Digital Minimalism — Cal Newport

All of Cal Newport’s books could be titled, “How to Be an Effective Person.” Or, maybe, “How to Be an Effective Person In This Technological Epoch.” Digital Minimalism is, like Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, about why you should quit or drastically limit the digital distractions that have proliferated in much of modern life. To me, it seemed obviously necessary to do so a long time ago, so there’s a large component of preaching-to-the-choir in me reading and now recommending this book. I’m barely on Facebook or most other social networks, which seem anathema to doing anything substantive or important.

A story. A friend sent me an email about Newport’s article “Is email making professors stupid?” I told him that, even in grad school, I’d figured out the problems with email and checked it, typically, once per day—sometimes every other day. The other grad students were in awe of that (low?) rate. I was like, “How do you get any writing done otherwise?” I leave it as an exercise to the reader to square this circle. You may notice that some of my novels are out there and their novels are not.

In my experience, too, most profs actually like the distraction, the work-like feeling without having to do the hard part. In reality, it is not at all hard to open your email every other day and spent 90%+ of your time focused on your work. If you don’t do this, then, as Newport says, “The urge to check Twitter or refresh Reddit becomes a nervous twitch that shatters uninterrupted time into shards too small to support the presence necessary for an intentional life.” And yet many of us, as measured by data, do just that. I buy many of Newport’s arguments while also being skeptical that we’ll see large-scale change. Yet we should seek individual change; many of the online systems are psychologically bad for us:

The techno-philosopher Jaron Lanier convincingly argues that the primacy of anger and outrage outline is, in some sense, an unavoidable feature of the medium: In an open marketplace for attention, darker emotions attract more eyeballs that positive and constructive thoughts. For heavy Internet users, repeated interaction with this darkness can become a source of draining negativity—a steep price that many don’t even realize they’re paying to support their compulsive connectivity.

Is “the primacy of anger and outrage” really “an unavoidable feature?” I like to think not; I like to think that I try to avoid anger and outrage, making those tertiary features at best, and instead I try to focus on ideas and thinking. So I like to think that I’m avoiding those things.

Still, compulsive connectivity online may also be costing us offline, real-world connection. That’s a point in Johann Hari’s book Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression, which you should also read.

The book describes how modern social media systems and apps exploit our desire for random or intermittent positive reinforcement. Because we don’t know what we’re going to get anytime we boot up Twitter or similar, we want to visit those sites more often. We lose perspective on what’s more important—finishing a vital long-term project or checking for whatever the news of the day might be, however trivial. Or seeing random thoughts from our friends. Newport doesn’t argue that we shouldn’t have friends or that social networking systems don’t have some value—he just points out that we can derive a huge amount of the value from a tiny amount of time (“minimalists don’t mind missing out on small things; what worries them more more is diminishing the large things they already know for sure make life good”). But our “drive for social approval” often encourages us to stay superficially connected, instead of deeply connected.

In the book, we also get visits to the Amish, suggestions we take a 30-day break from digital bullshit, and case studies from Newport’s readers. I don’t think “Solitude and Leadership” is cited, but it might as well have been.

Another version of this book might be, “opportunity costs matter.” If there’s anything missing, it’s a deeper exploration of why, if many digital social media tools are bad for us, we persist using them—and what our use may say about us. Perhaps revealed preferences show that most of us don’t give a damn about the intentional life. Probably we never have. Maybe we never will. Arguably, history is a long drive towards greater connectivity, and, if this trend is centuries, maybe millennia, old, we can expect it to continue. Many older religious figures worried deeply that technologies would take people away from their religious communities and from God, and those figures were actually right. Few of us, however, want to go back.

For a book about craft and living an intentional life, the paper quality of this book is oddly bad.

Links: Email’s evils, nuclear needs, rail reductions, Jordan Peterson talk, and debt, debt, debt

* Is email making professors stupid?

* The trouble in getting to Denmark.

* Why the United States will never have high-speed rail, or, the downsides of federalism and our legal culture.

