Contented

Maria Popova, the driving force behind Brain Pickings, shares her thoughts on how we relate to ideas, culture and philosophy.

Maria Popova on evergreen ideas and rethinking the meaning of content
I loathe the term “content” as applied to cultural material — it was foisted upon us by a commercially driven media industry that treats human beings as mindless eyeballs counted in statistics like views and likes, as currency to be traded against advertising revenue. Somehow people have been sold on the idea that the relationship between ads and “content” is a symbiotic one, but it is a parasitic one.

We are flooded with mediocre “content” produced for the sole purpose of transmits the ads — this type of “content,” which is now predominant online, is the reason for the epidemic of clickbait, the carrier for the highly contagious impoverishment of thought and feeling we are undergoing as a civilization.

[…]

Brain Pickings is the record of my looking, my trying to see. What I write about is simply what I think about as I read what I read, what I feel as one human being moving through this world — a kind of elaborate marginalia, my private discourse with the literature and art and ideas with which I engage. It may be the contents of my heart and mind, but it is not “content” in the sense this term has come to take on.

I’ve been a fan of hers for a long time now, she finds such great ideas.

Everything is out to get us

Following on from that post about how technology is deliberately addictive and seemingly out to get us, here’s a wider view of the problems we face and “the price we have to pay for being born in modern times”.

How the modern world makes us mentally ill
The modern world is wonderful in many ways (dentistry is good, cars are reliable, we can so easily keep in touch from Mexico with our grandmother in Scotland) – but it’s also powerfully and tragically geared to causing a high background level of anxiety and widespread low-level depression.

Thankfully, for each area of concern there’s a solution of sorts. For instance:

The media has immense prestige and a huge place in our lives – but routinely directs our attention to things that scare, worry, panic and enrage us, while denying us agency or any chance for effective personal action. It typically attends to the least admirable sides of human nature, without a balancing exposure to normal good intentions, responsibility and decency. At its worst, it edges us towards mob justice.

The cure would be news that concentrated on presenting solutions rather than generating outrage, that was alive to systemic problems rather than gleefully emphasizing scapegoats and emblematic monsters – and that would regularly remind us that the news we most need to focus on comes from our own lives and direct experiences.

It can all seem quite overwhelming, but we need to stay positive.

The forces of psychological distress in our world are – currently – much wealthier and more active than the needed cures. We deserve tender pity for the price we have to pay for being born in modern times. But more hopefully, cures are now open to us individually and collectively if only we recognise, with sufficient clarity, the sources of our true anxieties and sorrows.

The trick is remembering all this when we’re caught up in the moment and wrapped up in our day-to-day troubles. They ought to produce and sell a little cheatsheet we can carry around in our wallets or something.

Our phones and (are?) us

If I’m reading this right, a mobile phone manufacturer is saying less than positive things about their mobile phones. (Not for the first time?)

Phones should be ‘slaves, not masters’, says Samsung UK mobile chief
… Following increasing unease from technology insiders and development experts that young and old alike are becoming increasingly addicted to smartphones, social media and the constant need for messaging, Samsung’s head of mobile in the UK says that something needs to change to stop the constant heads-down relationship we have with our devices.

“Ultimately what we want to try and do is create more of a heads-up lifestyle,” Conor Pierce, Samsung’s vice president of mobile and IT in the UK and Ireland, told the Guardian at the launch of the company’s new Galaxy S9 smartphone.

“Let’s not spend our life looking at these devices. You look around and everyone is doing it, leaning over [their] phones. Let’s make the device be the slave and we’ll be the master – let’s turn the roles completely on their head.”

And the problem of all this distracting technology can be resolved through more technology?

“What I’m really looking forward to is making sure that not only customers have the best mobile experience, but also the best connectivity experience,” said Pierce. “Through our SmartThings open alliance, we’re bringing a ubiquitous, convenient experience in which users can control their privacy, as they need to be able to do, regardless of brand, to make it all a really joyful, easy, trusted experience for real people.”

Combine that with this discussion on the ‘extended mind’ thesis:

Are ‘you’ just inside your skin or is your smartphone part of you?
After all, your smartphone is much more than just a phone. It can tell a more intimate story about you than your best friend. No other piece of hardware in history, not even your brain, contains the quality or quantity of information held on your phone: it ‘knows’ whom you speak to, when you speak to them, what you said, where you have been, your purchases, photos, biometric data, even your notes to yourself – and all this dating back years.

