Category Archives: politics

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.

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

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.

    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.

    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…

    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

    politics tech

    Thoughts About Recent Books I’ve Read

    Average is Over, by Tyler Cowen

    “Tyler Cowen may very well turn out to be this decade’s Thomas Friedman” was a quote on the back of the book. This quote is accurate.

    In a more serious vein, while I have a ton of problems with his conclusions and writing, his heuristic for how to choose a career is very valid:
    In your work, are you competing directly against something a slightly smarter machine could do (aka assembly line worker)? Yes? You’re screwed.
    In your work, are you augmenting what the computer does and providing the human input necessary to ‘translate’? Yes? Ok, good, you’ll do great.

    He doesn’t go into the deeper ramifications of this, however- what does society look like when we are listening to machines that we can’t even understand the inner workings of? (There is actually some good sci fi on this…) Is this different from what has been taking place since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, or is this a real, very different change? I’d just like more critical analysis.

    I would read this, but only because people are going to reference it forever and you might need to know what they are talking about. OTOH, they are probably just going to say something like “Average is over” and you can nod your head and continue with your life without having to read this. Your pick.

    Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

    This is a great novel. It’s hard to not spoil it, but it’s amazing what he does and it is definitely something that at every page keeps you wanting to know what happens next. There are a million questions in your mind as you read this, and Mitchell lets you keep some questions still up in the air- very satisfying in a frustrating way! I absolutely hate when novels (and TV and movies) have no questions open- this is what makes the 6th season of the X-Files terrible, for instance. I should see the movie, although I doubt it can match the book.

    You should read this book.

    Future Perfect by Steven Johnson

    This book speaks pretty strongly to how I believe problems should be solved in the world today. It in fact is pretty much intellectual wanking to read it, as I agree with everything there. I imagine that most of the people who are reading these words also agree, but I’ll summarize just in case.

    Essentially, the models for how to organize human endeavors have traditionally been either a central state-based model or a market-based, anything goes model. The central model he refers to as a “Legrand Star”, after the French railway model. The market-based / libertarian model he refers to as the “Hayek” model. This gives us the usual conservative/liberal breakdown of suggestions to solve problems. Liberals have tended to favor centralized, controlled programs to (for instance) end poverty, while conservatives have tended to favor individual actions. However, neither works too well and in other parts of our society we have seen the benefits gained by another model: peer-to-peer, modeled after the internet.

    Johnson argues that we should learn the lessons the internet has been teaching us and apply the same types of structures to our political realm. He coins the term “Peer Progressives” to label those who (like me) believe in various forms of social justice and who believe that the internet gives us better tools than the traditional duo to work with. He gives the example of art funding. The classic progressive way of promoting art is the NEA- large government bureaucracy. The libertarian way is private benefactors (hey, worked for Michaelangelo). The Peer Progressive way is Kickstarter, which currently passes on more funds than the entire NEA budget to artists every year, and arguably does a much better job at funding art that could never have gotten a grant.

    I would recommend reading Future Perfect, but like most business books, you could read a long blog post and get the gist. The book is a fast read, though, and wonderfully self-validating, if you happen to be a “peer progressive” at least…

    finance politics tech

    Thoughts about “Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital”

    This is a totally eye-opening view of how capitalism and technology advances interact. This is going to be on my list of must-read books for anyone, especially anyone working in or investing in tech.

    In “Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital”, Carlota Perez argues that the technological advances and financial capital interact to create “surges”, what others generally call “long waves”. This surge encompasses the lifecycle of an entire “techno-economic paradigm”, a fancy word to describe how a society and its capitalist organization is underpinned by a set of technologies including processes, and that one form of this capitalist organization is very different from another. It is easiest to use an example, such as the “mass production” techno-economic paradigm. This started with Henry Ford et al, and is essentially waning as the “Information Age” (society’s term for the current techno-economic paradigm) emerges and dominates.

