The Philosophical Programmer: Reflections on the Moth in the Machine

My friend Lori read this several years ago, when she was a programmer and I was not. I ran across it at the library and thought I could do with a little rumination on my current occupation.

Daniel Kohanski offers a nice historical overview of the computer, some thoughts on writing beautiful code, and best of all, some observations on how the rigid and unforgiving logic of computers is changing the way we (programmers) think. There’s some good theology in there somewhere.

The most advanced work in computers today is in artificial intelligence, which is one way of saying, we’re trying to make computers a little more forgiving and a little more fuzzy. Take your PC out for a few beers; that’ll fuzzy it up.

My favorite excerpt:

At one job, I came up with a maxim henceforth to be known as Kohanski’s First Law of Programming: Something that has a one-in-a-million chance of going wrong will go wrong the first day we go live. To which was added Liff’s Corollary: It will either happen in the first five minutes or just after everyone has left for the day.

Ain’t it the truth.

Credit Cards = Lotus Flowers

I’ve been thinking a lot about Frank’s Kansas book. Mostly I’ve been thinking that he did an excellent job of describing the situation, but wasn’t as conclusive as I would have liked about the why of his thesis. Why do so many lower income Americans vote against their economic interests and vote Republican? Because of class, Frank argues. Because there persists in this country a class resentment against the ‘educated Eastern elite’ — a kind of reverse snobbery that (to my ears) sounds vaguely anti-Semitic. There is, in fact, a kind of basic disregard for economics in this country — at least, a disregard for economics outside the vague attitude of ‘the responsible thing is to balance the budget’ on the one hand, and the monthly gauntlet of paying the bills on the other. It’s not as if the two things are unrelated. But we can’t seem to connect them in our minds, or with our votes.

Maybe it’s because the numbers are so big that they’re unreal. Who can tell me how GNP and trillion-dollar deficits translates into whether I should buy that new snow-blower or switch to that bisaver program with my home mortgage? Or maybe it’s that the Cold War and anti-Red witch hunt of the 50s has permanently scarred all conversation about the politics of economics. Who has how much and is it ok?

Class goes beyond income level of course. But how far beyond? Why is it, for example, that once follks reach a certain tax bracket, their taste in food and clothes and art&music and material possessions starts to look suspiciously like other folks’ in the same bracket, regardless of political leaning, race, upbringing, etc? How did my paycheck launch me into this cultural demographic? Where is my beautiful home? My beautiful car? My god, what have I done?

And why is class so hard to talk about? The St Paul Bar Tour, which had high hopes of prolific, bar-inspired writing output, was stymied when it came to class. We entered bar after bar and at each one, we knew something was different. And it wasn’t the price of beer. It was class. And we agreed at one point on the tour. Class: it’s so important, but we’re afraid to talk about it. Because it touches so many of the things that are painful in America: race and poverty and education and conflict conflict conflict. Stereotypes. Isms of all kinds.

So why is it that a 100 years ago, socialism and all kinds of progressive political thinking was so rampant amongst the lower-income people of this country: laborers and farmers and factory workers and so on. The DFL — Democratic-Farmer-Labor — party here in Minnesota is a great example. This is the local incarnation of the Democratic party, but it’s the union (puns always intended) of three different political threads in this state.

We had a war (WW1) and a Depression (which gave us Social Security, the greatest of all progressive initiatives) and another war (WW2) and then economics seems to disappear from the acceptable American political palette. Or at least, the acceptable palette for lower-income Americans. What happened? Where does the logic come from, that the correct response to the moral turpitude and injustice of the world is lowering taxes?

Frank describes some of what happened in his book. But I left feeling unsatisfied — I think mostly because it felt like his accurate descriptions didn’t ultimately offer an explanation for the greater mystery: what happened to economics?

My latest crusade has been that the revolution starts in the kitchen. Home economics. Where you buy your food, and what you do with what you can’t eat. So why is that idea so revolutionary?

