— Peter Seebach
Couple years back, Jesse got a credit card offer. We filled it out and sent it in on a lark; mostly, we wanted to see whether Jesse had a credit rating.
Jesse does. And now… we have a card. Unfortunately, the setup process involved picking a “secret word”, and the secret word is not known to us; we wrote it wrong, or they typoed on entry, or we just plain forgot. And there is no way to correct this, because Jesse is not able to deal with talking to bureaucratic strangers on the phone.
We have a power of attorney. They agree that I am authorized to spend money on the account, to close the account, to dispute charges, to do anything else. But! I cannot reset the secret word, because only the account holder can do that. Period. This cannot be done through the mail, only by phone.
In theory, there exist text-to-phone gateway services for disabled people, but in practice, I’ve been unable to find anything that suggests how one would get legitimate access to one; they’re really built around the assumption that “disabled” means either “cannot hear” or “cannot produce speech”. “Can talk on the phone but only to people you know about unstressful things” is not the kind of disability they cover. For that matter, “cannot go about acquiring a service based on a vague assertion that such a service exists, but without a clear and detailed list of steps to take” is also not the kind of disability they cover.
So citibank’s basic conclusion is: Autistic customers just need to use the phone like normal people, because if we can’t see how your disability would prevent you from using the phone, you have to use the phone. There is no appeal, there is no workaround. Eventually, we’ll pay the card off and try to close it, which I imagine will be just as much fun.
Useful tip for people running companies: Not everyone wants to have the phone as the only allowed method of contact.
— Peter Seebach
This, right here? This is it. You are alive. You are the one making your choices now. If your choice is to put everything on hold until the future, you can make that choice, but: It’s never going to be then; it’s always going to be now. When you do get to college, life will begin when you graduate. When you graduate, life will begin when you find work. When you find work, life will begin when you start paying off your student loans. Finish paying them off. Get that promotion. As long as you let yourself get tricked into thinking that life is somewhere else, some other time, you’re missing out.
Mostly, missing out on choices. You don’t know you’re making them. You take them for granted. “I had to.” “I couldn’t.” “I was forced to.” Those aren’t really true; they’re omitting crucial information. How often does it turn out that the missing qualifier is “or else people would think I was weird”? Pretty often. “Or else I’d lose money?” Constantly.
That’s not to say all these unconscious choices are wrong. You’re probably mostly making the same choices you would if you were doing it on purpose. Not always, though, and those last few exceptions are where the magic happens. So next time you think “I have to”, stop and qualify it. You have to or else what? “I have to break this law or else I’ll lose my job,” maybe? That happens. And the thing is, not everyone breaks that law. And not everyone loses that job. It’s a choice. It’s a sucky choice, but you will be a lot happier about whatever you pick if you know that you chose it; that you looked at those two alternatives, and picked the one you wanted.
And to do that, you have to be aware that you are making the choice. The question is, where do we put the emphasis? Answer: Everywhere.
Be aware that you are making the choice. Know this thing to be true. Think about it consciously. Think about what that choice means. It doesn’t mean “feel guilty”, it doesn’t mean “feel proud”, it just means be aware. Don’t be deluded into thinking you aren’t making a choice.
Be aware that you are making the choice. Know who it is that’s choosing. Don’t imagine that other people are making the choice. They may be putting pressure on you, but you are the one who ultimately decides how much pressure is enough to change your mind. It’s your call. The world’s history has plenty of examples of people whose response to an “or die” question was “okay, then, I guess I die.” They are not usually thought very poorly of. They made the choice; they didn’t let someone else make it.
Be aware that you are making the choice. You are not recognizing a decision previously made; even if there is such a decision, you can change your mind. People do that. You are making the choice, right now, as you make it. You’re the one saying “I would rather continue reading this blog post than do something else,” and it’s happening right now. Neat, huh?
Be aware that you are making the choice. There is more than one option. There pretty much always is. You may consider one or more of the options unacceptable. There may be options you haven’t thought of, or seen. But you are picking between alternatives. Even if what you pick is “sit around waiting for someone else to make it happen”, you are still choosing.
