How to be a little less stupid every day
Being mindful about what you let into your mind
Bitcoin investors stuck it to the man and the big government by getting approval…from the man and the big government.
I’m boycotting the Maldives. The fact that I can’t afford it has no bearing on my decision. I’m a patriot first, poor second.
Bangalore traffic police pass a new rule: the minimum distance between vehicles in traffic signals is 1 cm.
John Maynard Keynes famously said, "The government should pay people to dig holes in the ground and then fill them up." He was saying this was a way for the government to create jobs and reduce unemployment. The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) digs up good roads because it’s Keynesian.
People in Silk Board honk like they’re in a rush to save dying people so that they can engage in road rage at 6 kmph.
If you don’t read books to show off that you are reading a book and post tweets about it, what's the fucking point of reading a book?
The fact that we only have so little time on this earth but so many books to read is a regret that is shared by many. The size of your unread book pile is proportional to the intensity of your regret, and if it's not true for you, it certainly is for me. With each passing year, I feel a deep regret that I haven’t read a lot. But then I quickly realize that it's a pointless thought and immediately open Netflix to catch up on The Trailer Park Boys 😜
This week, I heard a podcast episode with Timothy Denevi on Ryan Holiday's podcast. Timothy Denevi is an Associate Professor who teaches writing at George Mason University and is also the author of Freak Kingdom: Hunter S. Thompson's Manic Ten-Year Crusade Against American Fascism. Ryan Holiday probably needs no introduction; he is the man who has single-handedly made stoicism cool again. I've never read one of his books, but I bought The Daily Stoic to see what the fuss is all about. I'm not ashamed to admit that the book has become a victim of my tsundoku, sitting unmolested in my book cupboard below 'The Story of Philosophy,' another book I've left unread. I subscribe to his podcast because many of the guests are experts on things I’m interested in. As an aside, Ryan Holiday seems to be somewhat of a polarizing figure among fans of stoicism.
Ryan’s podcast was the subject of a previous post as well.
Listening to this episode was a bittersweet experience. On the one hand, it was packed with insights. On the other hand, it supercharged my regrets and insecurities about how few books I’ve read and how many more I yearn to, especially the classics. A good part of the conversation in the first 40 minutes is about legendary writers that I am at least familiar with but haven’t read, like Joan Didion, Hunter Thompson, and Charles Bukowski, and legends unknown to me, like John Fante, Ambrose Bierce, Joseph Conrad, and William Saroyan.
I’ve been listening to the conversation on rewind because there are a lot of good things to take away, especially if you like writing and reading.
Be so good that the rules don’t apply to you
Around the 20-minute mark, there’s a long discussion about the writing style of the legendary journalist Hunter Thompson. The discussion revolves around his distinctive writing style, and I love how Ryan Holiday contextualizes it. Mastery of writing comes from learning the basics and having such a good grasp that you can create your own unique style—you become a style guide unto yourself.
Timothy Denavi: A lot of my students, when it comes to writing, they will often try to start at Hunter Thompson, you know? They have to understand he took 15 years as a serious journalist, playing the game, learning how to do investigative reporting, and the lead paragraph, in general journalistic writing, before he then responded against it and found his own form.
Ryan Holiday: Yeah, it's like you watch Patrick Mahomes and you see him throwing these sideways passes and scrambling, and you don't realize that's not him not learning the playbook; that's him having learned the playbook and played in the system since he was a kid. All the way up, and then there is this element of mastery where you get to throw it away and improvise and exist on instinct and intuition.
If you see S. Thompson or other writers as unorganized and stream of consciousness and undisciplined, you're missing all of the discipline and order that built them up to the point where they could either do that on purpose or be so talented that they could get away with it.
Timothy Denavi: I mean creativity, I used to think it was the blank page and then something, but it really is that response to a system, you know? And seeing what other people don't when they look at that. I mean Mahomes coming from a baseball background, a lot of quarterbacks do, but how rare that he could implement that kind of off-balance response. And I love that show on Netflix because the creativity of the camera angle close to him where you see the decision making.
I mean that, that reminds me when I think of writing creativity again; it's not going from nothing to something; it's looking at what already is there and trying to see what other people don't and create something new from that. Yes, and you have to have the core mastery of language and word choice and all the ingredients that then can come together in a new way.
Ryan Holiday: But yeah, you don't see Hunter S. Thompson as trying at all, and that is a sign of mastery, I think. But, but it, yeah, he was so good first, and he learned all the basics first, and then he threw away everything else.
From around the 55-minute mark, the conversation revolves around news, history, reading books, information diets, misinformation, etc. I found this part of the podcast episode interesting and useful because I’ve been thinking about these issues for a long time, which is a big part of why I started writing here.
