The Poison is Secrecy

Why we’re all conspiracy theorists now

(This is a cross-post from my first post on Medium)

In the past few weeks since the first release of the Verizon phone record subpoena and the subsequent releases of PRISM and other covert federal activities, much of the debate has focused on the particulars of the programs — whether they are legal/illegal, whether they go too far, how they relate to historical surveillence systems, and so on.**

Usually the debate does not get very far in such conversations. One side breathlessly worries about how deep and pervasive the surveillence is and how the imposition impinges upon our civil liberties. The other side urges caution, pointing out that not all facts are known. However, in this response, lies the root of the problem: secrecy. This is the root of the scandal, and the root of a potent toxin that I think is much more dangerous than whatever actually may or may not be happening at the NSA.

The root of the scandal is the secrecy that all this has been clouded in. Yes, it was strongly suspected that the government was carrying out large scale surveillence on Americans. Yes there was legislation passed that had the potential to be misused for large scale spying. So, in a sense, the NSA leaks are not a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. However, the revelations are still important because they are hard proof of the abuses. It is one thing to know your neighbor is creepy, but quite another to actually see the bodies in the basement.

It is important to note just how pervasive the secrecy is around this. The programs are secret. The courts are secret. The subpeona’s are secret. Even the rulings on why this is legal are secret. That is to say nothing of the ancillary secrecy that has surrounded this administration (extrajudicial killings, drone programs, secret no-fly lists, secret trials for whistleblowers like Bradley Manning). Literally all that we have to go on is the administration’s admonition that we trustthem.

In some sense, this has always been the case with covert operations. They are by nature secret and some level of trust is necessary for their existence. However, in this case, that trust has been entirely eroded. These programs were not supposed to exist. The president ran (twice) on a platform of openness and rule of law. The programs that we did know about were supposed to be targeted, limited in scope and direct for immediate threats. Instead, we find that they were broad, indiscriminate and hidden.

The poison of this secrecy is already visible. We are willing to believe just about anything now. Everyone is now a conspiracy theorist. Is the NSA recording voice calls? I wouldn’t be surprised. Are some people on the no-fly list for data in this program? Probably. Is there evidence that is secret because it covers up government abuse? Highly likely. As the New Yorks Times put it “The administration has now lost all credibility on this issue.”

Without truth, there is not even the possilibity of democracy, justice or freedom. There is simply a sort of gallows-trust born out of fear and impotence.

Welcome to the land of the free and the home of a brave new world.

** I am strongly on the side of privacy and civil liberties. However, I am also a realist and understand that as more and more commerce, communication and even property moves to this space, legal frameworks need to be re-understood in this new context. It may be that sovereignty extends into cyberspace and countries have the right to form an internet border patrol. I’m dubious, but it’s not crazy.

Terminals: A Rant

First let me start off by saying that I absolutely love my terminal. I spend literally all day with a terminal window open, and it's usually in the foreground. Honestly, if it weren't for the fact that most of my work is implemented in the browser (and that the best developers are the first to Google), I could probably ditch the GUI entirely.

However, it is because of this love that I would like to rant for a moment on the state of the modern terminal and provide some suggestions for how terminal emulators might be brought into the 21st century. I particularly want to focus on features that would make terminal emulators better for experts. Most 'features' on terminals seem to be for making it easier for newbies to get started with the terminal, rather than to make the terminal better once they've mastered it.

I would like to see more than 256 color support in the terminal. This one is a no brainer.

Terminals should have better integration with the system clipboard. Why is selecting text so difficult. I should be able to use the system clipboard, not just for inputting and selecting text, but be able to pipe and modify that text.

Terminals should integrate better with the system content types. Apple has done some good work here with the open command. Linux should take some inspiration here.

I realize there are some tools out there that do some of this, but these seem to be features that should really be part of the terminal itself, not some half-baked weekend side project that never gets updated.

Thoughts on thinking about the End of the World

Like many others this week, my Facebook and Twitter feeds have been full of 'end of the world' posts and my social aggregation sites have been full of doomsday sales and promotions. Also, like so many, I have responded to such discussion with a roll of the eyes. Clearly the world is not going to end based on some prophecy or misunderstanding of an ancient calendar. Why waste our mental energies on such nonsense.

I wonder, though, if there is more going on here than simply widespread superstition. I know my friends and circles and though there is a wide distribution of intellectual abilities and social and political persuasions, I think I can accurately say that none of them actually believes that there is any chance of a civilization-ending event this week or this year.

There is very little room in contemporary society for us to express our existential fears. Yes, depending on our political persuasion, we may worry about global warming, or nuclear arms, or terrorism or the collapse of traditional American values, but we tend to see those more as problems that require solving rather than a true out-of-control doomsday scenario.

Nevertheless, as we struggle through live in the shadow of our own transience, we also realize that our world is similarly transient. Through some means, it will not last forever and some subset of our progeny will have to deal with that end.

We do not like to ponder such fears, but they haunt us and sometimes an ancient portent of doom allows us the freedom to obliquely grapple with them.

Incremental Decision Making

I found this article in the New York Times a while ago and it got me to thinking about how we actually make decisions and the different philosophies that we use to govern our decision making process. This is vitally important to start-ups as 80% of the work amounts to making decisions. The funny thing about those decisions is that most of them are inconsequential, but a few of them turn out to be vitally important. Unfortunately, we usually do not know ahead of time which decisions are the important ones and which aren't. This means that each and every decision could turn out to be extremely important down the road -- a paralyzing situation.

