A Tutorial On Redaction

This image has been redacted for your convenience.

Writing software is fun. Redacting software is torturous. It gets worse when the software was never intended for redaction, but you need to redact it anyway.

I’ve worked on multiple projects in the past decade and all of them have involved redaction at some level. The source code, the documentation, the bug fix requests; I’ve redacted every type of digital thing you can think of. Sadly, even after all this time, I’ve yet to find a way to remove the vampiric qualities of redaction which consume the souls of those who perform it. However, I have learned a few ways to make redaction more effective with less time-consuming rework, and that’s what this post is all about.

Redaction, if you are uninitiated into the cult, is a form of evil magic where you remove sections of important information from documents or source code all while somehow retaining most of your sanity. Sometimes, the information is removed because you aren’t licensed to give away someone else’s work, but you need to deliver something that contains the work. Other times, you want to protect your own inventions but still be able to sell portions of your work. You might be allowed to make redaction obvious, printing black boxes where text should be. Or maybe you’ll need to completely hide the fact you messed with the content. This latter approach is the one I’ll assume, because I don’t think there’s a whole lot of value in the former.

What’s the Point?

Stop redacting for a second. It’s easy to jump into redaction work and go through some easy, repeatable steps to get your job done and end up missing the whole point of redaction. Remember, the reason you are redacting is because whoever is receiving the information you have can’t have specific stuff it contains.

Are you redacting to remove terms? Maybe the names of intellectual properties? If that’s all, you might think you can search and replace the contents of the files you need to redact. Replacing terms is easy enough. You can probably finish your redaction work in a few minutes. But what value is there in removing terms? If the people who are being provided the redacted material have any idea what the material was used for, they’ll know which terms were redacted. You haven’t done anything. And if they have no idea what it was used for, why do they care about it?

I’ve found that redaction is time-consuming and tedious, but also an inconsistent process. You can’t write a program to perform redaction for you, because a program can’t interpret every conceivable spelling error, phrasing (especially poor English), or acronym. Searching for terms with software is really helpful, but it only catches the most obvious stuff.

Consider this paragraph:

“The software uses a proprietary component called This Sure Is Awesome Technology. This technology is used to generate output in a comma-separated list, but in columns instead of rows. This is protected by patent Des. 555,555. Our tool uses this tool to turn pictures of ducks into pictures of chickens. Chickens are better than ducks.”

Suppose you can’t transfer This Sure Is Awesome Technology, because it is licensed. And suppose you can’t transfer the patent information because of international law. A search for the relevant terms would get you what you want, but try just removing them:

“The software uses a proprietary component called. This technology is used to generate output in a comma-separated list, but in columns instead of rows. This is protected by patent. Our tool uses this tool to turn pictures of ducks into pictures of chickens. Chickens are better than ducks.”

You’ve left in the nature of the technology in question and the content of the patent. It doesn’t take much effort for someone to replace your redacted text. So what was the point? You need to do this by hand:

“The software uses a proprietary component which translates files from one type to another. Our tool uses this tool to turn pictures of ducks into pictures of chickens. Chickens are better than ducks.”

Here, the meaning is preserved, but not the method, which is the focus of the redaction. Redaction is almost always an effort to protect methods and concepts, so why apply a method that can’t protect anything?

Search, however, is limited. Consider a different writing of the same text:

“The software uses a proprietary component called TSiAT. This technology is used makes row-based CSVs. This is protected by PD 555,556. Our tool uses this tool to turn pictures of ducks into pictures of chickens. Chickens are better than ducks.”

Your search won’t catch every possible spelling error. It won’t catch different forms of the same phrases, especially if those forms have poor grammar. It won’t catch acronyms you don’t expect. If you understand the point of redaction, you won’t consider your job complete just because a search doesn’t return terms from a list of “bad” words.

The Redaction Balance

It’s easy not to go far enough in your redaction and leave too much content behind. On the other hand, redacting massive sections of documents removes any value from them. At that point, why even give the documents away?

You’ve probably seen documents redacted by the government. You know, those poorly scanned pages that have a handful of words floating in a sea of black ink. You might find pieces of information here and there but you might not. Why did they release the document at all if there’s nothing in it?

A better approach, as described above, is to search for terms and concepts  yourself. You, a human being and not a computer, can understand practically everything that might show up in the information you are redacting. It’s tedious, it’s terrible, and it might be evil, but redaction is something you can’t describe in logical terms any more than you can describe writing a book in logical terms. You can’t delegate this terrible work to a computer, no matter how much you want to. And if you are doing redaction the right way, you’ll really, really want to.

Your goal is to remove terms and ideas in a careful way that doesn’t make it obvious that the terms and ideas ever existed. For instance, if you need to remove the section in brackets, do it like this:

“The tool is capable of [feature A], which does X, Y, and [Z] in order, as well as feature B, which does X and Y only.”

Becomes:

“The tool is capable of feature B, which does X and Y in order.”

A hard redaction of this, replacing [feature A] with [redacted feature] and [Z] with [redacted function] would read like this:

“The tool is capable of redacted feature, which does X, Y, and redacted function in order, as well as feature B, which does X and Y only.”

This gives away the fact a feature exists as well as 66% of what it does. If you want someone to know about “Feature B” and not “Feature A”, this is a terrible way to do it.

Acronyms Are Your Enemy

If a term you are replacing is an acronym, things get much worse.

