Coffee With James (2/26/20)

Social capital, writing, Airplane rides (poem), corporate speak, Instagram.

Hello everyone — it’s Wednesday!

Hope you enjoy this week’s edition.

The how of social capital

Social capital is a fascinating topic. This read explores why building social capital is so powerful, network influences outside of communication, and more. A great read for anyone who likes reading about human interaction.

“4) emotions: C&F note that emotions actually affect our physical being — our voices, our faces, our posture.  In experiments, people actually “catch emotions”: others become happier by spending time around happy people or sadder by hanging out with depressed individuals.  In experiments, smiling waiters get bigger tips.  It seems quite plausible that cascades like loneliness, happiness, depression, etc. could spread simply from emotional states, independent of any information flowing through these friendships.”

How to Write Usefully

This thought-provoking essay delves into an interesting question: what should an essay be, and how should you write a good one? Paul Graham explores how to write usefully, how to get started, and why even well-thought-out essays can attract scrutiny.

“Let's put them all together. Useful writing tells people something true and important that they didn't already know, and tells them as unequivocally as possible.

Notice these are all a matter of degree. For example, you can't expect an idea to be novel to everyone. Any insight that you have will probably have already been had by at least one of the world's 7 billion people. But it's sufficient if an idea is novel to a lot of readers.

Ditto for correctness, importance, and strength. In effect the four components are like numbers you can multiply together to get a score for usefulness. Which I realize is almost awkwardly reductive, but nonetheless true.”

For Those Who Can Still Ride In An Airplane For The First Time (aka Quentin)

This is the first poem I have shared in this newsletter, but it deserves a mention. Read the whole thing in its entirety for full effect.

“And in a place where oil always takes precedence over life,
I find myself sitting on a bus, watching this small boy float down like fresh water,
carrying a book I used to,
asking if I want to see what he sees if only for a little while, and I do.
And then asks if I want to give to him what I see if only for a little while, and I read to him.
Then says to me he's going to show me the world.”

Why do corporations speak the way they do?

Reading this essay encouraged me to consider the “garbage language” which has made its way into my life. Over the last few days, I have found that corporate-speak is engrained into my vocabulary, and so many terms have become second-nature. I’m not sure how long it will take to stop proposing that we “sync up” and “grab a time to chat.”

“I like Anna Wiener’s term for this kind of talk: garbage language. It’s more descriptive than corporatespeak or buzzwords or jargon.Corporatespeak is dated; buzzword is autological, since it is arguably an example of what it describes; and jargon conflates stupid usages with specialist languages that are actually purposeful, like those of law or science or medicine. Wiener’s garbage language works because garbage is what we produce mindlessly in the course of our days and because it smells horrible and looks ugly and we don’t think about it except when we’re saying that it’s bad, as I am right now.”

Teens are hacking Instagram into a modern-day eBay

The teen entrepreneurial spirit never ceases to amaze me. Even though many of the activities in which people are engaged on Instagram to make money are not immensely profitable, young people seem to love the work. For some, selling thrifty clothing on Instagram is not just a way to make money, but a passion.

“Owners might also give one-on-one advice to customers about what to wear to school, or talk more generally about classes, sports, and life. “It’s not just a thrift account where we just sell clothes,” Shipman said. “[On Instagram], it’s like we actually have interactions with people.”"

My update:

  • I’m working hard on a new project.

  • Thinking about the question “What is writing?”

Thanks for reading,


If you want to find me around the internet, you can read my writing at, or follow me on Twitter @jamesg_oca.

Coffee With James (2/19/20)

Japanese companies, success, history, work, Renegade.

Happy Wednesday!

Have a great week, and enjoy this week’s edition.

Why so many of the world’s oldest companies are in Japan

Japan is home to over 33,000 companies that have been in operation for 100 years or more. These companies, known as “shinise,” are cultural staples in Japan; going to work for a long-standing company is not only seen as normal, but crucial to the survival of these companies.

“At Tsuen Tea, Tsuen says many of his childhood friends in Kyoto also happened to be born into centuries-old family-run companies. To him, picking up the family business wasn’t even a question. “It’s not the business I started – I am operating the business my ancestors started. If I didn’t take it over, [the legacy] would have ended,” says Tsuen. “When you’re little, like in kindergarten and elementary school, you’re asked your dream for the future. I thought I was taking over the business. It was natural.”"

