Poker and Trump

Posted in Uncategorized on July 22, 2016 by Genius

Back when I used to play poker for a living there was a guy who we’ll call Jake. Jake was a young guy. Younger than myself even (and I was probably 22 or 23 at the time of this story) and, well, kind of a dunce.

When Jake showed up on the scene, he was terrible. He was what we called loose-passive. Loose meaning he played a lot of hands, and passive meaning that he was usually checking and calling rather than betting and raising.

At the lower limits, loose-passive is a recipe for disaster. In fact, all you have to do to win at low limit poker is be the opposite, tight-aggressive. I call it “the secret” even though really it’s in the first paragraph of every poker book ever written. The tighter and more aggressive you are (to a point, anyway) the more you win. It’s really that simple at the bottom rungs. And the aggressive part is a lot more important than the tight part too, because most players are loose and passive. You can play a lot more hands when you know you’re going to get a bunch of calls when you hit.

Eventually the Peter Principle kicks in. The people who win at the lowest stakes move up to the next level, and the people who win there move up, and so on and so forth until every single player in the world is either in the process of going broke or thinking “maybe I should move to the bigger game.”

Eventually you get to a point where everyone knows the secret, and the game becomes something much different. It becomes this beautiful combination of art and science, a test of intellect and will power. A lot of people get cracked there.

(There’s this weird edge case, where the highest stakes game in the room is often easier than the ones right below it, because a few very wealthy guys who don’t know what they’re doing sit down, but otherwise the rule is generally that the higher the stakes, the better the opposition.)

Jake being young, he didn’t have much money to lose, but he lost it all and went back home to West Virginia. The nice thing about the low limits is you can just wait until your next paycheck and buy right back in again. I spent most of my 18th year doing exactly that before I learned to not spend my winnings on mp3 players and bad chain steakhouses.

Somewhere along the line Jake must have found the secret. I started hearing rumors about how good he’d gotten. He probably started playing a little tighter and a lot more aggressively, and he started winning. He moved up and started playing even more aggressively, and kept winning until I was hearing about it through the grapevine.

I hadn’t seen him in over a year, and then one day he landed at my table. Or I should say tables, since we were playing online and everyone was playing a few at a time. We were playing $40/$80 Texas Hold’em, which means the betting increments on the first two rounds were $40, and the last $80. That’s pretty big stakes online, where the action is fast and you’re playing a few tables. You could win or lose six figures in a week. At one point or another I did both.

Anyway, Jake had built himself up a bit of a bankroll and decided to sit down. I’ll spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say I watched the guy lose every penny he had. I got more than my fair share of them.

See what happened was, he kept playing the same way he had at the lower levels. He played too many hands and bet and raised just about anything. As the Peter Principle predicts, he had risen to the level of his own incompetence.

An overly-aggressive player, it turns out, is really easy to play against. In fact, it’s just as easy as an overly-passive player, you just do the opposite.

As a thought experiment, imagine you were playing against a bot that just bet or raised every single time it had the opportunity to, no matter what. How would you play against it? The answer is pretty obvious. If your hand was better than average (since the bot is doing this with anything, you can just assume it has an average hand) you’d raise. If it was close enough that the money in the pot gave you odds to, you’d call. And if your hand was much worse than average, you’d fold. Sure, you’d get cracked sometimes when the bot just happened to be raising a full house and you had two pair, or you folded a bad hand to a terrible one. But over even a relatively short session you’d destroy it. You’d win every chip, every time.

An overly-aggressive human isn’t quite that simple. He’s still only playing 30% or so of his hands, and he’s not going crazy with nothing at all every time. You have to be a bit more wary, but the same basic principle applies. Call with a lot of stuff you might normally fold, raise a little bit with stuff you might normally not, and go ape shit when you have the nuts instead of trying to figure out how to get paid on it. It’s pretty easy really. They might get you for a session, but it doesn’t take long for you to break them.

What separates the good players from the bad is that the bad players just do one thing. They’ve got one gear. And when that’s the right gear for the situation, they win, and when it isn’t, they lose. It’s that simple.

So a few months back I was having a conversation with a friend about Donald Trump. The question came up about whether or not Trump was some evil diabolical genius. A lot of people think he’s some kind of brilliant con artist who is using his skills to become President. My friend thought so too.

