Miscellanea: April 2018

Links

The Working Person’s Guide to the Industry that Might Kill Your Company – Hamilton Nolan at Splinter

In Praise of Conspiracies – Ryan Holiday at The Observer. A followup to Holiday’s article on Silicon Valley, which I linked to in last month’s Miscellanea.

What is Your Tribe? The Invention of Kenya’s Ethnic Communities – Patrick Gathara at The Elephant

The Myth of ‘Learning Styles’ – Olga Khazan at The Atlantic

The Real Origins of the Religious Right – Randall Blumer at Politico.

Are We Seeing the Start of a Liberal Tea Party? – Nathaniel Rakich at FiveThirtyEight

The Surprisingly Solid Mathematical Case of the Tin Foil Hat Gun Prepper – BJ Campbell

Facebook: The Cambridge Analytica thing wasn’t a ‘data breach,’ it’s just totally how our platform works – Laura Hazard Owen at Nieman Lab. I hate to keep pounding the Facebook drum so incessantly, but it cannot be emphasized enough that none of the incentives currently at play will allow Facebook—or just about any other social media company—to prioritize privacy, autonomy, or security. If knowledge is power, what does it mean to give out knowledge about yourself? And on that note:

China waging ‘psychological warfare’ against Australia, US Congress told – Ben Doherty at The Guardian. The genie is out of the bottle. This was never going to just be a vulnerability that got exploited once and then fixed immediately.

Why we should bulldoze the business school – Martin Parker at The Guardian

 

Videos

Basic Income Explained – Siraj Raval on YouTube

 

Books

Colonel Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris (4/5): This was the final volume of Morris’ three-part study of Theodore Roosevelt, collectively the best biography I’ve ever read. The trilogy peaked with the masterful first volume, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, but the two following volumes are well worth the reader’s time as well.

 

Music

Black Stone Cherry – Soul Machine

Chevelle – An Island

Evergrey – The Grand Collapse

Les Discrets – L’echapee

Ne Obliviscaris – And Plague Flowers the Kaleidoscope

 

Movies

A Quiet Place (5/5): Wildly suspenseful and surprisingly heartfelt. The casting of real-life couple John Krasinski and Emily Blunt was a wise choice, as was casting a deaf actress for their daughter Regan.

Truth or Dare (2/5): It’s a Blumhouse movie.

Miscellanea: March 2018

Links

It’s Time to Get Real About Power in Silicon Valley – Ryan Holiday at The Observer. This essay shook me more powerfully than anything I’ve read since Meditations on Moloch. An unflinching look at what makes the wheels of the world turn.

My Life as a Tunnel Rat – Jim Marett at The New York Times

A Quick (Battle) Field Guide to the New Culture Wars – Venkatesh Rao at Ribbonfarm

Russia ‘arming the Afghan Taliban,’ says US – Justin Rowlatt at the BBC. The circle completeth.

In the Trenches of the Facebook Election – John Herrman at The Awl. See also How Facebook plans to become one of the most powerful weapons in politics – Philip Bump at The Washington Post. Note the publication dates on both.

The desire to fit in is the root of almost all wrongdoing – Christopher Freiman at Aeon.co

I Got a Story to Tell – Steve Francis at The Players’ Tribune

Is Big Business Really That Bad? – Robert Atkinson and Michael Lind at The Atlantic

Videos

A Real Life Haptic Glove (Ready Player One Technology Today) – Smarter Every Day 190 – YouTube

Learned Helplessness – YouTube

Books

None this month.

Music

Alice in Chains – Stone

Amplifier – Matmos

Nightwish – Ghost Love Score

 

Movies

Icarus (5/5) (Netflix): Worth every bit of the hype it received. Starts out as a self-experiment in sports doping, takes insane left turn, leaves viewer feeling overwhelming sense of dread.

Miscellanea: February 2018

Links

(Don’t) Be the Gray Man – Patrick Steadman at Ribbonfarm. “While it’s fun to make fun of the dynamics of virtue signaling on social media, a society where many people have ‘gray’ identities and belief systems is quietly primed for chaos.”

Life Is Hard; Get Drunk on This – Brett McKay at The Art of Manliness

‘Never get high on your own supply’—why social media bosses don’t use social media – Alex Hern at The Guardian

How Skyscrapers Can Save the City – Edward Glaeser at The Atlantic

Heroes are not Replicable – Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution

He Was a Crook – Hunter S. Thompson at The Atlantic. Hunter S. Thompson killed himself 13 years ago this February. The Atlantic published his vicious obituary of Richard Nixon, originally written for Rolling Stone. “He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning. Even his funeral was illegal. He was queer in the deepest way. His body should have been burned in a trash bin. These are harsh words for a man only recently canonized by President Clinton and my old friend George McGovern — but I have written worse things about Nixon, many times, and the record will show that I kicked him repeatedly long before he went down. I beat him like a mad dog with mange every time I got a chance, and I am proud of it. He was scum.” Do yourself a favor and read the whole thing.

