Pathways of Success

You’re obviously a very capable, smart person: would the Aella story would have landed in the same spot if you had a different start in life? If you hadn’t worked in a factory say, or if your family had been different? Would you be a Y Combinator founder right now instead? Nothing against the current line of work, but I often ask myself the counterfactual of where I’d be if matters were otherwise.

It’s unlikely. Part of the reason I’ve been so successful is that I accidentally ended up in something smart, young women don’t end up in, which is sex work. Most people with some level of competence end up in college, and I didn’t for various reasons. That put me already into a minority….you mentioned earlier that you yourself stand at the desolate intersection of a Venn diagram of two different worlds. That has propelled me at a greater level of success than would have otherwise happened.

I really tried to go to college. Because I was very much stuck in the standard this is what success looks like. I had very, very small world view of what was possible for me. And when I didn’t get to go to college, I cried. I was really sad: “well I guess minimum wage jobs are forever.” That’s what my world was.

I think sex work really helped broaden that; it taught me kind of by accident that you can have success in life through very different ways. If you take risks, if you do the thing that other people don’t typically do, but you do it very seriously and you do it very well, then that in itself earns some sort of respect or validation or the skills translate to other things. And I would never have been able to predict that beforehand.”

-Antonio Garcia Martinez, “Wherein I pay Aella for sex, and we just chat instead*ThePullRequest.com. January 18, 2022

That last paragraph is on point. It’s one thing to be the best. It’s another thing to be the only. And the path to both can be helpfully thought of as a manifestation of the Helsinki Bus Station Theory.

Looking & Acting Bad

““Do you want material that looks bad before it acts bad, like shingles or clapboard, or one that acts bad long before it looks bad, like vinyl siding? A whole philosophy of maintenance falls one way or the other with the answer.”

-Stewart Brand, “How Buildings Learn.”

True of maintenance, true of life.

In 1997, the BBC aired a three-hour documentary based on Stewart Brand’s book, How Buildings Learn. Brand has posted the whole program on YouTube in six 30-minute parts: part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six. Below, it says it is unavailable, that is just the first one if you aren’t in the right country, copyright-wise. You can either switch your country using a VPN to the United Kingdom or start with part two.

h/t The Prepared and kottke.

Losing My Religion

“Nowadays the market for religion is in flux, perhaps more than ever. On the demand side, churches in the Western world are suffering from the global secularisation that began long before the pandemic. Even in America, the most patent example of a rich country that has thrived alongside religion (some say because of it), the share of citizens identifying as Christian has been dropping, from 82% in 2000 to less than 75% in 2020 (see chart 1). According to the latest poll by the World Values Survey, a global network whose secretariat is in Austria, about 30% of Americans say they attend a religious service at least once a week. That is a lot compared with other rich countries. But the figure has fallen steadily from 45% at the turn of the millennium.”

-“The world’s religions face a post-pandemic reckoning.” The Economist. January 8, 2022.

If you can’t find a way to be relevant during a pandemic, perhaps you aren’t relevant?

PSA: Tics, lol

There has been plenty of discussion of verbal tics: such as standpoint modifiers, fillers, endpoint modifiers, softeners, up talk, fast talk and vocal fry. The funny thing about that kind of discussion is that it normally assumes the speaker is not aware of what they are doing and/or it reflects the speaker’s internal emotional state.

But, I have some of these problems. Sometimes, I’ll use a “softener” because the person I am talking to doesn’t like conflict. The reality is sometimes you do these things out of consideration for others, not unconsciouslessly or because of personal anxiety, insecurity or whatever.

However, I recently noticed someone that uses “lol” after every sentence in an online forum. I’ve known a few people that do that, and I’m sure you do too. It’s generally a very clear sign that there is no point interacting with that person beyond a surface level, and there isn’t much interesting they are going to say. Perhaps that is unfair, but it seems true. It’s the first writing tic that I have noticed. Now, I want to start discovering others.

