Politicians and Moving Goalposts

I’ve heard some friends express frustration that our political leaders keep changing what they’re asking of the population: Don’t wear a mask. Quarantine for a month to flatten the curve. Now wear a mask. Quarantine for a year until we get a vaccine. Going to the grocery is OK, but attending church isn’t. Social distancing.

We keep doing what we’re asked, hoping the latest will finally end all of this, and are understandably deeply frustrated and angry when our leaders keep throwing up now obstacles in this strange, infectious steeplechase.

The fact is, however, that our leaders are responding to a reality that is still not fully understood. Flattening the curve was a goal, and one could argue that we’ve done so. But bear in mind that this was a tactical goal. The strategic goal is to minimize the overall harm to the population, and the methods used have to change as we learn more.

Eisenhower said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” That is, when we learn more about the situation on the ground, the battle plan always has to be adjusted to account for the new information. The goalposts have to be moved. Refusing to adjust plans as we learn more loses battles.

So is going back to work risky? Of course, the answer to this is “sometimes.” Consider: The folks in the meatpacking industry who have seen severe outbreaks. Workers who are medically vulnerable. Parents who will have to send their kids back to a daycare with other sick kids. Those who live with their elderly abuelitas. Single parents who can’t find an open daycare.

But conversely, not going back to work is also causing a lot of people huge economic harm. Unemployment is at an all-time high in the US. The same parents who can’t put their kids in daycare are struggling to make ends meet. And the poor, who are most medically vulnerable, are also the most economically at risk from a few missed paychecks.

The easy road for a statesman to take would be to advocate for one extreme or another: “Open the country wide! Let’s get back to normal!” or “Everybody buckle down and stay home until we have a vaccine.” But either course would be catastrophic.

The immensely difficult task for a responsible leader is to recognize and balance the harm to lives with the harm to livelihoods and to do so with a still-incomplete understanding of COVID’s characteristics.

We have doubtless made mistakes and will continue to do so. But let those mistakes be born from the things we don’t yet know rather than a willful refusal to look at the very real challenges and suffering that people in different circumstances are experiencing.

On COVID Contact Tracing Apps

I’ve heard some friends express concerns about these being used for government surveillance. As a civil libertarian, I share your reservations.

I’ve also been a mobile developer for nearly a decade and have done a good deal of professional work around the location-tracking and proximity detection technologies that these rely on, so know firsthand what these apps can do.

My short take: if an app asks for access to your location data or contact list, granting that will give more info than you want to share. If it instead asks to use the privacy-preserving contact-tracing capabilities Apple and Google built into the latest versions of their operating systems, it cannot be used to track your location or any personally-identifiable information, and you can use it with confidence.

None of these have been released in the US yet, but they should be coming soon. I’ll share further info on them when they are.

You Have Unlocked an Achievement: Prognostication

A while back, I wrote a post on Workplace Motivation and Game Mechanics, where I speculated on the efficacy of using game systems, like achievements, awarding points, high score lists, etc., to help motivate people in the workplace.

Last week at the DICE Summit, Carnegie-Mellon Assistant Professor of Education and Technology Jesse Schell gave a terrific talk where he takes some similar ideas and goes wild with them, applying them to teaching, marketing, government incentives, and more. Really interesting, thought-provoking stuff, and well worth a viewing if you’re remotely interested in any of these areas:

An Open Letter to Wake The Dead Coffee House

Hi Julie,

I saw the other day that some folks in the neighborhood are petitioning to have your beer & wine license revoked, due to a perceived negative impact on the neighborhood. As a resident of the same neighborhood, I wanted you to know that I’m against that action for a variety of reasons.

I’m a big proponent of walkable neighborhoods, since more foot traffic means less car traffic, less pollution, and better health. Our neighborhood, unfortunately, is not a particularly walkable one. Until Wake the Dead opened, there was no place to be able to meet friends, enjoy a drink, or get a bit to eat within reasonable distance. Having the shop within a few blocks of our home has been a boon to our family, as we all enjoy going by regularly — usually on foot.

