Food for Thought: January - March 2020

Posted on Mar 21, 2020

Books, podcasts and articles that had a strong impact this quarter, grouped into themes. Amazon links are affiliate links.

Feelings and free speech

I finally worked my way through The Coddling of the American Mind (Lukianoff and Haidt) in January. This is a really fantastic book. It gives names and reasoning to things that have been floating around the American cultural landscape for years now. Particularly concerning to me is the fact that just as we have more vitriolic and far-reaching media – Twitter – we are lowering the bounds of offense and diluting the scope of safety. I highly encourage reading their abridged and edited version of J. S. Mill’s On Liberty. Free speech is not just about government protections due to the First Amendment. A social intolerance towards free speech is often far worse (re: cancel culture).

Elections, identity politics and not admitting to policy mistakes

I’ve been extremely disappointed with the position of the (previously) leading Democrat candidates. Much of the rhetoric is focused on identity politics in one form or the other. Using Twitter as your source of opinion is not a wise strategy, and it will probably cost them the 2020 election. I don’t want to get into all the wokeness aspects, as it overlaps somewhat with the free speech bits above. The Once and Future Liberal by Mark Lilla captures this well.

At the same time, some of their policy positions are really untenable with the moderate majority. In a society where being wealthy is an aspiration, the blanket targetting of wealthy people doesn’t come across very well. Sam Harris and Scott Galloway also discuss the continued transfer of wealth from younger generations to Baby Boomers. Harris and Galloway talk about the wealth tax, but in some ways it is a stand-in for several issues. I thought the best line was “The democrats are bringing purity tests to a gun-fight.”

There are so many problems with the US tax situation, and I’m not an expert enough to go into much, but things that are mind-boggling:

  • Weird tax cliffs that cause all sorts of issues for low-income earners.
  • The huge distinction between high-income and high-capital tax rates that leads to upper-class employees (like myself) being unfairly taxed vs even richer people.
  • The complicated tax code that allows rich people to do all kinds of accounting tricks.

It reminds me of how US immigration policy continues to punish people for no fault of their own. Like how they tried to deport Mexican-descent kids born here. Or the complete unwillingness to fix antiquated rules that keep Indians and Chinese on decade long permanent-residency queues, because, under the covers, it actually helps keep wages depressed, making it harder for Americans to compete. Then convincing Americans that actually, these people trying to come in in the first place is the real problem (but it is OK that people from other countries can come in). That is the power of propaganda.

Moderate conservatism and The Dispatch

I don’t really read the news. It is annoying, emotionally draining and 90% regurgitated Twitter posts about the latest outrage experienced by an area man. The only outlet I used to read was Mother Jones. Starting mid-February, I’ve also started paying for The Dispatch. It is a news outlet bringing forward moderate conservative point of views in really well written articles. They are not Trump fans, just normal conservatives with whom liberals can have policy arguments while maintaining civility. Some of my favorites apart from the in line links:

I fully support any media that is willing to go back to a topic with an analytical view after the news cycle is done with it!

The risks of the hollowing out of talent from government

Michael Lewis' The Fifth Risk is a really good look into the unseen parts and people of the US government that actually keep the country running. I hope the COVID19 pandemic causes society to re-evaluate the value of these individuals and pay them well.

In a similar vein, I encountered Fred Kaplan, a historian of the US nuclear weapons program on both Sam Harris and Dan Carlin’s podcasts at nearly the same time, which never happens, so I plan to read his new book The Bomb next.

Both are partly about the lack of stardom and salary in government, that doesn’t attract younger talent. Government relies too much on conscientious people making sacrifices, instead of incentivizing top-talent, which feeds the cycle of bad government leading to calls for less government.

At the same time, the media focus on the presidential election leads to people turning from “citizens” – with a continued, daily, interest in quality governance – to “voters” – doing their job once every 4 years and then just hoping everything will work out.

Spreadsheets and the nature of software

Alright, now that I’ve gotten out of the way things that I’m clueless about, let’s move on to things I pretend to know about.

I finally spent the hour watching Joel Spolsky’s You Suck at Excel and was blown away by all the cool inferences and abilities that Excel provides. I was one of those people that was only thought Excel in school for a few classes and never had to use it again. Between that, Felienne Hermans' Spreadsheets for Developers, and this spreadsheet comedy by Matt Parker, I’ve developed a new appreciation for spreadsheets, and should try to use them the next time I reach for Python.

In parallel, I’ve been reading Dorian Taylor’s essays. One of the central arguments seems to be that software is, by definition, the capturing of some real world process that needs to be so precisely defined for every individual need, that most attempts to produce such software fail due to:

  1. An inability to bridge the domain knowledge gap between user and implementor,
  2. A cost that would be astronomical if the software was produced for that specific purpose, leading to vendors selling more generic software, that inevitably encounters friction for the precise process, and
  3. The lack of good abstractions to produce customizable workflow-centered (instead of feature-centered) software, so that this cost cannot be reduced.

His thesis of software as focused on technological capability instead of a medium of expression is best captured in Software’s Ailing Mythology. There are so many good quotes here:

There is a paradox such that we don’t seem to have much trouble using computers disguised as other things—even though they behave much more like computers than the objects of their disguises. We’re perfectly content to type into a word processor or spreadsheet, send email, take pictures with our digital cameras, record TV shows on our PVRs, play video games, and download all manner of apps to our smartphones. […] Being literally surrounded by these computers-in-drag, I submit, blinds us to what the computer, in its natural state, is for. In a word, and hopefully an obvious one: computation. Computation is simply applying a known process to known information, to reveal latent information, that up to that point was unknown. Computation has been around a lot longer than computers, in fact “computer” used to be a job title; there’s nothing spooky or magisterial about it. It’s putting a quarter into a gumball machine and turning the crank. The only difference now is that a computer can turn a few billion cranks every second.

The content of software is crystallized business process. It is an extremely verbose, extremely precise incantation, describing exactly how a particular process ought to behave—so precise that it can be executed by machine. There is nothing inherently technical about a business process, by and large: it’s simply people doing things to achieve meaningful goals. That’s something anybody can understand.

I actually thought his piece Reality Check, which is more about UX design, quite vividly captures the notion of software pricing itself out of the hands of small businesses that could benefit from it due to the nature of building software.

My only gripe with these essays is the lack of mention of concrete software that he feels satisfies his ideas. Or even a description of “this is what I imagine some software will look like that will fit these ideas”. The notions are too abstractly conveyed for a practitioner. In that sense, I notice similar overlaps to when Alan Kay goes on about Smalltalk.

Spreadsheets seem like one of those primitives that offers a glimpse into what software can be, if it is liberated from the hands of software engineers.

The UNIX command line or PowerShell come close in their flexibility, but they are very much tools for “technical people”. They require understanding a lot of computer abstractions - files, delimiters, character encodings, structured objects.

The civilizational state of play, zero-sum games and monopolies

Alex Danco’s Progress, Postmodernism and the Tech Backlash led me to finally read Peter Thiel’s Zero to One. In combination with Venkatesh Rao’s The American Cloud, the general consensus is that while some of the ideals of industrialization and progress pervade our society and have been responsible for the rapid improvement in quality of life over the last century, over recent decades, a combination of financial and cultural decisions have led to a focus on innovation instead of progress - the repackaging and rebranding of technology in a palatable manner that simulates an imagined, better, past. There are twin mechanisms at play here. One, a tertiary industry that thrives on providing people what they want, based on perceived needs, while aggressively aiming to hide the implementation details. This ties in with Rao’s earlier Welcome to the Future Nauseous.

Second, our political decisions in recent decades have trapped us into zero-sum games, where somebody has to lose for somebody to gain, because [according to Thiel], innovation does not create new space in which to expand, unlike progress. For example, allowing rampant outsourcing of labor while not redistributing the economic gains from that to people now out of a job. In addition, the lack of free education in high-skill industries, allowing labor in western countries to create and retain jobs in new domains. I’m not enough of a modernist (having read the beginning of Seeing Like a State) to fully get on board Thiel’s thesis of technological monopolies as a solution to all problems, but some of those ideas do make sense. Matt Stoller has been making compelling cases in his newsletter, that policy decisions over the last few decades have allowed the kind of monopolies to triumph that allow wealth concentration and maintain this zero-sum nature. This ties in somewhat to the rise of identity politics. When someone has to lose, it is easy to split on tribal lines.

These factors, plus crushing student loan debt and the lack of funding for speculative ideas (outside computers) seem to have locked us into a banal view of the future (video).

On a lighter note

On a lighter note, I’ve spent several days in bed this quarter (not due to COVID19, yet…), and I’ve discovered Medlife Crisis, an educational and extremely funny medical videos channel. Check it out!