Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Save the Constitution: Abolish the Senate

Maybe the first thing you think when you read, “Abolish the Senate,” is that this would be a radical change away from the government envisioned in the Constitution. Of course it would be a big change. But I think there's a more central and important Constitutional value that would be served by getting rid of it: the legislature makes the laws.

Ever notice how when the White House changes hands the strongest policy voices on the winning side of the aisle in Congress start looking for executive-branch positions? With the houses of Congress often set against each other it's hard for them to have any impact there. In charge of more unified executive agencies they can take the lead on policy and then, when they have to, get the issues they want before Congress. The people that stick around in Congress are the ones that specialize in whipping votes and using parlaimentary procedure for partisan advantage.

It's not only in line with Constitutional ideals that Congress should lead on policy, it would have good results. Congress holds a larger and fuller ideological gamut than any Presidential administration. We could get a wider range of ideas from there. An empowered and revitalized Congress might have a wider range of parties if alignment with Presidential politics wasn't so critical. We could see a broader range of compromises crafted to unite various factions that exist within and between parties. But we'd also get more stability. The makeup of Congress, even after a big swing election, doesn't change as much as the makeup of executive agencies after a Presidential election. Because it's made up of many little elections it represents all the people and interests in a fairly stable way.

So that's the body that should lead on policy: a strong Congress with one house. That means we need to get rid of a house. If we remove one of Congress' houses it should be the Senate. The one that's extremely unrepresentative and, honestly, truly obnoxious in its self-importance. I'm not going to go on about this — if you're not with me here you're not going to be with me on any of this :-).

One thing people seem to like about the Senate is that it gives a voice to concerns that would be drowned out in a representative body, where big cities would dominate. If we have a group that does this its powers should be more limited such that it doesn't blunt the legislative thrust of Congress too much. And it probably shouldn't be organized by state — really the power in the idea would be to raise up groups that cut across that relatively arbitrary geography. Maybe some seats could be reserved for proportional representation by party (as in many parlaiments), possibly with a formula that limits the number for the largest parties (which would be well represented in the more powerful House) to raise up smaller ones. Of course the smaller parties would have to get a bit more serious than they are today but they might rise to the challenge. Agricultural interests, which get strong but uneven representation in today's Senate, could be considered in a more balanced way. In any such body recognized tribes should certainly have seats, and so should any territory that isn't fully represented in Congress today. Maybe non-citizen residents could get some seats? Other racial and language groups might be worth considering, though the details would be hard to hammer out.

But the details aren't the most important thing. This isn't going to happen soon, and if it does eventually, I'm not going to lead it. Just trying to get all five of you that read this to think about the Senate. Its form and its power are written into the Constitution, but it might be eroding Constitutional values (at least the ones we value today). We should give a serious thought to abolishing it, to promote those values.

POSTSCRIPT: I tried to write this in a way that's neutral on current politics but it would be dishonest to ignore that abolishing the Senate and empowering the House would benefit my politics in the short-term. I think it's reasonable to believe this would be the case long-term. But my own politics aren't all I care about. It's very reasonable to disagree with my politics on many points, as well as my point of view on the Senate. I probably leaned harder into “Constitution Equals Good” thinking here than I really believe, but... hey, I'm American, I'm stuck with the rhetoric like all of us are. Oh, yeah, and anyone that actually knows about this stuff will clearly see that I don't. Because of that I tried to keep it short and sort of failed. Oh, well. At least I mostly stayed focused. There are many American political institutions that are bad and should be replaced with better ones for the good of democracy; this post is about one of them :-).

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Mail-in voting: what to expect as you watch

I'm writing this for people I know that might experience an election with widespread mail-in voting for the first time in a couple months. I've been living in Washington, where most of our voting is done by mail, for 10 years. Local officials and local news in your area will have the most relevant information specific to your situation, especially on how to vote yourself. But I'm worried that newsrooms that are used to covering normal elections won't prepare you for how a largely mail-in election will go. And if you aren't ready for it you could be succeptible to harmful propaganda. So here are some things to expect as you watch the election.

