mt. solitary a weblog

XXIX.

This is a photograph of an ancient olive grove near Tel Yodfat in Israel, where we went for a small walk last weekend, the first since the birth of our son. It was very nice to be outside.


1. Building a second brain

As I wrote about in XV, I’ve spent a lot of time throughout my life, and in particular in the last few years, trying to find an effective and efficient way of committing my thoughts to digital notes. Such a system is vitally important for my ability to think clearly and to produce things. In the last couple of weeks I’ve stumbled on an online community of people who seem to be as devoted to the task as I am, taking it very seriously. The strategy is called building a second brain, and it’s something I’m very keen to try and implement for myself.

For me, a lot of the latent anxiety I feel in my day-to-day life comes from what could maybe be described as a fear of losing information (FOLI?). A generalised and subtle anxiety that I should be holding onto a number of threads in my brain at the same time, and maybe I’m losing my grip on some of them and I don’t even know it. These threads could be ideas I thought of, emotions that arose throughout the day and I would like to reflect upon, conversations with people, ideas and notes about things I read, and of course the full spectrum of todo list items, from the banal to my attempts to achieve my goals, that comes with being a human being.

The “building a second brain” idea, or maybe it’s even possible to refer to it as a movement, doesn’t come directly from a desire to solve this particular problem. Rather, it’s a methodology for drastically improving productivity and learning by developing particularly efficient note-taking and summarisation habits in a central repository. It has its origins in the Zettelkasten of Niklas Luhmann, a system of physical paper index cards with a complicated indexing convention that allows referencing between cards. The idea is to build a dense network of links between ideas, precisely as the real brain does; an idea which of course can be made a lot easier and more natural since the invention of the hyperlink.

The genius of the Zettelkasten coupled with hyperlinks lies in the idea of backlinks, which legitimately let you build a second brain: whenever you reference an idea with a link, a note on that topic is created, and every time you refer to the idea the text around the reference is automatically added to the note. One day you might have an idea, then navigate to that note and notice you already thought of it five years ago. This allows for the slow but steady and effortless accumulation of knowledge: you don’t need to worry about all those threads dangling around, because you can trust the system will surface them when you need to know about them.

If people have read a few issues of this blog in the past, they will be familiar with my struggle for balance in my life and this seemingly innocent search for a system to record my thoughts also needs to be considered in this light. In the community of GTD and productivity enthusiasts online, there is a tendency to focus more time on the tools than on the work. I’m absolutely guilty of this. I spend a lot of time honing and developing my tools and I do really believe that the tools I use to do things are extremely important, particularly if it’s a tool which I expect to use throughout my life. But this desire to engineer something specifically to my needs instead of using out-of-the-box solutions requires a significant investment and means I am spending time and effort on something that isn’t actually related to the initial purpose at all. In the worst case, this feeling that the system isn’t right yet, that it still needs work and tweaking before it can do what I need it to do, can create even more anxiety.

For now I’m trying my hardest (and it doesn’t come easily to me) to just get started, to let go of the fear of the tool being wrong for now, to trust that if the tool really does end up being wrong I can always change tools (a dealbreaker for a choice of software is data portability; everything needs to be in a plain-text format that I can with very little friction port into a different place in the future). I’m using Obsidian for now, despite all the rest of my life and the text I write being in emacs these days (again, as I wrote about in XV). This wasn’t an easy choice, but the open-source solutions that are available in emacs are a little immature still and the Obsidian UI is very nice and the application really feels snappy and easy to use. To be honest I’ll be surprised if I’m still using Obsidian in a year from now, but at least for today it’s allowing me to dive in and get started without having to worry too much.

2. Yearly playlists

During the lockdown, I was having frequent discussions over iMessage with my cousin back in Australia about music. I don’t remember precisely what triggered it, but at some point one of us had the idea to reflect on a different year in the history of recorded music every week. I wrote a Python one-liner to associate a random year between 1970 and 2010 to each of the forty upcoming weeks and we started building playlists, sharing recommendations.

