Required Reading, Fourth Week of April 2016

Throughout the week, I read a LOT of online articles. What follows are the three I found most interesting:

The Next Conservative Movement,via The Wall Street Journal–The national representatives of the Republican Party seems to have completely lost the plot over the past few years. I liked this article’s summation of the party’s difficulties, as well as the suggestions it gives for bringing Conservatism into the 21st century:

 Liberals treasure the social liberation and growing cultural diversity of the past half-century but lament the economic dislocation, the loss of social solidarity and the rise in inequality. Conservatives celebrate the economic liberalization and dynamism but lament the social instability, moral disorder, cultural breakdown and weakening of fundamental institutions and traditions. Part of Mr. Trump’s appeal has been that he basically laments it all—and thus unites the anxieties of those who see no real upside for themselves in the evolution of modern America.

But a politics of angry lamentation, whatever visceral appeal it may have, cannot look forward. America cannot afford a competition of barren nostalgias. We need a politics that builds on our strengths to address our weaknesses.

 

The Global Glut of Stored Time ,via The Reformed Broker–this short article, as well as it’s companion piece ‘Abundance’,contains a number of interesting concepts for making sense of the times we live in. The author’s premise is that we live in a time of unparalleled abundance, and that we have too much money and entertainment for our own good. Sounds like a good problem to have, right? The problem is that it’s inefficient, and we have no clue what to do with it all. Also, a new way to think about money:

“People work in order to convert their time into a unit of account,” he said. “We call that money, and it’s an invention that allows us to store time.” Most people have stored little or none. So when they receive money, they quickly purchase necessities; food, shelter, health care. “People who are able to save money inevitably purchase real estate, stocks, bonds – all of which are alternative vehicles for storing time.” One share of Google stores 30 hours of work for the average American, or 30 minutes of copying-and-pasting formation documents for the average hedge fund attorney. “Bill Gates has stored enough time to fund a 1bln person army for 20 years.”

 

The Best is The Last,via Benedict Evans–I feel Benedict Evans’ insight about innovation, that a technology is at its finest iteration right before it gets superseded by something else, is enlightening. It explains why laptops and PCs are so amazing and cheap even though some would say that technology is passé and on the verge of becoming secondary to mobile,  among other things. This essay uses the examples of airplanes and sailing vessels:

The point of this excursion into tech history is that a technology often produces its best results just when it’s ready to be replaced – it’s the best it’s ever been, but it’s also the best it could ever be. There’s no room for more optimization – the technology has run its course and it’s time for something new, and any further attempts at optimization produce something that doesn’t make much sense.

Required Reading, Second Week of April 2016

Throughout the week, I read a LOT of online articles. What follows are the two I found most interesting:

Why Most People Don’t Learn From Their Mistakes, via Maneatingrobot–This blog post by Shane Snow is the shortcomings inherent in the cliche “That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” As he says, “What doesn’t kill you doesn’t make you stronger if it puts you in a lifelong coma.”:

Researchers interviewed 500 prisoners about how they felt about their crimes, and then kept tabs on them after release to see whether they ended up re-committing similar crimes. The researchers catalogued the prisoners in two categories: those who felt guilt and those who felt shame. Guilt means that you feel badly for your actions. Shame means that you feel badly about who you are.

Though guilt and shame sound like similar emotions, they proved highly predictive of the ex-cons’ future behavior. Prisoners who felt guilty for what they’d done tended to do better post-parole; they focused on the actions they could do differently since it was their own actions that got them locked up in the first place. Prisoners who felt shame tended to blame their circumstances in order to preserve their self-esteem—both regarding their crimes and in their general lives—and so they didn’t actually learn from the mistakes and continued on to lives of crime later. Many in the “shame” category ended up back in the slammer.

 

The Voyeur’s Motel, via The New Yorker–Here is a long expose about a man who purchases a motel in Aurora, Colorado in order to fulfill a lifelong ambition: to be able to spy on the personal lives of strangers. Over the years, this man is witness to all shades of depravity and tedium and has finally gone public with his story. Perhaps, in a way, we’re all voyeurs:

A voyeur is motivated by anticipation; he invests endless hours in the hope of seeing what he wishes to see. Yet for every erotic episode he witnesses he is also privy to hundreds of mundane moments representing the ordinary daily human routine—people channel-surfing, snoring, urinating, primping, and doing other things too tediously real for reality television.