When our family visited England a few years ago, we fell in love with the pub culture there. The opportunity to bring the whole family and for the adults to have a beer and a sandwich while the kids played was terrific, and somewhat unique for us, since so few places in the U.S. combine those pleasures. Since our return to San Marcos after that trip, we were delighted to see Tantra open, which brought that same spirit (albeit with a patchouli-scented style) to San Marcos. We were further thrilled when Wake the Dead opened down the street, as it brought more of that open, inviting atmosphere to our city, this time within walking distance of our house!

So it’s a rare week indeed when some of our family isn’t down there. My wife and I enjoy slipping down the road for a quiet place and a cuppa or a brew. My 13 year old daughter loves to go down and have a frappe with one of her friends. My 10 year old will happily while away a half hour taking on any willing opponents at ping-pong. And, of course, we come visit frequently for the Irish music session and for movies.

I’m honestly a bit baffled by the hostility some of our neighbors have shown, since each time I know of that concerns about noise levels, handicapped access, etc. have been brought to you, you’ve been receptive to the concerns. Further, none of the issues the neighbors cite seem to have much to do with the beer & wine license, so it surprises me that they would come out so strongly against that particularly. And while I certainly don’t want people driving drunk through our neighborhood (or at all), it is my experience that those who want to get sloshed aren’t likely to seek out a coffee shop for that purpose.

So, in summary, I do hope the shop remains open and busy for many years to come. It is currently one of my favorite features of our neighborhood, and I would be inclined to pay more for any house with a coffee shop of its quality within walking distance.

Best wishes,
Sean McMains
940 239 4202


A couple of good articles I’ve stumbled across recently on various current events:

  • Barry Brake rejoices at the restoration of habeus corpus by the US Supreme Court. But sweet betty boop, how is it that this is even contentious? Certainly the cost of arranging hearings for these folks would be the merest fraction of the cost of sending our army overseas, and failing to do so only breeds further resentment of our nation and its policies. While the Constitution does allow for suspension of this right during wartime, it’s difficult to see when this period of wartime might end when one’s enemy is something so nebulous as “terror”.
  • Tim Berners Lee comments on Net Neutrality (via Jim). Tim is widely recognized as the inventor of the World Wide Web, and therefore has some ground to stand on when he comments on issues related to the Internet. And here’s an interesting counterpoint from Richard Bennett, who has worked in Network Engineering for several decades and contributed to many of the protocols that underlie the Internet.

Some Reading For The Summer

Here are a couple of books I’ve quite enjoyed recently:

  • Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical: Shane Claiborne, the author of this book, is an interesting cat. He’s passionately devoted to the idea of living according to Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament, especially with regard to the poor and disenfranchised. I particularly enjoyed his accounts of time serving alongside Mother Teresa and as a peace emissary in Iraq. He also is engaged in some of the intentional community stuff that I get worked up about from time to time, and so found a particularly receptive audience in me. Stimulating and well worth the time, even if you don’t agree with Shane’s conclusions.
  • Little Brother: Cory Doctorow’s latest, in which a teenage boy runs afoul of the Department of Homeland Security and, after being released from a secret detention facility, decides to try to take the DHS down using a variety of interesting technology and tricks and teaching the reader about them along the way. A very-near-future dystopian novel in the vein of 1984 or Brave New World, I found it very compelling reading. One of the great things about Doctorow’s work is that he makes it available under a Creative Commons license, which means you can download and read his book for free! [Exercise for the reader: compare Doctorow’s insistence here that privacy is vital to a free society with David Brin’s insistence that privacy is a lost cause and visibility should be embraced instead in The Transparent Society.]

Do you have any recent favorites? Post them in comments! I’d love some good summer reading.

Sci-Fi Future: Bioengineering

On one of our recent dates, Kathy and I had stopped by the local pet store to browse around a bit. While passing by the fish, I noticed tank full of fish that were even more brightly colored than the usual tropicals. When asked, a salesperson explained to me that they were GloFish: zebra fish that had been genetically engineered to include a fluorescing protein created by a jellyfish gene. Originally created with an eye toward detecting toxic chemical spills, they are even more eye-catching than the photos show.

