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Amanda Gilbert
Software Architecture
Software Architecture


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Here's what I find incredibly interesting about the word of Jesus and other famous religious figures from history -- they say really smart things. Generally, no one alive later can argue that those guys said dumb things. They'll argue over the molehills but not the mountains, because the mountains stand (and the molehills are incredibly parochial and silly, at least from my perspective).

So, I have a pragmatic hypothesis regarding the 10-ish-word aphorisms - you would call them directives and commandments and whatnot if you are a follower - that comprise "What The Holy Man Said". I've probably mentioned this hypothesis before because I consider it a critical possible question of understanding the past, but in case I haven't - here's the gist:

The context of my hypothesis is that one of the most difficult things to do is to preserve the right answer for transmission between generations of humans. After all, there can be fire, flood, war, famine, and regular diasporas that scatter and destroy collective human knowledge. People find the right answer(s) to a question usually through hard work, and it can take a lifetime, or several. So once you've got the right answer - or one of the right answers, since in many multi-variable questions there can be lots of correct answers - what do you want to do with it? You want to share it with your kids, so they don't have to spend a whole lifetime duplicating your effort just because you selfishly withheld the answer (though with kids, they probably aren't listening anyway). It could be something trivial, like the fact that "round" is a better shape for a millstone than "square", or something vastly more abstract. Either way, the first generation tells their kids, and kids are seriously annoying so they are all, "WHY, MOMMY?" and you say "Because a square millstone only grinds about 2% of the grain when the corners meet, not to mention it makes a HORRIBLE noise, and I've broken about 50 drive shafts due to shear strain trying to get two oval stones to roll smoothly on each other." Then they say "WHY" again, and it just gets more annoying, but you persist in explaining due to pride of ownership because you personally have answered the question for yourself through years of hard work and experimentation. Or maybe instead of just telling your kids, you write your findings up and submit it to the old Library of Alexandria for peer review, so everyone will enjoy the fruits of your labors for the rest of time.

Anyway, your kids learn how to make round millstones, and then you die, and your kids find themselves on the opposite side of the question. "WHY ARE MILLSTONES ROUND, DADDY?" shrieks your grand-child... (I'm using the example of a four year old but technically this scenario applies to any information transaction.) So the answer is "Because a square millstone is far less efficient and only grinds some percent of the grain, and it makes a lot of noise." Even though the originator of the idea said "2%" and something about "broken drive shafts" and "ovals", your now-grown-up kids can't remember the exact phrasing 20 years later. Then their kids are all like "BUT WHY..." and somebody falls back on "BECAUSE I SAID SO, JUST GO PLAY WITH YOUR BABY GOAT DAMMIT". After twenty generations, maybe fewer, it's a 3-part familiar dogma - "Millstones are round/Because I said so/Because they always have been." Yes, there is a reason for their roundness, and all knowledge should have its accompanying context rather than existing in a vacuum, but with each generation, the integrity of the signal degrades, because the actual functioning of a millstone is not impaired by lack of understanding as to why a round millstone is optimal. Nobody ever says, "Oh shit, I can't remember the exact percentage of grain that my great-grandmother determined was incorrectly ground by square millstones, GUESS I BETTER SWITCH PROFESSIONS".

So this brings me to my hypothesis, which is that the transmission of good information between generations is marred by "lossy compression". JPEG is a good example to explain lossy compression. You take a perfectly lovely photo, and probably someone is naked in it, but either way, you want to sell or give that photo to someone else. You scan it in, and scanners convert analog to digital and lose a ton of information in the process. Then, in an early bandwidth-constrained Internet, it's just not practical to send every detail of that photo over narrow pipes. Nobody cares about the quality of the lighting in the upper left corner. You compress the photo further by removing less-important information, then send it to your friend or customer. They compress it so they can send it to their friend. It gets screenshotted, then re-saved a couple times, and after a while, you can technically make out that it is a grainy human in "hotgirrl2.jpg", but that's about it. The compression isn't an easily reversible process.

I suspect that because human lives are so fraught with (a) being short in span, (b), being preoccupied with the administrative overhead involved in surviving and procreating, and (c) being prone to major swaths of destruction, that the only coherent knowledge that tends to make it through generations is highly compressed to withstand the narrow bandwidth available for transmission to your great-great-great-great-grandkids. To go back to my original metaphor, the right answer does rest on top of a mountain of context, but that mountain will be forgotten or lost when the library burns and the Jews flee Egypt and the Sumerblargharians (the necessarily lesser-known cousins of the Sumerians) insist on preserving all their knowledge on wax tablets instead of clay.

