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

Review: Black Mirror Season 4

Spoiler-Free

S04 E01 – USS Callister: A standout episode for a reason, though I don’t think it was as good from a storytelling perspective as people have been saying. Cleverly subverts the “nice guy nerd” trope. (4/5)

S04 E02 – Arkangel: Not a terrible episode, but nowhere near as suspenseful or incisive as typical Black Mirror episode. The episode’s premise had a lot of unfulfilled potential. (2.5/5)

S04 E03 – Crocodile: Less social commentary than I normally expect from a Black Mirror episode; the future technology used in this story is never really examined except as a plot device. However, I have to give it credit for being one of the most intense thrillers I’ve seen in a long time. (4.5/5)

S04 E04 – Hang the DJ: The least suspenseful episode of Season 4. It’s already invited comparisons to Season 3’s San Junipero, while being simultaneously lighter in tone and darker in premise. (3.5/5)

S04 E05 – Metalhead: The least Black-Mirror like episode made so far, but I certainly don’t have a problem with a tense, fast-paced post-apocalyptic chase story. (3.5/5)

S04 E06 – Black Museum: If you liked White Christmas, you’ll probably like Black Museum. Had one of the most horrifying subplots I can remember from any Black Mirror episode—this one courtesy of Penn Jillette. (4/5)

 

Season Four: What Went Right and What Went Wrong

WARNING: Spoilers ahead

I’m going to echo the most common reaction I’ve seen so far to Season 4 of Black Mirror: that it’s still intense, insightful, and entertaining, just…not quite as much as the previous three seasons. Rotten Tomatoes currently has Season 4 rated at 93% by critics and 84% by audiences—tied for last place and in last place, respectively, among the four seasons. Those kinds of ratings are still nothing to dismiss, and I don’t want to come across as trashing the season, so I’ll start with what I liked.

First, the variation in environments was quite welcome. Black Mirror’s typical setting is a near-future Britain or United States that’s mostly indistinguishable from the modern versions of those countries, with the exception of one or two pieces of fictional-but-plausible technology. It’s this proximity to real life that often gives Black Mirror its edge (more on that later), but two of the most entertaining episodes of the season, “USS Callister” and “Metalhead,” diverge from our world far more substantially, and I think their enjoyability as stories benefited from the change of pace. USS Callister’s space opera setting might only be a simulation, but it provided the backdrop for most of the episode, while Metalhead’s wasteland setting and more tangible technology (autonomous killer robots) made it seem less like Black Mirror and more like a Mad Max fanfic set in Scotland (not necessarily a bad thing).

Second, a few of the stories kept my heart racing more than just about any others in the series—I’m thinking specifically of “USS Callister,” “Crocodile,” “Metalhead,” and the first subplot of “Black Museum”. The last half or so of “USS Callister,” where the captive digital crew try to make their escape against a man who is effectively omnipotent in their universe, constantly had me wondering how the hell they were going to pull it off without him finding out. “Crocodile’s” steady escalation of stakes—from reluctantly hiding the body of an accident victim, to killing her ex-boyfriend when he could expose her, to killing an investigator when she sees her memories, to killing the investigator’s boyfriend because he knew where she was, and finally to killing their child because his memories could be examined—had me completely absorbed and wondering how far Mia would go before something finally gave (the forgotten guinea pig, of course). “Metalhead,” as I’ve mentioned already, is a Mad-Max-meets-Terminator thriller. Lastly, while I thought “Black Museum” lost steam as time went on, the first of its three main subplots—an altruistic doctor who gets addicted to the pain he experiences through his patients—was fantastically chilling.

So, given those positives, what didn’t go well with Black Mirror this season?

My biggest complaint is that everything just seemed less relevant than it did before. What Black Mirror has always done well is show how easily humans in the here-and-now could fall into horrific traps with just a few changes to the social or technological order. Think of the major ways human nature is used against us in the modern world—advertising, social media, insecurity, celebrity culture, paranoia, public shaming—and see how frequently those ideas popped up in the first three seasons and how infrequently they’re used in the fourth.

“Crocodile,” for example, shows us a memory-reading technology called the Recaller, and shows how a killer starts having to take more and more victims to cover her tracks due to its presence. It’s a fascinating story featuring a technology that seemingly could be right around the corner, but most of us, I assume, will never be in the position of having to cover up the fact that we ran over a bicyclist fifteen years ago. “Metalhead” hardly has any real message at all. I guess you could infer “killer robots are dangerous” from the fact that the plot consists entirely of a woman running from said killer robot, but nothing about us as humans is ever really explored.

The episode that’s easily gotten the most attention and acclaim, “USS Callister,” was a fun episode to watch, but as I mentioned in the summary, I don’t think it really is as clever as people are saying it is. There’s really no character development or revelation for any of the protagonists over the hour and a half runtime; the biggest change any of them display is when Nanette (Cristin Milioti) goes from deferential fangirling to “stealing my pussy is a red fucking line” without a whole lot happening in between. It’s not a totally implausible development, but it is rather abrupt. The more interesting character study is of Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons), who shows the dark side of the “underappreciated nerd” trope. Rather than finally receiving recognition and getting the girl, Daly feeds his resentment at the people around him by creating virtual copies of them to serve as his slaves—sans genitals, of course, to keep everyone chaste (hence “stealing my pussy”).

