Amazon Kindle, the sleeping social network

Since Amazon launched the Kindle, I've become a regular reader of something like 30 to 40 books at a time. It sounds terrible, I know, and I confess this with no small degree of sheepishness.

It works only because of that list, only 1 or 2 at the most are ever fiction. I tried to juggle more fiction books and kept forgetting who the characters were, and the Kindle X-Ray feature is not sufficiently advanced to solve that problem. Often the only X-Ray description of a character is a link to the first page in the book in which they're mentioned, sometimes it's a Wikipedia entry, sometimes not even the right one.

I wish the Kindle had something like TV's “Previously, on Lost” recaps but for just one character, summarizing all that had happened to them, but just up until that point in the book. Actually, I need this feature for television, too, I often have to read recaps of Game of Thrones just to understand who some random bearded person was on that episode and how they're related to some other person who I also don't remember.

Anyhow, the reasons I read so many non-fiction books simultaneously:

  1. I have the promiscuous attention span of your typical modern information addict.
  2. I crave more novelty and diversity in my daily information diet than is offered by working through one book at a time.
  3. A lot of non-fiction books are written, packaged, and priced for an outdated age when physical books had to justify their shelf space with some minimum page count. Thus, many books are too long, padded with lots of extraneous anecdotes, and they lose my attention every time I run into a passage of fat. It's like an attention speed bump. Business books are particularly egregious on this front. If Kindle singles had been a thing from the advent of publishing, maybe we wouldn't turn up our noses at shorter books priced at a dollar or two. Some folks have done some experiments in selling short e-books (longer than a blog post, shorter than a book), and I hope it continues.
  4. The rise of blogs and Twitter have have acclimated me to flitting about from one article and topic to another. It sounds unproductive, and I do think I have to actively switch that mode off when doing deep dive work, but at other times it's exhilarating, like standing my mind up from its desk to take a stroll around a dense metropolitan block.
  5. Many of my best ideas come from the interaction between concepts in different fields, and reading books about different topics simultaneously increases the number of such boundary collisions.

The problem with browsing my Kindle library from a thumbnail or list view is it confronts with a whole bunch of titles without any hint at where I'd left off in that book or what concept I was sitting on. This introduces micro-friction, first in the decision of which book to open, then in trying to regain flow within that book. I know, if I just read one book at a time this wouldn't be a problem, but stay with me here.

What I'd love is for my Kindle to open into some type of home feed that sits on top of my entire Kindle library, serving up chunks from all the books I'm reading into small chunks, interweaving them into what would be something like a series of blog posts. It would replicate the way I catch up on articles across the internet every day. Instead of having to do this manually in my Kindle, dipping in and out of books by hand, the Kindle could use some simple algorithm to do this for me.

If you came to the end of one of the passages in your home feed and wanted to continue reading more from that book, you could just tap a Read More link at the end and it would unfold the next chunk. These passages would be short enough to read in one sitting, or perhaps you could dial in a rough range of how large a chunk of information you want served up at a time. If you weren't sure of context on a passage, you could easily click a link at the top that would present a summary of what had gone before, perhaps chapter headings and all passages you'd highlighted, or chapter headings and some summary of each of them. Or maybe, to keep things simple in a first iteration, it would just pull back in the preceding section.

Amazon could build this themselves, or they could open up some API for other developers to build some such functionality on top of the Kindle ecosystem, a strategy they are quite familiar with. The Kindle ecosystem, already the market leader, would level up into a more powerful, useful, and sticky platform. That so much knowledge in books is still locked away behind an old copyright system is unfortunate, but I'm not suggesting that Amazon make books free. The publishers would never go for it. Instead, this feed would sit on top of just books readers had already purchased for the Kindle. I know that today I can access my own Kindle notes and highlights via the web, but it's still a more cumbersome process than it should be.

Lastly, and most importantly, I'd like Amazon to build a true social network around books and readers. I've tried Goodreads, and then later I tried it again. That's not the answer. The site is a bit of a confusing ghost town, and it seems oriented around finding a book to read, which the Amazon site and other resources already do a good enough job solving.

