Archives, page 4

Having Something on Somebody
Date: 2018-Feb-17 20:43:56 EST

I've been thinking a bit about politics at its worst (but most secure) - where it's significantly about big personalities rather than rules and laws and norms. In such cases, positions come from personal fealty, often backed up by the ability to respond to somebody not acting the way you like with some kind of harm to their interests (beyond alienating each other). I recognise some of my earlier explorations of this idea were more positive, imagining a perfectly distributed "everything costs" model.

When power is so much a part of how people relate to each other in institutions, it becomes impossible to believe that people might do things for principled reasons; "why is this oligarch exposing everything about that one? It must be to bring that one down a peg, or because of spite, or ...". And unfortunately when these relations of the norm, those things become a lot more reasonable for outsiders to believe; the would-be-principled-actor can only be so principled without paying huge costs, so the possibility of going against some of the interests of somebody else must come from there being little cost (and perhaps great benefit) in doing so. This isn't the world I'd like to live in. I'd like to be able to trust that the rules and their administration are as impersonal as possible on these concrete decision points (remove person N from this committee, hire that person for this role). The difficulty in restoring impartiality and rules (often involving several smaller steps of comprimises between power and principles) is why I find it so horrifying when I see it breached. Petty and unprincipled people do damage to their institutions over generations.

It's particularly unfortunate when broad bodies of people come to see personalities that do this (from Berlusconi to Trump) as desirable. It may not be an explicit deathwish for society, but when mediated through implementation it acts like one.

Killing the Magic
Date: 2018-Feb-19 23:32:40 EST

I don't ordinarily look for magic when visiting a market. At least, I don't think I do, but the more I think about it, maybe I do. I started thinking about this when chewing on how badly Amazon's acquisition of Whole Foods seems to be going; endless reports of deeply-unhappy employees, and unpleasant efficiency measures. My visits have been less good after the acquisition than before; lines used to be shorter and it used to be a more pleasant place. Quality's gone down, and the place feels more tacky. When I initially started to think about writing about this, I was dismissive of the idea of magic or an atmosphere for a place, but I'm now reviewing the difference between the neighbourhood markets in Brooklyn and the markets I knew when growing up, and those here, and I'm realising that they left on me very different impressions. Not tied to where I was in life either; going back brings back those old feelings, and stepping into another that I've never been to before does the same. I think it's really about them more than me. The Whole Foods of old had one of those flavours, and it's diminishing. Amazon didn't have a lot to offer me in change, not a lot positive anyhow. It's disappointing. I suppose these economic forces have a degree of inevitability to them, or at least they stand beyond my ability to shape as an individual. My shopping there less, repeated, might in aggregate have an effect, albeit mediated by how slow markets are to displace established structure.

This 3-day weekend was something I was looking forward to ; I had plans. But sadly, all of Sunday and most of today I had a terrible migraine. Admittedly, the plans were not super exciting, but they were still mine.

I still have that migraine, but decided to get up and leave the apartment anyhow (it being mild enough to so permit, at this point). At dinner I tried a place I haven't been to before, and was surprised to find one of the personality types I consider a nemesis sitting nearby (talking to others; we did not interact at all and I doubt he even noticed me) - a mystic fast-talker. This is the sort of person who is devoted to the idea that strife and mess in society is super easy to avoid, if we only would talk to each other and be ourselves more freely. And that we all really want mostly the same thing underneath and so on. It's not that I believe the opposite to that, but rather that I find it a really irritating distortion, the ideas behind it are trite, and usually the person espousing them is kind of hypnotic and rarely lets anybody else talk until they're enthralled enough to be dancing on their puppet strings. Not something I like to see. Not a unique nemesis though; there are plenty of personality types I take a gut dislike to. Occasionally I find I have misjudged people, or they shine above their type. But that's rare.

Today is Pim Fortuyn's birthday. I've recognised it as Cultural Appropriation Appreciation Day, which if he were still alive I have no idea if the man would appreciate or dislike. Kind of appropriate; death of the author at its finest.

By Treaty
Date: 2018-Feb-19 23:47:54 EST

The way I normally think of how humanity relates to other animals we get close to is that of a treaty. This ranges from pets to farm animals to creatures in the wild, and I've felt strongly about it since college. The idea being that before even notions of property, we should think of nature as another sphere of life that the human sphere has a treaty with. The needs of nature should be considered generally compatible with but superiour to how we treat those topics in our law, and our custody of pets and farm animals cannot be considered simply property, nor should buying land give us unlimited ability to shape that land. We have obligations.

