Nothing is Pure. Everything is Complicated.

People have a strange vision of me. I’m going to set a few things straight real quick.

I was an anarchist pacifist two years ago, I was an anarchist pacifist two months ago, I’m an anarchist pacifist right now, and I probably will be one until I go to my grave. I didn’t get fired for what I believe or what I’ve done, because none of that ever really came up. I got fired because of the language I used when I was working with Anonymous in 2011-12, and because I believe in engaging with racists instead of shunning them. On a personal level, my friends can tell you, it’s not just racism. I’m not an easy friend. I confront a lot of difficult topics head on, and I can be in turns comforting and challenging. If I am worried you are going to far with drugs or alcohol, I will tell you. If I think your relationship is fucked up, you’ll understand why I think that. If I think the road you are going down leads to dark ruin, a wasted life, and only makes the people who ruined you more powerful, well, weev, you know that’s what I think.

I don’t give up on people. I have in the past. I told my dad he was a failure as a father in a mall in Northern California, and the next time I saw him, I was identifying his body. I told Aaron we needed to be apart, and when I could have warned people that he would try to kill himself I was 6000 miles away. I have lost so many people, and I will lose more, but it will never again be because I didn’t try. And that’s true of this whole damn world. We may lose it, but not because I didn’t try.

I am not a conservative. Conservatism in an age of calamities can only be about death, and I have had enough of death. I’m not a proper lefty. The left as I know it doesn’t afford enough agency to people who came up hard. To my mind, “everything is systemic, nothing is personal” is as bankrupt as “everything is personal, nothing is systemic.” Everything is both, all the damn time. You have to live with that, you have to live with no easy answers. I am much more persuaded by lefists who work their politics in the street, taking care of people in need, like trying to shut down prisons, instead of cheering when the bad guys get put in them. I am more persuaded by conservatives who practice hospitality and Christian charity towards all, including people who aren’t like them, because that’s what hospitality and Christian charity means.

The public made me into a boogyman, and then people cheered when the Times accidentally mugged my career. I didn’t apologize for that, and I’m not going to apologize for doing what I believe is right and effective. But none of that had anything to do with what I was hired for by the Times. All I was going to do there is explain to the world how the internet works, and how it works on humans. It’s not a complicated mission, but one the world needs, and one I can do. So I’m going to keep working on it. I’m also going to keep opposing racism, sexism, hatred, the wars declared and undeclared, all the dehumanizing bullshit I see from the entire political spectrum. I’m going to keep loving the people the gods put in my path. I’m going to keep loving humanity and our pearl of a planet until they lay me in its belly. I don’t think I’m ever going to be persuaded that the nation-state is very good for us, or at least, I think we can do better.

I believe in the humanity of all humans, which seems ridiculous to have to say, but all across the political spectrum, so many of you don’t. I’m sorry you didn’t find an easy world at the beginning of the 21st century, but you didn’t. Nothing is pure. Everything is complicated.

And I think that’s why people hate me: because I don’t fit, I am full of impurity and complication, and my story doesn’t let you ignore that in me, or the world. I am never going to be easy to label, and I’m always going to make people uncomfortable. And many people would rather bleed than be uncomfortable. I will love you, and I will not be cool about it. I will never, ever, ever settle for your unjust and hateful world.

If you do want to know what I think about racism, here’s a few pieces from the last nine years. There’s be more, but this isn’t what I’m payed to write about. I’m a technology writer, and it’s rare I get paid to write anything else. So most of this was written for love, not money.

Living Without Shame is a Political Act

We Have to Build the Future Out of the Past

Looking back to Obama’s night

White Privilege: Updating the invisible Knapsack


A Few Things That Are True About Me

I was born in 1973, to a pair of messed up kids. My mom and dad were both addicts, my mom having been abused from a young age, and my dad getting hooked during Vietnam.

I was raised between LA and Phoenix, and the backside of racetracks when I was very young.