Required Reading, Fourth Week of November 2015

This week was Thanksgiving, and with family in from out of town I barely had any time to read. I did, however, catch this Vice interview with the Eagles of Death Metal about the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris. 90 fans were murdered during their November 13th concert. The band members barely escaped the stage alive. Their stories are horrifying, and hearing them recount their experiences bring this atrocity to life in a way that a news article fails to capture:

Required Reading, Third Week of November 2015

Throughout the week, I read a LOT of online articles. What follows are the two I found most interesting:

The Doomsday Invention, via The New Yorker—A portrait of Nick Bostrom, the futurist-philosopher at Oxford who is so mired in the future that the present is meaningless to him:

Bostrom had little interest in conventional philosophy—not least because he expected that superintelligent minds, whether biologically enhanced or digital, would make it obsolete. “Suppose you had to build a new subway line, and it was this grand trans-generational enterprise that humanity was engaged in, and everybody had a little role,” he told me. “So you have a little shovel. But if you know that a giant bulldozer will arrive on the scene tomorrow, then does it really make sense to spend your time today digging the big hole with your shovel? Maybe there is something else you could do with your time. Maybe you could put up a signpost for the great shovel, so it will start digging in the right place.” He came to believe that a key role of the philosopher in modern society was to acquire the knowledge of a polymath, then use it to help guide humanity to its next phase of existence—a discipline that he called “the philosophy of technological prediction.” He was trying to become such a seer.
“He was ultra-consistent,” Daniel Hill, a British philosopher who befriended Bostrom while they were graduate students in London, told me. “His interest in science was a natural outgrowing of his understandable desire to live forever, basically.”

 

Why People Keep Saying, “That’s What the Terrorists Want”via Harvard Business Review—here is a quick lesson about how and why people attach their own emotions to explain the actions of other people:

How is everyone so savvy when it comes to knowing what terrorists want?

One explanation comes from a cognitive bias called correspondent inference theory. It was developed in the 1960s and 1970s by the social psychologist Edward Jones to explain the cognitive process by which an observer infers the motives of an actor.

The theory comes from the foundational work of Fritz Heider, the father of attributional theory. Heider saw individuals as “naïve psychologists” motivated by a practical concern – a need to simplify, comprehend, and predict the motives of others. Heider postulated that people process information by applying inferential rules that shape their response to behavior. In laboratory experiments, he found that we tend to attribute the behavior of others to inherent characteristics of their personality — or dispositions — rather than to external or situational factors.

 

Comic Explodes the “DNA Is Just Source Code” Metaphorvia MIT Technology Review:

Required Reading, Second Week of November 2015

Throughout the week, I read a LOT of online articles. What follows is the one I found most interesting (along with a political speech and short documentary):

 

How The Mad Men Lost The Plotvia Financial Times—This article is about marketing, the ineffectiveness of “brand engagement” and the residing power of old media. I’ve always been curious about how/why advertising works and this take is refreshingly honest. I mean, no WAY are Google and Facebook ads so effective that they can justify those companies finances! Truth is, building sales by targeting previous customers isn’t a great way to build your user base:

Sharp’s first law is that brands can’t get bigger on the back of loyal customers. Applying a statistical analysis to sales data, he demonstrates that the majority of any successful brand’s sales comes from “light buyers”: people who buy it relatively infrequently. Coca-Cola’s business is not built on a hardcore of Coke lovers who drink it daily, but on the millions of people who buy it once or twice a year. You, for instance, may not think of yourself as a Coke buyer, but if you’ve bought it once in the last 12 months, you’re actually a typical Coke consumer. This pattern recurs across brands, categories, countries and time. Whether it’s toothpaste or computers, French cars or Australian banks, brands depend on large numbers of people — that’s to say, the masses — who buy them only occasionally, leave long gaps between purchases and buy competing brands in between.

If you work for a brand owner, the implications are profound. First, you will never increase your brand’s market share by targeting existing users — the task that digital media performs so efficiently. The effort and expense marketers put into targeting their own customers with emails and web banners is largely wasted; loyalty programmes, says Sharp, “do practically nothing to drive growth”. What seems like a prudent use of funds — focusing on people who have already proved they like the brand — is actually just spinning wheels.

