politics

A Black Mirror thought experiment – what actually scares you about “Nosedive”

Is the Black Mirror episode “Nosedive” really just about social media? Other analysis suggests that is what makes “Nosedive” terrifying. Yet, I think if you look at it that way, you’re missing the real point of the episode.

Warning: Full spoilers for S3E01 !

Black Mirror at the coffee shop

The new season of Black Mirror is out, and at least the first episode is as solid as the previous seasons. The episode is called “Nosedive” and it explores a world in which all of our various rating systems are connected together, and an aggregate rating determines just about everything in your life. So your Uber ranking is mixed with the number of “likes” your posts get on Instagram, which is mixed with your credit score, and so on. To top it off, anyone can rate anyone else at any time – politeness is a must. All of this adds up to create a super-powerful “Klout”-like score. That score is useful to get you into country clubs (no one under 3.8/5 “stars” allowed), useful in job interviews, gets you discounts on financing, lets you skip the line at the rental car agency, extended again to everything in society. The episode doesn’t go into it, but you can assume that you start off with a 3.0 when you become 18 years old, or something similar – mirroring how you start of fairly neutral in Uber/Airbnb/etc rankings.

Boiled down to it, in the dystopia portrayed in “Nosedive”: social class, economic class, and your public life have no boundaries. All impact each other, and a mistake in one has ramifications beyond just that sphere.

Everyone in today’s world finds this terrifying. Not least because life has again uncannily mimicked art and a Chinese bureaucrat earnestly proposed this solution for Chinese citizens independently of the show.

But what is it about “Nosedive” that is so terrifying?

I’m going to try a thought experiment. I’m going to compare the two societies, and then play the devil’s advocate and suggest that Black Mirror’s “Nosedive” society may be better than our current one.

In our current society, social class already strongly impacts your economic class. Do you think you could successfully get an offer at your company today if you had an accent that placed you in either “the hood” or “the boonies”? What about prestigious academic positions? Simply being around rich people gives you a leg up as well – see how much effort parents make to move into wealthy school districts, for example.

Similarly, your public life now directly affects both your social and economic class. And increasingly, it does so immediately – see Justine Sacco’s one big mistake on Twitter to see how true that is. Even the incident at the airport could easily be replicated in our own time. Making a poor-taste joke at the airport could send you to jail, which could easily cause you to lose your job. Perhaps you fight back a bit when the police officer tries to detain you – now that felony is now essentially a permanent “minus 1 star” on your record for the rest of your life.

The one part of the “Nosedive” narrative that goes a little farther than our current society is the sad saga of the coworker ostracized due to being on the “wrong side” of a breakup. He eventually loses his job in the process. We still do have a bit more of a public / private life separation, where we would probably not penalize someone so harshly for a simple breakup. Also, for dramatic effect, the cost of a mistake is faster to take hold, and there doesn’t seem to be any leniency for someone who only made a few mistakes.

‘Schimmy, so the society in “Nosedive” is not quite as different from ours as we think. But still, it’s not like we’re being judged by the popular girl from high school in the same way! I don’t live in the same fear that someone might not give me a house because I don’t have enough Instagram followers, or that I might argue with an authority figure when I’m having a bad day and lose my societal freedoms, or that even just a run-in with someone in my local housing community could change my life negatively in a huge way.’

You might say that. And if you did, I’m going to guess you’re not a person of color.

See, the thing that freaks us (I’m speaking as privileged white folks) out about “Nosedive” is not that the person we hated in high school has so much power over us, or we now we have to pay even more attention to Facebook.

What freaks white (privileged, etc) people out about “Nosedive” is that in this dystopia, our privilege and power can easily be stripped away from us with no warning. This would leave us naked in our cold, indifferent, hostile society. The society that we currently can ignore via our Instagram feeds of tapenade and lattes. It’s a darker, updated, more realistic version of Trading Places, and it’s terrifying.

So here’s my experiment. Imagine Lacey, the protagonist in “Nosedive”, making the same choices with the same actions, but in our current society. But imagine that instead of losing stars during the episode, the protagonist loses socio-economic capital. So in the current American socioeconomic-value-system, with every star lost she would:

  • Adopt a more “hick” accent / immigrant accent
  • Show a darker skin color
  • Lose experience in navigating airline and car rental systems
  • Gain more items in her “background check” that might disqualify her
  • Show more tattoos / clothing that betrayed lower socio-economic status
  • Express faith in the “wrong” religions

So when we see Lacie walking around the cars futilely looking for a car charger, we think it’s a dystopian nightmare that no one helps her, even though clearly she’s really a good person down on her luck. However, in our current society, imagine a Hispanic man, with tattoos, with a thick accent asking for a jump for his car at 3 AM in a gas station parking lot. Would you give him the jump? Would your parents?

Similarly, when in the airport, Lacey gets “dinged” harshly for speaking back to authority. It feels unfair, and like something that our society wouldn’t allow. Surely someone should be able to have a bad day once in a while!

But what if someone in our society named “Mohammed” gets just as angry in an airport? Or if you’re a black man having a bad day… and you talk back a bit and resist the police about to “ding” you for trying to make a living?

Finally, think to the last scene. In this scene, Lacey has finally achieved literally zero social capital. She has zero “stars”. All of the party guests have judged her to be a threat and not welcome at the wedding. She picks up a knife, desperate to reach through to the society that has rejected her, searching for some way to make them see who she is and listen to her. Desperate to regain her socioeconomic status, desperate to belong in the country club amongst the wealthy and attractive guests.

The bid fails, and she is gently taken into custody by the private staff of the country club.

Lacey threatening the guests with a knife

Now imagine instead a mentally disabled black man with tattoos and the “wrong” clothes, waving the exact same knife near the high-status bride at the fashionable, wealthy, white wedding he’s crashed.

In our society, that man is shot dead by the cops who respond. Immediately.

Thus my argument is that the “Nosedive” world could be a better world than our current American society. The risks and consequences of screwing up online or in-person on our society are just as high as in “Nosedive”. Social standing is just as influential to your career, to dating, to everything. There are only degrees of difference between the “Nosedive” world and our own world when it comes to how integrated our personas are.

The main difference: in “Nosedive”, everyone starts out with 3 stars, everyone can lose stars equally, and everyone knows the rules. In our society, everyone starts off with wildly different socioeconomic statuses. It’s very difficult to gain or lose “stars”, even amongst generations. And in our society, the higher your status, the more you understand the rules.

It’s a tilted game, but it’s not terrifying to you. Why? Because you, the person reading this on Medium, are likely already above 4 stars. You know how the game is played, and you know you don’t have to worry that what happened to Lacey could happen to you.

lack of opportunity in mobility

So is the scary thing about “Nosedive” that social media might have more power over your work life?

No.

The scary part about “Nosedive” is that it imagines a world in which your privilege is no longer locked in by stable things as race, upbringing, and education. What scares you about the portrayal is the fear that the ladder could be kicked out from under you, and you would have to face the true monster of how society treats those of us who have so few “stars”, who are at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder.

This is what makes Black Mirror‘s “Nosedive” actually terrifying.

politics

No, you’re not moving to Canada, and you need to stop joking about it

Dear fellow privileged, progressive citizens of the US: I know you don’t like Donald Trump.

picture of donald trump smirking

My Twitter and Facebook feeds are positively on fire with your distaste. I understand it – I can’t stand the guy either, and believe him becoming president might be the worst disaster to befall America since 9/11. Some of you even draw comparisons with Hitler and think Trump would be as bad for America and its less-privileged as Hitler was for Germany. That seems like a stretch to me, but sure, believe what you will.

And so there are the jokes:

  • “Oh I hear Canada is nice this time of year”
  • “Well, there’s always Canada, even if it’s America’s hat”
  • “I’ll have to get used to apologizing, but living in Canada would be better than enduring a Trump presidency”

canadian flag

 

The premise of the joke is simple: Trump would be so bad for America that you’d rather move to Canada than live in the dystopian nightmare that (you believe) America would become under Trump. Progressives have said the same thing when George W. Bush was running for office, and even when Reagan was running for president nearly 40 years ago.

You need to stop. You need to stop making the joke publicly, at the very least. Let’s be honest: you’re not going to move to Canada, and it’s making us progressives look bad.

The problem with this joke is that, to the right-wing (and to those in the middle), it confirms the suspicions that they’ve had all along. Suspicions that the left doesn’t really love America. That the progressive dislike of our military power is less a principled stand against empire or oppression and instead is a dislike of the people who make up the military. That the progressive championing of marginalized voices is less a support of those speaking and instead more of a means to drown out the voices of those who disagree with us. That the progressive belief in the good of government is instead just a means to meddle in others’ business. And on and on…

The event of a Trump presidency would be the hour of progressive despair. In this moment, if you really care and believe in the causes progressives claim to support, it would become even more crucial that you show up, stand up, and fight for those progressive causes. If you moved to Canada, with your privilege, access and resources, you’d lose the power to impact American politics. You would become a bystander to the dystopia that you’re predicting. You would abandon those marginalized voices you claim to support. In short, you would confirm all the suspicions the Right has of progressives.

Now, it could be that you are Progressive but have Mexican heritage, are Muslim, or are likely putting your life on the line in this dystopia that Progressives predict. In that case I don’t presume to tell you how to take care of yourself. If you feel like you need to leave to do that, I offer no judgement, and wish you the best.

But as a plea to my fellow privileged, progressive compatriots: please stop mentioning, joking, planning, or insinuating that you’re moving to Canada if we lose the election. Not only would moving be the morally wrong thing to do, but just discussing it weakens our cause regardless of the outcome. Let’s toughen up, win this election, and keep pushing.

chinese

Using yìdiǎn and yǒu yìdiǎn correctly

Yìdiǎn is used in many ways, and just like “a little bit” in English it’s hard to figure out when you can use it and what it means. I’ve come across three uses so far, and I’ll update this page when I find others.

I’m going to look at these 3 uses:

  1. verb + yìdiǎn = “verbing a bit more”
  2. yǒu yìdiǎn + adjective = “only kind of adjective” (negative connotation)
  3. adjective + yìdiǎn = “adjective to the extreme” (in comparison)

I’m going to use the word “nèn”, which means “tender” as I think it makes the examples more clear than using “big” or something else.

1) verb + yìdiǎn (modifies the verb)

This one is easy: it’s modifying the verb to say that the action is happening more intensely.
For instance, “Wǒ chī yìdiǎn nèn niú ròu” means “I am eating a bit more tender beef”.

I (subject) am eating (verb) a bit more (modifier for the verb, aka adverb) tender (adjective modifying the object) beef (object).

Notice here that we’re not modifying the adjective at all, and the beef in this case is simply “tender”.