The reading social network I want is around discussing ideas in the text itself. I want the ability to see the notes and highlights of my friends on books we've both purchased, and I want the ability to respond to their notes, or at least to like them. I want them to see my public highlights and notes, and I want them to be able to respond to those. My initial graph could be based on Facebook or Twitter or other social networks I connect, but users could establish their own accounts/usernames so I could find them manually as well.

I would love the ability to follow certain notable folks and see their public notes and highlights. I've long wanted to travel to Texas to see David Foster Wallace's archive, to see what notes he jotted in the margins of books he read. What if those were just published on his books by the keepers of his archive through an account they opened? Imagine seeing Malcolm Gladwell's notes on Bill Simmons' The Book of Basketball, or Mick Jagger's notes on passages about him in Keith Richards' biography Life. What if every time a person was mentioned in a book, they'd receive a notification, like a notification that they'd been tagged in a Facebook photo? At a basic level, we'd have a lot more crowd-sourcing of fact-checking, but at a higher level the book becomes an opening to a dialogue.

Perhaps some notes could come at a fee, but I see most of the being free. Imagine being able to pose questions to authors directly in their texts by posting them as a public note. Just as authors started frequenting Amazon to see what their Sales Rank was when that feature launched, now authors would be constantly revisiting their own books to participate in a dialogue with their readers. Books would go from two dimensional to having a z-axis composed of an infinite number of onion paper layers available to scribble on.

Such a platform transforms the purchase of a book into the beginning of a lifelong relationship and dialogue around its ideas. A copyrighted text become not just paywalled content, a locked fortress, but an open platform for contextual conversation. Over time, each book would become richer and richer, a living tome.

Real and virtual book clubs could use Amazon Kindle books as the platform for discussion. You could easily do this by defining and saving a group of readers. Different people read at different speeds, but as each member caught up to a discussion they could jump in and participate. If you weren't a member of a book club, you'd still be part of the book group defined by all the other readers you were following, so everyone would be in a book club on every book in their Kindle library if they wanted to. If they didn't, a setting would allow them to turn off the feature easily, just as you can turn off group highlighting in the Kindle today.

I'd allow users to post links to excerpts or passages or specific page locations in other texts in their Kindle library. If another reader came across that pointer and didn't own the other book being referenced, they'd just see a truncated excerpt (assuming it exceeded some fair use word count limit), with the ability to 1-click purchase that book to unlock the full reference.

This would be a new form of book cross-merchandising for Amazon. I envision that my home feed could include highlights and notes from other readers I was following, and again, if I didn't own the book they were referencing I'd see a truncated excerpt with a buy button to unlock the whole text.

This may sound a lot like the basics of modern social networks and hypertext. And it should. No need to reinvent such elegant ideas, refined over so many years. The real benefit here is unleashing the virtues of networks and hypertext on the massive corpus of text locked up inside books. There's real gold inside those books which have been vetted by publishers and refined by editors and authors over numerous drafts.

That these tools are largely applied just to articles and blog posts that have been written since the invention of the internet is a shame. So many books are still read decades or centuries after they've been published, a decent sign they contain much timeless wisdom.

I suggest Amazon as the best company to launch such a social network because most people I know buy ebooks for the Kindle so the cold start problem for this network isn't as severe. If Amazon for some reason runs with this idea, then I have one more feature request. Please make the Kindle hardware touch screens more responsive. I largely use my iPad to read my Kindle books because typing on a Kindle hardware device is for masochists. The severe latency leads to all sorts of typos and missed keystrokes, I've largely given up trying to highlight or jot notes on Kindle devices. I use my Paperwhite only when I travel, only for books I expect to read without doing much highlighting or annotating, and especially in sunlight where my iPad screen is primarily good for reflecting sun onto my face and evening out my tan.

Her hair

I’ve never known how to live up to my maternal line, though I’ve burned up a lot of energy trying. Womanhood to me is the feeling of always striving. Striving even when there is no endpoint. I learned early on that to be a good woman—a strong woman—means scheduling, doing, achieving. You execute this series flawlessly and without any complaints. You survive in this world by showing up, pretty and prepared and perfect, hopefully more articulate than anyone else in the room—and always with done hair.