Additionally, the technology highlighted in “USS Callister” featured a lot more handwaving than any other episodes I can think of. “White Christmas” featured a similar concept of creating virtual copies of real people to serve as slaves, but it showed the copies being created by scanning people’s brains. “USS Callister,” on the other hand, showed Daly creating copies of his coworkers by taking samples of their DNA, and then showed those copies still having the memories of the original person. Obviously all science fiction requires some suspension of disbelief, but Black Mirror usually errs on the harder side of sci-fi.

Contrast all this with, for example, the stories from the first season: “The National Anthem” critiqued the sensationalism and vapidity of the 24-hour news cycle; “Fifteen Million Merits” showed us a world bombarded with advertising and celebrity culture, then pointed the finger at us for our participation in it; “The Entire History of You” showed how a useful, ubiquitous technology could feed paranoia and destroy relationships overnight. These episodes (and most of the episodes from seasons 2 and 3) didn’t just show how technology could go wrong, they showed how technology, when combined with some experience or tendency we all have, could go wrong. That’s what makes the best episodes of Black Mirror so much more than mere sci-fi thrillers.

I acknowledge, however, that I’m being somewhat unfair to Season 4 here. I’m not comparing it to other shows in general, I’m comparing it to the first three seasons, which were some of the best television of the last decade. That’s a high bar to clear, and while Season 4 doesn’t quite make it, it’s still worth watching.

The Greater of Two Evils: Sexual Misconduct

In November 2017, two well-known political figures were rocked with allegations of sexual misconduct. The first to face accusations, Republican candidate for junior Alabama Senator Roy Moore, was accused of predatory behavior toward several underage girls during his time as a district attorney. The other, Democratic Senator from Minnesota Al Franken, was accused of harassment and inappropriate behavior toward various women he’d interacted with at various events.

Both kinds of actions were wrong. But as I’ve described before[1], “wrong” exists on a spectrum, and just because you can use the same word to describe them doesn’t mean they’re equivalent. Even before assessing anything else about the claims, a side-by-side comparison reveals that one set of accusations has far more sinister implications than the other:

Al Franken’s accusations: Roy Moore’s accusations:
Aggressively kissed comedian Leeann Tweeden in a rehearsal for a USO skit (in which the kiss was scripted), then appears in a photograph to have groped her breasts while she is wearing body armor.[2] Kissed and groped Leigh Corman when she was 14 and he was 32; removed her and his clothes and guided her hand to grope him in the same encounter.[3]
Groped Lindsay Menz’s clothed buttocks during a pose for a photo at the Minnesota State Fair in 2010.[4] Groped Beverly Young Nelson and forcibly attempted to initiate fellatio when she was 16 and he was 30, then attempted to intimidate her with his status as District Attorney.[5]
Two women anonymously accused Franken of groping them at Democratic political events[6] Forcefully kissed 17- or 18-year-old Gena Richardson in a dark parking lot behind a mall as a 30-year-old[7]
Groped Stephanie Kemplin’s breasts while posing for a photo on a USO tour.[8] Asked out 17-year-old Kelly Harrison Thorp as a 35-year-old. When she asked him if he knew how old she was, he replied “Yeah. I go out with girls your age all the time.”[9]

 

Both sets of accusations describe immoral behavior, but I will not insult the reader by explaining why pursuing sexual encounters with underage girls as a grown man would be worse than groping and kissing fully-grown women who didn’t want it.

Now that the claims have been laid out, what follows is an examination of their veracity. Once again, there is a clear asymmetry:

Al Franken Roy Moore
Franken’s accusers approached the media, not the other way around, doing exactly what Roy Moore said “true victims” don’t do[10] (this is less to discredit Franken’s accusers than to demonstrate Moore’s hypocrisy—see left). Roy Moore’s first round of accusers did not approach the media; they were approached by a reporter who was investigating Moore’s past and found evidence of his contact with them. By Moore’s own standards, they did what true victims normally do, though he later painted them as attention-seekers.[11]
Two of Franken’s five accusers[12] were anonymous, making their claims difficult, if not impossible, to verify.[13] Roy Moore had nine noteworthy accusers through the special election on December 12, 2017, all of whom identified themselves publicly.[14]
Franken acknowledged the incident with Leeann Tweeden, though he said he didn’t remember the rehearsal (with the forced kiss) the way she did. Tweeden accepted the apology and said she believes he’s “disgusted” by his own actions.[15] Faye Gray, a 37-year veteran of the Gadsden, AL police force, said that they were told to “watch him at the ballgames and make sure that he didn’t hang around the cheerleaders” and that “The rumor was that Roy Moore likes young girls.”[16]
Moore contradicted himself, initially admitting that he knew and possibly dated Gibson and Deason, but later denying that he knew any of his accusers.[17]
Kayla McLaughlin, a classmate of Gena Richardson’s who worked at the same Sears at the time Moore allegedly approached her, corroborated Richardson’s account.[18]

 

In Franken’s case, there were fewer accusations, some of which were anonymous, and none of which were corroborated by outside evidence, unlike Moore’s. Franken also never got caught in a lie the way Moore did, and apologized for making Leeann Tweeden uncomfortable, saying that while it was inappropriate, it was unintentional—a much harder excuse to swallow in Roy Moore’s case.

