Sunday, December 31, 2006

Why I bash Libertarians

[NOTE: I originally started writing this last December.]

Reddit this morning led me to a book by Henry Hazlitt presumptuously entitled Economics in One Lesson. And since rounding out my collection of articles on why everyone but me is wrong about everything seems like as good a way as any to sign off this disastrous year I thought I'd take a swipe at the Libertarians and critique Hazlitt.

Hazlitt's argument is seductively self-evident: any argument for government intervention in the free market is wrong because it focuses myopically on the benefciaries of that policy while ignoring the (invariably far more numerous) victims. According to Hazlitt, "Economics is haunted by more fallacies than any other study known to man" because of:

"... the persistent tendency of men to see only the immediate effects of a given policy, or its effects only on a special group, and to neglect to inquire what the long-run effects of that policy will be not only on that special group but on all groups. It is the fallacy of overlooking secondary consequences.

I decided to pick on Hazlitt because he himself suffers from the very same myopia which he credits as the source of so many economic fallacies. It is an instructive exercise to read Hazlitt even if only to see whether you can see past his critiques of what other people have overlooked and figure out what he himself has overlooked. It is easy to get caught up in the fun of demolishing other people's arguments, even if many of them are just straw men, and so miss the fact that you are being snookered. Go on, give it a go. I'll wait.

Did you figure it out?

Identifying Hazlitt's myopia is challenging because most of his arguments are actually correct. Government intervention in free markets usually does lead to all manner of negative consequences. Unfettered capitalism really does lead to increased productivity and societal wealth. Minimum wage legislation really does increase unemployment. And so on and so on. So what's the problem?

Hazlitt himself leads the reader half-way there:

Our study of our lesson would not be complete if, before we took leave of it, we neglected to observe that the fundamental fallacy with which we have been concerned arises not accidentally but systematically. It is an almost inevitable result, in fact, of the division of labor.

In a primitive community, or among pioneers, before the division of labor has arisen, a man works solely for himself or his immediate family. What he consumes is identical with what he produces. There is always a direct and immediate connection between his output and his satisfactions.

But when an elaborate and minute division of labor has set in, this direct and immediate connection ceases to exist. I do not make all the things I consume but, perhaps, only one of them. With the income I derive from making this one commodity, or rendering this one service, I buy all the rest. I wish the price of everything I buy to be low, but it is in my interest for the price of the commodity or services that I have to sell to be high. Therefore, though I wish to see abundance in everything else, it is in my interest for scarcity to exist in the very thing that it is my business to supply. The greater the scarcity, compared to everything else, in this one thing that I supply, the higher will be the reward that I can get for my efforts.

(Emphasis added.)

Hazlitt continues:

Just as there is no technical improvement that would not hurt someone, so there is no change in public taste or morals, even for the better, that would not hurt someone. An increase in sobriety would put thousands of bartenders out of business. A decline in gambling would force croupiers and racing touts to seek more productive occupations. A growth of male chastity would ruin the oldest profession in the world.

But it is not merely those who deliberately pander to men's vices who would be hurt by a sudden improvement in public morals. Among those who would be hurt most are precisely those whose business it is to improve those morals. Preachers would have less to complain about; reformers would lose their causes; the demand for their services and contributions for their support would decline.

If there were no criminals we should need fewer lawyers, judges and firemen, and no jailers, no locksmiths, and (except for such services as untangling traffic snarls) even no policemen.

Under a system of division of labor, in short, it is difficult to think of a greater fulfillment of any human need which would not, at least temporarily, hurt some of the people who have made investments or painfully acquired skill to meet that precise need.

Now it is often not the diffused gain of the increased supply or new discovery that most forcibly strikes even the disinterested observer, but the concentrated loss. The fact that there is more and cheaper coffee for everyone is lost sight of; what is seen is merely that some coffee growers cannot make a living at the lower price. The increased output of shoes at lower cost by the new machine is forgotten; what is seen is a group of men and women thrown out of work. It is altogether proper—it is, in fact, essential to a full understanding of the problem—that the plight of these groups be recognized, that they be dealt with sympathetically, and that we try to see whether some of the gains from this specialized progress cannot be used to help the victims find a productive role elsewhere.

So far so good. Here is where he goes off the rails:

But the solution is never to reduce supplies arbitrarily, to prevent further inventions or discoveries, or to support people for continuing to perform a service that has lost its value.

Really? Why not? On this point Hazlitt is silent. He simply takes it as axiomatic that the more goods and services are being produced the better off the world is. He sees only the forest and misses the trees. And, unfortunately, in this case the trees are people. To someone on the street with no money and no marketable skills it matters not a whit if economic progress has produced cheaper coffee (Hazlitt's example), he still can't afford to buy a cup. Disposing of excess buggy whip makers is a much thornier problem than disposing of excess buggy whips. But Libertarians try to pretend that these are structurally comparable issues.

Unfortunately it doesn't work that way. There are lots of things you can do with buggy whips that you can't so easily do with human beings. You can put buggy whips in warehouses or landfills, but you can't do that with buggy whip makers, at least not in a civil society.

The Liberatarian answer is that when buggy whips become obsolete the buggy whip makers should find something new to do. But this is not always so easy. A fifty year old who has spent his whole life making buggy whips might not have such an easy time learning a new trade, particularly in a world where productive occupations often require decades of training.

The fundamental problem with Liberatarian economics is that there is a positive-feedback effect that tends to put capital in the hands of those who need it the least. This gives those lucky few the leverage to effectively turn everyone else into indentured servants who have to work their entire lives to pay off their debts. Or, even worse, it lets some people slip through the cracks even if they are ready, willing and able to be productive simply because they don't have the capital to find a market for their services (a.k.a. a job).

Certainly in the aggregate the world is better off if we can simply take excess people and, like excess buggy whips, warehouse them or discard them or otherwise turn them into somebody else's problem. But is that really a better world? I think not.

Finding the right quality metric for an economy is not easy, and Ron's First Law applies: all extreme positions are wrong, which in this case means that all facile positions are wrong. The Right wants to increase the average while the Left wants to decrease the variance. Those extremes lead to lassez-faire capitalism and Marxist communism, both of which the world has rightly decided are pretty bad ideas.

The right answer is some sort of engineering compromise: free markets encourage innovation and increase productivity and standards of living, but then I also think there ought to be some government intervention to recycle some of the capital from the top back to the bottom to prevent people from falling into abject poverty and despair. Yes, it's inefficient. Efficiency needs to be tempered with (but not sacrificed to) compassion.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Imagine that

I am shocked -- shocked! -- to learn that a security flaw has been found in Microsoft's new Vista operating system.

Also, Peter Gutman's detailed analysis of Vista's inherent design flaws is getting a lot of attention. Could Vista be the beginning of the end for Microsoft? The Zune disaster doesn't seem to have made much of a dent. But maybe the new year will bring with it a ray of hope that the world will at long last throw off the Microsoft yoke.

But I wouldn't bet my life savings on it.

Friday, December 22, 2006

I'm going to have nightmares for weeks

I stopped eating foie gras a long time ago (along with veal) because I heard descriptions of how the stuff is produced. But nothing prepared me to actually see it with my own eyes.

Be warned: if you care for animals at all you will find this video very, very disturbing.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

At least we know he won't hijack the plane

Just when you thought that airport security couldn't get any weirder the LA Times reports:

A woman going through security at Los Angeles International Airport put her month-old grandson into a plastic bin intended for carry-on items and slid it into an X-ray machine.

Friday, December 15, 2006

An interesting experiment

The balance of power in the Senate now hangs on the health of South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson, who would almost certainly be replaced by a Republican if he should become unable to serve.

Interestingly, South Dakota law only allows Johnson to be replaced if he actually dies. As long as he's alive it doesn't matter that he can't perform his duties. The presumption is that he will recover eventually, so he can't be replaced. Which makes me wonder: if Johnson were in a persistent vegitative state, would the Republicans be as eager to insist that he be kept alive as they were in the case of Terry Schiavo?

Not that I hope we ever get a chance to actually do that experiment. I'm pretty sure I know what the outcome would be.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Proof that God is a Republican

Democratic Senator Tim Johnson has apparently suffered a stroke which will probably result in the balance of power in the Senate shifting back to the Republicans.

Although I intended the title of this post to be darkly humorous, there is no doubt in my mind that millions of Americans see the Right Hand of God at work here.

UPDATE: The LA Times is reporting that Johnson did not suffer a stroke after all.

