Hanging in there...
I just realized that yesterday was day five of the fast, and so I was writing about day four being hard! Well, day five was hard too. It's interesting to realize how the web and social media have become so much a "normal" part of my life, that I feel discombobulated when I can't be "on" it. I struggled a bit yesterday trying to distract myself and find other, more "productive" uses of my time.
I bought the cognitive productivity book and skimmed it. Hot take: Possible waste of money. There seem to be some worthwhile nuggets in there, but they're buried amidst an editorial blizzard of superfluous verbiage. (See what I did there? - Hey, this isn't a book, and it's free. Sue me.) Not only is the author unable to be concise, he spends a lot of time criticizing other points of view. From a supposed cognitive "expert," who at one point states that one's time and attention are finite resources, he wastes much of his reader's time and attention in no value added editorializing!
Irony™, the fifth fundamental force of the universe.
I'll take a closer look at the book and offer my thoughts on the worthwhile nuggets later. But the initial impression is discouraging.
I opened a number of other books and read sections, but only one got any traction. I made a dent in Willpower by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney. I'd bought that book back in 2011! The topic is resonant, because I'm exerting some of my meager resources in willpower by avoiding the use of the web and social media.
My first impression is that it's a worthwhile book, but I have much the same criticism that I had for the cognitive guy — I'm not interested in disparaging other views, unless it's done in a way that better illustrates or explains the author's main argument. For the most part, they read like drive-by cheap shots.
Since I don't like to write margin notes, or I didn't have a pencil, possibly both, I used the camera in my phone to record pages where I found something I may want to revisit. In the introduction, the authors outline the history that preceded much of the research on behavior before insights into the role of the executive function and self-regulation. They write:
Most social scientists look for causes of misbehavior outside of the individual: poverty, relative deprivation, oppression, or other failures of the environment or the economic or political systems. Searching for external factors is often more comfortable for everyone, particularly for the many academics who worry that they risk the politically incorrect sin of "blaming the victim" by suggesting that peoples' problems might arise from causes inside themselves. Social problems can also seem easier than character defects to fix, at least to the social scientists proposing new policies and programs to deal with them.
And I suppose if you're of a particular political persuasion, you'd find your view validated and be encouraged to read on. But my reaction was different, a visceral interior "Bullshit!" response. It does nothing to diminish the power the authors' argument about the role of self-regulation to consider that external circumstances may affect peoples' behavior. Indeed, it's at least conceivable that everything from fetal exposure to maternal stress, environmental toxins, poor nutrition and other "factors outside of the individual" may affect the fetal development of the brain overall, and the portions responsible for self regulation. Which is to say nothing of epigenetic effects experienced after birth that may vary according to the external environment and thereby affect the development of the brain and the networks responsible for self-regulation. It does nothing to diminish the value and utility of the idea of self-regulation to acknowledge that there may be better or worse environments for the developing brain. And, unlike much of the interior wiring of the brain, the external environment, as the authors correctly note, we can change.
This, to me, is useless editorializing and likely even wrong. So it pisses me off, but I read on because I suspect they do know some things that I'd like to know, and I'll place that new knowledge in my own context, than you very much.
Willpower, editorializing aside, is better written, and better edited than Cognitive Productivity, so it's a far easier read, occasional visceral reactions notwithstanding.
Anyway, my experiment with an internet fast is beginning to be revealing in terms of how I spend my time, and the many alternatives that are available to me. My plan remains to allow Monday as a day to use the internet and social media in any way I choose. On Tuesday, we'll be traveling to New Orleans to visit one of Mitzi's relatives for the 4th, so I'll just bring a couple of books and a camera. The environment should be sufficiently novel that I'll be sufficiently distracted that I won't feel the compulsion to get "on" the internet.
Day five of the internet fast was the most challenging so far. The news of the retirement of Justice Kennedy seemed to be the stimulus for wanting to get on Twitter and see the reaction. I think I can pretty accurately imagine what it might be, but I suspect my feeling of alarm was crying out for validation. It was kind of hard to focus on other activities, although not impossible.
But, I did persevere. I'm still struggling as I write this. I just want to get on Twitter and engage. I don't feel the same way about Facebook. I suspect that's because Twitter represents something of an "echo chamber" for me. I follow a few conservatives, chiefly ones that oppose Trump, and a few people who are mostly apolitical, but sometimes seem to offer a fairly right-wing take on things. But most of the overtly political people I follow are democrats or liberals, and seem to share my view of things. Facebook is less well curated. While I have unfriended a few people who were particularly odious in sharing their views, chiefly through "memes," I have many friends and acquaintances that I'm disinclined to unfriend, even though I don't share their views and who sometimes offer opinions I find ignorant or offensive. If anything, politics is what compels me to stay away from Facebook, so I don't feel at all as though I want or need to get on it. I do miss the Apple II Enthusiasts Group. Facebook is running on inertia in my life and if it disappeared tomorrow, I wouldn't miss it at all.
