Falling out of love with Silicon Valley

I came to Silicon Valley in the mid 1990’s. Reflecting back on that time directly out of college, I remember that I thought computer chips were exciting and that the best companies designing and manufacturing them were making huge money. Of course, I had been fascinated with computers since I was little, as had many of my coworkers.

Anyway, computer chips seemed really cool back then. They looked cool. They were made in cool manufacturing environments. The tools to design them were cool. And the chips were getting better and faster all the time. Honestly, it just seemed like fun and I wanted in.

In those years, I distinctly remember social events where I would try to express my excitement about semiconductors and folks would just politely back away from me, the crazy nerd.

Today,  Silicon Valley is still cool. In fact, it’s way cooler and more widely cool. People are making even more money, more people are involved, and the products they’re churning out are used by more people and in more numerous ways. And, the only reason you can’t talk about your work at parties today is because everyone is so tired of it.

But, SV today leaves me cold.

What has changed is cool itself. I liked nerd-cool, but this is mainstream capitalist cool. Banker cool. “Kids” in hoodies cool. Ignore the rules cool.

The people being drawn to Silicon Valley today, like me, are also coming because it’s exciting, but what excites them is not the same as what excited me. For awhile I thought this was a software vs. hardware thing. (It is, but not entirely — requires a separate post for sure.)

I see two basic factors for my loss of affection for SV:

  1. Today’s hot companies generally deploy tech rather than make it. The exceptions seem to be when they have to develop something for operational purposes, and when they do they seem to keep their innovations close. Poster child for this might be Google, which had to invent a lot of its infrastructure, though a Google starting fresh today would probably have much less to do. Anyway, not creating things you don’t absolutely have to create is probably smart, but can we admit that it’s also boring?
  2. The business models make me uncomfortable. Making a thing (or software, or a service) and selling it in a two-party, pareto-improving transaction is very passé. In fact, if your plan is to make and sell hardware OR software, your prospects for raising money are limited. Instead, advertising and market-making are hot.


When I was a young man, choosing my major in college, there were large, successful advertising businesses and large, successful market makers. But I would never have spent a femtosecond considering working for either.

Today, advertisers (Google, Facebook, etc) and market-makers (Uber, Airbnb, etc) dominate Silicon Valley. They’re great companies, I guess, but I have to wonder why so many engineers are thrilled to join them. Steve Jobs once famously recruited John Sculley by asking him if he wanted to sell sugar water for the rest of his career, or if he wanted to change the world. Well, it seems that sugar water (or perhaps, sugar water once removed) may have actually won in the end. (Interestingly, Apple continues to mostly avoid this model.)

I still love tech. Maybe the tech nerds will regroup somewhere and stage a comeback. Probably not going to happen in SV, though.

Wedding != Marriage

I don’t know how this study (not paywalled — yay!) about the impact of expensive weddings on the lifespan of marriages missed my attention. This sort of thing is catnip for me.

What they find is that the more you spend on your wedding, the more likely your marriage is to end in divorce. Spending on an engagement ring is even worse. They claim spending $5,000 instead of $500 on a ring increases the risk of divorce 30%. Interestingly, a bigger wedding seems to be good for longevity of the marriage.

This kind of “drive-by” study, which was conducted using Mechanical Turk, a social science fad these days, always feels a bit dicey to me, even if it confirms my priors. The immediate problems that come to mind are that they can’t separate out the kind of person who would want a fancy wedding or to buy/receive an expensive ring, from the act of putting on such a wedding or getting such a ring. (Note: a follow-up study where they give couples randomly, $5000 cash or a $5000 engagement ring is in order.) They do control for income, but I dunno, even that seems half-hearted. People pay for weddings lots of ways: from borrowing, from savings, from mom and dad. I suspect that matters.

Finally, getting a bit normative here, can we just agree that engagement rings themselves are actually a really, really bad idea? It’s a holdover from another time. Are men and women equals? If so, let’s get rid of this tradition in which a man demonstrates his earning power by buying an utterly useless gift. If anything, engagements rings should be exchanged. My spouse let me off the hook on this one, and I’m glad for it, both because we could put the money to better use and because she understood that receiving a fancy ring would be incompatible with her principles. Also, she seems not into diamonds. Love that woman.

BTTF futurism

Futurists take note:

  • improvements in the ability to move matter were overestimated
  • improvements in the ability to process information were underestimated

This is the trap into which the writers of Back to the Future II fell; it’s what most futurists do.

Other rookie mistakes:

  • expected improvements human behavior and ethics
  • expected improvements in human governance
  • expected massive reversion in the above two items


The demand curve for octane

There should not be one.

The New York Times reports that when the price of gas drops people, in addition to buying more gas, also buy more premium gas.

Please, please do not do this.

It’s plain dumb.

A car engine needs a minimum octane rating to run smoothly. If the octane of the gas is too low for the level of compression in the engine, it may pre-detonate, ie, knock. The odds are high that your car was designed to run on 87. Anything higher will do nothing but empty your wallet.

That’s it. Adding premium is not going to make your car run any better, now or ever. (Unless it was designed for premium, in which case you own a sports car and your judgment is probably pretty bad to start.)


Zero Net ${bad_thing}

James Bushnell has a nice little piece on why economists do not get super enthused about “zero net energy” or whatever we’re zeroing today.

I tend to agree with him, but as usual with my interactions with economists, I’m a bit more angled to think of policy in a political context.

Yes, mathematically and logically, if you want to manage carbon or whatever, it is always better (or strictly speaking, never worse) to optimize over a larger system than a smaller system. That is, it is better to have a zero-net-energy neighborhood than a neighborhood of zero-net-energy homes, and it is better to have a zero-net-energy country than a bunch of zero-net-energy states.

But one needs to account of human behavior.

  1. All politics is local. You can affect smaller things and you can see the effect of smaller things. This does not work for climate change, but … that’s what’s so hard about climate change.
  2. Bushnell points out that “zero promotes a fiction of self-sufficiency,” but I think he actually has it exactly backwards. People, Americans in particular, have a love affair with the fiction of self-sufficiency and that can be used to sell anything, including net-zero policies.

The end of the beginning of data privacy?

I don’t really understand exactly what is afoot in the EU regarding data privacy, or if it is the right thing. But I’m pretty sure I’m happy they’re taking a crack at it and hope the results work out well for end users.

I do believe that the Silicon Valley approach of “click to accept our terms, take it or leave it, and we can change the terms at any time,” deserves to die. Most human beings (some would say all) are not lawyers, and are not in a position to be weigh the infinite-term implications of their first tweet or FB post. Moreover, as most of us are not futurists (and even the best futurists are terrible at it) nobody can understand the ways their data may be used against them in future, as yet never imagined scenarios. Yes, rules will slow down SV innovation, particularly when the rules are in flux. It may well be worth it.

What worries me more is that rules will eventually benefit the largest companies like Google and Facebook, which can easily build whatever infrastructure is necessary to comply, whereas upstarts may have a hard time. There is ample evidence that regulation has a funny way of ultimately benefiting incumbents, even if they complain the most when it is first suggested.




I do not want this blog to be overtly political, but I’m already bending my rule. I have to post this.

I recommend everyone take a gander at this floor speech that Ted Cruz made last week.

Policy aims aside, this speech is from an unhinged person. An unhinged sitting US Senator, that is. My better half suggested that this is just rhetoric to fire up his constituents. But it is more, as it outlines the real strategy his caucus persues.

His caucus’s simple reality is they lack the votes to enact their agenda. So, democracy aside, he’ll just take the whole country hostage, for its long-term benefit, presumably.

I dunno. I find it stunning and extremely un-conservative.

For better or worse, the US has a two-party political system. It won’t work if a faction of one of the parties wants to play global thermonuclear war every time they don’t get their way.

Reading, writing, and refactoring?

I saw today that Ramm Emanuel thinks every high schooler in Chicago should learn to code. The folks on Slashdot think it’s a really bad idea.

I’m with Ramm. The point of teaching all young people to code is not to create an army of coders. In fact, I think the world would probably be better off with an Army of Darkness than a bunch of people with one high school class in programming writing software.

But that’s not the point. (Well, maybe it is Ramm’s point.) I would say that most people don’t use trigonometry much, nor do most people write term papers in their daily lives. But those things are worth being exposed to. They teach you how to think abstractly and how to organize ideas for consumption by someone else. Moreover, even if math is hard for you, you hopefully learned that it’s not mysterious or magical. Same goes for writing.

And so it should be with computers. People should feel that they understand them at some basic level, that they know what programming is, and is not. It will help them make better choices in life about computers and software. And those choices come fast and furious these days.

A new blog

Creating a new vanity blog in the year 2015 is more than a little absurd. Yet, these days, I admit, I’m more drawn to quixotic enterprises than ever. As a result, this exists.

My goal is not to turn this into a place to vent political opinions or screeds, but as a calm place to discuss the absurdities of our world with old and new friends. I hope you’ll join in, and together we’ll keep each other a bit more sane than we might otherwise.

The Thoreau quote above relates (I think) to the tendency of us to get caught up in the things, institutions, rules, gadgets, websites, jobs, etc, that are suppose to make our lives better, but which end up sucking up our lives rather than freeing them. The quote also relates to my desire to create a forum that does not exist merely to deliver my friends to advertisers.

Don’t expect much thematic consistency here, except perhaps that most topics will be about the things that fly by all the time that only make sense if you don’t think about them very much. Also, if I can convince a certain co-blogger to engage, there will be #zoning.

Best regards,