My honest answer then was that I wasn’t sure. I suspected he was actually kind of an imbecile who has simply been doing the same thing for 40 years, and that recent societal shifts had just made that thing start working. But, I had to admit, perhaps he’s just playing on a level I can’t understand. Maybe he is a genius who is just seeing a few moves further than me and everyone else. Maybe his fourth grade grammar is not the mark of a buffoon but a carefully constructed ruse.

He has convinced our nation’s lower class that he, a guy born into inflation-adjusted billions, is their champion. Despite several bankruptcies, and the fact that his famous business book was ghostwritten by a guy who now calls Trump a sociopathic moron, he’s built a name for himself as a business mogul. He routinely contradicts himself in the same paragraph, refuses to release his tax returns (likely because they show he’s nowhere near as wealthy and successful as he claims, an assertion that has been put forth for decades by business magazines) and yet has convinced everyone that his opponent is the most dishonest candidate of all time. A guy who first came to fame for cheating on his first wife (of three) is the nominee of the family values party. All of that is impressive, however crazy it may sound. You really have to ask yourself if, despite his obvious personality flaws, he isn’t just brilliant.

The test, I thought, would be whether or not he keeps doing the same thing when he should be doing something else. Many of the pundits claimed that when it came time for the general, he should pivot. He should stop insulting people on Twitter all day and try to look presidential. He should stop saying so much racist stuff, run a tighter campaign, etc.

The pundits and politicians had been wrong about a lot of things though. If they weren’t, we would be talking about Jeb or Rubio. I thought there was a good chance Trump would go on ignoring them.

But that’s not what happened. He’s attempted all of the things the pundits prescribed, but has succeeded at none. He’s tried really hard to give a teleprompter speech or two, but then gone off script and off the rails. Had he not even tried the stuff the pundits said, I’d probably think he was brilliant (however evil) at this point and just seeing the board in a different way than everyone else.

But the minute he pulled out a teleprompter, which he said he’d never do but Hillary is the dishonest one, I felt I had my answer. This isn’t some world-class con man pulling off the ultimate heist. This is a used car salesman. He’s got his little bag of tricks and our country is just so sick of politicians that those same tricks that relegated him to political curiosity for the last couple decades started working.

I’m now convinced that Trump is really just a two-bit hustler. He’s got this thing he does, and it just happens to have found his moment. When it’s no longer the right moment, he’ll keep on doing it, because it’s just who he is. Let’s hope that time comes before November.




Amazon Is Leaving The Door Open

Posted in Opinions You Would Agree With If You Weren't An Idiot with tags , , on November 11, 2015 by Genius

There was a good bit of discussion on Hacker News about my last post. I feel like a lot of it missed the point.

The main point was that Amazon has left the door open for a competitor to emerge by bad UI, high prices, and possibly a sucky return experience.

A lot of people argued that Amazon saves them time over going to the store and it’s worth it to them. But that’s not really arguing in favor of Amazon, it’s arguing in favor of online shopping in general. If some other online store saved you the same amount of time, but did so at a lower cost and with a better UI (which would save you even more time) and a better return process (which would save you still more time and maybe money) you’d probably switch. The commenters don’t seem to love Amazon so much as hate Wal-Mart, which is an understandable misattribution. 

Many people mentioned Prime, which, like I said, I have had since the beginning. But Prime really isn’t much for shopping these days. It only really applies to orders below the $35 free shipping threshold, everything above that was going to ship for free anyway. People in my area (and, I’d bet, most of the country, given their impressive distribution) without Prime basically get their free shipping items in the same 2 days I do. It’s only useful on cheap things, which is exactly where Amazon is over-priced in the first place.

Go to Newegg and order something. You know what happens? You’ll get it shipped for free and receive it in 2-3 days. There’s no Prime, they just ship stuff quickly and for free. Same with Jet. Same with a number of merchants.

It sounds like some people live in magical places which are somehow 30 minutes away from the nearest big box store but where the UPS store is next door to them, but it doesn’t matter because the guy just comes and takes the item from their door step, packages it, returns it, then places a crisp $20 under their pillow. Good for you. Most of us live somewhere else. And regardless, if they do that for Amazon, they’ll do that for a sufficiently large competitor, so it isn’t a long-term competitive advantage and again you’re arguing in favor of online shopping in general, not Amazon in specific.

Nonetheless, returns are the least of my gripes and were half tongue-in-cheek. I save some time shopping online and I spend less time than that returning things, so it’s a net win in the time and hassle department. And I’m sure it’s neither a big enough problem, nor an easy enough one to solve, that it’s what I would focus on if I were trying to beat Amazon.

