Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

Do not resuscitate

(This is what came to me the night after my mother in law died.)


note2At the base of jagged cliffs in the river, the weapon and a used body remain but the pain is gone. Some things remain and some are free. Pines and soft grasses accept the coming and going of life. The Gallinas accepts the washing downpour. Everything proceeds in its cycle as if the suffering had never been.

In memory of Patricia Knoebel and all the stone-shaping waters that connected her to Earth.


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On spark plugs and being present where you are

Yesterday, which spanned 48 hours, my car broke down while moving a load of stuff to Las Vegas. Cruise control decided that jumping to 6,000 RPM would be appropriate on the Cochiti hill; pistons went sproing-a-tattatat; oil all gone. Until They came, the predicament had no solution because tow trucks must – according to some towing logic – leave your trailer there on the highway, amongst rain and pillagers. Towing was my only plan I could think of but would amount to giving away the trailer with three chain saws, chicken wire, a table, back packs, and basic necessities such as a croquet set and other things I can’t remember.

They came flying by and some kind of flash happened in her wild mind. Stop, she said, and that was final. (How can we leave the lady there? Can’t.) They came back, found some oil, checked everything. They were both mechanics. She explained she learned how to fix everything because she could not afford to get it fixed. The questionable tail lights caught his attention and he went to work on that too. She alternately hugged me and diagnosed the oil pump.

They helped tenaciously from that sprinkly warm afternoon through nightfall in Santa Fe, through two trips to Vegas, and sunrise outside Tecolote. What do they want, I kept thinking. If they were con artists, they were not very good at it. They were somewhat intolerable to be around in the pushy way of people selling, but they were not wanting money or anything. All sleepless night I thought, surely they put water in the oil reservoir, and they overheard me telling my address, and a looting was surely in progress. They would disable my car, then conveniently “run out of gas” outside Pecos after waiting til the bats go home when no one would ever know what happened. I facebooked my coordinates because I think ahead.

I noticed two interesting things about their language. One was the omission of names, hellos, good byes, or anything of protocol. You just start interacting in the middle of the conversation and end in the middle. Or just don’t talk if that suits you. The people involved in this thing were normally referred to as The Man or Dude (interchangeably as there were two of them, the talking one and the other one), Home Girl (the dominant one who said Stop), The Lady (that was me), Her (her who owned the Suburban), and the nephew. In this context, the formality of “nephew” stood out as oddly specific. In the 14 hours, no one asked my name or said theirs. Home Girl and I were both the age of grandmothers.

The other oddity – a syntax rule – was a way of phrasing possessives. It’s become a meme to say “my baby daddy”, or to laugh at people saying that. But their dialect took this further. The main man held up a device and said “This: home girl baby daddy phone” with no verb or prepositions, like you might (not really) say in German Das Heimmaedchenkindvatihandy, leaving the word for the actual thing as the last element in the compound word. Latin languages would start at the other end of the chain of nouns and say this is the phone of the dad of the baby of my girl, putting the word for what it is – a phone – first. English is historically undecided between those two syntaxes, apparently excepting this German-leaning dialect of Spanglish.

I also noticed two patterns about behavior. One was living in the moment. Really in the moment. Not filling up the gas tank before driving in remote country in the middle of the night. Not considering what he would do without a tow bar once he got there. Forgetting food.

The Man talked about his own Suburban (currently missing since being “borrowed” without notice) being a gas hog at one time, and then he put in new spark plugs and that raised it from nine miles per gallon to something more affordable. He said he would rather spend the ten dollars for new plugs “up front” rather than spending $60 in gas each time he drives to Albuquerque. But he announced that as if it was radical to do anything preventive or with foresight, while to me, 10<60 is pretty simple math so of course you would do that. On the other hand, the suburban of Her, which he had “borrowed” for today’s adventure, did not have features like updated spark plugs, so it still got nine miles to the gallon, a fact that one had a lot of time to contemplate in the silence that happens without gasoline.

The other behavior that was impressed on me was the dedication to being responsible that is so full that they could not seem to even consider dropping a commitment. So he stayed up all night through sunrise because I had no other choice. A middle class American would have set a limit: “It’s 2 AM, so I can’t help you any more!” That thought didn’t seem compatible with their whole way of thinking. When Home Girl saw me, stopping to help me became true forever, not just for a reasonable amount of time. It wasn’t up to me to refuse or for them to reconsider. There was no undoing of that flash.

These are poverty behaviors, they say. If people could learn to think ahead and set limits, they would get further; they would get out of the cycle of poverty. Rich people buy in bulk and do things in a durable, planned manner, so they actually spend less and save more, while the poor are forced to live crisis to crisis eating at convenience store prices and paying for gas because of not paying for tune ups. The story is that poverty thinking is the problem that keeps them always on their last ten dollars.

I agree that people who tread on others, accumulate, and hoard do get ahead. I’m just not sure I know which of the two sides is the one with the problem.

He knew how to fix tail light bulbs with scrap bubble gum, spending nothing as habit because habitually there is nothing to spend. While scientists may not have discovered it, he had become an expert in getting ambient air pressure at certain temperatures to raise gas fumes into an engine when there is no gas. He clearly had years of experience coaxing life out of broken things.

I wondered if she was a calm heart of gold on the inside with tarnish and rough edges on the outside, or maybe a con artist to the core with a thick layer of deceptive frosting. Both seemed to be true; the layers were so thin and so sandwiched together, that it was impossible to tell which was on top and which was beneath. She was in some larger battle in life and like me, losing it most of the time but never giving up.

