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Advanced Bullshit

Besides giving the best solution ever to the problem of dealing with overwhelming and irreconcilable commitments, David Allen's Getting Things Done introduces the interesting concept of advanced common sense, i.e. ideas that seem trivial at first glance but are revealed as profound after you work on them for a little while.

The flip side of this coin can be called advanced bullshit: ideas that look insightful at first glance, but are revealed as completely worthless after a little investigation.

Exhibit 1, a photo montage apparently shared by all my facebook friends and their brother:

Wow. A guy whose only crime was sharing music on the internet got 50 years in prison, while murderers get away with 20 years or a few months. What a sick sad world we live in.

Or do we? Let's dig just a little deeper.

I couldn't find any corroborating evidence on Miguel Carano, the "middle guy". But a man convicted of rape and murder getting 20 years in prison is hardly news. Some would argue he deserves the electric chair, or at least life in prison with no possibility of parole. I think we can all agree that anyone who commits such a heinous crime should be put away for a very, very long time. Which is exactly what reportedly happened here. Not news.

The main story I took from that picture, and I'll guess most viewers did as well, was about the two extremes: one guy got 50 years for sharing music, another didn't even get 3 months for killing 24 men, women and children.

The latter's story is complicated. At one point he was by all accounts a great kid, who chose to serve his country by enlisting in the US Marines around the turn of the millennium. In 2005, that led him to patrol duty in contested areas of Iraq. At that time, a convoy under his direction struck an IED, which literally cut one of his comrades in half.

The events that followed this will never be precisely known, but they clearly led to the death of 24 civilians who had nothing to do with the bomb that triggered the massacre. Whatever happened, Frank Wuterich was the commanding officer of the group that killed civilians, and as such he certainly bears responsibility for the death of innocent people. According to several testimonies, he straight out executed innocent civilians as retribution for the deaths of his comrades. Again, we'll never know exactly what happened, but had I been on the jury, I'd have made the case that he shouldn't ever be in a commanding position again (which seems to be the case), and I'd have argued for a lengthy prison sentence as well.

And yet, to say that this man "killed 24 men, women and children" without any context whatsoever seems to me an unacceptable simplification. I don't know about you, but when I hear about killers, I think of cold-blooded murderers who don't give a shit about human life. I'm certainly not one of those, but if I ever see one of my close friends blow apart before my eyes, I can't totally rule out going insane and committing unpardonable crimes. We've known for a long time that wars make good people do unspeakable evil. Should those people be held accountable for their crimes? Undoubtedly. But assimilating those crimes with those of psychopaths who, under no particular threat, slaughtered human beings only because it was convenient, seems morally indefensible to me.

So what about the first guy, Kim Dotcom Schmitz, who only shared music on the internet yet was sentenced to 50 years in prison? Well, the first thing of note is that he's done quite a bit more with his life than sharing music. He was convicted of fraud and embezzlement a decade ago, and his activities since then have been shady at best. By all accounts he's a ruthless businessman who's only in it for the money. Nothing wrong with that, but describing him simply as a guy who "shares", Jimmy Wales-style, is a tad disingenuous.

More importantly, he has not been sentenced to 50 years in prison. He's only been arrested during an ongoing investigation. What sentence he faces for his alleged crimes is anyone's guess, but the "50 years" figure seems to me 100% made-up. Maybe I should have started this post with this fact, which proves the whole premise of this picture is complete bullshit. In reality, the only thing Kim faces at the moment is extradition from New Zealand to the US, where he'll face charges of copyright infringement or I don't know what else (IANAL). Those charges might add up to a lot, I have no idea, but those "50 years" seem to me a completely arbitrary number, which was devised not as a realistic estimate, but as some figure that would suggest the other two criminals got away easy.

Maybe I've been reading too much Kahneman lately, but this picture strikes me as a perverse use of the halo effect masquerading as social critique: you like file sharing, thus you assume Kim Schmitz is a really good guy who's being unfairly treated. You dislike the Iraq War, thus Frank Wuterich is surely a blood-thirsty murderer who deserves to rot in prison for the next century or so. None of this helps you or anyone else think any clearer about the legality of file sharing or the appropriate way to prosecute soldiers who kill civilians. The only thing it does is fuel righteous indignation, which may be psychologically satisfying but really doesn't help in the long run.

Now, don't get me wrong: if you believe military personnel who abuse their power and commit atrocities towards civilians should face harsher punishment than they currently do, I entirely agree. If you believe current anti-piracy laws are at best ill-designed and in practice unduly harsh on infringers, again, I completely agree.

