The last lecture

The Last Lecture is a summary of all Pausch had learned and all he wanted to pass along to his children. The lecture, entitled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” wasn’t about dying rather just the opposite. It was about dreams, moments and overcoming obstacles because “time is all you have…and you may find one day that you have less than you think.”

~ Farnam Street from, https://fs.blog/2014/01/randy-pausch-the-last-lecture/

Perhaps you’ve already heard of this book? I had not. Tidy little article from Farnam Street makes me want to run—not walk—out and buy this book.

On the other hand: I really have a problem with books. There’s already a few hundred in the anti-library. My wishlist of books contains 410— err, correction, 411 books.

This is such a delightful problem, yes?

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Second order effects

In short, stop optimizing for today or tomorrow and start playing the long game. That means being less efficient in the short term but more effective in the long term. [… I]f you play the long game you stop optimizing and start thinking ahead to the second-order consequences of your decisions.

~ Farnam Street from, https://fs.blog/2014/10/an-antifragile-way-of-life/

Fundamentally, we humans and our lives are not mathematically tidy.

Aside: I had a math course once—I can’t even remember the material—and the professor said, “it’s a very subtle point that mathematics should model and predict reality.” …or something to that effect. It was mind-bending; but math is part of reality so why wouldn’t reality model itself? *smoke-emits-from-my-ears* The scene, the room, the lighting, everything are burned into my brain.

Heuristics are always and in all cases true but sort of false, because they are imperfect. But the purpose of heuristics is to enable us to wrap our meager brains around the vastly complicated universe. Maths, as in compound interest, exponential growth, 1/r^2 forces, and Fourier transformations, provide models of reality. The comment about second order consequences challenges us to dig deeper into our heuristics, (which are otherwise known more generally as “models.”)

I’ve said this before, here on the blog and out loud: Have you intentionally created the models you have of the world?

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Push and pull

Aside: Like yesterday, there’s no conclusion here today.

A large part of books’ allure is that they never interrupt. They sit inert, exactly where you leave them, (physically or digitally,) and respond the instant you decide you want to engage. You are in total control. Eons ago, I saw the difference between books and the Internet described, overly simplistically, as “pull” versus “push” modes of information flow. That’s true for a book; a book is completely pull oriented. However, the Internet can be used in either mode. It can both “push” information at you and enable you to “pull” information towards yourself.

I became convinced that I needed to pull information towards me and ruthlessly prevent any pushing. This was a simple continuation of my love of books and reading. Reading exposed me to so many new ideas, so I expanded the trawling into the Internet, and to make room for the new things I was finding I squelched things that were being pushed at me. Over many years I began to read trade publications slowly learning which ones were just advertising vehicles and which ones contained real ideas. I joined professional organizations and read their publications. I found web sites that were things I wanted to read and dutifully kept up with them, (either by visiting regularly or by following their RSS feeds.)

I was eventually in complete control of what information I was exposed to. Nothing was being pushed at me against my will, but this became far too much to keep up with. And once the pulling becomes a habit, it’s effectively pushing. I burnt out and crashed hard. I rage-quit a number of things I had been keeping up with, and stopped visiting a swath of great web sites. I began reading physical books more, but this it was only a sort of reset. It left me back at the beginning; I’d learned a lot about how to manage my exposure to information but I was once again starved for new information. These days, I’ve renewed interested in some sort of “knowledge system” and in addition to points I made yesterday it’s also a way to manage this pull-versus-push problem.

More than half a century before blogging, Instagramming, tweeting, and the rest of today’s ever-lowering barriers of entry for publishing content, Bush laments the unmanageable scale of the recorded human experience.

~ Maria Popova from, https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/10/11/as-we-may-think-1945/

After a bit of cool perspective from history, it gets around to talking about the importance of not just categorizing and compressing information for storage—think “library” or “internet”—but the ultimate importance of being able to use the information. Spot on this topic I’ve been slowly trying to unpack.

So, thinking about a knowledge system in the context of pulling information: I currently have a lot of fresh information that I pull; I could say I’m regularly exposed to many new ends of thread. However, I also want to be able to pick a thread, (or two or three,) and to be able to continuously pull on it. My knowledge system should enable that.

