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July 30, 2005: Redux

I got off on quite a tangent with yesterday's uber rant. Thinking about one injustice made me think about how I deal with imperfections, basically. The summary is this:

  • There are no easy answers. It's tempting to find a flaw in one easy answer and use that to promote a different easy answer, but that doesn't actually work. A complex world full of complex problems requires complex solutions, and we won't turn the corner one day and find that we've figured everything out.
  • Absolute perfection is unattainable. Get used to it. Don't freak out when things aren't perfect. That's life. Keep improving things, keep looking for problems to solve, and stay attuned to the fact that on the whole everything is getting better.

So, our economy has issues. Mostly they're due to overly simplistic models and corruption. (I'm thinking again about externalized costs, which is one way to model things like the cost of pollution, and companies supressing environmental research because even though it benefits everyone, it might hurt their business.) These are fixable. Throwing out the whole thing and switching to Socialism just isn't the answer. (I hope I don't get kicked out of San Francisco for saying that.)

July 29, 2005: Waxin' philosophical

"Well, this is going to take a long time, so you may want to get some snacks."
- Cybernetic Ghost Of Christmas Past From The Future

A friend of Kim's from way way back in her high school days (possibly before?) was passing through SF and stayed with us for the night. She's going for her Ph.D. She's a geologist and works for the government. I, on the other hand, am pursuing my bachelor's degree and work in financial services. In the mutual telling of fun tales of life in government geology and Bay Area dot-com nonsense, the awkward reality kept surfacing: here's someone with serious ivy league cred and a big brain who has probably worked really damn hard for years and years, and we as a civilization treat her like a leper, financially speaking. I worked for the government long long ago and there are definitely people who make a comfortable living as government employees, but they tend to be suit-wearing executive bureaucrats. I've worked a lot of hours, pulled many many all-nighters, put fiction on the back burner for years so I could read yet another O'Reilly book cover to cover, but this all happened indoors, and I was being paid well most of the time. The unfairness is disturbing. Here's how I cope with stuff like this.

I wasn't alive during the heyday of the space race, which was probably the most positive aspect of the Cold War, so I can't speak for what it was like to have hard science research near the top of the list of national security priorities. It sure as hell isn't important anymore. Between the unpredictability of research and the hostile environment for innovation that patents have caused, it's amazing that anything new gets made at all. It's tempting to blame lawyers for making everything start with an expensive filing and end with an expensive lawsuit, and to blame investment bankers for replacing grand corporate strategy with the myopia of a three-month horizon called the "quarterly filing", but I don't think it's that simple. I think it might have something to do with externalized costs, and the fact that anything that doesn't generate a transaction in the market has zero value in our society. If you can't monetize it and sell it easily, we're not interested in it. If you generate waste that ruins something that isn't owned by any one person, they can't sue you. Yeah, I know, this has a name and that name is The Tragedy of the Commons. I just haven't seen it directly applied to somone's income before. I've noticed that quite often, advertisements full of lies and deception and distortions and easily falsified claims are happily published, but public service messages that have a negative message and don't promote something for sale is rejected. If someone is doing something that generally is for the good of everyone but doesn't facilitate a transaction that causes someone in particular to profit, that person's good actions aren't rewarded; at least, they aren't rewarded financially. Still, I don't think we can just blame Capitalism and call it a night. That's too simple too.

For a long time I've considered myself a patriot and a libertarian. In high school I was obsessed with the military and was pretty sure I wanted to be a combat or search & rescue helicopter pilot. When I was told that was out of the question and that I'd have to go more or less whatever they wanted to put me, and I reflected a bit about the whole prospect of unquestioning obedience to authority vs. my own personality, I realized it was probably a bad idea. I still have a tremendous respect for the military and the discipline and sacrifice that military service requires, but I have never had less respect for the people at the very top giving the orders than I do now. Part of what I sought in a future of military service was a certain degree of moral security: by doing this, even though it's dangerous and difficult, I'd be doing something good. The market doesn't reward people who think like that with dollars, but in the economic concept of maximzing utility, dollars aren't the only reward that has value. Knowing that you're definitely helping a cause that you truly believe in has a lot of value. Having a problem with unquestioning obedience to authority, from what I hear, doesn't work well in a military culture. In hindsight, I really dodged a bullet, so to speak. I would have been more than happy to kill a commie for the Gipper if we were invaded a la Red Dawn but that's a fantasy that only resonated with me because I was 12 years old at the time that movie came out. In the real world I'd most likely have been involved in one boondoggle after another, constantly questioning my purpose and my leaders, constantly put in harm's way for unspecified objectives and forced to kill people who were probably motivated by hate and misinformation to want to kill me.

Part of my search for moral and ethical security led me to Objectivism, but it never really stuck. I read every book Ayn Rand wrote, and was even a member of the Objectivist Club in college. I always knew there was something wrong, but I couldn't figure it out at the time. At the bottom end everything seems great - A is A and all that. But at the top end where the heroes are merciless robber barons, the antagonists are sleazy socialists or communists, and the people caught in the middle are the people who refuse to pick an extreme, her "sense of life" shows itself to be based on a flawed system of logic. In considering her flaws as an author, I identified her flaws as a philosopher. Everything is predicated on Aristotle's oversimplified model of logic. In her stories her heroes are the ones who are most willing to be callous and feel no pity because they have a certainty that their way of thinking is right and no one else matters. In the train scene in Atlas Shrugged she details all of the people who asphyxiate due to a problem with a train going through a tunnel. They're all evil disgusting looters in one way or another, and we as readers are supposed to accept that their deaths are not sad at all, but are in fact what they deserved because their own philosophy writ large led to this disaster. Sound famliar? That could be someone talking about 9/11, or innocent Iraqi civilians dying, take your pick.

The failure happens all the way at the base of her logic, with Aristotle, who by the way was groundbreaking for his time, but upon close examination had quite a laundry list of ridiculous ideas which have since proven to be utterly wrong. The human mind is simple compared to the full complexity of the universe, and so we have no choice but to use models to represent things. We classify animals into a neat taxonomy that later turns out to be wrong, because animals don't really organize themselves like that. We make model after model of the universe, and it works really well for a while, until we discover a corner case and we have to make a new, more sophisticated model. Abstractions leak. We need them, of course, but they are only proxies for the actual workings of the universe. We're always searching for a trivial explanation to everything so that we can completely understand the universe, but things get stranger and messier the harder we look. Gradual refinements eventually lead to more substantial, disruptive new models.

Reality won't dumb itself down to our level, and it's defeatist to claim that reality is a flawed representation of ideal forms that can only exist in one's mind. But that's just what happens when beautiful and elegant models are mistaken for completely accurate representations of reality. We pretend that there is only absolute truth or falsehood, which makes it much easier to talk about logic, but we forget that what we really were talking about were absolute truths versus everything else, rather than absolute truths versus absolute falsehoods. Not-entirely-true is lumped in with entirely-false, resulting in a truly spectacular rounding error.

To be clear, I agree with metaphysical objectivism in general: the universe is what it is, whether we understand it or not, and whether we like it or not. We need ever more complex models to understand the universe better, and we need more data and more experimentation to develop these models. Some of these models will be sufficient for everyday use, and an individual may never experience personally the failure of an old model which is known to be flawed in some cases (such as Newtonian physics). But that individual is fooled if he mistakes his limited experience for the entire universe, and mistakes the limited accuracy of his model for the laws of the universe.

So it is with "laws" of economics. Human society is vast and complex. We have a feeble grasp on psychology and sociology and anthropology, and economics largely needs those models to be correct in order to build its models upon them. Rand's economics of laissez-faire capitalism are hugely flawed because they are based on the model of a well-informed intelligent society of individuals maximizing their own utility via fully voluntary transparent transactions. Sadly the world is full of a broad spectrum of people, from the people who would do well in that world, to people who are one or more of badly-informed, stupid, lazy, corrupt, and mentally and/or physically ill, in varying amounts. The fantasy of starting a whole new society full of only the smartest, most capable people is appealing - we'd all be members of Rand's perfect society - but that abstraction leaks. Well, the world needs ditch diggers too. Some jobs suck because anybody can do them but nobody wants to, and yet they still have to get done, so some people who haven't got any other choice will end up doing them.

But that's not the issue that's bugging me. That some people have little value to contribute to society (or who need more than they can offer) is separate from the fact that there are people who have a lot to offer but who are unappreciated and undercompensated due to inefficiencies in the system. Some people make a conscious decision to pursue careers that aren't financially rewarding but maximize utility in other ways. (I'm under the impression that that's what I'm doing by going to school full time in the fall to study music instead of working as a software developer full time. It doesn't seem like committing Seppuku to me, though that's what someone just this week told me I was doing.) Some people make bad choices, thinking that surely they can make a comfortable living doing something and later finding out that their skills are unwanted. In a society of well informed intelligent individuals we'd all make decisions with our eyes wide open, and the power of the market would make things very fair at the cost of being not very merciful. That isn't happening, and I don't think it's because we're too regulated.

I just don't buy the laissez-faire capitalism argument that all of our society's problems are caused by too much regulation. Regulation can be extremely unfair in that it can be driven by corruption - for an example, look at telecommunications in the U.S. European countries have far more regulated telecommunications and yet the end result is much better. I don't think that's proof that regulation is good; I think that's proof that our telecomm regulations are outrageously corrupt. But regulation exists for a reason. The history of the large regulatory bodies in our government is largely a history of private industries going completely berserk until the people demanded that the government put a stop to it. We have an SEC, an EPA, an FCC, fire codes, etc. etc. because we started off letting people do whatever they wanted and people got sick and tired of the price of rampant corruption. A separate question is whether we are in fact worse off now; were people sensationalized into making irrational demands of their government? Regardless of whether we were "right" in our decision to try and prevent corruption through regulation, the point is that we already tried the whole "privatize everything and let the market regulate itself" thing and it has failed to do so again and again.

And yet, I refuse to fall into the trap of denouncing Capitalism as evil just because it is flawed. Humans are flawed. We don't fit the model perfectly. We're not ideal. We're lazy; we like easy answers to complex problems. It's easier to believe a lie and blame the liar than to accept that the world is messy and complicated and to take responsibility for our actions and make decisions based on incomplete information that we don't fully trust or understand. We want to live in a world of miracle diet pills and grand conspiracies and cosmic master plans and irrefutable proof and good guys and bad guys. It's so much easier to think about absolutes and to pretend that there's nothing else. Our company is #1, the competitors are all jerks. Our politician is honest and everything they say about him is a lie; the other guy is the antichrist and everything he says is a lie. It's just not that simple. We live in a messy world.

When our oversimplified model of the world clashes with someone else's, it can get extremely ugly. People get very upset and aggressive when their model of the world is shown to have flaws. They'll kill in order to avoid the pain of uncertainty. As Morpheus says, "You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inert, so hopelessly dependant on the system, that they will fight to protect it." This is clearly true of terrorist suicide bombers who will murder innocents in hopes of shielding their isolationist way of life from intrusion by infidels. Their model is so far out of alignment with reality that they have to isolate themselves completely from the world in order to maintain it. Their philosophy has mutated to the point that they believe humans to be so weak and so easily seduced by evil that they can only remain pure by never experiencing evil, no matter what it takes. Their moral compass is so atrophied from lack of exposure to day to day value judgements that they consider mass murder to be praiseworthy. They're willing to do anything to avoid having to make difficult moral decisions.

But the world is full of complex and difficult moral decisions. We have to work with bad information, limited information, limited time in which to make decisions, deal with people we don't like, do things we're not entirely proud of, and generally wallow in the messiness of reality. We're still obligated to try and figure out what the right thing to do is, and to do it, but we may find out later that we were wrong, or we may not be able to explain to someone else why we made that decision. We have to live with people we don't agree with. Is that moral relativism? I don't think so. Living in a shack in Montana like the Unabomber, or in a cave in Tora Bora like Osama bin Laden, or in Galt's Gulch with the two-dimensional Objectivist heroes in Atlas Shrugged, or in a militia compound or cult complex or super-church community or in a cave with the One Ring all to yourself all strike me as acts of fear and weakness. Tolerance is not about acceptance or homogenization or recruiting. It's about peaceful co-existence. People form communities, and that's fine. When those communities start building walls to keep the others out and start attacking each other across those walls, that's a sign that the communities have gotten too disconnected.

In America, we're politically polarized to the point where nobody is listening anymore. The Republicans won because they provide a simplified world view composed of one absolute dichotomy after another. Ann Coulter would have us believe that every last one of Those Traitorous Liberals are cheering for the terrorists. Some wingnuts closer to home here in SF would have us believe that the CIA planned 9/11 and then the Bali attacks in order to facilitate a transition to martial law in the US. They forget that New York is full of liberals whose friends and family died in the twin towers and who would jump at the chance to strangle Osama bin Laden to death. They forget that the CIA is full of human beings, one of whom is married to a federal employee who went to Africa to investigate terrorist links, and finding none, publicly stated what he found, undermining the case for war. Both sides are spouting lies and misinformation and conjecture, and some of us are buying these simplistic tales of good guys and bad guys hook line and sinker. Is it all because of big government? Is it all because of corporations? Is capitalism to blame? Is socialism to blame? Like diet pills, the market is full of simplified answers to all of our problems.

But what's beautiful is that a lot of people aren't buying them. (Some people are - it's a messy world.) People realize that reality is complicated and there are cover-ups and lies on both sides, and more importantly, that there aren't just two sides to any issue. Capitalism is extremely efficient but it can be cruel and has flaws, such as monopolies and the law of increasing returns. Socialism and Communism are cushy in theory but when taken too far sap societies of their incentive to work. All of these are plagued with the inefficiencies that come with human frailty - corruption, greed, short-sightedness, and bad information. We know this. Europe tried a hefty dose of socialism to go with their capitalism, and found out that this doesn't combine well with massive low-income immigration via continued EU integration. America thus far has tried relatively hands-off market capitalism and aggressive globalization with mixed results. Canada seems to be somewhere in between, but perhaps too connected to America's economy to be a distinct case. China went whole-hog into Communism but is now lurching in a capitalist direction to the fascination and apprehension of just about everybody. Every society that has tried extremism as a panacea has failed spectacularly and returned to the middle. There are eddies of inefficiency that look like things are moving backwards but the stream as a whole is flowing. Our models are getting better and are looking less and less like there's a simplistic way to solve all of our problems.

What stands in the way of peace and prosperity are these eddies of inefficiency, bad information, corruption, poor communications, and isolationism. People have a right to live the way they want in peace, but when that turns into terrorism and civil rights infringements those rights are forfeit. Rapid globalization looks like a pretty bad idea so far, and when compounded with the corruption of powerful nations trying to coerce weaker nations into unfavorable positions, it looks less like the wave of the future and more like Mercantilism all over again. We can't close the door, either - we need connectivity from an economic point of view as well as from a philosophical one. I'm starting to come around to the position that we need connectedness, and to lower our barriers, but more gradually than we are. In connecting ourselves too quickly, we're not only hastily tampering with an extremely large and complex global economy that we only think we understand, but we're also letting our guard down, and scaring the hell out of the people who would kill us if that's what it takes for them to be left alone. But the pool isn't going to get any warmer if we stand at the edge and stare at it. And we have to get in eventually. We've already seen that isolationism on a national level doesn't work.

In the meantime we have to make sure we're being honest with ourselves. Do we really know what our own government is doing? Do we really know what happens during elections? Where do our taxes go? Why do our representatives vote the way they do? If we're going to preach to the world that they should let in foreign ideas and give them a fair chance, we need to treat our own citizens the same way. We have to try the truth on ourselves first. Our leaders have to make difficult decisions, and sometimes they make mistakes. They aren't saints. We don't have all the answers, and the ones we do have either aren't easy, or aren't simple. There is good and bad, there are good actions and bad actions, but it's not as simple as good guys vs. bad guys, nor perfectly good ideas vs. perfectly bad ideas.

The first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem. America isn't perfect, but we're not the Great Satan ether. We need to stop acting like the child who lies even when he's caught and knows he's caught, and act like an adult who can admit his flaws and start working on becoming a better person. If we preach the virtue of openness we have to live it, and be an open society. We have to throw away the old models that didn't work instead of defending them to save face. We have to accept that the world is a messy place and that it's OK for people to disagree as long as they can peacefully coexist.

If I have faith in anything, it's that the world is moving in the right direction. I reject the idea that our society is just getting worse and worse and is heading for disaster. This is true despite the increasing threat of terrorists, corrupt executives, media consolidation, and the general trend of small numbers of people using technology to do bad things on a massive scale. Human knowledge is increasing. Our models are getting better all the time. People do better with more information than with less, as long as we teach them to think critically (or more accurately, don't indoctrinate them to reject reason, disregard empirical evidence, and fear knowledge) and to throw away old models that don't work.

Extremism has already lost. It never had a chance. We just have to work out the kinks, refine our models, fight injustice as we see it, and in general try to ease the transition from ignorance and fear of the unknown toward greater understanding and the joy of discovery.

July 29, 2005

Hot Coffee here, Hot Coffee everywhere. I've tried to ignore this but I do have an opinion on it, which Tero seems to share. By the way, I do own the game, but as it's almost exactly the same thing as Grand Theft Auto 3, it's really boring since I already played that. Oh it's mostly black guys now and it's all ghetto gansta instead of a white mafia dude in the big city and it's in fake California instead of fake New York. And you can go to the gym. Yes, you can sit on your ass in front of the TV and push a button and watch a little pixel man lift little pixel weights. And this game only costs $50. What a deal! (But, uh, when you see me selling it on eBay, it's great and you should place a hefty bid on it right away. Yeah.) Katamari Damacy is much more fun.

But, because every Sherminator out there wants to be Fitty when he grows up, kids are buying the game and getting their education in ghetto style from a computer game.

Yo, man, I'm down, I ain't afraid, I've done time. Uh, virtual time. Actually, it was only a few seconds, they faded out and then faded in when my dude was out. Me and my homies watch each other's back! 'Cuz, uh, it's easier to finish some of the missions in the game that way. Keepin' it real! Phoenix Arizona in da house, got ta rep-ruh-SENT! Oh hang on a second, my mom's calling... daaaaamn, I gots to mow the lawn, know whut I'm sayin? PEACE!

Three thoughts: One: this game doesn't give Junior anything he doesn't already have access to. He has to download and install a porn enabler for his game, and then use it privately. This is not a cheat code, this is an add-on. So he's either not able to use it because he has an unhacked console (so the Hot Coffee patch can't be installed), or he could just as easily download any damn thing he wants, such as porn images or movies. Two: The sex scene is not accessible without the add-on, so does it really matter that it's an "unlocker" as opposed to an add-on that puts all the sex scenes in itself? Would Take Two be liable for a hypothetical Hot Coffee 2 that replaces all the missions with sexual conquests and makes the objective of the game to be the number one pimp in San Andreas? If someone printed out a color image of a nipple on a label printer and then slapped it on a fully clothed Janet Jackson and ABC broadcast it, who would be liable? Three: isn't it interesting that Hillary Clinton is siding with the protectionist moral majority folks on this? I hear a lot of people saying that it's a bad bad game and this is not a surprise. I don't hear anybody saying that sex is not evil and it's how we all got here (except for the Cylons living among us) and without nipples we'd all be dead and why are we wasting so much time on this when there are actual problems that politicians should be working on, like wars and corruption and the economy and healthcare?

July 28, 2005

People have really strange ideas about the housing market. I started reading some housing bubble weblogs and then gave up because it's just pointless. In fact this just the latest in a long line of things I've decided to try and become better informed about that just ended up frustrating me. I'm really, really sick of the endless stream of bitter, hateful debates that it seems people just can't get enough of. Even people with expertise and hard data are shouted down by naysayers who have a stake in the opposite side. Is it corporate greed vs. the environment? Is it fundamentalist mysticism vs. science? Is it the danger of the housing bubble vs. the folks who don't want to be caught at the bottom of the pyramid? It doesn't matter. Corruption, short sightedness, and irrationality piss me off. I'm not sure that me wallowing in it is doing anybody any good. Kim and I made some hefty charitable donations last year and all they seem to have gotten us is a large pile of junk mail asking for more. Lesson learned: next time, donate anonymously. That way they won't spend 50% of what you gave them on daily mailers and magazines and issue brochures and crisis emergency call for donation telegrams. I'm going to try to educate myself just enough to vote and make donations, and then detach and return to happy ignorant land. Being an info junkie isn't working.

So, about the housing market. Houses cost way more than they should; every major economist knows this and keeps saying this. I started paying attention to this a few months ago and mentioned it back in May. The warnings keep coming. The usual naysayers claim that this time is totally different, and shockingly, these are the people who stand to gain the most from the bubble. Again, the rules are being bent and broken all over the place to let more people in at the bottom of the pyramid. Picture overfished waters, where the fisherman have to scrape the ocean floor in hopes of catching enough fish to get by. Picture a feedlot full of animals so sick, they have to be constantly pumped full of drugs to keep them alive and bloating until it's time for slaughter. Desperation becomes standard operating procedure. This is just The Way We Do Things Now. That's what interest-only mortgages are. That's what adjustable rate mortgages are. Buyers are signing up for outrageously unfavorable mortgage terms, to pay for absurdly overpriced houses. "A house is worth whatever the market says it's worth." Sure it is... until it's not. Then you've got negative equity, meaning you could sell the house and still owe $500,000 (if you're lucky), and you paid for it with a loan that costs $5000 a month just to pay the interest. Your other option is to keep the house and owe $1,000,000, and you still aren't making any progress at $5000 a month because that's just interest and in a couple of years you're going to be paying substantially more than that... maybe $9000 or so per month.

People are making really bad decisions as buyers and lenders. The bubble is international.. Ack. You thought the dot-com stock bubble bursting was bad. Gas prices are high; we're spending over a billion dollars a day in Iraq; what's going to happen when this thing crashes? There was a budget surplus last time. We weren't at war. There won't be a cushion like there was for the last one. There's nowhere you can go to get away from it. Lots and lots of banks are making these loans and then selling them to Fannie Mae. This is gonna hurt. Being in a zero-debt, cash-rich position with some available credit seems like the safe place to be. Being on the hook for a ton of crazy loans for a bunch of speculative real estate purchases in the middle of nowhere is the not at all safe place to be. But people are still falling all over themselves to get there!

I'm waiting for the new LottoMortgage. You pay the down payment and monthly interest payments as though you were paying a mortgage (i.e. you pay 2-3 times what the rent on a similar house would be, plus you pay a huge up-front fee to be allowed to move in), but the bank owns the house 100% and you never get equity. You're just not allowed to buy equity directly. Except... every time you pay, you can buy an equity lotto ticket that might let you own from $5 to the full value of your house. Or, it might make you broke, in which case the bank takes everything you have and burns it in your front yard while you watch. Let's play! Weeee!

Comments like this one scare me:

"Could we be the ones left standing with no home when the market crashes?"

(from A Game Of Musical Homes, quoting this story)

Yes! Yes you could, and that would be good! "...the calculation of whether we'll be able to sell our home and afford another." What? Ever heard of this invention called rent? They actually let you move in to a house you don't own! When the market crashes you don't want to be owning the thing that crashed. You don't have to hold on and sell it right when the market crashes. That's what a crash is: everybody decides they need to sell right now even if the price is really awful. So it gets awful because everybody suddenly decides they don't want to own any unless the price is freakishly low. Waiting for that moment to start trying to sell is nuts. Would you want to be the one left with no stock when the market crashes? How would you be able to afford a stock then? Duh. When the market crashes if you have cash, you win. If you have a house that you just bought, you lose. There are a few more sensible comments along the lines of "I'd hate to buy right before it pops". As if owning a house were mandatory.

On a less angsty, more thrifty note, Toni's brother is funny:

TacoWallace18 : if the cat died id send u an email
IStuckACelloUpMy : you guys can't even call me!?
TacoWallace18 : FUCK NO
TacoWallace18 : thats minutes bitch

Interesting (via Faisal): Tragedy of the Airport: Why you get stuck for hours at O'Hare. Those greedy bastards! They do it on purpose?

Tonight's happy fun theme on Jamie's blog: those fucking greedy bitches. Well, at least I'm aware of it, so I can try and fight it with mirth. Here comes the funny:

Thor Rolls a Joint slide show, Peter Frampton Music Scholarship, Washington Rush Hour Gone Bad (we saw the movie and it's really funny, though hella low budget). And finally, if you liked Book-a-Minute, you'll love The 30-Second Bunnies Theatre Library.

July 23, 2005

More pictures from our trip last month: Pisa, Siena, Montepulciano, La Spezia, Riomaggiore, Amsterdam.

My friend Toni had a birthday recently. I defaced a Barbie card in celebration, and also because all the other cards totally sucked so I had to sorta kinda make my own. Details are here.

In May of 2002 I went to Slovenia on business. Recently I found this fun guide on how to learn Slovene.

I didn't really understand why Podcasting was getting so much hype. I mean, radio sucks so I don't listen to it. Duh. OK, I get it. Radio sucks for a reason (limited spectrum auctioned off to the highest bidder), and podcasting alleviates that. OK, so maybe radio can be interesting again. There's still the issue of bandwidth - if you're the publisher of a popular podcast, you still have to push the big file down your network pipe to each listener, just as with streaming. The difference is that now you don't have to have enough bandwidth for all the listeners at once - they can wait as the download slowly happens and then listen to it later. Great. So what if your bandwidth is less than you'd need to get the podcast to all your listeners before the next podcast? You'd fall further and further behind. You'd just have a higher bandwidth ceiling. The podcasting developer types are working on using P2P technology to fix that; the podcast would distribute a tiny metadata file and the podcast audio would be downloaded from other listeners. Cool! I used to think that multicasting was the key disruptive technology holding back a true democratization of media, but now I think podcasting's asynchronous nature plus P2P are good enough. All you as a publisher have to do is publish a tiny text file to a ton of people (saying that the latest show now is out there), and to push the show out at least one time to the outside world, after which listeners will share it among themselves. Some listeners will delete it as soon as they hear it; some will have firewalls that prevent P2P sharing. OK. So maybe you have to share it a few dozen, or hundred, times. But that's OK; in fact, the more popular your show is, the less you need to put it out there yourself since there'll be so many copies of it out there for listeners to download. Cool.

So, now people like my wayback-machine long time ago friend Midnight Tree Bandit (aka DJ Marshall) can put their indie radio shows online and I can get them without all sorts of heinous grody software. Thank you Apple for making iTunes do podcasts. I was just too lazy to deal with them otherwise.

If all this excites you, check out Adam Curry's keynote from Gnomedex which is nerdy and exciting and funny and fascinating. We're right at the point in podcasting where we were with the World Wide Web when Netscape 0.9 shipped. Yeah, you could do it before but it was kinda gross. The tools don't really suck very much anymore. The technology isn't only in the hands of nerds anymore. More and more people are starting to think about what the media world would be if you could have your own radio station that cost only $40/month for DSL and only required you to own a crappy PC that could record audio. You don't have to have a scheduled show; you can just release stuff whenever you want. It can be as long or short as you want. No commercials are necessary but you can add them if you want. It's time-shifted like TiVo from day 1. You don't have to censor yourself at all. This is better than public access cable. This is better than college radio. This is whatever the hell you want it to be. Well, except for one thing. You still have to deal with lawyers.

Yes, laywers. Wanna put your favorite CD's on the air and be a DJ? You have to pay. The RIAA lobbied hard to make it really expensive and annoying to be a streaming internet radio operator. It was already expensive from a bandwidth point of view but now you have to license it... provided they own it. These people are total bastards who want to bleed anyone dry for using even the slightest reference to the content they control.

But they don't own everything. If you have audio content and it's entangled in a contract with the RIAA, you're at a disadvantage in the world of podcasting. You need to get your content out there in MP3 form on the web with a nice friendly license now. Not all of it, just enough that DJs who love your music and are dying to get their listeners to buy your CDs can help you. These are not people you want to be suing.

So, that's interesting. What's more interesting is that there's almost no reason why this same thing can't happen to video. I say almost because most people don't have an internet-connected set top box that can act like the video equivalent of an MP3 player. A desktop computer or laptop is close but not quite there. What's needed is a brain-dead mass market set top box that costs about $200 that does this. MythTV is closest because they're not busy worrying about being sued for removing commercials from live TV or allowing people to take broadcast shows off the air and share them online. P2P delivery of RSS advertised video podcasts onto a commodity hardware set top box is pretty interesting. What if portable versions used free community wireless? Get the latest low-res news bites on video while you're on the bus. Back when Steve Jobs introduced the iPod Photo, he said that they weren't bothering with video because Apple didn't think that users had much video that was suitable for viewing on a little screen. Well, perhaps that's because the vast majority of video that's out there is targeted at televisions and movie screens. Talking heads on 24 hour news channels don't need the same resolution and frame rate as Star Wars does when it's on a movie channel, but people have the same endpoint for both of them, so there's one format (which is just getting more high-res in the HDTV age). There are relatively few tiny portable TVs, probably because there's no content for them. Catch-22. I think this will change. Low-res video in small file sizes for small devices, for viewing when the viewer isn't close to a big screen or a PC. Music videos? Sermons? News headlines? Stand-up comedy? Anything that's 80% audio and 20% video would be fine.

Shawn and I had a funny exchange about this. I was initially resistant to podcasting because one of the people who first worked on it is rather paranoid and at the same time very self-absorbed. I'm so interesting that the whole world is just waiting to steal my cool ideas!

shawn: There are now enough podcasts dedicated to reviewing podcasts that there should be some reviews of the reviews
jamie: at first I thought podcasting was just the next level of dave winer's narcissism
jamie: then I realized it was that, but something else too
shawn: I'm glad that another technology wave was stolen from him by people out to screw him
jamie: haha
shawn: there should be more stealing and screwing of Winer

So, here's how artists get paid without the RIAA: publish some songs online with a license that lets DJs podcast your stuff. Sell the rest online in DRM'd or CD form. Pocket the 90% that used to go to the record companies' lawyers and payola and luxury cars and suits. Invest that in rent and musical instruments. Quit suing people and get on with writing and recording and turing. Podcast board recordings of your concerts. Put videos on your web site. Sell CDs and tickets and forget about the scarcity police.

July 17, 2005

Our pictures from Florence are up.

Y'know that "in a world..." movie trailer voiceover guy? He did a really funny trailer for Comedian.

We saw Mudd's Women done in play form. Why? Because it was done with genders reversed. Hilarious.

I really get frustrated when I see people I generally agree with doing ineffective things like weekly candlelight vigils (three hours before sunset?!?) or a concert that benefits an art collective that makes art about alternative fuels. Yeah, Rumsfeld and Cheney are shaking in their wingtips. That's a lot of time and effort that doesn't change anybody's mind and sends a message to people right next to you who already agree with you 100%. Anytime I hear the phrase "raise awareness" I cringe. Too often the solution to any given problem is too much to ask of most people so they just tune you out.

Case in point: the latest episode of Morgan Spurlock's 30 Days. Two folks from the New York area go to an "eco village" to try and live "off the grid" to see what it would be like to not be hyperconsumers of natural resources. Unfortunately, the people at the eco village are extremists in nearly every dimension. They are hardly ambassadors from a better world, convincing mainstream folks that they could make a few small changes to their lifestyles and change the world in a big way. Nope. They've decided to make big personal sacrifices across the board to make the smallest possible impact on the world. Not surprisingly, their guests don't like it too much, and really can't relate to these people. No deodorant, no meat, handling human waste, handling cockroach infested waste vegetable oil from a restaurant. Hey, sign me up!

Now I realize why neoconservatives are on top. They're political pragmatists, willing to compromise in order to move things in the direction they favor. Liberals can't seem to pull themselves together because the centrists and the progressives and the smelly dirty hippies and the wingnut conspiracy theorists and the peaceniks and the pro-legalization folks can't stop arguing among themselves and holding rallies where they whine a lot. I'm a college student in SF, and I see this shit all the time. (Raise awareness. Here's a pamphlet. Everything and everyone in the world is evil. Everything you do is evil.) It happens at a national level (Gore vs. Nader) but that's not the half of it. Jumping all over someone because they're interested in organic milk and free range beef rather than soy milk and tempeh is pretty bad. But more importantly, no one is convinced by complaining, nor by a life of suffering, that your ideas or lifestyle is better. People need to be able to visualize what it would be like if they agreed with you and lived the way you wanted them to. If they visualize this and it smells like hu-manure and body odor and involves hard labor as a farmhand, they're not gonna go for it. They need to be inspired; they need to aspire to that lifestyle. If not, you've just lost another person to the other side and made it much less likely that they'll ever listen to you again.

What I'm saying is, they should have just let Vito shoot the damn rabbits and buy the organic free range beef and STFU about it. They guy's a Marine; if you can make it 99% like camping, he can handle it. It's that last 1% that he had a problem with and they couldn't meet him 1% of the way. And they should try and crossbreed their ultra sensitive touchy feely hippie vibe (which has its good points, I admit) with an independent, vigorous, industrious, modern survivalist / libertarian vibe. Yeah, survivalists are kind of "out there" too (why exactly do you need a survival bunker? Oh yeah the shadow government that's declare martial law in the next few weeks. Right.) but they have a lot going for them too in the "how to live frugally for a long time" department. Filter out the anarchist paranoia and new age mumbo jumbo and take the best of the eco hippies and gun-lovin' survivalists and you've got something that most people can relate to in a positive way. I'm talking a tattoo needle with soy ink running off solar power, in the compound. I'm talking Jesse James putting a blower on a vegetable-oil biodiesel El Camino with a trailer hitch. (Hell, even a biodiesel tractor would be a start, or maybe an electric ATV that you charge using the big solar cells back in the camp.) I'm talking Ted Nugent teaching people how to use a bow and arrow, how to pick a good all-purpose knife, and how to hunt and clean game with it. (You wanna skip the animal killing part? That's your call. The Vitos of the world would jump at a chance for something like that.) There's plenty of technology and cool fun hardcore extremeness that you can do that doesn't ruin the environment, that would make the whole eco friendly lifestyle a lot more appealing. People are instinctively connected to nature and like to be outside. Fresh food tastes better. It's easier to take pride in something you made yourself that nobody else has, than some crap you got at a store that everybody else has and now you've got one too. People like to feel self sufficient and safe, especially Americans. We don't really love drywall and McDonalds and General Motors and public school and cul-de-sacs and malls and Old Navy and Bud Light and cubicles and Clear Channel that much. The bar isn't that high. We just need to see an alternative that doesn't feel like we're being punished for being bad little consumers.

July 13, 2005

Of course, the day after I write a big rant about how dedicated I am to becoming a Real Musician, I get an email from a recruiter at a very appealing prospective employer saying he's seen my resume, and can we talk about opportunities real soon?

Except it's in Mountain View, right next to a company I worked at a few years ago, and it was a solid 1 1/2 hour commute even taking crazy shortcuts and driving at 80 mph on the freeway and constantly looking for new routes into account. 90 minutes, period. Plus they're all about full time employment. And they're a medium sized company. And they're public. And they talk about culture and work-life balance except I've heard all that before. Lots of big Silicon Valley companies talk about these things but what it really means is that you're supposed to become one of the pod people and never leave the office; they bring you dinner every night and give you a free massage once in a while and that's supposed to make you forget that you work from 8am to 11:30pm six days a week. Maybe these guys are different but MV is far. They've been on my short list of "if I wanted to work full time in the valley" companies, but that 'if' just doesn't appeal. The US is obsessed with working crazy hours and Silicon Valley is no different. We're gonna get rich on stock! We're going to reinvent ____! We've got to beat Microsoft and those three other companies doing the same thing we are! Woo hoo our manager just bought us a case of Red Bull so we can work all night!

I love working on important stuff. I love working with smart people. I love solving difficult problems. I don't love working 100 hours a week, and getting paid for 40 hours a week. I don't want a commute, a security badge, a drug test, a logo-embroidered polo shirt, a fancy corporate picnic, a cubicle, options that I'll never get because they take years and years to actually vest and then you have to buy them and pay taxes on them and then they're really just a small bonus because you could just buy the stock anyway and get the same amount of upside without working there unless you're there for a really long time or the stock is going through the roof, a new health care plan, a crazy locked down IT environment, a beat up old used computer worth $200 that wastes $200 worth of my time (which they're paying for) every day because it sucks, or any of the trappings of a medium sized tech company in the valley that pats itself on the back for hipness but doesn't realize that khakis and light blue dress shirts are boring as hell. This latest company may be different but I just can't get excited about it because I know the culture of the area and it's just not going to be radically different. All these employees float around from company to company. They don't import cool people from CoolTown and scare the neighbors with their antics. Check out our rad corporate culture! We're in an office park, and sometimes we play frisbee on the grass! These guys are fuckin' nuts, man! I can't believe the HR manager hasn't told them that their employment agreement says that there are absolutely no sports on the grass! He's so cool to overlook that!

OK so I'm projecting the worst onto a company I actually know very little about. That's why I didn't just say "forget it". Point is, 15 minutes away (and therefore in SF) and I'd be interviewing as soon as they'd let me, just to see if it's interesting enough for me to try and wrap school around it, which is doubtful but worth a look given who it is.

90 minutes away and in the giant hot dry office park strip mall neon big box complex of sprawly doom known as Silicon Valley, not so much.

July 12, 2005

I like weird music that pretty much nobody I know likes. I realize this.

I'm putting aside a successful software development career to study music in hopes of becoming a successful performer. Chances are slim that I'll become a famous rock star. I realize this also.

I don't define success in terms of winning the lottery or failing to do so. I'm not gambling. I'm not trying to be the next American Idol.

I had a really annoying conversation today with someone who doesn't get what I'm trying to do, what my goals are, etc. I have yet to refine my elevator pitch for my musical career goals because I haven't seen the point so far. Now I'm starting to realize that if I can't articulate what I'm trying to do, people will get the impression that I have no idea what I'm doing, or will get the wrong impression, and will give me really condescending advice.

One person, who knows that I've been practicing and performing for almost 20 years, suggested that I combine my interests in computers and music by writing music software. Uh huh. Hey, instead of painting on a canvas, can't you just design paintbrushes instead? Lots of people buy paintbrushes. Or maybe you can paint houses?

Another person (yesterday) suggested that I write software to generate pop music hits. This is the musical equivalent of our friend the painter going into the exciting field of carpet pattern design. There are so many things wrong with this that it's hard to focus on one at a time.

First of all, it's pretty close to something that already exists, that measures an existing song for hit potential. Secondly, I don't like pop music. Most importantly, I don't want to work for the sort of people who would use something like that. Can't we just cut the humans out of the artistic process entirely, and just make an infinite amount of entertainment product out of thin air, and sell that to the whole world? And we'll be sure to make it DRM'd and backed up with lawyers, to artificially enforce the scarcity. It's the artistic apocalypse: absolute abundance of raw material - an infinite number of geese that lay golden eggs - completely roped off and rationed out at just the right rate to create the optimum balance of scarcity and supply. Well, yes, if your goal is to put the least meaning in while extracting the largest amount of money out of the audience, that would be a big win. The stock would go through the roof! Hookers and cocaine for everybody!

I do accept that such a thing is inevitable, and will probably become wildly popular in my lifetime (virtual pop idols 'performing' completely computer generated music). Some people will like it. Good for them. I think fractals are cool too but they're almost completely lacking in artistic value. People still buy Escher and Van Gogh posters for their dorm rooms, and those guys have been dead for quite a while. Why do people like them? Because they made works of art that had meaning. That meaning may not be clear enough to write in a topic sentence or mission statement format, but it's there. Part of what art is good at doing is asking questions or making statements that are too complex and subtle to be directly articulated. When the goal is to sell as many copies of the work as quickly as possible, the result is shallow and accessible but quickly becomes boring, then trite, then annoying, then repulsive. When the goal is to put as much meaning into something as possible with the artist's current level of ability, success is harder to achieve, but in the best cases results in something that is apprecated more as it is experienced more over time.

I want to create music that gets better the more you listen to it, because it's deep enough to have more to offer each time you listen to it.

I want to perform music live. There's something very old and very primal in us all that is unlocked when we get physical and rhythmic and loud as a group. One of my favorite feelings in the whole wide world is being in that zone and completely rocking out. One of my least favorite feelings in the whole wide world is being confused and unprepared and failing publicly and having everybody notice. It's risky, and scary. The fear makes it harder for me to perform, which is even scarier.

What am I doing? I'm setting myself up to take that risk of public, real-time, obvious failure, and I'm multiply it by the added difficulty of complex parts because I think they're more interesting to listen to. I'm working on my own music and words, increasing the risk of rejection and passing up an easy opportunity to find an instant audience who loves what I'm playing.

Why the hell am I doing this? Because I hope to connect to a tiny little audience, to deliver that meaning and message personally, and to become part of the message and the connection myself.

I realize that this is a difficult goal. That's why it's interesting. That's also why it's taking so long. The fact that performance anxiety is a downward spiral means that I have to over-practice like crazy, so that when my conscious brain shuts off completely as I start to play, my brain stem knows what to do. The fact that I like complicated music means that I need to really know what the hell I'm trying to do and what tools exist to accomplish that, or else I'm just frustrated and depressed at my own lack of creative ability. The people who inspire me are very, very, very good. Not like the 17 year old indie-rock star who can strum an acoustic guitar and sing with heart good. I mean, very trained and very dedicated and very experienced, able to just play and play and play and make it seem like mistakes are impossible. I have a long way to go, but I think it's worth it, even if nobody else really gets it right now. Maybe later they will.

Here's an example of someone who I think is in a very enviable position. His name is Jonas Reingold (the linked page includes sample music clips!) and he's the bassist I'm listening to the most lately. He's a bass player who is involved in a number of projects right now, some of which share a musician or two with other projects he's doing. Some of them tour the world. One group he's in were very happy when one album sold 400,000 copies worldwide. That's not even a Gold album. I'll be ecstatic if I ever can reach the same level of exposure and collaborative success that he has.

Even if I don't, it's the success in creating and in performing that really matter to me, not the selling and the getting reviews and fame and fortune. I know that I can be a computer nerd and make money and write books and articles and present at conferences and give speeches and have all sorts of nerdy admirers. I used to think I wanted that but I've gotten pretty close and I don't really find that outcome very appealing anymore. The most heroic heroes are only moderately interesting people. The audiences are generally not people that are into connecting and communicating and sharing meaningful experiences, or if they are, they tend to be so into it that it's desperate and smothering and needy.

So, yes, I'm sabotaging my chances of having my very own series of O'Reilly books and presenting at conferences and being paid outrageous sums to consult for big dumb companies and being the founder of a startup that IPOs and makes me filthy rich and having the tech-culture rags write lots of articles about me. (That's the nerdly dream, as far as I can tell.) I'm putting aside a reliable six figure income in an office with a window. These are all still appealing, but not as much as they used to be, and not enough to settle for these measures of success instead of a career in music.

And while I'm working toward this most-fulfilling-of-all-goals (successful artistic expression), that doesn't mean I can't work on anything else. I'd be happy to code. I'd be happy to play at weddings. I'd be very happy to work as a studio musician. These are not necessarily mutually exclusive with the artistic goal of live performance of my own original music. Gotta pay the rent, man. I'm not proposing to live on credit card debt or CDBaby royalties alone.

I'm taking risks, but the risks that I care about are under my control. I have to satisfy my own inner critic. I'm entirely willing to play the role of the unappreciated artist, as long as I have confidence in what I'm doing. Of course, I'm pretty sure that if I like it, there's an audience for it, and I think I know how and where to reach them. The not-obvious part from my point of view is the writing and the playing.

If I find out that I just can't pull it off, can't come up with good material, can't ever seem to play it 100% right no matter how I'll try, then maybe I'll give up and do something else. At least I won't spend the rest of my life wondering about what might have been, telling myself I coulda been a contender.

The only risk I'm not willing to take is the risk of waking up one day and finding out that I hate my life and it's too late to do anything about it.

July 11, 2005

Nobody expects the OpenBSD release song lyrics. (At least, I didn't.) Our chief weapons are interesting stories, very forced parody lyrics, and pretty darn funny cartoons.

Also unexpected by me, and also relating to open source: Eric Raymond says "We Don't Need the GPL Anymore".

"For God's Sake, Please Stop the Aid!" is pretty surprising.

I'm not surprised to learn that Martin Fowler also finds it hard to be sure what the hell people are really talking about when they use the buzzphrase Service Oriented Architecture: Service Oriented Ambiguity.

July 8, 2005

Funny stuff: Latte Art; Beware of the beer that turns you into an ostrich; Star Trek Episode 4: Mudd's Women in drag (and a flyer for previous performances by the same folks; half price!; anagrams for William Jefferson Clinton, Slobodan Milosevic, Congressman Rick Santorum; and the very strange

July 7, 2005

From Ken Livingstone's Mayor's Statement 7 July 2005:

"They choose to come to London, as so many have come before because they come to be free, they come to live the life they choose, they come to be able to be themselves. They flee you because you tell them how they should live. They don't want that and nothing you do, however many of us you kill, will stop that flight to our city where freedom is strong and where people can live in harmony with one another. Whatever you do, however many you kill, you will fail."