After recording my weekly Slate Money podcast this morning I will be off to the Clearwater Festival in Croton-on-Hudson. The weather’s supposed to be gorgeous all weekend, which is good because I’m camping in a tent, and the last few times I went to bluegrass or folk festivals and camped in a tent it rained and I ended up sleeping in puddles. If you’ve never done that, let me tell you that there’s something gross and creepy about wet pillows.
My bandmate Jamie, who plays the mandolin and washboard, convinced me not only to go but to be a volunteer at this festival, which as it turns out means I’ll be preparing food in the kitchen. There are 1,000 volunteers at this festival, so who knows how many people go; I’m preparing for a lot of diced carrots and onions no matter what. Or maybe I’ll be doing dishes. I love doing dishes for some reason.
So this Clearwater Festival was Pete Seeger’s baby, he came every year, and since he passed away this past winter, the entire weekend will be a tribute to his life and his work. Some incredible musicians are going to be there to honor Pete, and I am hoping my kitchen duties don’t conflict with my old favorite, Marty Sexton (Sunday at 4pm), as well as my new favorite, John Fullbright (Saturday at 2:30).
Stuff I’ve packed for the trip: tent, sleeping bag, pillow (dry so far), bluegrass juice (of the Jack Daniels variety), my fiddle, my banjo, a wooden bowl and utensils, and some metal coffee cups and shot glasses. Oh, and some clothes.
You should totally come by for either day or for the whole weekend if you’re nearby and in the mood for some really old hippy reminiscences! And really, who isn’t.
No time for a post this morning but go read this post by Scott Aaronson on using a PageRank-like algorithm to understand human morality and decision making. The post is funny, clever, very thoughtful, and pretty long.
We moved to our apartment in New York almost exactly 9 years ago. I know that in part because I remember the date we moved in – June 4th, 2005 – but also because that first weekend we lived here, when we decided to try to buy some furniture for our nearly empty living room, we had to cross the Puerto Rican parade to get to Crate & Barrel on the east side of 5th Avenue. It was one of the most characteristic New York moments of my existence, and it made me feel like a real New Yorker.
About two days after moving in I figured out with my friend Michael Thaddeus (who has guest blogged hugely successfuly before) that his apartment was within direct sight of mine. We could wave to each other from our windows across both 116th and Claremont! For a suburban girl like me this was a hoot. We decided to build a string telephone at some point.
Well, we finally got around to doing it yesterday.
I live on the 9th floor, and Thads lives on the 5th floor of his apartment, so there was no chance we could throw anything up to the window on the outside. Instead Thads came over with two balls of string and two cans. For each window we lowered the string to the street with the help of someone on the street who could guide the person in the window. I actually only saw the first half of this procedure because I was tasked with holding the string after the first window and waiting for the second string to be lowered. Then the idea was we’d tie the two strings together.
So here I am, outside my building, holding a string in my hand that goes all the way up to a 9th floor building across the street. I’m also wearing my cowboy hat because it’s sunny outside, but for some reason the combination made everyone walking by stop and ask me what the hell I’m doing.
You see, there aren’t many things that can make New Yorkers talk to each other on the street, but I’ve found that holding on to very very long strings whilst wearing a ridiculous hat does the trick.
My favorite was when this middle aged Greek guy comes up to me and asks me what I’m doing, but he’s clearly hoping it’s mischievous, so I asked him to guess, and he says “You’re pulling someone’s tooth!!”.
After a while my neighbors noticed the string outside their window and got involved. And I noticed the security guard on the corner paying close attention, especially when we had both strings on the street and we were trying to tie them together, which took a while because they barely reached.
There was even a cop car silently observing that part of the experiment, but it disappeared as soon as we got it connected and Johan pulled the string taut so it was above the tree line.
After poking the strings into the cans, we tried our our string telephone. It was incredibly fun.
I’m too busy this morning for a real post but I thought I’d share a few things I’m reading today.
- Matt Stoller just came out with a long review of Timmy Geithner’s book: The Con Artist Wing of the Democratic Party. I like this because it explains some of the weird politics around, for example, the Mexican currency crisis that I only vaguely knew about.
- New York Magazine has a long profile of Stevie Cohen of SAC Capital insider trading fame: The Taming of the Trading Monster.
- The power of Google’s algorithms can make or break smaller websites: On the Future of Metafilter. See also How Google Is Killing The Best Site On The Internet.
- There is no such thing as a slut.
You might have heard about the recent study entitled Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior. In it, the authors figure out seven ways to measure the extent to which rich people are bigger assholes than poor people, a plan that works brilliantly every time.
What they term “unethical behavior” comes down to stuff like cutting off people and cars in an intersection, cheating in a game, and even stealing candy from a baby.
The authors also show that rich people are more likely to think of greed as good, and that attitude is sufficient to explain their feelings of entitlement. Another way of saying this it that, once you “account for greed feelings,” being rich doesn’t make you more likely to cheat.