On pets, provisional assignment of them to people is akin to that of children to (usually) parents. If it's misused, the relationship ends, and damages can be considered. The same goes for land. And for both, alongside treatment of wild animals, we need to give these regulations teeth rather than lip service. We should be willing to tradeoff human whim and human industry for nature, and to say no to the former at times and "you must mitigate or rebuild" at other times.

It is hard to flesh this out, particularly in a world where we do very little of this. It is worthwhile, I think. I hope we can do so without confusing terms, like saying that a mountain owns itself. We may need new terms instead, or at least new phrases.

Impact of a Bill of Rights
Date: 2018-Feb-21 05:06:20 EST

One of the accidental features of having something like a "in the constitution" versus not, and "the constitution is harder to put things into but superiour to other laws" structure in our system is that things that are in the institution are things that we can trust are heavily-enshrined values of our society and legal system. They don't *quite* amount to a promise to value those things that way forever, but they nearly do and people in our society can reasonably count on that and consider their social solidarity conditional on it.

As an example, were we to step far away from free speech as I see it, the United States would lose a considerable amount of my loyalty (and I am sure I'm not alone in that) because my allegiance to this country is significantly about values I feel I should be able to consider safe. I have the personal trait of taking this well beyond a necessary legal principle (where it's fairly narrow but important) into a broad social principle, but I realise this is not part of our legal system, just parts of our culture, and I need to keep fighting for this. And naturally, any such valuation has a cost; any notions of harm that might come about through this free speech (including, admittedly, deep pain from some kinds of speech that we might forbid with little loss to our political dynamism or other social ends) are things I simply accept, considering them either nonactionable harms (part of the "cost of doing business") or not legitimate harms at all, depending on what terms I'm holding at the moment.

It's through this lens that I understand people who really care about gun rights ; they see the right to bear arms as individuals as part of the bedrock for our society, as part of a long promise about who we are. A country that doesn't provide it would feel less like their country, and they're willing for society to bear the costs for it.

Are they right to believe this? The Second Amendment is not particularly clear on its meaning, but a large part of our society has parsed it as such a promise. The textual analysis, whatever its result, almost doesn't matter.

I'm also no stranger to supporting rights that I don't personally care about; my care for my own privacy is quite limited, for example, but I understand how many other people can never feel emotionally secure without some kind of a right (or expectation, or similar) of privacy in various particulars. This is part of why I am so comfortable with my neutrality on gun rights.

Markets, Honesty, and the Way We Should Be
Date: 2018-Feb-23 04:41:49 EST

I've been thinking a bit about the tension between 2 idea clusters:

The Way We Should be x The Way a good argument might convince us we are x The Constrained Self we Present to the General Public when people are watchingvsThe way we are when nobody's watching x The way we are when we don't have to defend ourselves x The Way We Naturally Are

I think we carry a lot of ideals in general, and often have a tough time defending ourselves against activists (unless we've studied rhetoric or philosophy or psychology), and we have a sense of shame, and all sorts of other things that can lead us to be bullied or exhausted into accepting things that are suboptimal. And we do this organisationally too. Consider for a moment that the same company runs OkCupid (which has gone way "respect yourself" and suggested it's racist to have racial preferences or even racially-linked preferences in dating) and Tinder (which is most naturally a meat market style dating site). Most people are not capable of dismantling those (In my view awful) arguments against the weird ideals-based notion of dating and instead opting into the (more honest) know-thyself-as-the-first-thing perspective they should adopt. And so were one to get a bunch of people together to really talk this stuff through and there are activists in the room, they'd win unless there are rare people around to tear that shit apart. Nevermind that raw numbers probably show that the stupid ideals are also bad business.

Markets act as an antidote to this stuff. They're not the only thing that can act as antidotes to wrongheaded ideals, and what's really doing it is a focus on the numbers combined with the idea of competition. But they're one way to get an antidote.

I think of Brexit as being similar. The wrongheaded moralists like to paint Brexit as a racist thing, or a conservative idea, but I believe there was at least 20% support there in each major British party, and a reasonably similar amount of minority support too. In the debate halls and institutions of the EU there wasn't a way to correct the system because the discourse became ill-formed. So the UK left, and I hope more nations leave. Hopefully it can be replaced with another body that maintains healthier standards of discourse.

My beef is not with morality in politics. There's no divorcing that. It's with capture of perceptions of morality in that discourse by a monoculture, particularly in ways that don't double check "apparent consent based on no vocal opposition" with some more anonymous gathering of that same data. Because silence on a battlefield of ideas can either mean consensus or that a lot of people are cowed but not convinced. Not that consent is everything, but when the people's consent is too distant, it becomes a big problem in governance.

