Syria

Some terrible things are happening in Syria right now. (If you want to think some more about how it got this way, read this post about artifical stability.)

That’s about the only thing I’m sure about. Assad has a lot to answer for, but so do the rebels. Chemical weapons may have been used, but we’re not sure by whom. US is presenting intel that it was Assad. The last time the US presented intel, it was as a pretence to invade Iraq. It was a lie. The US intelligence community isn’t exactly a trustworthy brand right now. Not to mention that Assad is progressive and Western-friendly in a way that Hussein once was. Though we didn’t feel the need to intervene in the Iraq-Iran war when chemical weapons were in use. Intervention might cause more civilian casualties than otherwise. The US isn’t the world’s policeman. When it tries to be, it prevents the UN from doing its job. However the UN is gridlocked, and the security council will almost assuredly never authorise an intervention. An intervention is opposed by Russia, Iran, Israel, and probably a lot more who are too timid to speak up.

And it’s all happening in the Middle East, this generation’s version of a land war in Asia.

I don’t know the answers to all that stuff. I think, maybe, that there isn’t a good one. I do wonder, though, if our thought process on this isn’t a little tainted.

There’s too much stuff fresh in our minds. Iraq. Afghanistan.

What might public opinion be if we had Bosnia or Rwanda on our minds instead?

Might we be more prone to invade, to form a coalition and go in guns blazing?

Facebook annoyances

I’d make a list, but Buzzfeed probably already did that. So let me say this:

A lot of what people say on Facebook bugs me. Sometimes it’s not even what they say but how they say it.

That’s not strange. We all have that, I think.

What’s strange is some days I find myself going to Facebook just to be annoyed. I know I’ll find something annoying there, eventually. I dig to find it. That’s strange. Who does that? Who puts themselves in that path of that on purpose? Who likes to feel annoyed?

But maybe it’s not that strange. Maybe we all have that.

On being alone.

I’ve had a long and storied love/hate relationship with being alone.

It’s a way to recharge, but after a while it feels… lonely. I’m not sure what the difference between simply being alone and being lonely is, but I think it’s about capability. You can be alone a room away from your friends, or lonely in a crowd of people you don’t know. Stepping across the boundaries of the crowd is a lot different than simply going to another room.

For some people it’s impossible.

But this isn’t about that. This is about your fundamental alone-ness.

That is to say… You are alone. You will always be alone. You, in a certain sense, exist inside your own head. As such the you that isn’t really body can’t reach out and touch other people, or really interface with other people. It’s like a being in a dark room and the only way to communicate is occasional taps of Morse code.

Language is sort of like that. You have a thought, you translate it into language, someone else receives the language and they turn it into their own thought. The reception doesn’t equal the transmission, though. All language ever is a game of broken telephone.

You can spend your entire life communicating with one person and not truly understand them. You can spend all your time trying to build a state machine to fully comprehend them and find you’re missing something.

Or you find that you changed the outcome by measuring it. People are strange that way.

There’s a lot of talk going on about the differences between introverts and extroverts. I see an article or tweet or post about introversion/extroversion at least 3 time a week.

We could talk about how these states aren’t discrete, how *version is a spectrum, but I think we’ve covered that enough.

I just want to say that you’re alone. You are well and truly alone. And your reaction this state of semi-perpetual alone-ness determines your place on the spectrum.

Do you retreat to this experience of alone-ness, or do you retreat from it?

Guilt Factories

I used to think there was a sort of tension between “faith” and “works”. It’s in the pages of scripture. It’s expressed by Paul and then differently by James. The arguments roil out from there.

A while ago, I came to the (still work in progress, beware!) conclusion that both concepts are two sides of the same coin. One doesn’t flow out of the other. They are the same thing.

This is a hard thing to live out. Especially when you’ve still got those old categories rolling around in your head.

But there’s something worse. There’s this philosophy that says grace is all you need, or faith is all you need (depending on what sort of works you have in mind), and then denies it in practice.

To me, this is how you build a Guilt Factory.

First you say that grace/faith is all that matters. Then you say that works flow out of grace. Then, as a result of that, you say that what God really cares about is your “heart”. Because if you heart is in the right place, your works are going to be in the right place too.

Then finish it off with a dollop of strictly enforced cultural norms, traditions, and piety. The piety is were it really gets intense, because the grace/faith you’ve been given is supposed to end up in works that are supposed to end up looking exactly like the received norms, the traditions, and the piety.

If you don’t have that piety, you don’t have the works. If you don’t have the works, you don’t have the faith. Either you (at best) have a “hard heart” or (at worst) are plain wolf among sheep.

