Book Review: The Shallows: What The Internet is Doing to Our Brains

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


This book was about five times too long.

There’s a thread of irony in there, since so much of the book is spent bitching about how constant internetting fragments our ability to concentrate or think deeply, and damages our creativity by preventing us from making the loose connections borne of getting lost in a good book or, if you’re an irredeemable nerd, academic texts. Luddite Carr rails against our detachment from good, honest Christian booklearnin’ because it’s making us scatterbrained and schitzy.

As demonstrated by this scatterbrained, schizy little thesis on… what, communicatory technology? The narrative, such as it is, leaps around like an overemoting tumbler at a French circus, from the printing press to the newspaper, from telephones to phonographs, and all sort of other shit totally unrelated to what this book is supposed to be about. Eventually he makes his way back to the topic of the internet, in the same way that a caffeinated 8-year-old with ADHD eventually makes his way back to his homework, which is to say he sort of shows up but doesn’t put in what anything you would call effort.

I spared another star for the intermittent blurbs of good science that showed up when discussing neural plasticity, though that was another poorly organized topic, randomly interspersed through the rest of this logorrhea.

Let me save you 280 pages: SomethingAwful was right. The Internet makes you stupid. The more time we spend on the scroll gobbling down Mike ‘n’ Ikes worth of data, the more we train our brains to accept this as status quo, the less able we are to read a tedious book like War and Peace.

Yes, I’m being flip, because this book sucked and I should have stopped reading when I first realized it. That said, I agree with the central premise. Technology is a special kind of prison. Chains can be broken, if you’ve got the strength; but what happens if the function of the chain is to make you weak? It become self-protecting. The more reliant we become on it, the more it saps us. Like anything else, really.

It is better to read books than read blogs. And you’re probably reading this on a blog. Knock it off. Go read a book.

One contemptible Zoomer puke car mentioned 7 or 8 times (presumably because Carr’s chronic doomscrolling dealt enough hippocampal damage that he didn’t remember making the reference) said reading books has become pointless, since you can just find the quotes and information you need with some specific searches. I wanted to knee him in the sternum. The only way you’ll find that information is if you know what information to want. You can’t keep Googling answers to your quizzes forever, you dirty little animal. Never call yourself a philosophy major again. You don’t deserve that worthless and self-effacing title. Switch to marketing or something.

Oh, the other take-home is that Google is Lawful Evil and getting too big for their britches. The end goal is a digital catalog of all information. Hoarding like a dragon. Gotta slay ’em while the getting’s good. Everybody switch to Bing.



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Book Review: Pathways of Bliss

Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation by Joseph Campbell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Joseph Campbell’s work is always best consumed through audiobook. He’s a dry writer. Unfortunately, he’s an even drier speaker, as career academics usually are, so you’ve really gotta hunt for the audiobooks where they hired professional narrators to read it, instead of the recordings of his university lectures that they try to pass off as books.

The ideas contained in the work are gold, especially if you’re a Jungian or some other kind of witch. Human beings think in terms of the mythological. These archetypes help us understand aspects of ourselves, and we call on them the way that voodoo practitioners let the loa ride them, or how ancient Greeks invoked the protection of situational gods, color-coded for easy reference

The main idea of pathway to bliss is We Live in a Society and we lost the plot, which is why we have such a hard time figuring out what makes us happy. The first step is initiation, the transformation from the comfort and protection of childhood to suddenly having all the responsibility of adulthood thrust on us. In many cultures, this is a highly ritualized process. In American culture, it’s not, which is why there are so many cringy “adulting” jokes. Women get menstruation, which serves as a pretty undeniable threshold, but men just kind of stumble along and eventually segue into what their interpretation of proper adulthood and conduct is.

The other function of initiation is to unite the mentalities of the tribe with regard to what the values of the tribe are, and to provide a clear, concise set of rules for the aspiring initiated to follow and uphold. A code. We don’t have a code anymore. Instead, we have a selection of half-ass codes that we spend all our time arguing about, because as mythologically-minded creatures, we want the meaning and purpose provided by a unanimous code.

There’s a vague blueprint, though. You graduate. You get a job. You marry. You produce 2.3 offspring. You provide for them. You keep all those plates spinning until the kids grow up and launch along their own ill-defined trajectories, and then you retire, and then…

And then?

Campbell talks about how it’s at that point you’re free to pursue your bliss, even though time has almost run out. You spend your whole life working toward the golden years where you’ll finally be able to fish in peace, and once you’ve squared away the rest of your requirements and you have your lifetime boxed up nice and tidy, you get in your little boat and row out. And sometimes, after a week, you realize that fishing is boring, and holy shit, I wasted my entire life.

