Backing Up Happiness

I just found another essay that echoes An Ode to Phones. The author, Glenn Gillen, owned many possessions (CDs, DVDs, etc.), but moved his life to the cloud as the necessary tools became available.

The most accessible section of the essay:

It wasn’t until a couple of years ago, while talking to a friend about the risk of crime and property theft in San Francisco, that I appreciated the magnitude of what had happened.

10 years ago, someone breaking into my house didn’t just carry a huge emotional impact, but significant upfront and ongoing financial ones too. TVs, home theatre systems, computers. Thousands of dollars of equipment and potentially months of effort to acquire replacements and set everything up again. Not to mention the sentimental things like photos that could never be replaced. But today the financial impact is $999 to replace a Macbook Air and 30mins-60mins to set it up. All the “irreplaceable” music, photos, and software is back exactly as it was in the time it takes to eat lunch.

Taking something that seemed to have a high negative impact, and making it near negligible, has been liberating. And so I’m constantly looking at how to take it further.

Gillen’s article made me think about things that are harder to back up than data. Especially emotional states. Continue reading

The Words of Our Lives

Summary: We write a lot of words, and our words may serve as the truest expression of our personalities after we’re dead, if we keep them in a safe place. It might also be nice to have our present-day words around when we’re older.


After we are dead, information about ourselves will continue to exist.

Some of this information won’t last very long; our bodies disappear quickly, rotting or burning to ash. But we’ve gotten rather good at keeping the rest of it stored in various places and formats.

How we look and sound, for example. YouTube features footage of tens of millions of people moving/speaking/singing, and many families keep home videos of some kind. Then there’s an entire universe of still photographs—both photos taken of us and photos we’ve taken of other things. And we’ll have electronic medical records, possibly even entire sequenced genomes, to testify to the physical facts of our existence.

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Solving Problems Without Markets

David Hansson, on protecting the improbable social structure of open source:

Take Ruby on Rails. More than 3,000 people have committed man-decades, maybe even man-centuries, of work for free. Buying all that effort at market rates would have been hundreds of millions of dollars. Who would have been able to afford funding that?

That’s a monumental achievement of humanity! Thousands, collaborating for a decade, to produce an astoundingly accomplished framework and ecosystem available to anyone at the cost of zero. Take a second to ponder the magnitude of that success. Not just for Rails, of course, but for many other, and larger, open source projects out there with an even longer lineage and success.

Some problems are tough to solve with market values, especially when they offer no immediate returns.

MIRI is one example of this. They survive by donations, because “defense against intelligent supercomputers” is not a short-term investment. Google Calico is another example. That project exists because Google can afford to invest in things (like radical life extension) that won’t make money for the next 10 years.

Many wonderful things are built because of the market. The chair I’m sitting in is one of them. So is the phone on my desk, and the equipment in the hospital six blocks from my house. Markets help solve a lot of problems.

But they are not always good at solving certain “invisible” problems.

Some are invisible because most people don’t care about them—like one of the problems Rails tried to solve, “programming is hard to understand”. (This was before most people saw building apps as a thing they could do themselves.)

Others are invisible because most people don’t think they can be solved—like the problem Calico aims to solve in the long term, “humans are mortal”.

It may not be obvious that these things occupy the set of real, solvable problems alongside hunger and disease. But they do. And whether it’s philanthropy or open source (they share many qualities), it’s worth preserving social values that lead us to solve problems in non-market ways—not because the work isn’t valuable, but because it’s hard for a single person or company to capture that value.

The Audience Member’s Dilemma

Last September, I had the chance to see a show by the Cambridge Footlights, one of the world’s best college sketch groups. The comedy was fresh, fast-paced, and full of surprising postmodern twists, one of which I found particularly affecting.

First, the Footlights took a volunteer from the audience and gave her a pad with a button to push.

“Every second you wait to push that button,” they announced, “you’ll earn a dime.”