There have always been persons who argue that everything one needs to know is in their holy book, and I can understand the perspective from which one might make that argument, because it is a true statement in a particular narrow sense - there are correct outcomes stated in short form written down in every holy book I've ever read. Maybe there is something about millstones in the Upanishads. I don't know specifically about the millstone question. But times change, and millstones become obviated by better solutions. The perfect solution to a problem circa 1500BC may not be the perfect solution to a similar problem in 2250AD, whether the problem is pragmatic or deeply moral.

The Sumerians left tons of uncompressed information like receipts, business letters, etc - but nobody ever said, "I shall memorize the line items of this receipt and tell them to my children, lest they be lost forever." To a scientist, 10,000 receipts contain useful information, but just one is not much help, in terms of recreating and interpolating lost knowledge. So - if you want to solve a problem, AND you want your solution to be repeated forever, AND you don't trust Wikipedia to last to 3000AD - you should make your speeches short. Maybe making them on a mount is important too, I don't know that we can be certain of that. If anyone is writing it down, they should probably shorten your speeches up a bit more, maybe like Cliff's notes length, or even fortune cookie length, because hardly anyone is going to read all of them, much less memorize them and tell them to their kids as bedtime stories.

"But what about faith??" Always brought up, never becomes interesting. I just can't get interested in a concept that, when stripped down to its essentials, can only be defined in terms of itself. That's outside the realm of my pragmatism. Other people view this disinterest as a vast gulf, but me... I wish I knew who said that the only difference between me and you is that you don't believe in 20,000 deities, and I don't believe in 20,0001. We're practically twins! No? Yes?

Anyway, there's my hypothesis - that all the answers to questions that survive from that far back in human history are grainy and missing pixels due to lossy compression - but that they survive at all is an amazing result of that same compression.

DC is the last place that will fall to #OWS local protests, since government contracts are the biweekly-direct-depositor of last resort for the people lucky enough to live here (surprised to find myself saying that but it is absolutely true - if you want to feed your family, move to DC, and don't let me hear you say a word against big government). Nonetheless, I am greatly interested in #OWS simply because everyone seems to know that something is wrong in America. Needless to say, everyone also knows what that something is. Hippies know it is corporate greed and American militarism, Christians know it is a generalized moral decay, dataset nerds know it is the exploding wealth gap, entrepreneurs know it is the crushing burden on American companies of having to provide health care that's both astronomically expensive in cost and an embarrassment on the world stage in results.

A sense of something is wrong is always the case in any time and place (with the exception of 1997-1999 as that was pretty great). Humans are excellent at claiming that disaster is just around the corner, but paradoxically and continuously act as though everything will be just fine.

It seems to me that interest in #OWS will be sustained both in words and action, because, hey, there are a lot of people who don't have a day job to get back to (unemployment at 9%, unemployment including people who have just given up or filed away their master's degree to work part-time bagging groceries, 17%). A decade or more ago, it was common in my experience to hear a lot more of "I've got a job and I don't have a problem with bank profits, my biggest #whitewhine is whether or not the angry jobless are going to interfere with my privileged commute. I am the master of my fate, etc. etc.! Get a job, hippies!" Not so many people saying that now. Maybe there are a few assholes out there still under the impression that they are indispensable (or who are just independently wealthy), but they don't invite me to their parties. Note: My calendar is wide open, party-wise.

In any case, it's not news that demonstrators turned out for #occupysf or #occupyoak, as San Franciscans will spontaneously gather for a demonstration when the nearest bistro runs out of organic mustard or focaccia for sandwiches. (No no, I'm not being mean, I'm being self-deprecating! I am very likely to choose the locally sourced pastrami and ask where the bread comes from when I go to get a sandwich.) The scale of the localized versions of #OWS, however, seems to be growing beyond lifestyle activism. There were so many people protesting last night in San Francisco that the police called off the "clear 'em out" raid. There were two claims generally made by the protestors - the first being that the raid was originally ordered by DHS, and the second being that the raid was called off because there were too few police and too many demonstrators. The first is too nebulous to be interesting even if true, because DHS is too giant of an organization of disparate agencies for me to take a stab at interpreting that piece of info.

What I find truly interesting about the second is the context of a recent article about municipal finance. I'll summarize it: Vallejo can't hire enough police and firefighters and garbagepersons because they can barely collect enough taxes to pay out the extremely generous pensions and benefits owed to retired city workers. This isn't just interesting, it suggests that every young active duty public servant in most cities and counties in America has common cause with the protestors. How did this even happen?

