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  2012.11.07  13.44
A haiku

Stuffy cafe
Surmounting the threshold
Dry leaves blow in


  2012.10.19  16.46
What is hipsterism?

My current plan for Halloween is to dress up as a hipster. This has brought my attention to the term, and to related phenomena.

I think there's naturally a fairly high diversity of clothing styles: it makes sense to wear something personally identifying, like Lady Greensleeves or Old Grog. There's a practical exception, when you're presenting yourself as an interchangeable member of an institution and need a uniform, but each institution needs its own, and they often want internal variety for their own reasons.

World War II and the baby boom flushed some of this variety out of the American clothing economy. The former put a huge proportion of the population into uniform, at a formative age. The comfortable way to beat swords into plowshares, was to trade fatigues for gray flannel suits. The latter saw huge growth in demand, which sustained a wartime trend toward larger manufacturers and distributors, by making economies of scale increasingly important. The fact that there were so many children per parent, along with some important economic and cultural shifts, also removed a lot of the home economy of clothing production.

There were two important reactions: the first was a person-by-person reaction, as many joined a counterculture and intentionally worked against the forces of industrialization and homogenization. The second was an economic reaction, as the boom plateaued and firms had to maintain their growth trajectories without the support of a ballooning population: there was a stronger drive to cycle through trends more rapidly. These fed one another, as marketers co-opted countercultural innovations into the mainstream, and struggles to stay in a counterculture only accelerated the turnover.

My understanding is that hipsterism is the breakdown of those two reactions. Unlike beatniks, hippies, punks, etc., there's no effort to form a distinct or cohesive identity: jokes about two hipsters viciously accusing each other of being hipsters are too banal to be funny. But there is also an explicit rejection of trend: tell a hipster "Your [clothing article/accessory/mode of grooming] is so [time, other than now]" and you can expect a flattered "Thank you!" 

"Hipster" is a reasonably apt name: our generation's hipsters are noticeably unlike mid-century hipsters, but there is a root of awareness: as a generation, we're hip to co-option, and have decided that we can't afford to react to it in unison. And this choice gives us the option to comb through many decades of accumulated variety. Please don't get me wrong: I don't think my generation is any better than previous ones, for having focused its insight on this domain, among the many important fields of human knowledge: I just think circumstances have forced us to be very adaptable in the way we present ourselves, much as the depression forced a generation to be adaptable in the way it fed itself.

Or maybe I'm overthinking it. Maybe it's just some silly clothes.


  2012.10.17  14.09
Write AND Speak

I just now finished reading Paul Graham's essay, "Writing and Speaking". It seemed I had read it before, and it's quite possible that I did, but it also may have been familiar because it's partly made of spolia, including a lot of ideas that Graham had developed in "Persuade XOR Discover".

His basic premise is that effort invested in making a message more moving, is effort diverted from crafting a message of real merit. As a commentary on the current state of rhetoric (written and spoken), I think it's mostly a correct analysis, but it shuts down an important possibility: maybe there are ways of improving one's ideas that, concomitantly, make those ideas easier to present.

This is, in many ways, like making food both more palatable and more nutritious: within the heavily-optimized and rootless system that we tend to find ourselves in, persistent tradeoffs make these contradictory goals. But traditionally, better food has been better, and worse food, worse: aesthetics and wholesomeness have risen and fallen together, more or less, since the time our senses of taste and smell first evolved. There's a movement, noticeable in the East Bay among other places, to conceptually escape from the industrial food system so that food is healthier and more enjoyable, as a whole.

Similarly, there's a very old tradition of training in rhetoric, in which people can work to improve arguments holistically. I haven't trained in it, but my understanding is that its goal is to make arguments that are logical, unified, and clear. There's one technique from this tradition that I hope can help me. I'll have to digress a little to explain why I need help.

You see, I need to write and speak, in order to take the next step in my career: I'm working on a dissertation, which I will have to defend orally. In many ways, this oral presentation is a vestigial relic of medieval training in rhetoric: if I can pass this test, they will let me put on robes and a hood styled after a Dark Ages priest's uniform, and people can start calling me "Doctor" in a sense of the word older than current notions of medicine. If this were a logic gate, it would perform the AND operation with inputs for writing and speaking. But we have trivialized rhetoric, and while the system may still test everyone on the trivium, it doesn't usually educate us in it.

Even though times have changed, two aspects of my struggle reveal some of the logic behind this test. I am having trouble getting the big picture of the overgrown document I'm editing. At the same time, my presentation of this content is somewhat halting and scattered. If more of this content were available within my mind, I'd be more fluent in my handling of it, both for purposes of editing and for purposes of presenting. It would be counterproductive to commit a huge text to rote memory while I'm still editing it, of course, but that's not what a medieval scholar would have done, anyhow.

I'm working to implement an old mnemonic device, variously called the method of loci, the journey method, and the palace of memory. This method uses emotionally-engaging images to represent concepts, and harnesses our highly-developed sense of place and movement to represent relationships among the concepts. For example, an early concept from my presentation is represented by Enoch Root in WWI fatigues, struggling to get a signal from a foxhole radio. I imagine him doing this right on my front stoop, blocking my entry. His struggle represents the tension that will drive my presentation, between the way things might be, and the way they currently are: Enoch has a portable electronics problem, that is of the same shape as a problem in photonics that my work addresses. And his location, on my front stoop, represents that concept's "place" in or near the introduction of the presentation.

Memorizing a speech using this method allows for more fluent editing, in contrast to rote memorization or even working from an external text. If I decide to introduce this topic differently, I only need to find a different image to represent that concept, and imagine such a thing sitting on my stoop where Enoch had been. If I want to present some content ahead of what Enoch represents, I can place more objects on the stairs leading up to the stoop; the patio in front of it; the gate; the sidewalk; on out as far as I'm familiar with my neighborhood. I can move Enoch's concept to a later in the presentation by placing him between other images, and if I want to make a slightly different copy of him, so as to re-visit a different aspect of the concept, maybe I'll imagine him with different props or costume. None of this will cause me to hem or haw, so long as the concepts I'm working with are familiar.

