React Podcast

119: Henry Zhu on Building Babel

Episode Summary

Henry Zhu opens up about building Babel and the challenges in maintaining communities that maintain open source. He shares what he's learned from other open source projects and vibrant communities throughout history.

Episode Notes


Henry Zhu — Twitter, GitHub, Website
chantastic — Twitter, GitHub, Website


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Episode Transcription

Chantastic: Henry Zhu, welcome to "React Podcast."

Henry Zhu: Thanks, Michael.


Chantastic: I'm super excited to have you on. I feel like you've been on my list for a really long time. We just spent a while I just haven't made it happen. I'm sorry.

Henry: No, I think you said you wanted to do in person at some point, I guess that never happened. I was like, "Oh." I might as well just say, "Hey, we should just do it anyway. Wait another time, for another one."

Chantastic: [laughs] That's true. I really do like to do these things in person when possible, because they're just so much more personal and I think the energy is a lot better. But yeah, COVID just like threw us for loop in it just really...What a bummer.

Henry: It's almost he got used to it. Like, "Oh, yeah, I forgot when we did these things in person."


Chantastic: Also, it's probably we're saying for anyone listening right now that today is November 4th. Both of us are a little bit stressed out about all of the election, politic things going on. It might not be our absolute best, but we're going to do our best to rally.

Henry: I was suggesting maybe we should change our vows. I don't know. I feel it's a good thing maybe to just do it.


Chantastic: Yeah. Coronavirus already bid us in from doing it in person. Let's not wait anymore. [laughs] Before we start, for anyone who isn't familiar with you and your work, I just wanted to get a sense of what you're doing these days. A lot of people might not know specifically what you're doing day to day, so tell us what you're up to.

Henry: It's funny because I'd like to say that I've been working remotely for a while now after I quit my job at Adobe. [laughs] I've been working on Babel and open source full-time for, I guess, over two years now, which is amazing in some sense. Still happening.

It's different from when I started. I think I'm doing more of what I wanted to do when I did quit. Not just necessarily doing open source full-time by writing code every day, which is what I was doing before I left, doing a lot more general stuff around maintenance.

I've been thinking a bit about how...We like to say to people that open source isn't just about code. We say that a lot, and I say that a lot.

Actually, it's really hard to walk your talk in a weird way. What I mean by that is that because of my experience with even work and having a job as writing code, and to me it's really easy to measure that even though we...

Just because you write a bunch of code doesn't mean [laughs] it's helpful, but you feel good about it at least. I think you can have short-term benefits, like you see that you've made some commits, but in open source maybe you don't see those things.

Maybe if I'm not writing code then how do I even know if I'm doing a good job? Who do I even measure that with? There's no one to compare. I don't think I can really compare it to anyone, really. That kind of gets out to you sometimes. You're like, "I'm I doing a good job?" Like, "If someone else is doing this, what were they going to do it anyway?"


Henry: I think it's a lot more like...I don't know another stuff that I've doing and also thinking about and trying to balance.

I'm like, "Is this still relevant?" Knowing that inside, I feel like these other non-technical things are important to our community in this project and everything going on it's worth still looking into even if it's not writing code.

Chantastic: This is something that I've always enjoyed talking with you about it, is that I think that you have always enjoyed philosophy and theology and the inner section of that and code. It sounds to me that intersects at community.

I'm curious, what does that look like for Babel as you're maintaining this big open-source project that's used by literally everybody who writes JavaScript? What does it look like to really be investing into community as you work through this open-source experiment together?

Henry: [laughs] It's a big question because there's a sense where even given just everything going on where a lot of us are revisiting what we think community is at the friendship level, family, not being able to meet people in person, church, open source, having conferences online.

Maybe it is a good time to step back and think about what kind of community have we had in the past and how we should think about changing that. I didn't had that many practical things that I necessarily have changed or done, but just looking through communities of the past or different kinds of communities in different industries or groups.

That's why I always turn back to things that I've experienced or I'm a part of like my church community or that kind of thing. How have we tried to handle these things and what are the comparisons and stuff like that.

Chantastic: I find that super interesting because I think so many times we come up against these new ways of working together. Open source is a interesting, and I feel like novel, new way of working together. We tend to just start from scratch.

