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there and back again

Category Archives: personal


“The movie will begin in five moments,” the mindless voice announced. All those unseated will await the next show. We filed slowly and languidly into the hall. The auditorium was vast and silent. As we were seated and were darkened, the voice continued.

“The program for this evening is not new. You’ve seen this entertainment through and through. You’ve seen your birth, your life and death. You might recall all the rest. Did you have a good world when you died?… Enough to base a movie on?”

ghost stories

You think it will never happen to you, that it cannot happen to you, that you are the only person in the world to whom none of these things will ever happen, and then, one by one, they all begin to happen to you, in the same way they happen to everyone else.

 Paul Auster, Winter Journal

Solipsistic. That’s the word I’m looking for.

We all experience solipsism at times, and consciously applied it can be a refuge, even if not quite a philosophy. A natural reaction, probably, at the attack on the ego that are shared experiences. After all, if nothing is real, nothing can hurt you. Right? Biographies can bridge the gap, to climb out of the hole, at least briefly. They’re also about ghosts, beyond the more classical definition of the word: the ghosts of who yourself and others were.

Ghost stories. The ethereal presence of past selves that hang around us, unbidden, unshakable.

I’ve been re-reading three this week. Two autobiographies, neither of which, perhaps appropriately, was written in the first person, and one biography.

The first is Winter Journal by Paul Auster. Maybe not his best work, but still worthwhile. Subdued, fragmentary. Nowhere near the power of The Invention of Solitude. Written in the second person, it feels disembodied at times even as he describes the physical in detail: “a catalog of sensory data,” he says at some point, and after all this is much of what consumes life, living, death, dying. The narrative nudges, rather than pushes, forward. It ends up feeling like a meditative exercise.

Joseph Anton: A Memoir, the second book, is on the other hand like being thrust into the edge of a tornado. You can see the calm center of the storm, integral to it but out of reach, as you spin wildly on its edges. This is may also not Rushdie’s best, but to place it against works of fiction, however autobiographically informed they may be, is a disservice in my mind. “Life and death” feels real in these pages, and I doubt any one of us could have done better at navigating the choices he faced. Fear is palpable, so is anger: he could have easily borrowed the title from his 2001 book: Fury. Writing it in third person as he did may have been the only way to frame these experiences.

Rushdie’s celebrity status is responsible for a lot of the negative reaction towards this book, but it’s an important work, and I tend to ignore what surrounds the celebrity obsession within the book, wives, girlfriends, meeting Bono… and focus instead on the struggle around the fatwa and The Satanic Verses. Self-publishing is revolutionary and is happening in this area is important and in any case would happen no matter what. But disintermediation can have the effect of, um, disintermediating and therefore exposing bare an artist, leaving them without a support structure. What would happen today, I wonder, if instead of principled editors and publishers all that stood between an artist and a murder proclamation was… the complaints department at Amazon?

I wonder.

This applies more broadly. The very force that gives everyone a voice may be also be empowering those who want nothing but to take our voices away (think China, or Iran, or Syria, or…).


Which brings me to Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, by D. T. Max, and perhaps the best book I read last year. Here, finally, a biography written in third person about a third person. It could also have been subtitled “DFW’s Battles With Irony And Addiction,” although it didn’t deal exclusively with that of course, and I use the word “with” carefully here, since it doesn’t univocally mean against. What follows is a brief passage that illustrates well not only some of these ideas but also makes visible to different degrees strands that are woven throughout the book and the story, and DFW’s life.

America was, Wallace now knew, a nation of addicts, unable to see that what looked like love freely given was really need neurotically and chronically unsatisfied. The effect of Leyner’s fictional approach to life—mutated, roving, uncommitted—like that of Letterman and Saturday Night Live—was to make our addiction seem clever, deliberate, entered into voluntarily. Wallace knew better. And now he was far clearer on why we were all so hooked. It was not TV as a medium that had rendered us addicts, powerful though it was. It was, far more dangerously, an attitude toward life that TV had learned from fiction, especially from postmodern fiction, and then had reinforced among its viewers, and that attitude was irony. Irony, as Wallace defined it, was not in and of itself bad. Indeed, irony was the traditional stance of the weak against the strong; there was power in implying what was too dangerous to say. Postmodern fiction’s original ironists—writers like Pynchon and sometimes Barth—were telling important truths that could only be told obliquely, he felt. But irony got dangerous when it became a habit. Wallace quoted Lewis Hyde, whose pamphlet on John Berryman and alcohol he had read in his early months at Granada House: “Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy the cage.” Then he continued: “This is because irony, entertaining as it is, serves an almost exclusively negative function. It’s critical and destructive, a ground-clearing….[I]rony’s singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks. That was it exactly—irony was defeatist, timid, the telltale of a generation too afraid to say what it meant, and so in danger of forgetting it had anything to say.”

