American individualism

To an outside observer, American culture can appear to be sick with individualism: an extreme lack of compassion for others, or any sense of responsibility for them.

I find that the US political spectrum largely consists of the following two groups of people:
  • Those who believe that poverty in the US is caused primarily by that the people who endure it are biologically and culturally different in a deep-rooted way that cannot be helped in a trivial or reasonable manner.
  • Those who take it for granted that everyone is born equal, and so that poverty is artificially created and perpetuated. If only the poor received a trivial and very reasonable amount of help, all would be well.
The first group tend to be conservatives. The second group tend to be liberals. The two cannot see eye to eye because they disagree fundamentally on whether the cause of poverty is nature, or nurture.

With respect to this post, I do not want to make a claim as to whether the answer is either - though if you think the answer is obviously and exclusively nurture, I would advise you to think again.

Instead, I would like to call attention to that the whole nature vs. nurture debate does not even exist in countries that are culturally and biologically homogenous.

To the extent that the nature vs. nurture debate exists, and tends to be unresolvable, it is present in countries that imported a large population of someone from somewhere else, to do some menial job that the locals wouldn't; and now the descendants of imported people are underperforming. Prime examples of this are Africans in the US, and Turks in Germany.

In culturally and biologically homogenous countries, there are also people who are underperforming, but there is no tendency to discuss the reasons, because they're part of the in-group. Everyone is part of the same culture, same biological tribe, so people feel compassion and unity with others, no matter why they are the way they are.

But in the US, there's no cultural and biological homogeneity. And so far, no people on Earth have mastered the concept of treating all humans as part of their in-group, even if they are culturally and biologically their opposite.

It's not a trivial question. Should we? Should we treat as part of our in-group people who not only do not embody our values - but actively work against them? Despise them? Embody their opposite? If I value science and personal freedom, should I treat as part of my in-group a fundamentalist who wants schools to teach only from the Quran, and all women to be forced to wear burqas?

American individualism is a consequence of American cultural and biological diversity. When your neighbor looks different than you, and maintains values that not only differ from yours, but oppose them - you won't trust him. He isn't part of your in-group. When he falls on hard times, you will blame this on his being biologically and culturally different from you. And maybe part of that's true. Maybe his failures are related to that he is different.

It is natural that you will think twice before giving him the benefit of the doubt. And you will resent it if someone unilaterally decides to tax your income in his favor.

I'm not sure if the alternative - closed and homogenous societies - is necessarily better. A diverse community might decrease trust among its residents (because most people other than the self are not in the in-group), but a world of homogenous countries, while encouraging trust within country (in-group), may lead to xenophobia and nationalism towards other countries (out-group).

I'm not sure that's better. At least when there's mistrust on an individual level, peace can be kept through law. It's more challenging to keep the peace when there's mistrust between countries.


Hershey chocolate actually does taste like vomit!

As a European who first tried Hershey chocolate in my twenties, I find the product disgusting - but I didn't understand why until today. It turns out, it's not just me: Hershey actually uses a process which produces butyric acid - the substance that gives vomit its smell and taste!

From this article:
Everywhere but at home, American milk chocolate — specifically Hershey’s — is known for its tangy or sour flavor, produced by the use of milk that Mr. Landuyt refers to as “acidified.” Although Hershey’s process has never been made public (and a spokeswoman declined to comment on its techniques), experts speculate that Hershey’s puts its milk through controlled lipolysis, a process by which the fatty acids in the milk begin to break down.

This produces butyric acid, also found in Parmesan cheese and the spit-up of babies; other chocolate manufacturers now simply add butyric acid to their milk chocolates. It has a distinctive tang that Americans have grown accustomed to and now expect in chocolate. “I can’t think of any other reason why people would like it,” said Mr. Whinney, of Theo Chocolate.


Extraordinary knowing

Some time in 2001 or 2002 was the last time when I was near-broke. By that, I mean that my expenses closely matched my income, and I had to pay close attention to how much I was spending, when, and on what. This wasn't unusual at my age, at the time. I was 21 - 22, doing odd jobs as a software developer, and my business hadn't yet taken off.

