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Ugh, our local bowling alley, the Acme, has gone multi-media. Massive TV screens above every four lanes, blasting out some movie or other. The last time we went, they were playing The Phantom Menace above our lanes, but Parks and Rec on the lanes over. It's insanely distracting. They've also added lots of blacklights everywhere, so that people glow wherever they're wearing anything even vaguely florescent.

We decided instead to go to Round One, which is an "entertainment center" at the local mall. It has a huge arcade, billiards tables, and a twelve-lane bowling alley. I had trepidation about going there; the place is usually noisy as heck and full of teenagers beating up the various modern arcade machines, machines which have to be physical and device-oriented (dance platforms, gun stations, that sort of thing) because everything else can be had at home on the X-Box for less quarters.

Instead, it was a lovely experience. The alleys are fairly quiet, well-maintained, and easy to use. The heaviest ball they give us is a 15 pounder, which was a bit of a wimp, but I'm still nursing a sore ankle so it wasn't too bad. And best of all, no multimedia "experiences" blaring into my eyes while I'm trying to concentrate on converting a 7-10 split.

So, yeah, if the Southcenter Acme Bowling Alley triggers your ADHD, go to Round One instead. It won't be the full barcade experience, but it'll be damn quieter.
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Over the weekend, Omaha and I had to have dinner but didn't have a good plan. As a last-minute thing, we decided to check out one of those pre-assembled, "cook at home" meals sold at our local grocery. This one was from the Home Chef Collection, and it was "Chicken breasts with fig sauce, with peas & rice."

What you get in the box: two pre-packaged chicken breasts, a tub of peas, a vacuum-packed container of pre-cooked rice, a pat of butter, a small container of fig sauce, and a baggie of parmesean cheese.

The packaging doesn't lie: if you are a highly experienced home cook, you can do the entire recipe in 20 minutes. If you're not, it's going to take somewhat longer. The only real timesaver in the entire recipe is that the rice is pre-cooked; that means that you can assemble and heat-through the rice, peas and cheese mixture while the chicken is cooking.

I made one change to the recipe: After removing the chicken from the pan, I put a splash of white wine into the pan to deglaze it before adding the fig sauce and water, which added to the flavor and made cleaning up beforehand. "Deglazing" is not something the recipe mentions or goes into.

But the rice is the only timesaver; otherwise, everything in the recipe could be assembled at home by an ordinary mortal, and it wouldn't cost $18 for two people; at most, you could cook that meal for two for only $8. I do appreciate that the chicken breasts provided were on the small side; most times, when you buy fresh chicken, the breasts provided are huge and more than one person could possibly consume. And the rice is easy to make; you just have to be willing to sit in the kitchen for an extra twenty minutes.

Instead of this route, I strongly recommend picking up A Dinner a Day and learning how to cook from that. It has meal plans, ingredient guidelines, weekend buying lists, and leftover management plans, and it actually teaches you a think or two about using pots, pans, and knives. Go through it for a year and you'll be able to cook anything you want after that.
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Omaha and I went to watch Captain Marvel and I thought it was pretty good. Not quite in the Wonder Woman category of openers about superheroines, but definitely a good introduction to the entire universe of Mar-Vell, the Kree/Skrull conflict, and just a solid movie about the Marvel Universe, even if it is set in the mid-1990s. The CGI is better than usual, Brie Larson was amazing in her role, and overall the quality of the film held up.

Jude Law's Yon-Rogg is a perfect example of the gaslighting male and his end speech so perfectly mimicked the cadence of the MRA "debate me!" speeches, and Law delivered it with such a perfect wink of the eye (and the director emphasized by suddenly dropping all the music and some post-production clean up, to basically show him as he is, pathetic and whiny in the face of Danvers's strength), that I actually giggled.

I can see why so many immature men hated the movie. It's got so much going on it it; Danvers refuses mostly to just take a man's word for things, and the more she goes on the more she learns just how much the men in her world have been lying to her. At one point, the film takes a poignant moment and mostly says that being female in a world of male supremacy is more unifying than being black in a world of white supremacy is dividing, and I thought that was a pretty good message.

The reversion of Jackson and Gregg to their younger selves wasn't quite as smooth as everyone had hoped. Gregg, especially, seemed chunkier than I remember the younger Agent Coulson as being.
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Last night I took a couple of beef stew (or beef soup) recipes, slammed them together, and came up with a fairly effortless comfort stew that my family liked. This recipe uses an Instant Pot.

  • 1lb round steak, cut into cubes

  • 1 large shallot, diced

  • 3 medium carrots, sliced

  • 2 cloves garlic, minced

  • 1 large or 2 medium potatoes, cut into cubes

  • 3 cups beef broth

  • 1 cup water

  • 2 tbs Worchestershire sauce

  • Olive oil, or other oil suitable to sauté

  • Salt, pepper, ajinomoto (always optional) to taste

  • 4 oz egg noodles

Turn the pressure cooker to "sauté." While it's heating, cut up the ingredients. The beef and potatoes should be bite-sized; the shallot diced small, the carrots sliced to about 1/4 inch thickness, the garlic minced.

When the pressure cooker is hot, add oil to coat the bottom of the pot (I used bacon grease, because, you know…) and add the beef, stir-frying until browned on all sides, about 5 minutes. Add the shallot and carrots, sauté another two minutes until slightly soft. Add the garlic, sautee one more minute. Turn off the heat.

Add the potatoes, broth, water, Worchestershire sauce, and "not enough" salt, pepper, and ajinomoto if you're using it. Close the pressure cooker lid, set to "Soup: 20 minutes," and start.

When the timer goes off, do a quick release of the pressure. Taste the broth and add salt, pepper, or other spices as desired. Turn the cooker back to "sauté" and when the soup begins to bubble add the egg noodles. Cook another 7 to 9 minutes, until the noodles are soft. Tasting— spooning out a noodle and biting into it to see if it's done— is always better than timing.

Serve immediately with crusty bread and a vinagrette salad.
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Omaha and I attended the Pacific Northwest Ballet Director's Choice, and I think I had a much better time here than at the season premier. There were three pieces, and all of them were quite fun.

Bacchus was the opening piece, and it was a lot of fun. The point of the piece was to use dance to show the emotional energy of wine, merriment, and abundance. It wasn't a hugely complex bit of choreography, and there was no particular set. The costumes were gorgeous, the dancing precise and well-timed, and the forms of joy being displayed by athletically powerful bodies were various and engaging. Boys kissed boys, girls kissed girls, there were hints of a triad, and the whole thing came off as just a very pretty piece.

The Trees The Trees was a much more involved piece, and at first I worried it was going to be another disaster along the lines of Dark and Lonely Space from last year. It was much better. It has its pretensions; for one, one of the people on stage is a vocalist, striding across the stage and reading a poem aloud in a somewhat operatic fashion as the dancers act out around her. The poem, of the same name by Heather Christie, is a series of vignettes about 20-somethings trying to figure out how their lives are supposed to work. "I am the sort of handbag everyone weeps into because we have no jobs and no health insurance so also we can't have any babies and I want to talk about the future of my peer group..." The dancing is emotionally affective as it follows three couples interacting, coming together, falling apart, having their difficulties, all in a small, modernist apartment setting with only a couch. I liked it a lot, and it worked well for me. Omaha thought it was only passable.

The vocalist was Alicia Walter, who has her own fascinating history, and I'd love to hear the story about how she ended up on the Ballet stage.