But these are important debates, and we should address them from rational bases, grounded in real, ascertainable facts. My point is that an artificial juxtaposition of Kim Schmitz and Frank Wuterich, and the sentences they face, accompanied by ridiculously incomplete background info and utterly made-up numbers, doesn't help these debates at all.


Nobody Cares About Apps

Via Daring Fireball, I came upon a post by Mark Damon Hughes arguing that Apps Are the New Apps, or in a few more words, that success in the smartphone market is "all about who has the most good apps." Ergo, Windows Phone 7 is doomed.

I'm not so sure. Windows Phone 7 may or may not succeed commercially, but if it fails I don't think it will be primarily because of its App Market. Although Hughes' argument seems plausible at first glance — all computing platforms, game consoles, etc. are only as succesful as their apps are good — for me it starts breaking down around paragraph 2:

Right now, and for the forseeable future, that's iOS. Android's store is mostly junk, often outright frauds or viruses, but it's on the chart. Everybody else is in the gutter, under 50,000


[Developers] ship on the best platform: iOS. If you have time and money, you maybe target the also-ran Android […] This costs a lot, because us iOS devs are not cheap; even Android devs aren't as cheap as you'd think. […] Developing on the gutter platforms like Symbian, Blackberry, or Windows Phone 7 won't even pay the bills.

Small problem with this argument: by market share, the also-ran is iOS. How is that possible if what people look for in a smartphone is a huge number of good apps? Yet Hughes seems absolutely convinced of that:
When you ask people what they do with their phones, they talk about apps. […] Small talk now consists of "check out these awesome apps I found!"

I think the issue here is sampling bias. Hughes is an iOS developer, and presumably knows disproportionately many people who use iOS and are excited about apps. Talking with my dev friends, I also hear: you should try this app! Most often it's an iOS app, sometimes it's an Android app (I use both) but yes, apps are exciting. Among devs and tech-enthusiasts.

Outside this bubble, things are very different. When one of my non-geek friends, and yes I do have a few of those, asks me for advice on what smartphone to buy, apps almost never enter the picture. (By the way, phones in Belgium are only sold unsubsidized, so these "non-geeks" are still ready to spend more than 500€ on a phone. We're not talking about luddites.) Here's a typical request: "My mom wants a smart phone. She wants to be able to show her friends pictures, answer emails, go on facebook or other random sites." All current major platforms can do this without third-party apps, and for some use cases, Windows Phone 7 might be the best.

Obviously smartphones are much better with apps. But what they really need is a few good apps. Mail, twitter, facebook clients. Kindle. Angry Birds. Maybe Spotify. Windows Phone 7 has all of these, and it has much better games than Android. Sure, it doesn't have anything like the breadth of creative, high-quality apps that the iPhone has, because indie developers are much more likely to make money on iOS than on any other platform. However, the "must-have" apps are not built by indie developers. They're financed by big firms like facebook who want their mobile apps on every platform.

If Windows Phones become as desirable out-of-the-box as the competition, and arguably they already are, people will try them in the store, confirm with the vendor that, yes, facebook works, and buy them. Granted, someone who already bought 40 apps on another platform is unlikely to switch, but those are a minority: many people have yet to buy their first smartphone, Apple has less than 30% of the smartphone market, and Android users rarely buy apps.

I also disagree with John Gruber about the problem of WP7 dev tools being windows-only:

I also suspect, like Hughes, that it’s a big problem for Microsoft that developers need to use Windows to develop for Windows Phone. Sure, a majority of all “programmers” in the world may well still be using Windows, but because of iOS, an overwhelming majority of the best mobile app programmers in the world are on Mac OS X.

My guess is that many, perhaps most of these programmers switched to the Mac because of the opportunity provided by iOS. They're still familiar with Windows. If demand for Windows Phone 7 development increases, they'll simply dual-boot Windows 7 and start coding.

Now I'm not saying that this will necessarily happen. Microsoft is perfectly capable of screwing this up. Customers may fail to warm to the platform in spite of its critical appeal. Perhaps the carriers will insist on pushing Android no matter what. And yet, as long as the big guys continue to target Windows Phone 7, which seems to be the case, and Microsoft continues improving what is already a remarkable platform, reports of WP7's demise seem highly premature.


Sexism, Science and Journalism

Earlier today I stumbled on a Slate article by Mark Regnerus pondering Why Young Men Have the Upper Hand in Bed, Even When They’re Failing in Life. It raises many interesting questions, the most prominent of which being, Why on Earth is this dumbass writing for Slate?