I like to think about it as if you had squished the words together into a compound word. In that case it’d be: “I am more-eating tender beef”

2) yǒu yìdiǎn + adjective (modifies the adjective)

This one is moderately hard. I think of this as “only kind of adjective”. It carries a negative tone, almost implying that the adjective is less than you’d expect. For instance, we could say:
“Wǒ chī de niú ròu yǒu yìdiǎn nèn”, which would mean “I am eating somewhat tender beef”. The “yìdiǎn” in this case is “weakening” the adjective instead of “joining forces” with it, as I think of the third case. The “little bit” is modifying the adjective “tender”. Again, this has a negative connotation – if you said this to a friend, they might ask you if you cooked the beef too long, or want another piece, etc.

I (subject) am eating (verb) somewhat (adjective modifying the next adjective, thus indirectly modifying the object) tender (adjective modifying the object) beef (object).

As a compound word: “I am eating not-very-tender beef”.

But really, if you’re living in California in 2016, you’re likely going to say instead: “I eat kinda tender beef”.

3) adjective + yìdiǎn (modifies the noun)

This one is the hardest. I think of this as going “somewhat extreme” with the adjective. It always implies a comparison to another noun, even if the other noun is not explicitly included.

For instance, we could say “wǒ de niú ròu (bǐ nǐ de niú ròu) nèn yìdiǎn” which means “My beef (compared to your beef) is more tender”.

My beef (subject) compared to your beef (explicit or implicit comparison) is more (adjective modifying how tender the beef is by “joining forces” with the next adjective) tender (adjective modifying the object)

Maybe you’re comparing against your normal beef, or perhaps the tenderness of the beef people were expecting you to eat. You could also perhaps translate as: “I am eating beef that is more tender than usual” or “I am eating beef that is more tender than expected”.

As a compound word, it’s: “I am eating more-tender beef”.

Again, if you live in CA you might say: “I eat hella tender beef”.


To summarize:

# word what’s modified slang meaning shorthand example
1 verb + yìdiǎn verb verb-ing a bit more I am more-eating tender beef
2 yǒu yìdiǎn + adjective adjective kinda adjective (negative connotation) I am eating not-very-tender beef
3 adjective + yìdiǎn noun adjective to the extreme (comparison) I am eating more-tender beef

Hopefully this helps! Also note that the “yì” in “yǒu yìdiǎn” might not be there – apparently many speakers leave it out. Please also let me know if there are any issues with the post.

green politics tech

Three ways to fight climate change that Bret Victor missed

Bret Victor just put out a great post about various projects one could work on as a technologist to help with the climate crisis. Many of these are great suggestions for an individual’s ~5 year project, but it might be hard to see how a normal engineer working in the industry could start working on climate change problems.

I’m here to show that you can help fight climate change even if starting a clean tech company or working on a new programming language is out of reach.

Up and to the right, faster and faster

Up and to the right, faster and faster

The three actions seem small, but given our industry’s future trajectory (up and to the right, of course), these can have a huge compound effect into the future:

  1. Choose carbon-efficient server hosting, from the start
  2. Change tech culture around climate change from passive to active
  3. Work for a company tackling an aspect of the climate challenge

We often see climate change as something for other industries to handle – after all, those other industries are moving crops or making steel or feeding cows and we are “just moving bits”. How bad can moving bits be for the environment? Aren’t we already doing well?

It’s true that the tech industry is less carbon-intensive than other industries. However, we are only as “green” as the power our servers draw. While some companies have spent massive efforts on clean energy (kudos, Google!), no one expects or should reasonably expect companies to work outside their core competency.

Luckily for the environment, the more accurately carbon is priced, the better the tech industry does as a whole (see item #2), and so the entire tech industry should be united in working for a solution to climate change.

1) Use carbon-efficient server hosting

Again, we don’t need to smelt aluminum, move wheat, or drive a tractor to do our jobs. But if cloud computing were a country, it would rank 6th in the world for energy usage. This gives us an outsized impact on the energy sector, about the same size as Germany!

cloud & germany

If tech demands clean energy, utilities will have to start providing the clean option, and economies of scale and political barriers start to tip in favor of non-carbon energy sources.

If you’re in one of the green bubbles in the image below, skip to the next section, you’re doing great. However most of us when starting a business just opt for AWS, and while they have some efforts to improve their carbon footprint, there’s little transparency.

If you do use AWS, set your default to us-west-2/Oregon or another carbon-neutral datacenter. At least for the US, us-west-2 has consistently been the cheapest datacenter so this also helps your business. Of course you may need to use some east-coast centers for web latency, but it makes complete sense that data processing should be done with cheap, water-powered, renewable energy.

When you have 100% carbon-neutral servers, your salespeople will happily use this as a selling point, another positive impact to your business. Go ask them how useful that point would be – just send a single email

Some things you personally can do:

  • Use Google or Rackspace to host your servers if it’s easy or you’re starting out. AWS is pretty pricey these days, so it might be a good move for the future
  • If using AWS, use one of the carbon-neutral datacenters
  • Ask your sales team how effective “our servers are 100% carbon neutral” is as a selling point
  • Bug your AWS rep to release their plans for achieving sustainability goals – they won’t continue the program if they think no one is watching, and they’ve been very secretive so far
  • If you work at these companies, start pushing internally for cleaner power:
    • Oracle
    • EBay
    • HP
    • IBM
    • Microsoft

    At the next all-hands, submit a question: “How is X working to reduce the carbon content of our electricity?”. Don’t be appeased by promises to reduce carbon footprints of campus buildings, etc – these are not as effective at changing the energy sector, which is the most important contributor to climate change.

2) Change the tech industry from politically passive on climate change to politically active

Dirty energy allows the old industries (which we often are pushing to change) a free ride at the expense of our future world. For instance, the negative externality of emissions pollution from a gas-powered delivery truck compared to an electric-powered truck (or drone!) isn’t yet priced into the market.

If carbon were correctly priced, this will happen sooner

If carbon were correctly priced, this will happen sooner

A quick list of the technologies which face headwinds without a carbon price:

  • LyftLine and UberPool vs taxis and cars
  • Electric cars (Tesla, Nissan Leaf, BMW i-series) vs gas cars
  • Cloud computing vs self-hosted computing
  • Amazon’s delivery vs Walmart stores
  • Airbnb using unused rooms over excess capacity built into hotels for peak times
  • Netflix vs Blockbuster (obviously Netflix is stronger than the headwinds…)
  • Nest vs traditional thermostats
  • Obviously any green tech targeting energy production like OPower, Mosaic, SolarCity, etc

We’ve united to fight for Net Neutrality, but we haven’t lobbied as hard to end carbon-emission corporate welfare. Again, in this case I’m not even talking about the direct ~$10 billion/year subsidies of fossil fuels in the US alone, but just the invisible negative externality that we’ll all have to pay down the road for each gallon of gas burned and each ton of coal sent up a chimney.

Obligatory renewable energy picture

Obligatory renewable energy image

One of the issues holding back cleaner power for our datacenters is a lack of renewable energy available where we need to place datacenters. I’m looking at you, mid-atlantic states

Some tech companies are spending millions building out their own renewable power because local utilities are fighting against even providing clean energy as an option. Only this year, after years of lobbying, has Google succeeded in changing policy in North Carolina. Our industry should have the ability to purchase the cleaner power we want – reactionary politics shouldn’t stop us from paying for something that is actively better for the community.

So how do we change the culture of tech?

For one – fight the idea that companies and employees should stay apolitical on climate change issues. I believe that companies should not try to support democrats over republicans (or vice versa, etc) or even speak out on less economically focused issues such as gun rights. However, that climate change exists and will be damaging is not a scientifically seriously debated phenomenon, and the health of the economy and the climate is important for the well being of all tech companies.

Do you want your company to thrive for decades? A global economy under pressure, spending billions to fix basic infrastructure issues from climate change is not the best environment to grow a business in. Let’s start acting like the future of the economy matters to our industry, simply because it’s the truth.

So if we’re united, what can we actually do to change policy?

You may not believe it, but politicians listen to us. Yes, the big tech companies have lobbyists with cash briefcases on Capitol Hill and that helps, but there are also a lot of small donations which come from the tech industry employees and executives.

Less cynically, politicians also listen to us because they believe we have some sort of innovation “secret sauce” that keeps American competition alive. This might be true, or it might have been something ad-libbed to get funding from DARPA at some point and everyone’s in on the joke. Doesn’t matter: they believe it!

DARPA loves the tech industry's Sriracha

DARPA loves the tech industry’s Sriracha

  • On Davos/TED/Atlantic panels, talk about how carbon pricing would help your innovative business
  • At Obama fundraising events, ask awkwardly-well-researched questions on renewable energy standards
  • If you happen to rub shoulders with the Washington DC power crowd, chit-chat about Tesla or clean energy, and make it clear that the tech industry expects carbon emissions to be fairly priced, soon

They’ll trust that you can see your way around corners that they can’t, and will start thinking about how they’ll transition their own constituencies to the future that we in the tech industry already take for granted.

If you personally don’t have that kind of access, framing carbon emission pricing as welfare to fossil fuel companies is sure to score a point with your annoyingly-political uncle Joe at the Thanksgiving table. Also, I’m sure you have friends who one day will be a part of the power structure in DC – make sure they understand this idea!

3) Work for a company which is trying to solve the problem

You, personally, have skills which can be literally impossible to purchase. While Bret Victor lays out a number of new projects to tackle, there are also tons of existing organizations out there working on solutions to the crisis. Let’s face it – the job you currently have is unlikely to be your last job. Why not use your skills in the next job to help tackle the climate problem?

Obligatory picture of Elon Musk

Obligatory picture of Elon Musk

Some examples (after 5 minutes of Googling) of places to apply your skills:

You may have to accept a lower paycheck, but I’d argue that the intangible benefits are worth it. You have the means to work on one of the most important projects in human history; consider this an invitation to join the project.

All three points have some common elements:

  • Tackling climate change is good business for the tech industry
  • Your company can help, even if it isn’t directly working on cleantech, and even if you’re only a regular employee
  • There are plenty of ways to earn your paycheck fixing climate issues. You don’t have to try to squeeze it in as a side project

Of course, there is always donating and side projects / volunteering. Those are great options, but make sure you’re actually being effective when doing so! Otherwise, enjoy the rest of your Thanksgiving, thankful for the opportunities you have to not just make a living, but also to make an impact on a crisis critical to solve for the well-being of centuries of human life.

Climate protests happening around the world on November 28th, 2015

Climate protests happening around the world on November 28th, 2015

green

Ontario is different

Last week I visited my sister and her fiancee in Kitchener, a little over an hour outside of Toronto. There were some things I immediately noticed when traveling around, for instance that:
– Toronto doesn’t smell like urine or weed, which was strange to me
– The chip-and-pin system for credit cards is way better than our swipe system
– The American Dream is alive and well in Canada in a way that it is not in America. If I were counseling an immigrant trying to come to North America, I would honestly recommend they move to Canada over the U.S.
– Everything is clean, and so stuff like this happens: racoon

There was one thing which really blew my mind, though. We visited the beautiful Bruce Peninsula and took a ferry out to Flowerpot Island on Lake Huron.

ferry on lake huron

It had not really hit me how arid, how much of a desert California is, until I was on a boat with drinkable, clean, clear water stretching out past the horizon. So much water that you could get on a vessel which floats on the water and travel to the horizon multiple times before reaching the end of the lake. An ocean of drinkable water!

dune

At the time, it reminded me of Dune. It felt to me like I was from Arrakis (the desert planet), and had just landed on Caladan (the home world of the Atreides). This thought was probably triggered by this post. It’s actually inspired me to reread Dune!

