Journal

My last week

Here’s a different kind of post: A list of worthwhile things I read (or listened to, or watched) last week, curated for your enjoyment. I’ll try to post something like this every Monday—even if only as a way for me to record and later recall these pieces.


And here’s a quote I liked:

The aim of science is to seek the simplest explanations of complex facts. We are apt to fall into the error of thinking that the facts are simple because simplicity is the goal of our quest. The guiding motto in the life of every natural philosopher should be, “Seek simplicity and distrust it.”

Alfred North Whitehead
Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947)

Thoughts on the Meaning of Belief in God

I’m a Jordan Peterson fan.

Here’s a quote from a recent chat between him and Dennis Prager.

To be able to accept the structure of existence, the suffering that goes along with it and the disappointment and the betrayal, and to nonetheless act properly; to aim at the good with all your heart; to dispense with the malevolence and your desire for destruction and revenge and all of that; and to face things courageously and to tell the truth to speak the truth and to act it out, that’s what it means to believe—that’s what it means—it doesn’t mean to state it, it means to act it out. And, unless you act it out you should be very careful about claiming it. And so, I’ve never been comfortable saying anything other than I try to act as if God exists because God only knows what you’d be if you truly believed.

Jordan Peterson

I like this quote because it’s honest. I strive for honesty with myself about what I actually believe, and I think Jordan Peterson does, too.

The past few years of my spiritual life have been an exercise in stripping away the extraneous. Specifically, I don’t like claiming to believe in doctrines or ideas I just don’t understand—especially in ideas that don’t sit well with my conscience.

This means my questions these days regard more about the nature and definition of God than about the details of substitutionary atonement or the meaning of the Trinity. I have a hard time professing belief in anything these days (because I can’t find the right words to express what it is I do believe in), though I’m more confident in the faith I do have.

In this vein, I find it more fulfilling to meditate on what God is not than on what God is. Because I can’t really understand what God is. We have words—omniscient, omnipotent, infinite—but we can’t grasp their full meaning in the context of what we’re trying to express. We conjure up imaginations about divine omnipotence, but (I think) these typically fail to de-anthropomorphize our conceptions of things like power and knowledge, and thus cause us to imagine God as something like a super-powerful human mind. But God, of course, is not a human and has no “mind” like ours. These words and definitions point us in some direction, but I’m trying to be deliberate about leaving them there—as general guides, and not precise or all-encompassing definitions.

In that light, then: Do I believe in God? Yes. Who is that God? I really don’t know, but He’s not what we describe Him to be. He’s much bigger than that.

What is the purpose of college?

I like this Twitter thread. Wanted to share here (below the divider).

It’s the easiest thing in the world to criticize a big institution like this. I get that. It’s imperfect, like all institutions—complaining like this doesn’t accomplish anything.

But the average person (who is the most harmed by prevailing misconceptions on this subject) still doesn’t think correctly about college. The average parent stresses for a decade about financing their kids’ college, confuses the purpose of education in light of college admissions pressure, and ends up thinking that overwhelming debt is the only way for their kids to find happiness and success.

Most parents still see college—any college at any cost—as the key to happiness. They’ll say that trade school is “the right choice” for lots of people, but never for their own kids.

It amazes me how far awry this has gone.

But note: The question that kicks this off is an answerable question. There is a purpose for college. I’ll give my answer in another post, maybe. The problem, though, is that most people attending college—or paying for their kids’ college, or pushing hard for their kids to attend college no matter what—don’t have a good answer.


What is the purpose of college?

To educate? None take this seriously now, and the notion that the best way to achieve this end is to warehouse horny young adults together for four years at exorbitant costs while encouraging them to drink is a bad joke in a #metoo Internet age.

To train them for jobs? Perhaps, in some majors, for some students. But any program aimed at this end could be done far more efficiently and on far more equal lines if purpose-built, shorn of the ga-ga of The College Experience and placed in partnership with employers.

