Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The duty of the weak

Just finished watching Heroman, Stan Lee's vehicle for joyously celebrating a host of cliches, many of which he both invented and rendered cliche.

At the beginning (well, after a little bit of establishing that our protagonist suffers from the appropriate degree of youthful angst) aliens invade Los Angeles and cause a large amount of destruction. The US military, obviously, is on the scene in short order, but no amount of conventional weaponry- spec ops, tanks, or airplanes- has any effect on even the weakest alien foot soldier. The nuclear option is mulled, but in the end only the powers of our teenaged protagonist and the titular Heroman are either capable or necessary to save the day a few episodes later.

Then, after some intervening action, the aliens invade Washington, DC, apparently oblivious to how much better off our country would be without it. And we see that, even though twenty episodes and about a year have passed in which tanks and machine guns were proven completely ineffective, conventional weaponry is again employed and quickly destroyed until Heroman can pop along and save the day.

Now, I am not here to criticize that first decision to deploy troops to LA, since it was at that point a wholly unknown and obviously aggressive threat. Nor, perhaps, can we criticize conventional troop deployments in the smaller skirmishes right afterwards. But at some point, a point long since reached by the invasion of Washington, it has become abundantly clear to the thickest of politicians, bureaucrats, and officers that conventional weaponry is useless and that conventional attacks are suicide.

And there you are, a tank crewman on DuPont circle, as the aliens prance down the street, knowing with absolute narratively ordained certainty that there is not shit you can do with that tank to improve anyone's situation (all the civilians were evacuated) and that the one and only thing on the entire planet that can do anything against the threat is working at full bore on the other side of town. What moral obligation do you have to continue putting up the pretense of resistance? If we ascribe intrinsic value to every human life, is standing there like an idiot blasting away with your nerf darts not, on net, an evil act when accounting for the greatly increased risk of Redshirt Off-screen Death Syndrome?

Of course, the word impossible is nearly always nothing more than a failure of imagination. You have to get pretty creative to even imagine a situation in which nothing you do can have any impact at all, but what if we weaken the conditions a little bit. Suppose I am a citizen of Texas (not much of a stretch) and I have political opinions (still not straining ourselves over here). No matter how much I wish to exercise my political voice, there is not one single thing (nor any collection of things) that I can do to affect the outcomes of state level or higher races.

My vote will not matter, because even in the hypothetical of major race being one vote off the whole process will fall into a recount and then to the courts because the error bars on a statewide election are well into the hundreds, if not the thousands of votes. If any part of the process even began to threaten to allow my vote to count, it would be taken out of the hands of voters and placed in the courts to be decided by a judge.

My money won't matter because spending is generally capped, and even if I went in with all my own money as independent expenditure I haven't got and won't get anything close to what would be needed, and even if I did, money is just a subset of voice.

My voice won't matter firstly because I can't speak loudly enough. Even if I devoted my entire life to becoming wealthy enough to buy a voice (for which I lack the skill and drive) or to becoming influential enough to be a major media personality (for which I lack charisma, or even basic social skills, and drive) and ended up as the most watched media personality in the state, I still wouldn't have much push on an electorate that sees politics as a team sport more than a method of governance. Remember Dan Rather? I sure didn't, and had to google some indirect search terms to find his name. The people who already agree with whatever impassioned nonsense I have for them will continue to agree, and the people who disagree will continue to disagree.

What, then, am I to do? What, then, is our beleaguered tank driver to do? Do either of us owe a moral duty to take the stand and fight the unwinnable* fight, putting our time, emotions, and possibly even lives (in the latter, not the former case) on the line for a hopeless cause? When other children had their firefighter phase, I had a Don Quixote phase, so this conclusion saddens me doubly, but no, this sort of fight is neither wise nor moral. That tank driver needs to turn the fuck around and hope that those with the power can avert disaster. Most opinionated people need to calm down and shut up. There are fights that can be won, such as battles for self-improvement and struggles to raise a family, and there are things that are not battles on which those efforts can be expended, like comfort, entertainment, and exploration.

And even if Heroman fails to save the world and we are dominated for all eternity by evil alien overlords, that isn't a reason for us to direct any sadness at ourselves or at other similarly powerless mortals. The world is big, the universe is even bigger, and no one is guaranteed a hero or a happy ending. The only moral thing to do once a futile battle is identified is to walk away, ignore it, and focus on the good things in life.

*Google's spellcheck dictionary does not even recognize the word unwinnable, which perhaps offers a different perspective on the subject.

Small Yapping Dogs

I went over to a neighbor's house a few days ago. He has a small dog, perhaps one foot tall, who runs around the house. When the door opened and I stepped inside the dog stood about half a yard in front of me, took a defensive pose, and begin to bark its hostility. That dog has never liked me, but neither the shushings of my neighbor and his family nor their generally non-hostile reactions to my entrance were able to calm him and the people involved decided to take our conversation out to the quieter yard.

It occurs to me that, for all the implied sociopathy displayed by my neighbor in adopting said yapping dog, the dog itself is displaying some marvelously pro-social behavior. What could I seem to that poor animal but a monstrous titan, wholly alien in appearance, towering perhaps six times it's height, and making all manner of utterances. I could crush that dog with my feet even without effort, or if I decided to make an effort there are very few scenarios in which I do not win a one-on-one fight with that dog. Nearly every cat in the neighborhood, cursed with the same small size as that dog, responds to those same triggers with distance, caution, and flight. Fans of last year's Attack on Titan saw the same reaction justified over and over again in humanity.

And yet, there stands the dog, obviously frightened but still taking its stand. If I do attack and the dog is unsupported, this would be a disastrous strategy. But dogs are social creatures, and this dog believes that the sight of it being attacked would bring the rest of the pack to its rescue. In reality, I would give my neighbor about a 50% chance of either rushing in to attack me or to just stand there, confused and horrified that an acquaintance would attempt to kill a dog in someone else's house, but what does a dog know about social customs?

And we see now that this terrifically annoying behavior is the selfless devotion of a million movie heroes who shout, "Stand back, love interest! I shall face this peril!" to which the culturally determined correct response is, "What grand heroism! I may not have much strength to lend, but what I do posses is yours to employ in violence, lest we forsake that which is precious to us!" or, for the brief, "and my axe." Perhaps I have been watching too much anime, but what follows from the dog's perspective is either a self-sacrificing martyrdom to allow the rest of the group to escape, and thus worth doing, or the heroic trigger that will bring the rest of the pack to their duty in dispatching the predator once and for all by sheer weight of numbers. Or, perhaps, both.

What it doesn't do is make the dog any safer, though the following analysis is surely beyond the mind of an animal. The family across the street owns two dogs who are larger, perhaps thigh height and in better fighting shape pound-for-pound. While I could fight one of those dogs with some success, I would be hard pressed to do it without injury to myself. Both dogs together would be a genuine threat to my health. These dogs are substantially more dangerous, but until writing this post, I have never once fantasized about killing them.

Pit bulls get sensationalist newspaper headlines and yapper dogs get poisoned by angry neighbors and survive only through the forbearance of a general mass of humanity averse to violence even in the face of provocation. The objectively more dangerous retrievers and Irish hounds face none of this, because they are pretty and quiet and interact well in human society. The more aggressive dogs may do well in some post-apoc society where they can once again run in packs, but it is those dogs who have been bred into quiet submission, shown off for physical beauty and repertoire of tricks, that seem likely to thrive in more plausible futures.

This being December, it is time for predictions about the future. I predict that terror cells and the scattered remnants of global communism (except, obviously, for China) will continue to evoke passion well beyond the amount of danger they could ever conceivably pose. I predict that Russia has implicitly joined the European Perpetual Peace, even though they may never become accepted as a properly "western" nation. And I award the Senkaku Islands the honor of being both the most important and most underreported story of the year, especially if the most recent surveys of Pacific methane hydrate deposits pan out.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Fine Selection

I sat at lunch today on the patio of a nearby burger place. As I waited for lunch, another group of three, dressed like business partners, walked out of the restaurant into the parking lot.