One opened a briefcase, then showed us that it was full of money. At least a few hours’ worth. Another held up a large digital timer and turned it on.

00:01… 00:02… 00:03…

Finally, as we waited for the punchline, they held up a sign with the name of the sketch: “The Audience Member’s Dilemma”.

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Back to School, Part II

A few days ago, I wandered Old Campus, where a thousand freshmen were in the process of moving in. Together with the rest of the Yale Record, I passed several hundred copies of our “traditional Freshman Issue” into the hands and under the doors of the class of 2017.

(I feared their parents might open the magazine and faint from shock, but at Yale, you can get away with nearly anything if you call it “traditional”, from dirty jokes to the preferential admission of legacies.)

The joy in the air as we walked among the new students was one of the most intoxicating sensations I’ve ever felt, though I’m a teetotaler and don’t partake of marijuana, so my range of experience is limited.

It brought to mind the air around a rock concert. One thousand people, most of whom are about to have a supremely happy experience–but this experience will last four years, rather than four hours. The tension of that pent-up force is addictive. If I’m in New Haven after I graduate, I may stop by for future move-in days just to bask in it.

Tonight, having spoken separately with at least eight people I respect and admire over the past two days, I collapsed into our brand-new futon (courtesy of Rubber Match, the best store in this city). A smile hit my face and stuck.

I’m a junior now–an old man–but I’ve got two pent-up years left in me, and whenever I’m tired over the next nine months, whenever I have a problem set that won’t die or an article due yesterday, I will remember those pent-up years, and they will be my battery.

Like a nuclear reactor, the college years to come provide energy by slowly fissioning, until one is left standing in one’s cap and gown with nothing but one’s diploma and highly unstable waste material. Some people feel sickened by this byproduct of bygone days, by the knowledge that their undergraduate years have passed and will not return. I fear that I, too, will suffer greatly for a little while come 2015.

But later, I will find an excuse to be on Old Campus again as the freshmen arrive, and I will plant the remnants of my gone-away years. Anything I can’t carry, in my suitcase or my mind–down, into the soil.

Much of what we do here is radioactive. Running clubs, organizing events, celebrating old traditions, imagining new ceremonies that will in time become tradition–all of it leaves behind a trace of who we were, for these four years, and echoes within the walls and courtyards in ways we never imagined.

But rather than decay, these remnants give life to Yale. This university is nothing but a collection of pretty buildings without the sum of the histories of its students, and the pent-up joy of its freshmen is made possible by what we’ve left for them to find.

Today, we’ve come back to school. Soon, we’ll leave forever, but who we were will remain etched in the halls and stones and fields.

It’s a new year. What are you going to carve?

Sex and Relationships at Yale, Pt. II

First, a series of disclaimers:

Relationships are great, but not necessarily the best thing for everyone, especially busy college students who will soon be leaving for another city. And it is very difficult to determine who is going to be a “good breakup” before you’ve been dating them for a while. And it is nearly impossible to have a “good relationship” in college that ends in a breakup any person could consider “good”, unless by “good” we mean “good compared to being submerged in a bathtub full of tarantulas”. And some people just aren’t into the whole romance thing.

And I should really have put this at the end of my last self-important sociological treatise rather than at the beginning of this post. You live, you learn.


Anyway, some updates on the post before this one:

TIME jumped the college-hookup bandwagon after the Times (or is that shorthand only for the Times of London?), with a well-reasoned response written by a recent college graduate.

And she agreed with me! Then again, had she not agreed with me, would I have told you her response was “well-reasoned”? Perhaps not! Media bias is hard.

Anyway: There’s less hooking up going on than we might expect, a sizable minority of college students don’t have sex at all, nobody talks to men for these articles (plus, gay sex goes unmentioned–too controversial?), and the Ivy League enrolls a tiny, tiny fraction of this nation’s undergraduates. Dockterman is careful not to state any major non-statistical conclusions, which makes sense, because most of the “problems” inherent in “hook-up culture” are currently being dealt with. Condoms are free at Yale. The HPV vaccine exists. STD rates in the United States are holding steady or perhaps decreasing, depending on the disease.

