Information is not knowledge

It’s hard for a book lover to convince a non-reader to pick up the habit. You nag and rave and persuade them and they finally probably accept out of politeness. So you lend them a favourite and wait an impatient week and ask them how it went, and you get the familiar list of dreaded responses.

  • “I lost interest after the first few pages.”
  • “The book was too long.”
  • “The book was too dry.
  • “I could have learnt the same thing by watching a tutorial or two on YouTube.”

Worse, with those annoying little phones constantly buzzing around us, there’s a steady drip of mindless dopamine hit after hit. The apps on these phones are backed by billion dollar companies that are hugely invested in manipulating you to use their app every moment of the day. Over time, your brain rewires itself to respond to that Pavlovian buzz. Unlock, swipe, like, and repeat.

After years of this brainwashing, how can you expect someone to pick a 400-page book and read it with concentration for more than fifteen minutes at a time? We have enough ‘light’ entertainment to suck our time away.

How, then, to convince some one of the value of deep reading? This article makes a good attempt. Yes it’s long. That’s partially the point. Complex ideas cannot be expressed in tweet-sized chunks. Reading deeply creates a richer self by letting one think through and form one’s own understanding.

In any case, convincing others may be futile. I see a value in reducing social media distractions and committing to deep reading sessions, so I shape my habits accordingly.

Suggestions

  • Install the Daywise app. It intercepts and hides all your notifications, and releases them thrice a day. You don’t get constant interruptions all through the day (apart from exceptions that you can set, like 1:1 messages).
  • Read to your kids. Take if from someone who’s earliest memories are of walking to a library with his brother and mom. This will create a life-long and deeply rewarding hobby.

Notes on the book “Flow”

Title: Flow
Author: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

I’ve long been interested in Active vs Passive hobbies, why one is better than the others, and so on. Here’s a nice reddit post that captures a similar mindset around gaming. So reading Flow gave a lot of clarity to these ideas.

Any programmer who’s been ‘in the zone’ and loses sense of time knows the feeling of ‘Flow’ and that is the subject of this book — Deep hobbies that improve one’s self.

The author categorizes activities with good ‘flow’ if they meet these criteria:

  • A challenging activity that requires skills
  • Requires concentration
  • Has clear goals and immediate feedback
  • Removes awareness of everyday frustrations
  • Exercises control over ones own actions
  • Concern for self disappears
  • Sense of time altered

Here are some sections from the book that caught my attention:

“The wisdom of the mystics, of the Sufi, of the great yogis, or of the Zen masters might have been excellent in their own time — and might still be the best, if we lived in those times and in those cultures. But when transplanted to contemporary California those systems lose quite a bit of their original power. They contain elements that are specific to their original contexts, and when these accidental components are not distinguished from what is essential, the path to freedom gets overgrown by brambles of meaningless mumbo-jumbo. Ritual form wins over substance, and the seeker is back where he started.”

“Pleasure is an important component of the quality of life, but by itself it does not bring happiness. Sleep, rest, food, and sex provide restorative homeostatic experiences that return consciousness to order after the needs of the body intrude and cause psychic entropy to occur. But they do not produce psychological growth. They do not add complexity to the self. Pleasure helps to maintain order, but by itself cannot create new order in consciousness.”

“In today’s world we have come to neglect the habit of writing because so many other media of communication have taken its place. Telephones and tape recorders, computers and fax machines are more efficient in conveying news. If the only point of writing were to transmit information, then it would deserve to become obsolete. But the point of writing is to create information, not simply to pass it along.”

The middle quote is a satisfactory answer to my question on what differentiates mindless passive hobbies from effort-intensive active ones: the latter create better versions of ourselves.

Ten gigs of worthless PDFs

So, about a year back I covered my bookmarking workflow. In short, I was using Evernote and Google Drive to store PDF versions of links that interested me. One, it prevented link rot in case the site went down at a later point. Two, I wanted full text search over the content of the pages, not just the title and tags.

I eventually stopped using Evernote because its web interface is rubbish. I used a tool I wrote to download PDFs for around 2000 bookmarks and dumped them in Google Drive. That folder is now reaching 10GB in size.

I’ve now come to the depressing realization that none of this effort was of any use. When I need to dig through this archive and recollect something, there is so much noise that I don’t immediately get what I’m looking for. Or, as it often turns out, I hadn’t archived that page at all because I didn’t think I’d need it later.

The few PDFs that are actually useful to my reading style are the weekly LWN editions and other magazine-style PDFs like CACM, because I can save them to an ‘Incoming’ folder and read them at my leisure in my commute. But general web bookmarking doesn’t seem to be useful here.

So I’m changing tools again, to another old favourite: Diigo. It has a decent interface, supports full text search, and has a nice outliner tool to organize links and take notes. No idea if this plan will stick for long, as nothing in this area ever does, but let’s see.