[laughs] Full new project as opposed to really borrowing from communities of the past whether those be cultural communities, faith communities, city communities. I love that you've been trying to find the intersection of those two things.

I'm curious, and I guess we're just going to go right into the deep end right away. What are some of the things that you've noticed in your years of maintaining Babel, things that maybe you thought were important community ideals to start, but then maybe faded out as you've been doing this for a while?

Henry: It could be interesting to bring in, so Nadia Eghbal, she had her new book "Working in Public."

One thing that I think is a general principle to think about is that we tend to think that everything is all in one boat, one category. We like to apply these universal rules or principles to all projects.

When we say open source, it's such a big thing. Babel is a very different project from a report I just made, even though we both call them open source.

Chantastic: [laughs] Sure.

Henry: At least for her, she made one of those two by twos where there...she separates projects into four different categories.

One of them is called the stadium, and Babel would be one of those is where there's a few maintainers, but there's a lot of users. You could think of like, say a football stadium where there's a few people playing and then a bunch of people watching.

The people watching they might contribute, but they might be...we would call them almost like extractive. It's almost like negative contributions because not because they're contributing code, but they're contributing issues and reports. Maintainers have to manage their attention, how much time they're spending on each of these people.

Eventually when you get to a stadium level, you already know that that's impossible to handle. It's not when there's like a little club, like a few people and a few users where everyone can help each other. It's gone way beyond the capacity of people to handle it.

Chantastic: Just by its very definition, it is outside of your control.

Henry: Yeah. It's good to know, if you're thinking about how you want to develop your community, which one of these four are you in? Also, where are you going? Which one do you even want? Maybe you don't want to be a stadium.

I think this is an important point to bring up now is, how should you think about the rules? I don't want to call them rules because it sounds too imposing, but what are the norms you want in your community?

We are looking at SQLite, which had some buzz a while back, but they are open source, but they're not open contribution. I think for a lot of us, we just assume that if something is open source, that it means it's on GitHub and they have a certain way of doing it that is the same as how we expect it to be.

I think in JavaScript, we are certainly a lot more, I wouldn't use the word inclusive. We want more people to get involved. That's just a certain attitude and that's fine, but other people don't have that.

It's good to see what are the boundaries that people are putting in their projects. I think for JavaScript, sometimes I think that it's almost like heresy to say that I want to put some limit on the project in some sense. I feel bad even wanting to say no to things.

I feel guilty not answering people's questions. That's just the culture that we're in. I'm trying to think about how we can learn doesn't mean exclude people, but think about how to manage your time and your efforts and stuff like that because I would say that trying not having any limits on things. It just hurts everyone right there. The people that were going to get involved, and the people that are already working on it I can bring up, Hacktoberfest again.

Maybe that's a good example of the idea of not having limits on things. It's a good attitude to have, we want more people involved in open source, and that's great. But then how are we going to make that happen? The idea that, "Oh, everyone just make four PRs, you get a T-shirt." Try to get the most people possible in. Is that really a good idea? We see how that turned out.

Chantastic: Yeah, and for anyone who wasn't privy to that happening on Twitter. Hacktoberfest is a thing that happens in October, and everyone's encouraged to make PRs into open source. This year, it got out of hand. I think someone was saying to just add awesome, add a couple adjectives to READMEs, and it flooded a bunch of unsuspecting projects with a bunch of meaningless PRs.

What you're saying is interesting, there are liberating constraints that you can impose on a project that allows you to do more with limited resources, which you've had to figure out in a time as maintaining Babel. I want to keep talking about that. But I do want to circle back just for a second and talk about the other types of working in public projects that Nadia mentions in her book.

Henry: Yeah, I have to [laughs] look this up again.

I know one of them is clubs. Which is where the amount of is actually the two by two graph is about the number of people maintaining and the number of users like us. It's like low and high and low and high. Also, growth might be another way to put it. A club is where, there's a small amount of maintainers, but also a small amount of users.

Chantastic: Interesting.

Henry: The stadium is a small amount of maintainers, but then a disproportionate number of users.

Chantastic: Yes.

Henry: Oh, here it is. There's a toy, which is low contributors and low users.

