The Atheist Pulpit

After my wife and I moved to a new town a few years ago, we talked about joining a church in order to meet people. This wasn’t easy for us since I’m a devout atheist, and I refused to take my kids anywhere that even mentioned the idea of hell.

At some point we tried out a nearby Unitarian Universalist church, and much to my surprise we both enjoyed the experience. My being an atheist wasn’t an issue – in fact, there were several other atheists in the congregation, all of whom wanted to be a part of something bigger that could do some good for society without all the dogma.

Not long after we joined, I was asked to speak to the congregation about what I believe. Here’s most of what I said:

If 20 years ago you had told me I would speak in front of a church crowd, I would’ve laughed hysterically. I decided I was an atheist at a very young age, so the idea of me standing at a pulpit would’ve seemed ridiculous, at least until I discovered churches like this one existed.

I guess you could say that by age 16 I had a pretty bad attitude about religion. For many years that bad attitude only got worse as I continued to witness people justifying cruelty in the name of religion.

That bad attitude reached its peak after I saw all the “God Bless America” billboards go up prior to the war with Iraq. At the time I took that as proof religion was nothing more than something politicians all over the world rely on to get people to approve of the awful things they want to do.

Yes, I was one of those smirking atheists who think they’ve got it all figured out.

But I’ve mellowed a lot since then. I’ve become friends with too many good people of faith to continue being a smirking atheist.

I used to believe that religious people were wrong, but now I believe that everyone is wrong – including me. We’re just monkeys with expensive haircuts. How on earth can we presume to have anything figured out?

I mean, look at all the mistakes we’ve made – we once believed that the world was flat, that the earth is the center of the universe, and that George Bush would never be a two-term president. Look how wrong we were!

Perhaps some of us have seen a clue of what the truth really is. People like Jesus, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and George Carlin may have caught a glimpse behind the curtain and seen further than the rest of us.

But they’re probably wrong, too, and it really doesn’t matter.

What does matter is that regardless of what gods we may or may not worship, I believe we’re all here for a very short time, so it’s not a bad idea for us to focus on enjoying ourselves and each other while we can.

And I believe it shouldn’t be as hard as it is to improve the lives of every person and every animal we share this temporary planet with.

I think we have to separate between what we believe and what we know. Atheism is what I believe, some of you believe in a religion. We believe we’re following something that gives us some answers or some comfort, but none of us actually know how we got here and where we’re going, and that’s great.

It’s only when people convince themselves that what they believe is also what they know that the bad stuff happens.

So anyway, this godless journey of mine somehow led me to this church. I’ll be honest with you: I didn’t expect to like it here. I’ve wanted to run away screaming from every other church I’ve visited.

But much to my surprise, I like it here. I enjoy being part of this group of intellectual misfits. This church is like a non-conformist convention where people actually show up.

So I want to thank you for welcoming me and accepting me here – that’s something I’m not used to, and it means a lot to me.

Joe Meets the Confederacy

Soon after I entered college in 1986, a few fraternities asked me to consider joining them. I wasn’t the frat type so I politely declined, but one fraternity didn’t want to take no for an answer.

I don’t recall their name now, but they aligned themselves with the Old South – right down to a confederate flag outside their house. I was from Tennessee and they wanted a “real” southerner to join them (never mind the fact that I was born in England, which made them all Yankees to me).

They considered themselves southern gentlemen, which apparently required being Caucasian. Despite the diversity of those attending the school, the fraternity was completely white.

One day I was asked to attend some event they were having to recruit new members. Rather than turn them down again, I said sure and asked if I could bring my friend Joe. They thought it was a swell idea.

I’m not sure they thought it was so swell once we showed up, though, because Joe was black.

I figured bringing him would get them off my back and let me thumb my nose at them at the same time. Joe cracked up when I proposed my scheme to him and quickly agreed to do it.

We spent the evening eating their food and consuming their drinks, having ourselves a good old time. Joe, of course, stood out like a sore thumb in that sea of white folk, and tried his best not to burst out laughing.

After that night, I was never invited to another event at that fraternity.

Unread Counts

NetNewsWire creator Brent Simmons on unread counts:

Nick Bradbury, FeedDemon author, and I have talked many times over the years about how we’d design an RSS reader were we starting over. The first thing we always say: No unread counts!

