The Power and Perils of Incrementalism

Start small. When starting something new, it makes sense to cut it down into easily manageable chunks, from anywhere to 5 minutes to an hour, that can be completed with relative ease. It doesn’t matter whether you are trying to build up your exercise capacity, writing computer code, reading a textbook, learning some new skill, or whatever. Everything, in the beginning, benefits from making the task small and fun. Completing it gives you a sense of accomplishment, that you are capable of fulfilling the task that previously you did not think you could do.

And, once started, there’s momentum. In a piece of code, you may start off doing something badly, but it works. Then, you’ll see some small way to improve it. Then, another, and another. Eventually, you get to the point where it looks like you know what you were doing all along, and the task helped you to learn your way there.

But, there is another side of this kind of incrementalism. Invariably, your learn enough that your initial ideas and effort weren’t the best place to start. Or, your goals change. Something tends to happen that makes you want to completely refactor what you have been doing into something new. You’ll want to rewrite the code or essay. You’ll decide, now that you can run, perhaps you should run a marathon, as a challenge.

Partly, incrementalism gets us to the point where we have a skill, and we want to challenge ourselves, to do something bigger than what we could have imagined before we started. This is great, when it happens.

But, another thing sometimes happens too. We get complacent. Rewriting the code is a lot of work, and incrementalism is all about work, but in small size chunks. But, getting yourself in a mental mindset to redo your incremental work is the same as when you start out trying to learn something you didn’t know before. Except, now you have a better understanding of how much work is required, and it will be harder to just want to do incremental changes. You’ll want to do more, because you have the capability to do more. However, this desire also has a tendency to cut into our enthusiasm.

Why refactor the code, when what we have is “good enough” for most of our purposes? The calculus of benefit tends to run this way. Further, the more people are involved, the more inertia will set-in. This is why revolutions always require vanguards because its at the vanguard that the enthusiasm for wholesale change is nurtured in acted upon.

Hal Higdon’s Running Programs

“[Hal Higdon]’s all about the democratization of running,” his daughter, Laura Sandall, said. “He was all about making sure that anyone who wanted to get out and run could have a training program at their fingertips.”

At their fingertips, and at the top of Google search results. His free training plans have remained some of the most frequently used — a rarity in a world where most plans and coaches cater to runners who are willing to shell out hundreds of dollars for personalized schedules.

-Talya Minsberg, “The 90-Year-Old King of Training Plans.” The New York Times: Running Newsletter. July 19, 2021

The Hal Higdon website has a variety of plans for various distances. I simply looked at the base plan for intermediate runners, which as you can see below, is a perfectly sane running program. Bookmarking for future reference.

Federal Vacancies & Senate Dysfunction

“Biden is hardly the first incoming president to struggle with filling key positions. Any new administration faces hundreds of openings at the same time it’s grappling with other urgent challenges. Biden’s pace of nominations is faster than Donald Trump’s, slower than Barack Obama’s and about the same as George W. Bush’s — though unlike any of those three, Biden has decades of Washington contacts to draw on.”

-Tyler Pager, Ann E. Marimow and Laurie McGinley. “Vacancies remain in key Biden administration positions.” The Washington Post. July 10, 2021.
 

It’s interesting that the story The Washington Post ran with is that Biden is not filling positions. But, if you look at this graphic, it’s clear that he’s on track with previous administrations. The real story is why are the numbers of Senate confirmations so low? For Trump, I’d assume they were low because he nominated patently unqualified people more than any other reason. But, for Biden? It points to Senate dysfunction, which The Washington Post mentions as a Democratic talking point, but it doesn’t want to make the point itself.

Also, only one of these guys took office in the middle of a pandemic. You don’t have to like Biden to think this narrative is ridiculous.

Ahead of the Castration Trend

“According to new research, there may be a surprisingly effective way for men to increase their lifespans — but it requires a pretty severe alteration to the physical body that may not appeal to everybody.

An international team led by researchers from the University of Otago in New Zealand were able to show that castration of male sheep delays the aging of DNA, and the same principles could apply to humans as well.

–Victor Tangermann, “Wanna Delay Aging? Get Castrated, Scientists Say
It’s not an ideal solution
..” Futurism. July 7, 2021.

I’ll just point to “Ask Your Doctor: Is Castration Right For You?” published on this very blog on May 25, 2017. Now, we can add sheep to the myriad examples.

African Polyandry

“In polyandry, the woman often initiates the relationships, and invites the husbands to join her union. Some pay the bride price, others opt to contribute to her livelihood. She has the power to remove a co-husband if she believes he is destabilising her other relationships.

Prof Machoko said love was the main reason the men he interviewed said they had agreed to be co-husbands. They did not want to risk losing their wife.

Some men also referred to the fact that they did not satisfy their wives sexually, agreeing to the suggestion of a co-husband to avoid divorce or affairs.

Another reason was infertility – some men consented to the wife taking another husband so that she could have children. In this way, the men ‘saved face’ in public and avoided being stigmatised as ’emasculated’.”

-Pumza Fihlani, “Outcry over South Africa’s multiple husbands proposal.” BBC. June 27, 2021

What’s good for the goose….

The basic idea is this: people should live as seems best to them. If that involves a man and a woman, two men, two women, or multiple men and/or women, who cares? Designate a family union as a contract, and any children born or adopted by parties to that contract are parents. It’s not difficult to implement, and it is clean conceptually. Further, the whole world doesn’t have to live by the ethics of pastoral people from the Middle East from 1500 years or more ago. We can create new family structures beyond the traditional ones, and in the case of polyamory, the fact that more people are involve even creates the possibility of more stable structures where when one person leaves, the union can possibly continue. Obvious.

The Social Obscene

“In certain young people today…I notice what I find increasingly troubling: a cold-blooded grasping, a hunger to take and take and take, but never give; a massive sense of entitlement; an inability to show gratitude; an ease with dishonesty and pretension and selfishness that is couched in the language of self-care; an expectation always to be helped and rewarded no matter whether deserving or not; language that is slick and sleek but with little emotional intelligence; an astonishing level of self-absorption; an unrealistic expectation of puritanism from others; an over-inflated sense of ability, or of talent where there is any at all; an inability to apologize, truly and fully, without justifications; a passionate performance of virtue that is well executed in the public space of Twitter but not in the intimate space of friendship.

I find it obscene.”

-Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “IT IS OBSCENE: A TRUE REFLECTION IN THREE PARTS.” chimamanda.com. June 15, 2021.

I found this discussion of the “controversy” around this essay pretty interesting. Why did she choose to write this? It seems like setting yourself up for a lot of bother. But, I think the central idea that the incentives of social media tends to do something to people’s perspective – removing nuance of thinking, increasing self-centeredness, etc. is valid. How do you mitigate this problem, for yourself and in relationship with others using these platforms?

Silence & Wanting to Be Heard

“Is it necessary that every single person on this planet expresses every single opinion that they have on every single thing that occurs all at the same time?” he asks. “Can anyone, any single one, can anyone shut the fuck up about anything, any single thing? Can any single person shut the fuck up about any single thing for an hour? Is that possible?”

Burnham seems aware of the irony of him not shutting up about anything for an hour and a half, but maybe that’s the point: It’s an impossible request. It’s human nature to want to be heard, and the internet has amplified our voices, sometimes for the better, but often for the worse. Now, it’s up to us to recognize when the world has heard enough. Burnham knows it better than anyone: No one really wants to shut the fuck up.

-Scaachi Koul, “Why Bo Burnham, Jenna Marbles, And Shane Dawson All Logged Off.Buzzfeed. June 16, 2021.

I had never heard of Bo Burnham, Jenna Marbles or Shane Dawson prior to reading this piece of criticism. I read the quote above and it resonated. I guess, for me, I have found a happy medium for this blog in just trying to find one thing interesting a day to point to or talk about. But, there are days, and some weeks, when even that feels like a lot, where I think to myself, perhaps it would be better to post nothing at all and be silent.

But, on the other hand, I also enjoy the discipline. I’ve had at least one idea worth capturing or came across some snippet that is worth preserving as I’ve gone about my life today, haven’t I? Of course, it depends on the time scale too doesn’t it? In the grand scheme of things, nothing we do will be preserved.

As a reference point, think about all the time that Medieval monks spent copying manuscripts. This was certainly a valuable service that preserved writing from antiquity, but where is their work now? If it still exists, it is stored away in a special library or rare books collection, rarely seen by anyone. Even for something digital and assuming infinite storage capacity, what is the value of preservation anything we might say. Who is going to read it?

Or, consider how many people actually spend time reading the works of Shakespeare outside the classroom. Among a small subset of people, I’m sure he is well read. But, for most? He’s a name only. Pick a major piece of literature from antiquity to the present, and it is the same. However, maybe it is like the Japanese idea of tsundoku, of buying books and never reading them. Perhaps the value is simply that they are there as potential, whether they are ever read is besides the point.

But, perhaps, we are just engaged in wishful thinking on that score. Perhaps, the Rule of St. Benedict was right, and it is best to keep in silence.

Email & Tool Choice

Like everyone, I get more email than I really want. Most of it is newsletters. I usually use Thunderbird for email. It incorporates most of my email into one interface. It uses IMAP to pull the information from the email providers’ servers, so I don’t have to use some janky, javascript laden website for email. It also has a calendar integrated in with it using WebDAV, which is nice.

But, when I start getting to around 50 emails in my Inbox, I start getting a little twitchy. It’s too much. I know most people have thousands of emails in their Inbox, I am not them. And, the way I keep from becoming them is my secret weapon, Mutt. For reasons I don’t quite understand, I’ll see an email in Thunderbird and think, “Oh, I might want to read that later.” When I see the same email in Mutt, I’ll want to delete or file it it – and almost everything else too.