The core argument of the article seems to be:

  1. Women have little interest in sex except as part of a long-term relationship leading to marriage and children
  2. Many observed sexual relationships aren't long-term nor destined for marriage or children
  3. It follows that men currently have the upper hand on the dating scene. To explain why, we turn to "sexual economics".

My beef is mostly with proposition number 1. First, while I certainly have no knowledge of Mr. Regnerus' sexual prowesses, I can't help but mention that while I'm a computer nerd who never hits the gym, I've been lucky enough to personally establish some anecdotal evidence that his premise is bullshit. But never mind that, let's see how he justifies it:

[O]n average, men want sex more than women do. Call it sexist, call it whatever you want—the evidence shows it's true. In one frequently cited study, attractive young researchers separately approached opposite-sex strangers on Florida State University's campus and proposed casual sex. Three-quarters of the men were game, but not one woman said yes.

So scientists have found that approaching strange women and offering to take them to your place so they can have sex with you is not a very effective strategy. Who knew?

How dim do you have to be to read this result and unequivocally conclude that women want sex less than men do? Really, you can't think of any other reason for this result? Let's think about it for about twelve seconds: I bet more than once you've heard a promiscuous girl being berated as a "slut". You're just as likely to have heard a promiscuous guy admired as a "stud". Can you even imagine the reverse occurring? Do words for "male slut" or "female stud" even exist? What do you think that says about social views on promiscuity? Don't you think that might play a role in how members of both sexes react to offers of casual sex from total strangers? And that's without even considering that the overwhelming majority of sexual predators are male, and that everyone knows this.

Now, as a general tip, whenever you hear or read anyone saying "I know this sounds outrageous, but the science says…", you better check the science. Here's that frequently cited study:

Of course, the sociological interpretation — that women are interested in love while men are interested in sex — is not the only possible interpretation of these data. It may be, of course, that both men and women were equally interested in sex, but that men associated fewer risks with accepting a sexual invitation than did women. Men may be more confident of their ability to fight back a physical assault than are women. Also, the remnants of the double standard may make women afraid to accept the man's invitation.

Another general tip: if you must quote an article in writing, unless you enjoy looking like an idiot, you should probably read it first.

Back to Slate:

I know: Women love sex too. But research like this consistently demonstrates that men have a greater and far less discriminating appetite for it.

This is not entirely wrong, but it's incomplete. It's worth mentioning that mostly-heterosexual women are much more likely to experiment with homosexual sex than mostly-heterosexual men are. (Again, not to question Mr. Regnerus' social life, but this is the kind of knowledge most people eventually pick up just by virtue of being alive.) This would seem to put a serious dent in the whole "women are mostly into sex for the children" theory.

But, more precisely, women are much more likely to report having flirted with same-sex experimentation. We don't know what men and women are actually doing, we can only compare what they admit they're doing. And this applies to just about every study about sex drive and promiscuity.

And yet everybody pretends these biases don't exist. What's the word for "male slut"? "Womanizer" is defined as "A habitual seducer of women." Compare that with "slut: (countable, derogatory) a sexually promiscuous woman or girl." How can one ignore that kind of societal reality when discussing how the different sexes react to offerings of sexual gratification?

This affects a lot more than sexuality. Among my crowd, it's hard to escape the fact that computer science and engineering are male-dominated fields. Even feminists such as myself who deplore this reality are not sure what, if anything, should be done about it. Quotas are far from a perfect solution. Other policies take ages to have any effect. And, yes, it's not impossible that there exists benign reasons why these fields are less attractive to women than men.

But one would be crazy to argue that the current imbalance is the result of a level playing field. I could list many reasons why potentially great female engineers never even consider the career, but Zach Weiner makes this point more elegantly than I can.

I'm not saying that women necessarily have the same sex drive as men. Nor that there cannot in principle be any differences in abilities for different tasks among the sexes — although everything I've seen tells me that the often heard "girls suck at math" is completely false. My point is that as long as these unacknowledged prejudices are entrenched in our society, it is extremely hard to draw any conclusion on what each gender is fundamentally good at, or what it fundamentally wants. (Arguably those "fundamentals" are really meaningless, because all relationships take place inside a social context.) But as long as we overwhelmingly accept these prejudices as "truths", those who fall outside their bounds will be less happy, and contribute less to society than they could.

Also, if you're writing a paper about gender attitudes towards sex, and you ignore this entire societal context, you're a fucking idiot.


Is Facebook Too Crowded?

Uncrunched via Strategyist:

[M]ost of us aren’t going to spend the time removing friends on Facebook. Instead many of us are using new social networks, like Path (we’re an investor) and the upcoming Just.Me (we’re also investors, guess how much we like this space) to start fresh. Facebook is for thousands of people you don’t know. The start fresh new services can be finely crafted from the start to include only your actual friends. And they’re made for mobile.

