Chaos Monkeys, a Silicon Valley Story

Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley is a fascinating book for people like Mary and I who haven’t lived in the San Francisco Bay area for many years. The author, Antonio Garcia Martinez, writes in a unique way. Take note, Donald Trump fans, Martinez is the son of Cuban immigrants, and we’d be poorer without this book and the contributions Martinez made to the tech industry. The rest of this post is his words from the book and there is also a good interview of him on YouTube.

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Like the masters of old buying servants off the ship, tech companies are required to spend nontrivial sums for foreign hires. Many companies, particularly smaller startups, don’t want the hassle, and hire only American citizens, an imposed nativism nobody talks about, and which is possibly illegal. Big companies, which know they’ll be around for the years it will take to recoup their investment, are the real beneficiaries of this peonage system.

Large but unexciting tech outfits like Oracle, Intel, Qualcomm, and IBM that have trouble recruiting the best American talent hire foreign engineers by the boatload. Consultancy firms that bill inflated project costs by the man-hour, such as Accenture and Deloitte, shanghai their foreign laborers, who can’t quit without being eventually deported. By paying them relatively slim H-1B-stipulated salaries while eating the fat consultancy fees, such companies get rich off the artificial employment monopoly created by the visa barrier. It’s a shit deal for the immigrant visa holders, but they put up with the five or so years of stultifying, exploitive labor as an admissions ticket to the tech First World. After that, they’re free. Everyone abandons his or her place at the oar inside the Intel war galley immediately, but there’s always someone waiting to take over.

Strictly speaking, H-1B visas are non-immigrant and temporary, and so this hazing ritual of immigrant initiation is unlawful. Yet everyone’s on the take, including the government, which charges thousands in filing fees. The entire system is so riven with institutionalized lies, political intrigue, and illegal but overlooked manipulation, it’s a wonder the American tech industry exists at all.

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As a piece of clickbait-y news, want to know which is the most expensive word in the English language? Around 2011 or so, and probably still to this day, the priciest word in the global auction on words was “mesothelioma.” This tongue twister is a rare form of lung disease common among former asbestos-plant workers. Thanks to a series of class-action lawsuits against former factory owners, filed by plaintiffs’ attorneys who make fortunes on contingency fees, the value of this word was bid up as high as $90 per click. Want to screw a slimy lawyer? Google “mesothelioma” and start randomly clicking on the ads that appear. You’re costing a lawyer almost a whole benjamin every time you do that.

Lung-cancer words, despite their superlative cost, are still a pretty niche market. What are the costliest Google keywords among relatively high-volume keywords? The ranking changes, but the top ten is always composed of some combination of “insurance,” “loans,” “mortgage,” “classes,” “credit,” “lawyer,” and so on. These are Google’s moneymakers, which pay for the Android phones, the Chrome browser, the self-driving cars, the flying Wi-Fi balloons, and whatever weird, geeky, philanthropic shit the company is up to recently.

As part of our push to woo Facebook, I had been getting Google Alerts on the company for months. One in particular had caught my attention. In October 2010, a mother in Florida had shaken her baby to death, as the baby would interrupt her FarmVille games with crying. A mother destroyed with her own hands what she’d been programmed over aeons to love, just to keep on responding to Facebook notifications triggered by some idiot game. Products that cause mothers to murder their infants in order to use them more, assuming they’re legal, simply cannot fail in the world. Facebook was legalized crack, and at Internet scale. Such a company could certainly figure out a way to sell shoes. Twitter was cute and all, but it didn’t have a casualty rate yet, no matter how much this Lady Gaga person was tweeting.

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Like Jesus speaking to his apostles, Facebook often imparted nuggets of its culture in the form of parables. The parable here concerned a misguided Facebook employee who leaked news of a soon-to-be-launched product to the tech press. Zuck reacted via a to-all email with the subject line “Please resign,” an alarming presence in anybody’s inbox. The email, which was projected onto the screen in Pong and read line by line, encouraged whoever had leaked to resign immediately, and excoriated the perpetrator for his or her base moral nature, highlighting how he or she had betrayed the team. The moral to this story, a parable of the prodigal son but with an unforgiving father, was clear: fuck with Facebook and security guards would be hustling you out the door like a rowdy drunk at the late-night Taco Bell.