The thing is, I’m from a place (Massachusetts) with abundant water – looking back from California, I could hardly believe that as children we would have watergun fights and have little wars with hoses. Visiting Ontario reminded me that there are places which don’t have the water pressure that we do… at least not yet.

water

finance green politics

Why Swarthmore Should Divest

Hi fellow Swattie, I’m glad you’re here. I know that you care about the world, and that you care about the well-being of Swarthmore. You’ve probably heard a bit about fossil-fuel divestment at Swarthmore, and it sounds like an issue you should know more about, but let’s be honest – it seems complicated and you’ve been super busy. Don’t worry, by the end of this post you’ll understand what’s going on and the arguments for either side.

This is an obviously biased post (see the title) but I think its better to have an explicitly biased post than to make an “objective” post that can’t help but be influenced by my own opinions. Whether you agree or disagree, I hope this post is useful. Please let me know what you think below!

This is a long post, so here’s a short version of it:

  • Swarthmore cares about Climate Change
    • I start with the assumption that we agree (like 97% of scientists) that human-created climate change is real and if left unchecked will drastically change the way humans interact with our climate.
    • I also assume that we agree that those changes will be catastrophic and should be avoided at great cost, as those changes involve at the very least massive loss of life and hardship.
    • There is no doubt that this assessment and the need to act is agreed upon by the wider Swarthmore community.
    • We now can talk tactics and pragmatic priorities – the Swarthmore community also cares about financial aid, the long-term success of the college, etc. and must balance those priorities.
  • Divestment is useful:
    • Divestment is worthwhile, but not to affect share price directly. Instead divestment is effective as a way to change the perception of the fossil fuel industry.
    • Swarthmore is well positioned to affect those whose opinions have the most affect on investment in fossil fuels.
    • The current college’s sustainability plan is weak and ineffectual. When looking at this tactically, divestment is a smaller cost for more benefit than retrofitting all the buildings on campus.
  • Even if you don’t care about divestment…
    • It’s actually not clear that divestment will cost anything – in fact we would likely avoid significant losses in the future due to overvaluation of fossil fuel stocks now.
    • Divesting preserves Swarthmore’s values and brand – failure to divest chooses short-term savings at the cost of institutional integrity and perceived brand.

A Quick History of Divestment (focused on fossil fuel divestment and Swarthmore)

  • 1965: Students at Swarthmore suggest divestment from apartheid
  • 1986: Swarthmore decides to fully divest from Apartheid South Africa
  • 1991: Swarthmore Board adopts policy prohibiting further use of endowment for social purposes
  • 1992: Apartheid abolished in South Africa
  • December 2009: Failure of world leaders to pass Climate Change accord in Copenhagen
  • Spring 2011: Swarthmore students (via Swarthmore Mountain Justice) start the campus Climate Change divestment movement
  • December 2011: Hampshire College divests its endowment from fossil fuels
  • 2012: 350.org launches divestment campaign
  • September 2013: Swarthmore Board decides not to divest endowment
  • May 2014: Stanford University divests from coal
  • December 2014: Swarthmore board commits $12 million towards sustainability
  • May 2015: Swarthmore’s board reiterates decision not to divest from fossil fuels
  • The Swarthmore community agrees it should help combat Climate Change

    In writing this post, I assume that the entire Swarthmore community agrees on a few basic things:

    1. Human-caused Climate Change is real (97% of scientists agree, it’s hard to get more certain than that)
    2. If left unchecked, Climate Change will cause significant changes to how our civilization functions
    3. These changes will be catastrophic, causing large loss of life and wealth, and should be avoided at great cost

    Note that I don’t specify that we agree on how much cost we should bear to avoid Climate Change, nor do I suggest that there is a consensus on how to combat it.

    However, these three items show that it is not “political” in the Swarthmore community to suggest that Climate Change is a problem that must be solved. Indeed, our presidents and deans have been speaking for the community recently when they have touched on the topic:

    I believe we all share a deep commitment to finding effective ways to combat the myriad ills that threaten the environment, indeed, the very future of our planet. It is obvious that we agree that sustainability is among the foremost priorities facing our society—and the world—today.
    President Rebecca Chopp, April 2014

    The managers of Swarthmore College agree that climate change is the most pressing issue of our time and that Swarthmore College can—and must—play a leadership role in helping to curb the seemingly insatiable appetite for fossil fuel.
    Board of Managers, May 2015

    We see that Swarthmore community believes that:

    1. Swarthmore is able to help tackle the issue of Climate Change
    2. Swarthmore is morally obligated to do so given its privileged position

    Pragmatic concerns

    So we have determined that Swarthmore as a community is unanimously (or close enough) on board to help solve Climate Change. Now it just becomes a discussion about how we balance our resources between Climate Change and other agreed-upon priorities. This is the political debate – a discussion of how to allocate limited resources amongst a set of priorities.

    In an ideal world, Swarthmore has infinite money, time, and focus to address all the wrongs in the world that we agree about. In the real world, Swarthmore has a few other significant obligations and goals that we must take into account.

    The Swarthmore community also:

    • Desires to continue as an organization as long as possible
    • Desires to help less-wealthy applicants thrive at Swarthmore
    • Desires to gain the highest status possible amongst universities and colleges
    • Desires to end racism, sexism, etc in the wider world

    That’s a lot, but we do have some powerful resources to help us:

    • A $1.88 billion dollar endowment (in the top 20 in the U.S. for per-capita endowment)
    • Respect amongst the academic, cultural, and political elite
    • A strong network of alumni who also share these values

    The first three other desires Swarthmore as a community agrees on are directly tied to the size of the endowment and the returns on it. In order to continue as an organization in perpetuity, a large endowment helps – returns from the endowment helps Swarthmore pay for buildings, faculty, etc. and serves as a reserve fund in times of need. Those funds also help offset tuition breaks offered to less wealthy applicants (and help offset full-price tuition as well). Finally, one mark of respect amongst institutions comes from the size of one’s endowment.

    The last desire is a set of other socially beneficial causes that the community agrees on which we would like to help with. I don’t pretend that Climate Change is the be-all-end-all social cause, but I will argue that much progress in other causes would be undone due to the pressure from Climate Change in the future, and so it would be wise to tackle this issue with a higher priority.

    Additionally, there are fewer clear paths forward for the other social causes: combatting Climate Change requires the world to emit fewer greenhouse gases and ideally reduce the amount of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere. Simple and clear.

    Influencing (as an example) the Black Lives Matter issue is not as straightforward – the Swarthmore community agrees that our society does not value the lives of our black citizens enough, but how do we help? Should we divest from St. Louis-based businesses? Should we support body cameras on police? etc. It is not quite as clear, at least yet, that divestment would be the most effective use of our resources in helping that cause. One could imagine a situation in which divestment would help (for instance divesting from Woolworth’s during the civil rights era to pressure change), and in that case I believe it would be fine to use the endowment as well.

    The Logic of Divestment

    So we have unanimous agreement that there is a problem and we have a clear goal to avoid catastrophic Climate Change: reduce greenhouse gases across the world. So how do we do this in practice?

    The divestment movement suggests that one way to reduce usage of fossil fuels is by altering the perception of the fossil fuel industry amongst investors, particularly large, influential investors. This will inspire less investment in fossil fuels and less consumption following that decrease in investment. Note that the divestment movement does not think that selling the shares themselves will actually cause the share price to change, not without a wider change in perception.

    Currently, fossil fuel companies claim large amounts of coal, oil, and gas reserves as assets on their balance sheets. These companies use investment capital provided by the financial markets to fund more exploration for new resources and to fund R&D to better exploit their current holdings. Investors fund these companies (and by extension, further exploration and consumption of fossil fuels) because it has historically been a good investment. Ideally, however, the negative externalities of carbon in the atmosphere would be priced into the costs of fossil fuels, and the value of these reserves (and therefore the value of the stock) would decrease. This is called the Carbon Bubble.

    Right now, the stock prices of these companies reflect the assumption by investors that the negative externalities of carbon will never be taxed. However, for our civilization to avoid catastrophic Climate Change (see above that the Swarthmore community agrees that we should avoid this), those fossil fuels must not be burned or the negative effects of emitting the carbon should be included in the price of the fuel itself. As an example, each gallon of gas might be priced to include carbon capturing and sequestration of an equivalent amount of carbon elsewhere in the world, similar to offsets you can optionally buy on an airplane. Or more depressingly, the tax on every 100 gallons of gas might go towards resettling a Bangladeshi refugee from sinking land.

    Divestment is a powerful statement about this situation:

    We believe that Climate Change is real, and that the costs of burning fossil fuels will be priced into the fuel itself at some point in the future. We believe that it is unjust to push the burden of dealing with the negative externalities of carbon onto the rest of the world, and that this injustice will end sooner rather than later. We are so confident in this that we are betting large sums of money on this outcome.

    That such powerful institutions both believe that this outcome of carbon being accurately priced will occur and have vested interests in this outcome occurring should encourage all investors to reevaluate the true value and future of fossil fuels. Politicians should as well take notice that fossil fuel jobs are no longer as desirable to attract as before, and that the fossil fuel industry is likely not a reliable, powerful ally beyond the near future.

    Or more succinctly:

    The Carbon Bubble exists, and we as an institution find that the status quo is fundamentally shifting. Divestment is our institution acting upon that finding.

    This statement is somewhat symbolic, but that is the point – divestment highlights to other large institutions and investors that the world has changed, and that investments in fossil fuels are no longer likely to offer decent returns. When the elites of our society suggest that the future will look different, and back that suggestion up with the money that they steward, they’re probably onto something, and you as an investor should probably listen.

    Arguments against divestment by the board

    There are a few common arguments against divestment, starting with the glib response that “someone else will buy the shares”, which is true but misses the point as shown above. The Swarthmore Board of Managers (a body of individuals who elect their own successors under no obligation to listen to the wider community) asserts that divestment will be very expensive and will compromise other priorities the college cares about:

    The College’s budget is dependent on the endowment to support financial aid, sustain its exceptional faculty, provide academic and extracurricular programing, and build and maintain facilities.

    In particular, we seek to preserve our increasingly rare stance of need-blind admissions, funding student need with all scholarships and no loans, and expanding access to our education for those who cannot afford it. In fact, increasing the access of exceptional low-income, first generation, and minority students to Swarthmore is a top priority.

