I’m enjoying Craig Mod’s new weekly newsletter on walking, Ridgeline.
Two favourite bits from the latest issue (emphasis mine):
Rewalking grounds the walker, allows the walker more noticing. I’ve done bits of the Kumano a half-dozen times now. But to call them the same route is a disservice to nature — they’re never the same (and I don’t mean in the metaphysical sense), certainly season by season, but also year by year.
The path shifts. Not a lot, just enough to be new. But not new enough to need to ask. And so slowly, it becomes a tiny country of your own.
I started reading Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch last night. Mead celebrates how a book, through reading and rereading, can become a part of us. Mod’s point—one I share, and practice through a series of familiar walking routes—is that walking and rewalking a particular path can do the same for us as reading and rereading a book.
(Choosing two favourite bits from such a short newsletter means that basically all of it is my favourite—this is true and I have no regrets. If you’re interested, check out the biographical issue 001 and consider subscribing.)
Researchers from the Nielsen Norman Group share findings from a study on the introduction of digital media to fill our lives. The summary? “Many people use digital media to avoid silence or empty time.”
They clearly were not interested in the plot of the movie itself. The movie was a place for them to rest their attention in between other activities.
Some reported feeling an almost compulsive need to have some audio on, effectively filling the silence in their lives.
While many participants reported feeling the need to have some sort of audio in the background during their silent moments, others reported a more intense version of this phenomenon: the need to fill all the empty moments in their lives with some activity to avoid boredom or downtime. This behavior fills the ‘silence’ in a figurative way — people use their devices to keep their minds constantly occupied.
In many cases, this desire to kill time contributed to frequent interactions with a device, even when the user had no specific task in mind. The content users turned to wasn’t just social media: it also included activities like checking email, the weather, or the news. The content itself didn’t matter — users felt compelled to be doing something.
More on this to come, connecting to a few books I read recently, including Michael Harris’s Solitude.
Saving this Wikipedia page only for this brilliant line:
Lewis was fond of walking but not of travel, and this marked his only crossing of the English Channel after 1918.
“fond of walking but not of travel” is now a motto of mine—I couldn’t agree more.
Succinct summary of a research conference discussing the potential of web archives for academic research. Interesting suggestions:
Areas for future research suggested by the groups included: the history of online advertising; the analysis of viruses and malware in web archives; histories of organisational change as it plays out on the web; the study of web art and digital creative literature; the exploration of online redaction and emendation; and an investigation of digital communication by government.
The UK’s National Archives transferred its 1.4 billion document, 120 TB Government Web Archive to the cloud—in two weeks.
With this ensemble of 72 hard drives, two custom-built PCs and two AWS Snowballs, the entire process took just two weeks – not bad for more than two decades of internet history!
A great explanation of the benefits of cloud storage:
Cloud can also make web-based services faster and more reliable. Put in the simplest terms, physical hardware – like servers and hard drives – can be overloaded or fail. Cloud infrastructure, on the other-hand, tends to have a higher level of redundancy built-in – so if there’s ever a problem with a hard drive, server or even data centre, your services can simply be resumed elsewhere with minimal disruption.
Sometimes (usually) the right approach is a combination of building your own tools and using powerful open source libraries:
We struggled to find an existing tool that would meet our specific need for indexing a large number of small files, so we built something called WarpPipe. This allowed us to index all The National Archives’ documents in just ten hours – far below the timeframe of six to eight weeks we were told it would take with one of the most popular big data processing tools.
The search functionality itself is provided by Elasticsearch, which substantially improves on The National Archives’ previous search engine in terms of speed, flexibility and reliability. We now update the index once a month rather than once a quarter, for example, so it’s much faster for new archive content to show up in search results.
This piece made the rounds in many of my circles a few months ago, and for good reason. Atul Gawande, a surgeon, considers his experience with the introduction of increasingly prescriptive medical records technologies.
Gawande touches on so many of my interests: the labour implications of technology; why we ought to open access to data via APIs; systems thinking; organizational changes caused by technology; building software with the people who’ll use it; and the importance, above all, of remembering the humans.
Many fear that the advance of technology will replace us all with robots. Yet in fields like health care the more imminent prospect is that it will make us all behave like robots. And the people we serve need something more than either robots or robot-like people can provide. They need human enterprises that can adapt to change.
Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk is sublime.
The actors, the cinematography, and the dialogue all possess a certain beauty which gives the film a warmth, even as it deals with sickening subjects. The score, too, adds and resolves tension at all the right moments.
From the plot, perhaps what I appreciated most was the steadfastness of support from Tish’s family. May we all behave with such grace and love.
The film’s ending is a real portrait of the way life sometimes goes: unresolved, messy, leaving us grasping over questions to which we know we can never receive an adequate answer. We must make meaning in life where and when we can, in the ways that make sense to us, and beware imposing those views of the world on others.
Casey Cep, reviewing some new books on atheism (and atheism_s_), considers the American attitude toward atheism.
Particularly notable to me was this passage, identifying one of the core charges levied against atheists, that to not believe in God means you can’t be moral.
Lack of belief in God is still too often taken to mean the absence of any other meaningful moral beliefs, and that has made atheists an easy minority to revile. This is especially true in America, where an insistence on the idea that we are a Christian nation has tied patriotism to religiosity.
Two more excerpts:
Few, if any, of those prosecuted for violating Sabbatarian or blasphemy laws actually identified as atheists, but that didn’t stop their critics from denouncing them as such. Indeed, the charge of atheism became a convenient means of discrediting nontheological beliefs, including anarchism, radicalism, socialism, and feminism.
Christians ignorant of their own history, for instance, will be surprised to learn that their earliest ancestors in the faith were themselves ridiculed as “atheists” because they refused to participate in polytheistic worship: in Greek, atheos means “without gods,” not anti-God. Meanwhile, those who came to atheism via the new atheists might be startled to find that many of their intellectual forebears did not wage war on religion, or even feel any distaste for it.
Cal Newport suggests replacing social media with analog experiences that better provide the “benefits that drew [you] to social media in the first place”.
Even people who are fed up with the deprivations of the algorithmic attention economy are often reluctant to give up services like social media because doing so might lead them to lose some benefits. Loss aversion teaches them to avoid such losses at all costs.
Cutting a wealth of activities out and replacing them with higher-quality activities can be better than overly dividing your time:
Focusing on the most beneficial activities to the exclusion of less beneficial alternatives can leave you better off than trying to clutter your life with everything that might offer some value.
Newport has also written a sequel of sorts in which he acknowledges that the individual actions of social media (commenting, liking, finding a good link, etc) feel benign (or even beneficial), while our overall presence on these platforms (which we don’t feel as clearly) is the actual problem.
The key in replacing social media is to truly replace it, to consciously fill the resulting void with fulfilling activities (Newport suggests a good handful):
Triaging your apps, or cutting back phone time, will not by itself make you happier. You must also aggressively fill in the space this pruning creates with the type of massively satisfying, real world activities that these tools have been increasingly pushing out of your life.
In honour of Penny Marshall’s recent passing, I rewatched A League of Their Own tonight. Baseball movies are a favourite genre of mine, and this one is among the best. With witty lines, a compelling plot, and a cast with chemistry—not to mention some good baseball—this film’s got it all.
Maria Popova shares, after ten years of running Brain Pickings, shares ten “core beliefs, written largely as notes to myself that may or may not be useful to others” to which she has returned repeatedly:
- Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind.
- Do nothing for prestige or status or money or approval alone.
- Be generous.
- Build pockets of stillness into your life.
- When people try to tell you who you are, don’t believe them.
- Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity.
- “Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.”
- Seek out what magnifies your spirit.
- Don’t be afraid to be an idealist.
- Don’t just resist cynicism — fight it actively.
For each, Popova provides a fuller description, with links to other pieces at Brain Pickings that dive in deeper. But, as she notes (echoing J.S. Mill), it’s not enough just to read these—they’re “refined and enriched in the act of living”.
I’ve found myself referencing this passage of J.S. Mill’s in On Liberty quite often recently, so I thought I’d save it here.
All languages and literatures are full of general observations on life, both as to what it is, and how to conduct oneself in it; observations which everybody knows, which everybody repeats, or hears with acquiescence, which are received as truisms, yet of which most people first truly learn the meaning, when experience, generally of a painful kind, has made it a reality to them. How often, when smarting under some unforeseen misfortune or disappointment, does a person call to mind some proverb or common saying, familiar to him all his life, the meaning of which, if he had ever before felt it as he does now, would have saved him from the calamity. There are indeed reasons for this, other than the absence of discussion: there are many truths of which the full meaning cannot be realized, until personal experience has brought it home.
