Against Cozy Catastrophies

Cowering in a luxury bunker is a lousy retirement plan.

A lush lawn and garden hedge wall; through the gate and over the hedge, we see a smouldering, apocalyptic landscape. Desperate hands reach over the wall. In the foreground is a No Trespassing sign.
Djuradj Vujcic/CC BY 2.0; Gerald England/CC BY-SA 2.0; modified

In 1978, Jimmy Carter’s IRS created the 401(k) retirement program. Prior to this, most Americans had two ways to enjoy a dignified retirement: Social Security, and employer-provided defined-benefits pensions, which guaranteed you a proportion of your final salary every month from your retirement until your death.

The 401(k) was a third way to plan for retirement: you could gamble in the stock-market, and hope that you weren’t the sucker at the table. At first, this was a great deal: between the tax-breaks for 401(k) bets and generous employer-matching funds, many workers and unions were convinced to trade their sure-thing defined-benefits pensions for market-based alternatives.

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The Ten Types of People

It’s spectrums all the way down.


There’s an old nerd joke that goes, “There are 10 kinds of people in this world —those who understand binary and those who don’t.” The joke is that in binary math (that is, base two), you count using only one and zero, so 1 is 1, 10 is two, 11 is three, 100 is four, 101 is five, and so on.

There’s a slightly newer nerd joke that goes, “There are ten kinds of people in the world, those who understand binary, those who don’t — and those who understand ternary.” Ternary is base three, which counts like this: 1 is 1, 2 is two, 10 is three, 11 is four, 12 is five, 20 is six, and so on.

You could continue this joke ad infinitum, simply by referring to a handy list of numeral prefixes: “Those who understand binary, those who understand ternary, those who don’t, and those who understand quaternary” (base four) or “quinary” (base five) or senary (base six), etc etc etc.

The thing I like about this joke is that it challenges your assumptions about categorization, reminding you that there’s no way to really know how many buckets things might be sorted into.

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Pluralistic: 29 Mar 2020

Today's links

  1. Announcing Story Club: A short story reading group, kicking off with me and Masque of the Red Death.
  2. Alex Jones's one-two punch: Conspiracy is a credulity-detection system.
  3. Andrew Cuomo is not your woke bae: Teen Vogue has a timely reminder.
  4. Cozy Catastrophes: Time to revisit Jo Walton's 2009 essay.
  5. California's missing medical stockpile: Balanced budgets vs 50m N95 respirators, 2400 portable ventilators, and 21,000 patient beds
  6. A better way to visualize exponential growth: What matters is the rate of new infections.
  7. Don't worry about groceries: They're safe, mostly.
  8. This day in history: 2005, 2010, 2015, 2019
  9. Colophon: Recent publications, upcoming appearances, current writing projects, current reading

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