This website was archived on July 21, 2019. It is frozen in time on that date.

Sonya Mann's active website is Sonya, Supposedly.

Every Kind of Greed is Just Human Greed

I highly recommend subscribing to Matt Levine’s sardonic finance newsletter, Money Stuff. It’s kind of like Today in Tabs for investors instead of media people. And I love this passage from today’s edition, even though it’s not a joke:

“‘Wall Street greed’ has no explanatory power. Everyone — well, everyone charged with financial crimes, anyway — wants more money. Some people want more money to feed their families, some want more money to buy a yacht, some want more money to feed a gambling addiction. There is no clean dividing line, no way to separate ‘Wall Street greed’ from the usual complex of human motivations and worries and failings. If you are looking to punish ‘Wall Street greed,’ while leaving normal self-interest and ‘addiction and mental illness’ alone, you will always be disappointed.”

Of course, “wants more money” is a just a proxy for “wants more freedom and power” — besides, aren’t freedom and power two sides of the same coin? Pun very intended.

Anyway, if you want the amusing bits, I’ve tweeted some of those.

Design as an Attitude

The design process consists of making conscious decisions about how to set up a creation. Design’s defining ethos is thinking deeply about a system before planning to implement it. Even a simple object can be considered a system, or perhaps an interface, because it will be touched and used. Therefore even the most basic product should be designed in the way I’m describing. Something complex like a computer operating system requires extensive mental energy.

Free menu icons by The Open Dept.
Free menu icons by The Open Dept. Pretty generic.

One of my least favorite aspects of the world — of reality — is that you can’t simply intuit things. The human brain is frequently irrational and instincts are often wrong, so we need evidence and research to guide us. Humans were able to invent algebra but we certainly don’t follow the rules of logic in our day-to-day mental processing — hence Wikipedia’s long list of cognitive biases.

Design is how we combat our mental quirks when building a product. Instead of throwing things together willy-nilly, we try different combinations, test the results, and eventually settle on a functional configuration. Hopefully the best option is also beautiful! This method produces better results than following random impulses and calling it good.

Theoretically, anyway — sometimes I’m baffled by the choices of very high-status manufacturers.

Wanna use Apple's Magic Mouse while charging it? TOO DAMN BAD. Photo by Roman Loyola; via Macworld.
Wanna use Apple’s Magic Mouse while charging it? TOO DAMN BAD. Photo by Roman Loyola via Macworld.

Computing for Fun, Profit, & Mayhem

Internet Riot Police by Surian Soosay.
Internet Riot Police by Surian Soosay.

Brian Krebs, an investigative reporter who covers cybercrime, made this comment in his Reddit AMA last month:

“Whether we’re talking about security or some other beat, the most interesting stories are those that are essentially stories about people — who they are, their experiences, and their weaknesses and failings, etc. Most failures in cybersecurity are not failures in the technology, per se, but in the way the tech is implemented or not. […] Sure, there are software and hardware vulnerabilities, but from my perspective the vast majority of data breaches succeed because they exploit the person behind the keyboard, as well as organizational lethargy, disorder, neglect or incompetence.”

Yesss. I wrote a while ago that “Tech Is Only Awful Like People Are Awful”, and a related hypothesis is that tech is only interesting like people are interesting. Some readers and consumers love gadgetry for the sake of it, but I’m definitely more intrigued by the socioeconomic and/or sociopolitical machinations behind the scenes.

Stories about how humans make, use, and misuse computers are really just stories about how humans stumble through the world, bashing into every obstacle we possibly can.

First Day Back & Anti-Natalism (Podcast Review)

First Day Back podcast by Montreal filmmaker Tally Abecassis
Check it out on iTunes.

Edited to add this disclaimer: I don’t think that people who have kids are bad or evil. It’s way more morally ambiguous than that, and I recognize that I have unorthodox views on this topic.

The inaugural season of the podcast First Day Back just finished. I loved it! The episodes were short and poignant; I made sure to listen right away whenever a new one auto-downloaded on my phone. (No other podcast has provoked the same devotion.) Driving to work in the morning, I listened. Brushing my teeth at night, I listened. I listened while walking my slow, old dog in the afternoon. First Day Back fit right into my life, and right into my heart. It sounds cheesy but it’s true (like many things that sound cheesy).

The creator and protagonist describes her project thus:

“a documentary podcast that follows filmmaker Tally Abecassis as she faces the challenges of picking up her career after an extended maternity leave. The narrative takes a real-life look at motherhood, gender roles, and work-life balance in a voice by turns serious, funny, and sometimes touching.”

Abecassis explains her topic accurately. Throughout the podcast she is candid and vulnerable, unafraid to reveal rejections or embarrassments. It’s a wonderful piece of work.

Portrait of Tally Abecassis by Claudine Sauvé via The Timbre.
Portrait of Tally Abecassis by Claudine Sauvé via The Timbre.

