Who ordered the scrambled brains?

Just one of many ways Mike has found to waste time.

Aaron Swartz and the Temple of Doom

Aaron Swartz was a prominent hacker who believed passionately in the potential of information access to improve society. In 2002, at 14 years old, he co-authored the RSS communication standard–the same one that powers Google Reader. In 2006, he became a co-founder of the fledgling Reddit when his company merged with it. Yesterday, at 26, he hung himself.

In 2011, he allegedly trespassed MIT’s campus to stash his laptop in a utility closet, which he had allegedly programmed to download millions of academic papers from the extremely expensive JSTOR database. JSTOR ultimately didn’t care. But MIT–that great stalwart of hacker culture–apparently did, and they sadly gave tacit support to his overzealous prosecution. US Attorney Carmen Ortiz fanatically pursued overreaching and severely disproportionate charges, carrying sentences of $4m in fines, and 50 years in jail!

From what I’ve read, he had already been struggling for years with depression. “You feel as if streaks of pain are running through your head, you thrash your body, you search for some escape but find none.” I am too familiar with this. A decade ago, I suffered a long bout of depression. Those streaks of pain inspired the name of this blog. It was intense, oppressive and ever-present. With time and space, I was able to sort through it; I didn’t have corporations or the government breathing down my neck.

If nothing else, I hope this brings greater mainstream awareness to the disconnect between justice and technology. Some people describe today’s information technology landscape as a lawless frontier. Perhaps that’s largely true. But anyone who ventures an act of protest or disobedience in those areas where corporations, governments, or other machinery of “orderly” power structures are located, will suddenly find himself trapped in a legally-hyperactive, Kafkaesque Temple of Doom.

Launching 2013

Last year was a challenging and fulfilling one for me. It started off mundane enough, voluntarily having my life whittled away by my employer. I had set only a few goals for myself that year, and I’m happy to say I met them all, even if one of them required a… reinterpretation.

Resolved, that I will launch an entrepreneurial venture in 2012.

What started as a side-project to learn about a variety of software development technologies and practices in early 2011, evolved last year into a serious outlet for me to express some of my strongest held sociological hypotheses. Two years on, I am still knee deep in design and development. So for me to satisfy the resolution is a case of “It depends on what your definition of launch is.” ;-)

Originally, I intended “launch” to mean feature-completion of the initial product, deployment of the product to a proper production environment (e.g. dedicated technology resources, regular data backup, etc.), and triumphant announcement to the public that it was finally Ready™. I now interpret it simply as the public announcement of the venture and the general opening of discussion about the core product (which heretofore was stealth). So without further ado I introduce to you, Blocvox.

Blocvox composite diamond logo, with slogan 'Every voice counts'

Blocvox is a social communication platform that captures and publicizes the zeitgeist (i.e. intellectual and cultural spirit) of active social groups as they evolve over time. That it is based entirely on direct democracy allows these groups to counterbalance two debilitating challenges they must presently confront:

  1. The piecemeal delegation of constituents’ power to a handful of representatives creates a power concentration that risks its egregious abuse, and
  2. Profit-seeking by mainstream media outlets results in filtration and distortion of their messages and actions.

These challenges severely impede public understanding of groups. In the end, this undermines the earnest efforts of groups to compromise mutually-beneficial solutions to the complex problems of today’s world. Thus, Blocvox ultimately seeks to restore the promise of the freedoms of speech and association to make the world safer, freer, and more enriching to everyone. (Hey, at least I can’t be faulted for not thinking big enough.)

To say this is the most ambitious product I’ve ever worked on is an understatement. The expectations of modern web consumers are exacting. The social media landscape is crowded by some very heavy gorillas, and a veritable glut of capuchins. Oh, and did I mention, aside from immeasurable support and feedback from family and friends, I’m the only one currently undertaking the venture? Still, I can’t imagine doing anything else at this point in my life.

So what will 2013 bring, you ask?

Resolved, that my body fat percentage will be less than 15% for the last six months of the year.

This one’s a lot less open to interpretation. Drat.

Interested in staying up to date with Blocvox? Find it on the following services:

The CSS culture problem

I just read this article about CSS, essentially aiming to define some techniques to enhance maintainability. I appreciate the author’s attempt to bring an engineer’s eye to the discipline of document styling, and it’s a conversation that certainly needs more contributors, but I feel this article simply furthers the current state of confusion and resulting apathy in the community.

