Nobody really wants to hear about your holiday travel. If you had a good time, they’re jealous; if you had a normal time, you’re just inviting traumatic flashbacks. It could have been worse: the six-month-old didn’t get left behind at baggage claim, the two-year-old did not succeed in running past the TSA guards, the 3.5-year-old kept her cool even though we brought the wrong Edward Gorey book.
Now vacation’s over, so I can get back to work and relax.
The Cynic’s Guide to Business Books is my attempt to come to terms with how spoiled I am: I started reading a lot about business in the early 2000s, and there was a glut of well-crafted narratives, mostly about failure. This is not a coincidence: the best business books a) have a moral arc, with hubris followed by comeuppance, and b) need inside sources, who only have an incentive to talk when things go wrong.
I have a weakness for techno-thrillers. A very specific weakness: they’re my absolute favorite way to procrastinate. When I was studying for the CFA, a week or two before the exam I would, without fail, buy a couple Kindle books by Frederick Forsyth or Michael Crichton or somebody like that and zip through them. The subtext of Crichton’s books is generally that scientists are awesome but they have terrible managers. Forsyth’s main point is that the world only functions because some people are very good at project management. (Roughly 70% of Dogs of War involves shopping. For guns, ammunition, and shell companies, sure, but shopping nevertheless.) The synthesis of these is that if a Crichton protagonist ever met a Forsyth protagonist, the world would be doomed. Daniel Suarez appears to be a corporate IT guy, so it’s not a coincidence that a) his novel involves at least one IT guy who is an absolute stud, and b) the message of his first book is to not underfund your IT department. Full review here.
On Palladium I have a piece on Facebook’s Libra—it’s a half-century late and a navy short. Libra is the kind of idea that the US would have implemented on its own in a post-war context, when we had both the means and the motivation to be the dominant global power. Today, globalization is in retreat, and the US sees entities like Facebook as competitors rather than collaborators.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a 100-tweet tweetstorm on globalization, basically on a dare. It’s now viewable here.
2019 was a good writing year. Some of my most-read pieces:
- Peak California: higher rent is destroying the founder -> angel feedback loop that Silicon Valley has relied on since the 70s. Unfortunately, it’s a slow feedback loop; you won’t know the next Facebook was founded somewhere else until a decade from now when it’s the next Facebook.
- What Is We!?: Some parts of this piece aged very poorly, specifically my contention that Adam Neumann is a great salesman who can keep the company together against the odds. On the other hand, my confusion over exactly what We is aged like fine wine.
- On Perks: Free food is an arbitrage. Team-building outings encourage single people to define their social life through their work and encourage people with families to work elsewhere. None of this requires a conspiracy; it’s a natural consequence of incentives. But it does make every company slowly approach this ancient viral post.
- YC is Unbundling Stanford: schools sort people, introduce people, and teach people. The first two of these things can be done about 20x faster/cheaper, and the last doesn’t necessarily happen at all. As with perks, I don’t think this was necessarily intentional, although there are hints—YC’s original funding level was benchmarked to grad student stipends, and Paul Graham has thought a lot about college.
- In Praise of the Unkillable Bloomberg Terminal: Bloomberg mastered the social network game when Mark Zuckerberg was in grade school. The product is really good, but the real business is something different.
Dominic Cummings is hiring “assorted weirdos.” Think of it as a once-in-a-generation chance to make government change on a discreet rather than continuous basis. I can think of half a dozen friends and readers who should apply for this—I’ve already pinged one, in fact. The rest of you: get on it!
A helpful Twitter user draws attention to an important issue:
I agree. It’s outrageous that some random licensing bureau nobody has ever heard of could, in theory, shut down a good company over paperwork. I commend Ben Sandofsky for drawing attention to this risk, and to the further risk that Twitter busybodies could stop new companies from educating the next generation of coders. Kudos.
Ten years ago, there was a Hacker News post asking for predictions about the world in 2020. Most of them were very good summaries of the smartest conventional wisdom circa 2010, but this one stood out. If Isaac Lewis makes an angel investment in your company, I want in on the round, too.
Following up on Alexey Guzey’s masterpiece, Bill Gates notes the high correlation between making tens of billions of dollars while also curing disease and ignoring the advice in Why We Sleep.
Request for Space
A few months ago my wife and I co-hosted the inaugural New York Progress Studies meetup. Early 2020 is a good time for another meetup, but we should find a legitimate space that’s not an apartment building common area. If you have access to office space and are interested in hosting a group of 20 to 50 people who are meeting to discuss building a better future, please reach out.
And if you’d like to speak at the next Progress Studies meetup, please shoot over a quick pitch. We’ll probably do 3 5- to 10-minute talks and one longer talk this round.
Sometimes, I write posts that turn out to be lead gen. When I wrote about how hard it is to compete with Bloomberg, I promptly got introduced to a bunch of people who are trying to do exactly that. Same with pet insurance: suddenly, I know a lot more actuaries and DTC consumer finance types.
I’d like to formalize this process. If you’re working on a company that is:
- Uniquely positioned to change an industry, but
- Hard to understand, or, equivalently, easy to misunderstand
Then we should talk about whether a writeup like the one above would be the right recruiting tool for you.