The Convivial Society Newsletter in Mutt

As you can see from the above, the newsletter is still readable. But, it adds more work because HTML is not what Mutt is best at displaying. And while I think The Convivial Society is great and would like to read every issue, Mutt asks a simple question: if not now, when? Which means you become much more likely to delete it. It’s also much easier to delete email in Mutt, just hit the D button, and it deletes the email and takes you to the next one. It can take you less than a minute to delete 100 emails.

Reflecting on this fact makes me once again think about how the tools we use influence our behavior. If you are using web email or even a computer application like Thunderbird, their user interface invites you to procrastinate and the emails pile up. Mutt, with its focus on free text, cuts through that dynamic. I’ve also noticed something similar on WordPress, where there is a significant difference in the kinds of posts I write using the WordPress web interface versus the kind of post I’ll write when I’m using emacs and org2blog.

So, moral of the story, be careful about the tools you use, and there may be advantages of using a less feature-rich application than may be apparent at first blush.

Film Review: Cruella

tl;dr: Derivative, thin plot but with inspired acting, visuals and costume design. Not recommended, but there are worse ways to spend 2 hours and 14 minutes.

Generally speaking, I think it is best to offer reviews for things that are excellent or in exceptional circumstances, advice to avoid something terrible. Cruella is neither of these things. It has some really brilliantly executed shots. But, it’s mostly a pastiche, a mishmash of moments that don’t work to tell a fundamentally interesting story. If I had to list the problems with the film, it might look like this:

  • Cruella is another example of Disney recycling old content and preaching “family” values
  • Cruella is a comic book villain, someone who wants to make coats from Dalmatian puppies (in the original)
  • In this version, Dalmatians are like Dobermans or German Shepherds, except for the inconvenient fact that American Animal Hospital Association writes about a study that puts them in the bottom five breeds for bite risk
  • Cruella’s superpower is fashion in the service of narcissism, which is sympathetic because we are comparing her to someone worse and it is more relatable in an era of self-absorbed “influencers”
  • The relationship dynamics in this story are ridiculous, e.g., the Butler.
  • There’s also an underlying theme that genetics are fate and that somehow the real choices she is making aren’t defining who she is more than her parental lineage

And I could go on. Ordinarily, I’d give a film like this one a pass on all of these defects because it is a “popcorn” movie. The whole point of watching it is to enjoy the action sequences. But, man, something about that greasy Disney touch, with the moralizing while constructing a story that makes horrible behavior look sympathetic revokes that free pass.

You might also argue, and you’d have a point, that the fact that it gave rise to this kind of reaction might suggest that it has artistic merit on those grounds alone, a kind of provocateur. Maybe. But, it’s still a pretty mediocre movie.

A China Prediction: A Debt Deleveraging in a Decade

“What happens when torrid monetary and fiscal reflation in the West meets tighter credit and evaporating liquidity in China?

We will find out soon enough who calls the shots for world inflation in a globalised economy dominated by cross-border capital flows. We will also find out whether these two colliding forces moderate each other, or set off the sort of wild ructions in currency, commodity, and bond markets that make hedge funds salivate.”

-Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, “The world’s reflation party may be spoilt by China hitting the brakes.” The Telegraph. May 27, 2021.

There’s an interesting dynamic at play with coverage like the above. What most people miss, because they have attention spans of this quarter or this year, is that China has been doing torrid monetary and fiscal reflation for years, and the attendant moral hazard of having free money guaranteed by the government is starting to show how much systemic risk is hidden from view in China.

If you look at a standard breakdown of debt to GDP, like this one from Trading Economics, China looks to be in a very good position relative to the rest of the world. For China, the ratio is 66.8%, below India’s 69.6%. For the United States, it’s 108%. Now, consider this table from SPGlobal’s March report: Local Government Debt 2021: China’s Dominance Overshadows Borrowing Capacity In Other Emerging Markets.

Notice how much China’s subnational borrowing is compared to India’s? This explains why China’s national borrowing looks so good relative to other “developing” countries. They are, once again, cooking the books.

China has been doing torrid monetary inflation for years, but keeping it off the national books and putting it onto local government debt. And, it has been long understood that local government debt, partnerships and so forth were essentially backed by the national government, which means they are essentially national debt. If those numbers were added to reflect this reality, China’s debt to GDP would be worse than the United States.

So, they’ve reached the point of moral hazard, where they have to decide whether they are going to allow for defaults, bankruptcies and the restructuring of debt. To their credit, they are making some inroads on this front, but articles like the one above are hilarious because it fundamentally misunderstands this central point. China is slowing down because they have been using these policies for decades, whereas Western governments quantitative easing and other measures of pushing liquidity into markets were done in response to the 2008 financial crisis. Like China, Western markets have grown dependent on this influx of cash.

But, obviously, there’s going to be a reckoning, and the funny thing is that reckoning is going to begin in China and then eventually spread to the rest of the world. Whether it will happen in close proximity to the end of the COVID-19 pandemic remains to be seen, but there is definitely a short term correction and a longer term debt cycle deleveraging that are being put off by these policies. At some point, it will no longer be able to be kept at bay. If you want more detail, Ray Dalio’s talk on How The Economic Machine Works is a good point of reference.