    These surges have a lifecycle of the stages:

    1. Incubation/gestation
    2. A “big bang” of societal awareness of the new technology
    3. “Irruption”: A “frenzy” of investment and installation of the new tech
    4. Crash/Recession/Depression as the investment was over-hyped compared to the installed base
    5. “Synergy” as the paradigm is accepted and rolled out
    6. “Maturity” of the paradigm as the major gains are tapped out and capital goes in search of the next shift

    Perez backs up this theory with examples of the 5 capitalist paradigms:

    1. The Industrial Revolution
    2. Age of Steam and Railways
    3. Age of Steel & Heavy Engineering
    4. Age of Oil, Autos, and Mass Production
    5. The Information Age

    This theory seems to hit the data points very well, and it will be very interesting to see how the next stages of the Information Age play out. Perez wrote the book right after the Tech Bubble burst in 2001, identifying that event as the crash in the lifecycle. It seems so far that the lifecycle is holding: as the broadband deployment and cell phone service extends, business models are finding traction in all areas of the economy. This seems to follow the “Synergy” phase and validate those claiming that “this time it’s different” because of such widespread adoption. For instance, online ordering of takeout food is normal to the point where people will not order from a restaurant who does not use Seamless/Eat24Hours/etc. What was once a fringe service that could not gain traction is now the norm.

    Once almost every routine thing can be done online, we will be in the “maturity” stage and you can expect profitableness of new tech ventures to decrease. Note that I am not saying that everything will be done online, just routine things. Shopping for a gift? Still in person, if you want. But a new pair of jeans? Bonobos has seemingly cracked that one, and there’s no sentimental or community-building reason to keep going to Kohls and buying Levis. You might as well just order over the internet. Groceries are probably going to be handled online, as the supermarket is a big hassle for everyone.

    You might think, isn’t this what everyone thought the last time? Again, yes, but that is somewhat of the point- a lot of decent ideas were floated during the bubble that were too early for their time, horribly executed, and way overvalued. As this techno-economic paradigm rolls out, we can hopefully avoid “Internet Mania” with constant reminders of the turn of the century.

    So what’s the next paradigm? I’d guess robots who can navigate the real world, but we will see. The advances in battery technology and machine learning are allowing potentially explosive growth in useful applications of robotics. Or does cloud computing count as a separate paradigm? It seems as though that is not the case, but perhaps it is revolutionary enough. Perez does not seem to set defined limits for how different a paradigm can be, seemingly setting them once it is clear a technology is on a track to replace as a paradigm.

    Right now I’m borrowing Paul’s copy of the book, but I think I might buy myself a copy- it is that important to think about these things! Look also for a followup in which I think about which things might be totally different this time around.

    politics

    Overcompensating racial ‘colorblindness’

    Pretending that the world is a place where race doesn’t matter is pretty bad. You see this on the Daily Show, where some hapless (but who should know better) southern white congressman just doesn’t understand why everyone can’t agree racism is dead. You also see it in Silicon Valley, with those who proclaim it a meritocracy and claim that any racial imbalances are a problem with the education pipeline and not some issue with hiring or culture.

    I’m not here to talk about that. Instead I’m here to talk about what happens when well-meaning people overcompensate about this issue and vocally point out racial ’truths’ when it’s not really appropriate. This is inspired by tales of various run-ins with the law a bunch of (male, white or asian, privileged) coworkers and I were sharing at work. Whenever someone would say “it was pretty lucky that the cop was called off because of a robbery on the other side of town, otherwise he’d definitely have taken the time to book me” or similar, a particular coworker would make a remark joking that the only reason that the person got off so lightly was because they were white. The intent of the joke was to point out that the situation might have gone differently based on the storyteller’s skin color, and to remind that there is privilege while at the same time laughing at an uncomfortable truth. The joking was a little too gleeful, aggressive and repetitive, however, and I’ve been trying to figure out what exactly bothered me about the jokes.

    I suppose it almost became a joke made at the expense of a lot of human suffering, as opposed to a check on your privilege. Not everything revolves around race, and to suggest otherwise seems to charicature-ize those who have to deal with oppression. It becomes “oh, if you’re X then you’re just totally fucked, that’s how it is”. It’s no longer a tilt of the hat to a group of humans whose struggles you are empathizing with, but instead a further exploitation of an imbalance in power for a laugh. It has gone beyond a simple acknowledgement of privilege to almost a celebration of how much more leeway your privilege gives you in the eyes of the law. This exploitation is furthered due to a motive to maximize laughs instead of a desire to educate.

