Who ordered the scrambled brains?

Sabemclrd Bniras indeed!

We Fight Each Other, Now the Youth Fight Us

History has presented to civilization a threat so global, so existential, and so readily verifiable, that it’s not possible to concoct a more clear cut and obvious reason for us to put aside differences and join together — to fight together.

And yet even in light of such a simple and compelling set of circumstances, there are some among us that react with such fear and weakness that rather than reckon with the consequences of their actions, they would actually politicize and question a basic principle of reason — one of the most beneficial discoveries ever — the Scientific Method, to which so many advances in medicine, safety, and quality of life can be credited. What does it say about humanity, that such a crisis can’t motivate united action?

But I am inspired by the images I’m seeing in the news today from across the globe. The truly courageous, and those in the greatest danger — our youth — are forcing us to reconcile our fear and weakness with the catastrophe we are leaving for them, and to admit the selfishness of inaction against a reality that won’t affect us but will impose on them a harsh quality of life, a desperate scramble for limited resources, and the specter of world war. It’s another example of the strength of the youth and the weakness of the rest of us — my faith in them is unwavering.

Let’s heed their cry. We have to unclench the fist before we can work hand in hand. It takes courage. Tune in to the climate protests today if you forgot what that looks like.

Coping with Climate Change Requires a New Vision

While it’s not perfect, the New Yorker piece titled, What If We Stopped Pretending?, was the most profound and forceful article I’ve read on climate change in 10 years. Pretty sure no one felt the tension around this topic needed to be ratcheted up any further, but it’s worth everyone’s time, from climate change skeptics to ardent conservationists alike.

It really made me think about the future. I am happy to do my part, from personal conservation to raising awareness, but after reading the article, I feel all the commonly advised actions are woefully insufficient. It leaves me with an instinctive thirst for a grander vision of what society needs to transform itself into, institutionally, culturally, economically. It seems we need to go far *far* beyond planting trees, and curtailing air travel and single-use plastics. It seems we need to promote Nature from finicky parts supplier to majority shareholder, with whom harmony must never be questioned. Can the sprawling outline of our communities be at all maintained? Can workplaces (at least the information-centric ones) be allowed to continue requiring employees to be physically colocated? Can we even keep living above-ground, in our old-construction homes, with inefficient heating, cooling, and refrigeration? Is it even possible to hold fast to the concept of geopolitical borders when the habitable land of other humans literally sinks into the ocean?

What radical society must we become, not just to stop temperatures from rising, but to drive them back down? I’m sort of hoping a brash futurist rises out of the tech industry - a Sierra Club version of Musk or Jobs - to hold our hands through it all. It’s a thought borne of exasperation with international failure of governments and with personal helplessness, but it’s a foolish and selfish one nonetheless.

All I can think to do at the moment, is to listen and to talk and to continue altering my carbon-generating habits.

Keep the Proof Powerful

Hard to process the recent news. Another wave of proof – proof of the toxic ugliness woven into our country that has long been refuted or normalized. Another wave of the proof that yanks the spotlight of national attention. Another wave of the irrefutable and the graphic, that has forced credibility to be conferred upon the oppressed and the ignored.

The news is hard to process, but these waves of proof should not be normalized. We cannot become comfortable with them, desensitized to them. They are real and they are stark - they are unjustified deaths of black people at the hands of law enforcement. I can and therefore, at the least, I will inform myself about each new and particular way this nightmare plays out. I am not among those entitled to fatigue of proof.

It may be hard to process, but we must try all the same. Become knowledgable about this weeks events. It may strengthen and reaffirm your commitment to take whatever actions and apply whatever pressure and provide whatever support you can, whenever the opportunity presents itself, in big ways and small, in the short term and the long, as a person with the specialized skills and resources and privilege you have and just as a person with a heart.