That’s a Guilt Factory right there.

It’s an amazing way of turning something free and unlimited — forgiveness, for instance — into something limited, and most importantly, definable. There’s no way that it won’t make you feel bad. You can preach your perseverance of the saints till you’re blue in the face, but you’re going to have a congregation full of people doubting their own salvation.

The only way out is to remember this: Piety is horseshit.

Or filthy rags. Either way.

Piety is Phariseeism. That’s not a hard call. You take scripture and wrap it up in a cocoon of your own stuff, you’ve got a Pharisee. Whether that be eating meat offered to idols, or voting for a particular political party, or following God’s will for your life (more on that in a later post)… Basically anything that binds a Christian’s conscience to something that isn’t in scripture.

So what do we say to this? Is it okay to just keep sinning because forgiveness is free?

Well, no. But isn’t it strange that this is where our brains go first? We’ve found a loophole! “Well, doesn’t that mean I can do whatever I want?” Kind of skipped over the amazing grace part. This seems to be a recurring theme in this human experiment.

Either way, when you weld piety onto the side of grace, you get a Guilt Factory. Your sin in a heart condition, and your heart condition is what God really cares about… so what then? How do you change your heart? Certainly not by working at it — after all, works are bad right? Do you ask God? What if he says “no”? What if this is a Jacob-have-I-loved, Esau-have-I-hated situation? Doubt, insecurity, and guilt.

As an added bonus, you can’t help create rankings. Everyone is equal under grace (it’s a binary state, you either have it or you don’t), but piety allows you to out some people above other people. The more holy above the less holy. The more extreme above the less extreme.

I’ve seen this work out. It always ends up that the people with the most extreme positions on something (Let’s wear only dresses! Let’s not listen to rock and roll music! Let’s wear head coverings! Let’s not date! Let’s not kiss! Let’s not dance! Let’s not have worship instruments in the service!) Which, I mean, as things you might do personally, without binding any other consciences, these may all be fine… but as soon as you start looking down on other people who don’t agree with your weird-o stance, there’s a problem. If your faith community is doing this collectively… it’s time to get the heck (Let’s not curse!) out of dodge.

The state is a tool.

Like a hammer, or a gun.

And much like a tool, government isn’t naturally good or evil. It’s all about how you use it, or where you point it, or whether it’s doing the right job.

This is why I think it’s counter-productive to have this deep suspicion that government is in fact evil or bad or even just naturally inefficient. You set up an adversarial relationship instead of working on pointing government in the right direction.

The same is true of any authority. There’s nothing naturally corrupt about parenthood, but lots of parents screw up their kids big time. The authority of a parent is a tool that needs to be put to the right use in the right context.

We all start with the preconception that parenthood can be done right. A thousand books tell you that. Why are there so many people incapable of imagining that government, too, can be done right?

Ambiguity

Ambiguity is difficult.

Something in my brain has to know. It has to absolutely know. Even silly things, stuff that doesn’t matter. That something in my brain wants to take that esoterica and pin it to a card, put the card under glass, and call it finished.

Ambiguity is also about resolution.

You don’t really know what I mean when I say “resolution”. Do you? I can use that word at least two different ways. You could read it either way. Maybe you did, in the beginning, before I reminded you that there’s another way to read “resolution”.

Depending on your personality, it might not be enough to pick one. You’ll want to know what I mean. After all, this is my blog. You’re reading it read my thoughts, not get some reflection on your own.

You want something. You want… resolution. And there it is again, that ambiguity.

I actually chose the word “resolution” because it can mean two things, and I mean both of those things. Sorry if you chose sides. Ambiguity is about resolution in that too much of it stops the resolution of any situation (after all, some things absolutely must be fixed and resolved), but also in that too little reduces the pixel density of your world.

Too much ambiguity and you’re set adrift. Too little and the world becomes a photocopy of itself.

Ambiguity is good. But it’s bad. Just like doubt. And I don’t mean this is a sort of dualistic “find the median between the good and bad” sort of way. As if such a thing is possible. I mean ambiguity is good and bad at the same time. In the same situation. With the same resolution in view.

You might not like that. I don’t. It’s too meta. It’s too self-referential or clever or something else that makes you think this is all just talk.

I also love it, because for me, ambiguity is the wellspring of creativity. The question that can’t or won’t be answered has tension baked in.

It’s accurate, too. Life doesn’t have a Hays Code. The good guys are not good. The bad guys are not bad. There’s a sort of body horror that happens when someone approaches the outer limits of this rule, when they dissolve into a cartoon version of themselves. The good that is too good, the bad that is too bad — both are frightening, in different ways.

