Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

My cat’s death

I had been sick for a long time when death came for me in pieces. It came with pain and weakness as I still tried to move and eat but lost circulation. After weeks I fell into delirium, going under then summoning a yowl or a shudder to push it away and bring me back into the light. I no longer needed food or water. Days later I lost fear and went past delirium into a new place beyond the pain, my eyes and tail motionless and only holding one breath. I didn’t know if her hand was still on me; nothing more was needed. Then I let go of of that place and moved into yet another place that no one knows about, where I was an ember of memories detaching from my pelt and claws. Now as time stretches to infinity I am releasing the ember.

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Thick-line taxation

This paper is a proposal for a simplified, fair and enforceable common national system of taxation.

The basic idea is there is a thick line dividing different entities, and only money that passes through that line is taxed. Above the thick line are all business entities, which can exchange with each other incurring no taxes – all that exchange is above the line. Under the line is all individual and family entities, which can also exchange with each other (to a limit) with no taxes – all that exchange being below the line. The only type of transaction that is taxed is any value going through the line downward, from a business to an individual or family.

This thick-line taxation replaces income tax, payroll tax, sales tax, capital gains and investment taxes, rents and royalties, estate and inheritance taxes, and corporate tax.

Money that exists under the line has already been taxed and can therefore be used for anything, while money above the line can only be used for business.

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On reading auras

When I read auras, I am collecting information about someone that they present to me; I am not magic and I am not channeling some esoteric energy from another plane. I cannot guess what number they have in mind or know facts about their past for certain because it is not that kind of power.

But what I can do is listen and deduce, without letting myself get in the way. It is a superpower that certain kinds of autistic people seem to have – in particular those who have a history of being less space-filling, more scared of people, and always on the alert. By contrast, those who have a solid personality are often busy pushing their words and needs outward, and that gets in the way of the perception of auras. But those of us whose personality is wispy to nonexistant are not pushing anything out and we can be very sensitive to auras.

The kinds of things we can deduce include lies, paranoia, safety versus danger, motives, and mood. By extension we can deduce some relationship history and information akin to psychological diagnoses. Because it is not magic, we can only learn things about someone that they show, and people show a lot more than they intend to. Or it can be received through a person talking about a third person, by receiving the intermediary’s emotions about them. A person might give clues in complaining about a friend or her job, then put on a fake smile and try to get validation for something – all clues. The superpower is getting those clues as they are without falling for the lies that the person paints over them, and without filtering them through our own personality. The painted layer is often invisible to autistic people because it is socially constructed “paint” and social constructions tend to be more invisible to us.

I have seen abuse in people’s past and how it prevents them from doing things now. I have seen the ways they don’t understand the things they claim to be experts in. I have seen why they are with a partner, what they are afraid of, and what they are looking for. Occasionally it can be quite specific, like knowing someone is pregnant without seeing them. More often though it is their moods, what they are hiding, and why they are engaged in what their inner struggle is. Often I see what they are trying not to see, and my seeing exposes it to them as a mirror. Much of the time it doesn’t have words, and I only bring it into words if I happen to be asked what I think about a person or situation.

Someone might wonder what it is like to discover that you have an unusual ability like this. They might think it is like flying: if a person one day discovered they had the power of flight, the revelation would completely upset their world. But with this kind of ability, there was no discovery of it since it had always been there. They only discovery was that other people do not have the ability as much. I was often baffled by how easy someone could lie to someone else and be believed, until I understood that they were not seeing what I was seeing; they had turned off the channel that I was watching.

I haven’t talked about it much because of a few reasons. One is that I did not know other people were not the same for a long time. Also, saying that I have a superpower sounds like a claim of the ego rather than a mere observation, and there is no point in getting into a space of having to prove it over the claims of those trying to refute it. Becoming aware that it was a thing that could be discussed and refuted was a change that also brought awareness to the fact that it could be attached to the ego, which in turn led me to understand that once it was ego-driven it would no longer “work” and wouldn’t exist at all. Verbal communication about something so central can spoil it. However, I now am at a place where I doubt the ego will attach to it much, so it feels safer to talk about it.

Reading this you might also wonder how I might exploit this power. This brings me to the reason I wanted to write about this. I want people to know that it is impossible to be used against anyone. While I am using the word “power”, it is not “power over”. The information comes through compassion, not through spying, so if I learn a “bad” thing about someone that they did not want me to know, it only softens them in my perception. Even if they turn vitriolic against me (which happens sometimes) the things that came to me from their aura are still connecting, compassionate things, not leverage.

Looking back at the dozens of people (maybe a hundred) who will not speak to me any more, I can see that many were uncomfortable with the exposure and that being unable to hide from me was one reason for running. Only one (also autistic) person recognized what it was and said she could not be friends because of it. Everyone else just got nervous from seeing themselves in the mirror that is me, and needed the false safety of living in a bubble where they could keep secrets. From themselves.

I wish it could be turned off so that I would not lose so many people. But barring that, I wish I had the ability to reassure people that there is no actual danger in it.

For example one person told me about helping victims of trafficking. In the telling I said nothing but she realized I suspected that she was not only a victim in the past, but that she was reliving the pattern with her boyfriend currently and she was apparently scared she would be seen as a fraud if people knew she was still holding the fetish. I knew her motives were pure and that it is hard to get out of the self-oppression, but I didn’t say that, or say anything at all. She was only talking to a mirror about the painted over layer, accidentally giving me the whole story without words, and then possibly afraid of me exploiting it. I wish I could have reassured her that it was okay to be incomplete, and that I could not go against her, but at the time I did not understand that most people routinely exploit information they have on others; therefore I could not understand the intensity of her fear at the time, or why she ran.

