Archive for the ‘Observations’ Category

Policy Proposals for Black Lives Matter

The media coverage and online conversation around the Black Lives Matter movement has included substantial discussion of specific shootings, the general problem of police violence, the character of protests events, and even the remarks of activists at several college campuses. However, after reading many articles and having many conversations on the topic, it was, for a long time, unclear to me what specific policy proposals that allies of the movement should advocate. Anyone else seeking clarity on this topic should look to the policy platform of Campaign Zero.

Campaign Zero (as in, zero police killings) is an initiative aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement (writ large) and growing out of the Ferguson protests. It is not connected to the official #BlackLivesMatter (of the hashtag and website) organization, but it is the most prominent source of policy proposals that I have found related to the movement. It also has political recognition, as representatives of Campaign Zero, along with other leaders of Black Lives Matter, have met with President Obama and with the Sanders and Clinton campaigns.

Campaign Zero identifies 10 strategies to reduce police violence, each having one or more specific policies. Some of these include:

  • End Policing of Minor “Broken Windows” Offenses, such as trespassing and marijuana possession
  • End Profiling and “Stop-and-Frisk” tactics
  • Establish Alternative Approaches to Mental Health Crises, e.g. Mental Health Response Teams
  • Require the use of body cameras by police
  • End the Federal Government’s 1033 Program Providing Military Weaponry to Local Police Departments
  • Establish a permanent Special Prosecutor’s Office at the State level for cases of police violence

The full list is worth reading. These are reasonable and actionable policies that we can bring not only to the national primary campaign, but also to our local races, where many of them would be implemented. We can judge candidates based on their support of these policies and nudge them to do so. The Campaign Zero website summarizes the presidential candidates’ positions on each policy (Sanders currently shows a substantial edge over Clinton).

Overall, these policies are well-grounded in research and supported by data. I am especially impressed by the way the Campaign team solicits policy ideas, and posts and responds thoughtfully to criticism, including making changes to the platform.

The policies proposed are all focused on policing and criminal justice. This is by design, as the team feels a narrow focus is most effective. The implicit assumption is that police violence is not merely a symptom of socioeconomic problems, i.e. one that is best solved by education and social welfare, but an additional and distinct problem that requires its own initiative. The data seem to bare this out.

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Digital Abundance and Spotify

At some point abundance goes from a benefit to a liability. We know this about material goods. Obesity, environmental destruction, and (arguably) mental illness are liabilities of a fantastically abundant consumer economy.

In some cases, abundance becomes its own enemy. For example, Walmart brings consumer abundance to small towns with its enormous selection of low-priced, imported goods, allowing the residents to buy more with the money they have. But Walmart advances a system that removes jobs from that small town, ultimately leaving the residents with less than they started with.

I don’t know the mechanism by which digital abundance becomes a liability, but I can feel it is happening. Some theories have been advanced.

Jaron Lanier, in books and numerous interviews, argues that the Internet is destroying the middle class. In simple terms, the cheap and free distribution of information, and the expectation that people should contribute content for free, undermines the ability of content producers (writers, musicians, journalists, entertainers, programmers) to make a living at their craft. For Lanier, the principle drawback of digital abundance is that it destroys jobs and hurts the generation of new content. It ultimately makes us poorer in the literal sense (the Walmart effect) and in the cultural sense.

Thom Yorke’s recent protest of the music-streaming service Spotify brings to light an example of this effect. As an example, musician Damon Krukowski describes the revenue that small artists get from the music streaming services: “it would take songwriting royalties for roughly 312,000 plays on Pandora to earn us the profit of one– one– LP sale. (On Spotify, one LP is equivalent to 47,680 plays.)” The New York Times offers this more comprehensive chart on the dire math. A solo artist would have to garner 4 million plays on Spotify per month to make minimum wage.

As another example, Evan Hughes argues that Amazon’s efforts to shut down physical bookstores will ultimately hurt its own sales, since most people discover most books that they buy in physical bookstores (though many go on to buy them cheaper online).

Taking a different approach to the question of digital abundance, Nate Silver, in his book, The Signal and the Noise, argues that data does not equate to meaning (signal). Although we have access to increasingly massive amounts of data, the problem we now face is that the noise is increasing faster than the signal, leaving us with less meaning than we had before. For Silver, this explains why predictions have not been improving with the increase in data and may continue to get worse for some time.

