What the Creator of the Email Protocol can teach us about Politics and Religion

If you’ve never hear the term “Postel Christian”, that’s not surprising, as I’m coining it here for the first time.  The term is derived from Jon Postel, the technologist who created the email protocol, and described the “robustness principle” in RFC 761,  known as Postel’s Law:

Be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept

The basic idea of Postel’s concept is that in certain domains  it is advantageous to design systems to be forgiving (liberal) in what they accept and yet strict (conservative) in what they do.  Postel’s Law allows diverse participants to function together on a network, ensuring that that the system inter-operates, despite the fact that not all participants follow the rules strictly.

Although Postel was describing the technology behind email, the same principle can be applied in other areas.  In writing, for example, it is a good idea to try to follow proper spelling and punctuation, while at the same time also being forgiving of those who don’t.

Beyond Liberal vs Conservative

To extend the analogy to other domains, I consider myself neither entirely liberal or conservative.  I “actconservative in many areas of my personal life — my finances are conservative, I don’t swear, or drink.  I try to respect the rules unless I feel that they are wrongheaded, yet I am freer than many self-described conservatives to associate with people of diverse backgrounds who don’t always follow the rules and I have more in common with many on the left on some social issues.  So where do I fit on the Liberal-Conservative Continuum?

When most people think about liberalism and conservatism, they thing about about the label as applying to one’s self.  What Postel’s framework does is add a second axis to distinguish between the strictness of the standard I hold myself to verses the standard with which I interact with my neighbors.  Most people are familiar with The Golden Rule, which calls for a symmetry between your love of self and your love of others, but Jesus actually asked for more then symmetry, he asked for grace and did not cut off others whom did not meet the standard.

I like to think that Jesus was a “Postel Christian”.  He said he had not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it, which I interpret as living according to the spirit of the law (conserving the essence of tradition), while at the same time hanging out with tax collectors and prostitutes, which would have appeared scandalously liberal to the strictly law-abiding Pharisees.

Postel Christians Matrix” width=

We’re in a time of change, with political realignment taking place in the Republican party.  David Brooks says that Trumpism is an utter repudiation of modern conservatism.  Maybe so, but maybe its also time for a broader  reconsideration of the traditional Liberal and Conservative labels.

I’m an Anabaptist (Mennonite) so I’m used to not fitting within the standard Catholic/Protestant typology.  Third Way.com describes some of this in more detail, but within Anabaptism there are differences in approach.

A friend of mine’s family left the Beachy Amish when he was young and then associated with conservative Mennonites.  When I talked to Phil about the “Postel Christian” concept for this article, he commented that the Amish are in quadrant two.  They have strict expectations for their own community, but they don’t expect others to follow them, and they are able to relate to non-believers.

He said the conservative Mennonites he knew couldn’t develop friendships with  outsiders for fear that they would be corrupted.  I talked this “Postel Christian” idea over with his brother Andrew and described to Andrew about how I choose to be friendly with my neighbor, even as he smokes and sits outside with a beer in his hand.1  I don’t smoke and I recognize that second-hand smoke can be damaging, but I figure in low doses it is more important to be neighborly than to protect myself.  Andrew said that the people at his church would not be able to engage this way with my neighbor because they would feel an obligation to either publicly denounce the neighbor’s drinking and smoking, or shun him.  For some, this response is done out of a fear that they wouldn’t be able to resist the objectionable behavior; and for others they would avoid the neighbor because they don’t want to be seen as condoning bad behavior.

Does Postel’s Law apply to all of life?  Must I be forgiving of everyone?

One misunderstanding about Postel Christianity regards its scope.  Say, for example, that you ran a software company.  Would you as an owner or manager have to let employees do anything they want, applying a strict standard only to yourself?  No, subgroups (companies, churches, civic groups) are free to hold themselves to a stricter standard.

So if I had a software company called Postel Software, I could insist that all of our HTML validates and our Python code follows the PEP 8 standard.  But the key difference is that, if we are a company making a product which interoperates with web pages created by anyone on the internet, it should be designed like Google’s Chrome browser, not requiring every web page to be perfectly valid HTML.  This is an accurate description of how web browsers do, in fact, work.  I know of no web browser that treats html web pages strictly.

This doesn’t mean that there are not rules that can’t be broken.  If I am at my local electronics shop and I see a customer attempting to steal something, I will alert to store owner.  But if my neighbor is mainly harming himself, or setting a bad example, I am more forgiving.

