Humanity is vast

December 10, 2018

It's become fashionable to bash high tech for its lack of local engagement. To wit, Satya Nadella just got off the interview circuit, announcing that Microsoft would donate $500 million to affordable housing.

Putting aside whether that's a good idea, I've been thinking about the other angle: the effects of "working for the Internet", whiling away one's days in the nowhere of Internet-first commerce. It's at once worldly and parochial: understanding the intricacies of nation-level behavioral trends on the Internet, while barely knowing your neighbors' names, or the location of city hall. I need a local community to be happy—I suspect many people do—I only realized it when I stumbled upon a new living arrangement, and realized how happy it made me.

Despite its downsides, working for the Internet imparts a perspective that's hard to get any other way—an appreciation for humanity's vastness. Whether you're into beach volleyball, taxidermy, or Baha'i spirituality, there are online communities for these things as large as midsize European countries. This whole line of thinking started when Caroline and I were in China, and she said something like, "I don't think jewelery is as popular as it used to be". At this point, I wouldn't even pretend to know; I spent 3 years building mobile analytics infrastructure, only to learn Yahoo Fantasy Sports, something I've never even considered downloading, was a major part of 10 million peoples' week. It was like this every day: whether Candy Crush Saga, Pokemon Go, or something else, each day I learned there was something in the world millions, in some cases tens or hundreds of millions of people used, and I didn't know the first thing about it—any of it.

When you live in this world, "one in a million" happens hundreds of times each day. You appreciate how hard of problems fraud and abuse are, and how no human system, whether for censorship, enforcing good behavior, or protecting copyright, can handle such inhuman scale. But mostly, you become more aware of what a tiny speck of dust you are, and how little anything you do really matters, in the grand scheme of things.



December 09, 2018

Two hand grenades landed in my inbox this weekend.

First: the man who has everything took a trip. He went to a tropical island, and over a long bout of navel-gazing, thought seriously about chucking his surgical career for life on the beach. That's saying a lot, for a guy making millions/year doing surgery. But look past the money, and you'll see a lot of decisions—some of them costly—with real consequences paid in health, relationships, and well-being. Leaning on people once in a while is okay—a strong marriage can handle a few nights apart—but make a habit of it and you'll be divorced. That's been a bit of an adjustment for him, coming out of the "total institution" of medical school.

It's a lesson I could do well to remember myself.

But that wasn't all; the second was a paternity scandal—a guy I know, married with a teenage son—discovered he may have a child he didn't know about. A few bad decisions, and his life might never be the same.

All to say, as I get older, it's not just sins of omission that get you—the calls you didn't make, the letters left unsent—but sins of commission—the things you did, you wish you hadn't. I tend to worry more about what I don't do, but more and more, I see it's not just what one does, but what one chooses NOT to do, that define us.

Be careful. The #1 goal is survival.


Millennial Millions

December 08, 2018

Every once in a while, Saturday Night Live (SNL) does a skit that just nails it; this is one of them.

I still remember after college, I was going nuts trying to find a job, and my parents thought I was sort of crazy. I was fresh out from the computer engineering pressure-cooker, fighting my way through graph searches and bridge-and-torch problems for programming interviews, and they seemed so damn nonchalant about the whole thing.

In part because they never had the opportunities I did, as a graduate of a world-renowned engineering school; less money, and prestige, sure, but also much less stress, or competition, just to get your foot in the door.

But I can't help thinking of Parrot Head Boomer from the video. Every time I go back to Chicago, it's striking how easy everything seems: my aunt has two houses and an iPhone, despite not working in almost 20 years. She's married to a mail carrier who's about to retire on a full pension, on top of Social Security—while it lasts—even as Trump's tax cuts, who mind you, they both support—have given us the largest peacetime deficits ever. Meanwhile, Illinois is on the brink of collapse, I'm slogging through a few median income jobs' worth of student debt with my wife, my condo association is broke, and I'm paying five figures/year in property tax on a 1200 square foot place, for potholed roads and dysfunctional schools, while I watch the unfunded pension obligations stack up.

Meanwhile, the mid-20s people I work with, not the "almost X-er" elder Millennials like me, but the ones born in the 90s, are the most strait-laced, nose-to-the-grindstone people I know. The Economist agrees; maybe they think I'm like my parents?


A Sentinel for every man, woman, and child in Zion

December 07, 2018

A Sentinel for every man, woman, and child in Zion. That sounds *exactly* like the thinking of a machine to me.

—Morpheus, The Matrix Reloaded

I tried to sell some stuff on Craigslist this week. In both cases, I received exactly one inquiry about the product, from an "out-of-state buyer", offering a check with "$50 extra for your honesty" if I'd ship the product once the check arrived.

