Required Reading, 1st Week of October 2015

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

How Pope Francis Became the People’s Pontiffvia Vanity Fair—a glimpse into the background of the mysterious and inspiring Pope Francis. His shrugging off of the trappings of prestige is unheard of these days:

Francis is the first Pope in 110 years who hasn’t lived in the palace, and he has shaken off many monarchical trappings. Up in that window, he isn’t a ruler condescending to look down on his subjects. The window isn’t a portal to the divine; it’s just an ornate window in a city full of them.

And what is he? He is a free man, that’s what he is. Somehow he has stayed true to himself and to the core Catholic message and has kept free of the pomp of the papacy, the crush of celebrity, and the expectations of the global Church. “He doesn’t ‘play’ the Pope,” says Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, head of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. “He is who he is.” He’ll ride in the Popemobile with the protective glass down, no matter the security risk. He’ll establish a shelter for homeless people near St. Peter’s Square. He won’t stop speaking off the cuff and he won’t insist that all the cardinals agree about everything. With 1.2 billion members, the Church is a tumultuous household, and he isn’t going to worry about a few flying dishes.

Perspectives on Insomniavia The Book of Life—leave it to Alain de Botton to make you reconsider what’s important in life. His writing makes me feel less alone. It conveys an understanding of what it means to be human and the compassion that says, “it’s okay. You aren’t crazy.”

Lately, I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night with an abundance of ideas and pent up energy. While I worry about my sanity, de Botton reminds me to enjoy it:

Insomnia may also provide the perfect occasion on which to think. It’s easy to forget how little strategic thinking ever gets done in the day. Judging by the ideas generated there, our beds have more of a right to be called our offices than our offices. Insomnia is the revenge of the many big thoughts one hasn’t had time to nurture in the daylight hours.

Required Reading, 4th Week of September 2015

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

Miracle Healers, via The Economist—A disturbing look at the profitable and unregulated market for nutritional supplements:

Strangely, it was regulations which gave the industry its biggest lift. In the 1990s the FDA considered new rules for supplements’ health claims. “It set off a firestorm,” remembers David Kessler, the FDA’s commissioner at the time. “The industry understood there were billions of dollars at stake.” Lobbyists framed the issue as one of personal liberty. Bureaucrats would rob Americans of both vitamins and the freedom to care for themselves.

The result was a law that covered not just vitamins and minerals, but botanicals, amino acids, enzymes, metabolites and pills made from animal organs. The 1994 law let firms sell supplements without requiring the FDA’s approval for safety or efficacy. It also, for the first time, authorised firms to tout health benefits. They cannot claim that their pills can diagnose, prevent, treat or cure a disease, but they may make vague claims that it “supports a healthy heart” or is “essential for strong bones”, and so on. As a result, rather than restrain the firms, the law unleashed them. There are more than 20 times as many supplements on the market as there were in 1994.

Big Tech Has Become Way Too Powerfulvia The New York Times, Google’s ‘Don’t be evil’ mantra gets murky when they’re so politically powerful that they get to write the laws. This op-ed is so spot on I might as well get you started with the first three paragraphs:

CONSERVATIVES and liberals interminably debate the merits of “the free market” versus “the government.” Which one you trust more delineates the main ideological divide in America.

In reality, they aren’t two separate things. There can’t be a market without government. Legislators, agency heads and judges decide the rules of the game. And, over time, they change the rules. The important question, too rarely discussed, is who has the most influence over these decisions and in that way wins the game.

Two centuries ago slaves were among the nation’s most valuable assets, and after the Civil War, perhaps land was. Then factories, machines, railroads and oil transformed America. By the 1920s most working Americans were employees, and the most contested property issue was their freedom to organize into unions.

Now information and ideas are the most valuable forms of property. Most of the cost of producing it goes into discovering it or making the first copy. After that, the additional production cost is often zero. Such “intellectual property” is the key building block of the new economy. Without government decisions over what it is, and who can own it and on what terms, the new economy could not exist.

Required Reading, 3rd Week of September 2015

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

Underwater treasures: 10 stunning vintage photos of the American Dreamvia CNN, I enjoy Americana, especially from 1930-1980. Old photographs are a glimpse back into a world both the same as today, and utterly different. These advertisements are examples of the marketing campaign to sell 1940s and 1950s America as an ideal and innocent time, an impression that lingers on today.

Why Do We Admire Mobsters?via The New Yorker, A psychological explanation for my ‘good old days’ nostalgia: “Ultimately, the mob myth depends on psychological distance, a term coined by the New York University psychologist Yaacov Trope to describe the phenomenon of mental distancing that takes place when we separate ourselves from events, people, emotions, or concepts. In some cases, that distance comes naturally. As painful events recede into the past, our perceptions soften; when we physically remove ourselves from emotionally disturbing situations, our emotions cool. In other cases, we need to deliberately cultivate distance—to “gain perspective.” Trope likens it to the old cliché of missing the forest for the trees: you can wander around in the trees forever or, through training or external intervention, realize that you need to step back to see the full vista.

Once attained, psychological distance allows us to romanticize and feel nostalgia for almost anything. It provides a filter, eliminating some details and emphasizing others. We speak of the good old days, hardly ever of the bad. Psychological distance is, among other things, a coping mechanism: it protects against depression and its close cousin, rumination, which pushes us to dwell too long on unpleasant details from the past instead of moving forward. When, instead, we smooth the edges of the past, remembering it as better than it was, we end up hoping for an equally happy future.”

Why the U.S. Government Is Embracing Behavioral Sciencevia Harvard Business Review, Behavioral science shows promise in making everyday tasks more efficient (assuming they’re engineered responsibly). “Public policy has often relied on assumptions of rationality when accounting for human behavior, which has led to suboptimal policies in the past. For example, citizens are sometimes bombarded by mass-media campaigns (designed to decrease smoking, increase seat-belt use, etc.) that assume they will be able to process an onslaught of messages to their best advantage. But such campaigns often have not worked, and may even have backfired at times.”