I had a sense from them that their role in their fleeting social network is keeping things zipped together and resisting entropy. The Other Dude did not have that role; he ran reactionarily into the twilight of Tecolote, which is not walking distance from anywhere, and did not reappear in this drama.

Demonstrating the power of the Suburban while still in Santa Fe, the main man flew over curbs, and not all our stuff remained on the trailer. One of the things about moving is, if you cannot remember what else you had before, after a portion of your belongings launch from your trailer into the night, you might not have needed those things.

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Code forests

This paper is about a layering paradigm for enterprise scale software called a “code forest”. The paradigm is a tree-shaped database of elements that compose the code base, with their full content and revision history. Developers edit the database rather than the file system. I will get into details on what that means, but first want to start with list of problems that the approach improves upon.

Why we need code forests

In my examples I’m using C#-like code and terminology but it is the same concept with java or any language designed for enterprise-scale software. In this context “enterprise” means possibly millions of lines of code and multiple tiers with overlapping legacy and new products.

Some problems with today’s large code bases:

  • Depending on the language there are now three or more competing naming systems permeating the code base. These include the class names and optionally heirarchical namespaces of classes; names in the file system; and names of folders, projects and “solutions”. The only reason for the complication is the history of adding tools on top of other tools; it is not needed. A code forest only has one naming scheme.
  • Developers are usually forced to deal with source files. The base unit in programming and compiling is traditionally the file, but it does not have to be that way. A source file is not a meaningful concept in the compiled product. A code forest allows you to work with named elements in the forest, not files.
  • Developers are currently forced to deal with deployment considerations when writing classes. A code forest allows deployment decisions to be made completely separately.
  • The skills and other team characteristics needed to manage a code base are different than skills for writing classes and methods. A code forest helps teams do forest management as distinct from code quality management.
  • Documentation and understanding often decline as code bases get bigger. A code forest organizes code with documentation about code structure in the same place as the code itself.
  • Unwanted dependencies and friend dependencies creep into code bases as teams get bigger. A code forest makes creating dependencies an action that you have to take explicitly, so there can be no dependencies creeping in accidentally.
  • Source control is standard practice now, but technically it is an optional layer on top of a non-source-controlled system, and it can be broken, avoided, worked around, misused, or not be fully integrated with the development tool, leading to complications. A code forest is source control to begin with, so it is impossible to not use source control with it.
  • Developers can spend a great deal of time recompiling “the universe” of code when only one line changed. The compiler is usually too unaware of the code layering to optimize away unnecessary work. A code forest allows compiling to be based on changes only.
  • Visibility of class members is not flexible enough, with the options of public, private and protected members. Sometimes you need visibility in more complex ways, but we end up making too much public. Code forests control visibility exactly.

Basic definition of the code forest

A code forest is a tree (a directed acyclic graph with any number of roots) of nodes (which I’ll call “code elements“) along with the revision history of each element and a map of all dependencies between all elements. It can also include the concepts of code branches, commits, and other source control features.

Each element is composed of an expression in the form “visibility-spec name = element-definition” and a separate area for typing definitional or contract comments. Some example elements are shown here:

  • public A = 3
  • B = int (string s) { return s.Length; }
  • visible C = class { … }

The examples show a variable element, a function element, and a class element, respectively. The class element will have child elements inside it. The only type of element that allows fairly long definitions is the function body. Since most functions are ideally less than 20 lines, that means source control is operating on much smaller units than we are used to.

You may be questioning the function and class syntax. I am not concerned with exact syntax in this paper. There are many function syntaxes, and the one used here is chosen simply because it puts the name on the left of the equals sign so it is consistent with all other definitions. We are assuming that the type of any element is unambiguous from the definition, so in the example, A is known to be an integer. Classes also use the name = class syntax.

To organize millions of lines of code, one can think of all those millions of lines in one giant file with a lot of nesting. Of course you would not display it that way because of its size, but that is one logical way to display it. Replacing brackets with indented bullets to indicate the tree shape, that would look like this example:

  • PersistentData =
    • public Person = class
      • Name = “”
      • IsSally = bool () { return Name == “Sally”; }
    • Team = class
      • Members = new List<Person>;
  • UI =
    • Person = PersistentData.Person
    • ThisUser = (Person)null;

A team of developers can be branching, editing and merging elements all at the same time. The editable unit is the element; there is no need to “check out” or edit whole classes as a unit.

Layer views

You can also look at a code forest visually, showing boxes for the organizational classes and arrows denoting dependencies. Here is an example:

The example comes from an earlier paper “Megaworkarounds” –

The advantage to this kind of view is that it shows how the code is layered. Tools can also allow you to draw layers and drag elements to change the structure of the code base. For example, you could draw a box around a number of functions dealing with the same thing in an overly complex class and create an encapsulating layer. Read the rest of this entry »

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Complete and incomplete covers in engineering

I confess I have been irritated my whole life about car dashboard controls for heating and cooling because they are an incomplete cover for the complexity that is going on inside. It has been a rough few decades for user interface enthusiasts!

What is a complete cover? It is a layer or shell over some machine complexity that completely hides it and does not let any of the complexity out. A cover is incomplete if it forces you to understand what is going on underneath, or if it is confusing when you do not understand, or if the cover is insufficient to operate all aspects of the machine. A cover can be thick or thin – the thicker the cover, the more it changes the paradigm of the machine interaction. A cover is optimal when it is complete, regardless of whether it is thick, thin, or absent. Sometimes it is optimal to have no cover.

