How I remember what I read and connect it to what else I’ve read

Robert Heaton has a post, “How to read,” that describes how he annotates books he reads, then produces a “writeup” of them afterwards. He then makes flashcards of them, using Anki, a spaced-repetition flashcard program.

This Twitter thread has more suggestions. I do something similar to Heaton, except that I don’t use Anki but do copy annotated quotes to Devonthink Pro. It’s an amazing program you’ve seen appear before, but only if you’ve been reading a very long time. I use it, basically, as Steven Berlin Johnson describes here and here. But when I finish a new book, I’ll check the “see also” pane of Devonthink Pro to see what else the program dredges up.

For example, right now I’m re-reading William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade. Because it’s a re-read, I’m trying to decide if I should keep the book (I have too many) or donate it or give it away. I’m reading the section about L.A., and I found that, in my previous read, I’d connected it to something Paul Graham had written. Here’s the passage in its entirety:

“But my particular crazies are not why I find writing so difficult. It’s more like this: Everything’s so goddamn nice out there. Sure, they bitch about their smog, but unless you’re a Hawaiian born and bred, the weather is terrific. And so many of the basic necessities of life are made so easy for you: The markets are often open twenty-four hours a day, nobody snarls at you in the stores when you’re trying to buy something. It’s all just . . . swell.” (77)

This makes working in California harder, but also more pleasant. And some of those advantages have changed: I perceive Southern Californians as nice, but in a superficial way. The East Coast probably has 24-hour markets now.

Paul Graham even lists the California attitude as an advantage for startups:

“What makes the Bay Area superior is the attitude of the people. I notice that when I come home to Boston. The first thing I see when I walk out of the airline terminal is the fat, grumpy guy in charge of the taxi line. I brace myself for rudeness: remember, you’re back on the East Coast now.

The atmosphere varies from city to city, and fragile organisms like startups are exceedingly sensitive to such variation. If it hadn’t already been hijacked as a new euphemism for liberal, the word to describe the atmosphere in the Bay Area would be “progressive.” People there are trying to build the future. Boston has MIT and Harvard, but it also has a lot of truculent, unionized employees like the police who recently held the Democratic National Convention for ransom, and a lot of people trying to be Thurston Howell. Two sides of an obsolete coin.” : http://www.paulgraham.com/bubble.html

So I was too lazy to include a proper citation of Graham’s essay, but the basic ideas are there. Now I look at the “see-also” panel:

Often this yields nothing. But there is a link to this CNN piece, from 2011:

Part of the issue is that the nice things about California are becoming less nice as the state gets more crowded. It used to be the suburban dream to move to Orange County, amid the orchards and farms. With almost all the farmland gone, parts of this one-magical county, home to Disneyland, start to seem usual and urban.

I’d completely forgotten about reading it, of course. But it fits nicely with the overall theme.

The next link concerns hallucinogens (I don’t see obvious relevance), and the next is about experimental evolution (could be relevant, depending on what I’m writing or thinking about). Another concerns the “euphemism treadmill:”

But as millions of time-share owners can attest, there is no substitute for a clear “no.” My generation has spent decades trying to make things sound less unpleasant by coining new words to replace the older, harsh-sounding ones. The result of this “euphemism treadmill,” as Steven Pinker has dubbed it, is not that everyone moves to a new, higher plane, free of the old unpleasantness; it’s that the new word takes on all the disagreeable connotations of the old one, and then people start looking for a new euphemism.

“Water closet” becomes “toilet” (originally a term for any body care, as in “toilet kit”), which becomes “bathroom”, which becomes “rest room,” which becomes “lavatory.” “Garbage collection” turns into “sanitation,” which turns into “environmental services.”

Again, I’m not sure it’s relevant to anything I might write in the next couple days—but it could be. It could also fit some grant proposals I’m working on.

For me, there’s a pure memory component to reading, just as there is for Heaton. But having Devonthink Pro connect the pieces is the real secret sauce.

(Not very secret sauce, since Devonthink Pro has existed for a decade and a half, if not longer, but no one else seems to know about or use it.)

Links: Reading, drugs, civility, The Deuce, the schools, and more!

* “Why We Don’t Read, Revisited,” on the American Time Use Survey and related topics. Ill news along many dimensions. See also “Reading, anyone?

* “The Quant King, the Drug Hunter, and the Quest to Unlock New Cures.”