Based on the innacurate assessment that HTML has value without CSS (ever use Google Docs without CSS?) whereas CSS cannot exist without HTML (isn’t that what all those wildly popular CSS frameworks are?), the author argues that separating style from the intended document context is good architecture. Doing this results in an explosion of generic utility declaration blocks, with little rhyme or reason. Are these blocks the product of refactoring, or does a design architect/dictator craft them? How fine- or coarse-grained should they be? How do you guard against all the normal baggage of non-semantic naming and global utility code? How do you prevent their direct use from HTML documents? How do you mitigate or control repetition and mixin explosion? How are they managed in source artifacts? Without context, the code has little focus. There is no disciplinary framework to prevent it from becoming a massive ball of spaghetti.

It’s funny that the author even attempted to make this point while criticizing non-semantic CSS framework naming at the same time. Simply put, abstraction is not an end. Separating style into document agnostic utilities and document-aware glue is over-engineering that reminds me of EAV modeling. But on this premise, the author advocates using non-parameterized mixins as an abstraction mechanism to make it easier to re-use declaration blocks. I fail to see how this is any more maintainable than using selector groups. In fact, we only end up with repetitive CSS that takes longer to process. (The author would do better to use the ‘extends’ feature of Sass or Stylus to effect this misguided approach.)

It’s the culture, stupid

Although the author goes on to touch on cascade management, the focus of the article is this non-parameterized mixin-centric architecture. The root problem with this is the false premise that declaration blocks are a common or ideal candidate for re-use, but I understand why the author presumes this. While I rarely find declaration blocks ripe for re-use, I commonly see the undisciplined grouping of selectors that represent design subjects that have no conceptual commonality. This is akin to refactoring Person and Street to derive from a common base class because they both have a Name. Why is this so common? Because engineers take a dim or dismissive view of the visual designer.

The visual designer’s job is to inspire, with as much fidelity as possible, the user’s mental model with the product’s information architecture. He achieves this by carefully synthesizing user research with product research into visual and interactive subjects. This is a discipline requiring great expertise and depth, but is usually treated by developers as a strictly upstream process. The correct approach is to use design artifacts as a reference point to engage in deeper requirements gathering, to understand the intention behind various design decisions and attributes, much like one would with a business subject matter expert. This conversation should be on-going and should touch on everything from color to spacing. The information gathered is the raw material from which a maintainable, well-designed stylesheet collection can be built.

I prefer to think of the stylesheet as authored by an individual who advocates for the visual designer. His goal is to capture the underlying concepts and the relations intended by the visual designer in a way that is idiomatic to CSS (or whatever hypothetical stylesheet language is used). On the other hand, the document template author typically advocates for performance (DOM, transport size, template processing), marketing (SEO), usability (accessibility), etc. The two must collaborate to create a document structure that is suitable to both. In practice, these roles are performed by the same person. It’s difficult, but not impossible, for the same person to switch hats and advocate for all concerns. After all, this is just another application of the Single Responsibility Principle.

Make no mistake, there’s enough blame to go around. Perhaps visual designers can be faulted for not disclaiming any implied completeness of mockups or other simple artifacts, triggering on-going engagement with the developers. And, as stated, managers and technical leads can be faulted for not explicitly directing visual design interviews by front-end engineers. Most troubling might be that visual designers themselves lack a clear conceptual discipline when creating visual designs. Even if they were to be interviewed, one would only discover that their creations were driven by inarticulable instinct and intuition. But this is no excuse. Project commisioners trust the development team to raise flags about project risks like these. Thus it’s incumbent upon the developer to demand and drive a deeper explanation of the visual design (or to communicate the risk to ongoing front-end development agility). That should generally manifest itself in seeking more methodical, conscious visual designers. Worst case, the developer is forced to infer underlying concepts and relations from artifacts. With understanding of the cultural problem and the importance of encoding the design’s intent, this can at least be done consciously to avoid arbitrary and inappropriate CSS design. Regardless, change begins with no one but the front line developers.

Without respect for the visual designer, front-end developers lack crucial information to craft nuanced implementations, and managers have no reason for allocating resources to do this. But if maintainable, adaptable CSS is important, then proper visual design requirements gathering is crucial. So the solution to improving the state of CSS starts with refocusing the development process and resources on the visual designer’s intent. And when intent is properly represented, not only can more informed, nuanced code be crafted, but a particular set of patterns and anti-patterns also emerge. Only then should pre-processors be brought in. Otherwise, one ends up writing articles like the one cited, which treat symptoms superficially because of misdiagnosis. Prognosis: more pain.

