The Persecution-Industrial Complex

American Christianity (to paint with a wide brush, and I include Canadians in this category too) has a strange relationship with nuance.

Consider persecution.

Scripture says that Christ’s followers will be persecuted. If you’re a “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” type, this is sort of a problem. Isn’t it? When you live a nation founded on Christian principles (which I won’t dispute; it was birthed out of the Enlightenment, which you don’t really get to understand except as an extension of Christian thought), where the vast majority identify as Christian, it’s hard to imagine why you’d be persecuted.

A slightly more nuanced reading would seek to understand the context into which “you will be persecuted” was written, but suppose for a moment you don’t care about that, and you just want carte blanche to be a Bible Believing Christian who takes all the stuff at face value.

Then it’s a problem. A big problem.

There’s lots of persecution in the world. There are lots of places in the world where being a Christian can get you killed. This is terrible. The world is full of injustice and wrongdoing still, and there’s not a whole lot we can do about it.

The problem is when you start using persecution as evidence of faith. That logic train is easy.

Sometimes I think you’d have to be a crazy person to think that there’s any real systemic persecution in the USA and Canada. Yet there are all kinds of evangelical Christians who truly believe that the persecution has begun. Or if it hasn’t begun, we’re just on the cusp of Christian churches being burned down and Christians being forced to convert to… something. Liberalism? I dunno.

Despite evangelicals being a vastly powerful group with their own political party and lobby groups and mountains of cash, the church seems beset upon on all sides. And there’s a cottage industry of authors and (lately, unfortunately, and just barely) filmmakers who peddle this message to make a quick buck.

It’s bonkers.

But you understand why this has to be, right? It’s the equivalent of First World Problems. Once your basic needs have been met, as they have in the West, twice over, the animal part of your brain doesn’t shut off the predator/problem-seeking part of your brain. That’s all still in there. And so, when you lose your remote, or the internet goes down, or your dishsoap no longer contains phosphorous, or you can’t find the right craft beer, or your car doesn’t connect to Bluetooth quite quickly enough, you bitch and moan like someone just added an extra 10 pounds to your daily cotton quota.

Exacerbating that, American Christians also have the Bible saying that they should be persecuted! So we get out our first-world-problems magnifying glass, tape over the logo with persecution-finder and scour the land for injustices that must surely be happening at the hands of those (invisible, imaginary) oppressors of the Church. With typical conspiracy-enthusiast enthusiasm, when we don’t find much we take that as evidence that the devil is doing just a devilishly good job at hiding it from us.

Along comes some thrice-married county clerk deciding to take a stand for the sanctity of marriage. At last our martyr has arrived!

The persecution-industrial complex kicks into high gear, a temple is erected (complete with an altar to the media), and the money changers assemble at the gates. Out roll the vans with the signs and all around the country our megachurches denounce, and our political candidates froth, and our news channel rages. The persecution has finally and truly begun! The end is near! We’re good Christians, look how we’re being persecuted!

The 0.9% of Americans who identify as Muslims, and who can actually claim to be systemically persecuted there, must think American Christians are absolutely insane.

Why nerds hate analogies

Nerds hate analogies. I know this because I hate analogies. I know this because I nitpick analogies. Well, I used to.

I’m not using the word nerd pejoratively here. I’m using it as a sort of shorthand for sciency techy people who like facts and logic. So basically… me.

But why? Why do nerds hate analogies? I’ve thought about this for a while and I think I’ve got a bit of a handle on it. Then again I might be full of crap. So don’t listen too closely.

I think this all has to do with arguments.

What Is An Argument

This is a terrible place to start. Sorry for that. But I’m not actually asking what an argument is. That’s pretty obvious, like asking what a star is. An argument is when you have two people with different points of view talking. That’s it.

What happens after that isn’t at all obvious. Because we can all agree what arguments are but we can’t seem to figure out what arguments are for. Like… why do we have them?

For some people, this is like asking what stars are for. They just are! It’s all very obvious.

But as with everything, it’s not so obvious at all. There are at least two things to consider. One is what we say arguments are for. This is easy to figure out. Just ask anyone. You’ll get ten different answers, and different kinds of arguments have different timbres, but they’ll all tend to cluster around facts and logic and trying to get someone else to understand your (obviously correct) view. Leaving aside that other kind of argument, which is actually just a fight and a different beast altogether.

We talk about arguments like they’re debates. And that’s not a terrible way to think about the way we think about them. In an ideal world, two people with different points of view get to present their point of view, and then at the end we all sit down and agree who has the stronger argument. The loser submits, the winner comes out victorious, and facts and logic win the day.

Now if you read that and said “but that never happens!” to yourself, you’re absolutely right.

Because that’s not what arguments are at all. I know this. I’ve rarely, if ever, seen an argument that works like that.

Maybe I’m just hanging out with the wrong people. I don’t think I am. I think most, if not all people work this way. We say that arguments are about facts and logic and strengths of positions, and making good points, and having discussions that lead to agreement… Yet every argument I’ve seen leads to all the participants slinking away to find better arguments, not better positions.

People are slippery that way.

What Are Arguments For

Arguments actually function as a defense mechanism for things you’ve already decided. If you think there’s any semblance of some kind of scientific method in arguments (and a lot of the time in science, but that’s another matter altogether), you’re either a very special snowflake or a very deluded snowflake. I mean, you must know that your response to feeling like you’ve lost an argument, especially one you care deeply about, isn’t to throw your position out the window, but to figure out a better way to justify your existing beliefs.

Arguments are actually kind of traumatic. Someone has come along and is trying to mess up the internal consistency of your thought. Somewhere deep inside you know that your already have a crazy shortage of consistency, so your brain just needs to defend, defend, defend, until you can no longer defend. Then you take a shower the next morning and you have a bolt of insight!… that magically happens to bolster your position.

A Brief Word On Logic

Before I go any further down this path I want to talk about logic for a second.

Logic is a tool. So are a lot people who talk about it a lot. (Excepting people actually studying logic, but that’s a whole other thing.)

