On the Pleasures of Not Reading

Dan Piepenbring, web editor of The Paris Review, pens a great piece about the pleasures of not reading.

Given the curious mix of flux and stability that describes our lives as readers—sorry, our lives, period—it’s next to impossible to know when we’re really missing out. A lot of the tragedy in the consumer preference algorithms deployed by Amazon and Netflix is in seeing the limits of your own taste: in recognizing how many things you will definitively not enjoy, and wondering by what aesthetic contortion you could find something new.Must Love Dogs has always been there for me; why have I so steadfastly refused to be there for it?

This gives rise to a kind of nervous contrarianism: we deny authors who would clearly suit us, and seek out those who will almost certainly disappoint us, all in the name of eclecticism. And soon enough, it seems that what passes as taste is an arbitrary extension of our insecurities and neuroses, and that an insane hubris undergirds every value judgment, and that the best thing to do would be to start over, bringing no preconceptions at all into our lives as readers. This is a position I find myself in about once a day. On that point, at least, I can agree entirely with Jones: I am always crushed by how many books I have not read.

This is a timely essay for me: I haven’t been doing much (or as much as I would like) reading in the last month or two…

The Millennial Generation and Communal Living

An interesting piece in The New York Times profiles how a certain subset of the millennial generation is choosing to live in a communal apartment. While your credit history doesn’t matter, you have to pass an interview to get accepted to live in one of these places:

[A] few companies are assembling bundles of apartments in New York with plans to fill them with cherry-picked inhabitants. Promising “a modern, urban lifestyle that values openness, collaboration and relationship building,” Common has entered into agreements with developers to renovate properties in Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant. This fall, it will begin renting 19 rooms at a Crown Heights property.

“We live in a super-disconnected city that has tons and tons of people, but it can feel really lonely here,” said Harrison Iuliano, who until last week worked as the programming director of Pure House, which rents out rooms to about 40 people in nine apartments in various buildings around Williamsburg. “Our goal is to make that a nonissue.”

Russell Jackson relinquished a studio six months ago to live in a six-bedroom Pure House apartment with a rotating cast (he presently has three flat mates). “I’m getting exposure to stuff and things that I would not have had sequestered on the Upper West Side,” said Mr. Jackson, a 52-year-old chef.

“Laundry services and cleaners and masseuses — all of that is icing,” he said. The real perks are the people he has met along the way. “How cool is it that I walk in the door and they ask me, ‘How’s your day?’ And I am genuinely interested in hearing from them,” said Mr. Jackson, who considers himself the Den Dad to the other tenants, who generally are two or three decades his junior and stay a month or two at a time.

Mr. Jackson, who has appeared on “Iron Chef America,” also orchestrates Pure House’s food events, including its pop-up dinner parties. At one such party, none of the 30 guests knew one another, but most embraced when the night was over…

I think this kind of thing can take off in large urban center like NYC and San Francisco. I’m less convinced that it could take off in larger, spread out cities like Atlanta.

On the Future of Machine Intelligence

This is a very thought-provoking read on the future of machine intelligence and how we will cope with its advancement. The author, Douglas Coupland, begins the narrative with some hypothetical apps that track data (geolocation, etc.) and then paints a dystopian view:

To summarise. Everyone, basically, wants access to and control over what you will become, both as a physical and metadata entity. We are also on our way to a world of concrete walls surrounding any number of niche beliefs. On our journey, we get to watch machine intelligence become profoundly more intelligent while, as a society, we get to watch one labour category after another be systematically burped out of the labour pool. (Doug’s Law: An app is only successful if it puts a lot of people out of work.)

The darkest thought of all may be this: no matter how much politics is applied to the internet and its attendant technologies, it may simply be far too late in the game to change the future. The internet is going to do to us whatever it is going to do, and the same end state will be achieved regardless of human will. Gulp.

Do we at least want to have free access to anything on the internet? Well yes, of course. But it’s important to remember that once a freedom is removed from your internet menu, it will never come back. The political system only deletes online options — it does not add them. The amount of internet freedom we have right now is the most we’re ever going to get.

