Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Meteorological Jargon Kicks Ass

Meteorological jargon kicks ass. To predict something is to "prog" it. When a predicted weather pattern actually happens, it "verifies." If there's some rain in the forecast, you might be expecting some QPF (quantitative precipitation forecast). I love this shit.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Right Not to Know

Dan Savage has written about a "right not to know" about your family's sex life. Of course some things have to be talked about, but for everything else, silence is the best policy.

Anyway it occurs to me that in a big-picture sense we are losing our right not to know about way too many things. If an actor I like has a bad opinion about something, or is bad at sex (or good at sex for that matter), I probably don't want to know! If an obnoxious billionaire is dating a talented musician, I'd rather not hear about it all the time! Kanye is a musical genius, but I'll never get the same simple enjoyment from his music again. (In fairness, Kanye would certainly have found many ways to get negative attention even in a pre-Twitter era.)

I acknowledge there are legitimate complexities here. First of all, when someone has engaged in truly bad behavior, we can't turn a blind eye. Even if we ultimately separate the art from the artist or whatever, there are unpleasant truths that deserve our attention.

Second, there's no doubt a lot of valuable information to be gleaned from the torrent that we are subjected to. I'm not at the moment claiming that Twitter etc. make us worse off on net, though I think that is likely. I'm just observing that an important aspect of pre-Twitter life, the right (or at least ability) not to know all of this garbage, has been lost, and it forces us to contemplate things that were blissfully unimaginable before the Fall.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Machinery, Interfaces, and Modern Life

As you get older you start to realize that there are recurring patterns in life that pop up in widely different contexts. One of those patterns is that society relies on mechanisms that are too complicated for most of the relevant population to understand, and so it cloaks them in a simple "user interface" that disguises the underlying machinery. I'm taking my metaphor from Matt Levine who has written about this many times:

The financial system is built up in layers of abstraction over some vast and unwieldy machinery. The machinery is complicated in part in order to make the abstraction simple: You can buy stock with a click of a mouse because armies of people devote their careers to the legal niceties and operational maintenance and integration of all this back-office apparatus. Sometimes the machinery pokes out a bit through the fabric of the abstraction, and someone has to file it back down to make things smooth again. Really, though, considering how complicated the machinery is, it's amazing that this doesn't happen more often.
 Levine was writing about our system of tracking ownership of stock and the weird results it had in the Dell merger case. Here's another Levine piece exploring the same issue.

[You can skip the next two paragraphs. They are just an explication of what I mean by "machinery" and "interface."]

I want to be clear up front that "machinery" as I use the term encompasses laws, regulations, institutions, hardware, and software (and probably a lot of other things as well). So for instance there is a company called the Depository Trust Company that (with its affiliates and nominees) holds the stock certificates for the vast majority of publicly traded companies in the U.S., and in turn maintains books (actually a computer database of course) indicating which custodians (mostly brokers and banks) "own" those shares. Those custodians, in turn, keep books recording which of their customers "own" the shares that the DTC holds for the custodians. It's a chain of ownership called the "indirect holding system" and it's embodied in our laws and regulations. It's also embodied in the physical pieces of paper that DTC holds in a steel vault somewhere, the master certificates that legally represent its ownership of stock. "Machinery" means the sum of all those parts.

The interface, meanwhile, is the simplified, (fairly) easy-to-navigate system in which you can open a brokerage account and buy some shares of Microsoft. In terms of the machinery, this means that once the trade has settled, your broker will recognize you as the owner and, in turn, the DTC will recognize the broker as the owner and, in turn, Microsoft will recognize DTC (actually its nominee Cede & Co.) as the owner. But to you that's mostly invisible, you will just see the shares "in your account," and that is the "interface."

Anyway here's a Twitter thread explaining (a small part of) the way Unicode can be manipulated to affect the way links work in Twitter:

This is another recurring theme—once you have a system in which the vast majority of users rely on a simplified interface, there is potential for people to dive beneath the surface and manipulate the underlying machinery in a way that is undetectable or incomprehensible to most users.

In the case of stock ownership, the potential for mischief is limited. Sure, it creates odd legal situations that are to the advantage of one player or another, but there aren't a lot of ways to profit. (Or if there are, they are not apparent to me, but admittedly I am far from an expert.) This is by contrast to the machinery of stock trading, which is ripe for profiting from a deep understanding of the rules/machinery, the topic of Michael Lewis's book Flash Boys (and one of the stories in Sarang's Through the Center of the Earth).

In the case of software, of course, it's a goddamn mess. Calista recently linked to a story by Brian Merchant on email tracking, which uses embedded images or fonts in email to monitor when/where/on what device the emails are opened. This is just a tiny corner of the vast world of privacy invasion that is ubiquitous in the world of technology.

And this brings us to the question of system design. In the case of stock ownership, I actually think the system design is pretty good, and the absurdity in the Dell case described by Levine was caused by a poorly written Delaware law. But in the world of technology, our institutions are failing us and leaving us at the mercy of criminals and sleazy "entrepreneurs." (An example is this recent Zeke Faux story on Facebook's advertising system.) People who take the time to delve into the machinery find all kinds of ways to take advantage of people, the vast majority of whom lack the technical competence to protect themselves.

I have three observations about this. First, from a left-wing perspective, there is a big distributional impact in that the people who are impoverished or injured by this stuff are disproportionately people without the resources to protect themselves—the very young, the elderly, the poor, the poorly educated. The fact that you can just about scrape by if you have above-average skepticism, diligence, and technical know-how is no defense of the status quo. This is not an area where "informed consent" makes much sense as a guiding principle. The system designers are forced to make choices for people because there is no way they can (competently) make those choices for themselves.

Second, from a public choice (often coded as "right-wing") perspective, the status quo is profitable enough that incumbent players will expend significant resources defending the existing machinery and resisting design improvements that would protect people. This is complicated, since big players have divergent interests that to some extent offset each other, but I would be very surprised to see significant improvements in the short- to medium-term.

Finally, related to my last point, there is a structural problem in dealing with these issues intelligently, which is that you have to have "good guys" delving into the nuances of the machinery, an activity that tends to be far more financially rewarding for manipulators than for people working to fix the system.  Moreover, it's usually much easier to find system design flaws than it is to fix them or avoid them in the first place. In some cases the "customers" are rich and powerful enough to insist on good system design, which I think is why the indirect holding system for securities works pretty well. In a lot of cases, though, it is a constant uphill struggle.

And so I expect technology to continue to be a minefield for average people, exposing them to exploitation and financial loss, as well as a constant background level of anxiety and burdensome (and often futile) attempts to avoid harm. I don't think it has to be this way, exactly, but I think the forces that have pushed us into this equilibrium are strong and are unlikely to be overcome.

Monday, May 21, 2018


I utterly despise the necessity of having dozens of passwords, each of which needs to be strong and independent of the others. I understand there are password managers that handle this, but I don't trust them for obvious reasons. I also hate having to change my password periodically, which makes remembering it difficult.

I guess the world is getting better but certain aspects of it just suck.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Adjusted Aggregate Wealth

Quick thought: when calculating the world's richest people, magazines (or whoever) should make the list based on (current wealth) + (aggregate money donated to charity so far). No double counting, of course—if you've pledged a bunch to charity, it only counts once. Anyway this gets the incentives right, to the extent rich people care about their rankings (and I think some of them care a lot). They can go ahead and give a bunch of money away without jeopardizing their place on the list.

You could even do it like this:

(wealth for purposes of list) = (current wealth) + (present value of aggregate money donated to charity)

So in other words, if you gave $1 billion to charity 10 years ago, in the formula it would count as like $1.1 billion or $1.2 billion or something like that, reflecting foregone interest.

Maybe they already do this and I'm just a dumbass.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018


It is a problem that people's genuine tastes are a fairly reliable indicator of their compatibility with each other, causing people to be inquisitive and judgmental about other people's tastes, and in turn to put on a great show of having tastes that they don't have (or merely exaggerating their tastes for effect).

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Not the Dream of the Memory of the Thing But the Dream of the Thing Itself

Due to a bizarre sleep pattern, I had extensive dreams this morning. In particular I had a lot of adventures with a pet hedgehog (or at least a hedgehog-looking animal).

At one point there were three hedgehogs, and then they all disappeared (maybe they ran away). I started to wonder if they had been a dream all along. But I decided not, reasoning like this. I had been through so many adventures with my pet hedgehog, weeks and weeks of adventures, that I couldn't possibly have dreamed him. The other two, sure, they might have been a dream.

I wonder if I actually dreamed weeks and weeks of adventures, or if I only dreamed memories of them. In a sense, you can't tell the difference.

Anyway he was a great little pet and we sure got up to some hijinks.