The first thing to do for each year is to choose a relevant playlist cover photo. I’ve been using characters from pop culture that have some sort of connection to the year; so Phil from Groundhog Day in 1993, or the Seinfeld cast at the Chinese restaurant in 1991. And then there are usually three very interesting and very different categories of tracks which go into each playlist:

  • songs I already know and love and which already feature in my library. Here the difficulty is to choose just one song from classic albums I really love from the year and which may have many tracks which mean a lot to me.
  • songs I recognise when I hear them but I don’t have in my library. For this I need to trawl lists of songs from the revelant year online, finding ones whose names seem familiar, listening to all sorts of things. There’s a very real pleasure in finding a song you never knew the name of but which brings back associations of the past.
  • songs I don’t know yet. For these I use lists as well, or conversations with my cousin who I’m talking everything over with. This is the lowest priority but whenever I have time at the end of the week I am really loving taking a few hours to sit down and explore music I haven’t heard before from a specific year. You get to hear the “sound of the year” much clearer, the way certain influences get distilled into a specific time. What gives music from the ’80s its distinctive sound? What is “‘70s music”?

Another really great side-effect of this project is talking to people in my life about years that were important to them and hearing the songs that meant something to them. It’s been especially meaningful talking to my Dad, to whom my taste in music owes a great debt, about his favourite bands and tracks and albums of the ’70s.

3. Reading, watching and listening

Reading

  • With far too much enthusiasm and depth, as I outlined in more detail above, I’ve been reading about various note-taking platforms with bidirectional link functionality built in, like Roam Research (and its emacs org-mode imitation, org-roam) and Obsidian.
  • Former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s memoirs. Political memoirs are interesting: on the face of it they should be boring: completely subjective accounts of history with huge amounts of vested interest. But I do enjoy reading them, particularly recent ones that intertwine with my own memories.
  • About Twitter’s decision to allow workers to work from home “forever” after a successful transition due to COVID-19.

Watching

  • Joe Pera Talks to You. I can’t think of anything to compare this to, it’s fantastically weird and detailed and funny. Highly recommended.
  • After Life, Season 2. As usual, I’ll watch everything Ricky Gervais puts out, and even though this is a bit saccharine and corny, I’m watching it too.
  • Rapper Killer Mike giving an inspiring and moving speech during the most serious civil unrest in America in decades (and in the middle of a pandemic that has already killed more than 100,000 citizens).

Listening

  • The new: Sixteen Oceans by Four Tet.
  • The old: Laid by James.
  • The choon: Murder Most Foul by Bob Dylan.
Read more

XXVIII.

This is a photograph of my street during coronavirus lockdown: the fallen leaves littered over disused cars reminded me of some arthouse zombie movie. In the two weeks since I took this picture, the lockdown has eased, and the streets are already beginning to return to their familiar buzz.


1. C.L.R James on Cricket as Art

I recently finished reading Beyond a Boundary by Trinidadian writer and thinker C.L.R James, which has been referred to as the best book on cricket, and possibly the best book on sport, ever written. I really enjoyed the book, and highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in the sport of cricket, and its history, or just anyone who wants to get a look into the workings of a very unique and interesting mind.

The first half of the book consists of James reminiscing about his childhood in Trinidad, his exposure to cricket from an early age and dabbling in the game as a player. He writes about his interactions with famous West Indian cricketing figures, in particular Learie Constantine, who after a successful Test cricket career went on to have a significant political career in England, winning major political and cultural battles for the nascent black rights movement in the U.K. It’s all very precisely written and gives you a little window into a world you probably don’t know much about.

The second half of the book, which I personally found even more interesting, is a defence of cricket as an art-form both through a cultural analysis of its creation and most important founding player, W.G. Grace, and an analysis through the lens of art criticism, where James very explicitly makes comparisons between cricket and the dramatic and visual arts.

