2020 in Books

This year was hard on us, like it was for everyone. Between sharing childcare with my wife when we had to pull Penny out of daycare, working full-time, and launching the Long Leaf Pine Slate, I had only a little time left over for leisure reading.

Since our daughter was born, something like 85% of my “reading” is now done on audiobooks, via Audible. Audio is sometimes criticized for not providing the fullness of a traditional words-on-paper (/screen) intellectual experience to the reader, and I find that that’s true. That said, it’s still pretty good, particularly if you actively listen. And anyway, the proper comparison is not between audio and traditional “reading,” but instead between that and not consuming any book content at all. Were it not for Audible, I would consume very few books. It just wouldn’t be feasible with our lifestyle. Audible is awesome.

In the gym, on (more infrequent) grocery trips and in the car, I listen to books. Here’s what I listened to – and, in some cases, even managed to read – in 2020 – and some of my top recommendations.

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The Long Leaf Pine Slate – Lessons Learned

Back last winter – in the beforetimes, as they say now – I did a lot of thinking about how I could be most politically impactful in this election cycle. What I landed on was fundraising focused on my state legislature here in North Carolina. I wrote a blog about it – one of the few I’ve gotten around to writing this year – and promised a follow-up on what I learned about the nuts-and-bolts of indie political fundraising. So here is that follow-up.

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Thoughts on Fundraising

Today, I’m going to write a little bit about fundraising.

Back in January, I decided to launch a project that has come to dominate the non-work hours of my 2020: The Long Leaf Pine Slate. Almost every night and weekend of this year, I’ve done something (or a lot of things) for “the Slate.” (If you are unfortunate enough to follow me on Twitter, you have doubtlessly seen me tweeting about it.) This has turned into a much bigger project than I’d expected. We are well over six figures in our total raised now. The Slate is now the biggest independent channel of funding in the state to Democrats running for the North Carolina legislature. We have raised and contributed more money than any of the traditional PACs in the state, and most of out-of-state ones, too.

You should absolutely give to the Slate, but that’s not really what this blog is about. Instead, I want to talk about fundraising itself, why I’m doing it, and why you should maybe consider doing the same.

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Paying Remote Employees Fairly

I’ve been a vocal proponent of “remote” working for pretty much all of my career in technology – which, as it happens, started off in a fully remote gig. (Thanks, IBM!) My belief all along – as I’ve written about before – is that remote working is a fundamentally disruptive technology whose clear advantages will inevitably win out. I think the truth in this is pretty obvious and won’t belabor it further.

This week, Facebook broke open a long-running controversy over remote compensation with its announcement about letting (some) employees live wherever they want. Fundamentally, the question is how to pay remote employees “fairly” – indeed, what that word even means, or if it’s even relevant. This hits right at the core of some basic issues that make compensation such a hard topic. Lots of companies struggle with compensation, and most for non-evil reasons.

That all said, I do think there’s a right and wrong answer – colored a little bit by cold pragmatism.

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The revolution will not be Zoomed

In the last few weeks, much of the white-collar professional world has gotten a crash course in remote* working. For the segment of society whose job is primarily done on computers, everyone’s working from home offices, bedrooms and kitchen counters now, meeting on teleconferences and Zoom. A lot of things are going to pieces in society right now, but the knowledge industry world has steamed right along. In doing so, it has destroyed many of the traditional objections to remote working.

There have been a lot of bold predictions about how the COVID-19 crisis will change our work culture forever. My own view is more ambivalent, though. I suspect that most companies are eagerly looking forward to the day when they can call workers back into the office and put this experience behind them. The biggest obstacle to remote work is and has always been cultural, not practical or technological. And it’s going to take something much bigger than a single exogenous shock like COVID-19 to shift the psychological boulder of American workism.

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Presenting: “Exaltation”

Last week, I self-published my second novel on Amazon. Its title is Exaltation. You can order it here. I’m posting the full first chapter here for anyone who wants to check it out.

“Exaltation” is the culmination of 17 months of work for me. A lot of nights, weekends, more than a few early mornings and a lot of silent thinking. I think it’s a big improvement over my first book. I’ve put out both ebook and paperback formats via Amazon’s Kindle platform (which is pretty astounding, by the way).

I also had this sweet cover made!

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The Long Leaf Pine Slate

Today, I’m going to make an exception to my general policy of not posting about politics. But it isn’t just to blow off steam. This week, I launched the Long Leaf Pine Slate, a project dedicated to making a real, tangible difference in the way my state, North Carolina, is run. I’m going to explain here what the Slate is, but first, I need to explain why I’m doing it.

