Thank You for Listening…

Storytelling has become synonymous with acceptable deception. The art of conveying the inauthentic.

Elided tales and terse sound bites are the currency of the 140 character economy. Redacted. Reduced. Lessened. But always consumable. We are the Sons of Draper. Scions of Madison Avenue.

And as good sons we tell stories with intent. We convey with express purpose of gain fiscal or personal. But seldom with emotion. Or with gratitude.

So where do we place the things inside of us which are bigger than ourselves. Where do we hold those things which by their very nature should not be contained within the one but shared with a whole?

Where do we put our stories when they shouldn’t be on sale?

It’s funny.

“About that Trayvon Martin Thing” was supposed to be a rant. Just another social injustice that would make some great fodder for snarky commentary. The world is going to hell in a hand basket, but at least I can get some dark humor out of it. Somehow it became a story. No spin – none intentionally placed anyway. I unintentionally shared a story. I didn’t realize it was happening.

In a moment I was able to tell a story. And for a moment I wasn’t sitting in that car alone. I was no longer alone in experiencing the impotent rage of being threatened by a “peace officer”. All because of what I looked like and not because of who I was or what I had done. I was no longer being singled out because I was not alone.

Everyone that took the time to comment. Everyone that sent words of thanks. Everyone that shared their own story. I thank you.

I relived a personally horrifying moment, but this time I wasn’t alone. This time I lived through that moment without fear.

So I thank you. I’m the recipient of gift that I could not have asked for because I did not know it was possible.

I cried out in the dark. Never expecting an echo. Instead I found a wall of humanity built of reflected compassion and collective empathy. I gave away something expecting nothing. And in some strange violation of ever increasing entropy I have received far more than I have given.

For a day. I was wrong about the world.

Thank you.

About that Trayvon Martin Thing…

Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise;
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell,
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you.
Arise I say!
Othello, (I.1.9)

I can now see it. I’ve been attempting to avoid saying anything about the Trayvon Martin case. I mean what can one say? But I just read “Trayvon Martin and I Ain’t Shit”. You should read it. If it matters, it is written by a safe black guy, Ahmir Thompson: better known as Questlove.

Go read it. Then come back here. He’s saved me a lot of writing. My writing is a shallow form of catharsis at this point.

My story starts with almost ruining a dinner party for some of my friends by sharing my own “elevator story”. (If you’re a black male, you have an elevator story or equivalent. Axiom of the universe.) Really a pastiche of several of them. But my favorite has a punch line that goes something like:

“…. yeah, but the thing that really got me about her fleeing to the other side of the elevator was that we worked together. It was as if without other people in the elevator she feared I was just going to attack her. ”

I guess it doesn’t really matter that the elevator was only going one floor up. I mean anything can happen in one floor of travel on a heavily trafficked elevator in a Santa Monica office building. Especially when there’s a negro on the elevator.

But I digress. This was supposed to be about Trayvon Martin, right? And unless you’ve been “that guy” on the elevator it is difficult to see the connection between that elevator and the murder of a kid whose crime was buying a bag of skittles. And by “been there” I mean – unless you’re the poster child of every social ill and violent act that assails a besieged America. And by America, I mean an America where there is a power structure constructed along strict racial and economic lines…. and you’re outside of it.

It’s hard to connect the narrative.

Maybe I should tell the one about trying to get onto the plane? I fly enough that I’m usually in first class. About 30 percent of the time, the boarding attendant will refuse to take my boarding card and politely inform me that they’re currently boarding “first class only”. It normally takes a moment of me standing there with my shiny iPhone5 and my digital ticket before the agent reluctantly scans the QR code. I’ll try and describe the reaction for you: usually the face starts with callous annoyance; we then transition to shock when not only do I have a valid boarding card but a valid first class boarding card. And sometimes, just sometimes, there is a look. A look blending chagrin with shame encompassing our shared racist moment . Usually though, it’s just a “hey, you can’t blame me – you don’t look like ‘first class’” sort of sad smile. But you know, like there’s a plane to board – no time for a discussion of the Hegelian dialectic.

But I wanted to say something that could help bridge the chasm between those who can buy skittles. And those that can’t. This is just an isolated anecdote. It doesn’t help tell the story of what it’s like to always be powerless.

Wait – that might be confusing for those of you who aren’t black. Let me explain. And since every time I speak I’m speaking for all black people – an absurd notion if ever there was one – let me take this opportunity to correct a common misconception. Everyone in the world at large thinks of the common Negro as being violent and angry. Nothing could be further from the truth: we are powerless and scared – or is that scarred?