Chantastic: That would be what you described, I just put this on npm. [laughs] This thing that I just made is on npm now.

Henry: Yeah, exactly. A club would be a low amount of users and a high amount of contributors, or you could even say all the users are contributors. That seems like the very idealistic version of open source.

Chantastic: Sure.

Henry: Everyone that uses it is able and willing to help. It feels like everyone's [laughs] helping each other out kind of thing.

Chantastic: [laughs] Yeah.

Henry: Then Federation is high number of users, high contributors. That would be when we consider node or that kind of model. You could also argue that that's a stadium too, but depends on how you want to see it in comparison to Babel. Maybe Babel is more of a stadium than node or something.

Chantastic: Sure, there is a nuance difference but there is a difference nonetheless.

Henry: Yeah, and that's a spectrum. It's not like you have to be in this category. The idea of changing between these different categories and maybe everything starts out as a toy. Eventually, it turns into whatever version.

Chantastic: Interesting. As that overlaps to the constraints, what are some of the constraints that you had to adopt as maintainers of Babel to really get the experience and the outcome that you want for the other contributors and maintainers?

Henry: I think that's why I was trying to get up before. I don't want to like...Similar to the Hacktoberfest I don't think we can really call out individual people, that they did something wrong or anything. I hesitate to make a comparison to systematic issues in our society, but it's the same. Where those things that people aren't doing is the result of how we see these things.

I can do a lot of things individually, and I should, but the thing I need to change is how we think about culturally and that's a lot harder. I wanted to say that maybe just example, every weekend we turn off the repo or something. What if we did that? That seems like I have a question.

Chantastic: [laughs]

Henry: Meaning that we disable it and you can look at it but you can't make issues or something. We just do that every week. Anyone also might say, "Why don't you just not look at it on the weekend?" I was like, "Yeah, I should, and I will."

It's different because that's only for myself. It's like telling people don't go on social media on the weekend. [laughs] This will be interesting. What if you can't use Twitter on the weekend or something?

How would that affect how we see these things? I'm saying not just a balance, but how to think about putting in a thing where everyone knows that you're not there or something like that. That you're not available all the time. The idea is that we talk about, trying to have self-control and all these things. I'm going to put my own limits on myself.

I'm not trying to put limits on other people, but sometimes it's good. If I want to bring in a faith analogy like the Sabbath is supposedly a day when we take a day to have rest, is that amazing? God is all-powerful. It's weird, God would choose to not do anything. Maybe he gave that to us to let us know that maybe we should do that, too. We're not all to put limits on ourselves.

Chantastic: This concept really interesting in that for so...We're living in this, [laughs] we're getting further and further away from physical constraints. We've seen this, in particular, this year with COVID-19, and everybody working from home.

Part of what's made this difficult is that now more people are constantly available for the first time. That is in excess, beyond the emotional toll that this thing is taken, just as it is, being constantly available for the first time is overwhelming. Having to set your own artificial constraints and be like, "Hey, nobody's in the office," but like, "From this time to this time, I'm not in the office," is very hard to communicate.

A lot of people want to bypass that without those hard physical constraints, or geographical constraints. In this case, we have to put our own boundaries and that can be very hard transition. How do you communicate about this with the people who are working with you in open source? So your club, I guess.

Henry: I see. Within our own team...It's funny I have to keep coming back to like we're not a company. I don't even know if we want to operate alike company. I almost like the point of open source is that we're not doing them other than the whole, we need to make money so then maybe we need to act like a business model and all that stuff. I'm not going to tell people you have to do this or that wouldn't even work.

The whole point is, they can choose to leave the project if they don't like working with us. The reason why we've been able to very slowly retain some people are at least people enjoy it continue to work on it is that we'd like to encourage you. When people are like, "Hey, I'm going to take a break." Everyone's like, "Yes, that's really good." That's awesome.

Having a culture where we do that for each other is good and it's like a training environment, where people feel, vulnerable or good enough to be able to say those things. It's still hard. The worst part is when you know that people are going to be OK with it, and you still can't do it anyway. You're wondering to yourself like, "Why do I still feel that?"

