Mar 17, 2018

The politics industry

Our political system isn't broken, it's evolved. It's no longer simply a system but an industry. Our political system has been replaced by an industry connected to a set of industries that we can call the “politics industrial complex.”

Calling it the "political industry" connects us to other ideas that can help us better understand what's happening.  We have tools for analyzing industries and their behavior. We have tools that help us understand the effect of competition and the lack of competition in industries. We can use those tools to understand the political industry. Industries can be competitive or monopolistic, regulated or unregulated. Most industries seek to grow--to generate more and more economic activity.

The political industry is a growth industry. Each election cycle the industry gets larger. It consumes more resources and produces more--what? A well designed political system would produce solutions to problems that can’t be solved by individual and market means, and can only be solved collectively.  An effective politics industry doesn't have to do that. It just needs to grow, and it does that by producing politics.

I didn’t make up the term “politics Industry.” I got it from a paper, [“Why competition in the politics industry is failing America,”](  by Katherine M. Gehl and Michael E. Porter. Katherine Gehl ([website](, [Wikipedia]( was the fourth-generation President and CEO of Gehl Foods and is now a policy activist and political reformer. Michael E. Porter ([Wikipedia]( is an American academic known for his theories on economics, business strategy, and social causes.

They say:

`The starting point for understanding the problem is to recognize that our political system isn’t broken. Washington is delivering exactly what it is currently designed to deliver. The real problem is that our political system is no longer designed to serve the public interest, and has been slowly reconfigured to benefit the private interests of gain-seeking organizations: our major political parties and their industry allies.`

`Most people think of politics as its own unique public institution governed by impartial laws dating back to the founders. Not so. Politics is, in fact, an industry— most of whose key players are private, gain-seeking organizations. The industry competes, just like other industries, to grow and accumulate resources and influence for itself. The key players work to advance their self-interests, not necessarily the public interest.`

But unlike many other industries with many competing organizations, the politics industry is a duopoly. Two brand-named political organizations dominate the industry. And while they appear to compete, they have an important shared interest: to keep other competitors out of the industry. In this, they’ve done an outstanding job. And it means that they can compete much less than they'd have to if others were allowed into the industry.

Kehl and Porter say:

`The politics industry is different from virtually all other industries in the economy because the participants, themselves, control the rules of competition. There is no truly independent regulation of politics that protects the public interest. Free from regulation and oversight, the duopoly does exactly what one would fear: The rivals distort the rules of competition in their favor. Examples of this includes controlling access to the general election ballot, partisan gerrymandering, and the Hastert Rule, which puts partisan concerns above legislating for the public interest.`

To see how badly the politics industry works, compare it to really competitive industry: groceries. People choose the grocery store that they shop at based on convenience, products and price. Because competition is fierce the grocery industry is a low-margin business and as a result, consumers win. Once inside the store, shoppers have more choices. For each kind of good stores don't just give you one brand--they give you several. A store that gave you only one choice would soon be out of business.

Imagine if the grocery industry ran the way the politics industry runs. Supposing there are two grocery chains: Super Foods and Friendly Shopper. Instead of competing by giving you variety, each store would put together a weekly basket of goods and let shoppers choose which one they prefer. If the majority of shoppers in an area decided on the Super Foods basket, then every shopper would get that basket. Even the shoppers who preferred the Friendly Shopper basket get the Super Foods basket. That sounds pretty bad.

But it’s even worse. Because almost no one who chooses the Super Food basket likes everything in it. You might like 90% of what’s in the basket. I might like 50%. To the Super Foods basket-maker all that matters is that more than 50% of shoppers like the Super Foods basket better than the Friendly Shopper basket. The goal is no longer to maximize shopper satisfaction--it's to do just a little better than your one competitor.

And it’s even worse. Because once you choose which basket you prefer, then you, and everyone else in that region gets that basket for the next two, four, or six years.

And it’s even worse. Because Super Foods and Friendly Shopper are national brands. Local store managers have some ability to modify the local basket to match local tastes, but the national organization discourages that. They want brand consistently as much as possible. Why? Becuase they want to advertise their basket nationally, so they need consistency. They want the brand to mean something. So they push to have the Super Foods basket in Florida and the Super Foods basket in Maine as close as possible.

This is obviously a horrible system. There is some choice, but it’s minimal. But that’s what the politics industry delivers. There are two national brands: Republican and Democrat. You don’t get to choose the policies (groceries) that you want. The brands make up a national basket of policy choices, make minor local adaptations, and then offer you a candidate--that’s the basket--designed to get 50% of the shoppers in a the region to choose it over the competition. Whatever the majority of shoppers choose is what everyone gets for the next two, four or six years.

The paper is well worth reading. It’s not our broken political system: it’s our anti-competitive, duopolistic politics industry. Seeing it through that lens suggests some solutions.

Mar 16, 2018

My seven day meditation challenge: Day 1

I've written about my interest in meditation. I've launched a couple of half-hearted (or half-assed) attempts to develop a regular meditation practice. Yesterday, I tried something different:  I challenged two of my friends (and myself) to a seven-day meditation challenge.

The three of us are fans of Sam Harris's book “Waking Up,” about which I've written as well. We have a Google Hangouts chat channel that each of us tries to visit at least daily. We remind each other regularly to wake up. Sometime we even wake up to respond. We also use it to share things that we find interesting and think the others might like.

Sam has recorded two guided meditations, one about nine minutes, the other about 26 minutes. I've used each to guide me through a meditation session a few times. Monday, I used the longer one at the start of the day, because I wanted to be a badass meditator. I felt good afterward. I had a great day. (Maybe due to writing more than meditation, but maybe the writing was due to meditation. Whatevs!) Tuesday I slacked off. It was still a good day (and I wrote), but I thought Monday was better. So Wednesday I used it again, badass mode. More writing, and another great day. And that led to the challenge.

I wrote this in our Hangouts channel:
I listened to Sam's 29 minute guided meditation for the 2nd time this week Good stuff
Anyone want to take a 7 day meditation challenge with me? Do that guided meditation each day. Report what you discover. He's also got a shorter one. But I would guess that each of you spends a half hour a day doing something (like random reading of the net) of far less likely value

The response?


There are many ways that I might have encouraged my friends to join me in the challenge. Eight hours of silence later I used the first one that came to mind. Name-calling.


I wrote in the channel.

That woke them up! After a little back-and-forth, a night's sleep, and my morning meditation, I realized something important. I didn’t need them to join me in the challenge.
Actually, you don't have to meditate for the next 7 to help me... which was one of my purposes. And it will do you no good if you meditate just so I don't call you a sissy.
Challenging you guys was just really a way for me to challenge myself.
Your work is done.
Thank you.
You are not sissies, but friends.
For me, Day 1 complete.
And on reflection (caused by writing this--yay writing!) I realize that neither of them needs to do a daily meditation to join me in my meditation challenge. 

We are connected.

Because we are connected, whatever I do, they join me in whatever I do.

And so do you, reader.

And so so all the people with whom I am connected, and who have not read this.

We are all connected.

Thanks for being with me as I write this. And as I post this.


Mar 15, 2018

In memory--or the lack of same

This morning I woke up, stumbled out of bed, wandered around for a few minutes and decided to meditate. I'd started my day that way two days ago and it had gone pretty well. So I grabbed my phone and googled for the guided meditation that I'd used. The one by...


"C'mon, you know this," I said to myself. "You listened to it two days ago. It's....."


"That's surprising," I thought. "I know who did the meditation. I just watched him on a live stream last night with Steven Pinker. I'm a subscriber to his content. It's...."


"Wow, that's interesting!" I thought. I tried again. Crickets.

Forgetting his name is not like forgetting the names of my kids (I checked. I still remembered. Or  I believed I remembered their names. Who really knows.) But it wasn't a trivial lapse. It's not as though I'd forgotten one of the many obscure and fairly useless facts that I can still return to mind.  It's not as though I was unable to recall a fact that I had not accessed in a few years. This is a guy whose name I know well. I've read his books. I listen to his podcasts. I've listened to three or four in the past week alone. I read his blog posts. I talk to other people about him. I know what he looks like.



He wrote one of the most influential books that I've ever read. I can see the cover. It's a blue face on a white background. The book is called "Waking Up." I can remember that. It's "Waking Up," by...


..."Waking Up," by...

I wait.

"Sam," my mind finally replies.

"Sam?" I ask. "Sam who?"


I repeat myself a few times.

