Wired: July 2019

https://coverjunkie.com/cover-categories/best-of-the-rest/wired-us-75/

Wired Magazine was one of the most influential magazines I read growing up. I credit it with giving me a leg up on where tech was headed, and how it was going to transform the world. It’s only been recently that I’ve understood that they were not so much predicting the future as they were reporting the present and building the future. I’ve loved sharing Wired with friends to help give them a peek into this world. My subscription may have lapsed for a few years earlier this decade, but I still love this magazine. I don’t look to it so much as a beacon of the future, as I do for their long form stories about what’s going on.

The one thing I dislike the most? Their gadget features, which is usually a bunch of overpriced shit for people with too much time, and too much money on their hands. But I guess that’s expected, given the ads that usually accompany the magazine, likely focused at the Valley founder / venture tech-bro set.

Mission Out of Control, by Stephen Witt: Just in time for the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo moon landing is this account of just how close to disaster it came. We all know that we carry more processing power in our phones than was available in the Apollo capsule, but it still boggles the mind how they pulled things off back then. Weaving machine logic on a loom and wrapping it into a bundle of wires? Amazing. The solutions that they came up with to design these systems were quite ingenious. But apparently they could solve for everything. Armstrong wanted the return radar antenna left on in case they needed to abort the landing, unfortunately, this used up too much of the console’s limited memory, and caused the guidance system to crash the system. Armstrong had to guide the lander in manually and — spoiler — he landed successfully. Allegedly.

Besides two features about the reemergence of measles thanks to anti-vaxxers, and another about the unique VR-assisted directing used by Jon Favreau in Disney’s new Lion King reboot, there are two that are complementary and focus on sex and crime: The Fight to Take Down Backpage, by Christine Biederman, and How a Hacker Shamed Teen Girls — And How They Fought Back, by Stephanie Clifford.

Backpage.com was once the internet’s classified site for sex. Founded by a pair of hard-assed, first amendment loving, sons of bitches, it quickly drew ire from the authorities due to their no-fucks-to-give attitude toward doing what they want and willingness to fight back against attacks. After several years of facing off against the owners, they eventually used civil forfeiture tactics to seize their assets, and have been using stalling a delaying tactics to draw out the legal challenge to hopefully beat the defendants in a war of attrition. The case is troubling for both free speech and sex work advocates, and this case covers a lot of history about the safe-haven clause of the Communications Decency Act, Section 230, as well as the SESTA/FOSTA. The latter, intended to fight sex trafficking has, according to opponents, conflated trafficking and consensual sex work, and has driven exploitation and traffickers into the darker corners of the internet.

Clifford’s story, about a group of girls in rural New Hampshire who were cyberstalked and harassed by a classmate, documents the abuse that the girls suffered, and the case that law enforcement built against the perpetrator. It documents the way in which their perpetrator built up trust, talked them into taking risque pics, and then tried to exploit them for more explicit images. When the girls refused, he hacked their accounts and released their images under fake social media profiles, which caused these young women no end of stress and social trauma. Many of them were ostracized by their peers and punished by their families. Perhaps dozens of girls were caught up by this perp, who was only a teen himself, but there were perhaps many more who never told anyone about the abuse and have perhaps been suffering alone.

I say these last two stories are complementary, cause they seem to be touching on two sides of technology and sex. In the Backpage piece, we have two rich old white guys who are battling the feds to be able to sell sex on the internet, while trying to maintain an air of plausible deniability. In this piece, there is literally nothing about the individuals on the other side of the transaction. There are mentions about some of the underage victims who were exploited and abused via posts in Backpage, but we hear nothing from them themselves. The second piece is the opposite, we hear nothing from the perpetrator in this case, but hear from several of the victims that were abused, and the fear and PTSD that they still suffer to this day.

It’s an interesting editorial decision from Wired. I imagine that they felt they were coming off as too sympathetic to the Backpage owners and wanted to counterbalance accusations by including the sexting piece. I think both are important, and have a bit of a nuanced position on the two. I do think the feds have probably overstepped their bounds on the Backpage case — we’ll see how it plays out, and I’ll be sure to pay attention to whether SESTA/FOSTA is challenged at the Supreme Court. On the other hand, I worry about the world that my daughters are growing up in and will make sure to take steps to make sure they understand the dangers of cyberstalking and sexting. One problem that I think with the way the second case was handled was that when authorities became aware of who the perpetrator was, a sixteen year old boy, their response was not to confront him or involve his parents, but was to spend another two years building a case against him so that they could throw him in prison for eight years. Not to question the decision of the authorities in this case, but it seems like there is more to the story that is missing there.