    What made the joke funny in the first place? A sort of dark (dare I say it?) Kafka-esqe humor about the injustice and arbitrariness of the world, perhaps. I can see that humor, although anything race-based is pretty edgy to put forth at work, even after regular business hours.

    So where does it cross the line from acknowledgement to exploitation? I think when you are no longer empathizing with and ensuring privilege does not go unchecked, and instead are going for the laugh and rushing to exaggerate what might actually happen in the situation. In either case, it’s a pretty awkward conversation to have when you actually have black/latino coworkers. While perhaps it might be appreciated that someone is pointing out privilege, likely the reminder that the person telling the joke has more power in our unjust Justice System would not be appreciated. It’s a higher stakes version of telling a short person and a tall person at the same time about how each inch taller corresponds to greater earnings over a lifetime- depending on the coworkers, pretty awkward, and probably not appreciated.

    However, it also seems like there is utility in pointing out true instances where there was privilege in daily conversation (for instance, if we are talking about Justin Bieber). This may even extend to personal anecdotes about run-ins with the law, which are being told at work. I think there is still room to check the privilege, you just should really be self-critical of why you are making whatever remark- it should not be to get laughs, but instead as an actual reminder if needed.

    Anyway, given how dangerous it is to say anything on this subject, I almost did not post this. However I hope I have not offended and if I have, please let me know.

    green politics

    What went wrong in climate legislation in 2009/2010

    This week I came across a very interesting report. Theda Skocpol (a totally badass Political Science professor at Harvard) took a look at the reasons why liberals were successful in passing Obamacare but not with Cap & Trade for carbon emissions. It’s quite a read at 133 pages, and I figured my post this week could take a look. However, in my research for this post, I ended going down the rabbit hole of debates on Grist about this article- somehow I missed all this discussion last year when the paper came out. So instead of thoroughly summarizing the article, I’ll mostly touch upon the ensuing discussion.

    The report itself can be broken down into a few parts:

    1. What the green movement thought went wrong with Cap & Trade in 2009/2010
    2. What actually went wrong
    3. What the Obamacare proponents did right
    4. Where the movement should go from here

    To very quickly summarize, according to Skocpol:

    • Liberals thought having business on board and hammering out a deal in private would work, but in fact they did not realize that they needed a grassroots effort to keep pushing the legislators from outside the Beltway.
    • After the fact, much blame from liberals has been laid at Obama’s feet for prioritizing healthcare over environmental efforts.
    • Instead, they should be learning from their healthcare colleagues: while you need the usual sausage-making to be done within the Beltway, there needs to be pressure from constituents to keep nervous legislators steady in support.
    • At the end of the paper, she lays out the suggestion that Cap and Dividend legislation is the way to go- a way for broad grassroots support avoiding the back room ‘deals with the devil’.

    The account of the fight is quite gripping, and Skocpol’s arguments are very convincing. However, in looking through the responses to the paper, it is clear that there is more to the story. In particular, you should read David Robert’s breakdown of the paper and its arguments to get the full story- if there is one link you should follow from this post, Robert’s analysis is it. I actually do not suggest you read the 133 page report unless you really, really liked The West Wing!

    A few responses:

    Bill McKibben doesn’t say too much  He agrees with most of Skocpol’s arguments and her harsh criticism of the blaming after the fact, but does defend some of the green movement’s choices. He argues that, at the time, it was far more plausible that the insider strategy could work. It does make sense that he likes the grassroots approach – he suggests that the 350.org organization he’s running could be very useful the next time climate change legislation is on deck.

    Joseph Romm strongly disagrees with Skocpol’s conclusions. He points out that the administration allowed the ‘reconciliation’ process in the senate for the health care bill, but not for Cap and Trade. To be fair, this was a huge difference and shows the priority given to health care at the expense of climate change legislation:

    Now, you may hold the opinion that reconciliation was not possible for the climate bill, but it was certainly more possible than cap-and-dividend — or more possible than rapidly setting up a grassroots movement, another key omission by the environmental community according to Skocpol and the Yale analysis.

     

    Finally, the most complete and seemingly clear-eyed view is written by David Robert. Robert appreciates the paper, but disagrees strongly with the dividend idea.

