Reading list

I finished a couple of books last night, Yural Navari’s Sapiens, and Kurt Vonneguts Player Piano. There’s also a couple of reports out on the crypto landscape that I’m reading over.

Sapiens didn’t feel all that groundbreaking to me, to be honest. I think that it covered a lot of ground that I was already aware of but as a book for general audiences, I think it’s great. I’ve read Navari’s Twenty Questions before, and I’ve listened to him speak, so I like what he has to say. Writing the entire history of mankind in a five-hundred page book is quite a feat, and I can see why it’s so popular. So much of it has seeped into the collective consciousness since it came out in 2014, much of the Silicon Valley techbro culture has absorbed it. Finishing it was a slog though, it took me several weeks.

That said, I did order the first volume of the graphic novel as a Christmas gift for Elder, if she likes it I suppose I’ll be buying the next four volumes for her when it comes out. Best to get her off on the right foot, I suppose.

I’ll add Homo Deus to my reading list next, after I finish The Fourth Turning. There was a lot of talk about the singularity near the end of Sapiens, which is one of those subject near and dear to my heart, so I’m looking forward to see what Navaria has to say about that.

On the other end of the spectrum is Player Piano, which I found very interesting. I had read Slaughterhouse Five right before this one, and it is downright crazy how prescient Player Piano is. It seems less science fiction than some alternate reality where transistors were never invented. In the story, much of the populace is out of work due to automation. Society is divided into the manager class, responsible for designing and running the factories which produce everything, and the common people, the now non-working class, who are relegated either to either menial public works projects or the army. IQ and aptitude tests determine one’s station in life, and most people are on a sort of universal basic income, where all needs are determined by the machines, down to the type of fiction that gets written and published. The protagonist of the story, one of these managers, becomes disillusioned and involved in a conspiracy to rebel against the machine and return man to a more honorable place among the dignity of work.

I was quite floored by the portrayal in this book. It’s hard to tell just how revolutionary Vonnegut’s ideas were at the time, it seems that he was just making an extrapolation based off of watching an automated miller make airplane props at a GE plant during WWII. Obviously we’re not using punch cards anymore, but it seems like he was spot on in many ways.

Delphi Digital has their Bitcoin Outlook for December 2020 out today. It looks at a market and on chain metrics, trying to get a cyclical sense of where BTC is headed in the coming months. The short of it is that if history repeats itself, we should see a new ATH followed by a large pullback before parabolic runs during the end of next year. Six figures, easy.

And last but not least, Messari Crypto has their Crypto Theses for 2021 out. It’s a whopping 130-page document on everything from bitcoin to ethereum, defi to NFTs. I just started reading though the opening pages on this one, but it’s very, very, well researched. There’s a lot to take in here, and this is a great resource.

Prime Reading

I sometimes joke with my wife about the dependency that we have on Amazon, and how things might look if Bezos is successful at making Amazon the entire economy. A while back I saw a meme or Tweet that read something like “Hello Prime Citizen, enjoy your Prime Life in your new Prime House with your wonderful Prime Wife,” et cetera, et cetera. We’ve been conflicted for years about the convenience of Amazon versus their less than ideal business practices and seemingly negative effect on local businesses. Still, there is no denying their domination over so many factors in our life.

We’ve had a Prime membership for several years, although we let it lapse for a while last year while trying to reduce the impulse buying. I turned it back on a by accident a while back and decided not to fight it. We’ve got a FireTV, so the free movies and shows are good, and when I discovered Amazon Music, well there was another reason to stay. We even wound up getting an Echo earlier this summer, and have come to use it so much that I’ve thought about getting more. Elder has had a Kids Kindle for a while, and the FreeTime subscription has tons of stuff for it that she loves, although the device is very old and barely usable. I’m looking at getting her an upgraded one for her birthday next month.

I’ve been using an iPad mini to read before bed, but it’s an original. It’s still running an ancient version of IOS from when Apple forced the other web browsers to use Safari’s engine under the hood. Since the device won’t update, I run into a lot of web page rendering issues, which has reduced its effectiveness. And while I’d been using the built in Books app to read my PDFs, getting them on there is a bit of a chore, and I’d been trying to find ways to streamline it.

Enter the Kindle app.

I figured it out, quite by accident, when I was trying to figure out how to get some dowloaded ebooks onto the device. Apple won’t display them at all, but then I figured out that I could Send To Kindle from my computer, and I’ve been in a bit of a frenzy lately. And I’ve discovered that there is also a Prime Reading section of the store where it appears that I have free access to lots of books. Some of them are garbage, but I’ve found a few gems in there.

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 reading preferences 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


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 Socialist Manifesto, by Bhaskar Sunkara

Sunkara is the founder of Jacobin magazine, which has been around since 2010, and his new book is an accessible history of socialism aimed at a general audience. It starts off with a vision of what democratic socialism in the United States would look like before going into a detail history of the movement from Marx up to the resurgence of the modern left through politicians like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. It ends with a chapter of action items that Sunkara believes are necessary for Democratic Socialists to win in the future.