Imagining icons to represent my defense presentation will be an investment in chunking the concepts covered by my dissertation. This won't give me a synoptic view of my dissertation, unfortunately, and if I'm not careful, the images will relate only superficially. However, the sequential connections between these concepts will help me to write fluently in the same way they will help me to speak fluently. Moreover, because the images are chosen for emotional content, they will help me to engage my audience, and also help me to break through any writers' block. And if I am strategic in my choice of images, the associations I build among concepts and images can help to make my thinking more organized and robust on a deeper level.

I can no longer change how I carried out my experiments, and I never had direct control over their results, but I'm now in a position to make the interpretation and analysis of my data more true, direct, and transparent. This will make for better thinking, and a better presentation, with much the same benefit that classical and medieval students of rhetoric gained by focusing on logic.

Mr. Graham's essay provoked some good thought in me, but mostly by offering ideas to push off against. I think Americans will be healthier if we adopt ways of making food better that aren't limited to either perceptions or consequences. And similarly, I think some diseases of American culture and politics might be effectively addressed by adopting techniques of improving our thinking as a whole. If an ability to inspire action comes at the cost of thinking with rigor and flexibility, the best ideas will never find an audience. And if the menu we can present doesn't hold its own against the junk the market is offering, we shouldn't say the task is impossible until we've at least attempted some innovation.

I see tremendous opportunities to teach, and to innovate; to persuade, and to discover. I'm certain I can develop faculties that contribute to the whole of this effort, however contradictory its parts might seem within our current system.

Note: "Writing and Speaking" does include a footnote mentioning that academic presentations might improve along with writing, but I disagree with Mr. Graham that this is entirely due to a better audience. Maybe academic audiences are more receptive, but academic arguments are built for contested publication: convincing one's peers, who are reviewing a scientific journal, selects for a lot of the same traits in a body of work as convincing one's listeners at a conference.


  2012.08.26  23.53
Since there have to be attack ads...

I don't really like that there are attack ads, but since the niche for them has to be filled by something, here's one I'd like to see: it depicts a kennel being taken off of a car, and the car being dismantled, then re-built to look much more modern, while the voice-over describes the product: "New from American Motors Corporation, the completely re-designed 2012 Mitt Romney."


  2012.07.20  21.16
Flying Checkpoint

I went through my first flying checkpoint today.

This might be an unfamiliar term, because such checkpoints had been uncommon the US, except on New Year's Eve.

I had intended to write such a checkpoint, in much the same sort of location, into some speculative fiction, but my story would be set a couple decades in the future, and I thought it would be at least a few years before the tactic became normal in the US. I definitely had expected to write it up before experiencing it.

Flying checkpoints can work any of several ways; in this case, orange pylons narrowed a major thoroughfare to one lane, and turns off of it were restricted for a few blocks. The police then set up a mobile command station, and posted a large number of officers so that two of them could look at everyone as they passed and either wave them by, or check their papers (presumably, according to race). I hear un-documented drivers often end up losing their cars in situations like this: the car gets impounded, and if you can't come up with enough cash soon enough, it goes up for auction.

I felt weired. No, I didn't just misspell weird: I felt as though I were traveling in a current, which had been obstructed as part of a low-effort fishing expedition.

I wasn't part of the by-catch today, thankfully. And things didn't happen anything like they will for my fictional protagonist when I finally get around to writing that story, mercifully.

This is not OK though. My understanding is that the rights of everyone traveling through that flying checkpoint, were violated. I did not trust the police as I approached them, or as they were waving me past. I do not trust this Supreme Court to rule properly if people are detained merely for traveling a particular direction at a particular time (i.e., without cause). I don't trust mid-level decision-makers in the order-maintenance system (I guess they like to be seen as enforcing laws, but that's never what I see them doing) to reverse, or even to slow down, this ongoing erosion of civil rights. And I don't trust my countrymen to hold that system accountable. People are afraid of violence in Oakland, so I guess police feel they can get away with this kind of thing.

Mood: angry

  2012.06.20  02.14
walking up out of the Flats

A few times, recently, I've walked up into the hills. This means leaving the Oakland everyone seems to be afraid of, and entering one that's more subtly harmful (or a different city entirely: Piedmont, CA).

I've encountered two signs up there that read "Drive like your children live here".

Children cost, like, $10k, maybe $15k per capita, per annum. If I could afford to raise even one child, the grinding sense of impending financial ruin that currently animates my incredibly slow and conservative style of driving would evaporate with the trebling or quadrupling of my income. I might even be willing to waste some gasoline, once in a while, in an effort to get places more quickly.

If I could afford to raise multiple children in either of the neighborhoods where those signs were posted, my income would be a lot higher. It might even be so high that my driving would, instead, be animated by the same unconscionably thorough sense of privilege and entitlement felt by all those fret-inducing motorists whom those signs were intended to shame.

Maybe the signs should read "Drive like your nieces and nephews live here"?

Mood: amused

  2012.03.21  02.17
The First Amendment as a Swiss army knife: at least two edges

It's interesting to see some Republicans try to frame anti-birth-control policies as an issue of religious freedom. Requiring insurance companies to cover birth control seems like a very roundabout way of violating the liberties of churches that might purchase insurance policies. And as interesting as the tortured logic might be, I'm even more interested by some much more direct and plausible arguments along these same lines, that might have consequences conservatives didn't foresee.

For example, some religious institutions see providing practical help to needy people as fairly central to their mission. Sure, many focus quite intensely on the "Go forth...and preach" passages of scripture, but quite a few set out to feed the hungry and so forth.

Many of those who see charity as a part of their religion also find the book of Leviticus to be, if not Gospel, at least a helpful set of guidelines. Leviticus 19:34 specifically forbids discrimination against aliens.