Wonderful essay by Rachel Wilkinson about one of the dilemmas of being a woman, the tension between feminism and beauty.

I believe I had a feminist childhood. I had the kind of upbringing where my mother gave me, at age nine, a book of 100 women who changed the world, and sent me to a middle school where we discussed the misogyny of The Little Mermaid. In my mother’s eyes, these were important lessons for me. Intelligence was the thing that would allow everything in my life to fall into place. She’d cultivated me to be the perfect millennial daughter: existing in a meritocratic world where looks didn’t matter so much because I could be anything I wanted if I were just smart enough. Like all parents, she contains contradictions.
Part of me loves her for telling such an exquisite lie. Not even a lie so much, but what she’d truly hoped would be true for me—a parental lie. I think about how much I’ve tried to let this shield me, to let it protect me from uncomfortable feelings. But with my 45-minute hair routine, I’ve only embraced her perfectionism—and her same contradictions. I wish her lie were true: that appearance didn’t matter, a nuisance held up against smarts. Or I wish I could care less about it—that I could hold to feminist principles, smash my blow dryer and somehow transcend the whole gendered mess. But even then, it wouldn’t be enough.
My head of hair is a perpetually living and dying thing: inconstant, uncontrollable, inescapably corporeal. It’s a promise that I am always a body—despite how hard I might wish to be just a mind.

The interim strategy trap

We say we intend to hire and train great people, but in the interim, we'll have to settle for cheap and available. We say we'd like to give back, but of course, in the interim, first we have to get...
This interim strategy, the notion that ideals and principles are for later, but right now, all the focus and resources have to be put into the emergency of getting successful—it doesn't work.
It doesn't work because it's always the interim. It never seems like the right time to stop doing what worked and start doing what we said was important.

From Seth Godin on the trap of the interim strategy. As someone once said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Call me Nostradamus

When Meerkat and then Periscope had the tech world buzzing about live video streaming through mobile phones, I wrote a piece on how the live video streaming space would play out. One bullet in that timeline:

27. Facebook adds a live video streaming button to its app, then shortly after that spins it out into a separate app altogether. They name it Live, and some other company that launched an app called Live that did the same thing a year earlier complains that Facebook stole their name, but no one really pays any attention.

From TechCrunch:

Before Periscope and Meerkat jumpstarted the mobile live-streaming craze, Facebook was already quietly working on its own way to let public figures broadcast live videos to their fans. Today, Facebook is launching “Live” as a feature in its Mentions app that’s only available to celebrities with a verified Page.
VIPs can start a Live broadcast that’s posted to the News Feed, watch comments overlaid in real-time on their stream, and then make the recording permanently available for viewing. Stars like The Rock and Serena Williams will stream today.

Okay, so maybe no one is giving Facebook guff about the name, but I'm still going to give myself a partial high five.

In a post about Venmo and payments as a social network in April, I wrote:

Speaking of the pile of poop emoji, it seems only a matter of time until someone releases an app that allows you to broadcast when you are taking a poop. It should be a mobile app just called Poop. I leave it to the design geniuses at Apple to figure out what type of haptic feedback a poop notification should emit on the Apple Watch.

From Mashable this past Friday:

A new chat app called Pooductive aims to create a miniature social network specifically for anyone who gets bored while they are doing a number two, and want to talk to people in the same position.
Created by two student developers, the free iPhone app, which began life as a failed Kickstarter, facilitates one-on-one or group chats based on your location. You can choose to message people nearby or be connected with users in other cities or countries.
"The fact that there is only little to do whilst tending to ‘number two’ is common knowledge, and truly a first world problem," the developers write on Pooductive's website.

Poop is clearly a superior name to Pooductive, so the only reason I didn't nail the name yet again was poor branding instincts on the part of the developers. The sample screenshots of the app in the iTunes App Store are something for the archives, someone actually dreamt up this imaginary chat between two people sitting on the toilet.

