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 (http://www.runforoffice.org/) 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.

So.

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, theinternetismyreligion.com 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 business.com 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
[Applause]

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.

[Applause]

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.

Anyhow.

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.

Jan 14, 2018

The joy of creation of knowledge

From Deutsch: The Beginning of Infinity

...scientific theories are not ‘derived’ from anything. We do not read them in nature, nor does nature write them into us. They are guesses – bold conjectures. Human minds create them by rearranging, combining, altering and adding to existing ideas with the intention of improving upon them.
Indeed, according to Deutsch, this not just the process by which scientific theories are created, but the process by which all knowledge is created.

This struck me as true when I first heard Deutsch talk about it in a TED Talk and when I read The Begining of Infinity and heard him talking with Sam Harris. And it's even truer each time my friend Mark Lesser and I interrupt one of our conversations and talk about what we're doing and how we're doing it.

So let me interrupt myself and explain. (This is adapted from an interruption in one of Mark's and my conversations.)

Years ago I wrote satire that ended up in a newsletter that I sent to my kids, and later in a blog. I thought I got pretty good at it--at least I made myself laugh a lot. And my kids liked it. And some other people thought it was pretty good, too. People said that I was a really good writer. But I knew better. I wasn't a good writer; I was a really good editor. Someone who was a good writer would sit down and write and out would pop one of the pieces that I eventually produced. Instead, I'd write something, and then edit it and say: "That's not working." So I'd change some words and edit it and say: "Nope." And then I'd mess around with it some more, and say: "Still not right." And eventually, I might think "This is starting to get pretty good." And then I'd make some more edits, and do some more rewriting and eventually I'd have something that I thought was starting to get good. I'd know it was starting to get good when I started giggling as I edited. And when I'd giggle each time that I did an editing pass, then it was good enough. A real writer would do that first time.

I didn't know how to write something good, but I knew what was good when I saw it. That's my skill as an editor.

There had to be a certain amount of writerly skill, you could argue. I couldn't make completely random changes and have it come out good. But a lot of the changes I'd make were not driven by a creative vision. I'd rearrange what was there. I'd mix in an idea from some other place. I'd take a template joke and adapt it to the piece that I was working on.

OK, back to Mark and me and the creation of knowledge. When we talk, we throw out ideas and immediately start to criticise them and to edit them. It doesn't matter who gave voice to an idea. We each attack ideas that come out of our own mouths as vigorously as we attack ideas that we hear from the other. We're not attacking those ideas the way you attack an opposing army, but the way that you attack a job of work, or attack a meal when you're hungry.

If someone who did not know us heard us, they'd think we were arguing with one another. It would sound a lot like that. But it's not argument. As Deutsch says elsewhere, it's error correction. Every idea is a conjecture, which is a fancy, Oxford University (where Deutsch is situated) word meaning "a guess." And every guess calls for criticism and then a better guess. It might sound like conflict, but it's collaboration.

And it's the creation of knowledge. Everything that we're doing takes the understanding that we start with and improves it. We don't always end up in agreement--although we might eventually agree. But by the time we're done--by the time we've moved on to another topic or we've interrupted our conversation to move on to a related point, or to an unrelated point, or to tell a joke, or a personal story--each of us understands the idea we voiced better than we did originally. And that's progress.

And it's fast progress. It's fast because we talk fast; and because if we think we know how a sentence is going to end, we don't wait for it to end--we jump in; and because if we're wrong about how we thought a sentence was going to end, that's OK, too--there's in that, too; and because we're making both small, but significant refinements and bold conjectures; and because we sometimes seem to have completely changed the subject but we know that we're not--because no matter how the subject seems to have changed, it's really all the same conversation.

And every interruption and every change of subject provides new information. Information theory tells us that if you can use the information that you've already got to predict the next thing that happens, then that next thing provides no information. It might serve as confirmation of your predictive model, but confirmation provides no information.

Interruptions tend to broaden the discussion, not narrow it. We're looking to say things that we're confident that the other person doesn't know. Even better, I think we're looking to say things that we don't even know ourselves. We're looking for surprise.

There's a lot of laughter. Sometimes the laughter comes from surprise. Sometimes the laughter comes from a joke, a story that one of us has thrown into the mix. And sometimes it's just from the exhilaration of being challenged--by ourselves and by each other--and by the joy of meeting the challenge.

New York style vs California/New England style conversation


The older I get the more I identify as a New Yorker. New York is where I grew up. New England and California is where I've spent most of my life. I live now in Maine surrounded by polite, thoughtful, articulate people and we mostly engage in what I would call California or New England style conversation--which is very different from New York style conversation.

In most of the United States, it's polite to let someone say what they have to say, listening attentively, perhaps nodding and smiling politely as they say it, and then taking your turn. To do otherwise shows disrespect. Interrupting is rude. Almost everywhere. And especially in California and in New England.

But not in New York. In New York, it's the opposite. Interrupting isn't rude, it's a sign of engagement, of interest, of caring, of respect.

From this article:
The next time someone accuses you of interrupting, you might want to explain that you are not being rude: You’re actually engaging in “high-involvement cooperative overlapping.” 
Cooperative overlapping — talking as another person continues to speak — is typical of Jewish conversational style, according to linguist Deborah Tannen, and can be a way of showing interest and appreciation.
What I call New York style and what Tannen calls Jewish Style are same. I've got a Jewish friend who grew up in St Louis. I've told her that I think everyone from New York is Jewish even if they are not, and no one from St Louis is Jewish, even if they are. Maybe that explains something.

It's not just Jews, in my experience. I've been around Italian families that operate the same way. Everyone is interrupting, arguing, talking at the top of their voices, even yelling, and it sounds like love to me. That's the same style.

