Trains vs Trucks

I ride the train every morning to work to where the tall shiny buildings are. This morning, for the first time, as a searingly-loud train shot past us, I wondered: what’s more efficient and depended on in the US, trucks or trains?

Turns out it’s trucks. But it should be trains. It appears trains are ~10 more efficient than trucks and ~10 more powerful. Carrying a ton (a literal ton) of freight for nearly 500 miles on one gallon of fuel: pretty cool.

Susan J. Fowler, STEM, Men, and Goals

There’s a fine line between jealousy and inspiration. My most recent jealousy inspiration is Susan J. Fowler. Obviously I’m not jealous of her for the only reason most of us know her name – her sexual harassment at the hands of her employer, Uber, which was then made newsworthy by the fact that Uber’s HR department defended and protected the harasser. No, I checked out her blog. And this woman can do everything. Write. Write code. Write about code. Speak. Start businesses. Write/edit philosophy papers. Professionally and reasonably navigate a traumatic situation. Be young and beautiful. And more than anything, believe in herself.

Self belief is about impossible to impart to another person, and it is just as impossible to describe in a worthwhile manner. But it is key. I have a friend who’s an engineer, generated 7 million dollars for his company through an endeavor he largely spearheaded, speaks internationally, wrote and published a book, is now a CTO of a small company, and is 26. Yes, 26. That man swims in self belief. You can see it as he walks down the halls. Swagger. Fashion. Everybody knows Bill. I suppose it’s a perfect constellation of factors coming together: drive, physical health and high energy, talent converging with the right industry as it’s rising (tech), through-the-roof social ability, and straight-up good old standard intelligence.

But back to Susan. She read 52 books last year. Wow. I will never do that and I will not try. A key difference, I imagine, is she’s likely not spending 5 hours a week at the gym. Were I to spend my gym time reading, sure, a book a week would be doable.

Another inspiration is that she truly feels STEM is her home (Science Technology Engineering Math). She doesn’t even hesitate. I am yet part of the phenomenon and error that says that women can’t compete in STEM. I can feel it in my soul. I meet another female engineer/developer and I’m always impressed. Why? Why am I impressed?! Do I think women can’t write code? See. I am part of the problem. And this despite the fact that I live this life (I write code for a living), was valedictorian of my high school (i.e. beat all the boys), and am aware that American girls have had equal math scores with their male counterparts for the past 30 years. There are no grounds to the lie that women aren’t equal to men in intellectual ability, but STEM and technology still do not reflect this truth. Technology is 90% male. Still a boys club. And she got the brunt of it here, and Uber lost a high performer because of their sick culture/boys club.

But, goals! This is all about goals, for me. Susan – a woman I have never met and never will – has inspired me.

  • I will read 12 books this year. One per month.
  • I will post to this blog once per month.
  • I will use my train ride into work to do JavaScript problems. (This is fun for me, I promise.)

And I will deepen my current goals, which are giving of myself to my local church, and studying a few hours each weekend on the philosophical/religious ideas that plague, pursue, entertain, and give me life.

Thank you Susan! Thanks for being brave and ignoring your gender because in our society females are still “less than”.

Abuse of Power

Abuse of power is one of the worst things. And when you love democracy and the noble things it theoretically stands for, it’s hard to watch when that democracy becomes the thing it’s built to stop: exploitation, the powerful silencing the weak, a government ruining its people. This is corruption. And you wouldn’t imagine seeing it in Canada.

But there it is.

When my friend first told me about his situation, I was stunned, wasn’t sure how much was true, and thought “isn’t this the kind of thing that happens in Russia?” Second thought: how much of this happens in the good old US of A? Likely more than we’d like, but even more than that: it’s likely more than we want to know.

If you’re still reading, I’m going to force you to know one thing: on Thursday, the Canadian government will likely destroy a family business for its own profit. Again, Russia, right? This doesn’t happen to our cuddly, maple-syrupy, Justin Bieber-producing, friends. Aren’t they a democracy? Reasonable folk? It would seem all people are corruptible.