The notion is distinct from Lanier’s. Apart from the tendency of digital abundance to destroy jobs and thereby ultimately reduce the flow of important data (abundance as its own enemy), Silver argues that the increase in data itself hurts our ability to understand the world (abundance is the enemy).

Recently, I have been trying Spotify for listening to music. In principle, Spotify provides something I ought to be enormously excited about: instant access to almost any song I want to listen to, as if my personal mp3 collection had just grown to include not only my favorites, but any song I have a whim of an inclination hear. I was excited for about 5 minutes. It is hard enough choosing what I want to listen to out of my sizable mp3 collection, but choosing what I want to listen to out of anything? I run into something like a combination of decision fatigue and an unsettling feeling that Spotify is cheapening music (in the figurative sense; we already know it does so literally).

Taking Nate Silver’s notion somewhat far afield, perhaps access to any recording ever made, any time, increases the noise more than the signal. The “meaning,” if you will, the happiness or personal enrichment, one gets from music may be enhanced by having access to just the right song at the right time, but may be more-so diminished by the deluge of choices. The deluge may prevent one from spending much time with any one album, strip the personal significance from the way collections are obtained and cultivated, and limit the formation of the shared musical context that traditionally develops among friends and family members.

There is no doubt that digital music, and especially digital streaming services, enable you to get exactly what you want at any time. What I suggest is that getting exactly what you want is not the right goal in listening to music. Nor in life.

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Replace public advertising with art.

Imagine if all of the advertisements on billboards, in metro stations, on buses, inside buses, on walls, and on the sides of buildings were replaced with art. Imagine that as you stand on the train or drive on the freeway, instead of vapid images intended to manipulate and dehumanize you, you were shown art intended to inspire, challenge, entertain and enrich you.

Suppose that these artworks came from the same variety of sources and rotated with the same frequency as do advertisements. Many of the same graphic designers and photographers could be employed in this new enterprise. The billboard, as an artistic medium, would still lend itself to bold imagery that can be quickly absorbed, something former advertising employees would know how to make. Metro posters, on the other hand, can be studied for cumulative hours by commuters, who currently see the same ones daily for months. This medium lends itself to the complexity of more traditional visual fine arts.

You may object that it would be impossible to select art that everyone would like. True enough. We could use various voting-based selection processes but we might end up with the billboard equivalent of a lot of Thomas Kincaid. Likely, we would want to do some selections by committee, and have some element of competition among the artists. But more importantly, consider the status quo: the images currently displayed make people and neighborhoods worse off; as evidence, virtually everyone would prefer no advertisements if given the choice. It would not be difficult to do better than the current selection of images when freed from the profit motive driving them.

You may next ask, who pays for it? But of course, you are already paying. And not merely with your money, but with your free will and individuality, by buying things you don’t want and wanting things you wouldn’t have cared about. What I am suggesting is that rather than launder our money through corporations, we spend it directly and in our own collective interest. So the new enterprise would be publicly funded. One can imagine variations based on the public radio model or locally-minded foundations, but ultimately the citizens benefit and the citizens ought to pay.

How could this start? A city could do it. Transit agencies have great leeway to determine images in and on their property. Billboard restrictions remain legally contentious, but 4 states have long-standing bans, Los Angeles’ and New York’s restrictions have been upheld in court, and New York’s even distinguishes between commercial and non-commercial signage. The long-term benefits in population growth and tourism might very well outweigh the lost revenue from advertising on public property. Some local businesses might be hurt, but others would benefit from less attention being diverted to national brands.

No doubt, a transformation of our urban landscape from advertising to art would meet with challenges from vested interests. Yet, imagine a visual culture than inspires rather than manipulates. Isn’t it worth trying?

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Letter to Senator Feinstein on the FBI’s expanded invasions of privacy

I sent this message to Diane Feinstein (links added for this post).

Dear Senator Feinstein,

It was reported by the New York Times recently that the FBI plans to
expand its already invasive practices by conducting database searches,
surveillance, and going through the trash of American citizens who are
not even suspected of wrongdoing.

This is one more outrage in a long series of outrageous secret and
illegal violations of civil liberties by the Federal government which
are destroying America. Since its founding, this has been a country of
laws, and that is what made us great. America is becoming an oligarchy.
When that transition is complete, we will be no better than the
tyrannical dictatorships we are fighting against.

I know that, as Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, you are
privy to even more of the lawless, power grabbing activities than the
substantial abuses that are publicly known. If you are a patriot, I urge
you to fulfill your Constitutional responsibility as a check on
Executive power and oppose the new FBI guidelines as well as other
attacks on civil liberties.