Chantastic: Now, you've mentioned a little bit earlier that you're finally finding a personal balance in being able to do work that you like. I know that this has been a big transition for you moving to full-time open source, realizing that so much of what you had to do was in selling the idea of maintenance for Babel.

I'm curious, what that transition has looked like for you over the last year, and what the work that you actually enjoy doing is?

Henry: [laughs] It's funny because I guess I haven't found that balance then. It feels like I have it certain times, but then every once in a while you're like, "Wait, what I'm...?" [laughs] You have that existential stuff again like, "What am I doing...?"

Chantastic: [laughs]

Henry: "...Is this even helpful?" I'm sure everyone's felt this in the pandemic. I remember telling some people, this isn't helping that in particular the main issues that we're having. That doesn't mean that it's not useful. We have to deal with that. Initially, I did something that I wouldn't recommend people do, which is just quit without...

Chantastic: [laughs]

Henry: ...Not a backup plan, but normally you would wait till your funding per month is enough to satisfy your standard of living, but I decided to go for it. The reason why I did this once because I felt it was a push for knowing that that was...You take a leap of faith essentially.

That would help me to think about how I want to do things. I would also say that, in the back of my mind, I was like, "I could probably just get a job, hopefully."

I didn't want to be too like, "That's guaranteed," or anything, but it doesn't seem like a risk at all at that point if you put it in that sense. I might as well give it a shot. I might as well do it earlier than later, so it was a lot of time where I basically spent...I went to a bunch of conferences. Then, through that, I tried to reach out to people and talk to them and see if they would want to donate.

I think people would know this. I'm not someone that is good at like sales or has any background in that or anything. I'm just an engineer.

Honestly, I don't know why people are donating, other than...You could have said that anyone could have did it because Babel's already so important. If some other person did it, maybe they would have raised so much money, too. You don't know. It's hard to say.

I don't particularly enjoy doing that kind of thing. At least back then in the beginning, it was necessary, so I did it. Now, I still need to do it because I would love to be able to help support our other contributors way more than they are now.

I was talking with Brian, one of our contributors, like should I feel guilty that I'm not spending all my time doing fundraising? It's not my job, necessarily, to do it. I don't want to do it out of obligation, but I want to help people, so it's like, "Let's do that." That's a balance.

A lot of us, even now, we think about what do we actually want to do. Sometimes, when we get that, we don't really know. Although, I would say that removing commute time means that you feel like you have to work more. You also sometimes feel like you have a lot more free time, maybe, if you're not an essential worker.

In that time, people get bored. They're like, "I got all this time." Then, you watch a bunch of TV or whatever it is. At the end, you're like, "Wait. What do I really want to do with this time?" [laughs]

Chantastic: It is interesting, just the difference in expectations that people have. I think so many people think, "Oh man, what a dream to be able to work on open source all the time," etc., etc.

Henry: [laughs]

Chantastic: As we've covered so much. You work under a tremendous amount of constraints, and so many people have so many expectations of this, Babel in particular.

So much of what you're doing is not the things that engineers think that they'll be doing when they maintain a huge open source project. It's a lot of advocacy. It's a lot of selling to make sure that the project's funded, and then a huge amount of issue management, I suppose.

Henry: Yeah. It's all those things, and you can choose to do whatever you want. You don't necessarily have to do any of those things. I know there's plenty of people that are doing open source, whether part-time, full-time, or for fun.

They only care about the technical side. That's great. [laughs] We need people to do that. I'm trying emphasizing, that matters a lot, but this other stuff matters, too. I want to walk my own talk. I'm trying telling myself, "This other stuff matters." The whole thing of doing it will help me feel like it still matters, [laughs] even though in my mind, I think it does.

Chantastic: A lot of people don't anticipate how that changes. I guess the moment that you actually take that leap of fate, as you said, to jump into open source, and make it your full-time gig. How your perception changes and how important it is to really honor the community that's making this possible.

I want to dovetail that into something that you said at a talk in 2018 at React Rally. I can't remember the name of the talk. Do you remember? Something through the looking glass?

Henry: Through the open source looking glass or something like that, yeah.

Chantastic: OK, we'll link it no matter what. You mentioned a quote by Larry Wall, which a lot of people are familiar with the first notion that he presents, which is, the virtues of a programmer are laziness, impatience, and hubris.

