Joho the Blogculture Archives - Joho the Blog

September 11, 2015

[liveblog] Bringing Silicon Valley to Government

I’m at an event sponsored by the Shorenstein Center and Ash Center and the Center for Public Leadership on “Bringing Silicon Valley to Government?” (#HKSgovtech). Panelists are:

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Van Dyck, Sinai, and Martin
Van Dyck, Sinai, and Martin

Maria Martin begins. She had founded a company and worked there for ten years, but then applied to be a Presidential Innovation Fellow, thinking she stood no chance. (She lightly recommends sending in a resume printed on colored paper.) She got in, and moved to DC for six months, or so she thought. Then she was asked to be a senior advisor in the White House. One day her boss, Todd Park [former federal CTO], couldn’t make a meeting at the Veterans Administration. She went and fell in love with the problem because it affected veterans and because it seemed solvable through software. The other people around the room were policy folks and didn’t know how to use software that way. She was told by her friends it’d be frustrating, but you can learn how to get things done in government. She was 28 years old when she became CTO of the VA.

Nick introduces Tim O’Reilly as “the godfather of tech.” Tim begins by denying that. “The thing I’ve done most of my career is to watch interesting people and say, ‘Wow, there’s something there!’.” “I’m kind of like a talent scout.” The person who first inspired him about gov’t is Carl Malamud. “He was the first person to put any govt agency on the Internet.” Carl went to Eric Schmidt who at the time was CTO of Sun and licensed data from the SEC. After two years Carl said he was going to shut it down unless the govt took it over. (See Public Resource.)

Then Tim saw Adrian Holovaty‘s mash up of crime data with Google Maps and said, “Wow, techies are beginning to pay attention to govt.” This inspired Tim to want to get more govt stuff into his Web 2.0 conference. He realized that government as a platform had created great value. E.g., opening up GPS. “So much of govt has been focused on, ‘We have to build it or else it won’t exist.’ … My idea was that if you open data, entrepreneuers can build on it.” Not open data for transparency so much as open data for building things. Todd Park, who was at Health & Human Services at the time, “totally got it.” When Amazon launched its Web Services, it found the people illegally hacking on its data. Tim’s company was one of them, to get book data. So Amazon brought in the hackers and built the services they need. HHS did this too. There are now hundreds or possibly thousands of apps using the HHS data.

Haley Van Dyck was on track in 2008 to move to Beijing to work for CNN on Olympics coverage. She was at a dinner where speakers talked about the need to do more for race relations in the US. Obama was running, so she went to work for him in Chicago. When they won, they were asked to connect citizens to government. She started at the FCC building the first new media team to fix their interface to the public. [Wow, they had a terrible UI. Thanks for helping to fix it, Haley!] She thanks Tim for helping to build a like-minded tech community in building. She now leads the US Digital Service.

Nick Sinai went to business school, worked for Lehman, and then pivoted to go to work for Pres. Obama, at the FCC for 1.5 yrs and in the White House for four years.

Haley: USDS is a team embedded in the White House and distributed dedicated to transform the most important citizen-facing services. It was started after the rescue effort. “Let’s bring in a couple of hyper-talented engineers” and add them to the hundreds of consultants in order to change the environment tasked with fixing the site that the President’s most important initiative rested upon. “At any moment, there were only 5-6 people working on” and they were able to fix it. The President asked that this method be used more broadly, so the USDS was founded.

The USDS theory of change is that the best way to create change is to deliver results and to do it where it’s most needed. There’s a team at the VA and a Homeland Security working on immigration services. The immigration process is currently entirely paper-based. To apply you have to send in avery long paper docket that humans then look out. It’s difficult to put this together. The paper file get sents around to immigration centers. By the end (6-9 months) it will have traveled the distance equivalent to going around the world six times. The postal costs alone are $300M/year.

A seven year long procurement for $1.2B was begun about ten years ago [I think] which resulted in a process that was even longer. The Obama administration decided to fix this. A $1.4B procurement process put it into the same hands as the first time. “We can’t build an application process the way we build battleships.” (Tim quotes Clay Shirky that the traditional waterfall sw dev process is “a commitment by everyone not to learn anything while doing the work.”) Instead, the digital team — five people — released the first sw update four months later.

Nick: Traditionally, we spend years developing the procurement. Then years writing the requirements. Then years building the system. Then in year 7 or 10 sw would actually launch. We’ll spend billion of dollars on a single sw enterprise system and then it fails because sw changes, and the requirements are wrong because no one tested them. But instead sw developers rapidly deploy, test what’s working, iterate.

