Hackers and Sphincters

Yesterday Wired published a thing about Bitcoin over ham radio. It seemed mostly harmless, until I found the comment section on Hacker News. The top dozen comments were from people quoting their understanding of the law and how Bitcoin transactions run afoul of FCC regulations.

When did Hacker News become the domain of snitches and squares?

Hacking is about beating the system, about finding ways to get around rules that don’t make sense for our situation. When it comes to software, the rules are encoded by machines. Licensing, for example. Commercial software often requires an activation key to use the product. Hackers don’t always appreciate this rule, so they deconstruct the software to remove the copy protection.

There was a time, long long ago, when Hacker News (and its proprietor, Y Combinator) held hackers in high esteem. In fact, the old YC application specifically asked founders to describe a non-computer system they successfully hacked. Responses ranged from traveling on the cheap (Kathryn Minshew, TheMuse) to, uh, shoplifting (Mahbod Moghadam, founder of Genius). In 2010, Paul Graham wrote that this was one of the questions they paid most attention to when judging applications.

Between 2014 and 2015, YC dropped this question from the application. They’re not looking for hackers anymore, they’re looking for people who toe the line.

This is the natural evolution in any industry. Conduct is initially self-limiting in a small community, but as technology becomes widely available the culture degrades and rules must be brought in.

Rules are created as a codification of cultural norms. Rules beget more rules, and over time the culture is forgotten and all that’s left is an industry obsessed with rules.

Amateur radio began with an ethos of experimentation. In the early 20th century, kids rigged up radio stations by winding electrical wire around curtain rods (for the tuning coil) and attaching batteries to sewing needles (for the spark-gap transmitter). There was a general understanding that spectrum is a shared public good, and hams tried to avoid interfering with others. It’s hard to codify “Please share and be nice” unto law, so the Amateur Radio Relay League lobbied the FCC to divvy up the amateur frequency spectrum, with different rules about how each frequency can be used, what can be transmitted, and for how long.

Over the decades, radio operators fixated on the rules and forgot about experimentation and sharing. Instead of “From each his abilities, to each his needs,” ham radio turned into an industry full of sphincters complaining about who’s been using too much spectrum, or using it the wrong way.

This is why communism doesn’t work.

Same with YC and the rest of Silicon Valley. The Bay Area used to be a haven for fruits and nuts, but eventually the culture of welcoming misfits deteriorated into speech codes where anyone who comes remotely close to disparaging a minority loses their job, their friends, and their Twitter account. It’s gotten to the point where entire political parties are banned from speaking for the sake of “inclusion”.

This is probably the biggest risk for mainstream Bitcoin adoption. As the original cypherpunk culture fades, people will look for a codified set of rules. Non-technical normies can’t accept that they have nothing of value to contribute, so they’ll be especially eager to help. They’ll argue over the meaning of “Peer-to-Peer Cash”, or transaction costs, or which software implementation best represents Satoshi’s Vision™. Each faction will stick to their staunch interpretation and governing bodies will be created. Its origins long forgotten, Bitcoin will have turned into the bureaucratic monetary system it once set out to destroy.

A Very Racist Blog Post

Trigger warning: See title.

I’ve lived in this country for over three decades and one thing I’ll never understand is Racism. I mean, I get why people are racist, I come from a very racist country myself. What I don’t understand is how that word is like kryptonite to white people. In the US, being charged with the R-word is worse than being a convicted felon. At least ex-cons can still get jobs.

In 1976, the National Lampoon published PJ O’Rourke’s Foreigners Around the World. The piece highlights unflattering cultural characteristics from foreign countries. Here’s his description of England:

Cold-blooded queers with nasty complexions and terrible teeth who once conquered half the world but still haven’t figured out central heating. They warm their beers and chill their baths and boil all their food, including bread.

Extrapolate the same humor to the rest of the world, and you can see why National Lampoon deleted the piece from its archives. In 1976, the work was considered politically incorrect. Today, it would be hate speech and an act of violence.

Politically incorrect humor is a form of observational comedy. It’s funny because it presents a seeming incongruity (Warm their beers and chill their baths? How backwards!), which forces the frontal cortex to process an unexpected input. When the incongruity is resolved (British pubs serve warm lager, and their bathroom faucets dispense boiling water), the brain releases dopamine to reward the accomplishment. And we laugh.