While I couldn't surf or browse the web, I rationalized that I could use the iBooks Store to look for that book on cognitive productivity I'd read something about. I found it. There are two, one is a more general book on using knowledge from cognitive neuroscience to become more effective in learning and mastering a new knowledge domain. The other book is apparently based on it, but focused on using applications on the Mac platform to put this knowledge into practice.
The first book is Cognitive Productivity, Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective, by Dr. Luc P. Beaudoin, and Lam Wong. Lam Wong is mentioned in the acknowledgments as designing the front and back covers, and encouraging Mr. Beaudoin to practice "parsimony" by "removing 'the art and science' from the subtitle of this book." Why that merits a co-author credit is a mystery. Dr. Bueaudoin has a lengthy and diverse resumé, which he shares with the reader.
The iBooks Store offered a significant sample in the form of the introduction. I wasn't especially thrilled. The author seems a bit full of himself, and promotes a new neologism, "mindware" to describe how knowledge and practice can, in effect, rewire the brain to be more effective! It's cheesy, and I believe more than one company has used it as a trade name over the years, though apparently none are doing business at the moment.
It does sound as though he's selling something, and maybe just more than the book. He's a consultant of some kind. I don't care, everybody's got to make a living.
He has some disparaging things to say about Nick Carr and The Shallows, but I think he misses Carr's point entirely. Most of America doesn't consist of "knowledge workers." Most of America consists of people who do what they're told. The "knowledge workers," to the extent that they might be said to possess or exhibit "knowledge," are their bosses.
He also thanks a Brian Holmes of GradeAEdits in the acknowledgments for proofreading the book; but I think he should ask for his money back, because there are some grammatical errors in the introduction that are disconcerting with respect to what one may expect for the rest of the book.
But, I'm going to buy the book. I'll read it and write a review. Who doesn't want to "become more profoundly effective" in retirement?
Steve Vore, if you're reading this, I launched Reeder yesterday to see if I'd added any feeds some months ago when I began to look at RSS again. Your Notebook is in there, and I did see your post from 20 June.
Transmitting in the blind...
Yesterday was the third day of my "internet fast." Did fine. Didn't seem to have any hiccups like IMDB. I did use my credit union app to check on my accounts, but I think that's a legitimate and harmless use. It's unlikely that I'll get sucked into reading credit offers or privacy policies.
This morning was a bit different. I got up early because it didn't seem as though I was going to go back to sleep, and since I didn't have a compelling book underway, I went through my email. Because I'm not "surfing," I actually spent a little time actually looking at them. Most of them are from mailing lists, and most of those are commercial, having to do with a product I registered. Most of the time it's just — swipe left, delete! This time I actually noticed the helpful little iOS banner that allows you to unsubscribe, and I used it on several of them. We'll see if it works.
Having dispensed with my email, I floundered a bit. I decided to look in iBooks to see if there was something I could read there. I found a sample I'd downloaded recently called Cognitive Productivity with MacOS. This had caught my attention because it seemed related to the ideas Douglas Englebart was pursuing in his augmentation work. The sample has little more than the table of contents, but one chapter mentioned a couple of apps to use the Finder more productively. I almost broke my fast. I'd launched Safari, and then remembered what I was doing and closed it. I scanned the remaining chapter titles and I think I'm going to risk $15 on it.
After that, I "updated" a bunch of books in iBooks. I confess, I have no idea why a book needs updating, particularly something like Robinson Crusoe or The Complete Sherlock Holmes. I tried reading a couple of pdf format books, but that's basically impossible in iBooks on the iPhone. Works fine on the iPad, but I didn't have it close to me.
Looking out the window, I noticed it was the "blue hour," so I grabbed a camera and took a walk around the property. The sky wasn't especially compelling, but I took a couple of shots and got my first 1500 steps in for the day. It occurred to me as I walked that I would ordinarily be up in the "command cave" surfing the web, instead of out walking, hearing the mockingbirds and cardinals singing. And it occurred to me that this had occurred to me; that is, I was "thinking," rather than just "consuming" others' thoughts and words.