Results will roll in for weeks

We're used to watching election results come in over the course of a few hours. With mail-in voting they'll come in over the course of a few weeks. Some places count early-arriving mail ballots before election day, so by election night a large fraction of votes will already be counted. Other places won't start counting until the day. In either case many ballots that were mailed and postmarked on time will be working their way through the mail for days after election day, and the full count might not be ready for a few weeks. That's normal, it's what you should expect. The count might be slowed down by COVID-related workplace issues, both within USPS and the election system. It might be slowed down by legal challenges or even political wrangling over which ballots should be counted (remember 2000?). It doesn't mean your local election officials or workers are malicious or incompetent.

I mean, your local election officials might be incompetent or even malicious! We have too many election officials trying to suppress votes in this country! But vote counts trickling up through mid-November isn't evidence of a problem, it's just how this kind of election works.

Oh, yeah, I said, “political wrangling over which ballots are counted.” That's going to happen in lots of places, especially places that aren't used to widespread mail-in voting. It won't be over on election night. Be ready to fight for your ballot, and your neighbors' ballots, to be counted, for weeks.

Results may swing dramatically after election day

Alright, so you know all about voter turnout. Every person decides whether and how to vote for their own reasons but in aggregate there are fairly predictable patterns for the voting and turnout patterns for different groups of people. Groups of voters whose turnout varies most from election to election tend to correlate with groups that swing left, so low-turnout elections tend to swing right and high-turnout elections tend to swing left (at least for recent US elections).

Similarly, in aggregate, different groups of people tend to vote at different times. Mail-in voting takes place over a very large time window, so these tendencies are exaggerated. So it's pretty common here in Washington for one candidate to hold a substantial lead on election night, only for their opponent to win resoundingly when all the ballots are counted. This kind of movement is normal. It is not evidence of a conspiracy. Anyone that says so is either ignorant or a liar, and in either case isn't worth listening to.

In Washington late-voters tend to swing left, and left-wing candidates often see large post-election-day increases. If I had to guess, I'd expect that the same pattern would occur nationally. However, that expectation comes with some caveats:

  • Donald Trump and his supporters broke a lot of pollsters' turnout models in 2016 (as did Brexit). Washington, and the Seattle area in particular, has some of the lowest levels of Trump support in the US. It wouldn't shock me to see more late-arriving right-wing votes elsewhere because Trump supporters break the timing model, too.
  • Washington voters, and Seattle voters in particular, tend to be pretty tuned-in and ideological, and our top-2 “jungle primary” system forces voters to decide on their overall top choice in most elections months in advance of the general. So I think we have fewer true “swing voters”, by the time of a general election, than a lot of other places, even in close elections. And I suspect true swing voters would tend to vote late. So there's another late-voting group that might be bigger nationally than in Washington.
  • If you have widespread mail-in and widespread in-person voting all bets are off. I don't know which groups of people will tend to vote in-person, nor whether in-person or mail-in ballots will suffer bigger delays. In fact I'd bet both those things will vary a lot place to place. Washington is almost all mail-in so I don't even have a baseline to go from here.

Exit polling is out the window

Up here we're used to pollsters not bothering with us because we're not a swing state. At the local level we're used to being in the dark until the results come in. The whole thing with staying up and watching exit polls to try to get a jump on official results... it's not going to be a thing this year. Go to bed.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

hey pheidippides f-f-f-friend?

with a whole forty-eight hours' perspective on running a marathon alone in my neighborhood i'm still conflicted about it

on one hand whatever gladness i have in having run the last lap if you can even call that running with all the stopping to stretch my cramping calf every couple blocks feels wrong since i didn't enjoy it and it didn't help anyone and it didn't make me better

on the other hand in training i focused on different things than usual and that made my long runs more fun and less painful than usual which at least made me a little smarter and better

did i have to do the bad thing to do the good thing

the bad thing came later so maybe not but would i have done the good thing if i hadn't committed myself to the bad thing enough to actually do it even though i didn't want to

Monday, September 16, 2019

Leaving Google

I probably should write some definitive words about why I left Google. I guess I'll do that here, on my lonely blog.

