Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Ransacking the Pyramids

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, there have been reports of looting in Egypt. People desperate for money have been ransacking archaeological artifacts from museums and selling them over the Internet. Even worse, tombs in Egypt are being dug up as people delve for items that they can sell for money to feed their families.

There are also reports of widespread looting in Syria, where ISIS is doing a lot of the looting in order to fund their terrorist efforts.

Apart from wanting to curtail the efforts of ISIS, why should anyone in the Western world care about this?

The New Testament, as we know it today, wasn't written by a single author and given to us in its entirety. It is, instead, a collection of writings penned by several authors that were selected from a larger collection of writings. That is, the books of the New Testament were curated. For example, the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were included, while those of Thomas, Philip and Mary Magdelene were excluded. The Apocalypse of John (which we call "Revelations") was included, while the Apocalypse of Peter was not.

The early Christian church decided which of the writings were canonical (included in the New Testament) and which were non-canonical. Several of the non-canonical writings that were not included are classified as the so-called "gnostic gospels". While many of the gnostic writings cover the teachings of Jesus, and share a lot of common ground with the canonical writings, they were excluded because they were ideologically at odds with the teachings of the "orthodox" Christian church. People who possessed them were rejected as heretics, and an extensive effort was made to eliminate them.

We've known for a long time now that these writings existed, because the people who sought to destroy all the copies of them in the first few centuries after the death of Jesus mentioned them in their own writings. The contents of these non-canonical scriptures, however, is something we've only been able to guess at, for the most part, based on what those who tried to destroy them have said about them.

In 1945, a couple of Egyptian farmers were digging for fertilizer near the city of Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt. They accidentally uncovered a large glass container that contained several scrolls of ancient documents. Historians later established that these codexes contained several copies of non-canonical Christian scriptures.

Historians believe that these were buried near Nag Hammadi during the 4th century A.D. The reason seems easy to deduce: someone fled with copies of the gnostic documents as the orthodox church was destroying them, and buried them in the hopes that someone would uncover them several years later.

The 20th century was the century of archaeology. Arguably, one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of that century was that of the Nag Hammadi documents. There was also the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls about ten years later, which offer the same historical significance and potential insight to those who study the old Hebrew scriptures as the Nag Hammadi documents offer to those studying the canonical New Testament scriptures.

The implication is clear: major world religions are not static entities. While it might be convenient to think that we understand everything about the stories of Moses and Jesus, it's often difficult to glean spiritual understanding of the teachings of the prophets and the stories in scriptures without an understanding of the historical context. There's a lot we don't know about the time periods when the prophets lived. Egypt and Syria, among other countries, are two regions in which Judaism and Christianity established themselves.

In essence, the artifacts that the looters are digging up and distributing via online sales to people all over the world is almost certainly destroying the pieces of a puzzle which, when studied and analyzed, might give us answers to questions about us, major religions, and ancient civilizations that we haven't even thought to ask yet. Much of this destruction is probably irreversible.

The discoverers of the Nag Hammadi documents didn't know what they had uncovered. A handful of pages were burned by one of their mothers back at home as kindling. Those that weren't burned were sold off for a pittance individually, which left archaeologists scrambling for the next 20 years to track down and recover all of them. It's not hard to imagine that the current looters in Egypt are digging up artifacts of similar historical and religious significance and selling them to collectors on eBay, setting up future archaeologists with the Herculean task of finding and piecing Humpty back together again.

Many of the looters admit to feeling bad about this. They concede that they are robbing from their own cultural history to feed themselves and their families, but given the economic circumstances in these countries, feel that they have little choice in the matter. That some of these looters are using the proceeds from these sales to fund terrorist activities only compounds how atrocious this is.

In the 2010 animated film Despicable Me, an aspiring supervillain named Vector ("I commit crimes with both direction and magnitude!") steals a pyramid from Egypt and replaces it with an inflatable look-a-like. In the film, the world is horrified to see this crime reported on the news, and is in awe of the new villain with the audacity to steal a significant piece of ancient history.

Later that year after the film came out, the uprising in Egypt began. In its wake and the accompanying economic downturn, the region has seen the proliferation of hoards of "mini-Vectors" who steal pieces of this same history for financial gain. A contemporary riddle of the Sphinx might well be: why do we, as a species, care so little that this is occurring, and why aren't we doing more to stop it?

Monday, March 9, 2015

Sacrifice

"If you could have dinner with any person, living or dead, who would it be?"

History has an extremely small proportion of great men and women who are remembered for their deeds and ideas. Far more numerous are the multitudes who pass away into insignificance.

The past is rife with individuals who, though we don't remember them, or even know who they are, chose to give up their lives. Sometimes this is meant literally, and sometimes this is figurative, in the sense that they gave up pursuing their own desires during their lifetimes. In many cases, they sacrificed in the hopes that the generations that came after them might have a better life than they did, even when recognition or glory weren't an option.

I would ask to have dinner with one of these men or women, who lived and died in total obscurity. To spend an hour or two learning who they were and what mattered to them seems meager repayment.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Outlook

I am an individual who tends to eschew tooting my own horn, and I also am of the slow-witted kind of character that, when asked a question, doesn't devise an answer until long after it is needed. But yesterday, I had a friend ask me:

"Jim, how do you develop your outlook on life?"

I thought for a moment, then responded, "Very carefully."

