MRE Review: Sopakco Chicken Pesto Pasta (5/10)

This is my first review of an MRE from the Sopakco Sure-Pak 12. I got the version without heaters.

The chicken pesto pasta was pretty good. The overall sauce was a little on the thick side and I think could have benefitted well from a little zest, tang, and/or kick. But the quality was good and the chicken tasty. The pasta was not mushy at all and the pesto aftertaste lingered nicely without being too garlicky. 6/10.

The cornbread stuffing tasted alright but the texture was a little slimy on the outside, not at either end of the fluffy (cornbread) or gooey (stuffing) ends of the spectrum. Palatable but not delicious by any stretch of the imagination. 3/10. The “Osmotic Cranberries” were delish (9/10) and the peanuts alright (5/10). The crackers and peanut butter were so thick and pasty I think they immediately corked my duodenum. Yeesh. (2/10) The instant coffee was passable. (7/10)

Overall, this was not a meal I would regularly eat for pleasure. It was passable and would fill, but doesn’t strike any particularly interesting culinary chords, if you know what I mean.

Rating: 5/10

Great Music (for Brett Durett)

David’s Awesome Tunes You May Not Have Heard (for Brett)

– “Tabula Rasa” by Arvo Part
– “American Boy” by Estelle feat. Kanye West
– “Your Mama” by Kennedy
– “Dirty Laundry” by Bitter:Sweet
– “Teenage Dirtbag” by Wheatus
– “Mars” from The Planets by Gustav Holst
– “Love Beat” by Yoshinori Sunahara
– “Special” by Strange Fruit Project
– “Singin’ in the Rain” by Mint Royale
– “DVNO” by Justice
– “Proper Education (club mix)” by Eric Prydz
– “Flutter” by Bonobo
– “Curves” by Royksopp
– “Do Whatcha Wanna (Soul party remix)” by Ramsey Lewis & Mr. Scruff
– “So Long” by Mr. Scruff
– “Sun in My Candlelight” by Wahoo
– “Smile (Simlish Version)” by Lily Allen
– “Cassius 99” by Cassius
– “Madan Exotic Disco” by Salif Keita
– “Take me Back to Your House” by Basement Jaxx
– “Windowlicker” by Aphex Twin

On Beer, Wine, Mead, and Sake

Also known as: David’s Guide to Getting Drunk in Style.

With eight years of wine tasting experience, I’ve now become the sommelier (wine steward) for the house I live in, Rainbow Mansion (nothing to do with our sexual orientation; we’re at the end of Rainbow Drive). We drink a kind of startling quantity of alcohol, being eight strapping men and women in our 20’s and early 30’s who like bringing over friends and entertaining. It’s not unheard of for us to down half a case in a night and most evenings see one or two bottles dispensed with. So I’ve been tasked with keeping us supplied with quality, affordable liquors. So I make a point of trying a lot of different kinds of wines, beers, sakes, and liquors to bring the best home to the house. The great news is that the Good Stuff is often not startlingly expensive or even hard to find. It just needs a little researching. And that’s where I come in, so you don’t need to do that “hard work”.

BEER

Cheap Beer. Need to bring a six pack to a party and don’t want to be the chump bringing Bud Light? Good, cheap choices are Fat Tire, Widmer Hefeweizen, and Corona (with a lime in it of course — please bring the lime). They’re all good, widely available, and not very expensive. Heineken’s a little watery for my taste, but not a terrible pick. Sapporo goes well with Asian cuisine. And if you can get your hands on a six pack of Sam Adams’ Cherry Wheat, you’ll be a hit with the ladies. Please, please don’t show up with MGD, PBR, or Natural Light, even if it’s to be ironic.

Quality Beer. Boddington’s and Guinness are absolutely rock solid staples for quality beer. Incredibly drinkable and smooth nitrogenated beers, they have reached the same kind of unimpeachable staple perfection as Heinz hit in ketchup and French’s in mustard, Sriracha’s in Asian spicy sauce, and Tapatio in Mexican hot sauce. But I digress. Just make sure to buy the tall cans of these beers and serve them cold – pour them immediately after opening into tall, refrigerated pint glasses. Smithwick’s gets an honorable mention here, and Kilkenny Irish Cream Ale is the best of the bunch but VERY sadly not available for sale in the US. (I got hooked on the stuff in New Zealand and miss it terribly.)

Corked Beer. Everyone (including myself) is a sucker for Belgian ales with a champagne top. It just feels classy to decork your beer. Chimay Blue has you covere here. ~$10 for a wine-sized (750mL) bottle. Very tasty. This beer, like other Belgian ales, is actually ideally served in wine-like glasses to be sipped, not pounded. (There’s a time and a place for the red Dixie cups; this ain’t it.) Allagash’s Curieux is another Belgian-style ale, this one aged in Bourbon barrels; quite tasty and sophisticated.

SAKE

Now most Americans haven’t had a lot of experience with sake. What experience they have had has been bad. My first take on sake was during college, watching anime with some friends, and we thought it would be really “authentic” to grab some sake to go with the anime. So we bought the cheapest stuff we could at the local liquor mart. We heard that traditionally sake is served warm, so we stuffed it in the microwave and served what came out. Good lord it was terrible, like getting assaulted by dirty gym socks. I decided that was it for me and sake.

Fast forward about three years from that to a trip I took to New York and some friends of mine wanted to drag me out to a sake bar. My protests were quickly waylaid as it became clear that noodles would also be served as I had missed dinner altogether. They bought a nice bottle (served cold) and gave me a sip – it was delicious! I was “reintroduced” to the world of sake.

