Category Archives: anthropology

An end-of-year email re: end-of-year emails

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[image credit: Kickstarter, evidently]

Sent from the office on my last day of work in 2015.

To a much, much younger cohort of coworkers. (And man, that’s depressing!)

This is my last day in the office before the New Year (barring any work from home, which I might do to get ahead of the curve) so for those of you still here, in case I don’t bump into you this afternoon, enjoy your holidays and have a great New Year!

For most people in the office, this is well before your time, but end-of-year emails were a Big Deal at my workplace at the end of 1999. It was the end of the millennium, after all! (Though technically since there was no year “0” the millennium actually started on Jan 1, 2001. But I digress…)

Starting in early December, people began to send all-company emails to the effect of “see you next millennium!” – with huge images attached. (The animated GIF probably hadn’t been invented yet. Heck, Google was only a couple years old, and hadn’t even started selling ads yet. That’s how long ago 1999 was!)

If you figure on a 2 MB image sent to 500 people, that was 1 GB of storage space consumed per email, and by mid-December, the IT group had stepped in and pleaded with everyone not to send any more “see you next millennium” messages.

1 GB is cheap nowadays – freebie giveaway thumb drives are bigger – but back in the day, when I used to walk to work (uphill both ways, leaving the house before I went to bed each night!) listening to my Sony Discman, carrying a man-purse sized selection of CD’s depending on my musical mood, that was a lot of computer memory.

Memory roughly halves in price every 18 months, in line with doublings of processor speed, so 15 years is about 10 doublings. Which means those emails were the price equivalent of each person loading the company email server with 1 TB. (And remember, there were at least 500 people in the company.) Meaning it was the equivalent of sending each a 2 GB, hour-long HD funny cat compilation video to everyone’s Outlook server!

rCHizR

Imagine clogging each of your colleagues’ inboxes with a thousand copies of this…

How Trinity Western University (unintentionally) promotes divorce

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Trinity Western University has been in the news recently, as law societies in Ontario and Nova Scotia voted to not recognize lawyers trained at the religious university’s soon-to-open law school. These two law societies – like your blogger and the vast majority of Canadians – recoiled in horror at the university’s community covenant (“covenant” is just a fancy way of saying “contract”) clause forbidding students from having sex outside straight marriage.

While discriminatory and immoral, TWU’s policy is not illegal. If I understand correctly, several years ago the Canadian Supreme Court agreed with the BC Civil Liberties Union that, as a private university which does not receive government funding or subsidies, TWU’s right to a discriminatory code of conduct trumps attendees’ right to sexual equality. (After all, people can choose not to attend that university.) Part of the ruling apparently included the statement that the Court found no evidence that TWU’s 21st-century-BC sexual ethics actually affect the behaviour of their 21st-century-AD graduates, once they enter the “real” world. Which is comforting, and de-fangs some of my concerns.

So, while I find its policy abhorrent, legal precedent tells me TWU must be allowed to have their own law school. On the flip side, the ruling also means that an atheist group could found the “Richard Dawkins Law School” with a community covenant forbidding students from engaging in religious practise, as long as they don’t take public funding either. (In a terrible case of “do unto others…” Dawkins has argued that religion is a form of mental illness, in the exact same way religious fundamentalists have argued that homosexuality is. While the guy’s a scientific genius, he’s as religiously illiterate as the people he rails against.)

As a semi-related aside, the Moral Majority movement started when the US Federal Government threatened to withdraw tax-exempt status from Bob Jones University, a religious college which forbade interracial dating. Until the year 2000. Which was forty-five years after Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus. As recounted by the Episcopal (Anglican) priest Randall Balmer, the Moral Majority’s founders quickly realized that – this being the 1970’s, not the 1870’s – no one would fund a group committed to keeping black boys away from white girls. So they made abortion their central issue.

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The losers of Superbowl XLVIII will be…

Francis facepalm

Religious moderates.

Here’s my reasoning.

After the game, someone on the winning team, exulting ecstatically, will say “God was on our side” or words to that effect. It’s as sure as a post-touchdown two-point conversion attempt late in the fourth quarter, if the team is still down by a pair.

This will lead humorists and atheists alike to mock the athlete’s egocentric theology, along the lines of the great “God-Man on the Gridiron” cartoon from a few years back. Which will inspire angry rebuttals from offended fundamentalists.

Religious moderates are the collateral damage in this snake-vs-mongoose battle, bitten by both sides.

