We’re our own journalists now

A friend just posted this article from NPR which describes a new racial outrage where a White woman called the police on a Black man for birdwatching. There’s even a video the man shot documenting the encounter. And, the woman does, indeed, seem pretty unhinged while the man seems very cool and rational. Except, that’s not actually what happened.

Someone else posted an article from the National Review which does some deeper digging. As this second article indicates, the video only shows part of the encounter. You can actually see the original post on Facebook. The description gives a little more information on what happened before the video starts. In particular, the man asks that the woman put her dog back on its leash, and she resists several suggestions of how she could exercise her dog off-leash elsewhere. At which point, the man says (quoted from his Facebook post): “Look, if you’re going to do what you want, I’m going to do what I want, but you’re not going to like it.” At this point, he attempts to offer the dog a treat, the woman becomes alarmed, and the man starts filming.

Judging from this information (as reported by the man, and therefore likely to be biased somewhat in his favor), I think they both handled the situation badly. It’s understandable that the man was annoyed. The woman was clearly violating the rules for that area of the park, and it inhibited his ability to enjoy it by scaring away the birds he came to watch. It’s also understandable that the woman was alarmed. She encountered a stranger in a secluded part of the park who said he was going to do something she wouldn’t like in retaliation for her annoying him.

On the other hand… he could have just walked away. I can’t count the times I’ve been in a big city, saw someone doing something they obviously weren’t supposed to, and did exactly that. He chose to confront the woman when it wasn’t necessary. When she resisted, he upped the ante in a way which was intended to frighten the woman into compliance, and then the situation blew up. And, for her part, the woman clearly knew she was violating the rules, and could have chosen to simply appologize and clip the leash back on her dog (even if only until the stranger had moved along). Moreover, the man was still calm, and keeping his distance, and so was clearly not an imminent threat. Both of them had opportunities to de-escalate the situation, and neither of them made that choice.

Is the woman racist? Maybe, but I don’t think this one incident provides enough data to actually be sure. I expect what the man said and did would have been enough to frighten me, no matter what he looked like. If she has some subconscious association between black men and crime, then she would have been all the more frightened. However, I don’t find it unreasonable that she would have been frighted enough to call the police even without any extra factor from subconscious racism. So, I don’t think we can make any real judgement from the little data this incident provides.

This, of course, calls into question the justice of everything else the woman experienced after this incident became public. However, it’s clear that her employer didn’t want to take the risk of becoming entangled in the situation—no matter what truth was behind it—and cut their losses as soon as it became publicly embarassing. Maybe the woman actually is racist, and this was a good call. Maybe not. As I said, I, personally, don’t think this one incident is enough to go on. To my mind, that makes her company’s actions at least somewhat cowardly, if not blatently unjust.

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I view the original incident as a misunderstanding between two people who wanted to “win” the encounter. When neither was willing to back down, the whole incident blew up.

The real tragedy is what happened later, and I think it demonstrates the value of “classical” journalism as an intermediary between ourselves the messy fragments of truth actually available. However, it’s been a long while since we learned about the world only through the eyes of mature, responsible journalists who knew how to spell “objective.” They’re still out there—to be sure—but they are now largely buried by the flood of social media and clickbait stories designed to stir us up.

This means we’re largely on our own to become such journalists as we used to have as our intellectual first line of defense. We have to take responsibility for turning the messy fragments of reality which find their way onto our screens into a cohesive, objective whole before reacting. I’m certainly guilty of falling short here (all too often, I’m afraid). So, I’m personally taking this as a reminder to check whether I’m falling into the trap of provocative so-called journalism, whether I think I actually am working with all the facts before coming to a judgement of my own.

Muhammed Ali asks: Why is everything white?

click to watch the video

He tells the story as though its a funny anecdote, and everyone’s laughing, but you can still see how earnestly he wants you to hear him and really consider: why is everything white?

Thinking on this and similar subjects has made me make small changes in my own writing. For example, as I was previously thinking a lot about sexism, I started to write about “humans” or “people” instead of “men” when I want to talk about everyone in general, and to use “they” as a singular pronoun when the subject’s gender isn’t known. It’s an easy change for me to make, and demands nothing of my readers. And, it breaks the needless ambiguity that “men” can be used both to mean a group of males as well as a group of people in general.

I suspect, having listened to this, I’ll find more things to subtly alter: not to be more PC (which I generally despise), but to be more clear with my actual desired meaning.