Though we may dismiss common expressions as clichés, they do contain some wisdom. That said, we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves for only truly learning that lesson once having lived it; words alone are hard to internalize.
But, as Mill goes on, we might better learn these things if we listen to (and, perhaps, engage in conversation with) those who have lived those lessons:
But much more of the meaning even of these would have been understood, and what was understood would have been far more deeply impressed on the mind, if the man had been accustomed to hear it argued pro and con. by people who did understand it. The fatal tendency of mankind to leave off thinking about a thing when it is no longer doubtful, is the cause of half their errors.
I was writing this morning, until I realized that last night’s sudden upward temperature swing combined with a heavy downpour would have melted all the snow cover, and then of course I had to check out the data for nearby rivers and streams to see whether that’d cause an increased flow. And it did! Yay for publicly-available data.
Nicky Case (in an awesome interactive format) explains how memory is a muscle, something you need to constantly push just to the edge to strengthen. Case describes a method (spaced repetition) to sustain this memory training.
I’ve always found spaced repetition to be a rewarding approach, but rarely kept up with it after a test. Since reading this piece two months ago, I’ve been slowly expanding my Anki library and practicing each day—it feels good. Well worth the time to go through Case’s whole overview. And it’s fun! Remember: memory is the mother of inspiration!
Jen Dary (founder of Plucky) reflects on her first year running her own consulting business. I appreciate Dary’s honest reflections (very much in the “share what you know” spirit of the web).
I boiled down the point of my existence on this planet into six words: I help people find their way. It wasn’t a business plan, but it was a purpose. And somehow I trusted that the details around monetizing one’s purpose were logistical and completely solvable and that I was smart and driven enough to do it.
Draw from experience:
And though I wasn’t sure how to classify Plucky, I started with “HR Consulting for Tech Firms.” It didn’t line up with my degrees, but it totally lined up with my experience and that’s what I was hungry to leverage.
When not signing clients, it doesn’t mean business that slow, just that you’re at a different point in the business season:
“Oh Jen, you’re not signing clients right now,” he said. “You’re planting seeds. Whenever things get slow, you gotta go out there and plant seeds.”
We have an open office plan at work, as does just about everybody these days. While acknowledging the organizational benefits of open offices (lower costs, essentially), Jason Fried (CEO of Basecamp) shares some thoughts on how to implement such a plan thoughtfully, with respect for the people who’ll actually work in such a space—he considers not just the organization as a user, but also the organization’s employees.
There are two prongs to Basecamp’s open office approach.
First, embrace the model open office plan, tested and improved over centuries—the library:
Libraries are full of people working, reading, thinking, studying, writing, contemplating, designing, etc. Yet they’re silent. People are heads down doing independent work. In our opinion, this is the model business, the model office.
Embrace Library Rules. Open offices work all around the world every day. They’re called libraries! And the more you treat your office as a library of work — rather than a chaotic kitchen of work — the better an open floor plan is going to work. Making an open floor plan work is a cultural decision.
Library Rules means keeping to yourself, keeping your voice down in hushed tones, not distracting one another. If you do need to talk to someone at normal volumes, grab a room.
Fried extends this logic to chat rooms, too, asserting that “real-time chat rooms/channels are basically open offices”. I feel this: just as in a noisy office, there’s an impulse with chat rooms to listen in to all the conversations going on, to chime in whenever you can. Fortunately, I’ve found it a bit easier/more socially acceptable to ignore what’s going on in a chat room—people can’t see you ignoring that space.
The second aspect of Basecamp’s open office approach is to allow people to opt out:
We did the best job we could designing an open office (and a culture) that allows everyone to work in focused peace and quiet every day. But even that’s not good enough, which is why no one is ever required to come into our office.
This last point is what successful open office plans, or any office plans, come down to: offer the space (and tools) your team needs to do good work, then trust them to do so as suits them best—and get out of the way.