Michael Arrington isn't making any sense. If taking a few seconds to remove an unwanted friend from facebook takes "too long", what about rebuilding your entire social network from scratch ? What about doing that regularly, each time a new up-and-coming social networking platform looks promising, because you never know what's going to take off, and anyway the last one is now "too crowded"?

I made a similar mistake about a year ago when I stopped using RSS readers. I was following so many blogs that I spent a ridiculous amount of time just trying, and failing, to keep up with the flow. I then noticed that this was much less of a problem on twitter. Because it doesn't care about "read" and "unread" items, twitter makes you feel a lot less guilty about not reading a few updates. So I uninstalled NetNewsWire and started following my favorite blogs on twitter instead.

This worked well for a while, but over time I gradually realized that for some of these blogs I really, really want to read every single post. Twitter does not make that easy, for the same reason that made it attractive to me at first: it doesn't keep track of read articles. Thus you need to manually skim lists of tweets, trying to remember which ones point to blog posts you've already read. I ended up just regularly visiting my favorite blogs by typing URLs in the good ol' fashioned browser. Of course, not knowing when a given blog had been updated, I spent much time loading pages without a single new post, or scrolling down a lot looking for the latest thing I'd read.

Only a few weeks ago did I reflect on my ridiculous behavior long enough to remember that there's a cool 12-year old technology that makes for a much-smarter way of doing things. So I reinstalled NetNewsWire, but this time I'm only subscribing to the blogs I absolutely want to read exhaustively. And if this list changes for any reason, I will ruthlessly unsubscribe from low-quality time-wasters.

Well, I wish. If history's any guide, a couple months from now I'll have 2000 unread posts on 43 different blogs. There's still a lesson behind this story though: Before you give in to frustration and look for a different platform, make sure the problem doesn't come from your expectations and behaviors.

If your expectation is that you can follow dozens of blogs, never skip a post, do something useful with your life and not feel completely miserable, no platform can help you. Some may be more efficient than others, but that will give you only incremental gains at best. At worst, the added efficiency only encourages you to subscribe to more feeds. Similarly, while OmniFocus can be a more efficient task manager than Excel, as long as you regularly review and cull your lists, Excel does the job very well. On the other hand, if you don't do reviews, even OmniFocus won't really help you make the best use of your time.

So the way to deal with facebook overload is not to look for a better platform, but to change your behavior. You can friend everybody you ever meet. You can read all the updates from all your friends. You can spend less than 8 hours a day on facebook. But you can't do all three. Pick.

Sure, facebook's news feed can quickly become overwhelming. Everyone is on facebook, and many of them are playing MafiaWars or FarmVille or some other hell fresh out of Zynga's Factory of Doom. But it gives you tools to help tame the flow, for example by blocking certain users or apps. If that's not enough, you can unfriend people. Or you can do what I do, and stop caring that maybe you're missing out on stuff. If it's that important, you'll learn about it outside facebook.

I'm not saying facebook is perfect. Of course, I wish it gave me even better filtering tools. But to think that a just-released platform is going to do a better job, in fact such a better job that it's worth rebuilding your entire network over there, that's just madness. Yes, my timeline is cleaner on Path than on facebook, but that's entirely because it's easier to organize updates from 7 friends than from 500+.

Actually, I'm pretty sure Arrington doesn't mean what he says. His post is only a transparent attempt to generate publicity for the social networks backed by his fund. I'm happy to play along with this, because I really like Path. (I haven't tried the other ones.) It's not going to replace facebook, nor I think is it intended to. But it's a beautiful little app, and you should try it out. Just don't think for a moment that it would be better than facebook at doing what facebook does.


Meet the Santorums

There is a lot of discussion on liberal blogs about how social über-conservative Rick Santorum's wife might or might not have had an abortion. I find the coverage of this story troubling on at least two levels.

First, I can hardly believe how callous every journalist writing about this seems to be. Don't get me wrong: I have slightly less respect for the Senator than I do for toxic pond scum. But even pond scum don't deserve to go through such a horrific experience. We're talking about a couple who saw their fourth child die in just about the worst way imaginable, nearly taking his mother with him. For me the story only confirms how immoral and dangerous the Santorums' "values" are, but can't we show a little compassion for what they went through, no matter their somewhat creepy reaction to it? The only trace of sentiment I've read comes from Irin Carmon, who feels "uncomfortable about having gone this far up Karen Santorum's womb." So pain and fear and sickness and a child dying in his father's arms while his mother fights for her life don't faze you, but you're really uncomfortable talking about anatomy? Unbelievable.

