Author Archives: Louis Potok

Book Review | The Whale | Philip Hoare

The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea by Philip Hoare

A lot like Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk. An ode to an animal, to the wild side of ourselves, to our own voyages of discovery from sheltered indoor existences to the rambling untamed spaces that exist outside us, between us, within us. Hawk pays extensive homage to TH White’s The Once and Future King, and seeks communion with White, a loner on a similar journey seeking salvation in an uncompromising beast, in a wild eye that returns a gaze fiercer than we are accustomed to seeing. Hoare does the same with Melville’s Moby Dick. Unfortunately his gloss on Melville only made me pine for the real thing. No convict should ever be punished with the task of trying to out-describe, out-reflect, out-philosophize old Herman, and it is a fool’s errand for a free man.

But the bits of The Whale that are not just shadows of Melville are quite good. Excellent illustrations and photographs liven up personal memories, a sprightly history of 19th century naturalism, and fascinating snapshots of civic and economic history as they tangle with the history of whaling. In the 20th century the US and UK virtually gave up on whaling: the last whaling ship departed New Bedford in 1924. But Japan, Norway and Russia continued, spurred on by economic interests and national pride. Hoare cites a 1997 interview with a Japanese expert in the New York Times:  “It’s not because Japanese want to eat whale meat. It’s because they don’t like being told not to eat it by foreigners.”

Like MacDonald, like Rebecca Solnit, like Melville himself, Hoare understands that the world out there is only comprehensible with respect to and in contrast with the world within, that our idiosyncratic human interiority plays out in large and sometimes unpredictable ways on a global scale. The natural world acquires its beauty as it enters our retina or impinges on our fingertips or sprays its blowhole on our faces. But it becomes sublime as we recognize that whales are not just humans in thick blubber or symbols for sermons: rather we are cousins, together making up a small part of the unity of all living things.

You Must Be Present To Win

“Radical politics is bodies in places.”

I’ve thought about this line a lot this week. It’s from a Rebecca Solnit essay that I cannot find anywhere online, but there’s a version of it here:

It’s focused mainly on the Bay Area and the ways that public space and dissent are threatened by Silicon Valley, but it has a lot of relevance for all of us this week.

Take a few minutes and read it. A good excerpt:

We think of democracy as an ethereal thing, an abstract one, an intellectual one, but bodies coexisting in space is the direct experience of democracy where civil society finds itself and its power. That power can be taken away by direct means — that’s what totalitarian regimes that ban gatherings and crack down on dissent do — but also by indirect ones, such as the design of auto-based, private-space suburbias, or the technologically driven retreat from the public sphere and from embodiment.

What Exactly Are You Protesting

Every day for the last five days, Americans in every major city have organized and sustained protest marches against Donald Trump’s fascism and bigotry. I have spent most of that time trying to muster the courage and energy to join these marches, trying to overcome the gloom and devastation and hopelessness that I felt.

On Friday I started calling my friends across the country to talk about the election results, and it helped. It was good to know that I am not alone in these feelings, to clarify what I feel and why, and to get angry when I hear my friends trying to normalize or diminish what happened.

On Saturday I finally went to march. Shouting and marching in public felt good, felt like the only right thing to do or at least the first step. But the march was so, so small. In a city of 750,000 only 150 people came to protest and almost everyone was under 30. So I texted a bunch of my friends inviting them to join me at the next one. A few are coming, a few said no thanks, and some didn’t answer. And I got one really interesting response:

What exactly are you protesting? Genuinely curious, not being an asshole.

It’s a great question, and I think the answer deserves more length than I was able to give it over text message.

There are two reasons that I think motivated people to show up and protest all week

First, there’s a policy-level protest against essentially DJT’s whole platform. A small sampling from the ACLU’s website, he proposed to:

amass a deportation force to remove 11 million undocumented immigrants; ban the entry of Muslims into our country and aggressively surveil them; punish women for accessing abortion; reauthorize waterboarding and other forms of torture; and change our nation’s libel laws and restrict freedom of expression.

Each of these alone is worth protesting and taken all together they represent a catastrophic direction for our country to take.

Second, this protesting expresses a frustration with the electoral system overall in this country, from the gerrymandering of electoral districts to the systematic stripping away of voting rights from minority groups. Ten percent of Florida’s adults (mostly African American men) can’t vote. This is not an accident, or a tough-but-fair situation. Republican lawmakers across the country have spent decades disenfranchising minorities thereby reshaping our entire political landscape. Now, with the hard-right in control of almost every lever of government, this will only get worse, only make it harder for us to scramble out of this ditch. (Some people today also started chants to remove the electoral college. I don’t agree with that opinion, but movements are broad and you have to accept that you don’t get line-item veto on other people’s chants.)

Even beyond these two, protesting has powerful ramifications.

Protesting normalizes dissent and progressivism. Having an opinion silently is the same as not having it at all. But protesting loudly changes the range of opinions that are visible and seen as popular. Every fight that we will have in this country in the coming years will be easier to win if there is a progressive movement at the forefront of the national consciousness.

This is exactly the mirror image of the vigilante fascism that has sprouted this week. When people see racist bullshit all over their TV, they feel empowered to go yell at a woman in a hijab at Safeway. But when people see your protest (or you tell them about it!), you embolden them, you give them faith that they are not alone, and you inspire them to do their own activism work. This builds on itself, creating networks of activists that sustain and support each other.

After all, this week’s protests would not have been possible without the social movements of the last decade from Occupy to Black Lives Matter. The fight did not begin this week. If you weren’t fighting before — and I was not! — you are joining a fight that has been going on for years. We must learn from our brothers and sisters who have bravely been fighting without us, and build structures and develop tactics for the next people who will join the fight. The coming years will require deep networks and organization, expertise in dissent and the muscle memory to fight back. Let’s build those now before it’s too late.