So this brings to mind a very strange thing that happened to me the other day. I was having dinner in a restaurant with some friends and we had just polished off a very nice bottle of Riesling and were starting on a 2004 Seghesio Old Vines Zin when I suddenly started feeling woozy. Long story short: I passed out, my wife thought I was having a siezure, and they ended up hauling me away in an ambulance. They ran a full battery of tests on me, including a CAT scan and a tox screen, and found absolutely nothing wrong. Even my blood alchohol came back as 0.000! (That's a trick I need to learn how to repeat!)

Fast forward two weeks. We're at Thanksgiving dinner. My wife has two martinis, which usually doesn't even register, and she starts to feel green around the gills! She ended up losing her lunch and spending four hours conked out in our host's guest room while we chowed down on turkey.

Maybe there's a bug going around that makes people pass out? If so then Johnson's prognosis is good. Neither I nor my wife have had any relapses.

DNS attacks do happen

Reddit is down. Not the site itself (as far as I know) but their DNS servers, which are hosted at That site is now full of adwords spam. It's probably been hacked, and any site that used them for DNS service is effectively off the air.

It's odd how addicted to Reddit I have apparently become. I keep hitting reload in the vain hope that the problem will fix itself even though I know it will almost certainly be hours or days. Ironically, reddit itself is almost certainly still up, but there's no way to get to it without knowing its IP address, and the only way to find that out (unless you happen to have a cached copy or wrote it down on a post-it) is, in reddit's case, to get it from

I should look into getting some backup name servers for my own domains. But I probably won't.

UPDATE: Shimon Rura points out that every cloud has a silver lining.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Fuck you, John McCain

John McCain wants to extend Federal anti-obscenity laws to blogs. To which I say: Senator McCain, with all due respect (which apparently isn't very much): fuck you and the horse you rode in on. Better yet, fuck you with the horse you rode in on. What part of "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press" do you not understand?

Monday, December 11, 2006

And liberals wonder why no one takes them seriously

I decided to wander over to the Huffungton Post this morning just to see what was going on. The very first sentence of actual text on the front page was from a blog entry by Nora Ephron:

"I met Condoleezza Rice last weekend. She was much prettier than I thought she was going to be."

It gets better (or worse depending on your point of view):

Condi was the hostess of the dinner, and she stood up to speak about each of the honorees. She was completely competent. She was, however, not at all funny. She tried to be, but she wasn't.

I wonder how Nora would feel if the shoe were on the other foot:

I read a blog entry by Nora Ephron today. Her picture was so tiny that I couldn't tell if she was good looking or not. I think she might have been trying to be funny, but I really couldn't tell. I guess that means she's not a very good writer. Maybe she should stick to hosting dinner parties, at which she professes to be an expert."

Friday, November 24, 2006

Truth and reconciliation

These two posts do a pretty good job of elucidating the point I've been trying to make (badly apparently) about what is wrong with the confrontational style of atheism promulgated by Richard Dawkins et al.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Confessions don't start with the word "if"

God help me, I cannot believe I am actually writing about O.J. Simpson, but the number of people taking seriously the proposition that his book ought to see the light of day because it's a confession really steams my clams. Hello! Earth to Timothy Noah! Confessions don't start with the word "if". If O.J. waned to confess he'd go to the police and say, "I killed them. I'm terribly sorry. Lock me up." Or at the very least he'd start to pay the civil judgement he owes to the Goldman family. But "If I did it" is no confession, it is twisting the knife. It is a spoiled narcissistic scum-sucking murdering brat whining about the fact that no one pays any attention to him any more. "Hello," O.J. is saying, "I got away with murder, remember? Everyone pay attention to MEEEEEEE!" It's a scene more suitable to an episode of South Park than to real life. Anyone who treats this animal or anything that he says or writes with anything other than unmitigated contempt ought to be ashamed of themselves. That is, until he drops the "if".

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

I've found my spiritual home

So here I am writing all these rants lamenting what a jerk Richard Dawkins is when this falls in my lap. It took me less than half an hour to see the light: I am a Realist! Halelujah!

Seriously, I think this guy has a much better approach to spreading the Word than Dawkins does. Joining the Church of Realism also comes with fringe benefits.

Holy crap, this guy is prolific. And some of his writings are real eye-openers. I'm gonna be up half the night.

Monday, November 20, 2006

What's so great about evidence?

Right on cue Richard Dawkins answers the charge of being an atheist fundamentalist :

"Fundamentalists know they are right because they have read the truth in a holy book and they know, in advance, that nothing will budge them from their belief. The truth of the holy book is an axiom, not the end product of a process of reasoning. The book is true, and if the evidence seems to contradict it, it is the evidence that must be thrown out, not the book. By contrast, what I, as a scientist, believe (for example, evolution) I believe not because of reading a holy book but because I have studied the evidence. It really is a very different matter. Books about evolution are believed not because they are holy. They are believed because they present overwhelming quantities of mutually buttressed evidence. In principle, any reader can go and check that evidence. When a science book is wrong, somebody eventually discovers the mistake and it is corrected in subsequent books. That conspicuously doesn't happen with holy books."

To which I respond: What's so great about evidence? Is not your belief that evidence is a reliable guide to Truth just a matter of faith?

I can only imagine how Dawkins would respond to that, but there is only one answer that I can think of so I'll argue with myself and say: the difference between evidence and faith is that the holy books are mutually and internally contradictory, and there is no principled way of resolving those contradictions. Scientific evidence, by contrast, is consistent and independently reproducible, and therefore everyone at least agrees on what the evidence is even if they might differ from time to time about the implications.

The problem with this is, interestingly, a manifestation of the Universal Asymmetry that I pointed out in my last post on this topic. Dawkins may have come to his beliefs by studying "the evidence" but very few people have this luxury. The vast majority of the people in the world do not have direct access to "the evidence." At best they have access to books written by people (scientists) with access to the evidence. And the vast majority of such books are written specifically to be inaccessible to the layman. (To be fair, many of Dawkins' own books are notable exceptions to this rule.) Take me, for example. I believe in evolution, but not because I have actually studied the evidence. I don't have time for that. I believe in evolution becuase it makes sense to me. And people who believe, say, that Christ died for their sins, believe that for the same reason: because it makes sense to them.

Make no mistake: I absolutely believe that those who deny evolution are wrong. The difference between me and Dawkins that I understand how someone might reasonably come to a different conclusion and Dawkins doesn't. He believes despite evidence to the contrary that all non-scientific worldviews are unreasonable. They are not. They just start with different premises and life experiences. Until Dawkins and his ilk come to understand and accept this (and adjust their rhetoric accordingly) I predict they will make little progress towards their stated goals.

P.S. It is not true, as Dawkins claims, that there is are no corrective processes in religion. The text of the holy books may not change often (although it does happen) but the interpretation of the holy books is in constant flux, just as the interpretation of scientific evidence is.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Now he tells us

Henry Kissinger says that victory in Iraq is no longer possible.

Damn those latte-sipping sandal-wearing terrorist-mollycoddling liberals. I'm sure it's all their fault.

The elephant in the atheist living room

Richard Dawkins shows off his finest fundamentalist form when he attempts to discredit any possible reason an atheist might have to tolerate religion. Dawkins to my mind is no better than the assholes who work the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica waving their Bibles and spouting off about the evils of homosexuality. [UPDATE: This is worded too strongly. I should have said something like: some of Dawkins's rhetoric is no better than...]

I personally subscribe to a variant of I'm-an-atheist-but-ism #2: people need religion. There is palpable irony in seeing the Great Logician himself trying to refute this argument by saying that it is condescending. Even if it were (I don't think it is), so what? Aren't we supposed to judge the truth of falseness of a proposition by the evidence rather than on whether or not we think someone might be offended? By rejecting this argument on the grounds of political incorrectness Dawkins shows himself to be just as much of a hypocrite as all the other religious fundamentalists.

But the problem runs even deeper than that because not only is Dawkins arguing ab-political-correctness, he is also knocking down a straw man: It is not that people need relgion, it is that they want religion! Some people, to the perennial chagrin of people like Dawkins, simply prefer existence with the sense of purpose that faith can provide (and frankly I can muster a great deal of sympathy for that position if jerks like Dawkins are the role models for the alternative). This is simlpy a fact. People choose religion of their own free will. It is the height of condescension to suppose, as Dawkins does, that choosing religion is ipso facto an unsound decision, and to appoint yourself as the arbiter of what they should have chosen for themselves.

It gets worse still because there are manifest sound reasons why someone might reject science in favor of religion, not least of which is that there are important questions that science cannot answer. Science, being objective by definition, is by its very nature unsuitable for addressing questions of subjective experience. We can tease out, say, all the chemical reactions that occur when one eats a chocolate bar and still have made no progress towards an understanding of what it is like to eat chocolate.

