2024i7, Sunday: Commonplace #1

2024i7, Sunday: Commonplace #1
Photo by Hair Spies on Unsplash

John Naughton (Whom - as he puts it - God Preserve) includes a chunk at the end of his usually thrice-weekly blog for stuff he's just noticed somewhere and wants to keep a record of. This is a reinterpretation of a very, very old and excellent habit: people used to keep a "commonplace book" into which they would transcribe things they'd read elsewhere and wanted to retain. In the days when physical text (printed or otherwise) was all there was, it was the smart way to curate a growing library of other people's thoughts. Didn't matter if you wanted to keep them because they were smart or thoughtful, or conversely because they were utterly stupid or dangerous. Either way, if you wanted to be able to find it days, months or years later, you put it in your commonplace book.

Like John (but I suspect, sadly, on a rather less catholic basis), I'm always running across the occasional chunk that I want to hold on to. I could put them into Pinboard; I still do, sometimes. But again as with John, it's possible that others might find them interesting too.

So I'm going to keep a running list, and post it every week or so. Starting with...

I wanted to be a teacher but they made me a cop: by Adam Mastroianni. This bit is about the weirdness of grading systems in academia.

If my class is so boring that I have to devise an additional carrot-and-stick system to get students to pay attention, the problem is my class is boring.

Humans are intrinsically interested in tons of stuff. They’ll read a hundred books about dinosaurs, memorize the makes and models of classic cars, practice the clarinet for hours every day—all because they like it. For goodness’ sake, some people will listen to baseball on the radio, an activity I find so torturous I think it should be outlawed by the Geneva Conventions. The idea that people don’t care about learning is a dumb cousin of the even dumber idea that people are stupid.

So if people need some extrinsic motivation to engage in my class, one of two things might be happening. Maybe they’re just not interested in what I have to offer. That’s fine! They should take a different class. More likely, though, the problem is me: I'm somehow subverting people’s natural curiosity. Maybe I’m doing that by inflicting evaluation on my students—rules! points! policies!—instead of just showing them what they came to see. When every class begins with a ~20-page description of the academic panopticon students have to live inside for the next semester, I dunno, maybe that takes some of the fun out of learning?

How Adam Grant, a "shy introvert," went from terrified public speaker to top-rated professor at Wharton: Adam Grant is a management professor. Which would normally have me running screaming for the exit. But not him: his book "Give and Take" was a superb eye-opener. And this (from a description of learning how to speak in public) gives a roadmap for smart learning in four paragraphs (although I loathe the post title):

It’s easy for people to be critics or cheerleaders. It’s harder to get them to be coaches. A critic sees your weaknesses and attacks your worst self. A cheerleader sees your strengths and celebrates your best self. A coach sees your potential and helps you become a better version of yourself.
If I wanted to master the art of public speaking, I needed a better filter. I decided to turn my critics and cheerleaders into coaches. I’d tried to do that in the past by asking for feedback. But research suggests that’s a mistake.
Instead of seeking feedback, you’re better off asking for advice. Feedback tends to focus on how well you did last time. Advice shifts attention to how you can do better next time. In experiments, that simple shift is enough to elicit more specific suggestions and more constructive input. Rather than dwelling on what you did wrong, advice guides you toward what you can do right.
People sometimes worry about coming across as insecure, but seeking advice doesn’t reveal a lack of confidence. It reflects respect for another person’s competence. When you seek their guidance, people judge you as more capable. You’re a genius! You knew to come to me!

Towards a shallower future: by Noah Smith. I remember as the self-harm that was Brexit began to become evident, a few of the more strident political voices determined to maintain the con that it was the best thing for Britain ever would sometimes mutter - amid mandatory references to "snowflakes" - that a slightly harder life for the avocado-munching wokerati yoof would be a good thing. Character-building. Backbone-stiffening. Blitz spirit of our forefathers and all that.

