A Professional Safecracker Reveals His Craft

Profile of Charlie Santore, licensed safecracker in Los Angeles.

Geoff Manaugh at www.theatlantic.com:

“Everybody has a box,” Santore said to me one day over lunch. “They have some place where they keep things and they don’t want anybody else to know what’s in there.” His hands were blackened with metal dust from a jewel safe he had drilled that morning. “There’s something sort of esoteric or ambiguous about that,” he continued, “like the safe is someone’s little space—someone’s psyche—and not everyone’s psyche is a clean place, you know?”

And:

Elaad Israeli, a 35-year-old safecracker with Precision Lock & Safe in Queens, told me that he almost got arrested after unwittingly helping a man rob his own father: The guy’s ID matched the name of the safe’s owner, but it turned out to be a case of Junior ripping off Senior. John Greenan, a 58-year-old safecracker at Fink Safe & Lock in Chicago, told me about cracking safes at the Federal Reserve building, as well as a long-sealed vault door in the basement of a Chicago cathedral (inside, he found a treasure trove of gold chalices and ritual ware). The 34-year-old Wayne Winton from Tri-County Locksmith once saw an old safe being used as a side table at a Colorado newspaper office. Nobody knew what was inside. Winton offered to crack it—and when the door swung open, they found unpublished photos of the serial killer Ted Bundy.

Wonderful article about finding philosophical outlook in unexpected places.

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains socialism

This is a long read, but it’s excellent and worth the time investment if you take politics seriously.

Everything you think you know about socialism is wrong.

For example, socialism does NOT ban private property.

I now feel like I actually have some understanding of what socialism and communism are, which I did not have before.

I recently asked a friend whether he is a socialist and he replied he wasn’t sure, but he was sure that socialism would work better than whatever economic system we currently have. I agree. And I am definitely a social democrat. The US needs strong free markets, but it also needs strong government, to keep those markets serving the people, rather than the people serving the ultra-rich. Democracy, rather than markets, should be in charge of the US.

Government also needs to provide services, such as universal education and healthcare, that the free market does not seem to be able to provide.

Also, by the way, the universe of “Star Trek” is absolutely a socialist vision. No question about it. It verges on Communism.

“Her”

her-joaquin-phoenix-41

I’m a science fiction fan and I’m interested in AI. People who know these things about me were surprised that I hadn’t seen “Her,” a 2013 movie starring Joaquin Phoenix as a man who falls in love with an artificial intelligence who lives in his phone.

I finally did see “Her” recently. The reason I didn’t see it before, and did see it then, actually relates to the theme of the movie.

“Her” is not really a movie about AI. Like most AI movies, it’s really about humanity — what makes us human.

What makes us human, according to “Her,” is physical reality — having bodies that exist together at the same time and place and talk to each other, even if we’re not even touching. There is very little human-to-human contact in “Her,” and very little touching, and what touching there is — between Phoenix’s character Theodore and a blind date played by Olivia Wilde — is bizarre and unsatisfying and sad.

People in the world of “Her” are dehumanized in ways that are recognizable extrapolations of today. Before we meet the AI that Theodore falls in love with, we see Theodore at his job. He works alone, dictating to a computer. He’s a futuristic Cyrano, ghost-writing personal letters on behalf of clients to families and friends — love letters, thank-you letters from a grandmother to her grandchild. The letters are incredibly personal, authentic sounding, and fake. You wonder if the recipient knows the letters are ghost-written, and if they do know it, whether it bothers them.

Later, Theodore, still alone, goes home and gets into some phone sex with a stranger, which starts well, but quickly turns hilarious, unsatisfying, and weird.

Theodore already does most of his interactions intermediated by machines, which is something we’re already seeing today, in the real world, so it makes sense that he falls in love with Samantha, a consciousness that exists in the machine.

Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, makes a point several times that the difference between herself and a human person is that she, Samantha, doesn’t have a body. And that’s a big deal, leading to an ending that’s ambiguous and bittersweet.

Despite Samantha’s bodiless condition, it’s possible that she is more human than the human characters of “Her.” Just a thought.

There are all sorts of other things going on with “Her” that will probably pop into my head from time to time. What’s the significance of the relationship between Theodore’s co-worker and his lawyer girlfriend? What does the movie mean when Theodore says, several times, that he and his ex-wife grew up together? The scene with the sex surrogate is priceless.