If you aren't interested in religion, feel free to skip this paragraph and the next one. If you're still here, let's start with the King James translation: "But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God." The word "stranger" might also be translated "sojourner, alien, non-native": it really seems to be an outsider, or someone who doesn't belong. Someone who's visibly from a different country seems to be the central case here, although one could make a case for applying it to outsiders and "the other" a lot more broadly.

I can't speak for anyone else's beliefs, obviously, but my understanding of Christianity is that this passage is usually included among the parts of Leviticus that "count". I was raised Presbyterian, so here's Matthew Henry's commentary on the subject: "There are some ceremonial precepts in this chapter, but most of these precepts are binding on us, for they are explanations of the ten commandments." More generally, when Jesus was asked which commandment is the greatest, he skipped over the rules about murder and adultery and Saturday, and instead called attention to this chapter of Leviticus, which is why "thou shalt love him as thyself" may sound familiar (I hear Hillel made a similar choice). The principle of loving people of other nations as yourself, i.e. counting them as neighbors, is the whole reason that the parable of the good Samaritan has a Samaritan as its hero: the logic of this particular verse seems to have influenced the foundation of Christianity.

Alabama's HB 56 makes it a crime to offer certain kinds of charity without violating Leviticus 19:34, at least by my own amateur interpretation of the law and of the Law. Section 13. (a) (1) and (3) basically freeze out a lot of institutions from the charitable shelter and transportation sectors of the economy, respectively. Small-time violations are Class A misdemeanors, and helping 10 or more people whose papers aren't in order to continue their existence within these borders adds up to a Class C felony. Letting people sleep on the floor after a tornado would seem to count, if your offer of help focuses on those without anywhere else to stay. Some institutions are still allowed in that game, like government welfare programs, secular non-profits, and any religion that smiles on discrimination against aliens. But for those who think charity is a religious activity, and who try to uphold Leviticus 19:34, might find their beliefs in conflict with HB 56.

If the Right wants to frame their pet issues as applications of the First Amendment, they need to be ready for people to follow their line of reasoning to its logical conclusions.


  2011.11.01  13.10
Metastatic Omertà

"Son do you know what I'm stoppin' you for?"
"Cause I'm young and I'm black and my hat's real low..?"
"Do you mind if I look 'round the car a little bit?"
"Well my glove compartment is locked; so is the trunk and the back,
And I know my rights, so you gon' need a warrant for that."
I'm a little worried by our collective response to the recent police attacks on Scott Olsen and on the people who came to his aid.

Not so much the general strike, which is more about generalized working-class frustration. Not even so much by the passionate calls to violence that spread around the internet: the ones I encountered personally weren't much to be concerned about: either they were willing to listen to reason regarding the strategic benefits of nonviolence, or they seemed too cowardly to act on their emotions. My worry is that Omertà seems to be spreading.

In case you aren't familiar with Omertà, it's a loan word from Sicilian: it means a community's general non-compliance with the official government. In its original context, the word refers to an uncommonly strict and formal response to foreign occupation: Sicilians wouldn't accept help from, or cooperate with, Italian authorities, even when they were victims of crime. 

The broader phenomenon I'm referring to, though, has arisen independently many times through history. It seems to crop up when people on the ground, tasked with maintaining order, make clumsy attempts at building legitimacy with the population, but remain noticeably distinct from them.  Military occupations seem to result in these conditions particularly often, and techniques for subtly undermining an occupation have even found their way into the New Testament (hint: if you think "going the extra mile" is a random act of kindness, you've been deceived on both counts).

Similar problems with law enforcement relations can also arise among people that have lived together, under the same government, for centuries. In "99 Problems," a police officer asks Jay-Z to speculate as to why the officer has pulled him over. The lyrics analyze it as a matter of age, race, and subculture. Statistics tend to support this analysis as far as correlation, if not causation: the traffic stop happened in 1994, and by the late 1990s, two of every five African-Americans aged 20-29 had been incarcerated, far out of proportion to any racial disparities in drug use rates. The response to these circumstances, Jay-Z seems to advocate, is not to volunteer any cooperation beyond what the law requires. More generally, there are communities in the US that have reached a consensus that the police will never help them, and that any calls to the police would be harmful to the community: Sudhir Venkatesh documents this phenomenon in some detail in Gang Leader for a Day

Suspicion of law enforcement is spreading. Consider a recent "This Modern World":

This Modern World: Officer Friendly
It depicts two blond children, questioning Officer Friendly about whether police are here to "protect and serve", and how that might be reconciled with attacks on protesters. The officer first defends the actions of police in New York in terms of subculture: hippies aren't really Americans, goes the straw man argument, and so police can appropriately attack them, so as to protect and serve the rest of us. The conversation then turns to an Iraq war veteran, and to the people who rushed to help him after his skull was broken. The officer is speechless for one panel, and ultimately decides to respond by doubling-down on the strategy of violent repression of speech.

I think it's significant that the cartoonist chose to make these characters blond. They stand for all the people whose status as Americans has never been called into question, even under fairly strict categories of nationalism, yet who now see the police as "other". An expectation that the actions of law-enforcement officials will be arbitrary, illegal, and unaccountable has begun to spread from marginalized communities into the mainstream: even people who couldn't see Oscar Grant as "one of us", can look at pictures of Scott Olsen, and video of the people who ran into harms' way when they saw that he needed help, and see the sort of American they might want to identify with.

Officer Friendly's dialogue seems to have been written as straw-man arguments. I fully expect the police to have some strategies in their repertoire a little wiser than speaking power to truth. And as it turns out, shortly after I saved an early draft of this post, Fresh Air came on the radio, playing an interview with David Kennedy. In this interview, Kennedy is asked about New York's historic intensification of police action over the last few decades. He thinks that it has brought down the rates of serious crime, but at the expense of alienating entire communities and undermining their trust. Since convicted felons can't vote, this can even directly remove representation of the community in the government that police represent (a point made more thoroughly and forcefully by Michelle Alexander). 

