Thoughts On Putin’s Invasion

Here are some random thoughts on Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Some people are saying it is the USA’s fault. This is the language abusers use, that the Mafia uses: “Why do you make me do this?” NATO was not forcing membership on former Soviet countries. They want to join NATO to get some protection from Russia. They didn’t ask to be part of the Soviet bloc after WWII. In the past decade, Russia has sent troops to Georgia, eastern Ukraine, and now they are trying to taker over all of Ukraine. Don’t complain that NATO is bad if Russia is doing the very thing that NATO was designed to prevent. Countries join NATO by invitation; countries join Russia by invasion.

A few people have defended Russia by saying it has always wanted a “buffer” between itself and foreign armies. This “buffer” would be other countries with people who have their own language, culture and history. Did all of the Russia-defenders consider that maybe these countries do not want to be Russia’s buffer?

This is the result of the sort of theocratic kleptocracy and autocracy that conservatives love. They all thought Putin was smarter than Obama and Biden, but how are things working out? Prioritizing praising the Dear Leader above all else has not worked out too well for the country and the military that some “American” conservatives love more than their own. Based on the analysis I have read, it can be hard to tell where one cause stops and another starts: authoritarianism, grifting, skimming contracts, suppressing dissent. When does cause become effect? Nevertheless, a lot of conservatives in this country seem to want this country to be more like Russian under Putin. Will they see where their vision takes a country? I predict a lot of them will either double down, or deny saying things they have been caught on tape saying. Sometimes they do both.

I remember when Obama was in office, a lot of people on Fox News wished we has a president who was a “strong leader like Putin.” I thought: If Obama was more like Putin, everyone on Fox News would get shot. George Carlin was half-right: it’s a small club, and most people who think they are in it are not.

Big Jim wishes more people had better pattern recognition skills.

Image of Saint Michael Weighing Souls, 14th century fresco, image from Website of the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya of Barcelona,, assumed allowed under public domain.

Thoughts On Geoengineering

I listen to a lot of podcasts that have talked about geoengineering, or climate engineering.

It has been mentioned on Radio Ecoshock, Quirks and Quarks, Sea Change Radio, Science Friday, and probably a few others.

I think geoengineering is either not going to work as well as we need it to, or is a bad idea. We should focus on emitting less carbon.

Geoengineering strategies fall into two categories: solar radiation management and carbon dioxide removal.

I think the carbon dioxide removal methods are good ideas, but they are not as advanced as a lot of people think, and will probably not be enough to save us. We would have to plant a LOT of trees to make up for our emissions.

I think solar radiation management is a really bad idea. Putting chemicals in the atmosphere is what got us to this point in the first place. Maybe SRM should be called “counter-geoengineering” since climate change itself is the result of geoengineering. Granted, carbon emissions have allowed us to have nice things, but if nothing changes it will be the end of us. Not the end of the planet, not the end of life on earth, just the end of us. Or at least the end of most of us.

But instead of putting a second set of chemicals into the atmosphere to counteract the first set of chemicals we put into the atmosphere, let’s just put less of the first set in.

Big Jim wants to make the world a better place.

“Landscape Under A Stormy Sky” by Vincent van Gogh (March 30, 1853-July 29, 1890), assumed allowed under Fair Use.

Thoughts On Finishing The Next Generation

I am almost through watching (mostly re-watching) Star Trek: The Next Generation. There are about five, including the finale. I think I have not seen three of them all the way through. I also finally saw an entire episode of Voyager all the way through.

I seem to be putting off watching them. Perhaps once again I am just getting old and thinking of the good old days, when my life was full of possibilities instead of bad choices. TNG ended in 1994, twenty years ago, in May. As any good skeptic will tell you, humans love nice round numbers.

At the time I was living with my father. He introduced me to Star Trek when I was a kid. I remember going to see The Motion Picture when I was 8. We were living in Colorado. We went with my older brother. The theater was packed. My brother and I sat together, and my dad went further up front to get a seat.

When TNG was ending, things were not too good between us. My mother finally left him a few years before that. He did not treat her well. Let’s leave it at that.

I had gotten a useless humanities degree. After starting martial arts, I decided to go back to get a degree in exercise physiology. I needed financial aid to get it, so I got the FAFSA and started filling it out. If you are single, not a parent, not in the military and under the age of 25, you have to put information about your parents’ income on the form. I assume because you have to be registered with the Selective Service until you are 25. He insisted this was a plot by my mother to get more info about his income and assets.