There is no formalized initiation. There is no clearly defined rule set. We have interpretations of the expectations foisted on us, but interpretations are all they are, since our culture is without a true moral compass. The main message of the book is that we don’t need to put our bliss off until we’re almost dead. In fact, it’s the worst move we can make. Our lives belong to us foremost, and we contain all the archetypes, and maybe some would resonate with us better than others if we gave ourselves the chance to explore those sides of ourselves.

Maybe you weren’t meant to be a fisherman. You thought you were, but you waited and scrimped and saved for 50 years, and now you’re out there, and fishing is boring. Maybe your true passion is base jumping. Well, you’re 70, so you’re not going to go base jumping. Not more than once, anyway. It’s tragic to deny yourself the best life you could have had, and the best you that you could have been, because instead of pursuing some ridiculous bliss dream off the beaten path, you followed what you thought was expected of you — but which was never really expected of you in the first place!

Go on out there, chase your bliss. The Gonzo kids would say “Let your freak flag fly”. Do that, if it makes you feel better. It’s your life. You’re the protagonist of the story, and I think that the real and deep-down origin of neuroticism is the cognitive dissonance that comes from knowing yourself to be the hero of your personal mythology while observing yourself constantly acting unheroic.



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Book Review: The Forever Peace

Forever Peace by Joe Haldeman

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


It was a decent enough throwaway sci fi book, but it didn’t even approach capturing the spirit of the original. The characters were not especially interesting, and neither was their plight. The plot held enough weight to support the narrative, but just barely, and I spent much of the book waiting for it to be over.

Not all of it, though. It spiked back into readability right at the end with the introduction of the unrepentantly repentant sociopath assassin Gabriella, and Julian’s transformation into the sort of sin eater surrogate who retains the ability to pull the trigger while the rest of the world undergoes mandatory indoctrination into pacifist libleftdom.

You could tell the book wanted to play around with the philosophical implications of declawing the human race, but it never quite got around to it.




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The True and Terrible Tale of Babyghost Hill

October, late 2000s. Catawissa, Pennsylvania.
Soundtrack: Les Claypool – What Would Sir George Martin Do?

In the Frozen North, there’s only a couple things you can do after nightfall, and most of them are drugs. The truly daring go to Wal-Mart. NEPA is nothing but broken trains and trees, and when the seasons change and fall comes a-calling, you get that Ned Stark entropy reminder barraging you from every angle. The big freeze is almost here, and everything is about to die.

But me and the band, back in those bad old days, we were chasing down the thanatos far and beyond the Suscon Screamer mythos. The spooky season was upon us, and we were going to spend it unravelling the mysteries of the great beyond. We were going on our very own ghost adventures. Bustin’ made us feel good. We pored over the Weird Pennsylvania coffee table books at Barnes and Noble and identified some likely looking hauntings to either debunk or conclusively prove life after death.

Gather round, little ghouls, and let me tell you the true and terrible tale of Babyghost Hill.

Deep in demon-haunted Catawissa, there’s a gravity hill full of ghosts. Let me explain. If you follow the road down Numidia drive, you’ll come to a gully trapped between two hills. There used to be train tracks down there, and you can still see the rails blanketed under the tarmac. Once upon a time, a bus full of little elementary school kids broke down on the first hill, or maybe the second hill, it wouldn’t matter. The bus rolled down to the lowest point, as wheeled vehicles with government bankrolled brakes are wont to do, and the kids never got a chance to evacuate before the train came. More than thirty children died in that collision, breaking the bus clean in half like a Kit Kat.

The tracks were decommissioned for obvious reasons, in keeping with the demands of thirty grieving families. Numidia Drive hadn’t been a gravity hill before, but now, suddenly, it was. The legends said that the ghosts of all those dead kids still haunt the bottom of that gully, and if you stop your car on the paved-over railroad tracks late at night and shut off all the lights, the spirits will push you and your whole damn car all the way up the hill, to keep you from meeting the same fate as they did.

There were three of us that day, your humble narrator and two colleagues, T and R to protect the innocent and safeguard against any potential supernatural repercussions a la Feardotcom or The Ring. This sheath of anonymity can’t save us from the algorithms, but it might be enough to keep the vengeful dead at bay.

T was a broad fellow with a nose ring and a beard any Tolkienian dwarf would envy. He was the designated pilot of our observation vessel, a powerful green four-door chariot called Gram’s Car.

R was stout, with cokebottle glasses and the kind of 5 o’clock shadow that tends to shows up before noon. He read tarot, and could tell you about the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead, if you asked.

