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Self-portrait. Drawing by Brady Dale, copyright 2019. All rights reserved.

Openers

This page is just ideas that crossed my mind that I wanted to write down and share but only sort of. You really need to be committed to stop by here. I'm not sharing these. I reserve the right to delete them. And I always reserve the right to be stubbornly obviously wrong.

July 13, 2019

I listened to this episode of Planet Money today about what a mess recycling has become in the U.S., largely due to a diminished demand for our waste abroad and our incapacity to prep our waste for sale.

It made me wonder if design couldn't be really useful in making recycling more efficient. One of the bottlenecks is cleaning out plastic containers. What if they were standardized in such a way though that the recycling sorting process could also clean them out.

I'm not even an engineer and I can envision an rudimentary design that would make this doable. Imagine a standard bottle designed to be easy for a machine to grab and hold for cleaning, a high pressure water system to shoot into each one and blast out whatever's inside and a giant pool of water used to rinse out the bottles that had a centrifuge attached such that the water could be used again and again, making it more water efficient than home rinsing.

In fact, if we could just get the caps to be the same plastic as the bottles (this must be a solvable problem) so that the caps don't have to be removed, that would be a great step. I imagine that the best way to clean these things would be to lop off the bottom anyway, right?

It would take times to get enough products to move to a uniform enough design that machines could easily manipulate them in the thousands to clean them out, but that brings us to the second part of the design: policy design.

Companies that put stuff in containers should be taxed on the containers in such a way that encourages them to generate fewer containers. All of those funds should go to subsidizing recyclers incorporating these new technologies for improving their stream of product.

Making product containers more uniform would undermine companies' ability to market and position their brand as unique, of course, but I think we'd all persevere in a socialist dystopia where he had to make due with fewer kinds of dish soap. God help us all, but I think we could get by.

June 16, 2019 — III

I read this Slate Star Codex post today about the fact that there is no real debate going on between political sides. That is, two people aren't meeting in a room in good faith and talking to each other with the goal of both listening and persuading.

It would be pretty cool if someone put together an organization testing the impact of real debate. Organize debates between major Republicans and Democrats across the country. Not the actual candidates, just people on each side. Maybe even folks who aren't tied to campaigns but really like one candidate or another. That would be an interesting experiment (and also quite relevant to the point I posted two openers down...)

I bet people would show up to listen. Maybe not thousands, but solid dozens. Even hundreds sometimes. It could be a thing that grew and might have a surprising effect.

Whatever you think of this idea, I just want to add this quote from the post which I thought was funny and clever and illuminating:

"As the old saying goes, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then they fight you half-heartedly, then they’re neutral, then they then they grudgingly say you might have a point even though you’re annoying, then they say on balance you’re mostly right although you ignore some of the most important facets of the issue, then you win."

June 16, 2019 — II

I have been reading The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch (1997). It's filled with surprising facts. Physics has a lot of those, especially if you start talking about quantum level observations. Some of the facts are so surprising that they don't square with "common sense," that is our basic (and largely reliable) mental model for the-way-things-work.

So I got to thinking about the cognitive slipperiness of surprising facts at the end of his third chapter, "Problem solving."

I used to work in politics, and one of the things people on the left are grappling with these days is the cognitive weakness of facts. In their minds, the facts are on their side, so why don't people agree with them more?

For years there has been a cadre of lefties arguing: quit obsessing on facts! Make values based arguments! People don't care about facts. If a fact doesn't square with a person's mental model, they just forget it. It isn't even conscious. Their brain just does it!

We all do this constantly in all kinds of ways. Example: Think of watching a movie. At the end of a good movie, you understand it, but could you describe everything that happened? Even right after? Could you even easily recall what happened in the middle? Often, no. You threw out a lot of facts, but you still "get" the movie.

So I wondered — and I bet I know the answer but I'm writing this because it would be neat to learn if someone has tested this — if people tend to also forget facts about things that don't fit their mental model for topics with less emotional valence than polical and social issues tend to? Like, I bet there are some surprising facts in the world of forestry. And I think we all have some kind of mental model for forestry, right?