This 50-year-old business does something very boring but extremely well: it produces electrical guidebooks. The books explain the laws on electrical wiring, so it quotes part of the law. And the family business, P.S. Knight company, is the nation’s largest producer of this book. But a single Canadian agency (the Canadian Standards Association) recently decided they wanted to make money. So what do they do? Produce electrical guidebooks and charge P.S. Knight with violating copyright law. And if you’re the government, and you want to make even more money, just put P.S. Knight out of business, right? Especially in Russia.

But this is Canada! Here are the rules being violated: the government does not exist to make a profit and should not participate in commerce (this is an obvious conflict of interest, since the government makes the rules governing commerce), the law is public meaning the government can not charge for reprinting the law, and (possibly most importantly) this government officially declared full approval of all uses of this text to P.S. Knight decades ago. This boring little company has been doing the same thing for 50 years, doing it so well it became the leader in the industry, and now the Canadian government has decided it wants a piece of that money pie.

There’s only one way to do this: put that family business out of business.

They might do that Thursday, and if they win, that business will go under, the family will lose its entire fortune, that same family will go into debt because of punishing fines from CSA and the related law suit, everybody at the business will lose their jobs, the country will lose a half-century old, preferred, and time-tested product, the corrupt parts of Canadian government will know the victory of how far they can “stretch the rules” and will be emboldened to take it even farther, and Canada will lose part of its democracy.

This is abuse of power. This is the government ruining its people. And this is not democracy.

Full story here:

The Unexamined Life

If you Google “blog” the first result (other than ads and Wordress) is “Seth’s Blog”. Impressive. The most successful blog in the world currently. Who is “Seth”? I looked around. It was hard to tell. I went to one of his other sites and it read “author, marketer, speaker, etc” – he speaks on “everything” – but in reading all this I realized one thing: he is a philosopher. A modern-day philosopher. We don’t have much bearing in modern society, in the sense of, we don’t really know why we’re alive or what to do with our time. I got this idea more clearly as I walked San Francisco this week, thousands of tourists brushing me by. What in the world do you do with your time? If society has already removed enough illnesses that you’re going to get past age two, and then well past age ten, and it has also created such a peaceful world that the immediate pressure of war does not give you an identity and a cause, and the urgency of finding food and protection is gone since we have done such a damn good job at, well, everything (compared to previous civilizations), then we are left with one big glaring and simultaneously unbelievable question: why am I alive? Surely it’s the question we should have always been asking, but if you’re busy just staying alive with no time to think, this is inevitable. Would Socrates be proud of us, the author of the phrase “the unexamined life is not worth living”?

Seth, in his own modern way, answers this. I say “modern” to point out the fact that he doesn’t really answer this. Instead, he addresses tactics, you know, he talks about living day to day, makes 10,000 assumptions, and doesn’t go into such messy territory as, uhm, religion. I suppose now that God is dead, and you can meet just about every need however you want, and all you really have to do is make enough money to stay alive the requisite amount of time, a transcendent emptiness descends.

I should clarify that I speak out of the Christian worldview. I have been doused in the idea that this world is not all there is, and I have been secondarily doused in the idea that most people think this world is all there is. The gap between physicalists and dualists/spiritualists is large. I don’t feel a pressure to make this world perfect. In fact, I operate under the premise that it can not be. It is the afterlife that I have sure belief in. Which makes absolutely no sense from a perspective. The “afterlife” is the thing for which I have the least proof (none to be exact) and yet I am banking on it more than anything. And second, the faith that teaches me this thought (Christianity) at one time had no knowledge of this thought. Weird, isn’t it? The Jewish worldview (from which sprang the Christian worldview) had no believe in life after death. Then along came Jesus, Paul, the pharisees, and I believe Greek thinking, and that changed.

So enough of that history lesson (mostly because my knowledge has now been depleted, not because it is no longer interesting or relevant). We are, as they say, technologically rich but spiritually poor. We do what we do very well, but no one really knows if it’s worth doing. That’s certainly getting the cart before the horse. Albert Camus once said the primary question of philosophy is whether to commit suicide. While I feel at this point the need to apologize for introducing such darkness into these thoughts, I am also absolutely compelled to say: he’s right.

