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2019 Holiday Newsletter

Every year since 2017 I send my colleague a long email about ideas and media I’ve come across during that year. This is the 2019 edition. You can read the 2017 and [2018]() editions.

Hi all,

Time for installment #3 of my Holiday Newsletter! For once, I started a bit earlier collecting links and summarizing why things are interesting. Let me know if you’d be interested in receiving something like this more than once a year. It’s something I’m considering doing in 2020.

I hope you find some time to read/listen/watch something good over the break, even if it’s not from this list. :) Happy Holidays!


If You Read Just One Thing

The End of Bureaucracy by Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini at HBR is the most mind-blowing thing I’ve read this year. It features a Chinese company named Haier, which is the worlds largest appliance maker with $35 billon/year in revenue. The business is structured around 4,000 independent microentreprises (MEs) made of 10 to 15 employees. Each ME provides different of services to other MEs: marketing, R&D, design, manufacturing, HR, etc. Each ME is free to contract with any other ME, or go to an external provider if they don’t think they’d be well served internally. It’s a setup that flies in the face of pretty much any other large company. Definitely worth a read.

Good Reads

Dan Barber (chef and co-owner of Blue Hill at Stone Barns) writes Save Our Food. Free the Seed. at the NYT. It’s an inspiring, and also infuriating, article about seeds and how they’re at the root of our entire food supply chain. I didn’t realize that seed “designers” make their seeds work hand in hand with insecticides, which are often made by the same companies (e.g., Monsanto). That wouldn’t matter too much if we weren’t down to just two mega seed producers, and if the seeds weren’t patented.

I still haven’t read any of Michael Lewis’ books (somehow), but every time I read one of his articles I’m completely sucked in. Here are two good ones I read this year. In Jonathan Lebed’s Extracurricular Activities, Lewis tells the story of a 15-year old “stock manipulator.” In Portrait of an Inessential Government Worker talks about Art Allen, the only oceanographer inside the U.S. Coast Guard’s Search and Rescue division, and the person who’s basically single-handedly responsible for mankind’s ability to find things lost a sea. Lewis also started a podcast this year called Against the Grain. Recommended.

In Stab a Book, the Book Won’t Die Craig Mod (real name) speaks of different forms of content and their respective “contracts” with their consumers. Books have edges, a clear “I buy you, I read you or I don’t” contract. Online publications, like Netflix, Twitter, and Instagram don’t have such clear contracts. They’re infinity pools. I really liked his observation that with print newspapers, only the front page (often just above the fold) needs sensational headlines to get people to buy it. Internal headlines can afford to be factual. Online, all headlines are on the front page.

Cormac McCarthy, in his “free time”, does editing for faculty and post docs at the Santa Fe Institute. Van Savage and Pamela Yeh publish McCarthy’s advice on writing scientific papers at Nature. It’s equally good advice for writing documentations and reports.

The Japanese addressing system is strange and wonderful. When written in Japanese, the addresses start with the largest geographical entity and proceed to the most specific one.

Someone who’s name I can’t figure out writes Becoming a magician, with an interesting approach to “personal growth”: surround yourself with people who feel to you like they’re magicians.

Technology & Software

Julia Evans’ What does debugging a program look like? is a great read about the multiple ways to approach debugging. Julia started writing zines full-time this year. If you’re interested in having a look, I have one on my desk. And on the topic of debugging, Greg Wilson recommends Why Programs Fail: A Guide to Systematic Debugging by Andreas Zeller.

In Open Source is not about you, Rich Hickey, creator of Clojure, writes a wonderful article about expectations one should have about open source software (I still find strange people who “blog” using Github repos and Gists…)

As a user of something open source you are not thereby entitled to anything at all. You are not entitled to contribute. You are not entitled to features. You are not entitled to the attention of others. You are not entitled to having value attached to your complaints. You are not entitled to this explanation.

If you have expectations (of others) that aren’t being met, those expectations are your own responsibility. You are responsible for your own needs. If you want things, make them.

And on a related topic, License Zero has a thoughtful look at funding models for open source.

I award “Data Structure of the Year” to Conflict-free Replicated Data Types (CRDTs). I learned about them through Ink and Switch’s article Local-first software: You own your data, in spite of the cloud, where they use them to write a real-time syncing engine that doesn’t require a central server. But then, in pure Baader–Meinhof, it seemed like everyone was talking about them, e.g., the Xi editor, and Figma.

Basecamp published Shape Up, the “manual” for their software development process. It’s a 1-hour read that I highly recommend. It’s a variation on Agile, with thoughtful additions, structures, and rationales for why the do things in certain ways.

