“The Shallows” by Nicholas Carr


Try reading a book while doing a crossword puzzle; that’s the intellectual environment of the Internet.

The central text in The Shallows is Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, which is about how media shapes the thoughts of its consumer. His dictum “The media is the message,” is a catchy way of saying that the type of media dictates the content so thoroughly that the two are inseparable. For example, read a book and watch a documentary about the same subject. In probably every instance, the book will contain more nuance and the arguments will be more balanced. The message is shaped by the constraints of the medium you’re experiencing them.

Nicholas Carr is worried that ubiquitous connection to the internet is shaping the way we think in harmful ways that we don’t immediately realize. The most convincing example to me was the studies he cites that show how intimately connected our spatial awareness is connected to our general memory, meaning that the more GPS we use to navigate the less we exercise our spatial abilities and thus our general memory atrophies. Also, relying on Google to find facts we can’t instantly remember instead of sifting through our memory banks makes us lazier thinkers in general. It’s too early to see how this new technology plays out—we are all guinea pigs here—but a thoughtful meditation on what this new way of thinking leaves behind is important even if there is no going back.

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The Compassionate Wisdom of Eric Hoffer


Here are some words that struck me, from Eric Hoffer’s collection of short essays In Our Time:

“In the alchemy of man’s soul almost all noble attributes—courage, honor, love, hope, faith, duty, loyalty—can be transmuted into ruthlessness. Compassion also stands apart from the continuous traffic between good and evil within us. Compassion is the antitoxin of the soul: Where there is compassion even the most poisonous impulses remain relatively harmless.

Eric Hoffer (July 25, 1898 – May 21, 1983) is a tragically overlooked 20th century intellectual. He worked as a longshoreman and was self-educated by reading library books in his spare time. Later in life he became a writer. His prose is simple and direct, free of any academic pretension. Although Hoffer was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the last year of his life,  only one of his books, The True Believer, is still in print by a major publisher. President Eisenhower recommended this book to a desperate World War II veteran during his correspondence as president, writing:

“’Faith in a holy cause,’” Hoffer wrote, ‘is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.’”

In this letter, Eisenhower explained to the veteran that Hoffer “points out that dictatorial systems make one contribution to their people which leads them to tend to support such systems—freedom from the necessity of informing themselves and making up their own minds concerning these tremendous complex and difficult questions.” The authoritarian follower, Eisenhower suggested, desired nothing more than insulation from the pressures of a free society.

I see Eric Hoffer as a wizened old man, fluent in the nooks and crannies of human history, from Medieval times to post-World War II America. A keen observer and participant in human nature. Through books he’d lived thousands of years and been witness to as many lives. His published writing is from the last 30 years of his life, looking back in the postwar era and all that came before it and wondering how mankind got to now.

Hoffer was as much a social historian as he was a philosopher, and had much to say on how people lived and thought. Some of his ideas are out of date, and others fall flat, but he writes with a unique sense of curiosity and wonderment.

He’s a bemused but cautious optimist. His philosophy on life was so simple that he believed it made compassion a reflexive instinct:

“It could well be that the adoption of a certain view of life would be fruitful of benevolence and compassion. We feel close to each other when we see ourselves as strangers and outsiders on this planet or see the planet as an island of life in a dark immensity of nothingness. We also draw together when we are aware that night must close in on all living things; that we are condemned to death at birth, and that life is a bus ride to the place of execution. All our squabbling and vying are about seats in the bus, and the ride is over before we know it.

“The Marshmallow Test” by Walter Mischel


When I am asked to summarize the fundamental message from research on self-control, I recall Descartes’s famous dictum cogito, ergo sum—“I think, therefore I am.” What has been discovered about mind, brain, and self-control lets us move from his proposition to “I think, therefore I can change what I am.” Because changing how we think, we can change what we feel, do, and become. If that leads to the question “But can I really change?,” I reply with what George Kelly said to his therapy clients when they kept asking him if they could get control of their lives. He looked straight into their eyes and said, “Would you like to?”