Today’s Impeach-O-Meter: Democrats Unveil Worst Campaign Idea Since “Pokemon Go to the Polls” – Ben Mathis-Lilley at Slate. Democrats: snatching defeat from the jaws of victory since 1828.

With all of the negative headlines dominating the news these days, it can be difficult to spot signs of progress. What makes you optimistic about the future? – /u/thisisbillgates at /r/AskReddit. In which Bill Gates descended upon the teeming masses of reddit to inspire optimism and change.

How Manafort’s inability to convert a PDF file to Word helped prosecutors – Timothy B. Lee at Ars Technica. Also, Paul Manafort’s Password was “bond007,’ Making Him the Worst Unregistered Foreign Agent Ever. We really are living through Stupid Watergate.

Current Affairs’ “Some Puzzles For Libertarians”, Treated As Writing Prompts For Short Stories – Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex, demolishing an embarrassingly stupid critique of libertarianism.

With Xi’s Power Grab, China Joins New Era of Strongmen – Steven Lee Myers at The New York Times.

Deep Fakes: A Looming Crisis for National Security, Democracy, and Privacy? – Robert Chesney and Danielle Citron at Lawfare. Their colleague Herb Lin offers a more optimistic perspective here.

This Mutant Crayfish Clones Itself, and It’s Taking Over Europe – Carl Zimmer at The New York Times.

Videos

Cardinal Conversations – Reid Hoffman and Peter Thiel on Technology and Politics – YouTube

LIVE DEBATE – Swipe Left: Dating Apps Have Killed Romance – YouTube

The Incredible Sounds of the Falcon Heavy Launch (BINAURAL AUDIO IMMERSION) – Smarter Every Day 189 – YouTube

The Bayesian Trap – YouTube

Brave New World vs Nineteen Eighty-Four – YouTube. While a huge fan of both works, I continue to find 1984 a more compelling and relevant work, a fact that I’m actually somewhat puzzled by. Even I have to admit that our society more closely resembles that of Brave New World, at least on a superficial level, and it seems like the recent trend among the smart people I follow has been to regard BNW more highly than 1984. Perhaps this will be a good topic for a future essay, after I’ve examined the two works more closely and tried to figure out why I remain so closely attached to Orwell.

Deepmind AlphaZero – Mastering Games Without Human Knowledge – YouTube

Ian Morris | Why the West Rules — For Now – YouTube

Waking Up with Sam Harris #109 – Biology and Culture (with Bret Weinstein) – YouTube

Books

Outer Dark, by Cormac McCarthy (2.5/5): This was the fourth McCarthy book I’ve read, and the earliest one chronologically speaking (the others are Blood Meridian, No Country for Old Men, and The Road). I’ve concluded I’m not as much of a fan of early McCarthy. I think the later you go in McCarthy’s bibliography, the less McCarthy’s style completely dominates the experience. In Outer Dark, the opaque language, static characters, and sparse action that McCarthy is known for are such a chore to get through that I nearly gave it up. It almost read like a McCarthy parody at points. However, his strengths—gorgeous turns of phrase and a thought-provoking ending—were also present.

The Art of Learning, by Josh Waitzkin (4.5/5): This was my third reading of this book, and I got more out of it this time than any of the previous times. I’ll be writing a more thorough analysis of this book in the coming weeks.

Letters from the Earth, by Mark Twain (4/5): A short, clever deconstruction of the Bible written from the perspective of Satan after being put in the time-out corner for excessive cheekiness. I’m amazed it’s not better known among secular activists and the like; Twain puts his sharp eye and devastating wit to good use without being heavy-handed or unfair.

Music

Above and Beyond – Tri-State

Breaking Benjamin – Feed the Wolf

Grabbitz – Follow Me

LRKR – Morning Rain

A Perfect Circle – The Doomed

A Perfect Circle – TalkTalk

Pop Evil – Waking Lions

 

Movies

Black Panther (4/5): I thought it was a bit overhyped (is it really 97-percent-on-Rotten-Tomatoes good?), but still excellent—definitely better than any of the comedies-with-superheroes that Marvel’s been releasing lately.

The Shape of Water (3.5/5): I thought it kind of jumped the shark in the third act (there is such a thing as being too weird), but it was still a sweet, well-made movie.