So if someone gave a lecture on forestry to a room full of people filled with a wide array of facts scored from "very common sense" to "holy shit, seriously?" what would happen if you tested people right after, a week after, a month after and a year after the lecture? Would they be more likely to recall the facts that scored closer to common sense?

I bet they would!

June 16, 2019

Today I emailed an old friend of mine on LinkedIn and said, "The internet really rewards people descending into their full personal crazy if they have any sort of public profile." This old friend of mine is someone I've barely spoken to in 20 years but we are kind of back in touch because she met someone who I've met here in New York and this person is so batshit nuts (not clinically insane – sane crazy, which I submit is far more dangerous).

All we talk about when we talk is this person. That's it. No how's your family? how's your job? Just "Holy shit did you see this thing she did?"

I'm not going to say who it is because infamy feeds her like sweet potatoes feed the rest of us, and so she's decently well known in certain circles. The last time I saw her in person was years ago on a night that happened to end up being one of the most personally dramatic of my life — but that's an aside. It started at a party she organized in which she stood on a table in a bar and yelled to a room full of people that it was the greatest night of her life.

Everyone in that room had just watched her fail epically on national TV.

I wrote what I wrote after this old friend sent me an Instagram selfie this woman posted on her way to the hospital. She was going there because she has been very public about a particularly ridiculous lifestyle choice that makes zero sense and leads ineluctably to this condition in every single case. It's basically the definition of this lifestyle choice.

When I write "crazy" I don't mean "mentally ill." I mean crazy, which I'm tempted to call a strain of stupid, but it's a kind of stupid exhibited by some pretty intelligent people. The internet really fosters it.

I would not be surprised if someone were writing that she's "so brave" in her comments right now.

June 1, 2019 — II

To our brains, words are real objects, and they function much like seeds.

Which is to say, a thousand times yes to this post from Olga Khazan from The Atlantic: give up on work-life balance.

"Work-life balance" is a notion that someone came up with to name a series of shared observations, creating a fresh new problem for humans to obsess on. Once named, people agreed it was a problem. Is it though? Or has life always been just one goddam thing after another, much too complicated, much too exhausting? Isn't life just sort of necessarily set up that way?

Isn't it better that we live in a world that's much too interesting rather than one that's much too boring?

Naming a thing is a very good way to create problems by making a fresh new something that once was nothing inside our heads. We name it, so we reify it, fixate on it and nurture anxiety around it.

Just let the idea go.

June 1, 2019 — I

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who understand the law is a means to an end and those who confuse the law with reality.

Here's a good example: there's a class of people who criticize initial coin offerings because the tokens they create are "obviously" a security under U.S. securities law. To people of the former persuasion, this fact alone is all that matters. To those of the latter persuasion, the reply is, "So what?"

The law is fine and good, but the point of the law needs to be that it constructs a way of coordinating the world that's for the best. It may be true that under the traditional way of viewing securities, these tokens definitely are. But is that for the best? And does it make sense to challenge that notion? Whether in the courts or legislatively?

Or just by sheer defiance?

I'm not weighing in. I'm just commenting that there's a certain class of commenter who seems to say that because these tokens do meet that definition, then these projects are ill conceived on a prima facie level. And that bugs me.

Someday I will follow up on this point and kvetch a bit about the way in which people conflate legal identities with organizations. They aren't even kind of the same thing, and the only time it's helpful to think of them that way is when people are doing taxes (and really, that's all the state cares about too).

Long story short: the law is a coordination mechanism, it's not reality.

May 31, 2019

We have an unhelpful cognitive dissonance when it comes to bringing big companies and powerful people to justice: We mistakenly think it matters when the big guns get busted. I don't think it does.

I was confronted with this discomfiting truth again reading something a reporter I'm friends with, Timothy Lee, wrote this week — an epic rundown of the legal decision against a tech company that you probably have heard of but barely think about: Qualcomm.

It left me wondering how much Qualcomm profited in the end. Sure we got a destructive business practice stamped out, but odds are whatever costs they face to their bottom line now is dwarfed by the money they've made by establishing a privileged position for themselves in the mobile industry and strangling competitors.