 

The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions, Abraham Lincoln—I’ve been enjoying reading American political speeches lately, and Lincoln is widely regarded as the finest speech writer who ever lived. This early speech of his, written in 1938 when he was a 28-year old lawyer, had some particularly interesting passages in it. It covers themes like the corrosive nature of unjust laws, and the timeless question every young generation has to ask: namely, how to best use the advantages previous generations fought to gain and pass on:

“In the great journal of things happening under the sun, we, the American people, find our account running under date of the nineteenth century of the Christian era. We find ourselves in the peaceful possession of the fairest portion of the earth as regards extent of territory, fertility of soil, and salubrity of climate. We find ourselves under the government of a system of political institutions conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty than any of which the history of former times tells us. We, when mounting the stage of existence, found ourselves the legal inheritors of these fundamental blessings. We toiled not in the acquirement or establishment of them; they are a legacy bequeathed us by a once hardy, brave, and patriotic, but now lamented and departed, race of ancestors.”

” At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer. If it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time or die by suicide.”

“When I so pressingly urge a strict observance of all the laws, let me not be understood as saying there are no bad laws, or that grievances may not arise for the redress of which no legal provisions have been made. I mean to say no such thing. But I do mean to say that although bad laws, if they exist, should be repealed as soon as possible, still, while they continue in force, for the sake of example they should be religiously observed. So also in unprovided cases. If such arise, let proper legal provisions be made for them with the least possible delay, but till then let them, if not too intolerable, be borne with.”

 

Whistling Smith: and finally, Whistling Smith, a fascinating documentary from 1975 that follows a Vancouver policeman through the city’s most downtrodden streets:

Click HERE to see the film.

Required Reading, First Week of November 2015

Throughout the week, I read a LOT of online articles. What follows are the two I found most interesting:

Someday, Tech Will End Our Dumb Two-Party Systemvia Wired.com—Drew Curtis, founder of the irreverent news website Fark.com, offers his perspective on running a (losing) campaign for the Kentucky gubernatorial seat. Regardless of how the race turns out, he’s a smart and engaged citizen who deserves to be listened to:
Most politicians start with a theory, and then use that to determine their policies. For example, candidates are routinely asked to weigh in on charter schools. Most start by stating their theoretical approach—I’m broadly in favor of or opposed to charter schools. That immediately tells voters where you stand, but it does nothing to find actual solutions. As soon as you’ve signaled which camp you belong to, both sides start yelling at each other, accomplishing nothing.

I always tried to answer questions on issues pragmatically, either: 1) I’ve seen an implementation that works and we should copy it or 2) I have yet to see an implementation that works but do you have one you could share with me? If you read a campaign 101 primer it will tell you not to do this, but I found that voters responded very strongly to this strategy. It allowed people who didn’t agree 100 percent with my viewpoints to realize that even though we weren’t entirely aligned, all ideas had a place at the table. Any idea that was provable was worth looking at, regardless of the source.

The good news is, if you understand technology at all, you have access to new tools and ways of thinking that might change the discussion around public policy. For example, in northern Kentucky there’s an argument around tolling on a proposed bridge between Kentucky and Ohio. One idea is to charge locals $1 and everyone else $5. Right now, everyone is arguing about who should be considered local—how far out are we talking? My solution is to use technology to decide. Offer transponders and give drivers the opportunity to buy them. People who drive over the bridge regularly will pick them up. (I have a transponder for Chicago even though I don’t live there, because it makes my twice-yearly visits much more manageable.) Others can get charged a higher rate using license plate photo technology, like they have in Denver. Throw in Los Angeles-style fast lane surge pricing on top of this. Then turn all the tolls off once the bridge is paid for.

The advantage here is you get a huge leg up on the career politicians by demonstrating you’re thinking outside of the box, when in reality you’re just taking decades-old technology and applying it to government. Which I guess actually is thinking outside the box from a public sector perspective.

The Value of Universityvia The Economist—Not only does this article provide different results than most college ranking lists, it also gives a detailed breakdown of how they arrived at their results: 

A well-known economics paper by Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger found that people who attended elite colleges do not make more money than do workers who were accepted to the same institutions but chose less selective ones instead—suggesting that former attendees and graduates of Harvard tend to be rich because they were already intelligent and hard-working before they entered college, not because of the education or opportunities the university provided.

