An Experiment In Scotch

I write to discover what I believe

The Right Tool For The Job Isn’t What You Think It Is

This tweet recently took me down a rabbit hole of ideas about software and the epiphenomenon that we produce when we write it.  As is often the case when I start thinking about something, other seemingly random events or articles bubble to the top of my consciousness or Twitter feed or whatever.    Choose Boring Technology had recently popped up, linked from another article on architectural working groups and the idea of talking about technology choices. Outside of all that, I’ve recently been waking up at 1 in the morning thinking about some looming changes at work in our technology stack. It’s weird how the universe knows when you are ready for an idea and suddenly, you can tie multiple streams of thought into a coherent whole. Well, you can at least try. This post is an attempt to do that.

Epiphenomenon is a secondary effect that an action has that occurs in parallel to the primary effect. The medical world is rife with examples of epiphenomenon. I assert the software world is too but that they are poorly documented or catalogued because they are primarily negative. I believe epiphenomenon are what Michael Feathers is talking about in the lede. If you only see the effects of your software choices, you don’t really understand what you have built. It is only when you see the effects of the effect, the epiphenomenon, do you really understand. I contend this is rarely technological in nature but is instead cultural and has wide ranging effects, many of them negative.

How is this related to choosing boring technology? Epiphenomenon are much more well known and much less widespread in boring, well understood technologies. When you choose exciting technologies, the related effects of the effects of your choices are deeper and broader because you understand fewer of the implications of the choice.  These are the unknown unknowns that Dan talks about.  We see this over and over in the tech space where people think that choices are made in a total vacuum with no organizational effects outside the primary technological ones.

At Amazon, they are famous for their service oriented architecture.   It sounds so dreamy.  We’ll have services that allow us to iterate independently and deploy pieces independently and we’ll all be so independent.  The problem is that independence requires incredible discipline, discipline that is paradoxically very dependent on everyone being on the same page about what a service looks like and what it has access to and how it goes about getting the data it needs to function.  Without any of that very hard discipline that rarely seems to exist outside the Amazons of the world, what you have is not your dreamy Service Oriented Architecture but instead a distributed monolith that is actually a hundred times worse than the actual monolith you replaced.

I saw several people disagreeing with that tweet and wondered why it was so controversial.  It dawned on me that the people disagreeing with it were developers, people deep down in the corporate food chain who have this idea of using the right tool for the job in all instances which is great if you are a carpenter but fucking insane if you are a software shop.  When a carpenter uses a miter saw instead of a hammer, it’s because you can’t cut a 2×4 with a hammer unless you are very very dedicated and also the shittiest carpenter in the world.  However, when an engineer says “This is the job for Super Document Database (which by the way we’ve never once run in production)!” in his best Superman voice, he’s saying that in a total vacuum, a vacuum that doesn’t exist for the carpenter (and actually doesn’t exist for the engineer, he just doesn’t know it).  Now you have your data in two places.  Now you need different engineering rules for how its accessed, what its SLAs are, how its monitored, how it gets to your analytics team who just got blindsided for the fourth time this year with some technology, the adoption of which they had no input into, etc, etc, etc, until everyone in the company wants to go on a homicidal rampage.

Logical conclusion time: Imagine a team of 5 developers with 100 microservices.  Imagine the cognitive overload required to know where something happens in the system.  Imagine the operational overload of trying to track down a distributed system bug in 100 microservices when you have 5 developers and 1 very sad operations person.  Ciaran isn’t saying it’s technologically a bad idea to have more services than developers.  He’s saying it’s a cultural/organizational bad idea.  He didn’t say it in the tweet or the thread because he didn’t have #280Characters or just doesn’t know how to express it.  But that’s what he’s saying.  It introduces a myriad of problems that a monolith or a very small set of team or developer owned services do not.

Our industry has spread this “right tool for the job” meme and to our benefit, it’s stuck.  It’s to our benefit because we developers get to play with shiny jangly things and then move on to some other job.  People who don’t have such fluid career options are then stuck supporting or trying to get information out of a piece of technology that isn’t the right tool for THEIR particular job.  “The Job” is so much broader than the technological merits and characteristics of a particular decision.  As Dan points out in his point, it’s amazing what you can do with boring technology like PHP, Postgres and Python.  You better have a really damn good reason that you can defend to a committee of highly skeptical people.  If you can’t do that, you use the same old boring technology.

Our industry and by extension our careers live in this paradoxical contradiction.  On the one hand, a developer can’t write VB.Net his entire career because he’ll watch his peers get promoted and his salary not keep up with inflation and his wife leave him for the sexy Kotlin developer who just came to town.  On the other hand, taking a multimillion dollar company that happens to use VB.net and using that as an excuse to scorch the earth technologically speaking is in my mind very nearly a crime.  There is a middle ground of course but it’s a difficult one, fraught with large falling rocks, slippery corners with no guard rails and a methed out semi driver careening down the mountain in the opposite direction you are going.

Changing technologies has impacts for different arms of the organization and I’ve found it useful to frame these in terms of compile versus runtime impacts.  Developers and development teams get to discover things at compile time.  When you choose a new language, you learn it slowly over the course of a project or 4.  But if you operate in a classic company where you throw software over the wall for operations, they get to find out about the new tech stack at runtime, i.e. at 3 AM when something is segfaulting in production.  The pain for choosing a new technology is felt differently by different groups of the organization.  Development teams have a tendency to locally optimize for pain, e.g. push it off into the distant future because they are under a deadline and trying to get something, anything to work and so decisions are made that put off a great deal of pain.

Technological change requires understanding the effects of the effects of your decisions.  Put more succinctly, it requires empathy.  It’s a good thing most developers I’ve known are such empathetic creatures.  SIgh.  Perhaps it’s time we start enforcing empathy more broadly.  The only way I know to do that is oddly a technological solution.  If you want to roll out some new piece of technology (language, platform, database, source control, build tool, deployment model or in the case of where I currently work all of the above), you have to support it from the moment it’s a cute little wonderful baby in your hands all the way up to when it’s a creaky old geezer shitting its pants and mumbling about war bonds.  Put more directly, any time someone has a question or a problem with your choice, you have to answer it.  You don’t get to put them off or say it’s someone else’s job or hire a consultancy to tell you what to do.  If it’s broken at 3 AM, you get the call.  If analytics doesn’t know how to get data out of the database, you get to teach them.  If you fucked up a kubernetes script and deployed 500 instances of your 200 line microservice, you get to explain to the CFO why the AWS bill is the same amount as he’s paying to send his daughter to Yale.  Suddenly, that boring technology that you totally understand sounds fantastic because you’d like to go back to sleeping or drinking Dewars straight from the bottle or whatever.