If you are an autistic person who reads auras (even if you call it something else) and you have figured out how to temper it and reassure people, I would like to know how you learned that.

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On confrontation

One of the things police do is confrontation, but they do many other things. This essay examines just the confrontation part, which I suspect is the core aspect beneath the calls to “defund” the police.

When I was a teacher and youth retreat leader, I noticed a near-universal truth about confrontation: it does not work. When the kids were being disorderly and chaotic and it was my job to bring focus and order to the situation, I found there are several ways to approach that:

  1. My favorite approach was to notice if they were having fun in the chaos or not, and if so, join it rather than contradict it. I got looked at warily by the actual grown-ups in these situations because they would say I was letting them run amok. But with children and anyone who is emotionally free, laughing and engaging energetically is usually a sign of growth and health, so if they are already doing the most important thing, why would I intervene?
  2. A second approach is one-on-one relational. I discovered how this works in groups when a sunday school class defiantly said they would never leave the park to go back to their parents, and I just wasn’t authoritative enough to fix that the usual way. So I went around to each one and talked individually until they understood why it was important to go back; then they complied as a whole.
  3. A third approach I’ve seen work very well is to give clear expectations, then only talk to the youth after the violation has occurred, rather than during it. At the later time, both parties can ask questions and reflect on it with the needed attention, and some kind of restoration or retribution can be determined then.

The practice of confrontation during the infraction is one that a lot of teachers use, but it doesn’t work most of the time. There are cases where a school fight in progress should be broken up to prevent injury, but usually there is not an immediate danger. Confronting kids in the act of not following rules takes away their agency, which takes away their opportunity to make a decision to follow the rule or not. It results in a context of no buy-in: The youth’s choice in those situations is between (a) retaining their freedom of choice and agency by continuing to try to break the rule, or (b) follow the rule out of fear without internalizing the moral or practical imperative of the rule.

With that in mind, I started considering what police do. Here is a breakdown of five areas of police activity that I’m most aware of:

  1. Responding to crimes that were reported after the incident. Basically this is the legal/prosecution system (DAs and investigators).
  2. Pro-active public safety. Setting up surveillance, visual and other communication systems, trainings and such.
  3. Armed defense and raids and other things that respond to crimes in progress – hostages, active shooters and such.
  4. All the things that have nothing to do with public safety or crime that the police get assigned to because we lack other systems of support.
  5. Patrolling and checking out suspicious activity, and confronting people involved to try to determine if a crime might have been committed or if there might be intent, or if there is any danger; then also following up with trying to prevent danger or chaos based on the situation at hand.

Policing area #1 (investigating and prosecuting) corresponds to teaching approach C (non-confrontational resolution after the fact). There are deep problems with how we are doing this – two of the main ones are that it is full of bias about race and wealth (rich white people can afford bail and attorneys and get off much more often than others), and that it is mainly punitive (based in vengeance rather than restorative solutions). Despite that, the concept of doing investigation and prosecutions in some improved way does not seem to be questioned. This is something we need to do. It’s adversarial by nature, but does not need to be confrontational.

Policing area #2 (pro-active safety) gets little news attention but seems like it could improve safety much more than other areas for the investment, if we focused more on it. Again, no confrontation here.

Policing area #3 (raids/active shooters) is confrontational but it does not seem to be defined as the core problem by news or the activist leaders. I’m thinking about this area as including only definite crimes in progress, not raids based on suspicion. In those situations, everyone seems to want the police around, even those who say they never want them around. While the need for this is much more rare than the TV crime shows suggest, it does seem like there is a need for it – not daily but occasionally. Perhaps this should be composed partly of a reserve force instead of full time officers, and only called into action in those extreme circumstances.

Policing area #4 (non-safety-related) has been in the news a lot and reasonable people seem to agree that money should be diverted to properly funded services that are more suitable. But the discussion tends to be shallow so far – as if throwing money at mental health magically yields mental health. The broader truth is that an equitable and educated society with layers of socialist-style support is going to be safer and healthier than what we have now. The way we approach “mental health” appears pretty diseased because people are said to be sick as individuals rather than in systems, but that is not the subject of this essay. In this whole realm there does not need to be confrontation; every one of those services can be on-demand by the person seeking help. As a side note, there is confrontation and brutality in the mental health system too.

Policing area #5 (patrolling) is where most of the daily confrontation is, and the subject of the rest of this.

We really have to ask why we think we need patrolling and confrontation as part of our system in the first place. People will say we need “order” but that word rarely is defined. There are at least two ways to look at “order” – the opposite of mob rule, and the opposite of diversity. The second definition is where things are all in place, in order, obedient, undifferentiated and maybe even un-free. People who feel safer with confrontational patrolling happening all around them are people who don’t expect to be the ones being confronted, and this indicates that the real desire is for those other people to be managed and controlled. The origin of some policing in the US is to keep this kind of “order” among freed slaves, thus the origin is in white supremacy and the reality today is a continuation of its origins.

The other definition of “order” is more about rule of law. Although the concept of the rule of law has long been obvious, it bears repeating in the current political climate that the idea is for all people to live under the same set of laws consistently applied rather than the president being the ruler. From what I know of history and the present, it seems that without the rule of law, mob rule always arises in the form of elite/corporate control, mafia and so on; there is no benign anarchy. This kind of order is not related to patrolling and confrontation though, so you cannot really argue that patrolling is necessary to create this kind of order.