Access Denied! (or how S3 permissions can be super confusing)

I’m currently working on a feature for runbooks.app which allows users to upload images for their runbooks. I’m using the Python boto3 library to make a PutObject API requests. Simply provide the bytes, the target bucket, and object key, and you should be all set. However, to my considerable frustration, I spent most of the morning trying to figure out why I was getting this error:

botocore.exceptions.ClientError:
An error occurred (AccessDenied)
when calling the PutObject operation:
Access Denied

Not super helpful, as there are, of course, a whole host of things which could be wrong.

Access Keys

I wanted my bucket to only be available to a specific IAM user I set up for my application code. This user should only be given permissions for the specific API operations I want my code to perform: and nothing else. When you set up the user, you’re given an Access Key and a Secret Access Key. The former is a jumble of letter which identifies the account, and the latter is a shared secret so AWS can be sure the request comes from a trusted source.

I’m using Heroku, so I went to my application’s settings page to verify that my Config Vars contained the correct values. They did. So, that wasn’t the problem.

User Policy

Each new user you create in IAM has a section which specifically lists what things that user is permitted to do. There are many ways to assign permissions. You can create a separate policy and associate it with that user directly. You could make such a policy, associate it with a group, and then add the user to the group. You could assign the policy to a role, and then have that user don that role temporarily to do its work. You can even create an inline policy which is merely attached directly to that one user.

It turns out, you don’t need any of that if the user is specifically called out in the access policy for the object being accessed. So, in the end, I could simply remove all policies, groups, and roles from the application’s user so long as the S3 bucket call it out specifically.

Bucket Policy

Each S3 bucket can have its own security policy which specifically lists what each user (group, role, etc.) is permitted to do. As I before, I wanted to limit this user’s access to just those functions I knew my code was going to try to perform. So, I created a bucket policy which looked like this:

{
    "Version": "2012-10-17",
    "Id": "policy-123",
    "Statement": [
        {
            "Sid": "statement-id-123
            "Effect": "Allow",
            "Principal": {
                "AWS": "arn:aws:iam::<user-id>:<user-name>"
            },
            "Action": "s3:PutObject",
            "Resource": "arn:aws:s3:::<bucket-name>/*"
        }
    ]
}

I knew I was only ever calling the PutObject API, so I didn’t want to grant any more permissions than that. However, no matter what I did, I kept getting the error message at the top of this post stating that I didn’t have permissions to do exactly the action listed!

After much fiddling about and reading of StackOverflow, I found the solution. I needed to grant more permissions!

{
    "Version": "2012-10-17",
    "Id": "policy-123",
    "Statement": [
        {
            "Sid": "statement-id-123
            "Effect": "Allow",
            "Principal": {
                "AWS": "arn:aws:iam::<user-id>:<user-name>"
            },
            "Action": [
                "s3:PutObject",
                "s3:PutObjectAcl",
                "s3:PutObjectTagging"
            ]
            "Resource": "arn:aws:s3:::<bucket-name>/*"
        }
    ]
}

Even though I was only calling PutObject myself, the implementation of that API endpoint was both trying to set up the Access Control List (ACL) for the newly uploaded object, and, since I included some tags in my PutObject request, it was trying to set those as well. It was failing at both because I hadn’t set up those permissions.

The thing which threw me off the scent was the error message. It was merely saying that it couldn’t perform the PutObject API request because some permission was lacking. If it had clearly stated which permission was actually lacking, I would have been past this whole thing in a second. Instead, I erroneously assumed that the “PutObject” part of the message was referring to what I need to know in order to solve the problem (i.e., the name of the missing permission), not what I already knew (i.e., the name of API endpoint)! Since they have the same exact name, I thought telling me that it was lacking the one permission it actually did have!

So, a few lessons learned:

  • User policies aren’t actually needed if the user is specifically mentioned in the bucket policy.
  • If you get an access-denied message from AWS, the error will only mention the API which it couldn’t perform, not the actual permission it is lacking.
  • API calls may require several permissions beyond simply the one which shares the name of the API call. Some of these are conditional, depending upon which additional parameters you provide in your call.
  • AWS continues to have the most byzantine APIs and documentation in the business.

Giving an excellent technical interview

There are several things I do in my technical interviews which I think make the experience quite a bit better than your average interview.