I don’t think this review’s title accurately captures its contents. James Wood dives into Solstad’s exploration of the “life-lie”, the structures and narratives we construct to provide meaning to our lives. Solstad uses the form of his books, such as one written entirely in footnotes, to decentre his characters from their lives, to emphasize that life does not fit into tidy narratives, that fiction’s standard form is, well, a fiction:
Solstad’s inventive approach allows him to reflect on the freedom and obligations of the novelist who is tasked with telling someone else’s life story. It also inscribes, in the novel’s very form, Solstad’s way of writing about people who are not quite the protagonists of their own lives. … We think that we know, reading a novel, what a “digression” is—a swerve from the main action—because we think we know what the main action is. But what if an entire life were merely a collection of digressions, a slalom of such swerves? What if a life—even an apparently consequential one, like an ambassador’s—had no discernible narrative, no coherent main action? Actual lives look nothing much like conventional novels. That is the challenge Solstad accepts and rigorously joins.
(Shout-outs to existentialists like Sartre and Camus make me want to pick up At the Existentialist Café.)
In light of all our focus on “progress,” it’s easy to forget that you can turn around from traveling in a wrong direction, and return to the place where things last felt right—whether that’s for something as trivial as what I’m trying to do with my goofy website, or as monumental as restructuring your identity, ambition, and emotional furnishings to match the last time you felt like yourself. You can go back. Sometimes that’s progress.
Craig Mod on consciously creating rules to re-strengthen his capacity to pay attention. Excerpts:
There are a thousand beautiful ways to start the day that don’t begin with looking at a phone. And yet so few of us choose to do so.
Today, I could live on Twitter all day, everyday, convincing myself I was being productive. Or, at least inducing the chemicals in the mind that make me feel like I’m being productive. … Largely pushing nothing in the world forward.
The internet goes off before bed. The internet doesn’t return until after lunch. That’s it. Reasonable rules. I’m too weak to handle the unreasonable.
So I deploy blunt, simple tools. Time boxed disconnection has proven to be both generative and — most importantly — sustainable.
Wherever you fall on the spectrum of leveraging the network for social good, having control over your attention can only make your efforts stronger. I refuse to believe otherwise. Take the morning. Hell, just take the first hour of the morning. Make a plan. Own your attention.
Attention is a muscle. It must be exercised. Though, attention is duplicitous — it doesn’t feel like a muscle. And exercising it doesn’t result in an appreciably healthier looking body. But it does result in a sense of grounding, feeling rational, control of your emotions — a healthy mind.
Julie Phillips’s profile of Ursula K. Le Guin—written two years before Le Guin’s death—demonstrates how closely connected an artist’s work and life can be.
Some choice excerpts:
To talk to Le Guin is to encounter alternatives. At her house, the writer is present, but so is Le Guin the mother of three, the faculty wife: the woman writing fantasy in tandem with her daily life.
There is some resemblance between Ged, the provincial boy with a chip on his shoulder, and Ursula Kroeber, the Californian in jeans arriving at Radcliffe College in 1947, all books and opinions, never before out of her home state, eager to prove herself as a poet. Her Radcliffe friend Jean Taylor Kroeber, who became her sister-in-law, recalls that, before she and Ursula bonded over Russian literature, jokes, and music, she found her “a little frightening. It’s not that she meant to be, but that’s the way it came across . . . that there was a good chance that she was ahead of you, in wherever the conversation was going. And one rather brief acute remark could set you back on your heels.”
At a little kitchen table, over tea served in the indestructible handmade earthenware mugs of the seventies, she commented, somewhat defiantly, that she had always taken pleasure in cooking and keeping house. It sounded like criticism of the heroic writer, alone in his garret, but there’s more to it than that. She feels that marriage and family have given her a stability that supported her writing—the freedom of solitude within the solidity of household life. “An artist can go off into the private world they create, and maybe not be so good at finding the way out again,” she told me. “This could be one reason I’ve always been grateful for having a family and doing housework, and the stupid ordinary stuff that has to be done that you cannot let go.”
In a photo of Ursula in her twenties, she glances up from a typewriter with a look I’d come to recognize: startled, her eyes unfocussed, her thoughts in a place the camera can’t follow.
CSS has been seen as this fragile language that we stumble around, trying things out and seeing what works. In particular for layout, rather than using the system as specified, we have so often exploited things about the language in order to achieve far more complex layouts than it was ever designed for. We had to, or resign ourselves to very simple looking web pages.
