That is the current working title for my book.

Been a while since I did a book update, eh? If my 2015 review post counts, it’s been about three months. The last post I wrote just about the book was in October.

I combined everything I had thusfar into one very vaguely structured Word file a couple of months back. It added up to 44,000 or so words and not anything approaching a cohesive work.

But that’s OK. That was part of the plan, at that point.

I read through what I had, wrote up some notes, and then sat on it for another month or so.

Today, I sat down and put together a pretty good (all things considered) first draft of the first section.

I had had a basic idea of how I wanted the book to look by the time I finished filling in my notebook. The simple bulleted list was:

  • Virtue
  • Business
  • Culture
  • Law

All looking at different aspects of life and society in terms of their relationship to commerce, with the goal of providing a defense of the latter.

The original idea had been The Bourgeois Virtues but a business book. In the new structure, I was having trouble figuring out why virtue would be included at all. Talk about business, as the heart of commerce itself? Check. Talk about food and art and how they’re deeply tied to commerce? Check. Talk about the relationship between commerce and the law, and how it need not be a hostile one? Check. Talk about…the virtues…in a kind of self-help angle…in commerce?

Which one of these is not like the other?

But I think I’ve figured out an approach that will work.

Here’s the new bulleted list:

  • Making a Life
  • Making a Living
  • Making a Culture
  • Making a Society

The unifying theme is an exploration of how we all go about trying to lead good lives. The first part talks specifically about our individual lives—through the lens of the virtues. The second part talks about how we materially support those lives, in business and the workplace in general. The third is about art and entertainment, a crucial part of our lives beyond the merely material, and showing how it is not only sustained by commerce, but it is deeply embedded in commercial activity.

The last section is about the relationship between commerce and the law. I’m not a fan of referring to this as “society,” but I can’t think of another word that would fit with the wording of the previous sections. “Making a Law” doesn’t work, and “Making the Law” or “Making Law” breaks the phrasing. I can rationalize by saying that it is commerce, law, and life in general that come together to make society, not merely law. But really it’s that I don’t have another word that could work with that phrasing. Anyway, I’m open to suggestions.

Once this structure clicked for me, it felt like things fell into place much more easily. I assembled a workable draft of the first part quite quickly—just today, in fact. The second part needs a lot more written from scratch, so there’s no way it will go so fast. The third part has plenty of material, while the fourth part will also need much more.

In any case, I do feel that I’m making concrete progress. I’ve wondered at various points whether I could really have a completed first draft of the whole thing by the end of the year. But as things stands, that seems more plausible a timeline than ever.

I’m sure I’ve doomed myself by saying so.

2015 Projects in Review

The Book

After rereading Deirdre McCloskey’s The Bourgeois Virtues last year, and getting recommendations from some people on where to start reading up on virtue ethics, I made it a goal to read every book on that list of recommendations. Part of this was just an attempt to kick me out of the doldrums—I’d been spinning my wheels, reading a bit here and there, writing at either my blog or The Umlaut, in a routine that hadn’t changed much or resulted in much personal growth since college. The project of reading all those books alone would be more ambitious than anything I’d done in a long time—Goodreads tells me that I read 42 books that year, compared with the 16 the year before.

But I also felt that McCloskey’s call to revive a morally serious conversation about our way of life had a weight to it that nothing else I’d read or thought about had held for me. And so the more I read, the more I wanted to do something beyond just reading—hence, the book project.

I couldn’t tell you the exact moment when the reading project became the book project. But it felt good to have something like that, something that was just mine, and required me to grow before I could accomplish it.

So I read a ton of philosophy last year; mostly virtue ethics, but also epistemology and some Michael Oakeshott and other side-trips.

This year was going to be straightforward, going in—I would read as many business and self-help books as I had philosophy books last year, maybe more. Then I would write the first draft of the book. Given the word count of my writing output on blogs, I thought getting at least a rough draft would be a piece of cake.

How wrong I was. A book is just so different from an essay. It’s not even comparable.

After beating my head against my initial outline for a few months, writing stalled. It kicked into gear when I started carrying a notebook with me and writing in it during my commute. I gave myself permission to write anything that could be very broadly construed as being relevant to the book, in any order. I filled the notebook in no time.