Thank you.

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Time

We have time or we don’t have time. We buy time or we lose time. But time cannot be owned. And so, how can it be lost?

Often, I fight time. It is scarce. Internally, I rail against its scarcity. Externally, I go faster. Dangerously fast. Internally, I feel helpless. I grit my teeth. Externally, I do not do one third of the things I have planned. Meanwhile, I do other things. Useless things. Internally, I feel bad about this.

Time is a limited container. Fill it with what you will. Put in the large rocks of your schedule first: work, doctor’s appointments, crises, sleep. Sleep is sandstone, softer than the others. You may break off a peice here and there to make it fit. Then, add the smaller and rounder stones of meals, visits with friends, concerts, errands, showers. It is tempting to shake the container at this point, to settle the contents and make room for a few more. Do not do this. Leave room for travel time. Now, add the sand of daily life. Fill the space with e-mail, television, chatting in the hall, reading a few pages on the train, buying a candy bar. Finally, pour in the water of thoughts, paces, breaths, and sighs. Is the container full? Does it hold everything you want?

Of course not. But time is not a limited container. The containers are constructs of our own creation. A day is a basket, woven out of numbers and social conventions. I have woven a basket, and now I am upset that it doesn’t hold everything I want it to hold. The limits, I feel, are imposed by the fabric of the universe. Time is scare and I am helpless to stretch it, to wind it back, to own more of it. But really, I have just mismatched the basket and what I want to carry.

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Goals of communication

It’s tempting to think about communication as just about transmitting information. It would follow that the quality of communication can be measured by how well the idea in the head of the person listening matches the idea in the head of the speaker that she wishes to convey. To be sure, plenty of communication is best characterized as a means to an end:
“So, the trash.”
“Trash, it’s everywhere. I know.”
“I mean, the particular trash in our garbage can.”
“It’s such a wasteful society we live in. I totally feel your pain about the waste of it all. You try to be conscientious, but everything comes in so much packaging.”
“No, I just want you to take out the trash.”

We convey such information in order to modify the behavior of the listener in some related way. But I would venture that the majority of words spoken in our day-to-day lives are not about transmitting information, not the kind that serves a specific purpose. We also communicate as a means of forming social bonds, of establishing social relationships.
“How about that weather, huh?”
“Yeah. Crazy.”
“Hey, now that we’ve established this bond, you know, over our shared experience of the weather, maybe it’ll be less awkward next time we pass each other in the hall?”
“Yeah, I feel so much closer to you now. I won’t look away so pointedly next time we may chance to make eye contact.”

The goal of such communication is not related much to what is transmitted, but the fact that we share something. One may still argue that communication of this type is a means to an end. But there is also communication for its own sake. We just want to connect, to feel less alone.
“I just tripped on this sidewalk and broke my ankle.”
“Oh my God. Do you need help?”
“It’s just a perfect end to a lousy day. I mean, my boss bitched me out this morning. I was all distracted, rerunning the conversation in my head and coming up with retorts, carrying all these grocery bags. I didn’t see the crack.”
“Hey, should I call 911 or something?”
“I mean, you ever had one of those days, where just everything goes wrong? It feels like the world is against you?”
“I could at least try to help you up?”
“No, I’m good. I just needed to vent.”
“Oh yeah. Well. I know what you mean. We all have those days.”
“I feel so much better now. Well, except for my ankle.”

This is the kind of communication that we crave when we’ve been alone. It’s not that we’re starved for information. We can watch movies and read books. We can even read the news and be sure of having a set of shared information with plenty of other people. One can still get awfully lonely without having two-way communication for its on sake. I would speculate that this third type of communication has fallen off as the first two types, mediated by technology, have increased as a proportion of our lives. I wonder if this has something to do with why everyone seems to be in therapy.

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5-song demo and music video are out!

I recorded a demo EP. 5 songs, full-band arrangements, all originals. Themes include climate change, the financial crisis, disillusionment with the Obama administration, the dystopian future, and turning 30. There is even a music video. Check it out on my music website: http://www.stolaroff.com

I started working on this project maybe a year and a half ago. It turns out, recording an album on your own is a lot of work. Why do many of us take on challenging creative projects with dubious rewards? It’s something I continue asking myself, and I think I’ve explored it far enough to know that the answer is not, simply, “for fun”.

