About Difficult Run

I’m Nathaniel Givens, and Difficult Run started out as my personal blog in November 2012. In August 2013, I turned it into a group blog by adding a bunch of my talented friends as fellow editors. (You can see the current roster here.) When I started DR, I was working a job in the DC area that had me away from my family Sunday through Friday. It was a tough, lonely period but I wanted to make the most of time I had away from my kids so I started the blog and took the name from a signpost I passed on my run (or bike ride) to and from work.

2014-01-04 Difficult Run

It turns out that Difficult Run is just the name of the little stream that runs under the bridge in the photo, but I liked the idea of putting a positive spin on adversity. After all: if a workout isn’t difficult then you’re not accomplishing anything.

DR had about 57,000 visitors in its first complete year of existence (2013) and then another 50,000 visitors in the first two months of 2014. So far,the top 5 most-visited stories are:

  1. On Rape Culture in the Ensign (The Lack Thereof)
  2. Health Insurance vs. Food Insurance
  3. A Society Meet for Male Priesthood
  4. Understanding the Missing Empathy of Ender’s Author
  5. True Math Facts That Will Blow Your Mind

Currently, we post short new pieces on a daily basis. These usually link to content elsewhere along with some new commentary. We also post longer, original features on a weekly basis. You can follow DR via email, via RSS, or on Facebook.

By the way, if you’re curious about the tagline for the website, we pick them from song lyrics more or less at random and change it up every now and then. Here’s a post that keeps track of all the past taglines, and where they come from.

(Last updated: March 12, 2014)

Difficult Run 2015 Recap

At the beginning of every year, I post a review of the prior year. I like to go over traffic stats, finances, other changes, and then talk about the year ahead. As an added bonus this time, I’m going to also review some of the stories from 2015 that have caused me second-thoughts since I wrote them.

2015 Traffic

Traffic stats do not motivate our posts here at Difficult Run, but as a data nerd I find them inherently interesting. And let’s not kid around: writing is a lot more rewarding when it has an impact. And for that to happen, other people have to read your stuff.

On that score, I’m pleased with the healthy growth we have here at Difficult Run. It might be a small fish in a big pond, but it’s our fish, and it’s growing nicely. Here’s a look at blog traffic for the three complete years DR has been online.

DR Annual Traffic 2013-2015

The exact totals are 57,270 (for 2013), 112,668 (for 2014) and 146,936 (for 2015). Here’s to cracking 200,000 in 2016!

We also have a Facebook Page that is up to 215 followers and an email list with 140 members. I also use a WordPress plugin called Jetpack to do basic site monitoring, traffic, and a few other things. And Jetpack puts its own year-in-review together. Here it is.

2015 Top Posts

Here are top 5 posts from along with their total views by the end of 2015:

  1. When Social Justice Isn’t About Justice (22,732 views since November 25, 2015)
  2. Some Sad Puppy Data Analysis (21,151 views since April 14, 2015)
  3. Lots of Hugo Losers (6,774 views since August 24, 2015)
  4. Why John Dehlin Faces Church Discipline (6,590 views since January 20, 2015)
  5. Wisdom and the Wiesn (2,076 views since October 1, 2015)

It’s kind of an interesting range of topics: politics, sci-fi, and Mormonism. Eclectic. That’s how we like to roll here at Difficult Run, although we also tend to have a lot of posts on economics (but no big ones that made the list this year.)

2015 Finances

We display Amazon ads on Difficult Run. The way those work, is that if you click the ad and then buy something from Amazon (even if you don’t buy the thing we were advertising), we got a small percentage of the order (usually about 4%).

We also ran some ads for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the end of the year, and that’s something we might try again in 2016, if they’d like us to. (None of the money from that brief campaign was received in 2015, however.

Additionally, I’ve received two very generous and unsolicited donations from an anonymous reader. Here’s how that all stacked up:

  • Amazon Ad Revenue: $100.78
  • Donations: $600
  • Total: $700.78

During 2015, we were paying $30/month for hosting, and we spent another $15 on domain registration. So that was $375. So, for the first time, Difficult Run paid for its own hosting this year! That’s pretty exciting, and there’s enough money left over to pay for (most of) the hosting in 2016.

Difficult Run was never intended as a major source of revenue. The only goal has been to cover the hosting costs, which will continue to go up as our traffic increases. So far, we look to be self-sufficient (thanks primarily to our generous benefactor), and that is really nice.

Blog Changes: New Host! New Domain Registrar!

At the start of 2015, we outgrew the budget $5/month hosting that I’d been using since launching Difficult Run. Instead, we migrated to a dedicate WP hosting company. It was a huge improvement, but by the end of the year the new host was starting to let us down with extended outages and emergency server migrations. (Luckily a lot of this was during the Christmas – New Year’s period when traffic is pretty light.) So, earlier this month, we migrated to a new host.

Our new host is Appteryx. They were absolutely great about the transfer, despite the fact that I goofed and took down the old site before telling them that we had a deadline to get the new one up. They were gracious about that and—more than that—really, really fast. Website speed and reliability has also been great. If you’re looking for a host, definitely consider them.

We also switched our domain registrar. Our new registrar is Google. The old one went down several times in 2015, and I’m hoping that with Google that will no longer be an issue!

Second Thoughts from 2015

There are two posts that have given me second thoughts since I posted them in 2015. I’m sure these aren’t the only mistakes I’ve made. In fact, I don’t even really consider either one to be a mistake. (Although I have certainly made some of them!) They are just posts that haven’t really sat well with me in the months since I posted them. Let me tell you why.

Irving, Texas Saved from Homemade Clock (September 16, 2015)

This story seemed so simple to me when it broke. More than that, it resonated with me. Kids being bullied for being different? Especially nerdy kids? Yeah, that hit home. And so—along with a great deal of the Internet—I rushed to the keyboard to vent my outrage.

Don’t I know better than that?

I do. Or at least, I should. Looks like I had to learn the lesson one more time.