Then he got upset when I told him that I was going for another undergraduate degree. For some reason he thought I was going into a graduate program. I think the idea of going into a graduate program for a hard science with a humanities undergrad degree is absurd. Plus I never mentioned the GRE. I guess he drank more booze than I had thought. So he accused me of lying twice in a short period of time. We watched All Good Things… in separate rooms. I went back to UIUC that fall, and we have not spoken since. Which is fine with me.

The 1990s were the golden age for Star Trek: Three series and a few good movies. First Contact is one of my favorites. I did not have a lot of money (or access to a television), but in general times were good in the 1990s: plenty of jobs, interest rates were low, people were hopeful about the future. I never wanted to be one of those old people talking about the good old days, but for Trek fans and the economy in general, the 1990s were pretty good.

Now after each episode I look at its article on Memory Alpha. It is a pretty neat resource.

According to MA, the producers did not put Crusher and Picard together so they could have Picard involved with other women. I think they should have put Dr Crusher and Capt Picard together. (I never violated the Prime Directive.)  I think some fans would have preferred that. Picard would save The Amazing Beverly that we have known all these years, instead of some character that drops out of the sky.

Nurse Ogawa had the prettiest face, but I think Ensign Ro probably had the best body. Too bad women on the Enterprise D did not walk around in boots and miniskirts.

I always had a problem with the Klingons in TNG. They had warp drive, cloaking devices and all this advanced technology, but they always seemed too rowdy. Can you imagine a bunch of Klingon undergrads taking a calculus exam? There would not be any students or professors left after a few semesters.

I am looking forward to DS9 and Voyager.

Image from Memory Alpha, copyright owned by CBS, assumed allowed under Fair Use.

Thoughts On Startups, Braintree and Paypal

Last week Paypal bought a company in Chicago called Braintree. They make software that processes credit card payments. They guys at Braintree are smart (on some levels), but also a bunch of arrogant jerks. I am sure they will fit right in.

I once attended a presentation by a Braintree big shot. It was either the founder or the CEO. He said that he has spent all his career in startups. He also said he would rather hire someone who is young and smart than  than a middle-aged developer who has spent all their career at an insurance company. I was pretty shocked that someone would admit to age bias in public. I was also struck by the Startup Psychosis this guy had. See, according to people with Startup Psychosis, those corporate people are just not flexible in their thinking, especially corporate people who want to transition to a startup environment. But if you have been in startups your whole career, by definition you have agile thinking! Really, you do! Tell yourself that, because that is what makes it true!

It seems strange to me that people in the startup culture all think the same, talk the same, all read the same books, yet they all tell themselves they aren’t conformists like people who work in government or corporations. I still say that governments and corporations are more likely to produce goods and services that people actually care about.

I kind of hate it when people say they just want to hire smart people and do not care about what your experience is. Whenever I talk to those people, I always get told that they want someone with 5 years of X and so-many years of Y. I don’t claim to be the smartest person in the world, but I am smarter than some of the people at these “we-just-want-smart-people” firms. Maybe some of the people I interview with don’t like me. If you don’t like me, just say so, I won’t be offended. If you don’t like me, I probably don’t like you either.

I think that part of it is that a lot of people who say “we just want smart people” might believe what they say, but don’t realize that they might not want what they think they want. Also, I think some firms want younger guys because a younger guy will work longer hours because he doesn’t realize he doesn’t have to let some jerk walk all over him.

I attended a technology meetup at Braintree, and some young punk (with an Apple laptop, of course) said he did not understand why they had an Android API. After all, he said, “Everybody has an iPhone.” I told him I did not have a smart phone, and there are a LOT of people with Android phones.  I said, “Maybe everybody you know has an iPhone. That’s not the same thing.” He seemed offended, but frankly he deserved it. If you think you are a smart person, and you also think that everyone is like you, then you are not that smart.

It is interesting that they sold out to Paypal. A lot of people do not trust Paypal. One of the reasons some firms use Braintree is: They are not Paypal. That reason just went away. I predict a lot of people will look at alternatives. I doubt I will ever see the agreement, but for now Paypal is saying they will not get involved with Braintree. If the guys at Paypal and Braintree think anyone believes that, they are idiots. If Paypal is not going to muck with Braintree, then why did they buy it? And if Paypal changes their mind, Braintree can’t say no. If they think they can, their definition of “ownership” is different than everybody else’s on the planet.

If the CEO thinks that Java developers at insurance companies can’t change their stripes but Paypal can, then he might have more flexibility in his thinking than I gave him credit for. Or he’s just sucking up to his new masters.