One person said to the other, "You picked a good place for lunch".

Another said, "Yes, you did a good job" and the recipient gave some small thanks.

Now, both parties were correct in that this place has a pretty good hamburger. Hardly earth-shattering, but more than sufficient for a business lunch and at a good price as well.

What I could not shake off was that they were thanking their co-worker for suggesting one of a dozen possible places to acquire lunch as if she had in some way added value to the meal. She obviously had no hand in the creation of the burgers, fries or soda, and had she paid for all three meals I suspect other stock phrases would have been employed. At some point back at the office someone had said, "let's all go to lunch. Where should we go?" And she had said, "Let's go over here." and her choice was agreed to by all, and for making that suggestion she is rewarded with mild verbal praise.

Perhaps there was a non-obvious power dynamic going on, and the selector was either of higher standing or a customer, and thus worthy of sucking up to, but I suspect it was simpler than that.

She was being praised, not for her skill at creating anything, but for her skill at selecting which group of creators was her favorite. If I was some highbrow type, we could say that she was being rewarded for her skill at curation.

Certainly there is a case to be made that curation is a valuable skill in the modern economy, and [Jason Kottke]( has on occasion made it quite well. And yet, what an imperious talent to cultivate, either in yourself or in others! And to those around her, did they accept the suggestion merely to avoid the all to common debate about where to get lunch (and how much wealth and privilege informs that debate?) or because they genuinely were unsure which of the local restaurants were the best and were deferring to their host? The former seems most likely in this case, but the latter is both common and baffling.

The people who complain about the abundance of choice, for whom recommendations, top 10 lists, and favored curators are their primary source of entertainment astound me. Some of them are simply afraid of new things, but quite often they will claim they just don't have time to go exploring through the great morass of human creative achievement. These are the people who don't understand why Wikipedia has a "random page" button, or why Steam allows greenlit and early access indie games. The people who post comments on Hulu to the effect of "this sucks. Hulu shouldn't have this series. I feel like I wasted my life."

I think part of this is that I am bad at understanding the motivations and inner lives of other people, but I also think part of it is that they have fallen into the habit of min-maxing every aspect of their life, as if spending time with a sub-par entertainment will prevent their "entertained" score from being high enough when they face the final boss fight.

I think the secret to happiness is low expectations.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

They Think Themselves Better Than Us

Jonathan Swift really ruined the phrase "Modest Proposal" for everyone else. I got about halfway through this post with a title that included that phrase, until I realized it might be taken as satire. But I do not mean the following to be satire and, indeed, believe it to be a largely fair, pro-democratic, and, in the right circumstances, a politically feasible method of increasing the reciprocity and trust levels between us serfs and our government. It's even worse than Hitler mustaches because at least those can be worn ironically at costume parties, whereas you can't ironically appropriate satire, as there aren't enough fixies and flannel in the world for that much hipsteritude.

Is it wrong for the CIA to exist? Certainly if you want to get sufficiently "originalist" one can make the case that George Washington was famously distrustful of standing armies, and even if the CIA isn't directly under the DoD a national foreign espionage service is at least legitimate or illegitimate a concept as the Air Force. Maybe there are things it should stop doing, like torturing people all willy-nilly, but I think it is a plausible starting point to assume that the institution of the CIA is a legitimate function of government and that there have, over the years, become more things that it is appropriate for a modern government to do.

I suppose they will be coming to take my Official Libertarian Card away now :(

We all know taxation is theft and fundamentally illegitimate (can I have my card back now?) but by now the income tax and the IRS have largely established themselves as legitimate American institutions (guess not). I think we would all agree that, in order to enforce a legitimate income tax, it is necessary to give the IRS information about our income, or to give them ways of finding that information out. We hope the IRS and the related government agencies handle that information with a certain amount of discretion, but that discretion is, has been, and will be abused simply because it is power in the hands of human beings. We try to maintain a certain level of bureaucratic professionalism to minimize the abuses and punish those who abuse their power, but we will never, ever, get rid of abuses of power until we get rid of the use of that power.

We give the IRS that information for the legitimate purpose of funding the government. However, the legitimate purpose of funding the government can be corrupted into the illegitimate purpose of politicians, regulators, and other government money handlers enriching themselves and their circle through control of the treasury. Because of the corruptible nature of this power, we impose a reciprocal requirement on our officeholders and regulators that their income sources be published for American citizens to examine and in that manner ensure that no corruption is occurring. Is the current system perfect? Of course not. But the idea behind it is sound and it is incumbent on us citizens to push for the implementation to be improved.

The last six national elections have demonstrated beyond any doubt that there is a clear national majority in favor of substantial actions to combat the scourge of terrorism. And we are far more a democracy nowadays than we have any business of being, meaning that this wrongheaded consensus is binding on the entire government. That government has decided that one way to prevent the death of Americans and the destruction of our way of life is to read all our emails and monitor our phone records. The government requires this data so as to prevent terrorist attacks, an end that has been declared by a consistent electoral majority as legitimate and worthy.

I say, and I say this with genuine modesty, that when our government invoked an obligation on our parts to allow our communications to be surveilled that it invoked a similar and reciprocal obligation on itself. After all, more citizens have perished in the congressionally authorized wars in Iraq and Afghanistan than were killed by terrorists in the same period. Our president has personally ordered the murder of four American citizens, a higher toll than any terrorist monitored by PRISM. But terrorism is more than just the deaths, it is the way that they can affect our daily lives even without killing anyone, and our government can, at the stroke of a pen, do the same in vast swathes of our lives. Just as the government needs our information to keep us safe, do they not have a reciprocal obligation to hand over their emails and phone records so that we can monitor their use of power and remain safe from the undeniable potential for abuses?

I am certain there is an idiot out there right now thinking "Haha, gotcha! Score one for the home team!" But I mean this in all seriousness as a modest change small enough that even those among our politicians who have nothing to hide can embrace them. Our government's reciprocal obligations to us as a citizenry sit at the heart both of the constitutional republic we once were and the democracy we have become, for it was written in the very birth of this nation that "All men were created equal," and that "governments are instituted among men"?

These two simple phrases, sitting at the heart of the American Experiment, express so much. All men are imperfect, and prone to error, and our government is built, not of angels, but among such rabble as you would find stuck in an afternoon's traffic. All men are equal, and endowed with certain rights, and endowed in equal measure, and it being the task of government to defend those rights with laws it must follow that no man can be above the law, and no man can stand beneath it. And yet, when an agency of the government, an agency of our collective yearning for an ordered liberty, creates a separation between the governors, who can know things, and the governed, who must be kept ignorant, both of whom are men endowed by God and Nature with equal and substantial rights, it strikes at the very heart of what America is in such a way that can only be remedied through a rebalancing of our mutual obligations.

Since it is likely that this level of surveillance is desired by a majority of the electorate (though they are free to demonstrate otherwise in just under seventeen months), it is only right that those appointed to legislative or regulatory positions government which give them decision making powers over this new surveillance authority operate under a reciprocal obligation.

Since the wheels of government grind slowly, and there remain legislators who claim opposition to this new authority, I would propose that the consistently pro-surveillance congressbeasts, such as Graham, Feinstien, Chambliss, and Reid. begin by voluntarily compiling and releasing the metadata for all their phone calls and emails since their most recent swearing in, January 3rd for the house and a third of the Senate. As time passes, bills can be introduced so that all legislators and all executive branch personnel with relevant decision-making authority can make these disclosures on a convenient and regular basis.

