Safety First: A New Mantra for America

I don’t ever watch the news on TV.  Maybe once a month, generally while sitting in a waiting room of some sort where you can’t help but listen to the TV blaring away in the corner.

A few months ago I was in that situation, and listened to Mayor Bloomberg utter the now all too common refrain that “safety of residents was his top priority.”  I don’t want to focus in on the specific situation he was referring to or anything along those lines, I just want to comment briefly on a once-bedrock notion that seems to have been lost permanently from the American Psyche: safety or security is not an ideal in and of itself.

Let me explain.

If you hang around geeks long enough, you’ll hear them discuss the security and safety of their computers.  There’s lot of things to secure (and thus talk about) too: their code, their servers, even security of non-computery things and other physical devices.  At some point, you’ll hear a version of this statement: “The only secure computer is one that’s turned off, unconnected to anything, encased in a block of concrete, sitting in the bottom of the ocean…and even that’s not going to be completely secure!”

What’s really being said here is that security is not a binary function of yes/no but a continuum between two mutually exclusive goals: utility and security.  In other words, security is a process during which intelligent and thoughtful trade-offs have to be made just to get stuff done.  This is why you will find nerds, geeks, and other computer professionals disproportionately critical of many modern security measures, processes, and other “security theater” institutions like the TSA.  Computer people already have a wealth of experience trading perfect security for reasonable security in order to achieve things, and we’ve done so without coercion or legislation or massive cost to the user.  The technology security analyst’s job is literally right on the pain point between these two opposing priorities and it’s often not pleasant, but that’s their job.

Back to America and our newfound obsession with safety and security.  Ben Franklin has an iconic quote (often paraphrased) which we seem to have lost sight of:

Those Who Sacrifice Liberty For Security Deserve Neither.”  

It’s as clear a signal from the framers of the United States as to what kind of country we were to be.   There’s an even more powerful quote which I’ll discuss in just a moment.

I’m not a George W. Bush fan, but I eagerly bought his book “Decision Points” when it came out and very much enjoyed reading it.  It clearly wasn’t ghost written, which was refreshing.  He plays fast and loose with the facts in a few places, and revises history in others, but the first chapter is genuinely inspiring as he documents his battle with alcoholism.

I found myself respecting him more after reading the book and I also gained a lot of insight into his thought processes.  Over and over again he justifies his, uhh, decision points by claiming that his primary duty was to keep Americans safe.  If you listen to talk radio even just a little this is a refrain you’ll hear over and over again.  We have to keep Americans and America safe.  We have to keep our allies safe.  It’s mentioned by commentators, newscasters, senators, congressmen, presidents, and people. Safe. Safe. Safe.

Except Bush, talk radio personalities, and anyone else who believes that safety is our ultimate priority are all wrong.  The founding fathers knew what they were doing when they designed the oath of the office of the President of the United States:

I, , do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

Presidents and Congress are to protect our Constitution, not Americans, and in doing so they protect America.  Pure safety is unatainable, and to get as close as we can to pure security means totalitarianism, and no happiness, life or liberty.  Just like with the almost-safe computer sitting in the bottom of the ocean, a purely safe life means being locked in a room in the bottom of the ocean where nobody can harm you.

We need to stop pursuing this idea that the end goal of America and Americans is safety.  I don’t want to live a safe life.  I want to live a fulfilling life, one that’s full of adventure and creation and freedom.  

We need do a better job at educating ourselves about the true risks in life.  The reality is that it’s much more dangerous to drive and pickup a pizza than to fly.  I’m more likely to get hit by lightning than be a victim of terrorism.  

There are dozens and dozens of examples that document how we’re living in an age of extreme safety and relative security, and none of this is due to security checks or military spending or increased wiretapping.  I’d encourage you to do the research and see if you come to the same conclusion.  

Back to the American oath of office.  Think of how natural it would have been to make the chief goal of our President be the security of his people.  Swearing an oath to the constitution was no accident.  Think of how easy it is to make bad decisions if all you care about is safety.

We have a higher calling in life than to be safe.  Most of history’s meaningful changes have been very unsafe affairs.  We should expect our leaders to understand this and we shouldn’t accept safety as our prime directive or even as a goal in and of itself.


Goodbye Current Events

I’m trying something out and it only tangentially happens to correspond with the New Year.  It looks like a resolution, but it’s not.  Essentially, I’m going to unplug from most current events when at all possible.