The more important question is why are critics content merely with charging Rick Santorum of hypocrisy? It is by far the least onerous charge one can make about him based on this story, and besides, it is completely false. On the contrary, this confirms two things about Santorum's position on abortion: he and his wife fundamentally believe in it, and it is unambiguously immoral.

Shortly after having undergone risky intrauterine surgery to correct a malformation while 19-weeks pregnant, Karen Santorum develops a high fever and rushes to the hospital with her husband. The doctors quickly tell them that she is only hours away from life-threatening septic shock and needs antibiotics. They also say her body is going to react by miscarrying to expel the source of the infection, and that they can give her drugs to ease the process. Karen answers "We’re not inducing labor, that’s an abortion. No way. That isn’t going to happen. I don’t care what happens." Later when labour starts as predicted she asks her doctors to "make it stop". They refuse. The baby is born, and dies a couple of hours later.

As gut-wrenchingly sad as this is, it also shows moral confusion on a scale that almost defies comprehension. What is the principle behind Karen saying "[…] that's an abortion. No way. That isn't going to happen. I don't care what happens."? It can't be the sanctity of life. If all human life is sacred, surely delaying labour is wrong when it puts a viable life at risk while doing nothing to save a doomed one. If the principle is not to artificially oppose nature, or God's will, then why attempt to correct the initial malformation with surgery? The only coherent way to reduce the Santorums' actions to fundamental principles is if one of these unquestioned principles is "Abortion is wrong. No matter the circumstances."

In the aftermath, Rick Santorum said: "Obviously, if it was a choice of whether both Karen and the child are going to die or just the child is going to die, I mean it's a pretty easy call." Indeed, that seems a devastating but inescapable conclusion to me. But it is one that they only came to at the last possible moment. Of course no-one can blame them for what either of them said or did during such an emotionally trying event, but this sentence is not a direct quote relayed by innocent bystanders. Rather it is one of the rare quotes from the story as told by the Santorums themselves, after the fact, and they, with the benefit of hindsight, still chose to include the "No way I'm having an abortion" line. I can only assume they think this stance is morally laudable, despite the eventual inevitability of making the "pretty easy call" that, as Brad DeLong opines, is "one that Rick Santorum claims to be in favor of making a crime."

Athough most in the media apparently don't want to mention it, this moral confusion is not unconnected to the Santorums being catholic fundamentalists. Don't get me wrong: I know many Christians are horrified at the idea of making a life-saving operation criminal. Even in the United States, nearly two-thirds of Catholics don't agree that abortion is morally wrong in all cases. Catholicism is neither a required nor a sufficient condition for making the wrong moral choices in these matters. But I can't for the life of me imagine how a secular person could ever reach the moral position the Santorums found during this story. Their stance on abortion doesn't come from the sanctity of life, nor from respect for natural law. It is all about the church declaring that abortion is evil. If you genuinely believe the Pope to be the Vicar of Christ on Earth, this is likely to trump all other considerations, be it medicine, common sense, or your responsibility to your already-born children. The sheer untenability of this position goes some way to explain falling church attendance in much of the world.

Thus the scariest thing about the Santorums is that they're not at all hypocrites: they're perfectly sincere. In matters of life-and-death, their first reference is the preachings of their church, above what the doctors tell them, above what simple common-sense would tell them is in the best interests of all their children — including those already born. And they believe this gives them the moral high-ground. Not only is Rick Santorum defending a position that many consider morally repugnant, he wants those who'd make a different choice to be prosecuted as murderers. And he thinks this gives him the moral high-ground.

In perhaps the most quoted passage of John Stuart Mill's autobiography, he describes his father's attitude towards religion thus:

"As it was, his aversion to religion, in the sense usually attached to the term, was of the same kind as that of Lucretius; he regarded it with the feeling due not a mere mental delusion, but to a great moral evil. He looked upon it as the greatest enemy of morality; by setting up factitious excellencies — belief in creeds, devotional feelings, and ceremonies, not connected with the good of human kind — and causing these to be accepted as substitutes for genuine virtues; but above all, by radically vitiating the standard of morals, making it consist in doing the will of a being, on whom it lavishes indeed all the phrases of adulation, but whom in sober truth it depicts as eminently hateful."

Yes indeed, former Senator and presidential hopeful Santorum's "values" are not connected to the good of human kind, or even of this own family. Mill's father died in 1836, Lucretius around 55BC. Yet in the 21st century, their argument on religion's potentially toxic influence on morality remains frighteningly relevant.

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