As far as I can tell, a lot of the original criticisms are still valid. The school’s reaction—and the police’s—seems unreasonable. No one ever thought that anyone was in real danger. However, the more that I read the less clear-cut it seemed. There was no single article that opened my eyes, but I paid attention over the coming months and lots of little things combined to make me think I’d been hasty in my rush to judgment. Examples: first, no clock was created. The kid just broke open an old clock and stuff it inside a little pencil case that looked like miniature briefcase. Those images were missing from the first stories (I saw one before I published mine, but ignored the second thoughts it prompted). This gets worse rather than better combined with stories that Ahmed actually was fairly skilled. He had made cool projects, but this wasn’t one of them. Several other things didn’t feel quite right, and then—most recently—came word that he was suing for $15 million. Given all the incredible gifts, opportunities, and offers he’d received from Silicon Valley and others, that just seems excessive.

I’m not going to make the same mistake in reverse. I don’t know exactly what was going on. I just can’t feel any confidence in my initial response, and I wish I’d waited rather than rushing to judgment.

Lesson learned. Again.

Thoughts on Immigrants, Refugees, and Fear (September 10, 2015)

Even more than with the previous issue, the emotional core of this is something I stand by. Reaching out in love and rising above our fear is so important to who we are—or should be—as a nation. I watched another GOP primary debate (this one without Trump), and it was so depressing to hear the candidates fall over each other to talk about how scary the world is, how scary ISIS is, how scary everything is. ISIS is a bunch of truly evil dudes, yes, but they’re not the USSR. We’re not facing the possibility of existential defeat in ISIS. Not from their guns or bombs, anyway. The bigger thread, by far, is that in our overreaction and in our fear we lose our own soul.

However, when it comes to the actual policy of immigration (especially to Europe), I have to admit that some of the skeptics had a point. One thing that was covered frequently at the time was that a great deal of the incoming refugees were unaccompanied young men rather than families. That raised red flags at the time, not necessarily in terms of their intentions, but in terms of the unique problems that this could have for integration.

Since then, one article that caught my attention came from the Gatestone Institute in October. Titled Germany: Migrant Crime Wave, Police Capitulate, the article cites the President of the German Police Union saying that German police “hardly dare to stop a car” in some neighborhoods, “because they know that they’ll be surrounded by 40 or 50 men.”

Meanwhile a December article shows that the response in Germany has been a historic run on weapons of all kinds.

And then early this month there were the harrowing tales of mass sexual assault committed by immigrant populations against young German women in cities across Germany, most notably in Cologne. It’s important to be cautious about stories that fit so neatly into racist stereotypes (“We have to protect our women!”), but the facts seem beyond dispute. One IB Times article has the total number of criminal complaints from New Year’s Eve up to 516, with nearly ½ of them related to sexual assault. Reporting at CNN and Der Spiegel concurs.

It’s not like this is all new to me. In the original article, I wrote:

We should not be reckless and we should not be irresponsible, but we should also not be afraid to take chances to do what ought to be done.

I knew things could go wrong. I just didn’t expect it to be so blatant or so fast.

I’d like to end on a positive note. As covered by the BBC, in December 2015 Muslim Kenyans refused to allow themselves to be separated from Christian Kenyans and in so doing prevented their Christian neighbors from being massacred by Islamist terrorists. And then, just a couple of days ago, a conference of Muslim leaders meeting in Morocco released a statement citing religious freedom in the ancient Constitution of Medina, highlighting the “urgent need for cooperation among all religious groups,” and saying that “such cooperation must go beyond mutual tolerance and respect, to providing full protection for the rights and liberties to all religious groups in a civilized manner that eschews coercion, bias, and arrogance.”

Religious understanding is possible. It is essential. But it can also be hard and complicated. For me, this means I assess the risks as even higher than I thought they were, but still believe in the essential mission of moving against the current of fear instead of giving into it.

Difficult Run in 2016

We already have a ton of great articles lined up. As for myself, personally, I have several topics that I want to do some research on before presenting them here. Sites like Wait But Why and Slate Star Codex along with pieces like When Social Justice Isn’t About Justice and Some Sad Puppy Data Analysis all give me confidence that if you invest the time in research and longer, original pieces you can find an audience and make an impact. In particular, I’ve got a series of articles on the definition of religious freedom a friend (and law professor) gave to me and also a series of articles comparing the role of Sharia in the US court system to ecclesiastical courts from other faiths (especially Jewish Halakha.) So look forward to those, and also to some new members we hope to bring on board this year.

2016, here we come!

Andrew Sullivan has Left the Blogosphere

Andrew Sullivan is a man of many beard stylings. They are basically all awesome.
Andrew Sullivan is a man of many beard stylings. They are basically all awesome.

Andrew Sullivan recently announced that he’s quitting blogging. That’s a big deal, especially if you were around in the early 2000s when blogging got started. (I once asked Megan McArdle about becoming a professional writer after reading The Up Side of DownWhich is incredible. The subtitle is “Why Failing Well is the Key to Success.” You should buy it.). She told me that the only shortcut she knew of was to start a blog in 2001. Oh well.)

I wasn’t around and blogging until 2006, when I launched my first (now abandoned) blog at Blogspot, so I’ve only come across Sullivan more recently, and I respect and admire him more for his political views (e.g. here) than as the god father of blogging. But I’ve read with interest the reaction of other elite bloggers to his news, like this Vox piece by Ezra Klein: What Andrew Sullivan’s exit says about the future of blogging.

Klein’s basic premise is that blogging is hard to scale. To some extent, this doesn’t matter to me very much. Klein notes that Sullivan “was trying to make his blog — and its sizable audience — into a business.” I, at Difficult Run, am not. I’d like to pay for hosting, but I have no interest in profiting substantially from DR. But Klein’s observation about why it’s hard to scale a blog is important to what we’re trying to do at DR. Basically, blogging is the antithesis of social networking:

Blogging is a conversation, and conversations don’t go viral… Blogging encourages interjections into conversations, and it thrives off of familiarity. Social media encourages content that can travel all on its own. Alyssa Rosenberg put it well at the Washington Post. “I no longer write with the expectation that you all are going to read every post and pick up on every twist and turn in my thinking. Instead, each piece feels like it has to stand alone, with a thesis, supporting paragraphs and a clear conclusion.”