I’ve read aggressive atheists argue that religious moderates “give cover” for fundamentalists, by making religion seem respectable. The faulty reasoning is that if the only religious people around were crazed fundamentalists, no one would ever be converted to religion, and humanity would break the chains of irrational superstition forever. I find great humour in such atheists’ irrational belief that we could one day cure ourselves of our own irrationality. :)

I’ve also listened to religious fundamentalists classify religious moderates as pseudo-apostates, who have fallen away from the authentic faith the fundamentalists (naturally) perpetuate. The flawed logic here sees moderate religious views are seen as a kind of “gateway drug” to the godless secular atheism, the rise of which has led to, uh, the lowest crime rates in the U.S. in fifty years. This misplaced ethos is aptly captured by the misplaced priorities of God-Man’s sidekick Fan-Boy in this cartoon here.

The book Freakonomics popularized the incorrect idea that crime rates in the U.S. dropped because abortion was legalized. (Given the machinations of Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan et al, one would be forgiven for thinking we’re living in a golden age for white-collar crime.)

The strong factor actually seems to have been reduction in kids’ lead exposure. Another economist found that in each of nine countries he studied, violent crime rates fell off a cliff, about twenty years after their respective governments phased lead out of gasoline. But his publications weren’t best-sellers. :)

Basically, religious moderates get fragged by both sides.

Back, briefly, to the Super Bowl

Though I’m an atheist, I’m sincerely glad so many football players are religious.

Statistics and psychological studies show that religious people are more generous than heathen like me. And the religious are particularly generous towards fellow worshipers, and others in their faith-defined “in-group”.

As an atheist, I value this factoid. It’s dangerous to think one is morally superior to one’s occasional opponents. So in a sense, I want to believe that some of the people who disagree with me, live with more upright selflessness – whether it’s a fact or fiction, the idea itself should keep me from developing a caustic arrogance about myself or my “side”.

Considering how much head trauma an NFL player will suffer in his career, after he retires and the symptoms start to show, he’s almost certainly going to need help. A lot of help. Possibly, very expensive help. For years and years afterwards.

As such, if I want the best for an NFL player when he retires, I would want him to be part of a large, supportive faith community. (I would also them to have access to single-payer universal healthcare, to prevent medical complications from bankrupting them or any other American, but hey, that’s just my Canadian perspective.)

Sadly, all light casts shadows

Unfortunately, when it comes to religious fundamentalists, there’s a downside to their generosity – while they’re more generous to members of their in-group, they tend to be more hostile to members of out-groups. (As the authors of this paper explain, religious fundamentalism combines the benefits of religious pro-sociality with the defects of authoritarian intolerance.)

In our day and era, gays are a favourite scapegoat of so many Christians who must otherwise be well-meaning people. This despite the fact that the centurion’s servant whom Jesus healed, was probably the soldier’s teenage gay lover, and He seemed fine with that. (Actually, all this really proves is that liberals can proof-text the Bible to argue what they want, as skilfully as conservatives.)

Still on the NFL, former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe was released from the team after the 2012 season, several months after he expressed his support of gay rights and same-sex marriage. While his stats were middle-of-the-pack, he claims to’ve gotten pushback from some members of the coaching and management who were particularly opposed to his opposition to, uh, bigotry.

[update: from this ESPN report, it looks like Kluwe may have been a bottom-dweller in some stats important to the Vikings, and as such, he may be less of a martyr than a mediocrity whose time was up. Keeping in mind that being a mediocre NFL punter is still someone in the top 30 or so at that position in the world. I edited the last sentence of the following paragraph to reflect this.]

To their credit, the Vikings have launched a formal investigation. And it’s entirely possible that the Vikings thought they could get a better punter for less money. Sadly, given the religious views of some members of the Viking staff and management, there’ll always be the question of whether faith-based reasons may have partially influenced the decision to cut Kluwe.

I’m hopeful that by the time Leo grows up, things will change and there’ll be comfortably out athletes. No doubt there will still be other social prejudices still to overcome – I may be an atheist, but I’m hardly a utopian.

And Warren Moon

To end with on football, I remember when I first found out that CFL and NFL Hall-of-Fame quarterback Warren Moon had a tough time becoming a quarterback in the 1970’s, because of an apparent social inertia in football culture that blacks didn’t become quarterbacks.