Imagine living in a world where driving your car can be an excuse to be shot. Or god forbid, how would you feel if that every time you walked out of a 7–11 that you came under fire? Imagine living in a world where your child, your wife, your brother or your lover could be murdered at any time provided that the assailant was not black. Because remember – a warning shot fired by an abused black woman warrants 20 years.

Wait – that reminds me of an anecdote: I bought a new car once. Acura RSX – stick shift. Sporty but affordable. When the car was new I was pulled over about every two weeks. It was clockwork. It became a running joke with my friends that I couldn’t drive on weekends. The punch line: Even as a designated driver I had a higher chance of going to jail sober than my friends did when they were driving drunk. (Minor point of fact: at the time my friends were almost universally white males, but I’m certain that afforded no undue privilege.) This concept was clarified one night when my friend “P.” Drunkenly sped his new Audi A4 through the streets of downtown at 3 AM – going the wrong way down a one way street. Upon coming upon a peace officer stopped at red light that crossed the one way street, P. skidded to a halt, saluted the police cruiser Red Barron style and sped through the intersection. Officer Friendly didn’t even turn on the flashers. I know this because I was hunkered down in the back seat of the Audi. When we came to a screeching halt at the red light. It was the consensus of we three people in the car that it would be better if I wasn’t seen in the back seat of the car. It was the consensus that having my proverbial black ass in the back seat (or is that “black seat”) was just asking to get pulled over. Let’s be clear: drunkenly slaloming the wrong way down a one way street did not merit such consideration. Which I suppose for three white guys in a car it didn’t. It only merited such thought in so much as we all knew that having a black guy in the car at that moment in time was a bad Idea. But I digress. Where was I? Oh yes…. driving my new car.

So I got stopped about twice a month while driving the Acura. Mostly by police who had excuses ranging from “we got a report of someone ‘matching your description’ stealing monkeys from the zoo” to my personal favorite: “You were driving pretty slowly; you weren’t looking for something were you?” Normally the answer was “parking”. N.B.: replying honestly or tersely is generally not a good idea with police folk. They consider such things “uppity”. And while most people find the idea of finding a car to break into while driving in your own new car a little absurd, those who protect and serve know to look beyond logic. So it was one of those moments when after being stopped for some contrived reason I reached over to get my license and registration and came back to a Glock 17 pointed squarely at my face. It was at that moment that I was told I should move more slowly if I didn’t want to get shot. I had assumed – it would appear incorrectly – that when the officer had asked me for my registration and proof of insurance that he meant for me to procure it from the glovebox. What he had actually meant was for me move incredibly slowly towards the glove box, the entire time announcing that I did not have a fire arm located there. I assumed that since I had told him my name, and that it matched what they had received from the DMV that he was merely going through the motions and I would soon be on my way. I was wrong. And being wrong in that moment almost had my brains splattered all over the interior of my car. Later that evening over a glass of something brown and over 86 proof, I thought about how that police report would have been written. The quote “I thought I saw him reaching for a gun” kept going through my mind. That simple sentence in the report would be enough to assure all involved that the shooting was a justified use of force.

I usually don’t self identify as black. For those of you that aren’t in the social norm know: when Living in San Francisco – how you identify is hella’ important. No matter how you self identify – people here will respect that and try and work with you. Being a guy in tech I usually identify as an “emacs-whisky-drinker-techcompany-founder”; that’s enough of a tag to get by with in the realm of SF.

But in a world that increasingly refuses to allow one to get by on the sidelines. I’ve been forced to remember – no – constantly harangued – that I am black (first and always) in the eyes of this world. And that trumps every accomplishment. It supersedes every idea. It permeates every opportunity where I have to overcome the color of my skin just to get to zero and advance from there. No matter how I identify. No matter which adjectives I choose for myself.

I guess that when a kid gets shot for no good reason. And the rest of society says that it’s okay, because that kid was black. Yeah, I guess I have to pick a side and say something.

Moors the tragedy.

Wide Travel of a Narrow America

I often times wonder if there was some particular moment that represented my descent into the abstract. A rejection of satisfaction found in tangible things. I eat icecream and start wondering about the nature of the icecream.

It makes it hard to enjoy the fucking icecream.