I honestly don't know which prediction I'm prouder of.

Respecting the preferences of the poor

One feature, in particular, stands out. The life of the rural poor is extremely boring, with repetitive back-breaking tasks interrupted by periods of enforced idleness; it is far removed from Marie-Antoinettish idylls of Arcadia. As the authors remark, villages do not have movie theatres, concert halls, places to sit and watch interesting strangers go by and frequently not even a lot of work. This may sound rather demeaning to the poor, like Marx's comment about “the idiocy of rural life”.
But it is important to understand because, as the authors remark, “things that make life less boring are a priority for the poor”. They tell the story of meeting a Moroccan farmer, Oucha Mbarbk. They ask him what would he do if he had a bit more money. Buy some more food, came the reply. What would he do if he had even more money? Buy better, tastier food. “We were starting to feel very bad for him and his family when we noticed a television, a parabolic antenna and a DVD player.” Why had he bought all this if he didn't have enough money for food? “He laughed and said ‘Oh, but television is more important than food.'”
Nutritionists and aid donors often forget this. To them, it is hard to imagine anything being more important than food. And the poorer you are, surely, the more important food must be. So if people do not have enough, it cannot be because they have chosen to spend the little they have on something else, such as a television, a party, or a wedding. Rather it must be because they have nothing and need help. Yet well-intentioned programmes often break down on the indifference of the beneficiaries. People don't eat the nutritious foods they are offered, or take their vitamin supplements. They stick with what makes life more bearable, even if it is sweet tea and DVDs.

From a piece at the Economist kicking off a discussion of the book Poor Economics by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo. When people throw around the phrase “first world problem” the presumption is that the poor are so many rungs down on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs that they couldn't possibly have the mindshare to contemplate such a frivolous dilemma. In fact, though, the marginal value of something we consider frivolous may be greater for the poor than for the wealthy. This has been one of the greatest breakthroughs in my understanding of the poor and how they think about where to allocate their next dollar.

I've written about this previously in The Psychological Poverty Trap and The Persistence of Poverty. The latter looked at the work of Charles Karelis, who believes our economic models of the poor are broken.

When we're poor, Karelis argues, our economic worldview is shaped by deprivation, and we see the world around us not in terms of goods to be consumed but as problems to be alleviated. This is where the bee stings come in: A person with one bee sting is highly motivated to get it treated. But a person with multiple bee stings does not have much incentive to get one sting treated, because the others will still throb. The more of a painful or undesirable thing one has (i.e. the poorer one is) the less likely one is to do anything about any one problem. Poverty is less a matter of having few goods than having lots of problems.
Poverty and wealth, by this logic, don't just fall along a continuum the way hot and cold or short and tall do. They are instead fundamentally different experiences, each working on the human psyche in its own way. At some point between the two, people stop thinking in terms of goods and start thinking in terms of problems, and that shift has enormous consequences. Perhaps because economists, by and large, are well-off, he suggests, they've failed to see the shift at all.
If Karelis is right, antipoverty initiatives championed all along the ideological spectrum are unlikely to work - from work requirements, time-limited benefits, and marriage and drug counseling to overhauling inner-city education and replacing ghettos with commercially vibrant mixed-income neighborhoods. It also means, Karelis argues, that at one level economists and poverty experts will have to reconsider scarcity, one of the most basic ideas in economics.

Karelis' thinking is summarized in his book The Persistence of Poverty: Why the Economics of the Well-Off Can't Help the Poor.

Karelis' ideas are one possible explanation behind the effectiveness of Sam Tsemberis' approach towards solving chronic homelessness. Pathways to Housing, the organization Tsemberis founded, believes in giving the homeless housing first, no strings attached, rather than forcing the homeless to jump through a series of hoops before they qualify.

