Saturday, March 7, 2015

Why I started calling "Lead" and "Follow" for contras

Apparently there's been a recent explosion of conversation among contra callers about what terminology to use when calling, and an online poll on the topic. I haven't read all of the conversation yet myself, but I just helped launch a new dance series in Philly using the terms "lead" and "follow," and a number of people have asked why I made that decision. I thought it would be helpful to explain some of my thinking.

Before I begin, I should note that the decision wasn't made in a vacuum - my housemates Patrick and Shane suggested it, and we had several conversations about it before our first dance. This post, however, is about my own personal reasoning. Also, this gets kind of academic, so if you want the short version it's this:

(1) When starting a new dance, we had a rare opportunity to start our terminology from scratch without confusing new dancers or having to overcome the standard usage of the series, so we went for it. We didn't make an announcement about it or call the dance "gender free," we just did it.

(2) "Lead" and "Follow" are at least somewhat descriptive of the roles, easy for me to remember as a caller, and intuitive to many dancers (especially those who dance other styles).

The long version follows.

Goals of Word Choice

There are a slew of different goals that callers have in mind when choosing which words to use. We want to communicate clearly and concisely. We want to make all dancers feel included, whatever their background or experience level. We want the calls to contribute to the atmosphere and make the dance fun. We also want to connect this dance to a greater tradition and larger community of folk musicians and dancers. We're performers, but also teachers and representatives of the community.

The use of gender-prescriptive language can make some dancers feel less welcome, but can also affect the overall atmosphere of a dance. On the other hand, many callers feel that they are able to most effectively communicate and connect to the tradition of the dance by using the language of gender.

I don't think that these various goals are necessarily competing with each other, but they all need to be considered.

Prescription and Translation

So this brings us to my first main point, which may surprise some people - I don't think that using the terms "gent" and "lady" is problematic on its own. There are two different roles in contra dancing, and noting that one is the traditional "gents' role" and the other is the traditional "lady's role" doesn't enforce gender as long as it's clear that each role can in fact by danced by anyone. The word "gent" just becomes a code word for one of a roles, rather than prescribing who should dance the role. The dancers can translate the term "gent" in their head to mean "the person who ends swings on the left" or some other equivalent description.

That said, I find the calling habits of many or most callers problematic, because that isn't the end of the influence of gender on their language. Many callers will use the words "gents," "men," and even "boys" interchangeably, and use "he" and "she" to describe individual hypothetical dancers dancing the roles. They will make coy references to the assumed gender of the dancers by saying things like "women are always right" or "I emphasize the 'gentle' in 'gentlemen'" or even "the women go to the center and the men start salivating."

When we talk about the atmosphere of the dance and making dancers feel welcome, this is what we're really concerned about - language that prescribes a gender (and gender-specific behavior) for a dance role. I would strongly encourage callers who use any terminology for the roles to think about the impact of all the language they use when teaching and calling. The choice of terminology is neither the only nor the most important choice made by a caller when it comes to making dancers feel welcome and comfortable.

That all said, the use of gender-neutral calling terms, all else being equal, seems like an advantage on its own. If I think of the terms "gents" and "ladies" as just code words for the roles, why not pick code words that lack a gender association? Or what if we could just skip the translation step altogether?

"Lead or Follow?"

So assuming we're going to use gender-neutral terms of some kind, the next question is: which ones? There are a lot of options that have been proposed, such as "elms and maples," or "jets and rubies." There are dances that distinguish on the basis of who wears an arm band. The basic reason I didn't want to use any of these is that they seem too arbitrary.

"But Bryan, weren't arbitrary terms the point? We're trying to eliminate the gender associations of the traditional terms!" Fair point, straw-person, but remember what I said about translating code-words above? If the term has no relationship to the role at all, then what happens in dancer's heads is that they translate "jet" into "gent" (and then into something more descriptive, like "person typically on the left"), and the terminology starts to feel like an exercise in covering up gender associations, rather than a means of eliminating them.

So like I said before, why not skip the translation step altogether? When I started thinking about gender neutral terms, there was one point that kept resurfacing in my head: No matter what terms were being used by the caller, if I wanted to ask another dancer which role they preferred, every time, at every dance, I would use these words: "Lead or follow?" I think most others who dance both roles in contra ask the same question. The same words appeared on the first generation of "I dance both roles" buttons worn by many dancers.

