In Response to the Cult of Remote Working

Remote working and working from home have become hallowed totems of the progressive side of IT business in recent years. Advocacy for the benefits of working from home and collaborative technologies that bring distributed teams together is widespread on weather vane forums of IT culture like Hacker News. Even in the more formal business press, there’s been a steady drumbeat of analysis with an optimistic view to the possible benefits.

I’ll be the first to admit that I have been a beneficiary. I’ve been self-employed since I was twenty-two, and have spent a good chunk of my adult life working remotely, in coffee shops and coworking spaces, as well as living overseas and working wherever there.

Furthermore, the remote work thesis has dragged onto the stage with it several related insights that unquestionably needed exposure to a wider audience. For some time now, we’ve been highlighting the failings of old-fashioned, Twentieth Century “butts in chairs” presumptions of corporate America, namely that if you’re sat in your cube like a good Organisation (Wo)Man, you must be working productively. It’s good to see more mainstream recognition of the fact that people work differently and have different biological and psychological rhythms, from which it follows that the standard 9-to-5 schedule is not the most productive one for a lot of people (I make a crappy 9-to-5er, and so do many developers I know). And more generally, I welcome the pressure to take a more results-based view of productivity that privileges what people are actually getting done over how and when they do it.

Multi-tasking mother at homeStill, remote work has become something of a religion now among Millennial professionals in the “digital realm”, and it’s reached a fever pitch. I’ve heard from multiple people and in various forms the claim that modern tech companies, or software companies, simply do not need offices. It’s trotted out as an incontrovertible fact that trumps all business and people-specific considerations. Among certain segments of affluent Millennial professionals, it’s become a cult.

The world wants for a more sober and equanimous analysis, which, if undertaken, leads to more ambivalent conclusions.

Business model and knowledge

I think the main thing missing from the generic focus of lyrical encomiums to working at home is an awareness of how knowledge is shared and transmitted. That’s going to be strongly tied up in the nature of the business model and its specific workflows.

Yes, remote can work well in a small team of professionals who work mostly independently on compartmentalised work items. That suitably describes a lot of web startups. Good web developers, for example, be relied upon to maintain and expand their skill set independently of the concrete work they do. Essentially, they’re freelancers with a W-2 paycheck.

That’s not how a lot of business in the “knowledge economy” works, though. I got my career start at a relatively small-town Internet service provider, rapidly rising from a part-time student tech support employee to the principal system administrator in 1-2 years’ time. I came into the first role at age 18, having good raw technical skills from a childhood of Linux and C programming but with no real-world work background, business experience, or knowledge of industrial equipment. I was an eager knowledge sink and learned a great deal from older colleagues who mentored me. A lot of the gaps that needed filling weren’t so much technical skills as applied experience with how to implement technology to serve real-world business cases, and the trade-offs involved in doing so. I had no exposure to business growing up; I had never dealt with the complexities of real customers or contracts, knew nothing about how to price services or the true cost structure of a company, CAPEX vs. OPEX, etc. Like all over-eager, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed 18 year-old beavers, I had to be slowly disabused of an overwhelming tendency to recommend “build” vs. “buy”. Furthermore, I forged strong relationships with the interesting and eclectic crowd that this employer attracted. These remain my strongest social connections more than a decade later, and have been professionally as well as personally important. And when I left that ISP role at age 20, I was able to successfully leverage the broad experience and parlay it into a rather meteoric rise in professional status at a big-boy corporate job in Atlanta. This process made me into the professional I became.

The small-town ISP wasn’t lucrative. The bargain with employees was, for the most part: we pay low student-type wages, you learn more, and more quickly, than almost anywhere else you could conceivably work. It was a fair trade, and one that exists in a lot of places in the economy. The average 19 year-old, even of the precocious sort, doesn’t get to administer BGP routers or help deploy SANs. This was all socially transmitted knowledge, the organic outcome of shared culture built around the proverbial water cooler.

I saw where the cables ran and how real networks looked. Even in our Cloudy world, where these links are increasingly software-defined, it’s important to see and touch. I paid attention to how my coworkers worked, their mannerisms, how they reacted to difficult situations, and I copied and adapted many of their habits. I came to have similar instincts. In ruminating upon how I learned, I learned how to better teach and train others. I learned to bring a business outlook to bear on many issues as well as a technical one. I learned a lot about common organisational anti-patterns and what not to do. These are the things that made me valuable to future employers as much as any technical skill set I possessed.

I have trouble imagining how this would have worked if I were sat at my home computer, given a bunch of logins to network equipment and told to inquire on something like Slack if I had any questions. I was there in person to pester — and occasionally frustrate — my senior coworkers, and, with time, to teach and mentor my junior team members, and it made all the difference.

Techno-utopian fantasies and the human factor

For the last decade or so, I have been doing SIP and Kamailio consulting for VoIP service providers. VoIP is a weird intersection of the technology universe where telephony meets computers, two worlds that don’t traditionally converse. The business opportunity as a consultant comes largely from the fact that the phone guys traditionally don’t know much about IP packet networks, data and IT, while the IT guys don’t know much about phones.

And although that world is slowly changing, VoIP providers still have to talk to the PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network), AKA the traditional telephone network. To be a useful vendor to VoIP service providers, you need some rather esoteric domain knowledge about arcane PSTN concepts that go back to 1980s technology. The PSTN is highly regulated, and you need to understand that regulatory environment to be able to understand customer needs as they relate to billing and interconnection.

That sort of thing is called domain knowledge, and exotic domain knowledge is the essence of most commercially viable consulting endeavours. VoIP is an uncommon skill set; there’s a very limited number of people out there who possess it, and you can’t just hire off the street for it. Even when you do find someone with that expertise, it’s almost certainly going to be in an allied, but different subspecialisation of the field. In addition to imparting niche technical skills, you’re going to have to teach them about the industry and the customers.

How do you do that over Slack and Hangouts? Well, I thought I could. I have hired four or five people during the lifetime of my business, all remote, reasoning — rather contemporarily — that working at home is a nice benefit to provide and technology can bridge the gaps.

It can’t. It didn’t work. And I specialise in telecommunications. When it comes down to it, phone, e-mail, chat and video are all directed communications graphs. Any communication is particularised, deliberate, and has a certain cost, even if it’s relatively low. Chat inherently privileges the short sound-bite and the “quick takeaway”, the favoured refuge of people too busy to think. Few people are going to type as much as they speak. And any commitment to do so leads to self-consciousness about using “work time” for that purpose in ways that hallway chats do not.

Of course, it’s not that all “meatspace” workplaces are all socially robust, thriving marketplaces of ideas and nexuses of collegiate friendship. I’ve worked in plenty of corporate environments where people come in, sit in their cube, type things, have a meeting, and go home. But still, real-world tech work isn’t always about churning out code in a generic, undifferentiated way. Often, it can’t be divorced from deep knowledge of the business domain in which you participate. It’s very important that your employees come to have social knowledge of that business domain, and the inefficiencies of remote communication are a surprisingly strong headwind.’

What’s more, any honest entrepreneur can tell you that convincing people to work for you and applying their work in an economically useful way is actually an incredibly hard problem. It’s often harder than getting customers to pay for the product, which is usually the more central preoccupation of business lore. Knowing your (expensive, indispensable) people, what makes them tick, keeping them happy, and maintaining a finger on their pulse is more art than science. Accenture and Deloitte may think of people as “Linux resources”, but in the world of small business, this is your crew, your livelihood, your life-blood. Emojis don’t promote that kind of deep connection to so-called “human capital”.

I think this is all a special case of a more general fallacy that pervades the technocratic bent of Valley thinking: the conceit that technology can solve broad classes of timeless management problems that are essentially human. A lot of the sales pitch behind ticketing systems, project management systems, CRMs, Slack, Basecamp, etc. has the meta-message that if you just had the right tools, you can bridge all work and process gaps, or somehow guarantee or force productivity, or provide browser-based surrogates for the psychological feedback of solidarity and shared purpose. You can’t. Not even with uncompressed 8K video and a million dollar telepresence system. Ask the airlines if anyone still travels to have important business meetings. There are certain categories of problems for which more technology is not the answer.

traffic jams in the city, road, rush hourA related pitfall of technocratic utopianism—that it is in tools and technology that our salvation lies—is that it often leads to solving the wrong problems. For example, metro Atlanta is practically a poster-child for the sprawling suburban dystopia of which I have treated much. It’s an accepted fact that no matter where you locate your company office in Atlanta, you’re dooming a high percentage of your work force to a potentially soul-crushing commute across Atlanta’s unconscienable freeway distances. It’s not news that length of commute correlates inversely with health and happiness. So, what’s our response? Instead of taking a fresh critical look at our crappy infrastructure, lack of public transport, and automobile-centric, sprawling built environment, we flush the positive value of the enterprise of “going to work” out with the bathwater of “the hated car commute”. But they are not one and the same.

Personality and social needs

As I wrote in another post from 2015:

Oh, [working at home] seemed incredibly cool when it was the forbidden fruit. Back when I had to make a bleary-eyed, tedious commute to some cube at 9 AM and put cover sheets on TPS reports or listen to coworkers’ incessant sports talk, working from home was a rare and coveted treat, the stuff of dreams. Imagine, saving the world in my bathrobe, all the fine things in life at my fingertips: refrigerator, snacks, couch, coffee table, a breather on the balcony!

