Welcome to Serbia

Somewhat inexplicably, I have been in Novi Sad, Serbia for the last several days for work. It’s pretty amazing. For a guy who doesn’t really travel much (and certainly doesn’t try to), this is my third incredible international trip after fairly extended visits to Vietnam in 2011 and China in 2013.

It’s kind of a traveling person’s cliche, but Serbia really is a beautiful country. The locals have kind of put down Novi Sad as a “boring” city in their conversations with me, but I kind of love the place. Maybe it’s because I’m boring, or maybe it’s because this is the right kind of boring for me, but I really enjoy the vibe of the place.

In other news, a few days of looking around has indicated that Serbians are enormous, friendly, and drink a lot. Also, I saw “GO HOME YANKEE NO NATO” spray painted on the street, which was a little jarring. Still, as interesting as all this is, I can’t wait to get home and see my kids again. My wife and I have both done our fair share of business travel (okay, mostly her), so being away from each other is something we’ve grown to handle. But the munchkins are different, and this is my first extended period of time without them. I really miss ’em.

Authority

Authority is an important concept. We’re social animals, and we need to work together, but we’re not telepathically linked to a hive mind. That means we all need to be able to assess many situations individually, and make more decisions than we’re capable of making.

That’s why authority matters. It’s necessary — but it isn’t absolute, or God. It’s inherently fallible, which is why we’ve come up with a lot of checks on authority as we’ve built better, more productive, more advanced societies.

Those checks are annoying and often bureaucratic. In some cases, they make us feel like we’re undermining “the good guys” (if we’ve had good experiences with authority). But that’s exactly the challenge — authority doesn’t make you good or bad. It just gives you power and related responsibility; it doesn’t guarantee you’ll meet those responsibilities or use that power properly.

Authority is broken

I don’t know how we have a functional society (at this stage of humanity) without authority. But I also know the society we’re used to, and certainly the one we aspire to, requires competent, just, regulated authority — and that’s more true than ever as the ability to see when authority has failed us has expanded faster than our ability to make sure authority is used properly. In other words, we increasingly aware of authority’s sometimes egregious failings, but we are not getting that much better at making sure those failings don’t occur.

I think authority figures and institutions (especially ones that aren’t very good) can feel this external dissatisfaction, but it seems like most of them aren’t looking in the mirror. Instead, a lot of them are simply treating that feeling like anything else that challenges authority; as something outside of the rules that they are obligated to eliminate.

That’s why we have so many disingenuous conversations about problems with authorities, whether it’s dismissing anyone outside of a traditional media institution as a blogger in their parents’ basement, or responding to increasing anger over racially disproportionate police violence with the argument that police officers lives are important as well — as if anyone was actually claiming otherwise.

Authority is lashing out

Two unrelated examples leapt out at me the other day, from very different places (with very different stakes). One was a Louisville police stop captured on video that is probably all too familiar to minorities, and particularly young black men in particular. What was interesting about this piece though was the overwhelming condemnation mentioned in the article by criminal justice experts and other police officers. This is an objectively poor way to interact with a community, and to accomplish the goal that is the reason we have police at all, which is to protect and serve our communities. But the response from the people on the ground, especially in the moment, is “I can do this“.

“This is not illegal” is a reasonable & important (although often smarmy when applied) argument against authority — as I mentioned, the law is as much, or even more of a check against authority as it is a tool for it. But it’s a truly bizarre argument for authority itself to make. You’re only empowered as an authority by the rest of us so that you serve the interests of the people who put you there. You weren’t chosen by God, at least not directly.

That brings me to the second example; MLB umpire Ron Kulpa, who — after blowing a call — responded by looking for, and finding, any excuse to legally punish the people upset by his mistake. This is obvious awful umpiring, and a terrible approach to handling authority, but what’s arguably the most frustrating (and familiar to people who have dealt with incompetent authority figures) is how Kulpa veers back and forth between angrily exercising his administrative powers (calling strikes, demanding certain forms of communication stop, berating people, ejecting people), and calmly making points about what he can and cannot do.