This really resonated with me, as someone with fairly non-sport interests in general, as a potential explanation for why I have always loved cricket. Of course there’s an element of childhood nostalgia, of memories of playing cricket with my Dad, or talking cricket with adults and trying to sound like I knew what I was talking about, of fake-it-till-you-make-it literacy in a small part of the real world. But the thing that has stuck with me about cricket in my adult life is the astounding gamut of detail available to the spectator of the game, and the pure aesthetic pleasure of it all. As James puts so well:

The total spectacle consists and must consist of a series of individual, isolated episodes, each in itself completely self-contained. Each has its beginning, the ball bowled; its middle, the stroke played; its end, runs, no runs, dismissal. Within the fluctuating interest of the rise and fall of the game as a whole, there is this unending series of events, each single one fraught with immense possibilities of expectation and realization.

I was thinking when I read this part of the book, in particular the parts on batting style, fluidity of movement, comparisons to ancient Olympians, about what James might have had to say about former Australian captain Steve Smith. So recently touted as the next Bradman, maybe even better than Bradman, Smith’s fall from grace was astonishing, and his form since his return has not (yet) reached its former heights. Even during his best days, there was much talk of Smith’s aesthetic style as a player, with many old-school orthodox players finding him ugly, albeit brutally effective, to watch. I personally don’t think James would have thought as highly of Smith as many do, or did, and this perspective has made me start to re-evaluate my own feelings about Smith.

The thing I enjoyed most about this book was the simple pleasure of reading the well-organised thoughts of an autodidact explaining thoughts he has accumulated over his long and interesting life in an eloquent and unpretentious way. James’ language is clear and evocative and precise, and he uses it to build a convincing case for the appreciation of cricket as art.

2. COVID-19 II

I’ve been living pretty much under lockdown for six weeks now, as I imagine pretty much anyone reading this when I’m writing in will be; for people who find this in the post-coronavirus future, hello, I hope it’s nice out.

I’ve been thinking these last few weeks about the effect of social isolation on the mind, in particular on the anxious mind. Because there’s two very different sides to this crisis: on the one hand there is a very real and frightening threat to life, stability, health and society, a high level of uncertainty and an immense amount of change in a small amount of time. And on the other hand, the lockdown produces a strange serenity, a return home, a slowing down of what has been a truly relentless pace of living.

I’ve been going through this weird lockdown experience with my wife and our young son, who was a month old when it started and is now ten weeks old: sometimes it feels a bit like we’re raising him in a cave. And here too I constantly feel the push and pull; the cabin fever and difficulty of carving out all the different sectors of your life within the same four walls, as well as the once-in-a-lifetime experience of more time with my infant son than almost any father could hope to have.

But maybe the first is just an instinctive, fight-or-flight reaction to the second. We curl up at the thought of being stuck at home, alone with our thoughts, our families, our truest and most intimate selves. And we are so averse to this and it is so foreign to us precisely because of the pace of life, the relentless movement towards the next step, the next phase. Part of me reads the factoids about Shakespeare writing King Lear while under quarantine due to the black plague and wonders where my Shakespearian creativity is, where is the necessary output from all this extra time.

I beat myself around the head trying to carve out time from my life in the past couple of weeks to write, to work on a novel project I’ve had kicking around my head for a year or so now, and the experience of battling with myself to create something in this weird time really created a lot of tension for me, out of nothing. The pressure to create is coming from an expectation I’ve manufactured for myself, it’s not really coming from a desire to express myself or express an idea I had, or if it is, that’s not the primary driver (like it usually is for this blog). Needless to say, the output, if there is any, is not as good as it could be if inspired in a spontaneous and natural way (of course, the creative process is not always like this; but I do believe that spark needs to be there at least at the beginning).

So these days, a quarantine veteran, I’m tending more towards the “just managing your life is more than enough” mantra. Doing less is good, being less busy, having less to do is a blessing. There are plenty of very tough lessons that will need to be taken from this crisis, plenty of interesting moral dilemmas about the conflict between individualism and individual freedom and the responsibilities of an individual towards the society he lives in. But I think it’s also very important to take away the memory of a very unique and valuable experience, the experience of the world slowing down and letting you breathe, if you would just remember how.

3. Reading, watching and listening

Reading

  • Terence Tao’s fantastic notes on complex analysis, a subject I always really loved.
  • This fantastic NYT op-ed taking down the neoconservative status quo and offering a chance at a new social contract post-COVID-19.
  • A life-affirming interview with Alan de Botton in Haaretz about finding perspective, which may not necessarily be optimistic but is at least honest, in these trying times.

