My website is now back online following a long outage precipitated by a rather nasty hacker attack and an almost-as-nasty unannounced decommissioning of the servers my web host was storing my site on. It’s good to be back online!
I’ve heard that phrase a few times, so this year I’m trying it out. I used to be a writer — not a professional writer, you understand, just in the more general sense of “a person who writes”, but I’ve been quite inconsistent with it and it no longer feels natural to me. It’s one of only two things I have enough natural talent for to actually be good at, so losing my touch troubles me. Consequently, I’ll begin 2014 by writing, beginning with this post, and intend to go on doing so. We’ll start out easy — 700 words a week, fiction or non-fiction, and as part of those 700, at least five days where I write at least 100 words — no slacking for a week and then having to do it all at once. It’s a low bar — this post is almost 150 words already. But the goal is consistency, not volume. I can raise volume later. Maybe I’ll even work my way up to doing NaNoWriMo this year (which requires around 1700 words a day every day). Also, looking back over this paragraph, I should also plan to work on using dashes less. 😛
I’m not one for resolutions, but I like to think about intentions at least, where I’d like to put my attention in the coming year. So let’s see:
- Opinion pieces. I’m tired of limiting expression of my views to flame wars in Facebook comment threads — it’s time to be pro-active more often than re-active.
- Income from it would be excellent. Not necessarily enough to live off of, just a little extra here and there, and if it were passive income, best of all.
- Personal relationships. Meet more new people, date more, connect with my next SO.
- Minimalism. Get rid of as much of the unneeded stuff in my house as I can to ensure there’s room for the stuff that is needed, and space to think and write and live.
- Fitness. Gettin’ old over here, my body is telling me I need to do more to maintain it.
I think that’s enough to work on for now — maybe I’ll revisit later.
How are you beginning? How do you mean to go on?
Gratitude is so venerated in our culture that it feels awkward to say that, despite my indifference to most cultural norms. Gratitude is one thing that nearly everyone agrees on, from the mainstream (check it out, there’s a whole holiday based on it in November — October if you’re Canadian), to the spiritualists who insist that gratitude is not just a noble pursuit for the sake of others, but the path to well-being for oneself, to the scientists who are publishing studies saying that the spiritualists have it right — there are measurable health benefits to the regular practice of gratitude.
And yet I despise it. The word triggers a powerful feeling of resentment that I doubt many could relate to. It’s a loaded word, evocative of someone making demands, denigrating me (and look at how the word grateful and denigrate share a good chunk of letters — though not, thankfully, a root word), and trying to guilt me into something. “Ingrate.” “You should be grateful.” It’s a moralizing word, an attempt to manipulate through shame, a word used by the powerful to attempt to gain compliance from the powerless, or, failing that, to punish them emotionally for refusing to comply.
The idea of feeling grateful makes me feel sick inside. It’s bound up with a feeling of inferiority, of lack of agency, of inability to do for oneself and neediness and dependence. The powerful may be self-reliant or even benevolent, but the powerless lack the ability, therefore they must be grateful for what is done for them.
Gratitude is a dirty word to me, an evil word, a tool of oppression.
And I’m not sure why. I can’t seem to identify any memories that would account for this visceral reaction, this immediate and instinctive hatred that wells up at the very mention of a word that, to everyone else, seems to represent something wonderful and healing, something that helps them focus on the positive and keep their heads up in hard times.
I’ve considered the words for some related concepts and they don’t have the same effect. Starting on Google with “define: grateful”, I come up with “feeling or showing an appreciation of kindness; thankful.” and “synonyms: thankful, appreciative”. No problem with any of those words. Appreciation is great, thankfulness, when appropriate, is fantastic. These emotions come from a place of equality for me, or at least a power-neutral place.
“define: appreciative” gets a little more complicated: “feeling or showing gratitude or pleasure.” Ignoring the word gratitude (or perhaps substituting thankfulness) makes this a positive thing, but check out the synonyms: “grateful for, thankful for, obliged for, indebted for, in someone’s debt for”. Ooh. Obliged. Indebted. Now you OWE someone something. Oddly, I associate those meanings with gratitude, but not with appreciation.
“define: thankful” is simple and positive: “pleased and relieved”, with synonyms “grateful, appreciative, filled with gratitude, relieved”. Again, apart from the Evil Word, nothing to balk at here.