University football teams would convert high school prospects to other positions. This wasn’t only a football thing either; there was a strong anti-European sentiment in the NHL, until pioneers like Borje Salming proved that Europeans were just as good – and just as tough – as North Americans. (Hockey’s last remaining Europhobe can be found on Hockey Night in Canada’s Coach’s Corner…)

When Moon finally got to be a starting quarterback, he led his college team to the Rose Bowl, and was the game’s MVP. And he still didn’t get drafted. So he played in the CFL, where he was part of an Edmonton Eskimos team which won five straight championships. Then, finally, the NFL came calling.

The thing that shocked me the most was that the NFL’s antipathy to black quarterbacks – and the NHL’s reluctance to give Europeans a shot, for that matter – was recent enough that it I was alive for the back end of it!

I do hope that, as a society, our definition of “in-groups” keeps growing, so that one day Leo can tell his own kids that, as frustrating as the day’s social issues may seem, he too was alive at the back end of this long-standing social inertia, which swiftly, satisfyingly dissipated, soon thereafter.

(As for why I chose the Pope, that’s another post. While they’re hardly religious progressives, the Catholic Church’s acceptance of the reality of evolution, and its almost two-thousand-year-old tradition of interpreting parts of the Bible allegorically instead of insisting it’s all factually accurate, mean that by my amateur classification, they go in the “moderate” pile. Moderates whose hierarchy has shielded countless pedophiles from the law for decades, yes… but moderates none the less.)

Putting the “X” back in Xmas

Xtians began using “Xmas” 500 years ago, since in Greek, X is the “Ch” in Christ

Around the holidays, some people (not to name names or anything) urge modern society to put the “Christ” back in Christmas. There’s much to criticize about the hollow vacuousness of consumer culture, after all. Most of us can buy into the idea of better treasuring time with family and friends; and who’d oppose charity and compassion for the less-fortunate? (Well, apart from that strangest of philosophical tribes, the Objectivists, that is…)

Heck, the leftists among us might even be open to the Christian idea of a 100% marginal tax rate, on assets — that whole “tithing” thing is so Old Testament ;) – which is backed up by the fact that Jesus’ early followers were basically communists! (Admittedly, it’s easy to give up private property rights when you think the world’s about to end…)

Unfortunately, some misguided folks want to put the “Christ” back in Christmas, because they think “Xmas” is a part of some sort of secular war on Christmas. If there’s any upside to this, it’s that secular humanists are the new scapegoats of Christian demagogues. After nineteen hundred years, the Jews finally, finally catch a break! Hallelujah!  :)

In Greek, “Christ” is spelled with an X

This is all very strange, since it was Christians who started using “Xmas” in the first place. Five hundred years ago. And followers of the faith used X (and/or Xp) as an abbreviation for Christ, an additional twelve hundred years before that.

They did so because the Greek word for Christ — Χριστος — starts with the Greek letter chi, which happens to look like an “X”. And Greek is the language in which the first Christian scriptures were written, and in which the faith was first widely proselytized. (To be rigorously accurate, some portions – the Lord’s Prayer and various figures of speech – seem to’ve originally been Aramaic.)

So the real question is why these commentators would want to take the “X” out of Xmas; for today’s Christians, its presence would visually affirm a continuity with the Greek-speaking communities where Jesus’ gospel was first preached, two thousand years ago, and where the religion’s scriptures were written. How cool is that?

Orthopraxy vs. orthodoxy

I do wonder of why Buddhists, Hindus and others just don’t seem to get as worked up about these kinds of things. And my impression could just be because I’m less familiar with demagogues from those traditions.

Still, I get the sense that in eastern traditions, anger and outrage are regarded as unhelpful, if not outright harmful. For all the crimes of the Chinese government against Tibetans in the past half-century, exiled Tibetan Buddhist monks don’t seem to have an “anger button”; they tend to express their distress and condemnation in astonishingly measured tones.

One difference between the major western Abrahamic faiths and the big eastern Dharmic faiths, is that the latter tend to be orthopraxies – they emphasize correct practice – while the western ones tend to be orthodoxies, emphasizing correct belief. I can’t help thinking that may have something to do with it.

If one has adopted a set of spiritual beliefs – an orthodoxy – there’s always the risk that new scientific knowledge could undermine them. Learning that the universe is billions and not thousands of years old could cause a fight-or-flight response in some people, leading to the bellicose annoyance and self-righteous indignation so commonly heard in the words of some conservative religious leaders. Especially if they think such beliefs are all that separate us from the nightmare of Hobbesian anarchy – an unending war of all against all.