If you’re not familiar with British pubs or washrooms, then the incongruity is never resolved and the joke makes no sense.

Remember Borat? It’s a movie where Sacha Baron Cohen pretends to be a Kazakh journalist touring the US. He punks people by recording interactions where he spouts off about Jews having horns and laying eggs. The humor lies in the absurdity that no one is dumb enough to think Jews lay eggs. The incongruity is resolved when we remember that Borat is from Kazakhstan and therefore a moron. It’s a joke, at Kazakhstan’s expense.

The film was well-received in Kazakhstan too. The foreign minister even thanked Borat for boosting tourism. Over there, the absurdity is that no one could be dumb enough to think Borat is a real Kazakh. Coherence is restored when the Kazakh audience recalls that Americans are self-absorbed idiots. It’s a joke, at America’s expense.

You know who didn’t find Borat funny? The Anti-Defamation League. The ADL issued a press release warning that the film could reinforce antisemitic bigotry. Cuz that’s their schtick. The ADL’s entire purpose in life is to look for antisemitism, so they failed to recognize the absurdity of a Kazakh believing that Jews lay eggs. As far as they’re concerned, this is how bigots actually think. Borat is advancing the harmful stereotype that Jews are shapeshifting reptiles, rather than the stereotype that Kazakhs are savages or Americans are stupid.

The same thing happened with PewDiePie. YouTube’s most popular celebrity got in trouble after he posted a video where he pays third world denizens five dollars to hold up a banner saying “Death to all Jews”. The joke is that no American would ever film themself holding a racist banner for five bucks. In this country, being charged with racism is worse than landing on the National Sex Offender Registry. Hence the absurdity — these guys in India are willing to do something unthinkable for chump change. The incongruity is resolved when we realize that the banner-bearers are very poor. The joke is indeed racist, but it’s racist against Indians. The sanctimonious grandstanders at WSJ miss this, because they honestly believe the world is teeming with closet Nazis looking for any excuse to be antisemitic.

That’s why we can’t laugh at politically incorrect jokes anymore. I mean, we can, and I do when no one’s looking, but we can’t share them on the internet or anywhere public. The media scolds have become like the ADL in that they devote their lives to surfacing anything that might remotely resemble racism. It’s not their fault, really. Now that Google and Facebook have commandeered media ad revenue, publications have limited budgets and investigative journalism is reduced to searching YouTube for offensive content.

San Francisco Squatters

Coastal California’s tent encampments are going upscale. In some shantytowns, homeless people are reinforcing their digs with dimensional lumber and plywood. Check out this “tent”:

Hang some drywall and add a door, and it could pass for a single-family home! Compare to this 640 square foot shack selling for $2.5 million in Portrero Hill:

San Francisco could learn a lot from Mumbai; they have a lot in common. I’m not talking about the public defecation or the wealth inequality, although I kind of am. I’m talking about the dysfunctional housing market, where rent control and building restrictions have made development all but impossible. But in India, rather than try to work within the bounds of bureaucracy, enterprising residents take it upon themselves to construct illegal buildings.

Sometimes the illegal tenements collapse, sometimes they’re washed away in monsoons, but sometimes the settlements survive and eventually acquire land rights. They’re not going anywhere, might as well legalize and tax them.

San Francisco has over 8,000 homeless people. If they ditched the temporary shelters and opted for something more permanent, there’s not a lot that SF Public Works could do about it. It’s easy to sweep a tent off the sidewalk; much harder to sweep a concrete slab attached to aluminum siding. Possession is nine-tenths of the law, suckers!

Squatter’s Rights: It is generally not possible to claim adverse possession on public property unless the property has been abandoned by the local government, which most of San Francisco appears to be. In past cases, the government has been prevented from asserting ownership if the squatter has made significant improvements to the property. Given that homeless encampments represent the majority of Bay Area housing units created in the last decade, I’d say they count as an improvement.

1. Highways: Title Which an Abutter May Obtain in a Public Street by Adverse Possession. Michigan Law Review, Vol 36, No 7, May 1938.
2. Sandra Stevenson. Understanding Local Government, 2003.

