Monthly Archives: April 2013

“Sadness is a Lucky Thing to Feel”

Over the past couple years, I’ve become a huge Louis C.K. fan. I’m almost done with Season 2 of his show Louie, which is amazing. 20 minute episodes packed with comedy and real insight.

In his recent Rolling Stone interview (paywall), he says this:

I don’t mind feeling sad. Sadness is a lucky thing to feel. I have the same amount of happy and sad as anybody else. I just don’t mind the sad part as much; it’s amazing to have those feelings. I’ve always felt that way. I think that looking at how random and punishing life can be, it’s a privilege. There’s so much to look at, there’s so much to observe, and there’s a lot of humor in it. I’ve had sad times, I’ve had some hard times, and I have a lot of things to be sad about, but I’m pretty happy right now.

Agreed. Observing how you feel, not judging it or immediately trying to change it, is a powerful habit to develop. It’s the lynchpin of the Vipassana meditation I practice.

“Negative” emotions like sadness can deepen you. Suffering deepens you. These feelings can be instructive. They can inspire empathy. They can be darkly hilarious. And ultimately, they’re impermanent. As Goenka says, all sensations arise, pass away. Arise, pass away.

Wise people seem to know this: when bad shit happens to you, experience it. Don’t run from it. Don’t run from grief or pain or suffering. Accept it. Observe it. And then observe it leave your body, over time.

My 2007 post Do Only Negative Emotions Count for Depth? covers this theme, and the comments there are excellent. In the five years since, I’m still not sure whether joy really stretches and deepens you. But I am as convinced as ever that sadness does.

“When have you felt really sad?” is an interesting question to ask someone.

How to Improve E-Books

I love print books: the way they feel in my hands, the ease with which I can skim / flip ahead or flip back, and my ability to scribble notes in the margins. I also love e-books for traveling, and highlighting sentences when a pen isn’t handy.

Whether it’s print or electronic, I like the focus reading requires. The singular, focused stimulation of text, with no distractions — uniquely suitable for deep thoughts. So I’m wary when e-book proponents suggest video, animation, sound, and the like — we already have plenty of media objects with those characteristics. Let books be.

That said, there are obvious improvements that could be done without harming the immersive experience. Kane Hsieh identifies several:

The problem with ebooks as they exist now is the lack of user experience innovation. Like the first television shows that only played grainy recordings of theater shows, the ebook is a new medium that has yet to see any true innovation, and resorts to imitating an old medium. This is obvious in skeuomorphic visual cues of ebook apps. Designers have tried incredibly hard to mimic the page-turns and sound effects of a real book, but these ersatz interactions satisfy a bibliophile as much as a picture of water satisfies a man in the desert.

There is no reason I need to turn fake pages. If I’m using a computer to read, I should be able to leverage the connectivity and processing power of that computer to augment my reading experience: ebooks should allow me to read on an infinite sheet, or I should be able to double blink to scroll. I should be able to practice language immersion by replacing words and phrases in my favorite books with other languages, or highlight sections to send to Quora or Mechanical Turk for analysis. There are endless possibilities for ebooks to make reading more accessible and immersvie than ever, but as long as ebooks try to be paper books, they will remain stuck in an uncanny valley of disappointment.

Another misstep in the growth of ebooks was the complete incompatability of previous libraries. People who have amassed libraries of paper books over many years were left behind by ebook distributors. Unlike music or photographs, there is no way to migrate an old book library into a new one. Over the past decade, I’ve been able to convert my tapes to CDs, my CDs to MP3s, and now import my MP3s into Spotify and listen to music over the cloud. Yet, if I want to read my favorite books on my Nexus 7, I have to pay for a separate ebook version, assuming one even exists.

It makes sense to have a third tier of book: paper + digital access. I am more than willing to pay a little extra for a book if it means that I have a copy for my library shelves and I can read it on a tablet on the subway. Amazon in particular is well positioned to implement this pricing structure. Better yet, why not a subscription service? $20/mo for all the books I can read? Unfortunately, as of now, the only options for paper book fans that want to use ebooks for convenience are to pay twice, or maintain two disjoint book libraries. Like its content, ebook pricing models cling to the past….