Any second now

I’m so pleased to see this is making great progress. I’ve been a fan of it since first reading about it in Wired all those years ago, and have been spurred on to re-read the book again.

The Long Now Foundation begins the installation of the monumental 10,000 year clock in West Texas
The clock is designed to run for ten millennia without any required human intervention to keep it going. Inventor Danny Hillis, who came up with the idea of the clock, proposed for it to be “an icon to long-term thinking”. A number of parts are still being fabricated as of this date, but now the 10,000 year clock is getting closer and closer to keeping time for a long time. We’re all excited.

Clock of the Long Now – Installation Begins (Vimeo)
After over a decade of design and fabrication, we have begun installing the first parts of the Clock of the Long Now on site in West Texas. In this video you can see the first elements to be assembled underground, the drive weight, winder and main gearing. This is the first of many stages to be installed, and we continue to fabricate parts for the rest of the Clock in several shops along the west coast.

It’s taken a long time to get to this point though, appropriately enough. This, from 2011.

How to make a clock run for 10,000 years
At first, Hillis and Rose and other members of the foundation figured the organization’s primary job would be building the clock. They even purchased a remote site, in Nevada, which met their geographic, geological and meteorological needs.

But then progress seemed to stop — at least from the outside. Although the Long Now Foundation continued working on prototypes, materials testing, design and other projects, media attention faded after the turn of the millennium. To anyone not part of the project, the clock seemed to have become one of those ideas that are good to think about, but impractical in reality.

Then Bezos and Hillis, already good friends, got to talking.

I wasn’t very keen on this take on it, however, from The Verge.

Construction begins on Jeff Bezos’ $42 million 10,000-year clock
Installation has finally begun on Jeff Bezos’ 10,000-year clock, a project that the Amazon CEO has invested $42 million in (along with a hollowed-out mountain in Texas that Bezos intends for a Blue Origin spaceport), with the goal of building a mechanical clock that will run for 10 millennia.

They keep calling it Bezos’s clock, which makes it sound like a billionaire CEO’s crazy vanity project. Yes he’s heavily invested in it, I get that, but it’s more than that, right?

The Clock of the Long Now (Vimeo)
The Clock of the Long Now is a portrait of Danny Hillis and his brilliant team of inventors, futurists, and engineers as they build The 10,000 Year Clock—a grand, Stone Henge-like monolith, being constructed in a mountain in West Texas. The film, like the clock itself, celebrates the power of long-term thinking and mankind’s insatiable thirst to solve life’s biggest problems.

Happy to put my money where my mouth it. (As I write this, they have 9,142 members currently. I thought about waiting to join till they get to 9,999, but I’m just not that patient.)

Become a Long Now member
Join Long Now to help us foster long-term thinking and support our projects: the 10,000 Year Clock, Seminars About Long-term Thinking, The Rosetta Project, Revive & Restore, The Interval and more.

Taking your mind for a stroll

I’ve been lucky enough to have jobs that have allowed me to take a stroll most lunchtimes, to get my eyes away from my monitor for a while. Here’s a great article on the rejuvenating powers of walking.

Walking as creative fuel: a splendid 1913 celebration of how solitary walks enliven “the country of the mind”
In a sentiment which, today, radiates a gentle admonition against the self-defeating impulse to evacuate the moment in order to capture it — in a status update, in an Instagram photo — Grahame observes: “Not a fiftieth part of all your happy imaginings will you ever, later, recapture, note down, reduce to dull inadequate words; but meantime the mind has stretched itself and had its holiday.”

Amazing Amazon Mr Men reviews

mrhappyreview

The Amazon Mr Men reviews
Hamilton Richardson (London) likes reviewing Mr Men books on Amazon – these are the highlights so far.

I remember as a kid reading these books and through them learning the phrase ‘for instance’. That was about my level. I certainly didn’t pick up any of these issues. For instance,

“For indeed, what does he come face-to-face with at the foot of these stairs but his own repressed sadness? This comes in the form of his miserable alter ego – physically identical, polar opposite in mood. It is only through this confrontation with the shadow that his unsuitable persona can find authentic resolution and true integration of the self can be achieved. These archetypes are quite literally brought to light as Mr Happy coaxes Mr Miserable up to the surface and into view of the conscious mind in a climax of now genuine peace and bliss.”