D.T. Max., Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story

Life. Addiction. Irony. Death. There are no simple, clean, tidy answers, and fragmentary is an appropriately recurring idea.

DFW, commenting on Infinite Jest once said that the novel was “[…] sort of what it’s like to be alive […] really a very pretty pane of glass that had been dropped off the twentieth story of a building.”


snatched away

yiKnowing it’s coming doesn’t help. “Too soon,” you think, still. Faced with loss, your vocabulary feels incomplete; you are left grasping at metaphors. Even those don’t feel quite right. You discard them, reluctantly, all but one.

A life unfairly snatched away. Then again, when is it fair?

Too soon.

Yi. I’ll miss you.

We turn away 
to face the cold, enduring chill

As the day begs the night for mercy love
The sun so bright it leaves no shadows
Only scars
Carved into stone
On the face of earth
The moon is up and over One Tree Hill
We see the sun go down in your eyes

You run like a river, on like a sea
You run like a river runs to the sea

And in the world a heart of darkness
A fire zone
Where poets speak their heart
Then bleed for it
Jara sang – his song a weapon
In the hands of one
though his blood still cries
From the ground

It runs like a river runs to the sea
It runs like a river to the sea

I don’t believe in painted roses
Or bleeding hearts
While bullets rape the night of the merciful
I’ll see you again
When the stars fall from the sky
And the moon has turned red
Over One Tree Hill

We run like a river
Runs to the sea
We run like a river to the sea
And when it’s raining
Raining hard
That’s when the rain will
Break your heart

Raining…raining in your heart
Raining into your heart
Raining your heart into the sea

Oh great ocean
Oh great sea
Run to the ocean
Run to the sea

assume good intentions

A good friend once told me: “Assume good intentions.” Those three words have been hugely influential in my world view in the last few years. Once you make this idea explicit it can shape how you think about what others do in significant ways.

I was reading today about some of the brouhaha surrounding Lean In and the whole why-is-a-billionaire-woman-telling-women-everywhere-what-to-do thing and there was a reference for the launch of Circles.

Gina & Team: congratulations on the launch, it must have been a crazy effort and it looks great.

It seems it’s been building up for a while (the controversy around the book, that is) but I had not seen it until today when I read this article in The New Yorker.

Why I bring this up is that what keeps coming back to me in all of this is how our perspective in the Valley is sometimes clouded by second-hand opinions, innuendo, and gossip, for example around who got funded by whom or which idea is “in”. Yes, this is not unique to the Valley, but it happens frequently here and so I can attest to it, in my own backyard (so to speak… the actual inhabitants of my shared backyard are bluebirds and squirrels).

Putting yourself out there, through a book, art, or even, yes, software, is a hard thing to do. People misunderstand and misinterpret your intentions and motivations constantly, and the schadenfreude that is sadly all-too-common makes things even harder. But we are all just people, trying to do the best we can. The number of significant zeros in your bank account doesn’t change that in most cases. And I say that  having very few significant zeros left in my own bank account.

But, funny thing (not ha-ha funny), most of the people that have such strong opinions on these things have never done them. They “talk about the book” without having “read the book.” (You really need to read The New Yorker article to get this reference). Some of my brothers-in-arms work at Evernote, but do they get press and coverage when they “just” keep an awesome service/app running? No. They get press when someone breaks into their systems.

Controversy sells.

Don’t get me wrong: critics are good> But it’s a matter of degrees. I’m not saying you need to write a book to be able to critique a book, or that you need to start a company to be give your opinion on how ist should be run, but at the very least spend a moment and consider the effort involved. Avoid ad hominems. Forget about money for a second. Consider how much of their lives these people are sacrificing trying to do something.

Assume good intentions.

I bet that if you did that you’d find yourself a bit more forgiving of missteps, a bit more understanding, a bit more willing to believe.

And for those who are doing it, regardless of the scope or (apparent) size of your project, here’s something I could not say out loud because it would sound terrible given my accent… but I can write it: Gina, Sheryl, and all of you out there who are putting yourselves, your sanity, on the line for an idea: Give ’em hell.


honestly, let’s unpack this: it’s like, you know…very unique?

I am fascinated by (obsessed with?) slang, colloquialisms, jargon, argot, and of course language use and misuse in general. Perhaps most entertaining are slang and colloquialisms that pop up and become widespread in the space of a few years.

“Honestly…,” “Let’s unpack this,” and a few notable others have become more frequent (at least from my point of view) and I wanted to dissect them a bit and think about what could be behind them.

New terms or ways of communicating can be hard to see “appear” sometimes, since they enter everyday language incrementally, and the best part is that some of them may not be new at all, “new” defined here as “having popped up in the last 10 years”, but they may be new to me as they become common or even pervasive in the conversations I have and the information landscape that I inhabit.