The first step comes before the actual interview in selecting the technical question. I have a few which I’ve created myself based upon actual problems I faced as a professional developer. They are, of course, somewhat simplified to be able to fit into an interview time slot, but they have the ring of a “real” problem rather than some annoying “toy” problem. Each question is intended to have multiple “extra features” you can add to it, so every candidate is able to complete at least part of it, and exceptional candidates can complete several. Only once have I had a candidate who completed all of the sections I had prepared.

Second, as the interview starts, I deliberately adopt a fairly casual, friendly, outgoing attitude, and chit chat. If possible, I try to crack jokes, and put the candidate at ease. I try to get them to tell me stories about something which will give me a sense of whether they’d be a good culture fit with the company and our team.

Then, as I introduce the technical question, I make a few points right up front to try to take some of the anxiety out of it:

  1. This is a pair-programming exercise, and the primary point is to see how well we like working together.
  2. I’m not particularly interested in seeing how much of the language you’ve memorized; if you’re uncertain on something, just ask, and we’ll look it up, if necessary.
  3. I’m not as much interested in how quickly you solve the problem, but how you approach the problem, and how you think it through.

At this point, I turn my laptop around for them, and either project the screen or slide my chair around so I can see what they’re doing. On the laptop is a basic IDE already set up with a “hello world” program and a simple test case. There’s also a browser with Google brought up.

I think this is the most important part.

I want to make the impossibly contrived interview situation as close to actual working conditions as humanly possible. Starting with a simplified, but realistic problem, continuing with real tools (i.e., IDE and Google), and ending with us looking at the same screen, side-by-side, I’ve tried to emulate, as closely as possible, a situation developers find themselves all the time: pairing up to write a piece of code.

As we start to work on the problem, I try to strike a balance between being a helpful part of the pair programming team, and leaving enough of the problem for the candidate to solve that I can evaluate their performance. The more junior the candidate, the more helpful I am. The more senior, the less. If a candidate seems to be stuck at any point, I’ll suggest a possible solution.

During this process, I will deliberately probe a candidate to see how they react when:

  • I suggest something which isn’t the best solution.
  • I directly contradict a course they had chosen.
  • I point out a minor typo or error in their code.
  • I press them to justify a design choice.

I never interrupt the natural flow of the conversation to do these things, but I always have my eyes open for an opportunity to slip them in. In all of them, I’m looking for the candidate to have the best possible answer in mind, and to neither try to boost their own ego or mine.

As we get to the end, I keep my eye on the time (easy, since we’re looking at my laptop where I keep it up in the corner), and let them naturally stop when we get to the end of a part with somewhere between 5–10 minutes left. At this point, I let the candidate ask me questions for the remaining time.

✧✧✧

I think the important take-away here is to try to make the interview feel as much like a pair-programming session on a real problem as possible. Pick a problem which isn’t directly from an algorithms textbook. Set up a real development environment for the candidate (for coding questions). Sit next to the candidate and look at the same screen, just as you would for a pair-programming session (or stand at the whiteboard with them, for a more design-y, less code-y question). Finally, don’t interrogate the candidate, or just let them squirm if they’re stuck; be a good member of the “pair” and help them along.

Go is the founder’s game

I’m currently about two months into founding a company, and, on an unrelated note, I just purchased my first really nice Go board (if you’re not familiar, you’ll probably want to read a bit about Go before continuing). It’s a new game to my wife, so I was explaining some of the basic principles to her this evening, and I was forcibly struck with the similarities to founding a company.

Opportunity cost

Each stone you place on the board during a game can only achieve certain objectives. It may limit the an opponent’s liberties (opportunities for advancement), it may offer your more liberties (sometimes more than one), it might strengthen your established positions, or it might conquer new territory. However, each piece you put down means giving up on other options: sometimes forever, if an opponent takes that place on the board. The best moves are those which do several of these at once.

I find this exactly corresponds to thinking about my business. Every hour I spend on one task is taken away from all the other tasks I might have spent time on. As in the game, it’s very easy spend time on things which are valuable, but not valuable enough. To be most successful, I use the Objectives & Key Results system (from Measure What Matters) to scan the board as a whole (i.e., make goals for the upcoming quarter), and my Getting Things Done (GTD) weekly review to zoom into the details (i.e., select projects and next actions) to pick the best moves I can.

Done is better than perfect

In the game, you often find yourself with a formation (a connected sequence of stones) which is in danger (i.e., about to be captured). In order to save that formation, you need to keep adding stones to it until it is out of danger. However, it’s very tempting to keep adding more stones to make it safer and safer, even though it’s no longer in grave danger (just mild peril). In the meantime, opportunity cost catches up with you. It would have been better to make it “safe enough” and then turn your attention to other, more strategically important, moves.