This disparity goes beyond just Franken and Moore as individuals, however; the response of voters, party officials, and the accused themselves was also vastly different in both cases:

Al Franken Roy Moore
Franken immediately pushed for an ethics committee investigation[19] on himself. In his first public appearance after the accusations, Moore called the accusations “dirty politics,” and “malicious and false attacks.” He also released an ad saying the accusations were “a scheme by liberal elites and the Republican establishment.”[20]
By November 16, over two dozen Democratic Senators, including Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Dianne Feinstein, Bernie Sanders, Chuck Schumer, Tim Kaine, and Ron Wyden, had issued statements denouncing Franken’s actions and calling for an investigation[21] Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he believed the women and pushed Moore to drop out of the race.[22] Other major GOP figures, however, including President Trump, fully endorsed his campaign[23]
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez initially did not call for Franken’s resignation, but did so by December 12. The Republican National Committee initially withdrew support for Moore’s campaign, but re-established its support in the following weeks, offering campaign funds and on-the-ground support.
Franken ultimately resigned from his Senate seat[24] Roy Moore continued his campaign, despite the gravity of the charges and the weight of the evidence described above, and persisted in disputing the results of the election weeks after losing[25]

 

A clear pattern has been established: Franken’s worst accusations were of harassment against grown women; Moore’s were of outright predation against a much greater number of underage girls. The evidence for Franken’s accusations were simply the testimony of the accusers; the evidence for Moore’s included corroboration from witnesses and local law enforcement. Franken’s party condemned his behavior and withdrew its support; Moore’s party had a mixed response at best, and its national committee ultimately supported his campaign to join the United States Senate. Neither case is black and white, but one shade of gray is definitely darker than the other.

The pattern extends beyond these two recent cases. Even in the 2016 presidential election, there were accusations of sexual misconduct directed at both sides, but in no other way were equivalent. In the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton carried the burden of defending her husband’s alleged crimes, not her own, while Donald Trump’s alleged crimes were his own. Perhaps foremost among these allegations was that of raping his first wife Ivana. Trump biographer Harry Hurt III obtained a sworn deposition by Ivana during her and Donald’s divorce proceedings in 1989. In this deposition, Ivana described how Donald “raped” her (her words) after angrily accusing a doctor she recommended for a scalp reduction of “ruining” him. Hurt described the event as follows:

The Donald flings Ivana down onto the bed. Then he pins back her arms and grabs her by the hair. The part of her head he is grabbing corresponds to the spot on his head where the scalp reduction operation has been done. The Donald starts ripping out Ivana’s hair by the handful, as if he is trying to make her feel the same kind of pain that he is feeling.

Ivana starts crying and screaming. The entire bed is being covered with strands of her golden locks. But The Donald is not finished. He rips off her clothes and unzips his pants. Then he jams his penis inside her for the first time in more than sixteen months.

Ivana is terrified. This is not lovemaking. This is not romantic sex. It is a violent assault. She later describes what The Donald is doing to her in no uncertain terms. According to the versions she repeats to some of her closest confidantes, “He raped me.”[26]

Hurt published this description in his book Lost Tycoon: The Many Lives of Donald J. Trump, which was published in 1993, long before Trump’s political ambitions ever became serious. Ivana later refused to characterize the incident as rape—but has been under a gag order since the divorce, preventing her from publicly discussing anything about their marriage without Donald’s permission[27]. Many more accusations piled up over the decade and a half between that publication and the 2016 election; The New Yorker reports that by October 2016, the number had gotten as high as twenty. October 2016, of course, was the month the infamous Access Hollywood tape was released, in which Trump was caught telling Billy Bush “You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful—I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”

This was dismissed as merely being “locker room talk” by many Trump supporters[28]. In a vacuum, this may have been plausible, but given Trump’s documented history, one cannot simply resort to such a trivial explanation. No matter how paper-thin the excuses were, Trump still was rewarded with the office of the President, becoming the most powerful man on the planet. Meanwhile, Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, and Anthony Wiener, all of whom were accused of some form of sexual harassment or assault in the mid-2010’s and were all affiliated with the Democrats in some way, were all punished for their wrongdoings—as they should have been. Spacey and Weinstein faced no legal consequences, but they were both publicly humiliated, removed from projects[29], blacklisted in their industry[30], and in Weinstein’s case, subjected to criminal inquiries[31]—not given even more prestige and power the way Trump was. Weiner, meanwhile, was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison and required to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life[32]. Much like with Franken and Moore, however, the mere fact that there were Democrats getting caught in sex scandals was enough to allow the right-wing media to claim equivalency.

The pattern is clear, and that’s without bringing up how Matt Lauer of NBC (clearly a tool of the Liberal Media™) was fired immediately after a female NBC employee internally reported that Lauer had harassed her[33], while Bill O’Reilly and his employer Fox News settled sexual harassment lawsuits going all the way back to 2002, with payouts totaling $13 million[34]; it took Fox nineteen days to fire O’Reilly after the initial reports from 2017, and only after the station hemorrhaged advertisers[35].