One such pattern takes the technique mentioned in the 37signals citation to the logical conclusion, to use child selector chains to create groups of related rulesets that effectively form isolated sub-stylesheets capable of representing complex visual subjects. Another is simply to name magical strings and numbers using pre-processor variables to effect proper re-use. These two techniques alone go a long way toward crafting maintainable, easy-to-use, massive web UIs. An anti-pattern is using selector groups to effect cross-subject re-use; I have found it’s rare to for a visual designer to intend a specialization hierarchy of visual subjects. I hope to find time to expound on this in the future.

In the meantime, I hope we can begin giving visual designers the respect they deserve.

Stress and the pre-launch vision cycle

A friend recently pointed me to this article by startup connoisseur extraordinaire Paul Graham.

…the most dangerous traps now are new behaviors that bypass our alarms about self-indulgence by mimicking more virtuous types [of behavior].

So true and applicable to startups, yet so ambiguous. I have struggled at length with this one; as both the “engineer” and the “creative/product guy”, I can find ways to justify almost any activity. Right now I’ve resigned to accept that all decisions may be influenced by self-indulgence, and that it’s a necessary cost of being a solo, pre-launch founder. Maybe it’s a cop-out, but the alternative seems to be a paralyzing spiral of self-doubt and less meaningful product visions. Lucky for me, my funding outlook (the ultimate deadline) and other (artificial) deadlines have pretty strong chilling effects on my activity planning. I’ve learned to acknowledge any enjoyment I could get from a potential activity, which triggers a counteracting impulse of flexibility and self-restraint. I figure I’m okay as long as I say “not right now” to enough questionable things to allow me to stay on target to get the minimal viable product out the door in a timely fashion.

I’ve observed a recurrent cycle of doubt, cognitive dissonance, and renewed confidence in the vision. Sometimes the dissonance is resolved by debunking the original basis for the doubt, but other times it’s resolved by altering the vision. Over time, this strengthens confidence in the vision, which serves as a bedrock to foster steady-handed execution and motivate me even when specific activities appear on their own to be self-indulgent or distracting (e.g. exhaustive tweaks to the UX or retrofitting to use a new framework, both of which can feel worthless if not for confidence in the underlying vision).

I think this is the underlying pattern that will always be true pre-launch, where one has no market/user feedback data to go by, only speculation. Being a solo founder has an advantage in dealing with this. While it’s true that a co-founder can share in the research, customer outreach, networking, brainstorming, product development, building, and, in general, The Work, this person also brings a potentially limitless source of friction to tweaking the vision/strategy. Thus, when a founder experiences self-doubt, it’s harder to resolve the cognitive dissonance because of the friction to negotiating changes to the vision. Instead, a portion of the doubt must be internalized and carried on, compounding itself into increasing amounts of stress.

I’ve got a “healthy” amount of stress myself just working against a budget, but just writing about the potential pre-launch stress of being hamstrung by co-founders has me counting my blessings. Like the ability to freely change margins from 7px to 5px.

Radio shows, Western-ness, and science enthusiasm don’t make you right.

The staff at Radiolab, the WNYC-based, NPR-distributed radio show, recently recorded an extremely biased, callous interview that was as offensive for it’s lack of scientific rigor as it was for it’s cultural bias, two strains of intellectual weakness that no doubt fed off each other. It was an arrogant display of racism, ironically in a podcast about truth. The only truth displayed is that the producer and hosts are unaware of their biases, and the producer in particular is completely crippled by, and even proud of it. There was no science in this episode, only cultural disrespect and ethnocentrism. Their attitudes reminded me of those of mental health authorities in the 50s, where passion is misinterpreted as confusion or insanity. Their attitudes also reminded of the cavalier attitudes held by cable “news entertainers,” who not only completely disregard the opinions of those they see as inferior, but also seem genuinely and entirely incapable of any degree of empathically understanding their views. The episode is here. I can only conclude these guys were always in over their heads, but at some point they lost any humility about it.

