Friday, September 26, 2014

Better Off: Manual Labor

For a number of years I worked at RoleModel Software under Ken Auer. Ken had a little presentation he would do at a whiteboard to explain his vision for the business. I must have seen it dozens of times. He would begin by drawing a big box labeled Now, and inside it he would draw a bunch of rectangles inside the box with labels like Work, Family, Entertainment, Education, Fitness, and Spiritual. The relative sizes of these rectangles represented his estimation of how average Americans spend their time, so Entertainment and Work dominated the area, while Spiritual was shoved over into one corner with a little question mark next to it.
Then he drew another picture called Then and it had the same set of rectangles in different sizes, but now they were all overlapping with each other. He wanted RoleModel to look more like the Then box rather than the Now box. I bought into this vision then, and in a lot of ways I still do. The problem was that I never saw it come to fruition.
Reading Better Off has helped me understand more clearly why it didn’t work out. There are certain qualities to manual labor that make a more integrated life more possible. Brende ultimately argues that technology does not save time so much as it cuts time into pieces. A given job may take half as long with mechanization, but it also displaces other aspects of the activity that would have been possible if it was performed manually, such that the total effect on our free time is no improvement.
The most obvious example is the issue of fitness. Farm work provides a baseline of physical exercise as a built-in. If we opt for technologized desk work, we have to make substantial time outside of work for exercise, or else resign ourselves to the health effects of inactivity. The time required for exercise will often conflict with other demands on our time, such as family and community relationships, spiritual disciplines, etc.
But exercise isn’t even the real benefit of manual labor. Our bodies and minds seem to be designed for repetitive physical tasks. Once we get the hang of it, we can divert our attention to other matters. Brende finds that work becomes a social occasion. He converses with his wife while working in their garden. He gets to know the other men in the community while bartering labor. Even if one does not have a companion, manual work creates space to reflect, to plan, to pray. I always loved raking leaves for this reason.
(I should note that Ken did create opportunities for manual labor on the peripheries of the business and that I never participated in them. I wonder now how my experience there would have been different if I had.)
At the end of the book Brende talks about his life after leaving the Minimite community, and the decisions he and his wife have made about how much technology to have in their lives. One of the most interesting bits was his thoughts on using power tools. He doesn’t own any but he sometimes borrows them from his neighbors. One downside to power tools is that they are loud, which is unpleasant and will tend to get in the way of conversation. Another thing is that they are almost always more dangerous than equivalent hand tools, which makes it more of a problem to have people around you when you are working (especially young children). He does his lawn maintenance using a reel mower and hedge shears.
She said multitasking is a myth
You ain't doin' anything good just everything awful
(Propaganda, Be Present)
What all this makes me think is that there is a line between body and soul that is made for multi-tasking. The point is not that we can’t do two things at once, but that we need to make wise choices about what kinds of things can be done at the same time. If our lives do not include any kind of physical work then multi-tasking can only mean trying to do multiple things at once with our minds and senses. From checking Twitter while having a conversation, to texting while driving, this seems to almost always be a bad idea. (It also seems to mostly happen around screens.) But our physical bodies are just sitting there (literally sitting) like an underutilized resource. “Man found alive with two legs.” I wonder what we could use them for.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Catholic Social Teaching

