Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Semper Fidelis

Fidelity is a virtue that is not much heard of in these days - it means faithfulness, or loyalty.

The word popped into my head when I attended a Catholic mass, recited in Latin. In midst of the ceremony, it is easy to imagine people gathering together to perform it for almost two thousand years, a chain unbroken from Roman times. Candles have been lit in front of the cross, the Lord’s prayer recited, and the Eucharist taken by a community of the faithful from generation to generation, during good times and during times of persecution. Semper fidelis.

Faith belongs to the kind of objects that you keep, like a promise - "keep the faith". It is not a single extraordinary act, but a constant duty. Keeping a faith is a responsibility that changes the bearer. It requires you to look ahead, seeing with the eyes of eternity in order to plan for events long after your own death. The charge must be guarded and passed from one generation to the next, like a torch-flame. Each generation must be imprinted with the gravity of it so that they can instill the motivation to keep it into their own children and grandchildren.

As the responsibility of raising a child changes a parent, so too does the practice of faith-keeping transform its bearer into something grander. (The transformative power of long-term thinking is the raisson d'ĂȘtre of the secular Long Now Foundation)

It is remarkable that the mass, a practice originating in Roman Civilization, comes down to us still alive, constantly living, over all these years. “Keep doing this in remembrance of me”, a man once said. And so it has been. It is in my nature to love a thing that lasts.

Is it not possible to love Christmas, for the same reason? I know of people that treat Christmas with disdain - bright intellectuals that view it as an ignorant and outmoded ritual. But is it not worthwhile to keep an ancient flame alight for its own sake? Like an endangered animal species, when it becomes extinct we will not again see its kind. And while we now take it for granted, we may burn with regret when it is gone.

Can we start new traditions, more suited to our present values? It can be done. But not every age has the same capacity for laying foundations. It requires the strength of will not only to bind your own life to the task, but also to bind all future generations. It can only be done in the spirit of the greatest solemnity. The characteristic emotion of our time - irony - is poorly suited to the task.

So I choose to keep the Christmas traditions for their own delight and as a reminder that mankind can build things that endure. I am grateful to those who passed it down to me. I do my own small part to keep the flame alive, and will pass it to my own children someday.

Someday the will to continue may be lost. Mankind may shrink in moral stature and lose the capacity for fidelity, and all of this may be forgotten in the depths of time. But as long as a single member of the faithful draws breath, that day is not yet.

Anno Domini 2013

Sunday, April 28, 2013

"The Player of Games", a review. Sort of.

Affiliate link here. This review is spoiler-free.

When science fiction author Iain Banks announced his terminal cancer a month ago the internet responded with an outpouring of concern and praise. I'd never read his books, or even heard of the man, so I belatedly picked up "The Player of Games" while travelling.

I study history to learn about human society. I often think about the essential or optional characteristics of a sustainable society where most people can live a good life. My gold-standard test for all political philosophy consists of two questions: 1) can a society built on these principles last? And, 2) does it allow for human flourishing?

For the modern liberal American consensus, I lean towards a "no" for the first question and a qualified "yes" for the second. This makes me a partial politico-cultural dissident and drives my interest in exploring alternative forms of society.

For the same reason that I enjoy history I also enjoy fiction that provides a culture shock. Science Fiction is a rich genre for cultural experimentation as authors are given the freedom to imagine ways of life far outside the normal boundaries. However, sociological evidence from fictional cultures must be treated more cautiously than evidence from historical ones. The apparent desirability of fictional societies are left in the hands of the author who always has an ideological axe to grind. Fiction can give us hypotheses about new ways to live, enriching our social palette, but it cannot give us evidence about the desirability of a particular way of life due to the author's inherent conflict of interest.

Iain Banks delivers a provocative vision of a future society in "The Player of Games". It is one of several books that take place in "The Culture", an advanced human society. The Culture is a place of great wealth where production is automated by technology including artificial intelligence. There is no need for work so instead people pursue their recreational and artistic interests. The Culture novels offer relevant food for thought in an America currently experiencing high unemployment rates and anxiety about automation technology displacing workers.

The theme is common in science fiction - what would life be like if we lived forever and had no need for work? Would life be enjoyable, meaningful, and fulfilling? The Culture books answer with a resounding "yes!", with just enough nuance to add believability without much weakening the conclusion.