I remember so clearly the first time I became aware of the contrast in styles. I was in California, in a checkout line at the Milpas Street Trader Joe's store, in the line nearest the door, reading an article on my cell phone as I waited. That's how clearly I remembered it. It was a revelation to me. And I remember channeling my inner New Yorker and talking to the person on line behind me to share this insight.

I'm even more aware of New York style because of some recent conversations with my new buddy Mark Lesser. Mark and I have a bunch of things in common. We're about the same age (I'm a bit older); we're both MIT grads; we're both from New York; we're both Jewish, though not practicing; we both ended up in Maine; we both married women who are not in tech, and who are not Jewish (but we both put out Weihnachtspyramides at Christmas time)

And we talk New York style. For hours. Fast. Loud. Talking over each other. Interrupting each other. Changing subjects.  The article quoted from above says:
Other features of Jewish conversational style include a preference for personal topics, abrupt shifts of topics, unhesitating introduction of new topics and persistence in reintroducing a topic if others don’t immediately pick up on it.
I'm not sure we have a preference for personal topics, but personal topics are not off limits and salted throughout our conversation. We've each said that we've reached a point in our lives where we don't feel any need to hold back. Mark's said it kind of like that. I've said something more like "I don't give a fuck what anyone thinks about me." Same thing. Slightly different language.

We also stop from time to time and reflect on our conversation, how it's different from the conversations we typically have. We both talk to our wives a lot, but not this same way. Because they're not New Yorkers? Or not Jewish? Not us? I don't know.

Little by little the restraints we've adopted drop away in favor of a conversational style that's is stylistically more natural and uninhibited. And we'll interrupt the flow of conversation periodically to confirm that we each understand the meaning of the way we're expressing things as well as the meaning of what we're talking about.

I tried to find the article that I was reading in Trader Joe's and invested a little time doing it. It would be nice to go back and rediscover that moment. Meanwhile, I'm continuing to explore the boundaries of New York style.

So let me close with a favorite joke:

Q: How many New Yorkers does it change a lightbulb?
A: (Shouted) Who the FUCK made it your business?

I love Maine. And I ❤ New York.

END SIMULATION!!

"END SIMULATION!!" I said. I said it loud. You can tell it was loud by the all caps.

"Who is President?" I asked.

Interlude. The story continues at the bottom, but first, let me tell you the origin story:



I found that in one of my Hangouts feeds last night.

I thought it was genius, and I told him so--him being +Justin Mecham, one of my buddies from Maine Hackers Club, now working in Boston.

I was too chicken too, but a night's sleep made me bolder.

"END SIMULATION!" I shouted the next morning.

Okay, I was at home at the time. Okay, the only other person at home was Bobbi. And, yes, she was at the other end of the house. And, sure, there were three closed doors between us. But, yes. I did shout it.

Back to Hangouts, bursting with pride, I suggested that +Daniel Wolf, one of my sons-by-marriage, a manager at a well-known tech company, and the other guy in the Hangout with Justin, make a practice of ending his meetings with "END SIMULATION." It's early days yet, so I don't know if he's going to to do that or not.

But I decided that I was going to do it whenever I had the chance. Who knows. One these days, the holodeck computer is going to listen to me. Or to one of us.

And I think that the idea of saying END SIMULATION is meme-worthy.

And that leads me back to where I left off...


"END SIMULATION!!" I said. I said it loud. You can tell it was loud by the all caps.

"Who is President?" I asked.

"Donald Trump," someone answered.

"END SIMULATION!" I said. I said it in a larger font, hoping that would make a difference.

"Now who is President," I asked.

I got a funny look. "Barack Obama," came the answer.

"END SIMULATION!! END SIMULATION!! END SIMULATION!!!!" I said, an undisclosed number of times.


Author's notes:
1: I repeated it because I thought it was funny, and I like milking a joke for laughs (even when the only laughs that I can hear are my own). I said it some (undisclosed) number of times because I don't want to imagine people counting and deciding that I liked one (undisclosed) president better than the rest.

2: If a joke is available, making a joke is always more important than making points for any particular political side.

3. I may break with recent tradition and post on social media.

Jan 13, 2018

Tech Solidarity

According to its landing page:
Tech Solidarity is a grass-roots organization whose goal is to better connect tech workers with the communities they live in. Our emphasis is on regular in-person meetings, volunteer assistance to organizations serving the vulnerable, and the creative use of labor law in pursuit of an ethical agenda. 
Founded in November of 2016 by Maciej Ceglowski, a San Francisco web developer, Tech Solidarity holds quasi-monthly meetups in a number of American cities, and tries to serve as a clearinghouse for information and technical assistance.
I learned about Tech Solidarity in passing from one of the people working on Jared Golden's campaign. Jared is part of Tech Solidarity's Great Slate,

Tech Solidarity is raising funds for progressive Congressional candidates fighting competitive races in eight winnable rural districts.
Jared is one of the eight. According to the website proximityone ME-02 the most rural of all the districts in the Great Slate--and it's the second most rural district in the whole countrym, exceeded only by KE-05. You can see its makeup here.

Maciej Ceglowski, who runs the site, also runs a bookmarking called pinboard that I've signed up for and am using in preference to Evernote. It's really fast! It's cheaper than Evernote. It captures and caches web pages in the background. It does not seem to capture all the pages that I've bookmarked and it's not clear whether the pages that haven't been captured will be, someday. But that's only protection against a page disappearing--and that's relatively rare. And there's always the wayback machine at archive.org.

I'm going to write a post about...

I'm going to write the second part of my post about slavery. But it's a long post. And I can't publish it until I've got it right. And I still haven't gotten it right. And then the day has come and gone and I haven't written it.