Then you continued it with a part that I've never heard before until you mentioned it, which was, the virtues of a community sound like their opposite -- diligence, patience, and humility. I find that really interesting because you'd mentioned going into this project as an engineer.

You identify as an engineer, and thinking about the work like that, and valuing that as the work that you enjoy doing. Building up a community and maintaining a community requires a totally different set of skills, which we've touched on a little bit.

I'm curious what that looks like in practice, and how you've built those up in yourself and in your team over the last year or so.

Henry: I have a hard time feeling that I'm doing a good job of doing any of these. The humility part is, I feel like the only reason why I'm still doing it is because, knowing that I'm not an expert in any of it, but still wanting to make it happen.

I know that intention doesn't lead to results or anything either, but I felt like it was worth doing. Also, a big reason why I even decided to quit was, I felt like those aspects of open source would be better for me to explore on my own, not tied to a company, whether it's Adobe or anyone else.

Ultimately, they're going to want you to write code or make money for them or something. Not that we're not making money. We all need to make money, but it's like you said, the perspective that you have when you're in a certain position is different.

I felt like it was worth being in that position to explore this. It's so fascinating, there are thoughts and actions that I would never take if I stayed at Adobe or I stayed at a company doing full-time.

Even at this point, some company offered me work on Babel full-time, I might even have to think about it. [laughs] Do I really want to do that? That changes how you're going to see open source. That's how you're going to do things. I felt like doing it with it...I don't have and knowing that's going to lead to something positive it's just like this hope.

Chantastic: Sure.

Henry: I think that's the risks that you have to take of an uncertainty. I was OK with that when I decided to try. The day-to-day is not necessarily always fun. There are times where I am like, yeah, this is like so much just a mental burden and it would be easier just to go back and just get a job and maybe even just stop doing open source entirely.

It's true it feels like whenever you're in something for a while. It just feels like there's this tug to become more and more [indecipherable 28:41] . I don't want to be.


Chantastic: [laughs] No. I totally agree with you. I'm curious in a very practical way. If you imagined yourself taking on a job at a company where you're working on Babel. In the practical, how do you feel that would change the way that you think about the project? Conversely, what are the values that you see as present in the way that you're doing it now?

Henry: I was working on Babel half-time when I was at Adobe and I'd like to say that my team was amazing and I just think they're encouraging even when I was doing that. The problem is that, no matter how good their intentions were and just like our relationship. The things that they think about the things that they talk about the environment is about other work.

That makes sense of course. Why would it be about what I'm working on. That kind of split. To 50/50 split that I had was just nagging me in the back of my mind. I couldn't get over that. It was I was talking to my boss and I say, "Either I should just do it full-time or I just stop?" Because that was worse to me than even doing it half time even though in theory if felt that was amazing.

I think a lot about that environment and context. Those things aren't there and I think that's ultimately what supports a community all these other things around it. On paper or explicitly everything seems like it would work out.

At least how I felt about it was it would be hard to...Maybe another thing is this idea of we like to compartmentalize things. I have a desire to want to integrate everything instead. At least now I do. Whether it's open source and work or even in my case like faith in work or something. I don't see how I can separate them and I don't want to that's where the conflict is I guess.

Chantastic: It's really interesting because this is something that so many people who want to have more agency over their life and decisions have a hard time and there's a lot of I don't know gurus are inspirational people who will tell you, "Yeah I just do it. It'll work out you got to believe in yourself and whatnot." The truth is it doesn't always work out.

It is hard to know when to make that switch. It's exceedingly hard to work a job with all of this as you said context and communication wrapped up in that. Then have any energy left for the things you actually believe, want to see and want to see more deeply integrated into your life. I pledge you for making the jump. It sounds like been all that you had hoped that it could possibly be at this point.

Henry: I need to look back also and remember that where I'm at is...There's a lot of benefits to it. I maybe I'm underplaying them because I don't want to make it sound it's so rosy. I also don't want to be like...It doesn't suck because otherwise I would just can't talk. [laughs]

Chantastic: Sure.