This flies in the face of my normal desire to read and know about current events obsessively.  I may not be a full fledged news junkie, but I definitely used to read two newspapers pretty extensively, and generally spend large chunks of time reading about current events.  I even used to take daily notes of important events with the goal of being able to identify trends and analyze coverage, particularly longer running items like the 2008 Financial Meltdown or the Arab Spring.  Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that I was better off reading well researched books that came out a few months or years later.  I enjoyed the treatment of the events better, they were more informative, and the coverage more balanced, and the whole experience was of course seasoned with hindsight.

This flies in the face of conventional wisdom, but should yield the following benefits.

More Time

The idea had already been percolating a bit but was reinforced during the last few months of an international move where I literally didn’t have time to follow current events.  The end result was I didn’t care that much.  And I had a lot more time to devote to moving.  Now I’ll have more time to devote to other things.

More Accuracy

There’s a name for a phenomenon (that I don’t have time to research) where you read media coverage of an event or detailed subject which you know a lot about and realize that the article is inaccurate, missing important details, or misses crucial nuance.  You smirk as you realize the reported missed the point or didn’t do the subject justice, then move on to the next article and trust they’re getting it right on all those other subjects on which you’re not an expert.  I’d rather research things in a more classical manner and read books by experts, and challenge their ideas with research.  None of this requires a newspaper subscription or online RSS reader.

A More Informed Citizen

The upcoming presidential election in the United States will probably be one of the biggest wastes of time and money since the last one.  Here’s a great article that surfaced recently which sums up my opinions pretty well: the US political process is dominated by money (94% of the time the candidate with the most money wins) and both political parties are essentially the same.  I’ve seen one blogger call them the Coke and Pepsi parties and I’m convinced it’s true.  Both spend a lot of time telling you they’re different, but at the end of the day, most people wouldn’t be able to objectively tell.  Certainly both parties are hellbent on remaining in power and enriching themselves.  Both are consistently advancing positions that I greatly disagree with and won’t be able to affect by voting for one candidate over another.  For damn sure I could never tell you (and I’d challenge you to honestly reflect for yourself) how one party affected my life compared to another to any measurable degree.

During the previous mid-term elections, I received a polling call that went through every single office and their attendant candidates that was up for election in South Florida, and asked if my choice as a voter would be affected by learning the following information.  All of them had been convicted for some form of fraud, bribery, election campaign funds misappropriation, and more.  The third party candidate calling me made a really good point: everyone in both parties is a criminal!

Ultimately, for the last two elections I’ve ended up spending an hour or so on Politifact for all non-national races, read the presidential candidate’s books, and talked to a few people I trust and made my decision.  I’ve found that the above process educated me significantly more than the breathless campaign coverage I was reading every day.

A More Interesting Person

I’m not going to ignore current events – if people are talking about things that are happening, I’ll tell them I haven’t heard of the event, and they can explain it to me.  It’s better than talking about the weather, it avoids me monologuing on my own opinions which can be a drag to others, and it’ll ultimately make things more interesting for both of us.

A Few Exceptions

I will still maintain a daily reading of technical, work related, and hobby related blogs.  These are intensely interesting and enjoyable, and aren’t really focused around current events most of the time.  I will also maintain a daily eye on the weather and train schedules because this is how I get to work.  I will monitor financial and investment information, but will limit most decisions to being made in a minimum 3-5 year time horizon (which is what I do anyway) and not worry about current doom and gloom.  Any substantive investment strategy should always assume gloom and doom by default and prepare for it, not react to the horrors of the day.

This is Not a New Idea

This is not a new or even novel idea.  I’ve seen this discussed in the book “I Was Blind but Now I See” by James Altucher, I believe it’s referenced in “The Art of Nonconformity” by Chris Guillebeau, and when I really think about it, it’s how I lived the first 15 years of my life without internet access in Asia.  I’m not really worried.

Updated 8 Jan 2011:

Updated thanks to a comment that just came in through email.  The phenomenon I mentioned above was coined by Michael Chrichton and is the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect.  He also mentioned this in an essay title “Why Speculate?” Thanks “jcs”!

Bucket List Item Completed: Skydiving

This is probably one of the more generic bucket list items I have.  Everyone has skydiving on their list, but it’s also one that I could have completed at any point and just haven’t out of laziness.  A good friend had his first experience in June out in Vegas and proceeded to become a converted zealot, going all the way for his license within a matter of months, and this convinced myself and a few others down here in South Florida to schedule the date.