    If we were not able to work with these investment managers, it would cost the college between $10 and $20 million annually based on the past performance of our current managers.

    However, the Board is enthusiastic about spending tens of millions of dollars on sustainability measures on campus. So the Board and the divestment advocates agree: Climate Change is important to combat and we should be willing to spend millions of dollars to do so. The Board’s argument is not that divestment will not work or that it would not be a useful step, but that it is too expensive relative to other alternatives. I’ll detail later on why I think individual action like building a sustainable building is not actually high-impact when it comes to the collective-action problem of Climate Change.

    Additionally, the Board is (rightfully) worried that opening up the endowment to divestment from fossil fuels will encourage activists to approach the Board seeking to use the endowment for other social causes. However, few causes are as apolitical as Climate Change is in the Swarthmore community – there can still be a strong barrier to using the endowment, requiring a sustained campaign to convince the Board that, yes, issue X has near-unanimous support amongst faculty, students, and informed alums.

    Another suggestion which the Board has proposed is using the fractional ownership of these fossil fuel companies to push for sustainability measures. However, I highly doubt this would be effective: without a divestment movement there would always be others to purchase shares, and there is no chance that Climate activist investors will form a large enough section of the shareholder body to effect change.

    As for the Board’s (paraphrased) argument that: “in the past (in 1991) an unelected body decided not to consider social objectives in endowment investments, so we will not consider social objectives today”, well, I can’t imagine any member of the community finding that argument convincing.

    Arguments against divestment by Professor Burke

    A separate and more interesting discussion came from professor Timothy Burke, who has a few great points and one strong concern about tactics. He suggests that:

    • We need to stop treating people who disagree on tactics as if they reject the scientific consensus – there are legitimate debates to be had on the most effective use of limited funds, time, focus, etc.
    • Screening the endowment for “moral purity” is impossible – the college will always end up invested in some form of exploitation
    • Colleges are no longer institutions which can lead the broader nation on social issues, a condition which has been true for at least 30 years

    The first point is important – the ferocity of activists turns off many people I know, and the divestment movement at Swarthmore still has a bad reputation amongst alums from when activists shut down healthy debate and discussion via chanting a few years ago.

    The second point is probably true, but less interesting; complete moral purity is not an outcome which many in the divestment community are actively seeking. Impact is the more important goal of the movement.

    The third point is the most interesting, as we are now talking broader tactics. Professor Burke argues that starting the divestment movement from elite bastions that have little connection to normal Americans and are often resented by a broad spectrum of the country does the movement no favors. He contrasts it with the anti-apartheid movement, a campaign that divestment supporters often reference:

    The anti-apartheid coalition moved outward from progressive activism to a wider political base, and was largely careful to attend to the conditions that would facilitate that movement. It used the university as one stepping-stone because the university was part of a constellation of respected civic institutions that included churches, community groups, local municipal governments, and mainstream journalism.

    That cluster of institutions was already beginning to fragment in the 1980s, and is now almost wholly dispersed. You cannot keep running the same plays if the game itself has fundamentally changed.

    Professor Burke is 100% right that the game has changed. However, I don’t think he realizes how it has changed. The 1970s and early 1980s were a time of institutions and characterized by people having the power to affect change en masse. Unions, coalitions of faith groups, and student groups were successful in actualizing change. This is no longer the case, even amongst people who still belong to unions and who still belong to organized religious groups. In today’s world, star power is more important than ever, and only a few people have the power and influence to make change succeed. For policy, we can take a look at the influence of George Soros or the Koch brothers on energy & finance legislation, or how selective applications of funding from the Gates foundation have transformed large sectors of education. Even teachers unions have been continually on the defensive, and both union and church enrollments have been in decline for decades. Culturally speaking, the local pastor or union leader is an endangered species – an endorsement from Ben & Jerry is probably more valuable than the support of the Methodist churches, for instance, and will get you more press and notice from the people who actually have influence.

    So trying to convince large numbers of Americans is actually not very valuable in today’s society if you actually want to get anything done, and is a hell of a lot harder than the alternative. That alternative is to convince the people with power that you are right. This is even easier than you might think as currently the 400 wealthiest Americans have more wealth than half of all Americans combined! As the divestment movement is structured, it doesn’t even need to appeal to the moral side of those with power, just to the desire for those with power to avoid the risk for the “Carbon Bubble”. As discussed before, Swarthmore actually does have a good amount of influence and respect amongst other education institutions, the media (i.e. David Brooks, Arthur Chu, etc) and the political world, and is thus a good candidate to lead the movement.

    So yes, I agree with Professor Burke that Swarthmore is a terrible place to start a mass movement. However, we don’t need a mass movement – we just need to affect a very small, elite segment of the world population which holds most of the cultural, political, and financial capital. Undemocratic? Yes. Cynical? Yes. The only way to avoid effect real change and avoid catastrophe? I believe so.

    Why individual sustainability actions are not very worthwhile

    The Board suggests that Swarthmore should lead by example and conserve in an individual way. I find this plan weak and vain, and the money spent on building sustainability essentially wasted in comparison to how it could be used to drive meaningful change. This is a strange position – every little bit helps, right?

    While individual action might buy us time in resolving Climate Change, individual action is fruitless in the long-term for this problem. Professor Burke’s criticism that Swarthmore is not the right place to start a worldwide social movement rings true – fossil fuels are consumed by individuals everywhere, and realistically no one really cares how many barrels of oil Swarthmore saves, or how many trees it plants in the Crum. Those individuals will continue to drive and consume, and if oil is slightly cheaper because Swarthmore uses less of it, someone else out in the world who has never heard of Swarthmore will use more of it.

    Climate Change is a collective action problem on a global scale. The businesswoman in China starting a coal mine and seeking favorable investment from global finance will never hear about nor care about how “green” the new biology building is, she will decide to open the mine based on economic considerations. The carbon emissions of those economic considerations dwarf the savings that Swarthmore can provide, even if we became 100% efficient. It is those economic considerations you must change.

    A particularly sharp reader might object that this parallels share price – when Swarthmore divests, wouldn’t someone who has never heard of Swarthmore or doesn’t care will simply purchase the shares or provide the loan for the mine? However, we have shown that the true purpose of divesting is to advance the idea that the Carbon Bubble exists and will materially affect the fortunes of fossil fuel companies. As long as an investor has heard of the divestment movement (and at this point all large investors have), understands the concept of the Carbon Bubble, and has their own self-interest in mind, that investor is less likely to invest.

    If you want the college to divest, why not just donate to the special fund set up by the Board?

    In May of 2015 the Board reiterated that the general endowment was off-limits for divestment, but opened a special fossil-fuel-free fund one could donate to. The argument is: Others in the past donated to the college for the explicit purpose of running of the college, not for affecting the social issues that a future generation might care about. Thus it is improper to use those funds for any other purpose.

    I find this argument weak as well. Swarthmore itself was started by radical Quaker abolitionists – these original benefactors strongly believed that Swarthmore should push forward on issues the community believed in, even if these issues were not central to the day-to-day mission of education. As an example, the first Board was made up partly of women, which at the time in Pennsylvania was illegal and highly unusual. Could the college have started with a Board officially made up of only men? Certainly, and it would have been less distracted from its mission of creating an environment to educate in. However, the founders of Swarthmore decided that the morally right thing to do was not the most short-term advantageous thing to do. This is a value that Swarthmore strongly holds, and always has.

    Donating to the college is not like donating to a factory trying to make as much ‘education’ as possible, but instead a donation to a living community which has agency to govern themselves as it sees fit. The donation to the college is just that – a gift, something which the community can use as it sees fit, and it is pretty obvious what values the community holds.

    On a tactical level, that special fund did not get any press and is useless to combat Climate Change (again, an outcome that the community desires). The headlines are along the lines of: “Swarthmore chooses not to divest”, and are not even along the lines of: “Swarthmore allows for some divestment, going forward, which will be a very very small fraction of the funds it manages”. For divestment to be worthwhile, Swarthmore needs to indicate that the entire community sees the danger of the Carbon Bubble and has decided to avoid the risk. Silent divestment via the special fund is worse than doing nothing – at least when you’re doing nothing you know that you’re doing nothing instead of believing that you are having an impact.

    Still think we shouldn’t touch the endowment for moral reasons?

    Fair enough – I understand the reluctance. This section is to convince you that divestment is actually a necessary step to:

    • Avoid downside risk to the endowment (aka that we’ll lose money) from the Carbon Bubble
    • Ensure that Swarthmore is still seen as a leader, with the benefits that come with that position
    • Ensure that Swarthmore avoids hypocrisy and maintains its values

    While I could write about this, someone with better qualifications has already done a better job than I would do: http://daily.swarthmore.edu/2015/03/05/the-financial-advantages-of-divestment/

    This article was written by a financial professional who spent time looking at Swarthmore’s case specifically, and who concluded that it is actually a wise investment decision to divest. The Board suggests that Swarthmore’s endowment will lose $10-20 million a year if we divest. That number is almost certainly an exaggeration, and ignores the downside risk of the Carbon Bubble, as the investment professional explains:

    If we agree that climate change is a huge threat that society will act on, then it necessarily follows that divestment will occur to limit losses, that fossil fuel company prices will drop substantially and that institutions with these stocks in their portfolios will experience large losses.

    He then identifies the other reputational risks that come from failing to lead:

    Aside from the financial risk of being a late exiter, the moral and brand damage to Swarthmore from being a late mover would likely be large.

    A January 15, 2015 letter by many of Stanford’s faculty to the Stanford President and Board of trustees puts the issue this way: “If a university seeks to educate extraordinary youth so they may achieve the brightest possible future, what does it mean for that university simultaneously to invest in the destruction of that future?”

    This analysis lays a convincing argument that by divesting we avoid significant risks to Swarthmore, both financial and reputational. This is without even considering any moral argument for divestment.

    So how do I help?

    Great – thanks for joining us! It might seem hard to affect change, as the Board’s response recently seems final. However, the student activists at Swarthmore are not quitting anytime soon, and your power as an alum is greater than you might think.

    Ways to help:

    • Join in actions when you return to campus for your reunion. Email me if you want to help plan.
    • Help spread this information to others. There are divestment movements on many many campuses, and many alums who don’t yet have enough information to make a decision. At the very least the conversation about divestment will be pretty interesting.
    • Next time the college asks you for a donation, let the college know that you won’t be donating until they divest the entire endowment. Alumni giving rates are very important to elite colleges, and this is one of the stronger levers we have. Make sure you can explain why donating to the side fund is not worthwhile (see the section above).
    • To still donate but actually put pressure on the administration, donate here
    • Like these groups on Facebook: 350.org and Swat MJ
    • Personally pledge to divest from fossil fuels (I find this less effective than getting an institution to divest – your personal divestment probably will make few headlines!)

    Conclusion

    Thanks for reading this far. Hopefully you feel informed about the debate, even if the presentation was highly opinionated.

    Again, the divestment movement seems complex, but ultimately boils down to a set of simple assertions:

    • Human caused Climate Change is real.
    • The Swarthmore community agrees that Swarthmore College should help fight Climate Change.
    • The Swarthmore is able to be a leader in changing the status quo.
    • Divestment can help change the flow of global capital away from carbon-intensive fuels.
    • The Carbon Bubble exists.
    • Divestment will actually help the college’s endowment value in the long-term.
    • There are risks to our reputation from not divesting which have not been examined by the Board.
    • Divestment is a more effective strategy than individual efforts by the college and the community.

    I believe that all of those assertions are true (although all do not need to be true for divestment to be worthwhile), and I hope that I have shown in this post why I think so. I am always open to new information, however, and would love any perspectives, ideas, or information that I may have missed.

    How about it – do you think Swarthmore should divest?

    politics

    Proving cultural signaling – sometimes ads can be laughable and still be effective

    A few weeks ago I was in a bar and this ad came on:

    It’s a totally ridiculous ad, almost a parody of itself. How could it ever convince someone to buy the truck? Must the people who own that truck be total idiots if they fell for this advertising? How nakedly obvious is it? At first, this is what I thought, as we laughed at the ad. However, I now think I was wrong.

    All of those things are what you think upon first watching the ad spot, but a friend of mine also recently linked to this post: Ads Don’t Work That Way, a fascinating read. Maybe it’s because I used to work at an advertising company, but I love seeing the cultural implications and messages that ads provide. It’s like a mini lesson in psychology, sociology, economics, and anthropology for free in 30 seconds!

    In any case, that post suggests that many brand ads aren’t directly trying to convince you of the brand’s qualities. For the uninitiated,brand ads that aren’t trying to tell you about a deal or inform you of the existence of a product, but instead are trying to get you to associate positive qualities with a brand such as “coke is fun and social” or “disney is family-friendly” or “corona is relaxing, like a vacation”. The post suggests that truly these ads are not trying to convince you of the brand’s qualities itself, but instead trying to convince you that others will associate those qualities with you when they see your purchase.

    Cultural imprinting is the mechanism whereby an ad, rather than trying to change our minds individually, instead changes the landscape of cultural meanings — which in turn changes how we are perceived by others when we use a product. Whether you drink Corona or Heineken or Budweiser “says” something about you. But you aren’t in control of that message; it just sits there, out in the world, having been imprinted on the broader culture by an ad campaign. It’s then up to you to decide whether you want to align yourself with it. Do you want to be seen as a “chill” person? Then bring Corona to a party.

    Later on:

    In this way, cultural imprinting relies on the principle of common knowledge. For a fact to be common knowledge among a group, it’s not enough for everyone to know it. Everyone must also know that everyone else knows it — and know that they know that they know it… and so on.

    So now we can take another look at the car ad through this “Cultural imprinting” lens. Our ad now makes a lot more sense – it’s not trying to give you feelings about the truck or promise performance or anything like that. Instead the ad is proving that Chevy’s previous campaigns have been successful in imparting common knowledge that “real men drive trucks like this”. If actual schoolchildren understand this association, it means that everyone must understand this association, and so if you show up in a Prius to a party you will be perceived as a total pansy, as someone who “probably owns a bird”.

    In this way it’s genius – who needs to spend millions of dollars filming pickup trucks driving through the Mojave desert when you can just get 20 children into a room and ask them basic questions? Of course, Chevy still needs to make those kinds of ads as well to keep the common knowledge going! This one ad is just so efficient at what it’s trying to do I have to tip my hat to it, before I ride off into the sunset in my Prius with my pet bird.

    finance green politics

    Letter to Swarthmore’s Board Supporting Divestment

    Just sent this letter to Swarthmore’s board (managers@swarthmore.edu), exciting things are happening around divestment!

    For those interested, here is:


    Dear Mr. Kemp and Swarthmore Board,

    I know you are busy people, and I will try to be brief.

    I understand your concerns and truly appreciate your stewardship of the college through presidents, new generations, recessions, and more. The steadiness and sobriety of the board is important to keep Swarthmore on the right path.

    However, after much consideration, I have to respectfully disagree with the board’s decision not to divest our endowment from fossil fuels. Our college for many years has espoused ideals around sustainability, and to keep ourselves honest we must take this step and lead. Yes, we should not use the endowment as an active political tool without great hesitation. Yet, when 97% of scientists agree on an issue and the college’s public statements for years have agreed that climate change is an issue, to not act would be in violation of our Swarthmore’s principles.

    Others more elegant have argued why this is useful morally, and others have also demonstrated its utility as a tactical move (it will not be an empty symbolic gesture, but an important signal in how fossil fuels are perceived).

    As you all are practical people, however, I’d like to point out some reasons why this is prudent for Swarthmore, moral arguments aside:

    • We must align our investments with our values, or risk reputationally being seen as hypocritical
    • There is a very strong likelihood that the Carbon Bubble is real – removing our investment in fossil fuels avoids the large downside we are risking if those fossil fuels stay in the ground, which basic logic suggests is likely
    • We gain reputation & prestige by leading the charge instead of following meekly

    As the moral and financial evidence that this is a good idea becomes more clear, the risk that we are leading down the wrong path diminishes. Let us reap the practical gains by leading this movement, as well as some of the financial gains by being among the first to divest.

    Young alums are watching this issue closely, as we know that ultimately it will be us who have to deal with the more extreme effects of climate change. We know that you are working with the best interests of Swarthmore and future generations at heart, and hope that the many arguments in favor of divestment are strong enough to stand up to your intellectual scrutiny. I believe they are strong enough, and that it is time to divest. I believe the moral, financial, and other pragmatic reasons suggest it is time as well, and that we will look back at this decision with pride as a time Swarthmore led the way to a better outcome for both humanity and for itself.

    Thank you for your time,
    Colin Schimmelfing 2010

    politics tech

    Schimmy’s Hierarchy of Jobs

    Imagine your ideal job. No, really – give it a shot…

    I’ll bet more than a few of the people reading have imagined being a scuba instructor in the caribbean, or just being paid to play Super Smash (which I still can’t believe is now real job – I love the internet!). While it might be an improvement from your current position, I believe the job you imagined wouldn’t keep you happy for long.

    smash

    After three full-time jobs and five years out of college, I’ve come to (what I believe are) some truths to what makes a job worthwhile. These truths were built up after looking in the mirror in the morning and realizing that what I was doing that day was not what I wanted to be doing if it was the last day of my life. When you find yourself thinking that, the response is not to immediately leave your job, but instead to reflect on why you feel that way. Ultimately, why are you getting out of bed in the morning to go to work?

    The Hierarchy:

    I present “Schimmy’s Hierarchy of Work Needs”, a guide to answer this question:
    Schimmy's hierarchy of work needs

    #1: Basic

    The first reason why you get out of bed is obvious: having a roof over your head and food on your plate is a responsibility you have to your family and to yourself. When sick, you need the money to see a doctor. Also buying clothes is a necessity, at least in other cities where clothing is less optional than in San Francisco. You could categorize all of these needs as ‘Basic’.

    That’s fine, but as we can see from the movie Office Space or any number of other sources, that motivation only gets you so far. Given the choice between janitor and video game tester, I think most would choose video game tester even if it paid less – this is a signal that our model is not complete.

    #2: Daily Enjoyment

    The second reason you’ll get out of bed in the morning is because, hopefully, work is enjoyable in some way. Maybe your coworkers are fun to joke around with and you’ll miss the banter (pleasant coworkers), or you really want to learn golang and you enjoy a real problem to learn it with (personal growth), or you love telling your former high school bully that he uses your messaging app (status). You could categorize all of these needs as ‘Daily Enjoyment’

    By now, it starts to sound a little like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and this connection has been noticed before. There’s been a lot of work in this area, most notably Herzberg’s Two-Factor theory. The theory splits the “Daily Enjoyment” factors into “Hygiene” and “Motivation” – a useful distinction between benefits that keep you from leaving, and benefits that cause intrinsic forward creativity and engagement. You can categorize all of the perks in Silicon Valley into these categories:

    Hygiene:

    • Amazing office
    • Delicious food
    • Ping pong table
    • Laundry
    • Shuttle bus
    • Internal tools which aren’t a pain to use
    • Standing desks

    Motivation:

    • Hierarchy advancement / achievement rewards
    • Status (I work on the most challenging problems, or my work is used by the most people)
    • Learning opportunities
    • Enthusiastic, engaged, intelligent coworkers

    However, while Herzberg put overall impact of a person’s work into the “Motivation” category, I think it deserves its own level of the hierarchy.

    #3: Humanist

    The third reason to get out of bed in the morning corresponds to the missing top level of the pyramid I would describe as ‘Humanist’. This level concerns the ‘meaning’ that people find in their work, the positive impact that it has on others. This focus on impact might be something which is different in our time, as when Herzberg was developing his theories (the late 1950s and early 1960s) your day job seemingly was less important to self-identity.

    At this point I could describe more about what I mean, but I think you’ve already heard the descriptions of what to look for in commencement speeches and sentimental Facebook posts. Instead, I’m going to tell what not to look for.

    How can you tell the fakers?

    At this point, I imagine many reading this will think to themselves that their job satisfies all levels of the pyramid. After all, their company is changing the world, and making it a better place:

    In that clip from the show Silicon Valley, we can see that individuals value humanistic goals in the tech industry, and companies find it important to claim they fulfill these goals. As Mike Judge shows, often the claim is shallow – only put forth to gain status.

    To judge the claim for a company suggesting positive social good, there’s an easy test: would the company claim a positive social good if there were no recruiting, PR, or status gains to come of it? If the answer is no, the company is simply behaving as the mimicking actor and the claim should be ignored. A company who truly has that positive social good as a mission will, simply in stating their reason for existence, claim the social good. As examples: OPower, Stellar, Khan Academy, Mosaic, SpaceX, etc. (note that I don’t work for nor own stock in any of these companies)

    Does Scientific Discovery Count?

    I do have one final question: does pure scientific discovery belong at the top of this pyramid as well? For instance, pushing boundaries of current engineering (at certain divisions of Tesla, Google, Ripple, etc) seems to also provide that higher meaning.

    I hesitate to add this, however, as technology is always a double-edged sword. While you may be advancing humanity’s knowledge, it may be a toss-up whether that knowledge was beneficial. There is the usual example of Oppenheimer discovering knowledge which can be used ambiguously, but also drones, Tor, cryptocurrency and even simple number theory can end up being used in ways unimagined ahead of time.