Kennedy advocates the opposite approach: the answer is to prevent arrests, he has found, to a shocking degree. His work has essentially been to clear away falsehoods that police, alienated communities, and criminals all tend to believe about one another, by arranging meetings between them. His analysis is important, and a little too involved to cover succinctly, but it recognizes a lot of the truth in Jay-Z and Tom Tomorrow's work, above, while also seeking to dispel some of the illusion in them. It asks officers to be humble about their work, and approach community leaders in a way that recognizes that any authority must be derived from the consent of the governed. It works, too.

If we wish to keep our streets safe, I think there needs to be a new recognition of, and effort to maintain, the proper relationship between law enforcement officers and the American people. I'm afraid of the alternative.

Mood: anxious

  2011.10.27  19.20
Reed Hastings' Dilemma

Something just occurred to me. I can't track down the citations tonight, but feel free to bug me about it if you're interested.

Netflix has been acting strange lately: changing its pricing scheme, half-heartedly attempting to split off its DVD-by-mail business, and other moves have puzzled some people, including me. On the drive home yesterday, it occurred to me that an internal conflict might explain most of this: Reed Hastings might be disrupting himself.

I mean "disruption" in the sense used by Clay Christensen in books such as The Innovator's Dilemma: the creation of a tiny, low-end business niche that grows in such a way as to fundamentally undermine and eventually subsume a larger, more traditional niche.

Netflix has been working to disrupt the business of video distribution since its inception, and, in interviews, Reed Hastings mentions that streaming was always the long-term plan. DVDs by mail were, from what I've gathered, a temporary kludge. This mode of pushing bits had a seductive combination of excellent bandwidth (especially for 1999) and unbeatable market penetration, that made up for its logistical difficulties and tooth-gnashingly bad lag.

Now that broadband is more common, and the ecosystem of video hardware has diversified enough, Netflix is finally in the streaming business, and their DVD-by-mail business gives them both the profits to invest in doing it properly, and the brand recognition and market share to start out more smoothly and strongly than is usually possible in such a new business. It must have felt so good to finally accomplish that, unless and until the numbers began to show a problem. I wonder if streaming, even within the company and providing a carefully-hamstrung tranch of content, tends to cut into the DVD-by-mail business, and if the leaders of Netflix recognize this as a fundamental problem.

If the situation is what it looks like to me, and Christensen's theory is correct, this is a real dilemma. Streaming will inevitably become better business than DVD-by-mail, but as long as that incumbent business exists, it and any disruptive business are locked in a negative-sum game. The new Netflix can grow, proportionately, very fast, but that expansion will be more than offset by resulting contractions in the old Netflix.

Most incumbent businesses take an approach that's optimal in the short term, and ignore the disruptive business, or work to slow the development of technologies that would enable it. But most business models aren't faced with disruption until they're at least 20 or so years old: this case raises additional complications. With the founder still involved, and still moved to be a revolutionary, the shareholders might be led through a short, self-imposed contraction on the path to the long-term optimum. Or maybe the doomed, hidebound business that's so last decade can be walled off from the revolutionary project that it was built to support, given a throw-away name and some risk-averse management, and promptly outmaneuvered until it's deadster.

It's tough to please investors in either scenario, though,or to maintain a good public image. It would be sad and traumatic, but maybe the way Mr. Hastings can realize his streaming plans, without making things too much worse for those who've come to depend on DVD-by-mail revenue, is to resign, craft a new startup, poach the best talent, and maybe acquire his old business with his new one after nature takes its course. I bet he knows a few good angel investors. I just hope to keep my queue.

Mood: thoughtful

  2011.10.06  09.46
Obama's press conference

I was listening to the President make a well-reasoned case that legislators should take action to create jobs, with the alternative being political suicide. I have to agree with the general tactic, but I think a more concrete and literal approach would avoid unnecessary delays. That takes some explaining though.

One journalist asked if Mr. Obama was beginning to doubt his powers of persuasion, with the obvious answer that of course he is not. He doesn't have "powers" of persuasion, he has an identity, credentials and an influential office from which to speak. These three, together, compel attention from almost everyone, especially legislators. And while their responses have not been in line with his suggestions by any stretch of the imagination, legislators have consistently proven that they listen, in detail, to every good idea that he offers, and that those suggestions have direct effects on the course of action they ultimately take.

I think a more direct message is needed, though. Were I his speechwriter, I would craft a message of hope to conservative lawmakers, telling them not to despair of their vision of America just because ordinary people have gradually turned away from their sexual, racial, and economic ideologies. The fact that homosexuals serve openly in the military, and Americans have seen that recognizing this right has not caused any harm, does not mean that homophobia is dead. It might not even do very much to diminish their supply of guilt-ridden partners for illicit trysts in airport bathroom stalls. Just because our nation seems poised to re-elect a person whose father was from Kenya, does not necessarily mean that the conservative cause of white supremacy has permanently lost our hearts and minds. And just because Alan Greenspan has noticed some flaws in Ayn Rand's social engineering specifications, and people are occupying Wall Street, does not mean with complete certainty that the middle class will not fade away willingly.

Mr. Obama should, in my opinion, remind conservative legislators just how much they have to live for, and that their families depend upon them in countless ways that go beyond political success or failure. He should remind those who profess religious faith of the danger to the soul that most traditions recognize in any decision to harm one's self. Lastly, he should propose concrete measures for their safety, such as legislation limiting all lawmakers' access to handguns and to automobiles without catalytic converters, because our country needs leadership right now.

Asking Republican senators and congresspeople not to commit political suicide is a clever strategy in light of their ingrained responses to good advice from the White House, but I'm not sure we can wait through the typical election cycle for this to have its effect. By making a solid and well-reasoned case against literal suicide, I think Mr. Obama could ensure that Capitol Hill gets the fresh blood America deserves, in time for it to do some real economic good.


  2011.10.06  09.46
Obama's press conference

I was listening to the President make a well-reasoned case that legislators should take action to create jobs, with the alternative being political suicide. I have to agree with the general tactic, but I think a more concrete and literal approach would avoid unnecessary delays. That takes some explaining though.

One journalist asked if Mr. Obama was beginning to doubt his powers of persuasion, with the obvious answer that of course he is not. He doesn't have "powers" of persuasion, he has an identity, credentials and an influential office from which to speak. These three, together, compel attention from almost everyone, especially legislators. And while their responses have not been in line with his suggestions by any stretch of the imagination, legislators have consistently proven that they listen, in detail, to every good idea that he offers, and that those suggestions have direct effects on the course of action they ultimately take.

I think a more direct message is needed, though. Were I his speechwriter, I would craft a message of hope to conservative lawmakers, telling them not to despair of their vision of America just because ordinary people have gradually turned away from their sexual, racial, and economic ideologies. The fact that homosexuals serve openly in the military, and Americans have seen that recognizing this right has not caused any harm, does not mean that homophobia is dead. It might not even do very much to diminish their supply of guilt-ridden partners for illicit trysts in airport bathroom stalls. Just because our nation seems poised to re-elect a person whose father was from Kenya, does not necessarily mean that the conservative cause of white supremacy has permanently lost our hearts and minds. And just because Alan Greenspan now recognizes flaws in Ayn Rand's social engineering specifications, and people are occupying Wall Street, does not mean with complete certainty that the middle class will not wither away into serfdom without complaint.

Mr. Obama should, in my opinion, remind conservative legislators just how much they have to live for, and that their families depend upon them in countless ways that go beyond political success or failure. He should remind those who profess some religious faith of the danger to the soul that most traditions recognize in the decision to harm one's self. Lastly, he should propose concrete measures for their safety, limiting their access to handguns and to automobiles without catalytic converters, because our country needs leadership right now.

Asking senators and congresspeople not to commit political suicide is a clever use of their ingrained pattern of response to good advice, but I'm not sure we can wait for this to have its effect through the typical election cycle. By making a solid and well-reasoned case against literal suicide, I think Mr. Obama could ensure that the American people see the fresh blood we deserve on Capitol Hill, in time for it to do some real economic good.


  2010.12.14  23.43
Three assumptions with economic effects, part I

A discussion on Reddit recently prompted me to comment about a trio of assumptions that have had a lot of effect on the economy, which I'd like to explore in a little more depth.

The first is an assumption that technology is good for business. In general, this is a good assumption, because technology is slow and expensive to develop. For a long time, developments in technology were carried out (or, at least, sponsored) by people with patience, significant wealth to spare, and an unmet need that they expected the finished technology to fill: a better flint hand axe, perhaps, or a plow with less drag. Around the time business took its familiar form, people took stock of the needs of large numbers of people, each with small amounts of wealth to spare, and used the promise of that demand to finance the development of technology which met those needs indirectly: maybe there was a demand for cotton with the seeds removed, or for sources of light that were far removed from any source of fuel that would ever demand attention from the consumer. Generally, though, a lot of careful thought about meeting people's needs went into a typical decision over whether or not to develop a particular technology.

This situation began to break down a little, though, after most of the low-hanging fruit in industrial engineering had been developed. Most of the needs that were profitable to meet by straightforward mass-manufacturing, and most of the technologies that would make it cost-effective to meet those needs, had already found each other, and made the fortunes of whoever developed those technologies. There had long been a telegram manufacturer with subsidiaries in retail banking and telegram delivery, but technology advanced enough to give un-skilled customers the means of producing their own telecommunications. Clayton Christensen, in his works on disruptive technology, outlines very clearly how renting out telecommunications equipment was rightly deemed less profitable than retailing the electronic communications themselves, and so Western Union made a sound business decision when it declined to buy Bell Telephone. This means that advances in telecommunications technology led to contractions in the global telecom market, at least temporarily, and under the assumption that non-monetized economic gains (cottage industry, barter, etc.) are of negligible value.

Telecom ended up being enormously profitable, overall. So did quite a few other industries that produce capital equipment and thereby destroy consumers. More generally, a lot of the fastest-growing industries have been those that enable cottage economies where there had previously been a profitable market for finished product. Craigslist is a paradigm example: it allows an un-skilled user to publish classified ads, with impact that extends globally but is still targeted quite locally. The profits Craigslist takes are very good in terms of the ratio between income and expenses, but are much, much smaller in magnitude than the profits that newspaper publishers had previously seen.

From (my half-informed idea of) a Marxist perspective, with capital-intensive big business in conflict with individual laborers, this is an example of market failure. The owners of capital lacked solidarity, and so competition among them allowed significant power to leak out to individuals. The sum of these firms' rational decisions left one dominant player in the classified ad market, with revenue less than any of the previous players, and a number of firms exiting the collapsing market for ads bundled with investigative journalism for the greener pastures of outrage-driven entertainment. From a consumerist perspective, it's also a net loss of economic output, because apartments are cheaper than they might have been, one night stands cost less than prostitution, and used furniture hurts the market for new furniture.

A huge problem arose when investors saw the immense value that could be created with new technology, and assumed that there was money to be made. As a matter of fact, less money changes hands when you find exactly the couch you want, if you never really needed a new couch. There's economic benefit when you find the music you like, but that benefit might never be monetized, if you aren't particularly drawn to those musicians who signed recording contracts most recently, and gave their respective publishers the most generous terms. Value is generated, but attempts to extract profit from that generation of value are at a structural disadvantage, because the value is produced as it is consumed. It's good for the economy, if you're relaxed about your definitions of "economy," but arguably very bad for business.

The investors in question are given a bad rap, because they are seen as irrationally speculating in the tech market, and producing a market mania known as "the dot-com bubble." In my opinion, they tended to value companies fairly rationally, and only ran into trouble because they had conflated wealth with money, and production with income.