No such thing as a Stoic phone

stoicphoneOk so I spent most of Saturday afternoon and a good part of the evening messing about with this stupid iPhone, to no avail. Time wasted that I’ll never get back.

I’ve had the phone for years, got fed up with it, got fed up with always having to chase the updates, always trying to catch up with the latest OS, always fighting off the built-in obsolescence, didn’t bother renewing the contract with O2 (when it finally ended) but instead went off in a huff and bought a cheap, pay-as-you-go, crappy dumb-phone, something deliberately not fashionable, with hardly any “features”, that was out-of-date before it started. ‘If I can’t always have the newest and fastest, I’ll have the oldest and slowest; that’ll show them,’ I thought, not really knowing who ‘they’ were or why I felt the need to show them anything.

But, as so often happens, I got bored with what I had and wanted something new. Again. So I thought it would be a fine idea to jailbreak and unlock that old iPhone so that I could put my current SIM card, from a different carrier, into it and start using it again. On the cheap.

Turns out things aren’t as straight forward as that, what with the versions of the OS and the firmware that I have. I tried various things but, like I said, to no avail.

Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic JoyBut of course what I should have done was – not do that. What I should have done was – remember the book I’ve just finished reading, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, by William B. Irvine. (Here are three summaries he wrote for Boingboing.net.) That would have saved me a lot of trouble.

Stoicism was a big deal back in the day, up there was Cynicism and Epicureanism and the other Greek and Roman schools of philosophy. Seneca, Epictetus and the emporer Marcus Aurelius were big exponents, but it’s pretty unheard of today, in any kind of structured way. Sure, we know what being stoical means, what being philosophical in the face of some adversity means, but that’s about it.

What the Roman stoics wanted, above all else, was tranquility. No negative emotions, such as grief, anger and anxiety, only positive ones. They felt the majority of our negative emotions were caused by our insatiability. We’re just never satisfied. We work hard to get what we want but then, when we get it, we eventually lose interest in it and go on to want the next new thing. And so on. This even has a name: hedonic adaptation. Sounds very grand.

“One key to happiness, then, is to forestall the adaptation process: We need to take steps to prevent ourselves from taking for granted, once we get them, the things we worked so hard to get.”

Lots of similarities with Buddhism, especially around the notion of impermanence:

“By contemplating the impermanence of everything in the world, we are forced to recognize that every time we do something could be the last time we do it, and this recognition can invest the things we do with a significance and intensity that would otherwise be absent.”

There are many techniques in that book that can help the reader contemplate such things as impermanence, as well as how to ‘stoically’ deal with all the crap life may throw at us. It all makes for fascinating reading, and I’ve been trying to out some of it into practice in various settings – with good results. Some of it reminded me of CBT; stepping out of your comfort zone to “immunise yourself against a fair amount of future anxiety.”

But I kept coming back to their views on desire, though that seems to be harder for me to internalise. Rather than working to satisfy whatever desires we find ourselves with, we should be learning to be satisfied with our life as it is, we should learn to be happy with what we’ve got.

I wish I had remembered that before I wasted all that time on that stupid phone.

Stop wanting stupid shitI know you’re not interested, but I did finally jailbreak it, by downgrading to iOS 4.o and running redsn0w, but Cydia and ultrasn0w couldn’t get the damned thing to work with my other SIM card. Not bothered, didn’t want it anyway.

Like the Buddha says, Stop wanting stupid shit.

Overview Effect. Spaceship Earth. Home

The Overview Effect, first described by author Frank White in 1987, is an experience that transforms astronauts’ perspective of the planet and mankind’s place upon it. Common features of the experience are a feeling of awe for the planet, a profound understanding of the interconnection of all life, and a renewed sense of responsibility for taking care of the environment.

There’s more about this at www.overviewthemovie.com.

The 10 Best Psychology and Philosophy Books of 2012

QuietYes, I’m highlighting yet another brainpickings blog post, but this one is very interesting, a very detailed and considered look at the ten best psychology and philosophy books of the year: “From Buddhism to the relationship between creativity and dishonesty, by way of storytelling and habit”. Off I go to add all these to my wishlist. (I’m assuming I can get all these on my kindle?)

Many fine quotes here, but my favourite one:

To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not? — Christopher Hitchens (who else?)

Link: The 10 Best Psychology and Philosophy Books of 2012