Category Archives: Hey Kid! Get Off My Lawn!

The Test

I read somewhere that the greek playwright Sophocles was upset that during competitions for plays, the women were flashing their breasts, thereby influencing the judges.

I don’t know if that’s true or not, but as much as things change, most things remain the same.

Reading graffiti from ancient Pompeii online, I was reminded of this. “I defected here” was a popular thing to write, along with advice about securing sexual congress from various ladies about town.

We know for a fact that the Greeks and Romans both felt like previous generations were slack. Seems like no matter how far back you go you’ll find somebody saying “Dang kids today! Get off my lawn!”

Several times in this blog I’ve hit the thesis that today is different than those other times. I feel like the nature of the changes today begin to change in a fundamental way what it means to be human.

Looking at the IP laws the United States is prepared to pass, the re-enactment of the Patriot Act, Google indexing the universe, and the way companies are closely watching everything we do, I can’t help but feel like our relationship to government and our relationship to our fellow man is vastly different now than it was even 20 years ago.

Perhaps I’m just another in a long line of “Dang kids!” guys. Dunno. I haven’t even gotten into Ray Kurzweil and his belief that the idea of being human is changing. Or the anecdotal observations that youth are more and more afraid of making vocal phone calls or having in-person meetings with strangers.

When the philosophers talked about Freedom, Virtue, or the Social Contract, they were talking in a period where, in order for things to happen, you physically had to do stuff. Want to foment a rebellion? You had to go to the rebellion meeting. Want to change the government? You had to go vote. Want to change society? You had to physically go and be persuasive. Want to make money as an artist? You had to go and physically perform somewhere. Want to investigate a citizen to see if they might be committing a crime? You had to physically go out and watch them, dig through their trash, or talk to a judge.

Those days of physicality are drawing to a close. Those old things that required physical action and presence don’t work that way any more. It remains to be seen if we are able to take the old principles and apply them to the new world, or if we’re so wrapped up in governmental architectural cruft that we’re in for a dark, soulless future of being a mechanical drone in an overpowering state and commercial tyranny. You might think I exaggerate. I certainly hope so.

It’s like the previous 2500 years has been a period of reflection and study for mankind. What is the best society to have to advance the species? We’ve somehow muddled through with various solutions, but now we’re being presented with entirely new facts on the ground. Can we pivot?

We’ve been studying. Now comes the test. Good luck to us.

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Tragic Death of Bubbles in the Ghetto

Last month I was so interested in the idea of death clocks I rewrote the “Startup Death Clock” idea and put it on a page on hn-books.com. I love the idea of a startup death clock, because, as we know from reading headlines, everything is dying.

It is the death of Microsoft. The death of Apple. The death of Palm. The death of Richard Dawkins. The death of Bing. The death of the Relational Database. The death of the printed book. The death of the web. The death of the PC. The death of the telephone. The death of IE. The death of the web. RSS is dying, and you should be worried.

There was so much death in tech headlines that finally some wag asked “Is everything dying?”

The Startup Death Clock idea was a good candidate for a rewrite, because Startup Death Clocks are a ghetto, along with lots of other stuff you might not suspect.

Rails is a ghetto. Shared hosting is a ghetto. Healthcare Informatics is a ghetto. Website design is a ghetto. Facebook is a ghetto. The business section of a news paper is a ghetto. Python is a ghetto. And today, PHP is [was] a ghetto.

As for the ghetto itself? Obviously dying. What else could it be doing?

When folks keep investing more and more energy and effort into these title cliches with less and less return? That’s a bubble. We are obviously in a dying ghetto title bubble. We hardly ever mention bubbles either.

It’s a tech bubble. A higher education bubble. An app bubble. A Hong Kong real estate bubble. A PhD bubble. A Web 2.0 bubble. An online advertising bubble. A gold bubble. A China bubble. A civilization bubble. A bond bubble. And finally, a bubble in people calling bubbles.

Even if bubbles are a ghetto, bubbles, dammit, are in no fear of dying, The news from the ghetto of the death of bubbles has been greatly exaggerated.

Please, Mr. Headline Writer-Guy — pretty please — find something else besides ghettos, bubbles, and dying to write about. They’re overused. Give them a rest.

kthanksbye

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I’m done here

I’ve been an observer of politics and people for the last thirty years or so.

Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve been interested in how groups of people get together, make decisions, and make progress. What structures work better than others? How is it that some small number of people effectively control much larger groups? How do groups change their mind from one position to another?