I typed the notebook up in October, and haven’t done much on the book since then. My plan is to print out what I typed up, and organize it into sections. Organizing it should help me figure out what needs to be discarded and what needs to be supplemented. I will then rewrite everything, using what I’ve written already as the starting point. This process of borrowing bigger or smaller pieces of drafts I’ve already written in order to make a new thing is something I’ve done for ages and ages; it’s a familiar, tested approach for me.

My vision of the book has changed drastically over the course of the year, but I’m happy with where I’ve ended up. Originally my idea for it was little more than The Bourgeois Virtues, but for a business book audience. The audience has stayed the same, but the focus has shifted.

Aristotle’s ethics can be thought of as having two pieces, broadly: a kind of life, and a kind of person. The Nicomachean Ethics begins with a meditation on a person’s life as a whole, and what it is we strive for. Aristotle concludes that we strive for eudaimonia; happiness, flourishing, the good life. He argues that in order to achieve eudaimonia you have to be a certain type of person; the virtuous person. A lot of the book is simply explaining what it is to be that sort of person.

My original focus was on the second piece; the virtuous person. Provisional titles for the book included Virtue in the Office or The Entrepreneur’s Virtue; you get the picture. It was about being a virtuous person in the context of commerce.

The more I wrote in my notebook, though, the more I found that what I really wanted to talk about was the first piece; life itself. I wrote more and more stories about entrepreneurs, artists, managers, contractors, and sole-proprietors, and how their trades fit beautifully into our way of life. And why all of this added up to a way of life worth defending.

The two pieces are not separable, but the focus matters. I’ve always been worried about how I was going to sell abstract philosophy to a business book audience, and now I know. The story is about our way of life; there will be one chapter about how the virtues fit into that. The rest will focus on people, companies, and industries that flesh out the relationship between commerce and flourishing, as it exists in our particular way of life. Again, the two pieces are connected—while showing how Julia Child or the founders of a local theater exemplify the best of our way of life, I will also show them to be hard-working, generous, prudent, and so forth. But the difference in emphasis will be there.

Data Science

Sometime in the second half of the year, I decided I wanted to pursue data science as a career goal. This didn’t come from nowhere and is something I’ve been flirting with for a long time, but I’ve made a commitment to it now. My employer has been very supportive of this decision, and I’ll be transferring to a new team at the beginning of the year as a result. I won’t be doing data science—I’m not capable of it yet—but it will be a more analytical job. As I pick up more skills through self-directed learning or other means, I will be able to apply them to the job and so start making them part of a regular practice, rather than learning them as an academic exercise.

The head of data science at my employer gave me some solid advice: first, learn Python. Then, refresh your memory of linear algebra and statistics (in practice, this will mean relearning those things). He said it might make sense to learn something like Java through a traditional CS 101 type course, just because that makes learning other programming languages a lot easier afterwards.

So far, I’ve gone through Learn Python the Hard Way. It was tremendously helpful; I feel as though I have learned a lot in only a couple of months. I’ve since consulted Data Science from Scratch and Python for Data Analysis, but more as reference material than a straightforward course the way LPTHW was. I’ve been doing Project Euler and other Python challenges online just to get my mind working on solving problems with Python.

But I haven’t really started the next major thing, which will be the math and stats. I’m a bit intimidated to get started, to be honest. LPTHW was such a great guide for getting going with Python, and I’m not sure I’m going to get the equivalent for linear algebra or stats. But I’ve got a couple of choices for each, so I’m going to dive in, see what works, and revise my study plans accordingly. If I have to do online courses rather than books, though the latter worked better for Python, I will do that. If I have to hire a tutor, or something like that, I’ll do it too. I feel uncertainty about what the best way to proceed will be, but confident that I can do it, one way or another.

And I think I have reasonable goals. I want to get back to the level of competency I had in linear algebra and statistics back when I was in school and taking courses on those things. I want to achieve that by the end of this year. I want to achieve an entry-level data science skillset within two years, and get to more of a middle-level skillset within three to five years.

Sweet Talk

The previous two sections are about aspirations. This one is about an accomplishment, though I can hardly take all the credit.

The Umlaut was a fun ride. When Eli and Jerry invited me to be part of the initial group of writers there, I was extremely flattered. They both had public presences; I didn’t, not really. I could only gain by association, and I did.