My thoughts: some of this is about the low quality of blogs back when there was no competition. You could afford to assume your readers would do background reading on you because there weren’t many bloggers to compete with. This is also why Klein talks about how in the good ole days blogging was “unedited,” which is basically a polite way of saying poor quality, I think. The connection between having a more direct, personal tone and editing is just not that strong. You can edit and still sound like a blogger: casual, informal, and with a distinctive style. I’m not impressed by that.

But when it comes to social media: I absolutely agree that blogging is hard to scale. It’s long-form writing. Social networking is about memes. And I don’t mean the technical term, I mean annotated cat GIFs. Social networking is also about tribalism, echo-chambers, and outrage. Sure, there’s a lot of that in blogs too, but in a blog you have time for nuance if you want to. In a meme? Not so much.

If we’re going to realize the potential of the Internet, we’re gonna need writers who are willing to write with some depth and readers who are interested in reading it. That’s what we’re trying to do here. Slowly but surely, we’re committed to carving out a little space where important social and economic and technological and religious ideas get discussed at greater length (and with greater context and civility) than outlets like Twitter or Facebook tend to foster. The reasons Klein thinks blogs are on the ropes, in short, are precisely some of the reasons I’m committed to staying the course.

Which, btw, is not at all a dig at Sullivan. I’m not sure Klein’s analysis was really correct. I think Sullivan’s business was largely successful and take him at his word that his real reason for hanging up his hat is to unplug and get back into the real world. That I can understand.

Difficult Run 2014 Recap and 2015 Preview

988 DR Monthly Stats

Maybe there’s a good reason why people like to be cagey about their blog traffic. Maybe one day I’ll discover it, and then look back with horror at how much info I’ve given away. Maybe. In the meantime, however, I figure it’s just one of those weird cultural quirks, like the way Americans don’t like for people to know how much money they make. Did you know that’s not a universal thing? It’s cultural. In Scandinavian countries, for example, personal income tax information is public and it’s no big deal. I first learned about that when studying the economics of taxation in grad school, but here’s a quick USA Today article from 2008 along the same lines: How much do you make? It’d be no secret in Scandinavia:

Every year, Sweden publishes everyone’s income tax returns. So do Finland and Norway. And nobody really cares.

So consider me just the Scandinavia of blog traffic, I guess. I’ve got no qualms about publishing my WordPress traffic stats. So let’s talk about those stats, briefly, and the plans for Difficult Run in 2015.

We started out really strong in early 2014, but then in May I reduced the posting and promoting I did of Difficult Run. As a result, the growth from early in the year wasn’t sustained. Well, 2015 is the year when we fix that. You can probably see that January 2015 is already one of the biggest months since May 2014, and we’re less than half way through. We’ve had really great content from all the DR Editors and people have responded by reading and commentings. That is the plan for the entire year of 2015: more great content that will make it worth your while to come by our site. Hey, nobody ever said that a good plan had to be complicated, right?

Speaking of great DR Editors, by the way, we brought on board Bryan Maack in November 2014, and he’s already proved to be a great addition to the team. Check out all his posts and view the current roster of DR Editors here.

Last order of business is the 2014 advertising revenue report. That’s something I promised to do in our advertising policy. In the policy I wrote that “DR will publicize the total amount of revenue gained from advertising at the end of every year because transparency is cool.” So here we go. Total ad revenue from 2014? $0.66

Now, on the bright side, I did a minor overhaul of the site already this month and added a bunch of additional Amazon ads. We’ve already pulled in a few dollars since then, which is a definite improvement but still not enough to pay for the hosting of this site. So let me just say that if you’re interested in helping support Difficult Run, please click our Amazon ads now and then and buy something. You don’t have to buy the thing we advertise, you just have to buy anything from the site at all after clicking on one of the Difficult Run links. Like this one. Do that, and Amazon sends me a small percentage of the price of whatever you buy, and I get to use that to offset the costs of hosting this site.

So, that’s our 2014 recap and our 2015 preview. I think this is really going to be a good year for DR. I’m excited about all the articles I know are already in the pipeline, and look forward to sharing them with all of you.

[Added After Publication:] Also, if you’d like to see a neat summary of how 2014 went for Difficult Run, WordPress puts out an annual page that I’ve made public. You can view it here.

DR Editors Pick Their Best Reads of 2014

989 DR Editor Fave Books COVER

I thought it would be fun to have the DR Editors pick their best reads from 2014. I’m glad I did! Looking through the lists of books and the reviews was really interesting, and it definitely shows what a diverse set of readers we have here at Difficult Run. Without further ado, here are the lists they sent in the order in which they were received.


Monica emailed me to say “I think I only read 5 or so books in 2014 anyway, and none of them were really remarkable to me. :-/.” Fair enough, and let us all wish Monica better luck in picking books to read in 2015!

Robin Givens

1. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling

Mindy Kaling gives a voice to all lady craziness.  If Tina Fey is my best friend because Liz Lemon is my spirit animal, and if Amy Poehler is my best friend because she’s all girl power, then Mindy Kaling is my best friend because she is a girly-girl (not me, but I appreciate), anxious (me), school nerd (me).  This book definitely has a particular audience which is 30-ish females who dare to be non-academic (even if some of them still get straight A’s).  Mindy Kaling is a comedian whose voice carries over entirely to the book, something I haven’t found in other comedian memoirs. Also, can Mindy Kaling PLEASE write a YA vampire romance series?!

I guess I find “Jack and Diane” a little disgusting…I wish there was a song called “Nguyen and Ari,” a little ditty about a hardworking Vietnamese girl who helps her parents with the franchised Holiday Inn they run and does homework in the lobby, and Ari, a hardworking Jewish boy who does volunteer work at his grandmother’s old-age home, and they meet after school at the Princeton Review. They help each other study for the SATs and different AP courses, and then after months of studying, and mountains of flashcards, they kiss chastely upon hearing the news that they both got into their top college choices.”

2. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (Ballantine Reader’s Circle) by Fannie Flagg

I love Southern fiction and I love crazy people, and this book is all about crazy Southern people.  This is the kind of quirky Southern fiction that will make you think “I have to stop reading Southern fiction because nothing can ever possibly compare.”  There are deep sadnesses, great triumphs, secret collaborations, hilarious anecdotes, kooky characters, ridiculous names, inspiring loves and most of all loyal friendships. Love.

“By the way, Boots died and Opal says she hopes you’re satisfied.
…Dot Weems…”

3. State of Wonder: A Novel by Patchett, Ann Reprint (2012) Paperback by Ann Patchett

This is a great read for any female in graduate school (but if you’re not in graduate school, it’s still great).  Not only is it a mystery/adventure beach read (with a hint of science fiction), but it really explores the mentor-student relationship in all of its (possible) horror.  The story is a modern, feminine retelling of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  If you hated that book in high school, you will still like this book.  The most interesting things I found with Patchett’s writing are her ability to convey the emotion of a scene through dialogue, and her great use of flashback intertwined with the current moment.   I could not put this book down!!

Walker Wright

1. The Crucible of Doubt: Reflections On the Quest for Faith by Terryl & Fiona Givens

The Givenses’ most recent work is, as Adam Miller put it, “a nearly perfect book.” Many books have been written on the nature of faith and doubt, but none (that I’m aware of) tackle it from a purely Mormon perspective. The LDS faith produces a number of somewhat unique angles and situations for doubt due to its history and theological claims. These include but are not limited to modern prophetic authority and the temptation of hero worship, the Church’s doctrines in relation to other traditions and sources of truth, and the actual role the LDS Church as an organization plays in the world today and in God’s eternal plan. The Givenses provide deep insights, workable paradigms, and new language by which to articulate the messiness of lived religion. In a culture and tradition that paradoxically teaches both progressive learning and religious certainty, this book provides a method of faithful doubting. Questions, as noted recently by President Ucthdorf, led to the Restoration. I hope that this book will begin to erode the cultural stigma toward doubt and help reestablish a culture of consistent seeking.

2. Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact by Neylan McBaine

Neylan McBaine’s book is both important and timely, offering wisdom and insight for both LDS leaders and lay members. Neylan’s ability to carefully navigate the rather heated and sensitive topic of gender roles within the LDS Church is awe-inspiring. She avoids painting women as victims or overusing buzzwords like “patriarchy,” while still pointedly addressing the sexism that is sometimes (often unintentionally) bred in Mormon culture. Her choice of stories—several from non-American settings–paints a more vivid, diverse picture of the LDS Church and the men and women within it. Neylan’s empathic take on both traditional and more critical LDS views is an excellent example of bridge building and readers will likely be influenced to adopt a more charitable approach to those they disagree with. She largely avoids the theological entanglements of gender essentialism and the like, instead relying on business-oriented studies and material to provide a realistic framework in which actual improvements can be made. The end product is inspiring, thoughtful, and often paradigm-shifting. Every LDS member, as well as outsiders looking in, would benefit from reading it.

3. Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis–Deuteronomy (Paperback) – Common by David E. Bokovoy

This book is one that, surprisingly, both LDS and non-LDS alike can benefit from. The book is written as less of an argument (even if the evidence presented within it could be used to bolster an impressive one), but as an invitation. The first five chapters focus on the Documentary Hypothesis, breaking it down in a highly accessible way. The final five focus specifically on Latter-day Saints and their holy books (i.e. the Book of Moses, the Book of Abraham, and the Book of Mormon), providing readers with an informative paradigm by which to approach scripture, revelation, and “translation.” A secularist can find value in Bokovoy’s description of the Book of Moses and Book of Abraham as modern pseudepigrapha, while an apologist will find plenty of material for ancient origins. While there is room for debate regarding David’s approach to restoration scriptures (I tend to take an eclectic approach, seeing it as a mix of pseudepigrapha, midrash, targum, history, and iconotropy), that’s the point: to think critically about these texts. Bokovoy does not offer his view as the final word, but as a possible paradigm. And it is a valuable one at that. David and Greg Kofford Books have done Latter-day Saints a great service with this publication. I hope to see its influence in future Sunday School, Institute, and Seminary classes Church wide.

Honorable Mention:

Letters to a Young Mormon by Adam S. Miller

For Zion: A Mormon Theology of Hope by Joseph M. Spencer

Allen Hansen

1. Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution (Jewish Lives)  by Yehuda Mirsky

I greatly admire the Rav Kook, arguably among the most original and radical religious thinkers of all time, a man who tried to find the spark of holiness in everyone, even in his opponents. Yehuda Mirsky’s new biography traces Kook’s life from his beginnings in the traditional, conservative world of Jewish Eastern Europe to his move to Palestine in 1904 where he attempted to build bridges between that world and the young, free-thinking Zionists.  Then came the horrors of the First World War, which Kook saw in starkly religious terms. The rest of the book is taken up with Kook’s return to Palestine under the British, where he became chief rabbi. Mirsky shows how Kook could be theologically bold and psychologically incisive, yet remained politically naïve. At his best, Rabbi Kook could bridge the traditional and modern worlds in a unique, visionary way, and this biography is an excellent introduction to his pivotal impact on Judaism and the Middle East.

2. I’d Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Bluesby Stephen Calt

Skip James is my favorite bluesman. He was also a pretty appalling individual. What particularly fascinates me is how similar blues culture was to rap culture in many ways. Pimping, getting rich quick, clubbing, and violence, it is all there in the life of Skip James, so he feels surprisingly modern. Stephen Calt was one of the few people whom James considered a friend, and he shared with him many (contradictory) details of his life. Calt traces James’ life from the early 20th century to his rediscovery by white fans in the 1960s. He does so critically, so there is no getting around the fact that despite being gifted, James was also proud, paranoid, and unloving. Calt really has little patience for myth or romanticism. Calt also accepts that not all blues music was good, and shows James’ limitations as a musician. There is also a wealth of historical detail about the south, its dialects, culture and religion. Ultimately, the book is the tragic portrait of an intelligent, undeniably talented man who at the end of his life had nothing to be proud of except performing a song better than Cream’s cover version.

3. Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul (Jewish Encounters) Daniel Gordis

Menachem Begin, Israel’s sixth prime minister, was nothing if not controversial. Begin led the armed insurgency against the British in 1940s Palestine, and was considered by them terrorist No. 1. Begin was publicly denounced by Einstein, and constantly vilified by Ben-Gurion. As prime minister, Begin launched the attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor, and initiated the First Lebanese War.  Yet he also signed the peace treaty with Egypt, and he took in Vietnamese refugees when no one else did. Daniel Gordis does a superb job of putting Begin in context, highlighting how Begin’s profound attachment to his Jewish identity shaped his life and political vision. Gordis brings nuances to the moral dilemmas that Begin faced, and it is hard to walk away from this biography without gaining appreciation for Begin as a person. He made tough decisions, but did not throw anyone under the bus if things went wrong. Given his reputation, it is surprising to learn that he attempted to minimize bloodshed, and was determined to avoid a civil war among the various Jewish factions. Despite his unyielding devotion to the Jewish cause, he also believed in a universal humanism. Gordis’ biography makes it hard to accept the common wisdom which holds that religion and nationalism inevitably have a negative impact on politics. The truth is always far messier and complex.

Honourable Mention:

Terror Out of Zion: The Fight for Israeli Independence by J. Bowyer Bell

1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War by Benny Morris

Bryan Maack

1. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism by Tim Keller

I think people are rightfully calling Tim Keller the new C.S. Lewis. The pastor of a New York Presbyterian Church, he writes in a simple and short yet deeply insightful manner. His book clocks in at 250 pages, but they read easily, and every page has value. His book is broken down into two main parts. First, he covers the arguments against Christianity such as there can’t be one true religion, how a good God could allow suffering, and how science has disproved Christianity. Keller then follows up with reasons for believing in Christianity, such as the famous argument from desire, the clues to God in the human mind and the natural world, the meaning of sin, and much more. He uses citations amply, which provide both credibility and additional reading. Overall, a great book which I can’t do justice to in a short review. Go read it yourself!

2. The Shadow of His Wings: The True Story of Fr. Gereon Goldmann, OFM by Gereon Goldmann

Gereon Goldmann recalls his harrowing years up to and during WW2 as a Catholic priest-in-training who was drafted into the SS as a medic before he could finish his theological training. His autobiography paints a picture of one man, trusting in God, trying to stay alive and faithful to his beliefs through the trials of World War 2. The book reads like ‘based on a true story’ and yet *is* a true story. Goldmann defies the SS straight to their face. He meets with Pope Pius XII during the war and become a priest despite lacking years of training. He carries the Eucharist throughout the war, ministering to the fearful and dying, and at one point wades across a river above his head with only the Eucharist above water in his hand, hoping nearby British sentries don’t notice the mysterious Eucharist container moving across the river. He ends up in a French prison camp in the middle of the desert after the war with a bunch of Nazis who refuse to give up, and through faithful dedication overthrows their de facto ownership of the camp despite attempts on his life. Goldmann survives all of these ordeals and ultimately becomes a missionary to Japan! I truly have found few biographies more inspiring than Father Goldmann’s.

3. The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ (A Liguori Classic) by Saint Alphonsus Liguori

Saint Liguori set out in the mid 1700s to write a book for the poor and uneducated of Italy about the love of Jesus Christ. I love this book precisely because it is written for the simple and uneducated. I want to be taught as one would teach a peasant, starting with the simplest concepts, because I have found often that in simplicity there is the genuine love of Christ so often lacking in complex treatises. Saint Liguori pulls liberally from scripture and from other Catholic saints to teach us how much Jesus has done for us, and in return how we can best love Jesus. “For my part, I know of no other perfection than that of loving God with all the heart, because without love all the other virtues are nothing but a pile of stones.”

Nathaniel Givens

I read a lot of books in 2014 (more than 60), so picking just the top three is going to be tricky. Here we go.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

I put off reading The Righteous Mind for a while not because I wasn’t sure if it would be good or not, but because I was sure that it would be good. I was already familiar from interviews, articles, and videos with both Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory and its basic political implications. I thought it was fascinating and compelling theory, and I assumed that this book–like so many popular non-fiction books–would be a couple of hundred pages of fluff around a core idea that could be expressed in 70 pages or less. When I actually read the book, however, I was shocked and surprised to see how wrong I’d been.

There’s a lot more going on in this book than Moral Foundations Theory. There is MFT, of course, but it’s very interesting to see Jonathan Haidt put it in its historical context by writing of his own coming-of-age (as a researcher) narrative. Then, going far beyond MFT, there’s just a lot of really, really excellent discussion of the basics of human nature. There are two core ideas, and both of them are starkly post-post-modern (as N. T. Wright would say). The first critiques the model of human nature that pictures us as more or less rational and more or less monolithic. Instead, Haidt uses the metaphor of an elephant (our emotional and psychological behaviors) with a rider perched on top (our rational mind) where the rider has very limited control over the elephant and acts more as a PR firm to justify what the elephant does rather than an expert consultant to guide its behavior. The second critiques the idea of human individualism, pointing out that we are (as Haidt metaphorically puts it) 90% chimp and 10% honeybee. We have a “hive switch” that, when activated by various group religious, cultural, or military behaviors, turns a bunch of individuals into a single, cohesive whole. Taken together, these two ideas constitute one of the most important attacks on the core Enlightenment philosophical tenets that have survived into modernity, although that observation goes beyond what Haidt himself has to say. The book is fascinating, compelling, and deeply relevant to our world today.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

This is one of those books that has had a tremendous amount of positive buzz, and I was really happy that it lived up to all the good rumors I’d heard. I classify this as a work of genuinely literary sci-fi, along with books like Never Let Me Go or The Handmaid’s Tale: they come from outside the stable of authors traditionally considered to be genre writers in the sci-fi tradition, but they are books that absolutely couldn’t exist without the concepts and tropes popularized by sci-fi genre writers. They are sort of the best of both worlds: more emphasis on prose and characterization than you sometimes get from books shelved in the sci-fi section, but with that genuine spark of inquisitiveness and analysis that is the hallmark of “the literature of ideas.” In particular, The Road is a literary take on the post-apocalyptic sub-genre that simultaneously uses the apocalypse as a backdrop for an introspective father/son story (sort of a mirror image coming-of-age story, where the boy comes of age almost without the father realizing what is happening) but at the same time treats the backdrop seriously and as more than a mere prop. This is why, I think, it can satisfy both hard core sci-fi fans and also those who have never really gotten into the genre. I will add that I couldn’t fully enjoy the book as I read it through the first time because ever since I’ve had kids of my own I can’t really deal with traumatic things happening to children in fiction, and I wasn’t sure how dark this book was going to get. I won’t give any spoilers other than to say the ending wasn’t what I expected, but it worked fantastically. I want to reread this one again some day.