So ebooks, stop trying to be paper books; break free of the page and the book paradigms and realize your potential as a fully digital medium. As for me, and readers like me, you will never replace our beloved paper books – but if done correctly, I will be proud to own a library of ebooks. Until then, I only use you to avoid carrying books like IQ84 in my backpack.

Book Review: The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman

Oliver Burkeman, who writes a great column / blog titled This Column Will Change Your Life, has a new book out: The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.

In his book, he argues against an optimism-focused, goal-fixated, positive-thinking approach to achieving happiness. Instead, he praises stoicism, meditation, keeping vague goals, tough love, and pursuing a ‘negative’ path to happiness.antidote-240

It’s a delight to read. Oliver doesn’t cite the same studies of everyone else — he commits real acts of journalism, traveling out to meet people, doing a 10 day meditation retreat himself, drawing upon new and old books alike. And rather than obsess only about the idea of happiness, Oliver riffs on a broad set of “deep” life questions.

He leads a thoughtful discussion about our fear of death and the various “immortality projects” we take on as a result.

He says our attachment to goal-setting can be explained by our inability to deal with the anxiety produced by uncertainty. (I’ve written before about the fact that I’m not an especially goal-oriented person, despite high ambition.)

He suggests that thinking through the worst case scenario in your mind — grappling in your head with possible negative outcomes from a given endeavor — may be more productive than soaking up self-help positivity maxims.

He cites Paul Pearsall’s effort to get the concept of “awe” accepted as one of the primary human emotions, alongside love, joy, anger, fear, and sadness. “Unlike all the other emotions, awe is all of our feelings rolled into one intense one. You can’t peg it as just happy, sad, afraid, angry, or hopeful. Instead, it’s a matter of experiencing all these feelings and yet, paradoxically, experiencing no clearly identifiable, or at least any easily describable, emotion.” (Awe, to me, is the core emotion of a secular spiritual practice that emphasizes nature/the outdoors.)

He also quotes others throughout. For example, on trusting uncertainty:

“To be a good human is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control, that can lead you to be shattered in very extreme circumstances for which you were not to blame. That says something very important about the ethical life: that it is based on a trust in the uncertainty, and on a willingness to be exposed. It’s based on being more like a plant than a jewel: something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from that fragility.”

— Martha Nussbaum, Univ of Chicago Law School

 On love and vulnerability:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung, and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no-one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with your hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.

— C.S. Lewis

The most important characteristic of the book is its tone: it’s not bubbling with sunny, practical solutions for building a meaningful life. It’s a darker view of the human experience. But he does not employ said darkness as a cheap way to seem sophisticated — he’s subtle, and thus worth listening to.

Bottom Line: Oliver Burkeman writes about everyday philosophy and the wisdom of the good life. I believe he is underrated. I recommend his book.

Book Review: The Expats

A great CIA thriller set in Europe, which I conveniently read while in Paris: The Expats by Chris Pavone.

Mostly it’s a plot-driven page turner, but there were some juicy quotes, which I re-produce below:

Kate was taken aback by this excessive garrulousness. People who were too outgoing made her suspicious. She couldn’t help but presume that all the loud noise was created to hide quiet lies. And the more distinct a surface personality appeared, the more Kate was convinced that it was a veneer.

Conversations with Julia often became much more personal than Kate wanted. Julia wore her need for intimacy on her sleeve, practically begging Kate to open up to her. Despite Julia’s bluff of outgoing confidence, she was tremendously insecure. She’d been unlucky in love, unconfident in relationships, and uncomfortable in intimacy. She’d been lonely her whole life, much like Kate, until she’d chanced into Bill. But she was still operating on lonely-person principles, still worried that her happiness could be wrenched away at any moment, for reasons out of her control.