Kids Don't Need to Stay 'On Track' to Succeed

Everyone has a different definition of success, but parents often impose their own definitions of success on young kids, perhaps to the detriment of their careers. I think this behavior is reasonable — parents only want their kids to succeed — but SAT scores, good grades, and other “traditional” benchmarks do not guarantee happiness.

“One of the patterns that I see regularly among people who consider themselves successful is real passion about the work they do: the kind of passion that makes them work harder than others, welcome mistakes and even failures as learning opportunities, and feel that what they do has impact. While money may be inherited, real success always has to be earned.”

History is Only Interesting Because Nothing is Inevitable

Often, we tend to ignore the benefit of hindsight when considering history. We think that we could have acted differently if we were there, or that everyone else was just ignorant. But that’s usually not true — we would have acted the same, and everyone was only operating on the information they had at the time.

“That stuck with me. Here we are, bloated with hindsight, knowing the crash after the roaring 1920s was obvious and inevitable. But for those who lived through it – people for whom the 1930s was a yet-to-be-discovered future – it was anything but.

Two things can explain something that looks inevitable but wasn’t predicted by those who experienced it at the time:

  • Either everyone in the past fell for a blinding delusion.

  • Or everyone in the present is blinded by hindsight.

We are crazy to think it’s all the former and none the latter.”

How much work is enough work

I often struggle with how much work I should expect myself to complete as a knowledge worker. After all, it’s hard to quantify progress as a writer (and don’t tell me about word counts!). A great analysis by Anne-Laure Le Cunff on how much work is enough for knowledge workers:

“Instead of the linear graph you may expect—more hours equals more papers—the data instead revealed an M-shaped curve. The curve peaked between 10 and 20 hours of work per week, then turned downward. It’s fascinating to notice that researchers who spent 25 hours working per week were no more productive than those who spent five. Around 35 hours of work per week—incidentally, the legal number of work hours in France where I’m originally from—was the worst in terms of productivity. The curve rises again around 50 hours a week, but looking at the data reveals that it was only the case for people who had more physical tasks, where scientists spent a lot of time taking measurements and attending to machines.”

The Original Renegade

To be honest, I hadn’t heard of the Renegade until reading this article, but now I know the extent to which the dance is known. And, happily, I know the person behind the dance. All too often the inventors of dances and other digital creative works are obscured because another creator capitalizes on their previously-lesser-known idea and goes viral.

“To be robbed of credit on TikTok is to be robbed of real opportunities. In 2020, virality means income: Creators of popular dances, like the Backpack Kid or Shiggy, often amass large online followings and become influencers themselves. That, in turn, opens the door to brand deals, media opportunities and, most important for Jalaiah, introductions to those in the professional dance and choreography community.”

An update from me:

  • I’m building a community for young technologists and entrepreneurs. DM for more information.

  • Writing a lot.

Until next week,


If you want to find me around the internet, you can read my writing at, or follow me on Twitter @jamesg_oca.

Coffee With James (2/12/20)

Coffee, private equity, Las Vegas, facts, Sunday scaries.

Hello there, happy Wednesday!

Have an excellent week, and enjoy the newsletter.

What I Have Learned This Week

The History of Coffee: 8 Stimulating Facts

The history of coffee has always fascinated me, and every few months an article comes up on this topic. HistoryExtra explores a number of fascinating facts about the history of coffee in this article. Reading this made me think just how much opposition our morning joe has faced in history, and encouraged me to reflect on how society’s views on controversial topics change over time.

Great quote:

“Coffee, like alcohol, has a long history of prohibition, attracting fear and suspicion and religious disquiet and hypocrisy. Had the zealots (of all religions) got their way then there would not be very many coffee houses open today. Coffee drinking was banned by jurists and scholars meeting in Mecca in 1511. The opposition was led by the Meccan governor Khair Beg, who was afraid that coffee would foster opposition to his rule by bringing men together and allowing them to discuss his failings.”

How Private Equity Buried Payless

Whether or not private equity is a good thing depends on whom you ask. For the New York Times, Neil Irwin explores how this controversial capitalist innovation has impacted the economy by looking at the story of Payless and private equity. Long story short, private equity, while successful in some cases, has resulted in financial managers — usually with little industry experience — having greater control over many American companies.

