Freakanomics and Atomic Habits

Mini-reviews of two good books

Yesterday was rough. I must have taken three naps throughout the day, the execution of which was confounded by the tea, coffee, and energy drink I consumed throughout. The last one was late in the day, I took a melatonin at ten and tried to sleep at eleven, but wound up getting up to read at midnight and again at one-thirty before finally going to sleep. I woke just after seven, in the midst of a vivid dream, and feel back to my normal, ready to conquer the day.

I finished reading Freakanomics. It’s a very interesting book, and deals with race in a very frank way. The last few chapters are about the role of parenting and schools in a person’s success in life. One of the main findings is that who you are as a parent matters more than what you do. It gave me pause for a moment, to reconsider how far I’m pushing the kids. They’ll be all right.

There’s a fascinating chapter about a particular crack gangs in Chicago and their leader, who I believe may have served as the inspiration for Stringer Bell in The Wire. We went to business school and ran it like a corporation. One of the lieutenants kept detailed notes on their day to day finances, and the story of how it got into the hands of an economist is fascinating backstory.

The book is from 2006, and while I have some concerns about it might be received today because of it’s racial themes, I still recommend it. It’s not very long, and written in an engaging style that made it a quick read.

After I finished Freakanomics, I picked up Atomic Habits, by James Clear, which the missus gave me as an early Fathers’ Day gift. I didn’t want to put it down. Clear opens with a story about how he had to recover from a life-threatening childhood injury, learning to walk again, up to how he reclaimed his identity as a baseball player and started writing a successful blog and now, a book. I’m only a couple chapters in, but I really like it. It begins with an insight about outside in versus inside out change.

Most people, myself included, focus on setting goals as a path to change. The goal drives the person’s actions, and then, hopefully, this causes a change in identity. There’s several problems with this. One is that actions that are incongruent with identity are eventually dropped. The other is that if the goal is the only thing driving the behaviors, then the new behaviors may revert once the goal is achieved. An example about a smoker stood out to me: if a smoker declines a cigarette, saying “I’m trying to quit,” then they’re focused on the goal, their identity hasn’t changed. If they say “no thanks, I don’t smoke”, they are much more likely to succeed at the goal, because their identity has already changed, to that of a former smoker.

This may sound hokey to some, but it’s congruent with my own experience quitting, and is core of some of the concepts I learned during through neurolinguistic programming. The goal here, ultimatley, is change from the inside-out, to figure out what type of person you want to be, first, and then the behaviors and goals will take care of themselves.

My approach to success has usually been goal driven. When I worked telemarketing sales some twenty years ago, my manager drilled into my head to set our goals higher than what we ultimately wanted to achieve. If we wanted to hit a 150% quota, for example, we would set a goal at 200%. This would set the pace for the sales period, and if we only hit 175% during the term, well we were probably better off than if we had just aimed for the 150% to begin with.

This type of aim for the clouds thinking has served me well the last two decades, but it usually gets a scoff from my wife when I speak them out loud. And I’ll admit, was firmly in mind when I set the Sixty Days to Six Figures and FIRE by 2024 goals. It may also seem like we’re veering into The Secret, or magic thinking, prosperity gospel. (Even now, I have an internal Ekart Tolle reading along as I type this. )

Clear recommends working backward from your goals, to reverse engineer the type of identity that would manifest those goals. As I said, I’m only a couple chapters in, but it’s already got my head spinning, and reexamining how I’m going to approach dealing with the kids. I may even have Elder read the intro out loud to me, to see if I can get her interested this.

Atomic Habits has already given me a strategy in framing our family identity. Our family is organized so we keep our house clean and free of clutter; we’re academics so we study hard and love learning; we’re athletic so we like physical activity; we’re entrepreneurs and leaders so we have strong work ethic and treat everyone with respect. I’m only a couple pages in and I think it’s going to be one of my favorites already, right up there with Dalio’s Principles.

The Simple Path To Wealth, by JL Collins

This book has been highly recommended by the FIRE community, and my wife wanted to read it, so I got it for her birthday. I picked it up Sunday morning and read through most of its hundred and fifty or so pages in under two hours, so here’s a bit of what I took away.

A good portion of the book reiterates the benefits of having financial independence, or F-you money, and relates Collins’s personal history getting there. This book, which originated as advice to his daughter, who didn’t want to have to time working about making her money work for her, basically boils down to a few simple pieces of advice: keep your spending low, keep your savings rate high, and throw everything into a low-fee, broad market index fund. The market has always gone up, and always will, he advises, and claims that his strategy is fool-proof over the long run.

And for people that can stick to the plan, it likely is. I’ll not argue against the merits of aiming for financial independence, nor the fact that aggressive savings with no debt will get one there fast.