The retired and retiring generations of public servants are enjoying the legally mandated benefits given to them in previous elections and supported by current taxes. The retired and retiring generations of public and private sector employees are enjoying Social Security, also a scheme that counts on collecting money from future enrollees to pay out to those who were earlier in line. Social Security was not intentionally structured to be a pyramid scheme, the demographics just messed it up. Nobody has seen fit to fix that even in hindsight, though it gets talked about. (Anyone unlucky enough to be a young private sector employee -- how's your 401k? Feelin' good about your future Social Security benefits? No? I am currently accepting ideas on how to retire without starving. Not kidding.)

Social Security is an interesting case, but national level politics are at best a distraction in my life. Legions of American citizens who vote against taxes and for city and state projects are the instigators of genuine pyramid schemes that are personally affecting me, handing out wheelbarrows of - not just cheques, but massive unsupportable revenue streams bounded only by death - to people a mere 10 or 20 years from retirement. Wealth transfer is not inherently evil, but it has to be thoughtful. It is my opinion, though it may be incorrect, that the last grand scale wealth transfer that paid back both culturally and financially far more than what it cost was the GI Bill; transferring to the young AND poor enough money for them to have education, energy, and lifespan to implement great entrepreneurial ideas makes sense. Transferring to EITHER the old OR the wealthy is merely transfer, not investment with returns. (If the wealthy have ideas that will create jobs, they've already implemented them without need of tax breaks for alternative energy or whatever. If they don't have ideas, why give them money? If they have ideas but no money to implement them, by definition they aren't "the wealthy".)

This is all just part of the messaging that's been hammering at Americans for decades. Taxes are bad, the only function of government is to provide services and defense, and if you as a public servant give yourself a raise and a generous pension plan without a plan to pay for it, no worries -- by the next election, it won't be an issue. We'll have forgotten, or died. The kids can figure it out later. NO GAYS.

This country's financial woes were created and endorsed by the voters. I would have said voters = you guys but the data says otherwise, as it turns out. You guys voted for Obama but that was it. Who in this country votes in non-presidential elections, or bothers to even read the names of the people running for supervisor or school board or sheriff? That's right, not you guys, but your parents. Finally, I can level this particular accusation as being the root of our problems, and mean it:

UR MOM. (and dad)

Can't get superior though, we're doomed to turn into our parents. Everyone does. But it doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't be pissed off right now about the last couple decades of mess that we've inherited. I'm pretty angry because, thanks to the Internet, I know how little I can do to change the systemic failures that have been put in place at every level of governance and then legally protected by the voters.

It's unlikely that you will escape the fate of just voting to make it worse. But there's always hope! #OccupyYourParentsHouse (...inevitable if you don't start voting)

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Now this I like... high density of thoughtful points in this article (relative to most crap tech writing) ((Hachman excepted of course)). The most important one is that Google+ isn't twitter, tumblr, or facebook -- yet. The author implies that the unsettled landscape is going to be shaped by colonization, pointing out that popular outcry is reshaping the feature set daily. Yes, just like Populous, with Google engineers instantiating this game, and populating the territory with 10 million worshipers.

As well, there is provably a higher authority in control; I suspect they aren't driving this towards any specific outcome at all. It would be the height of arrogance to claim that one knows the territory beyond Facebook. What, 1/6th of the US, or maybe the connected world, is on Facebook? My guess is that they are sitting back, watching, and will intervene in the engineers' game only to correct the egregious. I'm biased, because of course I will say, "trust the engineers", though the engineers do the occasional /facepalm of offending transgender or deaf people. But Facebook's feature set seems to have been built largely by popularity contest (and Zynga lobbyists); for my part, I'm hoping that Google+ will evolve in a more inventive manner.

The great advantage right now, of course, is that the population of Google+ is so new; the features, design, use, everything about it can be changed wildly from day to day, and it is not necessarily going to cause millions of outraged Americans to march on Washington when the "Enter" button suddenly starts posting status updates instead of sending a carriage return. Facebook, twitter, and tumblr users are settled in and comfy and entirely opposed to change.

Frankly, I'm in awe of what a few decades of engineering- and design-driven thinking can accomplish. There's no company on earth other than Google that can throw requirements out the window, slap together a handful of features, refuse to name the product (except with a symbol, Prince-style) much less define it, release it to the public, collect 10 million believers in a few days without even the barest whisper of server stress, and THEN... maybe... start at the beginning, with the use cases. Not imaginary use cases, like the rest of us struggle with, not focus group or sample cases or shitty public data 10 years out of date, but real quantifiable hard data dated "right now". Damn but I am envious.

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Why your company should have a single email address
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