Anybody who’s had an experience with someone in power can relate to this — being held to a standard of perfect behavior yourself (“calm down”, “why do you have an attitude”, etc.), while the person enforcing that standard doesn’t abide by it at all. It’s a movie trope for the friendly police officer to order you to calm down and then suddenly and angrily ask “what’s so funny”, but it’s also terrifying in many situations — just not to the police officer.

Good authority figures and institutions wanted

The real kicker is that I’ve experienced the exact opposite of this kind of behavior from people with the exact same jobs, and while it’s not easy, it’s undeniably important and impressive. I’ve seen otherwise unassuming cops defuse escalating situations (sometimes not even on-duty) with the perfect blend of strength, empathy, and patience. I’ve played tough, physical basketball games with refs who did the same thing and come out on the losing end thinking “those are some damn good refs, that job is hard”. It’s not like it’s impossible — we see great performance every day. We just need to build in institutional and social support for things like great journalism, community-first policing, teachers who care, bosses who listen, and other areas that simply can’t function without the existence — and proper use — of authority.

But the trend, by all appearances, is alarming. The most visible forms of authority don’t seem to be handling increased (but appropriate) scrutiny particularly well. They don’t need to be perfect, but they can’t just hand-wave away criticism or objections to their decisions if they expect to be effective authority figures in the long-term.

Planned Spontaneousness

This is kind of an interesting story — Sean Parker partially paid for environmental law violations with the state of California (he had a fancy wedding where you aren’t supposed to) by building a mobile app for them.

Parker agreed to pay $2.5 million to settle all the violations from the event, though the bulk of the issues stemmed from the hotel’s misuse of the camping area. For another component, Parker, Lenas and the commission set to brainstorm ideas. The agency said it increasingly seeks out creative solutions to problems in addition to financial settlements. Some ideas, like one Parker had to buy a campground to be used by schools and other organizations to bring disadvantaged children to the coast, never got off the ground. So the group started focusing in on one that would blend Parker’s technological acumen with the agency’s coastal access work: an app.

The Washington Post

Here’s the funniest quote from the piece, though —

He also provided funding for two years of maintenance, after which the state will have to take it on itself. And he will be making a video about the commission that is required by contract to go viral, as the final piece of his settlement.

Oh man, that’s great. I hope he is contractually obligated for it to be a “sensation” and “part of the cultural zeitgeist”. Good luck, civil court judge left to interpret this in 2024.

OMG George Will

I obviously have no idea, but I’d like to assume a non-George-Will person came up with the actual headline here and just tried to come up with the smarmiest possible language, because… George Will.

Churches

There’s nothing I can write on my little website that will put a terrorist mass-murder into perspective, but I do think it’s worth mentioning that even as basically non-religious person raised outside of any kind of faith community, the idea of targeting a church with an act of violence seems particularly… perverted?

I don’t know what the right word is, and I hope it’s obvious I don’t mean to downplay secular violence, violence against the non-religious, etc. But these are places often built and operated outside of the idea of money, power, control — they are literally safe havens from all of the cruelty and pain of the world, and in that way they are really one of the most amazing things ideas have ever put into practice. I’m not necessarily talking about organized religion or the institutions themselves, even if that’s what enables many of these places to exist. I just mean the places themselves, especially those that are truly open to everyone (which is the vast majority).

We all need places like this. We can and should build non-denominational ones — town halls, squares, even the stupid Panera I go to when I want to get out of the house. But churches are places that, without the force of anything — commerce, the state, etc. — simply provide shelter to the world because it’s there and it’s the right thing to do, and so many of them share that weirdly similar mission across different faiths.