It’s a tool that can prove nonsense. Logic takes inputs and produces outputs. The problem is the age old problem of garbage in, garbage out. So let’s say you’re using logic and you feed it a bunch of false premises. You get a result that doesn’t make any sense.

That’s the problem with logic, right?

Well, no, not really. Because most of the people who use “logic” are actually using the word logic and not actual using logic.

I remember reading a book by Alvin Plantinga that had a lot of formal logic in it. I couldn’t make much sense of it because I’m very much not Alvin Plantinga. But the point remains, we just don’t use formal logic. Or really even informal logic.

Or really logic at all. We say “logic” but we mean “this makes sense to me”.

The really annoying result of this is people who use logical fallacies as counter-arguments. Straw man! Appeal to authority! Appeal to the stone! Ad hominem!

Here we have a bunch of yammering ninnies who know enough to critique the informal logic of a statement without actually examining its soundness. Remember, just because some argument has a logical fallacy doesn’t mean it’s not true! (You could almost say that an argument from logical fallacy is… a logical fallacy. But then the snake begins to eat its own tail and universe is divided by zero or something.) That you can analyze a statement by scrolling through a Wikipedia page doesn’t prove or disprove anything.

Okay, so it maybe proves that you’re a jackass. But that’s beside the point.

A Brief Word On A Brief Word On Logic

So why am I talking about logic, other than to gripe about some internet knownothings?

It’s because it’s important to what I’m about to say. I don’t know how to express this well, so I’ll tell you a story.

I knew a guy who was very concerned about facts and logic. He was always talking about is this logical, is that logical. He would take really defined stances on things based on logic (which wasn’t actual logic mind you, just whether or not he could make something make sense to himself). He wasn’t doing anything wrong, not at all. I was really impressed with the amount of thought he put into doing thing that other people just did.

He didn’t like to speed on the highway. Because the speed limit was a law, just like not setting fire to a nunnery was a law, and if we sped on the highway, didn’t that mean that we were also implicitly approving of burning down that nunnery? (There’s a deeper law about speeding on the highway called “not putting your family in danger by obstructing the flow of traffic”, but I didn’t come to that idea until later.) For a while I was very impressed with this argument, except that I kept speeding anyways.

I was impressed but not persuaded. I might have agreed, intellectually, about this kind of absolutist framework of viewing the law as a monolithic entity where speeding and murder were on the same level. But it didn’t change my behaviour. I actually wondered about that a few times. I didn’t realise at the time that I actually didn’t agree. I just couldn’t put into words my objections, which weren’t logical and rational and didn’t have the hollow ring of facts about them, but were actually simply that some laws are law-eyer than others, and that morality isn’t decided by a penal code.

Persuasion is important. Think of all the things you’ve been persuaded to do for love. You may have even converted to a religion for love (and meant it!). Look at all the people who suddenly become devout Christians or Jews or what have you, exactly when it’s conveniently required. Love has this way of making up your mind for you. There’s all kind of stuff that suddenly clicks into place. You become a different person, or at least a different kind of person.

Love kind of short circuits the bits of your brain that want to grasp the facade of logic.

And so do analogies.

An Analogy From Analogies

If you’re a good nerd, you probably hate the meandering train of reasoning I used to get here. I made a few analogies, talked about logic, told a story, then made another analogy. That’s okay!

I did it all on purpose.


The point I’m trying to make is that logic is a domain-specific thing that has certain uses. Arguments are domain-specific things that have certain uses. They are technically meant to do one thing but are press-ganged into doing another, more pernicious thing, which is defense of pre-existing positions.

Analogies are different.

They’re not about facts. They’re about state transfer. By using an analogy, you’re trying to express to someone else your state of mind. You’re making a comparison that is meant to explain to someone why you feel a certain way without using tools like logic and arguments.

It feels a bit like cheating.

There’s a long oral tradition of using extended analogues (aka parables) to help people understand something. You may not like this. If you’re a super-nerd you’ll probably say something like Well, that’s because human minds are silly things that evolved to take stories more seriously than logic and facts. Because after all, the end goal of humanity should be to become correct-thinking computers, right? All this mushy meat instead of the glorious computational accuracy of silicon! What a shame.

That may be. But the reality remains that we are human, and we do respond to stories and analogies and anecdotes far better than we do to lists of facts.

Like, it’s safer to send your kids to the park down the street than it is to let them play in your backyard… if you have a pool. But we don’t fear the pool because we know the pool. We fear the child-snatcher because that narrative has potency.

Analogies are essentially stories, right? And they function in the same way stories do. They provide a slight narrative, they give a small insight into how you think.

Analogies are tools of persuasion. They’re not tools of argument and defense. They can be used that way and maybe even often are, but they’re particularly hard to “defend” against.

But we’re going to try anyways!

Pay No Attention To The Analogy Behind The Curtain

There’s no good way to respond to an analogy without responding in kind. A better analogy. But then you get trapped in an analogy loop where everyone is agreeing to disagree because we all kind of understand where each other is coming from. And we can’t have that.

So the standard nerd turns to the standard nerd toolbox to defeat the analogy…

Logic will save the day!

If analogies short-circuit the logic/argument paradigm, there’s only one way to get back on the offence. Pick apart the analogy. It’s not exact enough! The analogy breaks down! It’s not good! Make a better analogy!

This is all standard stuff. But you have to understand that it’s a distraction the same way presenting a logic fallacy is a distraction. It’s not really salient. We all know analogies are inexact and break down somewhere. If they didn’t break down they’d just be exact descriptions of the argument at hand and would lose their usefulness. Which, come to think of it, if you’re of that sort of disposition, is exactly what you want.

So you nitpick the analogy until it breaks down, wash your hands, and pretend it’s been a good day’s work. The analogy has been short-circuited, and we’re back to logic/argument land, where the free-flowing dialogue can go on forever with no one ever having to adopt a different (read: unsettling, new) opinion.


My point is that analogies are tools of persuasion.

Arguments are not.

Analogies are state transfers.

Arguments are not.

Analogies can be effective.