What could be a big problem for them, if anyone takes them on, are high prices and a UI that at times seems almost designed to not sell you what you want. Quidsi (, etc.) built a remarkable business by at least solving the UI problem, though Amazon eventually just bought them for a large amount of money. (which has former Quidsi execs on its founding team) is taking them on in both regards. Alibaba is planning to do so as well. I am sure others can’t be far behind.

Will any of the particular companies trying this right now succeed? I don’t know. But I think there’s a market opportunity. It’s very similar, I think, to when people thought Yahoo had search locked up in the 1990’s. I don’t know if Amazon’s head is in the game enough to fix it before it’s too late. They might be too focused on making bad Spotify competitors. Time will tell.

What I do know is that as Wal-Mart ascended and started vanquishing their competition, they didn’t raise their prices. In fact, they used their incredible logistics to lower them and kept growing. I see Amazon doing the opposite and I think it’s a big mistake.

Amazon Kind Of Sucks And We’ve All Just Come To Accept It

Posted in Startup with tags , on November 10, 2015 by Genius

I hate writing this article because I’ve loved Amazon forever. I still remember my cousin telling me about it back when I was in high school. He was staying with me while my dad was out of town. We were browsing the web on our old Compaq (Intel 386 baby!) via AOL dialup (it was a different time, don’t judge) and I wanted to buy a book. He told me about this new site selling them online. It was so much cheaper than bookstores at the time, which had a markup somewhere between excessive and violating the Geneva Convention.

Over time they came to sell more stuff and I started buying it. When they announced Prime, I signed up right away and have never looked back. Yeah, their Netflix and Spotify competitors are pretty mediocre. The UI on everything Amazon does looks like it was designed by Helen Keller. You’d think a company with $90b in revenue could hire one decent UX and one decent UI guy. They’re ugly but they get stuff done.

And maybe that’s part of the charm. It’s like walking into an Aldi. You don’t expect to see reclaimed wood floors and exposed beam ceilings. If you want that, go pay twice as much to shop at Whole Foods. The place looks cheap because it is cheap, and cheap’s sometimes what you want. 

Except the problem with Amazon is, it’s not cheap. In fact, it’s quite expensive. Yes, Amazon prices are still great on some things. Things that have a high dollar density, meaning the ratio of their cost to their shipping weight and size is high. But for anything else, forget it. I was joking with some friend about how I bought a $5 roll of tape there and something else much more expensive, and of course the $5 roll of tape came in a big bubble-wrap filled box, while the expensive electronic item just had a label slapped on it. And my friend said “you know that roll of tape is like $1 at Home Depot right?” Which killed the joke, but turned out to be true.

I started looking around, comparing prices, and found that this is not unusual. Pretty much anything Amazon sells that is also sold at your local big box store costs much more. That wasn’t true a decade ago when I started ordering paper towels and the like. I mean, it certainly makes sense. They’re cheap but large, so the cost to ship them alone is probably close to what you buy them at Costco for.

I’m willing to put up with the fact that Amazon, despite having some of the best programmers in the world, can’t do a simple price sort. Seriously, pretend you just want the cheapest iPad that’s currently made. Go there, type in “iPad”, and search from lowest to highest. I’m too lazy to figure out which page the first one pops up on, because I gave up on page 12. Even if you sort by Apple as the manufacturer, you get a bewildering array of crap that isn’t what you’re looking for. Walk into an Apple store or Best Buy and you can figure it out in seconds.

And half the time, their price sort doesn’t even manage to sort by prices! I think it has something to do with the fact that one item can be sold by multiple vendors at multiple prices. Whatever the reason, it’s confusing.

On top of that, returning stuff to Amazon sucks. Here’s the Amazon return process.

1. Go to site, fill out a form to get a shipping label.

2. Print said form. That’s pretty much all I use my printer for because it’s not 1998 anymore. I even upgraded to a wireless one so I don’t have to plug my damn laptop into it every time I want to return something.

3. I probably threw away the Amazon box. Gotta dig up a suitable one from the pile of spares I have in the attic just for returning stuff to Amazon.

4. Print packing slip, insert in box.

5. Now I have to bust out the old packing tape. You know that stuff always comes out of the little guides on the side no matter how careful you were, so you have to un-stick it. Do so while seething in rage that nobody has yet invented packing tape that doesn’t stick to itself.