I don’t have what I’d call a major fear of heights.  More like a respect for heights.  My dad has what I’d characterize as a major fear of heights – the kind of thing where when you’re walking along a balcony he’s brushing a shoulder against the wall opposite the ledge.  I’m nowhere near that bad but I’m definitely not comfortable on catwalks or other similar spindly high structures.

The whole thing was scheduled very last minute, and I didn’t even find out what time I was meeting my friends until 10PM the previous night, which probably served to push the reality out of my mind.  We drove down to meetup in Hollywood and immediately had a bizarre series of snafus paying for parking that culminated in us paying 10 bucks for 10 hours of parking after several unsuccessful attempts at alternate payment methods.

Piled into the car, the four of us headed south to Homestead where SkyDiveMiami is located.  All of us being technical, we joked how we hoped the experience would be better than their website looked.  We got lost several times along the way but finally made it and as we walked into the office.  Right then a guy in Super Mario Brothers Luigi costume walked through, parachute on his back, helmet and goggles on his head, and proceeded to bellow in an Italian accent: “I’m-a-Luigi and I DROP IT LIKE IT’S A-HOT” while performing several dance moves in a remarkably lithe manner.  I had to admit he was dropping it like it was a-hot.  An onlooker with a shirt that said “Sluts Love Me” laughed and then got yelled at to suit up so he could perform camera duties.

We checked in at the desk and were told to watch a movie which predictably started with a driving musical score and videos of skydivers giving the thumbs up and then cut immediately to a guy with the longest, most impressive beard I’ve ever seen (here he is, judge for yourself).  He began to talk about how there’s no perfect plane, no perfect pilot, no perfect chute, and ACCIDENTS CAN HAPPEN.  He talked about death, and making sure we were willing to risk it all.  I kept looking at his beard.  I started to get a bit nervous.

We then began initialing and signing our way through the single most impressive legal release I could ever imagine.  We signed away our entire humanity.  There were clauses that we agreed to like even if we did sue, and won, we would have to pay all legal fees and winnings, back to ourselves.  We checked that we understood that we could die, and had reflected on this possibility.  We initialed that we had made arrangements to care for our family’s financial future.  We witnessed for each other.  We declined an additional $300 fee that would release us from certain indemnifications.  We were basically scared to death after the completion of those forms.

Punctuated throughout were little interjections from some of the employees who exhorted us to not worry, we would have a blast.  They told us the only part that’s weird is when we jump out first with no chute and the tandem guy jumps afterwards and swims towards us to link up.  It’s got to be great to just see a constant parade of new fear coming in and out of your business each day.  We smiled thinly and began to suit up.

We had decided to do SkyDiveMiami’s highest tandem jump, from 13,500 feet.  This would give us about a minute of free-fall (at roughly 120mph) until we deployed the chute at 5,000 feet, and we’d be strapped to a licensed parachutist instructor who would do most of the work.  I took a lot of comfort from the fact that if something wrong happened, we’d both die, as I’m a strong believer in the alignment of economic incentives.

Suiting up involved donning a union-suit style coverall, a harness, an altimeter, and fitting leather caps and goggles.  I listed myself as 210 pounds, and had to be weighed, where the scale confirmed I was actually 205, a full 20 pounds below the limit.

We waited outside and met our instructors.  Mine was maybe 5 feet tall and announced that “he always got paired with the big guys”.  They were nice and seemed professional, checked each other’s equipment and the eight of us along with one solo jumper climbed up a step ladder and into the plane.  A brief taxi later and we were taking off.  We could see out of a very large doorway that was covered by a plexiglass shield and after a minute or so we were pretty high up and I figured we were ready to jump.  Wrong.  I glanced at my altimeter, and we were at 2,000 feet.  That’s when I started to get pretty nervous.  My instructor saw my glance and told me to relax, it would take us about 15 minutes to get to the proper level.  I glance around and all the instructors were sleeping.  One of them was doing his sixth jump of the day.

At this point I began to get irrationally terrified.  We hadn’t even gotten a damn parking meter to work!  We’d been lost twice on our way!  I was in the plane with my friend Troy, the worst luck guy to fly with in the world: every flight I’ve been on with him was a disaster and we’d been delayed, emergency landed, and seen people arrested on flights we were on together.

Finally we leveled out and we were high enough you could clearly see the ocean, on both sides of Florida. The solo jumper got the thumbs up, shrugged, then just hurled himself out the plane.  That’s when it finally hit me how stupid this was.  I’d had this idea that when you jump out of a moving plane you fly backwards with the wind.   But you don’t.  You drop like a damn rock, straight down.  All of the instructors were talking to my friends, giving them last minute instructions.  Mine wasn’t.  Instead, mine leaned over to one of my friends and shouted, “JUST REMEMBER.  THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IS.  OH WAIT!  YOU’VE GOT TO GO!” and then cackled to himself as they knee-walked towards the opening.

Then it was our turn.  When you jump out you’re on your knees, strapped very tightly to your instructor behind you who controls the chute.  You kneel on the edge of the plane and look down and you can barely see the ground you’re so high.  Then you cross your arms, lean your head back where you can see the wing of the plane, and with no count the guy just hurls you forward and out of the plane.  It’s an amazingly terrifying experience, and I was just petrified as we hurtled down at remarkable speed.

One of the things they forget to tell you in the training that was probably the second scariest part of the experience was that at 120mph you have intense wind blowing in your face which makes it hard to catch your breath.  I’ve traveled at 160mph on a motorcycle around a track, and 185mph on straight roads, but that’s with a helmet on.  Stick your head out of the window of a car at 60mph and it can be hard to catch your breath.  I couldn’t catch my breath and I was thinking to myself, great, I’m going to hyperventilate, pass out, and this is going to be so dumb.

After about 15 seconds I managed to to figure out a way to breathe and then realized my brain was working very very slowly.  We were doing turns, and it didn’t feel like we were falling, but I could see the horizon getting closer.  My ears were popping like fireworks.  I tried to remember to look at my altimeter, but I couldn’t, and I lost all track of time.  It seemed like four seconds after we were out of the plane we had deployed the chute.  It got a lot quieter and less scary, until my instructor announced that he was going to make a few comfort adjustments.  He had me hold the chute controls, then started fiddling, and I suddenly dropped in my harness about four inches.  I mentioned we didn’t need to be comfortable.  More fiddling.  I drop another few inches.  Then we began steering the chute around.

Meanwhile, our aforementioned friend Troy had a nice freefall, but when the chute opened, they immediately began spinning around and around at high speeds.  Another member of our party could see the chute spinning like crazy and heard his instructor mention “Uh oh”.  Troy later recounted to us that he got dizzier and dizzier and just closed his eyes.  We don’t really know what happened, something about the chute not deploying quite right, but in the end we all made it just fine.

We glided in and the last bit that was unnerving was that the chutes are amazingly maneuverable, which means you can descend quite quickly if you want to, but as we came in for our landing it was pefect and like stepping off a curb.  My instructor actually apologized for not hittine the 5 foot sand bullseye perfectly.  I couldn’t have cared less.

I had a massive headache, I was shaky from adrenaline, I had slobber coating my entire face, and I couldn’t even really process what had just happened, but we were back without any problems! We all were very grateful to our instructors and the very nice and professional crew at SkyDiveMiami for a very memorable experience.

Steve Jobs

There’s been so much written about Steve Jobs that there’s not much to add.  Like millions of others, I remember the first time I ever used an Apple product.  It was to play Number Munchers and Oregon Trail.  My first Macintosh experience was on an LCII in one of the few airconditioned rooms in Taiwan – my elementary school’s computer lab.  While I was too young to appreciate the differences between the (at the time) very outdated Apple II and our fairly outdated IBM compatible XT Turbo, the Macintosh was clearly completely different.  I managed to swing an editor job on our 5th grade newspaper which afforded me almost unlimited time to learn how it worked.  Everything was exciting on that machine, even word processing!

I bought my very first Apple product in college, the 2nd generation iBook with a 500Mhz G3 processor and OS X.  It was a little underpowered, but the hardware design was incredible and I remember being thrilled when I got several OpenGL school projects to run on Windows, Linux, and my new Mac.

To me, Steve Jobs embodies hope.  A college dropout becomes a billionare.  A man with limited technical skills becomes the an incredible driver of technology.  Fired from his company, failing at NEXT, he stakes almost all of his personal fortune and strikes gold with Pixar.  He affects industry after industry, despite many many setbacks along the way.  Sure, he was a jerk, but that’s a hopeful story too – jerks can learn to movitate people and soften when they get older.  Of course, none of these thoughts are based on personal experience, but it’s the perception I get.  Steve’s life to me is a story of hope triumphing over reality.

I’m excited to read his biography, and I’m sad I never got the chance to meet Steve, except through his products, but here’s to a legacy of hope.