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Reading “I don’t like your examples” in 2024

One of my favorite pieces of writing, technical or not, is called “I don’t like your examples!” by Steven Feuerstein which he first published 2 decades ago on the O’Reilly website [internet archive link]. It has a publish date of 11 October 2000. In the essay, he writes about his book on PL/SQL for Oracle. Database programming is an important topic for programmers and anyone who manages data, and Oracle was the top-of-the-line tool in 2000.

Why does this piece of writing stay in my mind? Here’s an excerpt:

Now, I expect it’s not every day you pick up a technology text and read a charge that Henry Kissinger is a war criminal for the secret bombing of Cambodia. The examples I used in this book, in fact, were dramatically different from my earlier texts–and from just about any technology book you can buy. Here are some of the other topics I incorporated into my text:

  • Excessive CEO compensation–and excessive, destructive layoffs
  • Union-busting activities
  • Positive role of unions in society
  • Police brutality
  • NATO bombing of civilian targets in Serbia
  • Managed Care
  • National Rifle Association and gun control
  • The prison industry
  • Slashing social programs to finance tax cuts

I think I last read it in full in 2016, when I was able to use Twitter to share the piece and tag him. He replied to me:

Thanks, Joe, means a lot to me. Fun moment in my writing career. Now available on my personal blog!

Steven revisits the piece periodically too, in 2020 he put it on his website: I don’t like your examples!.

Go read the essay. No, really, do it. Or I’ll excerpt it again:

It seems to me that one part of having a true and vibrant democracy is the free flow of ideas and active debate among neighbors on the crucial issues of our day. Does that go on around you? I sure don’t experience it in my neck of the woods. On the contrary, I find that, in the United States, very few people are willing to talk “politics.” It is, along with the topic of money and sex, generally veered away from in trepidation. Better to comment on the weather and sports.

Where would such an attitude come from? Much of any individual’s behavior in society is patterned after what she or he perceives to be acceptable. Most of us do not want to stand out as different, and certainly not as “troublemakers.” What determines acceptability in our society? To a large extent, the mass media.

Reflect on the television, radio, and print media reports you receive: How often do you see real political debate, crossing the entire spectrum, taking place? How often do you hear a member of the media truly challenge politicians and business “leaders” to justify their policies and actions? I believe that very little real debate ever takes place and our journalists, especially the high-profile ones, treat those in power with kid gloves.

The world is better, incrementally, but it’s not near enough. From the excerpted list above, union activity today is increasing but still far below US highs. Police brutality in the US continues. We’ve not solved healthcare in the US but it’s improved slightly since 2000. Guns are still endemic in the US. Civilian bombing occurs by many actors in many venues. The prison-industrial complex persists. And the first one on that list: “Excessive CEO compensation–and excessive, destructive layoffs” — wow, that’s not changed at all.

I take this as a challenge. I have written very little on current state of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia or on the ongoing war and atrocities taking place in Israel and Palestine. I’ve refrained mostly out of sheepishness that what more can my voice add? when really folks might just want to look at toy robots and pictures of the beach.

Personal publishing has not solved our political problems. Technical writing neither.

I fear then I give the impression that I have no opinions on these matters. And if I don’t write on my writing platform, that’s a fair impression for a reader to get. We are in a small sense complicit. The more important thing we must do is reach out to those who represent us politically and make sure they know that what we wish is for them to¬†do something about these issues. That’s the operating system of a functioning democracy. We are the components of that system, and if we don’t agitate our reps then nothing happens.

I feel frustrated, and not everybody wants to talk about it. And many who want to talk about it are straight up lying and misinforming. My wish would be for writing like Mr. Feuerstein’s can help us find our voices to speak truth to power.

There’s a quote about newspapers–that they ought to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” You can read more about that here. That seems like a quote worth thinking about.

I have no conclusion to draw. But it has been a difficult few years for most of us and I suspect my aim is say I want a better world. And I’m here to report that if you’re reading this you must reckon with what you can do to get to that better world.

Maybe even with writing.

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