It’s true: showing an unread count was something I regretted. It was one of many things I did to make FeedDemon work like an email client so it would seem familiar to new users. I’m sure it did make it seem familiar, but in the long run it was a mistake I never overcame.

Treating RSS like email makes it a chore to read, but customers were so used to FeedDemon working like an email client that any attempt to make it less email-like was met with resistance. So instead I came up with things like the Panic Button which were just band-aids that didn’t address the underlying problem.

Looking back, I wonder how RSS readers would’ve fared if their developers hadn’t followed the email client design. It’s partly because we did that the RSS reader (but not RSS itself) is now considered dead.

Broken by Design

When I was a kid, my parents had a table you couldn’t cut things on.

You also couldn’t set glasses on it without a coaster, and anything hot needed a pad under it. It was a beautiful table, but guests didn’t know this because it was covered with a table cloth for protection.

I was an annoying child, so I constantly pointed out how ridiculous this was. The purpose of a table was to eat and drink on, I would proclaim, yet this thing would be harmed by those actions. It was designed to look great without concern for how it would be used.

I’m reminded of that table by a lot of apps I see these days. They look stunning in videos, and the first time you use them you’re blown away by the beautiful animations. You almost feel like you’re using works of art.

But the more you use them the more annoyed you get because they’re designed to look great without thought for how they’d be used. Those mesmerizing transitions you used to love are now slowing you down. The layouts which used to seem so clean are now awkward because things are placed where they’d look the best instead of where they’d make the most sense.

They’re broken by design.

A few years ago a lot of software suffered from lack of design. Now it suffers from too much design. Surely there’s a happy middle ground where software can look and behave in delightful ways without undermining its purpose?

Android’s Overblown Fragmentation Problem Revisited

Two years ago I declared that Android’s supposed “fragmentation problem” was overblown.

I was working on Glassboard when I wrote that post, and Glassboard hadn’t become a Google Play “staff pick” yet so it still had a fairly small audience. These days I work on WordPress for Android which has a much larger audience, so I figured I’d revisit the fragmentation topic.

I’ve seen a lot more fragmentation-related problems since working on WordPress, but I still maintain that fragmentation is less of an issue than is commonly believed.

That’s not to say, of course, that it isn’t a problem at all.

I think the biggest problem is that unless your app is relatively new, you probably have to continue supporting Android 2.3. Making sure your app works on that ugly, buggy OS is a massive pain. Every Android developer I know will dance in the streets the day they can drop support for pre-ICS versions of Android.

Another problem is the number of inexpensive, low-powered Android devices in use – especially outside the US. If you want your apps to run well on them, you have to be extra-cautious about memory consumption and performance (but then, you should be anyway).

Overall, though, I haven’t found the number of devices to be as big an issue as the number of OS versions. Here’s a breakdown of the different Android versions our customers are running:

WP Android installs (March 2014)

This isn’t as big a deal as you might think, but it’s not unusual to find your app works flawlessly on the latest version of Android yet breaks on a previous version due to a bug fixed between releases. The Android Issue Tracker is a big help in these situations.

The only other oft-recurring problem I’ve encountered is differences between phone and tablet versions of your app, but these are usually self-inflicted (often caused by having too many screen-specific layouts and not synching changes between them).

I’m sure these issues look horrific to iOS developers, who are blessed by only needing to support a few devices and OS versions. But they’re certainly not as horrific as the press often makes fragmentation sound, and they’re far easier to deal with than all the fragmentation problems I encountered back when I developed for Windows.



Code Dependent

Justin Williams writes about third-party dependencies:

As I’ve matured as a professional developer, I’ve learned to understand that a dependency and liability are many times interchangeable

He jokingly mentions how his stance will get him an invitation to the “old guy coders club,” of which I must be a long-time member (here’s proof). As current and former co-workers can attest, I’m notoriously cranky when it comes to third-party dependencies.

I wasn’t always this way, though. In my ill-spent youth I’d add third-party libraries to my projects without concern. It was a no-brainer at the time – they added so much power and snazziness with so little effort on my part.

It wasn’t until I created long-lived software like FeedDemon that I realized their downside. Components I relied upon would stop being upgraded, no longer be reliable, or simply disappear. They’d break when a new version of my OS (or even my development tool) was released. Their UI would change, affecting the UI of my software.