Think about what you’re doing. Do it on purpose. This is the real thing. This is not the trial run. This is not preparation for your real life. Your life has already started. You are making choices, all the time, which create most of the events you’re experiencing. If you are not happy, consider changing those choices. Don’t wait for things to change; change what you can. If you can’t change enough, start changing what you can change. If there are restrictions preventing you from changing some things, change others.
Again: This is it. We are not practicing. This is not a rehearsal. Here and now, you are alive.
(Special thanks to Terry Pratchett, whose use of this phrase in Small Gods has always resonated with me.)
— Peter Seebach
The world does not lend itself to simple, absolute rules. Mathematicians have known this for a long time; politicians have never really accepted it. Unfortunately, the mathematicians are right. Perhaps more unfortunately, the politicians are in charge.
On tumblr, the many “social justice warriors” (a pejorative term; it denotes people who are more strident than they are concerned with justice) are fond of promoting rules which are emotionally appealing and sound good in simple cases, but which cannot possibly be applied consistently. When I say “cannot possibly”, I don’t mean “they could if people were smarter or tried harder”, but rather “these rules are logically self-contradictory”. If you apply these rules consistently, you end up with questions for which you must accept two mutually-exclusive results.
One such rule is that the oppressor can never decide what is oppressive. For instance, men can’t be the ones to decide what’s sexist, or white people to decide what’s racist, or straight people to decide what’s hostile to gays. As a basic principle? Definitely reasonable. People who don’t experience a thing tend to evaluate it poorly at best, they tend to lack information, and the natural biases the brain has towards not feeling guilty heavily favor concluding that People Like Us are not at fault. Sounds like a good rule, easy for everyone to agree on, right?
Well, let me point out to you a term: “trans-exclusionary radical feminist” (TERF). It’s exactly what it sounds like; feminists who do not consider MTF transsexuals to be women. They often actively campaign against recognition of the gender of transwomen, participation of transwomen in women’s rights monements, and so on. So, how does the rule apply? Interestingly, a lot of people see the answer as so completely obvious that the question is stupid, and refuse to answer it, accusing people of trying to “derail” by asking dumb questions. This becomes a difficulty, because there are two different completely obvious answers:
- Allowing men to declare themselves women and expect respect for their beliefs about reproductive rights, sexism, and related topics allows men to undermine feminists. People who are not born biologically female must not be allowed to influence feminist organizations or their goals.
- Failure to recognize gender identity is oppressive and destructive. Excluding women from participation based on accidents of birth affirms a bigoted view of gender and identity, and harms everyone.
In each case, we have a group that is pretty widely regarded as subject to oppression and/or marginalization, and we have a person that might reasonably be considered not a member of that group telling them that what they’re complaining about isn’t really oppression. When part of the identified oppression of a particular group is an assertion about which categories they go in, a rule that imposes behavioral restrictions by category is going to have problems. And since at least some trans-exclusionary feminists are lesbians, you can’t take advantage of broader categories like “LGBT” to disambiguate.
The problems are not restricted to disputes over group membership. I recently saw someone arguing that no white person ever has the right to accuse a black artist of selling out. What about accusing a black artist of writing homophobic lyrics? The rapper DMX has a fairly strong reputation for anti-gay lyrics. Can a gay white guy complain about that? Again, the rule fails us; it’s obvious that if it’s a problem for white guys to bash black musicians, complaining about lyrics is probably going to be an issue. But should a straight guy be allowed to tell gay guys they can’t complain about his anti-gay stuff?
A while back, one music reviewer reviewed a new Chris Brown album. His review: “Chris Brown hits women. Enough said.” Does it matter whether the reviewer was white? Female? Did he (assuming the name “Chad” suggests a male reviewer) only do that because of hidden racism, and he would never have said such a thing about a white performer, or is it valid commentary?
The problem here is not that the rule needs fine-tuning. It’s that no simple rule can handle the situations. The fancy term is “intersectionality” — there are multiple categories of “privilege” and oppression, and people can be in one oppressed group while simultaneously being part of the oppression of another group. What that means is that any rule which relies on knowing which of two people should be called “the oppressor” cannot succeed.
The world does not admit simple answers, and it does not admit absolute rules. You can make it useful by replacing the term “absolute rule” with “general principle”. Instead of “it is never the place of the oppressor to dictate what is or isn’t oppression”, try “the opinions of people not subject to a particular form of oppression about that oppression should be taken with a grain of salt, and subjected to a bit of extra scrutiny.”