The Benedict Option

Rod Dreher of The American Conservative has written a book called The Benedict Option, advocating that conservatives withdraw from mainstream American society to isolated communities where they can preserve Orthodox Christianity.  From what I’ve read, LGBT issues are an important factor in this decision, with Rod fearing that the government is going to force Christian-affiliated schools and colleges to violate their consciences.

One of the questions I have about Dreher’s proposal is about exactly where he draws the line and why.  Is he willing to interact with neighbors who may be gay, or who may think differently about LGBT issues, so long has he is able to maintain the freedom to exclude LGBT people from his churches, church-affiliated colleges, etc.  If Christians are given an exception allowing them to opt out of participation in LGBT wedding ceremonies, as Skye Jethani of the Phil Vischer podcast has said, and  wedding cake decorators are free to deny decorating services to LGBT couples on the theory that a cake decorating mandate violates artistic expression, would Dreher be willing to accept a mandate that required him to sell generic uncustomized cakes to anyone?  Or would Dreher want to allow businesses of any kind to deny any type of service to LGBT customers?

The point I’m getting at is — is Dreher willing to coexist with his neighbors, knowing that he will come in contact with people with whom he disagrees, or does his faith require him to shun them?

If Dreher really believes that self-preservation requires him to minimize his exposure to non-believers, I can understand. I live in Lancaster County and grew up in a progressive Mennonite home without a television (although I did go to public school).  My parents shielded me from some things, but they accepted that I would have to go out into a world that is at odds with the Mennonite faith and make my own choices.

Many Mennonites have developed a theology calling for separation from general society based on an interpretation of bible passages that call on believers to be “in the world but not of the world“.  My church is among the more progressive of Mennonites, living a modern life (I’m a computer programmer), engaging with the world, but trying to maintain a different ethic.  Critics of the type of separatism that Dreher advocates, such as Elizabeth Stoker Brunei, question how followers of the Benedict option can follow the second commandment to love their neighbor, while at the same time wanting nothing to do with them.

The Illiberal Left

A lot of the conflict in these scenarios is between quadrant three and quadrant four.  Besides hypocritical conservatives, Quadrant four contains people who identify themselves as “liberal,” yet are unwilling to coexist with quadrant four conservatives.

Recently, Heather Mac Donald, author of “The War On Cops” was invited to speak to students at Claremont-McKenna College in California.  One might debate whether her arguments are persuasive or wrong-headed, but the opposition among students was such that event organizers “were considering changing the venue to a building with fewer glass windows to break.”  The Wall Street Journal quoted the CMC College president as saying that students had blocked people from entering the venue.  Columist William McGurn attributes the conflict to the students a belief “that they should never have to hear an opinion different from their own.”

It is quadrant three and four that pose the greatest challenge to pluralism.  Decreasing tolerance from quadrant four “illiberal liberals” antagonizes conservatives and drives conservatives in quadrant three like Dreher to consider separatist strategies.

Are these groups irreconcilable?  I don’t know.  As I interact with more people, I’m increasingly interested in looking for ways that can strengthen American pluralism, allowing Christians to learn from each other and from the broader society.2

  1. Yes, I realize that the rules about governing alcohol and smoking are not the same in all cultures.  I chose these two behaviors because they are forbidden by many of the conservatives I come into contact with.

  2. I am inspired to read that René Girard became a convert to Christianity after reading literature like Cervantes and Dostoyevsky

Journalists and Technologists Should Collaborate to Build More Trustworthy Media

Most people don’t know that the Web we have today is not its original design, but a simplified (or “dumbed down”) version that Tim Berners-Lee created because it was easier to implement than internet pioneer Ted Nelson‘s original 1965 design.

The compromising design Berners-Lee released on the Internet in 1991 made it easier for programmers to implement but had Nelson’s original design been fully implemented instead, Web browsers would display the context of each quotation, making the Internet more resistant to certain types of “Fake News”.

My article focuses on one part of the Fake News problem — out of context quotations — and gives two high profile examples of how out-of-context quotations mutated into damaging Fake News stories, even before social media was mainstream:

  1. Al Gore: I invented the Internet (1999), and
  2. Sarah Palin: I can see Russia from my House (2008).

I conclude by describing 3 ways technologists could work with journalists to develop technology that could prevent this type of story mutation from occurring and build greater trust in media.

How Bad Data-Driven Decision-Making Led to the Mistake of “New Coke”

new coke

The Testing Threat

In the 1980s, Coca-Cola executives were shocked to learn that what Pepsi advertisements said was true — in a random taste test, people preferred Pepsi over Coke.  Coca-Cola executives responded with a massive retooling effort, resulting in a product dubbed “New Coke”.

