Saturday, December 31, 2016

Expose the hierarchical file system to the user.

Say it again: Expose the hierarchical file system to the user.

Or, in 2016-speak:
Expose (clapemoji) The (clapemoji) Hierarchical (clapemoji) File (clapemoji) System (clapemoji) To (clapemoji) The (clapemoji) User (clapemoji).

This one goes out to the makers of iTunes, Photos (Mac app), iPhoto, Google Photos, Mendeley, OSX, Windows, and every other piece of software that deals with your important files.

Software comes and goes. Picasa? Came and is phasing out. iPhoto's gone. iTunes is still around but useless. Flickr's still around I guess. Nook came and went. Kindle's still around, for now. What can we count on to last in the digital world?

Files. Files and folders. In a Unix (or mayyybe Windows) hierarchical file system. Picasa's dying? Fine: we can get our photos out, in the same organizational scheme they went in. You migrate your iTunes music to a new computer? Well, at least all your mp3s are still sorted by artist and album.

But if you were using iPhoto... good luck. Your photos might arrive on the new software, but they might not, because they were all stored in one giant blob called "iPhoto Library." Maybe your "albums" or whatever nonsense organizational scheme will arrive too. But if you had them in files and folders, you'd be set.

The one thing* that's lasted since the start of the modern age** of computers is the Unix file system. That's also the one thing I'd count on to still be around in some form in 50 years. And I will still want my photos and music files in 50 years.

* ok there are more
** I just made this term up, call it like 1970+?

(another dumb thing: new iphones store all photos as a photo + a video, so they move a little bit, like harry potter. guess if anything will still reliably read a photo + a video as one single file in 50 years.)

Anyway, apologies for writing a long rant; if I had more time I'd have written a shorter one. But in the meantime, Expose The Hierarchical File System To The User.

Monday, December 19, 2016

New bike: Ricardo Villalobos


Check this out! See the turquoise "Yerka" on the frame? That's where it locks/unlocks. The whole frame comes apart and, together with the seatpost, locks around something. It's pretty neat. Probably will be my new around-town bike.

Ricardo Villalobos is a Chilean-German minimal techno producer. This bike is from Chile, and kind of minimal. (but then you unlock it and it has all this hidden depth, or something!) A techno producer feels appropriate for a riding-around-town bike.

That makes this bike #3 I've assembled from parts. I'm learning here! Stats and links for my memory's sake:

Frame: Yerka XL (58cm)
Seat and post: whatever came with the frame (it's a whole locking system)
Handlebars: Oval M650 MTB Handlebar 710mm 31.8mm w/ Oury aqua grips to match the Yerka lock, cheapo stem from Bike Kitchen
Headset: Cane Creek 40 series integrated headset. Note to self: that was the wrong headset for this frame. "Integrated" means it doesn't have cups, b/c they're "integrated" into your frame. Except on mine, they weren't. Luckily, Bike Kitchen had a couple extras.
Brakes: Promax Radius caliper brakes. Stud lengths: 37mm front, 15mm rear. 60mm max reach from center of the stud to center of the pad at its lowest. Origin8 Power V-type levers, standard XLC cables/housings
Wheels: EighthInch Julian V2 wheels, white, 32h. 42mm deep rims. 100m front spacing, 120mm rear. Thickslick 700x25c tiresThese rim strips. Tubes.
Drive train: Lasco cranks (46t) and BB (VP BC73 68x103) (white), EighthInch white chain (1/8" obv), ACS main drive freewheel (16t, 1/8"), cheapo pedals from Bike Kitchen

Friday, November 11, 2016

Why is "smile!" bad? (It's not the Political Correctness Police)

(A shame-free and hopefully patronization-free education zone)

My post yesterday got a lot of good conversation going about men telling women to smile, randomly, on the street. Some commenters, and a lot more readers, probably thought "what's wrong with men telling women to smile?" (and even "oh boy, the Political Correctness Police decided you can't say yet another thing.") I get that, because when I think of a phrase as innocuous as "smile", I first think of "Smile!" Type A:

A kindly gentleman notices a lady feeling a little down, just looking for some kindness in the world, and he offers her a word of encouragement, "smile!", as in "it'll all be ok!"

"Smile!" Type A is maybe encouraging, maybe annoying. I mean, he could have just as easily said "it'll all be ok!" without making it her problem. Whatever. Maybe it's nice, maybe it's annoying.
EDIT: To clarify, don't do this. It might seem pleasant in your mind, but it's not: it's annoying and demeaning. Instead of actually caring about someone, you're just jumping in and "fixing" their problem. This is not a nice thing to do. Maybe it won't all be ok! Maybe they've got a serious issue and need to just be, for a minute! Someone else telling them how they ought to be feeling is 99% not going to make them feel better.

And the thing is, there's also "Smile!" Type B:
An imposing, skeezy looking dude leers at a woman and yells "smile!" Then:
- she smiles, and he goes, in a sleazy voice, "mmm baby there you go"
- she ignores him, and he yells at her for being deaf/ignoring him
- she says "no" and he yells at her for being "nasty" or a "fucking ugly bitch" or worse

Like, "Smile!" Type B is obviously annoying, demeaning, and/or threatening. And (here's the part I didn't realize, as a dude): women get "Smile!" Type B sooo often. Way more often than "Smile!" Type A. So if you, a dude, tell a lady to smile, they're 99% of the time correct to assume it's "Smile!" Type B, and this is annoying and/or scary (even if you meant "Smile!" Type A.)

(and remember, even "Smile!" Type A is probably kinda annoying. EDIT: is at least annoying, and usually demeaning too.)

(also, side point, I've never heard a woman tell me she likes being told to smile, and I've often heard women tell me they hate being told to smile. anecdotes, yeah, but one-sided enough that I'm pretty confident that it's fair to generalize.)

Thanks to Samantha and Kristina for examples; thanks to Tatiana for raising it to my attention at all. Men, if you wanna discuss, maybe do it here! (even reshare it, whatever.) I'm not exhausted from talking about this constantly, like the women in your life might be. Women, if I'm getting anything wrong or leaving anything out, let me know.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

I really cannot believe this.

- The incredible power of sexism. Hillary vs the worst man I've ever seen run for president, and here we go.
- Well... maybe the republican party crashes and burns as hard as possible?
- Heyo Trump, you wanna make jobs, go ahead, make jobs. You get the best shot you can possibly have, and I know you will fail. I know in four years the unemployment rate will be higher and the average American will be worse off.
- But you'll be telling us the unemployment rate is lower, because you absolutely do not care about facts. And your goonbag conspiracy theory alt-right media buddies will keep repeating you until 49% of the country believes it again. (except maybe Glenn Beck, and good on him.) I'm not sure how we stop this.
- Man, kinda a bummer about my initials right now. Gotta spend a long time making "DJT" great again.
- Wait, so "make ___ great again" is ruined - is the word "great" ruined too? Is it a dog whistle for "get out all the black and brown people"?
- The planet is so hosed. our president, and a majority of our new congress, don't believe climate change is a thing?
- This is on you, email "scandal" reporters. Thanks to your "fair and balanced" nonsense, somehow one minor mistake ended up outweighing an endless list of lies, scams, and general terribleness.
- This is on you, right wing conspiracy theorist talk show hosts. But you're probably stoked about that.
- This is also on you, Catholic church who's reduced so many people's votes to one checkbox, "will they ban abortion?", which is so dumb for so many reasons.
- A bunch of states legalized weed. we're going to need it.
- This election is a pretty good argument against men's suffrage. And white people's suffrage. How many years did we go without women's suffrage - like 140? Let's let only women vote for the next 140. And make white people's votes count as 3/5.
- Here's an interesting idea: every election settles out to an equilibrium based on polls. in this one, the polls just underestimated trump, so the "equilibrium" ended up being in his favor.
- I'm wondering if the human difficulty with processing scale is a coping mechanism. Like, you look at all the magnitude of awfulness out there right now, and you've got to tune it out. Still, that's the same processing difficulty that led people to say "on the one hand, everything Trump's done, but on the other hand, those emails..."
- The average American is not quite this bad. But only just. (and, I mean, whatever, it's just "moral victory" at this point.) Someone on Twitter: "it's like you're ordering dinner with friends and three of them vote "pizza" and two vote "kill and eat you.""

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Knocked on 175 doors for Hillary today

Q. Why are you writing this post?
A. Mostly, to suggest that maybe you should go knock on doors too. Also (as usual) because I had a few interesting thoughts and I like to talk.

Q. 175 sounds like a lot!
A. Yes, it is. 3 * 3hr slots, a little more than 50 doors each. I don't necessarily recommend doing 9 hours in a row, but if you're fired up, whatever. You can just do 3 hours. It's a nice day outside. Have a nice walk.

Q. How much chutzpah do you need?
A. Kind of minimal, really? It felt a little out-of-body, like I don't have to be Dan now, I just have to be this automaton who knocks on doors and roughly does this script. That was interesting.

Q. How thick of a skin do you need?
A. Not really that thick. I had one cranky old lady go "you guys are really getting to be a nuisance!" and one 40ish jerk say coldly, "can you please leave now?" And then I had one super nice lady tell me I should go into politics because I have a lovely personality, and a lot of super gracious thanks. I'd say it was about 20:3:1 ok:really great:bad responses.

Q. Why this election?
A. Not because Hillary is The Best Ever. (She's fine.) But because the gap between the candidates is the biggest I have ever seen. I am more sure than I've ever been that this vote is the correct one.

Q. Is this really a good use of your time?
A. Beats me. A lot of people were not home. I have no idea how many extra votes I brought in today. One guy somewhere said, though, that an hour of volunteering brings in on average 5 more votes. So, kinda, I voted 45 times today! That's way more than I would have otherwise! (I have no idea where that 5/hr comes from. I'm gonna run with it though.)

Q. What's another reason I should vote?
A. Because if you only vote sometimes, you'll get on the list I had today, the sometimes-voter list, AKA the list of "we think you'll vote for us but we're not sure you'll actually get out and vote, therefore we're going to canvass and phone you a bunch to make sure you actually vote!" If you vote all the time, nobody'll bug you.

Q. Did you feel ethically weird doing this?
A. Yes, of course! I feel like ads on the internet are a monstrosity, and that one of our inalienable rights, generally, should be the right to peace and quiet. I guess I consider this an extreme measure for an extreme time where, according to 538, we may have to play two-bullet Russian Roulette on Tuesday.

Q. Don't you think that's overdramatic?
A. Maybe. I also think it's quite plausible that President Trump could start World War 3. The best case scenario is we do nothing for four years, and given climate change (among other big risks), we can't really afford to do even that.

Q. What was the most fun part of this thing?
A. Probably batch 3, when they upgraded me to "pretty advanced canvasser" and sent me on a difficult mission: talk to a bunch of people who were mostly inside an apartment building in Hazelwood. This required sneaking in through a back door, aided by a kind resident I met outside. Most of the people were kinda old and kinda poor. A lot of em were real nice, and I felt a little James Bond.

Q. Tell me some other thoughts you had.
A. So when we bug you to goddamn actually go vote, we're talking to System 1, the fast one. We're using all kinds of tricks because they're like one percent more likely to make you actually do it. Like, help you make a plan to go vote. ("I'm going to stop at the polling station on the way to work, and then I'll get coffee at the Starbucks next door and go on to work.") Or, make you promise me (a stranger) that you'll go vote. But I feel weird talking to your System 1, so I keep feeling like I have to make excuses and reasons that I'm actually talking to System 2. Like, "some people find it helpful to make a plan." Or "someone said I should tell you this." We all know that you're a hyper-rational System 2, but like let's just futz through this game, just for me, c'mon please?, that (secretly) tricks your System 1.

Q. That was interesting. Another, please.
A. It's nice that we had flyers to hand out. That way we could have a pretty common, no-conflict way to wrap up the conversation, or give you an easy out if you don't want to talk to me but don't want to be a dick. (Thanks, by the way.) It was a nice way to save face. As usual, human interactions need more ways to save face.

Q. One more deep thought?
A. Man, this is totally an information problem! Why did some people say "6 people already canvassed me, go away"? Why did we not get them off the dang list already?

Q. That wasn't deep, that was nerd-rage-shallow. Give me a deeper thought.
A. Sure: plausible nonpartisanship. Sometimes I'd knock and people would say "who is it?" and I kept trying different options. Like, maybe "A volunteer to help get out the vote". I kinda wish my little flyers didn't even say Hillary on them. Of course it's pro-Hillary; we're targeting people who are likely to vote Hillary. But it'd be way easier if I could be plausibly nonpartisan.
This is weird, right, because if I were trying to save the US from Osama, or King Jong-Un, or even Martin Shkreli, we could all agree, yeah, good thing to do, good on you. But as soon as the republicans grab one thing and the democrats grab one thing, all of a sudden it's holy war. I just want to save the US from an actually bad guy (who even most of the Republicans repudiate!) but as soon as I say "no Trump" then all of a sudden I'm "partisan" and you can comfortably ignore my viewpoint.

Q. Why hasn't anyone made any bridge "No Trump" jokes?
A. whoop, looks like they did. ehh, statistician humor.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Wedding planning megapost

Tati and I planned a wedding this past summer. It went great! As a result, I want to tell you all about how to do it. However, I don't actually know that much.

Big things I know

  • Get as much time with your people as possible. We had a venue that only let us use it from 6pm to 10:45pm, so we booked an afterparty until 2am, a brunch the next day at 11am, and a rehearsal dinner the day before. These things don't have to be fancy. All your people traveled from all over, make it worth it! (and if they get tired, they don't have to go to the extra parties.)
  • It's all fine, seriously.
  • You get a right hand man or woman. Use em. (It's even better if they've already done a wedding themselves.) My friends Daniel and Killian were over the top helpful during the day itself. It's the little things: they can get you water or food or a drink when you're busy chatting with everyone, deal with small snafus that come up, find your stuff.
    • Notably, they knew it was too hot for me to wear my three piece suit, so they brought me my vest during the dancing so I could change out the jacket for that.
    • Also, found chapstick to put on my finger so my wedding ring would fit on, because, surprise, my finger's bigger than it used to be?
  • Do you. Don't worry about it. It's all fine.
  • Oh, and in the process of doing you, get as many of your friends involved as you can. A friend was our officiant, and it was way better than any rando-officiant's ceremony would be. Another friend bartended, and was both super competent and super fun.

Things for budget conscious people (who isn't?)

We were like somewhat budget conscious. But not really, because we can afford not to be, and you only do it once, and we were out of town and busy with stuff so were happy to pay for a couple things that we maybe could have handled cheaper. It worked out well and pretty minimally stressful for us.
  • The big decisions you get to make, money-wise are:
    • How many people? Weddings seem to come in about 3 sizes: ~40, ~120, and 200+. If you want 200+, good luck.
    • Do you want a summer Saturday? Everything will be more expensive. You can get big discounts by not doing it on Saturday, or not doing it in the summer.
    • How much will your venue + caterer + booze cost? Phipps Conservatory, for example, costs $3000, plus $90/person (at least) for catering. If your venue lets you do your own catering and alcohol, that is a big win. (our catering was about $45/person. drinks + bartender for our ~100 ppl was about $15/person.)
  • The small decisions you get to make are mostly about if there's anything you don't care about being fancy-wedding? Like, you can save $1000+ if you do any of these:
    • Have it in a family member's backyard or other free place
    • Low-key catering (Indian food prices quoted to us were $15-45 per person; the higher end included all service, tablecloths, etc, the lower end was just the food.)
    • Super low key catering (I've heard good things about food trucks. And I would think it is totally cool if you got Chipotle.)
    • Simple photographer (no "getting ready" pics, no second photographer, no videographer.)
    • Simple (non-"wedding") dress
    • DIY anything. But! Don't actually DIY. Do-it-someone-else's-self. And only if they really want to, or if it will be seriously no work. Like, my mom wanted to make centerpieces. It was nice! It saved us some money, too. But more than that, it was cool that she wanted to make a contribution like that, and she was on top of it so much that we didn't even have to think. Similarly, my friend Killian (the same! we have great friends :) did a drawing for our program, but that was easily done ahead of time.
  • An afterparty can probably be just about free. Ours just had a $500 minimum our guests had to meet. (I think this was an unusually good deal; I think b/c of the package deal with the brunch.)

Things that are small but I want to bring them up

  • If you're a dude, the morning of your wedding day might be just yourself wandering around while your wife goes and gets her hair done. That's an interesting time.
  • Actually the ceremony is pretty emotionally intense! I cried a lot right after. That was surprising.
  • If you can go see them DJ somewhere beforehand and it's the kind of fun you want people having, that's great. (our DJ did one night a week at a college bar, so I went to see him. It was silly, I was the oldest person there, but they were having a blast and he seemed right on top of the crowd.)
  • We got to try out a bunch of Indian restaurant-caterers by telling them we're thinking of getting wedding catering from them. Often they'll bring you in to try all the different foods they offer, and it's usually free. This was fun.
  • Oh, choosing who to invite is really hard, but we should as a society agree that you don't get to be even a little bit mad about not getting invited to anyone's wedding ever. Ok? Good.
Anyway, especially for my friends who are getting married relatively soon, and especially if you're getting married in Pittsburgh, ask me for plenty of advice about anything. I am not real expert at this, but our wedding went even better than I'd hoped, and I do like to talk.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

85% heroes

A friend recently posted about Michael Crichton and how he's great. He's pretty great: he wrote a bunch of super cool books, all pretty smart, thoroughly researched, and real easy to read. (Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain, Sphere, among others.)

But! He also got like kinda deep into climate change denial. Everyone's got their own beliefs, etc, and he's allowed to be wrong. But his novel State of Fear, in particular, may have done some real damage. A lot of news is more opinion than fact these days, and a super-popular writer is likely to influence people more than a hundred academic studies. In particular, it shifts the Overton window (the window of beliefs you can have without being considered "extreme" or "radical"). By writing a major novel in which climate change denial is in fact the correct position, and then sticking with that belief, he's made it politically reasonable to believe "humans are not causing climate change."

(of course, numerous particularly right wing pundits and politicians are constantly working to shift the Overton window to constantly crazier beliefs, and yes the current batch of Republicans (including theselie more than liberals currently do (here's a couple more) (plus popular pundits) (yes I'm cherrypicking once we get outside the pres/vp and congress but I don't know how to pick so I just used this list for liberals and this list for conservatives)

Back to Crichton! Ok, so dude's dangerously wrong about one thing. And yeah, gotta fight that incorrectness hard. But he's still a great writer, so we can appreciate him for that. Maybe he's not Jesus #2, but he can still be an 85% hero.

(hell, my heroes are 85% too. David Byrne was a bit of a jerk to his bandmates, Bowie spent years coked out of his mind (which I'm more likely to give him a pass on b/c he wasn't hurting anyone else but w/e), Kurt Vonnegut didn't seem to think women were worth writing, and even the Dalai Lama's just the latest in a series of supreme dictators.*)

So, I guess, let's not throw out Crichton and let's not throw out my heroes. In the age of the Internet, it's harder to find anyone who's 100% perfect. The sooner we stop trying, the sooner we can stop excommunicating anyone who's only 85%, the sooner we can accept and listen and grow together as a country and even a world.

* speaking of Vonnegut not writing women, look at me: my heroes are nearly all white men. ok, throw in Tom Robbins, Terry Gilliam, David Lynch, and Karin Dreijer Andersson, and we're down to 87% men. I mention this not to self-flagellate, but to ask, as always, for recommendations of women or POC artists or personalities that I might like if I like these folks.

Friday, October 07, 2016

Oh man voting in California

EDIT: scroll to the bottom, I posted a fuller list of who I voted for.

This is a thing! You gotta seriously bone up to vote right here. (whether it is a good idea or not to make us vote on so many things is a different story (it's not) but I guess given what we got we might as well make the most of it.)

I'll start with the California state propositions, mostly because I found ballot.fyi and like it a lot. I won't say much about any proposition if they've already said it better.

But if you don't even have that much time and you want to delegate your vote to me:

51 Yes (money for schools): seems like it's not the best school bill but it's a school bill and they've been out of money for a while.
52 Yes (hospital thing): it's a formality
53 No (state funding requiring more votes and maybe stop a train): gosh no guys come on
54 Yes (bills available on internet): simple yes EDIT: actually no?
55 Yes (tax the rich): yes always
56 Yes (tax tobacco incl vapes): sure
57 Yes (make it easier to get parole for nonviolent criminals): slight yes? I generally favor less prison time and more rehab and this seems in that direction. There may be nuance here that I'm not well-versed enough to get into. #CaliforniaVoting
58 Yes (allow bilingual classes): This seems good b/c it'd give more control back to local folks to let them figure out what would work best in their situation. More leeway usually seems like a good thing to me.
59 Yes (does citizens united suck?) yes! this apparently doesn't matter but still vote yes b/c citizens united does suck!
60 No (requiring condoms on porn stars): nope, which is counterintuitive maybe, but porn is already safe and this apparently would be bad for pornmakers. To be an educated voter in California, you gotta know about porn too.
61 No (complicated drug pricing thing): slight no; artificially futzing with drug price markets tends to mess things up more than it helps
62 Yes (repeal the death penalty): hell yes!
63 Yes (more checks for buying ammo): yes. Just heard a good podcast; summary: better background checks and regulations are the best way to prevent gun deaths. I'm sold: I don't want to take anyone's guns anymore. But I do want better background checks and regulations. (at least license them like cars?)
64 Yes (legalize marijuana): hell yes! (and if you're concerned it'll become clown town, look: it's already basically legal here anyway)
65 No (plastic bag revenue goes to environmental things instead of stores): slight no? this just seems dumb. you charge me 10 cents per bag, just keep the 10 cents, don't put aside a nickel for some tax for vague environmental things.
66 No (quicken the death penalty): hell no!
67 Yes (ban plastic bags): this overlaps with 65 confusingly, but basically if you like the way that SF is now, with no plastic bags, vote yes on 67.

whew! that was a thing. that's about 1/3 of my ballot; the rest to follow.

Let me know if you know any good sources for similar breakdowns of SF local stuff!

EDIT: Here's a more thorough list of who I voted for! And even if you don't trust me, I still have a lot of tallies of who some other local groups supported, so that's maybe useful. Note also that I changed my position on ... at least one of the above.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Can politics be "just politics"?

Been struggling with a couple of interrelated questions:
1. can we just discuss every issue calmly and rationally?
2. can we be friends with people who have some beliefs that are really bad?
These lead me to some more questions, but I'll get to that.

1. Can we discuss every issue calmly and rationally?

For the first ~20 years of my life, discussing things calmly and rationally was my goal. There's an issue, let's disinterestedly look at all the evidence and find the logical explanation or solution. If you're yelling or being aggressive or interrupting or whatever, stop it.

Over my 20s, I've seen the flaws in that:
1. "aggressive" is subjective, and in a lot of arenas, white people and men can get away with a lot of things that women and people of color can't. (other biases apply here too, but those are the most common.) Makes for an uneven debate playing field. (especially if you then pretend it's all even and rational!)
2. debating is slow. sometimes things don't change, or don't change fast enough, with calm reason and intellectual debate. I'd rather have angry arguments and a quick end to, say, slavery, than a slow and methodical and rational decision that makes everyone feel good.
3. rationality assumes disinterestedness: saying something is "just politics" is like saying it's "just sports" - that we can mostly ignore it. That I can like the Cavs and you can like the Warriors and who cares. That's a luxury some people don't have. (e.g. Black Lives Matter right now)
4. "objectivity" can be a facade: sometimes people hide behind the facade of "being objective" when they're really pushing some other thing (e.g. fox news)
5. debating isn't easy: sometimes debating something causes more problems than it solves. An example here is how much you question someone reporting a sexual assault or other traumatic event.
6. sometimes people are devil's advocate goons, like white guys saying "well, but thought experiment devil's advocate, what IF women frequently report that they got raped just to get attention?" Your "argument" isn't actually disinterestedly bringing new information to the table, you're just trying to discredit someone or provoke a response. Sometimes you're trying to provoke a forfeit: where someone says "geez, I can't deal with you anymore" and leaves, and then you strut around triumphant. It's kind of like DDOSing a server: if one man tries to argue that to one woman, they can calmly discuss it (maybe; see the previous point), but if 10 male college freshmen in a gender studies class try to argue it against one woman in the class, the woman may just be overwhelmed and out of time or emotional energy to deal with them all. (or worse: 1000 people on the internet!) Maybe this is the same point as #4.

2. Can we be friends with people who have some beliefs that are really bad?

"I know politics bore you, but I feel like a hypocrite talking to you and your racist friend." - the ever prescient Johns Linnell and Flansburgh of TMBG.

A friend on Facebook, who has some serious skin in the game, whose life would be made waaay worse if Trump were elected and did everything he said he would, said:
When I sometimes wander into other peoples' Facebook conversations about this election, I see a fair amount of sentiment along the lines of "Well, we can all agree to disagree about Trump or Clinton or whatever, but we're still friends and we still love each other." My question is: How is that fucking possible? Because I'm pretty certain that anyone voting for Trump is indicating that my life and the lives of many of my friends have no value to them. How could I possibly keep including that person in my life?
This is a more extreme version of #1. Not only can we not discuss something calmly, we can't even separate the person from the belief. And in some cases, we shouldn't. Some beliefs are so abhorrent that we oughta have some kind of punitive reaction to people holding them. It's rare and gently handled, though; maybe you practice some kind of collective conversational shunning whenever this problem comes up, and individually you privately tell the person that you feel this belief is really repugnant.

3. When should the answer to #1 and #2 be "yes", and when should it be "no"?

Put another way, what should be sacred, or what should be taboo? A good read: "Socially Enforced Thought Boundaries," by someone named Birguslatro (mildly difficult - they drop a "hermeneutic", but it's near the end so you can still get it even if "hermeneutic" loses you as it does me. btw, if you really understand what "hermeneutic" means, please explain it to me sometime.) Basically, we can debate about some things, but some things are so core to our existence that you can't even question them.

This is what John Lennon ran into when he offhandedly remarked that "we're bigger than Jesus." It was true, in a lot of metrics: more people were listening to the Beatles than going to church. And it wasn't meant to be inciting or arrogant; he wasn't saying "we should be bigger than Jesus" or "we're better than Jesus." He just poked one of the sacred taboos: don't compare yourself to Jesus at all.

Similarly, just heard a Reply All podcast about a guy who was pretty thoroughly exiled from his Orthodox Jewish community after he decided he wanted to read modern books and watch movies and didn't fully believe all the stuff they were telling him. It's rather heartbreaking. And just for violating some of the (many!) sacred things in his world.

OTOH, new movie coming out called Denial, about a holocaust denier and a public battle about how we can prove the holocaust ever happened. I think we all agree this guy (the denier) is an ass clown and shouldn't really be allowed to call a debate about this. "The holocaust happened" is pretty sacred.

The Birguslatro article I pointed to above argues that our set of universal sacrednesses should be minimal, unchanging, and relatively unconnected to your daily life. And methods to enforce them should be as minimal as possible. Sounds good to me.

So, "the holocaust happened" is sacred, but not "we shouldn't have invaded Iraq" or "police should wear body cameras" or "we need more bike lanes." We can debate all these things.

4. What's the trend in sacredness now?

I'm not real sure, but the number of things that are sacred seems to be growing. At least on my Facebook feed. People are getting fed up with debating to the point that, instead of arguing against something, they just dismiss it or violently protest it because it has broken a taboo. We're treating opposing views with ridicule or vitriol, not debate. An example: "I hope the concept of cultural appropriation is a passing fad", in which Lionel Shriver discusses a party where apparently everyone wore mini sombreros, and the reaction was official sanctions, expulsion from dorms, etc. Similarly, some dumb students somewhere protested because their cafeteria was serving "inauthentic" sushi. Isolated incidents, but they point to a growing circle of sacredness: arguments that are wrong before they've even been considered, people shut off, disproportionate and punitive responses.

N. N. Taleb shows how this can happen: "The Most Intolerant Wins - The Dictatorship Of The Small Minority." If you're short on time, skip towards the bottom to the chapter called "Popper's Paradox." An example is the Kosher food thing: people keeping Kosher is super rare these days, but stores will stock all kinds of Kosher things to cater to this 0.2% of the population, because, well, might as well supply 100% of people instead of 99.8%.

Taleb's a little cranky, and Shriver seems to miss a bit of history, I'll give you that. It'd be different, for example, if there weren't a publishing industry full of editors telling POC authors that their characters "aren't relatable" (because they aren't white) and then here goes the white author getting published writing black characters. But these are changes that need to happen within the publishing industry (and meanwhile reported out to the wider world), not by getting the whole world together to publicly shame someone who wrote a black character badly. And it's tough these days to distinguish between Islam-we-should-tolerate and Islam-we-shouldn't.

Every Muslim I know, Rumi, Sufism, and moderate Islam are in the first camp. Osama bin Laden, the Saudi government, Salafism, and Wahhabism are in the second camp. But... the stuff in between is actually tricky! Where's the line between allowing women to wear burkas because they want to, and making sure they're not being coerced into doing so? Is there actually something different and more dangerous about Islam, at its core, than Christianity or Buddhism or Jainism, as Sam Harris argues? But we've got to be able to discuss these things. As a society, and as individuals.

5. So to answer questions #1 and #2, yes, mostly.

We can calmly discuss most things and should do so more than we have been. We can mostly be friends with most people who hold most other opinions, even if those are really crummy, unless they breach our taboos (and even then, we can let them know how much of a dick they're being).

I guess I'm asking, if you can: reduce your sacrednesses and drop your taboos, and be kinder to people who break them.

Oh my gosh do not stop reading now if you have read this far you gotta read part 6.

6. But hold up, you gotta be careful.

My answer in part 5 is not a license for you to commit errors-of-rationality 1-6 above.
1. Listen. Do not ignore the slantedness of your playing field! Don't talk over women or tell them they're being too pushy. Don't assume you know what other people's experience is, or what should and shouldn't offend them. Listen.
2. Know when something is serious enough you've got to abandon the slow, rational track.
3. Realize that you might be discussing something that's "just a game" to you, but isn't "just a game" to them. Realize that might make them defensive. Their defensiveness doesn't mean you "win."
4. If you're interested in the outcome, check yourself before you start an argument. When you say "I'm just trying to be objective," do you mean "I'm just trying to get you to agree that I'm right"? Also check yourself if you feel good while you're arguing; that little nugget of tasty rage-adrenaline sprinkled with righteousness might be poisoning your whole 
5. If you want to debate something and the other person doesn't want to, consider that that might be ok. Especially if you know they've been through this before: they might just be tired of it. Also: someone else's refusal to engage does not mean you "win."
6. Ask permission before playing devil's advocate. Not saying it's a necessarily bad technique for arriving at the truth, but consider it a warning sign when the words "devil's advocate" leave your mouth: you might be just being a dick.

(Six rules may be too many. Particularly, 3 and 5 might be the same, and 4 and 6 might be the same. But even if four rules is too many, I could boil this down to 2: 1. Listen, 2. when you're debating, you either both win or you both lose.)

After all, The enemy isn't leftism or social justice. The enemy is epistemic vice. (and conservatives, if you've given up on my blog, maybe try this; yes he's endorsing not-Trump, but in the goal of a healthy conservative branch long-term.) Skip to the end, part VIII. Epistemology is how we know what we know; epistemic vice is abdicating responsibility for critical thinking.

"The long range plan has to combine a short-term need to neutralize immediate would-be tyrants with a long-term need to slowly encourage epistemic virtue so that we don’t have to keep putting out fires."

7. What do I do about Facebook?
I've been running a little experiment to see what it is about News feed that bothers me. Maybe I should keep Newsfeed but unfollow certain folks. That's not real satisfying. Maybe I'll try the "see less like this" and trust the algorithm to sort it out?
Thing is, I'm planning on keeping Twitter, and probably Reddit and Feedly for that matter. I guess I've just curated them better? And I kept people on Facebook for the diversity-of-thought angle, but now I'm thinking the harm done by encouraging me to get out the rage cannon has undone the openness that might come from understanding different people. Little blips of text and pictures don't help you understand people very well, anyway.

Footnote 1: by the way, if you haven't, this would be a good time to read I can tolerate anything except the outgroup. One of the few rando-internet-posts that's brilliant enough to keep linking people to.
Footnote 2: thanks to Chris Stucchio for pointing me to a lot of these links.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

More pieces of thoughts from notebooks

It's easiest to get along with someone when you're going through the same challenges. I guess this is just a rephrasing of "the best way to make friends is to suffer together."

There's an "investment" in academia that's nicer than "just a job." Grad school is all us going through this same grand challenge. I get why people want to stay in it. I suppose the thing to do is get a job that lets you feel that way too.

You can never thank everyone as much as you want.

Offloading mental work to parts of the brain that are good at things. This is a whole topic. I was thinking about it in the context of emotional regulation, but then just heard about it on a podcast: a memory expert talking about how he memorizes decks of cards by associating each with a famous person, and then telling stories about all the people. Way easier than trying to straight-up memorize letters and numbers. (and different than the old trick of chunking, which also helps.)
But back to emotional regulation: one thing I've learned (from therapists, mostly) is that it's important to be gentle and kind to all the people in your head. I'm not talking about multiple personality disorder, or tulpas, just the common thing where you have lots of sometimes-conflicting thoughts in there. But I'm calling all those thoughts/voices "people", because they're all just versions of yourself at different times. And we're good at being kind to people and incorporating them into a group; we're less good at incorporating facts and opinions. (and we're not often kind to ourselves.)

The problem about rules changing is when they exclude more people. Rise above tribalism. More on this maybe, if I can form my swirling thoughts into a coherent narrative.

We used to tell kids "follow your dreams! you can be anything you want!" That's a little bit true but also very misleading and not at all the thing I'm going to tell my kids. Some things that are true:
- you can maybe be anything. You cannot be everything. You've got to narrow it down. But narrowing it down is hard because:
- some things will not work, due to inherent limitations (short NBA star, etc.)
- some things will not ever fit your passion. You don't know this until you try. Imagine your passion as a little puppy, and you're trying to figure out what this puppy likes.
- some things will fit your passion, but later. It's a puppy, not a big dog; it'll change over time.
Passion does exist! But it's a thing you grow and actively discover, not a thing you decide or passively discover.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

the internet: bringing us together and pushing us apart since Jan 1, 1970

Some things that are on my mind:
Chris Arnade's tweets - I don't know who this guy is, just stumbled on his posts, and couldn't stop reading. I guess here's a decent starter. He's a reporter who used to live in the "front row" (wall street) and now travels among the "back row" (small cities throughout non-coastal America).
An interview with Will MacAskill - guy behind 80,000 hours and Giving What We Can and philosophy prof. You don't have to listen to all of it (it's long) but you should (it's great) - the one point that's relevant to this post was about tribalism (especially in election season). Why should your view on abortion have anything to do with your economic policy?

With that context, sleepy and trying to wake up, I opened Facebook. Came across a post by a family member (keepin' this all super vague b/c public blog and don't wanna embarrass anyone I guess) expressing regret over some recent riots that came out of a vigil for a black guy killed by police. Other family (some close, some less close) jumped on, "yeah it's so sad," "violence is not the way," etc. And I found my mind doing a couple things:
1. assuming that those family members were all therefore invalidating the struggle of black people to not get killed
2. getting angry because black people are getting killed!
3. spiraling into rage, thinking about my other friends who are posting about black people being killed
4. writing off my family members' opinions because they're so sheltered in their white middle class lives or something

and... that's mostly ridiculous, to say the least:
1. man, who knows! I know that some of the family involved (again, staying super vague) care, and get it, about black people getting killed. posting about riots (happening in a place they're living) doesn't mean they don't believe protests are justified.
2. ok, this is not ridiculous
3. ... but this is silly. I'm getting a daily dose of anger fuel without doing anything about it. Like, I see posts running the gamut from "black people are getting killed, that is bad" -> "holy cow this is actually really bad" -> "if you disagree, you are wrong" -> "if you disagree, you are bad" -> "if you even less-than-fully-agree, you are bad". The later steps are usually said through sarcasm, not outright. Somewhere between "holy cow this is actually really bad" and "if you disagree, you are bad", this stops being useful and starts being tribalism.
4. oh gosh! first of all, I'm living in the biggest bubble city there is. I guess I see more poor and not-white people on a daily basis than they do, but I can't say I interact meaningfully. Second of all, what good is it to close yourself off from someone you disagree with? Third, I mean, these are family relationships, too, and those are important, and yeah you can disagree with someone's politics without writing them off as a person, but it's hard when you're in the "if you disagree, you are bad" mental state.

The result of all this is that I'm angry, and feeling closed off from family members. (and nothing has happened to help stop black people getting killed by police.) Maybe, looking at this real optimistic-like, I should focus on this as a practice opportunity to:
- remember not to take anyone beyond their word - if you say "riots are bad" it doesn't mean "the thing that caused their riots isn't bad"
- not close off, in case people do disagree with me
- love my family despite disagreeing with them sometimes

Well, at least I'm awake.

EDIT: to be clear, I didn't mean this post to be about the riots or police violence at all. I was trying to say more something like "Facebook surfaces the angriest views on anything to me, which changes my reactions enough that I'm unable to even relate to people normally; this is frustrating" and "I wish I could read my friends' news in a way that doesn't bathe me in anger." To be further clear, my points #1-4 above (the first time I talk about them) are mostly wrong, and I referenced them all again a second time to disprove them all. Anyway, if this post makes you want to discuss anything about riots or police violence, then sure, let's do so, but I don't mean to be taking any particular stand here. (well, ok, I guess I'm taking the stand that black people getting killed unjustly by police is bad. but that's hardly a stand.)

also: I was trying to anonymize everyone, and I'm pretty sure I succeeded in anonymizing it enough that an internet rando couldn't google the people involved, but obviously didn't anonymize it to the people involved (or people who know the people involved, or who also got the shared facebook post.) I'm not real sure how to do this. I could say "I saw a post from a person about an event, and it made me think ____" but then it's like reading math: so abstract it's hard to tell what's even going on. not good reading, anyway. Also, when I say "some family members", the wrong family members might think it's them. Open to suggestions on how to do this better.

also also: who am I writing for here? good question. first of all, me. there's a reason I hardly ever try to publicize this blog (and start all sorts of new ones for sub-audiences). I guess (and this is an unintentional thing I'm only now realizing) second of all might be pretty close friends and pretty close family? folks who know me and my context and life and might be interested in ramblings?
It's the kind of thing where it'd be nice if all my close peers were around a lot and I could process my feelings through them, but now we live all over the place.
And I want it to be super opt-in-whenever; like I don't want to facebook push it to you, but if you want to go check a blog, go ahead.
But it does leave me with a super uncertain audience, which means I'm sometimes not sure about who I can talk to about what. Eh.

(thanks to my mom for an interesting conversation about all this)

Anyway, if anything I say makes you feel bad in any way, or if it seems like a thinly veiled dig at you behind your back, let me know, let's talk it out.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

A bunch of small thoughts from an old notebook

1. Listen to the "autism isn't what I signed up for" episode if Death, Sex, and Money podcast. Oh god! That's the most terrifying thing I've heard recently (b/c possibility times harm is really high).

2. Apparently there are people who pretend to be soldiers, wear combat gear, etc, just around town to get discounts, praise, etc. Uh, OK. And apparently there are people who like to find these people and discover that they're lying and publicly and loudly embarrass them. Again, uh, OK. They call their crusade "Stolen Valor." Predictably, sometimes they're wrong, and they just make a scene screaming at some poor old guy who couldn't answer their impromptu inquisition to their satisfaction.

I guess this is a perfect example of all kinds of terribleness that happens on the internet, ostensibly for a noble cause, but in reality caused by people's love of feeling superior and casting out the infidel.

3. Is there something to intermittent fasting? For general health and living longer because your body cleans up all the nasty damaged pre pre pre cancerous cells?

4. I just have one sentence written down and I forget the context: "the political discourse is more dangerous than ISIS." Upon reflection... Yeah, I can see that. Like if you pull some trick to get elected but then it also lessens public trust in government, and then we fail to pass a carbon tax or something. Like, if you're trying to drive a car a thousand miles, the most dangerous thing that can happen isn't a bumpy road, it's if you let your engine degrade. Eh, this requires some kind of large scale thinking to look at relative risks of various large problems. Gosh, wish I knew someone who did that :P

5. "You have to do a hard thing in your 20s. Grad school was/is OK for me I guess." - tongue in cheek, but like, one of the real upsides of grad school is I know I've been challenging myself and haven't wasted the last 5 years, career wise.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

A travel and embroidery project 5 years in the making

Over the past 5 years, I've been lucky enough to take 3 more-than-a-month trips to some pretty neat parts of the world. 2011-2012, while waiting for grad school to start, I took off to India (and Cambodia and Singapore and Australia/NZ), came back to the states for a month, then went to Eastern Europe (and some Western too). 2016, after Tati and I got married, we went to central-western China.

Each time, I brought one button-down shirt. They tended to be khaki-colored, which is partially just coincidence and partially because I want to be Indiana Jones. Each time, by the end of the trip, after I wore it for 50+ days, that shirt was pretty beat up. For some reason, I still saved them. And here's why: I had this idea to stitch the routes I took onto them. Finally I got around to doing it.


India, plus Cambodia and NZ. In Singapore and Australia, I was just in a couple cities for a few days, so they're not as interesting to map. Blue is flights, green is ground travel. Only two flights here, from Kathmandu to Paro and Trivandrum to Bangalore; I try to stay on the ground as much as possible.

The countries I went to in Europe. Had to add another color for this: red is travel on my own two wheels. (125cc Aprilia Leonardo scooter, in this case.) Maybe should have redone my NZ trip with the bicycle trip, across the center of the South Island, in red; too late now.

Technically cheating with this shirt, b/c the India one made it as far as Lublin, Poland, and then I bought this shirt there. And this shirt then survived back to the US and I wore it sometimes here. But it's already complicated enough :P

No two-wheeling in China. But luckily, no flights either. There is a lot of China, and we saw only a slice of Yunnan, Sichuan, Qinghai, and Gansu. Kinda like if you went to the US and stayed in the Mountain time zone.

Things I learned:
"Embroidery" just means sewing decorative things. (Thanks to my friends Erin and Iris for some tips on the process btw!)
Stitching across pockets is hard.
A "Transfer pen" is a thing you can use to draw on fabric then stitch over it and easily wash it out. Here's the one I used.
There is "embroidery thread" that would have made these lines a little thicker and prettier. Whoops.
Every project about your own travels is pretty navel-gazey unless you're Paul Theroux or Pico Iyer. I'm fine with that.
We have a nice frame shop in the Mission at 20th and Valencia where you can get nice premade frames.
I can be an artist in my spare time. That is both possible and ok. Furthermore, I can call myself an artist regardless of how much art I make or how good it is. Doesn't mean I'm claiming I'm as cool as most artists, just means "I make art sometimes."
Being Done with a capital D with a long project feels good.
Being Done with a project that feels really awesome, that has personal history and meaning embedded within it, feels extra good.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

Avoid Brazil (The Movie)

Another half formed post, but if I wait until everything is perfect I will never blog.

If we talk a lot, you probably know that the dystopia I fear the most is Brazil. (The movie, I mean.)

1984: we kinda figured out how not to have that one for the most part. (granted, parts of it keep showing up, Snowdenleaks and all, but the whole vision is unlikely.) (we can debate this I suppose but the point is

Brave New World: again, we got parts of it, but I feel like we're getting better at non-eugenics, and nobody I know makes me think we're likely to drug ourselves into unthinking oblivion. (If you think we're doing that: name *a person* who you think is doing that. people like to say we're doing this in a society-as-a-whole level, but when you try to find it in individuals, it's difficult. I am optimistic about individuals.)

Terrorists Win: again, unlikely. (even though the danger from terrorists is not the suicide bombers who kill 3 people a week, or the 9/11ers who kill 3000 people once a decade, it's the terrorists who steal a nuke and kill 3 million people once a century. is this a more hedged view than I've had before, which was essentially "do not worry about terrorism At All"? yes. have you figured out how to change my mind on anything at all? yep: get Scott Alexander to blog about it. but I digress.)

The Matrix or Skynet or Paperclip Maximizers: now, this one is more likely than any of the above! But I'm not very good at figuring out small probabilities over large time frames, and multiplying by the harm caused by each of them. So I will simply say that this maybe should get bumped up my queue, but in the meantime I figure it's still not as likely as...

Brazil, though: the bureaucracy dystopia. The system that Squashes You. (maybe because of a typo on some form somewhere.) Here's an example, an account of a harrowing Heathrow deportation experience. (tl;dr: someone was going to give a perfectly legit talk at a perfectly legit conference, and said so at immigration, but for whatever reason, UK officials turned her away. This is not just an annoyance, it is a really distressing 48-hour-or-so experience.)

Likelihood of Brazil: AFAICT, 100%. I mean, this future is already here. (It's just unevenly distributed.) The richer (and whiter and maler) you are, the more you can opt out of some of the Systems, but still, every so often, one will squash you.
Likelihood of Brazil getting worse: 98%? I mean, we keep doing more Machine Learning to categorize everyone every day. More, more complicated systems, which each have a 2% false positive rate, but 2% of Everyone is a huge number of people getting hosed by each one. (and it's a non-independent 2%.)
Problems of Brazil: are obvious I think - esp if you're a Muslim flying on a plane or a black person stopped by police or whatever. TODO: more detail here.
Problems of Brazil even if you're a richwhiteman: it just narrows your universe. I mean, Ahmed Mohamed, the kid who made a clock - you can't even make a clock and bring it to school anymore. You can't wear funny clothes and fly on a plane. You can't take risks with your money, start a business or something, if you want to buy a house someday.

What can we do about it? I don't really know. Like, some of the work going on with making your algorithms not profile people is a nice start, but there will always be false positives. Make sure your System has a solid (quick, easy) appeal process?

What exactly do I mean by Brazil? TODO: more detail here too. Roughly: complicated systems with false positives?

And this is even leaving out the stuff that's not really one system squashing you, but a bunch of systems letting you fall through the cracks. Rents rising, can't make ends meet, etc. (Pittsburgh! Not SF. Kinda just wanted to highlight another great article from my friend Margaret.)

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Weird mornings on Market St, part N

Parked my bike outside Equator Coffee by 5th and Market. Locked it and got a seat looking out the window so I could watch it in case someone was trying to steal it. Lo and behold, not 5 minutes after I sat down, a couple guys were standing around it, eyeing it suspiciously. I was trying not to Nextdoor* them, but I started making eye contact, and they were like "is this your bike?"

*racially profile

Turns out the one guy had his bike seat stolen, and it was a black and white Novara seat. My seat is a black and white Novara seat, on a not-Novara bike. It's probably a $10 seat, that I got from my friends Iris and Jim in Pittsburgh because Jim had taken it off his bike. Then, when I bought my bike, it had a leather saddle, which is cool but doesn't do well in the rain, so I took it off my bike and put on this Novara seat. So, weird story, and he was convinced I had either stolen his seat or bought it off a guy.

Dude calls cops. Ok, I got nowhere to be, I can wait for the cops. But A. cops are going to take forever to show up for a small bike part theft (and I don't blame em, really) and B. how the hell am I even going to prove it's my seat? I start texting Iris, who can back me up, I guess. I mean, it's better proof than this guy has.

And like, I don't even care about this seat! But the cops are called. And his story checks out; he has another bike seat with him; says he was going to put it on my bike, so at least I've got a seat. I'm eyeing his extra bike seat, which is also worth about $10, and I'm like "want to just trade?"

So we do. Go down to a local shop, borrow some tools, trade the seats, and we're all happy. Hell, his new one (plain black) looks better than my old black and white one, on my bike, anyway. I'm pretty sure he's actually legit, despite my first inclinations with randos on Market St, because if he's running a scam it's the weirdest/dumbest scam of all time.

Strange morning. Anyway, counter-story to the typical Market St Rando story: not everyone is a terrible bike thief? Sometimes a guy who has some crazy story about his bike seat is actually telling the truth? I'm not sure what to learn about this, except that I feel like I did a Good Deed, and that feels good?

Saturday, August 13, 2016

On being a taker

Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, is this book where a telepathic gorilla (Ishmael) explains the history of humanity. One crucial point happens around the introduction of agriculture. You've got everyone running around, nomadic hunting-gathering, and then some people figure out how to grow and store food, and this split happens. Some people settle down and grow crops; Ishmael calls them "takers." Some people keep hunting-gathering and nomading, Ishmael calls them "leavers." The leavers really have better lives: they eat healthier food, live longer, live in the moment and don't worry so much, don't have issues of hierarchy or power. But the takers are better able to survive as a society, live through famines, make weapons, so slowly the nomads are forced out of their land and die off, and nowadays 99.9% of people are descendants of the takers.

Importantly, Ishmael means the words "taker" and "leaver" to be value neutral. He could have called them group A and group B, but that implies one is "first." He's just trying to say, here are two groups, they differ in this one big way. (Still seems a little loaded to me but I'm going to run with the terms anyway.)

Now, modern day. Obviously we're not choosing to use agriculture or not. But I feel like we do still have a basic choice in life: to take or leave the deal that's been handed to us. Taking tends to include some variety of a career, family, "normal American life." Leaving has all kinds of forms: traveling full time, starting your own business (outside the VC world), becoming a monk, whatever. (Of course, there are degrees to this too, and you can Take in some ways and Leave in others. Plus, it all depends on your upbringing; if you grow up a monk, then staying a monk would be taking, I guess.)

Now I'm 30, and I've decided, slowly over ~10 years, that I'm a taker. This isn't something I necessarily expected; sometimes I thought I'd be a full time traveler or move to Nepal, sometimes I thought I might not ever get married, and I had (still have!) a running understanding with my friend Ram that one of us may one day drop everything and go live in a cave on a mountain. But taking is the best thing for me now.

And it's not a decision that happens quickly; it's a series of slow decisions that I've all consciously decided. Yeah, I'll be happiest and most helpful if I join the corporate world, after a stint in the academic one. Definitely married, and with that, gonna have a family. Not going to be a monk. Not even going to be a full time artist.

Respect to the leavers! If anything, I find leavers cooler than takers. If you can make your own separate peace, whether that's through punk zines or religion or hippie communes whatever else, and you're not hurting anyone, power to you.

But respect to the takers too. My skills, abilities, and preferences mean I'm probably going to do better taking than leaving. And taking doesn't mean I'm cool with the world overall; there are many (many!) systemic problems. But for my individual self and life, I've got to decide to take it or leave it, and I'm taking it.

(Perhaps the most interesting point in this, to me, is that I felt compelled to write it. Like I've got to justify why I'm a taker when I think leavers are cool and the world is full of big problems.)

Friday, August 12, 2016

A couple logistickey things about costs and gear

Costs of some things:

A double hotel room, not fancy but clean, usually with bathroom, in a not-dumb location: $20 (small towns) to $40 (big cities)
Hostel bed: $4-15 (the low end can be pretty dank (as in socks, not as in memes))

Meal of noodles, baozi, dumplings, or something else at a little joint on the street: $1-2
Meal at a sit down restaurant with a menu: $4-8
Hot pot or other fancy meal for two: $20-30
Watery Chinese beer: $1.50-2.50. But at a bar it's not just "buy yourself a beer"; you buy like 6 or 12 for table then drink shots of it. You may drink a lot of beer quickly, but it's probably OK because a lot of the beers are 3% ABV.
German or Belgian beer in a fancy bar: $5-8, and then you sit there with one beer for yourself you selfish antisocial goober
Tea: you usually can't even buy this, it comes with the meals and is green and weak.
Tea at a teahouse: $2-3. Yesterday I tried to buy tea with fruit and sugar at an outside teahouse and she said "yi bei, er shi", which means "one cup, ¥20 (about $3)." But I thought she said "yi bai er shi" which means "¥120 (about $20)." So I made a face and said how that's too expensive and got a beer instead. I'm wondering what she thought of the whole thing.
Coffee: $4-7 (or $33 at that bizarro-world drug front coffee shop we ran into) By the way, the best coffee shops in Western China, based on my extensive survey, are Xiangcheng Coffee in Shangri-la, Greenhouse Coffee in Xining, and Let's Grind in Chengdu.

Entrance fees: significant! Yading and Kanbula were both $40. Lots of others for things like Yubeng, Zhangye Danxia, the pandas in Chengdu, Songzanglin monastery in Shangri-la, that Qinghai Lake tourist trap, and some frickin' gorge in the middle of nowhere outside Xiahe where some goons set up a ticket booth were in the $10-15 range. I mean, they've got you over a little bit of a barrel because it's clearly worth it, but be sure to budget for these.

All day bus (e.g. Chengdu to Zoige, or Shangri-la to Daocheng): $20
21-hour train, hard sleeper (which is not "hard", really, it just means that there are 3 bunks, not 2): $45
2 hour express train: $15
Hiring a car and driver for a day: $70-100
Gas: $6/gallon

A nice thermos: $15
A nice scarf: $15
Cheap baijiu (liquor): $1 for a 6-oz bottle with a beer bottle cap
Expensive baijiu (Moutai is the one brand I know): $200 for a big bottle
Cheap Pu-erh tea: $0.15 for a one-serving rock
Expensive Pu-erh tea: remember those old ads for K'nex? "If you can imagine it, you can build it"? Well, if you can imagine it, you can pay it for Pu-erh tea.
Is Pu-erh tea really The Best? I mean, up to you, but sure, in the way that caviar is The Best but so is peanut butter.
Clothes: not way cheaper than the US. You could pay $20 for a shirt or pair of pants that are probably like a step down from Gap. You can get amazing sayings on it though, so point, China.

Some more thoughts about gear:

Phone: we are clearly in the age of the smartphone. (This is not a given. 5 years ago we were not.) So glad I didn't bring a computer.

Coats: if you're going to China in July and August, you don't need two down layers. I still like my current plan of rain jacket shell + down jacket + down vest for when it's really cold, but God it was 80 degrees for 90% of this trip, I really could have skipped the vest.

Toiletries: I thought I was really clever by packing one toothpaste for the both of us. Guys, don't do dumb micro-optimizations like this. Just bring two lil' toothpastes.
I brought one 4oz and one 2oz bottle of contact solution (ssh, don't tell the TSA). That was the perfect amount. Or really, the perfect amount is, get Lasik like Tati and bring no contacts.

Oh my god Towels. Maybe bring a towel? For the first half of the trip we mostly got towels included; the second half, I often didn't. It should be a law that a guesthouse gives you a towel: look, guys, you launder your sheets, just launder towels too. There's no way I should have to carry this. But anyway, especially if you're super-budgeting it, maybe bring one of those REI-ish super-towels.

Socks: I'm finally kinda happy with the Smartwool PhD like quarter-length socks. They still make my feet too hot but not wayyy too hot so that's nice. It might be just finally going shorter than crew-length. Added bonus: they pack smaller.

Amount of clothes: I'm updating my recommendations to 3 T-shirts and 4 pairs of socks. Socks are so small and sometimes you really need new ones. Shirts, you don't need new ones as badly. (also, 2 pairs of pants, one button-down shirt, 2-3 underwears, and whatever coats you need. these numbers all include the one you wear on the plane.)

Shoes: Got these Salomon something something light hiking shoes that are waterproof and breathable and blah blah but what I really dig is that they have this drawstring doober instead of laces! I can very easily leave them loose and very easily tighten or loosen them. Never tying anything again. Love it.

Vacuum packing bag: I finally tried one. I think it saved me space? It's kinda neat? It also takes up a little space itself? The jury's out.

Kindle: wow, when I have infinite podcasts and infinite Ascension (video game) it turns out I read zero. Welp.

Chinese Phrasebook: didn't actually need this - Google Translate has it covered, and even when it makes you say something that doesn't really make sense, it still kinda makes sense.

Medicines you might need: only bring a bunch of medicines if you'll be real rural. If you get sick in a city, worry not, just go into the pharmacy and describe stuff (Google translatin' like a boss), and they'll hand you three drugs: one will be western-looking (maybe even a name you recognize), one will look like Skittles and have plants on the box, and the third one's a wild card, could be Western or plant skittles. Take 'em all as the pharmacist says (they'll cost $6 total), and something will work. Not sure which.

Plug adapters: you probably don't even need these! Every Chinese plug I saw can take the standard American two-pronged plug (in addition to others). If something has a 3-pronged plug, then bring a 3-to-2 adapter, but you're probably only bringing plugs for your phone so you'll probably be fine.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Let's talk about Chinese food more

Someone asked me "what's your favorite Chinese food" and I was really kind of puzzled. What IS it? Like, maybe baozi (steamed buns)? But that's so unfair to lots of way more interesting foods. I hate picking favorites; I want to eat every food.

They were also talking to me about the "northerners eat noodles, southerners eat rice" thing, and I realized, oh yeah, I _have_ been noticing way more noodle joints (and wonton, and dumpling, and baozi) since getting north of Chengdu. Anyway, point to the Northerners; nothing against rice, but they make some amazing noodley things.

Speaking of which: short history of some noodles. So Lanzhou, Gansu became known for its Muslim beef noodles, or niu rou mian. This is fine. However, in nearby Qinghai, there was an area called Hualong, which used to make a bunch of guns. (They started making guns a few decades ago, when Mao and his revolutionaries sent all the gun makers out to this faraway place because they didn't want gun makers all over the place.) But then they started sending guns to criminals (because, who wants guns?) so the new government wanted to get Hualong some other industry. So they started training them to make niu rou mian. Clearly, not quite as well as the Lanzhou folks, but whatever; the industry flourished and they started exporting niu rou mian shops around the country, and now most niu rou mian is second-rate knockoff Hualong stuff. I met a reporter named Chris who's doing a story about this and other intricacies that come in when you dig into the noodle world; fascinating stuff. (And Chris, sorry if I messed up details here. Readers, I'll try to remember to come back here and link to his full story when it's published in a few months if I can remember.)

Folks in Gansu/Qinghai have a way of making lamb. I think it's a Hui (roughly, Chinese Muslim but not Uighur) thing. On menus I've seen it something like "boiled lamb" ... which sounds terrible, but it's really good. More for tenderness than taste - but you can add flavor by dipping it in these spices that are also really good.

Aged vinegar is a thing I haven't noted much about yet. It's everywhere. There's always a thing of red pepper and a thing of aged vinegar on the table. This is awesome. It's savory and tangy and good on just about everything.

Tibetan food gets dumped on a lot, and it's true, I wouldn't rank it among the world's great cuisines. But they've got a few high points. A lot of them are the breads. Not only the qing ke bing (highland barley cake) that Tati and I have grown to love, but also just a bunch of different breads that probably have names that I don't know. They're great kinda in the way that naan or pita is great, not like French or Italian or German bread.

Fuqifeipian, or "Husband and wife lung slices", named after a husband and wife who used to sell lung slices. (luckily, not their own.) Now it tends to be all sorts of organ meats, spicy Sichuan style. Totally great.

Another standout: liang pi, or a cold noodley thing. I'm not sure quite what it is besides kinda chewy wide noodles that are cold and spicy. (About time; everything else here is piping hot.)

Let me know if there's any iconic Sichuan dishes I ought to be cooking or trying. (or Gansu, Qinghai, Yunnan, or Tibetan, really, but I'm going to be focusing on Sichuan.)

Monday, August 08, 2016

What's up in Xining

Xining is neat. It's ~2 million people, putting it on par with Pittsburgh or Cleveland (metro). So, tiny by Chinese standards. Here's a mash of thoughts about it and areas or things I liked:

The Tibetan Medicine Museum. I found this way more interesting than the average museum, for two reasons:

1. all these old medical and astronomical charts. When it comes to writing stuff down, Tibet goes big, not home. So they try to codify everything they know about medicine, and it's 60 volumes, 78 chapters, 60 million words. I mean, and we're not even getting into their religious stuff. This kind of baffles me - how is the rest of the world not all bowing down to their medical knowledge superiority? I'm assuming, with my casual built-in Western chauvinism, that maybe _some_ of those 60 million words are unnecessary. Like, maybe in Tibetan medicine, conciseness is just not a virtue, so if you write the same thing in chapter 71 that someone else wrote in chapter 32, no worries. More darkly, maybe it's an academia syndrome, where all those monks had to do something to prove that they're smart and not wasting time, so they just kept writing. I'm harsh on them because I've been frustrated by their religious writings too; if it takes 100 billion words to understand existence and your mind, then might as well give up. Isn't there a faster track to it? But I digress. It's neat to see.
 This is one book! It's about 6 feet across and 2 feet tall.

Tibetan skeletons: even creepier than Western ones

Here's the 60 volume compilation.

2. The Giant Thangka (Tibetan painting). This thangka, the world's longest, is literally 600 meters long. They say it contains all the history of Tibet, and as I walked along I was like, ok, first king, second king, etc, 27th king, cool, now here's Buddha, ok, life of Buddha, ok, ... and then I figured they'd get into the Dalai Lamas or something. Nope! Way off the rails! There's about 400 meters of various deity-looking creatures with names like Abhiyatsangkhavidayachakra who has 28 arms and is stomping on babies while breathing fire. Interspersed with some abstract diagrams that say something like "the deity of universal truth" but look like an intricate Parcheesi board. Remember how Tibetans aren't known for conciseness? They go big, not home, and I can admire that. (though I'm glad I don't have to study it!)

Xining is close to the outdoors so you can go to Qinghai Lake or Kanbula or all sorts of other
beautiful spots, that's cool.

You know how Pittsburgh is 2 or 3 million people and all single-family homes? Xining is all high-rises and mid-rises. Even as a small city. I appreciate that. Still doesn't feel crowded!

My view

It's moderately easy to get around. Moderately. It's got only buses, no subway, and is occasionally really pedestrian-hostile. Like, instead of a crosswalk they'll have a bridge over the road. Or a terrible mazelike underpass! To say nothing of the cars who do not give a good goddamn. And guess what: traffic's still bad! But it's small enough that I can walk to most places I want to go.

Xiadu Dajie. This street is just one after another, cool bar or coffee shop. I could live on this street. (and some days, kinda did.)

Wenhua Jie and nearby, it looks like, north of Dong Dajie, is where more people go out though. It's funny, bars and cafes are all clustered in bar/cafe areas.

I'm near Mojia Jie, which is I guess a "market street"? But we're in China, so this doesn't seem to distinguish it from a lot of other streets. Eh, it's central anyway.

I'd give more info about the place, but who here is going to Xining, anyway? Eh, hit me up if you are, I'll dish on where to get a good baozi or the best gin and tonic I've ever had (surprisingly enough).

The parks are cool. Central Park has a bunch of people dancing in different ways. Xining's People's Park has nothing on Chengdu's People's Park: Xining's is half amusement park and gaudy tchotchke shops.

If you're around here and you think you hear bombs or gunshots, don't worry, it's just someone setting off fireworks to commemorate their new store opening or something. Loud as nuts, though.

Woof, and it's hot. Mid to high 80s and sunny all week. Drier than Chengdu though.

I feel this trip winding down: I have kinda one last jaunt of traveling: one day in Zhangye, one day in Lanzhou, one day on a train, like half a day in Chengdu, and back to home! It's nice to alternate some moving fast with some sticking around in the same place. And it's all easy from here: see a couple tourist sites, eat some Lanzhou beef noodles, run around Chengdu for a day, hop on a dumb flight back. (via Paris. No, that is not the quickest way back. So it goes.)

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Some Helpful Tips for Traveling in Western China

(Particularly Kham and Amdo, where we've spent most of our time, aka parts of Yunnan Sichuan Gansu and Qinghai)
(also feedback is welcome, help me fill this out)

Where I've been and am most qualified to give advice about: Kunming, Lijiang, Tiger Leaping Gorge, Feilai si, Shangri-la/Zhongdian, Yubeng, Daocheng, Yading, Litang, Kangding, Chengdu, Langmusi, Xiahe/Labrang, Tongren/Rebkong/Rongwo, Xining, Kanbula, Zhangye, Lanzhou

Learn Chinese! This trip was more language-intensive than I think anywhere else I've been. If you're in Germany, say, everyone knows English. In a place like Korea, a lot of signs are English and you can usually app your way around. But China's a mega culture of its own, and while there's a lot of English signage, and many English speakers, I think it'd be really hard without knowing any Chinese.
I did Pimsleur lessons 1-90, which were mostly good. Practice listening and speaking is crucial, because it's what you'll do the most. Their context is kind of dumb - they always assume you're an American businessman in China to do business - but it's maybe 2/3 useful and 1/3 business fluff. I also tried this app Skrittr, which was good for learning characters - not as crucial as the speaking, but very useful to at least be able to identify maybe 50 or 100 characters.

Phone: get a phone! Or, a sim card. Or, get Project Fi which has reasonable prices overseas. (Maybe t mobile too?) This seems really essential. A common occurrence:
Me: huh, I'm at the address of the guesthouse, or at least close, where is it?
(Calls guesthouse, lots of Chinese ensues, which I don't understand, but I manage to say where I am)
(5 minutes pass)
Someone from the guesthouse: oh hi! Are you Mr. Dan? (Shows me phone convo record to authenticate himself) follow me!
(We go around a corner, into an alley, up an elevator, across a way, up another elevator to the 32nd floor, into someone's apartment that has been converted into a guesthouse.)
Seriously. Things are not so walk-in here.

Blogs:
The Land of Snows http://www.thelandofsnows.com
The Adventures of Jonas https://jcrimm.wordpress.com
These two are the two best English sources I've found for the whole region. Especially Land of Snows - everyone reads it, and Lobsang, the writer, can even answer questions if you email him. Jonas is more under the radar, but has lived in the area for a long time and writes really great bits about places to get you excited about places you didn't know much.
Other solid blogs that have helped me here and there:
China Nomads http://www.chinanomads.com
To Go Back https://togoback.wordpress.com
Bamboo Compass http://www.bamboocompass.com

ATMs: I think the only ones that work with foreign cards are Bank of China, ICBC, and China Construction Bank. ATMs from these big 3 are in all big, medium, and small cities, but not very-small cities. So Feilai si, Yubeng, Litang, and Langmusi were lacking them, the rest had them.

Apps:
WeChat (it's the Chinese SMS, WhatsApp, and Facebook. Everyone is on it. Easier than phoning even.)
Ctrip (for booking trains)
Booking.com (for hotels, better than Ctrip's selection)
Airbnb (it's getting pretty popular; often guesthouses just use it to advertise, but whatever, you found a place to sleep.)
Uber (works here! even better: if you have the Chinese characters for where you're going, you can copy paste them into the Uber app, and then you don't have to explain to the driver where you're going)
Pleco (draw a Chinese character and it can tell you what it is)
Google Translate (and download the offline Chinese language pack) - this does photo translation too which is occasionally super baller. It also does draw-a-character but whatever I like Pleco.
Maps.me (best offline maps I've found, though I've heard good things about Galileo too. That's a caveat - it uses OpenStreetMap, which is still not quite Google Maps quality, but getting surprisingly close! Make sure to download the China provinces you're visiting for offline access)
Baidu Maps (all Chinese, but useful for copy-pasting an address sometimes)
A VPN or three - usually the VPN provider will have their own app.
Anything else you might need! China blocking Google means that the Google Play Store won't work unless you're on VPN. So make sure to download all your apps just in case your VPN isn't working.
Other online helps: China DIY Travel helped me book a train at one point.

VPNs: you need at least one of these. China blocks all sorts of sites (incl Google, Facebook), but if you've got a VPN going, then instead of you asking for, say, google.com, you ask some rando computer in the US, then that computer asks for google.com, and sends the website back to you. China doesn't see you asking for google.com, it sees you asking for some rando computer in the US, so it doesn't block you. Sounds complicated, but most VPNs make it pretty easy to set up. The thing is, it's one more thing to fail, and when you're dealing with crummy wifi and poor Edge connections, one more failure sucks. So I have two VPNs (Privateinternetaccess and OpenVPN) and sometimes one works better than the other. Sign up for them (pay them money, usually like $6-10/month), and make sure you get them fully set up before you go - like actually connect to them at least once. If you've got a VPN for your university library or something, don't count on it - turns out my CMU VPN only VPNs traffic to paywalled journals/conferences. Which is useful, but not enough for me in China.

Watch for gouging: on tourist goods and taxi rides. That's the only places I've ever felt ripped off or like you need to bargain. Bargain for tourist stuff, and either agree to a price beforehand or use a meter in a taxi. (Or use Uber!)

Books: two books I really enjoyed were Country Driving by Peter Hessler (about China in 2010ish) and Trespassers on the Roof of the World by Peter Hopkirk (about Tibet in the 1800s)

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Traveling with a purpose beats wandering

I had another post entitled this, but Blogger's Android app, which is hot garbage, ate it. Seriously; it's 2016 and we're making software that loses data? I like how "hot" is now an intensifying adjective for "garbage"; really gives you a visceral sense of how frustrating this is.

Anyway, the post was long, but it's probably good that Blogger ate it because it should be short. All I was really saying is: traveling with a purpose is cool. Traveling without a purpose is less cool. We've got this idea of traveling as vacation, which naturally implies wandering - "I'll go to Hawaii or Thailand or Paris, and then I dunno, good things will happen." But all the coolest travelers I can think of are either working or going there with something in mind - whether it's kitesurfing or visiting an old friend or searching out the best wines.

You want to play the tourist/traveler game? (this is the game where "tourists" are any travelers you don't like, and "travelers" are travelers you do like.) That's the difference: having a purpose or not.

I should mention that touristing, or traveling without a purpose, is about as big a sin as drinking bad coffee - like, I'm not going to get on your case, you're not a Bad Person, you're not even doing a Bad Thing. It's just less cool - you might enjoy traveling more (and you'll get more cred) if you travel with a purpose. But hey, sometimes you need bad coffee, sometimes you like bad coffee, sometimes you want to show up in London and wait for neat things to happen to you. That's ok too.

(I'm just personally tired of purposeless traveling, like I'm tired of bad coffee :)