Labor Day

It’s the start of Labor Day weekend here in the the good ol’ U.S of A., and while most of the population may see it as an excuse to close out the summer with one last pool-party barbeque, in my house we treat it a bit more orthodox. My spouse and I are both involved in Union activism, so we treat this a bit more seriously than most.

First off, it’s important to note that Labor Day, as an American construct, was actively chosen to decrease working class solidarity with the rest of the world. The first of May, or May Day, as it’s known around the rest of the world, was the day chosen by socialists and communists, and others on the Left to commemorate the Haymarket Affair, which was a protest that occured in Chicago in 1886. People were rallying in support of workers who were striking for an eight-hour workday. The previous day police had killed eight workers, and the peaceful rally turned violent after someone set off a dynamite bomb and killed several police and civilians. Several people were jailed or hung, one committed suicide in jail.

So when the powers that be decided on a labor holiday in the US, they decided to choose the current date, as strategically halfway between the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, avoiding May Day to prevent any further solidarity with socialist or anarchist movements.

Here in my area, the local Democratic Party has been hosting an annual Labor Day breakfast. This Monday will be the tenth year. The question I am struggling to answer is what’s left of Labor here in the states and what can be done to renew it. Most of leadership is approaching retirement, and has not done a good job of mentoring the next generation of leaders in their midst. Of course, right to work laws and hostile conservative and business-friendly liberal governments have not helped either, but it almost seems that labor is it’s own worst enemy right now.

Beyond the lack of political power that labor holds within the Democratic establishment these days, there still seems to be a tendency toward management-style leadership from above, rather than any sort of activation of the rank and file from above. Most members treat union membership as an insurance policy, to be used in times of grievances, or as a representative body when labor agreements need to be renewed. But I’ve seen or heard little to indicate that the rank and file are encouraged to become active in their own representation.

The other thing that strikes me is the lack of technological deployment in these organizations. This isn’t unique to labor, of course, but is prevalent in many of the party and campaign organizations that I’ve been a part of. It seems like magic when we mention things like mailing lists; we’re still caught up in the massive CC lists in emails. We’ll be talking more about deploying tech strategically within political organizations in this space at some point. There’s much to be said on this point.

So I will attend the breakfast and will be looking for young faces. We’ll sit in a fancy dining hall at large tables with elaborate centerpieces and wait for our three course meal to be served. We’ll sit and watch the recognition of elected officials, who are ultimately providing lip service to labor as members of the opposition, we’ll hear fiery speeches from labor leaders to rouse the troops.

But one thing that I’ve noted in past years among these parties is the difficulty in getting them to actually use union sources for supplies. I had to speak up on several occasions to get the local party to consider a union source for some committee t-shirts that they wanted to order. And never once, in the last three years that I’ve attended this event, have I ever heard mention of the working conditions of the waiters and bussers to fill our water and clear our plates. Sure, they may get recognized for the work that they are doing for us to enjoy ourselves on this day, but where are the mention of the service unions, where is the solidarity with them and the efforts to better their work on the other three hundred and sixty-odd days of the year?

Labor has many problems, from the right, from centrists, and from the changing nature of work that makes it harder to organize tech workers, gig workers, and so on. But I fear the biggest problem, and the one that will be the hardest to overcome, is from the labor organizations themselves.

Team Human

I don’t know exactly when I became aware of Douglas Rushkoff’s excellent podcast Team Human, but I’ve been hooked on it since I discovered it earlier this year. The book has been on my to-read list for months, and I finally purchased a copy and I am not disappointed. This is a very important book, and highly recommended.

Rushkoff is a ‘media theorist’, and has been covering technology since the 80’s. He was part of the cyberpunk Mondo2000 movement back in the day, and has spent most of his time since then critiquing the capitalization of the internet by business forces since the dot com boom.

The podcast itself usually starts with one of Douglas’s monologues, which are usually taken from sections of the book, and is followed by an interview with various people who are ‘playing for Team Human’. These are usually technologists and authors like Cory Doctorow, Clive Thompson, or climate activists such as Naomi Klein, David-Wallace Wells, or members of Extinction Rebellion.

You can get a real good sense of the book from the first 30 minutes of this episode, which comes from a speech Rushkoff gave at a recent event hosted by startup accelerator Betaworks.