In the Countenance of Kings was a dance about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, so I joked recently that I have now seen actual and somewhat successful "dancing about architecture." It's actually more than that; it's a very energetic piece about the kinds of people who live along that stretch of road. The music was The BQE by Sufjan Stevens, and is very listenable in its own right, but when joined by 18 dancers in costumes that reflected a kind of 70's inflected athleticwear, the rhythms and force of the piece was wonderful.
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I had the pleasure the other day of talking to a 91 year old woman about her immanent death.

Omaha and I have season tickets to the Pacific Northwest Ballet, and last Saturday we went to the "Director's Choice" performance. Because they're season tickets we always have the same seats, and this time as I sat down the olderly woman to my left said, "Oh! You made it on time this time!"

It was a rightful twitting, as last time Omaha and I were an hour late to the more classical The Sleeping Beauty, and missed Act I entirely. Act I was so precisely an hour long that we walked in and took our seats, the only thing seemingly amiss being that nobody asked for our tickets, so it wasn't until intermission that we figured out we'd missed the Introduction and The Prophecy parts of the performance.

"That's fair," I said. "Good to see you again."

"It is!" she agreed. "I don't know how many more season of this I'll be attending."

"I'm sure it'll be plenty."

"I'm not so sure," she said. "I'm 91. My ma died at 93. She had a lunch, they lay down and that was it."

"Well, at least it sounds like it was peaceful."

"It was! I hope I go like that. I'm just glad that I didn't get dementia. So many people do, you know."

I shuddered. "I know. That's a terrifying thought."

At that point the performance started. But she was remarkably sanguine about the whole thing. Sharp as a tack, the only thing slowing her down was her cell phone. "Why can't they make it obvious? ABC. My phone is always AB then X then Z then C." Other than that, life seemed to be treating her well. Her "kid" ("I shouldn't call him that, he's 52!"— my age) drives her to the ballet from her home in South King County.

I can only hope I'm that content, and sanguine, about my impending demise, and I can only hope that it comes 40 years from here and now.
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How to pair your Google Pixel 2 phone to your Subaru Outback.

The Google Pixel is a lovely phone, but it's notoriously bad at connecting with Subaru cars. It was the one feature I missed from my previous Samsung, which always connected reliably and automatically to the car every time I started the engine. Since I have "unlimited" 4G and a Spotify account, I found this breakdown highly annoying. It is possible to connect the phone to the car, but often it takes two or three minutes of sitting there with the car running, pressing the "connect" button on the phone's Bluetooth app over and over until, mysteriously, it would finally connect.

I have gotten it to work, and now when I sit down in my Outback, the music that was playing in my headphones in the office automatically starts right back up, reliably and automatically.

So here's why it fails:

Most people, when they want to create a Bluetooth Pairing between the phone and the car, go to the car radio, press the "Menu" button, and go through the Bluetooth pairing dialogs from the radio's LCD display. And that's where the problem lies— that dialog is for pairing with the radio and is therefore looking for an audio source, but the phone isn't programmed to prioritize being paired as an audio device, it prioritizes being paired as a phone. Every time thereafter, the protocol mismatch causes the automatic connection to fail. I'm not sure why manual connection sometimes works, but it should work reliably.

Here's the solution:

If you've already paired your phone and your car, go to the car's dialogue and delete the phone from the car's list of Bluetooth connections. Likewise, go to your phone and delete the car from the phone's list.

On the steering wheel, there's a button with a voice label. This is the HandsFree Talk Button. With the car parked and the parking brake on (this is important, as the car will not let you do this otherwise), but the key turned far enough to turn on the radio, press the Talk Button.

A female voice will say, "Welcome to the Subaru HandsFree Control. Press the Talk Button and choose from the following menu items: Setup. Go Back."

Press the button and say "Setup."

"Press the Talk Button and choose from the following menu items." One will be "Pair Phone". Do as the nice lady says and say "Pair Phone."

"Searching for phone. Searching. Searching. A device has been found. The passkey is 1234." Now go through the dialog on the phone and type in the stupid passkey.

"Phone paired. Press the talk button and say the name of the phone."

Press the button. "My Phone"

"Pairing Complete. Press the button and choose from one of the following menu items: Setup. Go Back."

"Go Back."


And now the car will use the connect to phone protocol whenever you start it, and your phone will respond accordingly. In short, the quicker and more obvious interface on the car's radio dial will activate the wrong protocol, and you'll get the bug. The only way to pair the phone to the car correctly is through a really stupid voice control menu tree.
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A few weeks ago I was reading an academic journal on the psychology and sociology of consumer behavior (as one does) and I stumbled upon a paper titled Selling Pain to the Saturated Self, which I believe has a lot of interesting insights that would be valuable to the BDSM community.

People who've read my work before know that I'm fascinated by a debate ongoing in unrelated academic discipline, leisure studies, and yes, there is such a thing. Such academics divide leisure into one of three catergories: casual, serious, or deviant. Serious leisure requires (1) perseverance, (2) stages of achievement and advancement, (3) significant personal effort to acquire skills and knowledge, (4) broad and durable benefits, and (5) a special social world with a unique ethos that is deemed valuable both by the participants and by observers. It is the last two that are in contention. If it has them, BDSM is a serious leisure activity; if it does not then BDSM is a deviant leisure activity.

Although they only once mention BDSM or sadomasochism within the paper (addressing Baumeister's earlier works), I believe Selling Pain to the Saturated Self makes a very strong argument in favor of BDSM as a serious leisure activity with broad, durable benefits and a unique ethos that the authors, Rebecca Scott who participated in the painful event, and the other two, Julien Cayla and Bernard Cova, who observed, deem valuable.

The authors of this particular paper, focus their attention on "obstacle course adventures," specifically those that deliberately market their outings as inflicting pain and suffering to test the will and endurance of the participants, and rightly ask, Who buys this stuff? And why? Through Scott's experiences, and interviews with other participants, the authors set out to try and find a set of satisfying explanations in the context of the adventure outing that most clearly markets itself as being about pain and suffering: Tough Mudder.

Tough Mudder is a half-day obstacle course with sections that involve running through blazing mazes of kerosene-soaked bales, swimming through freezing water with obstacles that require one go completely under, climing mountains of stone and ice, crawling through cold mud pits, and finally confronting chambers of swinging, electrified chains that deliver the full force of a cattle prod. It is designed to hurt, to dismay. There has even been a death on the course due to heart failure.

The course is changed every year, but every course starts with the same obstacle: a swim or slog through a long pit of thick mud.


Ritual matters

The authors of the paper assert Tough Mudder isn't a sporting event. It's a ritual.

There are two kinds of people in the world: outcome-oriented, those for whom the last event sets the tone for one's memories of an experience, and decision-oriented, those for whom just doing it sets the tone. The directors of TM know this, so they open with a decision-oriented event. There's a "carnival" like atmosphere-- loud music, colorful banners, lots of cheering, and then the participant goes from this world of color and, like her fellow sufferers, jumps into the mud.

The ritual starts here, with a transition from the "real" world to the ritual one. You have to go under the mud to be let out; you have to emerge the same color as your peers, any markers of social status covered and obscured, making you into a troupe. Mud is thick and viscous, hindering you, triggering fears of weakness and insufficiency. Mud is dirty. One of the interviewees described in as feeling as if "you're up to your neck in shit," and the authors go the full Freud by saying that this implication transitions awareness down from one's head to the lower half of the body. Tough Mudder has only two internal, recurring symbols: mud and pain.

