Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Oh, Keats and Yeats Are On Your Side.

Limo, Chauffeur Coming to My Door;
Says: "There's Room for Maybe Just One More"

So we go inside, and we gravely read the stones
All those people; all those lives.
Where are they now?

Living in Paris affords one many, many opportunities for exploration.  The Musée du Louvre.  The restaurants and bookshops of the Latin Quarter.  The gothic churches of Notre Dame and La Sainte-Chapelle.  Of course the boutiques.

A "must" for anyone is a visit to at least one of the sombre, majestic cemeteries the Ville de Lumiere offers.  

I've often believed that the way death is commemorated provides a truly unique insight into the culture of a people - death is one of the handful of experiences afforded to all.  Rich and poor, irrespective of age, sex, culture.  

The cemeteries of Paris provide such a look into (ironically) life in France over the ages.

We recently spent a sunny Saturday visiting the famous Pere Lachaise Cemetery on the eastern edge of Paris, one of the four great urban cemeteries - one in each corner: north, south, west, and east - of the city.  

As an aside, in the late 18th century, Paris had church burial yards all over the city.  But as Paris (or in its Roman days, Lutece) had existed as a large, ubranised city for over a thousand years, the cemeteries were full.  And with the groundwater relatively high, issues of public health forced the king and leadership to act.  And as one of the final acts of the ancien regime of Louis XVI, burials inside the city walls were first banned i
n 1780, and the cemeteries themselves ordered closed (and emptied!) a few years later.  Part of the Royal Edict created the current system, where each of the four areas (then outside of Paris) would have its own cemetery.  

In a staggering public works project, all of the nearly eight million bodies - many mostly bones - were carted through the streets of Paris behind chanting priests and laid to rest in the catacombes in the Rive Gauche.

Entering the gates of the Pere Lachaise Cemetery one is struck not by fear, but rather, of curiosity and peace.  Originally laid out in a wide grid of 'streets' under eastern plane trees, are row after row of gothic, arabesque, neo-classical, and modernist tombstones.  Each seems a work of art, and each is a witness - and a clue - to the life marked.

Some of the tombs are quite plain and practical - no-nonsese reminders of an ordinary, if well-heeled - life.  One might be excused to mistak the mausoleums for British telephone boxes.  Indeed, one might even expect Doctor Who to pop out.

Another observation one has is that in death, like life, real estate is about location, location, location.  The cemetery is perched on a small hill overlooking the city, with a wide esplanade at the centre.  Here are the tombs of some of the true greats of art, literature, music, and politics.

The great pianist Frederic Chopin is buried on the gently rising plane - though, unlike Tony Bennet, it's his body that he left.  Chopin's heart is in his native Poland.  The great painter Théodore GGéricaultis a little further up the path.  Gericault is most famous for his work "Le Radeau de la Méduse," a masterpiece of the romantic era, based on the true events of a terrible shipwreck off the coast of Africa.  The tombstone itself is a work of art, showing Gericault reclining, palette and brush in hand.  Around the back of the bronze is a replica of the master oeuvre.  

The Pere Lachaise cemetery was built on land that once housed Pere Francois de la Chaise, the confessor to King Louis XIV.  And it is HUGE.  But it remained virtually empty for the first few years of its existence - the cemetery was opened during Napoleon's reign, and the Emperor declared that all had a right to a proper burial, irrespective of creed, race, or birth circumstance.  This meant that the cemetery could not refuse burial, and many Catholics did not want to be buried on such un-hallowed ground.

All that changed when the remains of the poet Molière were purchased (!) by the cemetery and buried with great ceremony.  The author of such works as Tartuffe was regarded as perhaps the great writer of French literature at the time, and his celebrated presence soon attracted other 'customers.'

It's a bit of irony - Moliere only 150 years previously had been refused burial in the church graveyards.  He had been an actor, and thus under church law could not be buried on sacred ground.  Indeed, as Moliere lay dying from tuberculosis (he suffered spasms on stage whilst performing in his own play Le Malade Imaginaire (The Hypochondriac) and suffocated in his own blood), two priests refused him the dying rites, and a third arrived too late to offer the sacraments.  Molière had been a favorite of Louis XIV, and his widow begged the King to intervene. The wish was granted, though the great playwright had to be buried in the section of the old cemetery reserved for unbaptised infants.

In Père Lachaise, Molière received a celebrated burial in a conspicuous plot.

Times change.

A bit further along is the tomb of Abelard and Héloïse, two lovers of the middle ages.  It's a neo-gothic masterpiece, and guards one of the great, tragic love stories.

Abelard and Héloïse, Separated in Life; Together in Death

Pierre Abelard had been one of the foremost logicians and scholars of the 11th century - rising to being the master of the school at Notre Dame (he had been expelled as a youth), then perhaps the most important school in Paris.  Renowned for his teaching and famous for his work, Abelard was a promintent, public intellectual.  Unfortunately, he fell in love with the (much younger) daughter of the Canon of Sens.  Their romance was forbidden by Fulbert, and when he later discovered that Abelard and Héloïse had sectretly married, she was put off in a monastery as a nun, and Fulbert's men broke into Aberlard's rooms and castrated him.  He resigned himself to the work of a monk and teacher for the next 23 years.

Abelard and Héloïse corresponded over the years, and in death, they now rest together in Père Lachaise.  Lovers frequently leave letters at the site now, hoping for better luck.
Also within the walls of Pere Lachaise is the final resting place of Oscar Wilde.  It's a modernist behemoth at the back of the cemetery.  Wilde had left England following his time in prison for "gross indecency" (he had had an affair with the son of the Marquess of Queensbury - yes; the father of the rules of modern boxing).  The tomb is a giant, winged angel, and is now surrounded by plexiglass to prevent people climbing, writing, or oddly enough, kissing the lips of the angel.  It had been a custom to put on heavy red lipstick.  And indeed, on the day we visited, despite the plexiglass, some intrepid visitors had managed to climb and embrace the stone, leaving the lips ruby.