Traveling only sharpens the descent into these penumbral spaces. It’s hard to value the “concrete” when you understand that you are not a special and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying matter as everything else. It just so happens that you’re all going to Miami to decay on the same beach.

So who cares about that new car smell when the scent of your 100% personalized death (now with new and improved carbon neutral embalming!) is just around the recently urbanely renewed corner. (Condos from the low 500s!)

Flying may allow you to break the speed of sound. But to the best of my knowledge entropy and irony are the only things that move faster than light. So out running either is unlikely. Even if you’ve paid the extra $20 for extra legroom. So while you may have the smug superiority that comes from being part of the %1 that can afford both an extra six inches of premium leg room. Forgetting that both cancer causing radiation and the odds of fiery death from a failure of a known flaw in your air chariot of choice (within acceptable risk boundaries considering recent changes in the class action statutes) is exactly the same for those plebes at the back as the great and good at the front of our flying abattoir.

While boarding a plane it is almost impossible not eject the low sonorous lowing usually associated with cattle or any other herd creature unable to intuit a “bad feeling” when walking down a corrugated ramp lined with blood gutters and drainage holes. Walking down the jet bridge I’m always relieved by discovering that the chute ends with an aircraft and not a high pressure pneumatic bolt shooting through my temple. “No Sun Country for Old Men” as it were.

Traveling is one clear way of ensuring that you understand the existential status quo. Ennui: the aether of the modern age. The inexhaustible mortar that glues together the bricks of the generic landscape that we build with every opportunity. No matter where you go – all substantial things equal – you’re just as fucked as before you went. (Who says only energy and momentum are conserved?) Flying to Nowhere USA? Terrified that you might be exposed to people who don’t look like you, act like you, or god forbid, like the same people you do on this season of American Idle? Well worry not friends, odds are that whatever locale you’ve chosen in the vast American landscape is blessed with the same Home Depot – Old Navy – Chili’s – local/national chain gastropub strip mall arrangement that we’ve all grown to love. Familiarity is supposed to breed contempt. But as far as I can tell it seems to breed strip malls, suburbia and record profits for those who manage to keep the generic ubiquitous.

Every strip mall mixes it into the cheap blacktop allowing the vast armies of identical-yet-completely unique SUVs to park within 100 yards of the best deals that both big box stores and small boutique shops – like Targét – can offer. As if having to walk more than fifty yards to obtain your generically mass produced goods at always low prices completely kills the thrill of the hunt for the perfect box of ziplock ever-seal never leak always freezer safe bags.

As an aside, I’m hoping that the Higgs Boson is really just some other particle fucking with people. A subatomic “just kidding”. Consider – the Higgs boson might be its own anti-particle. If that doesn’t meet the hipsteresque ethos of being composed of two parts irony with one part self-unawareness well then I’m uncertain if we will ever have a grand unified theory of irony. Which is really the only way to explain the universe as I see it.

But back to my original thread of first-world existential self indulgence. Because I’m going to live forever. I’m a special an unique snowflake. Where did I put the phone number to that pizza chain. I need some delivery…. too lazy to hunt and gather tonight.

Jules Winnfield Is Not A Data Scientist

Jules Winnfield Is Not A Data Scientist

A little over two years ago, I wrote forth with righteous fury about the marketing “people” who were taking a genuine new approach to looking at data and “market-ifying” it by creating bullshit neologisms like “data scientist” or “big data specialist”.

I’m still calling bullshit.

Not that this would surprise anyone but those that are still charging a metric-fuck-tonne(™) for the snake oil of this century don’t want you to think about what access to vast amounts of data really means.

TLDR: Do you really think that

These motherfuckers selling the latest “Big Data” revolution were perfectly happy charging for “Business Intelligence solutions” in the the 90s. Although I can’t remember Crystal reports ever solving anything. For the past five years they’ve shoved “cloud”, “iAAS”, “PaaS” and “FU-aaS” down everyone’s throat – or up everyone’s asshole depending on if you are a vendor or a buyer. Lucky for us that TechCrunch and every VC firm that thinks those guys are honest brokers in a rigged game only has a five year attention span.

Disclaimer: I’m about 5 Yamazaki’s in – but I don’t’ think sobriety would make me any less upset. I started at 3 Yamazaki’s and I’m headed towards Tequila levels of angry right now.