It’s all very fascinating to me, whether its politics or technology. Five person technology teams work drastically different than 50-person technology teams. Something very interesting happens in that initial growth phase.

It’s been a good run. Looking at how people develop relationships among each other has helped me become a decent project team leader and eventually a strategic technology consultant. It’s also helped me sharpen my libertarian leanings. What is the state entitled to? What do the people need in order for the state to work?

I haven’t come up with any super-insights, but I have decided that you can tell the health of any system of people by the ease in which it can completely change course. If it can change too quickly, the mob rules and individuals are trampled. If it changes too slowly, it stagnates and there is a general feeling of malaise. The system fizzles and collapses on itself.

I believe these observations to be true both in technology teams and in governments – in fact anywhere there are people coming together.

Over the last decade, I’ve watched several very interesting developments at the macro scale. First of all, I think its clear that national parties are giving way to world-wide parties. People are sharing their prejudices forming collective opinions regardless of locality. As promised, it’s becoming a global village. Pretty neat.

I’ve also seen vast sections of the internet turn into echo chambers. Instead of the internet providing challenges to the way we live and think, it seems to be validating whatever we already believe and keeping us from reality. Internet consumption seems to be equal parts self-reassurance and digital narcotic. My facebook page and blog and tweets mean that I am an important person. My games tell me I am a level 60 Druid. I am important. I am special. I am powerful. I am correct. I have insight that others do not have. Why change?

Not so neat.

It disturbs me to come to the conclusion that our system of governing in the west has become so broken as to be a danger to myself and other law-abiding citizens.

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Good and Evil in the Garden of Hackerdom

I was reading today about some technology reporter-editor who is mad at another technology reporter-editor and it occurred to me how many hours I’ve wasted spending time watching pointless drama on the internet.

No, I do not care if the latest iPad has a video camera. No, I do not want to know what sorts of personnel shakeups are occurring at Microsoft. And no, I am not at all concerned about how venture capitalists choose to waste their money and time.

I understand that some folks do care. Perhaps you have to pitch some of these VCs. Perhaps you are interviewing for a job at Microsoft. Perhaps your business model heavily depends on video being available in portable formats.

But I suspect not. I suspect that articles like this attract internet readers because it gives them something to sit around on their fat assess and pontificate about. Apple getting a new CTO? Well you know, this guy was heavily invested in company X, and company X is highly regarded among this community.

WTF? Come on, guys. If done anywhere else about any other topic this would be called out plain and simple for what it is: idle gossip. It’s the technology version of painting the bike shed: somebody can have some sort of drama anywhere in the world that involves technology, and suddenly we’re all speculating on motives, emotions, and impact. Bickering with each other over semantics and versions of history.

Don’t get me wrong. I think a lot of such communication is good — it helps us form and maintain a community. But it’s critically important to recognize what these topics are: social candy. A little bit is fine now and then, but it’s very easy to do too much.

I just got an email from a person who is also doing some fine work around hackers. He has a monthly newsletter with all sort of good advice. He’d asked to include an article of mine, and I was more than happy. In his follow-up, then he asked if I had a chance to read the latest issue.

Well gee, I do not like being so blunt, but no, I have not decided to consume yet more material of a randomly technically tangentially interesting nature. I’m sure its a great publication, and I’m sure with my technical bent I would love reading it, but I’m really trying to be a bit more useful in my life.

And I think that’s the insidious nature of the problem. It’s very enjoyable to read about some legal battle involving two big corporations which we have attachments to, or hear about some programmer somewhere who made a million dollars attaching lasers to flying turtles, but it’s probably not a good use of our time. When we consume these things, it’s like we’re stuck in neutral, just ambling around without direction. That’s a fine way to be every now and then, but — like I said — it’s very easy to do too much of it.

This gets back to my application of Kant’s Categorical Imperative to technology: don’t put a constraint on a user unless you are willing to put that same constraint on every user who seeks a similar goal. It’s very likely you don’t need a login service for your web-app (unless there are some monetary or privacy reasons, of course). You don’t need to email or text me when your service upgrades. You don’t need to pop up in the corner of my window just to tell me that you’re still running.

These are all things that as programmers we have done at various times, and I think they are all evil to a certain degree. They take millions away — if only for a few seconds — from whatever they were doing before. And for no good reason. Daniel’s rule of big numbers: anything times a big number? It’s also a big number.