Housing First was developed to serve the chronically homelessness who suffer from serious psychiatric disabilities and addictions. Traditionally, the chronically homeless live in a cycle of surviving on the street, being admitted to hospitals, shelters, or jails and then going back to the street. The stress of surviving each day in this cycle puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the individual’s psychiatric and physical health. “Living in the street,” one Pathways to Housing client said, “It makes you crazy.”
The traditional structures in place to “help” the homeless population often make things worse, particularly for those who suffer from mental illness. Shelters and transitional living programs often require people to pass sobriety tests and other hurdles before they can be considered for housing programs. Housing is considered a reward for good behavior instead of a tool to help stabilize a homeless-person’s mental health. This attitude cuts out the people who need the support the most, effectively punishing them for their conditions. 

Respecting the preferences of the poor means understanding that the logic behind many of their purchase decisions may be very rational under a happiness-maximization framework. That we judge them to be otherwise is more a failure of empathy than anything else.

Science is hard

Taken together, headlines like these might suggest that science is a shady enterprise that spits out a bunch of dressed-up nonsense. But I’ve spent months investigating the problems hounding science, and I’ve learned that the headline-grabbing cases of misconduct and fraud are mere distractions. The state of our science is strong, but it’s plagued by a universal problem: Science is hard — really fucking hard.
If we’re going to rely on science as a means for reaching the truth — and it’s still the best tool we have — it’s important that we understand and respect just how difficult it is to get a rigorous result. I could pontificate about all the reasons why science is arduous, but instead I’m going to let you experience one of them for yourself. Welcome to the wild world of p-hacking.

A very important piece at on p-values and the likely prevalence of p-hacking.

The p-value reveals almost nothing about the strength of the evidence, yet a p-value of 0.05 has become the ticket to get into many journals. “The dominant method used [to evaluate evidence] is the p-value,” said Michael Evans, a statistician at the University of Toronto, “and the p-value is well known not to work very well.”
But that doesn’t mean researchers are a bunch of hucksters, a la LaCour. What it means is that they’re human. P-hacking and similar types of manipulations often arise from human biases. “You can do it in unconscious ways — I’ve done it in unconscious ways,” Simonsohn said. “You really believe your hypothesis and you get the data and there’s ambiguity about how to analyze it.” When the first analysis you try doesn’t spit out the result you want, you keep trying until you find one that does. (And if that doesn’t work, you can always fall back on HARKing — hypothesizing after the results are known.)

The larger lessons apply not just to science. Journalism is hard, especially investigative journalism. You can spend months reporting a piece only to find no real striking narrative, no clear conclusions of note. And yet, if you have to fill a certain number of pages every day...

In tech, really successful and/or counterintuitive A/B test results are passed around like koans. However, anyone who has done enough A/B testing in the tech world knows that most experiments show no statistically significant results. To design a test that won't show the obvious and that will reveal some hidden truth is not easy.

All data suggests most of us should hold our unproven beliefs more loosely than we're inclined to. Who first came up with the saying “Strong opinions, weakly held” (sometimes “loosely” is substituted). Most of us are good at the first half, not so good at the second, a dangerous combination when it turns out that truth is low yield.

Some things might help. One is something of a reference that is a collection of links to all studies that have tried to answer a particular question along with a summary of the current state of thinking. For example, does drinking a glass of red wine a day improve your health? Why are Americans obese? Does eating a multivitamin every day really do anything for your health? What's the best exercise to improve core strength? And so on. Imagine something like the genetic offspring of Vox, Wikipedia, and Richard Feynman.

Another is something like Github but for research data from all these studies. 538's small experiment widget in this piece was a simplified example of the type of tool that might enable more people to get experience and a deeper understanding of the craft of designing studies and the slippery nature of truth. Also, the more people that can analyze a data set, the greater the likelihood that biases of different types balance each other out and that mistakes are caught. Strong hypotheses can often lead one to control for the very variable that explains a result.

The web is so sprawling, information so infinite now, we need more structured ways to traverse it intelligibly. It's no coincidence one of the words that's entered our vocabulary this past year is “explainer” (here is an explainer on the term explainer). We have so much flow, we need more stock.