So let’s recap:

  1. “Big Data” will not save your broke ass business model. I don’t give a fuck what your consultant says – And let’s remember, I’m a consultant.
  2. “Business Intelligence” requires some intelligence behind your business. If you’re an idiot, the collection of giga-megs of data just to prove your an idiot is counterproductive.
  3. Most of your problems are not technology based. People that suck with a data platform are still people that suck.
  4. Dealing with any problem at scale is hard. Really hard. Dealing with data at scale is adding insult to injury. There are only a few people who seem to do this well. And other than guys who tell you that new seasons of “Arrested Development” will kick major ass – the people who rule the world of large data all seem to have three letter names and a fuck load of secrets about how they store and process data. (Groom Lake was so X-Files 90s.)

The travesty here? A slow, well thought out approach to dealing with data and the opportunity that it represents could be the blossoming of a new axis along which information processing could flourish. If we could merely hold off on the hyperbolic promises of a “new computing revolution” we might actually get a new computing revolution. One based on sound principles and technology – not quasi-logical marketing pablum. And as anyone who has ever lost a document on their own hard drive will tell you – finding what you’re looking for when you’re looking for it is far more important than the fact that you have seventeen copies of the document somewhere in the [terabytes of storage that we all take for granted as in the modern era].

If the internet solved the problem of getting shit from point A to point B – then the data revolution could help finally tell us what went where, when it went there, and might even give us a few guesses as to why. And that’s some Winston Wolf shit right there.

“Big Data” …. A Rant


So this is a repost of a piece that I wrote in anger about 20 or so months ago. Sadly little has changed and the world is still blindly marching towards the cliff of big data. I hope you enjoy reading about my hatred of shitty tech-marketing as much as I enjoyed drinking the alcohol that fueled this invective.

 ---8<------8<------8<------8<--- 

The next person to freely bandies about the phrase "big data" is going to get a kick in the dick from a dwarf. And if that's too sexist and dwarfist for you, then I'll extend the above threat to at your optioin include what ever painful non gender biased part of your reproductive tract is both marginally accessable and maximally painful (I'm fairly certain ((95% CI)) that I can find some portion of the anatomy that fits all the selection cirterion ). I'll even throw in an individual of average height to do the kicking - assuming a normally distributed population of at least 30 individuals.... just so you know that's a stats joke.

So what has me so pissed off about this? Firstly, I'm on a plane, and between the large corporations that couldn't give a shit about my flying expierence and the dedicated TSA agents who were vigilantly keeping their facebook accounts terror free on their mobile phones.... well as Jack Burton says "Son of a bitch must pay". (If you don't know who Jack Burton is - go to school and get ye some learnin'). So today I'm unleashing my pent up rage on the "Big Data" crew; devotes and neophytes alike.

So let me start out these 95 thesis with thesis number zero:

You do not have a big data problem. You have a functional ignorance problem.

Go back and read that a few times if necessary. Or to put it another way:

"Before you turned to big data, did you first try 'small data'(tm)"

Or to put it yet a third and more direct way, a way that all those who are falling in love with "Big Data" can simply understand:

"What's your fucking question?"

That's right - you heard me. "What's your fucking question?" Most people who are "turning to big data" in their time of need don't even know the question that they are questing for. As a result, many of the current "big data" set (pun intended) are collecting exabytes of data to hide their collective ignorance. They amass huge amounts of "data" (not information, mind you) and then wave the magic buzz word worthy technical concept of the day to make it seem like they have the provebial clue. The best part is, that until you know what the question is, it's difficult if not impossible to know what data might be helpful. It is highly unlikely that my purchase history from Amazon is going to help you locate the next of the closest time vulture or the next planetoid.

Even worse than clueless but well intended are the data unicorns that super glue wings onto pigs with a little math and then declare whole heartedly that pigs should fly because there is a strong corelation between wings and flight. Often times, data unicorns don't like the answer that they have in hand, so they collect more data in the hopes that reality will somehow bend to their will.

XKCD - Time Vultures

I angrily put forth the following: the very people who should be the champions of using powerful data analytics to answer interesting questions and make new business models - e.g. startups - are cheapening the term by using it to prop up and endless series of questionable business models and generally bad ideas.

Here's what I imagine happens durring the cool invesment pitch of the week:

MRS INVESTOR: Bob, thanks for comming. We're really interested in how WeasleDirect.com is going to use the money should we choose to invest.

BOB BIGDATA: Don't worry Mrs. Investor, we're going to collect every shred of information we can and the answers will magically appear to give you your $2.5M back.