As an older teen I read an awful lot of Chesterton. Eventually I read What’s Wrong With The World, and changed my Political Views on Facebook to “Distributist”. I thought I might have blanked it out sometime over the last 8 years, but no. I just checked and it’s still there.
But my understanding basically stopped there. I liked what Chesterton wrote and I think I also found something deliciously iconoclastic about using an obsolete (or at least anachronistic) label to describe my position.
As an aside, I recently read this older post from Scot McKnight about Evangelicals converting to Eastern Orthodoxy. He says, “these converts search for the original-est NT church by riding the American encouragement to be anti-traditional. Yet, their restoration spirit encounters the Great Tradition of the Orthodox church as the best form of restoring the NT church so they end up being anti-traditional by being unAmericanly traditional!” Anti-traditional by being traditional is kind of sums up my whole aesthetic viewpoint, which I’m sure I mostly acquired from reading all that Chesterton!
One thing I didn’t do, for better or worse, was search out who else was in favor Chesterton’s vision. I remember googling around for distributism and not finding much. Hilaire Belloc’s name came up frequently, but I never read anything by him. I regarded Chesterton as a singular genius (and I still do) so I think I just assumed that he came up with all of his ideas in a sort of vacuum, and that people since his time had just ignored him.
So it has been kind of a revelation to me to discover that Chesterton was mostly just doing a Lewis-type popular translation of a series of papal encyclicals. I gained respect and even sympathy for Roman Catholicism from reading Chesterton, but never went so far as to read what the church itself taught. (I did think about converting, briefly, but eventually found the theology of the Reformation to be both more convincing, and still closer to Catholicism in many ways relative to my congregationalist upbringing.)
As I’ve started to get this all sorted out in my mind, I’ve begun to notice other evangelicals appropriating Catholic social theory. I just read through this transcript of a talk Tim Keller gave in 2013. This bit from the Q&A:
It’s not just social thought. If you look at Alasdair McIntyre, we don’t have any — evangelicals don’t have anybody who has written anything like After Virtue or Whose Justice? Which Rationality? or nobody like Charles Taylor, who is a Catholic as well.

We just don’t — there is just no intellectual tradition, really, and I wouldn’t say it has changed that much. I just feel like I do see glimmers of hope, but it hasn’t changed that much. We have to borrow from other traditions.
At another point he briefly describes how Protestants can differ theologically from Catholics and yet hold a common view of social justice:
And actually I wrote a book called Generous Justice, and the subtitle was “How Grace Makes us Just.” Catholicism is a very complex phenomenon, but the Medieval church that the Protestants were reacting against basically said, “If you are just, if you live a just and righteous life, you’ll get God’s grace.” The Protestants were saying, “No. If you really, really grasp God’s grace, it will lead to a life of justice,” and that is my view and that’s how I argue in that book.
So I guess I need to read more Keller.

Friday, September 19, 2014

(Meta) Personal Problems

Reasons I often give up trying to write something I thought I would be able to write:
  • I quite accidentally read an article related to the topic I wanted to write about and it demonstrates that I don’t know nearly enough to write about the topic. I begin to form a list of books and articles I feel I ought to read before approaching the topic. The list refuses to stop growing so I eventually give up. I wasn’t trying to write a dissertation.
  • I deliberately do some research and discover that my experience with the topic has been extremely atypical and unfortunate. I would just be complaining about my own personal problems, which is not what I had set out to do.
  • I try to figure out how to introduce the topic and my interest in it but I keep bumping into the fact that I possess no credentials of any kind.
  • I write a first draft and realize that just don’t know what I’m trying to say.
  • I write a first draft and realize that I am writing about six different things and I’m not skillful enough to tie them together.
(I’m the most pleased with what I write when I bounce around a few different topics and I feel like the relationships among them come across satisfactorily without having to be spelled out.)
My latest tactic for avoiding these pitfalls is to try to write shorter, less ambitious posts, and to publish them right away. I also have observed that I am more interested in reading shorter posts via RSS, so I would like to get in the habit, even though I estimate that approximately zero people are following this feed at the moment.
Another thing that I have noticed about short posts is that they tend to nevertheless be longer than I intended them to be. I keep thinking of things to tack on the end.
I do like long-form writing too, by the way, but it is sometimes uncomfortable in a feed reader. I usually toss such articles over to Instapaper, but that has its own problems. This is the point in the train of thought where I briefly consider subscribing to a printed magazine, but so far I have always recovered from this affliction without any lasting effects.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

(Not buying a farm)

Her: “You’re not going to drag me off to live on a farm, are you?”
Me: “Of course not! But there are parts of our modern society that I am increasingly not okay with—social media, algorithmic advertising, cloud services. I find these Amish people stimulating by way of analogy. Maybe we need a New Amish movement. Maybe we need to reject all technologies invented after 2005!”
She smiled with relief and began to express her own misgivings about Facebook.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Better Off: Tools and Machines