I was put in Special Education in the third grade. After that, I was thrown out of or conveniently transferred from several schools, including my high school, where I’d been raped and wouldn’t shut up about it. I was never admitted to a university, though I attended Orange Coast Community College for two and a half years — a real turning point in my life, and my first several jobs in tech. I also worked on safer sex/AIDS prevention awareness. I devoted my free time to PRIDE, the LGBTetc. club at my school and educating people about the internet, and devoted most of my work and class time to the Marine Science department and the library. But I had to leave, because I badly needed health insurance. I was chronically ill, with an early-onset digestive disease, a joint disease, migraines, and mental illness.

I didn’t manage to get insurance.

After floating around for a few years, I started doing stand-up comedy in Oregon, and then teaching at a charter school middle and high school-aged children. I left both of those to become a system administrator, and got my first insurance. That lasted a year. I got a lot of treatment, and learned what I could about controlling my conditions. (I am diagnosed with MDD and PTSD, both cognitively managed, after failing to get help from pharmaceuticals. I manage fairly well these days.)

I went to Europe the first time after that, and became involved with a Londoner, who introduced me to the man who became my first husband. Back in the US I’d gone to the Bay Area, and met another man, a sysadmin at Netscape, and moved in with him. Eventually the three of us moved together as a MFM triad, and lived together for 6 years. I became a blogger, burned out of tech a second time, and then two years later, became a mother.

I began writing again when my daughter was two, and transitioned into journalism. When she was three, my relationships ended. I started a new relationship, which was on an off for 3-4 years, but ended tragically. There’s been plenty of ink spilled about that already. During this time I still struggled with my health, and was diagnosed with a progressive and painful spinal condition that curtailed my ability to work and move easily, but I worked when I could. I have remained a freelance writer for twelve years, most of that time working for Wired and then Medium. I transitioned to Patreon in the last few years. In 2016, I moved to Luxembourg to be with my partner of five years as of 2018.

In 2018 so far, the New York Times hired and fired me, and I’ve been scheduled for extensive spinal surgery in three days with good odds of fixing the disabling condition I’ve lived with for more then 12 years. It’s been a complicated few weeks.

You’re caught up. I have no real formal education — I’m self-educated, both in journalism and technology. I spent a lot of time in libraries, and sometimes sneaking into lecture classes at UCs, before learning how to use the net to teach myself things. I’ve never made much money, but I’ve generally done what I wanted to, and felt was important, and that trade-off is good enough for me.

I intend to keep learning and writing and working, hopefully on helping the world understand its technology and nature, until I’m dead.

I’m a Frayed Knot.

(This has been crossposted to Patreon,, and Kickstarter)

Over the last several years my mental state has steadily succumbed to despair, disassociation, and fragmentation. Not all the time, not everyday, but enough. My mind has tattered into pieces of attention, drifting off the edges into oblivion. Sometimes my mind is swimming through the past, while my body functions, oblivious of what’s around me. Sometimes I am taken over by a sadness I can’t fit in words. Sometimes everything is blank. Sometimes I wake up, and I can’t remember where I am, or who I am, or who my loved ones are. Sometimes I wake up and stare into the dark around me, not sure where I am, but sure something is trying to kill me. Most days, my mind is scattered. My days are at once full and empty, always behind, never sure what I’m behind on.

There are people who know about this — those around me. They’ve watch me drift away. They know that I don’t sleep much. They have watched me lose my confidence and my connection with the world.

If you want insurance codes to talk about what’s happened to me, it would be: treatment-resistant Major Depression, and Post Traumatic Stress, with intrusive imagery and suicidal ideation. None of these diagnoses are new, and they are interlocked inside me. What is separate clinically, is, for me, a continuum of experiences.

I ignored the symptoms too long, starting in 2011. But I have no insurance, and besides, ignoring the pain is how I got this far at all. When it finally became undeniable, something I couldn’t just white-knuckle my way through anymore, was when I stopped being able to think a piece of writing through to publication. I lost the thread of my ideas too often. The thought of writing in public, after a decade of doing it, became terrifying. I’d withdrawn from the world, without even the courtesy of telling myself.

I’ve tried to re-engage with my career, and my personal commitments, I’ve tried to exercise and look after myself — all with mixed failure. What I have left to give is going to my family, and what I have to go on emotionally is coming from them as well.