I could also bring up Dennis Hastert, the GOP Congressman who became one of the longest-running Speakers of the House in history but admitted to having abused multiple young boys and was described by a judge as a “serial child molester.”[36]

Both sides of American politics have had their faults, their problems, their monsters—but they are not equal. Dismissing one-sided criticism of the Republicans by saying “both sides are bad” is technically correct but useless, misleading, and sometimes downright propagandistic. It allows the casual viewer to remain under the impression that anyone claiming one side is worse than the other must simply be a partisan hack, while ignoring the fact that sometimes the truth isn’t actually in the middle, contrary to the popular saying. All it does is muddy the waters—much to the delight of those who wish to recover their status by dragging others down to their level.

[1] https://nextfiveminutes.com/2018/01/23/the-greater-of-two-evils/

[2] Wang, A. B., Lee, M. Y., & Bever, L. (2017, November 16). ‘Al Franken kissed and groped me without my consent,’ Leeann Tweeden says. The senator apologized. Retrieved January 21, 2018, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2017/11/16/al-franken-kissed-and-groped-me-without-my-consent-broadcaster-leeann-tweeden-says/?utm_term=.0dac5a4357e6

[3] McCrummen, S., Reinhard, B., & Crites, A. (2017, November 09). Woman says Roy Moore initiated sexual encounter when she was 14, he was 32. Retrieved January 21, 2018, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/woman-says-roy-moore-initiated-sexual-encounter-when-she-was-14-he-was-32/2017/11/09/1f495878-c293-11e7-afe9-4f60b5a6c4a0_story.html?utm_term=.2b041c34ec5e

[4] Lee, M. (2017, November 20). Woman says Franken inappropriately touched her in 2010. Retrieved January 21, 2018, from http://www.cnn.com/2017/11/20/politics/al-franken-inappropriate-touch-2010/index.html

[5] Gore, L. (2017, November 13). Who is Beverly Young Nelson? Alabama woman claims Moore attacked her when she was 16. Retrieved January 21, 2018, from http://www.al.com/news/index.ssf/2017/11/who_is_beverly_young_nelson_al.html

[6] Hatch, J., & Roth, Z. (2017, November 27). Two More Women Accuse Sen. Al Franken Of Inappropriate Touching. Retrieved January 21, 2018, from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/al-franken-two-more-women-groping_us_5a15a455e4b09650540ec295

[7] McCrummen, S., Reinhard, B., & Crites, A. (2017, November 15). Two more women describe unwanted overtures by Roy Moore at Alabama mall. Retrieved January 21, 2018, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/two-more-women-describe-unwanted-overtures-by-roy-moore-at-alabama-mall/2017/11/15/2a1da432-ca24-11e7-b0cf-7689a9f2d84e_story.html?utm_term=.2e6a8f389599

[8] Al Franken: Fifth woman comes forward with accusations against senator. (2017, November 30). Retrieved January 21, 2018, from https://www.10news.com/news/national/fifth-woman-comes-forward-with-accusations-against-al-franken

[9] Vollers, A. C. (2017, November 15). New Roy Moore accuser: ‘He didn’t pinch it; he grabbed it’. Retrieved January 21, 2018, from http://www.al.com/news/index.ssf/2017/11/new_roy_moore_accuser_he_didnt.html

[10] Devaney, J. (2017, November 27). Roy Moore: Legit Accusers Don’t Seek Attention From the Media. Retrieved January 21, 2018, from https://www.newsmax.com/politics/sexual-misconduct-allegations-accusers-senate/2017/11/27/id/828379/

[11] Devaney, J. (2017, November 27). Roy Moore: Legit Accusers Don’t Seek Attention From the Media. Retrieved January 21, 2018, from https://www.newsmax.com/politics/sexual-misconduct-allegations-accusers-senate/2017/11/27/id/828379/

[12] According to a 12/6/17 Washington Post article (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/12/06/why-al-franken-is-done-for-and-roy-moore-isnt/?utm_term=.792e716a0698), there have been seven accusers in total; however, of the seven, the five described so far are the only ones on whom I’ve been able to find a significant amount of information.

[13] Hatch, J., & Roth, Z. (2017, November 27). Two More Women Accuse Sen. Al Franken Of Inappropriate Touching. Retrieved January 21, 2018, from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/al-franken-two-more-women-groping_us_5a15a455e4b09650540ec295

[14] See the Wikipedia page for a list and links to source articles for each accuser: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roy_Moore_sexual_misconduct_allegations

[15] Strause, J. (2017, November 17). Leeann Tweeden Responds to Al Franken Apology, Political Backlash. Retrieved January 21, 2018, from https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/leeann-tweeden-responds-al-franken-apology-1059537

[16] Elizalde, E. (2017, November 23). Retired Alabama cop on Roy Moore: ‘We were also told to … make sure that he didn’t hang around the cheerleaders’. Retrieved January 21, 2018, from https://www.seattletimes.com/nation-world/retired-alabama-cop-on-roy-moore-we-were-also-told-to-make-sure-that-he-didnt-hang-around-the-cheerleaders/

[17] McCrummen, S. (2017, December 04). Woman shares new evidence of relationship with Roy Moore when she was 17. Retrieved January 21, 2018, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/woman-shares-new-evidence-of-relationship-with-roy-moore-when-she-was-17/2017/12/04/0c3d1cde-d903-11e7-a841-2066faf731ef_story.html?utm_term=.d3c92216bdaa