Watching

  • Better Call Saul Season 5.
  • The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (not sure this should be in the “watching” section, but I also don’t play video games nearly enough to warrant a “playing” section). A really fantastic open-world adventure game that feels a bit like Zelda but also not at all like Zelda.
  • Uncut Gems, the new thriller from the Safdie brothers, who I am keen to watch more of, starring Adam Sandler, one of the funniest idiots of the 90s, who has serious dramatic chops here. The cinematography is also amazing, as is Kevin Garnett’s performance.

Listening

  • The new: Fetch the Bolt Cutters by Fiona Apple.
  • The old: Spiderland by Slint.
  • The choon: Garden Song by Phoebe Bridgers.
Read more

XXVII.

This is a photograph of the street I live on in central Tel Aviv early on a weeknight, usually bustling with people, entirely empty during the coronavirus lockdown.


1. COVID-19

I’m not sure if there’s anything else I really could write about at this particular time. Like everyone else my age, I’ve never in my life experienced an event which so completely eclipses all other events in its importance and influence over life (September 11, 2001 was similar in its significance but its real-time impact globally was smaller than this). In the last week I have become convinced that, even though this is probably just the beginning of what may well be a hugely tragic global disaster, this is already the biggest global event to happen since the Second World War. This is true I think just considering the fact that billions of people are being confined to their homes, and the drastic snowball effect that is having on all parts of the global economny and societies, without even getting to the public health crisis and the potential cost in human life.

Last time, in XXVI, I talked about the pressure of trying to say something new and interesting about a well-trodden subject like fatherhood. The same is true but on a weirder scale here, since everything that has been written about the pandemic, the disease, its social and economic effects, has all been written in the past few months. Everything is new and uncertain and the volume and acceleration of things happening and being understood every day are unprecedented. This is the nature of exponential growth: just when you think you are coming to terms with something, the order of magnitude changes, and suddenly there are new challenges you didn’t even think of before.

What I do think is particularly fascinating, and what few think pieces I’ve read so far (so many think pieces) have really seemed to get to the heart of, or even really to discuss openly, is the moral tradeoff which is behind all the discussions between governments around the world: the tradeoff between human life and economic damage. This tradeoff is tangibly present throughout the entire crisis, influencing decisions, forcing people to take sides. Even if it is never mentioned by politicians (though by some, notably Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, it is), it’s obviously there, as otherwise there would be no limit to the size of stimulus packages, or the severity of lockdowns, or people’s willingness to comply with them and stay in their homes.

Here’s the truth: there is a direct and intuitively clear link between social distancing and reducing fatalities during a viral pandemic the scale and level of contagiousness of the novel coronavirus. You can convince yourself fairly easily if you’re still skeptical by playing around with a model like this one, which shows you how all the different parameters influence the most important indicator of success or failure in the outcome of this crisis: total fatalities, which is directly dependent on the ability of national health systems to care for all the people who will become sick at the same time. By making that “same time” window wider, we “flatten the curve” of the epidemic, smearing its effects over a longer time but making it do the limbo under the disastrous horizontal asymptote representing total hospital capacity.

Here’s the other truth: the extreme social distancing required to make this happen will have a tremendous effect on the economy. Confining people to their homes means all businesses which rely on people to be outside of their homes: gyms, cafes, restaurants, hairdressers, almost all retail and tourism, will see their revenue fall to zero overnight. Unemployment skyrockets. People start to lose their jobs, and everyone else starts to worry about theirs. Job losses from the sectors that were hit first will start to ripple through other parts of the economy. A depression-scale loss of wealth and productivity is possible. It’s the societal equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot, the deliberate and rapid hibernation of the global economy caused by dramatic government intervention on a scale I’ve never seen in my lifetime.