Others will raise the point about someone in distress who is being threatened by a perpetrator, and say they should be able to call for help. But the prevention of a potential crime happens so rarely that it should not be in any kind of central position in policy. Most of the time, either you can get away from the situation and seek help non-confrontationally, or the crime will have been committed long before any help can arrive. If it’s really a drawn-out hostage situation where the police come and save the victim like on TV, that’s a rare case that falls into the active shooter category and is still not a basis for patrolling.

Others will raise the point about traffic patrolling for road safety. The argument is we need to pull over and ticket people who are not obeying traffic rules, as a safety incentive. Decades ago, maybe. But now we can capture video evidence and bill violators by mail, or use technology in other ways, such as automated transit, driverless cars, and speed control.

Others will raise the point about finding a criminal on the run, and say we need to pull over everyone who matches the profile so they don’t get away. If they are on a crime spree, yes (again that’s more in the active shooter category), but otherwise the crime has already been committed and rushing out to catch them confrontationally won’t retroactively stop the crime or help the victim, and therefore should not be the priority.

The myth of “being caught in the act” as the ultimate goal of confrontation is rare and not even that helpful, and cannot explain why we need confrontation as a daily policy of policing. Just like it doesn’t work with teachers in classrooms, I don’t think confrontation works with policing either, for mostly the same reasons. The main reason we seem to have this policy is white supremacy, and more generally the desire for conformity.

As a final point, each of the areas of policing other than confrontation can be set up with clear goals and oversight. We should be able to ask of public servants: what is the goal of your activities, and did you accomplish the goal? We should be able to collect data and know if the department is doing its job. Many government jobs are bound in red tape because we don’t want those public servants to be making personal decisions from their own bias. But with patrolling and confrontation, there is no specific outcome known in advance, no way to measure effectiveness, and it’s completely open to bias, putting way too much power in one person’s hands. When decisions have to be made quickly without enough time for consideration of the options, they tend to be made based on bias and not on logic. Corruption and discrimination fester in those conditions.

Conclusion: Let’s keep several areas of policing, but eliminate confrontation except in cases of active shooters and similar extremes.

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Pandemiconomics: Economic lessons of a pandemic

The pre-pandemic world was a kind of health and economic bubble where a false sense of stability reigned since about the 1940s. During that long stability, global travel was on the rise year after year, so it was only a question of when contagious disease would catch up. Ever since the dawn of life, disease has regularly destroyed whole communities but rarely reached global scale because travel was rare.

Those times are over. We are now in a pandemic era, and even if this particular one “blows over”, it is the new reality – actually the all-time reality, but we can see it clearly now that the bubble has popped.

We can organize appropriately, and be stronger and more resilient. Since humans are a social species, we must have physical communities; we won’t survive being virtual, touchless. But those communities need geographical definition and separation as it was in the ancient world, such that if an infection sweeps through one, its communication to other communities would be restricted. This is a great opportunity to build on the Jeffersonian town halls and ideas of local participation and belonging: imagine being a “member” of your neighborhood, officially listed on a roster, in a way that promotes us all looking out for each other. It’s an opportunity to align the schools and representative districts with all other districting so there is a sense of place and coordination. It’s an opportunity to revitalize local culture and end the colonial-minded trend towards sameness across the world.

One of the best potential outcomes of this crisis (possibly second to learning to wash hands and doorknobs) is the US becoming less me-first and more communitarian, as the species is meant to be. Me-first-ism is an aberration of history, not its peak development.

So what about trade and travel? We will need free travel within the community units, but barriers to travel between units. Those barriers can shift with the collection of known threats at the time, but could be as strict as requiring health testing and quarantine routinely for all travelers. The cost of air travel should include all that, and it can become the new norm. With higher costs, excessive travel for salespeople and other routine business travel can be cut way back, while tourism will still be allowed with the precautions in place. It may sound draconian to our current in-the-bubble way of thinking, but it could be a way to flourish economically and in health and culture too.

The reality now highlights the absurdities of state capitalism, by which I mean the power structures protecting the accumulation of wealth over human needs. Even Republicans are saying in these times, we must pull together and centrally coordinate the economy, in stark contrast to their academically stated principles; this makes me wonder if they actually believe in those principles. The central aspect of the absurdity is the false equivalence of speculation and value, as revealed by the sentiment that “I lost 30% of my money because the market crashed.” Speculation is not value. If we care about the market for investment more than the market for goods related to human needs, we won’t be good at meeting our needs.

A corollary absurdity is the notion of not being able to afford what people need. We only get to that notion because of policies in place that protect extreme inequality, but with equalizing measures like universal basic income, we can continue to have stable markets for goods and we will be able to afford everything we need. We still have the same number of hours available, and the same ingenuity, so there is no need for an economic crisis at all.

One shock to the economy has been the obliteration of the sports and entertainment sectors. While all those people’s livelihoods matter, it’s important to remember that those sectors are not at the bottom of the human needs pyramid, and they can be reinvented. Meanwhile we could use universal income to make it easy for that to happen without disruption of basic needs. Schools and other places where people are herded in large groups can be reinvented too, since herding like that is not a real need that people have; it’s just a top-down decision from power centers.

I always try to remember that people are happy when their actual needs are being met – needs for food, shelter, connection, health, learning, and expression. They are never happy simply because they travel a lot or go to concerts or have electronics. The things we cannot do in this pandemic are not barriers to happiness, and we should not try to resurrect the bubble and go back to the time of false stability. Instead we can reinvent everything to align with real conditions better and meet our needs better than we ever have before.