Working from home

However, after I went out into the reputedly exciting world of self-employment around this time eight years ago, the novelty wore off after a week or two and the bleak reality set in. I’m an extrovert and I don’t handle extended loneliness well. Not leaving the house was depressing and unhealthy. It was not conducive to a routine; I quickly developed a chronically dispirited mood, exquisitely strange and shifty sleep rhythms (even by my nocturnal standards), and eating habits worthy of a bulletin from the Surgeon General.

Oddly enough, this was unrelated to whether I lived alone, with a long-term romantic partner, or family and friends. Certainly, I can’t work at home these days in a small apartment with three young kids, but for most of the eight-year history of this business, I lived alone or with an adult partner no less busy than I. Also, I spent a few years living overseas. In all cases, I was dysfunctional working at home–or whatever place served the role of home–and I hated it. To stay sane and produce consistently, I need some kind of routine, a commute, movement and walking, coworkers, water-cooler talk, lunch meetings, and the overall psychological compartmentalisation that comes with a distinctive work-space. If I don’t have that, things go downhill fast.

Working remotely from one’s residence certainly doesn’t have universal appeal.

An understated but important subtext of the remote work discussion in IT culture is a celebration of the stereotypical techie introvert, who resents being subjected to mandatory social participation in the typical corporate workplace shuffle. In a world where such people feel — to some extent legitimately — crowded out by extroverts, this is fair play.

But not all extroverts are facile schmoozers and gold chain-wearing womanisers from Sales. A question that seems to get drowned out in ecstatic praise of remote working is about the psychological foundations of motivation. Productive relatedness to one’s fellow man is a universal psychological need. We all need, in one measure or another, to be seen, admired, included, valued, recognised and praised for our distinctive contributions to larger endeavours. There’s a lot of unexplored territory around how a chronic state of remote work bends this dynamic and affects long-term job satisfaction. I am not ashamed to admit my investment in my work and my professional identity generates social needs that languishing at home does not fulfill.

Lonely senior man looking at the windowThere are other wrinkles in the fabric of human psychology, the blunt and unvarnished truths we’re all supposed to learn as we get older, wiser and more savvy to the fragility, equivocality and capriciousness of the human condition. By way of illustration, one possible wrinkle is the role of workplace as refuge, however unconsciously sought, from a difficult and stressful home life, for men and women alike.

We’ve heard a lot lately from people who say, “Now that I work at home and don’t have to commute, I get so much more done in less time while still staying on top of chores and spending more time with my kids! My life is so much better!” Well, good. Everyone should have your idyllic life and happy marriage. Everyone should be young, affluent and healthy instead of old, bankrupt and ill, and they should live in a village full of warm, loving friends and relatives, instead of alone and forgotten. Home life should be easy and cheerful instead of overwhelming and demoralising. Who wouldn’t rather live in Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, where addiction, abuse and depression are the unintelligible words of a foreign language? Given the choice, instead of dealing with Mom’s methadone withdrawals, bailing their cousin out of jail again, going in for an MRI of a meningioma, or staring at a foreclosure sale notice, I think anyone would sure as hell prefer to crush some P90X, bro down on some Scrum board stories in Awesome.js, and make a fat 401(k) contribution because it’s payday. All without leaving the house! So much winning.

But my life experience suggests there is a not-insignificant number of people for whom escape to a workplace and a single-minded focus on work is what they need to stay sane. It may be all they have. Even for a lot of the affluent professional middle class, as often as not the best case of ordinary American existence is that it’s bleak and offers little to come home to and little to go out to. Or it can be much worse. That’s real life.

Rather generally

Well, that took a turn into a peculiar niche area, you might say. But we’ve got to think about stuff like that before we declare the workplace, as we classically understand the concept, to be unequivocally obsolete. We overzealously declared the pedestrian civic realm and the public plaza to be obsolete half a century ago, and look what happened?

There’s probably a reason why we have evolved an entire cultural vernacular not just around the specific places and facilities in which we work, but the idea of being “at work” and not “at home”. Being “at work” isn’t just about where you are located right now—it can also have a more cosmological dimension. It’s a state of affairs. It’s a punctuation mark to many would-be run-on sentences, far from all pleasant.

As a software engineer, I’m the first to say that not everything need be expensive and physical. However, humanity cannot be wholly separated from its physicality and “uploaded” to The Cloud. Many of the physical structures and in-person rituals we have built are a necessary manifestation—indeed, a mindful assertion—of inspired productive communion in our short time on Earth. It may be that a place of work—a work-place—is one of them.


Concerning the Heartland

Young man wrapped American flag crop field sunsetOne of the notes that the dog whistle of the Trump political machine hits is rural parochialism and provincialism, a conviction of the inhabitants of the American “heartland” that it is the essential America.

America hardly invented pitchfork-wielding country chauvinism, but it has had a particularly powerful historical current of that kind of know-nothingism, owing to its roots in a medley of dispossessed immigrant political minorities—especially religious minorities. There is ample lore in the heritage to support the popular psychological metaphor of taking a nihilistic wrecking ball to the state. There’s burning the corrupt edifice to the ground, nuking it from orbit, methodically strangling it with “starve the beast” spending legislation, “draining the swamp”—whatever form it takes.

These people don’t want to hear about big city folk and their reputedly elite cosmopolitan problems. No, it is we, on this two-lane road in the middle of southern nowhere, amidst the vestigial shells of Rust Belt industry, in the bucolic crop fields of South Dakota, who are the “real” America! It’s time to take it back! We don’t need no stinking foreigners, we couldn’t give a hoot about “diversity”, and (as was remarked to me recently) come on, show us one legit immigrant from Yemen, we dare you.

As always, the problem is that going full ostrich doesn’t work.

Like it or not, we do live in a highly globalised, interdependent world. Interdependence means complexity, and—to return to thermodynamics, as we all someday do—complexity means fragility. Fragility means that diplomacy and a multilateral approach to human affairs are necessary. Omaha mostly buys Samsung smartphones, too. Banks in Kansas are exposed to the Hong Kong Dollar and the German stock market. There are Caterpillar excavators and Boeing airplanes everywhere, and the manuals are translated into two dozen languages. Ohioans entrust their very lives to talented Japanese embedded software engineers every day, and will again tomorrow and the day after that—isn’t it nice to plug one’s ears and not have to wonder why one’s Honda doesn’t spontaneously explode or run off the road? The working-class enlisted sons of Kentucky are shipped off to places their parents would do well to learn to pronounce. The more economically privileged ones are going to discover a good Jordanian immigrant-owned falafel stand in their college towns.

(My own tech career was launched at a small-town Internet service provider owned by a Syrian Arab and his Pakistani business partner. But everyone knows devout Muslims don’t create jobs in Murrica.)

Or, more cosmologically: events in Yemen, Somalia, Egypt, South Korea, China and India, inter alia, are highly relevant to every American’s existence.

I know a lot of people who would prefer not to venture beyond the county line and like their intellectual preoccupations as they like their beer—domestic. To you I say:

Sorry, you can’t put the milk back in the cow and rewind the clock to 1802 A.D.1

Moreover, without the Coastal Mind Control Elites, this iconic heartland would have neither the government subsidies on which it extensively relies, nor markets for its products. I won’t patronise you with one of the many charts showing the geographic distribution of net inflows and outflows of federal dollars and the rural-urban trade balance. Y’all are actually pretty good at Google when there’s pervasive liberal bias and insidious Soros funding to be unearthed on the Internet, or some Julius Streicher Breitbart screed in need of scholarly citation.

Big conurbations concentrate economic opportunities and institutions. You don’t have to live in them if you don’t want to, and you don’t have to take part in the so-called Knowledge Work economy, but you can’t just give it all a sociopolitical middle finger and pretend that they, their denizens, or the larger world don’t exist. You guys just want to rap about how you’re screwed by globalisation and immigration, drop the mic, and leave hard problems of making the world turn ignored and unsolved. It’s facile, it’s petulant, and it makes you sound like an overgrown toddler

If that’s how it’s going to be, fine, but could you at least let the overedumacated, book-learned cityfolk do their jobs instead of sticking them with a reality TV demagogue and his diabolical alt-right posse?

1 This is precisely why the [seemingly] intentional deafness of the Libertarian candidates to foreign policy is a non-starter.


The Very Moderate Libertarian

It’s time to succinctly define a Very Moderate Libertarian, or centrist Libertarian-leaning position, or whatever you want to call it. That’s the one I hold.

By nature, it’s not very well-represented by the more extreme Libertarian Party, but it’s definitely not a mainstream Democrat/Republican viewpoint either.

1. As a starting point: many of the structural criticisms of the corrupt, lobbyist-dominated, incumbent two-party political system aired by the Libertarian Party and by the Bernie Sanders wing alike are valid and deserve serious action.

The continuation of the Demoblican-Republicrat status quo and the rent-seeking Guilded Age that is upon us is the worst possible option.

1b. Another starting point: the US has some unique features that give it an exceptional economic dynamism relative to many of its developed-world counterparts, and there are no free-lunch solutions which can only capture the upside of this while removing the downside. In particular, wealth inequality is a byproduct of innovation and prosperity in an advanced, specialised society, and it’s here to stay. It’s not government’s job to fix it, nor is it a problem that in and of itself needs fixing.

