Life, as a story told in Git commits

Coders who are parents will know.

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After Further Review…

I’ve spent a little time in the Stack Overflow review queues as of late, trying to do my civic duty by helping the programming community, and I’ve learned a few things: Continue reading

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Some thoughts on Islam

There was a time that I was mostly innocent of knowing anything about Islam.

I remember learning about Islam in school in the ’80s; it was a religion practiced by a bunch of people in parts of the world I’d never been to, lumped in my mind with Hinduism and Buddhism and Shintoism into the category of “other weird religions.”  My, how times change.

The only real interaction I had with Islam was over the Israel/Palestinian crisis.  I am unabashedly a supporter of Israel.  That’s what being half-Jewish gets you, really.  I’m not a hard-liner about it, but Israel has a right to exist, and I viewed the Islamic world’s hard position on Israel and a lot of the PLO’s actions in the ’90s with extreme skepticism.  The Israelis needed their home, and the Palestinians, well, they were Arabs and had an entire Middle East to live in:  They didn’t need that tiny, tiny strip of land.

Then 9/11 happened.

I remember watching the towers fall.  I was an adult, twenty-five years old, standing in a bathrobe in front of a TV trying to make sense of the impossible pictures and death.  It was like a bad action movie, only it was real, and those dots falling out of the collapsing towers were real, live human beings, plummeting to their deaths.  My father was in Washington, DC during the attacks, and watched the third plane strike the Pentagon out the State Department window.  And then the last plane crashed out in Schwenksville, its valiant passengers daring to try to do what was right, and etching their names in the pantheon of American heroes.

And I remember very distinctly watching, on that very same day, video of Palestinians dancing, dancing, dancing, and cheering in the streets.  Celebrating the deaths of another man.  And I thought to myself — regardless of religion — who does that?  Who dances when another man dies?

In that moment, Islam became a dirty word.

Good men don’t dance in the streets when their fellow men are murdered.  Therefore, these men I see cannot be good.

In five seconds of video, Islam went from a “religion of peace” to an absolute evil.  The Palestinian claim to Israeli land?  Forfeit, null, and void.  The Arabic claims of mistreatment at the hands of Americans?  Voided.  The claim that Islam was on equal footing with all other religions?  An absolute falsehood.

I was then supportive of efforts to seek out Bin Laden.  The perpetrators of that evil had to be found, and stopped.  And while I tried hard to be reasonably fair, it was impossible for me to give Islam an equal shake with every other religion.  It had perpetrated an unfathomable evil, and though there were those who claimed it was still a religion of peace, that the Wahhabists who wrought that terrible crime were unsupported by the majority, the video of the Palestinians dancing and celebrating spun on endless loop in my head, and contradicted any contrary claims about their religion.

But I am a researcher by nature, and I read.  To better understand our joint foe, I read about them:  About the origins of Islam and Mohammad, about the Sunni/Shia split, about its early spread, about the European and American mistakes there in the 19th and 20th centuries, about the birth of Wahhabism, about the origins of Israel and the Palestinian crisis, about Bin Laden and the growth of Al Qaida, and about Islam in its present day.

To my chagrin, many of the things that were predicates on which America founded its attacks in the Middle East in the early 2000s were false.  There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.  Afghanistan was a failed state of guerrilla thugs, not a violent Islamic power bent on world domination.  The Iranian revolution was, frankly, more directly America’s fault than it was anything else, and they had every right to be angry over us propping up the Shah.

But still, I viewed Islam with considerable skepticism.  Knowing it better raised a lot of questions about it, but it was still an enemy at the gates, and it still had to be stopped.  Those 1.6 billion people were all either potential violent attackers or brainwashed accomplices or simply dupes.

I equally distinctly recall the moment my position on Islam changed.  Thank you, Mr. Khizr Khan.

I suppose I knew that there were Muslims in the military before Mr. Khan spoke at the Democratic National Convention.  I saw the crescents at Arlington National Cemetery.  But it didn’t come home quite the same way as it did when he spoke.  Here was a husband and wife, devoted parents who had lost their only son.  Their son had made the ultimate sacrifice:  He had joined the military, gone overseas at his country’s asking, and came back in a box draped with an American flag.  And far from being bitter, Mr. Khan was defiant.  Their family had offered the ultimate sacrifice for America, and the only thing that Mr. Khan asked, the only thing he insisted on, was respect for the Constitution and what it stood for.  Respect for America, for the rights and freedoms and truths it was founded on.  Respect for his home — and nothing about his religion.

