Category: Thinking (page 1 of 3)

Paywalls and Patreon

I was part of the discussion that led to this post about Medium’s paywall. Richard Bartlett, whose work with Enspiral, Loomio, and decentralised organising I have huge respect for, has been experimenting with different options to support his work:

Last year I wrote about my dilemma: I have an ethical commitment to the commons, and I want to make a living from my writing. I want to publish all my creative work for free, and I am at my most creative when I have a reliable income. In that story I shared my long history of writing on the web, and my desire to free up time for more ambitious writing projects. Since then I have made a bunch of experiments with different ways of making money from my writing, including Patreon, the Medium Partner Program and LeanPub.

Patreon, which I’ve started to use for Thought Shrapnel, seems to be working out well for Bartlett, however:

To earn a full salary from Patreon, I would need many more supporters, requiring a marketing effort that starts to feel like begging. The gift economy is lovely in theory, especially because there’s no coercion: contributions are voluntary, and there is no punishment for readers who choose to not contribute. But when I interrogate these dynamics at a deeper level, I’m less satisifed.

In my point of view, social capital is subject to the same accumulative and alienating dynamics as financial capital. It’s even more dangerous in some senses, as the transactions are impossible to track, so it is much harder to redistribute accumulations of wealth.

Personally I redistribute 10% of my income to other Patreon creators who I think are doing more important and less fundable work than me: street poet David Merritt and anarchist authors William Gillis and Emmi Bevensee. At least this is a gesture to remind myself that the social capitalist is no more woke than the financial capitalist.

Frankly, as a producer, the clean transaction of buyer and seller just feels better to me. It feels good to produce something of value and have that value acknowledged by somebody purchasing it.

It’s a post worth reading in its entirety, and I don’t want to include any more than three quotations here. Suffice to say that Bartlett has found Medium’s paywall approach useful for discovery but actually find Leanpub the best option:

So, the trickle of income from Patreon feels nice, but I don’t want to self-promote more than I already am. Medium’s paywall is a promising income stream, but I risk losing the audience I care most about. So far it feels like publishing on LeanPub hits the sweet spot between revenue and ethics. So I’m considering that my next experiment could be to package up my existing blog posts into a kind of “best of” ebook that people can buy if they want to support my writing.

I’d suggest that a ‘paywall’ is always going to be problematic. The reason I allow people to support my work is that some people just have more spare money than other people (for whatever reason) and/or some people like supporting things they value financially.

At the moment, I release microcasts as a supporter-only perk. However, given that Patreon allows ‘early access’ another approach would be to set everything on a delay. I’m still, like Bartlett, weighing up all of this, but for now Patreon seems like a great option.

Source: Richard D. Bartlett

Useful mental models

While there’s nothing worse than a pedantic philosopher (I’m looking at you Socrates) it’s definitely worth remembering that, as human beings, we’re subject to biases.

This long list of mental models from Farnam Street is worth going through. I particularly like Hanlon’s Razor:

Hard to trace in its origin, Hanlon’s Razor states that we should not attribute to malice that which is more easily explained by stupidity. In a complex world, using this model helps us avoid paranoia and ideology. By not generally assuming that bad results are the fault of a bad actor, we look for options instead of missing opportunities. This model reminds us that people do make mistakes. It demands that we ask if there is another reasonable explanation for the events that have occurred. The explanation most likely to be right is the one that contains the least amount of intent.

Another that’s come in handy is the Fundamental Attribution Error:

We tend to over-ascribe the behavior of others to their innate traits rather than to situational factors, leading us to overestimate how consistent that behavior will be in the future. In such a situation, predicting behavior seems not very difficult. Of course, in practice this assumption is consistently demonstrated to be wrong, and we are consequently surprised when others do not act in accordance with the “innate” traits we’ve endowed them with.

A list to return to time and again.

Source: Farnam Street

Conversational implicature

In references for jobs, former employers are required to be positive. Therefore, a reference that focuses on how polite and punctual someone is could actually be a damning indictment of their ability. Such ‘conversational implicature’ is the focus of this article:

When we convey a message indirectly like this, linguists say that we implicate the meaning, and they refer to the meaning implicated as an implicature. These terms were coined by the British philosopher Paul Grice (1913-88), who proposed an influential account of implicature in his classic paper ‘Logic and Conversation’ (1975), reprinted in his book Studies in the Way of Words (1989). Grice distinguished several forms of implicature, the most important being conversational implicature. A conversational implicature, Grice held, depends, not on the meaning of the words employed (their semantics), but on the way that the words are used and interpreted (their pragmatics).

From my point of view, this is similar to the difference between productive and unproductive ambiguity.

The distinction between what is said and what is conversationally implicated isn’t just a technical philosophical one. It highlights the extent to which human communication is pragmatic and non-literal. We routinely rely on conversational implicature to supplement and enrich our utterances, thus saving time and providing a discreet way of conveying sensitive information. But this convenience also creates ethical and legal problems. Are we responsible for what we implicate as well as for what we actually say?

For example, and as the article notes, “shall we go upstairs?” can mean a sexual invitation, which may or may not later imply consent. It’s a tricky area.

I’ve noted that the more technically-minded a person, the less they use conversational implicature. In addition, and I’m not sure if this is true or just my own experience, I’ve found that Americans tend to be more literal in their communication than Europeans.

 To avoid disputes and confusion, perhaps we should use implicature less and communicate more explicitly? But is that recommendation feasible, given the extent to which human communication relies on pragmatics?

To use conversational implicature is human. It can be annoying. It can turn political. But it’s an extremely useful tool, and certainly lubricates us all rubbing along together.

Source: Aeon

On struggle

The popular view of life seems to be that mishaps, hardship, and struggle are all things that most people can avoid. If we stop to think about that for a second, that’s obviously untrue; in fact, the opposite is the case.

This article in Lifehacker quotes Seneca, one of my favourite Stoic philosophers:

“Why, then, should we be angry? Why should we lament? We are prepared for our fate: let nature deal as she will with her own bodies; let us be cheerful whatever befalls, and stoutly reflect that it is not anything of our own that perishes. What is the duty of a good man? To submit himself to fate: it is a great consolation. To be swept away together with the entire universe: whatever law is laid upon us that thus we must live and thus we must die, is laid upon the gods.”

As part of my daily reading, I meditate on other tenets of Stoicism. The opening to Epictetus’ Enchiridion tells you pretty much everything you need to know:

Of things some are in our power, and others are not. In our power are opinion, movement toward a thing, desire, aversion (turning from a thing); and in a word, whatever are our own acts: not in our power are the body, property, reputation, offices (magisterial power), and in a word, whatever are not our own acts. And the things in our power are by nature free, not subject to restraint nor hindrance: but the things not in our power are weak, slavish, subject to restraint, in the power of others. Remember then that if you think the things which are by nature slavish to be free, and the things which are in the power of others to be your own, you will be hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed, you will blame both gods and men: but if you think that only which is your own to be your own, and if you think that what is another’s, as it really is, belongs to another, no man will ever compel you, no man will hinder you, you will never blame any man, you will accuse no man, you will do nothing involuntarily (against your will), no man will harm you, you will have no enemy, for you will not suffer any harm.

It’s also worth dwelling on this from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations:

Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness all of them due to the offenders ignorance of what is good or evil.

Suffering is part of life, and we should embrace it. Control what you can control, and let the rest go.

Source: Lifehacker

Different ways of knowing

The Book of Life from the School of Life is an ever-expanding treasure trove of wisdom. In this entry, entitled Knowing Things Intellectually vs. Knowing Them Emotionally the focus is on different ways of how we ‘know’ things:

An intellectual understanding of the past, though not wrong, won’t by itself be effective in the sense of being able to release us from the true intensity of our neurotic symptoms. For this, we have to edge our way towards a far more close-up, detailed, visceral appreciation of where we have come from and what we have suffered. We need to strive for what we can call an emotional understanding of the past – as opposed to a top-down, abbreviated intellectual one.

I’ve no idea about my own intellectual abilities, although I guess I do have a terminal degree. What I do know is that I’ve spoken with many smart people who, like me, have found it difficult to deal with emotions such as anxiety. There’s definitely a difference between ‘knowing’ as in ‘knowing what’s wrong with you’ and ‘knowing how to fix it’.

Psychotherapy has long recognised this distinction. It knows that thinking is hugely important – but on its own, within the therapeutic process itself, it is not the key to fixing our psychological problems.


Therapy builds on the idea of a return to live feelings. It’s only when we’re properly in touch with feelings that we can correct them with the help of our more mature faculties – and thereby address the real troubles of our adult lives.

The article has threaded through it the example of having an abusive relationship as a child. Thankfully, I didn’t experience that, but it does make a great suggestion that finding the source of one’s anxiety and fully experiencing the emotion at its core might be helpful.

And it is on the basis of this kind of hard-won emotional knowledge, not its more painless intellectual kind, that we may one day, with a fair wind, discover a measure of relief for some of the troubles within.

Source: The Book of Life

Memento mori

As I’ve mentioned before on Thought Shrapnel, next to my bed I have a memento mori, an object that reminds me that one day I will die.

My friend Ian O’Byrne had some sad news last week: his grandmother died. However, in an absolutely fantastic and very well-written post he wrote in the aftermath, he mentioned how meditating regularly on death, and having a memento mori has really helped him to live his life to the fullest.

I believe that it is reminders like this one that we desperately need in our own lives. It seems like a normal practice that may of us would rather ignore death, or do everything to avoid and pretend is not true. It may be the root of ego that causes us to run away from anything that reminds us of this reality. As a safety mechanism, we build this comfortable narrative that avoids this tough subject.

We also at times simply refuse to look at life as it is. We’re scared to meditate and reflect on the fact that we are all going to die. Just the fact that I wrote this post, and you’re reading it may strike you as a bit dark and macabre.

With all of our technological, surgical, and pharmaceutical inventions and devices, we expect, almost demand, to live a long life, live it in good health and look good doing it. We live in denial that we will die. But, previous civilizations were acutely aware of their own mortality. Memento mori was the philosophy of reflecting on your own death as a form of spiritual improvement, and rejecting earthly vanities.

So having a memento mori isn’t morbid, it’s actually a symbol that you’re looking to maximise your time here on earth. When I used a Mac, I had a skull icon at the top of the dock on the left-hand side of my screen.

Ian suggests some alternatives:

There are multiple ways to include this process of memento mori in your life. For some, it is as simple as including artwork and symbols in your home and daily interactions. These may be symbols of mortality which encourage reflection on the meaning and fleetingness of life. In my home we have skulls in various pieces of art and sculptures that help serve as a reminder.

I had opportunity last week to revisit Buster Benson’s 2013 influential post Live Like a Hydra. In it, he references an experiment he called If I Lived 100 Times whereby he modelled life expectancy data for someone his age. It’s interesting reading and certainly makes you think. How many books will you read before you die? How many new countries will you travel to? It makes you think.

Back to Ian’s article and he turns to the Stoic philosopher Epictetus for some advice:

Memento mori is an opportunity, should you take it, to reflect on the invigorating and humbling aspects of life. By no means am I an expert on this. I still struggle daily with understanding my role and mission in life. In these struggles, I also need to remember that I may not wake up tomorrow. As stated by Epictetus, “Keep death and exile before your eyes each day, along with everything that seems terrible— by doing so, you’ll never have a base thought nor will you have excessive desire.” These opportunities to reflect and meditate provide an opportunity to create and enjoy the life you want.

Wise words indeed.

Source: W. Ian O’Byrne

Living an antifragile life

Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s new book is out, which made me think about his previous work, Antifragile (which I enjoyed greatly).

As Shane Parrish quotes in a 2014 article on the subjet, Taleb defines antifragility in the following way:

Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better. This property is behind everything that has changed with time: evolution, culture, ideas, revolutions, political systems, technological innovation, cultural and economic success, corporate survival, good recipes (say, chicken soup or steak tartare with a drop of cognac), the rise of cities, cultures, legal systems, equatorial forests, bacterial resistance … even our own existence as a species on this planet.

This definition, and the examples Taleb pointed to in his book helped me understand the world a bit better. It’s easy to point to entitled people and see how they manage to get richer no matter what happens. But I think we all know people (and in fact companies, organisations, and communities) that are just set up for success. The notion of them being ‘antifragile’ helps describe that.

Parrish quotes Buster Benson who boils Taleb’s book down to one general, underlying principle:

Play the long game, keep your options open and avoid total failure while trying lots of different things and maintaining an open mind.

More specifically, Benson notes Taleb’s 10 principles of antifragility:

  1. Stick to simple rules
  2. Build in redundancy and layers (no single point of failure)
  3. Resist the urge to suppress randomness
  4. Make sure that you have your soul in the game
  5. Experiment and tinker — take lots of small risks
  6. Avoid risks that, if lost, would wipe you out completely
  7. Don’t get consumed by data
  8. Keep your options open
  9. Focus more on avoiding things that don’t work than trying to find out what does work
  10. Respect the old — look for habits and rules that have been around for a long time

Some great suggestions here, and I’m very much looking forward to reading Taleb’s new book. As a bonus, in putting together this post I discovered that, after jobs at Twitter, Slack, and Amazon, Buster Benson is writing a book. He’s looking for 100 supporters at $1 a month so I didn’t even think twice and pledged!

Source: Farnam Street

Archives of Radical Philosophy

A quick one to note that the entire archive (1972-2018) of Radical Philosophy is now online. It describes itself as a “UK-based journal of socialist and feminist philosophy” and there’s articles in there from Pierre Bourdieu, Judith Butler, and Richard Rorty.

If nothing else, these essays and many others should upend facile notions of leftist academic philosophy as dominated by “postmodern” denials of truth, morality, freedom, and Enlightenment thought, as doctrinaire Stalinism, or little more than thought policing through dogmatic political correctness. For every argument in the pages of Radical Philosophy that might confirm certain readers’ biases, there are dozens more that will challenge their assumptions, bearing out Foucault’s observation that “philosophy cannot be an endless scrutiny of its own propositions.”

That’s my bedtime reading sorted for the foreseeable, then…

Source: Open Culture

Is your smartphone a very real part of who you are?

I really enjoy Aeon’s articles, and probably should think about becoming a paying subscriber. They make me think.

This one is about your identity and how much of it is bound up with your smartphone:

After all, your smartphone is much more than just a phone. It can tell a more intimate story about you than your best friend. No other piece of hardware in history, not even your brain, contains the quality or quantity of information held on your phone: it ‘knows’ whom you speak to, when you speak to them, what you said, where you have been, your purchases, photos, biometric data, even your notes to yourself – and all this dating back years.

I did some work on mind, brain, and personal identity as part of my undergraduate studies in Philosophy. I’m certainly sympathetic to the argument that things outside our body can become part of who we are:

Andy Clark and David Chalmers… argued in ‘The Extended Mind’ (1998) that technology is actually part of us. According to traditional cognitive science, ‘thinking’ is a process of symbol manipulation or neural computation, which gets carried out by the brain. Clark and Chalmers broadly accept this computational theory of mind, but claim that tools can become seamlessly integrated into how we think. Objects such as smartphones or notepads are often just as functionally essential to our cognition as the synapses firing in our heads. They augment and extend our minds by increasing our cognitive power and freeing up internal resources.

So if you’ve always got your smartphone with you, it’s possible to outsource things to it. For example, you don’t have to remember so many things, you just need to know how to retrieve them. In the age of voice assistants, that becomes ever-easier.

This is known as the ‘extended mind thesis’.

This line of reasoning leads to some potentially radical conclusions. Some philosophers have argued that when we die, our digital devices should be handled as remains: if your smartphone is a part of who you are, then perhaps it should be treated more like your corpse than your couch. Similarly, one might argue that trashing someone’s smartphone should be seen as a form of ‘extended’ assault, equivalent to a blow to the head, rather than just destruction of property. If your memories are erased because someone attacks you with a club, a court would have no trouble characterising the episode as a violent incident. So if someone breaks your smartphone and wipes its contents, perhaps the perpetrator should be punished as they would be if they had caused a head trauma.

These are certainly questions I’m interested in. I’ve seen some predictions that Philosphy graduates are going to be earning more than Computer Science graduates in a decade’s time. I can see why (and I certainly hope so!)

Source: Aeon

The ‘loudness’ of our thoughts affects how we judge external sounds

This is really interesting:

The “loudness” of our thoughts — or how we imagine saying something — influences how we judge the loudness of real, external sounds, a team of researchers from NYU Shanghai and NYU has found.

No-one but you knows what it’s like to be inside your head and be subject to the constant barrage of hopes, fears, dreams — and thoughts:

“Our ‘thoughts’ are silent to others — but not to ourselves, in our own heads — so the loudness in our thoughts influences the loudness of what we hear,” says Poeppel, a professor of psychology and neural science.

Using an imagery-perception repetition paradigm, the team found that auditory imagery will decrease the sensitivity of actual loudness perception, with support from both behavioural loudness ratings and human electrophysiological (EEG and MEG) results.

“That is, after imagined speaking in your mind, the actual sounds you hear will become softer — the louder the volume during imagery, the softer perception will be,” explains Tian, assistant professor of neural and cognitive sciences at NYU Shanghai. “This is because imagery and perception activate the same auditory brain areas. The preceding imagery already activates the auditory areas once, and when the same brain regions are needed for perception, they are ‘tired’ and will respond less.”

This is why meditation, both in terms of trying to still your mind, and meditating on positive things you read, is such a useful activity.

As anyone who’s studied philosophy, psychology, and/or neuroscience knows, we don’t experience the world directly, but find ways to interpret the “bloomin’ buzzin’ confusion”:

According to Tian, the study demonstrates that perception is a result of interaction between top-down (e.g. our cognition) and bottom-up (e.g. sensory processing of external stimulation) processes. This is because human beings not only receive and analyze upcoming external signals passively, but also interpret and manipulate them actively to form perception.

Source: Science Daily