Our original plan was for all of us to write a weekly piece, 600-1000 words, to come out on the same day each week. I was the only one who stuck to that schedule for more than a couple of months, and I stuck to it the entire time I wrote there. I’m proud of that; my writing before then was very sporadic. Sticking to a regular schedule like that was a good experience and very focusing.

And a lot of what I’ve been able to do since, I owe to the visibility I gained from The Umlaut.

But at a certain point last year, it felt like I was really the only one writing there. Sometimes it would be months before a byline other than mine would appear. I started yearning for something more like EconLog, back when Arnold Kling was there and he would regularly have back-and-forths with Bryan Caplan, his co-blogger.

I’d already become part of a small group of friends with similar interests, so I asked them if they’d like to start something with me. The result was Sweet Talk.

Sweet Talk has been one of the most fulfilling enterprises I’ve had the privilege to be a part of. I’ve contributed posts, of course, but it has been much more rewarding to see the other Sweet Talkers write their pieces and discuss them among one another. The life of these posts is very fluid; often beginning in discussions in Facebook groups or on Twitter, then continuing in those places afterwards, to be picked up again on the blog itself.

I have learned so much from this group, as well as the extended group of people we all talk to fairly regularly. I cannot begin to summarize how far I’ve come just by being around them and having my curiosity sparked by the topics they command a greater knowledge of.

We’re not what I’d call a media titan, nor a Slate Star Codex or Marginal Revolution, but we’re no slouch in traffic for what we are, either. And sheer traffic isn’t really the point, either. Getting more smart, interesting contributors is a higher priority than simply growing traffic. As I see it, we’re building a community, rather than a media outlet. As the about page hints, I’d love for the boundaries between contributor, commenter, and audience to be pretty fluid if possible.

If I’m counting right, I’ve written about 72 posts there this year. Here are the ones I’m proudest of:

  • Science is Persuasion. Last year, I binged most of Deirdre McCloskey’s books, including The Rhetoric of Economics and Knowledge and Persuasion in Economics. It was such a different approach to epistemology and philosophy of science than I was familiar with (which was really just Popper) that I was both blown away but unsure that I really understood. I wrote this post after finishing the collection Economics and Hermeneutics, when something finally clicked for me. Still very happy with this post, wouldn’t change anything about it. The irony is that McCloskey and people who specialize in hermeneutics are often accused of being relativists, but they all have actually made me more epistemologically optimistic.
  • The Politics of Truth. This was written after reading Arthur Melzer’s Philosophy Between the Lines. One of the concepts explored there is the Noble Lie, the idea that sometimes the truth is dangerous. I don’t agree with that exactly, but I thought it was getting at something important; this post was my attempt to show how you could use facts to knock something down without actually being helpful. It was also a small stab at an ontology of groups, something that’s been of increasing interest to me.
  • Learning as Adventure. The big intellectual event for me this year was discovering Hans-Georg Gadamer, who I found because several of the chapters of Economics and Hermeneutics referenced him. Truth and Method was the first thing I’ve read since I began binging on philosophy books last year that felt really, truly other. I had to read a lot of secondary material afterwards to help wrestle with it. The piece that came the quickest was Gadamer’s concept of prejudices, and how they play a role in the continually-revisionary nature of our understanding. This post takes that and tries to pump people up to be optimistic about how much they can learn. Because the past two years have made me optimistic, especially considering I should (barring terrible luck) have decades of life left in which to learn even more. Recommended if you’re intellectually curious but feel intimidated by how much there is to learn.
  • Of Subjects and Objects. More wrestling with the concepts from Gadamer. This one was especially influenced by Adam Adatto Sandel’s framing in The Place of Prejudice, which draws on Gadamer as well as Heidegger and Aristotle. Sandel argues that the subject-object distinction is very historically young, and has limitations we shouldn’t let straightjacket us in. The post is an attempt to think through the subject-object distinction and the alternatives that I’m aware of. Recommended if you think everything is either subjective or objective.
  • Tradition, Authority, and Reason. The piece I am the proudest of by far, perhaps of anything I have ever written. Before I started reading about virtue ethics, I was pretty sure I was some kind of Burkean traditionalist. Alasdair MacIntyre was the first to get me to question that, last year. But Gadamer’s take on tradition was radically different from any of them. This piece was written in September, months after I finished Truth and Method, but I had been struggling with the ideas encountered there the entire time. I wouldn’t say that I mastered them, but being able to write this piece constituted a huge step forward. It’s also a piece set in conversation with a fellow Sweet Talker, Sam Hammond, so it’s in the spirit of the blog itself that way.

