Homo Deus: notes on Yuval Noah Harrari 2017 book

Advancements in artificial intelligence could bring about a world in which humans are secondary to self-learning algorithms.

That’s one of the big themes in the 2017 book Homo Deus, a followup by historian and popular intellectual Yuval Noah Harrari on his 2014 book Sapiens. Even more than his first, Homo Deus has been criticized for its wide-sweeping generalizations and his science generalizations. Harrari is one of the chief architects of a kind of techno-pessism so I still find his approach helpful to follow.

He’s a great storyteller, and beyond any debunked science, he engages with concepts I found interesting. I’m sharing notes here for myself. The book is worth reading if only to grasp a view on the treacherous waters some fear are coming due to technical advancements.

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My environmental impact

Climate catastrophe is sound science.

More slowly than I’d like to admit, I’ve changed behaviors in recent years. A resolution of mine for this year has been to do more. I wanted to capture a small accounting of what I’ve done so far and how I think I can do more.

Most prominently, last fall, we installed a 12-panel solar array on our roof. According to projections from our installer Solar States, this should more than account for our electricity usage.

Because of that installation, we replaced our traditional natural-gas hot water heater with a heat pump variety from A.O. Smith. We intend to turnover our other appliances (stove, clothes dryer and furnace) too, as part of electrification. Despite being a home from the 1890s, transitioning all of our home to electricity which can be primarily served by our solar installation will be an important contribution. I’ve happily encouraged a couple friends to follow this same transition.

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Notes from the 2016 book ‘The Rise and Fall of American Growth’ by Robert Gordon

The “special century” between 1870 and 1970 was not an economic transformation to repeat. It was an anomalous period of exceptional change super-powered by the remarkable inventions of the Second Industrial Revolution not to be repeated.

So argues Robert Gordon in his influential, academic and deeply researched 2016 book The Rise and Fall of American Growth. It is one of the better respected contributions to the conversation how quickly will quality of life continue to advance. Technological advances tend to not reverse, so his point is not that we’ll regress but that we’re due for a long period of languishing growth and advancement.

For millennia until the 1750s, there was very modest rates of economic growth. Then the First Industrial Revolution ushered in slightly faster growth, which setup the second, which we most commonly call the Industrial Revolution of the mid-19th century. That spurred the fastest advancement in quality of life in human history. By the 1970s, progress slowed. The third, technological revolution only resulted in a short-lived return to high grow in the decade 1994-2004. That was the lone answer to economist Robert Solow’s famous 1984 quip: “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.”

In his book, Gordon argues we’re unlikely to repeat the rate of gains of that special century. It’s an interesting addition to the familiar techno-optimist versus techno-pessimist argument. Below I share some of notes from the book. It is dense and thorough, so it’s hardly light reading, but I devoured it. It’s an important addition to the economic literature. I recommend reading it.

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Personal finance is a social justice issue

The so-called K-shaped recovery to the pandemic economy is expected to widen inequality. It was already well-known that it is expensive to be poor. Yet we sometimes think of personal finance as the hobby of the already rich — of a white male dalliance.

Since the Great Recession and the lost generation of Millennials, there has been renewed interest in accessible financial advice. Yet even as white Millennials are finally making financial gains, it seems Black Millennials are still falling behind. For years at my company, I’ve tried to strike a balance between being positively encouraging to my team to increase their retirement savings (and to speak to the financial planner we make available to staff) without becoming too overbearing. We’ve made gains but I find the topic daunting.

Perhaps because the pandemic cancelled my annual Personal Finance Day with friends, I’ve been thinking a lot about a passion of mine: Personal finance is a social justice issue.

This is important because so many savings and investment fundamentals are simply not intuitive. Get rich schemes continue to fool many. In contrast, slowly and patiently putting a little bit aside into a passive index fund has been a remarkably reliable method for building wealth. Even God couldn’t beat dollar cost averaging.

Talk openly with your friends about what you earn, what you save and how you develop on your own journey. The internet is full of bad advice, but it’s also home to so much good stuff too. How to decide what is what? A solid rule: look toward the longterm and be committed by building habits.

(Photo of the calculator app by Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash)

Notes on Malcolm Gladwell’s 2000 classic ‘Tipping Point’

Nothing more needs to be said on influential journalist Malcolm Gladwell’s first breakout book Tipping Point, which published 15 years ago. Like a lot of popular books, it has been aggressively criticized and dismissed.

Even if his theme is challenged, there are small points that are interesting. Though I read this several years ago, I just reread it and took down a few notes for my own future perusal. I’m sharing them here

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Marking 10 years of the National Constitution Center’s Constitution Daily blog

This year marks 10 years since the launch of Constitution Daily, a new editorial arm for the celebrated National Constitution Center. Find the blog here, which is richer and livelier than it even was at launch.

In the early days of my publishing company, my cofounders and I helped conceive of and launch the Constitution Daily as part of an editorial strategy consulting project we led for the museum. It was one of the most rewarding such projects I’ve been a part of, and resulted in several close friendships and an award.

I’ve been checking in and am so impressed by how vibrantly the U.S. constitution-focused blog remains. Led by their CEO Jeffrey Rosen, the blog includes an impressive weekly podcast and routine deep dives. This was a major early example of my belief that there were publishing lessons to bring outside of media. I’m humbled by where they’ve taken the project, and I’m proud to have played a small part.

Notes from the classic 2001 business book “Good to Great”

Data can point to commonalities of companies that go from being just good to being really great.

Published in 2001 as the middle in a trio of business books written by Stanford University’s Jim Collins, Good to Great is a classic of the genre. Though I’ve heard it cited many times, I only just read it earlier this year. The concept is a likeable one: Collins and a team of graduate students sorted through lots of data to find very similar peer companies, some of which accelerated into greatness and others which only treaded water. Then they sorted through to find what’s similar. Lots of stuff like this happens today — like this popular Medium post.

Twenty years later, the book still has value, even if many of the companies have faded from their greatness and it’s always easy to tease a business book. At its most simple, Collins introduces a simple framework that I’ve played with for my own company (his “hedgehog concept” is a way to communicate: What is that your company can do better than anyone else in the world that can drive financial success?)

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One year later, here are my first small pieces of advice for new parents

A common joke I’ve heard among parents goes something like “The only parenting advice to take from other parents is to not take any parenting advice from other parents.

Yes, you can get too much advice; yes, each kid is a bit different and every family dynamic has its own quirks. But I really did get value in speaking to lots of friends and family before the birth of my first child a year ago. Granted, we spent the last year in a pandemic lockdown, so much of our experience won’t be recreated.

Exactly because of that, I won’t be overdoing it with advice. Still, I do think a few short pieces of advice were most helpful for me. Take it or leave it.

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A respite from Philly Tech Week kickoff rainouts

Those closest to me are familiar with this painfully, long-running inside joke: these elaborate outdoor Philly Tech Week kickoff events I organize always happen with comically poor weather. Philly Tech Week is an annual, open calendar of events on technology, entrepreneurship and innovation that I help curate with my company.

That string of rainouts changed in May 2019, when an afternoon shower gave way to warm sunshine.

A beloved events producer of mine turned to me that afternoon and proclaimed: “We have turned a corner and won’t have any more rained out kickoffs!” Given that that 2019 edition was something of a dry-run for 10th annual Philly Tech Week to take place in May 2020, that seemed like a thrilling prediction. In 2020, we would have the largest, best-planned, most interactive kickoff ever, with the help of perfect weather, as I had always envisioned. This memory made me laugh out loud this week because, last month, I hosted the second consecutive all-virtual Philly Tech Week due to the pandemic. Fatima, you were right, no more rainy outdoor kickoffs!

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Notes on “Revolutionary Networks: the Business and Politics of Printing the News, 1763–1789”

Colonial-era publishers in the United States were small, family-run businesses that spanned social classes, divided politics and drove forward discourse. Though tiny operations independently, they collectively shaped widespread opinion and developed into the fractured news environment we have today.

That’s one main theme from Revolutionary Networks: The Business and Politics of Printing the News, 1763–1789, an academic book published by Joseph M. Adelman earlier this year by Johns Hopkins University Press.

Adelman adds a lot to the literature on the details of how publishing houses worked in this era. In truth, I sought even greater detail on the real operations but I so appreciated his inclusion of basic finances and revenues, and much detail on the people behind it. I found myself scribbling many notes down on what I’d like to further research for my own understanding of the history of my trade. Much thanks to Adelman.

My friend Everett kindly bought me this as a gift, and I quickly read through it back in February. This is one of many publishing and journalism history books I’ve enjoyed the last several years. Below find notes for myself. I encourage you to buy the book and explore the topic yourself.

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