He was an American first, and a Muslim second.

That moment struck me.  Somewhere in the back of my mind, I had always seen Islam as an overriding force:  Its adherents were Muslim before all else, and therefore couldn’t really be human first.  They couldn’t be humane first.  And they certainly couldn’t be American first.  But here was Khizr Khan, and he and his wife had sacrificed more for the belief that all men are created equal than anyone I knew had.  Here was a man shaking a copy of the Constitution on live TV, and insisting that it was more important than who belonged to which religion, that its insistence of freedoms and rights mattered more than our petty squabbles, that its assurances and guarantees were worth any price.  Here was a good man holding up that document I hold so dear and insisting that it was worth the ultimate sacrifice — that he had paid and I had not.

Over the course of the next month, my animosities crumbled.  I read and I read and I read and I read, and a decade of hateful walls began to fall down.

Today, I still have some skepticism of Islam.  But it’s mostly academic:  I have some real, hard questions about its founding, and equally hard questions about its early spread.  I have no good answers about the Israel/Palestine mess.  And many of the bad things I had formerly attributed to Islam I now rightly attribute to problems in traditional Arabic culture, such as the region’s abysmally poor record on women’s rights.

But all of those are isolated components.  1.6 billion people mostly view Islam as a peaceful, stabilizing force, and I now respect that as it is.  There’s a tiny fraction of a percentage of those people that are troublemakers, and while a tiny fraction of a percentage is large in absolute numbers when multiplied by 1.6 billion, it’s still a tiny fraction of a percentage.  Christianity is neither better nor worse on its percentages.  Most Muslims want the same things I want:  To have a home, to have a job, to have a daily meal, to have a spouse, to raise their families, to watch their children learn and grow, to live in a peaceful place, to have meaning in their lives.

Which is a very long and roundabout way of saying that I finally see Muslims for simply what they are:  People.

Not evil monsters, not villains, not caricatures, not a violent force to be opposed at all costs, and certainly not the standing army in an impending clash of civilizations:  The followers of Islam are people, other human beings, mostly good most of the time just like anyone else, and neither more nor less than that.

It’s a shame it took me so long to get there.

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Live from a future BBC One

June 30, 2017

[begin transcript]

We come to you live from Balmedie, Scotland, where BBC One producers are about to make an announcement.

Trumball:  Hello, hello, thank you all for coming.  I’m Harold Trumball, the new director of BBC One under Theresa May, and we have a fabulous announcement for you today, just fabulous.  With me is Andrew Scotterpyne, the lead producer on the upcoming Doctor Who series.  Andy, it’s all yours, take it away.

Scotterpyne:  Thank you, Harry.  Good afternoon, all.  I’m pleased to announce that after an exhaustive search, we’ve found a wonderful new Doctor for 2018.  An actor who needs truly no introduction, but we’re so proud we got him that we’re giving him one anyway.  You know him from a wide variety of American cinemas, and although it’s the first time we’ve cast an American as the Doctor, he’s a genuinely tremendous pick, and we couldn’t be happier.

Trumball:  Absolutely!

Scotterpyne:  It’s hard to fill the shoes of such a great actor as Peter Capaldi, but we think we’ve managed to find someone even better, truly even better.  Ms. May herself personally wanted to interview him, he’s that good.

Trumball:  I jumped when I heard the name!

Scotterpyne:  Now I know that the Thirteenth Doctor has a bit of superstition around the number, but we think we’ve found someone far, far bigger than any of that nonsense you’ve seen debated in the press.  So without further ado, I present to you your Thirteenth Doctor, Donald J. Trump!

Audience murmurs and a few people are heard shouting

Trumball:  I say, I say, you couldn’t have found a better man for the job.  We didn’t know what to do — really, how could you top Capaldi? — but then the Americans went and impeached Mr. Trump.  Ms. May called me the very same day and demanded we jump at the chance to hire such a big celebrity.  Money was no object!

Scotterpyne:  Let me say that writing scripts for Mr. Trump will be a highlight of my career.  He’s so good that you can give him a blank page and he’ll manage to make an interesting show for three or four hours!  But I shouldn’t put words in his mouth; everyone, if you could please put your hands together, please offer a hearty round of applause for Donald J. Trump, your new Thirteenth Doctor!