Imagine you have an acronym like RED. That term might appear thousands of times in unrelated words: hundred, redaction, credibility, bred, not to mention the word “red” itself. If this term is just replaced forcibly with something like “Supplier Technology”, you end up with ridiculous sentences like:

There are two-hundSupplier Technology tests, each of which appear in black if they passed and Supplier Technology if they failed, establishing the cSupplier Technologyibility of the claim that the software was tested.”

You’d need to go through these results by hand, which is no faster than searching and reading in the first place. If you left this in place, anyone reading the redacted document would realize that “Supplier Technology” is clearly what all instances of “RED” become. Again, search-and-replace has accomplished nothing.

And this isn’t the end of the pain you will suffer at the hands of linguistic shortcuts. Laziness compels people to turn all sorts of things into acronyms where you may not expect them. And even if you try and expect them, they probably won’t use the same letters you would. This doesn’t even take spelling errors into account. A misspelled acronym is like a land mine of important information you can’t sweep for. It’s just waiting for the recipient of the redacted material to trip on, blowing up in your face. Acronyms are just another reason you should be performing redaction by hand.

Some Precautions

You may have no idea if the documents or software you are writing will be subject to redaction in the future. But if you somehow do know, there are a few things you should keep in mind.

If you want to make redaction trivial, don’t mix different proprietary information. If you are working with three companies, try to keep the IP of each of them separate, restricting interaction to as few documents as possible. You’ll find that this won’t be possible, at least completely. The closer you get to it, however, the easier the redaction.

If you want to make redaction impossibly difficult, use extremely short proprietary terms. For instance, two-character terms like “A1” will show up in binary data in guids, maybe millions of times. Even if an engineer can look through things at a rate of 10/second (which is practically begging for human error), that’s still four full terrible days to look for a term which might legitimately appear twice in its proprietary context. Inconsistent acronyms, lack of spelling and grammatical checks, and images all help multiply the length of time you will need to perform redaction. Avoid these things as much as possible in any material that might be redacted in the future.

Minimal Respect for Minimalism

I think minimalism is overrated.

I could be ironic and end my post with that, but I’d rather defend my view. In the sense I mean the term, I’m not referring to minimalist art (which isn’t overrated, but terrible), where the term originated. Minimalism is one voice in our cacophonous Zeitgeist. It declares “Your possessions rule you. Banish them and rule yourself.” It usually amounts to people bragging about how few possessions they have.

As trendy as minimalism is, I think it suffers from three fundamental flaws:

  1. It depends on a flawed theological view of ownership.
  2. It is a hobby for wealthy people with tech jobs and no one else.
  3. It pretends to make people care less about their belongings while making people spend more time thinking about their belongings.

First, minimalism presumes that ownership is inherently bad and possessions are a necessary evil. On the contrary, and as I’ve written before, owning possessions – including large, maintained, curated collections – is actually good for us. We are creatures who create, and creation requires some maintenance. Especially for men, I’ve found, keeping good collections is a source of virtue. This makes sense; the created world has been declared good already. Why arbitrarily limit yourself when it comes to possessions just for the sake of a trend?

Second, minimalism is not something that anybody can do whenever they want. It requires some serious wealth and a particular sort of job. I see this all the time with people who blog or build websites. They seem to think that they’ve become enlightened by some fad like minimalism or a 4-hour work week, and they write books and articles which make them even more money in the process.

But imagine a carpenter trying to live the minimalist life. A common minimalist challenge is to live with 100 items or fewer. Have you ever tried to run a wood shop with one hundred items or fewer? As an amateur woodworker myself, I own well over one hundred hand tools, let alone power tools. And then there’s all the stains and finishes. And speaking of the 4-hour workweek, exactly how do I build bookshelves at 10x speed?

Or consider a plumber, who probably carries well over one hundred tools in his truck from job site to job site, with hundreds more in a shop.

No one working a trade – or any job outside of the tech world – can do their job with a laptop and a backpack. That’s a luxury for very specific jobs, as apparently is the smugness that accompanies it.

It’s more than just certain jobs which are incompatible with minimalism. The fact is, the worse off you are financially, the more you need to rely on keeping large stocks of things. A wealthy person can afford to replace his overpriced macbook if it falls to the ground. A poor person needs to keep old PC’s around since he can’t replace anything. A wealthy person can afford minimalism because he takes no risk in giving away the insurance of holding extra possessions. A poor person’s wealth is probably not much more than that insurance.

And then there are families, which pose a whole new set of problems. Single men and women might get away with living out of a backpack, but as a father of two young boys, I can barely survive a car ride without bringing multiple bags of baby gear with me. That’s three categories of reasons to dismiss minimalism as a luxury of a particular group of people. Those people are free to do as they please, but it would be better for everyone if they realized just how unique their situation is.

Finally, and probably most importantly, minimalism undermines its own efforts. If you spend your time thinking about how much you think about your possessions, you will not improve your situation by thinking about them even more. Getting rid of junk you don’t want is one thing, but constantly reassessing which possessions you can part with is still a way of thinking about your possessions.

A much better thing to do with your time is to not think about your possessions at all. If you have clutter you don’t like, spend a weekend getting rid of junk you don’t want. Otherwise, don’t worry about it. In doing that, you’ll accomplish the stated goal of minimalism better than any minimalist approach.

You can be ruled by a desire to acquire more things, but you can also be ruled by a desire to control what you possess through minimalism. Stop worrying about it. There are more important things to spend your time thinking about.

Writing Well Means Thinking Clearly

In the three or four English classes I was required to take in college, there were no lectures on the topic of writing well. We “studied” politics – exclusively by reading poorly written papers created by our peers, all combined into a parody of a textbook – but we never studied English.