Science is likewise impotent in the face of mystical experience. Scientists tend to write it all off as delusion, but that is unjustifiably facile. Imagine that there were a genetic mutation that made one unable to taste chocolate, a sort of color-blindness for your taste buds. (When I was in my twenties I caught a weird virus that actually made me completely lose my sense of taste for a few days. It was a very distressing experience.) Someone with this mutation would be utterly unable to grasp the subjective experience of eating a chocolate bar, and if there were enough of these people they might suppose that all the folks waxing rapturous over the wonders of chocolate were (no pun intended) nuts.

Although we are making astonishing progress in understanding how the brain works, the mind is still a deeply mysterious phenomenon. Science cannot yet eliminate the possibility that some minds might be in contact with something extra-physical (or even just complex and subtle, but nonetheless real that we do not yet understand), and so to dismiss religion on the grounds that it is a priori untenable is, at best, premature. But, as ever, it's actually much worse than that. There is an elephant in the atheist living room, a question that is both obvious and unanswerable by science. It is this: why am I me? From my point of view there is this very obvious asymmetry in the Universe that the symmetric laws of physics not only cannot account for, but with which they are in fact fundamentally incompatible. The facile answer -- that the situation is symmetric because everyone experiences this -- is not an answer but an evasion. It does not address the question, which is why do I have this particular subjective experience.

I am personally content to let that question remain unanswered and revel in the delicious mysteriousness of it all. But I see no rational reason for passing judgement on those who might choose to do otherwise.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Chasing a dream

After watching the events of the world unfold over the past few years I've grown a pretty touch hide, but this still made me cry.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The terrorists win

If George Bush is to be believed, terrorists around the world have won a major victory as Democrats take control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Good thing George Bush is not to be believed. It's a little early to say that my hope in the American electorate is restored, but just maybe there is hope for the world yet.

Good night, and good luck.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Sniveling cowards

Just when you thought the policies coming out of the twisted little brains of the Bush administration couldn't possibly get any more perverse we learn that they want to prevent torture victims from talking to lawyers because

"Improper disclosure of other operational details, such as interrogation methods, could also enable terrorist organizations and operatives to adapt their training to counter such methods, thereby obstructing the CIA's ability to obtain vital intelligence that could disrupt future planned terrorist attacks"

And what of the innocent people who are accidentally caught up in this secret web of kidnapping and torture and God only knows what else because of bad intelligence or vendettas or political agendas or less-than-iron-willed people who are willing to say anything to stop the pain? Unfortunate but necessary "collateral damage" in the war against terrorism you say? Then what exactly is it that distinguishes us from the terrorists?

Actually, I can think of one thing: the terrorists are not willing to sacrifice their principles to save their own skin.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

It just keeps getting better

From AP via Yahoo! News:

"A Republican congressman accused of abusing his ex-mistress agreed to pay her about $500,000 in a settlement last year that contained a powerful incentive for her to keep quiet until after Election Day, a person familiar with the terms of the deal told The Associated Press."

Ye gods. Are there any Republicans left who aren't involved in some kind of scandal?

Idiocy has a silver lining

This is supposed to be funny, but it's actually the inevitable result of following Dubya's rhetoric to its logical conclusion. Surely if it's true that "if the Democrats win then the terrorists win" then anyone who votes Democratic is supporting the enemy and can therefore be rightly declared an enemy combatant.

Happily, Dubya has never been very good at logic. But there is staggering irony in the possibility that the only thing keeping the opposition out of Gitmo is Dubya's inability to reason.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Disaster looms

Ars Technica has a good round-up of why we can expect chaos come election day.

Bye bye, Democracy. It was fun while it lasted.

Found and lost

Not 24 hours after John Kerry found his backbone he lost it again.


Porn prevents rape

It has always seemed plausible to me, and now there's scientific proof that internet porn reduces the number of rapes. This is not speculation, not overhyped extrapolation from some laboratory experiment. This is real data from the real world. Where the Net goes, reduction in the number of rapes inevitably follows. Having had a little firsthand experience with the annoying effects of hormone overdose (no, not that -- I'm talking about the natural kind that comes along with puberty), this result is not too surprising. If you provide a safe way for randy boys (ah, youth!) to vent their excess testosterone, so to speak, in the privacy of their own homes they will be less likely to take out their frustrations on other people.

Voting fraud continues

First it was Florida, now it's Texas. (Gee. Imagine that.)

Friday night, KFDM reported about people who had cast straight Democratic ticket ballots, but the touch-screen machines indicated they had voted a straight Republican ticket.

Some of those voters including Lamar University professor, Dr. Bruce Drury, believe the problem is a programming error.

Ya think? Wow, those profethorth are tho thmart. I wish I wath ath thmart as them.

John Kerry finds his spine


Beginning of the end? Or the end of the beginning?

Iraq is starting to unravel:

Sunni insurgents have cut the roads linking the city to the rest of Iraq. The country is being partitioned as militiamen fight bloody battles for control of towns and villages north and south of the capital.

As American and British political leaders argue over responsibility for the crisis in Iraq, the country has taken another lurch towards disintegration.

Well-armed Sunni tribes now largely surround Baghdad and are fighting Shia militias to complete the encirclement.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Voting fraud begins

Reports are already coming out of Florida that electronic voting machines are changing votes. You get three guesses as to which way they're changing them.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

So... can I send you my business plan? Advice for the cash-strapped entrepreneur

I've been meaning to write a lengthy response to one of the comments to my earlier post about geek business myths. Joseph J. Loew (would it be a low blow for me to call him Joe Loew? ;-) wrote:

Ron, are you ready to fund a company focused on Highly Targeted Advertising for music and video? Vibe Technology will do for media content what AdSense did for direct marketing text ads.

My goal is upwards of 30% conversion rates.

Ready to put your money where you mouth is??? :-)

In other words, "Can I send you my business plan?"

The short answer is: Of course you can. Why do you think I went to the trouble of writing the myths post?

But the longer answer is: if you have to ask the question, then the chances that I'll actually be interested in funding your business are pretty slim. There are an awful lot of business plans out there looking for funding. In LA it's a tossup between bizplans and screenplays, and in both cases most of them are not very good. Nine out of ten startups fail. My job is to find the one in ten that will succeed, which is, of course, more art than science.

It's helpful to think about this from the VC's point of view. The way a typical VC works is they will take money from rich people and pool it into a fund. They then take that money and dole it out to startups. If the VC doesn't make those investments, they don't get paid, and if the investments they make do badly they will have a hard time raising their next fund. (Most VC's actually structure their deals so that they make money even if their investments tank. But you can't stay in business long that way.)

The point is that VC's are highly motivated to find good businesses to invest in. That's our job.

It's not an easy job. It typically takes between two and six months to close a deal, most of which is spent doing due-dilligence. Bcause it takes so long, the cost of doing due-dilligence is enormous, both in terms of actual cost and in terms of opportunity cost. This is the reason that many VC's don't like to do small deals. The overhead of doing due-dilligence is so large that they can't turn a profit on a deal worth less than a few million dollars.

The upshot is that it's really really important for a VC to develop a good instinct for recognizing fundable companies before the due-dilligence process begins. So we have a few rules of thumb that we apply to filter out the clueless people before we waste too much time with them. And heading the list of dead-giveaways to cluelessness is issuing a challenge like the one above, because it demonstrates very clearly that the issuer doesn't understand how we do business.

Since the top-ten list format seemed to be so popular, here's my top-ten list (with nine items this time instead of eleven) of things you should never do when approaching someone to invest in your company:

1. Don't ask them to sign an NDA. Instead, ask them verbally not to pass the information along. The actual value of an NDA is virtually zero. To capitalize on it you'd have to prove in a court of law that a particular person leaked the information. The chances of your being able even to find out the origin of a leak, let alone prove it, are vanishingly small. Sophisticated invstors know this, and if you ask them to sign an NDA all you will be accomplishing is demonstrating that you don't know it. If you ask them simply to promise not to pass the information along you are demonstrating that you trust them, which is actually much more likely to achieve the goal of having them keep the information to themselves. But most new entrepreneurs worry about this way too much (see geek business myth #3).

2. If you're cold-calling, don't send anything longer than a paragraph or two. Just introduce yourself, give a few sentences about your background and what you're up to, and ask if they'd like to know more. I once got a cold-call email that began, "I would like to ask your advice..." and then went on for, no exaggeration, ten pages. My response was, in its entirety: my advice is never to send an email this long to someone you don't know.

3. Don't fake it. If you have no clue what your market size is, don't pretend that you do. It's much better to know than not to know, but it's far better to admit you don't know than to pretend that you do and get found out. Honest ignorance will get you much further than bullshit. Also, don't assume that just because no one is calling you on it that we don't know that you're faking it. We can tell, even if we don't let you know. And think about this: do you really want to do business with someone who is so easily duped that you can con them?