The more I thought about it, the more I knew, in my heart of hearts, that the roles in contra dancing are "lead" and "follow," and that every other term used by callers is a translation. It's true that compared to most other social dances, the roles are more equal, and that many moves don't require a "lead" because they are choreographed and performed autonomously. However, the distinction between the roles, aside from happenstance starting positions, comes out when executing flourishes, which are typically initiated by the person in the gent/elm/left-default role. That's called a lead.

There is no inherent gender association of the terms "lead" and "follow", and there's nothing demeaning about dancing the "follow" role (it's a real skill to be able to listen to another dancer's movements). I understand that some dancers specifically appreciate the relative equality of the roles in contra (I do, too), and want to distinguish the relationship of the roles in contra from the roles in couple dances such as swing or blues. By the same token, however, using the terms "lead" and "follow" in contra makes the dance more intuitive to those with couple-dancing experience. In Philadelphia, many of the young dancers who are interested in contra are also blues dancers, and to them it would seem strange for us to use any terms other than "lead" and "follow." Many of these same dancers dance both roles in blues.

I am aware of arguments against the use of "lead" and "follow" in contra, and to play devil's advocate I tried to raise these arguments when discussing terminology with my fellow organizers. In the process of trying to make the point, the arguments all felt forced coming out of my mouth. So I decided to give "lead" and "follow" a shot.

The Result

This is the most important point, in my mind: using the terms "lead" and "follow" just worked. In our first dance, new dancers and experienced dancers all picked the terms up and danced without apparent confusion. As a caller, once I got used to it, the terms felt totally natural. The thing that really surprised me is that aside from one or two people saying "Hey, I appreciate the gender-neutral calling," we didn't even get feedback about it. There wasn't a big debate. There wasn't a divide between the progressive and conservative dancers. Everyone just danced.

Many of the considerations above will vary from community to community. There are reasons why our dance in Center City Philadelphia was able to use the terms so smoothly, and anyone else having this discussion about their own dance series needs to consider their local culture. As far as Contradelphia is concerned, though, we are sticking with "lead" and "follow," and perfectly content with it.

-Bryan Suchenski

Monday, January 19, 2015

Contradelphia! And New Dances!

Time for an update in the life of Bryan-the-Caller. I've been calling more and more frequently, and just over a week ago my housemates and I launched a brand new dance series in downtown Philadelphia called Contradelphia, which was a success by every measure: there were 80+ dancers at our very first event and lots of energy in the hall, and the new dancers all seemed to get along fine and stay the whole evening.

One thing that was interesting for me as the caller was our decision as a group to use gender-neutral calling. Traditionally, contra dances are called with a "gents" role and "ladies" role, but anyone can dance either role. Given the fact that not all gents-role-dancers are men, a lot of people in the community have discussed using gender-neutral terms, and for Contradelphia I went with "lead" and "follow," because those are the most common terms in other forms of social dancing. What ultimately surprised me was how easily the dancers accepted the new terms. I took Shane's advice and made no announcement about the terminology - I just started using the terms in the beginner's workshop as though they were standard, and then started calling that way when the dance began. I made it easier on myself by selecting dances early on that had very few gender-specific moves, so that most of the time I could rely on familiar terms like "neighbor" and "partner," and let myself ease into the words "lead" and "follow" over the course of the night.

Another thing that was interesting for me was calling a relatively new dance I'd written in an audience made up largely of new dancers. Once again, it went more smoothly than I expected, and I have heard that a couple other callers have called my most recent dance, so I figure there's enough interest for me to post the choreography up here:

Winter is Coming, by Bryan Suchenski

A1. Balance the ring, Gents roll neighbor away across the set*
     Balance the ring, Gents roll partner away along set
A2. Balance the ring, Gents draw neighbor to their side and swing

B1. Ladies chain across to Partner
     Promenade across the set and loop counter-clockwise to face new neighbors**
B2. Ladies gypsy R
     Partner swing

*At Contradelphia I called this as "Leads roll your neighbor away across," but I trust the reader to translate terms as appropriate for their calling situation.
**This is the same progression as in Sharks in the Pond. I usually pause after the chain and ask dancers to look on their left diagonal to identify their next neighbor before doing the promenade-loop. The loop is to each dancer's left, but on at least one occasion dancers growled at me when I told them to "loop left," so now I say "counter-clockwise." This progression ends the dancers one space to the right of where they started, along the set (hence, it's a rightward-progressing becket).

The name of the dance, of course, is a reference to Game of Thrones, and at least one person I encountered responded to the name, quite adorably, "I keep hearing people say that phrase, but it sounds so mean and ominous!" The original choreography for this dance I settled on six-months ago was much more complicated and included a promenade-into-revolving-doors progression. The concept there was to start with a dance that felt open and bouncy and gradually became intimate and partner-focused (the transition toward Winter, in my head). Some of that feeling was kept in the final version.

