Issue #427
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💥 Best of Thought Shrapnel

Of the 38 posts I published this month on Thought Shrapnel, these were my three favourites.
Man relaxing under tree

How to be useless

I love articles that give us a different lens for looking at the world, and this one certainly does that. It also provides links for further reading, which I very much appreciate.
Zhuangzi argued that we can reclaim our lives, and be happier and more fulfilled, if we become more useless. In this, he went against many influential thinkers of his time, such as the Mohists. These followers of Master Mo (c470-391 BCE) prized efficiency and welfare above all. They insisted on cutting away all ‘useless’ parts of life – art, luxury, ritual, culture, leisure, even the expression of emotions – and instead focused on ensuring that people across the social classes receive essential material resources. The Mohists viewed many practices common at the time as immorally wasteful. Rather than a funeral rich with rituals following tradition, such as burial within three layers of coffins and a years-long mourning period, Mohists recommended simply digging a pit deep enough so the body doesn’t smell. You were permitted to cry on your way to and from the burial site, but then you needed to return to work and life.
Although the Mohists wrote more than 2,000 years ago, their ideas sound familiar to modern ears. We frequently hear how we should avoid supposedly useless things, such as pursuing the arts, or a humanities education (see the all-too-frequent slashing of liberal arts budgets at universities). Or it’s often said that we should allow for these things only insofar as they benefit the economy or human welfare. You might have felt this discomfort in your own life: the pressure from the meritocracy to serve some purpose, have some benefit, maximise some utility – that everything you do should be, in some sense, useful.
However, as we will show here, Zhuangzi offers an essential antidote to this pernicious means-ends way of thinking. He demonstrates that you can improve your life if you let go of the anxiety of wanting to serve a purpose. To be sure, Zhuangzi doesn’t altogether spurn usefulness. Rather, he argues that usefulness itself should not be life’s bottom line.
Source: How to be useless | Psyche Guides
Laptop with Zoom meeting

Meetings and work theatre

The way that you do something is almost as important as what you do. However, I’ve definitely noticed that, during the pandemic as people get used to working remotely (as I’ve done for a decade now) there’s definitely been some, let’s say, ‘theatre’ added to it all.

Meetings, the office’s answer to the theatre, have proliferated. They are harder to avoid now that invitations must be responded to and diaries are public. Even if you don’t say anything, cameras make meetings into a miming performance: an attentive expression and occasional nodding now count as a form of work. The chat function is a new way to project yourself. Satya Nadella, the boss of Microsoft, says that comments in chat help him to meet colleagues he would not otherwise hear from. Maybe so, but that is an irresistible incentive to pose questions that do not need answering and offer observations that are not worth making.
Shared documents and messaging channels are also playgrounds of performativity. Colleagues can leave public comments in documents, and in the process notify their authors that something approximating work has been done. They can start new channels and invite anyone in; when no one uses them, they can archive them again and appear efficient. By assigning tasks to people or tagging them in a conversation, they can cast long shadows of faux-industriousness. It is telling that one recent research study found that members of high-performing teams are more likely to speak to each other on the phone, the very opposite of public communication.
Performative celebration is another hallmark of the pandemic. Once one person has reacted to a message with a clapping emoji, others are likely to join in until a virtual ovation is under way. At least emojis are fun. The arrival of a round-robin email announcing a promotion is as welcome as a rifle shot in an avalanche zone. Someone responds with congratulations, and then another recipient adds their own well wishes. As more people pile in, pressure builds on the non-responders to reply as well. Within minutes colleagues are telling someone they have never met in person how richly they deserve their new job.
Source: The rise of performative work | The Economist

Is QWERTY a really bad keyboard layout?

I’ve been able to touch-type since I was about 12 years of age, thanks to Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing. Like most people, I use the QWERTY layout, but I’ve always been curious about other layouts.
Apparently, it’s a bit of a myth that QWERTY was designed to slow typists down in case the mechanical keys got stuck. In the last edition of the Ultimate Typing Championship, all but one of the 26 competitors used QWERTY (and the one using the Dvorak layout came 12th).
The main thing to consider, in my opinion, is comfort. I remember being shocked once when I bought a keyboard and it came with a large warning that the use of any keyboard and mouse can cause ‘serious’ injuries.
This article talks about RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury), CTS (Carpal Tunnel Syndrome) and CTP (Carpal Tunnel Pressure).
If keyboard use does carry the risk of developing RSI, what is it about the keyboard that’s bad? Is it the physical design, the key layout, hand/wrist posture, or something else? My impression is that key layout is a relatively small component here, for several reasons. The first is my own experience, according to which it’s much more important to use a split keyboard, say, than the appropriate layout if I want to avoid RSI flare-ups. The second is that CTS is largely caused by CTP, which in theory seems more impacted by physical design (chiefly whether a keyboard is split and/or tilted/tented) and less by finger stretching or the horizontal rotating we do with our hands to reach keys at the sides of the keyboard. The third is Carpalx’s model, which suggests that established alternatives like Dvorak and Colemak, while better on the whole, use the pinky more heavily than does QWERTY – maybe it is a little bit bad to reach for the outermost keys, but any layout will have some keys at the extremes, so perhaps the difference between layouts just isn’t that great.
What about QWERTY specifically? I wasn’t really able to find any research on this. Maybe that’s because it’s very hard to design experiments to test it? You can’t just take a bunch of people and ask half of them to start using Dvorak, because there’s a significant learning curve involved. But you don’t want to find out if learning a new layout is good, you want to find out using it is good once you have learned it. There is no natural control group for these experiments, and no obvious placebo.
In sum, keyboard use in general does seem to cause RSI, but the risk seems fairly small. Bad key layouts may only be a minor part of the RSI risk, though QWERTY does seem worse than most alternatives, relatively speaking. The evidence here is weak and my confidence intervals are wide.
Source: How Bad Is QWERTY, Really? A Review of the Literature, such as It Is | Erich Grunewald

✍️ The rest of Thought Shrapnel

There's some other gold in here, but you'll have to go digging. Here's the other 35 posts I published:

📅 Weeknotes

  • Weeknote 04/2022 — "Whereas others, including my daughter, managed to get out of self-isolation early by having two negative lateral flow tests in a row, Dr Covid Features here had to stay inside for the full 10 days. It was not as fun as you’d think."
  • Weeknote 03/2022 — "After two years of successfully dodging it, this was the week I caught Covid. Thankfully, because I’ve had three vaccinations, it’s been really mild and I’ve managed to work through it."
  • Weeknote 02/2022 — "WAO kicked off four projects this week, one of them completely new, and the other three a continuation of previous work with clients. I had a fun chat with Stephen Downes about some potential work we might do around critical literacies."
  • Weeknote 01/2022 — "Here we are! The first week of 2022 is officially here and I’m not sure what to think of it. Considering life in years based on calendars is, of course, entirely arbitrary. As far as I’m concerned, we’re still in the month of Nivôse in the French Republican Calendar…"

Until next month!

Doug Belshaw
Thought Shrapnel Weekly is published by Dr. Doug Belshaw. You can connect with him by replying to this email, or via Mastodon or LinkedIn.

Some say he's bad at Wordle. Others think his personality's a hurdle. No-one thinks he 'd look good in a girdle.
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