Who Even Am I?

Those who have known me most of my life, know that I have always been a slacker. I am not what you would call motivated, I am not “a type-A personality”. When teachers talked about me, they used the word “potential,” which was polite for “lazy”.

I saw the book project as a way to be ambitious without being too ambitious. It was just outside of my current capabilities, it’d require me to stretch what I could do, but not to an unrealistic degree.

But then, for various reasons, I’ve decided I want to go into data science. Which means squeezing in time to learn Python or whatever the next skill I need to develop might be.

And Sweet Talk might not be a professional publication, but it does take some care and feeding. Not to mention the posts I write there myself.

Who is this person that reads philosophy books by the dozens and wants to invest in his career and write a book? I hardly recognize myself these days.

I’m still not anyone’s idea of ambitious, but I’m slowly realizing that the image I have of myself as the slacker college kid is probably not an accurate way to think about the 30 year old who has had the year I’ve had.

But we’ll see. Hopefully I continue to move forward with this stuff in 2016 rather than slipping back into bad habits.

And I hope you’ll all have good, fulfilling 2016’s yourselves.

Book Update: Two Stabs at “So What?”

Well, I ended up typing my notebook up much faster than I had anticipated. Circumstances ended up making it convenient for me to do a weekend-long marathon to just get it out of the way.

I couldn’t resist putting out some pieces of it into the world.

Putting that last one out, in particular, has been valuable in terms of drawing feedback. I have a pretty good idea how I’m going to revise it now, though I think some of people’s critiques apply less when the piece is situated within the context of the rest of the book, where it acts more as a balance than as a euphoric ode to consumption.

Anyway, going through everything all at once to type it up was a nice exercise. I’m feeling quite good about this project right now, which probably just means I’m in for another humbling.

At the end of the day, though I can describe what I’m aiming for with the book, it’s important not to lose sight of the “so what?

Below are two fragmentary, somewhat redundant stabs at that. There will only end up being one of them in the end, probably something much longer and drawing on elements of each, but show your work, right? These fragments were produced as part of the process.

Continue reading Book Update: Two Stabs at “So What?”

Book Update: My Notebook Against the Dark Night of the Soul

Well, it’s been quite a while since I’ve done a book update, hasn’t it?

The subtitle of this post should be: Austin Kleon was right.

He was doubly right. There are two specific things mentioned in Show Your Work which I crashed into in the past six months.

The first was the dark night of the soul, a concept he got from the novelist Maureen McHugh.


In my last update, I laid out a cursory outline for the book. It’s a bit embarrassing, but simply sketching the outline gave me far more confidence than it should have. I looked at it and thought to myself, “this will be easy! I could write this book in my sleep! After all, I write lengthy posts all the time, sometimes needing only a couple of hours to do so.”

In other words, I thought I’d have this “dark night of the soul” stuff licked. Maybe normal authors struggle with that, but I, clearly some sort of super-author, won’t have to worry.

It did not take long for that soaring hubris to be brought crashing back down to Earth.

Let me emphasize this in public, less because I think other people are unaware than because I clearly need to admit it to myself in a place where people can see the confession—writing a book is hard. The outline, if anything, made the whole process harder. As I sat to write a section, I felt like I was caging myself in with the structure of the outline. The creative spark was completely killed, and I had to really work at writing in a way that I am not used to.

It was not for nothing—I got out a few decent draft chapters, and integrated some previous writing in a way that I think will work well.

But it didn’t take long for me to hit a wall. As of a couple of months ago, my progress was crawling.

Which brings me to the second thing from Austin’s corpus (I actually can’t remember now whether it was in Show Your Work or Steal Like an Artist) that came through for me: the power of writing with an actual pen (or pencil) and paper. This one I really scoffed at to begin with. I’m a child of the PC revolution! I grew up with word processors! Who needs paper?

Well, we took a trip to Scotland in August. Including travel time, we were gone for about 10 days. I bought a notebook and brought it with me, and wrote during much of our downtime. When we returned, I brought the notebook with me on my commute, a time I usually reserve for reading. I decided I wouldn’t read during my commute until I’d filled the notebook up with material I could potentially use in my book.

The Notebook

This was extremely helpful, and I made a lot of progress. It wasn’t exactly linear, however.