Some might protest that they do not need to be monitored, since they would never behave corruptly or abuse their powers, but the fact is that we cannot know that for sure without such monitoring. There was a time when all citizens possessed a level of trust among themselves such that it was felt this level of monitoring was not necessary to defend the ordered liberty of our nation, but that time has passed. And because we are a nation explicitly founded to preserve equality before the law, there can be no special class exempt from this monitoring, any more than there can be a special class of citizens exempt from the income tax formula, or a special state religion, or a special noble title.

And they might ask but why give that information to the public and not to the NSA? And the answer is that if I am watching you, and you are watching me, then we are both monitored and equitably responsible to each other. If, however, I am watching you and I am watching me, then I am in truth unmonitored, while you are relegated to a lesser caste.

This is not the first best solution of a constitutional republic, but disclosure reciprocity is necessary in our democracy.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Obama is reading your email right now!

Quick, turn around!

Shoot, just missed him.

Anyway, I was a little suspicious about the whole PRISM thing, waiting for better evidence.

And now we have it! Absolute proof that Obama is reading the emails of Americans!

Friday, June 7, 2013

People and Systems

Everyone got mad when Bush wiretapped a few suspected terrorists, so we elected Obama, who wiretapped everybody and took their email as well.

Everyone got mad when Bush arrested, tried, and convicted a journalist who published state secrets, so we elected Obama, who sent Bradley Manning to prison and held him there for 1,100 days, most of that in solitary confinement.

Everyone got mad when Bush randomly imprisoned people indefinitely without trial, so we elected Obama, who has continued to imprison those people without trial while feeling bad about it.

Everyone got mad that Bush rushed to declare war against Iraq in defiance of international law, so we elected Obama who went to war in Libya in defiance of US law.

Everyone got mad that Bush tortured suspected terrorists, so we elected Obama, who ended torture and instead murdered those terrorists, and their families, and anyone nearby.

Thank god we got rid of Chimpy Bushitler, the awfulest president in the history of awfulness.

In 2008, we as a nation tested the theory that if we got rid of the people who are prone to abuse power and replace them with people who aren't prone to abuse power, then we will end abuses of power. I hope that in 2016 we as a nation can test the theory that if we drastically reduce the amount of power that can be abused, then we will end abuses of power.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Journey to the West

One of the great classics of Chinese literature is Journey to the West (西游记)nominally based off the tale of a 6th century Buddhist monk named Xuanzang who travelled from China to India in search of original Buddhist texts to bring back. Of course, after a thousand years of oral tradition this morphed into the tale of a shape-shifting Buddhist monkey king made out of stone, but that is how stories work. The point is that it took the historical Xuanzang seventeen years to get down to India, find the texts, and return to the emperor.

I ordered four comic books from Fukuoka, Japan (a bit east of Nagasaki) on May 31. They took three days to arrive, and the reason I only got them today was because the delivery man had wanted my signature to leave the box yesterday. In those three days I travelled probably a total of seven miles in various errands, none of those miles contributing to the acquisition of said comic books.

Maybe if it took me seventeen years to get these, I would devote my life to the rigorous translation and study of the adventures of Kurosaki Ichigo, as Xuanzang did with the holy texts he brought back, but more likely I would simply never hear about them and never get to acquire them at all and my life would be poorer for it.

I am the 1%.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

Just saw it. Perfectly enjoyable. The techniques of action really have been honed into a science that   can, when executed properly, play your brain the way Eric Clapton plays his guitar. And Star Trek Into Darkness is executed properly.

Some people have complained. Now, of course, this is the internet. It is not physically possible for something to be know to the internet and have no one complain about it. There is probably a fan club somewhere for people who drink orange juice after brushing their teeth. But there are people complaining that this is not a "Star Trek" movie, complaining that JJ Abrams is a huge tool, and that it is "just another generic blockbuster".

Let me start with the obvious. JJ Abrams is obviously a huge tool. The first Star Trek was exciting, but directionless. Abrams clearly didn't respect the legacy of Star Trek, thinking that references would substitute for spirit. And I am still mad about the ending of Lost. He is a craftsman (a prodigiously skilled one), not an artist.

Next up, "Just another generic blockbuster". Look, I get that there are some people who don't want to watch terrifically choreographed action sequences, for whom the plates flying off the Enterprise as she fell into the atmosphere did nothing, for whom quips fail to substitute for wit, who get bored during the final countdown. I don't understand those sorts of preferences, but I understand that they exist. If you don't like action, you won't like Into Darkness. But that isn't the complaint, is it? The complaint is that it is yet another generic action blockbuster. Well, I am sorry that you have seen so many tightly scripted combat scenarios in varied environments shifting seamlessly from ranged to melee in a tactically varied engagement set in multi-million dollar environments to orchestral scores that you have become jaded and all you can see is the god damned lens flare. Yes, there is stupid lens flare, and yes, there are other shows that involve punching and running and shooting but if you come down off your high fucking horse (which would never, ever gallop, or even trot in times of trouble) for a minute you will find that it keeps showing up, not because it is easy (it isn't) but because it is really exciting. No one made you pay $10 to interrupt you free-verse poetry night to slum it with those of us who ooh and aah at the fireworks. There exist movies which feel like they are ticking boxes off a list, for whom the action scenes feel slow and forced, but Star Trek Into Darkness is not one of those films.

The final and most legitimate complaint is that this is not a Star Trek movie. Obviously it has all the characters, and the plot is a clever reworking of Wrath of Khan, but it cannot be denied that despite  the characteristic chirps and TOS pattern dialogue, it feels different from Wrath of Khan. It feels different from Encounter at Farpoint. It feels different from Balance of Terror. And that is because it is different. This is a different cast, a different team, and forty some years after the original series. It would be a different and greater sort of distressing if the aliens were still rubber masks and the dialogue still "radio ready". The real question is whether, hidden behind the lens flare, the spirit of Star Trek still beats.

And it does. Some claim the spirit of Star Trek is exploration, and thus it makes sense why the holodeck episodes suck. These people are only sort of right. Star Trek is not, however, fundamentally about exploration, and I would contend that Deep Space 9 was the best series in part because it sat down and let itself develop. Because the point of Star Trek is not the aliens, the point of Star Trek is humanity. Star Trek is a celebration of humanity and humanity's potential. Every one sees what we are and can look where we have come from, but every Trekkie is seized by a single powerful vision of what humanity can become, of what our ultimate form can be. I don't think anyone contends that the future will look like Star Trek, but we know for certain that it is the future when people act like Star Trek. As the great song says, Captain Kirk is climbing a mountain, why is he climbing a mountain? The aliens are foils against which the true nature and goodness of humanity can emerge. A Vulcan would study the mountain, a Klingon would destroy the mountain, a Romulan would conquer the mountain and while a human might do any of these things, Captain Kirk climbs the mountain for the thrill and romance of exploration, of proving himself, of bettering himself.

In this sense, Star Trek Into Darkness holds the spirit of Star Trek alive and well. In it, we are presented with Khan, a man from the past, with the ideals of our past, genetically designed to be a perfect man. He is a vision of perfection, a vision of the future from a darker era, and it is the task of our crew, not perfect men but men who hold in their eyes a clear vision of how a better man would truly appear, to deal with this criminal. Intermixed in the hokey topical attempts to be relevant (which, need I remind you, were a staple of all five TV runs) is the internal cancer, the madness of General Marcus, showing just how high we have climbed already and how easy it is to slip and fall to a lesser standard of humanity.

We learn that we should always embrace our lives, that death is a thing to be avoided and despised, but that we must be ready to die like men when the most dire circumstances arise. We learn that you should go always exert maximal effort for your comrades, but going so far as to hurt the comrades of others is cruel. We learn that vengeance is a darkness which resides in our souls and must be excised should we ever hope to transcend our baser nature. We learn that heroes do not kill their enemies, because every person has worth, every person has rights, and every person deserves their life. Because the good life is one in which you live long and prosper, and in the future, everyone will live the good life.

