Weekly Exercise - New Clues, Solidarity w/Paris, Code Withdrawal
As per the previous post, I want to "get back on that bloggy horse". For now I'm going to try honoring that by publishing something every week. At the moment my head is all over the place, so it's kind of a bit of a roundup of a few disparate topics.
Throwback Energy - The ClueTrain Update
Back in my early days on the web, I was a devotee of Justin Hall's links.net, the exemplar of "personal blogging" and a large inspiration for me buying this domain name and hanging out my own shingle. Through following his adventures I discovered a document called "the ClueTrain manifesto", a clarion statement of early purpose and values for the internet, circa 1999.
This week two of the original four ClueTrain authors — Doc Searls and David Weinberger — published an update called "New Clues". It's awesome:
The Net's super-power is connection without permission. Its almighty power is that we can make of it whatever we want.
It is therefore not time to lean back and consume the oh-so-tasty junk food created by Fools and Marauders as if our work were done. It is time to breathe in the fire of the Net and transform every institution that would play us for a patsy.
An organ-by-organ body snatch of the Internet is already well underway. Make no mistake: with a stroke of a pen, a covert handshake, or by allowing memes to drown out the cries of the afflicted we can lose the Internet we love.
We come to you from the years of the Web's beginning. We have grown old together on the Internet. Time is short.
We, the People of the Internet, need to remember the glory of its revelation so that we reclaim it now in the name of what it truly is.
The notion of "We, the People of the Internet" has strong resonance for me. It harkens back to a time of much greater possibility, something that seems to have slipped away, something I dearly wish to find again.
On that note, Aldon Hynes, an old comrade from the Dean Campaign — through which I actually had the privilege to meet both David and Doc who wrote the New Clues — found the archives of the "Hack4Dean" mailing list, which begat my engagement in that campaign, and thus most of my subsequent career.
It's interesting reading, but bittersweet in nostalgia too. Aldon fairly summarizes the feeling of having been on the cutting edge of a big change, but not seeing the change turn out the way you had hoped:
Here we are twelve years later. We have Facebook and Twitter. We have presumed front runners for the 2016 Presidential election. Perhaps there are or soon will be autonomous emergent campaign organizations, but I’m not seeing them right now. To play off of old clichés, mostly what I see now are cat videos and assorted memes. We see polarization and people unfriending one another over discussions of racism and white privilege...
Can we rekindle to DeanSpace fire? What would it take?
It's an interesting trip down memory lane, especially given how much has (and hasn't) changed in the decade since. I'll have more to say on the topic of "rekindling" or "breathing in the fire" at some point, but if you want to feel some spark and heat today New Clues will take you all of 15 minutes to read. It's punchy and quite quite good. Go check it out.
The Tragedy in Paris
Can't not think about this, and for better or for worse can't help but be drawn more to the broader geopolitical implications more than the terrible individual human tragedy.
The way in which westerners draw broad generalizations about Muslims based on terrorist acts — the belief that Islam is somehow inherently violent, that moderates need to apologize for criminal extremists; this tweet by Rupert Murdoch is a good canonical example — is the kind of thing that I would be enraged about as a young person, but which I now just find depressing and very difficult to combat. It's so screwed up and unfair, it's hard to even put into words, so here's a wonderfully eloquent summation from Roqayah Chamseddine, a Sydney based Lebanese-American journalist who can speak much better than I:
Is there a quota that must be met? Will it take 500 scholars? 5,000? How long will Muslims as a whole, be required to answer for a minority? ... To be Muslim is to constantly carry the weight of an apology that is not yours to deliver.
And as for old Rupert, well...
Rupert Murdoch thinks all Muslims should apologise for terrorism. So on behalf of white people I'd like to apologise for Rupert Murdoch.
— Matt Haig (@matthaig1) January 10, 2015
The other thing that I find extremely troubling in terms of people's reaction is the inability to understand the strategic aims of the murderers. It reminds me of the way people seriously described the motives of the 9/11 attacks in terms like, "they hate our freedom"; this is a childish perspective, verging on willful blindness; moreover, it is dangerous.
Terrorist attacks on symbolic western institutions are, as Leighton Woodhouse put it, trolling by massacre:
Al Qaeda and ISIS are monsters, to state the obvious. But they’re monsters who are playing a long game. They’re counting on a reaction of blind violence from Paris and Washington, DC — the kind of reaction that can turn secular Muslims into radical jihadists.
The longer Juan Cole piece Leighton references is definitely worth reading. Don't think for a second that this is tactical revenge for some tasteless cartoons. This was an attack on secular France's multicultural society, with the designed effort of inciting reprisals and crackdowns which cause divisions and strife within said society, thus driving recruitment and fundraising. It's strategic.
French Muslims are people like Ahmed Merabet, a policeman who was killed during the attack, and Lassana Bathily, a cashier at the Kosher grocery where hostages were taken, who helped hide would-be victims and save lives. These are citizens who embody the great French notion of fraternity, of solidarity.
Hey, if you can generalize about Muslims on one side, you can generalize on the other too. Right? #Paris pic.twitter.com/SRMrLYsa5F
— Mohamed El Dahshan (@eldahshan) January 10, 2015
Yet any such notion is immediately met with vituperative scorn, as the responses to the above tweet showcase in demoralizing faction. Like I said, as a younger person this would set my blood aboil; now it just makes me sad.
The rate at which people's minds will change about Islam is likely to follow the pattern of changing attitudes about Homosexuality. That is, it will be proportional to the rate at which they will personally come to know someone who is Muslim, just as attitudes about marriage equality changed as more people have come to know someone who is gay. Also, to the extent that bigotry is most entrenched with people like Rupert Murdoch (e.g. older white folks), demographics (e.g. waiting on natural causes of death) may be part of the answer.
The crucial difference is that relative to homophobia, anti-Islamic bigotry is much more dangerous for us all. It is the sociopolitical subtext behind a decade of criminally ineffective warfare, occupation, and barbaric cruelty. If it is allowed to grow and flourish among a new generation, we will collectively pay for it for the rest of our lives.
Ultimately, modern/western nations are better simply shaking off such symbolic strikes. They don't logistically threaten the functioning of society, and result in far less loss of life than traffic accidents, so it is possible to endure them. It is worth doing so because they are not existentially threatening, and responding to them as if they were is playing into the perpetrators hands.
The best possible response is a broad show of strength in social solidarity ("you cannot drive us apart or make us fear one another"), and a precise law-enforcement investigation to specifically target the network of criminals who committed organized murder. Also, politically punishing and socially shunning anyone who tries to score points off tragedy. Here's hoping the French get it right.
Personal Note - On Going Through Coder Withdrawal
Finally, to switch gears completely, here's something about me, me, and only me that's been bouncing around the old brain can for the past month or two.
One of the big things that changed for me in 2014 is I stopped writing code for Pantheon. I also got out of the first line on-call rotation (for which my wife is very grateful), but the bigger change is I am now working explicitly in a directorial position — "running product" as they say — and no longer an "individual contributor" for practical purposes.
This is good for the company. In a growing organization working in a rapidly changing market, keeping a large team coordinated and focused on the most important things is a full time job and then some. It takes a deep understanding of the problem-space, as well as enough technical knowhow to legitimately work with engineers as peers. I found myself in a unique position to fill a vitally important role, one which meant stretching and taking on a new and daunting set of challenges; naturally I went for it.
It's been fun, but also quite tough. I'm on a learning curve within a relatively rapidly changing/growing organization under intense demands for results, so it's not supposed to be a cake-walk, and that's cool.
But while I was expecting challenges coping with a different set of responsibilities, what I didn't anticipate was how much I would miss programming. I have a completely new appreciation for what it means to "be a problem-solver" now that I no longer get to spend my time doing this in any clean or direct way. Like the lady says, you don't know what you got 'till its gone.
Here's the deal: building the internet combines the joy of pure creativity with the fist-pumping pleasure of solving puzzles. It's a wickedly awesome combination, a speedball of neurological motivators, and I was good at it. I've spent the last decade-plus hitting it hard for a living, giving myself heady bumps of dopamine on a daily basis, and now that's over.
I know realize that since making this change I've been going through withdrawal. I'm actually pretty convinced there's a real neurotransmitter angle to the experience, but that'll probably take another few decades development in brain scans and quantified selfing to prove one way or another.
The point is I've been thinking a lot about how intrinsic motivation and reward work for me, and about how I can keep at least one toe in the water. Writing more here is creative, and there are always opportunities to hack a little code around the margins. The trick is to figure out how to be responsible about it. Time will tell on that. I'll keep you posted.
Ok, so I guess that's what I've got for this week. We'll see how I feel about this format going forward, but it worked for today and that's good enough for me.