Away from the physical side of college sex, I’d be curious to see whether rates of romance-related emotional turmoil are higher in my generation than my parents’. But this is the kind of data that doesn’t exist in a place I can easily find it, and any upward trend would be difficult to separate from the overall rise in depression among every American age group over the last few decades. (I have friends who might call both depression and hook-up culture symptoms of a sick society, but that’s a matter for another post, or a book, or a lifetime of writing that slowly comes to resemble an endless game of rhetorical wallball–good fun, but the wall never moves.)

In the wake of Part One, a few friends contacted me with comments on my long-winded rant about how relationships are great and love is totally within our grasp, if we just reach out and touch someone, etc. Thank you, friends! I will not name-check you for now, because I don’t know how you all feel about publicity, but the best part of writing things other people read is when other people talk to you about those things and wind up teaching you something.

In addition to inspiring the disclaimer that kicked off this post, one woman made the extraordinarily interesting observation that all the fuss about sex and romance leaves out an equally important variety of relationship–friendship. Best friends, she said, are rare, and most friendships form out of convenience and swiftly disappear when we grow apart or graduate.

“I had a friendship breakup this year, which totally sucked. I couldn’t treat it like a relationship breakup and talk about it, which made it suck more. And I have friends who are aromantic.” (Link is mine.)

When I think about it, I realize that I’ve seen friends as devastated at losing friends as I can imagine them being devastated by any breakup. Yale has counseling resources for problems of this kind, but socially, it’s much easier for a boy/girl to win the sympathy of male/female friends and acquaintances after any kind of romantic incident than after a “friend breakup”, which is enough of an underrecognized phenomenon that I felt an instinctive need to put quotation marks around the phrase. (Media bias is hard!)

In any case, the asexual-rights movement is interesting and worth reading about. And I would love to read a long, trendy Times (of New York) piece on friend-hookup culture in the Ivies. “She said she’d definitely see me around after we met for lunch that one time! But now she doesn’t even answer my texts!”

Sex and Relationships at Yale

Warning: The title of this piece is officially my first attempt at search-engine bait. I might actually catch one this time. But I’ll have to kill it quickly, before it chews off its own leg trying to escape. Anyway…


Now that I have your attention, I’m going to talk about sex. And relationships. Mostly relationships. You see, the New York Times decided to investigate, thoroughly and at great length, the sex lives of female students at the University of Pennsylvania.

They did their homework. 60 interviews, with as diverse a slice of the female student body as possible, is nothing to sneeze at. I believe that the quotes they used were more or less representative of the responses received. I believe that the sourcing of Susan Patton made sense and was helpful in putting that whole Princeton debacle in context.

Most of all, I believe that the shapely bare leg in the cover photo will certainly lead to more clicks. I’ll keep that strategy in my notes.

A shapely bear leg. I’m sorry.

I don’t have the time or inclination to comment on the entire piece. There are issues of sexual violence and the nature of college pre-professional life and whether it’s a good idea to marry in college at all that have been explored elsewhere to an extent well beyond what I could hope to achieve in this post.

But I did spend last night talking over the article with a good friend from Yale, and another good friend from the University of Delaware, and hearing their thoughts on hooking up — or not — in college got my gears turning, and a graduate from the time before Yale had women asked my opinion, so I wrote him a letter, which has been adapted below. Take it as one student’s opinion, based on two years of firsthand experience and a collection of secondhand and thirdhand stories.

Note: Strong opinions ahead. Please don’t get angry if you disagree, unless getting angry will make you feel better, in which case, go ahead. You can yell at me if you want, but I’d also love to hear the reasons you think I’m wrong. My mind is open.

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