I want a personal sharing site

I’ve wanted this for a long time. It’s something I used to use Google Reader for, but I haven’t really found a replacement since it shut down.

I want a personal sharing site, like the weblogs of yore. I want it to be simple to share to, and easy to read. I want to be able to email a link, or share a link to an app on Android, or cut and paste a link to the site. From there, the site would snippet-ise whatever I had shared (a la Google+ or Facebook does), and make the link and snippet available via RSS.

I think there are services that already do this, sort of like Tumblr or Delicious. But I want to be able to set it up on my own server, so I don’t have to pray that some company doesn’t shut it down.

I know I could do this with a WordPress blog, like this one, but frankly that’s just too much work. Sharing into WordPress is a lot of work.

The only truly “American” company left is, what, McDonald’s?

I posted this elsewhere, but I think it bears repeating:

This is the central American hypocrisy in the US’s dealing with the ITC — the US basically uses it as a US patent enforcement board. When their interests are aligned, no problem. But when they’re not, suddenly the US over-rules. So basically the ITC is a bit of a joke.

But so is the idea that Apple, or any other large manufacturing, design, and software company, is “American”. They only employ a few Americans, most of their money is off-shore, all the assembly is done in China, the components are Japanese and Korean, and a lot of the employees are immigrants hired under H-1B work visas.

These companies do more to increase the well-being of foreigners than US citizens. Which is fine, but let’s not pretend that supporting Apple vs Samsung is somehow more noble or worthwhile.

I talked about this with a co-worker over lunch today. This is the curse of globalisation: Either you cheaper electronics or cheaper burgers. But not both. Almost all American companies, especially in the tech sector, have shipped their manufacturing offshore. The software is developed by very few high-paid Americans and H-1B immigrants.

The money poured into buying components goes to other countries, the money poured into assembling these components goes to Foxconn (which might as well be another country), all of which raises the standard of living somewhere else.

Which is fine. I mean, if we take a global perspective, this is a good thing.

But our standard of living goes down as the other countries’ standards go up. All right, so maybe our standard of living — in that we are able to buy more affordable gadgets — goes up a bit, but look at what we give up: Stable, long-term jobs for unschooled people, workforce mobility, a wide and deep manufacturing base, a mass market for engineers, etc, etc.

If just one company offshored, it would be okay. But when everyone does it, it becomes yet another tragedy of the commons. It has to be done or you don’t survive (or at least so goes the logic).

Mind you, Apple could easily assemble all their products in the US if they wanted to. They could directly control every aspect of their manufacturing process. They could eventually have their own American chip fabs, American stamping facilities, American assembly lines, and on and on.

But they won’t, and neither will Samsung, because there’s something more tempting: Profit margin. I bet they’d take a $30 – $40 hit per phone just to assemble them in the US (maybe less over time as the infrastructure is paid for). All that for “American” bragging rights? No way.

In any case, this is the same story everywhere. Electronics, textiles, mould making. Anything not directly tied to auto making (and even then some) is going off shore unless the owners of the company (usually private owners, as shareholders don’t really give a shit about anything but the next dividend) make a conscious effort to compete on different terms.

Which is a hard row to hoe. It means a lot of increased mechanisation in our field, which has the side effect of reducing the number of available labour-intensive low-skill jobs even more, concentrating yet again more money in highly technical fields like robotics (also typically not owned by Americans).

This explains why the debate in the US has been about wages so much lately — more and more people are unable to find unskilled jobs in any field except (you guessed it) fast food and other retail establishments. People are now trying to feed a family on these wages. And they’re finding that they’re not enough. The days where you could go to the Ford factory out of high school and get a job riveting widgets or whatever are long over. They’ve been replaced (for better or for worse, and I am convinced for worse) by retail jobs.

At the end of day, we as a society have to make a choice: Do we want to try to reverse the offshoring, or do we want to raise the wages of retail workers to a livable level?

Basically the choice is, do you want more expensive electronics, or more expensive burgers?

It’s a hard choice, and the US will, I’m convinced, try to do neither for too long until too late.

Traffic is everything

I spend a lot of time in traffic.

Well, okay, not a lot, a lot. But more than I like. On the bus in the morning, in the car on my way home (an unusual method of commuting, I know).

Traffic is a metaphor for everything. Every time I think about an effect that has individually free components working inside a framework with systemic effects, traffic is there.

The free market, tragedies of the commons, financial markets, relationships, time management, general life philosophy… it’s all there.