We three piled into Gram’s Car and rode the hour out to Catawissa, which comes from a corruption of the Algonquin word Gattawisi, meaning “Growing fat”. I think we were debating the relevance of the word “assertive” in the song “What Would Sir George Martin Do?” I remembered there were no streetlamps on that desolate stretch of road, and we had to break out my girlfriend’s giant hazard flashlight to make sure had parked over where the tracks had been. This was before the ubiquity of smartphones, so we kept this monstrosity in the trunk of Gram’s Car for emergencies. It was the size of a duffel bag, beige as hell, made of solid plastic with a floodlight in the front and flashing orange emergency lights built into the sides. I think her father worked some sort of construction, or maybe in a mine.

“All right, wait, dude,” T said. “Maybe we shouldn’t turn off the car.”

“Why?” I asked.

“‘cuz Gram’ll be pissed if a bunch of ghosts jack up her car!”

“Gram won’t know.”

“Until she looks in the mirror,” R said. “And sees thirty pairs of little dead kid eyes staring back at her.”

“Aw naw,” T said. “Gram won’t be able to go in reverse, son, she’ll be pissed. She will be way pissed.”

“She can lean out the window,” I said. “Like in Ace Ventura.”

“Yeah, or, we don’t fuck with a bunch of baby ghosts right now,” T said. “I think we passed a Sheetz like… forty minutes ago. We could go get some ice cream or something, I don’t know. Meatballs.”

“We didn’t come out here for meatballs,” I said.

“Yeah, no shit,” R said. “There’s no meatballs out here. There’s nothing out here, except baby ghosts. Shut off the car.”

“What do you think, R?” I asked. “How we doing with the… uh… veil? This ghost real estate?”

“Prime,” he said. “Tons of ’em, probably.”

“What if another car comes while we’re sitting in the middle of the road with all our lights off like a bunch of damn fools?” T demanded. “Gram would be way more pissed if we got her car haunted, then totaled it.”

“Couldn’t happen,” I explained. “The ghosts will push Gram’s car out of harm’s way. Right up the hill.”

“Dude, what if the other car is also coming from that direction!”

R and I looked at each other. I shrugged.

“Maybe they’ll race,” R said.

“We came all this way,” I said. “Let’s bust ’em. We’re here to bust ’em.”

“Aw, son,” T mumbled again, but killed the engine.

The silence was incredible. The country road silence was compounded by the late October silence and the silence you get from being in an enclosed car. For a moment, nothing happened.

“Myth busted,” I said. “Ghosts are fake. When we die, we cease to be. Owned.”

We used to say “owned” back then. It was a different time.

“It’s got to be in neutral,” R said.

T muttered something and cranked the shifter, and then we all started groaning in alarm as the car rumbled into motion.

“No way dude!” T said. “Naw! The baby ghosts got us!”

“They got our backs,” R said.

“This seems pretty fast,” I said. “Little kids probably can’t run this fast.”

“They fly!” T wailed. “Babyghosts fly, son!”

“It’s not that fast,” R said.

“How many horsepower you think 30 babyghosts translates to?” I asked.

“It’s not that fast! You wanna get out?”

I did. I did wanna get out.

R and I leaped out of Gram’s car and ran alongside it, discernibly uphill enough for it to kill my knees.

“Don’t leave me in Gram’s haunted car!” T yelled. “Aw, naw, son! Naw!”

Maybe babyghosts could have run that fast. I fell back a bit to run alongside them, but I didn’t see anything around the trunk. The car rumbled and roared its way up the hill, then slowed to a very gentle stop at the peak.

“Might be downhill,” R said to me.

“I don’t know, man,” I wheezed. “Running uphill really sucks. That sucked more than it would have on like, level ground.”

“Get in the car!” T yelled. “I’m not tryna sit in here with a bunch of god– damned — baby ghosts!”

We thanked the babyghosts for their assistance and returned to our rightful place in Gram’s car, then tried to start the engine.

It wouldn’t turn over.

“You pissed them off,” T said. “You were back there fartin’ around behind the car and they found out that there’s no bus and now they’re gonna kill us, dude. This is just like when your brother summoned the fire god from the Necronomicon and then your car battery exploded!”

There were shades of similarity, I admit. A few months earlier, my brother brought the Simon Necronomicon to a bonfire we had in the woods by the airport and tried to summon Innani, the god of fire. It didn’t seem to work, but the next day the terminals in my old Volkswagen Jetta caught on fire. We never established conclusively if my little brother was a warlock.

T cranked the engine again and Gram’s car sputtered to life. We all looked at each other and sighed with relief, then we got the hell out of there.

On the ride back to the Frozen North proper, we debated what the data meant. R maintained it could have been an optical illusion. I admitted that it was possible, but I was running 15 miles a week at the time, and it had looked and felt like uphill to me. T insisted there was no such thing as babyghosts, and they absolutely now haunted Gram’s rear view mirror.