So this looks like it gives us some parameters to play with in a simple model: on the left-hand side, the total number of COVID-19 fatalities once the pandemic is over (no one quite knows how it’s going to end of course), with a knob you can control that “flattens” or “tightens” the epidemiological curve. You’ll be able to see the fatalities drop as you flatten the curve, since hospital resources will be more available and more people who need life-saving treatment will receive it and recover. But when you turn that knob, a number on the right-hand side moves too, and that number represents the economic damage: say, the total damage to GDP in a given country, in the local currency. The more you flatten the curve, the more draconian and severe the social distancing rules must be, and this has a direct impact on a country’s output.

Here’s the interesting moral question: where is the moral place to set the knob? It can’t be “keep the curve as tight as possible”, which represents the most COVID-19 fatalities and zero economic effect (even though this is of course a simplification of the real situation: the economic effect of doing nothing and simply letting the virus wipe out millions of people and overwhelm global health systems would also be significant), since all but the most pig-headed “libertarians” (where are all the libertarians by the way?) must accept that governments have some responsibility to save lives of their citizens at some cost. And it also can’t be “make the curve as flat as possible”, since eventually unchecked and unending economic slowdown will dramatically change the shape and nature of the planet as we know it.

Of course, the obvious conclusion from all this is that to set the knob involves implicitly placing a monetary value on human life, since this will allow us to directly weigh numbers on the left-hand side against numbers on the right. Particularly morally troubling in this crisis is that this value directly depends on age and health, since the economic weight on the left-hand side must include some measure of remaining productive years.

This of course feels like a step too far, and it’s as far down the rabbit hole as I’m personally willing to go, though I am certain governments and researchers around the world have spent collectively many hours already during this crisis trying to determine these monetary values. On a purely utilitarian level it makes sense, particularly once you begin to quantify the potential loss of life resulting from a depression-scale economic downturn (suicides, homelessness, people losing health insurance and so on). But I think it’s an important thing to keep in mind while we all hunker down and try to see this pandemic out.

And of course, being data literate and aware of the tradeoffs and basic epidemiological models should be something anyone with a passing interest in humanity and its future prosperity strives towards. Lockdowns on the scale and severity seen in Israel or New Zealand, let alone Italy or Hubei, would never be accepted in the United States, for example, due to ignorance of these sorts of hard moral and statistical questions. People would refuse to comply, citing the importance of their individual freedom and the health of the economy as being more important than a bunch of old people who were probably going to die anyway, essentially planting roots down on one extremum of the thought experiment above and keeping their head in the sand throughout the entire pandemic. But this is the equation, whether we like it or not, and it’s worth being intellectually and morally honest about it.

In fact, I think honesty of all kinds is what is going to get humanity through this crisis, and I dearly hope that once it’s all over we will start to realise the importance of truth and honesty again, something that we have seemed dangerously close to discarding over the past decade. You can’t begin to withstand a threat like a pandemic without truth and data and people making rational decisions based on facts. It’s one of the few silver linings of this crisis that we may yet regain our faith and dependence on truth.

2. Reading, watching and listening

Reading

  • Macbeth by Shakespeare, the first time I’ve read Shakespeare since high school, such a different feeling than I remember.
  • About Rimworld, an indie space colony management simulation game that I’ve been getting into a bit recently.
  • About Zen koans, whose philosophical point I had never understood before.

Watching

  • Seinfeld Season 3.
  • John Oliver on COVID-19, the 2019 novel coronavirus.
  • 1917, Sam Mendes’ fantastic film from last year which I finally got around to watching.

Listening

  • The new: Miss Anthropocene by Grimes.
  • The old: Wit’s End by Cass McCombs.
  • The choon: Become a Mountain by Dan Deacon.
Read more

XXVI.

This is a photograph of autumn leaves in Eugene, Oregon that I took almost seven years ago on my four-month exchange there. It’s a photo I’ve always loved for its simplicity and beauty.


1. “What’s it like being a father?”

Two weeks ago my son was born, a healthy and happy baby, and as a first-time father a lot of people seem very keen to hear how I’m finding the experience. Similar to the “which do you prefer, Australia or Israel?” question I wrote about in XX, I find the question “so what’s it like being a father?”, or one of its many and varied iterations, is very hard to answer quickly and glibly, and have found myself at numerous points with different guests at our home over the past two weeks not being able to string together a response that accurately describes how I’m feeling. So I thought I’d try a little harder to express my answer to the question, insofar as an entirely new way of looking at and feeling about life can be said to be an answer to a question.

