Books Culture: Ethics & Identity

Friday, December 23rd, 2016

In September 2013, my startup,, had just raised Series A capital, and had just begun growing its team rapidly, from a small group of fewer than 10 to over 40 employees now. In the past several years, I have run’s fully remote engineering, product & design team.

Back in 2013, we had achieved initial product/market fit, initial revenue, and had already established a kernel of a product and engineering culture. I knew the company would change, but I wasn’t sure exactly how. Meanwhile, I had just recently read “Reasons & Persons”, a book on ethics and identity by the philosopher Derek Parfit. Though his ideas focused primarily on individuals, they influenced the way I thought about my business, my team, and its evolution over time.

What follows are my speaker notes from a talk I gave to my team to discuss the issues of Ethics and Identity central to’s culture:

Origin of this talk

  • turned 4 years old in May 2013
  • I reflected after our Series A round
  • I read a book about ethics/identity, Reasons & Persons
  • Realized some interesting concepts apply to firms, too, different takes

  • “An analytics platform for large media companies?”
  • “A startup founded originally in 2009 at Dreamit Ventures?”
  • “A team of employees?”
  • “A specific configuration of tech and code?”

What is, really?

Are we:

  • our history?
  • our appearance to customers / press?
  • our employees (or founders)?
  • our technology / product?
  • our shareholders? (huh?)

Ship of Theseus

What is the Ship of Theseus?

  • They took away the old planks as they decayed
  • … putting in new and stronger timber in their place
  • One side held that the ship remained the same,
  • … and the other contended that it was not the same.


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The 3 Best Python Books for Your Team

Saturday, June 6th, 2015

Python is the core programming language used at It also happens to be a quickly-growing language with wide adoption among open source projects. It’s no wonder it’s quickly becoming the leading language for software teams.

I’ve written a couple of blog posts with original material for learning Python, including “import this: learning the Zen of Python with code and slides” and “Build a web app fast”.

Newcomers to Python are often overwhelmed by the wealth of information, available online and in print, for the language. I am often asked by others, “What are the best books for my Python team?” I plan to answer that question with this post, by highlighting what I consider to be the three best Python books on the market today.

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The End of PowerPoint

Saturday, September 22nd, 2012

Edward Tufte is the father of modern information visualization. If you don’t know who he is, you probably should, and you can get up to speed by reading this profile in Washington Monthly, The Information Sage.

Last year, I attended one of Tufte’s one-day courses in NYC. I even showed him an early, prototype version of Dash. His feedback — even if it came quickly in 5 minutes — was helpful in understanding how to move the product forward.

I thought, when attending his presentation, that my main takeaways would be in the field I associated with him, namely, information visualization. But actually, my main takeaways were about communication, teaching, and journalism.

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The New Novel

Tuesday, September 18th, 2012 has an interesting article about the craft of writing. It’s from 2010, but still interesting.

… far more money can be made out of people who want to write novels than out of people who want to read them. And an astonishing number of individuals who want to do the former will confess to never doing the latter. “People would come up to me at parties,” author Ann Bauer recently told me, “and say, ‘I’ve been thinking of writing a book. Tell me what you think of this …’ And I’d (eventually) divert the conversation by asking what they read … Now, the ‘What do you read?’ question is inevitably answered, ‘Oh, I don’t have time to read. I’m just concentrating on my writing.’”

When I was younger, I thought there was no greater ambition than becoming the writer of the next great novel. However, this article made me reflect on my own media consumption habits, and what a small audience I would affect even if I did write such a work.

I think similarly about painting and sculpture and classical music. These expressive forms are certainly demanding of skill, but who is the audience?

It would be unfair to consider television programming or film the new novel. Certainly, these media have the capacity to change people’s ideas and have a wide impact. But, even with the technology and cost barriers breaking down on film production, it lacks the visceral nature of writing. Anyone with an idea and a pen (or laptop) can pursue writing, but you have to be a technician of sorts to make a film.

By this disqualification, software — though increasingly recognized as an art form — is definitely not it, either. So, what is?

Understanding Wisconsin protests with big language data

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011

I made an interesting discovery today.

“Free Market” vs. “Labor Union” in Google Ngram Book Viewer

Explains why no one has heard of labor unions and everyone is raving about the free market :)

(by the way, you can download the entire dataset behind this neat little Google Labs project)

“Facile anti-intellectualism is the order of the day”

Thursday, October 25th, 2007

A book review by Thomas Frank, on a biography of John Kenneth Galbraith.

What astonishes the contemporary reader is, first of all, that a genuine, independent intellectual like Galbraith was permitted to serve in government, let alone become the confidant of presidents. Facile anti-intellectualism is the order of the day now, as even Democrats race to embrace the free-market logic of the Chicagoans. The ”New Industrial State” that the great liberal economist described in 1967 is now Public Enemy No. 1 of financiers and rebel C.E.O.’s determined to, as Tom Peters put it in 1992, blast ”the violent winds of the marketplace into every nook and cranny in the firm.”

