Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Election 2016 - A Plea for Understanding


I grew up in a religious cult where disagreement with the doctrines was punished with ostracism. As a smart and honest kid, this was terrifying. I saw flaws in the doctrines of my faith, but I kept them to myself. I feared losing everything if I stated my doubts.

I couldn’t comprehend what it would be like to be cut off by everybody I knew. Would I be homeless? Would I starve? I was just a kid. I lived with a primal fear, paralyzing me, rooting me in place.

Officially, the Jehovah’s Witness organization prides itself on allowing open inquiry into its doctrines - which are collectively referred to as “the truth”. But it’s a farce. Every question has an official answer disseminated by the organization. Once you’ve received the official answer to your question, you’re not allowed to keep questioning. “This book’s argument for Creationism seems to have a flaw in its attack on evolutionary genetics on page 5” - nope, you're outta here.

You are also not allowed to seek the answer to your question in materials written by people of other faith backgrounds. JWs keep a closed information ecosystem.

As a teenager I lived a paranoid double life for years. In my secret thoughts I was an atheist. On the outside I continued to support “the truth” as Jehovah’s Witnesses taught it. I even dutifully evangelized it to others, as was required. Each day was torture. I fantasized about suicide.


There are a very few injunctions in the human art of rationality that have no ifs, ands, buts, or escape clauses.  This is one of them.  Bad argument gets counterargument.  Does not get bullet.  Never.  Never ever never for ever.”- Eliezer Yudkowsky

When I read Sam Altman’s election piece, I gave half a cheer. As President of YCombinator, he came under pressure to oust Peter Thiel from his advisory role due to the latter’s support for the candidacy of Donald Trump (see here and here). Sam bravely refused.

In response, some in the tech press called for Sam to lose his position. He’s held on, but it wasn’t a sure thing. The tabloid press have claimed its share of heads.

Thank the God I don’t believe in that Sam refused. It’s tempting to mete out punishment to people that disagree with you if you have a large majority on your side. Few people in coastal California would blame you for ostracizing a Trump supporter and few will praise you for refusing to do so. The tech press seems unanimous against Sam Altman and Mark Zuckerberg for failing to cut off Peter Thiel.

But when disagreement is met with punishment, it’s bad for society. It creates an illusion of unanimity through a climate of fear. The collective intelligence of the social group is sacrificed as collateral damaged. Society grows stupid and narrow-minded as each member fears saying something which might offend the orthodoxy. The emperor can go right on having no clothes forever. This is exactly what happens in bizarre cults.

Peter Thiel can take a few bullets. He has a billion dollars. But he's not the primary target of his own attempted political assassination. It sends a message to everybody who is watching. Most conservatives in Silicon Valley can’t afford to lose their jobs. The rent here is damn high.

There’s not a central governing body deciding doctrine for the California tech industry but it feels like that sometimes. It seems dangerous to have conservative beliefs, even if your views are supported by half the country.

For me, personally, the firing of Brendan Eich in retaliation to his conservative political activities was a watershed moment. Other politically right-leaning people had been fired, but usually because they misstepped and said something offensive that got picked up by the clickbait press. Eich was never anything but professional, polite, and good to people around him.

With Eich’s firing, I got the message - the message of power. I panicked and endured some sleepless nights, thinking of blog posts I had published. I don't label myself a conservative, but I certainly entertain some conservative ideas. The fear won and I took down posts on controversial subjects like immigration or abortion.

Over the years I saw more persecution of right-leaning people: the firings, the conference disinvites, the attempts to kick them off of open-source projects. I learned to censor myself. I even deleted my favorite links page, fearing the contagion of linking to people who had themselves suffered punishment. It felt a lot like being 15 years old again.

I recognize that as a cult survivor I’m prone to feel the same patterns of thought control and persecution. I have to fight against a tide of paranoia and fear whenever I find myself on the wrong side of a passionate majority. I try to be self-aware to the fact that this is a triggering of my past trauma and not present reality.

But I think what's going on in the tech industry isn't only in my head. I don't see anyone threatened with professional consequences for supporting Hillary Clinton.