This transaction exemplifies one of the fallacies of capitalism: That anything that happens in the private sector benefits all involved parties. Paypal gets some good technology. The big shots at Braintree get to cash out. The users of Braintree just lost their main reason for using Braintree in the first place. This transaction is wonderful for all those VCs and big shots who have spent all their lives in startups, but it is not good for the customers. Telling your customers to hope people they don’t trust won’t change their minds is not a good long-term plan for your customers.

If I know that some people use Braintree simply because it’s not Paypal, then I have a hard time believing the guys at Braintree were not aware of that. Yet they sold to Paypal anyway.

Enjoy your money, guys. Nobody will ever trust you again.

Image from Reddit, assumed allowed under Fair Use

Thoughts On Groupon and Unemployment

Recently, ex-Groupon CEO Andrew Mason announced his next move: He is moving to The Bubble of Self-Absorption (aka Silicon Valley).

I never met Andrew Mason, but I never really liked him. I never really saw the point of Groupon. They are one of the inspirations for this site’s “Technology Is Useless” theme. I talked to a few employees who also thought what Groupon did was stupid.

I kept hearing people in the media go on about how smart he was. We were supposed to believe he was “quirky”, or “charming”, or something. In every picture I saw of him he looked like he was not all there. He never seemed to take his job seriously. Maybe he really was a smart, serious guy. But if that is the case, then he was intentionally presenting a goofball image. I have no qualms criticizing someone for something they do intentionally. Since he got fired from the company he founded, I guess that “happy-go-lucky” routine did not do him much good.

In the post about his plans, he said something that really bugged me: he said he was reading, travelling, and “embarking on other cliched pursuits of the unemployed”. I guess in a narrow technical sense, he is unemployed. The way Mitt Romney was unemployed. Most unemployed people don’t engage in accounting fraud, cash out, and walk away with millions.

I was unemployed for a while. A couple of times, actually. For me, it was the same as it was for most unemployed people: Applying for jobs, applying for benefits, trying to stretch them out, try to keep my skills sharp, etc, etc.

Maybe I just don’t get that quirky sense of humor he has. But let me go over a few real unemployment cliches:

Keeping your skills up to date takes a lot of time.

You also have to research companies that you are applying to.

Preparing for interviews, going through the interviews, thanking who you talked to and keeping track of all that is a huge task.

You might get a call from Company B, and the job sounds good, but you would REALLY like to work at Company A, so you stall B because A is taking its time, and in the end they both say no.

You go to meetups at friends’ places, and hope nobody comments too loudly that you are eating a little bit more free food than everybody else.

You wonder if you will ever work in your field again.

You wish you could go back in time and pick a different major in college.

You might wonder if you will ever get married (unemployed 40-somethings are not exactly a prime commodity on the dating market). Dying alone looks like a possibility. Dying alone after a few decades of poverty looks like a serious possibility.

You wonder if that mole you just saw is just a mole, or cancer. So you make an appointment to see a doctor, after taking a few days to check if the crappy insurance that you can barely afford (because COBRA expired) will cover the visit. Then after a couple hours of Googling, you realize that if it is not a mole, you have three options. The first is chemo (if it’s covered). The other two are amputation or suicide. So you go to sleep every night for the next seven nights trying to figure out whether you would choose amputation or suicide if you cannot get chemo.

And if the general practitioner refers you to a dermatologist, you go through the “Door Number Two or Door Number Three?” cycle for another seven or so days.

If you can keep up your job search with that going through your head, your powers of concentration are better than mine.

The typical unemployed person does not start a company that some of its own employees think is kind of dumb, submit SEC filings with bogus accounting metrics and cash out with millions and act like a lobotomized stoner the entire time.

Now, you might be asking how is it that someone as dumb as Andrew Mason still manages to cash out with millions while I struggle.

I have come to realize that if you are willing to lie, cheat and steal, then it’s like having several IQ points tacked on.

Maybe Mason was used by Lefkovsky (see this article and this article).  I don’t think that lets Mason off the hook. Like the proverb says: If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.

If Mr Mason thinks unemployment is fun or something to be joked about, then he really is an ass.

Thoughts On Menus, Startups and Social Media

(My job has kept me pretty busy, so here are some more random thoughts on the “technology is useless” theme that have been kicking around in my head.)

So I found a post by a VC who wants to change menus in restaurants (see this article and the original post). His name is Dave McClure; I have never heard of him. I could not find what VC firm he is with. He says that it is a huge opportunity. Okay.

But then he says that menus have “problems”. He goes on and on about “problems”. I guess this is a “first world problem”.