Ostensibly, pregnancy is preparation for birth. I felt like this was true for emotional preparation in a lot of ways as well. There is a slow but steady and irreversable sense of progress towards a single goal, a single point in time that everyone talks about and describes to you as life-changing. It becomes more intense as time progresses. The inevitable end of the process, its physical intensity and the reality of what comes after become more and more real and closer in time.

Everyone tells you, of course, what happened to them, and this becomes their (almost always unsolicited) advice about becoming a parent. Some say it’s going to be hard, some very hard, some say children sleep more than you’d think, or less, that they cry a lot, or don’t, are sick a lot, or aren’t, and any permutation of these options you can imagine. It’s like this, of course, because the experience of parenting is very personal, the variance of experiences vast, and everyone’s baby, just like everyone, is different. This is something a lot of people miss, I think, a lot of the time: they generalise out their own experiences assuming that everyone experiences things in the same way. It’s not limited to people’s experiences with babies either: this sameness of experience is how societies become so homogenous and bland without the spice and progress that comes with immigration or generational change.

When I initially thought about writing this issue about my own experience, my first thought was to write about the first week, and how I felt then: about the strange and unexpected sense of calm, of the new sense of purpose that seems to permeate everything. Of the relief after the stresses of pregnancy, of finding that newborns actually sleep quite a bit more than I had expected. But the second week changed my mood and my outlook a little bit; I began to feel the gravity and the meaning of what was happening a little more. I had been a little eager to prove the pessimists wrong I think, to show myself that I could still keep all my hobbies and mental “spinning plates” in the air, without necessarily giving myself enough rest or cutting myself enough slack when things were hard. I kept coming back to the question of whether I even really know when things are hard, whether I trust myself to be aware when I am burning out and need to slow down for my own mental health.

So in this very fertile emotional environment I had to carve out some time to sit down and engage with the computer and my mind to write this down. This whole blog, which I’m still not circulating anywhere or trying to promote in any way, became a project I was questioning the meaning and relevance of. Other hobbies and projects, of course, have had to be set aside for the time being. But I wanted to stick with this blog, as it’s becoming an important part of how I condense my thoughts and articulate them to myself. Needing to sit down and write something about my experience in the first two weeks of parenting created what Craig Mod likes to call a “forcing function”: a deliberate barrier you place in your life that you know you will trip over in the future and be required to perform a certain action.

So how to frame the piece, then? I want to be honest, and I want something I will stand behind in the future, and I want something insightful and original that isn’t going to be interpreted precisely as the kind of advice I derided earlier. I don’t want to give advice at all, rather to answer the question I initially posed to myself: what is it like (for me) to be a father?

For me, it’s like a new identity, a new contract with myself and with the world and with my new family. Parts of who I used to be are still there: most of the parts, probably, some in better condition than others. The part that likes reading about programming language design and algebraic geometry at midnight might need to go on a break for a while. But the other parts are all still there, just in smaller amounts (measured in hours per week, say), or a little more dormant (measured in times per month, say). If they’re real, integrated parts of my personality and my full identity then they shouldn’t feel like plates you need to keep spinning. They should reappear when they have enough room to come to the surface.

I’ve written a few times before here about balance, and I have found myself coming back to the idea many times in the past few weeks. I am truly coming to believe that life is all about improving one’s ability to find balance. It’s impossible of course to be truly in balance upon all the infinite spectra that we are placed on throughout our lives. But the process of realising your place on a spectrum that is new to you, and trying to understand its extrema and where you stand between them, and how better you can find that elusive fulcrum in the centre, is something I strive for as a goal in all endeavours. Being a father feels like a very new, very large space made up of many new spectra I have never encountered before in my life, and which I am slowly mapping by feeling them out in the dark. Like with most things at the beginning, like when a point is thrown randomly onto a new axis with uniform probability, the default is to be out of balance, and being alright with that is the hardest part of the process for me. I like being good at things and find it hard when I’m not. I like to think I understand myself, and it’s difficult when I act unpredictably to new things. But when I take a little time to look back on this new seething space from a spectrum where I am more comfortable, say by writing a new issue of Mt. Solitary, it becomes easier to see this new experience for what it is, to appreciate its beauty and its rarity and its humanity more clearly, and to be grateful and happy for these moments, and for myself.

