Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Towards the validity of gender expression and perception

Angus Johnson linked to this American Conservative piece by Natasha Vargas-Cooper about Mount Holyoke's cancelling The Vagina Monologues in the face of pressure due to its perceived cisgender bias.

I have no idea of the details of the Mount Holyoke case, or of how accurately Vargas-Cooper is representing it; given my past reading of TAC, I don't trust them to give a fair hearing. And before the halfway point in the article I disagreed plenty with her aggressive traditionalism. But in the first dozen or so paragraphs, I thought she made a lot of sense.

I think there's a strange traditionalism embedded in new PC norms around trans identity. Far from seeing gender as fluid, the new norm demands that we simply shift inclusion in old gender binary systems. Contra, eg., RuPaul, who celebrates expression that transgresses these boundaries freely. (He makes his point cogently in a recent episode of Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham's podcast, Still Processing)

Expressing and feeling maleness or femaleness can be valid always -- whereas there are those who would formally scold me if I responded to the male aspects of Caitlyn Jenner's expression, as if she has merely jumped from one gender straitjacket to another.

The regulation of pronouns is not a problem invented by shrill right-wingers -- it's really happening, and I think it is distinctly wrong. I find criticism of the Ontario Human Rights Commission policy overblown; its guidance focuses on acceptance and inclusion, and not on speech. But the New York City Commission on Human Rights's guidance is specific to speech and pronouns, and could lead to fines for those who don't use a trans person's preferred pronoun.

In practice, these speech violations won't necessarily conform to the stereotypical scene of a troglodyte looking a muscled and bearded lumberjack in the eye and snidely calling him "her". They could instead involve, say, a longtime coworker who mostly expresses as male asking to be called by a recently introduced pronoun, and well-intentioned coworkers repeatedly slipping up to the point that they have to be penalized or fired because of the lawsuit risk this introduces to the company.

The core problem is that gender identification is simply not the only component of gender, any more than author intent is the only component of reader experience. Aspects of cisgender like menstruation, genetalia, and erections are easy to make fun of as insufficient to withhold gender identity from people. But it is not them, in and of themselves, that dictate gender. Rather, they are aspects of complex systems of genetic and epigenetic expression of gender that affect bone structure, voice, hormones, sexual excitement and desire, and possibly more elements of development that we do not understand well. Every aspect of these expressions is malleable and has exceptions, and operates on a continuum; none of us is born wholly one gender or another, and taking hormone supplements really does shift one's gender expression, and therefore really does shift, expand or contract one's gender.

But these aspects are not meaningful only in one direction, valid only when reduced or acted on to bring expression in line with identity. As someone chooses, through identity only or through active alterations, to change their gender expression, aspects of their previous gender expression remain. To perceive these cis aspects is not, in and of itself, a betrayal or an act of denial of a trans person's identity. Expressing that perception may be done aggressively and dismissively, or it may be done unsupportively, or ignorantly, impolitically or merely out of familiarity with a trans person's older cis expression. There is a big difference between these; I care immensely about how I express this perception, and I think others should too. But that doesn't mean that subjectively perceiving these cis aspects is wrong. Neither is speech which reflects that perception wrong.

I certainly go out of my way to embrace and support the gender identification of trans people. I call Chelsea Manning "she", because she's a woman! (She's also a hero, for the record.) But Chelsea Manning is also a man, in ways that are significant. And if I say "he" once in a while, I'm not wrong. I am doing so, in fact, out of perceptiveness and attentiveness to Chelsea's expression, not out of stubbornness and ignorance. Even moreso if I call someone "he" or "she" who has asked to be referred to by a non-gendered pronoun, a word whose role as a shortcut is simply not part of a language I'm fluent in.

It is alarming to me that people are being expected not only to affirmatively try to embrace trans identities, but to shut off that perceptiveness. It really is demanding newspeak to rule that a building block of speech such as pronouns must be adapted to a feigned perception, or be judged hateful.

If you disagree with me, I have some sincere questions I'd like to know your answers to. I'll continue to refer to Chelsea Manning, she being someone we probably have similar information about. Before openly transitioning, but while internally feeling herself to be a woman, would you say that there was any significant way in which Bradley Manning was a man? If so, what are those ways? Cultured experience? Gender privilege? Physical development? Hormones? Did absolutely every aspect on that list cease to exist when she transitioned? If not, is it possible that perceiving Chelsea in some ways to be a man is valid, rather than prejudiced?

