Readwise

Readwise is a web app that hints at more value than I first saw when I signed up for the free trial a month ago. Tomorrow I need to decide whether to pay for it, hence these thoughts.

I originally signed up because Readwise is able to ingest highlights I’ve made using my Amazon Kindle. Turns out there are nearly 2000 of them. That by itself is intriguing but not all that interesting. My hope was I could use Readwise to somehow mine those highlights for value. It also lets one collect highlights from other places, even those you make on web pages you are reading. That could be extremely valuable—I spend a lot of time reading web pages for more than entertainment, and could easily see myself highlighting those as habitually as I do my Kindle readings. But, no surprise, I haven’t made the time to explore Readwise’s capabilities beyond uploading my Kindle highlights.

But! One of the things Readwise does automatically (unless you tell it not to, or to do it differently) is send you a daily email containing five of your highlights. And so for 30 days I’ve been gently reminded of some of the best bits in what I’ve read … and I find it really helpful. Occasionally there will be a surprise, some gem I once noticed but forgot about. More often it’s a concentrated dose of a larger chunk of wisdom I once read and approved and ingested, and when it’s brought to mind again I spend some profitable time reflecting on the wisdom, and whether I still agree (usually I do), and what if anything I’ve done with it since our first encounter.

Here’s a sample collection, which I received two days ago:

The Road to Character by David Brooks
The tender character-building strategy is based on the idea that we can’t always resist our desires, but we can change and reorder our desires by focusing on our higher loves. (Location 1203)

To Change the World by James Davison Hunter
By late antiquity, as Brown has shown, the Christian church absorbed the Roman paideia into Christian catechesis. In this way, paideia became a preparatory school of Christian character. (Location 1127)

Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be by Cornelius Plantinga Jr.
…intelligence and education are only raw materials for good judgment. The same is true of knowledge, attentiveness, and discernment. Using them, a person must also estimate, appraise, and infer. She must conclude, choose, and act — all in a way that is firmly based in reality and relatively undistorted by personal whim and bias. (Location 1838)

Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard
Being dead to self is the condition where the mere fact that I do not get what I want does not surprise or offend me and has no control over me. (Location 1283)

Post-Christendom by Stuart Murray Williams and Nigel Wright
Christendom was a totalitarian culture: anyone challenging its beliefs or causing dissension was perceived as undermining society and dealt with severely. (Location 1079)

All good thoughts, and on certain days I could see myself being in the mood to go back to one or another of those books and read through that section again.

So I’m thinking about extending it another month at least—I’m pretty good at cancelling subscriptions, so it’s a small risk if I turn out not to want it, and having a bit of money on the line will likely motivate me to explore the rest of Readwise and actively decide whether it would be a useful tool for me.

Opinionlessness

In his latest newsletter Alan Jacobs writes this:

At the moment I have fewer opinions that I have ever had in my life. When I see all the people online and in print giving advice and instructions and guidance, I think, Do these people really know all the stuff they think they know? By contrast, I seem to be moving asymptotically to the point of not believing that I can give anyone advice about anything at all.

Me too! Jacobs is a few years younger than me, so perhaps it’s a function of age, or at least of having steadily reassessed what one actually knows for a long time, something Jacobs has done and I like to think I have done as well.

He continues with this:

But of course, I might experience a sudden reversal any day now and become full of opinions once more. After all, when you write nonfiction you kinda have to have opinions, and be willing to share them. So stay tuned.

Which, as I take his meaning, is good news to a fan like me. But I need to quibble with his use of opinion here. A quibble that was well articulated by Adam Wathan, a software developer I follow on Twitter:

A side effect of this [the Dunning-Kruger effect] is that people with limited experience tend to evangelize their opinions (through tweets, blog posts, conference talks, etc.) more than those with a lot of experience. Be careful which advice you assign merit to.

A framework that I’ve found useful for filtering through the bullshit: Be suspicious of people who talk about how *you* should do things, and pay close attention to people who talk about what works for *them*.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a much-abused concept these days—I learned about it ten years ago when Errol Morris wrote the article mentioned in the link, but it’s only recently that I’ve seen it bandied about, I suppose because citing it lends some expert weight to a common folk observation, that people who speak with authority on a matter are often way more ignorant of it than those who qualify or don’t say anything at all, because it is that very ignorance which generates the (baseless) confidence to speak with authority.