Argument are almost always not.

Analogies aren’t the only tool of persuasion. It’s just one of many. It might not even be a very good one. But my point is a little bit more meta than simply facts vs analogies. Arguments are not effective in drawing people together. They don’t naturally help people (especially on the internet) understand each others state of mind better. It naturally creates an us vs them mentality, and an isn’t an us vs them mentality the root of all violence? The cavemen who wear pelts of deer who must kill the cavemen who wear pelts of the unclean animal.

And yet we argue. All. The. Time.

I’m not sure what that says about us humans.

Development vs Production

When I think of development vs production I’m thinking of manufacturing specifically. These terms mean slightly different things in, say, software, where development is where you make the thing stable enough to run and production is where you run it.

On the other hand maybe that’s not so different after all. Development makes it run, production runs it.

But that’s all very obvious. I want to think about product development and production in more conceptual terms, thinking about how each area does what it does. And I want this to be a little abstract. So I’m going to talk about development and realization instead of “production”. (Just to prevent any confusion here, I’m using the term a little differently than the ISO 9001 spec does, where design, development, and production are all subsets of realization.)

First, product development and realization are two separate things. This isn’t obvious to some people. You know who these people are. I once heard a developer friend of mine years ago (he worked at a bank, which in kind of super-scary) describe his co-worker as a “cowboy”. The sort of person who doesn’t value (or worse, understand) the difference between development and production, who pushes changes from development to production with minimal or no check (or worse, develops in production).

This was software, but manufacturing has the same sort of thing. In a system like ISO 9001:2008 development and realization are considered two different domains, each with their own sets of paperwork, processes, work instructions, and potentially different management teams.

In a large company you might have development plants or skunkworks. This makes the separation super obvious. And obvious for a reason, you don’t just push development changed into a realization scenario where you can make 10 million widgets wrong.

In a small company the domains get a little muddier. This is why a conceptual framework is useful. The same people might be managing the development, producing prototypes, doing testing, as are managing the production lines, running the production lines, and doing inspections.

There might not be a clear reason to separate development from realization (at least at first), especially as a 1-person or few-person outfit. When you’re a small company, you’re probably not making 10 million widgets where development is a much smaller part of your overall cost structure. If you’re developing a lot of one-offs and specialty products, maybe most of your time can be taken up with development.

This is why a development/realization conceptual framework is important. It helps separate domains, and by doing so helps you to stop making the same mistakes over and over again.

First, product development and product realization have different inputs. An input, of course, is just something you dump into a process in order to do some work on it and get something out the other side. This can be materials, specification, people, processes, etc. (And usually realization has as one of its inputs the results od

They also have different causes and effects. Things that go wrong in development often are (but don’t have to be) very different from things that go wrong in realization.

Even more abstractly, they have different purposes. So let’s start there.

Different Purposes

Realization exists to make a product, to bring it to market in a certain form. It might seem at first that development also exists to make a product (as prototype), but that’s not exactly true. Or, if you’re doing in that way, you’re potentially doing development wrong.

Development actually exists to make knowledge. Specifically, reusable knowledge.

Why would you develop, let’s say, “a tool that doesn’t vibrate while cutting Titanium”? That’s a narrow goal. It’s applicable to just one thing. A more abstract and useful expression of this development process would be “a type of geometry that doesn’t vibrate in a material with certain properties”.

Then you can take that knowledge and reuse it for different items of that class. I think of this as a sort of don’t repeat yourself (or DRY) for product development.

Instead of ending up with a tool, you end up with a set of criteria than can be applied to tool, plural. And instead of that knowledge accumulating in one person’s head, it accumulates as a set of specifications.

I’ve seen this so very many times. Someone says “My customer wants a tool that does x and y”, a single person does the development and realization process at the same time, no specification is written, the tool goes out, and the knowledge is nowhere to be found. This makes for a very valuable person but a useless procedure.

(This doesn’t even touch on the amount of waste generated by this kind of process conflation; think of all the extra time spend developing the same tool again and again, reinventing the wheel, only to have the product returned because something went wrong somewhere in this crazy whirlpool of a development process. It might seem like time has been saved in the short term, but as with most things, it’s a long-term disaster.)

Different Causes and Effect

When you do development and realization at the same time, you risk conflating cause and effects, which are different in each domain.

Typically in development, causes of failures are related to development type things (experimentation going wrong as it always does, etc). Since you’re developing a specification and creating knowlege, you’re venturing into the unknown where unknown things can happen.

In realization, causes of failures are usually related to process type things. The processes should be nailed down enough that when something goes wrong (apart from the usual acts of God) you can track down where the process hasn’t been followed or where the process needs to be changed.

These causes and effect, when taken together, when development and realization are bundled, become exponentially more tricky. Suddenly your production causes and effects are no longer bounded by adherence to processes, instead you have to look at your processes and your development criteria, and so on. Suddenly your troubleshooting tree has way, way more branches. It can become so complex that you just can’t troubleshoot at all, and you just ship and pray.

I don’t think I need to say why guess & test plus ship & pray is a terrible, terrible idea.

Different Inputs

My final thought is that development and realization have different inputs. In fact, one of the inputs of realization is a specification from development.

Development takes existing knowledge, engineering expertise, and customer specifications, and outputs a specification. This can be an prolonged period of prototyping and testing, but if you’re doing similar things quite often it can be simply spitting out a specification with small modifications. (Eg, my customer wants this thing that we already make, just with a different dimension or material.) In fact, with the proper ongoing research and development efforts, even a small company can radically shorten development engineering lead times with reusable knowledge.

Not only that, but reusable knowledge doesn’t have to be domain-specific. For instance if you’re improving one process, it’s quite possible you can reuse that improvement in many processes. The knowledge generated by development can be diffused across both development and realization. This is the kind of thing that can save serious cash by improving processes across the board and shortening lead times.

Realization on the other hand takes as one of its inputs (possibly one of many) the specification produced by development. With proper modularization it may even be possible to create a series of specifications that can be mixed and matched to achieve different results as required.