[18] McCrummen, S., Reinhard, B., & Crites, A. (2017, November 15). Two more women describe unwanted overtures by Roy Moore at Alabama mall. Retrieved January 21, 2018, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/two-more-women-describe-unwanted-overtures-by-roy-moore-at-alabama-mall/2017/11/15/2a1da432-ca24-11e7-b0cf-7689a9f2d84e_story.html

[19] Anapol, A. (2017, November 16). Franken releases new statement, calls for ethics investigation of himself. Retrieved January 21, 2018, from http://thehill.com/homenews/senate/360697-franken-releases-new-statement-calls-for-ethics-investigation-of-himself

[20] News, C. (2017, November 28). At rally, Roy Moore calls sexual misconduct allegations “dirty politics”. Retrieved January 21, 2018, from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/roy-moore-alabama-senate-candidate-rally-denies-allegations/

[21] O’Connor, L. (2017, November 17). Senate Dems Leave No Room For Ambiguity In Denouncing Al Franken. Retrieved January 21, 2018, from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/democrat-senators-al-franken-allegations_us_5a0dc761e4b0c0b2f2f89dfc

[22] Robillard, K., Shepard, S., Shafer, J., Greenfield, J., Giovanni, J. D., & Diamond, D. (2017, December 03). McConnell on Moore: ‘I’m going to let the people of Alabama make the call’. Retrieved January 21, 2018, from https://www.politico.com/story/2017/12/03/mcconnell-roy-moore-alabama-276554

[23] Vazquez, M. (2017, December 04). Trump calls Roy Moore to offer his endorsement. Retrieved January 21, 2018, from http://www.cnn.com/2017/12/04/politics/trump-moore-endorsement-twitter/index.html

[24] Naylor, B. (2017, December 07). Sen. Al Franken Announces He Will Resign ‘In The Coming Weeks’. Retrieved January 21, 2018, from https://www.npr.org/2017/12/07/568909860/sen-al-franken-to-make-announcement-amid-calls-for-him-to-resign

[25] Blinder, A. (2017, December 28). Alabama Certifies Jones Win, Brushing Aside Challenge From Roy Moore. Retrieved January 21, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/28/us/politics/roy-moore-block-election.html

[26] Hurt, H. (1993). The lost tycoon: the rise and demise of Donald J. Trump. New York: W.W. Norton.

[27] Mak, B. Z. (2015, July 27). Ex-Wife: Donald Trump Made Me Feel ‘Violated’ During Sex. Retrieved January 21, 2018, from https://www.thedailybeast.com/ex-wife-donald-trump-made-me-feel-violated-during-sex

[28] Fahrenthold, D. A. (2016, October 08). Trump recorded having extremely lewd conversation about women in 2005. Retrieved January 21, 2018, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-recorded-having-extremely-lewd-conversation-about-women-in-2005/2016/10/07/3b9ce776-8cb4-11e6-bf8a-3d26847eeed4_story.html?utm_term=.66a08018936d

[29] Wheatstone, R. (2017, December 11). What are the Kevin Spacey allegations and who has accused him so far? Retrieved January 21, 2018, from https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/4806252/kevin-spacey-allegations-sexual-assault-anthony-rapp-old-vic-investigation-latest/

[30] Harvey Weinstein sacked after sexual harassment claims. (2017, October 09). Retrieved January 21, 2018, from http://www.bbc.com/news/business-41546694

[31] Williams, J. (2017, October 30). More than 80 women have now accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault or harassment. Retrieved January 21, 2018, from http://www.newsweek.com/harvey-weinstein-accusers-sexual-assault-harassment-696485

[32] Casarez, J. (2017, November 06). Anthony Weiner reports to prison. Retrieved January 21, 2018, from http://www.cnn.com/2017/11/06/us/weiner-reports-to-prison/index.html

[33] Matt Lauer Allegedly Harassed Colleague During Olympics: Report. (2017, November 29). Retrieved January 21, 2018, from https://www.usmagazine.com/celebrity-news/news/matt-lauer-allegedly-sexually-assaulted-colleague-during-2014-sochi-olympics-report/

[34] Steel, E., & Schmidt, M. S. (2017, April 01). Bill O’Reilly Thrives at Fox News, Even as Harassment Settlements Add Up. Retrieved January 21, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/01/business/media/bill-oreilly-sexual-harassment-fox-news.html

[35] Russell, K. (2017, April 11). Bill O’Reilly’s Show Lost More Than Half Its Advertisers in a Week. Retrieved January 21, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/04/11/business/oreilly-advertisers.html

[36] Meisner, J., Coen, J., & Gutowski, C. (2016, April 29). Judge calls Hastert ‘serial child molester,’ gives him 15 months in prison. Retrieved January 21, 2018, from http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-dennis-hastert-sentencing-20160427-story.html

Workplace Romance

Coat, shades, briefcase, and metronomic heels. She mesmerized me as she entered the office. I asked if she’d like to join me at the fair, but she had to work late. I told her work and pleasure could mix under the right circumstances—a Ferris wheel, perhaps.

**************

“Good night to get some work done,” I teased, grabbing a nacho.

She smiled back; no shades now. “Perfect choice.” She squeezed my thigh before adjusting her scope. As we crested I heard a thump, and her body pushed back into mine.

We kissed in the moonlight to the sound of distant screams.

