On Western Deficiencies

I started listening to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast recently.  It’s very, very good.  I began with his series on the Mongols, which is one of the best treatments I’ve read or heard on their conquests, and now I’ve moved on to the episodes regarding World War I.

He makes a great point about the world in 1914 being radically different from the world of 1900 or at any other time in history.  The Industrial Revolution changed everything, but more importantly it kept feeding and accelerating the pace of change. None of the world leaders at the time knew how to handle these changes or adapt to the pace of change, which contributed to the intractable nature of the war.

The world now changes at lightspeed, and we’re all supposedly used to it.  I think, though, that we’re facing an set of global challenges today not unlike the challenges we faced just 100 years ago.  Back then, the mobilization of nation states with huge armies – armies bigger than anything the world had ever seen before – upended the notion of “gentlemanly warfare” and introduced slaughter on a massive scale.  Today we’ve moved in the opposite direction – small armies, small bands of radicals and jihadis and terrorists, now cause massive destruction irrespective of national borders or existing states.

It’s true that small bands of radicals and terrorists helped in large part to bring WWI about.  Gavrilo Princip singlehandedly “lit the fuse” in many respects by assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand.  He was a nationalist, to be sure, but that’s arguably much different than using religion to radicalize several thousand other followers and attack other nations from within and without.

This is the central challenge of our time: how do we  deal with radical elements, violent elements, that do not depend on nation-states and operate irrespective of their borders?  Do we throw a huge army at them?  Where?  We did that in Afghanistan, with mixed results.  Do we send in the drones and let them do the dirty work for us?  Do drones even help if your own countrymen are the ones drinking the Kool-Aid and committing atrocities on our own soil?  How do we respond to an entity with no defined location, especially when it could be living next door?

I think what this points to is a certain deficiency in Western society.  News outlets all week have been asking “Why do Americans join ISIS?  Why do European girls leave to fight in Syria?” I certainly don’t claim to know the answer, and I suspect that the motivations for each person are different.  But I think the question can be reframed in a way that allows us to approach the issue from another vantage point.  What is it about IS or radical Islam that makes some people want to leave Western culture, Western society?  Why give up peace and prosperity for war, martyrdom, death?

Maybe IS gives them a sense of purpose. Maybe the nihilism and materialism of our daily lives has caught up to us. Maybe these people aren’t “crazy” in the broad-brush way we so often dismiss them – maybe they are seekers, and they think they have found the “truth.”

Again, I am not excusing their actions.  What they do is unquestionably evil and unjustified.

But I think this says something about us as well as about them.  I think it uncovers a hesitance, a reluctance to confront the “great questions” that human beings ordinarily confront about their lives, their existence, their purpose, and which we often dismiss or shy away from in the West.

What if our reluctance to approach questions of life and death, of purpose and fulfillment, of good and evil, pushes these seekers out of our culture?  What if our comforts in temporary, transient things, in stocks and houses and cars and technology, are not sufficient answers to life’s great questions?

What if people who are desperate for answers find them amidst people with evil motives?

What if their fundamentalism is all wrong, and what if our materialism is all wrong too?

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Last night I drank 2 glasses of scotch.  This morning my cold is pretty much gone.

Ergo, scotch cures colds.

It's science.

It’s science.

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc, and all that.

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Bad Browsing

This little gem has been making its way across the internet over the past few days.

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It’s been just over 2 weeks since I stopped using the Razr Maxx in favor of the Nexus 7/flip phone combo.

Haven’t really looked back.

Also, if you need to rid yourself of unwanted electronics, check out Amazon’s trade in program.  Shipped off my phone, an old iPod, and a GPS unit.  Got $60 for the lot, and I didn’t have to fiddle with Craigslist.

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On Smartphones (Or The Lack Thereof)

I have decided to abandon my smartphone.

My reasons are manifold and not grounded in anything woo-filled (fears of radiation exposure and whatnot).  They’re purely practical, centering largely around the changing cellular market, where I think that market is going, and how much things cost.

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Introducing GovDesign

Friends and colleagues,

Many of you are aware that I do “web stuff” on the side. For some of you this hearkens all the way back to the days of Name the Character! (a now-retired trivia website I coded from scratch with a friend). For others it will bring to mind things I’ve suggested about how local government websites could operate better.

Chris Lindsey and I both have similar backgrounds in “web stuff,” particularly with WordPress, and we spent much of last year lamenting the inadequacies of many government websites and the costs involved in overhauling them.

Then we decided to stop lamenting and do something about it.

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Ends and Means

"Tell me again Maximus...why are we here?"

“Tell me again Maximus…why are we here?”

If you’ve never heard of Medium, you should check it out. Most of the articles I’ve read so far have been well-crafted pieces tightly focused around a few concise points. This article from Jake Solomon hits a home run though, especially when it comes to government services.

I really don’t like generalizations when it comes to this stuff, but it strikes me that maybe us younger folks in the profession get caught up in the latest technological wizardry or management philosophy or workflow system, without considering how our customers – average citizens – actually experience these things. For those who have been around a while longer, the danger lies in failing to realize how more established systems are experienced by people living in a rapidly changing world. Bureaucracies are averse to change; nevertheless, the world changes.

We need to keep our sights firmly planted on the citizens we serve in order to perform effectively and do some good in the world. We need to remember that the means by which we do our work directly impact the ends of that work – our programs serve people, our technology serves people, our livelihood is a service to people. When we separate our end users – citizens – from this equation, we lose our way, and our work is as empty as shadows and dust.

