Musings on success

Traveling back to my native New Jersey usually casts me into a bit of melancholia, and this trip was no different. I guess it’s cliche, but visiting the place of my boyhood makes me want to mark my actual life against the plans I had for it back then. Unsurprisingly, they’re not very similar.

That caused me to further ponder my working definition of “success,” which, perhaps due to an extended soak in Silicon Valley, involves a lot of career advancement and lots of money (or at least a house with an upstairs), maybe inventing something appreciated by millions. However, I left SV because I wanted to work on energy policy be able to say that when it mattered I did something to measurably reduce climate change. So far at least, so much for any of that.

While doing this pondering, two people I knew while growing up kept persistently popping into mind. Both were Scoutmasters from my Boy Scouting days. David Millison was my Scoutmaster when I started Scouting in Troop 7 in Fairfield, NJ. George Berisso was my Scoutmaster in Troop 9 in Caldwell.

I met Dave when I was a wee one, just starting in Scouting. As he told the story, his initial involvement in Scouting leadership was pure coincidence. The local troop was looking to borrow a canoe and he had one. That somehow snowballed into running Troop 7 for 46 years and influencing the lives of hundreds of boys. Dave was the person who first planted in me the seeds of outdoor adventure. He talked in excited tones about Philmont, the scout ranch in the Sangre De Cristo mountains of New Mexico. One of the most profound things I learned from Dave is that discomfort can simply be set aside when necessary. You might be camping in the rain, your tent and sleeping bag soggy, eating cold oatmeal with no fire to warm you. No matter — you can still enjoy fellowship and adventure in such circumstances. You’ll be home to a hot shower in a day or two, so why not decide to carry on and have fun? I can’t say I always live that way, but I try to. Dave also was the master of situational ethics, encouraging us to carefully consider the ethical implications of the most trivial decisions. Are you going to tell the waiter he forgot to put your soda on the bill? Should you let your friend hold your place in line? I still wonder about some of these questions 30 years later.

Mr. Berisso taught AP Biology in my high school and sponsored our Environmental Protection Club. He also ran the troop I was in when I completed my Eagle. He was a demanding teacher and expected students to think carefully and to be skeptical and analytical. As an adult now, I am not quite certain how he could devote so much energy to his day job (science education) and still have energy left over for his family and extracurriculars like scouting. Mr. Berisso was the Scoutmaster who eventually took me to Philmont. Once, when was 17, I think, and rather advanced in Scouting, I did something that should have gotten me kicked out of Boy Scouts for good. Mr. Berisso did kick me out, but provided a path for me to be reinstated. He turned my stupidity into a character building lesson.

I don’t think either of these men were huge successes by the measures mentioned above. They didn’t have fancy cars or big houses or powerful positions. But they were exceedingly successful in other ways, which I now see are just as important, if not more so. They were well respected and appreciated by their communities and loved by their families. Furthermore, they both made indelible marks on hundreds, maybe thousands of young people. I don’t think anyone who knew either man will ever forget him.

It is very sad that both Dave and Mr. Berisso have passed away. I want to introduce them to my family, and to tell them what profound impacts they had on me as examples of character and service. It angers me that I cannot do this. Nevertheless, remembering them helps me to recalibrate my notion of success. I hope I can one day be half as successful as either of them.

Nostalgia: Airspace Edition. The end of the road for VORs

The FAA is in the process of redesigning the Class B airspace around SFO airport, and it signals an interesting  shift in air navigation: the requirement that everyone in the airspace be able to navigate by means of GPS.

They are undertaking the redesign primarily to make flying around SFO quieter and more fuel efficient. The new shape will allow steeper descents at or near “flight idle” — meaning the planes can just sort of glide in, burning less gas and making less noise. As a side benefit, they will be able to raise the bottom of the airspace in certain places so that it is easier for aircraft not going to SFO to operate underneath.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s all good, but I noticed something interesting about the new and old design. Here’s the old design:

This picture, or one like it, will be familiar to most pilots. It’s a bunch of concentric circles with lines radiating out from it, dividing it into sectored rings. The numbers represent the top and bottom of those sections, in hundreds of feet. This is the classic “inverted wedding cake” of a Class B airspace. In 3D, it looks something like this, but more complicated.