But this one time during those years, I laid in bed in my rented apartment; I was about to receive a payment for some work I'd done, and the thought came across my mind, "This is the last time you'll be lacking money." It was one of those rare thoughts that feel subtly foreign; as if another entity whispered it to me in my mind. It felt like a kind entity, and a reassuring thought. I was incredulous, unsure if I should believe it. I had no way to know how the future was going to turn out. But I felt strangely confident. I wanted to trust that my luck in life was going to turn up.

It did. That was the last time my expenses consumed my income.

And... I don't think it's so much that I knew it - as it is that I was told.


Robin Williams

In the last 11 hours, I've read a number of people express a sentiment like: "I never understood people grieving over the passing of a celebrity. But now that it's Robin Williams - now I understand."

I'm one of those people.

He just happened to choose a way to die, and a time to die, that is as tragically beautiful as his work. From Dead Poets' Society, to Patch Adams, What Dreams May Come, Bicentennial Man - his work has made me cry. He was well known as an unusually kind, gentle, and caring person. With a rich career behind him, he ends it in a way that makes us cry for him again. He reminds us that underlying his kindness was pain. He reminds us not to overlook the pain.

A few months ago, this was the last film I saw from him:

I cried. And I loved it.

Be well, Robin.

Be well.


Alienware sucks worse than MSI

Last year, my Alienware laptop died after 18 months of service due to a power-related failure. I replaced it with an MSI because I could order it quickly, but it came with problems. To summarize my main issues with the MSI - it only boots successfully about 50% of the time, and otherwise freezes while booting, so it's often challenging to get it started. To avoid this, I have to keep it running most of the time. In addition, the keyboard misses keystrokes, and has an exceptionally awkward layout. Among other things, pressing Home and End requires a combination with the Fn key. Overall, not great for work.

Because I really liked my previous Alienware, and my wife likes hers, I decided to buy a new machine sooner than I otherwise would have. I opted for another Alienware. Oh boy. That was a mistake.

Ladies and gentlemen, what I have in my hotel room, resting in a suitcase next to me, is a $3,720 paperweight. I'm still typing this on my MSI laptop, because the Alienware shipped defective out of the box. It does not run on battery power. The motherboard fails to recognize the battery. It does run on AC power - but that's not what a laptop is for.

Adding insult and increasing injury, Alienware's service has been inept. I called Dell as soon as I unpacked this glorified brick and discovered the problem. It took me an hour just to get the right person on the phone. About 4-5 people forwarded my call from one department to another, incurring a 10-15 minute wait each time, each one saying I got the wrong department. When I finally got through to Alienware Tech Support, it took another hour to work with them and go through the diagnostic steps. The problem was confirmed, the fault must be in either the motherboard or battery. This was last Monday; they scheduled to ship both parts to a Dell technician in the area, who ought to call on Wednesday or Thursday. Because I don't have a US phone number and I'm staying in a hotel, I provided Dell with contact information for the people who helped me order the laptop in the first place.

About an hour after the support call, I figure I can set up a Skype number so the technician can call me directly, and come to my hotel room. I send updated contact information to Dell. Oh, boy. What could be worse. Their process now requires them to cancel the initial service order, and place a new service order. This will now cause a delay of 1 - 2 days, even though I sent new contact info just an hour after the call.

On Tuesday, I get a call from Dell, and they're confused about who to call and where to send the technician to. I don't care, whichever address works for me, I'll bring the laptop where it's needed. Just get this done. OK, they decide, the technician will go to the original contact address.

Comes Thursday, I receive an email from them saying they've canceled the original order after all, and have to place a new order using the new contact information. Then a few hours later, they call to say it turns out that Alienware batteries are completely out of stock. They agree that there's a 50/50 chance the problem is with the motherboard, so I ask that they send just the motherboard, so we can try replacing that. They say OK, and confirm that their technician will now call early the following week. I'm leaving the US later that same week, so this is cutting it short now.

