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.

Antivaxxers & evidence

So anti-vaccination types are pretty terrible, right? They’re backwards people, endangering the lives of not only their own children but other people’s children too. Etc.

I live in a sort of echo chamber where this is all I hear. I don’t get the other side of the argument because I don’t subscribe to those sort of news sources. That’s not terribly surprising.

I’m a pretty big fan of herd immunity. I really don’t like the idea of my daughter getting polio or whatever. So I think we should try to convince people to vaccinate. Again, this is sort of standard Western fare, nothing terribly interesting here. Heard this all before.

But no matter how many times we try and tell antivaxxers the truth (and I think the truth is pretty one-sided here), they don’t listen. It’s the strangest thing. No amount of facts and figures, no amount of cajoling and shaming works.

So why do we keep doing it? This is my question. Why do we keep trying to convince people who refuse to be convinced using methods that we know don’t work? Why don’t we try something else? How about a legislative (aka systemic) approach that makes opting out more difficult than actually getting the shots?

I dunno. I find this more interesting that vax-shaming. Maybe we’re not actually telling people to vaccinate because we care about vaccination or children. Sure, maybe we think that’s why we do it, but maybe it’s actually some kind of in-group signalling. Here’s my anti-vax screed! I’m hip! I get it! (I realise that saying I’m hip and I get it means I’m neither hip nor do I get it.)

Now that I’ve said that, I find the idea kind of annoying. Like, having written that, I was annoyed that I had written it. I don’t like to have my motivations questioned. Even by myself on my own blog. My mind is telling me “well of COURSE my motives are pure, I’m engaging in a kind of benevolence here!” Which I take as a signal that (as usual) I don’t know what I’m doing much less why.

I’m sure you’re different of course.

So maybe my point is this: Before we can figure out why people aren’t responding to the gospel of vaccination the way we’d hoped, maybe we need to figure out why we haven’t tried a different approach.

Asymmetrical relationships & the church

You have a boss. This boss is not your friend. But this boss thinks he is your friend. A pretty common scenario, right? I’m sure many of you have seen this sort of thing happen more than once, if not in your life, then in the lives of people you know.

The reason this just feels wrong is that you (the employee) can sense that your relationship isn’t on the same level. You might play on the same field but one of you is the coach… and it’s not you.

I call this an asymmetrical relationship, in that he signs off on your hours but you don’t sign off on his. Now there’s a certain strain of thought that says we should all be judged by our actions or potential, that bosses and parents and managers aren’t necessary, but let’s just leave that aside. The human condition being what it is means that asymmetrical relationships either will or must exist.

We’re all familiar with asymmetry in relationships — at least, we’re all familiar with a certain kind of asymmetry that we call “power”. And a lot of relational problems (but not all, not nearly all) are caused by too much or not enough asymmetry. Parents trying to be buddies, bosses trying to be friends, or the opposite where parents become cruel, or bosses become slavemasters. The worst case (at least for me) is a relationship that’s asymmetrical when it shouldn’t be, like a husband ruling and asserting dominance over a wife (or vice versa, though I’d say that’s much less common). None of this is to say you can’t be nice or good to your children or employees, or that husbands and wives can’t have different functions in their relationship, but that you should be aware of and respect the asymmetry or symmetry that’s always going to exist in your relationship. Essentially you need to authentic to the type of relationship you’re in.

But again, we all know that. So that’s not really interesting.

Instead I’d like to think about voluntary asymmetrical relationships (these tend to be troublesome), and asymmetry of motivation or intentionality.

Asymmetry of intentionality is why a lot of commercial transactions seem inauthentic when wrapped in something else. You get your name written on a cup at Starbucks, or employees of a chain of upscale grocery stores are mandated to refer to customer by name, or the employees at the restaurant sing a song, or the waitress flirts with you… the list goes on. I might just be particularly sensitive to this, but it seems to me there’s a real asymmetry of intention there. I want a good or a service. But they want… well they want to sell me that, plus something else, plus more in the future, plus a better tip… essentially they want to play-act into getting me to empty my pockets. Like a guy who hangs around a girl ostensibly to be friends when what he really wants is a relationship. It feels a bit creepy and weird. Especially when it’s a corporation.

And then there’s voluntary asymmetry. For instance (and I hate to break this to the church I grew up in) going to church and submitting to the authority of a group of elders or whatever power structure is in place is completely and utterly voluntary in this society. You can remove yourself from that authority without any consequences, no matter how much your church might wish that not to be so. This is true of any organization you attach yourself to. These organizations need to understand that: There’s no “power” structure here. The relational asymmetry is not that the church holds power over the individual, no, the asymmetry is the other way around. And unless you have a reason for people to stay (and despite what you might think, I don’t think “because we’re all Dutch immigrants” is a particularly bad reason), they just won’t. Sorry.

I’ve heard a lot of talk about how the church should be exempt from the marketplace, how we who show up should not be consumers who view the church as providing a spiritual product. I’ve heard people who I really, really respect and enjoy listening to say these things and I can’t help but think this is just a bit disingenuous. Every church has some kind of value. Again that might just be “because we’re Catholic and there’s nowhere else to go”. That’s the value your parish provides. It’s might not be a great or really very significant value, but it’s value nonetheless.

But again this comes back to being authentic to the asymmetry of your relationship. Your parishioners do most of the work and provide all of the money. Without them the church goes away. To be honest with them and with yourself is to say, “Why should you come here?” and then try to be that organization. You need to answer that question very carefully of course. If the answer sounds anything like “because we’ve been around for a while and would like to continue being around” maybe it’s time to close down shop. On the other hand if your answer is “We’re on a mission and we’d like you to be a part of it” and you mean it then you’ve got a good place to start.

You might think this is all a load of mercantile hogwash. And that’s okay. But if you’re part of a church that puts on a really good service every Sunday (and I’ll be very clear here, I think you should do that) you have to ask, Why the good music? Why the good preaching? Why the good venue? Why pursue excellence?

There are two languages you speak with these things, the language of words and the language of actions. You may say that you don’t do it to draw people in, but your actions say a different thing. And that’s okay. Different churches doing different thinks is what makes the Protestantosphere so vibrant, crazy, and interesting. (Yes I just made up a word; deal with it.)

I think I may have gone down a rabbit trail a bit here.

In any case. The key to this (as usual) is authenticity. You need to live inside the relationship you’re in, not pretend you’re in a relationship you’re not. This goes for churches, but for people too.

Now back to the dishes my wife, who is definitely my boss, told me to finish before I come to bed…