I don’t know how this story ends yet. I’ve been seeking therapy, but so far I haven’t had much success. I’ve decided to talk about this, to take you with me in this story, if you want to come. Partly because I feel I owe it to the people who have read and supported my work for so many years, at least to explain what happened to me. But also, it’s because doing this on my own hasn’t been working.

So, here we are.

Chait and All the Other Media People, You’re on the Internet Now

Let me begin by saying I don’t really know anything about Jonathan Chait, except he appears to make his living by telling everyone what he thinks about stuff. As this is also my job, I have something I need to say about the way he’s doing it.

I followed a link on Twitter to his writing today on Cuba and Obama and Jacobin magazine and Marxism and something about Denmark that didn’t make much sense and frankly I didn’t read all of it or get into much. That kind of punditry is not my thing, I have a different kind of punditry.

But then, Chait included this image in his piece:

Fake Obama Picture

Well, not exactly. I added the text, it’s not there in Chait’s piece It is not hard for me to deduce this image is a fake. He even somewhat incongruently says “Let’s not make this a reality.” below it, presumably just in case we were thinking of having an Obama non-consensual costume party, which, OK, we were, but we probably weren’t going to go through with it. The thing is, all I have to do is right click on that image and then put it somewhere else, like above this paragraph. Or I can just load it from the website, with that fancy, much believed and well loved URL at the top. Now it doesn’t have Chait’s wit around it. It’s just a fake photograph floating around on the internet of the president dressed like a Soviet communist officer. Being served by New York Magazine.

What kind of internet would spread and take something so ridiculous seriously, or get worked up about it? Oh yeah, this one. And we all already know that. I know as well and better than most this sort of thing, mocking up Obama as any kind of villain, is going to happen. It happens every day. But it’s damn irresponsible for media professionals to be doing it, or spreading it, without clearly flagging in the picture that it’s a fake.

Like this.
trexJonathan Chait, Space Nazi and Dinosaur Cowboy. Let’s not make this a reality. Or maybe we should, because it’s kind of awesome.

Journalists, pundits, essayists, and Jonathan Chait, don’t make the internet worse. Clearly mark any image, or image quote, as either fake, or with a reference.

Capitalism’s Winter: Chapter Three Summary and Open Thread

I’m behind again, and again due to travel. I’ll be pushing the schedule out a day to compensate, and plan to catch up next week with a Tuesday/Friday schedule. Thanks for bearing with me!

It’s time to turn to literature, and how writers like Balzac and Austin used wealth to signal people’s positions in stories. The two kinds of wealth mentioned are agricultural land, and interest from government bonds. While narratively interchangeable as simply wealth, from an economic position, they aren’t. In the conception of national income, government bonds can only be private wealth, canceled out by definition by public debt, and representing a transfer payment from taxpayers to debt holders.

The capital income ratio, high in the 19th century, suffered a reversal of fate from the world wars. It fell with the enormous costs of conflict, but it’s made a recovery since, though not to its original heights. But the fall and growth and recovery post-war created an illusion that capitalism wasn’t inherently rent-seeking.

The composition of the assets that make up capital has changed. Agricultural land capital has had to contend with serious newcomers in what we mean within the idea of capital: houses, buildings, businesses, financial instruments, and colonial and post colonial holdings. This fall of relative agricultural capital reflects the smaller role it plays in the economy, and the fact that technology has made buildings and what happens in them much more economically interesting. Communications and travel made foreign assets much more manageable as well.

I’m not going to summarize the summaries of Balzac and Austin. Yo, dawg.

It’s hard to calculate the value of public assets like schools, infrastructure, and government buildings — you can’t exactly go look up how much they regularly sell for on Ebay. But even without knowing that, it’s clear that private wealth far outstrips public wealth, which is largely canceled out by public debt. And that debt also represents more private wealth. But public debt is never a huge portion of private wealth — where a national debt can be as much as 1x (on in some cases close to 2x) national income, private capital can go to 7x to 8x national income.