I had a few quibbles reading the book, which likely stem from my own bias. I realize that my financial situation right now gives me no authority to argue with Collin’s assumptions, and I lack the personal data to prove things otherwise. If I had been more vigilant with record keeping over the years I could compute my own personal returns over the past twenty years. A quick look at my IRA’s total balance from January 2017 to today (up one hundred percent) versus the VTI during that period, up about fourteen, looks good to me, but there’s rollovers and contributions to factor in that make a direct comparison useless. Anyways, the book isn’t intended for someone like me, that likes spending time on financial investing and taking measured risks. It’s target for people that want the simple path.

Index funds, index funds, index funds: Collins says stock picking is a fools errand and recommends buying broad index funds, specifically Vangard’s total market index, the VTI. He spends a good deal of time on this, beating it into the reader over the course of the book. You’re not Warren Buffet, he says, and notes that the reason the Sage of Omaha and people like him are revered is because they’re so rare. He cites statistics on fund manager performance over the year, and shows that the only thing they’re good at doing is earning fees from their clients. He likewise disdains financial advisers, for similar reasons. Like stock picking, Collins thinks market timing is impossible. He notes that doing so successfully requires being right twice.

As noted, I’m heavily biased against following this advice. It may be that I need a good knock on the head, and I might be a bit arrogant from getting lucky with some tech plays when I was younger. It may be that Bitcoin has corrupted my brain. I’m totally willing to examine my cognitive biases and try to prove myself wrong. Granted, I’ve lost money on some foolish trades over the years as well, but I think that I’ve also tempered my panic response, and don’t sell when things go south. That’s what stop limits and trailing stops are for! I didn’t panic sell when the Corona pandemic hit the markets, I had cashed out some of my larger positions when the market fell off a year ago, and started buying when things crashed and started rebounding.

And I’ve been buying bitcoin almost every week for the entire bear market. And I have a plan on when to start selling that, also. But enough about that.

The market always goes up: Collins makes a great point about upside risk here. Since he recommends buying the entire market, it makes a lot of sense. Bankrupt companies stock can only go to zero, but the upside on those that survive is unlimited. It’s a great point that can be adapted to lots of other things as well. Just a few days ago I told my wife that if a take a new job with a traditional firm, my upside is only going to be whatever my salary will be, but if I do some entrepreneurial advising for equity stakes, my upside is unlimited. And Jason Calacanis, like other angel investors, likes to point out that venture investing only requires you to be right three times out of a hundred. Two of them to pay for the other ninety-seven, and the last one to be your unicorn.

Having the discipline to do something like that is an entirely different story, and is neither easy nor simple. And it’s easy to piss on the concept of perpetual growth when it seems like we’re living through the fall of the Roman empire.

Other advice: Collins gets into a lot of tax strategy, and goes over the various savings and retirement account available here in the United States. And the idea of a Roth conversion ladder fascinates me. There’s a lot that I skimmed over quickly, like the section on bonds, and retirement withdrawal suggestions, that just didn’t interest or apply to me.

Do I recommend this book to others? Absolutely, especially if they’re just getting started on the FIRE journey. Will I be practicing it myself? Probably not. I’m too fascinated by cryptocurrency, DeFi, LendingClub and venture/entrepreneurial opportunities to just park my money in an index and let it ride. I may start thinking differently in the future, and I do need to go back and look at the opportunity cost of the investments that I’ve made over the years to know for sure.

For me, my simple path to wealth is via Bitcoin. The next two years will show whether it’s the wrong one or not.

Choose FI: Financial Independence

My wife and I don’t usually read too many of the same books. Beside some sci-fi and fantasy novels, our non-fiction prefreadingerences don’t overlap too much. She likes trashy novels and I stick to political, business ,and technological based non-fiction. She recently discovered the FIRE movement, a group of people trying to build freedom from wage-slavery through financial independence. She picked up ChooseFI a few months ago, and has been listening to the related podcasts regularly. Since being able to redefine work has been of great interest to me, I decided to make a trade with her: I would read this book and she could read one of mine. I’m looking forward to her upcoming review of The Future Is Faster Than You Think — as soon as I finish it.

ChooseFI is an introduction to the financial independence movement. The last two letters of FIRE are for retire early, which the authors acknowledge is a bit of a misnomer, as many who have achieved FIRE continue to work. The general idea behind the system is to lower expenses and save up enough money to be able to fund your lifestyle via the interest earned on these savings. The first step is determining your magic number. By taking one’s annual expenses and multiplying it by twenty-five, you will have the amount needed to be able to maintain that lifestyle off of a four percent rate on those savings. These concepts are given as the rules of twenty five and four percent.

Determining this number and thinking about spending in terms of twenty five times (or three hundred if you’re talking about monthly expenses) can produce a dramatic shift in mindset. A simple example: spending three dollars a day on an energy drink or coffee each workday might cost you fifteen hundred dollars a year just to purchase, but maintaining that level of spending from savings income will require a whopping thirty seven thousand dollars in the bank. Another example: we’ve had a housekeeper come by our home twice a month, at $130 a visit. That’s over three grand a year, in direct expenses, over seventy eight grand to maintain during retirement. Putting these costs in this perspective creates a stark shift in priorities.

