Clips from unfinished pieces

On the crux of America’s challenges:

Part of the American experiment is answering the question, “how can we best take advantage of abundance?” Beginning with manifest destiny and evident in the machinations of Wall Street, one of the story lines of America is the quest to make sure resources of all kind are abundant and generating wealth. But we’re arguably at a pivot point. Our money and energy don’t go as far as they used to.

How do we make the transition from resource abundance to resource scarcity?

On helping people troubleshoot the Gowalla API:

While this level of self-documentation is quite helpful, sometimes people have questions on the developer list. For this, I’ve found that asking people to show me whatever it is they’re trying to do using curl is invaluable. It’s a win-win situation. Often, dropping down to a lower-level tool like curl helps to focus your thinking and makes silly error obvious. If it doesn’t become obvious to the API developer, they mail the list with the command they think should work. At that point its either obvious to me and I tell them what to change, or I have a nice, isolated test case from which I can easily try to reproduce their problem.

Who gets screwed when a borrower declares bankrupcty?

Is it possible that bankruptcy-declaring-borrowers are screwing lenders in aggregate? I find it really hard to believe that the banking industry, with its legion of lobbyists and regulatory capture, that any group of uncoordinated individuals could screw the banks.

On the other hand, there was lots of screwing on the part of the banks that led to the financial crisis. Whether it was predatory lending, relying on moral hazard to double down on terrible bets, or asinine compensation structures, the financial industry did something very human. They violated social norms. Except, corporations of this size don’t have social norms. They have only market incentives; when the executives, board members, and majority shareholders look at the books, the numbers devoted to “doing the right thing” are probably a rounding error.

On tail recursion and compilers:

Fact of life: modern processors don’t execute your code in the order the compiler spits it out.

If your code has, for instance, two adds followed by an if statement, it’s pretty likely that second add is going to be executed concurrently or after the conditional. In the world of computer architecture, they call this out-of-order execution, and it’s just another service your hard working processor offers to make sure your code runs faster than you ever intended it to.

On shorter cycles of production and the need to get past perfectionism:

Our modes of production are causing us to change how we produce. More and more mediums, be it journalism or software, are produced on shorter timelines. This is leading us to optimize production such that we can bang the content or code that matters into templates that mostly work, but have a tolerance for the rough edges where things don’t work.

On Barack Obama’s 2010 State of the Union speech that preceeded the health care debate:

Just for grins, I went and read the GOP response to the State of the Union. While they had some vague counterpoints policy-wise, it read mostly as subtle and useless jabs combined with carefully-constructed language to console their base. The GOP is a cynical, gutless organization.

On refactoring and deleting code:

People often say that they would miss having a refactoring browser in languages like Ruby, JavaScript, or anything that is reasonably dynamic. My glib response to this sort of comment is invariably “well, the best refactoring I know is to select the code to modify, hit delete, and start over.” Let’s take that apart.

I’ve observed that, despite our best intentions, we are often loathe to change code that we suspect is working, or that we suspect we don’t know why it’s there. And so, like the planet on which we live, applications accrete into Katamari balls of overly-coupled code that is bound only by locality. Cutting this Gordian knot is often the first step in reclaiming a project.

Deleting code is the knife with which we can attack this problem. Many will acknowledge the goodness of deleting code; it is, quite nearly, a virtue unto itself. I’ve observed that some of the best developers I know are always on the lookout for ways they can obviate code. So, by way of a strawman, I hope you see that I’m quite correct in this regard.

The political empathy gap

The structural problems in American political discourse are legion. Polarized interests, corporate and special interests, the news/hype cycle, and pundits who serve no real political purpose but exist only as media entities. All of it conspires to misdirect discussions of where our country is, where it needs to go, and how to get there.

Underlying all that is a serious problem. There are two sides to every issue (or so we’re told), and they cannot fathom each other’s position. Empathy is not a characteristic of American politics.

This manifests itself everywhere. Dismissive rhetoric, talking past each other, insulting jabs, moral grandstanding, dehumanizing the other side, binary reasoning, and violent propaganda. Were it the case that conservatives and progressives could understand each others goals, fears, and dreams, these problems would exist on the fringe rather than the mainstream.

Intellectual empathy is a hard thing to come by. We all want to be winners, firmly on the side of the virtuous good. To accept that there is something valid in one’s debate opponent is challenging. To go further and accept ambiguity and uncertainty is even more difficult. It would seem that a majority would prefer comfort in wrongness rather than face up to a world where their side is not that of the virtuous good.

I’m not sure how one learns these things other than seeking out new ideas and opinions. Even then, there’s the intuition to sort the wheat from the chaff, the practice from the principle, the solid thinkers from the eccentrics. Political empathy is perhaps (but hopefully not) the endpoint on an intellectual journey that a pop culture is ill suited to embark upon.

I can’t say that my grasp on the problem is good enough to suggest solutions. Perhaps humor, perhaps better education, perhaps breaking bread, perhaps more journalists growing a spine. I should hope it happens soon, because I’m getting pretty tired of how cynical I am of what politics has become.

Warning: politics

Embedded within the migraine that is American politics are some very interesting ideas. Economics, markets, ethics, freedom, equality, education, transportation, and security are all intriguing topics. Recently, I figured out that the headache comes not from people or trying to make the ideas work, but in politics. Getting a majority of the people to agree on anything is a giant pain of coordination. When you throw in fearmongering, power struggles, critically wounded media, and the fact most people would rather not think deeply about any of this you end up with the major downer that we face today.

All that said, here are some pithy one-liners about politics:

* If I were part of the Democratic leadership, I’d be wondering how you take the high road in a race to the bottom. And win.

* If I were a Republican, I’d be wondering how to dig myself out of this giant hole I made by winning a race to the bottom.

* If I were a libertarian, I’d be wondering how to convince people that the Tea Party is different from what I believe in.

* If I were a leader of the Tea Party, I’d be wondering what I’m going to do when someone who claims to be a part of the Tea Party blows up a building or goes nuts with an assault rifle.

* If I were a politician, I’d wonder how much I have to compromise my values and what I really wanted to accomplish but still get enough votes to keep my job.

* If I were skeptical of climate change due to human activity, I’d be wondering how I’m going to find a spaceship, because this line of reasoning leads to the conclusion that the Earth is about to become very inhospitable.

* If I were a nihilist, I’d wonder…nothing.

There, have I offended everyone?

On American political insanity

Still crazy after all these years:

Politicians should tone down the rhetoric. Protesters should read some history before making Hitler comparisons. Talk-show hosts should stop pretending that paranoid nitwits are asking reasonable questions.

The Economist does well to explain the insanity that is propagated by American political media. Reading articles like this help me stay sane. Also: ignoring media with deadlines shorter than a week, and consuming as much constructive satire as possible.

Birdland, Forgetting, Libertarianism, Hoboken

Hello, 2009! Let’s try a slightly different format. Starting it out with ““Birdland” by Weather Report”: can’t hurt.

Shawn Blanc says “the best todo software lets us forget”: I absolutely agree. Shawn also pointed out “Rules For My Unborn Son”:, which is indeed a great set of guidelines on being a mensch. A choice “JFK quote from therein on optimism”:

Provocateurs “Zed Shaw”: and “Giles Bowkett”: are in much better form when they are tilting against libertarianism. Which isn’t to say that they’re right or libertarianism is wrong. They’re just better at tilting against social abstractions.

If you’ve ever looked at writing tiny web apps or services with Sinatra, you’re probably interested in “what’s proposed on the Hoboken branch”: “Ryan Tomayko”: has great taste, I tell you.