Friday Round-up – May 1, 2020

Note – this is an experimental posting format. I’ve thought about increasing the number of posts I commit to per week, but I don’t want to add unnecessary work if I’m not willing to stick it out. Let’s be honest: sometimes it’s really hard to get a single post out each Monday that I’m satisfied with, so increasing my posting frequency just to for the sake of increasing my output is a terrible idea. I will run a short experiment to see how easy it is for me to get out a Friday Round-up for the next month. If the experiment goes well, I’ll consider making it a part of the regular rotation. You can find the first round-up post here from April 24th.

Have you ever noticed the tendency that when you’re thinking about a topic, you seem to notice it everywhere? I first became aware of its phenomenology back in my university days, where stuff that I was learning in my lectures seemingly popped up randomly in my non-class time. Turns out, there is a word for that feeling – the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, also known as the frequency bias. It’s why you start to see your car’s model everywhere after buying one. I bring this up because today’s articles are all loosely connected with scientific literacy in the digital age (especially as it relates to COVID). The more I read about thoughts concerning how to understand research about the pandemic, the more content I noticed about the topic of scientific literacy in general. This might be the phenomenon/my bias at play, or maybe the algorithms that govern my feeds are really in tune with my concerns.

Here is my round-up list for the week ending on May 1st:

📖Article – What You Need to Know about Interpreting COVID-19 Research | The Toronto Star

My round-up for the week started with this short article that was open in one of my browser tabs since last week. There is a lot of information floating around in our respective feeds, and most of it can charitably be called inconclusive (and some of it is just bad or false). We’ve suddenly all become “experts” in epidemiology over the last month, and I want to remind myself that just because I think I’m smart, doesn’t mean I have the context or experience to understand what I’m reading. So, this article kicked off some light reflection on scientific and data literacy in our media landscape.

📖Article – Experts Demolish Studies Suggesting COVID-19 is No Worse Than Flu | Ars Technica

This next piece pairs nicely with our first link, and includes reporting and discussion of recent flair ups on Twitter criticizing recent studies. Absent of the pressure being applied by the pandemic, what this article describes is something that normally takes place within academic circles – experts putting out positions that are critiqued by their peers (sometimes respectfully, sometimes rudely). Because of the toll the pandemic is exacting on us, these disagreements are likely more heated as a result, which are taken to be more personally driven. I link this article not to cast doubt over the validity of the scientific and medical communities. Rather, I am linking to this article to highlight that our experts are having difficulty grappling with this issues, so it’s foolish to think us lay-people will fare any better in understanding the situation. Therefore, it’s incumbent on journalists to be extra-vigilant in how they report data, and to question the data they encounter.

📽Video – Claire Wardle: Why Do We Fall for Misinformation | NPR/TED

The Ars Technica piece raises a lot of complex things that we should be mindful of. There are questions such as:

  • Who should we count as authoritative sources of information?
  • How do we determine what an authoritative source of information should be?
  • What role does a platform like Twitter play in disseminating research beyond the scientific community?
  • How much legitimacy should we place on Twitter conversations vs. gated communities and publication arbiters?
  • How do we detangle policy decisions, economics, political motives, and egos?
  • How much editorial enforcement should we expect or demand from our news sources?

There are lots of really smart people who think about these things, and I’m lucky to study at their feet via social media and the internet. But even if we settle on answers to some of the above questions, we also have to engage with a fundamental truth about our human condition – we are really bad at sorting good information from bad when dealing at scale. Thankfully, there are people like Claire Wardle, and her organization FirstDraft that are working on this problem, because if we can’t fix the signal to noise ratio, having smart people fixing important problem won’t amount to much if we either don’t know about it, or can’t action on their findings. I was put onto Claire Wardle’s work through an email newsletter from the Centre for Humane Technology this week, where they highlighted a recent podcast episode with her (I haven’t had time to listen to it as of writing, but I have it queued up: Episode 14: Stranger Than Fiction).

