On Attention

In a wide ranging, often insightful, occasionally politically passive aggressive article, Craig Mod writes about how he got his attention back. It’s long and given the attention span of the Internet these days, chances are you didn’t even read it. Wow, speaking of passive aggressive. I digress. I do think it’s important piece that feels around the edges of what has gone wrong with our society, not just this year but beginning decades ago when we stopped paying attention to those things that weren’t immediate. He talks about the 2016 election as if it was a huge surprise, a geologic shift in the tectonic plates of our nation when in reality, it was the logical conclusion of our click-bait, always on, flood of misinformation economy. The fact that Donald Trump as President is a surprise to people shows how little we pay attention.

The information society has become machine scale. No longer can you pick up one paper and know approximately what is going on in your town or nation or world. Perhaps you never could but only those things that were actually important bubbled to the top. Now, false stories are spread at the click of a button and because the information landscape is so chaotic, we have no hope of performing the necessary validation ourselves. Any rebuttals are missed entirely because they don’t fit our world view. We live in echo chambers where people post and repost and tweet things that are demonstrably false but that fuel our moral outrage. They fit our world view and so have long and unjustified lives. Michael Tracey has been one of the few I’ve seen writing about this. The net effect is that we are actually less informed and we are less able to feel outrage when it is truly justified and necessary.

The current chaos is the natural progression of information flow. Fifty years ago, information was limited, slow and filtered. Now it has become unlimited, immediate and unfiltered. It is the difference between human scale and machine scale. We are uniquely unprepared to deal with it because the scale is so immense. We are driven by the reptilian feedback mechanisms to try and keep up which only results in anxiety and loss. Studies have shown that we check our phone 85 times a day on average. Let that sink in for a moment if you can. Of those 85 times, almost none of them are truly important. Perhaps none of them are. We have fully achieved the consumption society. We spend all day eating and drinking junk food while ingesting huge quantities of empty, sugary information. We live with attention deficits and nutritional deficits and financial deficits and physical deficits. Not only do we live with them but we actively pursue them with a zeal and a pride that when analyzed closely is at least mildly terrifying.

Of course, when you attempt to check out, people look at you like a Luddite. My aunt recently deleted her Facebook account. When someone does this, they are often accused of not wanting to hear about things they don’t agree with. But throughout recorded history, we have done fine not hearing about things we don’t agree with and also many of the things we do agree with. Those times were not more scary than the times we now live in when everyone is “informed”. People could think and act for themselves then. Now our opinions are given to us in a constant stream of media soundbites, many of them false or misguided, all of them driven by some bias we can’t verify. We are the most informed and yet uninformed generation.

The irony is that just when we need our collective attention most to sort through the chaos, we have precious little experience in it. Just like you must work hard physically for long periods of time to be strong enough to handle times of shock, our attention should be cultivated and exercised so that we can handle times of informational chaos. That is not the state we find ourselves in. We find ourselves on the informational couch, fat, lazy, hands covered in the Cheeto dust of informational nuggets of nothingness. At the very time when our President and media are actively making the media landscape more chaotic and warlike and we need to rise up and fight, we cannot walk up a flight of stairs to defend ourselves.

Of course, we find ourselves in this position because it is all so much easier. It is easier to buy something you can’t afford on a credit card. It is easier to buy a Big Mac than it is to make a decent meal at home. It is easier to sit on the couch than it is to go for a walk. It is easier to read Twitter than it is to create art. It is the path of least resistance and with few exceptions, we have gone down that path until we can hardly walk or stuff another calorie into our face or another byte into our head. Of course, with physical or nutritional deficit, we know we have failed. It is obvious all the time. But with attention deficit, there is no physical representation of our inability to focus, no out of breathness when we reach the top of a hill. And that is the most dangerous kind of debt, one you cannot see until it is too late.

Is there hope? There is always hope. The more people check out and return their focus to their families and the community and their local leaders, the more good it does. The collective effort of people doing small things for people who matter to them will change more than any consumption of information ever will. A key quote from Mod’s article:

There is a qualitative and quantitative difference between a day that begins with a little exercise, a book, meditation, a good meal, a thoughtful walk, and the start of a day that begins with a smartphone in bed.

Or a smartphone at any time. Gathering our attention back in, refusing to parcel it out to whatever outrage happened today, using it to actually do something, those things create quality. Perhaps slowly, over time and with great effort, we can regain our attention. That would be the greatest success of all.

