I think for a lot of people, being holed up inside during a catastrophic global pandemic is a great opportunity for reflection on life choices. But the timing is truly particular for me, since this year — in just a few weeks actually — I would have been most likely graduating Harvard with a PhD in Public Policy (virtually graduating, at least).
I did one year of my PhD before dropping out before the start of my second-year classes. It was a harsh year back in 2014-2015, with the polar vortex over New England leading to record avalanches of snow in Cambridge. Walking along Brattle Street and Harvard Square, it wasn’t uncommon to walk through snow tunnels cut through the massive white piles. The winds were extremely piercing and cold, and the skies never turned away from dark grey for days (I recall weeks at a time, but maybe I’m being darker than it really was).
I was always sort of ambivalent about a PhD, and remained so the past few years after dropping out. That ambivalence has always been about the dichotomy between the vivid intellectual life in Cambridge, where you can be passionate about any topic imaginable and find others to share that passion with, and the cold economic reality of a capitalist system that does little to patron intellectual life today.
There were memorable vignettes from that era that I cherish. A bricolage of a reading group that was interested in sociology of quantification, one of those academic fields that you realize no one is ever going to read, but which is endlessly fascinating for me and like six others globally. A six hour national security seminar with the entire Bush foreign policy team that no one showed up for because it started at 8am and they
Hello it’s Danny Crichton again. I last sent out an email to my personal newsletter list on December 30th — a lot has changed hasn’t it? This is your weekly-but-really-comes-quarterly email from me about what I have been thinking and writing about.
Hopefully you all remember signing up (it’s double opt-in to avoid spam), but if not, feel free to unsubscribe in the email footer below (I won’t be offended). As always, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
So how are we doing?
Hopefully, all of you are fine. I am doing well, and very thankful to be at a workplace like TechCrunch that has been working-from-home for the better part of a decade. We are hunkered down here in Brooklyn, eating some great food thanks to Chaeha, and otherwise weathering the storm so far in good shape. Hopefully all of you are finding ways to cope, and feel free to reach out if I can ever be helpful in these troubling and dynamic times.
So like everyone, I have mandatorily become an expert on the novel coronavirus, which really just means I relay bad thoughts from people who probably shouldn’t be speaking out loud.
TechCrunch has written more than 250 articles on coronavirus since the pandemic started, and I have personally written seven of those. Three of those were more feature pieces, including a recap of what the last 90 days have looked like in the financial markets, and two in-depth perspectives (linked below) on what it is like to fundraise now in the Valley given the situation.
Everything is changing all the time, and it’s amazing to see how fast stories just completely expire. But not all advice does, and I’d like to pull a quote
Okay, so I have written up the best articles I read and the best books I have read. Now time for even more narcissism, with a list of the best articles I wrote this year. In all, I wrote 191 articles this year across TechCrunch, this blog, and elsewhere. Unfortunately, I don’t remember writing like 170 of them, but such is my memory.
Every writer has that story that they want everyone to know about, but everyone ignores them, and so they just scream to the sky and complain about how terrible the world is in not seeing what’s right in front of them.
For me, that is Form D filings with the SEC.
For the five people still reading this blog post now, Form Ds are filed when a venture capitalist invests in a startup and doesn’t want to literally make the company IPO (i.e., all VC rounds). Due to a change in legal culture, more and more startups are just not filing these forms at all, and that has implications for all the data sources we rely on to know what kind of startup activity is taking place.
This specific piece is a guide for startup founders to think about what’s going on here and how it affects the strategy of announcing their startup’s funding round, and connects to all the antecedent pieces that came before.
This year, I read 40 books, which included 11 novels and 29 non-fiction books. I am currently reading Maoism: A Global History by Julia Lovell, and that will likely be the last book I read for the year.
Looking over the reading list for this past year, I have to admit that there just aren’t that many great books to recommend. Most of the books I read were “award-winners” or highly recommended either on ‘best of’ lists or from friends, so there was already a winnowing selection process happening in the books I chose to read (i.e. I didn’t go to the bookstore and pick up random copies of things). But as I step back a bit this Christmas and look over my reading list, I am unhappily surprised to find just how little impact most of these books made whatsoever, either on my thinking or just as good stories.
I think at the core of it, the challenge is simply that most of these books just failed to live up to expectations. Many of them have ambitious agendas, either as novels and what they are trying to do with their stories, or as non-fiction books trying to change the way we see a subject. And most simply missed the mark. I don’t think there is a deep lesson here, other than to say, I am always open for bold works, and hope to read more of them in the future.
Okay, now here is the list:
First Place: ‘Maoism: A Global History’ by Julia Lovell and ‘Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age’ by Stephen R. Platt
There is some danger in recommending a book like Maoism when you are only about a third of the way through
This year according to Pocket, I read just above 3 million words on their platform across 1,640 articles from about 370 publications. While journalism can often get a bad rap from certain folks in the day-to-day scrum of beat news and process journalism, the reality is that when the final pieces get written, the bar remains so impossibly high.