Lowtech Magazine hosts their website on a solar-powered Raspberry Pi. Warning, their site might be down when you visit if it’s been cloudy for a while in Barcelona. Roel Roscam Abbing wrote about the technical details.

Jakob Nielsen explains Why You Only Need to Test with 5 Users.

Here are some people I discovered this year. They are so inspiring, and also so frustrating, because they make you wonder “And what have I done today?”


My “Podcast of the Year” is the The Amelia Project, a fiction podcast about Amelia, an organization that helps clients fake their death and then reappear as whatever they want. It’s original, beautifully produced, endearing, and funny. Do start with the 1st episode, and go get yourself a hot cocoa. And if you’re new to fiction podcasts, check out Limetown, and Passenger List.

Michael Lopp (author of Managing Humans, which was in last year’s email) has a podcast called The Important Thing. If you’re interested in management and leadership, I recommend the The One About Management (Pt. 1) and The One About Management (Pt. 2) for a good discussion of what it means and what it’s like to be a manager.

The Nevermore, Amazon episode of Rework (by Basecamp), talks about about the economics of bookstores, and how selling new hardcovers for $15 (like Amazon does) would put them out of business. Independent bookstores are the best. If you prefer the convenience of shopping online but want to support independent bookstores, use Biblio. Cool fact: they offset the carbon emissions of their shipping.

Food, Drinks & Restaurants

For the Austinites, and people visiting Austin, go eat at:

  • Nixta Taqueria: yes, they’re hipster tacos, but they’re also delicious.
  • Launderette is still our favorite restaurant in Austin. Laura Sawicki is the best pastry chef in town.
  • Get ice cream at Manoli’s. Just do it.
  • Everything I drank from Vista Brewing this year was delicious.
  • Get some pastries at Le Politique’s Patisserie. I recommend scheduling your afternoon coffee break for the 3–4PM window, when pastries are half price.
  • I finally went to a Home Slice and it’s really that good.
  • Bombay Express makes delicious india food. Get the pani puri, and the chole puri, and the carrot halwa, and a dosa, and… get all the things. It’s worth going on the weekend just for the Thali.

Make bread at home. It’s easy and it’s better than anything you can get in Austin (except maybe from Sour Duck, and from the late Miche Bread). Just buy Flour Water Salt Yeast by Ken Forkish, and make the Saturday Overnight White bread. Bring the extra loaf to the office, please.


It was a good year. It’s always a good year. Here’s a playlist of every song I “liked” in 2019, and one of every album. The music on those playlists wasn’t necessarily released in 2019 though. Just to name a few albums that were release in 2019:

  • Charlie Hunter and Lucy Woodward - Music!Music!Music! (Spotify)
  • MADMADMAD - Proper Music (Spotify)
  • Dan Tepfer - Natural Machines (Spotify)
  • Rhye - Spirit (Spotify)
  • voljum - Cyberglove (Spotify)
  • Bibio - Ribbons (Spotify)
  • Archive - 25 (Spotify)
  • Lite - Multiple (Spotify)
  • Canine - Dune (Deluxe) (Spotify)
  • Lambert - True (Spotify)
  • Himura Yoshiteru - View from Bottom (Spotify)
  • Janus Rasmussen - Vin (Spotify)
  • The Comet Is Coming - Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery (Spotify)
  • Battles - Juice B Crypts (Spotify)
  • Anna Meredith - FIBS (Spotify)
  • Trentemøller - Obverse (Spotify)
  • And So I Watch You from Afar - ASIWYFA Live 10 Year Anniversary (Spotify)
  • Eprom - AIKON (Spotify)
  • Floating Points - Crush (Spotify)
  • Bon Iver - i,i (Spotify)
  • Jacob Collier - Djesse Vol.2 (Spotify)
  • And many more…

Movies, TVs, and Videos

  • Woman at War tells the story of a choir conductor and eco-activist who plans to disrupt the operations of an aluminum plant in Iceland, but whose plans are temporarily interrupted by the opportunity to finally adopt a child from Ukraine. It’s funny, beautiful, and strange.

  • The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Killing Eve were the two best series we watched this year. One great quality of Killing Eve is that it ends, in only two seasons.

  • Simple Made Easy by Rich Hickey. Simple is the not the same as easy.

  • In his 2019 State of Mozilla talk, Mike Hoye makes this wonderful point about caring about making it possible to care. Paraphrasing from his talk: There’s no Keurig machine in the Toronto office because there’s no amount of care that will make it produce good coffee. I like that a lot (coffee, but also this statement).