Saturday, February 6, 2016

Never Too Late For New Year's Resolutions

Not being too late for New Year's resolutions doesn't mean I'm finally settling on what I want to be doing for 2016, it means I'm getting back to a resolution I abandoned three or four years ago; writing a post here at least once a week. As a means of encouragement, I have signed up with Iron Blogger SF in a beer money competition. Thank you, Matt Spitz, for the intro to them. Not a bad year for blogging given the US election. If I follow through on other past New Year's resolutions on this schedule, I might actually end up with a tattoo in three years. Still need to figure out 2016, but I've got some time for that.

So, yeah, where is humanity in 2016? What the hell am I doing with my life?

Myself, things are good. Working away at the best job I've yet had at the wonderful PlanGrid. Personal life is enjoyable, good friends, wonderful relationships, and I'm mostly on top of things. May need some new excitement before too long. That, or what I'm sensing is the general 30's worries about getting a house, getting married. The "am I doing adulthood right!?" story.

The rest of the world? Eh... Fear of ongoing environmental destruction and increasing economic inequality. Mildly happy with the rate of technological and scientific improvements. Mostly happy with improved social tolerance in the developed world, with the general wealth improvements in the developing world.

Trends seem to be as they have been the last few years. Still waiting for one of those sea changes to mix things up. Closest thing I've seen to a sea change in my adult life was probably the Great Recession, and that, though painful, doesn't seem to have shaken up any of the larger economic or political systems out there.

Shall see what the year brings, as always.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

SF Local Elections

Nothing makes me worry about an aging slide into conservatism more than local politics in San Francisco. I consider myself an extremely liberal, progressive voter. I hope for Bernie Sanders for president, and the Republicans are either insane, idiotic, or unethical. Yet local SF politics...


In San Francisco the people who call themselves progressives with regard to local politics are the ones who tend to put up the most roadblocks to new housing development. For anyone who doesn't live in the area, housing and rental prices have exploded over the last few years. This has of course created a lot of resentment towards developers and people moving into the city, but much of the response to this has been to restrict development. San Francisco has some of the most restrictive anti-development laws in the country, and has been building far too few units over the last few decades.

Even environmental organizations that I normally support contribute to the problem. The local Sierra Club chapter has acted against a number of development initiatives and left me fuming as an environmentalist, because living in a dense urban area is far better for the environment. The alternative is pushing people further out into the suburbs, developing on currently undeveloped land, and forcing them to commute long distances.

Of course, this isn't all San Francisco's fault. Similar anti-development attitudes elsewhere in the bay area have been a major contributor.

I want more housing units, dense development, with functioning public transit. I would love to buy property in this wonderful city someday and raise a family, and am left screaming at the idiots pushing ballot initiatives to further halt development.

Thus, my endorsements for the Tuesday election closely follow those of SPUR.

A: Yes
B: Yes
C: ?
D: Yes
E: ?
F: No
G: No
H: Yes
I: No
J: No
K: Yes

Friday, July 24, 2015

Battle Blimps

Over the last few months, one thing I've been spending a share of my time on is helping to build a system of remote controlled blimps, for eventual use in a series of hydrogen-filled explosion-fueled dogfights at Burning Man.

Take a look here at our Indiegogo campaign for Battle Blimps:

Thursday, April 23, 2015

What the Hell Has Happened in the Last Year?

I was reminded recently by some recruiter on LinkedIn that I had a blog. Sure enough, essay ideas were staring at me balefully from the bottom of my to-do list. I was surprised, and happy, that my last post came as recently as nine months ago, had guessed it was closer to two years. That does make me feel better about how little has changed in the world since last I wrote, we shall see if I can retain my optimism that I'll eventually get to the exciting future I've hoped for.

On top of that, I have a friend who has recently started blogging, in a different style than I have been using, quick 200 word posts that he churns out multiple times a day. I hope to take that for inspiration.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Capital in the 21st Century

In a similar vein to my last post, here is another set of thoughts on a book composed of criticism and advice for our political and economic systems. This time Capital in the 21st Century by Thomas Piketty.

I have many worries about the future of the world, the two greatest being environmental destruction and wealth inequality. Capital in the 21st Century takes an extremely detailed look at the second of these. If you care about inequality, or the world's political and economic organization, I highly recommend reading this book. It is worth the time investment, which is certainly significant given its size. The only popular economic books I have read in the last few years that perhaps match its its significance would be Debt and The Second Machine Age.

Being on Amazon and the New York Times best-sellers lists, there has already been a lot of talk about the book, and much more exhaustive reviews than what I am putting together now. Cory Doctorow in particular has a good review of the book.