If you don't think there was any significant way in which Bradley was a man, why do you think most people who encountered Bradley thought of Bradley as a man? Predjudice?

If someone doesn't yet know that an acquaintance asks others to use a new, recently invented pronoun to refer to them, are they acting merely from prejudice if they use a gender pronoun to refer to them?

Someone made the point to me that a cop perceiving a black man as violent may also be being honest, but that doesn't make his predjudiced perception valid. I agree. I think the distinction is in the accuracy of the basis for the perception. If you look at a South Asian person and perceive them as Muslim, without knowing anything about their religion, your perception is based on false information; there is no evidence, in what you perceive, to indicate that this person is Muslim. But someone born cis female who transitions to male really did have female aspects in his early life, and will, often, retain some. To perceive those is not false prejudice. To fail in speech to override that perception may be unsupportive, and feel deeply hurtful, and that's why I try not to fail at that. But it is not actually incorrect, isn't immoral, and shouldn't be illegal.

Again, I find myself pleading with fellow progressives not to cede ground so easily to conservatives. The core tenets of progressivism are a bedrock that the vast majority of people support; it is foolish, and wrong, to push our principles with scorched earth, without balance and humanism, and thus to alienate and even punish would-be allies.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The jackboot and the concern troll

A contrarian friend, whose contrarianism I have been pushing against since the election, linked approvingly to this essay by Liane Carlson on "moral luck".

I find this piece very much not true for me. I would much rather the madmen not be in power than that I feel heroic. If what she were saying were true, I think I'd hear friends expressing clarity of purpose and appreciating the soldier's role in a righteous war, more than I'd hear them ask for help with managing panic, weeping because their children are hated by the rulers, and asking for mental health recommendations.

Unfortunately, the opposite seems true, at least in my world.

Going further, I read this piece as applying a  lens I have long felt is ignorant and even complicit with oppression. That lens could be described as "what's really interesting about this power struggle is its epistemology".

You see the problem, for example, in reports about studies of bias that appear to lump liberals and conservatives together, without entertaining the question of what if would mean for evaluating the study to consider whose beliefs are, in the objective world, actually true. There is a genteel elitism in the perspective, from above the fray where the actual battles don't matter day to day; the worst perpetrators of this are the David Brookses and David Frums who hand wring about details while the world burns.

Even the Gaugin example trades in this sort of nonsense. The notion that his success as a painter bears on the morality of his family life is cocktail party flatulence.

Honestly, it's offensive to blather about moral luck like this. An autocratic leader and his horrendous cronies have taken power. Who gives a fuck if people are comparing him to Andrew Jackson or Hitler? The preoccupation with this or that nuance of people's epistemology is some bullshit.

Wake the fuck up.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Is the left closed-minded?

I often scoff at conservatives' whining about the "PC police" and such, since such claims are often overblown and strike me as a cover for a refusal to take responsibility for stopping racism and sexism.

But, mostly privately, I know what they're talking about. Or rather, there's some overlap between my view and theirs, where we would both agree the left has some worrying traits.

I agree that there is a closed minded humorlessness that has become so rigid on the left that it shuts down productive conversation and turns away allies. I see so much "you don't get to say that" on Twitter and to a lesser degree Facebook, perhaps because Twitter operates more as a large continuous echo chamber, and Facebook more like an archipelago of somewhat separate echo chambers.

A reasonable person to engage in dialogue, like the Yale dean who wrote the letter saying there was developmental value in transgressing norms and that she didn't think she should be dictating costume choices to students, gets treated with the sort of absolutist opposition that was once reserved for the cruelly oppressive. Lena Dunham mentions in an interview that because of her looks, she felt Odell Beckham Jr. couldn't even register her as something you'd have sex with, and gets raked over the coals because of the problematic assumptions about black make sexuality her comments bring to mind.

It's not that I always disagree with the progressive analysis--far from it. But the absolute worst is always immediately assumed, and when people chime in with a "yes and, maybe they do have a point too" they are assumed to be an enemy. The Yale dean and Lena Dunham's words and actions are problematic, I agree. But I also think they are well within the realm of reasonableness. You can have disagreements, issues, and questions, without losing sight of the large overlap between their points of view and ours.