Now if you happen to live in the San Francisco Bay Area, I would very highly recommend you take a day trip out to Takara Sake Factory in Berkeley. They provide free sake tastings (with an adorable museum) every day. And you can get some very, very good sake there very cheap. I’d particularly recommend the Shirakabe Gura Tokubetsu Junmai ($16/bottle), which serves amazingly well at room temperature and will absolutely convert new people to sake. The Sho Chiku Bai Organic Nama is refreshing and tasty (and a ridiculously cheap $7/mini-bottle), but the Sho Chiku Bai Nigori Crème de Sake is really what will win you friends. At $43 per CASE (12 small bottles), this stuff is one of the best deals for any kind of quality alcohol anywhere. And yes, trust me, you want a case of the Creme de Sake.

WINE

It seems that America over the last few years has begun to overcome its fear of wine. I’m very happy for this. The wine world can seem scary, with its pretentious personalities, complicated lingo, innumerable varietals and geographies, and marketing hocus pocus. But all of this serves to obscure the simple fact that alcoholic grape juice can be pretty damned tasty.

And tasty is really what it should be all about. NEVER feel pressured into buying a wine because it’s fancy or because you’re supposed to like it. The whole point is that you should like it. If you do learn words to describe the wines you drink, it should be for the primary purpose of finding other wines you like to drink, not to be pompous. So start with whatever comes to you, like “this reminds me of bubble gum.” Or “this smells like Grandma.” It’s fine. And if you find out you like a very unsophisticated or discount supermarket wine? Well, f— the haters. Know what you like.

WHITE WINE

The best white table wine in America is probably Carnival by Peju, a French Colombard that retails for about $16 a bottle; very lightly sweet and incredibly drinkable. Mondavi’s Fume Blanc is a little drier and is also a very solid and palatable white for even discerning palates at $15 a bottle. Navarro makes some of the best “off dry” (read: “lightly sweet”) whites out there, including their delectable late-harvest Riesling and, unbelievably, a Gewurtztraminer GRAPE JUICE that is out of this world – perfect for your Mormon friends. (Ditto their Pinot Noir juice.) Thankfully, I don’t like Sauternes at all, so won’t comment on them. The best port wines are the Vi Sattui 1999 Vintage Port ($34) and the 2006 Brutocao Ruby Port ($34)

CHAMPAGNE

Roederer’s Estate Anderson Valley Extra Dry (only available at the winery) is about $21 a bottle and is pretty much the only champagne I actually like. Yes, I’ve tried Dom Perignon and all sorts of other fancies, but most fizzies don’t sit well with me. Mind you, I won’t pass up a mimosa or a bellini.

RED WINES

In most other civilized countries in the world, red wine is as commonplace as water (and maybe consumed more often).  My favorites are Chilean Malbecs from Mendoza and Californian Pinot Noirs and Zinfandels. Specifically the the 2006 Duckhorn Migration Pinot Noir ($32/bottle), Imagery Zinfandel ($45/bottle), Benziger Tribute ($80), and Opus One ($150). The only wine club I belong to is Benziger and their sister wine Imagery is fantastic as well. The most FUN red wines probably come from a crazy old Dutch grandfather’s shack – visit Van Der Hayden Vineyards and you’ll probably be greeted by several children running screaming around the yard. It’s awesome.

MEAD

Honey wine (also called “tej” if you’ve ever had it with Ethiopian food) is quite good and can surprisingly vary across the board from very dry to (less surprisingly) very sweet. There’s a lovely meadery in South Bay called Rabbit’s Foot Meadery, definitely worth a visit.

L0K8 – A Simple Location Service For Twitter

This weekend I banged out a very simple location service called L0K8. It consists of a small (1.1MB) Windows download. You install & run, it pops up a web page, you give it your twitter username & password, and now as you move from place to place your Twitter location will change to follow you. And of course you can follow L0K8 on twitter to stay up to date with developments.

It was really fun and refreshing to go soup-to-nuts in 12 hours, something that I’ve done before with PBwiki, SingleStat.us, QuickFinger, and FailStamp, but this is my first “single session hack” that involved both a desktop client and a web service. I used ActiveState‘s PerlTray to make a simple Perl script into a system tray executable then installed with NSIS. I can provide source if people are interested. The server backend is in PHP and uses libcurl to post Twitter updates and GeoIP to do the location lookups.

The desktop app sits resident and every five minutes pulls the update URL (http://l0k8.com/update.php) to fetch a JSON array of simple info about the user’s current location. If the location has changed since the last update, the app then presents the new location to the user and the server posts the update to Twitter if the user has associated their L0K8 account with a Twitter username and password. Multiple installations can be used by the same account and each install is labeled (e.g. with the name of the computer).

This was designed to be the simplest possible incarnation of the server that could work and I think it is a very exciting baseline that could be built out substantially as a simple presence redistribution point. I’m tempted to explore ways to virally engage people with L0K8. If you have feedback, let me know!

Essence of Life

Who am I?

Who do I want to be?

I want to create, explore, dream

to add to the human experience

to love and inspire

and to give hope.

I want to experience the human condition

and have friends from all walks, in all places.

I want to feel pain, sorrow, loss, delight,

eat the finest and coarsest cuisines

I want to struggle and fail

to love unrequited

without becoming bitter.

I want to see God in every face.