Kids have to think life is about looking better (better clothes, better looking boyfriends, better iPhones, etc), feeling better (happiness, great sex, validation), and pleasure in general. This is so good (up to a point), and from my Christian worldview, so unbelievably empty. I guess I too can go running around looking for more Pokemans. But this “smallness of your world” which is created by thinking that “the value of my life is determined by whatever I want it to be determined by” has got to raise its ugly face over time. I can’t be the only one to see it. In my own life, when I pleasure-seek too much, the pleasure turns on itself, the whole thing becomes counterproductive and sick, and I go “oh, yeah, I’ve done this before, I know exactly what’s going on, there actually is more to the world than what meets the eye”, and I am comforted. (It’s one of my favorite truths about the universe which can be summed up in one of my favorite metaphors: donuts. While two donuts is better than one, and three is likely better than two, four will not better than three, and five will be worse than zero. Could depend on your usual intake of donuts…)

Donut philosophy aside, I am sad for those with no richness in their life, and there will be no richness if you truly, deeply believe that all value in your life sources itself directly in you and probably also in your friends and society. Has not humanity failed itself enough to prove what a dead end this is? A very genuine friend of mine, a coworker, told me once – in the midst of his sincerity and somewhat Eeoyre-looking facial expression – that most people were depressed, most of the time. I’ve undergone enough pain in recent years to believe this, but always there was something very real, larger, and more valuable than I at play: a transcendent truth. When you remove the transcendent, what do you have? It only looks like emptiness to me.

San Francisco

I walked the city tonight. About 3 miles of it. Sun setting, fog spreading, tourists and children and accents of all types chaotically pleasure-seeking, as was I. Other than New York City, this is the most densely populated large city in the U.S., and tourists only deepen that density.

What’s odd about San Francisco is it is home to both nature and technology. Steve Jobs has loudly proclaimed that no tech company can start outside Silicon Valley, or some such bold and likely untrue claim. And I’m here for the tech – attended a Computer Science workshop today. Nerdville. Yesterday I attended an Advanced JavaScript Fundamentals all-day workshop at The Microsoft Reactor. A cool place, more nerds, tech, code, all things artificial and severely human. Code and its power are a direct product of our hands. It is almost a measure of our minds. But back to nature. You could say nature is everywhere, and I couldn’t disagree, but when I say San Francisco is a home to nature I mean it is a home to some of the most stunning views on earth. San Francisco is a collision of mountains and ocean, bays, inlets, and brazenly large and vivid flora.

It’s people are no less brazen and vivid. I’m from Chicago so I can compare: I don’t remember seeing this many, uhm, shall we say “characters”? Sadly, I also don’t remember seeing this many homeless.

The hotels are opulent and loud, the fog makes you believe you’re in another world, a city in the clouds, but the broken-souled teens on the street, the drugs and public masturbation ruin ideas of perfection and purity. If you look in the right places – like the second-story corner Italian restaurant resting above a steeply sloping-away hill, filled with wine glasses and beautiful people, the pacific sun casting an evening hue through the glass-enclosed room – it’s magic. Maybe the world, or at least this corner of the world, is perfect.

My Uber driver tonight played upbeat, relaxing new-age music during the climb up Jones street – a street so steep that it’s actually a bit scary. Last night my Uber driver took the same street but played sexually explicit music. I rolled down my window to try to drown out the words I didn’t want to hear. He flew through the city. I kind of wonder what his ticket history looks like.

And at the sushi restaurant I ate at, a beautiful young Asian waiter paid me more attention than what was needed. His body language spoke mild intoxication – I imagine he couldn’t tell my age – and his last few sentences didn’t make sense. As I was leaving he wanted to know where I was from. Chicago. It appears I can at least I can attract someone. Actually, the entire staff paid me lots of attention – maybe they don’t get a lot customers?