Let's start with the short version. There are lots of things you could say about what a computer really is, about the meaning and purpose of computers. My favorite one, the one I find most inspiring, comes from Steve Jobs back in the '80s: “The computer is a bicycle for the mind.” I used to believe Google made more bicycles for more minds than anyone else. I don't believe that anymore.

That's it, this is the tl;dr line, you can all go home now. What follows is more words. More words from the guy that customized his Blogger stylesheet to get wider text so his paragraphs wouldn't look so long. More words from a guy that's said a few regrettable ones already.

I put Jobs' remark in quotation marks above but it's more of a paraphrase. He said things like that at least a few different times and often phrased it in different ways. I imagine at the time he was saying it he biked places sometimes, or at least had done so in recent memory. A couple decades later he was a rich old crank that bought a new car every week or so, so that he could always be in the grace period where he didn't have to install permanent license plates.

One of the other things you could say about the meaning and purpose of computers is that computers, like a lot of other technology, make people more efficient. The people that can make the most of this efficiency reap the most gains. Often existing powerful organizations are well positioned to make the most of technological efficiency; sometimes entrenched powers are the only ones that can do things. Sometimes upstarts do very well for some reason. Whatever that reason is, they then become powerful organizations that attribute their further successes to the same myths as the early ones. Google is like that.

And that's fine. Google is full of the myth that it succeeds in 2019 because it's full of smart people that make great software. I don't know, I think most stuff Google does succeeds mostly because Google is big and has an established user base? I'm not an expert in this stuff, but... come on. A lot of people can look really smart when they have access to all the stuff Google has already built up. So it's not like they aren't full of smart people that make great software, and if they didn't they'd fall off pretty fast! That's just... whatever, it's fine, it makes people feel good about their work. Sometimes the exceptionalism is grating; that's not why I left.

One of the funniest things in Google culture is the idea that Google is “data-driven”. Ridiculous! Google has made a lot of cool things throughout its history essentially as halo projects. They could do them because they were printing money selling search ads, and any eventual benefit to the bottom line was ultra-speculative. Some of them even worked!

And that's fine. GMail was in one sense a flex: look how much storage we can just give away! We won't even put banner ads in your inbox! All you have to do is log in — and now people are logging in to Google. I don't know whether people tried to use “data” to estimate the ultimate value of that to Google but... how would they even? How could you estimate the value of something whose payoff depends on so many other unknown factors precisely enough to prioritize the work against other things you could be doing? It has to be an intuitive belief. Meanwhile Google+, with its explicit goals around driving logged-in usage, flopped famously. Another way to look at GMail is as the result of laziness, impatience, and hubris. “Webmail sucks! Configuring SMTP sucks about as much! Spam sucks so much! I could do better!” The laziness and impatience were in tune with the zeitgeist; the execution matched the hubris.

You know, it's better than fine. Being data-driven is for robots. Be vision-driven! Use data to spread your vision! Use data to hone your vision! Use data to question your vision! But never let data grab the handlebars — the computer is the bicycle, the mind is the rider.

I got to work on Google Maps for four years. I'm sort of proud of that. I think Google Maps is one of the coolest apps in software history. I'll never forget the first time I played around with it. It changed the way I saw the world! I'd already been the sort of person that was easily fascinated by studying maps because of how much you can discern about the logic of a place by studying maps. Here was one big, map of the whole world!