To which I would add after the fact: industriously, selectively, enthusiastically, and (to the extent that my character permits) humbly.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Virtue

Like most questions that really matter, there isn't an easy answer to this one.

I would say this: a life of virtue is characterized by not allowing your actions to be driven by the whims of your emotions.

That may not be the whole story, but it's the only sufficient prologue.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

"Everyone Should Learn to Code"

I've been hearing this sentiment a lot lately. As someone who has been developing software for a living for almost a decade, I like the audacity of the statement. As if software development is a skill that is applicable in all cases, to everyone, everywhere.

Balderdash.

If not everyone, then who should learn to code?

Easy: Anyone curious to learn about how software works and how it's created.

Maybe this applies to everyone, but I doubt it. Most people will never have a use for software development skills. And most people are not curious about things they do not understand.

And why stop at software? Whoever you might be, you really should be trying lots of things. Try starting a business. Try skydiving. Try eating authentic Japanese food.

A better maxim to spread around to people might be: "All the world's a playground."

In truth, software is going to become more and more pervasive in our lives in the coming couple of decades. People who are capable of writing software, and writing it well, are going to have their choice of jobs for years to come. For that reason alone, I encourage anyone with even a trepid curiosity about coding to give it a shot. If the craft of writing software happens to get your rocks off, it's an absolutely wonderful way to earn a living.

I'd love to see the attrition rates of people who have tried it. My guess is that most people poke at some "hello world" code for a few hours, then wander off to do other things. It's really not for everyone, much in the same way that teaching, firefighting, or any number of other professions aren't for everyone.

If you're curious about coding, try it. If you don't like it, don't force it. And if it's not to your liking, and you abandon it, and by some coincidence you become my boss in the future, please don't pretend that you understand it. =)

Monday, August 18, 2014

Edumacation

When I was in 9th grade, I had an English teacher who insisted that if we wrote in-class essays in pen, that we correct our mistakes with Whiteout.

"Why can't we just cross out our mistakes and write a correction next to it? Isn't that the same thing as using Whiteout?" I asked. I mean, regardless of how you fix it, if you notice your own error and correct it, what does it matter?

"Because," she replied. It was followed by some muted brass notes like in The Peanuts.

So I wrote an in-class essay, in pen, then went over the entire sheet with Whiteout, and wrote all of the words again, on top of the dried Whiteout. If you're old enough to remember what Whiteout is like, then you can imagine how this turned out. It was a big, heavy sheet covered in crumbly white flaky material and pen scratchings that you couldn't read at all.

"Why did you do this?" she asked.

"I screwed up every word on the page," I offered. I think I got a zero on the assignment.

In 10th grade, I had an English teacher who would make us read things, then spend entire class periods asking us Socratic questions about the material. This wasn't terrible, but the tone of her voice with every question was dripping with the sentiment of, "Say, is it Happy Hour yet?" It was obvious to all of us that she didn't care one wit about the questions she was asking, our answers, or the godforsaken crap she was forcing us to read. (Although I did read The Count of Monte Cristo the following summer because of her, which I was happy about.)

In 11th grade, the English teacher had a PhD, in what I can only assume was English, and he insisted that we call him "Dr." Not "MR."..."DR." He was making us read Hemingway or something, and he wanted us to call him doctor as though he had helped develop a polio vaccine.

One day an essay we were supposed to have written was due, and I hadn't done it. Instead I turned in an old paper I had written and turned in the week before, already graded and marked up by him, and about a completely different subject. I just crossed out the grade at the top with a big "X" and passed it to the front.

He asked me to stay after class. After everyone else had shuffled out, he held up the paper. "This isn't the assignment, and I've already graded this one."

"I know," I said, shrugging.

He explained to me why this was unacceptable, and lectured me on having the nerve to try and "trick" him. This was more tedious than just getting a zero on that assignment.

My final year in high school, the English teacher used to find tons of things she didn't like about my phrasing or diction in my papers. She would assign 5 pages, and I'd write 5 pages, but you can find a lot of things wrong in 5 pages, especially if you're pedantic about how people express themselves with the language. So I'd get -30 points for all my little mistakes, in aggregate.

My friends would turn in half a page that they'd written during passing time just before class started, and she'd just write "Too short : -5 points" and that was it. This happened all year.

I asked her about this. Perhaps after teaching for 30+ years, she was downright sick of reading high school senior English papers, and if she was cutting my friends some slack because they weren't being as verbose as I was. I don't really remember what she said, but she told me I'd better not start writing short papers just to get a better grade, because she wouldn't give me one.

I never did learn to read, write, or appreciate literature during high school. I learned those things on my own, in varying degrees and stages, before and after that time in my life.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

To An Aspiring Programmer

If you asked me what advice I would give to a young person who is planning to spend their career in a technology-related field, here is what I would offer:
  1. Take initiative.
  2. Make things.
To elaborate on these two points a little: put yourself out there. You have no idea what you are capable of until you do. Start things. Persist in them even when they get difficult.

Sure, that is not all you need to do in order to be successful. There are other things to consider. You need to figure out how to earn a living. You need to figure out how you work best with other people in the various settings you will find yourself in. You need to figure out (warning: thought-stopping cliché ahead) what you are really passionate about. And so on.

The details will depend on who you are and your environment.

But if you do the two items listed above, you will have no trouble figuring everything else out when you need to.