You have heard all these lessons before, and just because Patrick Steward doesn't sit Wil Wheaton down at the end of the episode and explain these morals doesn't mean this wasn't Star Trek Sunday School. Because it was, and has always been Sunday School, the weekly sermon for the futurist-humanist faith. A faith which believes in a prophesied end-time when all will live in harmony and plenty brought about by the limitless power of human ingenuity. And Star Trek Into Darkness is a glass cathedral to that faith. Abrams and his design team have taken what was once a plastic prop of a ship and turned it into a glass and steel work of art in motion. Every room of the Enterprise, from the functional bridge to the massive warp core is a beautiful vision of Clarkean magic. When the primitive aliens at the opener take up Enterprise worship, this is only natural, as what else but a god could arise from the ocean to silence a volcano. Star Trek is about the gods we could become, the men we will become, if only we hold true to the moral precepts laid out for us by the Captains Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway, and Archer.

While we can see what mankind can become, our heroes are not perfect men. There is a scene in the warp core where Kirk is hanging from a bar kicking desperately at a misaligned fusion reactor, swinging and kicking like a goddamned monkey surrounded by technology inconceivable to us today. It is that tension that forms the core of this tale, the tension between men who are still not what they could be, and yet greater than what they once were. It would be all too easy to be seduced by our darker souls as Admiral Marcus did, or to fall victim to desperation as did Khan, but we can and we must be better than that, and when once we fail we learn, grow, and improve. Because just as we explore the farthest edges of space, we must also explore the deepest recesses of ourselves to become truly great.

James Tiberius Kirk, Explorer, Diplomat, and Extrovert, stands up to a man with ultimate physical power and a man with ultimate political authority and wins the day through the intellect and teamwork of his crew. The new Kirk may lack the authority of Picard or the wisdom of Sisko, but he is no less an Enterprise Captain, and Into Darkness is no less a Star Trek story. And a damn good one at that.

Soylent: Day 2

"The peculiar task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design."

You reading this blog see the end results of my projects in flowing, majestic words that resonate with your very souls. You do not see the struggle and suffering that has resulted in the twisted, burning wreckage of a weekend. My fire-hardened soul can endure much, but even it reaches a limit and said limit has been reached. After spending the weekend attempting to create soylent; a product intended to be cheap, convenient, nutritionally complete, and passibly edible (that last was implied, though insufficiently so), my creations were defeated in comparison to a sandwich.

At the outset I posted a little question on Reddit, asking why large companies, like the petfood companies who would be seemingly well placed to create this, had not begun to manufacture Soylent. The answer is, in the first place, because making it and making it palatable is a non-trivial task. The famous inventors are the Hank Reardens who stay up all night and toil for years over a labor of love, while I have trouble finishing a blog post about dead people.

I remain vaguely convinced that a food scientist with three months and a large budget could put something together that satisfied most of the criteria, but even if that is true, the expected value is pretty low, since a Soylent Lifestyle would require a heavy marketing campaign to convince people that it was worthwhile in the first place and would still have a high risk of failure.

Soylent isn't impossible, nor, I think, is it undesireable. But at present it is more effort than I am willing to expend. I hold out hope for Rhinehart's project, but until then, I think I will get some tacos.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Going Soylent: Day 1

My last post explained, in my usual rambling incoherent manner, why I am going Soylent, that is, adopting a diet consisting exclusively of Soylent. This, of course, is not an original idea, going back at least to the Charleton Heston movie, and likely well before, but this particular experiement was incited by Rob Rhinehart's own attempts, chronicled here.

The experimental procedures are fairly simple. I built a spreadsheet comparing ingredients to the FDA daily recommended intake, then bought those ingredients, then measured them out, then put them in a bowl of water, then ate them. And also ate nothing else the whole day.

Before beginning, my goal is to find a cheap, easy, and nutritionally complete food source. I have already discussed the upsides.

I anticipate, for downsides, that I may miss whole foods, especially with regaurds to taste. I can, of course, experiment with flavoring as the project continues, but if it tastes bad overall, I am in a spot of trouble. Additionally, there is the risk, which I am almost certainly under-counting, that I have missed some key ingredient and will suffer a nutritional deficit.

Finally, this should go without saying, but I am not any kind of expert. Do your homework before going Soylent, and if you have a bad experience, that's what you get for taking nutritional advice from the internet. If you live in a state or nation where nutritional advice requires a license, come move to Texas, and in the meantime consider this blog to be an active protest against speech and occupational tyranny.

I began by ordering the things on the spreadsheet above. When they arrived I sorted everything and took a picture:
Not pictured: Supplemental Multivitamin
I then began to measure out 300g of bran and stick it in a thermos. Then I realized that 300g of bran is 900ml of space, nearly filling my 1L thermos. My first adjustment was to cut the entire recipie in half (since I was going to take half twice a day in any case) and pour it all in a bowl. I will attempt to consume this product like cereal. The rest of the mixing occured without incident, though I realized that my 1g scale is not sensitive enough to properly handle the half recipie, so tomorrow I will again be attempting the full recipie.

With all the dry ingredients it looked like this
Then I poured in the 30g of Olive Oil and then figured I didn't have to meter the water, since it is just the medium. I ended up with this
This video may or may not work
Which, if you can't tell, is a bit too runny to eat with a spoon and not runny enough to drink, leaving me with a middle-mush. Then I sat down to write this.

Then I took a bite. The taste is not nearly as bad as feared, and tastes rather like frosted wheaties. Honestly, it doesn't really need flavoring, though I will eventually be experimenting with assorted spices. The texture leaves quite a bit to be desired, so I will be experimenting with the Jello this evening.

There will be an update on hunger and feelings with tomorrow's Soylent update, but overall today has been a qualified success. The concoction is clearly edible, if a bit too sweet, and a third of the way down the bowl I am already getting feelings of satiation. If I can get it to a drinkable consistency, filling two 1L thermoses a day and then consuming them slowly, one at work and one at home, may be the optimum route, though it is a departure from the Single Tiny Food Cube ideal.

EVENING UPDATE: So, less successful than I had hoped. The problem is the wheat bran, which is substantially less dense than I had anticipated. 300g is about four cups, comes out to two completely full bowls which is, frankly, more material than I eat on a normal diet. Plus the fact that bran is terribly abrasive in the throat and I never could figure out how to prepare it in a way that would make it convenient to eat. I even tried baking it with honey in an attempt to get a "granola-bar" effect, but I think the amount of honey necessary would overwhelm the amount of bran. Also tried making a suspension in Jello, but the amount of gelatin required to suspend that much material was prohibitive. I found that I was making a less tasty, more complicated form of oatmeal.

So I have cut wheat bran out entirely. I may return to it later (After all, I have the better part of 20lbs sitting in a cabinet now), but for tomorrow I will move to a recipe closer to Rhinehart's original formula. I still haven't reached the desired level of calories per volume (the main problem in getting the overall volume to a manageable level), and I am hesitant to add more olive oil.

Living The Future

What does it mean to live in the future? In one sense, the statement is almost tautological, since even Socrates lived in someone's future, just as I live in someone's past.

When I make the claim that we live in the future, I do so from a certain perspective, that of the progressive, whiggish historian. It is, in my view, trivially false to claim that every action taken by every human throughout history has improved the progress of science and enlightenment, but it is overall a true thing that, were we to develop a convincing aggregate of these two quantities, we would find that they have both risen almost ceaselessly in the western world (and then to the westernized world) over the last five hundred years, and exponentially in the last two hundred.

I furthermore attest that this progression is, unambiguously, a good thing. Not only for the benefits to the lives of individuals that have been brought by science and enlightenment, but also because these things are intrinsically good of themselves.

