Bye Bye Twitter

By Daniel Wilcock

 

I quit Twitter this month for the following reasons:

 

  1. Using Twitter is playing with fire when it comes to your life and your reputation. You can lose your job or suffer other similar losses for momentary stupidity or carelessness—or even just for writing something that can be misinterpreted. There’s so much questionable content on Twitter that it’s also easy to embroil yourself by accidentally retweeting it. In the analog world, statements can usually be clarified in the moment. “Did you mean what I think you just said?” That doesn’t always happen, but it’s more likely than on Twitter. Our statements also tend to expire with the air that carries them. This freedom may start to disappear with the possibility of Google Glasses recording all speech. Europeans won the right for their online lives to be forgotten by Google. One day we may cloak our speech in scrambling technology, which we turn off only when we give explicit permission to be recorded. Until then, I’m going to reserve my online expressions to carefully considered media such as this blog. There wasn’t any specific incident that pushed me over the edge. I just sense the potential for one in the future.

     

  2. I’m not a politician, and I don’t have products to sell, so why am I constantly marketing myself? You may be different from me. You may have a job that requires you to market certain wares, including yourself. I feel fortunate that I’m not in that position except for when I’m job hunting, which I’m not right now. So much of Twitter is pure marketing. Why subject myself to it? Why not choose the ability to discern and think for myself? Why not seek out the voices I find wise, rather than what I’m exposed to by marketers? I’ve used Twitter to market this blog, but I realized that I’m mostly writing this blog to record my own thoughts. If people tune in, cool, but I’ve stopped marketing it.

     

  3. Twitter is just about as bad as Facebook. Twitter and Facebook are seemingly very different. I used to think Twitter was better because it tends to shoot you into other websites suggested by the people you follow rather than try to hold you in place like Facebook does. It also makes it easier to interact directly with just about anyone, unlike Facebook where public figures are a few steps removed. You can “like” celebrities on Facebook and leave comments for them, but it’s harder to rouse them directly the way a direct tweet can. Despite the differences, the two companies are in the very same business, selling you to corporations. When I quit Facebook more than a year ago, Twitter became its replacement for me to the tune of 1000 tweets. I think I always knew that it was kind of a false choice—like thinking Coke is any better than Pepsi. They both are corrosive to health, at least for me.

     

  4. It changes people. I’m a fan of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s writings, but I can hardly stand his persona on Twitter where he gets into quarrels, spouts off rather randomly (pun only somewhat intended), and generally goes against his stated desire to be a private person and not a public intellectual. I think he’d be better off quitting too, especially since he writes in his books about via negativa, removing things that undermine our ability to live well and trusting negative rather than positive advice.

     

  5. It involves spending time writing to strangers rather than my family and friends. Think about it. I do realize that you can only allow your family and friends to follow you on Twitter. Maybe that’s a good option. Luckily, most of my family and friends are too sensible to be on Twitter. I’m certain I’m missing many family photo albums on Facebook. That is lamentable, but not worth signing back up for an account. Perhaps it will give me an excuse to start calling family members. “Hey, I haven’t seen you guys in forever, especially since I’m not on social media. Could we visit sometime?”

     

  6. Community is centered on my doorstep, not in cyberspace. I think I’ll let this one stand without further comment.

     

  7. It’s just not for me. If you use Twitter daily and love it, that’s your right. I’m judging it, but by my own lights. If you love it and see no reason to stop, tweet on my friend.

     

  8. Last but not least, the way reciprocity works on Twitter bugs me. Follow me and I’ll follow you back. Coded hashtags designed to signal readiness to play this game of stranger accumulation. Drop these same strangers, and they’ll drop you. And then there are a few people I know who didn’t follow me back. Is this because they don’t reciprocate, or because they simply don’t notice in the avalanche of their Twitter feeds? These kinds of questions could drive me crazy with a kind of internet-based palace intrigue. Forget about it! Life is complex enough without needless head games.

Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers

Image from the publisher’s website

By Daniel Wilcock

Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon. What if they all got rolled up into one corporation? What if that corporation became increasingly omniscient and swallowed the political world and then the totality of everyone’s quotidian life? Past dystopian novels such as Fahrenheit 451 (which targeted television and the banning/burning of books) plotted the trajectory of an illiterate society ruled by mind-control. The Circle may be as implausible as Fahrenheit 451 in the long run, but it raises a lot of key questions about where we’re headed as a society with the increasing ubiquity of information technology. I can’t think of a better novel to ask these questions through a compelling work of art.

