Non-note-taking

For years now, I’ve been an advocate of note-taking, of marginalia (see here). It started with Ryan Holiday’s reading to lead and Robert Greene’s index card system. Since then, I’ve learned of Montaigne’s tendency to date stamp and summarise his thoughts on a book once he completed it. I’ve read Shane Parrish’s arguments for being a demanding reader. I’ve absorbed diatribes about the importance of progressive summation and compression. Recently, I’ve been thinking that I’ll try out Roam Research for my next non-fiction writing project–the whitepaper is particularly persuasive.

Yet, whilst I’ve always been a low-key advocate of such systems and practices, I’ve always struggled to remain a practitioner. For example, my most recent dead-tree reads are the second volume of Volker Ullrich’s Hitler biography and two of Steven Erikson’s Malazan prequel novels. Both have many folded pages, highlighted passages and scrawled notations. But all three are back on the shelf, notes un-extracted. Before that, over several years, I accumulated roughly eight thousand hand-written index cards. But because I couldn’t be bothered to transcribe them to .txt files, I ditched them–they went in the recycling box, not the bin, which must have been an interesting occurrence for whichever bin (wo)man came across them.

Nowadays, I read a lot on my Kindle. And I don’t do highlights. In part because the Kindle is a tad clunky, but mainly because I wouldn’t know what to do with them. Actually, I do know what to do with them–create a commonplace book, digital or analog. The thing is, I’m just not sure that it’s necessary for me.

No matter the mechanics, no matter my intent or ambition, I remain unable to find a sustainable system for creating a commonplace book. I’ve tried, but nothing takes. I like the enhanced interaction that marginalia yields–I think I’ll forever read dead-tree books with a pen, now–but I can’t for the life of me find a way to channel that practice and build a comprehensive piece of infrastructure with it. So, perhaps I just shouldn’t bother trying anymore?

Complicating my pivot to non-note-taking is my reading of Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. It’s settled a lot of anxiety I’ve had when it comes to books and reading, and it’s also provided assurance that I will be okay, even if I don’t note-take and create a dazzling commonplace like the Good Writer that I’m trying to be.

The upside to all this is that I can read more, faster. In 2019–across digital and dead-tree forms–I read about one hundred books. I’m on course for the same this year (I’ll probably do an annual reading post for 2020 that covers my reading for the period). The tradeoff, of course, is that I spend less time with whatever I happen to be reading. This is the exact opposite approach to the dogma I’ve been carrying around–see The faster I go, the less I see–and the conflict still makes me uncomfortable. But I’m going to try living with it for a while.

Nassim Taleb’s take on procrastination is making this approach easier. From Antifragile:

“Few understand that procrastination is our natural defense, letting things take care of themselves and exercise their antifragility; it results from some ecological or naturalistic wisdom, and is not always bad — at an existential level, it is my body rebelling against its entrapment. It is my soul fighting the Procrustean bed of modernity.”

Another thing that’s making it easier is a focusing on the concept of transience. In Eastern and Western philosophy, we are admonished to recognise the fleeting, temporary nature of existence. Friends that come and go. Feelings that manifest as the most important thing in the world one day and fade into irrelevance the next. So on and so forth.

Through this lens, my non-note-taking could be seen as a sort of philosophical surrender. Contrary: non-note-taking could also be seen as a symptom of my own chronic lethargy. For now though, I’ll give my self the benefit of the doubt and opt for the former.

The coming anger

The current climate has compelled me to rethink my approach to a fundamental emotion: anger. Previously, I’ve seen it through two lenses. The first lens positions anger as a political tool. The second lens positions anger as a manifestation of weakness.

ANGER AS A POLITICAL TOOL

Rory Miller knows about conflict, but more importantly he understands violence. In one of his books–Meditations on Violence, I think–he explains a continuum of how we exert our will upon one another in social situations. He cites four types of people; nice, manipulative, assertive and aggressive. There are tradeoffs and nuances which I won’t go into, but generally the nice are controlled by the manipulative, the manipulative are controlled by the assertive, and the assertive are kept in check by the aggressive.

Now think about anger and its effect… Most people are nice, some are manipulative, and a few are assertive. Not many are aggressive (at the civilisational scale, this is by design). So one of the simplest ways to control others is to manufacture a facade of anger. Any slightly evil person has to–if they hope to climb the ladders of society–be prepared to use anger, or at the least to confront it. It is a tactic, a useful one.