I'm going to write a post about pinboard. It's my replacement for Evernote. I haven't used it that much, but so far I like it. But I have this post about slavery that I want to write first. So even though it would be easier to write, I can't get to it, right now.

I've got around 50 web pages saved to Evernote in a notebook called "Blogging" and each one of them deserves its own post. But I can't get to them because of the slavery post and the pinboard post, and a lot of other posts, all vying for my attention.

That includes a series of posts about waking up. Especially the one about waking up _in the dream_ rather than waking up _from the dream_. That's an important one.

And then there's the one about paying the high cost of learning something new--having an important insight--and then quickly forgetting it.

All these things that I'm going to write posts about. And instead, I write a post about something different. A post about all the posts that I wanted to write and didn't write.

This post.

Jan 12, 2018

Fifi and Raul and Mike and Bobbi

Family Jeopardy. Our three girls are standing in front of their buzzers.

Dana chooses the category: "People, for $100, Alex," Dana says.

The board reveals the answer. "Fifi," Alex reads.

All three girls hit their buzzers within milliseconds. The system can't tell which was first, so the tie goes to Mira.

"Who is Dad's imaginary girlfriend?" Mira says.

"Correct," says Alex.

"People, for $200," says Mira.

"Raul," says Alex.

All three girls hit their buzzers at once. This time the tie goes to Alyssa.

"Who is Mom's imaginary boyfriend?" Alyssa says.

"Correct," says Alex.

Our relationships with Fifi and Raul go way back--maybe even before we had kids. Yet despite my decades-long relationship with Fifi, I wouldn't recognize her if I saw her. I imagined her, but I never imagined what she looked like. I know she's beautiful, but hair color? Eye color? Height? Measurements? I have no idea.

All I know is that Fifi is beautiful, and she loves me. And that Bobbi isn't jealous of her as she would of a real girlfriend. If I had one, of course.
 
My friend Jim Reynolds once told me that he'd discovered that he had developed a new superpower: he was invisible to young women. I hadn't realized it, but as I looked at the young women around us at the Gogol Bordello concert we were at, I realized that I had the same superpower. It didn't make me happy.

But even though I'm invisible to most young women, I'm not invisible to Fifl.

Leave it to an imaginary woman to be able to see me as I am.



Jan 10, 2018

Staffing it out

I started this a while ago, and never published it. How long ago? Fortunately, I wrote it in a Google Doc, so I know that it was July 19, 2017, sometime between 3:59 AM and 4:19 AM. I could get more specific, but that's good enough, isn't it?

Here's what I wrote. Plus rewrote because, me.



Most of the time when people think they have been interacting with me they have been dealing with something that seems a lot like me but isn't to me. You might call it an automaticity, or a facade, a sub-personality, or a surrogate, or what Internal Family Systems describes as a “Part” or “Family Member.” Whatever it is, it acts for me and acts a lot like me. But it is not me. Sometimes I'm there watching. But most of the time I'm not there at all.

Almost no one in notices this.

Except Bobbi. Sometimes she notices it and says something. Sometimes she notices it and doesn't say something. Or at least that's what she says she does when I've asked her about it. Maybe she's the only person who seems to know the difference.  Or maybe I'm surrounded by people who know the difference and are too polite to say anything.

I can use different helpful metaphors to describe these surrogates acting for me. One is to think of them as my staff. I'm the busy executive responsible for running all the complexities of my life. When I've got something that needs doing I can do it myself, or I can staff it out. I'll staff it out intentionally if I don't think that it's worth my personal attention. And sometimes, before I decide to do or not to do, a member of my staff steps in and takes over. I don't even have to ask, that's how good they are. They're well-disciplined and well-trained. And they do a great job of impersonating me.

Of course, none of my staff does anything as well as I do. I'm the one they learned from. I'm the original article and I've got the full power of my brain at my command--when I choose to command. But they're good.

I'm both proud of and annoyed by my staff. I'm proud that they're so competent--which means that I must have done a good job training them. Or modeling behavior for them. Whatever. People of low ability can carry on routine tasks, and my staff carries out mind-numbingly boring tasks just fine. You have to be a lot better--but not that good--to engage socially. Bobbi's Dad was well down the road to Alzheimer's dementia and no one noticed--until you'd talked with him for a while and notice that he's started repeating himself. As the condition got worse, the repetition interval shortened.

But seeming intelligent and being witty takes more skill than many people can muster, even at their best. My staff can not only engage socially but access much of my vast store of interesting facts and factoids. And they can access "joke patterns" that I've collected and even seem to be making new, clever remarks when really they're only filling in the slots in a template. 

Still, my is usually VERY good.  I've created something that is able to pass the Turing test and seem to be a human. I'm a human. But they're not. They're just very good imitators.

I'm annoyed sometimes because I want to be experiencing my life directly more than I do. At least, that's what I tell myself I want. And that's what I believe that I believe. Yes, there are times when I want to check out and think deep thoughts while my staff carry on. But there are other times when I want to be fully engaged. I want to be experiencing the things that I am doing things. I want the experience to be direct and full-fidelity, not filtered through a memory recording my brain has made.

The problem is that sometimes my staff step in and do something that I'd rather be doing myself. I've left instructions. I've said: "When this happens, call me. I at least want to be present, if not doing it myself." But they don't comply, the insubordinate sons-of-bitches. Sometimes they think that they can do it better (they can't.) And sometimes, just like me, I suppose, the like the feeling of a job well done. Or well enough done.