“Mr. Jones had seen up close both the strengths and weaknesses of this form of financialized corporate control. “They’re incredibly valuable on the financial metrics of understanding how to get costs out of the business, how to be more streamlined, how to think about the organizational structure differently, how to find nickels and dimes throughout the organization,” and at getting maximum value out of real estateMr. Jones said.

“But they do not, do not, know how to operate a retail company,” he said.”

The People of Las Vegas

I find it intriguing how many people forget about the fact that Las Vegas is, deep down, just another city. People live in Las Vegas. Children go to school, people work in bars, people go to church. Yet we often forget about this because of the city’s strip and the number of casinos, restaurants and nightclubs it has to offer.

“One of the strangest side effects of moving to Las Vegas is that no one can remember where I live. I have always divided my time between multiple locales, and my friends and colleagues never had a problem recalling where I was. I’m convinced this amnesia is an outgrowth of the fact that no one quite believes anyone lives here. When they do remember, they’ll say, fuzzily, confusedly: “Are you still in Las Vegas? What’s that like? How’s that going?” I can’t help but detect more than a little class bias in their incredulity; they can’t seem to understand why someone who has a choice, who isn’t required to live in Las Vegas, would choose to do so anyway.”

Why Facts Don’t Change our Minds

A great piece by the prolific author and writer James Clear on why facts don’t change our minds, and why we should “be kind first, be right later.”

“There is another reason bad ideas continue to live on, which is that people continue to talk about them.

Silence is death for any idea. An idea that is never spoken or written down dies with the person who conceived it. Ideas can only be remembered when they are repeated. They can only be believed when they are repeated.

I have already pointed out that people repeat ideas to signal they are part of the same social group. But here's a crucial point most people miss:

People also repeat bad ideas when they complain about them.”

Why People Get the ‘Sunday Scaries’

The feeling that you have to start another whole week, and that the next weekend is five days away, is an idea with which most of us are familiar. This piece in the Atlantic gets to the root of the problem, and explores the history and reality of the “Sunday scaries.”

“For some reason, we have a great whack of words that sound silly but describe unpleasant feelings or negative emotions: the heebie-jeebies, the screaming meemies, the collywobbles, the jitters, the creeps, a case of the Mondays, boo-hoo,” Stamper says. She notes that some of these terms are playful and sonically repetitive, and wondered if “we like these ameliorating terms because their humor makes it easier to talk about something we would rather not talk about at all.”

Until next week,


If you want to find me around the internet, you can read my writing at, or follow me on Twitter @jamesg_oca.

Coffee With James (2/5/20)

Friendship, laws of the land, identity, moving art, immigration.

Hello there! Enjoy the newsletter, and have an excellent week.

What I Have Learned This Week

The Outsize Influence of Your Middle-School Friends

Over the last few months, I have been reflecting a lot on the influence of my school friends in my life, but until reading this article I had discounted how important friends are during the transition from elementary to middle to high school. Indeed, friends act as an important network of support when you’re young, helping you navigate the world as you and your surroundings change.

“As they reach middle school, children drift away from the pure play of running in the yard at recess or building with Legos. Middle school brings the beginnings of puberty for some, first crushes for many, and a shift from child to teenager for all. It brings higher levels of academics. But if you want to know whether your child is going to be happy or miserable, confident or anxious, being a fly on the wall at lunch would probably tell you a lot.”

Useful Laws of the Land

In this piece, Morgan Housel explores eight ideas that apply to multiple fields. As he says at the start of the article, the most important ideas are those that apply to multiple fields. For that reason, I love to read about interdisciplinary rules that apply across different fields. Great quote from psychologist Donald Campbell:

“Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of general school achievement under conditions as normal teaching and good general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.”

Being Your Selves: Identity R&D on alt Twitter

I have been fascinated by the idea of alternate accounts for a while now — they open up so many opportunities in the context of freedom of speech. One can test out an idea on an alt account, then if it is received well, they can merge it to become part of their main identity. Source control, but for identities. Great quote:

“A digital mask helps you understand and play with the boundary between your private and public selves. When you have more than one account, you’re constantly making decisions about which thoughts go where. Do I feel comfortable saying this under my real name, or would I rather vent into the void? There’s no playbook, no pre-cooked algorithm for sorting your inner monologue into clearly defined buckets. I let my gut be my guide, and eventually I started to notice some interesting emergent patterns.”