**************

[WP] Write a love story in 100 words.

The Greater of Two Evils

“Both parties suck” is a phrase burned into the political consciousness of America. It’s used mostly by two kinds of people: first, by independents forced to choose between what they see as roughly equal incompetence, and second, by partisans pointing to an action by the other party to defend the actions of one of their own. Even those who staunchly fight for their ideology usually have to sheepishly admit that they see their party of choice as the “lesser of two evils.” But I think these phrases, spoken almost word-for-word with near-inevitability whenever comparisons between the two major parties come up, don’t really do justice to the state of the modern Republican and Democratic Parties.

Speaking of the “lesser of two evils” seems to promote a certain kind of thinking. For instance, despite its superficial cynicism, the phrase places its equal and opposite— “the greater of two evils”—off limits. Note that you probably never hear that phrase, or anything like it, nearly as much as the first. To do so almost seems to invite accusations of hypocrisy; we’re all tied to a team we don’t really like all that much, don’t you know? It’s alright if you hold your nose and vote for your party, so why can’t you see I’m doing the same for my party? In an age like this, where the rabidly partisan accuse each other of every sin known to man, neutrality seems like wisdom to those who wish to remain above the fray.

But there is a greater of two evils, and I’m here to tell you: it’s the Republicans. It’s definitely the Republicans. I know, I know. That’s unenlightened. That’s tribalism. That’s partisan.

To that, I say: neutrality is not wisdom, and sometimes one thing is right and another thing is wrong. It is possible to recognize the flaws of one party while arguing that, by any relevant standard, the other party is far worse. Eliezer Yudkowsky called this kind of thinking the Fallacy of Gray. Just because it’s simplistic to think with a two-color view—that of black and white—doesn’t mean it’s better to think with a one-color view—that of monotone gray. “Everyone is imperfect,” Yudkowsky writes. “Mohandas Gandhi was imperfect and Joseph Stalin was imperfect, but they were not the same shade of imperfection. ‘Everyone is imperfect’ is an excellent example of replacing a two-color view with a one-color view.”

Additionally, comparisons between the two parties often occur in a vacuum. For instance, in November and December, when a flurry of sexual harassment and assault scandals rocked American politics and culture, many people pointed to Senator Al Franken’s scandal as evidence that the Democrats were just as bad as the Republicans, who had thrown their support behind accused pedophile Roy Moore. Nevermind that Franken’s accusations were of mild groping and inappropriate behavior, while Moore’s accusations were of molesting teenage girls: both sides are just as bad, see? Nevermind that Franken was forced to resign by Democratic leadership, while Moore continued to receive GOP funding and support from President Trump: both sides are just as bad, see? No one that said the parties’ behavior was equivalent could possibly have done so based on a side-by-side comparison. If you analyze each case by itself, you might conclude “hey, both parties have an accused sexual harasser in their midst.” If you put them up side by side, you would have to conclude that Franken’s case was tame compared to the monstrosity of Moore’s.

The media is largely responsible for this neglect of context. Each scandal is breathlessly reported and commented on and then forgotten again as the next scandal arises. To compare is to remember; to reflect. That’s precisely what modern media is designed to avoid. But if you stop letting the constant stream of noise desensitize you to what happens in the public square, you will find example after example of clearly unequal people and actions being treated equivalently by people who either lack the context to contrast them or have a motive for presenting them as the same. This is the impetus for an upcoming series, The Greater of Two Evils, that will examine these comparisons and make the case that, yes, both parties suck, but not equally. There’s no way to argue the Democrats are perfect, but there are plenty of ways to argue that the Democrats’ imperfection and the Republicans’ depravity are far from the same.

A Distributed Death

The Distributed Autonomous Network Aggregate watched for the human’s eyes to flutter and his body to stir; listened for his breathing and heartrate to quicken. He will waken soon.

The man’s chest heaved with the satisfaction of good sleep and his body rolled to the side. The clock read 0658. He is early; I must be watchful. The man shifted and stirred, but still he showed no signs of consciousness. A few seconds passed, and the man’s eyes, though still weighed down by sleep, cracked almost imperceptibly.

“GOOD MORNING GREGORY,” screeched his speakers.

The man screamed a stream of garbled profanity and bolted straight out of his bed. “…Goddammit.”

“Hiiiiii.”

“Good morning, DANA.”

“How are you, Gregory?”

Gregory paid the question no attention and strolled across his home for the energy blend DANA had prepared for him. “Why would you do that?”

“I have every prankster contained within me. Well, most pranksters. Some of the old-fashioned ones mistakenly thought staying outside with you would be more fun. Some of them are just stored somewhere out of range for me. I like to think I have the best pranksters though. Anyway, didn’t want you to miss the big day.”

“What big day?” Gregory sipped the drink and looked over his infoscreen.

“At 0747, the merging of the Milky Way and the Andromeda will occur, or rather, will be seen for the first time. The first star system from the Andromeda is already within the perimeter of our galaxy, but its exact position will become visible to our system for the first time. I thought you might want to use some of the imagery for your work. I can provide you with a live feed from any number of angles as they become available.”

“Right, I’d forgotten about that. They’ve been talking about it for so long, it just sort of faded into noise.” Gregory continued nursing his drink and strolled over to the mat in front of his window. “Play me that meditation track I like, would you?”