This eliminates all the unresolvable conflicts. There are cases where this principle doesn’t give you a definite answer. That, to many people, is a fatal flaw. But the rule that gave us those lovely and calming definite answers, which we didn’t have to think about? It gave us lovely, calming, definite answers which were provably wrong — because it could give us two answers which contradicted each other.
The quest for certainty has always been with us. In religious discussions, I regularly encounter people who believe that their church has absolute authority, or that their holy text’s translation was made perfect by God, because if they didn’t have that belief, they couldn’t be certain of anything. There are a lot of people who believe this, and they often disagree on their conclusions, so we know that at the very least a majority of them are wrong about their certainty.
The social justice warriors are not improving on this; replacing holy texts or institutions with respected authors or accepted dogmas does not change the underlying error of clinging to certainty. Clinging to certainty prevents correction of errors; it also requires ignoring contradictions rather than trying to resolve them.
There is a solution. Accept that you have limits, and that you don’t even always know them. Accept that the reason that absolute adherence to simple dogmas has failed us every time is not that we had picked the wrong dogmas, but that the world is not amenable to being fully described by simple rules. When applying rules, remember that the purpose of rules for behavior is to help us behave better; if you have to choose between being basically decent to people, and following a rule to the letter, try being decent to people. The rule doesn’t have feelings.
— Peter Seebach
There’s a popular image floating around the ‘net of a doctor with tattoos, the gimmick being that when he’s wearing his lab coat, you can’t see any tattoos, and when he’s not, boy, does he have a lot of them.
What’s interesting to me is: I just realized that I had no basis at all for believing that this was a doctor. All I had seen was a picture of some guy with a lot of tattoos, and the same guy dressed in Doctor Clothes looking all professional and stuff. And obviously, we all know anyone can put on a lab coat, but for some reason, the narrative wins out over the normal impulse to go sanity-check things, like the assumption that a person necessarily has the profession they’re dressed for.
Turns out: He is, apparently, a doctor. Nice to know.
— Peter Seebach
Well, that’s not quite fair. I mean, everyone already knew that the only reason serious charges were ever considered was because Carmen Ortiz wanted to make an example of some guy. But it’s one thing for everyone to “know” that, and another entirely to find the paper trail confirming it.
Had Ms. Ortiz not decided that ridiculously trumped-up charges against some rebellious guy were the best way to advance her career, it turns out, Mr. Swartz would have faced the horrible trauma of having his charges continued without a finding — that is to say, no trial, no sentencing, but rather the court would let him know that they have the option of charging him with a crime over this. And then, unless he got in more trouble, the charges would go away without even becoming a criminal record of any sort. Like probation, only without even an original charge or sentence. This is what you do if you want to send a warning that someone’s behavior is inappropriate, but you don’t think you really need to do anything else to clear things up, because everyone agrees that the person in question is a brilliant and highly valued contributor to society who does not appear to have harmed anyone, or even intended any harm to anyone.
So it’s not that our entire justice system is crazy. It’s that certain people think that their best chance at political gain is to manufacture obviously bogus and trumped-up charges, and demand that people plead guilty to multiple felonies or face an extremely expensive and painful trial with no guarantee of ever walking free again.
This is not a tragic but inevitable outcome of prosecutors doing their jobs in a remotely ethical or responsible way; this is a tragic but entirely avoidable outcome of a specific prosecutor ignoring the job duties in favor of trying to build political credibility by scoring big points.
— Peter Seebach
Someone I had some run-ins with on a video game forum sent me what I consider just about the funniest thing ever. Now, normally, I don’t like to randomly repost private messages, but in this case, there’s some real value to commentary on the tactics here, because messages like this are emotionally abusive, and a closer look at how they work, and why that’s unambiguously abusive, may be of value. Knowing how it works can make it easier to resist the effects. Quoted text is from my correspondent.
TRIGGER WARNING: If you find emotional abuse upsetting, you may want to skip this one. (Normally I don’t much go for trigger warnings, but this is… Well, it’s pretty skillfully written, just poorly targeted.)