But we don’t need to cite an academic study to bolster Adam Wathan’s point—pay far less attention to opinions, no matter how forcefully expressed, than to accounts of relevant concrete experience.

Back to the quibble—perhaps Alan Jacobs considers his writing to be opinion-filled, but if so they are backed by (and qualified by) concrete experience to the point where I want a different word, one that would distinguish what he writes from what the pontificating blowhards are offering me.

And even if we stick with the word opinion, I share his sense of opinionlessness—I can hardly write anything at this point, even to share my own experiences, because I worry about unduly influencing the reader—my own convictions are more tentative than ever, and I’m not confident that I can convey that tentativeness in my writing.

But it’s something I continue to work towards. So stay tuned!

One, Ten, One Hundred

I don’t know who among my readers might benefit from this recommendation, but I strongly endorse the One, Ten, One Hundred project and suggest you take a quick look to see if it might interest you.

Briefly, a video hosting company called Wistia engaged a video production company to produce three 2-minute videos promoting their new software product. The twist is that they wanted each video produced for a different budget: one thousand, ten thousand, and a hundred thousand dollars.

Wistia has long used an in-house production team to generate a steady stream of promotional videos, intending to inspire customers to create their own (and host them on Wistia, of course). But this time around they asked a top-flight agency to test the limits of what could be done at different budget levels.

The result is very clever, very entertaining, and extremely instructive. I have watched all the videos closely, starting with the (short) promos and gradually being sucked into the (long) behind-the-scenes documentaries. They taught me so much that I expect to watch them again, several times.

And I suggest you approach them the same way. The three promos are only 6 minutes total and quite fun, so I recommend those wholeheartedly. If you’re curious to know more, move on to the 22-minute Episode 2 which explains how the $1000 promo was created; you’ll learn a lot, including whether you want to commit an additional 30 minutes to learning about the $100,000 promo and (gulp!) 42 minutes for the $100,000 promo. For those I can only give a qualified recommendation—if you find yourself burning with curiosity about why the $10,000 version looks so much better, or why the $100,000 reaches television-level quality (but maybe not worth the additional $90,000) these final two videos will explain it all, and you’ll find it time well spent.

For your convenience, here’s a link to the $1000 two-minute promo (the other two will play afterwards, if you let them):

The $1,000 Soapbox Ad – One, Ten, One Hundred

Constructive paranoia

This short essay by Jared Diamond clarified something for me I sort of knew already:

This calculation illustrates the biggest single lesson that I’ve learned from 50 years of field work on the island of New Guinea: the importance of being attentive to hazards that carry a low risk each time but are encountered frequently.

He opens with the example of falling in the shower—a low risk at any given time, but considering how many times you shower the overall risk is surprisingly high. The example is so familiar it doesn’t have much power, but he goes on to another that drove the point home for me:

I first became aware of the New Guineans’ attitude toward risk on a trip into a forest when I proposed pitching our tents under a tall and beautiful tree. To my surprise, my New Guinea friends absolutely refused. They explained that the tree was dead and might fall on us.

Yes, I had to agree, it was indeed dead. But I objected that it was so solid that it would be standing for many years. The New Guineans were unswayed, opting instead to sleep in the open without a tent.

I thought that their fears were greatly exaggerated, verging on paranoia. In the following years, though, I came to realize that every night that I camped in a New Guinea forest, I heard a tree falling. And when I did a frequency/risk calculation, I understood their point of view.

Consider: If you’re a New Guinean living in the forest, and if you adopt the bad habit of sleeping under dead trees whose odds of falling on you that particular night are only 1 in 1,000, you’ll be dead within a few years. In fact, my wife was nearly killed by a falling tree last year, and I’ve survived numerous nearly fatal situations in New Guinea.

Diamond calls the New Guinean attitude (which he also adopts) “constructive paranoia”, a wariness about casually incurring unnecessary risk. He describes it as hypervigilance, a habitual attitude that he doesn’t allow to veer into obsessiveness:

My hypervigilance doesn’t paralyze me or limit my life: I don’t skip my daily shower, I keep driving, and I keep going back to New Guinea. I enjoy all those dangerous things. But I try to think constantly like a New Guinean, and to keep the risks of accidents far below 1 in 1,000 each time.

As I wind down this life I find myself tweaking my practices in this way all the time. It doesn’t cost me much to take measures to help prevent a fall—e.g. I started wearing house shoes instead of socks in the house (and find that I actually prefer the extra stability, not to mention the warmth!)—but the cost to others if I fell badly could be enormous—so why not?