This is a constant struggle as I work though decisions about my business, since my natural tendency is to make everything “perfect”. For each project I undertake, I challenge myself to find the correct state of “doneness” for the current stage of my business: which is nearly always far, far less than “perfect”. I put “perfect” in quotes because, in the context of getting my business off the ground, taking “perfect” to mean “polished to the utmost degree” is the wrong definition. In this context, the real definition should be “polished to the minimal degree necessary to unlock progress on something more important”.

Keep all the balls in the air

The challenge created by the last principle is that you rapidly wind up with many vulnerable formations on the board at once. With each move, you need to consider each formation to see if it’s in danger of getting taken, or has an opening to extend it to capture new territory. In many cases, an opportunity to start an entirely new formation arises unexpectedly, and now you have one more thing to juggle.

Particularly as a solo founder, this is a daily balancing act. I use my GTD project list to constantly remind myself of the many, varied, projects I have on my plate, and update my action lists daily to deliberately choose which are going to get my attention on a particular day. As I do this, I often choose based upon which important priority hasn’t gotten my attention in a while. Taking this time to reflect is particularly important for me as a technical founder because writing code feels so productive, and therefore can easily absorb an out-sized portion of my time. So, I personally need the constant reminder to keep all the balls in the air: especially those more outside my comfort zone.

Mistakes and sunk costs

Go is a game of capturing territory, and sudden reversals are common. You may be working on building up a certain formation, only to find that your opponent has outflanked you, and that formation is suddenly in danger. If you’re not thoughtful and cautious, it’s very tempting to keep playing more and more stones racing to protect that formation, only to lose it anyway in the end.

The uncertain nature of a new venture means this is a constant danger for my business as well. I need to make a dozen key decisions (and loads more little ones) each week. Most of those are made with too little data, too little expertise, and not remotely enough time to acquire either. Unsurprisingly, those decisions are sometimes sub-optimal, and occasionally terribly wrong. The skill I’m constantly striving to hone is to recognize those mistakes as early as possible: often by seeking out and actually listening to hard feedback. Then, if I discover I’m on the wrong course, to swallow my pride and immediately stop throwing more time and money at it.

Recognizing a lost cause

Most games of Go don’t actually get played all the way until all the stones are on the board. At any point, either player can “pass” on their turn if they don’t think there’s anything productive they can do (it is quite possible to decrease your final score by playing too many stones). If the opponent agrees that there’s nothing productive left to do, then they also pass, and the game is over. I’ve sometimes conceded games where I’ve badly misjudged something within 10 minutes of play (a very short game!). The silver lining is that the sooner you recognize a particular game is over, the sooner you can move on to a game where you’ve got better chances.

Launching a new product starts with a huge pile of hypotheses about what customers want, what they’ll pay, how many people actually want it, etc. And, of course, almost no actual data. The goal, then, is to keep testing hypotheses and converting them into real knowledge of your product, your customers, and your business model. In the happy case, you prove your hypotheses correct, and the business thrives. In the not-so-happy case, you keep finding your hypotheses are incorrect, and eventually, you need to admit that this particular product idea doesn’t have a future. If you’re quick enough to do this, then you might have enough time and money left to try again (and, if you’re extremely good at this, even another time or two after that!).

✧✧✧

Of course, many games rely on these principles to some degree or another. And, it’s entirely possible that my current situation makes me see these principles in everything I do. However, I really do think that Go requires these principles so constantly, and to such a stark, obvious degree that it really is the “founder’s game”.

Reflections on “coming out”

Today, October 11th, is National “Coming Out” day in the US. For those who don’t know, I’m bisexual. I came out publicly last year in this blog post. It’s been almost a year since then, and I thought it would be interesting to reflect back on what’s been like to have been “out” for a year.

Initial reactions

The initial reactions, much to my relief, were universally positive. There were many expressions of how people’s opinions of me didn’t change at all, and how brave I was to have come out at all (esp. considering I’m very straight-passing, and married to a woman). Several people shared their own coming-out stories, and one other friend of mine even decided to come out herself based upon my blog post. I received zero negative remarks (that I ever heard, anyway).

My own reactions were largely of absolute relief to finally have it off my chest. I hadn’t predicted how immense of a relief it would be to no longer be concerned that someone would find out, or “out” me without my permission. Even though it’s still something most strangers don’t know about me, the feeling that I don’t care if they find out is wonderful.