19th Century France and Britain had far more public debt than I’d ever realized, and much more than they have now. Much of that public debt represented transfers of wealth to the already wealthy. This was unlike the form of debt I grew up with in the 20th century, where debt was seen as a way to provide services and infrastructure, like education and transit, as a great leveler of society. Debt seemed to be a great idea in an era where inflation was guaranteed to make it vanish quickly into an ever widening pool of productive progress. It was almost a reversal of the literary opening of the chapter — representing a transfer of wealth from the rich to everyone else. But in the 21st century, inflation is dipping closer to 19th century levels, and doesn’t seem to have its leveling effect anymore.

The chapter ends on the shocks of the Great Depression, and distrust of the elites who were seen to bring it on or profit from it, and the Second World War. This is where the 20th century’s “mixed economies” came in, where economies that had been laissez-faire now came under state intervention to varying degrees with nationalizations and fiscal policies all over the world, even to the extremes of the communist planned economies. The 1970s and 1980s began to bring privatization and laissez-faire again, starting us back on the road to the 19th century’s patterns of capital, even though the ingredients of capital have changed forever.

Capitalism’s Winter: Chapter Two Summary and Open Thread

Chapter two, Growth, opens with a discussion of population demographics, and what these small-seeming percentages mean over time. It has a rapid series of hard to process numbers, but they are important for grasping the scale of things. After laying out the historical growth rate, estimated at less than .02%, probably less than .01% for the world, he takes us into the aggressive curve of the 18th to 21st century.
Ranging from .4% in 18th century Europe to .6% — .8% in the 19th, to the enormous global 1.5%-2% of the 20th century, leading to a five fold increase of population. Growth was 1.8% world wide when I was born, now slowed down to a still staggering 1.3%. But this is probably an anomaly, and projections put 2030 at .4% and 2070 at .1%, closer to where we were before this crazy train began, with even negative demographic growth in Europe.

After laying out all these demographics, Piketty brings us to the point of the whirlwind tour of these figures: that demographic growth combats inequality by lessening the concentrating power of inherited wealth. (Inflation has also been a leveler — allowing debtors, private and public, to get out of debt more quickly, though this is noted much later in the chapter.) Combining slow demographic growth with slow economic growth further expands the power of the previous generation’s capital, leading to even more potential for concentration. Already, inherited wealth is making a come back after the world wars in Europe, and that could be a leading indicator for the world.

When putting this into a social context, Piketty delves into politics again here and, in my opinion at least, takes the myth of meritocracy out for a good beating. He points out that the idea of superior inherent abilities has been used, time and again and up to the current day IT sector, to “justify extreme inequalities and to defend the position of the winners, without much consideration for the losers, much less for the facts, and without any real effort to verify whether this very convenient principle can actually explain the changes we observe.”

Once again, we see Piketty’s calling card: data or GTFO.

We move on from there to the idea of measuring how much our money can buy us, in terms of purchasing parity, and how hard that is to measure. With not only so many more goods but incomparable goods available through time, what rich and poor means, both absolutely and compared against each other, is a moving target both temporally and geographically.

The one thing that doesn’t change as much in purchasing is services. But, because of that, services are different, moving from a third of the economy up towards 70-80% in much of the world. Just health and education can be 20% in the developed countries, and more than anything are effective at changing our quality of life, and relentlessly expensive.

Bad service sectors can juke the stats when it comes to GDP. Just as a broken window when repaired shows up in GDP as productivity no different than a new window being built, so an ineffectively and overly expensive healthcare systems ups GDP without improving health outcomes, as in the example of the US versus sane countries. (Hey, it’s his book, but still my blog.) This is accounting by costs, and it shows why Piketty prefers account by national income over popular measures like GDP. But these kinds of problems remind us why our numbers over time don’t have many sig figs — they are useful, but not granular.

One thing Piketty doesn’t seem great with is understanding where the environment and its degradation fit into the picture. He talks about the depletion of fossil fuels as a major issue, when in fact the greater danger these days is using what we have.