Just yesterday morning was a good example, when we had our first snow of the season the night before. It was only an inch or so, and the temperature was in the mid-20s, something that my northern readers will laugh at. But down here they aren’t so great about clearing the roads, and icy spots would be found here and there. If I had needed to go to a job or an important appointment I would have gone without worry. But all I needed to do was go to the gym, something I do every morning, and skipping a day wouldn’t hurt anything. Now, I’m a creature of habit, partly driven by the fear that breaking a chain out of laziness or such may be a slippery slope towards failure. So ten or twenty years ago I probably would have worried more that my wariness was just an excuse, and made the trip just to keep from indulging myself. But constructive paranoia is dominant in me now, and I didn’t think twice about not going. As proven by the fact that it was in the low teens this morning, very cold for here, and the van windows were iced enough to need 10-15 minutes of work—but it had been clear and sunny yesterday so the roads were fine, and I didn’t think twice about braving the cold, chipping off the ice, and driving to the gym.

Coffee Blends

Until today I sort of understood the concept of blending coffee to create something different—at least I knew there were blends I really liked, and took the producer’s word that it was possible to intentionally mix different varieties to create a particular taste. But I couldn’t imagine knowing enough about coffee flavors and how they might mix to do my own blending.

Instead, I’ve been roasting a single variety at a time and just adjusting the roast level to see what I like best. I knew that I liked mine on the darker side, but a bit of reading explained to me how the flavors change as the roast gets darker—flavors distinct to the variety are reduced, as well as acidity (not a good word for it, refers to the tanginess of the brew)—and so I started with batches that were lighter than I was used to buying, and thought about the differences. Tanginess was definitely more present, and it took a bit of adjusting to appreciate it, but I did. And as I edged the roast darker, I could taste it going away, with the other flavors I was more used to coming on board.

At the same time I was getting closer to a level I didn’t want to go past—the final stages of roasting can go pretty quickly, where adding 30 seconds can take you into black crackling smokiness (which some people like!)—so I was trying to figure out precisely when to stop based on look of the beans, smell of the exhaust, and time elapsed, trying to develop a roasting profile I could reliably repeat.

I usually do two half-pound batches in a session, which takes a little less than an hour. The two batches need to be timed differently to reach the same roast level, since the first batch heats the machine. This past Sunday I roasted the first batch, dumped it into a colander to cool, and saw that it was a little lighter than I wanted. And the second batch turned out a little darker than I wanted. So take the average, right? Mix them together and you’ll get the flavor you want.

Well, no. And I should have known this because I had read awhile back about a place that sells a Harlequin Roast, a “a combination of multiple roast points”. As they explain,

Do you wish you could enjoy the toasty richness of a medium-dark roast without losing the delicate sweetness of a lighter roast? With Harlequin Roast, you can have the best of both worlds.

That’s exactly what I had created. I added most of the second batch (which was a bit larger than the first) to the can holding the first batch, put on the lid and shook it up. Then I put the rest of the second, darker batch (a couple of servings worth) into a ziploc bag.

I generally let the coffee rest for two days before brewing it, so yesterday I brewed a cup from just the second, darker batch. Good, but yes, a little beyond what I wanted—and no acidity at all. And this morning I brewed a cup from the harlequin blend. And the flavor was of course not an average at all, but a mixture of both the dark roast fullness and bitterness together with the acidity of the lighter roast, with neither as overwhelming if I had brewed one batch or the other.

Looking at it now, it’s the most obvious thing in the world. But I didn’t really get it until I drank a cup of the blend I had created. And it inspires me to now go looking for single flavors that might be pleasant to add, creating a personal blend.

But not this year! It’s finally turned cold, and I do my roasting out in the unheated garage with the doors open, and I like it to be 60 degrees out or more while I’m sitting there. I could tough it out, or find an arrangement that was tolerable. But as I’ve said in the past I try not to be a slave to my preferences, even innocuous ones, and putting the roaster on the shelf for a few months while drinking storebought seems like a good opportunity to practice that. There are plenty of years of home roasted coffee to look forward to, and I think that first roasting on a nice spring day will bring its own sort of pleasure.