As that bubble collapsed, another was forming, and the assumption that drove it will be the subject of my next post.

Mood: thoughtful

  2010.12.09  19.02

I've had a few occasions, recently, to kill time in a bookstore. A lot of stores near here carry Tartine Bread, and so I've read much of that book.

It includes good recipes, lessons in how to build skills and to improvise, and some amazing anecdotes of recipe development and the journeys (figurative, but also often literal) that bread has sent the authors and collaborators on. It has taught me a lot, and the proof has been in the eating.

The main story arc, through the first, framing chapters of the book, describes Chad Robertson's quest for his ideal loaf of peasant bread, from apprenticeships in the eastern US and France, to building a bakery business without enough cash for an electric mixer or commercial oven, to his surprising success in passing on his techniques to hobbyists as the book was being written. 

Only in my most recent visit to a bookstore did I get to the part about his lesser quest for a perfect baguette, which he believes had previously only existed in the short window after the introduction of lab-grown baker's yeast, but before that development divided bakers into camps of superstitious devotees to levain naturale, and Taylorist producers of commodity foodlike substances who hurry each stage of the process until it all barely works. Roberts shares his ideal, which I find an interesting middle way between artisanal and industrial: low-gluten flour, mostly white, given a long time to autolyse with plenty of water; a hefty dose of wild-caught sourdough starter, but also a big dollop of poolish inoculated with store-bought dry yeast; your oven should have a steam injector if you're really serious, but the yeast will do most of the work of kneading, so don't bother buying a mixer.

I plan to buy The Resilient Gardener by Carol Deppe, and had wanted to read that instead, but few of the local stores seem to stock it, and I had to settle, temporarily, for what is on her website. She also writes about a journey that bread sent her on, but she goes a bit more radical than Roberts by breeding the plants she needs. (She previously wrote the authoritative work on home plant breeding.) She's sensitive to gluten and allergic to wheat, so she focuses on corn.

Today, it occurred to me that some of the tradeoffs Robersts discusses might be solved, not by splitting the difference between technology and tradition, but by borrowing from another tradition altogether. Although I'm quite willing to compromise, I thought it might be possible to make the changes he wanted versus his peasant loaf (too chewy, not enough gas produced, too thick a crust) in another way, a way that might hold more directly to Deppe's ideal of resiliency.

The thought I had was to make some cornmeal porridge, with a significant amount of baking soda in it, perhaps keeping it warm long enough for some nixtamalization to occur. Then, taking a cue from Tartine's peasant bread with polenta, I would mix salt into the porridge, and incorporate this mixture into some moist bread dough just after bulk fermentation, eventually shaping the result into baguettes. Because the culture is very "young" at the point of bulk fermentation, it will not have produced much acid when the soda-containing mush is added, and so most of the sodabread reaction (acids from sourdough driving carbon dioxide out of baking soda) will be delayed until later in the fermentation process, perhaps even until oven spring occurs. The more I thought about it, the more certain I was that I should try it.

I was already in the process for a peasant loaf, but I started another batch of dough, and kept the earlier batch a little cooler than usual to let the experimental mix catch up. By the time I took the lid off the Dutch oven to let the round loaf's crust begin to harden, I was ready to put in one reasonable-looking baguette. Another, terrible-looking baguette (shaping those things isn't very straightforward!) got stretched out, rolled out to half an inch thick, cut into squares, and fried in the skillet, to produce English muffins. This method, too, was inspired by a Tartine Bread recipe, and it solve another dilemma: corn meal on the bottom of the muffins is traditional, but it tends to burn.

I can't say for certain that any nixtamalization really took place, but the cornmeal English muffins were delicious. I wonder how long I can wait before cutting into the (world's first, I presume) nixtaguette. There's some development to be done, for sure, but the prototype has gone much better than I had dared hope.

Mood: full

  2010.05.17  15.42
Almost homegrown: drought preparadness edition

I improvised this to waste as little water as possible, and to rely on things that either I have grown without irrigation in my own backyard, or grow well in this climate. I just improvised the seasonings, but it ended up surprisingly tasty.
  • 1 t. oil
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 c water
  • 1/2 c. grains (I used a mix of cracked wheat berries and buckwheat groats)
  • 1/4 to 1 c. shelled fava beans
  • honey mustard, soy sauce, and curry powder to taste (maybe 3 T, 2T, 1t?)
  • buckwheat and amaranth microgreens, to taste
Chop onion, fry in oil to lightly caramelize. Add water, grains, and beans; as beans change color, remove from pan and allow to cool. Season grains to taste. Peel beans. When fully cooked, serve grains, top with fava beans and fresh microgreens.

My own onions aren't quite ready. The home-grown wheat was accidental, and in any event I don't have quite enough space to grow reasonable amounts of it or buckwheat. I haven't grown mustard, but it's one of the main weeds around here.


  2010.05.03  13.15
What is mind? No matter. What is matter? Never mind.

Although I disagree with him on many fundamentals, I really enjoy reading the blog of Ran Prieur. He recently published a long quote from a comment I made years ago, as part of a discussion on consciousness. I'm gratified that he calls the comment "amazing," and also a little embarrassed. It's odd to read what I wrote at that point in my carreer: I don't think I said anything incorrect, but I know I was insecure at that point, and I think work has continued to humble me since then, hopefully blunting my need to make sweeping generalizations.

That post also included an enlightening quote from Gregory Bateson's Steps to an ecology of mind, which convinces me that I need to read that book as a way to build my understanding of norms & habits.

I also find this statement really interesting: " It's only a small step from the idea that information is the root of reality, to the idea that mind is the root of reality."

For what it's worth, I've read that the link between information and entropy is at least as old as Maxwell's demon, and has been fairly thoroughly hashed out through concepts like Shannon entropy. However, I see much less of a link between concepts of "observation" or of "information" that hold in well-tested physical laws, and the ordinary everyday understanding of mind. If Ran holds a concept of mind that is "only a small step" away from physics-defined information, the mind in question is nothing like mine! It is more like the mind of God as described by Albert Einstein: a notion of God that, not coincidentally, is far enough from a folk understanding of God that even Richard Dawkins approves of it.


  2010.04.19  13.30
Where There is No Master

Where There is No Doctor is said to be the best reference manual for those who need medical attention, but whose economic or geographical situation doesn't offer access to health care professionals. I think it's also part of a movement to foster agency in consumers (not to say mere patients) who currently do have access to mainstream health care, but would get better care if they participated more. It's also a popular book to buy when preparing for disasters.

I think it would be good to handle MBAs the way that book handles MDs, for many of the same reasons. I've written about anomie before on this blog. Anomie is often listed as a central challenge when earning a graduate degree, and it might occur when people attempt anything unusual. I was blindsided by this condition, and then pleasantly surprised to learn it had a name. I'm still struggling to deal with it.

It's obvious, in retrospect, that people would feel a lack of norms in such times: we're mostly used to being bossed around, acting within explicit constraints, and having workable "default settings" handed to us. Any truly pioneering work will occur under conditions where society hasn't explored the possibilities enough to establish a list of safe recipes, and people qualified to boss others around in such an arena (if any exist yet) are too busy breaking their own new ground to be anyone's boss in the style to which we are accustomed.

I wonder if this is part of the reason innovative groups seem so vulnerable to domination, from the new president of the Campus Anarchists Club who suddenly has everyone wrapped around their finger, to the tech startup that sees itself becoming more like Microsoft every day but can't help itself. Among the many varieties of work that support a person's productivity, there is some subset (including the establishment of norms) that most of us lack the skills to do ourselves. We're conditioned to expect someone resembling Andy Samberg's character from that SNL Digital Short (i.e., someone Like a Boss) to provide for those needs. When this expectation is subconscious, the desire for norms is urgent, and the work mostly mysterious, some very superficial signifiers can inspire a group to rally around incompetence or exploitation.

One interesting project to provide pioneering teams with functional norms is the work of Jim and Michele McCarthy. Their Core Protocols are constructed almost like an internet standards specification, perhaps with the notion that traditional management can be replaced in the same way that snail mail has been. If it comes down to a choice between commitment to a leader, and commitment to a shared set of rules, I'd choose the set of rules, but I hope there are more options than that. My initial impression is that, while the logic behind a given protocol often shows through, its prescriptions precede any individual diagnosis. I'm also worried that the reasoning behind the various behaviors might mostly be left a mystery until the team in question has committed to behaving.

But small, new groups aren't the half of it. Lots of individuals, whether they are striking out on their own or just trying to tack against the mainstream, are facing similar problems. I think a framework for examining the fundamentals of work and management might help a lot of people to engage in what they do a lot more actively. I think this would be particularly important in times that call for an increase in self-employment or for large organizations to change course.

I would love to see a treatment of this subject with a broader scope and a wider audience, that spans the space from working alone through participation in consensus-based or goal-driven groups on up to interfacing with large incumbent institutions. If the basic work of norm-setting, decision-making, and resource allocation were de-mystified, costume and jargon would have less power to mislead, providing less of a market for quackery. Also, recent studies of cognition have tremendous potential to collect the existing body of techniques into more condensed statements about the underlying science: theory, not anecdote; descriptive, not prescriptive. I don't necessarily think I'm the person to write such a book, but if it isn't too cute, I'd like to suggest the title: Where There is No Master.

Mood: contemplative

  2010.03.22  16.54
A rare breath of capitalism

I just bought, and used, a "Slice" brand safety cutter. I'm really happy with my purchase.

If what you want to cut is thinner than stiff cardboard, this is among the best tools for that job that I've ever used. Very expensive for a safety cutter (~$6, verses the $0.00 I paid for the other one I own), but more useful than any metal-edged tool for cutting paper, or sheets of plastic.

About metal edges: Slice's specialty is blades made of zirconia, the same stuff they make fancy sushi knives from.  I think it's a more reasonable escape tool to keep in your car than a spring-loaded center punch: it should have a similar effect on glass to ninja rocks, despite a slightly lower mohs hardness.

A+ (but I kinda wish I'd bought the "precision cutter" instead).

Mood: accomplished

  2010.01.03  19.07
An Open Letter to Ursula K. Le Guin

Ms. Le Guin:

I just saw the film adaptation of your The Word for World is Forest. I have long recommended that work to friends who are not familiar with your writing, because I feel it is overlooked compared to The Disposessed and especially The Left Hand of Darkness. It is a very compelling and entertaining film, and I hope its success calls some well-deserved attention to your writing and the ideas you convey.

Despite Mr. Cameron's decision to make the protagonist white (as happened for condolences on that one, too), and to divide the antagonist into two characters, it was clear to me from the first internet preview to the closing credits that your work was the dominant influence, much more so than Dances with Wolves or David Brin's The Uplift War or The Matrix. I think it remained true to the spirit of the original work more than many film adaptations, and it was refreshing to see all the new content exploring the checkered past of the discipline of anthropology.

Congratulations, and thank you for your continued work. The ecosystem of speculative fiction, and of Western culture in general, would be much less rich without the roots put down by pioneers like yourself. The film rights have returned to the public domain, but the storyt has joined the ranks of the commercially successful.

Fondest regards,



  2009.11.18  11.47
Becoming my business

Most mornings, I drive through a parking lot to meet my carpool. There are three lanes through a neck in this parking lot, each labelled with one-way arrows and with diagonal parking on either side. Two of these run north by northwest, and in the mornings I drive here I need the single lane that allows traffic south by southeast.

As I turned into that lane this morning, I saw that a beige, two-ton SUV turning into the same lane from the opposite direction, i.e. going the wrong way. I honked briefly to get the driver's attention, and advanced a few feet.

The driver honked back, and drove through parking spaces to get around me, rolling down the window. I rolled my window down, and calmly said "It's a one way..."

The other driver interrupted: "Have a nice day, sweetie, mind your f*@#ing business!"

A few thoughts on this:
  1. When you decide to enter the lane I am in, your decision about whether to drive in the direction other drivers expect you to go, or the opposite of that direction, becomes my business.
  2. Making a wrong turn, and being called on it, does not entitle you to curse at the person who points out your mistake.
    1. If pointing out said mistake allows me to commute to work, it is, quite literally, my business to do so.
  3. There is no automobile large enough to absolve you of your responsibility to watch where you are going. A vehicle that large is basically a sandwich board, telling the world "I am afraid to drive, and have paid extra to hurt you," and people are extra careful when you send that message, but it can only get you so far.
    1. Minding our collective (for the time we share a lane of traffic) business a little more closely, would mean that I wouldn't have to mind it quite so much.
  4. Anger stays in the body an awfully long time.

The message your SUV sends.

Mood: annoyed

  2009.10.15  11.33
sour decision tree

I'm feeling anomic.

Everything hurts a little. Everything is a decision. While each snip that prunes the branching possibilities in my daily life doesn't feel like major surgery, I do feel it.

Masanobu Fukuoka, a major thinker in organic farming, famously opposed pruning trees. Reading him, I get the sense he was OK with using a thumbnail to nip things in the bud, but uncomfortable with using a saw. He talked about grafted trees from the nursery coming to his farm in a confused state, set to put branches out in an unnatural, unhealthy, sometimes suicidal way. He suggests that they be pruned toward the shape they would have if they had grown from seed, without pruning.

I'm told that the word "decision" is rooted in a metaphor where pruning trees represents making choices. The conceptual tool of a "decision tree" seems to have developed independently, but seems to me a recognition of a fundamental similarity of pattern.

Looking up "anomie," and how Durkheim cultivated and shaped the use of that word, I get the sense that many people are like those grafted trees from the nursery. Me included. Fukuoka's books are used to inform agriculture, but they were meant more to guide people's internal lives; it would've been interesting to see him talk with Durkheim.

A little lemon tree has sat in a disintegrating wine barrel by my front stoop since I moved in a couple years ago. It nearly died last year, mostly from my mistakes and neglect. I've taken much better care of it the past three months, with some help from the internet.  Last I checked, eight little bean-sized lemons were forming. But its young branches cross each other, and would shade each other out if they had more leaves. Its central leader is dead and rotting, and I don't have the heart to cut it off. I tore a long gash in the tree's living bark the last time I cut such a large branch, and while I can cut with more skill than that, I still lack the expertise or decisiveness to choose where to cut.

When it goes dormant again, with the change of seasons, I'll prune it a little, hoping that the current confusion of leaves has let its roots store up enough calories. And I'll be certain to pinch off buds that seem ill-advised next autumn.

If only my habits were so concrete, so synoptic.  If only their care and feeding were so easy to research.

Mood: anomic

  2009.06.03  10.21

"I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub." --Grover Norquist

"Can God create a rock so heavy that even he cannot lift it?" --modern phrasing of the traditional paradox of the stone

It occurs to me that Neoconservatism can be seen as an attempt to use public funds to build a bathtub large enough to drown the government in.  Unfortunately, some of those contracts to foundries and porcelain coating contractors and aqueduct construction firms have filtered down in to payments to lobbying firms, and now the tub isn't nearly big enough.  Oops.


  2009.04.22  18.55
Acutely Spicy Peanut Sauce

(All measurements approximate.)

4 T peanut butter (the low-class stuff, with sugar and emulsifiers added)
2 cloves garlic
1 t fresh ginger
2 t sesame oil
dash paprika
2 T soy sauce
1/4 c sweet white wine (Riesling or similar)

Mince or finely grate garlic and ginger: I like to put the bulbs and rhizome through the same zester I use for parmesan cheese.  Stir first 4 ingredients, then add liquid in increasing quantities while stirring.

This was really good over strips of barbecued chicken breast on a bed of spinach last night.  Had leftovers wrapped in tortillas today for lunch.


  2009.03.11  18.14
Embodying patterns

I've been meaning to post something about the lessons in Irish folk dance I've been taking, but I've been too busy actually living it...suffice to say, I've become a lot more fit and integrated&emdash;physically, mentally, and emotionally&emdash;since I began. It's the most nerd-friendly genre of dancing I've ever heard of, with enough math to keep your left hemisphere occupied long enough that your feet can find their groove. It's also aerobic enough that, after a couple months, I was too thin for my old belt. And the scene has a lot of good people in it.


  2008.08.03  18.25
Potatoes Ao'Grian

Thin sliced potatoes.  Add minced onions & pepper to Mornay sauce as it cooks, layer with potatoes and bake 400, 1 1/2 hours.

I put one bell and one serano pepper, and left the skins on the potatoes.  Oh yum.


  2008.08.03  13.25
They actually mesh OK.

In the city of Eridu where Enki, for a bunch of crooks, and you are all caught, to give her all the me. This is the means, meshugas. Civilization. What would you do if someone working for you did watery fortress, huh? Thinking of doing. Would you smile or laugh and think "Yes, sir." Then it's probably okay. Would you get angry? How did Enki feel about this? Is unethical? Then it's probably not.


Styled, lightweight, the kind of gun guerilla business comes from: smart, careful carry; it fires teensy darts that fly at, and chaotic attacks. SR-71 spy plane, and when you get of this section, explain the fundamental actions. Plug it into the cigarette lighter, because "make customers happy"--which is, ultimately, The Deliverator never pulled that "your competition crazy."

--Fold-in of "How to Drive Your Competition Crazy" (1995) and "Snow Crash" (1992). Punctuation edited to improve coherence.


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