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Four crisis questions

After hearing hundreds of people talk through their suicidal thoughts, I will tell you the main questions that have helped the most – the ones that dig the deepest for a lot of people. These big four questions are:

  • Who are you?
  • Who hurt you?
  • What do you feel?
  • What is your quest?

When we are in a suicide crisis, it is not just because of one thing that happened recently or because of a few isolated problems; the questions span from the distant past to the distant future and relate to the whole arc of life. We are all here to grow into our unique selves and fulfill a unique purpose. I visualize this arc as a person between earth and the sky. The earth is our past; energy flows from the ground into us, and the earth life force is a supporting springboard. The sky is our future and our options and ideals; its life force is pulling and opening.

When we are inclined to suicide, the life force is broken somewhere between earth and sky; there is no thread connecting the two poles of the life force. People in crisis usually report a feeling of being trapped, drowning, and consumed by earth or water, or alternately they are floating with no ground and consumed by sky. Among other reasons, we can get this way because the robotic pressures of uniformity in our schools, families, and everywhere in the culture can crush the spirit and cut those threads. When the threads are weak and then we are suddenly victimized by a traumatic thing like rape, or lose a special person, there may not be enough resilience to reconnect the threads.

“Who are you” is a question that hurting people need to hear because it opens the non-judgmental topic of being an individual in the first place, and is a gateway question to the life force. Many people are living as a number on a scale – their grades or their income or some rating of success, or they are living as a tool for someone else’s boasting or manipulation. If I ask people if they are introverted, they might say they are too introverted and they have been working on being more social. But the question is not “what is wrong with you”; it is “who are you”. Knowing that you are introverted without saying it is the problem can be part of differentiating and honoring that the way of being is fine; also it starts to point to what you might be inclined to do with your life. Play the hand with the cards you were dealt since you can’t re-deal.

Some of the most commonly vilified human qualities are sensitivity, thrill seeking, and broad focusing. Sensitive children are so often told to get tougher and not to take things so hard. But these are the people who love universally and create harmony in the world, so it is a tragedy that our culture teaches sensitive people to hide.

Thrill-seeking children are told to stop, stop, stop – stop doing everything in your nature to do. “Be safe, don’t be you.” But we need people to take risks and push limits. It’s true that a thrill seeker could die while parachuting or some other risky thing, but it a bigger tragedy if they can never live as themselves in the first place.

Broad focusing people are told to stay “on task” all the time and achieve pre-determined goals – other people’s tasks and goals, not theirs. But to be truly alive, these people need to see connections between everything, and to create.

Other identifying questions can reveal logic versus feeling, independence versus family, creative versus receptive, and many other things. Just asking the question shifts away from right and wrong (a robotic question) towards being a unique human.

Along with being vilified, people who are a step away from the normal can get labels like borderline, autistic, or ADHD and be given medications which help in some ways but also may be geared towards making them less themselves. Medications like that sometimes “work” by making people less in some way – less scattered, energetic or receptive, so they fit society better but are less able to be in the earth and sky energy flow.

“Who hurt you” is a question that helps separate a person from what happened to them. It is important to name abusers and parents and others who applied pressure, and know that those things happened to us, but we didn’t do them. It is important to list both the big victimizing things like rape along with the ongoing patterns of minimizing that often are legal or even celebrated. For example, parents who “want the best” for their children and take it out on them by constant nagging and judging might be hurting them.

Some people in suicide crisis believe that they were themselves responsible for everything that happened to them. In the extreme “I had to be hit because I misbehaved”. Anger is often absent, in the sense that the faculty for anger has been pried away from the person so that they won’t have the power to retaliate. Part of getting out of that belief is asking the “who are you” question about the parents or partner. What kind of person are they? Knowing the qualities of the others (also without judgment) helps to see how they could do what they did, and that it wasn’t the fault of the victim.

“How do you feel” is a question that our culture does not like to ask. We ask “how are you” but usually only want to hear one answer. It is important to ask and dig for nuanced descriptions because feelings are a gateway to needs; they illuminate what we need to do next. The more descriptive and accurate we can be, and the more a listener can understand feelings in detail, the more clear the needed actions become. While there are really only a few basic emotions (sadness, anger, fear and a few others), they are made more complex in three main ways that I have seen, The first way is by being layered. Only the top feeling is easily accessible, while the ones underneath can be working without our knowing. For example, a person can be sad and not feel any anger but then after expressing the sadness and letting it be as big as it needs to, it releases enough to see anger or some other feeling that was underneath.

A second complexity is how feelings are connected to thoughts and beliefs. Someone might say “I feel like I want to die” or “I feel he might leave” and the way of saying that highlights the thinking more than the feeling. The first one could be feelings of despair, grief, or being overburdened, while the second one is a fear. Nudging the language towards more direct feeling words helps release the feelings more than is possible with the indirect language. It also opens connections to other things – for example, if we open up fear as part of our experience, we might realize we are afraid of more than what we originally were thinking about.

A third complexity is in nuance. Some people want to die and others want to be dead, and others want to not be born. Those are very different. Likewise, the pain people experience is all different and just saying “pain” in not enough. It could be crushing or lonely or dull or sharp or sudden. One way to access the nuance of feelings when we don’t find the words is to make a picture or story of it. For example: like a boat drifting in a wild current, or like a dry desert with no one for miles.