My involvement in the movement is fairly recent, I’ve only been truly involved in it since the 2016 Democratic primary, where I was a Democratic party caucus chair for the Sanders campaign in my congressional district. I don’t have a strong history in Marxism or socialist history. I’ve been reading Dissent, Nation and Jacobin for about two years now, and have been reading and listening to leftist media on a regular basis during that time. Sunkara has done a service to people like me, to help fill some gaps in history and give me some much needed response to critics on issues surrounding socialism’s failures in the past.

There were several times during this book that I was having deja vu, when I realized that certain sections had pulled from Jacobin’s pages. Certain turns of phrase around Khruschev’s “secret speech”, for example, I’m pretty sure were lifted straight off of a recent issue (or reprinted.) Not that I’m complaining, mind you. Sunkara’s work with Jacobin has been instrumental to the movement, and my education, and the publication is probably one of the most coherent and influential sources of political thought for the latest generation of Democratic Socialists. At least that’s how I see it from here — it’s been months since I attended my local DSA chapter’s meetings.

Sunkara — and Jacobin — does not shy away from the failures of twentieth century socialism, and does not sugar coat the crimes that Stalin, Mao, and others have done in the name of communism and Marxism. He’s able to acknowledge it without excusing it or justifying it. At the same time, there is emphasis of the democratic part of democratic socialism, and the lesson to readers here is to find ways to increase democratic involvement in the movement.

The history is broad here, and it was easy for me to get lost amongst the party organizations, figures and coalitions that are part of the century and a half of the movement. There’s a lot to cover here, and the socialist movement spans the entire globe, and I’ll admit that another reading is warranted before I can even begin to understand all of the schisms in the various european movements contained within this short volume.

The history of socialism in the United States is one that obviously doesn’t get told these days, and reading the history of American unions and the left this right before Labor Day is good timing for the Party breakfast that I’ll be attending tomorrow. And this intersection of labor, Democratic party politics and Democratic Socialism is obviously one that I’m most interested in, and where I plan on focusing most closely in the future.

Beyond the history lesson and rationale behind democratic socialism’s resurgence, the part of the book that will likely get the most discussion amongst leftists will be the penultimate chapter, “How We Win”, with 15 points that Sunkara lists for success moving forward. Many of them boil down to the advice that socialists shouldn’t shy away from class struggle, and need to embed in working class issues to get our agenda pushed through. He worries that success may ultimately be the movement’s undoing as it has in the past, and urges readers to move forward, not backward, when the inevitable challenge rises. Two points that I’ll be studying: “It is not enought to work with unions for progressive change. We must wage democratic battles within them.” And: “We need to take into account American particularities.” This latter one has some broad outlines for possible avenues of attack within the Democratic party.

I’m not sure I share his optimism that our two party political system can be undone as swiftly as he believes, but I’ll take his idea of an actual mass-membership political party seriously for the time being. The idea of activating rank and file members, whether within a labor union or a political party, is probably the most important takeaway from this book. The main way to accomplish socialism in America will be through more Democracy. That is the biggest threat that we face from the populist right these days, and is also the main argument against authoritarian-style Communism. Focusing on democracy, within our organizations, workplace and political system should be the number one goal of progressive and leftist organizations moving forward.

Team Human

I don’t know exactly when I became aware of Douglas Rushkoff’s excellent podcast Team Human, but I’ve been hooked on it since I discovered it earlier this year. The book has been on my to-read list for months, and I finally purchased a copy and I am not disappointed. This is a very important book, and highly recommended.

Rushkoff is a ‘media theorist’, and has been covering technology since the 80’s. He was part of the cyberpunk Mondo2000 movement back in the day, and has spent most of his time since then critiquing the capitalization of the internet by business forces since the dot com boom.

The podcast itself usually starts with one of Douglas’s monologues, which are usually taken from sections of the book, and is followed by an interview with various people who are ‘playing for Team Human’. These are usually technologists and authors like Cory Doctorow, Clive Thompson, or climate activists such as Naomi Klein, David-Wallace Wells, or members of Extinction Rebellion.

You can get a real good sense of the book from the first 30 minutes of this episode, which comes from a speech Rushkoff gave at a recent event hosted by startup accelerator Betaworks.

This is ultimately where Rushkoff excels, bursting the bubble of venture capital and startup culture, who are most often interested in whether they can do something than whether they should. His main premise is that technology, once driven by the promise of connecting and empowering people and communities, is eventually corrupted by capitalism’s growth-driven profit model, and is turned against humans, ultimately exploiting and alienating us. Having run out of territory and other nations to extract value from, we have now turned ourselves into targets, and now we are the fuel for these digital technologies.