She was worried — no, it was beyond the uncertainty of worry; it was awareness — that this would cross some line in their marriage, a line that no one acknowledged until you were there on its precipice. You know the lines are there, you feel them: the things you don’t discuss. The sexual fantasies. The flirtations with other people. The deep-seated distrusts, misgivings, resentments. You go about your business, as far away from these lines as possible, pretending they’re not there. So when you eventually find yourself at one of these lines, your toe inching over, it’s not only shocking and horrifying, it’s banal. Because you’ve always been aware that the lines were there, where you were trying with all your might not to see them, knowing that sooner or later you would.

All people have secrets. Part of being human is having secrets, and being curious about other people’s secrets. Dirty fetishes and debilitating fascinations and shameful defeats and ill-begotten triumphs, humiliating selfishness and repulsive inhumanity. The horrible things that people have thought and done, the lowest points in their lives.

Chinese Prison Torture, 2013 Edition

(That said, credits in World of Warcraft are valuable enough that Chinese prison guards reportedly force convicts to perform monotonous tasks within the game for 12-hour stretches at a time, building up credits which can then be sold for many times the guards’ official salary.)

That’s a parenthetical in Felix Salmon’s excellent discussion of the Bitcoin bubble and the future of currencies in general.

Subtle Inaccuracies and Reader Trust

The most recent Vanity Fair has a long piece on Facebook and their new algorithims and processes for serving better ads. In it, there’s this paragraph:

Moreover, the company has created a computer framework that allows it to constantly revise the Facebook site. At any time of day, hundreds of different versions of Facebook are running on the Internet—with a changed color here, a moved button there—and the user response to each variation is measured. And the same is done with advertising. Through what executives call A/B tests, a company can run different ads at the same time, have Facebook engineers measure the response, then ditch whichever ones had less of an impact.

Vanity Fair is a general interest publication, so it’s fine that they explain A/B tests to the uninitiated. But the piece loses credibility with a single phrase: “…what executives call A/B tests..” Wait, did Facebook execs invent A/B tests? No way. The sentence should have read: “Through what’s called A/B tests…” so as not to imply that A/B testing is in any way unique to Facebook.

It’s a tiny word thing. But it caused me pause, and made me not trust the rest of the article in terms of insight. To be sure, had the thrust of the piece been a profile of an exec or an examination of the company’s public policy efforts or any number of other things — it’d be a forgivable slip up. But it in fact centers on the company’s ability to serve targeted ads and monetize user behavior, and the A/B testing point is held up as evidence of innovation. And the author subtly overstates the newness and interestingness of that point, which conveniently supports his broader thesis. I ask myself, “What else could he be getting wrong?” and switch from reading to skimming.

Quick Impressions of Paris, 2013 Edition

Some quick, mostly banal impressions after a week spent hanging out with a couple good friends in Paris:

  • As a general point about travel, I prefer nature and outdoors to old buildings, churches, and museums. I am in awe when absorbing a tremendous nature scene, whereas being in the presence a church with great historical meaning doesn’t do much for me. But still, it’s hard to complain about Paris as a city. It’s an A-list destination for a reason: beautiful, functional, full of pretty people, and super easy to get around in.
  • Everything felt small for my oversized body. The chairs at the cafes, the tables at the cafes, the hotel rooms, the apartments, the cars, the sidewalks.
  • The trip was primarily about spending time with two friends. To that end, I arranged few meetings or other commitments, which allowed me to stay on Pacific Time while there — my friend (from New York) and I went to bed at 4 or 5 AM, and woke up at around 12 noon. I experienced basically no jet lag when I came back.
  • A highlight was going for runs along the Seine river listening to music on my iPod — so beautiful, so relaxing.
  • The Airbnb apartment in the heart of Saint Germaine worked out well. It was my first Airbnb rental as a traveler; I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Bottom Line: Paris in the spring is totally easy. An excellent mini-vacation spending quality time with good friends.

Quote of the Day

“If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” – E.B. White