No Phones on the Field

I have been using my iPhone as a stopwatch, and sometimes for background music, during soccer practice for a while now. Not anymore. Last Thursday one of my players brought his phone on to the field as well and it rapidly became a distraction. I’ll be switching to the more analog way of keeping time.

Soccer requires intense concentration for at least two 45-minute periods. These kids already have trouble concentrating for more than 10 seconds on anything. Let’s not make it worse.

The Illusion of Perfection

One of my favorite stories of a political figure is of Jimmy Carter, who said, yes, I’ve sinned.

I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times. This is something that God recognizes I will do–and I have done it–and God forgives me for it.

We know no one is perfect–we certainly aren’t–but we insist on believing others are. Our heroes must be, at all costs. Columbus, for example, who bumped into the New World by an accident of math, couldn’t possibly have been a brutal, ravening slaver. It would not do to admit that the emperor has no clothes or that the king has feet of clay.

After all, he’s just a man. — T. Wynette

Sherry Turkle spends a balanced chapter on the subject in Alone Together, but I’ve since run across a number of snide remarks bemoaning the cultivation of an image of perfection on Instagram or of editing one’s online personality on Facebook, at once more plastic and more permanent. This seems such an ungenerous assessment of how we use those tools, unlike Pinterest which is obviously solely aspirational, engendered perhaps by our American obsession with marketing our personal brand illusion. Why not see these, of necessity cropped, images as snapshot of beauty in the world?

Beauty’s where you find it. — Madonna

At times the entire project of the American Dream seems collapsed to nothing more than envy and covetousness, underlaid by a deep sense of unease. That’s more motivation than one can reasonably extract from the purchase of a large home with a large mortgage and a large garage filled with large cars. It’s exposed more in the frantic scurrying for a place in the Right kindergarten or avoidance of the Wrong school district, anxiety about getting into the Best college or joining the Prominent firm, as each of these choices appears to open or close future opportunity: My children won’t have a perfect life if I eat Frankenberries while I’m pregnant, if I’m not a Tiger Mom, if I am a Tiger Mom. We simply must do the one single right thing, but doubt what it is. The courage of our convictions is lost in the crowd.

There can be only one king of the hill. That’s how superlatives work. There’s only one greatest of all time. But these are terms for comparison within a group: relative positioning, not absolute. The argument over who is the best is absurd without context. Nevertheless, the struggle for position in this tribe of great apes matters. Because shit rolls downhill, one must fight for one of the few limited spots closer to the top of the shit heap. The ape on the top of the heap can’t show weakness.

Sports model society, to a degree. Not all the parents are LaVar Ball, nor do all sporting enterprises target the anxieties of parents, but a number are, and a number do, leading to the impression that one needs to specialize early, that one just has to join the elite academy team at age 8 in order to play in college at 18, if one harbors any dream of playing professionally. Have to be ready when those scouts come looking for the next 13 year-old star. Never mind that puberty happens. One could also move to Argentina and acquire a growth hormone deficiency in hopes of trying out for Barcelona. Not that either method works: Sales doesn’t like statistics that get in the way of money.

What happens to joy? What place has fun?

What if we looked at life, and particularly parenting, as an unfolding practice instead of something we have to perfect on our first attempt? What if we could make mistakes in public? What if we could admit fallibility? What if we could experiment? Does anyone have all the answers? Has no one seen nothing new? Is everything the same day-to-day? Why is it so hard to respect how things are and, at the same time, allow the possibility of improvement? What if curiosity and compassion were stronger than fear?

What if we said yes?

“Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” [Luke 18:16–17 (ESV)]

Slippery When Wet

This weekend I drove a 2006 Toyota Prius into a ditch.

The snow began falling around 11:00. About an inch inch lay on the road, atop ice. The first few flakes had melted and frozen, or perhaps a drizzle of rain had come before the snow. I wasn’t entirely aware of the conditions before setting out in search of lunch. And I certainly wasn’t aware of how a Prius performs in the snow. That is to say, it doesn’t handle as expected.

