Blog: January 2021

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Trolling Wall Street

This is oddly fascinating, even though I don't understand all of it. If I understand correctly:

A "short" is a bet that a stock price will fall: you promise to sell it on a certain date at a certain price, but you don't actually own the shares. On that day, the idea goes, you'll buy the shares at the lower price you expect and then turn around and fulfill your contract, pocketing the difference. I don't know if regular folks like you and me can do that, or if only investment funds and professional stock-market people can. There are some rules that are different for the big players and the little folks; I don't know if this is one of them.

So... some big Wall Street hedge funds (one often mentioned is Melvin Capital) placed vast quantities of shorts on a gaming-gear company that isn't doing well (GameStop). A bunch of people on Reddit observed this and said to Wall Street: hold my beer.

They bought the stock. Hundreds of thousands of people on Reddit bought the stock. At that scale, any individual participant doesn't have to buy a lot; you could play this game for $20 back when it started. And it's not like you can spend that $20 going out to a movie right now, so there was probably an untapped market of bored people looking for fun. Read more…

It's 2021 and this still happens

Me: Here's a bug.

Male peer: I don't know why that happens. Not my fault.

Me: One way that can happen is if you do X.

Him: (condescendingly) Of course you could do that, but I didn't.

(Ok then! Done teaching.)

Separately, other male peer: One way that can happen is if you do X.

First male peer: Oh, you're right.

Again. In 2021.

I didn't say he did X; I'm not in his head and wasn't looking over his shoulder, so how would I know? I just offered one (common) way that this particular problem manifests, because we've seen it before. But from me it wasn't worthy of consideration.

This sort of thing happens far too often, even now, even among people who in other regards present as open-minded and inclusive.

The cost of plagues

I want to amplify something I saw on Twitter today by AvBronstein:

A congregant shared an insight: immediately following the final plague, the killing of the first-born, the text tells us that "Pharaoh arose that night."

In other words, he had gone to sleep.

Pharaoh couldn't have gone to sleep on the assumption that the plague wasn't going to happen. This was the tenth time around. He knew. His advisers knew, the people knew. The Midrash says that the Egyptian first-born actually rebelled, taking up arms, because they knew.

Rather, Pharaoh was prepared to bear the cost of the final plague. For him, it was worth it. So much so, that he was even able to sleep that night, knowing what was coming.

I'm going to interrupt for a moment here. Paro knew by now what the consequences of his stubborn refusal to give up personal power would be. He'd seen his people be afflicted by nine previous plagues. Some of them even affected the elite in the palace, though they had more power than "regular folks" to evade some of the effects. They could bring all their animals safely inside before the hail, could source drinking water elsewhere, could afford to replace animals lost to the pestilence, could get top-notch medical care not available to others. But some plagues affected even them, safely in their palaces. They knew. Paro knew.

And Moshe had just told him that God was going to kill all the first-born, from the palace on down to the slaves, even down to the animals. Paro knew this was a credible threat.

And he was ok with that. Maybe he had some magical thinking that his own family would be protected; more likely his son was an acceptable loss. Certainly the first-born of all the people he ruled, the people he was nominally responsible for, were acceptable losses. He was their ruler and "god", after all; he couldn't be weak by giving in to Moshe and the true God. These afflictions would pass and the deserving would survive.

And it wasn't just Paro thousands of years ago, now was it? This happens with power-hungry leaders, ones who've lost touch with whom they serve, all the time. It happened in our day, with a deadly plague that our leaders concealed the severity of, because they were safe. A few hundred thousand old folks are an acceptable loss to preserve the illusion of strength, right?

Avraham continues on Twitter:

I can't help but think of all those people ready to launch a civil war in America, so grimly sure that they are prepared to pay whatever price needs to be paid. And how many of them, like Pharaoh, woke up later that night and realized just what they had done to themselves.

I'm also thinking of a President calmly watching the insurrection he stoked on television, only to realize the costs he will be paying for the rest of his life out of what remains of his fortune, reputation, and legacy.

Me again. And I'm also thinking of all the people who were, and even still are, fine with plague deaths, and murders and reckless killings, and treating human beings like animals even down to the cages, and justice systems that depend on who the accused is, and ruining people's lives on mere accusations and presumptions, because they, personally, are safe. But nobody's safe, and we can't sleep through the unrest our society has fallen into.

Paro's people had no power to effect change; Paro held all the cards. We might not have much power to effect change, but I think we have a little more (voting, for example), and I pray it's enough to avert Egypt's fate, despite bad decisions made by those who rule us.


Seen on Twitter:

We're excited to launch the #RenewDemocracy Challenge with @AVindman

During a dark time, we need to showcase the best of our democracy. Share a short video about what democracy means to you & nominate 3 friends to do the same! Be sure to use hashtag: #RenewDemocracy (source)

A friend tagged me. I responded there, but it didn't fit in one tweet and I want to record it here too. I'll preserve the original structure, meaning some compact language to fit in individual tweets.

Democracy is a decision by a society to band together to support all, not just the majority & powerful. It means working together for common good, not bowing to thugs. It means freedom, not free rein to cause damage. It means using your voice not your fist. 1/4

Democracy means being able to chart your own course so long as you don't trample others. It means owning your body, your beliefs, your goals - and consequences of your acts - but no one else's.

