What I Have Been Reading (Summer 2016)

I read a lot. And despite my best intentions to try to read less this year, I have continued my article and book bingeing habits. This past summer has been no exception. Here are some recommendations.

The Articles

I have read a couple of great articles this summer that I think are worth spending time with:

  1. “A Honeypot For Assholes”: Inside Twitter’s 10-Year Failure To Stop Harassment. Trolling on Twitter and other social networks continues to endanger these communities. Why? Charlie Warzel does a great job of peeling back the challenges facing Twitter as it tries to tame its unruly users. The challenge ultimately is where to draw the line between free speech and censorship. Clearly, we have a long way to go.
  2. Intellectuals are Freaks. Michael Lind, founder of New America Foundation, wrote a cogent and persuasive essay that intellectuals are, well, freaks. Namely, they come from highly homogenous backgrounds, live highly homogenous lives, and congregate in just a few places around the world. If you want to understand the gulf between academia and “the real world,” here it is.
  3. The super-recognisers of Scotland Yard Xan Rice’s article is about a special detective unit of Scotland Yard that uses humans with super sensitive memories for faces to capture criminals. It’s a great read on its own, but also an incredible story of how man still has power over machine (although the two combined are quite formidable!).
  4. Make Algorithms Accountable Julia Angwin writes in the New York Times the basic outline of why we need to have more legal accountability for algorithms. I happen to agree wholeheartedly here, although there doesn’t appear to be much of a movement yet.

The Books

Two books that have absorbed quite a bit of time this summer are Robert Caro’s The Path to Power and Means of Ascent, the first two of his currently four published works on the history of Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Caro has won numerous awards, and it is no wonder why when reading these epic tomes (and they are tomes, although both are still quite a bit shorter than his 1300+ page biography of Robert Moses). Together, the two books cover LBJ’s life through his election to the senate in 1948.

I recommend reading it all, but would make two observations sitting here in 2016.

The first is the hauntingly close approaches to politics of Donald Trump and LBJ. During his senate campaign in Texas in 1948, LBJ was falling behind in the pools, and was failing to find a way to build audiences at his event. So he secured himself a helicopter (with his name printed on the side of course!) and landed it at most of his campaign stops. Sound familiar to a certain Boeing plane sitting on the LaGuardia tarmac?

What’s more, LBJ’s style was aggressive, both with other candidates and with regards to the truth. LBJ was already living in a post-fact world, just a couple of decades earlier. It amazes me to see just how much of his early history was completely subsumed by his later storytelling (particularly around his military service in the Pacific during World War II).

But that leads to a second observation, which is the inadequacy of technology to address truth. We have a sense that lies and fraud will be discovered faster today due to better communications technology. Today, there is no room without a camera, or at least a microphone, and so politicians don’t have the ability to do what LBJ did, which was to be a conservative with conservative audiences and a bleeding-heart New Dealer to liberal audiences.

Or do they?

What’s fascinating about the fraud in LBJ’s elections is how easy it would seem to continue that fraud right up to the present era. The safeguards in our democracy are not fundamentally technological, but rather social. We are no worse or better than the 1940s, unless we choose to be.

I recommend both books, and heck, the whole series.

Photo by Christopher used under Creative Commons.