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Greetings and modes of transportation

To get to work, I have to pass through a guard station and have my badge checked. The guards are mostly big, beefy guys in SWAT gear, but friendly. When I drive in, I usually get a “Thank you, sir” or “Have a good day, sir.” When I bike in, however, I get a “How’s it goin’, man?” or “Hey, man,” followed with “Have a good one” or similar. Apparently on a bicycle I am more a man of the people. That, or I command less respect.

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The many hands of capitalism

The beauty of capitalism, argues Adam Smith and my textbook, is that resources are magically guided by the invisible hand of the market to their most efficient uses. No central planning body is needed, as it is in communism, to decide how much of each product should be produced and who should receive it.

On the micro-scale, this is true in many ways. The individual decisions of millions of businesses, communicating through prices, add up to a system that satisfies most people’s wants with a dizzying array of constantly-improving products. We don’t need a giant bureaucracy to set the price of raisin bagels or determine how many electric lawnmowers should be built.

However, what I’m now discovering is that there is no “invisible hand” analogy on the macro-scale. The “natural” macroeconomic outcome of an entirely free market is abhorrent. Devastating cycles of boom, bubble, and recession; ever-more concentrated wealth; terrible working conditions for the poor; and, perhaps, resource depletion and collapse. It’s entirely up to the government (and, in some cases, labor unions), to guide the market with fiscal policy (government spending), monetary policy (mainly the interest rate), and human rights protections, and to clean up after the market with social welfare programs.

The hands are quite visible. So how much do you trust your government? They’ve been doing a bang-up job lately. Poor monetary policy (years of super-low interest rates, among other problems), contributed greatly to the housing bubble and our current Great Recession.

I just think it’s important to remember when certain pundits and Wall Street executives plead for small government and financial deregulation, that there is no reason to believe that would help in macroeconomic terms.

On the micro-level — when you are talking about things like price tariffs, subsidies, restrictions on trade, product standards — there is a justification, at least in theory, to call for “smaller government” or deregulation. Because here the market allocates resources more efficiently than the government would (again, at least in theory). But we already know what happens to the macroeconomy, left to its own devices, and that is everyone but the fabulously rich and very lucky gets smacked around by the invisible hand.

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Of Smith, Chin, and Gonzales

Judging by the remedial, tediously redundant treatment of math in my macroecon textbook, I assume that it is meant for business majors. So it’s great to know our future captains of industry are reading passages like this one (on the “multiplier effect”):

First, the economy supports repetitive, continuous flows of expenditures and income through which dollars spent by Smith are received as income by Chin, then spent by Chin and received as income by Gonzales, and so on.

Notice how this apparent attempt at multiculturalism implies an income hierarchy reinforcing ethnic stereotypes and supports a paternalistic, trickle-down theory of wealth creation at the same time?

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Macroeconomics and women in the workplace

I was curious from the beginning how far into a macroeconomics textbook I would get before it pissed me off. It turns out: only until the end of Chapter 2: The Economizing Problem. The most offensive passage comes from a section titled “Women and Expanded Production Possibilities”, which aims to explain the increased proportion of working women in the U.S., and which does it thusly:

Over recent years, women have greatly increased their productivity in the workplace, mostly by becoming better-educated and professionally trained. As a result they can earn higher wages. Because those higher wages have increased the opportunity costs — the forgone wage earnings — of staying at home, women have substituted employment in the labor market for more “expensive” traditional home activities. This substitution has been particularly pronounced among married women.1

This passage implies that the reason women were not working before is that they weren’t valuable workers (being untrained and uneducated) and without the prospect of high wages, they preferred to stay home. The section goes on to give a number of additional explanations, none of which give any reference to social factors, e.g. the women’s movement (just as a random example).

Certainly economic explanations are important to understanding broad social and demographic changes. But only an economist would not put social or cultural factors among the reasons for women’s rise in the workplace. And this goes to a fundamental problem with neoclassical economists: they believe economics can explain far more about the world than it does. And then they make policy recommendations based on that conceit, and we keep listening to them.

  1. McConnel, Campbell R. and Brue, Stanley L. Macroeconomics: Principles, Problems, and Policies (15th ed). McGraw-Hill. New York, 2002. []

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Torture by any other name…

Waterboarding is torture. It’s a well known and accepted fact by everyone except a small number of extremists like Dick Cheney, and unfortunately, editors of major newspapers like the Washington Post. The torture memos recently released by the Justice Department describe waterboarding, among other forms of torture. However, as one example in a pattern of underplaying torture committed by the U.S. Government, today in a news article the Washington Post referred to the techniques described in those memos as “harsh tactics that critics liken to torture”. This is akin to describing carbon dioxide as “an industrial byproduct that critics liken to pollution” or referring to current economic conditions as “a slowing of the market that critics liken to a recession”.