My Scientology Movie (3.5/5) (Netflix): Less about Scientology itself, and more about the process Louis Theroux went through even trying to make the movie to begin with. Quirky and fun to watch without detracting from the gravity of the subject.

Analysis: Make It Stick, by Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel

The psychology of learning is one of those fields where many have opinions, but few have facts. The good news—not that you’d know it from the way people talk—is that an enormous amount of research has been done over the last several years on the topic, and while there’s still plenty more to be done, scientists have identified many strategies the help people learn more effectively. Having delved into more than my fair share of that research, I can confidently say that Make It Stick is the single best resource for the layman wanting to improve their ability to learn. It’s practical, thorough, and concise, and it uses its own principles to help the reader internalize its message.

Top 5 Key Concepts

Page 30: Prior knowledge doesn’t hinder creativity or problem-solving, it aids them

“The frustration many people feel toward standardized, ‘dipstick’ tests given for the sole purpose of measuring learning is understandable, but it steers us away from appreciating one of the most potent learning tools available to us. Pitting the learning of basic knowledge against the development of creative thinking is a false choice. Both need to be cultivated. The stronger one’s knowledge about the subject at hand, the more nuanced one’s creativity can be in addressing a new problem. Just as knowledge amounts to little without the exercise of ingenuity and imagination, creativity absent a sturdy foundation of knowledge builds a shaky house.”

Page 55: Memorization of basic facts of a subject is necessary to advance to higher-level application of that subject

“To paraphrase a conclusion from one of these studies, recall and recognition require ‘factual knowledge,’ considered to be a lower level of learning than ‘conceptual knowledge.’ Conceptual knowledge requires an understanding of the interrelationships of the basic elements within a larger structure that enable them to function together. Conceptual knowledge is required for classification. Following this logic, some people argue that practicing retrieval of facts and exemplars would fall short as a strategy for comprehending general characteristics that are required for higher levels of intellectual behavior. The bird classification studies suggest the opposite: strategies of learning that help students identify and discern complex prototypes (family resemblances) can help them grasp the kinds of contextual and functional differences that go beyond the acquisition of simple forms of knowledge and reach into the higher sphere of comprehension.”

Page 72: Learning occurs in a three-step process of encoding, consolidation, and retrieval

Encoding: […]

“[…]The brain converts your perceptions into chemical and electrical changes that form a mental representation of the patterns you’ve observed…We call the process encoding, and we call the new representations within the brain memory traces. Think of notes jotted or sketched on a scratchpad, our short-term memory. […]

“[…] Consolidation:

“The process of strengthening these mental representations for long-term memory is called consolidation. New learning is labile: its meaning is not fully formed and therefore is easily altered. In consolidation, the brain reorganizes and stabilizes the memory traces. […]

“[…] Retrieval:

Learning, remembering, and forgetting work together in interesting ways. Durable, robust learning requires that we do two things. First, as we recode and consolidate new material from short-term memory into long-term memory, we must anchor it there securely. Second, we must associate the material with a diverse set of cues that will make us adept at recalling the knowledge later. Having effective retrieval cues is an aspect of learning that often goes overlooked. The task is more than committing knowledge to memory. Being able to retrieve it when we need it is just as important.”

Page 76: Memory is (virtually) limitless—it’s retrieval that’s the bottleneck

“There’s virtually no limit to how much learning we can remember as long as we relate it to what we already know. In fact, because new learning depends on prior learning, the more we learn, the more possible connections we create for further learning. Our retrieval capacity, though, is severely limited. […]

“[…] Knowledge is more durable if it’s deeply entrenched, meaning that you have firmly and thoroughly comprehended a concept, it has practical importance or keen emotional weight in your life, and it is connected with other knowledge that you hold in memory. How readily you can recall knowledge from your internal archives is determined by context, by recent use, and by the number and vividness of cues that you have linked to the knowledge and can call on to help bring it forth.”

Page 141: Individual differences may help or hinder learning, but they may not be the differences you think

“Each of use has a large basket of resources in the form of aptitudes, prior knowledge, intelligence, interests, and sense of personal empowerment that shape how we learn and how we overcome our shortcomings. Some of these differences matter a lot—for example, out ability to abstract underlying principles from new experiences and to convert new knowledge into mental structures. Other differences we may think count for a lot, for example having a verbal or visual learning style, actually don’t.”

Top 5 Practical Takeaways

Page 20: Retrieving material from memory—not simply re-encountering it—aids in learning

“The act of retrieving learning from memory has two profound benefits. One, it tells you what you know and don’t know, and therefore where to focus further study to improve the areas where you’re weak. Two, recalling what you have learned causes your brain to reconsolidate the memory, which strengthens its connections to what you already know and makes it easier for you to recall in the future. In effect, retrieval—testing—interrupts forgetting.”