Tim: There’s a real cultural change. If you’re a supplier charging the govt a billion for something that only costs a million, you don’t have incentive to shrink your profts a thousand-fold. The contractors say the project is massive like a moon landing, but Silicon Valley people look at it and say, “Actually, it’s in the range of a mid-size dating site.”

Haley: The five people on the team couldn’t have done it on their own. They worked with the contractors who were there. It’s a tight partnership.

Nick: We spend $80B/year in IT in govt, not including intelligence. (HHS has $11B budget for IT.) But we’re not getting the value.

Marina: The VA has 330,000 employees and 8,000 IT managers. It took a year and a half to get the first hire of the new team in. She had to document that she couldn’t hire through the usual pipeline…which itself took a year. She had to show the value of hiring another 75 people.

A VA example: The President was going to announce a site where you could put in the number of years of service and see how many “GI dollars” [? – couldn’t hear] you have. The contractor spent $1M building this simple page and it wouldn’t even load on the Internet. Marina asked one of the PIFs [Presidential Innovation Fellows]to look at the page. S/he called three hours later it and had fixed it.

[Audience member:] The culture, based on the annual budgets of the agencies, is more complex than you’re saying. SW companies selling to the govt have to include complexities to meet the culture and requirements. [Not sure I’m getting this.]

Marina: You change culture by celebrating vendors who do it in new ways.

Nick: The Administration has a program to educate the contracting officers across all the agencies who do the negotiations.

Marina: There are 1000+ websites at the VA and maybe a dozen IDs for each veteran. 942 toll-free numbers. So, how do you change the veteran’s experience. I could argue the need for this for 20 years, but instead we exposed it to the veterans. We didn’t close down the 1000 websites, but instead created one website that lets you get to what you need. How do we get info to the people who support veterans? To the community? The answer to our most-asked question takes 17 clicks to get to, and that answer is “Call your RO” without telling you what “RO” means (regional office) or how to call it.

The VA also built its own Electronic Health Records system many many years ago; we’re going to launch a new, open source EHR platform. And it’s building the first apps to make sure it works.

Third, the VA team is working on the appeals backlog. You have to process them in chronological order so there’s no low-hanging fruit. One of the boxes you can check is “Do you want a local hearing?” That’s very attractive to users, but it doesn’t tell them that that means a judge will be flown into their city in 2019. Giving users more info would help.

Nick: You’re engaging in user-centered design. The shift is massive. How do you hide the complexity of govt?

Tim: You should all read The UK Digital Govt Design Principles. The message is: Users first. The big difference between govt and the Valley is that in the Valley if you don’t please your customers, you’re out of business. But in govt you can go on for years getting funded. “The feedback loop is fundamentally broken.” In Silicon Valley you test, you work on it incrementally, you add new features.

Tim also recommends Jake Solomon’s “People, not Data” about food stamps in San Francisco. Why is there so much churn in the system? People apply and then drop out. One big reason: Applicants receive incomprehensible letters. “That was just the first step in debugging the system for users.” Govt administrators should be required to use this systems. (This was addressed by Code for America, which was a model for PIFs, started by Jen Pahlka (Tim’s wife.)

Haley: We’re working on a big project for the President. His advisors had a feature they really really really wanted included in the project. We were running an agile dev project, and added the feature. But in testing it turned out that the users weren’t clicking on that feature, preferring to use the search engine instead. But one of the advisors was incredibly upset that the feature he wanted wasn’t included in the launch version. We explained why. “We saw their minds just shift.” The advisor said, “You’re not building it because users don’t want it! We shouldn’t just build sw this way. We ought to build policy that way as well.'” “I left the West Wing wanting to cry [with joy].”

Tim: “If you can build something and show it works, you can change minds” about policy.

Nick: How do we turn those feedback cycles into weeks or months…?

Haley: Here’s the second half of the story. We decided to release all of the data to the partners in a private beta. It turns out that the feature the advisors wanted has been implemented by a third party as a separate standalone product.” You can achieve so much more by opening up data than by doing it all yourself.

Nick: Regulators sometimes fight innovation…

Tim: See my “Open Data and Algorithmic Regulation.” Lots of people hate regulation, but we want, for example, credit card companies to monitor usage to prevent fraud. This is a type of regulation. The credit card companies regulate in real-time and adaptively. Maybe govt regulation should look this way. The Fed does this, because we’re judged by the outcomes, not by our adherence to policy rules like “Interest rates shall be set at X.” They continuously adjust the knobs and levers. Nick Grossman has raised this recently about the debates about Uber and AirBnb. He says that they ought to open up their data to govt regulators so we can figure out the actual impact. Is Uber increasing or decreasing congestion?

Nick: What are the career paths like?

