January 2, 2018

Reclaiming the Internet (and embracing the well-intended flame)

When I was in collge, back in the early 90s, I was first introdcued to the internet. I had an account on my school's mainframe, ostensibly for academic reasons, and I had my first ever email address. Back then, no one had email addresses. I could only email my fellow nerd students and a few professors. Soon, I discovered Usenet, and I followed a number of newsgroups religisouly, especially the one's that commented on beer in a world before micro-brews.

In the early 2000s the internet began to mature. Soon, websites were a thing. As were companies trying to sell you stuff on websites. With the Web 2.0 evolution, websites became dynamic and databse driven and real commerce could be done. I remember learning the basics of Perl and CGI when that was the number one way to create dynamic web content. It wasn't pretty, but it worked.

My life took a different turn. I went to seminary and became a pastor, while the internet continued to change and evlove, largley driven by economic forces. But I remember a few moments in the early 90s when the internet was about something else. It was about connecting with people, sharing information for the good of all, and, yes occassionally flaming people for not RTFM.

That said, whenever I was duly flamed, I was spurred to learn more. When the internet was not as mean-spirited a place as it is now, a flame was a helpful slap to encourage you to dig deeper, do your homework, be a contributor and not just a consumer. The internet, back then, expected me to have something to offer - and because of that expectation, usually, there was something to learn, something to gain, something to share.

Now, between Facebook and Twitter, the internet has become about shouting at people. Or narcissistically sharing the highlight reel of your life. Or about tempting our consumerist cravings until they explode in credit card debt.

I wonder if it could be different. Hosting this blog, on a server I pay for, with a set of open source tools that empower me to make the blog, all of which is free from anyone's ownership or commercial ambition, is a reminder of what the internet can allow. The internet can allow us to freely express ourselves, to engage each other with ideas, to share what we are up to. And it can be a profound community that challenges us to be more thoughtful, more self-critical, and more engaged in meaningful, helpful ways.

Recently, I signed up for, a new service that hopes to provide a more open, more accesible alternative to Twitter and Facebook. By providing an accessible framework within which people can share short posts of content, enables the internet to resemeble its old self. If Manton ('s founder) can find a way to keep free of the commercial interests that have diminished the effectiveness of tools like Twitter and Facebook, and if the community continues to evolve in an intentional way, with strong and clear community guidelines, the future could be bright for and by extension, the internet.

(Usenet began to decline when it's servers were overwhelmed by people uploading pornographic images and pirated software binaries. I'm not judging, but good community guidelines are essential to ensure that any network or community lives up to it's best ideals and original vision.)

The end of net neutrailty threatens new ventures like If it turns out that the only real purpose for the internet is to make some people rich, services like and the old internet have no hope. Eventually, it might become necesssary for an entirely new network to be built - a public network that benefits all people. For now, let's hope that enough of us care enough about the internet to realize it's potential to really, deeply, meaningfully improve people's lives.

November 12, 2017

Getting Stuck...and Unstuck

Getting stuck is part of life. It's also part of programming.

As a fairly novice coder, I find the primary reason I get stuck is because of a pesky syntax error. Somewhere I forgot to put a parenthesis, or I forget to properly close a code block. It's easy to miss these things, and the interpreter is unforgiving.

There are a couple of tools and techniques that I find help when I get really stuck.

  • Carefully read the specs. At Flatiron, many of our labs are coupled with a set of specifications utilizing the RSpec tool set. RSpec tells you exactly what it expects and what you need to do to satisfy it's requirements. Reading the out from RSpec carefully so that I understand exactly what is wanted is a good first step.
  • Examine code character by character. Syntax errors stop execution of code before RSpec executes its tests. Usually an error message will tell you the line number that is presenting the problem, but sometimes the actual error is elsewhere. When I can't figure out where my syntax error is, I slow down....way down... and examine my code line by line. And even then, sometimes it's not enough. I have to examine my code character by character to make sure each and every token is exactly what I want.
  • Find examples and compare. Sometimes I'm just way off. If I'm not sure how my code should be structured or I'm not sure how to use a certain method or library, I sneak online and look for examples or documentation. The online world is amazingly full of helpful stuff - so searching online is usually quite helpful. I also have a handy little app on my Mac that I highly recommend. Dash for MacOS downloads online documentation to your local storage and allows you to easily search for whatever you are looking for. It even has an iOS companion app that will display your search results on your iOS device. I open up my iPad next to my keyboard and search for help all the time now. The Mac app will download almost any open source documentation you can think of - including libraries and tools like Vim and Sass. And it updates the content for you from time to time so you have correct and current info.