Tough Mudder ends with a huge party, and everyone gets a t-shirt saying they finished, and everyone taking photos of their own and each other's bruises.

The authors repeat a point that every single interview revealed: the ritual is acceptable because the participant knows that it is of limited duration. They will be able to return to the "real" world, and they'll be able to bring this experience with them.

Pain matters

The authors talk a lot about pain. After all, consumer culture is about selling people what they really want, and who the fuck really wants pain?

While experiential marketing guidelines emphasize the need “to entertain, stimulate and emotionally affect consumers through the consumption experience”, the literature on the design of experiences almost never mentions the issue of pain in creating experiences that consumers will find appealing

God, I hope I never do kink to "emotionally affect consumers through the consumption process." I want to emotionally affect friends and loved ones through a ritual that includes the both of us.

The title of the paper includes the phrase "The Saturated Self." The people who go through Tough Mudder are mostly office workers, middle class, white collar. Their lives are completely scheduled from the moment they wake up until the moment they lie down. Even their weekend calendars are full. Life is busy but monotonous, filled almost completely with head-oriented work rather than body-oriented, and the few surprises are mostly nasty and mentally taxing, such as unexpected illness, accident, or crime. Those full schedules seem even more impossible when one has to also call the insurance company, or the police, to report that someone has broken into your car.

We've become so optimized that social obligations become emotional burdens. The job we have may well be a bullshit job, and the uselessness and insincerity one gets from one's superiors, and has to perform for customers, takes its toll.

The authors go through a lot of trouble to analyze the reasons people seek out pain. Tough Mudder is an "extraordinary experience;" it's not something normal people go through. It's also held in an outdoor setting, and therapists now prescribe "nature walks" for depressed people, as being outdoors among trees and dirt seems to actually be good for us. It's an escape from the civilized world of stressed concrete, cold steel, overly revealing glass, and Google's surveillance.

Pain has different roles to play: pain brings our attention back to our bodies and helps those of us who "live in our heads" to rediscover our bodies and a spiritual nature that only exists when we appreciate the embodied cognition that goes on beyond our heads; (3) pain creates a harrowing of the self that is crucial to participation in and deriving value from ritual; (4) pain participates in the dialogue between our selves and the world around us.

The Body as Focus discusses how pain makes us pay attention to our bodies in ways we don't, usually. We ignore it, scheduling dealing with it as efficiently as we do any business meeting. We are alienated from it. (And alcohol alienates us further. Maybe this is why so many techies drink.) Painful experiences bring it back to us, highlight it, and show us its shape, heft, and strength.

The other way we experience the body is The Body as Alien. Some TM experiences, especially the ones that involve cold, often invoke spinal reactions in the arms and legs that are independent of what the conscious will of the participant is demanding. The mind is alert an conscious, but the body is rebelling.

Seeking out pain itself is a rebellious act. Pain is an important part of many rites of passage, forcefully pulling the initiate out of his or her head and into the here and now, the reality of the moment. Pain is often the catalyst of spiritual transformation.

The organizers know that one can't endure three hours of solid, unending pain, so the course has moments of hidden pleasure. Leaving the icewater swim marked as "The Frozen Enema" on the course map, the mudders find themselves wading through mud again, but mud that has been warmed, to make their bodies relax. The next obstacle will be even more cruel, but in a different way. This alternation of ordeal, recovery, and then a progressively harsher ordeal, leads to the kind of personal or spiritual transformation most people only see in movies but never experience.

One thing that stood out to me in discussion about the ends of the course is in a section entitled Spectacle. One thing that sufferers in Tough Mudder want, surprisingly, is to be seen. They want to know that someone else sees them, that someone else will also be there to carry away a memory of what the participant experienced. It is a ritualized experiences where showing one's pain and screaming it, or even laughing about it, is valid because, hey, what's a brain to do under those circumstances anyway?

Lessons for Kinky People

For BDSM scenesters, most of these aren't monumental discoveries, but they're ones I've rarely scene consciously engaged. So much of BDSM conversation is about technique and safety, and always the conversation about managing or alleviating the thirst, but I have a service top nature and am looking for ways to get better.

Unlike Tough Mudder, BDSM is already tied up in sex. We're already primed to link our kinky, pain-based scenes with our sex drive, and lots of our toys and games focus on the buttocks and genitals. Part of the rituals we use are designed that way.

Knowing it will end gives bottoms strength. Human endurance is a limited but renewable resource. Our instincts are to hoard it, and never give more than 50% of our effort, because our evolutionary biology "knows" we might need that reserve if a tiger stops by. When a submissive knows (a) that the ordeal they've asked for will end and (b) that the people and place of the ordeal are trustworthy enough to give all, then a submissive will gleefully go much farther than they might have believed possible.

Entrance and exit rituals are critical. Whether someone is a decider or an outcomer, entrance and exit rituals help them move into the space where they submit or dominate, and then move back out into the space of the real world.

Bruises are pretty. It's a common enough refrain in our community, but this paper makes it explicit that carrying the bruises "out of the circle" is a form of emotional rebellion against the conformist office-space world. Under our clothes, we wear marks that set us aside from others.

This is an exploratory practice. TM participants are dredging deep within themselves to find reserves they hoped they had, perhaps always felt they had, and using those reserves to endure. The same thing has been true of BDSM and the ethnography of BDSM ever since Geoff Mains penned Urban Aboriginals in 1984. Part of the training we get as tops is to be prepared for anything when the bottom freaks out; combining this kind of reserve-tapping pain with the intimacy of a one-on-one physical activity that's also highly sexually charged can dredge up all sorts of wild, heartbreaking emotional purging, and knowing what to do when that happens is critical.

For long scenes, "breaks" aren't enough; they have to be pleasurable. Since BDSM scenes are generally highly bespoke, it's important to know what the bottom enjoys as pleasurable stimuli, and to give it to him or her in the middle. Warmth, sweetness, and affection restore a bottom's reserves much more readily than asking them to just find it within themselves.

Making recordings of the scene should not be dismissed. This was a huge insight to me and, in the age of the Internet where a recording leaked to the net can devastate a career, one fraught with danger. But bottoms want to relive the scene, much more than tops do. They want to be able re-experience the sensations from the outside. They want to know they were seen, and they want to be one of the watchers as well as a participant. Kink is revelatory; they want a record of what was revealed.

Recordings allow us to create a timeline and a biography that talks about our bodies. We don't do much about bodies in our real world, and it's becoming a bit more gauche to do so. BSDM and recordings of scenes allow us to experience important trangressions and remind ourselves of why we go through them.

Know if you're seeking escape or disassembly. Pain enhances extraordinary experiences. It's the ritual plus pain plus intimacy and sexuality that makes kink so powerful. Kink allows us to get beyond our urban, stratified, stultifying culture, and into a dreamtime where everyday worries can be put aside. Some seek to escape that "saturated" self, others seek to "break" it. The authors says that escapists remain aware of that saturated self and know that they'll have to return to it; folks seeking disassembly want to break that self down and blow it away, going so deep into painful experiences that time, space, and one's sense of self dissolve completely, at least for a little while. We're tough beasts, and evolution has taught us how to put ourselves back together, most of the time.

Performative urbanity and the emotional labor of it is exhausting because it's so repetitive and stressful. Kink taps different reserves, and that's important; it exercises emotional and physical muscles we don't normally use. The painful experiences of kink create quiet emotional spaces where we get visit parts of ourselves that we otherwise don't normally see.


Scott, et. al. present Tough Mudder as an activity that's dangerous, even deadly, and extraordinarily painful, and those are its selling points. In the end, they praise Tough Mudder as "a particular kind of escape that betrays the desire to flee the burdens of identity," one that leaves us with "hidden signs of subversion" inflicted on our bodies as an "effective route to escape the servitude of office work."

If Tough Mudder's painful rituals have broad and durable benefits, and most of the people interviewed claim it does, and if it creates a special social world with a unique ethos, then it's a serious lesiure activity, rather than a deviant one.

BDSM makes the same claims, and as I have documented before, not only does BDSM have a unique and valuable ethos, it has one so valuable that the normal world has benefited from it, even if we rarely get credit for that. BDSM is clearly a valuable, serious leisure activity.
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Why I'm throwing my lot in with the Social Democrats.

"Socialism" is one of those scare words that the well-funded right-wing noise machine uses to smear their opponents and frighten their base. With it, they evoke faded memories of the Cold War among their elderly base, memories of famines, of deprivation, and of and midnight raids that "disappeared" dissenters. Which is too bad, because America is loaded with socialist programs.

Americans Are Already Socialist (To Some Degree)

Roads are a socialist program: imagine having to pay a toll for each and every subdivision, arterial, and freeway you drove on. They don't have to imagine it in the city-state of San Pedro Sula in Honduras; private security forces protect the wealthy, collect tolls for driving through "their" part of the city, and everyone else suffers.

And no, gas taxes don't cover the costs of road maintenance, and they haven't covered the cost for over a decade.

The city parks to which you take your children are a socialist program. A massive theme park like Disney World may need ticket booths and security guards, but how would you feel if you had to swipe your credit card every time you took your kids to the neighborhood swingset?

Police are a socialist program. In theory, the police are supposed to protect everyone equally, to keep the peace, and to serve the people. Fire departments are a socialist program, and when Obion county in Tennessee allowed a for-profit scheme to take hold the results were catastrophic.

Libraries are a socialist program. Water quality and Food safety are socialist programs. Sewers are a socialist program. Schools are a socialist program. Mail service is a socialist program written directly into the Constitution.

The right complains that we shouldn't be able to "force" a "highly trained doctor" to supply socialized medicine "for free," but when your house is broken into you can demand the time and effort of a highly trained detective, and nobody thinks that's weird.

Americans Aren't Capitalist Anyway

Seriously. One-third of Americans don't own a home, and that's the largest single capital purchase any of us ever make. Slightly more than half of all Americans own any stock, which is the other form of capital. One-third of Americans are not "capitalist" in any sense of the world, and only half of us have any "capital" that we can directly influence, that is to say, "allocate efficiently in the marketplace," and most of us don't even do that. Instead, we put it into index funds, mutual funds, or workplace savings account and let other people literally "do the capitalism" for us.

And that's okay. The world is a big and complicated place, and most of us don't have the time, energy, or education to fully understand the stock and real estate markets, which is where most capital is managed. We're busy raising children, supporting communities, and having lives.

We've Never Been A Capitalist Country

Full-fledged capitalism is, as the economist Robert Nozick once observed, a kind of "universal acid" in that it eats away at every other value we have. Unregulated capitalism can sell you anything and everything: methamphetamines over the counter. Fentanyl at your 7-11. Child sex-work. It's all good, so long as everyone, including the naked seven-year-olds in the magazines, "consent" and get paid. We're not that far from that kind of horrific fantasy as a country.

And this is hardly new. In America, buying a young girl for sex was once legal, as long as she was the child of a slave. We fought a war over this, and the anti-slavery forces kinda won, although the Supreme Court at the time gave whites more authority than blacks in the years following.

We've never been a full-on capitalist country. We've seen what child labor (never mind sex work!), slavery and inescapably potent opiods do to people, and we've decided not to tolerate them. We know that when your house burns, it's likely so will your neighbors', so we fund fire departments. We don't want to die of food poisoning, so we fund food inspection programs.

In the capitalist thinking of people like Nozick and Rand, self-interest and selfishness are the highest goods. They power the economy. "I want" is the thought that makes you go out and buy a pizza, a t-shirt, a house, a motorcycle, an iPhone. Any attempt by the goverment to regulate these things is a market distortion that alters the relationship between the seller and the buyer. Capitalists argue these distortions are destructive to the only moral imperative: the consensual transaction of goods and services.

It's a fact, thought, that we also have needs: we need food, clothing, shelter, transportation, and communication. We also have wants and needs that go beyond physical items, things like community, camaraderie, friendship, and love, things that cannot be easily bought with a dollar.

Americans Are Both

We are neither a capitalist country or a socialist country. Instead, we apply our values to regulation and tolerate those market distortions that uphold our moral values. Americans argue all the time about those moral values and the resulting market distortions, but they rarely put it into such stark terms. We should.

The "taxation is theft" and "redistribution of wealth" rants of the conservative capitalist movement are inherently dishonest. Libraries, city parks, sidewalks, and so forth are public goods, held in trust by the cities and towns that own them for the people that live in them and contribute taxes to them.

We already argue about what to socialize, and to what extent. We should be honest about that. When we argue about whether or not something should be socialized or privatized, we are arguing about our values. Social goods are moral goods: education, knowledge, mobility, safety, security. Our constitution says it exists to provide for the general welfare. Our Declaration of Independence says that we are made to seek life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness; in modern parlance, these are guaranteed by healthcare, criminal justice reform, and education.

Governments are the only institutions deliberately constituted to serve everyone being governed; the only question is whether or not everyone is governed equally, equitably, and justly.

Social Democrats Ain't Soviet Communists

The Soviet Union, for all its faults, had at its core a mission: to turn industrialization into a cornucopia machine, to turn the workday into a source of extended leisure, tranquility, and pleasure for its citizens. Needless to say, they failed horrifically, leading to a corrupt state that carelessly killed its citizens. We know why they failed, and more importantly, we know better than to try that experiment again.

The experiment failed because the Soviets tried to create innovation to order. They tried to emulate America without becoming America, and so the "marketplace of ideas" was banned; instead, unqualified bureaucrats made decisions about what was to be made, invented, or innovated, and Soviet scientists struggled hard to get their ideas in front of a patron.

In the United States, government sponsorship of innovation allowed for variation and failure. US funding to research universities accept that never every experiment will be a success, and US funding helps bridge the gap between research and commercialization. Last year, the FDA approved seven major drugs for wide-scale human-stage trials; four of those drugs were discovered by university students in government-funded programs.

Capitalists point to the Solyndra scandal as proof the government shouldn't be "picking winners and losers." But the goverment does this regularly, and for all the money lost on Solyndra, the goverment has more than made back its initial funding into renewable energies. That's what responsible investment is about. The US, rather than try to pick that one technology, funds many, and reaps rewards from the ones that play out.

(Corporations Are. (Soviet Communists, I mean.))

On the other hand, if you've ever been in a company of any size, you know that they don't play the game this way. Companies pick individual technologies and then run with them. If an initiative is a failure, those responsible sometimes get fired. Negative results are not tolerated. The workers rarely, if ever, get a vote of any kind in the course of corporate decision making. Supplies are bought and resources are distributed "From each according to his ability, to each according to the corporation's needs," with the caveat that if your ability doesn't meet the corporation's needs then you're out, on the street, left to fend for yourself.

Corporations are basically small communist states: the board owns the means of production, implements centralized production planning, and you're just a member of the proletariat. Welcome to your cubicle, comrade.

We're Not Capitalist Enough

America prides itself on being a capitalist country, but what we've learned is that it's just not capitalist enough. It doesn't free people up to be the best themselves they could be. David Frum (whom the left seem to adore these days) once wrote that he liked how American capitalism repressed Americans: "Everyone is at constant risk of the loss of his job, or of the destruction of his business by a competitor, or of the crash of his investment portfolio. Risk disciplines people and teaches them self-control. Without a safety net, people won't try to vault over the big top. Without welfare and food stamps, poor people would cling harder to working-class respectability than they do now." Remember: that's praise. It's fantastic that we're terrified that at any moment forces much larger than ourselves could come in and crush us like bugs, and those entrusted to govern and oversee our lives, via our votes, think that's wonderful.

If you're a libertarian, you ought to be absolutely outraged at this depiction of capitalism as a force to break your will, beat you until you're unwilling to assert yourself and your individualism. American capitalism as it currently is, is a lottery: millions stay subservient, a few thousand take risks, and maybe one or two get rewarded before they get subsumed. That doesn't sound like freedom to me.

The truth is that without risk, innovation becomes the domain only of corporations big enough to sustain a few failures (if not the people who made them), and the little guy doesn't have a chance. Europeans innovate more than us these days because they're not afraid to. American corporations are afraid of that term they all claim to admire, "disruption," and so they've made sure that it doesn't happen. We're not a capitalist country, we don't encourage innovation. We are a merchantlist country ruled by large corporations and the extremely wealthy, who dispatch lobbyists and pay for the elite educations of minions who dutifully take up regulatory positions in our governments to steer America away from taking care of ordinary people without that kind of patronage.

We are a country of shortages and rationing. We're the Soviet Union, only our central planners are Google and General Electric.

The Socialist Democrats ain't your grandfather's politburo

As Brad Delong said earlier this week, socialists like AOC aren't the kind of "socialists" America was screaming about back in the 1950s. Francis Spufford's vignette-driven account of why the Soviet economies failed is the most-accessible way to understand what happened, but it comes down to this: centralized demand for specific innovations in a system that required patronage led to alternatives being discarded. There was no "market of ideas," and no way to encourage innovation positively. Even people led by their passions for math, science, and cybernetics lived in constant fear. (A good, longer summary is Cosma Shalizi's In Soviet Union, Optimization Problem Solves You.)

The "Socialists" of today have learned their lessons, and socialism today is more innovative, more creative, more flexible, and more sophisticated than American capitalism. Public goods aren't directed from the central office; they're held in public trusts and directed by communities rather than "shareholders."

Robert Heinlein once summarized the different spheres of government thusly:

  1. Private where Private Belongs

  2. Public where it is needed

  3. Circumstances alter cases

In America, we have a lot of socialized goods. I listed some of them above: the police, the fire department, and so forth. The question is: why do we socialize some and not others?

Well, what kind of country are you?

There are three kinds of countries: Militarized, Enlightened, or Failed. A militarized country is one in which the military is the only true objective; everyone is subservient to the needs of the country to expand outwards and conquer others. In such a country, everything is directed toward that support: healthcare, education, and infrastructure are all dedicated to creating strong, healthy soldiers capable of carrying on the effort.

An enlightened country is one which is not actively seeking to conquer its neighbors. It has a defense force, but it doesn't have to be three times as large as the neighbor's, and it doesn't have to be as large as the next seven largest militaries combined. It just has to be big enough to convince a militarize country that if they come in, they're gonna get hurt badly enough to make the effort not worthwhile. In the meantime, these people fight with economics: their healthcare is dedicated to making every citizen as capable of production and innovation as possible. Their education is dedicated to make every possible citizen capable of working the levers of a complex, technologically advanced society.

A failed country is neither. It might look like either, but in reality it is being hollowed out by both economic and militarized forces as its leadership drains it of money. The citizens of a failed country are getting sicker and dying younger. Their education is left by the wayside. The leadership is so eager to ravage those who can't fight back that it wrecks the landscape, because hey, they're not gonna need it; they'll all just get on their yachts and go someplace nice while the population crashes and maybe the environment recovers... a little.

What to socialize, and why

We socialize the police because we believe that every American deserves to live in a community without anxiety or tragedy, and that the rich shouldn't have special privileges before the law. We socialize the police because if someone breaks into your house, it's likely they'll break into someone else's as well. Without it, we don't have a country with the peace of mind necessary to pursue our future goals.

We socialize the fire department because we know that, even if you can't afford to pay taxes, if your house catches fire it's likely your neighbor's will as well. We socialize the fire department because it's a form of insurance: no one knows if or when we will need it, but if we do, we'll need the full force of it. Without it, we don't have property we can feel secure about.

We socialize education because we don't know, and we can't know, what future employers, and our future country, will need except that we'll need people who have been trained to think clearly and work well. Socialized education is an investment in our collective future as a country. Without it, we don't have a future.

We ought to socialize baseline healthcare and catastrophic healthcare treatment, because human beings don't "consume" healthcare, and we need a healthy workforce to produce the next generation of miracles, and we cannot say with any assurance who among us will produce those miracles. Without socialized healthcare, your unlucky illness is someone else's profit center, and if that seems moral and right to you, well, then we don't have a future.

None of this excludes private supplementation

I'm fine with wealthy people hiring extra security guards, buying above and beyond the usual building code requirements for fire safety, buying into private schools and willingly throwing as much money as they want on boutique medical services like cosmetic surgery or a new and innovative medical treatment. (More than a third of which are discovered by, yes, publicly funded projects.)

I'm not fine when the wealthy become convinced that those are the only services that matter, and the rest of us should be, at best, "allowed" to live out our lives with polluted air and water, a wrecked climate, the genetic luck of the draw about our health, with standard sub-standard education, and vague disinterest from the police and the courts about the well-being of our communities.

So, yeah: Let's give the socialists a chance.

I mean, they haven't wrecked many of the European countries in which it works. Or we could look to Bolivia, which hasn't done too badly for itself.

We live in a complicated society entirely driven by a desperate need to secure our futures. I'm all for streamlining the complications and alleviating the desperation. Insurance companies are impossible to deal with because it's not in their best interests to be reasonable. You have to pay to have your taxes done because tax preparation companies lobby every four years to prevent the IRS from using knowledge it already has to do your taxes for you.

And every regulation of the market is a kind of friction. But we already agree that some friction is necessary: we don't let people star their children in porn films, we don't let people buy fentanyl over the counter, we don't let people buy grenade launchers. All of these are wants someone has (or there wouldn't be underground markets for them). We also agree that some socialism is necessary, or we wouldn't have police, fire departments, and neighborhood parks.

It's clear to me that we've gone so far into letting the capitalists control things that we've edged into Failed State territory. It's time to unwind this situation and do something different. Actually Lived Capitalism, American Style has overreached, and led us to a place where the majority of Americans are miserable, angry, and sickly.

I don't want that. You don't want that. And the answer is not "work harder for our corporate masters." It's work together to build a community where we're actually, you know, a community and not an atomized collection of individuals all looking for the opening we'll use to stab our neighbor in the back just to secure a couple more bucks for a couple more days.

Let's do better.
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In a widely-reported event a while ago, Rob Zombie defended J-Metal supergroup Babymetal from a horde of haters. He took a photo of himself on some monsters-of-rock tour with the three lead vocalists, and the haters descend, shouting that Babymetal wasn't "real metal" and a "shameful embarrassment." Zombie shot back "They're nice kids on the road touring, what are you doing besides being a grumpy old fuck?" and "They roll harder than you."

Zombie knows that grown-ups can handle the abuse, but Babymetal's vocalists are just kids, teenagers, and touring is flippin' hard work, and nobody messes with the kids. So when he praised Babymetal for their efforts and revealed something about the industry: We are all entertainers here. They're reaching audiences who don't deserve any more than what the entertainers give them.

I sometimes wonder if David Brooks views himself as the Rob Zombie of politics. He knows they're all here for the same thing: to keep the wheels on the bus, even if the bus is driven by oligarchs and occasionally runs people over. That doesn't matter. What matters is that the bus keeps running. The tour keeps going. So Brooks' defensiveness at the Niskansen Center this week is part and parcel of that. So when David Brooks goes off, he accuses the Twitterati of being "grumpy old fucks," he just does it in more genteel language.
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The other day, in the usual Twitter kerfuffle about urbanism and America and how much I dislike consumer culture, fast fashion, and the need to drive everywhere, I was attacked by a right-winger (who's since blocked me, so no link) who demanded to know why I wanted to "take away everything that's great about America."

Why is fast fashion something that's "great" about America?

I want to live in a place where almost everything I care about is within walking distance, rather than having to waste much of my life commuting to-and-fro, paying money and time to care for the ton of steel and the extra pavement. I want to live in a place where I walk past my neighbors, rather than shadowy figures in other metal boxes. Walkable neighborhoods are full of people who live longer.

I want to live in a world where my clothes last, and I love my fashion choices so much that I'm saddened when they fall apart, rather than one where I tire of them so quickly they clog the loading docks at Goodwill. If your clothes from last year are now "bad" to wear, they were always bad to wear; it just took you time to understand that.

I want to live in a world where my streets are safe for children because people aren't in a hurry to drive over them to get to their next McNugget meal.

I want to live in a world where my daily walks take me past a grocery store, where I can buy fresh foods and take them home and make them into meals that treat my body and soul.

Suburban life is loney and hollow, and even religion is a pointless salve when people now drive long miles to attend churches that align more with their political leanings than with their neighbor's needs.
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Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AKA AOC) made a big splash yesterday with a line of questioning to Michael Cohen that established, from a congressional witness, that Donald Trump likely committed tax fraud and used properties in her congressional district to facilitate that crime, laid out a case for determining the truth of the witness's claims that required access to Trump's legendarily hidden tax returns, and determined that Donald Trump's accountant, Allen Weisselberg, would be a key witness from whom testimony would be required.

She did this in five minutes. It was a remarkable performance.

According to FOX News, when your boss sets your pay rate at something different from the going market, that's communism. They're not very bright over there.
AOC had one other moment this week that caused the usual kerfuffle from the usual suspects: she announced that she was restructuring her congressional staff's pay schedule. Her chief-of-staff would max out at $80K a year, half of what other congressional CoS's make, but her bottom-rung staffers would get paid $52K a year, the minimum needed, according to official estimates, to afford an apartment within a one-hour commute of her offices.

These two are related.

I once had lunch with my congressman at the time, the now-retired Jim McDermott, and I asked him how he voted on issues that required a lot of technical knowledge. He said that there are people in Congress who are specialists at pretty much everything, and he goes to them. Often those people are staffers, and sometimes those people issue explainers with different degrees of wonkiness. The objective is to herd the representatives who barely understand the one-page bullet-points (about genetic engineering, climate change, nuclear policy, internet security, whatever) to appreciate that those who know more feel strongly on an issue and to vote accordingly.

Because of her pay schedule choice, AOC's staff isn't made up of trust fund kids whose parents will cover the apartment costs, nor is it made up of high-aspiring in-party activists looking for a high-paying job that sets their base going rate higher. Instead, her staff is made up of people who (a) are from her district and know it's issues, and (b) are motivated to be there. AOC has literally said she's going to hit the "I'll pay you enough to take money worries off the table while you work for me" point, which is where you find the passionate wonks and technicals. AOC's staff is middle class: making enough money to spend their days concentrating on their jobs rather than spending all their cognitive resources worrying about money, but not so much that having empathy weakens their effectiveness.

AOC's success has as much to do with how she, as a former bartender, developed an ear for hearing bullshit, and has weeded out the bullshitters, and the staff she hired is made up of highly motivated people who don't fear the masses, don't fear for their financial futures, and don't fear their boss. She does her homework, and they work with her, and for her, in a way the trust-fund babies and party-ambitious apparatchiks never will.

Together, they gamed out the line of questioning she would use on Cohen. They rehearsed possible answers, and worked hard to make it all fit in her five-minute schedule.

It's not just her blue-collar background, and it's not just her internet savvy, and it's not just her sense of what constitutes fairness in a pay schedule. Those three things combined act as multipliers to bring her another multiplier, a highly competent, technically proficient, and morally united staff. She is herself talented and witty and Internet-capable on her own, but having a staff she trusts and who will do the work with her is what makes her devastating.
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Pot, I'm very disappointed in you.

I live in Washington state, where marijuana is a legal product readily available at shops all across the state. There's a fairly nice pot shop within walking distance of my house. I was eager to try it because my friends, the serious potheads, had for years extolled the virtues of marijuana. It'll "free your mind," and it'll "make you more creative."

No, no it doesn't.

For me, what pot does is simulate the emotions of being creative without, you know, actually encouraging creativity. You get the rush of creative flow without putting in any effort. It's not a useful chemical for unlocking anything. Which is fine, it's great, it's better than alcohol, but everyone I know told me that, for "someone like you" it would be great for creativity. But sadly, no, it only gives the emotional impressions of being creative without the creative insights themselves.

Ah, well. I guess I'll just have to write my stories sober. As usual.
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Mordin Solus

The video game Mass Effect 2 introduced one of my all-time favorite characters in video games: the Salarian scientist Mordin Solus. Mordin is your tech research character; once you have him, your character can salvage alien tech and he will, with time and resources, buff your character and team.

When it comes to how we treat projects, encounters, campaigns, or any other event with a definitive ending, there are two kinds of people: decision-oriented people and outcome-oriented people.

Outcome-oriented people are focused on the end result of any project such as raising a child, a major initiative at work, a date with a prospective partner, or a low-stakes round of poker. No matter how hard they worked at something, if the outcome isn't to their liking then they did something wrong.

Desicion-oriented people, on the other hand, know they're working with insufficient information when they begin. Nonetheless, their inclination is to gather as much information as possible and make the best decision in a probability-oriented way. If the outcome isn't to their liking, they don't get upset by it, because they know they did the best they could.

Mordin is the quintessential decision-oriented person; when asked whether or not he regrets the outcome of his many career choices over his lifetime, his response is: "Of course not. Made the best decision at the time with the information available. Outcome unfortunate, but did the best we could."

I realized today that there are two different kinds of decision-orientation, and one is functional, and the other is not. Every project has a desired outcome, the question is whether or not the outcome is the one you want. Mordin's decision-orientation is flexible; if the result is not the desired outcome, he allows himself to change his tactics, adopt new desired outcomes based on the actual outcome obtained, and work to achieve his ends.

There's another decision-orientation, though, that's dysfunctional: the one where a project doesn't have the desired outcome, so those running the project double down on the decisions they've made. They're not working with the best possible information, or making the best decisions they could toward the desired goal.

Unfortunately, these people currently rule the United States.

Abstinence-only education is a classic example. The goal is to reduce teen pregnancy and sexual experimentation. The decision is to not teach kids about sex, except to make it terrifying. Every time this has been tried, it has failed, and sorting through the "pro vs. con" articles, you'll find ideological decision-based thinking everywhere: it should work, abstinent teenagers should manage themselves.

Of course, the desired outcome may not actually be to reduce teen pregnancy; it may be to create an environment where sexually active teenagers are deliberately put at higher risk for disease, pregnancy, and the accompanying stigma and poverty as "life lessons" to the self-satisfied, thus perpetuating the dichtomy between those who obey the decision-makers, and those who didn't.

Any place where decision-oriented people are looking to reduce harm, you'll find people with ideological decision-oriented language. They use the same vocabulary, but they have covert agendas. Their goals are not yours.
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I really want to like this article by someone named Belover entitled "Who Says the Bible is Against Porn?," but there's a huge detail missing in the middle of it.

Belover is not wrong that the Bible, unlike most of contemporary Christianity, holds up the naked human body as a beautiful work of God without requiring a context. Contemporary Christians will argue things like "that's only in the context of marriage," but the Bible doesn't say that. Judaic teachings hold that sexual desire is itself divine. There is no teaching that certain sex acts in and of themselves are abominable before God. (Go ahead, quote Deuteronomy at me, I dare you; I'll see your Deuteronomy and raise you Luke 7 and Acts 10.) Belover also points out just how often in the Bible prostitution is shown as just another career choice, one often taken as a reaction to other downfalls, but never in and of itself regarded as a fallen or degraded state.

But Belover makes a huge mistake when he fails to mention porneia. Because that's Paul's massive elephant in the room.

Porneia is really hard to pin down, no matter what the Evangelicals will tell you. ("Paul says it's bad and it starts with the letters P.O.R.N.! What more do you need to know?") I take, from the scholarship I've read, that porneia is actually about power, and about how there was a power structure prevalent in Paul's time that consigned some people to powerless vessels subject to use as relief vessels for the untamed sexuality of cruel men. This power structure abused impoverished girls and boys, and saw them not as full human beings but instead as toys to be used and thrown away. Disposable lives. Paul (and Jesus, and therefore God) object to that, not to any specific sex act or even what body parts are intermingled.

The Bible isn't against pornography, or prostitution per se. The Bible is against institutionalizing violence for the purpose of creating different classes of people and then declaring that one class exists strictly for the use and pleasure of the other, the lower class's wants and needs never being taken into account.

It's true that most of us sell our bodies one way or another; even if we're not sex workers, we schlub off to spend hours in an enclosed box owned by other people, being used by other people, for their profit, of which we get a pittance and it's called a "fair share." Given that it's hard for office workers to not be seen as victims of a weak porneia, how much harder is it for sex workers to escape the status of being disposable?

Until and unless we create an environment where we are all freely choosing to be what we want, the notion that sex work is somehow "different" from, or "distinct" from, the power differential that exists between the exploiter and the exploited, remains ridiculous, and no amount of trying to excuse one's kinks with Biblical quotes will change that.
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A twitter acquaintance of mine, addressing former Starbucks CEO and presidential aspirant Howard Schultz's complaint that he doesn't like being called a "billionaire," had this pithy response:

And while it's a fine and pithy response, it's also a problem I've wrestled with a lot recently.

Are you familiar with the Prisoner's Dilemma? It goes like this: You and your buddy are arrested and separated. If neither of you confesses, you'll both go to jail for a year on lesser charges. If you confess, you'll go to jail for a year, but your buddy will go for ten years. If he confesses, the sentences will be reversed. If both of you confess, you'll both go to jail for ten years.

The Prisoner's Dilemma is a classic problem because you don't have control over what the other person does. You each hold a weapon you can use on the other, you can't communicate with each other, and if you both use it, you both lose.

Wealthy people are in a Prisoner's Dilemma: there's no way one can merely "disarm," giving away the bulk of their wealth, in a way that will cause the other wealthy people to cease their maladaptive behaviors.

I'm in what you might call the "precarious wealthy"; I have money enough right now, but that could change with a large disaster. I have no passive income sources, and have instead earned my money through the selling of my highly skilled, somewhat rare labor. As I've said before, though, I also believe that my opportunities to earn were highly fortunate, and luck played a huge role in my success. Even if someone points out that I "saw opportunities and exploited them," I'm white and male and secular and code straight, and I had upper-middle-class parents, so I was born with the good fortune to be have access to the opportunity hoard, and to be able to afford the training to do the exploiting.

Like, who can with a straight face claim that, no really, "Porn, video games, and anime" all contributed to my success. (Huh, I don't have a "video games" serendipity entry, but I should: part of the reason Isilon hired me back in 2000 was because I had written a Linux kernel module and so wasn't an idiot about C, or kernel modules, so could be trusted with their BSD-oriented stack. I had written the kernel module because the video game Free Space had been released on open source, but there was no Linux support for my joystick.)

I can't just "give away" my money and then watch the world burn. The best I can do is contribute money, time, and effort to causes I hope will increase legislation to the point where it narrows the income distribution to the point where we're no longer a dysfunctional country.

My ethos is, I hope, one of kindness and the alleviation of cruelty. That's easier to do when you're not worried about how your kids are gonna eat or your partner will get their life-saving medication. I just want it for everyone, not just for myself.
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Last night, while meditating with my Muse headband, I encountered one of those Dark Behaviorist Patterns that are, to my thinking, one of the worst problems we have with apps and our networked world today.

The Muse Headband is gamified. I have no problem with gamification in general; I think it's an excellent documentation pattern, and done well is one of the best ways to get people to use your product effectively. But "done well" means done with the user's interests in mind; "done well" means executed with kindness and compassion for the user's time and patience.

The gamification pattern for Muse is straightforward. While using it, it categorizes your brain state into one of four ranges: agitated, neutral, calm, and deep calm. There's a main score, and for that score it gives you 1 point for every second you're "neutral" and 3 points for every second you're "calm." It also has a score for how many times you transition out of "agitated," and another for how much time you spend in "deep calm," but that main score is the big deal. Depending on various scores, you get badges, like any gamified environment.

Since I usually meditate for 25 minutes (booking a half hour, with setup and teardown), my theoretical high score is 25⨯60⨯3 or 4500. Yesterday I hit 4400.

I got three familiar badges: "Marathon" (meditated for more than 20 minutes, which I get pretty much every day), "Lucidity," (calm for more than 20 minutes), "Birds of Eden" (persistent deep calm). I've gotten other badges, including the one labeled "Perfect Timing," which is awarded when you meditate for 10 minutes or more, but experience less than 60 seconds of "calm," and "Wanderlust," which happens when your mind starts to become agitated late in the session, indicating boredom and a lack of focus.

But I got one unfamiliar badge: "Precision Shooter." I looked up the description: "Your score was exactly 4400." I went and looked back in my history; I'd received this score once before, for a score of 2900. "Precision Shooter" is awarded when your score is evenly divisible by 100.

That's not just a terrible metric, it's a psychologically manipulative one. Nobody's going to train their brain for that kind of precision. It's not just a meaningless badge, it's one that's awarded out of sheer luck.

When psychology students do the rat behavior reinforcement experiment, they divide the rats into three groups: continuous reinforcement, fixed ratio reinforcement, and variable reinforcement. The first get a food pellet every time they press a button; the second get a food pellet every fifth press; the third set get a food pellet after a random number of presses. It could be two in a row, or it could take fifteen or more presses until the food comes out.

Then the researcher turn off the levers.

