Learning by Applying

Well, here we are, at the end of 2018, and yet again I find the last post was published here at the end of the year before.

I started this site on a simple impulse: to have a little corner of the web under my own name, dedicated to the public face I presented to the world. It then became a deposit for my thoughts, something in which it was superseded when Eli and Jerry invited me to write at The Ümlaut, and then when friends and I started Sweet Talk, and lately after fewer friends and I started Liberal Currents and Dave started Embodiment and Exclusion.

I have considered the question of what exactly this site is for on several occasions along this journey. For a time it seemed appropriate to keep it as the main non-social media venue for personal reflection. Then, when I intended to write a book, it was the primary location of Austin Kleon-style show-your-work updates. But, as I finally admitted publicly in my last updated, the book project stalled long ago.

During 2018, there were several times I was reminded of this site’s existence and wondered if it was finally time to roll it up.

But there’s a kind of writing that I’ve missed, something that isn’t appropriate either to Liberal Currents, where we require a more polished product aimed at a higher purpose than self-fulfillment, or at Embodiment and Exclusion, where I would quickly drown Dave’s posts on his own site with material at best tangentially related to his enterprise there.

This is the kind of writing I began at The Ümlaut but really ran with at Sweet Talk, for I was not reading nearly enough for it to work during my time at the former. The kind of post I have its mind owes its origin to some book or books or specific thinker that I have been reading or reading about, and struggling to grasp. A pivotal part of that struggle was to write a lot of posts about various aspects of what I was struggling with. It did not result in much good writing, in any sense of the term. There are very few posts I wrote at Sweet Talk that I am proud of–though the number is not zero (I wrote quite a lot after all). Nevertheless, they served a purpose, one I find underserved since I ceased writing there.

Sweet Talk was originally conceived of as a conversation blog, inspired by group blogs such as the EconLog in the early days, when the bloggers would post responses to each others’ posts on a regular basis. It ended up largely being conversational in a different way; my posts were, as it were, part of an ongoing conversation with myself, but it served as a basis for many interesting conversations with others, cobloggers or not.

One thing I learned the hard way, and also through observation, and through the guidance of wiser friends (as in all things), is that the quantity of books consumed means very little in the end. You can read quite a lot of smart books by great minds and scholars and still end up with a shallow mind. How you read is at least as important as what. This is what those with a degree education in a field, or at least some sort of institutional support for pursing knowledge in it, have over the autodidact. Yet the reverse is also true: the many online scenes for communal reading and especially discussing of texts provides novel contexts for autodidacts that are often unavailable to the professional. Both approaches have their traps and dead ends, but both have their promise.

I am lucky in the context of my reading. I have made many better read and wiser friends who put up with my relentless questioning on the topics that fascinate me. It also does not offend their professional dignity when I attempt, feebly, to take on some hard line on a matter in which they know more than I, to draw out where I might be mistaken, or why they read the same texts but drew different conclusions.

But still, I miss the posting. Dave once pointed out to me that the writing I did at Sweet Talk paralleled the graduate student who must write an essay performing a straight application of the texts he has recently read. That is just about right, and that sort of writing’s greatest value is in service to the growth of the writer.

So I think I may, once again, begin to straightforwardly apply texts, in writing, as part of my process of learning. And it seems appropriate to do so here, a place that need not be so polished and public-oriented as Liberal Currents, nor so ephemeral as social media. A site under my own name, on servers and under a domain name I pay for myself, in easily-ported WordPress should my relationship with the hosting company deteriorate for some unforeseen reason.

This site has therefore received a stay of execution but also, hopefully, a new life. Expect more to come. I have on my mind Joanne Freeman’s excellent Affairs of Honor for my next post, one of many this year that my friend Adam Rust brought to my attention which has remained on my mind since.

Update From the Edge of 2018

It has been nearly two years since my last update here, and exactly two years since the post before that one, a 2015 year end review. It’s mind boggling to me that only two posts ago I was explaining how I had jumped ship from the Umlaut and had launched Sweet Talk; the latter has since wound down due to a project that launched this year. But more on that below.

My life has changed a great deal since last I posted here. The biggest change by far, which I would only just have become aware of around the time of that post, is that I became a father. Elliot Taylor Gurri just celebrated his first birthday at the beginning of this month. I cannot even begin to describe how he has transformed our lives, much less do justice to the ups and down, the struggles and the joys, of the first year of his life. If you’re a parent, I needn’t explain it to you. If you aren’t, you’re probably tired of hearing the same story from the new parents you have known!

Not only does parenting demand time and attention, but somehow I seem to have less energy or mental clarity left during those hours I am not paying attention to the baby or at work. This is my current excuse for having made basically no progress on my book since my last update, but it’s a rather weak one given that that update occurred in March and the baby wasn’t born until December! Fact is, this book has whipped me. I went in knowing that everyone says writing a book is damn hard, but feeling cocky because of the quantity of my writing output. I was humbled, repeatedly, as I wrote about several times here.

If you want to read the only bits I have written for it that are worth salvaging, read this piece followed by this piece, the two of which (slightly modified) were originally joined together to serve as the introduction or first chapter. My current thinking is that the framework only has any value or concrete meaning in as much as it is applied to real examples. This, however, only means that I need to do more legwork, in gathering cases that are both instructive and compelling to an audience. The plan of the book has changed so many times, however, that I’m not sure it’s even worth the pixels on your screen to say anything more on the matter. And I won’t insult you with an ETA; the book is on the backburner right now, there’s no getting around it. I can’t bring myself to abandon it entirely but for all practical purposes it has remained untouched for more than a year.

What I have been working on is Liberal Currents, where co-founders Paul Crider and Jason Briggeman and I have been attempting to bring together those who share a bond of mere liberalism, while pushing a vision of our own. Jason Kuznicki joined us at launch and has contributed a tremendous amount as both an author and editor, and Samuel Hammond and Cathy Reisenwitz contributed to the launch and since as well, along with our growing coterie of contributors. You may be aware that some things happened in this country and the world, politically, in 2016. These events drew me out of the greater and greater levels of abstraction that I had delved into at Sweet Talk and towards matters of more concrete urgency. Or so I would like to say; my own writing remains…more philosophical than practical. But the goal is to foster a discussion of liberalism from a philosophical as well as practical, tactical, and strategic point of view. It launched early this year and it has been very rewarding. I’m proud of what we accomplished this year and hope we can kick things up a notch in 2018.

In my review of 2015, I talked about trying to get into a data-focused career trajectory. If I had written a 2016 review, it would’ve been far more pessimistic on that score than I am now. I had hoped to transfer to the data analysis team at Tapad, my employer at the time. For various reasons, that fell through in the middle of 2016, and by the end of the year it looked as though I’d be stuck in operations for the foreseeable future. But starting in October of this year, I have been working as a Business Analyst at Outbrain; doing basically the same sort of work I had hoped to do exclusively at Tapad. It has only been two months but it has been exactly what I hoped it would be. I am honing my SQL and my Python skills every day, and learning to use other tools like Tableau that have become standards and I had little previous exposure to. I am very happy with my team, the people I work with, and just the general culture and attitude of the people at Outbrain. It’s been very exciting!

It’s also the first time in almost five years that I have started at a new company. Tapad was very good to me. It was an extremely welcoming environment to go to after a very bad experience at the company that brought us to New York in the first place. In my first year I learned SQL and grew from a pure operations role to a yield role, which (for those outside the industry) involves a great deal more analysis, but still sits within the operations arm of an organization. Last year, they were purchased by Telenor, and the options I had at that point were cashed out. I didn’t strike it rich by any means, but it was a boost to our savings right at the moment we were about to have a baby. Moreover, they changed their parental leave to be something extremely generous, allowing me to spend more time with my wife and Elliot in his first months of life. I’ll always be grateful for the opportunities Tapad afforded me and especially for the people I met there.

That’s all I’ve got; that’s a broad outline of what has happened these last two years. I’m an optimist by disposition, so it would perhaps be cheap to close by saying that I’m feeling optimistic about 2018. But I am! I’m looking forward to further growing into my role at Outbrain, and excited and nervous to see how Elliot will grow and change himself every month (and every week, or every day, it sometimes feels like!).

Happy New Year to you; good luck!

Flourishing

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?”