Learning without Explaining
Date: 2018-Feb-24 17:33:41 EST

I've used Duolingo for a bit but I think I've hit the edge of what I can usefully learn from it. It's great for concepts I "kinda know" or "maybe dimly remember", but over the last few days, one of the lessons about how to talk about doing things repeatedly according to some schedule has really dragged because I never had any formal learning on it, and because Duolingo doesn't ever explicitly teach you things (there are no lessons, you just trial-and-error along), I couldn't really progress. I know that people bootstrap new languages using a mix of linguistic presets we evolved and fine-tuning them through experience, but adult brains tend to do better with a mix of repetition and explicit understanding. With long sentences with components I can't master because of how it's taught, I've fallen off that wagon. Bummer.

It makes me wonder why they don't have explicit teaching sections, or perhaps if not because they're really betting everything on the theory that we can learn the whole thing from repetition.

On calling countries shitholes
Date: 2018-Feb-24 19:05:13 EST

I had a conversation about this somewhere else (maybe Twitter), but I can't find it.

I don't agree with the mainstream liberal parsing of Trump's referring to some countries as shitholes. I don't think I have quite the same criteria for calling a country a shithole as he does (although I don't think he's a man who thinks a lot about what he says; there may be surprisingly little depth from him on the topic even if we got to probe it), but I am willing to call countries shitholes, based on solid, articulable reasons. A few:

  • Could I safely, as a bisexual man, live in the country without hiding my inclinations, advocate tolerance (as I would) and acceptance (as I might) of non-straight relationships, actually have a relationship with another man there and not face legal sanctions or a lynch mob, or if I did face a lynch mob could I count on the legal system having my back?
  • Are there regular transfers of power between differing political parties? Is it legal to openly and harshly criticise government figures and political leadership? Were I to do so, would I likely face a lynch mob and if I did could I count on the legal system having my back?
  • Is it legal to criticise, mock, or leave the predominant religion? (same lynch mob and legal backing question above, which is a general pattern; let's take it for given for later criteria)
  • Is it dangerous to criticise, mock, or oppose other prominent or powerful people or institutions in society? (gangs, business leaders, cult leaders) Would the legal system go after them and likely successfully arrest/prosecute them if they murdered or assaulted their critics?
  • Is "how things work" in society, from government to business dealings, largely free of bribes?
  • Are business and political leadership roles from varying enough people/families in society (as opposed to a small set of families and their friends being very powerful)?
  • Is there a tradition of journalistic independence and challenge to powerful figures in society? Are there enugh distinct news media to cover for any defects or capture of their allegiance by powerful figures or the state?

For me, the first point is relatively non-negotiable; there are a few topics like "is gay marriage a thing here?" that I would still like but could live without, but if non-straight people need to live in fear or in the closet, it's a shithole. The others I'd judge them on a scale and consider them together. And large parts of the world don't do particularly well. I think there are a lot of shitholes.

All that said, I'm a nobody. My words don't echo like a political leader's words do. And while in most circumstances I would be happy to see my words and actions transliterated onto somebody powerful, I believe some prudence is warranted for political leaders because coming from a political leader, bald judgements can be counterproductive. There's little productive or not in judging my speech; I aim to be expressive and there's a nice secondary plus if I build consensus towards my preferences. National leaders can change things, and ideally want to. They should tailor their speech accordingly, based on their understanding of persuasion. I note that even nobodys, were they to enter the context of a debate (as a debator), should also change how they speak because they're in one of the rare times in their lives when they might be able to change perspectives of others; being a leader is ideally handled via similar instincts.

Public and Private Stories for the Observers
Date: 2018-Feb-24 22:22:13 EST

Apparently Stardock and Ford/Reiche are legally at ends over their would-be successors to the Star Control franchise. This kind of thing happens a lot, usually only making the news when there is one or more third-party involved to keep things complex. It's a bummer for the people who like such series, but I generally don't take sides because I don't believe in intellectual property. I tend to dislike everyone involved; I think it'd be a better world for stories if anybody could make a game or novel or whatever in any series, and develop and sell it, with no licensing, no restrictions, none of that. Creators that want to own culture, even culture they introduced, seem to me like parents trying to control their children long after they move out. It's inappropriate.

The interesting thing that the general public should learn about controversies about questions in townhalls is that they're pretty scripted events. And that they probably have to be. Even the best-run events that don't do this (Intelligence Squared would be an example) frequently have to turn down questions after they're asked, and sometimes in the middle if some lout wants to give a speech. Maybe "have to be" is a little strong; a really spontaneous event, done well, can be a good thing. But it's much harder. Whether these emails were doctored or not ideally will be determined by some independent neutral experts. Although the more polarised we are as a society, the harder it is for anything neutral (meaning rule-oriented rather than ends-oriented) to function, and that rule-oriented things are attacked from all sides (e.g. "rules are so status quo so we'd better bust them").