    The premise of cap-and-dividend is that the government will steadily ratchet up the price of everything you buy — gas, food, plastic gewgaws, everything with carbon energy in the supply chain — and in exchange, cut you a check that makes up the difference. Will that appeal to the American public?
    Skocpol joins with a number of other green wonks in assuming it will, because it makes so much darn sense. But you know what they say about assumptions. What little public opinion research there is on the question seems to indicate that the promise of dividends does not, in fact, Change Everything. The public simply doesn’t trust that government will cut checks as promised. And they generally prefer the money to be spent on clean energy or energy efficiency.

     

    This is his ultimate take-away, and the 500-lb gorilla in the room that should probably be tackled before trying to pursue almost any other political agenda:

    Why did cap-and-trade fail? Because of filibuster abuse. That’s the simplest and most directly causal answer. Enviros had business and public opinion on their side. They had majorities in both houses of Congress on their side. That’s a lot! And it ought to be enough. But the bill failed because, unlike every other democratic institution in the damn world, including state legislatures, juries, and the judge’s panel on American Idol, the U.S. Senate now requires a supermajority. And that’s in an institution that is already corrupt, in which rural and fossil interests are already overrepresented, in which money is ubiquitous. It’s just an impossible bar to clear.

     

    He also points out that, while the power of the Tea Party in the Republican rank-and-file was obvious to Skocpol, it was far from clear to everyone else in the world, even Republicans in congress! As he reminds us, Skocpol has literally written the book on the Tea Party and therefore is a little more aware than even your average political science professor.

    Finally, Theda Skocpol responds, reiterating her points and re-emphasizing that the climate groups can not ignore the financial hardships of normal people.

    So what do I think about this?

    Well, I think it is incredibly important to look back at this, as disheartening as it is. It seems like 2009/2010 was the last chance in 10 years to get a law passed, and it’s frustrating to see what could have been done differently. It does seem like the green movement is pretty divorced from regular people, and the cost of mitigating climate change does seem to be borne by low-income Americans, even if it is a positive bet in the long run for everyone.

    One aspect that I don’t think Skocpol looks at is that, in the health care debate, there was a more extreme liberal position that Republican legislators and the public could compare the bill against: the public option.

    It was clear from at least the public liberal grumbling (yours truly as one of the grumblers) that Obamacare was not the most liberal option out there, not the most “big government” you could go. Thus, a legislator could say that “well, something was going to get passed, and while I’m not happy about all of Obamacare at least we kept the public option out”, and cover their ass [example needed]. Perhaps there could have been a far more drastic Carbon Tax on the table to push the ‘Overton Window’ and make Cap and Trade look like the reasonable compromise that it is. I also think that the dividend route has promise- if you can spin the fossil fuel companies as hurting everyday Americans to line their pockets (which is how it works – asthma rates, anyone?), I think people will respond very favorably to 100% even distribution of the auction proceeds amongst Americans.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think any of the ideas above would have been enough in 2009/2010 – the rise of the Tea Party, the pain of the economic downturn, the lack of interest by the Obama administration, the stranglehold of rural and fossil-fuel interests in the Senate, all of these were powerful enough to make a failure seem inevitable in hindsight. I do think it was unfortunate timing, and I agree that these conditions will never exist again (if they even did exist for a moment).

    Hopefully we’ll get another chance. I see Robert’s analysis of how impossible reform is in the Senate and think about the new voter ID rules and despair. Perhaps a national campaign to make Voting Day a federal holiday could help overcome the bias toward moneyed interests and low voter turnout that allows Republican primaries in moderate districts to determine the course of the entire nation. That’ll happen right after Republicans sing kumbaya around the Maypole…

    In any case, I’m glad 350.org exists and I hope groups like OrganizeMO are able to help counteract the massive marketing machine driven by the fossil fuel interests in the states that actually have a say in our legislation. It is also heartening that California can start driving these changes by itself- since it is large enough, it’s a good testing ground for policies that hopefully can be rolled out quickly nationwide.

    politics tech

    Bret Victor’s ‘driving principle’: necessary but not sufficient

    A little while ago I finally got around to watching Bret Victor’s “Inventing on Principle”. Transcript here.