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English by John McWhorter

On one level, this is a book-length exposition of McWhorter’s theory of where the English language came from, written for a layperson to understand. But with this book, the journey is at least as valuable as the destination. By the time he got to his big reveal at the end, I had completely forgotten that that was the point of the book. I was simply too fascinated by his explanation of the linguistic history of English, especially as it related to the political and cultural history of Europe. But then when he did pull it all together in the end, I was excited by his theory, too. It gave the book the feel of an exciting techno-mystery where there’s some ancient, unexplained clue that–once it is unraveled–gives us fresh insight into the past. I’m definitely a huge fan of McWhorter, and I have to stress that if you’re not listening to the audiobook versions of his books (which he narrates himself), you’re missing out. With linguistics as with no other subject, there is really no substitute for the spoken word.

Honorable Mention:

Gilead: A Novel by Marilynne Robinson

What It Is Like To Go To War by Karl Marlantes

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick

Mother Night: A Novel by Kurt Vonnegut

The DR Comment Policy

A major theme that the DREditors often write about is the importance of seeing past political partisanship and engaging people from different backgrounds in meaningful discussion on controversial topics. So we’re very happy to have a diverse group of commenters who express themselves intelligently, constructively, and politely on a wide range of issues. Good comments are gold on the Internet.

Unfortunately, bad comments are toxic waste. For that reason, DREditors reserve the right to delete comments that don’t contribute to the tone of the site and/or to ban users (by IP address or other means) for repeated infractions. So far we haven’t had to do this very often. As of August 2014 only a very small number of comments (less than 1% of those that make it through the Akismet spam filter) have ever been deleted, and no users have ever been banned. The comments deleted were so egregious that no warning or explanation was provided to the poster, but if you do feel that a comment was deleted unfairly and would like to make your case, please use the contact form to get a hold of us.

Anyone who has used the Internet for a long time understands that it is a waste of time to try and codify exactly what constitutes acceptable vs. unacceptable comments. Frankly, if you’re trying to find that line then you’re missing the point. The hope is to have great comments, not marginally acceptable ones. So we’re not going to provide a bullet list or other set of criteria. However, just to give some basic guidance, please keep in mind that what we’re interested in is open-minded conversation and respect for intellectual differences. What we’d like to avoid are things like insults, flamewars, trolling, and drama.

DR Advertising Policy

Difficult Run is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com. We started the associates program in 2014. We have placed a few adds around the site and also place links in some of our posts (usually for books that we like). If you click one of those links to Amazon and then purchase one those products or any other product, then we get a small percentage: usually between 4% and 6%. (You can find more details about how the program works here.)

DR will publicize the total amount of revenue gained from advertising at the end of every year because transparency is cool. In 2014, when the program was being tested, we earned $0.66 Since we added more ads to the site in January 2015, we’ve earned about $13.00. All revenue raised will go towards paying for the hosting of this blog, which is currently about $30/month. We really appreciate your support.

Last updated: January 20, 2015

Times And Seasons: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

2014-04-28 Dresdenfiles Quote

I have a new post up at Times And Seasons this morning, continuing the series of posts that has, intentionally or not, sort of become my Internet testimony. Not sure that’s how it comes across to others, but it’s pretty much how I see it. The post also features a quote from my favorite Dresden Files book. Some might take a quote from popular urban fantasy to be an indication that I’m not taking my subject matter seriously. They would actually be underestimating how seriously I take my urban fantasy. I say this partly in jest, partly because of how much I genuinely love the Dresden Files, and partly because I just really like the idea of finding serious lessons about serious topics in unexpected, mundane places.

Also, in case y’all missed the announcement, Walker and I got published in Square Two with an article called “No Poor Among Them”: Global Poverty, Free Markets, and the “Fourfold” Mission. It’s about the topic of poverty and religion, and you should all read it because it’s awesome.

Is Difficult Run a Conservative Blog?

2014-04-25 DR Cover

In the past couple of months I have had a couple of people say that Difficult Run is a conservative blog. It’s a statement that bugs me, because it presumes (1) that the editors of DR agree on everything (we do not) and (2) that DR is one of those blogs where the viewpoint comes first and the facts come second. So I’ve wanted to write about it, but I didn’t really know how to address the topic. But then I posted this somewhat glowing piece about Thomas Piketty’s new book Capital, and it gave me the perfect opportunity to address this issue.

Here’s the thing: liberals love Piketty and they love Capital. The article I based my own piece from was in The New Republic. Slate is crowing that “The French economist gives the American left a sturdy framework for its economic ideas.” The HuffPo seems breathless in their announcement that Thomas Piketty Is No. 1 On Amazon Right Now. Not that I needed these cues to understand that the book I was praising and publicizing is decidedly left-of-center. It presumes that income inequality is a self-evident problem, forecasts a dire future, and (best of all) proposes more taxes, new taxes, higher taxes, and even international taxes. None of this escaped my mind as I wrote my own excited post about it.

But I posted it anyway, despite the fact that the book gives substantial weight to liberal concerns and policies, for the simple reason that I was impressed by the argument. I was impressed on an economic / technical level. The theory is elegant in its simplicity and rigorous in its research. I’m sure it will be criticized by economists who are much smarter than me, and maybe in the coming weeks or months or years I will see that I was a fool for getting excited so quickly. That could happen. But the reality is that it looks legit to me (and I do have some small expertise in this field) and that if it were a conservative-friendly book, I’d definitely be posting about it. I’m not going to treat the book differently because it’s politics are uncomfortable to be.

