Updates from January, 2018 Toggle Comment Threads | Keyboard Shortcuts

  • Todd 12:05 pm on January 5, 2018 Permalink | Reply  

    The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google 

    “It may seem unlikely that Amazon will one day lose its way. It will. Business mimics biology and, thus far, the mortality rate is 100 percent. The same is true of the Four. They will die. The question is not if, but when, and by whose hand?”

    We may find the end of any of the big four tech companies hard to imagine, but there was a time before each existed and so there will come a time after each ends. Although far from author Scott Galloway’s emphasis, the reminder that all companies meet their (un)maker is a good example of the obvious-once-you-read-it commentary offered throughout The Four. Where Galloway does spend most of his time is in explaining who these four companies really are. Sure, we know Apple makes us stuff, Amazon delivers stuff to us, Facebook helps us share stuff, and Google helps us find stuff. But what these companies really are and how they became these things goes beyond the stuff-based descriptions.

    Amazon wants to be your book dealer, clothier, grocer, office supplier, and just about everything provider to be sure. To get there it has to become the most ruthlessly efficient logistics and delivery company imaginable. Amazon is not going after mom and pop. Wal-Mart took care of them. Amazon has FedEx, DHL, and UPS in its sights. How is Jeff Bezos going about getting there?

    “The wealthiest man in the twentieth century mastered the art of minimum-wage employees selling you stuff. The wealthiest man of the twenty-first century is mastering the science of zero-wage robots selling stuff.”

    As for Apple, we could be forgiven for thinking they are a hardware company. Devices like iPhones, iPads, and MacBooks are indeed well-built, but becoming the Apple we know now, a lifestyle company, required it to get closer to its customers. Enter the Apple store, the first of which opened in May 2001. When the iPhone arrived six years later, Apple controlled every aspect from product development, to manufacturing, to point of sale. Given that Apple stores make about $5000 per square foot, that is quite the point of sale.

    Which leaves us with the two Benjamin Button companies, Facebook and Google. Unlike an iPhone or the sneakers bought from Amazon, Facebook and Google age in reverse as they leverage network effects to become more powerful the more they are used. The second and third keys to success for these companies are the fact that billions of users decide that convenience outweighs privacy and buy into a corporate stratagem convincing users that Facebook and Google are helpful platforms run by good people and not what they actually are, growing media monopolies. So, let’s all watch Sheryl Sandberg lean in and Google preach about not being evil and ignore the fact that our searches, likes, and other personal data are monetized to the benefit of a small number of tech elites.

    Humorous, irreverent, and insightful, The Four is a highly readable analysis of the dominant corporations of our time. Too often, we lose sight of the fact that they are, in fact, corporations bent on market dominance. Galloway does his best to remind us of this fact, but are we interested in listening?

  • Todd 10:21 pm on December 24, 2017 Permalink | Reply  

    Big Mind: How Collective Intelligence Can Change Our World 

    In 1857, Richard Chenevix Trench put in motion a plan to create the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. While obviously an effort requiring an army of collectors, the initial time estimates of two years to completion were off by a factor of ten. Nonetheless, the well-organized efforts of these word hounds eventually produced something fundamentally different from the simple sum of the intellectual parts. Such is the promise of collective intelligence. Today, with data coming at individuals and organizations ever faster, the task of turning these bits and bytes into something reliably understandable may be the defining challenge for those interested in pursuing life, liberty and happiness. Developing all these data into something more, namely wisdom, will be an even greater challenge.

    Enter Big Mind and author Geoff Mulgan’s analysis of collective intelligence and how large groups, private, governmental and academic, can realize its benefits. To be clear, Mulgan is not simply talking about leveraging faster processing speeds of digital technology. Rather, his goal is understanding how groups of individuals collaborate to realize a genuine progression of intelligence. Unlike neurons, for which connection is sufficient, groups of people need considerably more than contact for collective intelligence. Specifically, Mulgan outlines nine elements of collective intelligence, five organization principles for effective collective intelligence, and three “learning loops.”

    At its least convincing, Big Mind reads like a glossy management consulting brochure. There are stretches where I lost the thread of the analysis due to a lack of anchoring examples. Some of my thread grasping comes from the fact that Mulgan is feeling for the edge of a new discipline, collective intelligence, so his notions of best practices have yet to be tried. If you manage to soldier through these lulls, there are effective real-world examples aplenty and thought-provoking commentary on intelligence, learning, and wisdom with parts III (Collective Intelligence in Everyday Life) and IV (Collective Intelligence as Expanded Possibility) being the most compelling. It is during this latter third of the book that Mulgan considers the collective intelligence of cities, democracies, and within the academy. Mulgan’s comment that, “…universities do research and development on everything but themselves,” suggests that even our traditional centers of knowledge creation have considerable work to do before becoming effectively collectively intelligent. Efforts such as massive open online courses (MOOCs) being, in most cases, a haphazard start at best.

    Big Mind would appeal to readers interested in the future of learning in a connected world. Yes, I realize the phrase “the future of learning” reads like a flashy title from one of those glossy brochures. But, that’s really what it aims to describe. Given that nobody is entirely sure what the future of learning looks like, Mulgan gets a fair amount of leeway. At times, this leeway creates drift in the narrative, but there is plenty to mull over from a book that will be referenced more and more as we know better the shape of learning and intelligence to come.