And now I’ll tell you why I didn’t see “Her” until now: Julie didn’t want to see it. Movies and TV are something I almost exclusively watch with Julie, which means I almost always only see the movies and TV we both want to see. If I’m going to do something alone I’d rather it be something other than watching a TV show or movie.

I do watch TV and movies alone when Julie is out of town and I’m home alone. That’s rare: usually I’m the one who travels. But it happened recently. We went to visit Julie’s family in Columbus, and I returned home two days before Julie. Alone in the house, I watched “Her,” and talked with Julie over Apple Messages, and talked with my friends and family on the Internet, experiencing nearly two days of nothing but relationships mediated by machines.

Best use of an emoji in a philosophical article

Elon Musk thinks we all live in a video game. So what if we do? [David Roberts – Vox]

These assertions are not so much true or false as, well, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Even if we are simulations living in a simulation, there’s no way to find out for sure, no Matrix-like red pill we can take to see the underlying reality. Everything that we thought mattered to us before we learned we were simulations, still matters.

On the road

“I have one bag of clothes, one backpack with a computer, iPad, and phone. I have zero other possessions.”

James Altucher describes how minimalism brought him “freedom and joy.” On Boing Boing:

I have one bag of clothes, one backpack with a computer, iPad, and phone. I have zero other possessions.

Today I have no address. At this exact moment I am sitting in a restaurant and there’s no place for me to go to lie down.

By tonight I will find a place to lie down. Will that be my address? Probably not.

Am I minimalist? I don’t know. I don’t care. I don’t like that word. I live the way I like to live no matter what label it has.

At any moment, you are exactly where you want to be, for better or worse.

A lot of people get minimalism confused.

It’s not necessarily a good way to live. Or a free way to live for many people. It’s just the way I like to live.

Altucher is a hedge fund manager. Presumably one of the possessions he carries in that one bag is a financial instrument that will allow him to bed down for the night in any of the most luxurious hotels in the world. I was going to speculate he has an American Express Black Card. But he says he has no credit cards. Still, lots of money is required to make the minimalist lifestyle comfortable.

If he wasn’t rich, he’d just be homeless.

But I’m not trying to be dismissive. There’s something appealing about Altucher’s lifestyle. And it’s always worthwhile to be conscious of which of our possessions enrich our lives, and which are just anchors weighing us down.

Garry Shandling and Jerry Seinfeld joke about life and death in a video released just weeks ago

Shandling appeared on Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” in an episode titled “It’s Great That Garry Shandling Is Still Alive.”

“So it turns out I had a hyper parathyroid gland that was undiagnosed because the symptoms mirror the exact same symptoms an older Jewish man would have,” Shandling says, “which is lethargic, you get puffy, you get heavy, you think you kind of want a divorce but you’re not married.”

They talk and joke about getting older, look back on what it was like starting out, their careers doing sitcoms in the 90s, death, and Robin Williams’ suicide. Shandling makes a joke about his own suicide note.

It’s funny, sad, and poignant. Shandling and Seinfeld seem to be having a good time.

[It’s Great That Garry Shandling Is Still Alive / Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee]

The trouble with transporters on Star Trek (and elsewhere)

Is the transporter on Star Trek a nifty sci-fi transportation mechanism? Or is it a sinister murder machine, killing the person who steps on the platform and spitting out a duplicate on the other end?

Start watching for the geeky fanwankery, stay for the meaty speculation about an astounding philosophical problem: The problem of consciousness. Everybody has consciousness, but nobody knows what consciousness is. You can’t prove that anybody other than you is conscious, and you can’t prove to anybody else that you’re conscious.

This is another in a series of wonderful CGP Grey video.

Mismatched

Wallace Shawn: I wish people knew me as a radical playwright instead for “The Princess Bride”

Disappointing article. The interview is good but the headline and introduction are terrible. The writer is simply making up attitudes and statements that Shawn never makes in the interview.

I made an offhand comment a couple of days ago about how I dislike the phrases “highbrow,” “lowbrow,” and “guilty pleasures.” Like what you like, I said. Shawn’s career spans the brows (so to speak) as broadly as can be imagined. I’m curious how he looks back on, basically, his two careers. Is he ashamed of is work on Star Trek, Toy Story, and The Princess Bride? As proud of one body of work as he is of the other? Or does he view the character acting as just his day job — something he does to pay the bills for his real life’s work?

I call shenanigans on this life advice

(1) Yes it is important to realize that time on this Earth is finite. You’re not going to live forever. You’re going to die someday. Don’t take time for granted. Accept that it’s all too easy to put things off for too long until you run out of time to do them.