Was delighted to find that I actually have much better timing for signalling and arranging my move; I need to give notice to my current landlord by 1 April, which would also be an ideal time for my next lease to begin to give me a month's overlap to actually move. Consequently, I can spend all of March actually looking for a new place and either sign a lease by the end of that month, or renew. Much less stressful.

I've still been struggling with terrible migraines on the weekend. This has been going on for a long time though. It's probably the worst thing in my life, worse than the loneliness or the depression. I've tried the "trick" of adjusting my laundry dropoff to Friday evening so I have the option of spending either Saturday or Sunday visiting Philadelphia or anything else that makes sense to me. Since I can't control the migraines, expanding flexibility gives me options.

Recently I've been very curious about the evolution of ants and other socially-complex species; Hoping to find some good books on the topic. I'm curious whether pre-modern ants had a similar society, and how selective pressures work in a highly-regimented society.

Right now I'm at Vineapple Cafe; my last visit was about 2 months ago. Hoping I can let effective proximity to places I do or will care about help me guide my moving decision.

Antidote to self-enrichment
Date: 2018-Feb-26 18:28:03 EST

Recently Xi Jinping of China had some term limits lifted to eliminate his need to step down. While I have little opinion on term limits themselves, I take issue with rules being swept aside for an individual who is in power, and I think that society should guard against that. To that end, I have two thoughts:

First, any such changes to rules should only happen going forward; a leader should only be able to change this for some future leader, not themselves and particularly not to face their own limit they're about to hit. This is so people can rightly believe that rules changes, which might sometimes be necessary, are not done to benefit the currently powerful. There are times when applying this general principle will be difficult, but not here.

Second, pols removing their own limits lose some legitimacy and people should feel comfortable doing anything from criticising them, rising up against them, or offing them.

Pleasant Echoes
Date: 2018-Mar-01 05:52:32 EST

I occasionally bump into former coworkers now at a reasonable clip. It's kinda nice. Although there are some people I'll need to consciously reach out to. This isn't quite the same thing as having a working circle of friends, but I think I can probably slowly fill my social calendar and build my comfort being around people this way. Recently been trying to piece together a plan to visit two of my uncles in Texas sometime this year, and as of today I need to actually start the apartment hunt process, since I think now that it's March I can shoot for a start date for a lease that opens in April. I'm working on being more deliberate in managing relationships with coworkers in my current job; hoping to make things smoother than they've generally been in past jobs. This isn't easy - attention is a scarce resource and being deliberate means spending my attention on that, but maybe I can develop new habits that will yield better results but let me ramp attention back down in the longer-term but in a different place.

I frequently wonder what I should be looking for in life, and if I'm getting any closer to it. I have a good holding pattern that meets my continually-cycling goals. Do I need a larger goal? I'm not sure. It'd be good not to be alone, but that's proven historically difficult for me.

Very happy that we've had a lot of great scientific talks recently at the Institute; might try to pull people I used to know from other parts of my life in. I'm also hoping to ramp up my engagement with teaching, and maybe (because I have the opportunity and it interests me) trying to merge that in with some of the mild-so-far efforts I've made to help Tammy (and Gremlin) make the Chaos Engineering community they're shepherding successful. At this time I don't think I foresee working with them professionally (academia suits me better than industry), but keeping one foot on each side of the boundary has long been something that works well for me too, (almost) no matter the boundary. And maybe I don't know myself well enough to know if this is the right place for me for a year, three years, ten, or for the rest of my life. I'm not worried about that though; I've long been able to rely on figuring that kind of thing out when I need to.

The transition from SRE to SWE has done good things for me. Nice to think mostly about code rather than systems most of the time. I think had I done this in industry it probably would've worked almost as well (although I probably would've been able to keep the tight systems focus rather than becoming a generalist SWE). Recently have had a lot of headaches to plow through relating to python misfeatures, but it's been kind of fun anyhow when I step back and take the long view. Particularly because the root causes of problems, when I chase them down to being understood, often turn out to be interestingly intricate.

Recently been thinking a bit about how both companies and academia can abandon code, generally for different reasons but with similar timeframes. A company might go under, or cut a product if it doesn't make money. And because companies usually have strong notions of ownership, the product ends. Would be nice if they always opened it, but that's not super common. In academia, once all the papers that come out of it have happened from the authors, it's usually left as opensource but is too hard to use for most people to easily be picked up. Wondering if there's a better way for one or both.

Been doing some e-chores recently. Like moving my server, and stuff like that. Amused at that name.