As I did in last year’s edition, I went through the full list of articles I read to select a top five (up form three!), a selection of others that I consider to be “the best of this year’s writing,” a list of articles on China, and a list of the best profile pieces written on interesting figures. Yes, that’s a lot of god damn text, but as I said — there is just so much quality writing worth your time.
In all, there are 5 top articles (plus one bonus), 12 noteworthy articles, 5 articles on China, and 9 profiles.
The only criteria is me, and I make no guarantees for completeness or good taste. As always, articles from The New Yorker, Bloomberg and a smattering of other publications are under-represented since they make it hard to save content into Pocket.
Julius Krein has built a reputation as a thought-provoking political theorist who is trying to restructure the fault lines of American politics into new categories. This essay, which he published in his own American Affairs, was easily one of the best that I read this year on the challenges underway in American politics.
HIs thesis is broad, but essentially zeroes in on the struggles of the successful, elite urbanite. In his telling, there is a fight between the super elites with
A little more than three years ago, I wrote a post called I Quit: 2+ Years of Anki and the (Near) Impossibility of Learning Languages, discussing my travails in using flash cards to learn foreign languages. That post remains this website’s most popular by traffic, elicited extensive discussion in the comments, and also still triggers regular emails from readers asking questions about it.
But the reality is that I didn’t quit (although I did take a break), and I think I have finally managed to get Anki to work well for me. But that required understanding more about how I learn languages as well as customizing certain patterns of Anki for use with Korean, which has its own unique characteristics as a language.
Anki v.1 problems
To summarize the challenges I had with Anki the first time around:
Too many words were lightly impressed in my head — at some point, there was just an overwhelming number of words that I couldn’t remember, despite running through flash cards on a daily basis.
Synonyms made it very hard to keep track of words. Korean (like English, French, and I am sure other languages) has variations of the same meaning of a word, and that can make it challenging to do English to Korean and Korean to English vocabulary cards and keep them straight.
The time it took to get through Anki’s daily cards just kept going up — what I dubbed at the time as the Anki treadmill. What started at 10-15 minutes per day soon morphed to 30 minutes to 50 minutes a day. That’s just not practical as a side hobby.
Fluent Forever’s approach (Anki v.2) and why it failed (at least for me)
If most history is designed to zoom into the characters and events of a moment or trend in the historical record, The Lessons of History (published by Simon & Schuster) does just about the opposite.
A classic first published in 1968, the book is an act of pure reduction. The authors, Will & Ariel Durant, had previously spent decades compiling a multi-volume history of the world, and with this book, they created a summary of their life’s work in just about 100 pages organized around a couple of topical areas like war, government, and socialism. As the two write in a short introduction: “It is a precarious enterprise, and only a fool would try to compress a hundred centuries into a hundred pages of hazardous conclusions. We proceed.”
Proceed they do, and a reader’s enjoyment of this work is basically preordained — either you like the book’s conceit or you don’t. I’m probably more of the latter than the former, finding the book more interesting as a window into the worldview of 1960s academics than I found it illuminating about history.
Certainly some parts were fascinating. While the book covers a diverse array of topics, I found the coverage of economics and religion to be among its best. Take this line as an exemplar: “Puritanism and paganism — the repression and the expression of the senses and desires — alternate in mutual reaction in history. Generally religious and puritanism prevail in periods when the laws are feeble and morals must bear the burden of maintaining social order…” The litany of examples the authors cite become a reminder that what appears in our own lives at a particular moment has almost certainly come multiple times before.
Some of the authors’ conclusions are profound, but I also couldn’t help
I read two history books these past few weeks that offered an interesting juxtaposition on the craft and the rise of China. The first was Stephen R. Platt’s Imperial Twilight, which is a sweeping panorama of the times before and during Britain’s First Opium War with Qing-era China. I owe you a review on that one, but I have to say it is an incredibly impressive piece of work, even more so given the book’s propitious timing in the midst of a new trade war between Western powers and China.
This weekend though, I had the time to read through Nigel Collett’s A Death in Hong Kong, which was recently published by the City University of Hong Kong. The book chronicles the public inquest into the apparent suicide of a bisexual Scottish police officer of the Royal Hong Kong Police around 1980. The officer, John MacLennan, had apparently seen a list of high-ranking gay members of the city’s elite collected by the authorities, presumably putting a target on his back in the socially conservative climate of the time.
Where Imperial Twilight is sweeping, A Death in Hong Kong is an exacting vignette, depicting a complicated urban society riven with factions just on the cusp of the colony’s handover to Chinese authorities.
The book has got a bit of everything: organized crime in the form of the Chinese tongs; a gay cabal of senior justice and administration officials; prostitution and pedophilia rings; the typical politics of foreign policy in the region; and the machinations of a judiciary straining to prevent a scandal that might rock the whole island and damage the Crown’s authority in its negotiations over the future of Hong Kong with China.
Collett has seemingly put in a sizable amount of work