ANGER AS A WEAKNESS

This one is easier to parse. A Jedi falls to the dark side when he embraces his/her anger. Stoicism teaches anger is the necrotising of an un-satisfiable desire for something or other. Anger, in many contexts, is cited as nothing more than a manifestation of uncertainty, confusion, fear, weakness or depravity.

ANGER AS A MORAL IMPERATIVE

However, there is another alternative: anger as a moral imperative. There’s a reason Patrick Rothfuss writes of the “three things all wise men fear: the sea in storm, a night with no moon, and the anger of a gentle man.”

Moral anger is a totally different beast from anger-as-weakness or anger-as-political-tool. It’s range in time and space is long, not short; it doesn’t blaze so much as smoulder; like a glacier, it is slow to build yet nigh impossible to halt; it is the catalyst for revolution and the cause of civilisation-wide resets. And when I look around me now, I feel it. The world, as a collective, is fucking angry. And so am I, if I’m honest. Need I describe why?


Supposedly, Keynes said that “Markets can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.” Likewise, the powerful and the influential have been getting by based on the fact that we can’t organise our anger quicker than they can organise and spew their lies. It’s been this way, I think, for decades, but with the clusterfuck of crises at our feet and on the horizon, it won’t remain that way.

The anger pooling in hearts and minds around the world–an anger that is justified–will not be denied much longer. It will seek, and it will find, an outlet. Like pressure building in a system of pipes, it could be deliberately bled. Those in control–or those who claim to be–could respond. They could release their desperate stranglehold, they could quit it with the lies and deceptions, they could share the gains and help mitigate the wholly unnecessary losses. But they won’t.

Consequence? The system, left unbled, will blow. People, sick of the pain and the suffering, will fight. People, sick of the pain and suffering, will die. There will be winners, there will be losers, but more importantly there will be no-one who remains untouched by the coming anger.

The tempo of (in)competence

Whilst struck dumb by an audio instruction to recall a previously learnt sentence in French, I had a realisation. The sort that, whilst intriguing, isn’t pretty. Here goes: we correlate linguistic incompetency with stupidity.

I suspect I thought this because I was imagining the look on my own face at that moment–slack jaw, furrowed brow, eyes glazed, head tilted askew. The kind of face one imagines gracing a mountain troll when the hero(ine) vexes it with fundamental logic. The epitome of dumb.

I guess this is some subset of the outgroup bias (or it’s just a malfunction in my own cognition). An other who cannot (or struggles to) speak your native language whilst situated in your native country is unconsciously perceived to be of lesser intelligence. Obviously, this is nonsense, but it provides a weird window into the human psyche. It also raises a question: how does tempo relate to the perception of incompetence?

Imagine you’ve conducted three different interviews over the course of a single afternoon. Assume all persons gave the same answers to a set of questions. Person one did not pause before responding to any of the questions. Person two paused for two to three seconds before responding to each question. Person three paused for ten seconds before responding.

If we travel in time and insert our consciousness into the three separate moments where the first syllable emerges from each of the interviewee, what will we be thinking? Here’s my guess:

  • We won’t think anything about person one; there’s no time. Effect on perception: neutral.
  • We’ll think person two is thoughtful and considerate, possibly high status. Effect on perception: positive.
  • We’ll think person three is an idiot. We’ll likely be annoyed. Effect on perception: negative.

This is a blog post, not an Odyssean treatise, so I’ll leave you to ponder other scenarios. But to me, it does seem there’s a tempo that we associate with competence and its opposite. And it’s not as simple as fast; neutral, moderate; good, slow; bad. There’s way more nuance depending on the situation–an interview, a performance in a sport and the construction of a sculpture, will all have varying tempos of competence and incompetence. But it’s worth thinking about.

Imagine, cynic that you are in this hypothetical scenario, that a situation requires you to present the appearance of competence. Unfortunately, you lack the time to invest in gaining it in substance and opt to gain it in style. Outside of exploiting the halo effect, or relying on cronyism and/or nepotism, a good tactic may be to mimic the tempo of competence.

In motion

It’s been a little quiet on the blogging front, and not without reason. “Things” are in motion…

First up, Hitler, My Hero is done. Or at least the content is. I am now going through the process of designing the paperback and ebook for release. The paperback proof is currently making its way to me. Once it arrives, myself and my partner (out of goodwill) shall be reading through it and highlighting any errors. Then I’ll fix ’em and hit “PUBLISH”. I haven’t decided whether to wait to complete the ebook first, though…

With the novel done, I’m biding my time. I have a few options for my next longform project / book. Without revealing too much, they are:

  • A set of non-fiction essays on a particular topic.
  • A semi-fantastical meditative novella.
  • A full-scale standalone fantasy novel.

I’m about 60% sure which one I’ll end up opting for, but I’m giving myself a little time to thoroughly ponder. And I’m using that time to do something I’ve long desired: learn another language. French, specifically.

My aim is, within about six months, to get to at least B1 standard. Maybe B2. I was considering doing a post that breaks down my approach but there is nothing especially innovative about it. The only thing really of note is that, in the early stages, I’m focusing almost exclusively on speaking and listening. I’ve had a fair bit of experience with tools like Duolingo, and while I plan to get into reading and writing deeply later on, I’m finding it more effective to limit the breadth of my approach. After all, that’s how ickle babies do it, right?

That is, for the most part, what is currently in motion.

10,437 DSB

I’ve known about David Chapman’s Meaningness for a while, but only recently have I begun to pay it closer attention. In particular, I’ve been thinking about what Chapman calls the “complete stance”. I don’t think there’s much value in myself trying to compress and reframe Chapman’s ideas further–he does a good job of communicating the concepts with clarity. Instead, I want to make a note. And I’ll do that with the help of the following graphic:

I haven’t poured over Meaningness, but I noticed no immediate reference to the opposite of the “complete stance”–no stance. In my mind, “no stance” could be akin to the normie level of non-awareness concerning all the topics Chapman writes about.

However, an alternative interpretation can be found in martial philosophy of the East. From Musashi’s The Book of Five Rings comes the notion of Stance-No-Stance:

“This is the principle in which there is, and there is not, a stance. At its heart, this is first taking up the sword and then cutting down your opponent, no matter what is done or how it happens. Whether you parry, slap, strike, hold back, or touch your opponent’s cutting sword, you must understand that all of these are opportunities to cut him down. To think, “I’ll parry” or “I’ll slap” or “I’ll hit, hold or touch” will be insufficient for cutting him down. It is essential to think that anything at all is an opportunity to cut him down.”

Translated from sword-play concept to philosophical concept, the idea of “no stance” could be a call to use beliefs in accordance with their utility. If “cutting him down” is translated into “getting by”–or “getting ahead”–then a stance is worthy of adoption if it makes life easier for oneself, or for others. It could perhaps also be linked to the aphorism, “Strong opinions, loosely held”, or to the aggressive empiricism advocated in Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile.

Another thing: my own beautiful graphic has a left-to-right upward tilt, with “no stance” in red, “confused stance A/B” in amber, and “complete stance” in green. The implicit–and unintended–signals:

1) The “complete stance” is better than “no stance”.

and

2) that one ascends from “no stance” to the “complete stance”.

I don’t necessarily agree with either of those statements. In fact, I suspect the situation is a great deal more cloudy. Occupying a “complete stance” may not be the same as recognising it, and it could turn out that, like inhabiting the present and noticing the present, the two are utterly at odds.

Further, I suspect the no-stance-confused-stance-complete-stance planet itself turns on its own unfathomable axis, and that’s why we feel so bewildered so often.

In the sentence immediately following the above quoted passage, Musashi advises the reader “to investigate this thoroughly.” It’s his way of saying one can’t learn the way of the sword without swinging it. Maybe it’s equally true that one can’t learn the philosophy of life without living?

I’ll heed Musashi and investigate this thoroughly…

10,433 DSB

We were lucky. At the end of February–weeks before the UK government decided to do something about Covid19–we moved house.

I was lucky, too: the day before the UK pseudo-lockdown was announced, several boxes of books were drawn out of the storage locker known as my parent’s house and returned to me. Additionally, like I have at past addresses, I’ve had a room to read and write in. All this equated to a satisfying lockdown task: organise my “study”.

Of course, some things have been put on pause and I can’t fully complete the task. But I can–and I have–started to wonder about what is going to occupy the wallspace. Being a creator who toils with words, I decided on something non-wordy. But I didn’t want negative space. Not on the walls, anyway.

Art was the first thing that came to mind. But good art tends to be expensive. Plus, I didn’t know the sort of art I wanted. Paintings? Of what? Landscapes? Abstract things? I did think of having a portrait wall, but decided that would be a tad intimidating–for me, and for visitors. How about sculptures? Curios? Objets d’art? No, no, no. Something else.

Whilst sorting my books, I thumbed through Peter Turchi’s A Muse and A Maze and Maps of the Imagination. Aha! Mazes; maps; schematics?

I looked into it. Unfortunately, by nature and by nurture I am not an engineer. Which meant that the schematics and technical drawings I thought to source were not only mundane but entirely lacking in personal salience. I switched back to the idea of maps and my mind began to whir…

In my notebook, I wrote the following:

> Milky Way
>> Solar system
>>> Earth
>>>> Europe
>>>>> UK
… and so on

Like a cinematic intro sequence, the intention was to begin at a far-removed viewpoint and zoom in, ending either on a floor plan of the house we occupy, or da Vinci’s L’Uomo Vitruviano.

I started with the Milky Way, bu after navigating to this NASA page about the solar system, I was stopped in my tracks. Do I go with cartographic/technical representations or artistic ones? I came upon the same question when looking at representations of the Earth, Europe and the UK, too.

I sighed. Several times. Then, for whatever reason, I thought of Umberto Eco’s The Book of Legendary Lands–which I haven’t actually read. Why don’t I plaster my study’s walls with my own selection of “legendary lands”?

Since asking that question, I’ve put together a shortlist and archived some examples. And as we’re all looking for a bit of light-hearted digression in these strange times, I thought I’d share them with you. In no particular order.

There are a few others. I’d like a reproduction of Herodotus’ Known World. And maybe similar illustrations from Thucydides and Xenophon. A map of the world’s internet infrastructure would be cool, too. Perhaps maps from Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4–two more influential video games. I’d also like to have a well-done rendition of the Barker Alternative Institute of Learning from my own novel, but that can wait.


It’ll probably take me a while to pull all these together and get them up on the walls. In the meantime, it’s worth reminding myself (and you) of the original motive: “escaping reality” doesn’t have to mean fleeing it. It can be a means of enduring it, as well as a way of altering it.

10,421 DSB

“Move fast and break things” can, if one is not careful, become “move too fast and things break you.” I riffed on this recently (see 10,367 DSB) and suggested that a software development ideology perhaps isn’t suited to governance. What I failed to realise is that this is an example of a bigger issue: models becoming morality.

Sticking with MF&BT: the idea is that rapid, repeated iterations of the Build-Measure-Learn cycle will reveal the most viable option(s) for a business to adopt. More crassly, it’s the strategic throwing of shit at walls. The aim is to find what sticks. But here’s the problem:

Move fast > Things break > The strong survive > The survivors are the strong.

The shift from a software-development model to a concept from evolutionary biology, and onwards to the (mistaken) assumption that there’s some sort of cosmic justice in operation can happen terrifyingly fast. Unfortunately, the recognition of “success” results in haloes, so people/orgs that effectively apply a model in an appropriate domain are likely to experiment with its application in other, inappropriate fields. (Additionally, the novel application is unlikely to be attempted at a smaller scale–success tends not to satiate ambition.)

Examples of the misapplication of models abound. A startup founder can cash out and, post-liberation, reinvent him/herself as a nutrition guru; a journalist can refactor him/herself as a practitioner of the hard sciences; a SEO marketer can, after bootstrapping a few parenting blogs, become a developmental psychologist. Heck, I can read some books and write a lot of words and it can appear like I’ve accumulated more insight than the average person–of course, that’s debatable.

Models becoming morality is a subset of the violation of domain dependence. I’ve found the best way to think about this to be the concept of translation.

When foreign literature is translated from its native language to a non-native form, something is irreversibly lost. Language itself is nuanced and every language is nuanced in its own special, spectacularly weird way. I can’t just copy-and-paste a passage of original Dostoevsky into Google translate. Translation is a real skill. Plus, translators unavoidably imbue their work with a piece of their selves in the process.

Another lens to view domain dependence through? Metaphors. A metaphor compares one thing to another in order to emphasise a specific property of the original object. Yet, no-one ever mistakes a metaphor for a literal comparison…

Summa: we all carry models within our minds. These models work better in some domains than others. We need to be increasingly wary of forgetting this in these complex, complicated times.