2. No strong religion on how to fix healthcare, other than that what we’ve got now is the worst possible option, regardless of whether one goes the single-payer/state route or the free-market route.

This was true before the ACA (“Obamacare”), and it’s mostly true after the ACA too. No strong religion on whether the ACA was good or bad. It has done some good things, to be sure. But fundamentally, strong conviction that it moved some pieces around without fundamentally fixing any problems (if only because the most salient points were watered down by Republicans).  When legislation is sufficiently watered down as to be ineffectual, yet still costly, the solution is not generally to “ram it through anyway”.

The structural forces that support inflation in the healthcare sector are still there, and the obese midsection of the industry—insurers, malpractice lawyers, billing consultants, computer experts, hospital administrators, marketers, etc.—is still assured a disproportionate share of healthcare spending. It’s disproportionate in the sense that the market would rationalise it away if healthcare were nakedly exposed to the prices the market will bear. This same overhead would be trimmed by strict cost controls in a state-operated system. Both approaches have their drawbacks. The one thing the soft-libertarian knows for sure is that what we have now is a pessimal, worst-of-all-worlds approach.

3. Socially liberal by default, but open-minded and receptive to intelligently expressed concerns about unintended sociological consequences of most dogmas, including dogmatic social liberalism.

Religious critiques need not apply; religion has no place in public policy. The Constitution says so.

4. In favour of modest, competent, incremental public administration proposals, and highly allergic to grandiose initiatives and sweeping overhauls, particularly costly ones.

This applies equally to expensive, ambitious Moonshots as well as to ill-considered ideas to totally dismantle or disestablish big parts of government overnight without thinking through the consequences.

5. All other things being equal, free trade and globalisation are good things. Even if they’re not good things, they are unavoidable things.

But not all things are always equal. Of particular concern are the supra-national “accountability” structures that often created as a side effect of free trade agreements. These generally benefit private corporations seeking to trump local control (e.g. community opposition to environmental contamination) and jurisdiction (e.g. limiting ability of locals to sue foreign corporations in local courts for the very real damage they sometimes cause).

That said, global economic integration is certifiably unstoppable. Fighting it with neo-Peronist protectionist measures is stupid and ineffective. Efforts to halt or defer the “creative destruction” of dying industries for which politicians are inexplicably nostalgic (e.g. industrial manufacturing) are also pointless boondoggles.

While at first glance this sounds like a very Libertarian thing to say, this recognition runs counter to some Libertarian precepts as well. We live in an interconnected and interdependent world, and complexity of this nature increases fragility. There is no running away from the fact that we have to work and cooperate with other nations and trading partners within the logic of increasingly global structures. This goes against the inward-looking assertions of “sovereignty” of which Libertarians are sometimes fond (the Brexit mindset). In that respect, globalisation is like any bargain; you must give in order to take.

6. It’s not up to government to create jobs.

The public sector is, of course, a rather large employer, but it should never be a policy to create more jobs there than are truly necessary in order to serve some larger social objective of full employment.

A certain amount of Keynesian-style short-term countercyclical economic stimulus may be acceptable, but is discouraged and is a measure of last resort, not a tool to be wielded liberally at the first sign of a contraction or possible recession. If the GDP is only going to grow by 0.5% this quarter instead of 1.2% as promised, it’s not government’s job to swoop in and fix that by misappropriating taxpayer funds.

In general, government does not create jobs nor solve unemployment. There is no such thing as a “jobs bill”. By and large, the private economy creates jobs. Long-run societal employment comes from the health of the private sector. Misconceptions about this are widespread and very costly.

It’s also not up to government to provide re-training for the structurally unemployed. Unfortunate as it may be when middle-aged people have fallen out of the bottom of industrial employment after spending much of their life there, government cannot effectively provide them a new career or valuable skills given the specialisations demanded in our modern era. It’s a throwback to the days when relatively homogenous manual and industrial work was a growth industry. These days, it’s little more than a waste of taxpayer dollars.

7. Private-sector corruption is a very real and very serious problem, too.

To be clear, government should not be a default solution to all problems, but willfully blinding ourselves to the fact that large corporations accumulate power and use it for private gain is not the way, either.

Dogmatically blaming government for everything while holding up the private sector as the very picture of virtuous economic agency (which unfortunately Libertarians are apt to do) is misguided and dangerous. Neither are incorruptible, and neither are inherently free of pathology inherent in large organisations and bureaucracies.

8. Certain things need to be state-operated and/or state-funded, whether for reasons of natural monopoly, economies of scale, susceptibility to private corruption against the public interest, or some other valid reason. This includes fire and police, roads, public schools, transport, and defence. There is room for valid debate as to what the others are.

Public schools deserve emphasis in particular: it is integral to the function of every modern, developed economy to have a universally literate citizenry educated to certain minimum standards, no matter how mediocrely that outcome is sometimes delivered. School choice is a valid aspiration in the public discourse, but not at the expense of guaranteed universal education.

On the other hand, there is no question that our public sector is too large, too expensive, too inefficient, and often ineffective. It performs many functions that government really ought not to do, and sucks up a significant amount of tax dollars into costly boondoggles that reduce to an economic net negative.

9. A certain amount of social safety net is reasonable, and probably a requirement for the stability of any modern economy and democracy.

However, ours is outsized relative to the societal benefits it provides; other developed countries may pay even more for their social programmes, but they also get a whole lot more, pro rata. Our “welfare” (TANF) system sucks; it is limited, genuinely helps relatively few recipients out of poverty, yet costs a lot for something that doesn’t work well. Our food subsidy system (SNAP/EBT) is necessary in some form, but “SNAP benefits cost $74.1 billion in fiscal year 2014 and supplied roughly 46.5 million Americans with an average of $125.35 for each person per month in food assistance” (Wikipedia), and that’s not a cost-effective solution. $74.1bn isn’t that much, but it’s too much when spread across 46.5 million people.

Asking how we can more effectively cover more people with more food stamps is starting from the wrong end of the issue. The first question we need to ask is why there are 46.5 million people receiving SNAP when our total labour force is about 160 million (Sep 2016), and how we can empower the economy to address the larger structural issues that lead to this.

With the gutting of old welfare (AFDC) under Clinton, Social Security supplemental disability benefits have become the new “welfare”, for those able to get them (in some cases in increasingly creative ways). Medicare and the VA are barred from negotiating drug prices by Bush-era law (aka a handout to Big Pharma). There are countless more examples of perverse incentives and naked corruption throughout our social welfare programmes. To be sure, some of these are overblown and mythologised by conservative demagogues, but some of them are very real.

The real problem with social welfare programmes is not that they exist at all—at least, not from the soft-libertarian vantage point for which I advocate here. The objection is more to the lukewarm results. This stuff costs way too much and does too little for American people genuinely in need. Other developed countries’ citizens get a lot more for their tax Dollar and Euro. It needs to be reformed to be more streamlined and targeted to achieve real results. This doesn’t necessarily mean putting yet more screws to the poor, but rather better management, administration and cost control on the supply side. Big programmes may need to be split into more targeted and effective ones that solve specific problems better.

Some entitlement programmes are most likely largely ineffective, and need to be done away with. That may cause some short-term pain, and we should be prepared to endure it. On the other hand, some programmes may need to be funded more to be truly effective, and to some extent, that’s okay too, provided that the increased effectiveness is real and demonstrable, not just a handout to populist pressure or pandering to the proletariat.

10. Home ownership, college enrollment, and easy-credit expansionism should not be government policy objectives.

Top-down credit expansionism does nothing but create inflation and asset bubbles, and attract barnacles (e.g. for-profit diploma mills) to exploit it. The only reason 60% of US students have government-guaranteed student loans is because college is so expensive, and the reason it’s so expensive to begin with is because it evolved to exploit the widespread availability of student loans. The same dynamic is present in housing and real estate.

We need to return to fundamentals and bring these sectors down to earth, where they can only charge what the market will directly bear. This will cause serious pain and dislocation for the vast sectors of the economy (investment banks, lawyers, well-paid professional bureaucrats and administrators, etc.) that have evolved to exploit this teat, but they need to be weaned off through aggressive and decisive policy shifts.

11. US global interventionist foreign policy and military adventurism must be sharply curtailed.

But this should be done carefully and with realistic awareness of the fact that much of the US’s economic preeminence is tied to its global empire apparatus and the geostrategic configuration of the post-WWII environment.

It would be naive to think that we can simply withdraw troops and pursue the commonly disseminated Libertarian fairy tale of a strictly defensive, isolationist foreign policy. We are globally involved whether we like it or not, and if we abdicate that position, other actors will move in to take our place, including actors whose accession to greater global power can have very non-benign consequences, including for us. The one thing we can be absolutely sure of is that a sudden power vacuum will not bring about a beneficent pax postamericana.

At the same time, we are not the “indispensable nation”, and we don’t send our military to defend human rights or depose evil dictators. These are filthy lies we tell kids in Civics for Peasants 101. We’re totally fine with human misery and love evil dictators—when they do what we want.

Thus, while we should absolutely pull back from our more fruitless military adventures, we should recognise that we didn’t start them because we just love military adventures. Geopolitical logic is a complex, dark and cynical subject, and, rather worrisomely, it appears to be beyond the grasp of the current crop of Libertarian candidates.