Of course the goal of living FIRE isn’t to live life as an an ascetic, it’s about prioritizing the things that one wants out of life. As a self-help book, Choose FI does a good job of laying the ground work toward setting priorities, developing a growth mindset, and mapping out the path to get there. There’s chapters on US tax savings, advice on college, career and networking, and investment tips that focus on real estate and house hacking, investing in index funds, and building a business.

As someone who’s taken a hands-on approach to managing my retirement and stock accounts much of my adult life, I found the chapter on index funds to be the weakest. I understand that for most people, picking a low-fee Vanguard index makes the most sense, but reading the following passage in the days following the worst daily drop in the S&P since the Great Depression struck me as ironic:

Buying an index fund means making a bet that the system continue to grow and prosper. Some will argue that this will not always be the case. After all, societies and economies have collapsed in the past. While this is true, I’m not basing my plan around a worst-case scenario that may never come.

Choose FI, pp. 229

Whoops.

To be fair, the authors have acknowledged the current pandemic and situation in the markets in their recent podcasts. From what I’ve heard, it sounds like they are exercising caution and urging listeners not to jump at the current fire sale prices. This is probably wise advice for most people.

The book is perhaps a bit longer than it needs to be, and I found myself skimming through the book the more I reached through the end. There are lot of personal stories from both the authors and many of the chapters showcase others that the authors have met or interviewed on their podcasts. I suppose it’s to be expected in an introductory book like this. The chapters on tax strategies and real estate investing were of the most interest to me, and the author’s point to other resources where readers can find more comprehensive resources.

That said, the authors deserve credit for the community building that they’ve built. I hesitate to use the term ‘media empire’, but I did experience a tinge of jealousy at some points during the some points, reading about how they quit their day jobs to focus on their Choose FI company, or others who were able to retire at thirty five based on their real estate holdings.

My wife and I may have seen the light a bit later in life, but we both understand that our parents path of working a nine-to-five for fifty years is not the way for us. We’ve got a long way to go until we’re in the position where we’ll have the freedom to work when and where we please. If anything ChooseFI has given us a similar perspective and opportunity to discuss and define what that life would look like.

The 10% Entrepreneur

Live Your Startup Dream Without Quitting Your Day Job, by Patrick J. McGinnnis

My wife got me this book for Christmas last year, and it’s just the book I need at this point in my life. Like most people, I’ve been fed up and unchallenged by my day job for some time, and looking for a way to escape. I’ve been unwilling, or unable, perhaps, to take the plunge into entrepreneurship at this point. I’m in my early forties, and have a mortgage and two kids to take care of. I’m not financially independent, yet, and so quitting my day job to work on some venture right now is not something I’m willing to risk.

When I was in my mid-twenties, I fell into business ownership. I worked at a small computer sales and repair store, and the the owner wanted out. This was during the beginning of the Iraq war, and the owner was in the reserves and going to be called up. They offered the store, and all assets to me and another employee if we were willing to take on the business debt. We both jumped at the chance, but the venture ultimately failed, and it took me seven years to clear the stains on my credit. So needless to say, going into debt to start another business is not something that I’m willing to do.

I’ve also seen how taking on personal liability for a business loan has affected my current boss. Having that kind of stress in ones life is a sure-fire way to grey hair and cardiovascular problems. Unfortunately, I don’t have access to the type of venture investors who are willing to throw angel money at a company, at least not yet. I did have an interesting experience participating in the semifinal round of a local startup competition that was fun, but ultimately, when the it seemed that the chance to go all-in on a venture was presented, my existing obligations, political and personal, prevented me from taking that leap.

They say that the thing that you want is on the other side of your fear, but so far my need for stability has won out. Perhaps that’s why McGinnnis’s book is so appealing. It offers a third way between the two poles, between day job stability and entrepreneurial rewards. It advocates keeping the day job and turning ten percent of ones resources, whether that be time, money, or expertise, toward startup ventures.

The 10% Entrepreneur is a light book. It’s opening pages have a few checklists and self-assessments to find out where you stand, it moves on to concrete steps on how to build your opportunity pipeline, assess them, and build a team or personal network. It’s filled with numerous real-life examples, including the author’s own, of people who have followed the 10% plan to build their own businesses and ultimately, a new life.

McGinnis describes the various ways that people can contribute to their ten percent, based on the resources they have at hand. Those with time can focus on running a business, those with expertise can advise, and those with capital can invest. And those with more than one of those can blend them accordingly.