This is probably the right place to say: sometimes thinking of the world through the lens of one big map misleads as much as it enlightens. That isn't why I left Google, or Maps, it's just a thing that's true: Google Maps can't be the only map. No single map can be the only map. Some people think about places differently than others, even in ways that contradict others. Some places, some institutions, work differently for some people than others. Like I said, Google Maps changed the way I saw the world. I could see all the places I might go running, crossing freely between towns, on and off of campus, through parks. But I didn't always acknowledge the perspective I had. Just randomly:

  • I remember once saying that essentially every place on the continent was connected by a network of pavement. My friend Heather challenged this as depending on a particular idea of what a “place” was, and I didn't really get it, but this was a pretty important point!
  • Mercator projection! It's... a pretty bad way to draw maps of big parts of the world! It's a pretty practical way to draw city-scale maps in parts of Earth that have cities (for people that want north-up orientations)! It's definitely the worse-is-better solution (“It is slightly better to be simple than correct”). Anyway Google Maps has probably made more people look at Mercator projections of big parts of the world than any other discernible thing in the history of maps? And now there's a 3-D mode... it still enforces north-up like a globe with an invisible stand you can't break free from. That's probably a reasonable choice! I just think we shouldn't forget it is a choice.
  • In the first season of Serial the host explained the local term “strip” as a particular named place where you might go to buy or sell drugs. I bet some such strips are in more common parlance than many neighborhood designations that appear on Google Maps! I actually used this as a conversation-starter with colleagues sometimes but had a hard time getting the idea across.
  • Of course an expansive view of the world showing near-total freedom of movement across political boundaries is not a reflection of reality for many people.

Again, these aren't reasons Google Maps is bad, they're reasons it can never be enough. We'll always need more ways to think about geography. We'll always need ways that a corporation will never give us. We'll always need ways that the software world is unlikely to give us (if you have an idea for something the software world is unlikely to give us, but that yet could use some software work, I may be able to help, with the caveat that I'm pretty useless generally; hit up my DMs or whatever).

Google Maps has some “halo project” vibes, like GMail. At times it's been used to flex: way before I worked on Maps they, for a time, connected the continents in directions by instructing users to, “Swim across the ocean.” As with GMail, who could possibly compete with what Maps offered? A fast site with a cool UI and, with no need to immediately make money, no annoying ads?

I guess that's one thing that feels properly sinister. Google at its best shows the world how to build really cool and useful stuff... that you couldn't actually build without the Google-sized money printing machine. And when you graft on the Google-sized big-data machine?

I have some particular frustrations around the way Google Maps chases users and gathers data these days but it seems to be tied to a general idea that runs through the biggest companies in computing. We aren't about empowering users. Users aren't our partners. They're sources of data (as long as it's the data we want when we want it). Their attention is the battleground where we fight against the other big companies to stay at the front the longest.

One of my particular frustrations has to do with driver distraction. I've always been uncomfortable with GPS screens in cars. I sometimes drive cars with GPS screens active on mounts around relay races and I find it distressing. There's a feeling when you're merging in traffic and monitoring a situation over your shoulder, then suddenly realize you haven't been keeping track of what's in front of you; for me, driving with a GPS screen often feels like that. Apps like Waze take this to another level, making driving something between a game and a social network.

I can't stomach Google Maps following Waze down that road: actively prompting users for input on road and traffic conditions while they should be watching traffic ahead. People are, in general, deluded about their ability to multitask. That is, to divide their focus and switch between tasks without losing accuracy, and to manage distractions and prioritize the most important things. One of the reasons I did leave Google is that I was very disappointed by Google's direction on this, and by responses to my concerns about them, which relied on pure fantasies about people's ability to prioritize in the face of distraction. We supposedly had principles about distraction; they ended up as little more than footnotes when it was time to break them. That made me really angry.