Roasting coffee at home

I’ve been a heavy coffee drinker for a long time. My relationship with coffee is complicated—I enjoy good coffee a lot, and have invested much time over the years learning about the chain of events leading up to a cup of it. But I prefer not to be a slave to any desire, and so my love of coffee has been an occasional target for disciplinary action—it’s a relatively benign habit, but one I’ve tried to break now and then just to see if I could. The bad news is that I’m heavily dependent on massive infusions of caffeine, either from 45 years of practice or (I suspect) due to natural lethargy, so I always come back to it. The good news is that it doesn’t seem to be health-threatening in any way I care about.

For a few years around the turn of the century I roasted my own coffee, but after burning through a couple of $150 roasters I went back to store bought. Still, home roasted was far superior to anything I was willing to pay for, and (except for the cost of burnt-out roasters) was even cheaper than the acceptable stuff I was buying. So I occasionally thought about buying a durable home roaster—then checked the prices and thought again.

This summer, after nine years of managing the Wernick Method network of bluegrass jamming teachers, I ended my time there and moved on to another job (something else I should write about here). It was a great job, an amicable parting, and I never felt unappreciated. But this Saturday, two months after my last day, I felt really appreciated! I was dropping off the older kids at Chris’s homestead so they could do an afternoon’s work around the farm, and he told me I needed to come inside before I left. Which I did, to find his kitchen table covered with several gifts, and this in the center:

It is a Gene Cafe home coffee roaster, exactly the sort of quality roaster I had admired but would never have bought for myself. It comes highly recommended by my longtime favorite source of green coffee beans, Sweet Maria’s, both for its durability and for its serviceability (all parts are for sale and easily replaceable). The other gifts included nearly thirty pounds of green coffee, two personalized coffee mugs with the Wernick Method logo, and a packet of cards and letters from Wernick Method teachers thanking me for my service and wishing me well. What a great surprise!

I’ve cleared a spot in the garage, roasted my first two batches of beans, and this morning brewed a cup from each. Wonderful stuff! And to honor the spirit of the gift I plan to set aside any qualms about becoming insufferable and invest some serious hobbyist effort into experimenting with the different variables and techniques that coffee aficionados love to play with and argue about.

Climate change

People are more comfortable than ever inserting political asides into their non-political work, and so I read through a lot of stuff I find mildly irritating, not because the politics are different than mine—which would be difficult, since I don’t have any—but because the observations usually seem like received wisdom, parroted without much thought. Occasionally I’m brought up short by a passage that is especially unself-aware, like this one:

Pretty much everyone in my extended on- and offline social circles understands the dire outlook of our climate crisis, but very few go beyond just acknowledging it. For the vast majority of people I know it’s business as usual. Given that we all know what’s happening, why aren’t we all writing angry letters and marching the streets?

I won’t link to this because I certainly don’t want to make fun of the writer, who has at least turned his attention to something substantial and thought it worth writing about. And I will often write something like this too … which is why I re-read what I write to see how the pieces fits together, watching for mismatches. I could have written the above, but I would look back and see “dire outlook” and then make sure that the rest of what I had written was in proper proportion. Writing angry letters and marching the streets? How much worse than dire do things need to get before we do something substantial?

In contrast, I think this New Yorker piece by Jonathan Franzen is well worth spending some time with. Franzen thinks that the time is long past to address climate change—he puts the point of no return somewhere in the late 1970s. And he thinks that acting like it is still possible to fix the problem is a distraction which prevents us from dealing effectively with what will inevitably happen.

I agree wholeheartedly with the spirit of Franzen’s piece, and with much of the detail. I’m on board with his recommendation, namely that we continue to do what we can to correct the problem, not because it’s possible but because it’s the correct way to behave. I’m a little bothered by how he spells that out—I think he is still too focused on the idea that we should behave a certain way because of the benefits that will accrue to us. In this case the benefits will not involve undoing the damage, just collateral benefits that are still worthwhile. My alternative is to give up weighing benefits altogether, and focus entirely on determining the correct response to the circumstances we find ourselves in, then proceeding to do that, regardless of benefits or disadvantages.

For me this has largely been a matter of looking back, trying to figure out exactly where we went off the rails—not in hopes of turning back the clock, but simply identifying and understanding the deeper impulses that led us to the bad choices, as a prelude to figuring out and then pursuing another, more grounded way to live. And the harder I look, the less I have to say and to share, because the more personalized the answers. I can’t recommend that anyone follow my path, or even look hard at the things that led me to follow it—there are plenty of equally important things I chose not to look at, ones that would have led me in very different directions, and maybe those are the ones for you.

But if you’ve done the looking for yourself and gone a different way, maybe we can compare notes at some point.