    The main realization that Brett is trying to get across is that the most successful and most satisfied humans are those who have devoted their life to a driving principle. An example of this is would be Richard Stallman with free software, Alan Kay with a goal to ‘amplify human reach, and bring new ways of thinking to a faltering civilization that desperately needed it’, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton with Women’s Suffrage / equal rights for all. I can see how the stress between the world’s present, imperfect implementation of these ideas and the unrealized, perfect world where the ideal is practiced would give meaning to your life’s work. With this tension, you have a purpose, to fix this divergence.

    I have some issues with the talk, but first, I did take his instruction to try and find your own driving principle seriously. I’ve found that my own driving principle is a desire to reduce waste of all kinds. This is perhaps an unsurprising principle for someone who is an engineer, but I think that this desire is one reason why I am a software engineer in the first place! Thinking back into my past, one incident stands out as a perfect example. I was about 13 years old at a summer camp, and I could hear these two other campers from New Jersey around the corner from me who were finding something totally hilarious – laughing and giggling continually. I turn the corner and see the amusing thing: they were pressing the soap dispenser and watching globs of pink gooey soap drop onto the bathroom tile floor. I remember getting very angry at the waste of it all, which of course made the campers start taunting me with the waste far longer than they otherwise would have if I hadn’t come along. I had a grudge against people from New Jersey for a very long time after that, although I have gotten over it! Something about entirely frivolous waste really got me. At least other times people can justify waste of material through the need to not waste time, but in this case their enjoyment could have been gotten by doing any number of non-wasteful things at camp.

    So what does this principle to reduce waste mean? Well, it’s not just for CPU cycles. In fact I am willing to burn as many  cycles as necessary to reduce larger causes of waste: waste of people’s lives, their time, their potential, the waste of nature for frivolous reasons, suffering as a cause of a waste of people’s and animals’ lives, etc. When I was traveling in India I can’t count the number of people I saw working worthless jobs or working no job at all. This would be fine if the people were not miserable doing such- in some people’s versions of utopia humans need to do no work at all, and I have no problem with that vision if there is no suffering. However India has many hundreds of millions starving and undereducated; when banks hire a guard to sit in an ATM and open the door for people, it strikes me as wasteful and morally wrong. It is clear that our priorities (and we are a truly global world now, ‘our’ refers to Western Capitalism) are badly skewed from the most beneficial and decent true path, where the lives, health, potential, and time of hundreds of millions are not written off as how the world works. Even in the developed world, you can see others coming to the same conclusions about our modern desk jockey jobs. The conclusion that these jobs are a waste of so many things, and an ideal world would be without them.

    It felt good to find this out about myself, and explained some things about why I am interested in some jobs and projects over others in my own career. I would highly recommend trying this out yourself, to give yourself a guiding line to follow in your career. It has also pushed me to get a little more serious about my own inefficiencies. One thing I’ve been trying to do is reduce meat consumption, a hugely wasteful in many ways choice over vegetable alternatives. As I always say, if I was a better person I would be a vegetarian. Well, I won’t get there yet, but I’ll now promise that by the end of December I will eat meat on 3 days or less a week.

     

    Finally, I would like to strongly disagree with some aspects of Bret’s talk. While inspiring, I found the talk way too tech-self-centered and arrogant. Bret seems to think that we can simply choose some pet peeve in the technical space and this will translate to a positive, world-changing (even if in a small way) contribution to society. He uses moral terms to describe working on these chosen principles:

    My point here is that these words that I’m using: Injustice, Responsibility, Moral Wrong, these aren’t the words we normally hear in a technical field. We do hear these words associated with social causes. So things like censorship, gender discrimination, environmental destruction. We all recognize these things as moral wrongs. Most of us wouldn’t see a civil rights violation and think “Oh good, an opportunity.” I hope not.

    Instead, we’ve been very fortunate to have people throughout history who recognized these social wrongs and saw it as their responsibility to address them. And so there’s this activist lifestyle where these persons dedicate themselves to fighting for a cause that they believe in. And the purpose of this talk is to tell you that this activist lifestyle is not just for social activism. As a technologist, you can recognize a wrong in the world. You can have a vision of what a better world could be. And you can dedicate yourself to fighting for a principle. Social activists typically fight by organizing but you can fight by inventing.