At the very least, if we scale back our global military involvement, we should be prepared to make some hard sacrifices in the area of energy security and prices. This doesn’t just mean minor inconveniences at the gas pump; US GDP is very closely correlated with Vehicle-Miles Travelled. Energy is a deadly serious subject for the US economy and even for the US’s continued existence. The current crop of inward-focused, domestic policy-oriented Libertarian candidates doesn’t appear to have the pragmatism to acknowledge that. What happens abroad is highly relevant to the heartland. The year is not 1634. (Actually, it was pretty important then, too.)

12. Devolution back to the state level isn’t necessarily the way to go.

In a sharp break with Libertarian folk tradition, I don’t think the Very Moderate Libertarian should be a dogmatic states rights-ist.

Certainly, the federal government has undoubtedly usurped a lot of power over the years. And the intention of the Framers that states compete to enact the most favourable legislative and economic climates to attract residents and build prosperity is one to keep in mind at all times.

However, in the interest of simplification, streamlining and greater cost-effectiveness, the US has a lot of work to do in improving its appreciation of the concept of economies of scale. We needlessly duplicate all sorts of public administration, judicial, law enforcement and revenue structures at the municipal, county, state and federal level. A lot of our infrastructure and regulations languish in a costly morass owing precisely to the fact that we have 50 jurisdictions.

A lot of things that need to be centralised up to the federal level so that we can stop paying the enormous costs of having 50 ever-so-slightly different copies of them for no reason. When it comes to liberty, sometimes one has to be cruel to be kind; the most liberal outcome is not necessarily the one that leads to a Byzantine, morbidly obese and chaotic power structure in which it’s impossible to get anything done because everybody’s got to have their little fiefdom.

My home state of Georgia has 159 counties, second only to Texas’s 254 (and Texas is 4.5 times larger). Why does Georgia have 159 counties? This does not strike me as a positive manifestation of the virtues of liberty-loving local governance, but rather wasteful and dysfunctional bureaucracy that obstructs economic and political activity.

13. We over-regulate, but the private sector can’t be counted on to magically do the right thing.

We have a monstrously overcomplicated regulatory environment which drags down economic dynamism while frequently prosecuting the wrong things for the wrong reasons, and this is badly in need of simplification, streamlining and reform. (Part of the reason that’s so is explained in the previous point.) As the meme goes, everyone commits three felonies every day, and that’s not something we should look upon with indifference.

However, there are many examples of market failure, where private actors reliably do the wrong thing. The most classic examples of this involve the costs of negative externalities and short-term thinking not being priced in. However, there are others. So, from the fact that we regulate many things badly does not follow that we should not regulate anything, ever. Quite a few things need to be regulated. Do you really want to see the return to 1900s-era pharmacies, full of quack remedies and patent medicines, with only Consumer Reports as your guide to whether they’ll kill or help you? In the name of “freedom”? I don’t.

14. Liberal approach to immigration, but with a healthy dose of realism.

Our immigration policy is badly in need of reform, particularly the part that creates obstacles to legal immigration for productive, skilled and/or educated people who would be net-positive contributors to our economy and our society.

Furthermore, there’s no question that security concerns about refugees and the ever-present menace of “terrorism” are exaggerated demagoguery from populists pandering to a xenophobic underclass.

At the same time, to listen to some Libertarians one would have it that the doors should simply swing open. In an ideal world, perhaps. In our non-ideal world, no developed country can sustain a totally unbridled influx of unskilled economic migrants—not so long as that country has public infrastructure and services upon which those people make demands, anyway.

Immigration should be liberalised in a way that is actively guided by healthy national priorities. What kind of immigrants do we most want? Those are the kind that we should optimise the immigration system to most easily allow. Our present system does not do this, as evidenced by complaints from many captains of industry.

15. No strong religion on gun control.

The right to bear arms is enshrined in the Constitution and should be fundamentally conserved in some fashion.

We can also agree that the causes of widespread gun violence in the US run a lot deeper than mere widespread availability of firearms. There are other countries where private firearms ownership is common or ubiquitous, and they don’t deliver rates of carnage remotely in the vicinity of ours. Furthermore, we can agree that many gun control proposals are ineffective and costly boondoggles.

From this it does not follow that firearms ownership should be trivial or unrestricted. Background checks and licencing are reasonable measures so long as they are effective in doing what they set out to do (which means, they keep most people who should not have guns from having guns most of the time, not that they provide an airtight lid which determined criminals cannot pry open) and do not fundamentally infringe on the right to bear arms for the average citizen.

From this it also does not follow that all classes of firearms should be available to anyone who wants them. Constitution or no Constitution, Farmer Johnson doesn’t need grenades, mortars or artillery cannons, and I cannot conceive of good reasons why this should be legally possible.

16. Mass incarceration, zero-strikes laws, draconian sentencing = awful.

No explanation needed, really. Our rate of incarceration is absolutely unconscienable, and our highly politicised, get-tough-on-crime, law-and-order sentencing has ratcheted out of control in the last few decades.

To emerge from these medieval Dark Ages, which see a paramilitarisation of our police force, an enormous law enforcement bureaucracy that lives off of tens of billions in federal War on Drugs dollars, and even widespread criminalisation of consensual teenage sexual activity in unintended ways, all this needs to undergo a serious Renaissance, and it couldn’t possibly happen soon enough. We shouldn’t have to live in a country where talking to the police is so overwhelmingly dangerous that you would be a fool to utter a single word.

17. The tax code is Byzantine and excessive, and our taxation structures are too complicated

No strong religion on whether overall rates of taxation need to be reduced, whether the income tax should be replaced with a consumption tax, and whether the IRS need be simply “abolished”; that depends on many other things, and cannot simply be made as a blanket statement. All other things being equal, lower taxes and a more competitive economic environment are good aspirations.

What is most important is modernisation and simplification. Much of the Internal Revenue Code has not been updated since the 1970s, and does not take into account the increasingly global ways in which business is done, as evidenced by the sheer number of offshore tax loopholes available for those wealthy enough to avail themselves. The tax code does not accommodate the increasingly digital, nomadic and intangible ways in which we do business, either. This is a constant vexation to those of us in the tech industry who have to fill out tax returns clearly intended more for shoe factories than for online marketing agencies or software development companies. All this puts us at a significant competitive disadvantage.

What’s more, the Internal Revenue Code is insanely complicated, and hundreds of billions of dollars are sucked out of the economy annually for the costs of complying with that complexity. That’s little more than a handout to the accountancy and tax preparation sectors, and those sectors have lobbied mightily to ensure that filing taxes remains complicated and onerous.

Furthermore, we have a bewildering array of taxation sources in the US: federal payroll taxes, federal income taxes, state income taxes, (in some places) municipal income taxes, state sales taxes, county sales taxes, county property taxes, excise taxes, gasoline taxes, vehicle taxes, import duties—far too many kinds of taxes. Add them all up, and it becomes clear that in the aggregate, the average middle-class American taxpayer pays not much less than the average Western European, while receiving a lot less in return. This fundamental inefficiency is concealed in a dozen different ways in which we pay taxes, and deserves illumination. The soft-libertarian’s primary concern is not that taxation exists, but rather effectiveness and return on tax dollars paid. Why should we pay so much to get so little?

Finally, the US should end its fundamental conceit in taxing the worldwide income of its citizens regardless of where they reside and where it is earned, and should instead adopt taxation policies on this that are more in line with those of other developed nations. Some people will doubtless take advantage of a residency-oriented taxation scheme, but any tax scheme will be exploited by someone, somewhere. It’s still the right thing to do.

18. The environment doesn’t protect itself.

By its nature, and despite the claims of economists and their theories, it’s abundantly clear that the private sector thinks about short-term returns and doesn’t much care for longitudinal issues. The problem of negative environmental externalities is also widely understood.

For these reasons, sustainable development is an issue within the purview of government to guide. The focus should be on removing artificial subsidies that sustain our addiction to hydrocarbon fuels and on removing artificial subsidies and points of law which maintain automobile-oriented infrastructure and build more roads and highways even when that’s not what the population wants. Obstacles to the development of renewable energy should be removed and the private sector should be allowed to do its work in this area liberally. There are huge economic returns in store for the winners of that technology and commercialisation race if it is allowed to happen on a level playing field—a playing field not tilted by state collusion with Big Oil.

There is a certain category of environmentally positive infrastructure investment, such as mass transit, which is probably up to government to make because few private actors are interested in such a long and uncertain payback. That’s okay. Done right, these projects are far from being money sinks. They enable economic development and dynamism, and this can be seen all around the world in cities that have good transit networks. One could hardly argue that the Shanghai or Berlin metros are a drag on those cities’ economic growth.

I do not generally see much fruit in policies focused primarily on capping emissions. Libertarianism of any sort is a fundamentally optimistic intuition about the capacity of the private sector to solve problems if given the opportunity. In the case of the environment, it may take an extra nudge and incentives to get private actors to take the long view and work on renewables, recycling, reprocessing, repurposing and less polluting infrastructure—but that’s okay.

It is also okay for the government to step in to prevent perverse outcomes and Tragedies of the Commons in newer areas, such as the negative consequences of hydraulic fracking that are beginning to emerge.

However, whenever possible, government should get out of the way and let the market work out solutions. Government is fond of committees and agencies for the sake of having committees and agencies, and when it comes to the environment, as with other things discussed in this article, the primary focus should be on limiting these to where they are truly effective.

 19. And finally, something we can agree on with even far-right Libertarians, I think: it’s not government’s job to fix all problems.

A large category of things in life simply fall into the category of “shit happens”. Some of them government can and should fix. From this it does not follow, however, that for everything that could conceivably go wrong, there should be a government agency to oversee it, a district attorney to prosecute it, or even tort law to permit suing over it for huge sums.

We’ve seen the development of a litigation and regulation-happy society to a degree where the transaction costs and overhead of doing just about anything are greatly increased. It’s just parasitic drag, and only the lawyers win.


Questioning my relationship with The Daily Show

I am rather deeply disenchanted with and bored of The Daily Show. This has two distinct, unrelated causes I can identify:

1) One simply gets too old to tolerate its dick-and-fart jokes and potty humour. At this point in my life, I’m looking for more incisive, more subtle and less superficial political satire and social critique.

I don’t know if that problem has a solution, given that the Daily Show’s seeming target is college-aged audiences. But I find myself wishing that, in terms of sophistication, it would graduate along with the early-mid 2000s students who were the engine of its ascent.

2) Trevor Noah is a fantastic and brilliant comedian—if you watch his stand-up from South Africa and the UK.

His gift for accents and languages is uncanny, and his satire of the South African political elite (e.g. Julius Malema, Jacob Zuma) and everyday interactions had me doubling over from the stomach pain of laughter. Watch his old material; if you don’t know much about South Africa, you’ll learn.

Some of my favourite examples on YouTube (always subject to removal, you know how YouTube is) include his treatments of airport terminal announcementsthe inclusion of Chinese in the BEE (Black Economic Empowerment) programme, and this rather obscure act poking fun at the frustration of interactions with Johannesburg City Power. And his performances about cultural differences in America need no introduction at this point.

Since that was my first contact with him, that’s how I see the real Trevor Noah. At The Daily Show, I have the acute sense that he’s not being allowed to carry his artistic identity over. He’s being shoehorned into an American dick-and-fart comedian role, and to say that it’s not a natural fit for him is an epic understatement.

I understand that the logic of the show has to have some continuity with Jon Stewart and with the show’s historical inertia, audience and so forth, but he’s not Jon Stewart, and he shouldn’t be.

To really reap the rewards of Trevor Noah as an artist, an observer and a commentator, he must be allowed to be his “South African” self and to bring—perhaps it would be more apt to say, to impose—a distinctly foreign perspective to his American audience, nolens volens.

It might not be what the focus groups tell Viacom executives would sell, but there’s real potential there. Yes, there’s always the spectre of Piers Morgan, and with his demise, the idea that foreign commentators interpreting American affairs and telling Americans how things should be is a fatally unpopular formula. However, I think—perhaps naively and overoptimistically—that the younger and more malleable viewership of the Daily Show would respond better than that of CNN’s, and would have a greater inclination to stretch their brains and grapple with such a phenomenon.

I cringe when I see Trevor forced into various contrivances and artifices of a false pretense of American mass-cultural familiarity. He’s not American, and he shouldn’t be made to pretend as if he is. Low-brow toilet humour and American Millennial lore doesn’t work for him. Laundering facile Internet memes is not his competency. If he could control more of his material and delivery, and tailor it to his traditional style, there would be a show more worth watching.


Why suburbia sucks

I’ve written some in the past about how the predominant suburban design of the US of the worst features of life here, viewed from the perspective of a European immigrant like me, at any rate.

Far from posing a mere logistical or aesthetic problem, it shapes–or perhaps more accurately, it circumscribes–our experience of life and our social relationships in insidious ways. The destruction of the pedestrian public realm is not merely an economic or ecological absurdity; it has real deleterious effects. For just one small example of many: life in a subdivision cul-de-sac stops children exploring and becoming conversant with the wider world around them because it tethers their social lives and activities to their busy parents’ willingness to drive them somewhere. There’s literally nowhere for them to go. The spontaneity of childhood in the courtyard, on the street or in the square gives way to the managed, curated, prearranged “play-date”. Small wonder that kids retreat within the four walls of their house and lead increasingly electronic lives. (The virtues of a private backyard are easily exaggerated; it’s vacuous and isolated, and kids quickly outgrow it.)

However, it’s been difficult to elucidate in specific physical terms what it is about suburbia that makes it so hostile to humanity. To someone with no training in architecture, it’s often experienced as a great, nonarticulated existential malaise, like depression. You know it sucks, but it’s hard to say exactly why. The same holds true in reverse; North Americans who have not travelled abroad extensively and don’t have a clear basis for comparison can be tongue-tied when asked to explain what exactly makes a non-sprawl city street “charming” or “cozy”. It’s telling that we have no widespread cultural vernacular for why classical urban settlements, which draw on millenia of intellectual background and corpuses of architectural knowledge, are pleasant. It’s because Americans took that inheritance and unceremoniously discarded it, consonantly with the rise of the mass-produced automobile. It irks me that many of us know, on some level, that we live in a dystopian nightmare but can’t say what makes it a dystopian nightmare.

That’s how I came to spend a fair amount of time recently thinking about and researching what exactly makes suburbia suburbia. I don’t mean the abstract reasons why it sucks; I’ve pontificated on that plenty. I mean the physicality. For example, I live in Atlanta, a suburban mega-agglomeration that sucks in the same general way as cities like Los Angeles, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Houston and Phoenix. When someone asks me where I’m from, and I roll my eyes and diffidently groan, “Atlanta…” Why? It’s worth asking what specifically makes Atlanta “[groan] Atlanta”.

If one hopes to avoid broad vagueries like, “designed for cars, not humans” and instead to get specific, then there’s no single linchpin attribute that makes suburbia what it is. It’s an interdependent constellation of misanthropic zoning rules, building codes, and planning guidelines. My aim is to list as many of these as I’ve discovered and been able to formulate.

1. Single-use zoning

American zoning law (in all but its oldest cities) forecloses on the possibility of mixed-use development. This means traditional design patterns like shops and offices on the first floor with apartments above are impossible. Residences are constructed in special areas zoned for residential construction, while shopping and work take place in altogether different areas zoned for commercial development.

The idea, of course, is that the peaceful slumber of the suburbanite should not be interrupted by the noise generated by the transaction of commerce or any other public-sphere human activities. The result is that running any errand or attending to any need, no matter how small, requires getting in one’s car and driving somewhere else, in many cases several miles or more.

Since separation of commercial and residential zones by vast tracts built at automobile scale (rather than human scale) removes the possibility of accessing useful destinations on foot, it removes any practical motive for walking. Without consequential destinations that are part of normal human activity, by and large, the only people who walk on suburban streets do so for exercise. And the only reason they would do that is because their automobile-powered daily existence does not otherwise compel much movement.

2. Hierarchical traffic distribution

The chief complaint of most residents of suburban sprawl is traffic. The most obvious cause is, of course, that everything requires driving, but there are more subtle reasons, too.

The endless cul-de-sacs, winding loops and seas of parking lot in suburbia empty into larger “collector roads”, often constraining traffic in a given neighbourhood to a single preordained path.

Traditional neighbourhoods and cities are designed in a dense grid and/or interconnected web of streets, so there are many alternative paths between two points.

3. Set-backs from the street & parking ratios

Local building ordinances in suburban sprawl don’t allow buildings to directly abut the kerb. That means one cannot simply enter a building from the street. Instead, the building is set back from the kerb, requiring one to traverse a parking lot to reach it.

In the case of larger shopping centres, this means the building is set back several hundred feet, separated from the street by a large sea of parking. This is because suburban building ordinances require a generous proportion of parking spaces in relation to the surface area of the building. So, the larger the building, the more parking it must have, and, seemingly, it must be in front, not behind the building (more on that later).

4. Proximity does not mean pedestrian accessibility

On the other hand, it is not so uncommon in suburbia to live very close to a nearby shopping centre. I’ve had lots of suburban friends tell me, “actually, the grocery store is 1000 ft from me. Very convenient.” Indeed, when we lived in an apartment complex in the Perimeter Mall area in Dunwoody, the nearby Walmart shopping strip was within spitting distance. I could almost see the store entrance from my bedroom window.

But, perversely, that doesn’t mean I could walk to the store, as a normal person from virtually anywhere else on the planet might conclude from that statement. In its fanatical quest to eviscerate the pedestrian realm and make cars exclusive first-class objects, suburbia manages to make far even that which is conceptually close. Building ordinances generally require some sort of “divider” between these adjacent land parcels, like a ditch, a chain-link fence, or a concrete wall or noise barrier. In our case, that means I had to walk out of the apartment complex, go around the divider, and then cross several hundred feet of parking lot to go to the store.

It goes without saying that most normal people would choose to drive the distance. And that’s the idea.

5. Economic segregation by building type.

It does not bear repeating here that one of the things that makes interesting places interesting is variety. However, one more subtle effect of the enforced homogeneity of suburban residential neighbourhoods is economic segregation.

In older and more traditional neighbourhoods, multiple types of buildings of varying sizes coexist closely. Yes, it is a universal premise of building regulation and planning that they must be united by some sort of overarching organising aesthetic principle and geometrically agree in some way or another, but that doesn’t mean they all had to be approximately the type or size. As a result, it’s quite possible for poor, middle class and rich people to live side by side in one neighbourhood, with the difference that the rich people’s houses or apartments are merely bigger.

Local building ordinances in suburbia aggressively disallow this, and it’s the fastest way to tank property values within the logic of the suburban system. That’s why every new subdivision varies only by a handful of approximately similar house types, and the residents are all in a similar income bracket.

Suburban building codes also commonly disallow affordable housing hacks available in older neighbourhoods, such as above-garage apartments (sometimes known as granny flats). It is no mean feat to get approval for a small secondary edifice in one’s backyard–something the size of a toolshed, but habitable. Contrary to the individualist-libertarian ideology underpinning widespread suburban attitudes, even use of the space behind one’s walls, within the private sphere, is highly constrained and regulated.

6. No street enclosure and definition

The geometry of streets and sidewalks is a critical topic. Generally speaking, the reason settled streets in older neighbourhoods and European cities feel “cozy” and “charming” is because they provide a feeling of enclosure, which humans want because it gives them with a coherent sense of place, like rooms in a house.

I’m not a sociobiologist and cannot say exactly why this is, but would speculate that it caters to people’s primal need for shelter and clear directional orientation. Whatever the case, it’s an established fact that people gravitate toward places that have clear borders and relatively comprehensive enclosures; it’s a kind of axiom for the discipline of architecture. People feel vulnerable and uncomfortable in open areas with ill-defined margins.

That’s the difference between standing on Saint-Germain:

Boulevard_Saint-Germain,_Paris_June_2010_

Photo by Aleksandr Zykov.

And standing in the middle of nowhere:

sterile_suburb

Photo courtesy of New York Times.

Creating that enclosure and definition cannot happen if buildings are sparse and set back from the street. It also requires a certain broadly rectangular building geometry, with more right angles and less campy avant garde twists (more on that later). Suburban streets are notable for the degree to which they don’t provide a sense of place. Their curved, winding trajectory also robs one of a sense of cardinal direction–that’s why it’s so easy to get lost in suburbia. I am much more likely to need GPS aid in navigating through a subdivision than through a downtown.

Pleasant, walkable streets have other important features, such as protection of the pedestrian sphere from automobile traffic. This delineation is provided by architectural buffers such as trees, high kerbs, and street-parked automobiles themselves. All of these things can arrest a car about to plough into a crowd.

Another thing that takes away from the feeling of place and enclosure is large kerb radii. You’ll notice that in dense cities and older neighbourhoods, sidewalks adhere to the street at right angles, providing a minimal crossing distance for the pedestrian. However, suburban kerbs are optimised for cars, allowing them to maintain some speed while turning right–and to easily mow down anyone who is misled by the formal presence of a crosswalk into the belief that they’re actually meant to walk there.

7. Useless, ugly and wasted space

When quizzed about the advantages of suburban life, the most common answer is “space”. But even if you like lots of space, you’d have to agree that the quality depends on what kind of space it is.

Suburban development ordinances are replete with requirements for useless frontages, pointless greenspace between compatible land uses,  as well as chain-link fences, concrete barriers, and drainage pits. Space is still inhabited by humans, and has to be articulated to match their specific uses for it. A lot of open space in suburbia lacks that articulation; it’s neither pristine forest nor a particularly usable surface. It’s just kind of there.

The absurdly large width requirements for inner residential streets are a special case of their own. Small, low-density streets don’t need to be so wide that one almost can’t see his opposite neighbour’s house because of the intervening curvature of the Earth, especially given that street parking is generally not done in these places because, evidently, everyone needs their very own [expensively and unnecessarily] paved driveway. The formal reason for large width requirements is generally something comical, like to accommodate a full-size fire engine or other large emergency vehicle in case tragedy should strike. Well, sure, conceivably you might need to land an A380 there, too.

8. Parking-first aesthetics, garage façades, no alleys, no interior yards

It took me some time to consciously realise it, but one of the biggest differences that makes traditional neighbourhoods more appealing is that parking typically happens behind the house, reached through an alley. One is not likely to see an alley approved in suburban construction; that’s where robbery happens, right?

Instead, suburban houses are set back to make room for a driveway. Much of the façade of many houses is accounted for by a garage. This telegraphs the impression that the primary function of a house is really, above all else, to provide parking for one’s car.

Considering that suburbia is reputedly sterile and safe, there ought to be many other uses for alleys and common interior courtyards located at the rear of buildings, away from the street. In addition to being the proper place for cars, those are good places to put trash and recycling bins. Instead, the suburban street is surreally dotted with plastic trash cans at least weekly. So much for the pretense of civilisation.

What this says is: we have such a delapidated and depressing public realm, so few memorable places and things worth seeing, that we truly don’t care. This tension also accounts for the kitschy, farcical schizophrenia of the suburban home façade:

450

It’s a castle, a veritable homage to collonades! But wait, there’s more: there’s a front porch–and if you’re a toddler, you can fit on it! Seriously, what is this thing? It looks like it’s trying to be a lot of different things from the annals of written history.

It’s not a house. At best, it’s awkward and unsettleed eclecticism, and at worst, it’s a caricature, as Kunstler would say. The form of normal houses much more closely follows their function. The problem is, when there’s nothing else worth looking at, developers are maximally exposed to the charge of building “sterile” suburbs if they build a merely functional house, the sort of thing that would be thought attractive for its simplicity and cohesion elsewhere on the globe. And that’s how we get to the neurotic potpourri of superficial ornamentation above.

The same dialectic is often a driver of the infamous suburban NIMBYism. When the public realm is so depressing and demoralising, describable mainly in terms of the car traffic it generates, it’s understandable that nobody would want to see more of the same built nearby. It ultimately comes down to the fact that we don’t value our public realm in America, and, no surprise, we’ve not built a public realm worth valuing but instead retreated into escapism in the private one. All escapists, ranging from readers of fantasy literature to video game players to drug addicts, are generally irritated by any effort to somehow disrupt or meddle with the ongoing process of their withdrawal from reality.

9. No street life or visible human activity

Periodically, people will ask me: “Well, if you’re so committed to walking, why not just … do it?” They mean right here, on the highway, next to six lanes of traffic, in 90F heat.

Well, in actually-existing psychological reality, people aren’t going to walk where it’s neither comfortable nor interesting to walk. Contrary to popular Republican-type mockery of the notion, “interesting” doesn’t require a hipster paradise of airy-fairy, frou-frou creature comforts like street cafes (though they do uncannily arise in interesting places). “Interesting” just means there’s some intimation of human presence and activity expressed in the architecture and scenery.

There’s nothing about a treeless six-lane highway that conveys this. I’m going to drive, not walk, because to walk would be boring, tedious, uncomfortable, dangerous, and, in a sprawling geography designed at automobile scale, impractically slow.

10. No public transport

Aside from its superior efficiency and ecological footprint, the primary value of public transport is not in being able to commune with the armpits of your fellow man, but in being able to spend your time in some way other than chained to one’s steering wheel cursing the traffic. You can read a book, catch up on e-mail, or just close your eyes for a while.

In suburban sprawl, you’re doomed to spending vast amounts of time at the wheel–time you cannot do much else with, and which you won’t get back. The nature of low-density automobile sprawl cities is that everything is insanely far away from everything else, so no matter what you do, you’re doomed to driving vast distances to see most friends, to commute to work and so on.

Clearly, it bears mention at this point that self-driving cars could address the chained-to-steering-wheel factor. But it remains to be seen to what extent they can shift the larger paradigm. I can envisage self-driving cars doing very little to change the overall blight (and environmental costs) of suburbia, or I could see them evolving more rationally into a kind of semi-personalised public transit. It’s a phenomenon that has the theoretical potential to either greatly further our atomisation into the pathetically sybaritic techno-pods of a WALL-E type world, or to turn into a moderately pleasant band-aid.

Whatever the case, they don’t solve the more fundamental problem of our vicious contempt for the idea of a public realm.

11. Improper interface between city and highway

In most places in the world, one will find that high-speed highways run between cities, not through them. You’ll also find that intercity highways don’t have a lot of commercial development along them, allowing unadulterated views of the countryside.

In places like Atlanta, interstate highways are something like main thoroughfares. Three of them converge downtown, along with numerous other high-speed roadways.

The effect is to induce lots of derivative traffic within the city. Freeways breed on-ramps and car-centric development along the corridor. At the same time, the city, especially its most important historic parts, is partitioned by an ugly exoskeleton.

12. Lack of regional planning vision

Turning back to Atlanta: Decades of unbridled free-for-all building in Atlanta have led to a widely dissonant, fragmented patchwork that cannot deliver a coherent thesis for future development in the city.

Some individual neighbourhoods in Atlanta, like Midtown (where I live), have made great strides over time to become walkable and present viable in-city living options. The problem is, as soon as you need to leave such a neighbourhood, you still have to get in your car.

The same problem can even play out on the block level. I’ve been to some downtowns of suburban sprawl cities and found them to have a number of blocks or sectors that are actually quite pedestrian-friendly, well-designed and interesting. The problem is, these blocks are like a chessboard; they’re not contiguous! Want to go more than 500 ft? Better start the car.

The point is, Metro Atlanta covers nine counties and untold municipalities, incorporated and not. With all the resources and initiative in the world, there’s nothing the City of Atlanta can fundamentally do to alter the reality of life in 95% of Metro Atlanta. I haven’t seen anything inhabitable constructed in America through a laissez-faire approach to building across such a patchwork. Charge has to be taken at the regional level.