Infants and Humor

As our little midget grows into a laughing, funny little creature, it’s interesting to know and read about how early infants understand humor.

Friday Morning Ramblings

For Christmas, I received Desert Solitaire which is a tale of one man in the American West, specifically the desert region of southern Utah around Moab and the Arches National Park. Abbey writes beautifully of the desert and of the wilderness in general which he was afraid was becoming urbanized and lost. His tales of adventures like rafting down the Colorado river in two inflatable dinghies with a friend, sans any life jackets, just so they could see Glen Canyon before Lake Powell was built reminds me of John Graves Goodbye To A River which I read last year. The poignancy of Graves is contrasted with an almost militancy of Abbey who rails against the loss of a wilderness once haunted only by Native Americans and wildlife. Abbey’s works later became the basis for many environmental anarchists which is unsurprising. He quotes Bakunin, the great Russian anarchist, in one place in the book so I assume he must have read and probably approved of the philosophy in many ways. The intrusion of the state into what once was pristine wilderness was a theme of both Graves and Abbey, each in their own way. Bakunin wrote (slightly paraphrased) that “sometimes creation can only be achieved through destruction. Therefore, the passion for destruction is also a creative passion.”

On its face, this seems illogical but is in fact how the natural world and in theory the capitalistic world operates. Only through destruction of the weak as well as the unlucky can things evolve. The flash flood that roars down a dry arroyo sweeps away much but allows nature to regenerate and change in ways a central planner could never even conceive of. In the same way, when a business fails, it opens a hole in the ecosystem for a better or more appropriate business. Of course, the mule deer fawn unlucky enough to be born in that arroyo is destroyed as well when he cannot outrun the flood, a incident of bad luck unrelated to fitness. This is the concept that we as conscious feeling humans cannot bear. However, our inclination to save all things is carried to far when we save those things that are irreparable or fundamentally flawed. We “save” things that should be dead. This is evident in all aspects of our life from our artificial struggles to extend life at its boundaries, our bailing out of banks that should be tits up, our desire to keep wildfires from the forest and so many other examples. Our drive to protect from events like a flash flood or a forest fire or a global financial melt down causes us to only postpone and worsen the event when it happens. This is proven over and over again. This central planning eventually fails, in all cases. In theory, our federation of states protects us as a country from this but over time, our states have become more bureaucratic and our central government has become more powerful especially financially and militarily.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes of this failure in central planning a great deal in Antifragile. Bureaucracies are like black holes unfortunately, in that they eventually achieve their own gravity, sucking in the galaxies that surround them. Without constant involvement and care, our governments become larger and larger because people have a natural inclination to “do things” when oftentimes doing nothing would be the right choice. This makes me think of code and the effort required to keep it running and error free. As we become more distracted and riddled with our own problems, we do not have the capability to devote to keeping our civilization and government under control. In the same way that invariably we eventually throw something away and replace it with something new, our liberal democracy will eventually be thrown away because we did not invest the required effort to keep it running. This seems unlikely, possibly even impossible, in a country that has not had a revolution in 150 years. But it is the nature of the world and we are part of the world. Without regular care and pruning and hard choices that none of our current mass of politicians and their cushy jobs for life can manage, liberal democracy will go away. We see this happening at the edges now and ignore it at our peril.

As we continue to grow the throw away society that we currently operate under, it only becomes more and more ingrained that fixing things is an outdated idea for the dustbin of history. Already, self-reliance is almost unheard of (though in some urban settings there is a resurgence of things like gardens and chickens which is promising until the city you live in decides to outlaw the practices). Our debt fueled society and world is already beginning to groan under the weight as growth slows down. We tell kids to get a college education, any college education, at any cost, student loans can be worried about later and then wonder why they can’t spend money in our consumerist society even if they are lucky enough to get a job. We give people larger and larger portions of increasingly crappy food and wonder why we have a health crisis blowing up. We have a pill for everything, the easy way out instead of the hard way. Our lives of comfort leak into everything that affects us and we often unquestioningly choose that which is easy or that which seems protective, forgetting that it is through hardship and struggle and even destruction (or the removal of something) that causes growth.