Boingo Wireless: Astoundingly Confident & Poor

When I was stuck in Boston’s Logan International Airport for a few hours waiting for a flight, I decided I ought to get some work done; I popped open my laptop to see if I could spot a free network. Signed onto “loganwifi” and got a page full of ads asking me to pay for access via Boingo Wireless. At $10/mo ($22/mo after the first 3) and 100,000 access points, I decided I might give it a whirl and plopped down my card. Things were smooth, but then it wanted me to download a Windows program. Ruh-roh. (I’m just connecting to wifi! Why do I need another resident program?) So I go ahead and install it and run it. It thinks for two minutes about logging in and then gives me a “999 Network Error” and a phone number for support. Here’s where things get good.

I connected with support relatively quickly, and the guy sounded educated and confident in his answers, but I was shocked at the things he said:

“Are you recharging right now? Yes? Then I’d recommend you unplug and move a few feet away. I know the signal strength says 77%, but that really doesn’t mean much. Most people I talk with who are having connection issues are recharging, you know.”

“Did you download the program with Firefox? Firefox sometimes has an issue with these wireless networks and the installed program might be corrupted, which could be causing the ‘999 Network Error’. Try downloading the program again with IE.”

“Okay, just go to Boingo and log in again…” (I log in and the website refreshes for several minutes saying “Now Loading Account Information” and then gave up.)

“Oh, you’re using a Core 2 processor with Boingo? You know, that just doesn’t work, the signal bounces back and forth between the two processors and so some locations you just can’t connect.”

I started yelling at him and eventually got a refund. [smacks head]

It was amazing how confident this guy was. I probably wouldn’t have known how nuts this guy was if I wasnt’ a computer scientist myself.

Thoughts on Architecture

written during an april 2008 trip to boston

Although my training is principally that of a computer scientist, I have a deep appreciation for architecture. The glory of computing is that in a short period of time and with only a limited set of resources, one can impact a very large number of people. The computer in this sense is an Idea Amplifier, a megaphone of sorts. But architecture is exciting in the opposite “time-people” slice, where a building has the opportunity to impact a large number of people over a large amount of time. While at any given point in time its impact is limited due to the size of the building (which cannot fit one million people) and the fact that it is located in a specific geographic location (and thus out of reach of people who don’t happen to be there), the building remains in a way that software does not, standing for sometimes hundreds of years. So I suspect that at some point in my life I may become quite fixated on creating buildings.

My friend Eric Silverberg and I yesterday walked through the Boston Public Library and its architecturally famous reading room. After a brief discussion on patent law inspired by browsing the year-over-year rapidly expanding volumes of the patent office (and remarking on the fact that the Patent Office in the 1800’s kept incredibly detailed records on all sorts of metrics of agricultural production and trade), we walked to the new wing of the library, built in the 1960’s. The change was visceral – the design went from open and magnificent to cluttered and claustrophobic. Eric and I paused to discuss the differences.

“Eric,” I said, looking around the new reading area, “I don’t get it – this space has all the right ingredients. Tall ceilings, smooth lines, marble and matte black. I can understand why someone would have given a thumbs up to this design. What’s not working?”

Eric pointed out that the light was not sunlight and was not sufficiently bright, but also that the stacks didn’t work visually – “it’s like they forgot that there were going to be books on the shelves!” That was a helpful epiphany; an unbacked bookshelf is going to look scattered. When designing a room consider its appearance and character when filled.

We walked to the atrium of the new wing, and could see the parallels to the classic wing: light coming form a skylight some six stories above, smooth marble paneling, and staircases going up the side. Again, all of the right ingredients for a marvelous welcome to the library. But it felt like an industrial test chamber, not a grand entrance like the old wing. I noted three key differences: the stairs were angular instead of swept in a curve (hence the industrial feel), the marble was matte instead of polished (lower cost, but less elegant, also reducing the light reflected from the skylight), and there was no artistic detailing on any features. No engraved writing or crests or anything, just a giant American flag hanging five stories up. The eye had nothing to settle on and
appreciate.

Other themes I’ve noticed from architecture: homes should have a larger number of smaller rooms. Who the hell needs a cavernous 2000 square foot “master retreat” for a bedroom? That’s just creepy and lonely. Use the extra floor space for guest bedrooms and common space. People don’t need giant bedrooms to be happy; just something that’s big enough for a comfortable bed, a small closet, and a desk. A bigger room than that doesn’t make people happier, but being able to host friends will. Bathrooms should also be small and purposeful. 95% of the time they are utility; they don’t need to be apartments unto themselves. Architects should focus more on a home for entertaining and being hospitable.

Instead of having a “McMansion” you could for the same price and with the same space build out a home with eight small bedrooms, three showers, five toilets, a great kitchen, and plenty of common space for events. And presto! you’ve set yourself up for a much more interesting and fulfilling life.

Mapping the Internet

With only about 50% of PBwiki’s traffic coming from North America and with preliminary benchmarks showing 3+ second page load times in Paris, I’ve been thinking a bit about how to make the PBwiki experience snappy for people around the world. We’ve experimented with using various CDNs, but I’ve actually yet to be blown away by any of them. Having our own nodes at the edge can provide a number of benefits, such as having a well-defined cache invalidation strategy, performing DNS closer to the edges of users’ networks, caching secure data, and performing SSL handshakes quickly for logins.

So a reasonable question to ask at this point is – where are the spots where we’d get the most bang for the buck adding a new server? Answering this question requires a basic understanding of Internet topology. Armed with VPS accounts in Singapore and The Netherlands and traceroute.org, I set out to get a basic feel for the current state of global networks.

My principal hoped-for finding turned out to be true – links are mostly additive. Meaning that if it takes 200ms to get from Singapore to California and 85ms to get from California to Virginia, it takes nearly 285ms to get from Singapore to Virginia. Generally the direct route times were about 10% faster than the sums of the links, but never a lot less than that. This was encouraging because it said that latency was fairly consistently due to the speed of light.