So when I see people writing and speaking about CSS pointing to some behaviour and saying, “oh this behaves in a weird way”, I want to ask them (and sometimes do) if they have looked to see why it is behaving like that. Most of the time, if you look at the spec, you find that the answer is not all that weird. In general, if all of the browsers are doing that weird thing in the same way, it has been specified to behave like that. Perhaps we should start reframing the way we talk about these things. They are not weird, we just haven’t identified the reason yet. Perhaps because we who have been doing this for such a long time, don’t always expect there to be a reason.
Rachel Andrew, one of the leading voices on CSS Grid (and CSS layout more generally, including work on various specifications) explains why front-end and CSS developers should rethink how we discuss the language.
I do not think we help our cause by talking about CSS as this whacky, quirky language. CSS is unlike anything else, because it exists to serve an environment that is unlike anything else.
Simple clothes, simple surroundings, hunched over a book? Yes please.
But Hesser’s approach to cooking has shifted towards the familiar in recent years after noticing the downside to always pushing the boundaries:
Meanwhile, I continued to roam and experiment, rarely making the same dish twice. I enjoy the hunt for a new great recipe, the push for something better. But it comes at a cost; cooking new things is more stressful because the unknowns are many. Tad would chat with the kids while making his pasta; I would cook distracted, with my nose in a recipe. Even after focused cooking, things don’t always work out well, and no one around the table is happy. And it’s hard to expect anyone to build an emotional connection to a dish if they’re only seeing it a few times.
I am really feeling that tension between novelty and stability lately, and not just when it comes to food. Sometimes I feel like I’m two different people. The Explorer craves new experiences, finds routine boring, and wants to learn new things or he’ll feel brain-dead. The Hermit needs the stability of a comfortable routine, finds exploring exhausting, and doesn’t want to have to think about what’s next all the time.
Like Jason Kottke, I tend toward a few favourite recipes, not straying too far from the unknown. But I don’t really follow a recipe for these well-known dishes (or for most of my cooking)—instead, I follow a familiar outline, varying the contents based on what I have at hand that day. In this way, the ordinary (the land of Kottke’s Hermit) offers space for experimentation (the land of Kottke’s Explorer). This structure extends beyond my kitchen: whether well-worn walking paths, favourite music, or heavily annotated books, I tend to seek depth in the familiar.
Jhumpa Lahiri shares their personal history of learning Italian, and how that changed upon moving to Italy for a more immersive experience.
On the impulse to write, to express, even—especially?—in this unfamiliar language:
I write in a terrible, embarrassing Italian, full of mistakes. Without correcting, without a dictionary, by instinct alone. I grope my way, like a child, like a semiliterate. I am ashamed of writing like this. I don’t understand this mysterious impulse, which emerges out of nowhere. I can’t stop.
On learning about yourself through the constraint of writing in another language:
I don’t recognize the person who is writing in this diary, in this new, approximate language. But I know that it’s the most genuine, most vulnerable part of me.
In Italian I write without style, in a primitive way. I’m always uncertain. My sole intention, along with a blind but sincere faith, is to be understood, and to understand myself.
On the deeper experience gained by struggling to read a work written in a foreign language:
It was an unforgettable encounter, maybe the most satisfying reading of my life. To understand this poem I had to be persistent, translating every word. I had to devote myself to an ancient and demanding foreign language. And yet Ovid’s writing won me over: I was enchanted by it. I discovered a sublime work, a living, enthralling language. I believe that reading in a foreign language is the most intimate way of reading.
Reading this essay also prompted some other observations.
- I found it by picking up an old issue of the New Yorker sitting under my bed. There’s a serendipity to browsing physical objects—you don’t have to decide which issue to open in your app before “browsing” the un-paged contents, you just pick an issue out of the stack and flip to a page at random.
- Their tactile, spatial qualities also shine through: though I read it on paper, I quoted these from the digital edition; instead of re-reading the whole thing online, I could recall passages that moved me based on their physical location on the article’s pages, cross-referencing those passages with the digital edition.
Mark Boulton encourages us to think more deeply about our design systems, adding the important factor of time to their structure. Boulton cites Stewart Brand’s model of the world as a set of layers, each of which moves at its own pace:
The part of this diagram I like the most is that it forces you to think in time instead of other ways of organising things. As this relates to design, time – or rather longevity – is not generally a consideration. Like much of our lives, modern design gravitates to those upper layers of commerce and fashion. We get paid well to make desirable things that people consume. Once we’re done with one thing, we move onto the next.