If you want to, or are already familiar with what’s been going on in North Carolina, you can skip down to just the section on the Slate itself.

Spoiler: at the end of this post, I’m going to ask you to donate to the Long Leaf Pine Slate and to share it in your personal network. But I think it’s worth knowing first, why this effort is so important; and second, why now is the time.

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The year in review: 2019

I’m writing this on a (very) early morning flight. Having already watched Bohemian Rhapsody (it was great!), I still have over two and a half hours to go, so we’re going to do another year-in-review post. While blog posts like these have become something of a cliché, they’re useful for me to take stock of another year on earth. So if you liked 2018… here comes the sequel! Let’s do 2019.

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How to set up your blog on AWS

A couple of years ago, I started blogging (again). At first, having forgotten how I’d done this before, I went through a painful and confusing process of setting up on a hosting provider. Soon thereafter, tired of paying monthly fees and really hating the provider, I moved my blog over to Amazon Web Services. My blog has been based on AWS ever since, and I generally think most people like me – those with small-scale, personal blog projects – should do this too.

More people should blog. Yes, that includes you. I hold the opinion that the slow decline of blogging, in lieu of social media, is a net-negative for the internet. This is something of a grumpy-old-man opinion, but I’m sticking to it. Blogging is good for the internet. And if you write online, you should own your own platform. That means eschewing long-form Facebook posts and Medium in lieu of a site and domain that you own. This is 10x as true for people wishing to establish personal brands or platforms of their own. I run in a lot of creative writing communities online, in which this is a very overt goal many aspiring authors share.

For most of these people, I believe that AWS is one of their best options for setting up a blog and domain that they own. In this post, I’m going to break down a step-by-step guide to setting that up.

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Facebook Forever

For the last several years, I’ve been mostly absent from Facebook. I posted very rarely and checked it almost never. This wasn’t because of any particular choice so much as a lack of desire. The folks I wanted to check in with, I already text with. Twitter provides me with instant information and plenty of lulz. Facebook’s news feed algorithm is awful, the content it served up was crap, and it’s a scummy company to boot. So I deleted the Facebook app from my phone and did not miss it for a second.

But recently, I’ve begun to slowly re-engage on the platform. A couple of factors have driven this. Penny is a big one – the grandparents love those baby (now, toddler) pics. She’s what kept me on the platform at all. But a bigger driver has been my increasing community involvement. Here’s something I’ve learned in the stage of life I’m in: when you get involved in coordinating communications and activities with a non-trivial number of people, you need some kind of common coordination platform. More often than not, Facebook is that platform now.

Just a few examples of what I mean:

  • Local-level organizing relies on Facebook. I’m involved with a bunch of organizing efforts: our local Democratic Party organization, HOA board elections and a group of folks in anti-racism activism. We’ve got email lists, monthly meetings and more, but what people really engage with is a social space to chat, share news and easily find information. Standing up a whole website for this kind of thing is overkill, but a Facebook Page & Group is perfect.
  • Our local parents group has almost 700 members, and it’s entirely run through a closed FB group. There are more than a dozen posts every day – it’s very popular. School and PTA info, clothing swaps, playdates, questions about everything kid-related – you name it. If you don’t have kids, you might not know this yet, but versions of these groups exist everywhere. “Moms groups” in particular are basically a ubiquitous feature of modern parenthood, and every single one I know is on Facebook (some are on WhatsApp too, though that seems less useful?).
  • A few months ago, I became an Admin for the Elizabeth Warren campaign Facebook group for North Carolina (“NC for Warren”). Like any political campaign, sharing tasks, events, information and news is critical, and our Facebook group really hits the mark for that. There’s no substitute even close to this. The group is doubling in size every month.

I’ve been thinking about this reversal of mine in terms of Facebook’s evolving place in our society, and what limits make sense to place on it. I think it’s time for us to acknowledge that Facebook is becoming – or, probably, has become – a permanent fixture of how our society works. It is just never going away. It is not going to die on the vine like Friendster. Conceivably, Facebook’s many platforms could be eclipsed by competitors (though that would require competition, which Facebook ably prevents), but the nature of social networking it provides itself is here to stay. It’s how information circulates in our society and how we organize our communities.

The end results have positives and negatives, but debating them is sort of beside the point. This is the world now, and the genie isn’t going back in the bottle. As such, it makes sense that our society should have a renegotiation, as my friend Hassan said, of its power over our society. Facebook isn’t sovereign. The people are. And if Big Tech digs in its heels, maybe we should have a renegotiation over them, too.

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