I just wrote this blog article. It took you ten minutes to read it. If there are six thousand of you, and your time is worth 40 dollars an hour on average, I just “consumed” forty-thousand dollars of worth in the world. Now it’s up to me to make sure I provide this value back in my content. And that’s assuming that you can immediately switch back to whatever you were doing after you finish reading this, which studies have shown is highly unlikely.

More of us should be doing these calculations.

The same goes for Technology Drama — stories that provide emotional impact, that consume large portions of our energies, with little or no return for us directly (except for advertising revenues for those who provide the drama)

It’s evil. Perhaps not evil in the way we’ve grown up understanding, but evil nonetheless.

After 9-11 I was on a political board and we were talking about the nature of evil. “Well,” one commenter said, “what is evil, anyway? It’s all so vague. I don’t think it has a definition.”

To which I replied, “Evil is somebody who wants to come over to my country and kill me — to take away my life”

Of course that gets into whether or not there is a universal definition of evil, but lets not go there.

That definition of evil was true then, and it’s true now. Evil is people creating material that is purposely designed to take away my life — if only a very small part of it — for somebody else’s benefit. Killing one person is a horrible tragedy. Aside from your religious or moral feelings, the world lost the benefit that one life could have provided. Playing out your drama about some fanboy topic for fifty-thousand people that consumed several hours discussing it? From the world’s standpoint, same amount of harm done, perhaps more.

Searching was the killer app of the 1990s and 2000s. Filtering is going to be the killer app of the 2020s and 2030s. Either that or we’re all screwed.

We hackers and programmers are a lot more involved in the world or good and evil than we’d like to admit. Or that we’re comfortable discussing.

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The Hell with Happiness

Sometimes you just feel one of those old-cranky-guy-posts coming on.

Over the past few months, I’ve spent a bit of time reading and thinking about happiness. I’ve read a couple of books, one of which was “How Pleasure Works“. I’ve read a couple of WSJ articles, and participated in a couple of discussions on various boards.

Plus I’m a happy guy! Except for today, when I’m a bit cranky.

For anybody who has studied the subject, happiness is about experiences, social interaction, and expanding your horizons. It’s not about possessions or status — although we seem to keep thinking it is.

What’s bugging me is the increasing number of people who seem to chase happiness just for the purpose of being happy. And that’s crap.

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Logic Lunch Counter

This post goes out to all of you logic junkies.

You know who you are: you’re the ones with the list of fallacious argument types on a little index card beside your monitor. Heck, you might even have a web site dedicated to “clear thinking” or something like that. You’re the people who make the first post under an article and allege “Ad Homimem!” or “Appeal to Authority” and then spend the rest of the day having people call you names.

It’s gotten so prevalent that sometimes when I’m on a busy internet site I feel like I’m at a lunch counter where people are yelling out orders: “#15: Gambler’s Fallacy!” or “#7: Red Herring!” or “#23: Affirming the Consequent!”

Boy do I feel your pain.

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Facebook Morals

Ever since I wrote the article comparing technology to heroin, I’ve been been thinking about mind and body-altering things and how morals, standards, and mores build up around them to contain the damage and maximize the benefits to society. As we get more and more integrated with technology, I’m waiting for some new standards to emerge about what is acceptable or not — I think this is a vital next step to maintain some kind of vigor in the species.

Since nobody else is doing anything else along these lines that I can see, I thought I’d create a few standards or morals for myself. A “standard” is just a better way of doing things: standards change over time. A “moral” is something that I personally do not do because I find it harms myself or others. You create standards and you discover morals. I apply the simple rule of discovering morals by asking “If I made this moral a universal law, would more people be helped than harmed by it?”

So let’s get with it.

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Commercials I Hate

Smiling Bob
If I ever meet this guy, I’m going to punch him right in the nose

I just spent the last week at the beach, and my kids love TV. They like getting out and doing stuff, but the minute they come back the TV comes on. It’s like they are incapable of self-directed enjoyment.

I wonder if other people notice this in their kids too?

While we’re on the subject of TV, I’m really getting annoyed at these commercials I see everywhere. It seems like everything is fair game and there’s no common decency. Call me a prude, but I would think that commercials should be viewable by kids. But we’re getting disgusting, intimate, crass, and ugly stuff shoved at us during almost every commercial break no matter what the time or what the underlying show. It’s enough to swear off broadcast television completely.

Here are several commercials that I would like to shoot with a bazooka:

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