Friday Hodgepodge

Friday, March 27, 2020

Four Things

Exploring past and present frontiers of pen and paper and electrons...

Image by André Noboa, via Unsplash, license.
1. Cal Newport reports with annoyance that Moleskine has a social network:
I was prompted to write this post after someone pointed me toward the distressing fact that Moleskine started a social network called myMoleskine. It allows people to publicly share their notes and follow other Moleskine users. A development for which I have only one official reaction: Sigh. [link and italics in original]
My initial response was, Who doesn't?

And a cursory look around quickly showed me that it can at least be a good way for talented artists to exhibit their work, be it as a way to possibly being discovered or simply to share their own delight with others who may enjoy their work.

I agree that spending too much time on social media is wasteful, but thoughtful, disciplined use can be valuable.

2. "Leaping laggard" tech consumer that I am, I have kept an antenna raised on the subject of tablets that emulate (paper) notebooks, such as the reMarkable. I have held out on purchasing one so far, but that time may end soon, in part because the latest release sounds so good:
But overall you're looking at a much cheaper package. The reMarkable, for all its merits, was not cheap at $700. The reMarkable 2 will sell for $399 if you pre-order, and comes with a Marker and a nice folio case. For anyone who was on the fence about the first one, the sequel may prove irresistible.
The cheaper price comes with several notable improvements, including: (1) less latency between touching the screen with the stylus and marking, (2) the option of having an "eraser" end on the stylus, and (3) improved power management allowing for two weeks of use or three months on standby.

3. With so many people working from home due to the ongoing pandemic, many companies have seen the chance to win new customers and offered their remote collaboration software for free, as in beer.

That's great, if you use Windows.

But what if you use Linux and open-source software, as I do? At least one Linux distributor has put out a list of FOSS options for remote work:
Purism has been working remote since we started in 2014. Here's our list of essential free software for remote work, all can be self hosted or used via various hosted options.
I appreciate the list, but this company's About page reminds me that I ought to write something about "conscious" "capitalism" some time: The whole idea that profit necessarily conflicts with a refusal to compromise on purpose and quality is, frankly, ridiculous.

4. And speaking of Linux, the plethora of "surprising programs" under the hood has been a large part of what has made it so valuable to me. These are the subject of a thread at Hacker News, kicked off by an old-timer's post on surprising programs in Unix, the ancestor of Linux.

Here is what Doug McIlroy says about typo in the parent post:
Typo ordered the words of a text by their similarity to the rest of the text. Typographic errors like "hte" tended to the front (dissimilar) end of the list. Bob Morris proudly said it would work as well on Urdu as it did on English. Although typo didn't help with phonetic misspellings, it was a godsend for amateur typists, and got plenty of use until the advent of a much less interesting, but more precise, dictionary-based spelling checker.

Typo was as surprising inside as it was outside. Its similarity measure was based on trigram frequencies, which it counted in a 26x26x26 array. The small memory, which had barely room enough for 1-byte counters, spurred a scheme for squeezing large numbers into small counters. To avoid overflow, counters were updated probabilistically to maintain an estimate of the logarithm of the count.
The thread ranges from the useful -- like paste, which I have found helpful -- to the historical or esoteric.

To be clear, not all of the programs exist in typical Linux distributions.

-- CAV

Updates

Today: Added "(paper)" to my outdated description of those things people used to write on. 


Central Planning Is Unsophisticated: An Analogy

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Florent Crivello, a product manager at Uber, writes a thought-provoking blog post titled, "The Efficiency-Destroying Magic of Tidying Up." Therein, he argues that many attempts to impose order on complex, self-ordering systems, are made out of great ignorance.

