What was the FBI Supposed to do about Cruz?

In the wake of the school shooting in in Florida, a lot has been written and found about the shooter, Nikolas Cruz. Like all school shooters, he was a troubled young man with many problems, and he left in his wake some hints of what was coming. So much so that the FBI is being dragged over the coals for not “doing something” to stop him.

But what does that mean? What could they have done?

On Friday, two days after the shooting, the Miami Herald accused the FBI of “Bungling” the case:

The FBI received two alarming tips about Nikolas Cruz in the past six months: Someone who knew him well believed he was capable of murdering teachers and students. And an online commenter using the handle “nikolas cruz” professed his desire to become a “professional school shooter.”

But somehow no one at the FBI connected the dots or shared information about Cruz with the agents who might have stopped him before Wednesday, when he killed 17 people at a high school in Broward County[1].

Honestly, I’m not sure which I find more disturbing: the fact that a disturbed 19 year-old man went postal and killed 14 high schoolers or the implications of what the authors at the Miami Herald, Jay Weaver, Sarah Blaskey, David Ovalle, and Nicholas Nehamas (Weaver, et al), are advocating with this statement, which is truly anti-democratic and even anti-modernist[2].

I’ve just levied a pretty heavy charge, so let’s unpack this. What did the FBI know? What could they have done? What should they have done? What do we, as a society really want them to do in future, similar situations? What are the wider implications?

What the FBI Knew

Starting with what the FBI knew, Weaver, et al identify two key pieces of information that the FBI had or should have had: a person close to Cruz identifying him as a potential threat and a comment made on YouTube that a user named ‘nikolas cruz’ wanted ‘to become a professional school shooter.’ First, let’s look at this tip.

The January tipster to the FBI hotline said Cruz owned guns. The person told the FBI’s Public Access Line, located in Clarksburg, West Virginia, that Cruz “had a desire to kill people” and could potentially conduct a school shooting, according to the bureau. The tip line received 766,888 calls in 2017. This one was not deemed a credible threat, as it should have been, and sent to Miami for follow up, the FBI said[1].

The authors assert that this should have been deemed as a credible threat, but why? Ex Post it is obvious that this threat was credible, but what makes it different from the other 766,888 tips?  Particularly in light of the fact that Cruz was interviewed by Florida’s Department of Children and Families and deemed not a threat[3], it’s not unreasonable that the FBI came to same conclusion. Sure, they might not have followed protocol and still forwarded the tip on to the local unit, but it strikes me as highly improbable that the tip being forwarded would have changed anything.

Second, Mr. Cruz posted his sick wishes about staging a school shooting to YouTube. They say that everything you put online is permanent, which is true, but with 400 hours of YouTube content uploaded every minute, not everything you put online is quickly or easily accessible, even if it is permanent[4]. I looked for some APIs to pull YouTube data, but not surprisingly, it’s not that easy to pull all comments across all of YouTube, even for a given period of time. Pulling comments on a previously identified/flagged channel? Sure, but not everything. In other words, I don’t have specific counts, but I can’t believe that Cruz (and let’s just assume it was actually the same person) was the only person to post a comment praising school shootings—sarcastically or not, computers have trouble telling the difference—much less the only comment with the words “school shooting.” The internet is a dark place at times, as Microsoft’s ChatBot, Tay, will attest[5]. Point being: this is the kind of detail that is only obvious in hindsight. Ex ante, it’s just another asshole on the internet, and it’s impossible to identify, track, and/or follow up on all the assholes on the internet.

What the FBI Could or Should have Done

Protocol for the FBI says that they should forward all tips to the national hotline to the local districts for further review. That didn’t happen, and Christopher Wray, the FBI Director has publicly apologized for that[6]. Beyond that, the Herald makes it sound like the simple act of forwarding this tip on would made any difference at all. Specifically, Weaver, et al say that, local agents were “agents who might have stopped him before Wednesday” (emphasis mine). That might is important, and strikes me as complete fantasy and wishful thinking. Really, what could the FBI have done?

Mental disturbance isn’t a crime, and Cruz acquired his weapons legally. Whether or not he should have been able to get those weapons is a topic for a future blogpost, but up until the time he started gunning down his former classmates, he had showed violent tendencies at home, but his adoptive family never pressed charges and he hadn’t committed any crimes outside the home. He was under monitoring by the mental health provider community, and was being treated for his readily apparent mental health issues without being denied habeus corpus. What about Cruz’s case would or could have justified imprisoning him for being a deeply disturbed dude, given that he was over 18 and hadn’t explicitly made threats against himself or others to a mandatory reporter?

That was a rhetorical question. In a Republic, jailing him for being creepy and disturbed would be wrong. Sometimes these pesky ethics of rule of law and presumption of innocence mean that the guilty walk free, even to kill again. That said, I believe this is still preferable over Bills of Retainer where public opinion, not evidence “beyond reasonable doubt,” determines one’s guilt.

Wider Implications

As stated above, by Weaver, et al’s own words (specifically, “might”), it’s not obvious that the FBI could have done anything. By my reading of other sources, the FBI and local agencies had done almost everything right—Marjory school had expelled Cruz for his behavior, and the Department for Children and Families had investigated him. The FBI should have passed the tip on to local agencies, but that’s really the only oversight in this whole case, which is a pretty minor thing. FBI Director Wray can’t say that though; due to political pressure, he has to admit that they somehow mismanaged this, and that scares me.

Weaver, et al, and apparently much of public opinion writ large thinks that the FBI “bungled” this. What they really mean is that they identified a tip as a negative when it turned out (ex post) to be a positive. They made a Type II error, to use statistics jargon. To reduce the risk of a Type II error, we have two options: increase the statistical power or lower the threshold of statistical significance required. Both of these options are antithetical to democracy.

By bringing up the YouTube comment, Weaver, et al are essential advocating complete NSA monitoring of the whole internet. Natural Language Processing algorithms to analyze every YouTube comment, every Blogpost, every Blog Comment, and every Tweet to identify comments indicative of future violent behavior. Is that really what we want? Because that’s what it would take to reduce the likelihood of a Type II error by increasing statistical power.

In their opening paragraphs Weaver, et al say that local agents “might have been able to do something.” They are conspicuously silent about what that something could possibly be. As I’ve said before, up to that point Cru hadn’t done anything to warrant his arrest or detainment against his will. To violate his civil liberties and confiscate his property (guns) or detain his person based on a hunch or the fact that he’s a messed up guy would have been unconstitutional. And how many messed up guys are out there who fantasize about violence and could even be capable of carrying out a mass shooting? How many of those will actually go through with that fantasy? Data are sparse here, but this is probably a small-but-not-trivial number.

More importantly, what would that mean if we did decide that a “credible threat” was enough to detain someone? Who would decide what constitutes credibility? How long could someone have their civil liberties legally curtailed? The implication from this article seems to be that “Well, Cruz turned out to be guilty, so it should have been obvious before. Thus he should have been detained and prevented from carrying out this heinous act.” The corollary of that is that anyone can call the FBI tip line and submit a “tip” about someone—honestly or not. Deciding which are credible and which are not will never be perfect. Claiming that any false negative is a “bungling” implies that we should lower the bar for credible evidence–thereby reducing the risk of a Type II error. Anyone can make an accusation against another individual and that accused individual should be immediately suspect? That’s how things worked during the Reign of Terror under Robespierre in the French Revolution; not under a functioning Republic. I’m not against getting better ways of minimizing both false negative or false positive errors, but we need to accept that both will always be present. And I would argue that prioritizing false negatives as more dangerous than false positives—i.e. it’s worse to miss a potential killer than to imprison an innocent person—is anti-democratic and anti-modern. And that’s a severe charge.

Closing Remarks

What Nikolas Cruz did was horrific. But what price are we, as a society, willing to pay to prevent it in the future?

Are we willing to cede our rights to habeas corpus and privacy to federal authorities? If so, we’ve already lost the Republic to the enemies of Modernity.

Are we willing to accept school shootings as regular occurrences? Well, then may God have mercy on our souls for the sin of ignoring justice. (The Bible spends far more ink exhorting bringing about justice than it does advocating saying “Merry Christmas,” condemning homosexuals, or other such evangelical first world problems.)

Are we willing to accept some restrictions and monitoring of gun ownership? I really hope so, but exploring that topic is my next two posts.

In other words, instead of blaming the FBI for not detaining someone who was clearly mentally disturbed, let’s blame the true culprits. The current state of gun laws that allowed a clearly mentally disturbed person to get weapons in the first place. An underfunded, overly bureaucratic mental health infrastructure that was unable to get Cruz the help he needed. And, most importantly, the banality of evil and the total depravity of human nature. Those are the real culprits, not the fact that the FBI didn’t pass on information to the Miami office that didn’t have much constitutional recourse to do much anyways.

References

[1] http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/community/broward/article200598934.html
[2] https://areomagazine.com/2017/08/22/a-manifesto-against-the-enemies-of-modernity/
[3] http://www.stltoday.com/news/national/state-investigated-after-florida-school-shooting-suspect-cut-himself/article_0c58bd5b-b690-5665-91bb-95f3195ec168.html
[4] https://expandedramblings.com/index.php/youtube-statistics/
[5] https://www.theverge.com/2016/3/24/11297050/tay-microsoft-chatbot-racist
[6] http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/community/broward/article200523359.html

 

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My quasi-communist, capitalistic vision for the future

My dad is very into futurist thinking, and this is something I very much enjoy discussing with him, but it’s not a line of thought that has to date really captured my attention in any sustained way–INTP vs. INTJ if you know what I mean. As the corpus of this blog probably shows, I’m generally pretty cynical/pessimistic/annoyingly realistic, especially about the ability of humans to design the future. Still, when I look at the potential impact technological advancement has to improve the standard of living for all people, I’m actually very optimistic. This post is about my ¾ baked vision for the future, and how technology will change the entire landscape of income (albeit not wealth) in future (American) society.

Assumptions

Let’s start by making certain assumptions explicit.

First, human beings are inherently selfish, egocentric, and care less about absolute standing than they do about relative differences. Put differently, humanity is totally depraved and cares more about how much less they earn than Mark Zuckerberg than about how much better off they are than even Caesar Augustus (who didn’t have air conditioning or internet)–ironically, this is a proclivity that Mark Zuckerberg made his wealth exploiting.

Second, income and wealth have always, will always, and should always be unequally distributed. Ideally, income should be equitably distributed according to contribution to overall human well-being and universal knowledge; this means that I want to live in a world where Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin are filthy rich–they’ve made services that improve my life quite dramatically (at least in some ways). Because it’s often difficult to delineate between products/services that actually make me better off from those that profit from helping me self-destruct or those that make a good product but employ rent-seeking behavior to highly profitable outcomes. This is a topic I still hope to write a book about some day, but suffice it to say that I view it as a necessary corollary and necessary evil that Lloyd Blankfein and Dick Fuld are also filthy rich, even if hedge fund banking (and advertising) are non-productive economic enterprises (though I’m sure they would beg to differ, investment banking almost certainly doesn’t actually make the pie bigger).

Third, Baxter is only the tip of the iceberg: automation will consume more and more jobs. The number of jobs lost to automation dwarfs the number of jobs lost to globalization and free trade. Protectionist policies being advocated for by the current populist and xenophobic wings of the Republican party will only expedite this process as a way to cut costs. This isn’t going to happen overnight, and many tasks have turned out to be much harder to automate than we thought (like washing dishes). But then, other tasks have turned out to be easier than we thought to automate–like making a medical diagnosis or even assisting physicians in surgery. Taking the long view–50+ years–automation will slowly advance into newer and more complicated realms. Only “high tech,” “high touch,” and “high creativity” jobs will remain for humans. That is, only jobs in computer programming and system administration; jobs with a high degree of human-to-human interaction like medicine or counseling where an essential element is lost when the emotional component is lost; and finally truly creative pursuits like art, management, or product innovation. This last group of “high creativity” is somewhat suspect, but I do believe that machines will never have true creativity the way humans do.

My fourth and most important assumption is that work is not a necessary evil, but a bona fide good. Sprawling, conglomerate corporations with cultures modeled on Jack Welch may have taken much of the meaning out of work for many individuals, but that’s an unnecessary evil. Work, dignity, self-actualization, and life purpose can and should all go hand-in-hand (work, in the colloquial, is not the exclusive guarantor or provider of these things, but is still a dominant influence here). Organizational Psychology categorizes how people view work into three groups: job, career, and calling. I.e. work is something you to do to pay the bills, get prestige, or fulfill a life purpose, respectively. Everyone wants a calling, but not all callings are equally valued by the market (unfortunately, but necessarily) , so it’s not always possible to make a living from your calling.