Coming out again, and again, and again…

One thing I hadn’t entirely absorbed before coming out was that you’re really never done coming out. There’s always a new group of people you meet, a new social situation you enter into, that new person who joins your office, whatever. They don’t know you, and eventually it comes up, one way or another, and you find yourself coming out again. And again. And again…

My experience has been that it does get easier over time, but that it’s never easy. I always feel at least a little nervous, and find it difficult to make eye contact. I always feel that little inner cringe of dreading a negative reaction. Even having never received a negative reaction, it’s still a little scary. It has definitely gotten easier, though.

Frequently asked questions

There have been a number of questions which come up pretty often when the subject arises:

  • What did your wife think? (She was cool with it.)
  • What does your son think? (Sex is icky: doesn’t matter who.)
  • Have you ever considered dating a guy? (I was never out enough with myself to consider it until after I was married.)
  • Would you ever consider seeing a guy? (Definitely, but only if I was no longer married.)
  • Do you regret not having dated a guy? (Yes, but in the same way you regret deciding not to go see the Taj Mahal: as a bucket list item you choose to cross off un-done.)

Mostly, people have been very respectful of trying not to pry, but seeing how open I am about it, I get questions which become more and more personal as the conversation progresses. I’ve never received a question I refused to answer outright, but there have been a few for which I give honest, but somewhat circumspect, answers to.

Exploring LGBT+ culture

As I became more comfortable with being “out” myself, I found it increasingly interesting to spend time with or learning about other people who were also “out”. This took the form of reading and posting a lot on Quora, attending the Denver Pride Parade, writing on this blog, talking with LGBT+ friends, and adding some other reading to my usual news feeds.

It’s been eye-opening, to say the least. Getting hit on at the Pride festival following the parade was amusing. Hearing a lot of shared experiences from others (particularly bi people) has been reassuring. Of all of it, though, I’ve found that increased exposure to trans-sexual and poly-amorous people has gotten me past the “feels very foreign” stage to the “fine, but not my thing” stage.

It’s also been interesting to observe that there really isn’t a single LGBT+ culture. There are definitely some cultural norms in there, but it’s more fragmented. Gay men have certain culture norms, as do lesbian women. Bisexuals share common life experience and difficulties, but I’ve not seen a lot of shared “culture” in the same way. As I’ve observed it, the “LGBT+” umbrella gets used mostly when creating a safe space for non-straight genders & sexualities, or when advocating political action. Apart from that, I’ve not seen much evidence of a unified culture across the individual “letters” in the acronym.

Conclusions

Nearly a year later, I’m still very glad I made the choice to come out. I’ve met some fascinating people, had some positive influence on others, and continued to more deeply learn to understand myself, and this larger community I find myself part of. Finally, I continue to feel more and more comfortable with myself, and I think that’s the most important thing of all.

Learning to appreciate the “out” group

A few weekends ago, my wife and I had some friends over for brunch. We had an entirely delightful time. We made breakfast together, swapped stories, joked around, and had a completely wonderful morning. As it turns out, my wife and I are white, and our friends are black. And, as much as I enjoy their company and admire their many accomplishments, I’ve realized I probably don’t appreciate them as much as they deserve.

I grew up in a very white community, and knew only one black person all the way through high school. She was my co-captain of the debate team, and, while we argued some (it was the debate team, after all), I thought very highly of her. But, in retrospect, I also don’t think I appreciated her as much as she deserved either.

However, in both cases, it wasn’t for being too sensitive of my friends’ skin color, but rather for being a little too color-blind.

It’s only been as an adult that the diversity of my group of friends has increased. Over the years, I’ve heard them talk about growing up, their school experiences, their professional experiences, and their adult lives. And only after hearing their stories that I’ve begun to really understand how to appreciate my friends fully. What you don’t really learn when you’ve always been part of the “in” group, is what it’s actually like to be part of the “out” group.

I’ll stop here a moment to say that while I’ve been part of enough “out” groups (e.g., nerdy, Jewish, bisexual) to have some inkling what it’s like, my experiences as part of those groups is far, far more mild than what I’ve heard from my black friends. So much so as to basically not be the same experience at all. I’ll also pause to say that I think the same applies to anyone who isn’t with the “in” group for whatever other reason (e.g., recent immigrants in an English-speaking business, women in engineering, men in nursing, or gay people in a conservative community).