4. Don't get too excited if a VC shows interest. I learned this one the hard way. Until the check clears (and sometimes not even then) the deal can fall through. Some VCs will string you along even if they are not actually interested. Maybe you are a potential competitor to a company that they've already funded (a good reason to do your homework on a VC before you approach them), or maybe they want to keep you in their bullpen, or maybe they're just assholes and want to mess with your head. Remember, this is business. It's not about your hopes and dreams, it's about money. A certain amount of detachment and hard-nosedness is required to succeed. It takes a very strong person to get through the process with all of their humanity intact.

5. Don't need money. What I mean by this is: don't think of yourself as a supplicant asking for a favor, think of yourself as somone providing a scarce product that VCs want: an opportunity to make effective use of capital. In that regard you can think of a VC as a customer. It's not quite the same attitude as you take with your actual customers (since the product your providing is very different in both cases) but the attitude should be the same. If you show desperation to sell, no one will buy. That's true whether the product is apples or investment opportunities.

6. Don't spend too much effort polishing your business plan. Spell check it and make sure it looks reasonably presentable, but don't agonize over the format. Don't put fancy covers on it. Don't put bullshit sections in there just because you think (or even because someone told you) that they need to be there. (See point #3 above.) Just describe the opportunity as simply and clearly and straightforwardly and completely as you can. Always start with a one-page summary.

7. Don't go it alone. Make friends with a good bizdev person. A bizdev person (a.k.s. a VP of business development) is someone who knows how to ferret out and talk to customers. He or she is the kind of person you mostly didn't hang out with in school because they were the cool kids who went to all the parties while you stayed in your dorm room and hacked. Now is the time to seek those people out and make friends with them. Get them excited about your product. Find one you like, who seems to get along with everyone, who has a lot of energy, and wants to make money, and ask them to join your company.

8. Don't try to start a company without any background. A few people have done it successfully, but getting some experience under your belt first makes it so much easier. And I'm not talking about taking a salaried position at IBM. Join someone else's startup, preferably one being started by someone with experience, and the earlier the better. It doesn't even matter much if you don't like the company's prospects (ask for salary instead of equity in that case). You can often learn more from watching a company fail than you can from watching one succeed. Join it with the expectation that you will get nothing but an education out of it and you will not be disappointed (and then if the company makes it you will get a nice bonus). Alternatively, work for a VC firm for a year or two.

9. Stop asking for advice and just do it. There is no formula for success. Every successful business person has to figure it out (or stumble on to it) on their own. Also, there are some things that sophisticated collaborators will just expect you to figure out without your being told. And no, I'm not going to tell you what those things are. But here's a hint: there's no excuse for not knowing something that you can learn with a Google search.

Good luck.

This is the way freedom ends...

...not with a violent coup, but with the quiet passage of a bill that, among other things, authorizes the President to declare martial law whenever he deems it necessary to "suppress public disorder." This effectively repeals the Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibited the U.S. military from being used in law enforcement actions against U.S. citizens. This seems to have gone all but unnoticed by the mainstream press.

So maybe all that sabre rattling about Iran was just a clever ruse to distract us from the real plan, which is to give the President the power to call in the Army to "suppress public disorder" in case people get upset over, say, not being allowed to vote on November 7. Unthinkable? I would have thought so. But at this point, if Bush decides to turn the Army against U.S. citizens it will be legal. And it's not at all clear what we could do about it then.

Let's take stock:

1. The votes are being counted by machines that are manufactured by a company whose CEO is a rabid partisan Republican. The machines have had myriad security problems, and are known to be very easy to hack.

2. The President now has the power to imprison and torture anyone he deems to be an enemy combatant (which is to say, anyone he wants) indefinitely without trial and without access to an attorney.

3. The President now has the power to use the U.S. Army against U.S. citizens on U.S. soil.

4. The President believes he's on a mission from God. And so do a lot of other people.

At this point, if the Democrats officially win (as opposed to actually win, which is not the same thing nowadays) the election and the transition of power happens peacefully I will be genuinely surprised.

I predict that November 7 will be a good day to be out and about with a video camera. It's going to be an interesting day.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

It's a miracle!

Dilbert creator Scott Adams has become the first person in recorded history to recover from spasmodic dysphonia, a weird condition where you lose your ability to speak. Even stranger, he did it by reciting a nusery rhyme. I kid you not.

Funny thing, Scott's an atheist. God truly works in mysterious ways.

Einstein, eat your heart out

Your's truly has received a patent on a device that allows faster-than-light communications. :-)

Monday, October 23, 2006

Now we know

I have long suspected that there are truly no depths that Republicans will not sink to in order to maintain their grip on power, but now there is proof.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

On the virtues of doubt

Traveling through Tennessee recently I spent quite a bit of time listening to conservative Christian radio stations. They've become much more prevalent since I was a teenager. Nowadays it's hard to turn the dial without tripping over half a dozen of them.

I grew up in the South and I've spent a fair bit of time studying religion in general and Christianity in particular, but nothing prepared me for some of the things I heard. Substitute "Allah" for "Jesus" and it could have been Taliban Radio. To cite but one example: there was an entire show devoted to the question of whether women were more easily taken in by lies than men, with the obvious Biblical launching pad of Eve and the Fruit of the Tree. But though it began rather gently and furtively, it didn't end that way. Fifteen minutes or so into the program the advocate of the women-are-more-easily-fooled-than-men position was saying that women are "absolutely worthless" (an exact quote) except insofar as they have a relationship with Jesus, and ranting about how horrible it is that some people to try to teach young girls to have self-esteem (can you imagine?) because it diminishes their true source of worth, which is Jesus, etc. etc. It was so extreme it almost seemed like the sort of thing that Richard Dawkins might come up with to parody religion. But this was no parody.

And, of course, the person saying these things was a woman.

But what shocked me the most is that over three days and many hours of listening I never once heard even a hint of dissent or doubt. Not once did anyone ever say, "Whoa, hold on just a second, are you sure about that?" Every comment, no matter how extreme, was met with, essentially, "Amen, Hallelujah, and furthermore..." The only hint of a moral qualm came from a caller who was agonizing over who to vote for now that the Republicans have been exposed as child molesters because "the Democrats just want to hand the country over to the homosexuals."

A pickle indeed. I felt the caller's pain.

I have never worried much about religious fundamentalism in this country because I have faith (yes, faith) in our evolved moral intuition, that when push comes to shove common sense (and commerce) mostly prevails. I decided to put that faith to the test with a little experiment: I would post on the Internet an ironclad logical argument that according to the Bible, cannibalism is not a sin.

The result that I was expecting -- hoping for actually -- was that people's moral intuition would take over and make them say to themselves, "Whoa, hold on just a second, that can't be right." (I was also expecting a lot of angry responses from people telling me I was going to burn in hell, which is how True Believers generally deal with cognitive dissonance.)

Instead there was just a deafening silence, and two people saying, essentially, "Gee, he might be right."

I find that very scary. If without even trying very hard I can convince people that God thinks it's OK for them to chow down on their children, just think of what someone who is really skilled and charismatic could do. If people won't raise their moral hackles at the thought of cannibalism, if women can't be bothered to dissent when they are told they are "worthless", I fear we may be in for some truly horrific times before we emerge from our collective nightmare. The Taliban are not in Afghanistan, they are in East Tennessee.

When I was 30 I read a book called The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism. The first question is "Can one doubt the existence of God and still be a good Jew?" The answer is: not only is it possible, it is required to maintain at least a little bit of doubt about His existence because absolute certainty leads to fanaticism. I think the world would be a better place if that creed were more widely spread. Maintaining a little bit of doubt about whatever you believe is a good thing if for no other reason than that it keeps you humble, which even the most ardent Christian at least ostensibly believes is a virtue.

This, I think, is the central evil of both the religious and political Right nowadays: they have transformed people's perception of doubt. On the Right, doubt is not a virtue. It is not a tempering force that can keep you out of trouble. It is instead a distraction, an emasculating influence that robs you of focus and purpose. Doubt is a Bad Thing that must be eliminated.

The problem with this point of view is that it only works if you're God. If you're a fallible human you will occasionally make mistakes, and sooner or later reality will get in your face with the fact that you are not always Right About Everything. At that point, if you have hewn to the belief that doubt is bad, you have to start invoking some serious psychological defense mechanisms, like denial.

Alas, denial seems more fashionable than humility at the moment.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

All your space are belong to U.S.

Today Iraq, tomorrow the galaxy.