Say a friend confided in you, sighing, that she felt worthless when she dressed up and put on makeup and sat near a handsome and fit male celebrity, whose glance seemed to deny her a shred of seductive attraction. Part of you would register how her reaction is different from yours, how much she's assuming about his experience without knowing it, how she's not attuned to the possible historical echoes of a white woman presuming a black man should see her as a potential sex object. But wouldn't much more of you figure that her experience is substantially real, and that your criticisms are only part of the story? Wouldn't you keep in mind that you weren't there, and that her take might describe what happened accurately?

Alice has pointed out, when I have expressed similar concerns, that I sort of bend over backwards to come up with counterfactuals to extend doubt to otherwise solid criticisms levied by progressives. Maybe I do. I like to think that I will bend over backwards to imagine what version of the other would seem familiar; what alien concepts would feel like if they were native to my mind; how I would see an enemy if she were a friend. Am I denying that generosity to the progressive critics I'm denouncing now?

Again, maybe I am. I'll think about it. In the meantime, I do think the problem is asymmetrical. Dunham is saying ill of Beckam Jr., but she's hardly raking him through the mud. She felt that she didn't exist to him because of her looks. That's it. It's a mild drive-by criticism, not a relentless attack.

And there are, indeed, irrationally relentless attacks being made by the left. I got into a Twitter spat recently with a progressive woman whose writing I adore, just because I cautiously defended someone's point that the Clintons operate in a world of the powerful, with a vantage point from which it's hard to realize how bad some of their actions will appear.

I think you can fully support Hillary Clinton and oppose Trump, and still acknowledge that. Not so with this writer, and it took me repeating several times that I supported HRC, had volunteered for the campaign, and had brought both my daughters to another state for 3 days to volunteer, before she stopped insulting me.

I think that's a symptom of a significant vein of impenetrable certainty and scorched earth which is a big problem in progressive thinking and culture.

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Monday, January 09, 2017

Desert Island Discs, as of 2017

I recently came across a Desert Island Discs post of mine from 2007, a decade ago.

I wondered right away, how would this list have changed? And stopped myself from looking at the old list so as not to bias my present self!

Here are the current 10 albums I would take to a desert island. Note that these are the ones I would take, not the ones I recommend most to others! That means they're biased towards ones that evoke a time in my personal life, and which I could keep listening to forever, as opposed to albums I appreciate having listened to in the past. There are many great albums which fail the test of whether I could listen to them 100 more times without slitting my wrists!

For each album I considered, I tried to imagine no one else had ever heard of it, to reduce my bias towards the familiar. As the saying goes, no one ever got fired for buying IBM. No one ever got laughed at for having an obscure record other people couldn't judge on their lists, either.

So go ahead and laugh at Indigo Girls and Buffalo Tom being on my list!

Here they are, numbered for clarity but in no particular order:

  1. Miles Davis: Kind of Blue
  2. Joni Mitchell: Blue
  3. Roger Waters: Amused to Death
  4. Outkast: ATLiens
  5. Nirvana: Nevermind
  6. Patti Smith: Horses
  7. Sonic Youth: Daydream Nation
  8. Indigo Girls: Rites of Passage
  9. Buffalo Tom: Big Red Letter Day
  10. Bob Dylan: Blood on the Tracks
...And, showing no discipline, I can't resist a second set of 10:
  1. Jimi Hendrix Experience: Are You Experienced?
  2. Arcade Fire: Neon Bible
  3. Jay-Z and the Roots Unplugged
  4. Aretha Franklin: Sparkle
  5. Handsome Boy Modeling School: So, How's Your Girl?
  6. Dujeous?: City Limits
  7. Orchestra Baobob: Specialist in All Styles
  8. Bjork: Vespertine
  9. Erykah Badu: Mama's Gun
  10. Amadou and Miriam: Dimanche a Bamako

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Thursday, January 05, 2017

Best everything of 2016

My best of 2016:

Music: A Seat at the Table by Solange, fresh and loose and urgent

Book: Superintelligence: almost unreadably dry, but the single most perspective-altering thing I’ve ever read.