How to move a masterpiece: the secret business of shipping priceless artworks

The logistics of international art moving are fascinating. In this article, the Guardian explores how expensive pieces of art are moved around the world, and shares tales of both successful art movements, and failed jobs. Great quote:

“Curators at the Louvre were aghast after they heard that Jackie Kennedy had charmed the French culture minister André Malraux into agreeing to loan the Mona Lisa to the US in 1963 (many threatened to resign). Even the director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC was unwilling to take it, apprehensive about the risks. In the end, the US Coast Guard accompanied the liner carrying the painting as it entered New York harbour, and when the crate arrived in Washington, it was driven through town in a secure convoy with all traffic stopped.”

An American Education (Long-Form, Paywalled)

If you’re looking for a long read, I highly recommend this article by N+1. In this piece, a journalist recounts their experience being detained in the San Francisco International Airport, and draws excellent contrasts between freedom and captivity.

That’s it for this week!

Until next week,


If you want to find me around the internet, you can read my writing at, or follow me on Twitter @jamesg_oca.

Coffee With James (1/29/20)

Education, caviar, community, snow, and Lawyer X.

Hello everyone,

Before we start, I wanted to take a moment to remember two people who died this week: Kobe Bryant, the historic NBA player, died on January 26; Clayton Christensen, professor at Harvard Business School and inventor of the “Disruptive Innovation” framework, died on January 23. They will both be sincerely missed.

Enjoy this week’s edition of Coffee With James.

James’ Writing

This week I wrote two blog posts, each on the topic of education.

Remembering vs. Understanding.” Schools are optimized to help students remember, not understand, information. As a result, students end up with a limited picture of the topics they cover in class. In this essay, I discuss why schools need to optimize for understanding instead of remembering facts.

Promoting Choice in the Classroom.” In this essay, I explore why young people should be given more choice over the tasks they complete, and discuss how this approach could help boost student engagement in the classroom.

What I Have Learned This Week

The Caviar Con

If you’re looking for a good short story, I highly recommend “The Caviar Con.” This story explores a group of Eastern Europeans who went to Warsaw, Missouri to fish for caviar, and the federal investigation that overestimated the intentions of these fishers.

Snow machines and fleece blankets: inside the ski industry’s battle with climate change

Climate change has damaged a number of ski slopes in the Alps, to the point some have had to be abandoned because they no longer have enough snow. But the richer resorts have been able to defend themselves by creating their own snow and distributing it on their slopes. And their technology could potentially help communities tackle climate change.

Great quote:

“And yet, for life in the Alps as we’ve come to know it, they remain essential. Steiger’s most recent simulations suggest that unless every ski resort in the Alps installs state-of-the-art snowmaking facilities like the ones Mattis operates at Val d’Isère, by the 2050s up to half will no longer be able to sustain their businesses.

Only the wealthiest resorts, like Val d’Isère – where chalets can sell for more than €23,000 per sq metre, five times the average cost of property in London’s most expensive borough, Kensington and Chelsea – are able to make the necessary investments to continually update and retool their snow-making facilities.”

When Community Becomes Your Competitive Advantage

If a company can successfully cultivate a community around its services, it can create a number of moats through the power of network effects. For example, the more members that join, the more people who are available to spread the word of the community, thereby lowering customer acquisition costs.

Great quote:

“Users of Codecademy Pro (the company’s paid offering) have access to a Slack group so they can meet, mingle and share best practices with others and gain access to events with industry professionals and peers. More advanced learners mentor the novices. This rich learning environment generates a network effect in the business model for a company that might not inherently have one.”

The Mysterious Lawyer X

This is one of the best stories I have read in a long time, profiling the defense attorney who protected some of the most notorious criminals at the height of a gangland war in Australia. But the criminals — and the public — had no idea she had a big secret.

From the introduction:

“Not just any lawyer, but one of the preeminent defense attorneys in the city, a swashbuckling criminal barrister named Nicola Gobbo. She was, as one newspaper described her, “almost as big a celebrity as the gangland toughs she represented,” a figure alternately cherished and loathed for her ability to argue her clients out of seemingly dead-end charges.”

That’s all for this week — have a good one!

‘Til next week,


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