This design was based around the VOR, a radio navigation system, that could tell you what azimuth (radial) you are relative to a fixed station, such as the VOR transmitter on the field at SFO. A second system, usually coupled with a VOR, called DME, allows you to know your distance from the station. Together, you can know your exact position, but because of this “polar coordinate” way of knowing your position, designs intended to be flown by VOR+DME tend to be made of slices and sectors of circles.

The new proposed design does away with this entirely.

Basically, they just drew lines any which way, wherever it made sense. This map is almost un-navigable by VOR and DME. It takes a lot of know twisting and fiddling to establish your exact position if it is not based on an arc or radial. Basically, this map is intended for aircraft with GPS.

All of this is well and good, I guess. GPS has been ubiquitous in every phone, every iPad and every pilot’s flight bag for a long time.

I learned to fly in a transitional era, when GPS existed, but the aircraft mostly had 2 VOR receivers and a DME. My flight instructor would never have let me use a GPS as a mean of primary navigation. Sure, for help, but I needed to be able to steer the plane without it, because the only “legal” navigation system in the plane were the VORs. I still feel a bit guilty when I just punch up “direct to” in my GPS and follow the purple line. It feels like cheating.

But it’s not, I guess. Time marches on. Today, new aircraft all have built-in GPS, but a lot of older ones don’t. And if they’re going to fly under the SFO Class B airspace, they’re going to need to use one of those iPads to know where they are relative to those airspace boundaries. And strictly, speaking, they probably should get panel-mounted GPS as well.



Nixon was right


When the president does it, that means that it’s not illegal.

Like most Americans, I’m familiar with this infamous quote, from a Nixon interview with David Frost in 1977. I always considered it an example of the maniacal hubris of Richard Nixon.

The thing is, I’ve come to understand that, at least from an functional standpoint, it is basically true.

What happens if the president breaks the law? Well, he might use his executive powers to direct law enforcement not to pursue it. But if he didn’t, presumably, he could be brought up on charges and a court could find him guilty. If it were a federal crime, he could just pardon himself, but if not, I guess he could even go to jail.

But, can he lose the presidency over a crime?

It seems, not directly. As far as I can tell — and I hope legal types will educate me — the Constitution contains precisely two ways to get rid of a president:

  • an election
  • impeachment

Both of these are obviously political processes. There’s certainly nothing there saying that if you commit a crime of type “X”, you’re out.

Conventional wisdom expects that if the president does something even moderately unsavory, political pressure will force the House of Representatives to impeach him. I would have taken comfort in that up until a few months ago, but now … not so much.

Today’s House of Representatives is highly polarized, and the party in power (by a ratio of 240 / 193) is poised to make great strides towards realizing its long-held agenda. Would they let a little unlawful presidential activity get in the way of that? I don’t think so.

What if their own constituents don’t care about a president breaking some laws that they think are pointless or unjust? Let’s say Trump’s tax returns show up on Wikileaks, and forensic accountants come up with evidence of tax fraud. Are we sure voters will not see that as a mark of genius?

Congress will move to impeach if and when the pressure from that activity gets in the way of their agenda, and not before. That time could, in theory, never come.

I’m afraid that people holding their breath for an impeachment based on the emoluments clause may pass out waiting.

Donald Trump once said this:

Also, probably one of DT’s more truthful statements. (Though my legal team informs me that murder is not a federal crime, so he would not be able to self-pardon.)


The end of computing as a hobby?

I grew up with computers. We got our first machine, an Atari 800, when I was only 8 or 9. An 8-bitter with hardware sprites. 48 KiB of memory, and a cassette tape trive, this was only one step removed from the Atari 2600 game console. Very nearly useless, this was a machine for enthusiasts and hobbyists.

Over time, computers became less useless, as well as more “user-friendly,” but they — particularly the PC style machines — kept the doors open to hobbyists and tinkerers.

The Bad News

I think, however, that that era has come to an end, and I’m saddened. I see three basic trends that have killed it.

The first is that the network-connected world is dangerous. You can’t just fire up any old executable you find on the Internet in order to see what it does. It might do something Awful.