Elsewhere in the cemetery are the remains of, among others, the singer Jim Morrison.  He managed to get into Père Lachaise by one of the three criteria that allow for burial.  Because the cemeteries in Paris are nearly full (there are approximately three million souls in Père Lachaise alone). the criteria are strict.  Only people who were born, lived, or die in Paris are eligible, and the Lizard King, who died in a Paris bathtub in 1971, met the last of these.

One of the most bizarre features of the cemetery is due to this last feature.  The old joke is that cemeteries are so popular, people are dying to get in.  In Paris, even that is a precarious proposition.  If one meets the criteria for interrment (born, live, or die in Paris), one then has the option to lease the plot for 10, 30, or 50 years.  (Of course, with enough money, one can also purchase a plot in perpetuity).  

According to the rules, once one's lease is up, it must be renewed.  And if the family cannot afford the lease, or if one simply runs out of descendants, the bones are removed and the plot made available.  At the centre of Père Lachaise is a large ossuary called Aux Morts - To the Dead - where the bones of the forgotten eventually end up.  

It's a bit of an oddity, but the Aux Morts memorial has two doors, and those doors have large knockers.  The visitor is left to wonder - should one knock, who would answer?

Père Lachaise is a who-is-who, as well as an insight into the French.  Dead men tell no tales, perhaps.  But their monuments do, if you listen closely.

Friday, 26 September 2014

When It's Over

En effet. Quand il est midi aux États-Unis, le soleil, tout le monde le sait, se couche sur la France. Il suffirait de pouvoir aller en France en une minute pour assister au coucher de soleil. Malheureusement la France est bien trop éloignée. Mais, sur ta si petite planète, il te suffisait de tirer ta chaise de quelques pas. Et tu regardais le crépuscule chaque fois que tu le désirais...
     'Un jour, j'ai vu le soleil se coucher quarante-trois fois !'
Et un peu plus tard tu ajoutais: 
     'Tu sais... quand on est tellement triste on aime les couchers de soleil...' 
---Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Le Petit Prince was one of the first French language books I read many, many couches de soleil in the past.  Parts of it stick with me; the above quote closes one of the central chapters, where the eponymous protagonist of the story is explaining his home, an asteroid far away, to the narrator of the story who has crashed his plane in the deserts of north Africa.

Today in Paris, we cross a sort of line; human beings, from antiquity until now, mark lives in part by celestial events.  Even le petit prince himself uses the sunrises and sets to explain his world.  The calendar marked the autumn equinox a couple of days ago, bringing an end to summer and a beginning to fall.

Today, another event.  From now until next spring, we will have more darkness than light.  The sun will set today in Paris at 7.40 PM, having risen at 7.41 AM.  We will have eleven hours and fifty-nine minutes of sun, twelve hours and one minute of darkness.  

The solstice will arrive in about three months, and until then, we will lose a few minutes of sun every day.  

Thursday, 25 September 2014

What's in a Name?

I was reading the scores from overnight back in the US, and I see that Toronto, following a disastrous road trip to Baltimore and New York (they went 1-6, eliminating them from playoff contention for the 21st consecutive year) won its third straight over Seattle.

The Mariners are the Blue Jays' professional twin in a sense - both entered the American League in the 1977 expansion.  Toronto will go for the sweep tonight in a battle of futility (they put a raw rookie on the mound versus the M's who will be making his very first career start; Seattle counters with one of their bullpen corps who is making the second start of his career), and have all but put the Mariners out of contention.

I noticed that the losing pitcher last night for Seattle was a guy named - and I am not making this up - Taijuan Walker.

The name looks a bit unorthodox.  It needs to be said out loud to appreciate its true glory.



I did a double take at first - was his real name spelt as T-A-I-J-U-A-N?  Is it possible that it's really just "Juan Walker," and ESPN has made an unfortunate amendment?  

Nope; several other spots on the ESPN web site confirm it - it's Taijuan.  


I thought next, maybe the guy is from some far-off land and thus whilst the name would pronounce in an unintentionally hilarious way in English, if said in the proper language perhaps it's perfectly reasonable.

Nope.  He was born in Shreveport, Louisiana.  US of A.  His middle name is the perfectly reasonable "Emmanuel," which itself is spelt in the traditional way (Emmanu-el is the Hebrew for "God is with us").

Why on earth would someone give his kid a name like Taijuan?  I understand that narcistic dimwits like Kim Kardashian might name their children things like "North" (the child's father is surnamed "West," so the kid's full name is "North West."

Parents - THINK before you name.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

This Little Light of Mine

I get information from manifold sources; each day, I have about 80 minutes (40 each way) on the train going to and from work that I fill reading the local French news Direct Matin.  It helps me brush up my French and keep up with the news.  I have a Twitter (Motto: You cannot spell "Twitter" without "t-w-i-t", although in France, it's called "Tweeter") account (@DWBudd) and follow friends and some news sites.  I am connected to other social media like FaceBook, from whence all sorts of information arrives every day.

It's from the last (thanks, Aleesa!) that today I read the story of a young man back in the States called John Meyer who has left NYU to pursue his career as an "entrepreneur" full-time.

Please; no jokes about caddish dating behaviours are schmaltzy songs.

The attention-grabbing headline from Business Insider online reads "Meet the 19-year-old developer so successful he turned down an Apple job offer."

The click-bait worked, and over I went.

Business Insider's David Copperfield,
Here Posing with Apple CEO Tim Cook
The story focuses on the most recent David Copperfield of the Tech Beat ('whether I am to be the hero of my own life's story, these pages must tell."), indeed, a young man of 19 who has quit school to focus his efforts on developing his company, TapMedia.

Apparently, since his days as a self-taught programmer in high school, Meyer has developed a series of applications for the iPhone, making enough money at it to fund his life at the expensive Manhattan university.  And, one presumes, a bit more.  Amongst his claims to fame is an application for the phone that turns its flash into a flashlight - a novel idea that I and apparently a few million others, find quite useful.