“What is your quest” is a question that I never ask in those words, but it is important to try to reconnect the thread to the sky force. Often a hurting person has to go way back to remember the future. “What did 10-year old Marcie want for her future” is a question I could ask 20-year old Marcie. Quests cannot be suggested or argued; they just arise from who we are, who hurt us, and what we feel. If a person is inclined to die, it almost always means she has no options; everything is blocked. It is important to center on the kind of quest that she actually has the power do and does not involve changing other people.

Working with people in crisis is great for so many reasons, and a big one for me is how they are willing to put everything on the table, and quickly explore dark places that more stable people are likely to wall off. Change has to be fast and often they are willing to change, so having these questions in mind can help them make a significant pivot in a single conversation.

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Outcomes of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

I’ve been told over and over that ABA is clinically proven and “evidence-based” and I never have found a link to that evidence. If you have it, you can post a comment.

However I did find two sources that give some other interesting results. The first is a large scale longitudinal study by the US DOD, and it shows this:

The graph shows out of about 1,700 people studied, 12% improved over one year on a collection of three measurement instruments, 81% had no change, and 7% worsened. (I don’t know what exactly the instrument measure.)

Full article: https://www.altteaching.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/TRICARE-Autism-Report.pdf

The second source is this peer reviewed article in Cogent Pscyhology: How much compliance is too much compliance: Is long-term ABA therapy abuse? at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/23311908.2019.1641258

The researchers go into detail on how ABA works or doesn’t work, how it can be abusive, and differences in verbal/speaking and nonverbal/nonspeaking children. I believe both studies only surveyed children.

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You have a voice

I wrote this poem for the Pride vigil last Spring.


If you never understood how to be part of a movement,
like me, we still have a voice.
If you haven’t had friends to show you the way,
like me, we still have a voice.
Even if your mom told you how to think and feel about everything,
like me, we still have a voice.
If you are too new and inexperienced to be taken seriously,
like me, we still have a voice.
If you are too old and out of date to be taken seriously,
like me, we still have a voice.
If you were never radical enough, queer enough, oppressed enough,
like me, we still have a voice.
If your sexuality has sent people running in horror,
like me, we still have a voice.
Even if you sometimes could not use words at all.
like me, we still have a voice.
If you have been erased or treated like charity, or seen as a problematic outsider,
like me, we still have a voice.
Even if you don’t know what you would say if you really believed you had a voice,
like me, we still have a voice.
As long as you are breathing,
like me, we still have a voice.

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On racism

This is about my phases of understanding racism through life, and about structuralism vs liberalism.

  • PHASE 1 – UNQUESTIONED OPTIMISM. Ages 0-16. I believed everyone was equal and it’s best to be color-blind to race because that makes everything fair. Being autistic and faceblind, I was literally color-blind, meaning I didn’t understand where people drew the lines between “races” and didn’t get that people can even have a race identity. In high school I didn’t know my friend was black, and this phase ended when someone pointed out that she was; a line was cruelly drawn between us.
  • PHASE 2 – LIBERALISM. Ages 16-20. I learned that some people are still racist, but thought it was only a few, and still believed in the power of good will to fix it, because after all, don’t we all want justice? Seeing that black people seemed to stay poor through generations was confusing and I tried to come up with explanations that exclusively focused on what’s up with “them”, and I remember being irritated that I couldn’t understand it.
  • PHASE 3 – STRUCTURALISM. Ages 20+. Learning how social structures are maintained by profit and power, I added a structuralist layer on liberalism.

So what’s the difference? In this table, the titles are pretty abstract and it appears no widely agreed definitions exist, but “structuralism” here encompasses Critital Race Theory which is somewhat better defined. Each statement in the table is something you might believe if you generally fit into that column.

Naive/Extreme Liberalism Mix Naive/Extreme Structuralism
Each person is unique. Problems and solutions are the result of individual actions. People are unique and also products of group socialization. Racism is the result of individual actions fueled by a diseased social structure. People exist in groups. The white group as a whole oppresses all other groups. The problem is the structure.
Anyone of any race might be racist depending on if they do racist things. Any person can be racist to different degrees, plus the collective inaction by white people is also a form of racism. White people are racist by definition. People of color cannot be racist by definition.
We need laws, a justice system, and police to keep order. While we need order and justice, massive reforms are needed to actively prevent bias and racism in policing and courts. The laws are unjust. The police are part of maintaining white supremacy.
Each person is judged on their actions, not their intent or effect or associations. (So, walking around in a white cone hat is protected and not harmful.) Actions matter the most, and intent and effect also matter. Actions that constitute race-based threats can be wrong even if the same action in another context or done by a different person is not wrong. White people are guilty by association with their ancestors. People are judged by their associations and effect, regardless of intent or action. (So, humming a tune unaware that it goes back to slavery is a racist and oppressive action if a white person does it.)
Sub-criminal “wrongs” like making someone feel bad, are primarily communication issues, not a matter of guilt. Making someone feel bad through racist but protected speech is not likely to be solved by individual communication because it exists in the context of a violent history. Whtite aggressive behavior should be punishable, not protected by racist laws; POC aggressive behavior is retaliatory or protective and therefore just.
Policies that level the economic playing field matter, and race should play no part in policy. Becase of the history of racial violence and level of entreched racism, some race-informed policies need to be in place to change the course towards equality. (I have not yet found policy proposals from the structuralist side.)
Culture and language is shared, dynamic, and subcultures can mix and evolve. Cultures naturally mix and evolve, but those having a true lineage in the cultural element in question should usually be respected as authoritative, rather than white people co-opting, watering down and receiving credit and money for those things. Nonwhite cultures need to be preserved; it is wrong to appropriate elements from those cultures into white culture.
Everyone can study and understand racism; it affects all of us. While a few people directly benefit from racism, it mainly hurts all of us. White people usually have a harder time understanding it. People with privilege will be blind to the actual racism dynamics; they benefit from it and will never admit their guilt or truly understand it.
We can solve racism rationally through reasoned dialog and policy with all parties at the table. Power structures self-perpetuate unless we actively challenge them, so we cannot accept the usual players at the table. Those in power will prevent any change and so they cannot be at the table.
We should mix, not intentionally segregate anything ever. Minority and oppressed people need group identity and private space, but we should also aim to have one system that’s equal and open to all. To preserve and empower communities of color, POC need to own and control separate communities, and avoid integrating; integration always causes a loss of self.