I know I am capable of doing a better job than any of my staff, and sometimes when I realize that a staff member's doing something that I'd like to do, that I'd do better, I don't step in. Why do I do that? I think I'm like a proud parent who allows a precocious kid to act like a grown up. Maybe the kid's answering the phone and taking a message. The parent can do that a lot better, but the kid is doing well enough. It's a grown-up thing and the kid wants to do it. So you let them do it.

When Bobbi notices that I'm not present she’ll often say “Where are you? You’re not here.” It's annoying. It's not annoying because it's wrong, but because of a confusion about identities. She's saying  “Where are you? You’re not here.” to me. But I'm not there. I don't receive the communication; a staffer gets it.  The staffer who is on duty when she says “You're not here” is actually there and gets annoyed. They react defensively, and say "I am here." Because they are. But she's right because I am not.

I need to issue orders to all staff: "When you're told you're not here, please don't defend yourself. Go and get me and at least ask me if I want to be there." That will make my life better. If they follow my instructions.

This post, like others in this series (not to self, collect the series and link here) was mainly written by me but with help from my staff. Good job, guys. Let's post this

Jan 9, 2018

Superpowers for mundane matters

I’m a talented person, but there are a couple of areas where I feel I’ve been given superpowers. Or maybe I haven’t been given them. Maybe I’ve earned them. Whatever. Where ever they came from, I’ve got them.

Imagination is one of my superpowers. For a long time, I didn’t realize it was a superpower. When someone would say “I just can’t imagine <something>” my response would always be: “How can you not imagine that? I can imagine anything.” Most people have limited imaginations. Mine is unlimited. Superpower.

My sense of fun is another superpower. People say: you can’t make jokes about <serious subject.> But I can. Maybe I don’t. But I can. People say: you can’t make fun of <serious subject> But I can do that too.

Flexibility and enjoyment are also superpowers. I can adapt to all kinds of situations. And I can enjoy almost anything. Because enjoyment is putting joy into things.

Today I realized that I use my superpowers only when I have to--when I’m driven to use them. But I don’t think that they’re on quota. I don’t have a limited supply of imagination or fun. I can’t use up my flexibility or joy. In fact, it's likely that my powers might get stronger with use.

It seems like it ought to work that way. I know that practice is the key to developing any skill.  I know that people can improve almost as much by imagining practice and they can by actual practice. So maybe I can use my superpower of imagination to develop new skills and to improve existing skills.

Here's how I imagine that it might work.

I would start by imagining that I have the skill that I want. Then I would imagine practicing to get better. Nothing's that easy. So I would imagine problems. I would imagine solving the problems. I would imagine obstacles. Then I would imagine going over, around, and through the obstacles.

It's 10PM right now. That's around the time that I run out of energy and can't get things done. But I can imagine giving myself more energy. And I can practice that.

I’ve written several things today, but I haven’t posted any of them. I want to get better at doing that. So I guess I need some practice. I'll just imagine posting. Then I'll imagine some things getting in my way. And then I'll imagine getting past them.

And then I'll post this. And then the next thing.

Jan 7, 2018

Property Rights Arguments, Recreated

I've been studying--not just reading, but studying--a series of blog posts by Matt Breunig. Wikipedia describes him as "an American lawyer, blogger, policy analyst, and commentator." He says "I write about politics, the economy, and political theory, primarily with a focus on the set of interlocking issues that affect poor and working people.'' Here's his blog. And here's the People's Policy Project, the think tank he's started. Funded by donations on Patreon

The topic I'm studying is property rights. A couple of years ago, I read Breunig's post on "Violence Vouchers" and found it complementary to some ideas that I'd expressed in my own post: "Violence Markets and Government Monopolies."

He says:
When a state (or state-like entity) establishes a system of private property, all it really does is hand out violence vouchers to people who we call owners. This can be done through direct grants to individuals or by establishing some set of rules, the following of which entitles the follower to a violence voucher.
I said:
Governments arise because increased production makes theft and chattel slavery profitable. Both depend on violence, so violence becomes valuable and a competitive market for violence emerges.
...the dynamics of a free and open market for violence leads market participants to strategies the reduce both wealth and theft opportunities. As a result, participants come to prefer monopoly violence and theft over free market violence and theft, and thus to accept tax theft rather than outright theft as the cost of that preference.  

But my analysis was incomplete. I neglected the fact that violence markets began before theft and chattel slavery was profitable and violence was to establish property rights.

So I'm rewriting that post. Here's the first part.

Limited government

Conservative and libertarian theory says that government should be limited. Its only legitimate jobs are national defense, enforcement of voluntary agreements, prevention of violence against persons, and protection of private property. All else is an overreach and is both immoral and counterproductive.

Let's start with the moral argument. The theory proposes that property rights are "natural rights." But what does that mean? Surely these natural rights don't proceed from nature. No tree has a right to the ground on which it stands. No squirrel has the right to nuts or a bee to nectar--or even honey. Bacteria have no right to invade your body yet they do, and white blood cells don't have the right to repel such invasion. It's just what they do. In nature, there are no rights, only powers.

But, goes the argument, property rights proceed from the following principle: because one owns oneself one has a right to possess the fruits of one's labor. Therefore if one "mixes one's labor" with some natural object, then one has a right to that object. Of course bees mix their labor with the natural world to make honey. And that means that bees have a right to their honey. And it's wrong to take honey from a hive without paying them for it. Right? No? Well, maybe the rules are different for humans. Why? Becuase we make the rules.

Or because of God. The rights of people are God-given. That's a tough argument if you don't believe in God. And it's also a tough one even if you do because none of the holy books that reveal God's rules talk about rights. Mostly they talk of obligations and prohibitions. But you won't see any granting of rights.