Every company I’ve worked at has been overwhelmingly homogeneous on many axes. And, not all of the people I’ve worked with have much sensitivity toward “out” groups in general. So, when I start to imagine the sense of isolation it must engender being part of a small “out” group, I start to have an appreciation for the determination and self-confidence it must require to show up, and keep coming back: despite not fitting in with the larger group in some way.

And then, there are all the stories of people in an “out” group being passed over because they just don’t seem like management / leadership / whatever material. Or because they “don’t quite click as well” with the rest of the team, or whatever other squishy, hard-to-refute, but nevertheless-bullshit reason. One has to admire the grit and resolve it takes to decide to persevere through such an experience. And then you realize that every person you meet in such an “out” group may well have had to deal with that kind of thing personally.

Or maybe not. Perhaps they were lucky, and didn’t have those negative experiences. As always, making blanket assumptions about an individual based upon some inessential characteristic is dangerous. However, we all do it all the time: at least at first. You can only learn so much about a person in a first meeting, and it takes time to learn their actual history, struggles, and accomplishments. So, in the interval between meeting a person and deeply getting to know them, we all make lots of inferences from what little we do know.

My takeaway, then, is that in early stage of building a friendship with someone, it’s actually not fair to be as perfectly egalitarian as I’d like the world to become. For someone in an “out” group, the accomplishments I see and admire may very well have come at higher cost or effort than I would have expected. As a consequence, a person in that situation most likely deserves some extra credit for the extra friction they’ve had to overcome.

Of course, I fully expect this is all super obvious to anyone who isn’t part of one of the important “in” groups in their life. However, we of the “in” group are mostly so uncomfortable talking about this kind of thing, that it’s not at all obvious to us. I know I’m uncomfortable writing about it now. I feel more than a little blind that it’s taken me so long to become sensitive to it. It’s only after having enough conversations with my friends who are: black in a mostly white environment, female in a mostly male environment, gay in a mostly straight environment, etc. that the broader understanding has come to me.

So, in addition to the earlier takeaway, I’m left with an even more important lesson. It’s admirable to desire and work towards a world which has left racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. behind. However, until we get there, it’s not right to let the vision of that better world make us fail to give due recognition to people whose success comes a little (or a lot) harder because of the world we’re actually in.

Quora: What was the hardest situation you’ve faced?

I’ve been doing most of my writing on Quora these days, which has meant, of course, that I’ve been writing a lot less here. I’m going to start cross-posting some of the longer and more interesting questions & answers here so that this blog doesn’t completely go idle.

✧✧✧

I was 25 years old. My son was less than two months old, and my wife was no longer working (to stay with him). We had two car payments and a mortgage on our very first home. I’d just left a very well-paying job at IBM to take a chance with an exciting new job at a tiny, local company.

I got laid off three weeks before Christmas.

I remember it was a Friday, just before lunch. The company, a consulting agency, had just lost a major contract and needed to make cutbacks. It was also a cooperative (i.e., owned by the employees). I was a fairly recent hire, and hadn’t yet been made into a full member. So, despite being one of the more qualified people on staff, I was one of the ones they let go.

After spending the better part of the weekend in a panic, I figured the only thing to do was to start looking for a job. I went after it with a vengeance. Resumes sent, phone interviews, in-person interviews, and lots of time searching job boards and following up leads.

In the end, I landed at Amazon. It turned out to be one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. I learned how to be a manager, launched a major new feature on the website, and learned a ton about building large-scale websites.

I also learned one of the most important lessons of my life. No matter how bad things seem (and they seemed really, really bad at the moment), the best way to proceed is to evaluate your current options, pick the best one, and get started.

Building a Minecraft Modpack

I’ve been a huge fan of Minecraft for about seven years now. However, the basic game, while fun for a while, does tend to lose its interest after a while. Fortunately, there’s a huge universe of free add-ons, called “mods”, created by the community at large. In fact, there are so many that you couldn’t possibly just add them all to your game. So, the question is, how do you select which ones you’d like to have in your “mod pack”?

1. Choose a theme

I always start by choosing a theme. The easiest theme is to pick one mod you especially want to try out, and then select a bunch of other mods which complement that mod. So, for example, the last modpack I built started with a very realistic railroading mod called Immersive Railroading. From there, I picked a mod which adds a bunch of Victorian-age technology, some mods which add more food and crops, some which add more realistic biomes, and so forth. However, everything I added was required to fit the theme of Victorian-age railroading.