One insight I took away from the book is the idea of a cornerstone client. A term taken from commercial real estate, a cornerstone client is usually a large retail store, like a Sears or Macy’s that draws customers and attracts other stores to a mall or shopping center. The metaphor may not hold up in this post-retail age, but McGinnis recommends focusing on finding that cornerstone client for your venture, one that will show that you’ve arrived, and provide social proof for other perspective clients. This type of proof of work, or past performance as it’s called in the government contracting business, is important to establish oneself, and provide the necessary traction to make a transition from ten percent into a more involved role.

Some of the ten percenters described in this book decide not to quit their day jobs, instead preferring to hand off day to day management to others while retaining ownership. Others build a stable of advisorships, building equity in a number of firms. I’m more partial to the latter. Just a few days ago, I called up a contact that I’ve been advising with to tell her that I was ready to take a formal stake in the company in exchange for two hours a week of advising. We have been dancing around this relationship for over year now, but with graduation on the horizon, it’s time for me to take the next step.

I have another venture I’m involved with, that has been my cornerstone client. I had neither realized nor been treating them as such. But as I was reading the book it became instantly apparent. It’s not a relationship that I’ve been too happy with, so I’m in the process of re-evaluating that relationship, and reaching to both them and another potential partner that I’m hoping will make a much more solid cornerstone.

Building your ten percent venture, just like any business, is about building a network, forging relationships, and making connections. It may sound a bit cliched, but it is like planting seeds and watering them from time to time until they sprout and grow. I haven’t been the best at keeping up with people, personally or professionally; a shortcoming that I will no doubt have to correct. The 10% Entrepreneur reminds me that this cannot be neglected.

And ultimately, being an entrepreneur, whether that’s a ten percent or full time job, is about playing the long game. McGinnis discusses failure and the importance of ethics when it comes to ones reputation, and how important open communication and treating people with respect is. It’s possible to fail and still come out on top. If you handle the fallout with integrity, it’s likely that others will want to work with on that next entrepreneurial project, and maybe this one will be the one to take off, providing you the freedom or fulfillment that you so desire.

The Peripheral, by William Gibson

I am a huge sci-fi lover, especially stuff by Neal Stephenson, Charlie Stross, and Chia Mielville. So when I heard that William Gibson has a new novel out, a sequel to one of his other works that I hadn’t read yet, I immediately added it to my library list. The Peripheral is a novel based around a concept the Gibson describes in his acknowledgement as “third worlding alternate timelines” via remote controlled avatars and drones.

The novel’s short chapters flip-flop between the two main characters, a woman named Flynn Burton, who resides in our near future in an unnamed place referred to as the county, an Appalachian community beset by job loss and drugs. The other main character, Wilf Netherton, is a publicist in Flynn’s future, where eighty percent of the population was wiped out by climate disaster and other calamities. Some of the ones who survived this period, referred to as The Jackpot, are lucky indeed, as they have access to uber-wealth and amazing technology: nano assemblers that can build (or destroy) anything, and Peripheral technology, which allows them to control biological android avatars via remote control. What Wilf and his kleptocratic friends also have access to is a stub, a way to reach back to Flynne’s time and communicate with people there.

Flynn’s brother, a former special forces soldier, is hired by Wilf’s associates to run security in their future. Thinking it a video game, Flynn covers for her brother and witnesses a murder, and from there the novel takes off as Flynn’s world, in fact, her entire timeline, gets turned upside down. As Wilf and his friends try to uncover the mystery in their timeline, their adversary has found a way into Flynn’s time also, and the two sides engage in economic warfare, using AI to manipulate the markets, using the cash to buy up every corporation, crime boss and politician that gets in their way.

Flynn and her brother, as well as his combat buddies are soon given directions on how to build tech from Wilf’s time, and spend a good deal of the time in Peripherals in what would have been their future. By stubbing Flynn’s timeline, it has diverged from Wilf’s time, and they start taking steps to prevent the Jackpot from occurring.

I enjoyed the book, but almost gave up at the beginning because Gibson doesn’t explain much in Wilf’s future London from Wilf’s point of view. Things become more clear once we experience them through Flynn’s eyes, but the first fifty pages I could barely understand what I was reading and had to step away from it for a day or two before I could bring myself to come back to it. That said, Gibson is a great storyteller and futurist, and I’m looking forward to getting my hands on the sequel.

Not surprisingly, Amazon is working on a television adaptation of the series. Like Altered Carbon, and Dollhouse before it, the idea of consciousness transfer or remote control seems to be in the zeitgeist these past few years, and I wonder if this tells us something deeper about who we are today. Isn’t that the point of science fiction in the first place?

The Mastermind

Last night was the SuperBowl, and since I haven’t watched a single game since the last SuperBowl, and naught before the one before that, I figured why start now. Instead the wife and I decided to wrap up the last few episodes of the final season of Mr. Robot. Spoilers ahead, obviously.