I do feel the absence of the web. I have a mental list I'm going to have to commit to bits soon, of things I want to "look up," when I break my fast. Right now, my plan is to allow this coming Monday to be a web day; but I hope to confine my activities to things I want to look up; and catching up on social media a bit. Based on something I saw among the chapter headings in the cognitive MacOS book, I also wish to revisit RSS and see if I can't get a few blogs in there. I think RSS might be a good vehicle to keep up with some people I enjoy reading on the web, I'll have to see how many offer full text feeds, and how much the experience might suffer if I can't click on links. In any event, my current intention is to resume abstaining from the web for the remainder of the week, and see how practical that might be as a regular practice.
Yesterday I spent some time entering an Applesoft program into one the Apple //es I have set up here. I was doing it the old-fashioned way, typing it in on the computer itself. Nowadays people use things like BBEdit in MacOS, and then copy and paste the program into an emulator like Virtual II. If they want to run it on real hardware, they transfer the file via a number of means. I've done that myself, saving it to a disk image that I put on a micro-SD card that gets inserted into something called a Floppy-Emu, which emulates a 5.25" disk drive. But I wanted to experience what I did thirty some years ago.
I did afford myself a few modern conveniences. The computer boots from a modern 8MB memory card with battery-backed SRAM onboard, so if the computer hangs, it's the matter of a couple of seconds to get it back. I'm also using an old application, Program Writer, by Alan Bird of the Beagle Bros. to enter the program. It was maintained up until 1991, and it's a full-screen, memory resident Applesoft editor. You can exit the editor and run your program and then jump back into the editor to make changes. Ran into a glitch, for some reason I can't seem to save to the RAM disk. I can write a text file to it from a word processing app, but BASIC.SYSTEM seems to think it's saving the file, but it never appears in the directory. Fortunately, saving it to a physical floppy in the old DuoDisk still works. Something to look into, I suppose.
Today's agenda is relatively clear. Have a house guest coming tonight, so I think I'm on the hook to hang a picture (heh), and move some furniture. I started reading a collection of essays by John Gray yesterday. He's only slightly more pessimistic than I am.
The title of this morning's entry refers to the practice of transmitting a radio signal without having a working receiver. You can send, but you can't receive. Your signal goes out, but you don't know if anyone's listening and you have no real way to find out. Truthfully, it isn't much different with this blog when the receiver is working. But that's okay.
A Higher Loyalty
My internet fast continues. Yesterday I managed to get through most of the day, failing only in the evening when I consulted IMDB for information about a movie we were watching. That's another rabbit warren — go to a movie, click on an actor, click on their filmography, click on another movie they were in, then click on something in that movie, and so on. I eventually caught myself.
We had my grandkids over for the day and Mitzi was doing most of the activities with them, so I was reading James Comey's book, A Higher Loyalty. My mom had already read it, and she let me borrow it from her when we were in New York last month.
I think it's a pretty good book, and it left me with more respect for Director Comey. While it would be easy to assume that any book by the former FBI Director, seemingly loathed by partisans on both sides of the red/blue divide, would be self-serving and defensive, I did not find it to be egregiously so.
If I weren't observing an internet fast this week, I'd spend some time today looking for the Justice Department's Inspector General's report to see what the "official" take is on the former Director's actions. I intend to do so next week, and that suggests to me something about how I ought to be using the internet. Rather than "surfing," perhaps I should just look for specific information related to a question or an issue raised in another context. Of course, that doesn't protect against the possibility of getting sucked down the rabbit hole once "searching" starts, but it does suggest an alternative approach to just "surfing," which is the enormous time-suck.
I did consult another book I have about the election, one written by a Hillary Clinton supporter. It gave a fair amount of attention to Comey and the e-mail investigation, mainly focusing on how Comey presented the FBI's decision not to bring charges against Secretary Clinton, and the later episode regarding the re-opening and subsequent closing of the investigation just prior to the election. As is perhaps understandable, it makes no effort try to understand Comey's actions, and implies some sort of malicious intent by Comey's "extreme carelessness," characterization. Comey writes that if he were to do it over again, he'd reconsider those words.
I think the 2016 election was a disaster decades in the making. I think that had Hillary won, and I voted for her and wanted her to win, we'd still be in the middle of a shit-show. There'd just be a different production company and cast of characters. Comey closes with an optimistic take on how things will eventually work out, and I'd say under different circumstances, it's not an unreasonable point of view. But we live in unprecedented circumstances, and I see little reason for optimism. Things will get worse before they get better. The problem is that there's a real chance that they'll get so much worse that they'll never get better, and we will lose this civilization before it finds the means and the will to save itself.