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On Stochasticity (Or, Exploring Randomness Through M&Ms)

“It is better to carry a d20 in your pocket and be thought a nerd, than to roll it on the table and remove all doubt.” – Gary Gygax

Fear not, dear reader – I’m not about to dump my character sheet on my blog for your review (although I could), and while this post contains a fair dose of nerdiness, it’s not exactly of the D&D variety. Today I venture out of the realm of public administration posts into the sort of random buffoonery that’s close to my heart.  After all, there’s only so much you can write about needing to reach out to citizens and upgrade websites before the topic just becomes weary.  As weariness is anathema to good blogging, and staid silence the enemy of cultivated readership, we head today for more interesting fare.

I’d been thinking about the application of randomness in everyday life – prompted, of course, by fine podcasting like Radiolab’s Stochasticity episode and Stephen Dubner’s (Freakonomics) Folly of Prediction.

Then came the M&Ms.

I enjoy M&Ms.  Especially Peanut M&Ms, because they’re just more fun to eat.  One day, as I was staring at the brightly colored orbs of goodness before me, a thought came:

Just how random is the color assortment of M&Ms you get in any particular bag?

Now I’m no mathematician – I leave that to my wife.  She has a degree from an accredited institution in mathematics; my credentials come from the Armchair University of Podcast Listeners, of which I am a student but also Executive Director and Chairman of the Board.  Conflicts of interest aside, while my proficiencies in math and economics are formally limited, they’re nevertheless fun subjects to think about.

But I digress.  There were M&Ms in front of me, and the principles of the Scientific Method (having been ground into me since the sixth grade) were itching to be scratched.

I have an M&M hypothesis, and it is this: Assuming M&Ms are manufactured uniformly by color and have an equal chance at being deposited in any one bag, I should, over time, observe a roughly uniform average color distribution in the M&Ms I eat.

To test this hypothesis, I began an (ongoing) experiment in tracking color distribution inside regular-sized bags of Peanut M&Ms.  You can see my data below.

As you can see, my data is not currently consistent with my hypothesis.  This could be for a variety of reasons:

  1. Small sample size.  Need to eat more M&Ms! (bummer, rite?)
  2. Differences in manufacturing, e.g. Less red are made than blue
  3. Differences in packaging, e.g. the red dispenser feeds less into the hopper that packages my M&Ms

It’s too early to say for now what the ultimate causes are, but it looks like I don’t get many red or brown M&Ms in my packages – except for the rare occasion when I get a bunch.  Presently, I stand beside my hypothesis – because of the few instances where I’ve had a bunch of red/brown M&Ms in one package, it seems like the most likely explanation is timing on the packaging size.  When it’s time for the red M&Ms to join all the other colors in the great mixing hopper prior to packaging, it stands to reason that the reds will stay clumped together even if they’re mixed a little bit prior to being packaged.  We’ll see if the data bears me out.

But there are other interesting tidbits here.  Did you know that the average number of Peanut M&Ms in a standard size package is about 21 pieces?  In my local vending machine, a package costs $1.00.  That’s a cost of $0.0467 per Peanut M&M – roughly a nickel.  I wonder how much dopamine that nickel buys me each time I eat one piece…  It would be interesting to put a price on dopamine release as a result of eating M&Ms vs. other ways of getting a dopamine hit, and then figuring out the most cost-effective way to get a dopamine hit…but there I go again…

Of course, it would be really boring if each packaged contained precisely the same number of colors each time.  Variety is the spice of life, after all, and I wouldn’t be able to run nonsensical longitudinal experiments if uniformity was the case.

Next time you get a package of Peanut M&Ms (regular size – not King Size or Fun Size or Holy Hell That’s A Lot of M&Ms Size), write down your color distribution and send it to me.  Have a Happy Thanksgiving, and together we’ll get to the bottom of this – until there are no more Peanut M&Ms left to eat.

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Government Web 2.0

Earlier this year Chris Lindsey and I worked together on an article for ICMA‘s PM magazine. You can see the article here. The basic gist is that while website upgrades aren’t the most pressing issues facing local governments, they are nevertheless a critical tool for citizen outreach. Things change pretty rapidly nowadays, especially online, so a website that’s even a few years old can end up looking pretty dated. Websites shouldn’t be static – especially if you’d like to do citizen engagement online – so it’s important to consider how well your local government website looks and feels to the average user.

We’re hoping to help remedy the problem of outdated local government websites (more on that later), but for now, check out the websites listed in a recent Gizmodo article. The point is that government sites don’t have to fit the same mold, and they don’t need to include complicated menus and sitemaps.  I’m a huge fan of milwaukeepolicenews.com, and while their format won’t work for all users and departments, they’ve hit on a great way to relay information in a compelling, user-friendly manner.

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A Thousand Times This

via Slate

Gavin Aung Than draws a Calvin & Hobbes-style tribute to a speech Bill Watterson gave about life.  It is excellent.

As a Warmachine/Hordes enthusiast, I smiled at the panels where the guy is painting models.  (Granted, they were dinosaurs, not steampunk war carriages or totally ripped beasts of carnage – but I can still identify.)  Also, as someone who’s contemplated the stay-at-home dad life, I totally respect this.

I have a feeling ZenPencils will make the list of regular sites I visit.  Check it out.

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