Where do you fit? One way to identify your own position is to feel where you get energized by potential changes in power and policies, and where you feel fear. For example if you heard that a black separatist political party had won a handful of seats in the House, would you feel some fear that they would fuel a “race war” that would take away what you/we/someone worked for, or even destabilize the country? Or, would you be excited that white men have a new obstacle in their way? Noticing the fears and other feelings that come up can clarify how far you are willing to go away from the liberal side. (It should be clear that my bias is in the “mix” column.)

Woke and radical. Sometimes it seems that people are in a woke war and want to out-radical other people. But what is right is not necessarily the most extreme and simple things can be more radical than flashy absolutes. For example self-identified TERF’s have “radical” in their name but they don’t accept people; it might be more radical and less attention-seeking to accept everyone. In the same way, “All lives matter” might be more radical than “black lives matter” – but only if you really mean it, and are not just saying it to deflect the particular urgency of black lives mattering.

Culture supremacy. One of the ways racism thrives among liberals is the demand to keep white cultural patterns central – that is, ways of communicating, structuring people in groups, values, and language (spelling, word choice and everything). So POC can be invited into white-dominated space but only accepted if they conform to the culture demands; this is not a melting pot of cultures; it’s one over the others, also known as supremacy. Often it feels like the groundrules are set before the space has opened up for diversity and then anyone new coming in is secondary to the founders because some things are pre-defined to be off-topic. I’ve experienced this a lot because my disability makes it impossible for me to internalize white culture as strongly as others, and I think this is somewhat how nonwhite people can feel in spaces that are “open to everyone” but aren’t really.

Voicing. There’s a huge difference between being allowed to exist and having a voice that is heard – meaning the authentic experience of a person voiced by her own words in her way of expressing and about the topics that are important to her. If a diversity of voices is really accepted, then the demand for white culture supremacy would be set aside. If there are nonwhite authentic voices that affect how things are organized and what’s being discussed, it would feel very different and liberating.

White depowering. I’m not sure how white people would create real space for everyone else, but I’m very turned off by the rampant shame that goes along with adopting the extreme structuralist view. White people acting like we are automatically wrong and racist on everything is non-helpful, especially when it goes along with seeking validation for doing it. If we want black people to award us the non-racist prize for being allies, we are still centering ourselves. It would be better to do two things. One, be quiet and go on being liberal and just not engage with this. Two, live authentically in your cultures even if they originate from northern Europe. We need a middle way between one extreme of banding together to push out all other voices, and the other extreme of pretending to be powerless.

Structuralism as religion. Christianity has a nasty kind of internal logic that means when you don’t believe in one part of it, fundamentalists will diagnose your disbelief from within the belief system, such that the system can never be questioned. Structuralism as in the table above has the same feature – if you claim you are not racist, it proves that you are racist. The white individual is fully culpable but has no way to be non-racist. According to the logic, we have responsibility in the sense of guilt but no responsibility in the sense of agency. To me, taking it that far is the same as being a religious zealot.

Rootlessness. A lot of people in North America have tenuous links to any indigenous homeland, or none at all, even though all of our ancestors at some point lived indigenously. Dominant white culture today seems to be a remnant of some actual cultures of the past in Northern Europe, with a giant dose of colonial/capitalist thinking, idol worshiping, and civic and communication norms. I suppose we cling to idols and systems and other flat substitutes for rich culture because we’re hurting from the loss. From some observation, POC in America seem to drive culture change more than white people and don’t seem to cling as much.

Cultural appropriation. I haven’t grasped the outrage on this point, and would like to propose that mixing is mostly a good thing. Anyone who lacks culture needs it; autistic people like me can fail to integrate into a culture even if it is all around us, and I feel like the flatness of what’s left of white culture is even harder to assimilate to than a more real one. I used to do a lot of Israeli dancing before I understood that it was an element of a minority culture; I appropriated it into me and made it mine, and I think that’s the right way to spread things. But on the other hand when I call my preferences for arranging furniture “feng shui”, that’s misleading because I’ve never studied it and made it mine. In the extreme when minority-cultural elements are monetized by white people in that colonizing flattening way, it demeans the real thing. But even when a white pop star “steals” in this way and none of the original artists get the money or credit, it seems symptomatic rather than a cause of racial stratification.

Passivity. Here is a comprehensive and clear source on these topics and more. That author takes a mostly structuralist perspective but without the dogmatic absolutes. One of the points is about how white people lie to ourselves about being passive and therefore not responsible. The structuralists seem to want white people to actively identify as white in order to own the oppression that is going on and stop it, rather than just cop out. I never identified with being white and I have no idea how to purposefully adopt an identification with something when I don’t feel it, but it is an idea worth further reflection.