Close the Gaps

Increasingly, the Atlantic has been shining a spotlight on the millenial/campus phenomena of “microagressions” and (subjectively labeled) “victimhood culture” – sometimes conflating them with “trigger warnings”, but I largely see that as a separate topic. (See also: here, here, here, here, and here.) These topics, and that of millenial and Youth mentality in general, fascinate me. A more recent article posted to Hacker News prompted responses that are consistent with those posted elsewhere: essentially that millenials are outrageously oversensitive and over-reactive. I think something larger and more systemic is at play, which I explained in the response I posted and have republished below.

I think understanding this situation completely requires an enormous amount of empathy. Whether one agrees with the protesters or not, it’s unfair to characterize them merely as fighting against freedom of speech. I am sure they recognize the speech aspect of this, but to them, that is second to what they perceive to be the central issue: equality. Arguable perhaps, but I hold that the issue of equality trumps that of speech.

This issue is part of a larger trend whereby arguably minor transgressions trigger significant protest (see the Atlantic’s coverage of Oberlin). My take is that after an oppressed class completes the initial leaps and bounds toward equality, tactics of old (e.g. nonviolent peaceful protest) cease to effect further change. New tactics therefore must evolve in order to close the remaining gap. This gap is relatively small, but its size isn’t the point - the fact that a gap, based merely on class identification, exists at all should not be accepted.

The current tactics might not be perfect - I posit they are still evolving. But they do effectively utilize available resources and processes (e.g. content virality) to draw massive attention to issues.

As for their characterization by MSM (e.g. the protesters are “bullies”, they have fostered what is uncharitably called a “victimhood culture”) we are simply observing (or participating in) the attempt to resolve cognitive dissonance between evidence of social inequality and the intellectual status quo.

I should also have noted that turning to fellow class members for support is not certain to magnify an issue; those members must still evaluate the claims of the aggrieved at their own discretion, which does serve as a natural, self-adjusting standard for this type of collective action. Often times, this, and the trigger warning debate, all seem to come down to being a little more thoughtful and to expressing a bit of respect – a small price to pay to further the cause of Equality.

1400 × 17

This morning was the first I’d heard of Rotherham. I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. Really, not since 9/11 has my psyche been so shaken.

It’s not just that this is a complete betrayal by a local police, or the consequences of slavish “racial sensitivity”, or profound negligence in the most basic responsibilities of social services. To settle on any of those is to take the path of intellectual convenience. I’m shaken because the scale, the duration, the powerlessness and particular vulnerability of the victims, imply some fundamental breakdown in the larger English, British and Western culture and ideology.

I readily criticize Western culture for its hubristic, “advanced” self-portrayal as a gleaming city on a hill to which those barbarians below us can aspire, whereas it really just mistakes instinctive worship of technology and egomaniacal self-interest for philosophical achievement. But never did I imagine we could be so deeply and pervasively flawed as to permit, over the course of 17 years, the methodical rape of 1,400 children (mostly neglected girls) in one town. Was there so little skepticism of power (the impetus of democracy) in Rotherham that for 17 years, meaningful police oversight and transparency were of no concern? Was there such blind faith in social services—and lack of moral duty—that city administrators sought no answers to basic questions of performance? Was the greater culture so disdainful toward both females and neglected children, that individual police officers could ignore clear evidence of organized sexual abuse not just with ease, but with resolve? Was the local press so aloof and disconnected from the city that it sensed absolutely nothing worthy of investigation? We’re a tent city, sheltered at the foot of a cliff.

As Americans specifically, we should be careful not to distance ourselves too much from our British relatives. Cases of systemic dereliction by social workers in both Los Angeles (Gabriel Fernandez, Jorge Tarin, and LA County’s “Report Regarding DCFS Recurring Systemic Issues”) and NYC (Myls Dobson) are commonplace. To put it mildly, our law enforcement agencies (and courts) do not have an even-handed record for applying the law. We’ve come to expect our elected representatives to be cowed from fighting for that cornerstone of democracy, transparent government operations, whether related to “national security” or not. And, especially having discussed with many of my peers, I remain wholly unconvinced we’ve reached anything remotely resembling a society that treats women with equal dignity and fairness.

Although I speak in macroscopic terms, these issues invariably resolve to matters of individual conduct. I ask those around me to reflect on the toll paid by the victims for a nightmare more brutal and betraying than anything Kafka imagined, and on what it tells us about our sociological nature.