But rights can be inferred. For example, according to scripture God says that people should not commit murder. That's a good idea, and I agree with God on that point. But it's it's different from God saying saying that anyone has a right to life. A commandment does not grant a right. It forbids an act. God says "don't steal." Why? Because God says so. Not because stealng violates property rights.

But can't we infer rights? If so, you're on dangerous ground.  Exodus 21:20–21 says, "And if a man beats his male or female servant with a rod, so that he dies under his hand, he shall surely be punished. Notwithstanding, if he remains alive a day or two, he shall not be punished; for he is his property.” So if you're into imputing rights not explicitly granted, then people have the right to beat their servants--provided that they don't die in the next day or two. Beat them so that they die in three days? That's clearly within your inferred rights.

No, sorry. Rights are not natural. And they are not God given.

Still, don't we all agree that it's morally wrong to initiate violence. Once someone has some property, there are only two ways for it to change hands: by voluntary exchange or by violence. And violence is wrong. It's as wrong for a government to take--through taxation, backed by violence--what a person has come to own through their own efforts and through voluntary exchange. Taxation is theft by another name.

But let's be specific. How can a piece of property come to be owned by someone? In most cases the answer will be that it was legitimately conveyed from person to person through a series of voluntary exchanges. So long as that's been the process, then the current owner of that property is legitimate.

But how did the first owner come to own it? Initially, nothing in the world was owned. Everything was free for anyone to use. If you needed some nuts and berries you could go anywhere that nuts and berries were to be found and you could pick or gather your fill. But somehow, when someone says: "This land is mine and so are all the nuts and berries found here," they have the right to prevent anyone who attempts to eat "their" nuts or "their" berries from consuming them. They have the right to keep them from planting and growing food on "their" land. They even have the right to keep them from crossing over that land. Just by saying "It's mine!" And if someone tries to take their nuts or berries, then they have the right to repell that aggression (yes, it's aggression, because it's theirs) with force.

But that must be wrong. Walking onto land or planting and harvesting produce or gathering nuts and berries are not aggressive acts. Forcibly preventing someone else from gathering nuts and berries, from planting produce, or from crossing a bit of land is the initiation of aggression.

Alright. That argument fails. Using violence to defend something that you have claimed just by saying you have a claim, or because you've made a philosophical argument for your claim does not make your claim just or morally right. To the contrary: by claiming a piece of property you have denied that property to every person who can equally make that claim. You can argue "It's mine! I saw it first." But that's the argument of a five-year-old. You can argue: "It's mine. I made it better.." That might the argument of a seven-year-old.

But consider the utilitarian argument. We are an incredibly prosperous society, and our system of property rights is fundamental to that prosperity. Property right encourage us to invest time and effort in improving property. If someone else could walk in and take improved property, then why should someone improve it? And if no one improves any property, then we're all worse off.

Under our system of property rights, however we've come into the property the owner of the property is the chief beneficiary of the improvement, But in the aggregate, such improvements ultimately benefit everyone. Why? Because of the invisible hand. The invisible hand is not actually a hand. Nor is anything identified by natural law. It's offered as an explanation for why private improvements produce more benefit than collective improvements. But "by the invisible hand" could be replaced with "by fucking magic" with no change in explanatory power.

Now it's true that places where property rights are absent are impoverished. And places where property rights are weaker than the ones that we enjoy in the United States are also worse off than the United States. Except for places like Denmark and Sweden that are equally prosperous and which report greater degrees of freeedom and happiness and cross-generational economic mobility--not that anyone should care about these things.

 But they are the exceptions that proves the rule, right?

But wait. There's another argument. People who labor should get the results of their labor. People who don't work, should get nothing. Or maybe some charity. Isn't that a good rule for creating a just world? Our system of free markets gives us exactly that.

Except it doesn't. For several reasons. First: someone who has no talent and who does not work can make a lot of money if he's inherited wealth. The wealth is invested and the returns on the investment are the same as the returns on labor--sometimes a lot greater. And now skill or sweat are required.

Well, that's not true. A wealthy person has to be smart about where to make investments. That takes a certain amount of skill doesn't it? Well, no. A wealthy person can hire a good investment manager and get a great return on their investment. But doesn't that require that they choose a good investment manager? Yes. They have to be not completely stupid. Or if they suspect that they are completely stupid and can't tell the difference between a good investment manager and a poor one, and there is no one in their family who is smart enough to tell the difference, they can put the money in an index fund and get a market return.

Of course they do have to be smart enough to know whether or not they are completely stupid, don't they? Yes. They have to be at least that smart. And if you think that having that level of intelligence is sufficient to earn them millions of dollars a year because of the fortune that they inherited while someon who is just as smart and far more hard working has to do with less, then you have a very different idea of what it means to deserve what you get.

But wait. They didn't just happen to have the money that they have. Somewhere along the line it must have been earned by someone who then gave it to them--as is their right. Right? Once again, where did that right come from? It comes from the system of laws that we have that decide how property may be distributed. And how did that system of laws come into existence? They were written by people who already had property in order to preserve their property.

And this makes them just? I don't think so.

I like my property. And I don't want it taken away. So I'm not proposing an anarchistic free-for-all. But I think it's wrong to think that the system of property and distribution that we have is the only possible one, or that it's the best one. It might be. But there are other systems that might do was well, or even better. Just ask Denmark.

Jan 6, 2018

The Rule of Cui Bono

The rule of cui bono: proponents of any political or economic program will always claim that their program benefits the public. Therefore the claim carries no information. The claim may be true, but it may be safely ignored. The real objective is to determine who else benefits, and who bears the costs.

