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


Adolescent drug use over time

I was talking about how different drugs had come into and out of fashion over the years with someone, and in the conversation I stated that “younger people have been using fewer and fewer illegal (and legal) drugs over time”. However I wasn’t sure that I had a reference for this, so I decided to dig a bit. Turns out that it wasn’t a myth, at least comparing to medium-term trends.

Looking at (a hardly unbiased site), the news looks dire. More youngsters using “illicit drugs”! Things are terrible!

everything is terrible

Really they are looking only to 2002, and the only increasing sector is pot, which is on its way to legality in most places and is understood by society (if not the law) to be around or less harmful than alcohol. If you zoom out a bit:

teen drug use

This is actually from that same web site, just a different post. Looking at alcohol and cigarette use, overall drug use has really been falling since the 70s.

Stuff like this is what gets me frustrated when people say things like “millennials are ungrateful and entitled”. Well, better than any generation since the 50s we respected what our elders had to say to us and followed their advice, believing the promise of a quality life after we were finished with school. I see rates of falling drug use as one datapoint of the assertions that we followed society’s advice.

It was actually surprisingly hard to track down legit answers to “how many teens have used X drug over time”, so I can’t compare well over a longer window, even just to the dawn of the war on drugs. I’d be curious to know why that is- you’d think the pro-war-on-drugs crowd would love to have a diminishing rate of use over time.

TL;DR: Teenagers since the are generally using fewer legal and illegal drugs (including tobacco and alcohol, at least since the 90s), with the exception of pot which has increased lately


Dear New York Entrepreneurs

If one of you opens up a real bagel shop in SF, you will be rich. Seriously. There’s a place called Katz which is only marginally better than Bruegger’s and is just raking it in, and is considered one of the best bagel places in the city.

Just sayin. Not only would you be rich, but you would have the admiration of the entire city. Please, help save us from this bagel drought!



A stupid article I probably shouldn’t respond to

Here’s the latest lament of a particular group of women in San Francisco.

The gist of these stories are that there’s something wrong with the men of San Francisco, as compared to other cities (generally NYC), which is why the dating scene is so bad. They cite the lack of attractive men talking to them spontaneously in bars and coffee shops, even though the ratio of men to women is in favor of women in the city.


Look, there are a lot of signals you are probably sending that we’re missing, but ultimately I think that the reason you don’t have people coming up to you is that the men of San Francisco respect your right to hang out in public and not be inundated with come-ons. When you walk into a coffee shop, maybe you just want a cup of coffee. When you are out at a bar with friends, maybe you just want to catch up. When you are on MUNI, maybe you just need to get to work.

In a city with so many single men and not that many single women, the chances that a woman you are talking to is 1) interested or 2) available are fairly small. Sure, you’re going to try to talk with someone who is not interested and as long as you are respectful, no big deal, right? Multiply this by the number of single men in the city and that’s probably someone trying to flirt with you on MUNI every morning on your way to work. Women who are reading this, do you really want that? Or is this just the louder people who do want this that get the sfgate article and the page views?

In any case, where in the best of circumstances many people are going to be bothered a lot of the time, why not use the internet to make sure that everyone involved really wants to be in the conversation?

I know this sounds fairly robotic, and I do actually enjoy flirting. I just absolutely hate the current paradigm where men must take it upon themselves to turn a regular social interaction sexual/romantic. I’m also sure that some out there say “who cares if I’m bothered- as long as you are respectful, it’s no big deal”. Perhaps. However most of us (at least those reading these words) work in an industry which is even more lopsided and has serious problems when it comes to women feeling comfortable. Our default needs to be “do not flirt, unless there are clear signals saying that it’s ok”. It’s not easy to context switch out of that on the commute home, or even in a coffee shop on the weekend (especially if we’re doing work anyway at that coffee shop). So women of San Francisco, I ask you to take the advice of someone in the article:

“Probably precisely the type of guy you’re interested in meeting would love to have a confident, attractive woman come up to him and make the first move.”