Pessimistic View of Where We’re Going

A corollary of the above assumptions is that more jobs are going to be automated and more and more people will be displaced. As human labor becomes a smaller and smaller portion of overall manufacturing expense, it will become possible for a smaller number of individuals and firms own the robotic means of production income. This will increase barriers to entry due to high capital costs, and wealth disparities will increase exponentially as the return on all the capital trumps the rate of return on interest–making Piketty’s bestselling equation r>G completely trivial.

We will still have a middle class, but middle class jobs will be comprised predominantly by high tech and high touch professions. The upper class will be mostly owners of this automating capital, and everyone else will be left out to dry by an economy that no longer needs unskilled labor in any appreciable amount.

How will the economy deal with this total upheaval of the the workforce? One answer is that we don’t know, but the workforce has been through a shift like this before. Automation in agriculture led to a decline in the need for labor from ~75% of the workforce in 1800, 40% of the workforce in 1900, and less than 2% today. People couldn’t have imagined in 1800 how we would get fed or be employed today with so little of our labor force in farming, but we are. Another answer is that this shift is different this time than the agricultural automation of the 19th and 20th centuries because the scope of automation is so much larger. When you look at automating major aspects of skilled work like medical diagnosis away with sophisticated machine learning algorithms, this doomsday mentality starts to make sense. But is it inevitably the case that automating large swathes of the labor force will leave these would-be laborers completely destitute? Not necessarily.

Welfare State Solution: Basic Minimum Income

The basic minimum income is proposed as an alternative to all existing welfare programs including Food Stamps, subsidized housing, CHIP, etc. Instead of having a patchwork of public assistance programs with separate paperwork, separate bureaucracies, and different means-testing schemes that tend to disincentivize additional or better work, we could guarantee a minimum level of income for all citizens. This certainly wouldn’t be a luxurious income, but a stable enough, livable income of say $20,000 for all US Citizens. This could be implemented, for example, via a tax credit analogous to the existing minimum deduction.

The advantages of such a program are numerous in the incentives it creates (or removes) relative to the current system, but I want to focus on one element in particular: the security to pursue one’s calling. Although it’s possible that some people would use a basic minimum income to just sit around and watch Netflix all day, I believe this would be an exceptionally small group of people (see assumption 4 above). Most people would still work to supplement their incomes, but they will (a) have the ability to be choosier about their work and not work in unnecessarily dangerous or exploitative conditions, (b) be able to take more entrepreneurial risks, and (c) be able to pursue their callings–whether or not it pays. If someone’s calling is to be a caretaker for his or her elderly parents, then this basic income guarantee would allow that. If someone wants to open an artisanal dog treat shop as their calling, then they can do so (at least as a mail-order business as a proof of concept until they raise enough capital to get a brick and mortar shop for this admittedly very risky business).

The problem with this solution is that it’s fundamentally a redistribution of income through taxes, and these redistributions have the tendency to get eroded–e.g. Social Security not keeping pace with inflation or changing labor market dynamics. Furthermore, even if I’m right that only a very small proportion of people actually live on the basic minimum income and use it to watch TV all day, this stereotyped image will become the new “Welfare Queen” rallying point for people calling to reform the program.

But what if there was a way to secure a basic minimum income for all citizens of a country without redistributive taxes?

Workers Controlling the Means to Production in an Automated Economy

And here we come to my optimistic (and more than a little quixotic) prediction for the future. If a large portion of the available jobs are “taken” by machines instead of people, how do we secure an income for those displaced people? Simple: give them ownership of “wages” paid to the machines. Instead of allowing manufacturers or other corporations to own this new, automatonic labor, individuals would own these automatons/robots/machines and rent them to firms as the labor force. Firms will continue to pay “labor” costs to the machines just like they do now, but these wages would go to the machine owner–that is, individual citizens.

Crazy? Maybe a little, but hear me out.

Let’s focus on retail as an example. As for 2016, Retail Trade accounted for ~10% of the labor force in the US. Brick and Mortar stores survive in the era of Amazon and E-Commerce because consumers like to touch and feel what they’re buying, so retail sales clerks are likely to continue as a “high touch” profession, but much of retail management will become increasingly automated. Ordering new inventory, stocking that inventory, selection of new products that are likely to succeed, discontinuation of products that aren’t selling, etc. will primarily be handled by software and automatons (yes, I’m totally picturing a robot folding shirts). Current practice would say that a corporate retailer would purchase these software and robotic tools, implement them at their sites, and voila, no need to hire new people to replace natural turnover! My vision is that instead of the corporate retailer purchasing these tools directly, they would “hire” an automaton from a 3rd party owner, just like if they were to hire an employee to do the job. The automaton does more and better work than a human employee, and that displaced employee gets income from the automaton’s labor. Everybody wins (except the non-sentient, automatonic slave).

Benefits of This Admittedly Crazy Idea

At full scale, individuals owning the means of production will be a sustainable way to ensure a livable income for everyone. It partially attenuates the importance of retirement savings since everyone–even the very young and the elderly will have ownership stakes for these new workers’ wages. Furthermore, it will prevent natural monopolies from being as pervasive since all industries would become more capital intensive if firms owned their own capital, and therefore it would be prohibitively expensive to start a new firm.

More importantly, it frees people to work at something they truly care about, with less concern for whether that work is financially viable. People will be able to make and consume more art–fine arts, theater, music, etc. Couples will spend more time cooking healthy meals together. Since children will now be able to get wages, education will be less of a financial struggle for families. Individuals and groups of friends will be free to pursue hobbies to a degree not usually possible with people working 50 hours a week. In short, people will have more opportunities to pursue and achieve eudaimonia and all the things that make life worth living.

Challenges and Questions that Need Addressing

Like I said at the beginning, this idea is at most ¾ baked, and probably not even that much. There are obviously a lot of political challenges and logistical unknowns that need to be overcome. Questions like:

  • Who will maintain these machines/automatons when they break down?
  • How will individuals find a firm to hire their machines?
  • How will we prevent wealthy individuals from purchasing the entire labor supply and then renting it to their own firms?
  • What constitutes capital and what constitutes labor in this new economy?
  • What will these shocks to the labor market affect prices and inflation?
  • How will individuals purchase new automatons/machines and how will we continue incentivizing innovation of these tools?
  • How will software-based automations be labor-atized?
  • How is this not Communism?
  • Why would firms agree to continuing to pay for labor instead of purchasing capital?

These are not trivial concerns, and I don’t have answers to all of them. But I do have answers to some of them, so I’ll very briefly discuss those.

How is this not Communism?

The very nature of this argument is that “the people” will own the means of production, which is pretty communist-leaning. But “the people” still refers to private individuals and private property is still very much a core component. Competition between firms is still very real. The government will likely need to be heavily involved in many aspects of both setting out rules and administering pieces of this program, but the State would not be owning the property or labor and it would not be making decisions about production.

Similarly, as work that was previously done by labor is moved to being by capital, it’s natural to think of that capital like we do all other forms of economic capital. This means that because firms obviously own capital, they obviously own these new automatons and any deviation from that is a deviation from the free market. But the degree of automation itself is certainly a deviation from the free market David Ricardo wrote about. When manual or physical labor is almost entirely replaced, then it’s reasonable to require a redefinition of labor if we want the ideas Smith, Ricardo, and Mill to continue having any relevance at all. Viewed this way, firms owning automatons would be a form of slavery, or, at very least, a vertically integrated monopoly owning all components of production–including labor–and therefore anticompetitive by nature. Preventing anticompetitive behavior is not communist; it is the rightful purpose of government.

Why would firms agree to this?

Automation is taking off because it reduces labor costs and allows firms to compete. Why would they give that model up and continue paying “wages” to machines? Well, because the alternative could very well be masses of hungry, unemployed, unemployable, disenfranchised, and disheartened people with pitchforks (figurative or literal) and nothing left to lose. Which is to say that if enough people don’t have any way of earning enough to survive, violence will ensue. Violence is bad for business, so I believe it is still in the interest of firms to support something like this. Also, as noted above, not doing this has the potential to create natural monopolies because the capital startup costs of purchasing all the automatonic labor is too high. While large firms are very prominently anti-competitive in their lobbying, this doesn’t mean that small firms and industry groups will universally oppose legislation segmenting their costs.

How would this actually work?

Obviously, I don’t have all the answer here, but basically, I picture the system working something like this:

  • Every individual would be given an ownership stake for wages of some number of productive automatons.
  • That individual would be at least partially if not entirely responsible for ensuring the maintenance of his or her automatons
  • As firms hire, expand, or fail, automaton availability and firm needs would be matched in a clearinghouse. This could be a single, government run clearinghouse or it could be a series of private clearinghouses. These clearinghouses would streamline over many of the inefficiencies inherent in the matching nature of the existing job market and ensure that each automaton receives wages according to its marginal product and is used in its most productive capacity.
  • Automatons would work at firms (probably 24/7) and firms would continue to pay wages to positions. These wages would go to the owner of the automatons.
  • People have income to use as they see fit. They can work in a field that still requires human ingenuity or emotionality, or they can pursue non-revenue-generating goals.

How would we prevent abuse of the system?

This is a difficult question to answer, since we would need a better idea of what the labor market will look like in 50-100 years to really answer it. Preventing abuse will be a moving target, but here are a few themes that I believe would, if properly implemented, prevent most abuses.

First of all, how do we prevent the wealthiest individuals from buying out everyone else and owning all the automatons. This is what happened multiple times throughout Roman history after land was redistributed, and it is certainly a cause for concern here. The short answer is that we would need limits on trading these rights. I don’t like restrictions on trade, but I don’t see a way around that. More specifically, we could tie automaton rights to social security numbers or some other unique, non-transferable identifier, and limit the number of automatons that can link to a single identifier.

Second, how do we ensure that individuals take proper care of their automatons? What happens when one breaks down or gets destroyed? This is one of the hardest questions, and tying financial incentives and a social safety net together usually feels like trying to duct tape two wet stones together. Still, I have faith that if most people, most of the time can take care of their cars, then if nothing else we can have a series of automaton mechanics with service plans modeled after HMOs to fix and maintain labor machines as needed with some insurance built in for machines getting destroyed.

Related to number two, how do we cycle out old/obsolete machines for newer, more productive ones? How will the engineering firms (and their high tech human workers) get compensated, especially if everyone is just “given” a new machine? Like the maintenance question, I don’t have a good answer though I expect government to play a rather large role in purchasing these machines using the clearinghouse mentioned above. I’ve been describing automatons very generally and generically, but I would actually expect a wide range of highly diverse robots that need to be invented, purchased, employed, and distributed. Government as purchaser and distributor ensures that a limited number of machines are tied to any given individual, and the clearinghouse informing purchasing decisions removes the State from any direct production decisions as a primary purchaser or monopsony.

Finally, I put a lot of stock in the clearinghouse to allocate this new labor to its highest use. Who will write that clearinghouse and how will it be transparent? For that, I actually have a pretty solid answer. It’s true that writing and maintaining this clearinghouse will be not only vital to the prosperity of all individuals but extremely prone to corruption (allowing some firms to purchase labor at below market rates, etc.). The simplest solution to this problem is to make the clearinghouse utterly transparent using blockchain technology. If it’s robust enough for entire currencies and even medical histories, then I see no reason it couldn’t be used to track the hiring and laying off of these worker machines.

Conclusion

I’ve covered a lot of very convoluted, abstract, and idealistic ground here. Although I think it’s possible, I don’t think this is necessarily the natural progression of what will happen in this changing economy and labor force. It is one of several possible paths the new, automation-driven economy could take. Some of those paths lead to violence and revolt. Other paths lead to self-annihilation. This is one of the most optimistic paths. It is full not of violence, but art and learning. When the minimum needs for survival is taken care of for everyone by non-human laborers, humans are free to pursue that which makes us uniquely human: art, knowledge for the sake of knowledge, religion, personal improvement. Work will be something we do voluntarily as a way to better ourselves and others. This utopian future is probably possible, but it will require a great deal of policy precience and courage in the face of powerful headwinds and entrenched rent seeking interests.

