Saturday, October 14, 2017

If I can someday reach one person...

I heard an interview with a guy from an organization called the Proud Boys. In the most charitable words, they want to promote "traditional family values" or something - where men earn the bacon and women take care of cooking and cleaning. (Plus a bunch of other beliefs I won't go into.) They insist they're not "alt right" because they're not into white supremacy; whatever, alt-right or not, let's just focus on the gender thing so I don't mischaracterize their beliefs.

The guy tells the story of when he started coming up with this idea of starting this organization. It started when he got passed over for a job. The job ended up going to, in his words, a woman who was less qualified than he was. He started thinking "This is political correctness run amok!", found other like-minded people, and started this group.

(That google guy who was recently in the news for manifestoing about how "maybe women are just worse at computers" seems like he'd have a lot to agree with this guy on.)

Most of you probably disagree with this guy; this post isn't for you. (and if you know me well, I might be embarrassed if you keep reading!) This post is out there just in case I might reach the one reader who sympathizes with that guy. I feel very qualified to write it because I could have become this guy.

Why:
When I applied to colleges, I was one of the mathiest computeriest people I knew, got basically perfect grades and test scores, did a reasonable amount of extracurriculars and stuff. To be concrete: HS valedictorian at one of the best high schools in Cleveland, 1600 SAT, 36 ACT, won a bunch of math competitions, co-president of very active Circus Company doing literally hundreds of volunteer shows, active in marching band, academic challenge/quiz bowl, various other things. I was the first student at my school to take college classes during high school, at nearby Case Western Reserve University. I feel self-conscious even bringing it all up, because maybe it's bragging, but I want to make the point. I thought I was Hot Shit, and had relatively non-BS reasons to think so.

(ok, definitely bragging. hopefully at least I'm avoiding humblebragging! whatever, it's 18-year-old me, we're barely even the same person.)

I applied to 7 universities, based mostly on "well, I dunno, I'm good at math and science, and I can go anywhere!": MIT, Stanford, Princeton, Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, Michigan, and Case. I was surprised to get rejected from MIT, Stanford, and Princeton.

One thing that crossed my mind was, I bet there's a bunch of affirmative action candidates who got in. I'm a white guy from the suburbs, the deck's stacked against me! I couldn't think of any other reason that I wouldn't have gotten in to all these schools. At the time, I eventually just ignored it, but I could have gotten pretty deep into that mindset if I'd had certain friends and/or online communities.

In retrospect, there are so many other ways I could have looked at it:

1. I wasn't actually that great:

1.1. Maybe being the Math Guy from Cleveland isn't good enough. If you're MIT, you can accept, what, 2000 students from around the world? I wasn't probably even the best in Ohio; I thought I was in the top 2000 in the world, but maybe not. When you shift from a local to a global scale like that, your old assumptions (like "I'm the best!") might not hold anymore.

1.2. Maybe I wasn't playing the right game, because I focused on the wrong things. You've probably heard stories about the students who have proved some new theorem by the time they're 12, or won international violin competitions, or something, while getting 3.8 GPAs. Maybe I'd have gotten into more colleges if I'd gotten world class at, I dunno, discus throwing, instead of squeezing out the last fractions of GPA points or SAT scores.

1.3. Maybe I wasn't playing the right game, and it's _not_ my fault. You've probably seen those studies about how mixed-gender groups tend to work better together than all-male or all-female groups. If college admissions officers are trying to accept the best overall class of 2000, instead of the best 2000 individuals, they might be 100% correct to accept a woman with an IQ of 140 over a man with 145. (This is especially relevant when we're talking about jobs, but probably works for colleges too.)

1.4. Maybe I was great by yesterday's standards. Let's say everyone's intelligence is normally distributed around 5. Maybe I was an 8; in the old days, stuff like colleges was more open to white men, so being an 8/10 white man was good enough to get you in to MIT, while women had to be a 10/10. Nowadays, if these schools are striving to be equal, then men and women would have to both be a 9/10, and I missed the cut. It feels unfair, because 30 years ago, I would have gotten in, but maybe it's actually becoming more fair.

2. Noise:

2.1. Maybe it's all a random game, and I lost a few. This is probably the closest to the truth. College admissions, like job applications, have so much random noise built into them that you've got to play the numbers game even if you're the perfect candidate. This should make you feel better: it's not that there's anything wrong with you, it's just that this is hard for everyone. If you get rejected from anything, don't take it as evidence of some grand conspiracy, because it's probably noise.

2.2. I shouldn't worry, I'll be fine anyway. Carnegie Mellon's a very fine school, and just having that name on my diplomas has opened every door I can imagine. This may be no large comfort to you; you might not be sure that you'll be fine anyway, but try the feeling on for size. Or, just wait a few months, don't make any rash decisions, and see if you're fine then. Sometimes luck will screw you; instead of wasting time worrying about "why couldn't I have rolled 6 on that die?" try instead to ask "huh, I rolled 5, is that ok?" You'll be much happier.

3. I was looking at the wrong oppressor:

3.1. Yeah, the deck was stacked against me, but from the top, not the bottom. Legacy candidates (children of alumni) are wayyy more overrepresented than "affirmative action candidates." It's hard to tell who's the "affirmative action candidate," because nobody keeps statistics on this (indeed, nobody would ever say "we admitted ____ because they're black, even though they're not as smart as that white guy"), but they certainly keep track of legacy candidates, and the numbers are pretty nuts. Look into it.

3.2. I was tempted to introduce one more paragraph saying something like "well, look how it feels! women got oppressed for 1000000000 years, now it's happening to you, deal with it!"... but I don't believe that leads to a productive conversation. It's a punitive or retaliatory framing, and I don't think we should start looking for more ways to discriminate against men punitively. Like you, I want a situation where men and women have an equal chance at the same job. (We may differ on how we want to get there, but let's save that for another time.) More importantly, look at who's got power now, and look at how they may be using it. It's more likely to be someone above you pushing you down than someone below you climbing over you.


In summary, if you find yourself in that Proud Boy's situation, I feel you. It doesn't mean you're bad to be thinking that. But it also doesn't mean you're right. Try wondering if maybe you're not that great, if maybe it's randomness, or if maybe you're looking down for oppressors when it's more accurate to look up. I'd be happy to talk with you about it, nonjudgmentally; reach out to me.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Things we will need more of in my lifetime: housing and therapists

Housing: recent Econ Talk about it. Housing's an issue here in SF, of course, but also throughout the country. Name a wealthy, in-demand city, and I'll rattle off some insane housing prices there for you. Hahaha, housing is crazy, haha.

But this is a big problem.
- it's better for everyone if more people live in cities: environmentally, economically, socially. You meet different people. This makes you do better work, create more wealth, and also get less xenophobic. If cities are inaccessible, we'll burn more greenhouse gases per capita and harden into our little social bubbles more.
- inaccessible cities widen the "coastal elites" gap. Imagine you live in, say, rural PA, you're smart and stuff, and you think about moving to NYC. But the costs of everything (especially housing) are so high it doesn't even make sense to start thinking about it unless you fancy selling a kidney and living in a phone booth. I'm sure there are a ton of rural people who would think about moving into the city if it didn't seem so Charles Dickens or Mad Max. The people who are making it there must seem so out of this world and out of touch. Thus, "coastal elites."

This is tricky, because I generally do believe in markets. I guess my working hypothesis is, the markets for housing in cities are generally pretty broken. Here in SF it takes like 6 years to get through all the approvals and stuff, which leads to artificially restricted supply, which leads to sky-high prices. If we didn't have large swaths of the city zoned for single family houses, we'd get more developers building big towers to meet the skyrocketing demand.

Therapists: I've got to think probably 95% of mass murderers would chill the F out if they just had someone to talk to. And as technology keeps increasing the number of harm one unhinged person can do, well... ideally we should pour resources into helping people not become unhinged. (Talking about not only gun sprees, but also stuff like frustrated nerds becoming "alt right" fanboys.)

Camping logging

I mean, logging that I went camping, not that I went camping and also cutting down trees.

It was fun! Here are some photos. The place we camped was Big Trees campground in Inyo National Forest near Bishop, CA. We hiked to Bishop Pass, which was super cool. Note to my future self: this was a 10 mile hike with 2800 feet of elevation gain. We also walked around near Sabrina Lake which was not quite as dramatic but also nice. It was down to ~36 degrees at night, which felt very very cold, and up to about 70 in the day, which felt pretty warm in the sun. Really, the daytime was perfect; at night, we huddled around the campfire a lot. No mosquitos, at least. Saw the Milky Way! At least, until the moon came up.

I should mention that the last time I went camping was in the Trinity Alps, specifically up and down the Canyon Creek trail. Here are some photos of that. I don't remember temperatures there, but that was about 16 miles with about 2600 feet elevation. (We did it over 2 days. We were backpacking though too.)

The reason this is so Spock-like is that I want to get a well-calibrated sense of the numbers involved, so when someone says "10 miles and 2800 feet" I know what that feels like.

Incidentally, it is interesting that I spend a lot of time worrying about my feelings in relation to the outdoors. I want to enjoy it. Like, I do, on the whole, but there's a lot of moments of "uggh I am uncomfortable, why'd I come out here." And I don't know that I'm open and aware enough to have these really transcendent experiences like a Thoreau or something. Just, yeah, there are a lot of good moments and a lot of bad ones; you're optimizing for your remembered self; suffering together is a great way to deepen friendships; you get good exercise, anyway; inoculating yourself with the occasional discomfort is a good way to keep active the muscle of tolerating discomfort. I'm sure there are other good reasons too.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Argh trolley problem

An old Radiolab about the Trolley Problem and they did brain scans and stuff, and it proves that people have an innate morality! they're unwilling to kill a person with their bare hands, because it lights up a different part of the brain! they're no longer doing a rational calculus, they're using instincts honed over millennia!

My counterhypothesis to basically all trolley probleming: look, the reason that people will flip a lever but not push a fat guy off a bridge is about certainty. If you somehow knew for sure that the falling fat guy would divert the train, and if it were common knowledge that the fat guy would divert the train, wayyy more people would go for it. But you give me those two scenarios, and in the second one I've got to make a bet that the fat guy will divert the train and I'm not just killing a guy for nothing. Even if you tell me, yeah, the fat guy will definitely block the train, it doesn't feel like it, because I've never experienced a situation where I could know for sure that this fat guy that I'm killing will divert a train.

Here's another thought experiment: I've got a dish of wonderful ice cream! Would you eat it? Sure.
Ok, now I've got a dish of wonderful ice cream that looks like dog turds! I promise it's delicious, really! Would you eat it? We have no prior experience for this kind of thing - I've never seen a dog turd that actually turned out to be ice cream. Plus, the risk is asymmetric. If you don't eat the ice cream, you lose on just eating ice cream; if you do eat it and it turns to be that 1% of the time where I'm a liar, ugh.

(The people running these studies have probably considered and accounted for this. At least, I hope so.)

Note, though, that all our hand-wringing about the trolley problem, especially as it relates to self-driving cars, is likely a waste of time. Nobody's gonna program in "save the passengers first!" or "be utilitarian!" - the car's going to decide based on whatever combination of 10,000 algorithms it's got built in, and we've got to hope that it does the right thing. And the right thing will 99.99999% of the time be "slam on the brakes."

Sunday, September 10, 2017

What is this new humor genre that I love? "Generative surreal"?

Things I like a lot:
- All of Janelle Shane's work with neural networks (paint colors, D&D spells, beer varieties - if you read about it and it was a funny NN thing it's probably her)
- Rick and Morty S02E04 - Total Rickall - in which they introduce a ton of absurd characters. Also S01E08 - Rixty Minutes, in which they watch a ton of interdimensional TV shows
- my own nonsense
- oh including Swot Perderder of course
- weird twitter (my carefully curated list so far)
RoboRosewater, a twitter bot that makes magic cards
- drilmagic, aka weird twitter meets magic cards
- a handful of new-to-me subreddits including r/hmmmr/bonehurtingjuicer/surrealmemes
- Ken M
- The second funny number. Three is the first funny number - jokes always come in lists of three, where #3 is the punchline. Four is too many; the rhythm's off. But if you keep on going past four, five, eventually you get to either 8 or 10 and then it's funny again.

Some characteristics that I like:
- the sense that you're inhabiting a vast world that we're just seeing the corner of.
- humility. Whenever anything/anyone reveals that they think they're funny, they stop being funny.
- relatedly, willingness to throw away anything because you're not so tied to your One Great Creation
- intuition. Jokes that go on to the second funny number are funny because they're not scripted. You've got your #1-3 scripted, maybe your 4 and 5 are semi-canned, but by the time you get to 8 or 10 you're spitting out really raw, mostly-unfiltered ideas.
- some kind of cultivated randomness. And this is always hard because often "randomness" means a really artless, naive form of humor that computer science major freshmen seem to find appealing? And as the comic illustrates, real randomness would be nonsense. I guess what I'm looking for is more like the deep dream puppyslugs (warning: creepy); starting with noise, amplifying human feature recognizers until you get to something coherent enough.

So I want to call this something. Something like "generative surreal" or "generative intuitive." I don't think I can actually define it, scope out its borders, decide all the edge cases, well enough to give it a name. But if I could give it a name, I could start shooting for it, and this is the kind of humor I would like to make.

Relatedly:
- I may have mentioned at some point something about The Cleaners. They are the best example I can think of of the "sense that you're inhabiting a vast world": the one character mentions them as if of course you know who The Cleaners are, they come through and the characters narrowly escape, and we never hear anything about them again.
- Twin Peaks does this well (e.g. the Room Above the Convenience Store; warning: also creepy)
- HP Lovecraft seems like the "sense you're inhabiting a vast world" but for horror. (obligatory disclaimer that also he was hella racist and that's not cool?)
- I guess of course the surrealists in art come close to this, which is why I'm ok with using that term. I guess if I talked to Dali or Magritte and they were like "I've got this great meaning that I was trying to express by the ghost of Vermeer which can be used as a table or the train in the fireplace" I'd say "nah." If they were unable to explain their stuff, I'd be into it more.
- Also relevant art world: The Garden of Earthly Delights.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Things I've learned, part N: sometimes things are complicated

Particularly, when someone tries to tell you a thing that seems complicated is actually simple, be wary.

This happens in TED talks, Malcolm Gladwell books, and all sorts of other pop science fluff. "We thought that teaching kids/building livable cities/addiction/etc was very difficult, but then we found this one weird factor that explains 90% of everything!" See also: diets, politics.

It's not always wrong. I guess we used to think scurvy was complicated, then we kinda accidentally discovered Vitamin C. But nowadays we've solved most of the simple problems, and so anything that's still around is probably complex. "X is actually simple" is usually wrong, and seductively so: it's kind of terrifying to deal with a ridiculously complicated world, so of course we're always looking for ways to simplify it.

I don't remember what prompted this in particular, but it does come up a lot. Maybe something political? "Immigrants are taking our jobs" is a popular one. So is "Obama was bad because X, therefore everything he did was also bad." (or even "Trump is bad, therefore..." - though most things he's done have been bad :-/ )

Sunday, August 13, 2017

I want to be a Mechanical Turk activist.

(Amazon Mechanical Turk)

By this I mean, I want someone else to be able to call me up and say "call City Supervisor X and say 'I support Bill Y'", and then I do it. I don't want to have to watch all the bills coming in, find the ones that I support, research their backstory, learn what they really mean, and finally make one call. That's hours of work for one call. I want to spend one minute for one call. Or one hour for one showing-up-at-local-planning-meeting. I spend my whole working life doing research, I don't have mental energy to research a bunch of political things every week too.

This seems obvious, but it also seems very hard to do. There are mailing lists, but it's hard to get on the right mailing list (that will send you direct calls to action, and only direct calls to action). I'm on a couple: Indivisible and the SF YIMBY party seem pretty good at this. Make this kind of mailing list, and I will beat a path to your door.

(A step even further/better would be if I could delegate my voice. I want to be able to join the SF Bike Coalition, say, and whenever the SF Bike Coalition supports Thing X, they can automatically count me with them. I guess they get this a little bit by having big membership rolls, but I want to make a stronger kind of membership: "I explicitly agree with everything y'all do and say." (Ideally this comes with a weekly reminder email or something, so I can withdraw my voice-delegation if the organization starts to go off the rails.))

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The consumer experience of capitalism in other spheres

(or maybe I should say "neoliberalism" to get more clicks :P)

Ok, super-extreme capitalism seems to say, markets will solve everything, because we are all rational self-interested people and we'll choose things that are the best for us. If someone is offering something that is not the best, they will go out of business. That is usually pretty good. It lets us get cheap bananas.

Now there are a lot of externalities that go into getting those cheap bananas, which is usually the drum I bang on, but I'm not going to get into that here. Instead, what I'm focusing on here is the consumer experience of capitalism.

I just sort of assume that bananas work in a store-ish fashion. Like, I go to the store, I can see the price of bananas, I can basically see how good they look, and I can make the best choice. I know what I'm getting. (If I don't - like, if the bananas later turn out to be rotten, or if they tell me a different price at the register, etc, then I just don't buy bananas from them again, and they eventually lose.)

We assume this with choices of our time too. For the most part, we know what we're getting if we spend our free time in a park, at a coffeeshop, at a bar, playing a board game, whatever. We pretty much know the

I'm trying to be a little more active of an activist, too. But that is tricky, because it's usually not like a store, in that I don't know what I'm getting for my time. I could phone bank all day and get 0 more votes. I could go to a meeting to organize a meeting to organize a meeting for something, and it might not ever help anything.

So I guess I've got to categorical-imperative it a little bit - just effin' do it, because it's a good thing to do. Or maybe rely on social pressures- make some friends who are into something activisty, and then do it to hang out with them, and by the way we got some votes.

Maybe some people want to want X, more than they want X.

where X = a Ferrari or a beach vacation or whatever else

thinking about this after seeing an ad for a vacation package at a beach resort somewhere and thinking, geez, that would just be terrible. Now, of course, I like beaches less than the next guy, but I don't even think I'd want to win a ski vacation package, say.
(eh, maybe. I mean, I'd take it. But I'm not really jonesing for it.)

Thinking about this too after having a couple of free days in between things recently, and thinking "gosh, I've actually cleaned up the ol' to-do list. It's done. I've completed everything. Now I get to do... what?" It's just a day here and there, so I couldn't make a big plan, but even so, I sort of frittered them away doing a bunch of small things. It would be really nice if I could just say "I've won it! Some free days! Now I get to spend them having The Best Time!" Similarly with money. "I got some money - now I can have The Best Time!"

It's an antiquated notion, maybe, from a time when you never even had enough time or money. If you were in the 30s or 40s, you'd be trying to scrape by or not die in a war; you didn't have time to think about what you'd do after you made it, and you might just assume "it'll all be good then, I'll buy The Best Life." But it turns out, being a human and figuring out what "feelings-you" actually wants is complicated, even after you've made it.

Anyway, I want to want a Ferrari. That'd be nice and simple.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Structuring life around cleaning up

I'm finding that I'm organizing life around cleaning up. Get things into a queue, then get them out of that queue. Another way to talk about this is "checking things off lists."

It has great benefits for organization. I find I almost never lose or forget about things. They're always on the right list, here or there.

On the other hand, it makes me feel a little like a robot, like my entire life is all about finishing the list. What happens when the list is done?

Right now I'm trying to take off a couple of those lists by removing stuff from my phone. Disconnecting a little, etc. We'll see how it goes.

Other thoughts that were on my list to blog about:
- I'm getting annoyed by "X shouldn't be a partisan issue." Like, yes, I agree. Health care should be a human right, net neutrality should be a thing, etc. But I don't think you're going to convince any Republicans that they should all of a sudden support the ACA because it "shouldn't be partisan."
- Listening to Mogul, a podcast about hip-hop executive Chris Lighty, and they talk about a time when, as a poor kid in the Bronx, he saved up for a nice jacket, then some other jerk stole his jacket. It's not fair, and it's kinda this first "loss of innocence" moment for him. He did everything he was supposed to do, and wrong place wrong time, he gets screwed. This feeling really hits. I get that feeling ("someone stole my bike wheels!") and it sends me absolutely nuts, because not only is it not fair to me, it just doesn't even make sense! Like, it's worse than just "I wanted X, someone else wanted Y, so they took it" - it's more like "sorry, the universe rolled dice and you lose." Just, random bad things happen! But at the same time, I never get that feeling on the scale that he does. Never had my life's savings stolen from me. And it made me think, because he's a black kid in the Bronx I guess, imagine black people getting killed by police; cop freaks out and kills Philando Castile, and a lot of people say "welp, deal with it, being a cop is hard and sometimes you roll dice and get unlucky." I don't know what to do about that. For starters, maybe, we acknowledge that the US isn't as much of a land of opportunity for some as it is for others, and we oughta do whatever we can to fix that.
- Sorry, 's not very profound, but it's been on my mind. See my previous assertions that "this is my journal for myself, which you can read if you like."

Thursday, July 13, 2017

sand trees salt pit lava lakes trip recap

free week, rented this car, went on this trip! Planned about a day in advance. Used Atlas Obscura to look up a lot of places to go. In between, tried to just pick out any kinda non-interstatey routes.

here's a map! here's an image, because links never last!

got these pictures!

I have a lot of thoughts! In the spirit of getting them all out so I can get on with my day, I will just shout em out here.

Bivy camping: it was ok. it's like a little sleeping bag bag. I guess it's supposed to come with a little pole that gives it a little height so it's not just like being inside a plastic bag. Mine was missing that pole. Would have been nice.

I didn't know they made cars w/o cruise control. Luckily, they all have a USB and a headphone jack, at least.

It is weird how comfortable this trip is. It's 95 degrees most days, and I don't even notice.

I have a lot of thoughts while I'm driving. They come and go. This is interesting. Also frustrating: I want to get them down. I know some of them at least are good!

It's really hard to go completely unplanned. I end up planning roughly a day or two in advance, and I have a goal to get to Butte because there's a big toxic waste dump near there called the Berkeley Pit. Call it a trip Macguffin - it doesn't really matter what the Berkeley Pit is, but it gives me a direction to go.

One great thing about traveling: it makes you appreciate your regular life more.

Weird: I got to the campsite at Great Basin and just started hiking. I'm not sure I even wanted to!

Am I driving too much? I mean, maybe? But I kinda enjoy the moving as much as the being there.

Interstates are lame. Everything gets samey; it's like the suburb of roads. Everything's easy. There's more traffic. I had to keep telling Google "give me a less direct route."

I wish I were like a reporter, like I was good at talking with strangers. That's usually the most interesting time. But I'm always worried about bothering people, or having nothing to talk about, or ending up trapped in a conversation I don't want to continue.

Srećan Božić... Maga?

Of COURSE I had to stop in the bar/restaurant in Austin, NV that was apparently called "Serbian Christmas." I mean, it was also covered in Trump/Pence signs, but... meaningful cultural exchange?
(This might be a good time for a "content note: intense anti-Muslimness.")

There were two people inside. One lady behind the counter, hunched over, eating a piece of pie. One guy sitting at the counter, not doing much of anything. We start talking, I tell them I'm going to Great Basin, that's cool. I ask about "Serbian Christmas" - are you two Serbian? "He is." So I tell him about Tati and her family, how they're from Serbia, we're talkin' Serb things like where all the big Serbian communities in the US are, and where they're building a new Serbian orthodox church, and how they have a big fiesta here every Jan 7. I ask where in Serbia he's from. He names somewhere I don't remember, and says "The only place the Muslims never conquered." "Oh."
He: "Yep, never got there. Everywhere around."
I: "Huh."
He: F**king Muslims. They want to impose their own f**king law, you know that?
I: No, I didn't know that. Are you sure?*
He: Did you know they mutilate their women? They just arrested a bunch of doctors.
I: Hmm. I didn't hear about that.*
He: Well, most people didn't. They do it to all of em, young girls...
I: Hm. I thought* it was just the extremists.
He: Huh. Well, I've gotta go work now.
(gets up)
He: Here, you can give your wife this pen. (hands me a pen with their restaurant name on it.)
I: Thanks!

* I do this sometimes, when I don't know how else to have a productive conversation. It seems asinine to let stuff like that slide, but also I want to be as unconfrontational as possible - if we're ever gonna get anywhere. So I try to play the young newbie. "Hmm! Are you sure?" etc, and argue back in a way that says "I think you might be mistaken" when he says something definitely false, in order to give him a way to rethink his beliefs while saving face. If you have any better ideas for what to do when a guy starts spouting nonsense, let me know.

I mean, he thinks I'm decent enough to give a tiny gift to, apparently. We've even got like half a thing in common. But based on things he believes, Muslims are awful, and that's why this one-time immigrant supports the most virulently anti-immigrant people I've ever seen.

Thinking about this later: it's not really this guy that is the worst. If you thought Group X was moving into your country and establishing their own zones where their own terrible laws apply, you'd want them to get out too. Thing is, that just isn't happening, certainly not by Muslims. It's his news sources that are the worst.

Still cursing, but on a brighter note

Met a couple of Air Force guys in Boise. They were like 22, just got there a couple weeks ago after serving in England and Korea. They work on airplanes - maintaining and loading bombs and stuff. Obv I don't know anything about this, but I could share their enthusiasm. Plus I mentioned how my grandpa was in the Air Force and so we bonded a bit about that. They were so into it! And I kinda get it!

The one guy was telling me about when he was in Turkey, loading up planes that were running missions against ISIS targets. I think. He was talking about how, when he loads up 12 bombs in one of these bombers and sees it come back empty, that's "the best f**king feeling in the world." He has such a direct connection to the results of his work. Another time, I guess they had video from helicopters or something? they've got some guy they're targeting, he goes outside, smoking a cigar, and then they can see the bombs hit his building. "Best f**king feeling in the world."

So, ok, on the one hand this is weird, being so jazzed about killing people. But on the other hand: their targets probably are the bad guys. (I'm pretty ok with killing an ISIS higher-up.) And they're talking about doing hard work and getting a very tangible result. I respect that, and I'm even a little bit jealous of it. We can hold all these somewhat-conflicting beliefs in our heads.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

In which I get more evidence that sand is The Worst, and maybe meet my first supernatural creatures of this trip.

Leg 1 of multi-day trip: SF to Sand Mountain, Nevada

There's a big sand mountain! It's like 6 stories tall. It's right off Highway 50, the "loneliest road in the US", just past Fallon, Nevada. And you can camp by it I guess. So I set sights for that and headed off.

When I got there, I noted that indeed it was a lonely road. I saw no people for a long time. At the Great Sand Mountain, I saw a couple of RVs in the distance, and a few people off-roading on dirt bikes and ATVs. I drove past the end of the asphalt road, onto the dirt road, and then I had to turn around so I pulled over to do a 3-point turn and -- the sand is much softer here! and my lil Toyota Yaris isn't moving! Huh.

Forward, reverse, forward, reverse, nope, hmm. Well. I walked over to the RVs and three ladies were standing there, having just finished a ride. I asked if they had any ideas. "Maybe put some wood under your tires?" They had some campfire wood and gave me a couple. I went back and tried it, and maybe made things worse.

I came back to give them their wood back and maybe call a tow truck. This time I met a guy who just hopped off a dirt bike. He's all smiles, "How you doing?" I told him, "well... good, until I got my car stuck." "No! You didn't!" "Yep, I, uh, I'm kinda a dumbass." "Well, no problem, let's get you out!"

So he and his friend come over in some kind of Jeep. They're mid-40s probably, we get talking, they're from northern CA and do some kind of software thing too, we're talking about work. Their sons are each there too. They try to latch a strap onto a tiny hook under the Yaris and drag it out, and the strap breaks. Eventually one of them suggests pushing it - hmm! I gun it, they push it, and sure enough I get it back on the road! Whew.

They're talking about this big sand dune is a great spot for off-roading. "But you don't want to be here at night, some of the locals come down - did you come from Fallon? It's a different breed, I'll tell you." (editor's note: huh? besides a note on the jukebox in the bar that said "no rap, R&B, hip-hop, screamo, or heavy metal", I have no qualms with Falloners.) They recommend I go to a couple campsites up by Fallon. I ask, "But you can camp here, right?" They: "Yeah, but it gets so windy, it's not great for tent camping." I: eh, I'll be OK. They raise an eyebrow.

I sit in my car for maybe 15 minutes trying to figure out what campsites they're talking about, and I can't. So I figure, ok, I'll stay here. I get out to use the restroom and on my way back, they drive up in an ATV. I say, "I think I'll stay here, it's getting late and all."

And the one guy gives me this intense, dire look that I've only seen in movies, and goes "Look. I'm gonna be straight with you, Dan. If I were you... get in your car, and drive that way, or that way."

Side note: my friend Aaron tells this story about how he met The Colonel, a character in Squirrel Hill, while out walking at night; Colonel sees Aaron and yells "STOP!" And Aaron does the only reasonable thing to do when a stranger yells stop, and keeps walking. Then the Colonel yells "STOP!" again, and Aaron does the only reasonable thing to do when a stranger yells stop twice, and he stops.

Similarly, when someone warns me about camping for some vague undiscussed reason (in a place that they too are camping) once, I'll blow it off. When he warned me that second time, I noped the hell out of there.

I still don't even know what was going on! For now, I'm going with "they didn't want me to know they were actually werewolves."

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Dan vs. Machine, continued: colors and magic cards

previously

today's targets:
paint colors
magic cards

Colors:
Azure Tabletop
Orange Salmon
Lamprey Yellow
Every Little Green
Rhombus Red
Corazón
Stalactite
Aqueous Ether
Marmalade
Pleb Brown
Ostrich Feather
Light-Skinned Hyuena
Paté Pink
Llamacoat
Corrugated Brown
Fertile Crescent
Chandelier
Panda White
Webmaster Blue
Sketchpad Yellow
Lacrosse String
Withered Black
Yorange
Gunmetal Corridor
Abyss Blue
Navy Suit
Acrid Green
Smoking Green
Red Raymond
Tomato Orange
Antz Brown
Curved Blue
Snap-Mousetrap White
Snow-Covered Pines
Wifi Purple

Magic cards:

Barkin' Elk
2G, 3/1
T: shuffle your library, or don't

Goblin Grendel
1RR, 3/3
R, sacrifice a creature, T: deal damage equal to the sacrificed creature's power to target creature or player

Aura of Enchantment
1WW, Enchantment - Aura
Artifacts cost 2 more to cast.
Sacrifice Aura of Enchantment: target player can't cast spells this turn.

Witch of Bog Wraith
3B, 2/4
Aurawalk (if opponent controls any auras, Witch of Bog Wraith is unblockable)
Lifelink

Wall of Tomb
1B, 2/1
Defender, deathtouch, first strike
During your upkeep, if Wall of Tomb blocked last turn, it deals 1 damage to you.

Well-Fountain of Life
2, Artifact
U, T: gain 1 life.
W, T: gain 2 life.
R, T: don't gain 1 life.

Andy
GBR, 4/3, Creature - Wolf
When Andy comes into play, deal 2 damage to target creature in your opponent's library.

A Trick Hunt
B, Instant
Rearrange your graveyard. Draw a card.

Loose Bats
2B, 1/1
Flying. When Loose Bats come into play, put a 1/1 flying Bat token into play.

Wall of Hexes
2W, 0/8
You have hexproof.

Waterfall Window
2U, 1/4
Flying. U: flip Waterfall Window's power and toughness. Use this ability only once a turn.

Castle Keep
Land
B, T, sacrifice Castle Keep: put a zombie from your graveyard into your hand.
W, T: gain 2 life.
T: add 1 to your mana pool.

Delicious Wobbler
2U, 3/2
During your upkeep, if Delicious Wobbler has a counter on it, remove one; otherwise, add one.
If Delicious Wobbler has a counter on it, it has flying. If not, it has shadow.

Power Tower
BB, Sorcery
Deal 4 damage to target player. Scry 2.

Suplex
1R, Instant
Target creature gets -0/-2 until end of turn. If it has flying, it gets -0/-4 until end of turn instead.

Minotaur Man
3R, 4/2, Creature - Human
1R: Minotaur Man becomes a 2/3 red Minotaur until end of turn.

Delver of Delver of Secrets
0, 0/1
During your upkeep, reveal the top card of your library. If it is an instant or sorcery, sacrifice Delver of Delver of Secrets, search your deck for a card called Delver of Secrets, and put it into play.

Mansion of Ingmar
Land
1B, Pay 5 life: destroy target creature.

Garfield Stacker
WR, 3/3

Treasure Heeder
3U, 4/4
Flying. If an opponent plays an artifact, remove Treasure Heeder from the game. Return it to play at the end of the turn.

Graveler of Secrets
3B, 3/3
During your upkeep, reveal the top card of your library. If it is an instant or sorcery, put a +1/+1 counter on Graveler of Secrets.

Sphinx Dread
(U or B), Instant
Destroy target creature if you control a flying creature.

Waste of a Good Moon
3BB, Sorcery
Destroy all creatures and artifacts. Each player sacrifices half of their lands (rounded down).

Red Quilter
R, 1/2
Sacrifice a creature: deal 1 damage to target creature or player

Websilkspinner
2G, 1/4
Defender, hexproof, reach. T, exert: +3/+0 until end of turn.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Tales from HCI PhD -> Data Scientist job searching, part 2: negotiating

Before you read this post, read Patrick MacKenzie's negotiation advice.

Ok, great. You're 95% of the way there. Here are a few more details and a couple twists and turns I came across.

Still don't name the first number.

If I had, I would have lowballed myself pretty much everywhere. Surprise - your market value is way higher than you think, you free-food-noshing grad student you.

Use Glassdoor - but it's not gospel.

Want to know what a (job x) at (company y) makes? Glassdoor can tell you. But a few caveats:
It's more useful at a common job at a bigger company. There are a ton of Google software engineer posts, but fewer Stitch Fix data scientists.
Salaries go up over time. Glassdoor estimates may be low. If you want to use it to ballpark results and name a number (though don't name the first number), go for something that's about 1.3-1.5*Glassdoor price.

Don't name the first number*.

* I actually did name the first number once, when talking with (Company B) and (Company C) after Stitch Fix gave me an offer. I knew Stitch Fix's offer was very high on base salary, so I just told it to Companies B and C. They both revised way upward, but couldn't match it - this is a good sign, I didn't shoot too low. (Probably. Maybe I did!)
Stitch Fix's equity offer was pretty standard, though, so I didn't tell that to companies B or C. (and Company C's equity offer was about double Stitch Fix's, so it's good I didn't name the first number there.)
If you don't know if it's very high, or you're not 100% sure that it's very high, don't name the first number.

Mid-sized companies don't do bonuses, it seems.

At Google, my salary was like X + ~15% of X for a once-a-year bonus. At all 3 companies I got offers from here, they just had higher base salary and no bonus. I like this; bonuses are dumb.

Equity in pre-IPO companies is way harder to value.

I have no idea what any of my equity will be worth. Maybe $0! You need a "liquidity event" to sell your shares/options; this can be an IPO, or an acquisition, or a buyback (and probably some other things too). Who knows if this will ever happen. Also, if you have options, and you leave the company before a liquidity event, you have to exercise the options (buy the shares) if you want to keep them. This can be expensive, and has tax implications that I don't understand yet. For these reason, I like salary. Your risk tolerance may vary.
Side note: at Stitch Fix, they wouldn't tell me what percent of the company I was getting or what the strike price was, instead telling me the potential value if the company is valued at $X billion. This was weird, but you can reverse-engineer the percent and the strike price. Ask me if you want to know how to figure this out.

If there's a minor perk difference, price it out

Stitch Fix, for one, doesn't offer lunch. Eh, ok! Say I'll spend $10 a day on lunch, times 200 work days a year = $2000 after tax ~= $3000 pre-tax. I subtracted $3k from their offer and I'm still happy with it.

Don't name the first number.

Did I mention this yet? They will try all kind of tricks to make you name the first number. Kindly, politely refuse.

This was all moot in the case of Stitch Fix, because they didn't allow negotiation.

This was awesome. They gave me a very high offer, and wouldn't budge on it. Their (correct) reasoning is that negotiation opens the door for inequality (e.g. between men and women) based on who negotiates more. So I didn't have to do this whole stupid dance with them! I was very impressed. I hope this becomes a trend.

If some of your offers are negotiable (and they probably will be), you need to negotiate; in that case, you have to play the game and help everyone save face.

Company C would not give me an offer until I told them the details of Stitch Fix's offer. This led to an awkward confrontation, which maybe I didn't handle great:
C: Can you tell me the details of the equity in the other company?
Me: I'd rather not, if you don't mind.
C: But it would really help.
Me: Nah, I'd prefer to keep that private.
C: I just need something to go on, in order to give you the best offer.
Me: I don't see how this could possibly help me, though.
C: Sure it can; I'm trying to work with you here.
Me: No, you're trying to get me to sign for the lowest salary. I'm trying to get the highest salary. Giving you this information can only hurt me.
C: That is not what I'm doing at all.
Me: Err... aren't you? What are you doing, then? Why not just get the best offer you can and we'll talk again then?
(some more back and forth)
C: I'm really taken aback; I don't think I've ever had a call like this. I think the best thing to do is to end the call.
Me: Oh. I... I'm sorry! I can see that I've offended you, and I really apologize. Yes, if you want to end the call, we can do that, and I'll talk to you again soon.
Later, when talking with some managers, I was mildly reprimanded - like "we wanted to clear this up and make sure it was just a misunderstanding, because this seemed like a bit of a red flag to us" etc.

I was trying to just "take the cover off the game" and talk honestly. I didn't want to muck around with "well, because of reason X, maybe you can throw in some more salary" or whatever - but there is a maximum and minimum price you're willing to hire me at, let's try to get the maximum.
She... did not appreciate that. I think it made us both sound like greedy money-grubbers. Instead, I guess we've got to use the language of "working together to find a mutually beneficial deal", "make the pie bigger", "well because of my excellent qualifications blahblah", "I'm hoping to get a salary that allows me to focus on doing great work and not worrying about money", etc.

Welp!

Here's a way it could have gone better (props to my friend Stu):
C: Can you tell me the details of the equity in the other company?
Me: I'd rather not, if you don't mind.
C: But it would really help.
Me: Nah, I'm sorry, that information is private.
C: I just need something to go on, in order to give you the best offer.
Me: Can I ask why you need to know?
C: (some BS thing)
Me: Ah, ok. Well, like I said, sorry, that's private. When do you think you can get together an offer?
C: After you tell me the other offer details!
Me: Well, unfortunately, that information is private. So, how about if you just put together the strongest offer you can and we'll talk about it then?
C: I really need to know the details of your other offer.
Me: Well, imagine I hadn't gotten that offer yet; what offer would you get me then?
C: But you did get that offer.
Me: But like I said, unfortunately, it's private. Do you mean you can't make an offer without knowing the details of my other offer?
C: Well, no...*
Me: Ok, great! Then I look forward to hearing the details. When do you think you can get it to me?

* I'm like 90% sure she legally has to say no here (in CA at least). But if she says yes, then I guess, decide how much hardball you want to play and how much you want this offer :-/

This would still be somewhat confrontational, but that's on her. This conversation is more polite and we can still maintain this facade of "we're working on the same team." If it helps, imagine that the other company who'd given you the offer hadn't told it to you yet, or that you were legally not allowed to say it for whatever reasons. ("sorry, I'd so love to get you that information! it's just, gosh darn it, it happens to be private. oh well.")

Use your people!

It was very helpful to me to go on Facebook after this difficult interaction and ask "uhh... did I do something really wrong?" and hear "eh, probably nah." The Companies will try all kinds of tricks to make you feel bad for asking for more money, etc. They are capital, you are labor, and 99% of the time you're working together but in this 1% you are somewhat at odds. They do this every day; you are a newbie. Don't get taken.

Reach out to me if you ever want some help. Not that I'm an expert, but I'm happy to help friends and family :) I've worked with 2 people now, plus myself, who were scared to negotiate at all, and we got a little extra money each time, anyway - maybe not optimal, but pretty good for standing on one foot and reciting poetry for 15 minutes!

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Tales from HCI PhD -> SF Data Scientist Job Searching, part 1: Interviews

Ok, so you want to be a Data Scientist. The best prep would be to have interned as a Data Scientist. I hadn't done that. Here are some things I have learned about interviewing for this job.

Interview structure

As I mentioned last post, you will probably have some of the following:

  • Programming
    • this is the good old quick-programming-puzzle interview, as in software engineer interviews. Usually whiteboard, but sometimes they let you use a computer, which is nice. You might get this for a phone screen.
  • SQL
    • "Here's a database structure (on a whiteboard), how would you write these queries?" A couple places let me do this on a computer, that was nice. You might get this for a phone screen too.
  • Experimental design/metrics
    • "We want to change our UI from this old UI to this new UI, how would we do it?" and then talk about metrics to measure, how to evaluate success, how to sample users, how many users and how long to run the study (use a power calculation!), what your conclusions would be if you got this certain kinds of answers.
  • Big-picture thinking/metrics
    • "We want to expand to selling cars too, how would we do it?" - and then we talk about high-level what kind of metrics we'd measure, how we'd evaluate success, how we'd trade off risk, etc. This was rarer, but happened a couple times. I think I wasn't necessarily supposed to know how to do this, so I could wing it a bit. This interview was different from the experimental design one because it was a little higher-level - your 6-12-month vision instead of the single Next Experiment you're running.
  • Machine learning/modeling
    • "Here's a big CSV of our hypothetical users' behavior; what leads to them buying our product?" This might be a homework problem or an in-person interview.
  • Data modeling
    • I know I just said "modeling." A couple "modeling" interviews, though, were something different - more like "here's how this part of our business works - how would you design the database for it?" Which tables would you have, which fields on each, etc.
  • Collaborating with other people/teams, stories of projects you've done
    • This is vaguer, talky. I could usually come up with these on the spot, but it doesn't hurt to have a few in your pocket.
  • Lunch
    • These are usually "off the record" - use them to refuel, and try to absorb stuff about the company or your future coworkers here.

Things that are good to know


  • How to do quick programming puzzles fluently. HackerRank's Python, Algorithms, and Data Structures tracks are probably pretty good. You don't have to get to the "Hard" level - if you can do the "Medium"s, you're probably good.
  • SQL. If you haven't used SQL, or haven't used any actually difficult SQL, in a while, take an online tutorial all the way through. PostgreSQL Exercises is the best I think; Mode Analytics's one is good too. Particularly learn:
    • how to do a GROUP BY and an aggregate (like "tell me the total sales in each state")
    • when to use WHERE vs HAVING (HAVING is after the groupby/aggregate)
    • how to do JOINs, including the difference between types of joins
    • how to do subqueries, and when you would
    • Some of this is just a feel thing, which is why I say work through a whole SQL course. I'm getting more fluent in SQL, even if sometimes I can't quite articulate, for example, when you would use a subquery.
    • how to work with dates is a nice bonus
    • window functions would be good. Here's one example. This is kinda in the "bonus points" - when a question came up where it'd be appropriate, I always would say "uhh I guess I'd use window functions but I don't know how to," and I still got jobs.
    • oh, one more tip: when I'm trying to do complicated things with joins or subqueries, I'd often draw out what the end table is that I'm SELECTing from. So like, if I'm joining A to B, just write down what the "A JOIN B" table looks like, even though of course it's not actually done like that.
  • The formula to calculate a binomial confidence interval. p +/- z*sqrt(p(1-p)/n). I don't know many stats formulas, but I had remembered this one, and it came in handy so many times. (Useful in A/B tests - if you test it on 1000 people, and 7% of them click, what's your 95% CI for the real click-through rate? 0.07 +/- 1.96 * sqrt(0.07*0.93/1000) = 0.07 +/- 0.015
  • How you pick which model to use - tradeoffs of logistic regression, decision trees/random forests, SVMs, neural networks, etc. Which ones are good/bad if your classes are unbalanced, or your data's very sparse, or whatever. And how to pick stuff around this - like how do you pick training/test set, how do you normalize your data, etc.
  • How Ridge and Lasso regression work, and more generally what regularization is. I missed this a lot :-P
  • How to quickly load in a data set and make a simple classification/regression model and/or charts, in Python/Pandas or R. Then use whichever of those you feel more comfortable with in the interview.
  • A story of a project where you used machine learning.
  • A story of how you communicated some finding to some other people who weren't as data-nerdy as you.
  • A story of a project where you had to change your plans, maybe. Other kinds of soft-skills stories are nice.

Boot Camps

It might be that you don't think you have the practical skills yet. If that is the case, you might do a boot camp - a couple-month program. Insight Data Science is probably the best boot camp, because it's aimed at exactly you. A lot of my soon-to-be-coworkers did this, coming from a diverse set of PhD backgrounds.

More Strategy


  • If you can, interview first with companies you're less excited about. I learned a lot about this process through doing it - my first few interviews ended at the phone screen or homework stage, and as I did more of them, I ended up getting farther through the process.
  • If you can be local, that probably helps. If you know you want to move to SF, say, then plan a couple week trip out here and tell them you'll be in town on these certain days. That way they don't have to worry about flying you out. Most good companies probably don't care, but I dunno, maybe they do.
  • I had one company ask me for one or two references. Like, your advisor would be fine, or someone you interned with. This was after they gave me a verbal offer, so it probably wouldn't make or break it, unless you're secretly a serial killer (or, realistically, completely unsuited for the job).
  • No suits. This is nice.
  • I'm sure there are more things I'm forgetting. Ask me some questions.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Tales from an HCI PhD Industry Job Search, part 0: Which job?

Ok, so this is for a very focused crowd, I guess, but I know a lot of people who will be in my shoes, and I feel like I learned something, so I want to write about it.

I guess first we have to do the "industry or academia???" question. This one is simple. If your answer is "Academia, hell yes, 100% for sure", do academia; otherwise, do industry.

Ok, so you're doing industry. Here's the first question you might want to ask yourself: what kind of industry job? Here are some options:

Research Scientist

This is an increasingly rare job, showing up only at some of the megacorps like Microsoft Research, FXPAL, and somehow Yahoo. Do this if you actually wish you were in academia. At MSR, it'll be close to academia; at other companies, it'll be farther, but you can still make up new things. I interviewed for one of these; it involved me giving a talk about my research and then talking with 4 research scientists/engineers on the team one by one. At the end, I realized I didn't know enough machine learning to work with this team (the Machine Learning and Vision team).

User Experience Researcher

These people do research with people all the time. Interviews and surveys are very common, but you might also do focus groups, workshops, intercepts, usability studies, and some stats. You also have to have some skills in communicating, and you probably have to not mind convincing people that your work is real. I interviewed for a few of these, and they usually involved me giving a talk about some research I've done, then I talked with 5-7 people one by one. At one of them, they gave me a short problem, something like "You work at (hypothetical company X), and they have this new broad question. How would you narrow it down into a research plan?" and I had an hour to think about it and then give a 20-min presentation. I don't really know how these interviews are evaluated.

Software Engineer

You like writing code in a team. You were frustrated at all the terrible code you wrote throughout grad school. You like organizing things. If you think you want to be a SWE, you probably shouldn't go to grad school, but if you graduate and find that that's what you want to do, then by all means do it! You will always have a well-paying job and be treated like a minor royalty. Especially if you're good.

UI or UX Designer

If you know you like to do this kind of thing, go for this job! I don't know anything about it, really.

Project Manager

Do you like to have 500 tabs open and communicate with everyone all the time? And, like, deal with stuff blowing up and figuring out how to coordinate a bunch of screaming cats to get their stuff together to actually get a product out the door? Do you think grad school was too slow and quiet? PMing is for you! God bless you. I could never handle this job.

Data Scientist

This... can mean a lot of things. But most of them are in demand! It can mean:
  • Product analytics person - answer questions about your product
  • Quantitative UX person - answer questions about your users
  • Machine learning engineer - building "data products" (where "data products" means roughly anything where you are doing any ML)
  • The first person at your startup who works with data for more than one-off things
  • Some combination of the above
  • Probably something else too
These were most of my interviews. They usually started with 1-3 phone screens, then sometimes a "homework assignment", then a daylong interview with 5-6 people, which were some combination of:
  • Programming
  • SQL
  • Experimental design
  • Big-picture thinking (~ "we want to do X with our website, how would we do it?")
  • Machine learning or modeling
  • Collaborating with other people/teams
  • Lunch

Friday, June 23, 2017

A job search, visualized


Each row is my series of interactions with a given company. This chart is not at all in chronological order.

Legend:
Computer monitor: an online application
Thumbs up: a friend (or friend of friend) saying I'm cool
Phone: phone screen (green if it's a "non-screen" call where I'm not "on." Eh, details; I'm always "on.")
Mail: an email (blue if "cold"/unsolicited/I just thought they were cool so I tried to contact em.)
Pencil: take-home work assignment
Two people shaking hands: an in-person conversation (also blue if unsolicited - like my friend works somewhere cool so I try to see if they're hiring)
Three people around a table: in-person interview
N: when they gave me the official big "nope"
Trophy: an offer

What did I learn? (and all these are limited to SF tech job searching)

  • don't bother contacting them if they don't have a job listing
  • if you get to an on-site, you're really in the home stretch. Someone told me 1/5 on-sites become offers; in my case it was 1/2; either way, do a handful of on-sites, and you should get something.
  • the usual cycle seems to be: 1. online app, 2. your friend gives you a thumbs up, 3. phone screen or two, 4. onsite interview
  • I dislike it when companies never respond. At least a form letter response would be nice.
  • A friend's thumbs-up or a conversation with someone you know gets you in the door.  In interactions without a thumbs-up or friend-convo, 1 went farther to phone screen at least (and it led to an offer) and 8 didn't; in interactions with a thumbs-up or friend-convo, 13 went farther and 13 didn't. But that includes the "cold" ones - in "warm" interactions with a thumbs-up or friend-convo, 13 went farther (4 to offer) and 8 didn't.
  • by the way, LinkedIn is a good way to get that thumbs-up or friend-convo. Pick a company, you can see your friends-of-friends who work there. Your friends will often make an introduction.
  • that one offer without a thumbs-up came from A-List, which is from AngelList, but they send you an invite if you're in the "top 1%" of applicants. I don't know what that means, but apparently CMU PhD + Google gets you into that "top 1%." Seems like a good way to access smaller-company jobs. Regular AngelList is good too.
  • so, like, if I'm in the "top 1%", and relatively well connected, usually the process is much harder than this! woof!

Which one was Stitch Fix, which I accepted? Fourth from the bottom.

Oh by the way: I'm starting at Stitch Fix at the end of July. Wooo!

But but but I want to know more! Don't worry, this is job search post 1 of many.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Credit card churning, level 2

Ok, here the main game is:
- get a card with a sweet bonus
- meet the Minimum Spend
- get some bonus points
- downgrade it at the end of your first year
Who can do this? Anyone who can get approved for sweet credit cards. (if you can't get approved, then get some less-prestigious credit cards with no fees, use them for a while, always pay them off, and eventually your credit rating will be better and you'll get approved.
You might not want to do this if you're buying a house soon - it'll ding your credit just a bit. But that wears off.

1. Get a card with a sweet bonus.
You're looking for, ideally, 30-50k points/miles, and annual fee waived for the first year. Some of these that I've done include:
Barclay AAdvantage Aviator Red
Barclaycard Arrival Plus
Capital One Visa Signature
Chase Sapphire Preferred
Chase IHG Rewards Club
Chase MileagePlus Explorer
Citi ThankYou Premier
Citi American Airlines AAdvantage Platinum Select

Maybe check r/churning to see what's popular now. Sometimes there are particularly good deals (like the MileagePlus Explorer is usually 30k miles but sometimes 50k), so try to jump on those. The Chase Sapphire Reserved was even 100,000 miles when it first came out! 100k deals usually don't last long, though. If I see a 100k I'll jump on it; and usually a 50k is worth it too.
Note that, to me, hotel miles are worth about half of airline miles. So if you're looking at a hotel card, try cutting those values in half.

Ideally this will be in an airline/hotel you want to use, or use often, or a convertible rewards program. For example, Tati and I had our wedding planned at an IHG hotel in Pittsburgh, so I used the IHG points I got from this thing to book us some free rooms. And I fly United a lot, so those miles will get used.
Convertible rewards programs are stuff like Chase Ultimate Rewards or Citi ThankYou. These are points that you can convert into specific airline/hotel miles, or sometimes use them for other things too.

2. Meet the Minimum Spend
All these deals will have some kind of minimum spend to get the big bonus, like "50,000 bonus miles after you spend $3000 in the first 3 months." Just start using the card for everything. If you wouldn't end up spending that much in 3 months, there are ways to spend a small fee to "buy" points - just look up "manufactured spend" on r/churning. For this reason, I usually don't churn more than one card at a time - it can be hard to meet the MS on all of them.

3. Get the points
They'll usually automatically post with little fanfare, and it's not usually as soon as you meet the minimum spend, so you might have to check on it a little bit.

4. Downgrade at 1 year
The CC companies are trying to get you to start paying the annual fee (after they waive it for the first year). You just have to remember to "downgrade" your card - roughly, trade it in for a "lesser" card with no annual fee. Like, I traded an AAdvantage Platinum Select ($90ish fee) for an AAdvantage Bronze (no fee). Course, the AAdvantage Bronze has no big perks... but that's ok, because at this point, you stick it in a drawer and don't really use it for anything.

To do this, just call them, at the number on the card or wherever. Ask them to downgrade this account to a no-fee card. They are usually more than happy to help. They'll often have a bunch of different ones - it doesn't matter which one you pick, because you're not going to use it anyway. You can usually do this a little after the 1 year mark; then they'll refund your annual fee. Sometimes they'll let you do it before 1 year.

An added benefit of this is you now have more credit available to you, which improves your credit score. If they won't downgrade your card, you could always just close the account. But I think I've only had that happen once.

Total benefit: ~50k points, up to 3-4 times a year. 1 point is worth roughly $0.01, so we're talking ~$500 each time.
Total cost: $0.
Total effort: well, nonzero. But it's not terribly a lot of work.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Credit card churning, level 0 and 1

Sometimes I play the credit cards game, to get a little bit of bonuses without paying money. I'm a pretty-inactive member of reddit.com/r/churning. Many friends have asked me "if I don't want to think about it and just get a decent bit of credit card rewards what should I get?" Basically, what's the 80/20?

I tried to check /r/churning, but it's an insane mess, I think mostly because this question is complicated, because obviously that's the CC companies' game. Nobody will just make a card that is Strictly The Best, because they're all grabbing the tiny percent of edge from people who aren't quite using their cards to the max potential. So, everyone in /r/churning is trying to figure out how they particularly can get a tiny percent of edge because they always fly Delta or buy a lot of groceries or something. And it's the kind of nerds who love to get a tiny bit of edge.

So for me, there are a lot of answers, and I feel like I should have a good canned one. It depends on a lot. Let me tell you a few of your options, depending on how much you want to spend:
- Level 0: 40/1/$0. 40% of the benefits for 1% of the work and 0 dollars.
- Level 1: 60/1/$100. 60% of the benefits for 1% of the work and $100/year ish.
- Level 2: 80/20/$100. 80% of the benefits for 20% of the work and $100/year ish.
- Level 3 and beyond: beats me. I think I'm at about level 2.

Level 0:

At this level, you basically never want to think about which credit card you have. I think that for you the Chase Freedom Unlimited is the way to go. Click a link here:
https://www.reddit.com/r/churning/comments/5ta38h/official_chase_freedom_unlimited_referral_thread/ (or if it's later than about July 2017, search for the new Freedom Unlimited Referral Thread)
Simple 1.5% cash back on everything, and $150 signup bonus. And Chase's web site is not as terrible as some others.
(I think this because I feel like I've heard about it on forums sometimes. so, confidence about 70%. also, I gave you the /r/churning link, b/c if you click someone's link there, they get $100 referral bonus, which doesn't hurt. I would give you my own referral link but I don't have a Freedom Unlimited so I can't, unfortunately.)

Level 1:

Here, you basically never want to think about which credit card you have but you are willing to spend about $100/year on it. Two options, and they both give you Chase Ultimate Rewards points, which you can redeem for a bunch of different mileage programs, or Amazon or whatever. They are pretty good points. Plus, on either of these, you'll get 50k bonus points after you spend $4k within the first 3 months - so get the card then use it as much as possible within that time frame.

Chase Sapphire Reserved

$450/year, but $300 of travel expenses (planes, hotels, airbnbs, etc) gets automatically refunded. So if you're using it, and you travel, it's effectively $150/year. Gives you a bunch of points and some other travelly benefits (some lounge access, reimbursement for TSA Global Entry).
(More info on this card, and the difference between it and Preferred.) No referral link for this one, but you can get there on that "more info" link.

Chase Sapphire Preferred

$95/year after the first year, gives you almost as many points. Good in-between if you don't want to spend quite $150, or if you don't think you'll spend $300 on travel in a year. Apply here (my personal referral link).

Just get one of these cards and then use it for everything. Then one day you will have a ton of points and you can book a flight or something.
(boy, this sounds like I'm paid by Chase, doesn't it? I mean, I'm not. They just do tend to have the best points for most people. Note that if you have an airline you fly a lot, especially Southwest, you might want to get the card for that airline instead, as long as it has a 30k or more point signup bonus.)

Level 2

I'm gonna leave this part of the guide for another day.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

fighting with the neural networks for very good jokes

I feel like neural network humor has gotten really good. This Tumblr seems to be the epicenter. Pokemon recipes paint D&D superheroes
wait, superheroes

Recently, in a silly mood, Tati and I came up with my own list of nonsense superheroes. They feel like they're in the same direction; this sort of uncanny valley of mostly following rules of normal logic, but not entirely.

Good King Wenceslas and Rice Dog
Wilson Trucker
Old Tom and his letters
The Knife Police
Red Skuldugger
Fastfood Wasteland
Church Guy Dot Com
Captain Franklefort
Roy Soulfish
Grape Dude
Wanda Pyramid
Kenny Growup
The Amazing Bat
Hurta Fly
Rock Dog
False Poster Boy
Westin Smasher
Murdu Man
Coconut Head
The Insatiable Dod
Donor 2 Drugs
Fashion Electric World Capt.
The Welsh Strider
Bancoman
Wallachia
Pop Brix
Vinnie Bitsandbeans
Dutch Melly
Iron Ludwig
Castlevania
Maniac Korliss
Wyandople
Sudan Stan
Guy You Got In Your Neighborhood
The Pharaoh Clooney

While we were at it, we came up with some names for a baby. (No, we're not having one. We just thought these should be available as a public service; feel free to take them for your own kid.)
Loquat
Mool
Senfert
Jellinator
Westerley
Mozilovich
Slavara
Fing
Habordick
Jingstraw
Bolo
Wambert
Wallapop
Slennygoat
Rockoford
Moria
Jamespierre
Perriero
Habute
Naboldov
Zircorn
Glenish
Habterpie
Binward
Marshmallowpop
Forbis
Kalnoon
Uncanny
Wimas
Zenietta
Ashter
Horseshouder
Garra
Garalich
Doofie
Renny
Faldo
Carmalot
Smeernoing
Huse
Jamborie
Boggin

But... not as good? I kinda want to Mechanical Turk test these, and see if I can humor better than a neural net. I'm not sure if I want to win or lose.

I'll leave you with a fairly dada short story:
Wandering underhill the goat farmer and his steel drum band. Lions escape faculty oversight while withdrawing from formal scrutiny. Yellow lollipop stick upended in a raised ball of fruit. Within the normal force field lies a smarmy alliaceous ball. Next to a frigid sound man, King Walrus rests upon his laurels. Beside him, the trained eye can spot kestrels yawning at the prospect of unparalleled masculinity. Feverishly sorted and left out to dry. What if by some strange stroke of luck, it so happened that a barreling freight train of good humor wound up dead? I don't know that we could stomach the loss. Later, now, the raven winds its way towards its everlasting home. You can't blame it. But under the watchful eye of the beholder, grains wilt and lie prostrate on the floor. An eager grammarian. Let yourself explore the expanse available to you; buy me an ogre. Willis had a necktie, and shouldn't we all? Fair to say, you won't find the Italian Mafia around this bean corn stand.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Changing your mind, takers, conformity, pirates and gold, concentration

"I Changed My Mind" award
I feel like, in online arguments, the thing I most admire is when people change their mind in the face of better evidence. And yet, sometimes that's seen as evidence that you were wrong, and therefore you "lost." F that. You should get an award for changing your mind.
See also: when you're meditating, and you realize your mind was wandering, you don't say "stupid mind! you're so bad! I am bad!" you say "hey, I found my mind again! awesome, welcome back!"

F'ing Takers
A bit of Magic slang, maybe, or that's where I got it at least: "taker." Someone who rules-lawyers or otherwise does whatever they can to get ahead, at the expense of being nice or the game being fun. Like, what they're doing is legal, but it sucks.

Why I bring it up (tl;dr: small-time landlord woes, you can skip this section, basically the landlord's a Taker): when we rented our apartment, we were offered it for $3150/month including garage, or $3000 without. We said, ok, we'll take the garage, it's good for storage and bikes. I think the renting agent (call him E) said "sure, that's fine." (it might have been our agent. I think it was E.) The landlord, A, has been a shadowy figure to whom our money goes. A month after we moved in, they hired a property manager, K, so A doesn't have to deal with us anymore. K basically parrots whatever A says. They had to do some seismic retrofitting in the garages, A noticed that some people were storing things and not cars in the garages, A gets worried, A tells K to tell us that no "storage" is allowed in the garages. We say, wtf, we rented it with a garage for storage! K says "well, let's check your lease", and sure enough, it says "no storage." And like, I know, get everything in writing, I goofed, I tried to check every other dang thing, but I guess I missed this one. So we say "Ok, K, we'll give the garage back. It's now worth $275/month on the open market in our neighborhood, so how about you give us $200/month off our rent? That gives you a nice little profit margin to re-rent it." A counters with "you can have $50/month off" and won't budge. Even to $150, the original price of the garage.

Letter of the law, A is right! She got us good! We're really not entitled to anything here, because by the rules of the game we mistakenly agreed to something dumb. But come on, can we be reasonably nice here? I'm sure some of you are rolling your eyes here: you want your landlord to "play nice"? That's like asking a rules-lawyer to ask you to take back that mistake you just made a half second ago. Of course you're not entitled to it.

Or, to put it another way: we work in different modes. When you're programming a computer, everything is letter-of-the-law. But when you're paying for your food at a restaurant, there's people involved, so you switch to a slightly different register in order to recognize the humanity of everyone there. (I mean, you tip, at least.) Life is better when you're not going to court over every last minor gripe. And that only requires everyone to be just a little bit not-a-Taker.

Scarcity Breeds Conformity
One response to our landlord being a Taker is to say, bye, we're renting from someone else. Sadly, we're in a scarce market. (I could go on about how SF housing policy is terrible, but that's another conversation.) So we're encouraged to just suck it up. Now, one thing I liked using the garage for was building bikes. I was learning a skill, having fun, doing something productive and creative. Now I can't use the garage for that. I guess I better just go to work and come home and drink beer and watch Netflix. (but not too loud.) Those are all within the rules. This is one argument for owning, and therefore for moving back to Pittsburgh. Hell, I think we're not even supposed to be hanging pictures on the walls. Ugh.

Chasing the "Pirates and Gold" High
When I was still deciding where to go to college, my friend Bill who was doing computer science at CMU sent me one of his homework assignments, from 15-251, "Great Theoretical Ideas in Computer Science." In it was the following problem:
"There's a pirate ship with 100 pirates, all ranked in fierceness from 1 to 100. Whenever they find gold, they distribute it like so: Pirate #1 proposes a distribution. (like, "10 gold pieces to everyone" or "I get all of it, you all get nothing", or whatever.) All the pirates vote yes or no. If at least half of the pirates vote yes, then they distribute the gold like that. But if more than half the pirates vote no, then they kill Pirate #1 and Pirate #2 gets to propose a distribution, and so on. The pirate just found a treasure chest with 1000 gold pieces, and you are Pirate #1. What distribution do you propose?"
You might think the answer is something like "10 gold to everyone", or "20 gold to the first 50 pirates, 0 gold to the last 50 pirates", or something, but there's actually a very clever solution that lets you, Pirate #1, keep about 95% of the gold. No spoilers (but if you're interested, I'll explain it).

This was awesome. And I thought, wait, you can do this for a job? That plus the little programming glee when something works made me think, yep, this is what I want to do.

Unfortunately, it's hard to get back to that high :-/ Software engineering is more quotidian. Usually you don't get too many "pirates and gold" problems. Think of it like building houses: Frank Lloyd Wright gets to build crazy houses over waterfalls and stuff, but most architects probably spend most of their days drawing up the same blueprints for the next McMansion. (Not to knock architects; I bet most of you would love to do Fallingwater but keep getting paid for dumb stuff. Apologies if that's not true.) Plus, most architects don't often, or ever, get the little hit of joy from screwing boards together.

Now, you can certainly go another direction, and go for Real World Impact instead of the fun programming puzzles. I think that'll serve you much better in the long run, and it's what I'm trying to do now, and what I've been trying to do for the last 5 years. I just wish someone had told me that ahead of time.

Imperceptibly Small Benefits
An idea I'm puzzling over involves social media, little hits of dopamine, and concentration. On one hand, concentratiophiles will tell you that each bit of social media you read will entrench this pattern of quick hits and no deep concentration. On the other hand, you learn stuff from all these little distractions? I could walk to the store, or I could walk to the store while listening to a podcast and pick up a lot of information about some topic I don't know about. (Or just listen to a funny thing and have fun.)

Both sides are adding up small benefits. I guess some anti-social-media person can probably concentrate way better than I can, and they might argue it's because of tiny practice times a million. Some super-social-media person, too, probably has a ton of friends, deep connections, and lots of knowledge about what's up in the world, because of tiny knowledge times a million.

Wish we could measure either of these claims so we'd have some kind of idea about the veracity and the size of both of them :-/

Monday, May 01, 2017

find a city, find myself a city to live in

two mostly-unrelated thoughts about cities:

1. when I was moving back to Pittsburgh, I thought about "the Aikido test": say I want to take up some new hobby, like Aikido; will I find a local community that I can do that with? can this city help me become who I consciously want to be?
I'm not sure that's the right way to think about it. a new test, call it the "Denver skier test": what will this city help me to unconsciously become? (I don't know if you can live in Denver/Colorado front range and not become a skier, at least a little bit.) Similarly, Seattle got me addicted to coffee, but also got me to ride bikes for 200 miles the first time, so that was nice. (I mean, the coffee's nice too.)

and what is San Francisco helping me unconsciously become?

2. why the hell is it always gentrification? why can there not be techy businesses without gentrification? is it just that "tech" is shorthand for "nouveau riche"? (the fact that Juicero is considered a tech company is evidence for this.) but even if that is so, why can't we do a couple things: why can't we have jobs that are not disappearing, grinding, or tech? why can't we tax the few that are feasting to cover the many who are famining? and why can't cities build up to accommodate the faminers as well as the feasters?

Thursday, April 13, 2017

There's an emotions-Wookiee riding shotgun in your head

We teach kids (intentionally or not) that they are a "self."

Let's leave aside the question of how to teach them that there is no "self" - what about teaching kids that they have two selves?

Specifically, there's the driver (which is the "you" who you think you are, the cold logical one) and the emotions passenger. They are constantly talking to you and affecting what you do - sometimes indirectly ("pull off at this exit, I'm hungry", "turn the AC onnnnn!!!", "I'm playing music now"), sometimes directly by grabbing the wheel. They are a large, powerful person, can overwhelm you if it comes to a fight, and are sometimes very wise; ultimately you're in charge, but the two of you are a team. I'm calling the passenger a Wookiee because Chewbacca seems to fit all of these pretty perfectly.

When you are born, they speak a different language than you. Your happiness, success, and sometimes survival depends on your ability to learn to communicate with them. This is what "emotional intelligence" and "soft skills" mean.

So many things, especially interpersonal conflicts, would be so much easier to explain if you had this framework. Instead of saying "I ____", replace that with "My emotions/Wookiee _____". Learn when to take the Wookiee's advice into account, and when they don't know what they're talking about. Learn when to tell the Wookiee to quiet down because you've got to drive for a while... and when to let the Wookiee win.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

A few short cranky thoughts

1. Every attempt to manage academia makes it worse. I'm enough of a hippie to think you should actually just pay them without measuring them. Or maybe measure them once per decade or something. I've never met an academic who was anything other than suuuuper driven. These aren't the people you need to be micromanaging.

2. Every time you say "just" (as in "just one thing" or "can you just do this for me"), an alarm bell should go off in your head. (kind of like the bell that should go off when you say "well, actually...") What it often sounds like you're saying is "I want you to do this thing, but I don't want to be indebted to you for it, so I will minimize it. I want it to be easy. I'm going to act like it's easy, even if it's not."

3. As your job gets more intelligible to outsiders, it gets easier to connect it to some values in your life. That is nice. Doing user research is often more intelligible than software engineering, and as a result, it's usually easier to say "yep, this will actually help people." However, it also means other people think they know how to do your job too. See also: bikeshedding.

4. In SF (/the Bay Area, and other large metro areas), you can have anything. Restaurants, bars, shops, coffee, parks, weather, theater, arts, interactive theater, escape rooms, talks, Burning Man hackery, etc. On the other hand, no one human can possibly take all that in, so it sometimes feels a little immature to live here. Like, you haven't figured out what you want and what you don't care about, so you just want it all. There's some maturity in knowing what things you want less than other people.
On the other other hand, you can't say "well, I only care about theater, so I'm going to move to Theater City." Fair point.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Thinkin' bout automated bosses

like Uber. Your "boss" is an algorithm that says "you get 4.7* or above, you can keep working; if not, you're fired."

Like, in a sense, great (as long as this algorithm is known); you get people to do the job right! If you don't do the job, you're out. Easy as that. In contrast, full-time jobs are super-sticky (esp in Europe, but even here in the US): it is very hard to fire someone.

Obviously the Uber route has these terrible effects on the drivers - they never know if they'll be working tomorrow, they're already in debt because they bought this car to drive for Uber and now they're fired for some arcane reason (maybe even unknown reason), they've got to work 14 hours a day to meet the mandatory minimum number of rides or something.

But I'm wondering if the stickiness of full time jobs also helps companies. Like, if you join a new company full-time and then have a bad first couple months (because you're trying to learn a new thing, or just getting to know the people, or you have a family emergency or something), you're not fired; the company ideally finds a way to help you succeed, and then they've got a productive longer-term employee instead of having to start all over. This stickiness is a smoothing factor that helps the company think long term about you instead of short term.

(that, or stickiness does hurt companies, but we've just got too much pro-worker regulation here. I'm open to the argument, but it seems unlikely in 2017 America. hmm.)

Edit: now, there's nothing about Uber that means they have to be so short-term thinking. You could imagine them taking your average rating after, say, your first year, and if it's still not 4.7 by then, ok, now you're out. But then you'll have people who will milk it for a year, be crummy, and get paid for a year before they quit. And I guess office-job people are less likely to do this because they have more human connection and are not inclined to milk the system for all it's worth.

(but then, current workers are not stunning examples of being super excited about their jobs anyway.)

Monday, March 27, 2017

"Purely Logical Debate"

I am just signal boosting an SSC post again, but in particular I like his rules for a debate. He calls it a "purely logical debate" out of necessity. I don't love the term because it sounds like something only nerds would love, but I don't have a better idea, so let's go with it for now. In general, to be a "purely logical debate", it must be a:

1. Debate where two people with opposing views are talking to each other (or writing, or IMing, or some form of bilateral communication).
2. Debate where both people want to be there, and have chosen to enter into the debate in the hopes of getting something productive out of it.
3. Debate conducted in the spirit of mutual respect and collaborative truth-seeking.
4. Debate conducted outside of a high-pressure point-scoring environment.
5. Debate where both people agree on what’s being debated and try to stick to the subject at hand.

(much more background in the post)

I'm tempted to say "I would like to Purely Logical Debate, and only Purely Logical Debate." And then either of us can pause the debate if we feel that the other is breaking a rule, and we can go back and correct it.

(fwiw, I also agree with his statement that people rarely change their minds all at once, and that the "backfire effect" is probably not as ironclad as we think.)