Thinking well has never been harder because we’re the targets in an information war. Every second of every day, we are besieged and bombarded with information, as our attention has become a commodity to be competed for. Our brains weren’t built for the complexity of the information age of the 21st century. They evolved in simpler environments where the only real imperatives were to keep us alive and find someone to have sex with so that we could pass on our genes.
Thinking well has never been more important given how complex, messy, and disfigured our inflation ecosystems are. Today, more people get their news from social media than ever before, through text and video, but these platforms weren’t designed for this. The incentives that make social platforms tick are different. There’s very little incentive for users on social media to be sane and rational. These platforms are like strip clubs, and the users are like performers. If they have to make social money (likes and shares), they have to put in a special performance involving various contortions.
It’s the same with a lot of “news” media companies as well. Given how hard the news media business is, publishers also have to do depraved things to just survive, forget thriving.
Our media landscape is a giant performative hellscape, with very few exceptions. Everybody is performing for attention and money—truth, honesty, fairness, rigor, and accuracy are optional. The loudest, vilest, and stupidest things stand out. It’s all become a performance. Nuance is lost, all context is flattened, and most of what we consume is useless and formless goop. This is the world in which we have to struggle to be a little less stupid every day.
The internet facilitates these powerful, complex parasocial relationships but, at the same time flattens everything that makes the messy, human elements of relationships possible. It flattens audiences, it flattens time and it flattens a lot of nuance.
Where does that leave us? In a tricky spot. Many of the current conversations about power and accountability are conversations we desperately need to have. Now, I’m not all that hopeful that many of the stakeholders are willing to have them — many would rather just flatten the complexities themselves into a vague ‘cancel culture.’ But, even in an ideal world of good faith participation, we don’t really have productive spaces to have such discussions. The world isn’t flat but the world wide web is — and three-dimensional human beings can’t thrive in a one-dimensional space. — Charlie Warzel
I don’t have all the answers, but I think what Fran Lebowitz says is a good starting point:
“Think before you speak. Read before you think. This will give you something to think about that you didn’t make up yourself – a wise move at any age, but most especially at seventeen, when you are in the greatest danger of coming to annoying conclusions.”
― Fran Lebowitz
I loved how Timothy Denavi put it. We've become accustomed to thinking in binaries because of the information ecosystem we’ve grown up in, which rewards such thinking. We get invisible brownie points from the lifeless algorithms controlled by our digital overlords. Yay! But not everything in life is black-and-white.
Timothy Denavi: I don't know what's happening to the Western mind, but I will say the literal relationship to facts, especially in the last 10 years, is mind-blowing to me. We don't just have to go back to the '60s and the idea of exaggeration in art, you know, and all of these different emotional versus other types of truth. I wrote a lot about the historical Jesus and the Gospels, the idea that you could keep two things in the human mind at once, that, of course, this is exaggerated to prove a point, and still, this is a narrative that feels true, or I want you.
It doesn't have to be either-or, and I are either-or moment. It blows my mind right now, you know, and then I mean, at least the hypocrisy, which is what Thompson was talking about so much then, but which is really dangerous because my fiance will say, "We're not thinking well, like we're not thinking well if everything has to be a dichotomy or a black and white, sure-yes or no situation."
To think that it's always been this way and we're not in a conversation with the technology that's all around us, you know, the voices of people that are long gone, to me, is mind-blowing. And I think we're getting stupider because of that, and I sound so old. It kind of blows my mind, but we need to think. I don't know how we're going to think better if we can only think in yes or no.
So, what do you do to be less stupid?
Ryan Holiday: Sometimes they get it right, and sometimes they don't, right? And that's why you have to have this broad group of people you get your information from. You can't just say, "Oh, I just read this." You know, the dumbest people I know just get their news from the television, do you know what I mean? Like, you go, "Oh, okay, this is a problem." But it's so hard though because I wish my father would watch CBS News, you know? Instead, it's on Facebook. I think that you're right. I think that we've also lost the idea of getting news, of getting information in perspective by a 400-page book written 40, 50 years ago.
So that's why I loved your book. So, like, I have found, like, okay, the best book I read during COVID was John M. Barry's book, "The Great Influenza." Oh, wow, right? So you're reading about the Spanish flu, and you're like, "Okay, here's everything that's true." The best way I understood Trump was Sinclair Lewis's "It Can't Happen Here." And I feel like your book, actually, which comes, which is basically the generation right after that book, like, you're talking about no longer does the fascist movement look like Mussolini or Hitler. It's figured out how to dress better. It's figured out how to co-opt certain kinds of speech and language. It's less, it's more velvet glove, you know, than iron fist. But Hunter Thompson is writing about the exact same things that are happening right now, the same types of politicians.