Of course you can find many people, even people in prominent or powerful positions, who believe carbon dioxide is not a pollutant (e.g. Senator James Inhofe), or who don’t characterize current economic conditions as a recession. But that does not justify presenting a widely-held and generally-accepted fact as a fringe belief. Waterboarding is widely and generally accepted to be torture, not “likened” to torture and not only by “critics”, just as carbon dioxide is not merely “likened” to pollution and not only by “critics”.

I wrote a letter to the editor of the Post about this; I’ll let you know what happens.

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Transportation, climate change, and economic growth

I went to a panel discussion last night on “Merging Climate and Transportation Policy”. There were panelists from roughly the political left, right, and center, but all were thoughtful, had many good points, and agreed that the current system for spending federal transportation dollars is terrible. A lot of discussion about transportation and climate change tends to focus on technological fixes, like electric cars or biofuels, but this one focused on reducing driving — essentially changing behavior. The center and left panelists seemed to be boxing at the shadow-accusation that any such attempt is “social engineering”, largely by arguing that putting the right price on driving (i.e., making it significantly more expensive) isn’t about changing behavior, it’s about letting people make the right choices.

Well, prices changes behavior. That’s the point. There is some psychological value to giving people options, even ones they can’t afford, as opposed to mandating something (“You can only drive on odd-numbered days”), but it’s still about changing behavior. We know that raising the price of driving causes people to do it less (cf. recent increases in gas prices and subsequent fall off in car travel), but it’s not a terribly strong effect. If we want big reductions, like cutting miles driven in half, it’s hard to imagine that just pricing people out of their cars ($15 gas?) will be acceptable. I’m convinced the much more powerful (and palatable) tools will be land-use planning, making urban cores more attractive places to live (e.g. by improving urban schools), and cultural shifts toward valuing neighborhoods and urban features.

One of the interesting questions that came up was, “will policies to reduce miles driven also suppress economic growth?” This is something the right and center panelists were very concerned about. And actually, it’s hard to see how a pricing-based policy wouldn’t. There could be some rebound effects, like a more vibrant commercial economy if congestion-pricing makes the city more pleasant to shop and do business in. Or perhaps everyone would save fuel on balance because congestion-pricing eliminates gridlock. However, the main effect of charging more for driving is that people have less money to spend on other things. But let’s think about the other types of policies — the ones that get people replacing cars with transit and living closer to things. Offhand, I would say the economy becomes more service-oriented. People go out to eat more, spend more on cultural attractions, meet each other in bars and so on — the classic urban lifestyle model. They have smaller houses which they spend less to fill with things and, or course, less on cars. Bad for the economy? It’s not obvious, but I’d guess it’s better for communities to have more-local economies in the long run. Another direction it might go is that car travel gets expensive/unpleasant but the alternatives aren’t great either, so people just stay home. Probably yes, this would slow economic growth. Although that shouldn’t be the question. Are people less happy? Spending more time with the family and less time commuting to far-flung jobs is not bad. Staying home to watch tv and get isolated and depressed, on the other hand, probably is bad. So there is a right way and a wrong way to reduce driving. I expect that the strategies based on building vibrant communities support both economic growth and movement to a service-based economy that is better for the environment and connects people with each other.

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Government-adjusted comment seriousness scale

I have this habit, unusual in the federal government, of saying what I mean. Some of my coworkers find this refreshing. But sometimes it leads to trouble. For example, when reviewing a workgroup document and finding a statement reflecting a decision that I felt hadn’t been adequately discussed, I wrote (roughly) that “No one has responded to my previous comments on [that decision] and I can not support [that decision] until we have a discussion.” I really meant literally that I could not voice my personal support for that decision until we have had some discussion of the policy merits in the workgroup. But this statement (like, apparently, many of my statements) caused somewhat of stir, resulting in their manager calling my manager, saying something like “I just don’t don’t know what it means when Josh says he can’t support [the decision].”