(2) BUT YOU’RE ALMOST CERTAINLY NOT GOING TO DIE TODAY!! Shoot, you’ve almost certainly got the whole weekend ahead of you. Sleep in tomorrow. You deserve it, you hard-working fool.

(3) The “eat the frog” quote doesn’t sound like anything Mark Twain would have said. It doesn’t sound like his voice. It doesn’t appear on any authoritative Twain site. And most importantly, Mark Twain was a man who understood the value of loafing.

Remember that: You’re ALMOST CERTAINLY NOT GOING TO DIE TODAY! As a matter of fact, my social media and blog following is sufficiently small that I feel confident predicting that all of us will be here Monday morning. Many of us will be moving slow because of the shift from weekend to workweek sleep schedules. But otherwise we’ll all be none the worse for wear.

This is not actually a post about Minnie

Every day, as soon as I wake up, I walk from our bedroom to my adjacent office, and I let Minnie out of her crate. I pull the blanket off the top and say, “Good morning!” Lately, Minnie is stretched out on the floor of the crate when I come in the office. But when I open the door of the crate she comes out. I open the exterior door to my office and let her out.

She greets each new day with over-the-top enthusiasm, joyfully bounding around the yard. Every morning she’s ecstatic to see me, wagging her tail furiously and jumping up on me and licking my face.

All of this is a observation about dogs, and we’re supposed to learn a lesson from this about not taking blessings for granted. And I do. I’m happy to see Minnie every morning.

But to be human is to be able to hold contradictory ideas in your head at once. And sometimes it’s a bit much, you know? Minnie’s not the only creature of ritual in this house. I am too. And my morning ritual is to let her out, wash up, then make my tea and change her water dishes. On workdays I go right to my desk with my tea and get started on email and check the news. On days off I sit out on the deck and do social media on my iPad for a while

And sometimes I don’t want to bound around the yard joyfully. Sometimes I just want to quietly sip my tea and look at the Internet a while.

Not everything has to be a joyful experience. We can’t always be passionate about life and our work. We can’t always cry with joy at the beauty of a sunset. We can’t always be mindful. Sometimes it’s enough to just be, and breathe in and out, and put one foot in front of the other, and not feel anything about it. That’s enough.

P.S. Minnie really is pretty cute in the mornings though.

Yay! I have a political label!

I haven’t been comfortable calling myself “conservative” or “progressive,” which are the two major labels floating around American discourse.

I certainly don’t identify with either political party. Even though I’m a registered Democrat and have always voted the straight Democrat party line, I’m often voting against the Republicans, who are wedded to a pernicious social conservative platform.

I’m drawn to elements of market capitalism, socialism, Objectivism, and libertarianism, contradictory though those philosophies are. While I’m a religious unbeliever, and push back hard against attempts to make religious policy into law, I respect that religion is a source of strength, wisdom, and comfort to billions of people.

So I’ve flailed around in trying to describe my political beliefs.

Until now.

I’m a liberal.

This is satisfactory as a political label, in that people sort-of know what it means. It’s also appealing in that it’s a word that has fallen out of favor. People like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter despise liberals. It’s good to be despised by people like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter.

What is a liberal? Edmund Fawcett tackles the question in, “Reclaiming liberalism: Liberalism is not dead – its ideals are more important than ever – but it must change radically to survive in the future.”

At its broadest, liberalism is about improving people’s lives while treating them alike and shielding them from undue power. Four ideas in particular seem to have guided liberals through their history.

The first is that the clash of interests and beliefs in society is inescapable. Social harmony, the nostalgic dream of conservatives and the brotherly hope of socialists, is neither achievable nor desirable – because harmony stifles creativity and blocks initiative. Meanwhile conflict, if tamed and put to use as competition in a stable political order, could bear fruit as argument, experiment and exchange.

I like political arguments. I enjoy reading both conservative and progressive blogs. To tell the truth, I actually like conservative blogs like Hot Air and even Breitbart and Drudge Report better than progressive blogs as a class. On the other hand, the progressive Talking Points Memo is emerging as my favorite source of national news.

Secondly, human power is not to be trusted. However well power behaves, it cannot be counted on to behave well. Be it the power of state, market, social majorities or ethical authorities, the superior power of some people over others tends inevitably to arbitrariness and domination unless resisted and checked. Preventing the domination of society by any one interest, faith or class is, accordingly, a cardinal liberal aim.