His piece also proposes the following amusing analogy for urban "planners" who fall into what he calls the "high modernist" fallacy, following James Scott's Seeing Like a State. That is, they mistake complexity for chaos:

Image by Brett Jordan, via Unsplash, license.
[T]his insight applies to any complex system. For example, a city can look as messy as an anthill. But really, it's a beautiful equilibrium that evolved to satisfy a thousand competing constraints: topology, weather, people's traditions, skills, wealth, preferences ... Planners may make their maps look better when they use zoning to separate the city into business, residential, and commercial neighborhoods, but they also destroy a subtle, efficient balance. They forget that the only activity that goes on in any city is that of people living their lives, which requires all the activities above -- preferably in close proximity. Splitting a city into residential, commercial and business zones is like throwing dough, cheese and pepperoni into the different compartments of a bento box and calling it a pizza.
Crivello's argument reminds me a little of one made against central (government) planning by the economist George Reismann, but from a different angle:
The overwhelming majority of people have not realized that all the thinking and planning about their economic activities that they perform in their capacity as individuals actually is economic planning. By the same token, the term "planning" has been reserved for the feeble efforts of a comparative handful of government officials, who, having prohibited the planning of everyone else, presume to substitute their knowledge and intelligence for the knowledge and intelligence of tens of millions, and to call that planning. (as quoted in Andrew Bernstein's Capitalist Manifesto, p. 345) [bold added]
I love the pizza-bento box analogy, and think it is a great way to condense the idea that something complex -- or even messy-looking -- can indeed possess an exquisite and graspable order beyond what meets the eye.

-- CAV


The CDC Said No.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Or: Central Planning Gave the Epidemic a Head Start

Writing at Reason, John Stossel puts out a good summary of how central planning is responsible for the severity of the COVID-19 epidemic within the United States. The following, in particular, should be shouted from the rooftops, because it accounts for the greatest obstacle to fighting this disease that we  face: the lack of testing early on.

Our medical establishment, at the start of this marathon, thanks to the CDC. (Image by Tony Rojas, via Unsplash, license.)
COVID-19 deaths leveled off in South Korea.

That's because people in Korea could easily find out if they had the disease. There are hundreds of testing locations -- even pop-up drive-thru testing centers.

Because Koreans got tested, Korean doctors knew who needed to be isolated and who didn't. As a result, Korea limited the disease without mass quarantines and shortages. [bold added]
But here in America?
When the new coronavirus appeared, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made its own tests and insisted that people only use those CDC tests. But the CDC test often gave inaccurate results. Some early versions of the test couldn't distinguish between the new coronavirus and water.

Private companies might have offered better tests, and more of them, but that wasn't allowed. The World Health Organization even released information on how to make such tests, but our government still said no. Instead, all tests must go through the government's cumbersome approval process. That takes months. Or years. [bold added]
Many are saying Flatten the curve! now, but a different slogan should inform any post mortem: The CDC said no.

At the time when the functionaries staffing this agency should have risen above the desire for prestige in the name of its stated purpose, they chose to protect their turf, rather than our health.

Remember this when Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and the like propose to make every aspect of the medical sector resemble the CDC, by taking over the rest of it.

Set aside the whole question of whether it is right for the government to run an industry. (It isn't.) Government officials are not gods. Like us, they have limited knowledge, they can make mistakes, and they can succumb to the desire to look good. This example should make it apparent that it is foolish to place so much power over our lives into the hands of a few. A free, decentralized medical sector, with numerous talented individuals -- competing to profit by solving difficult and important problems -- sounds much better by the day.

-- CAV


Making Sense of Work-From-Home Advice

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Whether out of prudence or government compulsion, many are having to figure out working from home for the first time. Accordingly, there has been a veritable avalanche of such advice lately. This brings to mind two things: (1) The utter confusion anyone interested in nutrition advice will feel when he learns that everyone has an opinion on the subject and everyone apparently disagrees about it; and (2) the saying, "The man with two watches never knows what time it is."

The situation isn't hopeless, but one must read between the lines to profit. I'll use as examples, two writers who each have a couple of decades of such experience under their belts -- and yet give advice that is prima facie diametrically opposed.

The first is commentator Robert Tracinski, who offers what he calls "counterintuitive" advice for those who "want to enjoy" telecommuting. The second is San Francisco-based tech writer Kieren McCarthy of the UK-based Register. McCarthy's advice sounds much more like what Tracinski calls "typical," and summarizes as follows:

I, too, have a standing desk, but I don't use it all the time. (Image by Jackie Chiu, via Unsplash, license.)
It usually runs somewhere along these lines: make a separate and closed-off space just for work, keep a regular 9-to-5 work schedule, and get dressed and ready in the morning the same as you would if you were heading to the office.