The novel, set in the not-too-distant future, opens with Mae, the main character, beginning a job at the Circle. Openings at the tech firm (which resembles Google) are hard to get and highly coveted. Mae has an inside connection in Annie, her friend from college who has risen to great heights within the company. The new gig rescues her from the dreary job she’s held down at a utility company in the months since graduating. These opening scenes are what I’d imagine the first few days of a new job at Google to be like, only even more cartoonish.

That being said, Mae’s initial job is real work, handling the complaints of companies that advertise and sell products using the Circle and its currency system. Customer satisfaction most hover near 100 percent and reciprocating messages and invitations from fellow workers (inner circle) and followers (outer circle) is expected. Screens on her desk proliferate. The Circle keeps adding digital treadmills under her feet, but she’s remarkably adept—Annie tells her she’ll rise fast, and this sets her up as a kind of ‘chosen one’ figure.

Life outside the circle is painful, complicated, and slow. Mae’s parents struggle with her father’s MS and with battling their insurance company. But Mae still finds some enjoyment in the outside world, kayaking in the San Francisco Bay. These naturalistic interludes stop when Mae gets caught borrowing a kayak from the rental shop after hours by one of the exponentially proliferating “SeeChange” cameras that feed HD video into the Circle. As penitence, Mae decides to “go clear” (an inflection of Scientology) by donning a camera that broadcasts her every move to her growing list of online followers. An increasing proportion of the world’s politicians have gone clear, and the Circle is poised to ensure that everything is known.

What happens to Mae? There are key characters and events I’m leaving out. I don’t want to spoil the book, which really is worth the time. For me, the pages flew by in just a couple of days. I guess you could say I was already pretty receptive to the points that Eggers is making through his fictional craft. Last year I quit Facebook. At the beginning of this year, I decided to stop shopping at Amazon. Recently, I dropped Twitter. My problem with each of them is their tendency to draw humans into their own little marketing-oriented universes. Twitter seemed a bit more useful, as it so easily spits users into other web pages. But it still tracks you for profit and mostly is just a marketing echo chamber. I still use Google, and perhaps this is the company that would be the hardest to avoid since its free services are so ubiquitous (gmail, maps, drive, etc., etc., etc.) and their mastery of the online advertising market is almost complete (“complete” is an important word in The Circle).

Google has a very wide utopian streak. But as Jaron Lanier points out in Who Owns the Future?, the utopian vision has also led to consolidation of money and power. I’d recommend pairing that book with The Circle. In different ways, both authors are calling for underground resistance and disruption of the mega disruptors. Recently I’ve read a lot of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, whose writings—particularly Antifragile—argue against size and speed in favor of things that are decentralized, idiosyncratic, human, ecological. I agree with this line of thinking. I could also see another reader might come to a very different place with The Circle, which is a testament to the book’s understatement. I recommend this book highly.

Rediscovering Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Almost at Random

Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2011 photo by Bloomberg via Taleb’s website fooledbyrandomness.com)

 

By Daniel Wilcock

A random mistake at the airport earlier this month—checking in the book I intended to read along with the bag that contained it—reintroduced me to Nassim Nicholas Taleb‘s “Incerto” series of books. Even though I’d read and loved the Black Swan a few years back, the other three volumes, Fooled by Randomness, the Bed of Procrustes, and his latest Antifragile, somehow hadn’t caught my attention despite my knowing about them. How foolish. Taleb is an intellectual of the street fighting variety. His books pull brains out of stupid mode and light them on fire. They awaken readers to errors and misperceptions everywhere. That for me is the mark of a good philosopher. Yet a grain of salt or two may be needed. His stridency and dismissiveness of others are also the marks of an egotist cult leader, which I don’t think he is, but more on that later. How did I figure that his other books weren’t worth reading? Consider this blog post a way to make amends for this error.

By good fortune, but not randomness since the book is a perennial bestseller, a bookstore at Dulles International Airport happened to have a copy of Taleb’s second edition (2005) of Fooled by Randomness. Purchase made. Thus instead of reading the third volume of Lord of the Rings on the flight to Tokyo, an equally fine endeavor, I had the pleasure of jolting my worldview a bit. In Taleb’s hands, the hours ticked by pleasantly despite the cramped conditions, bland food, and impossibility of sleep.* If you enjoy non-technical philosophy and contrarian viewpoints, I’d say give this author a try.