Henry: This cost of freedom in some sense, whatever this freedom is. I don't have a boss telling me what to do. Sometimes you want someone to tell you what to do. This is a symptom of a modern age is we like to outsource our...I don't know, I guess desires and some sense to others or algorithms and some sense. We now...


Chantastic: Or like agency maybe?

Henry: Yeah. Agency. Exactly, we think that it's so hard for us to make personal judgments anymore. I don't know why it that's so weird it's like a part of being human. I defer my decisions to Google or Netflix or Amazon or whatever.

I don't want to pretend that we've had control over our decisions in terms of like, "Of course everything influences us." In this case it feels even more so you have less and less agency because of various things.

Chantastic: That is interesting. I've not heard it puts quite that way the idea of going into this stage of your life where you're making open source happen. Working independently but with people.

Chasing integration that's a really interesting way to think about it. That at the end of the day was more valuable for you than the security or the split mind even though it provided you both security and the...

Henry: [laughs]

Chantastic: ...opportunity to do the open source that you are doing. [laughs]

Henry: I like to hope that was a principled I adhere too, but you know we're all hypocritical people.


Chantastic: Amen to that. I want to shift gears a little bit and talk about what you're doing with your podcast "Hope in Source" I find it to be such...I mean first of all I think it's a brilliant name...


Henry: Thank you.

Chantastic: we're going to go with that. I find it really interesting podcast because it does represent you struggling to find what those points of integration are and trying to decide against those things that are not integrated. Could you tell me a little bit about podcast and how you see it as a high level?

Henry: Well, just to talk about how it started. I mentioned Nadia and her book. I had some conversations with her when she was at GitHub. She reached out to me because I've been talking open source. Naturally I started talking about, how I was thinking and it is the beginnings of me thinking. "Oh, wait a minute how of our faith is not that different from open source."

She thought that was interesting. She as a atheist on thought that was interesting. Traditionally, it's hard to talk about faith for so many different reasons. It was interesting to her and she even suggested one time. She was like, "Hey, maybe we should record these and share them." I was like, "Wow, I never thought of doing that I'd be afraid."

Chantastic: [laughs]

Henry: She was too. For a different reason. This is funny if you're not a religious person and you talk about it people start thinking that you are. It's like a fear. You don't want people to think that.

We just recorded a bunch of conversations over a period of many months, and then I released them all at once as a surprise, because it wasn't something you want to tease to people. It's kind of a weird thing to do, because you already...I'm not sure if it's going to turn out with a positive response. We just did that and it seemed like people thought it was interesting, at least.

I was talking to Maggie or someone. They're saying how it's more of an anthropology of open source and faith, not necessarily talking about like, "Oh, you should believe this or whatever." It's thinking about how they're the same and pointing that out to people.

I think even presenting that idea, like putting that in someone's mind, it helped me to think like, "Oh, there are a lot more things that I thought, that are related." We went through. I just pick a word and see how they relate, like trust. We have to trust people in open source in so many different ways.

Obviously, trust in God and religious sense or fundraising with tithing, donations, this idea of internal and external motivation. There's so many areas of overlap.

Chantastic: One of the things that makes the show work is the fact that she does not have a background of faith. That Nadia doesn't have a background of faith. There's something very magical about that combination of someone who identifies as a believer, someone who identifies as an atheist, talking about how like not religion but how the principles and patterns map over to open source.

It's so captivating to listen to because it's so clearly from the start. We're going to talk about how open source is religion. [laughs] Bringing those concepts in those patterns and seeing how they have adapted to these things and how to...Once you identify that, how to capture or collect their benefits and discard the things that are not working.

Henry: I think that and you can maybe even listen to how we have evolved and how we think about that stuff through the episodes themselves because it was over the period of a year almost.

At this point she obviously is moved on to other things and I wouldn't expect her to always want to do this, but I think after a while it's like, "I kind of want to continue it just on my own." I know that it doesn't have the same dynamic because it would be nice if I found another person [laughs] to do that.


Henry: I was like, "I might as well just talk to some other..." I guess it was an experiment to see like, do people even think this is worth talking about or hearing about. I think after that past, I did find people reach out to me and they're like, "Hey, I thought this was interesting too and I'll be happy to talk about it."