I’d like to go one step further and ask, why do rich people think greed is good? A couple of things come to mind.
First, rich people rarely get arrested, and even when they are arrested, their experiences are very different and much less likely to end up with a serious sentence. Specifically, the fees are not onerous for the rich, and fancier lawyers do better jobs for the rich (by the way, in Finland, speeding tickets are on a sliding scale depending on the income of the perpetrator). It’s easy to think greed is good if you never get punished for cheating.
Second, rich people are examples of current or legacy winners in the current system, and that feeling that they have won leaks onto other feelings of entitlement. They have faith in the system to keep them from having to deal with consequences because so far so good.
Finally, some people deliberately judge that they can afford to be assholes. They are insulated from depending on other people because they have money. Who needs friends when you have resources?
Of course, not all rich people are greed-is-good obsessed assholes. But there are some that specialize in it. They call themselves Libertarians. Paypal founder Peter Thiel is one of their heroes.
Here’s some good news: some of those people intend to sail off on a floating country. Thiel is helping fund this concept. The only problem is, they all are so individualistic it’s hard for them to agree on ground rules and, you know, a process by which to decide things (don’t say government!).
This isn’t a new idea, but for some reason it makes me very happy. I mean, wouldn’t you love it if a good fraction of the people who cut you off in traffic got together and decided to leave town? I’m thinking of donating to that cause. Do they have a Kickstarter yet?
I am unfortunately too late to show you the google-nest.org website itself (hat tip Ernest Davis) but luckily Forbes has a good article on the recent parody of the combination of Google and Nest, created by by German activist organization Peng Collective.
The putative products for Google-Nest included:
- Google Trust: Data insurance, because accidents will always happen, and we at Google won’t protect your data but we will do our best to protect you after the fact. “Opt in for total protection”
- Google Hug: An app about connections. It always knows where you are and how you feel at any given moment, and it crowdsources hug matches nearby. “There for one another”
- Google Bee: A personal drone equipped with livestreaming video capacity, to watch over your home and family. Also takes out the garbage. “Your little friend in the sky”
- Google Bye: Sustaining your digital life after you die. Plus informing your friends of your death by text. Google takes the best quotes of the dead one’s emails and puts it up on their wall. “Be remembered”
Here’s the video of the Germans (including a supposed Google “data security evangelist”) spoofing on Google and pretending to be from Google at the conference re:publica in Germany. And it’s pretty convincing:
Today I’d like to share a nerd thought experiment with you people, and since many of you are already deeply nerdy, pardon me if you’ve already thought about it. Feel free – no really, I encourage you – to argue strenuously with me if I’ve misrepresented the current thinking on this. That’s why I have comments!!
It’s called the Fermi Paradox, and it’s loosely speaking a formula that relates the probability of intelligent life somewhere besides here on earth, the probability of other earth-like planets, and the fact that we haven’t been contacted by our alien neighbors.
It starts with that last thing. We haven’t been contacted by aliens, so what gives? Is it because life-sustaining planets are super rare? Or is it because they are plentiful and life, or at least intelligent life, or at least intelligent life with advanced technology, just doesn’t happen on them? Or does life happen on them but once they get intelligent they immediately kill each other with atomic weapons?
- N = the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which radio-communication might be possible (i.e. which are on our current past light cone)
- R* = the average rate of star formation in our galaxy
- fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets
- ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
- fl = the fraction of planets that could support life that actually develop life at some point
- fi = the fraction of planets with life that actually go on to develop intelligent life (civilizations)
- fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
- L = the length of time for which such civilizations release detectable signals into space
So the bad news (hat tip Suresh Naidu) is that, due to scientists discovering more earth-like planets recently, we’re probably all going to die soon.
Here’s the reasoning. Notice in the above equation that N is the product of a bunch of things. If N doesn’t change but our estimate of one of those terms goes up or down, then the other terms have to go down or up to compensate. And since finding a bunch of earth-like planets increases some combination of R*, fp, and ne, we need to compensate with some combination of the other terms. But if you look at them the most obvious choice is L, the length of time civilizations release detectable signals into space.
And I say “most obvious” because it makes the thought experiment more fun that way. Also we exist as proof that some planets do develop intelligent life with the technology to send out signals into space but we have no idea how long we’ll last.
Anyhoo, not sure if there are actionable items here except for maybe deciding to stop looking for earth-like planets, or deciding to stop emitting signals to other planets so we can claim other aliens didn’t obliterate themselves, they were simply “too busy” to call us (we need another term which represents the probability of the invention of Candy Crush Saga!!!). Or maybe they took a look from afar and saw reality TV and decided we weren’t ready, a kind of updated Star Trek first contact kind of theory.
Update: I can’t believe I didn’t add an xkcd comic to this, my bad. Here’s one (hat tip Suresh Naidu):