Walter Mischel’s research has an overall positive bent on the topics of self-control and discipline. His most discussed study, the famed Marshmallow Test, has been used by editorialists and blabbermouths all over the world to proclaim all sorts of things that he doesn’t necessarily believe, such as discipline being hardwired at birth. I got the impression that he wrote this book primarily to set the record straight.

Mischel is very clear that the most important determiner of self-control in any given situation is context. The example he uses is Bill Clinton: the man had the discipline to get a Rhodes Scholarship, Yale law degree, and rise to the most powerful political position in the world, all while showing no restraint around junk food or pretty young interns. A large portion of the book is dedicated to describing the myriad of ways available to frame a situation to allow for the most controlled response possible. The book makes you confront the question of how to delay gratification and resist temptation in a world rife with libidinous distractions and mindless entertainments.

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What is a Meme?



In 2015, you’re likely to think of a ‘meme’ as a photo with a funny caption that you see on the internet. The word was actually coined in the mid-70’s by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins to describe any idea that’s worth imitating.

Dawkins came up with the word ‘meme’ by shortening the Greek word mimeme (to imitate) to sound like ‘gene’. Just as the DNA molecule of the gene is the smallest unit of biological replication, the meme is the simplest unit of cultural replication. Some examples are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothing fashions, and ways of making pots or of building arches. The ‘catchiness’ of any given idea over other related ones is the analogue to biological natural selection.

Any idea that transmits culture from one mind to another is a meme: Joining Facebook is a meme. Having a smartphone is a meme. Vegetarianism is a meme. Nationalism is a meme. Racism is a meme. Political correctness is a meme. Philosoraptor is a meme.

Passing on our genes and ideas is the closest we can come to immortality:

I have been a bit negative about memes, but they have their cheerful side as well. When we die there are two things we can leave behind us: genes and memes. We were built as gene machines, created to pass on our genes. But that aspect of us will be forgotten in three generations. Your child, even your grandchild, may bear a resemblance to you, perhaps in facial features, in a talent for music, in the color of her hair. But as each generation passes, the contribution of your genes is halved. It does not take long to reach negligible proportions. Our genes may be immortal but the collection of genes that is any one of us is bound to crumble away. Elizabeth II is a direct descendant of William the Conqueror. Yet it is quite probable that she bears not a single one of the old king’s genes. We should not seek immortality in reproduction.

But if you contribute to the world’s culture, if you have a good idea, compose a tune, invent a sparking plug, write a poem, it may live on, intact, long after your genes have dissolved in the common pool. Socrates may or may not have a gene or two alive in the world today, as G.C. Williams has remarked, but who cares? The meme-complexes of Socrates, Leonardo, Copernicus and Marconi are still going strong.


Art Appreciation: Edvard Munch


The Scream by Edward Munch is one of the most famous paintings ever, but my interest in it was aroused today by this passage from the book I’m reading, The Marshmallow Test by Walter Mischel:

“The ant in Aesop’s fable instinctively knows what it has to do to prepare for the future, and when summer comes it drags off the foods it will need for the winter. But we don’t have the ant’s instincts, and evolution has not yet adapted our brain for dealing concretely with the distant future. We easily become anxious about frightening events that are imminent but rarely visualize the future in vivid, hot terms. Those rose-colored glasses and the feel-good psychological immune system protect us from dwelling on such anxieties. They allow us to avoid focusing on terrifying prospects like cancer, impoverishment, lonely old age, and ill health, and it these anxieties do become vivid, most of us soon self-distract.

In this way, we avoid the anxiety that Freud found in his patients, and that the painter Edvard Munch depicted in The Scream. An icon of anxiety in the modern world, the painting shows a terrified person trembling on a bridge in ominous surroundings, hands cupped against the ears, eyes wide open staring at us from a horror-struck face. Our defenses protect us from lingering too long on such an image, but they also make it unlikely that we’ll behave like provident ants rather than self-indulgent grasshoppers. Consequently, people continue taking all sorts of risks, like eating too much and smoking and drinking too heavily, ignoring the long-term consequences that are far off, uncertain, and easily discounted. The vast majority of Americans arrive at retirement age with funds completely insufficient to maintain anything remotely like the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed. The problem begins with how we naturally think about the future self and how that future self is represented in the brain.

He is overwhelmed, and so he screams.