That said, there were some startling findings as to global connectivity – The Netherlands are about 4500 miles away from India, but packets from Amsterdam consistently routed through Palo Alto on a 16,000+ mile journey the wrong way around the planet.

I also found that most of South America seems to route through Miami – even traffic within South America! And that traffic for South Africa often routes through New York, even from London, crossing the Atlantic twice. SAT-3 doesn’t seem to be doing its job.

David’s Tips on International Expansion Ordering:

  1. 1st cluster: To be most Net-accessible, your first cluster should probably be hosted in the US on either the West or East coast, depending on target demographic.
  2. 2nd cluster: Your second cluster should probably be on the other US coast – this will mean you’re within ~40ms of nearly all of North America, are under 100ms from Europe, and are under 200ms from Asia & Oceania.
  3. 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th clusters: Once you get into the swing of having a few clusters, the remaining spots that make sense seem to be Europe (Amsterdam & London are eminently reasonable choices), Australia or New Zealand, Japan, and Singapore or Hong Kong. It looks like the European ISPs have been peering reasonably well and are all under 50ms from London or Amsterdam. AU and NZ are ~30ms apart (Sydney from Auckland), as are Singapore and Hong Kong.
  4. Extra clusters: As needed, you can deploy in Brazil (which won’t help other South American traffic), South Africa (which won’t help other African traffic), India, or Israel (for Middle East acceleration).

More later on how to expand into additional points of presence at a low cost.

On Free Speech

A post of mine from a recent email thread on why a co-op should continue to host a server with arguably distasteful but legal content:

“I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Those who believe in the power of free speech do not believe in the excellence of each speech, but in the excellence of the collective understanding that results. Each one of us has truths and falsities and we must together thresh the false ideas from the wise. Even wise men can be foolish and even fools may be privy to wisdom. So we must consider each speech on its own merits and not mute anyone or raise some other up on a special pedestal of infallibility. This perspective compels us to permit the submission of all ideas to the judgment of mankind. And if we are all separably and collectively wise in these things, devising best we can lies from knowledge, we shall thrive as a species, acting on all the best data available to us.

In this capacity have our servers been home to churches, governments, anarchists, junior republicans, UFO conspiracy theorists, strip clubs, libraries, political candidates, sex parties, kindergarden teachers, reading groups, carpentry shops, and multinational corporations. We welcome all(*).

– David

(*) Needless to say, the in-person user meetings could get awkward.

David’s Difficult Math Question

In honor of pi day (3/14)…

If pi has an infinite number of digits in random sequence, then pi must contain all sequences.

It is commonly said that “pi does not repeat” and while generally true (pi does not predictably repeat) I think this assertion is clearly not strictly correct – there are an infinite number of repeated sequences in pi (e.g. “123123” occurs in the first million digits) as subsets of the sets of numbers in pi.

Therefore, I postulate that there exists at least one decimal position N in pi that is followed by the exact sequence of digits 1 to N-1. Namely, pi is “3.14159…314159..”. In regular expression syntax this question would actually just be phrased as /^([0-9]+){2}/, omitting the period after 3, naturally.

It should be provable that not only such an N exists but there is an infinite set of such repeating points. I would guess that that first N would be very large, maybe larger than the number of digits of pi yet computed (in the trillions), but if there is one there are almost assuredly an infinite number of other repeating points. This set would start with an almost improbably large number and I would suppose the numbers would very quickly get ridiculously larger.

There would be different such sets for different transcendentals, so perhaps we can discuss the creation of a function “D” that defines the infinite set of these “repeating points” for any transcendental. D(π) , D(e), D(φ), D(√2), etc.

Mildly Controversial Thoughts for Further Exploration

The singularity is past. We’re already living in a collective consciousness with behaviors exceeding the capacity of any human or machine to understand, because that collective has intelligence exceeding our own by definition.

Death makes life valuable. In having a fixed lifetime, every moment living becomes precious, because every decision must be the absolute best. There’s no time to screw around with a short life. This is a good thing, so I embrace my mortality.

What you get done is more important than what you do. Leverage the work of others and become someone who causes useful things to get done. At the end of the day, nobody really cares how much work you put into something yourself. Results are it.  (This is the theme of the Four Hour Workweek and of most texts on executive management.)

People want to belong to a system. Systems can be designed and programmed.

Education gives the best returns. Few things can improve GDP as having a well-educated populace. Compare wealth generation for immigrant cultures with a strong educational focus to those that do not for a clear demonstration.

Humans think in stories. Everything is a story, from business to love to travel. Learn to tell a good story and listen to others’ stories.

The devil is in the determinism. You can and do affect the future and the fate of the world. You are writing your own destiny; make it a good one.

Consistency is more important than correctness. People can deal with predictable systems even if they are flawed – bugs have workarounds when understood. But non-deterministic issues, even if minor, will drive people batshit crazy. Separately, this is why people like drinking Coke and eating McDonald’s even if they know it is terrible – they appreciate the consistency.

Mission Statement

Who am I?
Who do I want to be?

I want to create, explore, dream
to add to the human experience
to love and inspire
and to give hope.

I want to experience the human condition
and have friends from all walks, in all places.

I want to feel pain, sorrow, loss, delight,
eat the finest and coarsest cuisines

I want to struggle and fail
to love unrequited
without becoming bitter.

I want to see God in every face.