    I find this misguided. This formulation of the problem totally avoids responsibility of the wider moral implications of creating better tools, and Bret gives no advice to make sure that following your principle does not cause unforeseen issues. At the very least there should be advisement to first, do no harm. You could see a young Oppenheimer hear this talk and decide to devote his life to “unlocking the power within physical materials for human use”, or for a contemporary software developer to follow a principle to “help machines perceive the world in all ways” and end up programming military drone cameras. Without this thoughtfulness towards the greater good of human society, there is no authority whatsoever to use the words “Injustice, Responsibility, Moral Wrong”. Anyone who thinks that these moral words are valid for Bret’s morally agnostic principles have fallen prey to the arrogance of the tech world: that whatever is beautiful and right in our world must be beautiful, proper, and needed in the wider world. So while I enjoyed the talk and found it very personally useful, I would ask Bret to think about the greater implications of such a narrow focus in your life without thinking about the surrounding context. I would encourage other software developers to make sure that they are also not falling into the software engineer’s fallacy of a beautiful technical system translating to a morally beautiful real-world result. Yet, I would still encourage others to try this exercise and spend some time watching Bret’s talk.

     

    TL;DR:

    A great talk, this helped me discover deep-seated beliefs I hold. It can help us all direct our careers- watch his talk and perform the exercise he asks of us, to try to find your own driving principle. However, the moral weight Bret attributes to following these principles is totally unwarranted – you need to closely watch the external effects of following your own driving principle and first, do no harm. If you do this at the same time you are answering your own driving principle, however, I think you are well on your way to a rewarding life.

    politics tech

    Change the narrative: privacy should be considered as a type of property to protect it

    Thinking about the recent Verizon/PRISM/Muscular releases, the StopWatchingUs protest, and seeing the same “I’ve got nothing to hide” argument come up again, I’ve been thinking that perhaps the way to solve this from a public image perspective is to change the narrative in society. Instead of fighting for privacy arguing about privacy’s intrinsic value, we can discuss privacy as a form of personal property and gain some of property’s protections for privacy. That idea may have some cons, but perhaps could be useful to deflect the “nothing to hide” argument and to get moderates to join the fight for privacy online. I would apologize to my law school friends for the bending of legal frameworks for my own ends, but after Citizens United I don’t feel so bad doing it…

    Let’s think about the units we’d be talking about. I’ll define privacy as the ability to control who knows certain things about you, whether it is basic information like your address, or who you talk to (NSA-Verizon-ATT, Chevron and email), or exactly what you look like naked (TSA scanners), to your inner beliefs and thoughts (unease with behavioral targeting).

    In our idea of a ‘privacy property’, each receipt of this information by a new individual or organization would be a new property transaction. You should have control over your own ‘privacy property’, regardless of who is communicating your information. For instance, if Google is handing over your data to an advertiser or the NSA, you would have control over whether that transaction is allowed. Similar to property, the government could appropriate your privacy in an emergency or a war situation, but everyday privacy violations would be illegitimate takings by the government.

    Now, let’s be clear, this regime would be very difficult to implement technically, but we are discussing how to change the public’s perception of the issue, not necessarily advocating that this framework should be implemented.

    Quick Brainstorm of Pros and Cons:

    Pros:

    • Appeals to moderates
    • Can demonize NSA by painting it as un-American since they are now anti-public property and potentially ‘socialist’ by appropriating privacy for the state
    • Much clear, longstanding law on property can be used in the fight for privacy

    Cons:

    • De-sanctifies privacy
    • Government has precedent to take away property by eminent domain
    • Not a perfect mapping to conventional property, and thus potentially confusing
    • Uses a similar argument to the one record companies lost with during the 2000s

    While I was thinking about this, I came across this ten-year-old article from Lessig trying to outline a viable framework.

    In the article, Lessig talks about Amazon changing the terms of service retroactively to be able to sell information about their customers, even if those customers had indicated that Amazon should not sell their information:

    If it were taken for granted that privacy was a form of property, then Amazon simply could not get away with announcing that this personal information was now theirs. That would be “theft,” and this is my point: “theft” is positively un-American.

    Property talk would give privacy rhetoric added support within American culture. If you could get people (in America, at this point in history) to see a certain resource as property, then you are 90 percent to your protective goal. If people see a resource as property, it will take a great deal of converting to convince them that companies like Amazon should be free to take it. Likewise, it will be hard for companies like Amazon to escape the label of thief.