But if one has adopted a set of spiritual practices – an orthopraxy – then scientific findings which invalidate their rationale and justification, might be inconsequential. If one is becalmed by meditation, and it seems to serve one’s community, so what if the universe is fourteen billion instead of one hundred and fifty five trillion years old?

Even so, there’s no doubt there are Buddhist and Hindu demagogues, just waiting for the chance to corrode the public discourse in their own home countries, as religious conservatives have done over here. ;)

It’s probably safest to say that we in the West have simply been lucky enough not to have heard of them, because a Fox News-type empire hasn’t given their televangelism and/or megatemples a worldwide media platform. Yet.

The witless wisdom of Shai Agassi

dunning_kruger_effect by AddAttack

Dunning-Kruger effect graphed by AddAttack on DeviantArt.

LinkedIn has an “opinion leader” piece from Shai Agassi, founder of bankrupt car-battery-switcher Better Place, telling carmakers how they need to respond to Tesla’s success. Who better to give them advice than a guy who raised $850 million for an ignorant, impractical, impossible business model, then drove his company into the ground?

Inviting Agassi to share his clearly-witless wisdom about the auto sector, would have been like inviting André Maginot — architect of the not-so-great wall of France — onto the post-World War II lecture circuit to talk about the future of warfare.

Pre-fisking preface: about Agassi

Before we get to the meatless bones of his commentary, we’ll start with a bit of background about Agassi. From Wiki, he seems to’ve been a very successful software entrepreneur. He may even have been the Michael Jordan of enterprise software — the thing is, Michael Jordan knows that no one wants to hear him talk baseball.

Unfortunately, being so impatient that he didn’t want to wait two more years to become the CEO of SAP, Agassi resigned. Alas, power bends judgment as surely as gravity bends light, and he decided he was destined to remake the auto industry.

Agassi’s clueless enthusiasm — let’s treat Smart cars like smartphones! — makes him a textbook case of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which basically states that:
– people who’re experts at something, know they’re experts;
– people who’re non-experts, know they’re non-experts;
– and people who lack the faintest clue, are so ignorant of their very ignorance that they think they’re experts too.

It boggles the mind that LinkedIn would list a guy who proved himself so catastrophically wrong, as a “thought leader” — what’s next, NPI (new product introduction) advice from Sergio Zyman and Brian Dyson, the men who brought you New Coke?

Pre-fisking preface: the business world’s Kim Kardashians

Of course, LinkedIn brought Agassi in not because of insight, but eyeballs. Or as the TV world calls it, ratings. LinkedIn’s “thought leaders” don’t need to have a track record of success, they just need to draw traffic to the site. And while LinkedIn might have snagged some deep thinkers, one rather imagines that most successful businesspeople are too busy, you know, running successful businesses, to pen puff pieces.

Which means the content providers will inevitably be attention-hungry, less-successful entrepreneurs: the business world’s equivalent of reality-TV stars. Except that reality-TV stars know they’re not A-list actors, while these entrepreneurial remoras seem to think they’re sharks. Again, Agassi might well be a software shark; but when it comes to cars, he’s chum.

Pre-fisking preface: channelling Tom Friedman

Agassi’s piece is so breathlessly definitive in its vacuousness that it looks to’ve been ghostwritten by Thomas Friedman, the New York Times’ opinion columnist most famous for the book The World Is Flat, written in his signature algorithmically-reproducible writing style.

To his credit, Friedman isn’t just a billionaire’s daughter’s kept husband: he has a unit of time named after him, the six-month-long Friedman unit — “F.U.” for short — for the fact that for two-and-a-half years he insisted Iraq would turn the corner in the “next six months”.

People wanting a cortex cleanse from Friedmanisms (e.g. “suck on this“, “hyperconnected“) are well-advised to read lots and lots of Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone, whose signature anti-Friedman diatribes are the epic essays Flathead, and Flat N All That, the former of which is the source of the cartoon “The Moustache of Understanding” below. (click to embiggen)

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That done, let’s turn back to Mr. Agassi’s titular wisdom from this LinkedIn post.

Three lessons from a highly ineffective founder

“Some of the most serious reporters concluded that Mr. Musk should throw his doors open and share all his secrets with the current carmaker. Tesla had already partnered with both Toyota and Daimler, so one should assume they shared some secrets with those market leaders.”

No, Tesla didn’t share secrets with Toyota and Daimler; they negotiated contracts to develop the battery systems for the California-only RAV4 EV compliance car, and the Smart Electric Drive. This is readily-available information; it’s taken me longer to type this paragraph, than to look it up!  Can a software guru be Google-illiterate?