I consider myself a conservative in the general sense of the word. Your mileage may vary, but on a wide range of issues I’m right-of-center. But I aspire to be an intelligent and honest human being first, and a conservative only so long as that is dictated by my efforts at the first two. I preach about confirmation bias and irrationality as much as the next guy, but that doesn’t mean that I give up. I still want to be rational when it comes to important issues like economic policy. I want to be the kind of person who will change his mind when new evidence emerges. I want to have the integrity it takes to give opposing viewpoints fair treatment, honest consideration, and–where applicable–praise.

In short: I want to be the kind of conservative who is willing and able to engage with liberals in good faith on matters of substance and who would change his politics in an instant rather than compromise on following the truth as best as I understand it. It’s not easy and I don’t always succeed. I take flack from liberals who find me insufficiently kind from time to time , and I know that I make some staunch conservatives uneasy when I go yammering off in liberalese about privilege and structural inequality (which I believe are valid concerns). Believe me, I know that I could get a lot more Internet traffic and adulation if I spent more time beating the conservative drum, but I’m just not comfortable with that.

So that’s me, but what about Difficult Run? That’s just a little bit more tricky. I’m not looking for partisans or ideological allies when I look for DR editors. I’m looking for folks who (in addition to writing well) share my values and bring diversity. Not everyone who shares my values shares my politics, but it is easier to find people who share values and politics than to find folks who share values but not politics. So, being perfectly candid, I expect that DR will always reflect to some degree my own politics because I pick the editors here. Therefore, DR will always be coming from a generally conservative place, or at least as long as I myself continue to come from a conservative place. But at the same time, I sincerely want to be a site where liberals, conservatives, and who-knows-what-else all feel that their views are treated with respect and fairness. I want commenters who push back, raise new ideas, and take the conversation in new directions. But not just commenters, I want diversity in the editors as well. We have or have had among our editors radical feminists, socialists, social liberals, etc. Shared commitment to honest inquiry comes first, but diversity is something I actively want to find.

Let me just finish this long, but honest answer, with two more observations.

First: I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing. I’m already working on a piece about white male privilege. It ends up in a conservative place, roughly speaking, but it gets there by way of taking seriously the concerns of liberals. So no one is happy. That’s how I roll.

Second: We don’t just write about politics! My favorite piece to write, recently, was the one about constructed realities and Game of Thrones. OK, one Facebook commenter called it “The best take on not watching naughty things that I have ever read,” so I guess it’s kind of conservative in a social way, but it just wasn’t really about politics at all. And I loved that. I’m also working on a piece right now about the politicization of science fiction and why I hate it. I talk about politics as much as I do not because I care about politics (I don’t) but because I care about people and values that (tragically) are intertwined with politics.

Traffic Analysis at Difficult Run

The other day I was working on an article about how Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is an awful lot like a reskinned version of Firefly when I realized I should probably check to see if other folks had written about that. They had.

That took the wind out of my sails, so I spent the rest of the evening delving into the site statistics for Difficult Run. I don’t generate any revenue from the site at all, but obviously you want more people to read what you’re writing as opposed to fewer, and I’m just sort of fascinated by the whole idea of publishing: what engages readers and builds an audience? To me, it’s an interesting question. So I always like it when folks like John Scalzi publish about their site statistics (like he did back in 2010 or more recently in January 2014). Also, as a blogger at Times And Seasons, I have access to their site stats as well.

Since I took the time to make some pretty charts and graphs, I thought I may as well write up what I learned and what I”m hoping to see happen for the year of 2014 as far as blog traffic goes.

Chart 01 - Historic Views & Visitors

So this is my total monthly traffic for every complete month that I’ve had the site running. (I launched it during the month of November 2012.) You can see a general upward trend (which is nice), along with a really big spike in June 2013 and a really low dip in December 2014. The spike is from the post Health Insurance vs. Food Insurance which got posted on Reddit and drew over 5,000 views in one day. The dip is because December 2014 was insane: there were holidays, I was moving my family, and I had some ridiculous projects at work. It was a truly awful month, and I basically stopped blogging. Those two months are pretty clearly outliers, I think, but the question is whether or not January 2014 is also an outlier. That’s the month my mum poster her article on whether or not Mormon women ought to receive the priesthood, and it became the second most popular post on the site. I’m inclined to think it’s not an outlier, but I’ll get to that later.

I also did some really basic linear projections to get a ball-park idea of what kind of traffic I can expect to get by the end of 2014. As you can see, it looks like I’d be getting about 12,000 views / month or about 7,000 visitors / month. More on that  in a moment as well, but for now I thought it was interesting that the projections were diverging. That shows that ratio of views / visitor (e.g. how many pages a given visitor looks at) is changing. So I took a look at that as well.

Chart - 02 - Historic Ratio of Views to Visitors

The overall trend is negative, which means that as time goes on my audience reads fewer articles per person. I think that’s probably a natural function of my audience moving outside of the core friends and family who came to see what I had to say early on and towards strangers who come across the site because an article gets linked here of there.

Tracking both visitors and views seemed a bit messy, so at this point I decided to pick just one metric to concentrate on. I think views is the standard (probably mostly because it’s easier to track), but I decided that I would just check out the variability of the two and pick whichever one was the most stable. I picked the coefficient of variation rather than variance because it’s dimensionless, and views (0.55) was a lot less volatile than visitors (0.70), so from here on out I just look at views instead of visitors.

Chart 03 - Sensitivity Testing

So what I did in this chart was look at the impact of different scenarios on future growth. Here are the scenarios:

  • Scenario 1 – I took out the two highest months (June 2013 and January 2014) and left everything else in. This is the most pessimistic scenario.
  • Scenario 2 – I took out the two highest months (June 2013 and January 2014) and also took out the unusually low month (December 2013).
  • Scenario 3 – I took out the highest month (June 2013).
  • Scenario 4 – I took out the highest month (June 2013) and also the unusually low month (December 2013)

The first scenario, where I took out the two highest months but left everything else in, was unsurprisingly the most pessimistic. According to that scenario, the blog would just cross 10,000 monthly views by the end of this year. The second and third scenarios ended up being very similar, and both predict around 12,000 monthly views by the end of this year. Finally, the fourth scenario is the most optimistic and would predict almost 14,000 monthly views by the end of the year.