There are, of course, a lot of other ways to select themes. Perhaps you want a modpack based around space exploration, or one based upon super realistic wilderness survival, or exploring magical realms. Whatever you pick, let that be the guiding principle around all the rest of the choices you make, because there will be a lot of choices!

2. Select your Minecraft & Forge versions

Minecraft releases updates periodically which then requires the authors of each individual mod to make adjustments to their mods. For minor version updates, these are usually minor changes, but between major version updates, these can be quite substantial. For example, the changes between versions 1.7 and 1.8 were so substantial that the massive Lord of the Rings Mod is still only compatible for Minecraft 1.7.10, which was released in June 2014! All else being equal, my rule of thumb is to pick the newest version of Minecraft which has been out for 6 months. However, if a certain mod I really want to use is only available for older versions, I’ll fall back to the newest version it supports.

Nearly all mods these days rely on Minecraft Forge, a low-level interface for mod programmers to interface with the game itself. If you’re interested in building your own custom modpack, you’ll also need to pick which version of Forge to use. My rule of thumb here is to pick the most recent “stable” version available for my chosen Minecraft version.

3. Select candidate mods

The first phase of your many, many choices will be to pick out a bunch of mods which might be a good fit. I usually do this by going to the CurseForge Mods List, filtering by the Minecraft version I’m using, and sorting by most popular. I’ll briefly consider whether each mod might be a good fit with the theme of my modpack. If so, I’ll download the version which fits my Minecraft version.

In this phase, I almost always wind up with way more mods than I could reasonably fit into the modpack. I also wind up with a bunch of mods which might seem to fit the theme, but wind up not. Or, I might wind up with a bunch of mods which provide nearly identical functionality. Thats fine at this stage, but we’ll want to start narrowing things down in the next stage.

4. Mod exploration

Next, I’ll take each mod, one at a time, or in small groups which are closely related, and try them out. I often do this in creative mode so I can just tinker with the stuff the mod adds, and form my own ideas about how well it fits the modpack, and whether it’s a fun addition to the rest of the pack. I particularly try to weed out anything which seems too buggy, poorly balanced, or duplicates too much from another mod I like better.

As you’re working through this stage, you’ll often find a variety of errors and problems. Frequently, it will be that the mod you selected requires some other mod which you now need to go find and install. Sometimes, this will turn up a mod which requires a newer / older version of Forge than you’ve selected. In that case, you need to be very careful about upgrading / downgrading as you might run into even more problems with other mods which were happy with the version you already had!

I also try to make sure I fully understand what each mod does during this stage. This will often require tinkering with the config files to see what options are available, whether items I don’t like can be eliminated, and whether various things can be made easier or harder. I’m also looking for how well each mod interacts with related mods. For example, if I’m adding a mod which uses electrical power, I try to figure out if it can interact well with the primary mod(s) I’m using to provide it.

5. Down selection

By this point, I’ve got a pretty good idea of what each of the mods do, and how well they integrate with the other mods I’m considering. At this point, I’m trying to pick one and only one mod to serve each of a bunch of various functions in the game:

  • tweak the game’s UI
  • alter fundamental game dynamics
  • control terrain generation
  • control ore generation & add new ores
  • add additional biomes / control biome selection
  • add additional mobs: passive & active
  • additional trees, plants, flowers, crops, etc.
  • control mob spawning
  • add electrical power (if applicable)
  • add a system of magic (if applicable)
  • add helpful items to the game
  • customize recipes & remove items

Of course, one can’t always isolate each of these functions to a single mod, but the goal is to at least get down to a set which don’t directly compete with one another in strange ways (e.g., Dynamic Trees adds cool growing trees… but they don’t work with trees added by the Forestry mod).

This is the stage where you make the hard choices of which ones win out, and which get removed. It is often the case that a whole bunch of mods all work together very well, and some one mod has a bad interaction with just one of them. Sadly, this pretty much always means that you have to nix the “some one mod”.

6. Configuring by layers

If you take all the mods you’ve selected and activate them all at once, you pretty much always run into a mess of errors and incompatibilities. I like to tackle this problem one layer at a time. Using the list from step 5, I add in all the mods which deal with each item in the list at once, and then start up the game. Hopefully, you already worked out the hard crashes and incompatibles abck in step 4, so the problems you run into now are just ways in which these mods interact that you simply don’t like. Go back to the config files for each mod, and fine-tune the settings until that layer is working just as you like. Then proceed to the next layer.

