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  • Todd 3:30 pm on October 15, 2017 Permalink | Reply  

    What I’ve been reading 

    My enjoyment of texts describing the monopolistic downsides of Silicon Valley’s behemoths knows no end. Here’s another article in this vein from Noam Cohen in advance of his upcoming book, which I’m almost certain to read.

    Now that Google, Facebook, Amazon have become world dominators, the questions of the hour are, can the public be convinced to see Silicon Valley as the wrecking ball that it is? And do we still have the regulatory tools and social cohesion to restrain the monopolists before they smash the foundations of our society?


    Most of my reading time is spent on nonfiction or, as I like to call it, “triction” (Why should book categories be based on false narratives?). One category of nonfiction that I do not explore enough is biography. I think the last biography I read was Einstein by Walter Isaacson. It’s a lock that the next will be Leonardo da Vinci, also by Isaacson. Here’s an excerpt about the Mona Lisa.

    Stand before the Mona Lisa, and the science and the magic and the art all blur together into an augmented reality. While Leonardo worked on it, for most of the last 16 years of his life, it became more than a portrait of an individual. It became universal, a distillation of Leonardo’s accumulated wisdom about the outward manifestations of our inner lives and about the connections between ourselves and our world. Like Vitruvian Man standing in the square of the Earth and the circle of the heavens, Lisa sitting on her balcony is Leonardo’s profound meditation on what it means to be human.


    The United States has decided that the murder of 20 school children and 58 concert goers is the price we pay for a most expansive interpretation of the 2nd amendment. For reasons that pass all understanding, we take the idea of a bunch of weekend warriors dressed in army surplus camo as a check of government tyranny seriously. As Michael Shermer points out, it’s actually all the amendments (and the rest of established law) that keep our worst impulses in check.

    …if you’re having trouble with the government, a lawyer is a much more potent weapon than a gun. Politicians and police fear citizens armed with legal counsel more than they do a public fortified with guns. The latter they can just shoot. The former means they have to appear before a judge.


    In 1939, about 20000 Nazis held a rally in Madison Square Garden. That’s right, Madison Square Garden. Watch the video and try not to vomit in your mouth. At one point, there is a ruckus on stage. I’m sure there was blame on both sides.


    I finished Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen this week. If you think the U.S. is experiencing a troubling break from reality and truth these days, keep in mind that religious fanatics were among the first settlers to these shores. Since then, the nature of our delusions has morphed over the years (gold rushes, quack medicines, Scientology, speaking in tongues, anti-vaxxers, presidential astrologers…), but a propensity for the fringe of the bizarre seems to be baked into this American life.

  • Todd 2:44 pm on October 8, 2017 Permalink | Reply  

    What I’ve been reading 

    The skewing of American democracy is a growing problem. Simply put, the parts of the county where fewer and fewer people live are determining policies for everyone and it’s only going to get worse…

    David Birdsell, a Baruch College political scientist, has calculated that by 2040, 70 percent of Americans will live in 15 states — and be represented by only 30 of the 100 senators.


    Sweden reined in monopolies and pushed tax policies promoting competition, all while providing a liberal social safety net to rather favorable effect. It also seems to help to be a country of rather agreeable people, so maybe it’s just a Swedish thing.

    Sweden’s impressive start-up record can also be attributed to some broader aspects of how the country is set up. Its social safety net, for instance, helps entrepreneurs feel safe to take risks. In Sweden, university is free, and students can get loans for living expenses, which allows anyone to pursue higher education. Health care is free too, and childcare is heavily subsidized. None of these benefits are contingent on having a job, which means people know that they can take entrepreneurial risks and still know many of their necessities will be covered.


    Figuring out the technology is the easy part. The social changes involved in becoming a “driver-less” car culture will be harder to negotiate. Malcolm Gladwell does his Malcolm Gladwell thing with the language of autonomous cars and throws some shade on the iGeners along the way.

    It wasn’t Audi, Ford, or GM that pushed hardest for the dependent ­vehicle. It was Apple, Google, and Intel, companies for which the automobile is not primarily an aesthetic object and driving is not an instrument of pleasure. And the users they have in mind, needless to say, are not the readers of Car and Driver. They are the kids lying passively on the couch with their smartphones.


    Just about everything written by Ta-Nehisi Coates is worth reading. Some of the writings about the things that Coates has written are also worth reading. In the former category is The First White President.

    …the most powerful country in the world has handed over all its affairs—the prosperity of its entire economy; the security of its 300 million citizens; the purity of its water, the viability of its air, the safety of its food; the future of its vast system of education; the soundness of its national highways, airways, and railways; the apocalyptic potential of its nuclear arsenal—to a carnival barker…It is as if the white tribe united in demonstration to say, “If a black man can be president, then any white man—no matter how fallen—can be president.”

    In the latter category, we have How Ta-Nehisi Coates Gives Whiteness Power from Thomas Chatterton Williams.

    Though it [Coates’s recent writings] is not at all morally equivalent, it is nonetheless in sync with the toxic premises of white supremacism. Both sides eagerly reduce people to abstract color categories, all the while feeding off of and legitimizing each other, while those of us searching for gray areas and common ground get devoured twice. Both sides mystify racial identity, interpreting it as something fixed, determinative and almost supernatural.


    Stop flicking your thumb just that one more time on Facebook or Twitter. It’s your attention. Stop giving it away for free.

    The most important asset in your life isn’t time, but attention. The quality of the experiences in your life doesn’t depend on how many hours there are in the day, but in how the hours you have are used.

    On a related note, even the guy who designs iPhones to be more powerful, more convenient, more indispensable and more addictive thinks we use them too much.

    When asked about how the iPhone has changed the world, Ive surprisingly said many iPhone owners misuse the device. He said: “Like any tool, you can see there’s wonderful use and then there’s misuse.” When quizzed further he clarified by adding “perhaps, constant use,” qualified as misuse.

  • Todd 11:33 pm on October 1, 2017 Permalink | Reply  

    What I’ve been reading 

    “Let the market decide.” How often do we hear this and similar pronouncements from those favoring market-based approaches to economic issues? I many cases, such an approach is all fine and good but markets need to allow freedom of movement for employees looking for raises and promotions within the industry. Many fast food joints disagree. Here’s one of their lawyers saying so in Orwellian terms.

    “There has never been, ever, any intention, by drafting this type of provision [restrictions on hiring workers from other fast-food businesses], to restrict employee mobility, restrict wage competition, or suppress employee pay,” Mr. Hershman said.


    There was no good time for Donald Trump to be president. But this is a uniquely bad time for us to have a race-baiting, science-denying divider in chief. He is impossible to ignore, and yet reacting to his daily antics only makes us stupid…

    Roger that.


    The free speech vs. hate speech debate on college campuses is becoming dominated by issues of security. More specifically, paying for security. Could it be that far right speakers enjoy coming to campus in part to redirect public money to security? Maybe every dollar spent on security is a dollar unavailable to pay the salary of a gender studies professor. Not surprisingly, some professors continue to miss the importance of free speech by offering such doozies as…

    “Words can be like rape — they can destroy you,” Professor Scheper-Hughes said in an interview.


    In Germany today, Professor Wehrheim said, “you will get jailed for certain speech — and I think that is absolutely the right thing.”


    Just started Fantasyland: How American Went Haywire: A 500 Year History. You know it’s good because of the two colons in its title.


    I get closer to dropping Facebook every day. If it happens, I’ll have Cal Newport to thank/blame.


  • Todd 8:55 pm on September 25, 2017 Permalink | Reply  

    What I’ve been reading 

    1. Currently about half way through Quakeland by Kathryn Miles. Of the natural sciences, earth science may be a close second in my book to chemistry. Perhaps in some other world there’s a version of me doing science among the rocks in the field instead of with beakers in the lab. So far the take away is simple – we’ve been hosed by earthquakes in the past and it’s just a matter of time before we’re hosed by them again. If you think you’re safe because you don’t live in California, think again. Interesting science backed up with compelling storytelling.
    2. In the battle between free speech and safe spaces on our college campuses, free speech is really taking it on the nose. 60% of all college students either believe hate speech is not protected speech or don’t know. The other statistics are equally discouraging.
    3. As always, Andrew Sullivan offers considerable food for thought in this recent article on tribalism and American politics.

      So much of our debates are now an easy either/or rather than a complicated both/and. In our tribal certainties, we often distort what we actually believe in the quiet of our hearts, and fail to see what aspects of truth the other tribe may grasp.

    4. The last book I finished was World Without Mind by Franklin Foer. If you’re not up for his full polemic against the economic, democratic and intellectual takeover Silicon Valley is perpetrating on the rest of us, this Washington Post article covers the basics.
    5. Bret Stephens makes several good points regarding the the dying art of disagreement.
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