If individuals, not firms, own the this new form of automatonic labor, then they will own the means of production. Far from being inefficient, this will allow clearinghouses to engender a truly competitive labor market and optimizing input costs. Furthermore, it is undoubtedly the most powerful and cost effective way to ensure a basic minimum income for everyone, meaning a broad consumer market. This is possible with robust government action to ensure that these new resources are democratically available and thereby placing a limit on the possible extents of wealth inequality.

Let’s look at automation for what it is: an inexorable juggernaut that will affect virtually all industries and completely reinvent the meaning of labor. We can fight a losing battle to stop it, blaming outsourcing, immigrants, or whatever other bugaboo people want to use, or we can either embrace this as an opportunity to bring about eudaimonia for millions.

Trello as a Goal Tracking System – Year in Review

This past January, I wrote a post about using Trello as a goal tracking system. Now that the year is over, I want to give an update on how well the system worked, how my system changed, and how many of my 2017 goals I accomplished.

How the System Worked

Here’s how my goal tracking board looks at the end of the year:

In the Goals list, I started with my goal areas for the year as a card. In the description, I documented “SMART” goals (or at least SMART-ish).

Some of these areas, like Blogging, also had a checklist that I updated as I went along. For others, like Exercise, I just added comments documenting various milestones. As I made significant progress or completed the goal, I moved it to the Progress/Results list. For goals I abandoned (like reading half the books on my bookshelf or writing my books), I moved those to a different list as well.

How I Did this Year

For 2017, I had nine areas of goals, and each area had 2 or 3 specific goals in the description. Here’s how I did on these goals

  1. Wife
    1. Budget Monthly: We did this most months, but not all 12.
    2. Regular Date Nights: We had more date nights in 2017 than in 2016, but it still wasn’t particularly “regular”
    3. Regular Game Nights: This one we did pretty well, playing games together (usually Smash Up) at least once every 2 weeks, on average.
    4. Do Art Together: We did a number of art projects together this year, but both of us kind of got out of the art kicks we were in at the end of 2016, so while I wouldn’t call this a completed goal, I also don’t feel bad about not completing it. New Year’s resolutions should be a guide, not necessarily hard-and-fast must dos in all cases.
  2. Career
    1. Be doing data science by the end of the year. I changed jobs at my employer and while I’m not doing data science per se, I’m now a database administrator for reporting servers in our hosting division, which is close enough for me to consider this a success.
  3. Blogging:
    1. Write at least one blog post per month: This is number 12!
  4. Exercise:
    1. Complete a 5k: Done!
    2. Be able to run 10 miles: again, I revised this one to be a 10K instead of 10 miles after realizing that running long distances requires a lot of time. Not just the frequency of times at the gym, which is fine, but running 10 miles means over an hour on the treadmill. Training for this would mean routinely spending at least an hour on the treadmill, and I just couldn’t carve out the time for this. But I did successfully run 6.25 miles (10K) yesterday.
  5. GRE:
    1. Track my studying for the GRE in Todoist: I mostly stayed within the project plan and utilized recurring tasks to keep on track.
    2. Take the GRE: Done. And I did reasonably well, though I didn’t take it until November, well after my goal of September.
  6. Learning:
    1. I had a list of Lynda.com, Coursera.com, EdX.com, and other classes. All of which I completed. Not all of which were as useful as I originally thought they would be, but I finished them.
  7. Puppy:
    1. Walk, Train, and Brush more regularly: I walked him much more regularly, and my wife brushed him much more regularly than either of us did in 2016. We didn’t do as much training as I wanted, but even that was better than in 2016.
    2. Understand and take steps to become a therapy dog: I understand the steps more, and decided my little lap dog probably isn’t going to be a good fit for a therapy dog.
  8. Aggregation Book:
    1. I have ambitions to turn several old blog posts into a book after fleshing them out from 10 pages to 250 pages. That didn’t happen and I abandoned that goal mid-summer. It’s still an goal, but not in 2017… and probably not in 2018.
  9. Reading:
    1. I wanted to read most of the books hanging out on my bookshelf before buying any new books, but a funny thing happened: I somehow got new books. I read a lot more in 2017 than 2016, so that’s a partial success, but I completely missed my original smart goal. So it goes.

How the System Changed

I checked and updated my goals board every 4-6 weeks, and it really did help keep me on track. That said, I made several changes along the way.

  1. Trello released a desktop app, so I started using that instead of their website. This might seem like a minor change, but it really helped me keep track of this more regularly, so I was better at monitoring these goals in the second half of the year than the first.
  2. Instead of making this an annual board, I made it a generic “Annual Goals” board and use labels for each year to track goals by year. This obviously only makes a difference for the last month or so, but I think it helps add more context as I plan my 2018 goal areas and specific goals.
  3. Lists are always a conundrum in Trello. Like notebooks in Evernote, it’s very tempting to create a new list for different types of things, but this usually ends up in having too many lists (or notebooks) that make things harder to find, even though the idea is to make them easier to group. After adding and removing several different lists, I now have three lists: Goals, Progress/Results, and Not Happn’n. For 2018, I’m going to modify this to five lists: Habits to build, Projects to finish, Habits Established, Projects Completed, Abandoned. This means more cards to split out projects vs. habits, even for similar goal areas, but I think it will add more clarity when I review these lists each month.
  4. As noted above, I did update a few goals to be less ambitious. For 2018, I want to use comments to track the description (i.e. specific goals) over time.

Plan for 2018

Here’s my board with the 2018 Filter.

Wish me luck, and Happy New Year!

The Costs of Free Speech

The stability of this country is balancing on a wire. I’m really not being hyperbolic when I say that the deepest of American institutions is at stake: that of the competency of the average citizen to participate in the democratic process; in other words, Republicanism (the philosophy; not the political party) and Representative Democracy.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

-First Amendment, US Constitution, 1791.

The First Amendment is the first item in the Bill of Rights because it’s more important than a well-regulated militia (2A), the historically pertinent issue of martial quartering (3A), and even due process of law (4A-8A) or Federalism (9A-10A). Why it’s an amendment rather than part of the constitution could be considered an oversight by Madison and Hamilton, but that notwithstanding, I would (and will) argue two things:

  1. The right to Free Speech assumes several things about the speakers.
  2. That right and corresponding assumptions are collectively an indispensable cornerstone of democracy.

Unfortunately, this sacrosanct ideal is facing bipartisan opposition right now. Liberal college students seem to be making a habit out of opposing conservative speakers who come on campus. Meanwhile, numerous conservative legislators are following President Trump’s lead and delegitimizing the media (i.e. free press) and supporting him when he suggests that political opponents should be repressed or that news channels that publish news not flattering to the political incumbent ought to be shut down for political reasons.

Again, I really don’t think I’m being hyperbolic here, and I hope I’m wrong. But neither party seems to remember what the words “Free Speech” really mean. This post is a collection of thoughts and musings about the importance of free speech, and how it is being undermined in the current political climate. I’ll tie most of it together at the end, but this post is intended to read like an essay on ethics. That is, it’s supposed to beg more questions than it answers, and it’s logically cohesive with itself, but introduces ethical conundrums for both the author and the reader.

Political Repression vs. Social Consequences

The first amendment and subsequent non-discrimination policy ensure that free speech is free from political repression. This is to say that you can’t legally be killed or thrown in prison for espousing ideas that [pick your boogeyman: politicians, the majority, The Man, Evangelicals, The MSM] don’t like. This is not, I repeat, bold, and italicize, not, the same as saying there are no consequences for voicing your views. Some views may win friends; other may influence people; and still other views/opinions/standpoints/ideas/etc. may utterly alienate you from society. As a prime example, former Google employee James Damore sent his coworkers a controversial memo about gender equality and why women are underrepresented in the tech workforce. Damore was not arrested, stripped of voting rights, or otherwise politically repressed. He was, however, fired from his job and written about enough that any future HR interviewer will find his name (or any applicant unfortunate enough to share a name with him) plastered all over the internet. He will likely find freelance work here and there, but his stable, upper-class, bay-area lifestyle is probably gone forever.

Challenging the Zeitgeist can be an extremely valuable activity for society that ought to be encouraged. On the other hand, challenging the Zeitgeist has historically been a capital offense (e.g. Socrates, numerous prominent figures in the French Revolution, Malcolm X). The beauty of Free Speech is that you are (generally) free to say things without being arrested or killed by the State. Free Speech does not mean that others are required to like what you say or that social isolation as a result of one’s free speech is illegal.

Speech is Public

A corollary of this is that for society to respond to your views, those views must be spoken out loud. That is, Free Speech, properly understood, is inherently public. Anonymous speech is generally referred to as “thought.” We allow free private thought by not having thought police. Regulating thought is (currently, and hopefully forever will be) an utter impossibility, so it need not be spelled out in the constitution. Furthermore, because it is not spelled out as a right, the 9th amendment protects thought.

Unfortunately, the (in)famous Citizens United case completely misses the point on what speech is by making it anonymous. Citizens United declares two things: first that money is tantamount to speech, and second that disclosing speech in the form of donors–that is, saying “speech” out loud–is an infringement of Free Speech (this is, of course, a gross over-simplification of this landmark case, but these are the two points that relate to my larger argument). The first point is controversial in its own right, but it’s also exceptionally complicated, so I’m simply going to say that the latter point depends on the former, and leave it there. The second point, declaring that speech can be anonymous, strikes me as extremely dangerous for democracy. Not because it imbues corporations, labor unions, and 501(c)(4) entities with undue influence (though that is an interesting debate as well), but because it undoes a fundamental ethical assumption that makes Republicanism possible.

The Ethical Underpinning of Free Speech.

Adam Smith, an intellectual giant of the Scottish Enlightenment, is best known for An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (aka ‘Wealth of Nations’). However, in his own mind, he considered his other book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, to be his magnum opus, and in fact he was revising both books simultaneously. Wealth of Nations made Adam Smith the Father of Modern Economics and Capitalism, but Theory of Moral Sentiments is a necessary, though often overlooked, prequel to Wealth of Nations, and the ideas discussed are undeniably necessary for capitalism to function as described in Wealth of Nations.

Implicit in Smith’s description of markets (Wealth of Nations) is an assumption about human behavior and morality (Theory of Moral Sentiments): “Man naturally desires not only to be loved, but to be lovely.” That is, people want others to regard them with esteem and they want to feel worthy of that esteem. This natural desire drives our social interactions with others around us and causes us to act in such a way that while acting in our own self interest we still respect the interests of others and have a keen moral inclination towards sympathy (harmony) with others. In the context of markets, this means that individuals are generally wont to behave in such a way that increases their social esteem, which is to say treat others fairly.

I obviously can’t do Smith justice in a couple paragraphs, so I highly recommend several other commentaries on Smith’s work:

My point in bringing up Smith (besides pedantic erudition) is to point out that there are certain moral underpinnings to our most sacrosanct political institutions, but those underpinnings are never made explicit in our constitution or other expositions of these institutions. In the minds of the authors of these institutions (e.g. Monroe, Smith, Mill, Friedman, Washington, etc.), these assumptions didn’t need to be made explicit in their writings; they were so obviously necessary that explicitly calling them out in writing at the time would have seemed trite. This is true of markets, and this is absolutely true of the constitution in general and the first amendment in specific.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts

Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Free speech encourages free debate, eccentric innovation, and constructive criticism of the zeitgeist, but it assumes a level of integrity. This assumption has actually been made explicit in jurisprudence, but I believe the corollaries of that decision have not been absorbed into the public psyche. Yelling “Fire!” in a crowded area, when no fire is present, is illegal. That is, lying to provoke panic that can cause measurable harm (lawyer-speak for ‘getting trampled to death’) is illegal. There are “limits” to Free Speech under the First Amendment. I use quotes there because these so-called restrictions just make explicit what was previously implicit: you are free to say anything you want, but we’re assuming you’re mature and virtuous enough to not be a puerile prick about it.

Summary of Costs of Free Speech

Under the prescience of the First Amendment, speech is “free,” but as I’ve noted above, that freedom only applies to freedom from State oppression. There are still social costs to speaking one’s mind, as there should be. A commitment to truth and integrity is not only implied in the granting of free speech, but it is truly necessary for a sustainable, functional Democracy. In the light of Citizens United this means putting your mouth where your money is. Further, it means listening to people who disagree with you–whether in the news, blogosphere, or on-campus talks. That’s all inherent in free speech. As it should be.

Speech is inherently a public and visible activity. If you’ve ever interacted with another human being, you know that words have meaning and power, and what you say is subject to the scrutiny of the recipient, and that the First Amendment cannot protect you from the consequences of their response–positive or negative.

These Costs are Worth It

If it’s not clear at this point that I love the First Amendment, then I’m clearly a failure as a writer. There are costs to speaking freely, but this is not in any way to diminish the obvious fact that the benefits of Free Speech exceed these costs by orders of magnitude. That said, the level of current public discourse suggests that we’ve forgotten the moral underpinnings of this right and the cost benefit analysis. What’s at stake if we forget these truths? Well, for starters, the Republic itself.

According to Aristotelian political theory, each form of government had its merits but inevitably devolved into its most oppressive incarnation until it was overthrown. Thus a monarchy would become a tyranny, only to be overthrown by an enlightened aristocracy, which slid into repressive oligarchy until popular democracy overwhelmed the oligarchs, opening the door for anarchy, and so back to the stabilizing hand of monarchy again.

Mike Duncan (taken only slightly out of context)

In fear of sounding like a right-wing platitude, we’ve lost the element of personal responsibility in our discourse. Absent personal responsibilities for the social consequences of our words, we devolve into either guarded bullshit, unwilling to address controversial topics (read: topics that are meaningful and worth discussing) or completely eschewing objective truth in favor of “alternative facts.”

The United States and the world at large are facing deep issues. As one of many examples, we have racial tensions ready to boil over in the US. How are we supposed to have a truth and reconciliation moment when we can’t agree what truth is? It’s politically incorrect to call a spade a spade: e.g. NYT columnist David Brooks calling inner city culture maladapted to modern society and dismissive of education. On any individual point, it’s tough to refute Demore’s assertions. A recent NYT article designed to humanize White Nationalists drew sharp criticism for pointing out the obvious: Nazis are people. I’m in no way defending Nazis or Fascism, both of which I find despicable, but they are people and deserve the same rights as you, Antifa, Donald Trump, and me. Recognizing that fact may humanize them, but it doesn’t normalize that behavior.

People with the aim to incite violence, social unrest, or just general disorder and fear based on false or twisted truths are despicable shells of how God intended us to be. That said, you can’t legislate that people not be dicks, and that’s just something we have to live with. Nevertheless, I would argue that such behavior is not protected under the First Amendment. Stirring up fears over bullshit allegations of terrorism, massacres, or the loss of American society, when all such fears are factually unfounded are morally deplorable. Still, because morality is such a difficult topic and Government cannot (and should not) decide what is or is not factually founded or objectively true, there exists an uneasy amount of ambiguity. But if we were to cede authority of ‘arbiter of truth’ to a semi-accountable body of politicians I can only believe that the result would be disastrous: self-interest turning to selfish ambition in the world of logrolling and realpolitik.

Ben Franklin allegedly quipped that this country is “A Republic, if you can keep it.” Absent a proper understanding of Free Speech, the most foundational of all rights, I’m beginning to wonder if we can keep it. When both sides only support free speech when the speaker agrees with them, we’re at risk of losing that Republic.

Mathematics of Speeding

Posing the Question

I’m a nerd. I think that’s pretty obvious from this blog. One thing I do to stay awake on long drives at night is to do math problems in my head; a particular favorite of mine is to calculate how fast I need to drive to arrive at my destination half an hour earlier. The answer is surprisingly bleak: speeding really doesn’t save that much time. But calculating various contingencies and corollaries in my head does tend to keep me awake for 10-15 minutes, so there’s that.

Question 1: How Much Time does Speeding Save?

Short answer? Not as much as you might think. The longer answer is that the relationship between travel time and speed is an inverse one: \(time=\frac{distance}{speed}\). You may remember a similar inverse equation from math class: \(y=\frac{1}{x}\). This is a curve that never quite touches either axis going from \(x=0\) out to \(x\Rightarrow\infty\). So we can plot time on the y-axis as a function of speed for a variety of different distances to get a graphic for how long a trip will take at different average speeds: Figure 1.

We can pretty quickly see that at low speeds, going one mile per hour faster will have a pretty sizable impact on total time. However, by the time we reach the highway speed limit (65, 70, or 75, depending on the state), A one mph increase is going make a pretty small change in total change: not zero, but not necessarily substantial. For a better view of this in terms of minutes saved, here’s one of the above lines in table format:

Speed Hours Time
40 1.5000 01:30:00
50 1.2000 01:11:01
60 1.0000 01:00:00
70 0.8571 00:51:00
80 0.7500 00:45:00
90 0.6667 00:40:00

Going from 40 mph to 50 mph will save 19 minutes, but going from 80 mph to 90 mph will only save 5 minutes: Same 10 mph increase, but pretty big differences in time saved. More formally, an increase in speed of X% means a \(\frac{1}{1+\frac{X}{100}}%\) decrease.

  • \(OldTime=\frac{Distance}{OldSpeed}\)
  • \(NewSpeed = (1+\frac{X}{100}) * OldSpeed\)
  • \(NewTime = \frac{Distance}{NewSpeed}\)
  • \(NewTime = \frac{Distance}{(1+\frac{X}{100}) OldSpeed}\)
  • \(NewTime = (\frac{1}{(1+\frac{X}{100}})(\frac{Distance}{OldSpeed})\)
  • \(NewTime = \frac{OldTime}{1+\frac{X}{100}}\)

The above formula might look complicated, but when put in fraction form rather than percentage form, it’s just a simple reciprocal (assuming the percentage change makes a nice fraction). In fraction form, If my speed increases by 20% (or one-fifth), that means my new speed is \(\frac{6}{5}\) of my old speed and my time changes by the reciprocal: \(\frac{5}{6}\). So a 20% increase in speed means only a 16% decrease in time.

Question 2: How does speeding for one leg affect the overall average speed?

So far, I’ve been talking about speed like it’s a single value, but what I’m really talking about is average speed, because we know that you never drive the same speed for the whole trip. More realistically, I leave my house and drive 10 miles at an average of 30 mph until I get on the highway, then I’m driving 70 mph on the highway for 130 miles before I traffic drops down to one lane because of an accident or construction or something like that, so it takes me an hour to go just 5 miles followed by some slow 20 mph driving for 20 miles. After that it’s smooth sailing at 65 mph, but only for 30 miles before I take my exit and drive on regular streets with a 40 mph speed limit for 25 miles until I get to my destination. In other words, my distance traveled over time looks something like this (with my overall average speed plotted as the dotted line).

So how big of a difference does it make if I drive 90 mph for that 130 mile stretch where I can actually get going and pass people? How much does that accident and rubber-necking-induced slowness negate the benefits of my speeding during the previous or subsequent legs?

In other words, what if our Distance-Over-Time graph looks like any one of these alternatives?

The steeper the leg, the more distance we’re traveling in shorter amount of time; i.e. the faster we’re going. But what do those steeper slopes on the legs mean for steeper slopes of the average speed? Or, more importantly, how much time do I save? If the only difference between Trip A and Trip B is to drive 90 mph instead of 70 mph for that 130 leg.

Trip AvgSpeed TotalDist TotalTime
A 41.72 210 05:01:00
B 45.45 210 04:37:00
Diff 3.73 0 00:24:00
  • \(TotalTime = \sum\frac{Distance_{leg}}{AvgSpeed_{leg}}\)
  • \(AverageSpeed_A=\frac{220}{\frac{10}{30}+\frac{130}{70}+\frac{5}{5}+\frac{20}{20}+\frac{30}{65}+\frac{25}{35}}\)
  • \(AverageSpeed_B=\frac{220}{\frac{10}{30}+\frac{130}{90}+\frac{5}{5}+\frac{20}{20}+\frac{30}{65}+\frac{25}{35}}\)

In other words, speed follows a weighted harmonic average, and that addition in the denominator means we don’t have a nice ratio like we did before. In this case, we have a 8.3% increase from 41 mph to 44.4 mph. \(1-\frac{1}{1.083}=0.077\) so we have a 7.7% decrease in total time. (Yes,\(\frac{24 minutes}{321 minutes} \approx 7.5%\) but when not parsing this into minutes the math works out.) See Github for details about the below function.

A = funcList$A$totals ; A
##   distance    hours
## 1      210 5.032967
B = funcList$B$totals ; B
##   distance    hours
## 1      210 4.620269
((A-B)/A)$hours
## [1] 0.08199903

So it doesn’t take much for a large increase in speed, even for a long time, to get washed away by tough traffic or just a long, non-highway stretch through sideroads.

Some Benefits of Speeding

So speeding, even speeding a lot, doesn’t change the total travel time by a whole lot. Obviously, speeding bears the risk of getting pulled over and getting a ticket, as well as increased risk of accident, and burning more gas. On the other hand, there are some non-mathematical benefits. First of all, it’s fun; plain and simple. Second, I really think speeding does make me more alert while driving since the fun, danger, and adrenaline of speeding makes it easier to focus on the road (and watch for cops) without drifting off into my thoughts, though that is, admittedly, a somewhat dubious and supported claim.

Conclusion

Speeding probably isn’t worth it. The math just doesn’t work out. So the next time someone responds to your question of “how long does it take to drive there?” with the question “do you speed?” Just point them to this blog post as you explain to them that your speeding habits really aren’t relevant to your question.

 

 

My Digital Backback: Productivity Tools and Workflows

My wife asked me to outline my productivity software suite strategy. Like most Getting Things Done (GTD) nerds, I’m only too happy to accommodate that request, so this post outlines my trusted system, as it stands right now. This is a point-in-time snapshot, but systems are organic and should evolve over time. So I expect this post to be out of date in a few months. Nevertheless, here goes…

First, some background. I work in health information technology in a client-facing role; my clients are some of the most innovative and tech savvy hospitals in the country. Seriously, I work closely with 9 of the 300 HIMSS Stage 7 hospitals in the country (over two health systems) and advise the support staff for several dozen more as the “go-to guy” for charge scrubbing and revenue issues. Point being: I work about 40 hours a week only because those 40 hours need to be packed full of 60 hours-worth of work. At home I leisurely download data using ASDFree scripts,writing R Data Visualizations and blogposts. I also walk the dog, cook (as my mother-in-law taught me: cooking combines knives, fire, and impressing women: what’s not to love?), and find time to disassociate (in a healthy way)/waste time. Never mind the “Why?” of INTP insecurities; what matters for this post is the fact that I need to fulfill my need to learn/grow/challenge myself/explore/play while simultaneously making enough money to support my habits of incessant learning (Lynda, Coursera, EdX), mortgage, beer, food, etc. As David Allen (founder and CEO of GTD) puts it, “the better you get, the better you better get.”

Second, as an HIT professional, there’s a level of technophilia that’s built into the job that quickly gets translated into GTD tools. GTD doesn’t need high-tech solutions, but they do make it easier. Just like good brushes don’t make a great artist, you need to have the workflows down to be successful with GTD. Still, good brushes make good painting technique easier, and so does a robust trusted system make keeping up with GTD workflows easier. That said, technophilia comes with the unfortunate tendency to always seek out new tools, sometimes to the point of inadvertently creating fractured and siloed productivity systems with too many really cool toys tools.

List of Software Needs

As much as possible, I make my software cloud-based and hardware agnostic. I have a Mac as my main workstation at home and a Windows at work, and I want productivity solution that works when I’m writing a blogpost (on my Mac like right now) or when I’m at work on my company-issued Lenovo Thinkpad. I also like software that’s lightweight with a minimalist design and prefer software with a rich set keyboard shortcuts so I don’t need to use the mouse very much.

I think that there are 5 main parts to any productivity system:

  • Inbox
  • To-Do list
  • Project List
  • Filed Information
  • Trash Bin

Productivity systems necessarily start with the inbox, and the inbox is important, but you have little-to-no control over that: your employer will assign the email system, your spouse will ask you to do stuff, and your friends and family will text you… or send you a facebook message or instagram guilt trip… it’s not that hard to get a message in a bottle to people these days. What does make the difference is how you receive those messages: do you instantly drop what you were doing in order to respond or do you store away a reminder to reply later so you can finish what you were doing? How do you deal with old reminders?

List of Software Solutions (for me)

I’m going to attack this in the order I listed it originally: Inbox, To-do, Projects, Reference, Oblivion. Obviously, this is about my productivity system; I encourage readers to adapt their system to their unique personality, tendencies, etc.. GTD is software agnostic, so you can and should try out different tools–both high-tech and low-tech–until you find a set that works for you.

Inbox

My inboxes are pretty straightforward: emails, voicemails, text messages, conversations, and my own whims. Text messages I tend to deal with right away (2 minute rule), but other than that I try to add everything to Todoist using my phone (for whims and things I want to follow up on after conversations) or using the email-to-project feature of Todoist. When I get into work in the morning, I usually have ~40-80 emails waiting for me, which I can usually clean up in 10 minutes or so by skimming them to see if they’re actionable or worth reading in full, sending those that are to Todoist and archiving or deleting those that aren’t with Outlook Quick Actions (with keyboard shortcuts). For home, I use Spark email (mac only, unfortunately), which nicely pre-categorizes a lot of emails for me with their “smart inbox,” so I can also plow through emails pretty quickly and get them into Todoist or archived.

To-Do List

I’ve written about Todoist elsewhere on this blog, but I’m going to do it again. Todoist is a subscription service, cloud-based to-do list. The main reason I went with Todoist over previous tools like Outlook or OmniFocus is the cloud-based, multi-platform ubiquity. Also it just has a very clean view that I appreciate. I have a saved email contact in both Outlook (work) and Gmail (home) for my Todoist inbox, so I can easily send new tasks there. After getting things into Todoist inbox (i.e. classified them as actionable), I need to clarify the next actions.

I have things organized into 5 “horizons of focus”: Life/Home, Side Projects (i.e. volunteering that takes significant amounts of time, like data analysis for Special Olympics), Personal Projects (like this blog), Education, and Work. Within most of these Horizons, I have projects with the odd task being added to the horizon directly. Within the Work horizon, specifically, I have things color-coded out. Black is a relatively large project with a definitive end date; Grey is an ongoing series of small projects, including the “Single Actions and Small Projects” Project, which is the main dumping ground for most work things. Things like patches my customers are waiting for or topics for my 1:1 with my boss go to their own projects. Many people would use labels for these, but I prefer a separate project since that’s easier to keep them off other views without having to use as many custom filters. As I clarify the next action, I rename the task, add notes as needed, and assign it to one of the projects. As I’ll describe later, (almost) all of these projects are currently in progress, so it’s a short enough list that I know what’s in there.

In theory, I have a Time-Logging project that I can email things to throughout the day to help me out when I’m logging my time later… but in practice that’s a tough habit to build and an easy habit to fall out of.

Admittedly, I need to push back tasks from due today to due tomorrow pretty regularly, but I am still able to get through most of my daily list most days. Most importantly, I’m able to identify my “frogs” and split them into smaller tasks that are more manageable and keep on top of what my priorities really are.

Project List

As you can see from my Todoist screenshots, I’ve got a lot of projects going on. But those are just the things I’m actually working on. I have a whole smattering of Someday/Maybe projects that I’d like to work on in the future. I’ve also got a bunch of random ideas I’m not really sure what to do with and goals for the year that I want to check in on and I’m working towards, but don’t make sense to put on my Todoist. For those sorts of things, I use Trello. Where Todoist is really good at listing things that need to get done so they don’t get lost, Trello is really good at letting you jump between multiple ideas at once while maintaining focus on the larger picture.

My main 5 personal boards are as follows:

Grocery List and Weekend boards are ones I share with my wife for the quotidian tasks of planning our week (esp weekends) and our meal plan. 2017 Goals is just like it sounds: My goals for 2017, which I check in on roughly once a month. Someday/Maybe Projects is a dumping ground of all sorts of things, including my to-read book lists, classes I want to take, and misc ideas I want to explore (though most of those go to Evernote now). Current Learning is an easier way than Todoist to track me milking my University-funded subscription to Lynda and other MOOCs. I know the golden rule for GTD is to have a single trusted system, but this table view just looks so much nicer than a simple to-do list:

Plus, as I’ve said before, Trello is great for tracking lots of disparate things that are somewhat related like in a command center, and that’s exactly what my current learning “project” is.

I also have a couple work-specific Trello boards, but those are far less interesting since most of my work stuff makes more sense to keep in Todoist and Outlook.

Filed Information

Evernote. Obviously.

I can’t use Evernote for work due to company policy (can’t have PHI get sent to the cloud accidentally), so I use Outlook as my virtual filing cabinet, plus my company has a very robust system of internal wikis, so I don’t actually have that much of a need to file things away. On the personal life side of things, ideas, things I need to remember, reference material like my car’s VIN number, etc. all that goes to Evernote.

I have 5 main notebooks: Inbasket, a Notebook group of project support notebooks,

Ideas, Processed, and a Digital Library. The Project support notebooks include notes, ideas, and articles related to whatever it is that I’m researching or working on at the time. Ideas are quick thoughts I have that I want to come back to later to explore further. Digital Library is a bunch of Books-turned-PDFs that got scanned using 1DollarScan. Finally, Processed is the actual filing cabinet, and that filing cabinet gets organized with tags. I’ve got tags and tag groups for Reference materials, specific people, document types and other metadata and searching key terms I want to use to find things in the processed notebook.

Recurring Checklists and Habit

Tracking.

I have some recurring tasks in Todoist, which is great, but I’ve also got certain checklists I need to reference again and again, like sporadic categories to review and (potentially) include in a budget for the next month. For these, I use the iOS app Checklist Again. It’s fine; nothing particularly remarkable. I’ve got checklists for packing lists for business trips, budgeting categories, and a weekly review checklist. For tracking habits, I use another iOS app, Habit List. It’s great, as long as I get in the habit of using it every day. Ironic, right?

Trash

The key to keeping all of these tools workable is to maintain them, and that means putting things in their place, especially if that place is the trash. When I decide to abandon a project on my Someday/Maybe list, I need to fully delete it; it can’t just stay out there cluttering things. I also can’t have multiple lists for the same thing that get out of sync (I know there’s a someday maybe list in Todoist, but I promise that’s actually different… it has book I’m working on, very slowly). If I find a better tool and have proven it’s a better tool to do something, that means completely deprecating the old, inferior tool. I can’t stress enough how important it is to keep your tools clean and remove things that aren’t applicable anymore. This is, in my experience, why the GTD weekly review is so important: it gives you a chance to fully transfer and purge old information, tasks, and ideas to their proper place now–whether that’s filed away in Evernote, relegated to my Someday/Maybe Trello Board, made actionable in Todoist, or just deleted.

Workflow

A Day in the Life…

My day to day workflow goes something like this. First thing in the morning when I get to work is make coffee in my french press and then I clean my inbox, specifically my email inbox. There are lots of smart people who say that this is the wrong way to start, and they’re probably right. I wish I could just leave it, but generally just knowing that my inbox has 50+ unread messages with GoK inside them is stressful enough that it’s worth doing that while drinking my coffee and letting the caffeine do its thing rather than jumping straight into projects.

Having cleared out my inbox, I check my calendar to make sure I’m not running late for a meeting, address any fires that have popped up (rare), and then jump over to Todoist to look at my day. I have different filters to pull in just work-related actions for me to do in the next few days. Generally speaking, I use my weekly review on Monday afternoons to spread tasks I want to complete that week out throughout the week, so when I come in on Thursday (or any other day) there are at least a few actions I’ve scheduled to take that day. I grab one of that list that looks appealing and work on it. I use tags to help identify how long I expect a task to take, so I can grab tasks that I expect to fill the time I have, whether that’s 15 minutes before my next call or 2 hours of time that I can spend on a larger project.

While I’m working on a specific task, I (try to) refuse to check email. Often, I’ll put email in offline mode so I can’t receive new emails. This allows me to focus for the 45 minutes it usually takes me to work through whatever troubleshooting problem it is that I’m working on (this is the majority of my job). After finishing a given task, I review my inboxes again (Outlook/Email and sometimes Todoist inbox) to clean those up and get actionable items parsed and given dates. Then I choose a new task and keep going.

I’m making this sound very regimented, and I will readily admit that this is only the ideal case. Many days are spent immediately responding to emails, getting interrupted by calls, etc. I’m not always so diligent as to immediately parse all relevant actionable information out of my todoist inbox and into a real project. Sometimes I stare at my to-do list for that day and just think “f*** this, I don’t want to do any of this.” On those days, I look for small victories one at a time, or I really do just abandon it and work on a large internal project, like development or something else, ignoring other things I could be doing; and I do mean ignoring, as in I probably should be doing other things, but I’m consciously choosing to do something less important but more fun.

Prioritization

That last sentence brings up an important–perhaps the most important–question for a successful GTD strategy: prioritization. There are two schools of thought around this that are polar opposites, but I try to follow both of them, depending on the situation.

The first school of thought is “Eat that Frog.” Meaning do the thing that’s important but you don’t want to do, and do it first in the day. Rather than delaying it and expending mental energy dreading doing that task, just knock it out early and everything else will be easier.

The second school of thought is that of Nassim Taleb and Josh Whedon and is the opposite of eating the frog: Do the most fun thing first. Specifically, Taleb only writes when he feels like it, and even then only writes about what he feels like writing about at that time (this may explain why many of his books seem disjointed and tend to repeat themselves over short sections). It’s not a bad strategy, especially when you have large projects you’re excited to do, but need periods of uninterrupted deep work to complete.

I tend to shift back and forth between prioritization methods–frog or fun tasks first–depending on my overall energy levels and motivation that day. The more willpower I have to exert, the more I’ll use it on frogs. If motivation to do anything is in short supply that day (e.g. because I’m not feeling well or slept poorly), then it’s more important that I get something done, even if it’s not the most important or most urgent thing on my list.

Of course, scheduling also plays a role. On meeting-heavy days, only the tasks that can be done between meetings (i.e. other emails that need to get sent) get done.

Summary

Todoist is my to-do list for actionable next steps. Trello is my master project list, future project list, home for collaborative lists, and occasionally my workspace organizer. Evernote is my place for storing ideas, predictions, thoughts, articles, and reference material. When something actionable comes into my life–be it through email, a conversation, or any other means–it first goes to the Todoist Inbox. I periodically (once or twice a day) process my Todoist Inbox to clarify the goal and the next actions for the stuff there. Depending on what it is, I might just finish it and complete it out of the inbox, or send it to the appropriate project in Todoist. If it’s something that isn’t really actionable right now, it will probably go to one of the more long term projects or Trello for storage. If something comes in and it isn’t actionable but is useful and needs to be saved, it’s probably going to go to Evernote or my Processed folder in Outlook. For actions in Todoist, I will pick one to work on based on either the urgency-importance paradigm or just based on what’s fun, depending on my schedule that day and overall energy/motivation levels.

Trello tends to overlap a bit with both Todoist and Evernote, but as much as possible, I want to keep all of these tools separate and never be double-tracking the same project in two places. If something isn’t currently actionable, I try to keep it out of Todoist (exceptions: recurring actions, which have a project, and waiting-for items, which have a special tag) and put it in one of the Trello boards for future projects. Evernote and Trello both have a project-support role, though a very different one: Evernote is where work gets done/documented and Trello is where I outline a project and put the actions in a wider context than Todoist allows.

So that’s that. If you were to ask me this same question, “what’s your GTD system?” in 6 months, I imagine it will resemble this, but it will almost certainly have evolved or changed in some way. And that’s okay.

Traveling like a minimalist

Disclaimer: this was a jointly written post, and “I” is used to refer to different people: the author of this blog and the wife of the author of this blog. Who “I” is should be clear from the context, but it’s also not really material to the point of the post.

Minimalism is about intentionality and not letting our stuff make decisions for us. How stuff can become a barrier becomes abundantly obvious when traveling. For example, the average woman carries 8 pairs of shoes for a normal vacation. Overpacking inevitably results in dragging massive suitcases that must be checked, rather than carried on, exceeding weight limits, and begging for space in your travel partners’ luggage. This makes travel more expensive, slower, and impossibly unwieldy to move even short distances on buses, metros, or cobblestone sidewalks; thereby requiring an expensive cab ride for each transition. But why? What does extra pair of shoes–or tech gadget or whatever else causes you to overpack–get you for your troubles? Decision fatigue and dissatisfaction? Is an extra footwear option really worth the cost? Or take the “Just in case items,” how often do they actually get used? How expensive would it be to just buy an umbrella where you’re going if it starts to rain? What’s the expected cost? Is it worth checking a bag?

My wife and I just had the opportunity to travel to Greece for 3 weeks, which was amazing (both for the sights’n’sounds and just time spent together). We did the whole thing without having to check any bags*.

How We Did It

Clothes

As the above statistic shows, clothes are the achilles heel of many travelers and are what ends up filling many of those large suitcases which are better suited to transporting a body for disposal than taking aboard a plane. Fortunately, they’re also something that can be easily consolidated. Neither my wife nor I actually own 3 weeks’ worth of clothes/outfits, so that (not very good option to begin with) wasn’t even an option worth considering. In a somewhat counterintuitive move, we actually ended up buying some new clothes for the trip (that we will absolutely wear again).