MRS INVESTOR: That's really interesting, Bob, but I'm curious as to the specifics of how you're going to use that money. Are you going to hire a sales team? Are you going to use this to enter a new market? I'm a little concerned that the current market for home Weasle delivery is too small to return on our $2.5M investment through online direct sales.

BOB BIGDATA: MRS. Investor given the current increase in powerful data analysis tools, we expect that data collecting density will asymptotically approach what we like to call the Maginot Line. If we assume that people in the home Weasle delivery market are distributed as OUI^2; it's fairly trivial to then optimize the google funnel using a fairly standard Yahoo matrix. We're not sure what that looks like yet, but I feel confident that we can collect enough data to fill optmize the Yahoo matrix. It's a pretty standard "Big Data" problem.

At this point, what the investor hears is: "blah blah blah 'big data' blah blah blah...." and sends over a term sheet. Because, "big data" is the strategic spot for the early stage investor guy or gal, right?

Twelve months later, we return to a different scene:

MRS INVESTOR: Hi Bob, I'm a little concerned, I got a call from the bank saying that you've gone through the line of credit and that you're almost out of money?

BOB BIGDATA: We're confident that were close to figuring this out. We recently started asking customers to share daily bowel movement information with us. We think that it could be the key that unblocks this whole thing. It's pretty standard in 'Big Data' to run into these sorts of {$TECHNO_BABLE} issues.

MRS INVESTOR: Umm... okay. I'm a little worried about the fundamentals of your business model, Bob - can you walk me through it again?

BOB BIGDATA: Sure thing. If you look into these goat intrails that we've spread out on the white board, it's fairly intuitive and simple to see that our model has us owning 107% of the home Weasle deliver market.

By month 24 Bob Bigdata and homeweasele direct have pivoted six times and still don't have anything to show for it. What's more frustrating to Bob, is that each time, the pivot was "Data Driven" and was supported by "the numbers" from his

If the current trend continues "Big data" will become the snake oil of a new set of startups.... just like some other completely diluted and useless terms cough cloud cough....

I have an active interest in what was called descriptive statistics in the '60s and '70s; AI in the '80s; was reduced to the low point of DataWarehousing, Business Inteligence[^1] and Crystal reports in the '90s; and actually had it's first win starting in the 'OOs when a company we all know and love/hate set out to not be evil and organize the worlds information into easily advertisable knoweledge nuggets. And my take away from attempting to use the tactical nukes of the knowledge world are as follows:

  1. This shit is hard to get right.
  2. If you think you got it right, see rule \#1

Models often have hidden flaws that only get exposed in the real world. Randall's 12th law of Edge Cases: nothing generates more edge cases than the real world[^2]. You're model can be fine with test data, but break on production data. The sad part is that you won't know that it's broken until your auto suggestion algortihm starts reccomending home Euthenasia kits to people searching for elder care books.

[^1]: Ever noticed that almost anything with "Inteligent" as part of its' name or description merrits close scrutiny? e.g.: Central Inteligence Agency, Intelligent Design, Business Inteligence.

[^2]: I number my laws like old basic code just in case I need a law with higher numerical precedent[^3]....

[^3]: and because I make them up on the spot so inconsistent numbering makes it seem like there's some method to this madness.

This post isn't to vilify every company that mentions data analysis as being core to their product. On the contrary, when companies get it right - data analysis becomes a secret sauce that is difficult to compete against. Just ask Bing, Blockbuster and Borders who all had thier respective fates sealed by Google, Netflix, and Amazon. This post is an attempt to throw the wet blanket of reality onto the bonfire of investment that seems to be throwing perfectly good VC cash down the drain in the hopes that analyzing the data from your last game-mechanic-social-coupon-buying will finally have them making money instead of spending it. With so many companies hoping that a move into the "big data" space will save them, more than a few VC firms are going to start resembling OTB parlors where the patrons habitually double down on the lame horse because "he's due".

Now that I have you whipped into a frenzy and ready to storm the Bastile of "big data" with your pitchfork in hand. I must offer one small salve to the wound I've if not created, opened wide and poured alcohol in. Your reward for sifting through my vitriol are three places to look before you approach the "big data" event horizon. (This is the constructive part where I attempt to redeem this 10k charcter bitch fest.)

Three places to look before you hit big data:

Classical descriptive statistics.