I live this ideal every day by enjoying the fruits of progress and by agitating for increased political liberties both on the blog and in the day job, though imperfectly in the latter case. But I have decided that it is time for me to advance the sciences by using myself as a test subject in a project to increase the efficiency of food consumption. I received a box in the mail yesterday, and will be detailing my preparations in the next post.

From today, Saturday, May 18th, 2013, onward indefinitely into the future, I will be consuming nothing but Soylent.

For those who are having trouble placing the name, perhaps this clip will help:
Now, I am not engaging in cannibalism (yet), but in the film, the notion was that people ate nothing but little cubes, a cube or two a day, that would contain all the nutrients necessary for life. I have assembled a home facsimilie of this, to be detailed in the next post, and will be assembling it into a sort of kool-aid-like mix to be drunk with a glass of water. The goal here is to create and live off a thing which is more efficient than food.

Because food is tremendously inefficient. A half-pound steak is a stew of molecules. A well informed diet-conscious consumer could probably guess how many calories and how much protein is in that steak, but do they know how much potassium, calcium, or sodium is contained within? And what of the countless additional molecules just floating around? I don't mean to contribute to chemophobia, but the reason we can live off steak is because our body has evolved with remarkable tolerances, and the rest is made up for by the desire for a varied diet, under the evolutionary logic that if you eat a hundred different foods a month, one of them is sure to have potassium. But if we start with knowledge of what the body needs and then concoct a mixture that contains only those things in only those quantities, then we can avoid both the Western and African varieties of malnutrition, and hopefully do so at lower cost since we can pursue the cheapest, purest sources of each nutrient.

Because food is tremendously inefficient. This makes sense from an economic standpoint. For years and years way back when, every edible calorie source was necessary to avoid the omnipresent spectre of starvation, and deficiency ailments like scurvy were not the punchlines of pirate-themed jokes, but genuine diseases to which people would lose relatives. If caveman-you finally learns how to make rice, you will still get sick and die in a year because rice alone does not provide your full nutritional needs. But then, once we became rich, we began to improve food. Unfortunately, the most visible metric for food quality is first if you die or not, and then secondly the taste of the food. Having (in some places) solved for the first condition, we have spent the last few thousand years optimizing along the second pathway, which has meant that any progress towards bringing our daily consumption profile into harmony with our daily nutritional needs has been more accidental than anything else. But in this era of unlimited information and inexpensive chemicals, designing a nutrient source that matches the FDA Daily Recommended Intake is a trivial matter that can even be performed by bloggers.

Because food is tremendously inefficient. I am an American, which means that for the most part my time is relatively more scarce than my money. I spend thirty minutes a day wholly devoted to the process of lunch, during which I can at best distractedly skim the internet on my phone. At home I spend another thirty minutes wholly devoted to the process of dinner. The average American spends an hour and fifteen minutes EVERY SINGLE DAY to the task of preparing and consuming food. Plenty of them would not give it up for the world, and I do not begrudge them that time, but I do begrudge it of myself. If I had an extra hour every day, I would use it profitably, probably to play video games, which would increase my overall satisfaction with life.

My next post will detail the beginning of the experimental write-up.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

I Used to Run

I used to run to get to places. I never understood why people would walk, because it was so much slower. Maybe if they were, like, carrying something or otherwise trying to be careful you could walk, but the worst thing in the world was how the hallways at school were so wide and empty and people would get mad at you for running down them. Not only is it efficient, it is loads of fun. Eventually you get tired, but until then it is like flying, except on the ground. Sprinting all out until exhaustion is basically magic.

I am also asthmatic. I don't like to complain about it because the fact is that I know what my triggers are and there are a lot of people who have it a lot worse than me. I have it so well controlled that I haven't bought an inhaler since I was in college. But because of that, I can't run very far, maybe a quarter of a mile on a good day.

I don't know when it happened, but at some point the following thought occured to me: I can't stop running when there are cars that can see me, because they will think I am a wuss for stopping running.Which soon morphed into don't run anywhere that someone could see you get tired and stop running. In college I wore a jacket everywhere with pockets full to bursting of all the stuff I wish I had a purse to carry, and running with the jacket on just seemed awkward as it would flap everywhere and things would fall out unless I had my hands in my pockets. Which is pretty much everywhere, since I hate purposeless walking/running and always have to have some sort of destination. This means I don't run much anymore. I don't run because I am worried about what people think of me.

This is bullshit and it has taken me too long to recognize it. Quitting time is in thirty minutes, and I will be running for as long as I feel like running, then I will walk the rest of the way home. If someone sees me still wheezing and out of breath after half a mile of walking, fuck them. The good things are things we do for ourselves. The bad things are the things we do for appearances.

Monday, May 13, 2013

By the way-

If you think that the government is your friend for the eminently silly reason that you obey all the laws, you are wrong. No one obeys ALL the laws. And when they catch you, they will ruin your life. Why? Because we have given them that power.

Pretty Pictures

Here is my cat:

And here are some flowers that were in an empty lot behind a brake repair shop:

Sunday, May 12, 2013

In Which I Disagree With Our President

Obama gave a speech, as he is wont to do:
And that’s precisely what the founders left us: the power to adapt to changing times.  They left us the keys to a system of self-government – the tool to do big and important things together that we could not possibly do alone.  To stretch railroads and electricity and a highway system across a sprawling continent.  To educate our people with a system of public schools and land grant colleges, including Ohio State.  To care for the sick and the vulnerable, and provide a basic level of protection from falling into abject poverty in the wealthiest nation on Earth.  To conquer fascism and disease; to visit the Moon and Mars; to gradually secure our God-given rights for all our citizens, regardless of who they are, what they look like, or who they love.
We, the people, chose to do these things together.  Because we know this country cannot accomplish great things if we pursue nothing greater than our own individual ambition.
Still, you’ll hear voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s the root of all our problems, even as they do their best to gum up the works; or that tyranny always lurks just around the corner.  You should reject these voices.  Because what they suggest is that our brave, creative, unique experiment in self-rule is just a sham with which we can’t be trusted.
We have never been a people who place all our faith in government to solve our problems, nor do we want it to.  But we don’t think the government is the source of all our problems, either.  Because we understand that this democracy is ours.  As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us.  It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but absolutely necessary work of self-government.
The founders trusted us with this awesome authority.  We should trust ourselves with it, too.  Because when we don’t, when we turn away and get discouraged and abdicate that authority, we grant our silent consent to someone who’ll gladly claim it.  That’s how we end up with lobbyists who set the agenda; policies detached from what middle-class families face every day; the well-connected who publicly demand that Washington stay out of their business – then whisper in its ear for special treatment that you don’t get.
These are fine words from the man with the single greatest amount of power over the government. The whole thing is important, especially for those of you who, like my father, cannot imagine that Mr. Obama could possibly think himself on the side of good, righteous America, and probably the best announcement from our president of where, exactly, he is coming from (despite five years in office, three years campaigning, and two books). But the part I have bolded is the most important part, or at least the single most powerful misunderstanding of the American Experiment.

Robert Oppenheimer gave the US present an awesome authority; the power to wipe out a city and poison it's lands for a generation. In Obama's mind, rejecting authority means someone else will use that authority. In my mind, rejecting authority means that the authority will not be used. In Obama's paradigm, power that goes unused will be snatched up by energetic villains. In my opinion, if Obama were to instead take a bath for the next three years and refuse to speechify, command, or legislate then that power would simply go unexercised for three years. In Obama's mind, lobbyists have power, though of a limited and shadow sort. In my mind, I am a lobbyist, with precisely as much power as any lobbyist. If the president reads my blog (hah!) and because of my words ends the drone program, it isn't me that had the power, it is the president. If the president meets with an ACLU lobbyist and because of her words ends the drone program, it isn't the ACLU or the ACLU lobbyist that had the power, it is the president. Because if the president heard from both of us, whether he agrees or not there is not a damn thing we can do to end the drone program, but the president could end it with a single signature.