There’s a thread in Frank’s book where he writes about the red/blue state split, and how folks in the red states boast that they know how to roof their own homes, etc. But we all, regardless of state color, shop at Walmart or Target or wherever the local megastore is in your community. It’s as if we have forgotten the most basic home economics lessons: where do we spend our money? Where does it go after we spend it?

So I’ve been thinking that one of the major cultural shifts in America in the last 50 years has been the rise of credit spending. That is, buying on credit. I’ll have to do more research; was credit spending so rampant earlier in our history? I can’t imagine it was. But now we have a whole society built around spending money we don’t yet have. It’s like Sulivan’s line: “the poor are rich with all they do not yet possess.”

So I wonder if in this direction lies the answer to Frank’s central question. We vote against our economic interest because we just don’t think about economics past our own doorsteps. We vote against our economic interest because we don’t stop to consider what our economic interest truly is.

I’m thinking this minute of those stories you hear about folks so poor they can’t clothe or feed themselves properly — but they own a television set. Dulled by ubiquitous entertainment and lulled into political slumber by the ease of my credit cards. America: land of lotus eaters, lulled by visions of Visa vistas.

The Cross and the Crescent

Richard Fletcher gives us a nice little summary of the formative years of Christian/Muslim interaction. And they weren’t pretty. Or simple. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in understanding the current conflict between Christians and Muslims.

It’s a sibling rivalry, similar in dynamic to the Jewish/Christian relationship. I particularly like Jon Levenson’s book on the Jewish themes of this complicated rivalry. The most fascinating similarity is that Christians in the early years of Islam saw it as just another Christian sect — in much the same way that Judaism saw early Christianity as a Jewish sect.

lisnews makes my little career decisions controversial…

the internet is such a strange and glorious place. where else could a little term paper and my decision to drop out of grad school stir up passions amongst a bunch of strangers.

seems my library search got picked up on lisnews.com and several folks decided to weigh in.

it’s not about the money, silly. it’s about my time, and with whom I spend it.

as Gillian Welch once sung it:

never minded working hard -- it's who I'm workin' for

What’s the Matter with Kansas

The hot buzz book in lefty circles right now, Thomas Frank offers a provocative theory on why many American conservatives vote against their own economic interests. He re-frames the current political clash as a struggle between classes, over the rightful claim to who is the authentic American.

He doesn’t spend enough time looking at the psyche of the American evangelical, who he caricatures accurately enough but doesn’t understand internally. The rest of his book is spot on: entertaining, insightful, and I want to re-read it with a notebook in hand.

The Final Martyrs

I am a long-time fan of Shusaku Endo, the Japanese writer. I have read (I think) nearly all of his books available in English translation. I discovered this book of short stories during my recent adventure at the St Paul Public Library.

If you have read Silence or any of the other Endo novels, you might find this collection interesting. He used many of the short stories (and, to be accurate, personal essays) as exercises for working out many of the characters that appear in other novels.

If you read one Endo novel, I’d recommend Silence or Deep River.

If your tastes run more to nonfiction, I highly recommend his A Life of Jesus, one of the most thoughtful and moving retellings of the Christian story that I have read. Note: in The Final Martyrs is an essay talking about the experience of writing Life and he mentions that he re-wrote it, feeling very dis-satisfied with the original edition. I’d like to read both editions now, to see if I can understand his feelings.

In the Beginning

I finished Frank’s Kansas much quicker than I expected (though it bears a more thorough re-read) and picked up Chaim Potok’s novel from my in-laws’ shelf. It got me thinking about the complicated feelings America has toward the Jews who live here and in Israel, and the horrific events of the Shoah.

On that thread, I highly recommend James Carroll’s Constantine’s Sword. I read it a couple summers ago and was all fired up to start a grad program in ancient Jewish studies…till my lack of ancient Hebrew finally got in my way. A piercing history of the Church and the Jews. There are lots of holes in his academic theories, but they are very interesting holes, and his case is very compelling.

books books books

I’m a reader: magazines, newspapers, cereal boxes, flyers. But I love books. Love the heft of them, the smell of them. Old hardcovers with the ragged paper edges; silky trade paperbacks, where the silkiness seems to rub off on my fingers; cheap mass markets I buy at the airport to divert me from the un-reality of jetting across the globe.