Everytime you map reduce without drawing a box plot, God murders a marmoset. If you don't know what a box plot is, please run over to Wikipedia and check out their article on box plots. For most data sets, starting with boxplots and histograms does no harm and provides valuable insight on how to proceed. Far too often, we have one tiny nail to drive and you reach for a gigantic sledge hammer.

Simulation:

The forgotten tool of the computer age. Computers are awesome at simulating things. If you don't believe me, go watch the Battle Field 3 Thunder Run Trailer. Doom, Quake, Planetfall, Sim City - these are all simulations of highly varying fidelity. But all of them model a system based on the "real world" to a greater or lesser degree. Instead of recording down every possible piece of information - try recording a little bit of information and simulating the rest. This very technique lies at the heart of one of the more powerful techniques in the statistical tool box: Monte Carlo Simulation. Think of it like the AK-47, when you absolutely positively have to kill every... - well - you get the point.

Ignore it and it Might go Away/Be unimportant:

That's right - my favorite technique is to go focus on something else. Like your business model, or your golf swing. You might spend 2 years proving conclusively that those people who buy Malox also buy depends. Good on you mate, because you could have arrived at that same place by surveying your checkout girls or just asking AARP. Some questions just aren't that important or intreaguing. Let me revise that - MOST questions just aren't that important. Are you asking questions that are central to improving your product or service, or are you Yak Masturbating with CSV files?

Don’t Learn to Code

mantra |ˈmantrə, ˈmän-|

noun

(originally in Hinduism and Buddhism) a word or sound repeated to aid concentration in meditation.

• a Vedic hymn.

• a statement or slogan repeated frequently

• something people repeat all the fucking time without caring if it’s true.

Mantras are all the rage these days. Here in the valley it is difficult to swing a dead venture capitalist around your head without hearing the rotting carcass repeating some phrase that sounds credible. Until you spend more than 30 seconds thinking about it. The corpse gets extra points for including “gamification”, “big-data” or any sort of German sounding superlative: ”Nietzche-ing the gamification of big data analytics”. (I hear the soft rustling of term sheets getting hard just thinking about something this gamechanging.) So here’s the latest mantra that I’m hearing more and more that is starting to make sense less and less: “If you’re not ‘technical’ you should learn how to code.”

How can I put this succinctly: This statement is complete bullshit.

If you are not technical and you don’t want to be technical do the world a favor: don’t learn how to code.

If you don’t believe me that this latest piece of often repeated “conventional wisdom” is the worst sort of bullshit by all means read the rest of this rant and give me an opportunity to change your mind.

Perhaps you, dear reader, have dined out. Maybe even at a restaurant that doesn’t consider an espresso one of the four food groups. Major variances aside, the scene probably unfolds like this: You’re seated at a table. A few minutes later a menu is placed in front of you; a waiter of above average competence takes your drink order and asks if you’d like a cocktail. You have time to peruse the menu in relative ease. It has been a long week; you decide on something traditional – Caesar salad and a steak medium rare. A dry gin martini is just the cocktail to kick things off. Then perhaps a juicy Cote Du Rhone to match to the steak. At this point, the waiter comes back to you and comments on your exquisite taste in the selection of the wine and of the meal in general. You’re anticipating the fresh crisp of the lettuce. The sweet pepper-salt taste of the steak warm from the grill. The waiter strolls towards your table. He has a cart before him. Coming along side your table, he reveals what’s hidden beneath the cover: An apron, several butchers knives of questionable sharpness and directions on how to operate the commercial grill in the kitchen. He then slaps you across the face and tells you to learn how to cook your own goddamn steak.

Kind of ruins the mood, yeah?

Learning to code just to make a product is like going to a restaurant and having to know how to cook before ordering. Wait – it is worse than that – it is like having to attend five years at a top culinary school before you’re allowed to even look at the menu. The difference here? No sane individual would consider entering the kitchen of a Three Michelin Star restaurant and telling the chef how to cook a meal. If you sat down for a meal at the low low cost of three hundred euro a plate and then had the staff refuse to serve you unless you could prove you know how to cook you’d likely depart the restaurant a wee bit pissed off.

Telling someone that they should learn to code is analogous.

Reducing a professional task – creating good software – to something that can recreated by following these simple steps…. or a list of instructions (Insert code fragment A into compiler slot B) ignores exactly how complicated creating good software is. It ignores nuance. Being “good” at anything requires knowledge but more importantly it demands context.