I'm sure this sort of advice will be useful to a lot of people -- but on the other hand, I've been doing this for 25 years, and I routinely violate every single one of those rules. In fact, being able to violate those rules, flagrantly and repeatedly, is the whole attraction of working on the internet. [link omitted]
Here's part of the piece from The Register as an example:
If you have a spare room, this is the time, right now, to turn it into a home office. It doesn't have to be Instagrammable, it just has to have: a desk, a chair, a powerstrip, Wi-Fi reception or some networking, and dedicated space for work stuff. Move the bed out the way, or against the wall. If you have kids, having a clearly defined space that they know is not to be touched or played in is going to save your sanity.
See? I can almost hear you saying, Check. Check. Check.

Those approaching this the first time are apt to drown in details, and perhaps miss out on McCarthy's reasons, stated or implied -- like sanity, or not having to set yourself up to be able to work when you need to work.

The latter is easy for a veteran like Tracinski to not mention: The reason he can be productive when he lounges on a couch with his son is that the tools he needs are already on his laptop and (as he notes) he has trained his son not to bug him when he is working. (He isn't so much "relaxing" boundaries between work and family life as he is refining them.)

The point I want to make becomes clearer with the subject of phone calls.

McCarthy says:
[T]ry to find a good space to make and receive calls where other people's noise can't spill over. A bathroom may seem like a good idea but the acoustics may drive you, and the other people on the call, crazy.
And Tracinski?
Talk to other people when you need to, not when you're forced to... [M]ost of us have probably worked at some point in a cubicle farm, an arrangement seemingly designed for the purpose of refuting this idea. Note to office design experts: "collaboration" is not fostered by overhearing everybody else's phone calls, getting dragged into random conversations, and trying to tune out other people's conversations. [format edits]
Now, they don't sound so different. McCarthy is focused on helping his reader get a job done in circumstances new to him; Tracinski is focused on the advantages the situation offers. It is important to bear this in mind when reading such advice: What is the author focused on? McCarthy isn't saying "set up your own noisy cubicle at home," any more than Tracinski is saying, "to hell with phone calls."

Bearing this in mind, both authors make great points. McCarthy will help the novice get up to speed, by mentioning details many people won't think of -- while Tracinski will remind the seasoned veterans that they have the power and room to improvise, and promise the newcomer that things can really improve.

There is another saying all of this reminds me of, and it is to the effect that a great artist knows when to "break the rules." The saying is borne in part out of a common misunderstanding of rules as customs, or as commandments from on high, rather than attempts to apply principles to kinds of circumstances. McCarthy and Tracinski are both professional writers. Phone calls are part of the job and obviously work best when everyone can hear each other. But they also break concentration. McCarthy reminds us that we need a good place for calls so we can be efficient and effective; Tracinski reminds us that we can better dictate when they occur at home, removing a serious disadvantage (broken concentration) that they bring.

So, sure, at most jobs, there is a "rule" that one has to be available for calls at all time. But that might merely be a custom or a ham-handed, one-size-fits-all policy. Does one really need to answer every call right away, or does being "available" for calls mean returning a communication at some reasonable time? If the latter is true, one might be able to apply that more rational standard from home than in an office setting. Many, if not most workplace practices can be reexamined and improved upon this way, especially at home.

Working from home offers different kinds of challenges to the newcomer and to the veteran alike, but with challenges can come rewards.

-- CAV


COVID-19 Roundup

Monday, March 23, 2020

In part because there is so much news, and in part to free my mind up to deal with other things, I'm putting out this roundup of what I regard as the most interesting or useful news about the pandemic that I have encountered recently.

1. At Medium, epidemiologist Amesh Adalja outlines "A Path Forward," leading off in part with:

Plans of prolonged, enforced confinement aimed at preserving life at any cost are premised on a misunderstanding of human life and what makes it worth living. When discussing treatment options with a patient, I often invoke the concept of "quality of life". Patients regularly choose to take on some risk to their longevity in order to preserve or enhance their quality of life. Individual preferences and shared decision-making with physicians guide medical decision making and also should apply to each individual's decision regarding the degree of social distancing that is appropriate for them.

A degraded quality of life, particularly over time, itself generates its own risks of death. If the lockdown is prolonged, we can expect increases in deaths from cancer, cardiovascular disease, stroke, mental illness, and substance abuse. How many cancers will metastasize while colonoscopies or biopsies deemed "elective" will be postponed?