And indeed the Culture is a pleasant place to live. Everybody is genetically engineered to be intelligent, beautiful, and healthy so they make good use of their wealth of leisure (we also have regions in our world where few people work, but they are not pleasant places to live). The political order is a kind of anarcho-communism. There is no property since there is no want. The abundance of friendly robot drones makes it near impossible to be killed or to harm another human, eliminating the need for a justice system. The culture has few rules and no politics. Rules are most often enforced by social sanction and norms of politeness. In the worst cases robotic drones prevent humans from repeatedly bothering others.

If communism is ever to work, if it is ever to be the paradise Marx promised instead of the bloody butchery it became, then it will exist in a society that is already extremely wealthy like the Culture. It differs significantly from the theoretical communism where workers control the means of production, instead it is a society where production is too plentiful to worry about control.

Banks explores some of the potential flaws in his vision, but only briefly. One character upon returning home after several years worries that someone else will be using the house that he lived in for decades. Since there is no property rights in the Culture he does not have claim to the home he is not using and the Culture's norms of politeness allow someone else to make use of it. I suspect Banks underestimates people's attachment to things and places, and I suspect that concepts of property will always arise in a society that tries to get rid of it.

I respect Banks as an author with a sharp and honest mind. He never tries to sell us on a utopian vision without pointing out its flaws and dependencies. He's clever enough to see that his novel political order depends on novel technology and he avoids the mistake of selling a social order which would be falsified, or even falsifiable, by historical evidence.

The main character is the eponymous player of games named Gurgeh, the best game-player in all the Culture. People gather to watch his games and children study his strategies in school. In a world where medicine grants infinite life, could one be consumed by studying games for all eternity? Maybe. It is  Gurgeh's boredom with his life as the Culture's biggest gamer celebrity is the catalyst that kicks off the plot.

During the course of the novel we come into contact with a hierarchical, traditional alien empire that is compared unfavorably to the Culture. In terms of the Star Trek universe, think of it as the Federation vs. the Klingons or the Romulans. The book preaches the moral superiority of the Culture too much for my taste.

But Banks briefly points out some of the ways that life in the Empire is preferable to the Culture. The citizens of the empire feel more purpose in life. They are emotionally tougher than the decadent Culture and there is much to admire about them. It is a competent though biased meditation on the costs and benefits of a restrictive tradition versus an individualistic worldview that offers greater freedom and equality but that often leaves people feeling lost and adrift.

"The Player of Games" is worth your time. Banks' Culture is an appealing ideal form of the "enlightened" liberal worldview. Since I so often find myself in opposition to that worldview in present day politics, I enjoy being challenged with the best it has to offer. The Culture would indeed be a pleasant place to live if it were possible.

Saturday, April 13, 2013


You can learn a lot about how the American media works from the Kermit Gosnell case.

The world is warming a lot less quickly than we thought it would, which is great news for all of us. It turns out that 95% confidence intervals aren't worth a whole hell of a lot in climate science.

Declining participation in the workforce is one of the major economic story of the last 10 years. In related news, NPR's planet money reports on the burgeoning abuse of the USG disability program.

Margaret Thatcher, R.I.P.

The American left is in a period of waxing confidence and hostility.

Most Republicans under 50 years old now support gay marriage.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Why Bitcoin?

From Satoshi Nakamoto:
Yes, [we will not find a solution to political problems in cryptography,] but we can win a major battle in the arms race and gain a new territory of freedom for several years. Governments are good at cutting off the heads of a centrally controlled networks like Napster, but pure P2P networks like Gnutella and Tor seem to be holding their own.

The root problem with conventional currency is all the trust that's required to make it work. The central bank must be trusted not to debase the currency, but the history of fiat currencies is full of breaches of that trust. Banks must be trusted to hold our money and transfer it electronically, but they lend it out in waves of credit bubbles with barely a fraction in reserve. We have to trust them with our privacy, trust them not to let identity thieves drain our accounts. Their massive overhead costs make micropayments impossible.

A generation ago, multi-user time-sharing computer systems had a similar problem. Before strong encryption, users had to rely on password protection to secure their files, placing trust in the system administrator to keep their information private. Privacy could always be overridden by the admin based on his judgment call weighing the principle of privacy against other concerns, or at the behest of his superiors. Then strong encryption became available to the masses, and trust was no longer required. Data could be secured in a way that was physically impossible for others to access, no matter for what reason, no matter how good the excuse, no matter what.

It's time we had the same thing for money. With e-currency based on cryptographic proof, without the need to trust a third party middleman, money can be secure and transactions effortless.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Ayn Rand in the 21st Century

"Why ask useless questions? How deep is the ocean? How high is the sky? Who is Satoshi Nakamoto?"