Good writing is a product of clear thinking. If you can’t get your thoughts into written form, you probably don’t understand what you are thinking about. When English professors stop teaching how to write clear English, they either do it because they are unqualified to teach or because they aren’t English professors in the first place but amateur political hacks. I’m not sure which of these is worse.

I’ve since graduated college, but bad writing thrives just as much in business as it does in education. Thankfully, good writers have addressed the problem before, and yesterday I found an old piece by George Orwell which had me thinking about it again.

…quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to [bad writing]. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing.

Bad writing is ugly, stale, and imprecise. It follows that good writing is better in each way. I hope in my own writing to avoid ugliness, staleness, and imprecision.

Orwell lists a few bad habits that writers should avoid. Business-speak – the dread language invented by people who wanted to seem important by using many words to say very little – seems to be nothing but these habits taken as law:

Dying metaphors … there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves…

Operators, or verbal false limbs. These save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry …  In addition, the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active…

Pretentious diction. Words like phenomenonelementindividual (as noun), objectivecategoricaleffectivevirtualbasicprimarypromoteconstituteexhibitexploitutilizeeliminateliquidate, are used to dress up simple statements and give an air of scientific impartiality to biassed judgements…

Meaningless words. In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning…

A quick look at some recent company emails I’ve received removes any doubt that the sort of language spoken in the business world is one with a passing resemblance to English. It has English words, but unlike English, it’s purpose is not the communication of information.

Consider these incredible phrases:

  1. “distracting instability”: This is pure jargon. It appears to confer information, but it is more of a passphrase used to indicate membership in a group – the group of professional businessmen. Like all jargon, it could be replaced by a simple English expression like “
  2. “operational excellence”: More jargon. This phrase is does not mean what the English words that comprise it mean, which makes it bad. A thing which is operational is in use or ready for use. Excellence, on the other hand, is the quality of surpassing mere goodness and being great. Imagine someone using the phrase “operational red”. The only difference is substituting one quality with another. It doesn’t make any sense, either.
  3. “get the ball rolling”: A metaphor that can always be replaced by the word “start”.
  4. “bubbled to the top”: There are few more complicated or less clever ways to say “rose”.
  5. “compliant to the ever-evolving requirements related to this area”: The end of the phrase (“related to this area”) is redundant. Was there any question the requirements were related to what we’re already talking about?
  6. “opportunities for growth”: More redundancy. The word “opportunities” gets to the point without the botany reference.
  7. “tackle this challenge”: This is not only a dying metaphor, but a bad one in the first place. You don’t “tackle challenges”. Challenges are abstract, and tackling is a physical act.
  8. “eliminating potential delays”: Since potential delays, being potential and not actual, do not actually exist, it seems impossible to know what they are, let alone to eliminate them.
  9. “a ticket to entry toward building a partnership”: Another dying metaphor, this time used to pad a sentence toward artificial importance. The entire phrase “a ticket to entry toward” could be replaced with the single-syllable word “start”. Does the author know that English has such a word available?
  10. “this will allow us to ensure we not only enable”: We will do something. What will we do? We will be allowed. What will be allowed? We will be allowed to ensure. What will we be allowed to ensure? That we not only enable, but also do something else. All that this phrase adds is confusing layers of verbs. Is that a useful device in other languages?
  11. “working to leverage”: The word “leverage”, outside of physics, can always (ALWAYS) be replaced with the word “use”. And it always (ALWAYS) should be.

I’m probably guilty of business-speak and other errors in writing. This is especially so because I didn’t realize just how bad business-speak was until years after I began being forced to read it.

Useful to me, and hopefully useful to you, Orwell gives a list rules to keep in mind as you write:

i. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

ii. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

iii. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

iv. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

v. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Orwell’s purpose for expounding the virtue of good writing is to avoid the political manipulation that requires bad writing to hide bad thinking. This same sort of motivation exists in the business world. Business-speak is used to hide things – ignorance, motivations, lies, manipulation, information – from readers by making those readers feel they’ve been told something important and informative.

The Travel and Leisure Gospel

Want to travel around the world, doing whatever you want, avoiding work and the commitments of life? What if I told you that you could do those things and still be totally spiritual about it. And not any new-age spirituality (well, maybe a little). You can actually claim that you are following God’s calling.

Here’s an article I found that claims all of that. What follows is my best attempt to show how bad it is. Warning: As I go on responding to the article, my sarcasm grows. I can’t help it.

I’m going to share the two types of freedom that i’m pursuing. I’m already free on the inside(see: The Gospel), but there are external freedoms that I believe God is calling me to, and I’m going to run after it with everything I’ve got.

This is probably all the warning that is needed for the article. The Gospel has been isolated to an internal change and freedom has been framed as the ability to act on one’s desires (well, as long as we believe “God is calling us”). The Gospel is everything, though. It grants freedom from sin and freedom to love God. This freedom was present for Paul, who sat in Roman prisons, and for Stephen who was stoned to death. Neither of them were concerned with their desires to go on exotic vacations.

What is location independence? It’s the freedom to go anywhere you want, whenever you want, for however long you want without having to ask anybody(except maybe your spouse).

This isn’t the sort of freedom that Christianity has ever taught. I have a family with children, and I have friends, family, church members, and customers who depend on me so that I can’t just take off whenever I want. Responsibility is not the opposite of freedom; it’s part of the same package. My commitments don’t take away my freedom as a result.