📖 Essay – On Bullshit | Harry Frankfurt

All of this discussion about knowledge and our sources of it brought me back to grad school and a course I took on the philosophy of Harry Frankfurt, specifically his 1986 essay On Bullshit. Frankfurt, seemingly prescient of our times, distinguishes between liars and bullshitters. A liar knows a truth and seeks to hide the truth from the person they are trying to persuade. Bullshit as a speech act, on the other hand, only seeks to persuade, irrespective of truth. If you don’t want to read the essay linked above, here is the Wikipedia page.

I hope you find something of value in this week’s round-up and that you are keeping safe.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

The Value of Coziness

Our dog, Gus, sleeping in front of the (artificial) fire.

I learned a valuable lesson this Christmas about being intentional with how one goes about building their space. With all the decorations up – the tree, the lights, and arranging the room to nurture a sense of closeness and conversation – my wife and I were creating a feeling of a cozy home. As we packed up the decorations this past weekend to reflect the end of the holiday season, I felt a twinge of sadness. I will both miss the excitement that comes with the holiday break (yay time off work!), but also the feeling of coziness that comes from Christmas decorations. The green from the tree, the red from the decorations, and the warm yellow hue of the lights. More than time off, I am going to miss relaxing in the living room with the main lights off, basking in the glow of the tree and candles we had burning.

Surprising, candles played an important role of this. I first noticed it back in October during our honeymoon. We had a short stop in Germany to visit family, and it was customary for us to enjoy dinner together by candle light. It gave things an intimate, personal feeling, where time stood still as we enjoyed each other’s company.

I learned that there is a word to describe this feeling. I was listening to the Art of Manliness podcast where they discussed the Danish concept of hygge, which can be translated to represent something like the art of getting cozy. It encompasses a number of sensory feelings you get, such as when you come in after being out in the snow, and you warm up in fresh clothes and a hot beverage. Light, smells, decorations, comfort, and warmth all help one feel cozy, which is attributed in part to explain how the Danes endure long, harsh winters.

This is something I want to carry forward throughout the year. Until now, I’ve largely viewed where I live from a utilitarian perspective – it’s a place to store my stuff. However, now that my basic needs are met, I feel a call to build my space into something that brings me happiness for itself and what it represents, instead of for what it can give or do for me. I want to pay closer attention to all the flourishes that make a house into a home, such as decorations and having things in their place. It’s not just orderliness or tidiness, but instead giving us a place that makes us happy regardless of the harshness beyond our door.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

What I Read in 2019

macro photo of five assorted books
Photo by Syd Wachs on Unsplash

Last week, I gave a highlight of the best books I read in 2019. Below, I present what I read in 2019. By comparison to 2016, 2017, and 2018, last year was a paltry year in reading for me.

TitleAuthorDate CompletedPages
1Harry Potter and the Deathly HallowsJ.K. Rowling6-Jan640
2The Bullet Journal MethodRyder Carroll31-Jan320
3Daring GreatlyBrene Brown4-Feb320
4Trumpocracy – The Corruption of the American RepublicDavid Frum25-Feb320
5DriveDaniel H. Pink4-Mar288
6TwilightStephenie Meyer10-Mar544
7The Gift of FailureJessica Lahey12-Mar304
8Better – A Surgeon’s Notes on PerformanceAtul Gawande27-Mar288
9The Graveyard BookNeil Gaiman11-Apr368
10Bad BloodJohn Carreyrou9-May352
11Atomic HabitsJames Clear23-May320
12Built to LastJim Collins25-May368
13Digital MinimalismCal Newport30-May304
14Right Here Right NowStephen J. Harper14-Jun240
15MasteryRobert Greene20-Jun352
16Complications – A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect ScienceAtul Gawande25-Jun288
17VagabondingRolf Potts29-Jul240
18Becoming SupermanJ. Michael Straczynski4-Aug480
19A Game of ThronesGeorge R.R. Martin11-Aug864
20UltralearningScott H. Young31-Aug304
21Reader Come HomeMaryanne Wolf11-Sep272
22The ThreatAndrew G. McCabe14-Sep288
23IndistractableNir Eyal19-Sep300
24Permanent RecordEdward Snowden22-Sep352
25The Path Made ClearOprah Winfrey19-Nov208
Total:8924

I have a few thoughts as to why my reading rate dropped off significantly last year and what I can do about it in the year to come.