Page 47: Making retrieval more difficult aids in learning, despite our intuitions

“While practicing is vital to learning and memory, studies have shown that practice is far more effective when it’s broken into separate periods of training that are spaced out. The rapid gains produced by massed practice are often evident, but the rapid forgetting that follows is not. Practice that’s spaced out, interleaved with other learning, and varied produces better mastery, longer retention, and more versatility. But these benefits come at a price: when practice is spaced, interleaved, and varied, it requires more effort. You feel the increased effort, but not the benefits the effort produces. Learning feels slower from this kind of practice, and you don’t get the rapid improvements and affirmations you’re accustomed to seeing from massed practice. Even in studies where the participants have shown superior results from spaced learning, they don’t perceive the improvement; they believe they learned better on the material where practice was massed.”

Page 87: Trying to answer a question or solve a problem will solidify your memory of the material, whether you’ve encountered it before or not

“The act of trying to answer a question or attempting to solve a problem rather than being presented with the information or the solution is known as generation. Even if you’re being quizzed on material you’re familiar with, the simple act of filling in a blank has the effect of strengthening your memory of the material and your ability to recall it later. In testing, being required to supply an answer rather than select from multiple choice options often provides stronger learning benefits. Having to write a short essay makes them stronger still. Overcoming these mild difficulties is a form of active learning, where students engage in higher-order thinking tasks rather than passively receiving knowledge conferred by others.”

Page 152: Use dynamic testing to improve your weak spots

“Dynamic testing has three steps.

“Step 1: a test of some kind—perhaps an experience or a paper exam—shows me where I come up short in knowledge or a skill.

“Step 2: I dedicate myself to becoming more competent, using reflection, practice, spacing, and the other techniques of effective learning.

“Step 3: I test myself again, paying attention to what works better now but also, and especially, to where I still need more work.”

Page 160: Distill the key principles from your material and incorporate them into a structure

“If you’re an example learner, study examples two at a time or more, rather than one by one, asking yourself in what ways they are alike and different. Are the differences such that they require different solutions, or are the similarities such that they respond to a common solution?

Break your idea or desired competency down into its component parts. If you think you are a low structure-builder or an example learner trying to learn new material, pause periodically and ask what the central ideas are, what the rules are. Describe each idea and recall the related points. Which are the big ideas, and which are the supporting concepts or nuances? If you were to test yourself on the main ideas, how would you describe them?

What kind of scaffold or framework can you imagine that holds these central ideas together?”

Top 5 Disagreements

Connections to Other Works

Outgoing Connections:

  • Deep Work, by Cal Newport
    • “Learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful.” (pg. 3)
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman
    • “In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes our two analytic systems. What he calls System 1 (or the automatic system) is unconscious, intuitive, and immediate. It draws on our senses and memories to size up a situation in the blink of an eye…System 2 (the controlled system) is our slower process of conscious analysis and reasoning. It’s the part of thinking that considers choices, makes decisions, and exerts self-control…System 1 is automatic and deeply influential, but it is susceptible to illusion, and you depend on System 2 to help you manage yourself: by checking your impulses, planning ahead, identifying choices, thinking through their implications, and staying in charge of your actions.” (pg. 105)
    • “To sum up, the means by which we navigate the world—Daniel Kahneman’s Systems 1 and 2—rely on our perceptual systems, intuition, memory, and cognition, with all their tics, warts, biases, and flaws. Each of us is an astounding bundle of perceptual and cognitive abilities, coexisting with the seeds of our own undoing. When it comes to learning, what we choose to do is guided by our judgments of what works and what doesn’t, and we are easily misled.” (pg. 123)

Incoming Connections

  • Die Empty, by Todd Henry
    • “I call this state of mind the ‘curse of familiarity.’ Because of my awareness of something, I am often falsely under the impression that I understand it.” (pg. 65)
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman
    • “One of the dials measures cognitive ease, and its range is between ‘Easy’ and ‘Strained.’ Easy is a sign that things are going well—no threats, no major news, no need to redirect attention or mobilize effort. Strained indicates that a problem exists, which will require increased mobilization of system 2. Conversely, you experience cognitive strain. Cognitive strain is affected by both the current level of effort and the presence of unmet demands. The surprise is that a single dial of cognitive ease is connected to a lage network of diverse inputs and outputs…The figure suggests that a sentence that is printed in a clear font, or has been repeated, or has been primed, will be fluently processed with cognitive ease. Hearing a speaker when you are in a good mood, or even when you have a pencil stuck crosswise in your mouth to make you ‘smile,’ also induces cognitive ease. Conversely, you experience cognitive strain when you read instructions in a poor font, or in faint colors, or worded in complicated language, or when you are in a bad mood, or even when you frown.” (pg. 59)

Closing Thoughts

If I had to summarize Make It Stick with one sentence it would be this: active learning is more effective than passive learning, even when it doesn’t feel like it. The importance of exerting effort is hammered throughout the book; in virtually every instance cited in Make It Stick, increasing the level of cognitive effort required to understand something—short of making it literally impossible by, for example, writing it in a different language—also increased the level of long-term comprehension.