One of the first things we learn about the Minimites is that their relationship with technology is much more positive than we might have expected. While they have shunned every kind of modern convenience, they are still (being humans) technological creatures. The author introduces a distinction between tools and machines, which is interesting to me. The line is admittedly fuzzy. The Minimites use all manner of ingenious tools, but they mostly do not use machines. (The author in particular seems to have a vendetta against button-pushing.) They have even made innovations of their own, such as adapting gas-powered farm equipment for operation by a team of horses.
I do wonder about things like the sawmill, the ram pumps, the Pioneer Maid cookstoves. Aren’t those kind of like machines? And I wonder how they feel about steam engines?
One benefit of a preference for tools is that even if there is a mechanism, it is transparent, and so with appropriate skill the user is able repair or service the tool himself. Another benefit is the requirement of skill. All of these tools, from a simple hoe to the sawmill itself, require physical skill to operate. “Unskilled labor” is an artifact of a society of machines. Yet another aspect is efficiency. Because they are unwilling to use the power sources of electricity and gasoline, they have become quite adept at getting the most value they can out of human labor, animal labor, gravity, and fire.
For my part, I think this is a worthwhile distinction to think about. It reminds me of conversations about libraries (tools) vs frameworks (machines) in software development. I wouldn’t come down on the side of tools against machines across the board. But despite the prevalence of machines in modern society, we still have the option to use simple tools in many situations, and thinking about the differences will help us make better decisions about which to use.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Better Off: Intro

I picked up a book at Goodwill the other day called Better Off by Eric Brende. It was kind of a random thing. Usually the books we get from Goodwill are either titles we recognize, authors we have heard of, or at the very least, an imprint I am familiar with (P&R, Tor, Crossway). But this book was none of those things. It just sounded interesting, and, hey, $0.50.
This guy was doing graduate studies at MIT, couldn’t find people willing to engage his ideas about the negative effects of technology on society, so he got married and took his new wife to go live with a group of people he dubs the Minimites—a group much more strict in certain ways than the Amish. They don’t use any kind of electricity under any circumstances, or even gas-powered engines. Eric and his wife lived with them for 18 months, in an exercise of both sociology and self-discovery.
I’m about half-way through the book right now, but I wanted to try capturing some of my thoughts on it here rather than waiting to the end and writing a review. I have found that the more I like a book the harder it is for me to express what I think about it when I am done. And I do like this book quite a lot so far. The writing is always engaging and really quite beautiful at times—much better than I would expect from an average memoir. Of course I’m on this luddite kick at the moment, so the subject matter is stimulating. It’s also pretty interesting to read about a Catholic trying to build relationships with a bunch of Anabaptists.
Anyway, I just wanted to introduce the book so that I can reference it in a few future posts.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Stand and Wait

When I was younger I counted it one of my small virtues that I was not unhappy to wait. I was patient. I’m thinking particularly of the micro-scale patience that would allow a child or a teenager to wait in line without complaining. To only stand and wait.