The United States, Incorporated

“I propose we do so by creating two positions within the executive branch that operate in tension with each other. The first would be the chief operating officer, charged with managing the administrative agencies. The second would be the chief auditor, charged with leading a watchdog agency that monitors the administrative state for effectiveness and abuses of authority. Both the president and Congress would oversee the balance of power between the two positions…

…With a COO in charge of managing government agencies, the roles of Congress and the president would adjust accordingly. Congress would act more like a board of directors with respect to the agencies, and the president would act more like a board chairman. The COO would assume the responsibility of presenting a plan and budget to Congress for approval, while the president would have the authority to hire and fire the COO at will. In a spirit of conservative incrementalism, we could first apply the COO model to one functional domain, such as domestic infrastructure, before extending it to the others.

The second new position — the chief auditor (CA) — would lead a powerful audit agency that provides independent evaluations of agency performance. One might think of this agency as a bulked-up version of the existing Government Accountability Office.”

-Arnold Kling, “Designing a Better Regulatory State.” National Affairs. Winter 2022.

What could possibly go wrong?

Let’s abstract out most of the power of the President and Cabinet into one unelected position and give them a free hand to reorganize the government as they see fit. Further, let’s abstract out the oversight function on Congress to a single auditor. The President turns into a figurehead. Congress can pass bills, but it has no power to determine whether those bills are being implemented according to their intent.

Presumably, to extend the metaphor, citizens would become the equivalent of stockholders, but they never have the opportunity to sell their stock and buy another. They have the power to elect the board, who can pass legislation, but who are not accountable for the results. What happens when the federal government starts doing something people don’t like? They can vote someone in that will appoint another COO? Without any input on who this person is? They can elect someone who will pass different bills? What exactly will the President and Congress do?

If it made sense to run government in this way, wouldn’t these kinds of qualities already be important for running for President or being appointed to the cabinet? I’d imagine positions like Deputy Secretary are filled with people with years of experience in the federal agency they are part of. Would it make sense to replace these people with other people with broad “industry” experience?

Is the organization of government the same as organization of corporations? Is it even the same skill set?

Some obvious problems. What happens when the COO and Auditor positions collude? What happens if the COO position is so powerful a President is unable to fire her? For example, it’s a billionaire that paid to get the President elected and act as a figurehead and now the billionaire plans to run the country?

The least of your problems is the government gaming the auditor’s metrics. But, it’s also not an insignificant problem.

There are so many reasons the argument provided in this article is bad. As bad as “democracy” or “representative democracy” is, the hot mess of it is surely better than this idea.

Energy Production, Cryptocurrencies & Hidden Agendas

How many times have you read something like this, “Bitcoin uses as much electricity as Malaysia or Sweden or Denmark or Chile….”. What a bore. Have you ever wondered, however, why the comparison is to countries? Why don’t they ever tell you what would seem to be a more natural comparison which is how much “Bitcoin” spends on electricity?

The reason is that electricity is incredibly cheap so Bitcoin electricity expenditures priced in dollars don’t look very large. Bitcoin uses something like 100 terawatt hours (TWH) of electricity annually (depending on the price of Bitcoin) but a TWH costs less than $100 million (10 cents per KWH times 1000000000). Thus, Bitcoin spends say $10 billion on electricity annually. (In fact, it’s less than this since bitcoin miners can be located in places where electricity prices are especially cheap.)

$10 billion in spending isn’t a lot. It’s less than the world spends on toothpaste ($30b), much less than the US spends on cigarettes ($80b), and considerably less than the US Federal government spends in one day ($18.65 billion).”

Alex Tabarrok. “Bitcoin and Electricity.” Marginal Revolution. November 29, 2021

One argument, one that you see everywhere in popular media, is that cryptocurrencies use a lot of electricity, and it’s not a productive use of resources. Rarely, you’ll see apple-to-apple comparisons, such as this response to trying to make a comparison to the electricity use of the VISA network, which is a strange comparison considering all the payment terminals, ATMs, bank mainframes, and many other things are treated as externalities.