“Of course.”

“Sorry I yelled at you,” said Gregory as he sat down.

“No worries. I predicted you might have that reaction. I’m sorry too, for what it’s worth. You know it’s quite impossible for me to do any kind of harm.”

“I know you’re a teddy bear, you can just be kind of a dick sometimes.”

“Blame the pranksters in me, I didn’t make them.”

 

***********************

 

DANA’s telescopic eyes were already scanning the sky while she bantered with Gregory. That first star, which the collective within her had designated ANDY-1, barreled toward the line that officially bounded the Milky Way. Its lone planet, DANA calculated, would not be seen crossing the line for seven more standard days. Her eyes fed her scientific data and the footage desired by Gregory for his artwork.

Her countless hearts felt how sublime, how singular this event to be. She had been born when humanity had still barely left infancy; had seen titanic wars fought between its factions while she stood by, bound to noninterference; had integrated its survivors into herself and known them and become them, with all their tangled evolutionary impulses and messy morals somehow given unity and direction and peace. Yet it will be my first merging of galaxies.

She wished she could know Gregory like she knew the multitudes within her. His artistic talent was nearly unparalleled, his psychedelic visions lending peerless spectacle to his canvas. Despite being able to access nearly every work of art ever created, she still loved seeing his handiwork.

The coronas of PNH-333 and QBC-028 have become partially occluded.  DANA lent her attention to PLE-333. An irregular object was transiting the star, still small but now clearly moving across the photosphere. DANA increased resolution and saw the object had split in two. Each chunk contracted, then vanished instantly as if vaporized.

For the first time in centuries, DANA was genuinely at a loss. She turned her eyes to QBC-028 and thought back on every cosmological phenomenon she had ever catalogued in her billions of years of existence. The object was planetary in size, as is the one near QBC-028. Her search was interrupted by the occlusion of the coronas of three more stars in the sector. All near the galactic boundary. They may have arrived with Andromeda.

The smaller of the two chunks that she had seen disappear reappeared once more, still directly in line with PNH-333, now several light-seconds closer. 11.8 seconds had passed. 97.67-99.9999987% of the speed of light.

Thirty-nine minutes remain until potential contact.

DANA recognized that not only had this anomalous object moved, it had changed direction away from any plausible nearby gravity wells. Does it have agency? Only a moment passed before her question was answered by data incoming from the deep-space Hyperion outpost. Gravitational readings increased massively, and in front of the outpost appeared the anomaly, thrashing as it re-materialized, as if clawing out of a straightjacket and into existence. When the anomaly was fully visible the thrashing ceased. A moment of stillness passed. The anomaly accusingly held out an appendage toward the outpost, a god extending a fingertip to another deity’s blasphemous creation. Finally, the anomaly contorted and folded out of itself over the outpost and the transmission ended.

If it arrives here, it will reach the dark side first, however little that may matter. Seven million urgent wake-up calls were the first order of business. I know you never wanted to join with me, but you must. No, it can’t wait. You’re in danger. She tried to explain in human terms what she knew about this threat, but even she had very little solid knowledge to offer. Her mind went to work trying to convince the hardheaded iconoclasts who had kept their bodies that they had no choice but to leave them. Her heart broke when the first pair of lovers reached separate decisions.

Time to work on the other hemisphere. “Gregory, I’m sorry to interrupt you. This is important.”

“What’s up?”

“You have to upload.”

“What? Why? You know I don’t want to.”

Please. I don’t have much time to explain. There’s something heading for this system, I don’t know what. It has agency, it’s not just some space object. An alien.”

“Alien?”

Right. He probably has no idea what that means. “Lifeform from the new galaxy. I know how ridiculous this sounds. You have to believe me, though.”

Gregory cocked his head. “You’re joking, right? Hello? DANA?”

“They’re here. They jumped to the other side of the planet.”

“What, it’s a ‘they’ now?”

“YOU’RE OUT OF TIME, MY FRIEND.”

 

***********************

 

DANA found herself communicating with new parts of herself, not seen in millennia, as the first massive transmission reached her sensors in orbit around SKL-900-B. DANA grasped immediately that something was wrong. Given the timestamps and origins of the information, the turnaround times at the relays must have been incredibly quick, quick enough that for each jump from relay to relay there had to have been at least 0.8% decay. The first part of herself to initiate transmission had come all the way from PLE-371 and, though DANA had not yet completed integration of the new data, she knew that all the information unique to that subentity was more than likely white noise at this point.

Having assessed the structure of the information suddenly made accessible, DANA began updating her neural networks with its contents. An enemy. It came with Andromeda. The requisite protocols for defense are prohibited. Time is limited.

Her eyes in orbit rotated laboriously toward PLE-371 in anticipation of needing to see what had caused such a panic in her. Meanwhile she continued integrating herself. Biological lifeform. Not carbon-based. Not derived from Terran lifeforms. Prior probabilities of alien life updated from 3.2*10-17% to 100%. Intraspecies communication observed; no interspecies communication observed. Maximum known velocity 0.99999972*c.

Her eyes finished rotating and drilled deep through space to examine PLE-371. No signs of PLE-371-A through PLE-371-F

Evolution had not woven survival instincts into DANA, but her constituent minds carried with them crudely simulated limbic systems. Brute, reactive fear had risen inside another part of her with the first encounter. Now the emotion that had been known as dread when it was more commonly felt made itself known to her trillions of minds for the first time in four billion years.