For me this practice depended entirely on the ability of my mind to wander. I would begin to feel bored, and then I would by habit exert the necessary cognitive energy to find something interesting about my surroundings, or to elevate my mind into some reverie, or to reflect upon recent events, or whatever. In some ways this still feels like cheating to me, deflecting the real burden of boredom by a secret stimulation. But however that may be, at least the stimulation was only produced of my God-given brain, and oriented toward cultivation of the life of the mind.
In recent years I have more often made use of synthetic patience: smartphone, social media, ebooks, podcasts. This is worse in some significant ways. Sometimes it goes so far as to reverse the scenario such that my wife is forced to wait on me because I am not paying attention. Listening to a podcast is probably the safest in this regard, as it does not divert the eyes. There is also the problem that you often get a worse experience of the thing you are consuming, because you have to chop up your experience of it into little snatches. I read ebooks this way sometimes and I expect that it reduces my comprehension and retention considerably. It’s no good for reading things you really care about. On the other hand, if I don’t have something good that I want to read, I turn to Twitter, or a game, or some other mindless thing. The lack of discrimination is concerning. These things clearly have less value than the silent contemplation that I filled these moments with before I had an iPhone.
On the other hand I tell myself that I get through more books this way. I don’t actually know that, though, because I did not track how quickly I got through books before I had an iPhone, and anyway, my lifestyle has changed since then in other ways. It could be that if I didn’t read books in little bits during the day it would be a higher priority for me when I got home. It could also be that I would read faster if I tipped the balance of my reading back toward books and away from blogs and social media. I don’t know if these counterarguments are true, but they have taught me to be more skeptical.
Another thing I value is time to reflect on what I have read. It takes time to decide whether I agree with an author, or even to know whether I am reading them rightly. It takes time for me to let my imagination inhabit the world of a story, and to figure out the characters and the plot forces and how it all fits together. Sometimes I will finish one book then begin another the same day, just because I have a stack I want to get through, and then I regret it because it pushes the first book out of my mind before I was done chewing on it.
The spaces in life where there is nothing to do are provided for reflection. They are there for you to practice thinking and observing. They are invitations to pray. Filling them up with “content” is like overwatering a plant to the point that it drowns. We need air and emptiness.
Your reward for bearing with me: Milton.
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg'd with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best.
His state Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Single Use

In all likelihood we’re not just seeing the death of the iPod Classic, but the death of the dedicated portable music player. Now it’s all phones and apps. Everything is a camera. The single-use device is gone—and with it, the very notion of cool that it once carried. The iPhone is about as subversive as a bag of potato chips, and music doesn’t define anyone anymore.
(Based on his author page this kind of technological uneasiness seems to be a bit of a theme. I feel a kinship.)
There are a few reasons to love the classic iPod. It was a well crafted, beautifully designed piece of technology. There’s something inherently charming about a machine that only does one thing, like a clock or a typewriter, and it is strange to think that the iPod might have been the last mass market single-use invention. It makes me want to own one.
The opposite of single-use is software, by the way. And software I create all the day long.
But the more interesting thing about this piece is that he points out an additional use of the iPod.
We made playlists that spoke to the lives we lived at the moment. Looking at someone’s iPod was like looking into their soul. In their music you could see who they were. You could tell if they were sophisticated or rough. You could see in their playlists the moments they fell in love and the moments they fell back out again. You could see the filthiest, nastiest hip hop in the little white boxes of the primmest people, and know their inner lives a little better than you did before.
I recently went through the exercise of ripping all my wife’s old CDs so she could have them in our shared iTunes Match library. A side-effect, though, has been the further dilution of my own identification with the library. It used to be so tidy! Basically this was me giving up on library management. It had been eroding every since we got married. Might as well go all the way. But if I had an iPod I would choose exactly what went on it out of the shared library. With my phone I just have access to download any of it at any time. Plus I have Spotify.
Music matters to me, but it matters much less than books. For a while I was collecting ebooks, and I still do very occasionally. But now that we have more room all I want are physical books and physical bookshelves. Because looking at someone’s bookshelf should be like looking into their soul. And I wish to keep my soul in order.
I suppose the Kindle is actually the very last.
But the problem with the Kindle is that whereas you might share your iPod library with someone on a car ride, so they could choose something to listen to, I think you are less likely to show off your Kindle library. The iPod allowed you to take your music library out of the house with you, and at least there was a chance you would share it with someone. You always could take a book or two with you out of the house, but with the Kindle you could read without anyone else seeing the cover.
But let’s not get too caught up in the intricacies of products and devices. What I really want to say is that what was really wonderful about old technologies, including even the iPod in a small way, is that they had many uses. These uses were not features listed on the side of a box or offered for sale in an app store. They were just different ways that people used them. Whereas a piece of software is really as specialized and limited as anything can be. Here’s one of my favorite bits from Chesterton:
Cast your eye round the room in which you sit, and select some three or four things that have been with man almost since his beginning; which at least we hear of early in the centuries and often among the tribes. Let me suppose that you see a knife on the table, a stick in the corner, or a fire on the hearth. About each of these you will notice one speciality; that not one of them is special. Each of these ancestral things is a universal thing; made to supply many different needs; and while tottering pedants nose about to find the cause and origin of some old custom, the truth is that it had fifty causes or a hundred origins. The knife is meant to cut wood, to cut cheese, to cut pencils, to cut throats; for a myriad ingenious or innocent human objects. The stick is meant partly to hold a man up, partly to knock a man down; partly to point with like a finger-post, partly to balance with like a balancing pole, partly to trifle with like a cigarette, partly to kill with like a club of a giant; it is a crutch and a cudgel; an elongated finger and an extra leg. The case is the same, of course, with the fire; about which the strangest modern views have arisen. A queer fancy seems to be current that a fire exists to warm people. It exists to warm people, to light their darkness, to raise their spirits, to toast their muffins, to air their rooms, to cook their chestnuts, to tell stories to their children, to make checkered shadows on their walls, to boil their hurried kettles, and to be the red heart of a man’s house and that hearth for which, as the great heathens said, a man should die.