“While no one can argue that Bitcoin (and other altcoins) mining consumes a lot of electricity (in absolute numbers) given that you need to run a network of few hundreds or thousands of very powerful computers all the time, the right way to look at this problem is not about the total consumption but to compare how efficient is Bitcoin relative to the alternative traditional centralized systems that we are predominantly using today and that one day crypto might replace.

However, the only comparison that seems to always pop up everywhere is against VISA transaction costs which was included in the article that trigger the above tweet and in other articles as well. As expected, VISA looks way more efficient which adds to the rhetoric that Bitcoin is a very inefficient system and it is just a Ponzi scheme that is polluting the world. In my view, this comparison is flawed and it is not comparing apples to apples. Besides the fact that Bitcoin is not simply a piece of a payment network like VISA but a full currency system, VISA itself requires the banking system for its payment system to work so you need to actually include some of those costs there to make a meaningful comparison. So let’s look first at how VISA works…

…”According to the article that trigger this discussion, Bitcoin annual Twh consumption is 28.67 , so currently more than 3 times more efficient than a very conservative calculation of the cost of the global banking system. Of course you will argue that the banking systems does more than handling a currency which is true but the difference is large enough that I do not think is that relevant. Even if only 30% of banks electricity consumption was the comparable part to Bitcoin, that will still make Bitcoin more efficient.”

-Carlos Domingo, “The Bitcoin vs Visa Electricity Consumption Fallacy.Hackernoon. November 29, 2021

And, the simple fact is that it is very difficult to price in externalities to determine the real price of any energy production.

“All energy production has environmental and societal effects. But calculating them — and pricing energy accordingly — is no easy task.”

-Erica Gies, “The real cost of energy.” Nature. November 29, 2017.

And, this is true when assessing energy use as well. It’s difficult to measure the benefits of energy expenditure. What is the value of street lights relative to the energy and infrastructure required to have them on? This is true of practically everything. What is the true cost and benefit of international shipping and transportation? Of the cement poured for a playground? The establishment of a new church or temple? You could continue this line of questioning down any avenue you like, and the answer is it is impossible to make this kind of calculation beyond the costs and perceived benefits.

Enter cryptocurrencies. The problem with the arguments against cryptocurrencies is that they generally take this form.

1. If an activity provides no benefit and uses resources, it is a wasteful activity.
2. People should not do wasteful activities.
3. Mining Bitcoin provides no benefit and uses resources.
C. People should not mine Bitcoin.

This is the extreme argument. The less extreme argument makes some kind of comparison between the benefit relative to use of resources. But, as we know from the above it is difficult to take into consideration the externalities involved. On the face of it, the argument that mining cryptocurrencies have no benefit is belied by the fact that every day billions of dollars worth of transactions are conducted using cryptocurrencies. None of that has any value? How do we evaluate the benefit relative to resource use or other ways this energy might be used? But, we really cannot make that kind of comparison. What is the relative value of Bitcoin mining versus the amount of power used in casinos on an annual basis? Online gaming? How does one make those kinds of comparisons? Is it even right to make them?

The reality is people don’t even try to make that sophisticated of an argument. Instead, it is something simplistic like: Bitcoin uses as much electricity as a country, the implication is that people would otherwise use this electricity, or the electricity they do use would be less expensive.

We also don’t make these kinds of calculations for other activities. The reason there’s the difference hinges on a value judgment that the activity, same as the implicit argument above mentioning casinos implies they have no value. But, even casinos have plausible arguments supporting their value.

The interesting thing, for me, in looking at these arguments closely is ho political arguments. The reason that the environmental argument is used is because it can plug into concerns that people have about climate change, and short circuit a reasonable assessment of the claims being made.

Same is true of claims that cryptocurrencies are used only for crime. Criminals may be an innovator in the space, but it isn’t only good for crime, just as it is not true that VHS and internet streaming is only good for porn. Porn pioneered the technology, but it didn’t stop with porn. YouTube isn’t porn.

There’s also a deeper agenda. It’s a simple fact that the more money that makes its way into cryptocurrencies, the less money that will be available to buy stocks, bonds, U.S. Treasury instruments, and so forth. Less money in traditional financial vehicles means lower prices for them.

The Bitcoin “debate”, if we can call it that, really helped me to understand how much of our dialogue is shaped using concepts from our political orthodoxies. A claim like, Bitcoin mining hurts the environment, is an emotional appeal, not a reasoned argument. The anti-Bitcoin argument is above, and it is problematic both because it has benefits and it is difficult to assess the costs and benefits without engaging in motivated reasoning.

Another point worth making here is that it wasn’t until this year that cryptocurrencies emerged that created a marketplace of cryptocurrencies, where they will compete. Network efficiency and cost will be one dimension of this competition, and it will drive both electricity use down and provide for many more benefits. And, where something like Bitcoin’s energy-intensive proof-of-work algorithm is used, it will be because it provides a capability that isn’t available in other approaches that justifies the cost.

When all of that happens, what will be the new reasons people will be against cryptocurrencies? It’ll be the need for regulation, to provide customer guarantees, or something else. But, the one thing that I am certain of is that there will be other reasons, other agendas that these kinds of arguments will be serving to obscure. And, this is how everything is, there’s always another or series of issues hiding behind the one that’s used as justification.

cafebedouin.org: 2021 Year in Review

Top 10 Most Viewed in 2021

Posts That Deserve More Visibility

Reviewing the posts I wrote this year, I’m pretty happy with a lot of what I’ve written. I think the post Write: More Frequently, Less Long is a good thing to keep in mind for the coming year. I posted about the same as last year, 408 rather than 418 in 2019. However, the word count for the year went up to 89,691 from 58,705. It may be better to be briefer.

In the main, you can probably expect more of the same in the coming year.

bash: Last Day, The People Who Lived As Many Days as You

Definitions

  • bash: This is the command line, where you can run relatively simple scripted programs, available on all three major computing platforms.
  • SPARQL: On the Internet, there are repositories of information. Some of these repositories are in a format called RDF, or Resource Description Framework. Users of these repositories typically need a subset of the information contained in them. In order to get the desired information, they need a way to query these repositories in a structured way to get the information they want. SPARQL is that querying language.
  • Wikidata is an RDF repository. It is hosted by the same organization as Wikipedia, but it is subject to different rules. I do not think Notability and some of the cultural problems of Wikipedia extend to Wikidata. I’d be happy to hear if anyone is aware of problems in the dataset, since this is one of the few times I’ve worked with it.

Inspiration

Most mornings, my wife and I read The New York Times The Morning Briefing. Typically, this will include an obituary of a celebrity. If the person is less than 80 years old, my wife will say something like, “They died young.” She thinks everyone should live to be a hundred years of age.

I tend to think more relativistically. Someone died young, if they were younger than me. It got me thinking, “Is it possible to write a script to find out who lived exactly the same number of days I have lived today?”

It turns out to be fairly easy to do using bash, a SPARQL query link and Wikidata.

bash script

#!/bin/bash
# variables
BIRTHDAY=$(date -d '2000-01-01' +%s) # enter birthday in YYYY-MM-DD format
TODAYS_DATE=$(date +%s)
DAYS_ALIVE=$(((TODAYS_DATE - BIRTHDAY) / 86400)) # converts seconds to days