Love those books. Here’s what I’ve been reading lately.

Can I Work Here? or, How I Became Confirmed in My Decision Not to Become a Librarian

Chilly November Monday. I circle the Wilson parking lot, vainly looking for a free space to leave my car. No luck. The pay ramp across the street does nicely. Whenever I come to the Wilson, I recall the first time I ever came, in college, with my girlfriend of the time, who revealed the Wilson to me as her favorite place to study. We suburban collegians hardly ever ventured into the city, so the Wilson seemed exotic. It still does. The reference librarian at the front desk is very helpful when I ask about their Middle Eastern collection, referring me to the ubiquitous computer terminals and the online catalog. She shows me how, if I click on Advanced Search, I can specify language, Arabic, if that’s what I am looking for. She assures me that though the special collection is no longer separate and is integrated into the regular collection, it’s still all there. I feel a little more intimidated, as if I should have known there was a special collection. I thank her kindly, and wander. I still don’t know what I am looking for, exactly, other than that I have decided to trust in my own curiosity, and to let my passionate eclecticism [read: attention deficit disorder] have full rein.

I decide that the books will be my focus here, and head upstairs to find an unoccupied computer. I’m going to start my research with John of Damascus, the focus of my first paper. A search for ‘Byzantine Christianity’ yields several hits, and since I haven’t yet committed to a topic, I trust in titles: if the title grabs me, at least there was a good marketing department behind the book, even if the author didn’t title it herself. My first choice: Why the Nations Rage: Killing in the Name of God, by Christopher Catherwood. It looks scholarly (Oxford), and the subject listings intrique: Violence — Religious aspects; War — Religious Aspects; Religious fanaticism. I admit, our last election and the war in Iraq have me saddened and puzzled, and I’m hoping this book might shed some light. I see it’s a second edition, 2002, with “some reflections on September 11, 2001.”

Now I must reveal my secret: I’m a proximity library user. I use the catalog to get a rough geographical bearing on where my interests lie, and then I go to the stacks and browse. I’m ready to be seduced: by a cover, a title, an interesting binding. This comes from so many years in used book stores, which don’t have catalogs and where hidden treasures await those with dumb luck and the patience to walk and read with one’s head craned at a 90-degree angle. I must confess that I know this shows how far I have to go to become a decent librarian, who can’t trust to dumb luck but instead spend time in research before getting to the stacks. Does it make more sense when I say I’m the kind of person who, rather than sit in traffic, will go 10 miles out of the way just so I can have the sense that I’m moving?

So: BL65 .V55 C38 2002 is my new haunt. Whatever I can find in that stack will become my research topic. Why the Nations… strikes me as a little lightweight, both in thesis and range. I skip to the end and read his essay on 9/11. It feels somehow soul-less and naive. Who knows, he writes, the Muslim world might come to its senses and surprise us, just as we were surprised by Russia in 1989. While his core themes — identity, nationalism, religion, violence — are all vital to the conversation about the world we are living in, he writes [self-admittedly] as a historian. A certain kind of historian. I am suspicious. I check the bibliography. Lots of references to Bernard Lewis (how do I know that name?). None to René Girard. I am more suspicious. He underestimates the violence in American religion, coming across as overly optimistic and positive about the election of an evangelical to the presidency. He’s writing in spring of 2002, and he admits it’s dangerous to predict what will happen. But he totally misses the mark on Iraq, saying instead that America’s care not to be overly violent in Afghanistan is a good sign. [A sign we can now be suspicious about, given where our violent energies went next.]