Trump comes out from behind a curtain

Trump:  Thank you, thank you, thank you all, I’m honored.  I have to say that when these guys came to me and asked me to be the Doctor, I was like, eh, what’s a Doctor?  But then they explained it, and it’s a tremendous, tremendous role, and I’m honored to be chosen for it.  We’re gonna have a great series, a great series, it’s gonna be the best series ever.

Someone comes out, whispers something to Trump, and the Secret Service man standing beside him nods

Trump:  Anyway, I have to say, this is gonna be great.  Let me tell you about this series.  We got an all new Tradis —

Scotterpyne:  Tardis.

Trump:  — Tardis, and it’s fabulous, tremendous.  You should see it.  It’s the biggest, best, Tardis ever.  Yuger on the inside than any Tardis before, just yuge.  And classy.  None of that tacky plastic crap, or those white frickin’ round things.  We got all gold, mahogany, marble floors, completely classy from start to finish.  Jacuzzi room off the one side, shrimp lounge, a fully-stocked wine bar, we got Tony Danza to bartend, and he serves up a way, way better Screwdriver than that sonic piece of junk.  And dancing girls, none of those dumb levers and dials, just hot dancing chicks on gold poles.  You should see it.  It’s amazing.  We spared no expense.

Scotterpyne:  Tell them about the Daleks.

Trump:  Oh, yeah, we totally classed up those trash cans.  What, they got plungers and eggbeaters for hands?  Whose idea was that?  We got way better Daleks this time, way better.  Solid gold, and scary, like with chainsaws and hand grenades.  That’ll put your kids where you want them.  Cybermen too, those tin can robots are gone, we got Michael Bay to loan us some of those Transformers of his, and it’s gonna be awesome, just awesome.

Scotterpyne:  And don’t forget the companions!

Trump:  I was just gettin’ to that.  We got the best companions this time.  None of those actors you never heard of, no, bein’ all whiny and crap.  I got Lou Ferrigno for the one, and he’s just tremendous, just tremendous, a great guy, all around the best you could want, he’s gonna be just clobberin’ bad guys left and right.  And we got Sarah Palin playing the rootinest, tootinest sheriff in the old West, along for the ride to meet some aliens and kick some butt.  You haven’t ever seen a Doctor What like this.

Trumball:  Doctor Who.

Trump:  What?

Trumball:  Doesn’t matter, carry on.

Scotterpyne:  That’s about all we have time for.  Mr. Trump has to be off for a round of golf, but before he goes, does anyone have a question for him?  We have just time for one question.  Mr. Neely, is it?  From the Times?

Neely:  Yes.  Are — you people insane?

Scotterpyne:  Why, of course not.  Mr. Putin would have us committed if —

Trumball:  — uh, that’s all the time we have.  I’d like to thank you all for coming, have a delightful Brexit, and I’d like to remind you that whatever you may think of our decisions, however you may consider all this, it’s still far better than letting him start World War III.  Thank you, and good day.

[end transcript]

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A Letter to Donald Trump

I am well-known for never cursing.
I don’t curse, because I believe that it isn’t necessary for most discourse. It’s certainly impolite and often impolitic to use them, but in addition to the social norms, omitting curses forces me to organize my thoughts more carefully than a simple expletive demands. And wantonly using curses robs them of their power: By reserving them, those around me know that if I were ever to curse, something is really, truly, genuinely bad.
So those who know me well will recognize the gravity of what I’m about to say.
As Burke was sometimes paraphrased, “All that it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” And as evils now not merely wander our midst but clamber for access to the highest levels of earthly power, I declare now on which side of the line I stand:
Mr. Trump, when you lie, when you exaggerate, when you apply doublespeak and doublethink to confuse and ruin the minds of lesser men, I promise that I will call “BULLSHIT” as loudly as I can. And much of what you say, every single day of your life, has been, is, and likely will continue to be “BULLSHIT.” I promise to support those institutions which have the greatest skill at calling you on your lies, and to that end, I have purchased a subscription to the New York Times to help fund real journalists. And I will never support or acknowledge the partisan muckrakers of your personal propagandists, Breitbart and Fox News.
Mr. Trump, when you seek the ruin of the First and Fourth Amendments, when you seek to jail those who burn the flag, when you seek to jail people merely for love or for prayer, when you seek to cancel the rights of men to assemble in protest, when you seek to silence those who criticize you, when you seek a permanent watchful eye over those who might think contrary to you, I promise to join the side of right and to tell you to “FUCK YOU,” as loudly as I am able. And to that end, I plan to donate regularly to the ACLU and EFF, so that institutions with the strength to fight you more ably than I will be able to continue their cause.
And Mr. Trump, I promise to remind you, every day that I can, that you did not win the popular vote. You were not chosen by your fellow Americans to lead. Many, many more people voted against you than voted for you, and only through the quirks of a historical anachronism were you ever elevated to power. In a more civilized world, you would never have even approached your new post, much less claimed it. And to ensure that you understand my meaning, I promise to repeat this truth so you can understand it, as oft as I can: “YOU’RE A LOSER. YOU LOST.
I hope not to have to use such language, and it pains me to even write these things; but your repeated insistence has pressed me to my limit. I will not be one of the men who sits idly and lets tyranny range on ’till each man drops by lottery. I promise that I will credit you if and when you do good: But I promise also that I will fight you, with both actions and coarse words when righteousness demands them, for as long as you are in office and I have breath with which to fight.