There’s more than pure nerdish entertainment to this. For one thing, it can be used as a lens through which to look at society and culture, but more specifically at organizations and what makes them tick. Religions, in particular are an interesting subtype of organization since some of them maintain their high-level structures for hundreds or thousands of years. For example, Scientology’s obsession with redefining  language is notable in that they are at the extreme end of the spectrum combining both jargon and and repurposing of common language, which naturally affects how you communicate and therefore relate to, and to some degree how we perceive, reality.

Startups go through a similar (even if simultaneously more overt and less structured) process in this regard. Most of us have seen how companies have their own terminology for everything. In engineering, in particular, you could literally sit through an entire conversation about infrastructure between two engineers from the same company and never know what they’re talking about, while in marketing or sales they don’t so much invent terminology as repurpose it freely, leading to a overloading of commonly used terms that can some times create confusion (e.g. “Active users” or even “pageviews”).

I’m not saying that startups, tech companies, or even non-tech companies are cults (Apple’s perception as such notwithstanding..), but there’s some similarities that I think speak to a need of a group, no matter of what kind, to define itself as separate from everyone else and, of the mechanisms necessary for that to happen, language is one of the  easier starting points.

But back to what are more widely shared colloquialisms and/or slang, here’s a few personal favorites that I’ve observed have become more common in recent years, and some of my own musings on what’s behind them.

Some of these trigger “old man yells at cloud” syndrome in me, since (apparently) I have a hard time handling the cognitive dissonance, sheer nonsense, or just plain lack of meaning involved.

“Like, you know…” and the invisible question mark that follows

This one is fairly established, dating I think back to the mid-90s. And it hasn’t just endured, it has become so widespread and entrenched that it’s definitely worth mentioning.

It’s one of the most fascinating colloquialisms in my opinion. It’s a simile in which the structure that follows “like” is not explicit, but rather vaguely points to some idea that perhaps, maybe, hopefully, the other person shares in some indeterminate way in the statement we’re about to make, while expressing that we really don’t care too much one way or the other.

It is maddening to me to be in a conversation in which the other person constantly trails off, attaching “like, you know”s and question marks at the end of sentences. We are, apparently, not supposed to have conviction anymore, and language tinted with this construct communicates that clearly. It says: I have nothing invested in this statement.

All too often, in fact, “Like, you know…?” has no follow up at all and it just trails off, the question mark implicit in the inflection of our voice, the interrogative tone, the you know parenthetical. It’s filler, pretending that you’re saying something when you really aren’t, a statement without content, a commitment to nothing in particular that nevertheless creates the impression that we’re communicating. Whatever is said gets turned into a question, something to be challenged on the receiving end. But when the receiver also answers with similar lack of definition, then it’s just a bunch of words strung together, isn’t it? A charade: because, actually, we don’t want to have a real conversation.

Declarative language, straight up statement of beliefs, of facts, of what we know to be true even if it is subjective, has been appropriated by the extremes, the Glenn Becks of the world. The alternative, nuance and complexity of thought, are in everyone else often replaced by a quivering indecision.

The flip side of this indecision is how we pretend to counteract it with an earnest declaration: “Honestly…”


This type of preface or clarification instantly triggers, at least for me, the thought that the rest of what the other person’s been saying has not been “honest.” Not “dishonest” necessarily, but the addition raises the level of whatever comes after over what came before. And, when it’s used constantly it just makes me question everything.

Aside from combining it with “like, you know…”, to give the appearance of weight while simultaneously reducing the importance of what we’re saying, “honestly” is also used in many other cases. Why are we suddenly using this modifier so frequently? Is it that in a world when The Onion‘s headlines can appear as serious as those in The New York Times we have suddenly decided that, by default, everything is suspect? Or is it perhaps that PR, marketing and advertising are so pervasive that we look at everything with skepticism and some degree of mistrust, requiring the additional emphasis of “honestly” to separate what we say from what we’re supposed to say? Maybe a bit of both. Ironically, advertising continues to be pretty effective. Instead of applying these filters to ads, we look at everything with suspicion.

“Let’s unpack this”

This one seems to have become more common in the last couple of years. I don’t know if it’s been traced back to its origins, but it seems to me that it’s a byproduct of technology –both explicitly and implicitly, partially around lack of trust, but also increased (real and perceived) complexity.

Explicitly: software, first, where so many things are “packaged” and have to be “unpacked” to look at them. More importantly, thanks to e-commerce, followed by a relatively new phenomenon of boxes everywhere. We all get packages at home or the office that have to be unpacked. Think back, pre-e-commerce, how common was it to get a package? For most people, not very. Now, unpacking is a frequent action in our daily lives, a common occurrence.

Implicitly: everything around us now has layers within layers, a Matryoshka doll of seemingly neverending complexity. The phrase “let’s take a look under the hood” used to be applicable beyond cars — the world generally had one level. You’d open the hood and there was the engine. Done. Now, “under the hood” is just the first of many layers, even in cars (batteries, microprocessors, software…). A phone is no longer just a phone, and you can even have a phone built into your car, nevermind connected to it. A car contains maps. The maps contain reviews. The reviews link to social media. And on and on it goes. The ongoing merging of cyberspace and meatspace often leads us down rabbit holes in everything we touch.