I have terrible handwriting

The whole point of this was to give myself the freedom to just write, even if it ended up being irrelevant. And to begin with, I wrote a lot of stuff I couldn’t use. It’s possible some of it can be adapted, but a lot of it will just have to be thrown away (though I’ve already turned some if it into posts at Sweet Talk).

Moreover, almost from the start I began to rethink the structure of the book, and even its central idea. I started drifting far, far away from where I had planned to be.


At certain points I seriously considered going with an entirely different angle on the whole thing.


Thankfully, sanity prevailed. And I think it was healthy to explore other possibilities.

In the end, I did decide to revise my initial plan for the book, but nothing too radical. Rather than simply having seven section on the virtues, I’m going to have two sections:

  • Part 1 will discuss the virtues, explaining each one with examples from business settings.
  • Part 2 will be application—stories from the business (as well as nonprofit) world.

The idea of Part 2 is to show how an understanding of the virtues can enrich our understanding of business. It is also to show how business and commerce can and are noble activities, and there is dignity in participating in them. Making this second case means acknowledging the many ways people in business and commerce also fall into vice. I was interested to see Joseph Heath talking about industry specific patterns of criminality, because in the book I discuss how companies and whole industries have a character of their own, just as individuals do. But of course, Heath doesn’t believe that individuals do.

No backspace button here
No backspace button here

I finished filling in the notebook a couple of weeks ago. There’s a lot of work left to be done, but I’m happy with how this has turned out. The next step will be to type it all up. Then, I’ll have to make a judgment call. Do I have enough to simply edit, organize, and perhaps supplement a bit, to create a viable first draft? Or should I get myself another notebook and get to producing more material with an eye to quantity?

I’m giving myself a little break before I get to typing it all up, but I expect I’ll do it sometime this month. We’ll see how it plays out from there!

All in all, I’m feeling pretty positive about the whole project at the moment. At least, better than I was feeling before I caved and got the notebook!



This is not book related, but it does impact my timeline, so I thought I should mention it.

Earlier this year I decided I wanted to do what it took to move into a career in data science. I have an education in statistics, but have never practiced it, so those skills (such as they ever were) have atrophied. But I figured I could relearn, and if my current employer was open to it, I could start putting what I learned to use, and thus developing those skills with real experience.

I asked for advice from our (now former, as he has left to travel the world with his wife for a year) head of data science, and he gave me some very valuable advice. First and foremost: learning Python. Then brushing up on statistics and matrix algebra. After that, if I wanted to get really deep into it, I should take a course on machine learning. Also, it couldn’t hurt to take a basic intro to computer science course that focuses on Java or C, because learning those makes it easier to learn other languages later.

So I started on Python. At first I attempted Data Science from Scratch, which is all done in Python. But though it said you didn’t need much in the way of programming experience, I found that it wasn’t really working for me. So I’ve been doing Learn Python the Hard Way instead, and it’s been extremely helpful.

Why do I bring this up? Well, obviously, time I spend investing in becoming a data scientist is time I’m not working on the book. And then there’s the small matter of having a full time job and also wanting to have something like a life! I worked on Python the Hard Way for a few weekends, meaning I did basically no writing those weekends. But it was hard to get into a good learning routine just on the weekends. Trips, and visits, and special occasions disrupted whatever routine I had managed.

Now, I’ve got a good routine going, thanks to my boss, who lets me work on learning Python during the last hour or so of my day if I don’t have anything pressing. Between that, and writing during my commute, it has felt like I’ve struck a good balance between these projects.

But I’m not naive—there are only so many hours in the day. Working on becoming a data scientist will inevitably slow down my progress on the book. It already has, to an extent.

But I’m determined to do both. We’ll see how it goes once I’ve moved out of the notebook phase of the book—that is, when I can no longer really work on it during my commute. I’m not sure I’m there yet, as I said above. But I’m going to write this book, even if it takes me another two years. I’d prefer it to take no more than one—but I’ve had my butt kicked by trying to do too much too soon on this book once already, so I’m trying to be realistic.

However long it takes though, I’m committed to it. This new routine with work is very fresh, and I’ve only just filled in my notebook. In a month or two I’ll check back in and we’ll see where I am. Hopefully making tons of progress on both ends! But we’ll see.

As always, thanks for taking an interest in this little project of mine.