I will explain this with some of examples, starting with a mechanical mercury thermostat. There are three kinds of people in relation to these devices: (1) Those with a gut fear reaction when they look at dials and numbers; (2) those who understand the two exposed dials – measured temperature and set point – but do not know or care how it works inside; and (3) those who understand that the rotation of the temperature-sensitive coil which is superimposed on the rotation of the set point tips a mercury switch, that the bi-stable 2-lobed shape of the mercury chamber affects the temperature swing, and why mercury is used in the first place. It is a lovely thing, but not really the scope of this paper. I am mainly concerned with the middle category of people who are functional operators of the cover and what kind of cover it is.


The thermostat is a complete cover because you can operate every aspect of the heater with it, without needing to know how it works. It is also a fairly thick cover in the sense that it translates one paradigm to another. The actual heater requires an on/off switch to work, thus the only language it understands is on/off. But the thermostat exposes a set point to the user. It translates the language of on/off to the language of set points. Someone could replace the whole heater and wiring with a different inside paradigm but leave the exposed paradigm there, and the user would not need to know that anything changed, because the operation stays the same. In many systems – especially software systems, the replaceability of layers is an important design point, and complete coverage is one of the factors that makes it possible. Read the rest of this entry »

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On weeds and keystones

Las Vegas is an optical illusion. At first it looks poor; the city eye is drawn to cracks in the pavement and boarded up businesses, and one expects to feel poverty. Once an ornate and grand city, larger than Albuquerque, the town now shows age and depleting resources with fewer people. But then nothing bears out the expected feeling, and over time the eye learns to see different things – the beauty that is still there.

From my one window I see weeds, graffiti, and a muddy puddle in an empty lot. And I also see hand-set bricks in arches with stone sills, keystones, quatrefoils, with elms and aspens. Out the other window there’s a quintessential abandoned factory with sawtooth shaped roof, a highway bridge, and a stone hotel with a belfry and artistic parapet. With so much variation there is choice – what do I choose to see?

It reminds me of Pisa, Italy. I still have a picture I took of a goat eating weeds in a neglected brick-strewn lot, next to a crumbling plaster wall, in bleating distance from the throngs of leaning-tower photographers.

On a dumpster diving errand today I found nothing, and everything was surprisingly clean. Investment in the big city is equated with wealth, safety and the standard of living. But in reality, the distribution of money does not entirely control the use of time. New cities in the west exist because of greed, not because of natural necessity in the way port cities exist. Subdividing land, the innumerable rules, and smooth new concrete all make someone rich and define the city. Homelessness is illegal, and those who can’t meet the wealth standard congregate only where enforcement of all the rules is lacking, where there is less safety. So the city is an engine of separating haves from have-nots to its very core. And it fogs ones brain with the urgency of the struggle to have.

Politics in the west is the art of profiting from subdivision and controlling public utilities. The desert is almost free, but the value of a residential zoned quarter-acre with water and electricity is enormous. We don’t all share in that value. The winners are the ones who approved the subdivision plat on their own land.

On my errand the thing I realized is that if I myself owned things like sidewalks and too many buildings, and didn’t have enough money to make it all nice, I’d choose to spend it the way Las Vegas does. It would not be a priority to fix all the pavement. We have choices about equity and we can choose between concrete and education.

The growing city as an engine of segregation and uniformity gives a person that city eye that believes it sees education when it sees nice concrete. Nice and safe and pretty and educated are supposed to go together, and dirty, crumbling, dangerous and desperate are supposed to go together. But those are false choices; if the money is tight, we can choose education over concrete without having to have both.

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On healthcare, disentangled


The current debate in Congress on healthcare is so hyperbolic and disingenuous that I felt it was time to actually pull out the threads and uncrumple the ball and lay it all out.

I will talk about the moral dimension, then the financial dimension, then the health dimension.

The moral dimension is simply this question: do we help each other through sickness and in health, or do we take the opposite extreme of every man for himself (women be damned)? Or do we take some middle road? Throughout most of my life, the moral choice made in the US was that middle and upper class people help each other out as a group, while we helped the working poor to a lower standard, and we essentially let the underclass die. Our sense of shame prodded us to ease the brutality of that death sentence somewhat by setting up a safety net. While that safety net was significant (medicaid, medicare, emergency services for the uninsured, for example), its moral foundation was that “we” treated “them” as inherently lower and less deserving. For generations health was never considered a right, and the debates focused on to what extent the recipients of “our” generosity were worth the expense.

The ACA fundamentally challenged that moral stance by declaring that we should take care of all of us to a more reasonable minimum standard, and it set in motion a trend towards more universal insurance coverage.

The current debate is completely hostile to that moral advance of the ACA, and I think racism and class superiority is a driving force. Some of the people who hate the ACA really want an underclass to exist, they enjoy winning, and nothing stimulates their competitive brain receptors like seeing the underclass waste away while they sip drinks by the poolside. They realize the ACA threatens to bring in more equality, so in retaliation, they ramp up their attack with an agitated fury and logical vacuum that can only be explained by the fear of the loss of their position in society. That is the moral failure in today’s debate, and it is driven by psychological forces that people experience when they lead narrow unexamined lives.

The financial dimension is a bit complex but important. Many people misinterpret the incentives of the four parties to each transaction, so I will lay them out:

  • Patients want to avoid doctors when we are well, but we also want the power to buy health-related services at only the level we need when we need it, no more and no less. It is important to see that there is not an infinite demand for services; thus patients are not the driving force behind cost escalation. But we want to be able to spend millions of dollars if needed, thus some kind of risk pooling is in our interest. It is not very relevant to us as patients whether costs are pooled by a public instrument or a private one. Like all consumer choices, we will minimize our personal costs and if insurance is not required or favorable, we will not buy it.
  • Providers (doctors, hospitals, etc) are private entities with the inventive to maximize income. Like anyone selling anything, they will do whatever it takes to make more sales – upselling, advertising, monopolistic practices, and lobbying. While the individuals involved in that system usually want to care for people at a personal level (they chose to go into that line of work), their corporate structures have the incentive to care less and charge more.