Putting a bow on any work of art and calling it finished is always a challenge. It’s difficult enough for a song or a paper, which is the extent of my creative experience; I can only imagine how hard it is for a book or a multi-season television series. I’s impossible to please everyone, as Lost and The Sopranos demonstrate. With Lost, it was apparent that the showrunners had no idea what they were doing, and the Sopranos may have been more a case of the director being a bit vague about what had happened. There may have been too much credit given to the audience in the latter case. And perhaps no show has so brilliantly destroyed its fanbase more than Game of Thrones, which in the course of its run went from cultural touchstone to something that has disappeared from public consciousness mere months after its conclusion.

FX’s Legion, based on the Marvel comics, was the last show that I wrapped up. It was mostly satisfying, although its final scene, with the (anti)hero and heroine fading out of existence after changing the past, had me saying ‘really?’ to the TV afterward. Man In The High Castle had a good, satisfying ending that tied up all the character arcs and left all the American Nazis dead, although Commander Smith’s downfall and suicide at the end seemed a bit out of character for him.

And I was definitely thinking of Man In The High Castle near the end of Mr. Robot, as we viewed the alternate universe Elliot go about his day in a world where everything was ‘too perfect’. The parallels, (pun intended) between this part of the show and the metaverse of MITHC seemed very similar. But it was the way in which it all fell apart at the end of Mr. Robot that was a bit confusing as it was revealed. I had to chuckle as the fourth wall was obliterated, as a manifestation of Elliot’s psychiatrist (or was it the Architect from The Matrix?) looked into the camera and told the viewers that we too needed to let go of everything.

The ending was a bit messy. With the truth revealed as to who the Mastermind was, and the show back in the real-world hospital bed, I found myself wondering what that meant for White Rose. When she said she wanted to show Elliot what she had shown Angela, did that mean she had killed herself before?

I had known as soon as the two Elliots confronted each other that our Elliot would kill the other. In a show as paranoid as Mr. Robot, it seemed the only way out. But the escape back to the real world seemed anti-climactic. The final scenes were a bit emotional as the various aspects of Mr. Alderson’s dissociative personalities came together, a la Inside Out, before a tunnel ride that borrowed heavily from 2001‘s star child sequence.

Overall I was happy with the conclusion, and Mr. Robot stands up as one of my favorite shows, even if their depictions of hacking were just realistic enough to make the outcomes completely absurd. It was still a great show.

Jacobin: War Is a Racket

It seems wholly appropriate to be covering this issue on Veteran’s Day. Both my parents were Army, and I’ve been living in an area of the country with one of the largest populations of active-duty personnel in the country.

This issue came to my door looking like a mock up of an old GI-Joe action toy, the packaging made out with images of our hero in the midst of battle. In this case, however, the included figurine is long after the battle has ended. Our action hero is sporting non-regulation long hair and beard, as well as a prosthetic leg, cane, and several bottles of prescription medications litter his feet.

This issue pulls no punches, deflating the notion of ‘service’ and ‘supporting our troops’. There’s plenty in this hefty issue about ending American imperialism, but probably the standout for me is the re-framing of American military culture as a ‘poverty draft’:

“The military welfare state only makes an effective recruiting tool because the Unite States denies all of us the civilian safety net we deserve. The US working class is held hostage by a political and military elite that exploits our deprivation to fuel its endless wars, forcing workers to make a devil’s bargain in pursuit of basic protections that should be available for all.

This statement hit me with such a moment of realization that reading it, I was almost embarassed that I had not seen it before. It’s a bit difficult to state the way which military culture permeates the culture here, so it was a bit like the David Foster Wallace bit about a fish learning what water is for the first time.

There’s a bit about activist opposition to ROTC programs in High Schools that made me think about the recruiting emails and texts that I’ve been getting through my college email address. And there’s a lot more in this issue, which is heftier than most of the others I’ve seen from Jacobin. They have a breakdown of the current 2020 Democratic Presidential contenders, (dl;dr: Biden, F; Warren, D-; Bernie: A-), infographic timelines on US military installations post-WWII, and some other features that are interesting.

But the short end of it is that they’re right about the hold that US militarism has on culture. From ‘Defense’ spending, displays of patriotism at sporting events, to the exploitation of Veterans by for-profit colleges via the GI Bill, American’s have an unhealthy relationship with our Armed Forces. And while a good deal of this issue does talk about concrete steps that can be taken to turn the tide, it seems like it might take generations before we have a population willing to fight back against our military-industrial system. Providing Medicare for All and free college would do a lot to break this, but then again, this may be exactly why the powers-that-be are fighting so hard to stop it.

Wired: September 2019

Three Years of Misery Inside Silicon Valley’s Happiest Company, by Nitasha Tiku:The cover story of this month’s issue a really in-depth piece about the chaos that has been plaguing of the eponymous internet search company, Google. One of the things I love about Wired is their long form reporting, and this article is several thousand words, about 14 pages of text in nine parts. Tiku details the leaks from inside the company that seemingly destroyed the company’s unspoken rule of ‘what happens at Google, stays in Google’. Social justice activists tore down the company’s missteps with regard to sexual harrassment by managers and execs, betraying their “don’t do evil” motto, through dealings with authoritarian China and the United States military.