* * *

Rather than harshly regulate every step of this sexual-legal minefield, Facebook preferred to lay down basic guidelines. Delicately, but unambiguously, our HR Man stated that we could ask a coworker out once, but no meant no, and you had no more lets after that. After one ask, you were done, and anything beyond that was subject to sanction.

* * *

Many cool Valley companies have engineering-first cultures, but Facebook took it to a different level. The engineers ran the place, and so long as you shipped code and didn’t break anything (too often), you were golden. The spirit of subversive hackery guided everything. In the early days, a Georgia college kid named Chris Putnam created a virus that made your Facebook profile resemble MySpace, then the social media incumbent. It went rampant and started deleting user data as well. Instead of siccing the FBI dogs on Putnam, Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskovitz invited him for an interview, and offered him a job. He went on to become one of Facebook’s more famous and rage-filled engineers. That was the uniquely piratical attitude: if you could get shit done and quickly, nobody cared much about credentials or traditional legalistic morality. The hacker ethos prevailed above all.

* * *

For years Google had been famously dismissive of Facebook, the fortified redoubts of its search monopoly making it feel untouchable. But as the one-way parade of expensive talent from Google to Facebook continued with no end in sight, Google got nervous. Companies are like countries: the populations really vote only with their feet, either coming or going. Google instituted a policy whereby any desirable Googler who got a Facebook offer would have it beaten instantly by a heaping Google counteroffer. This, of course, caused a rush of Googlers to interview at Facebook, only to use the resulting offer as a bargaining chip to improve their Google pay. But many were legitimately leaving. The Googlers at Facebook were a bit like the Greeks during the rise of the Roman Empire: they brought lots of civilization and tech culture with them, but it was clear who was going to run the world in the near future.

* * *

To me, only the man who needed nothing was truly free. Until I was financially independent (e.g., fuck-you money), or the captain of a profitable enterprise, I was merely a slave whose bondage was worth one or another price, locked in as much by diapers and tuition costs as by a vesting schedule.

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As a geographic tangent: New Zealand was commonly used as a test bed for new user-facing products. It was perfect due to its English-language usage, its relative isolation in terms of the social graph (i.e., most friend links were internal to the country), and, frankly, its lack of newsworthiness, so any gossip or reporting of new Facebook features ran a low risk of leaking back to the real target markets of the United States and Europe. Aotearoa is the original Maori word for New Zealand, which roughly translated means “Facebook test set.” Thus does that verdant island nation, graced with stunning fjords and clear alpine lakes, sample whatever random product twiddle a twenty-three-year-old Facebook engineer in Menlo Park dreams up.

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A Sad Song About a Tractor Rollover

According to Modern Farmer:

Tractors now claim some 125 lives a year in the U.S., according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), representing the biggest danger on a farm….

Tractor rollovers. Grain suffocation. Deadly fumes. Goring. Electrocution. Heatstroke. Farming is one of the deadliest professions in the world.

Unfortunately, farm safety is an issue rarely discussed outside of agricultural circles. Out of 335,000 workplace fatalities worldwide, over half occur in agriculture, according to the International Labour Organization. The particular hazards vary around the globe — in Sweden, livestock accidents are a major killer, while a number of Kenyan farmers have died from a toxic corn fungus — but the danger is a constant.

In some countries, farming accounts for twice as many deaths as all other industries. Agriculture has been the deadliest U.S. industry every year for the last decade, beating out mining and construction in deaths per 100,000 workers.

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Do You Use “Concerning” as an Adjective?

If so, you should be aware that it is a poor use of the language and that there are many better alternatives. Instead of saying, “The latest tweet by President is very concerning”, substitute alarming, bothersome, disquieting, distressing, disturbing, nerve-racking, perturbing, scary, troubling, unsettling, upsetting, worrisome, or worrying. Daily Writing Tips discusses it fully.

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How to Cope With Cops

Increasing numbers of people are being stopped while driving and being arrested so Dale Carson, a criminal defense lawyer who was a cop in Miami for 8 years, wrote
Arrest-Proof Yourself to help people cope with the police state. The following are excerpts from the book.

The system needs you. It’s huge. It’s no small chore keeping the jails filled; government employees at work; and those tax dollars, fines, and court costs rolling in. The problem nowadays is that, in many cities, serious crime is way down. The cops are great at arresting the really bad guys, and state legislatures have passed stiff sentencing guidelines that put felons away for decades. What you’ll never see, however, is a headline like this: “Crime Down—Judges Laid Off, Cops Furloughed, Jails to Close.”