To allow our youth to find themselves, develop their potential, discover their place in the world? It’s a lot easier to do that if you aren’t $100,000+ in debt at age 22. I’ll be damned if I can see why encouraging our current cultural bent towards extended adolescence has merit.

To develop an elite class? This used to be the formal purpose, became the sub rosa purpose, and has now entered a strange twilight where measures like this appear seeking to equalize access, even as ever more students attend college and “free college for all” rises as a slogan. Indeed, the fear that this is all about constructing the elite—about gate-keeping access to power and wealth—hamstrings any attempt to address any other concerns. Any call for change appears to be an attempt to wrest power on racial or gender lines, a tribal coup.

In sum, we don’t know what we’re doing, nor do we know what we want. We are stuck attempting to figure out those answers while constrained by the crumbling edifice of a fundamentally medieval institution.

More Than a Dream

Many startup founders go into business to “follow a dream.”

That’s fine, and most entrepreneurs start there. But actually growing a business is less a matter of passion+innovation and more a matter of calculated trial-and-error.

The “dream” is important, but it needs to be wide enough to encompass any means of making things happen — even the kind of tedious work many thought they left behind when they set out on their own.

Surveying your target market is one of those tedious things. And it’s tough — the LAST thing many founders want to hear from consumers is what they’re selling isn’t in demand. But it’s better to LEARN the hard way than LOSE the hard way. And it’s rare, in my experience, that an entrepreneur with enough wherewithal to set out on his/her own is 100% off-the-mark when it comes to forecasting consumer demand.

I’ve seen hundreds of consumer surveys come back negative for a startup, but I can’t remember a single one that spelled complete doom for an idea. Most often, bad feedback can be addressed with doable changes to a product or its branding.

Be vigilant about connecting with consumers. Don’t be scared to ask the hard questions.

Your future self will thank you!

Don’t Let It Define You

Bad things will happen to you.

They happen to everyone.

Terrible things, even. Senseless tragedies that you will never understand. I know this from experience.

But when something like this happens to you, don’t let it define you.

Don’t let it become an excuse for not improving yourself or for not giving something back to the world. An excuse for being a taker, and not a giver, when it comes to how you engage people around you.

Learn from your your tragedy. Talk about it. Embrace it, even. But put it in context, and let it become a part of YOU without you becoming a part of IT.

You may never understand why it happened, but it’s YOUR CHOICE whether those unanswered questions upend your every plan and steal your life’s potential or become a catalyst for bold, powerful action.

As Jordan Peterson says, “Be the person people rely on at your father’s funeral.”

This isn’t easy to do, but it’s important to never stop trying.

Remember: You are bigger than anything that happens to you.

Uber-for-X: A different kind of “disruptive?”

A thought-provoking piece in The Atlantic.

Now, you can do stuff that you could already do before, but you can do it with your phone. What it takes to make that work is incredible—venture capitalists have poured $672 million combined into Wag and Rover!—but the consumer impact is small. Instead of taking a number off a bulletin board in a coffee shop and calling Eric to walk Rufus, you hit a few buttons on your phone and Eric comes over. Very successful companies, the Ubers and Lyfts, do begin to shift urban systems—but only once they’ve been operating for long enough. Even figuring whether ride-hailing is taking cars off or adding them to the road is complicated.

It’s not hard to look around the world and see all those zeroes of capital going into dog-walking companies and wonder: Is this really the best and highest use of the Silicon Valley innovation ecosystem? In the ten years since Uber launched, the phones haven’t changed all that much. The world’s most dominant social network became Facebook in 2009, and in 2019, it is still Facebook. The phones look the same. Google is still Google, even if it is called Alphabet.

Alexis C. Madrigal

But does this characterization sell Uber-for-X services short? The it’s-nothing-new-just-now-on-your-phone angle?

I’m not convinced it does. I’ve used lots of Uber-for-X services just a few times—ones that are designed, really, to replace activities that I’m used to doing. Grubhub, for example. I used it once. I have an account. But I don’t use it several times a week when I probably could. I guess the value added is just too small relative to the hassle (which, I guess, means it doesn’t add value, on net). That hassle being like—30 seconds of button-pressing on my phone? That’s a very small value-added, indeed.