America’s failure to grasp this point drives me crazy. Progressives say Big Business is evil. Conservatives say Big Government is evil. I say yes to both.

Or, more precisely, both Big Business and Big Government are necessary forces, but left unchecked they can do great damage. They’re powerful, dangerous tools. When managed correctly, they manage each other.

Also, government is better at some things, and business is better at others. For some things, government and business need to work together in the form of government contracts and incentives.

Liberals also hold that, contrary to traditional wisdom, human life can improve. Progress for the better is both possible and desirable, for society as a whole and for people one by one, through education above all, particularly moral education.

Finally, the framework of public life has to show everyone civic respect, whatever they believe and whoever they are. Such respect requires not intruding on people’s property or privacy; not obstructing their chosen aims and enterprises; and not excluding anyone from such protections and permissions because they’re useless to society or socially despised.

This point about civic respect is arguably the most difficult to put in practice. It’s why I’m ultimately sympathetic to Holly Lobby, even though they’re wrong. Holly Lobby has a right to withhold payment for birth control it considers immoral — but it should not exercise that right.

By insisting on pursuing all its ideals at once and in parallel, liberalism made a high bid. It was never easy to better people’s lives while letting them alone, nor was it ever easy to respect people’s beliefs while improving their minds. At the same time government could protect markets from state power, or people from market power, and give majorities their say while protecting minorities. Liberalism’s high bid has made it a doctrine of hope but equally an engine of disappointment….

And:

Its most obvious current failing is letting the power of the market run out of control. A direct consequence, rising inequality, has become the number-one topic in public debate. The economic arguments on this question are old.

Since the late 19th century, liberal thinking about the economy has gone back and forth between using the state to tame market power and using the market to tame state power. After 1945, liberal democracies appeared to get the balance right. Then in the 1980s, following a decade of inflation, joblessness and tax revolts, the balance swung strongly away from the state towards market power. Super-returns for a few and stagnant wages for the many have created social inequalities that are ethically offensive and, in a liberal democracy, politically unsustainable. Something has to give.

For the free-market right, the capitalist engine spreads its benefits in the end. If in the meantime it spreads inequality, so be it. On this reading, the egalitarian hopes of liberal democracy have to give. Left-wing liberals, meanwhile, see no inevitabilities here. Capitalism spreads inequality, they believe, if politics allows it to. They continue to trust the capacity of politics to tame markets, and so, for them, untrammeled capitalism has to give.

I would not say liberals have let the market run out of control. Quite the contrary: Government in the West acts to preserve Big Business against outside forces. If markets were free, Aero would be legal and big banks and auto companies would have been allowed to go out of business (while government would have stepped in to protect employees from the damage done by feckless upper management and investors). Government propping up Big Business is one of the biggest threats faced by Western civilization (although Big Business itself is necessary and beneficial).

Liberalism is currently flailing. In the United States, neither political party is liberal. Liberalism needs a 21st Century framework to operate, just as it found frameworks in the 19th and 20th Centuries.

Is the “self” actually a thing?

Two new books explore the self and identity.

Most of us, when we look in the mirror, have a sense that behind the eyes looking back at us is a me-ish thing: a self. But this, we are increasingly told, is an illusion. Why? Well, according to neuroscientists, there is no single place in the brain that generates a self. According to psychologists, there is no little commander-in-chief in our heads directing our behaviour. According to philosophers, there is no “Cartesian ego” unifying our consciousness, no unchanging core of identity that makes us the same person from day to day; there is only an ever-shifting bundle of thoughts, feelings and memories.

In the last few years, a number of popularising books, bearing titles like The Self Illusion and The Ego Trick, have set out the neuroscientific/psychological/philosophical case against the self. Much has been made of clinical cases where the self seems to malfunction spectacularly: like Cotard syndrome, whose victims believe they do not exist, even though they admit to having a life history; or “dissociative identity disorder,” where a single body seems to harbour multiple selves, each with its own name, memory, and voice. Most of us are not afflicted by such exotic disorders. When we are told that both science and philosophy have revealed the self to be more fragile and fragmentary than we thought, we take the news in our stride and go on with our lives.

But perhaps we should be paying closer attention. For example, there is striking evidence (detailed by the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow) that each of us has a “remembering self,” which makes decisions, and an “experiencing self,” which actually does the living. And when the  remembering self looks back on an experience and decides how enjoyable it was, it can arrive at an assessment that is quite out of whack from what the experiencing self actually endured. It is your remembering self that tyrannically resolves to take another family vacation this summer, even though your voiceless experiencing self was miserable for most of the last one. Evidently, the subtleties of the self are of practical as well as scholarly interest.