As far as I can tell, the same holds true almost everywhere, since everything in the US that is–gallingly–called a “city” consists of fragments scattered across unconscienable stretches of freeway. I have a special place in my heart for Dallas-Ft. Worth, much of which should be reclassified as a rural area outright if one is to judge by density. But the need for a regional approach to development priorities and transportation probably applies almost everywhere, including places like St. Louis, Indianapolis, and Omaha.


This post draws in part upon the work of James Howard Kunstler, including his widely disseminated TED talk, as well as upon the data and ideas in the well-known New Urbanist title Suburban Nation by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck.


Ten years of VoIP & SIP

I woke up today and realised that as of summer 2016, I’ll have been doing VoIP & SIP for ten years. It was about ten years ago that I first connected an Asterisk 1.2 server to my home landline via an FXO card, registered a Snom 190 to it and got down to business with my copy of O’Reilly’s Asterisk: The Future of Telephony.

snom190

I know that 2006 isn’t exactly old-school by the standards of Asterisk early adopters, and especially not by those of butt set-wearing colleagues who think E&M Wink is too newfangled  and won’t drive cars made after 1975 due to all those new anti-pollution requirements. If you did Dialogic IVR programming on NT boxes in the 1990s, or rolled out AT&T WATS lines in the 1970s, you won’t be impressed. However, this field encompasses a third of my life span and nearly my entire adult life and career. So, from my perspective, it’s been a minute.

I was never an early adopter. At my small ISP job of the time, several people were tinkering with Asterisk from 2003 onward with varying degrees of commercial implementation success. I was introduced to the notion in 2005, and at first responded with relative indifference. In fact, if you had told me I was going to be doing anything with voice or telephones before 2006, I would have looked at you like you were crazy.

As the modem boom rapidly wound down and our ISP floundered desperately in search of a new business model, the connectivity side became a strictly Layer 3 proposition, a kind of sales channel for the ILEC. They owned the network and transport we sold. Do you remember the brief window in which independent ADSL providers were allowed to exist in the US, in the early-mid 2000s? That was us.

Nevertheless, I had a burgeoning interest in the technical and business side of networking that grew out of my deepening responsibilities at work. As I aggressively pursued that curiosity, I plumbed down the protocol stack and became intensely interested in how all these circuits worked at the physical level (which was out of our reach as we did not own the network). T1: A Survival Guide was a very enlightening tome that I literally could not put down. Anyway, as one slices through the OSI burrito, the subject matter rapidly converges with the history of voice and the Bell system, through the pathway of digital trunking facilities and digital loop carriers, multiplexing, etc. Now I was interested in voice. The whole Asterisk and open-source IP PBX phenomenon was not central to my interests, but critical to pursuing them; at the right time and place in this developmental process, it pushed down telephony from the mystical realm of the proprietary into commodity hardware and closer to the application level, which meant I could actually afford to get my hands dirty with it.

Speaking of commodity hardware, my foray into voice was, as my forays into many things as a twenty year-old, chaotic and irresponsible. I took a PBX PC with a Digium quad FXS/FXO card home from work and impertinently formatted it into a fresh Debian install. Why not? It seemed to be sitting downstairs doing nothing for a few months, give or take. Spare hardware, right? As it turns out, its disk contained–well, had contained–the only copy of a home-spun Asterisk PBX CD distribution project into which my immediate supervisor had invested many months of work. There were no backups. Oops. I still feel terrible about it. Granted, there were no change control processes, asset tagging, version control, or project management systems, but common sense might have invited one to ask first.

Anyway, I returned the hardware, built my own Asterisk server, got my own FXO card, and plugged into my land line. Those who frequented the 24/7 coffee shop Hot Corner back in Athens, GA in those days (summer 2006) might remember me sitting there with a telephone plugged into my laptop, which I was using to bridge it onto the WiFi network. Making calls out of my home landline from the coffee shop! How cool was that!

Alex_BR_DC1

In a data centre in 2007. The smile is definitely posed; I do not typically enjoy my time in data centres in this much.

Here, my career took an interesting turn and perhaps suffered from a bit of confusion. I’ve never been a so-called visionary for innovation, but my twenty year-old self was especially impaired as a barometer of industry trends. I didn’t really realise that the classical TDM stuff was on its way out. I saw Asterisk as a pedestrian and entry-level window into the Really Serious Stuff, a stepping stone to the exalted heights of multiplexers, DACSs, and big-iron switches. Instead of stopping for a moment to wonder why the O’Reilly book was called “Asterisk: The Future of Telephony”, I was suddenly enamoured with things like ISDN, SS7, and SONET. I wanted to get into hardcore CLEC operations–interconnection, switch translations, the works.

So, instead of getting deeper into VoIP per se or taking an overly active interest in the new >= Layer 5 capabilities Asterisk opened up, I spent a few years investing in that career direction, rather the opposite of where things were going. I was a bit of an enigma; a guy who got into VoIP and discovered his love for the CSU/DSU.

I kept up my Asterisk skills and used it frequently, and I also started to get into OpenSER around this time. However, it wasn’t really what I cared about the most. Real excitement came at moments like when a colleague of mine set me loose on his Cisco AS5300–the first time I encountered the voice side of IOS–to get a few inbound PRIs working and routed to a SIP server. That was living!

Besides the fact that my core areas of interest were not so much hot topics in 2006-07 as they were moribund, there were a few other things I didn’t understand in my very early twenties:

  • TDM & physical-layer stuff didn’t pay, for the most part.

    Back at my ISP job, I thought the BellSouth CWAs who came in to reprogram our building mux in TL1 via the craft port were highly-paid, highly-skilled, in-demand demigods, true engineering luminaries, practitioners of the dark and recondite arts. Anyone can do good old IT folk traditions; few can program a fibre mux!

    I didn’t realise they’re actually considered kind of blue-collar, not especially well-paid, and that their work consists largely of fastidiously adhering to procedures that are labouriously articulated in three-ring binders.

  • Engineering vs. operations.

    Diving into the voice service provider and CLEC world from the angle that I did, I ended up tracked for an “operations” career for a while without realising it. It took me some time to learn that this was a thing, and moreover, that I, as a developer historically, more belong on the engineering side. It dawned on me when I ended up a senior NOC tech at a mid-size company (a few hundred staff) and I noticed that only “engineers” actually get to implement things or change code; “operations” people just do things like server administration and monitoring.

    Coming from a small-company background (our ISP was ~5 people), I certainly didn’t know that Corporate America makes a distinction between “engineering” and “operations”. As you might imagine, in an environment of half a dozen or so, everyone did everything, and owned their responsibilities end-to-end. In that sense, it was a fairly seamless transition from how I grew up doing things at a hobbyist level to a professional environment. I was already accustomed to having to know all aspects of what I was doing.

    That’s why I was so confused when the word “DevOps” first popped up. What the hell is “DevOps”? It sounds like just “how we normally work”, right? Are there really developers who think their work ends when the IDE closes or whatever? All of us had to both write the code and cultivate the skill set to deploy it in the real world, secure it, etc. Are there really sysadmin that throw anything involving for loops and if statements or SQL over to the Programming Department, because that’s not really “operational”? Our sysadmin back at the ISP may not have been professional software engineers, but if they couldn’t write their own utilities and script glue, or execute the odd inner join, they couldn’t do their job for more than five minutes.

    So, nobody was more surprised to learn than I that I was apparently in something called “operations”, where we had to get three “engineers” on a conference call to fix that one Bash script called from the one cron job. Shouldn’t I just do that for them? I thought I was in the get-things-done department? Bumping up against that division of labour caused me some problems both as an employee and as an employer.

  • The misery of proprietary platforms.

    I grew up breathing open-source like air, so I kind of took the culture, values and skill set that it brings for granted. I got a rude awakening and a newfound appreciation for it when I ended up in a role where my job was to be the Broadsoft specialist, deal with Metaswitch and Acme Packet, etc.Suddenly, no O’Reilly books, no conferences, no mailing lists, no forums, and, worst of all, no Google and no source code. Operating these platforms required an entirely different skill set; strong-arming the vendor and playing political games.

    What little documentation existed was not conceptual in nature; it read like a reference manual–fine if you already know what you want to find out and how to express that in the vendor’s proprietary vernacular, but completely useless if you don’t know what you should want or what it’s called. Worse yet, it’s very clear that a lot of these platforms aren’t seriously designed for their users to run them, but for large operators who rely on the vendor’s consulting to architect, build and maintain their networks. That gets really fun if you don’t have official vendor support, but that’s another story.

    It turns out that bashing my head against the CLI of various black boxes to see what the autocomplete turns up and fruitlessly pleading with vendor support people for answers is not my cup of tea. I was really bad at that job and didn’t get a lot done. I know for a fact that there’s a certain kind of personality out there that is very good at amassing this kind of knowledge by more oblique means, and those people are indispensable in the enterprise world. However, I’m not one of them. If you give me a box under whose hood I cannot easily look and which is not augmented by a user community or freely available literature, I’m pretty useless.

