Friday, November 13, 2015

Reacting To Terrorist Attacks 

There have been numerous terrorist attacks in Paris today. I, of course, condemn these acts, feel sorry for the victims and their friends and families, and hope that any individuals and organizations that are responsible and/or plotting further attacks are disrupted and prevented from doing any more damage.

That said, I thought I'd repost a comment I just made on facebook:

I agree that it's a really bad thing[...]. But, I wish people would try to maintain perspective. Lots more people die in traffic accidents than from terrorists. But, the world doesn't stop and pray for everybody on the road every day.
I understand that we're wired to care a lot more when there's an intentional harm than an accidental one; but we can also use our analytical minds, rather than instinctive emotions, and remember how, relatively, small a problem it is, and how unlikely it is to affect the average person. I'm afraid that these things often lead to stupid over-reactions and bad policies that make us much worse off. And, international attention encourages more people to commit these acts. So, even if you do have an over sized concern about terrorism, you should *still* hope for a restrained reaction.
I don't expect human behavior to change immediately, but maybe we can nudge it a bit towards progress.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

By The People 

I just finished reading Charles Murray's By the People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission.

I enjoyed it a lot.

Even if you don't accept Murray's proposal (that massive civil-disobediance in the form of defense funds to challenge and compensate for violations of egregious regulations is the best way to undo the worst aspects of the runaway regulatory state), you'll still learn a lot about the legal and political history that led us here, and the scope of the challenges.

I'm not sure I agree entirely with Murray, either, but he makes a good case and provides a lot of great information and explanations along the way.

People who are interested in the topic should definitely check out this work.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Testing Windows 10 

I just upgraded my desktop PC to Windows 10.

This is a test of my ability to post using my weird java-based blogging client.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Hooray Sunset 

Tonight some (a small percentage) of the USA Patriot Act was allowed to expire, including the infamous Section 215 which was used (apparently illegally) by the NSA for legal authority for the bulk collection of all telephone metadata of Americans.

This was an outrage, and I'm at least happy about the symbolism of it expiring, and grateful to Rand Paul for his efforts to make that happen.

I had been under the impression that the alternative USA Freedom Act was not a good compromise act (very little actual reform, and further entrenching some of the problematic aspects of the Patriot Act) and I was happy that it didn't pass unamended by the Senate tonight either (it had already passed the House).

But, Julian Sanchez, who is pretty much the expert on all of this, thinks that it probably would have been better if it had passed than what we're likely to get otherwise.

I'm hoping that there will be enough popular support for the privacy of innocent citizens, and enough people watching and caring about that and able to resist the cries that respecting the Fourth Amendment makes us unsafe, that what will happen next will be better than the original USA Freedom Act, and that we'll get actual reform.

It's hard to say, but I'll let myself be happy about the current "victory" and hopeful that the momentum will lead to further encouraging results.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

I'm With the Band 

This week I started wearing a Microsoft Band.

I was on a three-person team at work that participated in a health challenge (each of us not gaining weight from before Thanksgiving through Super Bowl Sunday) and won a drawing for Bands for each member.

I had been wearing a fitbit Flex since last June (a Father's Day present) and was surprised by how much seeing the data accumulate helped to motivate me to continue walking regularly and keeping up my daily step count. Another thing that I didn't expect to find so useful was the Silent Alarms that the fitbit supported. It's nice to be able to be awakened without interrupting my wife's sleep. The Band has this too, but only one alarm, and no recurrence. On the other hand, I can set the Band's alarm directly on it, but the fitbit required using the website.

Now, I've stopped wearing the fitbit and am wearing the Band.

One obvious advantage over the Flex is that the time is displayed (newer fitbits have this too), even when not actively using the Band; I missed wearing my watch and have never grown used to taking out my phone to see the time.

Other advantages are the heart rate monitor, workouts, guided workouts, sleep analysis, and the integration with the phone (seeing notifications, text messages, phone callers, calendar events, etc.).

My phone integration is a bit kludgy since I'm using an Amazon Fire Phone which has an OS that is a fork of Android 4.2, required side-loading Google Play in order to load the Microsoft Health app, and the Band expects at least Android 4.3 to use its services correctly (for example, I'm not seeing the social tiles or the weather in the right city...).

Getting the Band has motivated me to switch to a Windows Phone soon (I'm waiting for the Lumia 640 to be released) so that I can take full advantage of the Band (especially using Cortana), and later will upgrade from Windows Phone 8.1 to 10 without having to get yet another phone. I'm sure Microsoft hopes this will be a popular choice.

Again, I was surprised by how much my behavior is affected by tracking activity, especially when the trends are viewable in a nice display like on the Microsoft Health dashboard. If I hadn't experienced it myself, I'd probably be scoffing at people purchasing smart watches to track these things.

I guess this the age of the Quantified Self. We'll see where it goes from here.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Super Bowl XLIX 

Well, the Super Bowl is on tomorrow and I'm looking forward to watching it.

I live in the greater Seattle area, so most people would expect me to root for the Seahawks.

Those people don't know me very well.

I think most people root for teams for poor reasons. It's usually because they follow the lead of those around them and support the home (or, nearest to home) team. Often, one's team is chosen by an accident of early interest, and then confirmation bias reinforces support for that team and dislike for their rivals. I'm probably a Steelers fan for that kind of reason.

As for rooting for the home team... I think my dislike of crowds (mobs) uniting in their support for anything leads me to instinctively be inclined to root against the home town team. But, I'm also not a great fan of the Patriots (although I do have a lot of respect for their efforts and success), so I have no great reason to support them to beat the Seahawks.

And, living in Seattle, I'm sure that the people I see on Monday will be much happier if the Seahawks win than if the Patriots win, and I'd prefer to be around happy people than sad people (unless they're happy for a very bad reason).

But, upon introspection, I think I'm hoping that the Patriots win. Part of it is the non-conformism, and part of it is that I think I have more respect for them than I do for the Seahawks (although this could easily be caused by accidents of what I happen to know about each team).

What I'm really hoping for is a much better game than the one we had last year.

UPDATE (2/1/15): I got my wish. It was a great game.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014


I just finished reading Glenn Greenwald's book No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State. I really enjoyed (and was infuriated by) it. I was interested in the intrigue of the story of how Edward Snowden contacted Greenwald (and Laura Poitras) and delivered the material about the secret NSA programs of mass surveillance. But, even more than this, I appreciated Greenwald's comments about privacy and the proper role of the press.

I wasn't sure I would comment on it, until I saw this article about Judge Richard Posner's comments about privacy and NSA data collection at a conference about privacy and cybercrime. From the article:

“I think privacy is actually overvalued,” Judge Richard Posner, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, said during a conference about privacy and cybercrime in Washington, D.C., Thursday.
“Much of what passes for the name of privacy is really just trying to conceal the disreputable parts of your conduct,” Posner added. “Privacy is mainly about trying to improve your social and business opportunities by concealing the sorts of bad activities that would cause other people not to want to deal with you.”
Congress should limit the NSA’s use of the data it collects—for example, not giving information about minor crimes to law enforcement agencies—but it shouldn’t limit what information the NSA sweeps up and searches, Posner said. “If the NSA wants to vacuum all the trillions of bits of information that are crawling through the electronic worldwide networks, I think that’s fine,” he said.
In the name of national security, U.S. lawmakers should give the NSA “carte blanche,” Posner added. “Privacy interests should really have very little weight when you’re talking about national security,” he said. “The world is in an extremely turbulent state—very dangerous.”
Posner criticized mobile OS companies for enabling end-to-end encryption in their newest software. “I’m shocked at the thought that a company would be permitted to manufacture an electronic product that the government would not be able to search,” he said
This is awful stuff. I have a lot of respect for Posner's contributions to Law and Economics, and I enjoyed many of his contributions to the Becker-Posner blog (until Gary Becker's recent death). But, Posner's complete deference to the state (at least, when they do things in the name of national security) and dismissal of the importance of privacy is very disappointing.

Especially right after reading the Greenwald book. Greenwald has a great chapter called "The Harm of Surveillance" that everybody should read (especially Posner, it seems). There's too much to quote (Read the book!), but one pair of sentences that really hit home for me was this:

"We all instinctively understand that the private realm is where we can act, think, speak, write, experiment, and choose how to be, away from the judgmental eyes of others. Privacy is a core condition of being a free person."
This is very true, both individually and in groups. We really do need to feel like we can have privacy in order to explore ideas and activities, alone or with others, without being observed by those we don't want to share the experiences with.

Not because we're trying to get away with bad things, but because we're figuring things out; and that process is often inhibited by observation.

Perhaps this isn't true for everybody. But it's true for me. And, I supect it's true for the vast majority of people.