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*click*

The power of preserving silence is the very first requisite to all who wish to shine, or even please in discourse; and those who cannot preserve it, have really no business to speak. … The silence that, without any deferential air, listens with polite attention, is more flattering than compliments, and more frequently broken for the purpose of encouraging others to speak, than to display the listener’s own powers. This is the really eloquent silence. It requires great genius—more perhaps than speaking—and few are gifted with the talent …

~ Arthur Martine, from https://fs.blog/2013/08/the-art-of-ordinary-conversation/

Months ago, I presume, I had marked this Farnam Street article for later reading because it’s stuffed full of wonderful insight about conversation. That’s something about which I happen to be passionate, you know? Today I was giving it a thorough, leisurely read and the bit I quoted above screamed at me to be the lead quote of a post. I’d wager it caught my eye when I months-ago marked it for later reading. Turns out I have the book containing the original source, Martine, A. (1866), Martine’s Hand-Book of Etiquette, and Guide to True Politeness, pp 8-9, librarything.com/work/1885064/book/101201787

I read the book a decade (or more?) ago when I obtained it. But now I’m inspired to re-read a few of its chapters now that I’ve become reacquainted with conversation as an art in itself.

“Okay, Craig, get to the point.”

Sometimes bricks of thinking and action click perfectly into place. In this case: A web page from 2013 which I’m only just reading in 2020, a different web page I read a decade ago, an author working just after our Civil War, my personal journey, my interest in conversations and podcasting. I quite often worry about all the things I regularly jam into my brain; they’re good things, but they are so numerous that my brain sometimes feels overstuffed! And then, click. It’s all worth it.

Do you have ways of regularly exposing your self to… well… whatever it is you need to feed your mind?

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Not satisfied

Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only they truly live. Not satisfied to merely keep good watch over their own days, they annex every age to their own. All the harvest of the past is added to their store. Only an ingrate would fail to see that these great architects of venerable thoughts were born for us and have designed a way of life for us.

~ Seneca

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That quote opens Holiday’s, The Daily Stoic, which I have been circling through for a few years. Fortunately, I didn’t try to study Philosophy too early in life; it took me a couple decades once I started trying to improve myself for me to be ready to really listen. I hope you are far ahead of me.

In recent months I’ve been spending more time reading. The more I read, the more quotes I find to share, and the quote backlog is currently at level, “ridiculous.” I was scheduling quotes for publication in December of 2022 and finally decided I better schedule them more frequently. I have so many quotes that earlier this year I kicked off a podcast with daily quotes; search for “Little Box of Quotes” wherever you listen to podcasts.

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Tell me if this sounds crazy

All of our books have a small dot on their spine.

It’s one thing to try to keep your books physically under control. It’s another task for Sisyphus to keep track of your books in general. Here’s how I do it:

  • Create a free account over on LibraryThing. Set up three collections: One for the books currently in our possession; “Library.” A second for books we’d love to have join us; “Wishlist.” A third for books that have passed through; “Previous.”
  • Get some small stickers, (1/4″ round ChromaLabels work great,) and some sticky notes.
  • Add each book to your “Library” collection in LT and put a sticky note inside the cover marked “LT”. I also track digital books, so I tag all the books in LT with “physical” or “digital”. Then put a dot on the spine so you don’t have open the book to check if there’s a sticky note inside.
  • Why both? Some books can’t accept the spine sticker, and sometimes the dot falls off. So the sticky inside the cover is the definitive mark that a book is in LT.
  • New book arrives? Add it to LT’s “Library” collection, tagged as “physical”, insert sticky note in the front, and add a dot to spine.
  • Book leaving my possession? Remove the dot and sticky note, and shift the book to the “Previous” collection in LT.

As you come across books you might want to read, add them to your Wishlist collection in LT. My Wishlist contains hundreds of books. (That’s not a brag, that’s a confession.) LT has a notes field and I often leave a clue about where/why I’m adding the book. When I later—having forgotten all about that book—go into LT to add it, only to discover it’s already there… “Hmmm, that’s twice now I’ve ‘discovered’ this book. Maybe I should read this book sooner than ‘some day’?” Such books I then tag, “priority.” I’ve about ~20 books tagged priority at the moment.

Yet another reason this is useful is that you can search via the LT website, or the mobile app, to see if you have/have-had any book. You can even wander through a bookstore, and know that your Wishlist is always in your pocket.

Does that sound crazy? Dammnit, that does sound crazy now that I typed it all out.

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Blindingly obvious

A few weeks ago I had a rapid sequence of ideas related to reading books. All of these are blindingly obvious in hindsight:

One can gang books together when reading. Grab Aurelius’s Meditations, Frankl’s, Man’s Search for Meaning, Seneca’s Letters, and Epictetus’s Discourses, Handbook and Fragments—and read a little from each of them in each sitting. Or grab the Constitution of the United States, The Federalist Papers, the Anti-Federalist Papers, and Stevens’s Six Amendments. (What “gang” of books springs to mind for you?)

