• Police, Principles, and Putin

    I spent almost 10 years of my childhood in Russia. Russia is kind of a different planet than the United States.

    In the US we have an understanding that, at least in theory, the government exists to enforce justice. We expect that when a government official is publicly caught embezzling money or abusing their power, they will be fired, prosecuted, and replaced. That’s a big part of why we have a government in the first place: safeguarding justice by prosecuting criminals.

    In Russia, that sentiment would be considered laughably naïve. In Russia, the government exists to help the people at the top exert power over everyone else. That’s not a radical statement, just a statement of fact. It’s been that way for hundreds of years. President Putin routinely assassinates his rivals under paper-thin cover, rigs the elections, or just has the term limits reset. Before the current system they had Communism, and before that it was the Czars. Everyone in Russia expects the government to serve its own interests first, last, and always. No-one expects it to get better any time soon.

    As a consequence of its priorities, the Russian government is corrupt from top to bottom. America has corruption here and there; in Russia if you removed all the corruption you literally wouldn’t have a government left. Paying bribes is expected as a matter of course anytime you interact with a government official. Sometimes they’ll give you a receipt so the next official knows you’ve already been had. Because access to the government is contingent on bribery, and because so many Russians are very poor, for most Russians the government might as well not exist.

    That includes the police. When my parents bought an apartment in Yakutsk, on the advice of the locals, we had a steel door installed. It was a big brown slab of metal with no handle, only a little slot an inch tall and a quarter-inch wide. This fit the door’s key, which was a metal bar eight inches long with square teeth machined into the sides; if I’d ever been jumped in the street, that key would’ve been my go-to defensive weapon.

    The reason we needed the steel door was because if the Russian mafia ever decided that we as Americans had enough loose cash for a good shakedown, the Russian police would have sided with the highest bidder. The mafia would’ve started beating down our door, we’d have called the police, the police would have shown up, the mafia would’ve bribed them, and unless we could outbid the mafia, the police would’ve sided with them.

    Russia is a place where the police have no accountability. They wield force however they want. The populace lives in fear, because calling the police only ever makes things worse. It’s a scary place to live–bad things happen, and when they do there is no remedy.

    The US is better than that…some of the time. Every time my family stepped back across the border to the US, there was this tangible sense of relief that the world was no longer out to get you. This month’s rioting has made it clear to me that America’s police forces are not as impartial as I believed.

    I left Russia sixteen years ago. Since then, I’m told things are slowly getting better. Some Russians are gradually realizing that a better world might be possible. They’re starting to protest against election-rigging, which I never would have expected. People like Sergei Magnitsky are fighting corruption in Russia at enormous personal cost.

    People around the world look to the United States to see what a free, honest, strong, prosperous country looks like. When people want help fighting corruption in their own country, they come to the United States (see last link). That’s why Putin has Russian intelligence working so hard to corrupt our elections and undermine our confidence in them. It’s why Putin loves it when President Trump behaves corruptly. It shows the Russian people that government accountability and impartial justice are just fairy tales that would never actually work. It persuades them that living in fear of the police is the natural order of things. It tells them that America is just as bad as Russia, and that they need a strong leader to keep the wolf at bay. At least he’s the devil they know, right?

    I assert with every fiber of my being that the United States must not become like Russia. We must be scrupulously honest, both in appearance and in fact. When something like George Floyd’s murder shows that we have not been living up to our own standards, we must make any and all changes necessary to correct that, even if it requires us to reckon with painful truths or atone for the sins of our fathers. More than our own country depends on our success.

    Reading material

    Quality Memes

    Last month my cat disappeared. A week ago I found him and brought him home. Today my cat came back. Now I have two identical cats.

    (Tweet screenshot) Conversation I just had: Me: Two Thin Mints please. Girl scout: That'll be $10. Or you can get four boxes for $20! Me (gentle): Um, that's not a savings. Girl scout (NOT gentle): NO ONE SAID IT WAS. Me: ... Four boxes would be great. (Next tweet) Me as an 8 year old girl scout: Would you like to buy some cookies? Neighbor: I'm on a diet for my New Year's Resolution. Me: The cookies will be delivered in February. Do you think you'll still be on your diet in February? Neighbor: *silently takes form and pen*

    (tumblr post) What about a show that's like Black Mirror, but instead of modern future technology, it goes from setting to setting in various states of history, using progress that we already have, and the Absolutely Idiotic Hot Takes on how it's totally going to Go Horribly Wrong. 'Now that we've invented writing and people can write stuff down we just completely forget how to remember anything.' 'What if everyone just stopped believing in the divine right of kings and then everything falls into complete anarchy.' 'What if we let women vote and then they decide to make it illegal for men to vote.' 'My stupid son accidentally strangled himself on a phone cord, so clearly the telephone was a devil's invention that will doom humanity.

    (Anonymous post on 4chan:) The shopping cart is the ultimate litmus test for whether a person is capable of self-governing. To return the shopping cart is an easy, convenient task and one which we all recognize as the correct, appropriate thing to do. To return the shopping cart is objectively right. There are no situations other than dire emergencies in which a person is not able to return their cart. Simultaneously, it is not illegal to abandon your shopping cart. Therefore the shopping cart presents itself as the apex example of whether a person will do what is right without being forced to do it. No one will punish you for not returning the shopping cart, no one will fine you or kill you for not returning the shopping cart, you gain nothing by returning the shopping cart. You must return the shopping cart out of the goodness of your own heart. You must return the shopping cart because it is the right thing to do. Because it is correct. A person who is unable to do this is no better than an animal, an absolute savage who can only be made to do what is right by threatening them with a law and the force that stands behind it. The Shopping Cart is what determines whether a person is a good or bad member of society. (Tumblr commentary:) this post was written by a JRPG villain whose origin story was working at walmart

    Several quotes from the Apollo 11 crew, concluding with: According to Michael Collins, when the three of them were discussing what Neil Armstrong should say when he first stepped on the moon, Collins suggested Armstrong say 'Oh my God, what is that thing?' and then scream and cut out his mic.

    Videos (🔊sound on)

  • Designing good habits for myself

    From Tumblr:

    boxofleftovermuffins: "Due to corona we have 3 days of the week now: yesterday, today, tomorrow". candyradium: "this is just what having adhd is like". undeadfaerie2631: "And there’s the really important 4th day: The day of The Appointment. No one knows how far away it is, but it exists. Looming in the background, waiting to strike."

    In the Age of Quarantine, different people have different forms of self-care. Mine is productivity.

    Presently I’m job-searching full time. Job searching means feeling uncertain a lot. You can’t control the number of nibbles you’ll get back a particular week; what you can control is how much work you put into the job search.

    But there’s a difference between being productive and feeling productive. I needed something to link the two: when I’ve done lots of work, I want to feel good about that, and I need something that will tell me whether I have or haven’t done enough today.

    For a long time I’ve used Habitica as a to-do list and habit tracker. This has several big benefits: it lets you define things you want to do (once or regularly) and rewards you for doing them with level-ups, loot, and new abilities. It’s even better when you join a party. But as with most gamified systems, eventually it runs out of relevant rewards. As of this writing, my Warrior is level 80 and has achieved every interesting goal Habitica can provide. So I decided to build a system better tuned to my own needs.

    Effort Tracker, a Google Sheets-based to-do list and more(Click to embiggen)

    There are three time horizons I care about: today, this week, and long-term; these are mapped to the left, center, and right columns.

    At the start of each day I decide on my goals for that day and the point value for each goal. 1 point is something simple like brushing my teeth; submitting a job application (which usually includes a custom cover letter and possibly one or more essay questions) is usually 5 points, and a truly herculean task might be 10 points.

    Under “Daily Goals” we have “Bonuses”. These are things I want to do regularly - not necessarily every day, but I don’t want to ignore them for more than a week or so. This includes things like cleaning up around the house, going for a walk, and talking to people besides my wife. Whenever I mark the “✔” column, a script inserts today’s date into a hidden column, which the “✔ days ago” column uses to calculate how long it’s been since I did that.

    Near the bottom we have the “Daily combos” section. This is an important part of the game loop I’m using to train myself to get better at estimating how much I’ll be able to accomplish each day. At the end of each day I grade myself on four things:

    1. Did I accomplish everything I set out to do that day? If so, Effort Tracker gives me a 25% bonus on all the points I earned that day. The incentive this creates is to not aim too low - a 25% bonus on a small number is unappealing - but also not to aim too high, lest I not complete everything and lose the bonus.
    2. Did I achieve all my goals before dinner? It’s good for me to be able to rest with my wife in the evening. This is worth another 25% bonus.
    3. Did I score three different bonuses today? This is worth a flat 3 points; seeking this bonus often induces me to clean up a little or brush my teeth before bed.
    4. Did I score five bonuses today? These don’t have to be unique. If I did a truly heroic bout of cleaning or something, I can get a 5-point reward.