Damning with painterly praise

That’s the kind of widget The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is: so good it’s practically defective.
This wasn’t something I wanted to see. The posters promise Armie Hammer and Henry Cavill, two actors who are like day-old bread. You practically have to give them away. They look like they’ve been attacked by a stylist from the fall issue of any men’s magazine. Down at the bottom of the poster, standing in front of an Aston Martin and looking like a flight attendant vacationing in a Paul Bowles novel, is Alicia Vikander, a Swede who’ll be shoved in our faces until we love her. Also, and not for nothing: This is a remake of a spy show that ran for four seasons on NBC near the height of the Cold War, a film version of which has been failing to launch for decades. Exactly no one was asking for this.
So it’s a surprise to discover that the bar for this movie is low enough to conga under. Ritchie has gotten everyone to agree not to take any of this seriously, including the person responsible for keeping an eye on Hammer’s Russian accent.

Wesley Morris on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Here he in the same article on a movie I've never heard of, Cop Car.

From the car emerges Kevin Bacon, with a graying, rusty mustache and nary a line of dialogue, looking every bit the hypothetical adult outcome of Sam Elliott’s decision to do in vitro with himself.

When Grantland first arrived on the scene, I could read every article published on the site. Today I can barely keep up with a fraction of what's there, but it's still a wellspring of great writing.

Unfortunately, I have a sinking feeling that despite its popularity, new media economics put Grantland in no man's land: not targeted enough to be a one-man niche, not large enough to collect enough tax revenue to survive as an independent country. In barbell economics, the one in the middle is left holding a lot of weight.

I take solace in the fact that most of the talent there will always find work.

The paradox of writing

Rebecca Mead with a beautiful piece on the movie The End of the Tour, based on the book Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, about a road trip writer David Lipsky took with David Foster Wallace when Lipsky was working on a profile for Rolling Stone. Emphasis mine; that last sentence is so gorgeous I can't stop reading it over and over.

The movie ends before the article can appear in Rolling Stone, so the relationship between Wallace and Lipsky that it represents is all preamble, no aftermathAnd, in fact, the proposed article didn’t ever appear in Rolling Stone: according to Lipsky, in the afterword of his book, Wenner changed his mind about wanting it before it was even written. It was not until after Wallace’s suicide, in 2008, that Lipsky wrote up his notes into a long, award-winning article about the author; his book, which consists mostly of transcripts of their conversations, followed. (A meta-narrative of betrayal has, nonetheless, unfolded: David Foster Wallace’s widow and his estate have strenuously objected to the film, insisting that Wallace would never have wished the magazine interviews to be used this way.)
In “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself,” Lipsky writes that he was relieved by Wenner’s fiat that he shouldn’t write the piece, rather than experiencing it as a loss somewhere on the scale between devastating and irritating—the usual range of feelings available to a journalist upon having a piece killed. “I tried to write it, and kept imagining David reading it, and seeing through it, through me, and spotting some questionable stuff on the X-ray,” he writes. Lipsky was too lingeringly attached to the period of intimacy—of having momentarily befriended Wallace—to attain the necessary detachment to reshape that experience into a story. Given that, it’s probably just as well he didn’t have to write it; it wouldn’t have been a success. Any reporter may fleetingly fall in love with his or her subject during the process of researching a magazine profile—the singular dance chronicled by “The End of the Tour.” But for the work to be any good, the writer’s greatest libidinal pleasure must be discovered afterward: when the back-and-forth is over, and the recorder has stopped recording, and one is alone at the keyboard at last.

It's such a delicate balance. You need a very real and true interest in the subject to do it justice, and yet when you finally go to write the piece, you need the professionalism to retreat from your biases, desires, ego, your very self, and do the subject justice.

It's such a tricky dance, and it's a balance I failed to find in both the NYTimes piece on Amazon this past Saturday and many of the responses from current and former employees. I was all ready to contribute my thoughts on the controversy here, I have hundreds of words in draft form, but I decided to put them on ice for a few days, to see if I might achieve some zen-like distance from which to edit myself.

I've recently taken a few baby steps into meditation, and on a flight today I reread Marcus Aurelius' Meditations. It's a coincidence that both share the word meditation, but both have much to offer in finding a path to that productive and clear-headed place from which to write well. It's love that starts you in the right direction, but it doesn't get you all the way there.