THE US has adopted a new space policy that rejects future arms-control agreements and claims a right to deny access to space to anyone "hostile to American interests".

A Biblical bombshell

I don't normally argue with evangelists any more, but there's a group that works the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica for whom I will occasionally make an exception. These people are really a piece of work. They cart in an entire audio-visual setup: big-screen projection TV, laptop PC running Power Point, video cameras, microphones, and a PA system. They set up one microphone for the audience to ask questions. The result is usually a pretty good show, and they always gather a crowd. They are so obnoxious that even Christians will stop to argue with them, which doesn't seem to faze them at all.

A few weeks ago one of them was preaching about moral relativism: if we don't have an authoritative source of revealed morality, how do we decide what is right and wrong? (Never mind that there's actually a Biblical answer to this: we know Right from Wrong because Eve ate from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. But I digress.) Imagine you meet up with a cannibal who wants to eat you. Is that OK? He thinks it is. Who are you to dispute him?

That was an opening I couldnt' resist. I stepped up to the microphone and asked, "Is it OK to eat someone who has died of natural causes? And if not, where in the Bible does it say that?"

The guy didn't miss a beat. (He never does. He's very, very good.) "No, it's not OK. There's a story in Isaiah about some women who are in a besieged city who conspire to murder and eat their sons, and God clearly condemns this action."

"But wait," I responded, "that's not on point at all. Obviously if they have to kill their sons before they can eat them that's wrong because murder is wrong. But that wasn't my question. I asked about eating someone who has died of natural causes."

He sputtered for a moment, said something along the lines of, "It's in there somewhere -- go look for it," and shut the microphone off. (I always count that as a victory.)

Not being the sort to shirk a homework assignment I decided to try to find the story the guy was referring to. So I finally got myself an on-line copy of the Bible (can you believe it's taken me this long?) and started grepping (that's searching for you non-computer-geeks out there) for the word "flesh." I wasn't able to find the story the guy was referring to (I suspect he was blowing smoke, though he does know his Bible pretty well). But I did find this:

Jer19:9 And I will cause them to eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their daughters, and they shall eat every one the flesh of his friend in the siege and straitness, wherewith their enemies, and they that seek their lives, shall straiten them.

That's God speaking. Is it possible that God did not actually follow through on this threat? No. If he did not follow through then God will have spoken falsely. One can quibble over whether or not an omnipotent God is theoretically capable of lying, but it doesn't matter. If he actually did lie then that undermines the entire foundation of fundamentalist Christianity, which is that the Bible is True irrespective of the abstract theoretical issue. So because God said that he would "cause [people] to eat the flesh of their sons" we have no choice but to conclude that He actually did it. So it is not possible that Cannibalism is a sin, because God, being perfectly good, would never force anyone to sin. Such a thing would clearly be abhorrent to His nature.

So the Bible is clear: cannibalism is unambiguously not a sin.

It's actually much worse than that. Not only is cannibalism not a sin, it is in fact endorsed (and inflicted!) by God Himself as a punishment for sin! (The people who are being forced by God to chow down on their children are sinners, of course.) According to the Bible, cannibalism is a Good Thing! It's unpleasant to be sure, but it's for your own good (kind of like stoning).

Can't wait to hear what the Third Street gang has to say about this.

Pardon me while I pick my jaw up off the floor

George Bush -- yes, that George Bush -- has said that Iraq 'Could Be' Vietnam All Over Again.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Deja vu all over again

The Republicans have a secret plan to end the war:

Sen. Conrad Burns said at a debate Tuesday night that President Bush does have a plan for winning the war in Iraq, but he isn't about to share it with the world.

Monday, October 16, 2006

I hate to say I told you so...

A much discussed--but until now largely theoretical--prospect has become real: that the U.S. may be preparing for war with Iran.

They're mad as hell

The South Florida (can you imagine?) Sun-Sentinal reports that Atheist groups are on the rise.

Just another sign that the Apocalypse must be imminent.

What's wrong with this reasoning?

Tim Harford, in an otherwise worthwhile article about the economic realities of charity, seriously drops the logical ball when he writes:

"Even the way we choose to dole out cash betrays our true motives. Someone with $100 to give away and a world full of worthy causes should choose the worthiest and write the check. We don't. Instead, we give $5 for a LiveStrong bracelet, pledge $25 to Save the Children, another $25 to AIDS research, and so on. But $25 is not going to find a cure for AIDS. Either it's the best cause and deserves the entire $100, or it's not and some other cause does. The scattershot approach simply proves that we're more interested in feeling good than doing good.

Many people are unconvinced by this argument...because they are used to diversifying their financial investments (a bit of Google stock and a bit of Exxon, too) and varying their choices (vanilla ice cream AND bananas). But those instincts are selfish: They are not intended to benefit both Google and Exxon, nor both the ice-cream company and the banana growers. With charity, the logic is different, and a truly selfless donor would bite the bullet and put his entire donation behind one cause. That we find that so hard to imagine is just one more indication of how hard it is for us to think ourselves into a truly selfless view of the world.

How many logical flaws can you find in this reasoning? I count at least three:

1. The argument assumes that there is such a thing as a "best choice" when it comes to charity, and of course there isn't. The value of the work done by charitable orgnizations is incommensurate. How do you compare the value of an organization that works to save the oceans with one that works to save the rain forests or find a cure for cancer?

2. Even assuming that there is such a thing as a single best choice, the argument assumes that you know what the best choice is with absolute certainty. If you knew which stock would perform best there would be no need for diversification. Likewise, because you can't know which charity is "best" diversification makes sense to hedge against that uncertainty.

3. Even if you assume that there is a best choice and you know what it is, the argument assumes that the incremental value of money is constant. In other words, the argument assumes that the giving of money does not change the relative ranking of organizations. But of course that's not true because of the law of diminshing returns. At some point the relative effectiveness (and hence value) of additional resources begins to decline.

There are probably others. It's a shame that the editorial staff at Slate, which is usually pretty good about filtering out complete bogosity, dropped the ball so hard in this case.

Friday, October 13, 2006

The whirlwind tour

After more than a week on the road I finally have a moment to come up for air. We started the day in Ocracoke, North Carolina, at the very end of the Outer Banks. It's a beautiful place, a wonderful admixture of sea and continent, and, as a bonus, the site of the Wright Brother's first flight is on the way. We left at 1:00. It was 78 degrees.

About 400 miles and one cold front later we're in Winston-Salem and there's a frost advisory for the evening. We were on the road about eight hours (including one forty-minute ferry ride), a sustained speed that would have been a fantasy just 100 years ago. For $106 we have a very nice room in a La Quinta inn (complete with free high-speed Internet). For $54 plus tip we got a fine meal for two, which included three martinis and a very fine apple cobbler (with ice cream). What a great country.

This is literally the first free block of time I've had since we started this trip on the 4th. I've had five or ten minutes here and there, but this is my first free hour. It's been an amazing trip. The weather has ranged from 80 degrees and sunny to pouring rain and nearly freezing temperatures (fortunately not at the same time). We've gone from New York (population 8 million) to Ocracoke (population under 800). We crossed the Cheapeake Bay bridge-tunnel, a 17-mile long span that is one of the engineering wonders of the world (worth a detour IMHO). I shot three hours of additional footage for my film. Michael had his Social Security appeal hearing two days ago. You'll have to wait for the movie to find out what happened. :-)

Two days ago we were saddened to learn about the plane crash in New York. We had already left the city, but a number of our friends called to make sure it wasn't us. I fly an SR22, and the plane that crashed was an SR20. I have no idea what happened, except that it was pretty clearly pilot error. The most plausible theory I've heard is that they were trying to make a U-turn to avoid controlled airspace and underestimated how much room it would take. But regardless of anything else there is no escaping the fact that to hit that apartment building they had to be flying way too low. I feel sorry for the pilots and their families (and fans) but I'm a bit angry with them too. They made a stupid avoidable mistake and caused a lot of people a lot of grief.

Tomorrow we head in to Tennessee which is our last stop before we head home on Thursday. Hopefully I'll be able to pick up regular blogging again after that.


Inside the mind of a fundie

Dogemperor gives a valuable glimpse inside the mind of a dominionist from someone who's actually been there.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Your tax dollars at work

Speaking of morally reprehensible uses of taxpayer dollars, the Pentagon is going to spend $20M of your money to celebrate how well things are going in Iraq and Afghanistan. I don't know about you, but I can think of more effective ways to deploy that capital. (Of course, at the Pentagon $20M isn't capital, it's petty cash.)

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Fascist America redux

Another thing fascists do: they rig elections.

If it quacks like a fascist...

Gene Callahan writes:

My fellow Americans, it's official now: We live in a fascist nation.

Worthwhile reading.

When all else fails...

What do the Republicans do when a member of their party goes down in screaming flames? Why they lie about it of course.

I gotta hand it to them, though: Fox news really has honed deception to a fine art. On the one hand, the lie preserved plausible deniability that it was just an honest mistake (although it's quite a coincidence that the one time they make this particular mistake it works to their advantage) and on the other hand it was likely very effective. There is no doubt in my mind that there are now tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people in the country who think Mark Foley is a democrat. (Hey, if you believe the earth was created in six days you can believe anything.)

But aside from having no respect for the truth (or the Constitution) I'm sure the Republicans are all honorable men.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Gone fishin'

Since I've picked up a lot of new readers lately as a result of the geek myths post I thought I'd mention that I'm going to be going on a trip, and so my blogging will be light for a while. But I'll be back, and I'll do my best to keep posting while I'm on the road.

Thanks to everyone who posted comments. It's nice to know someone's out there.


And so it begins

A man has been arrested for criticising vice president Cheney.

Now I get it

tmansnclar posted a comment in response to my earlier post that has really rocked my worldview:

While I support YOUR right to have an abortion, I don't want my taxes to pay for it.

Those of you watching my rss feed could watch my thinking on this issue evolve in real time as I posted and then deleted three different responses. The first one was:

This is not an unreasonable position, but it leads down a slippery slope. Should I be able to opt of paying my taxes for the military if I'm a pacifist?

But this, of course, misses the point because there is universal consensus that maintaining some kind of military is necessary. The disagreements are only over how big it should be and what it should be used for. So it's a false analogy. I then went with:

This is not an unreasonable position. I would support the elimination of taxpayer funded abortions as part of a compromise.

I struggled with this for a while because I really believe poor women should have access to abortions, but I've got this wicked libertarian streak in me, and I just couldn't come up with any principled justification for maintaining taxpayer-funded abortions except that I wanted them.

And then it hit me: there is no justification. Taxpayer-funded abortions are wrong. Absolutely, 100% wrong. If we liberals are going to argue that the right to abortion derives from the right to privacy then we'd bloody well better keep it private. But we don't. We want to put the government's gun to everyone's head and force them to support it financially. It's not so different from the Republican torture bill. We use the government's power to force people to support activities that they find morally reprehensible. So I get it. I understand now, for the first time, on a visceral level, why people vote Republican (or anti-Democrat). There's the little matter of the repeal of habeus corpus that still tilts the evilness scale in favor of the Republicans, but that is not a big comfort to me at the moment.

Gosh, can it really be that simple? If the Dems repudiated taxpayer-funded abortions would that tilt the balance back in their favor? I wonder if this is even on their radar.

To anyone I may have offended by my previous ranting about how evil the Republicans are, I apologize. I get it now. I still think the Republicans are evil, but I no longer think that voting for them is morally unjustifiable.

Shit. Now what do I do?

Monday, October 02, 2006

Republicans oppose the nanny state? Wanna bet?

To help promote individual freedom and personal responsibility, and as part of their never-ending struggle against Democratic efforts to institute a "Nanny State", the Republicans have banned on-line gambling.

A picture is worth...

I commissioned this political cartoon because I have no artistic talent and this is a sentiment that can only be communicated in pictures. (Click on the image for a full-size version.)

Drawn by Jacki Randall

Why I bash Democrats

OK, I guess I'd better put my money where my mouth is if I'm going to claim to be an equal opportunity basher.

In what way has the power of the Federal government spiralled out of control so much? (Pre Patriot Act)

The war on drugs started long before George Bush. Restrictions on the ownership of firearms in blatant violation of the 2nd amendment started long before George Bush. (I'm all for limiting ownership of weapons -- I don't think individuals should be allowed to own nukes for example -- but the right way to do that is to amend the Constitution, not ignore it.)

I could go on and on. Both parties have been complicit in the slow evisceration of the Constitution, although the Democrats at least seem to be a little queasy about it whereas the Republicans seem to me to be utterly shameless, even gleeful about it.

(One of the first things the Republicans did when they took Congress back in the 90's was repeal the 55 MPH speed limit. I thought that was terrific, and for a brief moment I thought that having the Repubs in charge might not be such a bad thing. Alas, it's been pretty much downhill from there.)

When have Democrats actively supported legislation criminalizing "not being politically correct"

I spoke too hastily here. The Dems don't want to throw you in jail, they just want to marginalize you if you don't toe their intellectual party line. If you're gay or black or poor or Muslim even (gasp!) an atheist then you're welcome. If you're a Christian then you can still come in, but they'll ask you to check your faith at the door. If you dare suggest that, say, the teacher's union might be doing more harm than good, or that working to reduce the number of abortions (in ways other than threatening to throw people in prison) then you're out.

And yet, you still are reluctant to vote Democratic?

Not at all under the circumstances. But I might be if they were in charge again.

You cannot bring yourself to say that "I admire that many Democratic Senators finally have the balls to stand up to the rape of the Constitution." Why not?

I'm glad some of them have finally found their spine. Where have they been all this time? Where were they when the first Patriot act was rammed down our throats? Where were they when Dubya first wanted to invade Iraq? (It was clear even at the time that the intelligence on WMDs was suspect. There were U.N. weapons inspectors on the ground in Iraq. If, as we claimed, we knew exactly where they were, why not just send the inspectors there to find the smoking gun?) And, most importantly, how are they going to fix the mess we're in? Throwing the Republicans out is only half the battle. Once that's done someone has to clean up the mess they've made. We're in a pickle, and how we got here doesn't matter. The fact is we're in and no one, Republican or Democrat, has a credible plan for getting us out. (My plan? Admit we fucked up and ask the world to forgive us. It's not a great plan, but it's better than anything else I've heard.)

They say the same things you do.

No, they don't. They utter tired old plattitudes about the gap between the rich and the poor and a woman's right to choose and they completely miss the fact that some people really believe in their heart of hearts that a woman should no more have a right to choose to kill a fetus than she should have to choose to kill a Jew. I think those people are completely and utterly wrong, but the difference between me and the Dems is that I acknowledge and respect a person's right to believe it. The Democrats do not.

Everything you describe as believing in is what mainstream Democrats believe in too. The Republican propaganda is successful at convincing you otherwise.

No, it's not Republican propaganda, it's the Democrat's incompetence. If these things are what Democrats really believe then they have utterly failed to communicate that to me, and I am the most receptive audience they can ever hope to find. The fact of the matter is that there is a lot of truth to the right-wing charges that the Democrats are a bunch of elitist snobs who don't give a damn about what people outside their clique really think. And I come to this position not from watching Fox News, but from hanging out with Democrats.

So a pox on both their houses. But this November I think it's really important to vote Democratic because if the Republicans keep control of Congress (especially if it's the result of another stolen election) I fear that American democracy may never recover.

Why I bash Republicans

Incredibly Fat Man wrote this comment in response to my last post. I thought it deserved a considered reply:

" most people are pretty dumb (look at how many people vote Republican ;-)"

Most people vote anti-democrat (and therefore republican) because they're tired of psudeo-intellectual democrats telling them they're stupid if they feel differently on an issue.

Well, that particular bash was intended to be humorous. For the record, most people who vote Republican are not dumb (although I think many of them are ignorant). In fact, one could make the argument (and I sometimes do) that the Democrats (i.e. the people who actually run the party, not the people who vote for the party) are dumber than the Republicans because they fail to recognize that people vote Republican for reasons other than stupidity. (As you might imagine, this sentiment doesn't go over very well among my Democrat friends. That's one of the reasons I'm feel pretty confident that my position is correct: I seem to offend both sides more or less equally.)

By the way, there's an excellent book about this called The Left Hand of God which I highly recommend.

This elitism is (in my opinion) the reason the democrats keep getting their asses handed to them. Calling folks stupid is a poor way to get them on your side.

That's true. Calling them traitors does seem to work better from a PR point of view.

There, I feel better now. For the record, let me tell you where I stand politically:

1. I believe in small (but not non-existent) government. I think the size and power of the federal government has spiralled wildly out of control and it needs to be seriously reeled in.

2. I believe in fiscal responsibility. We are on a wild spending binge on our children's credit card. It has to stop.

3. I believe in personal freedom. I think people should be able to say what they want, write what they want, think what they want, worship whomever or whatever they want, eat what they want, smoke what they want, marry whom they want.

4. I believe in personal responsibility and accountability. If you choose to smoke and get lung cancer, don't come bitching to me (or the government). No one put a gun to your head and forced you to inhale. You did that to yourself.