This is ultimately where Rushkoff excels, bursting the bubble of venture capital and startup culture, who are most often interested in whether they can do something than whether they should. His main premise is that technology, once driven by the promise of connecting and empowering people and communities, is eventually corrupted by capitalism’s growth-driven profit model, and is turned against humans, ultimately exploiting and alienating us. Having run out of territory and other nations to extract value from, we have now turned ourselves into targets, and now we are the fuel for these digital technologies.

Team Human covers a lot of ground in a short two hundred pages, and ultimately makes a lot of simplifications that some people may find cherry-picked, but Rushkoff’s version of history, from the invention of finance, markets and religion, to more recent advents of social media, machine learning, and big data, is very interesting, and are as mind-opening as Zinn’s A People’s History was to me when I first read it years ago. There are also more than twenty pages of footnotes for those that want to follow deeper into subjects.

The book is short enough that it can be read through in a few hours, and Rushkoff tends to repeat certain turns of phrase or statistics enough times in his interviews that I’ve started to assimilate into my own thinking quickly enough. (He coined the term ‘viral media’, and seems to be an expert on memetic propagation, so I’m sure this is no accident.)

The call to action in this book is find the others, which is to say that to survive the challenges that we face in the current age, we need to purposefully foster the human connections with those around us, in our local community. Rushkoff believes that there is no substitute for the full bandwidth experience of face-to-face human interaction, and that by meeting with those that we disagree with can we ‘recognise the humanity’ in those who we may be ideologically opposed to, and come to some sort of agreement.

There is a lot to unpack in this short book. It is very broad, with room for exploration within each of the dozen chapters within. It’s a mind-altering work, and one that is much needed in today’s divided public sphere. Rushkoff has intentionally refused to take the helm of any new organization under the Team Human banner, but instead encourages others to find the organizations that are already doing the work.

I’ve taken that advice, and I encourage others to do the same to work toward that end. This book is ultimately a mind-virus for the future of humanity, not a revolution, but a renaissance of pro-human values, a return away from the extractive corporate tech firms that have transformed the world in the last decades. It’s a cycle that has played out through written language, the printing press, radio, television, and the internet. And Rushkoff’s mission is to make sure that the inventors of the next world-altering app have human values in mind when they are created.

Cooperative Tech

[I want to acknowledge the work of Doug Ruskoff in his book Team Human, as well as the podcast of the same name. I’ve been engrossed in both lately. These words are mine but many of these ideas are his…]

If I was going to wave a magic wand and solve one of society’s pressing problems using software development, I would focus on transforming the relationship between workers and the organizations that they work for. I am specifically referring to the organization of worker cooperatives.

If I was going to wave a magic wand and solve one of society’s pressing problems using software development, I would focus on transforming the relationship between workers and the organizations that they work for. I am specifically referring to the organization of worker cooperatives.

I don’t want to get too political here in this space, but I think it’s safe to say that shareholder growth capitalism has literally run amuck and is threatening global stability, both economically and environmentally. It’s my belief that empowering workers to make decisions regarding the way a business is run is the way to correct this. I’ve been focusing on this recently by helping protect and promote labor unions as much as possible, but the nature of work, and of companies themselves, has changed so much in the past 70 years that these efforts are having diminishing returns. (Teacher strikes in West Virginia and elsewhere being one of the shining exceptions to this.)

As we know, the tech sector has been the most disruptive force in the world’s economy the past few decades, as our brick and mortar consumer society has been transformed into an online one. Retirement may now be a thing of the past, as the likelihood of spending twenty or thirty years at the same job approaches zero. Many of today’s workers are forced to work two or more jobs to get by, and the side hustle is a mainstay of the millennial generation.

Companies such as Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others, have made fortunes for investors by turning humans into the product. Under the auspices of providing a free service, they have turned us into fuel for big data and algorithms that try to classify us and predict our behavior, nudging us toward actions that ultimately reinforce those same predictions. Instead of serving us, they serve us to advertisers, other corporations and political campaigns, based on our likes, our browsing history and our web searches.

Users of these services unwittingly train the artificial intelligence that will make these predictions more accurate, and gig workers train the AI that will replace them, as we fill out CAPTCHA after CAPTCHA, and apps on our phone record every movement and action that we take on our phone. Whereas once the web promised to democratize content and unite us across physical spaces, today’s social networks divide us and self segregate us into extreme ideologies. Nuance and centrism, which do not translate well to the binary language of machine learning, has given way to self segregation and extreme views. And gig workers and apps of the ‘sharing’ economy, are further alienated by these technologies. Rather than building communities and solidarity, between the workers of these platforms, they are isolated and exploited.