Is all of this so much “Hey you kids get off my lawn!” or the age old complaint by your grandparents that you never had it so easy? To some degree, perhaps. But we know that when we go longer than we should without some form of destruction or deprivation, the resulting event that nature wreaks on us is larger and more painful. Turns out three meals a day for life probably isn’t good for you, any more than giving trillions of dollars to the four largest banks so that they could continue to leech off our blood was. Without destruction, there can be no creation. They are opposite sides of the same coin, one that we have flipped in our society and forced it to come up heads for too long. When it finally lands on tails, it will be too heavy for us to pay what’s due.

There is a beautiful sunrise out my eastern kitchen window. The way light is morphed into so many colors is fascinating. I took a half day off Wednesday and we went to see Monet: The Early Years at the Kimball. He was a master at studying and recreating the effects of light in a way that if you look closely turns to painted gibberish. I wonder how many of our artists today study and reflect on light in the way the Impressionists did. I wish that my view wasn’t obstructed by power lines and neighbors trees and houses. A sunrise like this on the prairie or mountains would be truly magnificent. Still, the light changing from pinks to orange with light blues interspersed and streaked between is wonderful.


Of all the most humbling tasks in the world, peeling a grapefruit ranks in the top 3.

Navel Gazing 2016 Edition

Whereupon I write stuff about the year that was 2016 and try to figure out what to do in 2017. Warning: this is fourteen year old girl level introspection stuff with only the thin veil of some philosophy from the 1950s to make it look acceptable. Read at your own risk.

As in 2015, in 2016, I had five main goals: learn more Spanish, write more, read more, exercise more and watch more movies. Because I’m a data geek, I track those goals because evidence shows that you need to be very specific in your goal setting if you want to actually succeed. In 2016, I achieved 75% of my movie goal, 63% of my exercise goals, 50% of my book goals, 27% of my Spanish goals and 15% of my writing goals. Super successful then. Though I did achieve all of my diaper changing goals. So there’s that. So then the natural reaction for a navel gazer is to wonder what happened. Were the goals too aggressive (maybe)? Was the desire to achieve the goals insufficient (probably)?

Of course, it’s not like nothing momentous happened in 2016. I now have a daughter who is beautiful and happy and healthy and absolutely fills my heart with a sensation I can’t even possibly begin to express within the limits of a language like English (maybe French or Russian but given how far from my Spanish goals I ended up, I’m doubtful of writing French poetry any time soon). But on an actual personal level, I feel pretty unaccomplished this year (and here’s where all the other parents stand up and say “welcome to the club”). I didn’t write much and almost all that I did was in February, read half as many books as I wanted, watched two-thirds of the movies (and some of those were repeats), exercised some early in the year but basically gave up in the last several months and didn’t advance much on the bilingual front (which isn’t entirely true, last time I logged into Duolingo, I was 10% fluent but it’s still way behind my goal).

One of the benefits of tracking specifically the goals as well as having the same goals over multiple years is that you can compare the progress. Were things better in 2016 than 2015? Yes, mostly. I learned significantly more Spanish, exercised moderately more and read more books. I wrote less in 2016, at least from a public production stand point and watched 2 fewer movies. But overall, 2016 got better than 2015.

I did just finish reading At The Existentialist Cafe which is a broad sweep of the philosophers who created existentialism including Simone de Beauvoir who my daughter’s middle name comes from. It is a fantastic look into a time when major magazines covered philosophers and their work, examining the impacts and the celebrity of these thinkers, i.e. the opposite of 2016 where major magazines covered an unbelievably terrible election and totally missed the entire thing. Existentialism focuses on the actual events of life, the things as they are when the layers of crap have been stripped away. It also focuses on freedom, a fundamental characteristic of being human and the implications that characteristic has on our every day life. Reading this book, which examines both the men and women who developed existentialism and the time period from which they came (WW I through about 1960), it was striking how much attention in the actual world was paid to a philosophy and how much influence that philosophy had in art and literature and even politics.

Man is condemned to be free. Because once he is thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. Jean-Paul Sartre

We don’t often think of freedom as a condemnation, do we? And yet, the constant need to make decisions brings upon us an anxiety that many of us find too difficult to deal with. Freedom isn’t all fun and games. It is this constant interplay between choice and anxiety that existentialism focuses on. It’s interesting to think about freedom as a burden but it is because with choice comes consequences. Don’t want to exercise? Have fun with heart disease or back surgery. Don’t want to read because Facebook seems more fun today? Don’t be upset when you aren’t any smarter than you were yesterday.