In some cases the pain was worth it, but more often than not it wasn’t. I spent far too much time rewriting, replacing, and rethinking third-party libraries I chose to rely on. In the long run, my software and my customers would’ve been better off if I’d been more conservative with those choices.

Don’t get me wrong – I certainly rely on third-party dependencies in the software I work on now, but I’m a lot more cautious about adding them than I used to be. I like to think of this as hard-earned wisdom rather than a sign of senility :)



Teased by Dolphins

The day before my latest kayak misadventure, I had a much more enjoyable kayaking experience.

A school of dolphins were feeding not too far offshore, so I decided to kayak out to see them. As I got close they suddenly dove under, then a second later reappeared about 100 yards away.

I paddled to where they moved to and once again they disappeared, this time resurfacing where I had first seen them.

So I paddled back to their original spot, only to see them resurface 100 yards away again.

I did this a few more times before it occurred to me they might be toying with me – that making me paddle back-and-forth was how they played a game of “stupid human.”

Dolphins have always seemed playful to me, but this was the first time I thought about them as pranksters. I’ll see them that way from now on, though.

Dumbass in a Sea Kayak (Again)

You’d think my previous misadventure with a sea kayak would’ve taught me to stay away from them, but I guess I’m a slow learner because last week I once again did something stupid in one.

It was my last morning in Cape san Blas, Florida, where I was enjoying spring break with my family. I wanted some activity before facing the long drive home, so I rented a kayak to take out on the ocean.

A thick fog had rolled in, but it soon cleared so I headed to the beach and paddled straight out a fair ways. After about 15 minutes I paused to look back towards the beach – just in time to see the fog rolling back in. Within seconds the beach disappeared in the fog and my visibility dropped to near-zero.

I didn’t have a compass or GPS with me (yes, that’s the dumbass part), but I figured I could just head back towards where I saw the beach before the fog came in.  A half-hour later I was still paddling, no beach in sight. Turns out it’s very easy to lose your orientation with no landmarks for guidance.

At that point I decided to stay still and wait the fog out, but before long the clouds above me turned grey so waiting wasn’t an option unless I wanted to risk getting stuck in a storm. I couldn’t see anything except water, and I heard nothing except waves, so at first I wasn’t sure how I could find my way back. I hadn’t been out nearly long enough to panic, but I have to admit I was feeling quite vulnerable and stupid in my little kayak.

The fog was very thick, but luckily not so thick that it covered the sun. I remembered watching the sunset the night before, so I used the location of the sun to make my way back. I paddled hard for maybe an hour, wondering the whole time whether I was really headed in the right direction or just putting myself further out to sea.

And then the fog cleared, and way off in the distance I could see land. I was stunned at how far away from shore I was – I must’ve drifted and paddled in the wrong direction for a long time to get that far out. It took another half-hour or so of paddling before I reached the shore.

So after all that, do you think I’ll avoid kayaks in the future? No, probably not – I’m much too stubborn for that. But next time I’ll be sure to take a compass and stick closer to shore.

And I’ll also find something else to do if I see any signs of fog.

A Disgusting Dog Story

poop-bagA while back I was walking my dogs in the neighborhood, which by itself is a hairy proposition. They like to pull really hard, so I wrap their leashes around my hands for extra leverage. One of my dogs, Ripley, is terrified by the sound of children (can you blame her?) and wants to take off running when she hears them.

On this fine day I had just scooped a rather generous amount of their poop when a group of kids started making a racket. Ripley, as usual, tried to run away at full speed. No big deal, I thought, until I realized her leash had wrapped around the poop bag I was carrying.

Before I could react, the bag popped – all over me.

I stood there in shock, not knowing what to do. I was a long way from home, and I didn’t have my cell phone on me so I couldn’t call my wife to come get me (“Hey honey, remember how you said you were having a shitty day…?”).

I had no choice but to walk through the neighborhood looking like the victim of a drive-by pudding attack. Luckily I didn’t run into anyone I knew, and nobody stopped me to point out I had something on my shirt (and my pants, and my shoes).

From that day on, I’ve been much more careful about how I hold their doggy droppings.