Team Human covers a lot of ground in a short two hundred pages, and ultimately makes a lot of simplifications that some people may find cherry-picked, but Rushkoff’s version of history, from the invention of finance, markets and religion, to more recent advents of social media, machine learning, and big data, is very interesting, and are as mind-opening as Zinn’s A People’s History was to me when I first read it years ago. There are also more than twenty pages of footnotes for those that want to follow deeper into subjects.

The book is short enough that it can be read through in a few hours, and Rushkoff tends to repeat certain turns of phrase or statistics enough times in his interviews that I’ve started to assimilate into my own thinking quickly enough. (He coined the term ‘viral media’, and seems to be an expert on memetic propagation, so I’m sure this is no accident.)

The call to action in this book is find the others, which is to say that to survive the challenges that we face in the current age, we need to purposefully foster the human connections with those around us, in our local community. Rushkoff believes that there is no substitute for the full bandwidth experience of face-to-face human interaction, and that by meeting with those that we disagree with can we ‘recognise the humanity’ in those who we may be ideologically opposed to, and come to some sort of agreement.

There is a lot to unpack in this short book. It is very broad, with room for exploration within each of the dozen chapters within. It’s a mind-altering work, and one that is much needed in today’s divided public sphere. Rushkoff has intentionally refused to take the helm of any new organization under the Team Human banner, but instead encourages others to find the organizations that are already doing the work.

I’ve taken that advice, and I encourage others to do the same to work toward that end. This book is ultimately a mind-virus for the future of humanity, not a revolution, but a renaissance of pro-human values, a return away from the extractive corporate tech firms that have transformed the world in the last decades. It’s a cycle that has played out through written language, the printing press, radio, television, and the internet. And Rushkoff’s mission is to make sure that the inventors of the next world-altering app have human values in mind when they are created.

The Most Human Human: By Brian Christian

I heard Brian Christian on a recent podcast in my feed earlier this month, talking about computer science, decision making and other subjects. His more recent book, 2016’s Algorithms to Live By wasn’t available at my local library, but this 2011 book about the Loebner prize was, so I picked it up instead. I’ll admit, it took me a while to get into it. I had other things in my reading list I was trying to work through simultaneously, but once I got through those and was able to spend some more time with it I did enjoy it.

The Most Human Human is a chronicle of Christian’s experience in the 2011 Loebner prize, a Turing Test competition where chatbot programs and their human confederates compete against each other, each trying to convince a series of judges that they are the most human. Christian tells his story of trying to prepare for the competition, trying to figure out what he can do during each five minute round of chatting to convince the judges that he is not a computer. Within this story, Christian covers the history of computer science, from Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, to the first chatbots like ELIZA, onto more advanced concepts like compression algorithms.

Christian has a dual degree in both computer science and philosophy, as well as a MFA in poetry, and he puts all of this to use in the book. There’s a lot of discussion about art, music and poetry, as one would expect, and lots of quotes to break up the various sections. He spends a good deal on chess, mainly as it relates to computer science and the Kasparov vs. Deep Blue matches. The book is informative without being jargony. I was fairly familiar with most of what he covers in the book, but I was pleased that the book was more in depth about general computing concepts that just about the details of the Loebner prize competition, which was probably one of the lesser interesting parts of the book.

The book is only eight years old, but I fear it doesn’t really age well due to the prevalence of discussion around the pick-up artist (PUA) scene, notably Neil Strauss, Mystery, and the techniques employed by them like negging and neurolinguistic programming. I was involved in the PUA scene, around the mid-aughts, and it’s notable how that subculture became aggressively toxic. It’s quite a distraction in this age of #meToo and incels and the like. It’s also apparent that Christian really liked Dave Matthews Band when he was writing this book, but who am I to judge.

One of the things I really liked from this that Christian writes is about what he terms the anti-parliamentary debate, modeled as the antithesis to the Lincoln Douglas debates which are typical of primary and secondary school debate clubs. Instead of an adversarial process, opposing sides have to come together to work on joint legislation, which they then present to the judges independently, each side explaining why the legislation supports their position. These collaborators are scored jointly, with individual scores based on joint participation scores across several rounds. It’s a shame it hasn’t taken off.

As someone interested in artificial intelligence and machine learning, this book is a good read. It’s right in the sweet spot for general audiences and people like myself that have more of a technical background. A mix or art and science, if you will. One of the takeaways that is going to stay with me from reading this is the ever-moving target that we humans present to these questions around synthetic minds. The goalposts keep moving. Each time a computer beats us at a particular task, that task is no longer seen as a creative endeavor. First checkers was solved, and we’ve been beaten by computers in chess, now Go and other games. But these defeats ultimately allow us to determine what is it that separates us from the machines, that makes us uniquely human? And ultimately, Christian’s book is about his mission to discover those things, and is what the reader is left thinking about afterward.