The article really opens up a look at the inner culture of Google, how they had a fairly open culture, with C-level executives making themselves open for questioning from staffers, and with rank-and-file employees creating sub-cultures within the company. T

The story starts in January 2017, as employees took to the streets after the Trump administration’s travel ban was declared. The company stood behind their employees and stood up for immigrant rights. Then in June, an engineer named James Damore release a 10-page memo ‘explaining’ why there weren’t more female engineers in the industry. Damore was reacting to efforts to promote female engineers within the company, and claimed that this was a bad idea since there were biological reasons why there aren’t more women in STEM fields.

The eventual backlash to Damore’s memo, and his eventual dismissal, started a culture war between the company’s conservatives. Apparently, this minority within Google had been existing within their own corner of the company, but following this, some of them became emboldened and began to step up their opposition and trollishness. They doxed several of the liberal organizers, thereby breaking the company’s sacred rule of non-disclosure.

This episode is just one of several that Tiku details. By the end of the piece, it’s clear that Google’s culture has been transformed, and that while their employees may still be sticking to their ‘don’t be evil’ motto, the executives of the company, driven by shareholder capitalist growth demands, have lost their way.

FAN-tastic Planet: When I was a teenager, growing up in the mid 90’s, Wired was the coolest magazine on the planet. I felt that it offered up both a vision of the future and secret knowledge about where things were headed. Wired was an essential fuel for the ideas that eventually led to my career in computers and programming. Now, having learned more about the nascent cyberpunk culture that Wired killed off in favor off Dot Com boom and bust, that I wonder more about what could have been. I bring this up because I was almost shocked to read the intro to this special culture section in this issue.

“A person sitting at a computer – it was a mystical sight. Once,” it opens, before going further into something straight out of a Rushkoff monologue: “The users, we humans were the almight creator-gods of the dawning digial age, and the computers did our bidding. We were in charge. In today’s world, subject and object have switched places… Computers run the show now, and we -mere data subjects.” It’s almost like they literally took Rushkoff’s point about ‘figure and ground’ verbatim. Please forgive me, dear reader, for mistaking if his point isn’t original. But given his disdain for Wired’s entire raison d’etre during the 90’s and aughts, I find it entirely ironic that they have this section: fan-fic-writing nerds; Netflix’s turn toward Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-style programming; social-media influencers ‘connecting’ with fans over special, subscriber only feeds; and the rise of a new generation of crossword-puzzle writers who are bringing new, diverse voices to another field traditionally dominated by white men. (This last one actually includes a crossword, and let to several days of puzzling on my part.)

Free Riders, by Zeynep Tufekci: The front pages of this issue have the standard Wired fare, gadgets and the latest tech. This time it’s smart-writing tools and augmented-reality gizmos. A bit about the current NASA Mars rover being built, another extolling the joys of world-building video games, another bemoaning Facebook’s creepy dating feature. I wanted to end with a mention of Tufekci’s bit about the prevalence of commercial companies that are built on top of the free, open source tools that have been released to the internet. Not that this is a problem, per se, but there have been many instances of packages that have been so instrumental to the success of these companies, and to the industry in general, that have had security issues, or depended on the unpaid efforts of some very overworked contributors. Tufekci details two pertinent examples: the Heartbleed bug, which affected the OpenSSL spec used to protect almost all web traffic, and core-js, a Javascript library widely used in web browsers.

In the latter case, the developer had been working on the library almost every day for five years without pay, and had solicited less than a hundred dollars. While some might blame him for not taking advantage of his project’s popularity and using it to leverage himself into a high-paying gig somewhere, the issue highlights a problem with the web’s altruistic origins, that have long since been abused by corporation. At least, in the case of OpenSSL, they were able to guilt some firms into providing more funding, but we’ve got a long way to figure out a way to reward these open source programmers that have provided the tools that the web is built on.

Play us a song

My first instrument was a small Casio keyboard that I got for Christmas when I was maybe three or four. It had a small ROM cartridge that plugged into it with some songs on it that you could play. The keys, there were maybe three or four and half octaves or so, had small lights on them that would light up when you needed to press them, and you could play along with the songs in this manner. It’s been so long that I have forgotten what it had on it, I think one of them might have been Flight of the Bumbleebees or Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Jingle Bells was one of them, for sure. I didn’t get much more serious with it.

When I was in first grade I wound up in the school orchestra, playing violin. I’m not quite sure what happened, but according to my dad I lost the instrument or something, so that was the end of that.