The first group of rats gives up pretty quickly. It worked, and now it doesn't. The second group gives up after a little while longer. The third group never gives up. Never. The behavior pattern lingers for months. The rats' brains have become addicted to the reward system itself and they'll keep slamming that lever even when they're not hungry.

"Precision Shooter" is a variable reinforcement mechanism. It only happens at random intervals because you meditate. It's meaningless in terms of one's progress (whatever "progress" means to Muse), but it is a form of manipulation meant to make you to come back and try again. And because it's tied to an observable metric, it feels like an "achievement," so the initial hook is powerful, even if that metric isn't one over which you can exert any actual control.

"Precision Shooter" is a Dark Behaviorist Pattern, and Muse should remove it from the product.
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Mike Stuchberry's recent and insightful tweetstorm about "Bro Stocism" has me thinking about my own complex relationship with Stoicism. I've always been a meditative sort, and while I liked what Buddhism gave me I had trouble wrapping my head around the mystical accretions of Buddhism. Steven Batchelor's Buddhism Without Belief was my go-to for accessing the tradition of "Western Buddhism," and it served me well, but I still felt that something was... off. In 2010 I found William Irvine's A Guide To The Good Life, and decided that it was a better guide, but not the only guide.

People need rituals. Daily rituals. Without them, our lives and sense of self fall apart. Choosing those rituals, consciously working through them, and adapting them to our selves is part and parcel of being effective. Habits are one thing— eat the same thing every morning, or brush your teeth every night. Rituals, on the other hand, require both the habit of committing them, and the mindfulness of asking, daily, what those rituals mean and do for us.

I still do traditional, Buddhist-style meditation every day, but I have others that also have daily use, and one special one that's for times when my brain feels full.

Here's the thing, though: unless you're actually working hard to be self-aware, and working every day on it, Stoicism is just going to wedge you into a corner of thought-terminating clichés. The Stoic precept to "accept reality as it is" does not mean to believe you shouldn't try to change it; on the contrary, the point of accepting reality as it is is to believe that it can be changed. Like the Randian "A is A," the red-pillers have taken this precept and turned it into a barrier to critical thought: whites have more power and authority than minorities and that's the way it is becomes whites should maintain that power. No investigation into the historical reasons for the uneven distribution of wealth and power needs to proceed. They allow no sense of responsibility for the circumstances obtained, and they definitely don't see anything wrong with the circumstances obtained.

I've been working my way though Ryan Holliday's "A Stoic Question a Day" book, and while I've enjoyed the practice so far, I can easily see how answering these questions can seem like putting your ankles into concrete. "Now that I've written down the one thing in life I'm here for, it would be a betrayal to do anything else."

Among Stoicism's precepts are "Man is capable of rational thought" and "Man is a social animal." We are made, every day, to take on the world with the help of our fellow human beings. Stoicism is an urban, cosmopolitan, communal practice, and it's not an unhappy one; there's a reason we talk about Stoic joy, which is what we feel when after much reflection we embrace a way of life that's beneficial, rather than passion, which is a momentary and fleeting thing that can easily be destructive without that reflection. Bro Stoicism is basically a perversion of Zeno and Epictetus's work.
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Last night, I went to a huge "Tech Talk and Happy Hour" put on by one of the major automobile manufacturers. They were recruiting talent for their engineering teams to develop a new infrastructure for self-driving cars. They even had an example on display. It was invitation-only and the recruiter tried extra hard to make sure I showed up.

They fed us pretty well; two free beers and all the tacos you could eat, and the tacos were made in-house and very tasty. So that was kinda nice. The place was crowded and there were a lot of people of various skills at the place.

I have very mixed feelings about self-driving cars. I suspect they're going to make life worse, not better; we may not have to take the wheel, and they may be safer than human beings once we solve a whole host of problems, but they're going to create more problems than they solve. Privately owned ones will stratify the rich from the poor even further; wealthy parents will be able to keep working while dispatching the car to get the kids to and from school, and wealthy owners will tell their cars to just orbit the block "until we're done," thus creating horrific traffic in city cores. Fleet cars will add to the street burden.

As a technologist, I think self-driving cars are significant and important. However, as a committed urbanist I want cities that are walkable, and mass transit that is frequent, useful, and adaptable. Self-driving cars will make cities less livable, not moreso. They have their place; as an adaptive technology for the disabled, they will be fantastic. As a convenient technology for the lazy, they're a communal and personal health hazard.

Also, the infrastructure for supporting a fleet of self-driving cars is an environmental nightmare. "We have four cars at the moment, and together those four cars generate as much data per day as all of Facebook." Facebook generates 19Kg of CO2per second; so do four self-driving cars. There are 268.8 million cars on the road. If one percent of them were self driving, that's 50,920,000 Kgs/CO2 per second just for the "steering" part, never mind actually charging up the vehicle!

The good news, though, is that when the presentation was over, I went up to the people in the company shirts, and they eventually directed me over to a tech recruiter. My pitch was "Look, here's what I can do for you, now convince me you're not a dysfunctional mess," which he actually took as a bit of a challenge. When he asked me where I was, I explained that I had left Splunk and was taking a few classes, and then mentioned my project. "Wait," I said. "How nerdy do you want me to get?"

"I'm an engineer turned tech recruiter. Get as super-nerdy as you want." So after about 15 minutes of explaining the project, its origin, and the wild things it has led me to do (take classes in set theory, category theory, and Haskell, among other things), and concluding with a list of use cases and potential value-add projects, he said, "Oh, we have to hire you."

So there's that, I guess.
elfs: (Default)
Today's workout was a combination of surprises and disappointments:

Sumo Deadlift, 4⨯12⨯75lb. ✓✓✓
Linear Leg Press, 4x12x120lb. ✓✓✓
Stability Ball Crunch, 4x15 ✓✓✓
Stability Swing, 4x20x16kg ✓✓✓
Forward Lunge, 3x12 𝗳𝗮𝗶𝗹
Nerd Neck, 3x12x5lb ✓✓✓

The surprise was that, going up to the deadlift, my previous max had been 3x10x75lb, and going up to 4x12x75lb was easy. I had no trouble at all doing the workout. The leg press was ten pounds heavier than my last workout, and five pounds heavier than planned, but they replaced the machine and the new one's sled starts at 120lbs. It's a little embarrassing to be using the machine completely unloaded, but that's where I start.

I do use a pre-workout supplement that's mostly citrulline malate but also has some other stuff, including some caffeine, but I think the biggest difference this week was that I added something weird on top of it. The local grocery store has a "seasonal closeout" section, and among the things offered was that Bulletproof protein, the kind with their MCT oil mixed in, and I bought some on a lark. Having all that extra protein in me made a huge difference.

The other thing is the MCT oil. I have such mixed feelings about that stuff. I've been taking a tablespoon of the liquid form with my breakfast for the past month and it really does seem to make a difference with my ADHD. It gives me fantastic focus in the morning, and seems to last awhile. Maybe the two together made me stronger in the gym.

On the other hand, the liquid form makes me feel queasy and nauseous for the first hour or so after I take it, unless I take it on a fiber-heavy breakfast like oatmeal, which seems to control the effect. And see that "forward lunge" entry? I think whatever I was taking made me so confident about the sumo deadlift and stability swings that, when I got to the lunge my knees were like, "Nope. Not today." I paid attention to the pain, and didn't continue.

But! But, but, but, this means that I can go up in weight again for my deadlifts and leg presses! Which makes me happy. I'm gonna have a great butt by summer.


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Elf Sternberg

April 2019

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