In the wake of the this, um, misunderstanding, my mentor, a wizened and diplomatic long-time employee, explained to me that people in the federal government are not used to people saying what they mean. They work on an adjusted scale of diplomatic language. For example:

Gov’t Speak Literal Equivalent
“We have some questions on the document.” “We think the document has some issues that need to be fixed.”
“We have some comments on the document.” “We can’t approve of this document until the changes we identify have been made.”
“We have some concerns with the document.” “We are strongly opposed to the spirit of this document, and will fight to make sure it doesn’t go out without major changes.”

Since “concerns” is as bad as it gets, indicating serious political conflict, I can see that on a scale like this my statement must have either just been confusing or sounded like the nuclear option. The question now is whether to change my communication style or idealistically soldier on, because I believe people in the government ought to say what they mean. So far my solution has been to write what I want and trust my coworkers to temper the language. But this is probably not a long-term solution.

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Cybersecurity and implicit contracts

I generally feel that people are not worked up enough about corporate invasions of privacy. So it’s good to see an article like this in the Times talking about these issues. People think I’m a little crazy when I tell them I trade supermarket club cards with other people to confuse the consumer profiling system. Maybe that’s because, according to the sidebar, 64% of people don’t realize supermarkets can sell their customers’ purchase information to other companies.

The author makes an interesting framing of personal privacy as an implicit contract. It’s not illegal for someone to follow you around from store to store and record your purchases, but we would consider it an invasion of privacy. We implicitly regard such information as belonging to you. The information has value to every company that can sell you more things if they know your purchasing habits, but this information has (largely) not been monetized. Apparently, the main way that buyout artists made money on hostile takeovers in the ’80′s was by breaking implicit contracts, like the implicit contract to pay senior workers more.

From my own experience from my father’s work in wholesaling, this seems to be a major way that large companies push out small businesses. Some of it is due to higher efficiency from economies of scale, but a lot of the lower prices come from breaking implicit contracts. A small sales business relies on personal relationships. “Good service” is based largely on the understanding that if something goes wrong, it will be fixed at no charge. The small businessman builds loyalty with the customers, often investing a lot up front in samples, demos, and time. The implicit contract is that the customer will stay on board for a while if she finds value in the product. A big company, on the other hand, can offer lower prices, but demos and personal time are short. Likewise, service is more an “our way or the highway” approach. Big companies can freeload on the value that smaller companies invested to get a new product adopted by coming in afterward, perhaps with a cheaper knockoff, and undercutting. At the same time, they keep costs low by redefining the implicit rules of good service and doing less for the customer.

If a small company who you’ve been doing business with for years says, “okay, I’m going to renege on all our agreements, but my prices will drop a little next year”, you’d probably be mad and find another supplier. But a new entrant has an easier time changing the rules, like the way the buyout artists could hire new managers who hadn’t made any promises about future salary. Similarly, online entrepreneurs have this incredible opportunity to break implicit contracts because the social rules of the Internet are still fuzzy. Corporate behavior is checked to some extent by consumer opinion, and behavior that really breaks the social code is sometimes met with a profit-shrinking backlash. But when the social code is fuzzy, this mechanism is less of a protection. Facebook bungled its attempt to spy on users’ purchases by going too far too fast. But I suspect if they made a more staged, strategic invasion of privacy, they would have gotten away with it. How did Google get away with reading private email? If a corporation started scanning our paper mail for keywords and tacking ad fliers on the envelopes, people would not stand for it. But now no one seems to mind the Google approach.

The capitalist compulsion is to monetize everything that can be legally (or sometimes illegally) monetized. It looks to me like the social lawlessness of the Internet and ill-formed social views about digital information are openings allowing personal identities to be rapidly monetized. Perhaps a partial solution is for online communities to coalesce around certain principles and defend them, as seemed to work in the Facebook case. If a major online community really drafted the “Internet Rules of Privacy” and got some prominent other communities to sign on, perhaps pledging to boycott companies that don’t follow the rules, that might really change the game.

As much as I’d like to see a landmark piece of legislation that defines ownership of personal information and restricts the collection of personal data, I wonder if the bottom-up approach, a sort of citizen-union, could work faster in the case of the Internet.

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Gov’t Speak

I’m in Washington, DC right now, talking to a lot of EPA staff and other “beltway insiders”. Most everyone I’ve talked to has been thoughtful and interesting and very nice. But I can’t help but notice some linguistic peculiarities, like a proclivity for the word “linkages”, which, like “utilize” is a sort-of-smarter-sounding stand-in for an equivalent, shorter word. I’ve also heard “systemic” as a replacement for systematic, which I guess is shorter, but it’s still irritating.