Comics: The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew: astonishingly ambitious and virtuosic, like an artifact imported by Borges from a parallel universe

Art: Alexander Calder room at the National Gallery in DC, a perfect meeting of art and architecture and curation

Tech: Cannabidiol (CBD oil), as close to a cure for my pain as I’m going to get. Who needs the FDA?

TV: Happy Valley: an unforgettable lead performance, in a nuanced world

Film: The Lobster, weird and unforgettable

Theater: The Wolves, accessible and current and deeply real.

Reporting: David Fahrenthold, 21st century reporting-in-public meets old school pavement pounding. Thanks, Jeff Bezos

Commentary: Ta-Nehisi Coates. Between the World and Me was unforgettable, and his exit profile of Obama was incredible and much more insightful than David Remnick’s.

Cartooning: Randall Munroe, XKCD. As he gets older and loses that initial creative urgency, he’s moving into more reflective and less cute material4.

Criticism: Emily Nussbaum, still the best

Email newsletter: Stratechery, brilliant and thought-provoking week after week

Meme: #CarefreeBlackKids2k16 by the glorious Heben Nigatu

Podcast: The Ezra Klein show: smart and curious host, smart and curious guests

Podcast episode: Adrien Chen on Longform, providing the earliest warning of Russia getting behind Donald Trump

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Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Sounding the awkward and embarrassing AI alarm

I'm irked by Maciej Ceglowski's essay "Superintelligence: the idea that eats smart people".

Like so many who roll their eyes at AI alarmists like Nick Bostrom (and me), he seems to assume that we are imbuing the AI we imagine with evil will, and assume it will be some sort of enemy.

This is actually the opposite of how Bostrom sees things. He worries that humans will be endangered as a side effect of the rise of AI and its decisions about how to make use of the matter and energy available, not because of the sort of malevolence with which we're used to thinking about danger from other intelligences. In fact, Ceglowski's mocking is a perfect illustration of the problem!

So many people don't realize just how deeply we social creatures see the world through a social lens. The sort of brakes that stop a malevolent or militaristic human from killing more than a few thousand or million people simply don't exist for computers. They don't qualitatively distinguish between killing one person and every person; nor do they have to even notice anyone's died at all.

As Bostrom points out, an AI that surpasses us in intelligence does not have to go through a stage of human-like mentality on the way to unimaginable problem-solving effectiveness. It can be something that seems curiously crippled and incomplete to us, far more alien than the parade of earthlike aliens we congratulate ourselves for imagining in our entertainment. ("What if they have... SEVEN legs! And their writing is... wait for it... blotchy ink circles! Crazy, huh?")

The case for AI alarmism, as I see it, is that AI-powered communications and robotics are going to proliferate to a degree that makes it hard to imagine there won't be many instances of effects fatal to humans. You don't need some specific, monolithic series of events for there to be existential danger. Instead, for there not to be existential danger, you need every single instance of highly intelligent AI, ever, to be limited in many crucial ways.

Self-replication plus proliferation of cheap components plus proliferation of AI algorithms equals a time when a script kiddie or a stray bug can mean every last fragile sack of meat and water gets punctured or irradiated or whatever. That's just what occurs to this limited human mind, several paradigm shifts short of understanding the full breadth of AI and microtech capabilities.

Imagine an ecological VR MMORPG with good physics simulation, with a reward for finding a way to get a self-replicating robot building AI within it to kill all the animals in its world. If it can be done eventually in in such a sim, it can probably be done in real life. If it can be done with willful human intention there, it can be done with either human intent, or nonhuman intent, here. And if it can be done with that killing as a specific goal, the killing can certainly happen as a side effect of another goal, or even just a routine glitch or programmer oversight. (And we already know that militaries will be working hard on the deliberate killing front.)

All Bostrom and other alarmists are saying is that it's very hard to see why something like this can't ever happen. That position is based on a few assumptions, I'll grant you. But Maciej and other AI skeptics are saying, confidently, that it's foolish to think it could ever happen. That position seems to assume far more, and I think their essays don't show the rhetorical care and agnosticism that Bostrom's writing does.