The first two of the three parties – buyers and sellers – operate just like with any other kind of financial transaction, but with healthcare, there are third and fourth parties.

  • Insurers and underwriters are private or governmental or non-profit organizations that provide the pooling of risk, taking a cut of the sales. Their incentive is to pay less out and charge more, but they operate in a market and under regulation, so they must stay within acceptable limits to stay in business. The important function of insurers is to determine what is an acceptable expense – more on that below. Many people on both sides incorrectly blame insurers for cost escalation and other problems, but insurers actually have the incentive to lower costs, so they are just a distraction from the central problems.
  • Courts are the final party involved in the money side of things, because ultimately they rule on insurance claims, if patients appeal, and thus courts ensure the insurers are following their own rules.

Costs can only be kept “correct” (not artificially low or high) if there are market forces at play, and the root reason why health costs have gone up in the last decades is that the market forces are not strong enough. Markets must have buyer choice and seller choice to be true markets, but in the US consumers cannot effectively shop around for health-related prices, so there is too little choice. Insurers commonly make deals with providers that cap prices on each procedure (more proof that insurers are on our side), but they are not allowed to cap the number and kind of procedures done.

Countries with more efficient health delivery systems (that is, all other countries) achieve that because they do fewer procedures, do them more efficiently, do not spend as much on marketing, and do not pay the doctors and CEOs outlandish salaries. Their cost savings are not achieved by pooling (insuring) differently.

The ACA changed the way the parties collude to set costs in some important ways, but it did not change the basic set of incentives. The main changes were that insurers were required to spend 85% of revenues on health costs, and they no longer could deny coverage (thus their whole business model became simpler, and they downsized). So under ACA, insurers are a less important variable in the cost equation than before.

There is an important link between the moral and financial dimensions, which is the question: what do we do if someone is not insured and they get sick and need help? They were not paying their share into the risk pool to help others, so when they need help, do we help anyway? (The same question is asked in the Little Red Hen story.) Or do we let them get insurance when they need it? Ultraconservatives say no, if they failed to think ahead, we should let them die. They are right on purely economic grounds for the same reason that if you sustain a loss of property that was not insured, you are out of luck; no one will pay you back the value of your loss. But it is clearly barbarian for us to live like that. If we really pause to consider this, we can only come to the conclusion that if we do not want to be barbaric, we need to require people to be in the risk pool. That is, either we have a public pool that automatically covers everyone, or else we require them to be in a private insurance pool. It does not make moral sense to have the “choice” to be uninsured.

The ACA was a compromise plan that favored the private pools to appease conservatives, and one of its failures was that the penalty for not being in a pool was too small; thus its adoption rate has been gradual.

The second financial dimension concerns the role of health spending as a tool of wealth distribution and equality. (I was talking about spending on health itself above, and now switching to issues of taxes and credits.)

Pre-ACA, health spending wasn’t tied in any rational way to income equality, so those expenses, being relatively equal across economic tiers, was a “regressive” type of expense; that is, one whose percentagewise impact on the poor is greater than that on the rich.

One of the most important effects of the ACA was in how it changed the distribution of wealth generally. It shifted the tax burden and entitlements on a gigantic sector of the economy such that wealthier people were paying a much larger chunk of the cost of health services for all of us, and many more people were getting those services at little or no cost. If you’re into active public management of poverty (as I am), this form of progressive taxation was a good start. Two or three more programs of that magnitide (such as in housing, food, or transport) would have made the US more like the compassionate socialist European states.

The condensed version of the way ACA was affordable is that Medicaid was theoretically expanded to include more people, and additionally, if you graduated out of Medicaid (by earning too much to qualify), then you still would qualify for credits towards premiums. Thus there was little or no gap which had existed previously. (One of the persistent failures of US social programs is that they often have a cutoff, so people have an incentive to stay poor to remain eligible.) As income goes up between around 30 to around 90,000 per year, the credits phase out.

The current agenda is being set by the uberrich, who seem to always want more money, so the brunt of their health reform proposals are to reverse the ACA taxes and entitlements. They say the ACA is broken and use terms like “choice”, but all of that is lies and distractions, and their actual motive is that they do not want to pay the taxes, along with the racist/classist motives as noted above. They propose reducing Medicaid and eliminating income-based help on premiums. Not only is the entire dimension of the health system as a tool of equality being chopped, it is even proposed to be reversed by creating a credits that the wealthy qualify for.

The health dimension includes the questions of what gets done for patients, who decides what gets done, and whether it is effective. Amidst all the noise about choice and rising premiums, these questions are not making the news. The current debate is completely missing the much larger factors of what the money gets spent on. We should be debating the finer points of who gets to decide whether to do each procedure and how much they can charge for it. Or we should be implementing more market forces to keep those prices under control. One of the ways to shift incentives is to pay for outcomes rather than procedures, so insurers only pay after the patient is treated successfully, instead of paying simply because something was done to them.

One of the big principles missed by conservatives is that people will not make good decisions about insurance in an unregulated market. Generally speaking we will under-insure ourselves if given too much choice. We might choose a plan with a 1 M$ lifetime cap, because that seems like a lot, but then need 2 M$ to survive cancer, and having made that choice when we were not thinking we might get cancer, we end up dying because of it. Or we might choose a plan that does not cover some drug that we never heard of, and then end up needing that particular drug.