We pulled into one of our own familiar haunts, an Exxon on 315 next to the dread Arby’s.

“You talked me into the ice cream,” I said. “Maybe a milkshake. They got one of those milkshake mixers here?”

“Yo,” R said. “Look at this.”

He was standing behind the car, looking down at the rear bumper. He pointed to the caked-on road grime. It took me a moment to see what he meant.

Tiny handprints were all over the bumper, clean little five-finger smudges on the dusty dark green paint.

“No way,” T murmured.

I held my hand out to compare, and it was easily twice the size of those little prints. They did the same, and it wasn’t even close. They didn’t belong to us.

“Does Gram takes this car around kids?” I asked.

“Dude, Gram hasn’t driven this car in like four years. That’s why we smoke in it all the time.”

“Have… you taken this car around kids?”

“I don’t know any kids, son!”

The three of us stood behind the car, staring at the dozens of little hand marks on the bumper and trunk, our own fingers outstretched.

“Babyghost Hill confirmed,” I said.

It wouldn’t be our last paranormal investigation, or our last confirm. Stay tuned for more spine-tingling Coalcracker Goosebumps.

Love,
BT

Postcard from the Fringe: Maze of Darkness

The Maze of Darkness, a classic from my initial transatlantic jaunt. Home to ghosts, wax demons, and Vlad the Impaler.

Obviously, this blog is anonymous, but we were fortunate enough to find this handsome Irish stallion to play the role of your humble narrator.

Let me know what you think. Or let Mr. Death know what you think. I imagine we’re about equally interested.

Love,
BT

Book Review: Worm at the Core

The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in LifeThe Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life by Sheldon Solomon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Death is never far from the mind. That’s the premise of the book, and in many cases, I think it’s an accurate assessment. But I would think that. I am, by my nature, a brooding existentialist supervillain. My house (which I refer to as “my inner sanctum”) and office (“my lair”) are filled with occult imagery, Marcus Aurelius quotes, and animal skulls. My wardrobe is black. And, bonus points, I work in mental health. I am the entire target audience.

Even with that in mind, I had a hard time accepting all of Solomon’s assertions. He seemed to be asking me to take a lot on faith, and I don’t think faith has any place in the science of death, ironic though that statement might seem. Faith can stay in its lane.

Worm at the Core is a phrase ganked from philosopher-heartthrob William James, the first psychology professor in the US and progenitor of one of my favorite belief structures, pragmatism, which he used to address the problem of free will. My dude Bill said that whether humans have free will, or are instinct-driven little flesh automatons, it wouldn’t change our behavior, so there’s no reason to give a shit. William James aggressively applied the “is there a reason to give a shit?” litmus to every argument he faced, and academia withered before his penetrating, Swansonian glare.

“A little cooling down of animal excitability and instinct, a little loss of animal toughness, a little irritable weakness and descent of the pain-threshold, will bring the worm at the core of all our usual springs of delight into full view, and turn us into melancholy metaphysicians.”

Of death, Billy J posited that the shadow of death is always hanging over us, and as soon as we notice it, the temperature drops.

Solomon et al. took that to its extreme, suggesting that the root cause of every psychological malady, from minor mental tummyaches like acute depressive episodes to full-blown reality-warping catatonic schizophrenia, can be attributed to what he termed “death anxiety”, or the fatalistic navel-gazing that chases a momento mori. We are the only animals that know we’re going to die (probably), and whenever we are reminded of our inevitable expiration date, our brain hits the big red panic button. Whenever we are reminded that we are animals, it does the same. Animals die. Whenever we get sick, or notice some grey in the ol’ beard, or see someone truly ancient go wobbling down the street, we get a dose of that death anxiety because we, too, will diminish and die.

Everybody on board so far? Good, here’s where it starts to get shaky.

Solomon suggests that we inoculate ourselves against the knowledge of our own finity through the establishment of self-esteem, which we accomplish by really leaning into norms specific to our culture. This workaround is termed Terror Management Theory, after the existential terror that comes each time we’re forced to confront our own mortality.

For example, in America, the mores that help stave off death are things like outspoken patriotism, and making a lot of money. Some of these things double-soothe because they offer an opportunity for ersatz immortality; for example, the culturally approved mandate of making and caring for your babies allows a genealogical immortality, since you’ve passed on a lot of your traits, and maybe your familial crooked smile will get inflicted on your descendents right up until the sun explodes. Or a creative work, painting a masterpiece or penning the Great American Novel, could afford you a legacy that works as a salve for the dread that comes with the contemplation of mortality. This is the kind of thing that compels wealthy philanthropists to hurl money at charitable organizations that will name a library or rec center after them.