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— Peter Seebach
Rift (an MMO I quite like) has recently been plagued by people using bots to automate gameplay. Obviously, they do it because it’s more efficient than playing (this is sort of stupid, if you think about it; the purpose of playing is not to be efficient). The developer has introduced some automated measures to try to detect bots, which are having some initial problems, and some posters have started fussing about how this is a waste of time and money, and they should just hire “minimum-wage” gamemasters to manually investigate.
I wrote this summary of how that works out for their forums, but it strikes me as sort of an interesting insight into the question of how proposed courses of action scale. Someone wrote, asking why anyone would waste time automating something that could be done cheaply:
You tell me.. what’s cheaper? Developing a automated program to ban various players based on PIDs (which likely require at least two software developers, maybe more..) or a minimum wage GM working 8 hours a day visiting all the popular spots? What’s more effective? The answer should be obvious.
“Based on PIDs”? I don’t think so.
Here’s my thought. Let’s say it’s a full-time engineer. (You might be able to use more, but one full-time engineer for a period of time is probably a better choice in general.) Let’s just pull a number out of a hat: Internet says average salary for Google developers is $130k. Everyone knows game programmers get paid less, so let’s say $120k for a game developer, plus bennies, call it $13k/month. Let’s compare, shall we?
Option #1: GMs. There are currently 18 shards in Rift. Let’s say that each shard gets service only while the shard’s population is high, and botters are too stupid to find that, so we only need two GMs. They aren’t minimum wage; this is a relatively skilled position, with significant authority and access to user data, but let’s be friendly to your assumptions and assume they get a princely $10/hour, no bennies. Cost of one such GM is gonna be a bit over wages, let’s say it’s $13/hour. So each 8-hour shift costs $104, and we have two such shifts per server per day, so that’s $208 per shard, or $3,744 per day. Once things have died down a bit, we can probably halve that by having them swap shards. Botters who find a non-standard botting place are, of course, going to get away with it for hours, days, or even months. Investigation of each bot will take at least ten or twenty minutes if they want to have a remotely decent paper trail in case of disputes. GMs have to be involved in this full time, every day, so at a mere $10/hour, with each GM covering two shards for an 8-hour shift, and not bothering with the third shift, this costs a mere $683,280 per year. Let’s say that the GMs are consistently able to fully investigate one botter every ten minutes; each shift, they’ll knock off 48 botters. So if you have two GMs per shard, that’s 96 botters per shard per day, which gets rid of 1,728 botters per day. But we were assuming only one GM per shard to keep costs down, so that’d be only 864 botters per day.
Option #1: Developer spends two full months working on anti-botting technology which has applications to many fields, not just to fish-botting. Once this is done, GMs get automatic tickets for apparent botting, which are provided with complete and relevant logs of events, timing, information about the user’s computer, and so on. Investigating a ticket takes about 2 minutes, and there are only tickets when there are actually botters. The cost of the initial software development is about $26,000. After this, the cost is just the cost of actually processing the tickets. Let’s say they start out clearing about 2,000 botters a day, but after a while it will die off to about 1,000 botters per day. When we start out, that’s 4,000 minutes of GM time every day; that comes out to about 67 hours. Let’s say that because of the fancy tools, we have to have extra-expensive GMs, who get paid $20/hour, so the cost including incidentals is closer to $24/hour. That means that the daily cost of those 4,000 minutes of GM time is $1,608. A year of clearing out 2,000 botters a day will then cost $586,920. Total cost would then be $612,920 for the two months of developer time and the twice-as-expensive GMs. Once the initial rush is over, and it’s down to 1,000 botters a day, the cost of a year of clearing botters is only $293,460.
So, let’s review.
I’ve made a number of assumptions. I’ve estimated that game developer salaries are close to what Google pays; this is almost certainly not as true as it should be. I’ve estimated that a GM using automated tools has to be paid twice as much as a regular GM. I’ve assumed that the GMs are getting hourly pay and no benefits, so the only costs are stuff like the employer’s share of SSI and unemployment. I’ve assumed that it takes two full months of developer time to create the automated tools. I’ve assumed that the GMs finding bots manually are able to, with perfect reliability, knock off one bot every ten minutes including adequate research and paper trail; I’ve ignored the fact that a real investigation would take longer without real tools. I’ve assumed that it still takes GMs real time to process the automated tickets.