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Election Conscience

For twenty-two years, I was a registered Republican.

In the ’90s, it was pretty easy:  The Republicans were the party of small government, of fiscal sensibility, of moderation, and of prosperity.  The Democrats were the “crazy hippies,” the tie-dyed tree-huggers who wanted us to eat nothing but kale and drive only solar-powered cars.  And while I didn’t agree with the social conservatism of certain parts of the Republican Party, or the weird racist crowd in the South, those were small fringe groups, and they were easy to ignore.  The Republicans represented centrism and sensibility.

Today, those small fringe groups rule the Republican Party.   It has gone from being the party of sensibility and moderation to being the party of extremism and racism and hatred.  I cannot support Trump.  I will never support Trump.  Everything he stands for is something I’m against.  He is not “classy.”  He is not “yuge.”  He is not “tremendous.”  He’s an overgrown schoolyard bully, a bigot, a strongman, and willfully a fascist, and he bankrupts and ruins everything he touches.

So today, I reregistered:  I am now an Independent.

On the down side, this change comes at a severe cost in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania:  By doing so, I effectively gave up my right to vote in primary elections.  But I cannot associate myself with the elements that drive the Republican Party.  They do not stand for what I stand for, and I worry they may never do so again.

But on the plus side, I now join the most-heavily courted of all voter blocs:  I am an educated Independent voter, in a swing county, in the critical swing state of Pennsylvania.  My vote matters, and today, I just made sure that my vote no longer comes with strings attached.  I can vote my conscience, and no-one can tell me otherwise.

So goodbye, Republicans.  Goodbye, Gallant Old Party.  Goodbye, Party of Lincoln.  You were a good thing, once.

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A Smile Posting!

Okay, so it’s apparently been forever since I talked here about Smile.  Which is sad, because I think hard about it every day, and I work on its code multiple times a week.

So here goes with a big status update.

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UI Tip: The User Is Busy

I’m passionate about user-interfaces. And so I thought it would be worthwhile to expand on a UI discussion I was in on Slack today.

You should never call a user dumb. I prefer to use the phrase busy, one of the great suggestions from Al Cooper’s About Face. I prefer that phrase because nearly all users are not dumb: The bell curve and a whole heap of population statistics say otherwise.

The real issue is that most users are just too busy and too harried to really think about your software or to spend any time with it or to spend any time learning it. They only use it because they have to use it, most likely because some manager at their company bought it and said, “This is your new [X] now.”

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Windows 10

Microsoft really screwed the pooch with Windows 10.

Over the past six months, I’ve had the opportunity to both install 10 and use it on quite a lot of machines.  It’s better than Windows 8, but that’s a lot like saying two broken legs are better than cancer:  You really wish there was another option.

So, look, lest you all think I’m just a hater, I have intentionally upgraded my devices to Windows 10, and stuck with it for long enough to get a real feel for it.  I want to be using the new operating system.  It’s just simply not ready for prime time.

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Server Crash

So my site’s been down for a couple of weeks, because we had a server crash.  By which I mean, “The server physically crashed onto the floor from a height of about six feet.”

I’m now hosting off of a VPS at Dreamhost, who presumably are less droppy with their servers 🙂

I’ll post more real content later, but my site’s back up, more-or-less.  Some of the deeper links probably don’t work anymore (I’m not restoring all of the junk I used to have in weird off-directories), but the blog’s still here, for whatever that’s worth.  Which is likely not a lot, since there’s nobody reading, but still, we’re back.

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