6. Shellack that damned label to the box with tape. I don’t have shipping labels for my printer because what am I, FedEx? So I cover it in like 8 strips of tape.

7. Go to whichever shipping service Amazon sent it from because unless you ordered a tiny USB cord, it’s too big to fit into their drop box. It could be USPS, FedEx, or UPS, all of which are located next to the Best Buy where I could have just dropped the damned thing off in way less time and without having to fight a roll of packing tape.

This isn’t Amazon’s fault really. I don’t know what they could do better on the return angle. Maybe they could make a deal with UPS, so people with returns can just come drop the product off in a bin at any UPS store, without having to repackage, and not have to deal with it? Perhaps that’s excessive, I just know that if something isn’t at least $20 I’m probably just going to throw it away due to the hassle.

I’m willing to deal with the fact that a lot of searches are far harder than they need to be because Amazon lets a bunch of sellers list things as iPads that are either iPads so ancient nobody could possibly want them, or iPad accessories. I’m willing to deal with the fact that when I search for something and try to filter by Prime Only, I get lots of results that are in fact not Prime only, despite the fact that Amazon has some of the world’s best programmers but a CS101 student would be failed for that. I’ll even very grudgingly accept the returns process because I don’t know what they can do better, and how often do you return something anyway? They once took back an expensive remote my dog chewed on, so the issue isn’t their customer service policy.

But when everything they sell costs substantially more than I could get it for somewhere else, I start re-thinking my options. Nowadays I just order it from Home Depot or Best Buy or Sam’s Club online and pick it up the next time I’m near one. If you live in suburbia, that’s never long.

I think that’s why is doing what it does. If you follow tech news, you’ve probably seen a lot of people laughing about $500m being given to a company that appears to be selling things at a loss.

Amazon’s real advantage, though, and why their pricing has crept up so high, is that they’re the internet’s everything store. People are skipping Google and going straight there. If you spend some time Googling, you can find almost any product Amazon sells sold somewhere else reputable for cheaper. And it’ll ship to you freely and quickly too, they just don’t call it Prime. But Amazon has gotten to the point where people don’t spend time Googling anymore. They just search for stuff they want to buy there.

A legitimate competitor might change that. If Amazon had to face the idea of people looking elsewhere for general purchases, they would be forced to be more price competitive. And maybe they could write a functioning price sort too.

To get from nowhere to an Amazon competitor is going to be very tough. It’s going to require building out a world-class distribution system. It’s going to require spending a lot to get customers in the door. I don’t know that is burning $50m a month because they’re doing things the right way, and it’s entirely possible they’ll crash. But I think that if someone does become a serious challenger to Amazon, it’ll have to look a lot like this at the start. 

I sure hope someone gets there, because Amazon has grown to kind of suck, and I’d love to have another option than just accepting it.

Yes on Issue 2, No on Issue 3.

Posted in Politics on November 2, 2015 by Genius

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a pretty big advocate of drug legalization. I believe that all available evidence makes prohibition look entirely unreasonable. I believe that if you could walk into CVS and buy anything from marijuana to heroin, fewer people would die of overdoses, more addicts could get help, there’d be far less violent crime, jails would house far fewer criminals, and we’d save a ton of money. There’s really no evidence or even logic to the contrary beyond “drugs are bad… mkay.” The 18th amendment didn’t work and we repealed it a scant 13 years later, then somehow forgot the lessons of history and decided to do it all over again. This time we’ve stuck with it for decades and gotten even more violent crime, poverty, and addiction as a result.

But, I think our nation faces an existential threat. I don’t say that lightly, as people often do. After 9/11 everyone said that Islamic Extremism was a threat to our way of life, but it really wasn’t. Great empires always fall to internal forces.

Depending on your politics, you probably felt that one or both of the last two Presidents presented such a threat. But by many measures we’re better off now than we were 16 years ago, and even the ways in which we are not are due mainly to policies put in place back while W. was still snorting coke and shotgunning beers instead of serving in the National Guard, and Obama was learning to hate America in a madrassa in Kenya.

Our threats are deeper and less obvious than that. It’s not ISIS or Al Queda that will tear our country apart. It isn’t Donald Trump, or whichever Bush or Clinton ends up in the White house. It’s the corrupting power of money on politics.