In any event, I think it's worthwhile to read Director Comey's account. I mentioned to one of my trivia teammates that I was reading it, and she said something to the effect, "You actually paid for that trash?" I told her that my mom had loaned it to me; but it didn't occur to me to ask her if she hated Comey because he cost Hillary the election, or because he started the "witch hunt" against Donald Trump. Which is just as well, I observe a pretty strict "no politics" rule at trivia.
After the 2016 election, I became sufficiently alarmed to abandon my "no party affiliation" status and become a registered member of the Democratic Party. Now, yes, I'm quite aware off all the problems with that organization, but in the "lesser of two evils" analysis, it's a no-brainer. The Republican Party has lost the plot, courting chaos to hang onto power and reaping what it's sown over the last few decades, and we're all suffering for it, and will continue to do so for decades to come.
So, I did what I thought was my little bit by registering as a Democrat in a thoroughly red county in a purple state. Where I live, if you add the registered Democrats and NPAs together, they're still outnumbered by registered Republicans. We're players in the statewide elections, but it's unlikely we'll be able to turn the county blue anytime soon. But, who knows, it's a weird time in America. Who would have thought we'd elect a game show host as our president? So, yes, weirder things have happened.
Anyway, a couple of the county dems asked me to consider running for a seat on the Soil and Water Conservation District board. It's a non-partisan race, so there's no D or R next to anyone's name. I never knew anything about any of those candidates when they appeared on the ballot, so I usually voted for a woman if there was one running, or just picked a candidate at random if there wasn't one. I agreed to do it, thinking at least it was something.
Like most things, there's a process and rules and so on, but it's not incredibly difficult or burdensome. I had no plans to run ads or raise money, so it was a bit simpler for me. I figured the most I would do would be to appear at "meet the candidates" events, and maybe some social media.
I submitted my intent to qualify paperwork back in April. Got a nice sit-down tutorial from the staff at the supervisor's office, and then submitted my qualifying paperwork last Tuesday. Friday was the deadline for qualifying, and I didn't know when I filed if I'd be facing an opponent or not. Well, it turns out, nobody else wanted to run for the seat. It was the same for the other two seats on the five-person board, both of which had single qualifying candidates. So we're all in by default, and our names won't appear on the ballot.
I did look into the role of the Soil and Water Conservation District, and it's been largely supplanted by state and local government, and it seems most of its recent activities are confined to judging essay contests and such. But it does give me a brief, and sea level rise affects both soil and water conservation. I don't know what the other members of the board hope to accomplish, but if I have anything to say about it, we'll be doing quite a bit more than judging essay contests. Not that I have any illusions about anything, but let's just say I won't be sitting on my hands.
It seems most people want fast internet. I'm taking an internet fast.
With the exception of e-mail, I hope to forego all internet access this week. It's harder than it sounds, and I've already made a couple of exceptions. I play trivia every Monday with a small group of friends, and the company offers a free answer on their web site. Of course, I could have just allowed one of my teammates to look it up, so I suppose it says something that I couldn't manage to do that! I also checked on the qualified candidates for the upcoming elections on my county supervisor of elections web site. Can't say I really had to do that either.
But, I didn't use Facebook or Twitter all day, and it was... different. I did enjoy having the time back, though I found I didn't really have a clear idea of what I wanted to do with it. As the day went on, I began to get somewhat more organized and directed in my efforts.
What happens with the web is that I get sucked down into a rabbit warren of links, usually. It's just a huge time-suck. I'll spend so much time reading about how other people "get things done," that I end up getting nothing done. Irony™, the fifth fundamental force of the universe.
So I'm spending a moment here, reflecting on my dismal performance in making this a "practice." I'm telling myself that ftp doesn't count, and I can view the preview locally to check for errors. I'll normally export the page and then read it online and discover a few errors I didn't notice in Tinderbox.
We did pretty well in trivia last night, zeroes to heroes in the final question. The final question is always an exercise in putting four items in some kind of order. You can "wager" up to 15 points on the question, if you get it wrong they're deducted from your score. We were well back in the pack at 55 points, 15 points out of first. There's "house cash" (essentially gift cards, or certificates) for the 1st through 4th place finishers. We were back in sixth, so well out of the money. Of course, that meant we had nothing to lose, so we bet 15 and got the answer right. That put us into second place, for $30 in house cash.