(Yes indeed, today we’re talking race.)

Yesterday I saw someone online describe herself as “half Canadian”, which has to be the lamest self-proclaimed heritage I’ve ever seen. We all know White People who self-identify as “one quarter Irish” or “one third German” or whatever.

Hello, folks: you are WHITE.

If you are of European ancestry, and most of your family has been in the US more than 2 generations you are white.  Go celebrate Casimir Pulaski Day and wear green in March all you want, you are white. End of story.

I got an amazing response that made me think about this more deeply:

Johann makes a great point: by identifying themselves with a specific national heritage, white people free themselves from the implications of Whiteness — free themselves from having to think about race. Because when white people are just French/Irish/German/Swedish/whatever, race doesn’t matter and there’s no point in talking about it. “We all have our identities, we’re all something-Americans, and everything is great.” But if you are white you have to grapple with what that *means*, what kind of treatment you get in the world, what your individual culpability is.

A similar point is made at greater length in the paper that Johann linked to. There’s a bundle of worldview that white people have which allows them to exist in a de-racialized world — and they/we react negatively to attempts to re-racialize the way they see things (the paper calls this “white fragility”). Because whiteness is unmarked in our society, white people walk around with a view that “I’m just a person, other people have races.” Or people appeal to universalism — “we’re all people” — or individualism — “we’re all our own individuals” — which is closest to the heritage approach.

Of course, turning an eye inwards, I see myself doing the same thing. I think of myself primarily as Jewish, not as white. My dad is an immigrant, my grandparents were survivors of genocide and then displaced persons and then immigrants twice over. But of course I **read** as white in the world, which for many intents and purposes is what whiteness is all about.

:siren: Inner conflict alert :siren:


Anyway, what’s the right name for white people being a little too proud of their ethnic/national heritage?

Seven Year Exercise Windows

Most startup option grants come with a 90-day exercise window when an employee leaves the company (voluntarily or not). This is standard practice. Essentially the problem is that this can force employees to take a major personal financial hit to exercise their options when they leave or are fired, and perversely this is worse the more the company has grown during their time there. (Exercising options comes with a tax hit proportional to the amount the stock has increased in value since the option was granted.)

There’s an easy solution: when an employee leaves, convert their ISOs to NSOs and extend the exercise window.

Today my employer TrueAccord extended our exercise window to seven years for people with two years or more at the company. I’m proud of what this means — this is a progressive move and it shows a dedication to the employees of the company. In general I’m skeptical about equity as a carrot for startup employees (see here for an extremely skeptical view), but this is the right way to do it.

For more, see
and point (2) in

AI Clears New Hurdle; beats European Go champion 5-0

Today Google’s DeepMind team announced that they built a Go-playing AI which beat the European Go champion 5 games to 0. This has been a long time coming! Look at timeline of games conquered by computers:

tic tac toe: 1952
checkers: 1994
chess: 1997
go: 2016

Let’s make a simplistic assumption that the game-playing ability of computers varies as Moore’s Law, which means that it doubles every 18 months. Software has improved as well, so this is a lower bound

So beating checkers required a computer 2^63 times as powerful as beating tic-tac-toe. And chess required a computer 2^4.5 times as powerful as checkers, a factor of 22.6. But the Go program was 379625062 (or 2^28.5) times more powerful than Deep Blue.

These differences are shockingly large, and it turns out that checkers and chess are virtually indistinguishable on the spectrum of human cognition. Both are about 70% of the way between tic tac toe and Go — but who knows how far the spectrum goes?


Political Sunday Morning

Some links that will fill you with outrage:

Police Carelessness Wakes Local Citizen

Tuesday morning I was woken up at 5AM by a police siren. As I lay awake, I started thinking. I couldn’t be the only one woken up. Should police cars use their sirens at night? It seems like a classic example of diffuse costs and easy-to-see benefits. But is it worth it? Let’s make a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation.

The cost of running a siren at night can be modeled by the following equation (I love Fermi problems!):
LengthDriven * (2 * SirenDistance) * Density * PctWoken *
DailyIncome * ProductivityLoss


  • we start with the LengthDriven with the siren on
  • multiply by twice the SirenDistance, how far away on each side of the police car a person can hear the siren, to get the geographic area affected
  • multiply by the Density to get the number of people potentially affected
  • multiply by the PctWoken to get the number of people who were woken up
  • multiply by the average DailyIncome to see how much economic value those people create each day
  • multiply by the ProductivityLoss (as a percent) that they experience when groggy to see how much economic value was lost by the siren

This model makes some assumptions. It assumes the police car drives in a straight line, that the density is uniform, that the PctWoken is constant within the SirenDistance and zero outside of it, that everyone works (so ignoring children), that everyone works a day shift, that the ProductivityLoss is independent of DailyIncome, etc. But it seems like a reasonable first step.

Let’s plug in some values:

LengthDriven = 0.25 miles

SirenDistance = 400 feet \approx 0.08 miles

Density = 18,187 people/square mile in SF (from Wikipedia)

PctWoken = 5% of people. I made this up out of nowhere.

DailyIncome = $45000 yearly per-capita income in SF / 200 work days per year = $225 per day

ProductivityLoss = 25%, I made this up too

This gives us an economic cost of $1023 every time a police officer flips a siren on at night.

Even if this only happens once per night in SF, it creates a cost of $375,000 over the course of the year — equivalent to the salary of about 4 police officers, or about 1% of the SFPD’s budget. Use of sirens also appears to be dangerous. I wonder what the benefits are — how much additional public safety is provided for this cost?

I reached out to the SFPD asking if they have any guidelines about siren use — stay tuned.