Marina: I didn’t think there was any way I could be in govt. There are many routes in.



Haley: Just do it.

Tim: You can do a lot from the outside. We all have a call to public service. We need a fundamental rebirth of civic mindedness, that govt something we do together. We need govt, unlike the conservatives and Silicon Valley believe.

Haley: We don’t know how algorithic regulation works or how far it should go into the delivery of services. This is something we all need to work on.

Nick: Engineering and Design programs should be working on these sorts of issues.


Q: Traditionally govt was not a top option for grads. Now it’s becoming more attractive. There’s more of a sense in the Valley that it’s their duty to fix things rather than just complaining.

Q: What steps are you taking beyond getting shit done to address some of the fundamental issues around procurement,agile dev, hiring quickly…?

Haley: We began with hiring. We’re done from 9 months to 4 wks to hire someone, which make us competitive with the private sector. (We use Schedule A Hiring Authority. “This is super wonky.”) The procurement process: crucial. We need to enable the right kind of companies to do the work. First, we’re working on building better buyers by bringing in technologists. In 1.5 months we’re launching an agile procurement process. We’re starting to train contracting officers with a five month course to understand how to procure digital in a way that makes sense. We’working with 18f on a pilot to reduce the barriers. We’d love to rebuild Schedule 70 .

Nick: It takes about 9 months to get on that schedule. GSA has a goal of getting this down to 21 days. There are ideas about raising the threshold for purchasing. Right now it’s an 80-90 PDF you have fill out. There’s so much friction in the system and you end up with people’s core competency is navigating the bureaucracy of the system.

Tim: As part of the new process, you’re given a data set available through a public API and you’re given a working app within a week. One of the largest IT companies couldn’t do it so they failed the agile certification process.

Nick: It’s about show, not tell.

Tim: It used to be that you had to provide a working model to get a patent. Think about all the junk sw patents. A working prototype ought to be a requirement.

Marina: And it’s not just about building apps. It’s about understanding the users and getting the incentives right.

Q: Everyone has a different definition of “agile.”

Tim: There’s always more than one way to do it, to cite the PERL slogan. There’s a family of things you can call “agile” : iterative, small pieces, feedback loops. Any version of agile is better than any version of waterfall development.

Nick: If it delivers in weeks, then I don’t care what we call it.

Q: You’re competing with Silicon Valley for people. Have you thought about offering H1 B visas for USDS?

A: That’s very interesting to us.

Q: How about the politics involved? There are forces that have spent decades dismantling in place systems that let Congressfolk know what they’re doing, etc. What are you doing to make sure that USDS is robust?

A: I’ve been surprised at how easy it’s been to identify the common causes you share whether you’re a Dem or Repub. No one wants veterans to have bad service from the VA. TBD is how the contracting community will respond. We’ve tried to be clear that this is not about taking away business from contractors. We’re not on a witch hunt against them. We want to make them more efficient. In many instances they’re delivering the systems we asked for but we got the requirements wrong.

Q: What skills should students develop to be attractive to USDS, etc.? Especially for Kennedy School students?

Marina: I hired a Kennedy School grad who’s been amazing. He has good dev skills,but more important he’s able to understand and ask questions and navigate through problems.

Haley: Show results.

Tim: It’s not about being a rockstar coder. Rather, solve user problems, and have a fundamental facility with tech that lets you say, “Oh yeah, that’s easy to do. Here’s the tool you use. The consumerization of IT means that you often don’t need to go to someone else to get something done.” “Tools like GitHub should be in your reportoire.” Young people can come into govt and help it see what things are easy so we spend money on what’s hard.

Nick: Go to a hackathon and work on some project together.

Q: As a designer and architect, how much of it is govt interacting with architects, city planners, and people who care about design? Lawyers often implement laws without regard to design.

Haley: We hire product designers, visual designers, user researchers. We’re in desperate need of more of them.

Tim: Code for America uses a lot of designers as well. And designed should be tested and iterated on as well. “It’d be awesome to have the equivalent of agile dev in city design.”

Nick: You could argue that The Constitution is a design document.

Q: I haven’t heard much from you about saving money.

Marina: I have to lead with the impact on veterans’ lives. Cost-savings is important but it isn’t enough of a driver of change. Even if we save $2B of the $80B, it barely dings the chart.

Haley: It’s an amazing secondary outcome of building better services for users. Also, cost-cutting inadvertently puts you in adversarial stance with some of the folks there. It’s easier to focus on who we are serving.

Q: What are you doing to create a sense of urgency?

Marina: We’re not going to be around forever.

Haley: We are living in a services delivery crisis. Veterans are dying because of that.