His latest venture, called Fresco, is a news aggregator that marries photographs with news stories from the legacy press.  

I wish him well.

But the story has a bit of a whiff of self-congratulatory pabulum to it.  First, there is the idea that one way of measuring success is saying "no" to a company like Apple.  I suppose in strictly economics terms, that measure - called "opportunity cost" - is as good as any other.  A job at Apple is a valuable commodity, and thus the ability to forego it for other plans implicitly is valuable.

But his reasons get at something that has been bothering me recently, and that is: I find that so-called "tech" is increasingly less about real innovation, and more about cleverl packaging and marketing.

I wrote about this recently here and here.  My thoughts were picked up by a thread at Reddit called DarkFuturology, a site dedicated to discussing the dystopian impacts of the evolving tech world.  But essentially, my point is that Silicon Valley, which once was led by giants like Shockley and Moore, and produced the semiconductor, has morphed into a sort of casino where the great achievements are re-packaging ways for us to take selfies and share narcissistic "stories", in 140 characters or less, with the world.

In the words of visionary Peter Thiel, we were promised flying cars; we got 140 characters.

In this story, there is a sort of concurrence being writ large.  I am sure John Meyer is a very intelligent person, and he has in a sense achieved a lot.  But is his brilliance really being put to its best use designing applications like "Autocorrect: Fail," whose purpose is to create hilarity out of the idiotic robot speller of iOS?  

Clicking Meyer's Weblog, linked in the article, he describes why he left NYU, and to a point - because one does not need a college degree to be a successful computer programmer - is true.  If one views education as a sort of 'on the job training,' I agree completely. 

His blog is worth a read.

But the problem again is one of opportunity cost.  Inspiration can take many forms, but it often only can manifest itself in one way.  Or at the least, a limited number.  More to the point, ideas require people to birth them; to develop them.  To fund them.  There is only so much oxygen to feed the candles of brilliance.  

And too much oxygen is going to things like Yo dot com.  For every useless and trivial app produced, who knows what real breakthroughs are not imagined?  Meyer might have contributed to AI, but instead, we get yet another way to look at photos.

It is telling that in his piece, subtitled "A Young Entrepreneur's Dilemma," Meyer points out that, in his interviews with Apple, it is revealed that its marketing team prefer not to hire college graduates.  In his own words:

A company with a market cap of $619 billion as of today is preferring to hire non-college grads for their marketing department.

The point is made in bold-face, I suppose to indicate how large an impact the experience had.

I have a different take.  Of course a marketing department does not need college grads to be successful, especially the marketing department of a company like Apple, the value of whose products is almost completely subjective.  They need to think like the people who will buy their products in order to package those products in a way that will connect emotionally with the consumers.

But marketing is not development.  Of course, one needs to connect with the desires of your base to be successful, but marketing does not 'change the world,' the putative goal of the 'disruption' of the companies of the Valley.

This is a perfect illustration of what I was trying to say.  Most of what is going on in the 'tech' community is not 'disruptive' or 'innovative' in any intrinsic or innovative way.  It's largely a game of how best to con the mugs.

Meyer talks earnestly about his choice to forego Apple by saying 
I am, at heart, an entrepreneur. I won’t be happy working for someone else. [emphasis added]
Waiting four years to get a degree before I can completely focus on what I’m passionate about is impossible in my mind. The startup space has never been more vibrant or exciting than it is today. I feel as if I have a duty to build all that I can during this time.
But what is he "building?" What is actually "exciting" and "vibrant" about the "startup space?" And, does "entrepreneur" mean what John Meyer thinks it does?

Simply, he is building wealth (a good thing, I suppose), but no; I do not think he knows what an actual entrepreneur is.

It's not an engineer or a programmer.  

An entrepreneur is someone who brings together talent, money, and connections. (The word "entrepreneur" in crude French is someone who puts himself in the middle of things; a sort of facilitator.)

But as I said before (and the idea was more or less repeated in the DarkFuture thread), it seems that there is a misallocation of talent here.  Meyer is likely to become (if he isn't already) a rich man.  The bubble economy in San Jose is going to make a few people really rich.  But what will it leave behind, and what will it simply miss.

John Meyer is the master of his own talents, and he will profit or suffer based on how he chooses to allocate his time and his skills.  I would not presume to tell him or anyone else how to invest his life (that, I leave to the tax man, who comes each year for his pound - and a bit more sometimes - of flesh).  As a system, though, I suggest it's worth looking at the whole of the balance sheet when evaluating how 'vibrant' Silicon Valley is.

Further, the idea that he will not be working for someone else.... I am not so sure.  There is a current cargo-cult appeal of the startup world, and part of the cult is around talismanic words like "entrepreneur," and the lure of not working for someone else.

For all but a tiny few, this is an illusion.  I was a founding member of a startup that was ultimately mildly successful.  We grew from three to around 100 or so at peak.  So, this comes from experience and not the storyboard of a television sow:

Startups are forever chasing after funding, and that funding is based on a pitch that you will design something that 'the market' desires.  The goal ends more often than not in being acquired by a big company.  And that happens if the guys you claim not to want to work for like what you've done.

The illusion of the autonomous startup is in fact the off-loading of early risk and failure from large company R&D onto young college grads (or, frequently, drop outs like Meyer) who accept zero real social life, all the economic risks,  and no vacations in exchange for the shot at hitting it big.

Startup 'entrepreneurs' are working for Google or Apple or Microsoft.  They just don't know it.

One curious items in the article is hidden near the end: 

If all that wasn’t impressive enough, Meyer was also a finalist in the Thiel Fellowship, he says. That’s a program by billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel in which gifted young people drop out of school to start companies. Only 40 people become finalists, flown to the Valley for mingling. Twenty are accepted, and Meyer wasn’t one of them.