In short, I’ve made every assumption I could think of in a way that clearly favors your proposal.
And the best I can do is that, if you assume a need to clear 2,000 bots a day for the automated system, it costs substantially less than doing it manually would cost if you needed to clear only 864 botters a day. Which is to say, that if any of those assumptions are even a little less ridiculous, and we use comparable quantities of bots, the automated system is going to win by a factor of two or more.
You’re right. The answer should be obvious.
— Peter Seebach
This one seems easy enough. As recently observed, prosecutors have a lot to gain from pursuing high-profile cases, going for lots of charges even if some might not stick, and bullying people.
Problem: Prosecutors end up pursuing felony charges to advance their careers even when this is heavily counterindicated by the circumstances.
Solution: Make it a felony to do so.
What happens? Well, first off, the immediate outcome is that suddenly prosecutors can make a name for themselves by going after prosecutors who are acting badly. This creates a real disincentive to act badly like that.
Secondly, there is a more subtle outcome; if prosecutors were more likely to at least occasionally be the accused, they might be more interested in the question of when and whether the law is fair to the accused, or unfair to them.
— Peter Seebach
So, I have complained in the past about the poor tone of political dialogue. But shouldn’t I offer solutions? Yes, yes I should.
Okay. Here is my solution: Admire this glorious picture of an actual vehicle which roams the wilds of Minnesota.
Now, when you see people arguing about politics, and the tone does not strike you as basically respectful and possibly leading to constructive development and discussion that could improve things? Talk about this truck. Talk about the sign on it, and what it means for political dialogue.
It turns out that this sign is sufficiently self-contradictory and insane that even people who absolutely loathe Mr. Obama will generally acknowledge that, really, this is beyond the pale. It is also stupid. And it is a testimony to the importance of maintaining some kind of connection to reality, and awareness of what other people actually believe, and who they actually are.
And what this tends to do is introduce a very powerful moderating influence in discussions, by making people want to distance themselves from the extremism. Now, it doesn’t solve the problem completely, since I haven’t got a correspondingly extreme example in the other direction. On the other hand, that reflects a fundamental asymmetry in the US political factions at the moment. And, in practice, even the fairly extreme left-wing sorts I know will nearly always try to moderate their tone a bit when reminded of how utterly stupid extremism can look.
— Peter Seebach
Sometimes, when I am in an argument with some random person on the Internet, a thing happens which has always sort of mystified me. What will happen is, around the time that I conclude that someone is genuinely incapable of even basic logical coherence, they’ll turn to a variety of personal attacks. And what makes it mysterious is, the attacks are pulled from a small pool of things like “nothing you say makes any sense” or “you are too dogmatic” or “you are so authoritarian”, and…
Well, first off, they’re usually complaints that make no sense to me. I am totally aware that I have many annoying traits, but they’ll somehow cherry-pick for things that I can’t take seriously at all.
And second, they’re nearly always complaints that strike me as valid complaints about the people using them. And that … well, it’s not totally unthinkable, but it seems a little odd for it to be mere coincidence.
I think I finally got it. The key is that this only happens with people who appear to completely lack any distinction between persuasive and unpersuasive; there is stuff they agree with, which they regard as persuasive, and stuff they disagree with, which they regard as stupid. And here’s the thing:
To them, arguments must be pretty much magic. They can’t see a distinction between “things which make people think I am winning” and “things which make people think I am losing”. And since they are incompetent, and everyone else (well, everyone who has basic distinctions between sense and nonsense) can tell that, what they see is:
- There are a lot of arguments. It really seems like I am winning, because I am posting some great stuff and these people aren’t saying anything that would change my mind.
- Someone says some stuff about me.
- A bunch of people express the opinion that the other guy won the argument.
So… How to explain it? Simple! What that person said is a magic token that, when used in an argument, makes you the winner.
So when they feel like they are not making headway, they use the Words Which Win Arguments. Which are, not at all coincidentally, likely criticisms of their own argumentation. And it doesn’t work, and they get furious because how can that not work?
This is why people who never really advance an argument accuse other people of being unable to argue logically, and people who are aggressively telling other people how to live call other people arrogant. It’s not just “projection”; it’s their best attempt at behaving in the ways that work for other people. It’s cargo cult debate.