What is cui bono?
From Wikipedia:
"Cui bono?" (/kw ˈbn/), literally "for whose benefit?", is a Latin phrase which is still in use[1] as a key forensic question in legal and police investigation: finding out who has a motive for a crime. It is an adage that is used either to suggest a hidden motive or to indicate that the party responsible for something may not be who it appears at first to be.[2]
The cases about which I'll ask "cui bono" will be political and economic--so we'll be using cui bono as a key forensic question to investigate other kinds of crime.

The standard answer is non-information-bearing
When you ask cui bono about a political or economic program, the one answer you'll always get is: "it will benefit the public." That's because the alternative response "this benefits some small set of people, but does not benefit the public" is a non-starter for a political or economic program. It may benefit the public, but it probably disproportionately benefits others.

A simple example
Let's try it out. Who benefits from professional licensing for barbers and cosmetologists? Maine regulates them, and here's what the state's website says:
The State Barbering and Cosmetology Licensing was established to protect the public through the regulation of the practice of barbering and cosmetology in the State of Maine. 
Of course, it's to protect the public. Rule number one if asking "Cui bono" is to ignore the claim that a particular rule will benefit the public because regardless of the real motivation, anyone with an ounce of sense will make that claim. Think about it. If someone wanted a law passed that would benefit them and only them, do think they would say "I want it passed for my benefit," or would they claim "I want it passed to benefit the public" and then figure out why something that was designed only to benefit them would actually benefit a lot more people--and ideally everyone?

This is not to say that a given rule might not benefit the public. Rather it's to say: ignore that argument because it bears no information. Everyone is going to say that. If no one, other than the broad public benefits, and there any costs (there will always be costs) are less than the benefits, then we can rest with that as the explanation.

However, this is never the case. There will always be other beneficiaries. In the case of Maine's licensing:
...The Program creates safety and sanitation rules and enforces these rules through regular inspections of licensed establishments and consumer complaints. In addition, the Program licenses and regulates schools that offer and provide professional practice courses in the field of aesthetics, barbering, limited barbering, cosmetology and nail technology.
There is a case to be made for safety and sanitation rules. Barbers use razors that may carry infectious agents from person to person. Beauticians may deal with chemicals that need more than ordinary care and knowledge. So the public certainly gets some benefit--though at a cost.

But does the rule benefit others? Of course. It benefits the person who is in charge of administering the licensing program. Even if that person carries out their job with complete integrity, their entire current livelihood depends on the existence of the regulation. That's a benefit. Not that such a person can't get another job. Any competent licenser of barbers and beauticians is probably able to get another job. But in the moment, that's their job, and there's a benefit to their continuing to have it and cost to taking it away.

And the rule benefits barbers who already have licenses and disadvantages aspiring barbers who don't yet have licenses. It will cost them time and money to get a license.

But it must be worthwhile. Having a license means that a barber no longer competes with all the people in their local job market and only with "people who already have licenses." Having a license must more than repay the cost of obtaining a license, or people would not get licenses. So licensed barbers benefit.

Bottom line: ignore any claim any program benefits the public. Look elsewhere for beneficiaries.





Jan 5, 2018

Epistemic Learned Helplessness

Today my random walk around the web reminded me of a post by Scott Alexander of SlateStarCodex before he was Scott Alexander, and even before he was Yvain on LessWrong, back when he was Squid314 on LiveJournal.

The post is called "Epistemic learned helplessness" a title that was memorable until I forgot it. Sic transit gloria memoriae. (Which took me a few minutes on Google Translate to render. Sic transit hora mea.)

He starts the post:

A friend in business recently complained about his hiring pool, saying that he couldn't find people with the basic skill of believing arguments. That is, if you have a valid argument for something, then you should accept the conclusion. Even if the conclusion is unpopular, or inconvenient, or you don't like it. He told me a good portion of the point of CfAR was to either find or create people who would believe something after it had been proven to them. 
And I nodded my head, because it sounded reasonable enough, and it wasn't until a few hours later that I thought about it again and went "Wait, no, that would be the worst idea ever."
Why? Because someone who knows a field thoroughly enough can make an argument that is likely to make total sense to any non-expert. To figure out what to believe takes both a lot of knowledge and a great deal of metaknowledge.

And unfortunately, most people don't realize that  "Confirmation Bias, a Feature, Not a Bug" and think that because an argument makes sense means that it's true.

I've been reading a bunch of stuff about Climate Change (Of course, climate changes. Duh!) And the assertions that are made by both the "It's a problem of disastrous proportions!!!!" and the "It's a hoax of incredible proportions!!!" are both flawed.

Here's what I've concluded, after exhaustive and exhausting research. There are some things that we know with high confidence--like the absorption spectrum of atmospheric gases; there are some things that we know with less confidence--like the instrumental records of temperature and sea level (because they must be adjusted in complex, and not always agreed upon ways to account for known sources of inaccuracy, and because of confounding effects.) And there are some things we know with almost zero confidence--like the economic models that predict the impacts of climate models and the climate models on which the economic models are based.

Why do we (or rather I) have no confidence in these models? Because a model's ability to hindcast (predict the past) provides no confidence in its ability to forecast the future; because years of economic models that have correctly hindcasted have failed to correctly forecast; and because the forecasts of past climate models have yet to be tested against the future that they have predicted. We should test the models.
Climate scientists can take an easy and potentially powerful step to build public confidence: re-run the climate models from the first 3 IPCC reports with actual data (from their future): how well did they predict global temperatures?

I don't think I have any ability to know when an argument is correct, but it's easier to see where one is wrong.

Scott's post is worth reading.



Jan 4, 2018

Violence Markets, Redux, Part I

Scars of a whipped slave (April 2, 1863, Baton...
Scars of a whipped slave (April 2, 1863, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA. Original caption: "Overseer Artayou Carrier whipped me. I was two months in bed sore from the whipping. My master come after I was whipped; he discharged the overseer. The very words of poor Peter, taken as he sat for his picture." (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Violence does not create wealth, but much wealth (indeed I will argue nearly all wealth) is acquired through violence.