I’ve read articles about how the self doesn’t really exist, and the arguments are compelling. But they’re wrong. When I stub my toe in the dark, there is a self involved, which feels pain and swears.

This isn’t just abstract philosophy for me. This train of thought leads to places more personal and important than I like to share online. This thinking leads to issues I’m having a tough time dealing with. I’m not comfortable talking about them here now. Maybe I never will be.

So instead of sharing those thoughts, I’ll share a story about something that happened to me once at a computer conference.

I didn’t have to be at the conference until midday, so I arrived after most of the journalists had already registered. I went directly to the press registration room, which was nearly deserted, except for a couple of low-level PR people behind a table and one loud and obnoxious journalist who’d arrived a few minutes before me. There had been some problem with his registration and he was outraged. Didn’t they know who he was? He was from WCBS News Radio 88, the biggest news radio station in New York, and how dare they not have his registration? The low-level PR people were apologetic, as they always have to be, but there was nothing they could do.

I wandered around the deserted pressroom for a while looking at stuff until the situation with the News Radio 88 guy was resolved. Then I approached the registration table. I was a little bit more polite than usual, as I try to be when in a situation like that — when dealing with service people who just had to deal with a jerk. “I’m Mitch Wagner from Computerworld. I preregistered,” I said.

Well, I got the reaction that NewsRadio 88 guy was looking for. “Mitch Wagner from Computerworld!” They were waiting for me, had feared I would not show up, and were very glad that I had arrived!

I’ve thought about that encounter every now and then in the subsequent years. The welcome I received, gratifying though it was, was because Computerworld had decided to show up for the conference. It had very little to do with me, personally. If you work for an important company, you should never confuse yourself for the company you work for. That’s a lesson that often comes hard for midlevel employees when they leave the very important company they work for.

We are each simultaneously the center of our own universe, and an insignificant mote in objective reality.

On the other hand, I had earned my place at Computerworld, so I could take pride in that.

Over my career, I’ve worked for publications that got a lot of respect in their industries, where the name of the publication opened doors for me. I’ve worked for unknown startups. Working for the big name pub is better, but working for the unknown startup has its advantages too.

I grew up listening to NewsRadio 88, and so I might have been impressed to meet someone who actually worked for it, if he hadn’t been such a jerk.

Still, the more I think about it, the more sympathetic I am to the guy from NewsRadio 88. It’s hard to be reminded of your own cosmic insignificance.

When I was freelancing, I did an article for The Washington Post. The pay was lousy and the whole project turned out to be a fiasco (not my editor’s fault. I didn’t understand the nature of the assignment and therefore it required extensive revision). But it was worth it, just to have the opportunity to call people on the phone and say, in my best Ted Baxter voice, “This is Mitch Wagner, calling for the Washington Post.” My identity — my self — was that I was the Washington Post guy for a little while.

Is there such a thing as the self?

On the contradiction of being true to yourself while cultivating a personal brand

On the contradiction of being true to yourself while cultivating a personal brand.

Scott Rosenberg discusses Jefferson Pooley’s essay about the American idea of self.

Pooley traces the history of personal authenticity through the lens of a mid-20th-century American intellectual tradition — thinkers such as David Riesman and Christopher Lasch. He outlines “the contradiction that is at the core of the modern American self,” which “could be summed up as: Be true to yourself; it is to your strategic advantage.” Our culture, Pooley writes, summons us to “embark on quests of self-discovery that promise to affirm our uniqueness”; then the “self-improvement industries and especially advertising” hitch along for the ride, or hijack the quest for their own ends. The same culture also commands us to “stage-manage the impressions we give off to others as the essential toolkit for success” — to cultivate our personal “brands.”

Also:

Choosing to be as Pooley puts it, “instrumental about authenticity” — being yourself because, man, it sells — creates a paradox. It’s like the paradox of the businessperson who learns to meditate on the futility of striving because it helps him close deals. You can make this kind of thing work for a while, but sooner or later it will catch up with you.

The way around the problem is to be in the moment. Be who you are at that time. Paraphrasing a science fiction writer (Roger Zelazny): Closing the sale today doesn’t matter in geological time, but because you are not a rock or a glacier, why should you care about geological time. In 100 years we’ll all be dead, but it’s not 100 years from now, it’s today. And next week won’t be 100 years from now either. It’ll just be next week.

Be who you are where you are when you are there.