This last point is where I would wave my magic wand. A gig service that brings tech workers together, instead of siloing them. A platform where the gains are distributed back to the network participants. A system in which equity is earned by participation by those that work. A cooperative system that encourages healthy, long term growth, not one that is driven by exponential gains for early-stage venture investors.

The current systems that exist today foment a race-to-the-bottom mentality, as price pressure continuously exerts downward pressure on laborers, externalizing costs onto the consumer, (think self-checkout lines in grocery stores,) or to the commons, (i.e. environmental pollution by fossil fuel companies.) Imagine, a worker-run company, where decisions are made for the good of the workers, not the shareholders.

I fully acknowledge that there are no technological solutions to our political problems, but there may be solutions which help us reverse the damage that has been done over the past 40 years. I have big hopes for the types of decentralized autonomous organizations (DAO) that are possible using smart contracts like those on the Ethereum network. I am skeptical that we will get there by accident. The longer that our software developers and designers work without thinking these problems through, the harder it will be to address them down the road. We need to have these discussions, and think through the consequences of the technology that we are creating. Because ultimately, while the next generations of Zuckerbergs and Bezoses (Bezii?) may just want to change the world, what they’re ultimately changing will be us.

Leaping

I am continuously conflicted between maintaining my anonymity and outing myself. On the one hand, I feel the need to maintain a coherent identity between daHIFI and my real life persona, which has several areas of responsibility that I maintain. On the other hand, I am continuously trying to explore my voice and come to terms with certain aspects of my life that I’m not comfortable talking about publically in this format. I’m not sure how to resolve this issue.

I’ve got my foot in a few other projects over the years which have been left in certain states of abandonment recently, and I’ve felt the drive to pick them up and start dusting them off. This blog, and my daily posts, are serving as a bit of a routine to get me in the habit of writing and creating again. I don’t think that, given my numerous responsibilities, that I could maintain this habit and everything else that I do, and resurrect these projects as well. One would take from the other. I would want to maintain some sort of cross-posting scheme, what search engines call the canonical link, whether I post it on one of my controlled blogs or Medium, or some other site. Call it legacy-building or what have you, but I want to have one place to point to for my body of work. Part of me is hoping that eventually I’ll have enough for a book, and can compile what I’ve put here into something. We shall see.

Of course, there’s the whole pesky ‘earning a living’ thing that I have to contend with. I’m in a bit of statis at the moment, with my day job. I don’t think I’ve gotten a raise since I went salary about five years ago, and the job provides no benefits. My wife is civil service, which provides our medical insurance. She’s been out-earning me for some time now, which doesn’t bother me, since I see the tradeoffs between the freedom that I have at my job, and what I see as the lack thereof at hers that we both contend with.

I work from home and have a great deal of freedom over both my schedule and my priorities. Although my primary role is as the sole service provider within our organization, I deal with most of the break-fix work as it comes up, and deal with projects at my own pace and schedule. I don’t take vacation as often as I should, as I really don’t need to. My schedule is light enough that I have plenty of time to relax, and since I work from home, I can take as many breaks as I need to. Whereas my wife is now attempting to design a life that she doesn’t need to take a vacation from, I’m already there for the most part. Sure, I have the odd call every few weeks that forces me outside of a reasonable schedule, but for the most part, from what I can tell, I’m working part time hours for full time pay.

That said, I’d probably handicap myself for anywhere between 30-50 percent of the salary that I would command if I did work full-time. I’m probably being conceited, but I think that if I did what I do at a government or larger corporation, I would have a thirty percent raise right off the bat, not to mention 401k and other perks that I don’t have now. But, given my history of failure with other firms, I think I’m happy right here where I am, for the most part. I can fulfil my obligations (as I see them) to my employer, maintain a healthy pace that doesn’t burn me out, and spend several hours a day moonlighting in various forms, building things until the day when I’m ready to step aside, or step up elsewhere.

There’s a saying, “people do as little work as they can to keep from getting fired, and employers pay as little as they can get away with to keep people from quitting.” That perfectly sums up the equilibrium that I have at my job. There’s another saying as well. “The thing that you want is on the other side of your fear.” And I’ve definitely been staring at that jump for some time, wavering between action and inaction. Whether this daily exercise is just me grinding my gears in an ultimately futile effort, just to give myself an excuse to keep from doing something more drastic remains to be seen.