One is permitted to place multiple bookmarks in the same book. Yes I’ve long advocated adding sticky notes to mark various things in a book as I go along. But the idea of reading in multiple places simultaneously in the same book hadn’t really occurred to me.

One can make their own bookmarks from 1/4″ satin ribbon! I have all sorts of bookmarks; things which slide onto the edge like a paper-clip, printed cards (“Remain calm. I’m the Doctor.” for example) with the usual string or ribbon from the end, 3×5 cards stuffed in randomly, and large sticky notes. But it’s way cooler to cut a length of ribbon and drape it through the book… just like really cool and expensive books which arrive with a bookmark sewn into their binding.

If you’re cutting ribbon to make bookmarks, you can easily attach it into the book just like the fancy books’ marks. Cut it long enough to: lay one end between the last two pages of the book, tight in against the binding, with the end near the top of the page, and the ribbon laying down the page. Flip a few pages on top of it to hold it in place, and lay the ribbon back up across the entire book again tight in against the binding. Now you have a bookmark that feels like it’s sewn into the binding when you grab the lower portion sticking out of the book as your mark.

My final thought in that recent cascade was of course: Okay, wow, I really have a book problem.

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Frog or bird?

He described himself as a frog not a bird, as he enjoyed jumping from pool to pool, studying their details deeply in the mud. The bird’s-eye perspective was not for him, and he had a lifelong suspicion of grand unified theories.

~ Robbert Dijkgraaf from, https://www.quantamagazine.org/remembering-the-unstoppable-freeman-dyson-20200413/

Freeman Dyson’s, Frogs and Birds is also worth a read.

There is such an insanely huge amount of things I want to read. Web pages, PDF files, ePub documents in Kindle and Nook, and of course stacks of physical books. I read a lot, but of course I’ll barely scratch the surface of just the things I’ve actively decided I want to read. Fortunately, I’m no longer reading to reach a goal, or to finish.

My mind is but a tiny eddy of order, maintained every so briefly within the grand arc of time.

…and what fun it is to go frolicking through the works of mankind, sharing the occasional bit here with you!

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Honing your craft

We’ve created this fantasy world where everyone is just 30 days of courage boosting exercises and life hacks away from living an amazing life.

But when you study people like Martin, who really do live remarkable lives, you almost always encounter stretches of years and years dedicated to honing craft.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2012/01/29/closing-your-interests-opens-more-interesting-opportunities-the-power-of-diligence-in-creating-a-remarkable-life/

This is the eternal challenge of seeing the forest through the trees; of maintaining perspective.

I’m constantly reminded of the scenes in the Hobbit where they are trying to walk through 250 miles of a forest named, Mirkwood. “Do not leave the path,” is the only guidance they are given. After what seems like endless daily struggles, they eventually dispatch a party member to climb a singularly large tree to the uppermost branches. Unfortunately, even from that lofty perch all that could be seen was more forest forever and ever in every direction. In fact, they were in a low lying area, reasonably close to the forest edge. Crushed by the misleading perspective, their journey takes a turn for the worse.

I have so many projects where I start into the forest with the best intentions. I steel myself with, “I know this is going to turn into a slog at some point, and I’m going to remember why I went into the forest to give me the strength to carry on!” Yeah, that never works out. If the project is actually worth doing, then the forest is necessarily crushingly vast and the journey through must eventually become hopeless. Of course it’s hard; that’s what makes it worth it.

The secret? You have to love living in the forest, just for the sake of living in the forest. Then every morning is an adventure. Sure, some days are going to suck, but every morning will begin a new day of opportunity.

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Stop drifting

Stop drifting. You’re not going to re-read your Brief Comments, your Deeds of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, the commonplace books you saved for your old age. Sprint for the finish. Write off your hopes, and if your well-being matters to you, be your own savior while you can.

~ Marcus Aurelius from, Meditations 3.14

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Normally I would simply let a quote from Aurelius stand on its own. If you’re not familiar with Meditations—Aurelius didn’t choose that title for what he wrote, it was added to his work much later—it was a collection of writings he meant only for himself; this is the emperor of the Roman empire remonstrating himself.

Here’s a second helping of remonstration: Explore. Dream. Discover.

I write this blog for myself. (And no, I’m not laboring under the delusion that I’m creating a work for the ages like Aurelius’s, Meditations.) But I am simply pleased if you, Dear Reader, find my ramblings interesting. I am genuinely delighted if anything I write stimulates your thinking. I am downright ecstatic if any of my questions catalyze your changing the course of your life.

Do you read regularly, and what have you chosen to read with the aim of changing the course of your life?

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