Overcome by grief and hopelessness at the naive optimism of this learned historian, I wander back to the shelves. The first title to grab my eye: Sacred Longing: The Ecological Spirit and Global Culture. Ah, perhaps this is what I have been looking for. Mary C. Grey cites Celtic mysticism, feminist theology, Ghandian ethics, and Girardian psychology [yes, plenty of Girard here]. I’m soothed. A nice line: “a broken-hearted culture” that “no longer desires ‘the pearl of great price’…but merely the pearl” [x]. But my WASP-yness emerges eventually, rankling at lines like “the death of the goddess and the repression of female sexuality” [96]. I might be in the mood for this in the spring, but today is a cold November day, before the first snow, and I realize what I really long for is a good novel.

Back to the shelves. Kierkegaard’s Living Room: Faith and History in Philosophical Fragments. Some people might be bored by such a title; I get all warm and fuzzy, as if my old girlfriend had suddenly appeared in the aisle. Time, space, existential being. Flipping through David Mercer’s obviously thorough book is a nostalgia trip. After a minute, I realize I feel like a character in a Woody Allen film. Meeting his old flame unexpectedly in a cafe, on a rainy day, suddenly falling in love again, then, thankfully, remembering why it was they had broken up so many years ago, the rueful smile and adieu. Back on the shelf.

Farther afield, still looking for answers, I spy Meta-Reality: Creativity, Love and Freedom, by Roy Bhaskar. Alright, I’ll share exactly the mean thoughts I had. I instantly imagined Roy mugged and left for dead, the victim of a violent, tragic and uncreative end after a late-night binge following a book signing at Higher Planes bookstore in the east village. No doubt my own rejection of love and fullfillment, but I have a petty and scurvy heart. I do note, however, that it is volume 1, and there are no more volumes on the shelves.

I realize I need fiction, a good novel to assuage the guilt I now feel at wishing Roy such an inglorious end. But does the Wilson have a fiction section, I wonder, as I pass out of the religion section, past the ear-phoned, laptopped, lip-balmed, bed-headed undergrads. How can anyone read with their headphones turned up so loud?

Has Dalrymple written any fiction, I wonder? I check the catalog. There are over 60 Dalrymples listed in the catalog. I was shocked. I had never heard of that surname before this class, and there is a long extended family of authors. Incredible. But no fiction under Dalrymple, William. A recent book about India sounds interesting; made a note for later.

Down the hall is the Dewey decimal section, the other half of the strange hybrid of the U of MN cataloging system. I start looking at titles. These seem fictional, I think. Here’s one: A Bunch of Errors, by Salvador De Madaricga. A worn book, circa 1954. Perhaps a tragicomic existentialist farce, sure to lighten my mood? No. Instead, lines like “Duro glanced at him with contempuous serenity.” What is contemptuous serentity? An emotion I’ve never experienced or observed. Contempt I know well, serenity less so, but not the two together. Back on the shelf.

I realize I am hungry. A sure sign my patience is thin. Back down two floors and out of the Wilson. Heading back toward my car I see the North Country Coop and decide to see if they have any ready-to-eat foodstuffs. All the alternative rags are there for the taking, and I proudly see my local farmers’ cooperative represented in the freezer section, but nothing I’m ready to snap up and devour. Back to the car then, and on to the St Paul Central library, where fiction abounds and I can be sure to get something at Zelda’s Cafe.

Parking right in front! At midday, even. And Zelda does not disappoint, offering up a spicy chicken enchilada soup and a buttery croissant. My mood lifts. Anything is possible. St Paul, good food, and a beautiful library full of ordinary, unenrolled citizenry.

First stop is always the Magazine room, where I can catch the daily paper and whatever interesting periodicals happen to be in. I grab a recent (11/4/04) copy of the New York Review of Books — and lo! the cover article is by none other than William Dalrymple. What a revelation! Here I am chasing around looking for a topic for this paper, and Dalrymple has been waiting in my favorite spot all along. It is at this moment that I realize that I am truly not destined to be a librarian. My joy is in discovery and reading for myself, not for others, and in the random and unpredictable, the circumstantial and coincidental, not the careful and considered. I find little joy in imagining what others will find interesting, or helpful, or enriching. What I really love is going to the library without an agenda, and finding things that interest and entertain me. Perhaps my calling is to be a library-user, not a librarian.