In a way, this debate echoes Richard Dawkins's observation that if there are 10,000 religions, even the most devout among us believes 9,999 are false. For instance, a Christian can readily see that the teapot-worshipping sect is obviously just the result of human pattern recognition and the search for meaning gone wrong. Aphrodite and Hercules are obviously just neat stories that people made up. So an atheist like Dawkins agrees with religious believers almost entirely, since he too disbelieves in those 9,999 religions; he just disbelieves in one more!

Similarly, I agree with AI skeptics that most of the specific scenarios described by AI alarmists won't come to pass; the skeptics just disbelieve in a few more. Maybe that makes me like a religious believer who thinks foremost that there is some godlike power, whatever the true mythology.

I prefer to think of it like global warming skepticism. There's still much we don't understand about the climate, and that makes it easy for climate change skeptics to mock our certainty that global warming is man-made and progressing rapidly. But informed analysis can be on firm ground in identifying a trend and general causation, even if it's still shaky on many particulars. This is especially true when that analysis doesn't claim much certainty, just a strong likelihood of meaningful danger.

Our demise won't be like a movie where the ticking time bomb works on a human timescale and always has a humanlike weakness. Comparing this threat to nuclear weapons is silly. It's more like we're on track to issue every person in the world a "kill or help between 0 and 7 billion people" button that's glitchy and spinning up 1,000 4chan chains with advice on tinkering with it. What could go wrong?

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Saturday, December 24, 2016

Theater recommendations for the end of 2016

The Wolves is PHENOMENAL but also very sold out. Hoping it will be brought back for a third run!

saw and loved Anna Deveare Smith's Notes From the Field.

Her one-woman shows are the result of years of interviews she conducts and records, then performs as each subject. She becomes, in body language and verbal style, first a protester, then a convict, then a teacher, then a congressman.

The subject of this show is the relationship between education and incarceration, and what that means for racial justice and the soul of America.

We were wondering beforehand if she would openly address the election. She didn't have to--the whole thing felt urgently topical, and I doubt anyone hadn't cried by the end.

Highly recommended.

saw and loved Sarah Jones's "Buy Sell Date", a one woman show (she was greatly influenced by Anna Deavere Smith) in which she becomes different characters--fictional, but based on observing many nuances of speech and manner--all of whom talk about sex, prostitution and porn, with a speculative fiction twist. Brilliant and hilarious.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane, a funny and devastating play by Martin McDonough (In Bruges) is being revived at BAM. Don't know this production, but I recommend it sight unseen! I saw it in 1998 or 9.

I saw Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway this week. Very good and touching and very funny, and appropriate for a mature 12 year old and up. (We took Kate's nieces and nephews, and now they're totally Broadway fans!)

Not earth shattering in its voice or music, but memorable and special and entertaining. 100% of the audience loved it and came out glowing. At least 30% cried including yours truly :)

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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Faster Google Chrome browser on Mac

Just tried turning off hardware acceleration in Chrome, and it improved performance on my Mac noticeably. No idea why that would improve things, but it does, for me and many others, apparently.

I also recommend disabling plugin auto-play (i.e., making Flash ask you before it runs).

...and using the extension "The Great Suspender" to suspend tabs you haven't visited in a while.

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Monday, December 19, 2016

The spectacular meta-lie

I was searching for analysis of Assata Shakur's guilt or innocence (watching the film 13th, I was reminded of how interesting and disputed her history is), and I came across this disturbing search result:

Peep the third result.

This takes you to this completely false and slanderous story, which I immediately suspected was biased, but which I didn't realize at first was totally made up:

Especially interesting is the clear political angle:

I think it's clear that this article is something its author wanted to both seem true and to raise, and echo, suspicions that Snopes is being systematically unfair to right-wingers when it calls their theories false. In that sense, it is a meta-lie: a knowing lie which attempts to perpetuate an alternate reality of truth in which other knowing lies are validated, and shame for spreading them is absolved.

One theory I have is that in a story like this, a sprinkle of absurdism serves to provide an out for people accused of spreading lies. The story has it that when an antique player piano started playing "Dixie", the Snopes editor:

...became violent. He started grabbing various antique objects from the vendors’ tables and throwing them at the antique piano in an attempt to silence the music.

That's just absurd enough so that you can roll your eyes at someone who believed it--but not so absurd that it's obviously untrue, a balance that I think is a carefully calibrated.