Still think that this hyperbole? Assembling IKEA furniture is the number one task on Task Rabbit. Ikea is designed for self assembly; software as a general rule is not. Still don’t believe me? Watching KungFu movies doesn’t give you the ability to fight. It will let you get your ass kicked by someone who has studied how to fight and painfully demonstrate how the context of fighting is different than the knowledge of fighting. If you insist that straw-men be planted firmly in the hay bales of reality consider the medical profession. Medical residency gives admittedly knowledge rich MDs the proper context to become effective physicians.

The next time someone glibly throws out “just learn how to code”. I humbly submit that you should tell them that you’ve watched a whole season of ER and are willing to operate

Skeletons in Societies’ Closet

The world slowly decays
Destruction fills my eyes
Harboring the image
Of a spiraling demise…
- Slayer – Skeletons of Society

TLDR: If the world get’s any more economically unbalanced, we’re all fucked. Don’t believe me? Watch “Tell Me and I Will Forget”.

Somewhat fitting that on the last full shopping day before Christmas that I should spend the day with a few choice documentaries on Netflix. My own bias is that I will watch anything on Netflix that has a 3.0 or greater and I must watch anything that Netflix tells me is a 4.0 or greater. This system is working well for me. Countless stories I would ignore have become unexpected gems in my personal cinematic experience (cough, Revenge)[1]. Today Netflix took me to someplace new. With two documentaries and three hours of my time, I found myself thinking about the meaning of social justice. The two films:

“Tell Me And I Will Forget”

“Murder by Proxy: How America Went Postal”

Both are available online for the cost of nothing more than your time. Both are worth an investment. Go and watch them; I’ll wait.

Invest 3 Hours of Your Life

We live in an increasingly disturbing world. One where mass shootings and work place violence increasing[2]. We search for answers but find none. The media declaims that these incidents are the works of deranged individuals and have neither rhyme nor reason. Politicians seek to win easy votes by explaining away the violence with the panacea of gun control[3] while ignoring the increasing trend of decreasing funds for mental health services[4].

Social Justice is a term often bandied about but seldom infused with personal meaning. It is difficult to understand societal problems in a meaningful way. The abstract nature of a societal scale problems pushes the problem towards the intangible and then the intractable. Some vague conceptual construct that only matters when impressing friends with cocktail conversation. That’s how I viewed social justice before spending three hours with these two films. In three hours I gained a sobering – no – chilling understanding of the “true” meaning of social justice[5]: Social justice is not about equality. It is about sustainability. Societies without a bias towards some form of Social Justice lack sustainability and as a result cannot have stability. Unsurprisingly, this instability is attributable to extreme economic disparity between rich and poor.

A society without social justice doesn’t need to ask if its society will collapse; it needs to ask when.

Societal Collapse by the Numbers

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.”

- Abraham Lincoln, the “House Divided Speech”

“… What he said, but s/slave/poor/g ; s/free/rich/g

- Me

Context is important. History has shown us time and time again: societal division eventually leads to revolution[6]. The most common division is along Economic lines. (I submit that the majority of religious revolutions were/are in fact driven by economics, but that’s another rant.) Never in the history of America has the chasm between rich and poor been so vast. According to the “State of Working America Report”, “America’s low- and middle-income families have suffered a lost decade” and could face “Another lost decade…”[7]. CEO compensation reached an all time high of 300 times the average workers’ pay[8] in the 1990s. As of 2005, CEO pay represented an astounding multiple of 821 times minimum wage[9]. In the years 1979 to 2007 63.1% of all income accumulated to the top 10% of earners in the US with the top 1% gaining the largest share of 38.3%. Or putting it thus: of all income growth between 1979 and 2007 only 36.9% went to the bottom 90% of earners in the United States[10]. These number represent a staggering inequality of income distribution. However, when considering actual wealth distribution the distributions are even more screwed – er – skewed[11]. The data clearly supports the following conclusion: the difference between the haves and the have-nots is undeniably really and grossly understated[12].[13]

Income Growth from 1997 to 2007 - provided by

Income Growth from 1997 to 2007

Where are we going and why are we in this hand-basket…

In an era where people continually ask where “American Society as a whole” – one of many contrived fictions we hold so dearly about the structure of America – is going, “Tell Me And I Will Forget” allows us to see all too clearly the endgame of America’s Economic Apartheid.