Quality of life consists largely in the ability to engage in the activities that make up our lives, and central to these activities is work... [bold added]
Dr. Adalja also summarizes what got us to this predictable (!) point, and what we can and ought to do going forward, given our current social, political, and economic arrangements.

2. Philosopher-energy advocate Alex Epstein summarizes the contents of his latest Power Hour podcast as follows:
...I discuss four ideas you won't hear anywhere else:
  1. The increasingly prevalent COVID-19 policy of indefinite universal isolation is immoral and un-American
  2. Climate change fixation blinds us to real threats like COVID-19
  3. A Green New Deal would be fatal in the fight against COVID-19
  4. The Corona Recession is a mild preview of the Green New Deal
I also discuss a fifth idea that's even more controversial. [bold added]
Each one of the four ideas listed above deserves much wider circulation, and I look forward to hearing Epstein flesh them out. I have embedded the video below.


3. Medicinal chemist Derek Lowe comments on the current state of clinical trials for various COVID-19 therapeutics, including a very promising-sounding re-purposing of two already-existing drugs:
Finally, there are some potentially very interesting results [(PDF)] from France on hydroxychloroquine. That compound (and chloroquine itself) have been the subject of much interest, and these are the first trial data that I've seen. A number of things need to be said up front: first of all, this was a small trial. Second, it was open-label. Third, there were significant patient drop-outs in the treatment group, making the sample even smaller. Under normal circumstances, to be honest, I would be looking askance at this, but (1) these ain't normal circumstances and (2) the effect size seen in this work may be significant.

In summary, 26 patients were enrolled in the treatment group, with 16 controls. Six patients dropped out of the treatment group: 3 went to the ICU, one dropped out due to nausea, one left the hospital (apparently recovered?) and one died. No one left the control group. There were 15 male and 21 female patients. 6 of them were asymptomatic, 22 had upper respiratory symptoms, and 8 had lower respiratory tract symptoms (all of those had confirmed pneumonia by imaging).

The treatment group got 200mg of hydroxychloroquine sulfate three times a day, and six of those patients were also given 500mg azithromycin in addition. The paper says that this was the deal with possible bacterial superinfection, and the lead author also makes mention of possible antiviral effects of the compound. I hadn't heard of these -- azithromycin is, of course, more famous as an antibacterial -- but there seems to be a pretty established literature on this, although the mechanism doesn't seem to be well worked out. [bold added, links in original]
Confirmation of these results would be fantastic news, and in the modern, very positive sense of the term.

4. Finally, it comes as a relief that the Wall Street Journal and a few other prominent voices have called for an end to the massive economic shutdowns we have been using to avert a hospital capacity crisis. Unlike the positive case Dr. Adalja makes for work, and the method of weighing risks (above), the piece focuses on the unseen destruction the shutdowns are wreaking, and I think it is effective in its own way:
Yet the costs of this national shutdown are growing by the hour, and we don't mean federal spending. We mean a tsunami of economic destruction that will cause tens of millions to lose their jobs as commerce and production simply cease. Many large companies can withstand a few weeks without revenue but that isn't true of millions of small and mid-sized firms.

Even cash-rich businesses operate on a thin margin and can bleed through reserves in a month. First they will lay off employees and then out of necessity they will shut down. Another month like this week and the layoffs will be measured in millions of people.

The deadweight loss in production will be profound and take years to rebuild. In a normal recession the U.S. loses about 5% of national output over the course of a year or so. In this case we may lose that much, or twice as much, in a month. [bold added]
The article closes, in part, by noting that "[N]o society can safeguard public health for long at the cost of its overall economic health."

I agree.

-- CAV


Friday Hodgepodge

Friday, March 20, 2020

Four Things

1. A month or so ago, my daughter was in tears after we got off the "mine train" roller-coaster ride at Disney World. She had left her Minnie Mouse ears behind.

Figuring that this happens all the time -- and remembering that we didn't even have to ask for a second turn when a rotating car on a different ride had gotten stuck -- I figured this would be an easy problem to fix.

I told the gate attendant what had happened and she sent us with her assistant back to the debarkation point. We got the ears back almost instantly.

I am grateful, and happy to pass word of this as an example of a company that understands from the top down that goodwill is worth far more all around than a few extra bucks from selling a second set of ears.