When our nation was formed, representative democracy and capitalism went hand-in-hand. The great experiment worked. And then something new and virtually unheard of came into existence, the corporation.

Sure a few existed before. And they’d caused some political problems. If you want to spend an afternoon learning about the root of our problem, Google “The Dutch East India Corporation” and prepare to have your mind blown. They literally had a private army, with warships.

But even they had nothing on big oil. Nowadays corporations don’t need to build an army. It’s far cheaper to donate to politicians until they’ll let you write the bills they introduce. Why bother going to war to make sure countries don’t do anything about climate change that might hurt your bottom line when you can just donate to some Republican Senators?

We live in an era in which money is king. Politicians need it to get elected. Corporations have more of it than ever before, by a large margin. Whichever side of the aisle you’re on has been bought and paid for by something.

And that’s the problem. Our representative Democracy is no longer representative, at least not of the populace. It’s representative of the money, which is held in ever increasing percentages by a very small number of people.

Ohio’s Issues 2 and 3 might not seem important. Certainly if 10 guys are granted an oligopoly on farming marijuana, our entire country won’t collapse. The problem, however, is the precedent. For decades, corporations have at least sheepishly tried to hide their purchasing of politicians. What does it now say that they’re just writing their own profit right into the fucking laws?

The article I linked to shows how this goes. A handful of years ago, this guy brazenly got together a group of people to give casinos a monopoly in Ohio. That’s small potatoes compared to weed, which is itself small potatoes compared to whatever comes next. And surely, something will come next. What about when Ford and GM cosponsor the bill that legalizes driverless cars, but only theirs? What happens to Google or Tesla or the next car company that hasn’t been started yet?

I’ll spare you the Econ 101 lesson about what monopolies do and why they’re bad. That isn’t the point here. What they’re not teaching you in college (at least in any class that anyone would take if they wish to be employable after graduation) is the creeping influence of large amounts of money on our political system.

Dan Carlin talks a lot about this in Common Sense and does it better than I could. Go back through his archives and you’ll fall into one of three categories. People who don’t understand it. People who benefit financially from it. And people who will vote yes on 2, no on 3.

I’m Not A Democrat, Republicans Are Just Batshit Crazy

Posted in Politics on August 31, 2015 by Genius

A little over seven years ago, I wrote about how bad I felt the Republican Party had gotten. Shockingly, I now look at the primary field two election cycles later and I can’t help but feel it has somehow gotten worse.

This is important to me because if I’m stuck in a two party system, I’d like to have two parties that are at least not batshit crazy. I think it was George Carlin who said (paraphrasing) that two options for President is only one more than people in a totalitarian regime have. And when one of them is legitimately crazy, where does that leave us?

I’m using the word a lot here, so I should clarify. By crazy here, I don’t mean “I think we should have single payer health care and you don’t agree with me so you’re crazy”. I mean literally crazy. Like hearing voices crazy.

Let’s look at the Republican polls right now. We have Donald Trump at 28% and Ben Carson at 12%. Jeb Bush is in third at 7%.

Trump, I maintain, is a sideshow. There’s a valuable lesson to be learned from his popularity, which is that people are legitimately sick of the status quo. Love him or hate him, Donald Trump is not just another politician. He doesn’t play the game. I could go on and on about how the big problem in democracy right now is campaign finance, and that corporations have essentially bought both parties. But Donald Trump is the first guy who can honestly say they haven’t bought him. If he had a mind to, he could finance his entire campaign out of pocket and he honestly might. He’s one of the buyers.

I like to think Americans still require some level of decorum from politicians, and that they’ll never vote for a guy who tweets daily about what a bimbo a reporter is. But the fact that he’s come as far as he has shows that we really are tired of politics as usual. Probably not enough to do anything about it yet, but closer. Still, he is a homophobic, misogynistic racist, and that ain’t good in a general election. It will be just too easy for the Democrats to nail him to quotes and crush him among the 70% of the country that isn’t a white male. The Republican Party knows this, and they’re already turning on him because of it, like they did to Huckabee 8 years ago.

Number two is Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon who doesn’t believe in evolution. That’s like a computer programmer who doesn’t believe in electrons. It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. If someone I loved needed brain surgery, and that guy was in the OR, I’d pay out of pocket to life flight them to another hospital.

