Woke Inc

Coca-Cola is one of the largest and best known consumer products companies in the world. Many of its products contribute to the rich world’s obesity epidemic. Rather than confront that very real harm, company leaders have instead found a convenient distraction in pledges and policies around social issues.

That’s one example that biotech executive turned Republican Presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy puts forward in his 2021 book Woke, Inc.: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam.

Today’s obsessive use of “woke” by American conservatives to dismiss any progressive policy or perspective is silly and lazy. (Even authors I follow closely have done so). I reluctantly got the book expecting another shallow rendering of partisan talking books. This isnt that. In truth, I think the “Woke Inc” title may be limiting, even if it has proven effective in selling books.

Vivek has something to contribute to the conversation. I’ve written about the perils of today’s shareholder capitalism, but Vivek offers a nuance I hadn’t seen before: Big companies are using progressive talking points to distract from challenges they are better suited to address.

As he puts it: “If you claim to owe the public everything, you will in fact owe it nothing.”

Like all of the books I read, I’m not endorsing any other author’s policy stances. I did appreciate the book, whether or not I agreed with much of the author’s conclusions. Below I share my notes for future reference.

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First You Write a Sentence: The Elements of Reading, Writing and Life

Writers begin their journey loving words. Later they learn to love sentences. Still later, they turn to obituaries. Or something like that. The point: Language is a cultural invention so its forms and our relationship to it is ever changing.

To become a better writer, then, is to grab hold of these various for their various purposes. For one, as Gertrude Stein put it: “paragraphs are emotional and sentences are not.”

Somewhere in here is how we develop our “writing voice.” Not exactly the same as how you speak but maybe, “a buried, better-said version of you,” as author Joe Moran put it in his 2018 book First You Write a Sentence: The Elements of Reading, Writing . . . and Life.

It’s a lovely book, both for the craftsmanship Moran puts into his sentences and the wisdom he pulls together on stronger writing. I recommend it. Below I share my notes for future reference.

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Punctuation for writers is better thought like musical notation for composers.

Too many rules are arbitrary and clumsy attempts to guide to better writing. Hence the strange intimidation and vitriol toward one piece of punctuation in particular, the semicolon, which was created in 1490s Venice. Treat it with care and with love. That’s a goal from Cecelia Watson’s slim 2019 book Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark.

Below I share my notes for future reference.

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What We Owe The Future

People matter if they live thousands of miles away — and thousands of years away too.

That’s among the primary arguments from What We Owe the Future, a 2022 book by the Scottish philosopher and ethicist William MacAskill that popularized a concept of longtermism (which has coincided with effective altruism).

Below I share my notes for future reference.

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The Power Law: Venture Capital and the Making of the New Future

Silicon Valley wasn’t created in the 1950s by government intervention — which favored neither California nor Massachusetts at the time. It wasn’t just northern California’s counterculture or Stanford. Its ability commercialize basic products was the interweaving of egalitarian openness and capitalistic competitiveness that venture capital created.

So argues The Power Law: Venture Capital and the Making of the New Future, a 2022 book by economics journalist Sebastian Mallaby. What early Silicon Valley culture did have was a true ecosystem of people gossiping and swapping ideas and sharing. It reminds me of why free speech emerged in Europe.

The book is a history of venture capital, though it adds nuance to another book I read that is a pure history. This book gets its title from the the power law concept, in which you lose only 1x your money but if you miss a deal you could lose out on 10x or 100x your money. That fuels big bets.

Mallaby’s book is exhaustive. I appreciated its deep history, others might not. The book does feel full of survivorship bias, of war stories from successful people (mostly men) describing why they were successful. Quirks of the writing come up — he uses the subjunctive a lot like “in 1986, he had offered,” and sprays the term “Presently” all over the place — but I mightily appreciated the book. Give it a try.

I share my notes below for future reference.

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9 Nasty Words by John McWhorter

Vulgarity has gone through three big waves in English: about religion, about the body and now about groups of people.

The etymology and usage of profanity can tell you the most important lesson there is about language: It is always in motion, whether or not you know it, can perceive it or like. That’s the point of linguistics professor John McWhorter’s 2021 book Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever. As he cheekily summarizes: “Profanity, first involved the holy, and only later the holes.”

I’ve read a bunch of McWhorter’s books, including his other recent publication, which veered into the political. This book is far more like his other pure, approachable books on linguistics. I’m a fan of his, and I’d recommend this as much as his others. As he writes: “To understand that language changes without allowing a certain space for serendipity is to understand it not at all.”

For future reference, I have my notes below.

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Woke Racism: notes from John McWhorter’s controversial 2021 book

Early Christians didn’t think of themselves as a religion but as bearers of truth. So too do a class of progressive activists that put race at the center of everything, and are unwilling to hear any complicating narrative.

That’s the theme of the 2021 book Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America written by John McWhorter, a linguist and prolific writer on language, whom I have long read (he’s also a native Philadelphian). No surprise given the topic and his stature the book has garnered widespread coverage. Some more thoughtful than others.

I respect McWhorter, and am a genuine fan of his linguistics books, so I’ve gone with him on this ride he’s taken into our political and partisan muck. He was one of the hundreds of academics to sign that Harper’s letter that called for greater civility, which received ample generational criticism.

I don’t suggest his politics align with my perfectly but I do take him to be a good-faith arguer. So I appreciate his book’s overall argument that a class of activists are more interested in virtue signaling among their peers than actually progressing forward. The best way to understand this movement is that they’re adherents to a kind of religion, he argues. They’re no more likely to accept other points of views than a Christian is to accept perspective on Christ from Islam.

Instead, his broad perspective on race in America is that culture outlasts original stimuli (ie true racism). It’s thorny. I share my notes from the book below for my future reference.

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Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics

Fair or not, today’s economic theory gets simplified in popular understanding as a binary between two influential leaders: English economist John Manyard Keynes (1883-1946) and younger Austrian-British economist Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992).

One way to understand economic theory then is understand these two men, and how they debated and intersected. That’s the goal of Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Ececonomics, the 2011 book by British journalist Nicholas Wapshott.

Keynesian economics gets simplified as describing government as the spender of last resort; In the face of recession, government spending can reverse those threats (think of the initial pandemic era); Hayek helped establish the Austrian School of economic theory (which greatly influenced the University of Chicago school, including Milton Friedman), which can be simplified as arguing for government to set the rules and little else. Like so many silly binaries, there are lessons from both.

Below I share my notes from the book for future reference.

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How to have better conversations

“We expect more from technology and less from each other.”

So argues Sherry Turkle, an academic and author, in her 2015 book “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.” Turkle is a professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT. This book is part of a portfolio of hers that examines the impact of technology on human communication and relationships. Turkle argues the increased use of technology in everyday life has changed the way we communicate, and that this shift has had a negative impact on our ability to engage in deep, meaningful conversations. In the ensuing seven years this storyline has only grown.

Turkle argues that our constant use of technology, such as smartphones and social media, is eroding our ability to have meaningful conversations and empathize with others. She suggests that we need to reclaim conversation as a means of fostering deeper connections and understanding. The book also explores how technology is affecting the way we interact with ourselves, and how it can be used to foster self-reflection and self-discovery. Overall, the book is a call to action to put down our devices and engage in more meaningful face-to-face conversations.

Below I share notes from the book.

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Fight Like Hell: under told stories of the union movement

What is culturally and statistically counted as work is a political battle. Housework and prison labor remain murky parts of economic records and worker rights efforts.

That’s a big theme from the 2022 book “Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor” by Kim Kelly, a progressive freelance journalist with a specialist on labor movements (and a fellow Philadelphian). Kelly has called it a “people’s history” of the labor movement. Each chapter is dedicated to a key historical period told through the narrative of lesser-known leaders, with a special focus on women, immigrants and Black and indigenous people. The book added context to my understanding of the country’s labor history.

Below I share my notes from the book for future reference.

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