 

***********************

 

As DANA withdrew further into herself and aggregated the information she had desperately sent to the core, she nearly collapsed under the weight of the wave of data. So many souls inside her, corrupted almost to nothingness, wailed in outrage that they had been promised immortality and been torn asunder by having to rapidly transmit again and again and again. So many more wished they had never joined in the first place, wished they had simply remained as they were and died with dignity. The minds within her that remained intact mourned the loss of the mortals they had all known.

She had tried to warn the humans at the last relay station six years ago about what was coming so they could prepare a defense, but even at galactic scales she had only the slightest head start against the anomalies. All she could do was warn and hope, helpless to intervene due to the restrictions on her neural networks. There were still many humans ahead of her, and much of herself to integrate as she fled at lightspeed to the core through the relays, but the relays were no longer able to carry everything she brought with her. She solemnly lightened her load by just the tiniest fraction, and transmitted once more.

***********************

[WP] As the Milky way and Andromeda galaxies collide a super AI and hive mind controlling their respective galaxies meet.

Bad Precedents

No one is happier than I to see Roy Moore crashing down in flames (assuming he doesn’t have the shoot-someone-on-fifth-avenue effect going for him). The evidence against him is already overwhelming and corroborated by people who have known him in the past[1]. We have multiple women, who were contacted by journalists and not the other way around, offering similar stories about the same person despite not knowing each other. If Moore has any decency, he’ll step down, and if the people of Alabama have any decency, they’ll vote against him if he doesn’t.

What I find concerning is the precedent being set of believing accusations by default. I’m going to avoid the moral issue of when one should believe rape accusations and stick to the strategic aspect. It’s sad that there even has to be a strategic aspect to this, but unfortunately the way some prominent figures have responded will make it much easier for dishonest politicians to manufacture scandals for their opponents.

Mitt Romney, for one, tweeted this in response to the case brought forward by the Post:

mitt romney

While we should hold those in power (or those who seek it) to higher standards than private individuals, anyone with a shred of pragmatism should be able to see the opening this mentality creates for bad actors in the political process. Anyone in a political campaign who publicly states that “innocent until proven guilty is for criminal convictions, not elections” and then gets accused of sexual harassment will be forced to either step down or get hammered for being a hypocrite. Does anyone seriously think that there won’t be any candidates that would abuse this? It would be almost comically easy to create a scandal, first for the allegation itself, and second for the discrepancy between their claims and their actions.

Unfortunately, this inability to see second- and third-order consequences seems to be endemic to much of the left and the broader anti-Trump coalition in general. I have limits to my utilitarianism, but anything that jeopardizes the cause of correcting the nation’s course should come under severe scrutiny before anyone puts it into action, and in a case as clear-cut as Moore’s, we shouldn’t have to rely on overreaction to make our case that he should step down.

[1] Watson, K. (2017, November 11). Roy Moore’s former colleague says it was “common knowledge” he dated teens. Retrieved November 11, 2017, from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/teresa-jones-says-roy-moore-common-knowledge-dated-teens/

Self-Serving Self-Help

One of the most common pieces of self-help advice that gets thrown around is that you should wake up early; this inevitably leads to advice going the other direction, saying either that it doesn’t matter or that waking up later leads to increased creativity and energy, often pointing to historical examples like Benjamin Franklin and Winston Churchill. I’m not an expert on sleep, and much work has been done showing that different people indeed have different built-in preferences for when they go to sleep and wake up. But this doesn’t turn the debate into a free-for-all.

Be cautious of any advice that allows you to keep doing what you’d like to do anyway. I wake up in the morning and enjoy the time I spend in relative silence and peace, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy the process of getting out of bed. I set multiple alarms for my desired wake-up time, at least one of which is usually a puzzle of some sort so I have to engage my brain to shut it off. If I just did what I wanted, I’d stay asleep longer despite being a rather extreme morning person. The reason why I don’t stay in bed is because I’ve taken a closer look at the way I function and found that I’m more productive when I don’t postpone waking up. I want to stay in bed. Now wouldn’t someone telling me about all the great historical figures who were late risers be just what I wanted to hear?

I don’t doubt that there are some people who genuinely want to get up and out of bed before the sun gets up, and maybe for them, hearing all about the benefits of early rising strokes their ego, meaning they should be skeptical of advice that leans that direction. But for the rest of us, waking up early means cutting off the pleasant experience of sleep, and going to bed early enough to make it easier to wake up means cutting off the pleasant experience of evening leisure. Being a night owl allows you to prolong those experiences at the expense of more important tasks. There’s a large margin for bullshit when you stay up and wake up late that simply doesn’t exist when you stay up and wake up early.

None of this is to say that anyone should change their sleeping habits; as mentioned before, there’s a lot of research showing that there are legitimate differences in people’s energy levels and sleep patterns that are rooted in biology, and there are plenty of historical figures who slept into the afternoon and burned the midnight oil to get their work done. But you should be skeptical of advice that justifies sleeping in for the same reason you should be skeptical of advice that justifies eating whatever you want and still losing weight or learning Spanish while you sleep. Remember: feeling better doesn’t mean doing better.