Which also relates to “Honestly” since “Unpacking” is often used for discussing statements by public officials, and even facts. The only way you would need to “unpack” a statement is if its true meaning, or different interpretations, were “packed” under the “wrapping” of its surface. Orwell’s doublespeak (or maybe n-speak?) ingrained to the degree that the default assumption becomes that there’s hidden meaning, or inherent obfuscation. Hence, “Honestly” may be functioning as a vaccine for “Unpacking” — something that communicates “Unpacking not required.”

“Very unique”

Once more, I chalk this one up as trying to counteract the lack of trust we have come to assume in what’s communicated. It is more commonly used by marketing types, but recently I’ve heard with alarming frequency in other contexts.

Something is either unique, or it isn’t. It can’t be “very unique,” or “incredibly unique.” Period. But I suppose that when words like “unique” have become overused, we start to add adjectives in the hopes of making it clear that, yes, this is unique, as opposed to all those other things that we say are unique even if they’re not.

This is the most egregious misuse of an adjective, but there are others. I typically use words like “beautiful,” “love,” “hate,” and others sparsely, because their weight is diminished by attaching them to everything. I like rain, in itself but also because I appreciate sunny days more when they’re juxtaposed with the alternative, and viceversa.

If everything is beautiful, if beautiful is the norm, then how do we talk about something that is special, that touches us beyond that? We start adding superlatives: “incredibly beautiful,” “profoundly beautiful” and so forth (“profound” is another overused term these days, now that I think about it). Until that becomes the way we refer to even the menu transition of an iPhone app, or some icon, or the color of a couch, at which point we are left with a situation in which our depiction of it leaves us little room to enjoy the occasional good thing, because we have done away with contrasts by turning everything into positive happy feelings.

Most of the time, nothing remarkable happens, our lives are routine, and that should be just fine. Also, a lot of things just suck. And that’s a good thing, because if they didn’t we wouldn’t be able to tell when they don’t.

the pliability of our perception of time

Me: Happy New Year!

World: It’s February.

Me: Says you.

World: Says me, the Gregorian Calendar and over six other billion on this planet. I’d add “Q.E.D.” but it seems redundant.

Me: Do I get points for trying?

World: Not really, no.

Me: Fine. I accept your apology.

World: I didn’t apologize.

Me: I know you are, but what am I?

World: I’d rather not say.

Me: I win!

the process matters more than the outcome

“In the present situation of the United States, divided as they are between two parties, which mutually accuse each other of perfidy and treason…this exalted station [the presidency] is surrounded with dangerous rocks, and the most eminent abilities will not be sufficient to steer clear of them all.” Whereas Washington had been able to levitate above the partisan factions, “the next president of the United States will only be the president of a party.”

–Thomas Jefferson

The quote, from “Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation” by Joseph J. Ellis, sounds like something that would fit well in place in today’s “highly polarized” politics. Only the grammatical structure and vocabulary (e.g., “perfidy”, “exalted”, “eminent abilities”) make it stand out from the more, um, succinct versions we would be likely to hear today (e.g. “You lie!”).

The obvious decay in the use of complex, rich language to convey and argue about complex, rich ideas, is perhaps one thing that has definitely changed in the last two hundred years and something that I wish could be reversed; and yet this particular is not restricted to politics. When longhand and carrier mail is replaced by 140 characters and texting, these things are bound to happen.

What has not changed is the emotionally charged, fiercely fought nature of political campaigns in America. If you take as a yardstick that Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804 as a result of a kerfuffle coming out of remarks in the middle of a campaign, I’d argue we still have a ways to go to get to “extreme partisanship.” And let’s not forget the kinds of statements on both sides of the line before, during, and even after the Civil War. Or the 60s, which saw Vietnam, riots, and the assassinations of three leaders, or… you get the point.

But surely, you’d say, when one party freely flings at another accusations of, say, fascism, we have crossed a line? After all, the 19th century didn’t yet know the suffering and horror of not one but two world wars driven by this ideology bent on domination? Surely the strange concept of accusing President Obama of being both a Fascist and a Socialist –two ideologies that, in their basis, flatly contradict each other– is new?

Not quite:

“In Central Europe the march of Socialist or Fascist dictatorships and their destruction of liberty did not set out with guns and armies. Dictators began their ascent to the seats of power through the elections provided by liberal institutions. Their weapons were promise and hate. They offered the mirage of Utopia to those in distress. They flung the poison of class hatred. They may not have maimed the bodies of men, but they maimed their souls.

[Roosevelt’s] 1932 campaign was a pretty good imitation of this first stage of European tactics. You may recall the promises of the abundant life, the propaganda of hate.”