Another issue with these apps is the following (and I mention this a lot):

There’s only so much room on your phone. Apps like Grubhub and even Uber/Lyft can be quite useful, but not for most people most of the time. Airbnb is a great example—I’ve used it, and I downloaded the app. But after a few months of not using, I deleted it. It was just clutter.

I’m guessing most Airbnb users are like me. They use it, and they like it. But they don’t use it that often, because they don’t travel that often. Every few months, maybe.

So what about services (like Grubhub) you might use once or twice a month? Is that often enough to use up space on your phone? And if it’s not, are you going to remember that the service exists next time you order takeout?

Maybe you’ll remember if you reeeeally hate walking/driving 10 minutes to pick up your food. And then, of course, the restaurant (or, generally, product) you chose needs to be integrated with that app. And I don’t think most people like restricting themselves to just one app’s options when picking their food, or most other products (but especially food).

(This doesn’t necessarily have to be about actual hard drive space. I think many people just don’t like their screens cluttered with a bunch of apps they rarely use.)

You get my point.

The question, then: How much has Uber-for-X changed things, fundamentally?

Diminishing “intellectual specialization”

Here’s a quote from this article at The Chronicle Review. I recommend the entire piece. Consider how the ideas here apply outside the world of higher education (they apply everywhere).

As the economist Peter G. Sassone observed in the early 1990s, personal computers made administrative tasks just easy enough to eliminate the need for dedicated support staff — you could now type your own memos using a word processor or file expenses directly through an intranet portal. In the short term, these changes seemed to save money. But as Sassone documents, shifting administrative tasks to high-skilled employees led to a decrease in their productivity, which reduced revenue — creating losses that often surpassed the amount of money saved by cuts to support staff. He describes this effect as a diminishment of “intellectual specialization,” and it’s a dynamic that’s not spared higher education, where professors spend an increasing amount of time dealing with the administrative substrate of their institutions through electronic interfaces. 

We must also acknowledge that the real costs of administrative work are currently hidden in ways that don’t immediately show up on a [company’s] balance sheet. Distracted and interrupted [employees] produce less … and spend less time innovating [in the workplace]. That reality doesn’t directly impact revenue and is hard to measure as a concrete cost and therefore easy to ignore. 

Grief is tough because death is confusing

I used to like watching movies about kids whose moms died.

That’s odd, maybe, but it’s true. My mom died when I was eight. I liked seeing how kids in movies reacted — how they might be like me.

They never were like me.

That’s because movies make death clean. Typically, the whole ordeal appears appropriately sad and involves lots of crying, like in real life. But screenwriters always make clear what’s going on and how it’s affecting everyone involved. When a kid’s not taking it well, for example, that’s made obvious — little Billy doesn’t talk for months after his mom dies, sister Sally literally runs away, big brother might even turn to drugs (so cliché).

But grief isn’t like that. It’s confusing.

When someone you love dies, there’s no telling how it might affect you, and no telling just sad or confused you might be. And if you don’t take it well, no one around you will know what’s going on inside you. They’ll worry about you, be confused about you, maybe even get frustrated with you.

If these things weren’t true, grief wouldn’t be so hard.

When someone you love dies, you might even do weird things.

I can remember trying to smile just a few seconds after my dad told me my mom died. It wasn’t hard. I felt terrible about smiling, but I did it — just for a second, and not where anyone could see me. It was easy. I’ve never forgotten that feeling. It didn’t last long because I almost immediately felt guilty for having the energy to smile after hearing that my mom was dead. I was only eight. For some reason I just had the urge to do it.