But choose well and your life is at least 75% yours, probably as long as you don’t have something terrible happen. Obviously there are limits to what control you actually have over your own life but everyone has some control. Sartre argued for the concept of authenticity, of being true to what it was that you are. Here’s a quote from the book:

If this sounds difficult and unnerving, it’s because it is. Sartre does not deny that the need to keep making decisions brings constant anxiety. He heightens this anxiety by pointing out that what you do really matters. You should make your choices as though you were choosing on behalf of the whole of humanity, taking the entire burden of responsibility for how the human race behaves. If you avoid this responsibility by fooling yourself that you are the victim of circumstance or of someone else’s bad advice, you are failing to meet the demands of human life and choosing a fake existence, cut off from your own ‘authenticity’.

As I read this, I thought about all the times I made a choice that was not only bad for me but also bad for the whole of humanity. Certainly, this is a heavy burden but imagine the changes in the world if we even slightly considered humanity when we made decisions.

This battle with anxiety in order to achieve authenticity is fundamental to existentialism and the more I think about it, to human existence. I tracked all my goals this year as I often do. But I didn’t track how many times I mindlessly opened Facebook or Twitter because it was an easier choice than picking up a hard book or writing code. I made excuses: I only have 15 minutes, the baby may wake up, I’ve had 3 beers – but excuses are just that, a way to escape from the fact that choices were made that lessened authenticity in my life.

So while 2016 was way behind on the goal scale, perhaps things can change in 2017 assuming the world doesn’t end in WWW III or the zombie apocalypse. This is the only life we have, regardless of what you think happens when it ends. Existentialism teaches us to focus on our choices and to choose a path to our greatest authenticity.

At the end of the book, there is a discussion of existentialism and technology. Interestingly enough, Heidegger wrote extensively on this topic and it seems even more relevant today in a world where our lives seem to be almost entirely lived out online (irony duly noted that I’m saying this in an online forum). The Internet (and I’m thinking specifically of Facebook and Twitter here) removes depth and authenticity from everything. When I post to Facebook, I do so on a platform created specifically to profit from my data. Once I do that, that experience is no longer mine, it belongs to the “Other” from existentialism, the concept of that which is outside ourselves. A post, a picture, a note on Facebook reduces me to the sum of those things and removes context and depth and privacy from my actual self. It steals my authenticity except that it was my choice, made freely, and thus is actually me reducing my authenticity voluntarily.

In 2017, I want to spend more time with my daughter and less time with my phone. I want to spend more time with my wife and less time with social media. I want to spend more time with my parents and in-laws and less time giving away my authenticity. I want to spend far more time in the outdoors, teaching my daughter about nature and the world and less time wondering if anyone liked something I said on a platform that uses me as the product. These are things that will increase my authenticity. They will increase my intellectual abilities and not make me feel weirdly anxious after doing them.

So my concrete goals for 2017 remain mostly unchanged from 2016: 120 hours of Spanish work (down from 180 in 2016, 50 accomplished in 2016), read 18 books (9 read in 2016), watch 12 movies (9 in 2016), exercise 180 times (115 in 2016) and write 26 things (down from 52 in 2016, 8 accomplished in 2016).

More specifically, I want everything I do to increase my authenticity. So for January, I’m going to start an experiment. All content will be placed here on AEIS instead of Facebook or Twitter. I’m not sure that’s totally an improvement but for at least one month, I won’t be the product. I won’t be driven by likes or retweets or any other false metric for authenticity. Additionally, we as a family are going to take a technological Sabbath every Sunday as well. We will focus on each other, our extended families, our house, our animals, our experiences and we will not be online. We will produce and create, not consume and absorb. We will read an actual newspaper and play actual games and go on actual walks and hikes.

Here’s to a stronger, blessed 2017. I hope your year turns out to be everything you choose it to be.

Books read in 2016
Thirteen Moons
The Black Swan
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy
The Age of Unreason
Star Island
Then We Came To The End
Waiting for Godot
The War of Art
At the Existentialist’s Cafe

Movies seen in 2016
It Happened One Night
Herb And Dorothy
Ocean’s Eleven
The Long Hot Summer
Secret Lives of Pets
Tomorrow Never Dies
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation