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.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Sigh Facebook

The only reason I logged onto Facebook is that I got an email inviting me to see a message from an old friend. I figured it might be important, so I logged on, only to find that there is no such message! Or maybe there is, but it's so old that it doesn't display anymore? I don't know.

What there needs to be is like a "public option" social network where you can simply maintain a presence and your old friends can contact you. No advertising, no profits, no tracking. Just a way to find someone who you used to know and then reconnect on other media (why not email?).


I tried logging onto Facebook today for the first time in several years and it is extremely confusing. I suspect this is intentional, but who knows. Either way it is so discomfiting that I don't dare do anything.

To me this feels like a microcosm of the whole world sometimes.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Welcome to the Resistance

One thing I've been thinking a bit about is "context collapse" or whatever you want to call it. Here's a pretty straightforward example. [At this point I originally embedded only Loesch's tweet, but it is much clearer if I just embed all three in order.]

That tweet is quoted in this one:
Which in turn is quoted in this one:

Of course, "Welcome to the resistance!" is a common joke on Twitter and it would be recognized as such by a pretty wide audience. In particular it refers to cases where someone ridiculous (usually someone conservative) criticizes Trump and is thus sarcastically welcomed into the resistance.

But to anyone unfamiliar with the joke, it would look as though Nathan McDermott was expressing a reprehensible sentiment. And of course this is the point. His tweet will circulate endlessly on right-wing social media, serving its propaganda purpose.

This happens on both sides, of course. In fact it is probably usually unintentional. But it means that you really can't take most tweets at face value. There are obvious exceptions, but in general you have to do work to understand what someone is saying in context.

And you also have to do the work of figuring out who is speaking and where he or she stands in the relevant group (e.g. conservatives). Or in the case of a factual claim, you have to track the claim back to its source or assess the credibility of the person asserting it.

In short, the cumulative amount of work it takes to tweet responsibly, or to understand tweets responsibly, is quite high. And of course the strong temptation (which I'm sure I've given in to many times) is to skip the work and simply assume the claim is being presented in good faith and with ample supporting evidence. But this is part of what has made online discourse so toxic, and it's a major reason that we would all probably be better off spending much less time on Twitter.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Fifth Columnist

Yesterday's poem was just for fun, but it's basically what I believe. I've become a fairly enthusiastic bicyclist after joining Citi Bike, New York City's bike-sharing provider. My friends joke that I will turn into a raging bike nut, one of these guys who rants about bike lanes etc.

Unlikely! If anything I've become more convinced that the police should crack down on cyclists breaking the law. The implicit rule in New York seems to be that rules about one-way streets (or one-way bike lanes), stop signs, and stop lights don't apply to cyclists. I've had a few near-collisions when cyclists break the rules (a few as a cyclist and many more as a pedestrian). On top of that, it greatly increases the amount of vigilance I require when biking or walking. It is utterly standard to see someone going the wrong way in a bike lane, zooming down toward me and forcing me to pull out into car traffic or to scurry between parked cars. I'm convinced that this is how I will be injured—I'll make some sudden move to avoid colliding with a bike, and a car will run over me.

Part of what gets me is the shamelessness of these violations. I've been known to do an Idaho stop (or kind of a "rolling stop" as we used to call it) at a stop sign when there's no one around, but if I then notice someone nearby I feel guilty about it. But a lot of cyclists behave as though the point of bicycling is that you get to weave through the traffic, run lights, force pedestrians to stop for you even though they have the light, etc. It makes me very angry.

Some of these violations would be less likely if the city had better bike lanes. But a lot of the behavior happens in places that actually have good bike lines—for instance, going up Berkeley I have had bikers zoom the wrong way past me several times. Why weren't they on Degraw one block to the north, where they would have been going the correct direction? Someone who won't go one block to obey the law isn't going to stop breaking the law when better bike lanes are provided.

There should be a kind of social contract about these things. Cyclists deserve to have well-designed bike lanes that are actually respected by drivers, delivery trucks, etc. But pedestrians deserve to have crosswalks and sidewalks that are actually respected by cyclists (and motorcyclists—a few weeks ago my friend was forced to dodge a motorcycle on a city sidewalk). And rule-abiding cyclists deserve to have bike lanes that are respected by other cyclists (and motorcyclists). And yes, cyclists probably deserve to have their bike lanes respected by pedestrians, though I'm aware of only one place where that's a problem, and the Brooklyn Bridge has severe space constraints that make conflict inevitable. Even there, I'm more sympathetic to the pedestrians who are constantly harassed by cyclists than I am to cyclists who are slightly inconvenienced by tourists doing what tourists are supposed to do (take pictures, enjoy the view, etc.).

I sometimes see defenses of ebikes, motorcycles using bike lanes, etc. along the lines of, "Where is the evidence that they hurt anyone?" In fact pedestrians have been killed by cyclists, but even if they hadn't, I don't think this really counts as evidence-based policy. Pedestrians and rule-abiding cyclists are greatly inconvenienced by rule-breaking bicycles, ebikes, and motorcycles, and even if our fears are exaggerated (I've swerved out into car traffic to avoid rule-breaking cyclists many times and I haven't been hit by a car yet), we shouldn't have to live in fear.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

I Wrote Yet Another Poem

"An Irish Cyclist Foresees His Death"

I know that on a Citi Bike
Somewhere I shall meet my end;
But there are drivers who I like,
And not all bikers are my friend;
The question is, are rules your guide?
And do you stay inside your lane?
If not, I'll have a shitty ride,
And you will be the one to blame.
When heavy tires, shards of glass
Cut my veins or crush my spine;
I hope they charge your sorry ass
And make sure that you do your time.
I'll balance all, bring all to mind.
Drivers, walkers, bikers, death.
If you think you're exempt from rules
I'll curse you with my dying breath.