With each layer that you get working to your satisfaction, backup your complete setup. It’s very easy to accidentally introduce problems which don’t become apparent for a while, so you definitely want to be able start over from the last thing you had working pretty often.

7. Play testing

Once you have the configs all set, it’s time to really test things out. There are a number of things I’m looking for at this stage. Some of them can be tested in a creative world (usually much faster and easier), but many can only be tested in survival (where the availability of resources and chains of recipes become important). Here’s a list of things I’m looking for as I do my play testing:

  • Is it easy to stay alive in survival through the first full day?
  • If certain resources are key to your various mods, are they readily accessible?
  • Are resources which are intended to be rare actually hard to find?
  • Do mods which are supposed to interact with one another actually do so successfully (e.g., do the HarvestCraft plants work with your Agricraft crop sticks)
  • Do mobs (active & passive) show up where and when they are supposed to, and in acceptable numbers?
  • Do you get crashes when you do anything, or visit certain places?
  • Does the overall world generation match your expectations / purposes for the modpack?

Ideally, you’ll be able to pull together a few people to play the modpack a bit on their own (both in creative and survival) before committing to using it on your server world.

✧✧✧

I hope this helps make the rather daunting process of putting together a substantial modpack a bit easier! It usually takes me about 20–30 hours to get all the way through this process for modpacks with around 100 mods in them. For an example of a modpack I put together this way, check out Brunel on GitHub. Enjoy!

Is blaming the victim always wrong?

I’ve noticed this strange pattern of how people talk to one another about certain kinds of crimes: most especially rape against a female victim. The dialog usually starts with someone (almost always a man), saying something like “she was dressed too provocatively”, or “she shouldn’t have drunk so much”. This is immediately following by someone else (usually a woman) saying something like: “she should be able to dress however she wants; it doesn’t give anyone the right to rape her”.

First, I think we can all agree that there is no such thing as a right to rape anyone, for any reason, at any time. Doesn’t matter where they are, what they’ve been doing, how they’re dressed… full stop. No one is morally allowed to rape anyone else. If we can agree on that point, then we can also agree that it is in no way a woman’s fault for getting raped: no matter how she’s dressed or what she’s been doing.

It’s rapists who are at fault for raping. We should focus on teaching them not to rape, or, at the very least, providing some massive disincentives to do so. Right? Right. Of course. Rapists shouldn’t rape.

Now that we’ve got that settled… everyone will be fine, right?

Of course not.

Immoral people will always exist, and while we will always condemn immoral actions and try to educate / reform the people to commit them, that doesn’t actually do any good for someone already victimized by a criminal.

That raises the question of what are our moral obligations to looking after ourselves: especially in a dangerous situation. Let’s change the example. Let’s say I (a man) am walking through a bad part of town, at night, alone, in a smart suit with gold cufflinks. And, I get jumped. They take my wallet, cufflinks, and phone. They beat me up pretty well, and knock out a few teeth. Hell, let’s say I even get raped by one of the thugs, who happens to be gay. What responsibility do I bear for this event?

Clearly, I am not guilty of assault, robbery, or rape. I did none of those things, and the guilt for all of them lies completely on the thugs. Am I guilty of anything, then? Yes. I’m guilty of failing to properly assess the danger of my situation and taking sensible precautions. I have a moral responsibility to myself of looking out for my own person and property. In this case, I failed to do so.

It is crucial to differentiate between the level and nature of moral guilt here. The thugs are, without question, far more guilty of a much worse action. They deliberately, and purposefully, initiated violence against another person. On the other hand, I carelessly neglected my own safety. On the one hand, you have a egregious fault of morality, and on the other hand, a minor lapse—even if it had severe consequences. The difference in guilt here is so extreme as to practically bear no comparison.

I think this is the essence of the strange verbal exchange which started this essay. One mentality looks at a crime victim, and thinks the victim should have done more to protect themselves. The other looks and the criminal, and says we should prevent crime.

Both of these are correct stances. Both parties did something wrong. However, since these are not remotely equivalent wrongs, it is outrageous to focus one’s attention on the minor fault committed by the victim, instead of focusing on the immeasurably greater guilt of the criminal. And yet, one routinely hears more attention given to the women’s clothing, activities, or appearance after a rape than on the criminal.

So, yes, it can, sometimes, be proper to blame the victim, but absolutely not for the crime. At best they failed to take some necessary precaution (though even that doesn’t apply in most cases). They can—in no way—be blamed for the crime itself. The moral culpability for the crime is always 100% on the criminal.