Each of Taleb’s books is a fractal component his larger oeuvre, which argues that the “knowledge” and advice we encounter fail to adequately take into account the random, the opaque, and the unknown. This turns most modern human beings, particularly those who pay attention to mass media, into suckers and turkeys. His focus is on how to make decisions in an environment where we are continuously deluded and blind to the big disruptions he calls “black swans.” He thinks that these big events, which we never can predict, end up running our lives. He prefers negative to positive advice. These lessons, heavily informed by ancient philosophers like the stoics and contemporary behavioral economists such as Daniel Kahneman, mostly boil down to “don’t be a fool.” This is ultimately an impossible edict for humans, but archers aim high to hit distant targets.

Fooled by Randomness is the humblest and perhaps the most endearing of Taleb’s works. It shows how he gathered the bearings of his world view and contains the key admission that contextualizes the brash and seemingly arrogant way he battles with status quo thinkers. He admits repeatedly that he is a fool himself. One thing he attacks in others is their lack of similar humility, which is risky and ultimately destructive. Without this baseline caveat, it’s easy to misinterpret as self-righteous Taleb’s attacks on most other professional thinkers, particularly financial analysts, economists, journalists, and academics.

Fooled by Randomness is Taleb’s initial takedown of professional predictors. Like all of his books, it’s a mélange of autobiography (he worked as a trader for 20 years, then as an academic who writes books and doesn’t seem to like the academy much, and now as a flâneur, which is French for an idler who lives well by not making plans), philosophy, real-world observation and fictional narrative. It introduces a semi-autobiographical character called Nero Tulip (a name suffused with wry references), a financial trader who follows a seemingly lackluster “barbell” investment strategy of bonds plus small bets that pay off big in the event of market crashes. Despite having a risk-adverse worldview, Nero envies the flashy lifestyle of his neighbor, a fellow trader getting rich quickly with the latest financial trend. The neighbor “blows up” in the end and leaves the market. Nero is vindicated and remains in the market before he randomly ends up crashing a helicopter.

Later, in the Black Swan, Taleb introduces other semi-autobiographical characters like Fat Tony, another trader (and a necktie-free wise-guy gourmand that judges people subconsciously by smelling them) who functions as a comical mirror image of the experts Taleb attacks. Despite his argument that narratives pull the wool over our eyes, he calls it the “narrative fallacy,” Taleb uses these little stories nonetheless since humans’ brains function through narratives and also because he savors their artistic side. He appreciates style and intellectual pleasure, and finds great value in novelists and thinkers whose works have withstood the erasure of time. He’s a man who since his teens has read voraciously—40 to 60 hours a week, which reminds me of the number of miles run by marathoners each week—and I think these “Incerto” books are the output of his idiosyncratic inputs.

After putting down Fooled by Randomness, I picked up both the Bed of Procrustes, and Antifragile. The former is a collection of Taleb’s aphorisms, pithy little sayings that contain his wit and wisdom, and I think best enjoyed piecemeal, perhaps a page a day. Antifragile is another beast altogether, but similar in structure and content to the Black Swan. Taleb writes that Antifragile contains his main argument, the central idea of the Incerto. The title is a new word he invented. Antifragile refers to the quality of things that benefit from randomness, volatility, damage. These things have convex shape rather than concave when plotted on an axis. They have more of an upside than a downside when stressed. Examples can include the human body (up to a certain limit), the world of small businesses, barbell-style investors, and authors. In other words, he’s come up with a philosophy based on his own path to the good life. Again, he favors negative advice, a time-tested school of thought called “via negativa.” He finds wisdom in the concept of “small is beautiful” since larger size makes things more fragile. I could go on, but if you find these ideas tantalizing, the best thing to do is pick up the original.

As promised, a grain of salt. I think any thinker who warns you off most other thinkers, and one who is so clearly impressed with his own pathways in life, runs the risk of being an egotistical cult leader. Were Taleb more of a religious fanatic, rather than what I perceive to be a very erudite and broad-minded deist, his brash denunciations of others would come across (to me) as highly suspect. He’s a rich and confident man making sweeping statements. You might argue that being a notoriously cantankerous philosopher is his retirement hobby. His words often lack much humility other than his early admission (and not often repeated by the time he gets to Antifragile) that he’s human and fooled by life just like the rest of us. I think his arguments in each book are highly worthwhile, but need to be placed in the deeper context of all four books taken together. Taleb says the books can be taken in any order, but I think Fooled by Randomness is the best place to start. Just reading the Bed of Procrustes, one might legitimately ask “who is this jackass?”

Taleb’s a self-confessed fool, but he’s grappling with the tools that illuminate his foolishness and even provide the chance for a good life. That’s why I won’t repeat the mistake of sleeping on his work. As Taleb the flâneur would argue, and as my mishap with my copy of Tolkien suggests, we gain from being open to randomness.

