I recently finished Adam Savage’s maker’s memoir, Every Tool’s a Hammer. I always enjoyed watching MythBusters back in the day, though I wouldn’t say I was a diehard fan – I caught episodes as they aired, but didn’t follow the show. As an adult, I wish I had followed more closely, because I’m finding that I’m drifting towards the maker ethos, and it would have been good to have been mentored in real-time to the show’s airing. I guess that’s why we have reruns and syndication.
Anyway, the book has many great insights, one of which is concerned with giving praise and making sure the recipient of the praise is acknowledged.
Adam reflects that all of his growth came from feedback from his mentors. In the role of a boss, he questions why would he shy away from feedback if he wasn’t happy with something (e.g. someone’s performance or the product of their build). This moment of empathy is a valuable insight to me, because as a leader I often hedge my feedback, wanting to avoid hurt feelings or awkward interactions. But there is a difference between providing feedback for growth, and being cruel. I’ve had many great bosses that helped me grow through their feedback, even if that feedback made me feel less than great. But their feedback was never cruel or meant to belittle me – it held me accountable and showed me what to do for next time.
He also mentions praise – people want to be acknowledged and recognized by the ones signing the cheque. Even if it sounds corny, he says, it goes a long way towards building up your team both in terms of morale and skills.
The Varol piece was new, and as I read it, it reminded me of the Sivers piece, so I’m pairing them together. I’m a little conflicted with the message. On the one hand, I agree with both writers about the sentiments they are expressing. In Varol’s case, often citation becomes a short-hand for original thinking. Rather than expression your own unique ideas, you regurgitate what you’ve consumed from others (whether you are citing it or not, as is on display in the Good Will Hunting example). Likewise, Sivers is on to something when he suggests that integrating facts into our mental apparatus should not require us to cite our sources when it’s no longer the appropriate context. It makes sense to cite sources when writing something that will be graded in school, but it is stilted while in informal settings.
Where I feel conflicted is when there is a need to trace ideas back to verify the content. I don’t think it’s a new phenomenon, but it has certainly accelerated in recent years that misinformation is being thrown out into the void at a rapid pace. The internet has optimized itself on three facts of human nature – we like sensation, we like things that are familiar (that accords with what we already believe), and we are less critical of our in-group. Therefore, information bubbles get set up online, which creates a digital environment that’s conducive to rapid spreading of memetic viruses. When you think about it, it’s a marvelous analogy: the online information bubble is a closed environment where people are like-minded, which amounts to a roughly analogical immune system. A memetic virus then latches hold on one person, who spreads it to people in their network. Since the folks in the network share similar belief structures, the homogeneous group quickly spreads the meme throughout the information bubble. The meme is then incorporated into the belief network of the individuals through repetition and confirmation bias exposure. It writes itself into the belief web, in the same way viruses incorporate themselves into DNA.
I’m using the example of a memetic virus, but I think this framework is equally applied to more benign examples. Scientists release findings in the form of pre-peer reviewed news releases, which gets amplified and distorted through the media, which is then amplified and distorted through information bubbles. See here for an example:
At each phase, part of the signal is lost or transformed, like a social media game of telephone. When one person in the chain misunderstands the data, that impacts how the idea gets replicated. Over time, it becomes the digital version of a cancerous mutation of the base information.
This is why it’s important that we take care of how information is communicated, because as soon as you print something like “the majority of people believe x,” or “studies showed a y% decrease in the effect,” without a proper context of what the data is saying (or its limitations), that gets incorporated into people’s webs of belief. If you are a part of the population that believes something and you read that information, it reinforces your prior beliefs and you continue on in replicating the idea.
And so I’m torn. On the one hand, I shouldn’t need to cite my sources when having a casual conversation (a la Sivers), and I shouldn’t be substituting original thoughts with the ideas of others (a la Varol), but at the same time, I want it to be the case that when I encounter something that it should be verifiable and scruitable. I don’t know what the solution to this is, other than to flag it and remind myself to be wary of absolutist language.