As with everything else that has to do with our minds, we have to be wary of relying on our intuition to guide us. Intuition can be a helpful servant but a terrible master, and only after a long time of deliberately using System 2 thinking—controlled decision-making—does intuition start to become dependable. Make It Stick provides ample evidence that this holds just as true for metalearning as for the rest of cognitive psychology. Many of its solutions are counterintuitive, but they’re backed by solid research going back decades.

As I’ve mentioned before, you should be suspicious of advice that enables you to do what you’d like to do anyway. It may be technically true that “creativity is more important than knowledge,” as the authors quote Einstein saying, but it’s easy to use that platitude as justification for not having to do that hard work of learning the nuts and bolts of your chosen subject. Likewise, passive strategies like rereading (which is done by 80 percent of college students, according to studies cited by the authors) allow you feel like you’re learning effectively without putting forth much effort, but in the vast majority of cases, it’s simply not a good strategy.

It’s certainly possible that there are exceptions to the rule, and that you’re one of them, but in keeping with the book’s theme of using objective measures of competency, why would you assume that you’re the exception to the rule without hard evidence? Given the mind’s innate tendency to self-deceive, even among the well-intentioned, there simply is no substitute for testing yourself against reality. Luckily, open-minded self-experimentation carries no downsides; whether you’re right or wrong, you will always either get on track or stay on track.

Final Score: 5/5

The Greater of Two Evils: Weaponized Investigations

Many deep ideological fault lines have formed in the American political landscape over the decades; issues ranging from tax policy to immigration have set brother against brother to a degree unseen in recent memory. But no matter how strongly people disagree on these topics, they can disagree while still acting and arguing in good faith. Sometimes, however, such benign interpretations are simply not viable. When two factions radically diverge in behavior, it may not be out of differences in vision; it may be that one is just plain worse than the other—more authoritarian and hungrier for power, less honest and easier to corrupt. When a wave of sex scandals broke in late 2017, there was consistently more evidence of worse crimes against Republicans when compared to Democrats, though right-wing partisans relentlessly muddied the water by claiming false equivalency between the two parties. There was wrongdoing on both sides, but that certainly did not make the two sides equal.

This trend continues with one of the more frequent political spectacles of the modern era: governmental investigations. Not since Iran-Contra and possibly Watergate has the country’s attention been focused so intently on congressional committees and internal probes, with Hillary Clinton’s two investigations concerning the Benghazi attack and her private email server taking up gargantuan amounts of media attention in the early- to mid-2010’s, and the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with the Russian government potentially turning into the biggest scandal in American history. As with the accusations of sexual misconduct, it’s easy at first glance to draw parallels between the two parties and how they’ve handled their members being investigated, but a closer look reveals a deep asymmetry in how far each party has gone to protect their own.

The ongoing investigation of Trump has raised many hackles in the Republican Party and its associated media outlets, with some saying it was an attempt to discredit the President by the Democrats, the Deep State, or other forces aligned against the Trump agenda. Trump himself went even further:

This echoes what people said in defense of Hillary Clinton during her investigations. Writers in outlets ranging from The New Republic to The New York Times to The Huffington Post used the phrase “witch hunt” to describe the inquiries into both Benghazi and the private email server. As with the accusations of sexual misconduct covered in the previous installment in this series, “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” applied to both sides. But to twist the metaphor a bit, the investigations into Clinton’s conduct produced a lot of heat and not a lot of light—and the investigation into Trump has done the exact opposite.

In the wake of the 2012 attacks on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Clinton accepted responsibility for the attack, saying “I’m in charge of the State Department’s 60,000-plus people all over the world.” In May 2014, the House of Representatives voted 232-186 to create a Select Committee on Benghazi chaired by Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC). For the next two and a half years, the Committee investigated the events surrounding the attack and placed special attention on the role played by Hillary Clinton, who appeared before the committee in October 2015 and was questioned for more than eight hours about her role in the Benghazi attacks. By the time the committee wrapped up, it had spent more time investigating the Benghazi attacks than Congress had spent investigating 9/11, Watergate, the JFK assassination, and Pearl Harbor.