Or, "I just started I guess googling for different things and finding people to chat with." Not every episode has to be about faith and not every episode is necessarily about open source. I think that if you listen to it, you'll notice that there are a lot of general things that are similar about it.

Chantastic: There's one episode that you had recommended that I listen to specifically in season one about...I can't remember the episode. "City as Liturgy."

Henry: City as Liturgy? There you go.

Chantastic: Yeah, it was so fascinating. We will link this absolutely and I think people should listen to it. I thought it was so fascinating how overlapping your guest language was coming from a religious perspective using all of the same technical words that I would to describe some of these things like secondary effects and algorithms. It was totally fascinating to listen to the incredible overlap of these two things.

Henry: The funniest part was how I found Timothy. There are certain groups people in tech that are really into urbanism, cities and how they work especially if you live in Lancaster or New York. One of the people that people talk about a lot is Jane Jacobs. She wrote this book called "The life and Death of Great American Cities."

Timothy was saying how life and death is very similar. It's talking about lifecycle and that is how he interpreted cities as well. Then he even talked to her about this. She was like, "Wow, this liturgy concept is the best form of interpretation of my own work." I thought that was, interesting. I literally was just googling city, liturgy, God and stuff like that, and his name came up. I just emailed him, I have no connection to him at all.

I just emailed him said, "Hey, you want to chat?" He's like, "OK." So we did and then later I even visited Boston. I just like, "Hey, do you want to meet up in person, and we can chat again." That's an example of, that's what I want. I want to be able to use the Internet for that like, serendipitous, just meetings with people and learning from people.

Chantastic: I love this and I hope that you go [indecipherable 41:43] I think that you'll just be riveted by it the way that I am. One of the things that kept coming up as a theme is this notion of without going into liturgy and what not, but the notion of cities being, organic, that they're an organic thing constantly changing and adapting.

That Jane Jacobs pieces, is that city planning ruins cities, because it's this top down type of mechanism, instead of honoring the living thing that is the city.

I want to ask you, how that informs your work? How do you index more for organic, open source and Babel, whatever, you want it to be your work as a human index for the organic elements of that instead of stamping a city down and mandating that things be a certain way?

Henry: It does relate back to the humility aspect because if you think about seeing, the city as a bunch of buildings or a place this is...I always tend to go more general, I don't have a lot of practical yet and I'm still figuring it out. If you see the city as a bunch of buildings, and also that means you think the people in there don't really matter as much.

Not that they don't care about people, but it's easier to think of everything as a bunch of numbers. We talk about this a lot, everything's just statistics versus her she was like, "What are the people on the ground feeling?" She talks about sidewalk life, which is interesting. That's where people meet, that's not private, it's not public, it's different. In open source, it's same.

It's is open source just about the code, we focus so much about, licenses and distribution of code, which is all these things are important. They're necessary, but they're not sufficient to what I think a good open source community can turn into. At the basic level we do need licenses.

If we focus so much on that, what happened to the people working on them? Even when I was starting open source, my question that finally gotten into, getting into it was realizing that there is someone on the other side working on this thing.

Chantastic: It's not a thing we just materialize...


Henry: ...exactly, it's sort of when it's just handed to you, from OPI. It's like, "No, they're actual people. They're real people." They're working on this thing, and then all those questions start from that, Who are they? Not to stop them, but how are they sustaining themselves, or do they even want to work on this thing anymore?

There's so many questions that can come up just from asking, who is making this, and then also realizing I'm depending on them, at the very least, we should support the dependencies we have, because of insurance. If it doesn't work, then we are going to be in trouble.

It's being intentional about how you'd be or if choose to not use it, and don't complain about it. It's you can make everything from scratch if you really wanted to, but don't try to dependent but also, pretend that doesn't matter or something.

Chantastic: I think this is interesting, especially the notion of, buildings and heat and the humans inside of them. We do tend to think about these things in the abstract of Babel, it's just a project that npm install for literally everything and it's good to go.

We forget that in fact, we are depending on a human or several humans to have written that code for us. [laughs]

Henry: Yeah, and that's the beauty of open source is that you don't have to know, that you can just use it.