Next Monday arrives, and there's no call yet, so I send them an email asking about what's up. They reply they've now realized the motherboards are out of stock as well. They can do nothing to help, but they are very sorry. I should initiate an ownership transfer procedure so as to get warranty in Costa Rica. Then I should beg for help when I get there.

So what I'm left with right now is a $3,720 Alienware Paperweight™ which won't work on battery power. I can't return it, because that's a process that takes 2 weeks to complete, and I need to be home by then. It can't be fixed, because the parts are out. All I can do is beg and hope that their international division will be able and willing to take care of this problem at some point after I return to Costa Rica. Which I'm pretty sure they're only promising because that's how they can get rid of me, and they actually won't.

Update - August 4, 2014: They shipped the motherboard after all, and a technician came to try and replace it, but that didn't fix the problem. It seems to be the battery. The technician called a service representative, which promised without any doubt that they can send a battery, and it would arrive within 1-2 business days. At some expense, I extended my trip to the US to allow for the battery to arrive. The battery, of course, didn't. The representative was again completely uninformed about the actual status of their inventory, and the batteries appear to still be on back order.

I have since returned to Costa Rica, the laptop is with me, and its battery is still dead. It now rests on a shelf next to my other dead Alienware.


On the relative value of money

Money makes problems go away. That's nice. But when the problems in your life are gone, the remainder is not happiness. It's vacuum.

If life were a game, then getting rid of the problems is like skipping to the end, past all the obstacles. You have the entire map uncovered. You can travel any place, buy anything you want that in-game vendors are selling. You can complete all the little achievements - find all ten of this, kill all six of that. And it's easy; you have all the upgrades you want, and you can kill everything in one shot.

But it feels hollow, and shallow, and it's nothing like playing the story for the first time - with appropriate difficulty, where fights are a challenge, and you have to keep trying to win, and winning feels rewarding, and you're at the center of a story with dramatic turns, and you don't have the means to know everything yet. You can deprive yourself of the advantage - unequip your gear, try to kill everything with a knife in close combat - but you know such restrictions are arbitrary, and just as lacking in meaning as any other way. But you'll do that - because what else is there to do - and then that will be done, too.

Having all the money you want is like having your life in front of you, and it's already game over. You've already won, and that's in the past - perhaps it happened before you were even born. Nothing you do from here on really matters, and after you've explored the trivialities of the world, the only mysteries that remain are the hard ones, the unyielding stone walls imposed by nature; the borders of our known world, which no single man can realistically overcome, regardless of what wealth they have. What you can realistically hope to do is help chip away at eternity - contribute what little you can in the gargantuan task of expanding our world a bit more.

If you're in that spot, and have passion and love in your life, it makes all the difference. Money makes a good life better; but arguably, it is more worthwhile to have passion and love, and be poor, than lack that, and have all the money in the world.


/r/polyamory and me

I have a love/hate relationship with /r/polyamory. On the one hand, it's the one place to discuss my favorite topic - on loving people without owning them. On the other hand, it's disproportionately populated with participants who somehow manage to push my buttons. While many are great conversational partners, others reek of unfounded superiority of the liberal arts type, combined with a firmly held belief that they can write, even though they couldn't read to save their lives. I think of them as neckbeards and beardettes, which seems to about fit the profile, if I can believe photos and reports of their meetups. In addition, the place is overseen by this perfidious type of moderator who consistently fail to police subtle insults, but are quick with the banhammer against someone who explicitly counterattacks.

As a result of this setup, participating in that subreddit makes my blood slowly boil. For months at a time, I'll try to remain calm against people whose obstinate failures to comprehend range from overconfident ignorance to outright malice. But in a while, the sublimated anger accumulates, and a day arrives when I'll have had enough, along with a person who presses my buttons a little bit too much. I'll give them one chance after another, but they'll keep stabbing me in the back, until I can no longer keep my cool; and then, Mr. Sensible turns into The Incredible Hulk. I'll tell them exactly what I think of them, and I will tell them really well - at which point they'll alert the "police", and...