We cannot keep existing as an industry by pushing the pain we create off onto other people.  On the flip side, those people we have been pushing pain to need to make it easier for us to run small experiments and not say no to everything just because “it’s production”.  There has to be a discussion.  That’s where things seem to completely fall apart because frankly, almost no developer or operations person I’ve known has, when faced with a technological question, said “I know, I’ll go talk to this other team I don’t really ever interface with and see what they think of the idea.”

Software is just as much cultural as it is technological.  Nothing exists in a vacuum.  The earlier we understand that and the more dedicated to the impact and effects of that understanding, the happier we’ll be as teams of people trying to deliver value to the business.   Because in the end, as Dan puts it, the actual job we’re doing is keeping the business in business.  All decisions about tooling have to be made in that framework.  Any tool that doesn’t serve that job and end is most decidedly NOT the right tool for the job.

Screaming Bloody Murder

This morning when I dropped Wobbles off at daycare, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Wobbles has not been to daycare in over two weeks and in that time, she has received a great deal of very individual attention. So much so that she’s grown quite accustomed to this trove of attention that she alone commands. When it became apparent she was going to spend the day not at home with Grandma or mom or dad, all hell broke loose. When I left, I could hear the tears practically hitting the floor from the hallway.

Yet I know that within five minutes, she was happily playing with toys and her teacher, the momentary discomfort of being away from me completely forgotten. She is at a stage where she is uncomfortable with change or the unknown but within a short time, forgets this discomfort and goes on about doing fun things. As long as you don’t leave her sitting in a Pack-n-Play with nothing to do, she will even find away to entertain herself fairly quickly. The moment of fear is exactly that, momentary, and then life goes on.

Will Smith recently roared through social media with a description of what it is like to impulsively decide to go skydiving. and the resulting fear that consumes you. Constant worry and anxiety. Will I die? Should I back out? This was a ridiculous thing to have done. All words expressed by the internal critic. Then you step out of the plane and fear disappears. The actual event causes no fear, only the expectation of that event and the narrative story built in your head about all the terrible things that could happen along the way. That narrative and the internal critic that writes it, they are the genesis of fear.

It is the same with writing or coding or any number of other creative activities. It is the same with any activity we do that is outside our comfort zone. The fear exists before the event, created by an overactive critic with an unjustifiably loud voice. But the moment the activity starts, or worst case a few moments later, the fear is gone. If focus remains, if concentration can stay stable, there are no thoughts of “what if this doesn’t work out?” or “What if this is terrible?” The only thing that remains is text and the characters and where they lead us.

Often I am overwhelmed by the thought of the scope of a project. But in the moment of writing or coding or digging a flower bed, there is no thought of the scope. The current moment is all that matters. Through a continual parade of those current moments, the scope is harnessed and contained. Even creating for five minutes is worth more than worrying for those five minutes about how much work is left.

There is a picture on the wall of my kitchen of what looks like a Dust Bowl farm. There are buildings, a road, a barn, little else. It is the picture of my grandparents farm shortly after they moved in, an empty, barren landscape, shot from a helicopter, of their chunk of the Oklahoma Panhandle. It is a symbol of a beginning, of what a blank page looks like. It shows hope and possibility. It also shows fear and emptiness. Once upon a time, there was a corresponding photo, taken 17 years later of a lush, green vista with large trees, an overflowing garden. The work and effort of two human beings, not young and full of energy but old and retired, shows the effects of daily work over a long period of time. Growth does not happen without the combination of time and effort contrary to the desires of our overstimulated attention monster. But something great can be created with small amounts of work, applied regularly to a single problem over the course of time. The important part is not to think of the end goal. You don’t even know the end goal. My grandparents had no idea what that farm would look like in 1998 after 17 years of living and working there. They only knew that each day gave them the opportunity to create something. What it was became emergent through their efforts and dedication. Creativity is no different.

A way that my generation’s lives have changed from our that of our grandparents is in the amount of choice we have on a daily basis of how we spend our time. We are overwhelmed by opportunity of activity, most of which is meaningless and even disquieting. Our attention is divided among too many things, even on the best days and with the best intentions. My grandparents never went and picked up their phone to see if someone was on it. They were too busy doing actual work. A 2014 study added fuel to the fire that the mere presence of our cell phones during a complicated task led to decreased performance. Even if the cell phone is turned over or out of reach, our monkey brains wonder if something important has happened on it. This distracts us from our task at hand. Distraction is easier to come by in our ever connected world and distraction will always necessarily be easier than concentration. Yet it is concentration and focus that results in the creation of things that are important to us whether it’s a work of art, a coding project or a relationship. Often that ease of distraction prevents us from even beginning something.

The hardest part of creating is the actual part about starting. Worry and fear can keep you from ever beginning, not only IN the beginning, but at every moment along the path. Fear keeps you from producing by telling stories about “30 minutes isn’t enough time to bother” or “There’s always tomorrow.” These stories become self-fulfilling as you allow them to become the narrative of your creative life. If every time that Wobbles screamed bloody murder when I walked away, I turned around and comforted her, neither one of us would ever grow. So it is with creating. The critic screams bloody murder every time you try to drop him off at daycare. He doesn’t want to be left alone. He doesn’t want to play by himself. Yet, when you refuse to listen to him and begin to create, he will slowly become more silent over time. He my never become completely silent. But he will be a more mature, supportive being that encourages your creativity. You just have to ignore the screaming part for a little while. It’s too important not to.

