What I'm Reading: Early 2019

The winter of 2018–2019 has been hectic with a new job and over a month on the road. Nonetheless, I’ve snuck in some reading time and mulled over plenty of ideas.


I blew through How Democracies Die in a few days. It’s not merely another book cashing in on the anti-Trump bandwagon. The lessons for democracy are much more universal. I highly recommend it.

I’m stuck about a third of the way through Independent People. Yes, it’s great, but it’s also heavy reading. With fiction, I either love it or can’t finish it. Maybe the the themes are too obvious, the personalities too caricatured.

Getting Real was a work read. It’s worth a skim. The premise is to focus on real metrics and build simple, opinionated products. I’ve seen the opposite in action: managers that care more about vanity metrics as the ship is sinking. It ain’t pretty.

Reflecting on Data

Forget Privacy: You’re Terrible at Targeting Anyway is a must read for the data skeptics out there. The takeaway is that we’re not really getting anything cool in return for letting companies analyze our data. Most of what we generate sits unanalyzed in forgotten databases. Not enough businesses are asking whether we can get profitable ads and recommendations without personalized data.

This is a hard argument to present and win when you’re talking to managerial types. Three eloquent points in Data is Expensive say what took me an entire blog post:

First, don’t collect data unless it has a non-zero chance of changing your actions.

Second, before you seek to collect data, consider the costs of processing that data.

Third, acknowledge that data collected isn’t always accurate, and consider the costs of acting on data that’s incorrect.

I hope that collecting and processing data becomes an ethical conundrum akin to working in gambling or arms dealing. The question is more serious than an afternoon lost to YouTube. China is already a data dystopia.

Animal Consciousness

The more I meditate, the less I understand consciousness. The hard sciences aren’t any closer. A Journey Into the Animal Mind is a slow, philosophical read. From the article:

Even in a secular age, consciousness retains a mystical sheen. It is alternatively described as the last frontier of science, and as a kind of immaterial magic beyond science’s reckoning. David Chalmers, one of the world’s most respected philosophers on the subject, once told me that consciousness could be a fundamental feature of the universe, like space-time or energy. He said it might be tied to the diaphanous, indeterminate workings of the quantum world, or something nonphysical.

Looking at animal consciousness hardly answers the question:

Either consciousness evolved twice, at least, across the long course of evolutionary history, or it evolved sometime before birds and mammals went on their separate evolutionary journeys. Both scenarios would give us reason to believe that nature can knit molecules into waking minds more easily than previously guessed.

Science may not have satisfactory answers to the question of consciousness in my lifetime, such answers may not even be possible.

In any case the discussion raises an ethical conundrum. If animal suffering differs little from ours, history won’t judge us kindly. I spent years as a vegetarian, and reading this article got me thinking of going back to at least a low meat diet. If you’re starting out, the laid back guide to vegetarianism is about as sensible as you can get.

Poverty, taxes and industrial policy

Louisiana should be among the richer places in the world. Instead, you see poverty akin to the developing world. The answer to why Louisiana stays poor is surprising simple: companies pay almost no tax and receive huge subsidies.

Almost all of the coverage about the Green New Deal has missed the mark. It’s a vast vision of a comprehensive industrial policy in the spirit of Alexander Hamilton. A sample:

And arguments for the Green New Deal can even feel a little … Trumpy. When Gunn-Wright talks to people about the Green New Deal, “they get really excited about the thought of making stuff again,” she says. “That they’ll not just be a cashier, but that they’ll make wind turbines.”

This is about rebuilding the American industrial base and developing the technology for the next generation of industry. In short, getting rid of the rent-seeking billionaires and reclaiming the innovative spirit of capitalism.