The founders did not trust us with awesome authority. They wrote a document carefully circumscribing the authority of the US government. The fact that this document is largely dead is beside the point, the point being that when you give authority over some aspect of your life to anyone else, that authority will be abused. It will also be abused when you retain those rights for yourself, but then it is your own damn fault and hopefully you will learn a lesson from it.

At the end of the day, it isn't really authority that is the problem, since Coolidge had the same authority as Obama and seemed to manage alright. The problem is power. Power is not unlike Jello shots, slippery, fun and sexy, as they wobble around on the tray, spilling and squirming as you lift them and, once tasted, impair your decisionmaking for hours. There is no one who goes uncorrupted by power, only those without the circumstance or ambition to make the news for their corruption. But some stories do get out.

  • The government, together in concert between the various legislatures and regulatory agencies, takes the weakest among us and squeezes them until their pain flows like juices through their fist.
  • The individuals granted coercive authority over the citizens by the government will beat you to death if you do not give them your obedience and respect. They will then silence witnesses  through theft and intimidation.
  • What's more, since every violation of the law is an offense against the state, there is no crime so petty that individuals within the government will not callously run you down with their vehicles.
  • The professionalism of our bureaucracy, supposedly committed to equality under the law, is a facade that is lifted the moment you speak out against the bureaucrats, or should the individuals in the machine develop a personal grudge against you.
  • But it is not implementation, but the very policies themselves that are corrupt. Your city council is paid to sit and ponder their own utopian visions, from the petty to the despotic. But whether these visions are capitalist or socialist, the end result is destructive. Sure, a squeaky wheel can get a special exemption if they pander to the powerful, but to oppose the mere fact that power is exercised is "impossible to consider"
  • Our utopian visionaries are not angels, because no men are angels, but they aren't even clever enough to get their dreams right. There are always side effects, there are always inconveniences, and, when the stakes are high enough, the government will suspend the first and second amendments in a heartbeat to maintain their power.
"We" are not the government, "We" are voters. That means we have miniscule and indirect input twenty to fourty times in our lives as politicians like our president claim the unreviewable right to murder any American citizen, anywhere in the world. A man with the power to murder people on a whim has asked us to trust him and to give him even more power to reshape the world in his image.

The worst part is, we are used to getting, and acquiescing to, these requests.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

That thrilling feeling

Have a more depressing post on the way, but I just want to share with you that one of the most thrilling feelings in the modern age is when Google Earth updates the image of your house. I can even see where my car was parked when the picture was taken! Overall a much better picture, taken in very good lighting.

If you can't find joy in the small things, can you really appreciate the big things?

Thursday, May 9, 2013


Look, this is the 21st century, we are all intelligent people, and no one wants to end up like Somalia. You want to talk about anarchy then you can do it over on Reddit, so long as you leave serious discussions to serious people (like me).

We have to have rules because there are tyrants and villains out there in the real world who want to kill and steal and burn either for profit or pleasure. Most people aren't crooks, of course (though more would be if they thought they could get away with it), but we have to put up with rules because of the damage those few people who are can cause. And don't you give me your idealistic crap, because at the end of the day we can at least agree that Hitler was a pretty bad fellow.

BUT, and this is important, we can't go overboard with rules, because just as there are bad people in this world there are also good people with good ideas trying really hard to make the world a better place. We don't make rules to keep good people from improving the world, we make them to keep bad people from ruining everything. Since the rules are there to stop bad people, it makes sense to show a little judgement and when a good person is being held down by rules that don't really fit we should do our best to give him a pass. If this sounds trite and obvious that's because it is and I really don't understand why I have to repeat it as if this weren't immediately obvious to absolutely everyone.

Because apparently it isn't immediately obvious. There are people out there who want to use rules enacted by good people with the best of intentions as a bludgeon to keep any more good people from making the world a better place. What's more, these hypocrites are usually the same people who want to let the bad guys of the world wriggle through loopholes and run around unchecked to make the whole world miserable for their own personal benefit. Sometimes it gets to the point that I really don't understand how these people aren't knocked unconscious by their own hypocracy, even beyond the fact that they unselfconciously support some of the most obviously evil people of the new millennium.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Publishing a Null Result

Tyler Cowen, a man much more intelligent than me, noted in the recent GDP release that a substantial part of the quarter's underperformace comes from defense spending cuts. He notes, correctly, that we should recognize this to be the best sort of underperformance, since the point of economic outputs is to ultimately make us happier (for a broad definition of happy), and bombs don't really do that.

So this set off my long dormant econ-alert alarms. Is this a thing which happens often? Have we underestimated how much the economy has recovered since the end of the crisis, especially considering the fact that the recovery coincidentally coincided with the drawdown in Iraq?

In order to answer that question I took a run to the BEA and grabbed the nominal GDP accounts going back to 1995. I then built a secondary GDP set that included the usual C+I+G+nX, but then subtracted out the defense spending breakout data to produce a Non-Defense GDP. I rather like this measure of national income as an aesthetic and philosophical choice, since the money we spend murdering foreigners does not improve the lives of US citizens, but the aesthetics are beside the point. Since 1995, have there been any differential trends between GDP and NDGDP?

The answer is no.

Click for bigger
There have been a few blips, and indeed the last two quarters have seen GDP growing more weakly than NDGDP, which tells us that anyone not paying attention is likely underestimating the nominal growth in the consumer economy, though only by .15% last quarter and about twice that in Q4.

2011 2012 2013

GDP %chg 0.54% 1.27% 1.06% 1.04% 1.03% 0.69% 1.45% 0.34% 0.92%
ND GDP %chg 0.71% 1.18% 1.05% 1.28% 1.13% 0.72% 1.34% 0.67% 1.09%

I conclude that this is not a trend, only an interesting tidbit from the GDP report. Which holds to our prior which says that if anything was happening it would have been noticed a long time ago by people smarter than me.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Getting Pumped (and Hyped) For the Future

I like to say, both here and in real life, that we are living in the future. After all, I own a device that fits easily in my hand or pocket, which I acquired for "free" (two-year telecom contract) that can;

  • Store 1,000 songs (or more) and play them back at high quality at any desired time
  • Connect in under a minute to any page on the Wikipedia, which holds a substantial portion of the collective knowledge of mankind
  • Connect in under a minute to Reddit, which holds a substantial portion of the collective moronic circlejerking of mankind
  • Store thousands of books including the collected works of Shakespeare (haven't read), Arthur C. Doyle (partly read), nearly all popular modern authors, and a whole host of popular or serious non-fiction.
  • Automatically download and display the results and highlights of professional sports games.
  • Synchronize with my email and schedule
  • Find and purchase movie tickets
  • Find and display weather, news, and other sundry information
  • Store and index a complete Japanese-English dictionary, as well as study materials for my failed attempt to learn another language
  • Store note, both text and voice
  • Tune a guitar
  • Measure a heartrate through a camera
  • Take pictures or video
  • Connect to youtube to watch or send videos
  • Listen to a song and tell me what the title and artist are
  • Play recordings from various intensities of thunderstorms to provide soothing ambient noise
  • Play an assortment of games and puzzles
  • Emulate an old-style Game Boy Color to play even more games
  • Connect to the internet to find and interact with anything left off this list
  • And make telephone calls.
If that isn't some mad future shit right there, I don't know what is.

But the great thing about the future is that it is not an end. Like the horizon it will always stretch out before us, holding our view with a still more glorious dawn, and while Sagan's dreamed of "galaxy-rise" is still out of reach, the next decade is bearing witness to the adoption of some absolutely mind-blowing awesomeness.

Oculus Rift:

Oculus Rift is a pretty awesome name for a pretty awesome device. The short of it is that VR, virtual reality, is finally a thing. This is not pie-in-the-sky; thousands of kits have already been sold to developers for under $1,000 each and the first generation consumer version is expected to be out in Q4 of this year.

