What I Read Last Year (2016 Edition)

As always, I read a lot last year. Pocket seems to indicate that the number of articles I saved for later reading was around 1,400, or roughly 3.83 articles per day. Add in additional newspaper consumption plus books, and it was another year in which my information diet goals were completely ignored.

It’s hard to sort of explain all of that consumption – or to remember it. Reading is one of those depressing activities that sparks the imagination while we are doing it, but is so fleeting that just moments later we often forget exactly what we just saw.

That said, there were some excellent books and articles that I think stood out from the rest. I want to highlight them and encourage you to read them. Not everything was necessarily published in the calendar year of 2015, but I do believe that all of these works have relevance to what is going on in the world these days.

####1) Trust in Numbers by Theodore M. Porter

Princeton University Press, 1996

This book is a classic work in the sociology of knowledge & quantification fields. Like many good books, it is hard to summarize exactly what this book inspired in me. Porter tries to answer a simple question: why is quantification so popular in modern society?

To answer it, he meditates on history and cultural development, pointing out the power of measurement in the economy (something on the order of 15% of GDP is simply the measurement of things - everything from accounting to manufacturing tolerances) as well as its importance to politics (standardized weights and measures was a rallying cry of the French Revolution).

This book is more important than ever, as are the studies that it sparked. The rise of Big Data and the continuing fetishization of quantitative data continue to force more of our society’s processes into narrow algorithms. As just one example, the increasing reliance of Hollywood on familiar movies comes from the more quantitative marketing studies that studios have the power to carry out today. It’s hard to resist the numbers, and it is only getting harder.

####2) Kim-Mai Cutler’s Housing in the Bay Area Series

As I have argued a few times here and tirelessly with friends, housing is without a doubt one of the most important topics for my generation. The high cost of housing – an absolutely essential component of human existence – is one of the most controversial issues in politics.

Kim-Mai Cutler’s original piece was one of the most sterling articles ever published on TechCrunch. She has since followed it up with additional studies like the one published in January called “East Of Palo Alto’s Eden: Race And The Formation Of Silicon Valley.”

What makes the discussion exceptional is the depth and complexity that Cutler has brought to bear on the issue. Housing isn’t an easy problem to simply solve; after all, in order to build housing in San Francisco, you usually have to remove the people that are already living there. Those issues are particularly acute in the strangely political San Francisco Bay Area, where environmentalists often fight housing growth despite the clear benefits for climate change such development would have.

There are few answers here, but that is as it should be.

####3) Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates & On the Run by Alice Goffman

Penguin Random House, 2015 & University of Chicago Press, 2014

There can be no doubt that there has been an incredible surge in interest in the plight of many African-Americans in the United States. The chilling deaths of several black teenagers in cities across the country have forced the country to confront its lingering legacy of racism.

These two books work in tandem to provide different lenses of the modern black experience. Coates, writing from personal experience, discusses the effects of our society and its systems of justice on the lives of everyday African-Americans. He writes with incredible passion and clarity. His book is relatively short, and should be an automatic read for anyone even slightly interested in today’s politics.

Goffman’s book is scholarly with a tinge of polemic. A sociologist, she spent years in inner-city Philadelphia, watching and observing the lives of African-Americans and their interactions with the state through the police and the courts. She shows – I think convincingly – that our criminal justice system does nothing to improve the outcomes of our society, and indeed, often intensifies the poverty we might hope could be alleviated.

Together, these two books offer a powerful indictment of the current state of American law and order, and how much work there is to be done in the coming years to improve the lives of many of our fellow citizens.

####4) Access Denied by John Hermann

The Awl, December 3, 2015

The media has changed dramatically with the advent of the internet. Social platforms are beginning to supplant traditional sources for news and entertainment, and all of us are now publishers (i.e. what you are reading now).

John Hermann has written the most definitive and clear summary of what all of these changes mean for the media that I have seen in a long time.

His argument is simple. There was a symbiosis between subjects and the traditional media. The media provided an audience to a subject (a sports star, a politicians, an actor) and that subject provided access in exchange for getting to spread their message to an audience. This was a big business, but it has been shattered by the rise of social platforms that have usurped audiences on the web.

The results are scary. Investigative journalism was essentially subsidized by the other parts of a newspaper. Now that subsidy is entirely gone, and the probing reporter has no access by which to ask important questions. We can see the rise of Donald Trump in this change – he doesn’t have to answer to any journalists (and in fact, puts them in a special pen), and can instead communicate directly with voters unfiltered.

As is a theme of these pieces, what’s next is unclear. Clearly, we still need to find the next generation of media.

####5) Government Transit Disasters

a) “Bay Bridge’s troubles: How a landmark became a debacle” by Jaxon Van Derbeken, SF Chronicle b) “Stuck in Seattle” by Karen Weise, Bloomberg c) “The Infuriating History of How Metro Got So Bad” by Luke Mullins & Michael Gaynor, Washingtonian d) “Why New York Subway Lines Are Missing Countdown Clocks” by James Somers, The Atlantic

It seems that everyone is starting to realize just how bad America’s transit infrastructure is. Coming off from the complete meltdown of Boston’s subway system last winter came a spate of articles about the challenges of transit development in San Francisco, Seattle, DC, and NYC.

Together, these articles show a couple of major problems with our infrastructure. We fail to plan as extensively as we should before building. There are terrible cultures of maintenance at many of our transit agencies (Boston just got dinged on this the past week too from the feds, following a runaway subway incident this month). And we love big projects at the expense of the mundane.

I think the true value of this line of work though is simply that transit is one of the “easy” public policy issues for people to care about. Everyone uses transit, and yet, even here, the country can’t seem to get its act together. What we do next is not really covered (in never is!), but clearly we have our work cut out for us.

2015 was a great year for content, and I expect 2016 will be the same.

Photo by Giulia van Pelt used under Creative Commons.