And yet… I don’t feel wholly positive about First Day Back.

I believe that having children is fundamentally violent. When you spawn new people, you risk that they will be born sick, blighted, or mentally ill. Not everything can be fixed — I know this from observing family members and coping with my own depression. I’m okay now — because I’m lucky. Because therapy and medication have worked for me. If I had different brain chemistry, or if my parents didn’t have money, I would be dead. Maybe homeless and/or addicted to a self-destructive substance.

Yes, it is human nature to want to bear offspring. Feeling the desire is okay. However, yielding to that urge is selfish. Wanting to be a parent at all, in any capacity, is selfish — it’s about serving yourself, not the child. It’s also human nature to punch people, but we strive to resolve disputes without fighting because we want to be better than our animal instincts.

“I think it’s really comfortable to lose yourself in motherhood, in a way, because it’s almost impossible to screw it up. I mean, even if you become an alcoholic, whatever, shitty mother. I mean, you’re still your kids’ mother, and they’re still going to love you, as fucked up as you are. […] It’s like, when you’re looking for validation, your kids are going to validate you.” — Tally Abecassis interviewed by Eric McQuade

I’m not an idiot — I don’t expect people to stop having kids just like I don’t expect war to die out. But I still think it’s bad, and I won’t participate. No, I don’t throw rocks at pregnant women or even try to convince people not to have babies. Why stage fruitless arguments? There’s no point in making people hate me without changing their minds. (And yet here I am, writing this…)

Infancy as defined by Shakespeare in As You Like It, via the Boston Public Library.
Infancy as defined by Shakespeare in As You Like It, via the Boston Public Library.

In answer to the obvious question, I plan to be a mother at some point. Because I can adopt! There are far too many children in the foster system, stranded without loving family homes. When I’m financially and emotionally ready, it will be a delight to provide a safe haven and usher a young person into adulthood. My motivation is just as selfish as a biological parent’s, but the odds are better than the child will benefit.

Listening to First Day Back made me like Abecassis so much. She seems very good-hearted. Her desires and inclinations line up well with mine — she’s a creative woman muddling through life, which I obviously relate to. The conflict is that I am fundamentally opposed to the choices Abecassis has made. I also think it’s ludicrous to expect to have it all — you can’t be a hands-on mom and have a full-fledged career. There is just not enough time in the day or energy in a body. Choices always involve trade-offs and it is profoundly arrogant to pretend that they don’t.

So. All of the above is my raw, mostly unfiltered, and probably crazy-sounding opinion. As I said in the beginning, I love First Day Back and I’m excited for the second season. I also feel very uncomfortable and angry about the portrayal of biological motherhood as a deserved and even virtuous condition.

What do you think? (I’m definitely apprehensive about the Facebook response to this. YAY.)

Follow-up from a reader: “I Remember The Circumstances That Led To Her Existence”.

Boss Life: Surviving My Own Small Business (Book Review)

Paul Downs, author of Boss Life and owner of Paul Downs Cabinetmakers
Paul Downs, author of Boss Life and owner of Paul Downs Cabinetmakers.

Running a small business can be brutal. With the publication of a new book, Boss Life, you don’t have to learn all the hard lessons on your own. Instead, read about the mistakes and occasional hard-won triumphs of Paul Downs, an old-school entrepreneur who describes himself thus: “I am a survivor, but not a financial success.”

This first-time author founded and manages the furniture company Paul Downs Cabinetmakers, which has been in business for twenty-nine years, since 1986. He also formerly wrote for The New York Times and happens to be my uncle.

Yes, I’m related to Paul Downs, but allow me to insist that I won’t be the only one who thinks Boss Life is great. Downs uses real numbers and anecdotes, some of which do not flatter his personal judgment, to illustrate the larger principles. His candor makes the book fascinating.

Boss Life: Surviving My Own Small Business
Boss Life: Surviving My Own Small Business by Paul Downs, published by Penguin’s Blue Rider Press.

Luckily Boss Life has almost nothing to do with woodworking, though that is nominally the content of Downs’ company. The book is really about sales. It’s about marketing and customer acquisition. It’s about cash flow, accounting, and management — basically, Boss Life is about economics and human nature.

Downs brings the reader through a year in the life of his company (specifically 2012), beginning each chapter by stating his bank account balance, the value of sales to date, and whether he’s lost money overall. Then he explains the month’s events and why they had the financial repercussions they did.

Part case study and part memoir, Downs’ book is worth reading if you employ people, are employed, or work in any capacity, no matter the size of your operation. That’s my review as a reader, not a niece.

A rosewood-and-ebony conference table designed and built by Paul Downs Cabinetmakers.
A rosewood-and-ebony conference table designed and built by Paul Downs Cabinetmakers.

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