    More importantly, I realised that it’s a dead end; should you choose to become (by way of rather expensive training and certification) a specialist in one of these platforms, your employability and fate will rise and fall strictly with the commercial fate of that platform. Knowing how to Combobulate the ANI Presentation Screen List on the Translations Profile of a Business Group is valuable, but it’s not Knowledge with a capital K, nor even a fundamental skill set per se–at least, not as I was accustomed to thinking of it. It’s just the privilege of carrying some part of the reference manual in your head. I wasn’t going to bracket myself into that. I’d rather be the guy who doesn’t know the answer offhand, but can Google it in 15 seconds, and has the strong fundamentals to be able to (a) find the answer in the results, (b) intuit that what he found really is the answer and (c) apply the information.

Anyway, the rest is largely history. In early 2008, I started a certain consulting practice and rapidly specialised in SIP service delivery platform development that heavily emphasises OpenSER / Kamailio. It’s been a slow, painful (ahem, “organic”) growth path that has taken far too long, but we’re well on our way to the product life, which is a generally positive development.

In hindsight, I don’t feel set back by the circuitous path I took to get here. Experience with development as well as infrastructure & operations goes far. Getting invested in the hard PSTN side of voice instead of viewing the world through the prism of open-source VoIP systems solely has empowered me to provide added value to my customers by being able to understand the migration path from “legacy” infrastructure intimately and to consult on intricate matters of PSTN-side economics. A lot of VoIP folks don’t really know what’s going on the other side of the fence; they just send their calls to the ITSP and provision DIDs without much of an inkling for how it works. One could argue that this sort of esoteric knowledge is obviously more useful so long as the PSTN is around and not as important in a world where voice is just another IP application, but, so far, even in 2016, the death of the PSTN has been greatly exaggerated.

Moreover, while there’s certainly a need to revolutionise paradigms and whatnot, being more deeply conversant with the folk traditions of telephony both allows one to play a more constructive role in bridging the gap and, with a little luck, might allow one to avoid some of the errors that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat in any scenario, circuit-switched or packet-switched. There’s a reason it took decades to engineer voice to the standard of reliability POTS users have come to expect. I strongly believe there are some lessons in that even for the WebRTC-in-The-Cloud enthusiasts out there.

It’s an interesting industry and, without a doubt, a very small circle of key actors. From a business perspective, that has its upsides and its downsides (small market). I’ve been fortunate to make many good friends and colleagues along the way, and the support has been both indispensable and deeply appreciated.

That’s the best thing about being in a small industry; like Cheers, it’s nice to go where everybody [well, some people] knows your name. You are too numerous to list, but I owe a debt of gratitude to all of my friends, colleagues, customers, hiring managers and bosses for helping me to learn where I fit best.


More lessons from my twenties: surviving as an amateur literator in tech

My upbringing and extraction unquestionably lie in the liberal arts and humanities. I’m moderately extroverted, and always leaned hard on the side of verbal, expressive and linguistic capabilities. For the time I was in university, I was a philosophy major with vague notions of law school. My parents are philosophy professors, and most of my relatives have an academic pedigree. I also had the unique intercultural experience of coming to America at age six with no knowledge of English and subsequently learning it in an academic social setting (my parents were graduate students). I carried that formative experience, and the globally conscious, relativistic outlook on language and people that it fosters, forward with me through life.

That doesn’t mean I’m a great writer, but I can write. Great writing, though, is really hard. As with many other things, if you plot a line from “can’t write at all” to “great writer”, you’d have to plot it on a logarithmic scale. Having a broad vocabulary, a firm command of language, and adroit self-expression will get you to the table stakes of “can write”, but that last bit, on the right, is a hundred, a thousand times as hard as what precedes it.

You know great expository writing when you read it; the thoughts and ideas are scrupulously organised, yet presented in a compelling way, with varied transitions and entertaining use of language, at once colourful and precise. Come to think of it, it feels pedestrian to anatomise it this way. You know great writing when you see it.

My writing is far too disorganised and repetitive to hit those notes. I’m verbose and can write a lot quickly and easily, but quantity is not quality; organisation has always been a struggle amidst my desire to relate a lot of details. If you read this blog with any regularity, you’ve seen that battle play out.

Though I’ve got better at condensing my thoughts and communicating ideas simply with age, I’ll never write like my friend Alan. His writing is incredibly brief and terse, but his gift is succinctness per se, which is not the same as brevity, though the two are very often confused in contemporary minimalistic fashions in communication. He can say much with little where many others merely say little with little.

As far as I can tell, the real gift there is the ability to accurately foresee the details and connections that the reader’s mind can work out for itself. Then you can say only what’s necessary to anchor the conceptual tent, cloth not included, avoiding most of the potential redundancy that makes verbose text tedious. This post would be about six times shorter if Alan were writing it, yet say every bit as much–if it’s truly important.

I tried, for a time, to emulate his style growing up, but the results were farcical, much more along the lines of saying little with little. Not everyone’s intellectual output can be compact and tidy. I have to ply my version of the craft, such as it is, differently.

Anyway, I lay out all these concerns not to be pompous, but rather to say that the kind of stuff I spend a lot of time worrying about doesn’t typify the STEM personality one commonly finds in the software engineering profession, nor the pragmatic, utilitarian–and often Spartan, at least when it comes to writing–communicators in the business world. There are exceptions, of course, but as a whole, my life experience is that it’s a valid generalisation about engineer types and MBAs thumbing out curt txt spk on their Blackberries. And this is the environment in which I’ve spent almost my entire adult life, having dropped out of university to seek the exalted heights of corporate America.

BUCHAREST, ROMANIA - OCTOBER 23, 2013: Unidentified lonely thoughtful retired man on his 60s rests on a bench in a park, autumn scene. The retirees represents 22% of the Bucharest's total population.

As you can imagine, this occasionally leads to amusing and infuriating conflicts of style and culture, and in general doesn’t make for an easy professional life. It’s not easy to talk to people when you have completely different psychological priorities than they do. The curse of being somewhat better-rounded is that my mind often takes detours not travelled by fellow Professionals. To their mostly utilitarian sensibilities, idle musings and the cultivation of an inner life beyond the immediate task at hand are, above all else, a waste of time. It’s not enough to just write this e-mail; it must be a good e-mail, at once brief and useful, but also poignant, articulate, maybe even with a dash of wit, or clever and original use of the English language? They’re thinking: get to the point, Alex, because business. There’s money on the line, or action items or something. Never mind the existential why! Business

Being wordy didn’t make for an easy childhood, either. I don’t think I came off overtly as bookish, being mostly chatty and rarely seen with an actual book per se. All the same, I can’t remember how many times I was called “Dictionary” or “Thesaurus” in school, or otherwise suffered social opprobrium for… well, for using words like “opprobrium”.

Outside of the liberal arts wing of a university environment (which I forsook at age twenty), the rest of the world offers a pretty steady diet of hostility to aspirant wordsmiths, and, as far as I can see, more generally to broader combinations of the intellect. There’s the automatic, default hostility of idle, unemployed kids in school, and the studied hostility of busy professional grown-ups. It’s easy to get depressed shouting into a waterfall, or, more accurately, pissing into the wind. I often feel an impostor, not quite sure what I’m doing here donning the regalia of tech entrepreneurship. When almost everyone I mix with expects small talk, being the guy always keen to start some big talk is demoralising and lonely.

And yet, as I pass the thirty mark, I’ve noticed something interesting. As more and more friends, colleagues and classmates move up the career ladder or otherwise evolve higher-order life needs, they’re coming to me for help in formulating thoughts: delicate requests, polite demands, cover letters, biographies, dating profiles, admissions essays, crowdfunding campaigns, petitions. All of this and more has landed at my feet in the past year.

“You always know how to say this stuff just right.”

“I don’t know how to say this – help!”

“You can put it a lot better than I can.”

Every once in a while, I’ll even get a note from a customer: “We always appreciate your thorough explanations and your going the extra mile.”

So, good news from our own “It Gets Better Project” for fellow closeted English majors in their twenties and thirties: keep your head up. As folks who know you move up the value chain into managerial realms requiring them to flex their communication muscles for the first time, you’re going to be more in demand.

Moreover, through my own experiences in hiring and being hired in the technology sector, I’m firmly of the impression that the most valuable candidates in the long run are those who both possess raw skills and can communicate well. There’s a lot of bottom-line value in clear analysis, disentangling messy ideas, and presenting esoteric information in an accessible way to outside stakeholders. Wordy missives may always be ignored by MBA frat boys as a matter of course, but effective and engaging communicators have more influence and audience.

The point is, as you gain confidence on your professional ascent and increase your leverage, stop taking shit from philistines. Don’t shy away from selecting aggressively for employers, customers and partners who realise that better-rounded people bring more to the table and appreciate you for who you are. Much has been said about how the customer is always right, and while compromises are necessary in life, you don’t have to concede everything and always. The fibres most integral to your self-actualisation should be armoured. The rightful sense of self is not for sale.

Evaluating potential hires for “culture fit” is all the rage in human resources now. Why not evaluate them for culture fit? What’s the culture like at the new gig? Neverending arguments about last night’s Steelers vs. Cowboys and the impact on Fantasy Football picks? Spirited discussion of the pros and cons of sundry brotein shakes? A thriving marketplace of World of Warcraft items? Hackneyed memes about bringing democracy to Syria? Either way, fire ’em. Sounds like bad “culture fit”.

Finally, choose your cohorts and your spouses wisely. Your true friends will help, not hinder you in leading an examined life.