This is another article worth reading.

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Agile America

If a software project is big enough to be “nontrivial” (as programmers say), a company needs not only a system for management of the quality of the engineering product, but also a system for management of the quality of the process – that is, management of management. This meta-management has become a big business itself with companies that just sell processes to software companies, and it involves proving that certain practices and ways of making decisions are likely to produce better outcomes than others. The work process is itself a product, complete with advertising and brand loyalty.

Trends

Here are some of the trends since the 90s that set the context for what is happening now in the industry:

  • Systems are getting scaled larger (more simultaneous users), are more open to hacking, and have higher up-time requirements, so they require more people to keep them running.
  • New systems don’t appear to be any more complex, but they often contain more records because companies are monopolizing. The size of databases is much larger, but the complexity is the same.
  • New systems are more business-critical. Earlier, a business often had a paper backup or a way to work without the software system, but now the company relies on it with no alternative.
  • The total number of people involved in automation has exploded. The nerdy prodigy type that is historically associated with programming is now in a small minority; there are not enough of those kinds of people. Most people in IT departments might not even be naturals at the job and many are extroverted, not terribly exact about logic, and much like the society at large.
  • More people’s demands are perceived to be important – more stakeholders. In particular, non-technical people are now deciding on the look and feel and flow of systems, and there is a noticeable degradation in internal consistency across business applications.
  • In terms of hardware, tools and platforms, the main change is that speed and memory are much, much cheaper. Despite popular belief, there has not been much innovation in operating systems, databases, and languages compared to the period in the 80s and 90s.

Meta-management works with these trends and also aims to prevent the worst problems of the past. Two of the most serious and common problems have been:

  • A developer suddenly disappears and no one else knows how to change the system, so it becomes stuck.
  • A large project goes way over estimated time and cost, and by the time it is done (if ever), it no longer matches what the company actually needs.

In order to solve those problems, we now have “agile” processes. While there are competing variants, they all aim to solve those two major problems through teamwork (no one person should be irreplaceable) and short planning horizons (projects cannot be months long by design). The idea is to work on very small increments of improvement to a working system and leave the system in a working condition all along, instead of going into the back room and coming out months later with a big finished system. It ensures that a company is getting a continuous stream of value in return for a continuous stream of investment. It is intended to eliminate the risk of losing all the investment due to the two problems above.

Sabotage

In my observations of company productivity, I see about 20% productive people, 60% deadweight, and 20% malicious or destructive people. It does not appear to be possible to change these ratios, because useless and destructive people often have greater powers of persuasion than productive people, and thus they appear essential. Usually they honestly believe they are contributing.

One of the most important meta-management concerns is whether any one person can sabotage a project. Each of the 20% destructors will sabotage it if they can. What we want is a system that restricts the power of the misinformed or malicious to only slightly slow down progress or make a feature slightly worse, but not to completely sabotage it.

Different company organizations offer different ways to sabotage projects:

  • In pyramid-shaped organizations that work primarily with delegation, every project gets subdivided into tasks and delegated, further subdivided and delegated so on, making every person accountable to their superior in the pyramid. If any one person is a destructor, their part fails and the whole system fails. The destructors can be identified but perhaps too late. For the same reason, productive people can do a lot and be recognized. This structure is widely considered obsolete.
  • Team-based organizations are an answer to the pyramid problem: everyone is replaceable and the productive 20% accomplishes everything by going around everyone else, leveraging a great many more connections between people – not just up and down the chain of command. Sabotage is thwarted by ensuring that no one person has any substantial power, and only teams have collective power. Destructors are difficult to identify, as are producers. An especially productive person is held back to the slower pace of the team.
  • Team-pyramids are a way to combine the worst aspects of teams and pyramids. Authority is delegated down through levels in a pyramid, but the engineering product is not passed back up through that pyramid. The product building is done as with teams, but the decisions are in pyramids. This system allows anyone to sabotage the project with no accountability, since the producers are not allowed to work around the deadweight and destructors. My last job recently switched to this system (unknowingly I guess) and the ability of anyone to accomplish anything seized up like an engine without oil.

Other meta-management problems

A key problem of meta-management as a supposedly legitimate field of study is that it requires longer term knowledge than almost anyone has. Most people in the industry are still in their first 10-year project, and hardly anyone lives long enough to have done enough 10-year projects to be able to compare them and have personal experience of which process works better. Therefore most of the claims made about meta-management cannot really be substantiated by experience.

Related to that legitimacy problem is the bizarre worship of process that goes on. Like anything based on faith alone, people become frenetic adherents to their chosen “agile” process, and evangelize it with a giant set of internal vocabulary. There’s normal sounding terms like “runway”, “backlog” and “standup” – and esoteric words (sometimes bordering on religious doctrine) like “kanban”, “scrum”, “manifesto” and “epic”. The words can be used as an appeal to a higher authority to prove a point, when that point cannot be supported by common sense or the normal use of language.

In that last company, a lot of people were as sure as the sky is blue that the process they were trained in was going to work, even when they had never personally done that process successfully. Many of them had never accomplished even one thing independently, since their whole careers were in teams that did not expose whose contributions were relevant. Some of the deadweight people had a very faith-based allegiance to certain aspects of process, and the less experience they had with it working, the more evangelical they seemed to be about it.