We also do not know what procedures we need if we do not happen to have medical training. But on the other hand we cannot let doctors decide everything, or they would simply order every known test for every patient and drive prices up forever.

So the question of what gets done ultimately has to be a community decision – made either publicly or by insurers backed by courts. It does not make sense to make those decisions as individuals or as providers. The conservative’s notion that “doctors and patients” will decide on everything on a case-by-case basis is naive and does not contain costs. The ACA took a rational approach to that question by making those choices nationally, and putting into law specifically what had to be covered for everyone.

What do we do next? There are a lot of ways to rationally pay for healthcare costs. Here is the super-consolidated list of points that would need to be decided:

  • Who sets prices – There has to be a market force limiting the ability of providers to set runaway prices. (This point is rarely mentioned in debates, but assumed to be the role of insurers.)
  • Who decides what procedure is done – There has to be a market force limiting the ability of providers to do unnecessary procedures. (This point is rarely mentioned in debates, but should be central.)
  • What choice of doctors will you have – If insurers are allowed to control prices, they have to limit choice of providers as a way to do it. If you want to be able to go to any doctor and they can charge whatever they want, then there is no way to control runaway prices. (Republicans pretend to favor choice but have no plan that makes sense; Democrats pretend to favor choice but actually favor insurer price controls.)
  • Self-pay versus risk pooling – Only the 1%s could afford to pay full medical costs without pooling their risk, so all the rest of us need to pool risk. However, some chunk of the middle/upper income people could pay for a fairly large portion of typical medical costs if they accumulated money in health savings accounts (HSA), thus partially being their own insurer. (Everyone is assuming the combination of insurance and HSAs as far as I can tell, but Republicans want to expand the use of HSAs.)
  • Who gets included – Let’s assume that our goal is to care for everyone equally, and leave no one out. So the baseline assumption is that everyone is in a cost sharing pool of some kind. (Democrats generally favor this; Republicans generally opposed.)
  • Mandated coverage – This is really another word for who gets included; it may sound draconian to say “mandated” but it is how every other country does it. (Democrats generally favor; Republicans generally opposed but without any rational alternative.)
  • Penalty for not being covered – Pre-ACA, the penalty for not being covered was that once you developed a condition, you could not get covered for it at all, or only after a long wait. Thus in some cases the penalty was your life. Starting with the ACA, the penalty shifted to a simper tax payment. Another alternative is paying higher premiums after a coverage lapse. Another alternative is to automatically include everyone, avoiding the question of enforcing a penalty. If there is a choice in coverage, there logically has to be a penalty for opting out; otherwise the insurance market would collapse. A lot of people do not get this, but it is the main thing we need to get if we insist on using the insurance model for health costs. (Democrats generally favor the tax penalty or universal automatic coverage; Republicans favor a penalty through higher premiums.)
  • Change in coverage – Risk pools inherently require people to pay into them as a group when they are not sick, and by the same token, you would need to pay for the level of insurance that you might eventually need, before you need it. The strategy of buying minimal insurance while healthy and then switching to better insurance when you get sick undermines the whole concept of risk pooling. The ACA dealt with this problem by limiting the period of enrollment in a plan to the calendar year, which was not sufficient, since it would be economically favorable to wait out the year and then switch, for those who develop a chronic, expensive condition. Other solutions are automatic universal coverage, higher premiums (as above), and longer enrollment periods such as 3-5 years. (Democrats favor the ineffective one-year period and do not seem to have a solution; Republicans favor higher premiums.)
  • How the risk pools are grouped – There has to be a way to decide who is in a pool together, if there are going to be multiple separate pools. One way is to have the whole country in one pool. Another way is by employer. Another way is by insurer. Pre-ACA, continuously insured people were in pools by employer or by insurer if covered individually, while those who could not get insurance in the market either were in the medicaid pool or public high-risk pools. With the ACA, this mostly did not change but the ACA “exchange” established separate pools with a more transparent market. (Democrats favor a universal pool or the ACA compromise; Republicans appear to favor the tiered pre-ACA pool system.)
  • Who underwrites the shared risk pools – This is the question of insurance backing, and currently includes government, quasi-government public insurance companies, non profit and for-profit backers. (Everyone appears to be sidestepping this and is OK with the current slate of complex options.)
  • Who pays premiums – This is the question of whether consumers pay directly, through an employer, or via taxes. Pre-ACA, taxes paid for most of medicaid, most people with private insurance paid through an employer, and some paid directly. ACA did not overhaul that system, but it added a major tax credit component, such that insurers could collect part of the premiums monthly from the government and part from the consumers. (Democrats favor the current complex system or universal “single payer” via taxes; Republicans appear to favor the pre-ACA system.)
  • How is poverty handled – This is the question of how and if the health system trends towards more or less income equality. As I said above, the ACA had a system of credits and overall expansion of low-income support. (Democrats favor the current ACA system; Republicans favor a regressive taxation/credit system instead which makes it impossible to fully include the poor in the whole healthcare system, leading to countless deaths.)


Given the huge range of ways to do things, here is what I would do. My first choice would be single payer via taxes, automatic universal inclusion, and essentially removing the insurance component. The market forces would be created by publicly setting rates for outcomes, allowing providers to compete by minimizing the procedures necessary to achieve the outcomes.

Given that my first choice is a political non-starter, my second choice would be to keep ACA with these few changes: (1) improve the ability of insurers to negotiate prices and procedures, (2) shift to fees based on outcomes, (3) increase tax penalty for non-coverage, (4) lengthen the enrollment period to 2 years, and (4) phase out employer-sponsored plans.