Right now, I am just giving myself the space to think and plan out what it is I want from life, and what I will do to achieve it.

The Nation Magazine: July 1/8 2019

Killer Kitch, by James McAuley: I’ll admit I didn’t read all of this issue’s cover story on Renaud Camus. I’m not familiar with his work, but after a couple of pages about this man I had read enough. I guess I’ve heard enough about le grand replacement, and given that I had been reading this around the second anniversary of Unite The Right’s Charlottesville rally, I don’t think I really wanted to read more about it.

The Florida GOP’s Assault on Democracy, by Sasha Abramsky: This seems par the course these days: citizens overwhelmingly approve ballot measure that will increase voting power by demographics likely to favor Democratic party candidates; Republican legislators move the goalposts and otherwise try to undermine the voice of the people in order to preserve their power. In this case it was a measure to reinstate voting rights for persons convicted of a felony after they had served their time. We’ve seen a similar response play out here in Virginia after gubernatorial executive orders granting blanket restorations to tens of thousands of citizens. The Virginia GOP about had the vapors.

The situation is a bit more dire for Republicans in Florida, given the state’s role in the 2000 presidential race. According to Abramsky, about 1.4 million people were expected to be reinstated by Florida’s Amendment 4, but state Republicans have managed to lower that number to around 800,000 changing the criteria and qualifications that individuals have to have to fall under the rule. And since it seems to be par the course for these reviews, here’s the obligatory Last Week Tonight segment that covered the absolute shitshow that was Florida disenfranchisement before the 2018 vote.

The Statue Aimed at Julian Assange, by Miriam Schnier: Now I could normally give a rat’s ass about Assange. I dislike him for a variety of reasons, but as I’ve said here before, how we treat the worst of us reflects on us. And the real importance about this article is because of the information it gives about the 1917 Espionage Act. And this is really where my subscription to The Nation really pays for itself. The magazine has been around long enough that it was there a hundred years ago, when noted the passage of the act with the headline “Civil Liberty Dead”.

“Based on language in the act that criminalized efforts to obstruct military recruitment, the government rounded up thousands of anti-war protesters, union activists, and political radicals, many of whom were held without trial in hastily organized internment camps.

Miriam Schneir

Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs, and anarchist activist Emma Goldman were both imprisoned under the Act, and Daniel Ellsburg likely would have been convicted for his release of the Pentagon Papers of not for the incompetence of Nixon’s ‘plumbers’. Both Chelsea Manning and Reality Winner have been charged under the Act.

While I’ll not defend Ethel and Julius Rosenburg’s spying for the Soviet Union, Schnier notes “the government has been able to use it to restrict freedom of speech; imprison anti-war activists, socialists, anarchists, communists, and ideological whistle-blowers; and help to destroy numerous progressive organizations and publications.”

Lost Bearings, by David A. Bell: Review of A Thousand Small Sanities by Adam Gopnik. Ah, liberalism. A word that has been demonized both by the right and the left. I’ve given much thought to its meaning, mostly in relation to the term progressive. My theory is that the two differ mainly on economic issues. Over the years, there’s been so much demonization of ‘liberal’ by right wing media like Limbaugh and Fox News, that actual liberals have fled from it, preferring the term ‘progressive’ when describing themselves. As far as social issues like race and LGBT equality goes, there isn’t much air between the two sides, and liberal politicians have been using the term to signal to the Democratic base that they are on board with these issues.

But my qualm with these politicians is that they share none of the economic values that are inherent in progressivism: welfare, economic equality, regulation, and progressive taxation. Virginia’s current Governor, Ralph Northam, is probably the most egregious example that I can think of, who was running around the state during his 2017 campaign, calling himself a progressive while simultaneously taking tens of thousands of dollars from fossil fuel companies.

I’ve long referenced the three party system in explaining these differences during my political activities. The ability of the neoliberal corporate wing of the Democratic party to play lip service to the progressive wing of the party continues to sicken me. Unfortunately, so long as the party of Trump continues to be dumpster fire, moderate, right leaning citizens who would normally vote social and fiscal conservative, will migrate to these moderate Democrats. Given the current demographics of the electorate, and the paltry participation by more progressive-leaning Millennials, I can see no solution to this problem until the current generation of boomers ages out of the population.