It means offering a hand to a stranger in need who is also part of this society. 2/4

Democracy means working together w/people not like us to understand other perspectives - a necessary precondition to make decisions about how the public commons operates & what policies need to change. It means each voice counting, once. It means losing, or winning, w/grace. 3/4

Democracy means hearing diverse perspectives but not granting any one of them authority. Democracy is communal and consensual or it fails. Fearing the mob isn't democracy; neither is minority rule.

Democracy is complicated and essential for civil society. 4/4

And here I'll add: any constructive societal structure, including democracy, requires dealing with complex ideas, nuance, and context, far more than fits in a sound bite or a handful of tweets. It means learning and adjusting one's perceptions, not holding stubbornly to One True Way firm in the belief that all others are wrong and out to get you. It means holding contradictory ideas in your head and reasoning about them and their implications. It means thinking critically, and also not dismissing new ideas because they're new. It means having the humility to know that we don't know everything, even about ourselves let alone the others in our shared society, while having the courage and confidence to speak up when we perceive wrongs. It means having the compassion to care about others and not just ourselves.

It means recognizing that sometimes you'll disagree with those on your "side" or agree with those on the "other side". We talk in the US about left and right, but it's not a line, it's a canvas. We can't reduce our discourse, or our caricatures of each other, to binary positions -- either/or, in or out. People are complicated, and societies made out of people are complicated.

The polarization we see in our country today isn't just bad because it's divisive and too often violent. It's also bad because it erases all of that complexity in the middle, the stuff we need to be able to understand and engage with if we are to get along.

Social-media platforms and their manipulations

A friend, in a locked post, talked about leaving Facebook because of their manipulation of what you see. "That's a lot of power for one company to wield", the person said. I wrote the following in a comment:

I was never comfortable with Facebook. I had an account for about two minutes, under the belief that if I created and then deleted an account, nobody else would be able to create a fake account to impersonate me. Ah, those days of naivete.

I don't trust platforms that give me a selective view of activity without letting me turn the knobs. On Dreamwidth (and LiveJournal before it turned evil), I know that if I read back until I hit something I recognized, I've seen everything on my subscription list (modulo author-deleted posts). I wasn't going to miss stuff. On Facebook, and Twitter and Google+, that isn't/wasn't true. Twitter now has a control for "show me stuff in order" versus "show me selections based on what's likely to interest me", but I don't know that the former doesn't also filter stuff out. I use Twitter, but knowing that I can't rely on it for consuming stuff. For the people I want to see everything from, I get notifications. That doesn't scale, so I miss a lot, and therefore it's not reliable. But I'm there because that's where some important-to-me connections are, presumably like why you were on Facebook.

Not being on Facebook has cut me off from some stuff, I know. Too many people think "well, I posted it on Facebook so you should know about it". I can only hope that, now that more people are becoming aware of how Facebook filters content out, some people might stop assuming that. We'll see.

When you use someone else's platform you're at risk of them flaking out or changing their rules or them just being dishonest. Facebook, Twitter, Stack Exchange, Reddit, LiveJournal... they control the servers so, ultimately, they control your activity. They can be arbitrary (recently saw someone get booted without appeal from Twitter for content that their algorithm said was bad, that wasn't), they can be capricious (Stack Exchange, need we say more?), they can be evil (LiveJournal, now in thrall to the Russian government)... we make the best decisions we can at the time about where to participate, and sometimes learn we were wrong and have to move.

But striking out on your own has costs too. If you set up a blog on your own, a few of your friends will subscribe by RSS but you won't have the community aspect. When LJ imploded I didn't set up my own blog; I moved to Dreamwidth. I decided to trust Dreamwidth, and believe they are more worthy of that trust than LJ was. I like to think that Codidact is more worthy of trust than Stack Exchange is, and that people can participate with more confidence that they won't be treated sneakily and viciously. Disclosure: I'm one of the people in charge at Codidact, so I'm biased. But operating in the open and not having stockholders makes a big difference too, I think.

If we want to be part of Internet-connected communities, whether small groups of friends or huge international groups, then we have to either build our own platforms or rely on others. Usually the former is impractical, so it comes down to remaining vigilant about the practices of the providers on whom we depend. And sometimes we need to pick up and move (or leave), disruptive as it is.

Fluff break

In the midst of all the stuff in the world, I hope that some customer-support person's day was a little brighter for a moment or two:

Hi Chewy! This is Monica's cat, Orlando. Read more…

Runaway levain

I made sourdough on Friday. On Thursday I already knew that my starter was especially enthusiastic that day, and the levain (the second feed, what actually goes into the bread rather than back into the jar for next time) bubbled up much more quickly than usual. This meant I made the dough at dinnertime, rather than around 9:30 or 10 like usual.

It filled the bowl and then some on Friday morning, but, as usual, deflated some when I turned it out of the bowl. After letting it rest I formed it into two loaves, which is what I usually do, and baked them a few hours later.

True to form, it expanded more than usual in the oven, too. It was light and airy and tasty, and I'm finally getting around to providing the photographic evidence. Read more…

A little more photography

During Chanukah I tried taking some better pictures of the candles, as I mentioned then. Here are a few more successes from later days. Read more…