Peter Thiel (mentioned above for his cynical remark about tech) has funded the 20 Before Twenty fellowship.  It's telling that Meyer tried and failed.  Thiel has advanced that we perhaps have reached beyond the saturation point of social media, and his latest venture fund explicitly states that companies that are not 'hard' tech will not be funded.  He rules out social media by name.

Apparently, Thiel may agree with me that creating new ways to foster narcissistic exhibitionishm may be something that 'the market' will reward, but that real innovation, real science - real innovation - lie elsewhere.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Who? Whom? Quo Vadis, Air BnB?

Karl Marx and Saint Peter make for odd quotation bed-fellow, but a story today in Le Figaro about Air BnB brings both simultaneously to mind.

Recall, Marx in describing the political history of the world summarised by saying that one can understand any events by asking "Who?" and "Whom?" Decisions which are often confusing are answered by determining who is going to be controlled and by whom.  

The Le Figaro article describes recent actions in New York, pushed by a vague coalition of "friends, neighbours, activists, and elected officials" to block the online apartment-sharing site Air BnB.  Citing alarm at the lack of affordable housing in the city and concern about poor rental services, a video has been distributed mocking an Air BnB advert in which prosaic discussions of the joys of co-location are juxtaposed against images of filthy refrigerators, mousetraps, and a faceless guest scratching her legs due to "bed bugs."

From the "about us" post at ShareBetter.org:
Far from being a harmless service where New York City residents can share their homes with guests to the City, Airbnb enables New York City tenants to break the law and potentially violate their leases, it exacerbates the affordable housing crisis in our neighborhoods, and it poses serious public safety concerns for Airbnb guests, hosts and their neighbors.
According to the analysis of Le Figaro, in fact, about three million dollars for the campaign have been raised by local New York city hoteliers.


In other words, the owners of various hotels in Manhattan want to block Air BnB because they are concerned that guests will be attacked by bed bugs.

This is odd, given the famous and on-going outbreak of bed bugs at.... New York City hotels.  There is a web-site, in fact, dedicated to listing outbreaks, and a quick look reveals that in just the last month, hotels including Hilton, Hilton Garden, and multiple infractions at various Omni Hotels have been reported.  Don't see a single Air BnB listing there.

But yes; hotel operators are concerned about our health and safety.

It seems to me that they might be better served if they used the three million to try to clean up their own hotels rather than to use the cudgel of government power to protect their cartel.

And that's what this is really about, isn't it?  It's not about housing costs (according to a statement from Air BnB, there are 20,000 or so listings in New York, in a housing stock of three million units - not enough to have any real impact) or about tenants breaking their leases.  It's about the use of government power to protect bounties collected through rent-seeking:

Rent seeking is an economic term in which a connected person or industry "investes" in political lobbying to increase its share of existing wealth without creating wealth.  The hotels aren't creating value; they are defending their share of the existing pie.

A similar situation occurred in Paris this summer, where taxi drivers had multiple nasty (at times violent) strikes to block the infiltration of various voitures de tourisme avec chauffeur into their bounties.  Of course, the reasons given were that VTCs are 'unregulated,' and therefore 'unsafe.'  But the real reason is that Paris, like New York, severly restricts the number of licences to operate.  This has the effect that a hack licence is extrememly expensive - and thus valuable - to those who can get them.  In Paris, they are allocated for life, and are then sold at retirement, often for hundreds of thousands of euros.  Medallions in New York are reputed to be worth a million US dollars.

I find it less than convincing that, with these economics, the drivers are too concerned about the quality of my experience in a VTC.  I've used Uber, and the experience was hardly Danny DeVito driving me recklessly around Paris in a filthy, dangerous car.

We're often told we need regulation, and without it, we would be at the hands of con men and thieves.  To a point, we do need regulation - and no one I know advocates for anarchy.  But allownig hoteliers and cab drivers to set up cartels to defend rent-seeking is not for our good or protection.

Maybe one day, Bill del Blasio and others who bleat about regulation will reckon this out. 

I'm not holding my breath.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Why I Am NOT a Democrat: Reason #852

I have been living in France for a while now; I am very happy to be here.  

Don't get me wrong - I love my country, and I am proud to be an American.  But being an American is at times just exhausting.  And when I feel like I miss the old country, I know I can count on my friends back home to remind me that there are more benefits living in Europe than just efficient trains and good, affordable wine.

A Facebook friend today posted yet another link about how American politicians are looking to strip the National Football League (NFL) of its tax-exempt status.

Yes, I know.  I, too, am shocked that a league that paid its chairman $44 MILLION in 2013, and generates $9 billion in revenues is not subject to tax.  Apparently, it's true - the league files under 501(c)-(6) business organisation.  Which is to say, it is a business association created not for its own enrichment, but to promote the activities of its members.

It's insanity, of course, but one that other leagues (the NHL, the PGA) also avail themselves of, as did the professional baseball MLB until 1997, when it agreed to give up such status.

I have -no- problem at all with asking an obvious for-profit business to pay taxes.  I suspect few do.  In fact, conservative senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) introduced legislation a couple of years ago to do just that, and got nowhere.  It was not reported, and died quietly.

No - the two-pronged attack here illustrates why I find the Democratic party ultimately less palatable than virtually any alternative.  

On the one side, we have Harry Reid (D-NV) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA) proposing to strip the league not because it's grossly unfair, but because the NFL "allows" the franchise in Washington to use a mascot that is offensive to some.

Cantwell helped craft legislation specifically to allow the other tax-phobic leagues to continue not to pay:

The bill is narrowly crafted to prohibit tax-exempt status only for professional sports leagues that promote use of the term used by Washington's football team, meaning it would not affect other sports leagues, such as the NHL and PGA, which also receive the exemption.
"American taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize a $9 billion league that promotes a dictionary-defined racial slur," Cantwell said in a statement. She announced she would introduce such legislation at a Tuesday news conference held by a coalition of Native American tribes and social justice groups who are pressing the Washington team to change its name.
There is further moral preening and grandstanding, which is what all this is.