“Imagine for a second that car companies are like yachts racing in the ocean. While the entire industry represent yachts jostling for position along a similar course, Tesla’s catamaran diverged from the pack, and all of a sudden seems to be gaining tremendous speed.”

Here’s a perfect Friedmanism – first off, a catamaran is not a yacht. If it’s in the race, then the opening sentence should say “boats racing in the ocean”. Next, the writer tries to express the idea that the Tesla catamaran has “raced ahead of” or “broken from” the pack. But “diverged” implies a detour; a wrong turn; it implies Elon Musk’s ship is accelerating in the wrong direction. What began as a promising simile has crashed on the rocks of impaired grammar. Editor…! — is there an editor in the house??

1. An electric car is an object of desire

All cars are objects of desire! That’s why companies invest so heavily in advertising and branding – to make them into objects of desire! The only person in the auto industry who ever treated cars as commodity products, was the guy who thought he could the manufacturers to build all their vehicles off a generic-enough design template to make it easy for him to switch the batteries!

Instead of deciding on “what environmentalists will be willing to give up to drive electric”— such as having only two seats in the back of an odd shaped car — Tesla decided to build a car that supersedes all buyer’s expectations.

First off, Tesla doesn’t target environmentalists, who frankly aren’t wealthy enough to afford luxury sedans. And “two seats in the back of an odd-shaped car” ? This is a throw-back to the EV1, which was fifteen years ago. That’s so long ago, they didn’t just release a movie about how it got killed, they released a sequel! Two years ago!

There is one (1) two-seater plug-in car available in the US today: the Smart Electric Drive, which looks exactly the same as a regular Smart. Why, it’s the very vehicle that Tesla used to work on with Daimler. (The current Smart Electric Drive is a 100% Daimler product.)

And there are at least nine plug-in cars on the market today that seat four or more people, and all of them look like normal vehicles. Well, except the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, which looks normal in Mitsu’s home market of Japan. One of these normal-looking electric vehicles, the Chevy Volt, has won Consumer Reports’ award for highest customer satisfaction two years in a row, implying that yes, Shai, Olde Economy carmakers know how to meet buyers’ expectations with electric vehicles.

Seriously, claiming that Tesla is the first carmaker to discover that the secret to EV’s is to exceed customer expectations, is as ludicrous Italian Renaissance doctor Realdo Colombo claiming to be the first person to have “discovered” the clitoris in the 16th century — as if it was a faraway continent! How much of a bubble would Agassi have to live in, to think that after a hundred years featuring such iconic zillion-selling vehicles as the Model T, the VW Beetle, and the Toyota Corolla, it took until Tesla for anyone actually, finally get it right?  It’s a statement so stunning in its Valley-centric, navel-gazing ignorance, as to be mockworthy.

Oh, and one last thing – “supersede” means “to take the place or position of”. Tesla did not build a car that “took the place” of buyer’s expectations. It built a car to “sur-pass” or “ex-ceed” buyers’ expectations. Presumably, the spell-checker caught that sur-ceed wasn’t an actual word and suggested “supersede” instead. Furthermore, all carmakers already exceed their customers’ expectations, though most of them aim for lower price points than Tesla did with the Model S. It’s one of the reasons why they manage to sell so many more vehicles than Tesla does.

The lesson: Design a car that provides car buyers with the possibility of upgrading both battery and software, while retaining the car [over twenty years]. Such a possibility will enhance the resell value of cars, and in doing so could drastically reduce the monthly lease new buyers will face at the dealership.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Shai Agassi probably doesn’t drive the same car he’s owned since the first World Trade Center terrorist attack (1993). It’s hard to imagine that someone who tried to be part of the auto industry would be so blissfully oblivious to the fact that people’s car needs change over time. (How many university students buy minivans because they plan to drive their future tween-aged kids around town, twenty years hence??) But then, this is a guy who thought it wouldn’t be a big deal to convince the world’s major automakers to all change their designs, for his benefit.

Batteries are “Exponential Technology” – they benefit from reduced cost, improved storage and longer life with every generation, all of which are compounding year over year. Exponential technology is the most disruptive force that hits incumbent industries.

Every technology improves exponentially, because of a little phenomenon called the experience curve that applies in almost every manufacturing endeavour. Including internal combustion engines. There’s also the fact that batteries improving at 8% per year (at best) are far less disruptive than microprocessors doubling in speed every eighteen months. More broadly, rules from the world of software don’t always apply to the world of stuff. Our author should know this, given that his great success at SAP prepared him for … even greater failure with Better Place.