These are common sense claims, and most of them pretty reasonable. From an evolutionary perspective, this can also hang; working in tandem with the rest of your tribe increases your chances of survival, which would make you feel less vulnerable to death. But the thing about science is, you’ve got to back up the claims with empirical evidence. Otherwise, it’s not science.

The experimental model they used was based on fill-in-the-blank questionnaires. One of the words might have been G R _ _ _. If someone walked past a coffee shop on the way in, they’d be more inclined to write GRIND; also, if the participant were to be cognizant of the fact that life is like a sandwich, no matter which way you flip it, the bread comes first. If the same participant walked past a hearse on the way in, they’d be more inclined to write GRAVE. This was supposed to illustrate the unconscious manifestation of death anxiety, which would in turn effect things like how harshly they punished criminals (breakers of cultural mores/laws) in hypothetical court cases.

They ran this same experiment over and over for 30 years, making subtle adjustments. In cases where they removed all death-related stimuli but insulted a participant’s deeply-help beliefs about country, politics, or religion, the questionnaire showed the same trends as if the participants had received an actual reminder of their mortality (old sick people, a cemetery, etc.)

As a theoretical framework, I think Terror Management Theory stands. But theoretical is as far as we can go. Statistical significance or not, the Mad Libs questionnaire model just doesn’t seem convincing enough to write off the sum of human experience as manifestations of our proximity to or distance from the concept of death. There are too many variables you can’t account for. Sure, patriotic Canadians displayed more “death anxiety markers” when you shittalked Canada, but that’s not necessarily a direct indicator of their self-esteem being damaged. It’s not a long hop from insulting a country to the “my dad can beat up your dad” mentality. Maybe that kind of open vitriol toward Canada got those patriotic Canadians thinking of war, and you can’t think of war without thinking of death. The individual, and their self-esteem, is barely involved.

Same for religion. Short hop from blasphemy to crusade in terms of mental heuristics, before the self-esteem of the individual is even considered.

It’s just asking too much heavy lifting of the unconscious. Too much of this premise is taking place behind the scenes, which is a risk you run in all social psychology experimentation, but that doesn’t mean your extrapolations qualify as proof.

The Worm at the Core is an interesting book, but it’s an interesting philosophy book. We can keep in mind that the shadow of death may be hanging over us at all times and coloring our perceptions, but it’s bad faith to suggest that we’ve proven it with these middle-school worksheets.

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Book Review: Nourishing Traditions

Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook That Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet DictocratsNourishing Traditions: The Cookbook That Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats by Sally Fallon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Female Alex Jones howls accusatory invective at the FDA, food lobbyists, and bought doctors, interspersed with complicated recipes for enzyme-laden meals from scratch to feed to your fussy babies.

It revisits the usual paths taken by this kind of nutrition book – Weston Price, that son of a bitch Ancel Keys, the AMA is bought by the Big Food, customers not cures, food is medicine, et cetera. It’s not a science book. It’s honestly more of a scrapbook comprised of excerpts from Weston Price’s journals, quotes from a couple of books with titles like Sugar Blues and Fighting the Food Giants, and elaborate recipes for fermented grandma foods.

Everything requires the addition of whey or creme fraiche. I’ve never even seen a cheesecloth, but it is mandatory for virtually any dish in this book. It also keyed me in on the importance of food processors, which I had gotten by without for three decades, but not no more. I picked one up and used it to make baba ganoush. It was okay. Probably suffered because I didn’t add whey.

The main idea is traditional food is easy to eat and generally comes with a starter’s kit of enzymes (pickles, sauerkraut, fermented foods) that plug into your gut microbiome, allowing you to extract more nutrition from each meal and thus be healthier. It checks out, but getting through the book was sort of a drag. Three stars because reading about things you’re highly interested in shouldn’t be a drag. But then, I’m certainly not the target demographic.

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Book Review: Deep Work

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted WorldDeep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I’m not a fickle man by nature, so I was surprised to look up the other Studyhacks plug vehicle I read and discover I’d given it five stars. That’s a four-star differential! If he had it, how did he lose it? How could he fall so far?

The problem with Deep Work is it featured more of the author as an individual, and less of his research. This was manifested by his constant, breathlessly verbose academic masturbation. Yeah, I think he’s a self-aggrandizing, circumlocutionary wad. Me. The guy who just used half a thesaurus to call him long-winded. I think that.

The author, as an individual, is unlikeable. Even putting aside his relentless boasting, his sloppy dual-hand shaft-massage of “innovative” CEOs and middle managers is equal parts embarrassing and grotesque.

Deep Work is a clunky propagandist how-to that attempts to convince you there is no life beyond your work, then gives helpful hints on how to drain all the vibrancy, adventure, and joy from your life in pursuit of more work, more promotions, more money so you finally make enough to consider yourself successful.

The motivational stories are harrowing. A dude who was working data-entry, getting like $60k a year, decides that he’s had it with that life and strikes out in pursuit of something more. He drops out of everything and obsessively teaches himself to code, working eight hours in his garage with fifteen different programming manuals over the course of a few months. When he wraps up this self-imposed asceticism, he enrolls in a master’s level accelerated course that “several doctorate students failed out of” and of course is the top of his class.

Ready for the payoff?

He gets certified and hired as a top-tier code monkey, making $100k a year, almost double. Newport states that he has, unequivocally, succeeded. He continues to work twelve-hour days, which begin at 5 AM, because he wants to focus his concentration and get his “deep work” in those essential four hours before everyone else arrives to disrupt his concentration.

Imagine that life. That successful life.

The book is replete with examples of these ubermensch “knowledge workers” (his term, and I cringed every time) reinventing paradigms by putting a lot of people in the same room at work, or isolating them in little cells, or whatever else. His description of the Facebook office is nothing short of sycophantic.

The book is filthy with business jargon and academic self-importance, and also business self-importance and academic jargon. It’s the worst of all conceivable worlds. I’ll give in an example, but I’ll summarize and paraphrase the lead-in; Lord knows somebody has to.

He talks about trying to classify daily work tasks into either deep or shallow work. Deep work requires sustained periods of deep concentration, pushing you to the limit of your abilities, often conjuring the flow state. Shallow work is answering e-mails and having meetings. Some things fall in between, and he attempts to establish a metric of “How long would it take a smart, recent university graduate to learn how to do this?”

Here comes the verbatim:
In the example editing a draft of an academic article that you will soon submit to a journal: Properly editing an academic paper requires that you understand the nuances of the work (so you can make sure it’s being described precisely) and the nuances of the broader literature (So you can make sure it’s being cited properly). These requirements require

— is that what those requirements do —

cutting-edge knowledge of an academic field – a task that in the age of specialization takes years of diligent study at the graduate level and beyond. When it comes to this example, the answer to our question would therefore be quite large, perhaps on the scale of fifty to seventy-five months.

Seventy-five months to be worthy of proofreading your academic paper? Are you high?

As you can see from that logorrhea, he’s absolutely unreadable.

It wasn’t a total wash, or I wouldn’t have finished reading it, though my iron resolve just kept on flagging. He name-drops Neal Stephenson several times, since he only had maybe ten examples of successful deep workers throughout the book (and one was Mark Twain, so maybe not firsthand report). Here’s what Neal had to say.

If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. [If I get interrupted a lot] what replaces it? Instead of a novel that will be around for a long time… there is a bunch of e-mail messages that I have sent out to individual persons.

Well, that’s certainly true. But if the best line of your book is someone else’s, it might benefit you to gather up a “work block” for some self-reflection.

Another Geneva Convention-caliber violation is the concept of “productive meditation”. I’m a shrink by trade, so allow me to be your matador and draw your attention to the biggest, reddest flag: meditation is already productive. That’s why you do meditation. It defrags your brain and strengthens the orbitoprefontal cortex, improves your capacity for stress management, lowers your blood pressure, deepens sleep, enhances creativity, the whole nine yards. It makes you a better human being across every domain.

So the initial suggestion that Newport has discovered another, more productive means of meditation that has eluded the bodhisattvas for the past two millennia is opaque megalomania. He goes on to suggest that whenever you have “extra time”, such as when you’re walking somewhere, or showering, or eating, you should decide and hyperfocus on a specific “professional problem”, and think about nothing else for the duration of your activity.

Let’s see his own words again:
Fortunately, finding time for this strategy is easy, as it takes advantage of periods that would otherwise be wasted (such as walking the dog or commuting to work), and if done right, can actually increase your professional productivity instead of taking time away from your work.

Walking the dog isn’t a waste of your time, you fucking automaton. It’s a daily opportunity to connect with an animal that considers you its entire world.

It’s hard to slog through 300 pages of this and not interpret it as an attack on the human spirit. Your performance algorithm doesn’t allow for freedom, Cal. You’re running yourself into the ground and clocking 2 hours a night with your family because you’ve sold your soul to an outmoded notion of success, and these papers, these books that you turn out so assiduously are private little shrines and idols, designed not only to convert those who haven’t yet seen the light, but to prove to the skeptics, and to yourself, that it was worth it.