When I was about fifteen, my best friend Thomas showed me his inheritance from his grandfather, a 1950-something model Gibson hollow-body. At some point, Tommy asked me if I wanted to start a band, and I was like ‘hell ya’. I asked my dad if I could get a guitar, and he gave me some lame, dad-like excuse that I was going to my grandmother’s for the summer and needed to save my money. So off I went on a plane with my little brother for the summer, and when we got picked up by my grandmother, she asked what I wanted to do.

“I want to buy a guitar.”

I spent most of that summer watching MTV, trying to pick up as much as I could by watching More Than Words, Nothing Else Matters, and Mama I’m Coming Home on constant rotation. And that began a life-long love affair with the guitar that has had its ups and down and remains somewhat cool to this day. I dare say I’m decent enough at it, having taught myself and learned enough over the years that I can teach myself pretty much any song that I want to. Not that I’m the best technical player, but I can pass a decent solo if I put my mind to it. And I can sing and play, so I’ve had a lot of fun over the years as a front man with a band or as solo performer.

One thing that has always bothered me is that I’ve never been able to read sight music. Guitar players have tablature, which is basically play by numbers, and I’ve always been good at using that to learn whatever I couldn’t pick up by ear. But put a piece of sheet music in front of me and I’m dead. I once tried out for the local art school when I was in high school, but I got too frustrated during the audition and gave up.

A few years ago, after getting more into electronic music production, I bought a 61-key keyboard and started trying to teach myself a few songs. I picked up a couple books and printed out sheet music to some stuff I wanted to play, and started learning how to play by reading the scores. I dare say I was able to teach myself Fur Elise, all of it mind you, not just the theme, but the two breaks with all the technical runs and everything. But the keyboard got stored away to make room for my other hobby du jour, and everything I new drained away.

I still play the guitar, and even bought a small ukulele for the girls, and about all they can do with it is open strum it and sing. I’ve tried teaching them how to fret the strings, but so far, no good. So I figured I’d break the keyboard out of the closet and let them start playing with it. Dare say I was greatly disappointed with how little I had remembered. But the girls took to it like a new toy and all.

The only question was how to drive their learning. As I expected, there’s an app for that, and after a bit or research bought a month of Playground Sessions, and have been letting my oldest play with that. It’s a game, basically, and of course I wanted to use it to. The problem is that the subscription is single-profile only, and I didn’t want to go in there and blow through all the basic lessons and complete her work for her. So yesterday I ran through the demo of Flowkey, which is much different from Playground. A quick review:

Playground Sessions is a much more sophisticated app. It has more of a traditional sheet music view, and there’s a couple options for speed, and whether the notes or finger positions appear above the score. The lessons have accompaniment, and it plays through, marking on the score where you hit the correct note, and it gives you a score based on your accuracy. Eighty percent is passing, and each ‘lesson’ has four or five sections that build on each other before a challenge section. My daughter is obsessed with the accuracy score, wanting one-hundred percent before moving on. I try to get her to move forward, progress by resting before coming back, else she gets to frustrated.

The PS subscription includes a number of free song credits per month. There are multiple versions of songs based on skill level, and they’ve got backing tracks accompianning them. They’ve even got Old Town Road, which was a must-get for my kids. All of the classical music is free, but I was disappointed that the top level of the advanced-hard songs were still simplified compared to the actual scores.

Flowkey, on the other hand, is a bit more pared down app, but is superior in other ways. Now first off, its web based, which is cool, but makes progressing through the lessons a pain. Even the first lesson, which is When the Saints Go Marching In, requires you to load 4 different lessons to learn about four bars at a time, before trying the whole thing. Needless to say, I didn’t spend much time messing that that.

Where Flowkey really shines, though, is that they unlock the entire music library after you go Premium. And this is the real deal. Now, like Playground, the popular music follows a modified score that incorporates the vocal melody in it. I would rather have the full score, actually, but that’s a minor quibble. Instead of showing several lines of staff and playing through it like a metronome, Flowkey has one continuous line of staff. The top screen shows a performer playing through it, with graphic aids to show exactly which keys are being pressed. This is both useful and inspiring. Flowkey doesn’t have the fingering numbers like PS, so it’s useful to figure out where to put you hands or how to switch between several chords in succession. And Flowkey has a wait mode, so that it will pause until you find the right note.

And I love just watching the performers on some of the more challenging pieces. It’s hard not to be impressed with Let It Go, forget it. And I was grinning ear-to-ear watching the score and hands whizzing by the keyboard for Bohemian Rhapsody.

Overall, I’m not sure which one I like better. I think Playground Session has a better lesson structure, although it’s very metronomic, whereas Flowkey, well, flows better. It’s more human, rather than just grading you on accuracy. And having unrestricted access to all the songs instead of the limited mode with Playground is nice. (PS has the entire library unlocked for annual subscribers, although not lifetime… ??)