Conclusion: There are complex choices to make, there is no one obvious best answer, and Republicans (mostly) are clouding the issues through a steady stream of lies to the point where meaningful real debate is possible.


(edited 3/11 to add more on medicaid and poverty)

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On being myself, and other animal traps

This collection of pieces forms a whole essay, but only loosely. I’m trying to find the principles behind being (a) engaged, happy, moving versus being (b) alienated, traumatized, stuck, at least for me. Each piece is a bite out of that puzzle.

1. Being “myself” is a trap


Image description: Comic panel – person says “Just be yourself”, “Not like that”.

I’ve really tried to follow the advice to be myself, but it feels unreal. Any attempt to be Something counteracts my natural tendency to avoid fixing on that thing, even if that thing is “myself”. Not-being, or the absence of attempts to be, could leave more room for me as an animal to use my built-in facilities to meet my needs. Any conscious attempt to “be” could get in the way of my nature and make me stuck. Trying to be forces identity to be made into static words. I could say to myself, “well I should just accept that I’m an introverted autistic lesbian” (or whatever string of adjectives feels like an “identity”), so I should just “be” that openly. I could even be overtly proud of it and do things like make a blog with that string of adjectives as the subtitle, thus claiming that particular identity. But those are just very partial and inaccurate words, and by following them, I’m trying to become a dead concept from my mind, rather than be all of me, always unfolding.

The cartoon feels like the advice I’ve gotten all my life.

2. Being someone else is a trap too

Some parts of the therapy industry, especially the autism part of it, are based on the notion of becoming a better person by being indistinguishable: that is, by copying, conforming, and not being at all “yourself”. This idea is also prevalent in how we treat lower and middle class children generally, from the moment of conception through school. There are “developmental milestones” that everyone is supposed to meet. If the weight gain in pregnancy isn’t “right” (meaning average) then it’s “wrong”. It’s wrong even if that weight gain is right for that particular baby. Then you’re “behind” if you can’t read when you’re six, and so on and so on. The more wrong you are, the greater is the pressure to become normal. Read the rest of this entry »

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“Leveling up” as a societal design pattern

Americans are not used to living in a well-ordered nation. Stemming from the federal system, the history of the wild west, and the longstanding tension between individual and community needs, we tend to complicate things and then believe that they must be complicated. In France by contrast the country is divided into 18 regions, which are neatly subdivided into departments, which are further subdivided into communes. Each level delegates down to the next, and there’s not a lot of overlap in powers or in geography. For example you wouldn’t find a department that spans multiple regions, and all the schools and other organizational systems are more aligned with the departments and communes. But in the US it is typical to have overlapping jurisdictions, such as a school district or a water authority spanning parts of multiple municipalities. The districting of congress, the state legislature, the post office, schools, churches, and businesses rarely fall on the same lines.

The situation results in a feeling of being unitless, by which I mean not having a known basic unit of organization. If we want to solve a neighborhood problem, who are “we”? – what are the boundaries that define the people who can solve the problem, and what authority do we have to solve it? There’s often no clear answer because of widespread unitlessness.

I’ve argued before for jurisdictional alignment (19 years ago!) so in this paper I’ll take up the related but more elusive concept of “leveling up.” Leveling up is defining the relationship between a function of society at one level and its subordinate level, particularly defining the escalation of problem resolution upwards and delegation of authority downwards.

Here are 6 areas of organization with a discussion of leveling up for each one.

1. Justice vs legislation

Under democratic rule of law, an established pattern is that legislation deals in universals and justice deals in individuals. The leveling-up concept related to this is that individual cases need to be judged by a larger body (at a higher level) than that which made the law in question. For example if a town council decides to let students out of school for a religious holiday, but a particular family who doesn’t observe the holiday contests the decision, the trial should be held at the county or state level, not by peers at the same level as the town council. This is because human nature prevents us from being impartial regarding decisions about people immediately around us.

Laws made at extremely small local levels tend to be prejudicial concerning individual people even if names are omitted. For example “the village will permit tractors to use route 509” might really mean that Sam Jones can drive their particular tractor; alternately a law banning tractors might really be a way for people to get back at the nasty things Sam has done. A local judgment of whether the law is just turns into a contest of who is on Sam’s side; this is a basic failure of rule of law when done all at the same level. But a judgment at the state level would look at tractors in general, not just at Sam. Likewise, cities and states are more likely to enact racist laws even if they omit names of groups as a way to divert attention from the racist aspect. It’s more difficult to do that nationally. Human nature allows us to be impartial with strangers. The larger the unit is, the more people rulings apply to, and the more impartial the rulings tend to be.

2. Wild and human habitat

North America has a range of human density running from extremely sparse such as remote Alaska where people are incidental to the natural habitat, all the way up to big cities where nature is incidental to, and more completely under the control of people. In the latter extreme, land is first completely denuded of nearly all life, then a nature-substitute is designed and installed by professionals. There’s a continuous range of expression of that relationship between the extremes, including towns, suburbs, and vast areas of “managed” land, in which there’s a balance, and often a gradual increase in human control over time.

I’m not arguing against the extremes; despite being a nature lover, I concede that in big cities it can make sense to install a nature look-alike atop and between the areas of pavement.

In my mind the problems are more with the middle range. The first problem is the presumption that all land by default is “ours” with the exception of defined regions of “protected” land. So in the American mental model of land, there are dots (foreground) of “nature” on a background of human-managed land. In some cases the dots are connected by wildlife corridors, but many are not. We need to reverse that concept so that the “dots” are human settlements on a background of all other habitat. This is not by itself an argument for less overall developed land, but rather for a pattern of organization that condenses our development into the “dots” and leaves the rest of it in an interconnected continuous mesh of habitat for all other species.