I liked the nuance that Ryan Holiday added. Over the year’s, I’ve heard a lot of bros from the life hacking and optimize everything world lecture people not to read the news and to read books. I’ve heard these people say, “They don’t follow the news,” as if it’s a virtue. That sounds fair on first blush given how horrible most news is, but that’s a recipe for being a special kind of stupid.
To their credit, they have a valid point. Much of what passes for news is indeed pure garbage. It's designed to cater to our base emotions and provoke and enrage us. However, "news" isn't a monolithic entity, and not all news is bad. As someone who observes media, a topic I've written extensively about, I don't understand this one-sided media bashing. I find many "the media is bad" arguments to be intellectually lazy and somewhat dishonest.
Bad media," however you want to define it, is also the result of incentives and feedback loops. Have you wondered, if so much of the media is "bad," how come it still exists? It's because there's a market for it. News consumers aren't innocent. Not all people look for fairness, honesty, and balance in their news. Many people have preconceived notions and fucked-up opinions, and they are just looking for information that confirms their existing beliefs.
In other words, we, as news consumers, have agency. We are supposedly the smartest creatures in the universe, capable of sending astronauts to space and splitting atoms, but incapable of distinguishing sense from nonsense. How does that make sense? Bad media thrives or exists because people demand it. If you want good media, stop feeding the beast.
The response to "bad media" isn't to disconnect but rather to be deliberate about what you consume. You can't just read books all the time and quote Dostoevsky when someone tries to talk to you about what's happening in India. You’d look like a moron. As the cliched and obnoxious saying goes, you have to find the signal in the noise. It goes without saying that most news is of low quality, but that doesn't mean you should stop reading news and only read books. That's like trying to eat only grass, raw vegetables, and uncooked fish because you think all processed foods are bad.
There has to be balance in everything in life. You need to know what's happening in the world; that's part of being an informed citizen. However, it doesn't mean you should obsessively track the news and have apps that deliver 100 breaking news alerts a day. It also doesn't mean you need to know everything at all times. There are plenty of good sources for thoughtful and measured takes on the pressing issues of our time. In fact, we live in a golden age of information. There has never been a time in history when so many smart people shared their expertise. Substack, for all its flaws, is a brilliant example of this. It has enabled thousands of talented writers to share their insights.
You can be a deliberate and slow consumer of news. In fact, I'd recommend it. There's an entire genre of news called slow journalism that I'm a huge fan of. Some of the ideas behind slow journalism have inspired this blog. There's no rule that says you need to know everything that happens in the same instant. Unless your life is in immediate danger, you can afford to let the dust settle and wait for thoughtful perspectives.
Just as you have a diet for your stomach, you need a diet for your brain as well. You need to be thoughtful and deliberate in curating what goes into your mind. Finding the delicate balance between staying informed about the world and learning from history is crucial. It's not something you can figure out all at once, but you stumble and learn your way into what works for you.
Curating your sources of information has never been more important. We've transitioned from an industrial world to an informational world. In an industrial world, manufacturers of physical products tried various ways to sell their goods. It's the same in the informational world; those who sell information want a piece of your attention. Just because they knock on the door doesn't mean you have to let them in.
Ryan Holiday: The idea of the economics of a book are fundamentally different than the economics of media, right? Like a book is designed. The newspaper story you read or the online article, whatever, is designed to be replaced immediately by the next thing, the next day, or now on the internet, the next tweet five minutes later. A book, because it takes so long to do it, by definition, has to have a little more staying power, right? It has to have, it has to continue to be true for longer, has to have a larger view, normally.
And then, I think the most important part that's fundamentally different about what we would call journalism is that you pay for it individually, right? Not even, there's a problem with, like, as they say, if it's free, you're the product that's being sold. But an article inside a package of other information is different than this, which is designed to be self-sufficient and self-justifying. Like, you buy this, you read it, it is worth what you paid for it. That is a different value proposition with a different set of incentives.
And people don't really think about the incentives that are operating under the information that they're consuming and how those incentives are warping and changing that information. And if you can't see that, then you're prey to that bias, just like people spend too much time on Twitter get their brain warped, people watch too much news TV get their brain warped. If you're only reading books, you also can live in this world where there's only these big truths and not real events happening on the ground. So you need a balance, but I think fundamentally, it's better to go back further. It's better to read things that are older. It's better to read things where the significance of the partisanship has gone away.
You need to know the past in order to understand the present, so as not to be stupid in the future.
These are just some high-level thoughts on how to thoughtfully consume information and not let the information consume us. I hope to write about it more in the upcoming editions as I learn how to go about it.
There were more books than that on the single wall I was staring at.
That's when I had a realization of my mortality. My desire outpaced reality. I simply didn't have the life to read what I wanted to read.