“New Coke” turned out to be a major flop.  What we know in hindsight is that the way taste-tests are done is biased — in small amounts (sips) people prefer the sweeter drink, but in larger amounts (a 12 ounce can), people preferred the original Coca-Cola formula.

The Imperfect Metric

This is a phenomenon that happens all the time — An effort is made to quantify success.  The metric chosen is imperfect; yet people exert a lot of effort to maximize or minimize the metric, even if flaws in the metric are known.  I’ve talked to students who don’t understand the concepts they are studying, but simply memorize the “correct answers” because they know that is how they will be evaluated.  Teachers teach to the test; and students study to the test.

Music: Data Driven by Shazam

In a similar way, the author of an Atlantic article describes a smartphone app called Shazam.  A “Shazam” is equivalent to a google search for music; but the music industry treats search traffic for a song as if it were the same as a Facebook “like”.

So, what meaning does the Shazam metric really convey?  Quality? Novelty?  Attention?

The music industry has made “Shazam” the new “test”, and by “teaching to the test” the direction of the music industry has shifted.  The industry is now more data-driven, but the result is more repetitious music with predictable chord progressions — a sort of “comfort food” (6 min).

So like “New Coke”, does our our crude big-data analysis result in better music, or are we just making it simpler and “sweeter”?

Open Source Media

A lot of people think about software when they hear the words “open source,” but I’d like to extend the concept to “media”.  By that I mean books, tv, magazines, radio, etc.


The basic idea is simple — suppose you’re reading a book about Jack Kennedy that makes an interesting claim and then cites its source with a footnote to an “NBC Interview with Jack Kennedy: Chet Huntley and David Brinkley in the Oval Office in the White House, Sept 9, 1963.”

One of my first questions would be: “Can I get a transcript of the interview?”  A second would be: “Can a get a recording of the whole interview?”  Without the first, I can’t verify what the president said.  Without the second, I can’t get the context.

Two related questions this raises are: “What are the ground rules for the interview;” and “How much editing was done to produce the final product?”

It’s interesting that in Brinkley’s interview, the president was given a number of “mulligans,” although he appears not to have seen the questions ahead of time.

One of the commenters noted:

The media and politicos are in cahoots, rehearsing the interview.

Ground Rules for Interviewing

So I’ve been thinking: “What are fair ground rules for an interview?”  Here’s a few ideas:

  1. The full recording, including out-takes, should be available for the historical record.
  2. Should anything be left out of the transcript?  Inevitably I think the answer will have to be yes, unless you get rid of all “off-the-record” interviews.  I also think the appropriateness of off-the-record remarks varies according to the degree of power that the interviewee has.  The secrets of the powerful often warrant less protection than the secrets of the weak.
  3. It may take time to gain the trust of the interviewee; and in real-life, the interviewer only begins recording when trust has been established and the interviewee is ready.

The Complete Record

I’ve sometimes wondered, what would happen if journalists tried to put everything on the record.  They would record their telephone calls asking for the interview. They would share all their email correspondence.  They would begin recording as they approached the office or home of the interviewee and then just keep filming until after they left.  And they would publish the entire contents of this “record” with every interview they did.  This is now feasible on the web, whereas it was impractical in the television or print-only world.

Now of course most people wouldn’t care to watch the whole thing; but a few would; and they might post notable things for the inspection of a wider group.  Is this what we want?

Paris Review Style Interview

An alternate model is employed by the literary journal “The Paris Review.”  It’s editors like to select their favorite authors to interview; and they give the authors full license to edit their answers.

Naturally, the authors are used to choosing their words carefully; and this approach allows them to extend such care to the interview.  It allows the author to say exactly what they want, potentially resulting in more clarity, or alternatively less accountably.

Speaking about interviewing authors, David Fenza says:

A good literary interview is not faithful to the actual spoken event.  The transcript of the actual spoken interview should only serve as a draft of a dialogue that will, eventually, present the writer as completely and succinctly as possible.  A good literary interview is improvisational, but it’s also revisionary.  Writers are creatures who succeed through revision; they are most themselves when they revise; and this should carry over into the interview.

When to allow a “Paris-Review” style interview depends on the type of interview desired. In any case, the ground rules should be disclosed.

If a President is given chances to “edit” their answers, there should be some indication of this when the interview is published.  But no matter how the interview is edited or revised, can the full historical record be preserved?

It is common to see something like “This is an edited and condensed version of the interview.” It would be interesting to see some sort of statistical disclosure about how much of the included text was changed; and how much was excluded.