On Silence

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. — Dylan Thomas

I have been trying to write unsuccessfully this month, something, anything really. It seems that I have run out of ideas. Or perhaps out of steam. My attention is diverted in too many ways to allow for the required focus to actually produce anything. I have become a consumer. I have noticed in recent months that my ability to control my own mind is growing weaker and weaker to the point where at any given moment, I might drift off into a state of unpresentness. So I have fallen silent. This is almost entirely my own fault as the urge to pick up the phone and look at Twitter or Instagram or the markets is completely my own. These things of no real importance have become the moments of my spare time. So much so that when I want to actually do something productive, my physical energy level can only stand a few moments before needing a break. How can one hope to create something interesting when allowing only five minute increments in which to do it? Even while writing those 177 words, the urge to pick up my phone or gaze out the window thinking of anything else was immense. Concentration is both a skill and a habit and the harder you work on the latter, the stronger the former becomes. But like physical exercise or diet control or anything else, it is easier to allow it to lapse, knowing of course somewhere that the longer it lapses, the hard it is to regain.

Strength in all things comes through effort and trial. Weakness comes in comfort and sloth. I’m rereading Antifragile and one of the tell tale differences between fragility and antifragility is psychological comfort versus psychological discomfort but with a sense of adventure. I realize that much of my adult life has been focused on gaining as much psychological comfort as possible. Physically at times I have veered into discomfort through training and effort and those times have been some of my most proud. Rarely psychologically have I done the same. That sense of adventure is missing. Even during my sabbatical, I did comfortable things. This hit home recently when I saw Tim Ferris’s TED talk on fear setting. In it, he talks about his process for identifying and effectively destroying fear as opposed to finding goals to chase. Fear setting is the corollary to goal setting but few of us ever explicitly do it. We let our fears unconsciously sabotage our best efforts. We worry about all the terrible things that might happen from action but fail to examine the terrible things that might also happen from inaction. It is easier to imagine ourselves as humiliated because of some action we wrongly took than it is to imagine ourselves as bitterly regretful over things we were too afraid to do. Yet those results of inactivity are what lead to a disappointing life. No one who ever wrote a terrible book later wished they had sat on the couch watching TV instead. But plenty of us will look back and wonder what might have been different if only we had written a terrible book. Replace book with any goal. Inactivity, the silence of our actions, is what we will one day look back on with regret. And regret is the most awful emotion.

My silence comes from a division of attention and an internal critic with a deafening voice so overwhelming as to have become normal, as if the deafness of my creativity is how it has always been and not an artifact of being shouted at all the time. I am afraid to write a terrible book or play terrible music or draw terrible things. But literally doing those things can result in no real harm. The worst possible case is that I will have written a terrible books that my friends won’t even read while saying nice platitudes like “Wow 360 pages is a long book, I’m sure that means it’s good.” If your ego can’t stand doing something terrible at first, you don’t have to worry about doing anything great.

Much of this fear comes from being externally motivated. It’s why I once wanted to be an actor. I loved the feedback. But hidden within that is a desire to be a craftsman, motivated only by the excellence of the work. The internal critic has no power there because I alone am the judge of the craftsmanship. Unleashing that intrinsic motivation, the desire for excellence, could be a key to unlocking the silence. Overcoming the fear of being wrong or terrible can be done by just focusing on the work. The happiest artists are those who are consumed with the excellence of their work and not the reactions to it. Worry less about what horrible things might happen when you take action and focus on the work.

Humans are bad at examining the effects of inactivity. It will always be easier to see the results of some action than at some point in the future see the results of not having taken an action. The “what if” can never really be answered which makes it so intractable. But by focusing on the worst case, which is what Ferriss prescribes, we can see with better focus what might happen if we take no action at all towards our goals. What might life be like in 3 or 6 or 12 months if you take no action at all towards your goals? The easiest answer is that life will be exactly like it is today. Am I satisfied with that or does it terrify me to think of being in the exact same place a year from now? Where is the sense of adventure in that?

Silence can be deafening in that by remaining silent on our goals, we become deaf to what our true potential might be. There is a time for silence but it should not be the norm. Make loud, raucous noises towards your dreams as often as you can. That is one key to a fulfilling life.

All The Pretty Horsies

Every year, I wrote a small novella on as many horses in the Derby as I can muster. With a tumbler of Fortuna in hand, I embark on what is a yearly exercise in futility trying to decide what horse might win the Kentucky Derby. I do this because A) the fine patrons of Darly Downs, a parimutuel pool I run, demand it (and by demand, I mean mostly don’t even read it but I need to fool myself into thinking I have an audience if I’m going to write 5000 words on the horses in the Derby) and B) because of all the characteristics of the Kentucky Derby, tradition is one of the top three along with decadence and depravity though only Hunter S. Thompson knows in which order they are arranged. One thing you should keep in mind at all times while reading the following is that I have almost no idea what I’m doing. You will forget this at your own peril. I know next to nothing about horse racing other than what I have gleaned from reading the Daily Racing Form over the past years and while that is likely infinitely more than you know, you should still not trust anything I say. As the evening wears on and the bourbon takes effect, I may become more witty or engaging or funny but at no time will I become a better judge of horse flesh. You have been warned. Horses are followed by odds as of this evening along with trainer and jockey.

All The Pretty Horsies returns this year after a hiatus last year when I mistakenly scheduled my yearly fishing trip for the first weekend in May. Perhaps a mistake I won’t make again. If you are a patron of Darly Downs and not a random passerby caught in the glare of the following prose, you should also remember that it’s quite possible one or more of the horses below won’t make it into the Derby, either because of injury or the owner’s failure to pay the requisite fees. If you bet on a horse that doesn’t get in, it’s a donation. In 2015, Stanford was a pretty solid favorite and he got scratched on Wednesday after everyone put their money on him. A word of advice, don’t put all your money on one horse. But then, that goes exactly contrary to one School of Handicapping in another related document so what do I know.

We’ll start with the current favorites and move our way down the list. In the 7 or 8 years I’ve been running this pool, I have yet to write about all 20 likely entrants. In some years, this has caused me great despair like when Mine That Bird and Animal Kingdom won as 50-1 long shots. In other years, like last year, it just meant I didn’t write about the horsie that came in second (Commanding Curve). I will try to write at least something about all horses but we’re already 500 words and 2 fingers of rum in without any words about horses.

The field this year is mostly wide open. There haven’t been any dominating performances and only Irish War Cry has two Beyers over 100 and those sandwich a 63 in the Wood where he basically wore out. So unlike recent years where the favorite (American Pharaoh comes to mind) was incredibly dominant, we have a field that could do practically anything. Should make for exciting times on Saturday.

Always Dreaming (5-1 Pletcher/Velazquez) – Always Dreaming has gone back and forth with Classic Empire this year as the Derby favorite. In his last three races, he’s won by 5, 4 and 11.5 lengths. In short, he’s kicked some ass. In the Florida Derby, he ran a 97 Beyer and stalked nicely in second all the way to the stretch when he ran away with it. This horse looks promising and seems to like to rub other horsies faces in his dust. Here’s the only thing that worries me with Always Dreaming: he’s a front runner. He wins big, never has to have mud kicked in his face and mostly seems to have not had much adversity yet. In the Florida, he was never really challenged. What happens on Saturday when 20 horses start making things much more difficult? If he can get a decent post, he may be hard to beat. But if he has to come from the inside or way outside, I have the feeling he might find it difficult to get to the front and have the inside track. His sire is Bodemeister, one of my all-time favorite Bro horse names.

Classic Empire (6-1 Casse/Leparoux) – If you watched the link I sent in the Further Explanation Of Darly Downs, you know this horse is a stalker with closing power who looked solid in the win in the Arkansas Derby. He’s won 3 of his last 4. That one loss is a little worrisome as it was against solid talent in Irish War Cry and Gunnevera and he was third by over 8 lengths. Still, he seems to have some closing speed, always important in the Derby, the longest race of any of these horsies career. He ran a top Beyer of 102 way back in November but then fell back in the Holy Bull where he got his tail kicked. He won his one race on a wet track but that was his first ever race and probably means nothing. In the end, this horse looks like he might have the required heart and kick to win the Derby. Leparoux has never won the Derby and that might be the one failing of this horse.

Gunnevera (6-1 Sano/Castellano) – This horse is confusing. He’s been all over the map in his Beyers and his finishes. He’s a little like Shrodinger’s cat in that you really can’t be sure if he’s alive or dead. One thing he has going for him in the Derby is the added distance. If you watch the Florida Derby, you see he basically mailed it in for the first part of the race and then decided he didn’t want to lose. The final kick reminds me of my study habits in college. He’s also had some mud kicked in his face and responded well. He won the Fountain of Youth by almost 6 lengths with a solid Beyer of 97 before taking a little break in the Florida. At 10-1, this horse provides some value. At 6-1, not so much.

Irish War Cry (7-1 Motion/Maragh) – This horse is also slightly confusing in that he won the Wood Memorial (my nickname in college) with a triple digit Beyer (barely, 100). But before that, he basically crapped his pants in the Fountain of Youth with a 63 and a nap in the backstretch. This is very similar to what Frosted did in 2015 which meant exactly nothing. But before that, he ran a 101 in the Holy Bull and won by almost 4 lengths. He’s got a good name for winning the Derby, a three word, single syllable moniker that rolls of the tongue. He’s the youngest colt in the bunch which doesn’t seem like much but then, they are all 3 year olds and any extra time you can have to mature is welcome. I like this horse to finish in the top three but frankly, he hasn’t faced much adversity and when he did in the Fountain of Youth, he essentially mailed it in. I’m probably staying away. You do whatever you need to to think you got value from you $30.

So we’re four horses in, I’ve had three drinks, it’s almost 11 PM and I got 5 hours of sleep last night when the midget woke up at 5 AM thinking it was time to perform her Cute Midget Antics. If I get to 10 horses this year, it will be a small miracle.

McCraken (10-1 Wilkes/Hernadez Jr) – I’m sorry but if you spend a ton of money on a horse that might one day win the Derby, you should spend a little more time naming him. Might as well have named him MacGuffin. That being said, this horse has some history at Churchill Downs and it’s mostly all positive. He’s won 3 races here and clearly likes the track. However, if we’re honest, he hasn’t faced any of the really fast horsies and as we all know, stealing money from the slow witted child on the playground isn’t particularly impressive. He got slower in his final race in losing by 4 lengths to Irap in the Bluegrass and I’m pretty sure that isn’t a good sign. Sorry, no amount of liking Churchill is going to make up for a case of the “slows” and this horse has a serious case of the “slows”.

Gormley (12-1 Shirreffs/Espinoza) – Here’s another instance where we have a big pretty horse named something that sounds like a venereal disease. He’s gotten progressively slower in his last three races, barely beat Battle of Midway (who we know is a pig) in the Santa Anita and never ran a Beyer faster than 94. His only saving grace is that he won his only race on a wet track with his fastest Beyer time. It’s entirely possible that he really likes mud and if so, he’s going to get his wish on Saturday. I’ve been running this pool for several years now and I have never heard of his trainer so unless he’s the next coming of American Pharaoh (another West Coast horse), I don’t see much value here.

Hence (12-1 Asmussen/Geroux)Hence is a pretty horse. And I’ll admit to have a bias towards horses with a single name. He won the Sunland and all the horses he beat in that race improved in their next race including Irap who won the Bluegrass. Asmussen is a Texas local and I have a sweet spot in my poor betting history for his horses. I like this horse to finish strong in the Derby with the extra length. I’m just not sure he has enough to get there for the finish.

Girvin (15-1 Sharp/Smith) – This horse has the most qualifying points of any yet he goes off at a very decidedly not favorite price. He’s a stalker as we see in the Louisiana Derby where Girvin (post 8) runs well back until the final turn and then comes home to win. The question is, against whom? No one really. So even though he has the most qualifying points after winning the Louisiana and Risen Star, I’m not convinced. He’s going off at larger odds not just because he’s faced subpar talent but also because he had a crack in a right rear hoof that required some special attention, not the least of which was having to swim instead of run. This seems problematic. If you can get him at 20-1 either here or at the track, more power to you. Otherwise, this horse reeks of tragedy.

Tapwrit (20-1 Pletcher/Ortiz) – Two months ago, when Tapwrit blew the field away at the Tampa Bay Derby, he was a serious contender for winning the Roses. Then he went to the Bluegrass and caught a case of the Hoffas (nowhere to be found). He may have been running with concrete shoes. He ran a 76 Beyer in that race as his final prep. In other races, that might be ok to ignore but in the Derby, you really want your horsie to be peaking. It’s going to be the longest race of his career and the field will be insane. Still, this horse is sired by Tapit, one of the great sires in North America for this type of race. Can he forget about that horrible trip at the Bluegrass? Beats me. But I wouldn’t want money on this horse unless I was getting 25-1 or better. He is gray and I love gray horses though.

Lookin At Lee (20-1 Asmussen/Lanerie) – Lookin at Lee is what you call a closer. He tends to hang back saving his energy and then makes a mad dash for the finish line when his jockey (Corey Lanerie, a Churchill regular and one of the best to currently race there which is a plus) asks him to. Unfortunately, that hasn’t resulted in any wins in real races. He finished third to Classic Empire only 1.5 lengths back and he may have improved on that if he wouldn’t have run out of room. His Beyers are regularly climbing which is nice but he just doesn’t seem to have the pedigree or the heart to get to the finish line first. In order to bet on this horse, you have to convince yourself the extra distance will allow him to get there. I have my doubts. They weren’t assuaged when he drew the dreaded #1 position this morning either.

Practical Joke (20-1 Brown/Rosario) – This horse is a practical joke on anyone that puts money on him. He just doesn’t have what it takes to win the Derby. He finished second to Irap by less than a length at the Bluegrass but you really have to wonder if he knows how to win. Gunnevera beat him by almost 6 lengths in the Fountain of Youth and he was eight lengths back in the race before that. Derby winners don’t have names like this. Stay away. Though many of you will ignore me when his odds jump to 45-1 or so. Fine.

Thunder Snow (20-1 Suroor/Soumillon) – Every year, some horse gets shipped over here from the Middle East by some idiot prince who thinks he has the next coming of Secretariat. And every year, they get shipped back to the damn desert having finished 142nd out of 20 in the Derby. There are reasons for this. First, it’s a long way from Dubai to Kentucky. Second, they are typically turf horses (most of their races are on turf) and they are being converted to dirt. This doesn’t seem like a big thing but it’s a very different experience when suddenly you’re having dirt thrown in your face. Third, they’ve never seen 20 horses much less had to fight their way through them. They just don’t have the character necessary. I’m not being a horse racist here. Trust me. That being said, this horse ran the fastest ever on dirt for a Dubai horse. So there’s that. But he’s a pig. Avoid him. Still not being a horse racist.

J Boys Echo (20-1 Romans/Albardo) – This horse blew the field away in the Gotham while running a 102 Beyer. The problem with that is that the Gotham is a Grade 3 stakes meaning he ran against a bunch of horses headed for the glue factory of Derby contenders. When he jumped up to Grade 2 last month at the Bluegrass, he finished six lengths back in 4th with a Beyer of 84. The one thing going for him is his lineage. With Mineshaft as the sire who came out of AP Indy who came out of Seattle Slew, J. Boys Echo is bred for the limelight and the distance. I just think he’s missing a critical gene, namely heart. Or maybe speed. Or maybe both.

Irap (20-1 O’Neill/Gutierrez) – This horse was doing nothing for a long time and then suddenly won the Bluegrass as a 31-1 underdog. That threw him into the Derby as the horse with the fourth most qualifying points. The problem here is all his other races. On the upside, this owner/trainer/jockey combo have won two of the last five Kentucky Derbies which is saying something. Is that enough? His Beyer have jumped 10 points in each of the last two races. If he gets another 10 point jump to 103, he might get there. But he’s going to need a slow steady pace at first and with what is likely to be a very muddy track, maybe it’s his exact trip.

The rest of the story
The rest of these horses aren’t going to win the Derby. State of Honor has run completely on synthetic tracks and is a good bet to finish dead last. Patch is a one eyed horse with a lot of guts and heart but without the requisite talent. You should put a $1 on him just in case he wins though so that you can have the feel good karma of betting on a one eyed horse to win the Derby. Battle of Midway didn’t race as a 2 year old and guess what? Horses that don’t do that don’t ever win the Derby. Chester Arthur was President last time that happened. He’s also slow. Really slow. Untrapped is a big time closer who seems to always run out of room. Can the Derby be his breakthrough? Probably not. Sonneteer is like a Keats sonnet, pretty but not something to make money on. He’s never won a race and he’s raced a lot. He is drastically improving speed wise over the last several races but I doubt he can make the jump from loser to winner. Finally, Fast and Accurate is a beautiful horse but there’s no way he wins the Derby. He’s run almost all of his races on synthetic tracks and his one lone dirt race resulted in a Beyer of 27. That’s horse talk for fucking slow. He doesn’t like dirt and the Derby is the biggest dirt of them all.

Well, there you have it. I’m probably the only one who made it this far anyway. Good luck this week and I hope you enjoy the Derby at Darly Downs.

Thought For The Day On Healthcare

Thinking about healthcare and its providence this morning. Historically, this country has been driven by entrepreneurship and small business growth. Since 1998, we have been in a period where job creation through small business is much worse though slightly improved since 2010. One part of that is likely the connection between a steady job and healthcare. The Affordable Care Act while flawed in some ways at least incentivized job creation implicitly by allowing freelancers and entrepreneurs access to healthcare on the exchanges. Of course, one of the drawbacks to the ACA was that not everyone went through the exchanges because if you have a job, you get your healthcare there.

What kind of system could a thoughtful conservative humanist (a oxymoron in the leadership of the GOP of today but that’s a thought for another day) come up with as an improvement on the ACA that would foster job growth through small business creation? One of the benefits of other types of insurance is that they are semi-free markets. If you want to change your home insurance, you can research a variety of options and pick one of your liking. You cannot do this with healthcare because you likely can’t find a suitable replacement for your workplace plan on an exchange. One key to the ACA was the elimination of preconditions:

ObamaCare eliminated pre-existing conditions starting in 2014. No more pre-existing conditions means you can’t be denied coverage, charged more, or denied treatment based on health status.