If you are so “free” that you can walk away from everything without impacting anyone, that’s more evidence that you are useless to those around you than that you have some sort of freedom.

If you can take your work with you anywhere in the world, then you are, simply put, location independent. This is my main priority at the time of writing this.

This bars you from being a doctor, a nurse, a construction worker, a plumber, an electrician, a farmer, a truck driver, a pilot, a factory worker, or any number of other jobs your presence is required for. Outside of technology, you don’t have a whole lot of opportunities here.

It’s important to keep in mind that adventure-seekers depend on the other 99% of people who work to keep toilets and lights working, research and apply medicine, extract the materials and food they consume, and operate the transportation they use. If even a measurable portion of society lived like this, it would be impossible. This sort of lifestyle depends on very few people taking it seriously.

It’s not even about not working. It’s about having options. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having a “normal” job. If you enjoy it, keep doing it! But what would you do if you didn’t have to work? Maybe travel a lot. Maybe spend more time helping your church grow. Maybe raise your kids and be the biggest influence in their lives. Maybe join or start a nonprofit helping to make the world a better place. Or maybe you keep working because you enjoy it, and it gets even better when you choose to be rather than having to be there.

This is a totally postmodern view of work, and it is antithetical to Christianity. Earlier, the author of this article made a big deal about God’s “calling”. This is the meaning of the more historical “vocation”. But vocation doesn’t mean doing whatever you feel like doing and stamping God’s approval on it. Classically – as far back as the days of the Apostles and even before in Judaism – vocation was the work you did on behalf of others, for which payment was a symbol of the value you provided.

The author of this article is convinced that normal work is a necessary evil that we need to pursue to fuel our real desires. But even before sin entered the world in the garden, mankind was made for work. Our vocations are essential to our natures. Traveling around the world is a luxury resulting from our record-breaking wealth.

I have ideas of helping to set women and children free from sex slavery, giving orphaned children a home and a family, bringing the gospel to all corners of the Earth, saving the planet from environmental destruction, and so much more.

The author makes sure to include some pious things in the list of things he desires to do while globe-trotting. Else, it might sound selfish (a word that only appears once in an article that seems to be about nothing else, and which is immediately dismissed). The fact is, this guy knows nothing about sex trafficking, and travelling the globe is not how you stop it. As for “environmental destruction”, it’s ironic given his beliefs about this how much fuel he’ll be depending on.

There’s a lot I want to do with my life. And a lot of things are pretty much impossible if I’ve got to show up to my workplace in Grand Rapids every monday morning, ya know?

Showing up to work might be the vocation of virtually everyone else who has ever lived, but not for this guy. It’s just beneath his dreams of walking on the Great Wall and drinking coffee around the world. Oh, and stopping sex trafficking.

Maybe, as I travel across Thailand and work from my laptop in different cafes in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, I’ll be able to build relationships with baristas. Maybe a connection can be established over a genuine love for coffee and in those relationships I can bring the gospel to them because I’M THERE.

Just like the Apostle Paul, establishing churches by drinking coffee and sometimes talking about the Gospel with baristas. I’m sure these isolated experiences will produce healthy bodies of believers. Can you imagine ending sex trafficking and being a missionary all by drinking coffee in a bunch of coffee shops? Can’t do those things in the United States though, because the pictures on social media wouldn’t attract as many followers.

Maybe I’ll spend a few weeks backpacking in the Himalayas for no other reason than I want to. Do you need a spiritual reason to go and experience a beautiful corner of the earth that God created so perfectly? I don’t think so. I think wanting to go somewhere just to go somewhere is totally valid. And I want to be able to act on that.

Even if he can’t find a possible excuse for God to be his reason for going somewhere, he’ll still cram God in. It’s all about God! This is selfless.

I think God is raising up a people who can wake up in the morning, ask God what he wants them to do, and then go do it.

I think it’s a bit presumptuous to think God is raising people up to avoid commitments and responsibilities. This sounds a lot more like people raising their selfishness up by adding references to God every few sentences.

 Spend less(because let’s be honest, we Americans live ridiculous lives)

The irony of a wealthy American thinking God is calling him to travel the globe every day while simultaneously criticizing the way Americans live is not lost on me as it is on the author.

So what does Jesus actually call us to?

Suffering: “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

Self-denial: “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”

The world’s hatred: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you”

The Case for Jesus

I am trying to replace my bad habit of watching YouTube videos on unimportant things with a better habit of watching lectures instead. One of my favorite so far is this presentation on the Case for Jesus by J.P. Moreland.

There’s nothing I can add, so I’ll just let him speak for himself:

Impractical Ugliness

There was a building I worked in for about five years that had a flat roof, a plain and industrial exterior, and buckets scattered about the halls and rooms. These buckets collected the rainwater that would seep through the roof of the building, which seemed to be a problem even with repairs and replacements happening almost yearly.

As I’ve written about previously, beauty is not merely subjective, and architecture provides a great demonstration of that fact. Modern buildings are often ugly, industrial, inhuman, and – as a side-effect of being ugly – impractical. A library at a nearby university has metal growths protruding from around the only windows, blocking most of the light from getting in. This was done intentionally for “stylistic” reasons. To paraphrase a quote I can’t quite remember: “The only societies which claim that beauty is subjective are those which aren’t talented enough to create beauty”.

Talent is part of it, and so is patience, and so is philosophy. If you are taught in art or architecture school that beauty is subjective, you’ll start acting like it. Things need not be true in order for students to be indoctrinated to believe them.