I think the solution to this is to take an empirical approach to decisions. As much as possible, don't make big decisions all at once, in some cases you have to (take this investor on or not, hire this person or not), but as much as possible, but break them into processes that you can guide as they happen rather than that lock you in.

This is what I mean by 'empirical decisions':

  1. Make a hypothesis of what you think you should do and why
  2. Run experiments to test those hypotheses
  3. Compare the results of your experiments with your hypotheses with your experiments and use that to revise your hypotheses.

Each of these steps is actually vitally important. It is not enough to simply run experiments without first creating some sort of framework as to what those experiments are testing. And unless you actually compare the results wo your hypotheses and use them to refine your hypotheses, you are just going to be forever shooting in the dark.

Users, Customers and Community

Jack Dorsey posted last week on reconsidering the use of the term 'user.' He proposes replacing it with the word 'customer' in the general sense, and 'buyer' and 'seller' in the specific Square context. While I agree in the general sense that the term 'user' is somewhat disparaging (though not as bad as some terms I've heard -- like 'muggle') , I think that replacing the term with 'customer' is a step backwards. It focuses too much attention on the actual money transaction part of the person's interaction with the product, which obscures all the more important characteristics of the person.

The problem with the term 'user' is that it's too simple. It pushes us into a model where we think of company, product and user. In reality, we have multi-tiered communities that interact with our products. At StartupDigest we had Curators, subscribers, VIPs to name just a few. At GroupTie we have members, organizers and groups. At bigger sites like Facebook and Google, they have advertisers, developers, members, users and so on. There are too many to name. It becomes very difficult very quickly to think or talk about them in general without resorting to a word like user. It becomes even more difficult because with these various roles comes an interplay between them. Doing something to improve the advertiser experience, may hurt the member experience. Making it easier to buy may hurt the seller.

I think the solution actually is to forget about trying to use an archetypal single individual as our model for thinking about how our product interacts with our community. In fact, that is the word that we should use: community. Companies have communities of people that interact with them. They have different use-cases and different interaction models and no one word will describe them. What we need to do is define our community, define the roles that exist within that community (including the role of the company) and then determine what is best for that community.

What's the Deal with .*rc Files? ⚓

Modern POSIX operating systems are littered with .rc and rc. files. Apparently these stand for 'run commands' and the term actually dates all the way back to 1965 on the MIT CTSS system (the precursor to Multics which was the precursor to Unix).

I love the overwhelming weight of history that you find in a *nix system.

Upside vs. Downside Risk

Risk is usually discussed in one dimensional terms, as though it is a scalar that simply has a value in a particular situation. Sky diving is risky. Leaving the root MySQL account without a password is risky. Starting a company is risky. I think this is a mis-modeling of how risk works.

What is risk? Fundamentally, it is simply a probability -- the chance that a particular outcome will manifest itself in a given situation. However, it passes a value judgment too. We don't talk about the risk of winning a particular hand in poker or the risk of being blue-eyed vs brown-eyed. Risk is therefore the probability of a negative or undesirable outcome.

This is where the aforementioned 'risky' concept comes in. However, we need to be smarter about how we define that undesirable outcome. Our minds are attuned to very strongly weigh bad things that could happen to us. We generally are much worse at thinking about missing out on good things that could happen to us.

I get asked a lot by friends and family if I think it risky working for a start-up rather than a big company. This is focusing on the 'bad thing that could happen' scenario. I call this downside risk.. It misses the upside risk that comes from working at a big company and missing the opportunities of a start-up. As an engineer, I think that I have much higher upside risk than downside risk. There will always be jobs and demand for engineering, but the specific jobs that I choose to work on are the difference between a decent salary and an awesome payout.

We need to think more about risk in this way. Don't just think about what could go wrong, but what you might be passing up by avoiding that negative outcome.

Success is 80% Not Screwing Up

There was a poster in the the hallway of my middle school that said 'Shoot for the Moon: Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars.'

I always hated that poster.

My cynical eighth grade self, thought "It should read: 'Shoot for the Moon: If you miss, you'll slowly suffocate to death in the cold loneliness of space.' " Cynicism aside, it seemed patently false. Success wasn't about shooting for the moon, but doing your homework, studying for tests and not being a dick to your friends.

As I've gotten older, I think I understand the idea behind the poster a lot better. Those without high ambitions fail to achieve high results. However, I think that my adolescent objections still stand. While it's all very well and good to 'aim high,' it still matters quite a bit exactly what you are aiming at. For example, if you start a company, it may fail, but you will still have learned valuable skills and have new connections and street-cred. However, if you drop out of school to try and become, say, a pro baseball player, your chances of success are far lower and you are left with far fewer options if you do not succeed with your primary goal.

To put it in tersms of start-ups, it's hard to see which companies are going to be wildly successful, but, generally, it's much easier to see which are definitely not going to be. Over confidence, poor thinking of the market, over-reliance on magical 'technical' solutions, over-reliance on name-dropping connections are all bad signs. What is amazing is that if you hang around Silicon Valley or any other large tech community long enough, you start to see the exact same mistake being made over and over again.

This leads me to believe that most companies and people fail to succeed because they continue to make the simple fundamental mistakes. I think this is why we see people that 'create their own luck.' Once you've mastered the art of not screwing up, success is simply a matter of searching through that remaining 20% to see what sticks.

Space Colony Art from the 1970s


I remember seeing these pictures in a book in my local library and being absolutely enamored of them. The juxtaposition of New England-style countryside inside of gleaming, bright cylinders looked like the most wonderful world to my young eyes. I recently re-watched Stanley Kubrik's 2001: A Space Odyssey and was amazed how it, like this, despite how dated it is, still is my vision of 'the future'