The second is that the closed ecosystem app stores of the world, aiming for a super smooth experience, have raised the quality bar for participation — particularly for “polish.” You simply cannot publish ugly, but highly functional software today.

The third problem is that you can’t make interesting software today without interacting with several systems in the cloud. Your app, hosted on a server, talks to a database, another app, and a half dozen other APIs: a link shortener, a video encoder, etc. And these APIs change constantly. There is no commitment to backward compatibility — something that was an iron-clad requirement of the PC era.

Trend one is a painful fact of life. Trend two could be reversed if the manufacturers had any incentive to do so. They do not. Trend three, I think is the worse, because it is wholly unnecessary. Say what you want about the “Wintel duopoly,” but they did not punish developers like modern companies do.

Together, these things pretty much lock out the casual developer. I’ve learned this the hard way as I try to push forward in my free time with a few open-source apps in a post PC world. It is one thing for a paid programmer to maintain a piece of software and deal, however grudgingly, with every email that comes from Google telling you that you need to update your code, again. But the hobbyist who wrote something cool for his friends, that worked for six months and then broke, is kind of stuck. Does he want to run a zero-revenue company that “supports” his app in perpetuity?

This makes me sad, because I wonder what we’re missing. As many of your know, I have gotten into ham radio. There’s a lot of cool ham-authored software out there. It’s ugly. It’s clunky. But some of it does amazing things, like implement modems that forward-error-correct a message and then put it into a ridiculously narrow signal that can reach around the world. Today, that software still runs on Windows, usually coded against the old Win32 or even Win16 libraries. It gets passed around in zip files and people run unsigned executables without installers. It’s the last hacky platform standing, but not for long.

The Good News

Of course, if the PC, Mac, i-device, and household gadget becomes more and more locked off, there is an exciting antidote: Arduino, Raspberry Pi, Beaglebone, and the entire maker world. People are building cool stuff. It’s cheap, it’s fun, and the barriers to entry, though intellectually a bit higher than the “PC” are pretty damn low. Furthermore, the ecosystems around these products are refreshingly chaotic and more than slightly anti-corporate.

One of the nice things about this platforms is that they are self-contained and so pose little threat to data other than what you put on them. On the other hand, they are full-fledged computer and are as exploitable as any other.

If you make something cool that runs on a Raspberry Pi, there’s still pretty little chance every kid at school will soon have it and run it, but then again, maybe there never was.


Voices, ideas, and power

So, a day or so ago I was discussing the problems facing a democracy when a group of people, previously able to control outcomes with their vote, lose power. They may, not getting what they want democratically, turn to undemocratic approaches — the dangerous last gasp of a majority group becoming a minority.

Apparently, it turns out that that is not a problem we will have to deal with soon.

But it is with some irony that, tables turned, am today thinking about the limits of democracy. That was not on my mind yesterday morning.

Clearly, I need to come to grip with the fact that I and many of my friends were not hearing a lot of voices, or if we heard them, we dismissed them as uninformed, ignorant, and potentially irrelevant in the grander scheme of things. That is wrong for at least two reasons. First, duh, you end up losing. Each voice comes with a vote attached. But also, it just isn’t OK to dismiss people, even “bad” people. My main weapon against the Trump phenomenon of the last year was utter derision. That made me feel better (and I’m not giving it up) but it didn’t help stop him, and who knows, maybe it even helped fuel the response we saw last night?

If voices cannot and should not be ignored or somehow put on the sidelines, I don’t think the same goes for ideas. Ideas can vary from the brilliant to the disastrous, and we desperately need some way to sort them and then to make them stay where they belong. I’m not talking about censorship. Again, that’s focusing on voices. I’m talking about finding a way to make sure bad ideas are clearly, obviously so to everyone.

This has been a problem since the beginning of time, and it is clear that we are not very close to solving it. Back in olden days we had a system like this:

good idea bad idea
king likes happens, yay happens, disaster
king dislikes does not happen, opportunity lost nothing happens, ok

This turns out not to be fantastic system for decision-making, so we switched over to this:

good idea bad idea
people like happens, yay happens, disaster
people dislike does not happen, opportunity lost nothing happens, ok

This is much better, as people should generally like things that are good, or at least the people who have to deal with the consequences are the same ones making the decision. But if you believe that idea popularity and idea quality are not strongly correlated, it still leaves a lot to be desired.

Well, idea popularity and idea quality are not particularly well correlated. This is something that the Framers would have taken as prima facie obvious. The technology of the day would not have allowed for direct democracy, but they would not have wanted it anyway. They discussed this at length and put plenty of checks into the system to make sure runaway bad ideas do not gain power. Most of the time, in fact, I tend to think they put in too many checks. (That I suddenly feel different today says what?)

Well, my theory is that we relied on extra-governmental institutions: newspapers, intellectuals, clergy, to help pre-sort ideas. The most hideous ideas were put in the trash heap long before they became birdies whispering in candidates ears. I grew up in a world where it appeared that elites had pretty good power over ideas. They could not kill them, of course, but they could push them out of certain spaces, and that was good enough to keep them out of the mainstream and the ballot box.

That’s over. Unless the intellectually motivated, the curious, the skeptical, the open-minded, the thoughtful, the trained, the expert, the conservative, somehow reassert power over ideas, things are going to get worse.

How do we do it?

Cultural variation in phalangeal deployment in the service conveying antipathy

I have a lot of thoughts about politics these days, but so does everybody else, right? So I will not write about politics.

Instead, I want to write about “the finger.” I’ve been giving the finger as long as I can remember. I probably learned it from my brother or sister, though, its use was heavily reinforced in social settings — at least those not policed by grown-ups.

I don’t give the finger very much these days, but I still enjoy seeing a good display. I noticed, recently, though, that there seems to be a lot of variation in how people give the finger, and I’ve become curious about it.

The gesture I learned, which I’ll call the “basic” finger requires that the middle finger be extended fully, and all the others be curled down as much as possible. This includes the thumb. It looks like these:




However, for a long time, I’ve been aware of an alternative interpretation of this gesture, which I will call the “John Hughes.” In this variation, the other fingers are not held down, but merely curled at the knuckles — sometimes only very slightly. The thumb may even be extended. In film, the person giving this gesture often wears fingerless gloves.

Here are some examples:




I actually find performing this variation rather difficult, as I cannot seem to get my middle finger to extend fully while the others are only bent. However, for my wife and many others, this is the default form — she does not associate it with the Chicago suburbs at all.

So, I ask you, my loyal readers, what’s going on? What drives this variation?

Some theories:

  • geography (soda / pop / coke)
  • class-based
  • disdain vs. anger


Does one skew more Republican and the other more Dem?

Are there more types out there? I realize that if you widen the scope internationally, there are many more variations, including the “V” and the thumb, but I’m mostly curious about the intra-US variation.

On the morality of tax avoidance

People were pretty unhappy when Donald Trump claimed that not paying taxes “makes him smart.” Similarly, nobody was impressed when Mitt Romney claimed that he “paid all the taxes I am required to, not a dollar more.”

What these folks do is legal. It’s called tax avoidance, and the more money you have, the harder you and your accountants will work, and the better at it you’ll be. There is an entire industry built around tax avoidance.


Though I want to disapprove of these people, it does occur to me that most of us do not willingly pay taxes that we are not required to pay. It’s not like I skip out on deducting my charitable giving or my mortgage interest, or using the deductions for my kids. I’m legally allowed those deductions and I use them.

So what is wrong with what Trump and Romney do?

One answer is “nothing.” I think that’s not quite the right answer, but it’s close. Yes, just because something is legal does not mean that it’s moral. But where do you draw the line here? Is it based on how clever your accountants had to be to work the system? Or how crazy the hoops you jumped through were to hide your money? I’m not comfortable with fuzzy definitions like that at all.

What is probably immoral, is for a rich person to try to influence the tax system to give himself more favorable treatment. But then again, how do you draw a bright line? Rich people often want lower taxes and (presumably) accept that that buys less government stuff and/or believe that they should not have to transfer their wealth to others. That might be a position that I don’t agree with, but the case for immorality there is a bit more complex, and reasonable people can debate it.

