A place for new ideas to settle.

22 September 2016

REVIEW: "Chaos: Making a New Science" -- Ian Malcom would be proud

Chaos is one of a few book titles that gets bandied about by math nerds as "one of the good ones," or at least that was my impression. It certainly put James Gleick on the literary map as a guy who explains complicated stuff to the "general public" of "interested readers." And it's about chaos theory, which really made an impression in the 1980s and early 1990s: famously, Michael Crichton lets it play a big role in Jurassic Park―each section of the novel is prefaced with a further iteration of the "dragon curve" along with some esoteric saying about chaotic systems by Crichton's fictional chaotician Ian Malcom.

I didn't put "chaotician" in quotes (except there) because, at least according to Gleick, someone actually described himself as such at a conference! That didn't stop me from repeatedly imagining scenes with Jeff Goldblum from the Jurassic Park movie, though. "The... uh, essence of chaos" and so on.

But is Chaos any good? Well, yes. Yes it is. And I think it's an interesting time-capsule example of both the pop-science Zeitgeist of the Eighties, and of pop-science writing. For all that Gleick attempts to colloquialize the technical aspects of nonlinear dynamics (another synonym for "chaos theory"), I don't think you can say that he dumbs anything down, at least not so far that someone with a little knowledge can't realize where he was coming from. Gleick's style is refreshingly comprehensive, too; reflecting on this, I realized that the contemporary science-communication style of today (see: NPR's Radiolab, e.g.) aims more for "aha!" moments, quips, and "really makes you think" anecdotes. It's entertaining, but often shallow, and sometimes flatly wrong for the sake of entertainment or page clicks.

Gleick, by contrast, gave me a strong sense of the many (many) disparate threads that came together to "make a new science." He takes an interesting middle ground between the "Great Man" theory of history-of-ideas, and the "trends and forces" theory: while certain scientists and theoreticians made remarkable leaps of insight to add to the growing edifice of chaos theory, they simply wouldn't have noticed the right details without certain background developments, particularly in classical dynamics and computation.

The book is also a good reminder of how the cyberpunk style of science fiction is equivalent to the Eighties. This was an era when you literally jacked in to computers, 3 MB of hot RAM was worth something, and computer manufacturers had names like "Control Data Corporation" and "Cray" and "Systron-Donner" (how is that not being run by a cyborg dragon a la Shadowrun?) and everyone thought the Japanese kaisha corporations would buy up everything. So that's a lovely bonus.

I recommend this to anyone who wants to see a bunch of scientific fields come together in one narrative. It's also a great example of science communication. Highly, highly recommended.

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21 September 2016

REVIEW: "Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble" -- Journalist v. Silicon Valley, Dawn of Insufferables

This is a complicated review, because Disrupted is sort of a weird book (at least in its class of "much talked-about for about ten minutes and then forgotten" extended think-pieces). On the one hand, it's a memoir of Dan Lyons' forced midlife crisis, getting kicked out of a cushy job at Newsweek, languishing in the Millennial Animal Farm of a Boston tech startup, then landing a writing gig with HBO's Silicon Valley. Okie dokie.

Except that Lyons is kind of a dick.

I mean, I expect that he's pleasant enough as a person; I bet his wife and kids love him and all that; but in the absence of the true institutional psycopathy on display at Hubspot, Lyons is the avatar of every FOX News pundit's gripe about smug East Coast liberal journalism. He was Newsweek's technology editor, so he maybe has cause to feel a bit superior―maybe―but after a while his insinuations that journalists are just better people who are hip and sarcastic and don't have sticks up their asses and don't enable the exact sort of bullshit he's witnessing... well, it all starts sounding a bit arrogant.

Of course, his observations and critique of Hubspot's corporate culture are pretty scathing. Hubspot is a "tech company" in the same way that McDonald's is an agribusiness: while it uses Web technology, it's really a marketing outfit, and―as Lyons discovers―ultimately adheres to the outbound marketing status quo.

Okay, but a lot of businesses are sort of lame once you peel away the marketing hype. The mind-boggling part is that Hubspot has a $1bn market capitalization and successfully raised millions of dollars in venture capital.

Disrupted is more than a simple memoir: it's also an argument that "Silicon Valley" (Lyons uses this term to mean the current tech-startup paradigm in general) perpetuates a toxic attitude towards work, employment, and wealth; that tech companies are valued without any basis in reality; and that many founders, buoyed by obscene amounts of VC money, seem to be high-functioning sociopaths.

On that score I thought the bits about the market dynamics were the most surprising. Did you know that many companies' investment contracts with VCs contain a clause that insulates the investors from 100% of the risk if the company tanks? "But who loses money, then?" You may ask. Well, it's the rank-and-file employees, of course! And many tech companies infamously ask their code monkeys to accept low salaries in exchange for equity, often at a rate of vestment in excess of the median length of employment! Wheeeeee!

As for the culture, well, it's truly Orwellian, Kafkaesque, even Stalinist at points; take your pick. But I really think the single literary analogy that comes closest is Animal Farm―not the Orwell book you were expecting. The irrational exuberance, the redefinition of words, the subtle accumulation of exceptions for a privileged few, it's all there at Hubspot.

I listened to the Audible version, which Lyons narrates himself. I liked his extra emotion and disdain when describing the more incredible aspects of Hubspot's workplace, from the Eloi-and-Morlocks split between the Marketing and Sales floors, to the Idiocracy-worthy exchange he has with his twentysomething coworkers about the literal wall of candy dispensers in the break room.

Lyons' narration also smoothed over some of the less-polished aspects of his writing, like his tendency to write each chapter as if we hadn't read any of the previous chapters, including his various repeated dystopic references. Maybe it's his background as a journalist. Or maybe it was just a rushed editing job.

