In this newsletter, I share what I'm reading and watching during the week. I may also touch on current events. I'll try to show how the books, videos, and events tie in with ideas in the Bene Homini space.
In this week's newsletter, I cover three books and one video:
- Invent & Wander (pp. 102–132)
- The STAR Interview (Ch. 3)
- Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Ch. 2)
- I Surveyed 17,000+ Atheists - Here's What I Learned (Part 1 of 3)
Books I'm Reading
Note that I'm not giving links to the books. However, you should be able to find them at your favorite bookseller, given the title and the author I mentioned in the text.
Invent & Wander
Jeff Bezos continues his focus on the customer experience. This focus is laudable, though he does point out that Amazon continues to deliver more without raising prices. Over the years, Amazon has had to make this work. As a result, we get stories about delivery drivers using water bottles for bathroom breaks and people in fulfillment centers getting physically broken by the work pace.
Not everything good for the customer is good for society. We have to ask ourselves if saving money through Amazon (or any other retailer) is worth our neighbors losing their jobs as smaller companies are driven out of the market. I cover this to some extent in a post on the social costs of retiring early.
On the other hand, Amazon has been a boon for small business owners wanting to find a larger audience without having to build their online presence. In addition, some businesses complement their store with an Amazon store. So it's not hurting everyone.
The STAR Interview
This week, I read the third chapter: Task. We want to be clear about the goal or expectation when telling a story. This clarity might require us to zoom in and be specific. But, conversely, we might have to zoom out and give a larger context.
Sometimes, there might be ambiguity about what needs to be done. There isn't a clear-cut, obvious thing to do given the situation. Instead, there are several options, any of which might resolve the problem. This is where values can come into play. We know someone's fundamental values by how they act in a crisis. The choice that someone makes in a situation can illuminate their values.
This also means that if we are trying to help someone, we should leave the way forward ambiguous, so they have choices. We should let them make the choice that fits their values best rather than the one that fits our values.
Debt: The First 5,000 Years
In this book, David Graeber recounts the history of debt and money, dispelling many myths and assumptions about how money arose and the role of debt in society. This week, I'm covering the second chapter.
In the second chapter, David dispenses with the myth of bartering: that money replaces barter. The problem is that economists like to tell fables and call them "thought experiments" when real "thought experiments" have to be grounded in rigor to be helpful. That's why economists don't get anything useful from their "thought experiments" while Einstein did.
Rather than a fable about Bob exchanging chicken eggs for shoes, let's consider Bob working at home and baking a cake. He realizes he doesn't have enough sugar, so Bob goes to his neighbor, Alice, and asks her if he can borrow a cup of sugar. "Sure," she says, getting him a cup of sugar. She wishes him luck with his baking, and that's that. Later, when Bob has gotten some sugar, he'll probably give a cup or so back to Alice as thanks for letting him borrow it.
We all have these transactions in our lives with friends and neighbors. As long as the group is small, we track what we owe to whom. We all have a set of tabs open with everyone we know. Occasionally, we might settle an account. But often, it's just a back-and-forth over time until we lose track of precisely what we owe.
When our networks and transactions become too large, and we want to make sure no one is cheating, we need to find a way to quantify these tabs and settle them without having to find the right mix of goods to exchange. It's this quantifying of our debts that leads to money. Money is the unit by which we quantify debts. It comes about as a unit of account. Only after that is money a medium of exchange (synchronous settling of accounts) or a store of value (asynchronous settling of accounts).
Once we start quantifying what people owe us, we start distancing them from us. They're no longer friends, family, or neighbors. They are the other side of an equation.
YouTube Video I've Enjoyed
I tend to shy away from religion, but this video caught my eye because I consider myself to function as an explicit atheist. This video explains that atheism doesn't represent a worldview (it's just a statement about a belief in higher beings) but that many atheists share a worldview. It coincides with what we're trying to encourage through this site: the use of science to understand the universe and empathy to understand each other. If religion can help engender empathy, then it can be helpful. But faith isn't what makes computers work.