What surprises me is - after the initial shock, this comes to me as a relief. I both didn't, and did want this to happen. I could have avoided it, but I kept it up because I've been seeking it all along. It's a necessary break from trying to talk sense to pretentious, unempathetic, "socially concerned" (but really quite egotistic), "tolerant" (but really not) artsy liberal arseholes.


It's just a hunch...

A funny little thing happened. A few days ago, I woke up after dreaming about a problem in our SSH Client. The dream called my attention to an issue I had never really thought about, or considered a problem. In currently released versions, when the client is run for the first time by the installer, it starts elevated - it runs with full administrative permissions of the installer, which means it runs in a slightly different security context than every next time it is run. I dreamt that this is causing problems, but after I woke up and thought about it, I couldn't quite put my finger on what these problems are. I wasn't even sure that it runs elevated in the first place. So at first, I didn't want to make a big deal about it. It seemed like a theoretical issue more than one with immediate impact, and we have other issues to deal with.

Still - later that day, before I went to bed, I remembered the dream again, and gave it the benefit of the doubt. Maybe I couldn't think of how it causes problems, but the behavior is incorrect. I opened a case about it, and Andrej fixed it soon after that. The fix isn't yet available in a released version, but it will be.

A few days later, we receive a follow up from a customer who had reported strange behavior with the SSH Client. He previously found that some of his network drives aren't visible from the SSH client, but now he found that the problem occurs when he uses the client after installation. The drives become visible if he closes the client and opens it from the shortcut again. I get a hunch, and ask the customer to try running the client from the shortcut, as Administrator, using elevation, and see if that reproduces the problem. Sure enough, it does.

So I dreamt about a problem that I didn't understand, and we fixed it a few days before recognizing an example of its impact. Cool. :)


Adderall vs. street meth

Fascinating article on US drug culture hypocrisy with regard to speed in the form of Adderall, vs. speed in the form of street meth:
The Speed of Hypocrisy: How America Got Hooked on Legal Meth

Most people understand that heroin and Oxycontin are both hard, addictive drugs. Not so with speed. When it comes to amphetamine, we’ve chosen a national split-screen in which doctors airily put millions of healthy children and adults on daily speed regimens while SWAT teams throw concussion bombs in baby cribs in pursuit of small-fry meth dealers.
“By the time I had the seizure, I was taking 90 milligrams of Adderall a day,” she says. “I knew girls who were taking the same amount or more. I don’t know if any of us had so-called ADHD, but the effects [of the Adderall] started to look exactly like how ADHD symptoms are described. I was told I needed it, so I believed it, but it was really just addiction.”
No pimply meth dealer ever tried to tell me his product was a harmless stimulant. No Mexican cartel ever made huge buys in medical journals to corner the market on fifth-graders, or hired pop stars to push their product on young moms on national television.


The incompatible trinity of relationship features

My theory of people is that most aren't naturally mono, or naturally poly, but naturally hypocritical.

While many mono people genuinely feel no desire for other partners, many - perhaps most - suppress this desire because they think this is expected of them, and also because they couldn't handle their partner having such a desire.

While many poly people genuinely feel no jealousy about the romantic and sexual actions of their partner(s), many - perhaps most - strive to overcome this jealousy because they recognize their own desire to be with other people, and wish to extend the same freedom to their partner(s).


Breaking Bad is awesome after all

Spoiler alert: If you haven't seen Breaking Bad up to and including Episode 1 of Season 3, stop reading here.

Okay, so in October I wrote a fairly scathing criticism of Breaking Bad. It was when Jana and I got stuck, and just couldn't keep watching when it looked like Mr. White was going to have another completely unnecessary episode of madness, and burn all that money he had made.

Several months later, we finally mustered the willpower to keep watching, and we were blown away. Season 3 definitely exceeded our expectations. We are now at Season 4 and loving it. The main characters, White and Pinkman, remain hateable - but the script is much more fun than we expected it would be.

That is all. :)