Beer Tasting Notes

On September 22nd, 2007, I got together with several of my friends (Eve Phillips, Jocelyn Joy Berl, Travis Kalanick, Nathan Schmidt, and Alan Keefer) and with the inspiration of my brother Chris Weekly we tasted a number of beers and rated them, along with commentary. They’re ranked here from top scoring to bottom scoring as averaged by all six individual scores. All scores are on a scale of 10.

Boddington’s (7.6)
– smooth, creamy, balanced
– i love it, wow
– it’s got “twang”
– clean finish, doesn’t linger
– quickly drinkable, goes down fast
– classically styled

Smithwick’s (7.1)
– very full-bodied, smooth beer
– mature, nothing up front, everything on the back end
– the trojan horse of beers
– almost “woodsy” not quite “floury”

Hen’s Tooth (6.6)
– malty musky
– bitter, sour, strong, “leather and coffee”
– could drink some amount of it

St. Peter’s Golden Ale (6.5)
– hoppy head, barley ass
– a little honeyed
– burnt toast, lingering
– a long finish
– citrusy like a bitter orange

St. Peter’s English Ale (6.0)
– hoppy, tart, smooth/subtle
– bready, easy to drink

Murphy’s Irish Red [in glass] (5.8)
– lacking in personality
– “the guy with pec implants”
– not at all what i would expect from an “irish red”,
this is an “irish pink”
– “almost great…but it misses”
– got a little “snap” to it
– sourdoughy, herby, tart, “sunny like a picnic”
– good picnic beer, cheerful / inoffensive
– “let’s play some volleyball”

Hobgoblin [wychwood brewery] (5.0)
– fruity, citrusy, “early bitterball”, a “clean exit”
– “this is almost a fruit juice”
– heavy, but doesn’t stick around
– wouldn’t want to drink a lot of it, “4 oz and i’m done”

Killian’s (5.0)
– transition beer from “not beer to beer”
– musty, “horsey”, “hay, urine, and dust”
– sparkly, not a lot of taste, bland
– “would not call in the morning”
– “meh”
– olivey
– a “bar beer”, “not a gourmet beer”
– velvety, soft, a little fruity / apple juice

Miller Lite (3.8)
– “club soda redone as beer”
– “it’s really nothing”
– inoffensive, simple
– watery
– “an inch and a half of roots showing”
– “trailer trash beer”

Belhaven “Wee Heavy” (3.4)
– nice color
– “something is wrong with this beer”
– eve WINCED – bitter & chocolatey “like a triple boch”
– rancid chocolate
– “it smells of feet…and not my feet”
– “over the top on every category”
– “italian chimay”
– strong attitude
– sweet, bitter, sour vanilla with chocolate
– “bridge and tunnel”

Gluing David Together Again

Help. My identity has been spread too thin.

While I’ve been surfing the Internet since before the web (archie, gopher, and ytalk were my friends in 1990) it wasn’t until 1996 that I created my first website at http://www.stanford.edu/~dewpoint/ (gone now) in anticipation of becoming a freshman at Stanford. On campus, I soon moved to hosting it on my own server in my dorm room, so “my URL” became http://barista.stanford.edu/ – that was my home for another year most notably featuring the first layman’s level description of MP3 and the MP3 Audio Consortium, home to a set of early-days MP3 webmasters who were intent on spreading the word about the power of MP3 to transform artist-listener relations. (We weren’t wrong.)

It wasn’t until 1998 that I realized I was going to need a permanent, personal URL to identify me and I set up David.Weekly.org. (A squatter has been sitting on Weekly.com for the last decade and refuses to sell the domain to me – also, David Weekley Homes owns DavidWeekly.com. Boo!) For the next seven years, I posted pretty regularly, adding poetry, pictures, links, posts, wine reviews, books I was planning on reading, a half-completed book on MP3 I wrote, and the first independent acoustic analysis of the Windows Media Audio format. I wrote my own scripts to handle the comments, the photo gallery, the books and wine applications, and the templating and navigation.

But then something kind of funny happened; around 2005 or so I found myself starting to contribute content to other sites than d.w.o. It felt good to add a photo to flickr and be participating in a conversation about pictures there, to be part of a shared dialogue instead of a monologue. I started adding profiles in different places, first Friendster, then Ryze, Tribe, MySpace, Orkut, OkCupid, LinkedIn, Facebook, TheFunded, ASmallWorld…my status updates went on AIM, into Facebook, and in my GMail — my identity has been getting spread thin. I stopped blogging, because who was going to see it if I just wrote it on d.w.o?

But in a certain sense, this was inevitable and a result of me eating my own philosophical dogfood. If I’m not the best picture gallery coder or host in the world, shouldn’t I let someone else do it? I even stopped hosting my own email in 2004 (I now use Gmail, which filters over 31,000 spam messages a month for me).

I’m now determined to attempt to see if I can cure my digital schizophrenia by
tying together these different communities and resources via a singular location. This is going to take a little fancy technology to bring in information from all these sources to reside in one place, but it should also encourage me to get back to writing (on a WordPress blog, naturally) again.

So here’s step one of gluing everything back together again.

Why I’m Not Going to Landmark

Landmark is a popular and profitable program in the US that claims to teach people how to better master themselves and their perceptions of the world. A number of my friends have attended or have considered attending at one point or another. I explain here in an excerpt from a letter to a friend why I don’t think it’s right for me.

I’ve had several friends participate in Landmark. It’s quite expensive and very effective at getting you wrapped up into the program – folks at or just after Landmark are universally pumped – but after the glow rubs off a few weeks later folks seem to feel a bit off. At that point they either don’t go back or they attempt to regain the feeling by throwing themselves back into it headlong.