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Book Review: The Courage to be Disliked

The Courage to Be Disliked: How to Free Yourself, Change your Life and Achieve Real HappinessThe Courage to Be Disliked: How to Free Yourself, Change your Life and Achieve Real Happiness by Ichiro Kishimi

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’d call it a masterpiece. Why not? Kishimi breathes new life into the uncle that foundational psychology keeps in its basement, Alfred Adler, in the form of a dialogue between a whiny-ass college student and a supercilious old Zen Stoic master.

The kid rails on about the injustice of the world and how terrible and evil it is to everyone, but him specifically, as 20something My First Nihilists are wont to do. The old man is smug, Socratic, and avuncularly pedantic over the next 300 pages as he gently explains why the kid’s worldview sucks.

Psychology was founded by three deeply disturbed Eastern European physicians. You’ve heard of Freud, inventor of Yo Mama jokes. You’ve probably heard of Jung, who was functionally a witch. Odds are you haven’t heard much about Adler, considering I did two degrees worth of psychology and the extent of my exposure was two PowerPoint slides about his birth order theory.

Adler pushed individual psychology, so called because the individual was the smallest component a mind could be reduced to. None of that “id ego superego” horseshit here. Adler wasn’t a big believer in the subconscious as a separate entity, like some frothy little anxiety-inducing daemon rubbing his shady little claws together. Trauma wasn’t real relevant either, which is about as far from psychodynamic theory as you can get.

You can’t explain Adler by outlining what he wasn’t, which Kishimi understood, and that’s probably why he presented this in the form of a dialogue. The format is something like this:

Kid: Bitches incessantly.
Old Guy: Presents contradiction gleefully.
Kid: Overreacts to what he perceives as a slight.
Old Guy: Tells kid to calm down, presents Adlerian concept in matter-of-fact way.
Kid: Presents contradiction. Angrily.
Old Guy: Further explains Adlerian concept, provides some examples, says more nice things to kid.
Kid: “I see. How interesting.”

This allowed Kishimi to address all of the points of argument that would be raised by anyone versed in Freudian (or, to a much lesser extent, Jungian) psychological perspectives.

Adlerian psychology is complex in that it has a lot of simple concepts that interlock. The first point introduced by Kishimi is that you can’t care about praise or conditional positive regard from others. Everybody likes it, but it’s not a guarantee and it doesn’t last. No matter what you do, in a crowd of ten people, at least a couple will always hate you. Nature of the beast. That’s their task, and trying to live to “correct” that in them and sucker them into liking you is a con that sacrifices your own freedom. Disloyalty to the self at the expense of free will is ultimately not worth the price of admission.

The reason you’ll never get everybody to love you is called “separation of tasks”. You get to decide what you do, but you can’t decide what other people do. How other people feel about you is their task. Your task is acting with honesty and integrity. If they don’t like it, okay. Cool. None of my business. Not my pig, not my farm, hoss.

This is not to say we’re incapable of adjusting things we don’t like about ourselves. No pulpy determinism here; in fact, this is about as far from callow reductionist self-excusing that you can get in early psychology, or even modern psychology. If you don’t like something about yourself, stop actively deciding to behave in a way that supports that trait every moment of every day. It falls away without its base and makes room for your next incarnation, no less a “real you” than the current one, but a you that didn’t have an opportunity to thrive, choked as it was by the thorns of your miserable old habits.

Throughout the book, the oldo says “decide to be happy” and the kid responds with high-pitched Lemongrab screeching, for obvious reasons. That doesn’t mean anything! “Happy” is something you aim for, like sanity, but it has no standardized definition outside of self-report, and even there it’s chosen only by the obnoxiously religious. How the hell?

Adler suggests a formula for happiness, or at least for a general sense of contentment that will move you beyond the realm of the big fat sweaty depressive. There’s only two steps.
1. Rely on yourself.
2. Live in harmony with society.

The obvious issue here, especially for anybody who follows my own brand of green-and-black Magic deck doomsaying, is that society is an absolute mess and living in harmony with it makes you complicit. And that’s true, within the paradigm that defines society as “7 billion people drawing invisible lines then drone striking across them”. Living in full-on harmony with our quotidian calamities, ranging from casual Skull & Bones war crime right on down to the antinature of a 40-hour workweek sitting in front of an LED screen, could only make you more miserable, more depressed, possibly even sweatier.

When Adler or Kishimi talk about a society, or a community, their definitions are more flexible and require more input on your part. You choose your own communities, and your communities become your society. If you decide “my community is my school”, that’s too many people, too much data to try to parse, and you’ll retreat from it. If your community is your circle of friends, co-workers you see every day, maybe some local chapter of a club devoted to a shared hobby, that’s manageable. You could live in harmony with these fellas, just as the human animal was programmed to live in harmony with their tribe. (Based on modern hunter-gatherer models, a tribe probably consisted of twentyish roving “bands”, each band consisting of around 25 people, which means you’d have 500 people to choose from but would probably only deal with a maximum of 150, which gives us Dunbar’s number. Neat.)

I’ve tried to adopt this way of thinking in how I spend my money, especially in light of the Coronavirus’s wholesale slaughter of small businesses. Living in the city, you’re surrounded by people you don’t know and businesses that you might not care for, all of which technically make up your neighborhood community. With an Adlerian approach, nope! Target might be closer to my house than Doggie Style Pet Supplies, but that doesn’t mean I accept Target as part of my community. They both carry chew toys. Doggie Style might be slightly pricier, but I’m no longer subsisting off canned tuna and Burger King tacos (who remember?) as I did in my wasted youth, and I’d rather pick and choose what I allow into my definition of community. This is, after all, my task.

This contribution, monetary in this example, is how I give back to this aspect of community. I internalize that I’m able to pick and choose. That’s self-reliance. I give money to Capitol Beer and Sushi, rather than Applebee’s. That’s contribution. If you have self-reliance and contribution, you have all the ingredients for happiness.

Obviously, that’s writ on a detached, macro, somewhat ancap level. It’s less messy when applied to personal relationships, like with your family. You need to know you’re not helpless, and you need to contribute to your family in some way, even if its something as subtle as with positive presence. Otherwise, you’re going to feel bad. Them’s the breaks.

One of my favorite bits is Adler saying “all problems are interpersonal relationship problems”. A sort of shiny spin on Hell being other people. Without other people gumming up the works, our problems would pretty much just be getting food. A life without other people wouldn’t be much of a life, but they certainly bring with them their cost.

I could go on, but won’t. Read the book. Here are some of my favorite excerpts.

“No matter what has occurred in your life up until this point, it should have no bearing at all on how you live from now on.”
Your past trauma, however developmental, is irrelevant. Each moment of a choice you make to continue living the way you always have. If that way isn’t working, choose to live differently.

Trauma is powerful, but only because we empower it with the meaning we extract from it.
“What kind of meaning does one attribute to past events? This is the task that is given to ‘you now’.”

What happened, or happens, to us is beyond our control. The meaning we ascribe to it and how we proceed from that point decides how we will feel, and how our life will go.

As Adler says, “Children who have not been taught to confront challenges will try to avoid all challenges.”

And they become adults who won’t deviate from their comfort zone, and languish in prisons of their own design.

An adult, who has chosen an unfree way to live, on seeing a young person living freely here and now in this moment, criticizes the youth as being hedonistic. Of course, this is a life-lie that comes out so that the adult can accept his own unfree life. An adult who has chosen real freedom himself will not make such comments and will instead cheer on the will to be free.

They are just jealous of your righteous teen styles. Up tha punx.

If you are thinking of school as being everything to you, you will end up without a sense of belonging to anything. And then, you will escape within a smaller community, such as your home. You will shut yourself in, and maybe even turn to violence against members of your own family. And by doing such things, you will be attempting to gain a sense of belonging somehow.

There’s always going to be a larger community, and you need the refuge of people you can trust within it, whichever one you choose.

There are two objectives for behavior: to be self-reliant and to live in harmony with society. The two objectives for the psychology that supports these behaviors: the consciousness that I have the ability and the consciousness that people are my comrades. … In other words, “to be self-reliant” and “the consciousness that I have the ability” correspond to the discussion of self-acceptance. And then “to live in harmony with society” and “the consciousness that people are my comrades” connect to confidence in others and then to contribution to others.

You need to have faith in others to be able to feel good about contributing, otherwise you’re just going to feel like you’re allowing yourself to be taken advantage of. Faith is predicated on trust. Trust only comes with the belief that they’ve got your back, that your quid will be pro quo’d. Hard to apply to humanity at large, but necessary to apply to whatever your community is, if you don’t want to be nuts.

Life is simple, and the world is, too.

Life is a series of moments, which one lives as if one were dancing, right now, around and around each passing instant. And when one happens to survey one’s surroundings, one realizes, I guess I’ve made it this far. Among those who have danced the dance of the violin, there are people who stay the course and become professional musicians. Among those who have danced the dance of the bar examination, there are people who become lawyers. There are people who have danced the dance of writing and become authors. Of course, it also happens that people end up in entirely different places. But none of these lives came to an end “en route”. It is enough if one finds fulfillment in the here and now one is dancing.

An old chestnut, but a good one. The journey is the destination. Having goals is fine, but your life isn’t achieving those goals. It’s living to see them achieved. Or not. Maybe it’s changing your mind along the way. Deciding that is your task, and you get to, because you’re free.

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