Boulton then takes Brand’s model and applies it to design systems, identifying various layers that aren’t often made explicit in such systems.
The overall point? “Structure for pace. Move at the appropriate speed.” may be a better guiding phrase than “Move fast, break things. Fail forward. Fail fast. Always be shipping.” Yes, it’s more boring, but boring and careful is usually the better option when you’re shaping the world.
Aside from this main point, a few other bits stuck out to me:
- I ought to read more Stewart Brand.
- Boulton ends a description of executive focus on speed and profits with “Capitalism, right?” which I love as a hand-wavy shorthand for the artificial obligations created by our global economic system.
- When discussing his family’s new (to them, actually very old) house, he described it as “A place we could grow old in”, which is a lovely thought.
I’m quite a fan of Austin Kleon’s noun/verb model, which he originally explained three years prior:
Lots of people want to be the noun without doing the verb. They want the job title without the work. …
Let go of the thing that you’re trying to be (the noun), and focus on the actual work you need to be doing (the verb).
Though, as the linked post demonstrates, and in a very Kleon style, this idea is hardly original to him—many others have shared similar models. An interesting one that Kleon raises here is the difference between “religion” as a noun and as a verb. I like Mary Karr’s explanation:
“It’s a practice,” Mary Karr says of her own faith. “It’s not something you believe. It’s not doctrine. Doctrine has nothing to do with it. It’s a set of actions.” I remember once, when asked to make a case for religion, she replied, “Why don’t you just pray for 30 days and see if your life gets better?
On the subject of practicing religion, I’m reminded of Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day” (excerpted from the full poem):
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day. …
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Sarah Mei argues that “smart” is actually just shorthand for “being good at a socially-acceptable set of activities that make you ‘smart’”. Some key points:
Of course, there are (and always were) things I wasn’t very good at, that other people were AMAZING at, but the explanation for why I was still smarter than them was usually, “well, you don’t need to be to be smart to do that thing.”
You could argue (and I did, for much of my life) that the situations where I am smart are more important than the situations where I am not, so therefore, I AM STILL SMART.
But as I’ve gotten older and done more therapy, I’ve started to be able to disconnect my ego from BEING SMART. Like….it doesn’t matter anymore. There are things I’m good at, and things I’m not good at, and all of that is ok, and none of it reflects on my worth as a person.
This thread’s been rattling around my head in the days since I read it—I’ve struggled to deal with the label “smart”, and this argument appeals to me. The focus, as it should be, shifts to what you can actually do, as opposed to what a label implies you can or can’t do.
Anyway the point is: be kind to yourself. It’s ok to be bad at some things that are easy for other people. It’s ok to work at those and get better. It’s also ok to avoid and delegate them.
Make sure you have time in your life for the stuff you’re brilliant at.
Today, few markers mark time. We make our own markers, using light as a guide on some days, milestones and deadlines on more frenetic ones. But it’s the rare person who, at 6PM, can walk, head high, out of the studio or office, turning day into night and one thing into another.
Liz Danzico’s site shifts its appearance after 6 pm each day, to remind us that nothing is timeless, that we ought to be careful how we spend it, and that a first step to doing so is to intentionally mark it.
Starting today, this site (when viewed in a browser) will undertake a bit of an experiment. At 6PM (your time) each day, it will change from day to night. A visual shift. A pause. A marker of time — whether it’s time to walk away, take a break, keep on working, or play.
In fact, instructors who create collaborative environments for students and then just expect the students to take full advantage of those opportunities, are often quite disappointed with the results. The reason for this disappointment is not difficult to find. As mentioned earlier, today’s students are adept users of technology, but they are only rarely adept learners with the technology. As a result, we need to teach them how to make the best use of the opportunities we create for them—how to comment constructively on one another’s work, how to create tagging systems that make sense, how to build communities of practice, not just friend networks. [emphasis added]
I find this nuance often overlooked when stereotyping “the youth” as “good with technology because they grew up with it”.