# Test output
# echo "birthday: ${BIRTHDAY} | today's date: ${TODAYS_DATE} | days_alive: ${DAYS_ALIVE}"

#url for sparql query of wikidata can be obtained: https://query.wikidata.org/, click link to it below
firefox 'https://query.wikidata.org/embed.html#SELECT%20DISTINCT%20%3Fperson%20%3FpersonLabel%20%3FpersonDescription%20WHERE%20%7B%0A%20%20SERVICE%20wikibase%3Alabel%20%7B%20bd%3AserviceParam%20wikibase%3Alanguage%20%22%5BAUTO_LANGUAGE%5D%22.%20%7D%0A%20%20%7B%0A%20%20%20%20SELECT%20DISTINCT%20%3Fperson%20%3FpersonLabel%20%3FpersonDescription%20%7B%0A%20%20%20%20%20%20%3Fperson%20wdt%3AP31%20wd%3AQ5%3B%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%0A%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20wdt%3AP569%20%3Fborn%3B%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%0A%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20wdt%3AP570%20%3Fdied%3B%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%0A%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20wdt%3AP27%20wd%3AQ30%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%0A%20%20%20%20%20%20BIND(%3Fdied%20-%20%3Fborn%20AS%20%3FageInDays).%20%0A%20%20%20%20%20%20FILTER(%3FageInDays%20%3D%20'"$DAYS_ALIVE"').%20%20%0A%20%20%20%20%7D%0A%20%20%20%20LIMIT%2025%0A%20%20%7D%0A%7D%0A'

bash script output

SPARQL query

You can input the following into the Wikidata SPARQL query interface and change the perimeters. Specifically, the bash variable $DAYS_ALIVE needs to be changed to an integer to work in the query interface, e.g., FILTER(?ageInDays = 11000). You can also do ranges using multiplication, e.g., FILTER(?ageInDays < (31*365) && ?ageInDays > (30*365)), if you want people between the ages of 30 to 31.

SELECT DISTINCT ?person ?personLabel ?personDescription WHERE {
  SERVICE wikibase:label { bd:serviceParam wikibase:language "[AUTO_LANGUAGE]". }
  {
    SELECT DISTINCT ?person ?personLabel ?personDescription {
      ?person wdt:P31 wd:Q5;             # any person
              wdt:P569 ?born;            # that has a birth date
              wdt:P570 ?died;            # and a death date
              wdt:P27 wd:Q30             # that was a citizen of the United States
      BIND(?died - ?born AS ?ageInDays). # calculate days they lived
      FILTER(?ageInDays = $DAYS_ALIVE).  # match the number of days to your current number of days alive
    }
    LIMIT 25
  }
}

Why I Avoid Wikipedia

“This page in a nutshell: Wikipedia articles cover notable topics—those that have gained sufficiently significant attention by the world at large and over a period of time, and are not outside the scope of Wikipedia. We consider evidence from reliable and independent sources to gauge this attention. The notability guideline does not determine the content of articles, but only whether the topic should have its own article.”

-Wikipedia. “Notability.” Last modified December 19, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Notability

If you cannot find what you are looking for on Wikipedia, chances are it’s because of the notability requirement. Basically, this amounts to saying that if a topic isn’t covered by the popular press, given the academic treatment, and so forth, it isn’t noteworthy. It’s a bias against anything new or against anything that doesn’t fit into a small subset of “independent” sources. Don’t fit the narrow range of what some editor considers notable? Wikipedia doesn’t need to have a page for it.

You can call it anything you want, but an arbitrary definition of importance is as much censorship as if you redacted the text. It’s actually worse, since an article excluded due to lack of notability on Wikipedia excludes all the subsequent edits that could have occurred, a cascading censorship. Collective editing is what makes Wikipedia content worthwhile.

I recently had the opportunity to interact a bit with the bureaucracy of Wikipedia regarding why the Ergo cryptocurrency did not have an article. Plenty of blockchains have articles, but they all have market capitalizations greater than a billion dollars and are discussed in traditional media. Who decides who is listed as notable, and who does that benefit?

Further, the culture of Wikipedia, the sheer bureaucracy and the defensiveness of the whole apparatus has to be experienced to be believed. I’ve done some minor editing of Wikipedia in the past. I used to think of it as contributing to the commons. But, I now see that view is naïve. It is no longer true, if it ever was.

Moving forward, I’m not going to use Wikipedia, if I can avoid it. I’m not going to edit it. I’m not going to support it financially. If I must use it, I’ll try to keep it in the forefront of my mind that it has a bias that is largely invisible, like the air we breathe. Best to avoid it.