Now it is the great mark of our modernity that people are always proposing substitutes for these old things; and these substitutes always answer one purpose where the old thing answered ten.
(What’s Wrong With the World, Part III, Chapter II: The Universal Stick)
I’m not sure I can express why our universal computers do not seem to live up to the romantic wholesomeness of the hearthfire and the walking stick. Maybe it is just sentimentality. But I think it has something to do with the fact that each thing it can do has to be painstakingly built out of software, and that software is always falling apart, and it is opaque to the person trying to use it. Anyone can pick up a walking stick and begin to discover all the ways it may be used.
When I was young and naive I used to say that everyone needed to learn how to program. There is a charming optimism to that view of the world. It would almost make the universal computer truly as universal as the universal stick. But it is a fool’s dream. Software is too pinched and strained to be universal. It is not worth doing in the Chestertonian sense. We do not wish for people to do it for themselves even if they do it badly.
I think I’m in the market for a walking stick.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

How to See Reality

Joffre the Giant: How To Make Date Rape Obsolete
I think this is a pretty brilliant post. I’m not going to spoil his argument. Just go read it. I will pull out my favorite paragraph from the conclusion, though.
The word theonomy can be a very distracting one. But don’t let it be. I don’t even call myself a theonomist. I don’t want you even thinking about theonomy. I want you to think about this: o Christian, does it not seem right to you that the Law as given to Israel of old should at least teach the Israel of today (i.e. we Christians) how to see reality?
Theonomy is distracting. To me. I’m not sure what to do with it. I have some objections to it, but even its definition is kind of slippery. But what Joffre does in his post is help us conform our minds to Scripture, all policy questions aside. The Bible teaches us how to see reality.
Oh how I love your law!
It is my meditation all the day.


I have sometimes been accused of being a political centrist. I have some problems with this label, but before today it was the most accurate approximation of my views that I have come across. Today I read this piece by Elizabeth Bruenig with introduced me to the term “magenta” for people who cannot place themselves comfortably on either the Left or the Right.
This is to say, there are two ways to make magenta: you can arrange blue and red on a spectrum and ping the middle, or you can have a pot of red and a pot of blue and scoop out what you want from each and mix them. This will give you really different political results.
Of course I like the sound of the second option better. However, as someone who doesn’t go in much for political theory (I’m sure “magenta” has been a thing for much longer than a day!) I don’t really love the red / blue matrix at all. My interest in politics is really a side project to my interest in Christian ethics. So any label or position I might take in reference to contemporary political realities is a profoundly contingent, provisional declaration.
(I tend to get sucked into the whole thing when self-described Christians espouse political views that seem to me to directly contradict Christian ethics. For me this happens mostly on the Right, because it is closer to home. Also I tend to just disregard theological liberals, which perhaps limits the number of people I would describe as genuine Christians who lean too far Left.)
But provisional as it is, magenta feels a bit more comfortable to me than centrist. Perhaps it will be a useful term.