–Herbert Hoover, in a speech to the Republican National Convention, June 10, 1936

Hoover wasn’t alone in making this comparison. Other opponents of the New Deal were similarly apoplectic in their pronouncements. Imagine the power of this comparison right at the moment when these ideologies, now broken, where ascendant. While I am guessing that many people today may not have in mind the full context of the contradiction when they simultaneously accuse Obama of being an appeaser (with Iran), a Socialist, and a Fascist, you can bet that politicians using these analogies in the 1930s were well aware of the incongruity of their argument.

This wasn’t a temporary situation; these arguments resurface, time and again:

“Fascism was really the basis for the New Deal. It was Mussolini’s success in Italy, with his government-directed economy, that led the early New Dealers to say ‘But Mussolini keeps the trains running on time.’

–Ronald Reagan in May 17, 1976 Time Magazine.

And what about the flip side? Republicans now regularly praise President Truman (quite vocally during the 2008 election, during which they compared him to Sarah Palin, and Mitt Romney recently invoked him during a speech at the NRA) while decrying the charges that Democrats level at them as “class warfare”. But:

“I would like to say a word or two now on what I think the Republican philosophy is; and I will speak from actions and from history and from experience.

The situation in 1932 was due to the policies of the Republican Party control of the Government of the United States. The Republican Party, as I said a while ago, favors the privileged few and not the common everyday man. Ever since its inception, that party has been under the control of special privilege; and they have completely proved it in the 80th Congress. They proved it by the things they did to the people, and not for them. They proved it by the things they failed to do.”

–Harry S. Truman in his speech to the Democratic National Convention, June 15, 1948

Presumably, Republicans from 1948 would find it strange that current-day praise of Truman seems to ignore these types of pronouncements.

In all, most if not all campaigns wrap themselves in terms of near-life-and-death struggles. I personally remember clearly that since 2004, every single presidential election has been defined by both parties as “The most important election in our lifetimes.” And this isn’t new — you can find quotes stating the same for nearly most, if not all, presidential elections.

Why? Because it’s part of the process.

— oOo —

True democratic process is one of passionate, sometimes even extreme, arguments and grassroots efforts culminating in an election. If you lose, you regroup and prepare for the next. It’s true, I think, that the 24-hour news cycle and the Internet have increased the feeling of a “permanent campaign,” but we’ve lived with it for a couple of decades now and it hasn’t destroyed the process — if anything, it has supercharged it.

I don’t mean to imply that wildly exaggerated remarks, or extreme, false accusations are good. I don’t think they are. What I’m saying is that American democracy is vibrant precisely because of the energy, the tug and pull of politics in this country, and that inevitably that leads to some extremes. Even at the peak of demagoguery, every election, more or less, ends up becoming a fight of ideas and visions for the future. Do we need more or less regulation? Do we need a stronger safety net? What do we think about social issues?

What’s the alternative? There are actually many of course: a dictatorship on one extreme, anarchy on the other. And the US is nowhere near any of these extremes (fears of some people on the right notwithstanding). But to look at the more realistic ones, consider how democracies are working (or rather, not quite working) in other countries, for example in Russia, or Argentina. Russia is perhaps a difficult example because of the structural shock of the fall of the Soviet Union. Argentina, on the other hand, emerged from dictatorship almost three decades ago with a fairly strong two-party system. (Sidenote: whereas the US skews center-right, Argentina’s political system skews center-left. Someone like Obama would be firmly center-right in Argentina, and there’s really no equivalent to the Republican party in Argentinian politics). In the last three decades, for various reasons –too many to go into detail in this post–, the two party system in Argentina has been eviscerated. There is now, in effect, only one fully-functioning party, that used to be the Peronist party and now the (nominal) opposition is mostly composed of factions of that party. The result is a lack of argument and political discourse that is slowly but surely eroding democratic principles. What does this look like in practice? Consider this: President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was re-elected without having to debate her opponents even once. This is no doubt expedient for the candidate that can get away with it, but it’s not good for the process, and in the end it’s arguably not good for the candidate either. Candidates benefit from having to present and defend competing visions of the future, and the political process in the US gives them, or rather, requires, plenty of that.

Additionally, the lack of a passionately vibrant political process and of clear choice (even if the choices seem to be worlds apart) leads whoever is in power to seek re-election just for the sake of retaining power itself, not to advance their ideas. It is no longer a matter of offering competing visions for the future of the country, since there’s no one to compete with, but of retaining power to maintain the status quo. Leaders become insulated and reluctant to change. Compromise, however feeble or minor it may seem in a “highly polarized” political environment like the US, simply disappears.

But isn’t compromise dead in the US? Republican stonewalling during the last few years would seem to prove that this is the case. But consider that George W. Bush emerged from his re-election with control of both houses of Congress, as did Obama in 2008. And yet, when they tried to pass legislation that the other party fiercely opposed (Social Security reform in Bush’s case, Health Care reform in Obama’s case) the results showed that even under one-party rule with a functioning two-party system some form of compromise must exist. Bush’s Social Security reform failed to pass. Obama’s Health Care reform passed, but significantly diluted from the progressive ideal of universal coverage that was the goal all along.