I wholeheartedly agree with the proposition of trying things out as a generalism, but I shy away from experiences that are engineered to make unlimited quantities of money off of manipulating me emotionally. For one, I don’t have a huge amount of money or time to spend, so I prefer to spend them on adventures that will likely give better bang for the buck, of which there are not a small number. In the same way that I don’t play World of Warcraft because I don’t want to get sucked in, I don’t want to engage things like Scientology or Landmark that could potentially eat up chunks of my time/money/life that I don’t have to spare.

I think I am irked by the notion of vending wisdom.

I had to put that last sentence in a paragraph because I had to think about it for a good long while after writing it about its implications. But yes, I think that if something is Good, it should be freely and openly shareable with the world. And if it’s not, then it is either run by someone who only thinks that those privy to the secret should benefit (Gnosticism, Sectarianism, Elitism), or it is a scam that, if opened to all, would be revealed as such. This is why Scientology has made a very vigorous process of suing the bejeebus out of anybody republishing their texts – you’re supposed to pay vast sums of money
to work your way up to them. Now, you may or may not think Christianity is Good, but at least you can have a solid swing at it pretty easily – it’s pretty simple to get your hands on a free copy of the Bible, online or offline. (Try any hotel room in the US.) And nobody is going to charge you to come listen to a sermon. That’s because the organizations behind it are ostensibly trying to do Good, albeit with arguable levels of success. Most pastors aren’t paid particularly well, but for them, that is not the point. They’re out to help people selflessly because they’ve convinced themselves they’ve figure out how Good works, and the natural next inclination is to want to share it with absolutely everyone. The really irking part about programs like Landmark is that they actually tap directly into this desire to spread that which seem to be Good by pressuring “alumni” to bring their friends to the next meeting.

So when I see people who proclaim they can for a fee teach you how to become rich by any other mechanism than teaching people how to become rich, it seems disingenuous. Case in point is the Rich Dad, Poor Dad guy who made most of his money not on real estate but on selling people the dream that they could make their money on real estate. Likewise, when I see people who claim they have found how to have a better life that is more caring and loving and grounded but they want to charge me for it, that makes me think that they must not have found those things for the person who has found those things would wish to share them freely.

Another way to say this is that I find a worldview that embraces charging large fees to share wisdom not one that is personally compelling. Since the end product isn’t something I’m shooting for, the appeal of the process to get to this end is equally unappealing. So even if someone were, as a very special personal favor, enable me to go to all Landmark or Scientology sessions for free, I would not want to because I don’t want to sign onto or support this kind of philosophy of exclusivity.

If I were a builder and I saw a building that to me seemed very poorly put together as a whole, were the architect who built it to invite me (at some expense) to come learn about how he constructed the building so as to influence my own style of construction, I would not want my style so influenced. Because as tough and as self-sure as even people like you and I may be, those with whom we interact surely influence us. Indeed, this is why we choose friends the way that we do and why you have such a close-knit inner sanctum of friends – not only because you want to deeply care about these people but because you are carefully selecting who you want to be by way of selecting those who influence you. So you pick friends that will help you become who you want to be.

Likewise, I think it’s important to be adventurous but not wonton about our experiences in the same way. It’d be lovely to say we are above being influenced by bad ideas or poor thinking but I know I am not. While it’d be unhelpful to try and live a life without potential bad influence (closeting yourself up in some sort of self-righteous bliss) it might be just as bad an idea on the other end of the spectrum to take in all things evenly and without preference. We only have a finite amount of time on this earth, so we should pursue as vigorously as possible that which seems Excellent to us. And if something seems not likely to lead to Excellence, then it’s not something that is ideal to spend time on.

To reduce it all to something small, I think that if Landmark were a free program put on by a non-profit, I would potentially find it very compelling. But that fact that it is a lucrative endeavor puts the entire thing irreconcilably off for me.

Specism: A Moral Framework

Every person and every animal has built in a desire to survive and to better themselves. Upon this self-centric axiom systems such as Objectivism are built. Such systems lack something central to the human experience – desire for the direct betterment of the group, even at the expense of the self. They range from the Randian capitalist’s soulless lack of recognition of the value exchanged in being with another human apart from a cash transaction, to a hedonistic / anarchic existence focused on self alone. Neither ultimately fulfils because they separate us from the plane of our fundamentally social and caring existence. We were built to empathize, to seek excellence not only within ourselves but to bring it forth from others.

A moral system that encompasses the reality of the full human condition seems more likely to be a good fit. Humanism attempts to enter in here, but denies us a belief in God. And yet the reality of the human condition is that many people believe in God and find that
belief to be a substantive part of their experience of the world. A system that denies them this cannot be fulfilling for people to whom a belief in God is an irremovable tenet and reality of their existence. Far from being rare, this includes most humans, including
the author.

So what if we took the essence of humanism – a focus on the betterment of the species, and turned that into a moral framework alone? Such a species-oriented outlook could accommodate any number of religious beliefs. We could call such a system specism.

We find in nature every species works to the benefit of their species. The ant gives one of the best examples of specism, working as a colony to build a better tomorrow, each serving the colony however they can, with full autonomy. And yet a single ant seems to have little intelligence or capability – it is the full colony that is bestowed with adaptability and apparent learning. Animals thus often work for the benefit of the group even to their own sacrifice but rarely will sacrifice themselves for another species. Specism is a
deeply inherent part of our wiring as living creatures; indeed, without the drive to congregate for the good of the many, multicellular organisms could not have been made manifest, let alone societies.

The axioms of most religious beliefs not only accommodate specism, but are practically defined by it. “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” and “love others as you love yourself” are both specist tenets. Similar exhortations to care for others are given
throughout the core portions of most world religions.