If you don't play immersive video games, the first generation may not do that much for you (though wait a few years for 3D Planet Earth documentaries narrated the David Attenborough). If you do, however, this video here, featuring the omni treadmill input device, should be all it takes to convince you:
This time next year, I will be gaming with Oculus Rift. Just thinking that gets me tingly.


People are chemicals. Food is just window dressing for a chemical input system, and is expensive, time consuming, and not even optimized for human consumption. Soylent is an idea that has been around for a long time, but the current incarnation is the brainchild of one Rob Rhinehart, a dedicated amateur in the true enlightenment mold. Fundamentally, he takes all the individual nutrients necessary for survival, pours them in a cup of water, and drinks it down. The brown sludge is supposed to taste less bad than you would imagine, which sort of makes sense since there is a minimum of volatile benzenes and it is mostly oats and sugars by volume. After three months, he has mostly perfected the solution and now has created a single cheap, easy food that it is possible to live (and live well) consuming exclusively.

Certainly, this is also not a product for everyone all the time, especially not people who are anything other than healthy, non-pregnant adults, and the creator recognizes that. But the theory is absolutely sound, and in practice it seems like he has hit most of the rough patches he is likely to encounter (mostly by forgetting to include key micronutriants or by poisoning himself on phosphates) and by the time the year is out and his kickstarter has succeeded this looks like it will be an actual product that actual people can actually buy. By this time next year, the hassle of food will be completely optional.

Now, I have the same hesitation I suspect many of you have. Present-me quite enjoys certain foods. Present-me worries that my life will be duller for giving up chicken and bacon and homemade salsa. However, my conversations with vegetarians and other restricted diet types seems to indicate that future-me is likely to have his preferences change as his diet changes and that he will miss the favorite foods much less than present-me expects. Additionally, even the creator says, "This past month 92% of my meals were soylent. I haven't given up food entirely, and I don't want to." He cites times of eating out with friends, going to sushi places, and eating occasional bacon, stressing, "I didn't give up food, I just got rid of the bad food."

"Soylent doesn't force you give up food any more than email forces you to give up talking. The point is having another option. Perhaps this does not constitute the ideal diet, but I am quite confident that it is healthier than any easy diet, and easier than any healthy diet. I'm touched so many people are concerned about my intake of possible unknown essential nutrients. No one seemed to worry about me when I lived on burritos and ramen and actually was deficient of many known essential nutrients. The body is pretty robust. If you can survive on what most Americans or Somalians eat, you can surely survive on Soylent. I'm no longer just surviving, though. I'm thriving."

3D Printing:

Everyone is really excited about 3D printing already, and the fact is that there are enough 3D printers, design shares, and 3rd party manufacturers that a real renaissance in small scale production is well underway. As 3D printers get cheaper, easier, larger, and more durable, these will become the physical counterpoint to the internet. Much as the internet has made the problem of not having the answer to a trivial problem obsolete (apparently people used to argue about who played what role in a film), a good Makerbot will make the problem of not having exactly the right part for a repair or improvement project obsolete. You will have every size screw, every type of fitting, and every sort of pipe. You will always have the exact right size part to stick under a wobbly table leg, or a snap in arm for your child's broken action figure.

And, of course, beyond the practical applications, 3D printing supports a whole new field of artistic endeavor  Already a very particular wiry aesthetic has emerged that could well define fashion and decor for the next decade or two. The great thing about a Makerbot is that it isn't a thing, but a platform for other things onto which the creativity of humanity can step and find itself elevated ever closer to godhood.

I am unlikely to participate actively in this particular revolution for quite a number of generations, simply because I don't have the time or general inclination to create novel physical items and because my need for arbitrary spare parts is minimal. But this is the sort of rising tide that I will benefit from simply by having it existing and growing in the background.

Personal HUDs:

Already we have stodgy sorts bemoaning the dystopian potential of Google Glass, which is probably just a testament to the power of Google, but once the input UI is perfected (no, voice only is a terrible idea) there is no doubt in my mind that these or their successor devices will be replacing smartphones, and will be doing so within five years of the first successful model. I have to make myself get excited about my phone, chiefly because I view it as a poorer, though portable, version of my PC, and my PC is an incredible machine, so I suspect I will be no more than a mainstream adopter of this technology, which means I am looking at a five year horizon for my Glass.

Automated Cars:

Yea, we have all seen these. A really cool way to save lives, but I drive like once every two weeks and if I actually paid all the vehicle fees I am supposed to (instead of panicking every time I see a cop) I would probably give it up for a motorcycle and rain jacket. So we are ten year from mass adoption, and probably longer before I get one (except in the likely case that they become mandated for safety reasons).

Delivery Drones:

This is already a thing: UAVs loaded with tacos and GPS navigation were deployed in San Francisco until the Government, the staunchest enemy of peaceful progress, shut them down. This is no longer a problem waiting for the right technology, it is a great idea waiting for a good team of lobbyists and lawyers. There was a similar project in Germany, for those still skeptical.

After all, the most important part about moving into the post-scarcity society of the future is automation, allowing people who would otherwise have to spend countless hours in the mundane task of pizza delivery to instead pursue higher (or at least more enjoyable) activities.

The bottom line is how could anyone living in America be anything less than super happy and super excited all the time by how many amazing things surround us all the time? A starving Ethiopian child has something to complain about, but the fact is that being unhappy in America is either character flaw, a temporary shock, or a medical condition.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Credit Where Due

Sometimes the legislature goes back and fixes mistakes. In Texas, the legislature for whatever reason has imposed a price cartel for defensive driving classes (which you take after getting a ticket to keep marks off your insurance and license). But now they are considering removing the minimum fee for DD classes, and someone on the internet thought that was a bad idea. So I set him straight rather comprehensively over on reddit.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Privacy, Anonymity, and Apathy

I don't like to talk about work on the blog, partly because I am often blogging on slow days at the office, and also because I really, really like being paid. But no one reads this, and if I ever get big enough that even my boss has heard of me, then I will probably be big enough to live off ad revenues anyhow.

The FCC enacted a regulation a few months back. I haven't actually read the regulation (it isn't fun when you have to do it), but essentially it says that polling firms need to provide a contact number for complaints. I, by the way, work at a polling firm. As an aside, this tremendously small change is mandated by the federal government and ultimately backed with the full force of the strongest band of professional killers and kidnappers to ever gather in the history of the planet. All that power, the power to fine, imprison, or ultimately kill, as the unconvicted suspect in Boston learned yesterday, employed for the earth-shattering purpose of making sure the complaints line is manned by our company and not the call center, and invoked at the whim of one man, Julius Genachowski, who was appointed by a man elected by a group of people who were in turn elected in statewide elections where their names were often not displayed anywhere on the ballot. Of the five hundred fourty-six individuals who could be said to comprise the leadership of this country, who are paid attention to and held accountable at regular intervals, it is entirely possible that not a one of them is even aware that this policy has been promulgated in their name to be backed with the full faith, force, and credit of our unshakable union.

Prior to this, it was sufficient for the call center (who directly interacts with the respondents) to have a complaint line. This makes sense because nearly all of the complaints are either "take me off your list" or "the guy on the phone is a jerkface", neither of which affects us, who just sends scripts and phone numbers and gets back data (they compile their own do-not-call list that they apply to all their clients). Once in a blue moon they will forward some actually relevant complaint that we can deal with.

But now we have to give them one of our telephone numbers. We didn't set up a whole new line for complaints, ain't nobody got time for that. Instead they just gave out my line. So I get complaints. So far we have gotten three requests to be removed from our lists, which were "forwarded to the relevant department heads" snicker. For all that I like to style myself "Chief Post-Processing Analytics Engineer And Majestic Potentate Of Internet Programming, Collections, And Synergies", we don't have department heads because there are six of us. I once looked at getting a plaque made to put on my desk, but a nameplate that large was all kinds of expensive, which I guess makes my paygrade above my paygrade, or some such.