Piketty looks at the distribution of wealth in Europe and America over the last 300 years, and has documented an extraordinary amount of detail. Progressives and activists such as Occupy have been railing against wealth inequality for years, if you go back to Marx, more than a century, but Piketty paints a clear picture of the details of the economic distribution in a way that has not been before. This book is more a book on economic history than economic theory. It breaks down in great detail, not just the distribution of wealth in Europe and America since the Industrial Revolution, but such details as the share of income generated through labor vs capital at various wealth levels of society, the proportion of wealth transferred through inheritance, and more.

What this historical research shows is that the 20th Century, primarily the period between the start of World War I and the 1970s, was an outlier in terms of its level of equality. Piketty attributes this to three main factors: 1) the massive destruction of capital caused by the First and Second World Wars, 2) significant economic growth, primarily caused by population growth, and 3) progressive taxation and social welfare policy that gained prominence in this time period. Since the 1970s, due to rollback of these social policies, and the thankful recovery from the world wars, inequality has steadily risen, approaching levels not seen since the Gilded Age. As population growth rates continue to hopefully decline, and barring any horrible wars, without further governmental policy inequality looks set to rise throughout the 21st century.

Though a lesser part of the book than the historical analysis, there is some economic theory that is used to make these predictions. And there are certainly economists out there that will argue the theory. Regardless, the fact that we have already slipped back in many ways to a level of economic inequality that existed before the First World War is deeply frightening to me. The current political debate is still set by an economic reality that has been disappearing for the last forty years and is increasingly unrealistic. The economic realities of the 19th Century that were assumed by popular culture of the time, that Piketty shows through works such as those from Austen and Balzac, are horribly distasteful to a modern citizen. That is the world that we are on the verge of living in if trends from the last forty years continue. We are approaching the level of economic inequality that caused Marx to produce his works. It is not the society I want to live in. Piketty has potential solutions of course, such as a return to the top income tax levels of the 1950s, and a progressive global tax on capital. I would certainly support these solutions in theory, but more importantly, I want popular opinion to realize how far we have swung back to the extreme inequalities of the Gilded Age.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Republic Lost and the Mayday PAC

Happy 4th of July everyone. In the midst of fitfully trying to convince myself to write again, I came across a draft of my thoughts on Republic, Lost, which I had originally tried to get out back in October of 2012. With the July 4th deadline for the current Mayday PAC fundraising goal today I figured now was a good time to get this out the door.

I would like to recommended Republic, Lost, by Lawrence Lessig, to anyone with an interest in American politics, or who lives and votes in America. I have been a fan of the works of Lawrence Lessig for years. He first came to my attention with his work on the disastrous effects of modern intellectual property law, and this is the first work I have read of his that branches out to a broader view of the American political process.

Republic, Lost goes into painful detail how corrupt American politics have become over the last forty years. This book is frightful in its details, explaining how the process of deciding elections, how the practice of governing, and the end result of law and policy have all been horribly warped by money. The book traces a majority of the issues I care about back to this cause. Yes, it is a political policy book designed for the mass market, of course it is going to explain that it knows the primary cause of and cure for the nation's ills, but I found myself convinced of the importance of the issue.

Over the last several decades the amount and importance of campaign fund-raising has increased tremendously. Campaign processes have grown increasingly sophisticated in ways that sink money into advertising, research, etc. Campaign finance restrictions have been rolled back. The ethical norms of what is expected of our elected officials has changed and lobbyists have become a normal, accepted part of our political system while politicians spend more and more of their time fund-raising. Politicians work hand in hand with lobbyists in creating the laws. Congressmen spend less time debating the bills that they are supposed to be writing, farming that duty out to lobbyists. The laws grow more complex as lobbyists seek benefits for their industries, and politicians seek to expand regulation so that they have more influence to bargain with lobbyists in exchange for campaign donations.

Lessig goes on to detail how this corrupted process created the disastrous financial regulatory framework that lead to the Great Recession, how it prevented more thorough healthcare reform such as a single payer system, how it contributes to growing wealth inequality, how it has created an overly complex set of tax law, and many other unfortunate examples. There are many dreams of idealists on both the right and left that have been thwarted by the current corruption of the American political system.

In order to fix this issue Lessig as recommended many solutions since Republic, Lost was published in 2011. A constitutional amendment to repeal Citizens United, or publicly financed elections, or other forms of electoral reform would be wonderful, but are unlikely given the current state of political polarization and with moneyed interests opposed. Right now, the most important plan that I would like to encourage support for is the Mayday PAC, which with some degree of irony, is raising money to support candidates pledged to get money out of American politics. I am more optimistic about the Mayday plan than any previous attempt to address this issue I have seen before, simply in terms of the amount of public awareness it is generating. I would like to encourage you all to consider supporting it.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Oh dear, I have a blog

After increasing my productivity in 2014, due to a combination of maturity, improved therapy, and simply having free time in-between jobs, I managed to work my way through my personal to-do list to an item that read "Write blog posts again." Much to my chagrin, I realized I haven't updated this blog in nearly two years, and am predictably embarrassed by its content. Given that I'm too proud to abandon, I suppose I'm going to have to get back into writing something here.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Fear and Loathing in the 2012 Election

Once again it is time to rant about the cesspool that is American politics. I am sure to lose sleep for the next month worrying about what may happen. As of today, FiveThirtyEight has things looking better than they could be, but the direction has been unpleasant since the debate on Wednesday.

I, of course, support Obama and the Democrats. They are moderately acceptable, whereas I have a passionate hatred of the Republicans. And yes, that level of partisanship leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Maybe I am too much of a radical with no hope of understanding the average American voter. Admittedly I have a hard time relaxing and not worrying under normal circumstances. But my level of loathing the opposing side is not that uncommon in America these days, given what I see in the news. I cannot say that is anything new, my personal participation in American politics only goes back ten years, but to see the negative effects this has had on American today, you have to look no further than the deadlock in Congress over the last two years. Despite this, the best advice I can give is to fight harder and crush the other side.

My desires for American politics are many. I want a reduction in the income inequality that has been dramatically increasing the last several decades in America. Increase investment in our infrastructure, education and scientific research. Improve the disaster that is the American health care system, though I think Obamacare is a step in the right direction; I would prefer something with the simplicity of a single-payer system. I want to reform intellectual property law and protect net neutrality. We need stronger competition law and financial reform. Reduce corporate welfare. End the drug war. Repeal Citizens United and actively work to get money out of politics. Advance women's and gay rights. Increase protection for whistle-blowers. Allow an easier path for immigration. Abolish the TSA. Decrease the size of the armed forces. Close Guantanamo, abide by the Geneva Convention, and provide similar basic protections of human rights. Make far, far stronger environmental protections. And yes, what is most on people's minds these days, lower the unemployment rate, improve economic growth and reduce the national debt.

That is only a brief outline of what I want in America. On many of those issues, the Democrats are significantly better than the Republicans. With many of them, neither side pays any attention. One might even be able to convince me that the Republicans are better for a few of those. I would like to see better arguments and empirical evidence for what policies will accomplish them.

Yet before I could get to arguments, it would be difficult to bring myself to listen to the Republican Party. I admit that this is problematic. Unfortunately their pandering to anti-science, young-earth creationists and other religious bigots, the racists and homophobes, those who would drag women's rights back forty years, and all those other disgusting dregs of America leaves a hideous taste in my mouth. Beyond the general greed, stupidity and shortsightedness I see in both parties, it is the regressive discrimination tainting the Republican Party that is the root source of my partisan vitriol. Beyond that I see the Republicans as liars and hypocrites who would happily lock down the legislature in order to prevent anything positive from happening to this country that might make the next election harm them. They are actively working to disenfranchise voters. I do not feel they can be trusted.

At some of these extremes, I might be showing shades of the irrational exhibited on other side of the fence by people who listen to Rush Limbaugh. Many of those right-wingers have fears similar to mine, as much trouble as I have understanding them. And so I worry that I have simply been riled up by political theater, driven to hate the other side for the sake of my vote and money. I am not saying that I would vote Republican, but what I am saying is that there are other fights that I have become distracted from. We should actually look at why we are horribly hyper-partisan and fight desperately over some issues while ignoring so many others. Why there is relatively little middle ground on the issues we do fight over. I do not know if we are actually more divided and partisan than we have been in the past, but I do know that we should have higher standards.

There are a number of theories for what might be dividing us so: the Big Sort, the Filter Bubble, the corruption of money in politics, distortions in our electoral process caused by gerrymandering, the Electoral College, and first-past-the-post voting systems. With some of the more direct political issues listed above, we could fix them with relatively simple laws and would not even require constitutional amendments. Despite that, the state of the American political system does not give me much optimism that I will live to see any of those issues resolved. I can hope that some exogenous societal or technological change can help advance the system. In the meantime, I will be donating money, making phone calls and possibly knocking on doors. Good luck to us.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Wolfram Alpha's Social Network Analysis

A couple of weeks ago I ran across this new feature of Wolfram Alpha designed to analyze your Facebook activity. I think this is an excellent example of how to summarize and elegantly display some of the mass of social information being captured over the net. We are starting to get enough data in the social sciences that hopefully the soft sciences can be made a bit harder. We're a long ways off from what I want to do with that, but are making some progress. That is one of the reasons I liked Klout, despite the rather unfortunate taste it leaves in some people's mouths. It takes a massively complex set of data and tries to reduce it down to something easily measurable so that people can act on it.

The new Wolfram Alpha project does a good job of that. It is on a very small scale, but I am able to look at my own analysis and learn some useful information. I can see at a glance the various friend groups I'm a part of, where my friends come from, who I'm interacting with over Facebook, what time of day this interaction is occurring, broad statistics of the religions and relationship statuses of my friends, and so forth. I find it very informative.

We still have got a long long ways to go. Get Wolfram Alpha's Facebook analysis expanded to all the social networks Klout covers, and cross-reference all of that data. Have location aware services such as Google Latitude and Foursquare tied in and watch the daily flow of people. Add more economic measurements and get social network systems monitoring how money flows through society. It would be great if someone could find a way to convince people to make public, or least public after being anonymized, data from sources such as Of course, I didn't use or any such system until I started writing this article. Getting enough people to plug financial measurements into social networking software for a better understanding of economics is a ways off, but perhaps that's an open market ripe for invention.

I'd give a lot to have better economic theories backed by data to inform our politicians. True, politicians don't often feel the need to back their actions with data, but there's such a massive amount of public ignorance that any tool to help would be of benefit. One study that comes to mind was asking Americans what their desired level of wealth inequality in society was. The results showed that Americans greatly underestimated wealth inequality in the US, and their desired wealth distribution was similar to what Sweden has. People, myself included, tend to have a very poor idea of the construction of society, despite the massive amount of data out there. We still need better systems for working with and displaying this data.

I want, perhaps not a Newtonian revolution that reduces the messiness of the social sciences to clean lines and equations, humans are too complex for that to be possible, but I at least want something better than we have now. If not ways to predict the future, at least better ways of visualizing what is going on around us.  Now, I obviously don't think that having better data visualization will erase human ignorance, but it has to help. Making it easier for everyday people to better see what is going on can't hurt. It feels like there's a bunch of analysis being done inside companies to improve marketing or make financial predictions, and not much progress in creating broad, useful scientific theories. Perhaps I'm just not up to date on what is being learned, ignorantly dreaming of revolutionary theories, but I take comfort in things like Wolfram Alpha doing a bit to peel back the curtain.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

There Went The Summer

September already. I survived the summer, just got back from Burning Man and pushing forward with work. I'd like to think that being done with Burning Man would mean I'd suddenly have a surplus of free time, but then again, my weekends will now often be devoted to Stanford football games. Or playing Skyrim, but that won't be much of a change from the last few months since I moved on from EU3.

Burning Man was excellent this year. After the ticket debacle, I saw the camp that I've been a part of in some form or another for several years left in a much reduced state. Several of our more regular members didn't return, many of the remaining splintered into different camps, and we were left with ten to twelve of us holding enough infrastructure built up over the years to fit fifty people. Fortunately we found a way out of our dilemma by joining up with another camp, Camp Charlie, and that worked out tremendously. 

Camp Charlie is a group primarily from LA who apparently watched too many Charlie the Unicorn videos. This year, with our camp fragment added, Charlie numbered somewhere between eighty and a hundred people. They, or 'we' now I should say, have a spiffy art car, and our subsection provided the back end of the camp with dome, shade, kitchen and such. All told, I spent the last week meeting many wonderful people and having a great time. It was also nice to avoid being in charge of much more than spending a night cooking for a hundred people.

Hell, I've now survived two burns with Cori and am still in one piece. Oh yeah! That's another significant happening in my life in the last few months. I'm officially living with my girlfriend, signed onto a lease and everything. At four months now, but I'll consider that an accomplishment.

On the work side of my life, over the last week, while I and half our engineering team were on the playa, Bloodhound pushed out the new website that has been in production for months. Today was my first day back into the thick of coding and bug fixing and there is, as always, plenty to do, but it's great to see the new site out. After our company spent a good share of the summer working on the new website and our new exhibitor focused Retrieve application that made its debut a month ago, it is wonderful seeing the results out there and live. Now to see how that pays off in the next few months.