These tricks help me move beyond a stuck point. But you know what helps when I'm really stuck? I step away from the desk and take a nice long walk, watch some TV, or (don't tell) play a video game. Taking a break and doing something unrelated really helps. When I return to the desk, I usually find the problem much more quickly than I would have otherwise, thanks to having a refreshed perspective.

November 6, 2017

Setting a New Course

Recently, I began pursuing a new professional path that, on first blush, might seem like a radical change in direction. However, in the context of my life story, I think it is a fairly reasonable change and I am hopeful for some interesting new opportunities.

First, let me give you some background.

For my professional life so far, I have served as a United Methodist pastor. I was drawn to ministry for a number of reasons: a passion for the church and the rich questions of life that the church wrestles with, a love of people and a desire to serve my community, a knack for speaking and a capacity for leadership. For many years, working in the church was very rewarding and endlessly interesting.

But, eventually, the church began to become a place of frustration for me. Churches are wonderful places, but they are also broken places. The mainline church faces immense challenges - shrinking congregations, crumbling buildings, decreasing cultural resonance, insufficient resources and a basic lack of clarity around mission and purpose. In addition to all of that, the church is engaged in endless debates around sexuality, gender, and power structures - debates that don't really interest most people and serve to make the church an even less attractive option for Sunday mornings.

While my convictions as a Christian remained intact, I grew increasingly disenchanted with organized expressions of my faith...even of the ones I was leading.

I toiled in this frustration for a while and tried different opportunities, but in the end, I concluded that I would be of more use to the church and happier as a person doing something else professionally

That began a long period if introspection and reflection. I'll bore you the details except to say I have an amazing and graceful wife.

In college, I majored in Computer Science. I was an average student, on a good day. But as a child I had developed a fascination with computers from the first time I touched an Apple II (yes, I'm that old). My dad bought an Apple clone (the famous, and illegal Franklin Ace 1000) and I learned to write BASIC programs and play video games. In college, I continued my interest into computers, but I was a typical college kid of Generation X, with out any real direction. Seminary gave me direction so off I went - but now my old interest in playing with computers is returning to the fore.

Over the years, I'd built websites for the churches I served and friends. I took a stab for a while as a freelance web developer, but I didn't really like working for myself and I always wanted to hone my skills so I had more to offer. So, at the end of my reflection, I concluded that I would like to set aside some time and really develop myself as a coder/programmer/developer. At the moment, I am hoping to work in the health care field, continuing my interest in helping people, but I do not want to close myself off to any opportunities that might come my way.

As I began exploring how I might proceed, I discovered a number of "schools" that offer to prepare people for careers as web developers. To be honest, I was skeptical about them, since they were non-traditional educational institutions, usually for-profit, and with little information to confirm their effectiveness. Eventually, however, I found the Flatiron School. I was impressed with them for a few reasons. First, I read about them on a blog I follow, and the reports seemed to be quite positive. Second, I noticed that Flatiron was unique among these "code camps" in that they submitted their results to an independent audit. Finally, Flatiron has a strong commitment to educate and place women and minorities in tech careers. Their values seemed to line up pretty well with mine. That isn't to say all things are rosy at Flatiron. The need for programmers and coders has far outpaced the supply. Consequently, these "schools" have popped up in an effort to meet the need. But it feels a little "wild west." More than others, Flatiron seems committed to bringing standards and professionalism to their emerging industry - and I hope they are sincere and successful.

So, I've begun. So far so good. The road ahead is long and challenging for me, and I'm not sure where it will end up. But I am excited to find out. In the weeks ahead I'll be posting additional blog posts here about my progress and what I have learned.

Oh. There's one other reason why I want to do this. I find it fun. I enjoy it. Sitting in front of a monitor trying to make the stupid computer do something interesting is my idea of a good time. So....that's no small part of this new adventure.

June 11, 2017

Arethusa Falls and Frankenstein Cliff

Yesterday provided a perfect early-summer day to go look at a waterfall. This time of year, the rivers and lakes are full, so waterfalls have ample fuel. We decided on Arethusa Falls, just south of the AMC facility in the White Mountains. Nearby Frankenstein Cliff offered another opportunity for great views.