  • Todd 9:21 pm on December 21, 2017 Permalink | Reply  

    Best Books of 2017 

    Dedicating oneself to reading goals made sense for a lot of Trump-based reasons in 2017. Because reading time and meat-RAM are limited, I’m selective about the books I choose to read. As a result, I avoid lemons and find plenty to like. What follows are the best of the lot, in no particular order, of the 42 titles residing on my Books Read 2017 page.

    Scale: The Search for Simplicity and Unity in the Complexity of Life, from Cells to Cities, Companies to Ecosystems, Milliseconds to Millennia by Geoffrey West
    Although it’s probably about 80 pages too long, West presents a lively tour of fractals, complexity, emergent systems and networks within biological, engineered, and social settings. One part of the long story short…cities are the future.

    Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert Sapolsky
    Are you looking for a well-written explanation of the science behind human behavior? Are you looking for one that takes a retrospective view starting in the present with the neurotransmitter actions of an adult and working backwards through adolescence, childhood, in-utero, previous generations, etc.? Are you looking for one with incredibly funny footnotes? Well then, give what may be my single favorite book of the year a read.

    Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari
    I typically mark interesting bits of a book with those small post-it note flags. My copy of Home Deus is filthy with post-it notes. There was not necessarily any new content here for me, but the combination of ideas and overall argument outlining the forces that have and will shape humanity were consistently compelling even if they were not always convincing. Read Sapolsky’s Behave and Harari’s Homo Deus back-to-back and you will learn much about the nature/nurture dynamic involved in humanity’s past, present and future.

    Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter
    Much of what concerns Alter can be summarized in two stats: the average human attention span decreased from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2013 (FWIW, goldfish have a 9 second attention span) and 70% of recipients start reading corporate emails within 6 seconds of their inboxing. People crave novelty so much that we seek it in our goddamn work email! Most of these behaviors have roots in cleverly designed smartphones and their easy access to addictive games and social media. You will not look at your smartphone the same again and, if you are like me, will become protective of your time and attention.

    Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz
    Probably the most entertaining nonfiction book I read in 2017 and one of the few books I’ve read that clearly displays the power of “big data” to a wider readership. Stephens-Davidowitz is convinced he can tell a lot about us based on our aggregate Google searches. If he’s right, the implications for public health, personal identity, and politics are immense and we are just getting started.

    Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History by Kurt Andersen
    A popular, sweeping history offering an explanation for America’s particular brand of wackiness. Specifically, Andersen tries to explain the American penchant for falling for hucksters religious, mercantile, and political. While it is easy to accuse Andersen of writing a “just so” narrative filtered by selection bias and filled with oversimplifications, it is a fun “just so” narrative and one that I, a lapsed New England congregationalist, saw hitting close to home on several fronts.

    A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution by Jennifer A. Doudna and Samuel H. Sternberg
    Although not the sweeping tomb of a book like Behave, A Crack in Creation may well be the most important life sciences book of the year. Control over germ and somatic cell lines draws seemingly closer every week and Jennifer Doudna, the key discoverer of CRISPR technology, is at the front of these scientific battles. Doudna and Sternberg do an excellent job of blending scientific explanations with stories of people and milestones behind said science. In the years to come, A Crack in Creation will be recognized as an early classic in the accelerating story of life, version 2.0.

    WTF?: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us by Tim O’Reilly
    Easily one of the most captivating books I’ve read this year and the needed counterbalance to the various Silicon Valley polemics I also read this year. I did not cotton on to O’Reilly’s objective at first. Is this another Silicon Valley memoir? Is this some sort of “I’ve made millions and you can too” business book? It’s a bit of the former and, thankfully, none of the latter. More importantly, it’s a thoroughly-considered take on the role technology could play, ought to play, in the lives of real people confronting uncertainties for the future of work and the broader economy. A wonderful and much needed dose of optimism firmly grounded in reality.

    Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence by Max Tegmark
    By exploring the past, present and future of artificial intelligence, Tegmark’s book creates a nice trio with Doudna’s A Crack in Creation and O’Reilly’s WTF?. While Doudna explains the state-of-the-art and future in modifying the genomic basis of humanity, Tegmark considers what the 1’s and 0’s have in store for us. Where O’Reilly tells us his personal story as a technology entrepreneur and his hopes for the role technology could play in the future, Tegmark provides a broader perspective on the historical development and plausible future technology is likely to play in all of our lives. The life sciences are situated to explore and explain who we will become in body. Meanwhile, the computer sciences may have the ultimate say in who we become in mind. Tegmark has written an important book to help us understand the overlapping spaces.

    The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World by Jeff Goodell
    While far from pessimistic, Goodell’s book reminds us that, no matter how much control over Mother Nature we gain via biotechnology or how many improvements over her we create via artificial intelligence, she will be heard and she will speak loudly. Unfortunately, too few of us are listening. Goodell’s warm and even-keeled combination of story telling and science reporting makes The Water Will Come a standout example of environmental journalism. Coastlines are disappearing. Major population centers in first-, second- and third-world countries are already confronting persistent flooding. We need to come to terms with the following facts:  we need to (a) spend billions of dollars to stave off the worst effects of flooding and (b) figure out somewhere else for millions of people to live. We will need to do these things soon, very soon.

    Here’s to 2018…

  • 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.
Compose new post
Next post/Next comment
Previous post/Previous comment
Show/Hide comments
Go to top
Go to login
Show/Hide help
shift + esc