Overall I'd say this is a good book to get from the library if you don't feel like you hate "Silicon Valley" culture enough. For free digital versions of the same sort of critique, see (e.g.) Michael O. Church's personal blog, and the "Our Incredible Journey" Tumblr.

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10 September 2016

Third parties; or, what to do if you don't want to vote for Hillary

I've been almost entirely silent about Presidential politics during the 2016 primary season. I've also never been more grateful for leaving Facebook at in June of last year. The ridiculous rhetoric from people I respect just boggled my mind. And I learned I actually know someone who (at least at the time, and apparently not as a joke) wanted to vote for Donald fucking Trump. Now that we're moving into the general election, though, the choices have coalesced. And I have to speak up.

I don't particularly feel like re-litigating the would-have-could-have-should-have counterfactuals of the primaries. I was sick of the Bernie v. Hillary nonsense (in my view the vast majority was utter nonsense) around the end of March. And any counterfactuals about the course of the Republican party (movement conservatism in general) need to start... oh, probably around the Goldwater candidacy before they become serious. So let's take as given that the 2016 Presidential nominees are Hillary Clinton and---fuck everything---Donald Trump.

Now, I'm not a party person. I didn't participate in the primaries because I didn't feel like registering one way or the other (plus, caucuses sounded like actual hell to me). But I do think that parties matter, because lots of people do care about political parties. In this post I'm advocating for what I want the electoral map to look like after election night in November. With any luck it will be a giant, magnesium-bright signal to various tendencies and movements within the American electorate. And above all, it will be the death knell of the giant organized grift machine that currently calls itself the "conservative movement."

I should add that I'm being pessimistic.

Let's take as given that the winner of the 2016 Presidential election will be a nominee from one of the two major parties: that is, either Clinton or Trump will win.

Trump is unacceptable. Full stop.

The right-wing is going into metastasis, overtaken by violent populist bigotry. Yes, it's full-throated racism and sexism, but not in the old patriarchal style of "we're superior, they naturally occupy a lower social stratum (that we will enforce by law)", but in the style of skinheads and hooligans who like beating the Other to a pulp just for the hell of it, just to see who can take the most scalps.

Hence, I expect that Hillary Clinton will take the majority of votes, both popular and electoral.

But I'm being pessimistic; as much as I would like an unequivocal fuck-you lack of votes going to Donald Trump, he'll most likely get at least 20-25% of the vote, and very possibly more. That's because the low-twenties is "Sasquatch territory"---that is, no matter how insane the proposition, about 20-25% of Americans will probably go with it. For example, believing that Sasquatch exists.

Similarly, Hillary Clinton probably can't get more than 60% of the vote, because of the way votes are tallied and because she has a problem with favorability during elections.

I want to see Trump get the minimal number of votes from the maximal number of people, and such an electoral rout of anyone supporting him down-ticket that the GOP-Trumpenstein monster is unequivocally shattered. That tendency, more than any other, has damaged this country on a level that borders on treasonous. At the very least it's a betrayal of some of the best values upheld as "American."

So, 20% for Trump and 51%-60% for Clinton. Where should the rest of the votes go?

This is where I try to convince the Trumpists and the "Not Her, Us" people to vote for Gary Johnson.

Gary Johnson is running, together with Bill Weld, on the Libertarian ticket. Now the Libertarian Party are, to put it mildly, mixed nuts. I know quite a few nice and sane libertarians, and then there's the crowd that booed Johnson at the LP nominating convention because he supports driver licensing and opposes letting five-year-olds do heroin (something explicitly endorsed by one of the other candidates). Sasquatch territory, as I said.

That doesn't particularly matter.

What matters is:

1) Johnson/Weld have 50-state ballot access.

2) Gary Johnson is not Donald Trump, and is a cordial man interested in discussing the issues---again, regardless of whether he has bad opinions as to which policies would best address said issues.

I've seen some hand-wringing and soul-searching about what third-party votes even mean in America. I don't think a third-party vote is worthless: it can be much more meaningful than a vote never cast. But we have to start with the current reality about third parties.

Third parties will not win a majority of votes in this election.

That said, a third party vote can be a meaningful signal. Imagine if everyone who doesn't vote for Trump or Clinton voted for Johnson, and only Johnson (not Stein, not any of the other roundoff-error candidates). Suppose it was a 60-20-20 split between Clinton, Trump and Johnson. That would force the main parties to think very hard about their priorities, about their alignment with the electorate.

Compare to all the disaffected voters "voting their conscience," or not voting at all. Then it could be more like 53-50-5-1-0.2-... Clinton-Trump-Johnson-Stein-Whoeverthefuck, with maybe 50% voter turnout. What sort of signal does that send? The pundit class are idiots in this regard: they want a horserace and they love the Magical Balance Fairy. 53-50 (ignore everyone else) looks like "business as usual" and emboldens the alt-right.

Whereas 60-20-20 is thermonuclear annihilation.

And that's what I want. Treat the Johnson/Weld ticket as a generalized "THIRD PARTY" or "NONE OF THE ABOVE." Vote Hillary if you want; I will. If you don't, vote Johnson. Don't abstain. Don't vote for Jill Stein, Deez Nutz, Vermin Supreme, Harambe or any other joke candidate. This is really about signaling, and we need to send a massive, deafening signal that alt-right hooliganry can fuck right off.

Most of my readership (I think) lives in Washington State, a very safe Democratic enclave, but also a progressive incubator. This makes the third-party-vote plan even safer; at the same time, make sure to research and vote for state and local candidates to make real impacts in your life and the lives of your neighbors. Ballots are mail-in. The post office will pay for the stamp.

Come November, I want everyone I know to have voted. And I don't want to know anyone who voted for Trump.