Life Pressures

Last year had a few significant pressures on my life that might have affected my desire to read. We started basement renovations early in the year, only to discover our basement’s foundation was cracked, requiring us to source quotes and opinions for repairs. This delayed our basement renovation, which didn’t finish until the summer. The protracted project weighed heavily on our minds throughout the year as we questioned whether we were making the right decisions for our home repairs, or whether we would need to make additional fixes later down the line.

Another big change for me was a change of my job at work. While I wouldn’t say it affected me as strongly as the basement renos, it disrupted my routine enough to impact my desire to focus on reading when I came home from work. Couple that with another full year as Board Chair for the non-profit I head up, and it left me with less cognitive bandwidth for self-improvement.

Podcasts and Music

If 2016 was my year of purchasing books, 2017 saw me start to utilize Libby to access the library, and 2018 was an all-out race for me to go through as many audiobooks as my brain could absorb, I felt a greater push away from books in 2019. Instead of working my way through 8-15 hours of content for one piece of work, I found the shorter format of podcasts more satisfying on my commutes. I enjoyed the variety in topics, shows, and voices.

However I also found I was drawn back to listening to music instead of information. With the sheer volume of books I’ve consumed in the last three years, it was nice to go long stretches without a goal of getting through books (or trying to learn new things) and instead allow the melodies, riffs, percussion, and lyrics sweep me away.

Book Burnout?

Overall, my rate for the year was a bit varied. I started slow in January and February, then picked back up in March. April only saw one book completed, then I found my footing again through May onward. However, October is when my wife and I traveled abroad for our honeymoon, and I never recovered my reading habit for the rest of the year.

Given that I spent most of the last three years focusing on business, personal development, and productivity books, I didn’t feel a strong desire to read those books in 2019. Even among the books I did read from that area, I found looking back that I don’t remember anything of note from those books. Neither the book’s theses nor the examples they offered have stuck with me as I enter the new year.

I’ve mentioned a few time the concept of the animated bibliography on this blog, and I think I’ve hit peak saturation for the genre. I’ve read the canon, and find that reading new books in the genre is resulting in diminishing returns; that is, I’m not really seeing a lot of new insights being offered that leaves me wanting more.

In my list last week, I commented that the books that I’m drawn to now is starting to shift away from business and productivity and more towards moral lessons found in fiction, biography/memoir, and journalistic explorations of current events. That’s not to say I won’t continue to be tempted to pick up the latest book that promises to fix my life, but it does mean that I’m intending to be more selective in what I choose to prioritize.

Assuming I continue to live a somewhat healthy life that is free from accidents, I figure that I have around 45-50 more years of life left. If I read around 3 books consistently per month, I will get another 1,650 books in my lifetime (4 per month is 2,208 books, and 5 books per month is 2,760 more books before I die). While that sounds like a lot, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the number of books that come out each year and the books that have already been written. There is more to life and learning than being more productive or seeking more meaning in one’s life. I’ve grown to appreciate the value of storytelling this past year, and there are a lot of stories out there to sink into. If I only get access to a few thousand more stories, I should make sure they count.

Happy New Year and Stay Awesome,

Ryan

“The Same Fifteen Academic Studies”

Despite my rant a few weeks back on the podcast-book marketing relationship, there are a few authors I will check out when they appear on podcasts I’m subscribed to.  For instance, Ryan Holiday just released his new book and is out promoting it to various podcast audiences.