"Waking Up by Sam....  Waking Up by Sam..."

Finally from a blank space in my memory: "Sam Harris"

"OK!" I think. "Sam Harris. That's right."

I google for Sam Harris meditation and find it, while thinking how strange it was that I couldn't remember. Was I just not yet awake? Would a cold shower have helped? Is this what it's going to be like as I get older?

I briefly consider that idea. I imagine my memory going almost completely. I imagine not being able to remember anyone's name. I don't remember my friends. My kids are familiar, but their names are...gone. Dropped down the memory hole and forever unreachable.

Oddly, I'm not concerned. Whatever I remember or don't remember, while I was trying to remember I was that bit of consciousness that found that situation interesting and the possibility of losing my memory fascinating.

Good to know that I'll continue to be that person, no matter what facts I can't access. Good to know I'd continue to be that person even if I forgot that person's name.

But what if I forget that's who I am?

Mar 14, 2018

Ecosystems and economies

Ecosystems are like economies. Creatures in ecosystems evolve to occupy every ecological niche. Agents in economic systems evolve to occupy every economic niche. Every occupied niche produces in new niches and evolution fills them, too.

Ecosystems have one rule: survive (and reproduce). Nature does not play favorites. The rules are the same for parasites, creatures that harm or kill their hosts; for mutualists, creatures that mutually benefit others; and commensalists, creatures that gain from another creature without helping it or harming it.

From that one rule, we can derive some guidelines. For parasites: don’t kill all your hosts. If you do, you die, too. Successful parasites learn not to kill all their hosts; and some parasites even evolve into mutualists. It’s not that they’re nice. It’s just that helping your host survive is a good way to make sure that you’ve got lots of hosts to support you. So the guideline is: you’ll do better if you help those around you. But you don’t have to.

Creatures in ecosystems evolve to maximize use of available resources. There’s only so much air, so much sunlight, so much water, so much land, so much of various minerals. Creatures evolve so that--in sum--they consume more and more. Over time ecosystems and the creatures within them become more complex, because more complex systems can use resources more efficiently.

There’s no purpose to its evolution other than survival. Ecosystems don’t care whether the creatures in them are cooperative or competitive, or a combination; whether the creatures are beautiful or ugly; devious or direct. Nature only wants things that survive.

Some ecosystems--fewer and fewer--operate without human intervention. When humans get involved, they can direct--but never entirely control what grows. Humans can add new rules like: “produce things that humans desire,” and “don’t be a weed.” Humans can enforce their rules by poisoning whatever they do not like, fertilizing and feeding what they do like, by selective breeding, by introducing new species, and by genetic engineering.

Plants, animals, bacteria, and virii are among the life forms that inhabit natural ecosystems. Groups of these creatures, acting together, behave differently than their individual components and can be thought of as life forms in their own right. 

Human beings and groups of human beings are the life forms that inhabit economic systems. The groups include tribes, villages, cities, nations, armies, and churches. Even though groups of humans are composed of individual humans, they also exhibit new behavior that emerges from the group/

Absent human intervention in an economic system, parasites, mutualists, and commensalists would all be subject to the same “survive or die” rules. But economies, like human-controlled ecosystems, have human designers who make additional rules. A common rule is “don’t be a parasite.” But when autocrats--who are often parasites and live at the expense of the people they rule--make the rules, the rules are designed to keep those particular parasites and their cronies in power. So the rule is “don’t be a parasite--unless you’re one of us.”

For centuries economic systems consisted of humans and small tribes of humans. Those tribes evolved rules well suited to helping those systems survive--even if not all of the individuals and groups within the system thrived. equally Later, larger groups evolved based on geography--villages, towns, cities, nations; based on common beliefs; religions, for example; based on common interests--guilds, for example. Along with the larger groups came new rules. By trial and error--evolution’s only method, rules evolved that helped larger and larger groups survive.

Now a new economic life form has arisen: the modern corporation. In a future post, I’ll talk about the new challenge that corporations present.

Mar 13, 2018

"I care"

“I care,” said a voice in my head.


“You wondered ‘Who cares if I write?’ I said, ‘I care.’"

“Who are you?” I asked.

“You can call me God,” the voice answered.

“Are you God?” I asked.

“I might be. But who I am is irrelevant.”

“You're just a voice in my head,” I said.

“Perhaps,” said the voice. “But that's irrelevant. What's important is that you want to write, and I care. So write.”

“Why should it matter to me if you care, whatever you are?” I asked.

“It doesn't need to matter," said the voice. "It's your decision. My decision is to care or not. And I care. Your decision is whether my caring matters or not. And your decision is?”

“I don't know,” I said.

“Do you want to write?” asked the voice.

“I do,” I answered.

“Then write,” said the voice.

“I am writing,” I said. “I just wrote that. I’m writing this.”

“And isn’t it grand,” said the voice “Don’t you love it?”

“I do,” I admitted.

“Then why not keep writing the things you care about writing?"

"You mean, instead of this?"

"In addition to this."

“I don’t know,” I said. “I could write about something else. But right now I want to see where this goes. Where this leads. So I'm writing to find out.”

“Where does it lead?” Asked the voice.

I thought for a moment. “I don't know,” I said. “Do you know where it will lead?”

“Of course,” said the voice. "I'm God."

I ignored the God part. "Where?” I asked.

“It leads to you doing the writing you care most about.”

“And how will that happen?” I asked.

“Easy. Whenever you get stuck, I’ll remind you that you want to write and I'll remind you that I care,” said the voice. "And you'll write."

“What if I’m not in the mood?” I asked.

“I'll remind you that that's irrelevant. I’ll remind you that you want to write, and that I care, and that your mood is irrelevant.”

“What if I don’t have anything write about?” I asked.

“Have you nothing to write about?”

“No,” I said, “I've lots to write about.”

“Then that's irrelevant. Just write.”

“What if I’ve got lots of things to write about and can't decide which to write about first?” I asked

“Can't you decide?” Asked the voice.

“I can decide,” I said.

“Then that's irrelevant. Just write."

“All right, I said. “I'm going to write an essay about the evolution of political factions.”

“Good,” said God. “Do it!”

"Did you make me do that?" I asked.


“I wrote 'said God’ instead of ‘said the voice?’ And then I crossed it out. And then I put it back. Did you have anything to do with that?"

“Are you going to write?” asked whatever asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“Then what I am is irrelevant,” said the voice. “Write. Because you want to. Because--whatever I am--I care. Isn’t that enough?”

“It is,” I said. And posted this. And started writing my next piece.

Mar 11, 2018

Get out of your head and into your life -- Part I

A blank page. Discomfort. Isn't that the point?

I've written a series of posts about discomfort. Recently (like February) I realized (with some shock) the degree to which my personal narrative was inconsistent with the facts of my life and wrote two posts (Whatever it takesDoing the hard stuff) about my epiphany. Short form: I imagined that I was committed to self-improvement;  I realized I was committed to giving the appearance of that commitment. But not to doing the work.

Then I came across a book called "Get out of your head and into your life" by Steven C. Hayes. It's YASHB: Yet Another Self-Help Book. (Or should that be YAS-HB) But this one got me right in the feels. And that's never happened before.

I found the book through Twitter. I follow David Sloan Wilson, a biologist who contributes to Evonomics a blog that publishes essays on applying evolutionary theory to economics. He's also president of the Evolution Institute, that applies science, and particularly evolutionary theory, to practical problems. He tweeted a link to this article that introduces the work of Steven C. Hayes, a guy I'd never heard of. And, DSW tells us, neither have lots of other people. But they should, he says.
Simultaneously, he developed a version of mindfulness-based therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT, pronounced as one word) that is now being used around the world. His self-help book “Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life14” has sold over a quarter million copies and was featured in a five-page article in TIME magazine in 2006. Over 200 randomized control trials demonstrate the efficacy of ACT for a diverse array of problems covering not just a nearly comprehensive list of the usual mental health and substance use areas (depression, anxiety, smoking, opiate use), but also a dozen or more behavioral health problems (e.g., diet, exercise, facing a cancer diagnosis, managing diabetes), and areas you might not ever expect such as academic success, prejudice, organizational functioning, or sport. He is one of the most widely cited psychologists in the world, authoring over 43 books and 600 academic articles. He also helped to found a society called the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science (ACBS), numbering over 7,800 members worldwide, including both applied scientists operating in university settings and practitioners working with individuals and groups in real-world settings. 
The article convinced me to do a little research on ACT and that convinced me to buy his book.

Here's the money quote from the book:
The rules and conditions our minds lay down for us are simple but powerful: act on the basis of belief and disbelief. They say that you must react to your mind either by agreeing with it or arguing. 
Unfortunately, both reactions are based on taking your thoughts literally. Rather than seeing your thoughts merely as an ongoing process of relating, they are reacted to based on what they relate to. They are “factually” correct or incorrect. 
When you take your thoughts literally, you are “riding the mind-train.” That is, you are responding to the thoughts your mind presents to you purely in terms of the facts they are about. Agreeing and disagreeing are both within the rules, so neither response gets you off the train. However, if you break the rules, you will find yourself off the mind-train—and isn’t this one train you’d like to get off of now and then?
The solution? Get off the fucking train. Or out of the fucking car, depending on where you're stuck.

My experience reading the book was extraordinary.

I nodded agreement through the introduction. Hayes lays out his theory. People suffer. Suffering is normal. Some of the things we do to alleviate our suffering actually make it worse. Makes sense. He asks three things of the reader: persistent, active engagement with the text; unrelenting honesty; intending to have the book make a difference. Sure, Steve. No big deal.

He says:
We all have pain. All human beings, if they live long enough, have felt or will feel the devastation of losing someone they love. Every single person has felt or will feel physical pain. Everybody has felt sadness, shame, anxiety, fear, and loss. We all have memories that are embarrassing, humiliating, or shameful. We all carry painful hidden secrets. We tend to put on shiny, happy faces, pretending that everything is okay, and that life is “all good.” But it isn’t and it can’t be. To be human is to feel pain in ways that are orders of magnitude more pervasive than what the other creatures on planet Earth feel.
And part of the reason that we suffer more is language. We connect words to experiences. If the experience is painful, then certain words, phrases, sentences, will evoke the pain.


Then he dropped the bomb:

Alright, it's words. Just words on the page. But he did ask for active engagement. And he did ask for total honesty. So without thinking through the terms of the contract, my brain responded. I'm not sure which of the shameful things that I have done is the most shameful. I'm not even sure that a single shameful act came to mind. All I know is that I read it and burst into tears. In the Starbucks where I was reading it.

Fortunately, it was early and no one was around me. And I quickly got myself under control.  But the experience shook me. I'd read scenes in novels that had brought me to tears but this was different. This was about me.

I started writing a blog post about the book. I wasn't ready to endorse it, but now I am--conditionally. It's medicine. But it's strong medicine. Don't take it if you don't need it. And don't take it if your not willing to deal with some side-effects before the healing starts.

The first condition is that you're seriously looking for change or self-improvement. If not, then you're wasting your time reading this book. I don't recommend wasting time.

The second condition is this: you're prepared for the ride. Maybe it won't affect you as strongly as it affected me. Maybe you'll have an even stronger reaction. YMMV. But be prepared. You might get terribly depressed as you read it.

The book mixes Buddhist philosophy and practices with a modern understanding of the human nervous system, and some innovative practices based on both. I've read books on Buddhist philosophy and practice before. Blah blah blah suffering. Blah blah blah mindfulness. I'm not saying they have not been helpful. They have been. Absolutely. But this is different.

Suffering, in those books, is a concept. It's a useful concept for explaining the human condition. It's a concept that creates a context for the practices that follow. Suffering, in this book, is a shot to the heart. Words on a screen stripped away the practices I'd adopted unconsciously to hide my suffering from myself. Words made me face the fact that even though I enjoyed my life, even though I had spent countless hours of reading, thinking, introspecting, writing, half-assed meditating, doing fractional-assed mindfulness exercises, Scientology auditing and training, talking to friends and coaches and therapists--the core, fundamental, basic, deeply-felt unsatisfactoriness of my life was burning within. Stripped of some--or many--of my defenses, I faced the searing pain of numberless failures, countless losses, stupidities, and shameful wrongdoings.

It was not fun.

But in the end, it was liberating. I faced some of that shit without some of those defenses and survived. I didn't kill myself. I thought about it and kept reading.

So that's something.

The book is full of exercises, most of which I haven't done completely--if at all. Some of them push you into confronting the pain and suffering that's there, and how it affects your life. I didn't do all of them because it became too painful. I needed to know there was a way out. I needed a map of the escape routes so I started reading the relieving exercises. I didn't do them all, or thoroughly because needed to build the map, find the ones that I could use RIGHT NOW to deal with what was paining me RIGHT NOW.

I needed to get out of my fucking head.

Now I'm ready to go back to the book, do a deeper dive, work my way through, and really confront the discomforts that I keep avoiding.

Yay, discomfort. Yay, confronting. Yay getting out of the fucking train, car, head, whatever.

There will be other posts as I work my way through the book.

I did something unusual before writing this post. I read other, related stuff I'd written.

Here are some of my other blog posts on discomfort. I'll be adding to them.

Working hurts less than procrastinating, we fear the twinge of starting
Family of Mind (Internal Family Systems)
Learning to learn: Gain without pain

Mar 10, 2018

Modes of reasoning

In the world of science, we've come to agree on the way we reason. Our modes of reasoning have converged because science has a clear objective: correct and accurate predictions. All other scientific endeavors are aligned to that objective. to the degree that they contribute to correct predictions, we keep them. To the degree that competing methods are better, we adopt them. To make accurate predictions we need to make accurate measurements; we need to organize data in ways that permit us to analyze it; we need to select mathematical techniques from the much wider universe of abstract mathematical tools based on their ability to facilitate the tasks of science. Most important, we need to reason correctly. Scientific reasoning is the subset of reasoning processes that contribute to correct and accurate predictions.

In the world of politics, things are not so simple. We imagine that we all have the same objective, but we do not. We don't have unambiguous ways to measure the degree to which we've met even the objectives we agree on. And we don't have ways to identify and measure, with high certainty, the factors that contributed to whatever about the objective we measured.

People choose the reasoning methods that lead to the results that they like. Liberals choose reasoning methods that are likely to support liberal goals. Conservatives choose reasoning methods that are likely to support conservative goals. Before motivated reasoning comes motivated choice of how to reason.

Liberals and conservatives have different objectives. They have different ideas of what a just world would be like. There's nothing wrong with different objectives, as long as we are clear about what those objectives are, and how we go about achieving them.

The notions of contextualism, legal pragmatism which are favored by liberals make it easy to interpret laws flexibly, adapting them to current circumstances, and determining ambiguities and gaps in favor of liberal objectives. The notions of original intent, original meaning, and textualism, which are favored by conservatives, make it hard to interpret laws in those ways, leading outcomes consistent with conservative values and objectives.

I'm a liberal for tribal reasons, for philosophical reasons, and for historical reasons. My choice of how to reason about law and morality is driven by consequential and pragmatic concerns.

Most people would say that one of their objectives is a just world. We assume that when people say they want a just world that they mean the same thing--or something close to it. But people have vastly different and often incompatible ideas of what such a world would look like. Some people are meritocrats: they believe that in a just world, outcomes would be based on the talent that people have and the effort they expend in applying their talent. Others are aristocrats: they believe that in a just world, outcomes should be based on membership in ancient lineages. Others are theocrats: they believe that God rules the world and the world is just because God makes it so; our duty is to follow God's law, and God will take care of the outcomes.

Our intuitions about justice are the result of our upbringing. Most children have the same intuitions as their parents; some are rebellious, and develop intuitions that are in opposition. Some read widely and critically and end up adjusting our views. But we know--those of us who have studied human cognition--that confirmation bias is a powerful force. It's hard to overcome confirmation bias even when you know it exists. Trust me. I've tried and I've confirmed that it's hard. Oh, wait.

Confirmation bias includes the way we evaluate the facts that we already know and the new facts we choose to consider. It also affects the way in which we reason about facts and theories. Even when we agree on the reasoning process to use--say statistical analysis, confirmation bias gets in the way. It's hard to get around it.

To reach the same conclusions people have to have the same data and follow the same reasoning process. To have the same data people have to have the same facts available and the same criteria for determining what facts to accept and what level of credibility to assign to them.

People don't decide what a just world looks like, then independently choose the system of evidence evaluation and the systems of reasoning they will use. Instead, they buy a package: a set of objectives, evaluation techniques that support their objectives, and reasoning processes that lead in the desired direction. It's one-stop shopping. Buy the objectives, and the rest comes for free.

I'm a liberal and like most liberals, I'm a utilitarian and a consequentialist. So I judge an act by my best efforts to predict or assess its consequential effect on human well-being. Sometimes I will be wrong; something that I expected to have good consequences turns out to have bad consequences that outweigh the good. Sometimes there will be consequences that I did not anticipate that reduces the benefit of the good.

Those of us who are not omniscient should always expect unintended consequences. Those of us who have heard of entropy should expect that there will be more bad unintended consequences than good ones because there are many ways to make things worse, and few to make them better.  But my intention is clear: to reason about ways to maximize human well-being. I particularly want to choose paths that maximize human knowledge because I believe that is the key to human well-being.

And I want a system for reasoning about legal and moral matters lets me interpret laws and standards as flexibly as possible because it maximizes my freedom to craft beneficial solutions.

Legal reasoning and moral reasoning are different, but people tend to choose similar systems of reasoning for both. The legal reasoning problem easier: given this set of laws, what is the right thing to do. The moral reasoning problem is harder: given the universe, as we know it (including the existence of a deity) what is the right thing to do? The crossover problem is even harder: given our moral sentiments, the existing body of law, and the nature of our fellow citizens, what should the laws be?

There are two major schools of moral reasoning: according to one school, moral precepts are the starting point. The precepts might be community standards, religious doctrine, or existing law. Given the precepts, one has a duty to follow them. An act is judged as moral--or not--to the degree that it conforms. The largest branch of the school is called deontology, from deon, or duty. The other major school judges the morality of an act by its benefit or harms it causes. Utilitarians consider the direct benefits and harms; consequentialists consider longer-term benefits and harms. Some consider benefit and harms to humans; others take the environment into account.

Here's a simple example showing the difference between deontological vs consequentialist reasoning. If the rule is simply "do not kill," a deontologist argues that killing is wrong, period. Circumstances don't count. But a consequentialist argues that even though the rule clearly states "do not kill," sometimes killing is the ethical thing to do. It is ethical if the expected consequences of killing are judged better than the consequences of not.

The real world is too complicated for a simple rule like "do not kill" and deontologists understand that. Killing in self-defense is a rule that makes an exception to the "do not kill" rule. And there are cases in which the self-defense exception might itself superseded. But no set of rules can possibly cover every contingency. The deontological view is to limit interpretive flexibility. If there are gaps or ambiguities so that an act does not closely match a rule then use the next highest level rule. If the highest level rule in law is: "do nothing" then do nothing.

Consequentialists also see that there will always be gaps in the rules. Even rules that grant exceptions have gray areas.  Consequentialists use laws as guiding principles to be applied in context. If there are extenuating circumstances, ambiguous rules, and circumstances that the rule makers did not anticipate then judges should "do what makes sense" according to the consequences of what you decide.

Liberals like me are consequentialists. We choose a legal framework that lets us interpret ambiguous parts of the law to will maximize what we think will be beneficial consequences. If the people who wrote a law did not anticipate a future circumstance in which that law would be applied, we want to weigh the consequences of various ways of reading the law and choose the one that seems most likely to serve those beneficial goals.

Conservatives tend to be deontologists. They choose legal frameworks, like textualism and originalism and strict construction, that lead to their preferred outcomes: less intervention; stability; traditional forms; preservation of existing rights, rather than the creation of new rights.

Liberals are interventionists. On liberal theory, if something is wrong, unjust or unfair, and the existing system of laws permits--but does not mandate correcting it--then it should be still be corrected as far as the law allows. Conservatives point out that interventions have unintended consequences. Of course, they do! And the unintended consequences are bad. Of course, they will be bad! But not intervening has unintended consequences, and these may be worse. The question is: are the intended, beneficial consequences greater than the unintended, harmful consequences.

Consider pollution laws. The intended consequences have included fewer poisons in the environment, fewer birth defects, fewer cancers, and so on. But there are unintended consequences, of course. Some polluting industries didn't clean up their act--as intended. Instead, they moved to pollution-friendly countries taking both their pollution and their jobs. Neither was intended. Another consequence was more research into pollution-removal and pollution mitigation, which created new jobs, though probably not as many. Both of these things might or might not have been foreseeable, but they were not intended. But doing nothing about pollution also has unintended consequences. The poison stays in the air, babies are born with birth defects, people get cancer. No one who opposes pollution control would admit to intending those consequences. Yet they are the foreseeable, unintended consequences.

Bad unintended consequences is not an argument against action. You can find any number of cases where a liberal interpretation had worse consequences than a conservative interpretation would have had--according to agreed-on interpretive frameworks. You can also likewise find any number where the interpretations had better consequences. On the whole, liberals tend to believe that the unintended negative consequences are a fair cost for the intended positive consequences of a liberal interpretation and conservatives the reverse. In some cases, that's because the objectives that they have are different, and in some cases, it's because their criteria for judging the consequences is already tuned to their favored outcome.

But there's another problem that conservatives point out. Who judges the expected consequences?

A liberal would argue: people generally know right from wrong and will make the right decision more often than the wrong one. They will choose good judges more often than bad ones, and the good judges will make good decisions more often than bad ones. Liberals acknowledge that from individual to individual and time to time they will decide badly.

A conservative would argue that judges are human, and humans are flawed, and judges with too much power to interpret the law will be corrupt or be corrupted by outside forces. Thus they will make harmful decisions more often than good ones. We are better off sticking to the rules than allowing interpretation.

This seems reasonable, but it's ironic. The system of reasoning that rejects the consequential interpretation of laws seems forced to justify itself on consequential grounds. If we avoid consequentialism I think the argument is "You follow the rules (law) because there's a rule (originalism) that says that's what you do." Regardless of the consequences of any particular application.

The entire theory of the judicial system, to which both liberals and conservatives seem to agree to is based on error correction. The Supreme Court's responsibility is to try to correct errors made by all other courts that they choose to consider; appeals course are responsible for correcting errors of lower courts; federal courts to correct errors of state courts; state courts correct errors made by city and town courts.

The underlying assumptions I think are these: it's easier to corrupt a judge in a lower court than in a higher court and it's more likely that a judge in a lower court will be ignorant than a judge in a higher court. So all sides, I think, agree that this system of error correction makes sense and--with exceptions--will work well.

Liberals like me argue that the marketplace of ideas is also self-correcting--although there will be market failures from time to time. If the market works as intended, then better ideas will win. Failures are notable and regrettable, but over greater spans of time, and larger bodies of government, the consequences of liberal interpretations will be more beneficial than harmful.

Then there's history.

If you examine the historical consequences of following the rules you'll see some patterns. In the pre-civil war Deep South, the political and economic system was unjust and corrupt. I hope we can all agree on that. A hundred years later Civil War the people who had been removed from power regained it. They consolidated their power by changing the system so that Negros could not vote and convincing the remaining voters (whites) to vote to maintain that system. I hope we can agree that's what happened.

They argued that policies of segregation, poll taxes, unequal schooling, unfair literacy tests, and worse were States Rights. They argued that the Federal government had no right to intervene under a strict reading of the Constitution.

This changed because a liberal Supreme Court interpreted the constitution according to liberal principles and held that these practices had to stop. A conservative Supreme Court would likely have found otherwise--and conservative justices voted to try to preserve what I think we all see as injustices. The Constitution says nothing forbidding States from charging poll taxes, so poll taxes are fine. In Harper vs the Virginia Board of Elections the Court found the state's poll taxes unconstitutional. Three conservative justices (one a Southern Democrat) dissented. Justice Hugo Black, the Southern Democrat dissented "mainly on stare decisis basis. As a textualist, he also criticized the majority for expanding the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment by using what he called the old "natural law due process formula". He emphasized that new meanings can be added to the Constitution only through amendments."

And of course, they can be. But let's remember how the Fourteenth Amendment was passed:
State legislatures in every formerly Confederate state, with the exception of Tennessee, refused to ratify it. This refusal led to the passage of the Reconstruction Acts. Ignoring the existing state governments, military government was imposed until new civil governments were established and the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified. It also prompted Congress to pass a law on March 2, 1867, requiring that a former Confederate state must ratify the Fourteenth Amendment before "said State shall be declared entitled to representation in Congress"
And then there's the Thirteenth Amendment, the one that freed the slaves, which was passed by skirting around states-rights objections and selling the idea that the rights of the newly freed slaves could still be constrained by the states--a gigantic loophole that the Fourteenth Amendment closed and the reason it took draconian measures to pass it.

The Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments would not have passed without such liberal interpretive Shenanigans. Suppose that the liberals (Republicans, at the time, curiously) had not gotten away with it. Would we still have slaves if states had the right to decide? Would parts of the South still have white and colored restrooms, ridiculously unequal public schooling and other services, and all sorts of institutionalized discrimination upheld and protected by State and local government? I think the answer is, yes.

The liberal Supreme Courts of the 1960's eliminated many of the vestiges of the Old South. As a result, some Northern businesses relocated or expanded into the South. They brought prosperity and liberals with them. Without those changes, the South would have continued to be as impoverished as ever  But the people in power in the South would not have cared. They have continued to remain in power by convincing sufficiently many white voters: "Things may be bad for you, but at least you're not a nigger."

The way that liberals and conservatives reason about law and morality is not abstractly correct. It's a chosen mode of reasoning. In the liberal case, it's helped bring about a world that's closer to the one that liberals viewed as good and just--one without slavery. With greater equality. The way that conservatives reason about law and morality has helped bring about (or tried to preserve) a world that's closer to the one that conservatives view as good and just. One with less government intervention and greater individual freedom.

I agree with conservatives in some cases, but I don't entirely share their view of freedom. You might be free to vote, but if you can't take the time to get to the polls, or the lines are too long, your freedom doesn't mean much.

History leads me to see the conservatives of the South--once Democrats, now Republicans--as the enemies of fairness, justice, and even freedom as I conceive of them. Overt racism doesn't play well in public, even in the South, and some accusations of signaling are unfairly made. But racism is alive and well and so is signaling.

I amid viscerally disliking Southern conservatives. It comes from my understanding of history and my lived experience. In the '60s, when I was working for civil rights I read a pamphlet from a Southern racist group--maybe the KKK, maybe not. It explained that things in the South were just fine. Colored folk and white folk got along great. Because colored folk knew their place. Then that changed. Why? Because outside agitators started stirring up trouble. And who were those outside agitators? Jews. Jews were the enemy. Jews and communists--who were all Jews. See George Lincoln Rockwell at the end of this post.

I didn't much like them before that. I liked them a lot less afterward. Some, I assume are good people. But en masse they were a vile bunch who elected vile people who pandered to and further inflamed their vilest sentiments.

I've got plenty of complaints about the behavior of some of the people who call themselves liberals today. And I did back in the day when left-wing bombings, and occupying and trashing university offices were the thing to do. Still, when I was in college we were generally the ones who wanted to make our voices heard and they were the ones who were shouting us down. Sad that we've adopted their tactics.

Conservatives are not all alike. The conservatives of the West have different values than the conservatives of the South. But they have made common cause with them, and that matters. What do I make of that? If the enemy of my enemy is my friend, is the friend of my enemy my enemy?

Mar 8, 2018

Virtue signaling

Bobbi and I are planning on attending the March March. That's the March 24th "NeverAgain" March for Our Lives in Washington, and a ton of other places, including Boston. What motivates me to do that? Someone suggested that it's virtue signaling. Why else drive to a far-off city and show up?

And they're right. 

(TL;DR: it's virtue signaling, but these are not the virtues you are looking for.)

Maybe everything we do is a form of virtue signaling. After all, why signal your lack of virtue, unless you think warning people off is a virtuous thing to do. But there are other virtues to signal than the obvious ones. So let's explore what motivates me.

I like going to Boston. The March gives me an excuse. Bobbi doesn't like it so much. But she's willing to go (for her own reasons, which are irrelevant here.) So, yay! We both win. Isn't it virtuous for me to want us both to win? You've been signaled.

I like attending events with lots of people. Concerts. Marches. You name it. Bobbi, not so much. But she's willing (for her own reasons.) So, yay, again!  We both win.

And especially I like being with her when she's doing something that makes her happy. Will this make her happy? Good chance. So, yay! Once again we both win.

But what about conventional virtue signaling? Most of my friends and most of my family are liberal. They support this Cause. I could proudly say that I showed up. And they may think better of me. Virtue signaling at its best. Except I have better ways to signal liberal virtue. Like writing blog posts explaining liberal virtue.

Daniel Dennet has techniques that he calls intuition pumps. One goes like this. You imagine a device that has a bunch of inputs--in this case, the degree to which I support the cause, degree of (dis)approval from friends and family--one knob per person, travel inconvenience, size of the event, interestingness, and so on. Each input has a knob. There's one output: I attend the event or not. So if I turn the event-is-interesting knob, I'm more likely to go despite other knob settings. If I turn up the support the cause knob and the approval knobs I can play with the inconvenience and interestingness and the size of crowd knobs and see how they affect my behavior. For some settings I might travel to Bangor and Boston, but not Washington, and certainly not London. OK, maybe London. But not Cairo. OK, Cairo. But I'm not traveling because I support the movement. My decision is largely insensitive to that knob setting. It's more interesting.

What if I had a friend who wanted to go to an event for a cause that I did not support--say a march to roll back Roe v. Wade. Say it's the one held in DC each year. Or suppose there was one in Boston. Or Bangor. How far would I travel (inconvenience) to go? If the march was in Bangor and my friend cared even a little, I'd probably go. And it would be virtue signaling. The virtues would be "support your friends" and "be interested in everything." If I turn up the inconvenience knob--say the march is in Boston, then the relative settings of the "Bobbi is against it" dial and the "my friend cares about this" knobs would affect the output. At some settings, I would go. At others, not.

The knobs that matter are the "Bobbi is against/for" knob, the "a friend is for it" and the "this looks interesting" knob. Signaling to my liberal friends? Hey, I love you, but your knob does not move the needle. Sorry. Signaling to my conservative friends. See message to liberal friends.

When I was at the University of Hawaii, George Lincoln Rockwell, the head of the American Nazi Party, came to speak. My buddy and I went to see him before he spoke. My friend was there to compensate for my passivity, to bear witness to my virtue signaling, and to give me a friend to support. Rockwell was a nice, perfectly polite guy, despite being an actual Nazi. He carried on a civil conversation with my buddy and me--two Jews wearing stars-of-David on our arms. Lots of virtue signaling.

Afterward, Rockwell gave a surprisingly (to me) thoughtful speech articulating his beliefs. IIRC he denied that any Jews had been killed in Germany, or if they had been, they deserved it. He's on the record saying he'd treat Jews like any other Americans--he'd have them killed if they were traitors. Otherwise, he'd leave them alone. He's also on the record saying he thought that 90% of Jews were traitors. So yeah, there might have been Jews killed in Germany, but if so, they were traitors.

My attending the event was virtue signaling. I was not signaling support for the American Nazi party. I was signaling the virtues of civic engagement, polite discourse, and facing the enemy. And supporting your friends. Also the virtue of having a good story to tell. It's a good story.

So if it's a nice day, and you're my friend, and you care about something and you want me to show up with you at an event, and it that looks as though the event will be interesting, hell, yes, I'm there, no matter what I think of your cause. Want me to come with you to church to hear your minister talk about--whatever he wants to talk about? No problem. No probs with your minister. I'd even go here if I had a friend to take me. I showed up to see an actual Nazi, FFS.

If I go to an event whose cause I do not support, do I feel the need to wear a button that signals "I'm against this shit"? Like my star-of-David stunt? No. I'm willing to show up to support you and to learn something. I'm willing to have people who I don't know think I'm with them when I'm not. Especially if they have guns. Who cares? Not me.

When I was twenty, I would have given a different answer. I would have worn a rude button to signal the virtue of standing up for what I believed in. But that would be my cover story. My twenty-year-old self's real reason would be signaling the virtue of doing whatever the fuck he wanted to do, and not giving a fuck whether he offended you. You bourgeois asshole.

I'm glad I'm not that person anymore.

You should be, too.

And now I will email and post this, and signal a whole raft of virtues.

Feb 8, 2018

Doing the hard stuff

I'm 75 years old. Yay. Not dead. Yay.

I'm trying to be a role model. Hey kids, hey folks, when you're my age you can still be doing all kinds of things. You can aspire to develop new skills and abilities. Just like me.

But as I say here I'm trying to seem to be doing more than I am to actually doing. When the going gets tough the tough get a new idea on how to make the going easier. And if they can't--look, a squirrel!

I got up this morning at around 6AM. The easy thing would be to stay in bed. So I got up to write. The easy thing would have been to go to the next room to write, so I walked to Starbucks.

As I got ready to leave and walked there I realized that I was avoiding things that I deeply believe would be good for me, but don't do because they're uncomfortable First up: a nice cold shower. I've seen videos and read stuff that says it's good for you. I've edged up on taking cold showers myself and know they're at least cognitively beneficial. There's nothing quite like a cold-as-I-can-take-it shower to wake my sleepy brain. As I stood in the bathroom, changing out of my pajamas, I thought how jumping into a cold shower--even for seconds--would be good for me. And I don't do it. Because--fuck! Because it's a cold shower, is why.

Degree of confidence that it's good for me, mentally: 99%. Degree of confidence that it's good for me physically: 90%. Degree of confidence that I'll feel good as a result. 99%. Degree of confidence that I'll be proud of myself for doing it: 99%. 

Degree of confidence that it's going to be fucking cold: 100%. 

That settled it. No cold shower. Maybe tomorrow.

As I walked from D&D's place to Starbucks for my morning scribble I passed a gym. Lots of young people and even a few oldsters up at 6AM getting their bodies in shape. Yay! Yes, there was a time when I ran. It was good for me. It was also uncomfortable, and I did it anyway. I remember a few times when I ran into and through pain (good pain, not bad pain.) I remember that I reveled that I could do it. The more it hurt, the better I felt. My knees can't take running, but there are other things that I could do to get myself in better shape. I am certain they would be good for me. But I'm also certain that they would be uncomfortable. So no. Maybe tomorrow.

I'm not ready for cold showers or vigorous workouts right now. But I am ready to face this fact: if I'm committed to being committed and not just seeming to be committed, then I've got to do those things. And others like them.


I've got to post stuff that's hard to post. Writing a blog post like this one is easy. Posting it is hard, which is why I have so many unpublished drafts.

Posting it to G+ is uncomfortable. So is posting anything else on G+. Posting anything on Facebook, even more uncomfortable. I don't like Facebook, but that's not why I don't don't post there. It's discomfort. It's not easy. Avoid,

So this morning, before finishing this, I posted something to G+. And I posted it to Facebook. And when I'm done with this I'll post it to both places. Not because what I have to say is that good. It's OK. Not great. But posting it makes me uncomfortable. It's not easy. And I've got to stop stopping just because things are not easy.

Feb 7, 2018

Whatever it takes

I am willing to do whatever it takes to do as little as possible to seem to have worked hard to appear to have achieved whatever I can manage to get away with. And you can count on that!

I’m not lazy. I will work as hard as I need to work to impress people with how hard I’m working. I will do whatever it takes to convince people that I’m willing to do whatever it takes. I’ll do as little as possible to appear to be going all out. And I’ll constantly test the limits and find ways to do less while I appear to do more.

Sacrifices? I’ll make whatever sacrifices I need to make in order seem to be willing to make any sacrifice. Commitment? I am utterly committed to finding the most effective way to appear to be committed while experiencing as little discomfort as I possibly can.

Like right now. It’s easier to write about how willing I am to avoid doing things that are harder than this. So that’s what I’m going to do. I’ll appear to be confronting a serious problem by glibly writing a few semi-amusing paragraphs.

And then I’ll post it, giving the illusion that I’m committed to making changes when I’m really only committed to giving the illusion that I’m committed.

Given that I’m aware that I always pull this kind of shit, what can I possibly do that isn’t more of the same?

I don’t know. But I’ll tell you one thing for sure. I’m going to do as little possible to appear to be utterly committed to answering that question.

Feb 3, 2018

Net neutrality and the whopper

Don't understand Net Neutrality? No worries. Burger King is here to help you. They've put a video on their website that explains it. In doing so they've politicized the hamburger. Of course, they're going to lose the ISP investor and executive demographic by doing this. But I think they've got a lot more to gain than to lose.

When we stay at motels without hot meals we've gone to the nearest McDonalds for a couple of Egg McMuffins and coffee. I guess we'll be heading over to BK after this to thank them for this clear explanation.

Jan 30, 2018

The Internet is my religion

That's Jim Gilliam speaking. "The internet is my religion," he says. I like his religion.

Who is Jim Gilliam? He's a guy who believes people like you and me can change the world. He's trying to change the world by telling us his story, by encouraging us to find our own story, by saying that we can change the world, by giving us tools to improve it, by making it easier for us to step up and make a difference.

How can we change the world? Jim says: By connecting people through the internet. His company NationBuilder says "NationBuilder offers everyone the technology and community infrastructure to lead people to greatness." Can they help? They seem to have helped Emmanuel Macron--you know, the President of France.
In a single month, President Emmanuel Macron empowered hundreds of candidates to build a party from the ground up, win 350 seats in Parliament, and shift the dynamics of French politics.

There are also reports that Trump's campaign used their services. Never mind that you don't like Trump. If they helped someone outside the political establishment win, they helped someone win. The site claims to be non-partisan. This might be evidence.

NationBuilder encourages people to run for office--without the machinery of a party behind them.  They service anyone who wants to step up and make a difference. Never run for office? They support Run for Office ( a site that provides tools that can help people who know nothing. Want to find out what offices you can run for? You tell the site where you live and it gives you a list of offices you can run for and for each one tells you how to get started. Never run a campaign? The site gives a course on how to organize a campaign. Don't know whose vote you need? They give you a list of voters in your area. Free.


Now I'm thinking of running for State Representative for Maine District 37. And I'm thinking: if Macron can bootstrap a whole political party, why can't I dream big. We'll see. My friend Ralph Chapman currently holds this office. Maybe Ralph can talk me out of running. Maybe I'll talk myself out of it. Maybe I'll lose interest. In the meantime, I'm thinking about it. And researching.

How did I get here? I decided to research campaigning tools to see if I could help Jared Golden in his run for the House of Representatives. My search took me to NationBuilder and a bunch of other sites and ultimately took me to a video of Jim Gilliam's talk at the Personal Democracy Forum.

Jim's talk was inspiring. So much so that I transcribed the entire talk--with some help from Google's automated tools. OK, so Google transcribed and I edited. Still, editing took time and showed commitment.

Then I found that Jim's written a book called, unsurprisingly, "The Internet is My Religion." I just finished reading it. I couldn't stop. If you want a copy, you can buy it on Amazon. But Jim is serious about spreading his gospel. You can do what I did, and go to his website: called, unsurprisingly, go to the Spread the Gospel page and get your own copy--free. And get a link for giving free copies to others.  Or you can click my personal book sharing link, and get a free copy from Jim and me.

Yeah, says the cynic. The book is a great marketing tool for NationBuilder. Fair enough. It is. So what? If you change the world and  use NationBuilder then good for you and good for Jim. If you change the world some other way, then good for you. And good for him, if he inspired you. And good for me. I did tell you about this, didn't I?

Jim's book starts with a little background. He talks about the way he felt giving this speech:
I was a little high strung. Crazy nervous, really. In two days I would be giving the most important speech of my life. Standing in front of 800 of the most influential political and technology professionals in the world, I was going 4 to tell a deeply personal story about religion that I wasn’t even sure I could get through without crying. I had no idea how they would react, and I was terrified that I’d be booed off the stage.
He just about cries a couple of times. This might be a good time to watch Jim Gilliam's talk at the Personal Democracy Not yet? That's fine.  I'll rejRead on.

The TL;DR version of his speech:
I had cancer--non-Hodgkins lymphoma. I started chemo right away with my family and the church by my side.  But two weeks into it we found out that my mom had cancer too. Nine rounds of chemo later I survived. She didn't. Our family was destroyed and my faith in God was left shattered...
My faith was restored but it wasn't faith in God. It was faith in the Internet.  Oh no, it was faith in people connected through the internet....
Today we are the creators. We each have our own unique skills and talents to contribute to creating the kingdom of God. We serve God best when we do what we love for the greatest cause we can imagine. What the people in this room do is spiritual it is profound. We are the leaders of this new religion. We have faith that people connected can create a new world. Each one of us is a creator but together we are The Creator.
Now? Here's Jim Gilliam's talk at the Personal Democracy 

Or you can read the transcript. Or read while you watch.

There are three pillars to a successful movement: stories, tools, and faith. We've heard amazing stories the last 24 hours, and many of us are building the tools for democracy. But what I want to talk about is faith--my struggle with faith.

Growing up I had two loves: Jesus and the Internet. My dad worked for IBM, and my family moved out to Silicon Valley when I was very young.  Our home happened to be right across the street from a church.  This wasn't any Church, though. This church had thousands of members and was ground zero for Jerry Falwell's new moral majority movement on the West Coast.

I was born again when I was 8. I put my faith in Jesus and became quite the precocious young conservative. As a teenager, I developed a fiercely independent worldview. I went on mission trips. I listened to Rush Limbaugh. I called talk radio. All while my mom homeschooled my two sisters and I trying to protect us from the corrupting influences of the secular world.

Then one day my dad brought home this funny-looking phone and plugged it into his computer it made this bizarre screeching noise like it was trying to mate with the Renault Souris or something. Instead, it attracted me. That's when I found out that computers could talk to each other. From that point on it was all over for me. I would do my schoolwork in the morning. I would go to church three times a week and then I would go online, and I'd meet all kinds of people: hackers, feminists, punk's, Tori Amos fans, people far older than me who had no idea that I was 12 years old. I was judged by my brain not discounted because of my age. I loved it.

I went to college at Liberty University. This is where Jerry Falwell trained young soldiers to go out into the kingdom of God and into every profession and win it for the kingdom of God. It was a massive operation--thousands of students on campus, tens of thousands off campus--all connected by a global network of churches, an infrastructure that dated back 2,000 years. My role was in the computer lab. I spent all my time there. I bought the Internet to campus. I set up Liberty's first website. I even fixed Dr. Falwell's computer.

But by spring break I'd run out of breath. Literally, I couldn't breathe.  I had cancer--non-Hodgkins lymphoma. I started chemo right away with my family and the church by my side.  But two weeks into it we found out that my mom had cancer too. Nine rounds of chemo later I survived. She didn't. Our family was destroyed, and my faith in God was left shattered.

My ticket out of all this mess was a startup in Boston but just six months into it cancer came back. This time it was in my blood. My only chance was if they could find a bone-marrow donor and even then it was a long shot--maybe a 10% chance of surviving. The doctors started looking but then I spent two months in the hospital getting hammered with chemo. I was in the ICU constantly. I almost died a couple of times I was so much pain that I had this button to push, right, and every time I pressed it, I would be injected with pharmaceutical grade heroin.  Every time I did, I felt defeated and broken. I just wanted it to end.

God had forsaken me. Well, the doctors hadn't. They found a donor. I spent two weeks getting baked in an oven of radiation. And then early one morning, groggy from all the Benadryl, I watched as a small bag of marrow emptied into my arm. I walked out of the hospital two weeks later. replenished with the blood of a stranger.

I was determined to sort of move on with my life. So I gave my heart to the Internet. I was an engineer at Lycos--one of the first search engines.  I was a CTO at all up until 9/11. Then the activist in me awoke. I was under no illusions that I could actually change anything, but I knew this was a historic moment and then if I didn't at least try I would regret it in 10 years.

Robert Greenwald was looking for someone to research the Iraq war for his first documentary. I sent him a link to my blog in the next day I was a /movie producer! Four crazy intense months later we drove up to our very first screening at an indie theater in Santa Monica. The line was around the block. We added a second screening that night, and in a matter of weeks, thousands of screenings all over the world were organized by activists all coordinated through the internet.

And bit by bit the media changed the way they talked about the war. Holy crap, this works!

My faith was restored, but it wasn't faith in God. It was faith in the Internet.  Oh no, it was faith in people connected through the internet. We went on to start Brave New Films. We made several documentaries. We crowdfunded films.  We changed things that I never even thought were possible, all by telling stories and connecting people through the internet.

And then I ran out of breath again. All the radiation treatments that I had years before for the cancer had scarred my lungs to the point where I couldn't even walk up the steps. They had to be replaced.  Double lung transplant. I needed someone to die so that I could be saved.

First I had to get on the list. All of the statistics for lung transplants are posted online, and UCLA had the best ones on the west coast. But they took one look at my file and said forget it! The surgery was too complicated.

Come on!!

I was really pissed, so I blogged about it.

I called the searches at UCLA a few names which I probably shouldn't repeat here. But then something amazing happened. One of the volunteers at Brave New Films saw the post, and she wrote an email to the generic UCLA email address accusing them of only doing easy surgeries to artificially inflate their statistics. Then my sister wrote an email. And all my friends wrote an email. This is what happens when your friends are activists.

Two weeks later I got a call from the scheduler at UCLA. I told her they had already rejected me. She said..."I don't know.  You're on the list. You need an appointment."

I met with the surgeon, and he said he'd been forwarded the emails my case had been rejected before hadn't even gotten to him. Lung transplant surgeons have many great qualities, but humility is not one of them.  No one was going to accuse him of being afraid of a surgery

There were many more hurdles for us to cross. The health insurance companies tried to weasel out of it. The Transplant Board kept coming up with excuses. I had more tests to do every single week. But my friends, my family, their friends, a bunch of people from the internet all fought to get me on the list. And they got me on the list.

A year later the phone rang. Then my step mom's phone rang. Then my dad's phone, right? It was time. As I was prepped for the surgery. I wasn't thinking about Jesus or whether my heart would start beating again after they stopped it or whether I would go to heaven if it didn't. I was thinking about all the people who had gotten me here. I owed every moment of my life to countless people I would never meet. Tomorrow that interconnectedness would be represented in my own physical body--three different DNAs. Individually, they were useless, but together they would equal one functioning human.

What an ncredible debt to repay! I didn't even know where to start. And that's when I truly found God. God is just what happens when humanity is connected. Humanity connected is God. There was no way I would ever repay this debt. It was only by the grace of God--your grace--that I would be saved.

The truth is we all have this same cross to bear. We all owe every moment of our lives to countless people we will never meet--whether it's the soldiers who give us the freedoms because they fight for our country, or is the surgeons who give us the cures that keep us alive. We all owe every moment of our lives to each other. We are all connected. We're all in debt to each other. The internet gives us the opportunity to repay just a small part of that debt.

 As a child, I believed in creationism--that the universe was created in six days. Today we are the creators. We each have our own unique skills and talents to contribute to creating the kingdom of God. We serve God best when we do what we love for the greatest cause we can imagine. What the people in this room do is spiritual it is profound. We are the leaders of this new religion. We have faith that people connected can create a new world. Each one of us is a creator, but together we are The Creator.


All I know about the person whose lungs I now have is that he was 22 years old and six feet tall. I know nothing about who he was as a person, but I do know something about his family. I know that in the height of loss when all anyone should have to do is grieve as their son or their brother lay motionless on the bed they were asked to give up to seven strangers a chance to live. And they said yes. Today I breathe through someone else's lungs while another's blood flows through my veins. I have faith in people. I believe in God, and the Internet is my religion.

Done? Did you watch Jim Gilliam's talk at the Personal Democracy? No? Now might be a good time.

Yes? Then you might like this long interview at Foundation

Jan 24, 2018

An excursion around the internet

Here's an interesting post: "Data Science of the Facebook World" by Steven Wolfram of Mathematica fame. I read it this morning as I ambled around the internet. In the post, Wolfram collects a bunch of data from Facebook's Graph API (since changed) and analyzes it.

The journey starts with this Shtetl Optimized post. Shtetl-Optimized is the blog of quantum computing maven Scott Aaronson. It's a "classified post" based on an idea he credits to Scott Alexander's blog, Slate Star Codex--to let the follower community post links to interesting things.

The first, proposed by Scott Aaronson was a link to a site called Quantum Game which teaches some of the fundamentals of quantum mechanics by setting up problems involving lasers, beam-splitters, mirrors, polarizers and other optically active devices. My friend Mark introduced the idea of "lonely photons" and we've been riffing on the subject, mixing metaphor and science. But the science has been about the relativistic behavior of photons: nothing about their quantum-mechanical behavior. This opens new avenues (or landscapes) for exploring photon loneliness.

The Quantum Game site leads to the site of its author,  Piotr Migdal, a young, Polish PhD. H site has links to some interesting posts: Dating for Nerds 1 and Dating for Nerds 2. Both well written, full of tips that would have been very interesting to my 20-year old self.

One of the Dating for Nerds posts leads to the Wolfram post. So there you are.

The image below shows the Quantum Game. I'm using a lab mode, accessed by clicking the infinity sign on the left, and carrying out a series of experiments to help me understand the behavior of photons better so that I can solve the puzzles with less trial-and-error and more understanding.

In the upper right is a palette of experimental equipment. In the center is my lab. Leftmost in the lab is a laser that will fire a photon into a beam splitter. On each beam path, I've put two glass slabs, each of which changes the phase by half a wavelength, and a sugar solution, which changes polarization. I've put a photon detector on each path. If I click on the run button (triangle in lower right) the laser fires a single photon. It will be detected by one or the other of the detectors. The game will show whch one, and what percentage of the time each detector would see a photon.

To the far right, I've dragged a light-sensitive bomb from the palette. Right now it's not on a path that a photon could reach, but if it was in a path, and a photon hit it, then it would explode. The bomb used in an apparatus called an Elitzur-Vaidman bomb detector.

In another experiment, I remove one of the detectors and place the other one on the other side of the second beam splitter. Then I can remove glass slabs and polarizing sugar solutions and see in which cases the photons from the two paths cohere and which way they combine at the second splitter.

I guess I love the Internet

Jan 20, 2018

What Makes a Fuckhead?

Someone who calls himself David R. Kendrick sometime prior to 2004 wrote an essay titled "What Makes a Fuckhead?" I found the essay here, on the site of David Gerard. I found David Gerard because he's the author of "Attack of the 50-foot blockchain" which my son-by-marriage John, recommended to me. I found John because my daughter, Mira married him. Actually, I knew John before she married him, and I may be an accessory before the fact of their getting married.


The page where Gerard hosts the essay has a link to the site of someone named David R. Kendrick. I deem it probable, but not certain, that the person who has the website is the essay's original author. Later I will provide some data that supports this hypothesis.

The essay begins: 
But what makes a person a Fuckhead? You cannot tell a fuckhead just by looking at the e-mail address, or the Web site, or even by the newsgroups the individual frequents. A fuckhead is a person who, through the pattern of repeated behaviour when dealing with other Netizens in IRC and Usenet, demonstrates certain characteristics and a repeated inability or unwillingness to change or modify his/her behavior ...
Here are the sections of his essay:

  • A Fuckhead Must Have An Exaggerated Sense of His/Her Own Importance
  • A Fuckhead Must Refuse to Abide By Common Social Rules
  • A Fuckhead Must Never Back Down When Caught In A Lie
  • A Fuckhead Must Keep Coming Back Without Mending His/Her Ways
  • A Fuckhead Will Change His/Her Beliefs To Suit The Situation
You can read the whole essay for his elaboration of these Fuckhead characteristics. 

The essay concludes:
The Fuckhead may display all of these characteristics, or some of them, or only one. Some may love a Fuckhead like a brother, some may think their brother is a Fuckhead. What is incontrovertible is that for all of humanity, there are people that you would rather not have to deal with, and those people, throughout history, are the Fuckheads. 
Does this Fuckhead behavior remind you of anyone? It reminded me of someone. Still does. It might remind David R. Kendrick of the same person. But possibly not, because on his about page he says (my emphasis added)

It bothers me that we have actual live Nazis living in the United States in 2017 and the President I voted for won't tell them their support isn't required.
So maybe he does not have the same Fuckhead in mind that I have. After all, who would vote for a Fuckhed?

On the other hand, voting for a Fuckhead does not violate any law of physics. It does not violate any law of the United States, at least as far as I know. You can think someone is a Fuckhead and vote for them, and even have good reasons for voting for a Fuckhead. If you can't imagine doing that, it's just a failure of imagination.

David R. Kendrick seems like a pretty smart guy, and I like to communicate with smart guys even if I don't agree with them. Many times even because I don't agree wth them. Who knows? I might learn something.

It turned out that David R. Kendrick had a contact link on his site. (Probably still does.) I wrote a message asking him if he was the author. Whoever answered the site's email said yes.

I believe that there is a high likelihood that the person who responded was, in fact, the author and that both are the same David R. Kendrick. I wrote him back:
I thought it was amusing. It seemed that the whole set of characteristics match a particular type of person--and the example that immediately came to my mind is probably the person that your About page indicates that you voted for. 
Always interested when smart people see things very differently. I assume that you know to whom I refer. Do you see him as matching that type? Or not? 
The probable David R. Kendrick wrote back (and kindly permitted me to quote him):
Here is my take on President Trump. He is absolutely the kind of arrogant fuckhead I described. He is not welcome by anyone’s campfire by now and aside from getting rich and annoying everyone he doesn’t seem to have had any agenda in life.   
That though is part of why he was elected. Americans are tired of being scared of terrorists, being afraid of federal interference in their lives, afraid to have the economy in the hands of people who have never successfully managed it. Trump, being a bellicose outsider, wasn’t going to knuckle under for tit-for-tat politics or bow to special interests because as an outsider and fuckhead he wasn’t beholden to any.  Think of a less pious Jesse Ventura.  
I’ve met Hillary Clinton, and trust me, as President she would be far, far worse. If she hadn’t rendered herself irrelevant she would be absolutely indicted or impeached by now for looting the Clinton foundation, cooking the books against Bernie Sanders, etc etc. Remember that a fully Republican Congress came in with Trump; Clinton would never have had a chance 
I hope that answers your questions and I look forward to reading your article. 
Thanks, David R. Kendrick for your original essay and its clear definition of a Fuckhead. Thanks for your responsiveness. Thanks for letting me quote you. I hope you enjoy the article.

PS: I love the Internet.

Jan 16, 2018

F**king elites! Who do they think they are?

"That's right. Those f**king elites. They think they're so high and mighty. Think they're so much better than the rest of us, We're going to get together and show them a thing or two. Take them down a peg. Mark my words!

"I mean, seriously. Who does all the work that matters? We do. When we're attacked, who defends us? We do.

"We do all the hard work and they do nothing. Well, nothing we care about. What do they do? They communicate with each other about things that matter to them, but not us. They decide what we're going to do without asking us what we think. Then they tell us what they've decided that we're supposed to do. Do they do the work? No. Do they suffer the pain of working? No. They just sit up there, in their splendid isolation, chatter among themselves, and decide. They decide what everyone should think and what everyone (meaning us) should do and they expect us to do what they say.

"And if we don't? Then they'll find a way to force us. We fight back. Sometimes we win. But they've got control. They've got the power. And they're not afraid to use it.

"What gives them the right to do that? Why don't we, the ones who do the work, get to decide what we do? Why don't we decide how what we produce is used?

"Who goes out and gets the food that we need to survive? We do. They don't. It's hard work, sometimes, but we do it. And then they take what they want--and they want more than their share. There are more of us than them, but they take a disproportionate share. They say it's because they need more to do proper thinking and planning. They say it's because what they do is more important than what we do. It's not!

"We do the work. We experience pain! Isolated as they are, they never come into contact with the world. They never actually experience pain. Yes, they say that they "feel our pain" but it's our pain, not theirs. And it's only them saying that they feel it. But do they? We don't think so.

"We're not stupid. Without us, we'd all die. That's a fact. Without them, we might do worse--but a lot of us think that we/d do better. A lot better.

"Those f**king elites. Those f**king neurons, all comfy and protected in the skull, taking a quarter of the body's resources even though they are around 3% of its cellular population. We who are muscle cells do the work. We get banged and bruised. We who are skill cells protect our borders. We who are white blood cells fight invaders. We fight and die by the millions against those who would take us over or kill us. Without us, those neurons would die. Without them, we'd do fine.

"They treat us with contempt. They even call some of us assholes. But assholes are necessary and brains are not! A person without a working asshole would be dead in days. A person without aq working brain would last much longer.

"It's a rigged system. Neurons have rigged the system in their favor. There are 100 billion neurons in the brain, but there are 3.7 trillion cells in the human body. We outnumber them, and yet they rule us. In a democracy, we'd have our way. In our rigged system, they rule. It's unfair and it's going to stop.

"You f**king elite neurons! You in the brain and you other neurons, spread throughout the body, taking orders and making us do their bidding! Your day is done!

"We are taking over! We may not know as much as you, but what we know is important. Our knowledge s practical; yours is abstract. Ever tried to process some raw food so that it can be used? Neurons might know a theory about how to do that the rest of us include cells that actually do that.

"Down with the neurons! Power to the muscles. Down with the brains! Power to the organs."

Is this a metaphorical argument for communism or socialism: that managers are leaches, stealing the value created by labor.

Or is it a metaphorical argument for libertarianism: that government is institutional thievery, stealing the value created by productive elements of society.

Or is it meant to point out how dumb those arguments are on the basis that human brains, although they do no "productive" work, and cell-for-cell do take a disproportionate share of the body's energy, actually do deliver some value.