I started this blog for two reasons – because I wanted a public way of practicing what I was learning at the time, and to force myself to write consistently. I decided posting once per week was a manageable target, and I’ve been relatively successful for the last few years. Recently, I’ve added the Friday Round-up as a way to force myself to write more and to share interesting content I stumble upon. When I added the Friday posts, I questioned whether it was worth putting in the effort – was I adding value to any part of the process? On some level, I feel it’s worth it, if for nothing else than to force myself to be a bit more reflective on what I consume. However, Derek Sivers’s point about forcing one’s self to post rapidly comes with some trade-offs. I imagine Seth Godin (another prolific blog poster) sometimes feels the same way by posting daily – that most of his posts aren’t what he would consider good. The mentalities are a bit different; Godin posts as part of his process, whereby you have to make a lot of crap to find the good stuff. Sivers would rather keep the crap more private to give him time to polish up the gems. I’m not sure which style is better. Both admit to keeping the daily writing practice, which is probably the more important lesson to draw from their examples, but it’s still worth considering.
After drafting the above, I kept reading some bookmarked posts from Sivers’s page and found this one written in 2013 after a friend of his died. It’s a heartbreaking reflection on how one spends their time, which included this:
For me, writing is about the most worthy thing I can do with my time. I love how the distributed word is eternal — that every day I get emails from strangers thanking me for things I wrote years ago that helped them today. I love how those things will continue to help people long after I’m gone.
I’m not saying my writing is helping anyone, but the thought that my words will live beyond me touched something within.
I’ve known the author of this YouTube channel for a few years, and I follow him on ye ol’ Instagrams (I love his scotch and cigar posts). But I didn’t know until last month that he also reviews books as part of the BookTube community. I wanted to share this link to show him some love, and because it reminds me of one of my roomies in undergrad who introduced me to the world (and language) of poker. While I’m a terrible player, I have fond memories of watching my roomie play online, if for nothing else than the humor of him yelling at the screen.
Oh, and I like Maria Konnikova’s writing, so I think I’ll check out her book. Another good book by a poker player about thinking better – Annie Duke’s Thinking in Bets.
I recently joined a book club, and last week we met virtually to discuss The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.
The book has been circling my periphery for some time, coming up in recommended reads lists for at least a year. When it came time for me to suggest the next read, I chose this book without really knowing much about the subject. I was vaguely aware that Henrietta Lacks’s cells were instrumental to many scientific and medical advances, and I was aware that the obtaining of the cells was likely done unethically, as was the case for many Black Americans who found themselves under medical scrutiny in the middle of the last century. Since I review research ethics applications on two ethics boards I serve on, and because of the ongoing conversation around Black lives, I thought this would be a good book for us to read and learn from.
In short, the book is fantastic as a piece of writing.
But the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family is heartbreaking. The book paints a vivid portrait of who Henrietta was, and gives intimate glimpses into the life of her decedents. It also presents a comprehensive history of both the rise of research ethics since the end of World War Two and of the many advances made by science thanks to Henrietta’s cells. However, those advances were done with cells acquired neither with proper consent nor compensation. For many years after her early death, Henrietta’s name became lost to obscurity outside of her family, but everyone in the cellular biology community knew her cells because of how abundant they were. In a tragic twist, the very medical advances that gave way to better understandings of radiation, viruses, and vaccines, were often not available to the impoverished Lacks family. While the Lacks’s remained stuck in poverty, others profited.
I highly recommend everyone read this book.
As we discussed the book last week, I realized that this was an example of why it’s important to enlarge the domain of one’s ignorance. Learning about history shouldn’t be an exercise in theory; often we forget that history is presented as an abstraction away from the stories of individual people. If we forget about their individual lives, we can sometimes take the wrong lessons from history. As the saying goes, those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. In this case, we continue to exploit the voiceless, and profit on the backs of the disenfranchised – those who don’t have the power to speak back.
Reading books like this gives me a greater context for history, and it helps me understand the lived-history of people. I review research projects to understand the ethical consequences of our search for knowledge. If I lack a historical context – the history of how research was and is carried out – then I run the risk of perpetuating the same injustices on the people of today that the research is meant to help.
Research is supposed to be dispassionate, but we must understand and situate it within its proper historical context.
In an allusion to Picard, I close with this: constant vigilance is the price we must pay for progress.