When you compare the typical modern industrial building with even a 19th century factory, you find that the modern buildings tend to be less sophisticated in design. Just as with much of modern art, sophisticated modern architecture looks like it required less labor, less design, less imagination, and less wisdom. This seems to be the intent, though. As ugly as modern structures usually are, architects still design them that way.

The cathedrals of the late medieval period are my favorite contradiction to modern ugliness. Every detail – large and small – has a purpose. The height, the width, the flying buttresses, the towers, the great rooms; these inspire awe and a sense of humility. The stained glass reminds us of great truths and that the truth is beautiful. The crenelations and detailed stonework show us that skilled artisans and craftsmen were at work; not mere laborers. These were men – often multiple generations of men – whose skill is on display for centuries. These cathedrals do not leak. They let enough light in during the day. They do not collapse.

Compare this to our modern industrial buildings which disappear after a few decades without anyone remembering them. Most of all, compare the fact that our cultural desire for ugliness is so strong that we want flat roofs on our buildings despite universal knowledge that it rains.

Digital Limitations

If you’ve never heard of the Art of Manliness, you need to head over and check it out. It’s one of the best sites around. Thanks to a culture that demeans masculinity more every year and devalues fathers and husbands, we really need content like the Art of Manliness provides.

The AoM Podcast (which you should subscribe to) recently featured a book by David Sax called The Revenge of the Analog. I haven’t read the book, but the interview was thorough, and I got the impression that author has a pretty good idea of the situation he is describing. The essential point he makes in the book is that, despite the benefits of digital technology, people are increasingly moving away from digital approaches to doing things that can be done by hand. A few examples he offers are:

  • A demand for vinyl records that has caused a rebirth of the record pressing and distribution industries.
  • Paper planners, calendars, and pocket notes.
  • Physical books dominating an industry that was “fated”, according to experts several years ago, to be entirely digital by now.

He made the important point during the interview that these things aren’t simply an example of hipsters wanting to differentiate themselves. Most of these things are being purchased and used by all kinds of people, and the industries making them are growing; a sign that this is a mainstream phenomenon. It’s also a phenomenon the author discovered first-hand.

David Sax relates a story during the podcast about how he and a roommate had set up a digital music system through their home to stream audio from a computer. They suddenly had access to any music they wanted at any time in any room they wanted it with a couple of clicks. Within a few weeks, the amount of music that was actually played had dropped to almost nothing. There was something about the digital approach that made listening to music lose its appeal.

The interview shifted from descriptions of the phenomenon to explanations early on, and I agree with several of the points the author made. First of all, the move away from digital products isn’t caused by a single force. There are all sorts of different reasons and they vary depending on who you talk to. Second, very few people are interested in giving up every digital luxury they have. Instead, it seems that people want a balance that doesn’t exclude physical objects, and that in many cases (but not all), physical objects are preferred.

The motivations for these preferences were described as irrational, which was about the only thing I disagreed with. It’s true that people give up some convenience and features by choosing physical objects instead of digital replacements, but I think the choice is rational. In fact, I think the choice is spiritual. This was an element that I didn’t hear in the interview, but which may be in the book.

From a Christian perspective, I can affirm the tangible benefits of reading a physical book over a digital book, for instance (it’s easier to remember the content when you can imagine the book; books allow for note-taking; books don’t require power). But there are certain intangible benefits that I think are spiritual in nature that I think the Christian worldview can account for.

God created the physical world and He called it Good. It’s His Creation, after all. There’s something in our human natures that makes us appreciate physical objects. There’s something in the nature of men especially, I’ve found, that makes us appreciate collections of physical objects and their maintenance and organization. In a fallen world and with our human nature corrupted so that we can fall into sin by coveting what others have, by being inordinately proud of what we own, by thinking ourselves better than others for our possessions, or by thinking that physical things are ultimate. These are terrible things and we need to carefully avoid each of them. But these are sinful precisely because they corrupt something good. And what is good is human beings creatively making things like their Father before them and maintaining Creation. There’s something about physically sensing a book through sight, touch, and smell which reminds us of the creative process and which lets us maintain Creation itself in a small way. That isn’t to say that digital incarnations are somehow bad or not a result of human creativity, but that physical objects have a benefit that can’t really be transferred to digital counterparts.

I think the “revenge of the analog” is a small symptom of a larger desire that our civilization has to move back to something more concrete, universal, and objective. People have been jaded by promises that we can control everything about ourselves and our natures which aren’t true. The same movement is seen in the increased interest in liturgy in churches, in Christianity in philosophy departments, in more interest being generated for trades than graduate degrees, and even in a booming board game industry.

It seems like we’ve reached the tipping point in our world where enough people are ready to move back to more permanent things that even people not paying attention to them are starting to notice the effects. And this is a good thing.

Beauty and Difficulty

One thing I ask from the LORD, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.  – Psalm 27:4

I once overheard an artist who, while looking at a detailed and realistic painting done by someone else, remarked that it “was probably very easy to make”. The context of the comment implied that things were more beautiful – or more artistic – if they are harder to make.

There does not seem to be a real causal relationship between difficulty and beauty, though. In fact, the inverse seems to be true. This isn’t limited to art and beauty either.

As an experienced software developer, it is easy for me to write software that works, is easy to understand, and is easy to maintain. It’s objectively better software in every important way to something written by someone who is just entering the field. That makes sense; I should be getting better at what I’m doing over time, making it easier to do.

