My Resignation as Moderator on Stack Overflow and Ebooks Stack Exchange

Why I Resigned as a Moderator

As you may know if you have followed this blog for a while or have followed me on social media, I have spent several years as a volunteer moderator on Stack Overflow (elected November 2015) and a related site, Ebooks Stack Exchange (appointed moderator pro tempore January 2014).

If you are not a programmer, you have likely never heard of Stack Overflow. If you are a programmer, you likely visit it regularly, if not multiple times per day. It is a major site; Alexa.com ranks it #42 in “global internet engagement,” and it has literally millions of registered users. Every day, it attracts thousands of questions and answers about programming, not to mention untold numbers of comments on those questions and answers, along with thousands of user flags addressing on-site problems. Moderating such a large, busy site is both a significant commitment and a tremendous honor.

For a variety of reasons, the majority of which I cannot discuss publicly, I resigned both of those positions yesterday, October 1, 2019. I wrote a post on meta.stackoverflow.com explaining my decision.

This post is purely informational, as I get a lot of traffic on this site from users of Stack Overflow and Ebooks Stack Exchange. Please understand that I cannot and will not provide more information here or on social media than I have provided in the post linked above. Thank you.

Keeping Time

Grandfather clock

When I was a child, I had the blessing of living a short drive away from one set of grandparents. This meant that I got to see them regularly, many times most months, which was wonderful.

One of the highlights when I would visit them was my grandfather’s grandfather clock. I loved to listen to its ticking, its chimes every quarter hour, and the mysterious whirrings and clickings it made each time it was about to chime. For a little boy with an interest in all things mechanical, simply being around that clock was pure delight.

The best thing about that clock was, well, not really about the clock at all. See, every week, the clock needed to be wound. It was technically an “eight day” clock, meaning it gave you a one-day cushion should you be tardy in winding it. But, nonetheless, it must be wound, or eventually it would stop. And so the best thing about that clock was when my grandfather would turn the key to open the door to its front and let me help him wind it.

Together, we would pull on the chains, and I would hear the whirring and clicking of gears suddenly intensify as we raised each weight up to its full height, there to begin another week. For a very little boy, those weights seemed so heavy, and yet I was able to help my grandfather, strong as he was. He even made me feel as though he needed me to help him do it. The whole experience was heavenly, and I am certain we wound that clock many times when it did not, in fact, need to be wound.

Cancer took my grandfather from us far too soon, and it has been more than thirty years now since I have hugged him or heard his voice. I remember him as strong but gentle, wise yet humble, intelligent but happy to lose a game of checkers to a four-year-old, a man who deeply loved Jesus and his family. He was also a war hero, having served his country honorably during World War II, though I was too little to appreciate that fully while he was still here. All in all, he was a wonderful man, and I love and miss him terribly.

A few years ago, after my grandmother had also left this world, that clock came to me. It had not run in years, and careless movers had broken the pane of glass in the door. Though I tried many times, I could not make it run for more than a few minutes without stopping. So, it stood silently in our home, waiting for us to find the money, the time, and the help necessary to make it chime the hours once more.

Today, thanks to the skillful efforts from a clock repairman who is a true master of his craft, that clock began to run and chime again. I am writing this post as I listen to it ticking and, a few times now, chiming in the background. It is heavenly.

With each second that passes I am reminded of my grandfather and the wonderful legacy he left behind. He made it a point to provide financial security for my grandmother, but his legacy is so much more than that. It is a legacy of faith, humility, hard work, diligence, and love. It is a legacy that still warms the heart of this little boy, even as I look forward to winding my grandfather’s clock with my grandfather’s great-granddaughters and, one day, maybe even with my own grandchildren. Until then, I’ll let the clock count the seconds, reminding me of the brevity of life and the beauty of sharing it with those we love.

In memory of R.H. Cottrell, Jr., one of the finest men I’ll ever know.

Resurrecting the Blog

A tremendous amount has happened over the past year, and I have not kept up on here. I’m going to try to provide a quick recap, as well as a vision for the future of this site.

First, the biggest news of the last year, which I haven’t mentioned previously on here: my wife and I were blessed to welcome our second child, a daughter! She is an incredible blessing but has kept us extremely busy. And although she’s very healthy, she had a number of health scares early on that kept us hopping.

Last year (2018) involved a lot of other craziness, far too much to capture or even summarize in one blog post. Most of that will have to wait for some later time; many of the events in question deserve their own post or entire series of posts.

This year (2019) has not been less crazy. Among other adventures, I haven’t had a voice for most of the last two weeks due to a fun thing called a vocal process granuloma, essentially an ulcer on my vocal cords. This is probably a result of acid reflux that I didn’t know I had. I wrote a long, public post about this on Facebook. My voice rebounded significantly over the last 48 hours, to the point that it was basically normal this morning, but it has faded out again to nearly nothing.

Meanwhile, a lot has changed on here and continues to change. I intend to resume posting regularly. I haven’t been posting regularly for a variety of reasons, one of which is cleaning up the site. Over the 22 years I have been running a personal website, 20 of them on this domain and 20 of them blogging, I had accumulated a lot of, well, junk. There were (and still are) a lot of blog posts and other items on here that are horribly dated, reference broken links, and so on. I have begun the process of cleaning those up. I have simply deleted a lot of posts that are thoroughly obsolete or misleading due to changed links, missing context, or other reasons. I plan to finish that cleanup in the near future, but in the interest of transparency am mentioning it here.

That’s it for now. Enjoy the site, and get ready for much more, better, fresher content!

9.11.2001 – Reflections

September 11th Memorial Tribute In Light 2014
Tribute in Light, in 2014, by Anthony Quintano [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0 )], via Wikimedia Commons
Like so many people today, I’m reflecting on the events of that awful day 17 years ago when so many innocent people died, and so many more felt the world had turned upside down. Every American who was old enough to remember that day will probably be processing their reactions to those events for the rest of their lives.

I have very rarely said anything public about 9/11. I have several reasons for this. The biggest reason is that my own experience of that day was very unusual.

Far from Home

I don’t have the same kind of “where were you when” story that most Americans have, for the simple reason that I wasn’t here. I had left the United States five days earlier, and I was in Germany for a week-long training conference. When I first got word that something had happened, I was playing a pick-up game of basketball at a private conference center in a very small village in the German countryside, largely cut off from the world.

Breaking News

The first indication that something was wrong was when somebody ran by on an elevated walkway, yelling urgently. I couldn’t quite make out the first sentence; I think it was, “There’s a fire in New York.” The next is seared into my memory: “The World Trade Center is in the street.” And just like that, the runner was gone.

It took a couple of minutes for those of us on the court to decide what to make of this. We didn’t even fully agree on what we had heard, much less what it meant. Several of us thought it meant that there had been some sort of market crash or economic disruption; others thought it meant the WTC’s occupants had evacuated because of a literal fire. After a few moments, we decided to call the game and go looking for more information.

The Hunt for Information

It took a while to find any. First, we had to find other people. But when we did, no one actually knew anything. We had only one landline for almost 200 people to use, and the few cell phones people had stopped working almost immediately due to network congestion. So, the first fragments of information we got were just fragments. We heard all kinds of wild rumors: both towers had collapsed; neither had collapsed; the Capitol was gone; the President was dead; the President was alive but in hiding; and on and on. We even heard really outlandish things about bombers, nuclear weapons, and more. The only source of information was phone calls limited to 30 seconds at first and later relaxed to two minutes. Facts and rumors given in soundbite form over the phone (with a terrible connection and multi-second delay due to distances) were repeated, misunderstood, and repeated again. In a group of people who were all far from home, not all native speakers of English, and with only one staticky phone line for information, it was impossible to fact-check faster than rumors could come in.

After a couple of hours, we started to catch up. A friendly, local couple down the road happened to have CNN via satellite and had started recording the feed when it became clear that a big plane, not a Cessna or something, had crashed. They started sending over videotapes and summary updates every hour or two.

By the time we were able to see anything on a TV screen, we were roughly three hours behind real-time. This meant that we mostly heard about developments—real and fictional—long before we saw them. During a national tragedy that so many Americans watched live, huddled together in living rooms, classrooms, conference rooms, break rooms, and sandwich shops, we watched on a delay, thousands of miles from American soil. We grieved together, of course, but we did so with almost no contact with family or friends at home, at least for those first few days.

Processing

That conference marked the start of a year-long trip. With the exception of a couple of people whose families were directly impacted, none of us were heading home to family or friends for many months to come. And with the exception of a half-dozen or so people, I had never met any of the people around me until a couple of days earlier.

My little team was in France a few days later, where we spent much of the following year. My French at that point was rudimentary, but it didn’t take much to figure out the news headlines. At first, they wept over “La Catastrophe.” Then they screamed of “Les Attaques!” Then, when it became obvious that America would react with force, they coldly updated us on “Les Accidents.” I had hundreds of conversations about these things with French, German, Spanish, Italian, Algerian, and Moroccan nationals, among others, before I had my first chance to speak in person to anyone I knew at home about them. I felt I had heard the collective thoughts and feelings of the entire world, but only a hint of the sentiments in my own country.

Cut Off

The next year was brutal and surreal for many reasons. We tried to keep up with news from home via the Internet and phone calls home, but we were surprisingly isolated. Many events at home that year just passed us by. I remember waiting for my flight home nearly a year later and picking up a copy of USA Today (not something I regularly read) in hopes of filling in gaps in my knowledge of non-terrorism, non-war events at home. Two of the top stories asked who would be the American Idol and who would be kicked off the island. I had absolutely no clue what they were talking about. Many other stories left me just as befuddled about everything from politics to sports.

For those of us who were abroad that year, 9/11 was a horrifying short-circuit, making it even harder to stay connected with “ordinary” life in the United States. While we wish as much as anyone that the 9/11 attacks had never happened, we also felt—and will always feel—isolated and cut off by that day. Our answers to the “where were you” question will always sound alien, strange, even weird. To some people I have met, those answers even sound un-American or somehow hostile.

Silence

I have mostly kept these things to myself because most people have had a hard time relating to them. In the first few years after 9/11, people tended to react in one of two ways to anything I might say: (1) silence, followed by a quick change in subject, or (2) anger, as if by being abroad during a national tragedy I had somehow chosen to cut myself off from my country.

Reactions in the last few years have mellowed, and now I mostly get the kind of look you might get if you said something completely unintelligible to someone you had just met: an uneasy stare, an unsuccessful attempt to form words, another second of silence, and a sudden shift in conversation.

Why Am I Writing This?

So, why am I speaking about this now? Why does it matter what I have to say? To be honest, a big part of it is just to let it out, to say the things I have mostly kept to myself for 17 years. But another reason is this: I hope it might be helpful to someone. Maybe someone out there is still struggling with their own feelings about that day and feels they can’t share because they don’t have a “story” that sounds “good enough” or “American enough.”

If that’s you, you’re not alone. Please reach out to me or someone else to talk about it.

I also hope this encourages at least a few people to be more empathetic. American life is full of anger, especially around politics, right now. But one of the lessons of 9/11 is that we are all human, and we all hurt, even though all of our stories are different, and sometimes we really can come together in a meaningful way that transcends our tribal squabbles.

If you’d like to talk for any reason, shoot me a note. If anything in this offended you or seems self-centered somehow, please accept my sincere apologies; that is not my intent at all.

Never forget those who died that awful day. And go hug someone you love.

Hurricane Florence PSA for My Friends and Family

EDIT 9/14/2018: Even though the storm’s winds weakened, the water – surge and rainfall – was always the primary threat. It still still is a very serious threat and will be for several days after landfall. Please continue to take this storm very seriously.

NC & SC FOLKS: Please read and share this! It’s not the same old yada-yada. Please prepare now for Florence and know where you are going if you have to evacuate in a hurry. This is going to be like nothing NC & SC have seen in recorded history. Seriously.
 
Hurricane Florence May be the Strongest U.S. Landfall on Record so Far North
f=”https://twitter.com/weatherchannel/status/1039511126407405570″> https://twitter.com/weatherchannel/status/1039511126407405570[/capt
Yes, I know y’all know a hurricane is coming, and yes, I know y’all have lived through other hurricanes. So have I. I grew up there, too. I get it.
 
This is different. Florence is going to be huge and powerful (at least Saffir-Simpson category 3, meaning sustained winds well over 100 mph, with much higher gusts). The rainfall is the real threat, though, and Florence is perfectly set up to be like Harvey: swoop in, bring a lot of tropical moisture, stall near the coast, and drown everything. Even the rainfall forecasts are eerily similar to what we were seeing in Houston as Harvey got close.
 
Y’all are looking at 10+ inches of rain in 7 days over the entire eastern half of NC, and 20+ inches in places. That will flood pretty much everything, everywhere, just like it did with Harvey here in Houston.
Key Messages for Hurricane Florence
 
Please take this seriously. Have supplies (water, food, medicine, batteries, gasoline, etc.) on hand; you know the drill. But just as importantly: have an ESCAPE ROUTE. Know where you will go if you have to evacuate, and know that BEFORE the rain starts falling. Know where the 100- and 500-year floodplains are near you. Know where the creeks and rivers are.
 
Don’t forget to get valuables off the floor and as high as possible. Pull together important papers. Assume you’re going to have to leave everything behind on literally a minute’s notice. I know a lot of people who lived in places that “never flood,” outside the 500-year floodplains, who had to abandon their homes in a matter of minutes during Harvey as the waters came in. This is not a hypothetical scenario; it really can happen to you.
 
Florence Versus Size of the Carolinas
Again, I know y’all know this, but I love y’all, so I’m saying it anyway. You can’t overprepare for something on this magnitude. Please stay safe and check in regularly.
 

Your Smartphone or Your Life

Everyone: please be safe on the road. Whatever you need to read or look at on a phone can wait. It’s not worth dying for.
 
A few things I’ve seen in the last 24 hours:
 
A young man riding a bike and reading a piece of paper, with no hands on the handlebars. He was so focused on the paper that he wasn’t looking at the road at all, ran a stop sign, and turned directly into oncoming traffic, where he nearly got hit by a car. He never looked up, even when the car swerved around him, but just kept riding down the wrong side of the road.
 
A guy driving a car, using both hands to hold a book instead of the wheel, and looking down at the book in his lap, all while driving at full speed down one of the busiest streets in Houston during rush hour.
 
Multiple people running stop signs in my neighborhood at full speed, while all around children were walking to and from school.
 
A lady driving down one of those same neighborhood streets, holding her phone directly in front of her face… with small children in the back seat.
 
A story about a young lady who tried to “go live” on a streaming video service while driving. It cost her life and the lives of everyone else in her car.
 
Please drive when you’re driving. Read, text, tweet, “go live,” or play games later. Whatever else is going on in your life, it’s not so important that you need to jeopardize your life or the lives of your children and neighbors.

Commenting on the State of the World

I have not been posting about all of the traumatic news in recent days—whether political news or news of acts of violence—for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons is that, in my current full-time job, I am a public servant who cannot, for ethical reasons, comment every time I might want to do so. Various ethical and disciplinary rules mean that I simply cannot comment at all on certain topics. On other topics, my commentary would have to be incomplete and might be misleading or confusing. So, unfortunately, I often have to stay silent, in exchange for the great and humbling privilege of working in the Texas justice system every day, in hopes of contributing to the proper, fair application of the law.

If you read this blog or my social media feeds and wonder why I have been silent about these topics, please know that my heart is broken by the news of violence and mayhem over the last few days. There are no words for the senseless violence we have seen in numerous places in the U.S., tonight in Nice, France, and in countless other locales around the world. Whether we are talking about large-scale terrorist attacks, armed conflict, or violence against specific individuals, there is plenty of news over which all of us who respect and cherish life—regardless of political party, race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, religion, or sexual orientation—can and should mourn together. In this fallen and hurting world, sometimes that is the best and most important thing we can do in moments like these.

Please join me in praying for wisdom for our leaders, for peace, for healing for the hurting, and for justice to be done. Lord, have mercy.

What I’m Up to Now

If you read this blog regularly, you know I have a lot on my plate. Here’s a quick snapshot of what I’m up to.

It’s safe to say 2016 is off to a busy start.

Stack Overflow Moderator Elections, Part IV

Earlier this year, I stood for election as a moderator on Stack Overflow, the biggest and best Q&A site for programmers. I was not elected that time around. Yesterday, Stack Overflow concluded another election, and I am happy to say that I was elected, along with two other excellent candidates!

Stack Overflow Election Results Screenshot

I was amazed and humbled by how many people voted for me in the primaries and in the main election, not to mention by the many kind comments that people made. I am excited about the opportunity to serve the community as a moderator, and I am grateful for the support of everyone who voted.

For those who wonder, this will actually have a relatively small impact on how much time I spend on Stack Overflow. Between my work and my own curiosity, I have already been on there quite a bit.

Anyway, again, thank you!

Faith-Based Physics

theory-of-relativity-486718_1280When I enrolled at Rice University, I thought I would dual-major in math and physics en route to a Ph.D. in physics, a university professorship, and a career relishing the life of the mind in the esoteric realms of the subatomic. No, I had known that I would do that since sometime in middle school.

Within a semester, I had doubts that my career path lay in academic physics. By the end of my freshman year, I knew pure physics was not for me; I was considering biophysics, physical chemistry, and other, physics-adjacent disciplines. By the end of my third semester, no majors involving the name “physics” were even on my radar. I ended up, after some soul-searching and a year of exploration and reflection, settling on majors in math and religious studies, the latter with a concentration in Judaism.

Why? It wasn’t that I had lost my interest in physics as a subject; I still haven’t. It wasn’t my grades. It wasn’t even that I was unhappy with the work I was doing.

What really drove me off was this: I found that the kind of physics I wanted to do—the cutting-edge, theoretical stuff—was disturbingly full of hand-waving. That is, the really tough problems were either ignored entirely or roundly dismissed as inconsequential, even if they had potentially huge significance for the entire field. These were problems in which no one was doing any serious investigation—indeed, serious investigation might not even be possible under the current state of the art—but “we” supposedly “knew” something was true. Nine times out of ten, statements of this sort were literally accompanied by hand-waving by the professor or teacher’s assistant making the statement. In at least one incident, I witnessed a Nobel laureate brush off a series of hard-hitting questions in precisely this manner.

This is not to say that no one ever attempted to explain such things. Usually, the explanation was a deus ex machina based on the “standard model” or an appeal to authority. The thinking seemed to be this: If you don’t know the answer, just refer vaguely to the standard model, Einstein, Heisenberg, or Feynman, and the troublesome freshman/sophomore/high-schooler will get the idea that he or she is out of his or her depth and leave you alone. Even if the question was perfectly reasonable. There’s no grant money for investigating pesky “side effects” that show up in 200-level labs but that we can’t explain. “No grant money” means “forget about it.”

With all of the latest buzz about the so-called “multiverse” and, relatedly, parallel universes, at least a few of my beefs with academic physics have gone mainstream. In particular, Rod Dreher has posted an excellent piece about the faith of the physics academy. Some key quotes:

Physicists have a nerve. I know one (I’ll call him Mark) who berates every religious person he meets, yet honestly thinks there exist parallel universes, exactly like our own, in which we all have two noses. He refuses to give any credit to Old Testament creation myths and of course sneers at the idea of transubstantiation. But, without any sense of shame, he insists in the same breath that humans are made from the fallout of exploded stars; that it is theoretically possible for a person to decompose on one side of a black hole and recompose on the other, and that there are diamonds in the sky the size of the moon.

. . . .

I have never quite understood why the “many-universes” theory is considered science, not religion. How could you ever falsify the thesis?

. . . . We assume that the Scientist must know what he’s talking about no matter what he says, because he has studied his field, and is committed to a rigorous methodology and epistemology that rules out what cannot be known empirically. If a Scientist says it, it must be true, because it has either been proven experimentally, or can be.

. . . .

. . . . [C]ertainty in the sense of probability is not the same thing as necessary being: If I toss a coin, it is certain that I will get heads or tails, but that outcome depends on my tossing the coin, which I may not necessarily do. Likewise, any particular universe may follow from the existence of a multiverse, but the existence of the multiverse remains to be explained. In particular, the universe-generating process assumed by some multiverse theories is itself contingent because it depends on the action of laws assumed by the theory. The latter might be called meta-laws, since they form the basis for the origin of the individual universes, each with its own individual set of laws. So what determines the meta-laws? Either we must introduce meta-meta-laws, and so on in infinite regression, or we must hold that the meta-laws themselves are necessary — and so we have in effect just changed our understanding of what the fundamental universe is to one that contains many universes. In that case, we are still left without ultimate explanations as to why that universe exists or has the characteristics it does.

When it comes to such metaphysical questions, science and scientific speculation may offer much in fleshing out details, but they have so far failed to offer any explanations that are fundamentally novel to philosophy — much less have they supplanted it entirely.

Read the whole thing.