The hazards of driving in snow are in turning and in controlling speed, both applications of a loss of friction. Without traction, hills present a particular difficulty. To control speed going down a hill, one usually, in dry conditions, slows the turning of the wheels by impeding the movement of the wheel with the disc brakes. On snow (or ice or water or wet leaves) this causes the car to slip, so it’s something to be avoided. Alternately, one downshifts to a lower gear and uses the engine to brake. This method is not possible in a Prius, unless you read the manual. Thirdly, one may use gravity to reduce momentum as one reaches the crest of a hill, in order to minimize peak velocity on the descent. There may be other techniques of which I’m not aware. Conversely, the momentum of descending the hill is needed, again because of the lack of traction, to ascend a hill.

Turns complicate this.

In the movie Cars (2006) a race car encounters impossible situations. He drives down a dark road at night, by the light of the moon because he has no headlights. He falls of a cliff cornering on a dirt track. He pulls a paving machine. He tips tractor cows. (C’mon! One can suspend disbelief only so far.) The missing headlights are a mechanical design decision: he doesn’t have them because the chance he’ll need them is so improbable. They aren’t necessary. But he fell off a cliff because he doesn’t know how to drive on a sliding surface. He has to learn.

The story is that a Toyota engineer drove a Siena minivan through all 50 states to get a sense of how it was used and the conditions one might expect. This resulted in features such as the ability to lay a 4×8 sheet of plywood flat in the back, all-wheel drive, and passenger windows which opened. (Though why it took until 2003 for vans to let their passengers breathe is beyond my comprehension. Did no automotive engineer ever suffocate in the heat of the back seat as a child?) Given the poorly functioning windshield defroster, one might suspect that the Prius was only tested in southern California, but it does have an anti-skid feature which, as far as I could tell at the time, consists of flashing a light and beeping at you — and slowing the rotation of the wheels. Along with traction control, it’s intended to keep you on the road and in control of your vehicle. Mostly. The computer is to assist in handling the skid; actually handling it is up to the driver.

It’s said that experience is the best teacher. I’m not a fan of Mario Kart and other racing games. I’m inexperienced, uncomfortable driving with my eyes my only sense. I lose control and crash. In a car there’s gravity. You can feel the weight shifting and move in concert. There’s more to the road than the speed limit, the angle of the curve, the pitch of the pavement. Cars 3 (2016) is a lecture on the limits of simulator design. There’s more to racing than going fast in a circle for a long time: You will encounter unexpected situations and must adapt to them. Though perhaps even the best simulation, limited only by a lack of imagination, cannot adequately prepare you for the Real Thing. One becomes accustomed to the simulation, prepared for the apparently probable and unable to adapt to the unlikely. In this context, the news that DeepMind’s AlphaGo Zero taught itself chess is important and disturbing: it learns; it adapts. After the novelty of autonomous automobile racing wears off, NASCAR fans may dress up in fancy hats and fondly recall the storied heritage of the sport.

But can they drive in the snow?

Maybe.

Researchers at Stanford’s Dynamic Design Lab noticed something.

[T]hey solved a sliding problem when going around corners at high speed by using data gleaned from the minds of racing drivers.

“We discovered that for the drivers it was an automatic reaction that kicked in as soon as the car started to slide,” [Joe Funke] said, “They knew what to do from experience and just did it.

“The car, on the other hand, used a stabilizing algorithm. When we changed it so that it had a set automatic command when it started to slide it definitely seemed to work.’

They encoded the practice that racing drivers had done.

Number One Daughter (17) has been driving, carefully, for almost a year. But she hasn’t encountered a skid yet. Watching videos on how to correct a skid is useful, but it doesn’t replace experience: the correction for a skid is not like linear driving. Where can human drivers get more experience in edge conditions? Why aren’t these techniques taught to new drivers? Why don’t we teach more than the bare minimum needed to operate a vehicle? For that matter, why don’t we teach high school physics on race tracks? Why is it easier to teach a robot?

