30 January 2014

The Oakland hills fire

One Sunday morning in 1991 some friends and I were visiting a friend who was a UC Berkeley student living on the east side of campus. I noticed that the rising sun shining through the window made a bright red square of light on the floor of her little apartment. But a moment later I realized that this couldn't be right. It was maybe nine in the morning; that couldn't be the sunrise. I went to look out the window.

Smoke was curling beautifully around the sun, glowing red in churning billows.

I called my friends over to look. A minute later we were outside, watching a huge pillar of black smoke rise into the sky. Ten minutes later, we had climbed into a car to chase the smoke and see if we could find where the fire was.

Fifteen minutes after that, we realized that we had misread the distance to the fire; the pillar of smoke was much bigger than we thought. And it had already visibly grown. We turned back, and turned on the radio to hear reports of the fire. Firefighters were responding; some places in the hills were being evacuated, but we were safe.

Our group split up to forage for brunch and enjoy a downtown Berkeley ramble. Shortly after noon, from Shattuck avenue, I saw a long line of fire in the hills, black smoke streaming. I telephoned my host — from a pay phone, this was before we all had phones in our pockets — and my friends were worried. They still weren't being evacuated (and it later turned out they wouldn't be) but radio reports kept describing the fire as growing. “Get back here so we can go home.”

By the time I met back up at my friend's apartment, the whole sky was hazy with gray smoke. Making our way to the freeway, we passed through an even smokier neighborhood. The streets were quiet, and there was an apocalyptic air. Streetlights were on, ash was drifting down over everything, the sky was gray and the sun shone a deep red through it. I misquoted Revelation 6:12: “The sky became as sackcloth and the sun became as blood.”

Finally we found our way to the freeway, and sped out of the smoky area, heading back to Santa Cruz.

As one makes the connection from Berkeley's Highway 24 to 880 heading south toward San Jose, there's an overpass at the edge of downtown Oakland that arcs up high before descending to the freeway, where one can see 880 extending to the south. We were facing thick southbound traffic, but northbound there were no cars.

Just fire trucks. Dozens of them, as far as the eye could see, racing north to the fire.

27 January 2014

Corey Robin

A little snippet from Corey Robin's excellent book The Reactionary Mind:

The conservative position stems from a genuine conviction that a world thus emancipated [by the left] will be ugly, brutish, base, and dull. It will lack the excellence of a world where the better man commands the worse.

Note that this corresponds with my own thumbnail description of the core of liberalism and conservatism.

25 January 2014

Race Forward

Drawn by a good plug from the marvelous Jay Smooth, I took a look at the recent report from the folks at Race Forward. Both the content and the format are good stuff: it's well-produced, and I really love their focus on thinking systemically and sharpening our vocabulary for talking about that.

Both to give you a taste of the report, and to have it handy for other discussions, I'm going to quote their taxonomy of racism.

Race Forward’s Levels of Racism

During the course of our three decades of in-person trainings and consulting for clients of various backgrounds and fields of work, Race Forward has developed definitions for “Four Levels of Racism” — two within the individual level of racism and two within the systemic level — that we re-introduce here. The key distinction is between the two levels of racism, individual and systemic. While we acknowledge the impact of individual acts of racial discrimination, we believe that it is critical to do so within a deeper analysis of systemic racial injustice.

Individual-Level Racism

INTERNALIZED RACISM lies within individuals. These are our private beliefs and biases about race and racism, in-fluenced by our culture. Internalized racism can take many different forms including racial prejudice toward other people of a different race; internalized oppression, the negative beliefs about oneself by people of color; or inter- nalized privilege, beliefs about superiority or entitlement by white people. An example is a belief that you or others are more or less intelligent, or beautiful, because of your race.

INTERPERSONAL RACISM occurs between individuals. These are biases that occur when individuals interact with others and their private racial beliefs affect their public interactions. Examples include racial slurs, bigotry, hate crimes, and racial violence.

Systemic-Level Racism

INSTITUTIONAL RACISM occurs within institutions and systems of power. It is the unfair policies and discriminatory practices of particular institutions (schools, workplaces, etc.) that routinely produce racially inequitable outcomes for people of color and advantages for white people. Individuals within institutions take on the power of the institution when they reinforce racial inequities. An example is a school system that concentrates people of color in the most overcrowded schools, the least-challenging classes, and the least-qualified teachers, resulting in higher dropout rates and disciplinary rates compared with that of white students.

STRUCTURAL RACISM is racial bias among institutions and across society. It involves the cumulative and compounding effects of an array of societal factors including the history, culture, ideology, and interactions of institutions and policies that systematically privilege white people and disadvantage people of color. An example is the overwhelming number of depictions of people of color as criminals in mainstream media, which can influence how various institutions and individuals treat people of color with suspicion when they are shopping, traveling, or seeking housing and employment – all of which can result in discriminatory treatment and unequal outcomes.

Systems Analysis

What it is and why it’s needed — Because the popular notion of racism is narrowly focused on personal prejudice and racial animus, a more complete analysis and presentation of race-related developments is needed. When racial dynamics are not sufficiently contextualized, it is easy to fall into the trap of victim blaming. A systems analysis adds context, reveals root causes and contributing factors, and surfaces possible corresponding solutions. A systems analysis involves an examination of questions: What institutional policies and practices are involved? What are the historical underpinnings and cumulative inequities? What cultural norms and popular ideas are reinforcing the problem? What is causing the racial inequities and tensions and what are possible solutions? If racial justice advocates adopt a routine and robust use of a systems analysis to inform our work — and the way we publicly communicate our issues — we can be a model for other advocates and journalists to do the same.

A big piece of their analysis is that mainstream media do not generally talk about racism on the systemic level at all, and break down “seven harmful racial discourse practices” that need to change:

  1. Individualizing Racism
  2. Falsely Equating Incomparable Acts
  3. Diverting From Race
  4. Portraying Government As Overreaching
  5. Prioritizing (Policy) Intent Over Impact
  6. Condemning Through Coded Language
  7. Silencing History

Sophisticated and accessible. Joe Bob says check it out.

23 January 2014

Turn the other cheek

Fascinating specifics about Jesus' crafty use of nonviolence.

In Jesus’s time, striking someone of a lower class (a servant) with the back of the hand was used to assert authority and dominance. If the persecuted person “turned the other cheek,” the discipliner was faced with a dilemma. The left hand was used for unclean purposes, so a back-hand strike on the opposite cheek would not be performed. Another alternative would be a slap with the open hand as a challenge or to punch the person, but this was seen as a statement of equality. Thus, by turning the other cheek the persecuted was in effect putting an end to the behavior or if the slapping continued the person would lawfully be deemed equal and have to be released as a servant/slave.

More examples under the link, though it doesn't include my favorite example of Jesus' clever rhetorical jujitsu: “render unto Ceasar”, in which he plays dumb in order wittily observe unspoken assumptions. “Gee, I don't know about money. Can I see one of these coins you're talking about? There's a guy's picture on there! I guess it's his! So if he really wants it back …”


Huerca Zafada says something I've said about “pro-life” folks which I've said, only better than I've ever said it. Read the whole thing.

In each and every dark pit of desperation, I have never seen a pro-lifer. I ain’t never seen them babysitting, scrubbing floors, bringing over goods, handing mom $50 bucks a month or driving her to the pediatrician.

You want to put a stop to abortion? Make a world that doesn't need it.

21 January 2014

Politics and the lust for power

I was just reading a little monograph about political philosophy on the internets, the way you do, and there came the all-too-familiar moment in which it asserted “and here you see that the professed ideology of my opponents is at best self-deception on their part, for it is revealed that their true motive is pure lust for power”. And I let out a little sigh at this failure of the Ideological Turing Test. It invalidated the piece's whole argument, for me.

It hardly matters what side this piece was arguing. It galls me when I am told that my political ideas are just a mask for my simple desire to exercise power. It galls me no less when people say the same of my political opponents; if we are to understand what is going on, we must credit our opponents with at least a sincere desire for a better society as they conceive it.

Claiming a pure lust for power as the motives of one's opponents is a mark of the unsophisticated. A childish, cartoon view of politics.

So presuming the sincerity of one's political opponents — if not necessarily their honesty or goodwill — is a habit of the politically sophisticated.


What of fascism? Though it rarely takes root, fascism is always with us. Rarely does it profess to be fascism. And one of its defining features is its radical disinterest in policy, its profound insincerity about its ideology, its pure will-to-power.

This makes the sophisticated vulnerable to fascism's deceptions if they do not learn to recognize its scent.

18 January 2014

Bruce Sterling on startups and disruption

Chilling and vitally important.

In the startup world, you work hard and you move fast in order to make other people rich.

Other people. Not you.

You're a small elite of very smart young people who are working very hard for an even smaller elite of mostly Baby Boomer financiers … so they can buy national governments, shut the governments down, destroy the middle class and the nation-state.

That's been going on a long time. It's not something you invented; that's a historical development. There's a lot of reasons that the nation-state's got to go. There's a lot of reasons why a middle class is in the way.

But that's what you do. That will be the judgment of history for your startup culture. They're going to say that the twenty-teens were all about that:

“It was a tacit allegiance between the hackerspace favelas of the startups and off-shored capital & tax avoidance money laundries. And what were they doing? They were building a globalized network society.”

And that's what's coming next: an actual globalized network society. You're routing around it from the bottom while they climb over it from the top, but you're both aimed in the same direction. That's why you're in tacit allegiance, whether you know it or not.

And right now everybody lives the way that people used to live under empires in colonial states. We're all auto-colonialized by the austerity. That's your big dragon. That's your actual dragon. Not, like, the little tactical dragon. That's the BIG DRAGON. And you know it's the big dragon because you're part of it. You're actually its brain and its nervous system.


And as long as you are making rich guys richer, you are not disrupting the austerity. You are one of its top facilitators.


The (sort of) rosy version, from Mark Andreessen:

Speaking of disruption: Tech people like me can sometimes come across as presumptuous/arrogant re disruption of other peoples' industries.
It is possible this is an understatement. I am sure that some of my Twitter friends will expand on this for me
From this side of the aisle, though, it's less smugness, more the result of hard experience and learning from our own lives and careers.
In tech, our *own* businesses are disrupted by technology change and new competitive entrants at whiplash-inducing rates.
It's shocking how quickly you can go from the hot disruptive upstart to the stodgy disrupted incumbent in tech -- frequently within 5 years.
I've probably been on the receiving end of disruption 30 times in the last 20 years -- almost as many times as I've been on the giving end.
Now, on the one hand, you might say, “How can people live like that?” ... what's wrong with a little stability?
But, what we see is: Frequent disruption is the handmaiden of rapid progress -- and it's a blast to create and work amid rapid progress.
It's not just rapid progress of tech. It's also rapid grown of companies, and even better, rapid development of *people* & their talents.
It's hard to stay in tech for any period of time and not get good at rapid adaptation, skill acquisition... and new product creation.
As software eats the world: Same disruption dynamics always present in tech now applying to many more industries, fields, professions.
Rather than superiority/contempt, what a lot of us feel is deep sympathy/understanding -- even if that's not always how it comes across!
And now we all have the opportunity to learn together -- to make many parts of industry/life more innovative/dynamic, better for everyone.

11 January 2014


For future reference: Will Someone Please Address (Poverty)

I live wealth. But I am not wealthy. I will never be wealthy, no matter how much money I make or what title I hold, because I have spent over thirty years of my life, the overwhelming majority, orbiting poverty’s gravity well. I have not just “been poor.” I have drunk poverty straight from the jug. I’ve been over, under, and through it. I have at various times hated it, hidden it, rebelled against it and worshiped it, and after 35 very long years, I seem to have clawed my way out of it. But no matter how long or far I walk in the other direction, it’s there. It’s always there.

It’s hard to capture the depth of my sincerity when I said I didn’t want to write about this. If I’m any indication, the last thing your average Recovering Poverty Citizen (RPC) wants to do, is talk about being poor. You don’t climb out of the poverty tar pits by accident. If you get out, it’s because you really want out. Talking takes you back in.

This is relevant to a range of social justice discussions:

As a human race, we just haven’t got a bead on the resource distribution problem. It’s over our heads, it’s intimidating, so people shut down.

The conversation is stuck because individual people are stuck. And people are stuck for multiple reasons, not the least of which is that everyone is freaking out. When somebody opens their mouths to talk about it, somebody else rips their freaking head off and spits down their neck hole.

This conversation isn’t working for anyone. Let’s don’t have it anymore. Let’s start with what we should be talking about.

Highly recommended by a friend whose wisdom on the subject I trust.


Ariel Sharon

Relentless warrior

I'll admit it. My first thought was ... good.

But my second thought is more complicated.

I've spent a fair bit of time studying and thinking about the fate of the modern Levant, the question to which Sharon devoted his life, and it's really fucking complicated. When talk turns to Israel, I typically wind up arguing with whoever's in the room. In loopy lefty circles, that typically means defending Israel by patiently explaining the history of the region — trying to stick to those precious few things that are clearly agreed upon as fact — to people who really don't know anything about it. In staunchly Zionist circles, it typically means criticizing Israel by painstakingly distinguishing Arab Palestians from Syria or Egypt or Jordan, pre-’67 from post-’67. In more daring circles, it may mean talking about how Zionism fits into the history of nationalism and European imperialism, asking why Israel was even a good idea in the first place, or reflecting on whether Brooklyn isn't the New Jerusalem.

So my second thought about Sharon is complicated.

On the first day after a person's death, I try to honor the tradition of not speaking ill of the dead. I gritted my teeth and did it for Reagan. But I cannot do it for Sharon. I have no tears to cry for him.

Yes, Sharon has been at war with a real injustice, fighting for a people wronged by history. But he has made his war against the wrong enemy, the Arab Palestinian people, by despicable means, awash in the blood of innocents. He has failed as a leader of his own people, robbing them of their honor, their opportunities for peace, and the truth. He is one of the principal midwives of our era of terrorism, leaving a curse for all humanity. We are all well rid of him — even, and perhaps especially, the Jews of Israel.

Israeli Jews sometimes reference Exodus in calling themselves (mixing self-deprecation and pride) עַם-קְשֵׁה-עֹרֶף: “a stiff-necked people”. This is, of course, both true and false — and vividly so of Sharon. I hold distant hope than now, without him, that will change.

So no tears. But today I can hope for the better parts — only the better parts — of his dreams to come true. In that spirit, I strongly suggest that you read the decade-old post from which I just copied this one.

09 January 2014


Dr. M at Deep Sea News is keeping an index of All The Best, Scientifically Verified, Information on Fukushima Impacts.

With all the misinformation around the internet here are links to articles that we trust. The following provide credible information about what is actually occurring and/or dispel myths about Fukushima radiation that are prevalent on the internet. I will not link to pseudoscience, misinformation, or outright lies in this post or allow them in the comments below. These posts and ideas have received far more attention and links than they deserve already. I provide the author, their credentials, a statement of the misinformation if applicable, the take home message, and my favorite quotes.

08 January 2014

Deferring to expertise

A friend observes:

Listening to the nuclear power plant safety portion of John Hockenberry's NPR show a few minutes ago, I suddenly had a moment of clarity about my own emotional biases. If I'm reading or listening to someone where most or all of what they think or claim has no admitted contradictions, no difficult choices, no acknowledged problems, no legitimate entry for debate or disagreement, nor confession of doubt or uncertainty, I fundamentally mistrust them at a very primal, emotional level, whether or not I know anything else about the issue at hand. The older I get and the more I know and have seen, I distrust even (perhaps especially) my own judgment in inverse proportion to how certain I feel about an issue.

And goes on to say:

Oh, there is a short road from this feeling to crippling self-doubt. It's also a reason that academics in general are shitty communicators who over-qualify everything. This is really more a feeling than an argument — it's a gut thing for me. In a way it makes me easy to manipulate in the other direction — all I need is someone who entertains some doubts and ambiguity and I'm foolishly reassured about what they want or think.

As someone who shares this same impulse — and thus of course sees it as a mark of sophistication — I take it as an adaptation to what Julian Sanchez calls “one way hash arguments.”

Sometimes the arguments are such that the specialists can develop and summarize them to the point that an intelligent layman can evaluate them. But often—and I feel pretty sure here—that’s just not the case. Give me a topic I know fairly intimately, and I can often make a convincing case for absolute horseshit. Convincing, at any rate, to an ordinary educated person with only passing acquaintance with the topic. A specialist would surely see through it, but in an argument between us, the lay observer wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell which of us really had the better case on the basis of the arguments alone — at least not without putting in the time to become something of a specialist himself. Actually, I have a possible advantage here as a peddler of horseshit: I need only worry about what sounds plausible. If my opponent is trying to explain what’s true, he may be constrained to introduce concepts that take a while to explain and are hard to follow, trying the patience (and perhaps wounding the ego) of the audience.

Come to think of it, there’s a certain class of rhetoric I’m going to call the “one way hash” argument. Most modern cryptographic systems in wide use are based on a certain mathematical asymmetry: You can multiply a couple of large prime numbers much (much, much, much, much) more quickly than you can factor the product back into primes. A one-way hash is a kind of “fingerprint” for messages based on the same mathematical idea: It’s really easy to run the algorithm in one direction, but much harder and more time consuming to undo. Certain bad arguments work the same way — skim online debates between biologists and earnest ID afficionados armed with talking points if you want a few examples: The talking point on one side is just complex enough that it’s both intelligible — even somewhat intuitive — to the layman and sounds as though it might qualify as some kind of insight. (If it seems too obvious, perhaps paradoxically, we’ll tend to assume everyone on the other side thought of it themselves and had some good reason to reject it.) The rebuttal, by contrast, may require explaining a whole series of preliminary concepts before it’s really possible to explain why the talking point is wrong. So the setup is “snappy, intuitively appealing argument without obvious problems” vs. “rebuttal I probably don’t have time to read, let alone analyze closely.”

If we don’t sometimes defer to the expert consensus, we’ll systematically tend to go wrong in the face of one-way-hash arguments, at least outside our own necessarily limited domains of knowledge. Indeed, in such cases, trying to evaluate the arguments on their merits will tend to lead to an erroneous conclusion more often than simply trying to gauge the credibility of the various disputants ....

Update: Scott (whom I think is the same Scott Alexander of the excellent Slate Star Codex) calls his response to this epistemic learned helplessness.

I am obviously just gullible in the field of ancient history. Given a total lack of independent intellectual steering power and no desire to spend thirty years building an independent knowledge base of Near Eastern history, I choose to just accept the ideas of the prestigious people with professorships in Archaeology rather than the universally reviled crackpots who write books about Venus being a comet.

I guess you could consider this a form of epistemic learned helplessness, where I know any attempt to evaluate the arguments are just going to be a bad idea so I don't even try. If you have a good argument that the Early Bronze Age worked completely differently from the way mainstream historians believe, I just don't want to hear about it. If you insist on telling me anyway, I will nod, say that your argument makes complete sense, and then totally refuse to change my mind or admit even the slightest possibility that you might be right.

05 January 2014

Speaking with conviction

On occasion people have told me that I speak too directly. That I state my opinions without saying “but that's just my opinion” and such.

I reject the mushmouthed voice which that implicitly advocates.

Here is a poetic evocation of the principle.

04 January 2014

A note about Israel

This keeps coming up. So a quick note about Israel.

If you cannot clearly identify and distinguish the differences between all of these things …

  • Zionism as a historical movement
  • Zionism as a contemporary political position
  • the state of Israel as a geopolitical entity
  • the process by which the state of Israel was founded
  • the state of Israel's right to exist
  • the history of Israel's policies
  • Israel's current policies
  • Jewish ethnic identity
  • Jewish religious identity
  • Jewish racialized identity
  • the religion of Judaism
  • 1967
  • 1948
  • The Balfour Declaration
… then your opinion about Israel is not informed enough to be relevant.