However innocent or sinister Clinton’s conduct in the Benghazi affair may have been, the investigation into it was anything but a pure search for truth. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), on the friendly turf of Sean Hannity’s FOX show, let slip an ulterior motive on September 29, 2015:

“What you’re going to see is a conservative Speaker, that takes a conservative Congress, that puts a strategy to fight and win. And let me give you one example. Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?

 “But we put together a Benghazi special committee. A select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she’s untrustable. But no one would have known that any of that had happened had we not fought to make that happen.”

McCarthy later insisted he hadn’t really meant that the committee was politically motivated, but another GOP Congressman, Richard Hanna (R-NY), agreed that the investigation was designed to attack Clinton and suggested that McCarthy was only walking back his statement because he had committed “the biggest sin you can commit in D.C.”—telling the truth.

When Clinton became embroiled in yet another scandal—this time surrounding her use of a private email server while serving as Secretary of State—it occurred in conjunction with her ferocious race for the Presidency against Donald Trump. While the FBI ultimately recommended against filing charges, the issue dogged her entire campaign, with the Columbia Journalism Review finding that her private server scandal, as well as other email-related scandals such as the DNC and Podesta hacks, accounted for more sentences of news coverage than all of Trump’s scandals combined. A particularly harsh blow was dealt when FBI Director James Comey, with less than two weeks to go before the election, publicly announced he was re-opening the investigation in light of new evidence. Clinton’s lead diminished from 11 points to 4-5 points after the announcement. When Clinton supporters complained of the effect this announcement had on the campaign, Sarah Huckabee said of them on November 3:

In the following months, Sarah Huckabee (now Sarah Huckabee Sanders) found her new boss doing exactly what she decried in that tweet. Donald Trump called the investigation into his campaign’s alleged collusion with the Russian government a “witch hunt” no less than five times on Twitter between January 10, 2017 and Jan 10, 2018, escalating that criticism on the latter date by calling it “the single greatest Witch Hunt in American history…”

While the Republican Party maintained some distance from the investigation for most of 2017, it began to circle the wagons in early 2018 with the controversy surrounding Devin Nunes’ memo alleging abuses of the national surveillance apparatus by the FBI against the Trump campaign. Nunes’ memo was privately doubted by many of his Republican colleagues and ended up containing virtually nothing of substance, but that didn’t stop a Republican (and Russian) hype campaign from pushing the narrative that federal law enforcement had been illegally and unethically attacking Trump since he had started campaigning.

Meanwhile, the FBI actually came under scrutiny during the election for supporting the Trump campaign, with multiple FBI personnel publicly backing Trump and sometimes offering inside knowledge of information that ended up damaging Clinton (such as the Comey announcement). Comey himself was a Republican who worked for administrations of both parties in various roles. Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, the other major figure in the Russia investigation, is the last person one would expect to be a Democratic partisan—he is a registered Republican, a George W. Bush appointee, and a USMC veteran with a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart from the Vietnam War.

None of this has stopped Republicans or their media mouthpieces from undercutting the investigation at every turn. The Senate Intelligence Committee, which is controlled by the Republicans, has only assigned seven full-time staffers to the task, far fewer than were assigned to many other major intelligence investigations, including the one on Benghazi, which had 46. Newt Gingrich initially called Mueller a “superb choice” for the special counsel, only to reverse his position once the investigation made progress and call him “the deep state at its very worst” on Sean Hannity’s show. Hannity himself has attacked the Special Counsel and become one of the most commonly cited sources for Russian botnets aiming to control the narrative of the investigation.

The use of internal investigations to punish political opponents shouldn’t be a political issue—it’s not as though we’re discussing taxes or drug policy, where there may be legitimate ideological disagreements between different factions that otherwise act in good faith and agree on the importance of fairness and objectivity. This is about the abuse of a powerful tool in the governmental arsenal, one that is intended to correct injustice but can be wielded to crush enemies. One can naturally expect bias to seep into any investigation, because all investigators are human. For instance, the ongoing debacle surrounding disgraced FBI agent Peter Strzok has been framed by many conservatives as clear-cut evidence that the inquiry into the Trump campaign has been irreparably tainted by partisanship and personal antipathy toward Trump, but while Strzok’s texts certainly show his distaste for Trump, one element that’s been suspiciously absent from this whole discussion is any evidence that Strzok’s personal feelings actually influenced the investigation in a substantial way. Indeed, Strzok was removed by Mueller immediately after the texts were released, and Strzok reportedly even pushed for the reopening of the Clinton investigation, which pushed the election in Trump’s favor.

In contrast, we have clear evidence from top officials in the Republican party itself that their investigations into Hillary Clinton were designed to drag her down in the public eye, and indications that, intentionally or otherwise, the Congressional investigation into Trump has been denied the resources granted to other operations of much lesser significance. When it comes to the government’s power to investigate, the Republican Party has consistently and openly weaponized it against its enemies, and no amount of comparatively trivial examples from the Democrats can counteract that evidence of systematic abuse.

Miscellanea: January 2018

Links

Google Maps’ Moat: How Far Ahead of Apple Maps is Google Maps? – Justin O’Beirne

The Talk – SMBC Comics. “Wait. You guys put complex numbers in your ontologies?” “We do. And we enjoy it.” “Ewww.”

What is the best book about each country? – Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution

Artificial Intelligence is Going to Supercharge Surveillance – James Vincent at The Verge

Conflict vs. Mistake – Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex

Which was more technologically advanced, the Roman Empire or Han China? – Hoang Nghiem at Quora. A brilliant, 18,900-word exploration of the relative technological levels of two powerful contemporary civilizations.

Videos

Unresolved: America’s Economic Outlook

Dystopian Fiction: How Stories Transform Your Mind

Caesar Crosses the Rubicon (52 to 49 B.C.E.)

Books

Deep Work, by Cal Newport (analysis here)

The Authoritarians, by Bob Altemeyer

Make It Stick, by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel (analysis here)

Tribe of Mentors, by Tim Ferriss

A More Beautiful Question, by Warren Berger

Music

Junkie XL – Mad Max: Fury Road soundtrack

Hans Zimmer – Blue Planet II soundtrack

Harakiri for the Sky – Heroin Waltz

Avatar – King’s Harvest

Damjan Mravunac – The Forbidden Tower (from The Talos Principle soundtrack)

Skyharbor – Blind Side

Analysis: Deep Work, by Cal Newport

Cal Newport has established himself as a reputable self-help author with several books aimed primarily at students and young professionals looking for strategies to get ahead in their academic or career track. With Deep Work, he continues his trend of offering very straightforward, practical advice, but has now pivoted toward addressing creative workers.

Deep Work is aimed at people who 1) need to produce creatively and think deeply, and 2) have an environment that can facilitate that kind of work if structured properly. If you don’t meet the first criterion, you will probably still be able to get a lot out of this book, though you may find the book’s ruthless evangelizing irritating. If you don’t meet the second criterion and think this book will help you overcome distraction, you may want to look somewhere else, as this book is primarily aimed at convincing people to eliminate distraction as much as they can and giving them a plan for how to do so.

Top 5 Key Concepts

Page 3: What is Deep Work?

Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

“Deep work is necessary to wring every last drop of value out of your current intellectual capacity. We now know from decades of research in both psychology and neuroscience that the state of mental strain that accompanies deep work is also necessary to improve your abilities.”

Page 14: Deep Work is valuable, and becoming more so

The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”

Page 92: Deep Work taps positively into the human psyche

“Whether you approach the activity of going deep from the perspective of neuroscience, psychology, or lofty philosophy, these paths all seem to lead back to a connection between depth and meaning. It’s as if our species has evolved into one that flourishes in depth and wallows in shallowness, becoming what we might call Homo sapiens deepensis.”

Page 157: Deep Work must be practiced and Shallow work must be rejected

“The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained. This idea might sound obvious once it’s pointed out, but it represents a departure from how most people understand such matters. In my experience, it’s common to treat undistracted concentration as a habit like flossing—something that you know how to do and know is good for you, but that you’ve been neglecting due to a lack of motivation. This mind-set is appealing because it implies you can transform your working life from distracted to focused overnight if you can simply muster enough motivation. But this understanding ignores the difficulty of focus and the hours of practice necessary to strengthen your ‘mental muscles.’ […]

“[…] There is, however, an important corollary to this idea: Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction. Much in the same way that athletes must take care of their bodies outside of their training sessions, you’ll struggle to achieve the deepest levels of concentration if you spend the rest of your time fleeing the slightest hint of boredom.”

Page 258: Deep Work is useful, not just philosophical

“A commitment to deep work is not a moral stance and it’s not a philosophical statement—it is instead a pragmatic recognition that the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done. Deep work is important, in other words, not because distraction is evil, but because it enabled Bill Gates to start a billion-dollar industry in less than a semester.”

Top 5 Practical Takeaways

Page 43: Concentration lags behind intention, so even a quick distraction can potentially take lots of time out of a fully-focused state. Remove them, too

“The concept of attention residue helps explain why the intensity formula is true and therefore helps explain Grant’s productivity. By working on a single hard task for a long time without switching, Grant minimizes the negative impact of attention residue from his other obligations, allowing him to maximize performance on this one task. […]

[…] Even if you’re unable to fully replicate Grant’s extreme isolation (we’ll tackle different strategies from scheduling depth in Part 2), the attention residue concept is still telling because it implies that the common habit of working in a state of semi-distraction is potentially devastating to your performance. It might seem harmless to take a quick glance at your inbox every ten minutes or so… But Leroy teaches us that this is not much of an improvement. That quick check introduces a new target for your attention. Even worse, by seeing messages that you cannot deal with at the moment (which is almost always the case), you’ll be forced to turn back to the primary task with a secondary task left unfinished.”

Page 119: Make a plan for your Deep Work Sessions

“There’s no one correct deep work ritual—the right fit depends on both the person and the type of project pursued. But there are some general questions that any effective ritual must address:

Where you’ll work and for how long. Your ritual needs to specify a location for your deep work efforts… If it’s possible to identify a location used only for depth…the positive effect can be even greater… Regardless of where you work, be sure to also give yourself a specific time frame to keep the session a discrete challenge and not an open-ended slog.

How you’ll work once you start to work. Your ritual needs rules and processes to keep your efforts structured. […]

[…] How you’ll support your work. Your ritual needs to ensure your brain gets the support it needs to keep operating at a high level of depth. For example, the ritual might specify that you start with a cup of good coffee, or make sure you have access to enough food or the right type to maintain energy, or integrate light exercise such as walking to help keep the mind clear.”

Page 144: Establish a firm boundary between work and non-work

“At the end of the workday, shut down your consideration of work issues until the next morning—no after-dinner e-mail check, no mental replays of conversations, and no scheming about how you’ll handle an upcoming challenge; shut down work thinking completely. If you need more time, then extend your workday, but once you shut down, your mind must be left free to encounter Kreider’s buttercups, stink bugs, and stars.”

Page 170: Use activities of light engagement (e.g. walking) to meditate on problems

“The goal of productive meditation is to take a period in which you’re occupied physically but not mentally—walking, jogging, driving, showering—and focus your attention on a single well-defined professional problem… As in mindfulness meditation, you must continue to bring your attention back to the problem at hand when it wanders or stalls. […]

[…] I suggest that you adopt a productive meditation practice in your own life. You don’t necessarily need a serious session every day, but your goal should be to participate in at least two or three such sessions in a typical week.”

Page 222: Schedule your workday down to the minute

“We spend much of our day on autopilot—not giving much thought to what we’re doing with our time. This is a problem… It’s an idea that might seem extreme at first but will soon prove indispensable in your quest to take full advantage of the value of deep work: Schedule every minute of your day.

Here’s my suggestion: At the beginning of each workday, turn to a new page of lined paper in a notebook you dedicate to this purpose. Down the left-hand side of the page, mark every other line with an hour of the day, covering the full set of hours you typically work. Now comes the important part: Divide the hours of your workday into blocks and assign activities to the blocks… Not every block need be dedicated to a work task. There might be time blocks for lunch or relaxation breaks. To keep things reasonable clean, the minimum length of a block of time should be thirty minutes […]

[…] When you’re done scheduling your day, every minute should be part of a block. You have, in effect, given every minute of your workday a job. Now as you go through your day, use this schedule to guide you.”

Top 5 Disagreements

Connections to Other Works

Closing Thoughts

Deep Work is definitely a top-tier productivity and self-help book. Its advice is practical and well-reasoned, and it never succumbs to fluff or sentimentality. It explains why you should follow his advice, explains what the concepts behind his advice are, and explains how you can put them into practice.

The book has its flaws, however; as mentioned above, it generally assumes a level of control over your environment that many people (e.g. parents, salespeople) don’t usually have. The advice is not very flexible either; there is no “if this-then that” to it. For instance, I can imagine writers, coders, and entrepreneurs all needing to remove distraction and dive deep into their work, as they are all creative producers in some sense, but there are many differences in how their thought processes must work to accomplish their goals. Everything just gets divided between “deep work” and “shallow work” with few distinctions among the multitude of activities that fall into the former category.

However, these criticisms are more of what was left out of the book rather than of what’s actually in it, so I can’t weight them too heavily in my final evaluation. Deep Work has already provided me with many personal benefits, especially the sections pertaining to structuring your environment and scheduling your work sessions more minutely, and I think anyone who wants to create better, whatever that means for them, will take something useful away from it.

Final Score: 4/5