Growing up with a thing doesn’t necessarily develop the critical perspective that enables great use of technology. (Let’s leave aside another reality: even those who grow up with technology are not necessarily adept at using it.) This critical perspective means thinking about not how to use technology, yes, but also about when and why to do so. You can’t just thrust a “familiar” tool on somebody and expect novel applications. Such applications require critical thinking, too.
My calmest, most focused moments in life mirror the qualities of this scene: a quiet attention to doing the routine well. Whether cooking a go-to meal, washing the dishes, or walking a familiar route, I often find some happy contentment in activities like these—movie moments, of sorts.
Similarly, I enjoy movies that portray the ordinary in close detail, like someone quietly getting up and going about their morning routine.
Frank Chimero describes how, when in a weighty spot with work, turning to some new books brought some enjoyment back into his life, lightening that weighty position:
I was in a tough spot this past week. The Great Discontent magazine is consuming all of my working (waking) hours, and I’m grunting my way through the center half of the process where you can’t see the end or the beginning. I’m the guy on a raft with an oar in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. There’s water on all sides, and I’m rowing, rowing, hoping east is still east and that I am still supposed to be going east. I needed to finish something—anything—to not feel so helpless.
[… the whole post, wherein he explains the point that I only briefly and incompletely summarized …]
And now, ironically (and perhaps quixoticly?), I am precisely back to where I started. I am still mired in the middle of a big project, and wedged into the center of a very long book, but the views are good, I am laughing, and I am rowing.
This is an important point: when we feel the world is too dark, sometimes it just takes a step to the side—helped by good books, good friends, or some other good—to see it in a new light. The situation is the same, of course, but we are different.
Robert Frost’s “Dust of Snow” captures this well:
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued
(I’m a big fan of Frost generally, but I was recently reminded of this poem in reading an obituary of Ned Franks, Canadian political scientist and all-around good person.)
I wrote earlier this year to a professor of mine who’d asked what students expect from their university experience (and, by extension, their professors). One point I noted was that I’m always curious to understand my professors’ teaching philosophies. A few questions I wish I could ask every professor:
- How do you deliver your lectures? What do you plan for students to take from them?
- What do you expect students to learn from your course aside from the subject matter?
- What’s the goal of your evaluations?
Here, Alan Jacobs provides his own answer to another important question: “What’s your grading philosophy?” Among other good tidbits, an ever important reminder:
And above all, know this: I do not evaluate people when I’m grading, I evaluate their written work. … Some of the most memorable and delightful people I have had in my classes got mediocre grades from me; and there are some people to whom I gave nothing but A’s who weren’t much fun to be around. And in any case, a semester after you’ve been in my class I’ll remember you perfectly well but I probably won’t have the first idea what grades I gave your papers.
Maryanne Wolf writes that the “reading circuit” in our brains develops in each individual based on their reading environment. Without a reading environment that encourages or requires slow and deep reading, “the result is that less attention and time will be allocated to slower, time-demanding deep reading processes, like inference, critical analysis and empathy, all of which are indispensable to learning at any age.”
One of the advantages to reading on the page comes from its spatial quality. Reading on a page, we can connect to where the words were on the page (and to further connect that sentiment to where we were in time and place when we read them)—this is much more difficult, if not impossible, on screens.
One memory and one thought come to mind:
- Recently I was trying to find a passage in a book of aphorisms. I thought I could remember where on the page this passage was located (top half of the left-hand page), but I flipped through the book repeatedly with no luck. In so doing, though, I ended up reading many more aphorisms, a happy result. (Maybe I’m like Umberto Eco, who recalled reading a key line that inspired his thesis in an obscure book, only to later find that the line wasn’t in the book.)
- What, then, does this spatial quality of reading mean for us when we design and redesign websites? When doing so, we change the form in which the content is conveyed. Perhaps it doesn’t at all matter, as we’re reading on screen and thus lack entirely the spatial qualities of the page.
Fortunately, Wolf offers a positive finish:
There’s an old rule in neuroscience that does not alter with age: use it or lose it. It is a very hopeful principle when applied to critical thought in the reading brain because it implies choice. … We need to cultivate a new kind of brain: a “bi-literate” reading brain capable of the deepest forms of thought in either digital or traditional mediums.