For instance where I work we could have a meta-specification that simply calls out other specifications and mixes in the customer’s special requirements.

Or if the customer needs something truly oddball, a new specification is created. (From my experience 90% of our custom work would easily be covered by a meta-specification.)

Different Inputs

Just to wrap things up, this is why I see development and realization as two different domains. They accept different inputs, they produce different outputs, they have different causes and effects, and they exist for different purposes.

I hope I’ve done a decent job of explaining why I see conflating the two domains as a really dangerous idea.

That said, I think a lot of companies, especially small outfits, don’t see the immediate benefit of decoupling development from production. Maybe this is because of cost concerns (I need to make a whole new division!) or because of lead time concerns (I have to do two things in line instead of at once!).

The problem is the value proposition here is kind of hard to quantify. If you’re worried about those things you’re probably also not doing proper analytics on scrap rates, production breakdowns, customer satisfaction, nonconforming product returns, and all the other fun stuff that comes along with doing too many things at the same time.

And there’s no way to really make this sexy. This is sort of the least sexy possible domain. There’s nothing really clever, there’s no Suits-esque maneuvering here.

All I can say is that decoupling development from production is a proven long-term success story. It’s going to be one of the ways you make your company (at least, if that’s what you want) into an organization instead of a random collection of people and things those people do. It’s going to result in fewer lost man-hour trying to reinvent a process or specification (again). It’s going to cut down on the amount of lost time and money on returns, replacing faulty tooling, dealing with upset customers, and scrapping out nonperformant parts.

The greatest benefit, though, is something really intangible. It’s peace of mind. You’re not relying on one guy who just “knows” things. You’re not guessing and testing. You’re not shipping and praying.

I don’t know about you, but peace of mind if kind of a big deal for me.

Sour grapes vs PDCA

When someone leaves (your company, your church, your circle of friends, a relationship, whatever), there’s always a temptation to say “Oh yeah, we’re better off without him/her”.

I mean, this is a sort of very human way to deal with loss. It’s almost a glass half full approach, but only almost. It’s more loss mitigation than anything else, a way to build a mental framework of the world where things you can’t control end up being not just okay, but good for you.

We just had someone quit at work. It was a huge loss, frankly. We’re still trying to figure out how to replace them. There are thousand little actions we’re trying to reproduce, but we don’t quite know how. It’s really hard to take those thousand little actions and figure out how to do them all over again. Even with cross-training and other ways to deal with people taking vacations or getting sick or whatever, there’s still a ton of work to replacing them.

That said, as we work through this stuff we’re finding a bunch of stuff that’s frankly a little… off. Processes that are inefficient, time wasted, etc. Nobody’s perfect. Everyone does some stupid things. But we’re talking about 10% or so. A small fraction of stuff that could be improved.

What I’ve seen happen before is people seize on these things, magnify them into a gigantic showstopper, and then act like it’s a huge blessing that person left.

I get that reaction. I do.

But it’s fundamentally dishonest. And it gets in the way of improvement.

There’s a feedback loop you should apply to everything. And I do mean everything; if you can send me an example of something that can’t be improved, I’ll buy a hat and eat it. Won’t be the first hat I’ve eaten. Probably won’t be the last. But I think I’m on pretty solid ground here. As a bit of an aside, anytime someone exempts themselves or their profession from feedback and improvement, I guarantee you they’re resting on laurels, and often not very impressive laurels. I’ve sat under a bunch of preachers who were obviously not terribly interested in doing a better job, ostensibly because being “called” to a position and going to some barnyard seminary means you’re instantly equipped for a lifetime of preaching. But that’s my baggage and largely neither here nor there.

The feedback loop has many different names but almost everyone has one. Consciously or not, you take a look at things and try to make them better. I may be being too charitable here, but it’s what I choose to believe.

The particular feedback loop I have in mind is called Plan/Do/Check/Act. You make a plan, you do the plan, you check the results, you adjust what you’re doing and then (and this is the critical part) you start back at the beginning again. This is why it’s called a feedback loop. You take the outputs of Check/Act and apply them do Plan/Do. Something isn’t going right, because nothing ever goes right the first time, right? You figure that out in the check phase with analysis, then you act upon that analysis to figure out what wrong, then you revise your plan and start again.

This is not some kind of stunningly original capital-I Idea I just came up with. I shamelessly stole this from Toyota and every management book ever. It’s also not hard to do, assuming you’re not used to doing something else.

I think just about everyone is used to doing something else. I said earlier that most people do PDCA unconsciously in their personal lives, and the important word is unconsciously. We start doing something big and all that stuff falls out of our heads. Haven’t you seen something like this before? Someone comes up with an idea. And critically this is an idea. Is an idea the same thing as a plan? Well, maybe. But most of the time probably not. An idea is “I want ice cream”. A plan is “I’m going to get my wallet, walk to McDonald’s, and get some soft serve”. I trust the difference is obvious. An idea is the core of a thing, a plan includes implementation details and processes ([1] get wallet, [2], walk to McDonald’s, [3] soft serve, where [1] and [2] are processes and [3] is a detail).

My ice cream idea evolves from a very vague sort of feeling into a set of instructions. Now, my plan is not the only plan, and this is important. I could have driven there, I could have walked to a different store, I could have decided on a different kind of ice cream. Critically, all plan implementations in some way dictate their results. Does McDonald’s have anything other than soft serve? No, right (at least where I’m from)? So choosing to walk to McDonald’s limits the outcome. On the other hand driving to the grocery store also limits the outcome, as they don’t have soft serve.

Let’s say you decide to carry out your plan. You get your wallet, you walk over to McDonald’s, you go to pay… and you’ve left all your cash at home. You’ve accidentally and unfortunately stumbled into “check”. You then act in some way, depending who you are (try to run up a tab, beg for free ice cream, go back home and get money, use a credit card instead etc). If this all seems a bit to concrete and a little too life-like, yes, that did happen to me, and yes, I felt like an idiot.

Now, critically, this isn’t a feedback loop. Not yet. What’s missing? What incredibly important feature of a cycle hasn’t happened here?