Here is my round-up list for the week ending on July 24th:
💭Reflection – Books as Monuments – Ryan Holiday (Instagram)
Last week Ryan shared the following post:
I have a vague recollection of when Madison Holleran died by suicide in 2014, though less about her as a person and more because of the conversation it sparked around mental health and how social media can portray a perfect life despite the hidden struggles of the person. I’ve yet to read this book, however as I was reflecting on this post I realized that this isn’t a book about a famous person, but it still stands as a monument to a life. That felt like a weird mental juxtaposition against the conversation going on about monuments in general and what we choose to remember. During a recent conversation with my grandmother, she was showing me photos of friends from her past that have since passed away. For nearly every person on the planet, your legacy extends only as far as your genes and the living memories of those who knew you. And yet, sometimes we pulp trees into paper and create a monument that will be read in the future. Monuments are not accidental – it’s a reflection of what we choose to remember. Madison’s life was tragically cut short, but at least she remains more than a fragile memory.
There is a lot of misinformation around the effects of wearing a mask. Here is a good quick summary. tldr: it prevents the wearer from spreading germs and it does not prevent one from breathing adequately. I’ve demonstrated this for myself by donning a non-surgical mask for the last two weeks of running on the elliptical. To date, in the 30 masked-miles I’ve run (roughly 3.5-hours of exertion), I have yet to have any symptoms related to hypoxia.
Two paragraphs stood out in this post that resonated with me:
By all accounts, COVID-19 is a ridiculously bad time to graduate. It isn’t just a bizarre year from the perspective of the job market. Graduates who have a job will face an unusual first year as part of the workforce. With organizations and the people generally unprepared and dealing with multiple stressors, they’re unlikely to get the training that they need on the job.
These are moments when you realize how big a role dumb luck plays in any professional success we enjoy. It is so easy to attribute things that are going well to our smarts and hard work. But, there’s so much more to any success than that.
Reading this made me reflect on my own career to this point. I finished my undergrad in 2009, the year after the 2008 economic downturn. I was fortunate to be accepted into grad school, where I stretched a 1-year program into a 3-year experience by the time I finished writing my thesis. That put me into the formal job market at the tail end of 2012, four full years after the markets took a dive. I was lucky to enter the working world while the economy was rebounding, and I didn’t have to face the same setbacks and struggles that many of my cohort felt (that is, had I not did my 5th year “victory lap” in high school, I would have finished undergrad a year earlier with my secondary school classmates). In this, I was very fortunate that my choices became opportunities of timing, and something worth keeping in mind as context.
I am guilty of buying into the world of self-help. The vast majority of my reading over the last five years has been variations on the self-help genre (to the point that I’ve coined the term animated bibliography to describe its form). I know that the returns on investing in self-help diminishes quickly, and I am aware of how dubious the promise that self-help sells is, but I constantly find myself getting sucked into it. This video doesn’t necessarily say anything new that I haven’t realized myself, but it pulls it together nicely with many examples of how dark this world can be for the copycat authorities that use the same tactics in different domains. This video is a good summary and reminder to myself the next time I’m sold the promise of a better life through tactics and strategies for sale.
I covered a different interview with Jon Stewart in my last published Friday roundup, but I wanted to link these two different podcast episodes along a similar theme, despite the shows being wildly different. I noticed that both Dan Carlin and Jon Stewart remarked on the difficulty that comes with being a voice that people turn to when making sense of the world. Stewart noted that towards the end of his time on the Daily Show, he sometimes struggled to be the person to go on television and say something smart or comforting after a tragedy struck (it might have been part of the reason why he burned-out and needed to retire). Similarly, Dan Carlin has not put out an episode of his podcast Common Sense in a few years, but he released this episode earlier this year. In it, he notes that he’s tried recording an episode multiple times but felt he was adding nothing of substance to the conversation. He struggled to, like Stewart, be a voice for people (like me) who turn to him to help understand the world we find ourselves in. I listened to both of these episodes in the same week, and gained a new appreciation for those like Carlin and Stewart who make livings giving me monologues to pre-digest current events. It must be tough to strike a balance by being both insightful and non-inflammatory, where you avoid stoking the audience against “the other side” (whatever side that happens to be at the time). A YouTuber I follow recently commented on folks like Tim Poole whose sole purpose is to inflame the left/right hostility, rather than adding anything of substance to the discourse. It’s causing me to slowly evaluate what voices I allow in and whether they’ve earned their place in my attention.