I realize there are two sides to a lot of issues. I’m often sympathetic to the opposing side. For instance I’m pro-choice, but I get that the people on the other side think life begins earlier than I do and therefore it’s murder. And even though they all say that if we ban guns criminals will still get them, they think banning abortion will stop them from happening which is, you know, not what happened last time. So I disagree, but I understand.

Evolution is not one of those issues. If a candidate said “I don’t believe in gravity, I just think angels are pushing everyone down all the time. Gravity is just a theory!” you’d think they were crazy and not vote for them. Saying that the earth was created in six days 6,000 years ago is no less ignorant or insane. Even the organization that wrote the Bible, the primary “evidence” (insofar as a 3,000 year-old folk story can be evidence of anything) against evolution agrees. And yet not one major Republican candidate will take a pro-evolution stance.

The Republican stance on global warming is equally crazy. I realize they get a lot of funding from people who make money causing global warming. If one of them got up there and said “Anthropogenic climate change is real, but we should let the market deal with it.” I’d probably piss myself out of happiness. But instead they say “the science isn’t conclusive” even though 97% of scientists, including basically all governmental science institutions, say it’s real and needs to be dealt with.

I’ve come to realize that on the evolution issue, some Republicans actually believe in it but they can’t say that because too much of their primary chances are dependent on the nutjob wing of the religious right. So their code is “I think it should be up to local school districts to decide what they teach.” For some reason the religious right loves states’ rights, so it works. Or they simply dodge the question, which also is good enough. I think John McCain sold his soul in his run for President by picking Palin and not disagreeing with Bush on torture, but at least he had the balls to raise his hand and state he believed in evolution. When you find yourself wishing the new crop of candidates had the political courage of the guy who picked Sarah Palin as his running mate you’re in bad shape.

Jeb Bush falls into that camp on both evolution and global warming. He’s obviously smart enough to know the truth, but his party is crazy enough that he can’t say it. And that’ why he’s the obvious candidate for the 2016 nod. He’s smart enough not to fall into the traps. And also smart enough to understand science as well as your average twelve year old.

Why can’t I get just one candidate who believes in getting our government out of debt but also isn’t anti-intellectual and anti-science, and is willing to admit it? Is just one rational conservative too much to ask? Does America have to choose between a Democrat and a crazy person, or someone who at least caters to crazy people, every election cycle? Because I don’t like either of those options.

People think I’m a Democrat, but I really am not. I just can’t pull a lever for someone who is anti-science, anti-intellectual, has less than a sixth-grader’s comprehension of science and wants to base public policy on 3,000 year old folk stories. I can’t do it. Whatever disagreements I may have with the other side, they at least have a rational decision-making process. And I’ll take a reasonably intelligent guy I disagree with over a nutjob, no matter what his politics, every time.

The Police Problem

Posted in Law and Disorder with tags , on June 9, 2015 by Genius

It seems like every day now there’s another video of a cop going ape-shit on someone. Nobody’s really sure why this is a sudden trend. Some people think it’s just the fact that everyone now has a video recorder in their pocket, and I’m sure that’s a factor but that’s been largely true for years now.  Everyone got a flip-phone that could take video a decade ago, and a smartphone at least five years ago.

Maybe it’s that cops are becoming more violent. The lack of reporting around that is shocking. We don’t know and never will. I can’t imagine they’re too terribly much more vicious than they were a decade ago, but I guess you never know. They have effectively no oversight.

Maybe it’s a combination of the two. Regardless of reason, I think the current trend is a great thing and we need more of it. We Americans have accepted too long our slide toward a police state. We have too many police, who are too well-armed, enforcing far too many laws. We have them because like any large bureaucratic organization, the police state constantly seeks to increase its size and influence. Politicians, who don’t want to look soft on crime, go along with it.

Over a million people are employed by state and local law enforcement agencies. That’s a big business. Only one American corporation, Wal-Mart, employs more than that. The second largest employer, Yum Brands! (Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut) employs half that.

I’ve written before about how local law enforcement uses unreasonable means like excessively low speed limits to fund itself. This is at least not directly, physically harmful. Cops don’t shoot people for speeding. But it does cause accidents and loads of economic damage.

In a year, cops make about 11 millions arrests in the US. (See link below to FBI Data.) But they write about 41 million speeding tickets. Seriously, they’re about 4 times as likely to annoy a motorist for revenue as they are to do anything of actual use. And that’s implying that the arrests are of use, which many aren’t, but I’ll get to that in a second.