Meanwhile, prior to Contradelphia I had started thinking about gender-roles in contra dances by focusing on gender-specific moves, the most egregious of which is the ladies chain. Although there exists a move called the "gents chain," it is called very rarely because it begins with the opposite hand that the ladies chain does (the left-hand), and feels backward, which means that no one in the room knows how to do it properly and it feels awkward for 90% of the dancers. I decided it was silly to have a separate "gents chain" and "ladies chain," so I wrote two dances, in which two moves were separated from their gender roles, and renamed them the "left-hand chain" and "right-hand chain":

Ambidexterity, by Bryan Suchenski

A1. Long lines, roll away (gents in front of P)
     Ladies LH chain to N*
A2. Circle L 1/2 and N swing
B1. Ladies RH chain to P
     Pass through across, turn R and promenade single along set
B2. P gypsy and swing**

*This is the move often called "gents chain." It is identical to the typical ladies chain, except it begins by offering the left hand across to the other lady, and the courtesy turn ends with the lady on the left. For the courtesy turn, the rule remains: right hand to right hand, left to left, gents back up, ladies go forward. Let dancers practice the new chain a couple times.
**To face their partner, ladies should turn over their right shoulder to begin the gypsy on the side of the set across from their new neighbors.

Equivalent Exchange, by Bryan Suchenski
Becket (starts in lines/4)

A1. Down the hall, turn alone, back
A2. Gents RH chain to N*
Star L
B1. New N balance & swing
B2. Give and take to ladies side
P swing, end facing down

*The converse of Ambidexterity - here the gents are performing the move typically called the "ladies chain." It is identical to the ladies chain, in every way, except executed by gents, with the ladies courtesy-turning them. That means that gents end up on the right, and ladies on the left. Remind dancers not to "fix" this or they'll end up in the wrong place after the star!

Of the two, Equivalent Exchange is my preferred dance to call, both because it's easier for dancers to pick up and, in my mind, more directly confronts the typical role restrictions. I've called it at Pinewoods Camp and elsewhere, and any reasonably open-minded audience should have no difficulty with it.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

2048 and Marketing

Two things struck me about the latest game-nerd darling, 2048: the number of friends who have independently recommended it to me, and how quickly I got bored of it. Eventually I figured out why there's such a disparity in my reaction to the game and everyone else's, and I'll focus on that here because I think it's interesting. In a separate post I plan to talk about some of my own favorite mobile games of the last year.

First, to clear the air - 2048 is a good game. I like puzzles, I like simplicity, and I like numbers. I like the smooth and intuitive mechanics. I like the fact that the game has a set endpoint - a goal established from the beginning. Given all of this, I was surprised by the fact that the game only appealed to me for about 20-30 minutes before I got tired of it.

The reason 2048 failed to hold my interest is simply that I've played this game before, and I'm not talking about the fact that the game is a clone several times over. That's its own entire topic. I didn't play 1024 or Threes, but I have played the same category of puzzle game, starting with Triple Town a few years ago, and manifesting in other games like Puzzle Forge. You see, the big secret of 2048 is that at its heart, the game is not about numbers - it's about spatial planning. The novice player will focus on matches they see and try to build up mid-size numbers only to discover that these midsize numbers are too far apart to be effectively combined, and they quickly run out of space. In order to get the largest numbers, you need to plan ahead and make sure that your mid-sized numbers end up next to each other, so that you can combine them into the really big numbers.

With this kind of puzzle, the number theme is unnecessary. The key is that you have like tokens that combine into bigger (higher-value) tokens, and those bigger like tokens can combine, but only with each other, requiring exponentially more space to build each new token up the hierarchy. The size of the board then determines how far up this totem pole combination will become difficult for players, as the amount of space required for all the components of a big token outstrips the playing area. In Triple Town these tokens were bushes, that combined into trees and then into houses of various sizes, ultimately leading to a floating castle. In Puzzle Forge you combined metals into higher and higher quality smithing materials, and then could cash in your big tokens to produce items and sell them. You could just as easily have the tokens be single-celled organisms building into animals up an evolutionary chain, or coins combining into larger units of currency. The only requirement is that there is a clear sense of hierarchy, and that the game gives you limited space to work within.