Of course, violence has been used to assist the theft of wealth from its creators or current holders; and to enslave otherwise free individuals so that the wealth that they create can be taken from them as they produce it; and prevent slaves from escaping so they can be bred as a stock of wealth separate from the flow of wealth from their labor. 

But violence has also been used to exclude others from fertile lands, hunting territories, and mineral resources so that this natural wealth can be acquired only by those who violently exclude others. This violence-based technique is the source of most historical wealth and remains a potent source of wealth acquisition today.

In subsistence societies, only the violence that is used to lay claim to resources can be profitable. But as societies become more wealthy and productive, new cost-effective forms of violence emerge. Violence in support of theft is unprofitable when there's nothing worth stealing. But once a surplus is accumulated the value of theft can exceed the costs of stealing it, and theft becomes a profitable activity. 

Violence for slavery is unprofitable until a slave can be made to produce more than it consumes. But slavery has marginal economic return until a slave's productivity not only exceeds the ongoing costs of "supervising" the slave and maintaining the slave's servitude but also is enough to pay the cost of purchasing or otherwise gaining ownership of a slave. 

As societies become wealthier and more productive, new violence-enabled means of wealth-acquisiton become profitable. Chattel slavery is still profitable in some market segments, like the delivery of sex services. And in places where chattel slavery is not profitable, wage slavery, facilitated by violence or threat of violence, and yields generous returns. 

Individuals and groups have different abilities and willingness to create and use violence, so some specialize in violence, while others specialize in trading the goods and services they create or that they have appropriated for violence services from specialists. The services can be used to acquire additional wealth from others, to keep the wealth that one has acquired, or to violently prevent others from using productive resources. Violence is fungible, so violence providers are willing to provide violence, on demand, and at a price, for many purposes.

Over time, violence markets develop. In a violence market, violence providers compete with one another to serve the needs of violence consumers. Violence consumers incorporate violence, or the credible threat of violence, in a variety of wealth acquisition and wealth protection strategies. As a result, the market produces a wide range of violence services priced and tailored to meet market needs.

The violence industry was originally free, open and entrepreneurial. Anyone could deliver violence. But over time, like any industry, the violence industry consolidated. In each geographic region a dominant, violence provider arose and used economies of scale to drive out competitors. These were not always unpopular moves. A market might prefer a single well managed, lower cost, more effective and reliable violence supplier, to its less capable competitors. Dominant violence suppliers might merge with some competitors and take others over. The dominant violence supplier in a large geographic region came to be called the "central government" or "national government."

Such violence suppliers decentralize some of their operations to better respond to local market conditions. They grant geographic franchises to local violence suppliers (state and regional governments). Importantly, these franchises are made to conform to quality standards (laws and regulations) set and enforced by the franchiser--under threat that it will use its superior violence delivery capability to ensure conformance. National and local violence providers work to eliminate free-market violence but are never entirely successful; instead, they engage in informal collaboration to control their market and drive small entrepreneurial violence providers--like the Mafia in the United States--to the margins of the market. 

Nation-level violence monopolists maintain market control by preventing external violence providers from entering their market (national defense) and by following one of two strategies to deal with competition within their market. 

They can invest in their own violence delivery resources to can make an internal rival's violence delivery services both an inferior choice and also unprofitable. Or they can lower the cost and improve the consistency and quality of the violence that they deliver, thus creating a market barrier to entry for alternative suppliers. They can also use marketing techniques to raise the perceived quality of their violence, branding what they do as "law enforcement" to distinguish it from other forms of violence.

Violence is a valuable service. The value of violence gives rise to a competitive violence market regulated by provider practices and consumer preferences. Governments are not anti-market. Rather, they are market solutions to problems in the violence market.

Adapted and updated based on insights from reading Matt Breunig. Original post here
Part 2 here.


Jan 3, 2018

Tired brain, Just Dance Now, and This Post

I hate it when my brain gets tired. Like right now. I'm typing. Words are coming out. Sentences are formed. It's not bad stuff. But there's no joy. It's a chore.

I know that if I don't finish this post and get it out then I'm going to feel bad tomorrow. And that's enough to keep me going. But I don't feel the joy that I feel when I'm in the groove. From the outside, things look the same. From the inside, they're very different.

Tonight, I did find a way to mitigate the problem, though. After dragging through my 750 words, realizing I had made a mistake in waiting until 9:00 to start, I tried to think of a way to get some energy and remembered that I'd downloaded "Just Dance Now" and had paid for a couple months' subscription.

Just Dance has been available on game consoles for years. You choose a song. It plays on the console and you see a dancer dancing to the music. Holding your console controller you try to mimic the moves. The game scores when you do the right thing at the right time.

Just Dance Now is the mobile phone version. You use your phone instead of the game controller, and a computer or a Chromecast device to play the music and show the dancer. I had tried it out--they give you a couple of free songs--and I liked it enough to pay $9.95 for a three-month subscription, which gives me access to their catalog of 300-odd tracks.

So I went up and tried a couple of songs that I'd been working on--and until my Pixel's power went subcritical I listened to music and did some dancing.

It wasn't a complete remedy. I've got a few posts that will require more intellectual energy than this post has needed, and I'm not up to doing them. But it got me through to writing this post.

And pressing Publish.