On the other hand, lobbying for a tax system with loopholes that benefit them, and creating a system of such complexity that only the wealthiest can navigate it, thus putting the tax burden onto other taxpayers, taxpayers with less money, is pretty obviously immoral. Well, if not immoral, definitely nasty.


Trump: the disease

After last night’s embarrassing Clinton vs. Trump matchup, I’m once again feeling glum and confused. It caused me to reflect on a dichotomy that I was exposed to in high school: that of “great man” vs. circumstance. I think I believe mostly in circumstance, and maybe even a stronger version of that theory than is commonly proposed.

In my theory, Trump is not an agent with free will, but more akin to a virus: a blob of RNA with a protein coat, evolved to do one thing, without any sense of what it is doing. He is a speck floating in the universe, a mechanically fulfilling its destiny. A simulation running in an orrery of sufficient complexity could predict his coming.

This is his story:

Somewhere, through a combination of natural selection and genetic mutation, a strange child is born into a perfectly suited environment, ample resources and protection for his growth into a successful, powerful monster. Had he been born in another place or time, he might have been abandoned on an ice floe when his nature was discovered, or perhaps killed in early combat with another sociopath. But he prospered. With a certain combination of brashness and utter disregard for anything like humility, substance, or character, it was natural that he would be put on magazine covers, and eventually, television, where, because of television’s intrinsic nature, itself the product of a long, peculiar evolution, he killed, growing yet more powerful.

Later, perhaps prompted by something he saw on a billboard or perhaps due to a random cosmic ray triggering a particular neuron to fire, our virus started talking about politics. By chance, his “ideas” plugged into certain receptors, present in the most ancient, reptilian parts of our brains. Furthermore, society’s immune system, weakened through repeated recent attacks from similar viruses, was wholly unprepared for this potent new disease vector. Our virus, true to form, exploited in-built weaknesses to direct the media and make it work for its own benefit, potentially instructing the media to destroy itself and maybe taking the entire host — our world — in the process.

In the end, what will be left? A dead corpse of a functioning society, teeming with millions of new viruses, ready to infect any remnants or new seedlings of a vital society.

And the universe will keep turning, indifferent.

The end. 

Your search for “history” did not return any results.

I often think about how to preserve data. This is mostly driven by my photography habit. My pictures are not fantastic, but they mean a lot to me, and I suspect, but am by no means certain, that they will mean something to my children and grandchildren. I certainly would love to know what the lives of my own grandparents were like, to see them in stages of life parallel to my own. But I don’t know how to make sure my kids and their kids will be able to see these photos.

A box of old pictures
A box of old pictures

This is a super difficult problem. The physical media that the images are stored on (hard drives, flash cards, etc) degrade and will fail over time, and even if they don’t, the equipment to read that media will become scarce. Furthermore, the format of the data may become undecipherable over time as well. I have high confidence that it will be possible to read jpegs in the year 2056, but when you get into some more esoteric formats, I dunno.

A commonly  proffered solution is to upload your data to a cloud service for backup. I have strong reservations about this as a method for long-term preservation. Those cloud backups are only good as long as the businesses that run them have some reason to continue to do so. Subscriptions, user accounts, and advertising driven revenue seem a poor match for permanent archival storage of anything. Who, long after I’m dead, is going to receive the email that says “your account will be closed if you do not update your credit card in 30 days”? Also, what good is a backup of data I can no longer view on my now-current quantum holographic AI companion?

All of this compares quite unfavorably with a common archival technique used for informal, family information: the shoe box. Photographs stored in a shoe box are susceptible to destruction by fire or flood, but they are fantastically resilient to general benign neglect over exceedingly long periods of time. Sure, the colors will fade if the box is left in a barn for 50 years, but, upon discovery, anyone can recognize the images using the mark-I human eyeball. (Furthermore, it’s really astounding how easy it is to use a computer to restore natural color to faded images.)

There is simply no analog to the shoe box full of negatives in today’s world. Sure, you can throw some flash memory cards into such a box, but you still have the readout problems mentioned above.