So what makes this iteration of the spatial-planning puzzle game so much more popular than its predecessors? The answer is the marketing and virality. I don't mean that they spent a bunch of money on ads, but that design decisions, and specifically the decision to represent its tokens as powers of 2, enable the game to appeal to new audiences and be more sharable than its predecessors. Even though the game, according to me, isn't about numbers, the decision to theme it on numbers is brilliant for a few reasons.

First, the numbers make the hierarchy of tokens instantly intuitive, rather than requiring the player to learn that bushes make trees which make houses (which is totally arbitrary). This, combined with the simplicity of the confounding agent (the fact that new numbers appear randomly, rather than being placed, which serves the same chaos-inducing role that ninja bears did in Triple Town), means that the game's learning curve is so shallow that it needs no tutorial. You can literally hand your phone to a friend and just say "check out this game" and they will fairly quickly figure out how it is played (in fact, this is how the game was first introduced to me).

Second, the numbers theme makes the game extra appealing to math and science nerds, especially since powers of 2 are evocative of computer science (bits and bytes and all that jazz). The theme not only vindicates nerds, it gives the game an air of being pseudo-educational or at least more intellectual than a game that is visually about trees and ninja bears. The nerd appeal is particularly evidenced by an xkcd comic on the game (random side note: when plugging in that link I half-expected the comic's serial number in the url to itself be a good 2048 combination).

Third, and perhaps least importantly, the use of a number for the title of the game makes it appear at or near the top of an alphabetized list. This doesn't matter too much for people playing the flash game on their browser, but if you download the game on an Android device, you may notice that it will be the first item to appear when you press that "apps" button. Moreover, the title is a good one because it is easy to remember and communicates the game's goal.

Of course, much of the game's success is a matter of sheer luck (especially since it is a clone of other games that came out a month earlier to less fanfare), but luck only allows a game to get noticed - in order to sink in, it also needs the qualities that make it viral, and the difference in reception between Triple Town and 2048 is, in my mind, something to take note of. It is fair to reply to this entire post by noting differences in basic game mechanics between the two games, and there is an argument to be made that swiping the board is simply a more interesting mechanic than placing tokens. However, as someone who played Triple Town fairly thoroughly, I recognized the same area of my brain activated when planning in 2048. They are most certainly kindred spirits.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Can Companies Patent Human Genes?

Sometimes I write tech policy articles. This one is reposted from the Rutgers Institute for Information Policy and Law.

Can Companies Patent Human Genes? A Myriad of Problems with the Court's Answer

Last June was a busy time for the Supreme Court, and amidst a flurry of important decisions, it was easy to let opinions slide through the news cycle without a careful analysis. So when the Supreme Court announced its decision in Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics (Myriad), unequivocal victory was declared for the public interest. The New York Times headline read “Justices, 9-0, Bar Patenting Human Genes” and the ACLU's blog nearly shouted, “VICTORY! Supreme Court Decides: Our Genes Belong to Us, Not Companies.”

One month later, Myriad, the same company that had lost its case before the Court, filed patent infringement suits against two smaller companies concerning the same genes that were the subject of the June decision. How is that possible? A closer reading of Myriad reveals a problematic opinion that simply fails to address the core issues at stake in the gene patent debate.

The Decision

What was this case about? Myriad Genetics owned patents on “isolated DNA molecule[s]”, including BRCA1 and BRCA2, which can indicate a predisposition to breast cancer. The company then built its business on offering an exclusive test on the isolated gene, and suing anyone else who attempted to offer breast cancer screenings based on the same gene. This resulted in both a heightened price for clinical tests, and a potential roadblock for other researchers, leading the Association for Molecular Pathology, several universities, and several patient advocacy groups to go to court in order to have the Myriad patents invalidated.

The case made its way up to the Supreme Court, which rendered a unanimous decision on June 13th, 2013. The Court invalidated Myriad's patents on isolated genes, on the basis of the fact that a DNA sequence found in humans “is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated.” However, there was a second variety of patent at issue in the case – patents on complementary DNA, or cDNA. A cDNA molecule is made by copying all of the protein-coding portions of a particular gene, and thus contains the same code as the naturally occurring gene, except that excess non-coding segments (called introns) have been removed. The Court held that cDNA, since it was prepared in a laboratory, could be patented.

This distinction drawn between cDNA and naturally-occuring DNA, or gDNA, is at the heart of the logic of the Court's opinion. What the opinion notably does not rest on is the competing interests of those who invest in patents and the public at large.