Now, I know basic history. Nothing is truly sacrosanct among every last one of us, and nothing ever really has been. But the fact that this kind of thing — not just mass violence, but mass violence specifically targeting the very idea of sanctuary — could find a community of like-minded support online is hard for me to internalize.

on Dads

Sally Jenkins writes about her father, sportswriter Dan Jenkins, who died at the age of 90 this week:

He acknowledged his absences with the kind of drollery that characterized his parenting style. “Don’t rob old people,” he would say as he headed off.

the Washington Post

I have a feeling that, had I known him, I would have gotten along with Dan Jenkins just fine. Here’s more of his parenting:

He was an unindicted co-conspirator, constantly in trouble with my mother for his scandalously unorthodox child-rearing. One afternoon in our hometown of Fort Worth, when I was about 7, he drove my two brothers and me the wrong way down a quiet one-way street. Delighted, I stared at the baffled drivers and street signs pointed in the opposite direction. “People are easily led,” he instructed.

Just read the whole thing.

What is happening?

I think I got very old, very fast today. Here’s ESPN trying to tell me what happened in a soccer game.

Paris Saint-Germain superstar Neymar blasted the video assisted refereeing (VAR) decision to award Manchester United a late penalty in their 3-1 Champions League last-16 second-leg win at Parc des Princes that secured a 3-3 away goals success.

http://www.espn.com/soccer/paris-saint-germain/story/3793346/psgs-neymar-blasts-var-after-losscalls-it-a-disgrace

Great news guys, we secured a 3-3 away goals success. As soon as I find out what that is, we can celebrate. But hey, that’s soccer, I never claimed to understand soccer. Tell me what’s going on in football free agency, a thing I’ve cared about for about 20 years.

Keenum has a base salary of $18 million this season, but only $7 million was guaranteed in the way of offsets, which the Redskins and Broncos decided to split evenly, sources said. The Broncos, who would’ve carried $10 million in “dead money” had they cut Keenum, will instead save $3 million by paying only $3.5 million as well as a $500,000 restructuring bonus.

http://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/26174723/sources-broncos-trading-keenum-redskins

My God man, what are you doing? How is this level of salary cap information relevant? Who is this coverage even for? Anyways, the moral of the story is that I yell at clouds now, film at eleven.

Facebook + Privacy = LOL

Wired noticed the same thing I did about Facebook’s big announcement it was going all in on privacy as a feature.

Zuckerberg listed six privacy principles, but there was one glaring omission: He said nothing about how Facebook plans to approach data sharing and ad targeting in this privacy-focused future.

https://www.wired.com/story/facebook-zuckerberg-privacy-pivot/

Uh… yeah. This has happened every time something disastrous occurs with Facebook and the way they use people’s information (usually to make money, because America) — they add features or clarify a bunch of existing features designed to keep other Facebook users from seeing the stuff you post.

But the problem isn’t keeping your data away from Facebook users. It’s keeping it away from Facebook, or more importantly, away from the functions at Facebook responsible for turning things Facebook has into money. In other words, it’s a business model problem. Apple can say “hold on, if we do not try to make money off this data, it will allow us to make more money off hardware”. Facebook has nothing like that, and has shown neither the willingness or capability to develop it.

Until that happens, Facebook is going to get more and more aggressive about using your data to make money no matter what their CEO or anyone else says (except maybe, someday, the government), because they are a growth-oriented, publicly traded company in the post-Milton-Friedman world of MAXIMIZING SHAREHOLDER VALUE(tm). They don’t have any other cards to play.

Tom Wheeler, Enigma

I’ll admit to being one of the many sneering technology professionals who assumed Tom Wheeler was going to be a terrible, short-sighted head of the FCC primarily because of his background in telecom lobbying. I guess I’ve always known you could theoretically serve some lobbying interest (as any professional does) and then suddenly switch into the role of principled regulator. I just don’t think it happens very often, and wasn’t hopeful.

But even now, he really seems like an interesting thinker. I am both an internet dork and a Railroad Tycoon II dork, so listening to the guy talk about shared concepts between digital and industrial networks is right up my alley. Give it a read — what he says not to do is just as interesting as what he thinks is necessary.