Some choice bits from Dan Geer’s RSA talk

Somehow I came across this writeup of Dan Geer’s RSA conference talk. I was blown away by it, not by what information contained in the talk but instead by the questions he was able to ask which I hadn’t even though to ask. You should absolutely read it! I don’t have time for a proper writeup, but I’ll pull out some particularly good items I appreciated from the talk:

On fragility:

‘The Gordian Knot of such tradeoffs — our tradeoffs — is this: As society becomes more technologic, even the mundane comes to depend on distant digital perfection. Our food pipeline contains less than a week’s supply, just to take one example, and that pipeline depends on digital services for everything from GPS driven tractors to robot vegetable sorting machinery to coast-to-coast logistics to RFID-tagged livestock. Is all the technologic dependency, and the data that fuels it, making us more resilient or more fragile?’

On duty:

Almost everyone here has some form of ingress filtering in place by whatever name — firewall, intrusion detection, whitelisting,and so forth and so on. Some of you have egress filtering because being in a botnet, that is to say being an accessory to crime, is bad for business. Suppose you discover that you are in a botnet; do you have an obligation to report it? Do you have an obligation to report the traffic that led you to conclude that you had a problem? Do you even have an obligation to bother to look and, if you don’t have or want an obligation to bother to look, do you want your government to require the ISPs to do your looking for you, to notify you when your outbound traffic marks you as an accomplice to crime, whether witting or unwitting? Do you want to lay on theISPs the duty to guarantee a safe Internet? They own the pipes and if you want clean pipes, then they are the ones to do it. Does deep packet inspection of your traffic by your ISP as a public health measure have your support? Would you want an ISP to deny access to a host, which might be your host, that is doing something bad on their networks? Who gets to define what is “bad?”

If you are saying to yourself, “This is beginning to sound like surveillance” or something similar, then you’re paying attention.

Relevant as skybox is doing well:

All we have to go on now is the hopeful phrase “A reasonable expectation of privacy” but what is reasonable when one inch block letters can be read from orbit? What is reasonable when all of your financial or medical life is digitized and available primarily over the Internet?

An interesting semi-prediction:

By now it is obvious that we humans can design systems more complex than we can then operate. The financial sector’s “flash crashes” are the most recent proof-by-demonstration of that claim; it would hardly surprise anyone were the fifty interlocked insurance exchanges for Obamacare to soon be another.

I love the phrasing on this:

Let me ask a yesterday question: How do you feel about traffic jam detection based on the handoff rate between cell towers of those cell phones in use in cars on the road?

Let me ask a today question: How do you feel about auto insurance that is priced from a daily readout of your automobile’s black box?

Let me ask a tomorrow question: In what calendar year will compulsory auto insurance be more expensive for the driver who insists on driving their car themselves rather than letting a robot do it? How do you feel about public health surveillance done by requiring Google and Bing to report on searches for cold remedies and the like? How do you feel about a Smart Grid that reduces your power costs and greens the atmosphere but reports minute-by-minute what is on and what is off in your home? Have you or would you install that toilet that does a urinalysis with every use, and forwards it to your clinician?

And he passed on a really interesting point that Joel Brenner made:

During the Cold War, our enemies were few and we knew who they were. The technologies used by Soviet military and intelligence agencies were invented by those agencies. Today, our adversaries are less awesomely powerful than the Soviet Union, but they are many and often hidden. That means we must find them before we can listen to them. Equally important, virtually every government on Earth, including our own, has abandoned the practice of relying on government-developed technologies. Instead they rely on commercial off-the-shelf, or COTS, technologies. They do it because no government can compete with the head-spinning advances emerging from the private sector, and no government can afford to try.

When NSA wanted to collect intelligence on the Soviet government and military, the agency had to steal or break the encryption used by them and nobody else. The migration to COTS changed that. If NSA now wants to collect against a foreign general’s or terorist’s communications, it must break the same encryption you and I use on our own devices… That’s why NSA would want to break the encryption used on every one of those media. If it couldn’t, any terrorist in Chicago, Kabul, or Cologne would simply use a Blackberry or send messages on Yahoo!

But therein lies a policy dilemma, because NSA could decrypt almost any private conversation. The distinction between capabilities and actual practices is more critical than ever… Like it or not, the dilemma can be resolved only through oversight mechanisms that are publicly understood and trusted — but are not themselves … transparent.

(spacing added for readablility)

Generally, this made me very worried about the rest of our industry. It seems living in San Francisco that everything tech-wise is under control- self-driving cars are safer than humans, our own governance is far more effective than the US government and corporations elsewhere in the country, and if only our ideas were more widely implemented, everyone’s lives would be better. Or so the party line goes. We really don’t stop to think about these things, however- we simply don’t have time. We’re either working, cranking things out, or desperately trying to make sure we haven’t squandered our 20s. Perhaps we really should slow down a bit and think about where we are going and try to make some informed decisions.


‘Braided Streets’- my proposal for how to organize traffic in SF

The fight over what our streets look like is perpetual in this city. Bicyclists love Valencia and Folsom, and want other streets to be just like them. Car-owners and taxis love Franklin, South Van Ness, Guerrero, etc. Transit (aka buses and streetcars) does well on Mission, Market, and Haight, amongst others. Pedestrians seem to like the streets that are optimized for bikes and transit.

It seems that there is a showdown brewing between the newly powerful bike coalition, the Muni supporters, and people who drive, as more and more streets get sharrows or a bike lane. However, I think we can avoid some of the strife by acknowledging that the three types of vehicles (bikes, transit, and cars) simply shouldn’t coexist on many streets- or at least, I don’t think there is a configuration that makes all parties happy. If optimized for bikes, cars and transit are slow, if optimized for cars, bikes and pedestrians are in danger, if optimized for transit bikes are in danger and both cars and bikes are slow.

Instead, we should have a ‘braided street’ model, where we alternate which streets are optimized for which modes of transit. We already partially have that model in the Mission, and I think it does pretty well. Going from west to east:

Street Optimized For
Sanchez Bikes
Church Transit
Dolores Cars and Bikes? Perhaps Pedestrians
Guerrero Cars
Valencia Bikes
Mission Transit
South Van Ness Cars
Folsom Bikes and Transit

It’s not strict (and doesn’t need to be) but this division helps keep everyone happy- it’s not too far from a street which is optimized for how you want to travel. If you’re a bike on Guerrero going a long distance, hopping over to Valencia is worthwhile so you don’t need to advocate for a bike lane on Guerrero. Here’s a map which overlays how the north-south streets in the Mission are currently ‘organized’:

north-south usage

North-South Current street usage

Blue is car-optimized, Green is bike-optimized, Yellow is Transit-optimized

Note that Portrero is all three, due to it being the last street before the highway.


East-west is a little less clear, possibly due to the distance not being as great- the self-selecting into different streets is not as prevalent when there is not as far to go. Also the cross streets have to interact with the light timings for the more important north-south streets.

east-west usage

East-West current street usage

Again, Blue is car-optimized, Green is bike-optimized, Yellow is Transit-optimized

Cesar Chavez is all three (although in truth less bike-friendly than I’d like) and 16th is good for both cars and transit.

I think that a more explicit understanding of this model (a model which we already are heading for as a city) could help ease some of the noise and conflict. Cyclists would realize that not all streets need to be calmed (even though calming would help out the noise for my own apartment on Guerrero, I still think Guerrero should remain optimized for cars), and cars would get over the superiority complex that they own the streets and would realize that they are guests on the non-car-optimized streets.

Thoughts? A better name for the model, perhaps?


Very simple algorithm for keeping track of doing something 50% of the time

So one of my New Year’s Resolutions is to eat meat less than 50% of days. However, I’ve been having trouble tracking it, and therefore have not been doing a good job of sticking with it. It’s hard to remember to update a calendar. You have to remember the days you did or did not eat meat that week, and there’s no easy way to see if you are doing better than 50%.

Yet, there is a shortcut we can use that my coworker pointed out to me that is very simple and elegant, although only because we have the simplification of 50%. Think about it for a minute…

If you’re like me you probably just jumped to this paragraph. Really, think about how you could track it!




Well, if you’ve given up, the very simple way of tracking this is just to add one when you make a day, and subtract when you miss one. You then only have one number, and that number tells you how far in the hole you are, or how well you are doing. Additionally, you are using psychology to benefit you, as humans (or at least the western-educated college students they run experiments on) hate losing things, even if the ‘things’ are imaginary points.

Right now I’m at -2 after 4 days. Which is not good, but at least I know now and can fight it!

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.


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.


Subvocalization – something that might be slowing you down as you read these words…

Subvocalization is when, as you read, you speak the words in your head.

Up until this week, I had no idea that Subvocalization existed beyond starting to learn a language. I thought that it was a part of proficiency in a language that you could read the words without ‘saying’ them in your head. Similarly, others who do subvocalize (at least those who were in the same room I was when I heard about it) had no idea you could read without subvocalization! It’s amazing that such a used feature of our selves is so poorly identified by everyone, let alone understood by any kind of science.

I have a few pretty unscientific thoughts. One, it seems to me that I read faster because of it, and anecdotal evidence suggests this, but academic literature seems to say it doesn’t matter and there is a lot of debate. I wish that there was more research on this topic! Two, it seems essential to learn this if it does make you read faster, as this Forbes post suggests (albeit hyperbolic-ly)

If you think about our lives, we read probably 2 hours a day of blog posts, books, emails, etc. If you include work reading as well, it is probably most of the day that I am looking at and reading text. the range of comprehension reading is around 100-300 words/minute. So that’s the difference between 12,000 and 36,000 words! 24,000 words a day is 1/4th of The Hobbit- you could easily read the equivalent in words of The Hobbit once every week if you could increase your reading speed to the top of this range.

Note that this is not “Speed Reading”. Honestly I think that is useless- you miss out on every nuance and detail, and lose the point of most of the words the author wrote! The words are (usually) not there to take up space, but instead to flesh out the ideas with tricky cases, nuance, detail, emotion, and everything else human.

Which brings me to the one thing I don’t like about trying to read quickly- you do lose out on some of the interesting stuff, even when reading at regular comprehension rates. As it is, I feel like I forget most of what I read very quickly after I read it, and that sometimes I’m just a text-processing robot that might as well read those executive recaps at the end of business books. (To be fair, business books often really only contain those bullet points interspersed with anecdotal evidence that the bullet points are not all crap, so it’s probably beneficial to read just the basic theory the author is trying to get across!) It might be better to slow down and enjoy life a little more than we let ourselves, and this includes reading.

In any case, now you know subvocalization is a thing, and can choose for yourself!


Do you capitalize the [Ii]nternet?

The “Internet” officially should be capitalized. I certainly don’t capitalize it, however. This is just a theory, but I’ll bet that there is a clear difference in who capitalizes and who doesn’t. I’ll bet that those who were born after, say,1985 would just write “the internet” without capitalization.

Why? Well, you don’t capitalize “the sky” or “the ocean” or “the highway system”. For our generation, our entire adult lives and some of our formative years has seen the internet as a pervasive network, almost natural in how it surrounds and manifests in many ways and large enough so that it takes years of study to understand it. It ceases to be a proper noun thing that needs to be identified as such and instead is just a part of the world that we refer to from time to time.

It helps that there is no longer a clear boundary of what is and is not the internet. Is your phone part of the internet? How about when in airplane mode- is it a part of the internet that is just temporarily disconnected? How about your body, bathed in wifi and 4G signals, even though it can’t understand what those signals mean. Does the transmission of these into space count as the end of the internet? Is the internet then continually expanding into space at the speed of light in an ever-expanding sphere?

I’ll bet that our grandparents capitalized the “highway system” at least at first, and that their parents never got out of the habit. When this plane lands I’ll do some research- currently it’s a temporarily disconnected section of the internet, regardless of what Delta might claim on the little light above my seat that says “wifi”.

Now that I am on the ground with actual internet access, it looks like I’m not the first to think of this:
There is even a Wikipedia page on it, which seems to suggest that lowercase is inevitable but right now the ‘official’ spelling is with an uppercase ‘I’:


A curmudgeonly view of words

Recently a few choice words have caught my ear. You see, I care more about words than someone who hasn’t ever thought about majoring in English probably should.

There are two main ways I see people abusing the English language, and I’m not happy about it:

  1. Change the meaning of words to suit your purposes
  2. Use a word in an inappropriate context to appropriate some of the associations and meanings of that word for your own purposes

The first is easy- straight 1984 Truth is Love, etc. You can see this in the different definitions the NSA uses for ‘collect’ and ‘analyze’, which any common sense check of the meaning of the word would find to be a total abuse of the language. This I am angry about, but is less easy to fight- there is something broken in our oversight system when no one said “hey, wait a minute- it doesn’t matter if a human or a computer is looking at the data – storing the data is still collecting! This is common sense!”

Instead, I’d like to talk about the second abuse of language, one which seems almost innocent at the time. Here are some examples:

  • “Come into our shop: we love you!”
  • “Here’s our list of app heroes– they’ve checked in 1000 times this week!”

I’m sure you can think of more…

Often these are marketers, although I see them in political campaigns as well. The ultimate aim of these marketers is to convince you to buy something (duh). It is, of course, impossible for a shop to love every customer that walks in the door. The owners may love the independence the shop gives them, and may appreciate greatly the patronage of their store, but they certainly do not love every customer who reads the sign, according to any measure of common sense.

“Colin, it doesn’t matter! It’s a little silly, but no harm done…” –basically everyone

I disagree. When a marketer uses these terms, they are essentially stealing from all of us for their own ends. When a retailer uses the word ‘love’ to describe someone who has a relationship that could not be love, they are cheapening the word for everyone else. Not all at once, with the first use, but over time, slowly. We should be angry at this- every small take from our culture adds up and makes the world a worse place, not one filled more with love, as the marketer might claim.

Maybe I’m a curmudgeon, but I take pretty seriously our culture- I think that one of the reasons that we feel our culture does not reflect our values often is that we don’t confront things that bother us, as trivial as they might seem.


How to keep the cold out of your freezing apartment

It’s cold. Damn cold, at least here in San Francisco (although the weather maps show a lot of blue and purple shading in the rest of the country as well!). My apartment, while costing the equivalent of sending two kids to college for a year amongst the four of us, has neither heat nor window insulation. That means it’s super cold inside as well! Getting up in the morning is definitely tough…

To fix this, we have some space heaters, but that’s not enough, and not the best for the environment. One problem is that the windows are single-pane, another is that the windows are pretty loose in the frame.

What you really need for the gaps around the windows are some of these:

(Probably go for the narrowest you can- depends on how loose your windows are)

To try to mimic double-pane glass, try this:

Hopefully this will help- it has certainly made a difference in my room. And remember: the way PG&E calculates your bill, anything above the ‘normal’ range can really add up.

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 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 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.



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.

green tech

Automated monitoring of web pages using Page2RSS, Feedly and IFTTT

So you are an activist trying to keep a pulse on the community you’re serving. Unfortunately, you have little time and a lot of web pages, groups, and updates to keep track of. Luckily, by using a few simple tools, you can automate away much of your busy work, leaving you more time to tackle the hard stuff.

This post will show you how to use these tools to automatically monitor any web page to notify you when there are changes you might be interested in.

The steps to monitor any page are:

  1. Identify what changes on the page, and what keywords always are present during the change
  2. Create a Page2RSS for that page
  3. If simple enough, subscribe with Feedly. If not, create an IFTTT that filters based on one of the keywords and send to Feedly.

At step 3, you can also email yourself with a change, post to twitter, etc- anything that you can do in IFTTT.

Quick question, Colin: what does all that jargon mean???

Yes, there are some new terms here. Let’s make a quick glossary:

RSS feed: a way to organize updates to websites in easily-automatable and simple, bite-sized chunks

Page2RSS: An awesome web service that checks in on a page every now and again and packages the difference between the versions of the website into an RSS feed

Feedly: A service like (the now dead) Google Reader which you can use to collect items from RSS feeds. It takes care of reading the RSS feed and presenting the update in a human-readable form.

IFTTT: “If this then that”, a simple service that can hook together parts of the internet to make you a super-activist. It is worth learning this tool very well.

What you’ll need:

  • An IFTTT account, with the ‘Email’ and ‘Feedly’ channels activated
  • A Feedly account or an email account
  • A Page2RSS account (optional, but useful to organize)


page notify workflow

Three different options to get notified about changes

The examples below follow these three tracks. The simplest is subscribing to all changes to the page using Feedly, while the most complicated is using IFTTT to filter out only the changes you want to be notified by. Don’t worry, once you get the hang of things it’s really very simple!


Herman, MO – simple any change to page and email:

In this case, we are just checking for any change to the city council page, and we want an email any time it changes. This represents the  yellow track above.

Here’s the Herman, MO page:

Herman, MO City Council Page

Herman, MO City Council Page

We want to be notified of any change to this page. Let’s first turn the page into an RSS feed, using Page2RSS:

create rss monitor

Paste in the URL of the page you want to monitor here, or use the Chrome extension

(If you install the Chrome extension you can cut down your manual work even more – log into Page2RSS and download the extension to boost your productivity!)

Herman City Council to RSS

Turning the city council page into an RSS feed

Now, if we want to just add this to our Feedly stream, we can just click on the ‘Feedly’ button on that page and we’re done! This is the purple track in the workflow above.

However, for this example, we want an email every time this page changes. Click on the ‘RSS’ button and copy the url:

herman rss feed url

Copy the URL here

Now head over to IFTTT. Let’s create a new ‘recipe’ choosing the RSS ‘channel’. The icon looks like this:

rss icon

Look for this icon when choosing a trigger ‘Channel’

We can paste the URL saved from Page2RSS into the creation box:

add rss trigger in IFTTT

Paste the RSS feed URL from Page2RSS

IFTTT Choose Action

What you should see after creating the RSS Feed trigger

IFTTT is a tool that allows you to automatically take action without human intervention. You can specify different ‘Triggers’ which then kick off ‘Actions’. If <Trigger happens> then <Take action>. “If this, then that”. In our case: “If the RSS feed is updated, email me”. So choose the ‘Email’ Channel for our ‘Action’. You will then see:

choose email

After choosing the ’email’ channel

edit email action

Edit this to suit your preferences

There will be some confusing text already entered into this page for you. Don’t delete what’s here but:

  1. Add a subject that makes sense to you before the “EntryTitle” text in the subject line. In this case, I added “Herman, MO City Council”
  2. Make a link directly to the city council page in the email- this will save you time later

Click ‘Create Action’, and you’re done! Whenever that page changes, you’ll get an email. This is the yellow track in the workflow above.

Columbia, MO – filter by ‘Minutes’ and post to Feedly:

I want to know when the minutes from the latest city council meeting of Columbia, MO, are updated. In this example, I’ll show how to only alert when the page changes in a specific way. I will also have the update post to Feedly instead of emailing. This is the red track in the workflow above.

Let’s take a look at the city of Columbia, MO:

Columbia, MO City Council

Columbia, MO city council page

We can see that there are three likely items that change on the page on a regular basis:

  1. New meeting dates (e.g. December 16, 2013 | Columbia City Council Regular Meeting)
  2. Agendas are posted, as a link with the word “Agenda”
  3. Minutes are posted, as a link with the word “Minutes”

Let’s say we only care about when minutes are posted, so we don’t want to just subscribe to any changes on the page.

First we grab the URL and go to


Get page2rss link from council page

Press the ‘to RSS’ button, and you should see:

Page2RSS Results

Page2RSS Results

Great. If we wanted to just subscribe to this feed, we could click on the “Feedly” button on this page (the purple track). However, in this case we don’t want an update when Agendas or future events are posted, so we need to grab the RSS link and head over to IFTTT. You can press the ‘RSS’ button in the “Subscribe to Feed” section and copy the link:

Page2RSS RSS link

Page2RSS RSS link

Head over to and create a new ‘Recipe’ using the RSS ‘Channel’:

IFTTT create

Create a new recipe in IFTTT

Choose “New feed item matches”

Filter RSS in IFTTT

Filter RSS match in IFTTT

We’ve completed the ‘this’ portion of IFTTT, now we need to make the ‘that’ action:

IFTTT Choose Action

Choose the ‘then’ action. Any ‘Channel’ is possible.

Let’s choose to publish to Feedly, although you could also have it send you an email you, tweet at you, text you, whatever you want!

Choose your IFTTT Action

Choose your IFTTT Action

Choose “Add new source”, and perhaps edit the URL to make it easier for you to read. In this case I added ” – Columbia City Council – Minutes”:

Change title of Feedly URL in IFTTT

Change the title of Feedly URL in IFTTT to be easier for you to understand

Finally, accept the new recipe, again perhaps changing the ‘description’ field to be a little more human-readable.

Accept IFTTT recipe

Accept IFTTT recipe

That’s it! Whenever the Columbia, MO city council updates their minutes, a post will appear in your Feedly stream.

You now only need to look at your Feedly page to see which city councils have updated their minutes- no more clicking though to each town and scanning the site to see if there’s been an update.


Using Page2RSS, IFTTT, and Feedly/Email, we can automate away some of the most tedious parts of activism. This helps you stay on top of any situation more quickly, and saves you time to work on more important things. Share this with your fellow activists- let’s use technology to improve our reach for the same amount of effort!

If you have any questions, please comment below- I’d love to have feedback on how to improve this guide.

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:


  • 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


  • 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!

finance green

Is investing in Mosaic a smart move?

Note: I am not a financial expert, and while I have invested using the Mosaic platform, I do not get commissions of any kind for blogging about it

I was recently telling a friend that he should consider investing via the Mosaic platform, a sort of crowdfunding platform for solar installations. Similar to Lendingtree or Prosper, investors see vetted projects with varying rates of return based on the riskiness of the loan, as determined by Mosaic. Mosaic takes a 1% cut, as well as origination fees for the loans, while providing risk analysis, paperwork / regulatory help to the borrowers, and a snazzy web platform for investors to analyze possible investments.

When I was explaining this to my friend, he started asking more detailed questions about how it works – who actually is getting the checks, who is liable, what happens when a loan goes bad, etc. I then realized when I couldn’t answer all of his questions that I had forgotten to do proper due diligence! The social benefit of the investments and the positive mentions of the platform was enough for me to start investing, but if I was going to recommend it, I had better know what I was talking about. So here’s my analysis, after reading a few prospectuses and the fine print. Any corrections or clarifications are very welcome.


  • Higher rate of return than your bank account, between 4ish and 7ish percent compared to 1% in your savings account
  • Positive social impact, which will come back to you as ‘dividends’ in a world in which we invade fewer oil-rich countries and fewer mountain tops are blasted off for coal. If you are looking very-long-term, climate change must be dealt with for human society to be prosperous in the future
  • Stocks are likely overpriced currently, or at the very least expecting 8% returns YOY is optimistic
  • Small investments down to $25 are possible, which is convenient especially when you want to reinvest your interest payments
  • You probably have lots of stocks and lots of cash, but few bonds (if your portfolio looked like mine before investing in Mosaic-selected loans) – diversify a bit!
  • Impress possible significant others with your commitment to the environment. Although maybe not the best thing to bring up at a party…
  • integration is on its way

Interesting and Important Risks:

  • Mosaic is the middleman- it has no obligation to repay in a default situation
  • That inflation will rise drastically from the ~2% now to over the return of the bond in the time before bond maturity. However, this is very unlikely especially given that such inflation is not desired by Wall Street
  • There is little governmental oversight. From the prospectus:

    “We are not subject to the periodic examinations to which commercial banks and other thrift institutions are subject. Consequently, our financing decisions and our decisions regarding establishing loan loss reserves are not subject to period review by any governmental agency. Moreover, we are not subject to regulatory oversight relating to our capital, asset quality, management or compliance with laws”

    (how the hell do they get away with that? good job, sirs)

  • In the case of a default, the things you can grab on the way out (aka as collateral) are very limited: only the solar capital equipment is allowed as collateral, which is something that probably quickly depreciates especially with new tech coming out all the time.
  • Mosaic can charge max(35% of the recovered funds, lawyers fees) in an attempt to regain funds in a default situation
  • Early repayment can happen without penalty by the borrower, however given the low interest rates currently, this does not seem like a big deal
  • Mosaic itself could go bankrupt, and that could make things very complicated. However the funds are probably safe from seizure in that case as the loan is technically between you and the business, not with Mosaic. See Mosaic’s assertion.


  • Mosaic takes 1% of cash sitting around in the account more than a month as well as the 1% from the loan– as payments slowly trickle in from investments it is annoying to have to clear that cash out each month. My other investment account actually gives me interest on the cash stored there (a pittance, but it keeps you happy to have cash sitting in their system and is probably a smart move long-term).
  • The terms of the loans are generally around 10 years, a very long time! However ultimately this may be a good thing- short term financial outlooks are part of the reason why the Global Financial Crisis happened, and I figure if I ever screw up too badly in the next 10 years I’ll at least have a little bit of income coming in that I can’t easily raid for beer money.
  • The constraints on who can invest (set by the government) mean that you can’t really recommend it to people outside of CA or NY unless they’re a ‘qualified investor’. Even in CA and NY you can’t invest more than a small fraction of your wealth (although you shouldn’t put more in yet anyway!). Unfortunately Mosaic is not covered by the JOBS act, either, so smaller investors in other states probably won’t be able to contribute for a while.

Open Questions:

  • There is one item in the prospectus that I am particularly confused by:

    You will not receive any payments we may receive after the final maturity date of your Note.
    The Notes will mature on the initial maturity date, unless any installment payments in respect of the corresponding Loan Obligations remain due and payable upon the initial maturity date, in which case the maturity of the Notes will be automatically extended to the final maturity date. If we receive any payments from the Borrower after the final maturity date, we may retain 100% of these payments and will not be obligated to distribute those payments to you.”

It seems as though the extension of the maturity date would cover all cases in which you would have a claim on the funds paid by the borrower… perhaps this is just cover-your-ass-legalese?

  • What happens if the solar panels get destroyed?

I invested in the solar panels on the Wildwood Convention center in New Jersey, and I can easily see Hurricane Sandy v2 coming by and knocking them out. Wildwood would still have to pay off the solar panels, but how easy would it be for them to declare bankruptcy and shed their responsibility in that case? I did see in the FAQ that Mosaic ensures that there is proper physical capital insurance to handle this, but perhaps in a catastrophic event that coverage would not be sufficient. This also seems like one of the first corner-cuts that Mosaic might do if they desperately needed the revenue. See Mosaic’s take on the issue.

Also there is one open question which can not be answered currently:

  • What is the default rate of commercial loans for solar panel installs?

There is a very small default rate for residential installs, but since no one has done this kind of program for a long enough time or for commercial properties, there is very, very little historical data about default rates for the types of loans Mosaic is facilitating.


I’m still definitely pro-Mosaic, and will suggest it to anyone living in CA or NY who is looking for a long-term place to park their cash which will give better returns than a savings account or a CD. I would still advise the person to realize that the cash is locked up for a while, and that since these types of investments are somewhat experimental they should only invest < 10% of their wealth in them, if not less.

Essentially, I see it as a relatively safe investment for the benefits, particularly for California projects. Suppose a business installs solar panels on their roof and goes out of business. Likely the buyer of that commercial property will also undertake the loan on the solar panels- after all, the solar investment was a good one at the beginning of the loan term, halfway through the investment is just as good. This calculus would only change if the price of solar electricity decreased in CA, which I really don’t see happening – we love our green energy subsidies! Since the money coming in from PG&E is pretty steady in the next 10 years, and inflation is likely to stay within a percentage point of 2% in that time as well, I feel comfortable signing up for the long term.

The list of risks is long, but much of it comes down to trust in Mosaic and in the business that they are trying to create, which Mosaic seems to understand. In a not-well-developed and somewhat experimental market, they need to do what it takes to gain trust in both the company and the investments offered. As such, their diligence on credit-worthiness is probably going to be less motivated by the short term, and more focused towards building a trusted business and keeping the stinkers out.

Additionally, I think that overall the incentives are properly aligned. They do make a good amount from origination fees, which means that the company also does have an incentive to push less-than quality loans out the door, however the 1% loan lifetime cut of the loan means that Mosaic also has skin in the game. The returns from seeing a project to completion are more than the origination fee, and the ‘business-building’ incentive to keep the quality of loans high is a strong force.


Mosaic is a good, experimental investment with a definite social good and a positive fiscal return. Since it is still experimental, only put a small fraction of your wealth into Mosaic. Given how much you’ve probably put into bitcoins, you probably can spare enough to test this out ; )


See the template a spam commenter uses for comments

I was looking at the comments section (yes, I’ll sign up for Akismet now- I am sick of dealing with it) and saw that one spammer had miscoded their bot. The bot posts an entire wall of text which appears to be their templates for all comments! I picked out one that I received a spam comment from the day before. Check it out, below, and hope that it doesn’t ruin my SEO to have it here…

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{Kuԁos|Cheers|Many thаnks|Τhanks}