The Public Interest

There is a great deal of popular interest in the question of patentability of human genes. Patents on genes can make not only tests, but potential treatment options for many patients expensive or simply unavailable, while independent researchers may run into roadblocks in trying to progress knowledge because making any use of a patented molecule is an infringement of a patent owner's intellectual property rights. On a more basic emotional level, however, many individuals simply feel that it is wrong for a private company to “own” a DNA sequence that naturally occurs in human bodies.

At first glance, the Court's decision does seem like a victory for the public interest because it declares naturally occuring genes ineligible for patent protection. However, isolating a gene is only the first step in most clinical or research applications of gDNA, and the second step in many of these applications is to create a copy of the exons – cDNA. As a result, many important avenues of research that involve an isolated gene sequence are still blocked by cDNA patents. Even the narrow situation presented in the Myriad case, diagnostic tests of BRCA1/2 to assess a woman's risk of breast cancer, expose clinicians to potential lawsuits because of the surviving cDNA patents .

This is particularly troubling because as with gDNA, a company that patents a cDNA sequence does not invent the genetic sequence, which leads one to ask – what is the patent office incentivizing by granting such patents? The patentee does not have to discover a new specific new use for the cDNA sequence, nor a new method of creating it. The patent for a sequence can theoretically go to the first company that happens to produce cDNA in a lab even if the gene in question is already understood, and the patent, once granted, prevents any and all use of that genetic sequence in cDNA.

One response is to point out that the Supreme Court only ruled on subject matter eligibility – a patent on cDNA can still be denied by the USPTO for other reasons, namely lack of utility or obviousness. The utility requirement does place some barrier in the way of a research firm patenting huge swathes of DNA without rhyme or reason, but it is a small barrier, because the existence of any single known use for a particular gene allows a patent holder to monopolize all future uses, known and unknown (including uses that will be left undiscovered because of the effect the patent has on research).

The obviousness criterion could potentially be a very important tool for filtering out inappropriate patents, because the process of creating cDNA is “well understood,” to use the Court's language, and it should be a obvious step to anyone studying a particular gene. However, technically the patent act only invalidates a patent if it obvious relative to other patents or published discoveries and inventions (called “prior art,” see 35 USC 103). Even though human genes are “naturally occurring,” an invention based upon them is not obvious unless that gene has been described in a patent or publication, and since the Supreme Court just invalidated patents on isolated genes, it is now even less likely that any such publication will preempt future applications for patents on cDNA (though there are other ways to find a patent application on a gene obvious – see In re Kubin). In short, the patentability of cDNA provides research firms powerful patent tools nearly as extensive as they would have had if the Supreme Court came out differently in Myriad.

Patent Applicants

So if the above is all correct, should patent applicants be happy about the Myriad opinion? The answer is still no, because the Court's logic is far more broad than it admits. The distinction the Court relies upon, between substances that are “naturally occuring” and those that are not, buries a century-old line of cases that defined when “extracts” or “purified” forms of naturally-occurring substances can be patent-eligible, starting with Learned Hand's 1911 decision granting a patent on extracted adrenaline. Although the Court claimed that it's holding was limited to isolated genes, it's emphasis on “naturally-occurring” substances, if taken seriously, could entirely eliminate discovered compositions from patentability (in spite of the language of 35 USC 101, which provides that patents can be given to “anyone who invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter”).

The question of policy again rears its head. If the purpose of patent law is to incentivize new inventions and discoveries, then why does it matter that a discovered substance is naturally occurring if it has never been available to public previously? Perfectly good answers could be given to this question – perhaps the protection available from patents on particular uses of discovered substances are sufficient to incentivize discovery without unduly restricting public access to the substance. The Court, however, fails to even raise that question, and provides no reason to believe that the line between “naturally occurring” and artificial compositions is the line that actually promotes the most good.

The Point: Balance of Interests

The point is that the Court's opinion in Myriad attempts to address an important issue by reference to an irrelevant distinction. Even if the outcome – providing broader access to testing for breast cancer – seems good, in practice the Court has left the plaintiffs in nearly the same situation they were in before, and potentially confused the debate about the proper scope of eligibility for patents on genes by focusing on the wrong issues. The confusion surrounding the decision is made even more clear by Scalia's concurrence, in which he joins the entire opinion except “portions...going into fine details of molecular biology.” By his own admission, he doesn't understand the science well enough to have a valid opinion on the matter.
What we need is an opinion that actually wrestles with the core issue in debate – the balance between the need to incentivize research and the need to protect the public's access to their own genetic information. This is far from the last we'll hear on the issue.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Random Projects Ahoy: 3D Printed Totoro-TARDIS