5. I believe in free enterprise. The function of government is to provide a level playing field, not to bail out companies or individuals who make poor choices or get unlucky. (I do think that we ought to provide a social safety net, but I think we should do this purely out of self-interest, not as a matter of principle. I think most people don't like seeing their fellow humans living on the street, and the best way to deal with that problem is to make sure everyone has at least one other viable option.)

Except for the marry-whoever-you-want bit I kind of sound like a Republican, don't I? So why do I bash on the Republicans so hard?

It's very simple: if you look at what the Republicans actually do as opposed to what they say they are almost exact opposites. Republicans say they are for small government, but in the last 50 years the government has grown more under Republican administrations than under Democratic ones. They say they are for fiscal responsibility, but the federal budget deficit has grown more under Republican administrations than Democratic ones. (The correlation is quite striking:

Back in the Carter administration the deficit held more or less steady (and this was during an era of rampant inflation). Then during Reagan and Bush I the deficit grew almost monotonically. Then Clinton came into office and the deficit shrank. And we all know what happened after that.

The Republicans say they are for personal freedom, but the fact of the matter is that they want to use the force of government to constrain your life just as much as the Democrats do, they just want to constrain it in different ways. The Democrats want to throw you in jail if you're not politically correct, and the Republicans want to throw you in jail if you want to smoke pot (even medicinally) or have an abortion (even if you've been raped) or burn the flag.

Republicans say they are for personal responsibility. There are so many examples of Republican hypocrisy on this issue that I hardly know where to begin. Well, let's start with the weasel-in-chief who takes no responsibility for 9/11, no responsibility for the mess in Iraq (according to Dubya everything is just hunky-dory and he hasn't made any mistakes). Let's go on to Dennis Hastert, who let a child molestor go unmolested through the halls of Congress. (They didn't do anything about it because they'd be accused of gay-bashing? Oh give me a break. Even if that were true, why should the prospect of a false accusation of gay-bashing stop you from doing what is so clearly the right thing?)

The Republicans say they are for free enterprise, but in fact they are rife with corruption, giving out billions of dollars in no-bid contracts to the vice-president's former company.

And as if that weren't enough, the Republicans say they are patriots, but then they pass laws that undermine the very bedrock that this country is supposed to stand on: the rule of law, Habeus Corpus, separation of powers, judicial review, the right of the people to be secure in their persons, paper and possessions from unreasonable searches and siezures. They say they are for freedom, but it is quite clear that there is an influential faction of the Republican party that believes that the United States was founded not as a secular democracy, but as a Christian theocracy, and wants to return to those halcyon days. George the First once said, "I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God." He said that despite the fact that the Constitution very clearly states that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office" including, one presumes, citizenship. I bash Republicans because they believe in second-class citizenship (or worse) for atheists (that's me), gays (that's many of my friends), people of color, people without means (those are my brothers and sisters). I bash Republicans because they believe that there are witches -- oh, sorry, -- terrorists against whom we can only defend ourselves by giving George Bush the unilateral and unreviewable power to imprison and torture them. I bash Republicans because they want to take us back to the dark ages. I bash Republicans because they want to make me "secure".

I don't want to be secure. I want to be free.

I bash Republicans not because I love the Democrats. I think the Democrats are a bunch of self-important morons who can't see beyond their ivory tower. I bash the Republicans because they are a clear and present danger to the principles enshrined in the Constitution of the United States of America. I bash them because as a citizen of the U.S. I am bound to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

If the Democrats ever control all three branches of government I'll probably be bashing them.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Top ten geek business myths

Since I've started my new career as a venture capitalist I have become keenly aware of some of the classic mistakes that geeks make when trying to raise money for a new business. Instead of writing the same comments over and over again I thought I'd try to summarize some of the mistakes that people -- especially smart people -- make when they decide to try to turn their bright ideas into money. Here then is my top-ten list of geek business myths:

Myth #1: A brilliant idea will make you rich.

Reality: A brilliant idea is neither necessary nor sufficient for a successful business, although all else being equal it can't hurt. Microsoft is probably the canonical example of a successful business, and it has never had a single brilliant idea in its entire history. (To the contrary, Microsoft has achieved success largely by seeking out and destroying other people's brilliant ideas.) Google was based on a couple of brilliant ideas (Page rank, text-only ads, massive parallel implementation on cheap hardware) but none of those ideas were original with Larry or Sergey. This is not to say that Larry, Sergey and Bill are not bright guys -- all three of them are sharper than I can ever hope to be. But the idea that any of them woke up one day with an inspiration and coasted the rest of the way to riches is a myth.

Myth #2: If you build it they will come.

There is a grain of truth to this myth. There have been examples of businesses that just built a product, cast it upon the ether(net), and achieved success. (Google is the canonical example.) But for every Google there are ten examples of companies that had killer products that didn't sell for one reason or another. My favorite example of this is the first company I tried to start back in 1993. It was called FlowNet, and it was a new design for a high speed local area network. It ran at 500Mb/s in a time when 10 Mb/s ethernet was the norm. For more than five years, FlowNet had the best price/performance ratio of any available network. On top of that, FlowNet had built-in quality-of-service guarantees for streaming video. If FlowNet had taken over the world your streaming video would be working a lot better today than it does.

But despite the fact that on a technical level FlowNet blew everything else out of the water it was an abysmal failure as a business. We never sold a single unit. The full story of why FlowNet failed would take me far afield, but if I had to sum it up in a nutshell the reason it didn't sell was very simple: it wasn't Ethernet. And if we'd done our homework and market research we could have known that this would be, if not a show-stopper at least a significant obstacle. And we would have known it before we spent tens of thousands of dollars of our own money on patent attorneys and prototypes.

Myth #3: Someone will steal your idea if you don't protect it.

Reality: No one gives a damn about your idea until you actually succeed and by then it's too late. Even on the off chance that you do manage to stumble across someone who is as excited about your idea as you are, if they have any brains they will join you rather than try to beat you. (And if they don't have any brains then it doesn't matter what they do.)

Patent protection does serve one useful purpose: it can make investors feel warm and fuzzy, especially naive investors. But I strongly recommend that you do your own patent filings. It's not hard to do once you learn how (get the Nolo Press book "Patent it Yourself"). You'll do a better job than most patent attorneys and save yourself a lot of money.

Myth #4: What you think matters.

Reality: It matters not one whit that you and all your buddies think that your idea is the greatest thing since sliced pizza (unless, of course, your buddies are rich enough to be the customer base for your business). What matters is what your customers think. It is natural to assume that if you and your buddies think your idea is cool that millions of other people out there will think it's cool too, and sometimes it works out that way, but usually not. The reason is that if you are smart enough to have a brilliant idea then you (and most likely your buddies) are different from everyone else. I don't mean to sound condescending here, but the sad fact of the matter is that compared to you, most people are pretty dumb (look at how many people vote Republican ;-) and they care about dumb things. (I just heard about a new clothing store in Pasadena that has lines around the block. A clothing store!) If you cater only to people who care about the things that you care about then your customer base will be pretty small.

Myth #5: Financial models are bogus.

As with myth #2 there is a grain of truth here. As Carl Sagan was fond of saying, prophecy is a lost art. There is no way to know for sure how much money your business is going to make, or how much it will cost to get to market. The reason for doing financial models is to do a reality check and convince yourself that making a return on investment is even a plausible possibility. If you run the numbers and find out that in order to reach break-even you need a customer base that is ten times larger than the currently known market for your product then you should probably rethink things. As Dwight Eisenhower said: plans are useless, but planning is indispensible.

This myth is the basis for one of the most classic mistakes that geeks make when pitching their ideas. They will say things like "Even if we only capture 1% of the market we'll make big bucks." Statements like that are a dead giveaway that you haven't done your homework to find out what your customers actually want. You may as well say: there's a good chance that only 1 customer in 100 will buy our product (and frankly, we're not even sure about that). Doesn't exactly inspire confidence.

Myth #6: What you know matters more than who you know.

Reality: You've been in denial about this your whole life. You were either brought up to believe that being smart mattered, or you just didn't believe your mother when she told you that getting along with the other kids was more important than getting straight A's.

The truth is, who you know matters more than what you know. This is not to say that being smart and knowledgable is useless. Knowing "what" is often an effective means of getting introduced to the right "whos". But ultimately, the people you know and trust (and more importantly who trust you) matter more than the factual knowledge you may have at your immediate disposal. And there is a sound reason for this: business decisions are horrifically complicated. No one person can possibly amass all the knowledge and experience required to make a broad range of such decisions on their own, so effective business people delegate much of their decision-making to other people. And when they choose who to delegate to, their first pick is always people they know and trust.