    Lessig talks a lot about what a property system would look like for privacy, but I think this is unnecessary and for the short term, distracting. If instead we change the public perception about privacy, we can gain the cultural protections of associating privacy with property and change the discourse amongst moderates. We can change the discussion from “I’ve got nothing to hide, the NSA can see who I’m talking to” to “I don’t think the NSA should be allowed to commandeer so much property for so little benefit to America. If they can’t justify the benefits with specific examples of thwarted plots, etc, my ‘privacy property’ should not be taken. The NSA is an un-American institution if they continue this spying.”

    I think we can even go further to gain the protection of not only the fourth amendment, which is somewhat confusing and endlessly debatable, but with the third amendment, probably the least controversial amendment in the bill of rights:

    No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

    In a time of relative peace, the NSA is stealing some of our ‘privacy property’ every day with no compensation. Their justification for stealing is for defense of the country, however this defense is against undefined, undefeatable foes with no end time table. Thus, if privacy is considered property, it can be argued that the NSA is committing the exact crime that inspired the 3rd amendment.

    While I don’t think a case could be successfully argued in the supreme court right now, we only need to win in the court of public opinion.

    Yet, as a friend points out, the NSA reading your email does not feel like the British government posting a soldier in your spare room. However, if there is a mental shift to each new recipient of your personal information counting as a property transaction, it may very well start to feel like that.

    There is the final complication that it seems as though the argument is very similar to the argument record companies failed to ‘win’ with during the 2000s, that data online is property and must be treated as such. While everyone seems to take it for granted that the record companies lost this battle:

    1. The law is clear that piracy counts as at least copyright infringement punishable by serious fines and jail time
    2. When you poll the general public, people still do consider piracy to be theft, although probably a ‘less severe’ form of theft

    Quick note on that Rasmussen poll I linked to- yes, this is likely voters who were reached by land-line telephone. Nate Silver has written a ton on how Rasmussen polls are biased but this is bias is actually a boon for us. Generally the younger generation has been less receptive to the security argument, and to expand the fight against spying we need the support of the older, less urban generation which Rasmussen is biased towards. These polls suggest that this older group is more likely to respond well to the “privacy is property” narrative, and could be allies in the struggle against government surveillance.

    Let’s go out in the world (and on the internet) and try to emphasize that:

    • Privacy is a form of property, where each new receipt of your information is a property transaction
    • The NSA is therefore stealing your property every day, in relative peacetime
    • While there may be a national security justification in some cases, broad collection in peacetime violates the fourth and third amendments and are a serious danger to the first amendment

    Especially as the holidays come up, let’s see if our currently-less-concerned relatives can be swayed by this argument. If the connection to the third amendment is a stretch, at least that privacy should be afforded some of the protections of property.

    Example Interactions from the thanksgiving table:

    “Doesn’t matter to me, I have nothing to hide”

    Neither do I, but it should be my choice to provide information to the government, as private information is my ‘privacy property’. Without the ability to give consent to spying, the government is stealing from you, whether you support the program or not.

    “But the government needs to protect us from terrorists”

    Yes, but at what cost? Your privacy is your property, and while we accept that the government sometimes needs to take property to protect the country, our country’s founders specifically rejected the equivalent of the NSA’s spying. The British used to post soldiers in houses (quartering) without paying the owners of the house, effectively appropriating the house’s private property. The NSA is stealing your private property day-in, day-out just like the British stole our forefathers’ spare rooms. It goes against the ideals of America to support this spying program.

    “What about child predators, hackers, etc?”

    These are police matters and should be handled through the regular justice system. Just because something is online does not mean it is up for grabs, and the constitutional protections given to you in real life should follow you onto the internet. As it is, we are spending more and more time on the internet so we need to ensure we protect our rights online as well as offline.

    “But you give data to Facebook, don’t they own that information now, and could give it to the government if they wanted?”

    Perhaps, but just like you can’t go and print off copies of Harry Potter and sell them on the street, institutions who I’ve given my data to should not be allowed to resell my information without my consent. Just as you would go to jail for stealing from JK Rowling, Facebook should be liable if it passes on my information to anyone, not just the NSA. Start thinking about each time a new organization receives your information as a transaction that you should have to authorize – it is your data!