Let’s say the next time I’m going out to buy something I just pick up my wallet and assume there’s a wad of cash in there and leave the house. You’d ask me if I’m an idiot, did I not just yesterday learn that lesson?

This is where revising the plan comes in. I’m using this on a sort of very high meta-level, but you see what I mean. My plan should have been generalised to something like: [1] get wallet, [2] CHECK WALLET, [3] go somewhere, [4] buy something. If you’re wondering if this still seems too lifelike, yes, I’m still trying to remember to actually look in my wallet. I’m considering putting up a sign at the front door. Look in your wallet DUMMY.

But you see how this applies in a management scenario. Your plan is to [1] figure out the personnel you need, [2] hire them, [3] train them, [4] keep them if they’re working out.

If they leave in a huff, completely fed up with their working environment, so pissed off from top to bottom that they can’t see any other possibility than quitting, you have 2 choices. You can figure out what went wrong and try to fix the problem, or you can just throw up your hands and say, “Oh well, they sucked anyways.”

One of those is extremely counterproductive and near rage-inducing.

Anyways. This is not the post I meant to post. This is a eulogy of sorts for a relationship with a coworker I will very much miss. I think I’ll come back to PDCA soon, as I feel like a lot of creative types have difficulty with forcing their creative actions into a feedback cycle. I have some thoughts on what it means to be professional about something, and what genius really looks like. This all ties together somehow, I promise. Cross your fingers.


Crossposted from Elsewhere In Dreams

The sand might as well be
lava on the hot days.
We had to cross that small desert
to get to the green diving board bracketed
against high, smooth rocks.
The relief contained its
own affliction,
as always.

We were all a lack of parents.
I imagine they slept and slept
and woke to make dinner and then slept again.
We died a thousand times
with no one looking
but rose again with stray
lures in our fingers.
We stole canoes and paddled
to the island where we looking in
all the windows.

I can’t imagine my child doing those things.
I am too much a slave of death to allow it.

This place no longer exists,
of course.
It’s been sold and divvied out
to the landowners.
I have my own family now
but we can never escape the city’s hum and crumple.
There exists no place for it
out there or
in here.

10 simple rules for making a podcast

I listen to a lot of podcasts. I cycle through a bunch of new ones every once in a while trying to find new stuff to listen to (I listen faster than my favourites get made) and I inevitably just crash and burn out of a few of them despite them being decent shows. Sometimes the flaws are too annoying for me to cope.

Doing this today made me think… All the podcasts I really, really like have some things in common. A bunch that I find just kind of bearable have some things in common. And then all the podcasts I couldn’t get on board with have some things in common too.

So I made a list.

First, my bona fides. Here’s my top 5:

1) Hello Internet
2) Caustic Soda
3) How Did This Get Made
4) Freakonomics
5) Filmspotting

This list is not great. Well, the first 3 are great. The last 2 are radio shows, and I don’t think they should count. But I’ve really struggled to find decent, independently produced stuff that I like.

Get a better mic.

Seriously, just do it. There’s no excuse. A decent mic is like $100 (and up, of course). And while you’re at it, learn how to EQ. There are podcasts (like Stuff You Should Know) that I just can’t listen to because their mids are too dense and the whole mix is muddy. Do the minimal post-processing. It’s a world of difference.

Get to the point

If this blog post was a podcast, it would be pretty crappy. Too much frontloading is not interesting. Remember, you’re not a radio show. You don’t have to try to pick up the previous show’s audience with a catchy lead-in. A podcast I canned (notably; this sticks out in my mind as a particularly egregious example) is Doug Loves Movies. The first episode I listened to was a live show, which probably wasn’t the best place to start, but the lead-in was something like fifteen minutes of blabbering on about nothing. No fun, unsubscribe.

Now all that stuff could have been done in the context of the show and it would have been fine. I mean How Did This Get Made does this all the time, and it’s fine when it’s wrapped up in content. But if you’re talking for more than a minute or two and you haven’t gotten to the thing you’re about, you’re doing something wrong.

Ads are good, good ads are better

I don’t expect you to starve, I don’t want content for free. I understand that the sort of unspoken social contract behind subscribing to your podcast is that I’m going to listen to the things you say, including ads. But I’m not going to listen to terrible ads. I’ll pick on Freakonomics here. Their podcast ads are horrible. Same thing every time.

If I’m listening to your podcast, there’s a good chance I trust you more than the average joe on the street. I am, after all, listening to what you’re saying. If you shill a product with generic advertising, that’s no good. If you shill something well, something that you use and recommend (thank you How Did This Get Made for hooking me up with Squarespace, and Hello Internet for getting me knee-deep in Audible).

Your personal recommendation, funny, sincere, fast, slow, whatever, means ways more to me than just another ad. An ad is okay, your personal recommendation is better, an interesting person recommendation is best.

You’re not on the radio

All that stuff that radio shows do because they have to, like be a certain length, have a certain format, come out on a certain schedule, have seasons, etc, etc… None of that has to apply to you. Caustic Soda, for instance, generally separates itself into two segments with a song in the middle.

That’s not to say that having segments or a theme song or ad breaks or whatever is a bad thing… You just don’t have to be constrained by the hard limits of radio broadcasting.

Be about a thing

Very few podcasts (with the exception of Hello Internet) can be just two humans talking to each other. You need a theme. Stick to the theme. Be a thing. If you want to be two things you can always start another podcast.

On the other hand, podcasts about everything are interesting if you’re especially interesting. There are people I could listen talk about just stuff for days. These people are few and far between. You are probably not one of them.

Edit ruthlessly

Editing your podcast ruthlessly will help you get rid of cruft but it will also help you find cruft in real time and prevent it (a sort of self-modifying feedback/ operant conditioning loop).

All that frontloaded crap? Gone.

When in doubt choose quality

Don’t use Skype. Record on both ends and mash the recording together in Ableton or whatever. Yes, this is harder. Yes, it will take more time. Yes, it will sound 1000x better.