Nick: “Practice radical empathy.” You can’t just drop in as a hot shit technologist. You have to have empathy not just for veterans but for the person who’s been in this job for thirty years. You have to ask how you can make them the hero.

Tim: When immigration reform was on the table, that created urgency to get ahead of the topic so that there would’t be another sort of meltdown. And people want to be remembered for doing something good. Listen to what they’re trying to accomplish and how you can help them. There’s a human element.

Q: How to bring the human voice into policy circles? USDS asked me to report on what it’s like to get an immigrant visa. They sent me to the Dominican Republic where I talked with people about their experience, and shadowed them when they went to the local immigration office while they waited for 5 hours for their 10-min interview. The deliverable was a memo to the President. Having a background in policy was helpful in writing that in a way that made user needs and experience understandable to policy makers.

Haley: It coupled the policy discussion with implementation suggests. That’s rare and can be transformative.

[What a fantastic panel. And a completely awesome set of people — more examples of what true patriotism can look like.]

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July 29, 2015

Reddit is not a community. But there’s a little more to say.

Dennis Tenen has an excellent post reminding people that calling Reddit a community is at best sloppy. I have committed this sloppiness, although at times I do try to be more careful, because I fundamentally agree with Dennis on this. In fact, I resist calling anything on the Net a community because it’s a word worth preserving, although I’m afraid it has already slipped its moorings and has floated away from its original meaning.

I think of communities in their traditional sense as being people who care about each other more than they have to. Even so, Adrienne Debigare [twitter:adbigare] and I recently wrote about Reddit at, and we use the word “community” 32 times. We do, however, try to clarify our sloppiness toward the beginning:

[Reddit] is often talked about as a community, but its scale—169M unique visitors a month—stretches that term. Rather, it’s helpful to think of it not just as a community but as a culture that springs from a set of values and a form of discourse.

Adrienne and I also did a Radio Berkman podcast on this topic, and may have been much sloppier.

Dennis does a more precise job. He notes that a community typically: [1] is a social entity, [2] that occupies some contiguous stretch of real or virtual space, and [3] will usually “share a value system, which in turn manifests itself in specific customs, norms, and modes of governance.”

The pedant in me wants to fiddle with that, but Dennis isn’t arguing about the application of a term. He’s pointing out that it’s a mistake to think that Reddit is a single community, a single culture, a single set of people who share the same values, or whatever terms we want to use. Reddit “can be better described as a platform that facilitates a range of activities: some communal in nature, some commercial, and other simply private.”

Dennis is right.

But I think there are some weak ways in which it make sense to talk about a Reddit culture, even while recognizing that there is nothing one can say about values, discourse, or content that would be true of each of Reddit’s tens of thousands of subreddits. But there are at least four reasons to talk about the “Reddit culture” in the singular.

First, Reddit the Company makes a decision about what the default subreddits are on the front page, and I imagine that some very high percentage of users don’t customize that page. The company therefore has made a decision about what topics, values, and forms of discourse will stand for Reddit.

Second, contributors to those default subreddits, and to others, sometimes express a sense of identity, as Dennis notes. You can be a redditor. You can be a good redditor or a bad one. Of course this identity is fluid and not uniformly shared. But it exists. It has something to do with participating generously, accepting some norms of behavior (will the OP deliver?), and appreciating particular values that are assumed to be Reddit’s. These values include things like: valuing what is perceived as free and open speech, responding to challenges with some type of reasoned answer rather than mere assertions or hostility, etc. I’m not saying that Reddit lives up to these; there are deeply troubling gender issues, for example. But to say that someone is a true Redditor is to say something.

Third, the company has expressed political opinions, and has engaged with the “community” directly, responsively, and as equals-in-culture. (Clearly, that’s not been the case in the recent brouhaha.) That is, the company has expressed itself as a culture.

Fourth, the software itself enacts a set of values. Of course it can be used in ways contrary to those values, but it tends toward certain values. For example, it promotes unfiltered speech or speech filtered by the community and its mods; it gives every user equal upvotes or downvotes; it enables digressions from a thread without cost; it encourages linking out to the Web rather than assuming everything interesting is within its boundaries; it generally respects the user by not plastering itself with ads; it encourages pseudonymous speech; it assumes that the “community” will decide for itself which topics are interesting enough to merit creating a new subreddit; it is open source code.

None of these warrant us calling Reddit a single culture, much less a community. I agree with Dennis. I just want to leave room for also talking about Reddit as a culture, or at least as having something like a dominant culture, even as we always append Dennis’ caveats. As he writes, since “Reddit is not a community, then there is no reason for us to expect a uniform set of responses or behaviors from it as a whole. ” That is definitely a mistake we would be wise not to commit.


July 7, 2015

Friends reviewing friends

Amazon is refusing to post reviews when its algorithms sense a personal relationship between the author and the reviewer. Amazon says, “We are removing your reviews because you know the author personally,” according to Chris Morran at The Consumerist.

The intent is fine. A review is likely to be swayed by a personal friendship. That’s why some of us disclose friendships when posting reviews at Amazon.

But, it would help if Amazon clarified what “knowing an author personally” means. In a networked world, that is an incredibly vague description.

After that, here are some suggestions that I think would help matters while preserving the policy’s good intentions:

1. Flag reviews by people with personal relationships, but don’t remove them. They may in fact shed special light on the work being reviewed.

2. Allow reviewers to flag their own reviews, and to describe their relationships. E.g., “We are colleagues,” “She’s a lifelong friend,” “We were close friends until I moved 12 yrs ago,” “We’ve been on panels together,” “We were friends until the lying bastard done me wrong.”

3. Do not count the ratings by such people in the overall total.

4. Provide some avenue of appeal when the algorithm goes wrong.


July 3, 2015

Joining Reddit

Reddit is in flames. I can only see one way out of it that preserves the site’s unique value.

I say this as an old man who loves Reddit despite being way outside its main demographic. Of course there are outrageously objectionable subreddits—topical discussion boards—but you don’t have to visit those. Reddit at its best is wonderful. Inspiring, even. It is a self-regulated set of communities that is capable of great collective insight, humor, and kindness. (At its worst, it is one of the nightmares of the Internet.)

Because Reddit is so large, with 169M unique visitors each month, it is impossible to generalize accurately about what went on yesterday and is continuing today. Nevertheless, the precipitating cause was the termination of the employment of Victoria Taylor for reasons Reddit and she have not disclosed. Victoria was not only the wildly popular enabler of Reddit’s wildly popular AMA‘s (“Ask Me Anything”), she was the only Reddit employee visible to most redditors (Reddit users).

Victoria’s sudden dismissal was taken by many as a sign of the increasing misalignment of Reddit’s business goals and the culture of its communities. Reddit, it is feared, is going commercial. The volunteer moderators (“mods”) of some of the large subreddits have also complained that their requests for support over the past months have gone unanswered.

In protest, many of the large subreddits and a long list of smaller ones have gone private and are thus dark to most of the world. This will have some financial effect on Reddit, but it is better understood as a political protest, applying the technique used successfully in 2012 when Reddit, Wikipedia, and other major sites went dark to protest the SOPA/PIPA bills that would have limited Internet freedom. It is an assertion-by-deprivation of the cultural value of these subreddits.

It is, I believe, a mistake to view this uproar primarily in terms of economics or business. This is an attempt by a community to stay a community despite perceived attempts by the business underneath it to commercialize it. Up until now, Reddit the Company has understood the importance of accepting and promoting its community’s values. Advertising is unobtrusive, some of which lets users comment on the ad itself. Reddit makes money also from its users buying “Reddit gold” to bestow upon comments they find particularly valuable. Reddit gold has no monetary value, so users are consciously paying Reddit money for the privilege of paying another user a visible compliment. And Reddit has sternly defended the free speech of its users even when that speech is, well, horrible—although the management did controversially shut down some shaming and hating sites a few weeks ago.

Reddit is in bad shape today. The meme-making forces of sarcasm it’s famous for have been turned inwards.The most loyal users are feeling betrayed. Some of the communities that have driven Reddit forward as a cultural force are feeling abused. It’s hard to come back from that.

A big part of the problem is that Victoria, the face of Reddit to its own community, was accepted as “One of us! One of us!” as redditors sometime self-mockingly invoke the movie Freaks. Indeed, she embodied many of the virtues of Reddit at its best: curious, accepting, welcoming, helpful, funny. Many redditors saw themselves reflected in her.

Victoria was thereby an important part of Reddit’s support of what I call “The Gettysburg Principles“: She helped Reddit seem to be by, for, and of us. Now the face of Reddit is Ellen Pao, the interim CEO who is largely derided and detested at Reddit because she seems to be “One of them! One of them!”— a Silicon Valley player.

If we view this first and foremost as a problem in maintaining a community rather than strictly as a revenue issue, then I can only see one way forward: Pao should get off her executive horse, engage with the community in public, and show that she’s a redditor too. Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder, also should step forward with his best redditor face on. Alexis when free of corporate pressures is a redditor through and through.

There is still an opportunity for Reddit to show that it understands the source of all its value: communities trusted to run themselves, and a strong sense of shared cultures.


July 2, 2015

Beatles’ Revolver 49 years later: A Review

In the 1980s, I stopped listening to music for no particular reason. It was only in the early 1990s as I was commuting every week to my mother’s death bed (don’t smoke, kids!) that I started again. Thank you Mssrs. Bach, Gould, and Goldberg.

I have not listened to a Beatles album since before my 1980s quiet period. Let’s say about 35 years. I listen to other groups from that period, some of whom hold up amazingly well. But not the Beatles.

Why? They mean so much to me that there are no occasions that deserve them.

I know that’s nuts. I listen to Bach in utter awe and don’t think to myself, “Well, sure, but too bad George Martin wasn’t around then to help him out.” I do understand than my feelings about the Beatles are inextricably mixed with the growing distance from my youth.

So, it’s embarrassingly symbolic—the sort of thing that would make you stop reading a novel—that I listened to the Beatles on a run this morning while my wife and I are awaiting word that, God willing, we’ve become grandparents. (I don’t have words to talk about that now.)

So, here’s a review of Revolver (the UK version).

Overall: A+. Solid gold. 49 years young.

Track by track:

Taxman. This was not a favorite of mine, catchy though it is. I remember it as being too derivative, too genre-based. And an awkward protest song for the rich. On re-hearing it: It is a genre song with typical Beatles’ inventiveness. Great guitar work. Witty call-back to the Batman theme. Totally enjoyable.

Eleanor Rigby. It’s really hard to write fiction. For me this song doesn’t capture how Eleanor Rigby seems to herself. Yeah, lots people are lonely. But I’d like this song better if it ended with “All the lonely people, where do we all belong?” Not that I’m saying I could have done a better job of it. I’m just saying it’s a little immature and a tad condescending. On the other hand, a song like this is not what you’d expect from a rock band in the ’60s, unless they were the Beatles. It’s the Beatles stretching themselves. The melody is obviously great. The backing vocals are amazing. As always.

I’m Only Sleeping. Q: What sort of song is this? A: A Beatles song. Everything about it is unpredictable: the topic, the minor-major shifts, the harmonies, the bridge, the instrumentation and arrangement. Catchy, too. Try to get John out of bed and you get a tuneful, brilliantly original song. How about leaving a little talent for the rest of us, John, ok?

Love You To. It opens with a sitar. We don’t know where it’s going. We’re not even sure what scale it’s going to be using. And then it turns out that it’s a riff-driven song not unlike Taxman. The melody mixes the West and the East and is pretty minimal. But clearly this is George’s, reflecting his eclecticism and intended to educate us toward Indian music. The Beatles stretching themselves again.

Here, There and Everywhere. An impossibly pretty genre song. A little cupcake of perfection. The little almost-discordant harmony on “Love never dies” kills me every time.

Yellow Submarine. Tell you what, let’s have Ringo throw in a classic kiddy song with enough complexity in the harmonies and arrangements that it’ll be great when you’re high. Anyone see where the Oreos got to?

She Said, She Said. Power rock beginning. Angry high notes. Fuzz guitar echo. Break the tempo on the last line of the verse. Killer harmonies. A bridge that comes out of nowhere (“When I was a boy…”). The whole thing threatening to come apart once you’re out of the safety of the verse, with Ringo doing some wonderful lord knows what. I love the Beatles.

Got to Get You into My Life. Weird tempo. Horns. Who arranged this, Herb Alpert? What sort of song is this? Oh yeah, a Beatles song. This is essentially a solo by Paul, with the horns doing the harmonies. George’s guitar enters late with its usual egolessness—a new melody that serves the song rather than wowing us with George’s originality.

For No One. A melody that just rolls on, taking turns you don’t foresee until afterwards. Rhythmic shifts from waltz to 4/4. A goddamn French horn. An unresolved ending that works melodically and thematically.

Good Day Sunshine. In the first measures you think it’s going to be somber. Instead it turns into something cheery although the genre is confounding. Broadway? Damn those harmonies! Then the stride piano. WTF. Who else could have done this? I’m not sure what it is, but everything about it is great.

And Your Bird Can Sing. Damn. Another one. Incredible guitar work by George. What’s the bird? I don’t care. I’m not saying this is a great song. But whatever you think the Beatles are like, listen to this and remember that the Beatles weren’t like anything.

Doctor Robert. Another riff-driven song, like Taxman. George’s guitar could not be better. Again. The harmonies are amazing. The bridge (“Well, well, well you’re feeling fine”) switches to a chorale that’s as rhythm-free as any bureaucracy. A rollicking good time.

I want to tell you. Everything about this song is weird and unexpected: the chord changes, the instrumentation, the harmonies, the genre shifts. “It’s alright” has a weird dissonant piano behind it. There’s some straight rock guitar work thrown in by George. Where did this song come from?

Tomorrow Never Knows.. The amazing book Revolution in the Head argues pretty fiercely that LSD did not help the Beatles be better at what they do, especially for John. This is a pretty good evidence of that. Even so.

I tell you, these young Beatles are going to be big! Big, I tell you!

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June 27, 2015

Does the moral universe arc?

“The arc of the moral universe is long but bends towards justice.”

Does it?

That saying was of course made famous by Martin Luther King who put it between quotation marks to indicate that it was not original with him. Had King’s own arc not been stopped short by a white racist with a gun, it might have been MLK, at the age of 86, who addressed us on Friday in Charlestown. As it is, our President did him proud.

The always awesome Quote Investigator tells us that the quotation in fact came from Theodore Parker in 1857; Parker was a Unitarian minister, Transcendentalist, and abolitionist. The entire sermon (“Of Justice and the Conscience,” pp. 66-102) is worth reading, but here’s the relevant snippet:

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

The sermon points out that the wicked often suffer in ways that the outside world can’t perceive. But Parker is realistic enough to recognize that “we do not see that justice is always done on earth,” (p. 89) and he proceeds to remind his congregation of some of the overwhelming evils present in the world, including: “Three million slaves earn the enjoyment of Americans, who curse them in the name of Christ.” (p. 90) Neither does Parker let us rest in the comfortable thought that justice reigns in the next world. We need a “conscious development of the moral element in man, and a corresponding expansion of justice in human affairs…” (p. 90).

But, is Parker right? Does the arc of the moral universe bend toward justice, or towards injustice, or toward neither, or toward entropy? Why shouldn’t we think we construct that arc out of our wishes and happy thoughts?

Parker’s support for his claim is not what sight shows him but what is visible to his conscience. But what did conscience mean to him?

In 1850 Parker delivered a sermon called “The Function and Place of Conscience in Relation to the Laws.” He begins by explaining the term: “It is the function of conscience to discover to men the moral law of God.” He puts it on a level with our other faculties, part of the reaction against the reduction of consciousness to what comes through our sense organs. Transcendentalists were influenced by Kant who argued that sense perception wouldn’t add up to experience if we didn’t come into the world with a pre-existing ability to organize perceptions in time, space, causality, etc. In addition, affirms Parker, we have a faculty — conscience — that lets us understand things in terms of their moral qualities. That faculty is as fallible as the others, but it is “adequate to the purpose God meant for it”; otherwise God would have failed to outfit us adequately for the task He has set us, which would be on Him.

For Parker, conscience (knowledge of what is right) is at least as important as intellect (knowledge of the world). In “Of Justice and Conscience,” he bemoans that “We have statistical societies for interest” but “no moral societies for justice.” (p. 92) “There is no college for conscience.” (p. 93). (Statistics as a concept and a field had entered British culture at the beginning of the 19th century. By the 1850s it had become a dominant way of evaluating legislative remedies there. See Too Big to Know for a discussion of this. Yeah, I just product placed my own book.)

The faculty of justice (conscience) is at least as important as the faculty of intellect, for conscience drives action. In “The Function and Place of Conscience,” he writes:

Nothing can absolve me from this duty, neither the fact that it is uncomfortable or unpopular, nor that is conflicts with my desires, my passions, my immediate interests, and my plans in life. Such is the place of conscience amongst other faculties of my nature

Indeed, the heart of this sermon is the injunction to rise to the demands inherent in our being children of God, and to reject any conflicting demands by government, business, or society.

Much of this sermon could be quoted by those who refuse as businesspeople or government employees to serve same-sex couples, although Parker is talking about returning fugitive slaves to their owners, not decorating cakes:

This statute [the Fugutive Slave Act] is not to be laid to the charge of the slaveholders of the South alone; its most effective supporters are northern men; Boston is more to be blamed for it than Charleston or Savannah, for nearly a thousand persons of this city and neighborhood, most of them men of influence through money if by no other means, addressed a letter of thanks to the distinguished man who had volunteered to support that infamous bill telling him that he had “convinced the understanding and touched the conscience of the nation.”

That “distinguished man” was, shockingly, Daniel Webster. Webster had been an eloquent and fierce abolitionist. But in 1850, he argued just as fiercely in support of the Fugitive Slave Act in order to preserve the union. Parker wrote an impassioned account of this in his 1853 Life of Daniel Webster.

Parker’s sermon exhorts his congregants, in a passage well worth reading, to resist the law. “[I]t is the natural duty of citizens to rescue every fugitive slave from the hands of the marshal who essays to return him to bondage; to do it peaceably if they can, forcibly if they must, but by all means to do it.”

So, conscience trumps the other faculties by bringing us to act on behalf of justice. But the moral law that conscience lets us perceive is different from the laws of nature. Parker writes in “Of Justice” that there is no gap between the natural laws and their fulfillment. This is so much the case that we learn those laws by observing nature’s regularities. But the moral law “unlike attraction [i.e., gravity] … does not work free from all hindrance.” (p. 69). The moral law requires fulfillment by humans. We are imperfect, so there is a gap between the moral law and the realm over which it rules.

Parker continues: Even if we could learn the law of right through observation and experience — just as we learn the laws of nature — those laws would feel arbitrary. In any case, because history is still unfolding, we can’t learn our moral lessons from it, for our justice has not yet been actualized in history. (p. 73) Man has “an ideal of nature which shames his actual of history.” (p. 73) So, “God has given us a moral faculty, the conscience…” (p. 72) to see what we have yet not made real.

Intellect is not enough. Only conscience can see the universe’s incomplete moral arc.

So, does the arc of the moral universe bend toward justice?

Our intellect sets off warning flares. History is too complex to have a shape. The shape we perceive of course looks like progress because we always think that what we think is the right thing to think, so we think we’re thinking better than did those who came before us. And, my intellect says quite correctly, yeah, sure you’d think that, Mr. Privileged White Guy.

At the moment of despair — when even in Boston citizens are signing letters in favor of returning people back to their enslavement — “The arc of the moral universe is long but bends toward justice” brings hope. No, it says, you’re not going to get what you deserve, but your children might, or their children after them. It is a hard, hard hope.

But is it true?

I will postulate what Theodore Parker did not: Neither our intellect nor conscience can know what the universe’s arc will actually be. Even thinking it has any shape requires an act of imagination that bears an unfathomable cost of forgetting.

But, I believe that Parker was right that conscience — our sense of right and wrong — informs our intellect. Hope is to moral perception as light is to vision: You cannot perceive the world within its moral space without believing there is a point to action. And we can’t perceive outside of that moral space, for it is within the moral space that the universe and what we do in it matters. Even science — crucial science — is pursued as a moral activity, as something that matters beyond itself. If nothing you do can have any effect on what matters beyond your own interests, then moral behavior is pointless and self-indulgent. Hope is moral action’s light.

So, of course I don’t know if the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. But if there is a moral universe, modest hopes bend its history.


June 26, 2015

Too happy to blog

That is all.

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June 23, 2015

Old man yells at cloud, at SxSW

SxSW’s video talk show interviewed me about my talk, which was basically about why the Net isn’t as dreadful as it seems. Something like that.

Anyway, here’s the segment, with Douglas Caballero. It’s 11.5 minutes long.


June 22, 2015

Has the Internet been paved? has just posted an article of mine that re-examines the “Argument from Architecture” that has been at the bottom of much of what I’ve written over the past twenty years. That argument says, roughly, that the Internet’s architecture embodies particular values that are inevitably transmitted to its users. (Yes, the article discusses what “inevitably” means in this context.) But has the Net been so paved by Facebook, apps, commercialism, etc., that we don’t experience that architecture any more?


June 19, 2015

Spoilers and Time

I remember a 1971 National Lampoon article that gave away the endings of a hundred books and movies. Wikipedia and others think that article might have been the first use of the term “spoiler.” But “SPOILER ALERT” has only become a common signpost because of what the Internet has done to time, and in particular, to simultaneity.

In the old days of one-to-many, broadcast media, the events that shaped culture happened once and usually happened on schedule. So, it would make sense to bring up what was on the news broadcast last night, or to chuckle over that hilarious scene in this week’s Beverly Hillbillies. Now we watch on our own schedules, having common moments mainly around sports events and breaking news — games or tragedies. Perhaps this has contributed to our culture’s addiction to extremes.

We need SPOILER ALERT signposts because we watch when we want but the Net is so huge and unconstrained and cheap that it operates like a push medium — the opposite of why traditional broadcast was a push medium. Trying to avoid finding out what happened on Game of Thrones this week is like trying to avoid getting run over when crossing a highway, except that even seeing the approaching cars counts as getting run over.

Tom and Jerry
Game of Thrones spoiler

This change in temporality shows up in the phrase “real time.” We only distinguish one type of time as “real” because it is no longer the default. The default is asynchronous because that’s how most of our communications occur online. Real time increasingly feels like a deprivation. It requires you to drop what you’re doing to participate or you’re going to lose out. And that feels sub-optimal, or even unfair.

Without the requirement of simultaneity, we are more free to follow our interests. And that turns out to fragment our culture. Or liberate it. Or enrich it. Or all of the above.

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