Sunday, February 24, 2013

economy seating.

They stumble past bearing bags and children,
and bumping into seats with clumsy limbs
through warm and stuffy air they shuffle and swim
until illogic works to its conclusion
and all are seated, human cattle penned.
The ship then crawls from pavement onto pavement
while the vents emit an antisceptic scent.
We turn into a last impatient halt and then

I lift my feet and fall into the sky.
I am pure joy, a gust of wind I blow.
Through cloudy halls of forgotten kings I fly
and look down on soaring hawks below.
Resting on virgin snow I realize
my life began one blessed hour ago

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Thoughts on turning 30, and a decade's aphorisms

10 years ago I was living at the abandoned, beer-spattered house of the Ultimate Frisbee team over winter break at Wake Forest University, having recently been kicked out of my parents' home for leaving the Jehovah's Witness faith. I read "The Fountainhead" and in Ayn Rand I found an author with a kindred spirit. I became an atheist Randian libertarian.

My isolated Jehovah's Witness upbringing left me unskilled at negotiating personal relationships. I expected the world to become my friend upon my emancipation and I was disappointed to find out how hard it would be to make friends. There is no doubt that I was/am weird and that weirdos have a hard time making friends. 

But my earnest naivety must have been endearing to some people. I made a few friends, fewer close ones, and went on my first dates. For the first and only time, I even briefly fell in love with a girl that loved me back.

I worked my way through college as a waiter at an Italian restaurant chain and by cold-emailing professors to ask for handyman work. (Once, I sold a Smashing Pumpkins box set so that I would have the money to take my first girlfriend on a date to IHOP. It was all the money I had. I didn't tell her that. I wanted to look cool.) I did not know where web pages came from. When I graduated with a degree in economics and mathematics, I spent a half-decade struggling to find a career and many hours thinking, reading, and writing.

(One of my more embarrassing business memories is standing outside of office buildings in Atlanta, handing out resumes to businessmen like they were some kind of concert flyer. I walked into the Atlanta Bain Consulting office unannounced with a box of chocolates and some resumes in a gift bag for the secretary. None of this worked to get me a job. I was clearly an outsider. I overcame any hard feelings towards Bain in time to vote for Romney in 2012.)

I started adult life in Atlanta with a few hundred bucks in my pocket. I didn't have a plan but it was a big city and I figured that I would find something to do. My car died and the repair took up all my money before I found a job so I was forced to work as a waiter again. In Atlanta I was most happy. I struggled professionally, but I was surrounded with wonderful people. They struggled too, but we helped each other out. My roommates and I hosted epic house parties and dinner parties. Our rent was under $350 a month (each) and nobody worked more than 40 hours a week. The possibility of love was everywhere, which eventually coalesced into a very real and very fateful girlfriend living in DC. 

The siren song of Paul Graham's essays on startups almost made me move out to Silicon Valley from Atlanta in 2006, but I was convinced by that girlfriend to accept a position in an investment bank in DC that her family had helped me obtain. With their help, I was an insider. Investment banking wasn't a good environment for me, so I left two years later to try that tech startup thing. First I went to grad school for Computer Science in San Diego, and then finally to ground zero of the internet revolution - Mountain View, Silicon Valley.

(I planned to work first and save up money at a lucrative programming job before starting a company but that didn't work out. I had no programming experience outside of grad school and I was an outsider all over again. I showed up to one interview in a business suit - a big faux pas in California. I didn't get the job. So I started a company instead.)

I'm skimming over 6 years here, but they were mostly a grind and not that interesting. Also, they relate to things that are still recent and relevant so I don't feel comfortable discussing them publicly. It suffices to say that they taught me the value of leisure and doing a job you enjoy, mostly by counter-example.

That said, 6 years of emphasis on career skills made a big positive difference in my professional life, even if my personal life has suffered from lack of time and attention. At 30, I feel confident moving in the world. I have far, far more business savvy than I used to and I know how to portray myself as an insider. I have real, marketable experience in technology and software.

I am looking forward to my thirties - the decade when many men come into the prime of their expertise and power. I have surrounded myself with effective, smart people and I hope I continue to grow more like them. I reconciled with my parents. I'm writing this post sitting on a couch at their house. I am visiting for a week to see my new little nephew who lives with my sister in the neighborhood. (later edit: he's a darling, by the way. Such a calm, happy child.)

I am no longer a Randian, though I still encourage others to read her works. I am still an atheist, but I appreciate my Christian cultural heritage. You can often find me in a church service of a denomination less insane than Jehovah's Witnesses - I find it enjoyable and thought-provoking. I am still mostly libertarian, but I am more interested in good governance than maintaining libertarian purity. As I am more interested in good living than in maintaining atheist purity.

As a philosophy, eudaimonia is its own reward. 

I see people 10 years older than me living how I'm living, and I know I don't want to be doing the same thing when I'm 40 - single, bouncing from job to job and city to city, trying to be cool, trying to meet women. Being cool is exhausting - I can't imagine trying to be cool for the rest of my life. The Christians have a good thing going on with their emphasis on family (other traditional cultures in the US do too, but they are mostly based on ethnicity and therefore closed off to me). Hedonism is for happiness in the short term, building things you're proud of is for happiness in the long term. A good life needs a balance of both.

The most disappointing lack of personal growth over the last ten years is that I am still fairly bad at  personal relationships. In some ways I may have regressed - any endearing naivety I may have had is long gone. I have little idea how other people experience the social world. I think that may be a part of a matrix of qualities that goes with skill at math, nerdiness, instinctive iconoclasm, and being genetic cousin to an autistic. Part of my New Year's resolution is to approach the problem with Silicon Valley gusto. What do people who are well-loved do that I don't? I don't believe that problems must remain unsolved forever. And a brief period of happiness in my past gives me confidence that I can reach that state again. 

Finally, I would like to close with some bits of wisdom that I have accumulated over the last 10 years. Some of these aphorisms may sound obvious, but they were big revelations for me.

  • People like to help other people. Ask for a hand from people that are where you want to be. They will gladly offer it.
  • You will be happier spending your money on experiences than spending it on objects.
  • There is little value in doing hard things just because they are hard and no shame in taking an easy path that leads somewhere useful.
  • Having that difficult conversation is a lot easier than avoiding it.
  • Every time I lost my temper I was given cause to regret it. 
  • Good advice is so valuable. Access to good advice explains a significant amount of the difference in experience between children of the rich and the poor. 
  • If you see something awesome, world-changing, or historic happening on the news then you can go be a part of that if you want. I am working at Coursera and advising the Thiel fellowship, how cool is that? I feel like I'm living in a movie.
  • Most groups of humans have some wisdom to offer - (traditional, radical, hippie, conservative, religious, atheist, ancient, modern).  Acknowledging this will make you popular with nobody.
  • I have learned a lot faster outside of school than in it. I also kick myself for studying the wrong things in school. The "real world" gives a powerful dose of perspective. 
  • The marketplace is a doocracy. The ability to produce something of quality is rare and highly valued. 
  • If you can't have a respectful and productive disagreement with someone, then your relationship is going to fall apart because disagreements WILL happen. This applies to every kind of venture.
  • Human relationships are often valued too lightly.
  • Personal virtue is undervalued.
  • Love lasts. Anger doesn't.
  • Humans are often irrational. Therefore, I am often irrational. Therefore, getting myself to do what I want is a difficult task. Self-management is an art which we are cursed to eternally perfect.
  • Fashion drives belief. Fashions arise in cohesive cultural groups. As smart people have separated into more distinct cultural groups, smart people also believe fashionable wrong ideas. 
  • RE: that last point - the western world is the most egalitarian, free, productive, and just society that humanity has ever produced. Global capitalism has reduced poverty to a smaller proportion of the globe than ever before. Technology is connecting humanity into one people. Our species has never had more cause for optimism. But these things are not fashionable to know or say.
  • There is always someone who will be famous for saying what is bad is good and that what is good is bad. Human nature has a streak of perversity. 
  • You can't convince someone directly of an idea that is radically different from the ideas they already hold. You have to meet them closer to their idea space and lead them away one step at a time towards another perspective.
  • The easiest way to become what you wish to become is surrounding yourself with people that you admire.
  • To get great at something, you must first be a beginner. 
  • My attitude on cultures is "by their fruits you will know them". I choose to adopt what is useful and I leave behind what is not. 
  • Fun is a necessity. Emotional well-being is a necessity. Neglect them for your career and your career will suffer. 
It is impossible to make a single judgement on any period as large as a decade. Each decade is full of every emotion with a name.  I bro-fived my teammates after a successful software launch, laid in bed crying for a full day, danced in the desert, held my sister's child, addressed tough interpersonal situations and shamefully avoided them, sat at home by myself on weekend nights, hosted some raging parties, started a successful meetup that is still going, punched people in a boxing ring, saw my name in the news, broke up with cofounders, spent my last dollar, read hundreds of books, was overwhelmed with awe and beauty, wrote bad poetry, wrote good poetry, flirted with beautiful people, held my tongue against people I intensely disliked, changed people's lives and minds, pissed people off, watched my father start his own business after the age of 60, vowed vengeance against religion, defended Christianity to a room full of atheists, learned the lyrics to Christmas songs at the age of 28, cried while driving away from a city with all my belongings in my car three separate times, and identified a dream job and made it happen exactly once. I count myself lucky for the experience of the last 10 years and I look forward to the next. I am eager to see where my story goes. 