Also, pro-tip; If you want to be removed from a phone list, tell the person on the phone RIGHT THEN AND THERE. Either it is a volunteer who doesn't give a shit and will be ignoring your complaint anyway, OR it is a professional phone center that has a process in place and will put you on the call center's centralized DNC list, exempting you from that call AND ALL OTHER CALLS FROM ALL OTHER PHONE SHOP CLIENTS. If you call me after the fact, I have no idea who you are, am going to do the absolute minimal shit job I can do, and you will still be on the lists of everyone else in the entire world.

Anyway, today I was really busy, had all sorts of important things to be doing that demanded my total concentration. So that's when the phone rings.

"Hello this is company, how can I help you?" I say that, not the caller, because it would be weird if people were calling the complaint line trying to improve my day.

"So," she hems and haws for a bit, "I am taking your survey right now." Oh, great, because we only have one survey in the whole world, lovingly handcrafted and sent right to you, "and I am on the question about [topic redacted]" well, praise Christ that I happened to hear about that particular topic when a co-worker was bitching about that survey so I know what you are talking about, I must be a goddamn mind reader, "and I was wondering, if I give a negative answer, will they know it was me?"

To this question I give The Correct Answer, "All responses will only be presented in an aggregated and anonymized format. Privacy is very important to us at company." This is considered to be The Correct Answer for two reasons:

  1. It makes the respondent feel better, and more importantly it makes them go away.
  2. It is true. Technically true, which we all know is the best kind of true.
Certainly, when the data is presented, it will all be anonymized and aggregated. The chart will say that 73% said yes, 20% said no, and 7% had popsicles so far up in their colons that they were unable to respond intelligibly.

Note: Not An Actual Chart From My Employer. We use SPSS, not R.
That is because our clients want to know about the very important issue. They want to know if their product launch will succeed, or if they will get re-elected, or why their customers are such whiny bitches all the time. What they absolutely, positively, do not care about and would not even if they had the time, is YOUR OPINION. You are not a special snowflake, your are not made of magic, and just going by the numbers from our recent survey, you are eight times out of ten A) wrong, B) ignorant, C) borderline illiterate, and D) stupid. When we (not actually we, more of a they because the boss doesn't let me get within ten miles of clients, and for very good reason) present the results, the executives in the presentation do not say, "Yes, but what does Alonzo down on Maple Street think?". They do not say, "That sure is an astute response there, what are the rest of that person's opinions so we can do that." Your privacy is safe because nobody gives a fuck.

However, every economist has two hands (My macro professor had no fewer than eight), and on the other hand the absolute fact is that your privacy is dead. We at the office have to seek out data on people, but all we really want to know is the general area you live in, your phone number, and occasionally whether you have voted or not. Just by looking for that, we end up finding your exact street address, your partisan preferences, your annual voting history in November, Primary, and minor elections, your voter registration, your name, your spouse's name and some or all of your children's names, all of which just sits on the file, regarded by us as junk data that we aren't going to use, because, again, nobody gives a fuck.

But when you have this much data, you wonder just how much more there is out there. So once I did a search for myself in all the databases. So if I actually wanted to hunt that caller down and give them hell for expressing a negative opinion, what could I do?

Since they called, they are on my radar. The office, just like nearly everyone, has caller ID, so I have at least a last name, and it was a fairly distinct and memorable name. Let us say it came up as Joe Smith. When the data comes in, because it ultimately came either from a voter registration file or a membership list the client provided (or both), it will have Joe Smith's name on it, tied to a unique internal ID number. Joe mentioned on the phone the gender of his children (more than one) just in passing, so if there is more than one Joe Smith I can look for the one making negative comments, and the one with more than one children of that gender, which in a sample of a few hundred to a thousand is almost certain to net me the correct Smith. Joe will have not only answered all the questions for our client, revealing his opinion on the client's actions and behavior which could well be embarrassing or socially awkward depending on the opinions, he will have also at the end answered questions (completely voluntarily - refusal rates rarely exceed 5%, or 10% for the very most sensitive subjects like income) about his demographic status like race, ethnicity, income, home ownership, religion, church attendance, ideology and partisanship, age, gender, marital status, number of children, preferred news sources, existence of a Facebook account, existence of a twitter account and years residing at current address, mostly honestly, all of his own free will. Then I can go into our standard database, which attaches to just about everything we do, and find complete vote history, any cohabitants (and repeat the process on them), voter registration number, address, alternate address, alternate phone numbers and an assortment of demographic information. So far everything I have gotten is either public record or freely provided. From there I can jump into our secondary database of semi-private things, all of which are either public record or freely provided by Joe Smith at some point in his life, but which you can only access by paying a fee, a few thousand dollars for everyone in the State of Texas, and will tell us things like magazine subscriptions, hobbies, "target demographic", partisanship, general partisan beliefs (pro-life, Christian, ACLU supporter), specific partisan beliefs (supported a border fence proposal, opposed a bond measure) and credit card profiles. Already I have a pretty good picture of what Joe Smith looks like, just from the massive databases we accumulate almost by accident going about our daily business. Also, we update our file every two years, so I can check against the last fifteen years of records to see if Joe Smith has taken any previous surveys, but the odds of that are pretty slim.

Still, armed with a name, address, phone number, and a bevy of confirming demographics (to help select a particular Joe Smith when facing an array of them), we can really start to invade some privacy. I close out of our databases, save all of Joe's information and get up out of my chair. Then I sit right the fuck back down and get online because I can know all manner of shit about you without leaving the computer. First thing I do, since Joe is in a large Texas county, is check the appraisal district website. Sticking in the address and confirming the name, I can find out what his house is worth, all the improvements to his house, the chain of title, the taxable value, every taxing district he is in (and thus the school district, and thus make a guess as to what school his children attend and then cross reference with cohabitant ages on file to find out what grade) and any tax penalties like non-payment which could indicate financial troubles. As an added amusement, I pop over to Google Earth to get a top down view of the house, a street view, and detailed driving directions from anywhere in the world. Since Joe is also in a big city, I can check the zoning office online, just in case he is trying to add on a new pool or some such. While we are having fun, I check the sex offender registry, both to find Joe and to see if he has any sex offender neighbors I can tell about his children, then county arrest records, then the occupational licencing records (here is a list of every licensed boxer in the State of Texas). Finally, I check to see (or know in advance, because we ask it as a question) if he has a facebook account and what fun stuff is on there (possibly confirming the size and type of family, as well as uncovering any drunken shenanigans).

If I get more ambitious, I can get up out of my chair and drive down to the Environmental Quality Commission records office (worked there for a few summers) and get a complete environmental report of his property (and then check it against the current state of the property, with fines for every misstatement or violation). I can check PACER and Lexis-Nexus for court reports and news accounts of Joe. 

Then I can compile that into a huge dossier. This is, from what I understand, exactly what modern private detectives do for a living. But I don't, because I don't care. When I get complaints I fantasize about compiling their information and mailing a thousand slanderous leaflets to all their neighbors. In fact, the cost of printing and mailing a thousand letters would be the most expensive and time consuming part of the entire enterprise.

But I don't.

Because I don't care.

And neither does anyone else.

Unless you get famous or piss someone off.

My new favorite person in the entire universe

This post used to be titled, "My new favorite person in the whole world", but that isn't even accurate, because my new favorite person is Commander Chris Hadfield, Astronaut, Science Enthusiast, and Really Great Guy.

His youtube playlist is here. This guy is all the charm and good nature of Mr. Rodgers, and the science love of Bill Nye, with the added bonus of being IN SPACE RIGHT NOW.

If I had children, this is who they would be watching.
Also he tweets from space! Lots of photos.