The next day, I was listening to an episode of WNYC’s excellent Radio Lab program where they discussed some young bioengineers who got tired of having to smell E. Coli, which is notoriously poopie-scented, all day in their lab. They began by introducing wintergreen genes, and soon had minty-fresh E. Coli in their lab. They then went a step further by having the bacteria start producing a banana smell when full grown, so that the scientists could tell if a culture was ready for experimentation with the merest whiff.

And of course, we’ve had genetically modified foods on our supermarket shelves since the early 1990s. Various GM varieties are more disease and pest-resistant than their unmodified counterparts, have higher yields, last longer without added preservatives, and have their vitamin content boosted.

So, in many ways, it seems like we’re at the dawn of a golden age of bioengineering. We’re able to improve on naturally grown foods, we can engineer unpleasant characteristics out of experimental organisms, and we can even tailor our pets to make them more interesting and fun. What’s not to like?

Quite a bit, as it turns out. Lots of people have concerns about bioengineering, and wonder if it may be a Pandora’s Box we might wish closed again once we have pried out its secrets. A few points to consider:

GloFish are patented just like a mechanical invention would be. From their FAQ:

Because fluorescent fish are unique, their sale is covered by a substantial number of patents and pending patent applications. The providers of GloFish® fluorescent fish, 5-D Tropical and Segrest Farms, are the only distributors that have the necessary licenses to produce and market fluorescent fish within the United States. The production of fluorescent fish by any other party, or the sale of any fluorescent fish not originally distributed by 5-D Tropical or Segrest Farms, is strictly prohibited.

The fact that this patent was granted to cover not just a mechanical device or invention, but a form of life, seems like a pretty big leap. (And allows them to charge an order of magnitude more for these GloFish than for their unmodified brethren.) What do we do with patent and copyright law as we plow into this new area of human endeavor? Consider, for example, an excerpt from this article:

If you could duplicate a person other than yourself, who would it be?

This is not a hypothetical question. Human cloning, may allow you to do
that, with or without the clonee’s consent. Once human cloning technology is available all you’ll need is the desired DNA, and that can be very easily obtained: It is called DNA piracy. The ease of stealing DNA for cloning purposes raises the following question: how is the law going to protect my genes and what legal remedies are afforded in such a case.

DNA Copyright Institution Inc., a privately held corporation in San
Francisco, proposes a solution. It promises copyright protection to your
genetic profile for only $1,500. The visionary DNA Copyright institute,
founded by Andre Crump, is trying to persuade celebrities to use its
services to strengthen their legal position should anyone decide to clone
them against their will.

Yep, the folks out in California are already planning for what happens if you get a strand of Cindy Crawford’s hair and decide to make your own Cindy clone using the DNA therein. More troubling, is it possible for corporations to copyright certain genetic sequences? And if so, can they then bring action for infringement against people who have those sequences in their own genome naturally? There are lots of lines to be drawn here, and it’s not always at all clear where they should be scribed.

Once we have the technology, is is OK to genetically engineer Multiple Sclerosis out of our babies? If so, what else can we change while our kids are still on the drawing board? Can we then choose eye color, hair color, and attractiveness? Could we add a few inches of height to give our kid a psychological advantage? Could we add a few more inches to give them an advantage in basketball? Should our modified basketball player be in the same league as non-modified players, or should there be a GMNBA?

And what of biodiversity? Artificial genes from GM crops can “leak” into the wild population. Even without GM, lots of farms have moved to monocultures — the planting of only the single highest-yield variety of their crop. This tendency would likely be exaggerated further if GM crops showed even better yields than their naturally occurring counterparts. This monoculture farming means that an entire crop can be wiped out by a disease to which it happens to be susceptible. Ironically, it also results in having access to less raw genetic material as the less popular strains are bred out of existence.