If this is the case, then the fact it is easy for me to create is not a comment about how good the product is, but how much skill and experience I have. The same seems to be true of any job you can think of. A skilled architect will have an easier time designing a house than someone who has never designed anything.

At the same time, just because the creation of a piece of art was difficult, time-consuming, or tedious, there’s no reason to think the art is beautiful. It takes a long time to write your name 500,000 times; much longer than writing it once. Is doing one rather than the other really more beautiful? It’s certainly more difficult, but I think this is an obvious example where a thing being difficult doesn’t cause it to become beautiful.

Aristotle’s description of ethics is along the same lines. He argued when you want to find a good person, you don’t look for someone who struggles to do good things and, by his will, overcomes the struggle in the end. This effort is admirable, but a good person will not struggle to do good things and avoid evil things. It will seem effortless for him. In neither case is the definition of goodness related to how easy it is for a person to do good things. In the same way, beauty is not related to how much people struggle with it.

We also don’t know how difficult it was to make a piece of art unless we know more details than the art itself gives us. If we are experienced in the technique used, we might know how hard it is to learn the technique and how much effort was applied in using the technique. But we can’t know how hard it was for the person who created the art. That would require us asking them. But it seems we can figure out whether a piece of art is beautiful even if we don’t know the artist or can’t ask him how hard it was to make. Again, beauty doesn’t seem related to how much people struggle with making beautiful art.

So what does make something beautiful?

In looking up the verse I intended to put at the beginning of the article, I found this quote on the generally good Bible Study Tools website when searching on the topic of beauty:

The saying “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder,” goes to say that defining beauty can be tough. However, God’s words can lead us to discover what our individual meaning of beauty truly is and should be; that is deter from looking at physical appearance for God looks at the heart in all people and things. Use these Bible verses to find the real beauty in yourself, others, and what surrounds us.

I think this is incorrect for several reasons, and interestingly, not Biblical given the verses that follow.

The expression “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is less than 200 years old. If beauty is difficult to define (specifically: define), and I agree that it is difficult to do so, it seems strange it would take thousands and thousands of years of human experience to arrive to this insight. In reality, the quote came at a time when beauty had been relativized, in part thanks to the same leveling forces that eventually relativized truth and goodness, too. The quote is intended to make beauty subjective. “In the eye of the beholder” means “according to the subject”. This in contrast to the object.

Biblically, God is beautiful. He is the source of beauty. This means that beauty can’t possibly be subjective – even though our experience of it necessarily is, like all experiences. The quotation from Bible Study Tools is correct in saying that our definition ought to conform to Scripture, and that we can be wrong about what beauty is (this affirms the objective nature of it). However, it is misleading to say that beauty at the physical level is superficial because God searches our hearts. He might search our hearts and know us more deeply than we know ourselves, but He also created our physical bodies and the physical world we live in and all the beauty we can see and hear. This physical world won’t last forever, but it isn’t superficial. It’s particularly misleading when people aren’t concerned with creating beautiful art or with looking as best they can. I don’t think a person can be fully trusted with getting at the inner beauty of things if they don’t even have the right idea or skill at getting to physical beauty.

If you aren’t a Christian, it is still strange to try and say that beauty is subjective. We have art schools training artists all around the world. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then are these schools just teaching popular techniques? What are the techniques for? Why does anyone need technique? As popular as postmodernism and relativism is at art schools, I think the administrators know better than to push this to it’s reasonable conclusion. If they did, the students might realize their time would be better spent not spending tens of thousands of dollars improving their technique at creating things that are totally subjective.

Similarly, it’s strange that we have art museums and art galleries if art is subjective. Why is some art worthy of hanging on the wall in an art museum? Given some of the horrible, insulting pieces I’ve seen (solid-color canvases with a single bar of another color shoddily painted on top), it doesn’t seem much thought goes into determining what should hang on an art museum wall and what should be thrown in the trash. But what really qualifies some pieces and not others? Is it a democratic process? Who says? And where do I get to vote?

As I said earlier, beauty is difficult to define. But it isn’t difficult or impossible to describe. Beautiful things have a symmetry to them. This doesn’t need to mean things are identical when split in half; it is more in terms of weight (e.g. a house could have wide room on one side and a tall room on the other). Beautiful things have emphasis on the important elements, with other elements receding into the background while they complement the foreground. Beautiful things are true; they don’t mislead or glorify evil.

With the issue of difficulty addressed, I’d like to address the issue of ugliness in modern art sometime in the future. I think modern art, in general, is intentionally ugly and insulting. It would be good to talk about it in detail, but it deserves its own post.

Misconception Monday – Christians Shouldn’t Try To Make People Good

“Christians shouldn’t try and make people good; they should preach the Gospel.”

This is a declaration I’ve read many times in many forms, and since it’s the subject of today’s Misconception Monday, you might have already deduced my thoughts about it. Before I criticize the motivations people have for using it and some of the thinking behind it, I want to say that on the surface, I actually agree with it. Christians are commanded to make disciples, not merely people who don’t sin as much. The purpose of life, after all, is not to start doing more good things than bad things, but to know God. If this is the intended meaning of the expression, then it is a misleading way of saying a good and true thing. It’s the misleading elements and the motivations behind it that are worthy of some criticism.

There seem to be at least three reasons why Christians might try and encourage, incentivize, or impose morality on others. It’s important to realize that all legislation, executive action, and judicial decision-making is moral in nature. That means if it isn’t Christians imposing their morality on others, it’s someone else. I believe Christianity is true, so I have no problem with Christianity guiding this work. In fact, the founders of the United States and the progenitors of English Common Law all saw their work as reflective of Christianity.