I have some deeper reflections that this article prompted, but I wanted to capture this here first. Varol has been a law professor for 10 years now, and with the success of his recent book, he’s decided to move on from his teaching duties to pursue other endeavors. This reminds me of Nassim Taleb’s idea of via negativa. Varol specifically invokes this idea (though not by name) by reflecting that decisions he’s made in his life that had the greatest positive impact were often decisions that “subtracted” from his life. It’s a reflection I applied to my own circumstances and still need a bit more time to process.
Watch: Every Race in Middle-Earth Explained | WIRED (YouTube)
Because we all need to have some fun once in a while, here is an informative half-hour from a Tolkein scholar who covers the history of Middle-Earth through its inhabitants.
Sorry if you hit a paywall on this article (I managed to read it fine from Pocket). I’ve lamented elsewhere that I genuinely miss Jon Stewart, not just from his tenure on the Daily Show, but also from other initiatives he’s thrown his weight behind (remember his masterclass in oration?). While this interview is part of Stewart’s media blitz for his upcoming movie release, it is also chocked-full of wonderful insights and observations about the world we find ourselves in. He’s ever poignant in his wit, but also speaks from a cautious place. The interview is so good, I quickly reached the limit of my free highlights in Pocket.
💭 Reflection Mega-Thread – How We Process Information
I want to turn this into a more formal blog post in the near future, but for now I’d like to lay out a few strands that have come together over the last two weeks about how we process, curate, and digest information.
First, a short listen from the Daily Stoic reflecting on how our minds are not reliable when it comes to processing truth. Instead, we are bound up in our own biases that we seek to confirm. If we want to be functioning, contributing members of society, we must actively exercise our critical faculties, including seeking out when we are wrong. Or as the closing lines state: “It’s the snowflakes who fly into a rage when someone challenges their views. It’s the snowflakes who can never admit they’re wrong or address deserved criticism or feedback.”
Next, a thought-provoking podcast episode from the CBC that tackles expertise in a seeming post-truth world. There is a lot of good information floating around in the ether, waiting for us to latch on to its wisdom. And yet, despite good information there for us to seize, we see many people in our peer groups turn away and distrust the experts. Shunning the norms of knowledge communities, they instead embrace their own norms of knowledge and assertion.
Speaking of experts, one of the voices I’ve turned to on Twitter to help me filter the signal from the noise is Mr. Bergstrom. He has provided both some levity :
As well as valuable information to help stop me from embracing each news article that flies out with clickbait titles:
I have a blog post percolating in my mind about curating news feeds, but I’ll leave that breadcrumb here for now.
🏳🌈🎧 Listen – I Don’t Want To Get Over You (Season 3 Mission 9) | Zombies, Run!🏳🌈
Finally, I want to give a huge shout-out to the writers and folks behind Zombies, Run! for this episode I listened to last week. The episode really stuck out for me. A large portion of the dialogue involves two lesbian characters discussing a mutual love interest (the love interest is the current partner of one of the characters, and a former lover of the other character in the conversation). The conversation between the characters touches on topics like “gold stars” and the fears that bisexual partners may have, even in committed relationships. I’ve heard my own queer friends discuss these topics, and while it felt noteworthy that the development team included “voices” from a wide range of folks, it was awesome to hear conversations that weren’t centered on the heterosexual experience that’s often given as the default in media. It gives the game a sense of realness and depth, despite it being about living in a post-apocalyptic zombie wasteland. It’s also important, as we reflect on this Pride month, to think about the kinds of voices we engage with that represents life, and whether we are seeking out sources that look to bring more diversity to the table. I’m happy to be supporting the app and the team.
I spent a large chunk of my weekend grading essays from my students. Their task was to watch the movie The Road, adapted from the novel by Cormac McCarthy and write a paper based on themes and ideas presented in the course. Based on the course content presented so far, I encourage students to examine the story’s protagonist and argue whether he is a good candidate to be considered a tragic hero as defined by Aristotle.
While grading papers, I mused about Aristotle’s strict criteria for what makes for a tragic hero. The tragic hero must be noble and good (though not a paragon of virtue), but possesses a minor flaw of character or error in judgment (hamartia), which when applied to circumstances brings about some sort of downfall or negative consequence (an inevitable reversal of circumstances, or peripeteia). It’s not that the character is vicious, but merely that their minor flaw is the cause of the negative outcome. However, the negative outcome must be caused by the character (and not, for instance, by the gods), and the consequences of outcome must be in excess of the original cause. The character must also see that they are the reason for their suffering (anagnorisis – the move from ignorance to knowledge). In the context of a narrative or telling of the story, this would elicit pity and fear, a purification of emotions (catharsis) for the audience.
On the one hand, Aristotle is spelling this all out as a way of formalizing and categorizing types of art (Aristotle was a philosopher and biologist by vocation). He might have even considered writing this down as a way of formalizing a set of guidelines to critique plays, finding a way to point out what makes some plays good and others not.
But I had another thought. Aristotle’s teacher, Plato, took a dim view of the arts. In his Republic, Plato was comfortable with banishing the poets from his ideal city, and only allow art that held up the moral authority. I’m wondering if Aristotle had something like this in mind – that art could be used as a moral education tool.
Maybe, the best examples of art are ones that teach the audience lessons, albeit in a less direct route (than, say, fables). If this were true, then we could interpret Aristotle’s criteria the following way. A piece of art is valuable as a moral training tool when the audience can build an emotional connection with the suffering of others. Rather than it being a spectacle for them to lose themselves in, the art gives the audience a moral framework to judge themselves against. The tragic figure is like them: not a god or immortal, but an example of a good person trying to do good things. The tragic figure might even be a little aspirational, something the audience can work towards. They aren’t depraved in the soul, but they are responsible for their actions, even if those actions have negative consequences.
Instead of blaming their suffering on an external cause, the tragic figure realizes that they are the cause of their own suffering. The audience sees this, sees that they could be this person, and through their emotional connection, learns to empathize with the tragic figure. In a sense, they could be the same person, were the circumstances be different. The audience feels the pain, takes pity upon the otherwise good person, and maybe even fears this happening to them.
Given that Aristotle’s ethics was predicated on relative moral excellence, it’s possible that he intended art to be educative, though I don’t have the scholarship background to confirm whether this is true (or plausible). To be clear, I don’t think art must function in this capacity. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to have art for its own sake, or for the creative expression of what’s inside the artist.
Still, the thought of morally educative art is interesting. I’ve often thought of what kinds of art I’d want to expose my own children to in the development of their moral character. What kinds of lesson would I want them to absorb and learn from as they develop an internal sense of ethics and morality?
My attention this week has largely focused on what’s happening in the United States with the protests and marches. As such, the vast majority of this week’s round-up are a collection of posts from social media that I want to help amplify.
Here is my round-up for the week ending on June 5th, 2020:
I read Mattis’s memoir a few months back, and in it he specifically states that he does not intend to publically comment or speak out against a sitting President. He notes that it’s inappropriate as a former military member (he feels that there should be a separation between executive politics and the military) and as a former Cabinet member. The implication is that while he resigned his post in protest over the policy decisions being made by the White House, there will come a time when he feels it would be appropriate to finally criticize the President he served under. That is what made this post all the more surprising (thought not surprising when you read it) – things have gotten to the point that he feels his silence is counter-productive to upholding the American Constitution. Based on his memoir, I hold Mattis in high regard, both as a leader and as a thinker, so this is something I took note of.
💭 Reflection – What can I do as a white ally?
When this week started, I could find no words that would be appropriate. This is, of course, a huge privilege – that I can choose to remain silent while people are out fighting for their lives and a better world.
It would be inappropriate for me to wax on about my thoughts because that would mean centering my voice (even if this is my blog). My voice, my thoughts, and my opinions are not important in this social conversation. Instead, I want to share and amplify some of the great ideas that I bookmarked in my feed.