    Regardless:

    I’ll argue that, no matter how pleasant being a scuba instructor is, or how amazing it would be to play Super Smash all day, ultimately that dream job is going to lose its shine. While those jobs have satisfied the first two levels of the hierarchy, they miss the crucial tip of the pyramid. They lack the purpose that gives meaning to life, or at the very least gives meaning to the 8+ hours you spend under fluorescent lights every day. Find this last piece for yourself and getting up in the morning will be even easier, I guarantee it.

    tech

    Clever (YC 12) is hiring

    This one will be brief: the company I’ve been at for the last year, Clever, is hiring like crazy after getting a series B. We’re doing ambitious things in the education space: tech in schools has been very broken for a very long time, and way too much class time is wasted on logins.

    We’re inviting you to help us – come join the team!

    Drop me a line if you want to know more.

    – Schimmy

    politics Uncategorized

    The different social yardsticks of American cities

    When comparing different cities, I like to bring up this little shortcut in how people in different cities seem to compare each other:

    • In New York City it’s: “How much do you make?”
    • In Boston / Cambridge it’s: “What do you know?”
    • In San Francisco it’s: “What can you make, and how many people think it’s cool?”
    • In DC it’s: “Who / how powerful is your boss?”
    • In LA it’s: “What powerful people / how many people know who you are?”

    Those are the ones I have a pretty good idea about, here are others I’m less sure of:

    • Chicago: I have no idea (perhaps: “How well can you make a pierogi?”), please help me with that one!
    • Philadelphia: is tricky – it’s such a chill city that I think people just aren’t likely to care too much about comparing themselves to you
    • Seattle: likewise, although probably there it’s something like: “What awesome backpacking trip did you do last summer?”
    • Houston: some variant of “How classy is your family?” (again not much knowledge there)
    • Portland: perhaps “How organic are the vegetables you are eating and how many hours did it take you to harvest them yourself?”

    Now, to be fair I did not come up with the overall idea that there’s a common yardstick that people measure themselves against – that would be the amazing Paul Graham. However I do disagree with his analysis of DC: I may know someone, but if I can’t ask them a favor or I don’t work for them, I gain no status.

    finance green politics

    Divest not for them, but for you

    The latest debate about divestment in the New York Times brings up some very familiar points. However, there is another reason divestment is powerful and useful, and it relies on our weakness as humans.

    We should divest not to force a corporation into action, but instead to clear our own minds on the issue. Humans are notoriously afraid of loss. When those invested in the university (via having attended and donated, or by receiving monthly paychecks) have an opportunity to confront climate change, it is impossible to ignore that the health of one’s investment depends, even only very slightly, on the decision being made via that opportunity.

    This effect might be enough to sway a vote, or to make it less likely someone would share a 350.org post on Facebook; small stuff, but it can add up. While the loss might seem too small to affect someone’s behavior, I suspect a stronger influence given what we know about human irrationality around aversion to loss. I would like scientific validation of this idea – perhaps a psychology department at one of the universities opposed to divestment might take up the investigation…

    We must enable our own leadership on the issue of Climate Change. Our voices should be certain, and our judgement unclouded by financial doubts. Divestment is an investment in our integrity and our independence, and I encourage Swarthmore College and all other institutions to take this necessary step.

    green politics

    Are transit-first policies bad for poorer residents pushed out of the urban core?

    TL;DR: Like every other article who’s title is a question, the answer is no – we have a skewed view of cars and transit. When you look at the issue, increasing road capacity doesn’t help, and transit is proven to make a city more affordable.

    Recently I was discussing my Limits of Acceptable Terribleness post with a coworker and we disagreed about my assertions about highways. My argument there is that building more highways with the goal of decreasing travel or commute time is fruitless – perhaps some would have shorter commutes, especially right after the new capacity was added. Ultimately, however, the average commute time will creep back up. Instead, if you want to decrease overall commute times, it would be better to invest in transit.

    Recently, a few articles came out bolstering that viewpoint, so I no longer have to do the heavy lifting myself. This Vox article in particular directly addresses the uselessness of building highway capacity, and points out concrete examples where adding a lane caused more congestion!

    Traffic in LA

    In addition, it seems as though an added bonus of working public transit is that it can make a city more affordable. It seems as though, when it comes to massive city projects, hosting the Olympics and building stadiums comes out with fewer benefits to the residents of a city than advertised, while public transit still doesn’t do a good job of demonstrating its considerable value. This makes me think that, if we just accounted properly for this value, the high speed rail project between LA and SF might be an easier sell…

    high-speed-rail-bakersfield

    So those articles show that well-functioning and subsidized public transit makes it easier for low-income residents of the city to afford that city, but we still have an important argument to discuss. I often hear that the policies which come at the expense of cars makes life harder for low-income people who are being pushed to the suburbs and the exurbs.

    First, I’d like to point out that, if those with the highest incomes and social capital desire to live in the city, then there is no intrinsic reason that the suburbs are ‘better’ for low-income residents. Often there’s some sort of echo of a paternalist 1930s social program that suggests it would be beneficial to have poorer residents live in the suburbs because there is grass or something. Thus, for our conversation I am assuming that the suburbs and the city are equivalent from a personal desire viewpoint. However, I do acknowledge that the simplification might affect our discussion – obviously some people prefer living in the suburbs and some prefer the city, and it is possible that the preferences are different for different wealth strata.

    But back to the argument I’m worried about: Since less-wealthy people are being pushed to the suburbs, access to the city via car is now a social justice issue. This worries me – it could easily be a wedge to split progressives. One assumption in the argument pops right out at you: access to the city from the suburbs does not necessarily need to be via car. If the funds spent on highways were diverted into spending on public transit infrastructure and subsidies to ride that infrastructure (and to parking by those transit stations, for instance, a problem that the Bay Area is currently facing), the same end goal is met: fast, affordable access to the city by those in the suburbs.

    I’d also argue that there is somewhat of a sovereignty issue as well: who are people in the suburbs to dictate to the city what infrastructure to build? To put it in a less emotional frame: why is it that the interests of the suburban visitors to the city should predominate at the expense of the residents of the city? I think historically the answer to that question has been decided in favor of the suburban residents partially due to race and class power dynamics. I currently see the pendulum swinging back the other way (including this blog post) as a symptom of those with the cultural capital starting to live in cities and exercising influence on behalf of city residents. So we shouldn’t pat ourselves on the back too hard for questioning the orthodoxy here: we’ve got a pretty solid incentive to justify screwing over the suburbs.

    Obviously, cities do not want to drive away commuters from the suburbs – while residents might have a different zip code, they still root for the Giants and help drive the economic engine of the city. Of course, some people who contribute to the city also do not want to live in an urban environment, and it’s good to have a mix of available housing. However, for the good of all residents, the city should be prizing density and walkability. There are many studies which show that these increase the economic vitality of the city, improving economic conditions for all. There is much more in the city lab article above on that.

    Additionally, if we are looking at the whole picture and questioning our ideas of what is normal, catering to cars has more drawbacks than you’d think. For one thing, as the stencil on the panhandle states, cars are death monsters:

    stencil on the panhandle in san francisco

    Death Monsters Ahead!

    ~30,000 people die every year from cars, compared to the number of deaths from transit (~1000, likely many of these are suicides). In an urban environment often the risk is to pedestrians and bicyclists; so now we have people from the suburbs specifically causing bodily harm to city residents as a result of the transit choices of those from the suburbs. A less visceral (but also important) negative externality is the pollution from cars – how many cases of asthma are car commuters responsible for? Luckily, our gasoline is no longer leaded, but any internal combustion engines on the streets today still cause negative health effects.

    But after all of that, the main thing that I care about is: we can have all we want using public transit from the suburbs, why do we have to argue about this? It’s like the old comic about global warming:

    whatifgetabetterplanetfornothing

    What if I’m wrong and we create a stronger city with more transit options, which is more walkable and healthy, for no reason?

    In comparison to climate change, this is an even easier solution – if we change our minds, we can always rip out the BART line and turn it into another lane of I-580 if we want, far faster than we can change fuel sources. In the meantime we can do what reason and human experience tell us and decrease our reliance on personal cars.

    finance green

    Schimmy’s guide to personal finance

    So I think about personal finance a bit more than most people, which you can tell if you look through the archives on this blog. Because of this, sometimes people ask me for advice, and instead of copy-pasting the same email over and over again, I’m just going to link to this post:

    First, there’s a mindset

    Which I think is more important than anything else. That is:

    1. Humility in being able to beat the market / everyone else with little training
    2. Frugality in a good way / resisting consumerism
    3. Automation / beating your own stupid monkey brain

    For #1, there’s A random walk down wall street. You probably don’t actually need to read the book, main point: even the pros can’t beat the market, you should instead invest in low-fee index funds as that will do just as well. Mutual funds = big ripoff. Wealthfront and Ramit’s book pull heavily from this idea.

    For #2, there’s Mr Money Mustache (he’s a former software engineer!) Check out some of what he’s written. Just generally when you increase your standard of living, you are happier for a bit but then it becomes the new normal. Research suggests you should spend money on experiences, not stuff.

    For #3 Ramit’s “I will teach you to be rich” is decent. Focuses on using psychology and the options available (401k, etc) to get you to do the right things without thinking about it. Mostly follow the ‘automate everything’ instructions.

    But you’re also really interested in what to do with the cash:

    If you read above, there are some things you should not do, including:

    • Mutual funds
    • Day trading
    • Leaving it in a savings account

    Instead you should:

    • Invest mostly in low-cost index funds
    • Put as much as you can in a Roth IRA
    • Only play around in the stock market / bitcoin / kanyecoin with money you can afford to lose

    For investing in low-cost index funds, I use Wealthfront – they automatically balance your accounts between various sectors of the economy, and end up buying low and selling high (see: Schoolhouse Rock). It’s minimal cost, and useful.

    For playing around with stocks (useful to learn, and fun!) I use TradeKing. Also useful for divesting your 401k, IRA, etc.

    To tie this all together I use Mint.com. It’s not the best with investments, but very useful to see where everything is and to try to motivate yourself to keep the ‘net worth’ graph going up and to the right. Also you can quickly catch & avoid bank fees.

    Using your money for moral ends:

    So having savings is a luxury few have, but I think you should really be using that for social good too. And if you believe in the Carbon Bubble, it might be profitable as well.

    To divest your 401k, IRA, etc from carbon stocks, put some in Wealthfront-type index funds (or just in Wealthfront) and some in GreenCentury. These guys do shareholder activism to, for instance, get companies to sustainably source palm oil. Additionally they do not invest in fossil fuels, etc (including GMOs, which I actually don’t really believe in boycotting, but whatever). Their symbol is GCEQX – I would recommend using Tradeking, etc as investing directly with them is a huge pain. Essentially you can think of this as a mid-cost index fund that has good effects on the side.

    If you like solar power, and are not scared away by really long-term investments, the Oakland-based company Mosaic does crowdsourced funding for solar installations. See my blog post about that for more info. One problem there is that they often don’t have things available to invest in… They’re branching into residential installs though, so we’ll see. Investing here is much riskier than the other options, I think.