* “‘Don’t burn the flag’ and 11 more rules for free speech.” “You have the right to do things you still shouldn’t do” is the takeaway here.

* “Sex workers vs. the Internet,” presumably SFW, and there is a novel or two in here. Also like SFW, “Pornhub is opening a futuristic, interactive art show.” Given the state of modern art, or “art,” I’d guess this to be better than the (low) average.

* “The War on Tesla, Musk, and the Fight for the Future.”

* “Florida, Full of Dread;” I ordered the book based on this review.

* “Microsoft Employees Up in Arms Over Cloud Contract With ICE.” And how could they not be?

* “‘As a human being, I can’t do that’: Worker at migrant holding facility quits over family separations.” A rare episode of apparent humanity in this despicable episode.

* “Why Women Don’t Code;” certainly not the final answer.

* “How The Deuce Turned Its Lens on a Female Porn Auteur;” it’s in Vanity Fair and so probably SFW.

* Why schools are inept at dealing with bullies—or deal with them poorly. If you guess that lawsuits have a role in this story, you are correct.

* “The trouble with Johnny Depp.” By now you’ve likely read the article, but, if not, here it is.

* “The Legacy of Interview Magazine and a Trip to 1988.”

* How to stop the decline of public transport in rich countries.

* Wendelstein 7-X achieves world record for plasma containment.

* Why alternate vehicles like bikes and scooters will conquer the city.

* Barents Sea seems to have crossed a climate tipping point.

Thoughts on an encounter with Rene Girard

That encounter is through a couple of his books but mostly Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World; in grad school I started Deceit, Desire, and the Novel a couple times but could never get past some of the more ridiculous assertions in it (more on that later). Cynthia Haven’s Evolution of Desire: A Life of Rene Girard is the impetus for the latest bout of reading, and I find the biography more satisfying than the primary reading: it softens and contextualizes the kind of claims that make me quit a book. But it’s still suitably inscrutable and koanic as to be interesting: “For Girard, however, literature is more than a record of historical truth; it is the archive of self-knowledge.” Which is great! But I’m not entirely sure what it means or if it’s true—which is descriptive, not critical.

He is an intellectual: “I once asked Girard what the biggest events of his life were. Oh, he assured me immediately, they were all events in his head. His thoughts were what mattered.” Haven isn’t fully convinced, maybe rightly, but I’m attracted to that idea—that it’s about the mind more than the environment. Girard’s method is also unusual, among social scientists, at least:

He studied human behavior as reflected in the greatest works of literature, and found in them a recurring analytical observation of the serious consequences of mimetic behavior. This discovery opened his eyes to the hidden dynamic of group violence.

Is literature the right place to look? To me, literature is the exceptional, bizarre, and unusual; the usual is too boring to include. I wonder if Girard is suffering from selection bias. (Haven does find a fun quote from Milan Kundera: “The art of the novel is anthropology.” Is the same true of film?)

Anyway, when I read Girard, I usually have the same problem I do with most philosophers: there are some interesting passages but too many ridiculous claims that make me close the book and go read someone else. Or I think too much about what’s true. Consider this, with Chris Blattman:

The only reason I’m aware of the René Girard worldview is because I glanced at the “What should I ask Chris Blattman?” questions. [laughs] I saw that name, and I thought, “Oh, I don’t know who that is.” My 10 minutes of investigation suggests that I find nothing about this idea resonates with my personal experience in particular wars.

So maybe “the greatest works of literature” are not a great guide to the real world or analyzing it. And I say this as someone who reads all the time. The great works may be more time-, technology-, class-, and culture-dependent than many of us literary types want to admit.

That said, when Girard’s ideas get in the head, one starts to see them in many places. I listened to Jon Ronson’s podcast / Audible series “The Butterfly Effect,” which is “sort of about porn, but it’s about a lot of other things. It’s sad, funny, moving and totally unlike some other nonfiction stories about porn – because it isn’t judgmental or salacious.” And that got me connecting. In Girard’s cycle of scapegoating and social cohesion, it may be that porn stars are the best examples of a modern group that are hated, loved, sacrificed—and reborn. They provide a service or set of works that are widely consumed but also widely reviled. People oscillate among extreme feelings regarding them. Most of polite society disparages what they do, even as they have a broad, though largely ignored, impact. The highly regulated, highly PR-driven healthcare, education, and government sectors largely revile people who do or make porn, but that’s in part because of a vague but pervasive social feeling about what is “appropriate.” Should we look first at what people do and want, then look at what is “appropriate?” Or should we try to imagine what’s appropriate? If we do that, we may be entering the separation and scapegoating cycle Girard posits.