So I had access to a 3D printer this summer, and I had all kinds of ideas for it. However, after a failed experiment in which I attempted to print a bead for a bracelet I often wear (far too round a design), I realized I would have to think through anything I wanted to print. My friends insisted that I should print a TARDIS, and that I should print Totoro, so I did both (click images for biggen-ed versions):

The concept is that Totoro is dressed as the TARDIS for Halloween. I found several models to use as sources on Thingiverse, and proceeded to chop them up and recombine them in Tinkercad. The result looked pretty cool, but then I realized that the "hat" part would be difficult to 3D print (since the printer puts layers down from the bottom up, unsupported floating sections in a design won't turn out well). So I redesigned it to make the hat removable, including ear-holes big enough to fit on Totoro's head:

I considered this something of a masterpiece. The real test, though, is "will it print?" So we heated up the ole makerbot. Unfortunately, we only had red plastic to work with, and it isn't the highest resolution printer around, but it did its duty:

And the result, after tearing off a bunch of excess plastic:

Unfortunately, the light on top of the TARDIS broke off (and the pics aren't great, I admit). I might also paint the whole thing a little if I find time, but it more or less worked, so I'm satisfied.

3D printers have a long way to go before they bring about any kind of revolution, but it was really cool to see one in action and get a better sense for the technology. If you happen to have one and want to print this design, send me an email (bsuchenski at gmail) and I'll send you the file.

-Silent Ellipsis

Friday, March 15, 2013

Contra Dances

Well this blog gave up on being about one topic a long time ago, and for those who don't know, I've been really active in the folk dancing scene for the last few years. In the last year I've also begun calling dances and writing them, including the two below. For those who don't contra dance this might be meaningless (aside from the pond story), but if you're curious about contra I encourage you to try it (there's probably a dance near you).

Sharks in the Pond  – Becket-R  by Bryan, Angela, Erika, Lynn*

A1: Pass the ocean, balance wave of 4 (8)
Women allemande L 1 1/2 while men orbit 1/2 (8)
A2: Balance and swing partner (4, 12)

B1: Men cross (passing L), gypsy & swing neighbor (2, 4, 10)
B2: Women cross (passing R), 1/2 L shoulder gypsy partner (8)
1/2 promenade partner, loop to meet next (8)

*Authors are Angela DeCarlis, Bryan Suchenski, Erika Rosenberg, and Lynn Ackerson as part of Rick Mohr's workshop at Pinewoods

This dance was written at Pinewoods American Week in 2012. The workshop as a group came up with a list of interesting moves to base a dance off of, including the opening of this one, and then broke up into smaller groups to flesh the dances out. To our surprise, Lisa Greenleaf then called this dance on the last evening to the full dancing population of Pinewoods. So now that it had been baptized, we needed a name for the dance.

FLASHBACK...the night before, I was out in one of the lakes (or ponds as we called them) that flank the camp with a friend of mine. There's a floating dock in the middle of the water, and she was sitting on it while I treaded water nearby. We had been chatting until some unholy hour when I felt the sting of teeth sinking into my back. It didn't actually hurt terribly, but the when you're in dark water and something bites you, your instinct is not to objectively evaluate the degree of pain involved. I proceeded to freak out and flail about while trying to climb onto the dock. Once I did I immediately began pretending it was no big deal to keep my friend from panicking. We both turned and saw a fish, about 6 inches long, staring at us from the water. 

"Well, he's not that big and scary looking," we said to each other. Then his friends started showing up. Soon there were a half-dozen fish all staring intently at us from the water, and we were fairly certain that we were going to die at Pinewoods American Week. My friend finally built up enough courage to stick her finger in the water, testing the intent and speed of these savage beasts. One of the fish took the bait, and began to slowly rise toward her finger. Very slowly. She started coaxing it, "Come on, little fish, just come get a nibble!" Approximately 30 seconds later, the fish achieved its nibble, and upon our realization that the pain (eventually) involved ranked somewhere near "cute", the fish seemed much less intimidating. Figuring that at worst they would only get one of us, we resolved to jump in at the same time and frantically swim to shore. 

After surviving the ordeal, and noting that this new dance had an "orbit" figure that looked like circling sharks, I called it Sharks in the Pond.