Jan 2, 2018

The story of Angel (6) de la Cruz

In my post "Birthday Activity--Part 1" I said:
Yesterday, while making a list of things to write, I found this item: "Angel (6) de la Cruz." That's the remembered name of someone I met when I was working at SAC Headquarters, Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska in the late 60's. Angel (6), as I remembered the story, had a grandfather who was in love with numbers. He counted everything. He knew how many eggs he'd eaten. How many stairs he'd climbed. He gave all his sons the same name (Angel) and his daughters the same name (Silvia?) and distinguished them by an appended number. Apparently, Angel (6)'s dad--or mom--had kept up the family tradition.
So I did a little Googling and found an email address, and sent an email. Have I mentioned that I love Google? That I love email? To my delight, I got a response, quoted with his permission:

Happy New Year  - Yes, it is me all right - the only person with a (6) on his name.   Yes - I was in Offutt from 1965 to 1972, assigned to the 544th. ARTW in SAC Headquarters - Bldg. 500.  So wonderful to hear from you after all these years. 
     I left the Air Force in March, 1972, and joined IBM in Puerto Rico, thanks to the Air Force making a programmer out of me, and retired after 30 years with them in 2002.   I went on my own until a few years ago.  Now, retired, am "working" with the Lions Clubs and the Order of Elks here in Puerto Rico, keeping busy and, thankfully, feeling fine.  Just like you, 75 years old. 
     As for my story, yes, my grandfather, Blas C. Silva Boucher was an engineer, graduated in Spain, who kept track and counted everything he could, like nuber of letters written, number of his signatures, steps from one place to another, auto and bus license plates, eggs eaten, etc.  He appeared in Ripley's Believe It or Not back in 1941, as "The Numerical Man". 
Here's the clipping, which Angel sent me in another email:




Angel continues:
    When he got married he wanted to name his first daughter (1), but they would not let him, so he named her Sylvia (1) Silva.  His second son, born on August 2, Day of Our Lady of Angels, was named Angel (2) and his other daughters were Sylvia (3), Sylvia (4) and Sylvia (5). 
     First to marry was my mother, (4), with, by mere coincidence, my father also named Angel (no number, of course), and I was the next one bor, so I became Angel (6).  My uncle (2) was married and he had my cousin Angel (7).  We were only two in that generation, as (1) and (3) never married, and (5) died when she was 10. 
     The family has grown, and we are up to number (22), grand daughter of (7).  The number, like a second named, and officially registered as such, is the sequence of descendants from my grandfather. 
    To make it easier to follow, I have attached the genealogy descendant report of my grandfather for you to read and study at your leisure, and tell the story to your family - an honor for me.  Any questions, just let me know. 
     By the way, I was able to revisit Offutt in September 2012, when my wife and I attended a Lion's Leadership Forum in Kansas City, and a fellow Lion, who lives in Omaha and retired from Offutt, offered to give us the VIP tour, so we drove to Bellevue and were able to revisit the base and the neighborhood, including the house we built and lived in 40 years before.  It was very nostalgic and enjoyable. 
     Well, my friend - it's time to celebrate the coming of 2018, hoping that it will help us to recover from hurricanes Irma and Maria, which caused great damage.  Only about 52% of the island has electric power right now. 
     Again, it is wonderful to hear from you.  Hope you find this information not too boring or long.  Be well, and have a great New Year - in about 6 hours for you.

Angel (6) de la Cruz Silva
Here's the full report of Angel (6)'s family, with all the Angel's and all the Sylvia's documented. Reading it, I learned that his full name is:
Angel (6) de la Cruz Silva Rivera Baez Zayas Boucher Rivera Abril

I have some great stories from that time, and I'll be posting them over the next few days and linking here:

Sgt Eldred and Catch-22
"Now that's data processing"
Negotiations for the card deck
Defense contractor on the weekdays, protester on weekends

Jan 1, 2018

Arguing with God

I came across this from Eliezer Yudkowky in my Twitter feed today:

People who call me arrogant must seriously not know anything about Jewish culture. Every Orthodox Jew grows up hearing stories about all the famous Jews who got into arguments with God, and the most admired figures of all are those who, like Moses, won their arguments.
I'd never seen this idea expressed before, but as soon as I did, I realized that this was true for me. Of course, argue with God! Make a good argument. You think God's going to respect you if you don't use the power of reason that you were given? If you don't stand up for what you believe is right?

I grew up knowing that I was one of the Chosen People. That made me special and it also meant that I had special obligations--to study and to acquire knowledge; to fight injustice; to fight for truth; to use my gifts to better humanity. I haven't always lived up to those obligations, but I've always felt that I had them.

I grew up believing that it was important to find out what's right and to stand up for what was right. And if God was wrong, then my job to set Him straight--or have him explain why something stupid was actually smart. When I was a believer, the God that I believed in would have wanted me to do that. Arguing with God was part of my job. I might not win, and I might discover that I was wrong. But I would never be punished for arguing.

I don't believe in God anymore--or at least not in the God that I was raised with. But that's no obstacle. I still argue with God.

Who says that God has to exist in order to argue with Him. Or Her. God? Then She's wrong.

In this post, Miles Kimball says:

I decided that despite my imperfections, I would not punish one of my children harshly for not believing in me.  Therefore, a perfect, loving Father in Heaven would not punish me if—doing my very best to figure things out—I came to doubt that he existed.  Deciding that God—if he existed—would not punish me for my honest beliefs was and is a key ingredient to my being an atheist.
Same for me. The kind of God who would punish someone for rejecting His or Her existence would be unworthy of respect and undeserving of love. Still, if there was a God, then there's no preventing God from being the biggest Asshole ever.  She just wouldn't get my vote.

And if that was Her attitude, then I'd argue with Her, because, I'm sorry, but She'd be wrong.

Eliezer and I are not the only people who feel this way. Here's a book "Arguing with God: a Jewish Tradition"