I've had some people suggest to me that this post implies a position on Israel's policies. Since the policy positions people have inferred from this post have never matched my actual position, I think I can rightly claim that any implications you read in this post reflect not me, but Something Else.

My point is neither more nor less than that the atmosphere is full of bullshit about Israel pointed in many different directions. It is hard to develop an informed opinion in this environment, and unless you do the work to become informed, you will fall into somebody's trap.

Vox's Eleven Biggest Myths About Israel-Palestine is a pretty good place to start if you want to understand the situation better.

03 January 2014


As a long time David Brooks hayta, I really enjoyed Gary Greenberg's little reflection on knowing Brooks in his youth.

(Evidently fictional but it's deliciously hard to tell.)

02 January 2014

Madness checks

The tabletop roleplaying game Unknown Armies has a great system for dealing with the psychological shocks of the characters' adventures, a more complex iteration of the sanity system from the classic Call of Cthulhu game, in which characters can be expected to eventually go mad from exposure to Nameless Horrors.

There are five kinds of madness in Unknown Armies, representing different types of psychological stress. Shocking experiences can make a character either hardened to them or fragile about them (or both!), depending on the way the dice fall. Thus a character can become hardened against experiences of the unnatural, but fragile in the face of violence. (Get hardened or fragile enough, and the character goes insane.)

In the game as written the player rolls percentile dice against the character's Mind score when something shocks them; rolling over the Mind attribute number makes the character snap temporarily. In my games, I have a house rule where I make characters roll against different attributes depending on the nature of the shock:

  • Violence vs Body
    a frail character is more likely to panic in the face of violence
  • Unnatural vs 100-Mind
    an intelligent character is more vulnerable to being troubled by seeing something supernatural
  • Helplessness vs Soul
    a person with a grounded spirit can better face this threat
  • Isolation vs Mind
    an intelligent character has more to think about while alone
  • Self vs 100-Soul
    a person with a strong spirit would be more shaken by having their sense of self violated

Here's another idea that comes out of a conversation with Zed Lopez about a game based on 2d6 rolls, rather than percentile rolls.

As in Unknown Armies, shocks are ranked on a scale of how stressful they are. Seeing the ghost of someone you know to be dead might be a Rank 6 unnatural stress, while a Tentacle Monster From Another Dimension which speaks in that person's voice might be a 10. As in Unknown Armies, if your character's Hardened score for that stress is greater than its rank, you don't need to roll. (“Bah! I've seen weirder!”)

When you do have to roll, you determine the effect like this:

  • Under Hardened:
    The character keeps their cool and gets another point of Hardened
  • Between Hardened and the Stress Rank:
    The character snaps (fight, flee, freeze, or freakout) and gets another point of Fragile
  • Above the Stress Rank:
    The player gets to choose:
    • Snap (fight, flee, freeze, or freakout)
    • Take a Hardened point
    • Take a Fragile point

This makes it so that a more severe stress not only overcomes the defenses of more hardened characters, it also makes characters more likely to snap and become more fragile, which makes sense. Hardened characters tend to get more hardened still; less hardened characters are more likely to become more fragile. And rolling well doesn't completely protect a character, it gives the player a hard choice about the consequence of the encounter, which is fun for roleplaying.

Internet bullshitpocalypse

Luke O'Neill at Esquire calls this The Year We Broke The Internet.

This is not a glitch in the system. It is the system. Readers are gullible, the media is feckless, garbage is circulated around, and everyone goes to bed happy and fed. BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti admitted as much when explaining, that, when he’s hiring, he looks for “people who really understand how information is shared on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and other emerging platforms, because that is in some cases as important as, you know, having traditional reporting talent.” Upworthy editorial director Sara Critchfield seconded the notion. “We reject the idea that the media elite or people who have been trained in a certain way somehow have the monopoly on editorial judgment.”

I would protest, however, that this is not new. Recall that deceiving us has become an industrial process.