    Similarly, I have weekly goals and a 20-point bonus for completing them all. At the end of the week we add up the weekly total and put it in the “Weekly totals” column, where it adds to the grand total and the point balance I use to purchase rewards.

    Figuring out how to reward myself for the work I’m doing is something I’m still working on. I can spend 150 points on a $5 game microtransaction; I’ve done that a couple times and run out of things I really want.

    Recently my wife suggested I might be working too hard. The problem is that I feel guilty for resting, and I worry that if I stop pushing myself I will become lazy and never amount to anything. So as a way of establishing boundaries for myself, I’ve recently ruled that above and beyond weekends, I can spend 500 points to take a day off. I can earn that in two good weeks or three bad ones. I’ll continue to monitor this and rebalance it as necessary.

    That’s my system in its current state. I thought about making this into a web app, but Google Sheets is really easy to change when I decide part of the system needs to be reworked. I’ve pinned the sheet to my phone’s home screen so I don’t even need my computer turned on to update it. If anyone wants to use it I can probably make you a template.

    I really agree with something Tom Francis said about how he organizes his work time as an indie game developer:

    Obviously I’m amazingly lucky to have this kind of freedom over my working life. That much freedom can be dangerous: if you don’t consciously get on top of it, create systems and measure the results, you can end up throwing away a huge gift and being miserable despite it.

    The traditional approach to improving your productivity is to make a New Year’s resolution, promise yourself really hard that you’re going to do better, spend lots of willpower forcing it, and then feel disappointed in yourself when the willpower runs out. I’m not a fan of that approach. I’ve played enough games in my life that I understand a little about how systems incentivize behavior. Farnam Street has an excellent introduction to the topic that opens with this great quote:

    Never, ever, think about something else when you should be thinking about the power of incentives.

    Charlie Munger

    Readers, I’d like to know how quarantine is treating you. Here’s a poll, and feel free to add more detail in the comments.


    What the pupil must learn, if he learns anything at all, is that the world will do most of the work for you, provided you cooperate with it by identifying how it really works and aligning with those realities. If we do not let the world teach us, it teaches us a lesson.

    Joseph Tussman

    Mocking the Plague

    Shelter-in-place coping levels measured in cartoon bears. Level 1: Berenstein. Fully clothed, family unit all together, societal rules and standards still being followed, practiced, and respected. Level 2: Pooh. T-shirt and no pants, mostly alone, eating entirely too many sweets, but happy in your blissful ignorance. Level 3: Yogi. Naked except for a hat and tie, surviving off whatever food you can steal, only companion is smaller nude person in a bow tie. Level 4: Charmin. Completely nude, surrounded by others who are completely nude, obsessed with toilet paper.

    Scene: Gotham Hospital. Batman, handing box of Bat Masks to surgeon: 'I figure you heroes could use these more than me. They block all viruses, Joker's laugh gas, and microscopic scorpion bees!' Surgeon: 'Uhh, thanks! I dont think we'll need to block all of that, though!' Batman: 'Hahah, well... 2020 isn't over yet.'

    hijabby on tumblr: I'm screaming??? So my cat knows I get upset when he steps on my paintings (not yelling or anything I think he just sees me spend hours trying to cover up what his paws do) in my 'studio' which is a crammed small storage closet with painting all over the floor drying , so like I'm in there rn and I saw him try to get to point A to point b but it was impossible for him to jump over so like he realized the matte parts were dry and like he was stepping on the corners of the painting and every step he'd look at his paw to see if he f***ed up and honestly it was the most thoughtful thing ever I don't ever wanna hear anyone ever say that cats don't care

    scrantonpaper on tumblr: 'me, watching a battle scene: please not the horses. leave them alone. they did nothing wrong. they are the only innocent ones. they don't deserve this.' fiyhi: 'honestly this used to upset me a lot as a kit until my mom, who's worked with horses for many years, told me about how they train the horses in those movies to do things like falling down, kneeling, crawling, or stay laying on the ground after they fall. and how it's so tough to train a prey animal to do these behaviors and how hard both trainer and horse have to work. so now whenever i see a horse take a hit and go down in a movie, i just think 'f***ing superb you funky little horse actor'

    An image of the Last Supper. Jesus is alone at the table; the disciples' faces are visible in small boxes at the top of the image because they're in a Zoom call together.