So for now the jury’s still out. I’ll see if my daughter maintains interest in it for now, we’re about a week or two into it, and she still hasn’t gotten through the right-hand lesson. This dad, though, is having fun.

And I might just learn to sight read yet.

The Nation: July 29 – August 5, 2019 Issue

AI’s Persona Problem, by Patricia J. Williams: I don’t usually talk much about the front third of The Nation, as most of the stuff they talk about is more recent event stuff that has gone stale by the time I make my way into the stack. Or, more likely, it’s that I’m already sick of the subject by the time I get to it. This one fits well with the technological issues that I’ve been discussing, and is in line with the Team Human themes that I’ve been interested in lately.

Williams talks about the death of privacy, but gets into the ‘code switching’ that people adopt on different areas of the internet. Lord knows I’m guilty of that here. The persona problem that she’s referring to is that that of an individual’s right to self-invention, and the inability of computers to sense the complexity of people’s emotions, or as Rushkoff puts it, the fidelity of human interaction. It’s a short piece, and one that I’d like to see Williams delve deeper into in the future.

The Trump Court, by Elie Mystal: Here is the most terrifying thing about Trump: that besides all of his incompetencies, his madness, and the sheer absurdity, he has been extraordinarily effective at transforming the Federal courts for likely several generations. Mystal is rightly indignant at Democrats for failing to make the Courts more of a campaign issue, and presents a very strong article showing us just how far the Right has succeeded, and what the stakes are for the near future.

Democrats did not make the Supreme Court enough of an issue during the 2016 election, and as a result we now have Justice Kavanaugh. But beyond the relatively high profile of the Supremes, it’s the lower courts that we should really be paying attention to, as the Circuit Courts are the final arbiter of most cases. Mystal picks 7 of the worst ultraconservatives that Trump — or rather the Heritage Foundation — has placed on the courts, and looks at their records on civil rights, gun regulations, immigrants, torture, health care, campaign finance, and so forth.

Mystal is right, Democratics have failed spectacularly when it comes to informing the public about the stakes on this, and we’ll likely be living with the results for generations to come, assuming we can get Trump out of office before the takeover is complete.

Bernie’s Challenge to American Exceptionalism, by Greg Grandin: There is an ongoing theme among the left, a theory about Bernie Sanders, that his brand of democratic socialism is unique, or rather makes Sanders unique among the other contenders for the 2020 Democratic nomination. Ergo, since the other contenders are therefore equivalent, they will ultimately be ineffective at dealing with the problems of capitalism and the issues that gave us Trump.

Grandin make a strong case here that Sander’s platform “is the only thing that can break up the ideological cohesion of the modern right”. He does that by taking us on a historical tour of the war between social rights and individual rights that has been ongoing in America. He writes:

“Individual or political rights are aimed at restraining government power. They presume that virtue is rooted in the individual and that the public good, or general welfare, of a society stems from allowing individuals to pursue their interests—to possess, to assemble, to believe, to speak, and so on—to the greatest degree possible. A legitimate state is a state that restrains itself, that limits its role to protecting the realm in which individuals pursue their rights. Economic or social rights presume that in a complex, industrial society, with its imbalances of power and often extreme concentrations of wealth, the state has a much more active role to play in nurturing virtue through the redistribution of wealth in the form of education, health, child care, pensions, housing, and other common needs.”

Grandin is the author of The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, which was in Dissent’s Summer 2019 issue. He teaches history at Yale and sits on the editorial board of The Nation as well. I’m starting to find him a very important voice to help understand contemporary America through the lens of history — which is the point of knowing history, of course.

If he is correct that Sander’s is uniquely leading a charge against the individual rights exclusivism that underpins the conservative right, then all progressives and liberals should study that focus and apply it. No matter what ultimately happens with Sander’s presidential campaign. And that’s been my take away from Sander’s 2016 and 2020 runs, that no matter what happens, there are lessons to be gained from it, movements to be built, and people to empower. And I think that has always been Sanders’s goal. Even from those first losses for governor of Vermont, he was showing the way.

The Right Side, by James Oakes: Review of Armies of Deliverance, by Elizabeth R. Varon. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone discount the basic premise of an author while effectively building a new thesis on top of the same work. Oakes does this with Varon’s premise that the Civil War was won as various factions, including “enslaved blacks, nonslaveholding Southerners, Northern Democrats and antislavery Republicans, came together to defeat this slaveholder’s rebellion.” To him, this interpretation is incorrect. The battle was not about slavery per se, but against slaveholders, making the Civil War a class conflict.

Oakes is not critical of Varon’s book, in fact his review practically gushes with praise. He considers this and her other volume on Civil War history to be very important chronicles of primary-source materials. Oakes, who is the author of this own volume on the Civil War, makes a compelling case for a reinterpretation of the binding principle of the Union forces against the Slave Power of the Confederacy, one which may be helpful in bringing class struggle to the forefront of modern American consciousness.