This is not an argument to ignore the very real differences between the alternatives or to engage in false equivalencies in which denying plain facts becomes, somehow, “a point of view.” So, like many others, I do worry when I see some extremes getting closer to the mainstream. I worry, for example, that many people today, mostly on the Republican side, deny the evidence that climate change is happening and, more alarming still, seem to be somewhat gleefully anti-science. Do I wish this wouldn’t be the case? Absolutely. I worry, yes, but I don’t despair, because I consider the alternative: not necessarily the extremes of anarchy or dictatorship, but one where the process by which democracy takes place has been subdued and even subverted and it becomes only superficial theater, where “elections” are won without debate or with 80 or 90% of the vote. In this sense, the laws that are intended to suppress turnout (and are now a point of contention) along with the perennial redistricting to make seats “safe” are to me more concerning than whether a group of people, however large, temporarily decides that Climate Change is somehow a well-orchestrated hoax among a bunch of scientists. They are more concerning because they strike at the heart of the process, making accountability harder and getting closer to the pursuit of power for power’s own sake, at any cost.

Today’s “50/50 nation” can be frustrating, and even scary at times, for all sides, but in that delicate balance lies the energy and vitality of modern democracy, and it is through the process of hard-fought campaigns ending in elections that ideas are advanced and evolve, rather than in one particular result. Results matter a great deal, but they are not definitive if the process works (however imperfectly) because it extends beyond that one result to affect all that follow.

In other words: in any one election, the process matters more than the outcome.

diego’s life lessons, part II

Excerpted from the upcoming book: “Diego’s life lessons: 99 tips for survival, fun, and profit in today’s baffling bric-a-brac world.”  (part I is here).

#6: sign up for every personalization app available

“Big data” is all the rage these days. We are told that a few machines running Hadoop can figure out the deepest triggers in your psyche from only a few Facebook ‘Like’ actions. Companies crop up every other day promising to figure out what kind of ice cream flavor you’re going to like because you buy a certain color of bath towel. And they’re right, of course. A human being’s life can absolutely be defined by a linear regression on a few loosely correlated data points. It doesn’t matter if what they’re correlating is a couple dozen people in Tennessee having burgers, while you live in Sweden and like to unwind watching The Seventh Seal over and over. People are people, it doesn’t matter who they are, where they are, why they are, or how much they are. Humans are just not that interesting or different from each other. If you need proof, go look for videos of stake boarding puppies on YouTube and count the views.

It used to be these were websites, but now they’re just apps. They follow you, track your every move, and give you suggestions about all the things that you should be doing. By signing up for every one of these apps, you not only ensure that you will be doing as little thinking as possible, you will be ahead of the curve on this I-don’t-need-to-think-or-do-anything trend. Soon, apps will shift from giving recommendations and predictions to just telling you where you should go. The inevitable next step is that the app will do it for you — you won’t need to move a finger. An app will tell you that you should be having dinner somewhere (eventually even skipping the part where it tells you), check you in, tweet for you about how delighted you are with the dinner you’re supposed to be having, all from the comfort of your home while you’re eating canned beans. Then you can hide in a cupboard in peace (See rule #1).

In time, the apps will even date and have their own, um, applets. Which will let them achieve the app singularity and just bypass humans altogether (for the most part. We will still have to keep the phones plugged so the apps can run. We’ll basically be tasked with providing electricity for them, something that The Matrix got right).

So get on board. Before an app does it for you.

#18: raise your own tiny robot army

Wake up call: Do you really think that people are getting Lego Mindstorms just for the kids? We have been warned time and again of the consequences of a decaying civilization, impending apocalypse, and whatnot. What we have not been told is what happens when someone else in your block has a robot army. Trust me, you need one.

A tiny robot army comes in handy in countless ways. Whether you’re engaging in hostilities with the jerk from the apartment right above yours that won’t stop playing loud music, or just escorting your dog while you take him for a walk, a robot army will always come in handy. In peacetime, the robots can be deployed to do various chores, like washing dishes, cleaning your house, or carrying bags from the supermarket. And every once in a while, you can use them to invade a nearby property if you’re suspicious that they may be threatening your way of life, by, for example, hiring a new gardener to change the shapes of their shrubbery. In a pinch, if, say, your Internet connection is down, they may be dressed in hilarious tiny costumes and made to enact Shakespeare plays for you. You haven’t really experienced Hamlet until you’ve seen it performed by a tiny robot army.

And I know what you will say: “I’ll call Aquaman!” But, really, Aquaman is useless outside of water, and he isn’t real. Batman only works Gotham, so unless you live there, you’re on your own. Get a robot army ready, or suffer the consequences.