Cops no longer serve the public, they oppress. Their unstated purposes are to incarcerate the poor and raise revenue so they can justify their existence. They’re of little utility beyond that. If someone broke into your house, how quickly do you think they’d get there? (In my case I know the answer because I once accidentally tripped my alarm while leaving the house and didn’t know it. They showed up 40 minutes later. When they got there, they talked to the girl I was dating at the time, who said “I’m his girlfriend.” They didn’t ask any questions, not even whose girlfriend she was, and just left. Had it been a strange woman who broke into my house, she could have looted it for over a half hour, told the cops she was my girlfriend, then kept on looting.)

Ask yourself this: when was the last time a cop did anything good for you? Now when was the last time they cost you time, money, or worse when you were doing nothing that was of any harm to anyone else?

As for things other than speeding tickets, by far the largest group of arrests are drug-related ones. The most frequent is possession of marijuana. Does it make you feel safer to know that cops are arresting hundreds of thousands of pot heads every year for holding dime bags? Me neither.

Drug laws in particular give police forces an excuse to buy military-grade weapons and vehicles. They don’t restrain themselves to using them against meth labs though. I wasn’t there for it, but a a low-stakes poker game I used to frequent, full of little old ladies gambling for amounts in the low three digits, was raided by a SWAT team with machine guns and flashbangs. These weren’t hardened criminals packing heat. There weren’t hundreds of thousands of dollars to be protected. The cops even knew that because an undercover agent had played in the game and filmed it with a hidden camera three times. And yet they brought an armored van and put a bunch of harmless old retirees’ heads to the ground with machine guns pointed at them. Luckily nobody was injured, but it’s easy to see how a slight accident, like a nearby car backfiring, could have turned that scene really ugly, when all they had to do was walk in the front door.

Drug laws don’t reduce drug use. Our country should have learned that by 1933, when we repealed prohibition. Making alcohol illegal didn’t stop people form drinking, it just empowered violent, organized crime. Despite incredibly strong penalties, Americans do more drugs than anyone else. We use four times as much cocaine as the next country. Suck it New Zealand!

For awhile we were lucky. We have actual law and order (often too much) so it’d be hard to get away with a giant poppy farm in the states. So most of the violent organized crime was restricted to areas south of us. Our drug prohibition became Central and South Americas’ problems. Violent cartels grow the drugs in Columbia and ship them up through Mexico, destabilizing the entire region. We ship hundreds of millions of dollars worth of cash and weapons to their governments in an attempt to counter it, but it’s nowhere near enough when the drug lords are making hundreds of billions. We didn’t care because they kept their violence out of our country, but in the post 9/11 world, having a large group of paramilitary organizations who are very good at the logistics of smuggling things across our border has gotten scary.

As far as I’m concerned, pretty much the only good things cop do at any scale is bust drunk drivers. I’m glad they’re out there giving DUIs. I’m glad DUIs are extremely expensive. And they’re about 10% of arrests. Driverless cars will solve that problem for us entirely in a decade or two, but until then this is really the only thing cops are doing that benefits us law-abiding Americans.

The solution to our cop problem is obvious.

1. Decriminalize drugs. All of them. You should be able to walk into a CVS and buy cocaine or heroin. I know that might sound scary, but remember, pretty much every real bit of data we have says that making them illegal doesn’t reduce use. Instead regulate drugs so that users can easily access clean needles and services and know what they’re buying, and tax it so we can pay for treatment.

2. End the practice of local governments using speeding ticket revenues to pay for services. All fees from speeding tickets must go to charity (and not the local F.O.P. chapter.) Between #1 and #2 here we’ve just reduced our police force staffing needs by 75% so we’ll save a lot of money anyway.

3. Enact effective oversight of police by third parties. We can’t trust internal investigators and local prosecutors to be fair when it comes to their colleagues. Cleveland made national news for agreeing to a federal oversight program in the wake of the Michael Brelo verdict. This is a great program and every police department should be subject to it.

These things are starting to happen, bit by bit, around our country. I’m not optimistic about legalizing all drugs anytime soon, but perhaps marijuana will be a gateway legalizer. Demonstrations and riots will force police departments to agree to oversight. Perhaps more importantly, they’ll make fewer people want to become cops, and reduced police forces will (hopefully) have to prioritize better.