Finally, I hope it goes without saying, that nothing anyone can say can really prepare you for the new reality of having a child. It’s an intense and personal bond that is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before and it all makes me feel stupendously lucky.

2. Reading, watching and listening

Reading

  • This interesting piece on Bernie Sanders’ ability to build a coalition beyond his usual base of supporters.
  • Paul Graham on how to write usefully.
  • About this new meat-free meat pie.

Watching

  • Seinfeld Season 2.
  • Jon Oliver on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which Disney has blocked on Hotstar, the streaming service it owns in India. I didn’t know much at all about Hindu-Muslim relations in India, and this video sent me on a reading trip where I learnt quite a bit, a very interesting subject.
  • Laura Stevenson’s Tiny Desk performance is finally available and it’s great (features Laura accompanied by a string quartet with new arrangements specifically written for this recording).

Listening

  • The new: Have We Met by Destroyer.
  • The old: Black Sheep Boy by Okkervil River.
  • The choon: Death of the Last Stripper by Terry Allen and the Panhandle Mystery Band.
Read more

XXV.

This is a photograph of the beach in Tel Aviv in winter. It’s winter again, and I’m writing yet another issue of this blog. Can’t help feeling a bit proud of myself.


1. Fire from a distance

Many of my dearest childhood landscapes burnt to ash this Australian summer. In a swathe of bushfires of unprecedented ferocity and scope, much of the eastern coastal plain and forests of Australia were aflame this December and January, including the Blue Mountains where I grew up. 18.6 million hectares burned: 9 times the area of the State of Israel, or around 34% of the area of metropolitan France. Prof. Chris Dickman from the University of Sydney reckoned that around 800 million animals were killed in New South Wales alone. It’s true that fire is a natural part of the life-cycle of eucalypt forests, a fact Australian Aboriginals have known and respected for tens of thousands of years, but the scale of destruction of these forests, and the other types of forests that burnt, was unprecedented and unusual. It was one of those very rare events that humans are notoriously bad at interpreting and reacting to.

The disaster and the ensuing political debate in Australia have particular pertinence for me, and I have been following the news surrounding the fires quite closely. As expected, the hard-right faction of the federal Liberal party is refusing to accept any link between anthropogenic climate change and increased frequency and severity of bushfires. The cause is rogue arsonists or isolated incidents which can be controlled with trivial policy changes. There is hysteria which is unwarranted and silly. The hard left, mostly represented these days by the Green party, is insistent on the direct link between the two, in a way that can often feel a little arrogant and which is subtly statistically disingenuous.

For it is itself a subtle point, and often missed in the narrative around climate change. Humans are proven to be bad at distingishing between small risks, including those whose probabilities of occurance are orders of magnitude apart. I linked to an interesting paper by Israeli behavioural economist Ido Erev in XIV which attempts to isolate the phenomenon in an experimental setting. But you can notice the human bias by noticing your own inability to make different decisions based on risks which are 1 in 1,000 compared with those which are 1 in 10,000.

This is the statistical environment in which the proven and measurable effect of anthropogenic climate change on extreme weather lives. Bushfires of the scale and severity like those that occurred recently in New South Wales may be a “once in a hundred years” kind of event. A degree of global warming may increase this risk to “once every eighty years”. But there are thousands of such possible events, which means if we look at more aggregated statistics like “how many extreme weather events occur every week worldwide”, this number may appreciably change, say from 0.8 to 1.0. More people will die every week. And the problem grows at an exponential rate, and as AA Barlett said, “the greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.”

So here’s a policy thought you don’t see get much attention: teach people statistics. A robust understanding of how probability works, the notion of statistical independence and statistical significance would go a long way towards better informning the public debate surrounding momentous and unprecedented challenges like the climate crisis. Learning a bit about the exponential function wouldn’t hurt either, but one step at a time.