Up to now, however, I’ve assumed linear growth. That means that I add the same number of new views every month (usually in the range of 400 – 500 in these models). When you’re talking about populations, however, everything from birth rates to disease growth to adoption of new technologies usually follows exponential growth . With an exponential model you’re not adding the same number of views every month, but instead your adding the same percentage of views every month. (So it works just like compound interest.)

So, which model fits the data best? So far, does my model look more linear or more exponential?

Chart 04 - Linear vs. Exponential

Without getting into the technical details, the R-squared value is a measure of how good your model fits the data. In this case I used all the data (no throwing out outliers) and compared it with a linear model and an exponential model. The linear model got 0.4283 (which roughly means it explains 43% of the variance in the data) and the exponential model got 0.6063 (so it explains about 61% of the variation in the data). Based on this: the data looks exponential. That’s good news if you’re me, because an exponential model is going to yield a lot more growth down the road. But there’s a caveat: when I started taking out outliers, the difference between the exponential and linear models all but disappeared. With just a couple of those outliers gone, the r-squared values were above 0.9 for each. Even though the exponential model always did better, the advantage is tiny once you throw out a couple of outliers.

Still, what would growth look like based on an exponential model? This chart–the last of the bunch–shows the original data, some linear projects, and some exponential projections all at once so you can get an idea of the possibilities.

Chart 05 - Linear vs Exponential Projections

So this chart shows the actual data points (as points) along with two linear projections and three exponential projections. You can tell that up through the data that I have so far, it’s pretty hard to tell the two apart. But by the end of the year, the difference really matters. The lowest exponential projection has about 22,000 monthly views by December 2014, and the highest linear projection has less than 14,000. The optimistic exponential projection has close to 40,000 monthly views by year’s end!

So here’s the fun part: which do I think it’s going to be? I think that the exponential model is the best model of growth in general, but with one big caveat. It assumes that the underlying reason for the growth is constant. For example, you only get the joy (or suffering, depending on which side of the coin you’re on) of compounding interest if the interest rate stays the same. Difficult Run doesn’t have an interest rate. It has content. And so my guess is that we’ll continue to see exponential growth if the quality and quantity of the posts keep up with reader expectations. The posts have gotten better, the site layout has gotten better, and I’ve recruited some good editors and guest posters. All of those efforts have to continue, but if they do then I think when I look back with the 2014 data all in a spreadsheet, the growth will look exponential rather than linear.

And, just for fun, I’ll make a specific prediction: I expect to see 25,000 monthly views by the end of January 2015. That doesn’t mean there will be 25,000 views in that month. There could be more or less, but we’ll be in that range. Which sounds pretty awesome, until I realize that that would still be about 4% of the monthly traffic that John Scalzi averaged through 2013.

So, I’m the Stormin’ Mormon

A long time ago when I was young and stupid, my new friends at college decided that having a Mormon friend was fun and decided to name me “the Stormin’ Mormon.” This is about the world’s most unoriginal name for a Mormon, but I tried it out on various message boards because, like I said, I was young and stupid.

I quickly learned that the Internet does not like Mormons. No matter where I went or what I wanted to talk about, I invariably attracted hordes of otherwise normal netizens who felt an inexplicable need to try and convince me that their dad had secret blueprints that revealed the upside down, subterranean pentagram beneath the Washington D.C. temple.

I did the only sane, reasonable, mature thing: I immediately started using the nickname “theStorminMormon” absolutely everywhere I could. Steam handle? theStorminMormon Xbox Live handle? theStorminMormon. Back when I posted way, way too often on Slashdot? The very same. Skype username? Yeah, you guessed it. It was just my little way of saying, “Don’t like Mormons? Well bring it on, Internet. Bring it.”

I’ve used it in so many different locations, that I’ve already got several variants worked out for places that don’t let me use all 16 characters. For 15 characters, I go with “theStormnMormon,” and for 12 just “storminMormon”.

I’ve used it for so long that I often forget about it. A friend asked for my Steam account today and I had to go and check which variant I was using, which is what brought it to mind. Whenever I play Call of Duty online (which isn’t that often these days), I still never know if the random stranger who says “Hey, are you really Mormon?” is going to say “Cool, me too!” or ask me how many wives I have. It’s about a 50/50 split, in my experience.

I’m not the only stormin Mormon, of course. When I first started blogging many years ago there was a random girl studying accounting (I think) who blogged under that name at theStorminMormon.com. She shared way too much information for a while, then seemed to get offended when I messaged her and asked if she was still using the domain. (It had been months since her last update.) I think she was like “how did this guy find out about me?” and I’m like “if you want to write a private journal… don’t use a top-level domain with no privacy settings at all.” I haven’t run into many more, but it’s still a name that’s often already taken when I show up late for a party.

And then I wonder: who else uses the name? Why did they pick it, and what are they up to? They must be drawing just as much fire as I used to. I wonder if they have the same motivation that I did. If someone mocked what they considered holy and they said, “Hell with this, now I’ve got to use the name.”

I don’t know, but I’d like to think so.

My tolerance for Internet flamewars is a lot lower than it used to be, so every now and then I shorten the nickname to just “stormin.” It’s a pretty simple way to avoid being badgered by random strangers about my religion. But as long as I know that badgering is occuring, I sort of feel like I’m not doing my duty if I don’t make sure some of it comes my way. It’s probably silly, and I’ve got minimal interest in antagonizing the Internet these days, but I’m never going to stop being proud of who I am and where I come from. Insisting on the same, corny nickname might not be the most sophisticated way to express the sentiment, but I guess maybe I’m just not that sophisticated of a guy. So, for now anyways, I’m sort of stuck with it.