 

*

ANA economy-class does have a few good things going for it, such as the opportunity to savor Japanese beer such as Premium Malt’s (sic), but trans-pacific travel is still a grind. Having a good book for the 13 hour flight is an indispensable remedy for the pain of temporary captivity.

One Simple Thing: Picking Up Plastic Bottles

By Dan Wilcock

For the last couple months, I’ve picked up any plastic bottles I’ve encountered on my daily walks in Rockville and Silver Spring. This way they don’t flow into the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. This simple act refreshes my sense of being able to make a difference, no matter how small the scale. The idea isn’t mine; rather it was inspired by Watershed Adventures of a Water Bottle by Jennifer Chambers, to which I was exposed—in photo essay format—at my daughter’s Sunday school.

It amazes me how plastic seems to bubble off of human beings when they aren’t paying attention. The discipline of picking up plastic bottles I come across (assuming they don’t look too icky—my microbiologist friend says watch out) helps me realize when I’m not paying attention myself. A big way I wasn’t paying attention before was drinking coffee from the K-cup dispenser at work. As Mother Jones magazine points out, these increasingly ubiquitous and convenient plastic pods are having a dramatic environmental impact. I now use a micro-filter tea strainer to steep green tea each morning, and I count each cup I drink as a plastic bottle picked up and saved from choking our landfills and waterways.

You can do this too, and I hope you join me in this one simple thing. My efforts are less than marginally impactful, collective efforts are a bit better, but what really counts is awareness.

Review: Winning the Loser’s Game

By Dan Wilcock

There’s a reason why investing sages like Jack Bogle, Burton Malkiel, and David Swensen praise Winning the Loser’s Game by Charles Ellis. Now that I’ve read the book (just closed the cover) I know why. This book is a bullshit eliminator, completely clear-eyed about market risk (the fact that losses will happen) that nonetheless explains the stakes in not taking on market risk in a world where taxes and inflation constantly erode wealth. It’s a book that explains the counter-intuitive nature of the market in a way that clicks: why investors should welcome stock price declines, why booming stock markets are better for stock sellers than stock buyers, why stocks aren’t important because of their price but rather because of their ability to produce dividends. Even though these are well established interpretations of the market, their wisdom never sunk in before I’d read Winning the Loser’s Game. Hence I’d recommend it wholeheartedly as one of the best books on investing.

The title of the book comes from a journal article Ellis wrote in 1975. He compares investing to tennis, which for virtually every amateur is a loser’s game. The victor wins on their opponent’s unforced errors. Ellis argues that investing used to be a winner’s game, but the field got so crowded with experts and operators who know how to take advantage of all the suckers (my words, not his) that the only way to win is avoiding unforced errors. The biggest of these is attempting to “beat the market.” This is an endeavor where more than three quarters of professionals ultimately fail. The individual investor socking away money in IRAs and 401ks shouldn’t even try. Rather than losing by actively trading, and compounding those losses with all the fees this entails, investors should craft a realistic policy that seeks to capture the entire market return (through entire market indexes) or a segment of the market through selected low cost mutual funds.

I was already bought into the idea of indexing (the lowest cost, getting the most of whatever the market returns), but before reading this book I might have been more likely to shift my index holding to more bonds in a bear market to preserve value. This is psychologically understandable, but exactly the wrong approach. Big downswings require that investors stick to their policy and make the most of bear markets by sticking to the path they set. This is a more nuanced, and more practical, version of the old saying “buy low and sell high.” That simple saying doesn’t prepare investors to do the right thing. The phrase is premised on active investing, and when the markets are at their most volatile is when we as human beings are most likely to make precisely the wrong decisions. By staying the course, and investing in consistent intervals, buying low and selling high happen naturally. The market cannot be timed, according to Ellis. Jumping in and out of the market is, for most people, lost opportunity.

I read the 4th edition of this book. As of this 2014, Loser’s Game is now in its 6th edition and updated post-great-recession. If you’d like to know how Ellis deals with the market fallout from 2008, I’d recommend that version (which I haven’t read). I think, however, that the reader of the 4th edition would have been very well served throughout the last seven years. They would have stuck the course and rode the massive upswing in equities to their now record highs. They would also have established an emergency fund that would allow them to buy largely into equities and then be steely about holding them.

Anyway, after making it halfway through the book, which I’d borrowed from the library, I ordered a copy for my personal collection (4th edition, much cheaper than the 6th). This is a book that any investor would be well served to read annually, perhaps just before looking at results and allocation. The rest—virtually everything we read online in the financial news—is counterproductive noise.

Blogging in WordPress with MS Word: Any Good?

By Dan Wilcock

I’m posting this entry on my WordPress.com blog using MS Word 2010 as an experiment, just to see whether it’s any good. Word is set up to interface with most of the major free blog hosting companies, as seen below:

 

 

So if you’ve got a WordPress blog, like me, or one of the other standard options, the interface should be pretty smooth.

Once you enter your URL into the path they provide and enter your blog password, the wizard will let you know whether your blog has been successfully registered. At first this didn’t work for me, but I got through once I realized that the /xmlrpc.php extension after the blog URL is necessary.

So I’m in and composing this post—So far, so good. Here are five things I appreciate right off the bat:

  1. Better control of special characters. I can use my preprogrammed keystrokes to type in special characters while blogging. For me that em dash (—) I just typed would take two clicks of the mouse to execute in WordPress but I just hit F10 (the keystroke I chose for em dashes, which I use frequently in my writing, perhaps too much). Word is probably better at special characters and symbols than WordPress. For an example, look at what WordPress did to Pema Chödrön’s name on my ‘about me’ page (look under contemporary thinkers). With Word, this comes out a lot smoother. (Update: this corrected bit was simply my error. I used the upper-case letter, not bothering to see there is an appropriate lower-case letter available.)

     

  2. More upfront control over font size. I’m sure I can code font size by going under the hood and coding it in WordPress’s text viewer, but this is much more civilized.

     

  3. That screen clipping above is nice/was easy. I copied it by hitting window key + PrtScn, and then cropped and resized it right within the Word document. I have no idea how I’d do that with WordPress.

     

  4. This list I’m creating does something I’ve been unable to do with WordPress. Namely, I’m able to add an extra space between items, something I think just looks better. Word does this automatically after you hit return between two items on a list and then delete the middle item. It’s a nifty bit of intuitive functionality that I really miss when I’m composing in WordPress.

     

  5. All those snazzy Smart Art templates, Word’s spell check, etc. This seems to have most of the basic bells and whistles built into Word, such as automatic tables, etc. I’m sure a halfway decent WordPress wizard could repudiate this post showing point by point that composing in Word is unnecessary, but so far this seems to me like a decent way to go.

     

I don’t have any negative list yet, but will append one once I’ve pressed the green publish arrow the Word puts at the upper left-hand corner of the screen. If the blog spits out a bunch of ampersands afterward, I’ll write my complaints below.

***

Nope. Now I’m editing the post in WordPress.com, and everything came through perfectly. I think I’ve found a better way for me to blog.

UPDATE (6/23/2014): Word does have a blind spot when it comes to blogging in WordPress: video. There is no button to insert video content, unlike WordPress, which has the handy “Add media” button with easy ‘insert YouTube’ options.


Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., a humorous fellow, but no fortune-teller

“A man’s learning dies with him; even his virtues fade out of remembrance; but the dividends on the stocks he bequeaths may serve to keep his memory green.”

–Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., from The Professor at the Breakfast Table, Boston, 1872

Here is the quote in context (the entire e-book is free) on Google Books.

While his words are good for a chuckle, clearly the fact that I’m blogging about professor Holmes more than thirteen decades later undermines his reputation as all-wise soothsayer—unless the time period being considered is geologic.

His son’s “learning” and “virtues” were arguably even more indelible. When the quote was published, his son, Oliver Wendel Holmes, Jr., was around 31-years-old. Thirty years later, Holmes, Jr., became a member of the Supreme Court, where he served for 30 years. I wonder whether the second Holmes, more famous to contemporary Americans, would agree with his father’s quote. My guess is that all those dividends from stocks probably weren’t as valuable to him as his father’s words, particularly after the “panic of 1893″ and then, a few decades later, “black Thursday.”

I read the quote in The Wench is Dead, an Inspector Morse mystery novel by Sir Colin Dexter (Dexter’s early novels are filled with great quotations). More recently, I came across discussion of Holmes, Jr., in Last Call, Daniel Okrent’s excellent prohibition history, which contains yet another great Holmes quip, proving that humor probably ran in the family. Here’s the quote along with the context that Okrent sets:

The [Supreme] court’s senior member, Oliver Wendell Holmes, was known to appreciate his whiskey (in 1927 he registered his gratitude for an illegal gift bottle with a characteristically Holmesian aphorism: “I have not forgotten the prayer ‘Lead us into temptation.”

So, in short, Holmes was a humorous fellow, but he was no good at wisely predicting the future. Maybe that’s a reason why his son was even wiser, and appreciated a glass of whiskey now and then.