Our Comforting Beliefs

I’m really tired of hearing and reading this anti-fear-mongering nonsense from economic and tech pundits, who keep repeating that the current tech revolution (lead by AI) is the same as the industrial revolution, and will lead to new types of employment in the long term, which will compensate for the short term loss of employment across so many sectors.

Uneducated people are supposedly more fearful of an uncertain future, presumably because they don’t have the tools or the knowledge to recognize the patterns from history and make good predictions based on those. I’d argue that it’s the educated people who are complacent, comforted by this ignorant belief that history must have answers for us, so there’s no need to be pessimistic about the future.

Human history as a whole has no parallel that we know of, so we have nothing to compare it to except itself, and that history (our understanding of it) is still too small for us to make any deeply and enduringly meaningful predictions based on what we have learned (or think we have learned) from it. There is no universal law that says the human race must continue to exist. (That doesn’t mean it won’t continue. It just means we shouldn’t kid ourselves that we’re safe from extinction.)

Similarly, there’s no reason to believe that, “oh, there will always be some kind of work for people to do. Everything is gonna be okay.” Historian Yuval Noah Harari has captured so perfectly so much of my recent thoughts on these comforting beliefs in this piece:

http://ideas.ted.com/the-rise-of-the-useless-class/

If you don’t feel like reading and prefer to listen, this TED interview (60 minutes) is also fascinating, if you have the time to listen. Well worth it.

A Tale of Two Turkeys

By most accounts, the Republican National Convention has so far been a bit of a gong show. The party’s elder statesmen have given it a pass, as have most of the next generation, except for those who wanted to make some noise and try to block the advance of the Trump juggernaut. The big story, of course, was the speech. Her speech.

Melania Knauss-Trump.jpg
[Image by Marc Nozell from Merrimack, New Hampshire, USA – 20160208-DSC08093, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46940102%5D

So, what’s the deal here? I see three possibilities:

The speechwriter was paid by GOP insiders to try to embarrass Trump. From the passages lifted verbatim from — of all people — a speech by the Democratic First Lady only 8 years earlier (an irony true Republicans would find too delicious) to the rick-rolling. But ultimately, it’s a move that will have little or no effect on his faithful followers. If anything, many will likely see it as further proof (and rightly so) that their candidate is being victimized by the establishment.

OR

It’s all part of the Trump-Clinton conspiracy to make Hillary look like the only sane candidate. Oversold, maybe? The choir gets it. The decided probably too. But the folks in the pews never will (which is why, if this was true, creating this bizarre straw man was such a grave miscalculation; they seriously underestimated how much this personae and his rhetoric would resonate with the lower middle-class white American).

OR

It’s a most cynical ploy of a man who believes he is unstoppable. He can say and do whatever he wants — even steal the words of his opponents and use them to support his own cause — with impunity.

For a slightly more serious analysis of the rise of Trump and the fall of the GOP, see this excellent piece by Nick Hanauer.


As for the other Turkey, what’s the deal there? Are they one step away from North Korea-style choreographed street performances? Taking some notes here, not deep thinking, but…

I don’t speak Turkish, but listening to the rhetoric being spewed by Erdogan the past few years, it would seem that the Turkish word for “Kurd” is being translated into US English as “terrorist”. And since the recent failed coup, we’re hearing “democracy” and “democratic” being tossed around quite a bit, which I think is being translated from the Turkish for “socially regressive, autocratic, authoritarian regime.”

It’s telling that, so far, they’ve dismissed and/or arrested more people in the education sector (education ministry and teachers) than military personnel. This is a regime that comes down hard on peaceful protesters during peace time, but has no qualms about encouraging its supporters to come out on the streets in numbers and throw themselves in front of tanks. Wow, such courage! Sorry, I don’t buy it. Judging by what I’ve seen in the media, the military showed quite a bit of restraint. I’m sure they realized there was no chance of success if they couldn’t garner popular support, but with a hostile civilian force being egged on by their leader, they really didn’t stand a chance of success…

 

Pitbull Ate My Blog Posts

I know, it’s been over 3 months.

Wow. What the hell have I been doing?!? Nothing actually keeping me from posting a word or two here. But I think it’s normal for any conscientious human to feel the need to make excuses in this situation. Here are a few.

Excuse 1: I became a co-founder in a start-up business at the beginning of the year. It’s been ramping up recently due to interest from what could be our first customer, who could be bringing in another interested party. This organization is so big they are known to the average human in just about every country of the world. It’s a lot of work and it’s exciting, but it’s not making money. I’m used to doing relatively little work, and collecting a decent revenue from it. Now, I’m stretching myself in all sorts of new and uncomfortable ways, and there’s no guarantee of a financial return at the end of the day.

Excuse 2: I’ve halfheartedly been trying to work on some tunes for a musical theater project. It’s a collaboration with a friend of a friend. His focus is the words; mine, the music. My piano skills are severely wanting, but I feel like they’ve steadily improved since I started this. I would really like to see this through, but excuse #1 has been crowding it out of my head space.

Excuse 3: pitbulls

Excuse 4: I’ve been trying to cope with the stress of being on a highly dysfunctional strata council (what people elsewhere might call a condo owner’s association or a cluster-frack a go-go). I find it disturbing how much people can become emotionally invested in these things. Differences of opinion become personal slights to the parties involved. I hope I get out of it before it happens to me too.

Excuse 5: I’m sort of pursuing a love interest with clear impediments to long-term success: she’s married, she’s young, she practices a religion. The worst thing is, I know I could push just a bit harder, but having been on the other side of this before when I was married, I feel those stupid pangs of conscience. Still, I can’t help but look at a recent photo of the two of us together (wonder what her hubby would think if he saw that?) and feel like it would be so nice if we had that all the time. For now, we’re IMing a lot and finding opportunities to spend time together while in the company of others, which is for the best.

Excuses out of the way, let’s move on to more interesting things.

A recent study promoted on the APS website proves what I knew all along; extremists are stupid. You can read the complete study write-up here, but the gist of it is, people were asked their opinions on a variety of hot-button political issues (taxes, healthcare, climate change, the Iranian nuclear program). When asked to explain those issues, those with the most extreme opinions tended to be the ones with the poorest understanding of them. After they were shown just how ignorant they were, they were given the opportunity to revise their viewpoints. Generally, they tended to become much more moderate in their stance.

So, should I temper my opinion of pitbulls (and their owners)? Hell no, **** ’em all (and I don’t mean “fuck”). Same goes for system administrators who expect vendors to give them technical support, but refuse to follow vendor recommendations. Those ones who are so much smarter than everyone else, yet somehow aren’t able to solve their problems on their own. Here’s a clue for you guys: your technical skills are irrelevant. The legacy systems that only you know how to maintain, well, if you’re hit by a bus, you’ll be cursed posthumously for not grooming a successor, but eventually, things will sort themselves out, life will go on, and you will be forgotten. Start cultivating your soft skills now. You’ll be so much more valuable in the end, and people might actually tolerate being around you.

For some more positive vibes, here’s Bonobo in an exclusive session at KCRW from earlier this year, with Szjerdene on vocals and session musicians pulled straight out of the bleachers of Sheffield.

I’ll try to have something interesting to say soon.

Jennifer Pahlka Is Reading Bloodfreak

In an article in yesterday’s SFGate, Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America, says, “You can’t complain (about the government) unless you step up to the plate.

Jennifer Pahlka (Photo by Russell Watkins/DFID)

Jennifer Pahlka (Photo by Russell Watkins/DFID)

Thank you, Jen. You put so succinctly and eloquently, what I’ve been saying right here for a while now. And unlike me, she’s not talking out of her ass. The non-profit CfA is the real deal, doing the dirty work, not trash-talking.

I’ve had a peripheral awareness of CfA’s work for some time, but I’ve only just started looking more closely at them and I’m really seeing how they’re delivering the goods on rethinking and “rebooting” government. A lot of people in North America have bought in to the idea of “government = bad,” and yet so many of them really have no clue (or conveniently choose to forget) what government is, what it does, and why it came about. Sometimes, it takes a disaster to remind some of them how important a role they play in keeping our society functioning, despite all the tales of failure, corruption, and incompetence. But some still don’t get it. Fortunately, there are those who do…

A couple months ago, Pahlka posted a story on LinkedIn titled Paying for Streetlights, One at a Time. This parable tells of the town of Colorado Springs, CO, who was suffering from a burning case of pensionitis and decided to vote against a property tax increase, supposedly earmarked for emergency services. What followed was some rather extreme belt-tightening, including turning off a third of the street lights. People were given the option to donate between $100 and $240 a year to adopt a streetlight and have it turned back on. The cost to adopt one streetlight was more than the proposed annual tax increase, but many were apparently quite glad to pay this. Are people stupid? Of course, that’s nothing new. But this is the state of affairs; trust in government has eroded to a point where people gladly swallow a “cure” considerably worse than the disease, just as long they perceive it as being “less government”.

… we see both the value of local government and the waste and inefficiencies that drive the public away from it. We see that government must get better at what it does, but it also needs to sell its value proposition to citizens. Think about that streetlight – not only does it cost the citizen orders of magnitude more this way, it’s hugely inefficient and costly for the city to administer as well, turning lights off and on depending on whether each individual light is paid for. The better option for everyone would be to just keep the lights on, but the perceived value of government is so low that it drives outcomes that are bad for everyone involved.

Part of what Code for America does is to sell that value, by creating interfaces to government that are simple, beautiful and easy to use. In New Orleans, for example, Code for America Fellows created BlightStatus.com, which allows citizens to type in any address in the city and see whether the property has been reported as blighted, if it’s been inspected, if there’s been a hearing and when, and if the property is scheduled for demolition. The city had been struggling for years to integrate a dozen disparate data sets in a wide variety of formats in order to have a comprehensive view of these properties, even for the city’s own use, but the residents of neighborhoods affected by this blight were increasingly frustrated by the lack of apparent action. When one of the Code for America Fellows showed the application to residents at a community group meeting, he was thanked for his work with hugs.

CfA is working with multiple levels of government across the US to create modern, user-friendly access points (web sites, mobile apps) so people can get the government services they need, one project at a time. And now that these tools are getting into people hands, they’re running out of excuses for not participating in the political process. The future is looking kinda scary, but exciting, too.

Anyway, I don’t want to risk discrediting their work with my crackpot endorsement. Please go see Code for America and judge for yourself.

Participatory Democracy: There’s an App for that

Lately, I’ve been watching MIT Tech TV. In case you’re not acquainted, it’s sort of like TED, but without the tie-dye and patchouli. (If you don’t know TED, then I probably can’t help you.)

Anyway, last month, I watched Peer-to-Peer Politics: Moving Beyond Left and Right. In it, Steven Johnson, author of Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software and, more recently, Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked World, shared his thoughts on how bottom-up systems (which he’s spent a bit of time studying, and I use “studying” loosely, because he’s a science writer, not a scientist) from ant colonies to massively collaborative web applications, are informing the future of participatory democracy.

As I was trying out my Amazon associate links, I pulled up the cover of the Future Perfect and was struck by its similarity to another book I haven’t seen in years. D’I see what you did there, Johnson:

But back to the talk. In a recent post of mine, I was bemoaning the over-abundance of bellyaching that goes on after every political scandal and the general lack of participation of John Q Public in the political process except for a quadrennial coin toss. But Mr. Johnson pointed out that, while we may not yet be at a point to vote directly on defence spending or healthcare, many of us most certainly can vote on which potholes to fix, which crack-houses get busted, etc. because, many municipalities across North America support some form of 311 service. Indeed, he recounted one particular anecdote in which NYC residents were using the service to report a strange maple syrup odor in their neighborhood. Amid growing concern for a potential terrorist attack by Canadians — given the ongoing softwood lumber dispute and continued incursions into US territory to plunder and pillage, we’re clearly a shifty lot — they eventually correlated the data (reporting dates, location of callers) to trace the intoxicating aroma to its source (hint: it wasn’t a militant Canuck sleeper cell).

 

But ANyway, not two days after watching that, my very own dear city of Surrey, BC announced the launch of its own online service for reporting non-emergency neighborhood issues, like that crumpled-up McDonald’s coffee cup embedded in the drainage grate at the northeast corner of 104th Ave and 152nd Street. The actual service is outsourced to SeeClickFix and includes both the website and native apps for iOS, Android, and even Blackberry devices. Check out the totally sick caps I took of the iOS experience:

seeclickfix-1
seeclickfix-2
seeclickfix-3

You can file new issues (including photos), up-vote existing issues, add comments, it’s gamified (wouldn’t you want to become a Civic Crusader??)

Seriously, everyone should get on this. Because it’s still new here, the city appears to be pretty responsive. We’ll have to see if they can scale out as volume increases. Whatever city you live in, find out from their website if they have a similar service. If not, go to SeeClickFix or a similar service provider (try googling “neighborhood issue reporting”) and enter your city’s name so they can hit them up and pitch the service to them.

In the Language of People

John comes to your home one day and tells you he wants to share it with you. You already share your home with other people, family and friends, but you have some room to spare. You don’t mind too much — or maybe you do. Either way, as long as everyone respects one another, it should work out all right.

But shortly after John moves in, you regret ever having opened the door to him.

In addition to eating everyone’s food, using everyone’s toothpaste (leaving the cap off, of course), and using up all the hot water in hour-long showers each morning, John’s telling everyone that he’s devised a fair system to ensure everyone gets an “equitable share” based on their contribution around the house. Nobody really understands what this means, especially coming from John, who would appear to be the least likely to benefit from any such scheme. Nevertheless, he insists that this is the rational way to do things and that this would be how things would run going forward. John is 6 foot 5 inches, 280 pounds of muscle, shaved head, and tattoo. He’s made a compelling case, so everyone agrees to adhere to his system.

In John’s system, he is responsible for managing access to the food and the utilities. So, if you need bread, you need to buy it from John. True, you made the bread yourselves before John arrived, but the problem is, it was not being exploited efficiently, which means there was some waste occurring and there was no way to benefit from it (other than receiving satisfaction from a full belly, which apparently means waste). Now, with proper management in place, everyone has fair access to the bread, and value can be created.

Unfortunately, not everyone can afford the 1 JohnDollar/slice price. John says this is not the fault of the system. It simply means that those people without sufficient JohnDollars need to be provided with opportunities to earn JohnDollars. Now, John has some JohnDollars, which he’s offering in exchange for performing various administration and security duties, because it’s important to keep track of inventory and finances and to ensure nobody tries to steal the bread that’s not rightfully theirs. (Also, note that John is selling your delicious bread to his rich friends for the equivalent of 2 JohnDollars/slice, so really, you’re getting a good deal here.)

So, John is generous, but he can’t hire everyone into administration and security services. He can’t afford that, because although he could make as many JohnDollars as he wants (using your construction paper and scissors), that doesn’t create value, it doesn’t contribute to growth. So, in the interest of creating value and providing growth opportunities for everyone, he’s offered to lend people JohnDollars to start their own businesses. (Of course, interest payments on those loans need to be made in a timely manner.)

Incidentally, John has also laid claim to the house and the land on which it was built. Apparently, he’s now good friends with the neighbors (after some run-ins in the past) and they’ve acknowledged him as the owner of the house, so it’s pretty much settled. Anyway, it’s all clearly laid out in the paperwork he’s drafted and had notarized, perfectly legal as per John’s system. As John is now the homeowner, he’s entitled to charge rent to those inhabiting it: 25 JohnDollars per person per month. Your business is basically catering to John. It earns you 30 JohnDollars per month. You have 5 JohnDollars left to pay the interest on your loan (4 JohnDollars) and buy food…

If you were in this situation in the real world, you might think you’d be able to appeal to some civil authority. Or perhaps you’d all get together and physically remove John from the house. Unfortunately, it is the real world. The authorities cannot help you. Physically throwing out someone like John, well, easier said than done… Millions of people are living in this situation today. If you are living it, your situation is called “poverty”.

From Quantum Physics to Tree Hugging

More great programming on BBC World. Today, it was the debate Why Poverty? Participating, a number of personalities, most recognizable being Tony Blair. He always looks like such an idiot wherever he shows up. Like a bizarre cross between Peter Sellers and Chris Barrie. Still, I have to applaud him. I believe he believes in his mission and I also believe he genuinely wants to do good and despite embarrassing himself, he’s still trying to learn, like me, slowly, slowly. Maybe someday he will have some valuable insights to share. Not yet, though. (Governance? Milquetoast, please!)

But most important for me seeing this program, I was introduced to an incredible personality: one Vandana Shiva. Unfortunately, my mental state right now is such that I can barely string two words together, and I don’t feel like I can do justice to her as a person or her message. I would rather leave it to her to speak for herself. The debate isn’t available online at this time, but I’ve included a link to a previous HARDTalk interview with her.

Normally, I’m not one to gush, but it’s so rare to see someone with such a combination of energy and intelligence. How does one speak with such authority without carrying a big stick? (She’s not quiet by any stretch, though.)

I’ve signed the petition and I’m starting my seed bank.