It was a warm day, slightly overcast. But the sun poked through often and we sweated a lot. The trip took us about four hours, and covered just over 5 miles and about 1400 feet of elevation gain. Generally, I would classify this as a moderate hike, however there were stretches on the downhill portion after Frankenstein Cliff that many (myself included) would find challenging. They are short portions, however, and we managed them without too much difficulty.

Ample parking by the trail head made us quickly aware that this is a popular destination.  The hike from the parking spot to the falls themselves was very popular and we passed many hikers heading back down as we were heading up. The trail during this section was easy to follow.  The only challenges were the climb, the many roots, and the occasional mud.  In rainy weather, this trail would be much tougher.

A short, downhill spur leads to the falls themselves.  The air gets much cooler as you approach, and you can feel the gentle spray as the water cascades down.  The falls were much larger than I expected.

After a few moments at the falls and a snack, we headed back up the spur trail and then turned off toward Frankenstein Cliff.  This trail had far fewer hikers on it - we only saw a couple - and was harder to follow.  Some sections follow creek beds and you have to look for the yellow blazes to make sure you are going the right way.  Also, since this trail appears to be much less popular, the trail is often narrow and overgrown. Just the way we like it!

The Frankenstein tail begins with a bit more uphill, until you reach a high point that offers some views, but is mostly blocked by trees.  The real view is on down from that "peak" at the Frankenstein Cliff overlook.  Here, the view of the Saco River valley is spectacular, and sadly, my iPhone camera did not come close to capturing the beauty.

Heading down from here is when things start to get a bit tricky.  The trail down from the cliffs makes a number of switch backs and is often narrow and muddy.  As you come down, you begin to realize how dramatic those cliffs are, looking back and up.

After you come down from the cliffs, you encounter the railroad, and this amazing elevated bridge.  The trail continues under the bridge, which was confusing at first because my navigation software followed the train tracks themselves back to the parking lot.  The AMC Guide says that walking the tracks is dangerous and prohibited, do I don't recommend it, tempting though it was. The trail actually follows basically the same route, just to the south of the tracks and presumably out of the way of trains.

And finally, here is the route we took:

All in all, this was a great, challenging hike, with New Hampshire's tallest waterfall at 200' and a great cliff view to boot.  A good way to spend the afternoon.

May 10, 2017

An Early Semi-Urban Hike

Living in Hartford, I am usually surrounded by the trappings of an urban environment - sidewalks, asphalt, glass, steel, cars, trucks, horns honking, sirens blaring. And yet it is fairly easy to take a short drive and find oneself surrounded by wilderness. An accessible semi-urban hike is a real treasure.

One example is the hike we did last weekend. We had a pretty glorious day on our hands, so that helped. Heading west, we went to Reservoir 6 in the Metropolitan District's recreation area system. Reservoir 6 offers a wide, 3.6 mile path around the reservoir that is a real pleasure to walk on. You can get a PDF map here. Sometimes, taking a stroll around the reservoir makes for a great day.

But sometimes you want something a little more. So, we walked about half way around the reservoir trail where the Metacomet Trail breaks off and heads up to Heublein Tower. Heublein is a popular destination, though the tower itself doesn't open until Memorial Day (here is the official site). There are a lot of ways to get up to the tower, but taking the Metacomet ensures a quiet hike away from the crowds.

The only downside for us on this hike was that there was a lot of mud. Recent rains had really saturated the trails and in some cases getting muddy was unavoidable. But hey, that's part of the fun. Around the tower there are great views and picnic tables - a good place to chill out and hang out - and there is great space for bigger groups if you are looking for that.

Also, interesting fact: A party was once held at a large BBQ pit (which is still there) for Republican political leaders. At that event, Dwight Eisenhower was asked to run for president. A little history!

At one point, wooden boards had been placed on the ground to help navigate some muddy sections.

Another fun fact: at one place near the tower, the borders of three different towns all converge: Simsbury, Avon and Bloomfield. A sign marks the spot.

And here is the route we took. It was about 3 hours for us, moderately difficult verging on easy. We covered 6.5 miles with about 600 feet of elevation gain (and loss since we did an out and back).

Having a hike like this - that truly feels like wilderness and yet is just a few minutes out of the city - is a wonderful thing. It would be nice if more Hartfordians took advantage of this very accessible widerness.