It makes me all the more frustrated that people argue there’s enough, or too much, diversity in higher education. I was lucky enough not to succeed in my pursuit of my engineering degree. I was instead forced to continue my higher education in the university’s arts and science college, studying (what was at the time) my next favorite subject, political science. The college’s g.e. requirements led me to stumble upon courses exploring the philosophical bases of knowledge, the relationship between knowledge and social power, and the history of bias in research. It was a true blessing in disguise. Education can open the world, but without diversity it closes the world.

Me & Mrs. Jones.

Say there’s this really big family, the Jones’ with like 20 kids, and they all go the same school. Mrs. Jones makes excellent PB&J sandwiches, and she sends each of her kids to school with one every day. This makes Mrs. Jones the envy of the neighborhood.

Then there’s this other family, the Browns. They also have 20 kids. Mr. Brown sends them to the same school everyday with these godawful ham sandwiches. I mean, basically raw pig flesh on a piece of cardboard.

Anyway during recess, these kids and all the other kids from smaller families in the neighborhood trade their food and toys with each other. Those PB&Js are worth a lot. A Jones kid nets himself a stack of Pokemon cards (or pogs or marbles), 5 Oreos and last night’s spelling homework with one PB&J. On the other hand, all 20 Brown kids have to give up their sandwiches for a single PB&J.

One Sunday night, one of the Browns comes up with a scheme. If they all stay up and help Pa Brown every night making pig sandwiches, they can increase their buying power. On Monday, they come to school with a whopping 20 “sandwiches” each, and proceed to try to trade all 400 of them for the Jones kids’ 20 PB&Js. Some other kids get in their first so they aren’t able to buy up all 20, but they get half of them. On Tuesday, they decide to increase thier odds by offering 21 pig sandwiches for one PB&J, and the Jones’ go for it, trading 19 of their PB&Js for 399 cardboard treats. BAM! The Browns are in business.

Wednesday, the other kids catch on and start throwing in extra Cheez-Its and homework assignments for those PB&Js, pushing the value of the PB&J up even higher. The Jones see this and start to get a little greedy. One says to his siblings “Hey, these guys love us. I’ll bet we can get even more stuff out of them with IOUs!” So the Jones’ start raking in even more stuff against IOUs: cotton candy, tickets to Justin Bieber, those stupid plastic sunglasses with the horizontal slits in them.

What the Browns lack in taste and quality, they make up for in hard work, quantity and determination. They redouble their efforts and increase their pseudo-sandwich output to 1200 per night. Through hard work and strategic purchases they’ve been able to push the PB&J value up to double it’s original value. But those devilishly clever guys spot another opportunity. All those IOUs that the Jones’ sold are going un-honored. The poor saps holding them are starving. So the Browns trade for those too.

Don’t get me wrong. Life ain’t easy in the Brown household. Every night they are beaten if they don’t make enough sandwiches. Life sucks, but they believe it’s for the long-term good. The rest of the kids taunt them for being so sleep-deprived and dirty. But the Browns don’t care. At least they are guaranteed a PB&J every night, and if all goes according to plan, that will be increased to two next month. And three in 6 months. Life could be worse, and in fact, things are looking good for the long term.

The new reality is starting to sink in for the Jones’. Mrs. Jones still has a great reputation for PB&J’s, but they’re in huge debt. They know their path is unsustainable, but as long as people keep giving them stuff for IOUs, they don’t want to face the pain of correcting their actions (giving up those IOUs and stopping the exchange of PB&Js for a lot of cheap crap). Meanwhile, it’s the Browns that are helping everyone out, trading pig meat for those IOUs. The Browns changed the game, competing on price, and sacrificing their quality of life for long-term welfare. Some might accuse them of dragging the Jones down a path of economic terrorism. Mr. Brown simply reminds them that along the way, everything going on between him and Mrs. Jones was completely consensual, singin’

Me and Mrs, Mrs Jones, Mrs Jones, Mrs Jones
Mrs. Jones got a thing going on
We both know that it’s wrong
But it’s much too strong to let it cool down now

CSS Words

I’ve felt for a long time that CSS is a complex technology worthy of study and careful design. Not enough attention is given to advanced concepts like specificity, stacking contexts, selector performance, accessibility, maintainability and opinionated code design, while topics like animations and media queries receive disproportionate attention. Anyway, part of developing CSS expertise requires understanding the terminology. I’ve compiled the major terms from various specifications here.