#50: be friendly with squirrels

Godzilla has battled many enemies: Mothra, Space Godzilla, Megalon, Mechagodzilla. All worthy foes. But Godzilla never had to face a horde of angry squirrels.

Squirrels are a force to be reckoned with. They have multiple powers: blinding-fast movement, jumping, crawling up surfaces, high-speed sniffing, some can even fly. They are fearsome foes of cabling: squirrels can chew through pretty much anything, given enough time, including but not limited to fiber optic cables, coax and the wiring system of your car, which I have personally experienced.

Some people have said that squirrels are just fancy rats with fur coats, but nothing could be further from the truth. They’re highly advanced creatures, as you can see from the following photographic evidence:

That’s right. Anti-tank weaponry. Tiny violins. Lightsaber fights. Squirrels can handle them all. They even had the forethought, thousands of years ago, of preparing for today’s Jurassic Park-like experiments with plants.

Naturally, squirrels cannot be true friends of mankind, since we compete for the same lightly-forested Internet-enabled high-garbage-density habitats known as the suburbs. So “friendly” is the best you can hope for. If your interests happen to match theirs, they can be a powerful ally, and, in case you ignored Lesson #18 above and don’t have a tiny robot army, you may be able to entice them to fight for you by giving them a box with assorted lengths of wire and some nuts.

#76: always have a miniature EMP device handy

Ever have that problem where your neighbor keeps construction going all the time? Or been at the movies and some jerk doesn’t stop talking on the phone? What about that meeting in which people just won’t stop playing Angry Birds on their iPads?

All of these problems have one solution: a miniature EMP pulse generator. This wonderful device will wipe out all circuits within a reasonable radius, returning your immediate surroundings to something like, say, Victorian-era England. What a time that was, when you could hold a world-wide empire that controlled hundreds of millions of people from a tiny island thousands of miles away from nearly everything and no one really worried about pesky things like human rights, child labor, and such. On the other hand you had to be constantly at war for all sorts of reasons, which really put a cramp on the Queen’s croquet schedule, but hey, nothing’s perfect.

Speaking of croquet: I don’t get it. Cricket, either. And who named these things anyway? Football, basketball: those are sports you can understand just by hearing their name. But croquet? Sounds like a side for breakfast, not a sport.

Anyway, back to the portable EMP. Procuring this device may be slightly tricky, and customizing it properly is not for the faint of heart. The best way to do it is to build it yourself: spend a few years becoming a nuclear physicist and then following that up with mechanical and electrical engineering degrees. With any luck, civilization will still be around by the time you are done.

Once you have your device, be careful how you use it, since it will likely also wipe out some or all of your own devices — not ideal, but in the end a small price to pay for peace and quiet.

diego’s life lessons

Excerpted from the upcoming book: “Diego’s life lessons: 99 tips for survival, fun, and profit in today’s baffling bric-a-brac world.”

#1: Hide in a cupboard

We start the series with perhaps the most important of all lessons: you should spend most of your life hiding in a cupboard.

The ever-growing focus on “safety” in our society, while laudable in its pervasiveness and intrusiveness, doesn’t go far enough.

Life is full of dangers: sharks, tigers, spiders, sharp-edged furniture, volcanoes, you name it. Consider: just being alive guarantees that at some point you’ll be dead! This is unacceptable. In my own scientific analysis, cupboards are the safest place to be. Here’s a few reasons:

  • Cupboards are cool and dry, which coincidentally match the conditions required by most dried or canned foodstuffs to be appropriately stored. Good nutrition is important.
  • Tigers mostly confine themselves to wildlife areas (zoos, your backyard)
  • Sharks need water and can’t really travel far without it, so you won’t find them more than a few feet away from the bathtub.
  • Spiders don’t like beer. Logic dictates, therefore, that they avoid the kitchen.
  • Volcanoes exist in remote areas with weird names, like Krakatoa or Eyjafjallajökull, which is clearly not near your cupboard. Unless you live in Krakatoa or Eyjafjallajökull, in which case I suggest that first you move to another country, and then hide in your cupboard.

All in all, cupboards are excellent locations to retreat to, whether you want to avoid watching election results, ride out the apocalypse, or disrupt your phone’s cell signal so you can play Angry Birds in peace.

Note: In case of other dangerous situations (e.g., a highway nearby) I also recommend wearing a helmet and kneepads when in the cupboard, just in case.

#20: Own and use regularly at least one Windows PC

Maybe you switched to Mac a long time ago. Maybe you’re truly enlightened and run your own Ubuntu Beowulf Cluster in your basement. Whatever the case, not using Windows regularly is a crucial mistake. Specifically, a 2- or 3-year-old Windows PC running the latest version of Windows. (This ensures Windows will run, but just barely.)

A near-death experience will give you a new appreciation for life. Skydiving with a broken parachute, swimming with sharks in blood-soaked water, fighting a Kraken, all of these are good options for that. But using a Windows PC for a few minutes will achieve the same result with less than half the chance risk of death or injury.