Bollocks. As (from a US perspective) Noah Smith puts it rather well:

One of my grandfathers was a bombardier in the European theater of World War 2. He came back uninjured, but the stress of so many near-death experiences, and so many dead friends, drove him to lifelong alcoholism. Once, in the 1990s, I heard a conservative pundit claim that young Americans had become soft and weak because they had never had to face adversity like the World War 2 generation did. I asked my grandfather what he thought of that. After uttering something unprintable, he said: “I did that [stuff] so you wouldn’t have to.”

He goes on:

Romanticists need to accept that the nobility of suffering has always been a coping mechanism — a way to sustain hope through the long twilight of apparent futility. And they need to accept that heroism is always inherently self-destroying — that saving the world requires that the world is worth having been saved.

And ends:

The modern world of push-button marvels has lost something, but it has gained more than it has lost. By celebrating it, we honor the countless millennia of heroes who worked in some small way to bring it about, even as we dedicate ourselves to continuing their great enterprise. Our legacy is to fill the Universe with children who laugh more than we were allowed to.


Leslie's Razors: by Ian Leslie, who can sometimes piss me off, and not in a good way. There's a slightly self-satisfied, "I know more" tone to his writing on occasion that rubs me up wrong. I've desubscribed and resubscribed to his Substack a couple of times. (Clearly still with it at present, though.)

But (and this will be no surprise to anyone who read what I wrote last week) his piece on "razors" - heuristics that aren't universally right, but work more often than not and are thus worth having in the mental toolbox - was right up my street.

Particularly the last two of the nine "razors" he cites. First this:

Be sceptical of your own tribe. I wrote about this one in CONFLICTED and I honestly think the world would be better if everyone took it on board. Note, I presume you have a tribe. It’s fine and probably necessary to be aligned with a group of like-minded thinkers, however loosely you affiliate (I’m not a good joiner - Substack is perfect for me). None of us ever wholly think for ourselves: we learn from others, in big and small ways, all the time. But I do think the world divides into those who are able to critically reflect on the biases, errors and distortions of ‘people like me’ and those who don’t or can’t. It’s perfectly possible to do so without abandoning your tribe, but people have a deep fear of being outcast for deviation from group orthodoxy, and as a result this kind of critical distance is depressingly rare. Those who are ‘centrist’ or moderate in outlook have a particular challenge here, since they are most likely to fall into the trap of believing they have no tribe and that they see reality perfectly clearly, undistorted by social influence.

Yup. Like people who don't think they have an accent.

Then this:

Choose your mistakes. Maybe this one is just a principle for living. Or maybe it’s the ur-razor. Anyway, this is how it goes: in categories of decision-making where you’re frequently confronted with the same or similar decision, you can’t eliminate errors, but you can decide on the general direction of your errors. I often think about the following remark, by the economist George Stigler: “If you never miss a plane, you’re spending too much time in airports.” As it happens, I differ with Stigler when it comes to airports: I’d much rather make the mistake of having excess waiting time than ever miss a plane (note, Stigler was speaking before smartphones and WiFi). But to me his point isn’t really about airports. It’s about understanding that most decisions are trade-offs and that consequently there’s a spread of errors - mistakes either way you leap.
For each category of decision you should decide where you’d rather make the majority of your errors. You can tell a lot about a person by the pattern of their preferred mistakes. I’d rather make some meals that taste too salty than regularly make food that’s too bland. I’d rather be gullible than cynical - that is, I’d rather get duped now and again than live my life distrusting everyone and mistaking honest people for liars. I’d rather waste time reading about things I won’t ever find useful than only ever read things that are “relevant”. (You can extend this principle to social and political stances too: for instance, I’d rather have a welfare policy that allows some grifters to take advantage than one that penalises all claimants in order to eliminate grifting.)

I'm with him on the airports point: I've never come closer to a heart attack than when leaving a relative's flat in Brooklyn to drive to JFK for a flight taking off in two hours (i.e. at the time when I would normally have already been at the airport), meaning I got through checkin with literally about 20 seconds to spare after sprinting across the concourse. But joking aside, this one makes sense. Consistency is a bugbear; but consistency in mistakes feels like something with a spark of wisdom.