Thanks for a great trip, Disney! Here's hoping for a quick return to better times.

2. Two or three years ago, I told my daughter about her first kiss.

I was there in the operating room, and she had just been swaddled and set down. She was asleep and so tiny that the only place I could kiss her was on her forehead.

Ever since then, she has insisted on kissing me on the forehead before bed, and letting me kiss her forehead in return.

3. Fast forward a few years and remember that little pitchers have big ears.

A fault of mine is that I have trouble mixing people and mornings. I tend towards impatience, particularly with being told anything I think it should be obvious that I know. A once-favorite phrase of mine in such times was, "I gather."

One day, I heard my daughter use this on Mrs. Van Horn. It was funny out of context and in the sense that she is temperamentally like me in many ways. But I also didn't like the way that sounded and decided to watch myself better after that.

After quarreling with his sister, my son crafted a nastygram to her. We scolded him, of course. But I do have to say there was quality in the artwork. Are these nasty faces not well-done?
4. My son, now six, is inquisitive and not shy about taking the initiative -- with all the blessings and curses that implies.

In other words, there's no telling what I might find him doing if I leave a room with him in it for long.

One day after Halloween, I heard the beeps of buttons being pushed on the microwave. I was the only adult around, and it was too soon for comfort after Mrs. Van Horn had taught the kids how to use the microwave.

Further investigation revealed that my son was conducting an "experiment" on a Starburst candy.

-- CAV


Universities Could Stand to Be Entrepreneurial

Thursday, March 19, 2020

In an age when many "Red" states (such as Arizona) are considering measures to force their government universities to be more intellectually diverse on campus, it is instructive to see someone from the notoriously left-leaning technology sector speak up for intellectual diversity. (I have no idea what the author's political views are, but this post appeared on and received numerous up-votes on a pretty leftish site I frequent.)

How well do you think we're going to do at our goal if the people building it are all ex-Facebook, ex-MIT senior engineers? If everyone has the exact same reference points and professional training, we will all have the same blind spots. Even if our team looks like a fucking Benetton ad.
If only more people in technology realized that this can apply not just to professional knowledge, but to ideology! (Even when another person is provably wrong, one can strengthen his own grasp of the truth by understanding that person's position.)

But I am more concerned with the right, whose method of implementation is at best a stopgap on the way to what it should be doing. To begin to see why, it is worth considering that Ayn Rand, who vehemently opposed the "Fairness Doctrine" for airwaves, supported one for the public universities as a stopgap measure. (The former threatened to remove private broadcasters' control over their own content; the latter was to be a brake on complete strangulation of the universities.) Here are relevant portions of her 1972 essay on the subject:
Image by Dylan Gillis, via Unsplash, license.
If the public allegedly owns universities, as it allegedly owns the airwaves, then for all the same reasons no specific ideology can be permitted to hold a monopoly in any department of any public or semi-public university. In all such institutions, every "significant viewpoint" must be given representation. (By "ideology," in this context, I mean a system of ideas derived from a theoretical base or frame of reference.)

...

Would this doctrine work in regard to universities? It would work as well -- and as badly -- as it has worked in broadcasting. It would work not as a motor of freedom, but as a brake on total regimentation. It would not achieve actual fairness, impartiality or objectivity. But it would act as a temporary impediment to intellectual monopolies, a retarder of the Establishment's takeover, a breach in the mental lethargy of the status quo, and, occasionally, an opening for a brilliant dissenter who would know how to make it count. (The Ayn Rand Letter, vol. 1, no. 19, p. 81.) [italics in original]
Rand favored completely privatizing education, and clearly saw the above as something doable, in the political context of her time, to buy time for better, more pro-freedom ideas to take root. At best, the same holds true today: I doubt anyone in Arizona is seriously even floating the idea of privatizing its university system.

That is too bad, for the example I opened with shows that, when someone's mission and money are on the line, they can see the value of bringing a different perspective to bear.

Just as central planning -- as we have for education today -- leads to ideological complacency and stagnation, so do free markets and competition lead to keenness and vitality.

Conversely, our educational system will be in no great hurry to discover the value of differing perspectives so long as it is owned and run by the government. Such measures as Arizona's might well be a decent stopgap, but they really should be just the beginning of a broader effort to liberate education from government control.

-- CAV