Though my own study of Gandhi isn’t as thorough as I’d like, I found that Pankaj Mishra’s summary of the philosopher’s thought hit on many of the points that have most strongly struck me. Some excerpts:
Satyagraha, literally translated as “holding fast to truth,” obliged protesters to “always keep an open mind and be ever ready to find that what we believed to be truth was, after all, untruth.” Gandhi recognized early on that societies with diverse populations inhabit a post-truth age.
“Industrialism,” he argued in 1931, “depends entirely on your capacity to exploit, on foreign markets being open to you, and on the absence of competitors.” But intensified competition from Asian and African countries could change everything, he warned presciently, decades before the rise of China and India as capitalist economies plunged once powerful nations of the West into irreversible economic decline and political crisis.
Indeed, Gandhi’s critique of modern civilization hinged on what he saw as its refusal to recognize limits. To a civilization shaped by unappeasable human will and ambition Gandhi counterposed a civilization organized around self-limitation and ethical conduct. [emphasis added]
Satyagraha, which presumed a basic commitment to dialogue on all sides, was likely to be impotent against Nazism or any other genocidal ideology. But it remains a matchless political means to reconcile clashing interests in diverse and fractious societies, largely because it accommodates Gandhi’s proto-postmodern view that truths in politics are invariably partial and contingent. [emphasis added]
Moreover, a profound philosophical conviction lay behind the communal endurance of pain and the refusal to retaliate. Gandhi believed that society is much more than a social contract between self-seeking individuals underpinned by the rule of law and structured by institutions; it is actually founded upon sacrificial relationships, whether between lovers, friends, or parents and children.
Charlie Loyd on how disasters are socially constructed:
Which disasters are counted as disasters? If you’ve subscribed for a while you may already be sick of this point, but it seems important to me. About 15 years ago, there was an event that killed roughly a thousand times as many people as these fires have. It wasn’t a war, and it wasn’t in a part of the world that you’ve never heard about. It was a natural diaster that killed more than 70,000 people in one of the richest, safest, most connected places. It was the 2003 European heat wave. The heat wave was certainly reported on, but mainly as a huge inconvenience – something like the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, which interrupted air travel – and less as a prodigiously lethal disaster. But it was. It killed four or five times more people than the terrible 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and over ten times more than have died in all California’s earthquakes and fires combined. Yet we don’t think of Europe as a borderline overambitious place for human lives to take root, a zone where nature rejects us, because it isn’t; it’s mostly very hospitable.
If natural versus human-caused disasters is a vertical distinction, some some scholars prefer to skip it and make only a horizontal distinction: natural hazards versus disasters. Disasters are never natural in the ordinary sense because they always could have been avoided or mitigated by human choices. Everything that we call a disaster started as a hazard: hazards themselves are only risks, not harms. Whether and how hazards become disasters is shaped by governmental, infrastructural, and economic choices, conscious or unconscious.
Thinking like this makes me a little less mad than the next person, maybe, at PG&E, the power company that’s accused of letting the fires start. According to various lawsuits, they maintained their cables and corridors poorly, and ran power when they shouldn’t have, and their sparks set off wildfires. If this is true, they should pay some recompence and do better next time. Okay. But wildfires will happen. You can’t prevent all ignition sources everywhere in the forests. Sooner or later a dry lightning strike, or friction as a tree falls, or a spark between two rocks in a landslide, or something else will set it off. And the longer it’s been since the last fire, the hotter and faster it’ll burn.
I hear people say with disgust that these smoky days are the new normal. But the forests burned every year, in vast areas, though in cooler, slower, individually smaller fires, up until the genocides of settlement. The nearly smokeless summers that my parents’ generation can talk about weren’t the system at equilibrium; they were already an effect of unsustainable imbalance. The oldest Californian never saw the kind of forest we’ll need. If we don’t want this kind of fire, the kind that kills whole families, and if we don’t want to cut down all the plants and be done with the unpredictability of nonhuman life, we’re still left with fires. Safer fires, but smoky fires.
There’s a more on this point in the linked piece than these excerpts can capture. I recommend subscribing to Loyd’s newsletter if you don’t already.
Thus far in 2018, we have sold at least 10 times more books, in volume, through our distributor than through our store, but we have earned about the same amount from each.
Anne Trubek has been writing a fascinating newsletter on the publishing business, from the lens of a small press. See also the previous edition, “The Cost of Books”.