The diagram below shows an abstract representation of green dots on a developed background (left) versus development dots on a green background (right).


The second problem with the middle density range is how much of it there is. Some people say the suburbs are the best of both worlds – country and city – but in other ways they are the worst of both: they lack the efficiency we get from the compactness of cities and also lack any true escape into nature. By sharpening the edges of the dots and making them more compact, then it’s possible to get the best of both worlds and use less land for human settlements overall. Furthermore if the edges of the settlements are highly reticulated, not simple squares or circles, then a great majority of people can be close to real nature, not stuck in vast suburbs.

Agriculture as the largest land use would do the same thing, only the dots are bigger. Fences would have to be discrete shapes enclosing pasture or human activity, not connected continuously to other fences as is the pattern now. Fences could no longer be used to “fence out”; they would only “fence in”.

(Of course I get this is just an ideal of the distant future, but it’s worth thinking about.)

There’s a couple ways this “dots on background” idea is a kind of leveling-up proposal. First, it sets the earth as the higher authority and puts all of our levels below that. Second, it creates place (dispels unitlessness) and consequently creates natural jurisdictions, which then lend themselves to orderly subdivision.

3. Transportation land

The land devoted to transportation is vast – more than half of all urban land. That includes roads, airports, parking, and rail-yards. The roads we use are classified by level – a state road, a county road, and so on, although often it doesn’t matter or it is not always apparent why the classification is made. There’s a lot of complexity and absurdity in the system. For example a road with lots of houses and businesses on it could be a state route and be slow and mainly serve local residents, while some other municipal road might be faster and mostly serve long distance travel; the jurisdictions that make decisions might not represent the main users. Roads can be reclassified, and organization can be rigidly imposed over a history that doesn’t fit.

One of the knottiest problems that ensues with all this is when an individual resident, say a family with children, seeks protection from their previously peaceful road becoming a dangerously fast highway with noisy trucks. It’s impossible to serve both needs well – the legitimate needs of residents, and the legitimate needs for travel in the broader region. It might be counterproductive to everyone to balance the needs through compromise. For example, trucks limited to 40 mph instead of 60 doesn’t really address the family’s concerns, and it slows travel for everyone.

Leveling up to the rescue! We define a continent-wide lattice of superhighway corridors, airports, train lines, etc, and move that land ownership and all its decision-making to the national level. This is a tiny fraction of all land, but it is nationally significant. This land is built above or below the ground level where it crosses between human settlements, so that the background of natural habitat is not dissected. Then, we can decide as a country how to manage that land and its systems to work across the country, without primary regard to local needs. (There’s plenty of other land for local needs.) I get how this is expensive and certain people lose out, and that we have to seize property to make this happen, but ultimately I think it makes more sense because the level of government that is designated to solve a problem has the authority and resources to solve it.

The same concept applies then to the remaining state land: states make a more fine grained lattice of state owned corridors and leave the reminder to the lower levels.

Funding does not need to be collected at higher levels and re-granted to lower levels; each level can manage its own fees and taxation itself by whatever method makes sense to that jurisdiction.

4. Transportation systems

Following from the leveling of transportation land and funding, we can then imagine how transport systems can evolve more rationally without jurisdictional gridlock.

Here’s a technology picture that makes more sense than what we are doing now:

  • At the national level we acquire very straight corridors, and create supersonic evacuated-tube transport to supplement highway and air travel and freight. The federal level rids itself of regionally significant infrastructure, focusing only on long-distance travel. The cost savings and added focus allows us to shift towards renewable-powered high efficiency tube transport and away from the more dangerous and polluting modes. Because of the high speed, all of the systems are isolated from people – none of them would permit bicycles or pedestrian crossings.
  • States acquire a lattice of corridors of statewide significance, including much of the crumbling infrastructure that is deemed not nationally significant. States seize and release land over time as needed to create straighter routes between major population centers, and as with the national system, they focus on regional-speed travel such as maglev and other automated networks to supplement highways. Over time travel shifts greatly towards the safer, efficient modes.
  • Major cities do the same thing at a city scale. For example they acquire and release land such that the city owns a grid of arterials over time, so it can plan and execute efficient city wide travel on bus and surface transit, automated networks, and suitably restricted roads. (By restricted I mean they wouldn’t allow arbitrary number of left turns or connections with local roads, and may not permit pedestrians, or would have signalized pedestrian crossings.)
  • Neighborhoods, towns and boroughs then control the remainder or the developed land, and can focus on slow transport that serves all destinations. This is a very different problem than transport at the higher levels, and deserves creative solutions that fit just that level. For example, the entire local circulation system could consist of 5-foot wide one-way paths limited to 20 mph, so that neighborhood vehicles, electric taxis, bikes and pedestrians can safely share the surface.

The proposal is to think and design for distinct levels rather than a mix or balance; we don’t invest in widening a certain local road just because more people are using it for commuting; instead we route traffic through the corridors that have been designed for regional travel.

There have been many concepts for cities of the future, that generally depict the ground level to be greened up and free of congestion, pollution, utility poles and so on. The main problem with them is that we have already invested trillions in infrastructure, and many of those concepts rely on rebuilding everything from scratch. In reality, creating safe and sustainable transport systems is more urgent than the 100-year lifetime of buildings, so we need approaches that gradually improve what we have towards those greened-up visions. The leveling-up concept provides that mechanism: neighborhoods won’t have to consider speed and distance in their decisions, and the higher levels won’t have to consider access and pedestrians in their decisions. Eliminating the impossible task of balancing unbalancable needs opens up creativity to solve those levels separately and better.