I almost stopped there, but then went back to that word “obliged” and decided to check it out. And here’s the root of the problem: to oblige means to “make (someone) legally or morally bound to an action or course of action”. Legally or morally bound. Synonyms? “require, compel, bind, constrain, obligate, leave with no option but, force”. Heavy stuff. One moment we’re talking about being pleased and relieved, and it’s only two small steps from there to requirement, compulsion, binding, constraint, obligation, optionlessness, and force. It doesn’t get much more disempowering than that. And, for whatever reason, that’s what gratitude is for me.
I may never be able to have a positive relationship with gratitude. If you do something for me, I may be appreciative, thankful, pleased, and relieved, but I will never, ever be grateful. If asked, “what are you thankful for?”, I may happily relate a long and storied list. But if you ask me, “what are you grateful for?”, I suspect the answer will always be, “nothing, and fuck you for asking”.
My friend Autumn recently posted this quote on Facebook:
“I wonder if I’m helping you build a future I wouldn’t want to live in.”
-Ian McDonald, Dervish House
I’m not familiar with the quote or its source, but the concept has been rolling around in my brain in the wake of Snowden’s leak.
I’ve worked in technology all my life and I take pride in the fact that we are advancing our capabilities as a species and overcoming our limitations, potentially moving toward a Star Trek-like future where our technologies are used in the service of our peaceful well-being.
But we are already much closer to a Firefly-like future, where the technology is used in the service of those with power at the expense of those without, all the while paying lip service to higher ideals.
The conclusion I’ve come to is that I have no choice but to continue on this path, because those in power will build that future with or without me, and only through my participation can I hope to find some small opportunity to mitigate the damage or steer things in a more positive direction.
This week I have been re-acquainting myself with the Tao Te Ching and exploring meditation. In this short time, meditation has already improved my mood noticeably. I look forward to seeing what it can do over a longer period.
I have also unearthed some memories, personality traits, and motivating forces that were buried under the detritus of years of living, such as the desire to write which inspired this post. I also look forward to seeing what further surprises of this nature lie in store.
This scene made a good impression impression the first time I saw it.
It appeals to me on a more practical, minimalistic level now.
I shall work on being concise.
The media are in a frenzy today with stories about the Boston Marathon bombings. KGO Radio’s coverage this afternoon was entitled, “Terror in Boston: The Aftermath”. The portions of this broadcast I heard were characterized by discussions of how little we actually know and descriptions of “high alert” security measures being enacted in major cities across the United States.
I don’t wish to make light of the events at the Boston Marathon yesterday, and I very much look forward to hearing that the perpetrator has been caught and brought to justice. My heart goes out to the families who’ve lost loved ones and the individuals in pain as a result of these events. But with those things in mind and in light of how little we actually know about what happened and why, I feel it necessary to say:
Let’s keep a sense of scale here.
Here are some notable mass killings in the United States in the past 20 years, in order of increasing lethality:
|Centennial Olympic Park Bombing||07/27/96||Atlanta GA||2||111|
|Boston Marathon Bombings||05/15/13||Boston MA||3||183|
|Batman Shooting||07/20/12||Aurora CO||12||58|
|Columbine High School Massacre||04/20/99||Littleton CO||15||21|
|Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting||12/14/12||Newtown CT||28||2|
|Oklahoma City Bombing||04/19/95||Oklahoma City OK||168||680+|
|September 11 Attacks||09/11/01||NY VA and PA||2996||6000+|
That really puts things in perspective, don’t you think?
The Boston Marathon attack yesterday was one of the least fatal attacks in recent history. We have no idea whether it was perpetrated by an organized terror group, a single unbalanced individual, or some other sort of organization altogether. We have no concept of what the motive was or when or how or where the attack was planned and prepared. It much more closely resembles in scale the 1996 Olympics bombing (perpetrated by an American member of a Christian terrorist organization) and last year’s shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado (in which the shooter was a single individual of unclear mental health status working alone).
What all of this adds up to is one simple conclusion:
In 2001, the September 11 attacks resulted in a dramatic curtailing of our liberty, which has done little to make us more secure and much to make us less free. Those attacks were also used as a flimsy pretext for an unwarranted war in Iraq (an act of terror which has killed significantly more Americans than the 9/11 attacks themselves).
What was described on the radio today as taking place across the nation today is what we call “disproportionate response” (everywhere except for Boston, where immediate response is warranted). People are already talking about terrorist groups, speculating about war, grounding flights because they hear people speaking Arabic, and just generally allowing the terror to take hold.