I’m shaken. And I’m outraged by the soullessness of the perpetrators. And stupefied by the lack of civic engagement by the community, and disgusted by the systematic betrayal by the police. But mostly, my heart is torn by the antipathy endured by the victims, from too many parts of society.

Ferguson: Black and White and Read All Over

Yesterday, a WAPO journalist filed this piece, documenting his personal abuse by the Ferguson PD. It’s far from the only such account.

Today, the same journalist filed this one, a glowing review of the Missouri Highway Patrol.

It’s interesting to see just how much the press will editorialize, select, and de-/re-contextualize to shape issues. The highway patrol coverage is so positive it comes off as blindly faithful—but they’ve only been on the job for one day, and this article focuses on but a single person. The FPD sucked, as did their militarization culture, but I’m sure there were decent folks in it. Likewise, I’m sure there are power-hungry, inept, thugs in the highway patrol. But the press wants to craft their story about trends in the militarization of Main Street, police brutality, and racial profiling, so they keep the issues black and white.

It’s nothing new. They do this with gun control and the failures of the war on drugs and the backwardness of Russia and China, with varying degrees of success. Worse are entertainment outlets that dress up like the press (e.g. FNC), whose singular purpose is to editorialize to shape issues.

I think these trending law enforcement issues need all the pushing they can get, so I’m behind some editorialization. But in the end, all sides must be understood so that society’s reaction isn’t an overreaction.

The Law of Brittleness

No, I’m not referring to some French culinary legislation regulating the feel of that peanut confection, but rather to a property of—what else—software.

break things fastThe idea of technical debt is critical to employee work-life balance and to customer relationships. However, many companies these days seem willing to carry that debt, obsessed with a “move fast/break things” culture where any efforts resembling code perfection are feverishly rejected. But technical debt is a strategic concern, so one would think all those business strategists in their fancy suits would find want to address it. Without adequate recognition, the emphasis inadvertently shifts from “moving fast” to “breaking things”. I believe this lack of due attention is largely a matter of poor communication by engineers with stakeholders. Technical debt is often misrepresented as a temporary issue. “Give us a week to erase this technical debt.” On the other hand, saying “Each work item carries with it a 15% implementation tax to mitigate technical debt” is no more reassuring.

The term “technical debt” is an attempt to use business-friendly language to describe a less tangible quality of software: its capacity to be changed. Code that took a lot of shortcuts will be harder to change in the future, so it’s said to have technical debt. Removing the shortcuts and doing things more “cleanly” (if also slightly more “perfectly”) makes the code easier to change in the future and therefore reduces its technical debt. However, while it nicely sums up the idea that work will slow down (the “interest” that must be paid when changing a piece of software that has technical debt), it misrepresents the cost as a static sum that has already accrued. In reality, the cost of difficult-to-change code is proportional to the changes desired in the future. So you can only really assess the technical debt in the context of proposed changes. In fact, technical debt has no cost if no changes will ever be made. The problem is, one can never be certain that changes won’t be needed. Especially in today’s rapidly-evolving media and technology landscape, it’s far better to assume changes will be needed.

a better metaphor for technical debtSo it’s important for the language used to capture the business vulnerability that is associated with difficult-to-change software. While we could adopt a serious-sounding color-coded threat level system, I prefer a less theatrical, more tangible metaphor. I think of software change capacity as “software malleability” or “software brittleness”. The more brittle some software is, the more difficult it is to change it. Therefore, changing brittle software requires relatively more time. Unfortunately, the Law of Brittleness (I just made that up) states that, barring specific effort, changes to software tend to increase its brittleness. Only consistent focused effort can manage brittleness and keep software in a malleable state. This explains why brittleness increases particularly when changes are made in restrictive time constraints. Critically, as changes are made without adequate time, brittleness can compound such that the time cost of future changes increases exponentially.