Welcome to the Neighborhood – Improper  by Bryan Suchenski

A1: Neighbor balance and swing (16)
A2: Circle L 1/2 and pass through up and down (4, 4)
Neighbor 2 swing (8)

B1: Gents Gypsy L 1 1/2 (8)
Partner swing (8)
B2: Long lines forward and back (8)
Ladies chain (8)*

*After the chain, turn away from this neighbor to face the next and begin the dance again.
**This is a double progression dance with two neighbor swings, so you swing everyone

This dance doesn't have quite as amusing a story behind it - I wanted to write a double progression dance in which you got to swing both of your neighbors, to avoid the situation where you join the set with the cool hip dancers, only to discover that it's a double-progression dance and the people you most wanted to swing are those even-numbered couples that you skip the entire time down and back. I was expecting to call it "Won't You Be My Neighbor", but apparently there's already a published dance with that name.

Note to callers, the hardest part of this dance by far is the A2. Dancers are used to circling 3/4, and if they circle too far, or think they are supposed to pass through across the set, the progression is thrown off. Fortunately, there's a partner swing not far after, so if you see couples that failed to progress, encourage everyone to simply find their partner and swing on the side of the set. Also, some communities are more down with gents gypsying each other than others, and if you suspect dancers might be uncomfortable with this move you can simply replace it with an allemande L. In my mind, though, more varied gent interactions in contra is a good thing.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Crazy Ideas for Crazy Times: Guaranteed Income

It's been a while since I wrote a substantive blog post, but I just ran across a post from 3 years ago which effectively predicted the crowd funding craze we've seen in the last year in indie games (I referred to it as "pre-pre-ordering", which admittedly is not the catchiest phrase). So I have newfound confidence that things I post under the "crazy ideas for crazy times" label are more feasible than they might sound.

Which brings me to the topic of today's post: guaranteed income. Some of my friends have heard me talk about the idea in person, and I'd like to outline it more thoroughly. We'll start with some background concepts.

The Nature of Money

Most people see money for its value to the individual - as a substitute for services and desirable articles. It seems natural, then, to treat money simply as a tool for facilitating bartering: instead of carrying my goat around so I can trade it on the spot for the chickens I want, I sell my cow for a small value-token which I can later exchange for those chickens. Lovely. However, as I discussed in more detail here, money serves a larger social purpose - it functions like a rapid and constant voting system, and is how the market determines the relative value of goods and services. If you don't have a planned economy, you need some way of determining what kind of goods get produced, which requires a method of measuring the value of goods. Money is a fabulously robust method of decentralized value judgment, especially because every single member of the society contributes to these value judgments whether or not they think of themselves as doing so.

There are, of course, problems with money as the primary measure of value. Most importantly, since money also determines how many goods individuals get, we are extremely covetous of the resource, and often don't spend it in a way that's representative of our perceptions of value. There are also significant categories of goods and services that we simply don't think of as being commercial, even if we find them very valuable. For instance, we may think that a stay at home mother (or father) is creating an enormous amount of value by raising children, but that doesn't lead us to think we should pay parents for their efforts, much less that we should pay particularly skilled or dedicated parents more than lackadaisical parents.

Nonetheless, money keeps a market running, at least as long as there is a constant flow of data - enough money is being spent to tell us where to dedicate our labor.

What the World Needs Now...

Is more people to buy things. That's not my typical answer to this question, but if our immediate goal is to pull the economy out of recession, all we need is for more money to be spent. That's because without spending, we don't have the value-voting data we need to determine what people should be doing with their time, and the result is unemployment. Since those who have the lowest income are most likely to spend every dollar they acquire (out of necessity), the way to increase spending is to get money into the hands of the unemployed, but since they're unemployed (or underemployed), they're not making enough money to spend. So to create jobs, the unemployed need money, and to get them money, they need jobs. That's the default state of things in a recession, and where we've been stuck for the last four years. 

So here's the weird thing that Keynes figured out a while ago: it doesn't matter why you pay these underemployed citizens; you can hire one person to dig a hole and another to fill up the hole, and net effect for the economy would be positive. If you don't believe me, consider how we got out of the Great Depression - certainly new deal policies were helping, but the final push was World War II. Why would it be that having Americans spend their time building tanks that got shipped overseas and blown up would help the domestic economy? The answer is because paying those workers to do anything would have helped the economy, because it enabled them to spend, and get the great value-voting machine running again.

This is the theory behind stimulus spending, which certainly would help the economy if it were done on a larger scale (and has helped some even though the size of stimulus so far has been small). I want to propose something else, or if you prefer, a particular, relatively radical kind of stimulus.