Deep in the house of mirrors, there are blatantly countersensical and even reality-defying beliefs. My “favorite” one is the belief that software bugs fall into one of two categories: Either it is a critical bug and the whole team stops all other work and fixes it immediately, or it is non-critical and should never be fixed or even written down anywhere. Anyone who has used software knows there is really a whole range of severity: some bugs make a product unusable, while others only make it annoying, slow, confusing or risky in some way. Anyone who hasn’t drunk the Agile kool-aid can see that obviously some bugs need to be assigned a medium non-emergency priority, but that common sense position had not been canonized and you are not supposed to believe it.

Actual agility

The term “waterfall” refers to software development processes that cannot be reversed or changed mid-course; an extremely waterfall-ish approach would be one that does all planning up front, then does all development in a back room without communication with the users, then the product is considered “done” when the contract terms are met, even if it does not work or does not meet expectations.

An agile approach is one that by contrast continuously checks in with users and is capable of adapting quickly. Ironically though, a waterfall approach can often be quicker and more agile than one labeled “Agile”, and the reason has to do with what I call “chunk size”.

A large chunk size means attempting a plan-build-test cycle that includes the whole project in a single cycle. For a large project, people are not able to plan and communicate everything accurately and it can fail just because the chunk is too large. On the other extreme, if the chunk is too small, then the plan-build-test cycle might only include one micro-feature per cycle and then it ends up taking years to develop a useful product. Very small chunks also result in inconsistency in the product usage, as different people try to push the user-interface paradigm in all different directions at once.

As an aside, the process of building something, no matter what size the chunks are, must have three general stages: One is understanding what we are wanting to accomplish (requirements); two is building it in the back room; and three is showing what was built and then evaluating, testing, fixing, and integrating it. If you have a large chunk, the back-room part might be months long; with a small chunk it might be only hours long. In any case there must be a back-room period when no communication is occurring, because it is a technical creative process that requires focus, and because it is essential to commit to something and complete it instead of being continuously up in the air.

As I saw in my last company, the plan-build-test cycle itself can be disintegrated or defined out of existence. In those conditions, management thinks that the cycle can be so short that there is no back-room period at all, and that all work can be accomplished with continuous communication going on. But that makes the work stop completely.

The ideal chunk size is one that is about the same size as (and not more than 10% larger than) the most recent successful chunk done by the developer. So if that person is comfortable with a 2-week long chunk and has demonstrated that ability, then it will work. If the person is only ready for a 1-day chunk, that is the appropriate size. Anything larger is too waterfall-ish, and anything smaller is too slow. Picking the right size yields the most actual agility.

Can it work?

Part of my reason for writing this is to debrief myself on what happened in that last company (which was my first and only big-company job) and ponder whether large teams can really build software at all. Most of that company’s software had been written by a few people, before they started calling themselves “agile”. After that shift, it looks like they started spending more money and slowing down work. The tech giants all seem to be growing and slowing in the same way. The software I love to hate the most is healthcare.gov, a fiasco of waste (500 M$) and slowness; had it been written before Agile was doctrine, I think the contract would have been terminated without pay, and a different supplier chosen, which would have been faster in the end. All these things make me doubt all the new meta-management thinking.

My prediction is that someone with clout will come along one of these years and declare Agile to be dead, and the industry will shift to something similar with new vocabulary and the same problems. But what would REALLY work?

The things we cannot change are:

  • the 60% deadweight problem (the sector overpays because the demand for workers is so high, so people who are not naturals are swept in and cannot contribute much)
  • the 20% destructor problem
  • the fact that most people (even the contributors) value their careers over the product and will lie about their abilities and backstab anyone without allies
  • the newness problem (most people have never completed a large project cycle)

The newness and non-naturals problem means most people are in over their head; that anxiety combined with self-protective human nature is not a great combination for making good decisions. I don’t know how anyone could change this starting point, so we need meta-management that assumes these problems will always exist.

In my last company, as productivity and quality was perceived to be declining, decision making tended to become more centralized as a stress-induced reaction, and that further slowed productivity in a viscous cycle. As someone who has actually gone around more than one 10-year cycle of large application building, I would now consider myself qualified for technical leadership, but I had to complete many small projects independently and some large ones before I felt I was ready for that. Those who did get decision making power at that company appeared to feel they were qualified without having had that length of experience. There was a general sense of operating on theory alone – things were declared to be the right way because Agile (or because of some other appeal to outside authority), not because the decision-maker had any practical experience with it.

The universal rule is that if sabotage is possible, someone will do it, generally by preventing those who are the most qualified to make decisions from making them. Thus it is essential that any process is built around having many channels of communication and no single person who can restrict the communication or decisions. Statements like the following must be impossible: “Everything has to go through me”. “So-and-so needs to be at that meeting”. “We need buy in/approval from so-and-so for this request.”

So, to conclude, here are three ideas for structures that might work, at least better than the “agile” ways I’ve seen:

  • The pyramid of tiny teams: This is essentially an old-fashioned pyramid of delegation, but each node in the structure is a tiny team of 3-5 people that are collectively accountable for delivering their part. The most successful tiny-teams are given larger chunks and get newly formed tiny-teams under them, which they can delegate to. It might prevent a node from sabotaging the whole because there is likely to be one producer on each team.
  • Decisions by duplication: Instead of holding up engineering work to resolve conflicting points of view, the company proceeds to develop the product in multiple independent teams and then uses only the most successful result.
  • Chaos plus portfolio: This is a system where no one has fixed roles and the only management is in periodic evaluations of what a worked accomplished. It relies on the notions that people like to do engineering, and they will naturally learn to become more effective given a lot of freedom.
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