Short Circuit

This.

a person at a party, alone in a crowd, awake, walking, happy in the forest

When I first saw this cartoon by Tom Fonder, I thought, “That seems nice, to leave the party and go to the woods.” Parties are nice and all, seeing friends and family, but they can feel intense, exhausting, draining. Time alone, quiet, is needed to recover.

When lifting weights, or with any practice, improvement comes not during the lifting, but after, as your body recovers and builds new muscle and new myelin. Next time will be easier. The path becomes well-trodden.

If you practice.

What if you don’t? Or, more precisely, what if you practice a maladaptation? Suppose you sacrifice form to make a personal record. You can make the one-rep max, sure, but you also reinforced a movement pattern. What are the consequences? Down that path lies easy injury.

This year I didn’t drink anything at Thanksgiving, and haven’t for some months now. It changes your perspective to avoid that haze. Now when I look at this cartoon I see something else: panels two and three. The party has moved from drinks with dinner to raucous laughter to oblivion. How many others need a social lubricant? Who found the quick way?

There are others at the party who are like this man who has left to go to the wood. He is not alone.

For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. [Matthew 7:13]

Practice What You Preach

A wonderful pitter-patter of rain this morning. A frustrated pitter-patter of No. 2 Son practicing his drumming before school. He’s fighting frustration; the practice is hard for him. He does not yet understand that the practice is what makes it easier — with everything. Sometimes I think that’s a novel idea, but it’s more likely a common, misunderstood, and often forgotten one, especially when our art glamorizes the finished product and ignores the struggle it takes to get there. It takes a lot of work to look this good.

I’m an uncomfortable actor. I’ve not been on stage much: in fact, I can count the plays on one hand: God, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, The Fiddler on the Roof, Oliver! But I’m not uncomfortable because of the lines, or the singing, though I don’t think I’m very good at either of those things. I just don’t feel like the other person. I’m me, reciting lines. That’s not acting.

Back when personal websites became blogs, a number of blogging how-to articles sprouted up. How to optimize search traffic. How to construct your personal brand. How to have an authentic voice. I read the same pieces now about one’s social media presence: “cultivate your personal brand on your LinkedIn profile so that recruiters will love you and the job offers will come pouring in.” Seems to me that an “authentic voice” would get in the way of any personal branding or profile marketing I might do, so I intentionally decided not to focus on anything. If I write about technology or politics or work or whatever, it’s because I’m interested in it, not because I’m actively cultivating a particular identity. I suppose that might hurt my prospects.

A long time ago, scandalous behavior ruined careers. Or, if not scandalous behavior, then the wrong opinion, dragged from the recesses of past journal articles, whatever wrong meant at the moment of judgment, not necessarily what was wrong when it was written. Teenage me abandoned hope of a career in public service because standards were too high; it was as if one had to set his slippery sights on high office early in life and never waver from that goal. We call that “ambition.” One had to play a part I could not play: I can be somewhat blunt.

Could not play? Really? Identity is as much a process of becoming as it is of being. We adopt masks throughout our lives: perhaps because we are unhappy with ourselves, perhaps to play a role we imagine the crowd asks us to play, perhaps to play a role in a game, perhaps to experiment with possibilities, perhaps because it is our profession,  perhaps to give us confidence. Fake it until you make it. Practice it. I could have chosen that path, and still could. I could carefully edit this site so that it reflects an image I want to present, and prune out the unsavory, contradictory bits. Keep them to myself. Others do.

Everyone does. “Think before you speak,” I was admonished as a child. Be considerate. Every little thought is not entirely unfiltered, yet. There’s a certain laziness to using expletives with abandon; one’s language becomes imprecise. The sense is often maintained, but exactly do I mean when I call someone a fucking asshole? It takes some discipline to find other words, but gets easier. The same applies for any speech: criticism of any kind springs to mind. It’s initially harder to find words beyond “that sucks,” but even “I don’t particularly care for this” provides more value. Meanwhile, there’s that slight pause, diminishing over time, during editing.