    Lastly, move your savings / checking money out of the stupid big banks and into a credit union. Big banks are out to screw you, credit unions are the best and are better for the community. It’s night and day, and you have no idea until you’ve actually banked with a credit union (In SF, SF Fire Credit Union is great) how much better it is.

    tech Uncategorized

    Music that is ironically good to code to

    I was chatting with someone the other day who loved the soundtrack from TRON: Legacy. (This person is awesome, he is part of the amazing band Knower and creates their very-TRON-inspired visuals). He got a kick out of how I will sometimes put on that TRON soundtrack when I really need to crank out some code. This is ironic, as the main plot point relies on a computer-programmer protagonist getting so wrapped up with what he is doing that he ends up in the computer. I then realized that all the music I rely on for serious coding focus is just as ironic:

    1. TRON: Legacy Soundtrack (Daft Punk)
    2. The Social Network Soundtrack (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross). Pretty obvious why this is a perfect fit, given that I’m usually listening to this while coding at a startup founded by ex-Harvard students.
    3. The soundtrack to Koyaanisqatsi. This is a little more subtle – Koyaanisqatsi is a movie with no words which is scenes (usually slow-mo or time-lapse) of the intersection between humans, technology, and the environment from the late 70s into the early 80s. The title is a Hopi word that literally translates to ‘life out of balance’, and the film generally takes a very negative outlook on the frenzied pace of technological change on humanity and ecology. If you have not seen it, I highly recommend watching. If nothing else, the images of this time of rapid industrialization and mechanization are fascinating.

    I suppose I do have two artists I use to focus who are not as ironic, so for full disclosure (and to promote their amazing but weird work), I also love to work to Michal Menert and John Talabot. What about you?

     

    politics

    Blame, root causes, and the Isla Vista Tragedy

    It’s hard to ignore the news from Santa Barbara. It’s also hard to emotionally deal with not ignoring the news from Santa Barbara. And while the internet probably does not need more words on the subject, I find writing this to be cathartic and hope that it adds to the conversation.

    I’m going to talk about blame, and root causes instead of symptoms. People are looking around for something easy that can be done, and I don’t think they will find it. You might try to blame:

    The perpetrator’s mental state / illness

    Reading his manifesto and comparing to YouTube comments, it is clear that he is no more than slightly ‘abnormal’ in his thinking, as terrifying as that is. Even if there is something psychologically wrong, I would hope our society is more robust to a slight chemical imbalance – human brains are not perfect, and never will be.

    The parents

    Yes, he has been raised very poorly, not able to deal with the basics of unfairness in life. I was short and terrible at basketball too, but I was not raised to be entitled, racist, and overly concerned with societal status. I eventually figured out that who I really was was a bigger deal than what others thought of me. However, we are in a rough place as a society if poor parenting is all that separates us from being killed for existing.

    Gun availability

    Yes, he would have been able to kill fewer people, and should not have been able to buy guns. We already knew there was this problem for decades, however, at the very least since Columbine. This aggravates a symptom, but is not the underlying problem our society is facing.

    The ‘Pick Up Artist community’

    Let’s face it, these guys are assholes. Trying to use tricks to get laid, premised on a objectified view of women. Yet, why do these groups exist in the first place? I’ll address that later…

    Women

    If you try to blame women, do everyone a favor and forget how to use the internet. Seriously, it will do both you and the rest of society a favor.

    The perpetrator (I’m going to avoid using his name)

    He is not a good person, this is true. There are many bad people in the world, however, and I really have to ascribe more blame to external factors. This massacre was not an isolated decision of a psychopath, but instead caused by a large number of compounded factors.

    Mainstream Objectifying Porn

    Yup, this is a factor, but you can’t just stop at porn, because every superhero movie, Axe body spray commercial, bad sitcom, etc objectifies women.

    Violent Video Games

    Probably don’t help, as a reinforcer of society’s attitude towards women and how ‘real’ men should act, but similar to porn – which brings me to…

    Society’s attitude about how men and women should interact

    Ho boy, there’s a lot messed up about this, and plenty out there to reference. See this amazing article for a succinct recap of the last week. This is ultimately one of the real causes of the tragedy, instead of a symptom. The perpetrator’s mental state? A symptom. The ‘PUA community’? A symptom. Gun accessibility? An aggravating factor. Society treating women and their sexuality as objects, devoid of humanity and agency? An actual cause. Again, I feel as though I cannot speak to this as well as others have, and encourage you to seek out these other narratives.

    Society’s attitude towards men’s worth

    Here is a fundamental cause of the tragedy which I don’t see reflected upon as much, and feel I can contribute to. Try to empathize with our perpetrator (Empathize, not sympathize), as hard as that may be. Imagine a society in which a man’s role is to:

    1. Make as much money as possible
    2. Have sex with as many women as possible
    3. Calculate self-worth from some combination of #1 and #2

    (Sound familiar? Welcome to mainstream American society.)
    In this society, due to unfortunate upbringing and being a generally shitty person (see: the perpetrator), you are unable to make either #1 or #2 happen. Should you be more of a decent human being? Yes, but you are a shitty person and therefore don’t understand that you’re not a ‘gentleman’. Should you make more money? Well, that’s a terribly shallow response to the problem, but sure enough the perpetrator tried pretty hard to do so, spending thousands on the lottery.

    Another alternative that a young man might have is to be seduced by the ‘PUA community’, which is a bunch of guys who share psychological tricks to essentially trick women into having sex with them. You may, as I do, find that ‘community’ disgusting. Yet placing the blame on this group is just as much of a lazy shortcut as blaming porn – the men who comprise these groups are themselves desperately trying to gain a place in society, and are suffering. Again, something to be fought, but not the true cause.

    So without money and without sex, you are not a ‘true man’. I don’t think many commentators realize how powerful this message is, especially to young, naive men. Imagine society telling you that, regardless of your other qualities, you have no value. (A similar thing happens with women and attractiveness to men, yet society tells women that the way to deal with this is never violence to others, but instead violence towards themselves and their own bodies. Yes, everything is terrible, for everyone.) This value calculation is why you get the rants about women ‘owing’ men sex – to these men, who have bought the party line, they cannot be a ‘man’ without the sexual approval of a woman. Obviously, someone like the perpetrator would find this unfair and resent women for this gatekeeper role. Of course this is ridiculous if you have a healthy view of masculinity, but unfortunately our society’s version of masculinity is objectively not healthy.

    Many men who find themselves in this position drink heavily or go be creepy in some place where they can achieve this role (see: Bangkok, gross). For some reason or another, our perpetrator decides not to self-harm but instead harm others who he thinks have caused him the pain of being valued as ‘not a man’ by society. This is an option ‘available’ to him as society also has glorified violence perpetrated by men in the service of a ‘higher cause’. Watching the video the perpetrator created in his BMW, you can hear him talk about his plans as supporting this ‘higher cause’. He resents that he cannot become a man (in his view of masculinity) without the imprimatur of women, and wishes to impose suffering to compensate for his own suffering. The terrible thing is that our perpetrator will not be the last to come up with this conclusion, and the easier solutions (removing guns, disrupting PUA supporters) do not address the root causes. As a society, we need to have a healthier, more human answer to ‘what is a man?’ and ‘how should men interact with women?’ to avoid the next Isla Vista.

    How do we do this? Here are some ways to start:

    1. If you have children, send the right messages about how men and women interact*
    2. Do not buy products which profit from the objectification of women
    3. Call out men who objectify women, we’re in the ****ing 21st century already
    4. De-emphasize the need for men to make money to be ‘successful’

    Side Conjecture:

    I’d like to make one last point on #4. Even in the most progressive circles, there is still an assumption that men must make money, or at least be capable of making lots of money, to be worthwhile. So while the man who chooses to quit his high-paying job to raise his kid while his wife works is idealized, a woman who marries a man who could not make as much or more than she does is stigmatized. The reverse, a man marrying a woman without much income potential, is much more accepted, even in progressive circles. This double standard, combined with the perfect storm of the Great Recession and the overall trend of more parity in wages, has led to a great deal of suffering and (I would suggest) potentially is part of why the ‘PUA community’ has grown so quickly in the past decade. So should we go back to a Mad-Men-era time when men made the money and women stayed home? Absolutely not! Instead, let’s resolve the double standard by relaxing the need for men to make lots of money to be ‘successful’. It’ll be healthier for everyone.

    Finally

    Lastly, I’m in no way absolving the perpetrator for a heinous crime. However, the readers of this blog are not able to go back in time and change his mind, and without an understanding of why the perpetrator felt the way that he did, there is no way of preventing another one.

    Let’s let the victims not die in vain, and try to prevent the next Isla Vista. It’s a better use of your time than arguing with internet trolls, that’s for sure.

    TL;DR: The actual root causes of this tragedy are society’s messages towards how men and women should interact, and society’s messages about what is required to be a ‘real man’. The other causes are a symptom of these two factors. The good news: we can start addressing this today.

    * yes, this is highly gendered and problematic in its own right. Baby steps, everyone, baby steps…

    finance

    Why I’m Irrational About Repaying Debt and Why It’s Actually Rational

    (or at the very least, this is an explanation of how I rationalize my own irrational behavior)

    At Clever, we have ‘Clever Talks’, where we learn from one another about exoplanets or Magic the Gathering or bike maintenance – anything that someone at the company knows about which others find interesting. This week we had a guest, Amil Bera. Amil is a Registered Investment Advisor and was going over basic personal finance – a great talk. I would definitely recommend him as a resource! However, I disagreed with one section of the talk in particular. This section discussed the irrationality of people paying off debts with very low interest rates when they could get a better rate of return elsewhere.

    The logic here is sound. If you can slowly pay off your subsidized student loan and put the rest of your savings in something that earns you much more, you are certainly better off in the long run. And yet…… when I got my first job out of college, what I started on right away was repaying student loans as quickly as possible! According to Amil, I’m not the only one, especially amongst Millennials.

    Why are all of these rational people making irrational financial decisions? I’d argue that it’s not just human nature, and that there are some factors that make this at least more of a close call than the financial advisors would suggest.

    First off, while I’ve heard a similar argument about investing instead of paying down debt from other people, all of those people have been well-off themselves, or have extensive support networks. Essentially, being in a financially privileged position allows you to take these kinds of risks – if the stock market crashes and you lose your job, no big deal – you can just ask your dad to help you out until you get back on your feet. Yes, the advisors say that you should have a 4-6 month window of cash savings to be able to do this yourself, but then you are battling your own psychology daily to prevent from spending any extra cash when you could be paying down liabilities which you’re still on the hook for if your career does go south. Even if right after college you didn’t have these support networks, it’s easy to look back and say that your past self was irrational. Yet this is easy knowing how the next few years played out! As always, hindsight is 20/20.