In any case, I hunker down with Dalrymple. What a great writer. So humane and funny. The article is entitled, The Hidden Truths about Muslims and is a review of several books, including Bernard Lewis (mentioned throughout Catherwood). The first thing I notice is that Edward Said is referred to as ‘late’ — did I even know he had died? I must have missed that lamentable passing. Ah, and here’s the skinny on Lewis: a neoconservative whose theories about Muslim culture have defined current neoconservative foreign policy. I knew I didn’t trust him! Richard Fletcher’s The Cross and the Crescent: Christianity and Islam from Muhammed to the Reformation gets a glowing review. Oh! and even an extended reference to my original research topic, John of Damascus. Dalrymple writes, “under the rule of Umayyad caliphs of Damascus religious practice was freer [than under Byzantine Christianity] and the economy flourishing” [32]. John, and others, assumed Islam was just a heterodox form of Christianity. Tell that to the hawks in the White House!

I look up from my reading and around the room. How good it feels at this moment to be in a busy city library, surrounded by so many ordinary citizens hard at work on whatever their private errands might be.

Dalrymple quotes Lewis saying that the Muslims who attacked the U.S. believed that “the Americans have gone soft.” My conspiratorial brain starts ticking. What if that kind of rhetoric was simply there to inflame the gung-ho egos of armchair warriors, the ones without sons and daughters in the military, the ones who hadn’t served themselves — but who are serving themselves very handily right now.

Dalrymple ends with a funny little bit about English cooking and cultural assimilation in Muslim countries, and I am off to find a copy of Fletcher’s The Cross and the Crescent. I am hoping that the library has a copy but that it is checked out — a sign that someone else is as interested as I am. I am a little disappointed to find that they have a copy on the shelf. Well, it’s mine for the next few weeks.

I finally make it to the fiction room, with its asthmatic ventilation system and the great view of the Mississippi River. I wander again, not at all sure for what I am looking, when I stumple on one of my great favorites, Shusaku Endo, and a novel I have not yet read: The Final Martyrs. Endo wrote several novels about the ambivalent presence of Christianity in Japan and his own ambivalence with his Roman Catholicism. I look forward to reading it. Armed with the latest City Pages from North Country Coop, and two books from the St Paul Central, I head for home, anxious to dig into my reading.

And this leads me to my final thoughts on this project. I have realized that my joy is in reading and in discussing what I’ve read with other people. I have loved the readings for this class and visiting libraries. I haven’t enjoyed the feeling of knowing I have homework to do and exams to write. So this will be my first and last graduate class. I’ve realized, too, that I have a job that I like well enough, that certainly pays better than anything I could find in the library world (a sad commentary on the library world more than my current job). And I’ve realized something similar to what I learned when I was considering the priesthood several years ago. I don’t need to be a [priest, librarian, professor, musician, whatever] to enjoy the fruit of the profession. I still go to church, libraries, concerts; I still read books, discuss them with others, play music, think and grapple with ideas and my spiritual life. I just don’t draw a paycheck for any of it. And that actually makes me feel a little freer, to come and go as I will, to follow the paths that appear before me.

Part book review, part library search, part personal reflection. I think I deviate significantly from the syllabus. Oh well. I had a great deal of fun.


From the Holy Mountain

I just finished a report for my MLIS program on William Dalrymple’s excellent book, From the Holy Mountain: A Journey among the Christians of the Middle East.

The report involved a survey of local libraries with an eye toward if their collections would support the writing of a particular section of Dalrymple’s book. The gist is (surprise!) that our academic libraries are a better bet than our public libraries.

But don’t let that scare you off. This book is mesmerizing and funny, tragic and involving. Get a copy at your local (public) library.