And if you’re a real daredevil, having three or four Windows PCs and attempting to network them is guaranteed to get your heart pounding. True, it’s unlikely you will actually succeed at networking them, but the experience is what really counts. Another option for thrill-seekers is to start using the latest version of Office, sight-unseen, when faced with a non-negotiable deadline. If you do this, make sure to turn on Clippy, aka “Office Assistant”. He will be to you what Wilson the volleyball was to Tom Hanks in Cast Away.

Additionally, the original Minesweeper experience requires Windows, and if you haven’t played Minesweeper on a 200×200 grid, you haven’t really lived.

A corollary to this rule is that you should buy a new Windows PC at least once a year. You will engage in the thrilling process of figuring out whether you should get an AMD Phenom or an Intel Core 2, or find out exactly what the difference is between an nVidia GTX 550Ti, 560, 560Ti, 570, 580, 590, 670, 680, 690, or if you want to go retro and get one of the GT line, or GTS line, or the 4xx line, or even decide that what you really want is one of the many fine  ATI cards. (Like choosing one of the hundreds of types of cereal at a supermarket aisle, choosing video cards in the PC world is a wonderful experience that is guaranteed to keep you entertained for days.) Once you order it and get it 6 to 8 weeks later, turn it on just to experience the blast that is the instantaneous update process, as gigabytes of mandatory updates download and install. Later (much, much later) peruse all the pre-installed software and offers. Sign up for as many offers as possible, including, if possible, AOL Dial up, and then attempt to cancel them. Spend some time talking to technical support, rebooting the computer, unplugging it and replugging it. When you’re done, return it. No need to specify a reason. The people at the return center already expect it. In the process, you will help the economy by keeping the service industry humming along.

#47: Avoid nuclear detonations

An important rule to follow — being far away from nuclear detonations when they occur is a must if you want to keep on commuting, enjoying non-fat decaf soy chai lattes, and generally breathing. You may be familiar with nuclear explosions from that documentary by James Cameron about killer robots that will take over the earth in the near future (the one he did before going to Titanic to find Kate Winslet’s necklace), as well as countless home movies made by the US Army of houses being blown away and generally left a complete mess. The sheer forces of destruction, surface-of-the-sun temperatures, and blinding flash of light (not to mention radiation) are bad enough, but here’s what they don’t usually tell you: nuclear detonations have a side effect called an EMP, which wipe out electrical equipment far beyond the actual blast radius.

That’s right. No TV. No internets, which means no Wikipedia, or videos of animals doing funny things. No phone (for AT&T iPhones, same lack of ability to make calls, however). No blender. No ice. No ice! If there’s a measure of how far civilization has come, it’s the unregulated, unlimited flow of ice in the dwellings of common folk. Without ice, you will lose the ability to produce many common cocktails, and you won’t be able to create any ice sculptures. And who wants to live like that? In a cocktail-less world with no ice sculptures? Seriously.

In short: if you see a very large, very bright mushroom cloud in the distance, board the nearest plane that works and get away from it. Preferably not traveling to Krakatoa or Eyjafjallajökull (see rule #1).

#68: Aliens do not come in peace

Less a “life lesson” than a straight-up fact of the universe, it’s something that should nevertheless be always kept front and center. When you find yourself (as we’re often wont to doing) in a typical Iowa cornfield in the middle of the night, after having run out of gas, and a shiny spaceship lands in front of you, the rule is simple: DO NOT TRUST THE ALIEN.

Here’s a handy guide of how to respond to various first-contact situations:

  • If the alien majestically walks down from his/her/its spaceship, extends their hand/leg/tentacle and says/whispers/grunts “We come in peace”, shoot him/her/it.
  • If the alien is a tiny crab-like thing that wants to attach to your face and has acid for blood, shoot it.
  • If the spaceship looks like a car and the alien looks human, shoot it twice. Especially if they claim not to be an alien. Those are the most dangerous.
  • If the alien has a bizarre mask and dreadlocks, distract him by placing a cardboard cutout of Arnold Schwarzenegger from the movie Commando to your side, then shoot it. Naturally, this requires you carry said cardboard cutout with you at all times, preferably on the passenger seat for easy access.
  • If the alien is some sort of gelatinous blob that would not be affected by shooting, just run. Gelatinous blobs are never fast.

The one exception: when you find the alien in your backyard shed, and it likes Reese’s Pieces. In this case, attempt to confirm it’s peaceful by  verifying the alien is pliable to cross-dressing and wearing Halloween costumes. Then place it in your garage so he can build some intergalactic phone equipment, and start preparing for unnamed government agencies to descend on your property, by, for example, heating up the coffee and getting some donuts. It doesn’t hurt to be polite.

space pilot 3000

Hey! Only a decade late.

Happy New Year’s everyone!!!

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