Technology and nature. Hippies and businessmen. Homeless and the stratospherically rich. I have to say it feels kind of, well, lost. But also free. I know this culture bucks restraint, but so often what ends up replacing too much restraint is too much freedom, the next-door neighbor to emptiness. I don’t see a coherent culture, or really a place of hope. I do however see grandeur to the heights, both technologically and in the foggy beauty of the bays, inlets, bridges, mountains, and ever-expanding ocean.


Caution: The Doors are about to Explode

Every morning I ride the train to work. And every morning I hear the automated voice calmly say “Caution. The doors are about to explode”. Except that’s not exactly what the voice says. It’s always what I think it’s about to say. Instead it simply says the boring and mundane “Caution. The doors are about to close”. Seriously, they should add some drama to their informational messages.

I chalk this up to one too many movies. I’m a good American. I’ve seen a lot of shoot-em-up flicks, far more explosions than anyone should see, car rolling away in flames. Thanks America.

So mostly I sit down in my seat, giggle, hear the corrected phrase float across the nearly silent morning crew of commuters, and wonder at the health of my psychological state. This occurs daily.

Ethics, Bonhoeffer, and Bifurcation

I’ve always found ethics to be the least interesting part of philosophy. Metaphysics – seems to be pretty foundational so it’s eternally interesting. Epistemology – how you know what you know – you just don’t get more foundational than that, so again, inherently interesting. (If something foundational changes, your entire world changes. Hence, the interesting bit.) But ethics. Ethics? I’m bored to tears. Maybe I’m just not very moral.

But real quick, let me define terms. I use “ethics” and “morality” interchangeably and the meaning is “a standard of behavior”. Now it gets interesting. Before recently, my view of these concepts was very fuzzy since no one around me ever seemed to take the time to define them, and I apparently didn’t either.

So what is my standard of behavior? My behavior has always been determined by what I feel at the moment (digestion/whimsy/a stream of consciousness which I can’t fully divine), fear (social repercussion, physical repercussion, or really repercussion of any sort), pleasure (does this need defined?), and my faith (Christian). And, until recently, I never paid a speck of attention to my own morality. I have simplistically thought of it as something shared by all humans, at a base level. Thanks C.S. Lewis. And I have been satisfied to allow many of my behaviors to be driven by my faith. After all, most faith systems are all-encompassing and all-demanding. The Christian faith certainly is. So, I’ve felt right before God by following the injunctions of the Bible and, to some extent, of Christian tradition. Beyond that my need to please my parents and other important folk of my life has been entirely motivating. My need for people to like me is probably equally motivating. And last, sometimes that second half the of the Nutella jar is simply shrieking my name through the closet door. That’s always a voice I can hear. And heed.

Bonhoeffer is a book I’ve been reading, and he has been challenging my thought. It’s been perfect taking an Ethics class at the same time as reading this. Bonhoeffer was a German scholar/pastor, born into the highest and most powerful level of society, during the rise and dominance of Hitler. He ultimately chose to actively try to kill Hitler, by joining a movement which nearly succeeded. Right before the war ended, he was killed by the Nazis for this choice. Bonhoeffer wrote a work entitled “Ethics” and he is nearly painfully thought out, superbly German and demanding, like Kant, so when he both writes “Ethics” and chooses to try to kill his own head of state, you have to take this seriously.  Bonhoeffer is very good at making controversial statements. In fact, he states at least once, that he does this intentionally. Sometimes I find it too much and ridiculous. But here is one quote I will end on.

“Those who wish even to focus on the problem of a Christian ethic are faced with an outrageous demand-from the outset they must give up, as inappropriate to this topic, the very two questions that led them to deal with the ethical problem: ‘How can I be good?’ and ‘How can I do something good?’ Instead they must ask the wholly other, completely different question: ‘What is the will of God?”

I hope to read “Ethics”, or at least a summary. In the meantime, I have been very piqued/disturbed by Bonhoeffer’s bifurcation between God and good. Not the newest problem in the world, but it’s not one I’m convinced I can accept. Does this not facilitate extreme/dangerous and completely unpredictable religious behavior?