Preexisting conditions are an interesting concept. If I have four car accidents that I’m at fault for, I have to pay more for auto insurance and might even get denied. But that’s not a precondition. That’s me being an idiot or just a bad driver for which no sane person would expect me not to pay more for. But if I eat nothing but Cheetohs and jelly beans for a few years and develop Type II diabetes, we don’t say “that’s not a precondition because it’s your fault.” We naturally have a sense of fairness in auto insurance that’s lacking in health insurance discussions because it’s hard to look at someone suffering from Type II diabetes and say “that’s largely your fault.”

Plus if you notice the clause in the preconditions statement: “you can’t be charged more.” This is clearly a disincentive for the companies providing insurance because you definitely cost more with preconditions. That means people without preconditions are the ones who pay the difference. This also violates our natural sense of fairness. If I drive a Ferrari, I shouldn’t be able to get insurance for the same cost a Camry owner does.

Any conservative policy is going to want to deal with preconditions in a way that’s fair to people getting insurance but also that doesn’t disincentivize companies from providing insurance. How is that possible? We have to be hard on people who through mostly or entirely their own actions, cause themselves to be more expensive to insure. How can we craft a policy that does that? Out of time for today…

On Attention

In a wide ranging, often insightful, occasionally politically passive aggressive article, Craig Mod writes about how he got his attention back. It’s long and given the attention span of the Internet these days, chances are you didn’t even read it. Wow, speaking of passive aggressive. I digress. I do think it’s important piece that feels around the edges of what has gone wrong with our society, not just this year but beginning decades ago when we stopped paying attention to those things that weren’t immediate. He talks about the 2016 election as if it was a huge surprise, a geologic shift in the tectonic plates of our nation when in reality, it was the logical conclusion of our click-bait, always on, flood of misinformation economy. The fact that Donald Trump as President is a surprise to people shows how little we pay attention.

The information society has become machine scale. No longer can you pick up one paper and know approximately what is going on in your town or nation or world. Perhaps you never could but only those things that were actually important bubbled to the top. Now, false stories are spread at the click of a button and because the information landscape is so chaotic, we have no hope of performing the necessary validation ourselves. Any rebuttals are missed entirely because they don’t fit our world view. We live in echo chambers where people post and repost and tweet things that are demonstrably false but that fuel our moral outrage. They fit our world view and so have long and unjustified lives. Michael Tracey has been one of the few I’ve seen writing about this. The net effect is that we are actually less informed and we are less able to feel outrage when it is truly justified and necessary.

The current chaos is the natural progression of information flow. Fifty years ago, information was limited, slow and filtered. Now it has become unlimited, immediate and unfiltered. It is the difference between human scale and machine scale. We are uniquely unprepared to deal with it because the scale is so immense. We are driven by the reptilian feedback mechanisms to try and keep up which only results in anxiety and loss. Studies have shown that we check our phone 85 times a day on average. Let that sink in for a moment if you can. Of those 85 times, almost none of them are truly important. Perhaps none of them are. We have fully achieved the consumption society. We spend all day eating and drinking junk food while ingesting huge quantities of empty, sugary information. We live with attention deficits and nutritional deficits and financial deficits and physical deficits. Not only do we live with them but we actively pursue them with a zeal and a pride that when analyzed closely is at least mildly terrifying.

Of course, when you attempt to check out, people look at you like a Luddite. My aunt recently deleted her Facebook account. When someone does this, they are often accused of not wanting to hear about things they don’t agree with. But throughout recorded history, we have done fine not hearing about things we don’t agree with and also many of the things we do agree with. Those times were not more scary than the times we now live in when everyone is “informed”. People could think and act for themselves then. Now our opinions are given to us in a constant stream of media soundbites, many of them false or misguided, all of them driven by some bias we can’t verify. We are the most informed and yet uninformed generation.

The irony is that just when we need our collective attention most to sort through the chaos, we have precious little experience in it. Just like you must work hard physically for long periods of time to be strong enough to handle times of shock, our attention should be cultivated and exercised so that we can handle times of informational chaos. That is not the state we find ourselves in. We find ourselves on the informational couch, fat, lazy, hands covered in the Cheeto dust of informational nuggets of nothingness. At the very time when our President and media are actively making the media landscape more chaotic and warlike and we need to rise up and fight, we cannot walk up a flight of stairs to defend ourselves.

Of course, we find ourselves in this position because it is all so much easier. It is easier to buy something you can’t afford on a credit card. It is easier to buy a Big Mac than it is to make a decent meal at home. It is easier to sit on the couch than it is to go for a walk. It is easier to read Twitter than it is to create art. It is the path of least resistance and with few exceptions, we have gone down that path until we can hardly walk or stuff another calorie into our face or another byte into our head. Of course, with physical or nutritional deficit, we know we have failed. It is obvious all the time. But with attention deficit, there is no physical representation of our inability to focus, no out of breathness when we reach the top of a hill. And that is the most dangerous kind of debt, one you cannot see until it is too late.

Is there hope? There is always hope. The more people check out and return their focus to their families and the community and their local leaders, the more good it does. The collective effort of people doing small things for people who matter to them will change more than any consumption of information ever will. A key quote from Mod’s article:

There is a qualitative and quantitative difference between a day that begins with a little exercise, a book, meditation, a good meal, a thoughtful walk, and the start of a day that begins with a smartphone in bed.

Or a smartphone at any time. Gathering our attention back in, refusing to parcel it out to whatever outrage happened today, using it to actually do something, those things create quality. Perhaps slowly, over time and with great effort, we can regain our attention. That would be the greatest success of all.

Infants and Humor

As our little midget grows into a laughing, funny little creature, it’s interesting to know and read about how early infants understand humor.

Friday Morning Ramblings

For Christmas, I received Desert Solitaire which is a tale of one man in the American West, specifically the desert region of southern Utah around Moab and the Arches National Park. Abbey writes beautifully of the desert and of the wilderness in general which he was afraid was becoming urbanized and lost. His tales of adventures like rafting down the Colorado river in two inflatable dinghies with a friend, sans any life jackets, just so they could see Glen Canyon before Lake Powell was built reminds me of John Graves Goodbye To A River which I read last year. The poignancy of Graves is contrasted with an almost militancy of Abbey who rails against the loss of a wilderness once haunted only by Native Americans and wildlife. Abbey’s works later became the basis for many environmental anarchists which is unsurprising. He quotes Bakunin, the great Russian anarchist, in one place in the book so I assume he must have read and probably approved of the philosophy in many ways. The intrusion of the state into what once was pristine wilderness was a theme of both Graves and Abbey, each in their own way. Bakunin wrote (slightly paraphrased) that “sometimes creation can only be achieved through destruction. Therefore, the passion for destruction is also a creative passion.”

On its face, this seems illogical but is in fact how the natural world and in theory the capitalistic world operates. Only through destruction of the weak as well as the unlucky can things evolve. The flash flood that roars down a dry arroyo sweeps away much but allows nature to regenerate and change in ways a central planner could never even conceive of. In the same way, when a business fails, it opens a hole in the ecosystem for a better or more appropriate business. Of course, the mule deer fawn unlucky enough to be born in that arroyo is destroyed as well when he cannot outrun the flood, a incident of bad luck unrelated to fitness. This is the concept that we as conscious feeling humans cannot bear. However, our inclination to save all things is carried to far when we save those things that are irreparable or fundamentally flawed. We “save” things that should be dead. This is evident in all aspects of our life from our artificial struggles to extend life at its boundaries, our bailing out of banks that should be tits up, our desire to keep wildfires from the forest and so many other examples. Our drive to protect from events like a flash flood or a forest fire or a global financial melt down causes us to only postpone and worsen the event when it happens. This is proven over and over again. This central planning eventually fails, in all cases. In theory, our federation of states protects us as a country from this but over time, our states have become more bureaucratic and our central government has become more powerful especially financially and militarily.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes of this failure in central planning a great deal in Antifragile. Bureaucracies are like black holes unfortunately, in that they eventually achieve their own gravity, sucking in the galaxies that surround them. Without constant involvement and care, our governments become larger and larger because people have a natural inclination to “do things” when oftentimes doing nothing would be the right choice. This makes me think of code and the effort required to keep it running and error free. As we become more distracted and riddled with our own problems, we do not have the capability to devote to keeping our civilization and government under control. In the same way that invariably we eventually throw something away and replace it with something new, our liberal democracy will eventually be thrown away because we did not invest the required effort to keep it running. This seems unlikely, possibly even impossible, in a country that has not had a revolution in 150 years. But it is the nature of the world and we are part of the world. Without regular care and pruning and hard choices that none of our current mass of politicians and their cushy jobs for life can manage, liberal democracy will go away. We see this happening at the edges now and ignore it at our peril.

As we continue to grow the throw away society that we currently operate under, it only becomes more and more ingrained that fixing things is an outdated idea for the dustbin of history. Already, self-reliance is almost unheard of (though in some urban settings there is a resurgence of things like gardens and chickens which is promising until the city you live in decides to outlaw the practices). Our debt fueled society and world is already beginning to groan under the weight as growth slows down. We tell kids to get a college education, any college education, at any cost, student loans can be worried about later and then wonder why they can’t spend money in our consumerist society even if they are lucky enough to get a job. We give people larger and larger portions of increasingly crappy food and wonder why we have a health crisis blowing up. We have a pill for everything, the easy way out instead of the hard way. Our lives of comfort leak into everything that affects us and we often unquestioningly choose that which is easy or that which seems protective, forgetting that it is through hardship and struggle and even destruction (or the removal of something) that causes growth.

Is all of this so much “Hey you kids get off my lawn!” or the age old complaint by your grandparents that you never had it so easy? To some degree, perhaps. But we know that when we go longer than we should without some form of destruction or deprivation, the resulting event that nature wreaks on us is larger and more painful. Turns out three meals a day for life probably isn’t good for you, any more than giving trillions of dollars to the four largest banks so that they could continue to leech off our blood was. Without destruction, there can be no creation. They are opposite sides of the same coin, one that we have flipped in our society and forced it to come up heads for too long. When it finally lands on tails, it will be too heavy for us to pay what’s due.

There is a beautiful sunrise out my eastern kitchen window. The way light is morphed into so many colors is fascinating. I took a half day off Wednesday and we went to see Monet: The Early Years at the Kimball. He was a master at studying and recreating the effects of light in a way that if you look closely turns to painted gibberish. I wonder how many of our artists today study and reflect on light in the way the Impressionists did. I wish that my view wasn’t obstructed by power lines and neighbors trees and houses. A sunrise like this on the prairie or mountains would be truly magnificent. Still, the light changing from pinks to orange with light blues interspersed and streaked between is wonderful.

Grapefruits

Of all the most humbling tasks in the world, peeling a grapefruit ranks in the top 3.

Navel Gazing 2016 Edition

Whereupon I write stuff about the year that was 2016 and try to figure out what to do in 2017. Warning: this is fourteen year old girl level introspection stuff with only the thin veil of some philosophy from the 1950s to make it look acceptable. Read at your own risk.

As in 2015, in 2016, I had five main goals: learn more Spanish, write more, read more, exercise more and watch more movies. Because I’m a data geek, I track those goals because evidence shows that you need to be very specific in your goal setting if you want to actually succeed. In 2016, I achieved 75% of my movie goal, 63% of my exercise goals, 50% of my book goals, 27% of my Spanish goals and 15% of my writing goals. Super successful then. Though I did achieve all of my diaper changing goals. So there’s that. So then the natural reaction for a navel gazer is to wonder what happened. Were the goals too aggressive (maybe)? Was the desire to achieve the goals insufficient (probably)?

Of course, it’s not like nothing momentous happened in 2016. I now have a daughter who is beautiful and happy and healthy and absolutely fills my heart with a sensation I can’t even possibly begin to express within the limits of a language like English (maybe French or Russian but given how far from my Spanish goals I ended up, I’m doubtful of writing French poetry any time soon). But on an actual personal level, I feel pretty unaccomplished this year (and here’s where all the other parents stand up and say “welcome to the club”). I didn’t write much and almost all that I did was in February, read half as many books as I wanted, watched two-thirds of the movies (and some of those were repeats), exercised some early in the year but basically gave up in the last several months and didn’t advance much on the bilingual front (which isn’t entirely true, last time I logged into Duolingo, I was 10% fluent but it’s still way behind my goal).

One of the benefits of tracking specifically the goals as well as having the same goals over multiple years is that you can compare the progress. Were things better in 2016 than 2015? Yes, mostly. I learned significantly more Spanish, exercised moderately more and read more books. I wrote less in 2016, at least from a public production stand point and watched 2 fewer movies. But overall, 2016 got better than 2015.

I did just finish reading At The Existentialist Cafe which is a broad sweep of the philosophers who created existentialism including Simone de Beauvoir who my daughter’s middle name comes from. It is a fantastic look into a time when major magazines covered philosophers and their work, examining the impacts and the celebrity of these thinkers, i.e. the opposite of 2016 where major magazines covered an unbelievably terrible election and totally missed the entire thing. Existentialism focuses on the actual events of life, the things as they are when the layers of crap have been stripped away. It also focuses on freedom, a fundamental characteristic of being human and the implications that characteristic has on our every day life. Reading this book, which examines both the men and women who developed existentialism and the time period from which they came (WW I through about 1960), it was striking how much attention in the actual world was paid to a philosophy and how much influence that philosophy had in art and literature and even politics.

Man is condemned to be free. Because once he is thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. Jean-Paul Sartre

We don’t often think of freedom as a condemnation, do we? And yet, the constant need to make decisions brings upon us an anxiety that many of us find too difficult to deal with. Freedom isn’t all fun and games. It is this constant interplay between choice and anxiety that existentialism focuses on. It’s interesting to think about freedom as a burden but it is because with choice comes consequences. Don’t want to exercise? Have fun with heart disease or back surgery. Don’t want to read because Facebook seems more fun today? Don’t be upset when you aren’t any smarter than you were yesterday.

But choose well and your life is at least 75% yours, probably as long as you don’t have something terrible happen. Obviously there are limits to what control you actually have over your own life but everyone has some control. Sartre argued for the concept of authenticity, of being true to what it was that you are. Here’s a quote from the book:

If this sounds difficult and unnerving, it’s because it is. Sartre does not deny that the need to keep making decisions brings constant anxiety. He heightens this anxiety by pointing out that what you do really matters. You should make your choices as though you were choosing on behalf of the whole of humanity, taking the entire burden of responsibility for how the human race behaves. If you avoid this responsibility by fooling yourself that you are the victim of circumstance or of someone else’s bad advice, you are failing to meet the demands of human life and choosing a fake existence, cut off from your own ‘authenticity’.

As I read this, I thought about all the times I made a choice that was not only bad for me but also bad for the whole of humanity. Certainly, this is a heavy burden but imagine the changes in the world if we even slightly considered humanity when we made decisions.

This battle with anxiety in order to achieve authenticity is fundamental to existentialism and the more I think about it, to human existence. I tracked all my goals this year as I often do. But I didn’t track how many times I mindlessly opened Facebook or Twitter because it was an easier choice than picking up a hard book or writing code. I made excuses: I only have 15 minutes, the baby may wake up, I’ve had 3 beers – but excuses are just that, a way to escape from the fact that choices were made that lessened authenticity in my life.

So while 2016 was way behind on the goal scale, perhaps things can change in 2017 assuming the world doesn’t end in WWW III or the zombie apocalypse. This is the only life we have, regardless of what you think happens when it ends. Existentialism teaches us to focus on our choices and to choose a path to our greatest authenticity.

At the end of the book, there is a discussion of existentialism and technology. Interestingly enough, Heidegger wrote extensively on this topic and it seems even more relevant today in a world where our lives seem to be almost entirely lived out online (irony duly noted that I’m saying this in an online forum). The Internet (and I’m thinking specifically of Facebook and Twitter here) removes depth and authenticity from everything. When I post to Facebook, I do so on a platform created specifically to profit from my data. Once I do that, that experience is no longer mine, it belongs to the “Other” from existentialism, the concept of that which is outside ourselves. A post, a picture, a note on Facebook reduces me to the sum of those things and removes context and depth and privacy from my actual self. It steals my authenticity except that it was my choice, made freely, and thus is actually me reducing my authenticity voluntarily.

In 2017, I want to spend more time with my daughter and less time with my phone. I want to spend more time with my wife and less time with social media. I want to spend more time with my parents and in-laws and less time giving away my authenticity. I want to spend far more time in the outdoors, teaching my daughter about nature and the world and less time wondering if anyone liked something I said on a platform that uses me as the product. These are things that will increase my authenticity. They will increase my intellectual abilities and not make me feel weirdly anxious after doing them.

So my concrete goals for 2017 remain mostly unchanged from 2016: 120 hours of Spanish work (down from 180 in 2016, 50 accomplished in 2016), read 18 books (9 read in 2016), watch 12 movies (9 in 2016), exercise 180 times (115 in 2016) and write 26 things (down from 52 in 2016, 8 accomplished in 2016).

More specifically, I want everything I do to increase my authenticity. So for January, I’m going to start an experiment. All content will be placed here on AEIS instead of Facebook or Twitter. I’m not sure that’s totally an improvement but for at least one month, I won’t be the product. I won’t be driven by likes or retweets or any other false metric for authenticity. Additionally, we as a family are going to take a technological Sabbath every Sunday as well. We will focus on each other, our extended families, our house, our animals, our experiences and we will not be online. We will produce and create, not consume and absorb. We will read an actual newspaper and play actual games and go on actual walks and hikes.

Here’s to a stronger, blessed 2017. I hope your year turns out to be everything you choose it to be.

Books read in 2016
Thirteen Moons
The Black Swan
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy
The Age of Unreason
Star Island
Then We Came To The End
Waiting for Godot
The War of Art
At the Existentialist’s Cafe

Movies seen in 2016
It Happened One Night
Herb And Dorothy
Goldeneye
Ocean’s Eleven
The Long Hot Summer
Secret Lives of Pets
Tomorrow Never Dies
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
Scrooged

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