Ironically, C programmers understand this much better than Lisp programmers. One of the ironies of the programming world is that using Lisp is vastly more productive than using pretty much any other programming language, but successful businesses based on Lisp are quite rare. The reason for this, I think, is that Lisp allows you to be so productive that a single person can get things done without having to work together with anyone else, and so Lisp programmers never develop the social skills needed to work effectively as a member of a team. A C programmer, by contrast, can't do anything useful except as a member of a team. So although programming in C hobbles you in some ways, it forces you to form groups whose net effectiveness is greater than the sum of their parts, and who collectively can stomp on all the individual Lisp programmers out there, even though one-on-one a Lisper can run rings around a C programmer.

Myth #7: A Ph.D. means something.

Reality: The only thing a Ph.D. means is that you're not a moron, and you're willing to put up with the bullshit it takes to slog your way through a Ph.D. program somewhere. Empirically, having a Ph.D. is negatively correlated with business success. This is because the reward structure in academia is almost the exact opposite of what it is in business. In academia, what your peers think matters. In business, it's what your customers think that matters, and your customers are (almost certainly) not your peers.

[UPDATE: this is not to say that getting a Ph.D. is useless. You can learn a lot of useful stuff by getting a Ph.D. But it's the knowledge and experience that you gain by going through the process that is potentially valuable (for business endeavors), not the degree itself.]

Myth #8: I need $5 million to start my business

Reality: Unless you're building hardware (in which case you should definitely rethink what you're doing) you most likely don't need any startup capital at all. Paul Graham has written extensively about this so I won't belabor it too much, except to say this: you don't need much startup capital, but what you do need is a willingness to work your buns off. You have to bring your brilliant idea to fruition yourself; no one else will do it for you, and no one will give you the money to hire someone to do it for you. The reason is very simple: if you don't believe in the commercial potential of your idea enough to give up your evenings and weekends to own a bigger chunk of it, why should anyone else believe in it enough to put their hard-earned money at risk?

Myth #9: The idea is the most important part of my business plan.

Reality: The idea is very nearly irrelevant. What matters is 1) who are your customers? 2) Why will they buy what you're selling? (Note that the reason for this could very well be something like, "Because I'm famous and I have a huge fan base and they will buy sacks of stale dog shit if it has my name on it." But in your case it will more likely be, "Because we have a great product that blows the competition out of the water.") 3) Who is on your team? and 4) What are the risks?

Myth #10: Having no competition is a good thing.

Reality: If you have no competition the most likely reason for that is that there's no money to be made. There are six billion people on this planet, and it's very unlikely that every last of them will have left a lucrative market niche completely unexploited.

The good news is that it is very likely that your competition sucks. The vast majority of businesses are not run very well. They make shoddy products. They treat their customers and their employees like shit. It's not hard to find market opportunities where you can go in and kick the competition's ass. You don't want no competition, what you want is bad competition. And there's plenty of that out there.

Special bonus myth (free with your paid subscription): After the IPO I'll be happy.

If you don't enjoy the process of starting a business then you will probably not succeed. It's just too much work, and it will suck you dry if you're not having fun doing it. Even if you get filthy stinking rich you will just have more time to look back across the years you wasted being miserable and nursing your acid reflux. The charm of expensive cars and whatnot wears off quickly. There's only one kind of happiness that money can buy, and that is the opportunity to be on the other side of the table when some bright kid comes along with a brilliant idea for a business.

All these myths can be neatly summarized in a pithy slogan: it's the customer, stupid. Success in business is not about having a brilliant idea. Bright ideas are a dime a dozen. Business is about taking a bright idea and assembling a team that can turn that idea into a product and bring that product to customers who want to buy it. It's that simple. And that complicated.

Good luck.

Copyright (c) 2006 by the author. All rights reserved.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Water-boarding 101

All you people who are still thinking about voting Republican this fall, this is what you're voting for. Do you really think this is the way to win hearts and minds?

I understand the mindset of those who think that voting for Democrats is voting for the equally unthinkable slaughter of innocent babies. But get this through your thick skulls people: the difference between these two situations is that not everyone agrees that a fetus is a baby. It's fine for you to believe it. Don't have an abortion. Use your right to free speech to try to convince others to not have abortions. More power to you. The fewer abortions there are the better off the world will be. But you do not have a right to use force-- you may not bomb abortion clinics, you may not shoot doctors, you may not use the government's power to imprison people -- to impose your beliefs upon others. That is what terrorists do. We don't do that. That is what makes us the good guys.

You right-wingnuts have no idea what the opposite extreme on abortion looks like because no one believes in the opposite extreme. The opposite extreme from illegal abortion is not legal abortion, it is forced abortion, an extreme from which every sane person rightly recoils. Voting for someone who condones torture in order to avoid voting for someone who wants to make abortion legal is no less abhorrent. These are not terrorists we are torturing, they are terror suspects and they are human beings. And many of them are innocent. And if you vote Republican this November their blood will be on your hands. May God forgive you.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

A puzzlement indeed

Another deep question from Trent "Mr. Sensitivity" Lott:

"Why do Sunnis kill Shiites? How do they tell the difference? They all look the same to me."

Slouching towards Nuremberg

Now that Habeus Corpus has been suspended and George Bush has the power to indefinitely detain and torture anyone he deems to be an "enemy combatant" the next logical step is to obtain official sanction for the idea that anyone who opposes him is in fact an enemy combatant.

What? You say that will never happen? Wanna bet?

Attorneys for the Center for Constitutional Rights claim that what appears to be the final version of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 could allow the government to detain the attorneys themselves as 'enemy combatants.'
The current version of the Military Commissions redefines an "unlawful enemy combatant" so broadly that it could include anyone who organizes a march against the war in Iraq.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Who would Jesus torture?

One of the hallmarks of Germany's slide into Nazism is that there was considerable disagreement among Germans at the time over exactly what was going on. Even among German Jews there were those who famously predicted that things couldn't possibly ever get that bad. Even at the end so many Germans were in denial about the reality of the situation that the Allies very wisely forced German civilians to walk through the newly liberated concentration camps to see the piles of bodies with their own eyes so that there could never be any doubt about what had happened.

Sadly, it appears that Americans are not so different. Although George Bush's approval ratings are at historic lows, there are still tens of millions who support him, and therefore tens of millions of us who support the now-legalized torture of human beings who have never even been charged let alone convicted of any crime. We have descended into the darkest depths of barbarism, where people are whisked away by darkness to secret places merely because they have been denounced by accusers unknown.

But it's OK because they are witches -- er, I mean Jews -- er, I mean terrorists. It's OK because when the Jews -- er, I mean terrorists -- are gone, then we will be Safe.

I can barely muster words under the crushing weight of irony and meta-irony in this situation. We have Muslims rioting in the streets to protest against people who dare point out that Muslims riot in the streets. We have Christians forming the bedrock of support for a government that kidnaps and tortures to make the world Safe for Democracy. And we have both sides seeing the other irony with 20/20 clarity, but utterly blind to their own.

Time to stop the madness.

By voting to legalize torture the Republican party utterly abandoned any claim they might have had to the moral high ground. Torture is never justified. Not ever. The old canard about the ticking bomb scenario is utter hogwash. It is nothing more than a thin veneer of rationalization to cover up our fear and bloodlust. Sure, if you knew that this person had the information and if you knew that the only way to obtain it was by torture and if you could be certain that the information was accurate and if you knew that the information would allow you to save multitudes then there's an argument. But the fact of the matter is you can never know these things. You can only suspect them. And suspicion does not justify torture. Ever.

The United States of America has been torturing people illegally for some time now, and is now going to continue torturing people with full legal sanction. At the moment the moral weight of this decision rests on the shoulders of the legislators who voted to legalize torture. But after November that will no longer be true. This November the People will speak, and ignorance is no longer an excuse. A vote for a Republican is a vote for legalized torture. After November the blood of the innocent victims (there have already been documented cases of torture of innocents, and there will certainly be more) will be on our hands. If the Republicans win this November and you voted for them, the blood of the innocents will be on your hands. And when, years or decades from now, when we wake from this collective nightmare and the victors, whoever they may ultimately be, force us to make the long walk through the camps to see the bodies, you will not be able to wring your hands and say, as many Germans did, "I didn't know. I didn't know."

Now you know.

So that would be a "yes"?

Watch George Bush's non-response to the question of whether Bill Clinton was telling the truth when he said that Bush held no meetings on Bin Laden before 9/11. (I especially like the part where he says, "We have to deal with threats before they materialize." Irony is just lost on this man.)

It's a miracle!

You have to look closely, but sure enough, the image of Jesus has appeared on a dog's rear end.