    Second, I find being in debt to be very mentally challenging. The Millennials became financially aware in times where playing with debt was seen as safe (Buy a house on credit in Phoenix, AZ – You can flip it in 6 months for a guaranteed 30% gain!) but many people ultimately got burned. Similar to those who lived during the Great Depression, we’re going to have a wary relationship with debt and credit for some time, if not for life. I think this is healthy – generally credit is dangled in front of Americans as a way to pay for consumption we don’t need. If we have an aversion to that debt, we will consume less and hardly miss out as a result. This aversion to debt also weighs down on you when you have loans, even if you have a steady job. How much is it worth to release a nagging worry at the back of your mind: The worry that there is a virtually unshakable debt with your name on it which you might be paying it off for decades? Stress-wise, I’d prefer the slight regret of a missed percentage point over the daily specter of indebtedness.

    Thirdly, I think that the effect of debt is to significantly chill honest self-realization. I’ve already talked about how positive financial incentives can affect your decisions in ways you might not expect and debt is a flip side to this with respect to self expression and ‘rocking the boat’. If you want to be able to think for yourself and decide who you are as a person, having debt is terrible. Having regular debt payments means that choosing to be a ‘free spirit’ is a financially suicidal decision. Jack Kerouac can’t afford to spend his paycheck on gas for cross-country trips and jazz, for instance, if he has student loans due every month. If he forgets to pay his phone bill, no big deal. If he forgets to pay his loan payments, that’s another month of compounded interest tacked on. While someone paying off student loans instead of investing still has the same problem, paying off the loans immediately gives the person freedom to choose their own way sooner instead of having to schlep to the cubicle every day.

    Finally, (and this is the argument that will be most persuasive to the financial analysts), being in debt keeps you from properly exploiting opportunities that come up. Having wealth tied up in investments that may be unavailable for long stretches of time (perhaps the stock market is in a temporary downturn, for instance) means that there is little liquidity in your life’s financial structure. This liquidity matters a great deal, especially amongst those just starting their careers. Imagine someone a year out of college gets an offer to join Twitter, working for living expenses and equity. They’ve been an investment banker for a year, so they have been able to save an amount equal to the principal on the loan, which they’ve rationally invested in the stock market. Now, this would be a great career move, but unfortunately it’s 2008 and the Global Financial Crisis has just happened; the money which was supposed to be earning above loan interest is waiting on the markets to rebound. Now, over time the investment will rebound and earn more than the interest rate on the loan, but this is little consolation to our protagonist. Being a little ‘irrational’ and paying off the loans early would have wildly paid off in the long term. I have not read ‘Antifragile’, but paying off the loans early seems to match Taleb’s attitude. You are trading a few percentage points of reasonably sure gains for massive potential upsides coming from unpredictable serendipity. It is, I believe, ultimately the rational choice.

    Have I convinced you? Or have I just rationalized my own irrational decisions? Let me know!

    meta politics tech

    The Limit of Acceptable Terribleness (and coding)

    This article about how awful programming is has been making the rounds, amongst my non-coding friends as well. It’s a great article, using witty analogies to describe the absurd underpinnings of the technical systems we take for granted. For instance:

    “Not a single living person knows how everything in your five-year-old MacBook actually works. Why do we tell you to turn it off and on again? Because we don’t have the slightest clue what’s wrong with it, and it’s really easy to induce coma in computers and have their built-in team of automatic doctors try to figure it out for us.”

    At times, it’s so true and slightly terrifying that it becomes more alarming than funny:

    You can’t restart the internet. Trillions of dollars depend on a rickety cobweb of unofficial agreements and “good enough for now” code with comments like “TODO: FIX THIS IT’S A REALLY DANGEROUS HACK BUT I DON’T KNOW WHAT’S WRONG” that were written ten years ago.

    Now, when reading this, you might think that we should stop the world, pay down our tech debt (what programmers call this backlog of work that we’d need to do to feel good about ourselves and sleep soundly at night), and then have a big party because the internet is Fixed! As awesome as that sounds, unfortunately you’d end up hitting The Limit Of Acceptable Terribleness (TM). That is, in any system there is a line of ‘good’ness below which people will address the problem but above which people will take shortcuts and procrastinate and generally decrease the ‘good’ness of the system. Thus, our system invariably ends up at the Limit Of Acceptable Terribleness.

    That was a bit abstract, but this limit occurs in many places other than code quality. For instance, the cleanliness of an apartment will be just at this level; any messier than the Limit and a roommate will bite the bullet, tidying up and throw the gross bulging tupperware out from the back of the fridge. Above that level, the roommate will think nothing of leaving the cream cheese knife in the sink, even though the dishwasher is a few feet away.

    So how is this different from a generic optimization problem? Well, it’s a subset of optimizations in which there’s sort of a ‘kink’ in the optimization, caused by an inelastic desire for the system to be ‘better’ than the Limit.

    My favorite example (and one I’ll write a blog post on in the future) is commute times. People will continue to go for the cheaper house, the larger backyard, etc as long as their commute is shorter than about 2 hours. This causes a problem when you update a highway, for instance – within a decade or two, the average commute time creeps back up to what it was as more and more buy houses farther away, counting on the fast transit time. The engineers were trying to achieve shorter commute times for everyone, but hit the Limit. However, even if you could get land for much cheaper 2.5 hours away from the city, people who have to regularly commute won’t build a house there – the commute would be worse than the Limit and no amount of stainless steel kitchenware can persuade the commuter. Their commute would simply be an Unacceptable Terribleness. Again, the reason this is interesting is that tradeoff is not continuous between house location / size / price and commute time, causing a situation of Just-Barely-Acceptable-Terribleness.

    The reason that the internet is so bad behind the scenes is that it is just barely Acceptably Terrible and if it were any less terrible we’d make a new language like Ruby for fun or profit and just end up right back at the Limit of Acceptable Terribleness. For those of us who haven’t achieved the zen of the Limit, everything is terrible. For those of us who have, “It’s just the way things are”. For those of us who think everything is awesome, please stop coding. Please?

    politics tech

    Climbing is the new golf, and kiteboarding is the new yachting

    The other day I was at Dogpatch Boulders and a realization struck me: At least for the tech industry, climbing is the new golf.

    What does this mean? Well, for decades golf has been the sport of business. You could catch up with a business partner, pitch a deal, have a low-key brainstorming session, develop your plan to kick Larry off the board, etc. while hitting small balls in acres of green fields set aside from the real world.

    Exclusive, collegial, challenging – but no one gets left behind, you can see why it ended up as the default game of business. It comes in handy as well with regular meetings in the office as a source of smalltalk. It is seen as so crucial to business success that there has been a strong movement by women to break into the golf clubhouse, which has only very recently gotten into the final stages.

    So golf worked for the Mad-Men-era and the Boomer generation… but so did white picket fences and homophobia. As usual, the Millennials are doing their own thing, and it seems so far that the new ‘gioco franco’ for the tech-set is rock climbing. (‘Gioco franco’ is ‘lingua franca’, but for games. Yes, I just made it up, it’s not a real term… yet) By ‘rock climbing’, to be clear, I don’t mean upside-down halfway up K2 as much as hanging out at Mission Cliffs and pushing to go from a V2 to a V3 on the bouldering wall.

    Climbing has the advantages in that it is:

    • cheaper, more inclusive, and doesn’t have the baggage of racism / classism / sexism etc (wow, that’s a lot of isms golf has issues with…)
    • more compact – we don’t live in the suburbs and our leisure activities need to fit into our urban footprint
    • less of a time commitment
    • more forgiving of people joining and leaving groups at the climbing gym

    I’ve been at Mission Cliffs and have met old colleagues, friends from a different neighborhood, and new friends who have immediately tried to get me to join their startup. Most seem to be ‘techies’ in at least the loose sense of the word. It is definitely the top sport techies play, with the possible exception of hiking (I’d argue that hiking does not fit well as a business / networking activity, and is hard to classify as a ‘sport’).

    Even though it may be better than golf, we should think about what it means that our industry is creating some norms that are very familiar from the old business world. Also, while cheaper than golfing, it’s still $80 / month – a barrier to someone who isn’t already making tech salaries, and requires you to be in decent shape to start getting on the wall. Lastly, while vastly better than golf in this regard, those who climb tend to match already-privileged demographics*.

    Is it right that there should be a benefit to your career if you like to climb? Are all demographics equally prepared to hop onto the wall? Do you have a membership? Should you get one even if you’re not passionate about climbing? I don’t have the answers, but I’ll keep thinking about it.

    Lastly, I’ve heard from a few sources that while climbing is the new golf, kiteboarding is the new yachting. Expensive, more exclusive, and apparently beloved by VCs. Somehow I’m less sure this trend will continue as strongly as climbing overtaking golf…

    TL;DR: The role golf has played in business is now played by rock climbing. This is probably a good thing, but we should think about it anyway.

    * Unfortunately I could not find solid data on this, but I think in this case we can go by common sense / vast overwhelming anecdotal evidence. Please point me in the direction of data if you have it.

    P.S. I’ll also include the other perspective that, at least in Australia, road biking may actually be the new golf instead of climbing!

    finance politics

    When should you itemize your federal deduction if you live in California?

    It’s tax time again, which means everyone I know has to put up with my complaining about Intuit’s (makers of TurboTax) lobbying for more complicated tax laws.

    In any case, if you’re doing your own taxes and you make enough to live in San Francisco at least semi-comfortably*, you should probably be itemizing your federal tax deduction.

    So California has fairly high taxes, which includes the CA SDI 1% for disability and paid family leave. Whether you’re happy about California being more like a European socialist paradise or not, turns out that these higher taxes are deductible from federal taxes. (Don’t worry, we’re still contributing more than our fair share).

    If you’re a single person renting an apartment in California, here’s a visualization of the way I think about it:

    When does it make sense to itemize your federal deduction if you live in CA?

    Answer: basically when you make more than $40-50k or give a lot to charity

    In this graph, the blue line is the percentage of your CA AGI (I assumed it was the same as federal to simplify) that the federal standard deduction represents. Since it is fixed at $6,100 for 2013, you can see that it represents less and less of your share as income increases. CA tax is the red line, and the yellow line is the CA SDI tax, fixed at 1% through 100k. Add those up and you get the bold green line- total non-discretionary items you can deduct.
    Right here you can see that at about $80,000+ you should run the calculations yourself to see if itemizing is a good idea. However, I’m assuming that the readers of this blog either give a decent chunk to charity or have some student loan interest that they are working on. In that case the percentage of your AGI that you can deduct shifts upwards, and the cutoff at which you should check to see if deducting makes sense shifts back quickly. In the case of 5% going to charity, you should start running the numbers around $55,000ish.

    I do have to add the disclaimer that, while I’ve spent far too many hours reading IRS docs to try to not use TurboTax, I am certainly not a certified Tax Preparer/Accountant/Lawyer/Lifeguard/Sandwich-Artist/etc.

    Last PSA- give to Charity! Think about each dollar as not a dollar coming out of your pocket, but actually only 75 cents, since after reading this post you’ve realized that deducting is what you should be doing :-)

    *yes, this is a sore subject- but I assume if you are reading this and working full time in the city you are in the range below