There are the acronyms, of course. Their use is understandable. You have a lot of multi-word office and program names you use all the time, you start abbreviating. But then you start communicating with a string of capital letters and I have to wonder, is anything really being said? I mean, even if I knew what all the acronyms meant, it seems like you would need some verbs and adjectives. In any case, I thought academics had a hard time accounting for the audience and defining acronyms where appropriate. It turns out we do pretty well compared to some government types who seem to forget they are using lingo at all.

There is also, it seems to me, rampant use of vague language to describe day-to-day activities, like “facilitate”, “connect”, “interface”, “vision”, and “leverage resources”, as in “Our vision is to liaise with many other offices and interface particularly closely with XYZ in order to facilitate collaboration and better leverage our resources.” I’m not sure which of my two theories about this is more disturbing: (1) that most of the time it’s expedient for agency officials to talk about their work in vague, buzzwordy language because, for instance, the lawyers and politicos they usually talk to eat it up, or (2) the majority of time is really spent on phone calls and meetings and other things that are most accurately described as “facilitating” and “liaising”.

I can credit everyone I’ve talked with so far for not resorting to the most cliche business lingo, like extraneously appending “moving forward” (meaning “in the future”) when the verb tense already implies that. No one has even mentioned synergy. But there is a lot of hogwash about strategic plans and long-term visions. If a year from now I start going on about how I’m leveraging resources to facilitate the goals in Administrator So and So’s YYZY plan for XZZ, I hope someone will kick me.

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Game theory and whether to wear a tie

A bunch of us have to give short research presentations tomorrow to help convince our funders to keep giving us money. My officemate Costa and I had the following exchange:

“I don’t know if I should wear a tie. Are you going to wear a tie?”

“I was going to wear one because you said yesterday you were going to wear one.”

“Well I’m going to wear one if you wear one. Game theory, man.”

“Shit, what’s the Nash Equilibrium? I think it’s if we both wear ties.”

There was some general agreement around the room, and that’s where we left it. But because I’m an unreconstructed geek, I started thinking about this later. Is that the right answer? What kind of game is this? I reasoned that the best outcome is for everyone not to wear ties, but by far the worst outcome is to be the only one not wearing a tie (“better to be overdressed than underdressed”). I made a payoff table, simplifying it to two players. It looks something like this, where each box has the outcome for [Player 1, Player 2].

  Player 2 No Tie Player 2 Wears Tie
Player 1 No Tie good, good bad, okay
Player 1 Wears Tie okay, bad less good, less good

It turns out this is a “coordination game”: we’re both better off if we play the same strategy. Like any (2-player) coordination game, there are actually two Nash Equilibria, either of the boxes on the diagonal (top-left, bottom-right). Except I do feel I prefer to play “wear a tie” if I don’t know what Costa is going to do. That way, I avoid the risk of being under-dressed (generally with coordination games, you can rationally play either strategy if you don’t know anything about what the other player is doing. Interestingly, this game fits a special class of coordination games called “Stag Hunts”, where there is a conflict between safety and cooperation. We can cooperate for the best outcome (everybody agree not to wear ties) or we can play it safe and wear the ties, not trusting that everyone else will dress down. So there are generally two types of equilibrium strategies — the payoff-dominated one (lose the tie and take a shot at the best outcome), and the risk-dominant one (wear the tie just in case: forgo the best outcome but avoid the worst one). I guess in the setting of giving a talk, I’m feeling risk-averse.

Apparently the stag hunt can be used as a model for social cooperation and biological cooperation in a lot of settings, like it’s more-famous cousin, the “prisoner’s dilemma”.

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Urbanism revival in Lawrenceville

The kind of thing I like to see: a happy Post-Gazette article on the success of urbanism in a city neighborhood. It profiles the work of Artists and Cities, Inc., a two-woman development firm that has created three multi-unit buildings in Lawrenceville “where artists can afford to live and/or work.” As a super-bonus, their newest building is a LEED-certified green building (I love the intersection of urbanism and green design).

When I was looking to buy a house two years ago, my real estate agent described Lawrenceville as an “up-and-coming neighborhood”. Foundations and neighborhood organizations have worked very hard to seed a revival by supporting an artistic community there and it has worked pretty well.
It also looks like the neighborhood is moving to the gentrification stage. The first two of Artists and Cities’ buildings filled mostly with artist, but the latest, still under construction, is filling with “mostly young professionals, and a few empty-nesters.” It sounds like a blow for folks in the arts community who might see their rents go up, but the “Cheap Slum -> Bohemification -> Gentrification” seems like the best model of urban redevelopment we have so far.

Now when the rate of renovation and construction in the cities outpaces that of the suburbs, we’ll really have something to get excited about.

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Lisbon

[photopress:Lisbon_from_castle.jpg,thumb,floatright] [photopress:park_Lisbon.jpg,thumb,floatleft] [photopress:alley_Lisbon.jpg,thumb,floatleft] There’s a definite contrast going from Norway to Portugal, which, if I may generalize (and really, isn’t reckless generalization the basis of so many R/C posts?), is archetypal of the contrast between north- and south-western Europe. Portugal is more colorful, both literally and figuratively. The lifestyle seems more relaxed, fun-loving, and disorderly. Norway, on the other hand, was clean, rational, comfortable (in the sense of economically well-developed), and determined.

[photopress:subway_seats.jpg,thumb,floatleft] [photopress:courtyard_Lisbon.jpg,thumb,floatright]Lisbon strikes me as an amiable, disheveled city, steeped in history, and not quite holding itself to past standards of grandeur: graffiti is absolutely everywhere, dog feces dot the marble-tile sidewalks, and old, crumbling buildings stand side-by-side with the many crisp, new, multicolored cubist developments. Dinners at restaurants start late and last for hours. Clubs don’t fill up until 3:00am(!). Wine (or, in my case, sangria, for the same price as soda) can be purchased with lunch in the mall food court.

[photopress:bridge_over_moat.jpg,thumb,floatleft] [photopress:cathedral_interior.jpg,thumb,floatright] The conference was fun, especially the meeting and talking with many friendly students from around the world. Our host university and student organizers did an amazing job making us feel welcome with a tour of the city, reception in a castle, and a fabulous dinner at a hip, fancy restaurant overlooking the water.

[photopress:Fado_restaurant.jpg,thumb,floatleft] [photopress:post_Cup_celebration.jpg,thumb,floatright] I managed to see Fado, a traditional local folk music (but lately of interest largely to tourists, I hear), and to witness some of the manic country-wide celebration when Portugal won a game in the World Cup. The streets were a jammed with cars full of honking, hollering, flag-waving revelers for hours after the game. Coming back from dinner, a cab-driver refused our fare because many arterial roads were impassable, so we walked by the throngs of elated soccer fans, and I was happy to have my earplugs. Had I not recently lived through the Steelers winning the Superbowl, it would have been yet more surreal.

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Day one wrap-up, or, “That’s what the butt-pads are for.”

[photopress:seating.jpg,thumb,floatleft] I have to credit Sean with the succinct and insightful titular statement. I observed the Norse predilection for quintessentially-Modern bentwood-and-steel furniture and Sean suggested that’s why they included a fold-up sitting pad in our conference packets. (They also included mittens, an aluminum water bottle, and a rain poncho — go figure.)

I regret how much coffee I drank today to get through all the talks. The plenary sessions were surprisingly bland for a conference with a fairly narrow focus (carbon capture and storage). However, I liked the opening talk where the lead organizer showed a graph of conference-attendees by country (950 conferees from 42 countries) and calculated the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the conference (1000 tons CO2). Considering the emissions, he facetiously(?) suggested that next year’s be web-based.

Fun fact for the day: the earth’s oceans are acting as a giant heat-sink, adding inertia to the climate system. So even if all human-emitted greenhouse gases were suddenly removed from the atmosphere (I’m imagining the spaceship-vacuum-cleaner from Spaceballs), the planet would continue warming another 0.6o C, equal to the warming we’ve so far experienced since pre-industrial times.

[photopress:Archibishops_Palace_interior.jpg,thumb,floatleft] [photopress:marching_troops.jpg,thumb,floatright] I don’t know if an academic conference coming to town is a big deal in Trondheim or what, but the mayor invited us for a reception at the Archbishop’s Palace (“the oldest secular building in Norway”), complete with an old-timey soldier troupe marching about and periodically firing muskets into the air. A city-councilwomen addressed us from on high to sing the praises of Trondheim and its history and encouraged us to see the sights and, perhaps, do some shopping while we’re here.

[photopress:Josh_in_front_of_old_gothic_cathedral.jpg,thumb,floatright] And here’s a picture of me in front of a very old, famous, gothic cathedral. It’s silly, but I guess I should do a picture with me in it once in a while.

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