This weekend, I hit a new milestone – 900 consecutive days of practicing German using Duolingo.
Upon sharing the news with a friend, he asked how fluent I feel. Truthfully, I still feel like I’m pattern-matching. I’m fairly decent at decoding messages and generating approximately correct statements, but I don’t feel that I could carry on a conversation.
That’s not to say there is no value in what I’ve invested so much time in. Last year, my wife and I spent a few days visiting her family in Germany, and I knew enough from practicing on Duolingo to utter a few sentences and follow along on some simple conversations. However, it was a valuable lesson that just because I unlock levels, it doesn’t mean I’m gaining competence. Sometimes, what you think you are learning doesn’t match what you are actually practicing. It’s good to keep this distinction in mind.
From time to time, I catch myself thinking some pretty stupid stuff for entirely dumb reasons. A piece of information finds a way to bypass any critical thinking faculties I proudly think I possess and worms its way into my belief web. Almost like a virus, which is a great segue.
A perfect example of this happened last week in relation to the COVID-19 news, and I thought it important to share here, both as an exercise in humility to remind myself that I should not think myself above falling for false information, and as my contribution to correcting misinformation floating around the web.
Through a friend’s Stories on Instagram, I saw the following screencap from Twitter:
My immediate thought was to nod my head in approval and take some smug satisfaction that of course I’m smart enough to already know this is true.
Thankfully, some small part at the back of my brain immediately raised a red flag and called for a timeout to review the facts. I’m so glad that unconscious part was there.
It said to me “Hang on… is hand-sanitizer ‘anti-bacterial’?”
I mean, yes, technically it is. But is it “anti-bacterial” in the same way that it is getting implied in this tweet? The way the information is framed, it treats the hand-sanitizer’s anti-bacterial properties as being exclusively what it was designed for, like antibiotics. For example, you can’t take antibiotics for the cold or flu, because those are not bacterial infections but viral infections.
According to the author on the topic of alcohol-based hand sanitizers (ABHS),
There are some special cases where ABHS are not effective against some kinds of non-enveloped viruses (e.g. norovirus), but for the purposes of what is happening around the world, ABHS are effective. It is also the case that the main precaution to protect yourself is to thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water, and follow other safety precautions as prescribed.
The tweet, while right about the need for us to wash our hands and not overly rely on hand-sanitizers, is factually wrong generally. Thanks to a mix of accurate information (bacteria =/= virus) and inaccurate information(“hand sanitizer is not anti-bacterial”), and a packaging that appeals to my “I’m smarter than you” personality, I nearly fell for its memetic misinformation.
There are a number of lessons I’ve taken from this experience:
My network is not immune to false beliefs, so I must still guard against accepting information based on in-group status.
Misinformation that closely resembles true facts will tap into my confirmation bias.
I’m more likely to agree with statements that are coded with smarmy or condescending tonality because it carries greater transmission weight in online discourse.
Appeals to authority (science) resonate with me – because this was coming from a scientist who is tired of misinformation (I, too, am tired of misinformation), I’m more likely to agree with something that sounds like something I believe.
Just because someone says they are a scientist, doesn’t make the status true, nor does it mean what they are saying is automatically right.
Even if the person is factually a scientist, if they are speaking outside of their primary domain, being a scientist does not confer special epistemological status.
In the aftermath, the tweet was pulled and the person tried to correct the misinformation, but the incident highlights that the norms of Twitter (and social media more broadly) are entirely antithetical to nuance and contextual understanding.
It’s interesting how much information spread (memetics) resembles pathogen spreading. If the harmful thing attacking us is sufficiently designed to sidestep our defenses, whether that’s our body’s immune system or our critical thinking faculties, the invading thing can easily integrate within, establish itself within our web, and prepare to spread.
The one thing that really bums me out about this event is the inadvertent harm that comes to scientific authority. We as a society are caught in a period of intense distrust of the establishment that is coinciding with the largest explosion of information our species has ever seen. The result of this is not that good information is scarce, but rather the signal-to-noise ratio is so imbalanced that good information is getting swept away in the tide. If people grow distrustful of the sources of information that will help protect us, then forget worrying about gatekeepers that keep knowledge hidden; there will be no one left to listen.
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.
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.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
The Bullet Journal Method
Trumpocracy – The Corruption of the American Republic
Daniel H. Pink
The Gift of Failure
Better – A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance
The Graveyard Book
Built to Last
Right Here Right Now
Stephen J. Harper
Complications – A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science
J. Michael Straczynski
A Game of Thrones
George R.R. Martin
Scott H. Young
Reader Come Home
Andrew G. McCabe
The Path Made Clear
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.
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.
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.
While on our honeymoon, my wife and I had the opportunity to visit Rothenburg ob der Tauber and received an excellent tour from the town’s tourism bureau. Our guide was a local (born and raised), and was a fantastic wealth of knowledge. Among the sites we visited was St. James’s Church.
While standing in awe of the church’s medieval design, our tour guide noted that the church’s construction started in 1311, and the final product wasn’t completed until 1484, 173 years later. The church was built in stages, with the first one spanning 1311-1322, then 1373-1436, and the final portion lasting from 1453-1471. It required the work and vision of four master-builders to see the project through to completion, and our guide remarked on what it might have been like for the first builders to start a project for their town that they knew they’d never see the completion of.
That has stuck with me since returning home. It reminds me of a Greek proverb (“Society grows great when men plant trees under whose shade they’ll never sit”), but seeing the results of this in the form of the church was deeply moving.