  • All constructs are called Statements.
  • Valid Statements begin with non-whitespace, end with closing brace or semi-colon.
  • All Valid Statements are at-rules and/or containers for nested statements.
  • at-rules that contain nested statements: @media, @document.
  • Other at-rules: @import, @charset.
  • Remaining nested statements are Rule Sets (aka Rules).
  • Rule Sets consist of a Selector Group and a Declaration Block.
  • A Selector Group consists of a comma-separated list of Selectors.
  • A Contextual Selector consists of a chain of Simple Selectors and Combinators.
    • Combinators are whitespace, >, and +.
  • The elements in the document tree that match a Selector are that Selector’s Subjects.
  • A Simple Selector begins with a Type or optionally the Universal Selector *. If it is omitted, the Universal Selector applies. Optionally following this are Attribute Selectors, ID Selectors, or Pseudo-Classes. (The period notation is a shortcut Attribute Selector. See below.) Finally, an optional Pseudo-element may be added.
    • Type examples from an HTML document are body, p, div.
  • ID Selectors are denoted by #.
  • Pseudo-classes are denoted by : and include Link pseudo-classes, Dynamic pseudo-classes, the first-child psuedo-class and the Lang pseudo-class.
    • Link consists of link and visited.
    • Dynamic consists of active, hover, and focus.
    • Lang … is complicated.
  • Pseudo-elements represent actual content containers, as opposed to representing mere alternate states.
  • Attribute Selectors are enclosed in square brackets and include the attribute name, and optionally a match operator (not official term) and value. Without a match operator and value, the selector matches any “set” value.
    • Match operators include = (exact match), ~= (list of space-separated values to match exactly), and |= (hyphen-separated list of values to match beginning).
    • The period notation is a shortcut for space-separated matching against the “class” attribute, i.e. .value is equivalent to [class~="value"].
  • A Declaration Block consists of open/close braces, and semi-colon-separated list of Declarations.
  • Declarations consist of a colon-separated Property-Value pair.

The 7-10 Split

Prices were just “released” for the Microsoft Surface tablet. Many are claiming the low-end price is too high to penetrate the established tablet market. I think these people ignore several things.

First, they are targeting different user profiles. Traditionally, tablets support a consumption-oriented type of computing. Reading books, watching movies, browsing the web, casual gaming. You don’t pull out your tablet and start composing the great American novel/application on that virtual keyboard. Beyond tweets and text messages, it’s severely inconvenient. Although Apple jumpstarted the tablet industry with a 10″ 4:3 aspect ratio device, we’ve seen strong demand for smaller, cheaper, widescreen devices. This 7″ tablet demand reflects their ability to meet the need for consumption-oriented devices. In fact, we now see (or accept rumors) that Apple will join the smaller tablet market, strongly supporting the idea that the screensize and price form a market niche/sweetspot.

Based on this, I contend that the 7″ tablet market will significantly splinter from the 10″ market over the next year. The second factor comes from the significantly greater capabilities of Microsoft’s 10″ Surface tablet. Specifically, the Surface will be able to run a full-fledged OS, and can be paired with a dedicated physical touch keyboard (that probably lacks tactile/haptic feedback). Together, this supports creation-oriented computing, (word processing, spreadsheet… sheeting, graphics processing, even light programming) which has historically been the domain of the desktop and laptop markets. Professionals looking for a device that allows them to do light work on the train, while waiting for meetings to start, or at a coffee shop, and also read a book, watch a movie or play a game in bed, will find these large tablets to be very compelling. Moreover, their professional-sized pocketbooks can support this higher-priced market, where a student’s or homemaker’s wouldn’t. The 7″ tablets and 10″ tablets will effectively cater to separate market sweetspots, and the Surface tablet pricing appropriately anticipates this.

This wouldn’t infringe on the ultaportable laptop market. Those devices are pricier and designed for heavy computing, with no intention of providing a consumption-oriented experience. Also, I believe this market fragmentation will fare better than that of the netbook years ago, which were too low-powered (and ridiculously artificially limited) to sustain its market. It really depends on how well these new devices can support the creative needs of professionals. If it can run a decent text editor, msbuild my smaller projects, and decently host them locally in IIS Express, I’d be all over it. …Well, if I weren’t so fully committed to bootstrapping my startup right now, that is.