    Reading material


  • Community and COVID-19

    The apocalypse is here, and it isn’t that bad.

    COVID-19 is officially a global pandemic. Local and federal governments have declared a state of emergency and asked citizens to self-quarantine. Schools and offices are getting a crash course in working remotely.

    Last Saturday, my wife and I went to the grocery store and found they were out of carts. We got a cart from a nice little old lady in exchange for helping her load her groceries into her car, then went inside to discover the reason for the shortage: the checkout line went all the way to the back of the store.

    A line of grocery carts stretching from the back of the store to the front A grocery aisle, barren of pasta Empty boxes of toilet paper

    The store was packed. Holly and I loaded two weeks worth of food into our cart and got in line. It took about 45 minutes to reach checkout.

    Those 45 minutes set my confidence in American society higher than it’s been since 2016. Everyone was positively neighborly. We commiserated with the lady in line behind us about how long the line was. With school closed, they’re losing access to the free lunches her kids need, but someone in her neighborhood is providing lunches to fill the gap. Holly and I watched her cart so she could fetch supplies without losing her place in line. The ladies ahead of us joked about their cart piled full of beer–“do you think we have enough?” We swapped stories about previous times of trouble and shared intel about where the shortest checkout lines could be found.

    The narrative we associate with global disasters is the one given to us by disaster movies. We expect that with the veil of civilization stripped away, people will show their “true natures” and turn on each other–that the ones who survive will be the most ruthless and the best armed.

    Our present pandemic is showing that narrative to be false. The few cases we see where people act selfishly are covered by the news, of course, because they’re sensational, but they’re quite rare and they’re universally derided. (Language warning.)

    Instead, we see people pulling together. We see Italians in self-quarantine playing impromptu concerts on their balconies:

    We see neighbors taking care of each other:

    Xpost from /r/COVID19positive - I posted a notice on my apartment door to warn my building that I have COVID19 symptoms. This was dropped through the mail slot. I don't even know them. So many onions in here... from r/HumansBeingBros

    And we see artists processing fear into beauty:

    A man and a woman wearing medical masks over their noses and mouths kiss tenderly.

    This is a scary time for many. Our way of life has been upended, and there’s no telling when it will return to normal, or what “normal” will look like. But as Mr. Rogers put it:

    When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' --Fred Rogers

    Now to keep this blog from being all sugar and no spice: If you have a favorite ideology that you wish more people would adopt, this is your moment. Talk to your neighbors (especially the elderly) and see what they need (while taking appropriate precautions to avoid infecting them). People will remember this month for the rest of their lives. The moral high ground is yours for the taking!

    This week on the Internet

    @QasimRashid on Twitter: 'Last week a Conservative constituent sent me deeply hurtful anti-Muslim tweets.😓 I responded by donating to his GoFundMe to help cover his crushing medical debt. He wrote me a thoughtful & compassionate apology and asked me to visit him. Today I met my new friend Oz 😊 #WinTheHearts

    @cetELIESparibus on Twitter: 'For my next job interview, I'm gonna ask my 'future' employer on 'what are the things you've done for your employees during the COVID-19 community quarantine.

    @beccaliz on Twitter: 'To the @ikea developer who is desperately debugging the shopping cart in production, I salute you. We're all having a hard time this week.'

    @ryanbrooks on Twitter: 'A bar in my neighborhood is delivering entire liters of their premixed margeritas for $25 and you get a complimentary roll of toilet paper with your purchase and it's really starting to feel like there are no rules anymore

    wow-david on Tumblr: 'My parrot has a vague understanding of the word 'no'. He knows to stop doing what he's doing when he hears it, and he knows how to say it. He knows it's a word that is used when he's doing something he shouldn't be doing. However, being told 'no' doesn't make him stop doing it in the future. If he's ever out of my sight or if I'm not paying attention, I know exactly when he's doing something bad. Because he says 'no' to himself as he does it.

    Reading material