Modernist Cookware

Posted in Cooking, Startup, tech with tags , , on March 26, 2015 by Genius

I was checking out Y Combinator’s recent batch and was surprised (and elated) to see two low-temperature cookware devices in it! As someone working on a product in the space it’s good to see the segment of the market heating up. Pun intended.

For those who don’t know, low-temperature cooking is a new(ish) method of preparing food. The old style of cooking (we’ll call it high-temperature cooking, for lack of a better term) had a good run. It had a near monopoly from the dawn of humanity until about ten years ago. The idea is that you throw food onto or into something much hotter than the desired final temperature of the food (a grill, a pan, an oven, etc.) and then pull it out when the center of the food has reached your desired point. For instance if you’re trying to cook a steak to medium rare (130F) you toss it on a 500F grill and pull it off when the center reaches 130F.

The downsides to high temperature cooking are numerous. For one, it’s extremely easy to overcook your food. I’ll spare you the thermodynamics, but suffice it to say that while it may take 10 minutes to get your juicy rib-eye to medium rare, it may only take one more to get it to well and still one more to be burnt to a crisp. The chef must play what Modernist Cuisine calls “the role of human thermostat.” This is why you’ve probably eaten more food in your life that was overcooked than properly cooked.

Worse yet, the heat in the final product is distributed unevenly. Even if you cook a steak to perfect medium rare, cut it open and look at the inside. You’ll see a ring of well-done meat around the outside. It’s because heat is overcooking the outside as it diffuses toward the center.

Because of this there’s also something chefs call carryover cooking. Carryover cooking is just heat that continues to diffuse from the outside in after you take the meat off the hot surface. If the outside of the steak is 500F, and the inside is only 130F, it’s easy to see that heat will transfer toward the center, cooking it more. So a chef must actually guess at what temperature to pull the steak off (probably more like 125F) based on the cooking that will happen afterward.

With low-temperature cooking, things are much simpler. Thanks to accurate temperature control technology, which is now very cheap, it’s much better to just cook the steak at 130F. Now you no longer have to guess when to pull it out. A simple formula (don’t worry, you can just use a chart or app because nobody wants to do that math) tells you how long it will take to get your steak to the same internal temperature as the heating element. Because you’re cooking it at the final temperature, if you wait a little too long nothing bad happens. The steak will never get hotter than the 130F.

Your food is cooked to one internal temperature throughout. Here’s a graphic from Cooking Issues (thought I’d replicate it here before that blog’s takeover by Viagra spammers is complete) showing you the difference.

So low-temperature cooking is considerably better. You’ve probably had a ton of food cooked sous vide (one type of low-temperature cooking) and didn’t even know it. Chipotle cooks their barbacoa and carnitas that way. Panera cooks their steak, turkey, salmon, and even their oatmeal that way. High-end restaurants cook many things sous vide, in fact you’d be hard-pressed to find a Michelin-starred restaurant without a rack of immersion circulators.

So needless to say, Y Combinator made a smart move investing in the space. I don’t know much about the two specific companies but am excited to see them.

The first was Nomiku, which is a decent home immersion circulator. An immersion circulator is one type of device for cooking sous vide. Sous vide is a form of low-temperature cooking in which food is (almost always) sealed (sometimes in a ziploc bag, sometimes a vacuum bag, sometimes in its own shell like an egg) and cooked in an accurately-controlled water bath. If you’ve watched shows like Top chef, you’ve probably seen contestants cook in something that looks like this:

That’s sous vide. You can see the carrots are bagged (probably with a little oil) but the eggs shells serve as sufficient packaging. 

I actually pre-ordered Nomiku’s upcoming Wi-Fi model months ago on Kickstarter. I’ve been cooking sous vide for years, having built my own from some schematics I found online. Back then the Polyscience models shown above were the primary option and cost close to $1,000. In recent years we’ve seen the prices on immersion circulators fall to $200, and I think they will drop all the way down to $100 in the near future. (More on that later.)

More interesting, though, was Cinder. Cinder is kind of a cross between a George Forman grill and a low-temperature cooking machine. It’s not really sous vide at all, despite using the term many times on its website, it’s low temperature cooking. I have a lot of questions as to how exactly this thing works for many types of meat. But it does look like an incredibly simple way to cook a steak or pork chop! That thing would be really awesome for someone in a situation where a full stove is impractical too. Imagine having that in your college dorm.

I have a lot of thoughts about the space in general, having been doing this for a few years. I’ll get more into depth on that in the not-too-distant future.