As people migrate from their first digital camera to their last digital camera to iPhoneN to iPhoneN+1, lots of images have already been lost. Because of the very short history of digital photography, you can’t even blame that loss on technological change. It’s more about plain old poor stewardship. But just to amplify my point above: the shoe box is quite tolerant of poor stewardship.

*   *   *

Okay, so, this post was not even going to be about the archival problems of families. That is, in aggregate, a large potential loss, made up of hundreds of millions of comparatively smaller losses.

The reason I decided to write today was because I saw this blog post about this article, in which it was described how the on-line archives for a major metropolitan newspaper — going back more than 200 years, are in risk of disappearing from the digital universe.

Here we have a situation in which institutions that are committed to preserving history, with (shrinking) staffs of professional librarians and archivists are failing to preserve history for future generations. In this case, the microfiche archives of the print version of the paper are safe, but the digitally accessible versions are not. The reason: you can’t just put them in a shoe box (or digital library). Someone most host them, and that someone needs to get paid. Forever.

Going forward, more and more of our history is going to happen only in the digital world. Facebook, Twitter, Hillary Clinton’s (or anyone other politician’s) email. There’s not going to be a microfilm version at the local university library. Who is going to store it? Who will access it and how?

A few years ago, it looked like companies like Google were going to — pro bono — solve this problem for us. They were ready, willing, and seemingly able to host all the data and make is available. But now things are getting in the way. Copyright is one. The demand from investors to monetize is another. It used to be thought that you could not monetize yesterday’s paper — today’s paper is tomorrow’s fish-wrap, but more wily content owners realize that if they don’t know the value of an asset, they can’t give it away for free. Even Google, which, I think, hands somewhat tied, is still committed to this sort of project, probably cannot be trusted with the permanent storage of our collective history. Will they be around in 50, 100 years? Will they migrate all their data forever? Will they get bought and sold a dozen times to owners who are not as committed to their original mission to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful?” Will the actual owners of the information that Google is trying to index try to monetize it into perpetuity?

I think we know the answers. Right now, it all looks pretty grim to me.





I think one of the rites of your mid-40s is assessing what you have accomplished relative to what your young self thought you were going to accomplish — and feeling blue about it.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my interchangeability. That is, the notion that in the vast majority of my own endeavors in life, I have been basically an interchangeable part in a larger system. This is in spite of being a pretty clever engineer, pretty good policy analyst, or even Really Smart Guy. I can’t really point to any professional situation where someone else, similarly trained and skilled, would not have performed the job more or less as I did. Or perhaps it’s just the nature of employment in our world that even if my particular combination of traits is uncommon, most jobs only require only a couple of them.

I’m not saying that we are not each unique, special snowflakes, but that in the vast majority of situations, that uniqueness just isn’t operational. Which is kind of a rough realization. It’s probably best for young folks to avoid realizing this as long as they can.

Of course, there are aspects of life in which even the least accomplished of us is not interchangeable. Obviously, the personal aspects come to mind. My spouse and kids would probably be nonplussed to wake up one day to find me replaced with someone who was “a lot like me.” Though maybe in a week, year, or decade they’d mostly get over it.

Some people transcend interchangeability. Artists and musicians create unique things that nobody else could possible have created. Sometimes scientists discover things that would otherwise have gone undiscovered for a long time. These are things whose profound singularness are easily recognizable, whether or not you know the creator herself. That’s pretty amazing if you think about it. Can anyone do this or is it just for rare talents?

Maybe, part of the secret to a happy second half of life is the acceptance of interchangeability. So what if I’m not leaving a unique mark on the world? Maybe it’s lifts a huge burden to accept that it’s more than enough that your family and friends love you (I have received reliable assurances that mine do) and that has nothing to do with your worldly accomplishments. Or, is that prematurely throwing in the towel on the world?

Or, maybe interchangeability — an assessment of value of self as perceived by the outside world —  is a wholly inappropriate way to consider one’s own life. An alternative approach might be to totally disregard what the world “thinks” and just “be” whatever works for me. The world probably isn’t even real, anyway? Because of my non-liberal arts background, I wasn’t exposed to much philosophy in my education, but in high school I had a teacher who was really big into the existentialists. Didn’t really resonate for me then, but it’s starting to much more these days.