* Conversation with Tyler, “Jordan Peterson on Mythology, Fame, and Reading People.” Lord of the Rings is mentioned. This one is a favorite and also a rebuttal to the occasional “intellectual lightweight” comments one sees online.

* “The Nuclear Option: As atomic power fades, a new band of supporters argues that it is still our best source of clean, reliable, and—yes—safe electricity.”

* “How Student Debt Dragged A Generation Down — And What We Can Do About It.” The supposed “solutions” are pretty lame and don’t solve moral hazard problems. We have a huge problem in that there is a tension between access and cost control. For example, right now many universities have zero incentive to offer programs that will pay back loans and admit students likely to be able to pay back loans. If you make colleges and universities have some skin in the game, though, they will immediately change access rules. “There is no such thing as a free lunch” is a useful rule here. We also need cultural changes: the idea that a degree guarantees a good job and high income is ridiculous, but we don’t want to confront that reality, either. In short, this writer is like 85% correct, but the other 15% really matters.

* “Postmodern Philosophy is a Debating Strategy,” and not an accurate description of much of anything.

* “Climeworks: The Tiny Swiss Company That Thinks It Can Help Stop Climate Change.” Not just the usual.

* From Literature to Web Development: My first 6 weeks at Lambda School.

* “What Happens When Techno-Utopians Actually Run a Country” is not a good title, as the article concerns Italy’s political scene and what happens when the revolutionaries win the power, but the article itself is interesting and makes me wish Umberto Eco were still alive and writing.

* Betty Ballantine, Who Helped Introduce Paperbacks, Dies at 99.

* “Accused College Students Deserve the Presumption of Innocence: Nineteen attorneys general are lobbying against extending that right in Title IX cases on campus.” The current situation is bizarre—and does not reflect well on universities.

* China Will Likely Corner the 5G Market—and the US Has No Plan.

* The evolution of America’s apartment buildings.” Most of these look good to me; I’d move in.

* The Story of Storytelling.

* The state of culture on the Internet, albeit disguised as a different topic.

* “A tale of two 20003s: high rises or high rents.” Fairly obvious and yet strangely opaque to many people.

* System76 Thelio: A Review.

* “I Ditched My Phone and Unbroke My Brain.”

Links: Reading, distraction, Soundcloud rap, Lionel Trilling, bleak Instagram, and more!

* How SoundCloud Rap Took Over Music. I have no idea if any of this is true, but I laughed consistently throughout.

* I prefer the Arts & Letters Daily title, “Lionel Trilling belonged to the last generation of academics who believed that they had something of social importance to communicate.”

* “If San Francisco is so great, why is everyone I love leaving?” This author manages to write a couple thousand words without mentioning “zoning” or “supply” or “demand,” demonstrating that she actually has no idea what’s going on.

* Cal Newport on Why We’ll Look Back at Our Smartphones Like Cigarettes.

* White gold: the rise of alternative milks.

* “‘The Linux of social media’—How LiveJournal pioneered (then lost) blogging.” Interesting that LiveJournal couldn’t turn itself into WordPress or Facebook. In some ways, this is a mismanagement and missed opportunities story. Despite all the Facebook hate in the media, LiveJournal’s story shows how many things Facebook got right—whether you like the company or not, its users sure seem to like it.

* The Oxford Bodleian Library’s ‘secret trove of obscene material.’ In the Times Literary Supplement, so it’s likely SFW. Similarly, “Psst, want to see some dirty books? Try the British Library.”

* The bleak reality of the Instagram experience.

* “Why Have Other Countries Been Dropping Their Wealth Taxes?” Pay attention to reality, not to the slogans.

* The article about Ursula K. le Guin.

* “The Throwback Democrat: Sherrod Brown could help his party win back white working-class voters—but he’s out of sync with the mercilessness of American politics.” Do Democrats want to be Twitter woke, or do they want to win?

* A Sensible Climate Change Solution, Borrowed From Sweden.

* “Public Education’s Dirty Secret.” Matches what I’ve heard. One advantages colleges have, which I rarely see mentioned, is that people actively hostile to the classroom experience leave or are made to leave.

* “Since when is reading James Baldwin out loud in class an academic crime?” Academia parodies itself so effectively that the need for academic novels seems to have dropped.

* “Is the Revolution of 3D-Printed Building Getting Closer?” Let’s hope so, as that would likely substantially decrease construction costs.

* Japanese urbanism and its application to the Anglo-World.

* “Tyler Cowen’s Gospel of Prosperity,” an interview as marvelous as the book that generated it, Stubborn Attachments.

* Reading in the Age of Constant Distraction.

* “The Twitter Takeover of Politics Is Just Getting Started.” Depressing and important. See also The Revolt of The Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium.

Teaching demands starting where comprehension ends

How Craig Barton wishes he’d taught maths” is from Timothy Gowers‘s blog, and many sections are not unique to math; they apply to teaching almost anything. Like this:

I’m jumping around a bit here, but a semi-counterintuitive idea that he advocates, which is apparently backed up by serious research, is what he calls pretesting. This means testing people on material that they have not yet been taught. As long as this is done carefully, so that it doesn’t put students off completely, this turns out to be very valuable, because it prepares the brain to be receptive to the idea that will help to solve that pesky problem. And indeed, after a moment of getting used to the idea, I found it not counterintuitive at all.

In English, “pretesting” as such is often not possible, but it’s useful to attempt to gauge students’s knowledge and go back to wherever the student is confused—which may be very simple aspects of language, like parts of speech. I often had debates about this subject in grad school, when other grad students or professors would lament students’s weak grasp of “basics” or “fundamentals” like comma rules. The stern professors had a point, in that university students should know those things, but I would counter that, if students don’t know them, it’s useful to teach them, even in “advanced” classes. Sometimes students seem to have not been taught much of anything in high-school English classes. Many high-school English classes have devolved into discussions of feelings and vague hand-waving about a given book, and students emerge from them with few concrete skills.

To be sure, sometimes the opposite is true. While teaching in grad school, I had a series of students, all good writers, all of whom had been taught by a particular teacher in a particular high school, and she apparently really drilled students in close reading and essay construction, like someone out of “The Writing Revolution.” The results showed. I meant to send her a letter thanking her but never did. I would guess that she did a form of “pretesting,” albeit without multiple-choice questions, to ascertain students’s skill levels and then base each day in class on what students know. I used to do something similar at times, by doing quick yes/no questions based on raised hands, in order to get a sense of where students were. Now, reading “How Craig Barton wishes he’d taught maths,” I think I should have spent more time and energy on assessment.

In most if not all subjects, it’s not possible to teach (or learn) advanced topics without mastering fundamentals, so an instructor should go back to wherever someone lacks mastery and begin building up from there. If that doesn’t happen, students—in the broadest sense, even outside formal school—at most muddle through and at worst waste everyone’s time. It’s nice to see someone as eminent as Timothy Gowers coming to a similar conclusion.

What great writing looks like: “Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb”

In Richard Rhodes’s Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb, Rhodes quotes nuclear physicist Rudolf Peierls as saying that “[Traitor and spy Klaus Fuchs] was courteous and even-tempered. He was rather silent, unless one asked him a question, when he would give a full and articulate answer; for this Genia called ‘Penny-in-the-slot.'” That’s on page 57.

On page 175, Rhodes describes the famous Trinity atomic bomb test at Alamagordo, New Mexico, and quotes I. I. Rabi, another physicist, at length. Then Rhodes writes, “Fuchs was there to see the new thing he had caused to proliferate, the new control, but no one put a penny in his slot, so he left no record of how the unique experience affected him.” “No one put a penny in his slot:” the phrase does a lot of deft work in that sentence, pointing to the seeming incuriosity of everyone around Fuchs; to Fuchs’s character itself; to the way he responds rather than initiating (despite him working on atomic weapon initiator design). Rhodes takes what could have been an evocative-but-throwaway line and reconfigures it, connecting the two sections of the book through unusual but suddenly gorgeous language.

Another point about this pairing: it can’t really be generalized to a rule. Few if any writing books advise good writers to call back to an evocative description a hundred pages later, and to do so with an unexpected twist. Rhodes does it. He hits the high note here.

The book itself is about history, technology, politics, human motivation, human character, institutions, industrial organization, and many other topics. He writes, for example, about what made communism attractive to western communists, despite the fact that it doesn’t work. He writes, “Communism in any case was intensely fashionable at English universities between the World Wars.” It seems strange that anyone could have been attracted to Communism; as Stalin’s Great Terror unfolds through the 1930s, it becomes even stranger. Then again, socialism is having a strange vogue today, among people who seem not to quite understand what it entails (one definition, from Apple’s included Oxford American Diction: “a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.”) It’s possible of course for a “community” to own a company today, as with coops, or for individuals to own companies; they just tend to be outcompeted by publicly-owned companies, which ought to tell us something useful.

Still, Communism as a topic remains of interest not so much because of the fact that it fails, but because it could inspire people to betray their own, functional countries in favor of a dystopian hellscape like Soviet Russia. What makes a person do that? What does the motivation of a person doing that tell us about people as a whole, personality as a whole? What makes people choose and advocate for the clearly inferior choice? These are questions without final answers, which makes them interesting.

Links: Cheese and olive oil, Greenland is melting, aspirational mate pursuit, OLED computer displays, and more!

* “Greenland’s Melting Ice Nears a ‘Tipping Point.'” I wonder what it is going to take for us to start really doing something, like taxing carbon emissions and building a substantial number of new nuclear power plants.

* Funny book review: “Nice for What? A comic’s look at dating now.” Or, as Arts & Letters Daily puts it, “When did campy misandry become contemporary shorthand for communicating one’s feminist bona fides?” A favorite line: “Having a relationship is a lot like writing: To be good at it, you have to be interested in other people and believe you have something interesting to offer them in return. Many people who pursue either do so poorly because they are actually interested only in themselves.”

* CO2 rises in well-sealed, closed-door bedrooms, so maybe, when possible/feasible, we shouldn’t sleep with the door closed?

* “Aspirational pursuit of mates in online dating markets.”

* “Are we in the Middle of a Programming Bubble?” I have wondered about this, as it seems that programming, or some aspects of it, is paid disproportionately to many peer professions. So why don’t markets adjust? Or are markets adjusting? Is information about just how well programming can pay not propagating to the rest of the market? Or is it really really that hard and most people can’t do it?

* “15-inch, 4K OLED laptops are coming thanks to new displays from Samsung.” OLED displays are amazing, as everyone who has used one knows.

* “[The United Arab Emirates] Held Me as a Spy—And the West Is Complicit.” I don’t get the interest in or fascination with Dubai. The country’s marketing of its liberal values is just marketing.

* “California will sue Huntington Beach over blocked homebuilding.” Good news.

* Colleges and governments have been fleecing Millennials.

* “Another Side of #MeToo: Male Managers Fearful of Mentoring Women.” It’s like no one thinks of second-order consequences.

* How Ideologues Captured the Canadian Publishing Industry.

* Don’t go to law school, but you already know that.

* “Facebook Reports Record Profit.” Keep this story in mind when you read all those hysterical media stories about the company; as you’ve read here, there is no actual Facebook crisis—just a media one. Again, I agree with most of the Facebook criticism, but my verbal agreement is less important than the behavior of users.

* Cal Newport on Why We’ll Look Back at Our Smartphones Like Cigarettes.

* “Why is high school four years?” It could be three or five.

* Why fiction sales are plummeting. Some of the criticism from “Nice for What? A comic’s look at dating now” is likely applicable to fiction too.

* “The Millennial Generation and the Problem of Meaning: Explaining Jordan Peterson’s meteoric rise.”

* Parmigiano-Reggiano is Italy’s practically perfect food? I would have thought olive oil.

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