He appeared on Rolf Pott’s podcast, Deviate, and had a conversation about what it’s like to write a big idea book.  Towards the end of the episode, he makes an off-hand remark on getting ideas from recently published books, and how he chooses not to do this because it tends to result in recycling the same academic studies.  Given how much I rant about animated bibliographies and short term content bias, I was happy to see some convergence in our ideas – that my amateur attempt on commenting on culture is shared by people I admire and hold in regard.

I’ve transcribed his remarks below, but you can go here to listen to the episode yourself.  Holiday’s comments begin at the 50:37 mark:

Potts: And that’s why you should feel blessed not to be an academic, right, because that’s such a useful model from which to write a book.  The academic world has these different hoops to jump through that often aren’t as useful.  And I would think that, sometimes, there’s types of research, like, do you do much Google or Wikipedia research, or is it mostly books?

Holiday: Yeah, I mean, you have to be careful, obviously, relying on Wikipedia, but yeah you do wanna go get facts here and there, and you gotta check stuff out.  I like to use obituaries.  Let’s say I’m writing about a modern person and they’ve died.  New York Times obituaries, Washington Post obituaries often have lots of really interesting stuff.   Then you can be really confident that dates and places and names are all correct because they’ve been properly fact-checked.  So I like to do stuff like that.  I watch documentaries from time to time.  In this book, there wasn’t really a great book about Marina Abramović, but there was some really great New York Times reporting about her Artist is Present exhibit, and there’s also a documentary with the same name.  So I’m willing to get stuff from anywhere provided I believe it’s verified or accurate, but you can’t be choosy about where your stuff comes from.  And in fact, if you’re only drawing from the best selling books of the last couple of years, just as an aside, an example, I find when I read a lot of big idea business books, it feels like they’re all relying on the same fifteen academic studies.  It’s “the will power” experiment, and “the paradox of choice” experiment, and the “Stanford Prison” experiment!  They think it’s new because it’s new to them, but if they’d read a little bit more widely in their own space, they’d realize that they’d be better off going a bit deeper or treading on some newer ground.

*****
(Note: I’ve lightly edited the transcript to remove filler words and some idiolects).

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Podcasts and Book Marketing

I’ve noticed an annoying trend in the podcast marketing of new books.  The marketing itself works quite well – I’ve purchased a number of books based on authors who appear on podcasts I listen to and discuss the main ideas of the book with the host.

The problem I have is when it seems like a significant amount of the content discussed in the podcast accounts for large chunks of the book’s main ideas.  For instance, I picked up a book recently and all of the key ideas (the theoretical framework and main argument for why the topic is important) laid out in the first 70 pages were discussed on a podcast.  I’m curious whether the rest of the book will be similarly spoiled, but I’m holding out to be surprised.  From what I’ve seen so far, though, the next 150 pages are presented as tactics and strategies to apply the main ideas, so I’m not overly optimistic.

I understand that this is part and parcel of the marketing format for these books.  An author is invited onto a show with a certain audience reach, the two discuss the book as a common framing device for the conversation, and everyone is happy – the author gets promoted, the publisher gets advertising, and the podcast generates revenues on sales kickbacks and sponsored content.   The only person that loses is the reader who pays for a book that was effectively summarized an hour-long conversation for free.  This is doubly bad when the book is an animated bibliography, and you’ve read enough books in the genre to get the punchline from the stories cited.

I can’t put all the blame on the author.  After all, they are just trying to sell their book and there is going to be a lot of repetition of the talking points if you do a lot of interviews.  A lot of the blame, instead, falls on the quality of the podcasts.  I find that podcast hosts tend to stick to a common format of teeing up questions based on key points from the chapters.  Sometimes this is handled smoothly, as in cases where the host poses an interesting question that the author uses to circle back to something discussed in the book.  But I have listened to podcast episodes where the host states a thesis from the book without a question, and the author then just elaborates on that point.

In an ideal world, I would want an interview the way it used to be when I watched Jon Stewart’s run of the Daily Show, where the author would be invited as a guest to the show on the pretense of discussing the book, however the conversation would be about whatever Stewart wanted.  Often the conversation was an excuse to catch up, swap stories, and bore little direct connection with what the book was about; the book was usually mentioned as an afterthought as the interview wrapped up.   Maybe this wouldn’t sell as many books, but at least I wouldn’t feel cheated reading through a book I already had the conclusions for.

Or maybe I have too high of expectations of free content, which runs counter to the content farming that needs to occur to regularly post stuff for consumers.

Rant over (for now).

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Beware the Salesman

Podcast ads.

Hacks and routines.

Blogs that promote and sponsored content.

Look to the incentives and see if they align with your own.

What’s in their interest might not be in mine.

This might change over time.  Sources that don’t sell might eventually sell.  There is a future where I might try to sell you something or join my mailing list.

Beware the one who sells you solutions for problems they don’t have.

Beware the sponsored content coming from authorities you like.

Beware the salesman who makes universal the particular.  The one who puts everyone into a clearly defined box.  The one who makes money on your problems.  The one who charges to join their community.

I’m not saying these are all inherently bad things; merely that they merit many second thoughts.

Secret shortcuts don’t exist.  If they were valuable, they wouldn’t be secret and they wouldn’t be a shortcut – they would be the norm.

Everyone has to make a living.  Everyone has something to sell.  But not everyone has your best interest in mind.

Caveat emptor.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Emotional Baselines and Achievement

A recent SMBC comic discussing how humans tend to revert to emotional baselines got me thinking.  Go check it out; it’s humorously astute.

Shortly after the last Game of Thrones episode aired, reports came out that actor Kit Harington checked himself into a wellness centre to work on personal issues.  This was later corroborated with behind the scenes footage showing some of his emotional reactions as they filmed the final episodes.  Given that the show was one of his first major long-running parts, it’s not unreasonable that he’s experiencing complex thoughts and feelings around the show coming to a close.

Similarly, Olympian Michael Phelps appeared on Tony Robbins’s podcast and discussed his experiences with depression after his achievements in the pool.  He notes that after running on an emotional high from training and competing, returning to “normal life” without any substantial goals is a tough adjustment for athletes.  They spend long chunks of their lives devoted to a singular aim, and once they close that chapter of their lives, it can be difficult to find meaning in more mundane pursuits.  Instead of reverting to a normal baseline, their sense of balance is skewed and their baseline dips emotionally lower.

I’m neither an acclaimed actor nor athlete, but I have experienced similar emotional falloffs that helps me relate to what these two people might be going through.  After a summer of outward bound adventure in my army cadet days (we climbed mountains, glaciers, and biked through the Albertan countryside), I returned to my normal high school life and I experienced a week or so of crushing depression.  I felt that after climbing a mountain, what else could I possibly experience in life that would top that?  Setting aside that I was a teenager and lacked a more global perspective on life, in that moment I felt that I had peaked, and there was nothing left for me to achieve or look forward to.

The so-called “quarter-life crisis,” which for many coincides with graduating from four grueling years of undergraduate study, is a similar experience, where you no longer are striving towards a goal and now have to seek out to find your own meaning in life.  The vast, open stretch before you is daunting in its emptiness.  But, instead of possibility, you view the void with pessimism – what do I have before me that can possible measure to what has come before?

I don’t have children, but I suspect that the “empty nest” feeling that parents get when their children head out on their own is similar.  You’ve spent nearly two decades caring for your children, nurturing and guiding them towards self-sufficiency, and now that they are heading out, your goal is largely fulfilled and you need to redefine your identity and time in a post-dependent world.

When you experience the closing of a long-term goal that has spanned years, there seems to be a harsh recalibration period for your emotions.  Not only do you snap back to baseline, but you have to redefine your expectations for the baseline, and re-code that experience with a new sense of purpose and meaning.  The longer you stay in this limbo, it seems the harder you languish.

Achievement and success is wonderful, but I think we tend to only tell stories of the climb up the mountain and we tend to forget the back-half of the experience when we carefully climb back down, taking care not to fall back to earth.  I think sharing these stories is important because it lets us know we are not alone in the dark.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan