the case for optimism


  1. As we have learned over the past eight years, the presidential power is limited. You’re thinking: yes, but the prime concern of congress during Obama’s tenure was thwarting him, Trump has both houses. He doesn’t, though–Trump isn’t really a Republican, he’s an opportunist, and Republican congressmen know that. Though we have watched legislators on both sides prioritize partisanship over the interests of their constituents for many years, it only takes a few dissenters.
  2. Bad enough for change. We tend to swing back and forth, left and right, in 4 or 8 year cycles, but we rarely see substantive, structural change in governance. It has been clear for many years that congress is not able to effectively carry out its mandate: that our system for making laws is broken and that legislation is driven not by what is in the best interests of the country but by what is in the best interests of the legislators, specifically, pandering to lobbyists and political alliances. It is also clear that the electoral college does not do what it was designed to do (which is to prevent a person like Trump from coming to power) and has a drastically perverting effect on how we elect the president. However, these processes and many others are left alone, because although everyone knows they don’t work, they work well enough. But the time may have come to not leave well enough alone.
  3. Trump is not a politician, and is therefore not beholden to political alliances. He ran specifically on this platform, and though most of his ideas are horrendous, there may be a couple good ones that only someone not beholden to political alliances has the courage to execute. There are some sensible proposals here.
  4. Activating the apathetic. Huge numbers of formerly comfortable, non-activist liberals have become activists in the past few months. Nothing like this has happened in my lifetime and it’s really exciting. Liberals have mostly stood by and watched while the republican party has moved from a wrong-headed but defensible conservative agenda to a vile conglomerate of single issue voters. For years, democrats have been annoying to republicans but republicans are not annoying to democrats, republicans are repulsive to democrats. This is because a vote for a republican candidate is almost always a vote for what is thought to be best for the individual–usually a republican vote is a vote for fuck everyone else I want more money in my wallet, but sometimes is a vote for guns or a vote for legislation based on christian values or a vote for the submission of palestinians. Conversely, a vote for a democratic candidate is almost always a vote for what is thought to be best for the group. So many of us who vote left are not annoyed by the right, we are disgusted by the right. But instead of organizing, we have mostly retreated to liberal enclaves (both geographically and in the media we consume), so that we don’t have to engage with the right wing, so that we can basically ignore them. We haven’t been disgusted enough to organize, and Trump has changed that. And this might turn out to be his greatest gift to the country, this might be the good fortune buried in bad.




what religion does for us

1. community. the desire to feel part of a group, to be connected to others, to not be alone, is just above our brainstem instincts such as the desire to not be hungry or cold. it is so powerful.

2. ritual. it feels incredibly good to carry out rituals whether they be routine (daily, weekly) or intermittent (yearly, generational). these traditions take on additional value as we age and relate them to our youth, our parents, our ancestors.

3. reflection. a house of worship or a shrine in your living room is a place where you stop going about the business of living your life, and you think about your life, you think about life.

4. answers. what happens after I die is a particularly potent question that science cannot answer. the question why is there evil in the world is less perplexing but the magnitude of evil and suffering is enough to drive otherwise logical people to religion.  the hardest is why are we here, how did we get here, or why is there something instead of nothing?  that question still makes me anxious, I have no answer for that last one.

5. mysticism. most of us desire there to be unexplainable forces, higher powers, inscrutable connections between us and between humans and nature. kids are content to create these forces and connections for themselves; as adults we apparently need someone else to invent magical worlds for us.

all of these roles are not only valid, they are essential. unfortunately, at least in the major religions, these positive, crucial functions are tethered to untruths that cause adherents to make bad decisions. if you believe that your present life is a proving ground for an afterlife, you are going to live differently than if you believe this life is your only life. If you are taught that homosexuality is a sin, or if you are raised with women sitting in the back of the synagogue, or if you were circumcised, you are going to behave differently than if you had to make these value judgments for yourself.

the challenge for those of us who think most religion does more harm than good is to build structures that satisfy the needs I’ve listed above–spiritual needs–without the untruths. It’s ok to borrow the best parts of religion to accomplish this. For example, you could decide to have friday night dinner every week where you invite a dozen friends. You could make it a point, during such a dinner, to reflect and talk about spiritual matters rather than current events or daily tribulations. You could even incorporate rituals, like a group selfie, that don’t invoke imaginary forces and deities. Or you could even invent your own imaginary forces and deities that manifest your values, rather than the values of a group of men who sat down and wrote a series of complex fairy tales, thousands of years ago.



If I had a foundation: body cameras.

the camera would look like a tiny button, indistinguishable from a shirt button. it would clip onto your shirt or anything else. they would be available for a cost of $1. also available: identical appearing buttons that are not cameras, price 100 for $1. the idea is that you can sprinkle them all over your clothing and belongings and nobody would know which ones of these buttons are cameras or buttons or what. the camera records continuous loop video and audio, and pushes this video, in real (reel?) time, to your phone and also to the cloud. this could occur by linking to your phone or picking up nearby wifi signals.


Divert very important emails to SMS

Use a filter to forward to your cell phone SMS email address. You may not realize that your cell phone has an SMS email address, but it probably does.

For example, in gmail, first set up the forwarding address by going to settings and then forwarding and POP/IMAP. Click on add forwarding address, enter your cell phone SMS email address; if you use AT&T it’s You’ll have to confirm that this address is yours by entering the verification code. Then search on from: Barack Obama. If the search results are what you’re looking for, hit the more button and select create filter. Make any necessary refinements to the search term and then select create filter with this search. In the filter window that appears, select forward to and then choose the SMS email address you just added. Now every time Barack Obama emails you, the email will appear in your inbox and as a text message.

a personal history of steve jobs

Steve Jobs designed inspirational products. I remember, age eight, waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to go back to sleep because I was so excited to use MacPaint on our fat mac, fat because it had 512K of RAM as opposed to the original Mac 128K, the first Mac. It was 1984; a few months after coming home with the fat mac, dad bought a mammoth 10 megabyte hard drive, which couldn’t boot the machine – you had to boot with a floppy. 10 megabytes of disk space seemed impossibly large, a thousand MacPaint documents at least. I would run down to the basement, turn on the fat mac, wait about fifteen minutes for the thing to boot up, and sit there and fly around on the mouse making designs, all the different paint brushes, the circle, the square, omg the fill tool, the symmetry function that would automatically paint the inverse of what you were painting on the other side of the screen.

I would launch MacWrite and just start typing shit because word processing was so god damn cool, the blinking cursor, cut/copy/paste, these were amazing new concepts. We subscribed to MacWorld and then MacUser, I couldn’t wait until these magazines arrived every month. My dad brought home more software, like PageMaker, a piece of software that launched the industry that used to be called desktop publishing but is now so ubiquitous that it has replaced all the alternatives and now has no name. I started a club called the PQRS club, for the sole purpose of having a newsletter that I could draft in PageMaker, I just needed some reason to use PageMaker. There were three members of the club, myself, my best friend Rafael Steptoe, and my sister Rebecca. We would have these meetings in our endless backyard in this ditch that was our hideout. I talked about throwing Rebecca out of the club but Rafe said no, she’s cool, she can stay in the club. What a little asshole of a ten year old I was.

My dad brought home the first spreadsheet, Microsoft Multiplan, the precursor to Excel. It was amazing, I started playing around with the functions and that was when I learned to love math. In middle school I made money teaching people how to use Excel and ended up with a minor in mathematics in college. We moved to houston and I joined HMUG, the Houston Macintosh Users Group. I ran a BBS on our 2400 baud modem (the software to host these BBS’s was called Red Ryder) and ran up insane phone bills that my dad still sometimes brings up. I was reading about Macs and computing all the time, would run home from school and start in with the Mac, by that time we had been through the Mac Plus, Mac SE, SE/30, and were on to the Mac II, full color, holy shit. I discovered online chess and became addicted. I had a new set of megadork friends and was fucking around with computers all day with them.

And then I discovered basketball, and then girls. I stopped reading the computer mags, eventually dad canceled the subscriptions. I started hanging out with a different group, these were handsome jewish guys who talked about sports and getting laid, and even occasionally got laid. Went to college, and after a year working a shitty clerical job I found a position with apple in tech support on campus, this was the best job I ever had and sparked a bit of a computer geek renaissance. The internet was being born, I loved going to work. I had the first homepage basically ever, in fact I started a club (the longhorn motorcycle association) just so I could have a homepage, because there was no way for individuals to have homepages then, I remember the URL: When domains opened up to the public, I claimed, at this point people were paying me to build websites for them, it is hilarious to think of this now.

And then I fell in love and stopped caring about computers as much, left the microcenter, took a job as a motorcycle mechanic, moved to bangkok, went to med school. and now I just use computers like everyone else and cede the pole position to my friends in the industry and the IT people at my hospital.

I can’t think of anyone whom I haven’t met who has affected the trajectory of my life like Steve Jobs. God bless Steve Jobs, visionary titan of personal computing, god bless apple computer.

the broadcast calculation

Google is being criticized for inserting “Reminder: Call Dad” under its phone dialer icon in gmail yesterday.

Offending the masses used to be the privilege of the few, but these days anyone can post on the internet, send out an email to everyone at work, etc. Perhaps even I, at one time or another, have sent out a few emails that were not appreciated by all their recipients.

I think about the problem algebraically.

q = (a)(b)(c) / (d)(e)(f)


q = likelihood that sending or posting the sentiment is a good idea

a = how much enjoyment the recipients who enjoy the sentiment feel in response to the sentiment

b = number of recipients who are likely to enjoy the sentiment

c = benefit to you arising from recipients enjoying the sentiment

d = how much anger, resentment, irritation, or indignation the recipients who don’t enjoy the sentiment feel in response to the sentiment

e = number of recipients who are likely to experience anger, resentment, irritation, or indignation in response to the sentiment

f = harm to you arising from recipients likely to experience anger, resentment, irritation, or indignation in response to the sentiment

There are a number of interesting ways in which these variables are related, including that (a) correlates directly with (e). Also, (c) and (f) behave sort of as a zero sum, the balance depending on your social/professional position; this is why young people and startups are more likely to post sentiments that inspire anger, resentment, irritation, or indignation.

We love Google because it is a powerful company on top of its field, so (f) will always be much larger than (c), but they often behave like a startup. Keep it up, guys.

iphone alarmgate y2k11

My iphone alarm didn’t go off today and I woke up late. I checked the alarm panel, seemed to be set right, what gives? I reset it for one minute later, nothing. Tried one more time, nothing. The alarm was broken, suddenly.

Turns out there’s an iphone glitch – it’s like the y2k bug that was supposed to bring human civilization to its knees eleven years ago but didn’t. The poor australians missed all their appointments this morning and tried to get the word out to the rest of us, but we were sleeping. late.

What do you do if you’re apple? Apple built a great product, everyone bought it, and they made a lot of money. Now this great product has a bug that, on monday morning, is going to cause millions of users to be late for work. They have this incipient public relations fiasco on their hands and I don’t think they can stop it. They can fix the problem with a software update, but most users don’t upgrade their phone software very often. How can they warn everyone? Send out a mass email? A mass text message to all iphone users? That would catch the affected users, let’s say 20% of people with iphones use the alarm as their wake up call. But is apple willing to rescue 20% if it means undermining their credibility with the other 80%, who would never have known the difference?

I don’t think so. So apple is left to watch this unfold. It reminds me of that enormous barge off the louisiana coast a few years ago that made a miscalculation and knew, like 6 hours beforehand, that they were going to slam into the shore; apparently it takes freighters that size several days to come to a stop. So the authorities evacuated the coastline and focussed on damage control. I wonder what damage control apple has in mind.

Another reminder that the proper response to electronic vulnerability is redundancy.

On the other hand, maybe iphone alarmgate will be a great excuse to be late for work on monday. The first blizzard of 2011.

one trouble with peer review

One trouble is that despite this system, anyone who reads journals widely and critically is forced to realize that there are scarcely any bars to eventual publication. There seems to be no study too fragmented, no hypothesis too trivial, no literature citation too biased or too egotistical, no design too warped, no methodology too bungled, no presentation of results too inaccurate, too obscure, and too contradictory, no analysis too self-serving, no argument too circular, no conclusions too trifling or too unjustified, and no grammar and syntax too offensive for an article to end up in print.

Drummond Rennie, from Fourth International Congress on Peer Review in Biomedical Publication, JAMA. 2002;287(21):2759-2760.

google predictive search and your place in the world

I just learned that chelsea clinton is engaged to this guy, and I thought, hmm, that name sounds jewish. is chelsea marrying a yid? so I pull up google and I’m going to type, marc mezvinsky jewish. no later than I type the z in mezvinsky:

evidently, jewish is the #1 word that people type after marc mezvinsky. a little spooky that it read my mind, a little annoying that I’m just like everyone else, and so awesome that google lets me know it.