It's not that I disagree that the term "Redskins" is offensive, or that really, for the sake of decency, the team should voluntarily change it.  

But the tax code exists solely to raise funds to run the government.  It is not and should not be a cudgel to enforce manners.  

On the other side, camera-friendly Senator Corey Booker (D-NJ) has proposed legislation to remove the tax exemption and use the funds that would come from the NFL- approximately $100 million per year - to pay for various programmes dealing with domestic violence.

All of this ostensibly because of the recent disgusting cases where Ray Rice violently assaulted his fiancee (she later married him) or Adrian Peterson beat one of his multiple children (all from different mothers, none of whom he married), the injuries captured on film.

Again, I find domestic violence appalling, and I think funding programmes to fight it are laudable.

But the tax code exists solely to raise funds to run the government.  It is not and should not be used as a tool to discipline a league filled with thugs to clean up their behaviour.

This is something that seems to escape most Democrats, and why they simply cannot be entrusted with the power of the purse.  

Taxation is a tool.  We have government services that we need, and some others that we want.  We can and should discuss these services, and of course, if we demand them, we can and should discuss how to pay for them.  

But once the tax code is turned into a weapon, and that weapon is put into the hands of arbiters of what is proper behaviour, we cross a quite dangerous line.  

I don't know if Cantwell or Reid or Booker actually believes that their pet legislation has a Cleveland Browns Super Bowl Championships' chance of ever passing, and I suppose that each, sensing that the Democrats are in deep trouble in the 2014 mid-terms, is trying to pander as quickly and obviously as they can to revive the "War on Women" trope.  

But I say, let them pander, preen, and pronounce in front of fawning cameras and then leave the serious discussion of tax policy to the adults.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

1 Wait Until Next Year; 2 GOTO 1

Hit and run post.  I awoke this morning to see that 'my' team - the Toronto Blue Jays - lost again last night in Baltimore.  Another loss for this bunch is typically an unremarkable event, and last night's effort was itself pretty quotidien for a team that doesn't hit, pitch, field, or run the bases particularly well.

No; the only thing really to stand out from the 8-2 loss, the third straight for the Jays, in which they managed two hits against a guy who:

  1. Had not pitched for a month
  2. Was pulled from the rotation because he was awful
  3. Entered the game with an ERA of nearly five
was that it eliminated the team from contention for the American League East penant.  The Orioles, with the win, clinched their first title since 1997.

This marks the 21st consecutive season that the Blue Jays will not win the penant.  And though they are still mathematically eligible for one of the two "wild card" spots, they now are five games away from that, with 12 to play.

It's a nearly lead-pipe cinch that they will miss the playoffs.  Again.

The last time Toronto was in the post season was 1993.  I was then 23 years old, and just starting my second year of graduate school.  

In fact, the last time the Blue Jays finished within 10 games of a playoff spot was that same year.  They have not been realistic contenders in 21 years.  This year, barring a complete mail-it-in finish, they likely will break that streak.  

The only other team in the majors with a current resume of futility is the Kansas City Royals (have not been in the playoffs since winning the World Series in 1985 - ironically, after being the first team to overcome a 3-1 deficit by winning the final three against the Blue Jays), and KC is likely to get in this year.

This will leave Toronto alone atop the hill of mediocrity.

Truly, the Blue Jays are now the three legged dog of professional baseball.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The Ugly Truth

When I was young, I was a huge fan of the 1960's era serial "The Twilight Zone."  One of my favourite episodse, entitled "The Eye of the Beholder," focused on a patient only referred to as "Patient 307."  She was a young woman in a hospital who was undergoing a final treatment to repair what was implied to be a disfigurement.  The entire episode, one never saw her face, or indeed, those of any of the doctors or nurses.

The shocking denoument revealed that Patient 307 had what we would consider to be a beautiful face; but alas - in the episode, the medical professionals recolied in horror, and it was slowly revealed that the "right" look in that world was quite far removed from our own.

In the Eye of the Beholder?

I was thinking about this yesterday when I came across an article in the on-line version of the UK Daily Mail.  The article described a forthcoming book called Dataclysm: Who We Are When We Think No One Is Looking.  The book is a compendium of analyses run by Christian Rudder, the founder of the dating website OK Cupid.

As an aside, there is a lot of noise currently going on about what "big data" is going to reveal, and certainly, the sheer volume of information available, coupled with the increasing power and ease of analytic computing, is going to reveal a lot.  Some of it will be good, but I am assured that some of it, perhaps more than we want to admit, is going to be disquieting.

In the Daily Mail article, the so-called click bait produces the results of an analysis of the dating choices of men and women, and how they diverge.  With respect to desirability and age.  The results have produced a fair amount of tut-tutting among the biens pensants, but really should not be a shock to anyone who sets "the right sort of thinking" aside and applies instead empirical logic.

In the words of the author: 

Are you a girl over 22?  Then don't even bother with online dating.  It's no secret that men tend to see younger women as more attractive, but the extreme to which this holds true is somewhat alarming.
Rudder did a statistical analysis of the age preferences of his clients, and came to the knock-me-over-with-a-feather conclusion that women prefer a man more or less the same age as they - though slightly (1-2 years older) - until they reach about 40.  (From the early 30s until 40, the desired age is the same, and then, following 40, begins to diverge).

For men, the desired age is almost uniformly 20-22.  It doesn't matter if the guy is 20 or 50.  

The following graphs illustrate the different revealed preferences of men and women who frequent OKCupid.

Age Preference of Female e-Daters

Age Preference of Male e-Daters
If you are a single (or divorced) female looking for love from a Silicon Valley Cupid, this is devastating news.  Unless you happen to be 22 years old.  But is it really surprising?

In my view, it's not.  It reveals the unfortunate (for women) reality that the balance of sexual power is extremely fluid.  And it is fixed.  Firmly.