That is a dangerous, unsustainable place to be in. It means the business is less able to respond to changing demands, threatening their value, customer relationships and brand. And it means that more and more pressure is directed onto engineering teams, who cannot fight the Law of Brittleness and therefore can only alleviate the pressure by eschewing work-life balance. Saying “we have a lot of technical debt” doesn’t convey “we are dead in the water unless the engineers work overtime.”

Then who gets the final say in whether software is brittle or not? The engineers do, since they are the ones who know the software internals and will pay the price later on. They should be trusted to assess the brittleness of software, and therefore they should be allowed to mitigate it regularly. Anything else is unsustainable. “Won’t they just abuse the privilege and underestimate work just so they can sip cocktails on the beach?” Unlikely. And if stakeholders are unhappy with this structure in any way, they always reserve the means to address it (replace the engineering team, hire more engineers, outsource, or accept the unsustainability and adopt a “burn-and-churn” human resourcing strategy).

This also means that engineering teams are charged with assessing brittleness and raising brittleness as a concern. Since it’s so intangible, assessing it can be hard. Something that gets the team pretty close is to rank the codebase (or parts of a codebase) on a brittleness scale form 1 to 5. What this assessment really translates to is a gut feel of how comfortable they’d be making changes to that system. Ideally, engineers would feel no hesitation or discomfort to the notion of changing some module. But for time-impacted projects, there will invariably be areas that the team hopes will never need changing, and may exhibit violent involuntary spasms at the thought, due to the disastrous brittleness of the code. Assessing and raising these concerns doesn’t just benefit the business. It protects their own work-life balance, which keeps their average hourly compensation from reducing to peanuts (brittle or not).

Blocvox has officially launched!

A few years ago, I was inspired by the posts I was reading on Facebook, on Twitter and on my friends’ blogs. It bothered me how difficult it was for great viewpoints to reach the larger audience they deserved–and how those who do have large audiences can be so out-of-touch (politicians) and sensationalistic (mainstream media). So I built a better discussion platform, that allows us ordinary folk to paint for ourselves a clear picture of the world. Blocvox officially launched over the weekend!

Blocvox amplifies your voice by letting you align with cultural groups and causes, who in turn cooperate to promote their viewpoints to the world. But this vision of democratic communication is missing one ingredient: passionate, outspoken people! If you’re sick of the disconnect between what you know and what those in power say–and if you believe that we’re responsible for fixing the way we communicate as a society, because no one will do it for us–then Sign Up! Use the site and let me know how to continue improving it. The community is small now, but with your help this simple website can turn into a movement!

See the official launch announcement on the Blocvox Blog. You can also check out an illustrated tour to get a quick overview of how Blocvox works.

Homage to the Second Law of Thermodonutics

Update: Research into this topic continues. More recent thinking on the Second Law of Thermodynamics can be found here.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics is by far my favorite of the bunch. If I were to be stranded on a desserted island (one preferably laden with blueberry pie and blue velvet cake) with one of them, my first choice would be the Second. It’s the one that describes the tendency of heat to spread out rather than stay in a particular spot. It seems so simple you could almost ignore it for triviality, but it actually has huge physical and philosophical implications (even underlying our perception of time*), and underlies a lot of my worldview. I just realized I’ve never honored it by blogging about it (no, that’s not contradictory, thank you).

A cup of coffee cools down, only because it’s heat tends to spread out. Likewise, a pot of water on a stove will boil and evaporate, only because boiling and evaporating help the heat spread out. The Second Law is always there in the background, giving molecules a little nudge to remind them to “DISPERSE YOUR HEAT, INFERNAL HEATHENS!!”

Like the pot of water, the Earth is subject to a constant blast of heat from the Sun. Instead of boiling, atoms on Earth do other things to help dissipate heat. One thing is to randomly form compounds with neighboring atoms, because bonding actually cools the atoms down a little–they release a tiny amount of heat! (Electrons in covalent bonds reduce their kinetic energy, and electrons in ionic bonds reside at a lower energy level.) If this didn’t release heat, they wouldn’t spontaneously form a compound in the first place.

What I find most astounding about this is that if you extrapolate a few billions years of spontaneous bonding in an ever-constant drive to dissipate heat, life itself can originate. This isn’t a new idea and I’m not the first to have thought of it. First, those molecular compounds, subject to random bond formations, are probabilistically bound to form a compound that just happens to have the unique capacity to react with other molecules in the environment. Given heat and proximity to those molecules, these compounds will reconfigure them in different, random ways. One such compound (or a group of cooperating compounds) will stochastically form that reacts with heat and certain other material to reconfigure it into a copy of itself. This first, spontaneously-formed, self-replicating compound (group) will have free reign over the environment to replicate at will without competition.

Once it becomes the norm, the ongoing energy transfer into the system will motivate its random interactions with material in its environment. It will stochastically mutate into variants more efficient at dissipating energy (by growing larger and incorporating more energy-releasing bonds, or being more efficient at self-replication). These variants (possibly polymers or ribozymes) will survive and replicate at the cost of the earlier ones. Such compounds may construct other compounds that effectively aid the replication of the primary compound. Perhaps it constructs compounds that draw in certain raw materials or protect the primary compound from destruction by other reactive compound sets.

That might sound complicated, but it is all driven by the very simple dictum of the Second Law. Given time and chance, such a variation will spontaneously occur. And once it does, it can quickly take over an environment because of its superior fitness. Now the cycle resets at a higher level of complexity, leading to cellular life, organelles, simple organisms, and more complex ones. In each case, random chemical variation can create improvements that will dominate an environment. It may be shocking to consider, but there is no inherent morality here. This is all an inevitable consequence of the tendency for matter to dissipate the energy being blasted upon it. The evolutionary cycle of increasing complexity can even extend beyond biological life, to explain group and societal behavior. Humans that are better able to set aside differences and cooperate to promote their general welfare will out-smart and out-compete those that don’t or that do so less effectively (such as those that didn’t articulate and defend their ideas as attractively as others on Blocvox *wink*).

A entirely separate race, more physically resilient and/or socially advanced, notwithstanding, it is the propagation of the collective meta-entity as defined by it’s memetic make-up that serves as the foundation for another cycle of increasing complexity. Social groups that cooperate in stable partnerships will outlast those that do not. Again, all because of the simple need to dissipate that interminable heat as efficiently as possible. O mighty Second Law, we are here to serve you.**

A paper was published last year that asserts progress along these lines. It would be a monumental breakthrough for the science behind this to be tightened up, and it’s an area I would love to study much deeper at some point (retirement?!). In the meantime, I must remain content with the idea that we exist for no other reason than to more efficiently absorb heat from the Sun. Given the mystery of the “hard problem” of consciousness, I vote that we accomplish this through specialization and cooperation rather than through competition (of course avoiding the trap of cooperating with those only want to compete). The cycle above even explains the tendency of humans on a large scale to be skeptical of each other, as we compete to prove to the universe who’s best at dissipating heat. (Rumor has it, the winning group gets an expenses-paid vacation to Risa *doublewink*.) So it’s obvious what we need to do in order to achieve world peace: extinguish that meddling Sun. While we work on that, I suggest we resign ourselves to absorbing as much energy as possible.

 
 
 

…in the form of donuts.
 


* If a cool cup of coffee were actually sucking heat out of the room and heating up, you would conclude that you were actually moving backward through time. Well, you would if you had the mind of a theoretical physicist.

** This statement is included for comedic effect only. The Second Law of Thermodynamics is a physical principle and is not intended for use as an anthropomorphic deity. Stunts performed by professionals on a closed course. Batteries not included. Side effects include dry mouth, swelling, dizziness, and tizzyness.

Notes on UK government

Last year I threw together a description of the UK government for a friend whose work focus shifted there. It didn’t take much to nudge this cultural organization aficionado to do it, and the historical relationship and contemporary closeness between the US and the UK made it especially interesting. I added a smidge of analysis around some standout features, and contextualized for the American reader. I just revisited it and felt, in light of the surveillance revelations, it might be of interest to a wider American audience. Enjoy.

Download Notes on UK Government (PDF).

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