With a GDP of USD $408 billion, South Africa represents the largest economy on the African continent[14]. Since the fall of Apartheid in 1994 South Africa is in a rapid spiral of societal decay and is currently courting failed state status[15]. (Ironically, the US does not earn the highest ranking of “sustainable” and comes in at 159 on the list with a “moderate” rating: behind such economic luminaries as Romania [126], Spain [153] and – wait for it – Greece [138].)

“Murder by Proxy: How America Went Postal” is the story of how lack of social justice becomes imbedded in our everyday institutions. Using the postal killings as a case study, “Murder by Proxy” peels back the layers beneath the surface of spontaneous violence. Revealing that the violence is neither spontaneous nor attributable to simple sources. The film exposes common factors behind people “going Postal”:

  • economic pressure
  • social isolation
  • embedding in an abusive environment (work, school, home)
  • No or limited access to mental and social support services

Both films present strong cases that the root cause is primarily economic in nature. In the case of the Postal system privatization created a shift from sustainable work environments towards profit at any cost. In the case of South Africa, the physical end of Apartheid did little to change the economic circumstance of the underclass of South Africa. Overwhelming economic advantage had already accumulated to the White superclass in South Africa and as a result, the end of Apartheid merely legitimized the amassing of wealth in to the hands of very few by allowing them the chance to say “mea culpa” without actually having to cede any previously plundered advantage[16]. “Tell Me And I Will Forget” depicts literal life and death inequality comparing the two “separate but equal” systems that provide emergency medical services throughout South Africa. In an era where the New Deal is dead and everything from the “US” Postal Service[17], to prisons, to the Military has been privatized[18]. We are faced with the disturbing likelihood that a strictly for-profit society is inherently unsustainable over any period of time covered by human history.

Being a part/beneficiary of the system doesn’t mean that you can’t see the injustice of the system.
If this continues… we’re all fucked.


  1. A show I never expected to like. But that is strangely engrossing. I’m only slightly ashamed to admit this.  ↩

  2. Detailed breakdown of workplace violence in the US covering the years 1997 to 2010(pdf) is available from the Bureau of Labor and statistics  ↩

  3. The Washington Post has a well balanced article backed by research that clarifies there are no easy answers to “gun violence” and “mass shootings”  ↩

  4. According to this report by the National Alliance on Mental Health States have cut more than $1.6 billon from mental health service budgets between 2009 and 2011  ↩

  5. Yes this is a bit rhetorical. Like everything there are multiple aspects and equality is just one of many  ↩

  6. Wikipedia has a list of revolutions going back to c. 2380 BC. The most fascinating part is that the list is not exhaustive and the “See Also” section is extensive. There is an entire “taxonomy of revolution” that we use to summarize the reasons behind social violence  ↩

  7. Key findings from the report on “The State of Working America”  ↩

  8. Economic Policy institute study on CEO pay from 1965–2010. The majority of this growth clearly started in the 80s’ and the introduction of “Trickle Down Economics” under the Regan administration.  ↩

  9. ”CEO Minimum Wage Ratio Soars”  ↩

  10. Source – EPI State Of Working America, figure 2Y  ↩

  11. A plain english explanation of Wealth distribution in 1998. Available data shows that the accumulation of wealth by the top 10% of Americans is still increasing. CPBB Study on “Historical Trends in Income Inequality”  ↩

  12. Pew Research Center, “A Nation of Haves and Have-Nots”  ↩

  13. The Economic Policy Institute has great research on the current state of the US economy. You can follow them as @EconomicPolicy on Twitter.  ↩

  14. Source: TradingEconomics.com Current GDP is USD 408 Billion, or 28th world wide  ↩

  15. Wikipedia “List of Countries by Failed States Index” South Africa ranks 115 out of 125 states under the “Warning” category  ↩

  16. ”Poverty and Inequality after Apartheid”(pdf) by Jeremy Seekings  ↩

  17. According to CNN Money, the USPS is the third largest private corporation in the US. Despite being a private company, and being the second largest civilian employer in the US after Wal-Mart, the CATO institute sites the USPS as having myriad economically damning problems  ↩

  18. I think reduction to absurdity provides the strongest arguments against unbounded capitalism. Few people would enjoy a justice system where murder of a loved was not prosecuted because the perpetrator could afford the going market price of a murder. Or consider if a doctors rate for providing services went up depending on if were suffering from a gun shot wound or merely tennis elbow. (The general term for this would be extortion.) In most cases we can argue that capitalism without limits results in a society without moral authority to carry out day to day processes.  ↩