The first reason has to do with society as a whole. If Christianity and God’s moral laws are true, it follows that the best way to order a society is to encourage obedience to those objective moral rules found in God’s moral law. While human beings break laws and do evil no matter what laws exist, the law is still a teacher and not just a reflection of culture. We should want to have the most perfect law in place to guide our society. It ought to result in better lives for everyone, just as acknowledging the laws of nature – like gravity – we are all forced to obey will result in less pain and suffering.

Secondly, it seems obvious that while none of us can please God except through Christ and that all of our own righteousness is worthless, it is still better not to sin and instead to do good. Doing evil makes our consciences less effective, insults the Image of God in each of us, and angers God. While the only way to truly know God is to come to Him by faith through Christ, it still seems right that it is better for those who have not accepted Him to do good instead of evil. Not just for the practical reasons identified above, but because sin really is bad, and it really is better not to do it, whether a person is a Christian or not.

Third, and maybe most importantly, has to do with Salvation itself. In order to become Christians, a man needs to repent of his sin. If he is convinced he hasn’t done anything wrong, then there is nothing to repent from. Living in a society governed by Christian virtue, however, means that he is confronted with his sin frequently (instead of ours, when many – even Christians – seem to actively discourage this confrontation). Additionally, if his own subjective understanding of right and wrong matches the objective standards found in God Himself, this is the best possible comparison he can have to demonstrate his need for Christ through repentance.

One of the roles of the Holy Spirit in the world is to convict the world of its sin. As Christians, why would we want to deliberately sabotage this effort? Why not seek to help? We can’t convict people in the same way as the Holy Spirit (and attempts to do it explicitly will probably have the opposite effect). But if we can help order our society in a way where the existence of sin is apparent to everyone, we certainly aren’t going to hurt anything. I’d argue we should actively try and do this. As I said previously, someone is going to impose their morality on everyone else. Why shouldn’t the laws we have come from the source of all objective morality in the first place?

Why would Christians oppose this? I think part of it is simple misunderstanding. There are Christians who think that pursuing a just and god-fearing society is a mutually exclusive goal to winning people to Christ because both require effort and the effort must be spent on either one or the other. This isn’t the case, however, and I’d argue that the two are complementary.

Another issue is one of character. Some Christians are lazy and hide behind the expression as a way to avoid doing work. Others are afraid of what might happen if they followed through.

Many Christians (and people in general) are sloppy thinkers. They don’t think about any of this stuff and just accept what is handed down to them from others whom they trust. This is inexcusable, but unfortunately common.

I think the most insidious reason is that many people who profess to be Christians actually despise Christianity. They hate God’s moral law and they completely embrace our culture’s anti-Christian standards. This happens often, and usually involves people in leadership positions. When I hear these sorts of people use the expression “Christians shouldn’t try to make good people; they should preach the Gospel”, I think it’s best to understand their meaning as “Stop making people feel bad and start telling them what they want to hear.”

If you are a Christian, you should know that if Christianity were all about telling people things that made them happy and comfortable, Christ wouldn’t have been crucified.

A Critique of Salary

Articles about business are often full of jargon, ugliness, and imprecision, but I recently discovered an article on salaries that seems to avoid egregious examples of those linguistic evils. I had been looking into the origin of the term “salary” and the bureaucratic inventions based on it: “salaried exempt” and “salaried non-exempt.”

I’m a software engineer, and like most of the people who work on software, I am paid according to the “salaried exempt” rules. This is like a normal salary (I am paid a certain amount of money over the course of the year for my work, rather than per hour), except that my company is not required to pay me if I need to work extra hours to get my job done. Not all companies don’t abuse this policy, and my own actually provides some extra money to a point for overtime. Nevertheless, I have some critical thoughts of the entire concept of salary.

I’m not writing this to just summarize my thoughts on salary, but to compare and contrast them with the article I mentioned, which is titled “4 reasons why companies can ask their employees to work for ‘free'”. Lack of capitalization aside, I already have some problems with this. I’m not interested in why a company can ask their employees to work for free. The answer is intuitively obvious: it’s legal. The author talks about the legality of salaried employees being asked to work extra hours, so at least she covers the title. However, out of her four sections, only half talk about why employers can do this. The other half talk about why they would choose to.

A leaked Urban Outfitters memo from 2015 was the motivation for the article, itself written two years ago. It begins (emphasis mine):

The leaked Urban Outfitters memo asking salaried employees to volunteer one or more weekend shifts at an Urban Outfitters fulfillment center to pick, pack and ship merchandise is really no story at all, despite Internet shaming and sensational claims that Urban Outfitters is making management employees work for “free.”  The request of Urban Outfitters is not unusual; it is just unusual that the request was leaked to the media.  Employers regularly require exempt employees to go over and above a 40-hour work week without additional pay, and this approach is appropriate under wage-hour laws.

My disagreement with the article begins with the first paragraph. We’ll come back to the use of the word “free”, used to describe the hours worked by many salaried employees beyond the contractual obligation they have, and focus for now on the line “this approach is appropriate”. Why is it appropriate? Because it is legal. This is the theme of the article. The salary system in place is legitimate because it is legal, which is almost a tautology. The fact is, I don’t think there are many good reasons to have this system, and I think a lot of people realize that and appeal to the legality of it as justification.

And, while some media commentators have dubbed this as “working for free,” the reality is that the employees are not working for free.  They have agreed to work all required hours in exchange for a certain salary.

This is true, but the “required hours” amount to forty hours every week. What value is an agreement to work forty hours a week if this number is merely a suggestion?

After all, remember that there are salary requirements for exempt employees, so those who are being asked to “volunteer” are being compensated at a higher pay grade, at or above a salary set by our federal and state governments pursuant to public policy considerations.  Therefore, it is in fact “fair” to ask exempt employees for the extra work…

“Fair” in the context of this government means “legal”. It is constantly the reference point for fairness and appropriateness. I think it’s a bad standard though; why is the law written as it is written? The real question is what objectively determines fairness. The author tries to answer this by saying the quantity of money being paid justifies overtime. The salary for exempt employees exceeds an arbitrary government limit in the Fair Labor Standards Act, and is thus “fair”. After another reference to the law, she goes on again to give more rationale:

 The increased responsibility and salary levels of exempt employees also means they likely have more bargaining power in the marketplace and freedom to leave an oppressive employer, so government is less concerned about extra “unpaid” work in their case.

I don’t care what the government is concerned with. I don’t care what the government permits under law. I think it is wrong to require employees to work more hours than they are contractually obligated to work, and I’m convinced the entire concept of “salaried exempt” is absurd. The fact I have “more bargaining power” doesn’t offset this, and it turns out that many salaried exempt positions require such specialized skills that this bargaining is done by more people for fewer jobs anyway.

 1. Employees who are exempt can work over 40 hours without additional compensation.

Her first argument is a restating of the law. Of course employees can be required to work over forty hours without additional pay. We’ve already established this. But the interesting question is why this ought to be the case. Yet another attempt to rationalize this is provided:

Exempt employees take customers to dinner after hours without additional compensation.  They answer after-hour calls and emails without additional compensation.  This happens all the time.  And, it’s legal.

Employees often do things after work hours for which they are not paid and it is legal, so therefore companies can ask employees to work more than forty hours a week. It’s not really an argument, but a restating.

2. Volunteering for additional work does not change the employee’s primary duty.

Exempt employees who “volunteer” for  production type duties (e.g. pick, pack, and ship merchandise) do not have their jobs transformed into hourly non-exempt jobs as long as their primary duty remains exempt.

Again, another restating of the fact that companies can do what we’ve already established they can legally do. It gets a little more interesting after this:

3. Production work doubles as leadership training for exempt workers.

…Rolling up their sleeves to help might provide a real eye-opening education for how hard the hourly employees work and how decisions by exempt  personnel affect those hourly workers.  This could be valuable training for managers, administrators and professionals.  Also, isn’t rolling up your sleeves to perform “undesirable” tasks one definition of leadership?  Leaders should not be above any task, no matter how “menial.”

It isn’t doing undesirable tasks that repulses people from the concept of “salaried exempt”. It’s doing those tasks without getting paid for the extra hours worked. This rationale doesn’t even enter into the discussion when the jobs in question are in world of engineering, since there often isn’t any sort of “leadership” in the sense described here going on.

The fact is, we are no closer to answer as to why this is a good practice than we were when we started. One final reason is given:

4. ‘Volunteer’ work can reduce overtime.

Reducing overtime of hourly workers by asking exempt employees to pitch in, as long as the company does it legally, is a perfectly legitimate business decision.

Some people – who don’t get paid extra for working extra hours – can work in place of those who do get paid extra for working extra hours, which if done legally, is a legitimate business decision. Because, as we’ve already seen many times, it is the legality of the practice that makes it fair, legitimate, and appropriate. Overtime doesn’t reduce overtime, even if it means the business isn’t required to pay as much if they shift the employees working overtime around.

My response to all of this is pretty straightforward. An employee who agrees to a contract to work forty hours each week and then proceeds to do just that for $50,000 a year is making $50,000 / (52 * 40) ≈ $24 dollars an hour. Another employee who agrees to the same contract but who is asked to work evenings and weekends, averaging 50 hours of work a week is making $50,000 / (52 * 50) ≈ $19 an hour. This makes sense; 25% more hours worked for the same amount of money means a corresponding decrease in hourly pay.

A government or business can come along and say “we’re paying you for a certain amount of work, not a certain number of hours”, but this isn’t entirely accurate. If it were, an employee could leave the office after getting their work done. This rarely happens for “salary exempt” employees. It’s more accurate to say that “salary exempt” means working a minimum of forty hours a week and a maximum of whatever the managers of the company ask them to work.

While I don’t think the law is wrong to permit what it does, I think people should be a bit wiser than merely repeating what the law says to justify the behavior of companies. I understand that overtime is sometimes required. Companies can’t anticipate everything that might get in the way of an important deadline, and sometimes there isn’t time to hire and teach new employees (who would need to be laid off once the deadline is achieved anyway). This is fine and even fair as an emergency tactic, but it is a terrible policy for normal work.

I’ve often seen companies require employees to work extra hours to avoid hiring new employees, even though the employees working overtime were hired under the pretense of working forty hours a week. It might be legal, but it isn’t fair. I don’t think the government should come and sue the companies doing this sort of thing, but the employees working the mandatory overtime should probably look for jobs elsewhere. The market has already begun correcting this abuse, and companies are even advertising their commitment to a forty hour workweek as a perk.

Medieval peasants worked fewer hours than we wealthy Americans do, and it’s probably part of the cause of our moral decay as a civilization that we give so little time to genuine rest. Companies expect their employees to give up anything to get their jobs done when it turns out that many of the things employees give up are more valuable than the work.