New Year's Resolution

My goal for this year is to never use an angry tone when discussing politics. Anger is powerful for rallying the base but it is useless in convincing others to come to your perspective. As someone with extremely heterodox politics I have no base to rally, so anger has no utility for me.

Living in the SF Bay Area, I'm often exposed to bad arguments against fracking, GMOs, or whatever is causing the latest environmentalist panic (environmental issues tend to tug at the heart and therefore silence the brain more than other issues). I need to prevent my frustration from wearing through. In any given conversation, it may be the hundredth time I am hearing their perspective but it is likely the first time they are hearing mine.

This quote from the year's best rationality quotes leaps to mind:

[About the challenge of skeptics to spread their ideas in society] In times of war we need warriors, but this isn't war. You might try to say it is, but it's not a war. We aren't trying to kill an enemy. We are trying to persuade other humans. And in times like that we don't need warriors. What we need are diplomats.
So if you see me getting testy on any political issue, feel free to call me out on it and remind me of this resolution.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Silicon Valley's Fiscal Sacrifice

The startup ecosystem depends on the recycling of the profits from successful startups into new angel investment, venture capital funds, and bootstrapped ventures. This flow of capital is the lifeblood of Silicon Valley.

The story of Elon Musk is a well known example. When Paypal was bought by eBay, his stake in the company was liquidated for $180 million after tax. Musk resisted the urge to retire to a nice beach and reinvested every last dollar he owned into three daring and innovative new companies: Space X, Tesla, and Solar City. Exhausting his once-mighty bank account, he borrowed money from friends to pay his rent. Today, those three new companies look like three winners.

Musk's story shows how the world-changing ventures of today rely on seed capital from the successes of five years ago. This process depends on the ability of founders to keep their winnings from the startup game so that they can play again. That is why the rate of the capital gains tax is so important to the health of the tech economy. The capital gains tax rate determines how much of the proceeds from successful startups stays with founders in Palo Alto and how much gets shipped to Sacramento and Washington D.C.

In recent decades the governments of the United States and California have developed a nasty habit of running unsustainable budget deficits, putting upward pressure on tax rates. Fresh tax measures passed during the 2012 election and immediately thereafter, combined with tax changes mandated by President Obama's signature healthcare law, will increase the capital gains burden on entrepreneurs by 52% this year - from 24.3% to 37.1%. The details are shown in the chart below.

The crop of new capital available for seed and angel investment will be 20% smaller next year than it would have been without the tax increases[1]. The state and the nation are being called to shared sacrifice to address our massive public debt problems and no one can say that Silicon Valley is not doing its part.

The negative effects of higher taxes on investment growth are exponential. If a would-be successful venture is not funded because of higher taxes then that also reduces the size of the next round of capital that would have been funded from that venture's success. This is the mathematical effect of reducing an exponent. The growth rate of wealth is slowed and future tax revenues are reduced with each would-be successful startup that is not funded.

I don't doubt that Silicon Valley can absorb a 20% hit to its new capital stock, especially if the money is used to pay for worthwhile public infrastructure projects. And it is likely that fewer than 20% of future success stories are found in the marginal 20% of investment. For that to be true we have to assume that investors have some sort of expertise, that they are better at picking good investments than random choice. I feel that is a reasonable assumption

But there is some magnitude of tax increase that the startup ecosystem could not absorb. Today, we take for granted the ability of a talented young team with a bright idea to raise $100,000 or $200,000 to get off the ground. With high enough taxes the seed funding ecosystem will shrink to a much more conservative level.

It could be worse. The top marginal tax rate on ordinary income in California will climb over 50% next year - the highest in the nation. It is fortunate that the capital gains rate is significantly lower.

I hope that the US and California governments use this new tax revenue to shore up their leaking balance sheets so that they do not need another pint of blood from the tech economy. We only have so much to give.

[1] a 14.8% tax increase divided by a previous base of 75.7% pretax income