Guaranteed Income

The best solution to the economic crisis, on both economic and ethical grounds, is to simply stipulate that every citizen should have a certain minimum income. If employment were high, this might be accomplished by a robust minimum wage, but when there are not enough jobs to keep workers employed, you need an alternative way to pay citizens. This is the role the welfare system played in the Great Depression before the war created a sufficient mass of state-funded jobs to restart economy. There are a several important differences between a guaranteed income and welfare, which will become clear if I spell out the proposal.

Here's how I envision guaranteed income:

(1) Every qualifying adult citizen gets a grant with no strings attached. The amount should be enough to provide basic needs in the absence of other income (above the poverty line), but not so much as to totally disincentive work. I imagine the amount here to be around $15,000 a year.

(2) In order to qualify, the citizen must, if capable, contribute to society in some way, either by working for pay (meaning everyone who has a job, even a part-time job if it provides enough hours/week, qualifies), by doing community service, or by working on registered unpaid projects (meaning artists, opensource programmers, etc. qualify on the basis of their projects). 

(3) Any citizen can collect, but the grant is taxable income, meaning that those at a high marginal income rate effectively don't collect much (especially given the next point).

(4) In order to pay for the program, I would support a marginal tax rate up to 90% (or more). The marginal tax rate would only reach this level for those making massive incomes - more than, say, $500,000/yr. 

There are several things to note about this proposal. For one, guaranteed income is not a temporary replacement for income from work, like welfare payments are, but a supplement to income from working. This, together with (2), effectively eliminates the concern that welfare discourages citizens from working. The system doesn't focus on efforts of recipients to find work, but on what they can do immediately to have some positive impact on society as a whole. This means that the unemployed are still doing something useful, and that artists can choose to dedicate themselves to their craft if they don't mind living on a minimal income. If a citizen wants to live on more than a bare minimum, they will try to find paid work anyway, and the guaranteed income helps to ensure that they will be able to live off whatever income they do earn. 

Point (4) clearly makes this a kind of wealth redistribution proposal, but I want to be clear that I'm not entirely against disparate income. I don't have any problem with those who pursue more commercially viable careers, or those who are most skilled in such careers making more money than the unlucky/idealistic. I think doctors, lawyers, and CEOs should make more money than academics or video game designers. That's how we encourage people to pursue practical careers. The problem is, after a certain point (say, a half-million dollar salary), increased income simply stops to be any significant motivator for high earners, and it has no effect on the quality of their lives. The difference between a very high and absurdly high income might motivate a person to choose one particular company or specialization over another, but at that point, we should be encouraging employers to come up with better motivators than salary (such as a rewarding working environment, intellectual/creative freedom and authority, or the ability to contribute to projects the employee cares about). 

I've spent most of my life around wealthy people (and was at one point part of a reasonably wealthy family myself), and in my experience, the top few percent of income earners are primarily concerned with their relative, not absolute wealth. A person making more than a half-million dollars a year doesn't benefit from having that money around to spend on what they will, but it may be important to them to be recognized for earning as much money as they do. So even with a high marginal tax rate, if they can convince someone to pay them a $100 million salary, they get to be wealthier than (almost) everyone else around (but they still have to pay the majority of that money in taxes).

Also note that (4) might not be strictly necessary in a recession. If taxes were not raised to pay for the program, it would result in inflation, which in a healthy economy would act like an "invisible tax" - it disproportionately affects those with the more money in savings. In a recession, the stimulus effect could effectively allow the program to pay for itself. I would support (4) nonetheless to ensure the program remains sustainable.

Finally, if you're wondering about the general feasibility of this kind of idea, note that I'm not the only person to propose something along these lines. Norway provides guaranteed income and grants to artists in the interest of promoting culture generally. BIEN is an organization that advocates for basic income, which is essentially the same idea minus (2), the contribution requirement. Similar ideas have been endorsed by an assortment of Nobel laureates in economics (cue cite to wikipedia).

The solution simultaneously solves two problems: it stimulates the economy and invigorates the existing market by increasing spending, while also allowing citizens a way to be supported for working on projects that are valuable but not well suited to market economics. If it were coupled with national healthcare and free college education, we really would have an America fit for the 21st century.

Monday, September 3, 2012


I spent most of the day hanging out with my friend Laura, and we ended up recording some songs. First we did a duet of my new song, Vines and Scaffolds, which came out way better than I expected (despite an out-of-tune piano):

I was on guitar and lead vocals, Laura on piano and harmonies.

Then we decided to lighten the mood a bit with an Ingrid Michaelson cover:

We both played uke, and hopefully you can tell which voice is which at this point.

It was a pretty great day, basically.