That loomed large for me but of course it was just one part of an overall change in how I saw Google and other big tech companies. The change in the overall picture is why it was a moment where I didn't want to be a part of Google, rather than a moment where I wanted to fix Google. Maybe fairly little of that change is really a change in what Google is or what it does. Certainly a lot of it is position: things that seemed cool as “betas” from small companies can look more oppressive from behemoths that are already heavily entangled in our lives. Some of it is experience: I didn't anticipate some of the ways software companies would change the world and I haven't liked some of the changes I thought I'd like. And some of it is certainly a change in how I see the world. I understand the significance of politics and power more, for instance.

For now I just want to do things that are more straightforward. Maybe make some bicycles for some minds if I can.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Creation

“Ya know, as a musician sometimes you have to give up some stuff so you can do other stuff.”

“Why? Because you're playing solo? What if you had a band? Or just... some time and an eight-track recorder?”

“And a well of talent both broad and deep, and the ability to hold complexity in your mind, and to organize your thoughts so you don't have to hold all that complexity in there at once.”

“Sure, why not?”

“Some people have these things. It's not their own limitations they're up against, it's those of the audience. The audience doesn't get to listen as a band. We may talk about collective listening experiences, and sometimes there's something to them, but they aren't going to make people better at handling complexity in a consistent and sustained way. You can't get 'em in a groove and lead 'em off the beaten path at the same time.”

“I don't know... that sounds more like a bad metaphor than a real limitation.”

“I'm not saying you can't alternate between the two, just not at the same time.”

“Meh, still don't buy it. You can listen to music, dance along, turn your head in surprise and delight, and keep dancing.”

“Speak for yourself. Have you seen me dance?”

“Uh... no?”

“There's a reason for that.”

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Hydrants

“Dude, quit messing with that fire hydrant, there's a cop like right there!”

“Alright, man, chill.”

“What?!? Seriously, stop messing with it, we're gonna miss the start of the game!”

“Man, fire hydrants are yellow.”

“What?!?”

“This is green.”

“What?!?”

“It's a municipal beer tap.”

“What?!?”

“This is what you get for not following local politics.”

“What?!?”

“So I just gotta... oh, crap, did I leave my hose adapter at that block party?”

“What?!?”

“Yeah, it was funny, I just ran into it on my way home —”

“— That's not funny, dude, you should have stopped, someone could have died.”

“Ha, ha, I have this guy's phone number but I can't remember his name. Awk-ward! He was obsessed with Sound Transit. Not super for it or against it or anything, just obsessed.”

“Yeah, that's what you get for following local politics.”

“So I guess I have to text this guy but not say his name.”

“Maybe distract him with a question about mass transit governance.”

“Ugh, anyway, I'll worry about that later, we're gonna miss the start of the game.”

“So what sort of beer comes out of these things anyway?”

“They're currently rotating through some sours.”

“I guess they had to find some place for all that sour beer when 2015 ended two years ago.”

“Uh, sours are still a thing.”

“OK, sure, so the proper joke would have been, ‘What do you get when you put literally any beer in an underground tank and wait for some weirdo to come along with a beer hose?’”

“People don't talk about them like they've discovered something new anymore, which, let's be honest, by 2015 would have been shamefully late for any set of yuppies outside tech, but yeah, they're on track to blow up in the mainstream in 2018.”

“Ugh.”

“So, uh, remember that when your parents call you sloppy drunk from their vacation to Kansas City, Kansas next summer at four in the afternoon and ask if they have sour beers in Seattle, because you're somehow the coolest person they know.”

“I mean, my parents are teetotalers, but you're still the worst.”

“If you don't like sours there's a special election in March. It's the municipal beer tap selection... what color to paint the Space Needle... and the primary for City Council position ten or something.”

“Why does everything have to be the worst?”

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Why my blog posts are disappearing!

I am “archiving” (effectively deleting) all posts on this blog before some arbitrary time, maybe 2014 or so, except ones I happen to know are linked from other places. If there's something you're looking for (there probably isn't, none of this is exactly noteworthy) ask me and I'll make it visible (if I like you).