2. Privacy online

A similarly weighty and ultimately pessimistic post to follow-up all the cheeriness above. Sometimes I feel very sad about the state of the modern internet and the bargain we’ve all unwillingly gotten ourselves into with the big tech companies. I’ve been using the internet for twenty years, and remember well my first years using it, when almost all content online was written by independent people. Forums, blogs and chat were synonymous with my internet experience until around 2006. A lot of this was centred around gaming and music. Chat was text only with friends, or occasionally strangers met in another online location.

The web changed drastically in the late 00s and early 10s with the dominance of social media and the monetization of engagement by online advertisers. The average web user today has an extremely different experience to what I had fifteen or even ten years ago. The “independent” web, the web not owned by tech giants and advertising companies, still exists, but it’s small, it’s very quiet, and most people have no idea what it is or why we need it.

I think the independent web is very important, for a number of reasons that I don’t really want to go into in this post. I will say though that I’ve been becoming more conscious lately of the meaning of the bargain we all collectively sold ourselves into on the new, ad-driven internet.

If you’re not familiar with how tracking on the internet works, here are some good introductions. But essentially, in the last ten years, advertisers have begun to use personal data from social networks and search engines to profile you. Through the use of your behavioural data, records of when you did certain things online, and other traces you leave behind you as you browse the web, tech companies can sell more precisely targeted ad space for more money.

The scale of the bargain and the lack of awareness is something that I don’t think has ever happened before: most people who use the internet are entirely unaware that this is happening, and certainly don’t appreciate what it means. Throughout the slow but steady rollout and optimisation of this brand new industry, no one was ever asked for their consent or permission or whether they agreed morally to what was going on. As with billboards and television ads before them, advertisers bombarded us with a brand new space and expected everyone to be OK with the transaction. This time however, people were tracked and their behaviour monetised without their awareness. It feels more to me like oil than TV ads: a common resource, in this case our collective personal information, has been privatised without consent, and used to generate massive profits which most people will never see a single percent of.

If you feel uneasy about this as I do then a natural next question to ask is can it be stopped. The answer is that individually, if you are relatively tech-savvy and willing to pay, you can opt out of this arrangement through a series of ad blocker plugins, VPNs and proxies. But on a wide scale these tools are far too complicated and technical and as a result it looks like we’re stuck with the current arrangement until market forces decide how to handle it. The older I get, despite a famous quote to the contrary, I find myself developing a strong and deep skepticism about the types of personalities who are inevitably found in powerful positions in a capitalist society, and the real ability of such a system to do good.

3. Reading, watching and listening

Reading

  • Beyond a Boundary by CLR James, supposedly one of the best books ever written on sport, about cricket through the eyes of the author in the West Indies post-World War II.
  • The Triple J Hottest 100 of 2019. Lots of songs I don’t recognise, mostly the Australian stuff. Did enjoy the Denzel Curry cover of Bulls on Parade, pretty impressive.
  • Notorious B.I.G.’s Juicy was quoted in the Senate impeachment trial of US President Donald Trump.

Watching

  • Star Wars Episode IX, The Rise of Skywalker. We managed to watch all the movies in order before going to see the newest and final movie. It was pretty much what I expected it to me, maybe a little more disappointing. But I’ve always been in it for the universe and the world-building, and there’s nothing else like Star Wars in that regard.
  • Sex Education, a new Netflix series that’s getting a lot of buzz. Enjoying it so far, wondering how much different my understanding of these things would have been had I had access to this kind of programming in my teenage years.
  • Curb Your Enthusiasm Season 10. Hard to believe this show premiered more than twenty years ago. Feels like Larry hasn’t aged a day sometimes, and there are still moments of genius in this new season, but at times it definitely feels weary as it approaches its 100th episode (Seinfeld had 180).

Listening

  • The new: Please Daddy by Sarah Mary Chadwick.
  • The old: Turn On the Bright Lights by Interpol.
  • The choon: Rocketship by Modus Vivendi.
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