On September 12th America’s Department of Education unveiled a “college scorecard” website containing a cornucopia of data about universities. The government generated the numbers by matching individuals’ student-loan applications to their subsequent tax returns, making it possible to compare pupils’ qualifications and demographic characteristics when they entered college with their salaries ten years later. That information offers the potential to disentangle student merit from university contributions, and thus to determine which colleges deliver the greatest return and why.

The Economist’s first-ever college rankings are based on a simple, if debatable, premise: the economic value of a university is equal to the gap between how much money its students subsequently earn, and how much they might have made had they studied elsewhere. Thanks to the scorecard, the first number is easily accessible. The second, however, can only be estimated. To calculate this figure, we ran the scorecard’s earnings data through a multiple regression analysis, a common method of measuring the relationships between variables.

Data Mining Reveals the Extent of China’s Ghost Cities and Facebook App Can Answer Basic Questions About What’s In Photosvia MIT Technology Review—The first of these articles is about the deserted infrastructure built up during China’s ill-founded real estate boom (perhaps a symptom of that inflated growth rate that crashed and caused that market scare here in America a few months back). The other one details an impressive technological breakthrough: a computer program that can recognize what is happening in a picture. Combine this with Facebook’s face recognition algorithm and you can know what everyone is doing all of the time.

Required Reading, 5th Week of October 2015

Throughout the week, I read a LOT of online articles. What follows are the three I found most interesting:

Thinking Outside Pandora’s Boxvia Startups and ShitStartup L. Jackson is an anonymous Twitter user who has a biting and insightful take on Silicon Valley. Check out his most popular tweets for some hilarious tech wisdom.

He also has a blog for the thoughts that don’t fit snugly into Twitter’s 140 character limit. His analysis of the music industry was particularly interesting to me, and just as interesting are the hyperlinks used to support his point, that streaming music is not a profitable business, and why should it be? The only reason music was profitable in the past was because it was wildly inefficient.

Mobile: It Changes Everything, via ben-evans.comIn keeping with the theme of insights from a technologist, below is a 25 minute presentation from Benedict Evans about the mammoth potential of mobile devices compared to the PC, and people’s online consumption preferences. The presentation presents numerical data in a pleasing visual manner, and makes sense of trends in technology and commerce. The implications he presents are staggering:

Why the Dodo Deserves a New Reputation, via Audubon: Moving on from tech and into the world of paleontology and the dodo bird. For starters, I hadn’t realized the dodo had been extinct for almost 400 years (last seen in 1662)! Here is an attempt to correct the misunderstandings in the dodo legend, namely that it wasn’t such a dumb, maladapted bird. Our impression of it has been misinformed by bad science and inaccurate drawings of its body (only two drawings that exist were done by people who had actually seen a dodo bird!). Rather, this creature was the product of the locale it evolved in, and its evolutionary eccentricities are explained by this quote from The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease:

“Strange evolutionary events often happen on islands. Large animals on small, remote islands often confront energy crisis because there are typically fewer plants and less food than on larger landmasses. In these settings, very large animals struggle because they need more food than the island can provide. In contrast, small animals frequently do better than their mainland relatives because they have enough food, they face less competition from other small species, and because islands often lack predators, releasing them from the need to hide. On many islands small species become larger (gigantism) and large species become smaller (dwarfism). Islands such as Madagascar, Mauritius, or Sardinia were thus hosts to giant rats and lizards (Komodo dragons) along with miniature hippos, elephants, and goats (SEE: Homo floresiensisthe Hobbit of Flores).

Required Reading, 4th Week of October 2015

Throughout the week, I read a LOT of online articles. What follows are the three I found most interesting:

The Lonely Death of George Bellvia The New York Times—Some people die alone. This article is both a riveting investigation into who George Bell was, as well as a meditation on what it means to grow old and how to do so with dignity:

The solitude of so many deaths wears on Mr. Plaza, the fear that someday it will be him splayed on the floor in one of these silent apartments. “This job teaches you a lot,” he said. “You learn whatever material stuff you have you should use it and share it. Share yourself. People die with nobody to talk to. They die and relatives come out of the woodwork. ‘He was my uncle. He was my cousin. Give me what he had.’ Gimme, gimme. Yet when he was alive they never visited, never knew the person. From working in this office, my life changed.”

How Your Junk Mail Shows If You’re Rich Or Poorvia The Washington Post—Those junk mail credit card offers aren’t random. If it’s in your mailbox, it’s for you.

Why Self-Driving Cars Must Be Programmed to Kill, via MIT Technology Review—As discussed in The Glass Cage: How Our Computers Are Changing Us, the more we ask from automation, the more necessary an electronic ethical code becomes:

Here is the nature of the dilemma. Imagine that in the not-too-distant future, you own a self-driving car. One day, while you are driving along, an unfortunate set of events causes the car to head toward a crowd of 10 people crossing the road. It cannot stop in time but it can avoid killing 10 people by steering into a wall. However, this collision would kill you, the owner and occupant. What should it do?

Required Reading, 3rd Week of October 2015

Throughout the week, I read a LOT of online articles. The most interesting one I read this week was a long one, and deserves your full attention:

Why the Best War Reporter in a Generation Had to Suddenly Stopvia Esquire: A profile on C.J. Chivers, a war correspondent who’s seen it all in the past fifteen years, from Ground Zero on 9/11 to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya:

By that April 2011, when Libya was collapsing into civil war, Chivers himself had been at war for ten years. He’d been in Afghanistan in November 2001, just after the bombing began, as he’d been in Iraq in March 2003, when the bombing began there—as he’d also been in lower Manhattan on the morning of September 11, and as he had been in every theater since, too many deployments for him to even remember, amounting to years away from his home, his wife, and his five small children, four boys and a girl.

The Times hired Chivers at age thirty-four in 1999 to cover war. That was the handshake, he says. A former Marine officer, he might know how to handle himself in a war zone, the paper figured. What theTimes could not have known was that Chivers would develop a brand of journalism unique in the world for, among other things, its study of the weapons we use to kill one another. After reporting on a firefight—whether he was in Iraq, Afghanistan, South Ossetia, Libya, or Syria—he’d look for shell casings and ordnance fragments. If he was embedded with American soldiers or Marines, he’d ask them if he could look through what they had found for an hour or so—”finger fucking,” he’d call it—and ask his photographer to take pictures of ammunition stamps and serial numbers. Over time and in this way he would reveal a vast world of small-arms trade and secret trafficking that no other journalist had known existed before.

Required Reading, 2nd Week of October 2015

Throughout the week, I read a LOT of online articles. What follows are the three I found most interesting:

Why Singapore has the smartest kids in the world, via cnn.com—I’ve heard many vague statements bemoaning how bad the American education system is, but this quote clearly distills what’s lacking:

“One thing that’s been clear to them is that the world economy no longer rewards people just for what they know. Google knows everything. The world economy rewards people for what they can do with what they know.”

How Did Picasso Create 50,000 Works of Art? via Altucher Confidential—There’s a lot of wisdom in James Altucher’s writing. He’s prolific and repeats himself a lot but I found some enlightening new ideas in these reflections on quotes from Picasso:

“Action is the foundational key to all success.”

I know too many people who have an idea for a book, or a show, or a business. But “when I have time” or “it’s too late for me”, ignoring that Barbara Cortland wrote 23 books in her 82nd year.

The one thing in common from anyone above is that they wrote every single day. It’s hard to sit down every day and…sit. Blank paper. Blank canvas. Blankness.

And then…if you do something…it might suck. It might be the worst thing you ever do.

Kobe Bryant, one of the greatest basketball players of all time, has an incredible world record: he’s missed more shots in professional basketball than any other player. He’s missed over 13,000 shots.

So taking action is more important than anything else.

Nothing => Thinking => Doing => Finishing => Repeat is a daily practice for…I don’t know.

But I hope I can do it every day.

Is The World Looking Progressively Weirder? via Marginal Revolution—As the glut of information being generated expands on top of what is already available, our attention spans can’t hope to keep up:

As the world is more connected, with the global dominating over the local, the number of sources of news is multiplying. But your consciousness remains limited. So we are experiencing a winner-take-all effect in information: like a large movie theatre with a small door.