Doesn’t agriculture have a lot of problems? What about the distribution of water? What about crop yields? I would call those problems.

I know that ultimately VCs are out to make money and not save the world. Fine. But don’t say you are solving “problems” when you ignore things that are real problems.

My main beef is that the VCs/entreprenuers/startup crowd all like to think that they are smarter than everybody else. That they are “makers” and “doers”. And they think that we are all to take them so seriously. And not point out that they are spinning their wheels while natural resources are getting more expensive. Some of them wind up creating jobs. But some of those jobs are doing really dumb things. Like social media.

I honestly think that we might reach a point where we cannot assume that when we flip the switch that the lights will come on. In many countries, that is already the case. I do not see a whole lot of companies at these incubators solving these problems. I don’t expect two guys with nothing more that a table, two chairs and a couple of laptops to find a new way to drill for oil or desalinate water. I just don’t understand why so many people think just because they are in a startup they worth paying attention to.

There are a lot of smart people in these companies. But there are different types of intelligence. I sometimes wonder whether they really think about what the technology is doing. A lot of it is just marketing. The funny thing is that a lot of people go into technology and software because they don’t want to be some damn salesman.

I (kinda-sorta) know a guy who runs a firm that does analytics on social media to help companies with marketing. We were acquaintences in college about 15 years ago. I was at a hack night at his company, and he introduced himself to me. We did not recognize each other at the time, but later I realized we had met long long ago. I admit, I do not know what he did during the intervening years. Maybe he did something scientific and what I would consider useful.

He has a CS degree from one of the best engineering schools in the world. This guy probably could help design a desalination plant or a nuclear reactor. Instead he is figuring out how to get people to buy more junk. Granted, they deal with a lot of data. Very high throughput.  But is that really the best contribution he could make to society? I have not been in Texas long, but I have heard that in the summer there are serious water issues. This state does catch fire. I think there might be brownouts in the summer time. Is the usual social/local/mobile app business really the best use of all that brainpower?

VCs will say they are out to make money. Energy and climate change are not their responsibility. If that is your response, then fine. I say you have better make a LOT of money. Because if the real problems are not addressed, you will need a lot more than you think.

Thoughts on Language and Woo

So I went to a meetup tonight. Another Celtic meetup.

It was hosted by a guy who is learning to speak Welsh. There was a woman there from Scotland who is learning Gaelic.

They talked about the myths and what historical knowledge was preserved in them. They also talked about how languages contain ways of thinking within them. In Gaelic, you are not hungry, nor do you have feelings. They are upon you. You are not simply from somewhere. You are of somewhere. The place is not a part of you. You are a part of the place.

In some languages. many words sound like other words. These homophones give clues to worldviews. I think they mentioned that many words, including the words for “knowledge” in Gaelic and Welsh, sound very close to the word for tree. For centuries trees was where communities gathered to make important decisions, and many druids, bards and keepers of knowledge lived near trees. Sometimes a line of poetry can have many layers of meaning.

When a land is conquered, the conquerors ban the language to remove people’s identity. Many times the place names remain, but people forget what they mean. It is a dark pool of knowledge. But I do not live in the land of my ancestors. I do not even live where I was born. All I can do is speak of these things clearly and plainly.

He also seemed to believe in reincarnation. And homeopathy. There seemed to be some woo.

But I realized that in a way a lot of the New Age stuff can be somewhat compatible with skepticism. The myths contain the views of people from previous times. Sometimes the words and stories are all that is left of entire worldviews. Perhaps the people preserving some of this knowledge are misinterpreting it, or taking viewpoints literally that have been superceded by scientific knowledge. But I do think there is knowledge there. And it is historical knowledge that should be preserved.

Perhaps if you don’t have a non-mechanistic worldview it can be hard to study some of this stuff. I don’t know how to resolve that contradiction.


Image from Wikimedia


2012-04-01 Random Thoughts

Here is a great quote I saw in the comments at Daily Kos:

Democrats try to build the nation – Republicans try to own it, and wind up destroying it in the process…

It’s a pretty interesting article. It talks about the business and jobs climate in Texas, and brings up a few points supporting the thesis that maybe Texas is not the business paradise some people want you to think it is.

2012-01-25 Random Thoughts

I tweeted this thought to @PoliticsUSUSA after reading one of their articles on PoliticsUSA: One of the big deceptions of the Republican Party is that their policies make it easier to become rich. But they do not. Their policies make it nicer to be rich.

Another random thought: I wish fat people would realize that if they walked faster, then maybe, just maybe, they would not be so darn fat.