Don’t be afraid to be funny

Some people just aren’t. That’s okay. But humour is this sort of conversational and topical lubricant that helps stuff slow along. Caustic Soda for instance is incredibly informative but also really funny. Well, except for the puns.

Don’t forget about guests

Especially great guests. I know some shows are built around guests, but others aren’t and just don’t have them. But what makes Caustic Soda (with Dr Rob), Filmspotting (with Michael Phillips), and How Did This Get Made (as I say for all things ever, more Adam Scott please) so occasionally wonderful is the guests. Plus it breaks up the same-old same-old. Tired of Joe Fulgham stumbling around blindly looking for some quasi-scientific explanation for things? Enter Dr Rob! (If this doesn’t make any sense, go listen to Caustic Soda for a while.)

Prepare, prepare, prepare

You can over-prepare. You can stifle the creative spirit. You can also ramble on for hours having said nothing substantive or interesting while your audience just kind of… dissolves. Your choice.

Pacing is a lot more important than you might think. It’s great, it’s really wonderful when a podcast takes a minute to linger on one topic. But in general, brisk is better.

Riot as voice

Sorry to give away the ending with the title; I guess you know what I’m going to say already.

I’ve written about this before, I think it might have been on Twitter, and I can’t be bothered to find that now (something that reveals a real hole in Twitter’s architecture, though I digress). I’ve also written about how we can think something is wrong but still understand why it happens. Root causes are important. You can’t just tell everyone “don’t riot” and expect that to solve anything. (If this sounds strange, don’t feel bad, it took me a while to get this too.)

This point goes for just about everything, by the way. If you work on identifying and fixing root causes, you stop thing from repeating. If you see someone have the same thing happen over and over again, you can put money on it: They’re not fixing the root problem. I’ve written about that too. We normally think of root causes in a management context, but it makes sense in cultural and societal contexts as well. Mind you, the root causes of race riots are being hashed out as a political problem in a realm that’s really only good for flinging crap.

I’m almost always on the side of the rioters. If there are riots, you can be sure there is oppression and voicelessness. (Unless you’re rioting about hockey in which case you need a new hobby.)

In the US the Supreme Court has called money speech. And a large portion of the country (notably people who have lots of money) agree with this, but can’t see that violence is also a kind of speech. It is a desperate call of an oppressed class.

There’s a lot more going on than just that of course. One of the problems that poor and marginalized groups have is that their few available methods of speech are either considered offputting or just plain criminalized. Not to mention that poverty and crime are associated, so it’s really easy to demonize the marginalized, who also happen to be poor, who are also more likely to be criminals. And there are always opportunists who will use riots as an excuse to get some free stuff.

There was a lot more going on with the Boston Tea Party too. Maybe it will take a few hundred years for us to really understand what these riots mean. Why do they keep happening? Baltimore in 2015, or Chicago in 1909, or Tulsa in 1921, or Newark in 1967, or Miami in 1980, or Los Angeles in 1992, or Cincinnati in 2001, or Ferguson in 2014… it’s a long list.

Why does this stuff keep happening? Are black people just naturally violent? (If you think yes, congratulations, you’re part of a long tradition of racists, including slave owners who justified their slavery by appealing to “savage” nature of the black man.) Or is there something else wrong here? Something perhaps systemic? Some kind of unhealed wounds perhaps?

But it’s all okay. Slavery and racism are over in the USA, don’t you know? So a bunch of race riots keep happening. What can the US possibly be expected to do? Oh well.

It’s frustrating to see people (unfettered from the associations that would normally keep them from saying this stuff [don’t open that link if you mind language]) at once angry about the destruction of property and kind of grotesquely jubilant that their casual racism has been confirmed by a few photos they saw.

Which makes me think… Why is the merchandise in a 7-11 more important than a man’s life? Why focus on the looting? You know why. You want to call them thugs so you don’t have to deal with their (very real) problems. You tacitly admit that you think poor black people are bad people. And because they’re bad people we don’t have to care if these modern-day lynching continue. And before you get on my case, I don’t see how you can see the unprecedented brutality and murder of black people in the US by the largely-white police as anything else.

The Christian response in the US is frankly disgusting. There should be a Christian response to this, right? We’re ready and willing to help the Nepalese (as we should) because they are a people sorely in need. But here’s a people in our backyard. And a lot of the response I see is people mentally passing by on the other side to get out of our obligation — yes, obligation — to help the poor and the needy, to give voice to the voiceless, to do all those things Jesus talked about again and again.

Or as the Proverb says:

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly;
defend the rights of the poor and needy.

not “unless they look like an obese black woman or a gang member, then just ignore them.”

The mechanisms of magic

I keep looking at John 10 and finding new stuff. So you’re in for a treat: I want to talk about the mechanisms of magic.

One of the things that frustrated me for a long time about the Tolkien fantasy universe is stuff like Tom Bombadil and magic. Specifically the mechanisms of magic. How does it work? What causes it? Where does it come from? Why does it happen at all?

Tolkien is either very cagey or very purposely old-fashioned about this. When I was first thinking about this I have to confess to a bit of blithe chronological snobbery (and Tolkien underestimation; never a good thing). My first instinct is to assume Tolkien himself has the old-fashioned worldview, that it never occurred to him to think about the why, the how, the mechanism of magic.

But of course he did. This is the guy who invented a bunch of languages. He was a professor, and one who was by all accounts used to putting himself in the shoes of the ancients. Of course he knew that they didn’t think about mechanisms like we do. To them, magic would be the default position. You’d have to be a bit daft to ask how it worked. Angels-as-men get sent to Middle Earth and futz around with their magic sticks and whatnot. That’s just what happens.

And I think we can assume Tolkien wrote his world that way on purpose, to capture the mind of a different era.

I’m not even going to talk about Tom Bombadil.

Contrast that with The Malazan Book of the Fallen, a more recent high fantasy decalogy. It’s very concerned with the means and methods and flavours of magic. It goes into a fair amount of detail. Elemental magic is shaped into holds, then holds are deprecated in favour of warrens, which are all essentially flowing from inside a giant magic dragon, which can be accessed almost as other worlds. There are gods and goddesses who have houses, each house having members who perform certain magical functions. And in the end they’re all shuffled into the Deck Of Dragons, a way of both organizing the pantheon and divining the future.

I consider this a bit more modern approach to magic: Not only does it happen, but here’s how. Notably the Prince of Nothing series cares a great deal about how sorcery works. Even the more down-market Shannara books posit a mechanism for magic.

All this to say, It Just Is isn’t a satisfying or really acceptable answer to a question.

But what if it’s the only answer we can give?

Back to John 10:

Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep.

This is kind of a tautology. The sheep hear the shepherd’s voice because they are the sheep. Everyone else doesn’t because they aren’t the sheep. This logic kind of bends back on itself. I don’t find it really satisfying because I know at the root of it all there’s a mystery. It’s not like gathering statistics and analyising the data and conducting a randomised trial and confirming a hypothesis and doing science. It’s not like that at all, in fact I think there’s an element of faith you need to approach this statement on its own ground.

Not very satisfying. I feel the schematic impulse. I want this thing mapped out.

So… we have some doctrines to swoop in and save the day. Let’s be very clear here. I’m not saying that doctrines are bad or even unhelpful. I’m not saying we should get rid of them (nor that we could). I just think there’s a level of specificity you can try to get to where you’ve diced and sliced everything up into little doctrinal chunks where you lose a sort of overall resolution. Sort of like standing too close to a TV screen.

A friend of mine once said (publicly no less; he has basketballs for cojones) that scripture affirms both predestination and free will. Which I wrote a blog post about, because I didn’t think that made sense. I called it the Third Rail of Christian thought. You don’t get to affirm opposites and handwave all the problems away.

(As an aside, it only doesn’t make sense if you agree that scripture even talks in these categories, and if it does, that scripture is this kind of monolithic repository of God-words that coheres perfectly and can be cross-referenced like a theological dictionary. I may have called predestination/free will the third rail, but if I may borrow from CS Lewis here, the Bible and what it is is the deeper third rail. It is, one might say, third-raily-er.)

I’m sort of on the outskirts of the “free will” camp these days. Maybe not as far inside as some might wish, but that’s a complicated discussion (sorry!) for another time (you’re welcome!). There’s a lot less free will in the world than we think. Initial conditions and all that.

Either way you’ll notice that Jesus doesn’t go into a theological discussion about the methods and mechanisms of how predestination interacts with free will. He speaks broadly of God’s power and humans’ reaction to it. Perhaps we should follow Jesus’ example here: God calls, people respond. Believers believe. Non believers don’t believe.

The mechanics of calling and what that means are hidden here. They’re not important. God is powerful to call, people are empowered to respond. How that works… well, that gets into a kind of unhelpful doctrinal resolution, unable to see the screen for the pixels. We don’t need to posit a mechanism for it to make sense, you know?

The authentic Christ as rebuke

Sometimes when you ask Jesus a question you get more than you bargained for. Or you get something you weren’t expecting. This is one of the things I love about Jesus: He’s clever. I don’t mean that in a sort of internet-snark way (Jesus isn’t just drive-by smugposting on someone’s Facebook status). He divines the intent of the questioner and answers with something confrontational.

I mean, look at John 10:

So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”

Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep.

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”

Before I continue, I’m going to acknowledge that there’s a lot of stuff going on here and I’m not going to dive into much of it at all. I’m not professionally religious. I’m just a guy reading a thing, and I might be full of crap. It’s happened before; I’m sure it will happen again.

Now the usual take-away from these verses is blah blah blah predestination blah blah blah perseverance of the saints of something like that. Or they’re used as a battering ram against religions who acknowledge Jesus as a prophet (or something else) but not as God. True as those things may be, I don’t know if they’re really all that helpful (or in the spirit of the passage). I mean, we tend to give ourselves a little in-group massage with this passage and go back to our usual selves.

It’s helpful to remember who Jesus is talking to here. The Jews as John calls them, or in other words, the pre-Christian analogue of the Church. This is us. And more to the point, it’s our leaders. (The Jews seems like John’s way of talking about the religions leaders. Earlier in the book The Jews decide anybody who identifies with Jesus gets kicked out the synagogue: This is clearly not something just anyone can decide. When John wants to take a dump on a particular faction of leaders such as the Pharisees, he’ll identify them by name.)

There’s a lot that can be dug into about the leaders of the Jews and their negation of Jesus and how that parallels our church leaders attempted negation of Jesus (from liberal Christian leaders who want to deny Jesus divinity to conservative Christian leaders who want to deny his social conscience). But I feel like scripture is a sword that I should use on myself first. It’s too easy to pick on the other guy, you know? I’ve got enough problems inside myself to fix before I go after other people, including that perverse desire to pick out splinters but ignore lumber.


Jesus gives The Jews more than they bargained for. They want to know if he’s going to identify as the Messiah. But he gives them more, much more than that. Not only is he the Messiah, but he’s the son of God, and not in a “we’re all sons of God” way but in a “I and the Father are one”.

This is sort of the inverse of Deuteronomy where the writer says

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.

in opposition to the nations around them and the nations whose land they are about to possess. The startling thing is that there is but one God. For John the startling thing is this unveiling of trinitarian thought, where the Son and Father are one. As usual Jesus’ surprise isn’t the exact inverse (we’re not going back to polytheism here) but something completely and utterly new, something only ever obliquely referred to in the Jewish scriptures.

It seems to me like this is when The Jews make up their mind: Jesus has to go. They’ve got to kill this guy before he brings down the iron hammer of the Romans against them. They have to disown him to avoid political disaster. (Interestingly Jesus’ ministry also often touches on showing a “third way” of kingdom that doesn’t involve revolt and reprisal or subservience.)

They pick up stones to kill him.

Now to be fair, this is the right response to blasphemy, minus the trial and all that. This is what Jesus keeps hammering away at in John 10. His sheep hear his voice. They recognize him for what he is. Everyone else defaults to the usual response.