Chantastic: [laughs]

Henry: Then that's also the problem. I say this a lot, I don't want people to, when they think Babel, they necessarily have to think of me or anyone else because that seems like [indecipherable 46:09] is the whole influencer, whatever. It's not focusing on the person, it's focusing on a certain picture of that person. That's not actually them.

Like I say that when people find out that I work on Babel they don't treat you like I'm a person, they treat you like this programmer God.

Chantastic: [laughs]

Henry: That's what I mean by, "What does it really mean to treat someone as a human, as a person that you would talk to about whatever, instead of getting their autograph or not even knowing they exist." Those are the two extremes I think of.

I find that we do this everywhere, this objectification of things. Another person I've been reading is called Ivan Illich. He's well known for critiquing institutions, particularly medicine and school. His book that a lot of people know it's called "Deschooling Society."

One way that we have objectified ourselves is...It was interesting, I never thought about this before, but we used to have this theory of something called the humors. It's how we thought the insides were, not like funny, but it's a different kind of substance like fire, water, that stuff.

Chantastic: Sure.

Henry: Now we think that's old. No one believes that anymore. We think of our organs. The problem of thinking of everything in terms of organs is that it's very similar to thinking ourselves as machines, or a bunch of parts that are defective. We don't treat our own bodies as human, which is interesting. The way we think about ourselves even.

That's one step towards more and more disembodiment of maybe a lot of us want to upload our consciousness into a robot or whatever. We don't need body anymore. I like Charles Taylor has this word that he uses, which is excarnation. This is as opposed to incarnation.

I refer to that because especially when we talk about faith, God becoming a person in Christ, is we call it the incarnation, a spirit becoming flesh. Excarnation would be the opposite. We are slowly, because of a lot of things, thinking less and less about our own bodies and that has effects on how we see one another, and how we act.

Chantastic: It gets back to your point of chasing integration and wholism.

Henry: Yeah, right.

Chantastic: Dan Abramov tweeted something about to the effect of, do you believe in free will?


Chantastic: ...which is [indecipherable 49:23] to get everybody coming to that Twitter thread. I remember Paul Henschel -- who we've had on the show before, he's a great thinker -- said something to the effect of mind is body. We forget sometimes that it's all integrated. We can't ignore one piece and have that mean something, or be fine without that one...

Yeah, they're separated, but that doesn't mean that they aren't integrated and all required to work together in some way to keep us healthful and happy and working and thinking correctly.

Henry: I come back to that a lot. Learning the background on that, it's a very modern view that how we can separate the mind and the body. We go back to Descartes, it's called the mind-body dualism. That there is that kind of thing.

I guess, yeah, I'm trying to push against that. Everything about my background and history and my education is all in that, and I'm slowly trying to unlearn that [laughs] in some sense, and see how much it's affected literally everything.

Chantastic: I appreciate you continuing to press into that, it's very inspirational to me and it causes me to think.

I hope that a lot of people will continue to follow your work and listen to it and hopefully be able to -- even folks who don't identify as religious -- to see how these things can be integrated in a non-religious way. How the patterns and practices might be able to help them.

For anyone who wants to follow you and find you about the Internet, how do they do that?

Henry: I'm on Twitter, I'm not tweeting that much, left_pad. [laughs] I've been reading a lot, so I'm quoting random books. I'm sure most people are like, "What are you even talking about?" It's been fun.

Chantastic: [laughs]

Henry: Do you want to do that, there's that.

Chantastic: Just chasing that integration, chasing that integration, being true to yourself.


Chantastic: Where do they find Hope in Source and then any writing that you're doing?

Henry: It's, and it's also on all the other platforms. Writing, I haven't been doing much blogging. I guess the only writing I'm doing is my newsletter for people that are sponsoring me. It's on GitHub, basically.

Chantastic: Awesome. That brings up another question. If people want to sponsor you directly or devote more to Babel itself, how can they do that?

Henry: There's GitHub sponsors, and we have an open collective for Babel. Then you can also reach out to me. My DM's open if you want to contribute, or talk about everything that we talked about, happy to do that.

Chantastic: Awesome. We'll get all those things linked for sure. Henry, thank you so much for your time today. This was super fun to dive into all of these topics. I appreciate you and I appreciate you taking time to talk with us today.

Henry: Thanks, Michael. This is great.