Yet reading Parker’s comprehensive account of the 20th century’s economic battles, I can’t help thinking that this ought to be Galbraith’s moment. An old-school scoffer like Galbraith would remind us that all our elected officials have done with their heady incantations of the virtues of privatizing Social Security and the glories of deregulation is resurrect the superstitions of our orthodox ancestors, and trade in our affluent society for a faith-based 19th-century model in which the affluence accrues only to the top.

Or, as I sometimes like to put it, “Economics is too important to be left to economists.” Galbraith would have agreed.

Seemed particularly relevant to me as I have just finished reading books by Galbraith and Frank in the last few months.

Double-header for Friedman

Tuesday, July 24th, 2007

To be honest, I’ve completely ignored the “Thomas Friedman phenomenon” going on in this country. If I had a nickel for every time I saw someone reading The World is Flat on the train…

For some reason, people are in love with globalization and outsourcing as “the great leveler.” I have a different take on this. And precisely because The World is Flat was the most popular book about globalization, I never bothered to read it.

But the other day, someone came over and saw the book in my bookshelf. This person was definitely no fan of globalization. Mind you, I’m no Friedman fan — I only own the book to try to understand what the fuss is about. I haven’t turned a page yet. Yet, this person sat there and stared at this book. And I knew what she was thinking. “Another one of these schmucks? Another cheerleader?”

Well, it’ll take more research and time for me to declare my overall opinion of Friedman.

But today, by pure chance, I encountered two hilarious pieces on Friedman:

One, a cartoon by Tom Tomorrow: M is for Moustache.

Two, a review of The World is Flat by Matt Taibbi of New York Press.

A select excerpt from the review:

On an ideological level, Friedman’s new book is the worst, most boring kind of middlebrow horseshit. If its literary peculiarities could somehow be removed from the equation, The World Is Flat would appear as no more than an unusually long pamphlet replete with the kind of plug-filled, free-trader leg-humping that passes for thought in this country. It is a tale of a man who walks 10 feet in front of his house armed with a late-model Blackberry and comes back home five minutes later to gush to his wife that hospitals now use the internet to outsource the reading of CAT scans. Man flies on planes, observes the wonders of capitalism, says we’re not in Kansas anymore. (He actually says we’re not in Kansas anymore.) That’s the whole plot right there. If the underlying message is all that interests you, read no further, because that’s all there is.

Oh my…

Catching up on the reading list

Friday, March 9th, 2007

Lately, I’ve been very diligent about catching up on my reading.

I have been perpetually delaying a review of Capitalism 3.0 and Dreaming in Code, both of whom deserve it. But I promise one soon. I use Hofstadter’s Rule of Thumb lately for estimating time: however long you think it’s gonna take, double it and add a unit of time. So if you think it’ll take two hours, it’ll really take four days. If you think it’ll take five days, it’ll really take 10 weeks. And so on.

In the meanwhile, I’ve been busy at work — actually working on some cool stuff from a technology standpoint, mainly in the realm of hacking with pieces of the Eclipse Modeling Framework, and its related projects like GMF, RCP, Eclipse Core, etc.

On my commute, I’ve been enjoying reading Making Globalization Work by Stiglitz. Although one of my friends mentioned to me that this book would be quite boring, and for the most part he was right. Not the lofty stuff of Barnes in Capitalism 3.0; but perhaps Stiglitz’s recommendations are much more practical for ways to improve the current system.

The other book I started recently is a long, written interview with John Kenneth Galbraith (much in the style of Socrates) which is entitled, Almost Everyone’s Guide to Economics. What’s amazing is to see Galbraith, this towering (literally) Keynesian economic thinker, speaking in the 70s of the growth of corporate power, the undermining of labor, and the insidious nature of market fundamentalism. And yet, here we are, 30 years later, heeding none of his warnings, and entering into the new “global age” of “The World is Flat”.

Oh yes indeed, I do need to write some reviews very soon.

Finished Dreaming in Code

Friday, February 23rd, 2007

Overall, Dreaming in Code was an interesting book. For programmers who already are obsessed with the classics of software engineering (Mythical Man-Month and friends), you probably won’t learn much new stuff in this book. However, the personal illustrations using OSAF did lead me to some self-evaluation of the work I do. It was also interesting to see the internal workings of an organization which seems to be set up ideally for programmers — a good mission, an open source project, no real deadlines or users in the beginning, design-focused, etc. — and still see it run into the same issues traditional software shops run into.

I’d post a longer review, but I’m headed down to New Orleans today. Will post a longer review when I get back, hopefully also of Capitalism 3.0, whose ideas have been swimming in my head the last few days of commute.  I think they really deserve to be summarized and presented here.

In the meanwhile, I’ve started reading Making Globalization Work by Joseph Stiglitz. This book, in particular, has been a kind of catharsis for most of my armchair ideas in economics, at least so far.  It’s a very strange feeling to read the ex-Chief Economist of the World Bank explaining his own ideas about overcoming the zealousness of “market fundamentalism” prevalent in economic circles, while I, who never studied economics formally, think, “Why would anyone trained in this discipline actually believe that markets are a magic force that work on their own?”  But I guess ideology always trumps rationality.

Dreaming in Code

Sunday, February 11th, 2007

I just picked up a copy of Dreaming in Code from Barnes & Noble. Will probably devour it in the next couple of days.