Suddenly my choices in that bookstore became a profound act of deciding. The Latin root of the word decide—cise or cide— is to "cut off' or "kill." The idea is that to choose anything means to kill off other options you might have otherwise chosen. That day I realized that by choosing one story, I would have to cut off other stories. I had to choose one thing at the expense of many, many other things. I would have to choose carefully. I would have to curate my stories....
Curating stories used to be a matter of luxury. Now it's a matter of necessity—and perhaps even urgency.”
― Justin Whitmel Earley, The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction
A few good things I read
I liked this post. You could do worse than these nine tips.
You should have a bias towards ideas and books and authors that have been around longer, and the longer they’ve been around, the stronger your bias towards them should be. This sounds grumpy and reactionary but it’s just the way things are. Time is the most perceptive discriminator ever invented (or perhaps the least bad and least dumb one, for it certainly makes mistakes). Most new books are bad or mediocre and as readers we should have a bias towards the classics.
Don’t measure your life with someone else’s ruler.
The greatest killer of happiness is comparison. If you must compare, compare yourself to you yesterday.
The most important thing I’ve learned as a psychiatrist so far is this: that we are, in so many ways, extraordinarily frail creatures. Yes, we are also capable of awe-inspiring strength and resilience, and can achieve heights of true greatness. We can marshal our noble philosophies and faiths to buttress against hardship and for comfort amid failures. But at the end of the day, the hard truth is that there is often precious little one can do when the universe decides to crush you. Loss is real, tragedy is real, unmitigated disaster is real, and no amount of rationalization, or anything else, can prevent it or make it go away. I suppose this is one of those lessons that comes with maturity, and I just happen to have learned it through psychiatric experience.
A new newsletter dedicated to exploring the multifaceted aspects of addiction is now available. It is authored by Carl Erik Fisher, a psychiatrist, bioethicist, and someone who has personally experienced addiction and recovery. The introductory post is insightful and sheds light on the complex issue of addiction and the incomplete understanding we have of it.
Attributing addiction to a single cause is—need I say it?—misleadingly reductionistic. This issue is often the focal point of discussions of Rat Park, and it’s a timeless theme in discussions of addiction. Social issues like housing scarcity, dislocation, and alienation are not “the” one, sole cause of addiction. There is no utopian future where fixing societal problems eradicates addiction. Even though the roles of trauma and social deprivation have been overlooked for too long, it’s also true that developing addiction does not necessarily mean one has been traumatized or neglected. It's hard to hold in mind that addiction is complex and multicausal.
The repetition study was part of a broader effort to counter psychology’s reproducibility crisis, which in part has been attributed to the variety of ways in which researchers could examine and reanalyze their data until they arrived at publishable results. “It’s kind of like shooting a bunch of arrows at the wall and drawing the bullseye on after,” says Elizabeth Dunn, a social psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and coauthor of the new Annual Review of Psychology paper.
Perhaps the most absurd thing about the strikes in Yemen is that the U.S. and Britain are giving the Houthis exactly the confrontation they desire. They have thrived on conflict, and each new round of conflict has left them in a relatively stronger position than they were in before. Their attacks on commercial ships in response to the war in Gaza had already given them a boost at home because their actions have been very popular, and now U.S. and U.K. strikes are likely going to give them another boost.
How many lives did asbestos itself save in the final reckoning, net of the deaths it caused? It’s impossible to say. This is what we know: Fire deaths fell by over 90 percent in the United States over the twentieth century; asbestos was present in thousands of applications as a fire retardant; and without effective brake pads, the roads would have been much more dangerous. However, at the same time that asbestos became ubiquitous, fire codes matured, firefighting technology improved, and the insurance industry laid down stringent requirements for coverage.
I think of the quote attributed to St. Augustine: “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page,” and how I believe the converse is true as well: the book is a world, and those who do not widely read do not leave their home. Books are an invitation to leave your world and step into someone else’s, giving the reader both potential entertainment and potential education. It’s not about how quickly you read, nor even how many books you read (so long as you’re constantly reading something), it’s about a willingness to learn from others. How else could you travel in the present day to a remote Atlantic Ocean island in the seventeenth century than by reading Robinson Crusoe?
Negotiations over banking and capital market union have been ongoing for years. The need for a substantial fiscal capacity, backed by common debt is both so obvious and seemingly so impossible in political terms that it induces eye-rolling and handwaving talk of the difficulty of “treaty change”.
But as incomplete as European Monetary Union may be, is this really its main problem? At the EMU Lab event in Florence, the FT’s Martin Sandbu stoutly defended the position that structural issues, though serious, have so far been less decisive in the Euro’s history than policy mistakes. Let us call this euro-thesis 2.
Please open a news app, get angry at random shit, and take it out on your parents, wife, and kids.
Have a moderately acceptable weekend.