And then the interesting part comes. A straightforward reading of this (2000 years later without the benefit of the historical context or Jesus and The Jews scriptural memory and outside the narrative context) seems to have Jesus discussing the finer points of the grammar of the word “god” with a crowd of people trying to kill him.

If that seems a bit… odd… well, you’re right. It is a bit odd:

Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be broken—do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?

If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.”

Again they sought to arrest him, but he escaped from their hands.

It’s easy to read this as Jesus trying to convince The Jews that he is God. And that’s not a terrible reading, but I don’t think Jesus choice of Psalm 82 is entirely coincidental. I mean, there are lots of things Jesus could have referred to other than this kind of obscure and opaque bit of the Psalms.

I think the thematic content of Psalm 82 and John 9-10 are related. In Psalm 82 you have God asking his judges (or little-gods) how long they will withhold justice from the weak and fatherless, from the afflicted and the destitute. (And just in case you think that Jesus cares about the little guy because he’s some kind of hippy bleeding heart making a bunch of stuff up, Psalm 82 precedes Jesus by 1000 or so years.) He rebukes them for their lack of care for his people. Earlier in John Jesus talks about shepherding, and in John 9 he heals a man on the Sabbath, provoking anger from The Jews.

Now he equates himself with God in the context of corrupt and unfaithful judges. He lifts himself up above the religious leaders, proclaims himself their judge, and proceeds to imply that they are unfaithful, that they are covenant breakers. Like the judges in Psalm 82.

This is what his Lordship really means. And they get this, I think. They want to stone him, they want to arrest him, not only because they think he’s a blasphemer (despite all evidence to the contrary) but because he threatens their way of life. He holds before them a sort of institutional looking-at-death, in that he calls them to repentance and a turning away from the false gods of religious piety and man-made “holiness”. He requires reinvention, rebirth, the sort of thing that will almost certainly endanger their professions and their livelihoods, maybe even bring an end to the category of “Pharisee”. He calls them to a sort of death (which will be called the “old man passing away” by Paul as he expands on Jesus’ teaching during the beginning of the Christian church).

And of course they react in much the same way we tend to today. They sought to negate Jesus as a person by killing. We seek to negate Jesus as both a person and an idea by softening him or filing off his edges. They seek to remove the thing that is causing this internal discord.

Jesus (at least to me it seems this way) intentionally antagonizes the Jewish religious leaders until they feel forced to either accept him or reject him. I think every person coming into contact with Jesus does this. Meeting Jesus is one of those things that marks a turning point whether you realise it or not. Either you accept him and seek to emulate him. Or you reject him and seek to negate him.

Echoes of the Christ

I was listening to the sermon on Sunday and my mind began to wander. We were looking at John 21, fairly standard stuff, not exactly an obscure passage. Usually we focus Jesus telling Peter to feed his lambs and sometimes (if we’re lucky) we get to think about what that means.

And that’s all well and good. I’ve heard that sermon about… what, twenty times or so? I’m at the point where if I haven’t gotten it yet I’m probably not going to at all, you know? (If this all seems a bit too much “for me to know and you to agree that I probably haven’t gotten it and never will”, don’t worry, the navel-gazing ends here.)

This passage is all about echoes to me. The structure of it is very telling. The structure itself tells the story of what the passage is about. Everything in it refers back to something else that’s already happened.

The miracle itself is a retread. It clearly refers back to the previous miracle of the fishes. It’s an echo of something that’s already happened. The question is — why? Why does Jesus do this? Let’s assume for a moment that Jesus is in control of what’s happening and he isn’t just caught up the current of events (a… safe assumption, right?). He isn’t reliving his greatest hits or accidentally reading the same page in his playbook. So he’s doing all this stuff with a purpose. What might that purpose be?

Well if we back up a tiny bit and look at John’s explicit purpose in writing his book, this all becomes clear:

Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Isn’t this the purpose of Jesus speaking to Thomas as well? Of showing him his wounds?

John writes, more than any other gospel writer, to us. We need evidence. We need proof. We need the authentic Christ.

Whether or not you find this convincing… well, that’s up to you. It’s two thousand years later and the debate has evolved since then. Either way, you have to strip yourself of the chronological snobbery that insists these men who believed must have been hicks who had a fast one pulled on them. Jesus (and John) is interested in establishing himself as The Christ. He links his present glorified self with his previous mundane self by way of a continuity of miraculous activity. Here he has the same power to control nature, to step sideways from heaven into the fabric of spacetime and mess things up a bit.

This is a confrontational position. Common sense and received wisdom tell us the universe is a hermetically sealed box where every aberration can at claim at least some explanation. But this miracle isn’t the work of a cosmic clockmaker content to let the whole thing wind down in the other room: It speaks to a resurrected, present, and active Christ as the authentic Christ.

Of course, we’re not done with the echoes here. Jesus speaks to Peter in a way that echoes Peter’s own disavowal of Jesus. He asks him three times, an affirmation for each denial.

The content of what he tells Peter to do isn’t really the point, at least not for me right now. The structure is the point, the rhetorical point being made. Again, Jesus is concerned with authenticity. Jesus is pointing Peter in the opposite direction of his shame and cowardice, giving him a mission that he has to affirm three times.

It’s an amazing symmetry. It’s a sort of… turning around. The denial has been redeemed. The authentic Peter is not a Peter of denial. It is a Peter of affirmation. This affirmation then becomes a mission. And the mission itself echoes Jesus’ ministry: “Feed my lambs” gives Peter the mission of being a deputy-shepherd or shepherd-in-absentia.

The metaphor of echoes seems significant. I mean, I made it up, but it’s still kind of cool, because the echo of this affirmation keep going on down through the ages. It reached even me. I live inside that echo, as it were.

If John can do it, so can I: Here’s a coda. There’s a lot more to take out of this passage, a lot more that could be said. Echoes of the Eucharist, of the feeding of the 5000, talking about what it means to shepherd, of what it means to lay down your life for the sheep. Lots more. But we’ll have to wait for my mind to wander some more.