I ask anyone reading this: think back to your days as a teen.  As a college student?  As a 20-something young adult?  Who really set the dynamics of the dating rules?  Ultimately, it has (at least during my lifetime, and for a fair amount of time before, I presume as well) always been the prerogative of the female to choose whether a guy was suitable or not.  The parameters were malleable - the status markers change.  In high school the football player was a the top of the pecking order.  As a 22 year old, it was the mid to late 20-year old with the right status-setting job or the money to have the right car or clothes.  

A 24 year old guy looking to attract the attention of  a woman his own age was competing (more often than not, I would bet, losing the competition) with the slightly older, better established guy.

I understand that film is not exactly, reality, but it does reflect it to a degree.  Think of the famous (and IMHO one of the best) scenes in the movie "Swingers," where Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau are trying to strike up a conversation with a couple of pretty women, presumably their own age.

What Kind of Car Do You Drive?

Though I suspect that, few women will readily admit to it, this is, I believe, a fairly accurate potrayal of the sexual politics of early-to-mid 20 year old Americans.  At least circa 1995.

As time goes by, of course, the power dynamics shift.  Radically.  

It is likely in at least partially down to biology, of course.  Like it or not, human beings are subject to more or less the same biological imperatives as any other living organism, and at or near the top of that list is survival. And that means finding a mate capable of ensuring the survival of the species.  And the reality is, as women age, they will simply lose this ability.  

No amount of propaganda, or arguing about the need/desire for careers, or debate about fairness is going to change that reality.  

Put in other words, mother nature bats last, and she is not particularly merciful.

I've long believed that men are more visual than women; we respond to visual stimulation more viscerally.  The sad truth is that in our reptilian complexes, far below the rational, we correlate youth with fertility.  

The flip side of the results is equally obvious.  Like it or not, young women seem to desire an older man, and I suspect that this is in part because we all know, again at our gut level, an older guy is more likely to be established.  He is more likely to have a stable, good-paying job.  He is more likely to have the political and social capital (professional affiliations, networks of friends, connections) that come with age.  These are still 'desirable' to women.

I recall when I was a graduate student, lecturing to sections of Stanford undergrads.  One of the texts we used was called Fifty Challenging Problems in Probability.  One of the problems, used to illustrate combinatorics, involved "eligible bachelors and beautiful women."  Now, I didn't write the book, but it was part of the syllabus.  One of my students complained to me, and in parallel, to the department chair, about the wording, claiming that "beautiful women" objectified females.

Obviously, this is true.  No argument there.

But is it "sexist?"  The book was written by the eminent statistician Frederick Mosteller in 1965.  I don't know Mosteller personally - he lectured at Harvard on the other side of the country, but I presume that, given what I know of the time, an "eligible bacherlor" was unlikely to be a cashier at the local Safeway.  The connotations of what made a man an "eligible bachelor" were no less objectifying of men than was beauty of women.

Simply put, both terms, I believe, accurately reflected the preferences of actual men and women in 1965.  And 1993 at the time of my lecture.  And of 2014, if these data are to be believed.  If one considers the actual preferences of men and women rather than what we wish they were, I doubt that that student would have complained.

The internet is of course full of web sites about dating, it is easy to find anecdotes and polemics about "game" that reify all of this.  It's not for the faint of heart, and some of the language and examples can be, to put it mildly, blunt.

But then, "big data" is neither inherently good nor inherently malign.  Statistical analysis does not reveal the world as we wish it were.  Data and mathematics hold a mirror up to the world as it is.

Sometimes, the reflexion ain't going to be pretty.

Monday, 15 September 2014

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today (Well, Almost)

"Da-da-da" Is What They'll Say!

It's been a busy summer - settling budget requests for 2015, booking conferences and meetings for the fall, spending two weeks in Maui to wind down.

In all the excitement, I forgot to note that about two weeks ago, an important milestone has come and gone.  Important to me, in any case.

With apologies to Lennon and McCartney, it was twenty years ago today, more or less, that I decided that I needed a bit more movement in my life.  The Sunday before Labor Day, 1994, I went to Big Five Sports in Sunnyvale, California, bought a pair of Asics running shoes, and went for my first run.

As a kid, I hated running, largely because I found it boring and pointless, and also because for the various sports I had played in school (mostly baseball), if we were running laps, it meant we had mouthed off to the coach.  Running was literally a form of punishment, and I guess I rather internalised the lesson.

A lot happened in the summer of 1994.  I had decided that graduate school was not for me, and I left Stanford to enter the world of work, taking my first "real" job at UC-San Francisco.  I got my first "real" apartment in the Valley Green Apartments in Cupertino, the sort of 1980s-style mega complex that abounds in Silicon Valley.

And more to the point, my father, who was diagnosed with lung cancer in the early spring, lost his battle in July.

When dad was diagnosed, the oncologists determined that he was not a good candidate for surgery, which is devastating to a cancer patient.  The odds are not terrific if you undergo surgery; they are horrendous without it.  The K-M curves for non-surgery lung cancer are, in a word, stark.

I decided that summer that, should the fates decide that cancer (or some other illness) was in my future, I wanted to give myself the best chances of survival I possibly could, and good cardio-vascular health is a key advantage.

I laced my Asics up that Sunday night and went for a jog around the neighbourhood.  My first course: out Valley Green Drive, right along DeAnza Blvd, down to Stevens Creek Blvd, left up Bandley Drive, and then home.  About a mile in total.

It was hell.

Neither Rome, nor Cupertino, was built in a day, so I stuck it out.  Gradually, I added a bit of distance to my loop.  Then I ran two.  Then three.  Then four.

It's 20 years later, and a lot has changed.

In 1994, Apple Computer (their world HQ was and remains just across DeAnza Blvd) was struggling then, as was much of the California economy.  This was before the first dot-com bubble, and Apple, who had owned most of the buildings up and down Bandley, Mariani, and other blocks in the area had gradually sold or leased the properties as they neared bankruptcy.  Apple is now the most valuable company (by market cap) in the world.