Our timescales are often limited in scope, and the rapid changes in technology have only accelerated our perceptions of change. I’m listening to Thomas L. Friedman’s book, “Thank You for Being Late,” and he remarked that prior to the last century it would take about 100 years for innovation to change society enough for people to feel the difference in their everyday lives. Now, that scale is measured in mere years for the developed world. I often take for granted how much things have changed over my life so far and I lose a sense of perspective in my sometime seeming doldrum existence.
I can barely imagine what it’s like starting a project like St. James’s Church knowing that not only will I not see the project’s completion, but that no one alive who will have seen it will likely have known me either. Everyone who had known me while alive would also have slipped away in the sands of time. Our tour guide mentioned that there were four builders who oversaw the project, and we only know the name of the last one. All that remains is that name and the building to persist through time.
At least in the case of buildings and churches, it’s easy to see how the final product will be used and valued by the future. I think it’s harder to have the same faith of vision (pun somewhat intended) for a project that’s less well-defined as a public good, where not only will the thing be of use to future-people, but it will outlast you, everyone who ever knew you, and likely everyone who knew your children.
No, I didn’t get this book because my relationship is in trouble. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. My relationship with my wife is great, and I want to keep it that way. I first came across Sexton in a Lifehacker podcast along side Esther Perel and I thought he had some interesting perspectives on relationships as a divorce lawyer. This book distills his 20-years of law experience and covers a gamut of reasons why relationships fail. The thinking is that while he doesn’t know what makes a good relationship, he knows all sorts of reasons why they don’t work, and the reader of his book can learn from the mistakes of his clients.
I pre-ordered this a few weeks back and it just came in the mail, so I haven’t had a chance to get very far into it. I first encountered Greene through a book recommendation from a friend of mine for his book, Mastery. I was intrigued with the material in Mastery, so I’ve kept an eye on Greene since. I listened to a the audiobook for the 48 Laws of Power, and I listened to a bit of his Art of Seduction (though I never finished it). Greene, like his protege Ryan Holiday, is a master of research synthesis. While his books are a bit of an animated bibliography, I think it’s the best representation of the genre. He digs into history to learn lessons from key figures to articulate his thesis. Instead of reporting on the achievements of others, Greene feels like a chronicler of insights. I’m looking forward to what this book has to offer.
I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I’ve never read this one until now. I’m familiar with the well-known courtroom scenes from the movie, but I was never assigned this while I was in school. Since I’ve been reading a steady diet of non-fiction, I thought I should dig into some quality fiction. I’m less than an hour into the audiobook, but already I find Scout to be an intriguing character (narrated by Sissy Spacek).
While my wife and I were heading off on our mini-honeymoon after the wedding last month, we found it difficult to talk about anything that wasn’t about the wedding. The planning and lead-up to our nuptials was over a year in the making, so in the afterglow of the party, we didn’t have much to talk about. Instead of riding in complete silence, we bought a copy of the Deathly Hallows on audiobook for the drive. I’ve only read the book once, and that was way back in 2007 when it was released (I bought it during a layover in Heathrow Airport on my way home from Kenya). We only listen to the book while together in the car during long(ish) drives between cities, and it’s funny how often we shut it off to talk about the story, or how stupid Harry (the character) is when you really think about it. It’s honestly among my favourite times spent with my wife.
I bought this book with high hopes, but sadly I’m finding it a bit of a let down. The Ikigai concept has floated around the interwebs and on my radar for a little over a year now. It got picked up in the blogosphere (mostly on Medium for me), so when I saw the book I thought I should check it out. This particular book is a hard animated bibliography. I think its greatest sin is that it talks about Ikigai by first covering other well-known philosophical ideas, such as Frankl’s work in Man’s Search for Meaning. I had hoped the concepts would stand on their own, or at least be situated with the original Japanese contexts that they were born out of. Instead, it cobbles together a bunch of summaries of other publications and presents them in digest format. Because the book is short with big font, I’ll slog through it, but it’s not what I had hoped it would be.
This list must have the mandatory update on where I am in Pratchett’s Discworld books. I’m only a little ways in, so not a huge update here. Thus far, it’s a Witches story, sans Granny Weatherwax and involves vampires appearing to try and usurp a kingdom. In other words, awesome.
I’ve drifted more towards memoirs as of late, choosing to distance myself a bit from the animated bibliography and instead listen to the stories by people reflecting on their life and either providing insight in retrospect or attempting to provide an explanation for why things unfolded (also see Catmull’s book below and my recent completion of Knight’s Shoe Dog). As with many of us here in North America, I watched the US elections in 2016 with interest, and was disappointed in the results. I was interested to hear Hillary’s story of what happened and am not disappointment by what I’ve heard so far.
Another memoir, this book is from one of the founders and heads of Pixar. What I love most about this book is that he’s discussing the behind-the-scenes decisions and goings-on of creating the films that I grew up on, which adds a new layer of awesome to my childhood memories. The values and lessons he learned from their failures and successes are incredibly interesting, and I find the book captivating.
Junger starts with an interesting observation from the American Frontier: if “advanced civilization” is so wonderful, why did so many white American settlers abandon their communities to join and live among the indigenous peoples that were so backwards and savage to them? Junger’s speculation is that it comes down to how people feel accepted within their communities. To Junger, this is an example of how “civilization” and technology can be so alienating to a person, which diminishes their sense of worth and place. I’m not very far into the book, but it’s quite a good read so far.
I’ve been watching the Outlander series on Netflix with my wife and have been loving the story so far. It didn’t hurt that the first season took place in Scotland, which reminded me of my trip there in 2016. Fun fact, the scenes of Inverness in the series were actually filmed in a small town called Falkland, which I visited on my travels, long before we had started watching the show. The book is huge (over a 800 pages!) so it’ll be a long read.