More broadly still, if he believed batteries were doubling in speed every eight years, what the hell was he doing trying to set up a battery-switching based business model??  The improvements in battery technology would have been a “disruptive force” that would’ve soon torpedoed Better Place, if he hadn’t sunk it himself, first. More likely, he started Better Place because he didn’t believe batteries would progress very fast — and rather than admit he was wrong, he glosses over that point. The reader’s ignorance is his bliss.

So average your future cost estimated down heavily and plan for profits to come after volume goes up the s-curve instead of focusing all your calculations on the first batch of cars.

They already do this!!  Development costs for new vehicles run in the hundred of millions — the Volt topped a billion dollars — so the fact that new product launches don’t bankrupt “Olde Economy” automakers kind of implies they know how to amortize development costs over years’ worth of vehicle sales. It’s the height of arrogance for a man who didn’t know how to price his own auto industry product, to lecture established car manufacturers on how to price theirs. He’s a naked, failed courtier raving about his clothes. (I’d’ve called him an emperor, but he hasn’t enjoyed a modicum of auto-industry success.)

The lesson: If you launch a new category, consider very seriously launching it under a new brand with a whole new experience. Direct sales will allow incumbent carmakers not only to control its brand experience; it also translates into a lower per-unit cost of sales once volume starts to pick up. Ask Apple…when you have a differentiated product, you want a differentiated destination store for people to come and experience it. If you do it right, the retail value per square foot beats the rest of the industry – by a mile!

One wonders if Agassi was using a team of ghostwriters and there was a shift change, because earlier in the article it’s (correctly) noted that “mass-market carmakers should probably never try to repeat Tesla’s model – in making cars or in business model. What works for Tesla will not work for GM, and most likely be value destructive for any mass-market incumbent.”

And yet several paragraphs later, it’s recommended that mass-market carmakers repeat Tesla’s model of direct sales because, “if you do it right, the retail value per square foot beats the rest of the industry – by a mile!”. Did he not proof-read his own article? Does he care? Is this a secret homage to Harry Frankfurt’s classic, On Bullshit?

Mass-market incumbent automakers have a massive advantage over Tesla in their omnipresent bricks-and-mortar stores, which give them direct reach and presence in tens of thousands of locations around the world. No one in their right mind would give this up — but then, no one in their right mind would champion or fund a battery-swapping company for cars. (Tesla’s situation is different, as their proposed swapping stations can be run at a loss – they aren’t a company profit centre. Better Place’s swapping stations were intended to be profit centers.)

The analogy with Apple fails as well; before the Apple Store, there were Apple “store-in-store” locations at Best Buy and other retailers. The automobile analogy would be to have a separate part of a showroom dedicated to a manufacturer’s electric vehicles. Dealers already dedicate different areas of their showrooms to various vehicles, and the sales person’s job is to help people find the vehicles they want. Besides, the showroom model is working pretty damn well for electric cars — Nissan is having trouble maintaining Leaf inventory at dealers, because it’s selling so fast!

In brief…

While LinkedIn may have thought Shai Agassi would make a great auto-sector “thought leader” — he’ll draw readers as surely as Kim Kardashian (somehow still) draws viewers — they would do well to recognize that they didn’t land themselves an automotive Steve Jobs; they got themselves a Steve Ballmer instead.

Wynne-win for Canada! And, is America ready for another white male President?

I welcomed Kathleen Wynne‘s victory in the leadership race for the ruling Ontario Liberal Party this past Saturday, even though I live in faraway British Columbia.   And I do mean far away — seriously, the International Space Station is ten times closer to the surface of the earth, than Vancouver is to Toronto.  (Though that probably says more about how not-so-far-away the International Space Station is to us.)

Wynne is of course lesbian, and her ascent to the Premiership of Ontario — Canada’s most populous province — is a matter of minor national pride, whatever her policies may be, and however effective historians judge her tenure.  Someone’s always got to be first.  [For our dear American readers, a provincial Premier is analogous to a state Governor.]

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Douglas, Deng and Diocletian

(originally written May 21, 2012.  Part of Great Upload of 2013.)

Tommy Douglas

I read a bio of Tommy Douglas recently, figuring as a guy with sinister leanings (sinister in the original Latin sense of “left”, that is :) ) I might as well brush up on the father of Canadian Medicare, and reigning Greatest Canadian.