Finally, what happens when the bioengineers who may have more malevolent intent start fooling around with this stuff? Freeman Dyson, the futurist who conceived that trusty science fiction chestnut the Dyson Sphere, talks about children having access to home genetic engineering kits. This sounds like great fun as long as kids are just making unicorns or, as South Park would have it, a monkey with five butts.

But what happens when we start bioengineering weapons? Little Timmy could toss together a few genes from bird flu, the cold, SARS, bubonic plague, and a dash of smallpox, mix well, and viola! Instant highly-virulent superweapon! Take it further: engineer it to attack specific racial traits, and you could have a Final Solution that would cause history’s atrocities to look wan and insignificant.

It seems that we have discovered a very powerful tool here. As with all powerful tools, it enables us to accomplish amazing things that were previously impossible, but also has the potential to cause irreparable damage if used irresponsibly. Thus, while our enthusiasm here may tempt us to rush in to a Brave New GM World, I think it’s vital that we approach this new territory with caution. Pay attention to these discussions, befriend a bioethicist, and encourage our lawmakers to take these issues seriously. Our children and their unicorns are depending on us.

Gambling More Reliable Than Voting

Over at his weblog, my friend Jim Roepcke posts an interesting comparison of the regulations governing slot machines and those over electronic voting machines. It’s pretty sobering, and makes The Onion’s story on the election results being released in advance look alarmingly plausible.

It’s absolutely ridiculous that software that does something as straightforward as polling should be a trade secret. As a software engineer who has worked extensively with both software that is kept a closely guarded secret and that which has its source code open and available for anybody to look at, I would certainly be much more comfortable with the latter being used in a process that needs to be open and accountable. There is an army of interested geeks who would be combing through the voting machine code, making sure everything worked properly and was secure, if only they were able.


“I’ve been one poor correspondent, I’ve been too too hard to find…”

Sorry about the scant posting of late, my little chickadees. Lots of life going on, and the A Photo A Day project was sucking up a bit of time in February, even though I didn’t manage to totally complete the challenge I set myself.

Here are a few of the things that have been going on:

  • I accidentally found myself at the Barack Obama rally when he was in town. (Was at a recital with friends, and they decided to stop by on the way home.) Excellent speaker, and I like a lot of his policy ideas. I’m not yet sure how he plans to fund all of those potentially expensive ideas, but generally like what I’ve seen of him thus far.
  • Went to Baylor’s All-University Sing, for which Jason Young did the music for 14 of the 16 acts this year and where Barry Brake played in the pit band. It was, as always, a great show, and a wonderful time to hang out at Taco Cabana afterward, talking about the various acts and causing mischief with a liberated chunk of dry ice. (We didn’t manage to get kicked out this year, though.)
  • Played a fun show at Cheatham Street last weekend. My favorite part was when, without warning, a guy who none of us had ever seen before leaped onto the stage with a trumpet in the middle of a song and played a scorching solo. It turned out that his name was Robert Ortiz, and he was so good we had him up for another song! I love the unpredictability of live shows — one gets to see some great stuff at times. (I once saw a 5 foot nothing female bartender chase several inebriated bikers out of a bar because they were being so noisy that other patrons couldn’t hear the music.)
  • Enjoyed a thoroughly delightful birthday lunch with much of the nearby extended family on Saturday. It was great to get to catch up with some of these dear people with whom we don’t get to visit as often as we’d like.

Am I Hot Or Not: The George W. Bush Edition

Steven Levy has a very interesting article over at Newsweek where he talks about William Poundstone‘s upcoming book Gaming the Vote: Why Elections Aren’t Fair (and What We Can Do About It).

The gist of it, to steal both men’s thunder, is that by giving the election to the candidate who got the most votes even when that count is not a majority, one ensures that in many cases the electorate’s second-favorite candidate gets elected. George W. is a recent example in American politics. Even though he received less than 50% of the vote, he was elected, because the people voting against him split their votes among other candidates.

The proposed solution? Change elections from a “pick one candidate” system to a “rate each candidate on a scale of 1 to 5” system. Poundstone asserts that this is both constitutional and feasible, and would provide far superior election results. Sounds like very interesting grist for the mill; I’ve added his book to my reading list.