Use of specism as a moral code, then, can seemingly be accomodated by a number of spiritual beliefs, provided that those beliefs permit a continued focus on the betterment of humankind. This is a strongly distinguishing trait from humanism.

A specist views the world by considering the impact of his/her choices upon humankind both immediately and in the long run. Two specists may or may not agree on the proper course of action, largely because of the impossibility of knowing the full effect of one’s actions in the distant future. A surprising diversity of moral conclusions spring from applied specism, permitting a complete moral framework for decision-making that is at least unified in its process, if not always in its conclusion.

Environmentalism

One of the more interesting venues for consideration of this balance comes up in the case of the environment. A knee-jerk reaction would be to suppose that the specist cares not for the environment and would support efforts such as drilling for oil in Alaskan refuges and so forth. But it’s the long view that’s key here; since access to clean nature is of such base importance to humans, keeping the Earth fresh is important for long-term human happiness. A specist may decide to eat meat, given that it is in our nature to do so (and it can be very tasty). But a specist could also decide that the eating of meat could end up imperiling the species by producing too great a burden upon the Earth’s resources. Both would be valid outcomes.

Some environmentalists decry specism, equating it to racism. And yet this argument is without substance and emotional. When I meet another person, regardless of their skin color, I can communicate with them as a peer and they are as likely to be able to assist me as I they. We have brains that are roughly made the same and are, with perhaps some effort on both sides, capable of some real understanding of the other. The color of one’s skin does not change the reality of this human connection. And yet, when I meet a mouse or a bug, while there is something to appreciate there, even deeply, I do not meet such animals as peers. For no amount of schooling will help a mouse be able to have a candid discussion with you. (Although certain hallucinogens might be able to effect such a result.) We all want to be part of a group – and yet the sense of group is lost beyond members one can reasonably consider a peer. While non-humans can be contributors to a group, such as a dog assisting a hunt or giving companionship, it is impossible that a non-human could be a true peer and thus a true member of the group. In this way racism is rendered distinct from specism, because racism is a prejudice against surmountable barriers to equality whereas specism addresses insurmountable barriers.

If environmentalists were not specists, they’d do the best thing for all other living things – they would find a nice patch of soil, die, and fertilize the Earth, instead of consuming its resources. The fact that they don’t do this says to me that they do indeed value their lives specially over that of the Earth in fact if not in rhetoric.

On the issue of animal testing to produce products that increase human safety, survival, and comfort, I feel that a specist has an obvious take. Even PETA (which campaigns against animal testing) has a Vice President (MaryBeth Sweetland) who, being diabetic, requires insulin shots (that contain animal products and were tested on animals) to survive. It’s wrong to be unneccessarily cruel, but it’s hard to deny the factual benefits that animal testing gives the human race.

Diversity

Some might worry that the specist seeks to create the perfect human experience or the perfect human. But the pragmatic specist notes that the success of most systems decreases rapidly as diversity decreases. Having a population of people / ideas / cultures that is diverse is the most likely way for the population to survive and succeed. If you plant a large number of crops of the same variety in a field you can very efficiently harvest them, but one disease could wipe out all you own. The Irish potato famine is one example of this

working against the betterment of humans. Similarly, different approaches to a problem may turn out to yield valuable inputs; the more diverse set of views are brought to a subject, the more complete one’s understanding will be and the better we will all be off
collectively. As such, the specist embraces the full diversity of humankind, including those who disagree with specism, as necessary ingredients for a healthy system.

Suicide

Killing yourself is foolish from the specist’s perspective largely because it is wasteful. A person who prematurely ends their life before their productive capacity has been terminated is disposing of a chance to better others. As a specist, you exist for the pleasure of the species; the goal of your life should be to maximize your contribution to other humans and the world. An early end deprives others of the potential benefit you could have given them.

Child-rearing

Raising children well is the most valiant act a specist can perform. In the necessary sacrifice of time, money, and energy, the parents give up something of themselves for the direct purpose of furthering the species. There is no greater act of service.

Euthanasia & Capital Punishment

Some might think that specists would innately support euthanasia and capital punishment both, since the humans in question in both cases have been judged to no longer be capable of contributing to the species. The issue beyond the surface here is the cheapening of human life. If people who are terminally ill or criminally insane have their
lives ended, it could cause others to think that life was a cheap thing. In both the case of them applying this supposition to themselves or to others, people suffer. So by the specist code, the “sin” in euthanasia is not the termination of the individual but the supposed cheapening effect such an end would have on people’s perception of the value of life. As on many of these issues, it’s likely that specists would disagree about the proper course of action, but specism at least gives them a common, areligious basis upon which to consider the merits and drawbacks.

Education

Knowledge-sharing is an inherently incredibly efficient activity, since the acquisition of information, its processing, and its digestion collectively take vastly larger amounts of time than the actual receipt of that information. This is how we have whole decades of human experience wrapped up in a paragraph, or the life’s acheivement of a mathematician summarized in a quick graphic. While a humbling realization that the best one can hope for by way of posterity is perhaps an abbreviated footnote in a text, in truth the scope of influence this affords is tremendous.

This brings us to one of the hardest issues in achieving the aims of specism.

Do you take a local action that strongly affects a small number of people or a global action that lightly affects a large number of people?

The answer is to take the action that, given the circumstances, lets you maximize your positive contribution to humankind. In truth, actors on the full scope from aiding a singular person to aiding all humans are needed for the system to work properly. If you feel your skills and desires are more in line with being able to effect a large-scale change, then that should be your course of action. Likewise, if an obvious opportunity presents itself for powerful local change, then that would seem to be the right venue.