One of the “advancements” in law enforcement that truly disgusts me is the extension of vehicle laws to bicycles and the use of proactive policing techniques to pile felony charges onto children. Every criminal attorney in my city has cases of children arrested and jailed for such crimes as riding a bicycle at night without a light, riding without a helmet, and riding with their buddies on the handlebars. This enforcement is highly selective and never, ever occurs in wealthy neighborhoods. Poor kids, primarily poor black kids, are just Hoovered up into the system in industrial-sized quantities.

Naturally, this takes much of the fun out of riding bikes, which for most kids is their first taste of freedom from their parents and an important stage in growing up. These bicycle laws were passed by city commissions and state legislatures to protect children’s safety. Unfortunately, the welfare state has an unfortunate tendency to morph into the police state. For police, bicycle safety laws have become another means of making more arrests and racking up more points. Children need to stay free and out of jail long enough to grow up, straighten up, and become citizens. Help them out.

Schools already look like prisons, with surveillance cameras, electric locks, entry and exit recorders, armed police, and escape-proof detention rooms. Several Texas school districts now mandate that students carry a magnetic card with an embedded Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chip. These cards track students’ locations, supposedly for safety reasons. Students, who can be punished for not carrying their cards, are freaking out. There are certain mildly naughty teenaged activities (smooching, sneaking a cigarette, masturbating) that need to be done in secret. They need to happen without children being busted, tossed into juvie jail, and given a permanent arrest record in the FBI’s database. In Surveillance High, there’s no place to run, no place to hide, and no place to grow up.

Plate scanners make possible thousands of easy arrests and generate gushers of revenue from traffic tickets, court fines, jail charges, and the unending fees of the probation and parole system. (See Arrested for the detailed list). The decrease in arrests initially caused by the Supreme Court’s prohibition against traffic-stop searches has been more than offset by the increase in scanner-generated arrests. A plate scanner that costs thousands can pay for itself in a few shifts. Every arrest-hungry patrol officer, and every dollar-hungry tax collector, is lusting for one.

Police use the devices to scan for criminal offenses, arrest warrants, detainers (wanted for questioning by detectives or other agencies), BOLOs (Be On the Lookout for), stolen vehicles, traffic violations, and, increasingly, administrative offenses such as unpaid, expired, suspended, or revoked driver’s licenses, unpaid traffic and parking tickets, unpaid child support, and probation and parole violations. Cops soon may be able to scan for professional and business license problems; zoning violations; unpaid property, sales, and income taxes; even unpaid driver’s insurance and health insurance premiums. There are few legal barriers to using police as revenue agents and bureaucratic paperwork checkers. This mission creep is alarming. Citizens need more than a little wiggle room with government.

As you pass under these cameras and scanners, you can sense the binary code flashing along fiber-optic cables, beaming up to satellites and bouncing among computers and servers from sea to shining sea. The machines are whispering to each other. They’re thinking; they’re planning. It’s Skynet, coming alive. Soon there will be no place to run and no place to hide in America, the Land of the Surveilled.

Real bad guys share one characteristic: they’re hard to catch by cops driving around in cars. Here’s my beef with proactive policing as currently practiced. For every big crook caught, thousands of petty offenders get hammered for smoking weed, flipping off a police officer, and playing their stereos too high. Processing these people endlessly through the criminal justice system is abusive, not to mention expensive. Too many people’s rights get trampled.

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Pianist Kenny White Deserves to Be More Widely Known

Mary and I saw and listened to Kenny White last week. He is a great pianist and songwriter who deserves more fame and success. Don’t miss him when he comes to your town!

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A Private Letter From a Doctor to a Pharmacist

Is a prescription a private letter that a doctor writes to a pharmacist about a third party, the patient, similar to a private letter that a man writes to his cousin where he discusses his father? The legislature of the state of Vermont, after lobbying by a doctors’ union called the Vermont Medical Society, enacted a “Prescription Confidentiality Law” prohibiting pharmacists from disclosing, without consent, the drugs individual doctors prescribe for their patients because they believe it is an unwarranted breach of trust similar to confidential business information like trade secrets.