I moved from Cupertino, bought my first house in San Jose, got married, moved to the East Coast, changed jobs four times, had a son, and left the US.  I now live in Paris, France, nearly halfway around the world.  My son is now nine years old, and I have gone from being a young to a middle-aged man.

I am now less than 8 years away from the age dad was when he died.

In twenty years now, I have had the chance to run in the US, Canada, Mexico, France, the UK, Spain, Germany, Singapore, Taiwan, China, and Japan.  I've run in rain, snow, heat, and cold.  I've participated many times in the (in)famous Bay to Breakers and Run to the Far Side events.  Some of the cities whose streets I have jogged on include San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, London, Paris, and Tokyo.

I've now undergone two surgeries along the way - neither related to exercise.

Not sure how many pairs of shoes I've been through.

I used to run with a Walkman (ask anyone under the age of 30 what they are); over the years, that's gone to an MD player, a ZEN mp3 player, a portable iPod, and now an iPhone.  This latter device can entertain me with music and track my distance and pace.

Being a numbers guy, I keep track of every mile - every KM now that I live in France, and my phone app uses the metric system.  Still write down the data in the same spiral-bound notebook I've been using for 20 years.

According to my note-taking, yesterday (Sunday 14 September), I ran my 15,162 mile. That is a lot of water under the bridge.

That notebook began life as my phone list.  On the inside page are the telephone number and address for my grandfather on my dad's side, and my grandparents on my mom's.  All of the three are now gone.  My younger sister's and brother's addresses are from their days in college, as both were still students in fall 1994.  Some of the people have simply fallen off, and I have lost contact with them.

In 1994, I could scarcely think of being 45 years old, so I have no idea what life at 65 will be.  I hope I can still jog a mile or two then.

But I expect I may have to walk every now and then.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Homo proponit, sed Deus disponit

How Does the World Really Look
Through Rose-Coloured Glasses?
Homo proponit, sed Deus disponit.  Quickly, the Latin translates to English as "man proposes, but God disposes."  It's a terse assessment of the reality that in the end, whatever we as decidedly mortal beings with quite explicit limitations imagine, not all will come to fruition.

Put another way, in sports terms, mother nature bats last.

I write from time to time on a variety, at times an odd variety, of topics.  These sit at the intersection of interests of mine: in no particular order, mathematics, music, politics, travel, life in France, things that happen in my daily life, random items that I encounter in print.  It's a bit of a random walk, or, in French, un peu aléatoire.  I write these mainly for my own amusement, but also for a clutch of family and friends.  I actually have seven (7) 'followers,' (there is a running gag on Fox News's "Robot Red Eye Theatre" that MSNBC's Rachel Maddow has seven viewers; in my case, that's the actual, exact figure.  I'm doing as well as Rachel!  Hooray!), but the truth is, one is my mother, one my sister, and a third is my wife.  

Two days ago, I posted some thoughts about the possibility that Silicon Valley, which is trumpeted in the popular and prestige press as an incubator of creativity and innovation, may have reached a sort of "peak innovation."  Perhaps, even might have passed that.  It's a bit like the idea of "peak oil."  Without re-hashing the discussion, there is a distinct feel that what is drawing the oxygen, if not the brain power, in the Valley is less real innovation, and more clever marketing.  I asked, Has Silicon Valley run out of big ideas?

As Valley Wag Peter Thiel said, we expected flying cars; we got 140 characters.

Now typically, my posts will get a few dozen page views.  50 if the winds blow in a fortunate direction.  Occasionally, 75.  The post about The Valley has received several hundred views.  (I am a maths guy, so I find it hard to resist numbers and measures; I admit, thus, that I look at the pageviews.)

I'm not a professional writer, and I have no delusions of adequacy, as the saying goes.  But I was a bit surprised.  The most eyes that had visited a previous post was 150 or so pairs.  So, this particular post pulled more than the top three combined.

Quo vadis?

I lived most of my adult life in Silicon Valley, and have written about it many times before.  The politics, the culture, the bizarre, solipsistic reaction (over-reaction) to private activism.  

Each received higher than usual traffic, but still, between 50 and 80 page views.

I looked at the Google diagnostics, and lo and behold, the thread had somehow been cross-posted to a thread on Reddit called DarkFuturology.  I have visited Reddit on a few occasions in the past, but I am not a Reddit user.  Hence, someone who is a Redditor came across my post.

As Wilde said, the only way to deal with temptation is to give in to it, so I looked at the threads; it's a curious mish-mash of comments about possible impacts of technology, primarily as a dystopian vision.  Some of the discussion is, to say the least, raw.  My own ersatz contribution has received a mostly positive (88% "up-voted") response.  I'm mildly grateful it was not attacked as "click-bait."  

From DarkFuturology's own banner:
DarkFuturology examines dystopian trends. We emerged from growing disagreement with the utopian, techno-optimist perspectives prevailing in the original subreddit.
One of the comments/responses to the initial post was
We're about to get self driving cars and rockets to mars. If this article is true then we have no fear of being automated out of our jobs
My own musings in this instance are less about the potential dystopic impact of tech and more about how it seems that real innovation is being replaced by fake innovation, dressed up in a black turtleneck and pitched with a dollop of faux hipster irony.  At the least, the pace of real innovation has slowed, and as I said, it appears that the more noise made about an advance, the less profound the advances are becoming.

As an aside, I would respond to the poster that self-driving cars are first and foremost not really a 'big idea,' and I am dubious that we are at the advent of rockets to Mars.  It's ironic as well, that the day after I made my remark, Twitter (motto: you cannot spell "Twitter" without "twit") will raise $1.3 billion with a stock offering.

Equally, I am a true sceptic that self-driving cars will become uniform, unless they are forced on us by the state.  People, males especially, like to control their vehicles, and I reckon that they always will.  The fact that high-end performance cars (Porsches, Audi supercars, McLarens, Ferraris) still come with manually operated transmissions is an instructive clue.  If guys cleave to stick shifts, what makes anyone think that they will willingly give up the wheel?

But the discussion did lead me to ask, "do I have a dystopian view of the future?"  

So far as tech is concerned, I would have to say, "maybe."  I do not necessarily fear the sort of future of Skynet, or that machines are going to turn on us in an orgy of silicon mayhem and blood as in "WestWorld."  I'm in the minority who believe that real artificial intelligence is not a likely scenario, if for no other reason than I was convinced by John Searle's famous "Chinese Room" arguments (a close friend from college took his doctorate in philosophy at Berkeley).  

I don't believe a machine can be made to think.  I've written about this before

My view of the present is that, all things considered, I am damned happy to be alive now compared to any other period in history.  I cannot think of a single actual, measurable way that life was better at any time in the best.  Longevity?  Material wealth?  Health?  Geopolitical stability (the manufactured crisis in Syria and Ukraine to the side).  

This is not just true of the US or the developed world.

Things are different of course.  But if one is being honest, it seems impossible to reach any other conclusion.

That said, I am not optimistic about the future.  And this is not really related to climate change, or peak oil, or the fear that crazed, bearded men are going to over-run and destroy the west.  

Machines may not ever actually think for themselves (a la AI).  But if one steps back for a second, they won't actually have to.  

I completely agree with the first critic on DarkFuturology, that we in fact do have a threat of being automated out of work.  This is not a big idea of course - since the dawn of humanity, one of the forces majeures driving us is the creation of labour-saving devices.  The lever, the wheel, the wagon, the motor car, the washing machine.  Each of these has been on the whole beneficial; but each has had costs - dramatic costs in some cases.

I wrote about this some months ago here, with a hat-tip to the campy, 1976 movie "Logan's Run."

The special effects are laughable now, and the pretensions of what the future would look like perhaps even more comical, but the made-for-tv movie Logan's Run (featuring a young Farrah Fawcet before The Poster) came to mind when I read a recent column by John Derbyshire.  In it, the professional pessimist provides some thoughts on the impact on work and prospects for life in the not-distant future.  A future where technology has improved to, if not true AI, some semblance of it.
It isn't particularly pretty.

Each new advance has been similar - there are winners and losers.  Automobiles made hansom cab operators redundant.  Word processing has cut the need for a typing pool.  I suppose that text mining software may make market analytics a less than safe occupation.

All along, we have been advised to continue educating ourselves; to keep climbing the ladder to stay relevant.  Famously, US President Barak Obama got into a minor kerfuffle when he quipped about ATMs replacing bank tellers, with the solution being that the teller train to programme or repair  ATMs.  

The problem with this model is three-fold.

First, thousands of ATMs require only a hand-ful of programmers/repairmen, so there is a basic problem of arithmetic.

Second, being a bank teller requires a certain amount of intellect (counting, face recognition, ability to follow orders).  Writing the code requires a different, more complex set of skills.  It's just not possible that everyone who is smart enough to be a bank teller is smart enough to make or maintain an ATM.  

Finally, the situation does not scale up forever.  In allegorical terms, staying ahead of technology creep is like climbing a burning rope.  So long as one can climb faster than the fire, one will not get burnt.  But the rope at some point is anchored to something.  At some point, you will simply run out of rope.

None of this requires tremendous innovation, so it's a bit beside the points raised at DarkFuturology.  But the professional pessimist John Derbyshire (note: I enjoy reading his columns; I don't share all of his views, so please.  No nasty notes).
The assumption here is that like the buggy-whip makers you hear about from economic geeks, like dirt farmers migrating to factory jobs, like the middle-class engineer of 1960, the cube people of today will go do something else, creating a new middle class from some heretofore-despised category of drudges. But… what? Which category of despised drudges will be the middle class of tomorrow? Do you have any ideas? I don’t. What comes after office work? What are we all going to do? The same thing Bartleby the Scrivener did, perhaps, but collectively and generationally.
What is the next term in the series: farm, factory, office…? There isn't one. The evolution of work has come to an end point, and the human race knows this in its bones. Actually in its reproductive organs: the farmer of 1800 had six or seven kids, the factory worker of 1900 three or four, the cube jockey of 2000 one or two. The superfluous humans of 2100, if there are any, will hold at zero. What would be the point of doing otherwise? [emphasis mine]
On another point, I am firmly pessimistic about the basic demographic trap that the west is in.  Put quite bluntly, the ruling class and those in coastal cities are creating a future where children themselves are an annoyance.  I've written here, and here about the formal and informal policies being adopted, and the impact the new urbanism is having on families.

My view is that the future belongs to those who are there to see it.

There was a truly disturbing article by the demographer Joel Kotkin recently published
Where Will the San Franciscans of 2114 Come From?

The publication provides heat maps of various "hot" cities in the US, and the results are unsettling to say the least.  In the image above, three of four households in San Francisco, California - the current epi-centre of the walkable, urban, hip lifestyle - have no children present.  Similar patterns are seen in Manhattan, Boston, and Washington, DC.  If one pauses to think about this for three seconds, it is shocking.

That reality is already being discussed loudly in Europe where I live; I reckon it is a hot topic in Japan as well, where childless adults are making do with electric "pets".  Not sure at what point the horrific scenario played out in the dystopic novel Children of Men will start to be discussed seriously, but this fact alone makes me pessimistic.

Until now, technology has been seen as a servant; a saviour.  I share the views of many of the writers at DarkFuturology, in at least as far as I do not have a blind faith that science is going to save us.

So, whilst I am not really a pessimist in the classical sense, I would have to plead guilty to being a sceptic, and increasingly, a cynic.  But then, as I am fond of saying (most recently, to my boss), the power of accurate observation is frequently called 'cynicism' by those who haven't got it.  Bernard Shaw said it first, but I find it applies.

And thus, I have no illusions of seeing the world through rose-coloured glasses.  Quoting the otherwise forgettable 1980s-era movie with Scott Baio (?!?!?) "Zapped," when asked how the world looks through cracked glasses, I would give the following response.