It’s been said that character is what you do when no one is watching, when we are no longer performing — when we relax and lower our shields.Are you a teetotaler in public, but a drunk in private? It’s nice that one can maintain the illusion, but there’s still a problem. Once we excuse character flaws because of tribal membership or policy preferences, then we are tacitly, and sometimes explicitly, affirming that the ends justify the means: that the only thing that truly matters is winning, not how the game is played, as if there are no consequences to collateral damage. Have we lost the sense of how the personal informs the political? Or lost the language to understand it?

You become what you choose to practice. If you choose to practice evil, then what are you?

The Masks, Twilight Zone, Season 5, Episode 25

But I Get Up Again

I didn’t hit publish on my latest until after midnight, so it looks like I missed two days, not one. I could fudge the record by back-dating posts, but I’d rather not. Instead those gaps in the calendar stand as an example, assuming I continue writing.

Everyone stumbles and falls. Some get up and keep going.

How we approach failure matters. Even in this one sentence, this one paragraph, I keep writing even though I’m not quite sure how best to say what I’m thinking. I could wrestle over each individual word used before I put pen to paper, and do — that’s how I normally approach the page — but when I do that two things happen: I forget what I was trying to say, and I don’t write. Why would I even do this to begin with? I’m not producing permanent etchings on rock; I can change words as I go along, or come back later and revise whole sections — and that’s just on paper. Digital ink is even more flexible. But I’ve done this for decades; I stopped writing in a journal when I was 11: my scribblings were defacing the beautiful book.

I recall some author attempting to make the case that these specific lines in Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” were proof that they were a Satanic band, because you can’t get to Heaven on the highway to Hell:

Yes, there are two paths you can go by / but in the long run / there’s still time to change the road you’re on.

Which is funny because this point is made several times in the Gospels: there’s still time to change. We are all sinners, redeemed by the grace of God. As Paul argues in Romans, because God has forgiven you, refrain from continuing to sin, and instead walk in the path of righteousness.

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. — Romans 6:1-4 (ESV)

(Now that I think about it, that commentary on Led Zeppelin hides a temptation. Shall we despair and continue to sin because there is no hope?)

Let not your sins be a heavy burden, but get up and walk with God, “for my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” That attitude applies not just to grievous faults, but to every little mistake we make. As the Zen Buddhists say in teaching mindfulness, and the yogis in teaching yoga, approach with beginner’s mind. Return to the breath if your attention wanders. It is still there. Observe that thought passing through, how you are not your thoughts. Begin again.

“Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. — Matthew 18:3 (ESV)

We carry the mistakes of the past with us, as lessons: The bee may sting if you try to pet it. What lesson will we learn? What will we teach? If we do not risk failure, if we win without effort, is that success? Each moment, this moment, is new. Pick up the pen and write.

Stop the World, I Want to Get Off

The most satisfying work I’ve done has been sweeping an empty room, turning off the lights, and closing the door. Because the work was done. Had come to an end. Fin. Entropy reduced to zero.

Having small children and other creatures living with me, it rarely happens that a task is completely done. There’s one more dish to wash, another sock to put in the laundry, more crumbs on the floor, another meal to make. The work is over when I die. For small portions of life, we can pretend that each beginning has an end. We empty one house before moving to another. What if there’s not? How burdensome!

Stop the world, I want to get off. Button, c. 1960I like to imagine a revolution, the world swept clean by fire before the dawning of a new age. There’s something so easy, so glamorous about a clean slate for starting over. It eliminates all concerns about the moment of transition.

And doesn’t exist.

The other day I watched a lovely little presentation on the benefits of treating infrastructure as code, and managing it holistically, as a software project. It’s a wonderful thought, and one I’ve been an advocate of since reading “Bootstrapping an Infrastructure” around the turn of the century. It’s nice to see the attitude gaining traction some some n years since virtualization made it possible for nearly everyone. But this is an attitude shift, a change in mindset rather than a drop-in replacement for whatever software ails you. What if one, unlike a fancy new software start-up, has existing infrastructure, policies, procedures, and people? How does one adapt to a new paradigm where computing resources aren’t expensive, and the most expensive cost is history and tradition?

Burning it all down is not an option.