Update: So those prices ($499 starting) were in fact for the Surface RT, the version that will run only a stripped down consumption-oriented version of Windows 8. If the machine can run (or be “coerced” into running) the development tools I mentioned above, I would be enticed. However, at this price point, I think the audience is much smaller. The device will run a specialized version of the Office applications, but without the more general capabilities afforded by the full-fledged OS, it might not appeal to a critical mass to sustain itself in the marketplace. Starting price for Surface Pro be more than $250 above the starting price for Surface RT. That feels to me like the edge of the sweet spot for a creation-oriented 10″ tablet.

The Right to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness …But Mostly Liberty

My friend Kenny posted this interview video of the Libertarian Presidential nominee, prompting me to conduct a little research into the Libertarian platform. Their principals are summed up in the slogan: minimum government, maximum freedom. I think to cut a little through that rhetoric, “freedom” here means liberty, as in one of the unalienable rights explicitly mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. Hrm, makes one wonder what they have against Life and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Anyway, from a cursory examination, my sticking points with their platform are flat consumption tax and repeal of gun laws. (Yes, complete repeal of all gun laws.)

While instinctively opposed to a flat tax, after thinking about it, I’m open to a flat tax on earned income, but progressive on unearned, discretionary (above-poverty) income. The “prebate” idea seems cool on principle. I too, would love to get rid of social engineering and complications in the tax code; however, I would keep deductions for charity, and keep some form of estate tax, as these bare directly on fairness and social order.

Why progressive? Basically, I think of “fair” as meaning “equal sacrifice” rather than “equal rate”. Because of the diminishing marginal utility to income, a progressive tax makes better use of that marginal income (assuming gov’t services are good).

Investors might argue they perceive constant marginal utility to income, but I also distinguish between active and passive economic participation, earned vs unearned income. Investment has the potential to merely magnify the actual efforts of others. And while it might be risky, unlike earned income it doesn’t require any prolonged effort of its own. Passive discretionary income is basically lazy and does not represent prolonged action to progress society, which I believe is a cornerstone of American culture. This “progress deficit” is made up for with progressive tax (no pun intended).

Also, while incremental increases in income can be attributed completely to an individual’s efforts and risk-taking, I generally believe exponential increases depend to some degree on luck. I realize that might be a controversial opinion, and “American Dreamers” will probably convulse violently at its thought. Example: a huge account landed in your lap and you didn’t screw it up, fast-forward 12-months you get a massive raise or commission. Or, you took the risk to start a company at the same time some unpredictable confluence of events put your product in extreme demand. It follows from this that with exponential income levels, there’s on average an increasing amount of chance that played a role in your income level. Put differently, you earned more than your own effort/risk appetite warranted. A progressive tax accounts accounts for excessive effects of unfair circumstances.

Random thought: a logarithmically progressive income tax that scales continuously to balance the budget (including debt repayment), i.e. unearned_discretionary_tax_rate = budget_factor * (1 + log(income)). This puts the onus on politicians to reduce services in order to lower taxes (and get re-elected). It also introduces a hell of a lot of volatility and uncertainty into the economy so there would need be enough of a moving average and/or delay applied. It would also have to be calculated continuously based on realized expenses as opposed to big jumps each day a spending bill takes effect. Still it might cause some weird strategic or speculative behavior, like taking extra short-term risks because taxes are rising, or delaying economic activity because a bill that cuts spending is gaining lots of support in Congress. We see that anyway with the Fed tinkering with rates; people will survive.

Regarding gun rights/control, I think the question is how where do we draw the line? No line? Well, we already agree that “dangerous weapons” can be controlled, as individuals cannot own nuclear weapons, missiles, land mines, hand grenades, chemical agents, etc. What about assault weapons? What about age? Criminal or violent background? People that are enraged? People that own 500 guns already. We have to break down “the right to bear arms” into finer principles to determine where the line is drawn. To me, the principles are clearly encoded in the Bill of Rights: to have a regulated state militia, not to have one-man armies or gun Kwik-E-Marts. I think our society’s glorification of guns arises from excessively individualistic strains of American culture. Rather such a every-man-for-himself vision of America, I prefer one of skeptical cooperation, which is I feel the state militia is founded in. It’s not much different than my support for global nuclear disarmament. Sure, we could argue that nations are entitled to nukes, but does it make the world a safer place?