Bad habits

I’ve been bad lately. I’ve been sticking to my habits: meditating for an hour, no alcohol, writing a few hundred words every day, sticking to an intermittent fasting schedule. But I’ve been cheating a lot, and consuming a lot of sugar. I’ve been drinking sugary drinks and eating a lot of ice cream. My weight is still stable, but I can only imagine what I’m doing to my blood sugar. I’ve been consuming a lot of caffeine as well. I think part of the reason that I’ve been doing it has to do with work.

I usually work from home. I get up between five and six AM, about an hour before the rest of the family, drink my tea and meditate. Usually I can get my hour in before the kids get up and try to sit on my lap or tattle on each other for whatever reason. I take them into day care, work at my desk for a few hours, lunch, work some more, and then have about an hour or two to work on side gigs before my wife comes home with the girls. Dinner and family time, baths and bed for the kids. Then another hour or two working on writing or whatever until ten, then I read for an hour and in bed by eleven or sooner. That’s how it’s been lately, anyways.

Usually, I may have a day I have to go into the office. That usually involves an hour and a half round trip, depending on the traffic, time, and day. This week I think I went in four days. Normally this isn’t a problem, but most of these weren’t planned trips, and instead of leaving first thing in the morning, I wound up going an hour before or right when I should be breaking my fast. Now having fasted for so long, going a few extra hours isn’t anything to worry about, but I’ve been stopping at gas stations and convenience stores for that extra bit of caffeine, and have just been compounding again and again.

It’s not all bad, though, I have been a bit more active than I usually am. I ran several miles a few days ago, and did a lot of physical work today, including a long bike ride with my eldest. But these excuses will ultimately become justifications and will be come rote. And I can’t let that happen. It starts by running in the store for a drink and getting a second one, ‘for later’. Buying a big box of ice cream cones, and then eating two at a time.

It’s time to put the hammer down and correct these mistakes before they start to compound.

Professionalism

Tomorrow marks the start of my last year at university, where I’ll be finishing up my bachelors degree in computer science with a computer science minor. I’m only attending half-time, and the two of the four classes I need to finish are a professional workforce development course. Obviously, this is going to take a good deal of time away from everything else that I’ve been doing, so I’ve labored to unload as many projects that I can. That said, these are writing intensive courses, and I don’t know what kind of time commitment that’s going to take. Obviously, taking thirty to sixty minutes a day is going to be hard to fit in, but I’m going to be staying on top of the assignments to be able to fit that in.

That said, there may be room for crossposting. In the past, I’ve published writing assignments from class to Facebook or Medium in the past, so I expect I’ll find ways to kill two birds with one stone. That said, one of the first tasks is to share my thoughts on what it means to be a professional. Specifically, the characteristics a true professional must have.


Integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching.

C.S. Lewis

My dad taught me his work ethic, and while I’ve been slow to get going some times, I’ve I’ve never had a problem focusing on a task once I’d made my mind up to execute. Obviously, there’s a difference between personal tasks and professional ones, but I’ve always hustled my butt off. Always. Even when I didn’t have the ability, or wasn’t the best, I could still keep going, driving toward the finish line. But beyond the drive, integrity is probably the most important trait one can have. Your reputation takes a lifetime to build, but can be destroyed in an instant. And taking shortcuts, or otherwise cheating a client or task will come back to haunt you.

There are lots of other answers that people will give as an answer to this question, but I think the question is the wrong one. When people talk about characteristics, they’re really discussing a trait, or a skill. One of the most valuable lessons that I’ve learned lately is about choosing the people that I work with. Whether you’re hiring for a position, taking on a client, or choosing a new job, the most important questions that ultimately need to be asked are around values.

Values are the deep-seated beliefs that motivate behaviors; people will fight for their values, and values determine peopleโ€™s compatibility with others. Abilities are ways of thinking and behaving. Some people are great learners and fast processors; others possess common sense; still others think creatively or logically or with supreme organization, etc. Skills are learned tools, such as being able to speak a foreign language or write computer code. While values and abilities are unlikely to change much, most skills can be acquired in a limited amount of time (e.g., most masterโ€™s degrees can be acquired in two years) and often change in worth (e.g., todayโ€™s best programming language can be obsolete in a few years). It is important for you to know what mix of qualities is important to fit each role and, more broadly, with whom you can have successful relationships. In picking people for long-term relationships, values are most important, abilities come next, and skills are the least important.”