If you don't like to talk about "rights" to privacy, then at least consider the possiblity that a world where people can have privacy and private conversations (even if this occasionally facilitates crimes) is a better one than an alternative world where they can't.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Adam Smith Is Still Relevant 

Many people are familiar with Adam Smith from his "The Wealth of Nations" book (actually it's: An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations) published in 1776 that basically gave birth to the field of economics (and contains the famous "Invisible Hand" quotation).

But, many fewer are familiar with his other classic work: The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). I have it on my Kindle, and started to read it a few times, but I never got very far as it was more work than I was willing to do (the language is a bit dated and the sentences are long...).

Fortunately for all of us, Russ Roberts (host of the marvelous EconTalk podcast) has written a modern look at The Theory of Moral Sentiments with his latest: How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness. Roberts has done the heavy lifting for us and brought the work up to date with modern examples, reorganization, and elaborating on some of the key passages and ideas.

I can't give a satisfactory summary in a short blog post, so I really encourage you to check out the book yourself if it has any interest to you. Just to give you an idea of the areas covered, here are some of the chapter titles:

What struck me was just how similar human nature was in Smith's day to what it is in ours and how easy it was to recognize the relevance of the insights that Smith made over 250 years ago (I'm sure some of the credit for this should go to Roberts).

I've got a lot of other things on my reading list, but this book may have given me the push I needed to go back and read The Theory of Moral Sentiments itself. Even if I don't, I'm more familiar with its ideas than I would have been. I also might look at reading more of David Hume (a friend of Smith's and another key figure of the Scottish Enlightenment)

Many of the ideas in the book were common (today, anyway), but some were new to me. I didn't agree with everything Smith had to say, but I found the overall set of insights to be interesting and valuable and I now have a hightened and renewed respect for Adam Smith, the man.

Perhaps you will too.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Grammar Libertarian 

I've just finished reading Steven Pinker's The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. I highly recommend it if you think it's something you might be interested in.

Pinker brings his expertise in writing, linguistics, cognitive science, and his overall good sense to bear on the topic. Generally, he recommends using the "classic style", as suggested by Thomas and Turner in Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose. The guiding metaphor is "seeing the world". It treats the reader as an intelligent peer whose focus is directed towards something that the writer has noticed.

Classic writing, with its assumption of equality between writer and reader, makes the reader feel like a genius. Bad writing makes the reader feel like a dunce.

There are several examples of good and bad styles. Additionally, he uses his professional knowledge to give great insights about the "curse of knowledge" (where the writer isn't aware of what the reader may not know) and about limiting the cognitive demands on the reader to handle complex sentences.

Being a "style guide", much of the book is taken up with many issues of usage. Pinker usually comes down on the side of accepting usage that many grammar sheriffs complain about (many are mistakes, overgeneralized rules of thumb, obsolete, etc.). He also agrees with me that the American punctuation rule of placing the comma or other punctuation mark that comes at the end of a phrase before the closing quotation mark, even if the punctuation mark is not part of what was intended to be quoted, is silly. Maybe it looks good to printers, but it seems illogical to many of us. I've flouted this convention a few times already in this post.

And, even though the subject can be dry, the book is still pretty fun to read. If you like sentences like this:

Even the sticklers can't agree on how to stickle.

...then you'll probably enjoy the book.

I confess, though, that I used to be a grammar sheriff. I had a store of knowledge about English that I was proud of, and I wasn't shy about telling people when they were wrong. I learned these things in school. They were confirmed by the practice tests for the Test of Standard Written English that was part of the SAT when I took it.

When I was a kid, whenever I played a game, I had to know the rules. If I was going to play baseball, I was going to know all about the infield fly rule and uncaught third strike. If I was going to be a reader, and a sometime writer, I wanted to know the rules of English usage. So, I learned the rules of the game. I knew when to use "like" and when to use "as". I knew what "anxious" means (worried), and what many fools think it also means (eager).

But, writing isn't that kind of a game. It's not about scoring points; it's about communicating facts and ideas. If you succeed, without annoying the reader, you did it right. There are many conventions to be aware of that help with this, but language usage evolves and effective communication evolves with it and varies based on the formality of the piece and the composition of the target audience.

Over the years, I've become much more tolerant of usages that I was taught were wrong. Perhaps it's been because of the examples set by people like Pinker and Eugene Volokh (who are both smarter than I am).

If it's good enough for them, then it should be good enough for me.