In short, be Good with what you’re good at.


inspired in part by a conversation with sean parker four years ago

The Echo Chamber

Much of the “blogosphere” seems to be an echo chamber, with its own terminology (including the word “blogosphere”), cult leaders, conferences, and memes. Why? Is this healthy?

Almost 100 years ago, a Jesuit priest by the name of Pierre Teilhard saw the rise in speed of telecommunications as post became telegraphy became telephonics. Pierre realized that as this network continued to grow faster and more densely connected, it would make all of humanity as a single organism, each person acting as a neuron in the giant brain that is humankind. He called this organism the noosphere. His vision for a networked global society was prescient, and the analogy to neurons is interesting to reflect upon today.

So we start with a question. Why is that that healthy brains don’t get into feedback loops? Nathan pointed out to me that it’s because neurons have natural inhibitors and rate limitors; signals travel quickly and return to a neuron before the neuron is ready to fire again. Consequently, the neuron does not re-fire, the signal is not propagated, and the loop quiesces. It’s possible that one of the deleterious effects of multiple sclerosis (MS), in which demyelination of the axonal sheaths slows signal transmission, is that the slowed signal has more time to make it back to the original firing neuron, making it more likely that the neuron is ready to re-fire, causing a feedback loop and the jitters seen in patients with MS.

Here we jump from (mildly speculative) biology back into the blogging world. What effect are new tools having on collective thought? If we can consume information from divers sources at a much greater rate and rapidly republish that information in turn, we are in effect increasing the signal transmission speed at the same time as we lower the time-to-refire.

With enough people spending a great deal of time blogging, we have a mass of potential processing that quickly amplifies and redistributes signals, with very little damping. Lacking enough external inputs (namely, new data, such as events in the world or creative works being released), and unwilling to sit idle, the system turns upon itself to act as input. Just as neural pathways that are used often are strengthened and conversely those used rarely are weakened, the blogosphere learns to listen to itself and becomes increasingly absorbed with its own state and technology. Outside events, arguably the original point of the system, become almost ignored. The point of blogging becomes blogging. We get conferences whose point is to blog about how people are blogging at (and about) the conference.

This is no longer a “conversation”.

This is a diseased noosphere, one with something akin to MS, only for the opposite reason.

The best thinkers don’t merely consume quantities of information, they consume quality information and take time to formulate a response. The key shouldn’t be speed, it should be thoughtfulness. You serve a purpose when you helpfully digest an issue from a new perspective and add new data to the conversation. When you’re merely reposting a link with a kneejerk reaction (which is all you can have if you’re posting about subjects five minutes old), you’re not helping.

So don’t go to town with a linkblog. Don’t run a blog. Run a website. Post when you feel inspired. Don’t worry about keeping up with the latest feeds, and for God’s sake, don’t get wrapped up into the blogosphere and become part of the problem.

Please Mock Me

I am rather appalled by the continuing aftermath of the publication of a few single-frame cartoon images of Muhammad in a Danish newspaper nearly half a year ago. A natural question has gone unasked: how many, if any, of those protesting have actually seen any of the cartoons in question? There is a further irony of course in trying to protest imagery of Islam as a violent and oppressive religion through violent riots and a call for suppression of free speech. What point are they trying to prove in embodying the nightmares of the Danish cartoonists they protest? What is the objective of these gatherings and flag burnings?

What has become clear is that the vocal part of the Islamic world believes it should be illegal to critique, slander, or make fun of Islam or Muhammad in Europe, the USA, or anywhere. They point to various European laws forbidding Nazi-like speech or the denying of the Holocaust. They are right that a double-standard is wrong, but the answer is not to further restrict speech, but rather to lift existing bans on speech. Am I saying that people should be allowed to say the Holocaust never happened and extol Hitler’s virtues? Yes, absolutely. People should be able to say whatever they want, however bigoted, misinformed, or unjust it is.

Free speech is a powerful and dangerous thing to believe in. If you believe in free speech, you know that that will absolutely include misleading, insulting, and patently wrong speech. But if everyone is allowed to speak, then the kooks will be shown for kooks in plain view and those with wisdom will be self-evident. The believer in free speech says that people can figure out for themselves what is truth and what is a lie and that all possible information should be available as evidence. The best way, long term, to prevent and diminish prejudice and false views in not to try and ban them or shove them into some dark corner but to bring them into the open by allowing their full publication and rebroadcast. The harsh sun of public scrutiny will wither and burn foolishness over time.

The believer in free speech thus accepts a world where their deepest beliefs (perhaps even their beliefs in free speech!) are challenged, mocked, and caricatured. But through the humility of accepting critique, we are made stronger. By acknowledging the truth that our adversaries speak, we can have a chance at least to right our own wrongs. This is the very strength of a multiparty democracy, of capitalism, of a group of people to evolve through debate to a better understanding of the world and themselves. It prevents stagnation. I’m proud of the fact that one of our nation’s finest news shows runs on a comedy network and is largely focused on lampooning the foolishness of our leaders; I’m proud that a show like that is not only legal but popular.

So for a group of people, however embattled and disenfranchised, to demand a cessation of critique is dangerous not only to free speech everywhere, but to themselves. If a cartoon showing a man with a bomb-turban were to be illegal, would it break the law to mention in a news report that a suicide bomber was a Muslim? The slippery slope of enforced political correctness is terrifying; I would much rather live in a world of open dialogue, replete with people making terrible cartoons insulting my mother, than to live in a stifled and stagnant world.

So go ahead, insult me, insult each other, and let’s move on.