Drug peddlers use information provided by pharmacists to precisely target doctors to sell drugs. Doctors writing few prescriptions are ignored while doctors writing many prescriptions receive lavish attention. If a drug company learns from pharmacists that a doctor prefers the drugs of his competitor, a salesman will ask him why. Some doctors refuse to talk to salesmen believe they resent them while other doctors appreciate the information the peddlers offer.

The peddlers and “data miners” that gather information from pharmacies to assist peddlers sued Vermont in the Supreme Court, winning a 6-3 vote joined by 5 Republicans and a Democrat and opposed by a dissent of 3 Democrats, nullifying the law as unconstitutional because it denies pharmacies the right to say and publish as they please. It was to the court as if Vermont prohibited the Wall Street Journal from publishing stock prices. Specifically, they stated that the “Prescription Confidentiality Law”:

imposes more than an incidental burden on protected expression. Both on its face and in its practical operation, Vermont’s law imposes a burden based on the content of speech and the identity of the speaker. While the burdened speech results from an economic motive, so too does a great deal of vital expression…. An individual’s right to speak is implicated when information he or she possesses is subjected to “restraints on the way in which the information might be used” or disseminated.

While it is easy to understand Republican frustration with Democrats using government force to censor people, they wore partisan blinders to wrongly decide this case, ignoring 350 years of precedents protecting property rights. For example, the British courts ruled in 1741 that the receiver of a letter cannot publish a private letter because it is the property of the sender. The letters were written by the famous author Alexander Pope to another famous author, Jonathan Swift, and published by a bookseller name Curl. The British legislature didn’t even enact a law protecting the author, the court ruling that the sender of the letters owned the copyright merely by producing the letters.

It may seem like an old ruling in another country is irrelevant but the court in Massachusetts relied on it as precedent in a 1912 case of the private letters of a famous woman, Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the Christian Science religion and the Christian Science Monitor, to her cousin about household matters, health, and work.

The right of the author to publish or suppress publication of his correspondence is absolute in the absence of special considerations, and is independent of any desire or intent at the time of writing. It is an interest in the intangible and impalpable thought and the particular verbal garments in which it has been clothed. Although independent of the manuscript, this right involves a right to copy or secure copies. Otherwise, the author’s right of publication might be lost. The author parts with the physical and material elements which are conveyed by and in the envelope. These are given to the receiver. The paper upon which the letter is written belongs to the receiver. A duty of preservation would impose an unreasonable burden in most instances. It is obvious that no such obligation rests upon the receiver, and he may destroy or keep at pleasure. Commonly there must be inferred a right of reading or showing to a more or less limited circle of friends and relatives. But in other instances the very nature of the correspondence may be such as to set the seal of secrecy upon its contents. Letters of extreme affection and other fiduciary communications may come within this class. There may be also a confidential relation existing between the parties, out of which would arise an implied prohibition against any use of the letters, and a breach of such trust might be restrained in equity.

The case was brought by the executor of the will of Mary Baker Eddy in 1912 after she died in 1910 to prevent an auctioneer from selling copies of the letters. The court ruled in favor of the executor. Why does the property of a dead woman in 1912 get more protection than the property of alive and kicking doctors in the 21st century? Are we regressing to a socialist state where most property is disparaged?

Private letters are not the only property that enjoyed government protection for hundreds of years. For example, Dorothy McCreery, hired a photographer to take her picture and successfully petitioned a Colorado court in 1936 to restrain a grocery store chain from using the picture against her wishes and without her consent as advertising in their stores. She claimed that the effect was to:

injure plaintiff’s feelings and embarrass and distress said plaintiff and did hold plaintiff up to the ridicule and scorn of her friends and acquaintances, all of which has caused plaintiff great humiliation, distress, mental anguish and damage and has caused plaintiff to be highly nervous and distressed, thereby seriously and irreparably injuring plaintiff’s health and well-being and has prevented plaintiff from attending to her regular duties and carrying on her usual work.

Can a doctor carry on his usual work, including writing drug prescriptions, when he knows that drug companies are spying on him and the legislature can’t protect him because the Supreme Court says that pharmacies can publish anything they please? Can you blame doctors who refuse to associate with drug sellers who know his intimate secrets?

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A Visit to the National Western Stock Show

Mary, Susan and I went to the National Western Stock Show last weekend.

Stock Show Poster

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Did Steve Jobs Reincarnate to Make America Great Again?

According to the New York Times, the first thing Donald Trump did after becoming President was to gather legislators to inform them that millions of illegal immigrants voted against him in the election. Fellow narcissist Steve Jobs said this kind of nonsense so often that it became known as his Reality Distortion Field:

A term coined by Bud Tribble at Apple Computer in 1981, to describe company co-founder Steve Jobs’s charisma and its effects on the developers working on the Macintosh project. Tribble said that the term came from Star Trek. In the Menagerie episode, it was used to describe how the aliens created their own new world through mental force.

The RDF was said by Andy Hertzfeld to be Steve Jobs’s ability to convince himself and others to believe almost anything with a mix of charm, charisma, bravado, hyperbole, marketing, appeasement and persistence. RDF was said to distort an audience’s sense of proportion and scales of difficulties and made them believe that the task at hand was possible. Jobs could also use the RDF to appropriate other’s ideas as his own, sometimes proposing an idea to its originator after dismissing it the week before.

The term is also used by Apple’s competitors when they criticize Apple. On Research In Motion’s official BlackBerry blog, Jim Balsillie introduced a blog post by saying “For those of us who live outside of Apple’s distortion field”.

Jobs’s reality distortion field was parodied in Dilbert: Dilbert built a functioning reality distortion field emitter, which is used during Dogbert’s keynote speech, while previous strips parodied iPhone flaws. In chapter three of the 2011 biography of Steve Jobs, titled Steve Jobs, biographer Walter Isaacson states that around 1972, while Jobs was attending Reed College, Robert Friedland “…taught Steve the reality distortion field…”

The term has extended in industry to other managers and leaders who try to convince their employees to become passionately committed to projects without regard to the overall product or to competitive forces in the market. It also has been used with regard to hype for products that are not necessarily connected with any one person. Bill Clinton’s charisma has been called a reality distortion field. The chess champion Bobby Fischer was said to have a “Fischer aura” surrounding him that disoriented Boris Spassky and other opponents. The term has associated with Donald Trump’s approach to running his 2016 campaign for United States President.

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Why is Regulating What People Say Wrong?

One of my favorite musicians, Loudon Wainwright, sings about our future under President Trump.

Wainwright worries that Trump is fond of locking up demonstrators even though Trump agreed under oath when assuming the Presidency to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution including the part that says that “Congress shall make no law” regulating what people say. Trump gave a long inauguration speech where he neglected to mention the Constitution and he rarely, if ever, mentioned it when he ran for President. One thing he should’ve mentioned is that President Obama has been sending government agents to meetings to intimidate people who give speeches to doctors. “Congress shall make no law” allows no exceptions because it is intended to protect despised minorities such as Ku Klux Klan members, corporate executives, and people who speak to doctors.

Why shouldn’t the government prevent the Ku Klux Klan from spreading hate? The reason is that the best response to bigots is to say things reflecting tolerance. The Klan can even join an Adopt-A-Highway litter removal program run by a state government, advertising themselves on a sign seen by thousands of passing motorists.

Why shouldn’t the government prevent corporate executives from telling their friends and relatives of important company news before the public? The reason is that the corporation owners can insert a provision in the employment contracts of the company managers prohibiting them from giving insider information to their friends, preventing them to make a killing in the stock market at the expense of other shareholders. If you buy stock in a corporation where the previous owners have omitted such a provision, you’ve agreed that you’re not annoyed if the executives treat you poorly relative to their friends.

Why shouldn’t the government prevent drug company representatives from saying things to doctors that might persuade them to unwisely buy drugs? The reason is that doctors rely on patients believing that they understand the human body and will not be deceived by drug companies. Doctors who fail will lose patients and be run out of the business if it happens repeatedly. Incompetence doesn’t survive for long in a free market.

Humans are chimps that walk upright and sing and speak like dolphins and orcas. The less we say, the less we prosper. The United States will stagnate under Trump as it did under Obama because the citizens don’t value their rights and it would’ve made no difference if Hillary Clinton had been elected. Freedom is too frightening for them to try.

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How Did Bobby Kennedy Become Interested in Vaccines and Autism?

I asked Google but it only understands keywords. I ask because they’re working on artificial neural networks with products like TensorFlow but are from being able to answer simple questions.

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