Chapter two closes with literature — showing Balzac and Austin’s writing reflected such a stable and slow growth and inflation rate that the idea of how much wealth you needed for a certain position in society could be referenced by a number, and serve as an abstract for a strata of society altogether. I think this is a particular and amazing feat, and that he doesn’t quite communicate the strangeness of this stability, a stability that has not existed in living memory. A certain property was a certain income, and came with a certain kit of life. What those things were was knowable and stable for decades, and folks tended to stay where they were in society. Coming as I do, from a country of temporarily embarrassed millionaires, this idea of stability is not only without reference, it’s abhorrent to most of the myths of capitalism that arose in the 20th century after WWI. Before that, it was useful for setting the scene. What a shift this is, that we can’t even remember happening!

From 1914 to 1945, we learned about inflation, monetary policy, and of course technology — and our literature and culture lost their economic innocence, and financial memories.

Capitalism’s Winter Reading Schedule, Week Two

Sorry for the late post, travel ate my life. This week’s an aggressive one, but we slow down after this for a couple weeks.

— Chapter 2 – Growth: Illusions and Realities
— Chapter 3 – The Metamorphoses of Capital
— Chapter 4 – From Old Europe to the New World

Open thread for Chapter 2 will be posted
Tuesday Feb 16th. (Yes, that’s today, next post. You don’t have to be done by then, that’s just when it’s open!)

Open thread for Chapter 3 will be posted
Thursday Feb 18th. (You don’t have to be done by then, that’s just when it’s open!)

Open thread for Chapter 4 will be posted
Saturday Feb 21st. (Yada yada you know the drill by now)

Capitalism’s Winter — Chapter One summary and open thread

(Sorry this is coming late in the day! You know life… stuff.)

This chapter opens with a scene of violent conflict between mine workers and state police, acting on behalf of mine owners. He uses this as an example of the fact that much of the conflict over capital arises out of ways society has divided up the fruits of capital between the capitalists, and labor, what he calls the capital/labor split.

He goes on to stake a political flag in the ground, one of the first so far in the book: “(Unrest) is due… to the extreme concentration to the ownership of capital.”

Piketty also spends some more time defining his terms — he wants us to be well aware of what he means by terms like national income, and why he chose it over the popular GDP (the short version of this is the National Income accounts for entropy, the wear and tear of infrastructure, whereas GDP doesn’t.)

This is the chapter where he carefully defines capital, and thereby the scope of the book — he doesn’t make a value judgement of capital at all, but just defines what he’s talking about and therefore how he believes it will behave. This is a clever trick, sidestepping many of the religious wars of economics. His definition is interchangeable with his definition of wealth. As a writer, I suspect this is more a literary convenience than a technical or economic one; having a synonym makes the text less cumbersome and repetitive. And, that’s pretty useful when you’re dragging a general audience along for over 600 pages.

When considering wealth, Piketty gives us the definition of one of his most important numbers: the capital-income ratio. It is defined as the capital stock/annual flow of income, denoted as β. It’s a multiplier, so if capital stock = 6 x national income, β=6, or 600% of national income.

Put another way, If you had $60 saved in the bank, and you made $20 in income, the ratio would be β=3, and so on.

Capital income ratio (β) is usually between five and six on the national level.

The accounting practices of 19th century novels makes its debut in Chapter One as well, with discussions of rate of return in the backgrounds of the drama of Balzac and Austin.

Piketty continues what he started in the introduction by laying out the lineage of his economic data. This is, I think, the most difficult sections for readers who are not economists or statisticians. The history of data isn’t uninteresting, but this is a surface view of how data collection has evolved, waving at the changing nature of the data he and his cohort of economists had to work with when trying to understand income and output. It is of limited value to the general reader, beyond being a declaration that homework got done.

The chapter closes with a discussion of national inequalities and their historical context and possible mechanics. He contrasts much of the “catch up” world of emerging economies with Sub-Saharan Africa, which he describes as largely owned by foreign capital, going so far as to describe this state, and the colonialism that came before it as “when one country owns another.” It’s once again a political statement, but couched in and supported by a specific definition of ownership. That ownership is expressed in terms of a country that performs labor for and also pays another country where capital resides. The political part isn’t mere to describe that as ownership, but also as the cause of a failure to thrive post-colonially. I think this is a compelling argument, especially given countries that largely own themselves seem to grow faster and stronger than those who rely on FDI, which even in the best of cases transfers wealth out of poor countries, even when it has good effects within a country.