To me, the biggest surprise was the standing ovation he got from the NDP faithful after his farewell speech at their 1983 convention. Not the fact that he got one, mind you; the fact that it was twenty-three minutes long!  Given the way he shaped the CCF, its successor the NDP, and ultimately the scope of the Canadian welfare state, a standing ovation was a given. But twenty-three minutes — holy cow! …TV sitcoms are only twenty-two!

From this, we can infer that Douglas was a rare political leader who was able to transcend party factions after he stepped down. Former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien may have led the Liberals to three majority governments, but there’s no way his successor’s faction would’ve clapped that long: Chretien beat Paul Martin in the 1990 Liberal leadership convention, and Martin’s supporters were impatient to see P.M. become PM.

It’s also hard to see current PM Stephen Harper getting that kind of ovation, however long he leads Canada’s Conservative Party: he’s already infuriated libertarians (having characterized them as child porn supporters) and religious conservatives (by refusing to reopen the abortion debate). At the end of his career, those conservatives will give him the clap, but not twenty-three minutes’ worth, however much Ezra (“ethical oil”) Levant urges them on. :)

Douglas, a socialist, was famous for his parable of Mouseland, which went to the effect of:
“every few years, the mice of Mouseville would elect a black or white cat to Parliament [ie. the Liberals or Progressive Conservatives]. One year a mouse suggested they elect mice instead [ie. the CCF]. He was branded a Bolshevik and jailed.”

Funnily enough, Deng Xiaopeng, the Communist, was famous for a very different cat/mouse parable, along the lines of:

“I don’t care if the cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice.”

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The Black Swan’s Thanksgiving Turkey

(originally written Nov 24, 2011.  Part of Great Upload of 2013.)

It came to my attention that Naseem Nicholas Taleb, who authored The Black Swan (surprisingly, not about a ballet dancer, but about financial crises) discussed other avians in his book, among them the Thanksgiving turkey.  Per the Wikipedia page, he seems to’ve co-opted the idea from a turkey anecdote by philosopher Bertrand Russell, whose atheism doubtless led antagonists to brand him cuckoo.  ;)

The abrupt change in the turkey’s situation is part of an argument that it’s ridiculous to project present trends very far into the future, because, well, things change.  Hockey-wise, the Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers of the 1980’s inspired a high-scoring decade for the NHL.  This was followed by a low-scoring decade inflicted on fans by the New Jersey Devils’ success with the neutral-zone trap in 1994-1995.  (As per the viral video most of you’ve doubtless seen, the Tampa Bay Lightning are going retro with their 1-3-1 system.  Lightning GM Steve Yzerman was part of the Red Wings team the Devils upset in the 1995 Stanley Cup Finals.)

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Sniffs from a Schiff…

(Originally written March 7, 2012.  Part of Great Upload of 2013.)

A colleague once showed me a book by Peter Schiff, in which the author and investment-house CEO purported to explain how the US got into the muddle they’re in.

Like so many textbooks I left it unread, but according to Wikipedia, Schiff believes a lot of the US’s problems would go away if people just saved more money.  (Oddly enough, there’s no mention of drastically-higher taxes on high-income earners like himself.  Go figure…!  ;)  )  As is typical for people in the financial sector, he finds a way to blame government.  :)

So it’s hilarious that his brother and coworker Andrew Schiff is saving so little from his $350k salary that he’s worried about the effect a smaller-than-average bonus would have on his lifestyle!  (It’s all over the web, so you may well have been pointed to it already.)

Schiff, 46, is facing another kind of jam this year: Paid a lower bonus, he said the $350,000 he earns, enough to put him in the country’s top 1 percent by income, doesn’t cover his family’s private-school tuition, a Kent, Conneticut, summer rental and the upgrade they would like from their 1,200-square- foot Brooklyn duplex.

“I feel stuck,” Schiff said. “The New York that I wanted to have is still just beyond my reach.”

– – – – – –

The malaise is shared by Schiff, the New York-based marketing director for Euro Pacific Capital, where his brother is CEO. His family rents the lower duplex of a brownstone in Cobble Hill, where his two children share a room. His 10-year-old daughter is a student at $32,000-a-year Poly Prep Country Day School in Brooklyn. His son, 7, will apply in a few years.

“I can’t imagine what I’m going to do,” Schiff said. “I’m crammed into 1,200 square feet. I don’t have a dishwasher. We do all our dishes by hand.”

Welcome to the club, Schiff — may I suggest cucumber-scented Method dish detergent?  It’s “aromatherapeutic”!  ;)

And a note to my fellow 10-percenters

Not that we should snort too loudly of course; if any of us 10-percenters [most folks on I emailed this to, being fellow engineers or other professionals, are probably among the top 10% of individual income earners in Canada] were to complain about the lifestyles we strive for being just out of our reach (thanks to the hedonic treadmill), there’d be people a-plenty across town, let alone across the world, justly ridiculing us for our own fiscal profligacy and distorted lifestyle expectations!  :)

Whatever foresight is, it’s not 20/20…

(originally written Jan 3, 2012.  Part of my Great Upload of 2013.)

Come December’s end, the nervy among us like to review what they got right in the past year. The nervier like to predict what’ll happen in the New Year. Ever the blithe contrarian, I figured I’d visit the Ghost of Predictions Past and see where I got things wrong.**  :)

I do this taking comfort that Great Men, like me, make mistakes sometimes. (Oh, it was tempting to “forget” those commas…!)

Take the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius — he almost ruined his reputation as an enlightened philosopher-king when, fed up with a particularly quarrelsome ethnic group, he set out to exterminate the… Germans. (Ha! Betcha didn’t see that coming! :) )  Historians also dock him points for leaving the Empire to his sadistic son Commodus, whose death the lightly-factual chopumentary “Gladiator” got wrong. Among many, many other things, Joaquin Phoenix should’ve died in his sleep. Strangled by a bodyguard, sure, but in his sleep none the less. ;)

Probably my biggest mistake in 2011 was thinking the Fukushima nuclear disaster wouldn’t be as catastrophically epic as it became. While there are no directly attributed deaths*, it’s estimated that the clean-up will take decades — at great cost of time, money, and confidence in Japanese public and private institutions. In conceitedly thinking that a serious nuclear accident would never happen “here” in the First World, I overestimated human knowledge and underestimated human nature. We do have a genius for corruption and corner-cutting…!

Overestimating human knowledge

A back-in-the-day Canadian example of overestimating human knowledge is that of the Dryden Chemical Company, which was responsible for an outbreak of mercury poisoning among the Grassy Narrows First Nation. The company made chlorine to bleach paper, using mercury in the reactors. Tonnes of mercury made their way into the lake over the years, probably with an engineering justification to the effect of “well, methylmercury is the bad stuff, but we’re dumping inorganic mercury, which is safe enough to drink. So it’s not ideal, but there’s no real problem”.

Not being biologists, the engineers would not have realized that some shellfish metabolize safe inorganic mercury into unsafe methylmercury — meaning that any mercury dumped in the lake became unsafe mercury, in short order. And remember, that’s just the techno-hubris of forty years ago; we’ve since moved on to bigger things!

Underestimating human nature

A recent American example of underestimating human nature is that of Monsanto’s Bt corn, engineered to produce an insecticide toxic to the corn rootworm, but harmless to most other species. Apparently rootworms are developing resistance to the insecticide faster than expected — in part because farmers aren’t following the recommended usage instructions. (I bet they don’t decrumb their toasters every six months, either.)

The rootworms will become resistant to the insecticide anyways (because the only rootworms having rootworm babies will be the Bt-tolerant ones) — it’s just that the rootworms are ahead of schedule because the engineering solution didn’t accommodate enough end-user misuse.  A definite lesson for us technically-minded folks.

Up next!  (maybe)

Next time: more Klippensteinian hubris, as we look at rising oil production!  Falling gold prices!  (Both temporary, I’m sure. ;) )

Or maybe I abandon this thread and muse about more interesting going-forward stuff, like the probability that activist groups will soon follow the example of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and deploy unmanned aerial vehicles (beefed-up radio-controlled model airplanes with decent cameras) to monitor their opponents.  Which also makes it likely that corporate interests will soon do the same every time there’s a protest.  Now, if I could just find a stock whose business plan consists of renting aerial drones to all parties…  ;)

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* A couple anti-nuclear campaigners (Mangano and Sherman) recently came out with a calculation that there were 14,000 excess deaths in the US in the weeks after the disaster, but they put the data through enough Cirque-du-Soleil contortions to earn a PhD in BS.  And not for the first time; in the summer, they’d alleged baby deaths in the US Pacific Northwest spiked after the meltdown…  conveniently ignoring data showing that death rates were even higher three months before the accident.  Which doesn’t exactly add credibility to reality-based concerns about the effect of persistent, low-level radiation exposure.

** alas, unlike conversations, my mailouts are checkable…  :)

Dilbert Jan 3 2012