One might argue, “Government has no right restricting me from anything. I can own as many cars, microwaves, and chairs as I want. Children can own chairs! I can bring home a microwave from Best Buy in 15 minutes. Why should some specially formed metallic object be any different?” Because those objects are extremely dangerous, and a society that treats gun ownership like that of any other mundane object is one that would have much less social order, be culturally unstable, and would therefore lack the conditions for a strong economy. This in turn would leading to increased poverty and dependence on other nations. Basically, Life and the Pursuit of Happiness are sacrificed in for Liberty.

On Candidate Evil

My friend Jeff posted these thought-provoking articles recently: Why I Refuse to Vote for Barack Obama, and It’s a Party, But Not a Game: Why I’m not voting for Obama.

First, drone wars. Whether it’s laziness, willful blindness or lack of media coverage (or just me reading not reading the right news sources), the depth of this issue caught me by surprise. Until reading this, it’s been a while since I thought much about it, but just a cursory reflection exposes serious problems: messier operations that kill more civilians, terrorizing foreigners, no chance to take prisoners, shady politics required to permit use of drones in foreign countries, less risk to soldiers leading to less media coverage (we gotta get NewsCopter 9 on the front lines!). I can only assume from the fact that this is not (or no longer) part of the national discourse that the vast majority are ignorantly blissful, and that the fourth branch of government is broken (nothing new there).

The President using military force in Libya was a sad demonstration of his lack of integrity. I don’t mean to make apologies for his contradiction, but the “Arab Spring” (hate that term, might as well call it the Arab Enlightenment or the Arab Unbarbarization) was profound and legitimately unprecedented. Still, he should have “owned” his contradiction in the face of the public.

Regarding the main idea, of having candidate policy “deal-breakers”. I agree that the vote fraud at the DNC convention, the continuation of the PATRIOT act, and the use of drones are evil, so I admit that a vote for Obama is a vote for the lesser of three evils. Still I prefer him to Johnson. Superficially I don’t like flat tax or the repealing gun control, but on top of that, I have no reason to assume Johnson won’t end up with his own evil policies. Yes I am in fact saying that Obama has a known, predictable degree of evil, and that this is better than an unknown degree of evil. But it begs another question: if I do agree the above are evil, should they not be “deal-breakers” that force me to abstain entirely? No easy answer here so, Bam! Cognitive dissonance. It took me a while to formulate this.

First, the deal-breaker idea attaches deep moral meaning to voting, meaning which I think is overstated. The ideal democratic system is the one which can faithfully discern the will of the electorate, and quickly transition society to the optimum (most acceptable, least rejected) state. The better the system is at the first potint, discerning the will, the more meaningful the vote becomes. I don’t hold our system to be remotely good at discerning the will, therefore voting is not as morally meaningful as one might initially think it is. The fundamental problem is the reliance on first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting, which entrenches a two-party system. A two-party system makes over-simplification of issues and limitation of choice routine. Worst, for issues on which the established parties agree, FPTP (along with some other voting systems) has no controls against outright tyranny. It doesn’t really matter that in this election there are candidates with no apparent evil policies who you can morally support; participation in any American election condones a greater evil, the tyrannical potential of FPTP (aka the “tyranny of the majority”). Powerful examples of this have been the struggles of both the African-American and the LGBT communities for equality. So how do we reconcile the tyrannical potential of FPTP with our general appreciation for democracy? We acknowledge that this system produces choices that are necessarily crude, and that therefore political expression mustn’t be constrained to the voting booth.

(This pertains to the second part of my definition of ideal democracy, the ability of the system to act quickly based on the stated will of the people to transition society to the preferred/optimum state. American government is inefficient at this as well–think earmarks, and lobbying and special interests–so we already know that to change society, we must not rely on government. Expressing ourselves, and working through NGOs are as much part of American politics as is the government and politicians are.)

So all that proves is that evil exists in all candidates in all elections. Then why not abstain? Because usually that entails greater evils. Since abstention is a choice, it is effectively a candidate as well. As a candidate, it must be looked at with the same skepticism. How do you determine if the “abstention candidate” supports evil policies? The abstention candidate aligns itself with the candidate most likely to win. If the race is a virtual tie amongst the “real” candidates, the abstention candidate aligns itself with the more evil of them (given there is a discernable difference). Why? Because if you didn’t abstain, you would (I assume) vote for the lesser of the evils, which would break the tie in his/her favor.