Digital Squatter’s Rights

Squatter’s rights exist because land that is occupied and maintained is preferable to land that is vacant and neglected. It prevents property from falling into disuse, and keeps indigenous people from trying to reclaim land that white people have colonized and developed.

A social media platform that is populated is worth more than one that is empty. If server space were like physical space, then content creators who invest a minimum number of years developing content on a platform would acquire the right to continue doing so. Even if those content creators happen to be bigots.

YouTube just completed another round of deplatforming and demonetization, and the injustice isn’t really about censorship or political bias, but the fact that people make significant investments in their channels and come to depend on Youtube as a source of income. In California, the statute of limitations for adverse possession is five years — if someone has occupied your property for half a decade with no attempt at removal, they’ve likely put effort into maintaining the property, and have acquired the right to stay.

Remember that Iranian woman who shot up Youtube headquarters last year? The media memoryholed that incident because Nasim Aghdam didn’t fit the archetypal white male shooter. But she was pissed because Youtube arbitrarily demonetized her channels and stripped her of income with no recourse.

(In this most recent case, Steven Crowder was doing his schtick on Youtube for thirteen years before a Vox journalist threw a hissy fit to have him removed.)

The government enforces property rights — including squatter’s rights! — because property right protections encourage investment and economic growth. Unfortunately the internet is an anarchy, and there’s no one in charge to enforce digital property rights.

The equilibrium state in an anarchy is a subsistence-level free-for-all. No one tries to build a following on any platform because there’s no guarantee that the collected klout will still be there tomorrow. So stop volunteering free content to Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, et al; it only enriches the enemy. Let’s return to the good old days, when the internet was about as densely populated as woodland bears.

See Also:
A Lockean Theory of Digital Property

Woke Corporate Strategy

Amazon, as typical of most tech companies, has a very progressive workforce. Unfortunately, its shareholders are not so woke.

Last month, Amazon shareholders rejected several employee-led proposals, including a plan to address climate change and a call stop selling facial recognition technology to government agencies. Other nixed proposals include a ban on hateful items in the Amazon marketplace, a review of sexual harassment policies, and a request for data on the gender wage gap.

Turns out that yielding to woke employee demands is not good corporate strategy.

Even Google, woke capital pioneer, is overruling employee protests. The company initially promised not to renew its Pentagon contract for the AI drone project, then worked around this promise by funding a new company to take over the contract. Google is also continuing work on the censored search engine for China despite political pressure. And last year, shareholders rejected an employee-backed plan to tie executive compensation to diversity goals.

Remember all those media claims that tech companies would lead the #Resistance against Trump?

Hahaha, nope. Both Microsoft and Salesforce continue to provide US Customs and Border Control with products even after employees signed an open letter demanding they stop.

The strange thing isn’t that shareholders care about profits; it’s that employees… don’t. There’s always been some tension between wage-laborers who want more money, and their bosses who want to give them less. But at the end of the day, both parties want the corporation to succeed. Employees need their employer to stick around and provide them with a career and pension.

Private sector pensions fell out of favor in the 80s, as did no-layoff policies and worker loyalty. Now the average employee tenure at top tech companies is 2.1 years. Tech employees do get stock-based compensation, but the proportion of stock versus base pay increases based on employee seniority.

(Here is a good resource for comparing tech company pay packages by seniority.)

When I worked at a publicly-traded tech company, the norm for engineers was to sell their restricted stock units as soon as they vested. It made sense because (1) our tax liability was relatively low, and (2) we needed the money. Someone in management, on the other hand, might have a high enough base pay to hold their shares and avoid the tax hit.

The result is that tech companies end up with a lot of low-level employees who don’t care about shareholder interests. The fact that these employees tend to take up social justice causes is just an artifact of them being young and stupid.

Coda: The most obvious counterpoint to all this is the fact that platforms actively censor people like Alex Jones and Laura Loomer. But I suspect that these content creators weren’t all that profitable to begin with. Amazon, Apple, and Google were quite happy to ignore petitions and celebrity pressure during the 2018 NRA boycott – NRAtv continues to stream on Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, and Google Chromecast. So the NRA likely has a wealthier audience than InfoWars.