We play as a team every Monday, and when we accumulate $100 in winnings, we use it to cover everyone's drinks at the following game. Pretty fun.
I have another little disclosure related to that supervisor of elections web site thing, but I'll do that in a separate post. Stay tuned.
At the risk of being perceived as a luddite, or a grumpy old man, I'd say the 30% rise in the suicide rate since 1999 is very clearly linked to the internet, and ubiquitously networked devices.
People have always struggled with mental illness, they've always faced adversity in one form or another. Everyone suffers from time to time, some more than others. And many people with severe mental illness will take their lives. But why has the rate increased? Is there more adversity? Not according to Steven Pinker. Is there more mental illness? Well, perhaps, but if so, why?
I'd say the thing that's most different between this moment and 1999 is probably the thing you're reading this on right now, and where you're reading it. If you're in front of a computer on your desk in your home, God bless you, that's how it's intended to be. But if you're reading this on your phone, on a tablet, in a bus, at lunch, at the beach, at work, in your car(!), then, as a wise person once said, "You're doing it wrong!"
Right now, the world is too much with us. And by "world," I mean the thing we perceive through screens, which is far more than the "real" world. We spend more time looking at screens than ever before. The "world" is something that exists in a screen, and it's something that is laden with emotional "content," that we are encouraged, manipulated, to respond to and interact with. "Like" it! "Retweet" it! "Favorite" it!
Competition seems to be the central organizing principle of this society and this civilization. With the rise of the internet, television and radio had to compete for attention, and in order to do so, they had to make "content" more "interesting," that is, arousing. So, while television and radio have lost some of the public's attention, what attention they receive is given to emotionally arousing content. Local news, "if it bleeds, it leads." "See which of your favorite restaurants failed their health inspections! Are roaches on the menu?"
Are we capable of introspection anymore? Can we hold a thought in our heads longer than it takes to type out a tweet?
Next slide please.
A state of semi-permanent "arousal" has become the norm, the homeostatic condition. If it's not "exciting" it must be "boring."
It's not just technology. I agree that technology is not value-neutral. But I think the central problem is human nature, and by that I don't mean that there's nothing we can do about it. There's a lot we can do about it, but I'm not optimistic that we will, and that's because competition, zero-sum thinking, is the central organizing principle of this civilization. Competition is not inherently self-correcting. Apple is including new features in iOS 12 to help you understand how much of the world you're perceiving through one of their screens, but so what? It's a nice gesture. Some people will use it to good effect, but most people will never know it even exists. Just like nobody ever reads the "user agreement."
And if you are using iOS 12's new features to limit your interactions on iOS, will you merely be giving that time to another screen? Your television? Excuse me, your smart television? And it just limits certain apps, you're still going to be receiving your messages, phone calls and emails. And you're still going to be struggling with the conditioning that the other apps helped to create. You'll just give your attention to different apps to get the same dopamine response.
When Neil Postman wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death, he noted that our president at the time was a former movie actor, (and television host, "Death Valley Days, brought to you by Twenty Mule Team Borax!"). He felt it was a consequence of the influence, the education, of television. Well, today our president is a game show host with a Twitter account.
You connect the dots.
But does it mean anything?
[Editor's note: An earlier version of this post included Ngram embedded links with "Socialism" (capitalized) as the search term. Changing it to "socialism" (lower case), changes the result. Ideally, I should have clicked the case insensitive check box.]
I vaguely recalled seeing something about Googe's Ngram widget, but someone used it to show the use of a particular term in another context on Twitter, and I had a thought.
So, I went to the site (had to search for it on Duck Duck Go first), and entered a few key terms. Now, I don't know how Google's widget works. I gather they've scanned thousands of books, and that his reflects the frequency of appearance of these terms in "thousands of books."
This was my first choice of terms:
Then I wanted to see what the frequency of the term "market" was:
Hmmm... there must be some reason why "market" is written about more frequently than those other terms, but it's interesting that its relative frequency has a net positive slope. I suspect that the industrial revolution had a great deal to do with it from 1880 to about 1936. It would be interesting to see if the strong increase between 1960 and 1993 correlates in some way with increasing financialization in the U.S. economy.
I wish we had data after 2000, but this was interesting.
The Origin of the Species was published in 1859. The slope of the curve for "competition" is basically flat from 1800 to 1860. By 1880, it's strongly positive.
Add "cooperation" as a search term, and you get this:
Not exactly encouraging, I think, but perhaps somewhat revealing.
Just for fun, I added "computer" and "internet" - seems we were fascinated with computers once.
Anyway, something to think about.