There is also the market aspect to thinking about these transport systems. If the jurisdiction owning the corridors can set up a market for private providers to compete in the traditionally-public modes, then we can take advantage of innovation in those modes like we’ve been able to do with cars. For example, a neighborhood electric robo-taxi can consist of a fleet from multiple competing providers.

5. Utilities and infrastructure

Physical distribution of pipes and wires to millions of endpoints and the connecting grid is a system that parallels the transport network, and would also benefit from some leveling-up concepts.

The reason we have the utility model for some businesses (which is a regulated public-private hybrid business type) is because of the root problem that market competition cannot be effective when it comes to endpoint-oriented infrastructure. It is not reasonable for a variety of gas companies to run a separate network of pipes to every house in order to have consumer choice. Without consumer choice there can be no market, hence the problem.

Leveling-up solves the market problem like this: there are large scale providers of gas, electricity, and data, providing distribution from the global level down to a neighborhood interface. The neighborhood interface is where the private and public sides of the system connect. Neighborhoods provide local connectivity from each endpoint to the interface. While there is just one public network inside the neighborhood, there are one or more privately controlled grids at the higher levels.

This model preserves both market advantage and democratic control in two ways:

  • The regional and national utilities compete for consumer business, and they can reach all consumers without having to build duplicate endpoint networks.
  • Builders of local networks compete for the business of setting up and managing the local networks. Because there are thousands or millions of neighborhoods, they form a consumer pool which allows for market competition.

This radically simple system also applies to shipping: different long distance carriers don’t need to drive separate trucks into each neighborhood; packages transfer at the neighborhood interface, and the neighborhood manages the local distribution. Trash collection is a parallel problem that can be handled the same way as shipping.

6. Everything else

I have a tendency to want to engineer everything according to my extremely egalitarian views, but at the same time I find most renderings of future green cities to be eerie, and have an overly sterile regularity. Here’s an example rendering of a city concept that may have lots of great points, but it doesn’t feel like real people could live there.


I think some people approach the problem of improving human settlements with an assumption that it will be centrally planned like Soviet apartment towers, and that is what gives it the eerily unreal flavor. I’m more interested in freedom, diversity, and small democratic units, which would yield a future that can’t be rendered in a picture like this because the places would be all different from each other.

Everything else besides the way we use and connect space is important too – that is, policing, education, health, taxation, and so on. But if feels like if the physical organization and transportation aspects were first, other forms of organization could follow more easily. All those things could be run on the level at which they make the most sense – so things like education would not need to be absurdly centralized. Those things would become easier to improve because the units would be clearer and the power to accomplish things would rest cleanly within the unit.

As a final topic, why should we care about any of this when there may be more pressing concerns? I feel like it is important to care about all of these:

  • The concrete topics on a progressive agenda like deforestation, climate change, poverty, crime, and equality (to name a few), and..
  • ..The power structures and power holders that block or promote those agenda topics, and..
  • ..The principles of organization that give rise to the power structures.

Leveling up is one of the principles that, if in practice, would power different power structures than we have today. The structures we have today partly block the human-centered political agenda in America, which is why we have so much worse performance than other countries in things like literacy, health, crime and energy use, despite being wealthy and partially democratic. I don’t think the bad performance is because we’re different than other people culturally; it’s because we organize in a way that twists democracy, and the fragmented federal system of overlapping jurisdictions gets leveraged by minority power holders to overpower majority values.

So that’s why we need to care about it.

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North Gulch Mystery

“North Gulch Mystery” is a role playing mystery game for exactly eight players. It should take 1 or 2 hours. All you need is some envelopes and scissors and the printout of the game sheets.

North Gulch Mystery game sheets (PDF)

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How Trump can be a better candidate

It’s election season in 2016. Of course we are all aware that Trump is a dangerous narcissist, but remember that Clinton is also imperfect. It sometimes is hard to tell which of two candidates is better when neither is ideal. So I made this diagram to explain how Trump could be the choice of so many Americans.


The diagram shows how I imagine America rates men and women from absolute virtue at the top to absolute evil on the bottom. It clearly shows Trump at a slightly more venerable position than Clinton. What other evidence do you need?

Kidding aside, I think that even if there was a scale of virtue like this, the lowest women category exists in the minds of some men only – there is no one actually in that box. This is a depiction of the worst slice of our slut-shaming misogynist culture.

If women didn’t have the vote, Trump would win in a landslide; but even scarier is that millions of women are voting for him – a majority in many states. The only way I can understand that is that millions of women see the world the way the diagram is shown, with women having greater innate sin. If anyone thinks we don’t need feminism any more, consider the internalized misogyny of those millions, and all the forces that are keeping up this social-values map alive in the national consciousness.

Drawing the diagram and writing “slutty” was hard for me to do, and I feel dirty, and exposed to fire from all sides. I’m pushing past that and posting it anyway because I think it is part of the value system in America and it does help explain why the election is going as it is. In fact I think it’s an essential ingredient to understanding what is going on.

I’ve never seen weirder and more massive mental programming than what is going on now. Maybe the scale of the calamity shocks us into mindless compliance somehow. I can’t even find words to express the sadness of the loss of heart, the loss of dialog, sanity, and reason. I feel there is a gigantic shift in perspective happening that is so great that we are no longer even standing on the ground. But that’s just a tiny bit of what I’m feeling about it; I have no way to say more. I pray that others can find words to say the thing more fully, and that the people hurting from the shaming will find ease and vision somehow, to pull ourselves back to grounded reality.

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