Contrast this with the staid passages that pretend to reveal information which pierces Snopes's veneer of independence and fairness:

The list of groups and individuals paying to use the website’s clout ranged from local politicians to transnational entities to foreign governments, including Russia, Cuba, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the Palestinian Authority. None of the specifics or individual names are being revealed while the investigation is still ongoing...

This is a brilliant gambit, from a propaganda standpoint, in part because these passages are so quotable out of context. And the story itself, even if more than one paragraph is read, seems designed to make a significant percentage of people not realize at all that it's fake. The original story carries no disclaimer at all, and even the republished story I found saves the only disclaimer--the single word "satire"--for a separate section at the end of the column. (The story is tagged at the top in tiny print first as "Commentary", and secondarily as "Political Satire".)

More analysis of this fake story, including the source of the Photoshopped image, here.

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Thursday, October 20, 2016

Bush v. Gore v. Trump

Gore DID accept the 2000 election outcome--by allowing the government of FL to proceed in determining the winner.

It was *Bush* who brought the two suits to SC to reject FL outcome. That's why the suits are called BUSH v. Gore and BUSH v. Palm Beach County, with Bush first. (Like how Brown was the one trying to put a stop to the status quo in Brown v. Board of Education.)

Bush and the conservative Supreme Court literally intervened to refuse to allow Florida to recount its votes according to its interpretation of existing law, a decision that Scalia justified in part because he argued that the recount would *cause Bush harm* by "casting a cloud upon what he sees as the legitimacy of his election". Well yes, especially if Florida's electoral process resulted in the outcome that Gore had more votes (as the 2001 consortium of news orgs and statisticians determined he did), it would harm Bush and cast a cloud of non-presidency :)

Bush, conservative elected officials and conservative judges repeatedly rejected the process underway and *imposed* outcomes.

Gore could have brought suit in response in an attempt to reject the outcome, like Bush had multiple times already, but instead conceded, asking private citizens to refrain from pushing to allow Florida to determine the outcome of its election.

So Gore not only accepted the outcome where Bush, conservative elected officials and conservative judges would not, he accepted *another* outcome too, one that the state government of Florida believed prevented it from determining the actual outcome of its election, and which the best review we have determined likely *did* prevent it from determining the will of the voters.

That's double the acceptance of the outcome of most presidential winners or losers!

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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Rock criticism vs. Jazz criticism

Loved this comparison of rock and jazz criticism from an interview with the NYTimes's departing music critic, Ben Ratliff:

"The philosophy of rock is essentially founded on the idea of killing your parents, breaking with the past and creating something entirely new: being shocking or disorienting. What we think of now as rock criticism, at least in its sensibility, basically starts with punk and is fairly hazy about what came before it. Anything that seems allied with punk in some way is basically true and right. Somehow that includes Bob Dylan. It also includes John Lennon, but not Paul McCartney. The culture of rock musicians buys into that and the culture of rock critics buys into that, so there’s unity. You’re absolutely right, it’s astonishing sometimes to hear rock musicians talk with knowledge and insight about Lester Bangs or Greil Marcus or whomever. They care what those people said and thought.

In jazz, there’s a fundamentally different understanding between critics and musicians. Many critics are futurists, a slightly less violent cousin of punks: they believe it is the music’s need or destiny to break away from the past and reinvent itself. And many jazz musicians believe that continuity with the past is extremely important."

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Monday, October 17, 2016

Recommending Cory Doctorow's sci-fi writing

Several friends have asked me about Cory Doctorow's Down & Out in the Magic Kingdom.

I recommend it!

  • As great Literature, i give it a C
  • As a quick, entertaining read, A
  • As thought provoking social sci-fi that I think about often, A
  • As having an ineffable sparkling spirit, A
  • As a sampler of the writing of someone whose work you might enjoy continuing to read, A+
All his books are free on his website,, as well as available in various traditional formats for money. Here's the html version of Down & Out.

Some find Doctorow too "light" compared to, say, Ancillary Justice, but I really enjoy his imagination and grounding in political and economic issues. Doctorow worked for the EFF for many years, and is responsible for much of the venerable nerd blog Boingboing's political voice.

I also deeply appreciate his constant push to challenge himself and grow his art. Some of my favorite reads have been his ambitious novels that, in my opinion, fail to build a cohesive and effective whole, but are interesting failures. After D&OITMC:

  • if you like his density of tech ideas, you should read his short story collection Overclocked
  • If you're into the political/tech activist edge, you should read his radical, breathtaking young adult book Little Brother
  • If you're into the ineffable sparkling spirit of D&O, you should read his collection A Place So Foreign, which has stories about, eg, an alien collector of earth memorabilia, and Superman becoming political
  • If you're into the future economics/culture of work stuff, you might try reading his ambitious failure Makers, which is a near future tale of a startup that tries to use 3d printing as an engine to reinvent work
  • If you want to read his most literarily ambitious work, which has one foot in magic absurdism and one foot in startup culture, you might try his Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town. It didn’t really come together for me, but he’s trying something difficult and builds a unique fictional world.

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Sunday, October 16, 2016

Thoughts on Cancer

I had testicular cancer in 2004.

Short version: I noticed a hard long lump (2 inches long!), they took it out.

I had the good fortune to find M. Mendel Shemtov, a phenomenal surgeon at NY Presbyterian who dug into every possible detail with me. I'd met with a doc at Sloan Kettering, but found the entire experience there to be inattentive, breezy, and not confidence inspiring, so I paid thousands more to go out of network with the NYP guy).

It's a good kind of cancer to have because your testicles are so separate from the rest of your body, and they can take one out and you're still 100% fine! As my 2 daughters since then attest :)

There was some possible spreading of cancer cells to my abdomen, so I had 5 awful weeks of radiation, and threw up every day.

Directly after my first radiation, I went to see Prince at Madison Square Garden. No one had warned me that I might be more than a tiny bit nauseous. I ended up racing to the bathroom 3 times to throw up, racing back each time because I didn't want to miss a thing. I can believe the claim that Prince is the greatest performer of all time.

Obamacare has been a huge relief for me -- I've been forced to move and take jobs only because if I didn't, I'd lose insurance and be denied forever as having a preexisting condition.

Now at 11 years free of any sign of cancer in my scans.

The common narrative of cancer is that it clarifies your values and will to like. I generally found this not to be true for me. (Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor often The whole experience didn't change me at all, but then i thought back some more and reconsider.

I do think it made me kind of assume in the background that I might die at any time. But sometimes that's not great for the day to day. A lot of the best work I've done has come when I'm 0% thinking I've got to go Something That Matters with my life, and instead am just freely creating something I love. Thinking from the perspective of my death bed can be kinda paralyzing.

Pretty much as soon as I got healthy, I got the offer to go to Georgia and work for the new president for the Georgian salary of $12k/yr, which I was totally unqualified to do. At the time I had almost no savings, with a $550/mo health insurance bill that I couldn't miss a payment on no matter how little I earned.

I was terrified to do it, but I think the brush with death helped me have total certainty that I had to go. And that decision (and taking it seriously every day when i was there, even when I had nothing but doubt and fear everywhere i looked) kind of opened a whole door in my life.

Having kids has also done a lot to get me better at being present without a goal. Camus' end to The Myth of Sisyphus seems to describe what time spent with them is like: "Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world."

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Monday, October 10, 2016

How to fix a slow Mac: painfully obvious, yet painfully obscure

After my Mac Mini's sluggishness wasted many hours of my time and cost me hundreds of dollars in missed consulting dollars over the last month, I was fed up.

I spent probably 10 hours over the last few weeks struggling to understand the problem, testing the mac, learning about the reasons it might be slow, comparing comments about possible solutions, running software... and now that I know all this nonsense, I think the correct path is actually super clear:

  • Problem: my Mac has physical hard drive, which is too slow (it was actually really hard to figure out how to read activity monitor to understand the HD was the constraining factor).
  • Solution: upgrade to SSD (solid state drive)
  • Any real need to actually replace my Mac? Ran benchmarks and compared to current place in Apple upgrade cycle, answer is upgrading Mac would be a huge waste of time and money compared to just upgrading to SSD.
  • Defrag? Repair permissions? Blah blah blah? None of that stuff really matters if it's just slow and not totally unusable
  • Which SSD? Actually really obvious, absolutely no doubt it's the Samsung 850 EVO 1TB right now, with this Inateck enclosure
  • Install it internally or externally? Lots of research showed me external should be totally fast enough to not be noticeably worse than internal; and if I change my mind I can always go internal later. (there's tons of whiny misinformation about external drive speeds.)
  • Boot setup? Should clone disk to SSD and boot from it.
  • How to clone? Here's how (I couldn't find these steps presented clearly anywhere, had to cobble them together):
    1. Use Disk Utility (Applications > Utilities folder) to format the SSD, erasing it and formatting as “Mac OS Extended (Journaled)” with a single GUID partition.
    2. Use Carbon Copy Cloner to clone your hard drive to the SSD. If you are running Lion or Mountain Lion, choose the option to copy the Recovery Partition to the SSD.
    3. Restart your computer whilst holding down the option key and select the SSD as the boot drive. You’ll know in a few seconds if your clone was successful.
    4. Go to System Preferences > Startup Disk and select your new SSD as your startup drive.
    5. Use Trim Enabler to enable TRIM on your new SSD.

Now, maybe there is some tricky judgment call in there that I'm not appreciating, but I really don't think so. I really think all of this is the only reasonable course given my incredibly common situation.

Yet in the course of researching this, I had to step around countless debates. Do you need TRIM? Is an external SSD fast enough to boot from? How painful is the process of installing a new HD in your Mac Mini? Is it necessary? Is USB 3.0 fast enough? It's not that there aren't reasonable people who disagree on some of this, but the appropriate answers for most people should be very clear. (Respectively: yes, yes, doable but pretty dicey, no, yes)

Could I have just ordered a new mac and swallowed the money and saved myself time? Well, part of the problem was I didn't know what the source of the problem was at the start of this... not that I'm 100% positive of my new understanding, but it seems pretty clear what the problem is once I ran cpu benchmarks and learned how to read Activity Monitor right*. The other part is that Apple's upgrade cycle is way behind schedule, so if you assume you only get about 4 years out of a typical computer before it's too old to run current software, you're sort of paying double the cost (in both dollars and software install hours). A new Mac that would make me confident of its performance would be $1500-2000, or about $4000 in real cost for me considering the situation. I estimate that doing nothing for another year would cost me $2000 in lost time and business.

Instead, it turns out that $320 and an hour of your time can get you basically a new Mac, with all your same files and no need to reinstall apps, and the ability to make those files available to a new Mac in seconds (by plugging the drive into it).

This kind of info should be easier to get! My guess is that a large number of Mac users out there are in exactly the same boat. Yet each of these thousands of people either has to learn this diagnosis and solution on their own, or never know it and lose out.

How can this be better? Is there no on-demand hirable replacement for my judgment and expertise? How many people out there could have figured out what I need in 30 minutes on the phone? Even the right blog post would have helped me. But no one out there is incentivized to collect this advice and provide it to people at large. If someone wrote this and it worked for me, I might like upvote them on Stack Overflow, but that's it. Is that really the only incentive we can muster? Isn't there some way we could credibly make our expertise available for occasional hire?

(* I thought low HD usage meant low HD load, where it really means low HD throughput. The drive may be choking as fast as it can through a massive backlog of read and write requests, which are not shown at all. This makes the disk view in Activity Monitor totally different from CPU and RAM views, which basically show load and not performance, which is more or less constant for processors and memory. Often the variations you see in disk usage are due to the size and placement of the RW requests, so it might say 75 reads at 3MB/s, then 400 reads at 4MB/s, while the disk could be said to be running at 100% possible throughput the whole time. There may have been 300MB of requests, but only 4MB/s of them are actually getting delivered.)

Monday, September 26, 2016

Columbia University: the anagrams never lie

I came across this bit of idle collegiate musing in some deeply buried backup folder today... I only distantly remember writing it, and can't remember what for!

Can you spot all 8 anagrams of "Columbia University"?

By miraculous invite, you entered -- thinking the Ivy League promised the world. You now find yourself in perhaps an unsuitable micro-Ivy with a miniscule trivia boy for a roommate. The best you can do is churn out papers and cultivate your nubile activism while waiting for the Ivy lubrication muse to come your way. In the end, you should be glad you're not stuck rooming with a vicious, burly inmate at some school where the alumni buy victories (or actually contribute). With unmalicious brevity, it'll all be over soon.

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