My past experience is a burden but also a gift. It brings the moral clarity that these tactics are bad. Even in service of a good ideal like creating an inclusive society, wielding power against heretics will corrupt you. It scoops out your brain. It turns you into a zombie pawn in the hands of people who generate outrage. If you succeed at manufacturing unanimity through use of power, the intelligent and curious people will stay silent or leave your group.

So thank you Sam Altman for preventing things from getting worse than they already are.


I only gave half a cheer for Sam’s piece because it fails to embody another value that’s important to me - a good-faith effort to understand all sides of a debate. In some circles they call the practice of arguing convincingly for the other side the “ideological Turing test”. This is nothing new to someone who’s has been in a writing class or a debate team. Sam almost reaches for it:

“We should all feel a duty to try to understand the roughly half of the country that thinks we are severely misguided.  I don’t understand how 43% of the country supports Trump.  But I’d like to find out, because we have to include everyone in our path forward.”

What’s stopping him from understanding Trump supporters? I don’t find it terribly hard to write an argument for either of the major candidates running for office and Sam is certainly as clever as I am. People are writing about it on the internet (here and here). Trump himself is doing all he can to tell people about what he believes. That’s what a campaign is for!

Maybe Trump supporters think uncontrolled low-skilled immigration hurts the most vulnerable members of the population and that it isn’t worth the net economic benefit.

Maybe their livelihood has been lost due to the globalization of labor and capital while the country has failed to provide any significant support. Futureshock is real.

Maybe they favor a conservative Supreme Court, and they fear what a 5-4 leftist majority will do to free speech, free association, property rights, and gun rights. With Peter Thiel’s extensive background in law, it wouldn’t surprise me if this was a big concern for him.

Trump sometimes has supported a more isolationist foreign policy. I am in favor of that. It seems to me that US military intervention created a power vacuum in the Middle East that left space for the rise of radical Islam.

Maybe Trump supporters fear the power of a President so cozy with the mass media as Clinton seems to be.

Western society is in a double-bind with regard to maintaining its liberal values while crafting an immigration policy for troubled muslim countries. Restricting immigration from these places as Trump proposes offends liberal values by discriminating against millions of innocent people. But a country is made of its people, and illiberal immigration creates an illiberal country. Also, more terrorist incidents committed by a tiny minority of muslim immigrants will increase demand for total state surveillance. Reasonable people holding similar values can disagree on which immigration policy is least bad.

Besides these very straightforward reasons for Trump, there are strategic and esoteric reasons. For example, I think Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to oppose state surveillance but that they are unlikely to do so with one of their own at the head of the executive branch. A President Trump would unleash the most anti-surveillance activism in history.

So why didn’t Sam come up with any of these ideas? My read on it is that people in our cultural group are so harshly condemning Trump that even demonstrating an understanding of Trump supporters seems contrarian and a little dangerous. Politics is the mind killer and ideas are soldiers. Entertaining the ideas of “the other side” is like giving aid to the enemy.

The group mind, as represented on my facebook feed, has judged Trump as racist, sexist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, and the American Hitler. Trump voters, like Thiel, are guilty by association.

I’m morbidly impressed with Hillary Clinton’s campaign, they have run a fantastically effective effort of demonization. More fevered mainstream commentary predicts that Trump’s election will ignite pogroms against Jews and people of color or perhaps bring back Black slavery. An old peacenik at a local coffee shop near me told me unbidden that he would shoot Trump in the head if given the opportunity. He was the second person to do so.

Sam Altman, like a lot of people in progressive industries, can’t understand conservatives because they aren’t making their voices heard. They have successfully been painted with the image of every demon in the American canon. It’s no surprise if they keep their heads down.

To use the language of my progressive friends: progressives are unconscious of the privilege they have to participate openly in political debates without fear.


I am not endorsing Donald Trump for President of the United States.