Ray Dalio – Principles, #45

I’ve been at my current firm for almost seven years now, and I’ve sat on the side through a number of hiring interviews during that time. Ultimately we’ve been disappointed with those hires that we’ve taken on, and I couldn’t really understand why until I read Dalio’s principles a few months ago. Every time I sat at that table with someone’s resume in hand, I was always focused on the skills. We were hiring for a position, an immediate need. And while I may have touched briefly on some of those deeper abilities, we almost never discussed the values that drove a person. A lot of your standard interview trick questions may have been originally designed to get into some of those values, but I think they lost meaning the more they became rote. And it’s hard to get to know someone in that short timeframe.

So while we may have chosen hires that were capable of performing the skills that were needed at the time, we handicapped our future growth. We wound up with employees who weren’t motivated to keep learning new skills as business needs changed, that were using the workplace as a dating pool, or who were incapable of documenting their work properly. And make no mistake, I’m no angel myself. Most of the jobs I’ve had over the years have been failures. And this may be my privilege talking, but I’m not afraid to be fired any more. And I’m not afraid to fire a client if they don’t align with our values. I’m at the point now where I can say ‘no’. I’ve realized that a lot of what comes my way is going to distract me from what really matters, and what I’d rather be working on.

I’m forty years old and still trying to figure out what my personal mission statement is. I may not be able to spell it out, but it’s there. I think ultimately it’s about service, and passing on what one has learned to others and helping them along. It’s about building connections and community. Hoarding knowledge is ultimately futile. I think lately I’ve been thinking that if I have an idea and someone else can do it better, then by all means, let them. I’ve got to focus on the things that I can do better than anyone else. What’s my niche? If someone brings something to me, the first thing I ask is ‘am I the only one that can do this,’ and that usually determines my answer. There’s other factors to be considered, of course, but I try to stick to that as much as possible these days.

One last concept that I’ll leave here is the concept of life as a multi-armed bandit problem, where we’re always exploring and experimenting and figuring out ways to exploit that knowledge that we’ve gained. Having this framework in mind and knowing when it’s time to put in the work to experiment build those relationships and reputation, and when it’s time to focus on that one thing that is going to bring you success — that’s key.

But hey, I’m no expert yet. I’m still learning too.

Starting is easy…

So it looks like we are slowly moving into the business of managing websites and social media accounts. This site has been around in various forms since October 2004, and here we are, 15 years later, still trying to make something of it. Wow.

My first website was called StereoNet. It was a small little thing I put together back in the late 90’s, probably around 1998-99 or so. RealPlayer, the first audio/video streaming application, had been out for a few years, and you could actually listen to music in real time for the first time. Before then it you were limited to low-fi tracker music, based on samples, or by downloading MP3s. This was before broadband was rolled out everywhere, meaning that you would spend eight to fifteen minutes downloading a three minute song. RealAudio was a major breakthrough at the time, and it was everywhere.

The experimental music site Beta Lounge was one of the first sites to really take advantage of the technology that is still around today. They’re still kicking around with their live broadcast shows, which run for 4 hours or more at a stretch. They’ve got over 22 years of shows up on their website. There were more sites out there that have fallen into the ether over the years, and escape my memory, but I spent a lot of time on them, listening to techno and dance music.

During this time, I was under 21, and too young to go to most of the bars and dives where most of the bands in the area would play. I’d been playing guitar for a number of years by then, and had been in several ‘bands’ myself, and liked chatting and hanging out with other musicians. One day, looking at one of the free zines that covered the local scene, I got an idea to create an online calendar for the bands playing, with a page for each band and samples of their music.

I didn’t have any problems getting the bands onboard. I’d take their demo CDs, rip them to a RealAudio file, and throw them up on a page with a picture and details. Then I spent too much time toying around with pretty coding tricks to design a calendar app from scratch, and eventually lost motivation. It was a major missed opportunity.

I eventually got involved in the rave scene, and tried to replicate some of what BetaLounge was doing with the DJs and clubs that I went to. I was too undisciplined, more interested in getting drunk, doing drugs, or getting laid, and eventually began what I call my ‘time in the wilderness.’ More lost opportunities.

This name, daHIFI, is a holdover from that period: digital audio high fidelity. I hung onto the name for it’s uniqueness, but here I am at forty, looking to remake myself and rebrand, if you will. I actually let the domain lapse one year, and it quickly got bought up by a squatter. I regretted letting it go, and wound up waiting them for another year, when they let it lapse and I snagged it back up. But now, daHIFI isn’t even unique, as there’s now a Belgium dub soundsystem that goes by the name.

So I don’t know if I would call it nostalgia, or regret, but there is a part of me that is disappointed that these previous projects weren’t successful. Not that I should be hard on myself for not having the follow through and the motivation to see things through. Regrets, I’ve had a few. Ultimately I’m not looking backward though. Just digging up the past to recollect the amount of wheel-spinning and fucking off that I’ve done for most of my life. I had a roommate who told me something once that “you can either work when you’re young, and play when you’re old, or play when you’re young and work when you’re old.” I think he was using it to justify why he was working so hard, and I think I’m using it today to justify how much time I spend ‘working’ on things now.

My wife has led a sort of inverted life to this. She feels like she’s done everything she was supposed to do, went to school, got a good job that she planned to stay and retire at. We’ve got the house, the kids, but now she’s too burned out and wondering how she’s going to design a life that she doesn’t need to take a vacation from. I don’t share the same concern, cause I think that I’m pretty much doing what I want. I tell myself that at least. I don’t know if I’m kidding myself, or have just settled into this life. I want more, sure, but at the end of the day, am I content with what I have? Absolutely.

In fact, as she and I have started dipping our toes into minimalist lifestyle, we’ve realized that we have too much. Too much house, too much stuff, too much debt. We’re caught between trying to build a life where our work is meaningful, and one where we can afford the life we want. The two of us ultimately have different ideals of our rich life, and that’s something that we’ll have to reconcile as partners and parents.

So we make plans to get our business off the ground and help build networks and community. We take on additional responsibility. We learn, and we keep building.

The Most Human Human: By Brian Christian

I heard Brian Christian on a recent podcast in my feed earlier this month, talking about computer science, decision making and other subjects. His more recent book, 2016’s Algorithms to Live By wasn’t available at my local library, but this 2011 book about the Loebner prize was, so I picked it up instead. I’ll admit, it took me a while to get into it. I had other things in my reading list I was trying to work through simultaneously, but once I got through those and was able to spend some more time with it I did enjoy it.

The Most Human Human is a chronicle of Christian’s experience in the 2011 Loebner prize, a Turing Test competition where chatbot programs and their human confederates compete against each other, each trying to convince a series of judges that they are the most human. Christian tells his story of trying to prepare for the competition, trying to figure out what he can do during each five minute round of chatting to convince the judges that he is not a computer. Within this story, Christian covers the history of computer science, from Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, to the first chatbots like ELIZA, onto more advanced concepts like compression algorithms.

Christian has a dual degree in both computer science and philosophy, as well as a MFA in poetry, and he puts all of this to use in the book. There’s a lot of discussion about art, music and poetry, as one would expect, and lots of quotes to break up the various sections. He spends a good deal on chess, mainly as it relates to computer science and the Kasparov vs. Deep Blue matches. The book is informative without being jargony. I was fairly familiar with most of what he covers in the book, but I was pleased that the book was more in depth about general computing concepts that just about the details of the Loebner prize competition, which was probably one of the lesser interesting parts of the book.

The book is only eight years old, but I fear it doesn’t really age well due to the prevalence of discussion around the pick-up artist (PUA) scene, notably Neil Strauss, Mystery, and the techniques employed by them like negging and neurolinguistic programming. I was involved in the PUA scene, around the mid-aughts, and it’s notable how that subculture became aggressively toxic. It’s quite a distraction in this age of #meToo and incels and the like. It’s also apparent that Christian really liked Dave Matthews Band when he was writing this book, but who am I to judge.

One of the things I really liked from this that Christian writes is about what he terms the anti-parliamentary debate, modeled as the antithesis to the Lincoln Douglas debates which are typical of primary and secondary school debate clubs. Instead of an adversarial process, opposing sides have to come together to work on joint legislation, which they then present to the judges independently, each side explaining why the legislation supports their position. These collaborators are scored jointly, with individual scores based on joint participation scores across several rounds. It’s a shame it hasn’t taken off.

As someone interested in artificial intelligence and machine learning, this book is a good read. It’s right in the sweet spot for general audiences and people like myself that have more of a technical background. A mix or art and science, if you will. One of the takeaways that is going to stay with me from reading this is the ever-moving target that we humans present to these questions around synthetic minds. The goalposts keep moving. Each time a computer beats us at a particular task, that task is no longer seen as a creative endeavor. First checkers was solved, and we’ve been beaten by computers in chess, now Go and other games. But these defeats ultimately allow us to determine what is it that separates us from the machines, that makes us uniquely human? And ultimately, Christian’s book is about his mission to discover those things, and is what the reader is left thinking about afterward.