I co-authored an unpublished paper on scams like this during graduate school; suffice to say, this should be fun…at least, for me.

Obvious tells:

  • They claimed to be out-of-state (legitimate buyers are never out-of-state on Craigslist)
  • They offered to send the check even after I said I'd sold the item to a different buyer; a legitimate buyer would never do this.
  • They initially messaged me over text (SMS), but switched numbers mid-transaction. Their explanation: "I'm using my friend's phone". What really happened: their SMS provider shut them down due to fraud complaints, and they opened a new account on a different number.

And yet, the biggest tell—but also the most subtle—was that I knew I was talking to a bot—software.

  • "David Albrecht this is Luke buying your (Juniper SRX-100 8-port router (DHCP/Firewall) with rackmount bracket - $200)" - a human would never repeat the exact, character-for-character text of my listing, with embedded parentheses and matching capitalization
  • Two identical requests, one and then a repeat several hours later, asking me to confirm something. Character-by-character identical—same spacing, misspellings, and capitalization—humans don't behave this way.
  • Repeated use of my full name (David Albrecht); humans don't do this.

It was like Morpheus said: the thinking of a machine.

USPS tracking of the "check"



December 06, 2018

My coworker Addwittey (Addy), who is Indian, was eating lunch the other day. It smelled great. Everyone knows the guy can barely make a sandwich, so, there had to be some kind of story. New girlfriend, maybe?

"My mom made it for me", he said, smiling like a five-year old boy. His parents were in town, and as he tells it, his mom just couldn't help herself from taking care of her son. Nevermind the fact Addy is in his late 20s/early 30s, and does does PhD-level trajectory planning all day; he's still her son.

I overheard a different discussion at Farley's coffee yesterday: "If I asked my mom for a down payment on a house, she'd be laughing so hard, I could hear her all the way from Missouri." (I live in California.)

I'm not sure why we Americans have such an obsession with being "self-made". We have to "make our own way", and invent this sort of fiction that we can manage things ourselves, without help from others.

We all pretend this whole "city" thing, with water grids, roads, and hospitals, you know, it really could end at any moment. We could all go back to nature, till our own fields, chop our own firewood, and draw our own water, from the well.

My Indian and Chinese coworkers don't get it; they're happy to live with their parents rather than "wasting money" paying rent on a small place of their own. Gotta save money, after all.

They sit there, laughing as they watch us "pull ourselves up by our bootstraps", sipping their masala chais, and oolong teas.


The many flavors of ambition

December 05, 2018

I wrote yesterday about the value of storytelling in movies. Another thing I've learned watching movies is the many flavors of ambition.

I love The Americans. The show is a high-budget period drama set in the middle of the Cold War. Through six ruthlessly-written seasons, it depicts the height of the cold war, showing the evil of both sides, set against the intimacy of love, and family life. The writing is shocking: killing off main characters by shooting them in the head, open-eye tooth surgery, slow death by chemical weapons, forced suicide by pills.

Despite being the single darkest piece of entertainment I've ever watched—maybe because of it?—I'm not at all surprised they won a Golden Globe; everything about the show is top-shelf, from the writing, to the acting, down to the period detail—real 1980s cars, TVs, and currency—A+ production value.

But Caroline doesn't care about any of that; to her, it's just a really dark, depressing show, and "I don't need to come home from work and watch TV so I can feel dark and depressed."

She doesn't know what she's missing.

But anyway, she's got me watching Madam Secretary, pretty much the polar opposite: fluffy, linear, uplifting. Ugh. And when I first started watching it, I was like, "What is this crap?" The acting and writing of the Americans is in a whole different league.

But as I watched it, I realized they weren't going for high production value or Golden Globes. When they did the episode where Téa Leoni, as Secretary of State, stood side-by-side with (real-life) Colin Powell, Hillary Clinton, and Madeline Albright, I realized I was watching an entirely different type of show. Madam Secretary is a network drama, watched by an audience maybe 10x that of the Americans.

And they're trying to remind Americans that we live in a great nation, that it's OK to have faith in your elected leaders, and that better government is possible. The show won't win a Golden Globe, but as the federal government shutdown—the longest in history—enters its 25th day, it's nice to be reminded that it wasn't always like this, and doesn't have to be.

I'm not sure whether the differences causing the shutdown are reconcilable. But I'll try to be mindful of peoples' differences; some want high-powered executive careers, others quiet family lives, still others, to make great art. And that's OK.



December 04, 2018

I started watching one of the Kingsman movies yesterday. Caroline came home about 40 minutes into it and I stopped watching it; I'm not sure whether I'll finish.

What I did get through yesterday was All the President's Men—the story of Woodward and Bernstein's investigation of the Watergate scandal, which played a big part in Nixon's resignation, in 1974.

I also watched Trading Places a few weeks ago for the first time, the Eddie Murphy classic where a homeless guy trades places with a rich securities broker, part of a bet to see what effect environment has on peoples' behavior.

Sometimes I just want a cheap action movie, and that's OK. And some action movies are truly great—the Die Hards and The Matrixes.

But increasingly, my personal favorites from the past few years—The Incredibles, Green Book, Coco, Inside Out, Detroit, Driver, First Man—are the ones with the best storytelling. They hold my interest and stay with me years after watching them.


50 Years of Service

December 03, 2018

50 Years of Service

I saw this plaque in the Marshall Fields building in Chicago. It was one of those things that, when you see it, immediately strikes you as being from a different moral universe.


Silicon Valley doesn't believe in employer/employee loyalty; how could it, given how quickly things change? Nobody's thinking about the "gold watch" for 25 years of service when the company won't even exist in five years.

More than anything, company loyalty is a cynical punchline to a joke; the sort of thing you laugh at after a few drinks, while shaking your head at the new "great idea" someone just had.

But as I reach my mid-30s, it occurs to me that there has to be something else. I can't speak for others, but for me, there has to be something more than climbing the ladder, or piling up as much money as possible. Something beyond living in some anonymous box of an apartment, angling for one promotion after another, trying to accumulate as much money and/or power as I can.

Being part of a great organization—an institution—the Church, the Army, a sports franchise, university, or great company—was something people used to aspire to. These days, it feels like something you'd be ridiculed for.

I suspect Paul Graham is right; company loyalty was probably a thing of the Duplo Economy, with few firms and limited competition. Perhaps in today's more competitive business climate, the conditions to make that possible no longer exist.

So the "Duplo Economy" is a thing of the past and on the whole, that's proably a good thing. But like pg, I'm not 100% excited for what's next. We will probably be richer, but I can't help wondering whether the world will become more like San Francisco: more and more billionaires, even as the ground becomes ever more littered with broken syringes, dropped by homeless drug addicts desperate for a hit.


A recovering libertarian

December 02, 2018

I used to call myself a libertarian.

10-15 years ago, I realized:

  • At $3.8 trillion (21% of GDP), the federal government does way too much; lots of things from food certification to power generation could be done much less wastefully by the private sector
  • In business, quality and excellence are driven by competition; government undertaking has neither
  • Regulation usually doesn't work and even when it does, writing and enforcing it costs a fortune. Consider taxi medallions: a system whose very reason for existence is questionable, that takes money from drivers and makes it harder to hail a cab, but puts money into the pockets of well-connected insiders who benefit from proximity to government bureaucrats
  • The best way to determine what to produce is by looking at prices
  • Markets are the only way to set prices correctly

I've become less ideological, after a decade working:

  • Self-determination is a natural right; economists can rail all they want against closed borders and minimum wage hikes, but if it's what people want, democratic ideals demand they should get it. Law controls business, not vice versa.
  • Capital is tremendously powerful, yet amoral; it will remove every barrier it can to sell more and make more. Sometimes that means going around the crooked taxi medallion system (good), other times it means tripping over scooters, new addictive websites, or a lot of people displaced from their jobs by robots.
  • Some things (e.g. clean air, NOT healthcare) are inherently public goods, and the only way to ensure people get them is via government action
  • Though we have too much, regulation is a necessary ingredient to well-functioning markets
  • A lot of infrastructure spending is wasteful, but "blue states" are growing more quickly than "red" ones, and I believe public investment in education and physical infrastructure has a lot to do with why.

So I've moved a little left—a little more toward collectivism. I guess living on the "Left" (West) Coast has gotten to me after 9 years 😊


Weak board, strong board

December 01, 2018

The Board's job is to make sure the right team is at the helm, not to be at the helm themselves...A great Board manages itself and treats the CEO as a peer and gives the CEO's opinion great weight. But a great Board is not a rubber stamp.

The Board Of Directors: Role and Responsibilities, AVC (Fred Wilson)

Last April, a dilemma hit our board: after 12 years of service, our general manager said he was quitting. He tendered his resignation and said he'd serve out a two month notice period.

I didn't realize it at the time, but looking back, I'm fairly certain he was angling for a raise; he thought he'd get us over the barrel, and dictate his terms.

He gambled and lost; we went out and found a new manager. Not pleasant, but as Stringer Bell reminds us, "you gotta be fierce".

There are eight people on this board and I'm proud we handled it how we did; past boards took the easy way out, letting too much stuff like this slide. You can get away with that once in a while, but do it too often, and you'll have the employees running the shop, ignoring the customers and stealing from the owners.

Related: Report: BART investigating spike in sick calls during holidays