Monthly Archives: May 2014

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?