting of the design into something beautiful. These are precut bricks, made for novice construction workers like myself. But still, there is the element of extreme physicality juxtaposed with the intervals of mental planning and thought. The work is difficult, digging a trench for the first course of stones in the thick, North Texas clay testing the work of the construction worker before even a tenth of the project is done. As with most of my projects, there is a large element of experimentation, thinking through possibilities and then partially implementing what seems to be the best one as a test.

It is this constant interplay between the physical and the mental that I find so rewarding, I expect not unlike a painter working with the canvas on an experimental idea. This molding and creating with my hands is something I miss in my day-to-day work. Even on the days when I actually create things, they are almost completely mental with no real tactile interaction with the digital world I’m manipulating. I enjoy seeing something take shape, begin to evolve from the mental pictures I have dreamed up into something physical in the real world performing a function as well as improving the look of a project.

This creation, this “having done”, is something missing from our day to day lives, most of us. Certainly the concept of our agrarian past is largely romanticized now, leaving aside the raw brutality and difficulty of that life. But there is a satisfaction in managing a brutal, physical task when the result is some tangible thing sprung from our labor. “Having done” is an important happiness, one that many of us have lost in the mental world we currently inhabit.

And yet, mental creation is not unimportant. Books and symphonies and essays all bring a richness to our lives, one that deepens and broadens our understanding and appreciation of the world we live in. I constantly struggle between the need to create things physically and mentally. I admit a certain bias to physical creations, fences, stone walls, arbors, gardens. They seem more tangible, more worthy of recognition. This struggle is especially difficult coming from a person who largely makes a living from mental creations.

In the end, I find it necessary to oscillate between times of physical and mental creation, using each one as a stepping off point for the next cycle in the process. This alternation serves to enrich both portions of my creativity.

Holes In The Embedded System

Steve Yegge has written a fascinating, thought-provoking article on embedded systems. In it, he discusses embedded systems ala games ala Mario Kart and muses on the invisible boundary around all embedded systems, how information gets into and out of embedded system and the possible ramifications when we think about all things as embedded systems.

A key point:

In our discussion so far, I have intentionally blurred the distinction between the host system (such as a fish tank or a game console device) and the host system’s host system (such as your bedroom or living room). But you’ve probably noticed by now that all host systems are embedded in some larger system. This is just the way things work. The fish tank is in your bedroom, which is a system embedded in a house, which is a system embedded in a neighborhood, embedded in a county, a nation, a continent, a planet, a solar system, a galaxy, a universe.

It’s perhaps not as clear in the case of fish tanks, but host systems often overlap and even cooperate. A city is composed of many interleaved subsystems. So is your body. It’s not always a simple containment relationship. Systems are made of, and communicate with, other systems.

But one way or another, all systems are embedded systems.

If all systems are embedded systems, isn’t it possible that our little corner of the galaxy is an embedded system that is controlled in some way by information that enters our system, unknown to us, through the holes that Steve talks about? And couldn’t our universe be another embedded system within some host system that we can’t even begin to comprehend but that is controlling our universe in invisible ways? Isn’t this what God (or Buddha or The Pink Unicorn or your deity of choice) does? He works in mysterious ways, right? But if he does, and if all systems are in some way embedded systems, what is God’s (or Buddha’s or The Pink Unicorn’s) host system? Whoops, my mind just exploded.

It’s an approachable article even if you aren’t a programmer and I highly recommend it. It IS long so print it out and read it in the bathroom or on the train but do read it. It’s not so much about programming (though I think he’ll get there eventually) as it is about metaphysical questions about our existence. At least to me it is.

The Key to Greatness

Yeah, I don’t really have a quick answer for that but it seems to revolve around concentration. This includes making 2750 free throws in a row. Concentration is something I find I lack. Part of this comes from my addiction to technology. But part of it is deeper and relates to the negative affect the modern world has on our evolutionary instincts. In the past, things that grabbed our attention kept us alive. Hmmm, is that a saber-tooth tiger or a palm frond? Let’s run like fuck, just in case. And hopefully, I’m faster than you. Which I am. But that’s a different story.

Today, things that grab our attention do just that, steal attention away from the important things. It’s all around us. It’s a sick addiction, one that some of us happily wrap a big rubber band around our arm for and ask for more. But it makes us smaller, less interesting, less great, like all addicts. Funny thing is, it’s damn difficult to counteract. It’s hard to over come evolution, even if it’s killing us now.

I think that’s why I find writing so difficult now. Even in my journal (which I haven’t written in for 3 weeks or so-ack), after 15 minutes, I’m dying, mentally itching to be distracted or find another task that takes less time and much less attention. This is a fucking stream-of-consciousness-journal-about-my-boring-ass-life for god’s sake. How much less attention can something take? Well, there’s always the internet. Or unloading the dishwasher. Or having another drink. None of which is anything I’d ever want to have written in my fucking obituary.

I read an article once about life that said it (life) should be made up entirely of things you’d want written in your obit. But those things take attention. They absolutely completely fucking command it. And yet, we’ve overdrawn our attention account and can’t write the attention check to manage 15 minutes in a journal. How do you make yourself attention rich? Beats the living hell out of me but if you find out, let me know. Technology makes life easier and better but it also makes it cheaper and not in a “Everything’s cheaper on the Interweb” sorta way. It makes it cheaper by increasing the things that demand our attention, yours and mine, and steals it away, divides it into tiny little meaningless increments that add up to a life no one in their right mind (or left brain) could ever write an obit about.

That makes me sick. And yet, like any addict, I feel almost powerless to change it. Trust me, if there was an attention methodone pill, I’d be down at the clinic every day at the crack of dawn begging for it. But there isn’t. The only thing you can do is remove things that demand attention until the only ones left are important. Do you understand how impossible that is to do today? Can you fathom not having a cell phone? Internet at work? Jangly, shiny things at Wal-Mart? No, you can’t fathom it. Because it scares you. And it scares me.

That’s what addiction does, it makes you think you can’t survive without it. It steals time away from what makes up life and turns it into worry and fear. Addiction allievates your fear of committment. It takes strength to live life unaddicted. More strength than most of us have these days. When was the last time you spent more than 30 minutes doing something that required your full and utmost attention? I’d wager this is a bigger epidemic than obesity (and that’s saying something these days).

The amount of addiction in your life is inversely related to the amount of attention in your life. Which side of the scale is heavier for you?


I’ve always found the figure of Sisyphus fascinating and apparently so did Camus.  If life is truly absurd, as Camus believed, how do we find meaning?  Sisyphus gives us a clue, lending evidence to the idea that the journey, not the desintation, is what truly gives meaning to something.

In today’s world of instant gratification and constant bombardment of information, it is difficult to recognize the meaning in the struggle of life itself, much less in any one particular endeavor.  However, if we can see Sisyphus as happy even though his life is full of struggle, we can begin to find happiness in our own lives.  The goals we achieve are merely milestones along the path of struggle that perhaps mark achievement but do not contribute meaning to our lives.  Self-discovery is found along the path of struggle towards those goals and it is this path with all its tribulations that we derive meaning from.

Realizing this makes us more cognizant of the meaning inherent in the daily struggle of life.