That being said, to get to the point of connection, you may have to wade. Things Hidden, for example, as with most “philosophy,” is at least twice as long as it needs to be and half as clear, if that. I would’ve liked more footnotes and a style closer to Cowen or Thiel than to a style like academic philosophy. Long-time readers know that I have a certain fascination with and derision for philosophy (see here or here or here) for examples. Philosophy often seems to be a search for broad, generalizable rules that in my view don’t exist or rarely exist; I’d rather start with situations and dilemmas and attempt to reason from there, which may be why I like novels. Indeed, rather than start this essay from first principles I began from an encounter with a book and then reasoned forward.

Overall, very interesting, though Girard’s life was not, particularly. He lived in and for ideas, as near as one can tell, which is fine; my life is probably pretty boring, viewed from the outside. If exciting is World War II, boring and well-fed is pretty good. There are many problems today, and those problems are worth remembering, but many of us don’t think historically and forget what yesterday was really like.

Maybe this says something bad about me, but I feel like I’ve read enough Girard without reading much Girard.

Still, this post is too negative. There are many things to admire, like this, from Haven:

Girard told me that our judicial system is the modern antidote to the mob, with its cycles of accusation and vengeance, its contagious fears and ritual denunciations—and on the whole it works. It has an authority to impose a final punishment of its own—vengeance stops at the courtroom.

The judicial system is, to use a Kahneman term, very system 2—that is, it is slow, deliberate, and often not our first choice. We’d rather make instant heuristic decisions, then allow our internal press secretary to justify those decisions. The judicial system may attempt to short-circuit that fast and unconscious process.

There are also amusing moments in Evolution of Desire that reveal historical change, as when we find this, about the University of Indiana just after World War II: “While the expenses of a sorority were normally beyond the reach of a fatherless student, the local chapters were eager to bolster their academic reputation, so she was recruited to Delta Gamma.” “Academic reputation” does not appear to be a key factor in current college fraternities or sororities.

Links: The Model 3 factory, Tolkien and Middle-earth, intra-sex competition, sugar, and more!

* Inside Tesla’s Model 3 factory.

* “Six Forces Disrupting Higher Education.” Seems way overly optimistic to me and doesn’t adequately consider alternate hypotheses.

* Conversations with Tyler: David Brooks on Youth, Morality, and Loneliness. The best line, in my view: “I would say that one of the things that’s noticeable about affluent people — and this has happened to me — is, as soon as people make money, they seem to purchase loneliness.” Not only do we buy loneliness, we then reinforce it through laws. What a bad set of choices! We really ought to stop doing this.

* “Terraforming Ourselves: What sort of world do we want to live in? Science fiction has answered the question in wildly different ways.”

* “How Tolkien created Middle-earth.”

* “The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce.” Tom Wolfe on Intel in 1983.

* “Female Intrasexual Competition: From Demons to Better Angels.”

* “Invisible asymptotes,” a discouraging title for a very good and interesting essay, especially about each tech company later on. Start with the header, “Amazon’s invisible asymptote.”

* A Scrappy Makeover for The Times Literary Supplement, a Tweedy Literary Fixture.

* “American toddlers eat more sugar than the amount recommended for adults.” See Gary Taubes, The Case Against Sugar. Chances are that however bad you may think sugar is, it’s worse.

* “How Batteries Went from Primitive Power to Global Domination:” one of these articles that is all upside and no downside.

* Why is that genre of fiction dead? If you guess the answer is “tax law,” you guess better than I do. Will the rise of ebooks and the infinite publishing capacity they offer revive some “dead” genres? Also, “Cold Equations” is about the publishing industry, and while I don’t approve of some of its framing, it is interesting.

* “The Scooter Economy;” scooter sharing is a bigger deal than is commonly understood by most people. The rise of electric scooters is also a battery story.

* “One Woman Who Knew Her Rights Forced Border Patrol Off a Greyhound Bus.”

* “On the Sad State of Macintosh Hardware.” Absolutely true and also quite strange, given how easy the situation is to rectify. Maybe most users don’t care? Related, “Dell XPS 13 (9360) Review from a lifelong Mac user.”

Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America — Emily Dufton

Grass Roots is about marijuana, yes, but it’s also about what it means to live in society and what it means to be:

The battle over the drug has always been about much more than whether individuals have the right to smoke, eat, or vape it for effect. Instead, questions about marijuana have long been tied to ideas about freedom and liberty, safety and security, and the rights of an individual versus the collective good—themes that are at the core of many other historical debates.

Much of the book is new to me: I didn’t know how much decriminalization happened in the ’70s, when 11 states decriminalized weed. I didn’t realize how much anti-drug hysteria occurred in the ’80s. I didn’t know the specific mechanisms that drove drug policy back and forth. Now I do, but I’ll warn that the book is often more detailed than most readers want. There is a lot of organizational discussion (“Given his former affiliation with the NFP, Turner encouraged the first lady to work specifically with that organization. PRIDE and FIA did good work, Turner knew, but the NFP was led by social conservatives…”); be ready to skip parts, unless you are uncommonly engaged by bureaucratic jousting—you may be. You may also read the book in conjunction with Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. And of course the subtitle of Grass Roots is clever.

Evidence and knowledge play small roles in the periods that see relatively legal weed and relatively illegal weed. Dufton notes:

Despite its popularity, Just Say No did little to actually decrease youth drug use. In 1988 … the University of Michigan’s “Monitoring the Future” survey found that, although rates of adolescent drug use in the United States had dropped over the past seven years, they were still “the highest in the industrialized world.”

The United States is an outlier in many respects, and this is, or was, apparently one of them. I got “Just Say No” drug education in schools and it seems to have been, at least anecdotally, not productive. It’s also not productive to lump all illegal drugs together, as many “education” programs do: drugs vary considerably in their danger and uses. Michael Pollan’s new book, for example, describes the many ways psychedelics may be therapeutic. And thinking about actual danger is important; I don’t know that there are any documented cases of overdosing on marijuana, but the opioid epidemic is well-known and is killing tens of thousands of people per year. Why do we treat weed, LSD, and morphine and heroin similarly? They’re not.

Other aspects of ignorance drove and still drive drug policy. “A 1917 report from the Treasure Department noted that in Texas, only ‘Mexicans and sometimes Negroes and lower class whites’ smoked marijuana for pleasure and warned that ‘drug-crazed’ minorities could harm or assault upper-class white women.” Then, “films like Reefer Madness, released in 1936, associated marijuana use with murder, miscegenation, and suicide.” Which could only be convincing to someone who has never seen a person high on weed: they are dangerous only to pizza and other snack foods.

Money and sex play major roles in the Grass Roots story. The desire for tax revenue entices some states. And the desire to sell paraphernalia entices entreprenurs. Playboy offers some grants to marijuana-focused organizations; it exists at the nexus of sex and money. And some of the early advocates for marijuana have, uh, personal problems that retard their advocacy:

Two months after moving in with Stroup, Newman and Stroup’s wife took MDA, a powerful psychoactive amphetamine known for enhancing sex, and spent the night together while Stroup was visiting the Playboy Foundation in Chicago to solicit funds.

By 1978, we saw “a flood of additional states passing new marijuana laws and the president decriminalizing the drug at the federal level.” But “the downfall of Peter Bourne and the subsequent downfall of Keith Stroup brought the country’s first experiment with decriminalization to a close.” Sort of like Parnell and Kitty O’Shea in nineteenth-century Ireland. I wonder if anyone has yet written the definitive book on the role of sex scandals in world political history.

Another pro-pot politico working for the Carter administration got in media trouble through sex, or a perceived connection with sex; he was a doctor whose secretary was “struggling emotionally,” and

To help Metsky relax, Bourne wrote her a prescription for fifteen Quaaludes, a mild tranquilizer that, though often used to treat insomnia, was also known socially to enhance sex.

This eventually got to the press. My impression, too, is that, regardless of what is “known socially,” Quaaludes just make people sleepy or lethargic, which would not seem to offer the erotic boost that they apparently did in the popular imagination—another example, maybe, of the small role played by knowledge and evidence in the marijuana saga.