I found the notion of Artificial Intuition (as opposed to Artificial Intelligence) worth highlighting:

Artificial Intuition happens when a computer and its software look at data and analyse it using computation that mimics human intuition at the deepest levels: language, hierarchical thinking — even spiritual and religious thinking. The machines doing the thinking are deliberately designed to replicate human neural networks, and connected together form even larger artificial neural networks. It sounds scary . . . and maybe it is (or maybe it isn’t). But it’s happening now. In fact, it is accelerating at an astonishing clip, and it’s the true and definite and undeniable human future.

Worth reading in its entirety.

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Note: I usually don’t link to The Financial Times (because of its stringent paywall), but at the time of this post, the article is free to access.

On Learning Data Science

I’ve been learning more about data science in the last couple of months and recently stumbled upon a very good blog post from Dataquest on how to learn data science.

First, it’s important that there is some inherent motivation to learn data science:

Nobody ever talks about motivation in learning. Data science is a broad and fuzzy field, which makes it hard to learn. Really hard. Without motivation, you’ll end up stopping halfway through and believing you can’t do it, when the fault isn’t with you – it’s with the teaching.

You need something that will motivate you to keep learning, even when it’s midnight, formulas are starting to look blurry, and you’re wondering if this will be the night that neural networks finally make sense.

You need something that will make you find the linkages between statistics, linear algebra, and neural networks. Something that will prevent you from struggling with the “what do I learn next?” question.

My entry point to data science was predicting the stock market, although I didn’t know it at the time. Some of the first programs I coded to predict the stock market involved almost no statistics. But I knew they weren’t performing well, so I worked day and night to make them better.

There are good links throughout, including 100 data sets for statistics.

I like the suggestions on communicating your findings and/or your learning process:

Part of communicating insights is understanding the topic and theory well. Another part is understanding how to clearly organize your results. The final piece is being able to explain your analysis clearly.

It’s hard to get good at communicating complex concepts effectively, but here are some things you should try:

Start a blog. Post the results of your data analysis.

Try to teach your less tech-savvy friends and family about data science concepts. It’s amazing how much teaching can help you understand concepts…

More resources and links here.

On the Rise of Podcasts

In an excellent New York Times piece titled “Podcasting Blossoms, but in Slow Motion,” Farhad Manjoo explores the slow rise in the popularity of podcasts. They’ve been around for about a decade, but people listening to them appear to be in the minority. It’s only with the advent of last year’s hugely popular Serial that podcasts have gotten more attention (at least, based on my anecdotal evidence). Here are some facts:

Yet the overall audience for podcasts is growing very slowly. In February, Edison Research reported that 17 percent of Americans had listened to one podcast in the previous month. That is up just slightly from Edison’s 2012 survey, when 14 percent of Americans had done so. The business also has some problems, including a labor-intensive ad-buying process, a shortage of audio producers and the inability to accurately measure who is listening.

Here’s Manjoo on whether podcasting is gaining steam:

So don’t call podcasting a bubble or a bust. Instead, it is that rarest thing in the technology industry: a slow, steady and unrelentingly persistent digital tortoise that could eventually — but who really knows? — slay the analog behemoths in its path.

It appears that those who listen to podcasts really, really enjoy them and devote a significant amount of time to the medium:

The share of podcasts in Americans’ diet of audio programming grew by 18 percent from 2014 to 2015, according to Edison. People who listen to podcasts daily spend about two hours a day, on average, with podcasts, a larger share than for any other form of audio, Edison reported.

A profile of Mystery Show, which is one of the podcasts I just started listening to this week:

For instance, the premise of “Mystery Show,” Gimlet’s newest production, which began playing last month, sounds a bit like a stunt. On each episode, Starlee Kine, a longtime public radio personality, solves mysteries for people. But Ms. Kine does not investigate the kind of serious mysteries addressed by the producers of “Serial.” Instead her inquiries are the sort of ridiculously fun questions that no journalist would ever get paid to answer. Why, for example, was Britney Spears once seen carrying a book by a writer that no one ever reads?

Here are my top five podcasts, which I enthusiastically recommend:

1) Design Matters with Debbie Millman
2) 99% Invisible
3) Exponent
4) Sleep With Me (to help you fall asleep–it works! Here’s one story.)
5) Radiolab

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What podcasts have you been listening to lately? Which ones are some of your favorite?

A World Without Work?

Are the machines taking over our world? Will they replace the jobs of the future? Derek Thompson explores in his essay at The Atlantic titled “A World Without Work.” Some notable passages below:

What does the “end of work” mean, exactly? It does not mean the imminence of total unemployment, nor is the United States remotely likely to face, say, 30 or 50 percent unemployment within the next decade. Rather, technology could exert a slow but continual downward pressure on the value and availability of work—that is, on wages and on the share of prime-age workers with full-time jobs. Eventually, by degrees, that could create a new normal, where the expectation that work will be a central feature of adult life dissipates for a significant portion of society.

After 300 years of people crying wolf, there are now three broad reasons to take seriously the argument that the beast is at the door: the ongoing triumph of capital over labor, the quiet demise of the working man, and the impressive dexterity of information technology.

The post-workists are certainly right about some important things. Paid labor does not always map to social good. Raising children and caring for the sick is essential work, and these jobs are compensated poorly or not at all. In a post-work society, Hunnicutt said, people might spend more time caring for their families and neighbors; pride could come from our relationships rather than from our careers.

The post-work proponents acknowledge that, even in the best post-work scenarios, pride and jealousy will persevere, because reputation will always be scarce, even in an economy of abundance. But with the right government provisions, they believe, the end of wage labor will allow for a golden age of well-being. Hunnicutt said he thinks colleges could reemerge as cultural centers rather than job-prep institutions. The word school, he pointed out, comes from skholē,the Greek word for “leisure.” “We used to teach people to be free,” he said. “Now we teach them to work.

And then this:

Most people want to work, and are miserable when they cannot. The ills of unemployment go well beyond the loss of income; people who lose their job are more likely to suffer from mental and physical ailments. “There is a loss of status, a general malaise and demoralization, which appears somatically or psychologically or both,” says Ralph Catalano, a public-health professor at UC Berkeley. Research has shown that it is harder to recover from a long bout of joblessness than from losing a loved one or suffering a life-altering injury. The very things that help many people recover from other emotional traumas—a routine, an absorbing distraction, a daily purpose—are not readily available to the unemployed.

Derek Thompson’s conclusion:

One theory of work holds that people tend to see themselves in jobs, careers, or callings. Individuals who say their work is “just a job” emphasize that they are working for money rather than aligning themselves with any higher purpose. Those with pure careerist ambitions are focused not only on income but also on the status that comes with promotions and the growing renown of their peers. But one pursues a calling not only for pay or status, but also for the intrinsic fulfillment of the work itself.

When I think about the role that work plays in people’s self-esteem—particularly in America—the prospect of a no-work future seems hopeless. There is no universal basic income that can prevent the civic ruin of a country built on a handful of workers permanently subsidizing the idleness of tens of millions of people. But a future of less work still holds a glint of hope, because the necessity of salaried jobs now prevents so many from seeking immersive activities that they enjoy.

Very interesting food for thought.

The 100-year-old Scientist’s Fight Against Trans Fat

Yesterday, the FDA announced that by 2018, the food industry must remove trans fat from all products. I welcomed the news.

Today, The Washington Post profiles the 100-year-old scientist who has been in the fight to ban trans fat from American diets for decades. His name is Fred Kummerow, and he first published his research warning about the dangers of artery-clogging trans fats in 1957.

In the 1990s, more and more studies had shown that trans fats were a key culprit in the rising rates of heart disease. The advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest also petitioned the FDA in 1994 to require that the substance be listed on nutrition labels — a move that the agency put into place in 2006. In 2002, the Institute of Medicine found that there was “no safe level of trans fatty acids and people should eat as little of them as possible.” As the dangers of trans fat became clearer, public opinion also shifted, and food companies increasingly removed the substance from products, though it remained in a broad range of foods, from cake frostings to baked goods.

Four years after filing his petition and hearing nothing, Kummerow sued the FDA and the Department of Health and Human Services in 2013, with the help of a California law firm. The suit asked a judge to compel the agency to respond to Kummerow’s petition and “to ban partially hydrogenated oils unless a complete administrative review finds new evidence for their safety.”

Incredible.

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Related: worth exploring is Kummerow’s book Cholesterol is Not the Culprit: A Guide to Preventing Heart Disease.