I think it was so easy to smile because most of the sadness had already come and gone. Death can be awkwardly slow — especially when brought about by a drawn-out terminal illness. I knew my mom was dying for six months. She told me herself one day at the kitchen table. I cried then. In fact, I cried more in that moment than I did when she actually died. She was barely conscious for the last two months of her life. I remember playing her favorite song on the piano a few rooms down from her hospice and running back in to see that she had slept through it all. She was so drugged up and so skinny and so, so pale. Yellowish, really — the color of the latex gloves her nurses sometimes used when they gave her shots.

So by the time she died, I think I’d cried most of my tears. Maybe I was relieved. It was hard, you can imagine, going through second grade knowing that your mom was going to die near the end of the year. But I honestly believed (and still do) that she’s “in a better place.” Isn’t that worth smiling about?

I digress a little. What I’m trying to say is that death is not clean. If it were, it wouldn’t be so hard. If we knew what was happening, why it was happening, and what it really meant, we’d handle it a lot better. It wouldn’t be so devastating.

In other words, death and grief aren’t awful because we, and those around us, know how awful it is. It’s awful because the whole thing is almost always an ugly, awkward, terrifying mess.

Something else confusing is what to do afterwards. A death happens, but that’s not the end. In some ways, it’s a beginning.

When my mom died, I remember thinking: Should I talk to Grandma and Grandpa anymore? Should I put away the little pictures of mom hanging in my room? When should I go back to school? Tomorrow? Next week? Never? How can I think about her without crying? Would it be wrong not to? Should I just quit playing piano (she was my teacher)? Should I tell everyone who talks to me assuming I have a living mother that my mom is, in fact, dead? No way! That’s the last thing I wanted to do. But then what happens when they find out months later and feel embarrassed and terrible and get overly-apologetic with me and, God-forbid, start ugly-crying in my face?

You see what I mean? It’s confusing. Death is confusing. It’s awful. And grief is unscripted.

I learned that last line in a “grief group” in college. I was depressed and hadn’t really gotten over her death even by then, so I sought counsel with peers who’d also lost a parent (or both). All of them had lost a parent within the past three years. I lost mine 12 years before. My problems were different. Was I welcome there? I didn’t ask questions. Grief group helped, though.

Death is confusing. Grief is unscripted. Read that over and over again. Let it soak in — especially if you’re facing the impending loss of a loved one to some terrible disease, or if your own death is coming up (though I don’t know much about that). Or if you know anyone who might die one day.

Maybe I’ll look back on these comments and regret ever saying them, but I figure it’s better to say something that might help than to say nothing at all. Death is more than just confusing, but it’s definitely nothing less. This is just a good starting point. God knows there’s lots more to say.

Three thoughts on Creation

I believe there is a God and that He created the universe, but that’s about all I’ll say on the matter. I won’t defend the idea that the universe was created in a certain span of time (i.e. six literal days) because I’m not even sure what that means. What’s a “literal” day in the context of nothingness? What’s a “day” if you’re not on earth?

The Big Bang and story of evolution seem compatible, to me, with the existence of God. In fact, the entire framework parallels much of what Scripture teaches about the order of Creation—first light, then matter, then simple life, then complex life.

I’m not convinced Adam and Even were two actual, unique human beings who existed in time and space. To me, the story seems more allegorical than literal. It seems to be about self-consciousness, generally. I’ve heard the Hebrew words used in the Genesis account imply, more or less, that both the “days” of Creation are literal days and that Adam and Even were actual, unique persons. But is it not possible that this was (and is) the only way to communicate what is actually an unfathomably complex story?

An exhortation

It’s so important to listen to those who love you.

Especially when you think they just don’t understand how you feel.

I know this can be the hardest time to listen—when you’re 100% convinced that no one “gets” you. When you’re absolutely sure that no advice or counsel anyone is giving you will help.

But when you’re feeling this way, you’re in a downward spiral. A bad loop. And almost every time, the only thing that will get you out is somebody else.

That can’t happen if you won’t listen.

The older I get, the more I believe the the pinnacle of maturity is the ability to believe others, even with everything inside of you tells you the opposite.

Being able to recognize, in other words, when what you’re feeling inside—no matter how strong—just isn’t a healthy response to what’s going on around you.