If he wins, which seems unlikely at this point, some part of me will rejoice. That part of me is the young boy who feared punishment for thinking and speaking the truth as he saw it. A Trump win will mean the tactics of demonization and punishment will have failed. In public we will be allowed to think a broader range of thoughts. As Trump himself shows, not all of these thoughts will be worthwhile. But my feeling of freedom will include the freedom to oppose the bad ideas of a President Trump.

But that is far from thinking that Trump will be a good President. I don’t have a good handle on what he actually believes.

In American politics, I find that things are never as good as I hope or as bad as I fear. A Hillary Clinton presidency will strengthen some values that I am opposed to, but life is long and there is plenty of time for political fashions to change. I don't desire a Clinton presidency, but neither do I fear it.

Venkatesh Rao makes a good case that voting for idealistic reasons, rather than strategic ones, is more in line with the culture of Silicon Valley. His argument made me feel like voting for Gary Johnson. I guess you could say I'm undecided.


I feel a call to live my own values and try to understand the viewpoint of people calling for Trump supporters to be punished.

If I talk to an average enforcer of political correctness, I’m sure that they are not opposed to open debate. It’s a fundamental American value. The liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill used the term “the marketplace of ideas” to describe how open debate allows the best ideas to win and spread.

Libertarian-leaning people like myself shout this line of reasoning over and over at progressives as if they don’t get it. I think they do get it. But they notice that the ideas flying around in this marketplace are not neutral in the effect they have on society. Sometimes words hurt people.

For example, when we have public debate over what to do about Muslim terrorism, it might make people more biased against Muslims, the vast majority of whom will never be terrorists. That’s probably why the Obama Justice Department at first redacted mentions of “Islam” and “ISIS” from the transcripts of the 9/11 calls made by the Orlando nightclub shooter.

I bet that progressives don’t believe in punishing their political opponents, even if that’s what I perceive them to be doing. Rather, they believe that some ideas hurt people, and we should stop spreading ideas that hurt. This class of ideas is called things like “racism”, “sexism”, “homophobia”, “transphobia”, “Islamophobia” and “xenophobia”.

At the root of political correctness is a desire to care. Caring is noble. Caring makes it nice to be human.

This becomes problematic when it gets hijacked by politics. Partisans have a huge incentive to argue that the ideas of the other side aren’t merely wrong, but actively harmful. The American Left has been incredibly successful at making this case against Trump this year, who has done his best to make it easy for them.

Politics further corrupts care by limiting it to people on your side. Like the kind peacenik at the coffee shop who told me he would gladly shoot Trump in the head.

If you care about political correctness because you care about people, I want you to keep your caring. But I challenge you to expand it. This is hard. Empathy gets more complicated the wider you expand your circle of care. But this is the most noble challenge you can accept. It is the challenge of the bodhisattva.

There is another problem with preventing hurtful words. What if hurtful words are also true? For example, the Orlando Nightclub shooter really was inspired by Islam and claimed allegiance to ISIS. Learning this fact might make people biased against Muslims, but it is a fact. What are we supposed to do about unpleasant truths?

The divide over unpleasant truth is the most essential ideological divide between internet communities today. At the age of 18 I left behind everything and everybody I knew because of an allegiance to truth that wouldn’t let me stay a Jehovah’s Witness. I have a strong bias towards the side with an absolute commitment to truth.

But I understand the value of caring. So far there is no mass movement that has a good protocol to bring the two values into harmony. The internet right-wing revels in unpleasant truths and paints the left as budding totalitarians. The internet left maintains a scrupulous niceness and paints the right as brutes.

Perhaps Buddhism can offer a way. In the Buddhist tradition my girlfriend is studying, they are taught to speak kindly as a moral precept. But they are also taught not to judge or criticize how other people are living up to moral precepts. At the same time, Buddhism has a strong commitment to truth. Seeing things for how they actually are is pretty much the whole point of it. It seems to have the right ingredients for making kind truth-tellers.

Rationalism offers another way. Rationalists practice and celebrate changing their mind. The world could use more rationalist virtues.

I hope that we can grant each other a little patience, a little understanding, while we find a way together.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Using Electrum on an air-gapped machine

Securely storing bitcoin is hard. Most people trust a third party, like Coinbase, to keep their bitcoin safe. But these third parties are big targets for hackers and indeed many have been hacked and lost their clients' funds. People who are truly security conscious keep their own wallet on an air-gapped machine that never connects to a network.

I like using Electrum for my wallet software but I've had trouble figuring out how to use it on an air-gapped machine for two reasons. First, the Ubuntu installation instructions for Electrum use apt-get and python setup tools, both of which require a network connection to download dependencies. This is a no-go if you want to have an air-gapped machine which has never touched the network.

Secondly, Electrum translates data into a custom base 43 format before encoding it in QR codes. QR codes are a secure way of transferring data such as signed transactions off of an air-gapped machine. But I ran into a problem that other software doesn't recognize bitcoin data in base 43 strings and there weren't online tools for translating from base 43 to a more common format.

Let's tackle the second problem first. I wrote a little web tool that will convert Electrum QR data into a format that bitcoin understands. It's at http://electrum43.org/.

So let's say you transfer a transaction off of an air-gapped machine using an Electrum QR code and you get data that looks like this:

If you paste that into http://electrum43.org/, it will translate the data into a hex string that bitcoin understands. You can then decode that data into a human-readable json object here or broadcast it to the bitcoin network here

So that's one problem taken care of. What about installing electrum onto an offline Ubuntu machine? Electrum installation requires two Debian packages (python-qt4 and python-pip) and a host of python dependencies that are usually handled by network-enabled package managers. After much digging, I've found a way to do that and I wrote a guide here

I hope this helps you keep your bitcoin secure with Electrum. Stay safe and have fun with bitcoin!

Thursday, October 6, 2016

My Interchange Journey

Like a lot of people I know, I used to be afraid of experiencing other people’s emotions. At restaurants, I said my food was good when it wasn’t so that the staff wouldn’t experience anger or shame. I avoided talking about problems in my relationship with my girlfriend because who knows what box of emotions that would unleash. If I saw someone in visible distress, I avoided them. I figured it was someone else’s responsibility to help them. What could I do?

That changed drastically over the last 12 months. I am a hundred times more free in expressing my thoughts and feelings in all sorts of situations. Whatever outcome I feared would happen doesn’t happen. Most of the time kindly expressing my opinions makes my relationships more real and satisfying. 

Ignoring emotions didn’t make them go away. I used to have this voice in my head ruminating on all the things I wished I had said but didn’t. But when I speak up, I find that inner neurotic voice is silenced. In some circles, they call this achievement “inner peace”. The trade-off is that I live a more vulnerable life because people know what I really think. It's a worthwhile trade. 

Another big change for me is that I go towards people in distress instead of away from them. I think I’m a pretty good person to have around when you need somebody. This change in my self-concept still feels new to me and I'm proud of it. 

I trace these changes back to the year-long counseling training I went through at Interchange. I learned from some other places too[0], but Interchange was the biggest piece. It bills itself as a counseling and personal growth program. But what I learned about was how to be a human. I learned how to let people see my emotions and how to be with other people’s emotions. My EQ went through the roof.

It turns out to be easy to be useful to people in distress - acknowledge what they’re going through and don’t try to fix them! Americans need to be trained out of fixing people and denying negative emotions. You have to be able to tolerate what’s there instead of pasting happy faces all over everything. The first counseling practice at Interchange is literally sitting in attentive silence while the client tells you about their problem for a few minutes. If you can do this successfully then you are in the 90th percentile of the population in terms of counseling.

Me and Steve at Interchange, demonstrating an exercise designed to examine our anger through simulated road rage

The most valuable thing about Interchange is that it provides a safe container for people to practice being real with each other. During the training, I spent hundreds of hours having real interactions with people. We helped each other explore our inner emotional landscape. They cried. I cried. It was intense, magical, and cathartic. 

On a larger scale, I think all people need safe spaces to be real with each other. We have a massive deficit of it in our society - it’s emotional malnourishment. Most of us hide what we’re feeling from our friends and family, some of us hide our emotions from our fucking therapists. 

Our culture still suffers from the idea that therapy is something you do when there is something wrong with you. You are broken and need to be fixed. For a lot of us, the only time we open up to anybody is when something is terribly wrong. It’s the same way we mistreat our bodies by only caring about health when we get sick. 

Humans are not machines that sometimes break and need a mechanic. Humans are organic creatures that are constantly growing and changing. If you’re going to use a metaphor, use a plant. It constantly needs a certain amount of water and nutrition and if it gets what it needs it grows. We need some amount of constant emotional nourishment to stay healthy.  

Modern life is confusing. Things have changed so fast. We’re not built for it. The institutions that people relied on for emotional nourishment for centuries are disappearing or changing. And maybe they were never very good to start with. We need to help each other feel like we aren’t alone and have a home in this world. 

I feel uncomfortable giving a full-throated endorsement of something, even Interchange. It's the best program I've ever done but it isn't perfect. So I want to end with some criticism to provide you with a balanced cross-section of my judgements of it. 

Interchange is based on an optimistic humanism that comes from people like Carl Rogers and Harvey Jackins. In the program you practice believing that other people are fundamentally good, interesting, and capable. It’s a powerful counseling stance. But sometimes it sounds naive and it might not be the right approach for a counselor working with a smart, skeptical client. 

I worry about groupthink at Interchange. There isn’t much nuance in what is taught and there aren’t many skeptical voices. This is partly because a community based on this kind of Humanism feels so nice to be in. When I brought up a skeptical point of view, I was the one harshing the good vibes.

Also, most of the students came from similar ideological places. I grew up in a cult so I feel uncomfortable being around unanimous ideological agreement. But when I expressed this discomfort, other students reached out to me and didn’t push me away. There may not be a lot of critical discussion but it feels like Interchange can handle it when it does happen.

Interchange is a great place to practice emotional intelligence and learn counseling. It is not a complete source of all the spiritual nourishment that you need to grow as a human. In particular, between the humanism and the social justice, it’s an epistemically sloppy place. Truth is not highly valued besides the supposed "truths" taught by humanism and social justice. If there were a package deal with Interchange and CFAR training together, that would balance out Interchange with the values that are missing.

Being founded by a progressive teacher named Steve Bearman, Interchange promotes some ideas from the social justice movement which are divisive and, in my opinion, poorly supported[1]. It's a harsh note mixed in with the humanism. White men were unkindly singled out and stereotyped a few times. Marxist models of the world are presented without consideration of other points of view that better map to reality. I spent a few nights lying awake and composing angry messages to the Facebook group. Gradually, I built more social and emotional resources and it bothered me less.

Most of the time when social justice and humanism conflict at Interchange, the humanism wins. For example, during exercises where we were instructed to practice radical honesty with each other, one of the more radical progressive students inevitably objected to the exercise on the grounds that people who aren't white men might be exposed to "oppressive" opinions. In response, Steve gently expressed that he had faith that the students could handle it. Learning goals were valued ahead of progressive orthodoxy.

Between the bitter taste of righteous anger in social justice and the sweetness in humanism, the sweetness wins out by something like a 9 to 1 ratio. Interchange is a personal project of Steve's and this reflects his background and values. You can't really change Interchange without changing Steve, and Steve's been into social justice for 2 or 3 decades. I've made my peace with it and I highly value my experience and expect to learn more from Interchange. 

Despite these caveats, I found Interchange to be a brilliant, daring, creative program. It catalyzed an incredible year for me. I believe in myself and I believe in my capacity to grow and change for the better. Check it out, or something like it. In terms of happiness, investing in your emotional intelligence is the highest-yield investment you can make.

[0] Stanford Business School's "touchy-feely" class, Nonviolent Communication, Buddhism, and eXperience the Game were other resources that led me down this path.

[1] For example, Steve often uses the concepts of class conflict, oppression, and privilege to model how the world works. These are a staple of the social justice/progressive worldview, but I think they are simplistic and overused.