  • Men’s Clothes
    • Shorts. I’m not a big fan of shorts, so the only pair I had prior to this is pretty ratty (and happens to be a purple camo print) and my wife prefers to not be seen with me when I’m wearing them. Given that the temperature got up to 108 degrees Fahrenheit while we were in Athens, I’m glad I got some new, wife-approved shorts.
    • 100% polyester T-shirts. I got 2 shirts from Sierra Designs (amazing and definitely recommend) and 1 from ExOfficia (meh). All 3 are quick-drying and are supposed to be odor-resistant, which is important when they are encasing a sweaty man running up and down the Samaria Gorge.
    • Socks. I’ve been running low on socks recently anyway, so this was as much a needed purchase for general use as it was for the trip, but I got 3 pairs of Merino wool hiking socks and several pairs of low-cut running socks. Both are soft and supportive (even in my Converse All-Stars), sweat wicking, and, most importantly, are still comfortable and not too smelly when used multiple days in a row.
  • Women’s Clothes (Spreadsheet of Wife’s packing list): All the clothes I packed could be worn together interchangeable and fit into a color palette of black, gray, white, blue, with a couple splashes of green.
    • 2 Dresses that are mostly polyester, sweat wicking, etc. One of them in particular is longer/more modest because we visited some monasteries, and everyone (men and women) needed covered shoulders and knees to enter. (ExOfficio Kizmet dress and Toad&Co. Rosemarie Dress, both in Indigo).
    • Skort. Skorts have the nice advantage of being very breathable without needing to worry about how you’re sitting, and proved to be great for travel. The skort was comfortable enough to wear hiking, but also worked when I wanted to look a little more pulled together. (Toad&Co Samba Skort).
    • Shorts. I didn’t own any shorts before our trip and purchased two pairs – one was excellent and I have worn several times since and the other I would put in the regret pile. The first were a pair of Athleta Midtown Short, which were comfortable, easy to move in, stayed looking nice throughout the trip and were easy to wash. The other were a pair of linen shorts that left my inner legs covered in black fuzz once I put them on after swimming.
    • Pants. Like the shorts, one pair of pants worked out well and the other not so much. The first were the Royal Robbins Jammer Roll-Up Pants, which I wore hiking and in places where I knew my legs might otherwise get scratched up. The ability to convert them to capris was particularly great. The other were a pair of linen pants that I wore on the plane and once to sleep in, but not at any other time.
    • Sports bras. Much easier to wash than a standard, underwire bra. Also more comfortable when you’ve been walking 20K steps and it’s only not even dinner time.
    • T-shirts and tank tops. More merino wool and 100% polyester t-shirts. Quick drying, sweat wicking, etc. Most of these were purchased through REI and performed as advertised. The REI Northway was probably my favorite of the bunch because of the way it washed and dried so nicely.
    • Other items.
      • Two swimsuits – it was worth the little bit of extra space these took up, as there is little worse than pulling on a wet swimsuit.
      • Cardigan – good to have for these evenings when things might be just a little chillier.
      • Scarf/Coverup – While not a regret, it was not quite as useful as I hoped. However, it was useful one or two times at the beach when we didn’t have towels.
      • Hat – I never ended up wearing this on our trip. When it comes down to it, I’m just not a hat person and never felt comfortable wearing it. Next time, I will listen to my instincts and save the space.
    • Sandals. This, like his socks, fell into the category of something that we were going to get this summer anyways, but got grouped in with this trip. I got both a pair of light beach sandals

A lot of these things were more expensive than we would have liked and we did end up going slightly over-budget on clothes, but we still wear most of them. In addition to the new stuff, we did bring a lot of stuff we already had: some cotton T-shirts (which really do take substantially longer to dry than the 100% polyester), swim suits, etc. We each had 3 pairs of shoes: hiking shoes, leisurely-walk-around-town shoes, and beach sandals.

What we did not pack:There are a couple of things that you may find on packing lists that we didn’t bother to bring.

  • Towels. This really depends on what type of hotel or place you are staying. There was only one time we wished we had towels with us and the only reason we didn’t have them, was because we only borrowed one towel from the hotel.
  • Dress Shoes. This will likely depend on what activities you have planned and where you are traveling, but we had no need for dressier shoes. Probably more important is being well groomed and not wearing beach gear, rather than bringing a specific pair of shoes.

Carry-ons and Day bags

All clothes and toiletries went into the suitcases, and everything else went in our day bags. This might seem obvious, but I’m pointing it out because it helped serve a purpose: anything that wasn’t worth putting on our shoulder and carrying all day wasn’t worth bringing. (Note that this went double for me, because I don’t have a roller-bag for my main suitcase). That “everything else” included:

  • Ipad, phone, power cords, headphones, etc.
  • Sunscreen and after-sun care (purchased a big tube there; after we were done flying).
  • Guide books, reading books, and notebooks (and pens)
  • Medications (band-aids, anti-itch medication, headache meds, etc.)
  • Waterbottles. Lots of waterbottles. A 32 oz and a 48 oz, sometimes a collapsible 20oz, and sometimes a disposable one. And soda.
  • Food (mixed nuts and bread, usually)
  • Any tickets, documentation, etc. that might be needed that day (including passports).

I already had a messenger-style day bag that I love; it was a gift from work for 3 years of service and I can’t find it online (though it’s very similar to a Timbuktu bag), but my wife ended up buying a cross-body purse since her day-to-day purse (4 years old, falling apart, and no cross-body strap) was definitely not suitable for walking 25K steps a day for a week straight. New bag also had some security features like clips on the zippers and razor-proof bottom–which we fortunately didn’t need, but also didn’t need to think about.

How did we make less than 15 garments (not counting socks or underwear) per person work for 3 weeks? Well, frankly, a lot of double-days. Every night we would air out the clothes from the day, and by morning, they usually passed the sniff test. In cases where they didn’t, the non-cotton stuff was easy to wash in the sink. We got some backpacker washing strips, and were able to do a very decent sink-wash. I hate the feel of cotton after it’s been sink washed, but the polyester was great. We also found a couple laundromats where for $10 or so we were able to drop off our cotton clothes, go to a cafe, and come back in an hour or two to get our stuff (mostly underwear, but also shorts and some cotton t-shirts). Nothing in Greece is self-service, so it was all done for us, which was great. Even if we had needed to spend an hour at the laundromat, we could have gotten some coffee or beer and read (or written) while waited and that would have been fine as well.

Technology

Conspicuously absent from the day-bag list is a laptop. I went back-and-forth on this, but feel I ultimately made the right decision. Instead of bringing a full laptop and charger, I brought my iPad (which I was going to do anyway), bluetooth keyboard, and one of those 3-fold magnetic stands. The stand irritates me and I probably could have found a better, cheaper option, but this was a fairly late-in-the-game decision and it worked well enough for writing (like this blog post, which I’m writing on a ferry) and the occasional youtube video of Seth Meyers to keep up to speed on what’s happening in the insane world of American politics. I also ended up buying an international calling and data plan, which did end up being very useful/needed a few times (where a hotel phone or wifi calling wouldn’t have worked). The data plan was still pretty limited, so it’s not like I was still 100% connected to the LTE grid like I normally am, but it worked in a pinch for downloading new areas in Google Maps (which still works offline), double checking hotel reservation numbers/emails, and looking up schedules and info about the metro system.

Full List of Tech Gadgets:

  • iPad (his)
  • Bluetooth keyboard for iPad
  • Phones (iPhone5 and Galaxy 6 Edge+) – these were also our only cameras.
  • USB Chargers (lightning and mini)
  • Headphones (x2)
  • Outlet converters (x3)
  • Portable battery. Since it was sunny, we had the brightness on our phones turned to maximum, which drained the batteries, especially for the Edge+ with the extra large screen, so this came in very useful a few times.

Saving Money

As so many others have pointed out: minimalism isn’t about deprivation; it’s about intentionality. We spent a lot of money on plane tickets, hotels, restaurants, and other experiences, but it was (almost) all intentional and without any buyer’s remorse (with only a couple exceptions for some of the clothes).

Protip: buy and carry lots of water from the grocery store. In Greece, a 1.5L bottle of water costs 30 cents in the grocery store,€1 from a convenience store/kiosk,€3 from a restaurant, and between €3 and €6 from a ferry or outside a tourist hotspot (though price ceilings do limit the price somewhat). Stocking up on water by the 6-pack and carrying one or two in your day-bag can save you a few Euros on water, but more importantly, it can save you time and money on other stuff. Once you get dehydrated, your decision making abilities go down, so you’re more likely to just buy something (especially food/restaurant) as a mindless response rather than intentionally. Also, if you get really dehydrated, the resultant headache is your body’s way to tell you to go inside, sit down and take a break, which means you aren’t exploring, hiking, enjoying a sunny beach, etc. Even better is to bring your own water bottles and fill them with tap water where it’s safe to do so (not the case on most Greek islands, but it was fine on Western Crete and the Greek mainland).

Food

There’s nothing wrong with buying a nice meal at a nice restaurant. Fortunately, and this is one of the reasons we chose it, in Greece, even the nicest restaurants aren’t more than 25 euros a plate, and most are substantially less than that. But even eating on the cheap doesn’t mean sacrificing in taste. Street food makes for a yummy meal for about €5, and going to a grocery store (always an interesting experience in and of itself when in a foreign country) and picking up some meat, cheese, bread, and beer makes for a cheap and easy meal from your hotel room. This allowed us to save eating more expensive food for when we were actually in a mindset to enjoy it. I.e. We were intentional about it.

Souvenirs

I’m generally not a big souvenirs guy, preferring to eat good food, drink good beer, and not have to store anything new when I get home. But there are exceptions, so here are some thoughts on souvenirs.

  1. The single most important souvenirs are memories. They are why we travel, and they don’t require storage later.
  2. Carry small bags, and your space for souvenirs will be limited. This is a good thing since it literally means you can’t really bring anything back that doesn’t fit in a suitcase with the essentials. Shipping may be doable for some things where applicable.
  3. As soon as you get a souvenir “to remember this place by” you’re doing it wrong. Take pictures and tell stories to remember your vacation. You don’t need a shot glass to remember that you went somewhere cool.
  4. Like all purchases, you should only buy things that will really add value to your life. When on vacation, try to make sure it’s something unique to where you are, or is at least cheaper there. For example, I bought a new wallet in Greece. It doesn’t say “Greece” or have the Greek flag, but is a unique kind of leather and was much cheaper than wallets in the US. I’ve been looking for a new wallet for the last 6 months (I’m very particular about my wallet), so when I found a great deal on something I was going to get, I bought it in Greece.
  5. Get something cultural or unique to that place. Again, you have pictures and memories, but artwork from another country can be a nice addition to your walls and a nice conversation piece. On this trip, we bought some traditional Greek worry beads so the husband will stop fidgeting with everything else, like my stuff and things that hurt when he drops them on you. It’s unique and fun and maybe a little touristy, but we intentionally bought them from an actual dealer/artisan rather than one of the many shops on cruise ship row.
  6. Gifts for other people. I don’t think it’s necessary to buy other people stuff just because they didn’t get to join you for your vacation, nor do I think you should be obligated to buy gifts for other people if you don’t want to. That said, vacations, especially in a foreign country, are a great time to start doing some Christmas or Birthday shopping if your family does exchange gifts for these occasions.
  7. Focus on the edible and consumable items. We discovered that we love good olives (none of this sliced black olive crap from a can that we get in the US) in Greece, so we bought some duty free olives and olive oil. It’s about the experience and saving these items for a special occasion to share with friends and family.
  8. Oftentimes, people are swayed by argument that “well, I’ll only ever be able to get this here” and buy something they think they might regret not buying later. More and more though, that premise just isn’t true, and you can ask the shop for a business card, write down what it was that you were looking at, and then look online later (if you still remember what it was that you wanted so badly at the time). This is an especially useful trick when you’re tired, hungry, thirsty or already decision fatigued.

Things You can Just Buy There

There are lots of just-in-case items you might be tempted to bring, but not bringing them–even if you need to buy them there–will on average save you money and provide opportunities for new experiences. In our case, we got stuck in the rain and had a fun (albeit a bit uncomfortable) time trying to find an umbrella. After an unfortunate bee sting while hiking, we got to experience a Greek pharmacy trying to get anti-itch medication, and learned about how their pharmacies work. Sunscreen. I’ve said it before, but seriously, if you’re going to a sunny place for more than a couple days, your tiny travel-sized sunscreen isn’t going to cut it anyways, so leave it behind and just buy some there.

Lessons Learned and Some Buyer’s Remorse

It was a great trip: we had lots of fun, took lots of pictures, saw the main things we wanted to see and do, and we kept the whole 3 weeks–hotel, airfare, and all–well within budget. But there were a few sights we didn’t get to; a few hotels that were better advertised than executed, and some places we wished we had stayed longer or shorter. So it goes. With regards to packing and how we could have made travel easier on ourselves, we also learned some things.

  • Always bring enough water. Seriously. If you think you have enough, pack one more.
  • Devise a system beforehand for tracking expenses (if you care). Merchant names in Mint usually aren’t obvious, and cash just goes so quickly without any tracking mechanism. We ended up not really tracking spending categories, but wish we had.
  • Camping clothes washing detergent is super useful, but use concentrate not tabs. If the tabs get wet–as they are wont to do when you’re washing clothes in a sink and try to grab them with wet hands–they tend to get stuck together or dissolve into the countertop.
  • Underwear is a special class of clothes and there is no way around changing that every day, even with athletic or allegedly odor resistant garments. Plan accordingly.
  • Things we packed and didn’t really use:
    • Bluetooth speaker – I’ve used it a ton since then, but never had the need for it in Greece.
    • Waterproof case for phone and a pelican box – used a couple times, but easily could have gone without them.
    • Sun hat – I’m just not a hat person.
    • City walk sandals (not as comfortable on mile 2 as they were on mile 1) – we were able to return them after the trip since I wore them so little.
  • Good After sun care is as important as sunscreen.
    • Protip: obviously, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so wear sunscreen, but almost inevitably some will get wiped or washed off or you’ll miss a small spot and end up with inverse-finger-shaped spots of sunburn. Good After sun lotion can mitigate the worst effects of that sunburn and get you back on the beach without turning into a lobster. This saves pain and means more time spent roaming or beaching and less time out of commission.
  • Linen pants: good for the plane, but left lint on everything, so I haven’t worn them since. In general, make sure you wear everything at least once before bringing it on a trip (if you have time).
  • Rental car is not necessarily a good item to go Dutch on. If you’re in a hilly area, something with more horsepower is worth paying for (maybe even an automatic transmission). We had to skip a few monasteries in Paros because our little A-class rental car just couldn’t make it. Combine that with my limited experience with a stick shift car, and we decided to play it safe and not get stuck on a mountain “road”.

Closing Thoughts

Had we checked bags, we would have spent an additional $75 on checking bags on the planes, an additional $50-60 on cabs, 60-90 minutes baggage claim, check-in, and File_000.jpegcustoms, and had more inconveniences moving around. Having more clothes would have saved us, at most, $20 in laundry and $15 in coffee while doing laundry (though we probably would have gone to the cafes anyway).

I’m very glad–at times I was even a bit prideful–that we did the full three weeks with only our little carry-on bags. We were able to bypass baggage claim, easily navigate busy ferry terminals, and even carry our luggage half a mile when we got lost walking to our hotel (not the most pleasant at the time, but we were the talk of the hotel staff and it makes for a fun story). By the end, our luggage was a little heavier and unbalanced with both souvenirs and lazier packing, but we still made it, unencumbered.

 

 

*Full disclosure: we did have to check a hardshell bag for an interim flight from Athens to Crete on RyanAir because it was 3 centimeters too deep and they’re sticklers for that sort of stuff. We didn’t check any bags for international flights or ferries.

Art, Religiosity, and the Dark Ages

In the United States, when we talked about history, it’s kind of a joke. History in the United States generally goes back at most to 1492 CE, when “Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” and doesn’t really get going until the early-mid 1700s. On the other hand, Greece provides over four millennia of culture, art, and economic progress (or lack thereof) to study the progression of the Human Enterprise. In particular, I want to explore a phenomenon that becomes clear when walking quickly through a museum with a wide breadth of content organized chronologically. Namely, that the quality of art produced (at least that which was saved) really falls off a cliff after the fall of Rome, and it takes well into the Renaissance for art to recover. This decline in quality conspicuously corresponds to a rise in iconography and a shift from secular to religious topics.

In this post, I want to give a brief overview of the phenomenon as I observe it (with pictures, most of which I took myself from various museums in Greece; the rest came from Google Image Search) and explore some possible explanations for the source/cause of this decline.

A Brief History of Greece (intentionally oversimplified)

From as far back as 3000 BCE or so through until around 1200 BCE, the Minoan civilization was centered in Crete and dominated, or was at least extremely influential, in much of the region between Egypt and modern day Macedonia and Istanbul. As was captured in the original Age of Empires computer game (and real archeology), the Minoans were a seafaring society and were heavily involved in trade throughout this whole area. Frescos in Egypt depict Minoan traders and coins. Pottery, idols, and other Minoan artifacts have shown up all around the Aegean and even further along the Mediterranean.

After the Minoan centers in Crete were overthrown due to “Internal Conflicts” (about which we have little to no information) around the mid 1200s BCE, the Mycenaeans, or ancient Greeks came to the fore. More militant than the trade-oriented Minoans, this is when Bronze Age warfare really comes in and we see the quintessentially Greek bronze armor and helmets showing up in ruins and burial sites. Eventually, the Mycenaeans congealed into the Greek City-States we learn about in school today.

After defeating the Persians at Marathon and Salamis the Greek City-States, Athens in particular, entered the “Golden Age” from about 450-400 BCE. It’s amazing in its own right that “The Classics” of Socrates, Plato, Euripides, Pythagoras, Pericles, etc. all really came from around a 100 year period (which Greek Ministry of Culture has been milking ever since). This is also when the Parthenon was built, which I’ll describe in more detail later.

After the Golden Age of Greece, Alexander the Great heralded in the “Hellenistic” period in the mid-late 300s BCE, which expanded Greek culture and influence through conquest throughout most of the known world. Even after Alexander’s death in 323 BCE, Hellenistic cultural ideals and art permeated what was once Alexander’s Empire. Even while Rome controlled Greece, Hellenistic art dominated, especially under the rule of Emperor Hadrian, and only the subject matter changed (a marked shift from sculptures of Greek Deities to Roman emperors and noblemen).

After Rome falls (repeatedly) to the Goths and Huns, the Eastern half of the Roman Empire, centered in Constantinople (though you can’t go back to Constantinople) gets renamed (by historians at least) as the Byzantine Empire, and Western Europe falls into the Dark Ages and Feudalism. The Eastern Empire threw itself into an endless series of seemingly futile wars with Persians, Saracens, and later Europeans until its downfall to Frankish Crusaders around 1200 and final collapse at the hands of the Ottoman Empire in 1453.

It’s this Byzantine Perdiod/transition that I want to focus on here.

The Parthenon compared to Byzantine Iconography

The Parthenon

The Parthenon is a truly spectacular testament to the Greek Golden Age and human ingenuity. If you can’t go to Greece and feel small in it’s shadow (not that it casts much of a shadow anymore in extremely sunny Greece), it’s worth listening to an audio guide or just browsing photo galleries. Beyond just its age and size, there are are several reasons the Parthenon is so amazingly beautiful.

  1. Now, it’s a well known fact (at least on architectural circles) that we perceive long horizontal lines as sagging in the middle, even when they aren’t. The Greeks were apparently aware of this phenomenon as well, and compensated by actually building the steps to the Parthenon with a slight curve upward in the middle, thus giving the perception that the steps are horizontally straight.
  2. Although it’s a myth that the Parthenon is built around the Golden Ratio, Phi (1.618), it is built around a ratio of 4:9 that shows up in many places around the structure.
  3. The sculptures and reliefs that once lined the top of the Parthenon are now in the nearby Parthenon Museum and (much to the chagrin of the museum) in the British Museum. (And the Greek government keeps urging the British Museum to “do the right thing”). But these sculptures, or what’s left of them, are perfect in their idealized realism. They follow more or less the same proportions as DaVinci’s Vitruvian man, depict movement (rather than the purely rigid, motionless statues of the Archaic period), and while obviously embellished and idealized, are remarkably life-like. They are “Fantastically Realistic,” if you will.

Byzantine Iconography

Contrast this Fantastical Realism with the religious icons created throughout the European Dark ages. These images seem to revert back to the “archaic smile” of the earlier Mycenaeans. The folds in the clothing, if there are any, are unnatural and forced. And most obviously, the proportions are way, way off. Fingers are too thin and too long; shoulders are far too rounded; faces are deadpan and devoid of emotion or movement; there are even paintings with Jesus suckling at Mary’s breast where the breast is coming out of her shoulder.

My point is that in addition to a stall in scientific advancement, technological progress, and the expansion of human liberty, the fall of Rome also signaled a true regression in art. Furthermore, this regression also coincides with a stark transition from the more humanist themes of Roman era art to distinctly sacred, monotheistic themes.

This all begs the question: why did the quality of art decline so dramatically, and was the decline related to the increasing religiosity of both the times and the artistic themes?

 

Possible Explanations for this Correlation

Explanation 1: The Religious Cynic

Christianity (and/or all monotheistic Religions) is inherently repressive. Rather than encouraging, it crushes the flourishing of the human spirit and rewards the banal and prosaic work. Given the religious themes of the Parthenon, it’s impossible to accuse religion as a whole as suppressing artistic creativity, but it’s equally impossible to deny that the Byzantine government was closely associated with the Orthodox Church and acts of state-sponsored religious oppression and terrorism against non-Christians was common, as was the destruction and suppression of statues, which were considered too pagan. Although the historical record is somewhat mixed, it’s a reasonable corollary that the same oppressive apparatus subjugating everyone but the Orthodox Christian priests for the benefit of Church Leadership subjugated and repressed secular art. True artists, unwilling to be censored like that, refused to conform to the Church’s impositions and the only the B-rate artists remained.

Explanation 2: The Political Cynic

Similar to Explanation 1, but maintains that religion is not inherently repressive. Instead, corrupt regimes routinely co-opt religions, and any religion (monotheistic or otherwise) with a concept of paradise and damnation is easily abused by these despotic regimes. It is this abused, twisted, and blasphemous version of Christianity that is repressive and effective at quelling rebellions and fostering jingoism and expansionist wars. Art and freedom of expression do not feed into this expansionist goal, so it was neutered and channeled into religious iconography that supported the leaders’ bastardized version of Christianity. The result was, like for Explanation 1, that true artists were forced out and only B-rate artists remained.

Explanation 3: Religion as Opiate

A third possibility is the spurious correlation: both the decline in art and increase in the religious nature of art occurred at the same time because they have a common cause; not because one caused the other. Religiosity was a response to anarchical or despotic regimes and a way to retain self-worth, even if not a decent artistic education. Similarly, high quality artistic training art, as a luxury or non-essential was dispensed with in the face of these anarchical and despotic regimes. The fact that art shifted from humanistic to religious themes was the result of artists losing faith in human leaders; not human leaders repressing artists.

Explanation 4: The Church as Monopsony Financier

Particularly in the former Western Empire, The Church (soon to be the Catholic/Latin church) acquired huge amounts of land and wealth as a result of good stewardship and management of tithes (early on), passive income from Relics (especially in the lead-up to the crusades), and more corrupt practices (like selling indulgences in the lead-up to the Reformation). As the richest entity around, The Church was one of the few buyers of art and therefore had market power controlling the styles of art that were produced. Furthermore, the Church had such a profound impact on social tastes and preferences, that even private demand for art was almost exclusively ecclesial, and even the handful of aristocratic buyers favored art that was religious in nature. As a monopsony buyer, it only took a couple highly influential leaders to undermine the competitive market of artists and allow the well-connected, rather than the talented, to flourish.

Explanation 5: Division of Labor limited by supply

Moving from the demand side of the equation to the supply side, we have several more possible explanations for the lower quality. After Rome fell, there was less economic and political stability, more wars–albeit much smaller ones, usually over feudal land holdings in Western Europe or vain attempts to bring previously Roman territories back under Constantinople’s control–and more plagues (with the rise of cities and decline of Roman civil infrastructure) lead to lower global population and lower opportunities for specialization. Artists were part time at best, and teachers of art and art history were all but extinct.

Explanation 6: Division of Labor Limited by Demand

Going back to 1776, Adam Smith observed that “the division of labor is limited by the extent of the market.” Low demand for art, particularly outside the church, further limited opportunities for specialization. A low population of buyers, a high demand for agrarian workers, and high demand for bureaucratic in Constantinople’s Byzantine bureaucratic structure meant that full time artists just couldn’t make a living, so there weren’t many full time artists (or art teachers).

Explanation 7: Aesthetics as a Normal Good

Aesthetics are a normal good, meaning demand rises and falls commensurately with income. Lower incomes mean plainer clothes, plainer expectations, and lower demand for fine art. This ultimately feeds back into Explanation 6, but I wanted to call it out separately because we do see a similar “plain-ifying” of fancy clothing (e.g. Wedding dresses) around the 400-600s as well, though given the fragile nature of clothing, some of the proposed renditions seen in museums seem epistemologically suspect. My skepticism aside, if clothes and homes are plainer (as was likely the case for average citizens), then even moderately bright and clean art would seem gaudy and austentatious, clashing with the humble surroundings.

Explanation 8: Gold as Godliness

In iconography, the purpose of art was no longer artistic expression, but votive or liturgical. To this end, the realism of the art was superfluous, and what really mattered was the value. Value can be easier augmented with gold leaves, rather than accurate proportions, so that’s what they did, and many icons have gaudy gold and silver leafing. The more expensive, the holier and therefore the more likely to influence God’s Will, regardless of how unnaturally skinny and short Christ’s legs are.

Explanation 9: Shift in Preferences

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so while I don’t particularly like the style of 6th century iconography compared to 3rd century BCE marble statues, it could be an avant garde response to the Hellenistic Fantastic Realism. Particularly with a partial or regional monopsony, certain church leaders and prominent aristocrats would have a profound and lasting impact on generations of artists. The modern continuation of producing icons inspired by Byzantine style suggests that at least some people like the style; though I should note that the modern icons in modern icon shops do tend to have much more Renaissance era proportions, even if the faces are still archaic and deadpan.

Explanation 10: Selection Bias and The Regression to the Mean

For relatively obvious reasons, older stuff is less likely to survive into modernity than new stuff. Even when “newer” is defined as 1500 years ago. Only the highest quality work from older periods (say, 3000 BCE Minoan pottery with compass-drawn concentric circles) survived because only the highest quality work was protected or recognized for what it was: pottery and not another stone. Newer works, by contrast, have had fewer opportunities to be destroyed, and therefore there are more surviving works, including stuff that only a mother would put on the refrigerator, but has now ended up in a museum as “art” even though no one at the time would have accepted it as well done either.

IMG_4062.JPG(Pottery shards with 12th century Byzantine Art)

Explanation 11: Too much Bureaucracy; Too much boring

Previous explanations focused on political turbulence disrupting art production. But a lack of angst has never produced good art. Many great works of literature and art have come from turbulent times, and the shortness of the “Golden Age” suggests that boring stability can only maintain itself for so long.

Shooting Holes in All of the Above

Instead of introducing and debunking different explanations at the same time I decided to introduce them one at a time and attack and synthesize them with more of a shotgun approach because there was so much overlap.

First of all, all the explanations involving repressive regimes don’t stand up to much scrutiny. Art and creative expression tend to be Antifragile, to use Nassim Taleb’s word. In other words, attempting to repress a certain theme, style, or type of art–whether through criticism or official sanctions–tends to backfire. In spite of–perhaps because of–censorship, the best artists will find a way to express themselves in beautiful and quasi-legal (or at least very snarky) ways. Take The Creation of Adam for example. Michelangelo was commissioned to paint God giving the greatest gift to man: life. However, being a Renaissance man through-and-through, Michelangelo asserted that the mind and the intellect was God’s greatest gift to man; and in a particularly ballsy snub, painted God as seated on a brain-shaped banner. the-creation-of-adam.jpg

Secondly, there’s indubitably a subjective/preferential aspect to art in all its forms, but we know from academic psychology that there is some objectivity to beauty (or at least consistent trends across many subjective preferences). We like symmetrical faces. We like consistent ratios (especially 4:9 and phi). We are drawn to movement in drawings (puns intended). Although we don’t have a technical definition of what it means for colors to “clash,” we all know what it means and we intrinsically don’t like clashing hues (in most contexts). Thus, I find it very improbable (albeit not impossible) that the art critics of the day would shift preferences away from Fantastical Realism to poorly proportioned, static icons. Such a shift would fly in the face of modern psychology and the arcs of history as the trends even leading up to the fall of Rome and the Renaissance were overwhelmingly in the direction of either Fantastical Realism.

Thirdly, while there is substantially less secular art as a proportion of art in the Byzantine period than in the Minoan or Mycenaean periods (it’s hard to really draw a line between the religious and secular elements of Greek Religion/Mythology), secular art/design isn’t completely absent. Many pottery decorations appear to be purely decorative in nature with no deeper meaning; concentric circles around the mouth of a carafe, for example. But even in these cases we see a substantial decline in the precision of decorations. Compare Minoan-era pottery to 4th century pottery from (approximately) the same areas. It’s like humanity forgot about the compass. This would tend to support some variant of the “Religion as Opiate” explanation from above, but as previously described, that is still a response to some kind of centralized or systematic oppression (since Byzantine government was a lot of bad things, but not anarchic).

Fourth, even within the strictest of iconography trends, “newer” (Circa 1800) churches have more color and dimension to the paintings in the churches. The deadpan faces become less archaic and more stylized, with clear intentionality. More striking is the woodwork, which is not original, but incredibly intricate.

Attempt at an Answer

So what void was religion filling that it became (again) the opiate of the masses after Rome fell? And why did art suffer at the same time? Unfortunately, I don’t think this is something that can be answered without extensive study of the primary evidence from the time. There’s the religious advocate view that true religion made itself known and the Truth and that was why it garnered so much support. Malcolm Gladwell, Tipping Point, and social epidemiologists will point to Constantine’s conversion.

Like most areas, I mostly favor the economic explanation with a twist. There certainly is a degree to which goldliness is godliness, and a degree to which the Orthodox Church suppressed creativity by banning statues in churches because they were too pagan. But the primary driver to the archaifying of icons relative to Greco Roman Fantastic Realism was a lack of artists and artistic training. Most (all?) early icons were done in churches by monks with little-to-no training. Most (all?) modern icons are merely copies of these. Supplies and colors were also limited, again due to the economic forces of supply and demand. This applies to everything from paint colors and brushes to canvases and compasses. Arguably, it’s a form of repression that icons created now must copy the originals, but that could equally be chalked up to a shift in tastes that perpetuates this trend.

In short, all of these explanations probably played a role, but as always, trends like this are necessarily organic, and it’s exceptionally rare that a single person would have such a profound impact on such an important cultural facet; even more rare that a small group of Othodox Patriarchs or Political bigwigs could do so. Individuals are only wild cards in human history, but the invisible hand will reveal our more fundamental priorities in times of scarcity.

How long does one party control the White House in US Politics

Question

As a millennial born in the late ‘80s, I have a soft spot in my heart for ’90s alt rock, remember a time before smartphones-but not before computers and the internet-and have taken it as a given that the political pendulum swings every decade making it essentially impossible for one party to have more than 3 terms in office (I only vaguely remember the G. H. W. Bush vs. W. Clinton election). So when Donald J. Trump beat Hillary Clinton in November, 2016, I, like most people, was surprised that our electorate had swung that far right as to elect a populist with a xenophobic agenda that was openly supported by the KKK and the so-called ’alt right.’ I won’t pretend that I actually thought Trump would win the presidency or somehow saw this coming, but I did predict (seriously, you can ask some of my friends who I talked to off the record) that if she won, Clinton would be a one-term president. Not because she’s a woman or anything like that, but for the simple reason that since the 1950s, no party has ever held the White House for more than 3 consecutive terms.

My question now, is whether or not this has always been the case. Incumbent presidents still have a 69+/-1% re-election rate, but at least for the last 30 years it seems as the parties’ re-election rate has fallen. Is that really the case? After looking through the empirical data to answer that question, I will close this post with some qualitative context for the quantitative data and a brief discussion of what, if anything, I think this answer means for democracy.

Data

All data for this essay come from 270toWin (who, in turn, cite Wikipedia for a least some of their numbers). Data were retrieved using `readXMLtable` from the XML R Package. All source code is available on github.

How long do parties control the White House?

For want of a better word, how long is the typical party ‘dynasty’? That is, how common is it-going back to 1789-for one party to maintain control of the White House for 2 terms, 5 terms, only one term at a time? There are some recognizable ‘dynasties’ throughout history, most notably the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans and most recently FDR’s New Deal Democrats. But in general, 2 terms is the median number of terms for any one party to hold the White House (hereafter WH), and while the distribution is inherently skewed due to the impossibility of negative terms, the average isn’t much higher: ~2.48 terms.

histogram_of_runs

The most recent ‘long dynasty’ of 4 or more consecutive terms within the same party was FDR and Truman (5 terms total), which was over 60 years ago (20% of the nation’s history). Does that mean that long-running party dynasties are over and we’re floundering between electing individuals for two terms in a row and then alternating parties? Maybe. The data tell two stories. First is that the long-term trendline does have a negative slope. The second story is that the slope is barely negative and the confidence interval contains positive slopes because while we have fewer long-running periods with one party retaining the WH, we also have fewer one-term presidents where we swap back and forth between parties like we did in the 1840s and 1870s. That is, the standard deviation for number of terms one party holds before turning over the WH has fallen from a standard deviation of 2.16 terms pre-1900 to a standard deviation of only 1.09 terms since the beginning of the 20th century.

Figure 2 shows the moving averages of the length of political party dynasties. Each ‘dynasty’ is a point on the graph, the blue line is a the ‘noisy’ moving average looking at the average number of terms the incumbent party has been in the WH for the last 5 elections, and the red line is the slightly smoother moving average ‘dynasty’ length for the last 5 periods of uninterrupted party control in the WH. The black line is the trendline for average of the smoother of the two moving averages.

moving_avg_plot

Discussion

Let’s look at this with a little bit of context. The longest running party dynasty was that of the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans, which didn’t end until Andrew Jackson won in 1828 (after an extremely contentious election in 1824 where he won a plurality in the electoral college and popular vote, but lost the majority and was rejected by the House of Representatives) with the newly formed Democratic party (which, at the time, was built on a platform of White Supremacy). In 1884, Grover Cleveland became the first Democrat (again, at the time this was the more conservative party) after a string of 6 Radical Republican terms starting with Abraham Lincoln and promoting a doctrine of equal rights and reunification of North and South after the bitter American Civil War (1861-1865).

In 1912, Woodrow Wilson took advantage of internal divisions in the Progressive Party (Republicans) and captured the White House from Taft after the Republican vote was split between Taft and Teddy Roosevelt. Finally, the most recent political streak ended when Dwight D. Eisenhower became the first Republican (now the political right) to win since FDR Reinvented the Democratic Party with the New Deal.

In other words, dynasties seem to come and then fall alongside dramatic shifts or reinventions in the party. Even adjusting for the fact that the Democratic and Republican Parties switched sides (and essentially became new parties with old names), the longest running party is the Democratic Party from Jackson through Wilson. Second place goes to the existing Democratic and Republican Parties which started with FDR (or Eisenhower or Truman, depending on how you want to count them).

Political Party Name Year of First Presidential Win Year of Most Recent President in Office Age (Years)
Federalist 1789 1800 11
Democratic-Republican 1800 1828 28
Democratic 1828 2016 188
Whig 1840 1852 12
Republican 1860 2020 160

In other words. we’ve had the same parties for a really long time (80 years), and it feels like time for a change. We can see the internal factions clearly within the Republican Party now as they debate how to replace the Affordable Care Act. Because of the first past the post voting system in the United States, a viable third party hasn’t been possible since the mid-1800s, and I don’t see that changing now. But it does seem like we’re entering into a new era.
For the sake of historical record keeping, I really hope we finally dissolve one or both of the existing parties and name the replacement(s) something new. The question that remains is whether it will be the Democratic Party that needs to be reinvented after losing to the least popular, most disapproved-of candidate since we’ve tracked candidate approval ratings, or will it be the Republican Party that can’t seem to pass a comprehensive Health Care bill with majorities in the House, Senate, and control of the WH and 7 years of campaigning on repeal and replace to prepare. Or, we should be so lucky as to institute a parliamentary system or at least one with an alternative vote and viable third parties, but that’s just crazy talk.