Capitalism’s Winter — Introduction summary and open thread

We’ve begun! If you haven’t, don’t worry, come along at your own pace. It’s a big book.

In this introduction, Piketty starts out by taking us back to school to look at the history of Economics, and its apocalyptic tendencies. While most of us remember Ricardo for Comparative Advantage, he reminds us that, like Malthus and Marx, his was an apocalyptic vision about the path of capital and distribution of resources after it. Malthus saw the world as we knew it ending from the scarcity of food, Ricardo from the accumulation of land resources in land-owning capitalist’s hands, and Marx from industrial capital concentration, culminating in massive global communist revolutions. Of course, spoilers, none of these things actually happened. Why were economists so wrong so much of the time?

Piketty wants us to understand something: that early Economics, including not only these pretty smart guys but a bunch of other smart guys, was working without real world data. It was essentially ethnography and math, complete with economic theories born out of visits to inns, industrial workplaces, and so on. Without any data, even brilliant observations about economic culture were doomed to make bad predictions.

From 19th century doom and gloom Piketty switches to the “fairytale” of Kuznets — but it’s the first tale with data behind it, and that’s important. By the mid 20th century Simon Kuznets was telling the tale of capitalism giving rise to greater income equality as almost a natural consequence of the system. In fact, much of post-war economics was starting to rely on data which had never been accessible before: national accounts, tax data, estate data, etc., often tabulated by hand. But with two world wars and a worldwide depression that limited window on the first data-rich analysis of capitalism was necessarily flawed. While Kuznets himself cautioned generalizing from this window he knew was narrow in his papers, he was more exuberant in his speech, and it was what the post-war world wanted to hear.

To build on this history, Piketty tells us about the data he is working with for this next century analysis, and again, he cautions us about its limitations and gaps. He also tells us about how other datasets were gathered, listing them off, and emphasizing how much modern research tools, like computers have made his job far easier than his predecessors.

The first conclusion of his data is refreshing: that you can’t divide economics from politics and pretend to predict things. The second conclusion is more ominous, it is that things can really go terribly wrong in capitalism, that the system doesn’t correct itself naturally.

Together, we can take these as capitalism doesn’t exist beyond politics, and nothing in economics is going to take care of us, we have to take care of ourselves. But take care of ourselves from what? Piketty goes on to describe some of the problems of progressing inequality, with hints that he will expand on these later.

And lastly, he briefly excoriates his field for its obsession with math and disdain for the other “soft” social sciences. As someone who has for many years referred to Economics as “a science desperately searching for a coefficient,” this was edifying for me. If you come up with an idea and do math on it, that math can be pretty and a wonderful thing. But to connect it to the real world, to enter into the realm of science, you must be measuring something — a step woefully absent in much of the history of Economics. Piketty calls for his field to grow up; to play nice with the other social sciences, and don’t do more math than the data lets you do.

What do you think? What did Piketty miss? He takes Ricardo, Marx, and Malthus to task, but largely leaves Smith alone. Does Smith present problems for his ideas? And are you hooked yet?

Capitalism’s Winter Schedule for Week One

Monday, February 8th – Begin reading. This week is
— Introduction
— Chapter 1 – Income and Output (which is shorter than the introduction!)

Open thread for Introduction will be posted
Wednesday Feb 10th.
(You don’t have to be done by then, that’s just when it’s open!)

Open thread for Chapter 1 will be posted
Friday Feb 12th.
(You don’t have to be done by then, that’s just when it’s open!)

Between the two, the Introduction is longer, but super helpful for understanding what’s coming up. I strongly recommend reading it.

A quick note: the majority of the registrations that have come in have looked… er… kind of shady. Until I know whether we’re being targeted by spammers or worse, I’m going to keep moderation on the comments. I’m sorry about this, but right now it’s the only way to make sure the space stays safe, spam and malware free. Bear with me on comment approval, I will try to get to everything as fast as possible.