Dufton also writes, “Cannabis was believed to be so safe [in the late 1800s] that the drug was marketed to women through romantic postcard campaigns that showed concerned mothers applying a cannabis salve to soothe the gums of teething babies and relieve children’s colds. As a pain reliever, marijuana worked wonderfully.” Does it work better and more safely than Tylenol (which is extremely dangerous, though not addictive)? I wonder if we know that, today: conducting the research may itself be illegal.

Two things strike me as odd or missing (or I missed them). One is the absence of any discussion of lead in gas in the rise of drug use. This may sound esoteric, but leaded gas has been implicated in “violent crime, lower IQs, and even the ADHD epidemic.” Leaded gas may also have led to higher drug use in the ’60s and ’70s. The other is the absence of any discussion of age cohorts. In the ’60s and ’70s, baby boomers were teens and young adults—ages at which drug experimentation is common and favoring drugs is common. By the ’80s, many were parents themselves—and parents are much more conservative, especially about their own children (several chapters of Grass Roots focus intelligently on the role of parent movements), than experimental 21-year olds. I don’t think and wouldn’t argue that either factor is dispositive, and both can coexist with Dufton’s other work.

Links: Abusing the university bureaucracy, democracy, driverless cars, don’t be a writer, and more!

* “Title IX Is Too Easy to Abuse.” Seems obvious, but I’ll repeat it anyway.

* “Politics is bad because we use an 18th century voting system.” Similar to American democracy is doomed.

* “How Trump’s Election Shook Obama: ‘What if We Were Wrong?’“, much more interesting than the usual, especially:

But days later, Mr. Obama seemed less sanguine. “I don’t know,” he told aides. “Maybe this is what people want. I’ve got the economy set up well for him. No facts. No consequences. They can just have a cartoon.”

* “As Uber and Tesla struggle with driverless cars, Waymo moves forward.” Things I had not realized.

* “The Diversity Staff at the University of Michigan Is Nearly 100 People.” I wonder how much diversity that amount of money would buy in terms of raw tuition.

* “How much are words worth?” Though I think this underestimates, dramatically, what many are making; consider e.g. Stratechery, which charges for its newsletter / daily access. Or the many for-profit trade pubs out there. Nonetheless, “Don’t let your kids grow up aspiring to be writers” is good advice.

* What if I’m just a minor writer?

* “Evolution’s Worst Mistake? How About External Testicles?” Article better than the title implies.

* One Reform to Save America.” I’d not heard of the four-party, mid-century concept, but it makes sense. And “There are over 6,000 breweries in America, but when it comes to our politics, we get to choose between Soviet Refrigerator Factory A and Soviet Refrigerator Factory B” is a good point. This is the core of the proposal:

The way to do that is through multimember districts and ranked-choice voting. In populous states, the congressional districts would be bigger, with around three to five members per district. Voters would rank the candidates on the ballot. If no candidate had a majority of first-place votes, then the candidate with the fewest first-place votes would be eliminated. Voters who preferred that candidate would have their second-choice vote counted instead. The process would be repeated until you get your winners.

Sounds like an improvement to me. Political scientists can explain why the current U.S. system doesn’t work (see also the link above).

* “Here’s How Higher Education Dies: A futurist says the industry may have nowhere to go but down. What does the slide look like?” I’d call this speculative; I’ve seen so many essays like it, none of which have come to fruition. This line of argument seemed more reasonable from 2009 – 2013 and seems less plausible today.

* “Pedal power: the rise and rise of cargo bikes in Germany.” I wonder if it’s true or a bogus trend story.

* “Equipment for Living: Losing and recovering oneself in drugs and sobriety.” On psychedelics, ritual, and more.

* “Billions in U.S. solar projects shelved after Trump panel tariff.” The phrase “own goal” comes to mind, for both this and the 2016 election more generally.

No one takes the next step

Yesterday’s New York Times has an article, “Thanks for the painful reminder,” that starts, “Six months ago, our teenage son was killed in a car accident. I took a month off from work because I couldn’t get out of bed.” Almost everyone knows someone who was killed, almost killed, or seriously mangled in a car crash, yet no one is thinking or talking about how to reduce reliance on cars. In 2016 34,439 died in car crashes. None or few those parents and spouses start organizations dedicated to reducing car usage. Why not? School shootings keep inspiring survivors and their families to start organizations around guns, but the same doesn’t seem to happen with cars.

The author of the article doesn’t take the next step, either. It’s an omission that almost no one talks about, either. We’ve had the technologies to improve this situation for more than a century.

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