See also: the originators that set up all those poor people with mortgages that yielded the financial crisis. They sold those loans on and moved into mansions. They've been sitting pretty ever since.

On a related noted, tonight I was hanging out with my coworkers and talking about how unlikely that most blockchains will ever be able to sustain their decentralized security models on fees alone down the road. But of course that isn't really the goal. Whether a lot of these creators admit it to themselves or not, the real goal is to get the initial instigators and their cronies very rich — come what may.

If subsequent innovation proves their vision right in the long term, great! That's good for the ego.

But if it doesn't? They'll still be rich.

May 30, 2019

This morning I saw an old black guy in Bed-Stuy looking in one of those worksite windows that NYC requires. He had this look on his face that suggested to me that he wasn’t just curious, but he actually understood what he was seeing.

Like it was the sort of work he used to do. He was lean, like someone who had never had a lazy day. He had a wiry energy to him, like someone who was always busy.

He sported a neat silvery mustache and a baseball cap. Everything about him said: working man. The site was just some new rowhome, or maybe a tiny apartment building. Nothing fancy. Just a bit of neighborhood redevelopment.

It looked like he was retired but some part of him wanted to be in there, doing the part he knew how to do well. Work sucks for a lot of people, but when it doesn’t, nothing is better at giving life meaning.

Leisure is nice, but a sense of accomplishment is better. It is hard to get started working but it’s easier on the soul than quitting forever.

April 10, 2019

So the way I see it there are two possible futures:

One, climate change wipes out humanity or at least civilization as we know it. Or,

Two, Hollywood comes up with like 25 movie scripts that turn out to be the perfect calendar and every year they just remake those same flicks again and again, with different actors, different haircuts and minor script changes to satisfy the moment.

April 8, 2019

For weeks now I have had an issue of The Economist open on my desk at home with a bunch of notes written on the paper version of this editorial about The Green New Deal. There's a number of things I want to say about it, but I just never seem to get to it.

So let me just say this, which is the main thing.

Carbon offsets would be a very fine idea if not for politics.

Quick refresher: the idea of carbon offsetting is that every company that produces carbon emissions would get some kind of emission allowance for total pollution, the sum total of which would be a net reduction in national emissions. Polluters could then trade emissions allotments so that the companies that could reduce the least expensively would reduce the most, paid for by the companies for whom reducing is expensive.

Fine.

If only it were so simple. There is a minor problem and a major one.

The minor problem: companies would lie and cheat about how much they polluted and regulators wouldn't be staffed well enough to catch them cheating or to enforce the rules when they did so.

The major problem: carbon credits would create a new industry that would want to persist whether global warming gets fixed or not. The more credits those entrepreneurs had to trade the more fees they would get, so there would be political pressure to push the total allotment up (whatever it did for global warming).

And to be honest there'd be a third problem. The ways in which companies would game the system would ultimately prove vastly more complicated than the two examples above and it would be a real mess to sort out but it would all add up to the same thing: undermining the goal of stopping climate change.

In a pure, pure world where all the variables stayed put and everyone followed the rules, I would agree that carbon emission taxes would be a great solution for much of the world's global warming pollution, but the world isn't that simple and markets aren't magic. They are insidious.

Though to be crystal clear, I would definitely support virtually any carbon offsetting measure proposed by anyone that did much of anything at all. But still. I also think the Green New Deal is realistic in a way free market true believers willfully ignore.

April 1, 2019

Is fiction a technology?

Last night I was reading Lovecraft's "The Other Gods" entirely because it was mentioned in Slate Star Codex's "Meditations on Moloch." The blogger, Scott Alexander, describes it this way: "As stories go, it lacks things like plot or characterization or setting or point. But for some reason it stuck with me."

I found thhat take a little hyperbolic once I got going with it. I mean, dudes climb a mountain. That's a plot. But whatever; I see his point. In particular because I have been writing a "short story" right now that's more of a sketch of a science fictional world than it is a "story" in the current sense. And I very much mean the current sense, because I think what I'm writing might have flown with a lot of editors at another time.

But these days editors of fiction are much more strict about this stuff. You can't just string together a bunch of imagery for a reader. There needs to be a reason they are going to through it, a person they care about, a change that occurs in the world and themes that become illuminated.

This is why I started to wonder if fiction functions something like a technology. Our software stack has built up over the years. We have greater expectations of what works. More refined collective expections.

Or maybe that's all just fashion and it will all swing back?

Anyway I'll finish up this world sketch and then I'll come up with a story taking place in this world I'm imagining and that's what I'll try to get shipped off somewhere.

February 18, 2019

Discussing ideas makes them stronger but if ideas have to be defended long enough it drives their proponents to the extreme of the idea, and then the idea becomes ridiculous. The temptation to think any idea that's any good then must be good taken all the way to its logical conclusion. This is nonsense I blame on the Platonic notion of "ideals." Which is garbage. Plain and simple. Anyway, political conflict is making many perfectly reasonable ideas into caricatures.

Feel free to replace "idea" with "opinion" or "proposition" in the above.

February 17, 2019

My friend Sonya asked on Twitter recently how many disciplines required practice as well as teaching and study to master, and it quickly became clear that the answer is: all of them. This might seem obvious, but the implications of the answers to this question are profound once you play it out, in my opinion.

It hit me that this fact demonstrates how bad language is at communicating subtle knowledge. If you can't transmit the how-to of a given practice, then it illustrates that there is a ton of data that language just can't convey. It doesn't matter if you can't possibly imagine how anything about the tiny subtleties you glean by doing whatever it is you are good at could ever be conveyed in language. That's not the point. The point is that it can't. Yet.

On a related note, I was jogging and listening to a lecture on Nietzsche's writing style by Prof. Kathleen Higgins from "The Great Courses," and she argued that Nietzsche wrote using a lot of diffferent styles because he believed language needed experiments to get it to work better.

It hit me then: language is technology.

So all those people who resist language changing and growing and taking on new forms: they are very bad. They are harmful reactionaries.

It is very easy to be misunderstood in this life. This leads to a lot of needless pain. Language needs to be much better, and it's still very early for language. It is very rough technology. Every tongue in the world is a bad beta test. We should really encourage all kinds of forays into new realms for transmitting meaning between two brains.

Language is very much unfinished software. Keep forking words and grammar, everybody.

February 11, 2019

Today while riding into Manhatttan on the subway I read a briefing from The Economist about Exxon. TL;DR — the fossil fuel behemoth is doubling down on oil and gas. It doesn't think that political leaders will get their acts together (and even if they did, it probably guesses it can command whatever demand remains, through scale).

Then later in the day Buzzfeed's Ryan Broderick tweeted about this Kickstarter campaign for a device called "LoveSync." It's two buttons that couples can use to silently communicate if they both want to bone.

Honestly? I don't know which bit of news about the world makes me hate it more.

February 9, 2019

Last night I finished reading Rüdiger-Safranski's Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography at a bar. I think the Fugees were playing as I got through the last bit of Nietzsche's personal timeline. I'm not sure about the book, but it left me thinking that Nietzsche really was a fascinating human being, but I don't know that this is the book that people thought it was. I think I needed more of a typical biography. As a biography and as a summary of his work, it didn't seem great at either. And yet Nietzsche shines so bright that I still think I got a glimmer of what's always drawn me to him.

What a legend to end on! To throw yourself into defending a defenseless animal and then go mad. That's how a philosopher should go out...

February 3, 2019

Let me just pre-emptively grant the fact that the following thought is socially irresponsible and reprehensible. But it's real:

Do you ever wish there were a way that some of the most vehement deniers of climate change could be granted an extra long lifespan? I know this seems crazy, but I feel this way all the time. It hurts me deep inside that the people standing in the way of dealing with easily the most significant threat to humanity in its entire existence are going to be dead when its real effects hit.

I want Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin and Senator James Inhofe alive and well in 2100 so I can drag them around the world and say: Look! Look at what you and your kind stopped us from dealing with! Can you see how wrong you were now? I want that schadenfreude. I want it desperately.

It hurts me deep inside that they will be long dead as the very worst effects hit, though I think they will live past the point of complete undeniability. Then again, I think we are already at that poing.

This is a three paragraph way of saying that Wired had an incredible story in this month's issue about a gigantic slab of ice in Antarctica called Thwaites Glacier that looks ever more inclined to slide off the continent all at once. When and if that happens the effect on seal level rise is going to be dramatic and quick and very, very bad.

And remember that scientists in this field have consistently understated the threat. So.

January 28, 2019

I guess the editors at The New Yorker sat down this week and said, "What the hell? Let's publish two totally entrancing stories that absolutely destroy our readers' hearts at the end. Why not!" This is the second one. The headline online is very bad. The headline in print was "Turn Every Page."

I haven't finished the Murakami short story yet, but odds seem good that might be wrenching by the end as well.

January 27, 2019

Not only is this Jill Lepore article in The New Yorker a thoughtful meditation on the death of journalism's path to professional development, but it ends on a stunning and heartbreaking personal moment that's completely salient and you won't see coming.

Here's the quote from early on that totally locked me in though:

From bushy-bearded nineteenth-century politicians to baby-faced George W. Bush, the paper was steadfastly Republican, if mainly concerned with scandals and mustachioed villains close to home: overdue repairs to the main branch of the public library, police raids on illegal betting establishments—“Worcester Dog Chases Worcester Cat Over Worcester Fence,” as the old Washington press-corps joke about a typical headline in a local paper goes. Its pages rolled off giant, thrumming presses in a four-story building that overlooked City Hall the way every city paper used to look out over every city hall, the Bat-Signal over Gotham.

Emphasis mine.

January 15, 2019

A topic we hear about in New York City endlessly is the failure of the city to provide affordable housing for working people. The Economist has a story about some research that suggests the reason working people don't move to cities might have less to do with expense and more to do with opportunity. The urban opportunity premium has vanished for non-college educated workers, according to MIT's David Autour. So it could be that people aren't coming, not because it's too expensive, but because it isn't worth it regardless.

So if his research is right, is there a way to make better observations percolate through the public consciousness more quickly? Or is it okay that it will take a long time to get through because it might still need further testing? (after all, he might have missed something).

Autour's idea might not be good, but let's assume it is. It seems that better observations still have a hard time making it through the public mind and finding their way into policy interventions. Is there a way to test and then propagate good observations that undermine wrong assumptions more quickly so we can make better collective decisions?

January 13, 2019

Here's a facet of surveillance society that hasn't been much discussed: how distracting it is is to know you are being watched?

I became a regular paying customer of music streaming services since about this time last year. Maybe a little bit sooner. Because I write about this stuff, I find myself thinking all the time about what kind of information I'm feeding the service about my choices. I find myself thinking about two things:

What do I care? Why does it matter? But I think about it all the time and it takes me out of the moment of just enjoying music.

January 12, 2019

I don't know if this was the example in question, but I know at some point last year I came across a challenge for writers of the world to focus more on utopian visions of the future.

Challenges like that always grab my imagination, but I have a hard time with the idea of utopia.

I know this will be very unpopular to say and I guess that's why I'm burying it here, but still saying it: as far as I'm concerned, much of the world is close enough to being a utopia today, and yet it's pretty hard to find anyone who doesn't think everything is very terrible and awful and we're all doomed.

"We're doomed": that's the fashionable take. Really, the only take.

However, most people have a good supply of safe water, people are generally fed, fewer people than ever are super poor and there's less war than ever. That's as much as I can be bothered to defend the position right now. It's all true though.

I've become more and more convinced that humans just kind of lose it when there's no collective threat. If we aren't actually threatened, we'll make up a threat.

Here's an easier way to say it: if we got to a point where there was basically no murder in the world, but one year there were two murders in one city, right? People would say that crime is out of control in that city.

Even if we did live in a Gene Rodenberry style utopia, I don't think we'd ever admit it to ourselves, and if no one allows themselves to feel like they are in a utopia, are you really in a utopia?

January 11, 2019

When you're talking about funding creative work, "fans" are people who would be excited about hearing a creator of some kind speak, for example: a film director. Regular people just want to see the movie. A lot of people describe themselves as "fans" but in terms of thinking about an ecosystem of artwork, they aren't really.

Fans are ones who want to interact or understand the creator better.

Most people don't really want to. They just want to switch on the radio and hear "Born to Run."

This is important because, in terms of building an ecosystem around a kind of artwork to support it, "fans" will respond to calls to action from creators. Regular people won't even hear the calls to action. They'll only consumer the work they like and ignore the broader interest of the creative community and individuals that made the content possible.

January 6, 2019

Man in the middle attacks are a real thing. News organizations should defend against them by building cryptographic signatures into their content management systems. It wouldn't even be hard (I can't imagine).

Eventually, nation states are going to see that it's better not to block content they find offensive, but just to change it a bit before it reaches their subjects. This is totally feasible for a sufficiently powerful adversary (such as a nation like Cuba, where the state is the internet service provider).

But if the content was cryptographically signed, readers could see that something had changed. The state (or whatever adversary) would not be able to mess with the signature. Any way they did would show.

January 5, 2019

I added this page 'Openers' to this site today. I have a bunch of old notes here. I just went through some old files and notebooks and added some quick things I have written down in the past so there would be some content on here. Not that it matters.

November 19, 2018

Philosophy is alienating because philosophers write themselves into corners that strike normal people as obviously false.

For example, in Notes From the Underground, the protagonist convinces himself that the only logical thing to do is absolutely nothing. He might have arrived at this with sound reasoning, but any regular person knows the conclusion makes no sense. It's obviously dumb.

The philosopher would point to the words and the logical structure, but the regular person will just shrug and think: it's still wrong.

So when regular people read lines of reasoning that lead to conclusions they find idiotic, it leaves them questioning the whole enterprise.

I don't think regular people would put it this way, but they have an instinct that words are the way we communicate as best we can about the world we're in, but words are not the world. Language is easily conflated with reality.

Philosophers fool themselves when logic takes them somewhere the world contradicts. When that happens, the world's not wrong. The logic is. And people know that.

Philosophy is too good and important to rub people the wrong way like this.

November 7, 2018

It would be great if On the Media did a story about what happens when the media all forms a consensus around describing a thing that is not the thing they are describing and what happens when they do.

A new truth gets created.

My case in point: Gianforte's attack on a journalist in Montana.

He did not body slam him. He executed an arm-bar takedown.

Was it physical? Was it assault? Was it completely inappropriate?

Yes, yes and yes.

But it's the difference between a slap and a punch.

But now the whole world believes that Gianforte picked a person up over his head and threw him on the ground rather than, in fact, simply using superior strength and leverage to press a person from a standing position to one on the floor.

The trouble is more people have heard "body slam" than have SEEN what he did, and in much of the world, those words have meaning.

To reporters who don't care about wrestling, they think what's the difference. But there is a very big difference!

It's like calling a Ford F-150 a big rig.

It's like calling a battleship an aircraft carrier.

It's not the same thing! But reporters have created a new truth with their words that doesn't reflect what actually happened and it has had the perverse effect of making Gianforte seem mighty and strong in a way he is not.

November 11, 2016

Presidents shouldn't care about convicting corporate criminals. They should care about strong, compelling indictments. About big press conferences and apoplectic grand juries. If they piled up facts in the case against corporate America's malfeasance, threatened them with the worst possible consequences and made corporate law firms madly, insanely wealthy, it would start to make a dent. They'd start to fear indictments, not just convictions. They could build a drumbeat.

October 13, 2016

It probably makes sense to think of identity politics more as a religion than an ideology. As an ideology it has a way of crumbling quickly under much scrutiny. Reductio ad absurdum tends to be pretty effective in one of these arguments, except it's not effective. Those argument don't convince adherents.

Religions are good at establishing social norms, powerful norms. If a person violates those norms, they get cast out. Which really does a good job of enforcing a moral orientation. And that really seems to be the goal.

September 3, 2015

I was reading Jessica Abel's book Out On The Wire and she discusses the problem of constucting a compelling piece of content in the face of many many interesting facts. Apparently the guys at Radiolab call this "the German Forest." I think my problem is that my mind kind of likes it there.

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