Life is a Mystery

28 May 2008 . Comments Off

Unconcerned simplicity

The folks at 37signals point to an interesting lesson from the building of physical objects. How does this relate to the building of code or the building of lives? They quote architect Christopher Alexander’s book A Pattern Language:

The difference between the novice and the master is simply that the novice has not learnt, yet, how to do things in such a way that he can afford to make small mistakes. The master knows that the sequence of his actions will always allow him to cover his mistakes a little further down the line. It is this simple but essential knowledge which gives the work of a master carpenter its wonderful, smooth, relaxed, and almost unconcerned simplicity.

How to live life with a faith that the mistakes can work their way out with continued attention and care. They can’t be avoided, and living life to avoid mistakes only stiffens life. But in a master’s hand, they can be resolved into a beautiful whole.

This novice-like and panic-stricken attention to detail has two very serious results. First, like the novice, the architects spend a great deal of time trying to work things out ahead of time, not smoothly building. Obviously, this costs money; and. helps create these machine-like “perfect” buildings. Second, a vastly more serious consequence: the details control the whole. The beauty and subtlety of the plan in which patterns have held free sway over the design suddenly becomes tightened and destroyed because, in fear that details won’t work out, the details of connections, and components, are allowed to control the plan. As a result, rooms get to be slightly the wrong shape, windows go out of position, spaces between doors and walls get altered just enough to make them useless. In a word, the whole character of modern architecture, namely the control of larger space by piddling details of construction, takes over.

And is this the way of modern life? Planned out. The right resume. The right career. The right salary. The right family. Who creates this plan? Who has time to develop their own perfect plan? Would our time be better spent weaving a life?

Recognize that you are not assembling a building from components like an erector set, but that you are instead weaving a structure which starts out globally complete, but flimsy; then gradually making it stiffer but still rather flimsy; and only finally making it completely stiff and strong.

I often wonder if one can construct a self from flimsy sheets of hope and desire. Maybe if I scaffold my desired shape in flimsy material, it would be enough to see if that self is who I want to be, is who I want others to see. The material would be flimsy enough to shift, and only as I fall in love with myself as I am growing me need I stiffen it up a bit, lend it strength, make it part of my core.

28 May 2008 . Comments Off

Innocents

What will it take to stop this war? Have we killed enough of their innocents? Have we ruined enough of our own? Iraq War vet Jon Michael Turner tells one of thousands of horror stories. Witness.

28 May 2008 . Comments Off

Ignoring intelligence

I’ve long argued that there was nothing seriously wrong with our national intelligence services leading up to the war with Iraq. My view is that the Bush administration got the intelligence and decided to warp and change it in the White House. Well, confirmation this week from an unexpected source, former White House press secretary Scott McClellan:

The president’s real motivation for the war, he said, was to transform the Middle East to ensure an enduring peace in the region. But the White House effort to sell the war as necessary due to the stated threat posed by Saddam Hussein was needed because “Bush and his advisers knew that the American people would almost certainly not support a war launched primarily for the ambitions purpose of transforming the Middle East,” McClellan wrote.

“Rather than open this Pandora’s Box, the administration chose a different path — not employing out-and-out deception, but shading the truth,” he wrote of the effort to convince the world that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, an effort he said used “innuendo and implication” and “intentional ignoring of intelligence to the contrary.”

Bush lied about his reasons for invading Iraq (and continues to lie to this day, repeatedly tying the invasion to the unrelated attacks on 9/11) and lied about the state of our intelligence agencies (throwing them into turmoil and demoralizing them to the degree that now we do have a serious problem with our national intelligence).

Why is this man still in office? What kind of cowards sit in congress to let such things pass without action?

26 May 2008 . Comments Off

Boots on the door

Does this scare you as much as it does me?

Government lawyers told federal judges that the president can send the military into any U.S. neighborhood, capture a citizen and hold him in prison without charge, indefinitely.

Context? Well, we have to catch terrorists, don’t we? And they need to go to jail right away. And we don’t have time for trial, or evidence that we can show you without shooting you. This is just business as usual. The frog is still comfortable, the water is not too warm, is it.

“The president is not a king and cannot lock people up forever in the United States based on his say-so,” said Jonathan Hafetz, a lawyer who represents al-Marri and other detainees. “Today it’s Mr. al-Marri. Tomorrow it could be you, a member of your family, someone you know. Once you allow the president to lock people up for years or even life without trial, there’s no going back.”

Familiar words, no?

26 May 2008 . Comments Off

SecondWashington

Last week I asked: “If this social network he is building can attract cash to a campaign, just imagine how effectively it can attract talent to an administration. You don’t imagine they will just throw that network away if elected, do you?” This week Marc Ambinder answers in The Atlantic:

What Obama seems to promise is, at its outer limits, a participatory democracy in which the opportunities for participation have been radically expanded. He proposes creating a public, Google-like database of every federal dollar spent. He aims to post every piece of non-emergency legislation online for five days before he signs it so that Americans can comment. A White House blog—also with comments—would be a near certainty. Overseeing this new apparatus would be a chief technology officer.

Ambinder’s column HisSpace: How would Obama’s success in online campaigning translate into governing? is well worth a read. He goes on to say,

Today Obama is like a brand, his campaign like a $250 million company, and the voters like customers; the persuasion flows one way. If he becomes president, then power, authority, and legitimacy will flow in both directions; voters who are now keen to support the idea of Obama may push against his initiatives in office, sometimes unpredictably.

Not quite. I think, actually, Obama has run a campaign that is remarkably two-way, especially for politics. Not only has he kept everyone in the drivers seat rhetorically (“this campaign” or “our campaign” he usually says instead of “my campaign”), but he has also accepted the impromptu assistance of his supporters by using their campaign offices and their videos. Granted, the goal is simply to get him elected, but I think he has begun to demonstrate that he is ready to engage the nation like no other recent president. Once governing the goal becomes much more complex and our continued engagement and commitment critical to success.

26 May 2008 . Comments Off

Um, Perl anyone?

Haven’t these people ever heard of Perl or other programming languages that could easily process large reports? I guess it is good news that Obama and Clinton are swamping the FEC and media’s old technology with massive financial reports. We would not want fewer contributors, after all.

26 May 2008 . Comments Off

Dissolving plastic

Daniel Burd, a high school student in Canada, comes up with a way to biodegrade plastic bags in just months. I wonder what “a bit of carbon dioxide” waste means, though. Still, quite an accomplishment!

25 May 2008 . Comments Off

Welcome to the frozen north

Of Mars, that is. Pheonix made a safe landing and the pictures started rolling in. I really love that NASA TV is now streamed on the web. Bravo to the team at the University of Arizona, and best of luck on the rest of the mission!

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25 May 2008 . Comments Off

Storm warning

We were lucky today. A storm barreled through Minnesota and narrowly missed St. Paul. About 15 miles to the north a two-year-old was killed in Hugo, the pictures are devastating. Reports of softball-sized hail, high winds, yet all we got was one large gust. We were lucky today, but others were not so lucky. Our hearts and prayers go out to them.

25 May 2008 . Comments Off

Thinking big

How about the world for a canvas and a GPS tracker for a pen? Erik Nordenankar thought up this extraordinary idea. Hard to believe? Watch the movie.

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UPDATE: Yes, hard to believe. This is a hoax and the artist has admitted as much.

Eric Celeste / Saint Paul, Minnesota / 651.323.2009 / efc@clst.org