If we allow the terror to take hold — if we use this as a pretext for more unjust killing, if we allow our government to use it to deprive us of more of our freedom — the terrorists have won. You’re doing EXACTLY WHAT THEY WANT YOU TO DO.
Wait for the investigators to do their jobs and to come up with some information that’s actually worth acting on. Until then…
Keep calm and carry on.
Tonight I tried to drop by my blog and found that it was out of commission! No WordPress pages would load (although non-WP static HTML pages were fine), instead giving me a browser error message explaining that the server returned no data. I checked the filesystem and found the files intact and not recently edited (I had been hacked once several years ago and thought this might have been malicious as well). I headed over to the database (fortunately phpMyAdmin was working) and looked around the DB a bit. The last change there was from 2/25. ಠ_ಠ
A little bit of Googling led me to http://www.colinmcnulty.com/blog/2008/07/08/solution-to-wordpress-blank-screen-of-death/ where I found the solution. Fortunately, my problem was not the same as his, but following the steps that didn’t work for him did work for me. Evidently something went wrong with my plugins; disabling them all directly from the database magically restored my web site. I logged back in, upgraded from Word Press 2.7 to the latest 3.5.1 (big jump!) and here I am. In response to my snark on Facebook about everybody letting that go almost two months without telling me, my coworkers persuaded me that I should do more self-promotion and update more often, so here’s a post. I try not to post here unless I have something useful to say (no “I ate a piece of toast today” updates on this blog; that’s what Facebook and Twitter are for), but hopefully that link will help some poor soul whose Word Press site spontaneously decided that it didn’t need to serve pages anymore.
Just, y’know, ignore the bit at the end where it turns into a sales pitch. ಠ_ಠ
“The man who doesn’t read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.” -Mark Twain
A quick search of the interwebs turned up several instances of this quote on different sites, but no context. As such, I can’t be certain whether it was intended solely in a literal sense, or if Clemens was using it as an example and a metaphor for a broader idea. I prefer to think the latter, however, as it seems equally true for pursuits other than reading.
To generalize the sentiment, we could say: The person who fails to wisely apply their talents has no advantage over those who lack them.
I think I’ve been stuck in a rut lately of allowing many of my talents to fall into disuse, and thereby deriving no value from them. Fulltime employment (perhaps paradoxically?) increases the challenge of making use of any but a narrow subset of my skills, as few of them are relevant to my position. Employment consumes more of the time and energy available to me for such pursuits than I actually have, leaving me destitute of one or both at the end of each day.
I am not sure what to do about this, except to try to squeeze in a little bit here and there. This blog entry, for example, is a baby step toward keeping my writing skills sharp. It was begun on the bus this morning, tapped into the keyboard of my phone, and completed this evening, in a narrow slice of time between finishing the laundry and heading to bed. I’ll try to do likewise tomorrow. The “micro-blogging” medium of Twitter and Facebook is suitable only for the most superficial of updates; to say anything that has any meaning to either myself or anyone else requires more space. So I suppose I’ll try to do “mini-blogging” instead. Not the long, detailed posts I would prefer to write had I the time and energy, but whatever words I can wring out onto your screen in the space between the things it seems I have to do.
Like going to bed, roughly now-ish.
We spend a lot of time and energy on making software usable and user-friendly, and with good reason. It only makes sense to make the computer adapt to the user, not vice versa. So why is it that we don’t give this kind of attention to the tools the we as technologists use every day? When is the last time you saw a beautiful, easy-to-use language or API reference? It seems to me that there’s a lot that could be done to make these gargantuan beasts easier to use. Things like configurable sort order:
- Alphabetical is a great default, and fantastic if you know the name of what you’re looking for. I fully support keeping this as the default.
- But what about optionally sorting by subject, for when you know the thing you’re looking for is in the library, but you don’t know what it’s called?
- How about sorting by frequency of use? Don’t show me the arcane shit that nobody but embedded programmers care about at the top of the reference just because it happens to start with ‘a’, show me the common stuff that everybody needs on a daily basis.
- What about logical order of use? Show me constructors first, then mutators, then accessors, then utility functions/methods, then destructors, so that the reference document itself mimics the structure of how to actually use an object or library of functions.
Language and API references tend to be huge and difficult to use, and there’s no reason at all why this should be.