Monday, December 31, 2018


At one point, I could make a list of everything I owned. I could even carry it all! That was neat. However, that doesn't work too well when you're older than a college sophomore. Nowadays, I could not make a list of everything I own. Even categorizing it gets into long-tail problems; I can fit a lot of things into "clothes" or "books", but then there's a lot of weird one-off things. The airlock jar topper that I use to make kimchi that lets fermentation gases bubble out but doesn't let stuff in? Where does that go?

I could probably at one point make a list of everything I spent money on, too. Magic cards, a couple of Star Wars figurines, and ... I don't know, that's about it. That ended probably by middle school. Now, even with credit card records and Mint, it's hard to do.

I'm gonna call these domains, where I can't make a list of them or fully categorize them, "uncatalogable." This makes it difficult to reason about these domains. Examples of difficulties:

1. how much do I spend on restaurants? Is it like... 10% of my expenses? How about, which ones are for social things with friends vs when I just don't feel like cooking? Should I try to eat out less? And if I did, would I save $100/year or $5000/year?
2. are there weird things falling through the cracks? Did Amazon fine-print sign me up for some new nonsense that charges me $7.99/month for extra Prime TV channels or something?
3. how much did I pay, the last time I booked a hotel? (I don't remember when or where that would have been.) I have very little idea of how I'd find that.
4. when I move... how long will that take? How many boxes will I need, and for what?

One partial solution comes to mind: search. This has worked for email, which long ago became uncatalogable. But that only solves problem 3 above (and is hard to apply broadly, e.g. to "things I own"). Problem 2 is mostly solvable by being sorta vigilant on Mint or my credit cards - I'm pretty good at that, I think.

But problem 1 is pretty unsolvable. And that (low-key) worries me. I feel like I'm just blundering around in the world, just trying not to own or buy "too many" things. Right now, my current sense of "too many" means I am saving a good chunk of money and I am not deluged with things. So I mean, that's fine, I guess. But it's also just coincidence - if my job paid less, or if we had more room in our house, I'm not sure I would know how to compensate accurately.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Feelin' pessimistic about our ability to live together in the world

Let's say on some metric Fox is 50 points to the right of NBC. How can we tell, then, if NBC is 0 and Fox is +50 (where more positive = more conservative I guess) or NBC is -25 and Fox is +25?

I guess media scholars would study this. This chart seems well-researched, at least at a glance. Also, pulls out the distinction between bias and truthfulness. (You can be leftist or rightist and still write true things, or fair interpretations of events. Also, you could be ideologically neutral and just write garbage.)

But if we don't listen to people who are doing this, then we're in a very game-able situation. If we want our news to be "fair and balanced" without deeply looking into what that means, it's really easy for one side to move the goalposts and then expect everyone to move to the new center. (Similarly in the political world. But let's stick with the news for now.)

It's even worse, though!

We all know polarization is rewarded by the Facebooks of the world, because it feeds anger and gets clicks. So there's not only no stop against Fox going full-reactionary (or indeed, CNN going full-leftist), but there are forces pushing them in that direction. I don't know why we shouldn't expect 2020 to be as influenced by Russian trolls as 2016 was. Anger still feels good (see the anger article linked earlier.) And potential consequences for this ongoing interference are really quite dire.

One hope: ad money drying up?

It's harder to fund things with ads than it used to be, I guess. But waiting for that feels like waiting for all our oil to run out before we get renewables. What can we, who are not Zuckerberg or Murdoch, do in the meantime? Beats me.

Man I got a whole other blog post to write but here's a couple quick links

Occasionally I'll save an article and then feel like "I gotta blog about this or otherwise post it or something, otherwise it'll be Lost Forever, and also I'll be Lost Forever because I don't know how to connect and process the million stimuli flying in from all corners constantly.

This is a little frustrating. It takes a lot of time. Maybe I should focus on doing this less. At any rate, here are some things that have resonated with me:

Chinese jaywalking cameras "catch" a bus ad.

The scariest part of this is not the fact that the cameras made a mistake - of course they did - but that there are jaywalking cameras! I'm sympathetic to Evgeny Morozov's point that, the more automatic and efficient the enforcement of rules is, the harder it is to ever change them, even if they are unjust or harmful (like jaywalking bans). See the point about Rosa Parks here. (though Alexis Madrigal rightly skewers this particular example; sigh being as grumpy as Morozov is likely to lead you into a ton of little fights like this that kinda distract from the overall message.)

Payless markets themselves as a fancy store, sells $20 shoes for $500 to Instagram Influencers, everyone pats themselves on the back for being clever.

Kind of along the same axis as "lol the fancy-wine world is fake." Ehh. A few things going on here:
- some of the value of fancy stuff is social signaling; that doesn't mean it's fake! Everyone is signaling constantly. You can't really opt out.
- fancy stuff often is higher quality. Tati has introduced me to the fact that Coach purses actually just last a lot longer than knockoff-Coach purses. Payless shoes fall apart quick.
- fancy stuff often is interesting along other axes; see also: fancy coffee. (a quote I love: "as you pay more for coffee, it doesn't necessarily get better, but it does get weirder.) I like clothes that have weird buttons and collars, unusual fabrics and cuts, and I've been frustrated that I can't find them. Well, I am learning they definitely exist; just at $200, not $50.
- though maybe Instagram Influencers aren't the best arbiters of quality anything? ... oh no, is this just me losing touch with The Youngs?

Why don't we treat intelligence as kinda-innate?

My take: because we conflate "IQ-type intelligence" with "the ability to do anything useful and also to have self worth in this world." Like, "why can't they get a job and lift themselves out of poverty?" We don't want to confront the fact that they might be in a world (like San Francisco) where all the jobs that pay well enough to afford cost of living require a lot of education and a lot of IQ-type intelligence. Kind of like "why can't that guy find a partner?" Well, because he's very short and lots of women just will not date a short guy. We don't tell him "work harder." Also, why do I feel uneasy writing this, as someone who's got a lot of IQ-type intelligence, but I don't feel uneasy saying I've got relatively a lot of height and therefore some advantages in the dating world?

AI thinks like a corporation, and that's worrying

Of course it does, and of course it is. Alternately: corporations think like AIs. AIs maximize paperclips; corporations maximize dollars. Probably the only reason the entire world hasn't been destroyed yet is that no corporation has been good enough or smart enough; being run by thousands of people means you can't really move that fast to do anything.

I love categorizations of The World like this

This model by Robert Kegan:
- says humans develop through something like 5 stages
- suggests the most important to adults are Communal (3), Systematic (4), and Fluid (5)
- maps on to my experience of how the world works
- probably mostly exists to flatter the egos of people who think themselves to be at stage 5

Monday, November 26, 2018

Depression as mental/emotional overwhelm

Here's a hypothesis about a way my brain works sometimes. Epistemic status: talking out of my ass.

You know that feeling where you're overwhelmed with a problem and you just go "this is overwhelming, I can't think about this anymore"?

I'm gonna guess that's what happens with a lot of Trump voters. "The government doesn't work for me anymore. It's so broken, I don't know where to start. Forget it, let's blow it all up and start over. This guy says he's gonna blow it all up and start over, good enough for me."
Person who is not feeling this way: "But... yeah, ok, we need massive overhaul, but in the meantime, shouldn't we do X good thing instead of Y bad thing? Plus, your guy isn't going to actually blow it all up, he's probably going to make things worse."
Person who is feeling this way: "Ehhhhh accepting this train of thought would involve thinking about this space that is too hard to think about. Forget it, blow it all up!"

Similarly with brains: "Life seems really hard and meaningless. I can't really figure out how to fix it. So what do I think about life as a whole? Ehh, forget it, it must just be hopeless anyway."
Person who is not feeling this way: "Yeah, but... isn't it still worthwhile to do thing X instead of Y? Like, don't we prefer some futures over others? And isn't it meaningful to pursue the better ones?"
Person who is feeling this way: "Accepting this train of thought would involve thinking about this space that is too hard to think about. Life is difficult and meaningless, etc. Plus, making a better future means we're going from -100 to -99; yes I think we should do that, but it's hard to get excited about that or find it meaningful."

Just like with Trump voters, I don't think this is a very productive mindset. Luckily, we don't have a Spiritual Fox News, so nobody's trying to convince me to spread the word that life is meaningless. If you don't feel this way, great, keep it up! Similarly, I am continually trying to move this switch for myself. It's probably actually good to try to make a better future, and to feel like it's meaningful to do so.

(Note! Obligatory disclaimer: not crying for help or anything; I have a great support network and am doing fine. The intent of this post is to explain one variety of depressed mind a bit. Also know that I would not cry for help by vagueblogging; if I forget to post a disclaimer like this in on any future post it doesn't mean anything, don't worry.)

Friday, November 23, 2018

on "best"

"I found the best burger place in America. Then I killed it."

Small Brain
Ok. Let's imagine burger places could be reduced to one dimension: Goodness. Local McDonalds: 12/100. Stanich's: 98/100. Then this article would make sense, and the aftermath would be just tragic unintended consequences. Maybe there's a Secret Burger Guide out there that actually knows the next Best place and is hiding it and you can only know it if you're in the Secret Burger Cabal and when you go to this place that is 97/100 you'll say "yes, this is definitely better than the 90/100 place I went to last week."

Medium Brain
Obviously, burger places are not one-dimensional and this is nonsense. Let's imagine burger places are reducible to a small number of dimensions, like 3: taste, atmosphere, and value. Then there is no one "best"; you could average them, but that's not really what people want. You as a reader could then decide "I think atmosphere is the most important" and make your decision based on that. There might still be articles like this: "I found the best tasting burger in America." We'll still have the same problem - it'll just be diluted a bit, as the Best Taste, Best Atmosphere, and Best Value place all get deluged with 1/3 the crowds. Also, each of those people will probably be a little disappointed, as they didn't really want only the taste of the burger.

Large Brain
Obviously, burger places are not 3-dimensional and this is nonsense. Let's imagine burger places have 100 dimensions. Then you could maximize each dimension and spread the crowds out 100 ways - everyone picks their favorite dimension and maximizes that. Burger places start to specialize in only 1 dimension: e.g. Fries Crispiness. Crispy Fries enthusiasts make a pilgrimage to the #1 Fries Crispiness place. The Fries Crispiness place stops making burgers, because everyone's just coming for their fries. Specialization of labor! Everyone's a little disappointed. Also, the fries taste bad because the #1 Fries Crispiness place isn't also the #1 Fries Savoriness place.

Obviously, reducing things to 100 dimensions then maximizing one is dumb and this is nonsense. We can turn every burger place into a 100-dimensional feature vector; your preferences are also a 100-dimensional feature vector; we maximize the dot product of these for you. Now everyone gets super-personalized burger recommendations. Turns out the best one for me is 2000 miles away - eh, still cool, I can make a pilgrimage there someday! There's still some clustering near the top, as those that are pretty good on a lot of dimensions get recommended to more people. But, it's not bad. Still, on Tuesday I might be looking for a quick tasty burger, and on Friday for the best burger in the city. Preferences change over time. Plus, each burger place changes over time: on Friday they're packed, so I'm not gonna go there then.

Exploding Brain
Ok, so burger places aren't 100 dimensions; they're 1000 dimensions plus 1000 temporal dimensions, and so am I. Now we can no longer get enough data to fill this absurdly high dimensional space. We can do pretty well, and we do. Still, I have to take a long survey every time I want to go out, just to see what my temporal preferences are like now, and that's annoying. Plus, sometimes it's just wrong. To test it out, I spent a month picking burger places by throwing darts at a map, and I did just about as well, and it was a lot easier.

Galaxy Brain
Burger places aren't 2000 dimensions and this is nonsense. Burger places are in roughly 4 categories: bad, bad and I have a story about it, good, good and I have a story about it. Here, "story" can mean:
- this place is better than the average "good" place; I would go out of my way to eat here
- this place is fine in most dimensions and great on one
- this place is not good usually, but if it's 2am and everything's closed and you were out partying it's great late-night food
- it's so bad you never want to go there; I got sick after eating there
- I have fond memories of this place from college
These stories are in too many dimensions to even model. You can never get enough data to accurately predict if someone will have an "interesting story" about a place. And importantly, you should stop trying. Every second you spend on it is spinning your gears; every story about "The Best burger place" might accidentally ruin it.

Conclusions That Are Not As Profound As I Thought When Starting This Post
Burger places have the following properties: temporally varying, high supply, low stakes, result measured in feelings and stories. As a result, if you wanted to pick a place to live and you loved burgers, you should optimize for "the greatest number of diverse burger places" rather than "the best." See also: coffee, wine, music, movies.

Edit: Even Bigger Galaxy Brain
One review doesn't ruin a place - spousal abuse and ignoring court orders do. Welp :P

Thursday, November 22, 2018

What makes the Spelunkyverse possible?

Spelunky is a video game. It's pretty fun, and pretty difficult. I played through Spelunky classic and it took hours upon hours to even get through the game. It's also procedurally generated - which means each time you're crawling through a new random dungeon.

Spelunky was released in 2009/2012, and people are still trying to break it. Here is a high score tracker - note it's been updated 9 times in Oct/Nov 2018.

And these high scores are not just "I managed to do things 0.01 seconds faster through quick reflexes" - these are "I discovered that, if I fire the shotgun a bunch, it rearranges what layer gold spawns on in the screen, which means I can use a glitch to collect each gold piece twice." It's like if Usain Bolt spent years practicing weird things on the track, and then discovered if he walked on his hands he could finish the 100m dash in 5 seconds. More details in this fascinating only-semi-dense article.

(For an example of one of the tomes in the Library of Spelunxandria, maybe try The Spelunker's Guide to Render Dupe. More general info in the Wiki.)

Why do people do this? How do people do this so well?

A few reasons seem obvious to me (caveat: all just hand waving here):

Spelunky has intentional depth

Some credit has to go to Derek Yu, maker of the game, who has inserted some really-fiendishly-difficult challenges/easter eggs, like the Eggplant Run. This encourages exploration.

Spelunky has accidental depth

Some of the "glitches" in this game are the result of programming shortcuts. For example, the Ghost is supposed to be unkillable, but in practice it just has 9999 HP. Also, nothing's supposed to hurt the ghost, but maybe accidentally, lava deals it 99 damage. Therefore, you can kill the ghost by making it go through lava 101 times.

Spelunky offers immediate, deterministic, reproducible feedback

If I had to pick one, this is the biggest reason. In a biology experiment, you have to wait a week for your cells to grow - so if there's some complex thing that happens only when 100 variables are all just so, you'll take a million weeks to get there. But on a video game, you can very quickly test your hypotheses.

There are low stakes to experimenting in Spelunky

Worst case, you just wasted some time.

Spelunky can be easily internet-collaborated

Like, if 0.0001% of any population will love Thing X, that's 1 person in a city of a million people. But, it's 7000 people in the world! If they can collaborate, great. It's not easy for them to collaborate on, say, ending homelessness. But it's really easy to collaborate on something that's on computers and offers immediate, deterministic, reproducible feedback.

Most problems are not like this

I guess that's all. My brain keeps going to "... this is amazing! can we build this kind of arcane tower in other domains?" but that way lies Gamification. Basically: hard things are hard.

Appendix: "who are the Pannenkoeks of other video games" - Pannenkoek being a legendary Mario 64 researcher.

Monday, November 12, 2018

"I'll have to eat my way out!"

I can't believe I've never posted this Simpsons clip. (0:00-0:55, minus the Lisa bit.) Bart pumps Groundskeeper Willie's shed full of creamed corn and he decides to just eat it until he can get out. This is such a metaphor to me: usually for a bad situation that, for whatever reason, the only way out is to just eat for a long time. I hate those situations.

(I didn't mean for it to be about garmonbozia, but maybe it is. Welp.)

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Thinking and feeling

A friend recently suggested that maybe a useful guide to think about phases of your life could be "what is the big challenge you're dealing with now?" I kinda like that framing. (It's not super clean, as you're usually dealing with many of them at once; I'm gonna ignore that for now.)

One of my challenges for the past ~10 years has been roughly "to understand what it means to feel, to value feeling, and to get good at feeling."

I'm assuming there are two ways our brains and bodies work: thinking and feeling. Maybe call this System 2 and 1, respectively, like Kahneman, but I don't mean to just talk about decision making here. I mean that there are two ways you can experience reality: thinking about it and feeling it. And I'm relatively good at thinking about it and not as good at feeling it.

(in some ways, my meditation teacher and therapist are telling me the same message, just from different perspectives. convergent theories are encouraging.)

Why is this hard?
- every day I go to work and practice thinking. I don't much have to practice feeling.
- I really like thinking. Like, I am currently spending spare time doing puzzles with some work friends, and it is one of the things that I enjoy most right now.
- my standard tactic when something is hard is to break it down into smaller pieces, figure those out, put it back together. This explicitly does not work when your goal is "feel your body."
- I also like things with nice progress markers. Thinking-mode tends to rack these up: points on your video game, dollars in the bank, miles biked, whatever. Feeling-mode doesn't tend to have them.

What gives me hope?
- feeling is usually at least kinda pleasant, when you can get yourself to do it.
- there's occasionally a marker of progress. I can stop for a second, close my eyes, and feel a kind of "body high"; what Goenka might call the "subtle sensations." Note that this pleasant state is not the goal! But it's a nice sign that I have skills that maybe I didn't previously have.
- if I consider myself an HCI person, HCI is the most feeling-oriented of the computer science fields, I think. So there's hope that I'm not doing 100% thinking all day. (however, Data Science is more thinky. so it goes.)
- feeling-tasks tend not to feel like work. It's probably easier to be good at thinking and working on feeling, than vice versa.

Why bother?
I think because mostly, thinking helps you accomplish things, but feeling makes you want to live. And I'm pretty good at the "how" of life but always searching for the "why."

Unrelatedly, some things that I have found interesting recently:

This story, "Sort By Controversial", is so amusing.
It doesn't map onto our current world just right, because the problem is not that we keep getting these perfectly true/false statements; the problem is that there are people spending all their time to make these statements more controversial. (some actively like Fox, some clumsily like Twitter.)

"AI winter is on its way" - are there hype cycles for high level concepts like "AI"? Do I want this to happen or not? Does it matter? I'm always a grump but I think he's right; I think we might hit some limits (like with self driving cars) where it looked like we were going to hit 100% but we actually hit 90% and the last 10% is harder than the first 90%.

Finally watching Season 2 of Master of None, and it's kind of great. There's rocky bits, and I feel uncomfortable sometimes because, basically, I don't really want The Olds to think that We Old Millennials are like that, but it kinda nails it sometimes. In particular, notice how much of their life revolves around eating! It's like, I don't know what else to do, so I might as well eat good things!

I recently bought a dehumidifier for the basement in Pittsburgh. What humidity level should I keep it at? Beats me, but this pdf from North Dakota State University suggests around 60% in summer and 40% in winter. Thanks, Stack Overflow!

Juliana v. US is bonkers, in a great way. I am surprised that "Sue the entire government for f'ing up all the climate forever" is a legit thing to bring to trial, but I guess so! It feels about right, too: like, we need a carbon tax 20 years ago, and I am a little bit personally mad at every damn Boomer in power who keeps twiddling their thumbs (or worse). Yes, it's a collective action thing - what if we tax and China doesn't, etc - but man, who's going to take the lead if we don't? Props to these young folks who figured out one more way to fight the apathy.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

my current hindrance is righteous fury at cars parking in the bike lanes

A little context: the route I usually use to get to work, Valencia St, has bike lanes. It's also full of cars parking in the bike lanes; reliably 3 or 4 on an average ride down the street.

I am pretty good at navigating traffic on a bike. I haven't been hit by a car because someone parked in the bike lane. It probably raises my relative risk of getting hit. Not by a ton. It probably raises some other people's relative risk by a ton.

Some things I have tried when I see people parked in bike lanes:
1. ignoring it
2. just ringing my bike bell a bunch
3. yelling at them "don't park in the bike lanes!" as I ride past
4. taking a photo and reporting it to SF 311
5. stopping in front of them until they come out of the store and then confronting them. (this I save for particularly egregious offenders and/or luxury cars.)
6. sending notes to my local representatives/etc asking for more protected bike lanes (with like a barrier so cars physically can't park there)
7. waiting in front of the car until a parking cop comes by and waving at them to give them a ticket
(Some of them are a bit harsh, so I balance it based on the situation: if it's a harried uber eats driver making $4/hr, I don't take out my frustration on them. I try to save the angrier ones for the people who are Plain Old Bein' an Entitled Ass.)

Some things I have thought about doing:
8. printing out bumper stickers that say "I parked in a bike lane"
9. calmly lecturing them that, by getting their coffee twelve seconds faster, they are increasing my risk of actually dying
10. same as 9, but instead of lecture, I actually really try to connect with them and understand their needs

Effects on the driver:
1 (ignore) does nothing, of course.
2 (bell) does nothing too, although maybe it lowers the chance of dooring me.
3 (yell) maybe makes them feel bad, maybe makes them feel like "bikers are jerks."
4 (report) does almost nothing. It means it gets included in SF's bike lane stats, but they explicitly say they will not give a ticket for this.
5 (confront) seems the only one that actually does anything - I tell them off, they go "eh ok whatever" and drive off. Maybe their day is a little less pleasant. It also takes the most of my time and raises my blood pressure.
6 (legislate) maaaybe causes change, slowly slowly slowly. also, it's hard to say "we should focus more on this" when there are homeless people dying in the streets and apartments cost $3000/month.
7 (wait for cop) does nothing; I had a cop literally drive past me and a car-parked-in-bike-lane today.
8 (bumper sticker) would piss them off and maybe give them consequences not to park in bike lanes! it feels somewhat disproportionate. I'm fine with that; traffic tickets are also disproportionate to account for the fact that we usually won't catch you. but knowing my luck and current laws though, I'd probably end up getting a ticket for vandalism.
9 (lecture) won't do anything. they'll say "yeah ok" and then park in the bike lane again.
10 (connect) ... also won't do anything. it's hella hard to connect with a rando on the street. Especially for the kind of length of talk that will lead to connection and actually changing their mind.

So, I mean, nothing is effective! Also, some of these raise my blood pressure and/or waste my time. Also also, maybe I occasionally road-rage at the wrong person, which makes the world worse - there's nonzero fallout here.

Which leads to the difficult question: when you are powerless to a small injustice except to ignore it... is ignoring it the best/wisest/Zennest thing to do?
(this doesn't map nicely onto other stories about injustices that we know about, because it's pretty minor. feels like, I dunno, 2 micromorts/year? - which will lead to nonzero deaths in a city of a million people and therefore should be fixed, but for me personally I could just ignore it.)

(ok, I've left out choice 11. walk into the coffeeshop that they're parked outside of, and say "does anyone have a Black Porsche outside? it's being towed right now" and then wait for them to come out for it and then go "April fool, move your car, you goon." this one I haven't tried yet; just waiting for the opportunity :D

Saturday, October 20, 2018

"To Mothman"

David Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth, not quite Mothmanning but it's the best visual I can come up with

The new Adventure Zone arc, Amnesty, (minimal spoilers) includes The Mothman, a character most famously from The Mothman Prophecies who can sorta tell the future. Griffin McElroy, the DM, explains his powers like he's watching a bunch of TV screens that are all possible futures. He can't tell which of them will happen, but I think he knows that one or more of them will - so if they all converge on one thing happening soon, he knows it will very likely happen. Mostly, I want to focus on the ability to see many future stories.

This seems useful as a conversational meme when you're designing a thing, making a law, whatever. These stories are all happening, or will all happen, with some probability. For example, if you make US immigration more lax, there will likely be more immigrants committing crimes. There will also be more brilliant geniuses creating amazing things in our country. There will be more people speaking other languages. There will be more people who are willing to work in construction or farming. Some current-Americans will lose jobs, some current-Americans will get jobs, or will be able to create jobs.

This makes it frustrating when people use stories to argue points. "We shouldn't allow more immigration, because look at this immigrant who committed a crime." No, that's just one Mothman screen. How big is it? How likely is it, how important is it?

I guess it's useful when you haven't yet decided on the set of all screens. It's worthwhile to say "we should consider x." But once it's been put on a screen, you're not allowed to use stories to increase (or decrease) the importance of any one screen. You can only do that with data (to show probability or magnitude of an event) or philosophy (to suggest why we should care more/less about an event).

Anyway, I'm not going to change how people argue, forever, in one internet post. The best I can hope for here is that people start using "to Mothman" as "to look holistically at all possible futures." (perhaps also "to reverse-Mothman" to mean "to look holistically at all possible causes.")

Monday, October 08, 2018

oh my god vote

ok yes please do it ok thanks

California! San Francisco! What have we got here! Here's how I'm planning to vote so far, but open to change. Change my mind.

State Ballot Props

Prop 1 - Yes. "Issues $4 billion in bonds for housing programs and veterans' home loans."
Prop 2 - Yes. "Authorizes state to use revenue from millionaire's tax for $2 billion in bonds for homelessness prevention housing."
Prop 3 - Weak yes. "Issues $8.877 billion in bonds for water-related infrastructure and environmental projects."
Prop 4 - Weak yes. "Issues $1.5 billion in bonds for children's hospitals." I guess I like hospitals? And children?
Prop 5 - No. "Revises process for homebuyers who are age 55 or older or severely disabled to transfer their tax assessments." Sounds innocuous enough - but this would expand Prop 13, aka the ballot measure that passed once that ensured that we'd never be able to raise property taxes again.
Prop 6 - Hell no. "Repeals 2017's fuel tax and vehicle fee increases and requires public vote on future increases." Speaking of hamstringing our ability to ever raise taxes. And like... if we're going to tax anything, it should be cars.
Prop 7 - Yes. "Authorizes legislature to provide for permanent daylight saving time if federal government allows." Someday we could get out of this stupid charade!
Prop 8 - Weak yes. "Requires dialysis clinics to issue refunds for revenue above a certain amount." But really, beats me. Something something, this is a union dispute that made it onto the ballot somehow.
Prop 10 - Weak no. "Allows local governments to regulate rent on any type of housing." This is the most reasonable-to-disagree IMO. Rent control is a tricky issue, there's good reason to support it here in SF even if I don't like it in general. But as one of my friends said, "It seems like right now rent control is fairly available to tenants who want it and we have a lot of tenant rights, so the current setup has most of the benefit without the distortion." But, this might be worthwhile.
Prop 11 - No. "Allow ambulance providers to require workers to remain on call during breaks paid." Why are we ballot propping this?
Prop 12 - Weak yes. "Bans sale of meat from animals confined in spaces below specific sizes." Sure. The less gross our food supply system, the better. Some concern that this is deceptive and actually rolls back some protections. I'll keep an eye on this.

State Elected Officials

Governor: Gavin Newsom. Duh.
Senator: Kevin De Leon. Feinstein's still living in the good old days of decorum and decency, while Senate Republicans have abandoned those. I wish we were still in the good old days too, but I'd rather fight in the awful new days than just get eaten by them. Plus, I kiiinda don't think you should be allowed to be one of the 120-ish most powerful people in the country at age 85 to 91. (We'll see how this belief ages.)
Attorney General: Xavier Becerra.
Minor statewide offices: Hernandez, Yee, Ma, Padilla, Lara, Thurmond all seemed fine to me before.

SF Ballot Props

Prop A - Yes. $425M to rebuild the seawall.
Prop B - No. "Puts forward guidelines that any city department or the Board of Supervisors could enact to protect privacy in the collection, storage and sharing of personal information of San Francisco residents and visitors." I'm in favor of privacy as much as the next person. But city-level is not the level at which to get Facebook to quit their nonsense. Plus, nonbinding: more fuss without doing anything.
Prop C - Hell yes. "Imposes an additional tax on individuals and businesses that receive more than $50 million in gross income in San Francisco, to fund homelessness services and housing." Of course!
Prop D - Yes. "Levies an additional tax on the gross receipts of cannabis-related businesses in San Francisco and extends local business taxes to companies based elsewhere but doing business in San Francisco." Sure. If you're gonna tax anything, cannabis seems as good a thing as any.
Prop E - No. "Allocates a portion of the city’s hotel tax for arts and culture programs." Let the supervisors do their job, don't tell them where the money goes, and especially don't tell them where the money should go in order to fund unnecessary-but-nice things.

SF Candidates

District 8 supervisor - Mandelman. He seems decent and is the only actual candidate here.
SF Assessor: Carmen Chu. Happy to delegate my thought here to the Yimby guide.
Bart board: Janice Li. Yimby and SF Bike Coalition employee.
School board: Collins and Moliga seem widely recommended, and Parker for the Yimbys.
College board: Davila and Selby also seem widely recommended, and Oliveri for the Yimbys.

Some endorsements and sources:

Yimby Action
Cal Bike (in an email; they just said Newsom, Yes on 1, No on 6 and 10.)
SF Chronicle

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

I am frustrated by old businesses, part N

So, a fun thing to do is to try to figure out how old the "Young X" is in whatever hobby/interest you're looking into. I joined SPUR when I moved to SF, and qualified for their "young urbanists" group, because apparently "young urbanists" are up to 40. I heard from someone that "young opera-goers" are up to 50. Hah!

Anyway, I kinda like thinking about money, and I get the impression that "young people who will take time out of their day to talk to a banker about investments" are up to about 50 also. And bank people are like "why don't these irresponsible Youths think about money more???"

Dudes, as a profession, you can totally get The Youths. But you're totally blowing it.

1. Don't start the conversation with "when do you want to retire?" A. as soon as possible, and B. I don't have a damn clue! I could literally see myself retiring at 37 or at 95.
2. Don't ask about my goals. The world is so uncertain that my goal is to make a bunch of money and then see what I can do, when I get there. Imagine setting a goal, in 2005, that you're going to buy a house in 10 years. Good luck!
2. Let us take more risks. We all know that the stock market goes up 6% a year if you can deal with huge swings. Assume we can deal with huge swings.
3. Back up all your numbers. We don't trust you. We need to be able to derive all this junk down to first principles, because we know that you probably don't 100% have our best interests at heart. And that's ok! Let us do math, and we'll decide how much to trust you. All your fancy software you wrote, that runs on like Silverlight ActiveX Java applets and tells me what percent chance we'll have of retiring at our chosen time, we do not trust; we usually know how much sand all those models are built on. (and if we don't, we should.)
4. Don't call me on the phone, please? A phone call is reserved for either A. a scheduled thing; B. a literal emergency; or C. a company we hate. Email is fine. That's how corporations talk with humans.
5. Relatedly: be good at doing the basics. I want to be able to like, deposit, withdraw, buy and sell things, and that is it. If it takes me 5 business days and two phone calls to do that, bug off.
6. Ah forget it, just close up shop and let Wealthfront and Betterment eat your lunch. Whatever.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

We now own a house in Pittsburgh

... but are not moving there for about 5 years.

it us

Why buy a house?

1. Why should we buy a house?

We want space for two kids, eventually, in a place where we can walk/bike to work and 90% of other things we need, in a place where we have some roots. The "roots" thing narrows it down quite a lot: it basically means Pittsburgh, Cleveland, SF, or maybe Seattle or Miami. The "walkable" thing rules out Cleveland and Miami. Our Seattle roots are tenuous, and it puts us even farther away from most of our family - plus it's like SF but with worse weather.

Two kids plus us means probably a 3 bedroom apartment. 2br could maybe work, but I kinda believe in kids' right to a place where they can shut the door and be alone, even if it's a small such place.

Renting a 3br gets difficult and expensive - what, (hand waving) $6 or 7k/month in SF? Even if you can find such a place, you often get above the rent vs. buy threshold. (This calculator has been my gold standard.)

Also, if it's close in price, owning means you don't have to deal with landlords, which is nice. So, for example, you can own a garage and put something besides a car in it. (This is a true restriction that has happened to us.)

2. Why should everyone buy a house?

I'm not sure everyone should. Particularly, if you don't want a family, and you're in a pricey place like SF, you might just be better off renting forever. Do the rent vs. buy calculations.

It *might* be a good investment. I'm not as sure of this as past generations. For example, how could housing prices in the Bay continue to go up? At some point, all the interesting excited young rich people just decide, f this, we're out. (Ahem.) Monaco's pretty to visit, but probably actually wouldn't be fun to live there.

That said, we could just wait for 5 years and then buy a house when we want to move. But we are sort of guessing the market will continue to skyrocket like it always does, so better to buy sooner than later.

Sidebar: this sucks.

You shouldn't have to speculate in order to live, with your family, in a decent walkable community! Housing should not be an investment; it should be a place to live. Notice that almost every big city in the US has a housing crisis? This is because people buy an investment, then they have incentives to keep it valuable and therefore scarce. F that. More on this later.

Why Pittsburgh?

1. Why should anyone buy in Pittsburgh?

To own a 3br place in (a walkable area of) SF would be probably $1.5 million. Oakland would work; then we're looking at $1 million. Seattle, maybe $700k? I dunno, hand wavey numbers, it might not be that bad. But still, even after working in lucrative jobs and saving money for a while, we'd be in debt for approximately forever.

In Pittsburgh, $200k. This frees up so much of our life: we are making big bucks at corporate places now, but we don't have to do that forever, if we basically don't pay rent.

And I'm still bullish on Pittsburgh. Growing tech scene and affordability blah blah, but like, I feel a kind of bottom-up grassroots energy there that I don't feel in SF. I know people who:
- went from barista-ing to big-successful-coffeeshop-owning pretty quickly
- started a monthly pierogi dinner to fund the opening of a now-nationally-renowned restaurant
- created, produced, performed in, done tech for top-notch interactive theater shows
- started the Pittsburgh Comedy Festival that has hosted folks like W. Kamau Bell and Aubrey Plaza
- started technology companies, sometimes fabulously successfully
- started a pizza truck that became a pizza restaurant
- run a beloved community bike shop for decades
- campaigned and passed legislation legalizing ADUs/granny flats in Garfield
- run a worker-owned construction guild

In SF, who do I know who've started things? We're all just tryin' to scrape a few (hundred thousand) dollars off The Man. Can't blame us, but it's less exciting.

Now, selection bias, right? These are the people I've known through most of my 20s, so of course they're the people I know who've done amazing grassroots things. I've met some amazing SFers who are living the kind of life I want to lead, but I've also met lots of people shooting for the moon and missing badly.

Also about Pittsburgh:
- it's reasonably well protected from natural disasters. We're not just waiting for "the big one" like SF or Seattle.
- it's not gonna sink into the ocean in 20 years (sorry Miami)
- the hills are beautiful
- you can get a ferret
- it's possible to effect some meaningful political change, as it's not just all Dems
- speaking of which, my local representative is a friend of a friend and a Democratic Socialists of America member
- It's definitely in Appalachia, not the East Coast or the Midwest. Colonized by angry Scots-Irish, not Puritans. This has upsides and downsides: I like the "individual liberty" angle, but I don't like the fact that they may not recognize we've all got to get along (and ideally would be close together). Plus, IMO, the more thinking, the better, which might make me a "lowland aristocrat." So, mixed bag - but it's a unique energy, and different than you'd get even a couple hours north. Plus, as someone who's spent plenty of time there, I might have a bit of cred with which to help make it better. Listen to the current Adventure Zone for the kind of story you might set there.

2. Why should we in particular buy in Pittsburgh?

I mean, the above, plus roots. Plus we can live in scenic wonderful Bloomfield! With all its crummy bars, badly named vape shops, and awful Little Italy Days!

Seriously, I love this neighborhood, because you can get a sweet row house without a lawn, be 10 minutes biking to so many cool places, and live with the few weirdos who can still afford the East End. Come visit and I'll take you to Constellation Coffee, Apteka, Kraynick's bike shop, White Whale or the Big Idea (depending on your interests), Lou's Little Corner Bar or Brillobox (same), and Clothes Minded, and then you'll want to live here too.

Wait, are we The Man now?

Maybe. Have we always been? Yeah, that too.
I have mixed feelings about becoming a homeowner and a landlord! Especially having seen the devastation that homeowners and landlords have committed in SF. I mean, like everything, it's not landlords that are bad inherently, it's asshole landlords. Plus, it's not homeowners are bad, it's nimby homeowners. Basically, I pledge to always support new housing (especially affordable housing!) in Pittsburgh, to support tenants' rights, and to be a good landlord. When it comes time to sell, I want to get out of this house exactly the money that we put into it, plus inflation.

(ugh yes this contradicts the above point about investment. Let me walk this narrow-but-I-think-consistent line: I will be happy if we get out what we put in, plus inflation. I will not flagellate myself if we get more. I will not make any decisions that will hurt other people, including those who don't live here yet, because of "property values.")


The "normal" way, really. Just started talking to a realtor. I don't have many tips here, but it went kind of like this:
- Look at houses online. (skip the "blue dots" on zillow, those are like auctions and stuff, for risk takers and experts only.)
- Get pre-approved for mortgage, if you're doing a mortgage. (for Pittsburgh houses, if you're a Rich San Franciscan and have saved for a while, you might be able to pay cash!)
- Ask realtor to line up some house tours. If you are far away and your parents are in town, maybe they can do some house touring for you. (true story: we saw the house in person for the first time on closing day. this is maybe crazy but yolooooo)
- Ideally, get a contractor to go through to figure out what work you need to do and how much it will cost. This is difficult; I think mostly they don't want to go through a house that you "might" buy, it's just a waste of time.
- Make an offer. In Pittsburgh you don't need to worry about 14 people offering on day 1. (In SF you do.) You have to sign scary papers to do this. Now you're technically locked in to buy it, though you can walk after the home inspection if there's anything wrong, and there's always something wrong.
- They accept your offer; this begins the "contingency period." During this time you will need to have an inspector do a formal inspection.
- Also have your contractor give you estimates. If they know you've made an offer, they are more willing to do this.
- Work with bank to figure out mortgage.
- After your inspector and your contractor get back to you, you can offer less money on the house. "We will need to fix X and Y to make the house livable, and we didn't know that before we made the offer, so give us $10k off the price we agreed on." Or you can walk away. There will probably be negotiating.
- hem and haw a lot, and then sign a bunch of papers that you mostly understand at a Closing meeting!


Not gonna say the address because public blog, but it's in Bloomfield. For more details, let's just say Soulja Boy would be right at home.

Oh yeah btw want to rent it?

Like, if you're a friend, or a friend of a friend, it'd be awesome to rent you a room (... or more?). We're trying to keep it pretty friendly. And we will be v good landlords.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Three cool links and (edit: two) gripe(s)

Andreas Wannerstedt is the instagram 3d Bees and bombs.

I love this diagram of land use in the US.

This, pretty much. Quit doin' dumb stuff to posture "anti-techie."

The gripe: Talking with a friend who is very logical and pretty well off, and open-minded across the political spectrum, and he's like "Paul Ryan, you have to hook me. If you don't, I've gotta think conservatism and the Republican party are dead." He's annoyed by silly lefty posturing out on the west coast, open to free-ish market ideas, thinks the Jane Kims and Kshama Sawants of the world (far-lefty SF/Seattle politicians) are kind of a mess. Like, who can the Republicans get if they can't get him?

Paul Ryan and his party, of course, are dead to me forever for their immeasurable cowardice over the past two years, and their single-minded focus on tax cuts for rich people. However, I want to be open-minded. So here's my similar gauntlet. Modern conservatives: you've got three inroads by which you can hook me, and they are Russ Roberts, Tyler Cowen, and the Economist. I read/listen to all three, and they are as "economically conservative" as you please. They're also actually smart! For the most part!

So here's the rant: Russ and Tyler, every time you (and your guests) go off about "political correctness" ruining the ability of students to express thoughts on college campuses, you get 1% closer to losing me forever too. I... like, ok, my college experience isn't necessarily the same as everyone's, but... look, "political correctness" wasn't a problem! Similarly, shrugging off Women's Studies and half the Humanities is ignorant. Assuming that post-structuralism and deconstructionism and whatever will lead people to just view the world in terms of simplistic narratives... like, can't you offer them the same courtesy that you should afford any debate opponent? You're probably taking a simplistic view of them if you think they just take a simplistic view of you!

More generally: quit playing this "conservatism is under attack" game. It really makes me lose respect for you.

Gripe 2:
Youtubers/podcasters Brady Haran and CGP Grey totally nail the "attention, distraction, something or another" problem in this week's Hello Internet podcast. I mean, not that they have a great answer to this, but just that I really feel Grey a lot here.
- the ipads blasting ads in you at airports are *super gross*, and yes they're a logical continuation of TVs in bars, but they're still bad. (also TVs in bars are bad, unless you're explicitly a TV bar, like a sports bar. The default should be no TVs in bars.)
- reading a book has felt harder over the years, and that scares me.
- inexact quote: "it's not that I'm a better person if I'm walking a dog and not listening to anything, it's that I'm a worse person if I can only walk a dog if I'm listening to something."
- I share Grey's sense that this is vaguely harmful, as well as Brady's questions of "hmm, so wait, where exactly is the problem?"
- inexact quote: "I've changed my mind on many things like this over the years, like 'am I wrong or is it the kids?', so... I don't know, is this actually a problem?" "Yeah, no, I agree, it is a problem!"

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Cooking is kind of a low-ceiling art.

How is cooking like other arts?

- people have taste, which differs
- people can enjoy making it
- you can pay someone to do it, or get paid to do it (of course, doing this with food is much more common than other arts)
- for better or worse, there's a celebrity culture around it (for worse, IMO, but w/e)
- it's all around us (music and visual arts are all around us in some form. architecture, at least.)

How is cooking unlike other arts?

- it's very easy to understand, at least at a low level. (most people can get some enjoyment out of a fancy steak or a nice salad, even if they don't love it, while there are lots of paintings and music that people just don't care about.)
- we have to at least consume it ~3x/day, while you might go your whole life without going to an art museum. Similarly, most of us make it at least sometimes, while most people don't paint/draw/play music/act/etc.
- unlike most arts, there's a commodity aspect to it. If someone said "I'm going to make a boring painting for you every day for a year", that would provide very little value, but if they said "I'm going to make a boring food for you every day for a year", I mean, free food! (Soylent sells, right?)
- consumption scales badly to many people. You and friends can all listen to music together, but you can't eat the exact same bite of food. Ok, you can all eat the same dish, but if you want 5 or 500 people to eat it you have to do drastically different things - and there is absolutely no way 5 million people can eat it. Sure, 5 million people can all eat the same recipe, but that's a parallel with all making and admiring a Sol Lewitt instructions-drawing.
- consumption is destructive. It's kind of buddhist in that way - feels like a sand mandala, in that destroying it is part of making it. In this way it is like live music and theater, and unlike paintings or recorded music.
- supplies are very available. Compare the number of grocery stores to the number of art/music stores!
- supplies are very perishable.
- you can't really share it online (or on TV or in a book) at all. (At least not yet.) All you can do is share instructions and photos, which are an exceptionally pale shadow of the real thing, compared to other arts.
- it is so often made for someone. In food and other arts, if you say "I made this art for you", it would probably convey deep emotion. The difference is, you rarely do that with other arts.

These qualities make me kinda like it. Feels like the art I should practice more, because it's so ephemeral and embodied. In my normal life, I get too wrapped up in making things cerebral and permanent. Also, there's side benefits: food.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Something like this model of value differences

three posts about how we can deal with being different levels of rational at different times, or how we can (and should!) be ok with having heuristics while not being ruled by them: one two three.
(takes a long time, I totally understand if you want to just tune out now)

Something like the model in the last post makes a lot of sense:
explicitly model system
feel emotion
endorse value based on essence (reified or not)

As we learn more, we move up the ladder, going from "well, there is this magical thing called 'justice' and it is good" to "I don't know, I just feel bad when you wrong me, and somewhat better when you are punished for it" to "here's how we can most effectively prevent crimes."

Or, "fruits and vegetables are healthy" -> "I feel better when I eat them" -> "I need all these 1000 vitamins and minerals in just these proportions, so eating these foods will satisfy them."

(Notice that we're not, in the "healthiness" case, actually fully successfully at the "explicitly model system" phase yet! Soylent tried, but they're idiots.)

I think it's straightforward to say that we should strive to be as far up the ladder as we can be, while being humble about where we are on the ladder.

(Also, most arguments about politics or whatever would be solved if you're just more specific.)

I'll hold off on the question of "do people have real value differences?" because I don't know. I was just sitting on these and wanted to post something about them, but don't have a fully formed thought yet.

Monday, July 02, 2018

Algorithmic fairness is "philosophy: hard mode"

Got thinking about "fairness" today.

Most of the conversation I've heard has been pointing out things that are obviously and grossly unfair. Like sentencing algorithms that give black people longer sentences or the DHS/ICE thing that recommended detention for 100% of people.

That's a good place to start! For these dumb cases, we can probably say "stop that." Sure. But it doesn't give us a lot to go on in terms of figuring out algorithmic fairness as a field.

Algorithmic fairness didn't used to be a problem. For the old-fashioned analogues of a lot of things that are getting algorithmized today, you would just accept a little inaccuracy, and that was fine. If you had a little warehouse and you were trying to hire workers, you'd try to hire the best workers, and then as long as they were working hard, and you shipped as many things as you needed, that was probably fine. You didn't have to think too hard about what basis you're hiring workers on. "Well, honest hard workers, that's all!" But if you're Amazon and you're trying to stock your modern warehouse, every 1% efficiency boost is 1% more profits, so if you can fire Slightly-Less-Efficient Steve and hire Efficient Earl, company-wide, you'll make another $100m or something. And you can monitor them like never before - and tweak your scanner-machine algorithm to squeeze out every last second!

So now, if you're Amazon, you have to think about the weird questions of, what do you actually want from your workers? And how are you going to tweak your algorithms to optimize for this? And if you're regulators or organized labor, how do you tweak your laws to force Amazon not to optimize for the wrong thing?

Turns out, we never even solved this! We never agreed on what is fair/just/Right to ask from workers; we just kinda outlawed the worst abuses, settled on some defaults like "40 hour work week", and hoped "people being decent" would do the rest. (in the case of labor, Reagan and the anti-union last couple decades apparently decided "let the companies optimize for whatever they want, it'll be fine!")

Take the same argument and turn it on pricing models, or prison sentencing, or ad targeting. We never solved the underlying problem; we just kludged it along to a point where nobody with enough power argued too terribly much. Now we're trying to algorithmatize stuff, and we're realizing all these gaps exist.

I guess this is why people are working on this. But I think it's under-resourced if it's being treated as just an HCI problem. (or "just a ____ problem", where ___ is any one field.) We're prying up a couple rotten floorboards, and we're going to discover our whole ethical foundation is not really as strong as we'd hoped.
(or maybe, instead of "we're going to discover", I mean "legal scholars and philosophers already know, but techies are now discovering.")

Wednesday, June 20, 2018


I joke that I spend half my time worrying about where to live, and half my time worrying about having kids. Hah! It's really more like 90% about kids. (I can worry about multiple things at once.)

Blogging tends to help me organize my thoughts, so here we go.

Should one have kids?

Well... from the perspective of the world at large, I don't see many reasons for/against. I guess overpopulation is a thing, but the US is below replacement. Like, it's imperialist and paternalistic and etc, but the way to stop overpopulation is not for you or I to have zero kids instead of two; it's to make sure that, throughout poor countries, people have contraception and personal security and stuff. Yeah, your kids will eat food and cause greenhouse gas emissions, but you've got to think that the world's better for you being in it, and therefore it hopefully will be for your kids too.

From the perspective of the not-yet-existing kids, I don't see many reasons for/against either. I tried to see the point against it! But it doesn't ring very true, if you read that post. Even though I may rather never have existed, I think most people are pretty happy to exist. Therefore, I don't think you're doing a bad thing by having kids.

So it seems like whether you should have kids is all about you.

Points in favor of having kids

  1. Maybe you just want to. If this is the case, there you go! That's easy, and you can stop reading here. I'm going to write the rest of this assuming you, like me, don't have this inherent drive that some people seem to be born with.
  2. It's new and unique. I'm not being glib; this is a very good reason. Same reason I like traveling. Spending a month wandering around India is not more pleasant than being at home, but it's new, and it's worth it to try new things. Expands your world.
  3. Old age insurance. You can't necessarily count on your kids take care of you, but I imagine it's nice to grow old with kids.
  4. Potential grandkids! This sounds great.
  5. It's a chance to perpetuate your values at least one more generation. I mean, if you think your values are pretty good (and I do), you might want to do that.
  6. See the world through kids' eyes. If you're feeling old and jaded (yep!) maybe having a kid around will make you want to finger paint or play with legos or something again.
  7. Unknown upsides. Like, people say things like "you can't imagine what it's like to have kids." One friend said of her daughter: "I didn't know what it was like to love someone so much I want to eat her." I would like to know what that's like!
  8. I think most people who have kids are pretty happy to have them. Even big nerds like me!
  9. Even if the truth is "kids suck, but parents don't admit it"... I'm generally a fan of placebos.

Points against having kids

  1. I mean, the usuals: sleepless nights, diapers, angsty teens, etc.
  2. But seriously; take a step back and look at #1 harder. Your life satisfaction will go down. Life satisfaction isn't just your day-to-day happiness. It makes life harder in a way that isn't necessarily "beautiful struggle." This cartoon. (warning: creepy, not funny.)
  3. Loss of freedom to travel or take whatever job or join the Peace Corps or whatever. Having kids expands your life in one way, but cuts off opportunities for you in other ways. Also constrains where you live a bit.
  4. Relatedly, costs a lot of money.
  5. You can't really go back and un-have kids.
  6. Opens yourself up to more risk: I understand your child dying is basically the worst thing that can happen to anyone. Right now, I can't know that level of grief, but if I have a kid, I could. (This is not a huge point because "better to have loved and lost", but it is a point.)
  7. What if your kid has severe autism or something? You have to at least listen to this podcast before you hype up kids to me.

What am I thinking?

The "in favor" point #2 is the most convincing to me. In the same way that I'll travel around the world for no real benefit, or try meditating or whatever to expand my human experience, I might as well expand my experience by trying having kids. Plus point #7 (unknown benefits) - maybe they're the same thing. #8 helps; if I'm an average SSC reader, something like a 96% chance of being at least neutral on the decision (and over 50% chance of 5/5) feels pretty good.

Having kids does cut off certain possibilities in life - but I wasn't doing them anyway! Seriously, the path I'm on is "white collar corporate job and traditional marriage." Not saying this is bad or good; I have very many feelings about this (best served in another post or series of posts)... but it is about the easiest path to have kids on, so might as well.

The rest of the upsides and downsides kind of even out. You make your next five years worse in order to make your future years better. Maybe it's the biggest challenge you have left in life - and in that case, how exciting to get to the top of the hill!
(maybe "over the hill" means not that your life is over, but that you get to bike downhill from here and it's pretty great.)

I don't know what to do about the severe autism or the possibility your kid might die. I guess you just hope it won't happen - and it probably won't. I might get hit by a bus tomorrow and be paralyzed - what happens if I increase my odds of "life-altering terribleness" from 0.00001% to 0.00002%? Meh.

Still, it feels like everything adds up to about a -1 on a scale of -10 to 10, with a standard deviation of about 20. It feels hard to imagine how good or bad it'll be. Or, let's be honest, on the basis of feelings it feels like about a -5, because I viscerally feel all the downsides. But on the basis of thoughts, it's +4. I think it's maybe a tiny bit unwise to have kids, but I'm pretty much completely uncertain about it.

(When I mention this to people, they're like "what??? but... you're still planning to have kids?" 


Talk with me about it? It's about the biggest thing left in my life I will ever need advice on, probably, so I would love to talk with as many people as possible. If you're interested, I will find time to phone with you.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

I wanna be the very best, like no one ever was

Magic cards!

(background: I loved Magic cards (wiki) when I was a kid. In college, I stopped because I didn't want people to think I was a big nerd. About 10 years later, a lot of my friends who were also big nerds, but less afraid than me to say so, got back into it, so eventually I did too.)

I have a love/hate relationship with it. I really like playing the game - it's like a drug; it's got the deepest strategy of any game I've ever really gotten into. I really like my friends who play the game. I don't like the average person who plays the game, or the average situation in which you play the game - usually it's a large, loud room with a bunch of 30 year old nerdy white guys. So like, on the one hand, ugh.

On the other hand, one thing I've learned growing older is that it's okay, and even Good, to be a huge nerd. (for some definitions of the word "nerd.") Follow your bliss, and all that.

So there's a big tournament coming up (Grand Prix Las Vegas) and I'm going there mostly to hang out with my friends, and I decided, screw it, I'm gonna actually practice this time. So I put in an embarrassing number of hours on uneventful nights and weekends playing 95 matches of Magic Cards on the computer.

(yeah I went 60-35, ending up with a rating of 1791, and didn't even have to buy any cards - though pulling two Karns and a Teferi helped with that. anyway, yes I'm kind of proud, thanks for asking)

What did I learn?

1. I do like it. It's very fun.
2. It gives me something to talk about with these few friends. Unfortunately, most of them live out of town. But the tournament next weekend should be fun.
3. I like winning, and I dislike losing, more than seems healthy. When I quit after a 3-0 draft, I'm just constantly replaying in my head all the great decisions and sweet cards I got. When I quit after a 1-2 (or worse: 0-1 in the comp league), I'm really frazzled and frustrated. It makes me want to get back and get that next hit.
4. Relatedly, I tilt sometimes. Hopefully this immersion has gotten me a little better at seeing that and dealing with it.
5. Magic Online's not a great human-relationship-bang-for-buck, at least not where I am now. There's only so much talking online about the cards you can do. I imagine if you had a lot of friends who all played, near you, and you saw them in person it might be more fun.
6. I do feel like the time's wasted. I want to de-weight this, because 32-year-old Dan knows that your life doesn't have to be one big college resume anymore, and doing something you love doing is kind of one of the things that life's about.

So, would I do it again? Meh. Like a drug, I found it sapped my will to get out and do other things. That seems like a bad direction to go further. And I think if I'd been winning 40% instead of 60% (and blowing through a couple hundred dollars) I'd feel much worse about the whole thing.

EDIT, after the tournament: that was fun! I went 9-6 at the tournament; 6-3 on day 1 (sealed) and 3-3 on day 2 (draft). I was a little bummed especially about my second draft, where I drafted bad wizards and went 1-2. But overall semi-proud of my performance. One win away from a pro point, three wins away from money. More importantly, had a great time with my friends.

Does this change how I'd think about it? Yes, especially because this is exactly how well I've done at a previous GP where I didn't practice at all, and because my friends who are better than me at Magic did about the same. 30 drafts in one season isn't gonna make me better, or give me a richer experience. Given that I'm never gonna do 300 drafts, I'm just "doomed" to be a "decent" Magic player. That's fine; enjoy the game.

Edit again: a couple extra thoughts about the tournament:
- I like the adrenaline and focus you get from doing this one very engaging thing all day - and the mental stretch. It feels like running a marathon for your mind.
- The camaraderie is cool too - you're all fighting for something together.
- The sense that, in a million different places throughout the world, 3000 people are getting together to nerd out about the same thing, and each of these niches is so complex. We have so much shared knowledge about the cards, the rules, even just the etiquette of each game; so many people must be doing the same thing. It's like sonder.

Thursday, June 07, 2018

politics sucks

Whenever I try to debate most anything, if I'm being honest, I haven't a dang clue. It requires learning details of how a law works, what its probable effects would be, a lot of history, and/or what a candidate stands for. Best I can usually do is proclaim my group allegiance, state a vague version of what my side usually believes and what the other side usually believes, and why I think my side's better.

It seems to me that a sane thing to do would be to research a few issues, and take a stand, and then be able to debate them confidently. Then shrug on most anything else and just try to learn from anyone stating any opinion, the best I can.

However, that sounds like a lot of work, and after my day job, I have no energy to.

Some things I'm thinking about doing:

- just skip the "research some issues" and only learn from people. Just like, every political conversation is a chance to open my mind. The downside: I think most people's opinions are about as informed as mine, which is to say, not very.

- listen to more podcasts. The ones that I feel like I sometimes learn something about The World from: Econtalk, Conversations with Tyler, the Sam Harris one, On the Media, and sometimes Decrypted. I would like more like this; please recommend me some.

- read more blogs. Slate Star Codex is worthwhile. I would like more of these too. The Weekly Sift is a pretty well-researched news blog, but it does just make me mad about everything that's going on.

- take Twitter app off my phone. Tweetdeck is actually a somewhat sane desktop Twitter UI: just shows you all the posts in chronological order. Twitter Android mostly does that, but also has ads, and also shows you things your friends liked. (That's terrible. If I wanted my friends to see it, I'd retweet.) As a result, I can get sucked into the clickbaitiest culture-warsiest post any of my friends liked.

- move off Twitter too and onto Mastodon? This solves a different problem (that Twitter Inc's interests are not aligned with ours) but it's one that's worth solving.

One worry I have:

- do these proposals just entail retreating? Does this just mean that even less informed people will talk more than me? Is this irresponsible? (maybe it's good though! retreating from useless noise is probably healthy.)

Monday, May 28, 2018

some links

Predictive drawing with neural networks
This is one of these things that I saw once and can't seem to find the exact same gif. It was like, you'd be drawing, and it'd be showing you the most likely continuations of the current line you're drawing.
Anyway, this predictive-drawing is a really useful idea I've had reason to reference; I wish it had a simple name.
One application: sometimes in conversations, when people are not very direct, you have to do this kind of "predictive drawing" in your mind to fill in what they're saying. Like if you're in a work meeting and someone says "I don't know if this is the best thing to do here," it becomes all of the following:
- I don't want to do this
- I would like to do it, but I honestly don't know if it's the best thing to do
- I kinda want to do this, but I'm expressing hesitation because I don't want responsibility for decision making
- I actually can't do this because of some secret political thing that would be impolite to bring up

The 9.9 Percent is the New American Aristocracy - Yes! Remember: inequality is because of the 0.1%, and you, you fellow 9.9%er, you are not them. You are not going to become them. You will not get ahead by sucking up to them. The 90% are your people.
Also this thread. Especially: "(So if you want my take on living up to democracy, it does require acting as if ordinary people are not dumb. They are not. They are constrained. There is a difference. It matters.)"
Again, Fox News is at least one big part of the problem; if there's an industry (created by the 0.1%) telling the 90% how much the 9.9% looks down on them... well, it's not going to help anything.

How to have meetings well, in lots of detail. I mostly agree with this - there's bits I'd quibble on, but it does seem a lot more mature than the strategy I learned at Google, which was "basically you should never have meetings."
(this is hyperbole; google was somewhat smarter than this and continues to get smarter probably, but that's how I compressed this into my mind)

I started using Duckduckgo ("The search engine that doesn't track you") a couple years ago, kinda on a whim. It's totally great; I probably get bad results and then try google, like, 1 in 100 times. (and google fails sometimes then too!) You might as well use Duckduckgo too. An easy way to do so, it seems, is to get their new browser extension.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

CA voting, part 2

(here's part 1)

Hard to find guides for CA-wide races! Here's the Chronicle. Here's one from Planned Parenthood. Here's the SF League of Pissed-off Voters for the "progressive" vote; useful because when even they endorse moderate candidates, like Padilla and Yee, that seems good.

Governor: I think Villaraigosa here, because it's a top-2 primary. Newsom is going to win first (and I'm planning to vote for him in the real election), but Villaraigosa and republican Cox are in a close race for second, and I'd rather have Villaraigosa than Cox.
Lieutenant Governor: doesn't matter much. Ed Hernandez seems fine.
Secretary of State: Padilla
Controller: Yee
Treasurer: Ma
Attorney General: Becerra

Insurance commissioner: (shrug) Lara I guess
Board of Equalization member: Not voting
US Senate: De Leon, as he's farther left than Feinstein. Hate to be ageist, but... Feinstein's policies were built in an age of Reagan and Bush 1. This feels about right.
US Rep, District 12: Shahid Buttar. Again, top-2, so obv Pelosi will win #1 but who do we want to win #2? I've seen ads for Jaffe, but... construction moratorium and no congestion pricing -> nope. Similarly with Khojasteh: "the US is in the midst of a housing crisis driven not by lack of supply but by surplus of greed" - no! that is exactly the opposite of what is true! Buttar is at least not as wrong.
State Assembly Member, District 17: Chiu's been good, let's keep him.
Judge, office 4: Cheng (background for these 4 judge races)
Judge, office 7: Karnow
Judge, office 9: Lee
Judge, office 11: Ross
Superintendent: Thurmond

Mayor: see also part 1; in short: Breed.
District 8: I'm kinda undecided now. (Chronicle editorial.) When a "moderate" organization endorses a "progressive" candidate, that sounds good. And Mandelman's really putting in the effort, while Sheehy's kinda not. But ... Mandelman's "solution" to the housing crisis is "more rent control"? Well, plus "more affordable housing", which we all want of course, but his policies might make harder to build. Ehh. Doesn't really matter; we're going to rehash this one in November anyway.

State ballot propositions: turns out these are easy. (more info)
68: Yes
69: Yes
70: No
71: Yes
72: Yes
Regional prop 3: Yes!
City and county props: see my part 1 (in short: yes on ABDEFG, no on CHI). I changed my mind to vote in favor of E just to spite the tobacco companies who have sent me so many mailers against it.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

what are your feelings axioms?

Having feelings is hard. Making decisions is hard because having feelings is hard. Reasoning in ways that will be good to your future feelings seems hard.

But a lot of our feelings are pretty reducible to other feelings. It feels possible (and would be great) if you could reduce all your feelings to a set of axioms or values or something.

Here's my attempt for mine:

1. Universal kindness. I think a good measure of this is: do you act like everyone is exactly as much of a human as you? This is basically the Golden Rule.

2. Logic. I hesitate to include this because it seems like it could be co-opted to just mean "be a weirdo robot Spock who devalues feelings and stuff", but I'm not sure how else to say it. You've got to be committed to seeking truth, avoiding cognitive biases, and being epistemically humble.

3. Curiosity. I think you should keep looking for new things you like, or delving deeper into the things you already do like.

4. Self-motivation. Plus points if you do things that you like! Minus points if you force yourself to do things. Another way to think about this is moving through the world somewhat easily and calmly, not fighting everything all the time.

5. Health. Physical, mental, emotional, social.

If I'm correct, this list encompasses everything I believe pretty well! But I'll be looking for examples of what I believe that is not entailed here.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

San Francisco Voting in June

I mostly follow these, from SF Yimby.
I also try to follow these, from SPUR.
The SF Bike Coalition is mildly important to me.
And if I hear anything Scott Wiener endorses, I'm inclined to vote for that as well.

Ultimately, we're in a housing crisis here, and we have to build a million billion units of housing starting 30 years ago. This is the thing that colors my votes more than anything else. I'd say I'm a single-issue voter, but housing affects almost everything else; the housing debate IS the gentrification debate, the homelessness debate, the transportation debate.

As a result, I fall right in line with the YIMBY faction. SB 35 is great and already making housing work; SB 827 would have been awesome, and the only things I hear against "build more" are of the following forms:
1. "Let's not displace people (esp poor and nonwhite ppl) who are here now." I agree with this! That's an important concern. And seems like we can work that out while also building more. SB 827, for example, added a bunch of tenant protections after discussing with people who might get displaced. If you want to talk about displacement a lot, but not build more, then I have to assume you're "bootlegger and baptist"ing - saying you support X for "good" reason Y, but you actually have self-interested reason Z.
2. "I don't want things to change." This has 2 forms:
2a. "I want SF to still be a cool artsy funky hippie whatever alternative place like it used to be." Well, uh, it's not 1967. And in the words of the wise sage Geddy Lee, "if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice." By not building more, we ensure that things will continue changing in the way they are now, and SF will be even richer and whiter and more boring.
2b. "I want SF to be precious Victorian houses, not Manhattan." I mean... I get that, but I just think it's way less valuable than the alternative. When it's "I like Victorian houses" vs. "SF is a homelessness war zone that you can only afford if you make over $100k, and barely then", scrap the Victorians.

How I'm voting, as of now, assuming I hear nothing else. Numbers indicate how much I care about each, on a scale of 1-10, where 1 means "I barely care enough to check a box on this or I'm very unsure about it" and 10 means "this is the most important thing ever"
Mayor: Breed, then Leno, 8
Rep: Sheehy 5
Regional Prop 3: Yes 8 (tax bridges, fund transit)
City propositions:
A. Yes 5 (utilities bonds)
B. Yes 3
C. No 1
D. Yes 5 (C and D are kind of a bummer; I'd take $70m for housing before $140k for childcare, but... it's not an easy choice.)
E. No 1 (Did somebody say, grape blunt?)
F. Yes 8 (legal representation if you're getting evicted)
G. Yes 8 (tax for teachers)
H. No 9 (Tasers)
I. No 1 - even though I support it in principle, saying "we shouldn't court sports teams" doesn't actually do anything.

There's still a lot to do, mostly at the state level, so I'll probably post again about those when I figure them out. Anyway... /r/changemyview.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Emotional classical music

Let's assume, for this conversation, that Mozart > Bieber:
For this post, I'm going to assume a simplified account of musical taste which is not exactly what I think about music (or at least it might lead you to assume certain things about music that I don't believe), but it's a pretty conventional trope so it makes the analogy easier. I'm assuming that there's this "classical music", Mozart and Beethoven and stuff, and then there's "pop music", Justin Bieber or whatever. When you're a kid, you like pop music, because it's sugary and dancey and addictive. As you get older, you maybe start to appreciate classical music more - it's not as immediate, but it's deeper. Arguably, the joy that a music lover gets out of a wonderful classical music concert is better* than the joy a kid gets out of Justin Bieber.

Aspiration vs. Ambition:
Podcast interview between Tyler Cowen and Agnes Callard. (If this link works right, it'll take you right to "on aspiration and proleptic reasons"; if not, do a command-f for that.)

Worth a read or listen, but my short summary: Ambition is just "wanting stuff." (s/stuff/prestige, or status, or money, or a Justin Bieber CD, or whatever.) Aspiration is "wanting to want stuff." Like, I don't really want tickets to the symphony, but I want to be the kind of person who wants tickets to the symphony.
(Callard says that you can only really aspire to want "good" stuff, but I think that's unnecessary - first of all, people don't tend to aspire to like "lower" pleasures", and second of all, "good" is a little arbitrary.)

Another essay by Callard. An excerpt I love: if you have a friend Phil, who just likes donuts and reality TV and other "low" pleasures, but you're trying to open his eyes to "better" things, what you are asking him is "to try to believe them to be more valuable than he has currently has reason to, in order to learn their true value."

Emotions in place of music
Ok, I was just watching Saw (bear with me here; also goriness alert; also mild spoilers) so I was watching Saw** and the guy is like "I have to help my family enough that I'll even saw off my own leg to help them." And it's not even just "give up your foot", it's like "give up your foot and hope that you don't bleed to death and hope that you don't get otherwise killed etc, given that you've been trapped by a sadistic serial killer" - it's like "probably give yourself a painful death, in order to maybe help your family."

If I were his family, I'd probably be like "dude, don't worry about it, don't saw your leg off; either we'll find another way out of this or else we'll probably die anyway, b/c serial killer and all; you don't have to saw off your own leg in the off chance that it'll help us." But you don't start a family because you want them to be loved; indeed, half of your future family doesn't even exist yet! You start a family because you want to love them. You want to feel that love that's strong enough that you'd saw off your own leg to help them.

Let me try that again, with a less morbid example:
When you were a kid, you learned that getting Christmas presents was great! The older you get, the more you realize you actually prefer giving presents. It's a harder emotion to get into, but it is deeper and more satisfying.

So what do we do?
Is it good to aspire to liking classical music, or to aspire to liking gift-giving over gift-receiving? Well, good for whom? I think it's ultimately good for you if you aspire. But it might just be natural. Like, if you're satisfied by donuts and Bieber, go for it. The only danger comes when you don't know that you'd be happier if you aspired higher. Like, if you just get bored and depressed with Bieber, but you don't realize that there's a better option out there (though it does take some work).

Also, how do we aspire? I like Callard's concept of "proleptic reasons" - you can have your cognitive part know something that your feelings side doesn't know, but the feelings side lets you back into it. Like, you can think "classical music is really rich", but that won't make you actually start doing it. But maybe you start dating someone who likes classical, so you go with them because you're into them. Then over time you start liking classical for its own sake.

A neat corollary:
This may have something to do with the length of life that you've experienced. If your life is 5 years long, the thrill of getting presents might last you through that! If your life is 50 years long, you realize that the constant sugar high gets old, and you want something that's more complex and lasting, so you skip the Bieberesque gift-giving and go for the Mozartian gift-receiving.

What if our lives get longer? Do we get into more complex emotions? I'd have to think so. And that if you're 1000 years old, you could have some really-complex really-wonderful emotions that look super alien to a younger kid, kind of like how enjoying Mozart can feel impossible to a kid.

* one of the best moments of grad school, in retrospect (though not at the time) was when we had to go around the room and describe our research to professor and design researcher John Zimmerman in a class. Everyone else in the class described their stuff, and he was like, "ok." When it got to me, I mumbled something about "studying social media in cities in order to make cities better." And he just started asking me "what do you mean by "better"? Better in what way? Better for whom?" and I was totally taken off guard, because I admittedly had no good answers. Then I got mad because I felt like he was singling me out. But he was definitely right: "better" is a cop out when you don't know what you're talking about. Most things will be better for some people, in some ways, and worse in others.

** ok, two more asides:
1. this movie was way better than I expected. I mean, low expectations, and it's not a masterpiece, but it was a solid low-budget suspense-thriller. (that somehow got Cary Elwes, Donald Glover, and Ken Leung? Maybe not super low-budget. Felt like it though.) Unlike how it was described, it wasn't just a torture-porn-fest (though there was a solid 10 minutes of that).
2. I have to point out how this movie is oddly appropriate to talk about in a conversation about high/low culture :-P